Archive for December, 2008

Operation Skyphoto

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on December 9, 2008 by telescoper

Katherine Blundell from Oxford just contacted me with a request that I post the following message. I’m more than happy to oblige.

Dear All,

There is a one-off opportunity to buy vintage prints of the original photographic plates of the Palomar All-Sky Survey. Although no longer useful for science (they fell into disuse two decades ago because of modern data digitization) they make rather handsome objets d’art when suitably mounted and framed.

These prints are for sale to raise money for Alexander Thatte’s treatment for leukemia – Alexander is the 5-year old son of two of our colleagues.

The mounted/framed photographs could make very nice Christmas presents. For a small additional payment we can deliver them to you already tastefully gift-wrapped.

A very limited number of photographs have kindly been signed by Jocelyn Bell Burnell – please email us if you wish to request one of these.

Please see for an order form and further details. Please feel free to forward this email to anyone whom you think might be interested in purchasing a piece of astronomical history, and helping a child in need.

Best wishes,

Katherine & the Astro Grads

I can’t think of a better Christmas gift for an astronomer.

Go on. You know you want to.

If you leave it too late to buy your presents you might end up buying something really naff. Like a paperweight.

Look, I’ve even made it easier for you. Just click the link here.

So now there’s no excuse. Do it. Buy one. Now.


Una Grande Vociaccia

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , , , , on December 7, 2008 by telescoper

I missed an important anniversary this week. Had she still been alive, December 2nd 2008 would have been the 85th birthday of the most renowned opera singer of her time, Maria Callas.

She was born in 1923 in New York city of Greek parents who had moved there the previous year, and christened Maria Anna Sofia Cecilia Kalogeropoulou. Disenchanted with her deteriorating marriage, her mother abandoned her husband and took Maria and her sister back to Athens in 1937. Maria enrolled at the National Conservatoire of Greece the same year after winning a scholarship with the quality of her voice, which

was warm, lyrical, intense; it swirled and flared like a flame and filled the air with melodious reverberations.

At this age, Maria was a rather plump young lady with a rather deep voice. Initially, she aspired to be a contralto but at the Conservatoire she was encouraged instead to become a dramatic soprano. Accordingly, she underwent special training to raise her natural pitch (or tessitura) and learned how to control her remarkable voice more accurately so she could sing in a sufficiently disciplined fashion that she could take on the dazzling coloratura passages that she would perform in later years with such success. She also worked on her chest tones to broaden the scope of her voice in the mezzo region. Although she became more technically refined as a singer during this period, there were some things that didn’t change. One was the sheer power of her voice, which is something that we tend to notice less in these days of microphones and studio recordings. People who heard her sing live confess to being shocked at the sheer scale of sound she could deliver without amplification. Perhaps more tellingly, she eschewed many of the devices sopranos tended to use to control the highest notes, usually involving some alteration of the throat to produce accuracy at the expense of a thinner and more constricted tone. When Callas went for a high note, she always did so in a full-throated manner. This often produced a piercing sound that could be intensely dramatic, even to the extent of almost knocking you out of your seat, but it was a very risky approach for a live performance. Audiences simply weren’t used to hearing a coloratura sing with such volume and in such a whole-hearted way. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was certainly remarkable and often very moving. It was this aspect of her voice that led her friend Tito Gobbi (who sang with her in Tosca) to call it una grande vociaccia, which I translate in my schoolboy Italian as meaning something like “a big ugly voice”. That isn’t meant to be as disparaging as it sounds (Gobbi was a great admirer of Callas’ singing).

Having listened to lots of recordings of Maria Callas I have to admit that they are certainly not all good. Sometimes the voice didn’t come off at all. Unkindly, one colleague said that she “sang with her ovaries”. When she talked about her own noice, Callas herself often referred to it as if it were some independent creature over which she had very little control. Anyway, whatever the reason, when she was bad she was definitely bad. But I adopt the philosophy that one should judge artists (and scientists, for that matter) by their best work rather than their worst, and when Callas was good she was simply phenomenal, like a sublime and irresistible force of nature. That’s why they called her La Divina.

