Archive for September, 2011

A Whiter Shade of Bach?

Posted in Music with tags , on September 22, 2011 by telescoper

I’m finally back from a pretty intense three days in dear old Swindon. On the train coming home I happened to listen to this classic for the first time in ages and, too tired for anything else this evening, I thought I’d share this version  I found on Youtube because it’s positively dripping with nostalgia for the Swinging Sixties.

Incidentally, I’ve always believed that a Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum was based pretty directly on music by Johan Sebastian Bach. I don’t know who told me so, but I’ve always taken it for granted. Listening to it a few times on my iPod and again since I got home has made me realise that I’ve probably been a bit unfair to the songwriters Gary Booker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, a sentiment confirmed by the wikipedia article about the piece I linked to through its title.

It is true that it sounds very much like Bach, especially the trademark descending bass figures which feature in the Hammond organ part; indeed, the first few bars of the accompaniment are pretty much identical to the second movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 better known as “Air on the G String“. After that, although the piece continues to sound like Bach, in the sense that the chord progression has a compelling sense of logic to it, it’s not an copy of anything I recognize (although of course I stand ready to be contradicted by music experts…). The melody is also, as far as I’m aware, quite original.

Here are the chords, by the way, if you’re interested. They’re a great illustration of the difference between a real progression and just a sequence. In fact I’m quite surprised this hasn’t been taken up by more jazz musicians, as it looks like very fertile grounds for improvisation – just as much of Bach’s own music is.

Anyway, whatever the inspiration, it was a huge hit and I think it still sounds fresh and interesting over 40 years later. I for one don’t think the word “masterpiece” is an exaggeration.

Postcard from Swindon

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

Surprisingly I have got time for a quick post this morning after all. I got here to Polaris House before most of the rest of the Astronomy Grants Panel so I’ve got 5 minutes on the wireless to put something up. It turns out that my decision to come on an early morning train yesterday rather than come on Monday evening was the right one. The hotel we had been booked into, The Jury’s Inn, Swindon, was full up on Monday night so several of the panel people (who had been booked in for months) didn’t have the rooms they thought they had and had to go elsewhere for the night. When I checked in yesterday the coachloads of alleged Germans responsible for this debacle had left and I had no trouble. When I got to my room I discovered a bottle of wine which had been left there to apologize for the problems with my reservation on Monday night. Which I never had. I guess incompetence cuts both ways and I’m now a bottle of wine up out of the deal!

Anyway, we got through yesterday’s business reasonably well, although it was a long day and we were all flagging by the end. I guess that’s why they call it Swindon Wilts. We’re just about to commence Day Two so I’ve just got time to put up the following picture. For those of you who’ve never been to Swindon before, I believe this photograph conveys an accurate impression of what it’s like. This is the view through the rain from my hotel window yesterday evening.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 20, 2011 by telescoper

Well, dear readers, I  am up at the crack of dawn in order to journey forth to Swindon, for  three days of hard labour on the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel for the duration of which I will be confined to a dark dungeon in Polaris House. Given the severity of the sentence  I very much doubt that I’ll have the time or the energy to blog while I’m there so, unless it all gets too much for me and I have to seek solace in a blog post,  there will now follow a short intermission.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

What’s the Matter?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 19, 2011 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick comment today on a news article to which my attention was drawn at the weekend. The piece concerns the nature of the dark matter that is thought to pervade the Universe. Most cosmologists believe that this is cold, which means that it is made of slow-moving particles (the temperature of  a gas being related to the speed of its constituent particles).  They also believe that it is not the sort of stuff that atoms are made of, i.e. protons, neutrons and electrons. In particular, it isn’t charged and therefore can’t interact with electromagnetic radiation, thus it is not only dark in the sense that it doesn’t shine but also transparent.

Cold Dark Matter (CDM) particles could be very massive, which would make them much more sluggish than lighter ones such as neutrinos (which would be hot dark matter), but there are other, more complicated, ways in which some exotic particles can end up in a slow-motion state without being massive.

