Archive for Royal Astronomical Society

Antony Gormley at the Royal Academy

Posted in Art with tags , , on October 11, 2019 by telescoper

One of the nice things about the location of premises of the Royal Astronomical Society in Burlington House is that it’s right next to the Royal Academy. I took advantage of this proximity yesterday to have a look at the exhibition of work by Antony Gormley. The Main Gallery was very busy as I did my tour but I spent a very enjoyable time wandering around the various rooms and, in some cases, inside the installations therein.

The Royal Academy is a very traditional gallery space and it was the ingenious use of that space within the formal confines of the gallery that I found most impressive. In some of the rooms thin steel bars run through and out from the doors like beam of laser light. Two such beams arrive in one room where they are joined by a vertical bar of the same type, setting up coordinate axes for the whole show.

Here are some snaps I took on the way around:



Lost Horizon



`Cave’ is a large sculpture in rolled steel that you can go into. Parts of it are very dark; the photograph I took was from inside looking out. `Lost Horizons’ has typical Gormleyesque human figures standing upright, upside-down and horizontally on the floor ceiling and walls, an idea that resonates with the coordinate axes mentioned above, which you encounter just before entering this room.

But one of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition is the large collection of Gormley’s workbooks, which show how he develops his ideas, always with reference both to the form and materials of his sculpture and the space into which they are to be placed.

The exhibition is open until 3rd December 2019. Do catch it if you can!


Diversity, Inclusion, Rain and Brexit

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , on October 11, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am in a very rainy London. I arrived yesterday for a meeting of the IOP Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which was an interesting occasion with many new things about to unfold, tempered by a bit of sadness that the wonderful Head of Diversity at the IOP, Jenni Dyer, is leaving shortly to take up a new job. However will we manage?

Anyway, instead of flying back to Ireland last night after the meeting, I stayed in London last night because today there is an ordinary meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House, to be followed by a Club Dinner. I’ll be going home to Ireland tomorrow.

Unfortunately the weather has put a dampener on my plans to spend a bit of time wandering around London because it is raining quite heavily and is forecast to do so for the rest of the day. Still, at least the hotel I’m in has WIFI so I can get a few things done this morning before venturing out into the inclement conditions.

Meanwhile the pound is rising against the euro on optimism that there may be a Brexit deal on the horizon after yesterday’s meeting between Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar. Nobody knows the details but it seems likely that it’s basically the same as Theresa May’s `deal’ except that the `backstop’ is to be replaced by what is effectively a  customs border in the Irish Sea.  My personal preference would be Boris Johnson thrown in the Irish Sea.

I doubt the Democratic Unionists will be happy with this, but Johnson is probably gambling that enough Labour quitlings will vote for it that he no longer needs their support. Of course, that all depends on whether what was discussed yesterday turns into a concrete legally-binding agreement signed off by the EU.

P.S. Bookies’ odds on a No-Deal Brexit on October 31st have drifted out from 4/1 to 5/1.


A Diary of the Other Place

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 1, 2019 by telescoper

The arrival yesterday of this year’s Royal Astronomical Society diary reminded (for obvious reasons) that next year (2020) sees the bicentenary of the Society and that there will be a number of special events to mark the occasion.

According to the brief history published on the RAS website:

The ‘Astronomical Society of London’ was conceived on 12 January 1820 when 14 gentlemen sat down to dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. After an unusually short gestation the new Society was born on 10 March 1820 with the first meeting of the Council and the Society as a whole. An early setback, when Sir Joseph Banks induced the Duke of Somerset to withdraw his agreement to be the first President, was overcome when Sir William Herschel agreed to be the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting.

The Society became the `Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1831 when it was granted a Royal Charter by William IV, but this is no time to be quibbling about names.

It’s not only the Royal Astronomical Society that has survived and prospered for two hundred years. The group of `gentlemen’ who met for dinner in January 1820 has also carried on in the form of the RAS Club which is, of course, older than the RAS itself.

As well as being a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (and having twice served on its Council), I also have the honour of having been elected a Member of the RAS Club about 11 years ago. I blogged about this here.

