Archive for April, 2009


Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on April 21, 2009 by telescoper

 Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke became a jazz-age romantic legend by playing brilliant trumpet and by drinking too much bad prohibition liquor resulting his premature death in 1931, at the age of only 28. His short life was punctuated by episodes of very bad health caused by chronic alcoholism in an era when the only booze that was available was bathtub gin or rotgut whisky. Nevertheless, Bix still gave us some of the greatest ever jazz records.

Although he was of middle-class white origins, Bix’s  playing was deeply admired by leading black musicians of the day. No less a trumpeter than Louis Armstrong refused to play Singin’ the Blues because he felt Bix’s version was so good that it shouldn’t be touched. High praise indeed. Many jazz trumpeters to this day still play some of Bix’s trumpet licks, though few do them justice.

Bix’s trumpet-playing was all quicksilver virtuosity but, above all, he possessed a beautiful ringing, bell-like tone that is quite unlike that of any other trumpeter before or since. His clarion sound even pierces through the hiss and crackle produced by contemporary recording techniques. My favourite example is this, an old tune called At the Jazz Band Ball, where Bix’s trumpet lead is matched in exuberance and skill by Bill Rank (trombone), Frank Signorelli (clarinet) and, particularly,  the superb Adrian Rollini on bass saxophone, who managed to play his enormous and unwieldy instrument not only with great swing but also with a fine sense of humour.

But Bix wasn’t just a trumpeter. He also composed a few pieces for solo piano. I didn’t know about these until about 18 months ago, when I found a recording my Dad had kept of a concert at Newcastle City Hall in which he had played the drums in a trio led by the American jazz pianist Ralph Sutton. Among the numbers they played was a nice tune called, appropriately enough for this blog, In the Dark. The other day I found a clip on Youtube of Ralph Sutton playing the same tune (although not with my Dad). I hadn’t realised that this tune was written by Bix Beiderbecke.

Perhaps I should use it this blog’s signature tune? 

Bix composed other pieces for solo piano too. The most famous, and probably the most interesting because of its unusual harmonic structure, is called In a Mist, but for some reason when Bix’s own recording of this tune was released in the United Kingdom it was renamed Bixology.  Here it is played by the wonderful Marian Macpartland

Budget Boost?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on April 19, 2009 by telescoper

This Wednesday (22nd April 2009) the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, will deliver the UK government’s budget for this year. The background is of course the economic recession and the consequent collapse of our public finances. The government will have to borrow an estimated £175 billion over the next year, and it likely that taxes will eventually have to rise considerably to balance the books in the longer term.

Rumours are abounding about what will be in the budget and what won’t. According to today’s Observer, the centrepiece is likely to be a £50 billion scheme to revitalize the housing market.  If this is the case then I think it’s a mistake. Our economy has been run for too long on the basis of money raised from inflated property valuations, and we need to take this opportunity to change to a more sustainable way of running the country. Other schemes that may emerge include a £2 billion scheme to help unemployed young people which is a better idea, but much of it would probably be wasted in bureaucracy rather than doing real good.

My own attention will be focussed on whether there is anything in Alistair Darling’s speech that indicates some help for science, particularly fundamental science like physics and astronomy. In yesterday’s Guardian the Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Lord Martin Rees argued  for an injection of cash to stimulate science and innovation. About a month ago the BBC reported on efforts by Ministers to convince the treasury of the benefit of a £1 billion stimulus package for science along these lines. However, even if the powers that be listen to this argument (which is, in my view, unlikely), any increase in science funding would not necessarily be directed towards fundamental physics. I think if there isn’t anything for those of us working in astronomy in this budget, then we’re completely screwed.

