Archive for November, 2009

The Cosmic Web

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2009 by telescoper

When I was writing my recent  (typically verbose) post about chaos  on a rainy saturday afternoon, I cut out a bit about astronomy because I thought it was too long even by my standards of prolixity. However, walking home this evening I realised I could actually use it in a new post inspired by a nice email I got after my Herschel lecture in Bath. More of that in a minute, but first the couple of paras I edited from the chaos item…

Astronomy provides a nice example that illustrates how easy it is to make things too complicated to solve. Suppose we have two massive bodies orbiting in otherwise empty space. They could be the Earth and Moon, for example, or a binary star system. Each of the bodies exerts a gravitational force on the other that causes it to move. Newton himself showed that the orbit followed by each of the bodies is an ellipse, and that both bodies orbit around their common centre of mass. The Earth is much more massive than the Moon, so the centre of mass of the Earth-Moon system is rather close to the centre of the Earth. Although the Moon appears to do all the moving, the Earth orbits too. If the two bodies have equal masses, they each orbit the mid-point of the line connecting them, like two dancers doing a waltz.

Now let us add one more body to the dance. It doesn’t seem like too drastic a complication to do this, but the result is a mathematical disaster. In fact there is no known mathematical solution for the gravitational three-body problem, apart from a few special cases where some simplifying symmetry helps us out. The same applies to the N-body problem for any N bigger than 2. We cannot solve the equations for systems of gravitating particles except by using numerical techniques and very big computers. We can do this very well these days, however, because computer power is cheap.

Computational cosmologists can “solve” the N-body problem for billions of particles, by starting with an input list of positions and velocities of all the particles. From this list the forces on each of them due to all the other particles can be calculated. Each particle is then moved a little according to Newton’s laws, thus advancing the system by one time-step. Then the forces are all calculated again and the system inches forward in time. At the end of the calculation, the solution obtained is simply a list of the positions and velocities of each of the particles. If you would like to know what would have happened with a slightly different set of initial conditions you need to run the entire calculation again. There is no elegant formula that can be applied for any input: each laborious calculation is specific to its initial conditions.

Now back to the Herschel lecture I gave, called The Cosmic Web, the name given to the frothy texture of the large-scale structure of the Universe revealed by galaxy surveys such as the 2dFGRS:

One of the points I tried to get across in the lecture was that we can explain the pattern – quite accurately – in the framework of the Big Bang cosmology by a process known as gravitational instability. Small initial irregularities in the density of the Universe tend to get amplified as time goes on. Regions just a bit denser than average tend to pull in material from their surroundings faster, getting denser and denser until they collapse in on themselves, thus forming bound objects.

This  Jeans instability  is the dominant mechanism behind star formation in molecular clouds, and it leads to the rapid collapse of blobby extended structures  to tightly bound clumps. On larger scales relevant to cosmological structure formation we have to take account of the fact that the universe is expanding. This means that gravity has to fight against the expansion in order to form structures, which slows it down. In the case of a static gas cloud the instability grows exponentially with time, whereas in an expanding background it is a slow power-law.

This actually helps us in cosmology because the process of structure formation is not so fast that it destroys all memory of the initial conditions, which is what happens when stars form. When we look at the large-scale structure of the galaxy distribution we are therefore seeing something which contains a memory of where it came from. I’ve blogged before about what started the whole thing off here.

Here’s a (very low-budget) animation of the formation of structure in the expanding universe as computed by an N-body code. The only subtlety in this is that it is in comoving coordinates, which expand with the universe: the box should really be getting bigger but is continually rescaled with the expansion to keep it the same size on the screen.

You can see that filaments form in profusion but these merge and disrupt in such a way that the characteristic size of the pattern evolves with time. This is called hierarchical clustering.

One of the questions I got by email after the talk was basically that if the same gravitational instability produced stars and large-scale structure, why wasn’t the whole universe just made of enormous star-like structures rather than all these strange filaments and things?