So why do so many of us think the dark matter is cold? The answer to that is threefold. First, this is by far the simplest hypothesis to work on. In other words, good old Occam’s Razor. It’s simple because if the dark matter is cold there is no relevant physical scale associated with the speed of the particles. Everything is just dominated by the gravity, which means there are fewer equations to solve. Not that it’s exactly easy even in this case: huge supercomputers are needed to crunch the numbers.

The second reason is that particle physics has suggested a number of plausible candidates for non-baryonic candidates which could be cold dark matter particles. A favourite theoretical idea is supersymmetry, which predicts that standard model particles have counterparts that could be interesting from a cosmological point of view, such as the fermionic counterparts of standard model bosons. Some of these candidates could even be produced experimentally by the Large Hadron Collider.

The final reason is that CDM seems to work, at least on large scales. The pattern of galaxy clustering on large scales as measured by galaxy redshift surveys seems to fit very well with predictions of the theory, as do the observed properties of the cosmic microwave background.

However, one place where CDM is known to have a problem is on small scales. By small of course I mean in cosmological terms; we’re still talking about many thousands of light-years! There’s been a niggling worry for some time that the internal structure of galaxies, especially in their central regions,  isn’t quite what we expect on the basis of the CDM theory. Neither do the properties of the small satellite galaxies (“dwarfs”) seen orbiting the Milky Way seem to match what what we’d expect theoretically.

The above picture is taken from the BBC website. I’ve included it partly for a bit of decoration, but also to point out that the pictures are both computer simulations, not actual astronomical observations.

Anyway, the mismatch between the properties of dwarf galaxies and the predictions of CDM theory, while not being exactly new, is certainly a potential Achilles’ Heel for the otherwise successful model. Calculating the matter distribution on small scales however is a fearsome computational challenge requiring enormously high resolution. The disagreement may therefore be simply because the simulations are not good enough; “sub-grid” physics may be confusing us.

On the other hand, one should certainly not dismiss the possibility that CDM might actually be wrong. If the dark matter were not cold, but warm (or perhaps merely tepid), then it would produce less small-scale structure whilst not messing up the good fit to large-scale structure that we get with CDM.

So is the Dark Matter Cold or Warm or something else altogether? The correct answer is that we don’t know for sure, and as a matter of fact I think CDM is still favourite. But if the LHC rules out supersymmetric CDM candidates and the astronomical measurements continue to defy the theoretical predictions then the case for cold dark matter would be very much weakened. That might annoy some of its advocates in the cosmological community, such as Carlos Frenk (who is extensively quoted in the article), but it would at least mean that the hunt for the true nature of dark matter would be getting warmer.

In the Dark’s Third Anniversary

Posted in Uncategorized on September 18, 2011 by telescoper

Just a quick post to mention that this blog has now been running for over 3 years. In fact the anniversary was on Friday but amid all the cricketing excitement  it seemed to pass me by!

Since this blog started, on 16th September 2008, I have made 1,178 posts which have in total received 9,891 comments. As of this evening, according to the WordPress software, I’ve received 700,697 views, so  must have gone past the 700,000 mark at some point over the weekend. Over the last few months I’ve been getting between 1,000 and 3,000 (unique) hits per day, in case you’re interested in such things. I don’t know whether that’s a lot, but it’s a lot more than I expected ever to get when I started!

This occasion gives me the chance to thank you all  for your continuing interest in this blog. Let’s see how long it takes to reach a million hits!

After Columbo

Posted in Biographical, Columbo with tags , on September 18, 2011 by telescoper

It’s a gloomy Sunday here in Cardiff with dark clouds and heavy rain most of the morning. That, together with the impending ordeal of a trip to Swindon, has obviously dampened my mood a bit after the last couple of days. It has however at least given me the right frame of mind to write something about my dear departed Columbo, who passed away on 1st August. Was it really so long ago?

