Archive for December, 2009

Blue Moon

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 31, 2009 by telescoper

Tonight’s a blue moon, and it’s also New Year’s Eve (obviously), so just before I head out for a booze up,  here’s an appropriate celebratory track!

Happy New Year Everyone!

(Physics and) Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 4

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on December 31, 2009 by telescoper

Oh go on then, it’s raining outside so here’s one more.

Has anyone ever noticed the resemblance between former musician, now particle physicist and media star Professor Brian Cox , and the Cat in the Hat from the Dr Seuss Books? Apart from the hat, that is…

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 3

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on December 31, 2009 by telescoper

Well, I seem to be on a roll but I don’t want to use them all up at once so here’s a last one for the day. Has anyone ever noticed the remarkable similarity between Professor David Southwood, Director of Science at the European Space Agency, and the erstwhile TV Sports presenter Des Lynam?

Des Lynam

David Southwood

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 2

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on December 31, 2009 by telescoper

Just to prove I wasn’t joking,  here’s another one.

While reading the bumper Christmas holiday edition of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle the other day, I was struck by the similarity between one of the authors (the esteemed Professor John Barrow, who happens  to have been my thesis supervisor) and Father Dougal, as played by Ardal O’Hanlon in the popular situation comedy, Father Ted. Perhaps this accounts for the book’s theological overtones?

Father Dougal

Professor John Barrow

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 1

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on December 31, 2009 by telescoper

The other evening, when I was watching Miss Marple on TV, I was struck by the remarkable resemblance between the eponymous detective (now played by Julia McKenzie) and Professor Andy Fabian, the President of the Royal Astronomical Society. I wonder if by any chance they might be related?

This isn’t the only example I can bring to mind of a famous astronomer or cosmologist who bears a strong resemblance to someone famous outside their own sphere, so I’ve decided to run a series of astronomy look-alikes which I’ll post from time to time when I can’t think of anything better to do. You have been warned!

Julia McKenzie

Andy Fabian

Andy Fabian

Calling Planet Earth

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 30, 2009 by telescoper

Sun Ra, one of the most extraordinary composers and bandleaders of the 20th Century,  was born Herman Poole Blount in Bimingham, Alabama, on 22nd May 1914. From the 1950s, until his death in 1993, he led various combinations of musician in bands with various permutations of names involving the word Arkestra, such as the Blue Universe Arkestra and the Solar Myth Arkestra. He himself played keyboards, sometimes solo and sometimes with huge bands  of over 30 musicians; his music touched on virtually the entire history of jazz, from ragtime to swing music, from bebop to free jazz. He was also  one of the first musicians, in any genre to make extensive use of electronic keyboards.

He never achieved mainstream commercial success, but was a prolific recording artist with a cult following, partly fuelled by his outrageous claims to have been born not on Earth but on Saturn and the fact that much of his music was to do with space travel. Quoted in Jazziz magazine

They really thought I was some kind of kook with all my talk about outer space and the planets. I’m still talking about it, but governments are spending billions of dollars to go to Venus, Mars, and other planets, so it’s no longer kooky to talk about space

Quite. In fact, Sun Ra developed a complex performing identity based on his music, “cosmic” philosophy, and poetry. He abandoned his birth name, took on the persona of Sun Ra (Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the sun), and often dressed in the style of an ancient Egyptian pharoah, as in the video clip. In other words, he was very odd.

At this point you’re probably thinking this is all a bit “New Age” and heading in the direction of Charlie Parker‘s Private Hell, one of my favourite Gary Larson cartoons:

However, although I admit Sun Ra’s music is eclectic, outrageous and sometimes downright mystifying, it also has a marvellous coherence to it maintained as his style evolved over four decades and is consistently imbued with a powerful sense of the Jazz tradition.  In fact, I think Charlie Parker would have approved. I know I do! Anyway, whatever I think, the music of Sun Ra has withstood its skeptics and detractors for generations and long may it continue to do so. The world needs more of his kind.

Here’s a typically psychedelic number, Calling Planet Earth.

