Archive for June, 2010

Sexism, of course…

Posted in Education with tags , , on June 21, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve only just recovered from the shock  of seeing the sheer hopelessness of British science education laid bare last week. Indeed, I was so staggered to discover how poorly conceived the current GCSE science examinations are that I forgot that I’d already blogged about the lamentable tendency of the modern education system to concentrate on getting kids to swallow and regurgitate little bite-sized factoids, rather than actually learning to think for themselves.  Leaving aside the issue that quite a few of the things that are being taught seem to be wrong anyway, my point there was that teaching science isn’t about teaching facts at all, it’s about trying to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. At least that’s what it should be, if only the dumbers-down would stop meddling.

Well, I’d almost come to terms with my despair when I saw another article (from Friday’s Guardian) which tells a tale that’s not just idiotic, but also sinister and offensive. Here’s the full text

One of the country’s biggest exam boards is developing different GCSE courses for boys and girls, it emerged today.

The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) said it was looking into creating a science GCSE with more coursework in it for girls, and one which gave more weighting to exam marks for boys.

Studies have shown that girls perform better in coursework than boys, while boys do better in exams.

AQA said it would not prevent boys from taking the girls’ course and vice versa.

The courses in English, maths and science could be available from September next year.

Bill Alexander, the exam board’s director of curriculum and assessment, told the Times Educational Supplement: “We could offer a route for boys that is very different to a route for girls.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said it was “extremely dangerous” to get into gender stereotyping. “There are lots of boys who like the investigative element of coursework as well,” he said.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was a “wild generalisation” to state that boys did better in exams, while girls performed better in coursework, but that it had “more than a grain of truth” to it.

However, he suggested that as well as sitting the gender-specific exams, pupils’ work should be marked in part by professional assessors.

Experts believe that this year could end a 20-year trend for girls to outperform boys in GCSEs because many new courses have no coursework. Instead, pupils complete work over a prolonged period, but under exam conditions.

There’s also a longer piece on the same topic in the Times Education Supplement.

Different courses for boys and girls? Are they serious? This is gender stereotyping of the worst possible kind. I find it absolutely abhorrent that anyone in any position of authority in the education system could even have contemplated doing something so offensively patronising. What’s next, different courses for different racial groups?

I sincerely hope that the new government intervenes and stops the AQA from going along this road. Better still, it should scrap these worthless examination factories and sack the profiteering dunderheads in charge who are responsible for turning the education system into a national disgrace.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on June 20, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a lovely sunny weekend and I’m feeling too lazy to blog properly, so I thought I’d resurrect and update an old post. The video clips in that older version were deleted a while ago, but have now been replaced by one long clip which gives me an excuse to replace this post about the wonderful film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Not that I need an excuse…

At the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Mahalia Jackson (“The world’s greatest gospel singer”) played a lengthy set on the Sunday evening, and her whole concert was so good it was subsequently made available on CD.  She wasn’t really a jazz singer, but she was born in New Orleans (in 1911) and her style developed in the shadow of both the jazz and blues traditions that had their origins in her home town.

Three tracks from her 1958 concert made it into the film. Two of them are the sort of exuberant up-tempo stompers typical of Southern gospel music; there’s something about that beat that sets your pulse racing and makes it almost impossible to resist clapping your hands on the off-beat. The fine example here are a jaunty finger-clicking Walk all over God’s Heaven and  a highly locomotive rendition of Didn’t it Rain, a tune written by the world’s greatest composer  “Trad”. Both of them have the crowd of jazz fans leaping about in the aisles.

As you can hear, Mahalia Jackson’s voice is simply phenomenal.  She has so much power and emotional expressiveness that she is in a class on her own when it comes to this kind of music. In fact she gave singing lessons to the young Aretha Franklin, the one “soul “singer who came anywhere close to that quality of voice. But if you really want to hear music with from the soul, listen to Mahalia Jackson.

