Archive for May, 2016

Fifty years ago yesterday (17 May 1966), one of the seminal moments in 20th Century popular culture took place in the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Bob Dylan, who had burst onto the folk scene a few years before, was playing to a packed crowd towards the end of his gruelling 1966 World tour. The first half of his set was vintage Dylan, just the man (poet) and his guitar. The crowd were enraptured.

But, it all turned sour in the second half, when Dylan was joined by his band, The Hawks, and proceeded to do an ‘electric’ set. The crowd became restless. Many left; others booed, stamped their feet or started chanting. When he came back on to do his encore, things came to a head.

“Judas!” a man shouted.

“I don’t believe you.” Dylan replied. Then he started getting ready for the encore song. A few seconds later Dylan added

“You’re a liar!”

Then, he turned to his band and said “Play it fucking loud”,  and they ripped into an angry version of Like a Rolling Stone. This is the moment as captured on film, it forms the closing scene of Martin Scorsese’s fascinating documentary No Direction Home.


There is also a very interesting in-depth audio documentary about this whole seminal incident, Ghosts of Electricity, made by Andy Kershaw for BBC Radio 1 and broadcast in 1999. It is available here on Andy Kershaw’s website.


Andy Kershaw’s fascinating documentary about the Bob Dylan “Judas” incident, which was originally broadcast in 1999 on BBC Radio 1.


The whole concert was recorded and circulated as a bootleg for many years. For some reason, it became known as the Royal Albert Hall Concert, even though it had happened at the Manchester Free Trade Hall; possibly because the 1966 World tour ended at the Royal Albert Hall on the 26 and 27 May. Dylan sanctioned an official release of the concert in 1998.




The cover for Bob Dylan’s “Royal Albert Hall Concert” CD, which includes the “Judas” heckle. In fact, the concert was recorded at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 17 May 1966.


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On Sunday 22 May, Mars will be at opposition. This is the time when Earth passes Mars in their respective orbits around the Sun, and so Mars is at its closest to us. Because it is at its closest to us it is also at its brightest; an opposition of Mars usually presents the best time to see the planet. Earth, of course, takes 365.25 days to orbit the Sun. Mars takes 687 days, this is known as is its sidereal period. The time between each opposition is 779.96 days, which translates to 2 years and 49.5 days, or just under 2 years and 2 months. This is known as the synodic period for Mars.

For this particular opposition, Mars is between the constellations Libra and Scorpio. Below is a diagram showing where Mars will be at 23:00 BST (11pm) on the night of Sunday 22 May as seen from Cardiff. Unfortunately, for places as far north as Cardiff (which is at a latitude of 51.5 degrees north), this part of the sky never gets particularly high above the horizon. In this diagram, at 23:00, Mars only has an altitude of 11 degrees above the horizon, which is quite low. The highest Mars will appear in the sky during this opposition is at around 1am, then it will  be about 17 degrees above the horizon. This is still quite low but, thankfully due to Mars’ brightness, it should be easily visible.


The position of Mars at 23:00 on Sunday 22 May as seen from Cardiff. Mars is in the constellation Scorpio, at about 1 o’clock from Antares if you imagine a clock face. At about 8 o’clock from Mars and about 10 o’clock from Antares is Saturn. On Sunday, the Moon will also be nearby, and as it is near full it may impede viewing Saturn.

Although the opposition happens on Sunday 22 May, do not worry if you are not able to see Mars that night (due to cloud or some other reason). Mars will remain bright in the sky for the next several weeks. In fact, if you have been looking at Mars over the last few months you will have noticed that it has brightened considerably as it has approached opposition. Of all the planets, Mars is the one which shows the biggest change as the Earth approaches it, far more than the others.

For example, in late January Mars was nearly 20 times fainter than  it will be on 22 May. Even in late March it was nearly 6 times fainter, now it has brightened to outshine everything else in that part of the sky. But, it will still be pretty bright for the rest of May and into June. If you are lucky enough to be going away anytime between now and mid-June to more southerly latitudes, then Mars will appear much higher in the sky. People in the Southern Hemisphere are getting a much better view of this opposition than those of is in northern latitudes.

