Archive for March, 2010

Tremblin’ Blues

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on March 31, 2010 by telescoper

I just noticed that a few days ago someone posted this lovely old blues on Youtube. It’s by one of my all-time favourite blues piano players, Little Brother Montgomery, who died in 1985 aged 79. He was self-taught (as many of the great jazz and blues musicians were) and was such a quick learner that he was playing professionally by the time he was 11.

He toured the UK and Europe quite regularly in the  1960s and made many recordings here, including some wonderfully relaxed music recorded at the Sussex home of eccentric jazz enthusiast Francis Wilford Smith, a  marvellous old character who passed away a few months ago in 2009. I mention this because I have an old LP that features Tremblin’ Blues by Little Brother Montgomery, recorded on the Magpie label. That one is much slower than the one here and is punctuated by chuckles from the pianist, suggesting that he might have been just a little bit inebriated at the time. This one’s a bit crisper, free of giggles, but still a lovely performance.

Wonders of the Solar System…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 30, 2010 by telescoper

Apologies to Professor Brian Cox, but I couldn’t resist this! I think it’s hilarious…

A word of warning: it contains colourful language, so please be sure to watch it after the watershed. And if you can’t find water, lava will do just as well.

The Thieving Magpie

Posted in Football, Opera with tags , , , on March 30, 2010 by telescoper

Well, I’ve spent the evening working as well as following an important night’s football. My team – Newcastle United – were playing their promotion rivals Nottingham Forest at St James’ Park (in Newcastle). Going into the game Newcastle were at the top of the Championship, 10 points clear of third-placed Nottingham Forest with a game in hand. With 80 points from 38 games, and only 8 remaining to play, a win would virtually guarantee that Forest (on 70 points after 39 games) couldn’t catch them and Newcastle would therefore be in one of the top two positions guaranteeing them a return to the Premiership next season.

Although this was apparently a commanding position, I’ve been a Newcastle supporter for too long to take anything for granted; they’ve demonstrated their ability to throw away apparently unassailable leads far too often for me to feel complacent. Fortunately, they didn’t let me down. Two second-half goals (from Shola Ameobi and Jose Enrique) saw them win 2-0. Now 13 points clear of third place (with Forest only having 6 games to play), they are on the brink of automatic promotion. Mathematically they now need 6 points from 7 games to be sure, but they could seal it on Saturday away against bottom club Peterborough, if Nottingham Forest lose against Bristol City.

I confess that I get badly affected by nerves when following games on the radio or TV. I’d much rather be there in the flesh, but sadly that’s impractical. When the final whistle went tonight I was enormously relieved and more than a little bit elated, despite the heavy cold I’ve got at the moment.

Anyway, I thought it called for a bit of musical celebration. Newcastle United’s nickname is The Magpies, so I thought I’d offer the overture from Gioachino Rossini‘s Opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).  It’s not the greatest opera, but the overture is superb. Apparently Rossini had to be locked in his room and forced to write it as the deadline for the first performance approached. If that’s true, the pressure had a positive effect on him because what he produced is a cracker.

This performance is tremendously virtuosic – as you’d expect from the Vienna Philharmonic – especially in the accelerando part at the end, which is wonderfully exhilirating.

I’ve only known a few professional classical musicians at a personal level, but all of them, when asked, said that the composer whose music they most enjoyed playing was Rossini. I was always surprised to hear that, but listening to this piece I can certainly understand them. It’s got to be great fun playing this…

P.S. Another thing worth mentioning is that the current owner of Newcastle United Football Club bears more than a passing resemblance to Rossini!

An early draft of the UK Space Agency logo

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 29, 2010 by telescoper

My Friend Erdös..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , on March 28, 2010 by telescoper

After one of my  lectures a few weeks ago, a student came up to me and asked whether I had an Erdős number and, if so, what it was.  I didn’t actually know what he was talking about but was yesterday reminded of it, so tried to find out.

