Archive for Royal Astronomical Society

200 Years of the RAS Club

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 11, 2020 by telescoper

Here I am in Heathrow Terminal 2 waiting for flight back to Dublin. I managed to get to London from Birmingham in time for a special dinner to mark the 200th anniversary of the RAS Club. As I have mentioned in previous posts, 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.

Since the RAS Club always dines on the second Friday of the month after Ordinary Meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society itself, January 10th was the closest date to that first dinner. As expected for such a special occasion, there was a very big turnout with more than double the usual number of diners (and many more guests than usual). It was very nice to see some people I haven’t seen for ages! The food and wine were excellent and we ended with champagne and a slice of a cake baked and decorated for the occasion. Unfortunately it was so crowded in the Gallery Room that I couldn’t get close enough to take a photo of it before it was whisked away to be cut into slices.

After dinner we had some speeches, including one really brilliant one by my former colleague from Cardiff days, Mike Edmunds who had researched the `14 gentlemen’ who attended that first dinner. I had known previously that Charles Babbage and John Herschel were there but here (thanks to Mike) is a complete list:

Charles Babbage, Esq. M.A. F.R.S. L. & E. No. 5 Devonshire Street Portland Place
Arthur Baily, Esq, Gray’s Inn
Francis Baily, Esq. F.R.S. & L.S. Gray’s Inn
Major Thomas Colby, of the Royal Engineers, LL.D. F.R.S. L. & E. Tower
Henry T. Colebrooke, Esq. F.R.S. & L.S. Albany, Piccadilly
Olinthus G. Gregory, LL.D. Professor of Mathematics Royal Military Academy, Woolwich
Stephen Groombridge, Esq. F.R.S. S.R.A.Nap. Blackheath
J.F.W. Herschel, LL.D. F.R.S. Slough
Patrick Kelly, LL.D. Finsbury Square
Daniel Moore, Esq. F.R.S. S.A. & L.S. Lincoln’s Inn
Rev. William Pearson, LL.D. F.R.S. East Sheen, Surrey
James South, Esq. F.R.S. and L.S. No. 11 Blackman Street Southwark
Charles Stokes, Esq. F.R.S. S.A. & L.S. Gray’s Inn
Peter Slawinski D.P. Proff. University Wilna

P.S. Because I was attending the LGBTQ+ STEMinar I couldn’t get to the ordinary meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society earlier in the day, which was a shame because it was there that the winners of this year’s awards were announced. You can find a full list here. Congratulations to all!

Exams and Anniversaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 9, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (10th January)  is the start of our mid-year examination period here at Maynooth University. It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, especially those who are further on in their courses for whom these papers have greater importance. In particular I’d like to send my best wishes to students on my fourth-year module on Astrology Astrophysics and Cosmetics Cosmology, whose paper is tomorrow.

On the equivalent day last year I reflected on examinations and in particularly on the fact that the system of education both here in Ireland and in the United Kingdom places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment compared to learning and understanding.

Also on the equivalent day yesterday I was about to travel to London to attend my first LGBT+STEMinar at the Institute of Physics in London. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a similar thing, getting up at stupid o’clock
to travel to Birmingham for the 2020 event. The main difference this year (apart from the change of venue) is that I’m not giving a talk this time. This is good news for me (because it means I can relax a bit more) and for the attendees (because they don’t have to listen to me rambling on like they did last year).

I won’t be able to stay to the end of the LGBT+STEMinar, however, as I have to get to London. As I have mentioned previously here, 2020 marks the bicentenary of the Royal Astronomical Society:

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.

To be precise, the Society only became the `Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1831 when it was granted a Royal Charter by William IV, but its roots go back to 1820.

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. The Dining Club always meet on the second Friday of the month, which means that tomorrow is the closest date to that very first meeting. There will therefore be a special club dinner tomorrow night, with more guests than usual. I’m looking forward to it a lot, actually, although I’m slightly apprehensive about the fact that I’ll be relying on the train to get me there in time!

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:

Clearing

Matrix

Lost Horizon

Cave

Host

`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.

Geddit?

I’ll get my coat.