Archive for October, 2016

You Spin Me Right Round

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags on October 25, 2016 by telescoper

News yesterday of the death, at the age of 57, of Pete Burns reminded me of this number from 1985 by Dead or Alive. This seemed to be playing every time I went to a club in those days and is thus a kind of theme song for happy times, now lost forever.

R.I.P. Pete Burns (1959-2016)

Advertisements

Weekend Postscript

Posted in Uncategorized on October 24, 2016 by telescoper

The post I wrote on Saturday about the case of Bode versus Mundell had attracted a lot of attention on this blog over the past few days, and has led to a number of people sending me private messages and emails, mainly about wider aspects of the case.

Most of these have expressed thanks for bringing this matter to the attention of the astronomy community. Others have been extremely critical of my post. The rest have contents that I cannot possibly disclose here. Or anywhere else.

For the record I have no regrets whatsoever about writing what I did. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the libel action it seems to me that the publicity arising from its failure has revealed an apparent failure of process, in that a charge of sexual harassment was raised but never properly resolved.

After much thought I have decided not to accept the invitation by Dr Chris Simpson to discuss the harassment case in person via Skype. There are two main  reasons for this.

One is that I do not feel it would be appropriate to get only one side of the story and am clearly unable to talk to whoever made the complaint to see the other side. Their identity is rightly not in the public domain. In other words it is precisely in the interest of balance that I am not going to be drawn into further discussion of the original harassment allegations with one of the parties to the case and not the other(s).

The other reason is that the most important point I wanted to make in my post was not about whether the harassment complaint would or would not have been upheld (which was not an in issue in the court case either) but that the investigation ended before a resolution could be reached one way or the other. Lessons need to be learnt if we are to reach a situation in which bona fide complainants have sufficient confidence in the process to make it worthwhile coming forward.

The Case of Bode versus Mundell

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by telescoper

Getting ready to come in and help with today’s Undergraduate Open Day today at Cardiff University, I checked Twitter this morning and found a number of tweets about a shocking news story that I feel obliged to comment on.  The astronomy community in the United Kingdom is fairly small and relatively close-knit, which makes this case especially troubling, but it does have far wider ramifications in the University sector and beyond.

I don’t usually link to stories in the Daily Mail, but you can find the item here. The report relates to a libel action taken by Astronomy Professor Mike Bode of Liverpool John Moores University against Professor Carole Mundell, a former employee of that institution who is now Head of the Astrophysics group at the University of Bath.  Carole Mundell is a highly regarded extragalactic observational astronomer who works primarily on gamma-ray bursters and their implications for cosmology.

The case revolves around allegations of sexual harassment (and, according to the Daily Mail, sexual assault) made against another former employee of Liverpool John Moores, Dr Chris Simpson, by a female student, and the allegation by Professor Mundell that Professor Bode wrote a misleading reference on behalf of Dr Simpson that omitted mention of the pending allegations and allowed him to move to a post in South Africa before the investigations into them could be concluded. Professsor Bode claimed that this allegation was defamatory and sued Professor Mundell for libel and slander.

The Daily Mail story is not very illuminating as to the substance of the litigation but a full account of the case of Bode versus Mundell can be found here. In fact the case did not go to a full trial hearing, but summarily dismissed before getting that far on the grounds that it would certainly fail; you can find more information about the judgment at the above link.

I had no idea any of this was going on until this morning. The story left me shocked, angry and dismayed but also full of admiration for Carole Mundell’s courage and determination in fighting this case. I think I’ll refrain from commenting further on the conduct of Mike Bode and Chris Simpson, or indeed that of Liverpool John Moores University, except to say that I hope this affair does not end with this failed action and that wider lessons can be learned from what happened in this case. I suspect that Liverpool John Moores is going to have some seriously bad publicity about this, but of greater concern to the wider community is the apparent failure of process in dealing with the allegations about Chris Simpson.

Note added in Clarification (29/10/2016). I am not making any statement here about whether I think the allegations about Dr Simpson were true or false or what the outcome of the disciplinary process might have been. I have absolutely no idea about that. What I do know (as it is in the public domain) is that the investigation lasted five months and did not reach a conclusion. That, to me, indicates a failure of process.

Coincidentally, yesterday saw the publication of a report by the Universities UK Task Force examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.  The document includes a number of rather harrowing case studies that make for difficult reading, but it’s an important document. A new set of guidelines has been issued relating to how to handle allegations that involve behaviour that may be criminal (such as sexual assault).  I urge anyone working in the HE sector (or pretty much anywhere else for that matter) to read the recommendations and to act on them.

