Archive for December, 2013

A Brief History of Portland Place, Brighton

Posted in Biographical, Brighton on December 23, 2013 by telescoper

Tidying up the flat before my Christmas travels, I found a little piece of paper in a drawer with the following potted history of Portland Place.

The development of Portland Place commenced around 1824, when Major Villeroy Russell commissioned Charles Augustus Busby as architect for the design of the street and houses. There was a most unfortunate incident on the night of 12th September 1825, during the building of the street, when the principal house caught fire and was totally destroyed. As it was not insured, Major Russell had to bear the estimated £12,000 loss himself. The first occupant moved into Number 11 in 1827 but the buildings to replace the one destroyed by fire were not completed until 1829. Building work continued in the street until almost up to the 1850s, so the dates of individual buildings may vary considerably.

That all explains why this street lacks the homogeneity of style possessed by some its grander neighbours, though the houses are still looking pretty good for their age!

Blue Christmas

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on December 23, 2013 by telescoper

It’s the fifth Christmas season for this blog but I’ve not yet posted this festive (?) classic by Miles Davis. The rest of the band consists of Frank Rehak (trombone), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums), and Willie Bobo (bongos); the arrangement is unmistakeably Gil Evans. The vocalist is the legendary Bob Dorough who also wrote the lyrics. “Bah Humbug” never sounded so cool!

Elsevier’s Confidentiality Clauses

Posted in Open Access with tags , on December 22, 2013 by telescoper

I came across this a little while ago (here, where the context is explained in more detail). It comes from a conference about the future of scientific publishing, and features David Tempest of Elsevier responding to a question from Dr Stephen Curry.

I hadn’t realised before this question that Elsevier not only charges eye-wateringly expensive subscription rates for its journals but also often requires institutional libraries to sign a confidentiality clause under which they are forbidden from revealing how much the subscription costs. Here Mr Tempest attempts to explain this policy:

So there you have it. If people actually knew what other people were being charged there’s a danger that prices would be driven relentlessly downward. Shocking.

You have to feel some sympathy for Elsevier, struggling along on a profit margin of a mere 36%. It must be so difficult for them to make ends meet…


Posted in Music with tags , , , on December 21, 2013 by telescoper

I spent this morning doing the crosswords as usual and then had a decidedly wintry journey to the shops and then to campus. It’s not snowing, but cold and windy and pouring with rain. All of which convinced me that it would be appropriate to post something from the recording of Schubert‘s  Winterreise made by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in the year of my birth, 1963. Looking on Youtube, though, I found that some wonderful person has posted the entire song cycle, so here it is.

If you haven’t got time to listen to the whole thing then here are the timings of the various songs together with their catalogue numbers.
0:005:46 Gute Nacht (« Fremd bin ich eingezogen »…) D.911-1
5:477:47 Die Wetterfahne (« Der Wind spielt mit der Wetterfahne ») D. 911-2
7:4810:00 Gefrorene Tränen (« Gefrorne Tropfen fallen ») D. 911-3
10:0113:10 Erstarrung (« Ich such im Schnee vergebens ») D. 911-4
13:1118:18 Der Lindenbaum (« Am Brunnen vor dem Tore ») D. 911-5
18:1922:06 Wasserflut (« Manche Trän aus meinen Augen ») D. 911-6
22:0725:41 Auf dem Flusse (« Der du so lustig rauschtest ») D. 911-7
25:4228:02 Rückblick (« Es brennt mir unter beiden Sohlen ») D. 911-8
28:0330:20 Irrlicht (« In die tiefsten Felsengründe ») D. 911-9
30:2133:38 Rast (« Nun merk ich erst, wie müd ich bin ») D. 911-10
33:3938:17 Frühlingstraum (« Ich träumte von bunten Blumen ») D. 911-11
38:1841:09 Einsamkeit (« Wie eine trübe Wolke ») D. 911-12
41:1043:12 Die Post (« Von der Straße her ein Posthorn klingt ») D. 911-13
43:1346:02 Der greise Kopf (« Der Reif hatt einen weißen Schein ») D. 911-14
46:0348:20 Die Krähe (« Eine Krähe war mit mir ») D. 911-15
48:2150:22 Letzte Hoffnung (« Hie und da ist an den Bäumen ») D. 911-16
50:2354:33 Im Dorfe (« Es bellen die Hunde, es rasseln die Ketten ») D. 911-17
54:3455:31 Der stürmische Morgen (« Wie hat der Sturm zerrissen ») D. 911-,18
55:3256:39 Täuschung (« Ein Licht tanzt freundlich vor mir her ») D. 911-19
56:401:00:29 Der Wegweiser (« Was vermeid ich denn die Wege ») D. 911-20
1:00:301:04:58 Das Wirtshaus (« Auf einen Totenacker ») D. 911-21
1:04:591:06:32 Mut (« Fliegt der Schnee mir ins Gesicht ») D. 911-22
1:06:331:09:31 Die Nebensonnen (« Drei Sonnen sah ich am Himmel stehn ») D. 911-23
1:09:321:12:49 Der Leiermann (« Drüben hinterm Dorfe ») D. 911-24

