Archive for July, 2010

Off the Main Sequence…

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 22, 2010 by telescoper

When I was at School, one of my English teachers enjoyed setting creative writing challenges for homework. One of the things he liked to do was to give us two apparently separate topics and get us to write a short story that managed to tie them together. Although I seldom got good marks I now realise that this is quite a useful skill to develop.  Sometimes, when I’ve been at a loss for something  to blog about, I’ve taken two items from the news and tried to link them somehow. That’s also how a lot of satire works – many of the best Private Eye skits involve putting two pieces of news together in a way that’s deliberately back to front. In fact many writers have commented along similar lines,  the most famous being E. M. Forster, whose advice to a young writer was “Only Connect”.

Yesterday the news was full of stories emanating from the discovery of a very massive star, in fact the most massive one ever found.  This news also got the Jonathan Amos treatment on the  BBC science website too. I think it’s quite an interesting discovery but it  didn’t generate much enthusiasm from Lord Rees who wrote in a Guardian article

I don’t view this discovery as a big breakthrough. It’s a bit bigger than other stars of this kind that we’ve seen and it’s nice that it involves British scientists and the world’s biggest telescope. It’s a step forward, but it is not more than an incremental advance in our knowledge.

What’s interesting about this star is that it may shed some light – actually, rather a lot of light, because it’s 10,000,000 times brighter than the Sun – on the properties of very big stars as well as possibly how they form.

There was even an item on local radio last night, which reported

The biggest star ever discovered was recently found by astronomers in Sheffield.

You’d think if it was that bright and so nearby somebody in Sheffield would have noticed it long before now…

A star this big – about 300 times the mass of the Sun – operates on the same basic mechanism as the Sun but the quantitative details are very different. Its surface temperature is about 40,000 Kelvin compared to the Sun’s, which is only about 6000K, so the radiation field it generates is very much more powerful. It’s also very much larger, probably about 50 times the Sun’s radius, so there’s more surface area to radiate. It’s a very big and very bright beastie.

The name of this star is R136a1 but given its new status as media star, it really needs a better one. In fact, there’s a suggestions page here. Let me see. Overweight and prominent in the media? No Eamonn Holmes gags please.

A star is basically just a ball of hot gas which exerts pressure forces that balance the force of gravity, which tries to make it collapse, in a form of hydrostatic equilibrium. With so much mass to hold up the pressure in the centre of the star has to be very large, and it therefore has to be very hot. The energy needed to keep it hot comes from nuclear reactions that mainly burn hydrogen to make helium (as in the Sun), but the rate of these processes is sensitively dependent on the temperature and density in the star’s core. The Sun is a relatively sedate pressure-cooker that will  simmer away for billions of years. A monster like the one just found guzzles fuel at such a rate that its lifetime will only be a few million years. Like megastars in other fields, this one will live fast and die young.

Nobody really knows how big the biggest star should be. Very big stars are produce such intense radiation that radiation pressure is more important than gas pressure in supporting the star against collapse, but if the star is too big (and therefore too hot) then the radiation field will blow the star apart. This is when the so-called Eddington Limit is reached.  Where the line is drawn isn’t all that clear. The new star  suggests that it is a bit higher up the mass scale than previously thought. I think it’s interesting.

I’ve written about this star partly to make a point about how wonderful astronomy is for teaching physics. To understand how a star works you need to take into account thermal physics, gravity, nuclear physics, radiative transport and whole load of other things besides. Putting all that physics together to produce a stellar model is a great way to illustrate the much-neglected synthetic (rather than analytic) side of (astro)physical theory education. Stars are good.

Cue cheesy link to another item.

The single biggest step towards the understanding of stellar structure and evolution was the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram, or HR diagram for short, which shows that there is a Main Sequence of stars (to which the Sun belongs). Main sequence stars have luminosities and temperatures that are related to each other because they are both determined by the star’s mass. That’s because they’re all described by the same basic physics – hydrostatitic equilibrium, nuclear burning, etc – but just come in different masses. They adjust their temperature and luminosity in order to find an equilibrium configuration.

