Archive for November, 2010


Posted in Music with tags , on November 30, 2010 by telescoper

Off to Oxford for the rest of the day to give a talk, which is apparently either a colloquial seminar or a seminal colloquium. I haven’t worked out which. Anyway, I thought I’d leave you with a wonderful bit of music by the genius  that was György Ligeti. This piece, called Lontano, is one of the many works by this composer I have on my iPod so I’ll be listening to it again as the train speeds (?) through the snowy countryside taking me towards the dreaming spires..



Posted in Poetry with tags , , on November 29, 2010 by telescoper

There is a dish to hold the sea,
A brazier to contain the sun,
A compass for the galaxy,
A voice to wake the dead and done!

That minister of ministers,
Imagination, gathers up
The undiscovered Universe,
Like jewels in a jasper cup.

Its flame can mingle north and south;
Its accent with the thunder strive;
The ruddy sentence of its mouth
Can make the ancient dead alive.

The mart of power, the fount of will,
The form and mould of every star,
The source and bound of good and ill,
The key of all the things that are,

Imagination, new and strange
In every age, can turn the year;
Can shift the poles and lightly change
The mood of men, the world’s career.

by John Davidson (1857-1909)


Doubts about the Evidence for Penrose’s Cyclic Universe

Posted in Bad Statistics, Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 28, 2010 by telescoper

A strange paper by Gurzadyan and Penrose hit the Arxiv a week or so ago. It seems to have generated quite a lot of reaction in the blogosphere and has now made it onto the BBC News, so I think it merits a comment.

The authors claim to have found evidence that supports Roger Penrose‘s conformal cyclic cosmology in the form of a series of (concentric) rings of unexpectedly low variance in the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background seen by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP). There’s no doubt that a real discovery of such signals in the WMAP data would point towards something radically different from the standard Big Bang cosmology.

I haven’t tried to reproduce Gurzadyan & Penrose’s result in detail, as I haven’t had time to look at it, and I’m not going to rule it out without doing a careful analysis myself. However, what I will say here is that I think you should take the statistical part of their analysis with a huge pinch of salt.

Here’s why.

The authors report a hugely significant detection of their effect (they quote a “6-σ” result; in other words, the expected feature is expected to arise in the standard cosmological model with a probability of less than 10-7. The type of signal can be seen in their Figure 2, which I reproduce here:

Sorry they’re hard to read, but these show the variance measured on concentric rings (y-axis) of varying radius (x-axis) as seen in the WMAP W (94 Ghz) and V (54 Ghz) frequency channels (top two panels) compared with what is seen in a simulation with purely Gaussian fluctuations generated within the framework of the standard cosmological model (lower panel). The contrast looks superficially impressive, but there’s much less to it than meets the eye.

For a start, the separate WMAP W and V channels are not the same as the cosmic microwave background. There is a great deal of galactic foreground that has to be cleaned out of these maps before the pristine primordial radiation can be isolated. The fact similar patterns can be found in the BOOMERANG data by no means rules out a foreground contribution as a common explanation of anomalous variance. The authors have excluded the region at low galactic latitude (|b|<20°) in order to avoid the most heavily contaminated parts of the sky, but this is by no means guaranteed to eliminate foreground contributions entirely. Here is the all-sky WMAP W-band map for example:

Moreover, these maps also contain considerable systematic effects arising from the scanning strategy of the WMAP satellite. The most obvious of these is that the signal-to-noise varies across the sky, but there are others, such as the finite size of the beam of the WMAP telescope.

Neither galactic foregrounds nor correlated noise are present in the Gaussian simulation shown in the lower panel, and the authors do not say what kind of beam smoothing is used either. The comparison of WMAP single-channel data with simple Gaussian simulations is consequently deeply flawed and the significance level quoted for the result is certainly meaningless.

Having not looked looked at this in detail myself I’m not going to say that the authors’ conclusions are necessarily false, but I would be very surprised if an effect this large was real given the strenuous efforts so many people have made to probe the detailed statistics of the WMAP data; see, e.g., various items in my blog category on cosmic anomalies. Cosmologists have been wrong before, of course, but then so have even eminent physicists like Roger Penrose…

Another point that I’m not sure about at all is even if the rings of low variance are real – which I doubt – do they really provide evidence of a cyclic universe? It doesn’t seem obvious to me that the model Penrose advocates would actually produce a CMB sky that had such properties anyway.

Above all, I stress that this paper has not been subjected to proper peer review. If I were the referee I’d demand a much higher level of rigour in the analysis before I would allow it to be published in a scientific journal. Until the analysis is done satisfactorily, I suggest that serious students of cosmology shouldn’t get too excited by this result.

