It’s been a year since the last entry here. So I could blog about the end of Planck, the first observation of gravitational waves, fatherhood, or the horror (comedy?) of the US Presidential election. Instead, it’s going to be rock ’n’ roll, though I don’t know if that’s because it’s too important, or not important enough.
It started last year when I came across Christgau’s A+ review of Wussy’s Attica and the mentions of Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Television seemed compelling enough to make it worth a try (paid for before listening even in the streaming age). He was right. I was a few years late (they’ve been around since 2005), but the songs and the sound hit me immediately. Attica was the best new record I’d heard in a long time, grabbing me from the first moment, “when the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of [my] heart”, in the words of their own description of the feeling of first listening to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”. Three guitars, bass, and a drum, over beautiful screams from co-songwriters Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver.
To certain fans of Lucinda Williams, Crazy Horse, Mekons and R.E.M., Wussy became the best band in America almost instantaneously…
Indeed, that list nailed my musical obsessions with an almost google-like creepiness. Guitars, soul, maybe even some politics. Wussy makes me feel almost like the Replacements did in 1985.
So I was ecstatic when I found out that Wussy was touring the UK, and their London date was at the great but tiny Windmill in Brixton, one of the two or three venues within walking distance of my flat (where I had once seen one of the other obsessions from that list, The Mekons). I only learned about the gig a couple of days before, but tickets were not hard to get: the place only holds about 150 people, but their were far fewer on hand that night — perhaps because Wussy also played the night before as part of the Walpurgis Nacht festival. But I wanted to see a full set, and this night they were scheduled to play the entire new Forever Sounds record. I admit I was slightly apprehensive — it’s only a few weeks old and I’d only listened a few times.
But from the first note (and after a good set from the third opener, Slowgun) I realised that the new record had already wormed its way into my mind — a bit more atmospheric, less song-oriented, than Attica, but now, obviously, as good or nearly so. After the 40 or so minutes of songs from the album, they played a few more from the back catalog, and that was it (this being London, even after the age of “closing time”, most clubs in residential neighbourhoods have to stop the music pretty early). Though I admit I was hoping for, say, a cover of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”, it was still a great, sloppy, loud show, with enough of us in the audience to shout and cheer (but probably not enough to make very much cash for the band, so I was happy to buy my first band t-shirt since, yes, a Mekons shirt from one of their tours about 20 years ago…). I did get a chance to thank a couple of the band members for indeed being the “best band in America” (albeit in London). I also asked whether they could come back for an acoustic show some time soon, so I wouldn’t have to tear myself away from my family and instead could bring my (currently) seven-month old baby to see them some day soon.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve managed invites to a few swish literary shindigs.
For no literary reason at all (I’m the proud godparent of someone who works for the prize’s sponsors), I was able to make my way into this year’s ceremony for the Man Booker Prize, held in the rather splendid Guildhall in the City of London. (That’s the hall at right, being addressed I think by the chairman of the Booker Prize Committee, Sir Peter Stothard).
This year’s winner was Hilary Mantel for Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume in her fictionalisation of the life of Thomas Cromwell. I admit I haven’t read that, nor its also-prizewinning predecessor Wolf Hall (nor in fact any of the rest of this year’s crop). And I was sort of hoping to hear Will Self give a speech or, better, a rant.
The ice sculptures at the center of even our low-rent table on the outskirts was evidence of the luxury of the event, as was the remnant of my outfit (why else wear a bow tie unless you can flaunt the louche look at the end of the evening? Although alas the picture wasn’t taken on my ride home in an appropriate chauffeured limo, nor even a black cab, but the Central Line on the London Underground…).
Slightly closer to my usual bailiwick, earlier this week I went to see the award of this year’s Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, organised by Britain’s Royal Society, and sponsored by Winton Capital:
Those are shortlisted authors Steven Pinker, Brian Greene, host/comedian (and former Cambridge physics PhD student) Ben Miller, James Gleick, Lone Frank and Joshua Foer. Again, I’m behind on this year’s selections, and enjoyed all of the authors’ readings — though I found Foer’s bit from his Moonwalking with Einstein especially compelling. But Gleick’s The Information triumphed (and his previous books, from Chaos to his biography of Richard Feynman, have shown him to be an excellent writer and communicator, so I am sure it was well-deserved).
