Archive for Castiglioncello

From here to Astragalo

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , , , , on September 5, 2015 by telescoper

Now that I’m back to the relatively autumnal setting of Brighton, I can’t help reflecting on last week’s meeting. On Monday evening I attended a cocktail party in a very pleasant bar in Castiglioncello overlooking the sea. Sunset views are something of a speciality from this location:

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Anyway, the name of the place we were in was Astragalo. I checked and, as I suspected, this the Italian word for astragalus, which has an approximately tetrahedral shape. Astragalus is also a kind of plant, which is perhaps more likely to be associated with the name of a seaside bar, but that spoils the connection I wish to make with probability theory, a topic that came up regularly during the conference I was attending, so I’ll ignore it.

Nowadays gambling is generally looked down on as something shady and disreputable, not to be discussed in polite company, or even to be banned altogether. However, the formulation of the basic laws of probability was almost exclusively inspired by their potential application to games of chance. Once established, these laws found a much wide range of applications in scientific contexts, including my own field of astronomy. The astragalus provides a very early example.

Gambling in various forms has been around for millennia. Sumerian and Assyrian archaeological sites are littered with examples the astragalus (or talus bone). This is found just above the heel and its roughly tetrahedral shape (in sheep and deer at any rate) is such that when it is tossed in the air it can land in any one of four possible orientations; it’s fairly similar in fact to the four-sided dice used in some role-playing games. The astragalus can be used to generate “random” outcomes and is in many ways the forerunner of modern six-sided dice. The astragalus is known to have been used for gambling games as early as 3600 BC.

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Unlike modern dice, which began to appear around 2000BC, the astragalus is not quite symmetrical, giving a different probability of it landing in each orientation. It is not thought that there was a mathematical understanding of how to calculate odds in games involving this object or its more symmetrical successors (right).

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Sono arrivato a Pisa

Posted in Biographical, Books with tags , , , , on August 30, 2015 by telescoper

En route to a workshop in the picturesque village of Castiglioncello, which is on the coast of Tuscany on a promontory sticking out into the Ligurian Sea, I decided to travel a day early and stay over in Pisa. I flew direct from London Gatwick to Pisa and it’s not far from the airport by train to my final destination, but despite travelling to Italy many times over the years I’ve never actually visited Pisa so I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a look around before making the short journey to Castiglioncello in the morning. In any case the cost of the flight was much lower to travel on a Sunday and the hotel I’m in is quite cheap so it seemed like a good deal. It’s lovely and warm here – 32 degrees in fact, at 7pm local time, so I had a pleasant stroll among the tourists.

Here are a few pictures to prove I was here! The first is the main road nearest to my hotel, brought back a lot of memories of my days as a student:

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Now a couple of obligatory shots of the Leaning Tower. It was difficult to photograph because of the setting sun, so they’re not perfect but I was in a bit of a rush to get something to eat and, well you know, that there is little point in having the inclination if you haven’t got the time..

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The final one is of the Scuola Normale Superiore in the Piazza dei Cavalieri.

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I rather like the shadow of the statue, which seems to be creeping up the stairs!

Anyway, I wish you all a pleasant bank holiday back in Blighty. I hope to blog from the conference, but if I don’t get time or the wifi craps out, I’ll be back online when I return at the end of the week.