Archive for October 17, 2018

R.I.P. Prof. Michael J Thompson

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 17, 2018 by telescoper

I just returned from giving a lecture to find an email in my inbox delivering the awful news that Professor Michael J. Thompson (pictured above) passed away unexpectedly on 15th October 2018, while at a scientific meeting in Tokyo.

Thompson’s scientific research activity was primarily in the field of helioseismology, astroseismology, solar physics, and inverse problems. He worked extensively in developing and applying inverse techniques in helioseismology and, in particular, measuring the stratification, rotation, and large-scale flows in the solar interior.

Along with being the Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Thompson was also an NCAR senior scientist. From 2010 to 2014 he directed the High Altitude Observatory and was an associate director of NCAR. Prior to joining NCAR, Mike Thompson was Head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the University of Sheffield, and was formerly a Professor of Physics at Imperial College London. I knew him very well personally from the time before that, as we worked together for many years in the Astronomy Unit in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. Although we didn’t work in the same topics we had many interesting discussions about inverse problems in our respective fields, as well as many other topics (especially cricket). I recall that he taught an MSc course on cosmology, which he volunteered to do as he was interested in learning more about the subject.

More recently we kept in touch regularly via dinners at the RAS Club, of which he was a member, until he moved to the USA. It is through the Club mailing list that I learnt the sad news of his death.

I know I can speak for everyone who knew him in saying that he was not only a first-rate scientist but also a greatly valued colleague and an extremely nice man. Mike will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him, and I extend my deepest condolences to his family at what must be a very difficult time.


UPDATE: Here’s a news item about Mike’s death from the local paper in Boulder Colorado.


The Blue of the Night: Giant Steps from Ondine

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , , , , , , on October 17, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a quick lunchtime post before I settle down to an afternoon of marking coursework.

On Monday evening after finishing preparing my lectures and things for Tuesday, I decided to tune in for a while to The Blue of the Night on RTÉ Lyric FM which is presented by Bernard Clarke. This is a programme that I listen to quite often in the evenings as I enjoy its eclectic mix of music.

Anyway, the Blue of Monday Night included a recording of the movement Ondine from the piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel. As I listened to it, I started to think of an entirely different piece, the jazz classic Giant Steps, by John Coltrane (which I’ve actually posted on this blog here). Not really expecting anything to come of it, I sent a message on Twitter to Bernard Clarke mentioning the fact that the Ravel piece reminded me of Giant Steps. A few minutes later I was astonished to hear Giant Steps playing. Bernard had not only replied to me on Twitter, but had slipped the Coltrane track into the programme. Which was nice.

That confirmed the similarity in my mind and I did some frantic Googling to see if anyone else had noticed the similarity. Of course they have. In a rather dense article about music theory (most of which I don’t understand, having never really studied this properly) I found this:

I didn’t know at first what the up and down arrows annotating the two pieces were, but they represent the harmonic progression in a very interesting way that I had never thought about it before. The assertion is that in some sense the (sub-dominant) IV and (dominant) V chords which very common in popular music are closely related. To see why, imagine you play C on a piano keyboard. If you go 7 semitones to the right you will arrive at G, which is the root note of the relevant V chord. That’s up a perfect fifth. But if instead you go 7 semitones to the left you get to F which is a fifth down but is also a perfect fourth if looked at from the point of view of C an octave below where you started. In this way `up’ arrow represents a perfect fifth up (or a perfect fourth down) while the `down’ arrow is a perfect fifth down or a perfect fourth up. This is deemed to be the basic (or `simple proper’) chord progression.

Single or double arrows to left or right represent substitutions of various kinds (e.g. a minor third), but I won’t go further into the details. The key point is that while the actual chords differ after the first few changes because of the different substitutions, the chord progression in these two piece is remarkably similar judged by the sequence of arrows. The main exception is a different substitution in bar 3 of the Coltrane excerpt. Both pieces end up achieving the same thing: they complete an entire chromatic cycle through a sequence of basic progressions and substitutions.

I don’t know whether Coltrane was directly inspired by listening to Ravel or whether they both hit on the same idea independently, but I find this totally fascinating. So much so that I’ll probably end up trying to annotate some of the chord changes I’ve worked out from other recordings and see what they look like in the notation outlined above.