Sunday, September 26, 2010

Presentation to the Visitor

Last Saturday, Somerville College officially inaugurated its new Principal, Dr. Alice Prochaska. The ceremony is actually known as “Presentation to the Visitor” with “Visitor” here not meaning something out of star trek, but rather meaning the Chancellor of the University – the Lord Patten of Barnes.

[The person with the real power at the top of the administration is actually the Vice-Chancellor. The Chancellor is mainly a figure head, but does preside at formal occasions such as this one.]

During the ceremony of “Presentation,” the Fellows of the College gather, in academic gowns, in the Senior Common Room. Many were dressed in Black and Red, the Somerville colors. (I was happy just to have found a clean shirt and did not think much about the color). Then the senior fellow of the College, Mrs Lesley Brown, presents the principal-elect to the visitor.

[Mrs Lesley Brown has been a distinguished scholar of Ancient Philosophy at Oxford for many many years – having been elected fellow at Somerville College in 1970, and even having chaired the Philosophy department for several years since then. However, having been elected fellow so young, she actually never bothered to obtain her DPhil or PhD, and is thus listed as Mrs rather than Dr or Professor]

Mrs Brown then did the “presentation”, reading the officially prescribed text, in English (Of all the times when Latin might have been appropriate, this might have been one – being that Mrs Brown is a Latin expert).
I, Mrs Lesley Brown, Fellow of Somerville College, in the University of Oxford hereby declare the Dr Alice Prochaska was formally elected Principal of said College, in Succession to Dame Fiona Caldicott at the stated meeting of the Governing Body held on the 17th June 2009.

Then the Principal Elect makes her declaration:
I, Alice Prochaska, hereby declare that I will faithfully perform the duties of my office as Principal of Somerville College, and will observe the Statutes and By-laws of the College in force for the time being

People were a little puzzled by the phrase “for the time being” that occurs in this declaration, but that is what is officially prescribed in our statutes (although no one could quite explain why this phrase is inserted).

And finally the Visitor confirms that this has been witnessed
I, the Right Honourable Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and Visitor of Somerville College in the University of Oxford, hereby declare that Mrs Lesley Brown, Fellow of Somerville College, having announced to me on this twenty-fifth day of September 2010 that Dr Alice Prochaska had been duly elected Principal of Somerville College, presented to me Dr. Prochaska as said Principal. The said Dr Prochaska declared before me that she would faithfully perform the duties of the office of Principal of Somerville College and would observe the Statutes and By-laws of the College in force for the time being.

That first sentence is a bit hard to Parse, huh?

After the ceremony, toasts were made to Somerville and to our new Principal, and we all adjourned to the Margaret Thatcher Centre (the Iron Lady was a Somervillian) for lunch. This gave the fellows a chance to catch up with each other after their respective summers away.

At one point (after only about four champagnes) I found myself sitting next to the Visitor, the Lord Patten. I should have done my research about him in advance so that I could have intelligently argued with his disparaging remarks about the Black-Scholes equation -- although if his remarks were focused entirely on the excesses of the system and rather than on the wisdom of the Nobel prize, we might have agreed entirely.

Incidentally, you can also read the new principal's view on this event on her blog.
Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nobel Bets 2010

It is that time of year again -- the time when the best and the brightest from around the world lose sleep wondering if they are going to get that early morning call from Sweden announcing that they have won the Nobel prize.

Last year I placed my wager on Yakir Aharonov and Michael Berry for geometric phases in physics. This turned out to be a bad bet. From now on I am removing Aharonov from my list of likely candidates. Why? Because I was informed that the 1961 work he is most famous for actually discovered 12 years earlier by Ehrenberg and Siday (Even Wikipedia appears aware of this). The fact that it is called the “Ahanronov-Bohm effect” appears to be a good example of Stigler’s law: The principle that nothing is ever named after its original discoverer. (Stigler’s law itself was discovered by Merton).

Since last year, the prize went to Smith and Boyle and Kao for what many people disparaged as “just engineering” (albeit some pretty amazing engineering). Given that, I think this year the prize might go to something a bit more fundamental. A decent bet would be Sir Michael Berry (without Aharonov).

