Wednesday, 30 September 2009

An important couple of hours in the RSL

The first rain for several weeks as I drove into Oxford this morning, but after the amazing weather in Scotland last month, I can't say I have been much bothered by its absence.

The Radcliffe Science library remains in a somewhat chaotic state. Section QB, the one I most use, has moved again as space is made for a large metal cage which will house some of the rarer books in the Bodleian at some point. Many references for books and journals are of little use given the upheaval - it is often better to just take a refernce to the service desk and ask them there. And that process turns up a really important find

Once or twice over the last six months or so there have been references in one or two journal articles to a publication called Vistas in Astronomy. Needless to say, LSE's library does not have this and I hadn't looked at the RSL as my time there is still being spent on copying articles from the Journal of the History of Astronomy. But today, for a change, I spent some time on the online terminals in the RSL and found not only the relevant journal, but also that it is available online but only through the RSL terminals.

What is of great note, is volume 18 of V in A - a monumental 1100 page edition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the birth of Kepler. Available secondhand for the princely sum of close to £300, there it was online - dozens of articles on just about every aspect of Kepler that one could wish for. Kepler's time in Linz or Ulm or Regensburg (where the house in which he died become a Kepler museum), Kepler as theologian, astrologist, his views on alchemy, 11 articles on Kepler and mathematics, data processing for the Rudolphine tables, lots of optical stuff, his place in science-fiction, Kepler as poet (!), the Kepler-Schickart calculating machine, and so on. What a find.

At a cost of 7p per page, I printed 450 pages - two lever arch files worth - at one-tenth of the cost of buying the secondhand copy. I am delighted with this find. Hardly any of the individual papers appear as references elsewhere, so there is a goldmine of material here. One of the best mornings I have had for ages

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

London day - pre new term

For reasons of potential "paid work", I have a day up in London today. The two meetings go well and I am through to the next stage of the process. But it is clear that I have grave mis-givings about all this. There are a number of problems for me in this. The main one is that I would bear a number of large negatives if I went through with the plan but would gain none of the positives. Moreover, I find it hard to think that the positives elsewhere could possibly outweigh the negatives - hence it seems silly to proceed with something that has a net negative effect.

But the issues are complex and I have little idea what will come out of it all. What does annoy me more than anything else is that the various ideas being presented do not seem to be susceptible to rational argument. More or less everything I do is premised on the basis that ideas, views, etc, should be supported by argument, not just plucked out of thin air. That this is not the case in this instance is ther source of much dissatisfaction for me.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Final "vacation" work & back listening to Boris

There are just a few days left now before the start of the new term. This time last year I had just had a similar 6 weeks to the current year, where I could study more or less uninterrupted and without a weekly timetable to required reading, seminar preparations, etc. It is so good having such periods - they are the periods when I clearly get the most done and develop things in the most productive manner. I have learnt so much over the past year, it is quite amazing. The past few weeks have gone very well I think. I have been mostly working on Kepler for history of science, plus some little bits of reading for philosophy of economics and a few diversions into areas like translation studies, biography and so on.

It occurs to me that this type of work is not dissimilar to the pattern I would probably have if I was doing a PhD. I don't really know how often PhD students attend college, though the LSE ones seem to be there quite a few days a week, beavering away in their cubicles on the ground floor of the philosophy building. I envisage something much less regimented, but perhaps I am out of date with current requirements. I would rather hope not. Clearly I need to find out more about this aspect of PhDs.

I am slowly developing a proposal and getting more ideas about how to go through the application process. As with the MSc, I seem to be taking the view that I am not a great candidate, but more reflection does suggest that I really ought to be acceptable. But I will continue to work hard on this process over the next couple of months. Who knows, by Christmas I might have been accepetd onto a PhD course - wouldn't that be great?

After three months off, I have returned to the music of Boris, mainly focused on the "Rainbow" album and, of course, "Feedbacker". After the time away, it is like a breath of frech air to hear them again.

More pixs of Wata from Boris - having a female guitarist making so much noise is so cool I think

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Careers in finance?

With Emma going back to college earlier than expected, we were not able to have a father-daughter book buying trip to Oxford as we have so often done in the past. But one of the books she wanted was an "insider" account of the collapse of Lehman Brother. This arrived in the post a few days ago and I have been skimming through it as some of my non-academic reading. I think Emma will find it useful, if only for the very accurate presentation of the day-to-day life of the trader - the long hours, intense intellectual effort, etc.

