Last week, two more Chinese astronauts (or “taikonauts” as they are sometimes known) blasted into space, to spend a month on-board China’s experimental space station Tiangong. They successfully docked with the space station just before 19:30 GMT last Tuesday (18 October). The 30-day stay on the space station will be the longest mission yet undertaken by Chinese astronauts.

This is the latest chapter in an ambitious space programme; China has plans to send manned missions to both the Moon and Mars, although it has not publicly stated a time-line for these two goals. In fact, nothing would boost China’s feeling of becoming the World’s premier superpower than if they were to get to Mars before the USA.

The pace of China’s space programme is impressive. They are spending some US$2.2 billion a year on it, and to-date have sent 11 people into space. They plan to build a permanent space station by 2020, and have already launched 181 satellites into space.


A summary of some of the key numbers for China’s ambitious space programme.

In 2016 alone it will have launched 20 space missions. I have heard it argued that it is easier for a one-party state like China to achieve ambitious long-term programmes like exploring space than it is for democracies like the US. This is because any programmes suggested and funded in the US can be axed by Congress, or shelved by a new president. Such changes of government do not happen in China. Of course, it is looking increasingly likely that the first US manned mission to Mars will not be undertaken by NASA, but rather by one of the private companies like Space X.

The race is on to get to Mars first, who do you think will be first?

Yesterday (Sunday 23 October) former Chelsea manager José Mourinho made his first return to Stamford Bridge since he was sacked last December. His Manchester United team were thrashed 4-0 by a rampant Chelsea, with the first goal being scored after only 30 seconds.

By half time Chelsea were 2-0 up, and by 62 minutes it was 3-0. Mourinho’s humiliation was complete when Chelsea made it 4-0 in the 71st minute. The win takes Chelsea up to 4th place in the table, just one point behind leaders Manchester City. Manchester United stay in 7th place.


José Mourinho’s Manchester United were thrashed on his first return to Stamford Bridge since being sacked by Chelsea last December.

Manchester City have not registered a win in a month, after flying out of the blocks in their first 6 games they have hit a speed bump. Arsenal and Liverpool are equal with them on points, leaving the title wide open with a quarter of the season gone. It is all to play for!

50 years ago today, on 21 October 1966, a tragedy happened in a small mining village in Wales which horrified the world. At 9:15am, Pantglas school in a place called Aberfan was engulfed by a river of coal debris. 116 children (more than half of the school’s pupils) and 28 adults were killed. Dozens more were rescued from the horror, with people from Aberfan and surrounding villages digging with their hands in a desperate attempt to save some lives.

The tragedy was due to a tip of coal waste (“slag heap” as they were often called) which had been piled on the side of the mountain against which the village nestles, and was entirely preventable. For months the local council had been warning the National Coal Board (NCB) of the risk, but the NCB had taken no notice. 

In a tribunal held after the tragedy, the NCB were found guilty of negligence and of corporate manslaughter. However, they never paid a penny of compensation to the families, nor did they pay to have the numerous slag heaps rendered safe. Local families had to raise the money to do this themselves. After years of campaigning, in 1997 the newly-formed Welsh Assembly government finally repaid the families the money that they had raised. Some 10 years later the Welsh Assembly government paid the families a much larger sum, to correct for the inflation in the intervening 40 years. 

I have been to the cemetery and memorial park in Aberfan. It is a beautiful tribute and memory to the tragedy that happened that wet October day in 1966. 

Here is a very moving poem simply called Aberfan by Vera Rich, an English-born poet.  

I have seen their eyes, the terrible, empty eyes
Of women in a glimmerless dawn, and the hands
Of men who have wrestled through long years with the dark
Underpinning of the mountains, strong hands that fight

In dumb faith that what was once flesh born of their flesh
And is earth of the earth, should rest in the earth of God,
Not that of the devil’s making…

The Tip had crouched like a plague-god, with the town,
A victim in reversion, held beneath
A vast, invisible paw… Not a lion to toss
A proud, volcano-mane of destruction, crouched
Like a rat, it waited…

I have seen their eyes, and the empty hands of men,
And they walk like victims of a second Flood
In a world no longer home, where the void of sky
Between tall mountains looms as a cenotaph
For a generation of laughter… 

                                      I have seen them
Walking, near-ghosts, wraiths from a half-formed legend
Of this more-than-Hamelin, where, on an autumn Friday,
Between nine and ten of the clock, death raised his flute
And the children followed… 

As of 7:30am BST (06:30 GMT) this morning (Thursday 20 October), it is not looking hopeful for the European Space Agency’s Schiaparelli probe. ESA will make a press announcement at 08:00 GMT, when hopefully we will have a better idea of what has happened. As Schiaparelli was descending it should have been sending telemetry data to its mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). Those telemetry data were relayed back to Earth overnight, so they should be able to give us a much clearer picture of Schiaparelli’s descent to the surface. 

