Archive for June, 2012

Gove Agreement

Posted in Education, Politics, Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 25, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve had the same worry about finding myself in agreement with Michael Gove, at least on a few things; see here, for example. Anyway, this piece makes some very good points about the corruption of the GCSE system.

Protons for Breakfast

What do you do when someone with whom you basically disagree, says something sensible? Michael Gove has placed me in this situation three times now.

Firstly he abolished the Qualifications and Curriculum development Authority (QCDA).  Secondly he pointed out at that school IT lessons are at best uninspiring. And now he has gone and acknowledged that our system of competitive exam boards has driven down GCSE standards.

You may not have noticed this because he also called for GCSEs to be replaced with ‘O’levels. I sympathise with his motivation – to raise the bar for the most academically able pupils – but I think he is wrong on this. It would be enormously disruptive, enormously divisive, and there is actually nothing inherently wrong with GCSEs.

The problem with GCSEs lies in the ‘almost corrupt‘ link between publishers and their ‘pet’ exam boards. The BBC…

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A Little Bit of Hummel

Posted in Music with tags , , , on June 24, 2012 by telescoper

I came across this bit of music a while ago. It appears in the very first (pilot) episode of the detective series Lewis. You can find it at the start of this clip and later on about 6.30 into the clip. It’s the central Andante movement of a Trumpet Concerto by Johann Nepomuk Hummel, of whom I knew nothing at all before hearing his name on this programme.

It turns out that Hummel is actually a leading figure in the history of classical music and in his own lifetime was every bit as famous as Haydn and Beethoven; he was a pallbearer at the latter’s funeral, in fact. He died in 1837 with his musical reputation apparently secure, but was quickly forgotten. Always a bit overshadowed by Mozart, when the romantic era dawned Hummel’s classical style was considered extremely old-fashioned. It’s just another illustration of a fact that applies not only in music but also in many different spheres of activity: popularity in one’s own lifetime is by no means certain to turn into renown thereafter…

I don’t usually like the sound of the classical trumpet that much- I prefer the broader and more expressive way the instrument is used in Jazz, whether it’s the brassy brilliance of Dizzy Gillespie or the moody melancholia of Miles Davis – but this piece is really lovely, especially when played with beautiful clarity by Norwegian trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth.

Crosswords and Prizes

Posted in Crosswords with tags , , , , on June 24, 2012 by telescoper

It has been a while since I last posted anything in the box marked Crosswords, so I thought I’d while away a bit of this dreary Sunday morning with a few thoughts on that topic.

Less than a year ago, I switched my Saturday newspaper from the Guardian to the Independent (see here for the reason). I’ve been doing the Independent Prize Cryptic every week since then, except when I’ve been away. I find it significantly more satisfying than the Guardian puzzle. I’m not sure the Independent‘s crossword is harder – although some of my friends think so –  but there seems to be better quality control there than at the Guardian.

I still occasionally do the Guardian puzzle at weekends by downloading it from the web. Yesterday’s celebrated a centenary – not difficult to guess whose! – but it wasn’t a particularly interesting puzzle, and I thought some of the clues were very clumsy.

Anyway, somewhat amazingly, I’ve actually won the Independent crossword prize no less than six times in the nine months or so since I starting doing it. An immediate inference from this is that there must be many fewer entrants than for the Guardian weekly puzzle, which I only won once every few years. The other side of this is that I’m accumulating dictionaries at an alarming rate. The prize for the Indy cryptic competition is The Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, a substantial tome that retails for about £20. I now have one in my study at home, one in the sitting room, and one in my office at work. I gave one to my mum a while ago, and the other two I’ve given to colleagues at work. I’ll probably be disposing of a few more copies like that if things carry on the way they have in past months. I’ve even started taking advance orders…

I haven’t been doing so well this year in my favourite crossword competition, the Azed puzzle in the Observer. I started well enough, but then drew a blank on a number of occasions and slipped back down the table. However, this week I got another score with a VHC (“Very Highly Commended”) in Azed 2087, and am currently in equal 24th place. There’s only one competition puzzle left, and I’m a long way off the pace set by the leaders, so I’m not going to finish much higher than that even if I do well in the last competition.

Anyway, my clue for the word ROCKET was:

Dicky ticker – love might make this one race!

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to parse, although it involves a “comp. anag.” It goes without saying that the prize-winning clues are much better than my effort!

