Archive for May, 2016

Too windy for Zeppelins

Posted in History on May 31, 2016 by telescoper

Fascinating recreation of the weather pattern at the Battle of Jutland

Old Weather Blog

100 years ago today – 31st May 1916, saw the start of a major fleet action between the British and German navies: The battle of Jutland.

This is right in the middle of the period covered by the original oldWeather project, so you’d think we had all the logbooks and observations, at least from the British half of the battle, but alas, it’s not so. The Grand Fleet sounds impressive, and with as many as 40 major warships surely was impressive, but it didn’t travel much: The doctrine of ‘Fleet in being’ means that all those battleships stayed in port as a threatening influence rather than travelling to distant locations, and that puts them right at the bottom of our priority list for transcription, and we’ve never looked at them.

So we don’t have the Grand Fleet, but we can still reconstruct the weather of the battle, and…

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The Battle of Jutland

Posted in History with tags , , , on May 30, 2016 by telescoper

I’m going to be away for the rest of the week so I thought I’d mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland a little early. In fact this battle, by far the largest naval engagement of the First World War, started  on 31st May 1916 and carried on into the early hours of the morning of 1st June when the German fleet, under Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, retreated. It took place in the North Sea off the western coast of the Jutland peninsula, and is referred to in Germany as the Battle of the Skagerrak, the strait that separates Jutland from southern Norway.

At the time of the battle are that Germany was under a naval blockade imposed by the Royal Navy, the main parts of which were organised into a “rapid response” fleet of cruisers and battle-cruisers (led by Admiral Sir David Beatty) and a “Grand Fleet” of larger but slower battleships (under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe). Knowing that his combined forces were much smaller than those of the British, so he couldn’t afford to take them on head to head, Scheer’s plan was to draw out and destroy as much as possible  of the lighter British fleet before the heavier ships could react. The problem was that the British had deciphered German communications that revealed a major operation was under way, so in fact the Grand Fleet left its base in Scapa Flow on May 30th, 100 years ago today.


HMS Barham Valiant Malaya & Warspite heading to the Battle of Jutland on May 31st 1916

The first engagement, which turned out to be a preliminary skirmish, went very much in Germany’s favour, and two of Beatty’s battlecruisers were sunk. However, he then used his fleet to lure the German ships towards Jellicoe’s forces and battle was joined between the two main fleets. The outcome of this battle in terms of lost men and material was clearly in Germany’s favour. They exploited numerous technical deficiencies in the British ships  as well as tactical errors by their commanding officers, and ended up sinking 3 battlecruisers, 3 armoured cruisers, and  8 destroyers for the loss of 1 battlecruiser, 1 pre-dreadnought, 4 light cruisers and 5 torpedo-boats. In terms of casualties it was even clearer: over 6,000 were killed on the British side compared to just over 2,500 on the German side.

One other thing is clear, the cautious Jellicoe missed at least two opportunities to secure a decisive victory. The first came when  Scheer’s fleet first encountered the British Grand Fleet. Staggered to see the massed battleships of Jellicoe’s force precisely where it shouldn’t have been, Scheer turned his entire flight around  to the West. Jellicoe didn’t follow it, but instead turned to the East. He could have sprung the trap but didn’t. Later on he compunded this decision by allowing the German ships to slip through his formation under the cover of darkness, back towards their base, after the battle proper had ended.

The strategic outcome of the Battle of Jutland is a bit harder to judge. Some have argued that although it was a tactical defeat it was a strategic victory. The naval blockade indeed remained in place until 1918 and it undoubtedly contributed to the eventual defeat of Germany. Seen in that light, Jellicoe’s decision not to take risks to secure an outright victory is quite understandable. He didn’t need an outright victory, he just needed to keep the German flight bottled up. A draw was fine. To others, Jellicoe had simply messed up. Winston Churchill described Jellicoe as “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon”.

Jutland became a PR disaster when the British government failed to inform the public what had happened and allowed the Germans to gain a huge propaganda victory. It got worse when battered ships laden with dead and badly wounded sailors arrived at their home ports. Jellicoe was soon removed from his position as commander of the Grand Fleet and given a desk job as First Sea Lord. Beatty replaced him.

Anyway, that was all 100 years ago. It’s not such a long time by historical standards, but at least now another war between Britain and Germany is unthinkable, and has been for over 70 years. Let’s keep it that way.



Open Science in the European Union

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , on May 29, 2016 by telescoper

A few days ago I noticed a remarkable announcement about a meeting of European Ministers in Brussels relating to Open Access Publishing.This has subsequently been picked up by the Grauniad and has been creating quite a stir.

To summarise the report coming out of the meeting, here is a quotation from the draft communique, which states that they

…welcome open access to scientific publications as the option by default for publishing the results of publicly-funded research..

