Tag Archives: travel

Skiing in Zermatt with the Ski Club of Great Britain

This week I’m back in Zermatt, Switzerland, one of my  all-time favourite ski resorts.I’m having a great week’s skiing with the Ski Club of Great Britain, a unique organisation that allows members to be guided around the mountain by Club Leaders who find all the best pistes and restaurants – not to mention a ready-made gang of cronies to hang out with after the lifts close. It really is a unique service they offer, perfect for the skier who arrives out solo.

Apres-ski with SKGB

The snow has been fine all week both on- and off-piste, if a bit icy in the mornings and a bit slushy in the afternoons. below you can see the well-known Gornergrat Observatory, right at the top of one of the main runs – can someone please organise a cosmology conference here ?

Gornergrat station and observatory above Zermatt with the Matterhorn in the background

Zermatt village is as gorgeous as ever, the archetypal Swiss ski resort, with superb restaurants, no cars and unbelievable views. I am often tempted to come down off the mountain early, just to stroll down the Hauptsrasse and look at the sights, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Zermatt Hauptstrasse

It’s not always the most relaxing of holidays, of course. First there’s the organisational challenge of getting oneself to the meeting point at 9 am sharp each morning with skis, poles, boots, hat, gloves, goggles, shades, transceiver, rucksack etc. I also had problems adjusting to the altitude for the first few days, plus my fancy skiboots have been killing me all week, not unusual when I haven’t used them in a while. I’ve had to become reconciled to the fact that off-piste is now pretty much beyond my fitness level. ..but none of that stuff matters much when you get up top!


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VM Slipher and the expanding universe

In an earlier post, I mentioned an upcoming  conference in Arizona to celebrate the pioneering work of the American astronomer Vesto Slipher. As mentioned previously, 2012 marks the centenary of Slipher’s observation that light from the Andromeda nebula was Doppler shifted, a finding he interpreted as evidence of a radial velocity for the nebula. By 1917, he had established that the light from many of the distant nebulae is redshifted, i.e. shifted to lower frequency than normal. This was the first  indication that the most distant objects in the sky are moving away at significant speed, and it was an important step on the way to the discovery of the expanding universe.

Vesto Melvin Slipher (1875-1969)

The conference turned out to be very informative and enjoyable, with lots of interesting presentations from astronomers, historians and science writers. It’s hard to pick out particular talks from such a great lineup, but three highlights for me were Einstein, Eddington and the 1919 Eclipse Expedition by Peter Coles, Georges Lemaitre: A Personal Profile by John Farrell and Slipher’s redshifts as support for de Sitter’s universe? by Harry Nussbaumer. The latter compared the importance of the contributions of Slipher, Hubble, Einstein, De Sitter, Friedmann and Lemaitre (to mention but a few) and was a focal point for the conference. My own talk ‘Who discovered the expanding universe? – an open bus tour’ was quite similar to Harry’s , with some philosophy of science thrown in, while Micheal Way’s talk Dismantling Hubble’s Legacy? also touched on similar ground.  However, there was little danger of overlap since viewpoints and conclusions drawn from the material varied quite widely! You can see the conference program here.

A slide from Peter Cole’s talk on the Eddington eclipse experiment

A slide from John Farrell’s talk showing a postcard from Lemaitre to Slipher, announcing the former’s visit to the Lowell observatory

Harr Nussbaumer, author of ‘The Discovery of the Expanding Universe’,  in action

Front slide of my own presentation

The best aspect of the conference was the question and answer session after each talk. There was quite a divergence of opinion amongst the delegates concerning the relative importance of the various scientists in the story, which made for great discussions (though I suspect that much of the argument arises from differing views concerning the role of the theoretician vs the role of the experimentalist). You can see a list of speakers and abstracts for the talks here and the slides for my own talk are here.

