Archive for July, 2013

At number 18 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 greatest albums is “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen.


This was the first Bruce Springsteen album I ever owned. And the story behind my owning it is quite funny. I had bought it as a Christmas present for my then girlfriend, Christmas 1981. But just before Christmas she ran off with another boy, dumped me for him. So I kept the album, and I have to say I think I got the best of the deal, as it is still an album I listen to and like.

The title track, which is also the opening track, has to be one of the best rock songs ever. It is Springsteen at his best. After this album I became quite a fan of Springsteen, and own 5 or 6 of his albums including “Darkness on the edge of town”, “The River”, “Born in the USA” and even “Nebraska”. I saw him live in Wembley Stadium in 1987, and it is one of the best concerts I have ever attended, he played for well over 2 hours and gave all he had to the performance.

If you haven’t heard this album I highly recommend it.

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123 years ago yesterday, on the 29th of July 1890, a troubled 37 year old took his own life. Vincent Van Gogh has gone on to be one of the most celebrated painters ever, and he is my personal favourite. I have been lucky enough to see the originals of many of his masterpieces, including the three here. I’ve stood in awe in front of the second version of his painting of his bedroom in Arles at the Art Institute in Chicago, and the third version of this painting at the Musé D’Orsay in Paris.


As an astronomer, one of my favourite paintings of Van Gogh is his “Starry night”. Again I have been lucky enough to stand in front of the original of this painting, at The Museum Of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.


Another painting which shows The Plough (Big Dipper) over the Rhône is also on display at the Musé D’Orsay, and I saw it for the second time just over a month ago when I visited Paris.


I thought I would include a YouTube link to this beautiful song by Don McLean, simply called “Vincent”.

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent’s eyes of china blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hand

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night

You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could’ve told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frame-less heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget

Like the strangers that you’ve met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they’re not listening still
Perhaps they never will

Which is your favourite Van Gogh painting?

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A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted this link to some “high brow” jokes, mainly science jokes.

Science jokes

Science jokes

Another of my favourites is

When I heard that oxygen and magnesium hooked up I was like OMg


There are 10 types of people in this world. Those that know binary, and those that don’t.

I found many of these jokes pretty funny, which I guess says something about me. Take a look and tell me which ones you like the most. Or, post your own in the comment section below.

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Neil Diamond is a phenomenal songwriter, he first came to prominence in the late 1960s through giving his songs to already established acts, so the Monkee’s “I’m a believer” is a Neil Diamond written song. He also wrote in the late 1960s the song “Red red wine”, which was a big hit for UB40 in the 1980s.

Neil Diamond is one of my favourite singer-songwriters.

Neil Diamond is one of my favourite singer-songwriters.

This is one of his most beautiful love songs, “Play Me”.


She was morning, and I was night time
I one day woke up
To find her lying beside my bed
I softly said “Come take me”
For I’ve been lonely in need of someone
As though I’d done someone wrong somewhere
But I don’t know where, I don’t know where
Come lately

You are the Sun, I am the Moon
You are the words, I am the tune
Play me

Song she sang to me
Song she brang to me
Words that rang in me,
Rhyme that sprang from me
Warmed the night, and what was right
Became me

You are the Sun, I am the Moon
You are the words, I am the tune
Play me

And so it was that I came to travel
Upon a road that was thorned and narrow
Another place, another grace
Would save me

You are the sun, I am the moon
You are the words, I am the tune
Play me
You are the sun, I am the moon
You are the words, I am the tune
Play me……

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At number 9 in The Guardian’s list of the 10 best physicists is Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford is on this list for two great achievements, discovering the atomic nucleus and understanding the process of radioactive decay.




Rutherford’s brief biography

Rutherford was born in 1871 in Brightwater, a town near the northern coast of the South Island of New Zealand. He did his undergraduate degree at Canterbury College in Christchurch, New Zealand. Then, in 1895, Rutherford obtained a scholarship to go to do postgraduate studies at the Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge University, England. After three years at the Cavendish laboratories, In 1898 Rutherford left Cambridge to go to McGill University in Canada.

