Archive for December, 2021

A Citation Landmark

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on December 31, 2021 by telescoper

Just over a week ago I posted an item about the citations garnered by papers in the Open Journal of Astrophysics in the course of which I speculated on whether we would reach the 1000 mark before the end of 2021. Well, I checked on the NASA/ASD system today and it seems we have just made it:

There is still one paper we have published but not yet listed on ADS so the real number might be a little higher. It’s also possible that the figure will dip below a thousand again, at least for a short time. That is because ADS sometimes counts the citations to a published paper and to its preprint separately thus causing some duplication; when the issue is finally resolved the number of citations can go down.

Anyway, that’s a nice note to end the year on. Tomorrow we start with Volume 5 (2022)!

Another Covid New Year

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on December 30, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve had a very quiet Christmas break. Apart from regular trips into the garden to feed the birds, and putting out and bringing in the bins yesterday, until this afternoon I hadn’t left the house since Christmas Eve. I ran out of bread and milk, though, so had to venture forth to do a bit of shopping. I didn’t pick a good time for it: it was pouring with rain.

I’m doing my bit to slow down the spread of the Omicron variant through sheer inertia. Although this strategy is perfectly fine by me, it does leave me short of new things to blog about. I therefore had a look at what I posted on December 30th last year.

On December 30th 2020 the Taoiseach announced that Ireland would go into Level 5 restrictions following a surge in Covid-19 cases. This was the state of play then together with today’s figure:

Notice that the y-axis on the right is ten times the scale of that on the left. The increase at the end of 2020 was to continue into the new year to produce a huge spike in cases (and, sadly a great number of deaths) that peaked around January 10th, after the Level 5 restrictions were imposed. A similar trajectory seems likely in early 2022.

At the time I was very angry about the Irish Government’s decision to relax restrictions before Christmas, which I still think was culpable. This time round there was a similar increase in cases following a relaxation in November to reopen nightclubs and other hospitality venues (which I also think was wrong). It wouldn’t be fair to blame the recent surge in cases on that, however. The timescale of increase of the omicron variant is so short that the wave would probably only have been delayed by a week or two.

The latest 7-day average of new cases is 12582.0 per day and it is likely that we’re at least a week away from the peak. These figures are almost certainly serious underestimates, as testing capacity has been reached. What I wrote on December 30th 2020 also applies today:

Unfortunately the Christmas wave hasn’t really hit these figures yet so I think thinks are going to get a lot worse before they get better. 

Fortunately this year we have the vaccines and these have had a clear effect on the death rate. Let’s hope this line of defence holds but, even if it does, the Health Service will be under severe strain in January. Although the vaccines reduce the rate of serious illness and death per case to about 10% of that experienced last year, we have more than ten times as many infections.

I didn’t imagine things would look even grimmer at the end of 2021 than they did at the end of 2020, but there we go. We’ll just have to wait and see how it pans out. One thing I can be sure about is that I won’t be going out on New Year’s Eve!

R.I.P. Willy Kley (1958-2021)

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 29, 2021 by telescoper

Once again it is my sad task to pass on news of the death of a colleague from the field of astrophysics. Prof. Dr. Wilhelm (“Willy”) Kley of the Institut für Astronomie & Astrophysik at the Universität Tübingen
in Germany passed away suddenly on 21st December 2021, at the age of 63.

Here is the official announcement (in German) from his institution:

Willy Kley was a computational astrophysicist who worked on accretion processes, especially in the context of the formation of planets and planetary systems. I knew him a little personally, as he was for a time in the Astronomy Unit at Queen Mary & Westfield College (as it was then called) at the same time I was there. He worked with the group led by John Papaloizou, alongside Richard Nelson and others, and I was working on cosmology, so we didn’t work together, but I did get to know him a bit and had a number of interesting discussions. He was a very nice man as well as a first-rate scientist. Looking at his (extensive) publication list it seems that he continued to collaborate with former QMW colleagues after his return to Germany in 2000.