Incidentally, I noticed yesterday that my post about the Azed 2000 lunch a couple of years ago was getting a bit of traffic. I don’t really know why, but in the course of looking around I saw that there’s a nice collection of photographs of the event here. I couldn’t embed any of them here as they’re protected.

The general reaction of people I work with to all this cruciverbalism is that it’s a waste of time. I actually don’t agree, except insofar as everything is a waste of time when you think about it. Crosswords for me are a form of mental jogging. They exercise a brain in a way that’s different from the usual things it is faced with. In my case, a lot of my work involves puzzles of various kinds. Some are mathematical, connected with my research, but the most difficult ones are bureaucratical: trying to work out what all the paperwork is for and how to fill it in without losing my rag. Despite a complete lack of empirical evidence to support this assertion, I think doing crosswords keeps my brain from ossifying and enables it to think more flexibly. Or maybe I protest too much. Perhaps I just enjoy them.

My Little Suede Shoes

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on June 23, 2012 by telescoper

If this wonderful video is anything to go by, the late great Johnny Griffin had splendid taste in he got these shoes from Charlie Parker himself.


Posted in Poetry with tags , , on June 23, 2012 by telescoper

In the midnight heavens burning
Thro’ ethereal deeps afar,
Once I watch’d with restless yearning
An alluring, aureate star;
Ev’ry eye aloft returning,
Gleaming nigh the Arctic car.

Mystic waves of beauty blended
With the gorgeous golden rays;
Phantasies of bliss descended
In a myrrh’d Elysian haze;
And in lyre-born chords extended
Harmonies of Lydian lays.

There (thought I) lies scenes of pleasure,
Where the free and blessed dwell,
And each moment bears a treasure
Freighted with a lotus-spell,
And there floats a liquid measure
From the lute of Israfel.

There (I told myself) were shining
Worlds of happiness unknown,
Peace and Innocence entwining
By the Crowned Virtue’s throne;
Men of light, their thoughts refining
Purer, fairer, than our own.

Thus I mus’d, when o’er the vision
Crept a red delirious change;
Hope dissolving to derision,
Beauty to distortion strange;
Hymnic chords in weird collision,
Spectral sights in endless range.

Crimson burn’d the star of sadness
As behind the beams I peer’d;
All was woe that seem’d but gladness
Ere my gaze with truth was sear’d;
Cacodaemons, mir’d with madness,
Thro’ the fever’d flick’ring leer’d.

Now I know the fiendish fable
That the golden glitter bore;
Now I shun the spangled sable
That I watch’d and lov’d before;
But the horror, set and stable,
Haunts my soul for evermore.

by H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937)

“It’s a girl thing” is patronising drivel.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 22, 2012 by telescoper

This excruciating  video, produced under the auspices of the European Commission via “Women in Research and Innovation”,  is (I suppose) meant to encourage more young women to become scientists.

Based on the female scientists I know, and the general reaction to it on Twitter (see hashtag #sciencegirlthing) and elsewhere this morning, I’d say it’s more likely to make them throw a brick at their screens….

..and make the rest of us  wonder why the EU is wasting its money on tripe like this.

UPDATE: 23rd June. They seem to have removed the video. Good.
UPDATE to the UPDATE: 23rd June. It’s back again.

Health and Beauty

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 21, 2012 by telescoper

This picture, obtained from here, explains why I am so healthy and so beautiful…

A Return to O-levels?

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on June 21, 2012 by telescoper

I woke up this morning as usual to the 7am news on BBC Radio 3, which included an item about how Education Secretary Michael Gove is planning to scrap the current system of GCSE Examinations and replace them with something more like the old GCE O-levels, which oldies like me took way back in the mists of time.

There is a particular angle to this in Wales, because Michael Gove doesn’t have responsibility for education here. That falls to the devolved Welsh Government, and in particular to Leighton Andrews. He’s made it quite clear on Twitter that he has no intention to take  Wales  back to O-levels. Most UK media sources – predominantly based in London – seem to have forgotten that Gove speaks for England, not for the whole United Kingdom.

This is not the central issue, however. The question is whether GCSEs are, as Michael Gove claims, “so bad that they’re beyond repair”. Politicians, teachers and educationalists are basically saying that students are doing better; others are saying that the exams are easier. It’s a shouting match that has been going for years and which achieves very little. I can’t add much to it either, because I’m too old to have done GCSEs – they hadn’t been invented then. I did O-levels.

It does, however, give me the excuse to show you  the O-level physics paper I took way back in 1979. I’ve actually posted this before, but it seems topical to put it up again:

You might want to compare this with a recent example of an Edexcel GCSE (Multiple-choice) Physics paper, about which I have also posted previously.

