Archive for July, 2010

The Balding Version

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 31, 2010 by telescoper

Now that I’m back from a period of rest and recuperation I thought I’d try to get back into the swing of things by posting a few short items about things I found interesting in the papers. One item today caught my eye as it touches on a theme I’ve addressed before: Freedom of speech, and its limits.

This story concerns sports presenter Clare Balding who is apparently presenting a new TV series called Britain by Bike. I don’t know much about her or the new series, but it was reviewed last week in the Sunday Times by a person by the name of AA Gill who referred to her as

…the dyke on a bike, puffing up the nooks and crannies at the bottom end of the nation

Not very nice at all. I’m not linking to the original article (a) because it’s behind a paywall and (b) because I don’t want to send the Evil  Empire  of Murdoch any traffic. You can find the gist of it in a story at the Guardian.

I didn’t know that Clare Balding is a lesbian, but then there’s no reason why I should have thought about her sexuality as it’s not at all relevant to her job.  Apparently she is quite open about and comfortable with her orientation, but the obviously pejorative reference to the word “dyke” got her understandably riled. She complained to the Sunday Times editor, a nasty piece of work called John Witherow, who replied

In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society.Not having a privileged status means, of course, one must accept occasionally being the butt of jokes. A person’s sexuality should not give them a protected status.

Clare Balding was unhappy with the response, saying

This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. ‘Dyke’ is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I’ve had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me..

She has now made the matter to the Press Complaints Commission under article 12 of its Editor’s Code of Practice, which states

The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

There’s no denying that the word “dyke” is a pejorative term for a lesbian so one would imagine that this will be an open-and-shut case. Note also that the response from John Witherow explicitly refuses to accept the terms of article 12. Whether he likes it or not, sexual orientation is specifically protected in the Editor’s Code of Practice to which he is a signatory. John Witherow probably thinks so little of this code that he hasn’t even read it. If he is exonerated it will prove beyond any doubt that the Editor’s Code of Practice is simply a sham.

Whether the right to free speech should be bounded by law is a topic that has come up several times on this blog, including one very recent example and one rather older which has direct parallels with the Clare Balding complaint. I think it is right that this matter should be dealt with outside the law courts. Gill’s comment may be nasty but I don’t think such things should be regarded as criminal, unless they are clearly intended to harrass. If, for example, he’d screamed the word dyke through her letterbox, I think that would be a criminal matter.

However, the problem with voluntary “codes of conduct” such as this – including those that form part of certain employment contracts – is that they usually amount to nothing other than window-dressing, at least when it comes to sexual orientation. The word “dyke” is as offensive to a lesbian as the word “faggot” is to a gay man, but cases involving these words are rarely taken as seriously as those involving racial or gender-based terms. Can you imagine the outcry if AA Gill had used the word “nigger” or “paki” in a review?

Mentioning “sexual orientation” in a list isn’t the same as taking the related prejudice seriously or trying to something about it. The fact of the matter is that lesbians and gay men may be more accepted in society now than they were twenty years ago, but there are still many walks of life in which this is not the case.  In fact, I think the depressing reality is that the vast majority of heterosexual people simply don’t like homosexual people and resent their apparent “acceptance”.  You can argue about the rights and wrongs of “politically correct language”, but the problem it is trying to address in this case is very real and it is often the only thing that prevents overt abuse, as indeed it is with racist abuse.

Having said that, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Sunday Times gets away with this clear violation of the PCC code. It would just be another example of gross hypocrisy to add to the many that already demonstrate that political correctness is  a very thin veneer. Far better, in my view, to dispense with the code of practice altogether if this happens than keep it there and openly flout it. At least then we’d all know where we really stand.

A Martian Oz?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 31, 2010 by telescoper

I noticed a news item last week about research which points out that the remarkable fact that parts of Mars look a bit like Australia. Take this image, for example, of the region called Nili Fossae in which the Sydney Opera House can be seen clearly in the upper left…

Apparently the rocks in this region “resemble” those in an area of Australia called the Pilbara. Scientists believe that microbes formed some distinctive features in the Pilbara rocks – features called “stromatolites” that can be seen and studied today. According to  Adrian Brown, who works for the SETI Institute,

“Life made these features. We can tell that by the fact that only life could make those shapes; no geological process could.”

