Archive for June, 2013

In a few hours’ time, the 2013 British and Irish Lions will play the second test against Australia in Melbourne. Having won the first test in Brisbane last week in dramatic (and lucky!) fashion, winning today will win them the 3-test series. They have not won a series since South Africa in 1997.

Warren Gatland and his coaching staff have made 5 changes to the starting line-up. Scrum half Mike Phillips has lost his starting place to Ben Youngs, which doesn’t come as any surprise to me as I thought Phillips had quite a poor game in the first test. He was thoroughly outplayed by the Wallabies scrum half Will Genia, and all his attempts at breaks were thwarted by the Aussie back row.


Other changes see Wales’ Dan Lydiate start as blind-side flanker, taking the place of Tom Croft. Lydiate, the player of the 2012 6 Nations, is a prodigious tackler, so hopefully he can eliminate the dangers posed by players like Aussie half-backs Will Genia and Kurtley Beale (whom I expect to start at fly half). Ireland’s Tommy Bowe is back from injury and replaces Alex Cuthbert on the wing. Those three changes are tactical, the other two are forced by injury.

Geoff Parling comes in for the injured Paul O’Connel in the second row, and in the front row Mako Vunipola comes in for the injured Alex Corbisiero. Although I have not read it, I assume Jamie Roberts not being included at centre means he is still injured.

Although it would be great to see the Lions wrap up the series today, part of me hopes it will all come down to the third and final test in Sydney, just like it did the last time the Lions toured Australia in 2001. We shall know in a few hours’ time!

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With The Rolling Stones playing the Glastonbury festival this weekend, I thought I would post the song which is one of their most recongisable, “Satisfaction”. The Rolling Stones were seen as the main rivals to The Beatles during the 1960s. What a lot of people don’t realise is that Lennon and McCartney provided The Stones with their second single release, “I wanna be your man”.

The Rolling Stones' original line-up, including their founding member Brian Jones.

The Rolling Stones’ original line-up, including their founding member Brian Jones.

“Satisfaction” was released in May 1965, and went to number one in many countries including the DUK, the USA, Germany and Australia. The guitar lick which drives the song is very typical of the incredibly catchy guitar licks which are so characteristic of the Stones’ music, Keith Richards has been able to create such mesmerising licks over and over again.


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In this blog I discussed the Messier catalogue, including its historical background. As I mentioned in that blog, many of the 110 objects in the Messier catalogue are amongst the most beautiful and interesting objects in the sky. In a series of blogs I am going to discuss some of my favourite objects in the Messier catalogue in more detail, including how to find them.

First off, Messier 31.

Messier 31 – The Andromeda galaxy

I have already talked about this galaxy a few times before. In this blog I explained how Edwin Hubble showed in 1923 that M31 lies outside of our Milky Way galaxy. It was the first object ever shown to lie outside the Milky Way, and of course led to the realisation that many similar objects also lay beyond our Galaxy. This discovery by Hubble in 1923 totally changed our perception of our Universe and our place in it. It provided conclusive proof that our Milky Way galaxy was not the entire Universe, but just one galaxy in many. In my blog introducing the Messier catalogue it was one of the four objects I illustrated.

Messier 31 is an example of a spiral galaxy. However, in visible light its spiral arms are not very prominent. Along with our Milky Way, Messier 31 and our home Galaxy form the two largest galaxies in our Local Group. There are other galaxies in the local group, but they are all so-called dwarf galaxies and are either satellite galaxies of our Milky Way or of M31.

Messier 31 - The Andromeda galaxy. This is the most distant object that can be seen with the naked eye.

Messier 31 – The Andromeda galaxy.


Our current best measurements suggest that M31 is about 2 million light years away. That is, the light has taken 2 million years from when it left M31 to reach us. You are seeing the object as it was 2 million years ago! This makes it the most distant object visible to the naked eye. However, to see it with the naked eye you have to be (a) in a dark place away from light pollution and (b) know where to look. Here is a finding chart to find M31.

