Archive for February, 2013

Stars and Planets

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on February 20, 2013 by telescoper

Trees are cages for them: water holds its breath
To balance them without smudging on its delicate meniscus.
Children watch them playing in their heavenly playground;
Men use them to lug ships across oceans, through firths.

They seem so twinkle-still, but they never cease
Inventing new spaces and huge explosions
And migrating in mathematical tribes over
The steppes of space at their outrageous ease.

It’s hard to think that the earth is one –
This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters,
Attended only by the loveless moon.

by Norman MacCaig (1910-1996).

The Quantum of Teaching

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on February 19, 2013 by telescoper

I’m gradually finding out enough about the way things are organized here at the University of Sussex to make some comparisons between teaching in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences here and in the School of Physics and Astronomy at my former employer, Cardiff University.

One difference I’ve noticed is probably something you find rather trivial, but I think it’s quite important. In the usual scheme of undergraduate teaching, which applies across most of the United Kingdom, students gain “credit” for taking and passing modules. A normal year would correspond to 120 credits, so that a three-year BSc degree involves a total of 360 credits and a four-year MPhys (or equivalent) is 480. In universities that run a two-semester teaching year the load per semester is thus 60 credits.

The question then is what is the best way to divide up that 60 credits into smaller pieces? Until recently at Cardiff the basic unit of teaching was a 10-credit module, which meant that students were typically doing six different things alongside each other. An ordinary ten-credit module would involve two lectures per week. Not all of these are lecture courses, however; there’s usually laboratory or computational work as one of the 10 credit chunks. During a recent course review it was decided to increase the size of some of the modules to 20 credits. That’s how it came to pass that I taught a new module of that size last semester (for the first and last time).

The motivation for increasing the size of modules was twofold. One is that having lots of small modules makes the overall study programme disjointed and “bitty”, with students having lots of things on the go at the same time and little opportunity to study any topics in real depth. The other is that having four hours per week instead of two allows the lecturer to use the time more flexibly, in particular with  sessions intended to develop problem-solving skills.

Although the “core” modules at Cardiff increased to 20 credits, the others remained at 10. There was a lot of discussion about increasing all modules, but in the end the new programme was left as a mixture.

Interestingly, here at Sussex the normal module size is 15 credits (and “modules” are also called “courses”), meaning that students actually only do four things at the same time in a typical semester.  In fact this was what I originally suggested when we started the teaching review at Cardiff, but it was thrown out immediately on the grounds that the University had decreed that modules must be multiples of 10 credits only. I’m not sure whether there was an educational reason for this, or just that it made the arithmetic simpler.

Anyway, I like 15 credits as a basic unit but am not sure how many other Schools and Departments run that system. I’d be interested to learn about module sizes favoured elsewhere through the comments box, and here’s a poll so you can vote:

Another difference is that although Sussex has two teaching semesters, the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) does not have mid-year examinations, so First Semester courses are examined in the Summer along with the Second Semester ones.  In Cardiff, modules are examined at the end of the semester in which they are taught. There are pros and cons with this. I think students who are used to mid-year examinations like the fact that the examinations are not all concentrated in one period during the summer and also that they get some feedback on their progress during the year. On the other hand, students may see an end-of-semester examination as an encouragement to close the lid on a particular module and forget about it as soon as it is over, making it harder to understand how different aspects of physics interconnect.

Students at Sussex seem keen not to have mid-year examinations, while those at Cardiff seem equally keen to retain them. I don’t know what that means, so here’s another  poll to see if there’s any clear opinion one way or another among my readers…

Lulu at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 18, 2013 by telescoper

Time for a quick post about Saturday night at the Opera while I have my sandwich lunch. I have reviewed Lulu by Alban Berg before but David Pountney’s production for Welsh National Opera was quite different to the Covent Garden version I saw a few years ago.

Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, but he developed his own take on the twelve-tone techniques developed by his mentor. Not everyone finds  serialist music easy to enjoy, but I think if you’re going to have a go at it this Opera is one of the best places to start. I think the score for Lulu is completely wonderful with a constantly changing texture, sometimes lushly romantic (with a big  nod in the direction of Mahler in Act I), sometimes bleak and disjointed. It’s easy to understand why Berg is such an influential composer: you can hear in this Opera the ideas behind many Hollywood movie scores, and there are whole sections that sound like they come from the soundtrack of a Hammer Horror film.

