Archive for August, 2011

“Cosmic Anomalies” Talk, Copenhagen, August 2011

Posted in Art, Books, Talks and Reviews, Cosmic Anomalies, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 31, 2011 by telescoper

I think I’m getting the hang of this slideshare malarky so I thought I’d try it out by posting the slides I used for my (short) talk at the workshop in Copenhagen I told you about two or three weeks ago. I’m not sure how useful they will be to anyone, as I suppose it will be quite hard to reconstruct the talk using only the small amount of information I bother to put on the slides..

If you’re wondering about the presence of various apparently random works of art then what can I say? I like paintings!

An O-level Physics Examination Paper, Vintage 1979

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on August 30, 2011 by telescoper

My recent post about the O-level Mathematics examination I took way back in 1979 seems to have generated quite a lot of comment, both here and elsewhere, so I thought I’d follow it up with a Physics examination paper to see what people think about that.

One complication with this is that I didn’t actually take Physics O-level; the School I went to preferred to offer Combined Science instead. This examination covered a general syllabus including Physics, Chemistry and Biology but was worth two O-levels rather than three. More or less, therefore, I did 2/3 of a Physics O-level.

I think the reason for choosing Combined Science rather than three separate subjects was to allow us kids the chance to take as broad a range of subjects as possible. In fact I did ten O-levels: Combined Science (2); Mathematics; Additional Mathematics; History; Geography; English Literature; English Language; French; and Latin. My best mark at O-level was in neither mathematics nor science subjects, actually, but in Latin…

Anyway, the examination for Combined Science consisted of four papers. Paper 1 was a general paper with a range of short questions in a booklet into which candidates had to write their answers in the space provided. Obviously I don’t have this paper because I handed it in. The three other papers were each on one of the main subjects and Paper 2, shown below, was the Physics paper.

This also gives me the opportunity to try out slideshare as a better way of displaying the paper than the clumsy method of photographing it on my desk I used for the Mathematics paper.  Unfortunately our temperamental scanner – which is rapidly becoming my arch enemy – seems to have missed some of the question numbers, so I put them in by hand.

The first thing that struck me about Question 5 is “During an experiment a boy obtained…”. Girls don’t do physics, obviously.

Any other comments or comparison with GCSE Physics papers should be written in the space provided.  Write clearly and legibly, and show clearly the reasoning by which you arrive at your conclusions. You may begin.

Back to the Drawing Board

Posted in Art, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by telescoper

I came across a press release this morning which contains the following

More should be done to encourage students to use their drawing skills in science education, researchers at The University of Nottingham say.

In a paper being published in Science this week, academics say that although producing visualisations is key to scientific thinking, pupils are often not encouraged to create their own drawings to develop and demonstrate their understanding.

In the paper the authors, led by Dr Shaaron Ainsworth in the University’s School of Psychology and Learning Sciences Research Institute, said: “Scientists do not use words only but rely on diagrams, graphs, videos, photographs and other images to make discoveries, explain findings, and excite public interest.

In the light of this I thought it would be topical to post an updated version of an old piece I wrote on the theme of sketching. This is quite a strange subject for me to have picked pick because drawing is something I’m completely useless at, but I hope you’ll bear with me and hopefully it will make some sense in the end. I always thought that drawing was an important and neglected aspect of education, but I hadn’t until today any solid research to back it up!


What  spurred me on to think about this subject was the exhibit I was  involved with for the  Architecture Biennale in Venice as part of a project called Beyond Entropy organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. In the course of researching this project I came across this image of the Moon as drawn by Galileo

This led to an interesting discussion about the role of drawings like this in science. Of course  the use of sketches for the scientific representation of images has been superseded by photographic techniques, initially using film and more recently by digital techniques. The advantage of these methods is that they are quicker and also more “objective”. However, there are still many amateur astronomers who make drawings of the Moon as well as objects such as Jupiter and Saturn (which Galileo also drew). Moreover there are other fields in which experienced practioners continue to use pencil drawings in preference to photographic techniques. Archaeology provides many good examples, e.g.

The reason sketching still has a role in such fields is not that it can compete with photography for accuracy or objectivity but that there’s something about the process of sketching that engages the sketcher’s brain in a  way that’s very different from taking a photograph. The connection between eye, brain and hand seems to involve a cognitive element that is extremely useful in interpreting notes at a later date. In fact it’s probably their very subjectivity that makes them useful.  A thicker stroke of the pencil, or deliberately enhanced shading, or leaving out seemingly irrelevant detail, can help pick out  features that seem to the observer to be of particular significance. Months later when you’re trying to write up what you saw from your notes, those deliberate interventions against objectivity will take you back to what you  saw with your mind, not just with your eyes.

