Archive for Charles Dickens

The Best of Times

Posted in Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 3, 2015 by telescoper

Well, I made it to Pisa Airport in time to sample the Club Europe lounge, which offers free wifi access (as well as other luxuries).  It seems I have a bit of time before my flight so thought I’d do a quick post about this morning’s events. I had the honour to be asked, along with Rocky Kolb, to deliver the concluding remarks for the meeting I’ve been at since Monday. Rocky and I had a quick discussion yesterday about what we should do and we agreed that we shouldn’t try to do a conventional “summary” of the workshop, but instead try something different. In the end we turned to Charles Dickens for inspiration and based the closing remarks on the following text:

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

This is of course part of the famous opening paragraph of Book 1 of A Tale of Two Cities.

The idea was to use the text to discuss different perspectives on the state of the Universe, or at least of cosmology. For example, the fact that we now have huge amounts of cosmological data might lead you to view that this is the  “the best of times” for cosmology. On the other hand, this has made life much harder for theorists as everything is now so heavily constrained that it is much more difficult to generate viable alternative models than it was thirty years ago.  We also now have a standard cosmological model which some physicists believe in very strongly, whereas others are much more skeptical.  This the “epoch of belief” for some but the “epoch of incredulity” for others. Now that the field is dominated by large collaborations in which it is hard for younger researchers to establish themselves, is this a “winter of despair” or do the opportunities presented by the new era of cosmology offer a “spring of hope”.

I haven’t got time to summarize all the points that came up, but it was fun acting as a “feed” for Rocky who had a stream of amusing and insightful comments. There aren’t any “right” or “wrong” answers of course, but it seemed to be an interesting way to get people thinking about where on the “best of times/worst of times” axis they would position themselves.

My own opinion is that cosmology has changed since I started (thirty years ago) and the challenges by the current generation are different from, and in many ways tougher than, those faced by my generation, who were lucky to have been able to learn quite a lot using relatively simple ideas and techniques. Now most of the “easy” stuff has been done, but solving difficult puzzles is immensely rewarding not only for the scientific insights the answers reveal, but also for their own sake. The time to despair about a field is not when it gets tough, but when it stops being fun. I’m glad to say we’re a long way from that situation in cosmology.


Leave the kids alone!

Posted in Education, Literature with tags , , , , on February 6, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve been annoyed ever since I woke up this morning because there was an item on the 7am news that irked me. A person called Claire Tomalin was quoted as saying, among other things, that

Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that’s a pity.

She goes on to lay most of the blame for this shortcoming on television, as such people tend to do.

It’s a facile argument. For one thing most of Dickens’ novels were originally published in short installments, so reading them  that way seems quite a sensible approach to me, and one that should probably be encouraged not criticized.  There’s no getting away either from the fact that some of Dickens’ output is very heavy going indeed. Dare I say that not all Dickens is particularly good? Not liking Dickens is a matter of taste, not a mental defect caused by watching Big Brother.

And another thing: what fraction of children in Dickens’ time could read at all? Much lower than today, I suspect.

Claire Tomalin’s comment is  not just a lazy generalization, it’s also yet another easy shot at the  younger generations who have to put up with this sort of gibe from middle-aged grouches over and over again.

Examination results usually provoke similar outbursts, related to “dumbing down”. I actually do think that, at least in some subjects, examinations are much easier than they were “in my day”, but I don’t think that’s a reason to criticize the examinees. It’s more a fault with the examiners, who have decided that the young can’t cope with difficult challenges. That’s an insult in its own right. I maintain my view that education, especially higher education, is not about making things easy.  It’s about showing students that they can do things that are hard. Most importantly, though, dumbing down examinations is not the same as dumbing down people.

It’s not just young schoolkids that attract such ill-informed invective. I come across it quite regularly with respect to the (alleged) lack of skills possessed by the young adults (usually 18-22) we teach as undergraduates, some of it even from colleagues.

I was thinking the other day what a boon it is for a middle-aged fogey – and obvious potential grouch – like myself to have the pleasure of actually talking to so many younger people at work, and listening to what they have to say. That way I’ve come to my own conclusions about what they’re really like. You know, like you do with people. Most folk  of my age don’t have jobs that bring them into contact with younger folk, so they have  to rely on articles in the Daily Telegraph to tell them  what to think. That, sadly, even goes for those lecturers who have fixed ideas about the inferiority of “students nowadays”.

