Archive for University of Kansas

COBE and after…

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on April 24, 2012 by telescoper

An item on the BBC website yesterday reminds me that it is twenty years since the announcement, in April 1992, of the discovery of temperature variations across the sky in the cosmic microwave background radiation by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). Was it really so long ago?

At the time the announcement was made as I actually in the USA. In fact,  I was at the University of Kansas for about a month working on this paper with Adrian Melott and Sergei Shandarin, which eventually came out early in 1993. I remember it very well because we started the project, did all the calculations and wrote up the paper within the short time I was there. Oh what it is to be a postdoc, having only research to think about and none of the other distractions that come with more senior positions.

Anyway, the COBE announcement hit the news while I was there and it got a lot of press coverage. I even did a TV interview myself, for a local cable news channel. Nor surprisingly, they were pretty clueless about the physics of the cosmic microwave background; what had drawn them to the story was George Smoot’s comment that seeing the pattern of fluctuations was “like seeing the face of God”. They were disappointed when I answered their questions about God with “I don’t know, I’m an atheist”.

The Face of God?

I didn’t know at the time that the way the announcement of the COBE discovery was handled had caused such ructions. Apparently George Smoot let his enthusiasm get the better of him, broke ranks with the rest of the COBE team, and did his own press conference which led to accusations that he was trying to steal the limelight and a big falling-out between Smoot and other members of the team, especially John Mather. It’s unfortunate that this cast a shadow over what was undoubtedly one of the most important science discoveries of the twentieth century. Without COBE there would have been no WMAP and no Planck, and our understanding of the early Universe and the formation of galaxies and large-scale structure would still be in the dark ages.

As a lowly postdoc at the time, living a hand-to-mouth existence on short-term contracts, I didn’t realise that I would still be working in cosmology twenty years later, let alone become a Professor.  Nor could I have predicted how much cosmology would change over the next two decades. Most of all, though, I never even imagined that I’d find myself travelling to Stockholm as a guest of the Nobel Foundation to attend the ceremony and banquet at which the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to George Smoot and John Mather for the COBE discovery. It was a wonderful one-in-a-lifetime experience, made all the nicer because Smoot and Mather seemed to have made peace at last.

Where were you when the COBE results came out?

Polling Day

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , on May 6, 2010 by telescoper

At last we’ve reached General Election day and I’ve just been to cast my vote following the guidance I passed on a few days ago. I was going to go this morning but I had a meeting at 9.15am to go to (which went on until 1pm, in fact) and I didn’t get up in time to visit the polling station, even though it’s in a Church Hall only a few hundred yards from my house. When I eventually got there just after 7pm it was still quite busy and I had to queue to get my ballot paper. It was very different during last year’s European elections, where the turnout is always pretty low. I don’t know what the turnout is like this time, but I hope it’s good. I don’t think there’s really any excuse for not voting.

I’ve already explained why I’m not as caught up in the campaigning this time as I have been in previous years, so I doubt if I’ll stay up late to watch the results come in. Polls don’t close until 10pm and until then there’s a blackout of press coverage relating to the vote so there’s nothing to follow until quite late at night, when I’m usually tucked up in bed with my cocoa.  The latest opinion polls suggest that the Conservative Party will get the biggest share of the vote, but it’s not clear if they’ll win a majority of the seats. Nor should they, in fact, even if they get as high a share as the polls suggest (37%) then that’s still far less than the number that didn’t vote for them. Labour and LibDems are together worth about 55%. The likelihood therefore is a hung parliament, at which point we’ll probably find all parties agreeing with each other to the implement massive spending cuts they’ve been carefully keeping from the electorate. It will still be interesting to see how the horse-trading works out over the next few days, but after three weeks of phoney war we’ll soon have to face up to reality. I’m not really looking forward to that.

Anyway, a comment by Keith Ashman on an item I posted a few days ago reminded me that no less than 13 years ago I was actually in Lawrence, Kansas, on polling day. Don’t ask me why. I’d arranged a postal vote, but had to watch the proceedings from afar on the TV. In fact, Keith and his partner decided to hold a party that night in their house and I went along to drink beer while the results came in. Watching a British election from the midwest USA is a bit strange, but it’s improved by the fact that the polls close in the UK at what is early evening Kansas-time and it’s all pretty much over by midnight.

That election I was swept up in the euphoria generated by the prospect of a New Labour government with its slogan “Things can only get better”. When they won a landslide majority we celebrated in grand style, singing Jerusalem in Keith’s back garden and then tottered not too soberly to a tattoo parlour to have a red rose put on my arm.

We had a great time that night, and the good vibes continued after I returned to London from my short stay at the University of Kansas. It didn’t take long, however, for my enthusiasm to wane. Instead of doing the really radical things their large majority would have allowed, they basically pratted about for four years. I’m not saying they didn’t do any good things, but they were so keen to tie everyone up in red tape that the good ideas often came to nothing except frustration. Then of course Blair took us into Iraq and I vowed never again to vote for the Labour Party until it renounced that decision, which I haven’t.

But I’ve still got the red rose tattoo.


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