Archive for December, 2011

RIP Sam Rivers

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on December 31, 2011 by telescoper

I just read of the death, at the age of 88, of the legendary jazz musician Sam Rivers who passed away on 26th December. Sam Rivers was born in 1923 and started playing professionally during the bebop era of the early 1950s. Later he evolved a unique avant garde style that was nevertheless firmly based in the jazz traditions he had grown up with. He was probably best known as a tenor saxophonist, but could also play flute, clarinet, piano and viola.

I first heard Sam Rivers on Humphrey Lyttelton’s BBC Radio Show The Best of Jazz in 1979. Humph was clearly a great admirer of Sam Rivers, especially the superb trio he formed with the brilliant Thurman Barker (drums) and Dave Holland (bass). The energy and vitality of the track he played made a lasting impression on me. The album was called Contrasts, by the way, and the track in question called Zip. I bought the album straight away. At least almost straight away, because it wasn’t the sort of record you could buy in the shops; I had to send away for it.

The following video was made in Germany around the same time featuring the trio mentioned above. It’s in several parts so please click through if you want to see and hear Sam Rivers’ full repertoire of instruments.

It’s very sad to hear of the passing of such a wonderful musician and inspirational figure, but at least we still have the music. Rest in peace, Sam Rivers.

Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction, now in Kindle Edition

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , , on December 30, 2011 by telescoper

Time, I feel, for a bit of gratuitous self-publicity.

I got a very nice piece of news just before Christmas which is that my little book Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction has now sold over 25,000 copies worldwide. I never thought it would sell so well but I’m very happy with the positive reactions it has received. The book was written in 2001 so it’s a little out of date now, because cosmology has moved on quite a bit in the last decade. I don’t think the publishers want to do a new edition, so there’s not much I can do about updating it. I am however, almost finished with a new book which covers some of the more recent advances in the field.

In the spirit of self-promotion, here is one of the nice reviews on amazon from someone who is obviously extremely perceptive:

This is a truly excellent introduction to cosmology for specialist and non-specialist alike. It is non-mathematical and so may be read by anyone, but the overall cover is so good, in my opinion, that it would prove an ideal first read for both undergraduates and postgraduates. All the main topics are covered; the big problems facing us are all highlighted, but what makes this book stand out is the total lack of arrogance displayed by the author. When dealing with something which is not established fact, he gives his opinion but makes it absolutely clear that it is just that – his opinion! This is in marked contrast to the attitude displayed in most texts and is certainly contrary to the policy adopted by some popular scientific journals, which seem to establish a sort of ‘perceived conventional wisdom’ and refuse to publish anything which disagrees with that so-called wisdom. This book will certainly not lead the interested amateur astray, but will present both facts and theories and leave the reader to make up his own mind over matters which are still open to question.
I would urge anyone with an interest in cosmology to buy this book and read it . However, be warned; physically it is a little book but, to gain the maximum from reading it, it is definitely not a quick read! Read it, digest it and enjoy! It really is worth the effort!

Anyway, another thing worth mentioning is that this book is now available as a Kindle Edition. So if you got one of those for Christmas and are looking for things to put on it please consider Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction!

ps. I don’t have a Kindle myself. I did try one, but completely failed to get the fire started with it.

Parliament Hill Fields

Posted in Poetry with tags , on December 30, 2011 by telescoper

On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
Faceless and pale as china
The round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.

Gulls have threaded the river’s mud bed back
To this crest of grass.  Inland, they argue,
Settling and stirring like blown paper
Or the hands of an invalid.  The wan
Sun manages to strike such tin glints

From the linked ponds that my eyes wince
And brim; the city melts like sugar.
A crocodile of small girls
Knotting and stopping, ill-assorted, in blue uniforms,
Opens to swallow me.  I’m a stone, a stick,

One child drops a barrette of pink plastic;
None of them seem to notice.
Their shrill, gravelly gossip’s funneled off.
Now silence after silence offers itself.
The wind stops my breath like a bandage.

Southward, over Kentish Town, an ashen smudge
Swaddles roof and tree.
It could be a snowfield or a cloudbank.
I suppose it’s pointless to think of you at all.
Already your doll grip lets go.

The tumulus, even at noon, guards its black shadow:
You know me less constant,
Ghost of a leaf, ghost of a bird.
I circle the writhen trees.  I am too happy.
These faithful dark-boughed cypresses

Brood, rooted in their heaped losses.
Your cry fades like the cry of a gnat.
I lose sight of you on your blind journey,
While the heath grass glitters and the spindling rivulets
Unspool and spend themselves.  My mind runs with them,

Pooling in heel-prints, fumbling pebble and stem.
The day empties its images
Like a cup or a room.  The moon’s crook whitens,
Thin as the skin seaming a scar.
Now, on the nursery wall,

The blue night plants, the little pale blue hill
In your sister’s birthday picture start to glow.
The orange pompons, the Egyptian papyrus
Light up.  Each rabbit-eared
Blue shrub behind the glass