There was plenty of material here for the relativist; indeed, quite a bit of discussion concerned the relative contributions of Friedmann and Lemaitre (told you it was a good conference). In particular, the Israeli mathematician Ari Belenkiy gave a defence of Friedmann’s work in his talk Alexander Friedmann and the Origin of Modern Cosmology, pointing out that the common assertion that Friedmann took no interest in practical matters is simply untrue, given his work in meteorology, and that the relevant astronomical data was not widely available to Europeans at the time. I must admit I share Ari’s view to some extent; I’m always somewhat in awe of a theoretician who describes all possible solutions to a problem (in this case the universe), as opposed to one solution that seems to chime with experiments of the day.

Title slide of Ari’s talk on Friedmann

The conference also included a trip to the Lowell observatory, including a view of the spectrograph used by Slipher for his groundbreaking measurements and a peep through the famous 24-inch Clark telescope which remains in operation to this day. We were also treated to a few scenes from Dava Sobel’s upcoming play based on her book on Copernicus, read by Dava herself and the eminent Harvard science historian Owen Gingerich.

The famous spectograph, perfectly preserved

Slipher’s telescope remains in use today

Dava Sobel and Professor Owen Gingerich reading from her new play at the Lowell observatory

All in all, a superb conference, definitely worth the long trip (Dublin-Chicago-Phoenix-Flagstaff). Earlier in the week, I gave a longer version of my talk at the BEYOND centre at Arizona State University in Phoenix; I was afraid some of the theoreticians in Larry Krauss’s  group might find it a bit equation-free, but they seemed to enjoy it. Larry and Paul Davies have a fantastic operation going on at the BEYOND centre, but I have to say the ambience and surroundings  at Flagstaff are probably more suitable for a European – much nicer weather!

Many thanks to Ari Belenkiy for the photographs. You can find more descriptions of the conference on John Farrell’s Forbes blog, and on Peter Coles’s  In The Dark blog.


Filed under Astronomy, Cosmology (general), Travel

O’Raifeartaigh Conference in Munich

I’m in Munich this weekend, at a physics conference in honour of my late father. The 2012 O’Raifeartaigh Conference is taking place in Munich’s Ludwig Maximilians Universität (LMU) and there are speakers here from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, the University of Tokyo, the Niels Bohr Institute (DK), the Eugene Wigner Institute (HN) and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

It sounds rather grand, but such memorial conferences are a good way for researchers who work in related fields to meet and present their latest work to each other. Many of the speakers worked with Dad at one stage or another and I think he would be very pleased to be remembered in this way. There are also some really sharp young scholars here and he would have liked that too. It’s the third memorial conference in Lochlainn’s memory, see here for the programme and other details.

Munich itself is fantastic – the university is right in the middle of the city and the neighbourhood is full of bookshops, coffee-houses, museums and beer gardens. The teaching term is not yet finished in Germany so there are students everywhere (don’t tell Minister Quinn!). In fact, I have never seen so many bicycles and bookshops in one place. The conference talks are in the University’s Arnold –Sommerfeld Centre for Theoretical Physics and the building has a Museum for Modern Art on one side and a music conservatoire or Musik Hochshule down the block. I could get used to this.

LMU University Munich (Main Entrance)

Lochlainn’s work concerned the use of mathematical symmetry methods to describe the physics of the elementary particles. Throughout his career at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, he was considered a leading expert in the field. He is probably best known for his contributions to a radical theory known as ‘supersymmetry’, a theory that is currently being tested at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. You can read more on his career by clicking on the tab Lochlainn on the top of the page.

There are some great talks here although some are are far beyond the comprehension of yours truly (an experimentalist). As always, I’m impressed by the style of presentation in theoretical physics; there are no polite powerpoint lectures here, but chalk-and-blackboard sessions with searching questions from the audience every few minutes. ‘‘Does that function even have a ground state?’, a speaker was asked within the first two minutes of his talk. ‘‘Well, it doesn’t in anti-deSitter space, but I hope to convince you that it does in deSitter space”, was the response. Answers to the frequent questions are tackled at the board until everyone in the room is satisfied. No-one gets away with anything here, from the youngest postdoc to the most eminent physicist. I think it’s a style of presentation that helps both lecturer and audience and I wish the humanities would adopt it – my pet hate is listening politely to a philosopher or historian for an hour before one gets to question a statement made in the first three minutes.

