Archive for December, 2022

The Post of Christmas Past

Posted in Biographical on December 31, 2022 by telescoper

At long last, this year’s Christmas issue of Private Eye has made it to Ireland. Just two weeks late. Too late to enter the crossword competition, mind, but better late than never.

I shall read it this evening after my New Year’s Eve supper of roast rack of lamb and a bottle of Amarone della Valpolicella…

Ireland and CERN

Posted in Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on December 30, 2022 by telescoper

Not long ago I posted an item about Ireland’s potential membership of CERN. There seems to have been some progress at political levels in this direction. In Mid-December, the Seanad called for a detailed proposal for CERN membership to be drawn up. More recently still, Minister Simon Harris has indicated that he will bring such a proposal to Cabinet on the matter.

There’s an article in yesterday’s Irish Times by Cormac O’Raifeartaigh reviewing the situation.

As I understand things, if the Irish Government were to decide to take Ireland into CERN then it would first have to become an Associate Member, which would cost around €1.5 million per year. That’s a modest contribution, and the financial returns to Irish industry and universities are likely to far exceed that. This Associate member stage would last up to 5 years, and then to acquire full membership a joining fee of around €16.8 million would have to be paid, though that could be spread out over ten years, along with an annual contribution of around €13.5m.

While I support the idea of Ireland joining CERN I feel obliged to stress my concerns. The most important of these is that there seems to me to be a real danger that the Government would simply appropriate funding for CERN membership from within existing programmes leaving even less for other forms of scientific research. In order to reap the scientific reward of CERN membership the Government will have to invest the additional resources needed to exploit the access to facilities membership would provide. Without a related increase in research grant funding for basic science, the opportunity to raise the level of scientific activity in Ireland would be lost and science overall may end up worse off.

Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a decision which gave Irish astronomers access to some amazing telescopes. However, there is no sign at all of Irish funding agencies responding to this opportunity by increasing funding for academic time, postdocs and graduate students needed to do the actual science. In one respect ESO is very like CERN: the facilities do not themselves do the science. We need people to do that. CERN membership could turn out to be like a very expensive Christmas gift that looks very exciting until you open the box and find that the batteries are not included.

P.S. At least Cormac’s employers in Waterford have been quick off the mark in exploiting the potential of CERN by renaming their entire institution after it…

R.I.P. Pelé

Posted in Football with tags , on December 29, 2022 by telescoper

The sad news broke tonight that Edson Arantes do Nascimento, best known to the world as Pelé, has passed away at the age of 82. It’s never easy to come to terms with the loss of a sporting legend, especially one who was a boyhood hero, and news of his death brought back a flood of childhood memories. I am old enough to remember watching the great Brazilian team of the 1970 World Cup finals that included the likes of Jairzinho, Rivellino, and Carlos Alberto, to name but three, which I think was the finest collection of players ever to grace a football field. It says something for the stature of Pelé that he stood out even among that remarkable side. As well as being outrageously skilful, Pelé had a great footballing brain, which manifested itself as a wonderful positional sense and great tactical awareness. Although by no means a tall man – he was 5ft 8 – he was also superb in the air.

After Argentina’s win in the recent World Cup in Qatar many people were quick to dub Lionel Messi the greatest footballer of all time. With no disrespect to Messi, I think the greatest player of all time is unquestionably Pelé, not least because he had far less protection from referees at the time than modern players do. Pelé may have played his football in a very different era, but his influence on the game was, and remains, incalculable. He was a legend.

R.I.P. Pelé (1940-2022)

Post-Christmas Post

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth with tags , on December 29, 2022 by telescoper

Today is (apparently) 29th December and this morning I actually got some post. Most of it was sent in the first week of December but has taken about three weeks to get here. Among other things I got: the pension statement I was waiting for (dated 2nd December), a cheque for 40 quid for winning the Times Literary Supplement Crossword Prize (posted 8th December), and a royalty statement from OUP dated, somewhat surprisingly, December 23rd. I still haven’t received the Christmas edition of Private Eye though.

I took a walk this afternoon and was quite surprised on the way to see the Maynooth Airport Hopper bus. This has been suspended since the onset of the pandemic way back in 2020 but now I find it has recently resumed. That will make it much easier to get to and from Dublin Airport if I ever have to do that. I used this service very frequently when I had to commute between Cardiff and Maynooth and don’t know how I would have coped without it. It’s good to see things gradually returning.

The bug I picked up before Christmas is still present but more of an inconvenience than anything more serious. I’ve done no fewer than ten antigen tests and never got a positive result so I’m pretty confident it’s not Covid-19. I haven’t posted anything on this blog for a few days but interestingly I’ve still been getting over 500 reads a day over the Christmas period.

I usually update my Covid-19 figures every week but no data have been recently since 20th December. Testing numbers will be pretty much meaningless because of the Christmas holiday but I’d expect to see a rise in infection levels as we head into the New Year. There are signs that Covid-19 cases are rising steeply once more – there are currently over 700 people in hospital in Ireland with Covid-19 – but I doubt we’re going to see any further lockdown measures heading into the new term.