They also plan to

To remove financial and legal barriers, and to take the necessary steps for successful implementation in all scientific domains.

In a nutshell, the proposal is a move to abandon the traditional journal subscription model and embrace freely-available scientific research by 2020.

This is definitely a very good move. My only worry is that those involved seem not to have been able to make a decision on whether to go for the Green or Gold Open Access Model. The latter route has, in my opinion, been grossly abused by profiteering academic publishers who charge eye-watering “processing fees” for open access. I hope this initiative by the EU is not hijacked by vested interests as was the case with the UK’s Finch Report.

There’s clearly a lot more to be done before this proposal can be implemented, but it’s a very positive development the EU which will benefit science, both in the UK and across the continent, hugely. The European Union’s enthusiastic embrace of the principles of open access to scientific research is just one more to add to the list of reasons to remain.




Computable Numbers, 80 Years on..

Posted in History, mathematics, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 28, 2016 by telescoper

There’s been rather a lot of sad news conveyed via this blog recently, so I thought that today I’d mark a happier event. Eighty years ago today (i.e. on 28th May 1936), a paper by Alan Turing arrived at the London Mathematical Society. Entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Enstscheidungsproblem“, this was not only enormously influential but also a truly beautiful piece of work. Turing was only 23 when he wrote it. It was delivered to the London Mathematical Society about 6 months after it was submitted,  i.e. in November 1936..

Here’s the first page:


The full reference is

Proc. London Math. Soc. (1937) s2-42 (1): 230-265. doi: 10.1112/plms/s2-42.1.230

You can find the full paper here. I heartily recommend reading it, it’s wonderful.


In My Dreams

Posted in Poetry with tags , on May 27, 2016 by telescoper

In my dreams I am always saying goodbye and riding away,
Whither and why I know not nor do I care.
And the parting is sweet and the parting over is sweeter,
And sweetest of all is the night and the rushing air.

In my dreams they are always waving their hands and saying goodbye,
And they give me the stirrup cup and I smile as I drink,
I am glad the journey is set, I am glad I am going,
I am glad, I am glad, that my friends don’t know what I think.

by Stevie Smith (1902-1971)

Jazz and Physics

Posted in History, Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 26, 2016 by telescoper

No time for a full post today, so I’ll just share this intriguing picture I found on the interwebs of two great figures from very different fields: Jazz trumpet legend Louis Armstrong and pioneering quantum physicist, Niels Bohr.


When I first saw this I assumed it had been photoshopped, but I’m reliably informed that the picture is genuine and that it was taken in Copenhagen in 1959. Other than that I know nothing of the circumstances in which it was taken. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows the full story!

The Price of Jackson

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 25, 2016 by telescoper

The chance conjunction on this blog of a post about the death of Professor  J.D. Jackson with another about the greed of academic publishers caught the attention of one Ian Jackson (son of the aforementioned Professor) and prompted him to forward me some correspondence between his father and the publisher of the famous textbook, Classical Electrodynamics (published by John Wiley & Sons).

I won’t copy it all here, but here is an excerpt:

The Letter of Agreement of 1996 stipulates that Wiley should not increase the net price more than 5% in any two year period with the author’s permission. A month or so ago I found out from the physics Editor that the US net price was $87, a big jump from the last number I knew. By knowing that the list price is closely 1.3 times the net, I could look at my records of the single copy list price on Wiley’s web site to find that they had increased the price by 5% at least once and probably twice beyond what was permitted by our agreement. I wrote a strong letter, citing chapter and verse about their obvious violation.

John David Jackson was obviously a generous man: the royalties for this book were divided among his four children (including my correspondent Ian). He goes on to add in a letter to all four of them, after the publishers agreed to reduce the list price:

Sorry to be keeping your royalties in check, but I was thinking of the poor students who are paying 1.3 x $82 = $106.60.

They do keep the book for the rest of their lives, so perhaps it is an OK investment.

I don’t remember how much I paid for my copy, but I don’t begrudge the amount because it’s an excellent book. You should always remember, however, that the author of a textbook typically only gets a small percentage (usually~10% ) of the net receipts.

The correspondence sent by Ian includes this hand-drawn graph by the late Professor Jackson:


It seems Professor Jackson shared my (low) opinion of academic publishers!

For the record, my textbook on Cosmology (co-authored with Francesco Lucchin) was also published by Wiley. A representative of the publisher explained to me that their pricing strategy involved trying to keep the revenue constant in time, so that as sales went down the price went up. My book is now very much out of date so I can understand why the sales have fallen off, but I find it hard to believe that the same is true of an enduring classic. Professor Jackson seems to have agreed; he described Wiley’s pricing strategy as “gouging”…