Archive for May, 2020

This Violation

Posted in Film, Politics with tags , , , on May 31, 2020 by telescoper

A typically perceptive and powerful piece in the Guardian by Fintan O’Toole about dignity, violation and the Dominic Cummings has been turned into a short film by Mark Cousins. It features a hundred people, from all walks of life, each reading a line of it to camera. It’s very well worth watching.

The Trees, by Philip Larkin

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on May 31, 2020 by telescoper

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

What are scientific papers for?

Posted in Astrohype, Open Access with tags , , on May 30, 2020 by telescoper

Writing scientific papers and publishing them in academic journals is an essential part of the activity of a researcher. ‘Publish or perish’ is truer now than ever, and an extensive publication list is essential for anyone wanting to have a career in science.

But what are these papers actually for? What purpose do they serve?

I can think of two main purposes (which aren’t entirely mutually exclusive): one is to disseminate knowledge and ideas; the other is to confer status on the author(s) .

The academic journal began hundreds of years ago with the aim of achieving the former through distribution of articles in print form. Nowadays the distribution of research results is achieved much less expensively largely through online means. Nevertheless, journals still exist (largely, as I see it, to provide editorial input and organise peer review) .

Alongside this there is the practice of using articles as a measure of the ‘quality’ of an author. Papers in certain ‘prestigious’ ‘high impact’ journals are deemed important because they are indicators of status, like epaulettes on a uniform, and bibliometric data, especially citation counts, often seem to be more important than the articles themselves.

I thought it was just me getting cynical in my old age but a number of younger scientists I know have told me that the only reason they can see for writing papers is because you need to do it to get a job. There is no notion of disseminating knowledge just the need to establish priority and elevate oneself in the pecking order. In other words the original purpose of scientific publications has largely been lost.

I thought I’d test this by doing a (totally unscientific) poll here to see how my several readers think about this.

Covid-19 in Ireland: the Pandemic’s Progress

Posted in Covid-19, Maynooth on May 29, 2020 by telescoper

I noticed last night when I was updated the numbers and graphs on my Covid-19 page that it is now 90 days since I started counting on 28th February. By way of an update here are the latest graphs (as of last night):

Mindful of a study that suggests that the general public do not understand log plots – I have had some angry messages on Twitter accusing me of deliberately misleading people by using a log axis – here are the daily updates on linear plots, first the record of new cases:

And second the recorded new deaths:

The latter appears rather noisy because of low numbers.

You may notice that these plots look a little different from those presented elsewhere (e.g. here). That is because I have treated the various retrospective corrections that have been made in a different way from others, generally by adjusting the cumulative totals but not the daily figure. For a full explanation of what I’ve done see the notes here. I also haven’t smoothed the data at all. Other representations tend to use a 7-day moving average to get rid of weekly artifacts of reporting, especially the “weekend effect” by which there appear to be fewer deaths on Saturday and Sunday.

If you don’t like log plots then you really won’t like this one, which is a plot of daily cases against the cumulative number on log-log axes:

I like this plot because I think the message is clear: it would give a straight line if the cases were growing exponentially, which was the case initially. You can see that both cases and deaths are well past this stage. In Ireland it seems the Covid-19 pandemic is under reasonably good control. According to the experts the value of the reproductive number R in Ireland is in the range 0.4 to 0.5, and it seems community transmission of the disease has almost stopped.

I haven’t left Maynooth since February so I’ve been here all through the lockdown. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve seen have been observing the restrictions. I can just think of just one occasion that was an exception, on the way into the local supermarket, when someone failed to observe the 2m social distancing when he pushed past me while I was washing my hands with the gel provided. When told by an assistant that he had to wait in line and wash his hands before coming in he refused and was then told to leave, which he eventually did after unleashing some foul language. He was obviously drunk, but probably a twat even when sober. Maynooth is a small and rather quiet place (especially when there are no students around, like now) and there may be worse issues elsewhere, but it does seem that Irish folk are behaving very sensibly.

For the record, as of last night there were 24,481 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Ireland and 1,639 people have died. That means that the number of deaths per million of population is approximately 332. That’s a lot fewer per capita than the UK (officially 553, but probably more like 900) a lot larger than, say, Denmark (which is of a similar size) which is on 98 Covid-19 deaths per million population or Norway which is on 44. The reason for the large number despite the stricter lockdown than the United Kingdom, seems to have been the number of deaths in care homes.

On this basis I’d summarise the situation by saying that Ireland hasn’t done all that well when you look at it in the cold light of day, but it could have been a lot worse. Credit is due to the medical experts for their leadership.