That reminds me that I foolishly offered to do a couple of revision lectures ahead of my 2nd year Vector Calculus examination (which takes place on January 7th). The first of these will be on 3rd January which doesn’t give me much time to think about what to do. In view of my continuing low-level lurgy I think to minimize the chances of infecting anyone I think I’ll just go in, do my lectures, and come home again.

Merry Christmas to Physics Students Everywhere!

Posted in Uncategorized on December 25, 2022 by telescoper

Swingin’ Them Jingle Bells

Posted in Uncategorized on December 24, 2022 by telescoper

Well, it’s been a miserable Christmas Eve with heavy showers of sleet and God knows what else nearly all afternoon. Nevertheless I’m determined to make an attempt to get into the Christmas spirit for tomorrow. If Fats Waller can’t do help me achieve that, nobody can. Here’s his classic version of Jingle Bells on which the general atmosphere of hilarity and inspired chaos allows his superb musicianship to shine all the more brightly. Few ever managed to play Harlem Stride piano as well as Fats Waller, and he’s on top form in the opening choruses of this record.


Cut off at Christmas

Posted in Biographical on December 23, 2022 by telescoper

I don’t think I’ve ever had a less indulgent pre-Christmas week than this year. I have more-or-less recovered from whatever it was that afflicted me, except that whenever I go out into the cold I seem to start coughing again so I haven’t been out much. I decided to lay off the booze until I felt fully back to normal, with the result that I haven’t had any alcoholic drinks at all for over a week. I have also been eating very little and nothing at all of a festive richness for which I have no appetite. I will however have a proper Christmas dinner, even if I have to force myself.

Pottering around in the garden the other day I was a bit sad to find a dead bird in the garden, a young starling. I’ve tried hard to keep my feathered friends going through the cold weather, by putting out various kinds of food in an assortment of feeders, but this one alas didn’t make it.

The weather is much milder than last week (when it was positively Baltic) though we have had sleet and fog today. There is still a steady stream of birds looking for food, among them a robin that actually manages to perch on the feeder to eat. I’ve never seen a robin succeed in doing that before. The robins usual stay at ground level and collect bits that fall from on high.

Normally I get quite a few items of post at Christmas from the UK, but not this year. The postal strikes have put paid to that. Among other things I was hoping to have a go at the usual bumper Christmas Private Eye crossword, but my subscription copy has not arrived. Lots of other things haven’t arrived either, including some financial documents that will tell me when I can afford to retire. I suppose that calculation will just have to wait.

Quite a lot of Open Journal business for 2022 is still pending but it seems authors, referees and editors have now all pulled down the shutters for the break. I guess all that will have to wait until the New Year too…

At the Solstice, by Sean O’Brien

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on December 22, 2022 by telescoper

We say Next time we’ll go away.
But then the winter happens, like a secret

We’ve to keep yet never understand,
As daylight turns to cinema once more:

A lustrous darkness deep in ice-age cold,
And the print in need of restoration

Starting to consume itself
With snowfall where no snow is falling now.

Or could it be a cloud of sparrows, dancing
In the bare hedge that this gale of light

Is seeking to uproot? Let it be sparrows, then,
Still dancing in the blazing hedge,

Their tender fury and their fall,
Because it snows, because it burns.

by Sean O’Brien (born 1952)

The Winter Solstice 2022

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2022 by telescoper

The Winter Solstice in the Northern hemisphere happens later today, Wednesday 21st December, at 21:48 Irish Time.

People often think that the Winter Solstice is defined to be the “shortest day” or the “longest night” of the year. The Solstice does indeed happen on the shortest day, but it is defined in astronomical terms much more precisely than that. It happens when the axial tilt of the Earth away from the Sun is greatest, so that the Sun appears in the sky with its lowest maximum elevation. The timing of this event can be calculated with great precision.

Anyway, today is the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere. Days will get steadily longer from then until the Summer Solstice next June.  The shortest day – defined by the interval between sunrise and sunset – is today, although not by much. Today in Dublin is shorter than yesterday by about six seconds, but tomorrow will be longer than today by less than a second.

This does not, however,  mean that sunrise will happen earlier tomorrow than it did this morning.  Actually, sunrise will carry on getting later until the new year, the length of the day nevertheless increasing because sunset occurs even later. Sunrise yesterday morning (20th December) was at 08.42 Dublin Time while today it was 08.43; the latest sunrise will be on 30th December (09.05). Sunset last night was at 16.49 and tonight it will be at 16.50. The earliest sunset this year was actually on 13th December (16:48).

