Archive for John D. Barrow

John & Diego

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 26, 2020 by telescoper

The Guardian obituary of John Barrow (written by Michael Rowan-Robinson) has finally appeared in today’s print edition*, alongside that of footballer Diego Maradona who passed away yesterday.

As a lifelong football fan I think John would have been amused by the coincidence, especially because John’s first book (co-written with Joe Silk) was called The Left Hand of Creation:

*I don’t usually buy foreign newspapers, but I managed to find a copy of today’s Grauniad in Maynooth.

Goodbye, John

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on October 19, 2020 by telescoper

Today, along with many other friends and colleagues, and members of his family I attended (via Zoom) the funeral of my thesis supervisor Professor John D Barrow who passed away on September 26th. This was my first experience of a funeral by Zoom and it felt very strange sitting in my office watching the proceedings. I had a quick look at the list of participants and saw many names I recognized. I suspect many of them were taking a short break from work too. The list was long, so it was a good turnout, virtually speaking. At least some of the closest family members were able to be there, at Westminster College in Cambridge, to pay tribute. The Astronomy Royal, Lord Rees, was also present and he gave a characteristically eloquent eulogy.

Not being of the Christian faith I didn’t participate in the prayers, but as the coffin was carried out at the end for the committal I found myself saying out loud “Goodbye, John”. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank John’s family, especially Elizabeth, for giving me this chance to say goodbye.

UPDATE: An obituary of John, written by Michael Rown-Robinson, is now available online on the Guardian website.

 

 

R.I.P. John D Barrow (1952-2020)

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags on September 27, 2020 by telescoper

My heart is filled with sorrow as I find myself having to pass on some very sad news. I have just heard of the death, yesterday, at the age of 67, of esteemed physicist, mathematician, author and polymath John Barrow. With his passing, one of cosmology’s brightest lights has gone out.

John Barrow was my thesis supervisor. Words can’t express how much I owe him for his advice and encouragement not only during my graduate studies but also throughout the 35 years that have elapsed since I started my career, as a research student at Sussex University.

John had an extraordinary mind that combined immense mathematical gifts with an encyclopedic knowledge of all kinds of literature and a wonderful flair for writing. He wrote dozens of books and a theatre play as well as hundreds of scientific articles. He was a whirlwind of ideas who had an uncanny knack of finding clever ways to crack previously unsolved problems. That he was happy to share these ideas with his students is a credit to his intellectual generosity. He inspired dozens of researchers early in their careers and continued to inspire them when they became not so young.

On a personal level, John was rather reserved and, despite his being a talented and confident public speaker, I always felt he was a rather shy person. He was a committed Christian and a regular churchgoer though he didn’t talk much about his private religious beliefs in the Department.

It is also interesting that, despite writing a number of superb popular books, giving public lectures and being a regular guest on radio programmes he steadfastly refused to appear on television. He just didn’t want to become a TV celebrity, though I suspect that if he did he would have been rather good at it.

Although I didn’t see as much of him in recent years as I would have liked, John was a member of the RAS Club which gave me the opportunity to see and talk to him fairly frequently. I always found him a very agreeable dining companion. We usually discussed sport on such occasions rather than science, actually. John was a talented middle-distance runner in his younger days and he gave me a lot of advice about training, etc, when I started running marathons. We also shared an interest in football – at which he was rather good, having had a trial for Chelsea Juniors – and we played together quite a few times in Sussex days. I remember him as a quality midfielder with a terrific engine, though he was not a natural goalscorer.

John also had a very dry and sometimes lugubrious sense of humour. I remember sending him a congratulatory email in 2003 when I found out he had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He replied thanking me but pointing out his joy at having been elected was tempered by the fact that the first official communication he got from Carlton House was a rather substantial bill for the subscription and a form on which to enter details to be used in an obituary.

It was through the RAS Club that I first heard, about a year ago that John was suffering from cancer. For a time he responded well to treatment but a few weeks ago I heard that his condition had deteriorated to the extent that only palliative care was possible. That news came as a shock as he always seemed so healthy and ageless that one imagined him to be indestructible. Today’s news was not unexpected but still distressing. The end came more quickly than we imagined but at least he was at home among his loved ones when he passed away.

I send heartfelt condolences to Elisabeth and the rest of John’s family, and friends and colleagues at Cambridge and elsewhere.

UPDATE: An obituary of John, written by Michael Rown-Robinson, is now available online on the Guardian website.

Rest in peace, Professor John D Barrow FRS (1952-2020).

Closer to Erdös…

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on December 18, 2011 by telescoper

After one of my  lectures a year or so ago, a student came up to me and asked whether I had an Erdős number and, if so, what it was.  I didn’t actually know what he was talking about but  tried to find out and eventually posted about it.

In case you didn’t know, Paul Erdős (who died in 1996) was an eccentric Hungarian mathematician who wrote more than 1000 mathematical papers during his life but never settled in one place for any length of time. He travelled between colleagues and conference, mostly living out of a suitcase, and showed no interest at all in property or possessions. His story is a fascinating one, and his contributions to mathematics were immense and wide-ranging.  The Erdős number is a tiny part of his legacy, but one that seems to have taken hold. Some mathematicians appear to take it very seriously, but most treat it with tongue firmly in cheek, as I certainly do.

