Archive for April, 2011

I was vicar of large things

Posted in Poetry with tags , on April 22, 2011 by telescoper

It seems appropriate to post something today – Good Friday – from the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. An Anglican clergyman, Thomas was vicar at St Hywyn’s Church (which was built 1137) in Aberdaron at the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. In this, one of his most famous poems, he speaks eloquently and movingly of the frustrations of his calling. I also managed to find a recording of the poet himself reading it.

and here is the text

I was vicar of large things
in a small parish. Small-minded
I will not say, there were depths
in some of them I shrank back
from, wells that the word “God”
fell into and died away,
and for all I know is still
falling. Who goes for water
to such must prepare for a long
wait. Their eyes looked at me
and were the remains of flowers
on an old grave. I was there,
I felt, to blow on ashes
that were too long cold. Often,
when I thought they were about
to unbar to me, the draught
out of their empty places
came whistling so that I wrapped
myself in the heavier clothing
of my calling, speaking of light and love
in the thickening shadows of their kitchens


Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 56

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on April 21, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been mentioned by quite a few people that Professor Iwan Williams (formerly of Queen Mary, University of London, now retired) bears something of a resemblance to Chief Inspector Morse (formerly of Thames Valley C.I.D.)…

Inspector Morse

Iwan Williams


Community Matters

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , on April 21, 2011 by telescoper

Well, here I am back in sunny Cardiff after a pleasant journey back from Llandudno and a very enjoyable and productive National Astronomy Meeting. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those involved at the Royal Astronomical Society in putting the programme together and doing a huge amount of work behind the scenes. The staff at the Venue Cymru in Llandudno were very friendly as well as highly professional and well organised, and everything seems to run exceptionally smoothly.

Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the conference dinner on Tuesday night, which ended with a serenade from the magnificent Maelgwyn Male Voice Choir. It was fitting to have the chance to experience a fine Welsh tradition, and I thought they were wonderful to listen to.

Anyway, I might get a bit of time over the Easter break to comment on some things that struck me over the course of the past week but for today – because I’m quite tired after the journey (and several late nights at NAM) – I thought I’d just comment a bit further on the first session I attended, on Monday evening, attended by various representatives of STFC, at which John Womersley gave a presentation about the status of various projects in the existing astronomy programme and prospects for the future. It was clear from that presentation that there are many challenges ahead, but I was relieved that the atmosphere of the meeting wasn’t anything like as confrontational as on many previous occasions. This process of reconciliation will no doubt take futher steps forward when the new Chief Executive takes over next year.

Drinking in the bar much later in the evening with a number of senior figures from diverse branches of astronomy the issue arose of the now notorious petition that George Efstathiou blogged about in a guest post some time ago. Two things are now clear about this initiative. One is that it caused deep ructions within the astronomical community, with a number of senior figures vociferously both for and against it – even within the same department. When I revealed that I had signed it myself, a few of the assembled company expressed their views in forthright language about why I had been wrong, but I have to say without much coherence in the actual logic.

The other thing that emerged during the STFC session was an explicit acknowledgment that the petition had, in one particular respect, made a very big difference, namely that the criteria for the appointment of the next Chief Executive of STFC specifically took into account some of the comments made in it.

Anyway, the point of raising the dreaded petition is not to rake over this whole business but simply to try to put it to rest. We need to move on, and should be trying to heal any wounds that it may inadvertantly have caused. There are definitive signs that the STFC Executive is now really starting to listen, so now there’s a chance to really engage with them through the channels they are opening up rather than having to resort to extreme measures such as George’s petition.

Oh, and I’ll just remind anyone who is interested in the vacancy at the top of STFC that the deadline for applications is April 28th….


Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 55

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , , on April 20, 2011 by telescoper

One of the bonuses of being at the National Astronomy Meeting here in Llandudo – aside from being at the seaside at a time of gloriously sunny weather – is the chance to attend plenary lectures from other fields and learn a bit about what’s going on in the wider world of astronomy, space science and geophysics. More importantly, it also gives me new ideas for my look-alikes series. Take today, for example. I attended a nice plenary talk about the EISCAT facility by a speaker, Dr Esa Turunen, who may well be related to Norman Tebbit…

Norman Tebbit

Esa Turunen


Good Morning Llandudno!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on April 19, 2011 by telescoper

Well, here I am in Llandudno for the 2011 National Astronomy Meeting. The journey up yesterday was as slow as expected, but ran to its timetable, and I got here just in time for the STFC “Community Meeting” in the early evening. That was very interesting, and has probably given me food for a few other blog posts.

After that it was off to the St George’s Hotel for the RAS Club dinner, which was an enjoyable affair including several distinguished guests including John Harries, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh Assembly, who made a short speech after dinner.

Getting back to the hotel – the Imperial, shown below – I ran into a crowd of astronomers and STFC bods drinking in the bar, so stayed with them until the early hours. Despite this, I managed to get up early and had a stroll along the promenade before a hearty breakfast. I must say Llandudno is looking resplendent in the spring sunshine. It’s rather more upmarket than I imagined, although it does seem to be frequented by the older generation of holiday makers…

Anyway, here are a few phone snaps I took this morning. I have to run now because I’ve got a session to chair at 9am and I have to find the room it’s in.


On the Train

Posted in Poetry with tags on April 18, 2011 by telescoper

This poem was written by Gillian Clarke on a train in October 1999, the day after a terrible rail accident just outside London Paddington Station in which 31 people lost their lives.

Cradled through England between flooded fields
rocking, rocking the rails, my head-phones on,
the black box of my Walkman on the table.
Hot tea trembles in its plastic cup.
I’m thinking of you waking in our bed
thinking of me on the train. Too soon to phone.

The radio speaks in the suburbs, in commuter towns,
in cars unloading children at school gates,
is silenced in dark parkways down the line
before locks click and footprints track the frost
and trains slide out of stations in the dawn
dreaming their way towards the blazing bone-ship.

The vodaphone you are calling
may have been switched off.
Please call later. And calling later,
calling later their phones ring in the rubble
and in the rubble of suburban kitchens
the wolves howl into silent telephones.

I phone. No answer. Where are you now?
The train moves homeward through the morning
Tonight I’ll be home safe, but talk to me, please.
Pick up the phone. Today I’m tolerant
of mobiles. Let them say it. I’ll say it too.
Darling, I’m on the train.

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est

Posted in Biographical, Cricket, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on April 17, 2011 by telescoper

Well, dear readers, I’ve had a lovely day of gardening and watching cricket; the former hacking down the dead half a Forsythia this morning, the latter watching Glamorgan gain their first win of the Championship season by beating Gloucestershire in fine style here in Cardiff. I also managed to catch a bit of the sun, which has left me a bit woozy. I’ll have to buy myself a hat to wear on days like this. With fair skin and blue eyes, I don’t tan – I stroke.

Anyway, tomorrow morning I’ll be heading off up to the fine seaside resort of Llandudno in North Wales for this years National Astronomy Meeting (NAM for short). It starts this evening, in fact, with a wine reception and other festivities, but unfortunately the journey by train from Cardiff takes absolutely ages on a Sunday, so I decided to eschew the delights of the first evening and travel up tomorrow morning. On a weekday it only takes 5 hours from Cardiff to Llandudno….

I’ll probably miss most, and possibly all, of tomorrow’s talks but should get there in good time for the out-of-town meeting of the RAS Dining Club which will be held in the St George’s Hotel in Llandudno and to which a number of illustrious guests have been invited. On Tuesday morning there’s the session I organised on astrostatistics, which I am looking forward to chairing, and then the conference dinner in the evening. The following day I’m chairing a session on astroparticle physics too. There’s no rest for the wicked. Most of the rest of the time I’ll probably be at the numerous cosmology or extragalactic astronomy sessions or, more likely, in the bar. If the weather stays like this, however, I might wander along the beach and, rolling my trousers up and donning a knotted handkerchief, go for a paddle in the sea.