Although she had a number of hit records, Mahalia Jackson refused to sign for any major record label and performed throughout her life almost exclusively on gospel radio stations. I think she could easily have become a pop star if she had wanted to, but she saw her mission in life to communicate her faith to others through music. She also used a great deal of her earnings to help others by founding school bursaries and through other charitable works.

As in this concert, she usually performed with a backing band of piano, bass and organ but despite the lack of a drummer they build up a tremendous forward momentum.

Terrific though the first two tracks undoubtedly are, what comes next and last is truly sublime. The Lord’s Prayer is such a familiar piece of text to anyone brought up in the Christian tradition that it is difficult to imagine in advance of hearing this performance that it could be sung in such a way. The contrast between this and the previous track is immense, which makes it even more effective. This is no rumbustious rabble-rouser, just a simple and pure expression of her own deep religious faith. 

Almost as moving as her singing are the cuts to the audience reaction – the same people who were leaping about a few minutes earlier sit in deep and respectful contemplation. And who wouldn’t.. I’m not a religious man but there is certainly religious music that moves me very deeply, and this is a prime example.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 31

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on June 19, 2010 by telescoper

I’m struck by the fact that “Dr” Mark Brake looks very much like actor Antony Sher, one of whose most celebrated roles was as Howard Kirk in the BBC TV adaptation of a certain novel by Malcolm Bradbury..

The former "History Man"

The former "Astronomy Man"

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 30

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on June 19, 2010 by telescoper

Here’s one with a World Cup theme. I wonder if stargazer Alex Filippenko and star striker Lionel Messi might possibly be related?



Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 29

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on June 19, 2010 by telescoper

It struck me just now that there’s a not inconsiderable similarity in visual appearance between Professor Stephen Smartt of Queen’s University Belfast and popular comedic entertainer Lee Evans:

Stephen Smartt

Lee Evans

Jodrell Bank

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 18, 2010 by telescoper

Got bored with the football (England 0 Algeria 0…zzzzz). Tedious. Depressing. Decided to read some poetry instead. Found this, by Patric Dickinson, called Jodrell Bank. Is  football  just another  expression of loneliness?

Who were they, what lonely men
Imposed upon the fact of night
The fiction of constellations
And made commensurable
The distances between
Themselves their loves and their doubt
Of government and nations;
Who made the dark stable

 When the light was not? Now
We receive the blind codes
Of spaces beyond the span
Of our myths, and a long dead star
May only echo how
There are no loves nor gods
Men can invent to explain
How lonely all men are.


Posted in Jazz with tags , , on June 17, 2010 by telescoper

It’s a bit early to be officially Summertime, but the exams are over, the days are long and sunny, the World Cup’s on and … well who really needs an excuse to listen to Sidney Bechet’s all-time classic 1939 BlueNote version of George Gershwin’s great song?

Science Examination Blues

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on June 16, 2010 by telescoper

I woke up this morning …

.. to the 7am news on BBC Radio 3, including a story about how GCSE science examinations are not “sufficiently rigorous”. Then, on Twitter, I saw an example of an Edexcel GCSE (Multiple-choice) Physics paper.  It’s enough to make any practising physicist weep.

Most of the questions are very easy, but there’s just as many that are so sloppily put together that they  don’t make any sense at all. Take Question 1:

I suppose the answer is meant to be C, but since it doesn’t say that A is the orbit of a planet, as far as I’m concerned, it might just as well be D. Are we meant to eliminate D simply because it doesn’t have another orbit going through it?

On the other hand, the orbit of a moon around the Sun is in fact similar to the orbit of its planet around the Sun, since the orbital speed and radius of the moon around its planet are smaller than those of the planet around the Sun. At a push, therefore you could argue that A is the closest choice to a moon’s orbit around the Sun. The real thing would be something close to a circle with a 4-week wobble variation superposed.