After the award, standing around the Royal Society’s digs, swigging the obligatory (and appreciated) champagne, we realised something strange about this year’s shortlist: no British authors. One Dane (Lone Frank) and five Americans (the fifth, Nathan Wolfe, couldn’t make it).
This has re-inspired me to go to the next level up from these monthly posts (and more frequent tweets) and think about writing that book that they say we all have in us. Let’s try a little crowdsourcing: what book should I write?
Last summer, I helped make a (fake) time machine, an exercise in “creative misinterpretation” (in the words of my architect partner, Shin Egashira). This was part of the Beyond Entropy project organized by the Architecture Association — we showed it then in Venice but now Londoners will get a chance to see the work in the AA’s own gallery, opening Friday, 6 May. There will also be a series of events to mark the exhibit, including a night discussing time travel (and, um, shamanism) with Shin and photographer Goswin Schwendinger on May 20.
Also, in a nice bit of synchronicity, the Royal Society is hosting the great Beyond Ourselves exhibition, featuring works by artists including Geraldine Cox, Imperial College Physics’ artist-in-residence. You have to book ahead, but it’s well worth the trip to see her and her colleagues’ fantastic explorations of scientists at work.
What are blogs for, if not self-publicity? In that vein, I’ll be appearing at the Spacetacular! night on April 12, in honor of Yuri’s night: the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first-ever manned space flight.
The evening is organized by Londonist editor Matt Brown along with comedian and presenter Helen Keen, hosting a line-up of comedians and scientists. I promise not to be funny so you can tell which I am — I’ll be talking for ten minutes or so about my adventures in space (well, working on a big space-based project, the Planck Surveyor Satellite).
We scientists often, and correctly, make the point that manned space flight has almost nothing to do with science. But I certainly wouldn’t be the scientist I am if it weren’t a morning long ago in Hooks Lane Nursery School watching one of those early moon launches, thinking I wanted to have something, anything, to do with that. So let us know if you want to come celebrate [the Facebook event link is currently broken, but this one is still up.] this amazing human achievement with comedy and science (and spacey costumes) at the Camden Head Pub in London next week.
Yesterday, I went to visit Longplayer, Jem Finer’s thousand-year composition, for the eleventh anniversary of its first note, played on New Years Day, 1999. Longplayer is currently controlled (performed?) from Trinity Buoy Wharf in London’s simultaneously desolate and overbuilt Docklands, covered in newly built flats and offices, with hardly a human in sight.
Jem started out as a rock’n’roller, but has expanded into broader realms of visual and sonic art, as much interested in the logistics of producing sounds as the sounds themselves; I first got to know him in his role as the artist-in-residence in Oxford’s Astrophysics group where he drew maps, played music, and built — and lived in — a beautiful plywood-and-chicken-wire radio telescope.
Longplayer will take 1000 years to play, but music technology won’t be stable for that long a period (not to mention the sociology-political systems needed to arrange transmissions). Some of these questions have also been taken up by the Long Now Foundation, with which Longplayer has become affiliated. Jem has addressed some of these questions head-on over the last year with a series of Longplayer Live performances at London’s Roundhouse, and in San Francisco, as well as upcoming performances in LA, Tasmania and Porto. Although the main composition is streamed electronically, the live versions are performed on Tibetan singing bowls (which you can sponsor if you want to support the project). Jem has also transmuted the work into “Shortplayer” which uses the same algorithm and notation but is played on more conventional instruments.
For the occasion, Jem provided drinks, bagels, and the opportunity to take in the view … …and the music (this is apparently just a temporary amplifier as they recover from a power failure earlier in the year)… (More pictures of Longplayer, Trinity Buoy Wharf, and environs here.)
Of course, the New Year is well-matched to the sort of long-term contemplation that Longplayer encourages. In the US and the rest of the so-called “New World”, the very idea of a thousand years is almost absurdly long — the imprint of humankind on the American continents was radically different in the year that the people there wouldn’t have called 1011. Here in Europe, not to mention Asia, much has changed technologically and politically since then, but the broad outlines of our presence would have been recognisable. But even here, the longest-lasting institutions, such as the Church, have undergone reformations and counter-reformations, sponsored states and wars between states, and certainly couldn’t be trusted to preserve a work of art for its own sake, despite the many things that have happily made their way down to us in 2011. Knowledge, of course, has proven easier to transmit than the works themselves; we can only hope that this remains true in the digital age and the rolling obsolescence of new technologies.
