Archive for July, 2018

R.I.P. Bernard Hepton (1925-2018)

Posted in Television with tags , , , , on July 31, 2018 by telescoper

I was saddened last night to hear of the death, at the age of 92, of the fine actor Bernard Hepton. As soon as I heard of his death I immediately thought of his role as Toby Esterhase in the TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. Although Bernard Hepton was a very versatile actor who had an outstanding career in the theatre, television, and film, I think it will always be in his role as Toby Esterhase that I will remember him. In honour of his memory, therefore, I thought I’d post this wonderful scene from the TV series Smiley’s People, which I think is marvelously well acted.

Just to set the scene, the series (based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carré) is set a few years after Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Intelligence officer George Smiley (Alec Guinnness) is in retirement, as is his former colleague Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) who has adopted the identity of a dodgy art dealer. Smiley is called back into action when a former agent by the name of Vladimir is murdered on Hampstead Heath en route to an appointment with British Intelligence (aka “The Circus”). Smiley is told to find out what happened and hush it up, but a combination of detective work and intuition leads him to the realization that he may, at last, have stumbled upon a way of bringing down his opposite number in Soviet Intelligence, the enigmatic Karla.

This scene, wherein Smiley and Esterhase meet up for the first time since they parted company with the Circus marks the point where Smiley decides to ignore his instructions to bury the case and embark on one final operation in the hope that he can at last locate Karla’s Achilles Heel. To find out more, you’ll have to watch the series, which unfolds slowly, but brilliantly…


Quark Confinement and Excursion

Posted in Biographical, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 31, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s the day that many folks here in Maynooth have been looking forward to for many months. It’s the start of the XIIIth Quark Confinement Conference. This is the latest in a series of biennial meetings:

Inaugurated in 1994 in Como, Italy, this series of conferences has become an important forum for scientists working on strong interactions, stimulating exchanges among theorists and experimentalists as well as across related fields.

The aim of the conference is to bring together people working on strong interactions from different approaches, ranging from lattice QCD to perturbative QCD, from models of the QCD vacuum to QCD phenomenology and experiments, from effective theories to physics beyond the Standard Model.

The scope of the conference also includes the interface between QCD, nuclear physics and astrophysics, and the wider landscape of strongly coupled physics. In particular, the conference will focus on the fruitful interactions and mutual benefits between QCD and the physics of condensed matter and strongly correlated systems·

A conference of over 300 people is a major undertaking for a small place like Maynooth and I hope it all goes well.The participants will start arriving today, and the conference will carry on over the weekend and into Monday (which is actually a Bank Holiday in Ireland, Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa). Yesterday the organisers were putting the finishing touches to all the arrangements, including putting a team of elves PhD students to work in the Department of Theoretical Physics packing the conference goody bags:

I’m not really involved in this meeting, as it’s not really on my subject, though I plan to drop in on some of the talks. I have, however, volunteered to go along as a kind of escort (so to speak) with one of the excursions on Saturday. I’ll be going with group C, which is doing a tour of the Boyne Valley, taking in the prehistoric tomb complex at Knowth. I only found out yesterday that the local organisers were short of a `responsible adult’ to go with this group but I was delighted to be asked to step in, as the prehistory of this part of Ireland has become a fascination for me since I arrived here. The Knowth complex is probably not as ancient as the perhaps more famous Newgrange site, but the whole area of the Boyne valley is incredibly rich in neolithic remains that connect directly to Ireland’s mythic past. I hope that (a) I manage to shake off the cold I’ve been struggling with since last week before Saturday, (b) the weather’s reasonable and (c) I remember to take my good camera!

The Old Stoic – by Emily Jane Brontë

Posted in Literature, Poetry with tags , , , on July 30, 2018 by telescoper

Today, 30th July 2018, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emily Jane Brontë. There are many items celebrating her life in circulation on this day, most of them concentrating on her most famous work, her only novel Wuthering Heights, published under the pseudonym Ellis Bell in 1847. But Emily Brontë was also a fine poet, as indeed were her sisters Anne and Charlotte, so I thought I’d post a poem by her here. Much of her poetry is dominated by images of death and suffering, and her own health was affected by the harsh conditions in which she lived; she died of tuberculosis at the at the age of just 30.

Riches I hold in light esteem,
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream,
That vanished with the morn:

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, “Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty!”

Yes, as my swift days near their goal:
‘Tis all that I implore;
In life and death a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.