I believe the funding crisis at the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) was precipitated by a conscious government decision to move funds away from blue skies research and into more applied, technology driven areas.  The 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review was extremely tough on STFC but quite generous to some other agencies.  Moreover, within STFC itself there seems to be a shift from science-driven to technology-driven projects,  signalled by the cancellation of projects such as Clover to save a couple of million, and the allocation of funds to projects such as Moonlite which is devoid of any scientific interest and which could end up costing as much as £150 million over the next five years or so.

The true depth of the ongoing STFC crisis is only gradually becoming apparent. It was bad enough to start with, but has been exacerbated by the fall in value of sterling against the euro since 2007 which has meant that the cost of subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO have risen dramatically (by about 40%). These form such a large part of STFC’s expenditure – the CERN subscription alone is £70m out of a total budget of around £800m – that it cannot absorb the increased cost and it is now looking to make swingeing cuts on top of the 25% cut in research grants already implemented.

News emerged last week that STFC has abandoned plans to fund any R&D grants for ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme, and there are dark rumours circulating that it is considering cancelling all astronomy grants this year as well as clawing back money already given to universities in previous rounds. I hope these are not true, but I fear the worst.

Cuts on this scale would be devastating, demoralising, and I honestly think would destroy the United Kingdom as a place to do astronomy. They would also signal a complete breakdown of trust between scientists and the research council that is supposed to support them, if that hadn’t happened already.

Incidentally it is noticeable that STFC hasn’t bothered to report any of these matters publically through its website. Instead, the lead story on the STFC news page is about a visit by Prince Andrew to the Rutherford Appleton Lab. No sign yet, then, of the promised improvement in communication between the STFC Executive and its community.

The way I see it, the urgent issue is not whether we get a stimulus package , but whether we even get the bit of sticking plaster that is needed to  saves physics and astronomy from utter ruin. The cost would be a small fraction of the billions lavished on profligate bankers, but I’m not at all sure that the government either appreciates or cares about the scale of the problem.

Anyway, coincidentally, next week sees the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM), which is this year held jointly with the European Astronomical Society’s JENAM at the University of Hertfordshire. I won’t be going because it has unfortunately been organized in term time apparently because European astronomers refuse to attend meetings in the vacations, at least if they’re in places like Hatfield.  STFC representatives  have been invited; it remains to be seen what, if anything, they will have to say.

The Land of Song

Posted in Music with tags , , on April 18, 2009 by telescoper

I’m sure the Welsh get a bit fed up with everyone saying that they sing so beautifully. But the problem with cliches such as “The Land of Song” is that they are so often true. At Friday’s dinner in honour of Leonid Grischchuk we were treated to a solo rendition of the beautiful old love song Myfanwy in Cardiff Castle, but today I found a much better version featuring the excellent Trelawnyd Male Voice Choir. I think it’s a really wonderful version, but the thing that struck me most was how on Earth can a small farming village with a population of less than a thousand produce so many wonderful tenor voices?

Incidentally, the great Luciano Pavarotti, who died in September 2007, gave his first ever professional performance at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod in Wales, in 1955. It was his success at this festival, with a small choir from Modena that made him decide to turn professional.

Leonid’s Shower

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on April 18, 2009 by telescoper

Yesterday (17th April) was the last day of our Easter vacation – back to the grind on Monday – and it was also the occasion of a special meeting to mark the retirement of Professor Leonid Petrovich Grishchuk.

Leonid has been a Distinguished Research Professor here in Cardiff since 1995. You can read more of his scientific biography and wider achievements here, but it should suffice to say that he is a pioneer of many aspects of relativistic cosmology and particularly primordial gravitational waves. He’s also a larger-than-life character who is known with great affection around the world.

Among other things, he’s a big fan of football. He still plays, as a matter of fact, although he generally spends more time ordering his team-mates about than actually running around himself. One of his retirement presents was a Cardiff City football shirt with his name on the back.

My first experience of Leonid was many years ago at a scientific meeting at which I attempted to give a talk. Leonid was in the audience and he interrupted me,  rather aggressively. I didn’t really understand his question so he had another go at me in the questions afterwards. I don’t mind admitting that I was quite upset with his behaviour. I think a large fraction of working cosmologists have probably been Grischchucked at one time or another.