I think I’ve been very lucky, especially over the last few years, to have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of students as, e.g., project supervisor or tutor. Interactions like this provide a constant reminder not to generalize about the generations. There is of course a range of ability and commitment, but there was in my day too. The majority  still work hard,  learn quickly, and are friendly and courteous. There’s also no doubt in my mind that the best students nowadays are as good as they have ever been, if not better.

It’s the oldies who are the problem.

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.

To look at a star by glances..

Posted in Literature, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 9, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve blogged before about my love of classic detective stories and about the intriguing historical connections between astronomy and forensic science. However, I recently finished reading a book that gave me a few more items to hang on that line of thought so I thought I’d do a quick post about them today.

I picked up a copy of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale when I saw it in a stack of discounted books in Tesco a few monthsa go. I thought it might be mildly diverting, so I bought it. It turned out to be a fascinating read. I won’t spoil it by telling too much about the story, but it is basically an investigation into the circumstances surrounding a real-life murder that happened on 30th June 1860. The case involved a truly shocking crime, the brutal slaying of a young boy, but it also offers great insights into the history of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Metropolitan Police, which was based at Scotland Yard from about 1842 onwards. Mr Jack Whicher was the Yard’s most celebrated detective at the time, but this crime went unsolved until, about five years later, the perpetrator walked into a police station and confessed to the murder.

In telling the story, Kate Summerscale touches on a lot of fascinating social history. For example, I had never realised that in the early days of the CID people were strongly opposed to the idea that plain clothes policemen might be snooping about so all detectives were required to wear their uniforms even when off duty! It’s also fascinating to note that the rise of the true-life detective coincided with the rise of the detective story in popular fiction.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue, generally accepted to have been the first real detective story, was first published in 1841. Even in this first example of the genre, we find a clear parallel being drawn with astronomy by the detective Dupin:

Thus there is such a thing as being too profound. Truth is not always in a well. In fact, as regards the more important knowledge, I do believe that she is invariably superficial. The depth lies in the valleys where we seek her, and not upon the mountain-tops where she is found. The modes and sources of this kind of error are well typified in the contemplation of the heavenly bodies. To look at a star by glances–to view it in a side-long way, by turning toward it the exterior portions of the retina (more susceptible of feeble impressions of light than the interior), is to behold the star distinctly–is to have the best appreciation of its lustre–a lustre which grows dim just in proportion as we turn our vision fully upon it. A greater number of rays actually fall upon the eye in the latter case, but in the former, there is the more refined capacity for comprehension. By undue profundity we perplex and enfeeble thought; and it is possible to make even Venus herself vanish from the firmament by a scrutiny too sustained, too concentrated, or too direct.

No less a figure than Charles Dickens also had thoughts along these lines. In 1850 in a short article called A Detective House Party, he compared detectives with the astronomers Urbain Leverrier and John Couch Adams who in 1846 had simultaneously discovered the planet Neptune. Dickens died in 1870 leaving his own detective story The Mystery of Edwin Drood still unfinished but his good friend Wilkie Collins did a great deal to establish the literary genre of detective fiction with The Moonstone and The Woman in White. Indeed, in the mid-19th Century the idea of detection seems to have imprinted itself on fields as diverse as natural history and journalism as well as astronomy.

The point that strikes me is that astronomy and criminal investigations are primarily observational rather than experimental. One has one Universe and one scene of the crime. In both disciplines the task is to reconstruct what happened from what is seen and what is not.

The detective instinct, brightened by genius, marked unerringly the place of that missing planet which no eye had seen, and whose only register was found in the calculations of astronomy.

I use metaphors like this quite often in popular lectures, and they seem to go down quite well. On the other hand, I’ve often had my leg pulled for admitting to watching TV programmes like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Admittedly, the characterisation is very weak and the plots often ridiculously far-fetched. However, these stories do at least attempt to portray something of what the scientific method is about. And that’s something that not many so-called science programmes bother to do these days.


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