Archive for September, 2013

Unchained Melody

Posted in Film, Music with tags , , , , on September 30, 2013 by telescoper

You pick up a lot of interesting snippets listening to BBC Radio 3. Last night I was listening to a programme about  Alex North, a prolific composer of music scores, including one of my favourite films A Streetcar Named Desire.  Alex North also wrote a complete soundtrack for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and must have been mortified when he turned up for the Premiere and found that not a single note of the music he’d written was used in the final version. Anyway, one thing I learnt that I didn’t know before was that Alex North also wrote the tune Unchained Melody for a relatively unknown prison movie called, appropriately enough, Unchained. The song was a massive hit in the 60s for the Righteous Brothers, and gained popularity again as a consequence of the 1990 film Ghost.  It’s also been murdered by countless karaoke singers since then…

Anyway, here is the original version of Unchained Melody as it appears in the 1955 film. Knowing the background to the song (i.e. that the enforced separation of the singer and his sweetheart is because the former is in prison) makes it all the more poignant, and Todd Duncan (whose style clearly owes a debt to Paul Robeson) gives it a bluesy feel present in none of the cover versions I’ve heard…

A Cranefly in September

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 29, 2013 by telescoper

She is struggling through grass-mesh – not flying,
Her wide-winged, stiff, weightless basket-work of limbs
Rocking, like an antique wain, a top-heavy ceremonial cart
Across mountain summits
(Not planing over water, dipping her tail)
But blundering with long strides, long reachings, reelings
And ginger-glistening wings
From collision to collision.
Aimless in no particular direction,
Just exerting her last to escape out of the overwhelming
Of whatever it is, legs, grass,
The garden, the county, the country, the world –

Sometimes she rests long minutes in the grass forest
Like a fairytale hero, only a marvel can help her.
She cannot fathom the mystery of this forest
In which, for instance, this giant watches –
The giant who knows she cannot be helped in any way.

Her jointed bamboo fuselage,
Her lobster shoulders, and her face
Like a pinhead dragon, with its tender moustache,
And the simple colourless church windows of her wings
Will come to an end, in mid-search, quite soon.
Everything about her, every perfected vestment
Is already superfluous.
The monstrous excess of her legs and curly feet
Are a problem beyond her.
The calculus of glucose and chitin inadequate
To plot her through the infinities of the stems.

The frayed apple leaves, the grunting raven, the defunct tractor
Sunk in nettles, wait with their multiplications
Like other galaxies.
The sky’s Northward September procession, the vast
soft armistice,
Like an Empire on the move,
Abandons her, tinily embattled
With her cumbering limbs and cumbered brain.

by Ted Hughes (1930-1998)

Better learning means less assessment and more feedback

Posted in Education with tags , , on September 28, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday I took part in a meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better. It was an interesting meeting, involving academics, administrative staff and a representative of the Students Union, that generated quite a few ideas which I hope will be implemented pretty soon.

Positive though the discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely, but for the record my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it.

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

The Amplituhedron and Other Excellently Silly Words

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 27, 2013 by telescoper

No time for a proper post between meetings, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to reblog one of many interesting posts I’ve seen recently about the Amplituhedron. “The what?” I hear you say. Well, read on. And, better still, perhaps you can pass an opinion on whether it is more than hype…

4 gravitons

Nima Arkani-Hamed recently gave a talk at the Simons Center on the topic of what he and Jaroslav Trnka are calling the Amplituhedron.

There’s an article on it in Quanta Magazine. The article starts out a bit hype-y for my taste (too much language of importance, essentially), but it has several very solid descriptions of the history of the situation. I particularly like how the author concisely describes the Feynman diagram picture in the space of a single paragraph, and I would recommend reading that part even if you don’t have time to read the whole article. In general it’s worth it to get a picture of what’s going on.

That said, I obviously think I can clear a few things up, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it, so here I go!

“The” Amplituhedron

Nima’s new construction, the Amplituhedron, encodes amplitudes (building blocks of probabilities in particle…

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Ignorance + Fear = Prejudice

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on September 26, 2013 by telescoper


The charming costume displayed above was advertised by Asda as part of their Halloween “Fancy Dress” range, along with this explanatory text:

Every one (sic) will be running away from you in fear in this mental patient fancy dress costume.

In fact in response to a deluge of critical comments, Asda has now withdrawn the offensive article but one still wonders who could have thought this was a good idea in the first place.