In case you didn’t know, Paul Erdős (who died in 1996) was an eccentric Hungarian mathematician who wrote more than 1000 mathematical papers during his life but never settled in one place for any length of time. He travelled between colleagues and conference, mostly living out of a suitcase, and showed no interest at all in property or possessions. His story is a fascinating one, and his contributions to mathematics were immense and wide-ranging.  The Erdős number is a tiny part of his legacy, but one that seems to have taken hold. Some mathematicians appear to take it very seriously, but most treat it with tongue firmly in cheek, as I certainly do.

So what is the Erdős number?

It’s actually quite simple to define. First, Erdős himself is assigned an Erdős number of zero. Anyone who co-authored a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 1. Then anyone who wrote a paper with someone who wrote a paper with Erdős has an Erdős number of 2, and so on. The Erdős number is thus a measure of “collaborative distance”, with lower numbers representing closer connections.

I say it’s quite easy to define, but it’s rather harder to calculate. Or it would be were it not for modern bibliographic databases. In fact there’s a website run by the American Mathematical Society which allows you to calculate your Erdős number as well as a similar measure of collaborative distance with respect to any other mathematician.

A list of individuals with very low Erdős numbers (1, 2 or 3) can be found here.

Given that Erdős was basically a pure mathematician, I didn’t expect first to show up as having any Erdős number at all, since I’m not really a mathematician and I’m certainly not very pure. However, his influence is clearly felt very strongly in  physics and a surprisingly large number of physicists (and astronomers) have a surprisingly small Erdős number. According to the AMS website, mine is 5 – much lower than I would have expected. The path from me to Erdős in this case goes through G.F.R. Ellis, a renowned expert in the mathematics of general relativity (as well as a ridiculous number of other things!). I wrote a paper and a book with George Ellis some time ago.

However, looking at the list I realise that I have another route to Erdős, through the great Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold, who has an Erdős number of 3. Arnold wrote a paper with Sergei Shandarin with whom I wrote a paper some time ago. That gives me another route to an Erdős number of 5, but I can’t find any paths  shorter than that.

I guess many researchers will have links through their PhD supervisors, so I checked mine – John D. Barrow. It turns out he also has an Erdős number of 5 so a path through him doesn’t lower my number.

I used to work in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, and it is there that I found some people I know well who have lower Erdős numbers than me. Reza Tavakol, for example, has an Erdős number of 3 but although I’ve known him for 20 years, we’ve never written a paper together. If we did, I could reduce my Erdős number by one. You never know….

This means that anyone I’ve ever written a paper with has an Erdős number no greater than 6. I doubt if it’s very important, but it definitely qualifies as Quite Interesting.

Alternative Logo for UKSA

Posted in Science Politics with tags on March 27, 2010 by telescoper

As you all know, this past week saw the launch of the new UK Space Agency amid much fuss and fanfares. This occasion allowed the government to trumpet the creation of the new organization as a success story in the media and thus draw attention away from the continuing devastation visited on scientific research in astronomy and space science in the United Kingdom.

I’m not the only one to have expressed reservations about the quality of the new outfit’s logo which, though clearly intended to present a thrusting, dynamic, reach-for-the-skies image, ends up looking more like something from Dad’s Army. Apparently it cost £10,000 – surprisingly cheap by the standards of graphic designers these days – which perhaps explains why it isn’t very good, although even expensive ones can be rubbish too.

In order to improve the public profile of the fledgling organisation, and out of my own deep sense of public spiritedness, I’ve decided, at no expense to the taxpayer, to commission my own alternative logo by a highly skilled graphic designer of my acquaintance. I’m proud to be able to unveil it here. I think it conveys more accurately the nature of the new agency.

The broad coloured swathe represents the red tape involved in creating yet another new quango and reorganising everything else that relates to it. This leads initially to a period of increased paperwork presenting the appearance of greater activity until, shortly after the next election, everyone realises it is achieving nothing at all, its funds are cut (along with everything else), and, overwhelmed by the weight of its own bureaucracy,  it comes crashing back to Earth.