I’ve found it difficult to know what to do about writing about Columbo in the weeks that have passed since he died. I was devastated, of course, and often felt the urge to write something on here, but was anxious not to allow myself to get too mawkish about things. To do that would have exceeded even the generous allowance of self-indulgence which comes with writing a blog, so I’ve held off and tried the best I can to deal with it on my own. Now, though, I think I’m ready to write something about the past weeks and months. Who knows, it might even help other people going through similar things themselves.

When Columbo died I simply couldn’t face going straight back to work so I took a day off. What I did that day will probably seem strange to many people, but I felt I had to do it. I got rid of all Columbo’s things: his basket, toys, food dishes, the lot. The only thing I couldn’t dispose of was the yellow plastic “sharps” bucket containing the used hypodermic needles that I’d accumulated during the course of his treatment for diabetes. These constitute medical waste so it’s not permitted to throw them away with the usual refuse; I’d have to take them to the vets for disposal and pay a few pounds  to have them incinerated. In fact, I still haven’t done that. My last visit to the vets was so traumatic that I still haven’t been able to face going back there.

I was even going to take all the posts I’d made about Columbo offline, but in the end decided not to. That was mainly because people have told me they enjoy reading some of the old items and I therefore thought it would be a bit selfish to take them away. I know I’m not the only one who misses the poor old thing.

After a day or two of vegetating at home, I went into  work. I almost came straight back home again after bursting into tears on the way to my office, but soldiered on. Over the next few days and weeks I tried to work as hard as I could to distract myself from things and adopted a “business-as-usual” approach to the blog.  Although I was at work I tried to keep myself to myself more than usual, avoiding our communal coffee and lunch breaks, trips to the pub,  and so on. Going away to a conference also helped. Sudden mood swings came and went, but gradually their amplitude decreased. NowI think I’ve regained some sort of equilibrium. Life has changed, but goes on. The Columbo Era has ended.

Which is not to say that I don’t still miss Columbo terribly. Coming home from work there’s still the shock of an empty house and no Columbo to greet me at the door. Being an old fart it was my habit to take a nap on Sunday afternoons; Columbo always joined me for a loud purring session. Without him I simply can’t do that anymore. No cat, no nap…

I’m not the only one to miss Columbo. A couple of days after he went to meet his maker, one of the neighbours’ cats appeared at the  glass door  in my dining room peering inside. This cat, a female of the species,  was quite friendly with Columbo. I don’t know her name. Although she wears a collar I never managed to read the tag; I call her Maud because she comes into the garden. Although she’s been a regular visitor to my little garden I’d never seen her so close to the house before. I watched her searching all around, mewing plaintively. I could well be reading too much into this, but I do think she was looking for Columbo and was upset by his absence.

As time has passed, other cats have visited the garden with increasing frequency. There’s a very sleek black tom cat, a strange skinny cat with a big nose, and a young tabby who I first saw as a pair of green eyes staring out of the bushes late one night. Although Columbo was never much of a fighter these other cats didn’t come down into the garden very often while he was here; they usually sat on the fence or shed roof. Now there’ll probably be a turf war over who gets to count my little patch as part of their territory. I won’t chase them away. In fact I’d be quite happy if one day I could make their acquaintance properly. At the moment they all scarper as soon as I open the door.

The only other thing I want to say is to answer those people who have asked me whether I am planning to get another cat. Well, to be honest, I haven’t got any plans to do that. I just  couldn’t face it right now. I’m not sure I ever will, actually, but  you never know. Just not in the foreseeable future.

And Death shall have no Dominion

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 17, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been meaning to post this marvellous reading by Dylan Thomas of his poem, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, and the sad news of the death of four miners in Gleision colliery near Pontardawe not far from Thomas’ own home town of Swansea makes this a fitting time to post it as a mark of respect to the four men and their grieving families.