Although her talent was very raw in the beginning there was no question that she always had a voice of exceptional power and dramatic intensity. When she started singing professionally she immediately attracted lavish praise from the critics not just for her voice but also for her acting. As a young soprano she sang in an astonishing variety of operas, including Wagner‘s Tristan und Isolde and Die Walküre, neither of which one would now associate with Callas.

It was in the late 194os that Callas began to take an interest in the type of opera that would really make her name. Bel canto opera was rather unfashionable at that time, probably because audiences preferred the grittier and more realistic verismo style. Virtually single-handed, Callas resurrected the bel canto canon by injecting a true sense of drama into works which had previously just been seen as vehicles for the singers to demonstrate their art. Callas brought an entirely new dimension to the great operas by Bellini (Norma, I Puritani, La Somnambula…) and Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Bolena), although she was sufficiently versatile to also perform brilliantly in the verismo syle of Verdi and Puccini as well as lesser known composers such as Giordano (Andrea Chenier). Recordings of many of these performances are available, but it is sad that this glorious period of her singing career happened just a bit before high quality equipment was available so the true glory of her voice isn’t always evident.

In 1953, Callas decided that she wanted to change her appearance, perhaps so she would look more appropriate for the parts she was playing on stage. At the time she weighed almost 200lbs. In order to lose weight as quickly as possible, she followed the barbarous but highly effective expedient of swallowing a tapeworm. She lost 80lbs in a matter of months. The dramatic loss of weight changed her body and her face, emphasizing her high angular cheekbones and giving her a striking look very well suited to the opera stage. But it also affected her voice somewhat, especially at the upper end where she seems to have found it more difficult to avoid the dreaded “wobble” which was one of the alleged imperfections that critics tended to dwell upon.

Callas also had very poor eyesight which required her to wear very thick spectacles in order to see at all, a thing she refused to do onstage with the result that she was virtually blind during performances. In fact, during a performance of Tosca at Covent Garden she leant too far over a candle and her hair caught fire. Improvising magnificently, Tito Gobbi, as the loathsome Scarpia, extinguished the fire by throwing water at her before the audience had noticed. Although they weren’t much use for seeing with, her eyes were a great asset for her acting, in turns flashing like a demon then shining like an angel.

After her weight loss, Callas was suddenly no longer just a wonderful singer but also a strikingly beautiful woman. Her career took a back seat as she started to revel in the glamorous lifestyle that opened up in front of her. Her voice deteriorated and she performed rather less frequently. Eventually she embarked on a love affair with Aristotle Onassis, a notorious serial collector of trophy women. She hoped to marry him but he abandoned her to marry Jackie Kennedy, widow of John F. Kennedy.

She never really recovered from the failure of this affair, retired from singing and lived out the last years of her life as a virtual recluse in her apartment in Paris. She died in 1977.

I had heard a lot about Maria Callas when I was younger, but the recordings that I listened to (generally from the 1960s) were really not very good as her voice was undoubtedly much diminished by then. I just assumed that, as is the case with many artists, the legend of Callas was all mere hype. Then, about fifteen years ago, I was listening to BBC Radio 3 and they played the final scenes of the great 1954 recording of Norma with Callas in the title role, conducted by Tullio Serafin. I was completely overwhelmed by it and tears flowed freely from my eyes. I’ve always had a tendency to blub when I hear really beautiful music, but as I’ve got older I’ve learned not to be embarrassed by it. At least I don’t cry at football matches.

In England, Callas is probably best remembered for her performances in Tosca in Covent Garden. I have recordings of her in that role and they are really wonderful. But there are many fine recordings of Tosca by other singers, some of which are almost as good. In the case of Norma, though, there isn’t any other performance that comes within a mile of the Callas version. Or if there is, I’ve yet to hear it.

Now I know that there are some people, even opera lovers, who just don’t get Callas at all (just look at the comment boards on Youtube). I grant that she wasn’t always the most accurate singer, and I don’t think you could say her voice had a purely classical beauty. But even if you don’t like her voice you have to admit that she revitalized the opera stage and brought a new public into the theatres. I can’t imagine what the state of opera would be now, if there hadn’t been a Callas and you can’t argue that she is now an iconic figure. What I admire most about her is that, like it or loath it, her voice is instantly recognisable. In this sense, she always puts me in mind of a kind of operatic version of Billie Holliday. She’s a far cry from the many bland mediocrities that pass themselves off as opera singers nowadays.

