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Archive for June, 2014

Today (the 30th of June) is the annual “meteor watch day”, and because of this I am on live TV this evening talking about meteors. I haven’t been able to find out why today (the last day of June) is designated as “meteor watch day”, but as the day seems to be American in origin I’d normally suspect that the greeting card industry were behind it! But, in this case, I cannot see too many cards saying “happy meteor watch day” being sold, so maybe on this occasion it is not an invented holiday by the US greeting card industry 😉

What is a meteor?

I have discussed meteors several times before, for example here and here. But, just so this background information is all in one place, I’ll repeat myself. A meteor is simply a bit of (natural) space debris which enters into the Earth’s atmosphere. Before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere it is called a “meteoroid” (or, a really big one would be called an “asteroid”), but upon entering the atmosphere a meteoroid becomes a meteor.

The reason a meteor appears bright is because it is burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere due to friction. Most meteors are very small, no larger than grains of sand, but about once a day something the size of a basketball enters the atmosphere, and about once a week something about the size of a car. Larger and larger meteoroids are less and less common, so for example something the size of the meteor which exploded over Chelyabinsk in southern Russia last year (which is thought to have had a size of 17-20 metres as it entered the Earth’s atmosphere) probably enters the Earth’s atmosphere once every 50 or so years. The larger the meteor, the longer it will take to burn up, so most meteors (the sand-grain sized ones) burn up in less than a second.

A “meteorite” is a meteor which makes it to the ground, or at least of which fragments make it to the ground. So, for example, the meteor which exploded in the atmosphere over Chelyabinsk in February of last year (2013) led to several fragments landing (as I discussed <a href="“>here), and these fragments are meteorites.

Not surprisingly, it is only the larger meteors which make it to the ground as meteorites, although precisely what size a meteor needs to be to make it to the ground as a meteorite depends on a number of things including the composition of the meteor, the angle at which it enters the Earth’s atmosphere and the speed at which it enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

As I’ve also mentioned before, there is now strong evidence that it was the impact of an asteroid (remember that is just the name we give to large meteoroids) which wiped out the dinosaurs and most of life on Earth some 70 million years ago. Although the statistics are very paltry and therefore unreliable, we believe the Earth gets hit by an asteroid large enough to cause a mass-extinction event about once every 150-250 million years. Although undoubtedly rare, such events are cataclysmic to life on Earth, and so it is not wasted money to spend time and resources looking for such large “near Earth” objects.

Meteor showers

There are many meteor showers during the course of each year, they occur when the Earth passes through some debris in its annual orbit about the Sun. This debris is often the material blown off of comets. Some of the better known meteor showers are

Some well-known meteor showers
Name of shower Month in which it occurs
Lyrids late April
Perseids mid August
Orionids late October
Leonids mid November
Geminids mid December



The naming convention is quite simple, they are named after the constellation from where the meteors appear to emanate. So, for example, the Perseids meteor shower in mid-August appears to radiate from the Perseus constellation, as this figure shows.



The Perseids meteor shower in mid-August appears to radiate from the Perseus constellation

The Perseids meteor shower in mid-August appears to radiate from the Perseus constellation



The best way to see a meteor shower is not to use a telescope or binoculars, but rather to just look up with your eyes. Although when traced back they appear to emanate from a particular part of the sky, they can appear anywhere and using a telescope or binoculars will restrict your field of view, leading to your possibly missing a meteor.

Lying on one’s back on the ground (or a rug or mat preferably; or reclining in e.g. a deck chair are very effective ways to view a meteor shower. But, be warned that if you are observing one in the winter months it will probably get pretty cold, so have some warm clothes and blankets with you, and a warm drink.

Also, meteor showers are best viewed after midnight. This is because after midnight your particular part of the Earth is facing in the direction of the Earth’s motion about the Sun, and so the meteoroids enter the atmosphere at a steeper angle with a higher speed, and are more numerous than earlier in the night. The image below shows a wonderful image of the Geminids meteor shower, taken in 2012.



A wonderful image of the Geminids meteor shower, which occurs each December.

A wonderful image of the Geminids meteor shower, which occurs each December.



