Monday, May 28, 2012

And now, for something completely different...

[The following is a guest post from Jenn Reuer. I'm kind of excited because this is our first genuine, bona fide, guest post about research by a genuine, bona fide, researcher. Jenn and I attended the same college at Oxford. When I arrived there Jenn was finishing her Masters in English literature. Now she is just finishing the doctorate and has taken time away from that awful phase of one's life to tell us a bit about her research. Enjoy...]

Image credit: The Historical Association
I work on 14th – 15th century Middle English and Older Scots romances about King Arthur. Specifically, I look at the influence of medieval law in shaping ideas about kingship and justice in three poems, and how the interface of literature and law is frequently signposted by the phrase, ‘reason and right.’

(For those of you who might be wondering what I’m on about . . . ‘romance’, in this context, refers to: ‘a tale, in prose or verse, that embodies the adventures of some hero of chivalry, belonging both in matter and form to the ages of knighthood.’)

So, what do fantastic tales about knights, magic and adventures have to do with the fairly dry subject of law? As it turns out, quite a lot. An understanding of law helps us understand why some characters behave the way they do, say what they say, and occasionally, it even make us question the efficacy (and justice) of the norm. Here’s an example of how the use of legal language and procedure can help us approach romance in a new light.

Talking Ghosts and a Question of Ethics

Here commes an errant knight
Do him reson and right

Reminders of the transience of life and earthly
glory is a prevalent motif  in medieval art, 
and is frequently found on tombs. 
Image credit: Morbid Anatomy
The above is a quote from one of the texts that I cover in my thesis, called The Awntyrs off Arthur or, The Adventures of Arthur. (An online version of the poem, complete with a glossary, can be found here.) Remember the phrase, ‘reason and right.’ We’ll be coming back to it later.

In the first half of the poem, Arthur is off on a hunt while Gawain and Queen Guinevere take rest by the Tarn Walding. Here, they end up receiving a few key life lessons from the ghost of Guinevere’s mother.

Its skeletal body caked in mud, sunken eyes glowing like coals and a toad biting into the skull, the ghost preaches (with words and by its very presence) private as well as social responsibility: So as I am, you shall also be. All earthly things are but temporary. Remember the poor while you are still alive, and stay away from sin.

While the message seems somewhat lost on Guinevere, Gawain is led to question the lifestyle of his king and fellow knights:
“How shal we fare," quod the freke, "that fonden to fight,
And thus defoulen the folke on fele kinges londes,
And riches over reymes withouten eny right,
Wynnen worshipp in werre thorgh wightnesse of hondes?"
‘How shall we fare,’ said the warrior, ‘that undertake to fight,
And thus trample over the folk on various kings’ lands
And enter realms without any right
Winning worship in war through prowess of arms?’
Our hero has come to realise that his livelihood and reputation are built on depriving others of their rights. (An important concept, as much of English common law was concerned with the question of who was entitled to what.) How does he reconcile this with the knightly ideal of achieving renown through warfare and acts of violence? The Ghost concludes that Arthur is ‘too covetous,’ and prophesies that once his time atop Fortune’s Wheel is past, he (and Gawain) will meet a tragic end.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Collective Marvelling

We contribute at this blog because we thinking sharing fundamental research is important. The more other research blogs that exist similar to ours, the more there is out there for the world to encounter. This is definitely a good thing. However, the more blogs that exist, the harder it gets for people to find things in the maze.

With that in mind, I can happily announce that The Trenches of Discovery has co-founded Collective Marvelling, which is a network of blogs written by young researchers. Collective Marvelling will host snippets of every post written at one of the network's blogs, along with a link to the full post. The snippets will be posted at the same time as the full post is written, which makes Collective Marvelling a central place you can check regularly to keep track of all the blogs in the network at once (if you aren't a fan of rss).

There is now a permanent link to Collective Marvelling at the top of this blog. You should go and check it out. And while you're there, check out the other three founding blogs of the network, Blank on the Map, Cross Sections and Lumps 'N' Bumps.

We welcome any ideas for development of the network.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The ISW Mystery IV: Where does the evidence lead?

Where does the evidence lead? (Photograph: H Armstrong Roberts/Corbis)

In my last three major posts (I, II and III) I've been talking you through a mystery: the integrated Sachs-Wolfe mystery. This post will be able to be read on its own, but it you will appreciate it much more if you have also read them. In today's post I will be playing detective, examining the evidence, looking for leads and weighing up the various possible solutions to the mystery. Like any good mystery there are hints as to what the resolution might be, but like any good mystery story some of these hints might turn out to be just be red herrings, so we need to be careful.

At the beginning of my most recent post in this series I warned you that it would be my most technical post to date, but encouraged you to stick with it. With this post, the situation is the opposite. That post contained the details of the actual measurement that was made, which is necessarily going to be somewhat dry and technical. This post, however, speculates about what might have caused the effect. As you'll soon see, solving the mystery potentially requires modifications to our understanding of fundamental physics or the initial conditions of the universe. All very exciting stuff, so congratulations for making it to this point.

An overview of the case:

Before embarking on the detective work, let me recap the first three posts in this series. In the first post, I introduced what the integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect is. It is the very subtle heating and cooling of light as it passes through over and under dense regions of the universe. In the second post I explained that this effect is so small that it almost certainly will never be observed directly. The only hope we have to observe it is to look for statistical correlations between the temperature of light on the sky and the density of the matter that the light travelled through to reach us. Only the cosmic microwave background (CMB) is uniform enough that such a statistical correlation could ever be observed. In the last instalment, I told you of a particular measurement that intended to detect this ISW effect by looking at extreme over and under densities in the universe. The measurement appeared to be a success because it did measure a correlation. The only problem, and the source of the mystery, is that the size of the correlation is far too big to be from the ISW effect.

Something in those structures is heating/cooling the CMB, but what?

Monday, May 7, 2012

The human machine: biological batteries and motors

So far in my series of posts, I’ve tried to give you an appreciation for how war is fought on a microscopic level, which is to say: how invading pathogens try to consume our body’s resources, and how our immune system fights back. In my last post, I also tried to convey some of the contemporary research that is expanding our understanding of this system. While this is (to me at least!) a fascinating topic, I am going to put it to one side for the time being. The reason for this is that there are just so many enthralling topics to talk about when it comes to molecular biology! So, I have decided to concentrate a new series of posts on various interesting snippets of biology and biochemistry that I hope you will find intriguing and allow you to understand your own body a little better. In doing this, I don’t want to lose sight of the purpose of this blog – i.e. to convey a sense of the ongoing work taking place – and so will try to include cutting-edge research into each post whenever possible.

Preamble over, let’s get started...

Looking deeper and deeper

‘How does my body actually work?’ It’s a question that’s likely occurred to most of us at some point in our lives. Most people know how our skeleton is arranged and how our muscles tug at various parts of it to allow movement; similarly we all know how our hearts pump blood around this vast system, and what our various internal organs do. But science is all about finding something out and then saying ‘sure...but how does that work’ and then taking it down to the next level. When physicists discovered protons and neutrons, they weren’t content to leave it there; they took it to the next level and found out what those are made of, and then what the things they’re made of are made of, and so on to the present day. The same is true for biology – sure your muscles contract, but what are they made of, how do they contract and where do they get the energy from? It is this last point that we will deal with today: where does our body get energy from?

The simple answer to the above question is just: food. We all know we need to eat to have energy; if you’re a bit of an athlete or diet-enthusiast then you might know about the different components of food (carbs, fats, protein etc.) and how they affect the body. But have you ever wondered how all those varieties of different foods end up powering your body at the molecular level?