Archive for July, 2009


Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 16, 2009 by telescoper

T.D.1.jpg_copyBlogging about graduation ceremonies yesterday, I was reminded that a few years ago I had to deliver an oration on behalf of a very famous physicist who was awarded an honorary doctorate at the University of Nottingham. The recipient was TD Lee (shown left) who, together with CN Yang, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1957 for his work on parity violation. I thought you might find it interesting to  read the text of the oration, which I just found on my laptop this morning:




Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is both a pleasure and a privilege to present Professor Tsung-Dao Lee for the award of an honorary degree.  Professor Lee is a distinguished theoretical physicist whose work over many years has been characterized, in the words of Dr J Robert Oppenheimer, by “a remarkable freshness, versatility and style.”

Tsung-Dao Lee was born in Shanghai and educated at Suzhou University Middle School in Shanghai.  Fleeing the Japanese invasion, he left Shanghai in 1941.  His education was interrupted by war.  In 1945 he entered the National Southwest University in Kunming as a sophomore.  He was soon recognized as an outstanding young scientist and in 1946 was awarded a Chinese Government Scholarship enabling him to start a PhD in Physics under Professor Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.  He gained his doctorate in physics in 1950 with a thesis on the Hydrogen Content of White Dwarf Stars, and subsequently served as a research associate at the Yerkes Astronomical Observatory of the University of Chicago in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

Astronomy is a science that concerns the very large, but it was in the physics of the very small that Professor Lee was to do his most famous work.  After one year as a research associate and lecturer at the University of California in Berkeley, he became a fellow of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton and, in 1953, he accepted an assistant professorship position at Columbia University in New York.  Two and a half years later, he became the youngest full professor in the history of Columbia University.  During this time he often collaborated with Chen Ning Yang whom he had known as a fellow student in Chicago.  In 1956 they co-authored a paper whose impact was both immediate and profound.  Only a year later, Lee and Yang were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.  Professor Lee was thirty-one at the time and was the second youngest scientist ever to receive this distinction.  (The youngest was Sir Lawrence Bragg who shared the Physics Prize with his father in 1915, at the age of twenty-five.)

It is usually difficult to explain the ideas of theoretical physics to non-experts.  The mathematical language is inaccessible to those without specialist training.  But some of the greatest achievements in this field are so bold and so original that they appear, at least with hindsight, to be astonishingly simple.  The work of Lee and Yang on parity violation in elementary particle interactions is an outstanding example.

Subatomic particles interact with each other in very complicated ways.  In high energy collisions, particles can be scattered, destroyed or transformed into other particles.  But governing these changes are universal rules involving things that never change.  The existence of these conservation laws is a manifestation of the symmetries possessed by the mathematical theory of particle interactions.

Lee and Yang focussed on a particular attribute called parity, which relates to the “handedness” of a particle and symmetry with respect to mirror reflections.  Physicists had previously assumed that the laws of nature do not distinguish between left- and right-handed states: a left-handed object when seen in a mirror should be indistinguishable from a right-handed one.  This symmetry suggests that parity should be conserved in particle interactions, as it is in many other physical processes.  Unfortunately this chain of thought led to a puzzling deadlock in our understanding of the so-called weak nuclear interaction.  Lee and Yang made the revolutionary suggestion that parity is not conserved in weak interactions and consequently that the laws of nature must have a built-in handedness.  A year later their theory was tested experimentally and found to be correct.  Their penetrating insight led to a radical overhaul of the theory of weak interactions and to many further discoveries.  Physicists around the world said “Of course!  Why didn’t I think of that?”

This classic “Eureka moment” happened half a century ago, but Professor Lee has since made a host of equally distinguished contributions to fields as diverse as astrophysics, statistical mechanics, field theory and turbulence.  He was made Enrico Fermi Professor at Columbia in 1964 and University Professor there in 1984.  With typical energy and enthusiasm he took up the post of director of the RIKEN Research Center at Brookhaven National Laboratories in 1998.  He has played a prominent role in the advancement of science in China, including roles as director of physics institutes in Beijing and Zhejiang.