I have no idea whether sexual harassment is an increasing problem on campus or what we are seeing is increased reporting, but it is clear that this is a serious problem in the UK’s universities. On paper, the policies and procedures universities already have in place for should be able to deal with many of the issues raised in the Task Force report, but there seems to me to be an individual and perhaps even institutional reluctance to follow these procedures properly. The fear of reputational damage seems to be standing in the way of the genuine cultural change that we need.

Bode versus Mundell may well prove to be a landmark case that makes the astronomy community come to terms with the sexual harassment going on in its midst. As much I’d like to be proved wrong, however, I don’t think it is likely to be the last scandal that will come to light. Carole Mundell’s courage may well lead to more people coming forward, and perhaps changes in practice will mean they are pursued more vigorously. Cultural transformation may prove to be a painful process, but it will prove to have been worth it.

 

 

 

 

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”)

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2016 by telescoper

Last night I was at St David’s Hall in Cardiff yet again, this time for a piece that I’ve never heard in a live performance: Symphony No.2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler. This is a colossal work, in five movements, that lasts about 90 minutes. The performance involved not only a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, but also two solo vocalists and a sizeable choir (although the choir does not make its entrance until the start of the long final movement, about an hour into the piece). In my seat before the concert I was particularly struck by the size of the brass section of the orchestra, but it turned out to be even larger than it looked as there were three trumpets and three French horns hidden offstage in the wings for most of the performance – they joined the rest of the orchestra onstage for the finale.

The musicians involved last night were the Orchestra and Chorus of Welsh National Opera, and the Welsh National Opera Community Choir, conducted by Tomáš Hanus who is the new music director of Welsh National Opera; this was his St David’s Hall debut. Soloists were soprano Rebecca Evans (who was born in Pontrhydyfen, near Neath, and is a local favourite at St David’s Hall) and mezzosoprano Karen Cargill (making her St David’s debut).

I don’t really have the words to describe what a stunning musical experience this was. I was gripped all the way through, from the relatively sombre but subtly expressive opening movement through the joyously dancing second movement that recalls happier times, the third which is based on a Jewish folk tune and which ends in a shattering climax Mahler described as “a shriek of despair”, the fourth movement is built around a setting of one of the songs from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, sung beautifully by Karen Cargill who has a lovely velvety voice very well suited to this piece, which seems more like a contralto part than a mezzo. The changing moods of the work are underlined by a tonality that shifts from minor to major and back again. All that was wonderfully performed, but it was in the climactic final movement – which lasts almost half an hour and is based on setting of a poem mostly written by Mahler himself, sung by Rebecca Evans, that what was already a very good concert turned into something truly remarkable.

On many occasions I’ve written about Welsh National Opera performances in the opera theatre and in the course of doing so I’ve very often mentioned the superb WNO Chorus. They weren’t called upon until the final movement, but as soon as they started to sing they lifted the concert to another level. At first they sang sitting down, which struck me as a little strange, but later on I realised that they were holding something in reserve for the final moments of the work. As the symphony moved inexorably towards its climax I noticed the offstage brass players coming onto the stage, the choir standing up, and the organist (who had been sitting patiently with nothing to for most of the performance) took his seat. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up in anticipation of a thrilling sound to come. I wasn’t disappointed. The final stages of this piece are sublime, jubilant, shattering, transcendent but, above all, magnificently, exquisitely loud! The WNO Chorus, responding in appropriate fashion to Mahler’s instruction to sing “”mit höchster Kraft” combined with the full force of the Orchestra and the St David’s Hall organ to create an overwhelming wall of radiant sound. Superb.

Mahler himself wrote of the final movement: “The increasing tension, working up to the final climax, is so tremendous that I don’t know myself, now that it is over, how I ever came to write it.” Well, who knows where genius comes from, but Mahler was undoubtedly a genius. People often stay that his compositions are miserable, angst-ridden and depressing. I don’t find that at all. It’s true that this, as well as Mahler’s other great works, takes you on an emotional journey that is at times a difficult one. There are passages that are filled with apprehension or even dread. But without darkness there is no light. The ending of the Resurrection Symphony is all the more triumphant because of what has come before.

The end of the performance was greeted with rapturous applause (and a well-deserved standing ovation). Congratulations to Tomáš Hanus, Karen Cargill, Rebecca Evans and all the musicians who took part in last night’s concert which is one that I’ll remember for a very long time.

P.S. You might be interested to know that St David’s Hall has been ranked in the world’s Top Ten Concert Halls in terms of sound quality. Those of us lucky enough to live in or near Cardiff are blessed to have such a great venue and so many superb great concerts right on our doorstep!

P.P.S. The concert got a five-star review in the Guardian.