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead mean naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

One Day International

Posted in Cricket with tags , , , , , on September 17, 2011 by telescoper

I promised yesterday to post a quick account of the Fifth (and final) One Day International between England and India at the SWALEC stadium in Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, so here goes…

As I feared, the weather in Cardiff yesterday wasn’t brilliant and, although it was quite warm during the morning, it was overcast and there were stacks of very dark clouds around by lunchtime. We got to the ground in time for the scheduled start, which was 2pm, but just as play was about to get under way the heavens opened and down came the rain.

This was the scene about five to two, just as the covers were being taken off; they dark clouds to the left were moving from left to right and  covered the ground a few minutes later whereupon it stotted down.

Fortunately, although it came down in stair-rods for a while,  the rain  didn’t last long so play actually got under way about 2.40 and the authorities decided that the game would remain 50 overs a side (with a late finish).

England won the toss and decided to field. Openers Parthiv Patel and Ajinkya Rahane got the Indian innings off to a good start with a partnership of 52 runs, then Rahane was removed by Jade Dernbach when the batsman,  after scoring just  26 runs off 47 deliveries,  was caught by Steven Finn at third man, right down in front of us. In the 16th over, Patel also fell,  for 9 runs off 39 deliveries,  when he was caught by Tim Bresnan at mid-on off the bowling of spinner Graeme Swann.  Rahul Dravid (playing his last ODI)  and Virat Kohli then played a wonderful partnership which was not broken until the last delivery of the 42nd over.  England finally managed to grab the wicket of Dravid who left the field to a standing ovation after scoring  69 runs. The Dravid/ Kohli partnership had brought 170 runs; by the time  Dravid’s wicket fell, India were on 227-3. Meanwhile,  Kholi had managed to score his sixth one-day hundred but he was out for 107  in the 44th over when he was given out hit-wicket while trying to play a delivery by Swann; his back foot had apparently slipped and struck the stumps, dislodging a bail. Unlucky.

The Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni then smashed 50 runs off 26 deliveries to help his side post a score of 304-6, leaving England a daunting target of 305 runs to win. India certainly batted well, but were helped a bit by poor bowling by some of the England players. Indeed the only bowler I thought was really impressive was Finn, who was consistetly over 90 mph in his opening spell and was clearly troubling the Indian batsmen. Jade Dernbach, by contrast, committed the unpardonable sin of bowling wides in the last over. Incidentally, I managed to catch the umpire signalling an England wide, but I can’t remember who was bowling at the time:

Just after they players went off for a (shortened) interval, the rain came back again and this time it was decided that there wouldn’t be time for another full 50 overs. The Duckworth–Lewis (D/L) method was wheeled out, with the initial outcome that England would have to score 270 to win off 40 overs. That seemed very tough – the ten overs lost only reducing England’s target by 35. Another rain delay then  revised the target further  to 241 runs from 34 overs, a very stiff challenge indeed.

The many Indian supporters in the ground were buoyed by their team’s strong batting performance and seemed confidedent of a first victory against England this tour. I thought India would win at this point too, as a matter of fact. Anyway, the rain finally cleared and as the sun came out a rather nice rainbow appeared over Sophia Gardens as the floodlights were switched on for the “night” part of this “day-night” game.

England came out to bat and, rightly, sought to take the attack to India right from the ouset. Openers Alastair Cook and Craig Kieswetter scored quickly against some frankly rather poor Indian bowling.

England suffered their first loss in the fifth over with the score on 27 when Kieswetter was given leg-before wicket off the bowling of Vinay Kumar. Cook was then joined by Jonathan Trott, often a rather slow scorer, but  both batsmen scored quite freely building a partnership of 79 runs until Cook was dismissed in the 18th, bowled by Kohli. The England total was 106 at this point, with three wickets down but plenty of batting still to comeyet only 16 overs to score the remaining 135 needed to win.

