Archive for December, 2017

New Year’s Eve Post

Posted in Crosswords on December 31, 2017 by telescoper

Well, this year has been rounded off nicely with a win in the Everyman Crossword Competition:

In due course I’ll be distributing largesse in the form of a new set of dictionaries like these..

Other than that, it’s chucking it down here in Cardiff so the rest of New Year’s Eve will involve me staying in, drinking a cocktail or two, eating steak and chips with a nice bottle of Amarone, and doing today’s  Azed puzzle.

Let me just take this opportunity to wish you all out there a happy, peaceful, and prosperous 2018!


The Society for Failed Astronauts 

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on December 30, 2017 by telescoper

Attempting to reacclimatise after a whole week  incommunicado one of the first things I noticed was the newly published New Year’s Honours List.

Among those receiving an honour this time round is Helen Sharman who has been made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (whatever that is). 

Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut in 1991 when she took a turn in the Mir space station as a result of Project Juno.

I’m not a fan of the honours system (to say the least), but Helen Sharman’s achievement is well worth celebrating, so heartiest congratulations to her! 

I remember being asked to chair a public talk by Helen Sharman many years ago at which I absent-mindedly introduced her as Helen Shapiro. I wanted the ground to swallow me up after that gaffe but she was very charming about it and took it in good spirit.

Anyway, the selection of potential astronauts for Project Juno began in 1989, with newspaper and radio adverts. About 13,000 people applied. In fact, to let you all in on a secret, I was one.

A keen long-distance runner in those days, I was physically fit enough to be in contention. I could also provide evidence of an ability to learn languages, chiefly through a knowledge of Latin and French from O-level. I passed the initial selection but, predictably, was later rejected after failing the psychological tests.

I noticed that Helen Sharman and I were born just a few days apart (in 1963) and it occurred to me that there must be quite a few people out there, of a similar vintage, perhaps some of them readers of this blog, who were among the 13,000 who, like myself, failed to become astronauts. 

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who applied to Project Juno to find out what they ended up doing. I know one or two university professors after being rejected by Project Juno, but there must be some among the 13,000 who did something useful with their lives! Please let me know through the comments box.

Perhaps we could form a (not very exclusive) club? How about the Rejected Astronaut Society? No. the initials ‘RAS’ are taken…

I know. The Society for Failed Astronauts! 

Off for Christmas!

Posted in Biographical on December 23, 2017 by telescoper

Well, as of now I’m offline as well as off-duty, off piste, off the beaten track, off-centre, offhand, off the wagon, off my face, off my head, off colour, off limits and off topic until after Christmas.

That means there won’t be any more blog posts, tweets, Facebook, emails or phone calls until next week at the earliest.

I’d just like to wish you all the compliments of the season and hope you have a peaceful and enjoyable holiday.

Nadolig Llawen!

The Fable of Mabel

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on December 22, 2017 by telescoper

Now, as a special Christmas treat, I present for you one of my all-time favourite pieces of music. It was recorded by Serge Chaloff Octet in Boston, in September 1954 and I’ve loved it ever since I first heard it on The Best of Jazz, the radio show that was presented by Humphrey Lyttelton for many years on Radio 2, way back in the 1980s. Humph had eclectic musical tastes and I am forever in his debt for introducing me to relatively obscure pieces such as this which have given me so much pleasure over the years. I can see I’m not the only WordPress blogger who loves this track too!

The lineup for this track is Serge Chaloff (baritone sax) Herb Pomeroy (trumpet) Gene DiStachio (trombone) Charlie Mariano (also saxophone) Varty Haritounian (trumpet) Dick Twardzik (piano) Ray Oliveri (bass) and Jimmy Zitano (drums). Serge Chaloff was a famously dissolute and chaotic character, who struggled to control a serious narcotics habit, but he was a marvellously accomplished player of the huge and unwieldy baritone sax. Chaloff plays beautifully on this track but the star is the amazingly innovative pianist and composer Dick Twardzik, who wrote the piece. Had he not died so young (in 1955, of a heroin overdose, on tour in Paris with Chet Baker, at the age of just 24) he would have become a household name in Jazz.

Twardzik had this to say about The Fable of Mabel on the sleevenote:

The Fable of Mabel was introduced to jazz circles in 1951-52 by the Serge Chaloff Quartet. Audiences found this satirical jazz legend a welcome respite from standard night club fare. In this legend, Mabel is depicted as a woman who loves men, music and her silver saxophone that played counterpoint (her own invention which proved impractical). The work is divided into three movements: first, New Orleans; second Classical; and third, Not Too Sad An Ending. The soulful baritone solo Serge Chaloff traces Mabel’s humble beginnings working railroad cars in New Orleans to her emergence as a practising crusader for the cause of Jazz. During her Paris days on the Jazz Houseboat, her struggle for self-expression is symbolized by an unusual saxophone duet Charlie Mariano and Varty Haritrounian. Mabel always said she wanted to go out blowing. She did.