So what about the Opera itself? The plot revolves around the character of Lulu, an enigmatic figure who is at times innocent and vulnerable and at others cynical and manipulative. Her personality is only revealed to us through her interactions with men, all of which end in disaster. Lulu’s first husband has a heart attack and dies; her second commits suicide. She then shoots another man and is imprisoned but eventually escapes. By the end of the opera, many years later on, she has wound up in London and is living in poverty and working as a prostitute. She dies at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

The structure of the Opera is like a mirror, with Lulu’s reversal of fortunes happening after an intermezzo in the middle of Act 2, at the centre of which there is a remarkable musical palindrome (shown above). Before this her role in the drama is to drive the men around her into obsession, madness and death, although she never appears to understand why she has this effect on them. After the dramatic fulcrum of the piece she becomes more and more of a victim. The reason for this is not some great change in her own psychological make-up but just that she is losing her looks, as a result of illness and ageing. No longer sexually desirable, she has lost the only way of controlling the men in her life. From this point her decline is inexorable and death inevitable. It’s also no coincidence that her murderer is played by the same actor who plays her first lover, Dr Schön.

This production looks very different to the Covent Garden production, but rather than describe it in words it’s probably easier to look at the promotional video made by WNO.

It’s a very vivid and imaginative staging based on a stark framework made of metal that dominates the stage.  A particularly effective and disturbing idea is to have the corpses of Lulu’s ex-lovers winched up into this structure on meat hooks after they’re dead and left to dangle there for the rest of the performance. Although the principal element of the set remains in place throughout, changes of mood and location are represented with dramatic changes of lighting and colour; Victorian London is memorably evoked with fog and a plethora of raised umbrellas. It’s all quite different from how I would have imagined the piece, but none the worse for that.

Marie Arnet was an excellent Lulu, giving a delicately nuanced portrayal of a complex central character who is as manipulated as she is manipulating. She is in turns cold-hearted and vulnerable, seductive and exploited. She bares all in this production, first in Act II, and is again naked when she is killed at the end of Act III. Neither scene is done gratuitously. Although her death scene is very shocking and horrific, it is not done in a titillating way. The rest of the cast was very good too, and the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under Lothar Koenigs played the extraordinary music with clarity and energy. The saxophones and vibraphone, included to lend a bit of jazz-age decadence to the piece, were very prominent.

Before seeing this production I saw that the first night got a rave review and five stars  in the Guardian. I wasn’t sure what to make of that as I rarely agree with published reviews. In fact I agree with much of Andrew Clements said, but wouldn’t have given it five stars. I’d probably give it four, if I did stars…

In Berg’s score the singers are sometimes called upon to use a stylised method of vocalisation in between speaking and singing (called Sprechstimme). This can be extremely effective from a dramatic point of view when done well. In this production I was perturbed that the short pieces of the libretto intended to be performed in this way were in fact delivered by disembodied recorded voices. I thought that was peculiar when I first noticed it, and as it recurred throughout the performance it started to irritate me quite considerably. I couldn’t tell which character was meant to be speaking, and in any case the recorded voices sounded nothing like those of any of the characters on stage. This device was probably used because some of the parts were played by people in animal masks, but other than that I couldn’t see the point of it.

That was an unfortunate blot on an otherwise excellent production, but there was still much to enjoy and I’m very glad I went back to Cardiff to see it.

The Day of the Triffids

Posted in Film with tags , on February 18, 2013 by telescoper

There were quite a few jokes about this flying around on Friday after the meteor strike in Russia. They don’t make trailers like this anymore!

Come to think of it the garden of my Cardiff residence was looking a bit overgrown on Saturday morning…

Rebranding Welsh National Opera

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on February 17, 2013 by telescoper

I went last night to Welsh National Opera’s new production of Lulu by Alban Berg; I’ll post a review in due course when I’ve got more time. Before I get the train back to Brighton I thought I’d post a quick comment on WNO’s recent “rebranding” exercise. This was described by Director David Pountney as follows:

WNO’s rebranding exercise is an integral part of its overall strategy to make itself as fit as possible to face the many challenges of the current environment. This includes a reinvigorated artistic programme, a rigorously tight management of our financial outgoings, and a positive search for alternative funding. The branding exercise is far more than creating a new logo. It has resulted from detailed consultations within and outside the company on its mission and its identity, and has resulted in a renewed image that will serve for the next decade. Central to this is of a re-designed website, together with a new style of programme book to reflect the company’s themed seasons. Together these form an integrated strategy to support the company’s prosperity and creative energy over the coming seasons.

One immediately obvious consequence of this rebranding is the demise of the very attractive and handy old programmes (such as the one for Tosca on the left), and their replacement by a much bigger season programme that covers in this case three different operas (Lulu, Madame Butterfly and The Cunning Little Vixen, bundled together incongruously under the theme of Free Spirits) . The new style programme is much heavier and larger so that it doesn’t fit in jacket pocket. It also means that if you just want to see one Opera in the season, and want to buy a programme for that one only, you can’t. Shades of the academic publishing industry. Any further visits of mine to WNO definitely won’t involve buying a programme..

