Archive for June, 2011

Linking to Data – Effect on Citation Rates in Astronomy (via Meters, Metrics and More)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on June 30, 2011 by telescoper

I’m not a big fan of bibliometricism …but this is definitely Quite Interesting. I wonder if my linking to it will increase its readership?

Linking to Data - Effect on Citation Rates in Astronomy In the paper Effect of E-printing on Citation Rates in Astronomy and Physics we asked ourselves the question whether the introduction of the arXiv e-print repository had any influence on citation behavior. We found significant increases in citation rates for papers that appear as e-prints prior to being published in scholarly journals. This is just one example of how publication practices influence article metrics (citation rates, usage, obsolesc … Read More

via Meters, Metrics and More

Bright and Early

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 29, 2011 by telescoper

Some interesting astronomy news emerged this evening relating to a paper published in 30th June issue of the journal Nature. The press release from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is quite detailed, so I’ll refer you there for the minutiae, but in a nutshell:

A team of European astronomers has used ESO’s Very Large Telescope and a host of other telescopes to discover and study the most distant quasar found to date. This brilliant beacon, powered by a black hole with a mass two billion times that of the Sun, is by far the brightest object yet discovered in the early Universe.

and the interesting numbers are given here (with links from the press release):

The quasar that has just been found, named ULAS J1120+0641 [2], is seen as it was only 770 million years after the Big Bang (redshift 7.1, [3]). It took 12.9 billion years for its light to reach us.

Although more distant objects have been confirmed (such as a gamma-ray burst at redshift 8.2, eso0917, and a galaxy at redshift 8.6, eso1041), the newly discovered quasar is hundreds of times brighter than these. Amongst objects bright enough to be studied in detail, this is the most distant by a large margin.

When I was a lad, or at least a postdoc, the most distant objects known were quasars, although in those days the record holders had redshifts just over half that of the newly discovered one. Nowadays technology has improved so much that astronomers can detect “normal” galaxies at even higher redshifts but quasars remain interesting because of their extraordinary luminosity. The standard model for how a quasar can generate so much power involves a central black hole onto which matter falls, liberating vast amounts of gravitational energy.

You can understand how efficient this is by imagining a mass m falling onto a black hole of Mass M from a large distance to the horizon of the black hole, which is at the Schwarzschild radius R=2GM/c^2. Since the gravitational potential energy at a radius R is -GMm/R the energy involved in bringing a mass m from infinity to the horizon is a staggering \frac{1}{2} mc^2, i.e. half the rest mass energy of the infalling material. This is an overestimate  for various reasons but it gives you an idea of how much energy is available if you can get gravity to do the work; doing the calculation properly still gives an answer much higher than the amount of energy that can be released by, e.g., nuclear reactions.

The point is, though, that black holes aren’t built in a day, so if you see one so far away that its light has taken most of the age of the Universe to reach us then it tells us that its  black hole must have grown very quickly. This one seems to be a particularly massive one, which means it must have grown very quickly indeed. Through observations like this  we learn something potentially very interesting about the relationship between galaxies and their central black holes, and how they both form and evolve.

On the lighter side, ESO have also produced the following animation which I suppose is quite illustrative, but what are the sound effects all about?


Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on June 29, 2011 by telescoper

After yesterday’s examiners meeting at Queen Mary  I downed a quick beer and took the tube to the West End in order to meet up with  a couple of friends (Joao and Kim) to see last night’s production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

Just over a year ago I posted about Welsh National Opera’s Tosca here in Cardiff, so I’ll refer you there for details about the plot synposis and background. Let me just say even though the WNO production was very good, it’s very difficult to match the special atmosphere of Covent Garden. It’s such a famous venue but at the same time is so intimate. I’d forgotten just how close you get to the stage.  The prices were special prices too! Our tickets were £220 each and drinks in the two intervals were eye-wateringly expensive. But then you don’t go to Covent Garden for a cheap night out.

This was the only night that I could make it to this run, and as a result we actually saw the “second” cast: no Bryn Terfel, no Angela Gherghiou, and as it happens to Marcello Giordani either (owing to illness). In the performance we saw, Floria Tosca was Martina Serafin, Baron Scarpia was Juha Uusitalo, and making his Covent Garden debut as understudy thanks to Giordiani’s indisposition was  was the young tenor Giancarlo Monsalve as Cavaradossi. I wasn’t too disappointed not to see Angela Gheorghiou, as I think she’s quite overrated, but I would have loved to have seen Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia. Perhaps some other time.

