A quick heads-up on some recent and upcoming events:
A couple of weeks ago, I delivered my long-delayed (if not actually long-awaited) inaugural lecture, “The Random Universe”. A video is currently available through Imperial College’s media library so you can hear me opine on how we learn about the history and evolution of the Universe (and my career thinking about those things). The squeamish may want to shut their eyes at about three minutes in to avoid a picture of me in a wetsuit….
On Tuesday, June 10, my friend and colleague Pedro Ferreira will be speaking at the London Review Bookshop about his new book, The Perfect Theory, a history of general relativity — Einstein’s theory of gravity — and the controversies (and strong personalities stoking them) that have come along with our growing understanding of it. He’ll be talking with math-pundit Marcus du Sautoy and I know it will be a great discussion.
Finally, a reminder that a bit later on in the summer I’ll get to engage in some further punditry of my own: I’ll be speaking, again on “The Random Universe”, at the Gravity Fields Festival up in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where Isaac Newton was educated. There’s lots of other astronomy, other kinds of science, as well as art, theatre, dance and lots more.
Imperial Astrophysics is sponsoring a new series of public lectures, “The Sensual Universe: Astrophysics for the Five Senses”.
The first will concentrate on touch: The Impact of Sex In Space, presented by Dr Saralyn Mark (and unlike most of us around with a “Dr” in front of our names, Dr Mark really is an MD). Despite the name, it should be completely Safe For Work, and will happen next Tuesday, 17 April 2012 at 18:30, in Blackett Laboratory Lecture Theatre 1 here at Imperial. Attendance is free but registration is essential: email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7594 7531 stating the number of required tickets.
The next one will be given by our own Dr Subu Mohanty, on taste: Beer in Space, on 23 May 2012.
Among the many other things I haven’t had time to blog about, this term we opened the new Imperial Centre for Inference and Cosmology, the culmination of several years of expansion in the Imperial Astrophysics group. In mid-March we had our in-house grand opening, with a ribbon-cutting by the group’s most famous alumnus.
Statistics and astronomy have a long history together, largely growing from the desire to predict the locations of planets and other heavenly bodies based on inexact measurements. In relatively modern times, that goes back at least to Legendre and Gauss who more or less independently came up with the least-squares method of combining observations, which can be thought of as based on the latter’s eponymous Gaussian distribution.
Our group had already had a much shorter but still significant history in what has come to be called “astrostatistics”, having been involved with large astronomical surveys such as UKIDSS and IPHAS and the many allowed by the infrared satellite telescope Herschel (and its predecessors ISO, IRAS and Spitzer). Along with my own work on the CMB and other applications of statistics to cosmology, the other “founding members” of ICIC include: my colleague Roberto Trotta who has made important forays into the rigorous application of principled Bayesian statistics to problems cosmology and particle physics; Jonathan Pritchard who studies the distribution of matter in the evolving Universe and what that can teach about its constituents and that evolution; and Daniel Mortlock, who has written about some of his work looking for rare and unusual objects elsewhere on this blog. We are lucky to have the initial membership of the group supplemented by Alan Heavens, who will be joining us over the summer and has a long history of working to understand the distribution of matter in the Universe throughout its history. This group will be joined by several members of the Statistics section of the Mathematics Department, in particular David van Dyk, David Hand and Axel Gandy.
One of the fun parts of starting up the new centre has been the opportunity to design our new suite of glass-walled offices. Once we made sure that there would be room for a couple of sofas and a coffee machine for the Astrophysics group to share, we needed something to allow a little privacy. For the main corridor, we settled on this:
The left side is from the Hubble Ultra-Deep field (in negative), a picture about 3 arc minutes on a side (about the size of a dime or 5p coin held at arm’s length), the deepest — most distant — optical image of the Universe yet taken. The right side is our Milky Way galaxy as reconstructed by the 2MASS survey.
The final wall is a bit different:
The middle panels show part of papers by each of those founding members of the group, flanked on the left and right side with the posthumously published paper by the Rev. Thomas Bayes who gave his name to the field of Bayesian Probability.
Of course, there has been some controversy about how we should actually refer to the place. Reading out the letters gives the amusing “I see, I see”, and IC2 (“I-C-squared”) has a nice feel and a bit of built-in mathematics, although it does sound a bit like the outcome of a late-90s corporate branding exercise (and the pedants in the group noted that technically it would then be the incorrect I×C×C unless we cluttered it with parentheses).