I’m told there will be wireless connectivity in Llandudno throughout NAM 2011 so I hope to post a few brief blogettes about interesting events, but possibly not tomorrow as I might not have time. The excellent RAS Press Office will no doubt be hard at it for the duration, so watch out for a stream of press releases. I’m not sure whether the mass media will be bothered to get off their backsides and travel all that way from their London offices, so we’ll just have to see how much gets onto the main news.

I’m not particularly looking forward to the journey by the slow train tomorrow, but am definitely looking forward to the change of scenery and to catch up not only with the astronomy but also with some old friends.

If anyone I’ve never actually met before who reads this blog is there, do please say hello! You’ll find I’m quite a friendly chap, really…

P.S. The latin quotation I used in the title here isn’t really relevant. I just picked it because it starts with the word “NAM”. If you’re interested, however, it’s by Francis Bacon and it means, roughly speaking, “knowledge is power”.


Whispering Death

Posted in Cricket with tags , , on April 16, 2011 by telescoper

..and while I’m on the subject of cricket, here’s some examples of one of the all-time greats in action. This is Michael Holding destroying England at the Oval in 1976, when he was only 22. I remember that summer very well, in fact, as  there was a very long and intense heatwave, punctuated by regular visions of England’s cricketers being thrashed by the West Indies;  just look at the parched state of the outfield at the Oval if you don’t believe English summers can be like that!

Holding acquired the nickname “Whispering Death” because his run-up was so smooth and perfectly balanced that you could hardly hear him approaching the wicket, in contrast to some fast bowlers who charged in like a herd of elephants. No arguments, then, with Richie Benaud’s comments on the replay from about 58s onwards. It’s almost as if the phrase “poetry in motion” was invented to describe Michael Holding’s bowling action. I’ll allow anyone – even Brian Cox – to call this awesome.

Note also that this is from an era in which batsmen didn’t wear head protection. Even with a helmet I would have been terrified. Cricket’s not a game for faint hearts…

…  Brian Close had been brought into open the England batting earlier in the series in an attempt to stiffen their resistance to the West Indian attack. He wasn’t the greatest player in the world nor the cricketing world’s most agreeable character, and as you can tell he wasn’t in the first flush of youth in 1976 either, but there is no denying his courage and determination. Here he is enduring a vicious battering at the hands of Michael Holding. One short-pitched delivery in this sequence came within a whisker of hitting him on the head; had it done so the consequences would have been horrendous. As it was, he “only” had to take  a succession of blows to his body. He scored 20 runs at Old Trafford, off 108 balls in 162 minutes, and was dropped for the next Test as was his opening partner John Edrich,  although both had stood their ground and defended their wickets (and themselves) manfully.

Has there ever been another bowler with an action as beautiful as Michael Holding? I don’t think so, but you’re welcome to disagree through the comments box!


Soul Limbo

Posted in Cricket, Music with tags , , , on April 16, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday after I finished work I shunned the usual Friday-night trip to the Poet’s Corner in favour of dropping in to Sophia Gardens to catch my first County Cricket of the season. It’s actually Glamorgan‘s second game – they lost the first , away at Leicestershire – but they’re doing much better in this one, against Gloucestershire. There was a sparse crowd, but there was some absorbing cricket as Glamorgan’s batsmen fended off some good bowling to end the day on 185 for 3. The game is finely poised, with Glamorgan carrying on this morning to build a handy lead but the game could still go either way.

Anyway, in belated honour of the start of this year’s cricket season, here’s a piece of music that will bring back a lot of memories to those who, like me, used to spend a lot of their time glued to the BBC’s cricket coverage. It’s Soul Limbo, by Booker T and the M.G.’s, the long-time theme tune for the BBC’s cricket coverage. And there’s also a few clips of cricket action to go with it…


Salty Dog

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on April 16, 2011 by telescoper

Well, that’s the end of term and I’m now free, from teaching at least, for three weeks. I thought I’d celebrate by posting a piece of bawdy good-time jazz. Here’s the fabulous Lizzie Miles singing with a band led by the shamefully underrated but wonderfully named New Orleans trumpeter Sharkey Bonano.