Archive for October, 2018

Halloween in the Dark

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on October 31, 2018 by telescoper

Although it’s Study Week here in Maynooth I am back at work for the morning and then this afternoon I have to go to Dublin City University to give a seminar. It’s Hallowe’en, of course, so no doubt there will be weirdly dressed scary people about, but one gets used to that at seminars. I just hope the talk isn’t an unintentionally horrible experience.

Anyway, it’s a whole decade since I posted my first blog about the real horror of Hallowe’en so I’ll take the excuse of a busy day to repeat it here.


We never had Halloween when I was a kid. I mean it existed. People mentioned it. There were programmes on the telly. But we never celebrated it. At least not in my house, when I was a kid. It just wasn’t thought of as a big occasion. Or, worse, it was “American” (meaning that it was tacky, synthetic and commercialised). So there were no parties, no costumes, no horror masks, no pumpkins and definitely no trick-or-treat.

Having never done trick-or-treat myself I never acquired any knowledge of what it was about. I assumed “Trick or Treat?” was a rhetorical question or merely a greeting like “How do you do?”. My first direct experience of it didn’t happen until I was in my mid-thirties and had moved to a suburban house in Beeston, just outside Nottingham. I was sitting at home one October 31st, watching the TV and – probably, though I can’t remember for sure – drinking a glass of wine, when the front door bell rang. I didn’t really want to, but I got up and answered it.

When I opened the door, I saw in front of me two small girls in witches’ costumes. Behind them, near my front gate, was an adult guardian, presumably a parent, keeping a watchful eye on them.

“Trick or Treat?” the two girls shouted.

Trying my best to get into the spirit but not knowing what I was actually supposed to do, I answered “Great! I’d like a treat please”.

They stared at me as if I was mad, turned round and retreated towards their minder who was clearly making a mental note to avoid this house in future. Off they went and I, embarrassed at being exposed yet again as a social inadequate, retired to my house in shame.

Ever since then I’ve tried to ensure that I never again have to endure such Halloween horrors. Every October 31st, when night falls, I switch off the TV, radio and lights and sit soundlessly in the dark so the trick-or-treaters think there’s nobody at home.

That way I can be sure I won’t be made to feel uncomfortable.



Hawking Points in the CMB Sky?

Posted in Astrohype, Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 30, 2018 by telescoper

As I wait in Cardiff Airport for a flight back to civilization, I thought I’d briefly mention a paper that appeared on the arXiv this summer. The abstract of this paper (by Daniel An, Krzysztof A. Meissner and Roger Penrose) reads as follows:

This paper presents powerful observational evidence of anomalous individual points in the very early universe that appear to be sources of vast amounts of energy, revealed as specific signals found in the CMB sky. Though seemingly problematic for cosmic inflation, the existence of such anomalous points is an implication of conformal cyclic cosmology (CCC), as what could be the Hawking points of the theory, these being the effects of the final Hawking evaporation of supermassive black holes in the aeon prior to ours. Although of extremely low temperature at emission, in CCC this radiation is enormously concentrated by the conformal compression of the entire future of the black hole, resulting in a single point at the crossover into our current aeon, with the emission of vast numbers of particles, whose effects we appear to be seeing as the observed anomalous points. Remarkably, the B-mode location found by BICEP 2 is at one of these anomalous points.

The presence of Roger Penrose in the author list of this paper is no doubt a factor that contributed to the substantial amount of hype surrounding it, but although he is the originator of the Conformal Cyclic Cosmology I suspect he didn’t have anything to do with the data analysis presented in the paper as, great mathematician though he is, data analysis is not his forte.

I have to admit that I am very skeptical of the claims made in this paper – as I was in the previous case of claims of a evidence in favour of the Penrose model. In that case the analysis was flawed because it did not properly calculate the probability of the claimed anomalies in the standard model of cosmology. Moreover, the addition of a reference to BICEP2 at the end of the abstract doesn’t strengthen the case. The detection claimed by BICEP2 was (a) in polarization not in temperature and (b) is now known to be consistent with galactic foregrounds.

I will, however, hold my tongue on these claims, at least for the time being. I have an MSc student at Maynooth who is going to try to reproduce the analysis (which is not trivial, as the description in the paper is extremely vague). Watch this space.

Another Pembrokeshire Dangler

Posted in Cardiff with tags , , on October 29, 2018 by telescoper

Taking the opportunity of  the Irish Bank Holiday Monday to spend a long weekend in a rather chilly Cardiff,  I find that Wales is once again under the influence of a Pembrokeshire Dangler:

The Northerly airflow that is responsible for this phenomenon (which I first encountered last year)  is causing a bit of a cold snap here in Cardiff, and has even brought snow to  parts of Wales,  but hopefully the Pembrokeshire Dangler will not interfere with my flight back to Ireland.

Uachtarán na hÉireann

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 29, 2018 by telescoper

To nobody’s great surprise, Saturday’s count saw Michael D Higgins reelected as President of Ireland by a considerable margin. His acceptance speech on Saturday night was very eloquent and statesmanlike: you can listen to it here.