Fireballs

If you are very lucky you may see an extremely bright meteor, which is called a “fireball”. I have never seen one, but I have a story of how much luck is involved in seeing one. One November, when I was working at Yerkes Observatory, we arranged a public viewing of the Leonids meteor shower. Several of us working at the Observatory were out for a few hours with members of the public, and we saw several dozen small meteors. But nothing spectacular. My boss had been in his office working all evening, not taking part in our public observing. He lived in George Ellery Hale’s old house (the Observatory’s “Director’s House”), which was all of 2 minutes walk from the Observatory, and at about 9pm he popped home for a break from his work. As he walked the 150 metres or so to the house, he saw a great big fireball streaking across the sky, and the rest of us all missed it as we were inside warming up with a hot drink!



A fireball streaking across the sky

A fireball streaking across the sky



The Perseids meteor shower is in mid-August, and is one of the most popular meteor showers as it occurs during the Northern Hemisphere summer when many people are on their summer holidays and away from city lights. If you get a chance to observe it this year, I highly recommend it, but bear in mind that you do need to be in a dark place. Most meteors are quite faint, and you will miss all but the brightest ones if you are in a city.

Which is the most spectacular meteor shower you have seen? Have you ever seen a fireball?

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I’m not sure how many of you saw it, but in the World Cup group match between Uruguay and Italy, the Uruguay striker Luis Suarez bit the Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini. This is the third time that this undoubtedly talented player has bitten another player! He did it in 2010 whilst playing for Ajax in the Netherlands when he bit PSV Eindhoven’s Otman Bakkal; and in 2013 he bit Branislav Ivanovic of Chelsea whilst playing for his current team, Liverpool. For his bite in 2010 be served a 7-match ban, and in 2013 he served a 10-match ban.

FIFA acted very quickly over this incident, and Suarez has been given a 4-month ban from all involvement in football, including training with any team or even attending a football match. He has also been given a 9-match ban from playing for Uruguay, and his 4-month ban will mean he will miss the first ten-or-so matches of the club season.



Luis Suarez has been given a four month ban for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini.

Luis Suarez has been given a four month ban for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini.

My question is, is this ban sufficient? In my opinion the answer is no, it is not. If this were Suarez’s first biting offence then I would consider the punishment about right. Even if it were his second offence, I would think the ban was on the lenient side. But, as this is his third biting offence, I really feel FIFA’s ban is not sufficient. I think Suarez should serve a season ban at the very least; as the new season has not yet started it would isolate him for the best part of 13-14 months. I also think that FIFA should have insisted that Suarez undergoes some kind of psychological assessment and therapy, it is not normal for a 27-year old to bite people. It is the kind of behaviour you might expect from a 5-year old, but not a grown adult.

It also seems that Liverpool are going to off-load this troublesome striker, despite his phenomenal form this last season where he was Liverpool’s and the English Premier League’s top striker and won several footballing awards. Let me remind you, Suarez also served an 8-match ban in the 2011-12 for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra using the “n-word”. At the moment, Barcelona have said they wish to buy him, and I would imagine the Liverpool manager Brendan Rogers gave Suarez a final warning after his last biting incident, so I fully expect that he won’t be playing in the English Premiership come next season.

Whether Suarez ever will be able to change his ways remains to be seen. I don’t think he’ll be able to do it without some kind of therapy, but surely he must realise that he is within a hair’s breadth of ruining his career if he keeps up this unacceptable behaviour.

What do you think? Is the FIFA ban too lenient, or about right, or an over-reaction?

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Last week, I was going to post this wonderful song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King, but for no particular reason decided on Thursday to switch it with “Nothing Compares 2 U”. Ironic then that I should wake up on Friday to hear of the sad death of her one-time husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin. Together they wrote some well-known songs like “The Loco-Motion”, “Up On The Roof”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “(You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman”. For a complete list of songs they wrote together, see this list here.

By 1968, King and Goffin were divorced, and this led to King starting her own solo singer-songwriter career. In 1971, she released her 2nd solo album, “Tapestry”, which has gone on to become one of the best-selling albums of all time. The album is replete with fantastic songs, and if you haven’t heard this album I highly recommend it.



"You've Got a Friend" is taken from King's hugely successful album "Tapestry", released in 1971.

“You’ve Got a Friend” is taken from King’s hugely successful album “Tapestry”, released in 1971.



King never released her version of “You’ve Got a Friend” as a single, but James Taylor recorded it at pretty much the same time as she was recording “Tapestry” (they actually worked on their respective albums together), and Taylor’s version got to number 1 in the US and number 4 in the Disunited Kingdom.