I’m going to end with the obligatory clips from Youtube. There’s a lot of Callas on there, not all of it good. I’ve chosen a couple of items, although neither of them has a proper video. The first was performed live in 1955 in front of the notoriously difficult audience at La Scala in Milan and recorded from a radio broadcast so that the sound quality is quite poor. A studio recording of this aria, from Andrea Chenier, features most movingly in the film Philadelphia. This live version, however, is notable for a number of reasons. One is that you get some idea of the power of the Callas voice in the way she pushes aside the entire orchestra and is even able to cut through the distortions introduced by the rather primitive recording technology. The second thing is that she sings it so beautifully, with such feeling, lovely phrasing, and so much colour and vitality. Listen to the way the texture of her voice matches perfectly her changing emotions as she tells her story. The shattering, climactic high C that occurs near the end is a perfect example of what I was saying above. She stabs this note out like her life depended on it. It sends shivers down my spine and clearly had the same effect on the audience. The thunderous applause that follows the end of this aria is quite frightening in its intensity, but gives a good idea how much her public adored her. If you can put up with the lo-fi recording, this is certainly a better performance than the studio version.

The final piece has to be from Norma. I think Bellini is a wonderful composer of opera, but he doesn’t make life easy for the singers. There’s never any doubling of the vocal line by the orchestra so the singer is very exposed. This doesn’t bother Maria Callas. This is the famous aria Casta Diva, which has become a kind of signature tune for her and it’s one of the pieces that she always seemed to perform beautifully. It might be a bit hackneyed but I love it and, after all, it’s my blog. There’s also a nice compilation of pictures.

I’d be interested to hear what the general opinion of Callas is based on a sample of the two or three people who read my blog, so please feel free to add your comments!

Pluralia Tantum

Posted in Literature, Pedantry with tags , , , on December 5, 2008 by telescoper

Meanwhile, over on the e-astronomer, Andy Lawrence recently posted an item about the lamentable tendency of astronomers to abuse the English language. The focus of his venom was “extincted”, a word used by many astro-types as an adjective to describe the state of affairs when light from a source (e.g. a quasar) has suffered “extinction” by intervening matter. “Extinction” is formed from the verb “extinguish” in the same way that “distinction” is formed from “distinguish”. Nobody would describe a professor as “distincted” (certainly not if it is Andy Lawrence) so, clearly, “extincted” is inappropriate. Actually if you really want to nit-pick you could object to “extinction” being applied to an object such as a  quasar, when it isn’t actually the object that is suffering from it but the light it has emitted.

But as a gripe, this is fair enough I’d say. Andy went on to encourage his legions of adoring readers to contribute their own pet hates, preferably with an astronomical orientation. My contribution was “decimate” which  means “to remove the tenth part” or “to reduce by ten percent”, from the Roman practice of punishing disobedient legions by killing every tenth man, but is often regrettably now used to mean “annihilate” or “obliterate”. You might think this hasn’t got much to do with astronomy but, sadly, it does. Indeed, a press release from STFC discussing the recent ten percent cuts to its grants budget states that consequent reduction in PDRAS

..will not cause the decimation of physics departments as has been speculated in media reports.

I would expect a civil servant to have done a bit better, so presumably this was written by an astronomer too. At any rate, it is precisely wrong.

You might argue that things like this don’t matter.  Language evolves,  and if modern usage deviates from its previous meanings then we should just let it change. I fully accept the dynamic nature of language and do not by any means object to all such changes. Society changes and so must the words we use. But if a change is (a) a result of sloppiness and (b) results in the loss of a very good use to be replaced by a bad one, then I think educated people should stand their ground and fight it. If we don’t do that language doesn’t just change, it decays.