Because Mars will be so bright, it should be very easy to find. It has a distinctive red appearance, but not quite as red as Antares, the red giant star in Scorpio. You can use Mars to find other objects nearby. Imagining a clock face, Antares is at about 8 o’clock from Mars, and about 20 times fainter. At about 9 o’clock from Mars and 10 o’clock from Antares is Saturn, which is currently about 8 times fainter than Mars. On the night of Sunday 22 May, the Moon will be quite close to Saturn, and it will also be nearly full. Although this shouldn’t affect your being able to see either Mars or Saturn, you may find that you get a better view of both if you look a few days before or later, when the Moon won’t be nearby.

By late June Mars will have faded to being about 2 times fainter than it will be at opposition, but still a lot brighter than it was in March or April. By July it will have faded further, being about 3 times fainter than when at opposition, and about the same as it was in late April. But, if you are waiting for your summer holidays to get to southern latitudes, Mars will be easily visible in late July and August, and will still be brighter than either Antares or Saturn.

Do oppositions vary?

But, not all oppositions are equal. The planets do not orbit the Sun in circular orbits, but rather in elliptical orbits. We measure how far from being circular an ellipse is by something called an ellipse’s eccentricity; an eccentricity e=0 means that the ellipse is a perfect circle (a circle is just a special case of an ellipse), an eccentricity greater than this means it deviates from a circle. The eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit is e=0.017, pretty close to being a circle. However, Mars has a more elliptical orbit, the eccentricity of its orbit is e=0.09. The only planet with a more eccentric orbit is Mercury. The eccentricity of Mars’ orbit means that the distance between Earth and Mars when they are at opposition varies. For this particular 2016 opposition the distance will be 76.3 million kilometres (about 47 million miles). The figure below shows the distance between Earth and Mars for all the oppositions between 2001 and this one in 2016.



Oppositions of Mars from 2001 to this current 2016 opposition. The figure shows the dates of these oppositions, and also the distance in millions of miles. For this 2016 opposition, the distance will be about 47 million miles, or about 76 million km

During the August 2003 opposition, Mars got to within 55.8 million kilometres. This was, in fact, the closest opposition for many thousands of years; it has been calculated that the last time Earth got this close to Mars was in the year 57,617 BC! The next opposition which will be as close as the 2003 opposition will be in 2287, quite a wait.

Oppositions from 2012 to 2027

Below is a table of the dates of oppositions of Mars from 2012 to 2027, showing for each opposition the constellation in which Mars appears, its distance from Earth (in both Astronomical Units and millions of kilometres), and its apparent magnitude and apparent angular size (in arc seconds). Remember, apparent magnitude is a negative system, a lower number means brighter. As the figure above shows, the closest opposition that has occurred recently was in August 2003. Close oppositions happen when Mars is near its perihelion (closest to the Sun), because this will also mean that it is closer to Earth. These are called perihelic oppositions, and the time between perihilic oppositions is either 15 or 17 years (it alternates).

As the table below shows, the opposition in July 2018 will actually be better than this 2016 opposition, with Mars getting to within 57.5 million kilometres and brightening to a magnitude of -2.8 (which is twice as bright as during this opposition). However, it will be in the constellation Capricorn, which is even further south in the sky than Scorpio; so even lower in the sky for those of us living in northern latitudes.


Oppositions of Mars from 2012 to 2027

Opposition Date


Distance (AUs)

Distance (million km)

Apparent magnitude

Apparent size 


2012 March 3






2014 April 8






2016 May 22






2018 July 27






2020 October 13






2022 December 8






2025 January 16






2027 February 19






How has Mars brightened over the last year and how will it fade over the coming months?

For those of you who have been looking at Mars over the last few months, you will have noticed how much it has brightened. Here is a table showing the apparent magnitude of Mars on the 21st of each month. If you do not manage to see it during May do not worry, it will remain fairly bright well into June and July and, even in August, it will be outshining Antares and Saturn. If you are heading further south during the summer months, then it would be an ideal time to see Mars.