When you’re down in troubles
And you need some love and care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon i will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you got to do is call
And I’ll be there
Yes I will
You’ve got a friend

If the sky above you
Grows dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind begins to blow
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud
Soon you’ll hear me knocking at your door

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
Ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend

When people can be so cold
They’ll hurt you and desert you
And take your soul if you let them
Oh, but don’t you let them

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend

Enjoy!





Which is your favourite Carole King or King/Goffin song?

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A few days ago, I blogged about the controversy over the BICEP2 result, and the possibility that their measured signal may actually be dominated by contamination from foreground Galactic dust. As Peter Coles’ blog mentions, their paper has now been published in Physical Review Letters. In the abstract to their paper, the BICEP2 team say

Cross correlating BICEP2 against 100 GHz maps from the BICEP1 experiment, the excess signal is confirmed with 3 \sigma significance and its spectral index is found to be consistent with that of the CMB, disfavoring dust at 1.7 \sigma.

What does a phrase like “with 3 \sigma significance” actually mean? It is the significance with which scientists believe a result to be real as opposed to a random fluctuation in the background signal (the noise). In order to fully understand why scientists quote results to a particular \sigma, and what it means in detail, the first step is to understand something called the normal distribution.

You can read more about the BICEP2 result, and how its conclusions were withdrawn, in my book “The Cosmic Microwave Background – How it Changed Our Understanding of the Universe”. Follow this link for more details.

My book

My book “The Cosmic Microwave Background – how it changed our understanding of the Universe” is published by Springer. Read more about it by following this link.

The Normal Distribution

If you have a large number of independent measurements, then their distribution will tend towards something called the normal distribution. This distribution looks like the following, where on the x-axis we have some variable (such as the the background noise in a signal), and the y-axis represents the frequency with which that variable occurs. Normal distributions are usually normalised so that the total probability (the area under the curve) is unity (1), as the sum of all probabilities is always equal to one. The curve is often referred to as a bell curve for obvious reasons.

The normal distribution looks life a The normal distribution looks like a “bell curve”. In this plot, the x-axis represents the variable being measured, the y-axis is the frequency with which that variable occurs.

The mathematical formula for the normal distribution is given by something called the Gaussian function (and so another name for a normal distribution is a “Gaussian distribution”) and has the form
f(x,\mu,\sigma) = \frac{ 1 }{ \sigma \sqrt{ 2 \pi} } e^{ - \frac{ (x - \mu)^{2} }{ 2 \sigma^{2} } }

where x is the variable, \mu is the mean of the distribution, and \sigma is the standard deviation of the distribution. Usually in statistics we have a mean, a median and a mode, but for a normal distribution they are all equal. The standard deviation is related to the width of the curve. For example, in the figure below we show four normal distributions. The blue, red and orange curves all have the same mean (zero), but different standard deviations, which is related to the curve’s width (the diagram actually quotes the variance, which is just the square of the standard deviation). The green curve has a mean of -2 not 0, and it has a different standard deviation to the other three.

Four different normal distributions. The blue, red and orange curves have the same mean (zero) but different standard deviations. The green curve has a mean of -2 and a different standard deviation from the other three. Four different normal distributions. The blue, red and orange curves have the same mean (zero) but different standard deviations. The green curve has a mean of -2 and a different standard deviation from the other three.

As can be seen from these diagrams, if the total probability under each curve is unity, then the probability of a value being measured depends on what the mean is and what the standard deviation is. The further a measurement is from the mean (i.e. towards either end of the bell curve), the less and less likely it is of being measured at random, or to put it another way the less and less likely the signal is of being due to a fluctuation in the background.

So what does a 3-sigma result mean?

We can work out the probability of a particular measurement once we know the mean and the standard deviation of a normal distribution. There are tables to do this, they give the area under the normal distribution function (which remember is related to probability) in terms of a parameter usually written as Z. Here is an example of such a table.

A table of probabilities for a normal distribution. A table of probabilities for a normal distribution.

How do we use this table? The first thing to notice is that the normal distribution is symmetrical about the mean, so the probability from -\infty up to the value of the mean is 0.5.

Suppose we have a normal distribution with a mean of \mu = 2 and a standard deviation of \sigma = 0.5. How would we use this table to calculate the probability of a value greater or equal to e.g. 3 being real? (that is, any value greater and including 3).

