Archive for December, 2016

At number 2 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. People reading this may be wondering why this song is so high in Rolling Stone’s list. The reason is simple, this was the song which saw The Beatles break through in the United States. They went from being unknown there to being the biggest band the country had ever seen in terms of their popularity. Their success in the USA is, more than anything else, what has ensured that they are the biggest selling musical act in history. Ever.

Thus, in terms of impact, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is one of the most important songs that The Beatles ever recorded. Who knows whether they would have been as massive as they became if it were not for this song, we will never know. But, this song catapulted them to superstardom in the USA, and they became the first British band to ever crack the US market.


At number 2 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 100 greatest Beatles songs is “I Want to Hold Your Hand”

As the text above (taken from Rolling Stone Magazine) says, this song “changed everything”. Previous to this song, The Beatles had singles released in the US, but none had achieved any chart success. Then, in late 1963, they signed to Capitol Records. Maybe due to this switch of record label, maybe the song itself with its upbeat message, maybe the death of John F. Kennedy, maybe some luck, maybe a combination of all or some of these things, but “I Want to Hold Your Hand” captured the youth of America in a way that no song had done since Elvis’ early days.

Based on the chart success of this song, The Beatles arrived in the United States in early February 1964 and appeared on the Ed Sullivan TV show to the largest audience that programme has ever seen. As they say, the rest is history…..

Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something
I think you’ll understand
When I say that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

Oh please, say to me
You’ll let me be your man
And please, say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand
You let me hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

And when I touch you I feel happy
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide

Yeah, you’ve got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I say that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

And when I touch you I feel happy
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide

Yeah, you’ve got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I feel that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

Unfortunately, I cannot find any Beatles versions of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on YouTube. If you do not know this song, you can listen to it via one of your favourite music streaming services.

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As those of you following my blog will know, I am currently on a cruise around New Zealand, giving astronomy talks. One of my six talks is about our current understanding of whether there is (or was) life on Mars. I try to only talk about objects which are visible during the cruise, and Mars is currently visible in the evening sky, albeit a lot fainter than it was in May when it was at opposition.


One of the talks I am giving on this cruise is our current understanding of whether there is (or was) life on Mars.

The question of whether there is life on Mars, or whether there ever has been in its history, is a fascinating one. I thought I would do a series of blogs to explore the question. But, I have to begin by saying that ANY search for life beyond Earth is predicated by our understanding of life on Earth. The only thing, it would seem, required by all forms of life which we have found on earth is water. Extremophiles show that life can exist without oxygen, without light, at high pressure, in radioactive environments; in fact in all sorts of environments which humans would find impossible. But, none of the life so far found on Earth can exist without water.

As a consequence, all searches for life in our Solar System tend to begin with the search for water. Now, it may be that life beyond Earth could have evolved to exist without the need for water. I am no chemist, but I don’t think there is anything particularly unique about water in its chemistry which makes it impossible for living cells to use some other substance. Water is the only substance on Earth which can exist in all three forms naturally (solid, liquid and gas), so it does occupy an unique place in the environment found on Earth. But, on Titan for example, methane seems to exist in all three forms. Maybe life has evolved on Titan to metabolise using methane in the same way that life on Earth has evolved to metabolise using water. We don’t know.

So, I thought I would start this series of blogs with the big news in the 1890s, that Martians had built canals on the red planet!

Schiaparelli and Martian ‘canali’

The Schiaparelli space probe which ESA sadly failed to land on Mars recently was named after Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli. In the late 1880s he reported seeing ‘canali’ on the surface of Mars. Although this means ‘channels’, it got mis-translated to ‘canals’, and led to a flurry of excitement that this was evidence of an intelligent civilisation on Mars.

The idea grew that Martians had built canals to transport water from the “wet” regions near the poles to the arid equatorial regions. The ice caps of Mars are easily visible through a small telescope, so astronomers had known for decades that Mars had ice caps which they assumed were similar to the ice caps on Earth.


Giovanni Schiaparelli’s map of ‘canali’ on Mars, from 1888.

One person who became particularly taken with this idea of canals on Mars was American Percival Lowell. Lowell came from a rich Bostonian family, and had enough personal wealth to build an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He set about proving the existence of life on Mars, writing several books on the subject. He published Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). But, by 1909 the 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory had shown that the ‘canali’ were natural features, and Lowell was forced to abandon his ideas that intelligent life existed on Mars.

