Archive for September, 2010

Tony Curtis, RIP

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 30, 2010 by telescoper

I just heard the sad news of the death of the Hollywood legend Tony Curtis, star of many wonderful movies, including one of my all-time favourite films, the classic comedy Some Like it Hot. I’ve almost worn the out the DVD I have of this gem, I’ve watched it so many times, so I can’t resist putting up one little clip as a tribute.

They just don’t make ’em like that any more!

The Elements

Posted in Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on September 29, 2010 by telescoper

On a dark and rainy day with science cuts looming, I thought I’d cheer myself (and hopefully some of yourselves) up with a little bit of Tom Lehrer. Here are the chemical elements set to the tune of I am the very model of a modern Major-General – the ultimate patter song – from the Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan. Enjoy.

ps. Anyone with some time to spare might wish to work on a set of alternative lyrics, in which the first line ends with “Chief Executive”..


“Game Over” for Science? Not yet, I hope..

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , on September 28, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quick update on the Science is Vital campaign against proposed cuts in the UK research budget that I blogged about (briefly) last week. The impact of these cuts could be devastating, not just for scientists and their own careers but also for the economical (and, yes, cultural) health of this country. I saw an apt comment on Twitter yesterday to the effect that cutting the science budget to save money was like trying to lose weight by blowing your own brains out.

The petition has now attracted well over 5000 signatures, and I’m sure it will get still larger in the next few days. The march, planned for Saturday 9th October in London is going ahead. I’m hoping to take part, as there is an interesting meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society the day before, which will give me an excuse to stay over so I can attend this event. Perhaps I’ll even meet in real life some people I know only through the blogosphere!

However, at least one blogger has suggested that the campaign might already be too late. An article in the Financial Times (probably hidden by a paywall for most of you) suggested that a decision has been taken to cut research by £960 million per year, close to the 20% level that the Royal Society regards as meaning “game over” for British science.

It is thought that the Comprehensive Spending Review may announce its allocation to BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) as early as next week (i.e. before the planned demonstration), but that doesn’t mean that it is too late. Only after the BIS budget is announced will it decide how much of the cut will be handed down to RCUK, the body that controls the Research Councils. However, RCUK’s budget is only a relatively small fraction of the BIS cake – £2.8 billion out of approximately £22 billion. Maintaining pressure may just convince BIS to go easy on research, so there’s still a lot to play for.

If that doesn’t work, and the research councils do receive a cut of 20% (or even more) then it won’t be at all pretty. It will then be left to individual councils to argue their case within RCUK, a situation likely to generate ever-decreasing circles of desperation as different disciplines are forced to battle it out for the scraps. Allocations to individual councils probably aren’t going to be known until December. Then, in STFC (for example), the particle physicists and astronomers may be put in a situation where they have to go head-to-head against each other, at which point there are unlikely to be any real winners.

I have to admit that three years’ experience of the STFC crisis haven’t left me feeling terribly confident about the next few months. However, unless we make some sort of a stand now, things will get unimagineably worse. The only way the go forward is to show some solidarity, and resist the forces that that would have us turn on each other.

These next few weeks could be crucial to the survival of British science. So stand up and be counted. Action is the antidote to despair.


I Am

Posted in Poetry on September 27, 2010 by telescoper

After reading an example of his verse in last week’s weekend Guardian, I decided to buy a book of Selected Poems (in the wonderful Everyman edition for only £3!) by John Clare in Blackwell’s while I was in Oxford on Saturday. I’m ashamed to say I was completely unfamiliar with his work until then. His biography is unusual for a 19th Century poet, in that he was not from a wealthy background, was largely self-educated, and had no private income. In later life he suffered from a depressive illness, endured a number of nervous breakdowns and was, at various times, confined to an asylum. Not highly regarded in his lifetime, his reputation was revived in the 20th Century and he is now considered to be one of the finest poets of his generation.