So what is the Erdős number?

It’s actually quite simple to define. First, Erdős himself is assigned an Erdős number of zero. Anyone who co-authored a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 1. Then anyone who wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 2, and so on. The Erdős number is thus a measure of “collaborative distance”, with lower numbers representing closer connections.

I say it’s quite easy to define, but it’s rather harder to calculate. Or it would be were it not for modern bibliographic databases. In fact there’s a website run by the American Mathematical Society which allows you to calculate your Erdős number as well as a similar measure of collaborative distance with respect to any other mathematician.

A list of individuals with very low Erdős numbers (1, 2 or 3) can be found here.

Given that Erdős was basically a pure mathematician, I didn’t expect first to show up as having any Erdős number at all, since I’m not really a mathematician and I’m certainly not very pure. However, his influence is clearly felt very strongly in  physics and a surprisingly large number of physicists (and astronomers) have a surprisingly small Erdős number.

Anyway, my erstwhile PhD supervisor John D. Barrow recently emailed to point out that he had written a paper with Robin Wilson, who once co-authored a paper (on graph theory) with Erdős himself. That means John’s Erdős number is now  2, mine is consequently no higher than 3, and  anyone I’ve ever written a paper with now has an Erdős number no greater than 4.

I’ll be making sure this new information is included in our forthcoming REF submission.

Our Place in the Universe

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 10, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quick post to plug a forthcoming lecture entitled Our Place in the Universe by my former PhD supervisor, Professor John D. Barrow.

This lecture is one of a series held jointly between the University of Bath and the William Herschel Society. In fact, I gave the corresponding lecture last year on The Cosmic Web, a podcast of which is available here. It doesn’t seem like a whole year has passed since I blogged about that event!

John Barrow’s lecture will take place at 7pm on Thursday 11th November, at the Claverton Campus of the University of Bath. For further details, see the link above. I realise that it’s a bit far for local Cardiff people to get there and back in the evening, but there might be a few readers of this blog who can make it there. John is an excellent public speaker and I’d encourage anyone who can go to do so, as I’m sure it will prove very rewarding.


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My Friend Erdös..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2010 by telescoper

After one of my  lectures a few weeks ago, a student came up to me and asked whether I had an Erdős number and, if so, what it was.  I didn’t actually know what he was talking about but was yesterday reminded of it, so tried to find out.

In case you didn’t know, Paul Erdős (who died in 1996) was an eccentric Hungarian mathematician who wrote more than 1000 mathematical papers during his life but never settled in one place for any length of time. He travelled between colleagues and conference, mostly living out of a suitcase, and showed no interest at all in property or possessions. His story is a fascinating one, and his contributions to mathematics were immense and wide-ranging.  The Erdős number is a tiny part of his legacy, but one that seems to have taken hold. Some mathematicians appear to take it very seriously, but most treat it with tongue firmly in cheek, as I certainly do.

So what is the Erdős number?

It’s actually quite simple to define. First, Erdős himself is assigned an Erdős number of zero. Anyone who co-authored a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 1. Then anyone who wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 2, and so on. The Erdős number is thus a measure of “collaborative distance”, with lower numbers representing closer connections.

I say it’s quite easy to define, but it’s rather harder to calculate. Or it would be were it not for modern bibliographic databases. In fact there’s a website run by the American Mathematical Society which allows you to calculate your Erdős number as well as a similar measure of collaborative distance with respect to any other mathematician.

A list of individuals with very low Erdős numbers (1, 2 or 3) can be found here.

Given that Erdős was basically a pure mathematician, I didn’t expect first to show up as having any Erdős number at all, since I’m not really a mathematician and I’m certainly not very pure. However, his influence is clearly felt very strongly in  physics and a surprisingly large number of physicists (and astronomers) have a surprisingly small Erdős number. According to the AMS website, mine is 5 – much lower than I would have expected. The path from me to Erdős in this case goes through G.F.R. Ellis, a renowned expert in the mathematics of general relativity (as well as a ridiculous number of other things!). I wrote a paper and a book with George Ellis some time ago.

However, looking at the list I realise that I have another route to Erdős, through the great Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold, who has an Erdős number of 3. Arnold wrote a paper with Sergei Shandarin with whom I wrote a paper some time ago. That gives me another route to an Erdős number of 5, but I can’t find any paths  shorter than that.

I guess many researchers will have links through their PhD supervisors, so I checked mine – John D. Barrow. It turns out he also has an Erdős number of 5 so a path through him doesn’t lower my number.

I used to work in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, and it is there that I found some people I know well who have lower Erdős numbers than me. Reza Tavakol, for example, has an Erdős number of 3 but although I’ve known him for 20 years, we’ve never written a paper together. If we did, I could reduce my Erdős number by one. You never know….

This means that anyone I’ve ever written a paper with has an Erdős number no greater than 6. I doubt if it’s very important, but it definitely qualifies as Quite Interesting.