The distance, apparent magnitude and size of Mars from June 2015 to December 2016







Apparent Size 


2015 June 21





2015 July 21





2015 August 21





2015 September 21





2015 October 21





2015 November 21





2015 December 21





2016 January 21





2016 February 21





2016 March 21





2016 April 21





2016 May 21





2016 June 21





2016 July 21





2016 August 21





2016 September 21





2016 October 21





2016 November 21





2016 December 21






Hopefully you will get a chance to see Mars over the next few weeks or months. If you get a chance to look through a small telescope or binoculars you may be able to make out white near the poles of Mars, these are polar ice caps and are mainly frozen water, with some frozen carbon dioxide. The frozen carbon dioxide has been measured to sublimate into the atmosphere when that particular polar region is in summer, but the water remains permanently frozen. When the pole loses its sunlight, some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere freezes again, forming part of the polar cap.



Mars during the January 2010 opposition. Image credit Alan Friedman.

Here is a picture I took of Mars over Cardiff City Hall on Sunday night/Monday morning (15-16 May), at 01:30. For details of the exposure time and aperture etc., see the caption.



Mars over Cardiff City Hall on Sunday night/Monday morning (15-16 May 2016). Mars is just to the right of the clock tower. To the left at about the same height is Saturn, and to the left and low down is Antares. This picture was taken at 01:30 and is a 10s exposure with f/4.4, 44mm focal length and ISO 100 using a Nikon D3200 DSLR.

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Tomorrow (Sunday 15 May) sees the final day of the English Premier League. Unlike every other weekend, when matches are spread out over Saturday, Sunday and Monday, on the final weekend all matches kick off on the Sunday at 3pm.

Leicester City have already won the Premiership title, which is a refreshing change and a remarkable achievement. Last season, Leicester were struggling to avoid relegation, and only a few years ago, in the 2008-09 season, they were in the third tier division (confusingly known as League One). From 2009 to 2014 they were in the second tier (the Championship), gaining promotion to the Premier League at the end of the 2013-14 season. Since the inception of the Premier League in the 1992-93 season, Leicester are only the second team outside of the ‘big four’ (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal) to win the Premiership title; the other time was Blackburn Rovers in 1993-94.

Some of you may know that the team I support is Chelsea, who as defending title holders have had a terrible season. They look set to finish 9th, although if they lose and Stoke win they could finish 10th. Even if Swansea City win and Chelsea lose, Chelsea’s goal difference is so much better than Swansea’s (16 better) that it is nigh on impossible for Swansea to finish above them.

Fittingly, Leicester City play their final game of the season at Chelsea, last year’s champions. Another twist to this story is that Leicester’s popular manager, Claudio Ranieri, was Chelsea’s manager from the 2000-01 season until the end of the 2003-04 season, when he was replaced by José Mourinho. I expect both the team and Ranieri will receive a good reception at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho, of course, started this season as the Chelsea manager on his second spell at the club, but after a string of disastrous results he left in December 2015, and Chelsea have been managed since by interim manager Guus Hiddink.

But, probably the  most intriguing story of this weekend will be whether it is Manchester City or Manchester United who finish in 4th place and get the last Champions League spot. Manchester City play away at Swansea, and Manchester United have a home game against Bournemouth. Man U not only need to win their match, but they need Man City to lose to Swansea in order to finish 4th. If Man City draw and Man U win, both teams will finish on 66 points, but Man City have a much better goal difference. On paper, Man U should beat Bournemouth. Although Swansea are down in 11th place, they have won their last two games, so will be no push over for Man City. It is conceivable that Man U will get the dream results that they crave. 



Leicester City were crowned as champions a few weeks ago, and last year’s champions Chelsea cannot finish higher than 9th, and could finish as low as 10th. The big fight tomorrow is which team in Manchester will get the coveted 4th place spot.

Should Man U fail to finish in 4th I anticipate that their manager, Louis van Gaal, will be sacked. They are in the final of the FA Cup, but this competition has become so much less valued in the last decade or so that I don’t think winning it will save his job. If, on the other hand, Man U do get 4th place then I think van Gaal will hang on to his job, even though he is quite unpopular with the fans. Since Mourinho was sacked from Chelsea in December there have been persistent rumours that he would be replacing van Gaal at Old Trafford. We shall have to wait and see.