A large ground-based radio telescope in India was able to detect some of the signals that Schiaparelli was sending to the TGO, and certain key events such as the parachutes opening seem to have occurred. But, communication seems to have ceased some 30-60 seconds before Schiaparelli was expected to reach the surface. That, and its subsequent silence, are not good signs and the fear is that the probe has crashed during its final descent. 

I will update this blogpost when we know more, later this morning. In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed. 


I’ve just finished watching the live ESA press announcement. The bottom line is that we still don’t know what has happened to the probe. From the telemetry analysed, ESA say that the parachute opened, and all seemed fine until the parachute detached. Loss of signal happened about 50 seconds before the expected touchdown. Nothing has been heard from Schiaparelli since. ESA also suggested that they knew that the rockets to slow its final descent had fired, but at this point in time they do not know how many of the rockets fired or for how long. 

In addition to various satellites which are in orbit around Mars, in addition to the TGO, trying to communicate with Schiaparelli, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will take images of the landing site to try to find the probe. The same satellite successfully spotted Beagle 2 a few years ago after it went missing in 2003. 

ESA very much put a positive spin on events, emphasising the success of the TGO, and that the telemetry data from Schiaparelli’s decent should help them fully understand what went wrong. They therefore feel that its possible failure should not alter the schedule to send the ExoMars Rover in a few years. 

I will blog more about the science that the TGO plans to do next week, and give an update (if there are any development) on Schiaparelli. 

At number 8 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “Let it Be”. This Paul McCartney ballad is possibly one of the band’s best known songs, and is also the title of the last album which they released (although the songs were recorded before Abbey Road). The song’s lyrics were inspired by McCartney’s mother Mary, who died of cancer when he was 14 years old. The lines “When I find myself in times of trouble / mother Mary comes to me” speak of his longing for her, and of her coming to him in his dreams.

The Beatles released two versions of “Let it Be”, the single version was released in March of 1970, just before Paul McCartney announced that he had left the band. The album version, released in May of the same year, is slightly different. The album version has an additional guitar solo (played by George Harrison), some differences in the lyrics, and some additional orchestrations added by Phil Spector. The album version runs about 10 seconds longer than the single version. Surprisingly, the single only reached number 2 in the Disunited Kingdom, but in the USA and many other countries it reached number 1. “Let it Be” entered the US charts at number 6, which at the time was the highest chart-entry position for any song.


At number 8 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “Let It Be”

McCartney chose “Let it Be” as his contribution to the 1985 Live Aid concert for famine relief in Ethiopia. He was the closing act of the London concert (the USA one, in Philadelphia, started and finished later because of the time difference). I was lucky enough to be at the London concert, but unfortunately his microphone did not work for about the first half of the song. A few years later I saw McCartney perform in Birmingham, but I do not recall that he performed “Let it Be” on that occasion.

The B-side of the “Let it Be” single release was “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” which, if you haven’t heard it, is well worth a listen. It is possibly the strangest and most humorous song recorded by The Beatles, and pretty much unlike anything else you are likely to have heard by them.

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Yeah, there will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Ah, let it be, yeah, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine on until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music,
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, yeah, let it be
Oh, there will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Let it be, yeah, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

Here is a YouTube video of “Let it Be”, although I suspect that it will be removed fairly soon as Apple seems to be exercising an aggressive policy in getting Beatles songs removed from YouTube.

If/when this video is taken down, you can listen to “Let it Be” via one of the streaming services, for example here is a link to Let it Be  on Spotify. Or, you can listen to Paul McCartney singing it live in concert in New York city.

Tomorrow (Wednesday 19 October) the European Space Agency (ESA) will attempt to land its probe Schiaparelli on the surface of Mars. Schiaparelli is named after the 19th Century Italian astronomer  Giovanni Schiaparelli who is most famous for observing “canali” on the surface of Mars in 1877. Whereas the word means “channels” in English, it got mis-translated as “canals”, and led to a furore of interest in the possible existence of artificial irrigation channels which it was suggested had been built by Martians to transfer water from the poles to the arid equatorial regions.

All of this was, of course, wrong; but it led to a surge of interest in Mars, including Percival Lowell establishing his observatory in Flagstaff and spending decades observing the red planet. It was this observatory which in the 1910s found the first evidence for the redshift of spiral nebulae (Vesto Slipher), and where, in 1930, Pluto was discovered.


Tomorrow (Wednesday 19 October) the European Space Agency will attempt to land its probe Schiaparelli on the surface of Mars.

ESA has only attempted once before to land a spacecraft on the surface of Mars; Beagle 2 crash landed in December 2003 and failed to operate. Schiaparelli is a 600-kg lander which is being transported to Mars by its mother ship, the Trace Gas Orbiter. Both are part of ESA’s ExoMars project, which will put a rover on the surface of Mars in 2021.

