Archive for the Poetry Category

The Most Ancient Heavens

Posted in Art, Biographical, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am, in that London, getting ready for the start of a two-day conference at the Royal Astronomical Society on cosmology, large-scale structure, and weak gravitational lensing, to celebrate the work of Professor Alan Heavens, on (or near) the occasion of his 60th birthday. Yes, it is a great name for an astronomer.

I was honoured to be invited to give a talk at this meeting, though my immediate reaction when I was told about was `But he can’t be sixty! He’s only a few years older than me…oh.’ I gather I’m supposed to say something funny after the conference dinner tomorrow night too.

Courtesy of alphabetical order it looks like I’m top of the bill!

Anyway, I’ve known Alan since I was a research student, i.e. over thirty years, and we’re co-authors on 13 papers (all of them since 2011).

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the HeavensFest not only for the scientific programme (which looks excellent) but also for the purpose of celebrating an old friend and colleague.

Just to clear up a couple of artistic points.

First, the title of the meeting, The Most Ancient Heavens, is taken from Ode to Duty by William Wordsworth.

Second, the image on the conference programme shown above is a pastiche of The Creation of Alan Adam which is part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, waswhich painted by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, known to his friends as Michelangelo. Apparently he worked flat out painting this enormous fresco. It was agony but the ecstasy kept him going. I’ve often wondered (a) who did the floor of the Sistine Chapel and (b) how could Michelangelo create such great art when it was so clearly extremely cold? Anyway, I think that is a picture of Alan at high redshift on the far right, next to the man with beard who at least had the good sense to wear a nightie to spare his embarrassment.

Anyway, that’s all for now. I must be going. Time for a stroll down to Piccadilly.

Update: you can find a bunch of pictures of this conference here.


They – by R.S. Thomas

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on March 14, 2019 by telescoper

The new explorers don’t go
anywhere and what they discover
we can’t see. But they change our lives.

They interpret absence
as presence, measuring it by the movement
of its neighbours. Their world is

an immense place: deep down is as distant
as far out, but is arrived at
in no time. These are the new

linguists, exchanging acrosss closed
borders the currency of their symbols.
Have I been too long on my knees

worrying over the obscurity
of a message? These have their way, too,
other than a prayer of breaking that abstruse code.

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)

To Like and to Like not

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , on March 8, 2019 by telescoper

Travelling today, I was reminded that exactly a week ago, WordPress sent me this notification:

I was a bit surprised, to be honest, as that I posted a St David’s Day poem and usually when I post poetry the traffic goes down. Last Friday however it seems all my St David’s Day poetry posts going back years attracted traffic (and ‘likes’), so I was quite pleased.

Some time ago a senior astronomer emailed me to say that he thought that, for a science blog, there was far to much other stuff for his liking. Other stuff presumably including poetry, music, sport and the rest.

Anyway my response was that this isn’t really a science blog. It’s just a personal blog written by someone who happens to be a scientist. I post about science fairly often but I wouldn’t enjoy blogging half as much if I only covered that.

Some people have asked me why I post poetry and music and the rest. The answer is simple: to share things I enjoy. If just one person were to discover a poem they like by reading it here then it makes it all worthwhile!

A Poem for St David’s Day

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on March 1, 2019 by telescoper

It’s St David’s Day today, and a lovely spring morning it is, so I wish you all a big

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!


Gratuitous Picture of some Daffodils near the Maynooth University Library.

It has become a bit of a St David’s Day tradition on this this blog to post a piece of verse by the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas. An Anglican clergyman, Thomas was vicar at St Hywyn’s Church (which was built 1137) in Aberdaron at the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula. In this, one of his most famous poems, he speaks eloquently and movingly of the frustrations of his calling.

I was vicar of large things
in a small parish. Small-minded
I will not say, there were depths
in some of them I shrank back
from, wells that the word “God”
fell into and died away,
and for all I know is still
falling. Who goes for water
to such must prepare for a long
wait. Their eyes looked at me
and were the remains of flowers
on an old grave. I was there,
I felt, to blow on ashes
that were too long cold. Often,
when I thought they were about
to unbar to me, the draught
out of their empty places
came whistling so that I wrapped
myself in the heavier clothing
of my calling, speaking of light and love
in the thickening shadows of their kitchens

A Christmas Carol, by William Topaz McGonagall

Posted in Poetry with tags , on December 23, 2018 by telescoper

Welcome, sweet Christmas, blest be the morn
That Christ our Saviour was born!
Earth’s Redeemer, to save us from all danger,
And, as the Holy Record tells, born in a manger.