Current rhetoric about the causes of the credit crunch have focused on a homogenous class called "bankers" and their greed and short-term reckless risk taking. But securitized sub-prime is not a short-term speculation, it purports to be a long term investment. Moreover the single-classification of "bankers" is such a gross oversimplification. One good way this comes through has been in the discussion of various mechanisms to convert bonuses into something long-term with various claw back arrangements. However much banking activity is very short term. This can range from FX dealers who trade and make gains and losses in a few minutes to bond-issuance in which a fee is paid out of the bond proceeds, and so on. None of these types of activities are particularly risky and none of them have long-term time scales attached to them. Hence they were not issues in the banking crisis.

One argument being made is that bonuses should be mainly in the form of shares with long-term vesting rights. That way, the staff of banks have a strong incentive to not risk the bank. Ironically, the best example of a bank with this feature was Lehmans, where the staff owed over 30% of the firms equity as a result of such bonus arrangements. One "revelation" of the book is that the boss of Lehman's truned down a $23 a share offer just months before the firm went bankrupt. No doubt there are a considerable number of staff (perhaps all of them) who are not happy with that particular trade!

Emma's plans meanwhile are developing slowly. She has applied for some jobs in fund management and is researching management consultancy. I have mixed feelings about her going into these areas. On the one hand, I think she would do very well in these jobs. On the other hand, I don't really rate these types of work very highly. They do not seem to be the type of work that would would look back on with any sort of pride. Still I suspect that is a view that can only come with age. In one's early 20s, it all looks so exciting

Reading the Lehman's book inspired me to watch a little Bloomberg TV. Back in my days of fund management, myself and the other trader were big fans of Dierdre Bolton. I don't think she is on Bloomberg anymore but I'm not certain. I remember she gave a sterling performance on Sept 11th appearing on Wall Street with dust in her hair - what a trouper. The picture below purports to be her, but doesn't look exactly how I remember her.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Reflections on the last 12 months of study

As it is nearly time for the new term to start, I have been reflecting on the things stand out most from the last 12 months. I realise that the last year has seen some very major changes from this time last year - indeed it has been a continual process of change really

This time last year I had been reading various scholarly woorks on Galileo and then found myself reading a biography of Frances Yates - I had always really admired her work (I have most of her books). But now I wonder why I spent so much time on this. It was partly to link to her life as a late-starting academic I suspect. And I was planning to read more on Giordano Bruno - her main research figure. In the end, I did manage the Rowland biography but never made it to the Ash Wednesday Supper.

By contrast, reading the Lakatos / Feyerabend correspondence (For and Against Method) was a lot of fun. It led me to Agassi's book on Popper, and even more reading on academic matters. Over the year, my view of Lakatos went down, while that of Feyerabend went up. I re-read Feyerabend's autobiography (Killing Time) and thoroughly enjoyed that again. But his Conquest of Abundance remained unread for yet another year - how often have I intended to read this?

I was distracted for a number of weeks by the project I worked on for the conference in the US that Miklos gave me the details of. Though I was sort of disappointed not to get selected, it would have been a bit beyond me to have actually done something of adequate standard for this event - so good that I wasn't selected. But I did waste 4-6 weeks on this.

My dissertation plans went through many changes, following the frequent pattern of starting with far too general a topic and gradually fining down. Of course I haven't actually done anything on my dissertation since the spring when I found that I couldn't submit it this year. My latest plans range from either doing something focused on Steven Shapin's work, to more extreme ideas of doing something completely different - maybe more related to my biography project.

And throughout the year I didn't do anything like enough writing. Too much reading, too much note taking, not enough actual writing in response to questions. Correcting this is my main goal in the new academic year

One new area of academic work that I didn't really know anything about prior to this year is the electronic access to journals and the ability to do vast searches through them in relatively quick time. Initially I printed out loads of articles but then realised that they could be saved on the PC instead. I reviewed years of some journals (e.g. Isis) and found loads of interesting stuff. But I also realised just how much has been covered already by academics and I did tend to wonder where gaps might be that I could fit into. I am still wondering

This last year saw increasing use of the Radcliffe Science Library. I have held a Bodleian reading ticket for many years but not really used it much. Recently this has changed a bit and I have worked through all 39 volumes of the Journal of the History of Astronomy in great detail. Again this has showed me just how much work others have already done in the areas that interest me most and is part of the reason for considering a biographical project rather than genuine, original research.

