Rock and Roll will never die (just f-f-fade away)

December 7, 2011

I just got interviewed in A&G. You can see it online here .

Old Leicester chum Watto says he is getting a T-shirt made referring to the big-photons episode. Another old Leicester chum, Grimmers, aka @compactdwarf, referred to the interview as a “centrefold” which left me feeling a tad uncomfortable, but there we go. It also sparked off a debate with my grad student @wordled_muds, aka Jack The Lad. I thought I would expose the argument here and see what you think.

My children tell me that online social networking is the great cultural contribution of their generation, like rock and roll was the great contribution of ours. I don’t really like Facebook (although I do join in) but I love Twitter and blogs. I jumped on Google+ as soon as it came out, and yes indeedy it was dead cool – but also a tad disappointing. Somehow I was expecting something radically new and surprising, whereas it turned out to be pretty much like Facebook but done better. So it seems the revolutionary era is over, and we are into variations on a theme.

In a similar fashion, because rock music seemed to turn the world upside down between 1955 and 1968, I assumed that there would be some kind of revolution in music once a decade. But in fact, I would contend, nothing revolutionary has happened since. The different flavours of music since are really just variations on the same kind of stuff. I am not saying that the old stuff is the best. I think I might vote for Pretty Balanced  as best band ever. But its the same type of music I knew and loved in the seventies.

Jack M thought this wrong, and quoted dance, electronic, and dubstep as the proof. My feeling is that dubstep in particular is indeed pretty original, but not that far from the structure and feel of rock music. More to the point, none of these had the wide cultural and social impact of rock and roll. I could point you at even more radical modern music, but only about four and half of us care. A stronger case might be made for rap music, which is on a line through gospel and soul and Detroit rather than through blues and country and rock; and rap has had considerable social impact.

But I still think that if you take the helicopter view, jazz and rock were the only two musico-cultural revolutions in the twentieth century. I might give you rap music as a major earthquake without being a full scale revolution.


April 10, 2010

Why do footpaths not go in straight lines ? But first the prologue…

I had the pleasure of returning to Leicester this week, where many moons ago I did my PhD.  Luckily it was indeed a pleasure as the PhD thesis I went to examine was v.good. (Well done Agnese.) Others who want to indulge in Leicester Space Physics nostalgia will want to be going to the groovy Leicester-50 Extreme Universe Conference.  Of course I have been back to Leicester many times, but for some reason I had not for many years found myself approaching the University by foot from the Victoria Park side, as opposed to from the centre of town, or by taxi from EMA. As I approached I had an odd twinge of nostalgia for a footpath I used to follow every day – but it had disappeared, to be replaced by a proper paved path with trees and stuff.

The old path, created organically by thousands of student feet, used to fascinate me – because it was very narrow, less than the width of two feet – and because it did not go in a straight line, but rather a kind of graceful swerve. Why ?

Most people I ask say, well, everybody follows the path, Andy. But they don’t. (Or rather didn’t). I would watch people walking across the park (is that sad ?) and very few were on the path. They tended to walk somewhere near the path, but few people were right on it. I would say the FWHM was about twenty feet. Nontheless walkers are guided by the central narrow path of course, so statistically that central patch gets trodden on more.  So why is the worn patch so narrow ? I guess it has to have something to with the physiology of grass, or the stability of roots. Somehow the probability of grass destruction must be a very non-linear function of grind frequency. So this aspect – the narrowness of the path – seems fairly obvious at first, but highly non-obvious in detail.

So what about the graceful swerve ? Two possibilities come to mind.

The first is that it is determined by features in the environment. Now Vicky Park is completely flat. We are not talking about following topology, or minimum energy paths etc. As you set off, you don’t know the globally optimum path. So why isn’t the result random ? Maybe just everybody thinks “I can see the Charles Wilson building, I’ll head towards that”, and then halfway across thinks “hang on, I can see the gate now, better swing left”.

The second possibility is that starting direction is actually random, but chance concentrations in a particular direction get re-inforced as the grass starts to wear. This is rather like forming large scale structure in the galaxy distribution by the growth of random fluctuations.

Those two possibilities must in principle be testable. In the first case, the graceful swerve would be the same every year. In the second, a new path would form each academic year : the average would be a straight line, but each individual realisation would be a wiggle. Maybe rather than a new path each year, the path could meander from month to month. That brings us back to biology – what is the grass recovery timescale ?

Anybody know the answer ? Sounds like a good research project. Too late for Vicky Park, but there must be countless other examples around, and people who have thought about this seriously. Google failed me but maybe I didn’t try a cunning enough search. Gordon Stewart told me thought there was some scholarly study somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where…