Archive for the Television Category

Cosmology Big Brother

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 17, 2018 by telescoper

I saw on Twitter today that the new series of Celebrity Big Brother has just started, though looking at the list of inmates housemates, I’m not sure whether the producers of this show understand the meaning of the word `celebrity’. At any rate, I’ve never heard of most of them.

I get the feeling that the Big Brother franchise may be getting a little tired, so I thought I’d pitch a new variant in order to boost the flagging ratings.

In Cosmology Big Brother a group of wannabe cosmologists live together in a specially-constructed house (with lots of whiteboards) isolated from the outside world (i.e. the arXiv). As the series progresses the furniture and rooms are gradually moved further apart, the temperature of the central heating is turned down, and the contents of the house become progressively more disordered.

Housemates are regularly voted out, at which point they have to enter the `real world’ (i.e. get a job in data science). Eventually only one person remains and whoever that is is awarded a research grant. They can then spend the rest of their life combining their study of cosmology with the usual activities of a Big Brother winner, e.g. opening supermarkets.

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R.I.P. Bernard Hepton (1925-2018)

Posted in Television with tags , , , , on July 31, 2018 by telescoper

I was saddened last night to hear of the death, at the age of 92, of the fine actor Bernard Hepton. As soon as I heard of his death I immediately thought of his role as Toby Esterhase in the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Although Bernard Hepton was a very versatile actor who had an outstanding career in the theatre, television, and film, I think it will always be in his role as Toby Esterhase that I will remember him. In honour of his memory, therefore, I thought I’d post this wonderful scene from the TV series Smiley’s People, which I think is marvelously well acted.

Just to set the scene, the series (based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carré) is set a few years after Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Intelligence officer George Smiley (Alec Guinnness) is in retirement, as is his former colleague Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) who has adopted the identity of a dodgy art dealer. Smiley is called back into action when a former agent by the name of Vladimir is murdered on Hampstead Heath en route to an appointment with British Intelligence (aka “The Circus”). Smiley is told to find out what happened and hush it up, but a combination of detective work and intuition leads him to the realization that he may, at last, have stumbled upon a way of bringing down his opposite number in Soviet Intelligence, the enigmatic Karla.

This scene, wherein Smiley and Esterhase meet up for the first time since they parted company with the Circus marks the point where Smiley decides to ignore his instructions to bury the case and embark on one final operation in the hope that he can at last locate Karla’s Achilles Heel. To find out more, you’ll have to watch the series, which unfolds slowly, but brilliantly…

 

Why the Universe is extremely overrated.

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

A few weeks I read an article in Physics Today which prompted me to revise and resubmit an old post I cobbled together in response to the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe in which I argued that the title of that programme suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, `awesome’.  When you think about it the Universe is not really `awesome at all’. In fact it’s extremely overrated.

Take this thing, for example:

 

This is an example of a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar object. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface but, when you look at it with a physicist’s eye, such a galaxy is really not as great as it’s cracked up to be, as I shall now explain.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does the job pretty badly, all things considered because the Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. By comparison a human being radiates more than one watt per kilogram. Pound for pound, that’s more than a thousand times as much energy as a star.

So,  in reality, stars are bloated, wasteful, inefficient and not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter. In short, stars are extremely overrated.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then to the Physics Today piece I mentioned at the start of this article. I quote:

Star formation is stupendously inefficient. Take the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a billion solar masses of fresh gas available to form stars—and yet it produces only one solar mass of new stars a year.

Hopeless! What a waste of space a galaxy is! As well as being oversized, vacuous and rather dirty, one is also pretty useless at making the very things it is supposed to be good at! What galaxies clearly need is some sort of a productivity drive or perhaps a complete redesign using more efficient technology.

So stars are overrated and galaxies are overrated, but surely the Universe as a whole is impressive?

No. Think about the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe: the volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, to be sure, but many rock concerts are louder. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti-climax. If I’d been in charge (and given sufficient funding) I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. Since then the Universe has been expanding, the space between galaxies getting emptier and emptier so there’s now less than one atom per cubic metre, and cooling down to the point where its temperature is lower than three degrees above absolute zero.

The Universe is a cold, desolate and very empty place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat left over from when it was all so much younger and more exciting. Here and there amid the cosmic void a few galaxies are dotted about, like cheap and rather tatty ornaments. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

In my opinion the Universe would have worked out better had it been entirely empty, instead of being contaminated with such detritus. I agree with Tennessee Williams:

BRICK: “Well, they say nature hates a vacuum, Big Daddy.
BIG DADDY: “That’s what they say, but sometimes I think that a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”

So no, the Universe isn’t wonderful. Not at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit rubbish. Again, it’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about the Universe and how badly constructed it it, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as grin and bear it.

It’s being so cheerful that helps keep me going.

 

Captain James Doohan

Posted in History, Television with tags , , , , , on June 6, 2018 by telescoper

The pictures above are photographs of a young Captain James Doohan of the Royal Canadian Artillery.