This, probably his most famous poem, was written by Clare in 1844 or 1845, while he was confined in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum. In a style highly reminiscent of Byron, it speaks most movingly of the sense of alienation his illness has brought upon him and how he yearns for peace and solitude.

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest–that I loved the best–
Are strange–nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.


Azed 2000

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2010 by telescoper

I was up bright and early yesterday in order to get the train to Oxford where a lunch was held in honour of Jonathan Crowther, who, under the pseudonym Azed, has been setting cryptic crosswords in the Observer for the best part of 40 years. Today (Sunday 26th September 2010) sees the publication of the 2000th Azed puzzle, hence yesterday’s celebration. There’s also a special piece in the Observer today to mark the occasion. One of the authors of that piece, Colin Dexter of Inspector Morse fame (who has won the Azed competition more times than anyone), was at the lunch yesterday; he has a celebration of his own coming up, as he will be 80 years old next week.

I’ve blogged about my enjoyment of Azed‘s puzzles before and was particularly looking forward to the possibility of meeting the man himself and also being able to put faces to the names that often appear (mostly above mine) in the Azed Honours table.

I got quite an early train from Cardiff in order to give myself time to browse a few bookshops in Oxford before the lunch got under way with drinks at noon in Wadham College. There then followed a musical tribute to Azed in various parodies of Gilbert & Sullivan (I am the very model of a modern cruciverbalist, etc…) and others (Azed, Azed, give me your answer do….). Mingling with the other guests I got the chance to chat to some proper professional crossword setters. I’ve never actually tried to set an entire cryptic crossword puzzle but I think I’ll probably give it a go one day, just for fun. Based on what I heard, setting crosswords, even for the national broadsheets, is not something that one can easily make a living doing.  Aside from the professional setters – who seem to dominate the Azed prize list, not surprisingly – there were lots of ordinary folk who just enjoy doing the puzzles.

The lunch was quite splendid (scallops to start, followed by duck) and  lashings of nice wine. Afterwards there were various speeches and presentations, and the results of the last competition (No. 1997) were handed out. I got an “HC” for my clue to the word FADO:

It’s a transitory thing, love, for Portuguese folk (4)

(FAD+O); but once again the winning clues were much better than mine! Officially, HC stands for Highly Commended, but I always interpret it as Hard Cheese.

The guest speaker was Richard Stilgoe (remember him?) who gave a very droll and at the same time very interesting speech that included several things I hadn’t realised before. One is that TWELVE+ONE is an anagram of “ELEVEN+TWO”, perhaps the only example of an anagram that works with characters as well as numbers, i.e. 12+1=11+2. The other, more important, thing he mentioned that struck me was about Apple computers. As you all probably know I’m not a particular fan of Macs and the like, which together with my more general Luddite inclinations, probably explains why I didn’t know the origin of the Apple logo (an apple with a bite taken out from it) .

For those of you who don’t know, the reason why the Apple has a bite taken from it is a reference to Alan Turing, the British mathematician who did more than anyone else to pave the way towards the age of electronic computers through his work on cracking German wartime codes. Turing was gay, but  lived in a time when male homosexual behaviour was a criminal offence. When his sexuality led to a criminal conviction, the courts, instead of sending him to prison, decided to subject him to a barbaric medical “treatment” tantamount to chemical castration. The effect of unbalancing his hormones was to make him so depressed that he decided to take his own life. He knew that cyanide was a quick and effective way of doing this, but also knew that it tasted foul. He therefore made a solution of cyanide and injected it into an apple which he then ate. The bite out of the Apple logo is there as a mark of respect for Alan Turing.

That story is probably old hat to most of you, but I have to admit that hearing it for the first time has rather changed my view of Steve Jobs!

Anyway, after lunch we had the chance to mingle in the pleasant grounds of Wadham College, but I couldn’t stay too long as I had a train to catch. Although I was more than a little tipsy, I managed to get the train I had planned and made it back to Cardiff in time to cater for Columbo‘s insulin needs. On the way back I had a go at the tricky Araucaria puzzle in Saturday’s Guardian, which was of the alphabetical type I enjoy best. I’m glad to say I got it finished in order to clear the decks for today’s Azed 2000 puzzle. I haven’t started it yet, but at first glance it looks like a corker!


