Archive for May, 2009

On Green Dolphin Street

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , , , on May 31, 2009 by telescoper

Years ago in 1980, when the great pianist Bill Evans passed away suddenly, Humphrey Lyttelton paid tribute to him on his radio programme “The Best of Jazz” by playing a number of tracks featuring him. I didn’t really know much about Bill Evans at the time – I was only 17 then – but one track that Humph chose has been imprinted on my mind ever since, and it’s one of those pieces of music that I listen to over and over again.

The track is On Green Dolphin Street, as recorded in 1958 by the great Miles Davis sextet of the time that featured himself on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Jimmy Cobb on drums, Paul Chambers on bass and Bill Evans on piano. This is the same band that played on the classic album Kind of Blue, one of the most popular and also most innovative jazz records of all time, which was recorded a bit after the recording of On Green Dolphin Street.  I love Kind of Blue, of course, but I think this track is even better than the many great tracks on that album (All Blues, Flamenco Sketches, Blue in Green, etc). In fact, I’d venture the opinion – despite certainty of contradiction – that this is the greatest Jazz recording ever made.

On Green Dolphin Street was suggested to Miles Davis the band’s leader by the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. It was the theme tune from a film from the late 1940s. It’s also the title of a more recent very fine novel by Sebastian Faulks.

I think the Miles Davis version demonstrates his genius not only as a musician himself but also as a bandleader. On Green Dolphin Street definitely bears the Miles Davis hallmark, but it also manages to accommodate the very different styles of the other musicians and allows them also to impose their personality on it. This is done by having each solo introduced with a passage with the rhythm section playing a different, less propulsive, 3/4 time behind it. This allows each musician to set out their stall before the superb rhythm section kicks into a more swinging straight-ahead beat  (although it still keeps the 3/4 feel alongside the 4-4, courtesy of brilliant drumming by Jimmy Cobb) and they head off into their own territory. As the soloists hand over from one to the other there are moments of beautiful contrast and dramatic tension, especially – and this is the reason why Humph picked this one in 1980 – when Bill Evans takes over for his solo from Cannonball Adderley. He starts with hesitant single-note phrases before moving into a richly voiced two handed solo fully of lush harmonies. It’s amazing to me to hear how the mood changes completely and immediately when he starts playing.

Not that the other soloists play badly either. After Bill Evans short but exquisite prelude, Miles Davis takes over on muted trumpet, more lyrical and less introspective than in Kind of Blue but still with a moody,  melancholic edge. He’s followed by John Coltrane’s passionately virtuosic solo which floods out of him in an agonized stream which contrasts with Miles’ poised simplicity. By contrast, Cannonball Adderley is jaunty and upbeat, sauntering through his solo up to that wonderful moment where he hands over to the piano. Then Miles Davis takes over again to take them to the conclusion of the piece.

I’m not into League tables for music, but this is definitely fit to put up alongside the greatest of them all…

Ninety Years On…

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2009 by telescoper

The 29th May 2009 is a very special day that should be marked by anyone interested in the theory of relativity as it is the 90th anniversary of one of the most famous experiments of all time.

On 29th May 1919, measurements were made during total eclipse of the Sun that have gone down in history as vindicating Einstein’s (then) new general theory of relativity. I’ve written quite a lot about this in past years, including a little book and a slightly more technical paper. I decided, though, to post this little piece that is based on an article I wrote for Firstscience.

The Eclipse that Changed the Universe

A total eclipse of the Sun is a moment of magic: a scant few minutes when our perceptions of the whole Universe are turned on their heads. The Sun’s blinding disc is replaced by ghostly pale tentacles surrounding a black heart – an eerie experience witnessed by hundreds of millions of people throughout Europe and the Near East last August.

But one particular eclipse of the Sun, eighty years ago, challenged not only people’s emotional world. It was set to turn the science of the Universe on its head. For over two centuries, scientists had believed Sir Isaac Newton’s view of the Universe. Now his ideas had been challenged by a young German-Swiss scientist, called Albert Einstein. The showdown – Newton vs Einstein – would be the total eclipse of 29 May 1919.

Newton’s position was set out in his monumental Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687. The Principia – as it’s familiarly known – laid down a set of mathematical laws that described all forms of motion in the Universe. These rules applied as much to the motion of planets around the Sun as to more mundane objects like apples falling from trees.

At the heart of Newton’s concept of the Universe were his ideas about space and time. Space was inflexible, laid out in a way that had been described by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid in his laws of geometry. To Newton, space was the immovable and unyielding stage on which bodies acted out their motions. Time was also absolute, ticking away inexorably at the same rate for everyone in the Universe.

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London Sir Isaac Newton proposed the first theory of gravity.

