Archive for March, 2011

Columbo’s Birthday

Posted in Columbo with tags , on March 31, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I last posted an update about my old moggy, Columbo. In truth I’ve been waiting until today to post about him, because today is his birthday. He’s 17, not bad for a diabetic tom cat. Yesterday I bought some fresh prawns and this morning gave them to him as a treat. He demolished them so quickly I doubt if they even touched the sides. Technically he’s supposed to be restricted to special diabetic food but it’s a one-off so I decided to splash out. Anyway, here’s a close up of him looking close up. This is his tactic when there’s cheese on my plate.


Just a gigolo

Posted in Jazz with tags , on March 30, 2011 by telescoper

Much of Thelonious Monk‘s recorded output was based on his own original compositions, which include such classics as Bemsha Swing, ‘Round Midnight, Epistrophy, Brilliant Corners and Straight, No Chaser, but this is an exception to that rule. Just a gigolo is a little ballad that he took a bit of a shine to relatively early on in his career and performed impromptu versions of it on many subsequent occasions. Monk’s unique style is a joy to listen to, and this clip gives you a chance to see him too – watching him play the piano always makes me think of a kitten playing with a ball of string. For all the genius that he was, and all the problems he had with his own mental health, he never lost sight of the child within himself.

Now this is what I call awesome


No Cox please, we’re British…

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2011 by telescoper

The final episode of the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe was broadcast this weekend. Apparently it’s been incredibly popular, winning huge plaudits for its presenter Brian Cox, and perhaps inspiring the next generation of budding cosmologists the way Carl Sagan did thirty-odd years ago with his series Cosmos.

Grumpy old cosmologists (i.e. people like myself) who have watched it are a bit baffled by the peculiar choices of location – seemingly chosen simply in order to be expensive, without any relevance to the topic being discussed – the intrusive (and rather ghastly) music, and the personality cult generated by the constant focus on the dreamy-eyed presenter. But of course the series wasn’t made for people like us, so we’ve got no right to complain. If he does a great job getting the younger generation interested in science, then that’s enough for me. I can always watch Miss Marple on the other side instead.

But walking into work this morning I suddenly realised the real reason why I don’t really like Wonders of the Universe. It’s got nothing to do with the things I mentioned above. It’s because it’s just not British enough.

I’m not saying that Brian Cox isn’t British. Obviously he is. Although I do quibble with him being labelled as a “northerner”. Actually, he’s from Manchester. The North is in fact that part of England that extends southwards from the Scottish border to the Tyne. The Midlands start with Gateshead and include Yorkshire, Manchester and Liverpool and all those places whose inhabitants wish they were from the North, but aren’t really hard enough.

Anyway, I just put that bit in to inform non-British readers of this blog about the facts of UK geography. It’s not really relevant to the main point of the piece.

The problem with Wonders of the Universe is betrayed by its title. The word “wonders” suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, “awesome”. No authentic British person, and certainly not one who’s forty-something, would ever use the word “awesome” without being paid a lot of money to do so. It just doesn’t ring true.

I reckon it doesn’t do to be too impressed by anything on TV these days (especially if its accompanied by awful music), but there is a particularly good reason for not being taken in by all this talk about “Wonders”, and that is that the Universe is basically a load of rubbish.

Take this thing, for example.

It’s a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar article, in fact. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface, but when you look at them with a physicist’s eye galaxies are really not all they’re cracked up to be.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does so pretty badly, all things considered. The Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. That’s hopeless! Pound for pound, a human being radiates more than a thousand times as much. All in all, stars are drastically overrated: bloated, wasteful, inefficient and  not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought; it’s usually called France.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then there’s the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe. The volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, but many rock concerts are louder. Very disappointing. If I’d been in charge I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. The Universe is now a cold and desolate place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat given off when it was all so much younger and more exciting. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

No, the Universe isn’t wonderful at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit crummy. It’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

We British just don’t like showy things. It’s in our genes. We’re fundamentally a rather drab and dowdy race. We don’t really enjoy being astonished either. We prefer things we can find fault with over things that intimidate us with their splendour. We’re much more likely to tut disapprovingly than stare open-mouthed in amazement at something that seems pointlessly ostentatious. If pushed, we might even write a letter of complaint to the Council.

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about it, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. Nothing we can do about it, so we might as well just soldier on. That’s the British way.

So you can rest assured that none of this Wonders of the Universe stuff will distract us for long from getting on with the important things in life, such as watching Coronation Street.

Professor Brian Cox is 43.



Such a Shame

Posted in Bute Park with tags , , on March 29, 2011 by telescoper

Thanks to MaryCav for this ironic take on the ongoing destruction of Britain’s green spaces, including Bute Park. It was made by Friends of the Earth.


The Two Deserts

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 28, 2011 by telescoper

An interesting choice for Poem of the Week in the Grauniad today is this, Two Deserts, by Coventry Patmore.

Not greatly moved with awe am I
To learn that we may spy
Five thousand firmaments beyond our own.
The best that’s known
Of the heavenly bodies does them credit small.
View’d close, the Moon’s fair ball
Is of ill objects worst,
A corpse in Night’s highway, naked, fire-scarr’d, accurst;
And now they tell
That the Sun is plainly seen to boil and burst
Too horribly for hell.
So, judging from these two,
As we must do,
The Universe, outside our living Earth,
Was all conceiv’d in the Creator’s mirth,
Forecasting at the time Man’s spirit deep,
To make dirt cheap.
Put by the Telescope!
Better without it man may see,
Stretch’d awful in the hush’d midnight,
The ghost of his eternity.
Give me the nobler glass that swells to the eye
The things which near us lie,
Till Science rapturously hails,
In the minutest water-drop,
A torment of innumerable tails.
These at the least do live.
But rather give
A mind not much to pry
Beyond our royal-fair estate
Betwixt these deserts blank of small and great.
Wonder and beauty our own courtiers are,
Pressing to catch our gaze,
And out of obvious ways
Ne’er wandering far.