Badges featuring the new logo can be purchased from me, at the modest price of £74.99 each.

Cut and Thrust and Nip and Tuck

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 26, 2010 by telescoper

This week we received the not-altogether-unexpected news that the budgets of Welsh universities will be cut next year. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has announced its detailed allocations for 2010-11 and all but one institution will receive a cash cut.  Cardiff University faces a cash cut of 1.74%. Lampeter is the exception, but it gets a cash increase of only 0.32%. After taking inflation into account, even they get a real terms decrease. So it’s real cuts across the board for Welsh Higher Education, with a total of about £30 million in funding taken away.

In fact, it appears that the total amount of money available to HEFCW for next year is level in cash terms compared to last year. The total amount it has distributed in recurrent grants has, however, decreased by about 2% on last year. As far as I understand it, the discrepancy between the income and expenditure is partly explained by the diversion of some funds into a new Strategic Implementation Fund(SIF) to enable HEFCW to meet the goals outlined in the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) document stating its vision for Higher Education, entitled For our Future. Some elements of SIF are included with the current allocation, but other’s are not, hence the  cash cuts seen here.In future, a larger proportion of the budget will move from recurrent, formula-based funding towards initiatives more closely aligned with the WAGs or, more likely, wasted on window-dressing and increased bureaucracy.

We’ll have to see what the impact of the new SIF arrangements will be in the longer term. In the short-term, however, the cuts (though obviously regrettable) are by no means a shock and will probably appear entirely insignificant after the General Election and the real cuts start, probably more like 20% than 2%…

The situation in Wales contrasts with Scotland where the Higher Education has grown by 1% for 2010/11.  Some Scottish universities, such as Edinburgh with a cash increase of 2.2%, have done pretty well. A small number of others, such as Stirling have been cut by 3.3% in cash terms.

Allocations for English universities were announced by HEFCE last week. There the situation is more mixed, partly to do with HEFCE rejigging its formula for research funding to concentrate it even more than last time (something that HEFCW – wisely, in my view – decided not to do..). It seems about half the 130 institutions in HEFCE’s remit get a cash increase, although when inflation is factored in the number with a real increase is much smaller. Among the universities with big cash cuts are Reading (-7.7%) and the London School of Economics (-6.3%).

As far as I understand the situation, these figures don’t include the fines for over-recruitment recently demanded by Lord Mandelson and may not take into account cuts in capital allowances, so things may be a lot worse than they appear at first sight.

However, to complicate things  a bit more, this week’s budget announced new funding for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, corresponding to an increase in numbers of about 20,000.This is only for England, as Higher Education in Wales and Scotland is not part of the remit of the Westminster government. One advantage of this for those of us in Wales is that we can’t be affected by pre-election tinkering in the same way England can.

I’m sure the news of new funding is very welcome to my colleagues across the border, but it does look to me like a bit of sticking plaster that looks likely to fall off after polling day.

Anyway, it looks to me like these results are going exactly with the form book. Scotland has always valued Higher Education more strongly than England, and Wales has usually trailed along in third place.  The real struggle hasn’t yet started, however, and we have to wait anxiously to see how hard the axe will fall once the election is over.

“Tintern Abbey”

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on March 25, 2010 by telescoper

We haven’t had any Wordsworth for a while, so here’s possibly his greatest poem. It was

Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,
On Revisiting The Banks Of The Wye During A Tour. July 13, 1798

I’m ashamed to admit that although it’s only 30 miles or so from Cardiff, and I’ve lived here nearly three years now, I still haven’t visited Tintern Abbey. That doesn’t stop me thinking this is deeply evocative of the place.