Unfortunately however, all that has really been established is that the Martian rocks have a similar mineral composition to those found in Australia – there’s no evidence (yet) that the “features” made by living creatures are present. Nevertheless, the newspapers have got very excited about this and today’s Guardian even ran an editorial on this item, from which I quote

Sceptics may think the comparison tenuous. They may also note that yesterday’s news reports either framed the possibility as a question – could there be life? – or put it in inverted commas. There is no proof. There is quite likely no life either.


I always find it very interesting how everyone gets so worked up about the possibility of there being, or having been, life on Mars when we’re such careless custodians of the flora and fauna of our own planet. I suppose behind it all there’s a hope that there might be sentient beings out there in space who can tell us how to look after ourselves a bit better than we’re able to figure out for ourselves.

Unfortunately, the recent “discovery” provides very strong evidence against there being any form of intelligent life whatsoever on Mars. After all, it’s just like Australia.

The Complete Animated Shakespeare

Posted in Literature with tags , , on July 30, 2010 by telescoper

While I was blathering on about Shakespeare a couple of days ago, I suddenly remembered this marvellous animated film I saw when it was first released over 20 years ago. I couldn’t remember the name so it took me a bit of time to find it, but I got there in the end. It’s by Aardman Animations (best known for the later Wallace and Gromit films) and it was part of a splendid series of animated shorts called Lip-synch commissioned by Channel 4 and broadcast in 1990. It’s hard to imagine Channel 4 doing anything this good nowadays.  This film, called Next,  is only 5 minutes long yet it manages to refer to every single one of Shakespeare’s plays by having the immortal bard himself do them all as an audition. It’s not only clever and visually appealing but also a lot of fun…

Astronomy (and Physics) Look-alikes, No. 35

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , on July 30, 2010 by telescoper

I wonder if anyone else has noticed the remarkable resemblance between these two international celebrity heart-throbs? I wonder if by any chance they might be related?

Enrique Iglesias

Joao Magueijo

A Commonplace Blog

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , on July 29, 2010 by telescoper

Just a brief interruption to my holiday from blogging. Posting from the old Blackberry isn’t particularly easy, so I’ll keep it brief. It struck me that this would provide a nice postscript to my recent navel-gazing post about blogging so I decided to put it up before I forget which, in fact, is part of the point of the text…

Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look, what thy memory can not contain
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 77 is open to quite a bit of interpretation, but it seems clear that the “vacant leaves” refer to the blank pages of a “commonplace book“. To paraphrase wikipedia

Such books came into use in the middle ages and were essentially scrapbooks, filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as aids for remembering or developing useful concepts ideas or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.

Dare I say, just like a blog? In particular, the phrase to “take a new acquaintance of thy mind” surely rings true to anyone who writes a blog…


Posted in Uncategorized on July 24, 2010 by telescoper

Well, dear readers, the old batteries definitely need recharging so I’ve decided to take spot of annual leave during which I’ll be away from the blog. Accordingly, in the words of the old BBC continuity announcers, there will now follow a short intermission..

Back in a week. Toodle-pip!

PS. The suitably restful and very typical bit of 1950s  “light” music accompanying this is called Pastoral Montage, and it was written by South African born composer Gideon Fagan.

A Problem in Dynamics

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 23, 2010 by telescoper

I thought you might enjoy this “poem” which, believe it or not, was written by the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell. You can find other examples of his verse here. All I can say is I’m glad he didn’t give up his day job…

An inextensible heavy chain
Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,
An impulsive force is applied at A,
Required the initial motion of K.

Let ds be the infinitesimal link,
Of which for the present we’ve only to think;
Let T be the tension, and T + dT
The same for the end that is nearest to B.
Let a be put, by a common convention,
For the angle at M ’twixt OX and the tension;
Let Vt and Vn be ds’s velocities,
Of which Vt along and Vn across it is;
Then Vn/Vt the tangent will equal,
Of the angle of starting worked out in the sequel.

