Mysteries

July 2, 2012

We are all preparing ourselves mentally, of course, for the Great Higgs Announcement on Wednesday. For those who wish to know the answer so far – have we found the Higgs or not – the answer is here. V.pithy.  If you want to know what that nice Mr Willetts thinks, try the STFC version. If you want the Bluffers Guide, try the Ben Gilliland version.

But there are deeper mysteries than the Higgs Boson ! Why is this hard hatted worker so calm in the face of a flying saucer over Edinburgh ? Or is it a kind of decapitated Dalek ? ROE entries not allowed of course.


UPDATE


Aparently we HAVE found the Higgs. Woohee !

Also, we could have saved a few billion because you can BUY one here.

Wommers was rather good on Beeb Four I thought. If I heard correctly, he seemed to say that now we have done that, its dark matter and dark energy next. Roll on Euclid ! And Boulby ?


Walking Through Time

January 31, 2010

The wordpress “freshly pressed” front page currently has a link to a blogpost with some very fascinating and temporally confusing pictures. The blog is called Pillar Box Post and the post is question is “Looking into the Past“. It showcases some of the best examples from a Flickr Group of the same name. The game is to overlap an old photo with a modern photo of the same scene. All of the pictures are interesting, and some of them are downright spooky; people from the past walking down modern streets. Check it out and you will see what I mean.

It reminded of something I heard about at a recent local IT workshop : Walking Through Time. This is a hookup between Edinburgh IT people and folk at the Edinburgh College of Art. The idea is to combine GPS and old maps to make an iPhone app that shows you a map of oldy Edinburgh at your current location. So you can stare at your phone and walk those ancient streets.

Its not quite ready for airtime yet, but watch this space. Could be big.


RAE games

April 6, 2009

These are grim times for Welsh astronomy. The cancellation of Clover follows on from a surprisingly bad RAE result for Cardiff. Peter Coles has analysed the RAE results several times over. In this first post, he listed straight weighted mean scores (in which Cardiff came 35th). In a second post, he introduced “research power”, meaning volume times score, which brought Cardiff up to 22nd. Then on January 29th, when HEFCE announced its funding algorithm (7,3,1,0 for buckets 4,3,2,1 respectively) he gave another league table showing expected relative funding, with Cardiff now 27th. (Note however that the Welsh and Scottish funding councils have not yet announced their funding algorithms…)

Last week the RAE published the sub-profiles on which the final profiles were based – i.e. we now have separate profiles for research outputs, for environment, and for esteem. I downloaded the UOA19 (Physics) table, scraped the numbers, and played plotting games with Topcat. To help you play your own games I am attaching a .doc file which is really a CSV file in disguise … Unfortunately WordPress won’t let me upload a VOTable (its XML) or even a plain .txt file, but it does allow .doc files. You can convert the .doc file into plain text, and then Topcat or Excel will read it in.

So here is one interesting thing that jumped out at me – environment scores seem to have been quite crucial. The figure displayed here shows the research outputs score (bue dots) and the environment score (red dots) plotted in turn against the overall score. Compared to research outputs, environment shows a larger range, a larger dispersion, and gradient which is distinctly larger than unity. The red dot way off the correlation is Loughborough – environment score 1.1 even though it scored 2.66 on research outputs. On overall score, Loughborough came 32nd. If its score had been as good as its outputs score it would have been 14th. Cardiff was actually slightly rescued by its environment score; it scored outputs=2.22 and environment=2.74. (Edinburgh had a fairly consistent 2.8 and 3.0).

Results from RAE

It wouldn’t be wise to overinterpret individual scores. But it does look like the panel had more marked opinions about the quality of research environment, or perhaps allowed themselves bolder judgements. Any other patterns emerging ? Read the rest of this entry »


The man who measured the size of the Universe

April 14, 2007

Last night I was faced with a mixture of achievement and failure, wonder and decay, drinking tea in the room where Thomas Henderson calculated the distance to the stars.

I was giving a talk to the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh, a long established amateur society. My talk was about mapping the Universe, first stepping through the history, and ending up with modern results from SDSS, 2dFGRS, and UKIDSS. I mentioned Thomas Henderson, my predecessor as Regius Professor; a great hero, as in 1833 he was the first man to measure parallax and so determine the distance to a star (Alpha Centauri). He made the measurements in South Africa and finished the calculations in Edinburgh. Alpha Centauri is the very nearest star system; but it is almost seven thousand times further away than Pluto… The universe of stars is unimaginably vast.

I showed a picture of a memorial to Henderson Thomas Henderson Memorial on Calton Hill Edinburghwhich I had found on the web, and mentioned that I wasn’t sure where it was – maybe in the same cemetery as David Hume ? Oh no, they piped up – its on the side of this building ! (And the image came from their website… oops.) The ASE are lucky enough to use as their HQ the old City Observatory on Calton Hill, where the Astronomers Royal worked until 1894 when the new Royal Observatory was built on Blackford Hill on the outskirts of Edinburgh. (This is where I work now of course..). Well…I say lucky, but the state of the buildings is a scandal. They are owned by the City, but gradually decaying. The toilets don’t work, and the ASE guys warned me to go before I turned up.

After the talk they fed me tea and biscuits in a room where they reckon Henderson did his calculations after returning from the Cape. But its also where he lost his nerve. In the 1830s measuring parallax was the big prize, and some people had had egg on their faces -Henderson was nervous about whether he had got it right, and didn’t publish. Finally in 1838 Friedrich Bessel beat him to it and published the parallax of 61 Cygni. Henderson finally published the next year. His distance was right within about 30%.

So on the way out I walked around the side of the beautiful Playfair building. Fog was swirling around the walls (no observing last night !). ASE scretary Graham Rule shone his torch for me, and there it was – a modest monument to the man who showed just how big the Universe really is.