      FIVE years have past; five summers, with the length
      Of five long winters! and again I hear
      These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
      With a soft inland murmur.–Once again
      Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
      That on a wild secluded scene impress
      Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
      The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
      The day is come when I again repose
      Here, under this dark sycamore, and view                        10
      These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
      Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
      Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
      ‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
      These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
      Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
      Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
      Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
      With some uncertain notice, as might seem
      Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,                     20
      Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
      The Hermit sits alone.
                              These beauteous forms,
      Through a long absence, have not been to me
      As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
      But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
      Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
      In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
      Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
      And passing even into my purer mind,
      With tranquil restoration:–feelings too                        30
      Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
      As have no slight or trivial influence
      On that best portion of a good man’s life,
      His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
      Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
      To them I may have owed another gift,
      Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
      In which the burthen of the mystery,
      In which the heavy and the weary weight
      Of all this unintelligible world,                                 40
      Is lightened:–that serene and blessed mood,
      In which the affections gently lead us on,–
      Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
      And even the motion of our human blood
      Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
      In body, and become a living soul:
      While with an eye made quiet by the power
      Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
      We see into the life of things.
                                       If this
      Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft–                        50
      In darkness and amid the many shapes
      Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
      Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
      Have hung upon the beatings of my heart–
      How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
      O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
      How often has my spirit turned to thee!
        And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
      With many recognitions dim and faint,
      And somewhat of a sad perplexity,                               60
      The picture of the mind revives again:
      While here I stand, not only with the sense
      Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
      That in this moment there is life and food
      For future years. And so I dare to hope,
      Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
      I came among these hills; when like a roe
      I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
      Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
      Wherever nature led: more like a man                            70
      Flying from something that he dreads, than one
      Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
      (The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
      And their glad animal movements all gone by)
      To me was all in all.–I cannot paint
      What then I was. The sounding cataract
      Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
      The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
      Their colours and their forms, were then to me
      An appetite; a feeling and a love,                              80
      That had no need of a remoter charm,
      By thought supplied, nor any interest
      Unborrowed from the eye.–That time is past,
      And all its aching joys are now no more,
      And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
      Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur, other gifts
      Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
      Abundant recompence. For I have learned
      To look on nature, not as in the hour
      Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes                    90
      The still, sad music of humanity,
      Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
      To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
      A presence that disturbs me with the joy
      Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
      Of something far more deeply interfused,
      Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
      And the round ocean and the living air,
      And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
      A motion and a spirit, that impels                             100
      All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
      And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
      A lover of the meadows and the woods,
      And mountains; and of all that we behold
      From this green earth; of all the mighty world
      Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
      And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
      In nature and the language of the sense,
      The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
      The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul                  110
      Of all my moral being.
                              Nor perchance,
      If I were not thus taught, should I the more
      Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
      For thou art with me here upon the banks
      Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
      My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
      The language of my former heart, and read
      My former pleasures in the shooting lights
      Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
      May I behold in thee what I was once,                          120
      My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
      Knowing that Nature never did betray
      The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
      Through all the years of this our life, to lead
      From joy to joy: for she can so inform
      The mind that is within us, so impress
      With quietness and beauty, and so feed
      With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
      Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
      Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all                    130
      The dreary intercourse of daily life,
      Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
      Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
      Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
      Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
      And let the misty mountain-winds be free
      To blow against thee: and, in after years,
      When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
      Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
      Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,                       140
      Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
      For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
      If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
      Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
      Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
      And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance–
      If I should be where I no more can hear
      Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
      Of past existence–wilt thou then forget
      That on the banks of this delightful stream                    150
      We stood together; and that I, so long
      A worshipper of Nature, hither came
      Unwearied in that service: rather say
      With warmer love–oh! with far deeper zeal
      Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
      That after many wanderings, many years
      Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
      And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
      More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

So it doesn’t have anything to do with astronomy or cosmology, except for the “unintelligible world” (line 40) of STFC…

Space without Physics…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 24, 2010 by telescoper

I’m indebted to a colleague (Annabel Cartwright) for sending me this (coincidentally topical) sample question, illustrating the quality of a modern British school science examination.

Since it’s now clear  that there is no room for science in the new era of the UK Space Agency, I suppose we should get used to the removal of science from other things too. Starting with science exams.

This question is taken from a GCSE Physics examination.

Some people think that governments spend too much money on space research.

Which ONE of the following statements is true?