I gave a short talk myself on Friday. This was a ‘life-in-science’ presentation where I used pictures of people and places that influenced Lochlainn during his career: from his early work on general relativity with JL Synge  at the Dublin Institute for Advances Studies to his work on quantum field theory with Walter Heitler at the University of Zurich, from his use of group theory to prove his famous no-go theorem at Syracuse University in New York State to his work on the history of gauge theory at L’Institut des Hautes Etudes in Paris. I was worried I might have got some things wrong (e.g. “No, that work was completely incidental!’’), but thankfully it didn’t happen. In fact, I think the audience enjoyed the presentation as many of them had known the people and places mentioned at firsthand. You can find the photos and slides I used here.


The conference is over today so Mum and I took an open bus tour of Munich. I find this a great way to get to know any city and it didn’t disappoint. Munich may not be as large as Berlin or Hamburg, but it is the capital of Bavaria and is an extremely impressive city. I’m amazed by the huge number of parks, wide boulevards and splendid buildings – clearly, it was did not suffer as much as so many other German cities from bombing in the war. This is one of the great privileges of being an academic – you get to see the most interesting places, all in the line of work.

The ‘heroes’ monument on Leopoldstrasse

And finally

On the way back to the hotel, I was intrigued to see a huge banner draped over the main university entrance; the legend’ STRINGS 2012′ is leaving the whole city in no doubt that a major conference on string theory is about to take place here! Such a civilised country..


Filed under Particle physics, Third level, Travel

Sun, snow and clear skies in Hinterglemm

This week I’m spending half-term in Saalbach in the Hinterglemm valley in Austria. I have a ton of work to do but given the current snow conditions in Europe, I couldn’t resist a cheap last-minute package deal. I’ve never been to Saalbach before and it’s lovely, one of those tiny Austrian towns where the village centre consists of a single cobblestone street lined with traditional buildings (pedestrianized of course), with ski lifts to the peaks branching off at the top and bottom ends of the street.

Saalbach in the Hinterglemm valley

It doesn’t hurt that the British half-term is over; the main language in the resort is German and it seems to be mainly German and Austrian skiers on the slopes, always a good sign. The snow is as good as I expected but visibility was terrible until today. It takes a lot of the fun out of skiing if the light is poor – it makes the skier stiffen up and tire easily (not to mention taking the wrong turn at every intersection). However, the sun was out today and we had a dream combination of clear skies, sun and powder. The weather is expected to remain like this for the rest of the week, yippee.

It really does look like this on a clear day

I usually go skiing with clubs like the Ski Club of Great Britain or the Frankfurt Ski Club, but this week I’m on my own, skiing during the day and studying in the evenings. It sounds better than it is – I’d forgotten how tiring on-piste skiing becomes after a while, a bit like driving on the autobahn except worse because you have to avoid a lot of out-of-control skiers and boarders. Luckily, there are plenty of ‘ski touring’ routes just off the main pistes, always my favourites, with plenty of powder. That said, I’m joining an Austrian group tomorrow for some real off-piste ouch! I know my legs will be jelly after an hour (‘we’ll just walk up to that ridge over there’), but it’s worth doing if only for the views.


The ski-tour turned out to be a sort of group lesson whilst touring around the mountain and was absolutely great. It’s amazing the bad habits that develop if you don’t have a checkup every now and then, I must do this more often. That said, it was no easy stroll through the woods – one of us clocked our group doing a speed 96.7 km/hr down a Schuss!


Filed under Skiing, Travel