## The Return of Professor Who

Posted in Biographical, Music, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 1, 2012 by telescoper

Since the new series of Doctor Who is to start this evening on BBC1, I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting this old blog item again:

–0–

As a Professor of Astrophysics I am often asked “Why on Earth did you take up such a crazy subject?”

I guess many astronomers, physicists and other scientists have to answer this sort of question. For many of them there is probably a romantic reason, such as seeing the rings of Saturn or the majesty of the Milky Way on a dark night. Others will probably have been inspired by TV documentary series such as The Sky at Night, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or even Horizon which, believe it or not, actually used to be quite good but which is nowadays uniformly dire. Or it could have been something a bit more mundane but no less stimulating such as a very good science teacher at school.

When I’m asked this question I’d love to be able to put my hand on my heart and give an answer of that sort but the truth is really quite a long way from those possibilities. The thing that probably did more than anything else to get me interested in science was a Science Fiction TV series or rather not exactly the series but the opening titles.

The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast in the year of my birth, so I don’t remember it at all, but I do remember the astonishing effect the credits had on my imagination when I saw later episodes as a small child. Here is the  opening title sequence as it appeared in the very first series featuring William Hartnell as the first Doctor.

To a younger audience it probably all seems quite tame, but I think there’s a haunting, unearthly beauty to the shapes conjured up by Bernard Lodge. Having virtually no budget for graphics, he experimented in a darkened studio with an old-fashioned TV camera and a piece of black card with Doctor Who written on it in white. He created the spooky kaleidoscopic patterns you see by simply pointing the camera so it could see into its own monitor, thus producing a sort of electronic hall of mirrors.

What is so fascinating to me is how a relatively simple underlying concept could produce a rich assortment of patterns, particularly how they seem to take on an almost organic aspect as they merge and transform. I’ve continued to be struck by the idea that complexity could be produced by relatively simple natural laws which is one of the essential features of astrophysics and cosmology. As a practical demonstration of the universality of physics this sequence takes some beating.

As well as these strange and wonderful images, the titles also featured a pioneering piece of electronic music. Officially the composer was Ron Grainer, but he wasn’t very interested in the commission and simply scribbled the theme down and left it to the BBC to turn it into something useable. In stepped the wonderful Delia Derbyshire, unsung heroine of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who, with only the crudest electronic equipment available, turned it into a little masterpiece. Ethereal yet propulsive, the original theme from Doctor Who is definitely one of my absolute favourite pieces of music and I’m glad to see that Delia Derbyshire is now receiving the acclaim she deserves from serious music critics.

It’s ironic that I’ve now moved to Cardiff where new programmes of Doctor Who and its spin-off, the anagrammatic Torchwood, are made. One of the great things about the early episodes of Doctor Who was that the technology simply didn’t exist to do very good special effects. The scripts were consequently very careful to let the viewers’ imagination do all the work. That’s what made it so good. I’m pleased that the more recent incarnations of this show also don’t go overboard on the visuals. Perhaps thats a conscious attempt to appeal to people who saw the old ones as well as those too young to have done so. It’s just a pity the modern opening title music is so bad…

Anyway, I still love Doctor Who after all these years. It must sound daft to say that it inspired me to take up astrophysics, but it’s truer than any other explanation I can think of. Of course the career path is slightly different from a Timelord, but only slightly.

At any rate I think The Doctor is overdue for promotion. How about Professor Who?

## The Count (Censored)

Posted in Television with tags , on August 22, 2012 by telescoper

Since I’ve established a little bit of a horror theme for this week, I think it’s a good idea to continue with this clip of the definitive portrayal of a vampire, i.e. the Count von Count from Sesame Street. I should reassure you all that, although this blog is X-rated, being censored, this particular post is entirely suitable for viewing at work…

## Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted in Television with tags , , , , on May 7, 2012 by telescoper

Well it’s a Bank Holiday (hooray!) so naturally it’s raining (boo!). Nice to have a lie-in on a Monday morning for a change, but will probably spend the afternoon working anyway. We’ve just finished formal teaching term, and now we have a “Guided Study Week” of revision lectures etc before examinations start next week.

