Sunday, December 31, 2006

Last post of the year

This year has been a bit of a change for my blog in that I've actually been writing fairly regular posts. It can be seen from the blog archive sidebar the difference compared to my output in 2004 and 2005, with a leap from a lowly 13 and 12 post to a massive 105 posts this year. I've also given a slight change in the look of the blog and upgraded to the new version of blogger. My resurgence in blogging came about due to having several more of my work colleagues starting their own blogs. This spurred me on to put some more of my ramblings down in electronic form resulting mainly in football based posts, but also several recipes, some travel stories, and even some science! Due the having more friends blogging I also seen a increase in my blog readership, so I thank all those that occasionally glance at what I've written.

Happy new year everyone!

Christmas lectures

One of the highlights of my Christmas time viewing (along with The Worlds Strongest Man and the World Darts Championship) are the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. This year the lectures were by Oxford University maths Professor Marcus du Sautoy on various areas in maths. Unfortunately this year five, who are now showing the lectures, decided to put it on in an evening prime time slot of 7.15 pm and start showing it on Christmas day. This was not good for me and meant I ended up only seeing half of one lecture. This was annoying as I generally really enjoy the lecture series. Its previous approximately midday slot when it was on BBC2 and, briefly, Channel 4 was far better for me. In fact one of the RI Christmas Lectures from 1993 partly spurred on my interest in physics. It was called the Cosmic Onion and was given by Prof. Frank Close and covered in a really well done way pretty much everything from subatomic particles to the entire universe. The RI Lectures are designed for kids, but I think they are pretty much the best pieces of science programming on each year for any age group. I still think that the Cosmic Onion lecture is the best physics lecture I've ever seen - I still remember parts of it quite vividly - and if there exists a copy of the lectures on video I'd recommend it be shown in every secondary school science class to inspire the children.

Viva Las Vegas

Last night a large group of us went to Vegas. It didn't involve any flying across the Atlantic as you might expect as this Vegas was not located in the USA. For me, however, there was some flying involved as I had to get back up to Glasgow from my Christmas holidays back in St Albans. The Vegas in question was a club night held on a ferry mored on the Clyde in the centre of Glasgow, with a 1950s Las Vegas theme. The reason for our visit was as a leaving do for my friend, colleague and band mate John, who will sadly be moving to Birmingham in the next few days.

This night out obviously required a bit of dressing up. My normal club attire is the same as my normal everyday wear: jeans or combats, t-shirt, hoodie. This didn't seem appropriate, so I decided to dust of my tux, which hasn't seen the light of day for about 5 years. I had a clip-on bow tie to go with the tux, but a clip-on doesn't allow for the cool untied-bow-tie-draped-around-the-neck look, so I bought a proper do-it-yourself version. This required a fair bit of practice, but I think it was worth it. I wasn't the only one to get dressed up and my friends put in a good showing with a variety of natty outfits - we all looked damn fine! In fact the majority of people at the club were also similarly dressed.

The night in all was a resounding success. I think everyone had a really good time and I know that I did. We danced vigorously to various 50s rock 'n' roll and swing type hits. We gambled our fake Elvis dollars on the roulette and black jack tables. We admired the Vegas showgirls in the fetching outfits (you can see them in some of the photos here). All great fun!

The night has inspired us to, I hope, venture beyond our normal Friday night pub outings. We'll definitely be heading back to Vegas again though.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

...and Watford lose again!

In this years Boxing Day fixture list Watford had the delightful Christmas present of hosting Arsenal. In another case of nice try, but not quite there yet we managed to lose 2-1 via a late Arsenal goal. When will we get those much needed points? I await some inspired purchase in the January transfer window, or at least a nice Cup run to lift my spirits.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

'Twas the day after Christmas...

First I'd just like to say that I hope everyone here in the blogosphere had a lovely Christmas. I'm at home with my family and have had the usual large amounts of food and a smattering of presents.

As is always my way I had a fairly frantic Christmas Eve. I'd managed to wrangle together a couple of presents before this, but still had the vast majority to buy and a dwindling amount of time. After last minute frantic scouring of the shops of St Albans I managed to get together a decent bunch of gifts, which were thankfully appreciated by their various recipients the following day.

I now have a few days of relaxing to do.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Ich bin ein Berliner

Yesterday afternoon a couple of us made a trip into Berlin from Potsdam. Setting out from our hotel armed with a map of Potsdam, and a tiny bit of knowledge from walking into town a couple of nights before, we assumed finding the train station would be easy! About 50 mins, and several false dawns, later we arrived at the station with our map reading skills, and trust of people in tourist information offices, rather diminished.