His death was unexpected – I believe he suffered a heart attack – and I’m sure the news will come as a shock to many of his friends and collaborators. To them, and to his family, I send heartfelt condolences.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on December 28, 2021 by telescoper

For the second year running I’ve spent Christmas at home in Ireland. It seems a very long time since I last visit my birthplace in the North East of England, which is where I usually went at this time of year. We often went for a spin around the countryside on Boxing Day and over the years I’ve posted a few pictures.

The last visit was in 2019, in fact, not long after my Mam died. Here’s a picture I took on Cresswell Beach, Northumberland on Boxing Day 2019.

The skies looked rather ominous, although I had no inkling at the time that the pandemic would come and put paid to any more yuletide travelling.

Looking at that picture reminded me of a few other Christmas memories of Newcastle and surrounds I’ve posted on here over the years. Here is one from 2012:

It may not look like much but that bit of wall is all that remains of the first house I remember living in, in Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne. The house itself was demolished a long time ago, and a new estate now stands where it was. The door you can see bricked up used to lead into our back yard in which there was an outside toilet. You can also see two bricked up apertures to the left of the door, which were the coal holes.

This one was taken 10 years ago, and shows Warkworth Castle.

Here’s a closer view of Warkworth Castle from 2013:

This shows a rather busy Boxing Day on the beach at Cullercoats, with St George’s Church in the background, taken in December 2015. This one reminded me a bit of a painting by L.S. Lowry!

I wonder when (if ever) I’ll set foot in Northumberland again?

The Future of Extragalactic Observations from the Past

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2021 by telescoper

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope on Christmas Day triggered a memory that twenty years ago, in July 2001, I was an invited speaker at a Conference in Cape Town entitled The Early Universe and Cosmological Observations: a Critical Review. That meeting was preceded by the 16th International Conference on General Relativity and Gravitation in Durban which I also attended, but did not speak at. For the Cape Town meeting I was asked to give a talk about some of the things coming up in the future to do with observational extragalactic astronomy, though I was told to avoid the cosmic microwave background and galaxy redshift surveys as other speakers were covering those areas. At the time I was serving on the Astronomy Advisory Panel for the (now defunct) Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council so I was keeping up with developments fairly well then.

Anyway, I wrote up my talk and it was published in 2002 in a special issue of Classical and Quantum Gravity, along with the other talks (which were more theoretical, as opposed to hypothetical). I never bothered to put in on the arXiv so if you want a copy you’ll have to get it from the publisher.

I’m not claiming it is a particularly insightful article – and I did refrain from giving specific timescales – but, looking back at it, it is interesting which projects I mentioned in the abstract actually did get completed in the following twenty years.

The European X-ray mission XEUS was never completed. It was proposed for a while to merge it with a rival US mission Constellation-X in the International X-ray Observatory (IXO), but that was cancelled in 2011/12 owing to budget constraints at NASA. An ESA X-ray mission, called ATHENA (Advanced Telescope for High ENergy Astrophysics, based to some extent on the XEUS concept, is pencilled in for launch in 2034.

At the time of writing the article, JWST was called the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) and was envisaged to be an 8m class telescope, though I did suggest in the article would probably be “de-scoped” to involve a smaller mirror “perhaps 6m or thereabouts”. As we now know, it was finally launched on December 25 2021 and has a mirror of diameter 6.5m.

GAIA was developed and launched in 2013 and will operate until next year; it has been a tremendous success.

The Overwhelming Large (OWL) Telescope was planned to be a huge ground-based telescope, with a 100m diameter mirror and a target timescale of around 2015, to be built by the European Southern Observatory in Chile. I remember in informal discussions we used to call it the FLT. It was eventually decided that was not technically feasible and it was downgraded to a merely Extremely Large Telescope, which has a 39m mirror, underwhelming in comparison. Construction is in progress and it should see first light in 2027.

As well as the ELT there are now also the Thirty Metre Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will come into operation on a similar timescale.

The Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) consisting of 66 telescopes working as an interferometer was completed and has been fully operational since 2013. That too has been a great success.

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) also had its share of cost overruns and technical delays and although initial construction plans have been developed it is not expected to be operational until 2027.