The members of the RAS Club are all Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society. All you have to do to join the Royal Astronomical Society is to find two Felllows to support you, pay some money and sign your name in a book, but to get into the RAS Club you have to be elected by the existing membership. Nominations are solicited
each November (via a process called `The Naming of Names’) and the elections held – usually with a great deal of confusion about the voting system – in January. Frankly, it’s all a bit dotty, but I like it. I don’t really carte much for the real world anyway. The club’s various little rituals are a bit bizarre, but quaintly amusing in their own way, and the proceedings are remarkably lacking in pomposity.

Nowadays, the RAS Club usually meets at the Athenaeum in Pall Mall, shortly after the end of the monthly `Ordinary Meetings’ of the RAS at Burlington House (always referred to at the Club as `another place’) which happen on the second friday of each month. That is except when the RAS meeting is the annual National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) which is held at a different location each year; on these occasions the club also meets, but at an appropriate alternative venue near the NAM location.

I think the RAS Club (and even the RAS itself) is sometimes viewed with suspicion and perhaps even hostility by some astronomers, who seem to think the club is a kind of sinister secret society whose existence is intrinsically detrimental to the health of astronomy in the UK. Actually it’s just an excuse for a good nosh-up and some daft jokes, although I was initially disappointed to find out that there wasn’t after all a covert plan for world domination. Or if there is, nobody told me about it.

The other common complaint is that the club’s membership is just a bunch of old male dinosaurs. Now it is true that your typical member of the RAS Club isn’t exactly in the first flush of youth, but that’s no excuse for ageism. And the club does try very hard to secure encourage nominations from female Fellows and the gender balance is improving steadily.

The diary reminded me also that the first meeting of the RAS of the new term, and hence the first Club dinner, will be on Friday October 11th. I hope to be there to find out more about the plans for the bicentennial dinner in January 2020…

Anyway, as a postscript, although many of my colleagues seem not to use them, I like old-fashioned diaries like the one above. I do run an electronic calendar for work-related events, meetings etc, but I use the paper one to scribble down extra-curricular activities such as concerts and cricket fixtures, as I find the smartphone version of my electronic calendar a bit fiddly. I’m interested to know the extent to which I am an old fogey so here’s a little poll on the subject of diaries:

Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ Physical Scientists

Posted in LGBT with tags , , , , , on June 26, 2019 by telescoper

Had things gone to plan, today I would have been at the premises of the Royal Society of Chemistry in Burlington House in London for the launch of Exploring the workplace for LGBT+ physical scientists a report by the Institute of Physics, Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry resulting from a survey that I blogged about last year. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy here in Maynooth to fly to London and back for the launch so I’ll have to restrict myself to thanking these organizations for undertaking this project and pointing out that you can download, and perhaps even read, the resulting report here.

This report demonstrates that, while we have come a long way, we still have to do a lot more to make sure that LBGT+ people feel welcome and valued in the physical sciences.

A majority (70%) of the survey respondents believed that the working environment was improving for LBGT+ members of the physical science community but as many as 25% had at some point considered leaving the physical sciences due to discrimination.

I have also taken the liberty of including below a few infographics summarizing some of the main findings of the report.

One of the responses to the survey reads

I doubt this view is uncommon among heterosexual scientists but I disagree with it. The idea that no scientist has any identity at all in the workplace other than `scientist’ is quite ridiculous. Scientists are human beings, and humans are extremely diverse. I doubt if anyone likes to be defined by a single characteristic – we are all complex individuals subject to a whole host of different influences – but, to create an inclusive environment where the best scientists can flourish and the best science can be done, we need to make sure everyone feels comfortable. If we can do that it won’t just benefit our LGBT+ colleagues, but everyone in our workplaces.

Do read the report!

The Gaia Sausage

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by telescoper

I had to undertake a top secret mission on Friday, which turned out to be much less exciting than I’d hoped, but at least it gave me an excuse to catch some of the Royal Astronomical Society Open Meeting followed by dinner at the RAS Club. I actually sat next to the Club Guest Michael Duff, the eminent theoretical physicist Michael Duff who gave a nice after-dinner speech.

An artist’s impression of the Gaia Sausage. The Gaia fork has not yet been proved to exist.

The last talk at the RAS Meeting was by Neil Wyn Evans of Cambridge University in the Midlands on the subject of the `Gaia Sausage‘ (which, as you can see, has its own Wikipedia page). The Gaia Sausage is so named because it is consists of a marked anisotropy of the velocity distribution of stars in Milk Way, which is elongated in the radial direction (like a sausage) indicating that many stars are on near-radial (i.e. low angular momentum orbits). This feature has been revealed by studying the second data release from Gaia.

