Archive for September, 2011


Posted in Poetry with tags , on September 30, 2011 by telescoper

I’m a bit surprised with myself for not posting this before now. I suppose one reason is that I feared it might be so well known that it would be considered a bit of cliché. However, at the end of a stressful week it seems a good time to post  Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, which I think contains much wisdom and which I always find a calming influence in anxious times. I know some people think this piece is nothing but a collection of platitudes, but I think it’s more than that. In any case,  if nothing else, it provides  useful advice for anyone serving  on a grants panel or waiting to learn the outcome…

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

When is a Professor not a Professor?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 29, 2011 by telescoper

Now that I’m back from panel duty, I notice that Amazon have finally corrected the misleading information on the page advertising a book by Mark Brake. Until a couple of days ago this page stated that the “author” was a Professor at the University of Glamorgan, despite the fact that it’s over a year since he was dismissed from that position. I’m not sure why they have suddenly removed their misrepresentation but now it merely says that Brake is an “academic”. I think that’s misleading too, as to my knowledge he doesn’t have a job at any university; the OED’s definition of the noun academic is

A member of a college or university; a collegian. Now spec. a senior member of a university; a member of the academic staff of a university or college; also loosely, an academically-gifted person.

Does the loose definition apply?

Meanwhile, this is taken from the front page of Mark Brake’s personal website.

Which seems to demonstrate that although Amazon have corrected their error, Brake himself is content to continue passing himself off as a Professor. I wonder how long it will be until this turns into the version that’s advertised on Amazon?

Also, does anyone know what the “L” stands for in “Mark L Brake”?

Why go to University?

Posted in Education with tags , , on September 29, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve just got time this morning before the Astronomy Grants Panel reconvenes for another day of deliberations to put up a quick postette. I thought of this quote the other day when we were inducing inducting inductifying enrolling the new undergraduates. I think it encapsulates what I think a university actually is, specifically why it’s essential for a University education to be part of an environment that also encompasses research, and why even in the digital age (and beyond),  personal interaction between student and teacher will always be essential. Call me old-fashioned.

The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.

From The Idea of a University, by Cardinal John H. Newman, Chapter 2.

The Autumn Collection

Posted in Biographical, Education on September 28, 2011 by telescoper

Up bright and early again this morning, ready for the return leg (and possible extra time/penalties) of the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel deliberations in Swindon. While I slurp my coffee and crunch my toast I thought I’d try to get my brain into gear by posting a brief something.

Yesterday was the first day of our induction period for new students. Lectures proper don’t start until next week but this week we have preliminary sessions with all the freshers to show them round the laboratories, tell them how the library learning resources unit works, sort out their access to computer facilities and so on. As I’ve blogged about before, this is a bumper year for us in terms of undergraduate intake so these sessions were busier than usual. Somewhat remarkably, however, at close of play we had managed to process nearly all the students we were expecting. Usually a few  turn up late, or don’t turn up at all, but this time there seems to be only one “no show”. That must be some kind of record.

At coffee time this morning, all staff were invited to a “meet and greet” session with the new students. I’m not really involved with the undergraduate induction process but went along anyway to show moral support (and help myself to free coffee). When I arrived at the session I immediately noticed the crowd of baffled and bewildered people struggling to figure out what was going on. But that was just the members of stafff;  the students  seemed fine with it all.

Over coffee I chatted with a few students who were very friendly and relaxed, raring to get started with their studies. Let’s see how long that lasts! One student asked me “What are physicists really like?”. All I could think of to say was “some of them resemble normal people”…

I doubt if any of the new students is a reader of this blog – especially during Fresher’s Week, in which there are many distractions on offer – but in any case I’d like to welcome them all to Cardiff. If any are reading this, I wish you well in your  studies, and hope you find your time here both fruitful and enjoyable!

Just as some students start on their course others are about to complete theirs. Such is the cycle of academic life. My main administrative role in the School of Physics & Astronomy actually concerns postgraduate students. The end of this week (September 30th) is the PhD thesis deadline for several of these, so there’s been a rush of paperwork relating to arrangements for examinations for me to deal with. I’m sure there’ll be more than a few people having a relaxing tipple on Friday evening after they’ve submitted their thesis.