Schiaparelli is what is referred to as a “demonstrator”, as its purpose is to test various technologies for the landing of the ExoMars rover in 2021. It is planned that Schiaparelli will only operate for a few days, but I suspect that it will end up operating for longer than this. Let us hope that it has a better landing that Beagle 2!

On Thursday of last week (13 October) it was announced that Bob Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel prize for literature. It should be obvious to anyone who has read my posts on Bob Dylan, of which there have been many, that I am fully in agreement with his receiving this accolade. As I have stated several times, to me Bob Dylan is a poet, but someone who has chosen to set his poems to music. Not all of his songs can be considered poetry, but I would argue that many of them can be, and there is little doubt that he brought a level of literary craftsmanship to writing song lyrics which had not existed before.

That the best songwriters are creating poetry is, for me, a matter of little dispute. At the top of this list sits Bob Dylan, but he is not the only one. Other names which spring to mind are Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. As the Nobel prize cannot be awarded posthumously, the Nobel committee better get a move on if it’s going to award any of these three the same honour that it has just bestowed on Dylan.


On Thursday of last week (13 October) it was announced that Bob Dylan had won the 2016 Nobel prize for literature.

As four examples of Dylan’s genius for writing songs which are poetry, here are “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from 1965 (which appears on the album Bringing it All Back Home), “The ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest” from 1967 (which appears on his album John Wesley Harding), “Tangled Up in Blue” from 1974 (which appears on the album Blood on the Tracks) and “Not Dark Yet” from 1997 (which appears on on the album Time Out of Mind).

Do you think Bob Dylan is deserving of the Nobel prize in literature, or is songwriting a lesser form of literature than poetry? Which are your favourite Dylan lyrics?

It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying

Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying

Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Person crying

So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing

As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Except hatred

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked

An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit
To satisfy, insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not forget
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something they invest in

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in

But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony

While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Life sometimes must get lonely

My eyes collide head-on with stuffed
Graveyards, false gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough, what else can you show me?

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only

The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

Well, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
They were the best of friends
So when Frankie Lee needed money one day
Judas quickly pulled out a roll of tens
And placed them on a footstool
Just above the plotted plain
Sayin’, “Take your pick, Frankie Boy
My loss will be your gain”

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat right down
And put his fingers to his chin
But with the cold eyes of Judas on him
His head began to spin
“Would ya please not stare at me like that,” he said
“It’s just my foolish pride
But sometimes a man must be alone
And this is no place to hide”

Well, Judas, he just winked and said
“All right, I’ll leave you here
But you’d better hurry up and choose which of those bills you want
Before they all disappear”
“I’m gonna start my pickin’ right now
Just tell me where you’ll be”
Judas pointed down the road
And said, “Eternity!”

“Eternity?” said Frankie Lee
With a voice as cold as ice
“That’s right,” said Judas Priest, “Eternity
Though you might call it ‘Paradise’”
“I don’t call it anything”
Said Frankie Lee with a smile
“All right,” said Judas Priest
“I’ll see you after a while”

Well, Frankie Lee, he sat back down
Feelin’ low and mean
When just then a passing stranger
Burst upon the scene
Saying, “Are you Frankie Lee, the gambler
Whose father is deceased?
Well, if you are, there’s a fellow callin’ you down the road
And they say his name is Priest”

“Oh, yes, he is my friend”
Said Frankie Lee in fright
“I do recall him very well
In fact, he just left my sight”
“Yes, that’s the one,” said the stranger
As quiet as a mouse
“Well, my message is, he’s down the road
Stranded in a house”

Well, Frankie Lee, he panicked
He dropped ev’rything and ran
Until he came up to the spot
Where Judas Priest did stand
“What kind of house is this,” he said
“Where I have come to roam?”
“It’s not a house,” said Judas Priest
“It’s not a house . . . it’s a home”

Well, Frankie Lee, he trembled
He soon lost all control
Over ev’rything which he had made
While the mission bells did toll
He just stood there staring
At that big house as bright as any sun
With four and twenty windows
And a woman’s face in ev’ry one

Well, up the stairs ran Frankie Lee
With a soulful, bounding leap
And, foaming at the mouth
He began to make his midnight creep
For sixteen nights and days he raved
But on the seventeenth he burst
Into the arms of Judas Priest
Which is where he died of thirst

No one tried to say a thing
When they took him out in jest
Except, of course, the little neighbor boy
Who carried him to rest
And he just walked along, alone
With his guilt so well concealed
And muttered underneath his breath
“Nothing is revealed”

Well, the moral of the story
The moral of this song
Is simply that one should never be
Where one does not belong
So when you see your neighbor carryin’ somethin’
Help him with his load
And don’t go mistaking Paradise
For that home across the road

Tangled Up in Blue

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blue

She was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue

So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Not Dark Yet

Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there

I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there