In working the problem the first thing of course is
To equate the impressed and effectual forces.
K is tugged by two tensions, whose difference dT
Must equal the element’s mass into Vt.
Vn must be due to the force perpendicular
To ds’s direction, which shows the particular
Advantage of using da to serve at your
Pleasure to estimate ds’s curvature.
For Vn into mass of a unit of chain
Must equal the curvature into the strain.

Thus managing cause and effect to discriminate,
The student must fruitlessly try to eliminate,
And painfully learn, that in order to do it, he
Must find the Equation of Continuity.
The reason is this, that the tough little element,
Which the force of impulsion to beat to a jelly meant,
Was endowed with a property incomprehensible,
And was “given,” in the language of Shop, “inexten-sible.”
It therefore with such pertinacity odd defied
The force which the length of the chain should have modified,
That its stubborn example may possibly yet recall
These overgrown rhymes to their prosody metrical.
The condition is got by resolving again,
According to axes assumed in the plane.
If then you reduce to the tangent and normal,
You will find the equation more neat tho’ less formal.
The condition thus found after these preparations,
When duly combined with the former equations,
Will give you another, in which differentials
(When the chain forms a circle), become in essentials
No harder than those that we easily solve
In the time a T totum would take to revolve.

Now joyfully leaving ds to itself, a-
Ttend to the values of T and of a.
The chain undergoes a distorting convulsion,
Produced first at A by the force of impulsion.
In magnitude R, in direction tangential,
Equating this R to the form exponential,
Obtained for the tension when a is zero,
It will measure the tug, such a tug as the “hero
Plume-waving” experienced, tied to the chariot.
But when dragged by the heels his grim head could not carry aught,
So give a its due at the end of the chain,
And the tension ought there to be zero again.
From these two conditions we get three equations,
Which serve to determine the proper relations
Between the first impulse and each coefficient
In the form for the tension, and this is sufficient
To work out the problem, and then, if you choose,
You may turn it and twist it the Dons to amuse.

Off the Main Sequence…

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on July 22, 2010 by telescoper

When I was at School, one of my English teachers enjoyed setting creative writing challenges for homework. One of the things he liked to do was to give us two apparently separate topics and get us to write a short story that managed to tie them together. Although I seldom got good marks I now realise that this is quite a useful skill to develop.  Sometimes, when I’ve been at a loss for something  to blog about, I’ve taken two items from the news and tried to link them somehow. That’s also how a lot of satire works – many of the best Private Eye skits involve putting two pieces of news together in a way that’s deliberately back to front. In fact many writers have commented along similar lines,  the most famous being E. M. Forster, whose advice to a young writer was “Only Connect”.

Yesterday the news was full of stories emanating from the discovery of a very massive star, in fact the most massive one ever found.  This news also got the Jonathan Amos treatment on the  BBC science website too. I think it’s quite an interesting discovery but it  didn’t generate much enthusiasm from Lord Rees who wrote in a Guardian article

I don’t view this discovery as a big breakthrough. It’s a bit bigger than other stars of this kind that we’ve seen and it’s nice that it involves British scientists and the world’s biggest telescope. It’s a step forward, but it is not more than an incremental advance in our knowledge.

What’s interesting about this star is that it may shed some light – actually, rather a lot of light, because it’s 10,000,000 times brighter than the Sun – on the properties of very big stars as well as possibly how they form.

There was even an item on local radio last night, which reported

The biggest star ever discovered was recently found by astronomers in Sheffield.

You’d think if it was that bright and so nearby somebody in Sheffield would have noticed it long before now…

A star this big – about 300 times the mass of the Sun – operates on the same basic mechanism as the Sun but the quantitative details are very different. Its surface temperature is about 40,000 Kelvin compared to the Sun’s, which is only about 6000K, so the radiation field it generates is very much more powerful. It’s also very much larger, probably about 50 times the Sun’s radius, so there’s more surface area to radiate. It’s a very big and very bright beastie.

The name of this star is R136a1 but given its new status as media star, it really needs a better one. In fact, there’s a suggestions page here. Let me see. Overweight and prominent in the media? No Eamonn Holmes gags please.

