Archive for March, 2013

A Century of R.S. Thomas

Posted in Poetry with tags on March 29, 2013 by telescoper

It’s Good Friday, and it’s also a hundred years to the day since the birth of the great Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas. I thought I’d mark the centenary in a small way by posting one of his most famous poems, A Blackbird Singing

It seems wrong that out of this bird,
Black, bold, a suggestion of dark
Places about it, there yet should come
Such rich music, as though the notes’
Ore were changed to a rare metal
At one touch of that bright bill.

You have heard it often, alone at your desk
In a green April, your mind drawn
Away from its work by sweet disturbance
Of the mild evening outside your room.

A slow singer, but loading each phrase
With history’s overtones, love, joy
And grief learned by his dark tribe
In other orchards and passed on
Instinctively as they are now,
But fresh always with new tears.

An Intermezzo

Posted in Opera with tags , , on March 28, 2013 by telescoper

I’m taking some time off over Easter, in the hope that Spring will finally appear. In the meantime here’s the famous Intermezzo from the Opera Cavalleria Rusticana by Pietro Mascagni. The conductor is the venerable Georges Prêtre, with the Orchestre National de France.

The Universe through a lens, darkly…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 27, 2013 by telescoper

Just time to post this neat picture I found on the BBC Website this morning:


Although these images were obtained using measurements of the cosmic microwave background made by Planck, they are not themselves maps of the radiation field itself. As photons produced in the early Universe travel through the Universe towards the observer, they are deflected by the gravitational field of intervening clumps of matter; this is called gravitational lensing. With a bit of effort this effect can be “inverted” to reveal the distribution of matter traversed by CMB photons, or at least a projection of that distribution along the line of sight. The good thing about this is that the maps show all the matter (through its gravitational effects) not just the luminous part that might be seen in a galaxy surveys, so they might provide more direct ways of testing cosmological theories.

Being on the panel…

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , on March 26, 2013 by telescoper

As well as all the University of Sussex business I’ve been having to take care of over the last couple of months or so, I’ve also been trying to find time to keep up with the new round of applications to the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. I had originally thought that the 2012/13 round would be the last one on which I served, but I must have misbehaved in some way because it appears that my sentence has been extended for another year.

The latest duty required of panel members has been to assign reviewers to the new proposals, which means reading each case and trying to think of appropriate experts to assess them in detail. Normal procedure is to contact such people informally in the first instance, with Swindon Office following up by sending the actual documents if and only if they agree. fortunately, most people out there in astronomyland are very public spirited and it’s usually not that difficult to find willing reviewers.

In the course of contacting potential referees this round I had a couple of replies from people who were apparently already considering the possibility of volunteering to be on the panel next year and who therefore asked me what it would be like. I thought I’d make a few comments here in case anyone reading this blog has toyed with similar thoughts.

Basically, my view is that the AGP is extremely hard but also extremely interesting work, and it’s also the chance to work with a very friendly and cooperative group of people. From that point of view I think it’s well worth doing. Plus, of course, the wider the range of people who participate in panel work the fairer it is likely to be.

In fact, if it weren’t for the friendly company the three-day meetings in Swindon during which the final recommendations are drawn up would be truly horrendous. These meetings are extremely pressured, by the way. If I recall correctly the volume of grants to get through corresponds to about £10,000 per minute of discussion time.

On the other hand, the job is not without its frustrations. Most important of these is that there simply isn’t enough money to fund all the top-rated research proposals. Established researchers who have become used to having a steady stream of research grants are not spared this stark arithmetic. I think most people are mature enough not to take it personally when a grant application is turned down, but there are exceptions. I’ve been beset at more than one RAS dinner by disgruntled senior scientists complaining about various aspects of the AGP process. Sometimes these have been fair criticisms (e.g. about the quality of feedback) but others have been quite disturbingly ill-informed, to such an extent that I don’t think the persons concerned had even read the grant guidance…

Anyway, if you’re wondering whether to put yourself forward for nomination as a member of the AGP then please do, because the process needs to engage the community it tries to serve. If you do join up, though, just be prepared to suffer a few of the odd slings and arrows. As for me, this is definitely my last year. I have a few enough friends already, and I can’t afford to lose any more.

My Life as Bob Fleming

Posted in Biographical, Television with tags , on March 25, 2013 by telescoper

Listenind to Bob Fleming will give you a good idea of what I’ve been like for the last few days…

The Secret

Posted in Poetry with tags , on March 24, 2013 by telescoper

I loved thee, though I told thee not,
Right earlily and long,
Thou wert my joy in every spot,
My theme in every song.

And when I saw a stranger face
Where beauty held the claim,
I gave it like a secret grace
The being of thy name.

And all the charms of face or voice
Which I in others see
Are but the recollected choice
Of what I felt for thee.

by John Clare (1793-1864).