The definition of Z is

Z = \frac{ | x - \mu | }{ \sigma }

where the modulus in the numerator is so that Z is always positive. With our example, Z = (3 - 2)/0.5 = 2.0. So, finding Z = 2.0 in the table gives the cumulative probability P(Z) of the value x being between -\infty and 2 being P(Z=2) = 0.9772. So the probability of a value of x from -\infty \text{ to } 3 \text{ is } 0.9772 \text{ or } 97.72 \%.

If we are trying to work out the probability of measuring a value of x > 3 then we need to remember that the total probability is 1, so the probability of the value of x > 3 \text{ is } 1-0.9772 = 0.0228 or 2.28 \%. Obviously, with our chosen value of \sigma = 0.5, a value of x=3 is 2-sigma away from the mean (Z=2), so a result quoted as a 2 \sigma result (or confidence) means that it has a 2.28 \% of being false, and a 97.72 \% of being real.

What would we get if we had chosen a value of 1-sigma from the mean, or in other words a value of x = 2.5? In this case, Z = (2.5 - 2)/0.5 = 1, and so using our table we find P(Z) = 0.8413. So the probability of x being equal to or greater than 2.5 is 1 - 0.8413 = 0.1587 or 15.87\%. As you can see, a 84.13\% chance of a result being real (or a 15.87 \% chance of a result being false) is not very good, which is why a 1 \sigma detection of a signal is not usually considered good enough to be believed.

What would we get if we had chosen a value of 3-sigma from the mean, or in other words a value of x = 3.5? In this case, Z = (3.5 - 2)/0.5 = 3, and so using our table we find P(Z=3) = 0.9987, so the probability of obtaining a value of equal to or greater than 3.5 is 1 - 0.9987 = 0.0013 or 0.13\%. So, when we say that a detection is made at the 3-sigma level, what we are saying is that it is 99.87\% certain, or that it has just a 0.13\% probability of being false.

Usually in science, a 3-sigma detection is taken as being the minimum to be believed, and quite often 5-sigma is chosen, which is essentially 0\% probability of the result being false.

Summary

The figure below summarises this graphically.

The probabilities of a value lying within 1-sigma, 2-sigma and 3-sigma of the mean for a normal distribution. The probabilities of a value lying within 1-sigma, 2-sigma and 3-sigma of the mean for a normal distribution.

To translate between this figure and what we have calculated above, just note that the percentages to the left of the mean all add up to 50\%, so if we wanted to work out the chance of a result being greater than 1\sigma above the mean we would work out 100\% - (50\% + 34.1\%) = 15.9\%, just as we had above. For 3 \sigma we have 100\% - (50\% + 34.1\% + 13.6\% + 2.1\%) = 0.2\% (we got 0.13\% before, the difference is due to rounding).

And, here is a table summarising the significances, to two decimal places.

The significance of various levels of \sigma
\sigma Confidence that result is real
1 \sigma 84.13%
1.5 \sigma 93.32%
2 \sigma 97.73%
2.5 \sigma 99.38%
3 \sigma 99.87%
3.5 \sigma 99.98%
> 4 \sigma 100%

So, going back to the BICEP2 result, they state in their paper that their signal is in excess of the background (noise) signal by 3 \sigma, which would mean that their signal is real with a 99.87\% certainty. But, of course, although there seems to be little doubt that their signal is real, what is still undecided and hotly disputed is whether the signal is nearly entirely due to the CMB or could be mainly due to foreground Galactic dust. We shall have to wait to find out the answer to that question!

***UPDATE***

In February 2015 the BICEP2 team withdrew their claim for having discovered primordial B-mode polarisation, and accepted that their detection was of Galactic dust. You can read far more about this fascinating story in my book “The Cosmic Microwave Background – How it Changed Our Understanding of the Universe”.

My book

My book “The Cosmic Microwave Background – how it changed our understanding of the Universe” is published by Springer. Follow this link for more details.

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At number 8 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 10 best Bob Dylan songs is “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which was on his 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home”. The song itself was actually written in 1964, and when later recorded by The Byrds, it became a massive hit reaching number 1 in both the US and the Disunited Kingdom. It also brought Bob Dylan’s music to a new audience, once people found out that he was the original composer; and led to the birth of so-called “folk rock”, with The Byrds’ version of the song being an electric version of Dylan’s original acoustic version. It may also have helped influence Dylan to “go electric” himself, although it is also fair to say he was moving in that direction anyway, even before The Byrds’ version of his song.