Later on, though, people from the meeting were congregating at a bar when he arrived and headed for me. I didn’t really want to talk to him as I felt he had been quite rude. However, there wasn’t really any way of escaping so I ended up talking to him over a beer. We finally resolved the question he had been trying to ask me and his demeanour changed completely. We spent the rest of the evening having dinner and talking about all sorts of things and have been friends ever since.

Over the years I’ve learned that this is very much a tradition amongst Russian scientists of the older school. They can seem very hostile – even brutal – when discussing science, but that was the way things were done in the environment where they learned their trade.  In many cases the rather severe exterior masks a kindly and generous nature, as it certainly does with Leonid.

I also remember a spell in the States as a visitor during which I heard two Russian cosmologists screaming at each other in the room next door. I really thought they were about to have a fist fight. A few minutes later, though, they both emerged, smiling as if nothing had happened…

Appropriately enough Leonid’s bash was held immediately after BritGrav 9, a meeting dedicated to bringing together the gravitational research community of the UK and beyond, and to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas. It aimed to cover all aspects of gravitational physics, both theoretical and experimental, including cosmology, mathematical general relativity, quantum gravity, gravitational astrophysics, gravitational wave data analysis, and instrumentation. I chaired a session during the meeting and found Leonid in characteristic form as a member of the audience, never shy with questions or comments, and quite difficult to keep under control.

I enjoyed the meeting because priority was given to students when allocating speaking slots. I think too many conferences have the same senior scientists giving  the same talk over and over again. Relativists are also quite different to cosmologists in the level of mathematical rigour to which they aspire.  You can bullshit at a cosmology conference, but wouldn’t get away with it in front of a GR audience.

On the evening of 16th April we had a public lecture in Cardiff by Kip Thorne on The Warped Side of the Universe: from the Big Bang to Black Holes and Gravitational Waves and Kip also gave a talk as part of the subsequent meeting on Friday in Leonid’s honour.


Kip and Leonid are shown together a few years ago in the photograph to the left here. The rest of the LPGFest meeting was interesting and eclectic, with talks from mathematical relativists as well as scientists in diverse fields who had come over from Russia specially to honour Leonid. We later adjourned to a “Welsh Banquet” at the 15th Century Undercroft of Cardiff Castle for dinner accompanied by something described as “entertainment” laid on by the hosts. That part was quite excruciating: like Butlins only not as classy. Heaven knows what our distinguished foreign visitors made of it, although Leonid seemed to think it was great fun, and that’s what matters.

Once the dinner was over it was time for Leonid to be showered with gifts from around the world and, by way of a finale, he was serenaded with a version of From Russian With Love, by Bernie and the Gravitones. Now at last I understand what the phrase “extraordinary rendition” means.

Ode to the Shipping Forecast

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 16, 2009 by telescoper

It’s broadcast four times a day on BBC Radio 4 and is immensely popular even with those who know nothing about shipping and live miles from the sea. The Shipping Forecast is as deep a part of British culture as cricket and standing in queues, although it doesn’t take as long as either of those things. It’s like a kind of soothing ritual that tells you that the world is still functioning despite all the stresses of the day. It’s predictable, safe and very conventional, like a meteorological version of the Anglican liturgy, but the combination of the mystical names with numbers and obscure formulae gives it a peculiarly pagan dimension.

I have to admit I’m an addict.

The Shipping Forecast is based on the division of the seas around the British Isles into a series of 31 areas, shown on the map, all with wonderfully evocative names. I was born in the Northeast of England so the sequence Forth-Tyne-Dogger always has a particular resonance for me, although living now in Cardiff I now find Lundy-Fastnet-Irish Sea is growing on me. The only problem is it sometimes sounds like Fishnet rather than Fastnet.

