Archive for October, 2016

This next Saturday (5 November), Wales will begin their 4-match autumn series of test matches. Saturday’s match is against Australia, and it will be our first test match since being beaten 46-6 in June by a rampant New Zealand to lose our tour there 3-0. In contrast, Australia have been involved in the Rugby Championship since their 3-0 series loss to England in June.

Australia won 3 of their 6 matches in the Rugby Championship, beating Argentina both home and away and beating South Africa at home. Since the last match of the Rugby Championship on 1 October, Australia have played New Zealand at Eden Park in Auckland, losing 37-10 to notch up their third loss of 2016 to the All Blacks.

The four matches we will play are

  • Wales v Australia – Saturday 5 November, kick off 14:30 GMT
  • Wales v Argentina – Saturday 12 November, kick off 17:30 GMT
  • Wales v Japan – Saturday 19 November, kick off 14:30 GMT
  • Wales v South Africa – Saturday 26 November, kick off 17:30 GMT

Wales start their 4-match autumn series against Australia on Saturday 5 November, followed by Argentina on Saturday 12 November.

Wales are currently ranked 5th in the world, with Australia ranked 3rd, South Africa ranked 4th, Argentina ranked 9th and Japan ranked 12th. So, on paper, our easiest match will be against Japan, our third match. It is a pity our first match is against possibly the strongest team of the series, as Wales notoriously start off each autumn test series poorly and we tend to improve as the series progresses. We are without Warren Gatland, who is on sabbatical to prepare for the Lions tour of New Zealand next summer, so in his place Robert Howley is head coach. Let us hope, with Australia coming off a loss against New Zealand, that Wales can notch up a long overdue win against the Wallabies.




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Ever since the announcement a few weeks ago that Bob Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel prize for literature, I’ve been making an effort to listen to a wider variety of his songs. Unlike some of the famous people who praised his getting the Nobel prize, I am not someone who listens to his music every day, even though he is my favourite songwriter. In fact, I probably don’t even listen to him every week, and I’ve realised that when I do listen to his music I’ve been tending to listen to the same five or six albums from his vast catalogue.

So, over the last few weeks I’ve been making a conscience effort to listen to a wider variety of his songs, and one of my favourites of his recent albums (last 20 years!) is his 1997 album Time Out of Mind. This is the album which contains “Make You Feel My Love”, a song made famous by Adele on her first album 19. I have blogged about their respective versions of that song here. Most people who know Adele’s version don’t know that it is a Dylan song, but that has always been true of Dylan’s work. When The Byrds had a hit with “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965, many people did not know that it was a Dylan song. Ditto Peter, Paul and Mary’s hit with “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963, and Guns ‘n’ Roses 1991 hit with “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.

Another beautiful song on Time Out of Mind is this one, “Not Dark Yet”. It is such a haunting song, with both a beautiful melody and sublime lyrics.


The song “Not Dark Yet” is from Bob Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind.

Although most of Dylan’s songs are, sadly, not available on YouTube (this one is!), all of his lyrics can be found on his official website. Here is the link to the lyrics for this song. In addition to being able to read the lyrics of each of his songs on his website, you can also see on which album or albums the song is available, including alternative versions.

Amazingly, a particular page for a given song also keeps a tab of how many times Dylan has performed the song in concert, including the first date on which he performed it and the date of his latest performance of that song. As Dylan has been on tour almost continuously for the last 20 years, it is not surprising to see that this song “Not Dark Yet” has been performed over 150 times, but sadly it would seem that he has not performed it since 2012.

To me, “Not Dark Yet” speaks of a weariness and, possibly, tiredness with life, with existence. The man in the song (maybe a facet of Dylan himself?) seems to have lost his ability or desire to enjoy life. He feels like life has become too hard; he has become too weary, unfeeling and cynical. I find the lyrics captivating; such a moving expression of lost youth, lost passion and lost hope. The lines “Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain / Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain” crystallise the sentiments of the song.

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

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

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

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

Here is the official video of this haunting song. Enjoy!

Which is your favourite Bob Dylan song from the last 25 years of his work?

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The Schiaparelli space probe has been in the news quite a lot this last week or so. It was due to land on the surface of Mars last Wednesday (19 October), but lost contact about one minute before this. On Friday (21 October) NASA released images taken by its Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter which have led ESA to conclude that Schiaparelli exploded on impact, probably due to a failure of the thruster rockets which were meant to guide it gently down over its last few kilometres of descent. For more on that story, see here. This separate story suggests that the failure of the thruster rockets to burn correctly was due to a computer glitch, and that they only burned for 3 seconds instead of the intended 29 seconds.

What has received far less attention than Schiaparelli is the larger spacecraft which transported it to Mars – the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). The TGO was successfully put into orbit about Mars after it and Schiaparelli separated. Whilst ESA scientists worried about the silence of Schiaparelli, they were nevertheless jubilant that the TGO had successfully manoeuvred into orbit about the red planet.


ESA’s Trace Gas Explorer (TGO) transported the lander Schiaparelli to Mars, and is now successfully in orbit about the red planet.

