Archive for Steve Rawlings

Astronomy in Darkness

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday, being the second Friday of the month, was the day for the Ordinary Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (followed by dinner at the Athenaeum for members of the RAS Club). Living and working in Cardiff it’s difficult for me to get the specialist RAS Meetings earlier in the day, but if I get myself sufficiently organized I can usually get to Burlington House in time for the 4pm start of the Ordinary Meeting, which is open to the public.

The distressing news we learnt on Thursday about the events of Wednesday night cast a shadow over the proceedings. Given that I was going to dinner afterwards, for which a jacket and tie are obligatory, I went through my collection of (rarely worn) ties, and decided that a black one would be appropriate. When I arrived at Burlington House I was just in time to hear a warm tribute paid by a clearly upset Professor Roger Davies, President of the RAS and Oxford colleague of the late Steve Rawlings. There then followed a minute’s silence in his memory.

The principal reaction to this news amongst the astronomers present was one of disbelief and/or incomprehension. Some  friends and colleagues of Steve clearly knew much more about what had happened than has so far appeared in the press, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to make these public at this stage. We will know the facts soon enough. A colleague also pointed out to me that Steve had spent most of his recent working life as a central figure in the project to build the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the world’s largest radio telescope. He has died just a matter of days before the announcement will be made of where the SKA will actually be built. It’s sobering to think that one can spend so many years working on a project, only for something wholly unforeseen to prevent one seeing it through to completion.

Anyway, the meeting included an interesting talk by Tom Kitching of the University of Edinburgh who talked about recent results from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Lensing Survey (CHFTLenS). The same project was the subject of a press release because the results were presented earlier in the week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas. I haven’t got time to go into the technicalities of this study – which exploits the phenomenon of weak gravitational lensing to reconstruct the distribution of unseen (dark) matter in the Universe through its gravitational effect on light from background sources – but Tom Kitching actually contributed a guest post to this blog some time ago which will give you some background.

In the talk he presented one of the first dark matter maps obtained from this survey, in which the bright colours represent regions of high dark matter density

Getting maps like this is no easy process, so this is mightily impressive work, but what struck me is that it doesn’t look very filamentary. In other words, the dark matter appears to reside predominantly in isolated blobs with not much hint of the complicated network of filaments we call the Cosmic Web. That’s a very subjective judgement, of course, and it will be necessary to study the properties of maps like this in considerable detail in order to see whether they really match the predictions of cosmological theory.

After the meeting, and a glass of wine in Burlington House, I toddled off to the Athenaeum for an extremely nice dinner. It being the Parish meeting of the RAS Club, afterwards we went through a number of items of Club business, including the election of four new members.

Life  goes on, as does astronomy, even in darkness.


Just a closer walk with thee

Posted in Music, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 12, 2012 by telescoper

I saw this clip a few days ago, and had it in mind to post it at an appropriate time. Unfortunately when I got home today I learned some news that makes today seem all too appropriate. A distinguished and respected colleague, Prof. Steve Rawlings, of Oxford University was found dead last night. This is shocking and desperately sad news. I have no idea what happened but apparently the Oxfordshire police have arrested a 49-year old man on suspicion of murder. No doubt more information will emerge in due course.

The connection between this sombre piece of news and the clip I  intended to post should become obvious when I tell you that it depicts a funeral. Indeed the music featured, the hymn or spiritual Just a Closer Walk with Thee, was the main music chosen for the service when my father died,  just over four years ago. It’s a lovely old traditional tune that often  plays a central role in New Orleans style funerals, as shown here, and is a melody that, for me, has a deep associattion with loss and bereavement.

The clip is taken from the US TV series Treme. I haven’t seen Treme -if it has been shown on UK TV I missed it – but it’s set in New Orleans in the aftermath of the near destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not knowing anything about the TV series I only watched the clip because of the music, but I was mightily impressed by the way the scene was photographed and how careful the producers had been in getting the details just right, because a funeral in New Orleans is unlike any other.

The sashes, parasols, and exaggerated, swaying slow march seen in the film are in some sense almost comical, but  they are also at the same time solemn and immensely dignified. Defiant, even. I don’t think it’s just because I am a jazz fan that I find this video so moving. Perhaps it’s really because, faced with the awesome finality of death, every action we take in life is comical anyway, just as every word is ultimately banal. However, if a farce is what  it’s going to be, let’s just make sure it’s done the way we like it – especially at the end.

One of the commenters on Youtube put it thus:

it aint my time yet .but when it is thats the way i wanna go home

Amen to that. I don’t think Steve Rawlings was a jazz fan, but this is the best way I can think of to pay my respects.