Most of us practising scientists have to spend a lot of our time writing scientific papers, departmental memos, grant applications and even books. I think many astronomers see this activity as a chore, take no pleasure from it, and invest the minimum care on it. I was fortunate to have a really excellent writer, John Barrow, as my thesis supervisor and he convinced me that it was worth making the effort to write the best prose I could whatever the context. Not only does this attitude eliminate the ambiguity which is the bane of scientific writing. Taking pains over style and grammar also allows one to feel the pleasure of craftsmanship for its own sake. With John’s guidance and encouragement, I learned to enjoy writing through the satisfaction experienced by finding neat forms of words or nice turns of phrase. You never really feel good about what you do if you scrape through at the miminum acceptable level. Try to make the effort and you will be more fulfilled and the long hours of slog you spend putting together a complicated paper will at least be enlivened by a genuine sense of delight when things fall neatly into place, and a warm glow of achievement when you read it back and it sounds not just acceptable but actually good.

But I digress.

One of the other contributors to Andy’s list of examples of bad grammar was a chap called Norman Gray who objected to astronomers’ use of the word “data” as a plural noun, as in “the data indicate” rather than “the data indicates”. I was taken aback by this because I was expecting the opposite objection.

He has a lengthy rant about this on his own blog so I won’t repeat his arguments in detail here, merely a synopsis. The word “data” is formed from the latin plural of the word “datum” (itself formed from the past participle of the latin verb “dare”, meaning “to give”) hence meaning “things given” or words to that effect. The usage of “data” that we use now (to refer to measurements or quantitative information) seems not to have been present in roman or mediaeval times so Norman argues that it is a deliberate archaism to treat it as a latin plural now. He also argues that “data” in modern usage is a “mass noun” so should on that grounds also be treated as singular.

For those of you who aren’t up with such things, English nouns can be of two forms: “count” and “non-count” (or “mass”). Count nouns are those that can be enumerated and therefore have both plural and singular forms:  one eye, two eyes, etc. Non-count nouns (which is a better term than “mass nouns”) are those which describe something which is not enumerable, such as “furniture” or “cutlery”. Such things can’t be counted and they don’t have a different singular and plural forms. You can have two chairs (count noun) but can’t have two furnitures (non-count noun).

Count and non-count nouns require different grammatical treatment. You can ask “how much furniture do you have?” but not how many. The answer to a “how much” question usually requires a unit or measure word (e.g. “a vanload of furniture”) but the answer to a “how many” question would be just a number. Next time you are in a supermarket queue where it says “ten items or less” you will appreciate that it the sign is grammatically incorrect. “Item” is most definitely a count noun, so the correct form should be “ten items or fewer”..

Anyway, Norman Gray asserts that (a) “data” is a non-count noun and that (b) it should therefore be singular. Forms such as “the data are..” are out (“a vile anacoluthon”) and “the data is…” is in.

So is he right?

Not really.  Unkind though it may be to dismantle a carefully constructed obsession, I think his arguments have quite a few problems with them.

For a start, it seems clear to me that there are (at least) two distinct uses of the word data. One is clearly of non-count type. This is the use of “data” to describe an undifferentiated unspecified or unlimited quantity of information such as that stored on a computer disk. Of such stuff you might well ask “how much data do you have?” and the answer would be in some units (e.g. Gbytes). This clearly identifies it as a mass noun.

But there is another meaning, which is that ascribed to specified pieces of information either given (as per the original latin) or obtained from a measurement. Such things are precisely defined, enumerable and clearly therefore of count-noun form. Indeed one such entity could reasonably be called a datum and the plural would be data. This usage applies when the context defines the relevant quantum of information so no unit is required. This is the usage that arises in most scientific papers, as opposed to software manuals. “In Figure 1, the data are plotted…” is correct. Although it sounds clumsy you could well ask in such a situation “how many data do you have?” (meaning how many measurements do you have) and the answer would just be a number. Archaism? No. It’s just right.

To labour the point still further,  here are another two sentences that show the different uses:

“If I had less data my disk would have more free space on it.” (Non-count)

“If I had fewer data I would not be able to obtain an astrometric solution.” (Count).

Contrary to Norman’s claims, it is not unusual for the same words (if they’re nouns) to have both count and non-count forms in different contexts. I give the example of “whisky” as in “my glass is full of whisky” (non-count) versus “two whiskies, please, barman”. His objection to this was that in the second case a whisky is an artefact of a metonymic shift which takes the word “whisky” to refer to the glass containing it.