For over 200 years, scientists saw the Cosmos through Newton’s eyes. It was a vast clockwork machine, evolving by predetermined rules through regular space, against the beat of an absolute clock. This edifice totally dominated scientific thought, until it was challenged by Albert Einstein.

In 1905, Einstein dispensed with Newton’s absolute nature of space and time. Although born in Germany, during this period of his life he was working as a patent clerk in Berne, Switzerland. He encapsulated his new ideas on motion, space and time in his special theory of relativity. But it took another ten years for Einstein to work out the full consequences of his ideas, including gravity. The general theory of relativity, first aired in 1915, was as complete a description of motion as Newton had prescribed in his Principia. But Einstein’s description of gravity required space to be curved. Whereas for Newton space was an inflexible backdrop, for Einstein it had to bend and flex near massive bodies. This warping of space, in turn, would be responsible for guiding objects such as planets along their orbits.

Einstein and Eddington
Royal Observatory Greenwich Albert Einstein and Arthur Eddington: the father of relativity and the man who proved him right.

By the time he developed his general theory, Einstein was back in Germany, working in Berlin. But a copy of his general theory of relativity was soon smuggled through war-torn Europe to Cambridge. There it was read by Arthur Stanley Eddington, Britain’s leading astrophysicist. Eddington realised that Einstein’s theory could be tested. If space really was distorted by gravity, then light passing through it would not travel in a straight line, but would follow a curved path. The stronger the force of gravity, the more the light would be bent. The bending would be largest for light passing very close to a very massive body, such as the Sun.

Unfortunately, the most massive objects known to astronomers at the time were also very bright. This was before black holes were seriously considered, and stars provided the strongest gravitational fields known. The Sun was particularly useful, being a star right on our doorstep. But it is impossible to see how the light from faint background stars might be bent by the Sun’s gravity, because the Sun’s light is so bright it completely swamps the light from objects beyond it.

Click here for enlarged version
Royal Observatory Greenwich Scientist’s sketch of the path of the vital 1919 eclipse.

Eddington realised the solution. Observe during a total eclipse, when the Sun’s light is blotted out for a few minutes, and you can see distant stars that appear close to the Sun in the sky. If Einstein was right, the Sun’s gravity would shift these stars to slightly different positions, compared to where they are seen in the night sky at other times of the year when the Sun far away from them. The closer the star appears to the Sun during totality, the bigger the shift would be.

Eddington began to put pressure on the British scientific establishment to organise an experiment. The Astronomer Royal of the time, Sir Frank Watson Dyson, realised that the 1919 eclipse was ideal. Not only was totality unusually long (around six minutes, compared with the two minutes we experienced in 1999) but during totality the Sun would be right in front of the Hyades, a cluster of bright stars.

But at this point the story took a twist. Eddington was a Quaker and, as such, a pacifist. In 1917, after disastrous losses during the Somme offensive, the British government introduced conscription to the armed forces. Eddington refused the draft and was threatened with imprisonment. In the end, Dyson’s intervention was crucial persuading the government to spare Eddington. His conscription was postponed under the condition that, if the war had finished by 1919, Eddington himself would lead an expedition to measure the bending of light by the Sun. The rest, as they say, is history.

The path of totality of the 1919 eclipse passed from northern Brazil, across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa. In case of bad weather (amongst other reasons) two expeditions were organised: one to Sobral, in Brazil, and the other to the island of Principe, in the Gulf of Guinea close to the West African coast. Eddington himself went to Principe; the expedition to Sobral was led by Andrew Crommelin from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

Click for enlarged version
Royal Observatory Greenwich British scientists in the field at Sobral in 1919.

The expeditions did not go entirely according to plan. When the day of the eclipse (29 May) dawned on Principe, Eddington was greeted with a thunderstorm and torrential rain. By mid-afternoon the skies had partly cleared and he took some pictures through cloud.

Meanwhile, at Sobral, Crommelin had much better weather – but he had made serious errors in setting up his equipment. He focused his main telescope the night before the eclipse, but did not allow for the distortions that would take place as the temperature climbed during the day. Luckily, he had taken a backup telescope along, and this in the end provided the best results of all.

After the eclipse, Eddington himself carefully measured the positions of the stars that appeared near the Sun’s eclipsed image, on the photographic plates exposed at both Sobral and Principe. He then compared them with reference positions taken previously when the Hyades were visible in the night sky. The measurements had to be incredibly accurate, not only because the expected deflections were small. The images of the stars were also quite blurred, because of problems with the telescopes and because they were seen through the light of the Sun’s glowing atmosphere, the solar corona.