The broadcast of the Shipping Forecast always follows a strict format. It always begins with the words “And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at xx:xx GMT today.”, although some announcers may read out the actual date of issue as opposed to the word “today”.

First are the Gale warnings (winds of force 8 or more, on the Beaufort scale), if any (e.g. There are warnings of gales in Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey, and Fair Isle). This sometimes follows the opposite format (e.g. There are warnings of gales in all areas except Biscay, Trafalgar and FitzRoy).

The General Synopsis follows, giving the position, pressure (in millibars) and track of pressure areas (e.g. Low, Rockall, 987, deepening rapidly, expected Fair Isle 964 by 0700 tomorrow).

The forecast for each of the 31 shipping areas shown in the map is then read out. Several areas may be combined into a single forecast where the conditions are expected to be similar.

Wind direction is given first, then strength (on the Beaufort scale), followed by precipitation, if any, and (usually) lastly visibility. Change in wind direction is indicated by veering (clockwise change) or backing (anti-clockwise change). Winds of above force 8 are also described by name for emphasis, e.g. Gale 8, Severe Gale 9, Storm 10, Violent Storm 11 and Hurricane force 12. (See Beaufort scale). The word “force” is only officially used when announcing force 12 winds.

Visibility is given in the format: Good, meaning that the visibility is greater than 5 nautical miles; Moderate, where visibility is between 2 and 5 nautical miles; Poor, where visibility is between 1000 metres and 2 nautical miles and Fog, where visibility is less than 1000 metres. When severe winter cold combines with strong winds and a cold sea, icing can occur, normally only in sea area Southeast Iceland; if expected, icing warnings (light, moderate or severe) are given as the last item of each sea area forecast.

The extended shipping forecasts (0520 and 0048 GMT) also include weather reports from a list of additional coastal stations and automatic weather logging stations, which are known by their names, such as Channel Light Vessel Automatic. These are the Coastal Weather Stations, some of which are actually military bases. These add an additional movement to the Symphony of the Shipping Forecast. I’m a particular fan of Sandettie Light Vessel Automatic. It just sounds so good.

You can listen to an example here.

Deeply evocative, but with a perfect control of form and an economy of structure, the Shipping Forecast is ten minutes of pure poetry.

Perception, Piero and Pollock

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by telescoper

For some unknown reason I’ve just received an invitation to a private view at a small art gallery that’s about ten minutes’ walk from my house. Cocktails included. I shall definitely go and will blog about it next week. I’m looking forward to it already.

This invitation put me in an artistic frame of mind so, to follow up my post on randomness (and the corresponding parallel version on cosmic variance), I thought I’d develop some thoughts about the nature of perception and the perception of nature.

This famous painting is The Flagellation of Christ, by Piero della Francesca. I actually saw it many years ago on one of my many trips to Italy; it’s in an art gallery in Urbino. The first thing that strikes you when you see it is actually that the painting is surprisingly small (about 60cm by 80cm). However, that superficial reaction aside, the painting draws you into it in a way which few other works of art can. The composition is complicated and mathematically precise, but the use of linear perspective is sufficiently straightforward that your eye can quickly understand the geometry of the space depicted and locate the figures and actions within it. The Christ figure is clearly in the room to the left rear and the scene is then easily recognized as part of the story leading up to the crucifixion.

That’s what your eye always seems to do first when presented with a figurative representation: sort out what’s going on and fill in any details it can from memory and other knowledge.

But once you have made sense of the overall form, your brain immediately bombards you with questions. Who are the three characters in the right foreground? Why aren’t they paying attention to what’s going on indoors? Who is the figure with his back to us? Why is the principal subject so far in the background? Why does everyone look so detached? Why is the light coming from two different directions (from the left for the three men in the foreground but from the right for those in the interior)? Why is it all staged in such a peculiar way? And so on.