Not all stars are main sequence stars, however. There are classes of stars with different things going on and these lie in other regions of the HR diagram.

With this in mind, the Astronomy Blog has constructed an amusing career-related version of the HR diagram which I’ve reproduced here:

Instead of plotting temperature against luminosity (or, to be precise, colour against magnitude) as in the standard version this one plots academic publications against google hits, which purport to be a measure of “fame”. A traditional academic will presumably acquire fame through their publications only, thus defining a main sequence, whereas some lie off that sequence because of media work, blogging, or (perhaps) involvement in a juicy sex scandal. I don’t think fame and notoriety are distinguished in this calculation.

I know quite a few colleagues have been quietly calculating where they lie on the above diagram, as indeed have I. Vanity, you see, is very contagious. I’m not named on the version shown, but I can tell you that I’m much more famous than Andy Lawrence, who is. So there.



Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on July 21, 2010 by telescoper

Now that the traditional rainy Cardiff summer has arrived,  and I’ve just watched an old black-and-white movie on DVD, I thought I’d share this, the title poem of a marvellous collection by Don Paterson.

I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;

one long thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame

to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
or the dress lies ruined on the grass
or the girl walks off the overpass,

and all things flow out from that source
along their fatal watercourse.
However bad or overlong
such a film can do no wrong,

so when his native twang shows through
or when the boom dips into view
or when her speech starts to betray
its adaptation from the play,

I think to when we opened cold
on a rain-dark gutter, running gold
with the neon of a drugstore sign,
and I’d read into its blazing line:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood—
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

And, while I’m on the theme of rain, why not add this great song by Leonard Cohen?

Scientology and Stupidity

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on July 20, 2010 by telescoper

The first bit of news that caught my eye this morning as I ate my toast was a local item about Councillor John Dixon of Cardiff City Council. I’m not a big fan of the Council, particularly their bizarre Highways Department which, on the one hand, is narrowing all the roads in the city centre causing ridiculous levels of traffic congestion and, on the other, has completed an appalling road into Bute Park for the purpose of promoting its use by heavy trucks and lorries. When I saw a councillor was in trouble and that the word “stupid” was involved, I assumed I knew what it would be about …

However, that turns out not to be true. The Councillor was on the receiving end of a complaint by the Church of Scientology because of something he posted on Twitter. The message was

I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.

The notoriously litigious “Church” complained to Cardiff City Council that this comment impinged on their right to religious freedom. The main point of the Scientologists’ argument was that offending tweet came from “CllrJohnDixon”, implying that he was acting in an official capacity. Indications are that Councillor Dixon has indeed transgressed the Council’s code of conduct and the case will be referred to their disciplinary committee.

This is an interesting situation that brought a number of questions to my mind. First is whether Councillor Dixon actually did anything wrong. I think it’s obvious that his comment wasn’t a criminal act. I doubt if it was actually defamatory either, so it’s unlikely to be involved in a civil case on that basis. However, he was identified as a Councillor and may well have acted contrary to the code of conduct that forms part of his terms of employment if the code of conduct says something about religious belief. That is a matter for the Council to decide and I don’t think it’s helpful to comment here, primarly because I don’t know what the Code of Conduct says.

The second question is whether one’s reaction to a quip that Scientologists are stupid should generate any different reaction to a similar remark about Christians. Or Muslims. Or any other religion. I’ve run into Scientologists myself and read a bit about their religion, which I regard as a hilarious  hotch-potch of laughable fantasies cobbled together by a tenth-rate Science Fiction author with the express purpose of duping the gullible and the vulnerable out of their cash. I believe that anyone caught up in it must indeed be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but does that give me the right to say they’re “stupid” in public?

Actually, I think it does. And I think I should have the right to say such things about other religions too. For their part they also have the right to protest if they’re offended. But they do not or should not have the right for any form of legal redress simply because I expressed an opinion. I don’t have a problem with this, any more than I have a problem with lampooning people like Simon Jenkins for the stupid things they say.