All in all it was a very busy but actually quite pleasant day made all the more pleasant by an unexpected outbreak of nice sunshine. Now. To Swindon.

Wind turbines aren’t noisy!

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

I read this morning that a petition to the Welsh Assembly Government has been raised demanding that wind farms be switched off from time to time to give local residents “some respite from the noise they make”.

In fact wind turbines, even big ones, make far less noise than people seem to think, and certainly less than motor vehicles. So if you’ve got an objection to wind farms, please make it an honest one.

Advanced Level Mathematics Examination, Vintage 1981

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I posted any of my old examination papers, but I wanted to put this one up before term starts in earnest. In the following you can find both papers (Paper I and Paper 2) of the Advanced Level Mathematics Examination that I sat in 1981.

Each paper is divided into two Sections: A covers pure mathematics while B encompasses applied mathematics (i.e. mechanics) and statistics. Students were generally taught only one of the two parts of Section B and in my case it was the mechanics bit that I answered in the examination. Paper I contains slightly shorter questions than Paper 2 and more of them..

Note that slide rules were allowed, but calculators had crept in by then. In fact I used my wonderful HP32-E, complete with Reverse Polish Notation. I loved it, not least because nobody ever asked to borrow it as they didn’t understand how it worked…

I also did Further Mathematics, and will post those papers in due course, but in the meantime I stress that this is just plain Mathematics.

If it looks a bit small you can use the viewer to zoom in.

I’ll be interested in comments from anyone who sat A-Level Mathematics more recently than 1981. Do you think these papers are harder than the ones you took? Is the subject matter significantly different?

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 63

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

I’m struck by the remarkable similarity between “author and science communicator” Mr Mark Brake (alias “@ProfMBrake”  on Twitter) and Mr Mark  Brake the disgraced former University of Glamorgan employee who falsely claimed to have a PhD when applying for a grant in 2006 and whose professorship at Glamorgan was terminated in mysterious circumstances in 2010. Old habits clearly die very hard…

Professor Yes?

Dr No

Euclid Alone Has looked On Beauty Bare

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 25, 2011 by telescoper

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

by Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Don Giovanni

Posted in Art, Opera with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2011 by telescoper

Another sign that autumn is nigh is that the opera season has started again, which at least gives me the opportunity to resume my series of occasional opera reviews.

I was planning to go to see the new  Welsh National Opera production of Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart   last week but was stymied it clashed with the cricket, which turned out to be a day-night game finishing too late to allow me to go to both. Anyway, I was able to get tickets for last night’s performance as well as dispose of last week’s so it all worked out for me in the end.

First night reviews of this production weren’t particularly good – the reviews in the Telegraph and the Guardian are fairly typical – which probably accounted for the fact that the Wales Millennium Centre wasn’t particularly  full even for such an extremely popular opera. I don’t usually pay much attention to reviews myself and I thought the critics were excessively harsh, although some of the points they make are valid.

I won’t repeat the synopsis in detail here because it’s probably familiar to most people likely to read this, even those who aren’t opera buffs. In fact it’s all explained by the subtitle il dissolute punito. We meet the villainous “nobleman” Don Giovanni attempting to molest  Donna Anna after sneaking into the house of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father. Don Giovanni is rumbled and confronted by the Commendatore; a duel  ensues which appears to be ending without bloodshed until the Don draws a dagger and murders the Commendatore.

There then follows a series of escapades: attempted seductions, disguises, mistaken identities, narrow escapes, and so on. Typical comic opera stuff in fact, except that it’s not really typical comic opera  because it’s comic opera with music by Mozart and libretto by da Ponte. In other words, it’s genius.

Finally,  Don Giovanni’s past catches up to him. He taunts a statue of the dead Commendatore while seeking refuge in a graveyard. Later, back at Don Giovanni’s  house the statue arrives  and sends Don Giovanni to Hell.

The first impression you get of this production on entering the theatre is the monumental set, which is based (not inappropriately) on the  Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin (shown left), a huge bronze sculpture that depicts a scene from Dante’s Inferno. What you see on stage, however, is not a simple replica of the Rodin piece, but a series of variations on and extensions of the original artwork. Extra pieces are added to form a walled courtyard, it opens out to form a series of rooms and chambers, and in the end the gates themselves open to take the eponymous villain down to Hell (along with a smoke and fire effect which unfortunately didn’t work very well last night; there wasn’t enough smoke to engulf him as was clearly intended).