Metonymy involves using a word related to a thing rather than the word for thing itself, as in “I have hungry mouths to feed”; it’s not really the mouths that are fed, but the people the mouths belong to. In fact there’s a bit of this going on when people talk about sources being “extincted” rather than their light.

This invalidates the example because, Norman alleges, the resulting meaning is different. This objection is a bit silly because the whole point is that the two forms should have different meanings, otherwise why have them? In any case the  example  simply involves me asking for two well-defined quantities of whisky. I’m not convinced of the relevance of metonymy here. What I care about is the whisky, not what it comes in, and when I drink the whisky I don’t drink the glass anyway. Metonymy would apply if I talked about drinking a couple of glasses. Consider “I drank two whiskies, one after the other” versus “I drank two glasses one after the other”. In both cases what has actually been drunk?

There are countless other examples (pun intended). “Fire” can be a mass noun “fire is dangerous”) but also a count noun (“the firemen were fighting three fires simultaneously”). Another nice one  is “hair” which is non-count when it is on someone’s head (“my hair is going grey”) but count when  they, in the plural, are being split.

Interestingly, though, the  non-count forms of these nouns are all singular. Indeed, many non-count nouns exist only in the singular: such nouns are called singularia tantum. Examples include “dust” and “wealth”. So,  if we accept that “data” can be a non-count noun, does that mean that it should necessarily be treated as singular when it does take on that role?

An example that might be taken to support this view could be “statistics” (the field thereof) which is a non-count noun. Although it appears to be derived from a plural, you would certainly say “statistics is a hard subject”  rather than “statistics are a hard subject”.  On the other hand “statistics” can refer to a set, each element of which is a statistic (i.e. a number), thus giving another example of a noun that can be of either count or non-count form; you might reasonably say “the statistics are impressive” in the count case.  The non-count form “statistics” is a better  example of metonymy than the example above, as it refers to the study of the (count) statistics rather than to the things themselves.

In fact there are also mass nouns, described as pluralia tantum, which exist only in the plural. A (not entirely accurate) list is given here. Examples include scissors and pants, for which the normal measure  is a “pair”. Although these are technically non-count nouns (in the sense that you can’t have one scissor, etc) they don’t shed much light on the example in front of us. Perhaps more pertinent is the word “clothes” which is of non-count type but which is certainly plural. You can’t have one “clothe” (or any other number for that matter) but you would definitely say “your clothes are dirty”.

A more subtle example with relevance to the latin root of “data” is “media” which can refer to broadcast media (non-count) or plural of medium (count).  “The media are out to get me”  seems a correct construction to me, so the non-count form of this noun is a plurale tantum (singular of pluralia tantum).

So,  just because a word may be a non-count noun, it doesn’t necessarily have to be singular.

To summarise,  my argument is that (a) it is not correct to assert “data” is a mass noun. It may or may not be, depending on the context. If it is acting as a count noun (which I contend is the case in most science writing) then it is definitely plural. Furthermore, even in cases where it is clearly a mass noun, and especially if you reject the alternative meaning as a count noun, then  it is still by no means obvious that it must be treated as singular (because of the existence of the plurale tantum). In fact I would go a bit further and argue that you can only justify the singular non-count form at all if you accept that there is a count alternative. To be honest, though, I think I prefer the singular interpretation in the non-count case, as in “statistics”. It just sounds better.

If anyone has managed to read all the way through this exercise in pedantry I’d be interested to see any comments on my analysis of data.

Physics Noir

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on December 2, 2008 by telescoper

Last week, while I was indisposed with the ‘flu and faced with the imminent danger of having to watch daytime TV, I suddenly remembered that I had bought a boxed set of classic Film Noir on DVD and had only watched one or two of the films. I took the opportunity to watch the whole lot, and very enjoyable it was too. I’ve always been a big fan of this type of film, starting with the glorious Maltese Falcon (which has featured in a previous post of mine) and the classic Double Indemnity. There are probably hundreds of films belonging to this genre and, if the selection I watched last week is anything to go by then they are decidedly variable in quality. Among them, though, was one I had never seen before – Out of the Past – which I think is a masterpiece, containing all the quintessential elements of film noir and many unique features of its own.

