Archive for November, 2009


Posted in Uncategorized on November 30, 2009 by telescoper

Owing to foreseen circumstances I’m going to be spending the next few days enjoying the hospitality (geddit?) of our wonderful National Health Service which is the envy of the civilised world (and America).

Normal services will be resumed as soon as possible but, for the time being, there will now follow a short intermission.

Blood Count

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on November 29, 2009 by telescoper

Yesterday I was listening to Jazz Record Requests on BBC Radio 3 and a piece cropped up that reminded me that today, 29th November 2009, would have been the 94th birthday of the great composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn.

The piece that came up wasn’t specifically chosen to mark Strayhorn’s birthday but I thought I’d put it up here because it is so beautifully poignant.  Strayhorn collaborated extensively with Duke Ellington over the years, producing some of the most gorgeous music to emerge from the 20th century in any genre.

Although apparently started some time earlier, Blood Count was the last piece completed by Billy Stayhorn who put the final touches to it while he was in hospital suffering from a terminal cancer. It was first performed after his death in 1967 by Duke Ellington’s orchestra as a tribute, with Johnny Hodges‘  alto sax taking the lead. Hodges was never a speed merchant on the alto sax, but his big warm sound, beautiful tone and poised lyricism won him huge admiration from all parts of the jazz spectrum, including John Coltrane who described him as “The World’s Greatest Saxophone Player”. High praise indeed, but listening to this performance it’s hard to disagree! Heartfelt but dignified, it’s not just a fitting eulogy for Strayhorn, but a lovely piece in its own right.

Air on the G string

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , on November 28, 2009 by telescoper

Well, you’ll either love this or hate it. If you’re of a certain age like me you might  also remember that happiness is a cigar called Hamlet but not remember who played the tune. This is, fact, Jacques Loussier and his trio doing their take on Johann Sebastian Bach. And before you get too sanctimonious and music-hysterical about this version, I’ll just add that it is well known that Bach enormously enjoyed improvisation. I have a sneaking feeling he would actually have quite liked this…

Spire Spectra

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 27, 2009 by telescoper

OK, so it turns out I lied about not posting today. It’s not because I’m a dishonest professor, though. It’s just that I couldn’t resist drawing your attention to the new results that have just been released by the European Space Agency. To whet your appetite, have a shufty at this exquisite far infrared spectrum of the star VY Canis Majoris taken using the SPIRE instrument for which Cardiff is the lead institute.

VY Canis Majoris (VY CMa) is a red hypergiant, an enormous evolved star located in the constellation Canis Major. With a radius 2600 times that of the Sun, it is the largest known star and it is also one of the most luminous stars known. It is located about 4900 light years away from Earth, has a luminosity in excess of 100,000  solar luminosities, and a mass in the range 30-40 solar masses.

The shell of gas it has ejected displays a complex structure, the so-created circumstellar envelope is among the most remarkable chemical laboratories known in the universe, creating a rich set of organic and inorganic molecules and dust species. Through stellar winds, these inorganic and organic compounds are injected into the interstellar medium, from which new stars orbited by new planets may form. Most of the carbon supporting life on planet Earth was probably made by this kind of evolved star. VY CMa is close to the end of its life and could explode as a supernova at any time.

Spectroscopic results may be a bit less photogenic than pretty pictures, but they often yield much more physically relevant information than simple images. As I’ve mentioned before, it is in spectroscopy where we find the difference between astronomy and astrophysics (or, less politely, between stamp collecting and science).  In this case the spectrum gives a detailed breakdown of the chemical mixture present in the matter ejected by this star.

You can find other stunning examples of Herschel’s infrared spectroscopic capabilities here and you can read more about the involvement of Cardiff astronomers in these stunning new science results on our own pages here.

There’s also a story on the BBC Website.

Brake Thread

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 26, 2009 by telescoper

Following my post yesterday, the thread of comments relating to the Mark Brake/University of Glamorgan fraud scandal has been removed from the Times Higher story. However, I was logging the thread until very near the end (in fact, until my own  last comment this morning shortly before the comments were closed). I have posted them on a permanent page here to preserve them, but the page is currently offline pending clarification of copyright issues.

I have no idea why the comments were deleted, but I hope it is a sign that the University of Glamorgan is finally investigating this matter. If they are, I expect this matter to reach a speedy conclusion. If not, I will keep you posted on further developments with this and other matters in due course.