It was at McGill that he did his work on radioactive decay which won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1908. He was the sole recipient of the Chemistry prize in 1908, and was cited by the Swedish academy “”for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances”. Ironically, although considered to be a physicist, Rutherford never won a Nobel Prize in physics.

In 1907 Rutherford left McGill to take up a position as a Professor at Manchester University in England. It was whilst here that he discovered the atomic nucleus. In 1919 he left his position at Manchester University to take over as Director of the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, a position that was held by J.J. Thomson, who had brought Rutherford from New Zealand back in 1895.

Radioactive decay

In 1899, the year after he arrived at McGill, Rutherford was able to separate radioactive decay into two distinct types, which he called \alpha \text{ and } \beta decay. The following year a third type or radioactive emission was observed, and in 1903 Rutherford was able to show that this third type was a fundamentally new type of radiation which he called \gamma rays.

In 1902, Rutherford published with his colleague Frederick Soddy a paper entitled “Theory of Atomic Disintigreation”. Rutherford and Soddy were able ot show in this 1902 paper that radioactivity involved the spontaneous disintegration of atoms into other types of atoms. For this work, Rutherford was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (not Physics!). Soddy would win the Nobel prize for Chemistry in 1921.

Discovering the atomic nucleus

Rutherford left McGill in 1907 to take up a Professorship at Manchester University, England. In 1909 Geiger and Marsden, under Rutherford’s direction, did an experiment which led to the discovery of the atomic nucleus. I will talk more about this experiment and how it showed atoms have nuclei in a future blog, but to briefly summarise the experiment what they found was alpha-particles bouncing back from a thin gold foil.

This could not be explained by the plum pudding model of the atom that J.J. Thomson had proposed after Thomson had discovered the electron in 1897. Rutherford published in 1911 a paper explaining that the results of the Geiger-Marsden experiment fitted perfectly with a model of the atom that has the negatively charged and very low mass electrons orbiting a dense positively charged nucleus.

If one were to represent an atom by the size of a football stadium, the electrons would be buzzing around where the stadium stands are. The nucleus would be way down in the centre, and on this scale would be about the size of a grain or rice. Thus an atom, and hence everything, is nearly entirely empty space!

It was for these two paradigm-shifting discoveries about the properties of atoms that Rutherford gains his place in this “best 10 physicists” list. How do you rate his achievements? And, if Rutherford is in the list, shouldn’t Thomson, the discoverer of the electron, also be in the list?

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You can read more about Ernest Rutherford and the other physicists in this “10 best” list in our book 10 Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of the UniverseClick here for more details and to read some reviews.


Ten Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of Reality is available now. Follow this link to order

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Before we discuss no. 19 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest albums, let’s summarise the entries from 30 to 20.

30 to 20

  • 30. Joni Mitchell – “Blue”
  • 29. Led Zeppelin – “Led Zeppelin”
  • 28. The Who – “Who’s Next”
  • 27. U2 – “The Joshua Tree”
  • 26. Fleetwood Mac – “Rumours”
  • 25. James Brown – “Live at the Apollo”
  • 24. Stevie Wonder – “Innervisions”
  • 23. John Lennon – “Plastic Ono Band”
  • 22. Robert Johnson – “The Complete Recordings”
  • 21. Chuck Berry – “The Great Twenty-Eight”
  • 20. – Michael Jackson – “Thriller”

No. 19 – Astral Weeks (Van Morrison)

I have this album. I bought it after I had bought a copy of Van Morrison’s Greatest Hits, and decided to find out more about his work. This is considered to be his best album by most critics. It was released in 1968 and, as one would expect from that time, is pretty hippyish. I like a number of the songs on this album, but I must admit my vinyl version has not been updated to a CD or mp3, and I have not listened to it in a while. Now is the time I guess to listen to it again through one of the streaming services.