How to find Messier 31


Messier 31 is best seen in the late Summer and Autumn sky. The easiest way to find M31 is to first find the Square of Pegasus, an easily located asterism which forms part of the constellation Pegasus. The bright bluish-white star in the North-Eastern corner (top left as seen from the Northern Hemisphere) is called Alpheratz. If one moves to the left (East) from this star the Andromeda constellation forms a thin v-shape. The lower branch of the “v” has a bright red star called Mirach (the second star along from Alpheratz). From Mirach go up to pi-Andromodae (quite a faint star), and in a straight line an equal distance from Mirach to pi-Andromodae is where you should find the Andromeda galaxy.

However, even if you are in a dark place it is extremely difficult to see, and with your naked eye you will probably only be able to see it using your peripheral vision, the part of the eye which is more sensitive to low light levels. If you are having difficulty finding it with your eye, it is quite a good idea to find it with a low powered magnification in a telescope, and then use this to help you know what you are looking for with just your un-aided eye.

What you will see with your eye, whether un-aided or through a telescope, will probably not look much like the photograph above. Rather, you will see a fuzzy blob. Remember, the word “nebula” comes from the Latin word for cloud, and Messier 31 looks like a fuzzy cloud. Until astronomers gained a better understanding of objects in the Messier catalogue, a galaxy like Messier 31 was referred to as a “nebula” just as Messier 42, the Orion nebula, had the same term attached to it, even though we now know they are very different kinds of objects.

Messier 31 in ultra-violet light and infrared light

Although the spiral arms are not very prominent when we take an image of M31 in visible light, its appearance is quite different when we observe it in e.g. ultra-violet light and infrared light. The uv image below was taken by a mission called Galex, and shows a prominent ring of stars emitting in the uv part of the spectrum. The nucleus of the galaxy is also seen to be emitting quite strongly in uv light. It is only the hotter, younger stars which emit in the uv, cooler and older stars like our Sun are just not hot enough to emit much in ultra-violet light. The hot young stars are found in the spiral arms of spiral galaxies, in fact it is the presence of these hot young stars which give such galaxies their spiral appearance.


A prominent ring is also visible in this infrared image of M31 shown below. This image was taken with the Herschel Space Observatory, and was taken at a wavelength of 250 microns. What we are seeing in this image is not radiation from stars, but rather the emission from interstellar dust. At 250 microns we can see both warm dust heated by hot young stars and cooler dust that is heated by the more general stellar population. That is why you see you reasonable but not exact correspondence between the uv image and the infrared image.


Studying objects at different wavelengths has allowed to learn a lot more about them than if we just observe them with visible light. Nowadays, astronomers have the facilities to observe astrophysical objects from the X-ray to the radio part of the spectrum, and through doing this gain a much deeper understanding of the object than if it were just observed in visible light alone.

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At number 23 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time is John Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band”. If you have never listened to this album then prepare for an emotional rollercoaster. It is, in my opinion, Lennon’s best solo album. It was written when he was undergoing “primal scream” therapy, and therefore many of the songs are almost an exorcism of his demons.


It is beautifully sparse and honest album. In most of the songs there are only three musicians, Lennon (often on piano, which he had just learnt to play), Klaus Voorman on bass and Ringo Star on drums. Songs like Mother and “Working Class Hero are harrowing to hear, and “God” wonderfully displays Lennon’s ability to sum up complex ideas in very few words.

God is a concept
By which we measure our pain

I highly recommend listening to this album. The power of the lyrics and the beauty and honesty of Lennon’s voice are sometimes overwhelming. Also, if you get the chance, the DVD on this album in the “Classic Albums” series is well worth watching. It gives a lot of background to the songs, as well audio clips from Lennon’s 1970 interview with “Rolling Stone Magazine” and contributions from Ringo and Klaus.