The work Wyn described in his talk is covered by a nice press release from Cambridge University which links to no fewer than five articles on it and related topics, which can all be found on the arXiv here, here, here, here and here.

The most plausible explanation of the Gaia Sausage is that it is a consequence of a major collision between the Milky Way with a smaller galaxy containing about 109 stars about 8-10 billion years ago, as illustrated in this simulation.

I vote that this explanation of the velocity structure of the Milky Way should henceforth be called the Big Banger Theory.


I’ll get my coat.

Learned Societies and Open Access

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , on November 8, 2018 by telescoper

Tuesday’s quick post about a letter of opposition to Plan S generated some comments from academics about the role of “Learned Societies” in academic publishing.  I therefore think it’s relevant to raise some points about the extent that these organizations (including, in my field,  the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics) rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals.

Take IOP Publishing, for example. This is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that has an annual turnover of around £60M generated from books and journals. This revenue is the largest contribution to the income that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics.  A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in which as a matter of fact I have published quite a few papers.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing some time ago in a recent blog post, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That comment seems to admit that the high prices charged by IOP Publishing for access to  its journals is nothing to do with the real cost of disseminating scientific knowledge but is instead a means of generating income to allow the IoP to pursue its noble aim of  “promoting Physics”.

This is the case for other learned societies too, and it explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access some authorities are attempting to foist on the research community, rather than the far more sensible and sustainable “Green” Open Access model and its variants.

Some time ago I came across another blog post, pointing out that other learned societies around the world are also opposing Green Open Access:

There is also great incentive for the people who manage and run these organisations to defend their cartel. For example, the American Chemical Society, a huge opponent to open access, pays many of its employees, as reported in their 990 tax return, over six figures. These salaries ranged from $304,528 to $1,084,417 in 2010.

The problem with the learned societies behaving this way is twofold.

First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed in favour of some form of green (or at least not gold) Open Access. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that traditional journals are already virtually redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics where we have been using the arXiv for so long that many of us hardly ever look at journals.

The comfortable income stream that has been used by the IoP to “promote Physics”, as well as to furnish its brand new building in King’s Cross, will dry up unless these organizations find a way of defending it. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations their attempt to stem the tide. I think this move into Gold `Open Access’, paid for by ruinously expensive Article Processing charges paid by authors (or their organizations) is unsustainable because the research community will see through it and refuse to pay.

The other problematic aspect of the approach of these learned societies is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with that purpose. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed outstandingly good – but that does not give them the right to siphon off funds from their constituents in this way.  Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities.

I should point out that, as a FRAS and a FInstP, I pay annual subscriptions to both the RAS and the IoP. I am happy to do so, as I feel comfortable spending some of my own money supporting astronomy and physics. What I don’t agree with is my department having to fork out huge amounts of money from an ever-dwindling budget for access to scientific research that should be in the public domain because it has already been funded by the taxpayer.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial, and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The commercial academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfills little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.

The question for learned societies is whether they can find a sustainable funding model that isn’t reliant upon effectively purloining funds from university library budgets. If their revenue from publishing does fall, can they replace it? And, if not, in what form can they survive?

The LGBT+ Physical Sciences Climate Survey – Final Reminder!

Posted in LGBT with tags , , , on April 27, 2018 by telescoper

This morning, a tweet from the Institute of Physics containing the above image reminded me to remind you all to participate (if you are so minded) in the LGBT+ Physical Sciences climate survey, which was launched amid the snows of 1st March this year. The deadline is coming up so if you want to complete the survey form and haven’t yet done so, please get on with it!

The survey is open to anyone (whether a member of a professional organisations or not) who identifies as LGBT+ or an ally and who may be working, teaching or studying in a physical sciences field. Respondents will need to be at least 16 years of age and above. The Institute of Physics (IOP), Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) are managing this survey on behalf of the LGBT+ Physical Sciences Network. Its aim is to collect evidence for what the working and studying climate is like for LGBT+ physical scientists in the UK and Ireland.

You can complete the survey here.

The survey is open until Monday 30th April, which is very close so why not do it right away?