Part of the explanation is that the filaments are relatively transient things. The dominant picture is one in which the filaments and clusters
become incorporated in larger-scale structures but really dense concentrations, such as the spiral galaxies, which do
indeed look a bit like big solar systems, are relatively slow to form.

When a non-expanding cloud of gas collapses to form a star there is also some transient filamentary structure  but the processes involved go so rapidly that it is all swept away quickly. Out there in the expanding universe we can still see the cobwebs.

Crash! Bang! Wallop! What a Picture!

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2009 by telescoper

A Little Bit of Chaos

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2009 by telescoper

The era of modern physics could be said to have begun in 1687 with the publication by Sir Isaac Newton of his great Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, (Principia for short). In this magnificent volume, Newton presented a mathematical theory of all known forms of motion and, for the first time, gave clear definitions of the concepts of force and momentum. Within this general framework he derived a new theory of Universal Gravitation and used it to explain the properties of planetary orbits previously discovered but unexplained by Johannes Kepler. The classical laws of motion and his famous “inverse square law” of gravity have been superseded by more complete theories when dealing with very high speeds or very strong gravity, but they nevertheless continue supply a very accurate description of our everyday physical world.

Newton’s laws have a rigidly deterministic structure. What I mean by this is that, given precise information about the state of a system at some time then one can use Newtonian mechanics to calculate the precise state of the system at any later time. The orbits of the planets, the positions of stars in the sky, and the occurrence of eclipses can all be predicted to very high accuracy using this theory.

At this point it is useful to mention that most physicists do not use Newton’s laws in the form presented in the Principia, but in a more elegant language named after Sir William Rowan Hamilton. The point about Newton’s laws of motion is that they are expressed mathematically as differential equations: they are expressed in terms of rates of changes of things. For instance, the force on a body gives the rate of change of the momentum of the body. Generally speaking, differential equations are very nasty things to solve which is a shame because most a great deal of theoretical physics involves them. Hamilton realised that it was possible to express Newton’s laws in a way that did not involve clumsy mathematics of this type. His formalism was equivalent, in the sense that one could obtain the basic differential equations from it, but easier to use in general situations. The key concept he introduced – now called the Hamiltonian – is a single mathematical function that depends on both the positions q and momenta p of the particles in a system, say H(q,p). This function is constructed from the different forms of energy (kinetic and potential) in the system, and how they depend on the p’s and q’s, but the details of how this works out don’t matter. Suffice to say that knowing the Hamiltonian for a system is tantamount to a full classical description of its behaviour.

Hamilton was a very interesting character. He was born in Dublin in 1805 and showed an astonishing early flair for languages, speaking 13 of them by the time he was 13. He graduated from Trinity College aged 22, at which point he was clearly a whiz-kid at mathematics as well as languages. He was immediately made professor of astronomy at Dublin and Astronomer Royal for Ireland. However, he turned out to be hopeless at the practicalities of observational work. Despite employing three of his sisters to help him in the observatory he never produced much of astronomical interest. Mathematics and alcohol seem to have been the two real loves of his life.

It is a fascinating historical fact that the development of probability theory during the late 17th and early 18th century coincided almost exactly with the rise of Newtonian Mechanics. It may seem strange in retrospect that there was no great philosophical conflict between these two great intellectual achievements since they have mutually incompatible views of prediction. Probability applies in unpredictable situations; Newtonian Mechanics says that everything is predictable. The resolution of this conundrum may owe a great deal to Laplace, who contributed greatly to both fields. Laplace, more than any other individual, was responsible to elevated the deterministic world-view of Newton to a scientific principle in its own right. To quote:

We ought then to regard the present state of the Universe as the effect of its preceding state and as the cause of its succeeding state.

According to Laplace’s view, knowledge of the initial conditions pertaining at the instant of creation would be sufficient in order to predict everything that subsequently happened. For him, a probabilistic treatment of phenomena did not conflict with classical theory, but was simply a convenient approach to be taken when the equations of motion were too difficult to be solved exactly. The required probabilities could be derived from the underlying theory, perhaps using some kind of symmetry argument.