We’re hoping that the group will keep growing, and we look forward to applying our tools and ideas to more and more astronomical data over the coming years. One of the most important ways to do that, of course, will be through collaboration: if you’re an astronomer with lots of data, or a statistician with lots of ideas, or, like many of us, somewhere in between, please get in touch and come for a visit.
I try not to ask too much of my readers, but this post and the next are about a couple of worthwhile causes I’ve come across of late.
The first project is the BBC World Challenge competition, supporting “social entrepreneurs”, grassroots projects making an impact in the developing world. One of the twelve finalists, e.quinox, is an initiative founded by students from Imperial College. Along with students at the Kigali Institute of Technology, the team is developing solar-powered devices for rural electrification, “Electric Kiosks”, three of which have already been deployed in Rwanda.
Please vote for the team — the only one led by students — and support this fantastic project.
We get most of the official feedback on our teaching through a mechanism called SOLE — Student On-Line Evaluations — which asks a bunch of questions on the typical “Very Poor” … “Very Good” scale. I’ve written about my results before — they are useful, and there is even some space for ad-hoc comments, but the questionnaire format is a bit antiseptic.
On some occasions, however, students make an extra effort to let you know how they feel. Last year, I received an anonymous paper letter in the old-fashioned snail-mail post from a student in my cosmology course which said, among other statements, that I should “show appropriate humility and shame by not teaching any undergraduate courses at all this coming year.” Well, that year has come and gone, and I was not absolved of teaching responsibilities, so I soldiered on.
Today, I received another anonymous letter, from a most assuredly different student, who said that this year’s cosmology course “is without a doubt the most interesting undergraduate course I have taken at Imperial.” This would have left me ecstatic, except that this otherwise well-intentioned and obviously smart student managed to put the envelope in the mailbox with insufficient postage, which meant that I had to trudge across to the local mail facility and pay the missing 10p, along with a full £1 fee/fine! (If the author of the letter happens to read this, please consider a donation of £1.10 plus appropriate interest to the charity of your choice!).
It would be self-serving of me to make too much of this, beyond noting that, although I did make some significant changes in this year’s course, these letters more likely indicate the very different reactions that a given course can engender, rather than a vast improvement in my teaching.
My apologies to both students if they would have preferred I not quote them on-line, but such is the price of anonymity.
My colleagues and I spend what is probably an inordinate amount of time complaining about the occasional lapses of the basic skills of our students, their inability to take notes, their obsession with marks and what’s going to be on the exams. Because, like everyone else, we like to complain.
But pretty often I get the chance to see them at their best. In the Physics department at Imperial, we interview students who are on the boundaries between final “degree classifications”, the British system of awarding degrees as First Class, 2.1, 2.2, etc. Last week, I was on the panel for this year’s cohort. And it was a pleasure to sit in front of a few of our students and watch them, in real time, thinking like physicists. Of course this means making the occasional mistake, but it also means that delicious “aha!” moment when they figure something out and (this is the best part) they know that they have, whether it’s finding a sign error in their derivation of the motion of a pendulum, or a thought experiment explaining why Einstein’s relativity makes sense.
For the interviews, I was paired with one of our external examiners, UCL particle physicist and fellow-blogger Jon Butterworth. On the same day as our interview, the Guardian published Simon Jenkins’ latest in a series of risible anti-science screeds, and Jon decided to take him to task neither with reasoned argumentation nor with a counter-polemic, but with parody. As with many great ideas on the internet, this one got picked up and built upon, so that the Guardian, to its credit, eventually gave Jon his own space to reply. Jenkins likely thinks we’re producing too many scientists (Imperial only trains scientists, doctors, and engineers, after all!) but I hope that Jon was pleased with the ones he saw.
So my congratulations to this year’s graduating students, and the best of luck to them whatever they go on to do. Pace Jenkins, the world needs more well-trained scientists like them, not fewer.
I just received the SOLE (Student On-Line Evaluation) results for my cosmology course. Overall, I was pleased: averaging between “good” and “very good” for “the structure and organisation of the lectures”, “the approachability of” and “the interest and enthusiasm generated by” the lecturer, as well as for “the support materials” (my lecture notes), although only “good” for “the explanation of concepts given by the lecture”, with an evenly-dispersed smattering of “poor” and “very good” —- you can’t please all of the people all of the time. That last, of course, is the crux of any course, and especially one with as many seemingly weird concepts as cosmology (the big bang itself, inflation, baryogenesis, …). So perhaps a bit of confusion is to be expected. Still, must try harder.