Exhales an indigo nimbus,
A sort of cellophane balloon.
The old dregs, the old difficulties take me to wife.
Gulls stiffen to their chill vigil in the drafty half-light;
I enter the lit house.

by Silvia Plath (1931-1963)

Here is (part of) the poet’s own introduction to this intensely moving poem, which was written shortly after Sylvia Plath suffered a miscarriage in 1961:

I imagine the landscape of Parliament Hill Fields in London seen by a person overwhelmed by an emotion so powerful as to colour and distort  the scenery. The speaker here is caught between the old and the new year, between the grief caused by the loss of a child, and the joy aroused by the knowledge of an only child safe at home. Gradually the  first images of blankness and absence give way to images of convalescence and healing as the woman turns, a bit stiffly  and with difficulty, from her sense of bereavement to the vital and demanding part of her world which still survives.

And here is Sylvia Plath reading it:

Great Expectations

Posted in Film, Literature, Television with tags , , , , on December 29, 2011 by telescoper

I don’t make a secret of the fact that I don’t watch TV, and didn’t really do so over the Christmas holiday. However, I did catch the new BBC adapation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations which I think is one of the greatest novels in all literature. I wasn’t that keen to watch it, after seeing several pointless modern films of the story that didn’t do justice either to the original novel or to the marvellous 1946 film directed by David Lean, which I think is one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s not that I think people shouldn’t do remakes of classic stories – great novels can bear many different versions – it’s just that they’re often done with neither wit nor imagination and the end result can be so obviously inferior that one wonders why it was ever released. The recent remake of the perfect Ealing Comedy The Ladykillers, for example, was such total crap from start to finish it made me want to beat the director over the head with a blunt instrument.

In the end, though, I was persuaded to watch it and was very impressed indeed with the new version.   Douglas Booth, who plays the teenage Pip, as well as being an extraordinarily handsome young man, is also a fine actor. The young Pip’s encounter with the convict Magwitch (played by Ray Winstone) in Episode 1 was every bit as memorable as the older film, but I’ve decided to put the latter up here to encourage those who haven’t been fortunate enough to see the classic version.

I’m interested in suggestions of best and worst remakes….so feel free to add yours through the comments box.


Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on December 29, 2011 by telescoper

I saw that someone posted this on Youtube, so couldn’t resist putting it on here. For a long time in the 70s and 80s this was used by Humphrey Lyttelton as the theme tune for his BBC Radio programme The Best of Jazz so it’s full of nostalgia for me as I used to listen to it every Monday night when I was school. Although quite a traditionalist in terms of his own music, Humph played all kinds of Jazz on his programme and in so doing introduced me to a great deal of music that I still love, thirty odd years later. The only problem with using this as his theme tune was that I never got to hear the whole thing all the way through, until I finally got around to buying the LP (which I still have).

This track, Wanderlust, is taken from the album Duke Ellington meets Coleman Hawkins and it features star performers from the Ellington Band of the early sixties, with the great Coleman Hawkins sitting in on tenor saxophone. It’s a fairly basic blues composition, of the type often played at jam sessions like this; Ellington himself doesn’t play a solo, but provides wonderful piano accompaniment throughout. The rest of the rhythm section comprises Aaron Bell (bass) and Sam Woodyard (drums). Soloists in order are: Johnny Hodges (alto sax), typically relaxed; Ray Nance on trumpet; Harry Carney (baritone sax); Lawrence Brown (trombone); and finally a longer contribution by the star of the show, Coleman Hawkins, whose climactic solo is superbly constructed around the simple blues chords, taking it into another dimension entirely, before an ensemble chorus after which Sam Woodyward whips it up in sixths and takes them home. A great record by a bunch of great musicians that manages to be simultaneously very typically Duke Ellington and very typically Coleman Hawkins.

Back from the North

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on December 28, 2011 by telescoper

After a nice Christmas break back in my home town of Newcastle I’m now back to Cardiff. The weather was a bit of a contrast after last year’s snow and ice, as it was unusually mild in the North East this year although a bit dark and blustery. I travelled there and back by train too, without any significant hitches either way, arriving on time on both journeys. It was a very restful holiday for me – which is just what I needed, if truth be told.

On boxing day we took a drive through the beautiful countryside of Northumberland where, as usual the winter weather produced some dramatic lighting effects. Although I only had my Blackberry with me I managed to get a snap of Warkworth Castle, which came out quite well, the castle looking brooding against the setting sun:

And a bit later on, over the moors, the wind clouds and sunbeams produced some ominous-looking patterns, which the little phone camera struggled to capture…

The portents turned out to be inaccurate, however, as Newcastle United managed to win their Boxing Day fixture, away against Bolton Wanderers, a team from the Midlands.

Anyway, I hope you all had as pleasant a festive period as I did. Now it’s all about preparing for the new year and new teaching term, and of course blogging will resume!