The s-called “randomizing” devices used in all traditional gambling games – roulette wheels, dice, coins, bingo machines, and so on – are in fact well described by Newtonian mechanics. We call them “random” because the motions involved are just too complicated to make accurate prediction possible. Nevertheless it is clear that they are just straightforward mechanical devices which are essentially deterministic. On the other hand, we like to think the weather is predictable, at least in principle, but with much less evidence that it is so!

But it is not only systems with large numbers of interacting particles (like the Earth’s atmosphere) that pose problems for predictability. Some deceptively simple systems display extremely erratic behaviour. The theory of these systems is less than fifty years old or so, and it goes under the general title of nonlinear dynamics. One of the most important landmarks in this field was a study by two astronomers, Michel Hénon and Carl Heiles in 1964. They were interested in what would happens if you take a system with a known analytical solutions and modify it.

In the language of Hamiltonians, let us assume that H0 describes a system whose evolution we know exactly and H1 is some perturbation to it. The Hamiltonian of the modified system is thus

 H(q_i,p_i)=H_0(q_i, p_i) + H_1 (q_i, p_i)

What Hénon and Heiles did was to study a system whose unmodified form is very familiar to physicists: the simple harmonic oscillator. This is a system which, when displaced from its equilibrium, experiences a restoring force proportional to the displacement. The Hamiltonian description for a single simple harmonic oscillator system involves a function that is quadratic in both p and q:

H=\frac{1}{2} \left( q_1^2+p_1^2\right)

The solution of this system is well known: the general form is a sinusoidal motion and it is used in the description of all kinds of wave phenomena, swinging pendulums and so on.

The case Henon and Heiles looked at had two degrees of freedom, so that the Hamiltonian depends on q1, q2, p1 and p2:

H=\frac{1}{2} \left( q_1^2+p_1^2 + q_2^2+p_2^2\right)

 However, in this example, the two degrees of freedom are independent, meaning that there is uncoupled motion in the two directions. The amplitude of the oscillations is governed by the total energy of the system, which is a constant of the motion. Other than this, the type of behaviour displayed by this system is very rich, as exemplified by the various Lissajous figures shown in the diagram below. Note that all these figures are produced by the same type of dynamical system of equations: the different shapes are consequences of different initial conditions and different coefficients (which I set to unity in the form above).


 If the oscillations in each direction have the same frequency then one can get an orbit which is a line or an ellipse. If the frequencies differ then the orbits can be much more complicated, but still pretty. Note that in all these cases the orbit is just a line, i.e. a one-dimensional part of the two-dimensional space drawn on the paper.

More generally, one can think of this system as a point moving in a four-dimensional phase space defined by the coordinates q1, q2, p1 and p2; taking slices through this space reveals qualitatively similar types of orbit for, say, p2 and q2 as for p1 and p2. The motion of the system is confined to a lower-dimensional part of the phase space rather than filling up all the available phase space. In this particular case, because each degree of freedom moves in only one of its two available dimensions, the system as a whole moves in a two-dimensional part of the four-dimensional space.

This all applies to the original, unperturbed system. Hénon and Heiles took this simple model and modified by adding a term to the Hamiltonian that was cubic rather than quadratic and which coupled the two degrees of freedom together. For those of you interested in the details their Hamiltonian was of the form

 H=\frac{1}{2} \left( q_1^2+p_1^2 + q_2^2+p_2^2\right) +q_1^2q_2+ \frac{1}{3}q_2^3


The first set of terms in the brackets is the unmodified form, describing a simple harmonic oscillator; the other two terms are new. The result of this simple alteration is really quite surprising. They found that, for low energies, the system continued to behave like two uncoupled oscillators; the orbits were smooth and well-behaved. This is not surprising because the cubic modifications are smaller than the original quadratic terms if the amplitude is small.  For higher energies the motion becomes a bit more complicated, but the phase space behaviour is still characterized by continuous lines, as shown in the left hand part of the following figure.