A star is basically just a ball of hot gas which exerts pressure forces that balance the force of gravity, which tries to make it collapse, in a form of hydrostatic equilibrium. With so much mass to hold up the pressure in the centre of the star has to be very large, and it therefore has to be very hot. The energy needed to keep it hot comes from nuclear reactions that mainly burn hydrogen to make helium (as in the Sun), but the rate of these processes is sensitively dependent on the temperature and density in the star’s core. The Sun is a relatively sedate pressure-cooker that will  simmer away for billions of years. A monster like the one just found guzzles fuel at such a rate that its lifetime will only be a few million years. Like megastars in other fields, this one will live fast and die young.

Nobody really knows how big the biggest star should be. Very big stars are produce such intense radiation that radiation pressure is more important than gas pressure in supporting the star against collapse, but if the star is too big (and therefore too hot) then the radiation field will blow the star apart. This is when the so-called Eddington Limit is reached.  Where the line is drawn isn’t all that clear. The new star  suggests that it is a bit higher up the mass scale than previously thought. I think it’s interesting.

I’ve written about this star partly to make a point about how wonderful astronomy is for teaching physics. To understand how a star works you need to take into account thermal physics, gravity, nuclear physics, radiative transport and whole load of other things besides. Putting all that physics together to produce a stellar model is a great way to illustrate the much-neglected synthetic (rather than analytic) side of (astro)physical theory education. Stars are good.

Cue cheesy link to another item.

The single biggest step towards the understanding of stellar structure and evolution was the Hertzsprung-Russel diagram, or HR diagram for short, which shows that there is a Main Sequence of stars (to which the Sun belongs). Main sequence stars have luminosities and temperatures that are related to each other because they are both determined by the star’s mass. That’s because they’re all described by the same basic physics – hydrostatitic equilibrium, nuclear burning, etc – but just come in different masses. They adjust their temperature and luminosity in order to find an equilibrium configuration.

Not all stars are main sequence stars, however. There are classes of stars with different things going on and these lie in other regions of the HR diagram.

With this in mind, the Astronomy Blog has constructed an amusing career-related version of the HR diagram which I’ve reproduced here:

Instead of plotting temperature against luminosity (or, to be precise, colour against magnitude) as in the standard version this one plots academic publications against google hits, which purport to be a measure of “fame”. A traditional academic will presumably acquire fame through their publications only, thus defining a main sequence, whereas some lie off that sequence because of media work, blogging, or (perhaps) involvement in a juicy sex scandal. I don’t think fame and notoriety are distinguished in this calculation.

I know quite a few colleagues have been quietly calculating where they lie on the above diagram, as indeed have I. Vanity, you see, is very contagious. I’m not named on the version shown, but I can tell you that I’m much more famous than Andy Lawrence, who is. So there.


Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on July 21, 2010 by telescoper

Now that the traditional rainy Cardiff summer has arrived,  and I’ve just watched an old black-and-white movie on DVD, I thought I’d share this, the title poem of a marvellous collection by Don Paterson.

I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;

one long thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame

to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
or the dress lies ruined on the grass
or the girl walks off the overpass,

and all things flow out from that source
along their fatal watercourse.
However bad or overlong
such a film can do no wrong,

so when his native twang shows through
or when the boom dips into view
or when her speech starts to betray
its adaptation from the play,

I think to when we opened cold
on a rain-dark gutter, running gold
with the neon of a drugstore sign,
and I’d read into its blazing line:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood—
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

And, while I’m on the theme of rain, why not add this great song by Leonard Cohen?

Scientology and Stupidity

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on July 20, 2010 by telescoper

The first bit of news that caught my eye this morning as I ate my toast was a local item about Councillor John Dixon of Cardiff City Council. I’m not a big fan of the Council, particularly their bizarre Highways Department which, on the one hand, is narrowing all the roads in the city centre causing ridiculous levels of traffic congestion and, on the other, has completed an appalling road into Bute Park for the purpose of promoting its use by heavy trucks and lorries. When I saw a councillor was in trouble and that the word “stupid” was involved, I assumed I knew what it would be about …

However, that turns out not to be true. The Councillor was on the receiving end of a complaint by the Church of Scientology because of something he posted on Twitter. The message was

I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.

The notoriously litigious “Church” complained to Cardiff City Council that this comment impinged on their right to religious freedom. The main point of the Scientologists’ argument was that offending tweet came from “CllrJohnDixon”, implying that he was acting in an official capacity. Indications are that Councillor Dixon has indeed transgressed the Council’s code of conduct and the case will be referred to their disciplinary committee.