The Magic Flute

Posted in Opera with tags , , on September 25, 2010 by telescoper

At the end of a very busy week I was wondering if I’d have the energy to cope with a Friday night at the Opera, but last night’s performance of The Magic Flute by Welsh National Opera was definitely worth making the effort. It was a revival of a production first performed in 2005, sung in English to a very witty translation by Jeremy Sams of the original German libretto.

I have actually reviewed the Magic Flute before (at ENO) and have also written about my theory that it’s all about particle physics (here). I’ll just repeat here that this gloriously silly piece is one of my absolute favourite operas and I’ve now seen (I think) nine productions of it in various locations. This one was a lot of fun, well sung and imaginatively directed. I particularly enjoyed the references to surrealist art; the main set consisted of wooden doors embedded in a cloud-flecked blue sky, a clear reference to Magritte; and the monster that assails Tamino at the start was a  lobster, a symbol associated with many works by Salvador Dali although not usually such a large one as this!

The plot, such as it is, is as follows. A prince, Tamino, is rescued from a monster (a giant lobster) by three Ladies who work for the Queen of the Night. He then meets Papageno, a comical bird-catcher replet with feathery costume, nets and cages. The two are sent to find Pamina, the Queen’s daughter, whom they are told has been abducted and imprisoned by a chap called Sarastro. The unlikely pair are given a magic flute and a set of magic bells to help them. Guided by three boys they journey to Sarastro’s realm, where there lives a brotherhood of men ruled by wisdom. Tamino learns that Sarastro isn’t in fact the evildoer he has been portrayed and Sarastro convinces the dynamic duo to join the brotherhood by passing a series of trials. Papageno flunks, but succeeds in getting what he really wants, a girlfriend (Papagena). Tamino succeeds and is united with Pamina. Together they endure the final ordeals of fire and water and are united in love. The forces of light prevail over darkness, and they all live happily ever after.

Of course the plot doesn’t really make any sense by itself, but it’s not really supposed to – it’s full of Masonic symbolism and is rooted in a much older tradition of musical drama that provides context but which you don’t need to know about in order to enjoy the music. What is so very special about the Magic Flute however is that it is so unapologetically absurd that it somehow ends up seeming immensely profound. I’m reminded of the old proverb “If a fool will persist in his folly he may become wise”. I think it’s daft, but in the same way that life is daft and that’s why it’s so universally popular. As in his other great operas you also experience Mozart’s uncanny ability to produce moments of robust comedy bordering on the slapstick followed by moving expressions of the deepest emotion. Perfect examples of the former last night were provided by the hilarious scene in which Tamino’s magic flute charms a motley variety of animals, including a very tarty bird, and also the priceless moment when the magic bells turn away the evil Monostatos and his henchmen by making them dance off like ballerinas, which was a hoot. By contrast, Pamina’s solo aria in Act II where she thinks Tamino has spurned her, beautifully sung by Elizabeth Watts, was heartbreakingl in its sincerity.

I think all the principals were pretty good, although Tim Mirfin’s Sarastro was lacking in the gravitas that only a true basso profundo can supply. Laure Meloy as the Queen of the Night negotiated the difficult coloratura passages and duly hit her top F, although it was little more than a squeak if truth be told. At times her voice sounded like it was coming into and going out of focus, but she had real stage presence and looked fabulous in a wonderful frock. Neal Davies was a genial Papageno, Elizabeth Watts an outstanding Pamina. A special mention must be made of the three boys (actually played by two groups: Guy Roberts/Rory Turnbull, Robert Field/Henry Payne, and Erwan Hughes/Josh Morgan; I don’t know which was which last night). These parts are often considered too demanding to be sung by boys so are frequently done by female singers. I thought the boys last night were absolutely wonderful, although I suspect they may have been miked as they produced unusual power.