Anyway, one thing the marketing types can’t bugger up with their rebranding nonsense is the wonderful Wales Millennium Centre, snapped here as I went to get a bite to eat after last night’s performance.

Cardiff Parks and Stadia

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2013 by telescoper

Taking a post-prandial perambulation around Pontcanna Fields this afternoon, in a mixture of sunshine and fog. Here’s a view of one of the playing fields being prepared for a game of football. You can see the SWALEC Stadium in the background, with the Millennium Stadium just visible in the mist beyond. Today Cardiff City are playing Bristol City, and I could here the chanting from Ninian Park (a mile or so away) carried on the cold breeze as I took the picture.

A little piece about Little Sun..

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on February 15, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a nano post today to alert you to the fact that my little contribution to the Charter of Light and Energy has now been published online at:

Please have a look, and why not read the other pieces while you’re there?

Two cultures, or none?

Posted in Art, Biographical, Education with tags , , on February 14, 2013 by telescoper

Just a quick rehash of an old post by way of a follow-up to Sunday’s blog about Emotion and Creativity which touched on the negative stereotypes sometimes used to characterize scientists.

Anti-science attitudes are far from unusual among the Arts & Humanities fraternity, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University, which I think is a real shame. After all, you’ll have to work very hard to find a scientist who would be prepared to stand up in front of audience and proudly announce “I hate art”. Many of my scientific colleagues have deep passions for the performing arts (especially music and drama) as well as being very well read across a wide range of subjects.  Many also hold strong  (and often idiosyncratic) political opinions and are involved in a huge range of activities outside science.

In short, scientists don’t just sit in their labs and offices making dangerous chemicals or torturing small animals. We live in the real world and have as much contact with wider society as anyone else. Imagination, creativity and free thinking can be found in scientists, just as they can in the arts.  Scientists both contribute to and participate in our society’s cultural heritage. Scientists are human beings. Culture belongs to us too.

Some time ago there was an article in the Times Higher with the title “Life depends on science but the arts make it worth living“. I agree with a lot of what is written in the piece, in fact, although it does seem also to contain numerous examples of non sequitur and I think it’s both poorly argued and highly exaggerated. The arts are undoubtedly among the things that make  life worth living, but there are others, such as “ordinary” human relationships and the “simple” enjoyment of the natural world, which academics of all persuasions all too frequently neglect.

One of the most prominent examples of non sequitur in the Times Higher article is that we have music, literature, poetry and the rest but how much of this is actually done in universities? The article compares Einstein with Beethoven. Albert went to University in Zurich. Beethoven didn’t go to a university. There’s a big difference between making art and writing about it. One of the big cultural differences between art and science is that we don’t have science critics, although we do have people who popularize it and also people who try to explain it to the general public. Much of the impenetrable cultural analysis that emerges from academia concerning the arts seems to have the opposite aim. Does any university have a Professor of the Public Understanding of Art?

You probably think I’m going to go off on a rant about the famous Two Cultures thesis advanced  by C.P. Snow, but I’m not. I think Snow’s analysis is only marginally relevant. I do think that there are “two cultures”, but these are not “science” and “the arts”. One is a creative, thinking culture that encompasses arts, the humanities and science. The other is its antithesis, a “culture” that sees the sole function of education as being to train people  to take their place on the never-ending treadmill of production and consumption.

The way we are heading, it’s not “two cultures” that we should be worried about. It’s no culture at all.

My Funny (and very sad) Valentine

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on February 14, 2013 by telescoper

I suppose I should make some concession to Valentine’s Day, so here’s the classic 1954 Chet Baker version of the Rodgers & Hart tune My Funny Valentine. This was a big hit during the period when jazz switched from the frenetic pace and jagged angularity of bebop to the smooth cocktail bar sounds of the Cool School; its popularity owed as much to Baker’s youthful good looks and attractive singing voice as to the trumpet solo on this recording.

But that was 1954. A lifelong addiction to heroin exacted a terrible toll on Chet Baker. Here’s a harrowing and heart-rending reprise of My Funny Valentine recorded, just a year before his death, at a concert in Tokyo in 1987.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Presentation by the CEO of STFC at the IOP

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on February 13, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday the Supreme Leader Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), Professor John Womersley, gave a presentation to the assembled masses of the Institute of Physics in London, followed by a discussion at the RAS Astronomy Forum. Topics he covered, including the Triennial Review of the Research Councils, which is seeking evidence via an open consultation exercise. Contributions are invited by the end of February.

I was planning to attend both sessions, but had pressing matters to attend to here in Sussex so wasn’t able to make it in the end. However, owing to a miracle of technology I’ve been furnished with the slides used in the presentation and, with his permission, am sharing them here as a service to the community because,as you will see,  there is a lot at stake for all of us…