This is an interesting situation that brought a number of questions to my mind. First is whether Councillor Dixon actually did anything wrong. I think it’s obvious that his comment wasn’t a criminal act. I doubt if it was actually defamatory either, so it’s unlikely to be involved in a civil case on that basis. However, he was identified as a Councillor and may well have acted contrary to the code of conduct that forms part of his terms of employment if the code of conduct says something about religious belief. That is a matter for the Council to decide and I don’t think it’s helpful to comment here, primarly because I don’t know what the Code of Conduct says.

The second question is whether one’s reaction to a quip that Scientologists are stupid should generate any different reaction to a similar remark about Christians. Or Muslims. Or any other religion. I’ve run into Scientologists myself and read a bit about their religion, which I regard as a hilarious  hotch-potch of laughable fantasies cobbled together by a tenth-rate Science Fiction author with the express purpose of duping the gullible and the vulnerable out of their cash. I believe that anyone caught up in it must indeed be a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but does that give me the right to say they’re “stupid” in public?

Actually, I think it does. And I think I should have the right to say such things about other religions too. For their part they also have the right to protest if they’re offended. But they do not or should not have the right for any form of legal redress simply because I expressed an opinion. I don’t have a problem with this, any more than I have a problem with lampooning people like Simon Jenkins for the stupid things they say.

I suspect there are atheists who think all religions and religious people are stupid, as well as religious people who think all religions are stupid other than the one they believe in. Then there are people, like me, who don’t follow any religion but also don’t think that all of them are totally silly. I think it’s a reasonable principle that the right to hold and to espouse religious beliefs should be respected, unless, of course, the religious beliefs in question contradict common law or basic morality. Should we consider racism or homophobia to be acceptable if motivated by religion but not if such views stem from an atheistic political philisophy?

Although I don’t have any particularly objective yardstick for judging how silly different religions are, and therefore find it quite difficult to be entirely even-handed in my attitudes to religions, I do find Scientology particularly ridiculous. But then looking at the Church of Scientology’s track-record I don’t feel the need to apologize for that.

Behind this is the whole issue of freedom of expression and the extent to which it should be limited, either by the law or by employment contracts. For a start, I know that nobody likes to be on the receiving end of abusive comments, but I can think of much worse examples than “stupid”. Abuse related to an individual’s beliefs also belong to a different category to those related to, for example, race, gender or sexual orientation. People choose their religion (as they do their political views) and while one must respect another’s right to have different opinions, that doesn’t mean those opinions should be immune from challenge or comment. That’s why I disagree with all laws, such as those relating to blasphemy, that put religious beliefs in some special category compared to other kinds of thought. I’m not so sure about laws relating to racist sexist or homophobic abuse. Part of me says that in a free society you have to put up with the freedom people have to be nasty. Another part says that people deserve legal protection from extreme forms of verbal abuse, especially when it becomes threatening to them or if they are in a vulnerable situation.

However, all this about laws is really irrelevant in this case (I think). Whatever the legal situation in the big wide world, employers have a right to decide on what sort of behaviour they will accept from their employees in their office. In many cases – especially, but by no means exclusively,  in the public sector – such things form part of the contract of employment. If an employee transgresses they should face disciplinary action. If that doesn’t happen, or it is done in a discriminatory way, then the whole system starts to look grossly hypocritical. Better surely not to have rules at all than to have them but use them only as window-dressing?

I think what I’m saying is that I think it’s at worst a bit impolite for a private individual to call Scientologists “stupid” but nothing more than that. It’s also perhaps a bit different for a Councillor to do so in their professional capacity than as a private individual. However, I myself would not say that the Church of Scientology itself is stupid. I think it’s much worse than that. I think it knows exactly what it’s doing.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens now in this case. I hope Councillor Dixon gets nothing more than a slap on the wrist. I fear, however, that the media spotlight will compel the Ethics committee to take more drastic measures. That would be a shame, especially when I can think of other examples where much worse and much more obvious  transgressions than this have gone completely unpunished by public bodies who have indeed also connived with the miscreant to conceal evidence of wrongdoing.