Listenind to Bob Fleming will give you a good idea of what I’ve been like for the last few days…Follow @telescoper
Archive for the Television Category
Since I’m going to be away from base for a while I thought I’d post this classic film to cover the interruption to normal blogging service. Here’s a description from the Youtube entry.
London to Brighton in Four Minutes, made by the BBC Film Unit in 1952, was a favourite of many viewers during the 1950s. In those days one never knew when it would be screened, but it often popped up when there was an unscheduled gap between programmes. Apparently the journey on the Brighton Belle was filmed at 2 frames per second, thus at the normal projection speed of 24fps a speed of 60 mph becomes 720 mph. The cameraman was sitting in the cab with the train driver and hand cranking the film camera. Each reel of film was only 1000ft and so the camerman had to change the film during the journey. When editing the film these “gaps” were filled with a shot of the train driver.
This film footage is from the Archive Collection held by the Alexandra Palace Television Society.
Modern trains still follow the same route, but there are many new developments either side of the line, including Gatwick Airport…Follow @telescoper
I had decided to post this if last night’s US Election result had turned out differently, but then thought I’d post it anyway.
Those of us of a certain age will remember the sense of incomprehension that spread around the world when Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in 1980 and were bracing themselves for similar trauma last night if Mitt Romney had won. I’m sure I’m not the only person breathing a sigh of relief this morning. In deference to the losing candidate, I’ll echo the title of the song with a piece of Mitt Romney’s most inspirational rhetoric:
“I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.
Anyway, lest you all get carried away with the euphoria of a second term for Barack Obama, I’ll say that although I’m glad the electorate stepped back from the apocalyptic vision of a Romney victory, this is very much business as usual – with all that entails. Here is the late Gore Vidal’s summary of American politics (written in the 1970s).
There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.
Since the new series of Doctor Who is to start this evening on BBC1, I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting this old blog item again:
As a Professor of Astrophysics I am often asked “Why on Earth did you take up such a crazy subject?”
I guess many astronomers, physicists and other scientists have to answer this sort of question. For many of them there is probably a romantic reason, such as seeing the rings of Saturn or the majesty of the Milky Way on a dark night. Others will probably have been inspired by TV documentary series such as The Sky at Night, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or even Horizon which, believe it or not, actually used to be quite good but which is nowadays uniformly dire. Or it could have been something a bit more mundane but no less stimulating such as a very good science teacher at school.
When I’m asked this question I’d love to be able to put my hand on my heart and give an answer of that sort but the truth is really quite a long way from those possibilities. The thing that probably did more than anything else to get me interested in science was a Science Fiction TV series or rather not exactly the series but the opening titles.
The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast in the year of my birth, so I don’t remember it at all, but I do remember the astonishing effect the credits had on my imagination when I saw later episodes as a small child. Here is the opening title sequence as it appeared in the very first series featuring William Hartnell as the first Doctor.
To a younger audience it probably all seems quite tame, but I think there’s a haunting, unearthly beauty to the shapes conjured up by Bernard Lodge. Having virtually no budget for graphics, he experimented in a darkened studio with an old-fashioned TV camera and a piece of black card with Doctor Who written on it in white. He created the spooky kaleidoscopic patterns you see by simply pointing the camera so it could see into its own monitor, thus producing a sort of electronic hall of mirrors.
What is so fascinating to me is how a relatively simple underlying concept could produce a rich assortment of patterns, particularly how they seem to take on an almost organic aspect as they merge and transform. I’ve continued to be struck by the idea that complexity could be produced by relatively simple natural laws which is one of the essential features of astrophysics and cosmology. As a practical demonstration of the universality of physics this sequence takes some beating.
As well as these strange and wonderful images, the titles also featured a pioneering piece of electronic music. Officially the composer was Ron Grainer, but he wasn’t very interested in the commission and simply scribbled the theme down and left it to the BBC to turn it into something useable. In stepped the wonderful Delia Derbyshire, unsung heroine of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who, with only the crudest electronic equipment available, turned it into a little masterpiece. Ethereal yet propulsive, the original theme from Doctor Who is definitely one of my absolute favourite pieces of music and I’m glad to see that Delia Derbyshire is now receiving the acclaim she deserves from serious music critics.