Professor Lee has received numerous awards and honours from around the world, including the Albert Einstein Award in Science, the Bude Medal, the Galileo Galilei Medal, the Order of Merit, Grande Ufficiale of Italy, the Science for Peace Prize, the China National-International Cooperation Award, the New York City Science Award, the Pope Joannes Paulis Medal, Il Ministero dell’Interno Medal of the Government of Italy and the New York Academy of Sciences Award.  His recognition even extends beyond this world, for in 1997 Small Planet 3443 was named in his honour.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, to you and to the whole congregation I present Professor Tsung-Dao Lee as eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.


Graduandi Graduati

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on July 15, 2009 by telescoper

Today was the day of the graduation ceremony for Cardiff  University‘s School of Physics & Astronomy, which took place in the fine surroundings of St David’s Hall. It’s a proud day for the students and their parents so, before anything else, let me offer my congratulations to all those who graduated today. Congratulations and well done to you all!

I put on my robes in the Green Room and was in the academic staff procession at the beginning and end of the ceremony. I also sat on stage during the conferment of degrees and the speech by the University’s President, Lord Kinnock. Some of the proceedings were conducted in Welsh – including the actual degree award – but it was comprehensible enough for all foreigners (even the English) to follow what was going on.

Graduation ceremonies are funny things. With all their costumes and weird traditions, they do seem a bit absurd. On the other hand, even in these modern times, we live with all kinds of  rituals and I don’t see why we shouldn’t celebrate academic achievement in this way.

Graduation is a grammatical phenomenon too. The word “graduation” is derived from the latin word gradus meaning a step, from which was eventually made the mediaeval latin verb graduare, meaning to take a degree. The past participle  of this is formed via the supine graduatus, hence the English noun “graduate” (i.e. one who has taken a degree). The word graduand, on the other hand, which is used before and during the ceremony to describe those about to graduate is from the  gerundive form graduandus meaning “to be graduated”. What really happens, therefore, is that students swap their gerundives for participles, although I suspect most participants don’t think of it in quite those terms…

The academic procession is quite colourful because staff wear the gown appropriate to their highest degree. Colours and styles vary greatly from one University to another even within the United Kingdom, and there are even more variations on show when schools contain staff who got their degrees abroad. Since I got my doctorate from the University of Sussex, which was created in the 1960s, the academic garb I have to wear on these occasions  is actually quite modern-looking. With its raised collar, red ribbons and capped shoulders it’s also more than a little bit camp. It often brings  a few comments when I’m in the procession, but I usually reply by saying I bought the outfit at Ann Summers.

Graduation of course isn’t just about education. It’s also a rite of passage on the way to adulthood and independence, so the presence of the parents at the ceremony adds another emotional dimension to the goings-on. Although everyone is rightly proud of the achievement – either their own in the case of the graduands or that of others in the case of the guests – there’s also a bit of sadness to go with the goodbyes. The new graduates were invited back to the School for a reception after this morning’s ceremony, along with parents and friends. That provided a more informal opportunity to say goodbye. Some, of course, are continuing their studies either at Cardiff or elsewhere so I’ll be seeing at least some of them again.

Although this was my first attendance at the Cardiff University graduation, I’ve been to  graduation ceremonies at several universities as a staff member. They differ in detail but largely follow the same basic format. Compared to others I’ve been at, the Cardiff version is very friendly and rather informal. For one thing, the Vice-Chancellor actually shakes hands with all the graduands as they cross the stage. At Nottingham University, for example, where I was before moving here, the V-C just sat there reading a book and occasionally nodded as they trooped across in front of him.

The venue for Cardiff’s graduation is also right in the city centre, so all day you can find students in their regalia wandering through the town (sometimes with their doting parents in tow). I like this a lot because it gives the University a much greater sense of belonging to the city than is the case when everything happens on a campus miles out of town.

The most remarkable thing  I noticed in the ceremony was not to do with Physics & Astronomy, but with Cardiff’s School of Psychology which is much larger and in which at least 90% of the graduates were female. In our School the proportions aren’t exactly reversed but are about 75% male to 25% female.