All in all, an excellent night out. I think I could do with some of those magic bells at the Board of Studies on Monday morning…


Science is Vital

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on September 24, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quick post to plug the Science is Vital campaign.

As you know, the government seems to be contemplating deep cuts to the UK science budget; see also this blog, passim. Cuts on the scale being discussed will devastate ongoing research, wreck the careers of hundreds of scientists and lead to an acceleration of the “brain drain” that has already started. Cutting science is short-sighted and counterproductive. The future is at stake.

If you agree, please visit the Science is Vital website and take part in the campaign. There is a petition, which currently has over 2000 signatures and a march is planned in London for Saturday 9th October. Please do your bit.

p.s. The Science Campaign blog is regularly updated with news of the fight to protect UK science.


Nobel Predictions

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 24, 2010 by telescoper

I was quite interested to see, in this week’s Times Higher, a set of predictions of the winners of this years Nobel Prizes. I’ve taken the liberty of publishing the table here, although for reasons of taste I’ve removed the column pertaining to Economics.

Year Medicine Chemistry Physics
2010 D. L. Coleman, J. M. Friedman (leptin)
E. A. McCulloch, J. E. Till (stem cells)
and S. Yamanaka (iPS cells)
R. M. Steinman (dendritic cells)
P. O. Brown (DNA microarrays)
S. Kitagawa, O. M. Yaghi (metal-organic frameworks)
S. J. Lippard (metallointercalators)
C. L. Bennett, L. A. Page,
D. N. Spergel (WMAP)
T. W. Ebbesen (surface plasmon photonics)
S. Perlmutter, A. G. Riess, B. P. Schmidt (dark energy)
2009 E.H. Blackburn, C. W. Greider, J.W. Szostak (telomeres) (won in 2009)
J.E. Rothman, R. Schekman (vesicle transport)
S. Ogawa (fMRI)
M. Grätzel (solar cells)
J.K. Barton, B. Giese, G.B. Schuster (charge transfer in DNA)
B. List (organic asymmetric catalysis)
Y. Aharonov, M.V. Berry (Aharonov-Bohm effect and Berry phase)
J.I. Cirac, P. Zoller (quantum optics)
J.B. Pendry, S. Schultz, D.R. Smith (negative refraction)
2008 S. Akira, B.A. Beutler, J. Hoffmann (toll-like receptors)
V.R. Ambros, G. Ruvkun (miRNAs)
R. Collins, R. Peto (meta-analysis)
Roger Y. Tsien (green fluorescent protein)
C.M. Lieber (nanomaterials)
K. Matyjaszewski (ATRP)
A.K. Geim, K. Novoselov (graphene)
V.C. Rubin (dark matter)
R. Penrose, D. Schechtman (Penrose tilings, quasicrystals)
2007 F.H. Gage (neurogenesis)
R.J. Ellis, F.U. Hartl, A.L. Horwich (chaperones)
J. Massagué (TGF-beta)
S.J. Danishefsky (epothilones)
D. Seebach (synthetic organic methods)
B.M. Trost (organometallic and bio-organic chemistry)
S. Iijima (nanotubes)
A.B. McDonald (neutrino mass)
M.J. Rees (cosmology)
2006 Mario Capecchi, Martin J. Evans and Oliver Smithies (gene targeting) (won in 2007)
P. Chambon, R.M. Evans, E.V. Jensen (hormone receptors)
A.J. Jeffreys (DNA profiling)
G.R. Crabtree, S.L. Schreiber (small molecule chembio)
T.J. Marks (organometallic)
D.A. Evans, S.V. Ley (natural products)
Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg (GMR) (won in 2007)
A.H. Guth, A. Linde, P.J. Steinhardt (inflation)
E. Desurvire, M. Nakazawa, D.N. Payne (erbium-doped fibre amplifiers)
2002-05 M.J. Berridge (cell signalling)
A.G. Knudson, B. Vogelstein, R.A. Weinberg (tumour suppressor genes)
F.S. Collins, E.S. Lander, J.C. Venter (gene sequencing)
Robert H. Grubbs (metathesis method) (predicted and won in 2005)
A. Bax (NMR and proteins)
K.C. Nicolaou (total synthesis, taxol)
G.M. Whitesides, S. Shinkai, J.F. Stoddart (nano self-assembly)
M.B. Green, J.H. Schwarz, E. Witten (string theory)
Y. Tokura (condensed matter)
S. Nakamura (gallium nitride-based LEDs)