Before long the results were ready. Britain’s premier scientific body, the Royal Society, called a special meeting in London on 6 November. Dyson, as Astronomer Royal took the floor, and announced that the measurements did not support Newton’s long-accepted theory of gravity. Instead, they agreed with the predictions of Einstein’s new theory.

Image from Sobral
Royal Observatory Greenwich The final proof: the small red line shows how far the position of the star has been shifted by the Sun’s gravity.

The press reaction was extraordinary. Einstein was immediately propelled onto the front pages of the world’s media and, almost overnight, became a household name. There was more to this than purely the scientific content of his theory. After years of war, the public embraced a moment that moved mankind from the horrors of destruction to the sublimity of the human mind laying bare the secrets of the Cosmos. The two pacifists in the limelight – the British Eddington and the German-born Einstein – were particularly pleased at the reconciliation between their nations brought about by the results.

But the popular perception of the eclipse results differed quite significantly from the way they were viewed in the scientific establishment. Physicists of the day were justifiably cautious. Eddington had needed to make significant corrections to some of the measurements, for various technical reasons, and in the end decided to leave some of the Sobral data out of the calculation entirely. Many scientists were suspicious that he had cooked the books. Although the suspicion lingered for years in some quarters, in the end the results were confirmed at eclipse after eclipse with higher and higher precision.

Image from Hubble

NASA In this cosmic ‘gravitational lens,’ a huge cluster of galaxies distorts the light from more distant galaxies into a pattern of giant arcs.

Nowadays astronomers are so confident of Einstein’s theory that they rely on the bending of light by gravity to make telescopes almost as big as the Universe. When the conditions are right, gravity can shift an object’s position by far more than a microscopic amount. The ideal situation is when we look far out into space, and centre our view not on an individual star like the Sun, but on a cluster of hundreds of galaxies – with a total mass of perhaps 100 million million suns. The space-curvature of this immense ‘gravitational lens’ can gather the light from more remote objects, and focus them into brilliant curved arcs in the sky. From the size of the arcs, astronomers can ‘weigh’ the cluster of galaxies.

Einstein didn’t live long enough to see through a gravitational lens, but if he had he would definitely have approved….

Professorial Misconduct

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on May 26, 2009 by telescoper

The British political establishment is currently mired in scandal owing to revelations about the widespread abuse of  so-called “second home” expenses allowance by greedy and unscrupulous Members of Parliament.  Combined with the country’s ongoing economic difficulties, this will undoubtedly lead to equally widespread disillusionment with the way our country is being run which will probably also lead to increased support of extremist parties in the forthcoming Local and European elections on 4th June.

You might have hoped that the ivory towers of academe might be immune from this epidemic of sleaze but, alas, that’s not so. Take the recent election to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, which is claimed to be the most prestigious academic post in the country (apart from mine, of course). The Nobel laureate Derek Walcott – whom I’ve blogged about beforewithdrew from the race after an anonymous source circulated a dossier containing allegations of sexual harassment committed by him during the course of employment at Harvard. It contained pages from a book  entitled “The Lecherous Professor”  detailing Walcott’s attempts to persuade a female student to have sex with him; Walcott had received an official reprimand over this episode and had been forced to make  a written apology for his actions. A later case involving a sexual harassment claim against him (from 1996) also came to light, but that was apparently settled out of court.

I find it difficult to be too sympathetic to Derek Walcott, and  I do think he probably did the right thing by withdrawing. While it is true that students are adults (in reality and in the law), a Professor is obviously in a position of responsiblity for, and power over, his or her students. For a male Professor to ask a female student if she wants to have sex with him does not in itself constitute harassment but to do so repeatedly after refusals clearly does, and so does any attempt to influence events by suggesting changes to grades. To abuse an academic position in order to secure sexual favours is clearly wrong and the disciplinary action taken against Walcott  seems to me to have  been justified. Even if there is no actual coercion, I think it is still very unprofessional behaviour for an academic to pursue a sexual relationship with one of their students as it could lead them into dangerous territory. I know of quite a few successful relationships that have started out that way, though, and  I don’t want to be  sound censorious about behaviour between consenting adults. In general  I don’t think a person’s sexual life is at all relevant to their suitability for a job.  What I mean is that Walcott’s prior inapproriate acts do cast doubt on his suitability for this particular position.

Despite the revelations about his past, I still admire Walcott’s poetry enormously. Beautiful literature, just like beautiful music and art, is not made by saints but by people. We all have our flaws.

Anyway, Walcott’s withdrawal from the election left the way open for Ruth Padel (distant relative of Charles Darwin), who was duly elected to the Chair last week. She had distanced herself from the circulation of the anti-Walcott dossier and stated her regret that Walcott had withdrawn, but it subsequently transpired that she had actually drawn his past behaviour to the attention of some journalists via email. This news caused further uproar, with the result that she yesterday resigned the post only a week or so after having been elected to it.