By way of a diversion I thought I’d mention that on my recent trip to South Africa I got a chance the see the film version of  John le Carré’s superb novel Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy. It was much as I’d expected, actually. Well acted and directed  in itself, but rather difficult to enjoy if you’ve either read the book or seen the seven-part 1979 BBC TV dramatisation which, centred around a flawlessly understated performance by Alec Guinness as George Smiley, is surely one of the finest TV drama series ever made, although the sequel Smiley’s People is perhaps even better.

The point is that the original plot by John le Carré is just too complicated to fit in the usual duration of a feature film, so if one knows the full story one can’t fail but be conscious of the alterations and huge chunks completely missing from the movie. Nevertheless, given the constraints, it’s a good film in its own right. I’m glad I watched it, though that was mainly because it reminded me how good the TV version was.

Incidentally, parts of the film were apparently shot at Imperial College. I didn’t actually spot this when watching it, but was told about it afterwards.

Anyway I found this clip on Youtube of the very start of the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy , a scene placed before the opening titles rolled. Although it doesn’t correspond to anything in the book, I think it epitomizes what was so good about the television version. It features the four characters who belong to the Witchraft “Magic Circle” responsible for running Source Merlin, a Soviet agent who is supposed to be working as double-agent for British Intelligence (called “The Circus” because of its headquarters in Cambridge Circus). Of course it turns out everything is actually the other way round, and Source Merlin is Moscow Centre’s contact with a mole inside the Circus (codename “Gerald”) who is handing over British secrets. Gerald must be one of the four who have regular contact with Source Merlin, but which one?

I think this scene is brilliant because nobody says a word for most of it, but it immediately establishes the different characters of the respective protagonists. The pompous and punctilious pipe-smoking Percy Alleline (“Tinker”) brings a huge dossier of papers to the meeting, evidently enjoying his role as Head Boy. Flamboyant Bill Haydon (“Tailor”) displays his studied eccentricity by bringing only a cup of tea, with the saucer on top, and a biscuit. Haydon’s expression as Percy starts the meeting is priceless. Dishevelled chain-smoking Roy Bland (“Soldier”) seems entirely preoccupied with other things. Snappily dressed Toby Esterhase (“Poor Man”) betrays his status as a junior member of the club by arriving early – no doubt to impress – and closing the door that Haydon carelessly left open.

## Stargazing (virtually) Live

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 18, 2012 by telescoper

I hope you’ve all been tuning in to the BBC’s astronomy jamboree Stargazing Live. There have been two episodes so far, with one last one to follow tonight, plus a huge range of activities across the country (including Wales) giving members of the public the chance to look at the sky through telescopes. The programmes and other activities have been getting an excellent response, especially from the younger generation, which is excellent news for the future of astronomy.

Working in a School of Physics & Astronomy makes one realise just how much public interest there is in astronomy, not just among schoolkids but in the numerous amateur astronomical societies, the members of which actually know the night sky better than many professionals! Most of us astronomers and astrophysicists are regularly asked to give public lectures and Cardiff in particular runs a  host of other outreach activities related to our astronomy research. Our colleagues in mainstream physics subjects such as condensed matter physics don’t get the same level of direct public interest – I don’t think there are any amateur semiconductor physics  clubs in the UK! – but many students attracted into universities by astronomy do turn to other branches of physics when they get here, because something else catches their imagination.

But important though that role is, let’s not forget that astronomy isn’t just about outreach. It’s actually real science, making real discoveries about the way our universe works. It’s worth doing in its own right as well as being good for other branches of physics.

Anyway, being a theoretical astrophysicist I usually feel a bit left out of these stargazing actitivies because I don’t really know one end of a telescope from the other. The other day I jokingly  asked whether Stargazing Live was ever going to include a theory component…

Last night’s episode actually did, in the form of a discussion of a numerical simulation of galaxy formation between the presenters and young Dr Andrew Pontzen from Oxford University. He even made a little video about the simulation, sort of virtual reality rendition of the formation of the Milky Way, as shown on the telly:

Apparently, making this required 300,000 CPU hours on 300 processors and it is based on 16 Terabytes of raw data. Phew!

It’s a very impressive simulation, but the use of the word simulation in this context always makes me smile. Being a crossword nut I spend far too much time looking in dictionaries but one often finds quite amusing things there. This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines SIMULATION:

1.

a. The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession.

b. Tendency to assume a form resembling that of something else; unconscious imitation.