However, at higher values of the energy (right), the cubic terms become more important, and something very striking happens. A two-dimensional slice through the phase space no longer shows the continuous curves that typify the original system, but a seemingly disorganized scattering of dots. It is not possible to discern any pattern in the phase space structure of this system: it appear to be random.


Nowadays we describe the transition from these two types of behaviour as being accompanied by the onset of chaos. It is important to note that this system is entirely deterministic, but it generates a phase space pattern that is quite different from what one would naively expect from the behaviour usually associated with classical Hamiltonian systems. To understand how this comes about it is perhaps helpful to think about predictability in classical systems. It is true that precise knowledge of the state of a system allows one to predict its state at some future time.  For a single particle this means that precise knowledge of its position and momentum, and knowledge of the relevant H, will allow one to calculate the position and momentum at all future times.

But think a moment about what this means. What do we mean by precise knowledge of the particle’s position? How precise? How many decimal places? If one has to give the position exactly then that could require an infinite amount of information. Clearly we never have that much information. Everything we know about the physical world has to be coarse-grained to some extent, even if it is only limited by measurement error. Strict determinism in the form advocated by Laplace is clearly a fantasy. Determinism is not the same as predictability.

In “simple” Hamiltonian systems what happens is that two neighbouring phase-space paths separate from each other in a very controlled way as the system evolves. In fact the separation between paths usually grows proportionally to time. The coarse-graining with which the input conditions are specified thus leads to a similar level of coarse-graining in the output state. Effectively the system is predictable, since the uncertainty in the output is not much larger than in the input.

In the chaotic system things are very different. What happens here is that the non-linear interactions represented in the Hamiltonian play havoc with the initial coarse-graining. Phase-space orbits that start out close to each other separate extremely violently (typically exponentially) and in a way that varies from one part of the phase space to another.  What happens then is that particle paths become hopelessly scrambled and the mapping between initial and final states becomes too complex to handle. What comes out  the end is practically impossible to predict.

Talked Out

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Cosmic Anomalies with tags , , , on November 20, 2009 by telescoper

My trip to Bath yesterday turned out to be very enjoyable and entirely free of aqueous complications. The train ran on time from Cardiff to Bath Spa, although it was hideously overcrowded. About an hour later I was met at the station by Gary Mathlin and taken to the University campus  in his car. I didn’t get to see much of the city because it was already dark, but parts of it are very beautiful in a very Jane-Austen type of way. The University of Bath campus is a very different kettle of fish, a 1960s modernist construction in which I would have got completely lost had I not had a guide. Quite smart though. Better than most of its ilk.

The talk itself was in quite a large and swish lecture theatre. I’m not sure how many turned up but it might have been close to a hundred or so. Very mixed too, with quite a few students and some much older types.

I thought it went down quite well, but you’ll really have to ask the audience about that! I answered a few questions at the end and then there was  a very generous vote of thanks and I was given a gift of a very interesting book published by Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Thereafter I was whisked off to dinner, which I hadn’t realised was going to happen. I had the chance to chat to various people, including students and members  of the William Herschel Society, all of whom were very friendly and convivial after a few glasses of wine. Fortunately, Gary Mathlin lives in Cardiff so he gave me a lift home afterwards so I didn’t get back too late.

This morning I had to head straight to London without going into work in order to get to Imperial College to give a lunchtime seminar at the Theoretical Physics group, which is based in the Huxley building. I think it is named after T.H. rather than Aldous, because I wasn’t offered any Mescalin. Of course seminars like this have a much smaller audience and are much more technical than public lectures, but I still found myself having flashbacks to the previous evening’s lecture. I talked about various bits and pieces arising from work I’ve been doing with various people about the cosmic anomalies I’ve blogged about from time to time.