However, for my money, I think the front-runner is the WMAP experiment (Wilkenson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) which measured the fluctuations of the temperature of the universe – telling us a whole lot about its history. It is a very important experiment. Reuters actually agrees that this one is a pretty good bet. Another really good bet (in my opinion) is the Neutrino Mass experiment from Super-K. I bet on them in 2008 (and lost, as usual).

Another bet on Reuters is Ebbesen for surface plasmons: collective motion of light and electrons together on the surface of metals. While this is nice work, and Ebbesen is a good scientist, I think it is far from a Nobel.

Olaf Smits, in Dublin, mentioned a really interesting possibility. While a bit out of the box for a Nobel Prize in Physics, the fact that last year was a bit out of the box indicates that the Nobel committee is willing to break some rules these days. Olaf’s bet is that the prize will be awarded for the discovery of exo-solar planets. In the star-trek futuristic “this is our moment to discover that we are not alone” kind of way, I think a case could be made that this is worthy.
Sunday, September 12, 2010


A long time ago (in a galaxy far-far away)...

…I had a more musical life. I sang in choirs, played in orchestras, played in multiple jazz bands, classical chamber ensembles, and occasionally appeared in marching bands, handbell choirs, and even the stray pit-orchestras (swearing never-again each time). I called myself a “musical slut” because, more or less, I would play anything anywhere any time (thank you Dereth Phillips, where-ever you are, for coining that delicate phrase). These days, mostly just because I have way too many other things keeping me busy, such devotion to music has faded from my life.

Now, as mentioned in this previous post, all spring I heard many details of Christiane’s woes planning her wedding. One of the many things she worried about was the music for the wedding ceremony – she wanted a full choir in the chapel. When I confessed that, yes, I do read music well, and yes, I did once sing in a real choir, I was quickly drafted for the chapel choir and handed a stack of music to learn. Only then did I realize that the last time I tried to sing seriously was during the Reagan administration. I was unsure if the equipment was still even remotely functional.

To begin with, my voice was never great – it had a weak tone and my singing range was poor. I could never even get close to the top of the tenor notes, and I was really really weak down by the bottom of the bass notes. And this was years ago when I actually worked on my voice to stretch my range. Furthermore, I had a bad tendency to miss pitches. Not that I didn’t realize when this had happened – my ear about these things was pretty good. But I’d land on the wrong pitch and struggle to fix things – ending up either spontaneously changing keys or sounding a bit like a trombone doing a wa-wa as I slid between pitches.

Nonetheless, wanting to contribute to this wedding, I accepted the challenge from Christiane. I was fairly confident that I remembered the main secret to learning music – practice, practice, practice. If you study a piece of music enough, until it was like you had written the whole piece yourself, you can’t go too far wrong. (So I hoped).

First of all, I needed a place to practice: preferably a place where no one else would be listening to me singing --- because I was pretty sure that, at least to start with, I would end up sounding like a walrus in heat. A place to practice was harder to find than I had expected. It would have been great if I could have also found a piano to help me out, but alas, random pianos are pretty hard to find when you are on the road. The best practice room I found as the wedding approached was in my office in the Hamilton Institute. I would show up to work very early in the morning (before all the commuting Hamiltonians showed up) and make a whole lot of gargling and warbling sounds trying to learn my music. Then I did it again late at night after all the Hamiltonians went home.

So I spent many hours singing full volume in my office. It would kind of go like this: I would sing two or three measures; then listen to the relevant measures in a recording of the piece; then say out loud “crap, that’s not right”; read the music again (wishing I remembered my solfege better); then try again; then listen again; then curse again; and so it went on. Unfortunately some of the pieces I was supposed to learn had some tricky harmonies – and it took quite a bit of trying and cursing before I made any progress. To make my life worse, the bass parts frequently went either too high or too low for my voice – and as predicted, walrus noises came out instead.