Another thing worth mentioning is that according to the experts the fraction of the population that has been infected with Covid-19 is probably around one per cent and is very unlikely to exceed five percent. That means that if the infection begins to spread again then it will do so with very little resistance and the exponential phase we saw in March will recur.

So what next?

Ireland is currently in Phase 1 of a the Roadmap, a programme of gradual and justifiably reduction of the restrictions imposed to halt the spead of Covid-19. Phase 2 is supposed to begin on June 8th. However, next Monday (1st June) is a bank holiday and we have very good weather at the moment – it’s about 27 °C outside as I write this. That, together with the good news from the Covid-19 data may well convince some people to forget about the restrictions and start having barbecues, go to the beach, etc. There must be some concern that this may trigger a second wave, which will at best cause delays on the Roadmap and may require a second total shutdown.

There is a thoroughly reprehensible opinion piece in the Irish Times today by Stephen Collins that on the one hand deliberately encourages mass disobedience if the government “doesn’t move to ease the lockdown measures”. Bu the government has moved to ease the lockdown measures. Quite rightly, though, the movement is slow and cautious. People need to be patient and continue listening to the experts, not people like Stephen Collins.

From May to September

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2020 by telescoper

So here we are, then. The final pair of examinations online timed assessments for students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University have just started and the students’ submissions will come in later this afternoon. By a curious coincidence the last two comprise a 3rd Year module on Special Relativity and a 4th year module on General Relativity, both of which happen at the same time (in the reference frame of the students).

I don’t want to jinx this afternoon’s proceedings but the switch to online assessments has gone much more smoothly than I imagined it would. I’ve been keeping an eye on all of them and there have been very few problems, and those that did arise were sorted out relatively easily. I’m immensely relieved by this, as I think I’ve been more nervous during these examinations than most of the students!

After this afternoon we will have to knuckle down and get these assessments marked in time for the round of Exam Board meetings. We have been allowed an extra week to do this because grading will be a slower process than usual, especially for the kind of mathematical work we do in the Department of Theoretical Physics. We’ll have to see how it goes but I’m confident we can get the results ready by 18th June, which is the date of our (virtual) Exam Board.

After the Exam Boards we would normally be thinking of relaxing a bit for the summer, and doing a bit of research, but there’s no sign of that being possible this year.

Among the urgent things to deal with are managing the `return to work’ of staff during the various phases of the Irish Government’s Roadmap. This document does not give much detail and there are serious issues to be solved before we can even start Phase 2 (due to commence June 8th) never mind finish Phase 5 and return to some semblance of normal working.

Iontas Lecture Theatre, Maynooth University

Slightly further off, but no less urgent is the matter of how to deal with the start of the next academic year, assuming the progress of the pandemic allows this to happen at all. One of the big uncertainties is how many potential students will defer their university study until next year, which makes it difficult to predict how many students we will have to cater for.

I have to say I’m very annoyed by recent reporting of this issue in the Irish Times, which includes this:

The fact that most lectures will take place online, along with changed economic conditions facing families and inability of students to secure summer work, may make it less attractive for many students to go to college in the coming year.

The second word fact (my emphasis) is the problem, as it describes something that is not a fact at all. A lot can happen between May and September, but we are currently planning on the basis that most of our lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead pretty much as normal. That may in the end turn out to be impossible, e.g. if there is a second wave of infection, but at the moment it is a reasonable scenario. And even if we do have to move some or all lectures online we will still have face-to-face teaching in the form of tutorials, exercise classes and computer laboratories.

A slightly less misleading article can be found in the same newspaper here.

A couple of weeks ago, Cambridge University announced that there would be no face-to-face lectures at all next academic year. I was amused to hear a representative of that institution on the radio sounding as if he was saying that “at Cambridge, lectures have very little to do with teaching”. I think what he meant was that tutorials and other teaching sessions would still go ahead so the loss of in-person lectures was not as important as it sounded. That may very well be true of Arts and Humanities subjects, but I was an undergraduate in Natural Sciences at Cambridge (many years ago) and I can tell you the vast majority of my tuition there was in the lecture theatre.

Neither is it the case that Oxford and Cambridge are the only UK universities to have tutorials or small group tuition, but I digress…

My point is that, while I can’t promise that it will be business as usual from September 2020, it’s quite wrong to give potential students the impression that it would be a waste of their time starting this academic year. I can assure any students reading this of the fact that we’re doing everything we can to give them as good an experience as possible.

You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers!

Page Charges at A&A…

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 27, 2020 by telescoper


It was recently drawn to my attention that UK-based astronomers and astrophysicists now have to pay a charge of €100 per page (!) to publish in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics (usually known as A&A for short). See their page charges information for details.