It doesn’t even matter whether or not you can draw well. The point isn’t so much to explain to other people what you’ve seen, but to record your own interaction with the object you’ve sketched in a way that allows you to preserve something more than a surface recollection.

You might think this is an unscientific thing to do, but I don’t think it is. The scientific process involves an interplay between objective reality and theoretical interpretation and drawing can be a useful part of this discourse. It’s as if the pencil allows the observer to interact with what is observed, forming a closer bond and probably a deeper level of understanding patterns and textures. I’m not saying it replaces a purely passive recording method like photography, but it can definitely help it.

I have not a shred of psychological evidence to back this up, but I’d also assert that sketching is very good for the learning process too.  Nowadays we tend to give out handouts of diagrams involved in physics, whether they relate to the design of apparatus or the geometrical configuration of a physical system. There’s a reason for doing this – they take a long time to draw and there’s a likelihood students will make mistakes copying them down. However, I’ve always  found that the only way to really take in what a diagram is saying is to try to draw it again myself. Even if the level of draftsmanship is worse, the level of understanding is undoubtedly better.Merely looking at someone else’s representation of something won’t give your brain as a good a feeling for what it is trying to say  as you would get if you tried to draw it yourself.

Perhaps what happens is that simply looking at a diagram only involves the connection between eye and brain. Drawing a copy requires also the connection between brain and hand. Maybe  this additional connection brings in additional levels of brain functionality. Sketching iinvolves your brain in an interaction that is different from merely looking.

The problem with excessive use of handouts – and this applies not only to figures  but also to lecture notes – is that they turn teaching into a very passive process. Taking notes in your own hand, and supplementing them with your own sketches – however scribbly and incomprehensible they may appear to other people – is  a much more active way to learn than collecting a stack of printed notes and meticulously accurate diagrams. And if it was good enough for Galileo, it should good enough for most of us!

Mornington Crescent versus the Computer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on August 29, 2011 by telescoper

It seems appropriate to follow my rambling dissertation about the bygone age of London’s railways with an analysis of the following example of the classic game Mornington Crescent, in which experienced human players (and Stephen Fry) pit their wits against a computer. Mortimer’s Variation  often leads to rather defensive strategies amongst inexperienced players, and is for that reason not recommended at club level. However amongst top players the constant danger of offside on the parallels playing this version of the rules simply encourages exploration of   the diagonal moves eschewed by the less adventurous. Notice newcomer Stephen Fry, sitting West, whose daringly unorthodox  shift to West Hampstead clearly tested  the computer’s software to breaking point. Unlike the much simpler game of chess, it will be some time before computers can compete with the greatest human exponents of Mornington Crescent…

ps. Asking “Is it my go?” is also frowned upon in Bridge, I find, especially at competition level…

pps. Notice also the letter from  Mrs Trellis, a regular contributor to Andy Lawrence’s Blog and email correspondent of Prof. Mike Disney.


Posted in Poetry with tags , , on August 29, 2011 by telescoper

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheats’ restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

by Philip Larkin (1922-1985).

I came across this while searching for a poem to post on an August Bank Holiday  (because today is one of those). I hadn’t expect to find something like this though! Larkin isn’t known as a war poet, but I find his detachment and use of irony in this poem- e.g. comparing the lines of men in the trenches to those queuing to watch cricket or football – as devastating as some of the more obviously visceral works of the genre.

Murder on the Railway

Posted in History, Literature with tags , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2011 by telescoper

I recently finished reading a book called Mr Briggs’ Hat by Kate Colquhoun, “a sensational account of Britain’s first railway murder”. In fact the subtitle isn’t particularly apt because this is a sober yet fascinating account of a famous Victorian crime, the investigation and trial that followed it. It’s a gripping story because it involves not only the elements of the classic “locked room” murder mystery, but also the pursuit of the suspect across the Atlantic to New York.

I won’t describe the story in full, as the details can be found in many places on the net. In a nutshell, the victim of this crime was a 70-year old well-to-do banker by the name of Thomas Briggs, who was found lying on the tracks of the North London Railway, between Bow and Hackney Wick (also known as Victoria Park) stations on the evening of 9th July 1864. He was carried to a nearby pub, but died later that evening of  extensive injuries to the head.

Briggs had boarded a first class compartment of the 21.45 train from Fenchurch Street station in order to travel to his home in Hackney. When the train had arrived at Hackney Central, at 22.10, one  compartment, with nobody inside, was found to be covered  in bloodstains; an empty leather bag and a walking stick were also found. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together;  some of Briggs’ possessions were found in the compartment, as was a battered hat. After Briggs’ death his family were asked to identify the various items that had been found, which they did, apart from the hat, which wasn’t his. Mr Briggs’ own hat had vanished.