However, his Flagstaff Observatory was to go on and make important contributions to astronomy. In the 1910s Vesto Slipher was the first person to show that nearly all spiral nebulae (spiral galaxies as we now call them) showed a redshift, the first bit of observational evidence that the Universe is expanding. And, in 1930 Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at Flagstaff Observatory.

In part 2 of this blog, next week, I will talk about the first space probes sent to Mars, and the first images taken of Mars by a space probe which successfully orbited the planet, Mariner 4.

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Chelsea consolidated their position at the top of the Premier League by beating Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad. If ever evidence were needed that Chelsea are on a run of excellent form then this was it. Antonio Conti’s men have now won 8 games in a row, and moved past their other rivals to top the table a couple of weeks ago. They sit 4 points ahead of Man City, with Arsenal in second place 3 points behind, and Liverpool sitting in third on the same number of points as Man City. 

I didn’t see this game as I’m currently traveling in New Zealand, but to have two players sent off in injury time at the end of the match shows what a bitterly fought contest this was. 

It was Manchester City who started the season best, leaving all the other teams trailing in their wake. Chelsea, on the other hand, had an average start to the season. But, as we approach halfway in the season, they have hit a purple patch and currently look very hard to beat. 

There is still a long way to go, but it looks like Chelsea are playing with the kind of form which saw them win the title the season before last. So much has changed at Stamford Bridge since then, with the sacking of José Mourinho, that the 2014/15 season seems much longer ago!

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Continuing my countdown of the 30 greatest Bob Dylan songs according to the Daily Telegraph, today I am blogging about numbers 20 to 16 in their list.


Bob Dylan granted his first interview since being awarded the 2016 Nobel prize in literature to Edna Gundersen.

From 20 to 16 The Daily Telegraph list is

  • 20 – The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
  • 19 – Cold Irons Bound
  • 18 – I Shall Be Released
  • 17 – Shelter From The Storm
  • 16 – Lay, Lady, Lay

20. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (1964)

This is, in my opinion, one of the most incredible ‘true-life’ songs written by anyone, let alone by a man who was only 22 when he wrote it. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” tell the true story of the killing of a maid, Hattie Carroll, by a rich young man by the name of William Zanzinger, in the state of Maryland. The song lays out, in four incredible verses, the whole sorry story of  how this rich, privileged man killed a poor black housemaid, and got a suspended sentence!

Such powerful writing announced Dylan to the world as a major songwriting force, a young man who was capable of putting to verse the most moving and important civil and human rights issues of the day.

William Zanzinger was a wealthy tobacco farmer who drunkenly beat black maid Hattie Carroll to death in 1963, for which he received a suspended six month jail sentence and $500 fine. The young protest singer’s stark demolition of American injustice is driven by righteous anger. The unrepentant Zanzinger was unimpressed, describing Dylan in 2001 as “a no-account son of a bitch, a scum of a scum bag of the earth.”

19. Cold Irons Bound (1997)

This song is from Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out of Mind, the same album which contains “Not Dark Yet” and “Make You Feel My Love”.

A corrosive electric blues number, rattling down the tracks like a prison train, with convict Bob chained to the memory of a love gone wrong. In a gnarly voice, Dylan spits out nuggets of hard earned wisdom: “Reality has always had too many heads.”

18. I Shall Be Released (1971)

I first heard this song when I bought the album Bob Dylan’s Greates Hits, Volume II, one of the first Dylan albums that I owned. On Dylan’s version of his own song he duets with Happy Traum, an American folk singer. I like this song a lot, the lyrics are great and the duetng in the chorus with Traum adds a wonderful tone to the song.

Originally recorded by The Band in 1968, Dylan’s own version didn’t emerge until it was included on his Greatest Hits in 1971. A simple song of a prisoner yearning for liberty, it has become a universal anthem for freedom, performed by U2, Johnny Cash, The Byrds, Sting, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, Paul Weller and The Who amongst, many, many more.

17. Shelter From The Storm (1975)

The last track on Blood On the Tracks, this song is simply stunning. One of the most beautiful and moving songs Dylan has written, I would put it in my own personal top 20 of favourite Dylan songs. The song’s opening verse again illustrates why Dylan is fully deserving of his Nobel Prize – “’Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood / When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud / I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form / “Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm””

The song is an aching lament to his estranged wife Sarah Lownes, and is the last heart-wrenching emotional outpouring from a man who has spent the whole album singing about his pain at losing his wife. If you haven’t heard this song you must, it deserves to be listened to over and over again.

