Archive for September, 2012

Lay your sleeping head, my love..

Posted in Poetry with tags , on September 25, 2012 by telescoper

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s sensual ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

by W.H. Auden (1907-1973)


A (Physics) Problem from the Past

Posted in Cute Problems, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 25, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve been preparing material for my new 2nd year lecture course module The Physics of Fields and Flows, which starts next week. The idea of this is to put together some material on electromagnetism and fluid mechanics in a way that illustrates the connections between them as well as developing proficiency in the mathematics that underpins them, namely vector calculus. Anyway, in the course of putting together the notes and exercises it occurred to me to have a look at the stuff I was given when I was in the 2nd year at university, way back in 1983-4. When I opened the file I found this problem which caused me a great deal of trouble when I tried to do it all those years ago. It’s from an old Cambridge Part IB Advanced Physics paper. See what you can make of it..

(You can click on the image to make it larger…)

Cardiff – The Video

Posted in Bute Park with tags , on September 24, 2012 by telescoper

Here’s a nice video promoting Cardiff as a perfect place to be a student.  I presume it doesn’t mention the Opera because that’s for old fogeys like me rather than bright young things like them, but it does feature quite a few other things that might surprise you if you’ve never visited the city before, including Bute Park…

Remarks on Regrading

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2012 by telescoper

I haven’t had time thus far to comment on the ongoing row about GCSE examinations, but was inspired to do a quick lunchtime postette when I read some of Chief Stooge Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s comments over the weekend.

It seems Mr Clegg objects to Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews’ decision to order the examination board WJEC to regrade GCSEs in English, as a response to a report from regulatory officials arguing that the grading process had been unfair and that it had disadvantaged students. As a result of Leighton Andrews’ intervention, over two thousand Welsh students of English have received higher grades than initially awarded.  In England, on the other hand, the regulator Ofqual decided not to regrade examinations, but to offer students the chance to resit.

Here is a statement from a spokesperson for the Welsh Government explaining the different approaches in England and Wales:

Unlike in England where responsibility for qualifications is devolved through legislation to Ofqual, in Wales the Welsh Ministers have regulatory responsibility for the qualifications taken by learners.

In requiring the regrading to take place, the Minister was fulfilling properly these regulatory responsibilities. The decision to carry out the re-grade in Wales led to the swift resolution of an injustice served to well over 2,000 Welsh candidates.

The decision to direct the WJEC to carry out this work was about fairness and ensuring that Welsh students got the grades they deserved for the work they put into their examination. The result of the re-grade was the only acceptable outcome for learners affected by a questionable grading methodology.

Candidates can now rest assured that the process used to determine their final grades was fair and just.

Nick Clegg accuses the Welsh government of “moving the goalposts” – Westminster politicians can always be relied upon to produce  a tired cliché at the drop of a hat – and accused Mr Andrews of political interference.

I think what I’m going to say may prove quite controversial with readers of this blog, but I think Leighton Andrews did the right thing. He has responsibility for regulating the examination system in Wales, and his officials told him the grades were likely to be wrong. He therefore stepped in and ordered the examinations to be  regraded. What’s the problem?

Minister for Education Michael Gove has already admitted that the grading of GCSE examinations this year was indeed unfair, but he decided not to intervene and left it up to Ofqual to decide what to do. I don’t think this because he was worried about political interference in the examination system, as he’s been all over the exam system like a rash in recent months. He decided not to intervene because he wants to kill CGSEs, and the problems this year have probably done just that.

Presumably Nick Clegg’s response to the grading errors would just have involved saying “sorry”….

But whatever the rights and wrongs of Michael Gove and Leighton Andrews, I think this episode just demonstrates what a complete mess the examination system really is.  If anyone previously thought they knew what a grade C in English was supposed to mean then the behaviour of the exam boards this year will have convinced them otherwise. Students and parents must surely now regard the whole process as arbitrary and meaningless.