A Tribute to Fanny Blankers-Koen

Posted in Sport with tags , on July 30, 2018 by telescoper

I was reminded yesterday that it was on 29th July 1948 that the Olympic Games began in London after a gap of 12 years since the previous Olympics owing to the Second World War. That gives me the excuse to do a little post in tribute to one of the greatest athletes of all time.

The London games saw the emergence of legendary Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen, who won no less than four gold medals: 100m, 200m, 80m hurdles and 4 ×100m relay. She probably would have won the Long Jump too, as she held the World Record in that event at the time, but was only allowed to compete in four events. Her achievements are made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was 30 years old – an age many would have thought was past the prime for an athlete – and she was also the mother of two children.

Fanny Blankers-Koen became a household name to my parents’ generation, and the inspiration to countless aspiring athletes. I remember my Mum talking about her when I was little, and what I remember from that is that she was regarded as exceptionally tall – in fact she was 5′ 9″ – which helped reinforce the impression among many British people that Dutch people were all giants!

Anyway, here is a little video with some clips of her in action. She won the 200m by miles!

Fanny Blankers-Koen passed away in 2004, at the age of 85, but her legend will live on.


From the Spam Folder..

Posted in Uncategorized on July 29, 2018 by telescoper

Being a bit under the weather today, and not feeling feeling any inspiration to write an actual blog post, I thought I’d do a bit of tidying up, including emptying the spam comments folder, which had over a thousand items in it. Several of the comments that didn’t make it through the filter were from the chap who wrote this one, which features an impressive segue from the condemnation of gay sex to the value of the Hubble constant.

I haven’t read the “book” mentioned at the end of this comment. I wonder if it gives the units in which the Hubble constant is 70.98047? I ask because as far as I know neither the kilometre nor the Megaparsec were used in the New Testament.

P. S. My spam filter has now blogged over 2,000,000 comments on this blog; just over 30,000 have been published.

Hurling Today

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 28, 2018 by telescoper

This afternoon I had my first experience of watching hurling. I have seen clips of action before, but never a whole game. What a game to start with!

I didn’t actually get to Croke Park to see Galway versus Clare in the All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final but I did the next best thing, which is to watch it in a pub with a few pints of Guinness and a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd.

If you’ve never seen hurling before then the first thing that strikes you is the phenomenal speed at which the game is played. The sliotar (ball) can travel from one end of the pitch to the other in a second and the players have to be extremely fit. Brave too. This is definitely not a game for faint hearts!

Anyway, the game started at 5pm and for the first 15 minutes or so Galway were all over Clare, scoring a goal and 7 points to Clare’s solitary point. It looked like being a very one-sided game, but gradually Clare clawed their way back, so that at half time it was Galway 1-10 to Clare 0-9, a lead of 4 (a goal is worth three points).

The second half saw the Clare fightback continue, and at full time it was level scoring, 1-23 to 0-26. Extra time followed, during which Clare scored a goal, but it ended 1-30 versus 1-30. There will be a replay.

It was raining heavily at the end and both teams looked exhausted but it was immensely exciting to watch, even if it did make me late getting home for dinner.

UPDATE: The second semi-final (on Sunday) was also a cracker that also went to extra time. It finished Limerick 3-32 Cork 2-31. Limerick will play whoever wins the replay of the above match.

The Lunar Eclipse

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 27, 2018 by telescoper

Just a reminder that there will be lunar eclipse tonight. The so-called `blood Moon’ will be visible across Ireland and the United Kingdom (as well as much of the rest of world tonight) although there is rain forecast, and its very overcast as I write this, so it’s possible that all I from Maynooth will see is clouds. That’s a shame as this will be the longest total lunar eclipse of the 21st century, lasting one hour, 42 minutes and 57 seconds.

Observers in Ireland will not be able to see the start of the eclipse as the moon will still be below the horizon when the Earth passes between the Sun and the Moon. However, in the Dublin area it will be seen (clouds permitting) from 9.30pm to 10.15pm low in the sky to the South East. Then from 10.15pm to 11.20pm, the moon will be seen coming out of Earth’s shadow. The partial eclipse will last around four hours. Oh, and you should be able to see Mars which will be very bright tonight, down a bit and to the left from the Moon.

The photograph above is of a lunar eclipse taken earlier this year, on 31st January. Lunar eclipses tend to be seen in pairs, like low comedians.