I suspect there are atheists who think all religions and religious people are stupid, as well as religious people who think all religions are stupid other than the one they believe in. Then there are people, like me, who don’t follow any religion but also don’t think that all of them are totally silly. I think it’s a reasonable principle that the right to hold and to espouse religious beliefs should be respected, unless, of course, the religious beliefs in question contradict common law or basic morality. Should we consider racism or homophobia to be acceptable if motivated by religion but not if such views stem from an atheistic political philisophy?

Although I don’t have any particularly objective yardstick for judging how silly different religions are, and therefore find it quite difficult to be entirely even-handed in my attitudes to religions, I do find Scientology particularly ridiculous. But then looking at the Church of Scientology’s track-record I don’t feel the need to apologize for that.

Behind this is the whole issue of freedom of expression and the extent to which it should be limited, either by the law or by employment contracts. For a start, I know that nobody likes to be on the receiving end of abusive comments, but I can think of much worse examples than “stupid”. Abuse related to an individual’s beliefs also belong to a different category to those related to, for example, race, gender or sexual orientation. People choose their religion (as they do their political views) and while one must respect another’s right to have different opinions, that doesn’t mean those opinions should be immune from challenge or comment. That’s why I disagree with all laws, such as those relating to blasphemy, that put religious beliefs in some special category compared to other kinds of thought. I’m not so sure about laws relating to racist sexist or homophobic abuse. Part of me says that in a free society you have to put up with the freedom people have to be nasty. Another part says that people deserve legal protection from extreme forms of verbal abuse, especially when it becomes threatening to them or if they are in a vulnerable situation.

However, all this about laws is really irrelevant in this case (I think). Whatever the legal situation in the big wide world, employers have a right to decide on what sort of behaviour they will accept from their employees in their office. In many cases – especially, but by no means exclusively,  in the public sector – such things form part of the contract of employment. If an employee transgresses they should face disciplinary action. If that doesn’t happen, or it is done in a discriminatory way, then the whole system starts to look grossly hypocritical. Better surely not to have rules at all than to have them but use them only as window-dressing?

I think what I’m saying is that I think it’s at worst a bit impolite for a private individual to call Scientologists “stupid” but nothing more than that. It’s also perhaps a bit different for a Councillor to do so in their professional capacity than as a private individual. However, I myself would not say that the Church of Scientology itself is stupid. I think it’s much worse than that. I think it knows exactly what it’s doing.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens now in this case. I hope Councillor Dixon gets nothing more than a slap on the wrist. I fear, however, that the media spotlight will compel the Ethics committee to take more drastic measures. That would be a shame, especially when I can think of other examples where much worse and much more obvious  transgressions than this have gone completely unpunished by public bodies who have indeed also connived with the miscreant to conceal evidence of wrongdoing.

Blogging about Blogging

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on July 19, 2010 by telescoper

Last week in London there was an event called Talkfest which was all about Science Blogging. I didn’t know anything about it until I started to see some tweets about it just before it happened. Apparently a few people I know went along and, by all accounts, it was quite an interesting evening. You could have knocked me down with a feather, however, when one of the invited panellists, particle physicist John Butterworth, mentioned this as his favourite “after-dinner” blog. If you don’t believe me here’s the evidence!

John is the chap with the microphone, and that’s my blog behind him. Unfortunately, the fact that I’d picked a Welsh title that day probably means he probably managed to convince the audience that I can speak Welsh which, in turn, probably means I’m going to get sued under the Trades Descriptions Act! I don’t know exactly what was meant by “after-dinner” blog, either. Perhaps its because it should only be read after the watershed. Anyway, it seems like it must have been a fun event judging by the other pictures and some of the chat that went on via Twitter (#talkfest)  afterwards.

I must say I was thrilled to bits to be mentioned in despatches in front of so many people who know a lot more about science blogging than I do. I’m not really plugged into the large online science community. All I do in that vein is write this. Just because I write a blog doesn’t mean I’m not a Luddite at heart! Anyway, I’m both flattered and grateful to Prof. Butterworth for his kind words. At least, I assume they were kind. If I’d been there I would have blushed.

