Archive for September, 2010

The Ladies of Llangollen

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , on September 19, 2010 by telescoper

I was doing the crossword in the Times Literary Supplement this morning and one of the clues triggered only a distant memory which I had to check via the fount of all wisdom that is Google. The clue referred to a “Vale of Friendship” which I’d vaguely remembered seeing in a poem by William Wordsworth. Anyway, I was right in remembering the origin of the phrase, but I accidentally found out a lot more about the context as well and thought I’d share it here.

In fact there’s an entire wikipedia page devoted to the Ladies of Llangollen, so there’s no need to reproduce it all here. However, for the sake of you who haven’t heard of them, they were Lady Eleanor Charlotte Butler and the Honourable Sarah Ponsonby. They were of Anglo-Irish extraction and had been brought up just a few miles from each other in Ireland. They met in 1768 and immediately hit it off together. They ran off together to avoid being forced into unwanted marriage, and moved to Wales in order to set up home  at Plas Newydd, near Llangollen in Denbighshire, in 1780.

They lived together for the best part of 50 years in Plas Newydd, in relative seclusion, devoting their time to private studies of literature and languages and improving their estate, comprehensively redesigning the house in a Gothic style, and adding a superb garden. They did not actively socialise and town-dwellers of Llangollen seem to have regarded them as eccentrics, simply referring to them as “The Ladies”.

Gradually, their life attracted the interest of the outside world. Their house became a haven for all manner of visitors, mostly writers such as Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Shelley, Byron and Scott, but also the military leader Duke of Wellington and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood; aristocratic novelist Caroline Lamb, who was born a Ponsonby, came to visit too. Even travellers from continental Europe had heard of the couple and came to visit them, for instance Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the German nobleman and landscape designer who wrote admiringly about them.

The story of the “romantic friendship” between these two ladies is both charming and moving, but it’s also fascinating to learn how their lifestyle was accepted and even celebrated by wider society. One might have thought their relationship would have been regarded as scandalous by their contemporaries, rather than being widely admired as it turned out to be. One is tempted to assume that their  “marriage” had a sexual dimension, which it may well have done, but it could have been a platonic, yet still romantic, friendship. As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t really matter;  what I find inspiring about them is that they dared to be different.

Anyway, here is the beautiful sonnet that William Wordsworth wrote after meeting the Ladies of Llangollen in 1824, although I believe the Ladies took exception to the description of their magnificent house as a “low-roofed cot”!

A stream, to mingle with your favourite Dee,
Along the vale of meditation flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
In Nature’s face the expression of repose;
Or haply there some pious hermit chose
To live and die, the peace of heaven his aim;
To whom the wild sequestered region owes
At this late day, its sanctifying name.
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let ‘this’ spot
Be named; where, faithful to a low-roofed Cot,
On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long;
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,
Even on this earth, above the reach of Time!



Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2010 by telescoper

Another sign that the summer is over is that the autumn season of Welsh National Opera has started at the Wales Millennium Centre. Last night I went to the opening night of their new production of Fidelio, the only opera ever composed by Ludwig van Beethoven.

I was particularly looking forward to this performance, partly because it has been very heavily plugged by the WNO publicity machine and partly because I’ve never actually seen it done live, although I have seen it on DVD and heard it on the radio. The opening night press presence and a full house added to the general sense of occasion as we took our seats in front of a bare stage dominated by a huge metal cage representing the prison about which the entire plot revolves.

Leonore has disguised herself as a man, Fidelio, and has gained employment as assistant to the chief gaoler, Rocco, in the hope of finding and freeing her imprisoned husband Florestan. To complicate matters, Rocco’s daughter, Marzelline, has fallen in love with Fidelio, which annoys her suitor Jaquino (even though he doesn’t know Fidelio is actually a woman). Leonore persuades Rocco to let her help him in the underground cells where the political prisoners are held in inhuman conditions. The prison governor, the villainous Don Pizarro, learns of an impending inspection by the minister and decides that Florestan – who has been particularly cruelly treated – must be killed to hide the evidence of his abuse. Leonore hears of the plan to murder her husband and, as the prisoners are briefly allowed out into the sunlight, she searches in vain for Florestan among them. He is still in chains below ground. Eventually Leonore and Rocco descend into the darkness of the dungeon and find Florestan, near death having a vision of an angel that has come to rescue him. Leonore looks on as Pizarro arrives and tries to kill her husband, but she stops him and reveals here true identity. In the nick of time (geddit?), the Minister, Don Fernando, arrives and, appalled by what he sees, commands that all the prisoners be released. Leonore sets her husband free.

