Archive for May, 2014

The Rainy Day

Posted in Poetry on May 24, 2014 by telescoper

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)


Elsevier in Australia

Posted in Open Access with tags , on May 23, 2014 by telescoper

More on open access, this time from the perspective of an Australian Mathematician, pointing out that the idea of Gold Open Access Hybrid Journals touted by some publishers is nothing but a scam. I won’t mention any names of course but Elsevier springs to mind.

Secret Blogging Seminar

I’ve just got back from talking to Roxanne Missingham, the University Librarian here at ANU, about Elsevier, and I want to quickly report on what I learnt.

I don’t yet have any of the juicy numbers revealing what libraries are paying for their Elsevier subscriptions (as Timothy Gowers has been doing in the UK; if you haven’t read his post do that first!). Nevertheless there are some interesting details.

Essentially all the Australian universities, excepting a few tiny private institutes, subscribe to the Freedom collection (this is the same bundle that nearly everyone is forced into subscribing to). The contracts are negotiated by CAUL (the Council of Australian University Librarians).

My librarian was very frank about Article Processing Charges (APCs) constituting double-dipping, whatever it is that Elsevier and the other publishers say. The pricing of journal bundles is so opaque, and to the extent we understand it primarily based…

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Posted in Politics with tags , , on May 23, 2014 by telescoper

Perceptive analysis of the rise of UKIP et al….


The Front National is expected to win next week’s European election in France; UKIP may well do so in Britain. Both parties combine a visceral hostility to immigration with an acerbic loathing of the EU, a virulent nationalism and deeply conservative views on social issues such as gay marriage and women’s rights. The problems that such parties pose for mainstream politics goes, however, far beyond the odiousness of their policies. What their success expresses is the redrawing of the political map in Europe, and in ways in which mainstream parties often do not understand. The new populists seem to thrive on different political rules to mainstream parties.

Take UKIP. The electoral threat it poses to both Tory and Labour has in recent weeks led to a fierce assault from mainstream politicians of all hues and from the media. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has been accused of misusing his expenses and…

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Space is the Place: 100 Years of Sun Ra

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 22, 2014 by telescoper

When I’m struggling to find the time or the inspiration to write a blog post, serendipity usually comes to the rescue. A post on Twitter just alerted me to the fact that today is the 100th birthday of  Sun Ra, one of the most extraordinary composers and bandleaders of the 20th Century; was born Herman Poole Blount in Bimingham, Alabama, on 22nd May 1914. From the 1950s, until his death in 1993, Sun Ra led various combinations of musician in bands with various permutations of names involving the word Arkestra, such as the Blue Universe Arkestra and the Solar Myth Arkestra. He himself played keyboards, sometimes solo and sometimes with huge bands  of over 30 musicians; his music touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. He was also  one of the first musicians, in any genre to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.

He never achieved mainstream commercial success, but was a prolific recording artist with a cult following, partly fuelled by his outrageous claims to have been born not on Earth but on Saturn and the fact that much of his music was to do with space travel. Quoted in Jazziz magazine

They really thought I was some kind of kook with all my talk about outer space and the planets. I’m still talking about it, but governments are spending billions of dollars to go to Venus, Mars, and other planets, so it’s no longer kooky to talk about space

Quite. In fact, Sun Ra developed a complex performing identity based on his music, “cosmic” philosophy, and poetry. He abandoned his birth name, took on the persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the sun), and often dressed in the style of an ancient Egyptian pharoah, as in the video clip. In other words, he was very odd.

At this point you’re probably thinking this is all a bit “New Age” and heading in the direction of Charlie Parker‘s Private Hell, one of my favourite Gary Larson cartoons:

However, although I admit Sun Ra’s music is eclectic, outrageous and sometimes downright mystifying, it also has a marvellous coherence to it maintained as his style evolved over four decades and is consistently imbued with a powerful sense of the Jazz tradition.  In fact, I think Charlie Parker would have approved. I know I do! Anyway, whatever I think, the music of Sun Ra has withstood its skeptics and detractors for generations and long may it continue to do so. The world needs more of his kind.