Winter Heavens

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on December 21, 2013 by telescoper

Sharp is the night, but stars with frost alive
Leap off the rim of earth across the dome.
It is a night to make the heavens our home
More than the nest whereto apace we strive.
Lengths down our road each fir-tree seems a hive,
In swarms outrushing from the golden comb.
They waken waves of thoughts that burst to foam:
The living throb in me, the dead revive.
Yon mantle clothes us: there, past mortal breath,
Life glistens on the river of the death.
It folds us, flesh and dust; and have we knelt,
Or never knelt, or eyed as kine the springs
Of radiance, the radiance enrings:
And this is the soul’s haven to have felt.

by George Meredith (1828-1909)


Top Ten Gaia Facts

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 20, 2013 by telescoper
Gaia looks nothing like the Herschel Space Observatory shown here.

Gaia looks nothing like the Herschel Space Observatory shown here.

Since yesterday’s successful launch of the European Space Agency’s Gaia mission I have been inundated with requests for more information about this impressive satellite and the science behind it. As a service to the community, and for the edification of the public at large, I therefore thought I’d share my list of top ten Gaia facts via the medium of this blog:

  1. The correct pronunciation of GAIA is as in “gayer”. Please bear this in mind when reading any press articles about the mission.
  2. The GAIA spacecraft will orbit the Sun at the Second Lagrange Point, the only place in the Solar System where the  effects of cuts in the UK science budget can not be felt.
  3. The data processing challenges posed by GAIA are immense; the billions of astrometric measurements resulting from the mission will be analysed using the world’s biggest Excel Spreadsheet.
  4. To provide secure backup storage of the complete GAIA data set, the European Space Agency has commandeered the world’s entire stock of 3½ inch floppy disks.
  5. As well as measuring billions of star positions and velocities, GAIA is expected to discover thousands of new asteroids and the hiding place of Lord Lucan.
  6. GAIA can measure star positions to an accuracy of a few microarcseconds. That’s the angle subtended by a single pubic hair at a distance of 1000km.
  7. The precursor to GAIA was a satellite called Hipparcos, which is not how you spell Hipparchus.
  8. The BBC will be shortly be broadcasting a new 26-part TV series about GAIA. Entitled WOW! Gaia! That’s Soo Amaazing… it will be presented by Britain’s leading expert on astrometry, Professor Brian Cox.
  9. Er…
  10. That’s it.

The Conundrum Conundrum

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 19, 2013 by telescoper

Last week I attended a talk here at Sussex by Andrew Liddle who came back from Edinburgh especially fro the event (and not at all  in order to attend the Astronomy Centre Christmas Party, coincidentally later the same day). When he circulated the details of his talk, the title he gave was Cosmological Conundrums. Not being at all pedantic I naturally suggested that it should be Cosmological Conundra. Somewhat to my surprise he made that correction on the title slide of his talk. Later on, at the dinner, colleagues of mine argued that conundrum isn’t a Latin word so shouldn’t have a Latin plural; in much the same way that the plural of “bum” is not “ba”.

Actually the origin of the word “conundrum” is a bit of a puzzle in its own right. For one thing it certainly isn’t a word having an origin in Latin; the trusty Oxford English Dictionary says “Origin Lost” and Chambers says “Etymology Unknown”. Interestingly there are many variant spellings (such as quonundrum and quadundrum) and no less than 5 different definitions, given here in order of first recorded occurrence in written English (the first in 1596).

1. Applied abusively to a person. (? Pedant, crotchet-monger, or ninny.)

2.  A whim, crotchet, maggot, conceit

3.  A pun or word-play depending on similarity of sound in words of different meaning.

4. a. A riddle in the form of a question the answer to which involves a pun or play on words: called in 1769 conundrumical question. b. Any puzzling question or problem; an enigmatical statement.

5.  A thing that one is puzzled to name, a ‘what-d’ye-call-it’. rare.

It is 4b that represents the most common modern usage; that first came into English as late as 1790. The OED also argues quite strongly that 1 is not the first  use in English and probably doesn’t convey the original meaning; it’s just the first example of the word having been found in a written document.

So does the fact that “conundrum” is not a Latin word mean that its plural should be “conundrums” rather than “conundra”?

Maybe. But probably not. The best theory the OED gives for its etymology is “originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools, which would agree with its unfixed form in 17–18th cent”. I would argue that if conundrum is a made-up word meant to imitate or parody a Latin term then it should in fact be treated in the same way when forming its plural. The last thing anyone wants is a half-hearted parody and, in any case, I’m sure that the students who coined the term would have used the appropriate plural form.

Anyway, in the course of this investigation I discovered the word “crotchet-monger”, which I simply must try to get into my next public lecture.