Much of Beethoven’s music from his “middle period” – Fidelio was first performed in 1805 – is about the struggle for political liberty and social justice that was taking place throughout Europe at the time so it’s not difficult to see why he was attracted to this story. Although originally written in three acts, it is now performed in a version with only two. This gives the opera a fascinating structure. The music in Act I is clearly a nod back in the direction of Mozart, while Act II is dramatically different, with a much wider range of orchestral colour, and is clearly a look forward towards Romanticism. Another thing that struck me was that, throughout, there is much more of an emphasis on combinations of two or more voices (compared to solo arias) than you find in many other operas in the standard repertoire; an example is the wonderful Act I Quartet. Also there are no less than four published versions of the overture. Often this opera is performed with the version called Leonore No. 3, but the one simply known as Fidelio.

Unfortunately, though, the overture was where it started to go wrong. The orchestral playing was ragged and out of balance, with the brass section (especially the horns) particularly lacking in control. This carried on into Act I and seemed to affect the singers who appeared ill-at-ease. Worse, the movement of the actors on stage was bizarre: moving backwards and forwards along straight lines, or sometimes circling around each other, as if they were automata running on rails. Perhaps this was supposed to emphasize the constraints on individual liberty represented by life in the prison. Who knows? I thought it just looked silly.

Fidelio is really a singspiel (a form of opera in which the recitative is spoken not sung). In this performance however much of the spoken text essential to understanding the plot was cut so it was hard to understand the context of what was going on. I was lucky in that I knew a bit about it before seeing it, but I’m sure a total newcomer would have been completely baffled. The set was stark and minimal, and the costumes grey and nondescript – appropriately enough for the prison setting – but they didn’t do much for the plot either, especially in the pervasive semi-darkness provided by the lighting.

It was only near the end of Act I that the cast seemed to settle down. By the time the massed ranks of the supporting singers appeared for the celebrated Prisoner’s Chorus it had really started to gel.
I don’t know if words were spoken at the interval, but Act II was a great deal better, although not quite good enough to banish memories of the debacle that was Act I. The compelling stage presence of WNO stalwart Dennis O’Neill as Florestan (who only appears in Act II) gave the performance a much-needed focus, the acting was more relaxed, more naturalistic, and more compelling than in the first act, and the rousing finale as uplifting as anything you could want to hear.

Lisa Milne was a fine Leonore/Fidelio, Robert Hayward a menacing Pizarro, Clive Bayley was in superb voice as Rocco, and as I’ve mentioned above, Dennis O’Neill was great too. Also worthy of a mention was the superb WNO chorus, led by Chorus Master Stephen Harris.

I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t a bit disappointed by the way this performance started, but I’d still recommend going to see it. I’d have happily paid the money just for Act II. Perhaps it was first-night nerves anyway. I don’t do stars, but if I did I’d give it three…


Close of Play

Posted in Cricket, Poetry with tags , , , on September 17, 2010 by telescoper

The summer draws ever nearer to its close and autumn beckons.

The latest marker of the turning season to rush past was the last match of cricket’s County Championship, which ended yesterday. It was a disappointing finale for my local team, Glamorgan, who had a chance of winning promotion to Division 1 having spent most of the season in second place in Division 2. However, after a feeble first innings batting performance against Derbyshire – and a lot of rain here in Cardiff – they could only draw their final game. Meanwhile, third-placed Worcestershire responded to a generous declaration by first-placed Sussex by scoring 306-6 in only 55 overs to win with time to spare. Thus, Sussex and Worcestershire (who got relegated last year) get promoted back to Division 1, while Kent and Essex (who were promoted last year) get relegated. Better luck next year for Glamorgan. Nottinghamshire, by the way, won the Championship.

In the end it was quite an exciting final day of the county season but since it’s now all over until next spring it seems appropriate to mark the end of the County Championship with one of the classic cricket poems, Close of Play, by Thomas Moult.

How shall we live, now that the summer’s ended,
And bat and ball (too soon!) are put aside,
And all our cricket deeds and dreams have blended —
The hit for six, the champion bowled for none,
The match we planned to win and never won? …
Only in Green-winged memory they abide.

How shall we live, who love our loveliest game
With such bright ardour that when stumps are drawn
We talk into the twilight, always the same
Old talk with laughter round off each tale —
Laughter of friends across a pint of ale
In the blue shade of the pavilion.

For the last time a batsman is out, the day
Like the drained glass and the dear sundown field
is empty; what instead of Summer’s play
Can occupy these darkling months ere spring
Hails willows once again the crowned king?
How shall we live so life may not be chilled?

Well, what’s a crimson hearth for, and the lamp
Of winter nights, and these plump yellow books
That cherish Wisden’s soul and bear his stamp —
And bat and ball (too soon!) are put aside,
Time’s ever changing, unalterable score-board,
Thick-clustered with a thousand names adored:
Half the game’s magic in their very looks!