It’s difficult to define exactly what turns a film noir, but there are some common characteristics. First the male lead protagonist is far from the dashing romantic character portrayed in mainstream Hollywood fare. Often a troubled and dysfunctional character, cynical and hard-bitten, distrustful and alienated, the classic noir anti-hero is often a private investigator or in any case a loner who lives in a moral vacuum. To counterpoint this, the female lead is usually a femme fatale, glamorous but duplicitous, sexy and dangerous, manipulative and assertive. There are definitely shades of Macbeth in that the female lead is usually a more compelling and impressive personality than the supposed hero. The inversion of stereotypical roles also serves to hold a “dark mirror” up to society, an effect which other elements of these films also strive to achieve.

The plots usually deal with the seedy side of human life: crime, betrayal, jealousy and revenge, much of it sexually motivated. Narrative strategies involve repeated use of flashbacks, first-person voiceovers, dream-like sequences, and unresolved episodes that emphasize the overall lack of moral direction. The photography is dominated by high contrast lights surrounding the protagonists with dark, threatening shadows while odd angles and unbalanced framing produce unstable, disorienting images. The chiaroscuro lighting makes even mundane encounters seem charged with danger or erotic suspense.


This is a still from Double Indemnity which shows a number of trademark features. The shadows cast by venetian blinds on the wall, the cigarette being smoked by Barbara Stanwyck and the curious construction of the mise en scene are all very characteristic of the style. What is even more wonderful about this particular shot however is the way the shadow of Fred McMurray’s character enters the scene before he does. The Barbara Stanwyck character is just about to shoot him with a pearl-handled revolver so this image suggests that he is already on his way to the underworld.

Noir settings are almost exclusively urban: the resulting iconography consists of images of dark night-time cities with rain-soaked streets reflecting dazzling neon lights that intrude into the picture and fracture the composition. Interiors are almost always cramped and claustrophobic: dingy hotel rooms, night clubs or even the backs of taxi cabs. The dark outside world presses in on the characters and is full of danger. Soundtracks often include jazz in the bebop style from the late 1940s or early 1950s, with its jagged melodic lines and stuttering rythms, emphasizing the psychological instability displayed by the characters and settings.

The protagonists are trapped, perhaps just by mischance, in an alienating lonely world, usually a night-time city, where they are constantly in danger for their lives. The chaotic, random violence of this world gives rise to feelings of persecution and paranoia and a sense that life is absurd, meaningless, without order or purpose, and governed by contingency rather than design.

Much has been written about the origins of Film Noir, but it does seem clear to me that, although it is essentially an American style, it owes many of its roots to European existentialism, a point further reinforced by the fact that many great movie directors of the noir period (including the great Billy Wilder, who directed Double Indemnity) were in fact European emigres.

Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to say really was that during the course of watching all these wonderful films from a bygone age it struck me how much the language and iconography of modern cosmology shares this existentialist heritage. Our new standard cosmological model is full of references to the “dark” sector (dark matter and dark energy) which dominates the energy budget of the Universe, but which not just invisible but also unfathomable. The cosmos is lit by garish starlight from small islands of luminosity embedded in this sea of darkness. Long chains of bright galaxies stretch across space like rows of streetlights whose glare fractures and disturbs the celestial dark. We cling to a precarious existence on a tiny rock that is surrounded by danger. Even the stuff from which our atoms are made is completely overshadowed by alien matter. The universe is oblivious to us and we are irrelevant to it.

But it’s not only the surface imagery of cosmology that resembles that of a noir movie. The exisentialist trend runs deep. Cosmology seems to be abandoning the idea that there is a design behind it all. The idea that there is a single explanatory principle “a theory of everything” that accounts for why our Universe is the way it is and why life is possible within it, is losing ground to the idea that there is a multiverse in which all possible laws of nature are realised; we just live in a place where life happens to be possible. I’m not at all convinced that it is a good route for science to follow, but many cosmologists seem to be accepting this kind of thing as the best we will ever do to explain the Universe.

But if the idea of a world without meaning fills you with existential angst, then don’t worry about it. At least there are plenty of good films to watch.