Probably the most notable omission from my list is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) now called the Vera Rubin Observatory. That wasn’t really within my horizon in 2001, although its planning phase had started then. It really got under way around 2008 and is now nearing completion. I certainly would have mentioned it had I known more about it at the time!

P.S. In case you’re wondering, the Euclid Mission due to be launched in early 2023 was very far from the drawing board in 2001 so I don’t apologize for not mentioning it!

On Nominal

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on December 26, 2021 by telescoper

Yesterday’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope reminded me of something I blogged about many years ago. At regular intervals during the launch we heard staff at Mission Control in Kourou saying that everything was “nominal”. As always when wondering about the meaning of words, I searched in the One True Chambers Dictionary, where I found:

nominal, adj relating to or of the nature of a name or noun; of names; by name; only in name; so-called, but not in reality; inconsiderable, small, minor, in comparison with the real value, hardly more than a matter of form…

So was the so-called launch of JWST only in name, but not in reality? Was it faked? Is the telescope real?

That reminds me that years and years ago I had an idea for a crime novel with a plot that revolves around the murder of a prominent cosmologist just as some important scientific discovery is about to be announced. Suspicion gathers that the whole thing is an enormous hoax and the discovery bogus. But the experiment is shrouded in secrecy, and was so expensive that it can’t easily be repeated, so  who can tell, and how?

I wouldn’t put it past some conspiracy theorist to argue that the data from JWST (assuming there is some) is manufactured.

It’s very difficult to know for sure whether any scientific discoveries are genuine or not, even if the data and analysis procedures are made public. There’s always the possibility that everything might have been fabricated or simulated, but in most cases the experiment can be repeated at a later date and the fraud eventually exposed, such as in the Schön Scandal.  In Big Science, this may not be practicable. However, Big Science requires big teams of people and the chances are someone would blow the whistle, or try to…

Anyway, I know that there are people out there who take everything I write on this blog absurdly literally so I’ll spell it out that I am in no way suggesting that the James Webb Space Telescope is a fraud. Or predicting that there’ll be a murder just before the first observations are released. Any similarity purely coincidental and all that. And I’ve never had time to write the book anyway – perhaps a publisher might read this and offer me an advance as an incentive?

Moreover, going back to the Chambers Dictionary, I note the final definition given there and omitted above i

…according to plan (space flight)

So that’s that. Nothing sinister. I’m not sure how “nominal” acquired that meaning, mind you, but that’s another story…

Merry JWSTmas!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 25, 2021 by telescoper

Well it’s 10.20am on Christmas Day and I’ve got up specially early in order to be ready for the launch at 12.20pm today (Irish Time) of the James Webb Space Telescope from Kourou in French Guiana. The JWST project has been almost thirty years in the making and it is great that it is finally going to be heading into space. The launch however is just the start – JWST has a very complicated journey in front of it – as demonstrated by the following little video.

In particular, JWST should separate from the Ariane 5 launcher at about 27 minutes after takeoff so look out for that.

I have no direct personal involvement with JWST but I am still feeling a bit nervous. I can’t imagine how it must feel to have spent decades working on it. I know a great many astronomers around the world who are waiting anxiously and hoping all goes well. Fingers crossed!

If you want to watch the launch live you can do so on Youtube here:

You can find alternative viewing options here.

The launch window opens at 12.20 UTC and lasts for 31 minutes but I understand they’re going to launch as early as possible within that so it looks like we’re in for a launch before lunch rather than the other way round.

I’ll update with any news as the day goes on.

UPDATE: 12.28pm Launched right on time, everything nominal as JWST leaves Earth’s atmosphere propelled by Stage One of the Ariane 5.

UPDATE: 12.31pm Stage One jettisoned, Stage 2 ignition. All still nominal.

UPDATE: 12.48pm JWST has separated from the launch vehicle and is on its way. The solar panel is deployed and is working. The spectacular onboard video showing the separation of JWST from the Ariane 5 launch vehicle and the deployment of the solar panels was supplied by Irish company Réaltra.

P.S. I still think JWST should have had a different name.

Reasons to be cheerful?