Anyway, it was a thoroughly enjoyable production if perhaps lacking that extra sparkle that the headline cast might have supplied. Serafin took a while to get going but from Act II onwards was very good, although she never quite managed to get across the fiery unpredictable side of her character’s persona. Uusitalo was a brutish Scarpia with a strong stage presence; the dashing Monsalve took his opportunity well and was warmly received by the full house.

I’ve often wondered how this Opera, which on the face of it is a straightforward melodrama, manages to work so well. I think part of its magic is that the characters, as is often the case with Puccini, are not quite what they seem. Tosca is the heroine but she’s far from Snow White. She’s jealous and temperamental and in many ways quite unattractive. In this production, after initially stabbing Scarpia in self-defence, she carries on stabbing him in a kind of bloodlust which is quite scary. Cavaradossi is the hero, but he’s not a particularly heroic hero because he crumbles under the strain of his imminent execution in Act III. And then there’s Scarpia, the baddy. I find him the most fascinating of all because, although he’s evil,  there are flashes of loneliness and contrition. I think he’s monstrous because something in his past has made him monstrous. A prequel to Tosca based on Scarpia’s earlier biography would make a very interesting opera indeed..

I know it’s deeply unfair to make comparisons, but I thought nevertheless I’d include this clip of a live broadcast of  Tosca from the same venue, way back in 1964, featuring perhaps the greatest Scarpia, Tito Gobbi, and perhaps the greatest Tosca, Maria Callas.  I heard the composer Michael Berkeley talking about what a revelation it was to see Callas at Covent Garden in this role; he simply hadn’t imagined that acting in the opera could be so good. Even in black-and-white you can get idea of the mesmerising stage presence that was Maria Callas and what a fine actress she was. Here she is, with hatred burning in her eyes, plunging the knife into Scarpia, standing over him willing him to die, then realising what she has done, turning back into a frightened, vulnerable and remorseful woman then doing the best she can to pay respect to his dead body. Magnificent.

Old School

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on June 29, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday was a busy day, involving me travelling to London in order to carry out my duties as external examiner for the MSc in Astrophysics in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. Every time I go to my old stomping ground on Mile End Road,  the East End something seems to have changed, whether in the college or in the environs. This time was no exception, as they’ve finally finished the new entrance to the Mathematical Sciences Building:

You can’t see it all that well, but it’s decorated with Penrose Tiling (although it’s not specified who did the grouting). Inside there’s a spacious new foyer area – devoid of any possible teaching use, but probably a nice area for students to gather informally. Inside has a sort of 1960s retro feel, with bright yellow plastic floors and modernist soft furnishings. Austin Powers would probably feel at home there. The large lecture theatre has also been comprehensively refurbished and looks very nice, although its capacity has been reduced. Less emphasis on teaching facilities, more on “the student experience” I suppose.

I used to work at Queen Mary, in the Astronomy Unit; in this very building, in fact. I can’t help being a bit cynical about the new front entrance. There are so many other things wrong with the building – grubby concrete exterior, badly fitting windows and lavatories that don’t work, to name but a few – that I can’t really understand what made someone decide that what it really needed was a new garish plastic foyer. It’s up to Queen Mary to decide where to spend its money, of course, but I think it’s strange.

Other, bigger, news about the Astronomy Unit which I learned yesterday is that this summer, at long last, it’s moving from the School of Mathematical Sciences to merge with the Physics department in order to form a new School of Physics & Astronomy. In fact, when I was there there were astronomers in Physics (mainly instrumental and observational) and in Mathematical Sciences (mainly theoretical, including myself). Some years ago most of the instrumentation people moved from the School of Physics here to Cardiff, where they are still. The remaining astronomers moved to Mathematical Sciences. Now they’re moving back to Physics along with those currently in Maths. Oh what a tangled web.

For the time being the Astronomy Unit will stay in their existing offices but will eventually move in with Physics once that building is refurbished. I guess the main thing that will change immediately is that various astronomers will have new letterheads and will have to start teaching physics courses instead of mathematics.

Feelings about the move among the staff appear to be rather mixed, but I wish them well in their new School and with their plans to build up Physics & Astronomy in the future.

The State of Columbo

Posted in Columbo with tags , on June 28, 2011 by telescoper

Up bright and early this morning as I have to spend the day in the Big Smoke on external examining duty, after which I’m going to see Tosca at Covent Garden. Anyway, just time for a quick snap of Columbo while I drink my coffee. I’m a little concerned about him. Yesterday he was sick in his basket, which may be a side-effect of his new arthritis medication, so I’ve stopped giving it to him. I’ll try again with a small dose in a day or two and if he gets ill again I’ll just throw the stuff away. I hope it’s nothing worse than a dicky tummy.