You might say I’m being pedantic, but the whole point of exam questions is that they shouldn’t be open to ambiguities like this, at least if they’re science exams. I can imagine bright and knowledgeable students getting thoroughly confused by this question, and many of the others on the paper.

Here’s a couple more, from the “Advanced” section:

The answer to Q30 is, presumably, A. But do any scientists really think that galaxies are “moving away from the origin of the Big Bang”?  I’m worried that this implies that the Big Bang was located at a specific point. Is that what they’re teaching?

Bearing in mind that only one answer is supposed to be right, the answer to Q31 is presumably D. But is there really no evidence from “nebulae” that supports the Big Bang theory? The expansion of the Universe was discovered by observing things Hubble called “nebulae”..

I’m all in favour of school students being introduced to fundamental things such as cosmology and particle physics, but my deep worry is that this is being done at the expense of learning any real physics at all and is in any case done in a garbled and nonsensical way.

Lest I be accused of an astronomy-related bias, anyone care to try finding a correct answer to this question?

The more of this kind of stuff I see, the more admiration I have for the students coming to study physics and astronomy at University. How they managed to learn anything at all given the dire state of science education in the UK is really quite remarkable.

Announcement of Opportunities

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 16, 2010 by telescoper

I mentioned this a while ago, but I thought it wouldn’t do any harm to repeat the official advertisement here. Cardiff is going large (or at least larger) in experimental physics, and the first deadline is approaching.. get cracking with your applications now!

Chair in Experimental Physics

Reader/Senior Lecturer/Lecturer in Experimental Physics

School of Physics and Astronomy

As the first stage of a major initiative to broaden its research activity the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University has some immediate vacancies for permanent faculty positions at either full Professor/Reader/Senior Lecturer/Lecturer level in any area of Experimental Physics, other than Astrophysics.

Applications are welcome in fields new to the School as well as those complementary to the existing strengths. Candidates working in interdisciplinary areas with a firm Physics base are also welcomed. You will be expected to have demonstrated an established programme of research, and will also be expected to teach Physics at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

The School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University has strong research groups in Photons & Matter (theory and experimental), Gravitational Physics and Nanophysics, as well as a large Astrophysics programme.

You should have a PhD in Physics, Mathematics or closely-related subject.

A point on the Cardiff Professorial Salary Scale (Chair)
£45155 – £55535 per annum (Reader)
£37839 – £43840 per annum (Senior Lecturer)
£29853 – £35646 per annum (Lecturer)

Further information about the School may be found at

Informal enquiries regarding these positions may be made to Professor Walter Gear, Head of School, email

To work for an employer that values and promotes equality of opportunity, visit telephone + 44 (0) 29 2087 4017 or email for an application form quoting vacancy number 186 for the Chair position and 188 for the Reader/Senior Lecturer/Lecturer position.

Closing date: Friday, 23 July 2010.

Please note vacancies are for one Chair and three Senior Lecturer/Lecturer positions.


Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on June 15, 2010 by telescoper

This is a recent discovery I just had to post. It was was made at a private recording session in 1943 in Kansas City, the home town of Charlie Parker. It was never released commercially and features Parker on alto saxophone with just a guitar and drum accompaniment. This recording must have been made during the musicians’ strike of 1942-44 that contributed to the fact the bebop movement (which Parker pioneered) was out of the public eye during its incubation period. Parker had moved to New York City in 1939 and was playing regularly in Harlem  jazz clubs during the recording blackout, so I don’t know what he was doing back in Kansas City in 1943 to be making this track.

It’s a fascinating version of the tune called Cherokhee that Parker used as the basis of the bebop classic Ko-ko I discussed in a post last year, and which shows him already playing in a recognizably Parkeresque style, but only hinting at the harmonic adventurousness he was to develop just a year or two later; Ko-ko was first performed, I think, in 1945.  Very few examples survive of his playing from this transitional period, so this is a fascinating bit of  musical history as well as being a fine performance in its own right.