I’ve also been through two graduations on the other side of the fence, as it were. My first degree came from Cambridge so I had to participate in the even more archaic ceremony for that institution. The whole thing is done in Latin there (or was when I graduated) and involves each graduand holding a finger held out by their College’s Praelector and then kneeling down in front of the presiding dignitary, who is either the Vice-Chancellor ot the Chancellor. I can’t remember which. It’s also worth mentioning that although I did Natural Sciences (specialising in Theoretical Physics), the degree I got was Bachelor of Arts. Other than that, and the fact that the graduands walk to the Senate House from their College through the streets of Cambridge,  I don’t remember much about actual ceremony.

I was very nervous for my first graduation. The reason was that my parents had divorced some years before and my Mum had re-married. My Dad wouldn’t speak to her or her second husband. Immediately after the ceremony there was a garden party at my college, Magdalene, at which the two parts of my family occupied positions at opposite corners of the lawn and I scuttled between them trying to keep everyone happy. It was like that for the rest of the day and I have to say it was very stressful.

A few years later I got my doctorate (actually DPhil) from the University of Sussex. The ceremony in that case was in the Brighton Centre on the seafront. It was pretty much the same deal again with the warring factions, but I enjoyed the whole day a lot more that time. And I got the gown.

For the Cosmonauts

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on July 15, 2009 by telescoper

Last week I bought a copy of Moonrise, a collection of poems by Meirion Jordan. He was born in Swansea and read Mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford. His poems, which often deal with themes inspired by science, are sometimes witty or satirical and sometimes simply a bit wild.  They’re also beautifully composed, with a very natural structure and playful use of language.

I wanted to give his book a bit of a plug so here he is on Youtube reading For the Cosmonauts, which one of two pieces comprising the Epilogue to his book.  This is the text

I, Yuri Gagarin, having not seen God,
wake now to the scrollwork of a body,
to my own white fibres leafing into the bone:
know that beyond this dome of rain there is
only the nothing where the soul sweers
out its parallax like a distant star and truth
brightens to X, to gamma, through a metal sail.

So I return to you, cramming your pockets
with the atmosphere and the evening news,
fumbling for gardens in the moon’s shadow,
in its waterfalls of silence. I wish for you
familiar towns, their piers and amusement arcades
unpeopled at dusk, the unicorn tumbling by
on china hooves behind the high walls
of parks, among congregating lamps.

May you find Earth rising there, between
your steepled hands. May your voyages
end. May you have a cold unfurling
of limbs each morning, when I am fallen
out of the world.

Here is the poet himself reading it

You can order the book directly from the publisher by clicking on the link above.

The Thermodynamics of Beards

Posted in Beards, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 14, 2009 by telescoper

When I was an undergraduate studying physics, my physics supervisor (who happens to be a regular contributor to the comments on this blog) introduced me to thermodynamics by explaining that Ludwig Boltzmann committed suicide in 1906, as did Paul Ehrenfest in 1933. Now it was my turn to study what had driven them both to take their own lives.

I didn’t think this was the kind of introduction likely to inspire a joyful curiosity in the subject, but it probably wasn’t the reason why I found the subject as difficult as I did. I thought it was a hard subject because it seemed to me to possess arbitrary rules that didn’t emerge from a simpler underlying principle, but simply had to be memorized. Lurking somewhere under it was obviously something statistical, but what it was or how it worked was never made clear. I was frequently told that the best thing to do was just memorize all the different examples given and not try to understand where it all came from. I tried doing this but, partly because I have a very poor memory, I didn’t so very well in the final examination on this topic. I was prejudiced against it for years afterwards.

Actually, now I have grown to like thermodynamics as a subject and have read quite a bit about its historical development. The field of thermodynamics is usually presented to students as a neat and tidy system of axioms and definitions. The resulting laws are written in the language of idealised gases, perfect mechanical devices and reversible equilibrium paths but, despite this, have many applications in realistic practical situations. What is particularly interesting about these laws is that it took a very long time indeed to establish them even at this macroscopic level. The deeper understanding of their origin in the microphysics of atoms and molecules took even longer and was an even more difficult journey.   I thought it might be  fun to celebrate  the tangled history of this fascinating subject, at least for a little while.  Unlike quantum physics and relativity, thermodynamics is not regarded as a very “glamorous” part of science by the general public, but it did occupy the minds of the greatest physicists of the nineteenth century, and I think the story deserves to be better appreciated. I don’t have space to give a complete account, so I apologize in advance for the omissions.