Christmas Cats

Posted in Columbo with tags , on December 30, 2009 by telescoper

Since the end of the year is drawing near and I’m not in the mood for writing anything strenuous, I thought I’d post a short update about Columbo. When I went up to Newcastle on Christmas Eve I left him in the capable hands of an expert pet-sitter, who obviously took good care of him as he was in fine fettle when I arrived back on 27th December. He’s since returned to his routine of eating and sleeping and appears to be well.


He’s going to be 16 on March 31st 2010, which is pretty old for a tom cat. It’s hard to believe he’s been with me for so long. Alhough he’s slowed down quite a bit over the years, he still has his moments as you can see from the picture above, which I found yesterday on my old mobile phone. It shows the scene of a recent crime, although the perpetrator appears to have made no attempt to effect a getaway. Judging by the squashed state of the decedent, I’d say the cause of death might well have been being sat on. Columbo hasn’t caught many mice or other rodents and hasn’t made much attempt to eat them on those rare occasions when he has managed to nab one. This particular victim is still basically in one piece, although clearly it has seen the last of its days.

Back in Newcastle I had the chance to see again the three cats that employ my mum to look after them. They’re all female cats, very small and dainty ones, and I’d guess that if you added them together they still wouldn’t weigh as much as Columbo. The oldest one is called Lucy, and she’s also the friendliest and most communicative. She’s also particularly fond of shoelaces. Then there’s Tilly and Daisy, who are much quieter. There’s a curious kind of hierarchy of power amongst them though, because Lucy is quite scared of Daisy who must be the boss of the house.  I couldn’t help wondering how Columbo would have got on had I taken up there to see them all. There would have been skin and hair flying, of course but, although he’s a big galoot, I wouldn’t put money on him winning a fight against any other cat no matter how small. He’s too much of a softie.

God Bless the Child

Posted in Jazz with tags , on December 29, 2009 by telescoper

I just came across this amazing performance and thought I’d share it with you. In fact I’ve been meaning to post something by the great Eric Dolphy for some time, and finding this reminded me to do so. I think Eric Dolphy was one of the true geniuses of Jazz, in that his sound and way of playing were completely unique. Like all the other great Jazz musicians you only have to hear a few notes to know that it was him. He was at home in diverse settings, and played with many of the greatest modern musicians – Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman to name but a few – but he always seemed to be able to impose his own musical personality whoever he was playing with. He’s also one of those characters that Jazz historians find difficult to categorize. Although he came to the fore in the late 50s and early 60s he didn’t really sound like anyone else of that period. In particular, his music wasn’t really free jazz, although he did play on many classic records in that idiom, so he doesn’t fit comfortably in the neat evolutionary sequences that historians like to construct.

He also died very young, just after his 36th birthday. He was on tour in Germany in 1964 when he collapsed onstage and was taken to hospital. Since he was a Jazz musician, the doctors thought that he had overdosed on drugs and left him on a saline drip to recover. They had no idea that in fact he was diabetic. He had probably become confused by the concentration and dosage instructions on the insulin he acquired while in Germany with the result that his blood sugar levels had become messed up. Simple treatment would have saved his life, but he died in hospital on June 29th 1964.

Eric Dolphy’s was  a virtuoso on many instruments, including saxophones (especially alto) and flute, but I found this one of him playing the bass clarinet unaccompanied. The tune, God Bless the Child, was co-written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzong Junior and is probably best known for Billie’s version which you can find here.  The Eric Dolphy version here was recorded in Germany, possibly during his last tour. I think it’s amazing. 

A Compression of Distances

Posted in Biographical, Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 28, 2009 by telescoper

I’m back in Cardiff after a few days of yuletide indulgence in my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England. And very nice it was too, although my mass has increased as a consequence. We didn’t do much except eat and drink, although we did manage a scenic drive on Boxing Day through the beautiful Northumberland countryside, even more beautiful than usual because of the covering of snow that fell heavily before Christmas and never got round to melting.

