Archive for October 1, 2008

Wakeham Review

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 1, 2008 by telescoper

Today is the day of publication of the Wakeham Review of the state of Physics in the United Kingdom. This report was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) against the backdrop of the funding crisis that threatened to engulf the
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in December 2007 and which has led to drastic cuts in research grant funding in particle physics and astronomy throughout the country.

I started blogging a bit too late to join in the chorus of anger surrounding the handling of this crisis by STFC and especially by the behaviour of its Chief Executive, Keith Mason. An investigation of this by a parliamentary Select Committee stated that

Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs and has so far failed properly to receive”

If anyone was ever given a clear message that he should resign, this was it. But Keith Mason remains Chief Executive of STFC.

I hoped, therefore, to find some comment about this state of affairs in the Wakeham Review. I haven’t had time to read all of it, but most of it seems bland and rather self-congratulatory. It does, however, describe the strengths of astronomy and space science research in the UK, which is one of the areas placed in jeopardy by STFC’s cack-handed management and woeful lack of political nous. On the other hand, the UK has less impressive impact in other areas. Condensed matter physics was the research area in which most University-based physicists in the UK worked in 2001but their impact, at least in bibliometric terms, was and is unspectacular compared with other countries. Perhaps this is the reason why the number of condensed matter physicists submitted to the Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 has declined, while astronomy and astrophysics have increased.

The Wakeham review does not come to any clear conclusions on why some areas of physics are more popular than others, citing as possibilities laboratory costs and difficulties of attracting people into cross-disciplinary areas like biophysics or nanoscience. Since I’m not a member I don’t have to mince words like the panel did. I think some fields are popular because they are more interesting. And if people wanted to do chemistry or biology they wouldn’t have become physicists in the first place.

There are two paragraphs specifically about STFC, and they make very specific proposals although falling short of asking the current leadership to step down:

6. There is a need to ensure that there is coherence of planning of physics facilities and the allocation of physics research grants, so that research needs are closely aligned with facility provision. For that reason it is not desirable to separate former PPARC-like physics from the funding of its facilities. For this reason the Panel recommends that the current division of physics funding between Research Councils remains. Whilst recognising recent difficulties, the Panel believes that it is important that facilities provided for particle physics and astronomy researchers be directly tensioned with the budget for the research that will utilise those facilities. The current structure provides this tension in part of its remit. However, the panel believes that adding to this tension a further dimension of national facilities and a government Science and Innovation Campuses is just too much.

This is true but I think it’s only a small part of the problem.

The Panel recommends that:
a) the STFC be required at each CSR to bid for and allocate specific funds to former PPARC facilities and grant funding together.This would avoid the undesired tensioning of these grants and facilities support against national facilities and the project for the development of science and innovation campuses.

Good! But will this happen?

b) the existing structure should be allowed time to develop, given it was founded on the basis of extensive positive consultation. However, at an appropriate point following the review of STFC management currently being conducted by Dr David Grant, DIUS should commission a review to examine STFC operations.

*Sigh* Another review. Great.

The next one is a bit stronger:

7. The STFC’s governance structure must be representative of the community it serves in order to gain stakeholders’ confidence going forward.

“..stakeholders’ confidence going forward”? Ugh! Who wrote that bollocks?

The Panel believes that significant damage has been done to the UK’s international reputation in some areas of the discipline of physics following the furore that was generated by the manner, timescale of changes and announcement of recent STFC funding decisions.

You can say that again.

The Panel were very concerned at the make-up of the STFC Council, both in terms of the over representation of the executive and the lack of representation of the community it serves in comparison with other Research Councils. It is understood that this structure was deliberately adopted to deal with the distinct features of STFC that arose because of its multiple missions. However, this has not best served the scientific community in some branches of science whose input was at one level below the Council. This is in sharp distinction to the practice of other Research Councils.

The Panel recommends to DIUS that the membership of STFC’s Council be broadened to include more of the stakeholders in the science activity at the highest level, and to redress the balance between executive presence and non-executive oversight.

Somebody must have deleted the sentence about having to get a new Chief Executive.

I’m sure there’ll be a lot more on physics blogs when there’s been time to digest the whole report, and if I think I’ve missed anything at a first reading I may post some more myself.

Companion Piece

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews with tags on October 1, 2008 by telescoper

I’ve just heard that my review of The Oxford Companion to Cosmology, by Andrew Liddle and Jon Loveday (both from the University of Sussex) has just been published in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity. If you don’t have access to CQG then you can still get the review as long as you’re quick as it is available here free of charge for 30 days.

Bad Penny Blues

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , on October 1, 2008 by telescoper

I knew I could’t blog for long without writing something about a great hero of mine, the inimitable Humphrey Lyttelton, better known to his many fans as “Humph”. He died earlier this year (on April 25 2008, at the age of 86) of complications following a heart operation. News of his death came as a massive shock to me, as it had never really occured to me that one day he would be no more. Tributes to him in the media were unsurprisingly glowing in their admiration.

In later years, Humph was best known as the chairman of the long-running radio comedy show I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, subtitled “The Antidote to Panel Games” in which his gravelly but perfectly elocuted voice, schoolmasterish manner and impeccable comic timing proved the perfect foil to the antics of Barry Cryer, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and many other contributors. I hope I get the chance to say a bit more about this programme in due course, as I treasure my collection of recordings of shows that still make me laugh at the umpteenth listening.

But Humph had many other strings to his bow. He was a talented cartoonist and a gifted writer, and also hosted the BBC Radio programme “The Best of Jazz” on Radio 2 for forty years, counting the great John Peel among his legions of listeners. I owe a special debt to Humph for this programme as I listened to it religiously every monday night at 9pm during my teenage years. He would open the show with “This his Humphrey Lyttelton here, with the best part of an hour of jazz between now and five to ten”. His theme tune then was Wanderlust, recorded by a subset of Duke Ellington’s orchestra with the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins appearing as a guest and contributing a truly magnificent tenor solo near the end of the piece.