It’s also a shame that we now seem to think that education is entirely about examinations and qualifications, as if tinkering with the grades that come out of one end of the process somehow means that the students have learned more.  If  more people grasped the fact that there’s much more to education than bits of paper or rankings in league tables then the power of those in authority to depress and demoralize students and teachers would be immediately diminished.

That wouldn’t solve all the problems in our education system, but it would be a start.

Reflections on the Autumnal Equinox

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on September 23, 2012 by telescoper

So the autumnal equinox has been and gone again, reminding me that it is now just over four years since I started blogging; one of my very first posts was prompted by the Equinox in 2008. It’s also a reminder that the summer is now well and truly over, and teaching term is about to start. Some of my colleagues elsewhere have started teaching already but at Cardiff, lectures don’t start until 1st October. Next week, however, sees Freshers’ Week, and various other enrolment, registration and induction events. Many students have already arrived, if the crowds of young  bewildered people wandering around Tesco yesterday are anything to go by.

Tomorrow is our Board of Studies too, the first one I have to chair as Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of Physics and Astronomy. Most of the business is to do with tidying up loose ends of the last academic year and planning for the term to come. I’ll have to see whether I can chair it with sufficient ruthless efficiency that we don’t all end up missing lunch.

Anyway, this time of year always reminds me when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are doing now. I did it thirty years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it anyway. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, me and my luggage trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be very difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit”. Whatever that is.

Taking a taxi from Cambridge station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyen’s building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realised that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing.

After 30 years you get used to that feeling.

Sonnet No. 20

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 22, 2012 by telescoper

On most occasions when I post one of Shakespeare’s sonnets I don’t comment on the content or meaning, preferring to let you all make your own interpretation. This one, however, think deserves some discussion. At first reading it appears to be describing the poet’s love for a feminine-looking young man, and that has led to the interpretation that it was written about one of the many actors that played female roles on the Elizabethan stage. That could well be the case, of course, but it’s not at all obvious to me that this is describing sexual desire for said gender-bending individual. In fact, if you study this sonnet carefully you will find numerous puns and a liberal dose of sexual innuendo so I rather think this is just a bit of fun, rather than a serious discussion of the bard’s sexuality. The reference to “prick” in the penultimate line is obvious, but there’s also “nothing” in the previous line which Shakespeare often uses as a euphemism for a vagina. An even more clever and playful element is the existence of an extra unstressed syllable in each line (making 11 instead of the usual 10 in iambic pentameter), suggesting something added, fairly obviously a penis; the suggestion is that nature made this beautiful person as a woman but then added the “one thing” referred to in the poem.

Anyway, what I love most about this particular sonnet is its humour and ambivalence. That’s probably also why I enjoyed watching the Ladyboys of Bangkok so much on my birthday. So I hereby dedicate this post to them!

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted,
Hast thou the master mistress of my passion,
A woman’s gentle heart but not acquainted
With shifting change as is false women’s fashion,
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling:
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth,
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.

Sonnet No.20 , by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

More on Slipher and the Expanding Universe

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff on September 22, 2012 by telescoper

Here’s an account of the conference I recently attended in Flagstaff, about The Origins of the Expanding Universe, by Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh ( fellow blogger, who was also there).


In an earlier post, I mentioned an upcoming  conference in Arizona to celebrate the pioneering work of the American astronomer Vesto Slipher. As mentioned previously, 2012 marks the centenary of Slipher’s observation that light from the Andromeda nebula was Doppler shifted, a finding he interpreted as evidence of a radial velocity for the nebula. By 1917, he had established that the light from many of the distant nebulae is redshifted, i.e. shifted to lower frequency than normal. This was the first  indication that the most distant objects in the sky are moving away at significant speed, and it was an important step on the way to the discovery of the expanding universe.

Vesto Melvin Slipher (1875-1969)

The conference turned out to be very informative and enjoyable, with lots of interesting presentations from astronomers, historians and science writers. It’s hard to pick out particular talks from such a great…

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