The specific written comments were mostly positive (it’s clear the students really liked those typed-up lecture notes), but I remain puzzled by comments like this: “Sometimes 2-3 mins of explanation (which is generally good) is reduced to one or two words on the board which are difficult to understand when going over notes later.” Indeed — I expect the student to take his or her own notes on those “2-3 mins of explanation”, if they were useful and interesting. But many of the comments were quite helpful, about the pace of the lectures, the prerequisites for the course, and, especially, the order in which I use the six sliding blackboards in the classroom.
So, thanks to the students for the feedback (and good luck on the exam…).
I’ve just finished teaching my eleven-week winter-term Cosmology course at Imperial. Like all lecturing, it was exhilerating, and exhausting. And like usual, I am somewhat embarrassed to say that I think I understand the subject better than when I started out. (I hope that the students can say some of the same things. Comments from them welcome, either way.)
It’s my second year, and I think I am slowly getting the hang of it. It’s hard to fit all of the interesting and up-to-date research in cosmology into 26 lectures, starting from scratch. This time I spent a little more time in the early lectures trying to give a heuristic explanation of some of the more advanced background topics, like the interpretation of the metric in Einstein’s General Relativity, and the physics behind the transition of the Universe from and ionized plasma to a neutral gas.
In a way, much of this was prelude to some of the most most exciting research in modern cosmology, the growth of large-scale structure from its first seeds into the pattern of galaxies we observe in the Universe today. Explaining this requires a lot of background: early-Universe thermodynamics and why the Universe started out hot, dense, and dominated by radiation; enough relativity to motivate how structure grows differently on large and small scales; and the generation of the initial conditions for structure, or at least our best current idea, inflation, which takes initial quantum randomness and blows it up to the size of the observable Universe (and solves quite a few other problems besides). All of this, and the background required even to get to these topics, barely fit into those 26 lectures (and I admit I was a little rushed toward the end…). And it was even harder to compress them down into four hours of postgraduate lectures.
Alongside this, I decided that none of the available textbooks had quite the right point of view for my discussion, at least not at the undergraduate level I was aiming for (and there are some very good textbooks out there, including Andrew Liddle, An Introduction to Modern Cosmology; Michael Rowan-Robinson, Cosmology; and Peter Schneider, Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology: An Introduction). So I also wrote a hundred or so pages of notes (which are available from my Imperial website, if you’re interested in a crash course).
I’m often puzzled by exactly what students want from the 26 hours of lectures themselves. Many, it seems to me, would prefer to merely transcribe my board notes without having to pay close attention to what I am actually saying; perhaps note-taking is not a skill that students perfect at school nowadays. I hope at least that those written notes make it a bit easier to both listen and think during the lectures. (Again, constructive criticism is more than welcome.)
This week I’ll be giving a review (just half an hour!) of cosmology at the IOP’s High-Energy and Astroparticle Physics 2010 meeting. And then I get to indulge in some of my hobbies, like doing scientific research.
In one of my earliest memories, I’m about four years old, at nursery school, sitting on the floor looking up at what must have been a small black and white television sitting on a table. The teachers were all terribly excited, and we little kids were always happy to watch television. But this wasn’t Sesame Street. This was a rocket launch, a rocket to the moon. (I suspect it was Apollo 14.)
I was hooked immediately, and although I wasn’t well-suited to becoming an astronaut, I’ve managed to channel that impulse into science (and of course I finally got to see a rocket launch up close).
So without human spaceflight I probably wouldn’t be who I am, doing what I do.
But does space travel help us answer any of the “Big Questions”? Whither humanity in the long run? Will we stick to our crowded but beautiful planet or eventually spread our metaphorical wings and move on up?
Unfortunately spaceflight nowadays isn’t about the long-term future of humanity, but aerospace contracts, cool pictures, and good PR (except, of course, when something goes wrong). As I’ve said, that PR is certainly important, but it is very hard to know what exactly we’re getting for that considerable investment.
If you’d like to hear — or say — more about this, that’s exactly the question being asked at the latest instalment of Imperial’s “Big Questions” debates — Human Spaceflight: Science or Spectacle? Please come over to Imperial on Thursday night (but register in advance).
A few weeks ago, I took part in a “Big Questions” debate with Subir Sarkar, a colleague from Oxford, on Dark Energy and the Fate of the Universe. For those of you who couldn’t attend, a related podcast is available, you can download my meagre slides, and it’s been mentioned on Physics World, as well as by a fellow blogger who referred to me as a “Dark Side proponent”. Unlike the perhaps more contentious previous debate on the origin of the Universe (i.e., the existence of god), we decided to allow the audience to vote on the outcome, usually not the way scientific questions are decided. Of course I take such a petulant tone since, in fact, I lost…
I am amused and actually a little disturbed that my position is seen to be simultaneously radical — I am advocating the idea that the universe is dominated by an all-pervasive repulsive fluid — and conservative — just jumping on the same bandwagon as my colleagues.