Doohan was in action on D-Day where he served with exceptional courage and distinction during the assault on Juno beach. He killed two enemy snipers and successfully led his men on foot through a minefield. Doohan was then hit six times by machine gun fire, 4 times in the leg, once in the finger, and once in the chest. The latter round would probably have killed him but for the cigarette case he had in his tunic pocket which deflected the bullet.

In case you haven’t yet realised, after the war was over, James Doohan became an actor, best known for the role of ‘Scotty’ in the TV series Star Trek…

Captain James Doohan was just one of around 160,000 officers and men who took part in the invasion of Normandy that began on 6th June 1944.

Another, not now famous, whose name along with many others, I came across this morning while waiting for my plane, was a George Jones of No 4 Commando who landed at Ouistreham (Sword beach) with the 1st Special Service Brigade around 7.30am on D-Day. Between the beach and Pegasus Bridge, four miles inland, his unit was constantly under fire and all but 80 of his 500 comrades were killed or wounded.

George Jones, James Doohan and countless other brave men like them were fighting to liberate a continent from Nazi tyranny. It is to our shame that so many today who owe their freedom to the sacrifices of an earlier generation are once again marching to the fascist drum.

The Joy of Fecks

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , on May 10, 2018 by telescoper

One of the things I’ve noticed in the time I’ve spent in the Dublin area recently is that Irish people tend to swear a lot, and I mean a lot. On the other hand, the combination of an Irish accent and the imaginative way in which expletives are used makes this habit colourful rather than offensive.

Something I have discovered only relatively recently concerns the word `feck’ (as used frequently by Father Jack in the comedy documentary series Father Ted). I’ve always assumed that this word was simply an alternative form for the word `fuck’ and as such was an extremely offensive swear word. I have used it frequently in the Irish vernacular phrase “feckin’ eejit” (usually in the context of a British politician) assuming that it had that meaning.

However, I am reliably informed by Irish colleagues and Wikipedia – although I’m not sure whether either of those sources really counts as reliable – that `feck’ isn’t really the same as `fuck’ because it derives from a different root, and although it is an oath it is far less offensive. In fact, `feck’ is a word which is also in use in Scotland meaning force or value, from which we get the word `feckless’ meaning worthless, or something like `a large amount or quantity’.

In modern Irish slang, `feck’ can be used as a `minced oath’ (i.e as a euphemism for `fuck’, as one might say `eff off’ instead of `fuck off’) but it has a variety of other meanings, including `to steal’ or `to throw’. None of these other meanings relate directly to sexual intercourse. In summary, then, it seems that while `feck’ is undoubtedly rather vulgar, it is far less offensive than `the bad F-word’, i.e. `fuck’.

I hope this doesn’t give the impression that my opening statement – that Irish people swear a lot – is false. ‘The bad F-word’ is definitely in widespread use. All I’m saying is that `feck’ (a) isn’t the same word and (b) it’s not as offensive as you might have thought.

Here’s an explanation by the inestimable Mrs Doyle from Father Ted in which she discusses these issues in the context of modern Irish literature.

Now I think I’ll feck off home.

R.I.P. Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags on March 14, 2018 by telescoper

I woke today to the sad news of the death, at the age of 76, of theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. We all knew he had to pass away one day, but having been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just a couple of years to live at the age of 22, I think we had all come to regard him as indestructible, so news of his death still came as a shock.

Stephen’s immense contributions to physics, including but not restricted to cosmology, are remarkable in their own right, but made even more remarkable that has done so much after having been stricken by such a debilitating disease when he was only in his twenties. Hawking was undoubtedly a brilliant and inspirational mind, but his courage and physical endurance in the face of difficulties that others might have found unbearable have provided inspiration for many far beyond the field of physics.

To give an example of his scientific work, here is an equation which I think would serve as a memorial to Stephen Hawking as it brings together quantum mechanics, gravity and thermodynamics in giving the entropy of a black hole in terms of its surface area and fundamental constants:

I’ve talked and written quite a lot about Stephen Hawking over the years. In particular I have in the past gone on record, both on television and in print, as being not entirely positive about the `cult’ that surrounds him. I think a number of my colleagues (and some some people at the University of Cambridge) have found things I have said insufficiently reverential or perhaps even disrespectful. This is not the time to go over these things. For the record I’ll just say (yet again) that, while I stand by everything I have said, I do – and always will have – enormous respect for Hawking the physicist, as well as deep admiration for his tenacity and courage.

I may post a longer reflection on Stephen Hawking’s life and work in due course, but for now let me just offer my condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues. He was one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of his day as well as a courageous and determined human being. He is irreplaceable.

R.I.P. Rodney Bewes (1937-2017)

Posted in Television with tags , on November 22, 2017 by telescoper

Oh, what happened to you?
Whatever happened to me?
What became of the people we used to be?
Tomorrow’s almost over
Today went by so fast
The only thing to look forward to is the past?

Rest in Peace, Rodney Bewes, also known as Bob Ferris of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, who died yesterday.