The Presidency of Ireland is a ceremonial rather than an executive office, and it has little actual power associated with it. It is nevertheless important in that the President is the guardian of the Constitution as well as representing the Irish Nation as a kind of ambassador and as patron of many good causes.

The way the election worked is that voters rank all six candidates. In the first round of counting, first preference votes are totted up and if one candidate has more than 50% he/she is elected. If not an Instant Runoff method is used, with votes of lower-ranked being reallocated until there’s a winner (ie until one candidate gains a majority).

On Saturday, Michael D Higgins gained 56% on the first round so no further counting was necessary. The turnout was very low at 44%. I think this was mainly down to the enormous lead for the incumbent in opinion polls in advance of the voting, but the decision to hold the election on the Friday of a Bank Holiday weekend may have contributed.

The candidate in second place, Peter Casey, had 23% of the first-preference votes. This is worryingly high for a man so clearly unsuited to the role of President. Casey cynically played the populist game, particularly with his incendiary remarks about Travellers. All five other candidates condemned his obvious racism, and the Taioseach urged people not to vote for him. That identified Casey as the anti-establishment ‘protest’ vote and his vote share surged.

Now 23% of a 44% turnout is less than 10% of the electorate, but there’s no room for complacency with gobshites like Peter Casey. In the UK the ghastly Nigel Farage was treated as a joke for decades by many establishment figures, but he nevertheless managed to attract sufficient support to cause irrevocable damage to the UK.

Anyway, that concern aside, sincere congratulations to Michael D Higgins on his reelection. He is a worthy winner and I for one am proud to have him as my President.

On The Alteration Of Time

Posted in History with tags , , , , on October 28, 2018 by telescoper

So here we are again, having put our clocks back an hour. Summer Time is over, but at least I had extra time to do this morning’s crosswords. Or so it seems. It’s really only the clocks that changed, not the time. But then what is time, other than what clocks measure?

Anyway, before I get too philosophical let me mention that I found the marvellous poster above on Twitter. It’s from 1916, when British Summer Time was introduced. I was surprised that the practice of changing clocks backwards and forwards began so recently in the United Kingdom. To be honest I’m also surprised that the practice persists to this day, as I can’t see any real advantage in it.

It would be better in my view to stick with Greenwich Mean Time throughout the year. Any institution or organisation that wants to change its working hours in summer can easily do so, but the world of work is far more flexible nowadays than it was a hundred years ago and I think few would feel the need.

Anyway, while I am on about Mean Time, here is a another poster from 1916.

Until October 1916, clocks in Ireland were set to Dublin Mean Time, as defined at Dunsink Observatory rather than at Greenwich. The adoption of GMT in Ireland was driven largely by the fact that the British authorities found that the time difference between Dublin and London had confused telegraphic communications during the Easter Rising earlier in 1916. Its imposition was therefore, at least in part, intended to bring Ireland under closer control and this did not go down well with Irish nationalists.

Ireland had not moved to Summer Time with Britain in May 1916 because of the Easter Rising. Dublin Mean Time was 25 minutes 21 seconds behind GMT but the change was introduced at the same time as BST ended in the UK, hence the alteration by one hour minus 25 minutes 21 seconds, ie 34 minutes and 39 seconds as in the poster.

Shostakovich – The Leningrad Symphony

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , on October 27, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know. You wait 50-odd years for the opportunity to hear a live performance of Symphony No. 7 in C by Dmitri Shostakovich, and then two come along within a year. It was last November in Cardiff that I first heard this epic work in concert, and last night I was at the National Concert Hall in Dublin where it was performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Kochanovsky.

The first half of last night’s concert featured two works by Dmitry Kabalevesky (a contemporary of Shostakovich): his overture to the Opera Colas Breugnon and is Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Richard Harwood. Both of these were pleasant enough but I (and, I think, most of the rest of the audience) had their minds firmly on the main event to come after the interval.

The Leningrad Symphony is a piece that evokes particular memories for me as I first heard it about thirty years ago on the radio while sitting in a car that was driving through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night from Kansas City to Lawrence in the mid-West of the USA. The repeating theme and snare drum figures in the 1st Movement that represent the remorseless advance of the invading army had even more powerful effect when accompanied by the incessant driving rain. I’ve heard this piece on recordings and live broadcasts on many occasions since then, but had never heard it performed live until last November.

Shostakovich in a fireman’s uniform in Leningrad, 1941

What can I say about this work? Well, not much that hasn’t been said before. It was dedicated to the city of Leningrad where the composer lived, until he was evacuated during the siege, and where he wrote most of the 7th Symphony. He served as a volunteer fireman in Leningrad during the early part of the Second World War (see above), having been turned down for military service owing to his poor eyesight. Leningrad was besieged by German forces for almost 900 days, from September 1941 until January 1944, and it’s impossible not to see the work in this historical context.