I think this is quite an interesting composition because of its fluid structure and variable metre, although I think the language is a bit contrived in places. Or is it just dated? However, as a scientist, I can’t really agree with the sentiments it expresses (which are also found in abundance elsewhere in 19th Century poetry, such in Walt Whitman’s When I heard the learn’d astronomer).

As the accompanying piece in the Guardian puts it,

Patmore hymns imaginative perception of local realities at the expense of scientific discovery: the reverse position is today’s default.

I’m not sure that last statement is true, for most people, but in any case I’d argue that the more we discover through scientific means the more there is to inspire artists, as long as they have their imaginative eyes open…

Although you probably associate Patmore’s point view with poets of the romantic tradition, such as Wordsworth (whose poetry I admire enormously), I think it’s a misguided assertion that science ignores “the imaginative eye”.  I don’t think it does. Science is full of imagination, it’s just of a form different from that found in the arts. Science and the arts offer complementary ways of imagining. They’re neither incompatible with each other nor is one superior to the other.

And, as I’ve mentioned before there’s more to life than the tedious arts-versus-science rants beloved of certain academics. I can’t think of a clearer expression of the supreme importance of simply living than this, from a poem by William Wordsworth I posted just a few days ago:

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.


The Dissolution of the Assembly

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , on March 27, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday’s mail included a polling card for the forthcoming elections to the Welsh Assembly. Coincidentally, I found out this morning that the Welsh Assembly will be dissolved on 31st March, to be re-convened on or after 5th May when the elections are finished.

Until Thursday the Welsh Assembly Government comprises a coalition of New Labour and Plaid Cymru and, although I don’t know enough about Welsh politics to predict what’s going to happen with any real confidence, it seems reasonably likely that not much will change. I can’t see the Tories or LibDems making any gains, at any rate.

I’m not sure of the extent to which Higher Education will be important in the forthcoming election campaign. It sure be, of course, as the relevant issues are those over which the Assembly has direct responsibility, education being one. The WAG’s hands are tied to a large extent by the funding it receives from Westminster, and it also has many other calls on its purse, but I do hope the new WAG, whatever its complexion is, will do the right thing by Welsh universities when it re-forms in May.

I have to admit, though, that I’m very worried for the future. As I predicted when the new funding arrangements for English universities were announced, the vast majority – and certainly all the research intensive ones – will be charging the full £9K fee level from 2012. That means the current WAG’s commitment to pay fees for Welsh-domiciled students wanting to study in England will be much more expensive than the WAG’s estimates, which were based on an average fee level of £7.5K. English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay whatever fee Welsh universities charge, which isn’t known yet.

Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales, compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If numbers remain the same, in order for the funds coming in from England to exceed the money going to England, the fee level charged in Wales must  be at least 64% of that charged in England, i.e. £5760 if all English universities charge £9K. That’s way above the putative mininum fee level of £4K announced by the WAG; if Welsh universities charge fees at that level then the WAG will be providing a large net subsidy to English universities.

And breaking even isn’t anywhere near enough. The WAG has signalled an intention to top-slice teaching budgets by about 40%. We don’t yet know how that will be implemented, university-by-university and department-by-department,  but unless there are to be wholesale closures of “expensive” subjects (i.e. science and engineering) fee levels will have to rise substantially above the level calculated above. My own employer, Cardiff University, a member of the Russell Group of research-led universities, will probably want to brand itself alongside the English universities belonging  to this club by charging a high fee. I hope it doesn’t do this, but  the WAG’s policies are pushing it in that direction. As one of Wales’ biggest recruiters of English students, Cardiff will have to charge high fees in order to be seen as being of the same quality as leading English universities as well as to make up for funding lost in the latest round of deep cuts to recurrent grants.

The recent rhetoric of the WAG is all about achieving greater control of the HE sector in Wales to align it with strategic priorities within the Principality. This is certainly justifiable in principle as Wales has a university system which is far too fragmented and chaotic. Paradoxically, however,  the WAG’s own policies seem to be forcing Welsh universities to look to England for income to make up for the big cuts recently announced.

So what’s the alternative?

I think it would be much more rational to ditch the commitment to fund Welsh-domiciled students for studying in England. If a student wants to go to England then they should experience the same fee regime as students domiciled there. After all, you wouldn’t expect the WAG to pay fees for a Welsh student to go to America, would you? The cash thus saved should be reinvested in Welsh Higher Education, in accordance with the WAG’s strategic priorities, and in keeping tuition fee levels as low as possible within the Principality. The best way to avoid tuition fee levels of £9K is to maintain core grants at a level that makes it unnecessary to charge so much.

It seems to me that this plan is a better deal for Welsh students, for English students wanting to study in Wales,  for Welsh universities, and for the Welsh Assembly Government, but then I’m used to being in a minority of one.

Let’s just say I’ll be reading the party manifesto statements with great interest over the next few weeks…


When I do count the clocks that tell the time

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 27, 2011 by telescoper

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls all silvered o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

Sonnet 12 by William Shakespeare, posted on the occasion of having forgotten to put my clocks forward one hour for the start of British Summer Time...