Oxford University will now hold another election, but this fiasco has already put a stain on the Chair and makes Oxford’s academic world look petty and vindictive, at least to people who didn’t realise how petty and vindictive academics are anyway.

Even if Ruth Padel did not have anything to do with the circulation of the dirty dossier, I think it still was a mistake for her to send emails drawing attention to it. Having allowed herself to be drawn into the affair I think she made the right decision to resign in order to bring the sorry business to an end. It’s all a bit sad, though, and I hope there aren’t any more skeletons in relevant cupboards next time the election is run.

And the issue still remains of who it was that dished the dirt on Derek in the first place? If it was someone or some people wanting to help Ruth Padel win the Oxford position then it seriously backfired. Handwriting experts have been looking at the evidence to try and identify the culprit. Inspector Morse would have been in his element.

Catching Up

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on May 25, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve been away for a few days leading up to the Whitsuntide bank holiday so I thought I’d just throw together a quick post catching up on two or three things.

First, we’re all  indebted to Ed and Haley for putting together this video of the Herschel-Planck launch party a couple of weeks ago. I think it’s very nicely done, despite the fact that I’m in it. In fact, some trick of the lens makes me appear slightly drunk. I don’t know how that can have happened.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the fine folks at the University of Sussex Astronomy Centre for inviting me to give a seminar there on Friday and also laying on such fine hospitality, in the form of an excellent curry afterwards. They also put me up in the splendid Cavalaire hotel (run by Derek and Garry) which is comfortable, friendly and, well, just very Brighton

I did my graduate studies at Sussex, getting my DPhil there about 20 years ago and stayed thereafter for another couple of years as a postdoc before moving up to London. Having the excuse to go back was rather wonderful because wandering around the city brought back lots of very happy memories of the place.

Some things have changed, of course. I was shocked to discover that the Zap Club under the arches on the seafront has closed down (or at least changed its name).  Superficially, things have come and gone but the overall feel of the town hasn’t changed much, though, as far as I can tell. I was quite surprised that the same bus route (number 25) runs from the town to the Campus in Falmer, although the one I got was stuck in traffic for ages on the way. On a glorious sunny weekend, though, there’s no better place to be than Brighton. I wish I could have stayed a bit longer.

And finally, as I predicted, the last day of the Premiership season did indeed see the relegation of Newcastle United. I wasn’t surprised at the outcome, but it’s typical of this season that they went out with such a whimper. Basically they needed to get something out of their game away Aston Villa and hope that either Sunderland or Hull City would lose. In fact the other two teams played their part by both losing. Unfortunately, however, Newcastle also lost 1-0 (to an own goal) so they go down. I’ve been reconciled to this for quite a long time, however, and it didn’t depress me too much. It probably helped that the substantial bet I made on this eventuality has already paid out and I’ve got a nice bit of dosh to compensate me. It probably also means I’m a cynical bastard. Quite a few folks at Sussex expressed disapproval of my gambling philosophy – always bet on the outcome that you don’t want to happen, as a kind of insurance policy – but I stand by it. I’m looking forward to seeing the team play in Cardiff City next season and, who knows, maybe they’ll be playing Brighton the following year!

Incidentally, the Whit week holiday (which celebrates the feast of Pentecost) was always called “Race Week” when I was a kid on Tyneside, because it is when the Northumberland Plate has been run at Newcastle racecourse (since 1833). The associated festivities regularly got out of hand and degenerated into drunken chaos until, in 1882, the local Temperance Society set up a Temperance Fair on the Town Moor. Over the years this grew into the largest travelling fun fair in Europe and became called “The Hoppings“. It was the highlight of the half-term holiday at School to be taken to The Hoppings – usually in the pouring rain – to come home with a goldfish in a plastic bag and a toffee apple.

Race week isn’t to be confused with the famous “Blaydon Races” which take place on 9th June and which are commemorated in Geordie Ridley‘s music hall song, which mentions the date of 1862. The race referred to in this case is an athletics race which was originally run on Stella Haugh, which is now the site of  a power station. The runners now race from Newcastle to Blaydon following the route described in the song. If you’re confused by the lyrics then you probably weren’t aware that Paradise is a place in Newcastle. The Blaydon Races is typically sung by supporters of Newcastle United, though I suspect those renditions will be rather subdued for a while.

Anyway, back to work tomorrow. In a day or two I’ll be locked away marking examinations. Hey ho.

