I believe

May 15, 2011

The blog awakens. One interesting thing is that even when I haven’t written anything for weeks, there are still people reading it. Seems to be a random assortment of old posts.

I guess I should write something about the Parliamentary Select Committee report  but Peter already blogged it  and didn’t get any debate, so maybe it needs a bit more thought, aka come up with provocative line.

Instead I shall continue my occasional travelogue series. I know you love it. Here I am in Naples for the twice-yearly IVOA interop. Keywords for Napoli are : chaos; pizza; chaos; antiquity; noise; sfogliatella; chaos; religion; volcano; chaos; and chaos. I do like the chaos. But its exhausting.

There are churches and shrines everywhere, packed into streets so narrow that Google Maps can’t name them. The only one with more than about twelve feet of space in front of it is the Cattedrale San Gennaro. Twice each year a miracle occurs  at this location. A vial containing the dried blood of San Gennaro himself spontaneously liquefies. A few years back I was lucky enough to witness this miracle. Well. I say witness. Actually I was craning my neck to see over the heads of about eight million people, and could just about see some blokes in funny costumes waggling something.

So is this what I believe ? Do us a lemon, John. No. I believe in Hollywood. Bear with me.

Having a few hours spare I went to see the National Archaelogical Museum. This contains some marvelous frescoes and mosaics, some preserved in Pompeii. Here are two favourites : the famous portrait of Sappho, which actually probably isn’t; and a lovely mosaic of fishes.

There are also rooms and rooms of rather dull and pompous Roman statues. However I did rather enjoy the gallery of emperors, and spotted a lovely contrast. On the left is Marcus Aurelius, the Philosopher-Emperor. As we know from watching Gladiator, he was a wise and just ruler as well as a deep thinker. I have his “Meditations” and even read about half of it one day before I got hungry. And golly gosh his nobility just leaps out of the bust. One the right is his son Commodus, who as we also know from Gladiator, was a snivelling shit, a nasty piece of work, and a dastardly cheat. Gibbon dates the beginning of the Decline from his reign. And blow me, his bust looks just like Joaquin Phoenix in the movie. I definitely wouldn’t trust this man.

All temptation to point out resemblances to current personalities will be avoided.


Stars on Hollywood and Vine

October 13, 2008

Spent the last few days at Caltech, selling my wares – a colloquium that covered both UKIDSS science highlights and and AstroGrid tools, another talk on why I don’t believe in donuts, and various bits of VO technicalia for my  CACR chums. The UKIDSS-VO update can be found here, but you don’t get the full flavour as you miss my live demo. People seemed impressed that someone over thirty-five could type SQL in real time into a box, so I was mildly chuffed.

Caltech is famous for being a tad competitive shall we say. I got entertained at lunch by various grad students and postdocs. They seemed relaxed, but with a pushy edge. At that stage, young scientists are desperate to get noticed, and are simultaneously confident and insecure – will the world decide you are a genius or a dullard ?

The next morning I was doing LA tourism with my family. I found myself on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St, staring at the sidewalk-stars and trying hard to absorb the vibrations of Hollywood history. In the glory days, this was the spot where starry-eyed hopefuls would hang around, drinking coffee very very slowly, just waiting to be spotted and carried off to stardom. Its very hard to believe now. The whole area is so run down, tacky, decayed, and even boarded up. Further along Hollywood Boulevard it eventually smartens up, but even the famous Chinese Theatre with the handprints of the stars seems small and tawdry. Can this really be the source, the spring, of our twentieth century dreams ?

Hitting success in astrophysics is at least a mixture of talent and luck. Hitting the big time in the dream factory was almost all luck, because talent was oversupplied. And yet … the great movie actors – Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant would be my list – seem so magical, surely their destiny was manifest ?