I thought it would also be fun to show pictures of the principal characters. As you’ll see, after  a very clean-shaven start, the history of thermodynamics is dominated by a succession of rather splendid beards…

I’ll start the story with Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot (left), who  was born in 1796. His family background was, to say the least, unusual. His father Lasare was known as the “Organizer of Victory” for the Revolutionary Army in 1794 and subsequently became Napoleon’s minister of war. Against all expectations he quit politics in 1807 and became a mathematician. Sadi had a brother, by the splendid name of Hippolyte, who was also a politician and whose son became president of France. Sadi himself was educated partly by his father and partly at the Ecole Polytecnhique. He served in the army as an engineer and was eventually promoted to Captain. He left the army in 1828, only to die of cholera in 1832 during an epidemic in Paris.

Carnot’s work on the theory of “heat engines” was astonishingly original and eventually had enormous impact, essentially creating the new science of thermodynamics, but he only published one paper before his untimely death and it attracted little attention during his lifetime. Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire appeared in 1824, but its importance was not really recognized until 1849, when it was read by William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) who, together Rudolf Clausius, made it more widely known.

In the late 18th century, Britain was in the grip of an industrial revolution largely generated by the use of steam power. These engines had been invented by the pragmatic British, but the theory by which they worked was pretty much non-existent. Carnot realised that steam-driven devices in use at the time were horrendously inefficient. As a nationalist, he hoped that by thinking about the underlying principles of heat and energy he might be able to give his native France a competitive edge over perfidious Albion. He thought about the problem of heat engines in the most general terms possible, even questioning whether there might be an alternative to steam as the best possible “working substance”. Despite the fact that he employed many outdated concepts, including the so-called caloric theory of heat, Carnot’s paper was full of brilliant insights. In particular he considered the behaviour of an idealized friction-free engine in which the working substance moves from a heat source to a heat sink in a series of small equilibrium steps so that the entire process is reversible. The changes of pressure and volume involved in such a process are now known as a Carnot cycle.

By remarkably clear reasoning, Carnot was able to prove a famous theorem that the efficiency of such a cycle depends only on the temperature Tin of the heat source and the temperature Tout. He showed that the maximum fraction of the heat available to be used to do mechanical work is independent of the working substance and is equal to (Tin-Tout)/Tout; this is called Carnot’s theorem. Carnot’s results were probably considered too abstract to be of any use to engineers, but they contain ideas that are linked with the First Law of Thermodynamics, and they eventually led Clausius and Thomson independently to the statement of the Second Law discussed below.

James Prescott Joule (right) was growing up in a wealthy brewing family. He was born in 1818 and was educated at home by none other than John Dalton. He became interested in science and soon started doing experiments in a laboratory near the family brewery. He was a skilful practical physicist and was able to measure the heat and temperature changes involved in various situations. Between 1837 and 1847 he established the basic principle that heat and other forms of energy (such as mechanical work) were equivalent and that, when all forms are included, energy is conserved. Joule measured the amount of mechanical work required to produce a given amount of heat in 1843, by studying the heat released in water by the rotation of paddles powered by falling weights. The SI unit of energy is named in his honour.

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin of Largs, was born in 1824 and came to dominate British physics throughout the second half of the 19th  century. He was extremely prolific, writing over 600 research papers and several books. No-one since has managed to range so widely and so successfully across the realm of natural sciences. He was also unusually generous with his ideas (perhaps because he had so many), and in giving credit to other scientists, such as Carnot.  He wasn’t entirely enlightened, however: he was a vigorous opponent of the admission of women to the  University.

Kelvin worked on many theoretical aspects of physics, but was also extremely practical. He directed the first successful transatlantic cable telegraph project, and his house in Glasgow was one of the first to be lit by electricity. Unusually among physicists he became wealthy through his scientific work. One can dream.