A Unified Quantum Theory of the Sexual Interaction

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 20, 2009 by telescoper

Recent changes to the criteria for allocating research funding require particle physicists  and astronomers to justify the wider social, cultural and economic impact of their science. In view of the directive to engage in work more directly relevant to the person in the street, I’ve decided to share with you my latest results, which involve the application of ideas from theoretical physics in the wider field of human activity. That is, if you’re one of those people who likes to have sex in a field.

In the simplest theories of the sexual interaction, the eigenstates of the Hamiltonian describing all allowed forms of two-body coupling are identified with the conventional gender states, “Male” and “Female”  denoted |M> and |F> in the Dirac bra-ket notation; note that the bra is superfluous in this context so, as usual, we dispense with it at the outset. Interactions between |M> and |F> states are assumed to be attractive while those between |M> and |M> or |F> and |F> are supposed either to be repulsive or, in some theories, entirely forbidden.

Observational evidence, however, strongly  suggests that two-body interactions involving either F-F or M-M coupling, though suppressed in many  situations, are by no means ruled out  in the manner one would expect from the simplest theory outlined above. Furthermore, experiments indicate that the relevant channel for M-M interactions appears to have a comparable cross-section to that of the standard M-F variety, so a similar form of tunneling is presumably involved. This suggests that a more complete theory could be obtained by a  relatively simple modification of the  version presented above.

Inspired by the recent Nobel prize awarded for the theory of quark mixing, we are now able to present a new, unified theory of the sexual interaction. In our theory the “correct” eigenstates for sexual behaviour are not the conventional |M> and |F> gender states but linear combinations of the form

|M>=cosθ|S> + sinθ|G>


where θ is the Cabibbo mixing angle or, more appropriately in this context, the sexual orientation (measured in degrees). Extension to three states is in principle possible (but a bit complicated) and we will not discuss this issue further.

In this theory each |M> or |F> state is regarded as a linear combination of heterosexual (straight, S)  and homosexual (gay, G) states represented by a rotation of the basis by an angle θ, exactly the same mechanism that accounts for the charge-changing weak interactions between quarks.

For a purely heterosexual state, this angle is zero, in which case we recover the simple theory outlined above. At θ=90° only the G component manifests itself; in this state only classically forbidden interactions are permitted. The general state is however, one with a value of the orientation angle somewhere between these two limits and this permits all forms of interaction, at least with some probability.

Note added in proof:  the |G> states do not appear in standard QFT but are motivated by some versions of string theory, expecially those involving G-strings.

One immediate consequence of this theory is that a “pure” gender state should be generally regarded as a quantum superposition of “straight” and “gay” states. This differs from a classical theory in that the true state can not be known with certainty; only the relative frequency of straight and gay behaviour (over a large number of interactions) can be predicted, perhaps explaining the large number of married men to be found on gaydar. The state at any given time is thus entirely determined by a sum over histories up to that moment, taking into account the appropriate action. In the Copenhagen interpretation, collapse one way or another  occurs only when a measurement is made (or when enough Carlsberg is drunk).

If there is a difference in energy of the basis states a pure |M> state can oscillate between |S> and |G> according to a time-dependent phase factor arising when the two states interfere with each other:

|M(t)>=cosθ|S>exp(-iE1t) + sinθ|G>exp(-iE2t);

(obviously we are using natural units here, so that it all looks cleverer than it actually is). This equation is the origin of the expressions  “it’s just a phase he’s going through” and “he swings both ways”. In physics parlance this means that the eigenstates of the sexual interaction do not coincide with the conventional gender types, indicating that sexual behaviour is not necessarily time-invariant for a given body.

Whether single-body phenomena (i.e. self-interactions) can provide insights into this theory  depends, as can be seen from the equation,  on the energies of the relevant states (as is also the case  in neutrino oscillations). If they are equal then there is no oscillation. However,  a detailed discussion of the role of degeneracy is beyond the scope of this analysis.

Self- interactions involving a solitary phase are generally difficult to observe,  although examples have been documented that involve short-lived but highly-excited states  accompanied by various forms of stimulated emission. Unfortunately, however, the resulting fluxes are  not often well measured. This form of interaction also appears to be the current preoccupation of string theorists.

More definitive evidence for the theory might emerge from situations involving some form of entanglement, such as in the examples of M-M and F-F coupling mentioned above.  Non-local interactions of a sexual type are possible in principle, but causality and simultaneity issues exist and most researchers consequently prefer to focus on local interactions, which are generally supposed to be more satisfactory from the point-of-view of reproducibility.

Although the theory is qualitatively successful we need more experimental data to pin down the parameters needed for a robust fit. It is not known, for example, whether the rates of M-M and F-F coupling are similar or, indeed, whether the peak intensity of these interactions, when resonance is reached, is similar to those of the standard M-F form. It is generally accepted, however, that the rate of decay from peak intensity is rather slower for processes involving |F> states than for|M> which is not so easy to model in this theory, although with a bit of renormalization we can probably explain anything.

