Archive for March, 2010

Tremblin’ Blues

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on March 31, 2010 by telescoper

I just noticed that a few days ago someone posted this lovely old blues on Youtube. It’s by one of my all-time favourite blues piano players, Little Brother Montgomery, who died in 1985 aged 79. He was self-taught (as many of the great jazz and blues musicians were) and was such a quick learner that he was playing professionally by the time he was 11.

He toured the UK and Europe quite regularly in the  1960s and made many recordings here, including some wonderfully relaxed music recorded at the Sussex home of eccentric jazz enthusiast Francis Wilford Smith, a  marvellous old character who passed away a few months ago in 2009. I mention this because I have an old LP that features Tremblin’ Blues by Little Brother Montgomery, recorded on the Magpie label. That one is much slower than the one here and is punctuated by chuckles from the pianist, suggesting that he might have been just a little bit inebriated at the time. This one’s a bit crisper, free of giggles, but still a lovely performance.

Wonders of the Solar System…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 30, 2010 by telescoper

Apologies to Professor Brian Cox, but I couldn’t resist this! I think it’s hilarious…

A word of warning: it contains colourful language, so please be sure to watch it after the watershed. And if you can’t find water, lava will do just as well.

The Thieving Magpie

Posted in Football, Opera with tags , , , on March 30, 2010 by telescoper

Well, I’ve spent the evening working as well as following an important night’s football. My team – Newcastle United – were playing their promotion rivals Nottingham Forest at St James’ Park (in Newcastle). Going into the game Newcastle were at the top of the Championship, 10 points clear of third-placed Nottingham Forest with a game in hand. With 80 points from 38 games, and only 8 remaining to play, a win would virtually guarantee that Forest (on 70 points after 39 games) couldn’t catch them and Newcastle would therefore be in one of the top two positions guaranteeing them a return to the Premiership next season.

Although this was apparently a commanding position, I’ve been a Newcastle supporter for too long to take anything for granted; they’ve demonstrated their ability to throw away apparently unassailable leads far too often for me to feel complacent. Fortunately, they didn’t let me down. Two second-half goals (from Shola Ameobi and Jose Enrique) saw them win 2-0. Now 13 points clear of third place (with Forest only having 6 games to play), they are on the brink of automatic promotion. Mathematically they now need 6 points from 7 games to be sure, but they could seal it on Saturday away against bottom club Peterborough, if Nottingham Forest lose against Bristol City.

I confess that I get badly affected by nerves when following games on the radio or TV. I’d much rather be there in the flesh, but sadly that’s impractical. When the final whistle went tonight I was enormously relieved and more than a little bit elated, despite the heavy cold I’ve got at the moment.

Anyway, I thought it called for a bit of musical celebration. Newcastle United’s nickname is The Magpies, so I thought I’d offer the overture from Gioachino Rossini‘s Opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).  It’s not the greatest opera, but the overture is superb. Apparently Rossini had to be locked in his room and forced to write it as the deadline for the first performance approached. If that’s true, the pressure had a positive effect on him because what he produced is a cracker.

This performance is tremendously virtuosic – as you’d expect from the Vienna Philharmonic – especially in the accelerando part at the end, which is wonderfully exhilirating.

I’ve only known a few professional classical musicians at a personal level, but all of them, when asked, said that the composer whose music they most enjoyed playing was Rossini. I was always surprised to hear that, but listening to this piece I can certainly understand them. It’s got to be great fun playing this…

P.S. Another thing worth mentioning is that the current owner of Newcastle United Football Club bears more than a passing resemblance to Rossini!

An early draft of the UK Space Agency logo

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 29, 2010 by telescoper

My Friend Erdös..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2010 by telescoper

After one of my  lectures a few weeks ago, a student came up to me and asked whether I had an Erdős number and, if so, what it was.  I didn’t actually know what he was talking about but was yesterday reminded of it, so tried to find out.

In case you didn’t know, Paul Erdős (who died in 1996) was an eccentric Hungarian mathematician who wrote more than 1000 mathematical papers during his life but never settled in one place for any length of time. He travelled between colleagues and conference, mostly living out of a suitcase, and showed no interest at all in property or possessions. His story is a fascinating one, and his contributions to mathematics were immense and wide-ranging.  The Erdős number is a tiny part of his legacy, but one that seems to have taken hold. Some mathematicians appear to take it very seriously, but most treat it with tongue firmly in cheek, as I certainly do.

So what is the Erdős number?

It’s actually quite simple to define. First, Erdős himself is assigned an Erdős number of zero. Anyone who co-authored a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 1. Then anyone who wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 2, and so on. The Erdős number is thus a measure of “collaborative distance”, with lower numbers representing closer connections.

I say it’s quite easy to define, but it’s rather harder to calculate. Or it would be were it not for modern bibliographic databases. In fact there’s a website run by the American Mathematical Society which allows you to calculate your Erdős number as well as a similar measure of collaborative distance with respect to any other mathematician.

A list of individuals with very low Erdős numbers (1, 2 or 3) can be found here.

Given that Erdős was basically a pure mathematician, I didn’t expect first to show up as having any Erdős number at all, since I’m not really a mathematician and I’m certainly not very pure. However, his influence is clearly felt very strongly in  physics and a surprisingly large number of physicists (and astronomers) have a surprisingly small Erdős number. According to the AMS website, mine is 5 – much lower than I would have expected. The path from me to Erdős in this case goes through G.F.R. Ellis, a renowned expert in the mathematics of general relativity (as well as a ridiculous number of other things!). I wrote a paper and a book with George Ellis some time ago.