One interesting way of thinking about this has been my thought that when I started the course I would have rated by detailed knowledge of the history of science (esp astronomy) as being 7/10, based on years of my own reading. But now I think that I was actually a 3/10 when I started. So much new stuff has come to my attention over the last year

I have enjoyed the interaction with the other people on the course. My "best friend" was probably Caroline, then perhaps Victor and Leonardo. All had interesting pasts, interesting ideas, interesting plans for the future. One or two people on the course seemed to be genuinely creative thinkers, others considerably less so. In general, I enjoyed the seminars I attended more than I expected, though often thought that the quality of material produced by others was not great.

One major digression over the year was into the study of philosophy of history and various topics in historiography. I knew little about this before and have spent a considerable time pondering on it over the last year. Indeed, I hope to attend a course on it this year at LSE and consider it more formally.

Oddly enough, Ienjoying PH400 more than I expected. I avoided most of the topics that I already knew a lot about and instead spent quite a while on the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge - again an area that I knew little about but which has made significant in roads into history of science and with which I wholly disagree.

I am concerned about my lack of original thought but at the same time the experience has led me to a great sense of regret about not being an academic. Generally I don't believe it is sensible to regret things as regrets are subject to ceteris paribus clauses that make them nonsense. But it is pretty clear that I am much more suited to academic work than any other type. For instance, I would love to teach a history of science course.

This last topic also links to some degree to my feelings of the lack of support that I have for what I am doing. It would be nice to feel that I have some support from other people in my life. Indeed it would be nice if other people were just neutral. But the constant and vehement opposition to it has been a constant source of sadness over the year. Indeed, at times it has comfortably overwhelmed any joy I was obtaining from the course. And I suspect this issue isn't going to go away soon either

Yet for many periods I have been able to work 9-10 hours per day. I still often doesn't seem enough, but I have covered vast areas. I suffer the continual feeling that I should already know so much more than I do. I suspect this is a common feeling with post-grads

So the main plan for 2009/10 - WRITE MORE

More work on comets and first thoughts on a detailed PhD proposal

I have been pulling together some thoughts from the various sources I have acquired relating to the interpretation of comets in the late 1500s. As the new world-systems developed and began to fit it out, so such events provided battle grounds. The work Appian and others to suggest that the tail of comets always point away from the sun. That by Maestlin and Tycho Brahe to establish that comets were "above" the Moon. Yet Galileo and Kepler got comets pretty much wrong - Galileo's commitment to the Aristotelian belief in their locations, Kepler's that they move in straight lines. Would that Kepler had realised that they moved in extremely eccentric ellipses with the sun at one focus (i.e. that they followed Kepler's first two laws).

I have been putting together a piece based on a number of pictures that I have come across that illustrate some of this rather well - pictures of the Great Comet of 1577, Tycho's diagrams, modern reconstructions of its path, and so on. I have 7 pictures and am planning to write a paper based on these in some way. I will then submit this to John Milton for comments and then use it as an example of my written work for my PhD application.
Peter Apian's demonstration that the tails of comets point away from the Sun - the comet of 1532

My current PhD thoughts centre on the two main novelties of the late sixteenth / early seventeenth century, namely comets and the two nova (1572 and 1604). Of course comets aren't actually that uncommon, but the ability to make more precise observations of them is novel, as is their location within the heavens rather than as an atmospheric phenomenon. Of course the two novas are very different and really are novel. So I would like to look in detail at Tycho's work on comets and the nova of 1572, and Kepler's work on the nova of 1604 and Maestlin on each. What arguments did they use, what counter arguments were put by opponents. After all, Hellman claimed that only 5 astronomers accepted the view that the comet of 1577 was above the moon. The "rhetoric of novelty" seems to me to be a tentative theme that would sound suitable for a PhD application?

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Critiquing study techniques

I thought it would be useful over the summer to have a brief look at a couple ofbooks on study technique. I am not convinced that my current technique is as good as it could be. In general, the problem is that I am reading at too detailed a level and so progress is slow. Moreover, I am not turning my reading into critical writing.

So for the last couple of days I have been reading Fairbairn & Fairbairn's Reading at University. This has been full of surprisingly interesting stuff. I was particularly taken by the idea that you could do as an exercise - to spend a couple of hours skimming through and summarizing four journal articles. I take about 4 hours over each journal article I read, so the idea of skimming through them at the pace indicated is very different to my main practice. But might it not be worth setting aside an afternoon to try this out?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A more productive day as time runs out before term starts

Some prioritizing has become necessary as it is now barely two weeks till term starts (and only a week and a half before my two Oxford Uni courses begin). A small reading list for the next two weeks has been created, a list of those things that I want to write notes on, and whole stakes of admin-type things.