At number 8 in Rolling Stone Magazine's 10 greatest Bob Dylan songs is "Mr. Tambourine Man"

At number 8 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 10 greatest Bob Dylan songs is “Mr. Tambourine Man”. The comments accompanying the song are written by David Crosby of The Byrds.



I first heard this song when I was about 15 or 16, and one of the things which struck me most forcibly was the complex internal rhyming; something which reminded me of much of the Welsh poetry I had read, particularly poetry written in cynghanedd (which I explain here). The song is obviously about drugs, and the surrealistic imagery in this song became a hallmark of Dylan’s songwriting during this 1964-66 period of his career.


Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand
Vanished from my hand
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street’s too dead for dreaming

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wanderin’
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’, swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you

This song is one of my favourite Dylan songs, and is on one of my favourite albums of his. I highly recommend listening to “Brining It All Back Home”, it is one of the great albums of the 1960s, and has been referred to as one of the most influential albums of its era. There is a great variety of songs on “Brining It All Back Home”, from the “early-rap” “Subterranean Homesick Blues” to the apocalyptic “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” to the beautifully cutting “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”.

For once, I have managed to find a wonderful version of this song, so difficult to do with most of Dylan’s songs which get removed from YouTube. This version is from the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, many months before the song was released in its recorded version. Enjoy!





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I blogged back in March about the announcement by a team of cosmologists that they had discovered evidence for gravitational waves in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The BICEP2 experiment, which is based at the South Pole, claimed to have detected the so-called “B-mode polarisation” in the CMB, and from the strength of the signal they argued that it was the best evidence yet of both gravitational waves in the very early Universe, and of the theory of Cosmic Inflation.

However, since that announcement there has been considerable controversy in the cosmology community as to whether their result is correct or not. I have re-blogged several other people’s blogs on this controversy, for example Peter Coles’ blog here and Matt Strassler here and here. As Peter and Matt’s blogs indicated, this controversy has been swirling around in the astronomical community for the last several months; but last Thursday (the 19th of June) it made it into the New York Times.



There now seems to be considerable doubt in the cosmological community about the BICEP2 result which was announced in March.

There now seems to be considerable doubt in the cosmological community about the BICEP2 result which was announced in March.



The main concern amongst the skeptics is that the BICEP2 team did not correctly subtract the effects of dust in our own Galaxy from their signal. Our Milky Way has a lot of dust in it, it is this dust which causes the dark clouds in the band of the Milky Way which are familiar to anyone who has looked at the Milky Way in any detail, even with the naked eye. Most of the dust is in the plane of the disk, but some is above and below the plane in what we refer to as “high Galactic latitudes”. The BICEP2 team chose their patch of sky to be well below the plane of the Milky Way to try to minimise the effects of dust.

However, it may be that the amount of dust and its degree of polarisation where BICEP2 made their observations is greater than the BICEP2 team thought. If this is the case, then much of the polarised signal that BICEP2 measured may not be due to primordial gravitational waves, but instead may be dominated by this foreground contamination. As the New York Times story states, the BICEP2 team acknowledge that the foreground contamination may be greater than they assumed, but they are sticking to their claim that it is still small compared to the signal they detected.

We should know the answer to this burning issue within the next 6 to 12 months. The Planck satellite has done a detailed all-sky map of the strength of the polarised emission from dust in our Milky Way, far more detailed than any data currently available, and when these maps are released it should allow astronomers to correctly determine how much of BICEP2’s signal is due to foreground contamination. Planck will also do this at several different frequencies, and as Galactic dust is much warmer than the CMB the ratio of its signal at different frequencies will be different to that of the CMB, allowing for much better separation of the two effects.

In the meantime, we have a great insight into how science really works. Any result in science is closely scrutinised by the community, and is not accepted as being real until (a) it has been confirmed by other experiments and (b) that the community is satisfied that the interpretation of the measurement is correct, and that all other possibilities have been considered. As Carl Sagan once said

extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

So far, I think it is fair to say, most people in the astronomical and cosmological communities are treating the BICEP2 result with a good deal of caution, and that caution can only be allayed by further analysis and measurements.