Though the four movements have themes – `War’, `Memories’, `My Native Field’ and `Victory’ – this is not really a programmatic piece. It does, however, succeed in invoking the terror and brutality of armed conflict in a manner that is so compelling that it’s almost overpowering. Many symphonies have as a theme some kind of struggle between light and dark, or between good and evil, but it always seemed to me that this work is not so much like that as it is a representation of a struggle simply for survival against annihilation. Even the end of the intense fourth movement, when the music finally resolves into the key of C Major, suggesting a kind of `victory’, echoes of the previous conflict persist, suggesting (to me anyway) that this particular battle does not intend in any kind of triumph but in a sense of grim endurance that is more resignation than resolution. The composer himself, however, explained later in life that the ending represented

..the victory of light over darkness, wisdom over frenzy, lofty humanism over monstrous tyranny.

We could do with a victory of that sort these days.

Musicologists tend not to like this Symphony so much as some of Shostakovich’s others and its reputation dwindled in the West in the post-War period. Maybe it is true that it has defects when thought of as an exercise in composition, but fortunately I am not a professional critic so I am quite content to say that for me, personally, this work has an emotional impact like few others and it is one of my favourites in the whole symphonic repertoire. Last night the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra delivered an impassioned performance that confirmed everything I felt about this work but with the added dimensions that you can only get from a live performance.

At the beginning I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy last night’s performance. I thought it began at an uncomfortably brisk tempo, but once the orchestra had settled down it turned into a magnificent performance. From the immaculately controlled crescendo representing the advancing invaders that erupts into a nightmarish depiction of the ensuing battle right through to the last movement with its ending in resolution tempered in bitterness and regret, this performance had me gripped at least as much as last year’s.

In the first movement, Kochanovsky had the strings playing with a strident, agonized sound that was remarkably affecting . But the highlight of the evening came from the brass section placed in the choir stalls (four French horns, three trombones and three trumpets; you can see their empty desks in the picture I took before the start of the concert). When they stood up and let rip at the climax of the first movement crescendo the effect was absolutely thrilling. Their position high above the stage made it seem they were playing right in your face. When the glorious noise eventually subsided I realized that I had been gripping the armrests of my seat and my knuckles had turned white. I don’t think you can experience music with such intensity unless you hear it live.

At the end there was an immediate outbreak of cheering and a well-deserved standing ovation. I wish I could have stayed longer but I had to leave to catch a train back to Maynooth. (The Leningrad Symphony being rather long, I thought I might have to dash off at the end so I booked an end-row seat.) Let me at least use the opportunity afforded by this blog to congratulate Stanislav Kochanovsky and all the musicians last night for a magnificent performance of an epic masterpiece.

Another Day, Another Open Access Talk..

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Open Access with tags , , on October 26, 2018 by telescoper

So having exercised my franchise earlier this morning, I found myself in Maynooth University Library giving yet another talk about Open Access publishing as part of Open Access Week.

I’ve got a lecture at noon, which will be the last one I give before the half-term `Study Week’ which begins with a bank holiday on Monday 29th October (Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair). It’s very nice to have a break before Christmas like this. Also the University study week is timed to be the same as School half-term holidays, which is good for those members of staff who have kids of school age.

Well, that’s enough blogging. I need to get my vector calculus notes together. I’m doing line integrals today, by the way

This Bitter Earth

Posted in Music with tags , , on October 25, 2018 by telescoper

This bitter earth
What fruit it bears
What good is love
That no one shares?

And if my life is like the dust
That hides the glow of a rose
What good am I?
Heaven only knows.

This bitter earth
Can be so cold.
Today you’re young.
Too soon you’re old.

But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call.

And this bitter earth,
May not be so bitter after all.

(Vocals by Dinah Washington with orchestration by Max Richter)

A Letter of Note

Posted in Biographical on October 24, 2018 by telescoper

I often receive unsolicited emails, but one that arrived this evening has the boldest opening sentence of any:

Predictably, however, the rest of the. message fails to provide evidence to support my correspondent’s initial assertion…

BepiColombo goes to Mercury

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 24, 2018 by telescoper

You may have missed the news that the joint Japanese-European (JAXA-ESA) Mission BepiColombo was successfully launched on October 19th 2018 and is now on its way to the planet Mercury, where it will arrive in December 2025.

As it happens I’ve just finished delivering a set of lectures on gravitational dynamics, part of which was devoted to orbital mechanics. One of the problems I worked out during these lectures was the Hohmann Transfer Orbit which is the simplest way to get a spacecraft from Earth to, e.g., Mars (which take 8 to 9 months to reach).

Since the radius of Mercury’s orbit is 0.39 AU (compared with Mars’s 1.52 AU) you might think it would take a similar time to reach Mercury, but designing a trajectory that results in a controlled encounter with Mercury in an efficient manner is much harder than for Mars (largely because Mercury is moving much faster). The solution to this problem involves a series of encounters with VEarth, Venus and Mercury each of which results in an adjustment to BepiColombo’s orbit until it finally encounters the target planet at a reasonable speed. This approach takes over seven years, but it saves an enormous amount on fuel – using the gravitational boost from planetary encounters instead of firing rockets.

Here’s a video showing this complex but fascinating example of orbital mechanics in action:

p.s. the dates in the video correspond to the originally planned launch date of 5th October, so are off by a couple of weeks.