Last year I did the round trip from Cardiff to Newcastle by train, which is quite a lengthy ordeal, but this year the powers that be have decided to close the main railway line from South Wales into England (via Bristol) because of engineering work. Route B, via Cheltenham and Birmingham, was also closed, so the only way to do the journey by train would have been via Manchester, a trip of around 8 hours each way. It wasn’t a very difficult decision therefore to abandon the railways this year and fly, which turned out to be remarkably painless. Although we landed in snow at Newcastle the planes both ways were on time and, with a flying time of less than an hour, I had much more time for sloth and gluttony.

Just before I left for my short break a book sent from Cinnamon Press popped through my letterbox. I occasionally post bits of poetry on here, and if there’s any doubt about copyright I always check with the publisher before putting them online. I had a nice exchange of emails with this particular publisher as a result of which they sent me a collection of poems they thought I might like to feature. This one is called A Compression of Distances and it’s by a poet quite new to me, Daphne Gloag.

Poetry books are ideal for reading on short trips on train or plane. They’re usually slim so they are easy to carry and you can read them one poem at a time in between pesky interruptions, such as take-off and landing. I didn’t have time to read this one before leaving so I put it in my pocket and took it with me. Given the changed mode of travel this year, the title seemed quite appropriate for this journey!

Anyway, it’s a very interesting collection altogether but there are a few poems at the end, taken from a  much longer collection called Beginnings, which seem to me to be the most appropriate to put on here. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments  on the jacket by John Latham

Her poems are remarkable, especially in the way she has successfully taken complex concepts in modern science – particularly cosmology – and integrated them successfully and seamlessly into poems which speak of the human condition in an effective and moving manner.

I have to say that it is a difficult task to combine modern physics with poetry. Often, attempts to do this either completely trivialise the scientific content or become tiresomely didactic. I think these poems get it just right. What Daphne Gloag does is to juxtapose  ideas from comtemporary cosmology (inflation, dark matter, etc) with diverse aspects of human experience. The parallels are often very moving as well as ingeneous. The poems are also preceded by brief explanations of the physics. Here is one of the best examples.

The children’s charity concert:
matter and antimatter

Particles and antiparticles are interchangeable, but just after the big bang the process whereby they kept annihilating each other ended by producing very slightly more matter than antimatter, making the universe possible.

Arriving at the church for the children’s charity concert
we remembered the words of Richard Feynman:
Created and annihilated,
created and annihilated –
what a waste of time.

He was speaking of those particles and antiparticles
at the beginning of time
annihilated in explosions of light.

In the church the children were playing
for the refugees of Kosovo;
our granddaughter’s long hair shone
like the sheen of her violin.
She did not know
she was a child of that hair’s breadth victory
of particles over antiparticles
in the early universe: annihilation
for all but a few, a final imbalance
just enough for making galaxies and worlds
and at that end of time
those children and the making of their years.

They played Bach and Twinkle twinkle little star,
not knowing what a star is
or the violence of stars,
not knowing they were perfected children
of the violent universe,
not knowing the years piled up on the scrap heaps
of that country they’d raised money for…
the man with his ear sawn off slowly
and fed to a dog like offal, the girl
with her legs torn off, her family machine gunned,
blown into darkness.

So many annihilations of perfected years.
But also those children in their panache of light.

You can order a copy of A Compression of Distances by Daphne Gloag directly from the publisher.

Bring me Sunshine

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on December 24, 2009 by telescoper

If all goes to plan I’ll be in Newcastle with my folks when this  post hits the wordpress. This one comes to you courtesy of the autoschedule feature which I’ve never used before. I hope it works!

It’s been a pretty grim year for many people I know  for many reasons but, although I’m very angry about the mess being made by people in authority, I’m still determined to have a good time during this holiday. If you let them get to you then the bastards have won. That’s a lesson I learned earlier this year, in fact.

So I’m going to wish you all the merriest possible Christmas and the happiest imagineable New Year by putting up a clip that’s associated in my memory with this season even more strongly than Handel’s Messiah. The event on Christmas Day for me when I was younger was always the Morecambe & Wise Christmas Special, which in 1977 attracted 27 million viewers (half the UK population of the time).This is their signature tune, which I hope will bring a smile to your face along with the happy memories.

Merry Christmas!