I have seen Van Morrison live, in a small pub in Newport (South Wales), which was a warm-up for a major arena tour. He didn’t say a word to the audience, just performed the songs. He seemed almost mechanical, switched off and just going through the motion of performing his songs. I was a little disappointed, he did not attempt to engage the audience so there was no real feeling of it being live. This is in stark contrast to Joni Mitchell, and I mention her because she is at number 30 in this list. When I saw her at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1984 she was wonderful, she chatted with the audience, told us the story behind a few of her songs etc. She created a real connection between herself and the audience.


Possibly my favourite song on this album is “Sweet thing”

Which is your favourite Van Morrison album? Which is your favourite song of his? Who is the most engaging artist you have seen live?

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I love palindromes, I think there must be something about a love of mathematics, because palindromes are symmetric. As much as I love them, I am equally bad at remembering them.

Here are a few that I either knew or were suggested on FaceBook a few days ago.

  • “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama”
  • “Do geese see God?”
  • “Mum” (thank you Malcolm Bradley for this one)
  • “Madam, I’m Adam” (thanks to Mike Merrifield for reminding me of this one)
  • “Rise to vote sir” (thanks to Josh Davies for this one)
  • “doc, note. I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod” (thank you to David Darling for this one)

Do you have any favourites? Add them into the comments section below.


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Yesterday the 100th Tour de France was concluded in the Champs Elysees. Chris Froome, the DUK based cyclist, won to give Sky Cycling their second successive win after Bradley Wiggins won last year. It amuses me that the media are referring to Froome as British, but I guess he has adopted Britain after being born in Kenya and growing up in South Africa. I am not sure how international cycling works, but in a sport like football or rugby he would qualify to represent either the country of his birth or the country of one of his parents or grandparents. Froome has british grandparents and a British father.

Chris Froome wins the 100th Tour de France.

Chris Froome wins the 100th Tour de France.

Anyway, his nationality is irrelevant. It was an impressive win. He had been in the maillout jaune since Stage 8, and never really looked like losing it. For me the highlight of this year’s Tour was Stage 18, which was a stage up the fearsome Alpe d’Huez mountain. Except, in a cruel twist, the route took the cyclist back down from the top only to climb it a second time!

Race cycling has never been more popular in the DUK than it currently is, and this is due in large part to the successes of the track and now road cycling teams. I notice at weekends there are more and more people out on road bikes (rather than mountain bikes), many in pro-cycling colours, a fantastic form of exercise. So that can only be good for everyone.

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I’ve just heard the sad news that the comedian Mel Smith has died of a heart attack at the age of 60.


The “Alas Smith and Jones” series he did with Not the nine o’clock news partner Griff Rhys Jones was of the TV highlights in the 1980s. It ran from 1984 to 1998. Here is a sketch from the show where the pair discuss music. It ends with a parody of discussing The Beatles’ seminal 1967 album Sgt. Pepper. Hilarious stuff!

What is your favourite Mel Smith sketch?

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Last week it was announced that the Hubble Space Telescope had discovered a previously unseen moon of the planet Neptune. Amazingly, this moon was not seen by Voyager 2 when it flew by in 1989.


The previously unseen moon is the 14th known moon about Neptune. It orbits once every 23 hours, and the image below shows where it is in the system of Neptunian moons. Notice the direction of motion of the moons about Neptune. The largest moon, Triton, which is also the furthest out, is orbiting Neptune in a retrograde motion, which means in the opposite direction to the direction the planet rotates. Not only does this suggest it is a captured object and did not form with Neptune, but more intriguingly it means that one day it will spiral into Neptune and get torn apart by tidal forces once it gets close enough (inside the so-called Roche limit).


This discovery just shows the power of Hubble, even as it approaches the end of its life. The camera used to find the unseen moon was the WFPC3, which had my PhD supervisor Professor Mike Disney of Cardiff University involved its design. So even though the Hubble is in Earth orbit, it was able to see something that Voyager 2 couldn’t in its fly-by.

The NASA press release, which gives more detail than the BBC story, can <http://herebe found here.


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