However, looking at the list I realise that I have another route to Erdős, through the great Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold, who has an Erdős number of 3. Arnold wrote a paper with Sergei Shandarin with whom I wrote a paper some time ago. That gives me another route to an Erdős number of 5, but I can’t find any paths  shorter than that.

I guess many researchers will have links through their PhD supervisors, so I checked mine – John D. Barrow. It turns out he also has an Erdős number of 5 so a path through him doesn’t lower my number.

I used to work in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, and it is there that I found some people I know well who have lower Erdős numbers than me. Reza Tavakol, for example, has an Erdős number of 3 but although I’ve known him for 20 years, we’ve never written a paper together. If we did, I could reduce my Erdős number by one. You never know….

This means that anyone I’ve ever written a paper with has an Erdős number no greater than 6. I doubt if it’s very important, but it definitely qualifies as Quite Interesting.

Alternative Logo for UKSA

Posted in Science Politics with tags on March 27, 2010 by telescoper

As you all know, this past week saw the launch of the new UK Space Agency amid much fuss and fanfares. This occasion allowed the government to trumpet the creation of the new organization as a success story in the media and thus draw attention away from the continuing devastation visited on scientific research in astronomy and space science in the United Kingdom.

I’m not the only one to have expressed reservations about the quality of the new outfit’s logo which, though clearly intended to present a thrusting, dynamic, reach-for-the-skies image, ends up looking more like something from Dad’s Army. Apparently it cost £10,000 – surprisingly cheap by the standards of graphic designers these days – which perhaps explains why it isn’t very good, although even expensive ones can be rubbish too.

In order to improve the public profile of the fledgling organisation, and out of my own deep sense of public spiritedness, I’ve decided, at no expense to the taxpayer, to commission my own alternative logo by a highly skilled graphic designer of my acquaintance. I’m proud to be able to unveil it here. I think it conveys more accurately the nature of the new agency.

The broad coloured swathe represents the red tape involved in creating yet another new quango and reorganising everything else that relates to it. This leads initially to a period of increased paperwork presenting the appearance of greater activity until, shortly after the next election, everyone realises it is achieving nothing at all, its funds are cut (along with everything else), and, overwhelmed by the weight of its own bureaucracy,  it comes crashing back to Earth.

Badges featuring the new logo can be purchased from me, at the modest price of £74.99 each.

Cut and Thrust and Nip and Tuck

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 26, 2010 by telescoper

This week we received the not-altogether-unexpected news that the budgets of Welsh universities will be cut next year. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has announced its detailed allocations for 2010-11 and all but one institution will receive a cash cut.  Cardiff University faces a cash cut of 1.74%. Lampeter is the exception, but it gets a cash increase of only 0.32%. After taking inflation into account, even they get a real terms decrease. So it’s real cuts across the board for Welsh Higher Education, with a total of about £30 million in funding taken away.

In fact, it appears that the total amount of money available to HEFCW for next year is level in cash terms compared to last year. The total amount it has distributed in recurrent grants has, however, decreased by about 2% on last year. As far as I understand it, the discrepancy between the income and expenditure is partly explained by the diversion of some funds into a new Strategic Implementation Fund(SIF) to enable HEFCW to meet the goals outlined in the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) document stating its vision for Higher Education, entitled For our Future. Some elements of SIF are included with the current allocation, but other’s are not, hence the  cash cuts seen here.In future, a larger proportion of the budget will move from recurrent, formula-based funding towards initiatives more closely aligned with the WAGs or, more likely, wasted on window-dressing and increased bureaucracy.

We’ll have to see what the impact of the new SIF arrangements will be in the longer term. In the short-term, however, the cuts (though obviously regrettable) are by no means a shock and will probably appear entirely insignificant after the General Election and the real cuts start, probably more like 20% than 2%…

The situation in Wales contrasts with Scotland where the Higher Education has grown by 1% for 2010/11.  Some Scottish universities, such as Edinburgh with a cash increase of 2.2%, have done pretty well. A small number of others, such as Stirling have been cut by 3.3% in cash terms.

Allocations for English universities were announced by HEFCE last week. There the situation is more mixed, partly to do with HEFCE rejigging its formula for research funding to concentrate it even more than last time (something that HEFCW – wisely, in my view – decided not to do..). It seems about half the 130 institutions in HEFCE’s remit get a cash increase, although when inflation is factored in the number with a real increase is much smaller. Among the universities with big cash cuts are Reading (-7.7%) and the London School of Economics (-6.3%).

As far as I understand the situation, these figures don’t include the fines for over-recruitment recently demanded by Lord Mandelson and may not take into account cuts in capital allowances, so things may be a lot worse than they appear at first sight.

However, to complicate things  a bit more, this week’s budget announced new funding for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, corresponding to an increase in numbers of about 20,000.This is only for England, as Higher Education in Wales and Scotland is not part of the remit of the Westminster government. One advantage of this for those of us in Wales is that we can’t be affected by pre-election tinkering in the same way England can.

I’m sure the news of new funding is very welcome to my colleagues across the border, but it does look to me like a bit of sticking plaster that looks likely to fall off after polling day.

Anyway, it looks to me like these results are going exactly with the form book. Scotland has always valued Higher Education more strongly than England, and Wales has usually trailed along in third place.  The real struggle hasn’t yet started, however, and we have to wait anxiously to see how hard the axe will fall once the election is over.