Posted in Uncategorized on November 7, 2014 by telescoper

Circumstances have forced me to take a break from blogging for a while. Normal services will be resumed as soon as possible but, for the time being, there will now follow a short intermission.

200 Years of Sax – Anniversary Poll

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , on November 6, 2014 by telescoper

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of famous Belgian Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. To mark this occasion I thought I’d undertake a bit of audience participation and get you out there in internet land to vote on the greatest proponent of said instrument. I’ve populated the list with people I consider to be likely contenders, but feel free to add your own if your favourite is missing!

Remember, Remember the 5th of November

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on November 5, 2014 by telescoper

Tonight is a big night for the town of Lewes, which is just up the road from the Sussex University campus at Falmer. The traditional bonfire night celebration draws thousands into the town. I won’t be going, as I have too much work to do and in any case the combination of huge crowds and fireworks is not one that I find particularly attractive.

The occasion for the festivities is of course Guy Fawkes’ Night, which celebrates the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes was supposed to light the blue touchpaper on that occasion and it has been a tradition to burn his effigy on the bonfire on the anniversary of the attempt, every November 5th, while letting off fireworks. It’s all a bit more involved in Lewes, where many different figures are usually burnt in effigy and there’s a lot of dressing up and parading around to boot.

When I was young, Guy Fawkes’ Night was the thing we celebrated rather than Halloween. Although we didn’t put on anything as elaborate as the Lewes event, most families held their own bonfire in their garden and fireworks could easily be bought from local shops who stocked up at this time of year. Since we had open ground right in front of our house, we had very big bonfires where I grew up in Benwell which lots of other kids came to. The number of private bonfire parties has decreased markedly since then, owing to safety concerns and they have largely been replaced by large scale organized celebrations.

Another tradition associated with November 5th also seems to have died completely. When I was a kid the thing to do was to make an effigy of Guy Fawkes (called a “Guy”) and parade him from door to door asking for “Penny for the Guy”. The idea was if you had an impressive effigy, people would give you money which you used to buy fireworks for the forthcoming party. Of course you were hoping for a bit more than a penny.

I suppose that this tradition has been displaced by the American import “Trick-or-Treat”, which I think is a shame. It’s true that many bonfire celebrations have an unpleasant anti-catholic undertone which is a reminder of the religious intolerance that blights much of British history. But although it may be an ugly history, but at least its ours. Next thing you know we won’t have Guy Fawkes’ Night at all; we’ll have to call it 5/11.

I remember one year spending ages making a really good Guy with a head made from papier mâché and plasticine for his eyes, nose and mouth. I was really proud of him, especially when he sat on top of the huge pile of wood that was going to form the bonfire. When it was lit – which happened before the fireworks started – the heat from the flames started to melt the plasticine features of the Guy.

The other kids rushed around in excitement as the adults sorted out the Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels and the rest of the soon-to-be-ignited pyrotechnics, things that would go bang and whizz though not necessarily in that order.  But I stood transfixed, staring at the Guy. After a few minutes I started sobbing and ran to my mum in anguish as molten plasticine dripped from his eyes.

Guy Fawkes was crying…



Wind versus Nuclear: The real story in pictures

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 5, 2014 by telescoper


Here’s an interesting, balanced analysis of the statistics of wind power versus nuclear power in the UK over the past couple of months. There’s obviously room for more growth in renewable energy generation, but I still think we’ll need to increase nuclear capacity to provide a counter to the intermittent variability of wind power if we are to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, which still produce most of the UK’s energy…

Originally posted on Protons for Breakfast Blog:

Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power.

Graph showing the electricity generated by nuclear and wind power (in gigawatts) every 5 minutes for the months of September and October 2014. The grey area shows the period when wind power exceeded nuclear power. (Click Graph to enlarge)

For a few days in October 2014,  wind energy consistently generated more electricity in the UK than nuclear power. Wow!

You may have become aware of this through several news outlets. The event was reported on the BBC, but curiously the Daily Mail seems not to have noticed .

Alternatively, you may like me, have been watching live on Gridwatch – a web site that finally makes the data on electricity generation easily accessible.

I was curious about the context of this achievement and so I downloaded the historically archived data on electricity generation derived from coal, gas, nuclear and wind generation in the UK for the last three years. (Download Page)

And graphing the…

View original 548 more words

Science, Poetry and Romanticism

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2014 by telescoper

I listened to a very interesting programme on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday evening, part of which was a documentary about science and poetry presented by Gregory Tate. Given that both these subjects feature heavily on this blog I couldn’t resist a quick post about it.

The feature explored why so many scientists have been inspired to write poetry, and the nature of the relationship between their artistic work and their science.

Among the famous scientists included in the programme was chemist and inventor Humphry Davy who, inspired by his friendship with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, wrote poems throughout his life. Others to do likewise were: physician Eramus Darwin; mathematician William Rowan Hamilton; astronomer William Herschel (who was also a noted musician and composer); J. Robert Oppenheimer; and Erwin Schrödinger.