It’s ironic that I’ve now moved to Cardiff where new programmes of Doctor Who and its spin-off, the anagrammatic Torchwood, are made. One of the great things about the early episodes of Doctor Who was that the technology simply didn’t exist to do very good special effects. The scripts were consequently very careful to let the viewers’ imagination do all the work. That’s what made it so good. I’m pleased that the more recent incarnations of this show also don’t go overboard on the visuals. Perhaps thats a conscious attempt to appeal to people who saw the old ones as well as those too young to have done so. It’s just a pity the modern opening title music is so bad…
Anyway, I still love Doctor Who after all these years. It must sound daft to say that it inspired me to take up astrophysics, but it’s truer than any other explanation I can think of. Of course the career path is slightly different from a Timelord, but only slightly.
At any rate I think The Doctor is overdue for promotion. How about Professor Who?Follow @telescoper
Since I’ve established a little bit of a horror theme for this week, I think it’s a good idea to continue with this clip of the definitive portrayal of a vampire, i.e. the Count von Count from Sesame Street. I should reassure you all that, although this blog is X-rated, being censored, this particular post is entirely suitable for viewing at work…Follow @telescoper
Well it’s a Bank Holiday (hooray!) so naturally it’s raining (boo!). Nice to have a lie-in on a Monday morning for a change, but will probably spend the afternoon working anyway. We’ve just finished formal teaching term, and now we have a “Guided Study Week” of revision lectures etc before examinations start next week.
By way of a diversion I thought I’d mention that on my recent trip to South Africa I got a chance the see the film version of John le Carré’s superb novel Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy. It was much as I’d expected, actually. Well acted and directed in itself, but rather difficult to enjoy if you’ve either read the book or seen the seven-part 1979 BBC TV dramatisation which, centred around a flawlessly understated performance by Alec Guinness as George Smiley, is surely one of the finest TV drama series ever made, although the sequel Smiley’s People is perhaps even better.
The point is that the original plot by John le Carré is just too complicated to fit in the usual duration of a feature film, so if one knows the full story one can’t fail but be conscious of the alterations and huge chunks completely missing from the movie. Nevertheless, given the constraints, it’s a good film in its own right. I’m glad I watched it, though that was mainly because it reminded me how good the TV version was.
Incidentally, parts of the film were apparently shot at Imperial College. I didn’t actually spot this when watching it, but was told about it afterwards.
Anyway I found this clip on Youtube of the very start of the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , a scene placed before the opening titles rolled. Although it doesn’t correspond to anything in the book, I think it epitomizes what was so good about the television version. It features the four characters who belong to the Witchraft “Magic Circle” responsible for running Source Merlin, a Soviet agent who is supposed to be working as double-agent for British Intelligence (called “The Circus” because of its headquarters in Cambridge Circus). Of course it turns out everything is actually the other way round, and Source Merlin is Moscow Centre’s contact with a mole inside the Circus (codename “Gerald”) who is handing over British secrets. Gerald must be one of the four who have regular contact with Source Merlin, but which one?
I think this scene is brilliant because nobody says a word for most of it, but it immediately establishes the different characters of the respective protagonists. The pompous and punctilious pipe-smoking Percy Alleline (“Tinker”) brings a huge dossier of papers to the meeting, evidently enjoying his role as Head Boy. Flamboyant Bill Haydon (“Tailor”) displays his studied eccentricity by bringing only a cup of tea, with the saucer on top, and a biscuit. Haydon’s expression as Percy starts the meeting is priceless. Dishevelled chain-smoking Roy Bland (“Soldier”) seems entirely preoccupied with other things. Snappily dressed Toby Esterhase (“Poor Man”) betrays his status as a junior member of the club by arriving early – no doubt to impress – and closing the door that Haydon carelessly left open.Follow @telescoper
I hope you’ve all been tuning in to the BBC’s astronomy jamboree Stargazing Live. There have been two episodes so far, with one last one to follow tonight, plus a huge range of activities across the country (including Wales) giving members of the public the chance to look at the sky through telescopes. The programmes and other activities have been getting an excellent response, especially from the younger generation, which is excellent news for the future of astronomy.
