Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Break

All is well here in Oxford, where I'm back for a couple of weeks over Christmas and New Year. I'm just taking a bit of a break from sitting in front of the computer all hours and leaving the blog to take whatever direction seems most natural after the New Year.

Anyway, being at home with family is enjoyable, but I find myself getting lazy (despite cooking many of the family meals, which brings me great pleasure), something which I find myself easily slipping into but a facet of my personality that I don't like at all. Hence I'm going to take off from here in a couple of days and spend some time in London, seeing friends, going to galleries and sitting in cafes reading some of my Christmas gifts. I've almost finished off Cry, The Beloved Country, a very powerful book about South Africa in the 1940s. After this I'll be diving into some Pinker (who without exception manages to change my view of the world in a few hundred pages), Kundera, Steinbeck and Susan Sontag's On Photography. There are another six or seven in the Christmas pile which I'll write about if I get the chance.

On art and museums, I did finally make it to see Guernica while I was in Madrid. My final afternoon in the city I dashed to the centre and made straight for the Reina Sofia. There is a lot of wonderful 20th century art on display, mostly Spanish, though the centrepiece is without doubt Guernica, a painting which I've read plenty about in a book devoted to this historical piece. It was every bit as powerful as I'd expected and the trip was well-worth it as I stood transfixed with no other museum-goers to disturb me.

Anyway, I hope that everyone else has had a peaceful and enjoyable Christmas! Enjoy the holidays if they're being celebrated in your neck of the woods.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Madrid in a flash

I returned last night from Madrid, where I've spent the last three days at the Christmas meeting where I was giving a talk and talking with some of the local researchers with whom we hope to start something in the New Year. The workshop was good, but intense and included a variety of topics, from the latest from the Pierre Auger cosmic ray observatory in Argentina, to the latest excitement on the M2-brane mini revolution. We also had a very interesting talk on the accident at the LHC whch gave an idea of the scale of the damage and what was now being done. Indeed the weak-links between the magnets are now being fixed in a number of other possibly vulnerable sectors. The good news was that there were spare magnets for every one which was damaged and it looks like this hasn't pushed the project into the red in any way.

Anyway, a quick picture I took on the way back from the workshop on Friday of this amazing leaning tower close to the Plaza de Castilla.

Anyway, last night my flight back to Santiago made a total of 26 trips this year which could go some way to explaining my current state of exhaustion. I still have a few things to finish off before Christmas including two conference proceedings which just have to be checked a final time, and a couple of calculations I'd really like to get done before I relax completely.

Tomorrow I head back to England where I'll spend a few days at home before running around the country to catch up with friends I haven't seen since doing the same thing last year.

The New Year holds a feast of possibilities which certainly can't be fit into a 12 months so I'll have to see how my time-stretching abilities are working and perhaps give up something to make a little more...sleeping should be first out of the window.

A couple more updates due before Christmas, but for now there's lots to be organised before heading home.

Monday, December 15, 2008


Despite the notice on my letterbox asking that no free papers be delivered (helpfully written in Gallego by a friend) today I received a record 19 magazines and other pieces of miscellaneous wastage. Not impressed!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Clay Shirky on wasted hours and the media revolution

If the weather isn't letting you get a good look at the moon tonight, and you're not otherwise being more creative, you could do a lot worse than watch this talk by Clay Shirky, one of the most eloquent and knowledgable spokespeople on the new wave of interactive internet media. This talk, on the cognitive surplus. My favourite quote, from part 1:

Desperate Housewives functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat.

Lunacy and more

For those of you foolhardy enough not to have Universe Today bookmarked in your feedreader, then you may not know that today the moon is at its closest approach to the Earth this year. It will be 14% larger and some 30% brighter (for those who are not, like I am, in overcast venues) than the moon at its further point this year. This is good for moon watching, but not so great for the Geminid meteor shower which will be somewhat obscured by the extraterrestrial light pollution.

As for me, I'm feeling pretty tired after a busy but successful few days, other than spending 20 minutes trapped in a lift on Wednesday morning. Trust me to be in the lift when there's a powercut. The emergency light was sadly neither bright enough to let me read, nor to take a photo of myself in my encarceration.

I'm currently writing up a review for a conference proceedings which I'd like to get out of the way before 't Hooft turns up next week to give a couple of talks (both departamental and public) and before I go off to Madrid to the Christmas meeting where I will be giving a talk. I'll simply link to my paper from this week with no more commentary for now than the fact that this was an extremely enjoyable paper and one of the best collaborations I've been in, given that all of us bought very different skills to the table. We already have several more ideas on the go and hope to get more done soon.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Fractal sunset

We're finishing off a paper which should be out in the next couple of days, I'll link to it when we're done - this has been a fun project and there's lots more to be done on this subject.