Longplayer is open to the public every weekend (aside from the celebratory drinks and bagels, I assume). And of course you can follow Longplayer on Twitter and, most importantly, listen to the stream anytime, anywhere.
Blake is of course one of the most famous poets in the English language, but most people know him only from short poems like The Tiger [sic] (“Tyger, Tyger burning bright/ In the forests of the night/ What immortal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fearful symmetry”) and Jerusalem, sung in Anglican churches each week. But most of Blake’s work is much too weird to make it into church. It is peopled by gods and monsters, illuminated by Blake’s own wonderful over-the-top illustrations. (For example, America: A Prophecy, his poetic interpretation of the American Revolutionary War, begins “The shadowy Daughter of Urthona stood before red Orc/When fourteen suns had faintly journey’d o’er his dark abode” — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson don’t make Blake’s version.)
Blake’s gravestone sits right on the pavement in the middle of Bunhill Fields, and as such unfortunately has been slightly damaged.
I don’t read Blake every day or even every week, but I probably do use Bayes’s famous theorem at least that often. As I and other bloggers have gone on and on about, Bayes’s theorem is the mathematical statement of how we ought to rigorously and consistently incorporate new information into our model of the world. Bayes himself wrote down only a version appropriate for a restricted version of this problem, and used words, rather than mathematica symbols. Nowadays, we usually write it mathematically, and in a completely general form, as
Inscription: “Rev. Thomas Bayes, son of the said Joshua and Ann Bayes, 7 April 1761. In recognition of Thomas Bayes’s important work in probability this vault was restored in 1960 with contributions received from statisticians throughout the world.” (With restoration and upkeep since by Bayesian Efficient Strategic Trading of Hoboken, NJ, USA —across the Hudson River from New York City— and ISBA, the International Society for Bayesian Analysis.)
In further London-based excitement, I was forced into something that most Londoners never get the chance to do: walking in a Tube tunnel. I was taking the Picadilly Line train down to Kings Cross, and, just after leaving the Caledonian Road station, the lights in the car dimmed and the train stopped — nothing particularly unusual. But a couple of minutes later the driver got on the loudspeaker and told us that there had been “a person under the train” (a euphemism that isn’t quite a euphemism) at Kings Cross. After a few more minutes he told us that we may have to “de-train” but that he’d let us know when authorization came. He implied that if the unfortunate victim were still alive it could take up to a couple of hours.
Given those circumstances, we were not too unhappy that things took a while. Eventually, the staff from Caledonian Road station showed up, and started leading us off the train, giving us the unfortunate chance for a rare London experience:
If nothing else, the British (and, I think, even we foreigners who happen to have found ourselves here) tend to be pretty relaxed in a crisis, and so we were. Given that this was on Sunday in July, we were lucky that the train wasn’t much hotter and more crowded with people commuting to work, so we could manage to be more amused by the situation than anything else. Damped, to be sure, by the sad circumstances that had caused all of this. But still: blitz spirit, Keep Calm and Carry On, and all that.
Central London featured two important events this past weekend. First was the annual Gay Pride Parade, a riotous and joyful procession of rainbow flags, pink clothing, and (mostly) ill-fitting dresses on very large people.
Sadly, the only thing that marred the good-natured, family-friendly event were the stupid protesters. But it was wonderful to see that they were just ignored, or occasionally people would point at their sad and pathetic group and just laugh (there was also a much smaller, and yet more pathetic, group of National Front protesters who deserved and received even less attention).
At the same time, the Royal Society, right down the road from Piccadilly Circus, hosted the annual Summer Science Exhibition, and I visited my colleagues (Stuart Lowe and Michael Bridges, here) talking Planck Surveyor science, taking infrared pictures of the visitors and handing out lots of great Planck swag.
In fact, this weekend, Planck has cooled down to just about its final temperature of 100mK (that is 0.1 degrees above absolute zero!) and has made it to its final orbit at the L2 point. So we are starting to get ready to take real data, after we spend the next month or so kicking the tires and checking her out.