Anyway we still managed to make it into Berlin fairly early in the afternoon. It was a fairly grim day weatherwise, but we still opted for walking around as we had plenty of time and wanted to see stuff you might miss from the bus. We first walked passed the ubiquitous Christmas market in which at least every other stall was selling gluhwein. We then walked up into the main park in Berlin towards a large column with a golden lady on top - very impressive it was. We then made the far longer than you'd think walk up towards the Brandenberg Gate, but before we got there made the slight detour to the Reichstag. The Reichstag is an impressive building with a fairly new glass dome bit on top designed by Norman Foster. You can go in for free, so we went in to see a bit of German democracy in action. Unfortunately the parliament was not in session, so we didn't get to see Mrs Merkel et al, but the dome of the building was really nice to walk around and gave good views of the Berlin skyline (well as good as you can see on a rather grey and foggy day).

On leaving the Reichstag we went to the Brandenberg Gate and had a brief look round the square made so famous by the BBCs World Cup coverage earlier in the year - they didn't have the big football in the square though, it had been replaced by a Christmas tree. After getting directions from a hotel doorman we headed to Checkpoint Charlie to take in the heady Cold War atmosphere. There were no standoffs between us lovely democratic capitalists and the dirty Commie bastards, and it was generally rather underwhelming. To demonstrate our love of capitalism we then went for a drink in Starbucks. The rest was needed as we'd been on our feet for a very long time.

We then made a move towards Alexanderplatz. Along the way we took the really nice architecture of a lot of the buildings, mainly museums and galleries. In the square by Humbolt University I was tempted by an outdoor ice rink, and we also saw the site where in the 1930's a load of Nazi students had burnt a big pile of books - I felt no inclination to burn a book, although to be fair I didn't have a book on me. Further down the street there was a fun fair, with again, a large number of gluhwien stalls and half metre sausage stalls. We went on a ride (a spinning round on small seat on the end of long chains thing) and had some gluhwien.

After the fun of the fair we went for dinner, with some other people from our meeting, at a Turkish restaurant. This provided us with far more than our RDA of meat, but was very good. A couple of beers later we had to travel back to Potsdam. The highly efficient German rail system slightly let us down as the first couple of trains we tried to get got cancelled. Slightly later than we wanted, and well and truly knackered, we got back to our hotel in Potsdam.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Is it new?

One of the main things I've managed to do so far at GWDAW11, whilst supposedly listening to other peoples talks, is to start drafting a new paper! It's on something I, and some other Glasgow people, thought about a while back - I finally decided it might be worth following up. I did a bit of a literature search for similar things (thank you NASA ADS), and it's a close run thing, but the idea for the paper doesn't seem to have been done before. It should be quite easy to do the work for it in a short time. Get in!

Deutchland, deutchland

On Sunday evening I arrived in Germany for the eleventh annual gravitational wave data analysis workshop (GWDAW11). It was quite nice traveling on an afternoon rather than having to get up at some ludicrous hour in the morning. My journey started off with a taxi ride to Glasgow Airport. The taxi was being driven by an ardent Rangers fan and we were listening to an Old Firm game on the radio. It was quite disturbing when he decided to start violently thumping his fist against the roof of the car when Rangers equalised late on in the game. Other than that the first leg of the flight from Glasgow to Amsterdam airports went smoothly. A bit of running was required at Schipol due to being slightly late (well it takes a stupidly large amount of time to taxi from the runway to a gate at Schipol) and having a rather tight connection window. We also had to go through passport control which added on to the connection time threatening to make us miss our plane. There were a large number of people at passport control who seemed to think that it was only them in danger of missing their flight, so insisted on attempting to push into the queue - they didn't quite understand that a large fraction of the people there were in the same fucking boat! Anyway, we did just make the gate as the plane was boarding. We arrived in Berlin at about 10.15 pm and got a taxi to our hotel in Potsdam. After having a very tiny free beer in the bar I retired to my room and to my surprise found that Eurosport was showing the final of the UK snooker championship - the commentary was is German, but I got by.

We're on day two of the meeting now. So far it's been fine. The hotel we're staying at is nice and the food is pretty good. We went into the centre of Potsdam for a drink and some food, having a glass of obligatory gluhwine (aka mulled wine) in the Christmas market. This morning I gave a talk (the results I presented were those I described in my last post) and the talk should be posted here). I thought my talk went pretty well, but I didn't get any questions - probably people were still taking in the enormity of my results. Tonight we have the conference dinner, so people may be a bit worse for wear tomorrow morning.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Talking the talk

Last night I was guest speaker for the Renfrewshire Astronomical Society (the other RAS). They are an amateur astronomy group based in Paisley. The society were very pleasant and fed me well with a mix Chinese and Indian take-away. My talk was a general overview on the subject of gravitational wave astronomy. As I told my audience, it's a bit rich me putting astronomy in the talk title when we haven't actually detected the things yet, but hey! I covered the history of gravity and gravitational wave, then moved on to the types of detector we use, and then covered the various astrophysical sources we expect to produce gravitational waves. I like to finish these talks (I've given a couple before) with an optimistic outlook of where this field is going - and also to try and justify putting in that astronomy word. I can only hope that I didn't bore the group, as my talk went on for nearly 1 hr 45 mins - I can waffle quite a bit on occaision. I got quite a few questions, most of which I made a fair attempt at answering intelligibly. So in the past couple of years now I've done the Aidrie Astronomical Society, the Stirling Astronomical Society, and now the Renfrewshire group, who next?!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Beating spin-down