P.S. It’s worth also giving advanced notice that next year, on March 29th 2019, there will be a total eclipse of the United Kingdom visible from Ireland and all the rest of the world…

Gravitational Redshift around the Black Hole at the Centre of the Milky Way

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on July 26, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve just been catching up on the arXiv, and found this very exciting paper by the GRAVITY collaboration (see herefor background on the relevant instrumentation). The abstract of the new paper reads:

The highly elliptical, 16-year-period orbit of the star S2 around the massive black hole candidate Sgr A* is a sensitive probe of the gravitational field in the Galactic centre. Near pericentre at 120 AU, ~1400 Schwarzschild radii, the star has an orbital speed of ~7650 km/s, such that the first-order effects of Special and General Relativity have now become detectable with current capabilities. Over the past 26 years, we have monitored the radial velocity and motion on the sky of S2, mainly with the SINFONI and NACO adaptive optics instruments on the ESO Very Large Telescope, and since 2016 and leading up to the pericentre approach in May 2018, with the four-telescope interferometric beam-combiner instrument GRAVITY. From data up to and including pericentre, we robustly detect the combined gravitational redshift and relativistic transverse Doppler effect for S2 of z ~ 200 km/s / c with different statistical analysis methods. When parameterising the post-Newtonian contribution from these effects by a factor f, with f = 0 and f = 1 corresponding to the Newtonian and general relativistic limits, respectively, we find from posterior fitting with different weighting schemes f = 0.90 +/- 0.09 (stat) +\- 0.15 (sys). The S2 data are inconsistent with pure Newtonian dynamics.

Note the sentence beginning `Over the past 26 years…’!. Anyway, this remarkable study seems to have demonstrated that, although the star S2 has a perihelion over a thousand times the Schwarzschild radius of the central black hole, the extremely accurate measurements demonstrate departures from Newtonian gravity.

The European Southern Observatory has called a press conference at 14.00 CEST (13.00 in Ireland and UK) today to discuss this result.

The New Henge at Newgrange

Posted in History with tags , , , , on July 26, 2018 by telescoper

Following on from a post last week, and thanks to this website, here is an amazing aerial video, shot from a drone, of a new archaeological discovery at the Newgrange site in County Meath that has been revealed through parch marks in the ground following the recent period of very dry weather.

Newgrange is already established as major prehistoric site, most famous for a neolithic burial mound (which means that it was built before Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza in Egypt). More recent studies, including a passage tomb found at Dowth, also in County Meath, show that the area around Newgrange, in the Boyne valley near Drogheda, was of major importance in the neolithic era.

You can read much more about the new henge at Newgrange and its place in Irish prehistory here.

Sidney Bechet’s Blue Horizon

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on July 25, 2018 by telescoper

Having moved some of my CD & record collection to Ireland, I was listening to some music last night including this track that I blogged about many moons ago. Looking at that old post this morning, I noticed that the Youtube link was defunct so decided to update it. More importantly, I realized that I’d made a few mistakes which I thought I should correct, as well as some other edits.

This slow blues features an extended clarinet solo by the great Sidney Bechet. I’ve loved Blue Horizon ever since I was a kid, and think it has a good claim to be the finest instrumental blues ever recorded.  I also heard it more recently at the funeral of one of my Dad’s old jazz friends. Listening to in that context, it struck me that it’s not just one of the greatest blues performances, but must also be one of the greatest laments that has ever been produced in music of any kind. It’s absolutely pure sadness – there’s no bitterness, anger or resentment about it – and it develops through the stately choruses into a sense of great pride and even, ultimately, of triumph.

Many years I blogged about the thrill of high-speed jazz. This performance is at the other end of the scale in terms of tempo, but you can still feel pull of the harmonic progression underlying the tune which in this case is basically the standard 12-bar blues, but with a few substitute chords thrown in.  The last set of four bars in the 12-bar blues ends with the familiar  V-IV-I cadential pattern (often known as the blues cadence) leading back to the root at the end of each chorus. Although Bechet plays quite a lot across the bar lines, the gravitational pull of that sequence of chords is very strong and it tells you very clearly that one chapter of the story has finished and another is about to start.

Bechet builds his solo over this relatively simple structure in  six choruses in a slow and stately fashion, but makes telling use of searing  blue notes of heart-rending emotional power as the intensity builds. If you don’t know what a blue note is then listen, from about 2.12 onwards, to a chorus that always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

I should also mention that the fine piano accompaniment on this all-time classic piece (recorded in December 1944) is provided by Art Hodes and the mournful response from the trombone is supplied by Vic Dickenson. Bechet’s raw power and very broad vibrato probably won’t suit scholars of the classical clarinet, but I think this is absolutely wonderful. If I ever had to compile a list of my all-time favourite records, this would definitely be on it.