In fact, I (we) are just doing science: we’ve made some measurements of the Universe and its constituents. Our simplest theories, that the Universe is dominated by what we could call “normal” matter, simply don’t fit the data, since normal matter requrires that the expansion of the Universe be slowing down (decelerating) over time.
Indeed, several different lines of observational argument all lead separately to this contradiction with the simpler theories: the Universe as a whole would be older than the objects in it; distant objects are dimmer; and present-day structures are growing more slowly. These problems and other related ones can be solved if we open up our theories to allow the expansion of the Universe to be accelerating. And how can we implement that idea? What is the physics behind acceleration? Well, the simplest possibility is just to reinstate Einstein’s own “cosmological constant”. Other possibilities are a so-called “scalar field” or even some modifications to Einstein’s theory itself. All of these nowadays fall under the rubric of “dark energy”, originally coined by Mike Turner of the University of Chicago in the 1990s when the evidence for such a concordance model was beginning to grow. I don’t know which of these possibilities is true, nor even whether these ideas will stand the test of time. But despite a decade of attempts to find other explanations for the observations without resorting to dark energy, none have so far succeeded.
So that’s why I plumped for Dark Energy — it’s the simplest, perhaps only, explanation of our cosmological observations.
As part of Imperial College Astrophysics’ ongoing series “The Big Questions”, I’ll be in discussion with Subir Sarkar of Oxford here at Imperial on Tuesday, 21 July 2009. We’ll be debating the fate of the Universe, and, more specifically, the existence or otherwise of Dark Energy, which appears to be causing the Universe to accelerate in its expansion.
I expect this will be less metaphysical — but perhaps no less contentious! — than the previous debate, between Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson from Imperial and the Rev. Dr John Polkinghorne KBE FRS on “The Origin of the Universe”.
Tickets are free, but please register in advance.
I'll be introducing this event tomorrow. Come on over for an evening of scientific poetry...
|Escaping the Matrix is a series of poetry events featuring contemporary poets and guest speakers, and forms part of Poet in the City's successful and innovative New Audiences initiative. The three events in the Imperial series have been programmed and managed by Daniel Macadam, Josephine Ivie and Lucy Clouting respectively. Thanks should also go to Ben Gwalchmai, the chair of New Audiences.
Poet in the City is a registered charity committed to attracting new audiences to poetry, making new connections for poetry, and raising money to support poetry education, in particular the placing of poets in schools. Charity Commission number 1117354, Company limited by guarantee registered number 05819413.
The series is being hosted by Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, London SW7 2AZ.
|The Escaping the Matrix events will be held at Imperial College London, South Kensington Campus, London SW7 2AZ.
Nearest tube stations are Gloucester Road or South Kensington (on the District and Circle line) or Knightsbridge (on the Piccadilly line)
Poetry and Work 9th October Clore Lecture Theatre, Huxley Building
Poetry and Space 13th November G16, Sir Alexander Fleming Building
Poetry and Maths 4th December Lecture Theatre 220, Mechanical Engineering
Congratulations to Joe Zuntz, recipient of Imperial Astrophysics’ latest Doctorate for successfully defending his entertainingly-titled Ph.D. Thesis, “Cosmic Microwave Background Power Spectrum Estimation and Prediction with Curious Methods and Theories”. Joe had been my student since 2004, working on topics from hard-core data analysis with the MAXIPOL team to exploring the repercussions of exotic theories such as the Causal Set idea for unifying quantum mechanics with relativity (which, alas, he has shown is unlikely to be able to match our current observations). Joe has already moved over to a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford where he is sure to (continue to) prosper. Congratulations, Dr. Z!
Congratulations to Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, former head of our Astrophysics Group at Imperial and president of the Royal Astronomical Society. This week, Imperial hosted a meeting in Michael’s honor on the occasion of his 65th birthday, From IRAS to Herschel/Planck: Cosmology with infrared and submillimetre surveys. Astrophysicists came from all over the UK, Europe and even the US and Asia to discuss the cosmology and long-wavelength astronomy that Michael has been studying since the late 1960s. (The talks, on galaxy evolution, cosmology, and the brightest galaxies in the Universe, will eventually be posted for download.) A particular highlight was a presentation from Richard Ellis on his team’s possible observation of the most distant galaxies ever seen.