All the evidence suggested that Briggs had been violently attacked and then thrown from the train. Perhaps he had tried to defend himself and in the course of a struggle had knocked off his assailant’s hat. In the rush to leave, or perhaps because his own was damaged, the murderer must have picked up the top hat Mr Briggs had been wearing. Briggs’ watch had apparently also been stolen.

After many false leads and a great deal of frustration the police finally developed a plausible suspect, an impoverished German tailor by the name of Franz Muller. Muller had apaprently been trying to raise money in order to travel to America and had in fact already boarded a ship to make the Atlantic crossing by the time the police were on his trail. However, Muller had travelled the cheapest way possible, on a sailing ship, steerage class.  Detective Richard Tanner, who led the police investigation, realised that if he travelled on a faster steamship he could still get to New York before Muller. So off he went, with a number of key witnesses in tow so he could produce them at an extradition hearing. This was all at the height of the American Civil War, incidentally, but the Muller case still made front page news in New York.

In fact Muller’s ship, the Victoria, took 40 days to reach New York – it must have been a terrible journey! – and Tanner arrived almost three weeks before that, so he had plenty of time to prepare to arrest his man. When Muller arrived he went meekly and when his possessions were searched the police found a watch with a serial number that matched Mr Briggs’. Muller also had a hat, but it didn’t quite match the description of the one belonging to Mr Briggs, as it had apparently been cut down. Such was the fame attached to this case that the style of a cut down top hat subsequently became universally known as a “”Muller” . Winston Churchill liked to wear one, apparently…

Anyway, Tanner secured the extradition warrant and returned to England with Muller, who was committed for trial at the Old Bailey and held on remand at Newgate. The trial lasted only three days, and it took the jury only 15 minutes to return a verdict of guilty. Muller was hanged at the public gallows at Newgate on November 14 1864. A huge crowd turned out to watch and there was so much disorder that the police feared a full-blown riot would break out. Such was the concern about this event that within a few years the practice of public executions was discontinued.

One of the reasons for the unrest at Muller’s execution was that there was a public outcry about the result of the trial. Many questions that had arisen during the trial had never been satisfactorily answered and Muller had continued to protest his innocence. He claimed that he had obtained the hat himself at a second-hand shop and had bought the watch in a similar fashion down at the docks, where stolen goods were regularly flogged. The law of the time, however, considered defendants on murder charges (and their spouses)  to be “incompetent witnesses”, which meant that they were not allowed to take the stand  in their own defence. Muller was therefore never given the opportunity to give his own account of what happened that evening. He had an alibi, in fact, that he’d spent the evening with a ladyfriend so she was called as a defence witness. It turned out however that she was a prostitute, and therefore lacking in credibility to a Victorian jury, and was also profoundly deaf. The prosecution tore her to shreds on the witness stand.

The compartment  in which the crime took place was a mess, with blood spatter and general signs of a disturbance. Why then did nobody else on the train hear anything? And how did Muller avoid getting any blood on his own clothes? A poor man like Muller would not have an extensive wardrobe, and his landlady (who also washed his clothes) hadn’t noticed any bloodstains on the night of the crime, or in the days afterwards before Muller left for New York. And how did he get off the train? Nobody saw him at Hackney station. Did he jump onto the tracks?

An important prosecution witness was a cab driver called Matthews, who testified to having helped Muller pawn various items. However, Matthews reliability was called into question when inconsistencies were found between his testimony on the witness stand and statements he had made earlier to the police. It also transpired that he was heavily in debt and clearly had his eyes on the reward that had been offered in connection with the murder. In fact it was £300, a huge sum in those days…

Another important question was raised at trial by  a railway employee who had noticed Mr Briggs, a regular passenger on the North London railway, on the train at Bow station in a first class compartment with not one but two other men, neither of whom matched the description of Muller (who was short of stature  and of slight build). The prosecution rubbished this testimony too, but it turns out that the police had found four other witnesses who had seen the same thing: Briggs in his compartment with two other men. In those days, however, the police were not obliged to disclose evidence to the defence if it was not used at trial. Had five independent witnesses all delivered corroborating testimony then there might well have been reasonable doubt about Muller’s guilt.

Above all, Muller just didn’t seem to behave like a murderer. He had told his friends well in advance of his departure for the United States, and had travelled in his own name without any attempt to conceal his identity. He was mild mannered and polite, on the small side, and not at all what the public expected of the perpetrator of such a violent crime. He was also quite small. Was he really capable of beating the much larger, if older, Briggs to death and then heaving his body out of the train all on his own?