After this we went to a local pizzeria for a late lunch (and a couple of glasses of wine). I would have liked to stay longer to chat with the folks there, but I wanted to get back to Cardiff at a reasonable hour so I left in time for the 4.15 train.

Walking back home from Cardiff station along the side of the River Taff I was struck by its rather sinister appearance. Still high after the recent rains, and lit only by the lights of the city, it glistened like thick black oil as it flowed very quickly down towards the Bay.  I felt more than a hint of menace in the sheer volume of water streaming past in the darkness.

So far we’ve escaped the worst of the season’s bad weather. The fells of Cumbria, in the far north-west of England, have had 14 inches of rain in 2 days, which is a record. If that happened in South Wales I’m not sure even Cardiff’s formidable flood defences would cope! The  forecast for this weekend is terrible so I don’t think I’ll be doing anything very much outdoors. That suits me, in fact, as all this travelling about has left me well and truly knackered. Time for an early night, I think!

Aquae Sulis

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 19, 2009 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post this lunchtime, in between a whole day of meetings with students about projects and other things. This afternoon I have to whizz off to the fine city of Bath where this evening I am giving a public lecture jointly organized  by the University of Bath and the William Herschel Society (which is based in Bath).

The title of my talk is The Cosmic Web, and a brief outline is as follows.

The lecture will focus on the large scale structure of the Universe and the ideas that physicists are weaving together to explain how it came to be the way it is.

Over the last few decades astronomers have revealed that our cosmos is not only vast in scale – at least 14 billion light years in radius – but also exceedingly complex in texture, with galaxies and clusters of galaxies linked together in immense chains and sheets tracing out an immense network of structures we call the Cosmic Web.

Cosmologists have developed theoretical explanations for its origin that involve such exotic concepts as ‘dark matter’ and ‘cosmic inflation’, producing a cosmic web of ideas that is in many ways as rich and fascinating as the Universe itself.

The University of Bath website has more details of the talk, and I think they are going to do a podcast too. I’ll actually be doing a recap in a couple of weeks’ time in Bristol at an event for the Institute of Physics, of which more anon.

Bath is only about an hour from Cardiff by train and I’m very much looking forward to this trip as I have never been to the University of Bath before.I remember from my schooldays that the Romans named the place Aquae Sulis (or, as my Latin teacher Mr Keating who couldn’t pronounce his esses would say, Aquae Thulith).  The local waters were famous for their healing powers even before the Romans got to England, and the Celtic inhabitants attributed this to a deity they called  Sulis. The Romans kept the name, although they decided that Sulis was actually their goddess Minerva in disguise. The Romans were good at appropriating local traditions like that.

The only potential fly in the ointment is the British weather, which has been terrible over the last week or so and further deluges are forecast this afternoon and evening. As I write, though, it’s actually fine and sunny and the weather map suggests the worst of the current band of rain has passed to the north of here. I hope I’m not tempting providence, and that there won’t be too much of the aquae heading in my direction!

The Academic Journal Racket

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on November 18, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve had this potential rant simmering away at the back of my mind for a while now, since our last staff meeting to be precise.  In common, I suspect, with many other physics and astronomy departments, here at Cardiff we’re bracing ourselves for an extended period of budget cuts to help pay for our government’s charitable donations of taxpayer’s money to the banking sector.

English universities are currently making preparations for a minimum 10% reduction in core funding, and many are already making significant numbers of redundancies. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us here in Wales yet, but I suspect it will be very bad indeed.

Anyway, one of the items of expenditure that has been identified as a source of savings as we try to tighten our collective belts is the cost of academic journals.  I nearly choked when the Head of School revealed how much we spend per annum on some of the journal subscriptions for physics and astronomy.  In fact, I think university and departmental libraries are being taken to the cleaners by the academic publishing industry and it’s time to make a stand.

Let me single out one example. Like many learned societies, the Institute of Physics (the professional organisation for British physicists) basically operates like a charity. It does, however, have an independent publishing company that is run as a profit-making enterprise. And how.