Today, the post tray is cleared, our company's accounts and tax return have been finished and posted off, new car tax has been bought, some strange VAT correspondence from years ago cleared, our number 2 phone line has been cancelled and we have moved to a lower tariff on our remaining line, notes have been taken from one article and progress made on my comet piece, a bit of work on Philosophy of Economics started, the laptop has a maintenance day and is working much better as a result. And so on. Not very interesting in their own right, but a strange sense of satisfaction as items are completed. But the current list of such things remains pretty long.

A bit of afternoon web surfing reveals that Lisa Gerrard is currently playing some shows in Europe with Klaus Schulze. Sadly it does not seem that they are coming to the U.K. However, searching a concert ticket site does reveal that Les Claypool is playing a show in London next March. He has been one of my favorite artists over the past three or four years, though I have to admit that I am less keen on the current material, especially now that ace, Japanese sitar-player Gabby La La is no longer in his band. I am very tempted by seeing this show - my first concert for a year or so. Also discovered that Throwing Muses have done some shows this year. The 2005 show I saw by them was one of my favourites.

For the first time in a few years I watched an episode of Inspector Morse. It turns out there are about 6 episodes of this that I haven't seen. I had forgotten how good they could be. Tonight was called "Fat Chance", a series 5 episode with lots of college-related stuff in it. Watching this does boost my motivation to study in Oxford at some point going forward.

Linda has caught a cold to add to the various other things, so I will be trying to stay up late to let her get to sleep before me.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Essay on comets, reading about "Bluestockings"

After a few days off, I am back writing my piece on the comet of 1577. This is a exposition piece on various views over the period prior to Newton and mainly focuses on Michael Maestlin and Tycho Brahe, with only a little bit of Kepler. At the moment I am very pleased with it. I have decided to use 7 illustrations and these work well I think. Hopefully I will have this ready in the next week or so and can get some comments on it from a couple of my teachers. I am hoping to use it as an example of my writing to include on my PhD application which I hope to make around the end of October

Current "light-hearted" reading post Dunant is Jane Robinson's Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to fight for an education. I was particularly taken by the strong expressions of the love of learning that the book contains. That, of course, fits very well with my own views of the world. I have really enjoyed the half I have read so far though I would have prefered more direct quotes or extracts from the letters of the people involved.

In the light of Emma returning to college, I have been thinking about that old saying that one's time at college is often the best time of your life. That always seems a sad idea to me, but there is definitely some truth in it, especially if one's working life is dominated by working 48 weeks a year. I tend to view the couple of years from mid 2001 as my favourite. I worked at home, spent a lot of time with Emma, worked hard but mainly for myself . . . . By contrast, my second year at Uni was very poor. True I worked extremely hard and laid the foundations for my First, but I wasn't very happy that year. The time I wasn't working I spent listening to music or attending live concerts. I was very much on my own though. Year three was such a big improvement.

A 1930s "cocoa party"

Saturday, 19 September 2009

A better day and Emma's return to Cambridge

Emma and I visited Grandma today. Remarkably, this is the first time they have seen each other for close to six months. Of course this is due to the run up to Emma's exams and her working over the summer. Still, it is a surprisingly long time.

We have lunch at mum's local spot, Hillers, and Emma updates her on the many things that have happened over the summer. I read somewhere the other day that grandparents and grandchildren get on so well because they share a common enemy! I trust that is not true in my case.

It is now just over three years since dad died and mum seems to be managing ok. I am planning a trip up next week to go through all he recent paperwork and get some order into it all. She is still not very well but there seems to be a new line of enquiry from her doctor. After lunch today she wasn't keen to come to Stratford with us. Instead she was planning on having a sleep for a couple of hours. She has managed to have a few trips away this year - indeed tomorrow she is going to Shepton Mallet to visit an antique fair that she used to have a stand at. I think it is really only doing the antique fairs she still does that creates her tiredness. But it would be a shame to stop doing these.

Emma and I spend a couple of hours in Stratford working our way through an extensive list of jobs to be done. Everything from new passport photos to vital products from Boots. Overall, a very good day today - the first for a while

After a day of extensive packing, it is time for Emma to return to Cambridge. The initial plan had been to stay another week at home, but that has changed in the last day or so. I personally am quite upset about this, as I'd been quite looking forward to spending a bit more time with Emma. But I can also see the argument that it would be good to try and maximize her time in Cambridge now she is starting her last year. In fact she is planning to keep her room for the entire year this time, so she can spend time there at Christmas and Easter.