This piece is radically different from the mixture of bop tunes and standards that provided the bulk of the repertoire for Chaloff’s band in the 1950s and it provides a superb example of how the musical revolution pioneered by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk et al. opened the doors and ushered in a wave of creativity that fanned out in all kinds of unexpected directions. I love The Fable of Mabel for its quirkiness, the virtuosity of the playing, and for the edgy, Noir-ish atmosphere that it generates. Incidentally, it’s interesting that most of the musicians on this track are of Eastern European extraction, as were many of the leading lights of Film Noir. I always felt this track would make a perfect soundtrack for such a film.

If ever got asked to go on one of those radio programmes where you have to pick your favourite pieces of music, this would definitely be among my selections. I hope you enjoy it too!

The Winter Solstice

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by telescoper

The winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere happens today, Thursday 21st December 2017, at 16.28 GMT (16.28 UTC). This marks the shortest day of the year: days will get longer from now until the Summer Solstice next June.  In fact the interval between sunrise and sunset tomorrow will be a whole two seconds longer tomorrow than it is today. Yippee!

Anyway, in advance of this forthcoming celestial event I thought I’d present some solstitial facts for your entertainment and edification or so you can bore people with them in the pub later on.

As we were discussing in the office today, however, this does not mean that sunrise will happen earlier tomorrow than it did this morning. In fact, sunrise will carry on getting later until the new year. This is because there is a difference between mean solar time (measured by clocks) and apparent solar time (defined by the position of the Sun in the sky), so that a solar day does not always last exactly 24 hours. A description of apparent and mean time was given by Nevil Maskelyne in the Nautical Almanac for 1767:

Apparent Time is that deduced immediately from the Sun, whether from the Observation of his passing the Meridian, or from his observed Rising or Setting. This Time is different from that shewn by Clocks and Watches well regulated at Land, which is called equated or mean Time.

The discrepancy between mean time and apparent time arises because of the Earth’s axial tilt and the fact that it travels around the Sun in an elliptical orbit in which its orbital speed varies with time of year (being faster at perihelion than at aphelion).

In fact if you plot the position of the Sun in the sky at a fixed time each day from a fixed location on the Earth you get a thing called an analemma, which is a sort of figure-of-eight shape whose shape depends on the observer’s latitude. Here’s a photographic version taken in Edmonton, with photographs of the Sun’s position taken from the same position at the same time on different days over the course of a year:


The winter solstice is the lowermost point on this curve and the summer solstice is at the top. The north–south component of the analemma is the Sun’s declination, and the east–west component is the so-called equation of time which quantifies the difference between mean solar time and apparent solar time. This curve can be used to calculate the earliest and/or latest sunrise and/or sunset.

Using a more rapid calculational tool (Google), I found a table of the local mean times of sunrise and sunset for Cardiff (where I live) around the 2016 winter solstice. The table shows that today is indeed the shortest day (with a time between sunrise and sunset of 7 hours 49 minutes and 59 seconds).  The table also shows that sunset already started occurring later in the day before the winter solstice (although the weather has been too overcast to notice this), and sunrise will continue to happen later for a few days after the solstice. In fact the earliest sunset this year in Cardiff was on 12th December, and the latest sunrise will be on 30th December.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Why I’m moving to Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2017 by telescoper

Over the past few weeks quite a number of people have asked me why I decided to move to Ireland, so thought I’d write a post about it in case anyone out there is interested.

The simple answer that I was offered a full-time permanent and rather well paid job at Maynooth University. I’m currently on a part-time fixed term contract at Cardiff University.  The salary wasn’t the main factor, but the low value of the £ relative to the € means that I will do quite well financially out of the move. On top of that I will be joining a final salary pension scheme which has far more favourable terms that the scheme that applies to UK academic staff. Oh, and there’s neither a Research Excellence Framework nor a Teaching Excellence Framework nor a Knowledge Exchange Framework nor punitive levels of student tuition fees nor any of the many other  idiocies that have been inflicted on UK universities in recent years. It will be a relief to be able to teach and do research in environment which, at least for the time being, regards these as things of value in themselves rather than as means of serving the empty cycle of production and consumption that defines the modern neoliberal state. Above all, it’s a good old-fashioned professorship. You know, teaching and research?

That’s the simple answer, but there’s a bit more to it than that. I left Sussex in 2016 with the intention of taking early retirement as soon as I could do so. My short exposure to  a role in senior management, as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, convinced me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life  in a system that I felt had lost all sight of what universities are and what they are for. I was (and still am) deeply grateful to Cardiff University for throwing me a lifeline that enabled me to escape from what I increasingly saw as a dead-end job, and giving me an interesting job to do to tide me over until next year, when I am 55 and therefore eligible for early retirement.