I spent over an hour this afternoon in full green consumerist frenzy, celebrating the opening (i.e., shopping at) the new London branch of the Whole Foods supermarket chain. Three floors of good food, eco-friendly (more or less; see below), tasty, not at all cheap, luckily located en route from work to home. And noticeably more Americans in one place than I’ve ever encountered here in the UK!
And yet. Whole Foods may pay their staff well, but they’re an anti-union shop. They are organic and sustainable, but it’s unlikely to be good news for local small butchers and groceries. Plenty of the items on their shelves certainly amassed quite a few carbon miles getting to central London. But those heirloom tomatoes — British! — tasted really winderful in the frittata I cooked once I made it home…
Yesterday evening I attended the launch party for Nature Network London, a new site run by Nature magazine, which hopes to be a web home for science and scientists in London. There are articles, blogs, discussion forums and calendars of scientific events.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I ended up meeting lots of people from Imperial — whom of course I had never met here on campus. I also met the site’s editor, Matt Brown, as well as blogger Jennifer Rohn, who also runs the science/culture site LabLit.
It’s an ambitious idea, and anything that gets us out of our offices and talking with other scientists is welcome. The formal barriers to entry are quite low, but to get working scientists to spend their time blogging, posting in discussion forums, and just taking this newfangled social web 2.0 thing seriously may be a hard sell. We’ll have to hook ‘em young. However, “science” in London is dominated by Medicine and biology — we physical scientists are a distinct minority, and our interests, academic lives and ways of working are often very different indeed (for example, the biologists last night spent a lot of time trying to decide whether to approach someone like Paul Smith for a design of a fashionable lab coat — I’ve never worn a lab coat in my life!). Anyway, if you’re a London-based scientist of any stripe reading this, sign up and join in!
Tonight I’m off on a 24-hour jaunt to Rome to discuss our proposal for a new Satellite, BPol, to measure the CMB polarization (and thereby discover if inflation could be responsible for getting our Universe into the shape we find it today). Unfortunately, this satellite wouldn’t be launched until the late 2010s, which means that the data wouldn’t flow for a staggering decade and a half.
Luckily, cosmology will remain interesting while we’re waiting — as Tommaso Dorigo’s ongoing reports from our Outstanding questions for the standard cosmological model meeting continue to attest.
In his comment on last week’s post, fellow physicist blogger Tommaso lets me know that he’ll be attending a meeting that we’re hosting here at Imperial College next week, Outstanding questions for the standard cosmological model. We’ll be casting a critical eye over current cosmological models and data, but I expect most of us will come to the conclusion that the whole structure is surprisingly weather-sturdy.
In fact if you’re any sort of astrophysicist, particle physicist or cosmologist, Imperial Physics is likely to have a meeting for you in London over the next few months. In addition to “Outstanding Questions”, we’ll have
- A meeting making plans for XEUS, April 2-4. XEUS is the X-Ray Evolving Universe Spectroscopy mission, an X-Ray telescope satellite under consideration by the European Space Agency;
- PASCOS (Particles, Strings and Cosmology) 07, July 2-7, the latest in a series of meetings examining the interface between theoretical particle physics and cosmology; and
- From IRAS to Herschel-Planck, July 9-7. This is a special meeting, in honor of Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson on his 65th Birthday. Michael is currently the head of our Astrophysics group, and is one of the founders of the field of sub-millimeter and infrared astronomy, using long-wavelength photons to observe those parts of the Universe often hidden behind clouds of dust — veiled stellar nurseries where indeed a significant fraction of the stars were formed in the universe’s first few billions of years. IRAS was the first large-scale infrared satellite, and Herschel (along with its sister spacecraft, Planck, about which you’ve heard plenty here) will be the next ambitious project to observe the whole sub-millimeter sky.
The view out my back window:
Now let’s see if I can get into work.
There was a pretty good turnout a last night’s Café Scientifique in London. Thanks to any and all who showed up to hear my spiel about the cosmos (and, crucially, to talk back). We talked about matter & antimatter, the Cosmic Microwave Background, and even more esoteric topics like the origins of time (about which I had nothing more interesting to say than many members of the audience).
Thanks especially to Daniel Glaser and Ashish Ranpura for running the Café Sci series, and to all the people at the Photographers’ Gallery.
And now a deomographic question: was anyone reading this in the audience? If so, did you read about it here on the blog, or via Café Sci? Please leave a comment and let me know.