2. A false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something.

3. The technique of imitating the behaviour of some situation or process (whether economic, military, mechanical, etc.) by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus, esp. for the purpose of study or personnel training.

It’s only the third entry that gives the intended meaning. This is worth bearing in mind if you prefer old-fashioned analytical theory!

In football, of course, you can get sent off for simulation…

## Just a closer walk with thee

Posted in Music, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 12, 2012 by telescoper

I saw this clip a few days ago, and had it in mind to post it at an appropriate time. Unfortunately when I got home today I learned some news that makes today seem all too appropriate. A distinguished and respected colleague, Prof. Steve Rawlings, of Oxford University was found dead last night. This is shocking and desperately sad news. I have no idea what happened but apparently the Oxfordshire police have arrested a 49-year old man on suspicion of murder. No doubt more information will emerge in due course.

The connection between this sombre piece of news and the clip I  intended to post should become obvious when I tell you that it depicts a funeral. Indeed the music featured, the hymn or spiritual Just a Closer Walk with Thee, was the main music chosen for the service when my father died,  just over four years ago. It’s a lovely old traditional tune that often  plays a central role in New Orleans style funerals, as shown here, and is a melody that, for me, has a deep associattion with loss and bereavement.

The clip is taken from the US TV series Treme. I haven’t seen Treme -if it has been shown on UK TV I missed it – but it’s set in New Orleans in the aftermath of the near destruction of the city by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not knowing anything about the TV series I only watched the clip because of the music, but I was mightily impressed by the way the scene was photographed and how careful the producers had been in getting the details just right, because a funeral in New Orleans is unlike any other.

The sashes, parasols, and exaggerated, swaying slow march seen in the film are in some sense almost comical, but  they are also at the same time solemn and immensely dignified. Defiant, even. I don’t think it’s just because I am a jazz fan that I find this video so moving. Perhaps it’s really because, faced with the awesome finality of death, every action we take in life is comical anyway, just as every word is ultimately banal. However, if a farce is what  it’s going to be, let’s just make sure it’s done the way we like it – especially at the end.

One of the commenters on Youtube put it thus:

it aint my time yet .but when it is thats the way i wanna go home

Amen to that. I don’t think Steve Rawlings was a jazz fan, but this is the best way I can think of to pay my respects.

## Holmes for the Bewildered

Posted in Literature, Television with tags , , , , on January 9, 2012 by telescoper

Being back to work full-time, now that the new teaching term has started, I find myself in a position to do quick lunchtime blog post while I eat my sandwich. I was going to blog about this topic last week, but thought I’d wait a week in case anything happened to change my negative opinion on this issue. I’m aware that I’m in a small minority and didn’t want to expose myself to public disapproval without due care and attention. Well, last night my opinion certainly changed, only it got even more negative. So now I’m going to take a deep breath, gird my loins, and state for the record my honestly-held opinion that the new BBC TV Series Sherlock is complete and utter tripe.

It’s not that I object to the idea of  placing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great stories in a contemporary setting. Not at all. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most memorable creations in all of fiction and the plots – at least most of them – are so well constructed that the stories should be translatable into a contemporary setting quite easily. There have been so many “traditional” versions of  Sherlock Holmes that I welcome the attempt to do something different with the character.

Neither is it that I object to Sherlock Holmes being played for laughs. The character does indeed possess a great deal of comic potential, which  a number of other interpretations have exploited with a greater or lesser degree of success.

What has happened in this series, however, is that the original plots have been butchered to the point where they make no sense at all. Instead we just have a series of thinly related comedy sketches, with only feeble attempts to link them to a viable mystery story, like a duff combination of the worst bits of Jonathan Creek and The Fast Show.

Last night’s puerile Hound of the Baskervilles was especially dire in this respect. The original story – a full-length novel rather than a short story – is a genuinely intriguing mystery-thriller, laced with undertones of the supernatural, and full of memorable characters, including of course the fearsome Hound itself.