I think most of the questions in the GCSE paper are much easier than the O-level paper above. Worse, there are many that are so sloppily put together that they  don’t make any sense at all. Take Question 1:

I suppose the answer is meant to be C, but since it doesn’t say that A is the orbit of a planet, as far as I’m concerned it might just as well be D. Are we meant to eliminate D simply because it doesn’t have another orbit going through it?

On the other hand, the orbit of a moon around the Sun is in fact similar to the orbit of its planet around the Sun, since the orbital speed and radius of the moon around its planet are smaller than those of the planet around the Sun. At a push, therefore you could argue that A is the closest choice to a moon’s orbit around the Sun. The real thing would be something close to a circle with a 4-week wobble variation superposed.

You might say I’m being pedantic, but the whole point of exam questions is that they shouldn’t be open to ambiguities like this, at least if they’re science exams. I can imagine bright and knowledgeable students getting thoroughly confused by this question, and many of the others on the paper.

Here’s a couple more, from the “Advanced” section:

The answer to Q30 is, presumably, A. But do any scientists really think that galaxies are “moving away from the origin of the Big Bang”?  I’m worried that this implies that the Big Bang was located at a specific point. Is that what they’re teaching?

Bearing in mind that only one answer is supposed to be right, the answer to Q31 is presumably D. But is there really no evidence from “nebulae” that supports the Big Bang theory? The expansion of the Universe was discovered by observing things Hubble called “nebulae”..

I’m all in favour of school students being introduced to fundamental things such as cosmology and particle physics, but my deep worry is that this is being done at the expense of learning any real physics at all and is in any case done in a garbled and nonsensical way.

Lest I be accused of an astronomy-related bias, anyone care to try finding a correct answer to this question?

The more of this kind of stuff I see, the more admiration I have for the students coming to study physics and astronomy at University. How they managed to learn anything at all given the dire state of science education represented by this paper is really quite remarkable.

Ultimately, however, the issue is not whether we have GCSEs or O-level examinations. There’s already far too much emphasis in the education system on assessment instead of   learning. That runs all the way through schools and into the university system. The excessive time we spend examining students reduces what we can teach them and turns the students’ learning experience into something resembling a treadmill. I agree that we need better examinations than we have now, but we also need   fewer. And we need to stop being obsessed by them.

ESA Endorses Euclid

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 20, 2012 by telescoper

I’m banned from my office for part of this morning because the PHYSX elves are doing mandatory safety testing of all my electrical whatnots. Hence, I’m staying at home, sitting in the garden, writing this little blog post about a bit of news I found on Twitter earlier.

Apparently the European Space Agency, or rather the Science Programme Committee thereof, has given the green light to a space mission called Euclid whose aim is to “map the geometry of the dark Universe”, i.e. mainly to study dark energy. Euclid is an M-class mission, pencilled in for launch in around 2019, and it is basically the result of a merger between two earlier proposals, the Dark Universe Explorer (DUNE, intended to measure effects of weak gravitational lensing) and the Spectroscopic All Sky Cosmic Explorer (SPACE, to measure wiggles in the galaxy power spectrum known as baryon acoustic oscillations); Euclid will do both of these.

Although I’m not directly involved, as a cosmologist I’m naturally very happy to see this mission finally given approval. To be honest, I am a bit sceptical about how much light Euclid will actually shed on the nature of dark energy, as I think the real issue is a theoretical not an observational one. It will probably end up simply measuring the cosmological constant to a few extra decimal places, which is hardly the issue when the value we try to calculate theoretically is a over a hundred orders of magnitude too large! On the other hand, big projects like this do need their MacGuffin..

The big concern being voiced by my colleagues, both inside and outside the cosmological community, is whether Euclid can actually be delivered within the agreed financial envelope (around 600 million euros). I’m not an expert in the technical issues relevant to this mission, but I’m told by a number of people who are that they are sceptical that the necessary instrumental challenges can be solved without going significantly over-budget. If the cost of Euclid does get inflated, that will have severe budgetary implications for the rest of the ESA science programme; I’m sure we all hope it doesn’t turn into another JWST.

I stand ready to be slapped down by more committed Euclideans for those remarks.

A Cross Country Ban….

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on June 20, 2012 by telescoper

Following on from the X-rating awarded to this blog by Orange Mobile, my learned colleague Dr Dread informs me that it is also banned from Cross Country Trains:

Inappropriate or malicious? Who, me?