Through Humph I discovered most of the music I still listen to on a daily basis, jazz from the classic era of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, through the swing era of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, the postwar bebop period of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, then modernists like Ornette Coleman, Sam Rivers, Archie Shepp and onto the avant-garde of the time. Humph loved all kinds of jazz, and he communicated his encyclopedic knowledge a style flavoured by a dry sense of humour. I never met him in person, but I would have loved the chance to thank him for helping nurture in me a passion for all that wonderful music.

Humph was also a fine Jazz trumpeter and bandleader in his own right. When my father was at school in the 1950s, the Lyttelton band was the leading “traditional Jazz” band in Britain. Humph had played with many of the greats, including Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and won their admiration for his trumpet-playing.

My dad had become a Lyttelton fan at School and it was this that persuaded him to take up playing the drums. He joined the RAF for his national service, and he had the opportunity to play with various bands then and later on when he went back into civvy street. He was a life long admirer of Humph and eventually got to play with him at the Corner House in Newcastle but not until the 1990s. He told me it was one of the proudest moments of his life, although he had been so nervous he didn’t really play very well.

I have a photograph of this occasion somewhere, but I can’t find it for the moment. I’ll add it when I can get it scanned.

In the late 1940s Humph’s band had started to record a series of 78rpm records for the Parlophone label, starting with a lovely version of “Maple Leaf Rag” and stretching to over a hundred titles. Among these tracks was one record that actually made it into the Top 20 of the British pop charts in 1956, admittedly at Number 19, but nevertheless that’s no mean feat for a Jazz record. I should point out that this was long before my birth, but I remember hearing the track many times around the house when I was young.

The Bad Penny Blues was written by Humphrey Lyttelton and the hit recording features a quartet drawn from his band which, by the mid-1950s, had gravitated to a more mainstream jazz style, away from the “traddy” sound favoured by most contemporary jazz outfits. Indeed, he had incurred the wrath of many conservative fans by daring to include a saxophonist, the brilliant but eccentric Bruce Turner, in his outfit. Bad Penny Blues, though, featured only Humph on trumpet, Johhny Parker on piano, Stan Greig on drums and Jim Bray on bass. It was only recorded as an afterthought because it went down well at live gigs at Humph’s Jazz Club the HL Club (which later became the 100 Club, at 100 Oxford Street.)

But the real key to the success of this record was a young man by the name of Joe Meek. Starting out as a sound engineer at the Parlophone studios, Meek had quickly established an excellent reputation and in this case he was asked to take over the whole production of the record. According to Humph, they were slightly concerned at what he was doing with the microphones before they made the take but after it was done they all went home and left Meek to do some tinkering with the sound before cutting the disk. In those days, recording techniques were relatively crude and there generally wasn’t much in the way of post production, especially in jazz.

When he heard the final record, Humph was shocked. For one thing, Meek had close-miked all the instruments, including the drums – something which wasn’t generally done with jazz records for fear of (a) drowning out the rest of the band and (b) exposing the clumsiness of the drummer, the latter being a particularly problem. As Humph said, his band always sounded like the rhythm section was wearing diving boots. For this reason the drums were usually recorded with a distant mike and generally hidden in the ensemble playing. But in this case it worked out very well. Stan Greig used brushes on this track and his playing served beautifully both to propel and to punctuate the performances of the other musicians.

But it wasn’t the drums that so disturbed Humph. Meek had also fiddled with the double bass and with the left hand boogie-woogie figures of Johnny Parker’s piano, fattening them out and changing the balance to bring them right up in the final mix. He also compressed the overall sound so that the bass lines seem to press in on both the piano’s right hand and the growling muted trumpet lead, tying them closer to Greig’s insistent drum patterns and creating an unusually dense sound. The result is an intense, driving feel, with a dark undertone that is quite unlike any other jazz record of its period and redolent with the atmosphere of a smoky jazz club. I love it, especially the moment when Humph’s trumpet takes over from the piano solo. With a timely kick from the drums and against the backdrop of those bluesy thumping bass lines the band finds another gear and they build up a fine head of steam before riffing their way into the fade.

You can hear the original recording here, in a bizarre video I found on Youtube in which someone films their cassette player. I have an original 78 of this track but at the moment can’t transfer it to digital because I haven’t got a turntable, but when I do I’ll post it. Hopefully it will have better balance than the video.

Humph didn’t like the way the record had been put together, but it was an instant hit. He later joked that he hated it all the way to the bank.

Joe Meek went on to produce several classic pop records, generating many ideas that were later used by Phil Spector, but ultimately he became a tragic figure. Such commercial success as he achieved didn’t really last and he sank into debt, depression and paranoia. A gay man in an era in which homosexuality was still illegal, he became a victim of blackmail and was questioned by the police for alleged encounters with rent boys. He committed suicide in 1967 at the age of 37.

The Bad Penny Blues went on to be the “inspiration” behind Paul Macartney’s Lady Madonna, a Beatles track which has a lot of the same notes in it and also borrows the same overall feel. I can’t put it more subtly than that. George Martin, who produced the Beatles’ track, was actually in charge of the Parlophone studio at the time Bad Penny Blues was recorded…

And Humph went on to live another 52 years, bringing music and laughter to millions.

To end with, here’s a link to a later version of the tune recorded by a more recent manifestation of Humph’s band, probably in the 1980s. Note the way his technique involved the use of his eyebrows! I may be wrong, but I think the pianist on this performance is Mick Pyne and the bass is played by Dave Green. I can’t really make out the drummer.