Sunday, June 23, 2013

Across the Himalayan Axis

I had promised to try to write a summary of the workshop on cosmological perturbations post Planck that took place in Helsinki in the first week of June, but although the talks were all interesting, I didn't feel very inspired to write much about them. Plus life has been intervening, so I'll have to leave you to read Shaun's accounts at the Trenches of Discovery instead.

I also recently put a new paper on the arXiv; despite promising to write about my own papers when I put them out, I'm going to have to postpone an account of this one until next week. This is because I am spending the next week at a rather unique workshop in the Austrian Alps. (This is one of the perks of being a physicist, I suppose!)

Therefore today's post is going to be about mountaineering instead. It is an account I wrote of a trek I did with my father and sister almost exactly seven years ago: we crossed the main Himalayan mountain range from south to north over a mountain pass known as the Kang La (meaning 'pass of ice' in the local Tibetan dialect, I believe), and then crossed back again from north to south over another pass as part of a big loop. In doing so we also crossed from the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh into Zanskar, a province of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and then back again.

The account below was first written as a report for the A.C. Irvine Travel Fund, who partly funded this trip, and it has been available via a link on their website for several years. At the time, the Kang La was a very infrequently-used pass, in quite a remote area and only suitable for strong hikers with high-altitude mountain experience. But in the seven years since my trip it has seen quite a rise in popularity — I sometimes flatter myself that my account had something to do with raising the profile of the area!

Anyway, the account itself follows after the break. There is also a sketch map of the area I drew myself (it's hard to obtain decent cartographical maps of the area, and illegal to possess them in India due to the proximity to the border), and a few photographs to illustrate the scenery ...

Tuesday, June 4, 2013


This week I am attending this workshop in Helsinki. The focus of the workshop is on re-evaluating theoretical issues in cosmology in light of the new data from the Planck satellite. 

Although the data were released in March, so far as I know they have not yet inspired any major theoretical breakthroughs. This is partly because the results were somewhat disappointingly boring, in that there is no smoking-gun indication in the data of failures of our current cosmological model (for more on this, see here), and therefore no clear hints of which extensions of the model we should be looking to explore further. There are still some niggles in the data, to be sure – such as the much advertised "anomalies". But these have not yet led to any major advances either. As a community it seems we cosmologists are still digesting the Planck results.

This workshop should aid that process of digestion. There are many scientists from all over the world attending, and I'm looking forward to hearing what they think about what the data mean. The way the workshop has been organised deliberately leaves plenty of time for discussion in between the scheduled talks, which I think is always the best way to go. I'm not giving a talk myself, though some work I did recently with Shaun Hotchkiss and Samuel Flender, who are both based in Helsinki, will feature in the poster session. Samuel gets most of the credit for preparing our poster though!

I'm not going to attempt to blog about the workshop in real time. Instead I will try to make a few notes and provide a single post at the end of the week touching on what I thought were the most interesting topics of the week. If you want more detail on each day, you should read Shaun's introduction and day-by-day accounts at The Trenches of Discovery. He did a similar thing before for the official ESA Planck conference, which was very successful. But I'd rather him than me, especially as internet access is rather expensive at my hotel!

Meanwhile, the most remarkable fact to note about Helsinki right now is the weather: a thermometer in my hotel said it was 28ºC this morning, which is wonderful outdoors but when combined with quadruple-glazed windows makes nights rather uncomfortable ...