These complications arise because there is a difference between mean solar time (measured by clocks) and apparent solar time (defined by the position of the Sun in the sky, i.e. what you would measure on a sundial), so that a solar day does not always last exactly 24 hours as measured by a clock. A description of apparent and mean time was given by Nevil Maskelyne in the Nautical Almanac for 1767:

Apparent Time is that deduced immediately from the Sun, whether from the Observation of his passing the Meridian, or from his observed Rising or Setting. This Time is different from that shewn by Clocks and Watches well regulated at Land, which is called equated or mean Time.

The discrepancy between mean time and apparent time arises because of the Earth’s axial tilt and the fact that it travels around the Sun in an elliptical orbit in which its orbital speed varies with time of year (being faster at perihelion than at aphelion). The upshot of this is that solar noon – when the Sun is at its highest point in the sky on a given day – is not always at 12 noon local mean time. Solar noon today in Ireland is actually at 12.30 Irish time. Around the time of the Winter Solstice, solar noon is getting later in the day and this will continue to happen until well into the New Year; solar noon on New Year’s Eve is at 12.34. While the interval between sunrise and sunset shrinks towards the solstice, the mid-point of this interval is drifting later in the day, making both sunrise and sunset occur later despite the gap between the two getting smaller.

The discrepancy between latest sunrise (or earliest) and the solstice varies with latitude, although if you go far enough North into the Arctic Circle, there is neither sunrise or sunset around the Winter Solstice, and if you go far enough South to the Equator the length of the day does not vary at all with time of year. The behaviour is illustrated for North America in this graphic produced by the United States Naval Observatory

If you plot the position of the Sun in the sky at a fixed time each day from a fixed location on the Earth you get a thing called an analemma, which is a sort of figure-of-eight shape whose shape depends on the observer’s latitude. Here’s a photographic version taken in Edmonton, with photographs of the Sun’s position taken from the same position at the same time on different days over the course of a year:


The winter solstice is at the lowermost point on this curve and the summer solstice is at the top. These two turning points define the time of the solstices much more precisely than the “shortest day” or  “longest night”. The Winter Solstice is takes place at a very specific time, when the angle of tilt of the Earth’s axis relative to the Sun is maximum.

Anyway, the north–south component of the analemma is the Sun’s declination, and the east–west component arises from the  equation of time which quantifies the difference between mean solar time and apparent solar time. This curve is used to calculate the earliest and/or latest sunrise and/or sunset. Looking at a table of the local mean times of sunrise and sunset for Dublin around the 2022  winter solstice shows that today is indeed the shortest day (with a time between sunrise and sunset of 7 hours 33 minutes and 49 seconds).

P.S. As usual, crowds gathered today at the spectacular neolithic monument at Newgrange in County Meath to observe the sunrise at the Solstice.

R.I.P. Terry Hall (1959-2022)

Posted in Biographical, Music on December 20, 2022 by telescoper

I was very sad last night to hear the news of the death at the age of 63 of Terry Hall, lead singer of The Specials, one of the leading bands of the 2 Tone movement which swept the UK music scene in 1979. The Guardian obituary makes it clear what a tough upbringing Terry Hall had but also how firmly he stuck to his political ideals.

I was still at School in the 1970s and, though never a fan of Punk (which immediately preceded 2-Tone in popularity), I absolutely loved bands like The Specials, The Beat and especially Selecter. I enjoyed not only their music, but also their admirably inclusive multi-racial approach, exemplified by their adoption of Ska, the Jamaican music genre that paved the way to Reggae.

Being a bit of an anorak I actually managed way back then to get hold of some of the very rare original Ska recordings, principally by the superb Skatalites. This wonderful band specialized in irreverent and eccentric cover versions of movie film tunes from the 1960s including Doctor Zhivago and James Bond, plus the classic Guns of Navarone. Nowadays you can find lots of this music to download, but it was quite hard work getting vinyl recordings at that time. As well as enjoying 2-Tone itself I was immensely grateful for the window it provided to a treasure house of wonderful music.

Ska is usually played (at least nominally) in 4/4 time, but each beat is really a cluster of sub-beats forming a triplet so the usual 1-2-3-4 of the 4/4 turns into 123-123-123-123, etc . Usually the drummer puts a heavy bass accent (and usually a side stick or rim shot on the snare) on the 3rd component of each triplet, and there would be guitar chops, other percussion, and/or brass riffs on the “off” beats. It is said that this structure was inherited, at least in part, from the marching bands that played in Jamaica and it does give a kind of strutting feel to the overall pulse. But wherever it came from the beat gives the music an infectiously bouncy rhythm that gives anyone dancing to it an irresistible urge to jump up and down, especially on up-tempo numbers. The triplet structure also gives those with no sense of rhythm a greater probability of moving in time with at least one relevant beat.

Anyway, here as a tribute to Terry Hall are The Specials, in a typically exuberant live performance recorded on British TV in 1979 (a programme which I think I actually watched at the time). They are playing the theme from The Guns of Navarone as a direct tribute to the Skatalites, whose wonderful original version you can also find on Youtube here (although it is really just audio).

Rest in peace, Terry Hall (1959-2022)