These unresolved questions lead you to question whether this is the straightforward depiction first sight led you to think it was. It’s clearly much more than that. Deeply symbolic, even cryptic, it’s effect on the viewer is eery and disconcerting. It has a dream-like quality. The individual elements of the painting add up to something, but the full meaning remains elusive. You feel there must be something you’re missing, but can’t find it.

This is such an enigmatic picture that it has sparked some extremely controversial interpretations, some of which are described in an article in the scientific journal Nature. I’m not going to pretend to know enough to comment on the theories, escept to say that some of them at least must be wrong. They are, however, natural consequences of our brain’s need to impose order on what it sees. The greatest artists know this, of course. Although it sometimes seems like they might be playing tricks on us just for fun, part of what makes art great is the way it gets inside the process of perception.

Here’s another example from quite a different artist.

This one is called Lavender Mist. It’s one of the “action paintings” made by the influential American artist Jackson Pollock. This, and many of the other paintings of its type, also get inside your head in quite a disconcerting way but it’s quite a different effect to that achieved by Piero della Francesca.

This is an abstract painting, but that doesn’t stop your eyes seeking within it some sort of point of reference to make geometrical sense of it. There’s no perspective to draw you into it so you look for clues to the depth in the layers of paint. Standing in front of one of these very large works – I find they don’t work at all in reduced form like on the screen in front of you now – you find your eyes constantly shifting around, following lines here and there, trying to find recognizable shapes and to understand what is there in terms of other things you have experienced either in the painting itself or elsewhere. Any order you can find, however, soon becomes lost. Small-scale patterns dissolve away into sea of apparent confusion. Your brain tries harder, but is doomed. One of the biggest problems is that your eyes keep focussing and unfocussing to look for depth and structure. It’s almost impossible to stop yourself doing it. You end up dizzy.

I don’t know how Pollock came to understand exactly how to make his compositions maximally disorienting, but he seems to have done so. Perhaps he had a deep instinctive understanding of how the eye copes with the interaction of structures on different physical scales. I find you can see this to some extent even in the small version of the picture on this page. Deliberately blurring your vision makes different elements stand out and then retreat, particularly the large darkish streak that lies to the left of centre at a slight angle to the vertical.

This artist has also been the subject of interest by mathematicians and physicists because his work seems to display some of the characteristic properties of fractal sets. I remember going to a very interesting talk a few years ago by Richard Taylor of the University of Oregon who claimed that fractal dimensions could be used to authenticate (or otherwise) genuine works by Pollock as he seemed to have his own unique signature.

I suppose what I’m trying to suggest is that there’s a deeper connection than you might think between the appreciation of art and the quest for scientific understanding.

Spiritus Mundi

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 14, 2009 by telescoper

I found this poem by Simon Pomery a while ago in the Times Literary Supplement. Something made me cut it out of the paper and keep it. Part of the reason that it made an impression on me was probably that it is taken from a lengthy verse translation of one of Seneca‘s Moral Epistles called Divina Lux (a couple of other fragments of which you can find here) and this is a work I studied a bit in latin classes at School. You can also find prose translations of some of the 124 such Epistles Seneca wrote very near the end of his life here.

The soul of the world abides.
It doesn’t distinguish between
those born in town or country:
it makes its home in the wild sea,
the blur and seam of the horizon,
the cloud-racked firmament itself.
The space that separates the gods
from men unites them also, where stars,
like watchmen, sleep out in the open.

Seneca espoused a Stoic philosophy that was developed later by Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations is one of my favourite books, although I’ve forgotten too much of my schoolboy Latin to read it in the original. I do, however, keep the paperback English translatlon with me when I go travelling. It is one the greatest works of classical philosophy, but it’s also a collection of very personal thoughts by someone who managed to be an uncompromisingly authoritarian Emperor of Rome at the same time as being a tender and introspective person.

Not that I’ve ever in practice managed to obey his exhortations to self-denial…