To give a taste of his music, here is the classic album Space is the Place in its entirety (at least until it gets taken off Youtube for copyright violation!):


Sakharov Oscillations in Cosmology

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 21, 2014 by telescoper

No time for much of a post today, but I couldn’t resist commenting on something I picked up from Twitter just now. Today is the 93rd anniversary of the birth of the nuclear physicist and dissident Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov who died in 1989. Sakharov is probably more famous for his political campaigning and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 than for his work in physics, but I couldn’t resist mentioning a classic paper by him which was first published in Russian in 1965.

Here is the abstract:


The importance of this remarkable paper for modern cosmology can’t be overstated, although many modern cosmologists have either forgotten it or were never aware of it in the first place. The details are a bit out of date, but the idea that density perturbations that grew by a process of gravitational instability to form galaxies and the large-scale structure of the Universe has survived almost fifty years, and plays a central role in the standard cosmological model. Moreover, the Sakharov Oscillations predicted in this paper manifest themselves in the temperature fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background as measured by, e.g., the Planck experiment:


The wiggles in the power spectrum plotted above appear because these fluctuations, generated in the modern theory during an episode of cosmic inflation, are set up in phase and thus reach the epoch of scattering at different phases of their oscillation and hence with different amplitudes. The detailed behaviour of the spectrum displayed above tells us a huge amount about the composition and evolution of the Universe.

When Francesco Lucchin and I were writing the first edition of our cosmology textbook (second edition here) we were careful to acknowledge Sakharov’s role in the development of cosmological theory, which wasn’t generally reflected in texts written outside Russia. I particularly recall the late Leonid Grischuk banging on about Sakharov’s work at many conferences in order to ensure he got proper credit and some books, e.g. Zel’dovich and Novikov’s two-volume Relativistic Astrophysics, do acknowledge him correctly. Somehow, however, the CMB wiggles never acquired the name of Sakharov; the peaks in the spectrum are often still called Doppler Peaks or Acoustic Peaks, when surely they should be Sakharov Peaks. It’s probably too late to change the nomenclature now, but there you go.

Anyway, I’ve now realized that I was working on the First Edition of Coles & Lucchin in 1994 which is now twenty years ago so before I get too depressed about the passage of time I’ll stop writing and get on with something else!

Anyway, I’ve now realized that


Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on May 20, 2014 by telescoper

For my second experience of this year’s Brighton Festival I went last night to the Brighton Dome Concert Hall to see a show called KlezMahler. I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for when I turned up but it turned out to be great fun and I’m glad I went.

The first half of the concert featured the Aurora Orchestra. Their main item was Symphony No. 1 by Gustav Mahler. I’ve heard this symphony played live before, but not quite like this. The Aurora Orchestra numbers only fifteen musicians: two violins, and one each of viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, timpani and percussion. The arrangement for this “Chamber Orchestra” was done by Ian Farrington.

The result was fascinating and illuminating. Gone of course were the lush string textures and towering crescendi of a full symphony orchestra. A small force simply can’t hope to generate that kind of experience. On the other hand, what one gets in compensation is the ability to hear much more clearly how the piece is put together because everything is so much crisper. It must be very demanding to play a symphony like this, as each invidual instrument is very exposed, but these musicians have a very good account of the work. In places I found myself uncomfortable with the balance between different sections and the lack of oomph sometimes made it all sound rather tinny, but by and large I found it very interesting. I still prefer the bigger orchestral sound, but I did learn a lot from this “Mahler Light” arrangement. It was, however, a bit like being presented with an X-ray when you thought you were going to get a photograph!