Answers to these questions can perhaps be gleaned from observations of many-body processes  (i.e. those with N≥3),  especially if they involve a multiplicity of hardon states (i.e. collective excitations). Only these permit a full exploration of all possible degrees of freedom, although higher-order Feynman diagrams are needed to depict them and they require more complicated group theoretical techniques.  Examples like the one  shown above  – representing a threesome – are not well understood, but undoubtedly contribute significantly to the bi-spectrum.

One might also speculate that in these and other highly excited states,  the sexual interaction may be described by something more like the  electroweak theory in which all forms of interaction occur in a much more symmetric fashion and at much higher rates than at lower energies. That sounds like some kind of party…

It is worth remarking that there may be finer structure than this model takes into account. For example, the |G> state is generally associated with  singlet configurations like those shown on the right. However, G-G coupling is traditionally described in terms of  “top” |t> and “bottom” |b> states, with b-t coupling the preferred mode,  leading to the possibility of doublets or even triplets. It may be even prove  necessary to introduce a further mixing angle φ of the form

|G>=cosφ |t> + sinφ |b>

so that the general state of |G>  is “versatile”. However, whether G-G interactions can be adequately described even in this extended theory is a matter for debate until the intensity of t-t and b-b  coupling is more accurately measured.

Finally, we should like to point out the difference between our model and that of the usual quark sextet, in which interacting states are described in terms of three pairs: the bottom (b) and top (t) which we have mentioned already; the strange (s) and charmed (c); and the up (u) and down (d). While it is clear that |b> and |t> do exhibit strong interactions and it appears plausible that |s> and |c> might do likewise, the sexual interaction clearly breaks the isospin symmetry between the |u> and the |d> in both M-M and M-F cases. The “up” state is definitely preferred in all forms of coupling and, indeed, the “down” has only ever been known to engage in weak interactions.

We have recently submitted an application to the Science and Technology Facilities Council for a modest sum (£754 million) to build a large-scale  UK facility  in order to carry out hands-on experimental tests of some aspects of the theory. We hope we can rely on the support of the physics community in agreeing to close down their labs and quit their jobs in order to release the funding needed to support it.

The Darling Buds of May

Posted in Poetry with tags , on May 20, 2009 by telescoper

Four hundred years ago today, on the 20th May 1609, William Shakespeare published a collection of 154 Sonnets which arguably represent just as high a  level of literary achievement as his plays.  At any rate they’ve survived in popularity just as well and also furnished a huge number of memorable phrases including, appropriately enough for the time of year, the title of this post. This was, in fact, the only edition of the Sonnets published in Shakespeare’s lifetime and the circumstances of its publication remain uncertain.

Most of the poems concern Shakespeare’s love for a young man,  “Mr WH, the Onlie Begetter of the Sonnets”. However, there is a also group of sonnets addressed to his mistress, an anonymous “dark lady”,  which are far much more sexual in content than those addressed to the “Fair Youth”. The usual interpretation of this is that Shakespeare’s love for the boy was purely Platonic rather than sexual in nature.  Anyway, it was certainly a physical attraction.  Verse after verse speaks of the young man’s beauty. The first group of sonnets even encourage him to get married and have children so his beauty can continue and not die with his death. Sonnet 20 laments that the youth is not a woman, suggesting that this ruled out any sexual contact.  These early poems seem to suggest a slightly distant relationship between the two as if they didn’t really know each other well. However, as the collection goes on the poems become more and more intimate and it’s hard for me to accept that there wasn’t some sort of involvement between the two.  Although homosexual relationships were not officially tolerated in 17th Century England, they were not all that rare especially in the theatrical circles in which Shakespeare worked.

We’ll probably never know who Mr WH was – not Smith presumably – or indeed what was the real nature of his relationship to Shakespeare but we still have the poems. I do think it’s worth remembering, though, that these deep and moving expressions of romantic love were not written from a man to a woman, but from one man to another.  Here is perhaps the most famous one of all, Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Charles Ives

Posted in Music with tags , on May 19, 2009 by telescoper

This morning I was woken up  by the lovely voice of Sarah Mohr-Pietsch whispering in my ear. She introduces the Breakfast programme on BBC Radio 3 when Rob Cowan isn’t doing it. As a matter of fact, I thought her name was More-Peach, but there you are. You learn something every day.

This morning Sultry Sarah reminded me that the remarkable composer Charles Ives, whom I’ve blogged about before, died 55 years ago this very day. To find something with which to mark the anniversary I had a quick look on Youtube and found this little gem.