Whether it is Man U or Man City who fail to qualify for the Champions League, it will be deemed a disaster for the club that misses out. Man U have the most prolific record of any English team over the last few decades, and Man City have won the Premier League title twice in the last few seasons, and this year got as far as the semi finals of the Champions League. The rivalry between the two Manchester clubs has been intense over the last few seasons, but this weekend one side of the city is going to be very disappointed and the other side will be relieved, if not elated. 

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At number 8 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest songwriters is Paul Simon.  Simon is one of my favourite songwriters; I would place him in my personal top 5 and I consider him one of the greatest lyricists in popular music, along with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. However, in addition to his incredible lyrics, Simon has an ability to consistently write memorable melodies.

Simon was very much at the vanguard of introducing other musical elements into western popular music. His seminal 1986 album Graceland is possibly the best known example of this, where he went to South Africa to record with some of the country’s black musicians. But, in fact, Simon was including foreign influenced rhythms and music into his songs long before this. “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could)”, released in 1970 on the final Simon and Garfunkel album, was based on a traditional Peruvian melody. “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” (released in 1972) and “Late in the Evening” (released in 1980) are other examples, both with strong Latin rhythms.


At number 8 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest songwriters of all time is Paul Simon.

There are so many Paul Simon songs which I like, and I have blogged about several of them before. Here I blogged about his album Graceland, and in that blogpost I included two versions of his song “Under African Skies”. Here I blogged about his haunting song “American Tune”, and here I blogged about his song “Leaves That Are Green”, which he performed with Art Garfunkel during their days together. Finally, here I blogged about “The Boxer”, which appears on the final Simon and Garfunkel album before they split.

Today I thought I would include two Paul Simon songs, one from during his time with Art Garfunkel, the other from his solo career. “America” is a wonderful example of Simon’s ability to paint vivid pictures with his lyrics. Released in April 1968, when I first heard it as a teenager I had no idea where “Saginaw”, “Michigan”, “Pittsburgh” or “the New Jersey Turnpike” were. Ironically, when I moved to the United States in 1992 and bought a road map of the country, one of the first places I spotted on the map of Michigan was Saginaw. Several years later, when I was working at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, we had a visit from some high school students from Saginaw. I asked them whether they knew the song in which their town had been immortalised, but they did not (I guess they were too young!).

The opening lines of “America”, “Let us be lovers, / We’ll marry our fortunes together. / I’ve got some real estate / Here in my bag.” just draw you straight into the song. This song is just perfect, it completely enchants me each time I listen to it.

Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate
Here in my bag.

So we bought a pack of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies,
And walked off
To look for America.
“Kathy”, I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
Michigan seems like a dream to me now.

It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw.
“I’ve come to look for America.”

Laughing on the bus,
Playing games with the faces,
She said the man in the gabardine suit
Was a spy.

I said, “Be careful,
His bow tie is really a camera.”
“Toss me a cigarette,
I think there’s one in my raincoat.”
We smoked the last one
An hour ago.

So I looked at the scenery,
She read her magazine;
And the moon rose over an open field.
“Kathy, I’m lost”, I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and
I don’t know why.”

Counting the cars
On the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.

The other song I have decided to share is one that I mentioned above, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”. This song shows the other side of Simon’s songwriting skills. There is nothing particularly profound about the lyrics; but I challenge you to listen to this song and not start at least tapping your hands or feet, if not wanting to start dancing. It just has a completely infectious rhythm. This song features on Simon’s first solo album after the breakup of Simon and Garfunkel, simply entitled Paul Simon and realeased in January 1972.