Years ago when I lived in London I served on the Governing Body of a residential home in Hackney for people with a range of mental health issues. Doing this opened my eyes to the level of prejudice that exists about mental health. I remember one example very vividly. After months of training to try to help one of the residents live a little more independently, she finally plucked up courage to take a trip on the bus. She bought her ticket and sat upstairs. Unfortunately, she got a bit confused and missed her stop. She then started to panic and burst into tears. The reaction of the people on the bus was at first to ignore her distress and then when got worse to forcible restrain her. The bus was stopped and eventually the police were called. She was eventually found by staff from the home in a police cell in a state of complete disarray. Months of good work had been undone.

So why had the other passengers behaved in such a way? I think the answer to that is that many people are very frightened by mental illness because they don’t understand it. Fear is often born of ignorance in other situations too, but it’s particularly striking in public settings, such as on a bus or train. In modern life we have to cope with complete strangers in many places and I think we rely on behavioural conventions to deal with the proximity of other individuals that we might otherwise suppose to be hostile. When people start violating these conventions – as one may do if suffering a mental illness – then we often respond in a way that reflects our prejudice that they might be dangerous, even though that is extremely unlikely. It’s the sane that we have to fear most.

That was way back in the 1980s. We like to think that times have changed in so many respects, but the appearance of that Asda `Mental Patient’ demonstrates that our attitudes towards mental illness are firmly rooted in the days when thousands were kept at a safe distance by being incarcerated in lunatic asylums. The stereotypical straitjacket `costume’ panders to ignorance, promotes fear, and encourages prejudice. It is truly offensive. It is Time to Change our attitudes.

For the record, here’s a picture of me taken late last summer in my own Mental Patient Costume:


The Argus Intrigues…

Posted in Brighton with tags on September 25, 2013 by telescoper


Another Indian Summer

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , on September 25, 2013 by telescoper

I posted this a couple of years ago in response to a discussion concerning the origin of the phrase Indian Summer (which, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with India). Looking back over my five years of blog entries for this time of year it’s quite surprising how often I’ve mentioned a late September heatwave. Now we’re having another one. In Welsh, such a period of warm weather at the end of September is known as Haf Bach Mihangel or “Michael’s Little Summer”, as it occurs around Michaelmas Day ( 29th of September).

Anyway, I’m not sure our little summer will last until Sunday 29th September so I’ll take the opprtunity to have a cup of tea outside in the sunshine and post this lovely old recording by the late great Sidney Bechet. So since we’re currently experiencing an Indian Summer, why not bask in its glow?

“You gotta be in the Sun to feel the Sun” – Sidney Bechet.

Whither The Sky at Night?

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 24, 2013 by telescoper

According to rumours flying around on Twitter, the BBC has decided to axe the long-running astronomy programme The Sky at Night.  There’s been a predictable outcry from fans of the show and a petition has been organized.  What I’ve heard is that the series will end in December, but that a new astronomy programme will be launched in April next year.

I’ve long felt it was inevitable that The Sky at Night would cease to be when Patrick Moore died. The programme was so much Patrick’s programme that it would be very difficult to find another presenter to fill the role in the unique way that he did. Moreover, although there’s no doubt that it is an important vehicle for UK astronomy, many feel that the format has become very tired and uninspiring. As for myself, I can’t really comment. I don’t watch television very much at all and in any case, The Sky at Night is on way past my bedtime.

Way back in 1996 I was involved with a show at the NEC in Birmingham called Tomorrow’s World Live. This involved all the regular presenters of Tomorrow’s World, but wasn’t broadcast, but performed in a small theatre with a live audience. My contribution was to talk a little bit about the Hubble Space Telescope and then answer questions from the audience.  We did four such shows a day for three days. It was tiring and a bit nerve-wracking, but a lot of fun.

Typically for the BBC the contributors such as myself were paid a negligible fee, but we did get our meals paid for. At dinner one evening I chatted to a well-known TV Producer who was involved with the live event. After a while the conversation turned to The Sky at Night. The person concerned explained that he thought the show was well past its prime and was actually holding back astronomy programming on TV: it was too old-fashioned and had a tiny audience yet while it existed it was impossible to make the case to the Beeb to commission other astro-related shows. On the other hand, while Patrick was still around, and undoubtedly a National Institution, the outcry would be so intense if they cancelled The Sky at Night that nobody had the nerve to do it. Impasse.

Of course now, 17 years later, Patrick Moore has passed away and there’s now a chance to change things. It is promising that that the BBC seems to be going to launch a new programme next year. But any new show will have to tread very carefully. The Sky at Night was followed by thousands of dedicated amateur astronomers who know a great deal about their subject and would not be interested in the simple-minded gee-whizzery that plagues so many so-called Science Programme (e.g. Horizon). These people are very important for UK astronomy, because without them UK astronomy would not have the unique role that it has in our scientific and cultural landscape. We professional astronomers would be funded anything like as well as we are either.  On the other hand, there is at least the possibility of coming up with a format that reaches a new audience as well as retaining the interest of those already enthused about astronomy.