I’ve decided to reduce the amout of blogging I do over the next few days to catch up on paper-writing and a few other things, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing if story stays at the top of the page for now.

The Mark Brake Story

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 25, 2009 by telescoper

I’m quite surprized to find myself posting yet another item about this story over a month after I originally mentioned it, but after the events of the last few days I really don’t feel like letting it drop.

In case you missed the story first time, Professor Mark Brake (he of the absurdly glowing wikipedia page) falsely represented his qualifications when applying for a research grant in 2006. For some reason, his employer – the University of Glamorgan – did not take the appropriate action of dismissing him for gross misconduct, but instead sacked the person responsible for drawing it to their attention. These are the facts as reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement which I commented on in my second post on this saga a few weeks ago.

The reason for posting about it again is that the Times Higher article is attracting a truly phenomenal number of comments (nearly 600 at the last count). These, roughly speaking, divide into two camps. The first set (including 4 comments by myself under my own name) comprises comments from people dismayed by the fact that Professor Brake’s misconduct appears not to have been investigated properly by the UoG and suggestions that this episode will reflect badly on academia generally unless  it can be sorted out promptly.

The second camp appears to consist of a small number of individuals posting abusively mocking comments under a variety of silly pseudonyms who are clearly attempting to draw attention away from the allegations against Professor Brake. It seems to me to be a very high probability that the culprit himself is behind many of the more absurd comments on the thread. I have been informed by someone working for the University of Glamorgan that Brake has been expressly forbidden to comment on this story, but that the UoG has taken no steps whatsoever to investigate whether he is doing so. In the meantime, contrary to promises made by their press contact to the THES, the UoG  have not yet made any attempt investigate the original misconduct. To quote from a comment I put on the thread myself:

I wish I shared the confidence of some other posters in the willingness of the UoG to treat this matter with appropriate seriousness. I think it is more likely that their “investigation” involves keeping their eyes firmly closed and not opening them unless and until a third party drops a load of direct evidence on their head. The longer they continue to ignore the ongoing misconduct of their own employees, including their abusive posts on this thread, the further the reputation of the University of Glamorgan is tarnished.

Since I revealed that I  that passed the Wales Online story onto the Times Higher, a number of things have happened which I can’t comment on for legal reasons. These events have left me very doubtful that the University of Glamorgan intends to investigate this matter at all and wishes instead that it will all blow over.

Of course readers of this blog can form their own opinions about the importance of this case and/or my interpretation of the facts but, based on what I know, I have drawn the conclusion that it is very important that this matter is not allowed to fade away. For one thing, the professorial salary of this individual is funded by the taxpayer….

I therefore intend to keep posting comments on the THES in support of academic standards and against academic misconduct until something is done. I invite any readers that agree with me to post their comments on the THES thread.

If representatives of the University of Glamorgan or any individual or organization feels I have misrepresented any aspect of this case or if you disagree with me for any other reason, or simply wish to comment, please feel free to express your thoughts through the box below.

STOP PRESS: The Times Higher appears to have closed the thread on this story for reasons not explained. You may still comment here of course.

Black Hole

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 24, 2009 by telescoper

After an exceptionally trying day, I’ve been relaxing by dipping into a collection of poems called Dangerous Driving by Chris Woods. He’s an interesting character who works part-time as a GP in Lancashire and tries to balance medicine, family and writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers and has also been broadcast on BBC Radio and Channel Four Television (including a series called Six Experiments that Changed the World, to which I was also a contributor).

Anyway I’ve developed  a bit of a habit of putting up poems with vaguely astronomical themes so when I found this one, I decided to put it up here not least because it made me think of the person who has been causing me so much hassle over the past few days….

Black Hole

You turn all the lights off
but never sleep,
pace round the edge of yourself,
never communicate.
A million dark years distant,
you suck in light like spaghetti.

You got too big for yourself
and collapsed,
but ferocious energy remained
and now you’re back, muscling in
carving out your own space
and time.

You smash up your neighbourhood,
pull the light off stars.
you are far outside our laws,
giving nothing away,
stealing everything from everything.

(reproduced with the kind permission of Comma Press).

You can also see a video based on the poem Black Hole from Ghost Code on Vimeo although I have to admit I could make neither head nor tail of it.