Anyway, John’s own blog is very interesting and he followed up his dubious selection of favourite blog with a post of his own about the whys and wherefores of blogging. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery I thought I’d follow his cue and do something in a similar vein. Actually I’ve been meaning to do something along these lines for a while.

I suppose the main issue to be addressed in  a sermon about blogging is “why?”. Lots of people have asked me why I have a blog and why I apparently spend so much time writing it. Well, for me, there are two answers. The first is just that I enjoy writing. I think because of that I’ve always been able to write stuff quite quickly and developed a little bit of a knack for it. When I started blogging – less than two years ago – I realised that it gave me the chance to write about things quite different from the usual themes I had yet tackled in publications. I’d written scientific papers, textbooks, lecture notes, popular books and newspaper articles before but most had   been quite strictly controlled by editors and were always related to my scientific work. In fact, I’d already written quite a lot of stuff that never made it into publications so as time as gone on and I’ve been short of blog fuel I’ve tended to throw some of these pieces on in addition to bits I write on the spur of the moment.

It was only after I’d been blogging quite a while that I started doing music and poetry items, entirely for my own amusement, like keeping a scrapbook, but if people actually enjoy things that I’ve put up that they’d never seen before then all the better. I know a lot of people think I’m a pretentious twat for posting about Opera and modern jazz – some have said as much to my face, in fact – but that’s what I like. There’s enough blogs about pop music, TV celebrities and computer games already, not that I’d be able to write about them. I’m flattered too by the fact that some of my music and other posts have been linked to wikipedia articles – and, no, I didn’t put them there!

The other reason I had for starting to blog is much more personal. I moved job to Cardiff in 2007, but I got caught up in the credit crunch and was unable to sell my old house for quite a while. I spent far too much time commuting from Nottingham to Cardiff and back for the weekends and got thoroughly depressed, a state of mind not helped by some other issues which I won’t go into. In the middle of this my father died. Though not entirely unexpected, I did have to take some time out to deal with it. He hadn’t left a will, and I had to sort out the legal side of things as well as dispose of his belongings and arrange the funeral. In the aftermath of all that I had pangs of nostalgia for my childhood in Newcastle and an urge to connect with all that through writing down some thoughts and memories. Many of my early posts on here were quite morbidly introspective and probably not much fun for anyone to read, but I found writing them quite cathartic, as indeed I’ve found other posts for different reasons.

Anyway, knowing my tendency to write bits and bobs and then forget about them, quite a few people had encouraged me to start writing a blog but I hadn’t done it because I didn’t know how to go about setting one up. Fortunately after a public talk I’d given, Phil Brown of the British Association for the Advancement of Science gave me a few pointers to getting started writing a blog. After finally managing to sell off the Nottingham house and after relocating fully to Cardiff, I got this thing going about 2 years ago.

So there you are.  That’s some of why and most of how I came to start writing this blog. I wish I could say I had a mission to change the world, but it’s really just partly a big exercise in self-indulgence and partly a piece of occupational therapy. I would add two things in my defence, though. One is that I think that among all the other stuff, I do a bit of public service on here. Any bits of news about funding, exciting or controversial science results and things I think my colleagues in Cardiff and elsewhere might find interesting tend to go on here and I do think that’s a useful thing to do. People in my own School sometimes find things first from reading here, which I think adds a healthy bit of transparency to the otherwise closed world of academic life. The other thing to say is that, contrary to popular opinion, I don’t actually spend a huge amount of time writing the blog. Much of it is recycled and the rest thrown together quite quickly. I’ve just reached 1000 words of this post, for example, and it’s taken me 25 minutes. I know it’s rubbish, but at least its fast…

..which reminds me. Was it Voltaire who apologized for not having time to write a short letter so he was sending a long one instead?