Working in a School of Physics & Astronomy makes one realise just how much public interest there is in astronomy, not just among schoolkids but in the numerous amateur astronomical societies, the members of which actually know the night sky better than many professionals! Most of us astronomers and astrophysicists are regularly asked to give public lectures and Cardiff in particular runs a host of other outreach activities related to our astronomy research. Our colleagues in mainstream physics subjects such as condensed matter physics don’t get the same level of direct public interest – I don’t think there are any amateur semiconductor physics clubs in the UK! – but many students attracted into universities by astronomy do turn to other branches of physics when they get here, because something else catches their imagination.
But important though that role is, let’s not forget that astronomy isn’t just about outreach. It’s actually real science, making real discoveries about the way our universe works. It’s worth doing in its own right as well as being good for other branches of physics.
Anyway, being a theoretical astrophysicist I usually feel a bit left out of these stargazing actitivies because I don’t really know one end of a telescope from the other. The other day I jokingly asked whether Stargazing Live was ever going to include a theory component…
Last night’s episode actually did, in the form of a discussion of a numerical simulation of galaxy formation between the presenters and young Dr Andrew Pontzen from Oxford University. He even made a little video about the simulation, sort of virtual reality rendition of the formation of the Milky Way, as shown on the telly:
Apparently, making this required 300,000 CPU hours on 300 processors and it is based on 16 Terabytes of raw data. Phew!
It’s a very impressive simulation, but the use of the word simulation in this context always makes me smile. Being a crossword nut I spend far too much time looking in dictionaries but one often finds quite amusing things there. This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines SIMULATION:
a. The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession.
b. Tendency to assume a form resembling that of something else; unconscious imitation.
2. A false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something.
3. The technique of imitating the behaviour of some situation or process (whether economic, military, mechanical, etc.) by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus, esp. for the purpose of study or personnel training.
It’s only the third entry that gives the intended meaning. This is worth bearing in mind if you prefer old-fashioned analytical theory!
In football, of course, you can get sent off for simulation…Follow @telescoper
I saw this clip a few days ago, and had it in mind to post it at an appropriate time. Unfortunately when I got home today I learned some news that makes today seem all too appropriate. A distinguished and respected colleague, Prof. Steve Rawlings, of Oxford University was found dead last night. This is shocking and desperately sad news. I have no idea what happened but apparently the Oxfordshire police have arrested a 49-year old man on suspicion of murder. No doubt more information will emerge in due course.
The connection between this sombre piece of news and the clip I intended to post should become obvious when I tell you that it depicts a funeral. Indeed the music featured, the hymn or spiritual Just a Closer Walk with Thee, was the main music chosen for the service when my father died, just over four years ago. It’s a lovely old traditional tune that often plays a central role in New Orleans style funerals, as shown here, and is a melody that, for me, has a deep associattion with loss and bereavement.
The clip is taken from the US TV series Treme. I haven’t seen Treme -if it has been shown on UK TV I missed it – but it’s set in New Orleans in the aftermath of the near destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not knowing anything about the TV series I only watched the clip because of the music, but I was mightily impressed by the way the scene was photographed and how careful the producers had been in getting the details just right, because a funeral in New Orleans is unlike any other.
The sashes, parasols, and exaggerated, swaying slow march seen in the film are in some sense almost comical, but they are also at the same time solemn and immensely dignified. Defiant, even. I don’t think it’s just because I am a jazz fan that I find this video so moving. Perhaps it’s really because, faced with the awesome finality of death, every action we take in life is comical anyway, just as every word is ultimately banal. However, if a farce is what it’s going to be, let’s just make sure it’s done the way we like it – especially at the end.
One of the commenters on Youtube put it thus:
it aint my time yet .but when it is thats the way i wanna go home
Amen to that. I don’t think Steve Rawlings was a jazz fan, but this is the best way I can think of to pay my respects.Follow @telescoper