Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Canadian cosmology

Hello world!   I was amazed to see how long it had been since I last posted a blog entry.  Quite a lot has happened since then:  my STFC Science in Society Fellowship officially ended in November 2012, and a few months before that I took over as Head of School of Physics and Astronomy at Glasgow University.  (This latter development may have had something to do with my long blog silence!)

Although my Head of School duties mean that way too much of my time is now taken up with committee meetings and sorting out the problems of a large department of more than 100 staff and postdocs, I have been determined not to give up entirely on my research or outreach activities.

In research I continue to be busy with all things Bayesian, particularly in relation to gravitational wave astronomy and cosmology - which is what brings me to Canada this week.  I'm attending CosmoStat2013, a meeting looking at the "Statistical Challenges from large data sets in cosmology and particle physics", in the fabulous setting of the Banff International Research Station - part of the world-renowned Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies.  Check out our conference group photo here.  I was delighted to be invited to the meeting, and have already learned a great deal from lots of excellent talks,  but I was a bit torn CosmoStat2013 clashed with the LIGO-Virgo joint collaboration meeting in Bethesda, Maryland, where many of my gravitational wave friends and colleagues are this week.  Typical: you wait for one important international conference to come along, and two come along at once...

Still, no matter how useful and interesting the LIGO-Virgo meeting would have been, the scenery in Banff has really been fantastic.  Today we had a free afternoon so I took the cable car up to the summit of sulphur Mountain (about 8000 feet) where the views were completely stunning.

The weather has been very cold all week so far, but it is crisp and clear, and feels much healthier than a dreich March day in Glasgow. (Not that I won't be glad to get back at the weekend, of course, armed with my customary supply of goldfish crackers for Catriona - it's been a while since my last North American expedition, so her goldfish habit has gone unfulfilled for many months!)

On the outreach side of things, I've been busy since my last post on a bunch of varied projects - including the first European performance (as far as I know) of Andrea Centazzo's Einstein's Cosmic Messengers - a fantastic multimedia piece about black holes and gravitational wave astronomy conceived by Andrea and my LIGO colleague Michele Vallisneri.   I've also taken over as chair of the West Scotland branch of the British Science Association. This has presented some logistical challenges since CosmoStats2013 not only clashed with the L-V meeting, but also with National Science and Engineering Week in the UK, during which our branch was running quite a few events - including Science Funday last Sunday at Mugdock Country Park, featuring Jane Magill and Alec Mackinnon's excellent Cosmic Way roadshow that charts the fascinating history of (and Scotland's role in) the discovery of Cosmic Rays.  It was a nice surprise to find at the top of Sulphur Mountain the site of a historic cosmic ray station

complete with (English and French) outreach descriptions of what are cosmic rays.

Anyway, everything seems to have gone well with our NSEW events so far but I will try to be around for it next year!

The great thing about having a conference in Banff is that you're quite far away from it all (just how far away was emphasised at the top of Sulphur Mountain - interesting that they showed a Scottish and UK flag, hedging their bets for 2014?...)
 so it's been good to immerse myself in lot of cosmology and statistics for a few days, freed from the usual distractions of the Kelvin Building.  The talks have been great - especially Mike Hobson's on machine learning in astronomy (I have seen the future of Bayesian inference in cosmology, and it is called Skynet!!)

Finally, here's a link to a short movie of the trip up on the gondola:  my puny smart phone camera doesn't really do the mountains justice, but I'm glad that at least I made the trip on such a clear and sunny day.

I'll try not to leave it so long before my next blog post.

May the force be with you!