Unfortunately, during these exercises, I was never quite sure that the Hamilton building was empty. So I’d be mid-walrus-sound and I’d see a Hamiltonian looking into my office with either a curious, or sometimes a rather perturbed look --- a perturbed Hamiltonian, as it were (that’s another physics joke). At that point I would put away my music and start on my usual physics work as if I had no idea where the walrus sounds were coming from.

Anyway, after quite a few days of this (hoping that I would not get kicked out of the building for disturbing the peace) I actually started to feel like I had a pretty decent handle on most of the music, and my vocal range was getting just a bit better – now being almost able to convincingly hit most of the high and low notes. Nonetheless, I was also increasingly hoping that the other bass in the choir (there would be only two on a part) would be a strong singer.

The choir would only have one hour of rehearsal just prior to the wedding ceremony. So on the day of the wedding, dressed in my wedding gear, I showed up early and started warming up my voice before the rehearsal. The choir consisted of 5 genuine friends and relatives of the betrothed, and 5 hired guns to fill out the parts – along with a conductor and organist from Somerville college (the organist is a bit famous around Somerville for being the best organist ever to set foot in the place – so I knew we would be fine in that respect). Within about 30 seconds of singing, I knew that this whole adventure was going to be no problem. The voices in this choir were wonderful --- all I had to do was not completely screw up and everything would be fine. The other bass (a childhood friend of Christiane’s named Martin) was a very solid singer and all I had to do was follow him (Thank you Martin!). I was probably the weakest voice in the choir by a good margin. It was very fun to sing with such a talented group.

So here were the pieces that were part of the service:

The first song at the beginning of the service was a modern hymn or something of the sort. I was a nice tune, although it sounded to me a bit like the kind of song you might hear at a Christian youth-group convention or up-with-people concert. It is in German so I have no idea what it means, but I strongly suspect that the words are in similar spirit to the youth-group-esque “we should all love each other” blah blah blah. This is not the actual arrangement we sang, but it gives the right feel of the kind of harmonies that were used (although it was a piano rather than electric organ accompaniment). To my taste, the best version of this song on the web is this rather simple version from a plain girl with a nice but not particularly spectacular voice just singing and playing guitar. It sounds a lot less like “up with people” this way. Kudos to her whoever she is.

The next musical part of the service was this standard German hymn. I was told that the Germans in the audience would fully expect this one to be sung.

During the bulk of the religious part of the service there were a bunch of little Kyrie-s interjected between the Greek orthodox priest’s singing of various bible verses. This was only a problem because the priest would pick some random pitch out of the air and we were supposed to come in on four part harmony with respect to his random pitch (it worked only about 70% of the time).

The hardest of the pieces came near the end of the service: The Lord Bless You and Keep You -- a very beautiful but difficult tune by the well known (still living) choral composer John Rutter. The harmonies on this one tested even some of the good singers. I really suffered to learn this. The piece also gave the sopranos a nice chance to shine (and indeed some of the sopranos had wonderful voices).

Finally, the majestic conclusion of the service, and my favorite of the pieces by far: “Lord in Thee Have I Trusted”, by George Frideric Handel. This piece, the conclusion of his “Dettingen Te Deum,” is a magnificent work meant as a celebration of a military victory as much as in praise of God. Considering the level of organization that went into putting together the wedding ceremony, the spirit of military victory seemed appropriate.

The piece begins with an alto solo which was to be sung by our common friend Sabine Müller (lecturer in modern languages). I’ve known for a while that Sabine took singing lessons, but for some reason it never really occurred to me that she might actually have a great voice (oh me of little faith). During rehearsal when we launched into this work and I heard her sing this solo for the first time I admit I was rather shocked by how good she sounded. Then when the rest of the choir came in with the strong sopranos, 5 part harmony, and organ accompaniment, the whole thing knocked my socks off.

So in the end my experience singing for this wedding went really well (meaning, it didn't sound like a walrus). It was fun contributing to the event and I realize I have missed the feeling of being part of a musical ensemble. Maybe I’m even so inspired that I’ll join a choir. Then again, joining choirs in Oxford can be bad for your health, as the famous Inspector Morse once discovered.
I received this plot from my brother Rob.