In 2009 we paid almost £30K (yes, THIRTY THOUSAND POUNDS) for a year’s subscription to the IOP Physics package, a bundled collection  of mainstream physics journals. This does not include Classical and Quantum Gravity or the Astrophysical Journal (both of which I have published in occasionally) which require additional payments running into thousands of pounds.

The IOP is not the only learned society to play this game. The Royal Astronomical Society also has a journal universally known as MNRAS (Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society) which earns it a considerable amount of revenue from its annual subscription of over £4K per department. Indeed, I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that without the income from MNRAS the RAS itself would face financial oblivion. I dare say MNRAS also earns a tidy sum for its publisher Wiley

If you’re not already shocked by the cost of these subscriptions, let me  outline the way academic journal business works, at least in the fields of physics and astronomy. I hope then you’ll agree that we’re being taken to the cleaners.

First, there is the content. This consists of scientific papers submitted to the journal by researchers, usually (though not exclusively) university employees. If the paper is accepted for publication the author receives no fee whatsoever and in some cases even has to pay “page charges” for the privilege of seeing the paper in print. In return for no fee, the author also has to sign over the copyright for the manuscript to the publisher. This is entirely different from the commercial magazine  market, where contributors are usually paid a fee for writing a piece, or  book publishing, where authors get a royalty on sales (and sometimes an advance).

Next there is the editorial process. The purpose of an academic journal – if there is one – is to ensure that only high quality papers are published. To this end it engages a Board of Editors to oversee this aspect of its work. The Editors are again usually academics and, with a few exceptions, they undertake the work on an unpaid basis. When a paper arrives at the journal which lies within the area of expertise of a particular editor, he or she identifies one or more suitable referees drawn from the academic community to provide advice on whether to publish it. The referees are expected to read the paper and provide comments as well as detailed suggestions for changes. The fee for referees? You guess it. Zilch. Nada.

The final part of the business plan is to sell the content (supplied for free), suitably edited (for free) and refereed (for free) back to the universities  paying the wages of the people who so generously donated their labour. Not just sell, of course, but sell at a grossly inflated price.

Just to summarise, then: academics write the papers, do the refereeing and provide the editorial oversight for free and we then buy back the product of our labours at an astronomical price. Why do we participate in this ridiculous system? Am I the only one who detects the whiff of rip-off? Isn’t it obvious that we (I mean academics in universities) are spending a huge amout of time and money achieving nothing apart from lining the pockets of these exploitative publishers?

And if it wasn’t bad enough, there’s also the matter of inflation. There used to be a myth that advances in technology should lead to cheaper publishing.Nowadays authors submit their manuscripts electronically, they are sent electronically to referees and they are typset automatically if and when accepted. Most academics now access journals online rather than through paper copies; in fact some publications are only published electronically these days. All this may well lead to cheaper publishing but it doesn’t lead to cheaper subscriptions. The forecast inflation rate for physics journals over this year is about 8.5%, way above the Retail Price Index, which is currently negative.

Where is all the money going? Right into the pockets of the journal publishers. Times are tough enough in the university sector without us giving tens of thousands of pounds per year, plus free editoral advice and the rest, to these rapacious companies. Enough is enough.

It seems to me that it would be a very easy matter to get rid of academic journals entirely (at least from the areas of physics and astronomy that I work in). For a start, we have an excellent free repository (the arXiv) where virtually every new research paper is submitted. There is simply no reason why we should have to pay for journal subscriptions when papers are publically available there. In the old days, the journal industry had to exist in order for far flung corners of the world to have access to the latest research. Now everyone with an internet connection can get it all. Journals are redundant.

The one thing the arXiv does not do is provide editorial control, which some people argue is why we have to carry on being fleeced in the way I have described. If there is no quality imprint from an established journal how else would researchers know which papers to read? There is a lot of dross out there.