The mama pajama rolled out of bed
And she ran to the police station
When the papa found out he began to shout
And he started the investigation
It’s against the law
It was against the law
What the mama saw
It was against the law

The mama looked down and spit on the ground
Everytime my name gets mentioned
The papa said oy if I get that boy
I’m gonna stick him in the house of detention
Well I’m on my way
I don’t know where I’m going
I’m on my way

I’m taking my time
But I don’t know where
Goodbye to Rosie the queen of Corona
See you, me and Julio
Down by the schoolyard
See you, me and Julio
Down by the schoolyard
Me and Julio down by the schoolyard

In a couple of days they come and take me away
But the press let the story leak
And when the radical priest
Come to get me released
We was all on the cover of Newsweek
And I’m on my way
I don’t know where I’m going
I’m on my way

I’m taking my time
But I don’t know where
Goodbye to Rosie the queen of Corona
See you, me and Julio
Down by the schoolyard
See you, me and Julio
Down by the schoolyard
Me and Julio down by the schoolyard

Here is a video of this great song. Enjoy!


Which is your favourite Paul Simon song? Either from his time with Art Garfunkel, or from his solo career.

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At number 22 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “Eleanor Rigby”. This Paul McCartney composition was recorded in April and June 1966, and released on 5 August 1966 as a double A-side single with “Yellow Submarine”. It is also the the second track on the first side of my favourite Beatles album, Revolver. In fact, in the Disunited Kingdom the single “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine” was released on the same day as Revolver, but in the USA Revolver was released 3 days after the single, on 8 August.


At number 22 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “Eleanor Rigby”.

“Eleanor Rigby” is an exquisite song, certainly one of my favourite Paul McCartney songs. The lyrics are beautiful and haunting, and the use of  a double string quartet showed that the band were evolving beyond the confines of a normal “pop” group, with just a guitar-based sound. The musical arrangement was done by George Martin, the Beatles’ producer.

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah look at all the lonely people
Ah look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

It seems that all the postings of the original Beatles version of “Eleanor Rigby” have been removed from YouTube. I have found this video of the song, which is from the opening sequences of the animated movie Yellow Submarine, but it may get removed.


You can also find the song on most of the streaming services. Enjoy!

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Yesterday (Monday 9 May 2016) saw a transit of Mercury, a rare celestial event where the planet Mercury passes across the disk of the Sun as seen from Earth. The last one of these to happen was the 8th of November 2006, the next one will be on the 11th of November 2019. Here is a diagram showing where you needed to  be to see this transit; it was visible in its entirety from Wales and other parts of western Europe, as well as the eastern United States and western Africa and most of South America.


Where on Earth the 2016 Transit of Mercury was visible

Here is a diagram showing the path that Mercury took across the Sun, showing the timings (in Universal Time) of the beginning, mid-point and end of the transit.


The timings of the 2016 Transit of Mercury (Universal Time – UTC)

Unfortunately, it rained the whole afternoon here in Cardiff. I did not manage to catch single a glimpse of the Sun, let alone the transit itself. Here is a picture which was taken by Wolgang Ellsässer (who obviously had much clearer skies) at 13:52 UTC, about an hour before the transit reached its mid-point. A few sunspots are also visible, in fact some of the sunspots are appear bigger than the disk of Mercury.


A photograph of the 2016 Transit of Mercury taken by Wolgang Ellsässer at 15:52 (UTC)

If, like me, you failed to see this transit then the next one is on the 11th of November 2019. It will start at 12:35 UTC and end at 18:04 UTC, so roughly the same part of the Earth will see it as this 2016 transit. However, being in November those of us in western Europe will  not see the end of the transit as the Sun will have already set. After that there are transits in 2032 and 2039, again both in November. The next transit visible in its entirety from western Europe will not be until May 2049!

But, if you think this is a long time, it is an even longer wait until the next transit of Venus. Some of you may remember that I was lucky enough to go to the Gobi desert in Mongolia to see the June 2012 transit of Venus. I had also seen the June 2004 transit of Venus, which was visible in its entirety from Wales. The next transit of Venus will not occur until 2117!

It was seeing a transit of Mercury from the island of Helena in 1677 that led astronomer Edmond Halley to realise that one could use transits of either Mercury or Venus to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun. He later realised that Mercury was too far from the Earth to be used, but the transits of Venus in 1761 and 1769 were successfully used to calculate the Sun-Earth distance for the first time.

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