In the mean time a photograph from yesterday. While I still can't do much photography with a dodgy eye, I was able to hook up the tripod and the macro lens as the sun was setting to get an alternative version of this wonderful effect. This is multiple sunsets, refracted and inverted through the dew on my West facing window - In fact it's three photos taken at different exposures and overlayed.

multiple sunsets
Click through for more detail and much larger sizes.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Photo on Solar Cooking in the Seoul Shinmun

I'm getting reasonably regular requests on Flickr these days from books and newspapers. This one, the Seoul Shinmun was running an article on energy usage. The original can be found here.

My photo in the Seoul Shinmun

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Santiago in the rain

I'm out of action for a couple of days with, temporarily, only one fully functioning eye (will be fine in a day or two). In the mean time, while I can't take photos I can post up a couple, and while the rain whips against the windows I'm reminded that the weather, which is rarely predictable here does give the place an extra dimension. When bathed in fog or rain the squares around the cathedral are particularly magnificent. The lights beaming up from the spires make for a truly gothic scene. These are not of said scene, but do give an idea of Santiago in its rainy glory.

Obradoiro in the rain

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Atmospheric Optics talk in Santiago

I gave my talk on atmospheric optics today to an audience of perhaps 40. It was smaller than expected, but enjoyable nonetheless and I had more questions than I normally get for a string theory talk! I had been a little rattled by the fact that not only was the talk being advertised heavily around the university, but also on the regional weather station meteogalicia. Still, every Galician and her dog did not turn up and the fears of the previous night were not lived out. In fact combined with a fairly unpleasant day ahead of me tomorrow (triple chalazion excision) I worked myself up into a bit of a sweat and only managed an hour's sleep last night. Still, it's been a good experience and I'd be happy to give this talk again.

My talked introduced the physics of: ice halos, glories, heiligenschein, opposition effects, all sky crepuscular rays, mirage sunsets, green flashes and rainbows, including a few animations to discuss the detals of the optics for several effects. I spent most of this week digging into atoptics to get more information, and Les Cowley who runs the sight has been extremely helpful.

In looking for a little more information last night I came across an article by Sir Michael Berry (of Berry Phase fame and winner of an Ignobel prize for frog levitation). I remembered he gave a talk when I was an undergraduate in Bristol on his favourite things in the world of physics and this had included a section on rainbows. I tracked down an article he wrote for Physics World on a review of a book on rainbows, which included a quote from Descartes. This was exactly what I needed to complete the rainbow section.

Before Newton understood about the splitting of colours by a prism, Descartes had introduced his law of refraction (though this had been discoverd many centuries previously) and had used this to understand the basics physics of rainbows. I'll leave you with this quote of Descarte's, written in 1637, which, as with much of Descartes' writing, sums up the ideas eloquently and gets right to the heart of the matter.

"A single ray of light has a pathetic repertoire, limited to bending and bouncing (into water, glass or air, and from mirrors). But when rays are put together into a family - sunlight, for example - the possibilities get dramatically richer. This is because a family of rays has the holistic property, not inherent in any individual ray, that it can be focused so as to concentrate on caustic lines and surfaces. Caustics are the brightest places in an optical field. They are the singularities of geometrical optics. The most familiar caustic is the rainbow, a grossly distorted image of the Sun in the form of a giant arc in the skyspace of directions, formed by the angular focusing of sunlight that has been twice refracted and once reflected in raindrops."

Monday, December 01, 2008

Photos of the Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction

Update: New photos below

We're not normally so lucky with weather here in Galicia, however, tonight we had a small window without rain or clouds for twenty minutes or so which just happened to coincide with the time of the wonderful conjunction of the crescent Moon with Venus passing behind it and Jupiter up to the top right.

I went outside to take a look and could see the crescent moon, but no more. I stood watching it for a few moments, before I noticed a tiny point of light at the bottom right of the moon - Venus was beginning to poke its head from behind the sliver of the crescent moon. Sadly I had no tripod with me and so I had to balance the exposure with the ISO very carefully so as not to blur the photos or fill them with noise. I got a few which are no great works of art, but they are satisfying reminders of this rather wonderful astronomical spectacle.

This first image was the first one I took, just as Venus started to show itself. The sky was still quite bright at this point and so Jupiter, to the top right is harder to see in this image, the sky was also filled with a mist, which stopped perfect visibility at this point.

Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction
But Jupiter became brighter as the sky grew darker:
Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction
and as the sky darkened fully, the clouds drew in and we were left with a slight corona around the moon:
Moon, Venus, Jupiter conjunction
I hope some of you got to see it for real too.


After processing these photos and giving up hope of seeing any more, I looked out the window to see how much it was raining, only to see this:
Moon, Venus, Jupiter Conjunction
Moon, Venus, Jupiter Conjunction
Will be looking out for more.