Remembering the Aberfan Disaster

Posted in History with tags , on October 20, 2016 by telescoper

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of a truly appalling tragedy:the disaster at Aberfan which took place on 21st October 1966. A colliery spoil heap in the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, underwent a catastrophic collapse caused by a build-up of water, and more than 40,000 cubic metres of debris slid downhill into the village. The classrooms at Pantglas Junior School were immediately inundated; young children and teachers died from impact or suffocation. In all, 144 people lost their lives that day, including 116 children at the school. The collapse occurred at 9.15am. Had the disaster struck a few minutes earlier, the children would not have been in their classrooms, and if it had struck a few hours later, they would have left for the half-term holiday. As it happened, it was a tragedy of unbearable dimensions, that shattered many lives and devastated the community. It was caused largely by negligence on behalf of the National Coal Board

The First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, has called upon the people of Wales to pause and remember the Aberfan disaster with a minute’s silence at 9.15am tomorrow (i.e. on Friday 21 October). Cardiff University will be observing this silence, and so will I. I hope readers of this blog will pause to reflect at that time too.

Here is a short video featuring the voice of Jeff Edwards, a survivor of the Aberfan disaster, recalling his harrowing experiences of that day in a conversation with Dr Robert Parker of the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Cardiff University. Rob’s research looks at landslide processes, landscape evolution, catastrophe modelling and post-disaster assessment.

KiDS-450: Testing extensions to the standard cosmological model [CEA]

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 19, 2016 by telescoper

Since I’ve just attended a seminar in Cardiff by Catherine Heymans on exactly this work, I couldn’t resist reblogging the arXiver entry for this paper which appeared on arXiv a couple of days ago.

The key finding is that the weak lensing analysis of KIDS data (which is mainly to the distribution of matter at low redshift) does seem to be discrepant with the predictions of the standard cosmological model established by Planck (which is sensitive mainly to high-redshift fluctuations).

Could this discrepancy be interpreted as evidence of something going on beyond the standard cosmology? Read the paper to explore some possibilities!

arXiver

http://arxiv.org/abs/1610.04606

We test extensions to the standard cosmological model with weak gravitational lensing tomography using 450 deg$^2$ of imaging data from the Kilo Degree Survey (KiDS). In these extended cosmologies, which include massive neutrinos, nonzero curvature, evolving dark energy, modified gravity, and running of the scalar spectral index, we also examine the discordance between KiDS and cosmic microwave background measurements from Planck. The discordance between the two datasets is largely unaffected by a more conservative treatment of the lensing systematics and the removal of angular scales most sensitive to nonlinear physics. The only extended cosmology that simultaneously alleviates the discordance with Planck and is at least moderately favored by the data includes evolving dark energy with a time-dependent equation of state (in the form of the $w_0-w_a$ parameterization). In this model, the respective $S_8 = sigma_8 sqrt{Omega_{rm m}/0.3}$ constraints agree at the $1sigma$ level, and there is `substantial concordance’ between…

View original post 159 more words

Chuck Berry on a Summer’s Day

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on October 19, 2016 by telescoper

I was meaning to post this yesterday about Chuck Berry to mark his 90th Birthday. I’m putting it here as a bit of an oddity but I hope you find it interesting.

Chuck Berry appeared in Bert Stern’s classic film Jazz on Summer’s Day which was filmed at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. He performed on that occasion with a pick-up band called the Newport All-Stars, and the number that made it into the film was Sweet Little Sixteen, a tune that he actually wrote. I find two things fascinating about this performance. One is that the “backing band” is a stellar group of Jazz legends: the drummer is the great Jo Jones (who led the lightly swinging rhythm section of the great Count Basie band of the 1930s); the trumpeter is Buck Clayton, another Basie alumnus; and the trombonist is none other than Jack Teagarden. To a Jazz fan like myself, the talents of these musicians are totally wasted: they seem somewhat bemused by Chuck Berry’s gyrations on stage as well as bored by the material. When the time comes for the improvised solos that a jazz audience demands, only the relatively unknown clarinettist Rudy Rutherford – usually a tenor saxophonist who played with a number of bands, including Count Basie’s – was prepared to stand up and be counted, his strange effort is evidently a source of great amusement to the rest of the band, but at least he got into the spirit!

The other fascinating thing is what a historical document this is. During the 1950s Jazz was beginning to lose out to Rock and Roll in the popularity stakes, hence the plan of booking Chuck Berry to boost the audience figures at the Newport Jazz Festival. The tension on stage is almost palpable and even Chuck Berry occasionally looks a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. But it’s also a wonderfully observed portrayal of the styles of the time, especially through the audience shots. I wonder what happened to the cute couple dancing to this performance?

Anyway, belated best wishes on his 90th Birthday, here’s Chuck Berry recorded live 58 years ago at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, singing and playing Sweet Little Sixteen.

 

P.S. I forgot to mention the superb photography.