I can see Comet McNaught from my office window, bright in the evening sky due West over London!
Last night I went to hear Alejandro Escovedo at St James Church in London. As an atheist/Jew, I’ve never really gotten used to churches (and this really is a church, not a performance space), can’t help but want to be respectful of the sanctity of the space. Escovedo brought along his string quintet, and the music veered between folksy quiet and rock’n’roll loud, never mind the instrumentation.
Escovedo has been around a long time — he started out in the Nuns, a band that opened for the Sex Pistol’s infamous — “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” — last show in San Francisco; went on to form Rank & File, which, along with bands like Jason and the Scorchers, fused a punkish feel with country songs; and eventually moved to Austin, Texas and, with his solo records, started more explicitly exploring the boundaries between Anglo and Chicano culture in California, Mexico and the rest of the southwest US. By then he had become a fully-fledged part of the the so-called alt.country movement which his earlier work had presaged, and indeed was named No Depression’s artist of the 90s.
Recently, he’s been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and moderately-well-known-indie-musician is not a profession that comes with good health insurance in the US, but his compatriots have rallied to the cause.
The London show ran from waltz-time instrumentals to rave-ups like “I was Drunk”, the tenderness of “Juarez” and “Rosalie”, and the just plain weirdness of “Everybody loves me”. Not fake Escovedo-mania re-orchestrations of rock’n’roll songs, using the strings to recreate the sound of an electric guitar, but rootsy reimaginings that didn’t take the classical associations of the fiddles too seriously — but taking the songs themselves as seriously as they deserved.
I went to a discussion by author Bruce Sterling last night, sponsored by the weird alliance of independent tech newsletter NTK and political rag The New Statesman (more precisely, their New Media Awards), with some sort of underwriting from organic chocolatiers Green & Black’s (now rather distressingly owned by Cadbury-Schweppes), supplying lovely samples of Maya Gold (a name I do not recommend googling) to everyone.
Sterling’s talk centered around the “intrinsic advantages” of the web as a tool for “sifting, sorting, searching, ranking and tagging” all sorts of information — web pages (Google), photos (Flickr) and more-or-less academic information (wikipedia) — all of this also known as “Web 2.0”, technologies of “commons-based peer production” that are, perhaps uniquely among human inventions “easy to build and hard to smash”. He went on to discuss the future: an “internet of things”, “spimes” trackable in space and time, material extensions of primarily virtual objects: bits made into matter.
Of course, all technology has unforeseen consequences (which is a corollary to Sterling’s dictum that “you’re not smarter than everyone else in the world”). But he touched only briefly on the frightening possibilities of such technologies when the information isn’t available to all of us, but only to (say) the state, as is the case now with London’s Oyster Card. Or the NSA.
- Sitting at the front of the top of a double-decker bus;
- Borough Market: chorizo & rocket sandwiches from Brindisa
Yesterday was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. So it all gets better from now on (Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to me a perfectly reasonable response to the darkness).
But what else? A Republican-appointed member of the federal judiciary has slammed the Intelligent Design crackpots, seeing them for the crypto-creationists they can barely hide being (although both Slate and Salon don't see it as an unalloyed victory for rationality). As usual, PZ Myers at Pharyngula has lots to say on the issue (as a biologist with much more standing than me, a mere cosmologists, at least until the young-earthers get back in the game). Meanwhile, Evolution has won Science Magazine's Breakthrough of the Year -- certainly a political choice, in light of the IDers ridiculous claims to be doing real science.
On the downside, my family in the New York City suburbs are finding it mighty hard to get around, even in the family gas-guzzlers. This is a tough one: I'm a big fan of unions, but it seems like both sides (the Transit Workers Union on one side, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority on the other) were working toward a settlement when the Union walked away from the table. (Although needless to say, the politicians overseeing the MTA didn't handle this as well as they could have, with Governor Pataki of New York somehow finding himself in New Hampshire -- first port of call for would-be Presidential candidates -- on the eve of the strike, rather than back home hammering out a deal.)
Update: So it looks like the NYC Transit strike is over... instead, we Londoners will have to contend with our own strike, shutting down the Tube on New Year's Eve! This seems to be a way to get out of an agreed-to set of 24-hour workdays over the course of the year.