The TGO’s primary scientific mission is to look for traces of methane emanating from Mars. This is of great scientific interest, because methane could be due to life on Mars. Many bacteria on Earth, in particular those that respire anaerobically, emit methane. The best known example are the bacteria which help digest food in the stomachs of many animals, including us. This is why cows are one of the primary sources of methane emission, the gas is coming from the bacteria in their stomachs.

Methane was first detected in the Martian atmosphere in 2003 by NASA scientists. The following year NASA’s Mars Express Orbiter and some ground-based observations detected methane at the level of about 10 parts per billion. Large temporal and positional variations in the methane concentration were measured between 2003 and 2006, which suggests that the methane is  both seasonal and local.

The other possible source of methane is geological activity. Any methane in the Martian atmosphere is quickly broken down by ultraviolet light from the Sun (there is no ozone layer to protect the molecules from UV light, as there is on Earth). This means that any methane present in the Martian atmosphere but have been recently produced. So, how can we tell the difference between methane due to bacteria and methane due to geological activity?

The key is to look for the presence of other gases along with the methane. If the methane is geological in origin it will be accompanied by sulphur dioxide. If, however, it is due to bacteria it will be accompanied by ethane and other similar molecules. The TGO will be able to measure both the methane and these other gases, and so hopefully will help us determine the origin of the methane. In addition, it will be able to measure and image other things, including sub-surface hydrogen down to a depth of a metre. This will help us better map out the amount and extent of subsurface water ice on Mars.

In all, the TGO has four scientific instruments on it, namely

  1. The Nadir and Occultation for Mars Discovery (NOMAD). This instrument has two infrared and one ultraviolet spectrometer channels.
  2. The Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (ACS) has three infrared spectrometer channels.
  3. The Colour and Stereo Surface Imaging System (CaSSIS) is a high-resolution colour stereo camera which will be able to resolve down to a resolution of 4.5 metres on the Martian surface. Being stereo, it will be able to create an accurate elevation map of the Martian surface.
  4. The Fine-Resolution Epithermal Neutron Detector (FREND), a neutron detector which can indicate the presence of hydrogen in the form of water or hydrated minerals. FREND can detect hydrogen down to a depth of 1 metre in the Martian surface.

NOMAD and ACS are the two instruments which will measure the methane and other trace molecules in the atmosphere. Twice each orbit, when the Sun is both rising and setting as seen from the TGO, it will use the passage of the Sun’s light through the Martian atmosphere to detect and measure the presence of trace molecules, down to a few parts per  billion (ppb).

The TGO will orbit Mars at an altitude of 400 km, in a circular orbit taking only 2 hours to orbit once. The orbit will be inclined at 74 degrees to the Martian equator.  It was launched on the 14 March, so took just over 6 months to get to Mars. In 2021 ESA plans to land a rover on the Martian surface, but whether this schedule is delayed due to the failure to successfully land Schiaparelli remains to be seen.


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At number 7 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “Hey Jude”, another of Paul McCartney’s great ballads. “Hey Jude” was recorded in late July and early August 1968, and released as a single later that month. It got to number 1 in the Disunited Kingdom, the USA, and many other countries. At over 7 minutes long, when it was released it was the longest single to top the US charts and, with a 9-week run in the top spot, it also equalled the all-time record for the most number of weeks at number 1.

“Hey Jude” was written by McCartney for John Lennon’s song Julian. The song started as “Hey Jules”, and was meant to act as words of comfort to the young Julian as his father and mother Cynthia were going through their divorce. Later, McCartney decided to change “Jules” to “Jude”, to make it less obvious that it was about Julian.


At number 7 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “Hey Jude”. The photograph shows McCartney with Julian Lennon, John’s son.

“Hey Jude” was also the first Beatles disk to be released on their new Apple label. Disks by other artists were also released on the new label on the same day, such as “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin and “Sour Milk Sea” by Jackie Lomax. 

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid
You were made to go out and get her
The minute you let her under your skin
Then you begin to make it better

And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders
For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
By making his world a little colder
Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah

Hey Jude, don’t let me down
She have found you, now go and get her
Remember to let her into your heart
Then you can start to make it better

So let it out and let it in, hey Jude, begin
You’re waiting for someone to perform with
And don’t you know that it’s just you, hey Jude, you’ll do
The movement you need is on your shoulder
Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah nah yeah

Hey Jude, don’t make it bad
Take a sad song and make it better
Remember to let her under your skin
Then you’ll begin to make it better
Better, better, better, better… Oh!

Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude (Jude)
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude (Yeah yeah yeah)
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude (Don’t make it bad, Jude)
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude (Take a sad song and make it better)
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude (Oh Jude)
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude (Jude, hey Jude, waaaah)
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude (Oooh)
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude
Nah nah nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah, hey Jude [fade out]

Here is a live version of The Beatles performing “Hey Jude” on the David Frost show in 1968. The song is preceded by some messing around and banter between Frost and the group, so even if you know this song it is well worth watching. It is from The Beatles’ vevo channel, and so thankfully this video is unlikely to be taken down.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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