Why participation isn’t widening

Posted in Education with tags , on March 23, 2013 by telescoper

Frustrated at my ongoing indisposition – I had to miss today’s Admissions Day at Sussex University, which has put me in a very bad mood – I’ve decided to deliver a short rant about widening participation. WP is the name given to schemes to open up access to higher education to students from less advantaged backgrounds. An excellent idea, of course.

The problem is that, despite pressure from the relevant quango (OFFA) most self-styled leading universities, especially those in the Russell Group, have consistently failed to widen participation to any significant extent. Why is this?

The easy answer is that universities have to take students who are adequately prepared for undergraduate studies, which means selecting on the basis of A-level grades, which means students from private schools have an advantage.

The problem with this argument is that, at least in Physics and Mathematics, I don’t think A-levels are a reliable indicator of aptitude for undergraduate study at all. If I had my way we wouldn’t use A-levels at all.

Unfortunately we’re stuck with the current, unfair, system because any “leading” university that takes a large number of students with weak A-levels (possibly through a Foundation Programme) will be penalised in the league tables for not being selective enough. Moreover, the Government’s decision to lift the cap on places for students with AAB or better, means that recruiting students with top A-level grades is potentially the most lucrative strategy.

That the system doesn’t work the way it is supposed to is obvious. If you don’t agree, then ask yourself why it’s not the case that virtually all Oxbridge students get first class degrees, when they admit only A*/A students?

Things won’t improve until we abandon the obsession with A-level tariff points and find a way of assessing intrinsic ability.

Alma Mater

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on March 22, 2013 by telescoper

During my short visit to Cambridge on Wednesday I happened to pass through Magdalene College (on my way to a couple of pints in The Pickerel). I couldn’t resist taking a pic of the Lutyens Building, where I lived in the first year (1982/3). My room was second from the far end, on the first floor. I wonder who’s in there now?

Planck, Pointillism and the Axle of Elvis

Posted in Art, Biographical, Cosmic Anomalies, Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2013 by telescoper

The reason I was out of the office yesterday was that I was in Cambridge, doing a PhD oral in the Cavendish Laboratory so the first thing to say is congratulations Dr Johnston! It was one of those viva voce examinations that turned out to be less of an examination than an interesting chat about physics. In fact the internal examiner, Prof. Steve Gull, seemed to spend more time asking me questions rather than the candidate!

Afterwards I met up with Anthony Lasenby, the candidate’s supervisor. Not surprisingly the main topic of our brief discussion was today’s impending announcement of results from Planck. Anthony is one of the folks who have been involved with Planck for about twenty years, since it began as a twinkle in the eye of COBRAS/SAMBA. I was looking forward to getting in bright and early this morning to watch the live streaming of the Planck press conference from Paris.

Unfortunately however, I could feel a bit of a lurgy coming on as I travelled to Cambridge yesterday. It got decidedly worse on the way home – it must have been the Cambridge air – and I even ended up passing out on the train from Victoria to Brighton. Fortunately, Brighton was the terminus so someone woke me up when we got there and I got home, coughing and spluttering. I suspect many cosmologists didn’t sleep well last night because of excitement about the Planck results, but in my case it was something else that kept me awake. Anyway, I didn’t make it in this morning so had to follow the announcements via Twitter. Fortunately there’s a lot of press coverage too; see the ESA site and a nice piece by the BBC’s redoubtable Jonathan Amos.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s Planck’s map of the cosmic microwave background:


It’s rather beautiful, in a pointillist kind of way, I think…

It will take me a while in my weakened state to complete a detailed study of the results – and I’m sure to return to them many times in the future, but I will make a couple of points now.

The first is that the papers and data products are all immediately available online. The papers will all appear on the arXiv. Open Access sceptics please take note!

The second is that the most interesting result (as far as I’m concerned) is that at least some of the cosmic anomalies I’ve blogged about in the past, such as the Axle of Elvis Axis of Evil and the famous colder-than-it-should-be cold spot, are still present in the Planck data:


The other results excite me less because, at a quick reading, they all seem to be consistent with the standard cosmological model. Of course, the north-south asymmetry is a small effect on could turn out to be a foreground (e.g. zodiacal emission) or an artefact of the scanning strategy. But if it isn’t a systematic it could be very important. I suspect there’ll be a rush of papers about this before long!

I’m sure to p0st much more about the Planck results in due course, but I think I’ll leave it there for now. Please feel free to post comments and reactions through the box below.

Do you know what it means….?

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on March 20, 2013 by telescoper

Out of the office today so in lieu of a post from me here’s two minutes and twenty seconds of  exquisite sadness delivered by the voice of the great Billie Holliday. No singer in history ever managed to express so much through such slender lyrics. The piano is played by Charlie Beal on this recording.