The third movement of Mahler’s first symphony includes a section in which he produces the sound of a Jewish Klezmer band, which gives a hint as to how this piece fits in with the rest of the programme. Preceding Mahler 1 in the first half of the concert was a piece for solo clarinet (Fantasie by Widmann) and a traditional Doina from Romania (a form of improvised funereal lament) again played on a solo clarinet, this time situated offstage in the circle. The latter piece was particularly moving and well played.

After the interval we heard the She’Koyokh Klezmer Music Ensemble, who treated us to some traditional Klezmer music as well as other folk music from Eastern Europe. In fact their opening number, if I recall correctly, was from Turkey and it featured the very distinctive vocal style of Sigem Aslan. They played with great veuve and vitality and not inconsiderable virtuosity too. There was even an audience singalong in the middle. Some way into their set they were joined by members of the Aurora Orchestra. I felt that adding more musicians had the effect of somehow diffusing the impact of the original band, giving it a little less bite. That’s not to say however that the music wasn’t enjoyable because it certainly was!

There’s a taster of their style on this video:

It’s probably now obvious what the idea behind the concert was. Here it is as stated in the programme:

Iain Farrington’s dazzling chamber orchestra arrangement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, placed alongside a selection of klezmer and folk music performed by members of Aurora and She’koyokh, reveals the musical influences and inspirations behind Mahler’s masterpiece with new clarity. This will be an evening of insight and inspiration, eloquence and exuberance.

For my money it certainly succeeded in its aim. Bravo KlezMahler!


Incidentally, as a Jazz fan, I’ve often wondered about the influence that Klezmer might have had on the musical development of clarinettists like Benny Goodman. Here’s an example of his playing when he was young:

The opening of this does sound to me very Klezmery. What do you think?



Examination Times

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2014 by telescoper

After a gloriously sunny weekend, it’s now a gloriously sunny Monday. There always seems to be good weather when students are revising for, or actually taking, their examinations. It’s Mother Nature’s special torture. The bus I was on this morning went past a large crowd of students waiting outside the Sports Hall in the bright sunshine for some examination or other.  The sight did remind me that I usually post something about examinations at this time of year, so here’s a lazy rehash of my previous offerings on the subject.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with those of  William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. On previous occasions, before I moved to the University of Sussex, I’ve bemoaned the role that modularisation has played in this process, especially in my own discipline of physics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way modules are used in many British universities fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of many module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

In most UK universities (including Sussex), tudents take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. In many institutions, these are split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester; there are two semesters per year. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, so the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

Such an arrangement means a heavy ratio of assessment to education, one that has risen sharply over the last decades,  with the undeniable result that academic standards in physics have fallen across the sector. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorising chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period. Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I think the system we have here at the University of Sussex is much better than I’ve experienced elsewhere. For a start the basic module size is 15 credits. This means that students are usually only doing four things in parallel, and they consequently have fewer examinations, especially since they also take laboratory classes and other modules which don’t have a set examination at the end. There’s also a sizeable continuously assessed component (30%) for most modules so it doesn’t all rest on one paper. Unusually compared with the rest of the University, Physics students don’t have many examinations in the January mid-year examination period either. Although there’s still in my view too much emphasis on assessment and too little on the joy of finding things out, it’s much less pronounced than elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Department of Physics & Astronomy does so consistently well in the National Student Survey?

We also have modules called Skills in Physics which focus on developing the problem-solving skills I mentioned above; these are taught through a mixture of lectures and small-group tutorials. I don’t know what the students think of these sessions, but I always enjoy them because the problems set for each session are generally a bit wacky, some of them being very testing. In fact I’d say that I’m very impressed at the technical level of the modules in the Department of Physics & Astronomy generally. I’ve been teaching Green’s Functions, Conformal Transformations and the Calculus of Variations to second-year students this semester. Those topics weren’t on the syllabus at all in my previous institution!

Anyway, my Theoretical Physics paper is next week (on 28th May) so I’ll find out if the students managed to learn anything despite having such a lousy lecturer. Which reminds me, I must get the rest of their revision notes onto the Study Direct website…