But how to ensure that this happens? Answers on a postcard, or through the comments box!

Meanwhile here’s a little poll to gauge the strength of opinion:

Science, Religion and Henry Gee

Posted in Bad Statistics, Books, Talks and Reviews, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2013 by telescoper

Last week a piece appeared on the Grauniad website by Henry Gee who is a Senior Editor at the magazine Nature.  I was prepared to get a bit snarky about the article when I saw the title, as it reminded me of an old  rant about science being just a kind of religion by Simon Jenkins that got me quite annoyed a few years ago. Henry Gee’s article, however, is actually rather more coherent than that and  not really deserving of some of the invective being flung at it.

For example, here’s an excerpt that I almost agree with:

One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the “significance” of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one’s grasp.

I’ve made the point on this blog many times that, although statistical reasoning lies at the heart of the scientific method, we don’t do anywhere near enough  to teach students how to use probability properly; nor do scientists do enough to explain the uncertainties in their results to decision makers and the general public.  I also agree with the concluding thought, that science isn’t about absolute truths. Unfortunately, Gee undermines his credibility by equating statistical reasoning with p-values which, in my opinion, are a frequentist aberration that contributes greatly to the public misunderstanding of science. Worse, he even gets the wrong statistics wrong…

But the main thing that bothers me about Gee’s article is that he blames scientists for promulgating the myth of “science-as-religion”. I don’t think that’s fair at all. Most scientists I know are perfectly well aware of the limitations of what they do. It’s really the media that want to portray everything in simple black and white terms. Some scientists play along, of course, as I comment upon below, but most of us are not priests but pragmatatists.

Anyway, this episode gives me the excuse to point out  that I ended a book I wrote in 1998 with a discussion of the image of science as a kind of priesthood which it seems apt to repeat here. The book was about the famous eclipse expedition of 1919 that provided some degree of experimental confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and which I blogged about at some length last year, on its 90th anniversary.

I decided to post the last few paragraphs here to show that I do think there is a valuable point to be made out of the scientist-as-priest idea. It’s to do with the responsibility scientists have to be honest about the limitations of their research and the uncertainties that surround any new discovery. Science has done great things for humanity, but it is fallible. Too many scientists are too certain about things that are far from proven. This can be damaging to science itself, as well as to the public perception of it. Bandwagons proliferate, stifling original ideas and leading to the construction of self-serving cartels. This is a fertile environment for conspiracy theories to flourish.

To my mind the thing  that really separates science from religion is that science is an investigative process, not a collection of truths. Each answer simply opens up more questions.  The public tends to see science as a collection of “facts” rather than a process of investigation. The scientific method has taught us a great deal about the way our Universe works, not through the exercise of blind faith but through the painstaking interplay of theory, experiment and observation.

This is what I wrote in 1998:

Science does not deal with ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’. It deals instead with descriptions of reality that are either ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’. Newton’s theory of gravity was not shown to be ‘wrong’ by the eclipse expedition. It was merely shown that there were some phenomena it could not describe, and for which a more sophisticated theory was required. But Newton’s theory still yields perfectly reliable predictions in many situations, including, for example, the timing of total solar eclipses. When a theory is shown to be useful in a wide range of situations, it becomes part of our standard model of the world. But this doesn’t make it true, because we will never know whether future experiments may supersede it. It may well be the case that physical situations will be found where general relativity is supplanted by another theory of gravity. Indeed, physicists already know that Einstein’s theory breaks down when matter is so dense that quantum effects become important. Einstein himself realised that this would probably happen to his theory.

Putting together the material for this book, I was struck by the many parallels between the events of 1919 and coverage of similar topics in the newspapers of 1999. One of the hot topics for the media in January 1999, for example, has been the discovery by an international team of astronomers that distant exploding stars called supernovae are much fainter than had been predicted. To cut a long story short, this means that these objects are thought to be much further away than expected. The inference then is that not only is the Universe expanding, but it is doing so at a faster and faster rate as time passes. In other words, the Universe is accelerating. The only way that modern theories can account for this acceleration is to suggest that there is an additional source of energy pervading the very vacuum of space. These observations therefore hold profound implications for fundamental physics.