One of the keys to Kelvin’s impact on science in Britain was that immediately after graduating from Cambridge in 1845 he went to work in Paris for a year. This opened his eyes to the much more sophisticated mathematical approaches being used by physicists on the continent. British physics, especially at Cambridge, had been held back by an excessive reverence for the work of Newton and the rather cumbersome form of calculus (called “fluxions”) it had inherited from him. Much of Kelvin’s work on theoretical topics used the modern calculus which had been developed in mainland Europe. More specifically, it was during this trip to Paris that he heard of the paper by Carnot, although it took him another three years to get his hands on a copy. When he returned from Paris in 1846, the young William Thomson became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University, a post he held for an astonishing 53 years.

Initially inspired by Carnot’s work, Kelvin became one of the most important figures in the development of the theory of heat. In 1848 he proposed an absolute scale of temperature now known as the Kelvin or thermodynamic scale, which practically corresponds with the Celsius scale except with an offset such that the triple point of water, at zero degrees Celsius, is at 273.16 Kelvin.  He also worked with Joule on experiments concerning heat flow.

At around the same time as Kelvin, another prominent character in the story of thermodynamics was playing his part. Rudolf Clausius (right) was born in 1822. His father was a Prussian pastor and owner of a small school that the young Rudolf attended. He later went to university in Berlin to study history, but switched to science. He was constantly short of money, which meant that it took him quite a long time to graduate but he eventually ended up as a professor of physics, first in Zürich and then later in Wurzburg and Bonn. During the Franco-Prussian war, he and his students set up a volunteer ambulance service and during the course of its operations, Rudolf Clausius was badly wounded.

By the 1850s, thanks largely to the efforts of Kelvin, Carnot’s work was widely recognized throughout Europe. Carnot had correctly realised that in a steam engine, heat “moves” as the steam descends from a higher temperature to a lower one. He, however, envisaged that this heat moved through the engine intact.  On the other hand, the work of Joule had established The First law of Thermodynamics, which states that heat is actually lost in this process, or more precisely heat is converted into mechanical work. Clausius was troubled by the apparent conflict between the views of Carnot and Joule, but eventually realised that they could be reconciled if one could assume that heat does not pass spontaneously from a colder to a hotter body. This was the original statement of what has become known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The following year, Kelvin came up with a different expression of essentially the same law.  Clausius further developed the idea that heat must tend to dissipate and in 1865 he introduced the term “entropy”  as a measure of the amount of heat gained or lost by a body divided by its absolute temperature. An equivalent statement of the Second Law is that the entropy of an isolated system can never decrease: it can only either increase or remain constant. This principle was intensely controversial at the time, but Kelvin and Maxwell fought vigorously in its defence, and it was eventually accepted into the canon of Natural Law.

So far in this brief historical diversion, I have focussed on thermodynamics at a macroscopic level, in the form that eventually emerged as the laws of thermodynamics presented in the previous section. During roughly the same period, however, a parallel story was unfolding that revolved around explaining the macroscopic behaviour of matter in terms of the behaviour of its microscopic components. The goal of this programme was to understand quantitative measures such as temperature and pressure in terms of related quantities describing individual atoms or molecules. I’ll end this bit of history with a brief description of three of the most important contributors to this strand.

 James Clerk Maxwell (left) was probably the greatest physicist of the nineteenth century, and although he is most celebrated for his phenomenal work on the unified theory of electricity and magnetism, he was also a great pioneer in the kinetic theory of gases, He was born in 1831 and went to school at the Edinburgh academy, which was a difficult experience for him because he had a country accent and invariably wore home-made clothes that made him stand out among the privileged town-dwellers who formed the bulk of the school population. Aged 15, he invented a method of drawing curves using string and drawing pins as a kind of generalization of the well-known technique of drawing an ellipse. This work was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1846, a year before Maxwell went to University. After a spell at Edinburgh he went to Cambridge in 1850; while there he won the prestigious Smith’s prize in 1854. He subsequently obtained a post in Aberdeen at Marischal College where he married the principal’s daughter, but was then made redundant. In 1860 he moved to London but when his father died in 1865 he resigned his post at King’s college and became a gentleman farmer doing scientific research in his spare time. In 1874 he was persuaded to move to Cambridge as the first Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics, charged with the responsibility of setting up the now-famous Cavendish laboratory. He contracted cancer five years later and died, aged 48, in 1879.