Aside from the other things I’ve mentioned, the comments section is the thing I enjoy best. It’s great when people take the time to correct my numerous errors, whether it’s an incorrect chord sequence from a Charlie Parker track or a mistake in interpretation of a cosmological result. I also enjoy watching the discussion threads veer off at all kinds of unexpected tangents. Of course the comments section does occasionally have its downside, but generally its a lot of fun.

I’ve kept a weather eye on the hit statistics for this blog since I started. Although they are highly erratic, varying between 300 and 3000,  I seem to have a steady baseline average of about 700 unique hits per day. That seems an awful lot to me, but I’ve nothing to compare it with so I don’t know whether it’s a lot for a personal blog. I do know who a few of the readers are, some because they comment regularly on here,  and some because they tell me they read it in emails or face-to-face. I thought at the start that the intersection of jazz, opera and astronomy was a set of very small measure indeed so I’d never get more than a handful of readers. I realise now that I was probably doing the wrong logical operation; I should have been thinking `OR’ rather than `AND’. Judging by the incoming links I probably get quite different people reading the different sorts of items.

I’d be interested to know how people read this and other blogs, actually. I post almost every day, but I’d be surprised if the same people visit every day or read the posts that often.

It’s strange to think that the tentacles of the internet sometimes reach out from the other side of the world, bringing someone here without me ever knowing who they are. Wheoever you are, and however you got here, please feel free to say hello through the comments. I’d love to know who you all are. But if you’d rather not, that’s fine. This blog is delivered in the electronic equivalent of a plain brown envelope.

Anyway, that’s more than enough introspection for one night. Reading it through I realise it sounds like a very long and very boring acceptance speech for some sort of award! Perhaps I should keep it for when I get into Pseud’s Corner. Still, it will have to do. I haven’t got an editor to rewrite it for me…

PS. I would have been great if the picture had featured this post instead of last week’s. That would really have suited the self-reference theme, although it would have violated causality constraints!

Verdi’s Requiem

Posted in Music with tags , , , , on July 18, 2010 by telescoper

Just back from this evening’s Welsh Prom at St David’s Hall which featured Verdi’s Requiem performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with the BBC National Chorus of Wales together with the Cardiff Ardwyn Singers and the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir.

I have to admit I must have had a senior moment or two about this because I bought two tickets a while ago but got it into my head that it was last Thursday night. When I looked at the tickets on Thursday, and discovered I’d screwed up,  it transpired the friend I was supposed to go with on Thursday couldn’t make it on Sunday. What a shambles. I think I should apply for home help!

Anyway, I’m glad I went because it’s a fabulous piece that you really have to hear live in order the experience its full effect. Living in Wales might tend  to make one a bit blasé about choral music, but there’s no escaping the awesome power of the massed voices during the famous Dies Irae sequences that return throughout the work, to the accompaniment of a booming bass drum sounding the last judgement. The first time you hear that live I guarantee you’ll be pinned back in your seat.

The latin mass for the dead has inspired some of the greatest music written by some of the greatest composers, but it also seems to bring out something very personal and different from each one. Fauré’s Requiem, for example, is full of a fragile, angelic beauty and it portrays death as joyous release from earthly torment. Verdi’s take is quite different. It’s quite varied, musically, alternately sombre, accepting, meditative and, yes, even joyous too. But you’re never far from the terrifying hammer blows of the Dies Irae; one senses that Verdi’s own view of death was one dominated by fear.

Some say the Verdi Requiem is overwrought, but I don’t think anyone will ever say this piece isn’t dramatic. It’s also full of great tunes and wonderful dramatic contrasts. Is it too melodramatic? That’s a matter of taste. I don’t think it’s melodramatic but it’s certainly operatic, and I certainly don’t mean that to be derogatory. Above all, it’s just very Verdi. And that’s certainly not derogatory either.

The four soloists were all excellent: Yvonne Howard (soprano), Ceri Williams (mezzo), Gwyn Hughes Jones (tenor) and Robert Hayward (bass) and the orchestra did all the right things under the baton of veteran conductor Owain Arwel Hughes.