It occurs to me that other cosmologists out there might have looked at this result in more detail than I have had time to. If so, please feel free to add your comments in the box…

IMPORTANT UPDATE: 7th December. Two papers have now appeared on the arXiv (here and here) which refute the Gurzadyan-Penrose claim. Apparently, the data behave as Gurzadyan and Penrose claim, but so do proper simulations. In otherwords, it’s the bottom panel of the figure that’s wrong.

ANOTHER UPDATE: 8th December. Gurzadyan and Penrose have responded with a two-page paper which makes so little sense I had better not comment at all.


Crossword Grumble

Posted in Crosswords with tags , on November 28, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quick grouchy post about crosswords. The results of Azed No. 2006 “Spoonerisms” have been published. Once again, I drew a blank in the setting competition, although I did at least solve the puzzle correctly. This is one of Azed’s “funnies” in that the clues either contain a spoonerism in the definition part or indicate a spoonerism of the answer to be entered in the grid. You can find a full analysis of the clues and their solutions here.

Azed’s Spoonerism puzzles are apparently very popular with solvers. I found the puzzle mildly diverting, but I didn’t enjoy this one very much, as most of the spoonerisms were either very obvious or a bit dodgy. I don’t think MAO TOAST is a spoonerism of OUTMOST, for example; surely that would have to be something like TAO MOST?

Anyway, that’s not the origin of my gripe. The clue writing competition required a clue for the word “GROAN” incorporating a spoonerism in the definition. The winning clue, as judged by Azed, was the following:

See king crowned, grand on horse, organ playing some allegro anthems

The spoonerism here is “see king crowned” for “creaking sound” (i.e. the groan associated with a ship’s timbers, etc). However, in my opinion, the vowel sounds here simply don’t work: the “ee” in “see king” isn’t the same as the “ea” in “creaking”, and the stress pattern is different too – “see king” has evenly stressed syllables whereas “creaking” has a stress on the first syllable.

On top of the problematic spoonerism, this clue has no less than three cryptic indications – G+ROAN (grand on horse), an anagram of “ORGAN” indicated by “playing”, and a hidden word “some alleGRO AN thems”.

I quote Azed’s own opinion:

A good cryptic clue contains three elements:

1. a precise definition
2. a fair subsidiary indication
3. nothing else

It doesn’t say three subsidiary indications! I’ve noticed that the winning Azed competition clues often have multiple cryptic parts, so obviously Azed is more lenient than I would be. I just don’t like clues that hedge their bets. Three weak cryptic allusions aren’t as good as one clever one.

Just my opinion, of course…

For what it’s worth, my failed attempt at GROAN was

Seeking crowned King’s leg over one

I think “seeking” is better than “see king” for the reasons I described above, but I admit the cryptic part is questionable – King is “GR”, the apostrophe is short for “has”, and “leg over one” is O(A)N with leg referring to the cricketing expression.

Anyway, gripe over. I’ll get my coat.



Posted in Poetry with tags , on November 27, 2010 by telescoper

Brightly the sun of summer shone,
Green fields and waving woods upon,
And soft winds wandered by;
Above, a sky of purest blue,
Around, bright flowers of loveliest hue,
Allured the gazer’s eye.

But what were all these charms to me,
When one sweet breath of memory
Came gently wafting by?
I closed my eyes against the day,
And called my willing soul away,
From earth, and air, and sky;

That I might simply fancy there
One little flower — a primrose fair,
Just opening into sight;
As in the days of infancy,
An opening primrose seemed to me
A source of strange delight.

Sweet Memory! ever smile on me;
Nature’s chief beauties spring from thee,
Oh, still thy tribute bring!
Still make the golden crocus shine
Among the flowers the most divine,
The glory of the spring.

Still in the wall-flower’s fragrance dwell;
And hover round the slight blue bell,
My childhood’s darling flower.
Smile on the little daisy still,
The buttercup’s bright goblet fill
With all thy former power.

For ever hang thy dreamy spell
Round mountain star and heather bell,
And do not pass away
From sparkling frost, or wreathed snow,
And whisper when the wild winds blow,
Or rippling waters play.

Is childhood, then, so all divine?
Or Memory, is the glory thine,
That haloes thus the past?
Not all divine; its pangs of grief,
(Although, perchance, their stay be brief,)
Are bitter while they last.

Nor is the glory all thine own,
For on our earliest joys alone
That holy light is cast.
With such a ray, no spell of thine
Can make our later pleasures shine,
Though long ago they passed.

by Anne Brontë (1820-1849)


Snowy Saturday

Posted in Biographical, Sport with tags , , , on November 27, 2010 by telescoper

Up early this morning, cold notwithstanding, to take part in an all-day workshop on Public Attitudes to Science conducted by the market-research organization IPSOS-Mori on behalf of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) I can’t really say much about what happened since it’s an ongoing research project, but it was very interesting and particularly nice to talk to the participants (who were aged 18-24). My role was as a “science expert” so my job was to explain a bit about how the kind of science I do actually works in practice, compared with what they thought before the event.