The Housatonic at Stockbridge is best known as the last piece of Charles Ives’ Orchestral Suite No. 1 Three Places in New England. It’s a complex richly-orchestrated piece which is powerfully evocative of both the place (near the Housatonic River at Stockbridge, Massachusetts) and the time (June 1908) when he went walking there with his wife on their honeymoon. It makes great use of one of Ives’ favourite devices of juxtaposing familiar melodies with his own advanced harmonic inventions.

However, this morning I found this wonderful pared-down version for soprano voice and piano which also manages to be beautiful, but in an entirely different way…


Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 18, 2009 by telescoper

What happens when something burns?

Ask a seventeenth century scientist that question and the chances are the answer would  have involved the word phlogiston, a name derived from the Greek  φλογιστόν, meaning “burning up”. This “fiery principle” or “element” was supposed to be present in all combustible materials and the idea was that it was released into air whenever any such stuff was ignited. The act of burning separated the phlogiston from the dephlogisticated “true” form of the material, also known as calx.

The phlogiston theory held sway until  the late 18th Century, when Antoine Lavoisier demonstrated that combustion results in an increase in weight of the material being burned. This poses a serious problem if burning also involves the loss of phlogiston unless phlogiston has negative weight. However, many serious scientists of the 18th Century, such as Georg Ernst Stahl, had already suggested that phlogiston might have negative weight or, as he put it, “levity”. Nowadays we would probably say “anti-gravity”.

Eventually, Joseph Priestley discovered what actually combines with materials during combustion:  oxygen. Instead of becoming dephlogisticated, things become oxidised by fixing oxygen from air, which is why their weight increases. It’s worth mentioning, though, the name that Priestley used for oxygen was in fact “dephlogisticated air” (because it was capable of combining more extensively with phlogiston than ordinary air). He  remained a phlogistonian longer after making the discovery that should have killed the theory.

So why am I rambling on about a scientific theory that has been defunct for more than two centuries?

Well,  it’s because there just might be a lesson from history about the state of modern cosmology…

The standard cosmological model involves the hypothesis that about 75% of the energy budget of the Universe is in the form of “dark energy”. We don’t know much about what this is, except that in order to make our current understanding work out it has to act like a source of anti-gravity. It does this by violating the strong energy condition of general relativity.

Dark energy is needed to reconcile three basic measurements: (i) the brightness distant supernovae that seem to indicate the Universe is accelerating (which is where the anti-gravity comes in); (ii) the cosmic microwave background that suggests the Universe has flat spatial sections; and (iii) the direct estimates of the mass associated with galaxy clusters that accounts for about 25% of the mass needed to close the Universe.

A universe without dark energy appears not to be able to account for these three observations simultaneously within our current understanding of gravity as obtained from Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

I’ve blogged before, with some levity of my own, about how uncomfortable this dark energy makes me feel. It makes me even more uncomfortable that such an enormous  industry has grown up around it and that its existence is accepted unquestioningly by so many modern cosmologists.

Isn’t there a chance that, with the benefit of hindsight, future generations will look back on dark energy in the same way that we now see the phlogiston theory?

Or maybe the dark energy really is phlogiston. That’s got to be worth a paper! At least I prefer the name to quintessence.


Posted in Opera with tags , on May 16, 2009 by telescoper

Just  in case you’ve had the misfortune to sit through the tedious spectacle that is the annual Eurovision song contest,  let this be a reminder that Eurovision wasn’t always synonymous with utter garbage…

Divided Loyalties

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 16, 2009 by telescoper

It’s easy to tell that summer is on the way. England are playing the West Indies at Cricket. It’s the penultimate weekend of the Premiership football season. The undergraduates are taking their exams. I’m sitting with a pile of projects to mark. And it’s raining.

I suppose I have to mention the football. My team, Newcastle United, gave themselves a chance of avoiding relegation on Monday night by beating local rivals, Middlesborough 3-1. A win today at home against Fulham would pretty much have guaranteed safety. They lost 1-0. It now looks inevitable that they will be relegated after 16 years in the top flight.

It’s a thankless task being a Newcastle supporter. I’ve followed them all my life and they have managed to avoid winning any competition of any significance since the Fairs cup in 1968 (now called the UEFA cup). They have loyal fans and a wonderful stadium, but somehow seem completely unable to convert that into success on the field. This season they were doomed as soon as the manager Kevin Keegan quit over the owner Mike Ashley’s refusal to allow him to be involved in signing any players. After a period without a manager, during which they lost game after game, the club appointed veteran relegation specialist Joe Kinnear, who did OK for a while then at Christmas had to go into hospital with heart problems. Another run of poor results followed until, in desperation, the club appointed the iconic former player Alan Shearer to his first managerial position. His lack of experience showed, though, and he’s only managed to win one game. In short, the season has been a shambles.