“I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form…” Amid the emotional battering of Blood On The Tracks, this long, loping tale of sanctuary offers a moment of peace, even if it too is underpinned by loss and regret. Dylan has said he can’t understand how anyone can listen to his most deeply personal album because “it’s hard for me to relate to people enjoying that type of pain”.

16. Lay, Lady, Lay (1969)

Dylan croons in this catchy song, one of the best to play to anyone who wants to be converted to being a Dylan fan. No one can say that Dylan can’t sing, as he shows in this song; it’s just that often he chooses to deliver songs in a less conventional, more dramatic manner. “Lay, Lady Lay” is full of wonderful sexual innuendo, and is the first track on the second side of his country album Nashville Skyline. This is an album which has grown on me over the years, I love the version of “Girl From The North Country” which he does with Johnny Cash, I blogged about it here. “Lay, Lady Lay” is one of the other highlights on this album.

Delicately backed by a band of country session players, Dylan sings in a rich voice about the object of his desires. This little gem manages the rare trick of being both lusty and deeply romantic, a real working man’s love song. “His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean / And you are the best thing that he’s ever seen.”

Cold Irons Bound (number 19)

The song that I’m going to share in this blogpost is numer 19, “Cold Irons Bound”.

I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around
Well, I’m all used up and the fields have turned brown
I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
My love for her is taking such a long time to die

I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist
It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

The walls of pride are high and wide
Can’t see over to the other side
It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away

One look at you and I’m out of control
Like the universe has swallowed me whole
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ’m were friends of mine, I was wrong about ’m all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood

I found my world, found my world in you
But your love just hasn’t proved true
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
Twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds
Reality has always had too many heads
Some things last longer than you think they will
There are some kind of things you can never kill

It’s you and you only I been thinking about
But you can’t see in and it’s hard lookin’ out
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

Well the fat’s in the fire and the water’s in the tank
The whiskey’s in the jar and the money’s in the bank
I tried to love and protect you because I cared
I’m gonna remember forever the joy that we shared

Looking at you and I’m on my bended knee
You have no idea what you do to me
I’m twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound
Twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound

One of the reasons for choosing this song is because it is the only song of these five which is on Dylan’s official VEVO channel, and therefore won’t get removed. Enjoy!

Which song of these five is your favourite?

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Last week, my attention was drawn to an article entitled “Here’s Why There Ought to be a Cap on Women Studying Science and Maths”, which actually appeared on the alt-right website Breibart back in June 2015. Breibart is a right-wing site founded by Andrew Breibart, and the website’s current executive chairman is Stephen Bannon, who has recently been named by president-elect Donald Trump as his chief strategist in Trump’s new White House team.


Women: Know Your Limits! (a comedy sketch by Harry Enfield)

“Here’s Why There Ought to be a Cap on Women Studying Science and Maths” is what I can only describe as a diatribe, written by Milo Yiannopoulos, and Englishman who seems to have become one of the main voices for the kind of misogynistic nonsense which many in the “contrastive right” like to spout. I don’t want to give any more attention to the utter drivel that Yiannopoulos writes in his article, but I thought I would quote just a few lines.

Even women who graduate with good degrees in science subjects often don’t use them: they switch careers in their twenties, abandoning the hard sciences. In some cases, they simply drop out of the workforce altogether. This is a disaster for the men who missed out on places, and it’s a criminal waste of public funds.

That’s why I think there ought to be a cap on the number of women enrolling in the sciences, maths, philosophy, engineering… and perhaps medicine and the law, too. It’s hugely expensive to train a doctor, but women have something like a third of the career of a man in medicine, despite having equal access to Harvard Med. Women make up the majority of medical students.

In addition to twisting statistics and misquoting feminist academics to support his theory that women are not really capable of doing science, Yiannopoulos even suggests that there should be caps on women studying law! Interestingly, Yiannopoulos himself has started and failed to complete degrees at two different universities, which I guess means that he is a bit of an expert on failure and wasting taxpayers’ money.

Anyway, there is really no way to argue logically with an imbecile like Yiannopoulos, his views are best countered by a bit of humour. So, here is a wonderful sketch by Harry Enfield – “Women: Know Your Limits!”. Enjoy!

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