This year Emma is living in Whewell Court - named after the philosopher of science and former master of Trinity of course, whose History of the Inductive Sciences I have read a bit of in the last year. We have to park at Great Gate and it takes me 25 trips to and from the car to move everything in - I reckon that involved around 4km of walking. Emma's room is very nice - perhaps the best she has had while at Cambridge. Certainly the best views. She was just about sorted out when I finally finished. I would think she will be very happy there. And I won't be moving the stuff back home until next June

The end quadrangle of Whewell Court. Ludwig Wittgenstein had the top room in the tower over the arch. This was the famous room containing deck chairs. For Emma, the arch is the quickest way to Sainsbury's

William Whewell - philosopher of science

Thursday, 17 September 2009


A couple of times in the past week I have had cause to accompany members of the family to our doctors in Faringdon. We have been registered there for fifteen years now but it occurs to me that I have actually only been to the doctors once in that time - for an extreme sore throat seven or eight years ago.

But over the last few months I have definitely not been feeling particularly good and I have wondered whether I should be going for more regular check ups. But given the huge number of people there last time - mostly pensioners which some quite clear problems - it seems like a waste of there time for me to go.

It is pretty clear though that all is not well with my health at the moment. In the last year I have not done much exercise and my weight has ballooned by about 20lbs in one year. The cause of this seems fairly clear. I have wanted to work as hard as I can on my MSc and I have prioritzed this over exercise. Worst still, I have tended to graze on biscuits and coca cola while working. But hanging over me thoughout that period have been issues related to paid work, which could, at any time, stop my studying instantly. In many ways, this period of study has been one of the happiest in my life - the work is endlessly fascinating and I have little trouble doing ten to twelve hours a day. But the threat hanging over it at any time really affects how I feel about it overall. It is certainly enough to make me want to study each day till I'm just about exhausted, even if that means I do no exercise and eat really badly.

Reading one of Emma's fitness magazines the other day, I was struck by how many of the symptoms of IBS I seem to have. By mid to late morning I am beginning to feel bloated and this continues for pretty much the rest of the day. Clearly fizzy drinks are one major cause, but when I don't have them I have noticed that milk seems to be another cause. If I cut about both, I do feel better. But its hard to tell though really. It could be all sorts of things on the day that make a difference. But I am making an effort to cut down on coke

In the background is the growing fear that as I get older I have something more seriously wrong with me. Both my dad and grandad died of cancer but both were older than 75 when it happened. Patrick Swayze died a couple of days ago. He also died of cancer and was only 57 - that's only 10 years or so older than I am. And Keith Floyd as well - another of those people whose death makes the world a lesser place. Amazing that it is nearly 30 years since Floyd on Fish hit the screens.

So I find myself turning increasingly into some sort of hypochondriac, though not in the sense of ever actually going to a doctors about anything. Perhaps we have been watching too many medical dramas (most recently the last couple of E.Rs).

It would be so awful to feel that I only had 10 years left. There is so much more to do!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Sarah Dunant's Birth of Venus

I have just finished my second book by Sarah Dunant, her first Renaissance novel, The Birth of Venus. Unlike my reading of Sacred Hearts, which I deliberately spread out over many weeks, I have read this one in about a week. Once again I am impressed by the research that went into the book. It is set in Florence in the late fifteenth century when the city was, in a wild post-Medici swing, under the sway of the preacher Savoranola. Earlier in the year I read Lauro Martines's book about this same period. I was most impressed again by the way the story is woven into the historical events.

And again the main character has a strong desire for study and knowledge which is, of course, my own main driver in life. Indeed, Alessandro is one of the most moving characters I have ever read of. Her great love of art is beautifully captured. I felt she would have been a wonderful person to know

My main complaints relate to the last part where decades are condensed into about 40 pages. Alessandro is less than 20 years old when the main action of the novel is over. It seems a shame to rush through forty years plus so quickly. I also found the scenes at the convent with the painter somewhat unconvincing, though I suppose it was a neat way to move Alessandro's daughter on her way.