The results of one of the pieces of research that I've been spending the majority of my time working on were presented at the Texas Symposium on Monday by the head of the LIGO lab, Jay Marx - the slides of his presentation can be found here. What I've been working on is searching for gravitational waves from pulsars using data from the LIGO and GEO600 detectors. You can read more about pulsars in the wikipedia link I just gave, but here's a brief description: A pulsar is a neutron star, which is the ultra dense end state in the life of a massive star - one that have a mass of a few solar masses. Once it is has exhausted its fuel for fusion burning the star's gravity will collapse its core down to a ball of mainly neutrons, whilst the outer layers are blown off in a supernova explosion. This neutron ball will have a radius of only about 10 km, but will contain about one and a half solar masses of material! Due to conservation of magnetic field, the field of the massive progenitor star will be compressed down to the scale of the neutron star, leaving very tight field lines and a very strong magnetic field. Conservation of angular momentum will also mean that the neutron star will initially be very rapidly spinning. A pulsar is seen when radiation beamed out the poles of the neutron star's magnetic field intersects with the Earth. Providing the star's magnetic axis and rotation axis aren't aligned this beam will be seen as a pulse once per rotation - like a lighthouse. Most pulsars are seen by radio observations of these pulses, which allow the determination of the pulsar's position and rotation rate. The rotation rate of pulsars is seen to slow over time due to a loss of rotational kinetic energy. The main process thought to be dissipating this energy is magnetic dipole radiation caused by the motion of the magnetic field about the rotation axis. However, if the pulsar has some for of non-axisymmetry i.e. it has a bump on it distorting it from spherical symmetry, then as the star spins that bump will provide a non-spherical acceleration of mass - exactly what is needed to produce gravitational waves. So I've been trying to look for gravitational waves from exactly this mechanism, by targeting the precise frequency and position of a number of known pulsars using data collected by LIGO and GEO600 - see the ATNF online catalogue for a list of known pulsars. Using this data we've not managed to detect gravitational waves from any of these known potential sources, we've only been able to set upper limits on the amplitude of the radiation they could be emitting. Not seeing anything is however not a surprise to us. By looking at the rate at which the pulsar slows down you can infer how much energy it's losing. If you assume that all this energy were radiated away via gravitational waves (not a completely valid assumption as some will be lost via magnetic dipole radiation and particle acceleration, but...) then you can convert this energy into a amplitude of gravitational waves. For the vast majority of pulsars this spin-down upper limit, as we call it, on the amplitude is much, much lower than the upper limits we can set using our detectors. What makes the results presented on Monday more exciting is that for one particular pulsar, the Crab pulsar, we have produced an upper limit using our data, which for the first time beats the existing spin-down upper limit. This means that we're in the realm of doing meaningful astrophysics with our null results. I can't say how much we've beaten the upper limit by as we're leaving that for the publication we hope to have out in a few months time, but if you look on the plot in Jay's talk you can figure it out. I'll be presenting the result with a bit more explanation at GWDAW 11 next week.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

How'd that happen!

After a really good start to the second Ashes test England somehow conspired to claw a defeat out of the jaws of victory, or at the very least a draw. I'm taking about cricket by the way. We had a great first innings and declared on 551 for 6. Despite our fine batting and the magnificent partnership of Pieterson and Collingwood, we couldn't emulate it with our bowling and fielding - apparently the wicket wasn't great for bowlers. The Aussies managed to get a decent total in their first innings at bat, partly down to a great show by Ricky Ponting after he'd narrowly escaped being caught out by a dropped catch from Ashley Giles. After this England should have still managed to hold out for the draw, but no, we couldn't even do that. We racked up a dismal total in our second innings with our star batsmen failing and Shane Warne back on his top wicket taking form, leaving the Aussies a total of just 168 to win - which they bloody well did! Not good at all. We need to win two and draw one of the three remaining tests to even draw the series and retain the Ashes. Looks like far too big a task.

Nil - Nil

In a consecutive Watford post: Last night I watched my third Watford game of the season. We were playing away at Manchester City and, as the title suggests, we got a 0-0 draw, taking us to the grand total of 10 points. The game was nowhere near as bad as the last, although the level of football still wasn't particularly brilliant. The two teams decided that playing the ball along the ground was obviously not for them, so about 95% of the time the ball was hoisted into the air and headed about. Despite this the game was quite entertaining due to Watford actually trying to score and having a few decent chances (at least during the first half). The second half was a bit more subdued although we had to defend well. It got very nervy near the end when we looked blatantly like we'd given away a penalty by pulling down one of the City players in the area, luckily the referee didn't give it. Our top player was probably our keeper, Richard Lee, who made some fine saves. Ashley Young was also looking good, making several quick runs down the wings, although he generally had no other strikers he could pass the ball on to.