Maxwell’s contributions to the kinetic theory of gases began by building on the idea, originally due to Daniel Bernoulli, that a gas consists of molecules in constant motion colliding with each other and with the walls of whatever container is holding it. Rudolf Clausius had already realised that although the gas molecules travel very fast, gases diffuse into each other only very slowly. He deduced, correctly, that molecules must only travel a very short distance between collisions. From about 1860, Maxwell started to work on the application of statistical methods to this general picture. He worked out the probability distribution of molecular velocities in a gas in equilibrium at a given temperature; Boltzmann (see below) independently derived the same result. Maxwell showed how the distribution depends on temperature and also proved that heat must be stored in a gas in the form of kinetic energy of the molecules, thus establishing a microscopic version of the first law of thermodynamics. He went on to explain a host of experimental properties such as viscosity, diffusion and thermal conductivity using this theory.

Maxwell was lucky that he was able to make profound intellectual discoveries without apparently suffering from significant mental strain. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann, who was born in 1844 and grew up in the Austrian towns of Linz and Wels, where his father was employed as a tax officer. He received his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1866 and subsequently held a series of professorial appointments at Graz, Vienna, Munich and Leipzig. Throughout his life he suffered from bouts of depression which worsened when he was subjected to sustained attack from the Vienna school of positivist philosophers, who derided the idea that physical phenomena could be explained in terms of atoms. Despite this antagonism, he taught many students who went on to become very distinguished and he also had a very wide circle of friends. In the end, though, the lack of acceptance of his work got him so depressed that he committed suicide in 1906. Max Planck arranged for his gravestone to be marked with “S=klogW”, which is now known as Boltzmann’s law; the constant k is called Boltzmann’s constant.

The final member of the cast of characters in this story is Josiah Willard Gibbs (left). He born in 1839 and received his doctorate from Yale University in 1863, gaining only the second PhD ever to be awarded in the USA.  After touring Europe for a while he returned to Yale in 1871 to become a professor, but he received no salary for the first nine years of this appointment. The university rules at that time only allowed salaries to be paid to staff in need of money; having independent means, Gibbs was apparently not entitled to a salary. Gibbs was a famously terrible teacher and few students could make any sense of his lectures (not a rare occurence amongst those trying to learn thermodynamics). His research papers are written in a very obscure style which makes it easy to believe he found it difficult to express himself in the lecture theatre. Gibbs actually founded the field of chemical thermodynamics, but few chemists understood his work while he was still alive. His great contribution to statistical mechanics was likewise poorly understood. It was only in the 1890s when his works were translated into German that his achievements became more widely recognised. Both Planck and Einstein held him in very high regard, but even they found his work difficult to understand. He died in 1903.

So there you are. The only one who didn’t have a beard was French and called Sadi. ’nuff said.

Vintage Bird

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on July 14, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve gone  far too long without posting something by the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (“Bird”), undoubtedly one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century. Together with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Bird effectively created a  revolution in Jazz after the end of World War II in the form of a new style called bebop.

Like many Jazz legends, Charlie Parker died young as a result of chronic alcoholism and, especially in his case, drug addiction. He became hooked on heroin when he was a teenager and when he couldn’t get heroin he used anything else he could. The result was a body ravaged by abuse and a career frequently interrupted by illness. When he died, at the age of 35, the doctor who signed his death certificate estimated his age as “about 60”.

I remember, as a teenager,  finding a Charlie Parker LP  in a second-hand record shop and buying it for 50p. When I got home I put it straight on the record player and couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the staggering virtuosity of his playing. I just didn’t realise the alto sax could be played the way he played it. I’ve been a devout Charlie Parker fan ever since, although most of recorded output is quite difficult to get your hands on. In fact, the first record I bought as an LP has never been released on CD, which I think is a scandal.

Many people I know can’t really stand any Jazz that’s stylistically dated after about 1940. I have never really understood this attitude.  To my mind the two tracks I’ve picked here, recorded in 1948, sound as fresh and exciting to me now as they did when I first heard them 30 years ago. They also seem to me firmly rooted in a wonderful tradition of music-making that reaches back to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and forward to the likes of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. Anyway, I’m not going to preach. I love this music and it’s up to you whether you agree or not.