Some scenes I found deeply moving. One where her mother disagrees with her view that she is ugly. The scene where she sees her father for the last time. And a scene below

"I have memorised Dante's geography of hell well. The wood of the suicides is near to the burning ground of the sodomites. Sometimes they rush in, beating down the flames that ignite constantly all over their scarred bodies and, as Dante would have it, on occasions there is time for them to stop and converse a little with other damned souls about art and literature and the sins for which they are all condemned. I would like that"

And so would I. Recently, an increasing number of times I have found myself desperately sad. What it would be to have someone to talk to about the thinks that interest me - the way Emma and I did when she was growing up. But she has her own life to lead now and, by contrast, I am left feeling such despair about my current life. I feel I have done a good job of helping Emma get to where she is now - I just need to think back to the horror of 1990 and what might have happened if other decisions (about which I had little say) had occured. Now, there is little more for me to contribute it seems. But for the moment at least, I am not thinking of following Alessandro's chosen path.

But no scene was more affecting to me than the final page where Alessandro comments on the alter painting she had made for her convent.

"My chapel is sadly mediocre. Should future connoisseurs of the new art come upon it they will glance at it for a moment and then pass on, noting it as an attempt by an inferior artist in a superior age. Yet, it has a feel for colour (that passion I never lost), and there are times when my father's cloth moves like water and the occasional face speaks of character as well as paint. But the compositions are clumsy and many of the figures, for all of my care, remain staid and lacking in life. If kindness and honesty were to be held in mutual regard, one might say it was the work of an older artist without training who did her best and deserves to be remembered as much for her enthusiasm as for her achievement

And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not

Because if you were to put it with all the others . . . then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.

And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me"

For some reason, I have now been moved to tears on all three occasions that I have read this passage - perhaps because it speaks to my great wish to publish something academic that might have a little impact. And perhaps because I don't have anyone to share my desire for this with. Increasingly, such thoughts cause me a great deal of pain.

Make that four times . . .

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Reading Jardine on Koyre and Kepler

Visiting some Oxford colleges

While breakfasting in our favourite cafe in the covered market, Linda noticed that it was some sort of Open Day in Oxford today and that some of the colleges were participating in this. I have been reviewing the various websites of Oxford colleges as part of the initial work on possibly applying to do a PhD there and have a small short list of candidates. Three of these are just round the back of the covered market - Exeter, Jesus and Lincoln - and the first of these was participating in today's event. So, for the first time ever, we have been for a look round an Oxford college (despite living close by for 15 years). And very nice too, as one might expect. The chapel, dining room and gardens were all very nice. I'm sure it would be quite a thrill to study somewhere like this - just as it is no doubt for Emma at Trinity. Afterwards we had a quick look round Balliol which we didn't think was as impressive!

PhD applications can be made anytime from about now so I do need to do something on it each week from now on, with a view of applying at the end of October or there abouts My most urgent task is to produce some more written work and to arrange times to discuss the matter with various people at LSE (where I will also apply). I have re-registered for the new academic year which, I am surprised to realise, is only three weeks away from starting. Must try and read something for Philosophy of Economics soon.

Exeter College Quad

Balliol College from Broad Street - perhaps the most photographed college in Oxford?

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Kepler Opera fiasco and comets

Several months ago I was doing a Google search on Kepler and stumbled across the news that Philip Glass had written a opera on Kepler that would be premiered in November this year. I was very excited about attending this and knew that tickets went on sale on September 8th. The opera had been commissioned by the city of Linz in Austria where Kepler spent the last years of his life and was being linked to both the 400th anniversary of the publication of Astronomia Nova, but also Linz's status as the EU city of culture for 2009. For some reason that now escapes me, I had therefore assumed that the production was being staged in Linz - perhaps the fact that it is being performed by a Linz orchestra?

The online booking system wasn't available first thing and I kept checking back every fifteen minutes. Then it was apparently working but I couldn't selct the ticket I wanted. But several hours later I finally managed to get through and book a ticket for the Friday night. Only then did I discover that the performance wasn't in Linz at all, but Brooklyn, New York! So my plan to use the trip to visit a number of Kepler-related sites has been completely ruined. I can't believe I was so stupid! I got one of the last remaining tickets - no wonder, Brooklyn is Glass's home territory. Right at this moment I am not sure whether I want to go - will have to think about it over the next few days

I have been working on some aspects of the comet of 1577 over the past few days as prep for some essay writing. I have found a website from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the USA that contains a database on comets including details of the 1577 comet as calculated from the available data. This allows the user to track the comet's path and can be linked to the data taken at the time. This seems to me to be an interesting add on to a standard history and one that Robert Westman was happy to use in a paper on this comet from the early 1970s.

