Standing on a spinning rock

December 27, 2012

Another sixties icon passes beyond the veil : Gerry Anderson has gone to join Joe 90 and Torchy the Battery Boy in the sky. Guardian obituary here. First ever episode of Supercar here, and if you want to check out the purple page-boy haircuts and metallic mini-skirts, try Episode 1 of UFO here.

Meanwhile, an update on my Patrick Moore nostalgia post. The mysterious “Gareth” turned out to be my own nineteen year old son, who for Christmas bought me that a 1964 edition of The Observers Book of Astronomy, just as I remembered it!! What a nice boy. His sister bought me a very steam-punk sextant so it was a rather nice antique astronomical christmas.

Concrete experience is very important in science. (Bear with me, there shall be A Link). Theory has to be constantly checked and re-rooted in observed fact. But the concrete is also important at a simple human level. Its good to be reminded we are doing something real; science is not an abstract game. Its wonderful when you show people Saturn through a small telescope. Suddenly its really there – its not on TV, you can see it with your own eyes. Its right there, in that direction.

The Observers Book has a chapter about equipment, and stresses the importance of a good mounting, and preferably some kind of manual or clockwork drive. As Patrick says, when people first look through a reasonably high powered telescope, they never fail to be struck by how fast the stars are moving. Indeed. Then suddenly you realise – you actually physically feel – that you are standing on a huge rock which is spinning in space.

Count one, two. That spot you occupied one second ago – its now three hundred metres over there.

Well…. maybe now we need to think about the Earth’s orbit; the local solar motion; the orbit of the Local Standard of Rest around the Galactic Centre; the motion of the Galaxy with respect to the CMB; Mach’s Principle maybe … or maybe not. That will do. We stand on a spinning rock. And you can see it with your own eyes.

Global Culture, Ravi Shankar, and Robbie Krieger

December 12, 2012

Last week I was at the Texas Donuts Meeting. More of that anon perhaps. San Antonio was a vibrant mix of American and Mexican culture. This I expected. After all, if it wasn’t for a few stubborn rednecks at the Alamo and San Jacinto, Texas would still be in Mexico. Shame about the oil. Anyhoo, what I didn’t expect was to find someone playing the bagpipes on the River Walk. Bizarre but actually rather good.

I got home and emptied out my coins. I had mixed up some US and UK coins, and as I sorted them, I noticed that the quarters and the ten pences were exactly the same diameter (though not the same thickness). Likewise the dime and the five pence were identical. After some Googling, it seems many other coins round the world are the same. On some forum I found the comment “is this a coincidence, or the work of the Illuminati?” Quite. Somebody help.

Then this morning the news that Ravi Shankar died. Ravi Shankar famously joined Eastern and Western cultures, but I think he should be equally famous for joining tribes inside the West. He played symphony halls with Yehudi Menuhin, and rock concerts with George Harrison. The classical fans were overawed by his perfect musicianship and the complexity of the music; the rock gang were hypnotised by the vitality and freedom of the music. Complexity and freedom at the same time – a pretty good trick. Back in the summer of 1971, as my hair and beard grew between schhol and university, I bought “Four Ragas” and I had never heard anything like it. I played it obsessively for days on end. Here is one of those ragas on YouTube :

Somebody on Beeb4 this morning mentioned “The End” by The Doors as a Shankar-influenced  piece of music. Excellent choice. Many seventies and eighties bands just kinda inserted sitar bits into their tracks; and the Menuhin stuff I found a sort of Classic-FM-ised version of Indian classical music. But Robbie Krieger absorbed the feeling and some of the techniques and re-emerged with something new. In the 1967 the musical world merged in Los Angeles. African music crossed the Atlantic in slave boats and became ragtime, jazz and blues; music from the borders of Scotland and Ireland mutated into bluegrass and country; both of these were swallowed up by the mainstream European style songwriting tradition and became rock and roll; and finally the hippies swallowed the eastern music and the acid and rock passed through the doors of perception and emerged strange and wonderful.  Enough. Ladies and Gentleman, The Doors :

The streets are fields that never die, deliver me from reasons why

We used to write that on walls.

Farewell Patrick

December 10, 2012

Just flew back in from Texas to find that Patrick Moore died.  Here is Brian May’s very nice obituary. I am not one of the many astronomers who knew him personally, but I am one of the even larger number who was originally inspired by him. Here is the book in question :


Observers Book of Astronomy, 1964. Got it out of the library in Victoria Road, Margate. Its not there now. The library, not the book. I think its turned into flats.

A few years later I was a founder member of the Thanet Astronomical Society for Youth, along with the Sun Spaceman, aka Suthers, aka Mr Skymania. For some time meetings consisted of about five and a half spotty yoofs. Then somebody – probably Suthers himself – wrote to Patrick Moore and asked if he’d talk to us. He said yes, and our next meeting had two hundred people!

I remember this well, but what I never knew until today is that he stayed at Suthers house !! Its all explained in the Sun.  Scroll down to the bottom.