Parker’s ideas didn’t just remain within jazz, and bebop had a huge cultural influence on post-war America. It never became as popular as pre-war Jazz,  but had a devoted following on both sides of the Atlantic and breathed new creative life into a form that was in danger of becoming stale and commercialized.

The first piece  is called Ah Leu Cha and – as far as I’m aware – it is the only tune Bird ever wrote that involves any kind of counterpoint (provided by a very young Miles Davis on trumpet). The second track is a majestic solo blues called Parker’s Mood which demonstrates his deep understanding of and appreciation of the traditional 12-bar blues format.

The Great Escape

Posted in Cricket, Uncategorized with tags , , on July 12, 2009 by telescoper

Just a little postscript to my blog post about the cricket at Cardiff. After Australia ran away to 674-6 and had England at 20-2 last night before the rain came down after the tea interval, it looked odds-on for an Australian victory. That impression was strengthened by the feeble batting of  England’s leading batsmen this morning. The rain that had been forecast also failed to materialize, so  England were staring at defeat with the score at 70-5 at one stage.

This afternoon one England batsman, Paul Collingwood, did show some mettle and the tailenders who had played brightly on Day 2 demonstrated much greater resilience than their teammates had this morning. Nevertheless, when Collingwood was out later on, it still looked like Australia would win. Eventually it came down to the last pair, the bowlers Monty Panesar and James Anderson, to cling on, bat out time and attempt to salvage an unlikely draw from almost certain defeat. Monty in particular defended like his soul depended on it and together the two tail-enders saw England to safety. Great stuff.

I absolutely love it when things like this happen. There’s something very “Dad’s Army” about bowlers having to save the day with the bat. Backs to the wall and all that. I have to admit I was completely gripped by the drama of the last hour or so of play and so nervous I was shaking as I watched. One mistake and the match would be lost. Runs didn’t matter, just survival. Fielders all around the bat. The crowd applauding every delivery that was kept out. Only cricket can produce that stomach-churning intensity. At the end of the time allocated for play, England were 252-9, just 13 runs ahead. Australia just hadn’t managed to get that last one out. The defiant rearguard action had held off everything that was thrown at them. England may have needed two innings to reach the score that Australia obtained in one, but that doesn’t matter. Match drawn.

If you want to know how a game can go on for five days and still end in a draw, this is how. And bloody marvellous it is too!

England have their work cut out to improve enough to compete over the rest of the five-match series for the Ashes, but at least this escape has denied the Australians the massive psychological boost the expected  big victory would have given them. I know it’s a draw, but there’s no doubting which team will be happier tonight.

And I’m really happy that the First Ashes Test at Cardiff turned out to be such a memorable one!

Advanced Fellowships

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on July 11, 2009 by telescoper

This is just a quick Newsflash that UK Astronomers will be  interested in (and depressed by). My attention was drawn to it yesterday by Frazer Pearce of Nottingham.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has decided in its finite wisdom to cut in half the number of Advanced Fellowships (AFs) it awards each year, that is from 12 to 6, that number to cover all of Astronomy and Particle Physics.

These fellowships are awarded to researchers who do not have a permanent position but wish to pursue research, and are designed to further the careers of individuals with outstanding potential. They last 5 years – longer than the usual 2-3 year postdoctoral positions and have been for many a scientist an important stepping-stone to an academic career. A very large fraction of my colleagues who have permanent positions were awarded one of these fellowships when they were run by PPARC (including Frazer), as was I myself but, being an Oldie, mine was even pre-PPARC so was in fact given by SERC. Of course the fact that they gave me one doesn’t itself serve as much of a recommendation for continuing them, but it is worth drawing attention to the huge amount of  high quality research done in the UK by holders of these Fellowships.

A number of people have expressed to me their shock at this decision but it doesn’t surprise me at all. For one thing, it’s an open secret that STFC considers the academic community in these areas to be too large so the last thing it wants is more people getting permanent jobs through the AF route.  In any case, STFC’s prime concern is with facilities, not with scientific research.

Who needs half a dozen top class scientists when you can have Moonlite instead?