Contrary to popular belief, A&A only waives page charges for authors from countries who are sponsors of A&A, not all countries who are members of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) project. Although the United Kingdom is a member of ESO, it is not and never has been a sponsor of A&A: see the list of sponsoring countries and their representatives here .

Until recently, however, UK authors did have their page charges waived on what seems to have been an ex gratia basis. For some reason, that exception has now apparently been removed.

UPDATE 1: It should have occurred to me that that this also applies to authors from Ireland.

UPDATE 2: Apparently the liability for page charges is determined by the nationality of the first author. I had previously thought that if any of the authors belonged to a sponsoring country then charges would be waived.

Meanwhile, the Open Journal of Astrophysics publishes entirely for free and we are committed to continuing that way. You know what to do.

Predictive Blogging

Posted in Covid-19, Cricket, Opera, Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 27, 2020 by telescoper

News has emerged that on 14th April 2020 Dominic Cummings doctored an old blog post to make it look like he had predicted a coronavirus outbreak. Given the indisputable fact that Mr Cummings is a career liar this should not in itself come as a surprise. What might surprise a few people is that this episode reveals that this self-styled genius is must in reality be rather stupid if he thought he could get away with hiding such a blatant attempt at self-promotion. Still, the truth obviously no longer matters in post-Brexit Britain so he probably won’t face any serious consequences.

I, of course would, never add things to old blog posts to make myself look clever.

I would, however, like to point out just a few of the various uncannily accurate predictions I have made in the course of my almost twelve years of blogging.

For example, in this September 2009 review of a performance of La Traviata by Welsh National Opera I wrote:

My love of Italian opera makes me regret even more that the UK will be be leaving the European Union in 2020.

And in this account of the May 2015 England versus New Zealand Test Match at Lord’s you will find:

… it was still quite gloomy and dark. My mood was sombre, thinking about Donald Trump’s forthcoming victory in the 2016 United States Presidential Elections.

My prescience is not only limited to politics, however. In my 2013 post about the Queen’s Birthday Honours List you will read:

The name that stood out for me in this year’s list is Professor Jim Hough, who gets an OBE. Jim is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Glasgow, and his speciality is in the detection of gravitational waves. Gravitational waves haven’t actually been detected yet, of course, but the experimental techniques designed to find them have increased their sensitivity by many orders of magnitude in recent years, Jim having played a large part in those improvements. I imagine he will be absolutely thrilled in February 2016, when gravitational waves are finally detected.

You see now that Niels Bohr wasn’t quite right when he said “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”. Sometimes it’s the past that’s hardest to predict.


A Century of Peggy Lee

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on May 26, 2020 by telescoper

The great Jazz singer Peggy Lee (real name Norma Deloris Egstrom) was born a hundred years ago today, on 26th March 1920.

I couldn’t resist marking the occasion sharing this short clip of her famous live performance at Basin Street East, a nightclub in New York City, in 1961. I picked this not only because it is the tune of which I posted the original version last week but also because it’s a fine example of her vocal artistry and sizzling stage presence. I love the way she slides the notes as she drapes the melody languidly over the sounds from the band.

Cosmology Talks – Deanna Hooper on CMB spectral distortions

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 26, 2020 by telescoper

Here is another one of those Cosmology Talks curated on YouTube by Shaun Hotchkiss. This one was published over a month ago, but I missed it at the time.

In the talk, Deanna Hooper tells us about what we could learn from future measurements of the spectral distortions in the CMB, as well as how spectral distortions complement current and future measurements of CMB anisotropies. I’m particularly interested in this as I wrote a paper on it with John Barrow almost thirty years 30 ago and it’s fascinating to see how far the field has moved on from the theoretical point of view. Our paper was motivated by limits on spectral distortions imposed by the FIRAS instrument on COBE, and there hasn’t been anywhere near as much observational progress since then.

The paper that accompanies this talk can be found here.

An Open Letter from Irish Scientists

Posted in Politics, Science Politics on May 25, 2020 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news of an Open Letter from Irish Scientists (and other academics) that is doing the rounds. The letter begins:

Five years ago over 1,000 Irish scientists wrote to government urging a rebalancing of funding toward basic research. Basic discovery research is exactly the type that produces the scientists, skills and serendipitous solutions we need when faced with an unexpected challenge like COVID-19. Half a decade on from that letter little has changed for the better. The crisis in Irish research has deepened and risks becoming fatal if not addressed. To avoid another decade of drift that the nation cannot afford we the undersigned believe Ireland needs to establish a dedicated cabinet-level Department for Higher Education & Research. We fear the country will pay the price in future crises and miss opportunities for innovation if government doesn’t recommit to proper investment and attention for higher education and research urgently.

You can read the rest of it here where, if you are so minded, you can also sign it (as I have done; I’m Number 307).