A famous woodcut of the comet of 1577 by Jiri Daschitzsky showing the view over Prague on November 12th

Though I can remember the Apollo missions and the moon landing, my interest in astronomy actually dates from a few years later when Comet Kohoutek approached the earth in 1973/74. This was a deep space comet and was widely expected to put on a spectacular display. So each clear evening I would travel across to Kenilworth Castle on the opposite side of town and from where there was a long uninterrupted view to the horizon in the west. And using my dad's binoculars and star charts from the papers I would search for Kohoutek. It was a great disappointment. Once or twice I might have seen it but it was not the great naked eye event that I had been led to believe it could be. After all, the 1577 comet had a tail that spanned 22% of the sky. If I saw Kahoutek, it was a very faint smudge at best

But despite that, my love of astronomical observation was born in that period - perhaps as Venus and Jupiter were good viewing at that time. Over the next four or five years I filled many notebooks with my observations, mainly detailed star maps that I prepared in the back garden and on which I plotted planetary positions, especially Mars and Jupiter. I still have some of my original charts showing Mars in retrograde motion in either 1974 or 1975

Comet Kahoutek - such a disappointment

The path of Kahoutek, a deep space, non-repeating comet. My attempted observations were early 1974, when it should have visible in the early evening

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Art Blogs & Durer

A new favourite blog - "Art Blog by Bob" - three years or so of thoughts on art, beautifully illustrated. I am even pondering on printing out a few months. It would make a tremendous book. Indeed, it could be used as the basis for a novel it seems to me.

As I am still reading about Rudolf II in Prague at the end of the Sixteenth Century, Durer has figured in my recent thinking about art. As a teenager I used to do detailed pen and ink copies of works by Durer, at least in outline (I didn't bother with all the cross hatching). But I knew little about him and indeed still don't really.

Melencolia I (1514). Perhaps this isn't as negative an image as commonly thought. It is usually interpreted as being a tragic genius overwhelmed by frustration and despair, surrounded by a disorderly array of instruments and with the wings of time on her back. But maybe it really shows her in a state of visionary trance, inspired and protected by the spirit of Saturn.

Durer's Self portrait. Always one of my favourites (especially in comparison with other portraits of the period). So direct

I love pictures like this - such wonderful detail
I used to attempt pictures like this all the time - there is a great skill in showing folds in cloth.

St Jerome - given my current interest in translation, an appropriate image. He looks stuck on some subtle point?

Ghirlandaio's St Jerome - also seem to be finding translation difficult

Monday, 7 September 2009

Several random topics

A few thoughts on a variety of themes from the past few days

David Sylvian

I have never been a great fan of David Sylvian, though in fairness I have only heard a couple of Japan albums and the record he made with Robert Fripp. But the current issue of The Wire has a long interview with him that piqued my interest. First up there were some comments that he may, during his spell with Virgin, have been unconsciously self-censoring his work. Now he is off this label, his work has changed dramatically. Secondly, he is now much more involved with the improv movement and had a number of interesting points about linking his singing in with improvised music. Finally, he apparently lives on his own miles from anyone spending most of his time alone. I am still very tempted by such a life style choice! So I have been listening to his last CD - Blemish - for the last couple of day and a fine record it is too, especially the title track. But I do find his voice a little irritating after a while


Lots of reading about theories of translations. Mainly Eco's Mouse or Rat, which has proved extremely interesting, especially the many examples he gives from his own books. I have also been struck by the many clues to Eco's style of fiction writing, which seems to involve lifting great chunks of material from documents from the middle ages, but in an intertextual way rather than as acts of plagarism.

Not sure yet whether I feel up to the challenge of translating medieval science. Quite a few points have suggested just how hard this will be

Not writing much

As always - reading too much, writing too little. But I do have a few things planned before the end of the current month.

Diet / exercise

After one good week, I got distracted. So little progress. But I am interested in the process of all this. I will get going again soon

Domestic events

Many recent domestic events have reminded me of some events from my distant past. This is not a good thing. I suspect I remain rather naive about these processes. Reading more fiction has alerted me to some of these points, as has a recent focus on biographies.

Some interesting recent viewing / listening
A documentary about Arvo Part, the Sigur Ros video Heima, and some cds by British shoegazing band, Lush, which I haven't heard for years, the usual sort of thing

Another musical hero - Aro Part. His Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Brittain would be in my top ten

Sigur Ros, Heima. Some beautiful photography and a reminder of how amazing Iceland is. Can it really be 8 years since I went there?
Miki and Emma from Lush - wonder what they are doing now? Today's listening was mainly Gala and Split. "Desire Lines" from the latter is today's favourite track
I only saw Lush in concert once, and I remember that the sound wasn't great. I always felt they were treated rather badly by the music press. There was definitely some quality stuff there I felt.
More from "Guitar Geek" - Miki's live set-up. Not the most complicated!