Ian Bell departed after scoring 26 runs and then  Trott fell to a catch, off an uncharacteristically poor shot, for  63 runs off 60 deliveries. With four wickets now down, India (and their fans) must have been feeling pretty confident that they could stop England’s run chase. The result was firmly  in the balance.

Cue the  21-year-old debutant Jonathan Bairstow who looked a little nervous for his first two or three deliveries, but then  proceeded to smash the Indian bowling all round the park (and out of it). I think at least two of his big straight hits may well have landed in the River Taff after clearing the stands at the Riverside end quite comfortably.  The flurry of boundaries boosted England’s scoring rate so quickly that in no time the target started to look not just possible but comfortable.  In the end Bairstow remained unbeaten on 41 runs while his partner Ravi Bopara was not out 37 as England won by 6 wickets with more than an over to spare.

It was an impressive performance by the England batsman and a crushing disappointment for India, who now  return  home without winning a single match in England this season.

Despite the showery weather it was a thoroughly enjoyable occasion. The ground was packed,  the sizeable Indian contingent contributed a lot to the atmosphere, and the usual groups of daft blokes in bizarre fancy dress also added a measure of eccentricity to the event. It did look at one point that there might be an ugly scene between two groups of fans in our stand, but thankfully it didn’t turn out to be very serious. We don’t want any of that sort of thing at cricket matches, thank you very much.

So that’s that. A fine end to the  summer of international cricket, though perhaps not for the Indian players and supporters….

The End of Summer

Posted in Biographical, Cricket on September 16, 2011 by telescoper

Here we are then, at the end of what passes for summer in these parts. Not that I had much of a holiday at any point, but now the traditional signposts of summer’s end have passed, including the Last Night of the Proms last weekend and yesterday’s end of the cricket County Championship.  It’s strange how one’s life is measured by such rituals. There’s still a fortnight until teaching resumes, but it’s definitely back to the grind next week for me because I’ll be locked in a dark dungeon in Swindon on panel business for the most of the week.

The cricket season finished in exciting style as Lancashire chased down a score of 211 to win by 8 wickets down in Taunton, while Warwickshire, who had started the day as favourites to win, could only draw against Hampshire whose batsman saved them from what looked like a losing position. So congratulations to Lancashire, outright winners of the County Championship for the first time  in 77 years!

I have to  say that because I have a devout Lancastrian staying with me for a couple of days; he drove up to Cardiff from Taunton after the close of play and Lancashire’s victory provided a good excuse for some bubbly and a nice nosh-up at a local restaurant. I’m a bit hung over this morning, in fact, but I have got the day off.

It’s not quite the end of the cricket season, however, as today Cardiff hosts a One-day International between England and India, the last in a series of 5. England won two of the previous games, with one tied and one abandoned with no result because of rain. It’s therefore what you might call a dead rubber, but it’s the last cricket in Cardiff until next year and the last excuse for a day off before next week’s ordeals in Swindon, so I’ll be there. The weather isn’t marvellous and it may well rain at some point, but I’m pretty sure we’ll get at least some cricket. It’s a sell-out at the Swalec Stadium so there should at least be a good atmosphere.

I’ll update the blog with an account of the match in due course, but that’s all for now…

Commodification, the Academic Journal Racket and the Digital Commons (via The Disorder Of Things)

Posted in Open Access, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2011 by telescoper

Here’s another reasoned rant regarding the rapacity of the research racketeers. I think it makes some really good points.

The video clip is worth watching too, it being very funny.

Commodification, the Academic Journal Racket and the Digital Commons David, my erstwhile ‘parasitic overlord’ from when I was co-editing Millennium, points me to some posts by Kent Anderson of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, who defends the industry on a number of grounds from Monbiot’s polemic against the journal racket. The comments threads on both pieces are populated by academics who agree with Monbiot and by publishing industry colleagues who agree with Anderson (and who alternate between dismissing and … Read More

via The Disorder Of Things