For one thing,  not all referees put much effort into their work so there’s a lot of dross in refereed journals anyway. And, frustratingly, many referees sit on papers for months on end before sending in a report that’s only a couple of sentences. Far better, I would say, to put the paper on the arXiv and let others comment on it, either in private with the authors or perhaps each arXiv entry should have a comments facility, like a blog, so that the paper could be discussed interactively. The internet is pushing us in a direction in which the research literature should be discussed much more openly than it is at present, and in which it evolves much more as a result of criticisms and debate.

Finally, the yardstick by which research output is now being measured – or at least one of the metrics – is not so much a count of the number of refereed papers, but the number of citations the papers have attracted. Papers begin to attract citations – through the arXiv – long before they appear in a refereed journal and good papers get cited regardless of where they are eventually published.

If you look at citation statistics for refereed journals you will find it very instructive. A sizeable fraction of papers published in the professional literature receive no citations at all in their lifetime. So we end up paying over the odds for papers that nobody even bothers to read. Madness.

It could be possible for the arXiv (or some future version of it) to have its own editorial system, with referees asked to vet papers voluntarily. I’d be much happier giving my time in this way for a non-profit making system than I am knowing that I’m aiding and abetting racketeers. However, I think I probably prefer the more libertarian solution. Put it all on the net with minimal editorial control and the good stuff will float to the top regardless of how much crud there is.

Anyway, to get back to the starting point of this post, we have decided to cancel a large chunk of our journal subscriptions, including the IOP Physics package which is costing us an amount close to the annual salary of  a lecturer. As more and more departments decide not to participate in this racket, no doubt the publishers will respond by hiking the price for the remaining customers. But it seems to me that this lunacy will eventually have to come to an end.

And if the UK university sector has to choose over the next few years between sacking hundreds of academic staff and ditching its voluntary subsidy to the publishing industry, I know what I would pick…

Planet Wave

Posted in Jazz, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 17, 2009 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) will know that from time to time I like to post little bits of poetry. The verses are usually related to astronomy (or science generally)  and they’re usually things I come across pretty much by accident when I’m browsing through the books of poetry I occasionally buy. This evening I was leafing through a collection called A Book of Lives, by the popular and highly respected Scottish national poet Edwin Morgan.  In the middle of this set is a long sequence of poems called Planet Wave, each of which is to do with a specific historical episode or important character, such as Copernicus or Darwin. The first poem in the cycle is about the Big Bang so I thought it would be a good choice.

However, regular readers will also know that I like to post bits of jazz on here too – although the blog statistics suggest that these are much less popular than the poetry!  I read in the Book of Lives that the first half the sequence of poems making up Planet Wave was commissioned by the Cheltenham International Jazz Festival and set to music by the excellent Tommy Smith. The poetry and music combination was first performed in Cheltenham Town Hall on 4 April 1997.

Great, I thought. Here’s a chance to combine jazz and poetry (for what would only be the second time on here, the first being this post). Unfortunately, though, I’ve been unable to locate any recording of a performance of this work. I found an interview with Tommy Smith on the net which suggests a recording was made but never released. I’d certainly love to hear it and I hope that there might be a jazz fan out there somewhere who knows what happened to it.

Anyway, in the absence of the music here’s just the first verse of the first poem of the cycle.  As you will see, Morgan’s style is very inventive, often extremely funny, and always extremely Scottish.

In the Beginning
(20 Billion BC)

Don’t ask me and don’t tell me. I was there.
It was a bang and it was big. I don’t know
what went before, I came out with it.
Think about that if you want my credentials.
Think about that, me, it, imagine it
as I recall it now, swinging in my spacetime hammock,
nibbling a moon or two, watching you.
What am I? You don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
I am the witness, I am not in the dock.
I love matter and I love anti-matter.
Listen to me, listen to my patter.

(Reproduced by kind permission of Carcanet Press.)

If you want to read the rest you’ll have to buy the book! And if anyone out there knows what happened to the recording of Planet Wave please let me know. I’d love to hear it!