All the evidence against Muller was circumstantial. No eyewitness put him on the train that night in 1864 and there was no forensic evidence to connect him with the crime scene. There was a bloody thumbprint on the hat left at the scene and a bloody handprint on the carriage door, either of which could have been conclusive, but decades were to pass before fingerprint analysis was to become an established part of forensic science. DNA or other trace evidence could of course also have been used to determine whether any of the blood in the carriage was Muller’s or even if he had worn either hat.

And what was Muller’s motive? Contrary to the suggestion that he was looking for money to allow him to move to New York, he seems to have had enough money already to pay for his ticket, because he had already bought it when the murder happened. It could have been an impulse. Perhaps he saw Briggs, who was wont to doze off on the train, and attempted to rob him but woke him up and a struggle ensued; but this seems very out of character.

However, the final words on this case should perhaps be those uttered by Muller himself just seconds before he took the drop. The prison chaplain, anxious for the confession that would bring closure to the case, stepped forward and asked “Did you do it?”. Muller reportedly answered, in German, “Ich habe es getan…”

Anyway, I found Mr Briggs’ Hat a fascinating read, fully of atmosphere and detail of the period and it yields fascinating insights into the social history of Victorian London. One of the things that got me especially interested in it was that the place it all happened is so close to where I used to live and work in the East End of London. On which note…

..I was curious about the route taken by Thomas Briggs from Fenchurch Street to Hackney, as no underground or overground railway goes that way nowadays. A bit of research (i.e. Google) revealed just how extensive the railway network was in the 1860s. Here is a map showing the relevant routes:

You can see that the service Mr Briggs took travelled in a roughly easterly direction out of Fenchurch street, along the route of the London and Blackwall Railway to Limehouse (the station there was named Stepney in those daysn, before swinging to the north. This railway is long since defunct but for much of its length this part of the route is followed by the modern Docklands Light Railway which carries on towards Poplar and London Docklands. However, the train Mr Briggs diverged from this route; it carried on  over the Regents Canal and across Burdett Road (where apparently there once was a station, although it didn’t open until 1871) before reaching Bow Station where it linked up with the North London Railway.  This part of the route doesn’t exist at all nowadays,  although there is still a railway bridge over Burdett Road carrying trains to and from destinations further to the east. Moreover,   “Bow Station” wasn’t either of the current stations at Bow (Bow Road, on the District and Hammersmith and City Underground lines or Bow Church on the Dockland Light Railway) but a much larger station which has now also vanished, but whose location you can  find next to the blue arrow on this map:

The line extending out of the top of the map is the route taken by the North London Railway at the time, essentially up the eastern side of Victoria Park, passing through Old Ford, before turning to the west to arrive at Hackney.

So what happened to this railway and all its stations? Well, if I tell you that they were all closed to the public in 1944 then you can probably guess. This part of London was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and not only during the Blitz. In fact Bow Station was hit by a V1 flying bomb and damaged beyond repair, but that was after operations on the North London Line had already been suspended because of bomb damage.

You can find a huge amount of fascinating detail about the disused stations on the North London Railway and elsewhere here.

A Kind of Brew

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , on August 27, 2011 by telescoper

Well here’s a find for fan’s of Miles Davis. I stumbled across this exceedingly rare clip of his 1969 band playing at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London, complete with an introduction by Ronnie Scott himself. It’s  rare, firstly, because Miles didn’t do many club gigs at this time (or after) and I have a feeling that this might be one of his last; he usually played big concert venues whenever he toured in later years. But an even rarer thing about it is that this is the legendary “Lost Quintet” of Miles (on trumpet, of course), Wayne Shorter on saxophone(s), Chick Corea (keyboards), Jack de Johnette on drums and Dave Holland on bass.

Filmed in November 1969, this performance took place just a few months after the recording sessions that give rise to the celebrated but controversial album Bitches Brew, which was released in April 1970. The band at Ronnie Scotts was a subset of the larger ensemble that made the album, but you can hear the similarity in musical style, heavily influenced by psychedelic rock…

And here, for completeness, is a fuller version of the title track of the album Bitches Brew, recorded just two days later in the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen.

Miles was obviously experimenting with a much freer form of improvisation at this time and both the album and this live performance seethe with a kind of wild passion that threatens to burst into anarchy at any moment. It’s not exactly easy listening, of course, and the live performance is inevitably rough around the edges, but I think it’s a fascinating bit of jazz history. And, for what it’s worth, I think Bitches Brew is completely and utterly brilliant..