I enjoyed the performance a lot, but left feeling a bit flat because St David’s Hall was only about 2/3 full. I always enjoy things more when there’s a full house as the atmosphere is always that bit more exciting. I’m not sure why it didn’t attract a better turnout – top price tickets were only £26. Perhaps it was because many classical music fans were listening to the main Prom in London, which this evening featured the great Placido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra?

I’ve never been to one of the Welsh proms before, and was interested to see that, like the Royal Albert Hall, St David’s also has promenaders standing just in front of the orchestra although they were not as numerous as in the Proms themselves.

The Curious Case of the Cat’s Nose

Posted in Columbo with tags , on July 17, 2010 by telescoper

Another day, another feline emergency.

This morning I got up to feed my old moggy Columbo. As usual, he was out and about first thing in the morning, but as soon as I got downstairs he was there waiting for his grub. I put it down for him, gave him a dish of fresh water, and did the usual insulin jab.  He started to scoff the food. As usual, the combination of eating and purring produced a sound like a pig at a trough so I left him to it and proceeded to make a cup of tea.

A few seconds later, Columbo sneezed. Nothing particularly unusual about that so I didn’t pay much attention. While I was waiting for the kettle to boil, however, I noticed something strange. There was blood on the food in the cat’s bowl, and a fine spray of blood on the wall behind it. Columbo had resumed eating, and seemed fine, but there was clearly something very wrong.

As it happens, a trip to the vet’s was on my agenda for today because I needed more of Columbo’s Feline MD, food which is specially designed (and specially priced too, apparently) for diabetic cats. I also needed some more insulin and some more of the tablets he has for his arthritis. Never cheap, these trips to the vet. Since I was going to go anyway, I thought I’d take him in for a check up, and phoned to see whether they could fit in an appointment this morning, which they did.

After completing the not too easy task of persuading Columbo into his travel box, off I went to do the honours. Soon he was sitting on the vet’s table, looking right as rain and showing no ill-effects at all. He was even purring; he seems to like this vet more than any other he’s ever been to. Anyway, I told the (sceptical-looking) vet what happened and she gave him the once over. She said the blood could be a sign of something quite serious, but it could have happened for any number of trivial reasons. Not finding anything wrong in his mouth or nose, she asked me whether I had found anything strange in his dish when he had sneezed. In fact there had been a small piece of a blade of grass, which I’d thought slightly odd but hadn’t mentioned because I didn’t think it was relevant.

The vet smiled and said she thought that was probably it. She went on to explain that cats often eat grass in the summer, sometimes to help digestion but also sometimes to help them produce furballs. It’s not all that unusual for a small piece of grass – which can be quite sharp – to find its way into the cat’s nasal passages from its mouth and when it gets there it can cause a nosebleed. Since the offending grass had found its way out, the problem was probably over. I sighed with relief. Panic over. It must have been unpleasant for the old chap, but better out than in.

The vet mentioned that Columbo has pretty good teeth for a 16-year old cat, although he is missing one long incisor at the front. The end snapped off this ages ago, probably during a fight. It didn’t seem to cause him any problems at the time so the vet said it was best just to leave it. A year or two later, however, he began to experience dfficulty eating and the vet suggested it was probably the tooth causing the bother. He spent a day at the cat hospital and had it removed under a general anaesthetic. Sorted. The rest of his gnashers are in good nick, as he is wont to demonstrate on unsuspecting visitors.

I was a bit worried that he might have developed another dodgy fang or some other mouth problem. I’d be a bit nervous about subjecting him to a general anaesthetic at his current age, as the risk increases markedly for the more senior citizens of the feline world. Thankfully, that’s not an issue. Not for the time being anyway.

After we got back he spent the rest of the day on a rigorous programme of sleeping, interrupted only by an attempt to eat the Travel Supplement of my newspaper.

Nearly time for his supper. I hope this time it’s not to be sneezed at.

The Shoe Event Horizon

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on July 16, 2010 by telescoper

After yesterday’s  satisfying and enjoyable graduation festivities, it’s back to reality today with a clutch of scary news items about future cuts.