For reasons best known to themselves Forced to squeeze it into one hour, the producers of last night’s version of this classic tale abandoned most of the original plot and introduced a load of silly nonsense about werewolves and hallucinogenic fog and the CIA. The Holmes-Watson double-act was quite amusing – and some of the dialogue very witty – but the plot was so thin it just reminded me of Abbott and Costello meet the Wolfman and other such films I watched when I was a kid. I thought the first episode -  A Scandal in Belgravia – was bad enough, but last night’s episode was truly excruciating. I won’t be watching any more.

It’s a mystery to me why so many people seem to think this tosh is so good, but then I’m used to being in a minority of one. Perhaps if you watch a lot of TV your expectations are lowered so much by the constant stream of drivel that anything that even tries to be original – which Sherlock admittedly does – sends you into raptures?

No, dear critics, I don’t think Sherlock is “great TV” at all. In fact I think it’s dreadful.

There. I’ve said it.

## A Quite Interesting Approach to Refereeing

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , on January 4, 2012 by telescoper

Last night I was struggling to compose a clue for the latest Azed Crossword competition (No. 2065) so I gave up and switched on the TV. I ended up watching an episode of QI, a popular entertainment programme in the form of a panel game, hosted by Lord Stephen of Fry. The title stands, I think, for Quite Interesting, rather than the active principle found in chinese medicine, which is an extremely useful word to know in Scrabble if you have a Q and no U.

Anyway, one of the features of said television programme is that if guests answer a question not only incorrectly but also in a manner that’s predictable, stale or  hackneyed,  in such a way that it matches a pre-prepared list of such responses, then a claxon sounds and a penalty of ten points is applied. If you want to hear the claxon…

Press Here

These forfeits are so frequently applied that it is by no means uncommon for the winner of the quiz to have a net score which is negative.

Anyway, watching this it occurred to me that it suggests a quite interesting way of livening up the business of refereeing  grant applications, especially since in these difficult times a good outcome of an application to renew a  geant might well be minus two PDRAs!

It’s quite easy to come up with a list of tedious clichés that you’re likely to find in a cosmology application, e.g. “We have now entered an era of precision cosmology…”,  “Generic inflationary scenario”, “inspired by string theory”, “assuming a linear bias”, etc etc. From now on I’m going to press the buzzer every time I read such a phrase and subtract the resulting penalty from the score assigned to the proposal.

However, it would be unfair to apply this idea just to cosmology proposals. In order to make it more generally applicable, perhaps my loyal readers might suggest, through the Comments Box,  similarly worn out, trite or banal terms appropriate to their own specialism?

## Great Expectations

Posted in Film, Literature, Television with tags , , , , on December 29, 2011 by telescoper

I don’t make a secret of the fact that I don’t watch TV, and didn’t really do so over the Christmas holiday. However, I did catch the new BBC adapation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations which I think is one of the greatest novels in all literature. I wasn’t that keen to watch it, after seeing several pointless modern films of the story that didn’t do justice either to the original novel or to the marvellous 1946 film directed by David Lean, which I think is one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s not that I think people shouldn’t do remakes of classic stories – great novels can bear many different versions – it’s just that they’re often done with neither wit nor imagination and the end result can be so obviously inferior that one wonders why it was ever released. The recent remake of the perfect Ealing Comedy The Ladykillers, for example, was such total crap from start to finish it made me want to beat the director over the head with a blunt instrument.

In the end, though, I was persuaded to watch it and was very impressed indeed with the new version.   Douglas Booth, who plays the teenage Pip, as well as being an extraordinarily handsome young man, is also a fine actor. The young Pip’s encounter with the convict Magwitch (played by Ray Winstone) in Episode 1 was every bit as memorable as the older film, but I’ve decided to put the latter up here to encourage those who haven’t been fortunate enough to see the classic version.

I’m interested in suggestions of best and worst remakes….so feel free to add yours through the comments box.

## The Last Words of Sherlock Holmes

Posted in Literature, Television with tags , , on December 16, 2011 by telescoper

Being bombarded with advertising for a new Sherlock Holmes film I thought I’d remind myself of the greatest Holmes of all, Jeremy Brett. I have a complete collection on DVD of all the episodes produced by Granada TV between 1984 and 1994. I chose a couple at random to watch last night and it turned out that the pair included the very last one in the last series, based on the dark and disturbing story The Adventure of the Cardboard Box from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Brett was gravely ill during the filming of the last series, largely owing to side-effects of the medication he had to take to deal with a severe depressive illness which plagued him for most of his life.  It didn’t help that he had become almost obsessive about the character of Holmes, putting all his energy into doing the best possible job. It obviously took a lot out of him. He looks so much older in the last series than in the first, although it was only ten years after he made the first episodes. Jeremy Brett passed away in 1995, just a year after the last episode was filmed, but his Sherlock Holmes will live forever.