Rothbury Hills

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , on December 22, 2011 by telescoper

Well the old batteries are very nearly flat and I’ll shortly be heading up North for a Christmas break, after just one more meeting this afternoon about our consolidated grant application which is due in the new year. I can’t help getting a bit sentimental about the land of my birth at this time of year, especially the lovely countryside of Northumberland, so I thought I’d leave you for the holidays with this little clip I found on Youtube which also features the evocative sound of the Northumbrian Smallpipes played by Kathryn Tickell and her band.

Air is blown  through the smallpipes using bellows under the arm rather than the mouth. The  chanter – that’s the bit you finger to produce the notes – has a completely closed end, combined with the unusually tight fingering style (each note is played by lifting only one finger or opening one key) so that the style of playing is staccato; there are no grace notes in the Northumbrian smallpipes tradition. Their sound is also far quieter than most other bagpipes because the bores on both chanter and drones are very narrow. Anyway, I think it’s a beautiful sound and one that’s redolent with nostalgia, for me.

I don’t think I’ll be blogging while I’m up North, so let me take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy holiday!


Hylas and Philonous

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on December 21, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve just finished reading (and writing a review of) a funny little book about quantum mechanics called Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner. I won’t repeat the review here for fear of copyright infringement, but I will say that, somewhat to my surprise, I actually liked some of the book although it does go off the rails a bit now and then. Don’t we all, though?

Anyway, one thing did strike me that I didn’t really have time to write about in my piece concerns the philospher George Berkeley (1685-1753). In case you weren’t aware, the town of Berkeley (near San Francisco, in California) is actually named after him.

Berkeley was one of a number of philosophers responsible for the emergence in the 17th and 18th centuries of a movement now known as empiricism. The most striking of Berkeley’s arguments is that matter (or substance) cannot be said to exist in a manner that’s independent of the mind, butHis work has turned out to be nowhere near as durable as some of his contemporaries, notably David Hume,  but he’s actually a much more interesting thinker  than most people seem to give him credit for. Indeed, many writers – including the authors of the book I mentioned above – dismiss his views as a preposterously naive form of solipsism. Although I’m no empiricist myself, I think this Berkeley-bashing is a bit unfair.

I think Berkeley’s ideas are best understood in relation to the others that were being suggested around the time he was writing, particularly René Descartes whose method was to try to understand what could be known with certainty when all possible scepticism was argued away. In Berkeley’s most important work The Dialogues of Hylas and Philonous (1710)  he developed this approach into an argument that only ideas, perceived and created by the mind, could be known with any certainty, doing so through a dialogue between two characters. Hylas represents the view of “normal” scientific common sense (as one imagines would be exemplified by, say, Isaac Newton); Philonous represents Berkeley’s own views.

Time and time again Philonous comes up with ingenious counters to the “obvious” arguments presented by Hylas. Our understanding of what we consider to be actually existing objects to which we attribute certain qualities (such as white clouds or hot water) is essentially a mental affair. Sensations such as taste and pain have no basis in existence outside the mind, but what about trickier concepts like colour? Can it be said that when  an object looks red that it must contain in itself the quality of redness? Berkeley says no, because “red” is merely a category and cannot therefore exist in the colour. Of course we now know a lot more about how colour comes about than Berkeley did, but it remains an interesting point.

He suggested quite generally that impressions we get from our senses are not necessarily based on an innate qualities of the objects or substances with which our senses come into contact. For example, our sense of distance is not caused by the actual distance between objects themselves.

I have to re-iterate that I’m not an empiricist and I don’t agree with Berkeley’s position, just that his position is a great deal subtler and more interesting than usually represented. I mis-spent a large part of my youth struggling with  impenetrable works of philsophy, but Hylas and Philonous is one I definitely don’t regret reading. Not quite up to the standard of David Hume, mind you, but who is?

So give George Berkeley a break! Karl Popper, on the other hand…

Sea Christmas

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on December 21, 2011 by telescoper

This is the wrong Christmas
in the right place: mistletoe
water there is no kissing
under; the soused holly

of the wrack, and birds coming
to the bird-table with
no red on their breast. All
night it has snowed

foam on the splintering
beaches, but the dawn-
wind carries it away, load
after load, and look,

the sand at the year’s
solstice is young flesh
on a green crib, product
of an immaculate conception.

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000).

The Geordie Particle

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 20, 2011 by telescoper

As the media frenzy abates after the latest experimental results from the Large Hadron Collider show tantalising but inconclusive evidence for the existence of the Higgs boson, it’s perhaps now time to focus on the hard facts surrounding this elusive particle. At yesterday’s Christmas lunch I stumbled upon one piece of information of which I was previously unaware and which is clearly of national importance. The eponymous creator of the Higgs particle, Professor Peter Higgs, was in fact born in the fine city of Newcastle upon Tyne, which really is in The North. This fact identifies him as a Geordie, although having just heard him on the radio I think there’s not much sign of it in his accent.

Anyway, in honour of this important discovery I respectfully submit that  The Large Hadron Collider should be given a more appropriate name,  i.e. The Geet Big Hadron Basher. And I’m sure God won’t mind if the Higg’s boson is henceforth known as the Geordie Particle.