I think I have done everything that was asked of me in my current position at Cardiff, on a half-time salary but often up against very short timescales. The two MSc courses I was brought in to set up are both now running and looking to expand. On top of that we also managed to secure funding for a Centre for Doctoral Training. I only played a small part in doing that, but I think it has put the Data Innovation Research Institute on the map.  When both of these successes had been secured earlier this year, I felt that there was no way that leaving now would have a negative effect either on the Data Innovation Institute or the School of Physics & Astronomy. By about April this year I had firmly decided to retire completely from academia in mid-2018.

The problem with this plan had been apparent since 2016: Brexit.  I think it’s still quite possible that the Brexit project will fail under the weight of its own contradictions, but that no longer matters. The damage has already been done. The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

So, having spent most of my working life in the UK higher education system and decided that my heart was no longer in that, I then had to face that my heart was no longer in this country at all. Could I face years of retirement in mean-spirited down-market Brexit Britain? What was I to do?

I’ve mentioned many times on this blog how lucky I have been that opportunities have come along at exactly the right time. In May, a friend pointed out the advertisement for a job in Maynooth with an application deadline just a few days away. Cosmology was specifically mentioned as one of the possible areas. I felt that they would probably be looking for someone younger, and my research output over the last few years has been patchy given my other commitments, but at the last minute I sent off an application.

Ireland has a particularly strong attraction for me because I have Irish ancestry through which I am eligible for citizenship without having to go through the naturalisation process (which takes 5 years, still less than many EU countries). Together with an Irish EU passport comes a continuation of the rights – especially freedom of movement – that UK citizens will shortly lose. It seemed like outrageously good luck that this post came up just at the right time, but the end of July came and went without any news. I assumed I hadn’t been shortlisted, so forgot about the idea.

Then, in September I received a letter inviting me for interview just a couple of weeks later. I’m not sure why the process was  so delayed, but was overjoyed to find out there was still a chance. The date clashed with a prior commitment, so I had to do the interview via Skype (over a flaky internet connection from a hotel room) rather than in person.  I thought it went very badly, but I ended up being offered the job. I visited Maynooth University shortly after being informed of this, to discuss terms.

The people at Maynooth were keen to have me start there as soon as possible, but given the lateness of the interview date I had already committed to teaching in Cardiff this forthcoming Semester and I wasn’t going to leave my current colleagues and students in the lurch. There was an obvious solution, however. I am employed here at 50% FTE so I could start in Maynooth at up to 50% without having to resign. We quickly agreed this transitional arrangement was workable, and I started there on 1st December.  The period from February to April will be very busy, as I will be working either side of the Irish Sea, but it’s only for a relatively short time. Next summer I plan to relocate completely to Ireland.

You probably think I’m a bit old to be starting a new life in another country, even one that’s relatively nearby, but I reckon I have time for this one last adventure before I retire. In the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses, `It is not too late to seek a newer world’.  I have worked in British universities since 1988. That’s almost 30 years. I reckon I can still contribute something in the last 10 I have before I pull down the shutters for good. Who knows, maybe I’ll even experience the joy of living in a United Ireland before long?

The press have covered a number of stories of EU nationals who have been living in Britain and who have decided to leave because of Brexit. Surprisingly little attention has been paid to those, like myself, who are also EU nationals but who happen have been born in Britain. I know more than a few academics who are weighing up their options, as well as those born abroad I know who have already departed.  The Brexodus has already begun and its pace seems likely to accelerate very quickly indeed. Other have personal situations that are more complicated than mine, such as partners and children, so not everyone will find it easy to follow a similar path to the one I’ve chosen, but I those that can get out will do so.

Because I’ve lived here all my life I thought I would find it difficult to leave Britain. I was quite traumatised by the Brexit referendum, as one would be by the death of a close relative, but it made me reexamine my life. There is a time when you have to move on, and that’s what I’m doing. I’m done here.



A problem of fluid flowing through a hole

Posted in Cute Problems with tags , , , , on December 19, 2017 by telescoper

I’m sure you’re all already as bored of Christmas as I am so I thought I’d do you all a favour by giving you something interested to do to distract you from the yuletide tedium,
The cute problem of the water tank I posted a while ago seemed to provide a diversion for many – although only about 10% of respondents go it right – so here’s a similar one. It’s not multiple choice so you will have to write your answers to the two parts in the comments box. As a hint, I’ll  say that this is from some notes on dimensional analysis, and it’s one of the harder problems I have in that file!

An incompressible fluid flows through a small hole of diameter d in a thin plane metal sheet. The volume flow rate R depends on d, on the fluid viscosity η and density ρ, and on the pressure difference p between the two sides of the she

(a) Find the most general possible relationship between the quantities  R, d, η,  ρ, and p.

(b) Measurement of the flow rate R1  through this the hole for a pressure difference p1 is made using a particular fluid. What can be predicted for a fluid of twice the density and one-third the viscosity?


As usual, answers through the comments box please!