And when we’ve learnt those almanacs by heart,
And shared with Nyren … Cardus ….the distant thrill
That cannot fade since they have had their part,
We’ll trudge wet streets through fog and mire
And praise our heroes by the club-room fire:
O do not doubt the game will hold us still!


The Last Experiment (via In the Dark)

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff on September 16, 2010 by telescoper

Today is this blog’s second birthday, so I thought I’d celebrate with a self-auto-reblog-type-of-thing of a post I wrote that memorable day in September 2008 when I started doing all this nonsense, which was just after the LHC had been switched on for the first time…

Actually, I really just wanted to see how this new reblog gizmo works.

I've launched myself into the blogosphere just a bit too late for the feeding frenzy surrounding the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN last week. Obviously the event itself was a bit of a non-event as it will take years for anything interesting to come out the other end of its multi-billion-dollar tunnel. There are a couple of things worth saying in retrospect, though, now that the dust has settled. The first is about all this non … Read More

via In the Dark

Hot Stuff, Looking Cool..

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 15, 2010 by telescoper

It’s nice for a change to have an excuse to write something about science rather than science funding, as a press release appeared today concerning the discovery of a new supercluster by Planck in collaboration with the X-ray observatory XMM-Newton.

The physics behind this new discovery concerns what happens to low-energy photons from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) when they are scattered by extremely hot plasma. Basically, incoming microwave photons collide with highly energetic electrons with the result that they gain energy and so are shifted to shorter wavelengths. The generic name given to this process is inverse Compton scattering, and it can happen in a variety of physical contexts. In cosmology, however, there is a particularly important situation where this process has observable consequences, when CMB photons travel through the extremely hot (but extremely tenuous) ionized gas in a cluster of galaxies. In this setting the process is called the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect.

The observational consequence is slightly paradoxical because what happens is that the microwave background can appears to have a lower temperature (at least for a certain range of wavelengths) in the direction of a galaxy cluster (in which the plasma can have a temperature of 10 million degrees or more). This is because fewer photons reach the observer in the microwave part of the spectrum that would if the cluster did not intervene; the missing ones have been kicked up to higher energies and are therefore not seen at their original wavelength, ergo the CMB looks a little cooler along the line of sight to a cluster than in other directions. To put it another way, what has actually happened is that the hot electrons have distorted the spectrum of the photons passing through it.

Here’s an example of the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect in action as seen by Planck in seven frequency bands:

At low frequencies (in the Rayleigh-Jeans part of the spectrum) the region where the cluster is looks cooler than average, although at high frequencies the effect is reversed.

The magnitude of the temperature distortion produced by a cluster depends on the density of electrons in the plasma pervading the cluster n, the temperature of the plasma T, and the overall size of the cluster; in fact, it’s propotional to n×T integrated along the line of sight through the cluster.

Why this new result is so interesting is that it combines very sensitive measurements of the microwave background temperature pattern  with sensitive measures of the X-ray emission over the same region of the sky. Plasma hot enough to produce a Sunyaev-Zel’dovich distortion of the CMB spectrum will also generate X-rays through a process known as thermal bremsstrahlung.  The power of the X-ray emission depends on the square of the electron density n2 multiplied by the Temperature T.

Since the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich and X-ray measurements depend on different mathematical combinations of the physical properties involved the amalgamation of these two techniques allows astronomers to probe the internal details of the cluster quite precisely.

The example shown here in the top two panels is of a familiar cluster – the Coma Cluster as mapped by Planck (in microwaves) and, by an older X-ray satellite called ROSAT, in X-rays. The two distributions have very similar morphology, strongly suggesting that they have a common origin in the cluster plasma.

The bottom panels show comparisons with the distribution of galaxies as seen in the optical part of the spectrum. You can see that the hot gas I’ve been talking about extends throughout the space between the galaxies. In fact, there is at least as much matter in the hot plasma as there is in the individual galaxies in objects like this, but it’s too hot to be seen in optical light. This could reasonably be called dark matter when it comes to its lack of optical emission, but it’s certainly not dark in X-rays!

The reason why the intracluster plasma is so hot boils down to the strength of the gravitational field in the cluster. Roughly speaking, the hot matter is in virial equilibrium within the gravitational potential generated by the mass distribution within the cluster. Since this is a very deep potential well, electrons move very quickly in response to it. In fact, the galaxies in the cluster are also roughly in virial equilibrium so they too are pulled about by the gravitational field. Galaxies don’t sit around quietly in clusters, they buzz about like bees in a bottle.