The last words spoken by Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes are in the following clip, a piece of film so poignant that I find it almost unbearable to watch.

What is the meaning of it, Watson? What is the object of this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must have a purpose, or our universe has no meaning, and that  is unthinkable. But what purpose? That  is humanity’s great problem, to which reason so far, has no answer.

## Einstein and your Gas Bill

Posted in History, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 11, 2011 by telescoper

Taking refuge in my office this lunchtime for a sandwich and a cup of coffee I turned to the latest edition of Physics World and came across an funny little story about a physicist (who is completely new to me) with the splendid name of Fritz Hasenöhrl.

The news story relates to a paper on the arXiv, part of the abstract of which I’ve copied below:

In 1904 Austrian physicist Fritz Hasenohrl (1874-1915) examined blackbody radiation in a reflecting cavity. By calculating the work necessary to keep the cavity moving at a constant velocity against the radiation pressure he concluded that to a moving observer the energy of the radiation would appear to increase by an amount $E=(3/8)mc^2$, which in early 1905 he corrected to $E=(3/4)mc^2$

Since I’ve been doing a bit of dimensional analysis with first-year students, I’m a bit surprised that the authors of this paper read so much into the fact that Hasenöhrl’s formula bears a superficial resemblance to Einstein’s most famous formula $E=mc^2$, probably the best known and at the same time worst understood equation in physics. In fact any physicist worth his or her salt no matter how incorrect their reasoning would have to get something like $E =\alpha mc^2$, with $\alpha$ some dimensionless number, simply because the answer has to have the correct dimensions to be an energy.

Expressing energy in terms of the basic dimensions mass $M$, length $L$ and time $T$ is probability easiest to do when you think of mechanical work (force×distance). Since Newton’s laws give a force equal to mass×acceleration, a force has dimensions $MLT^{-2}$, so work (a form of energy) has dimensions $ML^{2}T^{-2}$. Now try to make this out of a combination of a mass ($M$) and a velocity ($LT^{-1}$) and you’ll find that it has to be mass×velocity2. You can’t get the dimensionless constant this way, but the combination of $m$ and $c$ must be the way it is in Einstein’s formula.

Anyway, all this suddenly reminded me of a day long ago when I appeared on peak-time television in the consumer affairs programme Watchdog, explaining – or, rather, attempting to explain – the physics behind the way gas bills are calculated. Apparently someone had written in to the programme asking why it was that they weren’t just being charged for the volume of gas that had flowed through their meter, but that the cost involved a complicated calculation involving something called the calorific value of the gas.

The answer is fairly obvious, actually. The idea is that to make competition fairer between different forms of energy (particularly gas and electricity) the bills should be for the amount of energy you have used rather than the amount of gas. Since the source of fuel varies from day to day so does its chemical composition and hence the amount of energy that can be extracted from it when it is burned. Gas companies therefore monitor the calorific value, using it to convert the amount of gas you have used into an amount of energy.

On the programme I was confronted by the curmudgeonly Edward Enfield (father of comedian Harry Enfield) who took the line that it was all unnecessarily complicated and that the bill should just be for the amount of gas used, rather in the same way that petrol is sold. When I tried to explain that the way it was done was really fairer, because  it was really the energy that mattered, it quickly became obvious that he didn’t really understand what energy was or how it was defined.  He didn’t even get the difference between energy and power. I suspect that goes for many members of the general public.

It was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, but I enjoyed the sparring. Eventually he came out with a question about why energy was given by $E=mc^2$ rather than $mc^3$ or something else. So I launched into an explanation of dimensional analysis and why $mc^3$ couldn’t be an energy because it has the wrong dimensions. His eyes glazed over. The shoot ended. My splendidly erudite and logically rigorous exposition of dimensional analysis never made it into the broadcast programme.

My brief career on BBC1 was over.