I think there needs to be less green.
Saturday, September 11, 2010


Whenever I visit the National Irish University at Maynooth (which I have been doing quite a lot recently) I am loaned an office in the Hamilton Mathematics Institute, not to be confused with this Hamilton Mathematics Institute, only a 45 minute train ride away. Both of these institutes are named after Ireland’s most famous mathematician and physicist, William Rowan Hamilton. If you have an office in one of these institutes you can call yourself a Hamiltonian.

And if you take the train into work in the morning then, because of you, all the other Neanderthals on the train will never evolve --- because they commute with a Hamiltonian.

If you did not get that joke, you are not a physicist.
Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm not making this up....

... flying into Stockholm the girl sitting next to me had a dragon tatoo. On her ankle though. I tried not to make her angry.
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tying the knots

No, not another talk about the mathematical theory of knots. Here I’m talking about the other knot – you know the one I appear to be allergic to – marriage.

A fair number of people get married right out of high school. More get married just after college. Then some more a few years after college. In my late 20’s and early 30’s, I must have gone to half a dozen weddings per year. My one nice suit got a lot of action. But by my late 30’s pretty much all my friends were either already married or, like me, didn’t appear to be the marrying type. Between 2005 and 2009, I’m not sure if I went to even a single wedding (er.. ok I think one in 2006, Ren?). Most days I can’t even remember what color my nice suit is, or where I put it for that matter.

Then in the year 2010, long after the wedding rush appeared to be completely over, all of a sudden 4 wedding invitations appears on my desk simultaneously! Here’s the list of the people to whom congratulations are due:

Carobe Hart and Nick Read:

Nick is a friend and colleague (a professor at Yale) who I have known for many years (He is also one of the few people around who I consider to be much much smarter than me – most people are only much smarter, but not much much smarter). Unfortunately, their wedding was scheduled right in the middle of the teaching term this last spring and it was humanly impossible to make it to the wedding and still fulfill my teaching responsibilities. I’ll make it up to them somehow.

Terrie Cooney and Rob Grainger:

Terrie is a good friend from back in New York, but as luck would have it, we both ended up in the UK (she’s in London). I met Terrie playing Frisbee very shortly after I moved down to New York in 1997 or so. We had a terrific little group of people who would get together every Sunday to play. Over the years we complained to each other an awful lot about being single. I really would have loved to have been at her wedding this summer. I’ll have to make it up to them as well! But unfortunately their wedding was scheduled at essentially the exact same time as …

Sarah Israelit and Nathan Roe:

Sarah is a friend of mine, originally from college, but we only became close many years later. I felt deeply invested in this wedding because a few years earlier when she had just started dating Nathan, I got almost daily panicked emails about “He doesn’t like me enough! I need to have a talk with him! I’m not sure this is working out” … and I sent many many an email back saying “Chill out. This is going great. He’s totally into you. Just relax.” (As if I really had a clue.) It was a great vicarious victory that it all worked out. I attended the beautiful wedding this July in Portland Oregon.

Christiane Riedinger and Luke Kontogiannis:

Christiane is the first new friend I made after moving to the UK. (“friend” is defined as a person who you can call and say “lets go get ice cream” at any random time). Through Christiane I met Luke, and a bunch of other nice folks too. (Pictures of them and their posse are here). This was another wedding that I felt very very invested in. Since I hang out with them very frequently, I heard an awful lot about the trials and tribulations of planning a wedding this year (actually they planned three weddings: one in Germany, one in Greece, and the big one in Oxford). The logistics of all this sounded to me to be more complicated than planning the invasion of Normandy. Last weekend they finally had the last of the three weddings in Oxford, and amazingly, everything (even the weather) was beautiful and it all went with not a single glitch. Another great victory! The bad news is that the two of them are moving to Cambridge in only a few weeks. Maybe they won’t like it and they will decide to move back. We do have better ice cream I’m sure.