Vince Cable, the coalition Minister responsible for Universities, has revealed plans for Higher Education that include introducing a graduate tax and encouraging the growth of private universities,  the latter to be introduced at the expense of some current institutions which are to be allowed to go bankrupt. You can find some discussion of his speech in the Times Higher as well as in the Guardian piece I linked to earlier.

The graduate tax isn’t a new idea, but it does seem rather strange to be suggesting it right now. The proposal won’t lead to any significant income for universities in the short term so presumably either the government or the institutions themselves will have to borrow until the cash starts to flow in. But I thought we were supposed to be cutting public borrowing?

In fact, it seems to me that the announcements made by Cable are little more than a ragbag of ill-considered uncosted measures likely to do little but cause alarm across the Higher Education sector. Perhaps he would have been wiser to have kept the Ministerial trap shut until he’d actually worked out whether any of the half-baked ideas he announced were worth thinking through properly, as some of them just might be.

Apart from anything else, Vince Cable’s dramatic U-turn on Higher Education funding shows that the LibDem contingent have now been completely subsumed by the dominant right-wing, pro-market political stance of the Conservatives. In other words, we now know there’s no reason ever to vote LibDem again; they’re Tories in all but name.

I hope this year’s new graduates realised how lucky they’ve been to get their education before universities turn into Discount Education Warehouses, although I cling to the hope that the Welsh and Scottish assemblies might take a stand against if some of the worst aspects of the ConDem policy look like becoming reality in England, where the Tories live.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society has submitted its, er, submission to the ongoing debate about research funding. The headline in an accompanying article from the Times – which you won’t be able to read unless you give money to the Evil Empire of Murdoch – suggests that it could be “game over” for British science if the suggested cuts go ahead. Paul Crowther has done his usual fabulously quick job of hacking his way through the documentary jungle to get to the juiciest quotes, including this one:

Short-term budget cuts will put our long-term prosperity at risk.. The UK should maintain its breadth of research .. a flat cash settlement will be painful but manegeable; a 10% cash cut will be damaging .. while a 20% cut will be irreversibly catastrophic for the future of UK science and economic growth.

I’m sorry if I’m introducing a note of pessimism here, but I think we’ll be very lucky indeed if the cuts are as small as 20%.

And finally, not unexpectedly, the news this week includes an announcement that university staff are to have their pensions reduced and/or deferred and will have to pay more for the privilege. Employee’s contributions to the USS scheme will increase from 6% to 7.5%. For new members the pension will not be based on their final salary, but on average earnings. This isn’t a surprise as it’s been clear for some time that USS was actuarially unsound, but it’s one more sign of the forthcoming squeeze on academics, those of them that don’t get made redundant anyway…

Looking around for a bit of good news, I could only manage this. If you’re worried about the future of UK universities and scientific research then consider how lucky you are that you’re not Italian. Owing to budget cuts imposed by the Berlusconi regime, several Italian institutions will no longer be able to pay scientists’ wages. Responding to this situation the Italian premier replied with all his usual tact and intelligence:

Why do we need to pay scientists when we make the best shoes in the world?

Fans of the late Douglas Adams will be reminded of the following passage from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

Many years ago this was a thriving, happy planet – people, cities, shops, a normal world. Except that on the high streets of these cities there were slightly more shoe shops than one might have thought necessary. And slowly, insidiously, the number of the shoe shops were increasing. It’s a well-known economic phenomenon but tragic to see it in operation, for the more shoe shops there were, the more shoes they had to make and the worse and more unwearable they became. And the worse they were to wear, the more people had to buy to keep themselves shod, and the more the shops proliferated, until the whole economy of the place passed what I believe is termed the Shoe Event Horizon, and it became no longer economically possible to build anything other than shoe shops. Result – collapse, ruin and famine.

I see that Big Brother isn’t the only dystopian vision to have become reality, but perhaps Douglas Adams should have called his book The Restaurant at the End of the University?