Austerity bites in Utrecht (via The e-Astronomer)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on June 27, 2011 by telescoper

Andy Lawrence on cuts to Astronomy in Utrecht, the importance of rocking the boat, and a realistic perspective of the debt crisis; see also an old post of mine here that uses the same figure to make a similar point: the cuts are based on politics, not economics ….

Austerity bites in Utrecht As you may have heard, the University of Utrecht has taken the extraordinary decision to completely shut down its Astronomical Institute SIU  by 2014. You can read about in a blog post written last week by Sarah Kendrew, and there is also a press statement  issued by the SIU. This is the scariest astro-disaster since the INAF panic. Utrecht is a significant fraction of Dutch astronomy; it is one out of five universities in the NOVA alliance , alt … Read More

via The e-Astronomer

The PostDoc Apocalypse: Survival Tips #1 (via The Upturned Microscope)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on June 27, 2011 by telescoper

The saga of the PostDoc Apocalypse Continues….

The PostDoc Apocalypse: Survival Tips #1 (Click on image to enlarge) Click here for Part 1 Click here for Part 2 Click here for more Comics … Read More

via The Upturned Microscope

An Azed Prize!

Posted in Crosswords with tags , on June 26, 2011 by telescoper

I was thinking on the way home on Friday that I haven’t posted anything about crosswords recently, and I know some crossword solvers occasionally visit this blog, so resolved to do something this weekend. By sheer coincidence, something arrived in yesterday’s post that makes that any easy task:

It seems that, after a decade of trying, I’ve finally managed to win a prize in the monthly Azed competition. As I’ve mentioned before, this involves not only solving the Azed crossword but also supplying a cryptic clue for a word or phrase given only as a definition in the crossword. This competition is tough, partly because Azed is a stickler for syntactical soundness in submitted clues, and partly because many of the competitors are professional crossword setters. Quite a few of my clues have received a “VHC” (Very Highly Commended) but I’ve never been among the winners, until Azed No. 2036! I only got 3rd place, but since I’ve never been among the winners before I’m still thrilled to bits with my coveted Azed bookplate, and £25 in book tokens.

The fact that I got a prize in this one is quite funny, actually. The crossword appeared in the Observer on Sunday 5th June, the day after my birthday and the day before I flew to Copenhagen for a mini workshop. I managed to solve the crossword on the Sunday but didn’t have time to think of a clue. I therefore put the completed grid in an envelope and took it with me to Denmark. One evening in the hotel, I concocted my clue but, lacking access to a printer, I had to write it out by hand – normally I send in a typewritten version. To save time I used one of the sticky self-address labels I carry in my diary to put my address on the clue which was scribbled on hotel notepaper. That’s why my name appears as “Dr P. Coles” in the list; they are old labels!  I also carry stamps around so put one of those on so it was all ready to go when I got home. When I arrived back in London on Friday 10th June, my flight had been a little delayed, so  I just had time to race out of Paddington station, find a postbox, and pop the clue inin time for the last collection, before running back into the station to catch the train back to Cardiff. I’ve never been so close to the deadline before – entries must be postmarked no later than the Saturday following the publication of the crossword – and almost missed my train to get it posted. It turns out it was worth it!

Anyway, you can find the crossword itself here and the answers to the clues here.

The competition required a clue for AL CONTO, an Italian phrase meaning the same as the French À LA CARTE. My clue was

Training via this could be vocational, with courses priced separately.

The definition is supplied by the phrase “with courses priced separately”, and the cryptic allusion is of the type Azed describes as “Comp. Anag.”, i.e. a composite anagram, which is rarely seen in daily crossword puzzles but not uncommon among his own. “Training” is the anagram indicator and VIA+AL+CONTO is an anagram of VOCATIONAL. I was pleased with the way the clue lays a false trail towards something educational.

There are only a couple of puzzles left in this year’s competition, so it looks like I’ll finish in my highest ever position. Now I’ll set my sights on getting a 1st place!

For Sidney Bechet

Posted in Jazz, Poetry with tags , , , , on June 26, 2011 by telescoper

Just stumbled across this excellent documentary about the great Sidney Bechet and couldn’t resist posting it alongside the poem by Philip Larkin that follows it, which is called For Sidney Bechet. Watching great jazz musicians play, including the rare clips of Bechet shown in the video, the thought always comes into my mind that if you took the instrument away from them, it would just carry on playing by itself…

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 58

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on June 25, 2011 by telescoper

If you don’t think astronomer Robert Connon Smith looks like singer Roger Whittaker, I’ll show you something to make you change your mind. I wonder if, by any chance, they might be related?

Roger Whittaker

Robert Connon Smith