As always seems to be the case, the press present these observations as bald facts. As an astrophysicist, I know very well that they are far from unchallenged by the astronomical community. Lively debates about these results occur regularly at scientific meetings, and their status is far from established. In fact, only a year or two ago, precisely the same team was arguing for exactly the opposite conclusion based on their earlier data. But the media don’t seem to like representing science the way it actually is, as an arena in which ideas are vigorously debated and each result is presented with caveats and careful analysis of possible error. They prefer instead to portray scientists as priests, laying down the law without equivocation. The more esoteric the theory, the further it is beyond the grasp of the non-specialist, the more exalted is the priest. It is not that the public want to know – they want not to know but to believe.

Things seem to have been the same in 1919. Although the results from Sobral and Principe had then not received independent confirmation from other experiments, just as the new supernova experiments have not, they were still presented to the public at large as being definitive proof of something very profound. That the eclipse measurements later received confirmation is not the point. This kind of reporting can elevate scientists, at least temporarily, to the priesthood, but does nothing to bridge the ever-widening gap between what scientists do and what the public think they do.

As we enter a new Millennium, science continues to expand into areas still further beyond the comprehension of the general public. Particle physicists want to understand the structure of matter on tinier and tinier scales of length and time. Astronomers want to know how stars, galaxies  and life itself came into being. But not only is the theoretical ambition of science getting bigger. Experimental tests of modern particle theories require methods capable of probing objects a tiny fraction of the size of the nucleus of an atom. With devices such as the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers can gather light that comes from sources so distant that it has taken most of the age of the Universe to reach us from them. But extending these experimental methods still further will require yet more money to be spent. At the same time that science reaches further and further beyond the general public, the more it relies on their taxes.

Many modern scientists themselves play a dangerous game with the truth, pushing their results one-sidedly into the media as part of the cut-throat battle for a share of scarce research funding. There may be short-term rewards, in grants and TV appearances, but in the long run the impact on the relationship between science and society can only be bad. The public responded to Einstein with unqualified admiration, but Big Science later gave the world nuclear weapons. The distorted image of scientist-as-priest is likely to lead only to alienation and further loss of public respect. Science is not a religion, and should not pretend to be one.

PS. You will note that I was voicing doubts about the interpretation of the early results from supernovae  in 1998 that suggested the universe might be accelerating and that dark energy might be the reason for its behaviour. Although more evidence supporting this interpretation has since emerged from WMAP and other sources, I remain sceptical that we cosmologists are on the right track about this. Don’t get me wrong – I think the standard cosmological model is the best working hypothesis we have _ I just think we’re probably missing some important pieces of the puzzle. I don’t apologise for that. I think sceptical is what a scientist should be.

When’s a Sonnet not a Sonnet? When it’s No. 126..

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 22, 2013 by telescoper

Every now and then I like to post one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Of the entire collection of 154 this one, No. 126, is undoubtedly the strangest. It marks the end of the series of poems addressed to an unknown young man and is thought to have been given to the fair youth on his 27th birthday, marking the end of a relationship that lasted nine years. The following sonnets are addressed to another unknown person, but of the opposite Experts generally regard it as a kind of envoi, which is normally a short stanza at the end of a long poem, but in this case it is a poem in itself occurring at the end of a sequence. What’s strange about it is that it isn’t actually a sonnet at all. It consists of twelve lines rather than the usual fourteen, but the missing two lines are presented in most editions as two pairs of parentheses as shown below. Moreover, the rhyme scheme (consisting of six couplets) doesn’t fit with the pattern of the rest of the Sonnets, so even if he had filled in the two blanks at the end it would still have been an oddity.

So what was the reason for this curious verse? Perhaps Shakespeare deleted the final couplet because he felt the lines were somehow inappropriate? Perhaps he meant the fair youth to finish it himself, or issue an invitation to others to do likewise? Perhaps the poem is simply unfinished? Perhaps the poet wanted to demonstrate that the relationship with his beloved ended prematurely.

More likely than any of these interpretations, in my opinion, is that furnished by looking at the typical structure of a Shakespearean Sonnet. The last two lines usually express the poet’s consolation in the face of what has come before. Here there is none. It’s over. Read it in this light and I think it becomes even more moving to anyone who has experienced any kind of love and has had to face the fact that it is finally over.

O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power
Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour;
Who hast by waning grown, and therein show’st
Thy lovers withering, as thy sweet self grow’st.
If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,
As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back,
She keeps thee to this purpose, that her skill
May time disgrace and wretched minutes kill.
Yet fear her, O thou minion of her pleasure!
She may detain, but not still keep, her treasure:
Her audit (though delayed) answered must be,
And her quietus is to render thee.
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