On the way home I had to find my way back through the crowded streets of Cardiff. Today was the last day of the autumn rugby internationals, and Wales were playing New Zealand at home. There was a fantastic atmosphere in the city, as always on match days, although the combination of a rather boisterous rugby crowd with large numbers of Christmas shoppers did slow down my journey home. The game just ended, Wales 25 New Zealand 37; not as one-sided as many feared and a much better spectacle than last week’s awful match against Fiji.

I took a few pictures of Bute Park on my way to the event this morning. It looked very beautiful, but it wasn’t half cold early on. I doubt if there’ll be much rugby played on the sports fields for a while, because the ground is frozen solid at the moment!


A Gloom of Uninspired Research

Posted in Education, Poetry, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on November 26, 2010 by telescoper

I don’t mind admitting that I’m a bit down today. Being stuck at home with a fever and sore throat, and with mounting backlog of things to do isn’t helping my mood. On top of that I’ve got a general sense of depression about the future.

On the one hand there’s the prospect of huge increases in tuition fees for students, the motivation for many demonstrations all around the country (including an occupation here at Cardiff). I have to admit I’m firmly on the side of the students. It seems to me that what is happening is that whereas we used to finance our national gluttony by borrowing on over-valued property prices, we’ve now decided to borrow instead from the young, forcing them to pay for what we got for free instead of paying for it ourselves; it’s no wonder they’re angry. Call me old-fashioned, but I think universities should be funded out of general taxation. How many universities, and what courses, are different questions and I suspect I differ from the younger generation on the answers.

The other depressing thing relates to the other side of academic life, research. The tide of managerialism looks like sweeping away every last vestige of true originality in scientific research, in a drive for greater “efficiency”. I’ve already blogged about how the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is introducing a new system for grants which will make it impossible for individual researchers with good ideas to get money to start new research projects. Now it seems the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is going to go down the same road. It looks likely that in future only large-scale, low-risk research done in big consortia will be funded. Bandwagons are in; creativity is out.

Improving “efficiency” sounds like a good idea, but efficiency of what? These plans may reduce the cost of administering research grants, but they won’t do anything to increase the rate of scientific progress. Still, scientific progress can’t be entered easily on a spreadsheet so I suppose in this day and age that means it doesn’t matter.

I found the following in a story in this weeks Times Higher,

A spokeswoman for the Science and Technology Facilities Council also cited stability and flexibility as the main rationales for merging its grants programmes into one “consolidated grant”, a move announced earlier this month.

It looks like STFC has seconded someone from the  Ministry of Truth. The change to STFC’s grant system is in fact driven by two factors. One is to save money, which is what they’ve been told to do so no criticism there. The other is that the costly fiasco that is the new RCUK Shared Services Centre was so badly conceived that it has a grant system that is unable to adminster 5-year rolling grants of the type we have been used to having in astronomy. On top of that, research grants will last only 3 years (as opposed to the previous 5-year duration). There’s a typically Orwellian inversion  going on in our spokesperson’s comment: for “stability and flexibility”, read “instability and inflexibility”.

We’re not children. We all know that times are tough, but we could do with a bit less spin and a bit more honesty from the people ruining running British science. Still, I’m sure the resident spin doctors at STFC are “efficient”, and these days that’s all that matters.

The following excerpt from Wordsworth’s The Excursion pretty much sums it up.

Life’s autumn past, I stand on winter’s verge;
And daily lose what I desire to keep:
Yet rather would I instantly decline
To the traditionary sympathies
Of a most rustic ignorance, and take
A fearful apprehension from the owl
Or death-watch: and as readily rejoice,
If two auspicious magpies crossed my way;–
To this would rather bend than see and hear
The repetitions wearisome of sense,
Where soul is dead, and feeling hath no place;
Where knowledge, ill begun in cold remark
On outward things, with formal inference ends;
Or, if the mind turn inward, she recoils
At once–or, not recoiling, is perplexed–
Lost in a gloom of uninspired research;
Meanwhile, the heart within the heart, the seat
Where peace and happy consciousness should dwell,
On its own axis restlessly revolving,
Seeks, yet can nowhere find, the light of truth.


That’s a Plenty

Posted in Jazz with tags , on November 25, 2010 by telescoper

By way of a little Thanksgiving gift to my friends and colleagues over in the US of Stateside, and also to warm the cockles of everyone shuddering here in the cold snap that’s fallen over Blighty, here’s a rare taste of hot jazz from a very young Benny Goodman.