The idea of basing the set around this work of art was potentially brilliant but I didn’t think it really worked as well as it might. The reason is that the magic of Mozart’s operas emanates, at least in part, from the huge dramatic contrasts. Don Giovanni certainly has a very dark edge, but it also has a great many lighter comic episodes, some of them bordering on the slapstick. Having this heavy sombre backdrop to everything tended to dampen the swings between light and shade. It’s as if the  production was so obsessed with this one idea, that everything else became subservient to it. What could have been brilliant was just too clumsy. You don’t have to force things so much, especially not with Mozart, especially not with Don Giovanni.

Another criticism I would make concerns David Kempster as Don Giovanni. He certainly sang extremely well, his smoky baritone voice sounding very rakish. However I thought he acted the part too broadly, at times like a pantomime villain, to the extent that he seemed delighted by the theatrical boos he got on his curtain call. He was at times very funny indeed, but again I thought he was a bit forced.

However, if it sounds like I’m being very negative about the performance then I don’t mean to be. Apart from the unnecessarily imposing set, the look of the production is wonderful: the costumes and lighting were beautifully done, and the crypto-Gothic look was appropriately spooky when “spooky” was called for.

David Soar was a really oustanding Leporello; I think the audience agreed with me as he got a huge cheer at the end. Camilla Roberts was excellent as Donna Anna as was Nuccia Focile as Donna Elvira. On the other hand I found Carlo Malinverno a disappointment as the Commendatore. He looked scary enough but his undistinguished and occasionally  wobbly bass voice didn’t have the necessary menace for climactic scene with Don Giovanni near the end. For me it has to be a voice that really reverberates with doom. Few can really pull it off, and Carlo Malinverno isn’t one of them.

A special mention, however, must be made of Samantha Hay, who stepped in at short notice to sing the part of Zerlina owing to the indisposition of Claire Ormshaw. She was absolutely wonderful, with a beautifully crystal-clear voice and engaging stage presence. Well done to her for a performance that was very warmly received by the audience.

Watching the opera last night it struck me again, as it always does listening to Don Giovanni,  just how many great pieces of music there are in it. Whereas most operas can offer at most a few set-pieces, in Don Giovanni they keep coming one after the other for well over three hours. This is Mozart at the very peak of his powers, and  a few blemishes don’t even come close to taking the magic away.

Neutrinos on Speed

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 23, 2011 by telescoper

The internet, twitterdom, blogosphere, and even the mainstream media are all alive today with wild speculations about a curious claim that neutrinos might travel faster than light.

If you’re interested in finding the source of this story, look at the arXiv paper here. I haven’t got time to go through the paper in detail, but I think it must be an instrumental artefact or some other sort of systematic error.

One major reason for doubting the veracity of the claim that neutrinos travel faster than light is provided by astronomical observations. Neutrinos produced by the explosion of Supernova SN1987a were detected when it went boom in 1987, approximately three hours before the visible light from SN 1987A reached the Earth.

The few hours delay between neutrinos and photons is explained by the fact that neutrino emission occurs when the core of the progenitor star collapses, whereas visible light is released only when a shock wave reaches the surface of the imploding object. Three different experiments detected (anti)neutrinos: Kamiokande II found 11 , IMB 8 and Baksan 5, in a burst lasting less than 13 seconds.

If the time delay reported by the OPERA detector over the distance between CERN and Gran Sasso were extrapolated to the distance between Earth and SN1987a then the neutrinos should have arrived not a few hours early, but a few years, and there would not have been coincident arrivals at the different detectors on Earth.

Do neutrinos go faster than light?
Some physicists think that they might.
In the cold light of day,
I am sorry to say,
The story is probably shite

UPDATE: Now that I’ve read the paper let me point out that the OPERA result is essentially

δv/c = (2.48 ± 0.28(stat) ± 0.30(syst)) × 10-5,

whereas the constraints from Supernova 1987a work out to be   δv/c < 2 × 10-9 for  neutrino energies of 10 MeV. See the comments below for discussion.

I’ll also mention at this point that the analysis done in the paper is entirely based on frequentist statistics. Somebody needs to do it properly.