At the conference dinner, Michael was roasted by Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, a classmate at Cambridge in the 60s, and by George Efstathiou, head of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge today. We heard about the books Michael has written over the last few decades, what it’s like working at a telescope with him late at night — and some of the poetry he wrote in his youth.
Finally, all of my new readers who have found this blog searching for information about a certain rock star astronomer will be happy to know that Brian May successfully reprised his talk on the Zodiacal Light for the even more demanding international crowd.
The Zodiacal Light is a fuzzy glow visible in the morning and evening sky, stretching along the line along which the constellations of the zodiac appear — the ecliptic that we now know to be the plane made up of the sun and the orbits of the planets. Observations of the zodiacal light show it to be due to reflections from dust in the plane, dust thought to be mostly the detritus of collisions between and among asteroids, comets, and more distance objects from the Kuiper Belt.
This week we in the Imperial astrophysics group were treated to a talk on the zodiacal light by Brian May, the group’s newest postgraduate student (and one of the eldest). Brian started his Imperial PhD in the early 1970s, but decided to leave to play guitar, eventually, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. Last year, he decided to return to astrophysics and, perhaps amazingly, has finished his PhD thesis under the supervision of Michael Rowan-Robinson, the former head of our group and current President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was actually lucky in his choice of topics: it hasn’t been a major research area since his last astronomical work three and a half decades ago but is coming to the fore again as we start seeing similar dust clouds orbiting distant stars, and as we worry about the obscuring properties of the local dust as we peer through it with ever-more-sensitive instruments, such as the Planck Surveyor.
For someone so, um, inexperienced in public speaking (or at least in giving scientific presentations), Brian gave a very good distillation of the history of the field (including the missing 35 years while he was indisposed) including his own work, and his own interpretations speculating that some of the light may be due to our movement through an even larger cloud of interstellar dust.
As is customary, we took Brian May (still “Mr. May” until he gets his PhD later in the Summer) out to dinner with members of the group, and he even joined us afterward for a pint at one of our locals. He paid for a round, and he was extremely gracious to the crowds who stared, pointed, and came up to chat. He was also accompanied by his chauffeur, a very nice guy who was also one of the… widest… men I’ve ever seen (and who seemed happy to sit in the very nice Lexus while Brian ate and drank with us).
Who would have through astrophysics would give me a taste of the rock’n’roll lifestyle?
Yesterday evening I attended the launch party for Nature Network London, a new site run by Nature magazine, which hopes to be a web home for science and scientists in London. There are articles, blogs, discussion forums and calendars of scientific events.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I ended up meeting lots of people from Imperial — whom of course I had never met here on campus. I also met the site’s editor, Matt Brown, as well as blogger Jennifer Rohn, who also runs the science/culture site LabLit.
It’s an ambitious idea, and anything that gets us out of our offices and talking with other scientists is welcome. The formal barriers to entry are quite low, but to get working scientists to spend their time blogging, posting in discussion forums, and just taking this newfangled social web 2.0 thing seriously may be a hard sell. We’ll have to hook ‘em young. However, “science” in London is dominated by Medicine and biology — we physical scientists are a distinct minority, and our interests, academic lives and ways of working are often very different indeed (for example, the biologists last night spent a lot of time trying to decide whether to approach someone like Paul Smith for a design of a fashionable lab coat — I’ve never worn a lab coat in my life!). Anyway, if you’re a London-based scientist of any stripe reading this, sign up and join in!
Tonight I’m off on a 24-hour jaunt to Rome to discuss our proposal for a new Satellite, BPol, to measure the CMB polarization (and thereby discover if inflation could be responsible for getting our Universe into the shape we find it today). Unfortunately, this satellite wouldn’t be launched until the late 2010s, which means that the data wouldn’t flow for a staggering decade and a half.
Luckily, cosmology will remain interesting while we’re waiting — as Tommaso Dorigo’s ongoing reports from our Outstanding questions for the standard cosmological model meeting continue to attest.
This week is the big “Outstanding questions for the standard cosmological model” meeting here at Imperial. I am too busy finishing up my topology talk to blog about it (and recovering from running 13.1 miles yesterday), but luckily Tommaso Dorigo has been on the ball (and has also taken some good photos which I’m sure will be posted soon).
If you are up tomorrow morning (i.e., Tuesday, 27 March), listen for a cosmological discussion on the BBC’s Today show, probably between conference organizer Carlo Contaldi and Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society (and both from Imperial Physics).