Then ring, ring, Christmas bells,
Till your sweet music o’er the kingdom swells,
To warn the people to respect the morn
That Christ their Saviour was born.

The snow was on the ground when Christ was born,
And the Virgin Mary His mother felt very forlorn
As she lay in a horse’s stall at a roadside inn,
Till Christ our Saviour was born to free us from sin.

Oh! think of the Virgin Mary as she lay
In a lowly stable on a bed of hay,
And angels watching O’er her till Christ was born,
Therefore all the people should respect Christmas morn.

The way to respect Christmas time
Is not by drinking whisky or wine,
But to sing praises to God on Christmas morn,
The time that Jesus Christ His Son was born;

Whom He sent into the world to save sinners from hell
And by believing in Him in heaven we’ll dwell;
Then blest be the morn that Christ was born,
Who can save us from hell, death, and scorn.

Then he warned, and respect the Saviour dear,
And treat with less respect the New Year,
And respect always the blessed morn
That Christ our Saviour was born.

For each new morn to the Christian is dear,
As well as the morn of the New Year,
And he thanks God for the light of each new morn.
Especially the morn that Christ was born.

Therefore, good people, be warned in time,
And on Christmas morn don’t get drunk with wine
But praise God above on Christmas morn,
Who sent His Son to save us from hell and scorn.

There the heavenly babe He lay
In a stall among a lot of hay,
While the Angel Host by Bethlehem
Sang a beautiful and heavenly anthem.

Christmas time ought to be held most dear,
Much more so than the New Year,
Because that’s the time that Christ was born,
Therefore respect Christmas morn.

And let the rich be kind to the poor,
And think of the hardships they do endure,
Who are neither clothed nor fed,
And Many without a blanket to their bed.

by William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902)

Fourier, Hamilton and Ptolemy

Posted in History, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on December 17, 2018 by telescoper

As we stagger into the last week of term I find myself with just two lectures to give in my second-year module on Vector Calculus and Fourier Series. I didn’t want to present the two topics mentioned in the title as disconnected, so I linked them in a lecture in which I used the divergence theorem of vector calculus to derive the heat equation, the solution of which led Joseph Fourier to devise his series in Mémoire sur la propagation de la chaleur dans les corps solides (1807), a truly remarkable work for its time that inspired so many subsequent developments.

Fourier’s work was so influential and widely admired that it inspired a famous Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton to write the following poem:

Hamilton-for Fourier

The serious thing that strikes me is not the quality of the verse, but how many scientists of the 19th Century, Hamilton included, saw their scientific interrogation of Nature as a manifestation of the human condition just as the romantic poets saw their artistic contemplation and how many poets of the time were also interested in science.

Anyway I was looking for nice demonstrations of Fourier series to help my class get to grips with them when I remembered this little video recommended to me some time ago by esteemed Professor George Ellis. It’s a nice illustration of the principles of Fourier series, by which any periodic function can be decomposed into a series of sine and cosine functions.

This reminds me of a point I’ve made a few times in popular talks about Astronomy. It’s a common view that Kepler’s laws of planetary motion according to which which the planets move in elliptical motion around the Sun, is a completely different formulation from the previous Ptolemaic system which involved epicycles and deferents and which is generally held to have been much more complicated.

The video demonstrates however that epicycles and deferents can be viewed as the elements used in the construction of a Fourier series. Since elliptical orbits are periodic, it is perfectly valid to present them in the form a Fourier series. Therefore, in a sense, there’s nothing so very wrong with epicycles. I admit, however, that a closed-form expression for such an orbit is considerably more compact and elegant than a Fourier representation, and also encapsulates a deeper level of physical understanding.

Winter Garden, by Patrick Kavanagh

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on December 11, 2018 by telescoper

No flowers are here
No middle-class vanities –
Only the decapitated shanks
Of cabbages
And prostrate
On a miserable ridge

by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967)