Doing a quick google about after the programme I came across this example by Hamilton, which I searched for because he is the scientist from the list above with whose mathematical work I am most familiar because of its huge influence on physics, and because he seems to have been a very colourful character as well as a superb mathematician. Interestingly, he too was a very close friend of Wordsworth, to whom he often sent poems with requests for comments and feedback. In the subsequent correspondence, Wordsworth was usually not very complimentary even to the extent of telling Hamilton to stick to his day job (or words to that effect). What I didn’t know was that Hamilton regarded himself as a poet first and a mathematician second. That just goes to show you shouldn’t necessarily trust a man’s judgement when he applies it to himself.

Here’s an example of Hamilton’s verse – a poem written to honour Joseph Fourier:

Hamilton-for Fourier

If that’s one of his better poems, then I think Wordsworth may have had a point!

The serious thing that struck me about this programme though was how many scientists of the 19th Century, Hamilton included, saw their scientific interrogation of Nature as a manifestation of the human condition just as the romantic poets saw their artistic contemplation. It is often argued that romanticism is responsible for the rise of antiscience. I’m not really qualified to comment on that but I don’t see any conflict at all between science and romanticism. I certainly don’t see Wordsworth’s poetry as antiscientific. I just find it inspirational:

I HAVE seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.

R.I.P. Acker Bilk (1929-2014)

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on November 3, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I heard the sad news that “trad” jazz stalwart Acker Bilk had died, aged 85. With his trademark bowler hat and goatee beard, he was one of the leading figures of the post-war British jazz scene. He scored considerable commercial recording success with the Paramount Jazz Band, especially with Stranger on the Shore which was in the British Charts for 50 weeks in 1962, was the first record by a British artist to hit No. 1 in the American Billboard charts, and was greatly admired by no less a figure than Duke Ellington. There are tributes all over today’s newspapers (e.g. here) that do better justice to Acker Bilk than I could, so I’ll just post one track as a special tribute. This track, Train Song, the B-side of The Harem, was recorded in the year of my birth and I have loved it since I was a kid.

Rest in peace, Acker Bilk (1929-2014)



Charlie Christian: Swing to Bop

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , on November 2, 2014 by telescoper

I was transferring some old CDs onto my iPod the other day, and in the process of doing that I realized that in all the six years I’ve been running this blog I haven’t posted a single item about the great guitarist Charlie Christian, who did more than any other individual to promote the use of the electrical guitar and thus had an enormous influence on the development of  20th century music. The only reason I can think of why his is not a household name is that he died so young, in 1942, of tuberculosis, at the age of just 25.

Born in 1916, Charlie Christian came to prominence with Benny Goodman‘s orchestra during the 1930s. That in itself merits a remark. Benny Goodman was one of the first white bandleaders in the Swing Era to have black musicians in his band at a time when both musicians and audiences were generally racially segregated in the United States of America. Goodman deserves great credit for picking the best musicians he could find, regardless of the colour of their skin; Lionel Hampton is another prominent example. Bringing the young Charlie Christian into his band also testifies not only to his refusal to pander to racism, but also his willingness to experiment with new musical ideas, not least taking the guitarist out of the rhythm section and placing him as front-line soloist.

Here’s an excellent example of Charlie Christian playing with Benny Goodman’s Orchestra in 1939. I remember that my Dad wasn’t all that keen on Benny Goodman’s clarinet playing, which he regarded as “too clinical”. In fact many jazz writers also tend to refer to Benny Goodman’s playing as “unemotional”. I can’t agree. I admit that the band is a bit “slick”, but the clarinet on this track is absolutely sensational to me, and I find it a joy to listen to over and over again.  There’s also fine Cootie Williams on trumpet on this version of Fats Waller’s composition Honeysuckle Rose:

Commercial records from the 1930s were strictly limited by the available technology to 3 minutes’ duration, so Charlie Christian’s solo on that track  is necessarily brief.  You can hear much more of him on the historically important amateur recordings made during the early 1940s of late-night jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse in New York City. This is an excerpt from a piece called Swing to Bop recorded in 1941, which shows how far Charlie Christian had advanced in just a couple of years. His improvised solo is way ahead of its time in the way it develops through an effortless string of musical ideas into an exploration of the harmonic possibilities of the chord sequence that I find absolutely sensational to listen to.

Not many people knew it at the time, because tracks like this weren’t made commercially available, but a musical revolution was brewing. Charlie Christian changed the course of jazz history, helping to usher in the bebop era, but his influence on rock-and-roll guitar is also incalculable.

Incidentally, I think Swing to Bop is actually the Count Basie tune Topsy in disguise, or at least the chords thereof. Listen to Topsy here and see if you agree..


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,747 other followers