When my father died (about 18 months ago), I thought that my interest in Newcastle United would wane. Football and music were the only two things we had in common after my parents split when I was about 12 and I went to live with my mother. I saw him only rarely in later years,and much of the time we spent together involved talking about football. However, I still find myself getting nervous on match days and looking anxiously for the scores whenever they’ve been playing. It’s like there is an umbilical cord that still connects me to my home town and I can’t get rid of it.

That feeling was reinforced yesterday when, following a conversation at the RAS Club last week, Robert Smith sent me a booklet that he had received when he attended a conference in Newcastle in 1965. The Official Guide to Newcastle upon Tyne (priced 2/6) filled me with a mixture of nostalgia and amusement. Ironically, given the football team’s inadequacies the motto of the city is FORTITER DEFENDIT TRIUMPHANS, which was also the motto of my old school, the Royal Grammar School (also mentioned in the booklet).

The little picture on the left shows the armorial bearings of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne. The official blazon is: Arms:- Gules three Castles triple towered Argent. Crest on a Wreath of the Colours. A Castle as in the arms issuant therefrom from a demi Lion guardant supporting a Flagstaff Or, flying therefrom a forked Pennon of the Arms of Saint George.

Supporters: – on either side a Sea Horse proper crined and finned Or.

Obviously supporters don’t guarantee success, even if they’re proper crined and finned.

Of course, I shall be disappointed if and when Newcastle get relegated next week, but I don’t go along with all the guff in the newspapers about how it will have dire consequences for the city. They’ve been relegated twice before in my lifetime, and the world didn’t end then nor will it now. In any case, I’d reckon the Football Club has taken much more out of the economy of Newcastle in recent years than it has put back into it. Hard-earned cash from supporters has gone straight into the pockets of overpaid players and inept management staff. Maybe relegation will shake the Club up, which will be good in the long run.

Anyway, every cloud has at least one silver lining and this one has two. At the start of the season, I was prescient enough to place a large bet on Newcastle to get relegated at quite long odds. I expect to be handsomely compensated by Mr William Hill when they do go down. The other thing is that they will have to play Cardiff City in the Championship next year, which will give me the chance to see them play in Cardiff’s brand new stadium.

Incidentally, Cardiff City blew their promotion hopes in spectacular fashion. Needing only to avoid losing to Preston North End by 5 goals in order to secure a place in the play-offs, they lost 6-0.

Meanwhile we’ve been coming down slowly from the high that was Thursday’s launch of Herschel and Planck. I was surprised to see Matt Griffin in the department yesterday afternoon because he was actually at the launch in Kourou. He had left after the launch and flown directly back to Cardiff (via Paris). Our other representatives will return over this weekend, and things will start to get back to normal.

Matt told me that he was so impressed with the professionalism of Arianespace, that he wasn’t at all nervous about the launch. Matt’s instrument, SPIRE, will switch on during 22 May and testing will start. I’m sure that Matt and his team will be more than a little nervous about that!

Assuming both Planck and Herschel work satisfactorily, the next problem we will have to face is the deluge of data that will shortly be upon us. The astronomers at Cardiff University have submitted an application for rolling grant support from STFC (not Swindon Town Football Club) to enable us to extract scientific results from new data especially from Herschel. Unfortunately, though, the coffers are pretty bare and it seems very unlikely that we will get the substantial uplift in funding we need to carry out the work on a reasonable timescale.

A rolling grant is intended to support an ongoing research programme. Typically the grants cover 5 years’ funding, enabling the group to offer longer term contracts to staff than is allowed by the 3-year standard grant format. After 3 years of the rolling period, the group has to bid again for another 5 year period but the timing means there is always two years’ grace, meaning that if renewal is not recommended the group still has two years’ funding so the plug isn’t pulled immediately. If an extension is offered but at a reduced level of funding, a group might decide to refuse the new grant and carry on with its existing two years, perhaps to apply in the following round.

The problem with the current financial situation is that STFC barely has the funds needed to continue its existing rolling grants. In other words if all the groups applying for rolling support declined their new contracts and rolled on their existing grants, STFC would only just be able to pay them. In such a situation there would be no new grants or any kind of increase in existing rollers. The implications for successful exploitation of Herschel and Planck appear to be grim and there could well be a lot of difficult decisions within the department to be made if we have to operate within a much reduced budget.

It would be ridiculous if a billion-dollar mission like Herschel ends up stymied because of the relatively small sums needed to exploit the data, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Football teams aren’t the only organizations to suffer from bad management.