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on December 24, 2021 by telescoper

We’ve all been bracing for the arrival of the omicron storm here in Ireland. I has been like waiting for a tsunami know is coming and praying that the flood defences are strong enough to hold.

The wave now seems to be here, with 11,182 new cases reported today. That is by far the highest figure reported during the entire pandemic so far and it has dragged the 7-day average up to 6776.4 from yesterday’s figure of 5697.3.

I think it’s probably true to say the worst is yet to come. So far, though, the number of hospitalizations and deaths has not increased hugely; the former has, if anything been falling, and the latter is only rising slowly:

The number of Covid-19 related deaths reported in the last week was 55, which is an average of about 7.9 per day. We won’t know until the New Year whether the latest surge will drive these curves up.

There is some good news in that the omicron variant may be less likely to lead to severe illness than the delta variant. This is non-trivial to assess because one has to allow for factors other than the infecting variant (such as age, underlying health and vaccination status)  before one can see the true effect of this one variable. Comparing sickness and mortality rates now with earlier stages of the pandemic is virtually impossible for this reason. However, because the UK has allowed very large case numbers of both delta and omicron to occur for several weeks, there is enough data to see some difference between omicron and delta in hospitalization rates.

It also seems that while a booster seems to be needed to prevent infection by omicron, a standard two-dose vaccination still seems to be effective at preventing serious illness.

There are grounds for optimism, then. The problem as I see it is that if the number of people infected with omicron goes through the roof then there will still be lots of very sick people around, some of whom will die. Say a combination of vaccination and less severe variant reduces the mortality rate per case to 10% of what it was last January, which seems reasonable. If there are ten times as many cases, the number of deaths will be similar to last January so we’re still in for a terrible New Year.

We’ll just have to wait and see. I recommend staying as drunk as possible over the next week or ten days so as to avoid thinking about it.


A Christmas Scene

Posted in Uncategorized on December 24, 2021 by telescoper

There were disturbing scenes in Maynooth today as concerned passers-by and farm animals gathered around a small child mysteriously injured by being hit on the head by a gold Frisbee.

Bird Life

Posted in Biographical, Uncategorized on December 23, 2021 by telescoper

This morning, while I was waiting for my extra special Christmas veggie box to arrive, I was watching the birds in the garden through my kitchen window. For the last several days I’ve been putting out several full feeders only to see them emptied within minutes by a sundry collection of starlings, sparrows, tits, finches, wood pigeons, a dove, and a couple of jackdaws. A rook which on several occasions tried to demolish one of the feeders (ti being too clumsy to get any food by conventional methods) seems now to have given up and merely watches angrily from a tree.

The dove (a collared dove to be precise) is a new arrival in my garden (though not at all a rare bird). It seems rather shy and quiet in behaviour, usually to be found sitting in a tree while all the smaller birds flutter and chatter around. It does seem to like the seed, but also eats the berries on the hedges. It’s a very interesting bird to look at, its grey feathers making it look rather ghostly. The wood pigeons (which are much bigger) are quite noisy but I haven’t heard the dove make any sound yet.

A number of robins also visit the garden. They’re not agile enough to use the feeders but instead patrol around at ground level collecting bits and pieces that have fallen down. One of them however has realized that my stash of food is in the shed and that my entering the shed is a prelude to good being available. The other day as soon as I went in, one particular robin followed me right inside and jumped onto the bench where I was spooning out the seed. I had spilled some, which he/she tucked into, and I gave him/her a bit more. Now the little critter is there every day waiting in the VIP lane. Whenever I open the back door to go into the garden all the other birds scatter in all directions, except the robin who doesn’t seem to be at all intimidated.

With the eventual arrival of my veggie box I have got just about everything I need for a self-indulgent holiday. The amount of food and wine I’ve laid up for myself is probably enough for a month and I thought that this afternoon’s trip to the fishmonger to collect six oysters for Christmas Eve would be my last trip to the shops before Christmas Day, but I think I’ll make one more trip to buy bird food. At the rate they’re scoffing it I’ll be out of supplies by Boxing* Day!

*”Boxing Day” isn’t really used in Ireland; the usual term is “St Stephen’s Day”