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As I’ve mentioned before, back in February I was in Cambridge for a few days with my son looking at colleges to help him decide his university applications. Here are 3 more colleges that we saw during our time there, Saint Catharine’s College, Gonville & Caius and Magdalene College.

Saint Catharine’s College, Cambridge

Saint Catharine’s College was founded in 1473. Some of the more famous alumni are the journalist and TV presenter Jeremy Paxman, the actor Sir Ian McKellan and the 18th Century Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, who developed the Lunar parallax method of determining longitude.

Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge

Gonville and Caius College was founded in 1348. Some of the more famous alumni are Harold Abrahams (who won gold in the 100m at the 1924 Paris Olympics and is one of the main heroes in the film “Chariots of Fire”), Nobel Prize winning physicist Max Born and TV presenter and comedian Jimmy Carr.

Magdalene College, Cambridge

Magdalene College was founded in 1428. The college’s full name is The College of Saint Mary Magdalene. The pronunciation of Magdalene is Mawd-lin, so has retained the pronunciation from how it was pronounced in English when the college was founded, not how we tend to pronounce Magdalene today. Some notable alumi of the college are Julian Fellowes (who has written the successful TV series “Downton Abbey”), C.S. Lewis (author of “The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe”), and the diarist Samuel Pepys.

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The 2013 Lions just managed to win the first test against Australia in Brisbane on Saturday by 23-21. The close scoreline only tells part of the story. I think this was a match Australia lost more than one which the Lions won. Australia missed a total of 5 kicks amounting to 14 points, whereas the Lions only missed a single 2-point kick. This made all the difference in what was a ferociously contested match.


Australia and the Lions both scored two tries. Australia’s were both scored by the debutant winger Israel Folau, who cut through the Lions defence on two occasions and showed what a gifted player he is. The Lions’ tries were scored by George North and Alex Cuthbert, the two Welsh wingers. Australia suffered several injuries to their back line, with centre Christian Leali’ifano and full back Berrick Barnes both going off with nasty injuries. Although the Lions were able to exploit the weakened Wallabies to a certain extent, they really should have made more of the chance and put the match beyond the reach of the Wallabies.

The outcome of the game all came down to the last few minutes, with replacement Kurtley Beale missing two opportunities to win the match for Australia from two separate penalties. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the test series, this result is really one which should have gone in favour of Australia, and the Lions can count themselves very lucky to be 1-0 up in the series.

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A beautiful song sung by the incredible Natalie Merchant, although written by Katell Keineg, who is half Breton (father) and half Welsh (mother). “Gulf of Araby” featured on Keineg’s 1994 debut album “Ô Seasons Ô Castles”. I had not heard this song until I saw the DVD of Natalie Merchant “Live in New York City” in 1999. After hearing Merchant’s cover version of the song I went out and bought Keineg’s debut album. Although I like the original, I prefer Merchant’s version as it provides such a good illustration of her incredible voice; I think Merchant has one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard.


I have been a big fan of Natalie Merchant since hearing the 10,000 Maniacs album “In My Tribe”, which I heard for the first time back in 1989. I even went to see 10,000 Maniacs playing in Newport (South Wales), and was mesmerised not only by Natalie Merchant’s voice but by the way she loses herself in her music when she performs. This is copiously illustrated in the DVD of her concert in NYC in 1999, which I highly recommend.

Which is your favourite Natalie Merchant song? Is it from her period with 10,000 Maniacs or from her solo career?

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There are not too many planets visible this summer. Venus will be visible very low in the Western sky in the evening in early summer. Jupiter will be visible as the Sun is setting, also over towards the West. But really the only planet visible when night has fallen this summer is Saturn, which is currently in the constellation Libra.

Where to find Saturn this summer. It is to the South of Arcturus, and to the East of Spica.

Where to find Saturn this summer (2013). It is in the constellation Libra; to the South of Arcturus, and to the East of Spica.

The image above shows where Saturn is to be found at about 21:45. The easiest way to find it is to find the bright star Arcturus (the second brightest star in the summer sky after Vega), and to the South of it is Saturn. You can also check that Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, is to the West of it.