Anyway, the new data arising from the combination of Planck and XMM-Newton has revealed not just one cluster, but a cluster of clusters (i.e. a “supercluster”):

It’s early days for Planck, of course, and this is no more than a taster.
The Planck team is currently analysing the data from the first all-sky survey to identify both known and new galaxy clusters for the early Sunyaev-Zel’dovich catalogue, which will be released in January of 2011 as part of the Early Release Compact Source Catalogue. The full Sunyaev-Zel’dovich catalogue may well turn out to be the most enduring legacy of the Planck mission.


De Juribus Unum

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on September 14, 2010 by telescoper

I got home from work this evening and found an ominous Manilla envelope among my mail. I assumed that it was a tax demand, since a lot of people seem to be getting them these days. But it wasn’t. It was a Jury Summons, requiring me to attend for Jury Service at Cardiff Law Courts, one of the fine civic buildings in Cathays Park, at a date in November 2010. I was relieved (that it wasn’t a tax demand) but also strangely excited. I’ve never actually done Jury Service, you see, and I quite enjoy the odd courtroom drama on the telly. Since I don’t actually have any lectures this semester I think I might as well get it over with, rather than asking for a deferral.

Incidentally, Question F on the form upon which one has to reply to the Jury Summons asks (sic):

Do you currently have, or have had in the past, any disorder or disability of the mind?

Do you think if I correct their grammar they’ll think I’m a busybody and let me off?

Anyway, in anticipation of the forthcoming excitement, I thought I’d post this clip from one of my favourite old movies, 12 Angry Men, starring the great Henry Fonda which delivers an object lesson in how to deal with prejudice.

I’m sure the real thing is nothing like this, of course. The only true tale I can remember was a former colleague of mine who was on a Jury that acquitted a young man of being a drug dealer on the grounds that the quantity of marijuana he was carrying was so small it must have been for his personal use only. The amount concerned was 12 ounces…..

Any readers with other juristic anecdotes to share? If so, you know where to put them. (I mean, in the comments box.)


Smalltown Boy

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , on September 13, 2010 by telescoper

This time of year always fills me with nostalgia. All the talk of new students arriving, taking their first steps on a new life away from home, reminds me of the time many years ago when got on the train in Newcastle and made the long journey to Cambridge with most of my belongings in suitcases. No-one in my family had ever gone to university before I went to Cambridge – and  none have gone since, if truth be told!

I’d only been to Cambridge once before (for the interview). When I got there, after several hours’ travel, and sat down in the room in Magdalene College that had been allocated to me, I felt someone (possibly me) had made a terrible mistake and there was no way I would ever feel like I belonged there.

In fact, I’m now feeling second-order nostalgia, because one of my very first blog posts, almost two years ago, was about that trip. I remember sitting in the garden writing it just as I remember sitting in my new room in Cambridge all those years ago thinking “What on Earth am I doing here?”.

Having set  off on a sentimental journey, I might as well complete it with this  track from Bronski Beat which – for reasons which I hope are obvious – completes the sense of wistfulness. This was released in 1984, a  couple of years after I left home, but I’ve never been one to let mere chronology get in the way of self-indulgence.

The Invisible Ma(so)n

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on September 12, 2010 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this little item I saw on the back page of the last issue of Research Fortnight:

WHERE’S KEITH? Once upon a time STFC chief executive
Keith Mason could be seen out and about, taking flak
in public for all manner of woes. But Research Fortnight
can’t help noticing that he has been remarkable only
by his absence recently. No site visits, no photo ops, no
community chit chats. He is due to stand down in March
2012, but how should we interpret his low profile in the
meantime? Surely no one can have built up that much
unused holiday?

On the other hand, the last time the Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) got involved in a Comprehensive Spending Review (in 2007), the outcome for his organization could hardly have been described as positive. Perhaps other members of the STFC Executive have decided to send him on a fact-finding mission to the Outer Hebrides in order to stop him messing up the negotations this time?



Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 11, 2010 by telescoper

Forty-two years ago (to me if to no one else
The number is of some interest) it was a brilliant starry night
And the westward train was empty and had no corridors
So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight
Of those almost intolerably bright
Holes, punched in the sky, which excited me partly because
Of their Latin names and partly because I had read in the textbooks
How very far off they were, it seemed their light
Had left them (some at least) long years before I was.

And this remembering now I mark that what
Light was leaving some of them at least then,
Forty-two years ago, will never arrive
In time for me to catch it, which light when
It does get here may find that there is not
Anyone left alive
To run from side to side in a late night train
Admiring it and adding noughts in vain.

(written in 1963, by Louis MacNeice)


Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 40

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 10, 2010 by telescoper

Obviously someone else has already noticed the remarkable similarity between the structure of the human brain and that revealed by computer simulations of the large-scale structure of the Universe.

Does this mean that dark matter is really just all in the mind?