This track was recorded in 1928, long before the start of the Swing Era of which Benny Goodman’s Orchestra was in the vanguard, leading Mr BG to be called “The King of Swing”. His clarinet sound is a bit rougher around the edges than he achieved in the slick performances of his later years, but then he was only 19 at the time and he certainly plays with a huge amount of drive.

This was recorded with a trio of himself on clarinet, a piano (Mel Stitzel) and a drummer (Bob Conselman). After he formed his big band in the thirties he continued to make records with a band of the same format, but featuring Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. I never quite worked out why he preferred not to have a bass player in the small group recordings (although he often included Lionel Hampton on vibes), but this older track at least demonstrates that he was consistent in that respect!

And another thing. I’m not an expert, but to my ears there’s more than a hint of the sound of  Klezmer music in this recording. Waddayathink?

Ways of Thinking

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 25, 2010 by telescoper

I’m putting one more Richard Feynman clip up. This one struck me as particularly interesting, because it touches on a question I’ve often asked myself: what goes on in your head when do you mathematical calculations? I think I agree with Feynman’s suggestion that different people think in very different ways about the same kind of calculation or other activity.

There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve become slower and slower at doing mathematics as I’ve got older, and probably less accurate too. I think that’s partly just age – and perhaps the cumulative effect of too much wine! – but it’s partly because I have so many other things to think about these days that it’s hard to spend long hours without interruption thinking about the same problem the way I could when I was a student or a postdoc.

In any case, although much of my research is mathematical, I’ve never really thought of myself as being in any sense a mathematical person. Many of my colleagues have much better technical skills in that regard than I’ve ever had. I was never particularly good at maths at school either. I was sufficiently competent at maths to do physics, of course, but I was much better at other things at that age. My best subject at O-level was Latin, for example, which possibly indicates that my brain prefers to work verbally (or perhaps symbolically) rather than, as no doubt many others’ do, geometrically or in some other abstract way.

Another strange thing is the role of vision in doing mathematics. I can’t do maths at all without writing things down on paper. I have to be able to see the equations to think about solving them. Amongst other things this makes it difficult when you’re working things out on a blackboard (or whiteboard); you have to write symbols so large that your field of view can’t take in a whole equation. I often have to step back up one of the aisles to get a good look at what I’m doing like that. Other physicists – notably Stephen Hawking – obviously manage without writing things down at all. I find it impossible to imagine having that ability.

But I endorse what Richard Feynman says at the beginning of the clip. It’s really all about being interested in the questions, which gives you the motivation to acquire the skills needed to find the answers. I think of it as being like music. If you’re drawn into the world of music, even if you’re talented you have to practice long for long hours before you can really play an instrument. Few can reach the level of Feynman (or a concert pianist) of course – I’m certainly not among either of those categories! – but I think physics is at least as much perspiration as inspiration.

In contrast to many of my colleagues I’m utterly hopeless at chess – and other games that require very sophisticated pattern-reading skills – but good at crosswords and word-puzzles. Maybe I’m in the wrong job?


Uncertain Universities…

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on November 24, 2010 by telescoper

Interesting snippets of Higher Education news today from the BBC website.

It seems that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HECFW) has voiced concerns about the sustainability of no less than five Welsh universities. Although it hasn’t named them, I think it’s likely to be those most dependent on state funding which is pretty certain to shrink drastically over the next few years. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify the five most likely to fold. This news has emerged as a result of a request by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act.

This comes as no surprise to me, actually. It’s clear that, for its size and population,  Wales has too many separate institutions currently regarded as “universities”. A sustainable system would have less than half the number than we have now, but managing the change to a more rational structure is bound to be a difficult process, especially if it is allowed to happen by organized neglect (which seems to be the plan). Wales drastically underfunds its Higher Education sector compared to England anyway and, with what jam there is spread over far too many institutions, there’s very little by way of resources to devote to any real sort of strategic development.

Another interesting bit of information in the BBC report is that the Welsh Assembly is expected to outline its response to the Browne Review before Christmas. I was expecting the WAG to but  the introduction of any new fee system will probably have to wait until after the Welsh Assembly elections next May.

Meanwhile Cardiff University students are holding a protest against the possible introduction of fees at the very moment I am writing this, as part of a day of action across the UK. Although there are no definite plans to increase fees in Wales at the moment because the WAG has not announced its policy, I think most of us working in academia think a big increase in fees is imminent in Wales, just as it is in England (provided the necessary legislation gets through the House of Commons). It remains to be seen, however, whether Welsh universities will be allowed to charge as much as English ones, i.e. up to £9000 per annum.