Throughout the summer, Saturn will have a magnitude of about +1.1, which makes it roughly the same brightness as Spica and about 2.5 times fainter than Arcturus. Even with the naked eye you should be able to see the colour difference between Spica and Saturn. Whereas Spica is a bluish-white, Saturn is a distinctly brown colour.

In mid-July, Saturn will be rising at about 14:45, transiting at about 19:50 and setting at about 01:00. So it will be at its highest in the night-time sky a little before sunset in northern latitudes.

Although Saturn is easily visible to the naked eye, it is well worth looking at through a small telescope, as when one does so the famous rings become visible. If the atmosphere is particularly stable, you should be able to make out the Cassini division in the rings. You may also be able to spot Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which is indicated in the photograph below.

Saturn as seen through a small telescope, with its largest moon Titan visible to the right.

Saturn as seen through a small telescope, with its largest moon Titan visible to the right.

Titan is a fascinating moon, and one which has become quite well studied by the spacecraft Cassini and the space probe Huygens, which plunged through its atmosphere in January 2005 and landed on its surface. It is thought to be one of the most likely places beyond the Earth in our Solar System to harbour life. I will do a blog about Titan and what we so far know about it in the near future.

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At number 24 in “Rolling Stone Magazine’s” 500 greatest albums of all time is “Innervisions” by Stevie Wonder.


Released in August 1973, “Innervisions” is the 16th studio album by Stevie Wonder. I don’t own this album, but I do own three Stevie Wonder albums. I have “Hotter than July”, “Songs in the key of life” and his “Greatest hits” album. So I am a fan of his work, but am not familiar with a large fraction of it.

Here is a video of Stevie Wonder performing “Living for the city”.

Which is your favourite Stevie Wonder album? Which is your favourite song on this album?

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I love taking photographs of flowers, and Bute Park in the centre of Cardiff is one of the best places to take them. From early Spring until the Autumn, the flowers change from month to month. There is a section of the park which has well tended flower borders, and this is where most of these photographs were taken. But some were also taken in wilder parts of the park, where they flowers are essentially growing unattended.

The part of Bute Park where the flowers are most tended and where most of these photographs were taken.

The part of Bute Park where the flowers are most tended and where most of these photographs were taken.

In one or two of the photographs I managed to catch an insect on the flower. I find this especially satisfying, as it is so hard to not disturb the insect when I move in close to take the photograph. The focusing also becomes increasingly difficult if one is trying to focus on a moving insect.

For the technically minded, all of these photographs were taken with my Nikon D70 DSLR in RAW mode, typically with an ISO setting of 200. Most of them were taken with a Tamron 70-300 macro lens, but not all are in the macro setting. I typically take these photographs in aperture priority mode, and play with different apertures to get the depth of field I find most suits the particular photograph. This is, of course, sometimes limited by how much light is available.

There is a rule of thumb I learned a long time ago when I was a teenager, that one should not try and use a shutter speed where the number is less than the focal length one is using. So, for example, if one is using the lens at e.g. 200mm then one should not allow the shutter speed to drop below 1/200 of a second. With a 50mm focal length one can get away with using as slow a shutter speed as 1/50s. This is because camera shake gets magnified as one uses a longer focal length. This is, however, only a rule of thumb, and there are steps one can take to reduce camera shake, such as bracing oneself against something, or crouching and using one’s knee to steady the camera etc. Also, with digital photography, one can try different apertures, and just keep the better ones.

Sometimes, if I am trying to catch an insect, I will switch to “sports mode”, which lets the focus continuously adjust. But when I do this I often find it focuses on the wrong thing, such as part of the flower. Most of my attempts to photograph insects in this way end up with blurry shots!

If anyone would like to tell me the names of these flowers I would appreciate it. Although my mother knows a lot about botany, I haven’t a clue. I just about know the difference between a daffodil and a rose, but beyond that I am lost……

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