If you wish to read more about the BICEP2 results and the surrounding controversy, an excellent place to start is Peter Coles’ blog here.

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On Saturday (21st of June), Wales came within three minutes of a remarkable first ever win over South Africa on South African soil. With the final whistle looming, Wales were leading South Africa by 30 points to 24; but one thing Wales have learnt about Southern Hemisphere teams is that they refuse to accept that they are beaten until the final whistle. In the dying moments of this game, in which Wales had never been behind, South Africa dramatically were awarded a penalty try when Wales’ full-back Liam Williams was judged to have illegally prevented South Africa wing Cornal Hendricks from scoring. It led to South Africa winning the game by the smallest of margins, clinching the match by 31 to 30 points.



Wales lost to South Africa in the dying moments of the 2nd Test with SA being awarded a penalty try to clinch the game by one point.

Wales lost to South Africa in the dying moments of the 2nd Test with SA being awarded a penalty try to clinch the game by one point, 31-30.



After the poor performance in the 1st Test, this match was a dramatic turn around in Wales’ fortunes. As my blog on Saturday suggested, I did not hold out much hope for anything but another heavy defeat. How wrong I was!

Again, like for the 1st Test, I was in Lusaka in Zambia, on the last day of my visit there. After following the first 20 or so minutes on Twitter I decided to see if I could listen to the Radio Cymru live commentary using the mobile phone network, and much to my surprise it worked! So, I was able to follow all but the first 20 minutes of this dramatic Test live, thanks to the Radio Cymru commentary. What a lovely surprise this was, and it meant that I really was able to be engaged in this dramatic match at it unfolded.

From everything I’ve read since getting back, the Wales team were as good in every department of play as they had been poor in the 1st Test. Gatland has said that this defeat is the most painful since he took over coaching Wales in January 2008, and I can believe him. All I can hope is that we learn from this latest agonising defeat, and it strengthens Wales’ resolve to start winning these close games.

This is the fifth or sixth time since about 2011 that Wales have been in a position to beat either South Africa or Australia, but each time Wales have not been able to clinch the match. This is where Southern Hemisphere teams excel over Wales; even when we are within a few points in the last few minutes, they always seem to find a way to clinch victory in the dying moments. It is a situation that Wales desperately need to change, we need to start learning to win these close contests otherwise we will forever be also-rans.

Wales now have a 5 month break before we take on the three Southern Hemisphere giants in Cardiff in November. Certainly the spirit of the Welsh camp will be more positive going into these Autumn games than had we been wiped off the field in the 2nd Test in the same way in which we were in the 1st Test, but it is imperative for our chances in the 2015 World Cup that we get some wins during these Autumn tests. In the meantime, the Welsh players will have a well earned break after a long season, with many of the Welsh players starting the next season playing their club rugby outside of Wales (particularly in France), another big problem facing Welsh rugby which I will discuss in a future blog.

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I have managed to get on the internet via WiFi for the first time in over a week. I was in Lusaka for the 1st Test last Saturday, but unfortunately wasn’t able to get a decent internet connection so I had to follow Wales’ defeat via Twitter. Reading the comments on Twitter, I’m rather glad I didn’t see the 38-16 defeat that Wales suffered. Later today we have the 2nd Test, and quite frankly I don’t see anything but a second defeat on the cards.



Wales were thoroughly beaten by South Africa in the 1st Test in Durban last Saturday.

Wales were thoroughly beaten by South Africa in the 1st Test in Durban last Saturday.



Obviously, not having seen the game, I cannot comment too much on the manner of Wales’ defeat, but from what I can gather we were thoroughly outplayed in every department. It seems that Wales just do not have the physicality to compete with South Africa, who have inflicted the heaviest defeats of any team on Wales in the last few years. Apart from coming within one point of beating them in the opening match of the 2011 World Cup, we have not come close to beating South Africa during Gatland’s tenure as national coach.

Given that the match will be played at altitude, in Nelspruit, the result today could be even worse that last Saturday. I hope not, of course, but I fear the worst. I really don’t know what has happened to the Welsh team in the last 15 months. It is only in March of last year (2013) that we annihilated England in Cardiff to deny them a Grand Slam, but since then Wales seem to have gone decidedly backwards whilst England have made massive strides forward. Last Saturday, in contrast to Wales, England came within a point of New Zealand in their 2nd Test there.