It’s quite interesting to see two sets of contenders from the field of cosmology, one from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and another from the two groups studying high-redshift supernovae whose studies have led to the inference that the universe is accelerating thus indicating the presence of dark energy. Although both these studies are immensely important, I’d actually be surprised if either is the winner of the physics prize. In the case of WMAP I think it’s probably a bit too soon after the 2006 award for COBE for the microwave background to collect another prize. In the case of the supernovae searches I think it’s still too early to say that we actually know what is going on with the apparent accelerated expansion.

You never know, though, and I’d personally be delighted if either of these groups found themselves invited to Stockholm this December.

Interested to see how these predictions were made I had a quick look at the link the Times Higher kindly provided for further explanation, at which point my heart sank. I should have realised that it would be the dreaded Thomson Reuters, purveyors of unreliable numerology to the unwary. They base their predictions on the kind of bibliometric flummery of which they are expert peddlers, but which is not at all similar to the way the Nobel Foundation does its selections. No wonder, then, that their track-record in predicting Nobel prizes is so utterly abysmal…


The Instinct of Hope

Posted in Biographical, Poetry, Science Politics with tags , , on September 23, 2010 by telescoper

A strenuous and stressful three days commuting to and from sunny Swindon for the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel are now over, just in time for the onset of teaching term next week. For reasons of confidentiality I can’t talk about the actual business of the grants panel, and it’s nowhere near finished anyway – there are several more meetings to come before any results come out. I would say, though, that it’s a curious job that manages to be both inspiring and depressing at the same time. The inspiring thing is that you get to read about so much really exciting science being done by all kinds of people in departments all over the country; the depressing thing is knowing that there isn’t anywhere near enough money to support all the things that one would like to in an ideal world. And our world is becoming less like an ideal one every day…

I decided for these three days not to stay in Swindon but to commute to and from from Cardiff. On balance, I think that was a good decision: I got to sleep in my own bed, didn’t have to arrange for someone to do Columbo’s jabs, and also saved STFC quite a bit of money – a day return from Cardiff to Swindon, a trip of almost exactly one hour each way, is only £26.80 at peak time. The downside was that I’ve been up at 5am each morning and have been in a vegetative state by the time I got home each evening, including this one!

Anyway, lacking the energy to put together a proper post, I’ll just put up this poem by John Clare which appeared in the  Guardian last saturday and which, for some reason, popped into my head during the train journey home. Somehow it seems apt.

Is there another world for this frail dust
To warm with life and be itself again?
Something about me daily speaks there must,
And why should instinct nourish hopes in vain?
‘Tis nature’s prophesy that such will be,
And everything seems struggling to explain
The close sealed volume of its mystery.
Time wandering onward keeps its usual pace
As seeming anxious of eternity,
To meet that calm and find a resting place.
E’en the small violet feels a future power
And waits each year renewing blooms to bring,
And surely man is no inferior flower
To die unworthy of a second spring?



Posted in Uncategorized on September 20, 2010 by telescoper

Well, dear readers, I have a huge amount to do before the new academic year starts next week, including three days of purgatory this week in darkest Swindon serving on the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel. So, to cut distractions down to a minimum, I’ve decided to impose a blogging ban on myself until a light appears at the end of this particular tunnel.

Normal services will be resumed as soon as possible but, for the time being, there will now follow a short intermission.