  1. Science can tell us what the planets are made of, and whether they ought to be explored.
  2. Science can tell us what the planets are made of, but not whether they ought to be explored.
  3. Science cannot tell us what the planets are made of but can tell us whether they ought to be explored.
  4. Science cannot tell us what the planets are made of, nor whether they ought to be explored.

Apparently one (and only one) answer is correct. Any offers?

Spazio Commerciale

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2010 by telescoper

So here we are then. The United Kingdom has its own brand new Space Agency, courtesy of Lords Mandelson and Drayson (or Peter and Paul as they’re known to their fans). It was launched today at a glitzy do in Westminster attended by everyone who’s anyone in space science, which obviously doesn’t include me. There’s even a new logo.

According to the BBC, the new agency will be “muscular”, but I’m not really sure what that means. Perhaps brains might be more useful than brawn in this context (unless it’s Werner Von, geddit?) In fact I’m not at all sure what the new agency is about at all. The UK is already part of the European Space Agency (ESA) and a big slice of the new agency’s budget will presumably be eaten up by the ESA subscription. Much of what we do in space exploration and astronomy is dictated by decisions at the ESA level so I don’t think the new UK Agency will have much impact on that. On the other hand, the only current UK space agency is the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which is an organisation notable only for its irrelevance. I’m not even sure whether it exists at all as anything other than a logo and an accommodation address above a chip shop in Swindon.

It’s somewhat easier to see what the new UK Space Agency isn’t about. The accompanying press release doesn’t mention astronomy at all, so it’s clearly not going to help us lowly scientists who would like to use space observatories to do interesting science. It seems that it is primarily aimed at commercial space activities, and the science bit will continue to be managed mismanaged by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

I’ve got nothing against the commercial exploitation of space, in principle, although it did provoke my feeble attempt at an Italian joke in the title of this post. The French, Germans and Italians spend much more than we do and this is obviously an area of great potential growth. I don’t object to the government using public money to help the space sector grow, either. In principle. The problem is that in these tough times the money has to be taken from somewhere else in the budget. Many of us were still hoping that the government might intervene to reverse the awful cuts we’ve suffered in physics and astronomy recently, but hiving space science off into a separate pot will probably make life even tougher for those of us left with the rump of STFC. I fear it means even less money in future going into fundamental science, and our decline is therefore set to accelerate even further.

There have always been tensions within the astronomy and space science community. Space exploration has scored many recent triumphs – such as the joint ESA-NASA Cassini-Huygens probe – but there are always difficult questions about the scientific value for money involved in sending things pottering around our backyard in the  solar system compared to, e.g., building observatories (either in space or on the ground) that can see things across the other side of the Universe. It’s difficult to see what the implications of the new agency are for this, but it seems likelyto me  that increasing amounts of public money will go on exploration at the expense of observation. I’m biased, of course, but I think there’s a lot more interesting science in the distant universe than there is nearby. In fact there’s more of everything further away than there is nearby! We may end up killing off ground-based astronomy in order to put a British flag on the Moon. That would be very sad.

But maybe this is too pessimistic. We don’t know yet how things will be divvied up between the new agency and the old STFC. Will there be any science  in UK Space, or will it be entirely commercial? Perhaps new missions and experiments will be funded through that route while exploitation continues to be  (under)funded by STFC?

Or maybe, since the new agency comes into existence on 1st April 2010, it’s all just an elaborate joke?

And while I’m being facetious, I wonder how many of you are thinking that the new logo looks like it was taken from the opening credits of Dad’s Army? I wonder if that choice was awfully wise, Captain Mainwaring?

STFC Chief Executive Keith Mason is very keen on the new outfit and is looking forward to working with it.  I know what Private Frazer would have said. We’re doomed.

PS. Andy Lawrence was there, and invites you to pump him  in the debriefing room over at the e-astronomer.

PPS. The new agency has now got a wikipedia page. It says there that the space agency will take over responsibility for space technology and instrumentation funding from other research councils. Presumably exploitation of space missions will either remain the responsibility of STFC or there won’t be any at all, which may amount to the same thing.