I remember Stuart Lancaster, the England coach, saying after their heavy defeat to Wales in Cardiff that his side may learn more from the defeat than they might have from victory. And, had England won the Grand Slam in 2013 I suspect they would not be as good a team as they have become, because they may have thought that they were a “complete team”. By Wales tearing them apart, England realised they still had much work to do, and it seems to me that they have done this work and are now genuine contenders for next year’s World Cup which they will host.

Wales, on the other hand, look bereft of ideas. “Warren-ball” is predictable and only works when the Welsh forwards gain supremacy. When their pack do not gain this supremacy, the Welsh team do not appear to have a “plan B”. It is all very worrying for next year’s World Cup. It also occurred to me after Saturday’s heavy defeat to South Africa that two of Wales’ three Grand Slams in the last 10 years have come in 2008 and 2012, both in the 6 Nations immediately following a World Cup. Not to take anything away from Warren Gatland, but winning a Grand Slam immediately after a World Cup is probably the easiest time to do it because most teams are rebuilding after a World Cup. Wales seems to reach a peak between World Cups, but not in the year or so leading into one.

I do hope that the Welsh management learn from this South African tour, as in November we face not only South Africa but also New Zealand and Australia. Three heavy defeats in the Autumn will do nothing for our confidence, and Welsh rugby is very dependent on confidence, without it we play very poorly.

Fingers crossed for this afternoon. I would be delighted if the Welsh team surprise me!

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This massive hit for Sinéad O’Connor, written by Prince in 1984. O’Connor released it in January 1990, and it became a worldwide hit for her.



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The iconic video and the song propelled O’Connor to fame and fortune, allowing her to later explore much less commercial music, as well as highlight causes dear to her heart such as her perception of abuses by the Catholic Church in Ireland and beyond.


It’s been seven hours and fifteen days
Since u took your love away
I go out every night and sleep all day
Since u took your love away

Since u been gone I can do whatever I want
I can see whomever I choose
I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant
But nothing
I said nothing can take away these blues

`Cause nothing compares
Nothing compares 2 u

It’s been so lonely without u here
Like a bird without a song
Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling
Tell me baby where did I go wrong

I could put my arms around every boy I see
But they’d only remind me of you
I went to the doctor and guess what he told me
Guess what he told me
He said, “Girl, you better try to have fun no matter what you do.”
But he’s a fool

`Cause nothing compares
Nothing compares 2 u

All the flowers that u planted, mama
In the back yard
All died when u went away
I know that living with u baby was sometimes hard
But I’m willing to give it another try

Nothing compares
Nothing compares 2 u
Nothing compares
Nothing compares 2 u
Nothing compares
Nothing compares 2 u


Here is the iconic video. Enjoy!




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As I’ve mentioned before, the Universe is bathed in something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which can be thought of as an echo of the Big Bang. This is currently at a temperature of 2.7 Kelvin, and is cooling slowly as the Universe expands. So I was interested to see a story a few months ago about a place that is even colder than this. How can this be? Well, if somewhere is shielded from the CMB and undergoes adiabatic expansion (when no heat is supplied to the system), then it is possible to naturally get to a lower temperature than the all-pervasive CMB. This seems to be just what has happened in the story here.



The so-called Boomerang Nebula has been observed by the Atacama Large Millimetre Array

The so-called Boomerang Nebula has been observed by the Atacama Large Millimetre Array



The nebula in question, dubbed the Boomerang Nebula because of its appearance, has been observed by the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), an array of radio dishes high in the desert of Atacama where the air is exceptionally dry allowing millimetre astronomy to be conducted.

Like most areas of star formation, the central parts of the Boomerang Nebula are shrouded in gas and dust. This means that to observe what is going on at the centres of such nebulae we need to look at longer (far infrared and millimetre) wavelengths to see through the dust, as the dust effectively absorbs light at visible wavelengths. The dust also shields the inner parts of the nebula from starlight, meaning it can get extremely cold inside the nebula. But, in order to get colder than the CMB requires some adiabatic expansion to have taken place, and astronomers have calculated that the inner parts of the Boomerang Nebula are at a temperature of just 1 Kelvin! There are colder places in the Universe, for example in many of our astronomical instruments, where we routinely cool detectors to a few thousandths of a Kelvin. However, it would seem the Boomerang Nebula currently has the record for the coldest naturally occurring place in the Universe.

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