Rudolf II & Prague

I have just about finished Peter Marshall's The Mercurial Emperor - his biography of Rudolf II. This is a good example of the sort of issues raised by different styles of biography. The beginning and end are straightforwardly chronological, while the middle chapters take a thematic approach. I think this generally works well, especially since Marshall is not strongly focused on the military and political history of the period. So there are several chapters on Rudolf's patronage of art, quite a lot on magic, and, of course, a couple of chapters on Tycho and Kepler. Without doubt, this provides a great deal of interesting colour for a view of Prague in the period and does manage to compliment Evan's book on Rudolf, which has been my main source up to now.

I am now keen enough on a visit to Prague that I have bought a guide book. But so far we have no idea when such a trip could be made. Maybe next May if Emma doesn't want to go away after exams.

In the meantime, more odd art from Rudolf's time in Prague - Archiboldo's portrait of Rudolf's librarian, and two works by Spranger, Venus and Vulcano and Venus and Adonis

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Reading "The Treasurer"

I have recently renewed my annual membership of the Association of Corporate Treasurer, one of two professional bodies to which I belong and perhaps the most important. Today the September issue of "our" magazine has arrived. Am I wrong, or does it continue to shrink in size each month - I seem to remember it as a substantial magazine of perhaps 60 pages plus. Now it is below 40. I could be wrong though.

Glancing through it is a depressing affair. The technical issues seem deeply unimportant to me. The small list of people on the move, the reviews of bond market and bank facility trends, new accounting standards, the possibility that OTC derivative markets might be killed off by regulatory authorities, the continual discussion of pensions, the latest lending innovations and the resurgence in convertible bond issuance, and so on and so forth. It is all just so ghastly!

In the Exam results section I am surprised to see three people have passed who work for Imperial. I met someone earlier in the year from this past life and he mentioned that the Treasury department there now has nearly 20 people in it. Extraordinary. Moreover there is a job advert for a Treasury Dealer at a "Bristol based tobacco company" - so they evidently need someone else.

It all seems such a long time ago and the idea of being involved in it all again fills me with a great discomfort. But the prospect does not go away completely and continues to lurk in the background all the time. One day it will be gone and I will be able to not renew my ACT membership and will be thrown out of the organisation. What a happy day that will be!

Latin translation and some one-off things

For the last couple of weeks I have been investigating various aspects of translation, partly as preparation for the latin course I am taking in Oxford, and partly due to the Latin translation component that there might be in my current PhD plans. One area that I have been looking at are software translation programmes and I have been testing a couple on Jardine's book on Kepler's Defence of Tycho against Ursus which has the original latin text before his tranlation. As one might expect, results have been somewhat mixed. Some sentences are translated quite well by the programmes, but some have been almost unrecognisable. This might suggest that my plans are subject to more difficulties that I had perhaps imagined?

But according to Linda, who is afterall fluent in German and pretty good at Latin, this is not an uncommon aspect of translation. Many sentences and phrases are cultural dependent and word-for-word translation is often misleading. Indeed, she thought that perhaps 90% of all translation effort concerns perhaps 10% of the text being translated, a claim I have seen expressed elsewhere as well. So perhaps all is not lost. Maybe I would be able to get the gist of a piece, and would need to use a "professional" for just a portion of it. And of course Oxford has plenty such professionals.

I have also been reading two other books on this subject that I acquired a couple of weeks ago - George Steiner's After Babel and Umberto Eco's Mouse or Rat. Steiner's is the longer and perhaps more theoretical of the two - it is certainly the more polemic, and has chapter headings containing the words "theory" and "hermeneutics". By contrast, Eco's book is a bit easier going, mainly as it is based on examples from his own works. These are full of Italian literary references and present substantial difficulties for his translators. Perhaps the message of both books is that there is less science and more art to a good translation. Both books have provided support to my thoughts on my projects, rather than put me off - which is a good thing I reckon.

On other matters, Linda has been suffering from an extremely sore eye for the past few days. After a trip to the opticians, we have had a trip to the eye hospital at John Radcliffe where it turns out that Linda does have some sort of infection and has been prescribed a 6 week course in extremely strong eye drops to be taken once every hour for the first few days, then every two hours for the next week and so on. I am very concerned about things related to eyes - presumably due to reading being such a big part of my life.

While we were in Oxford, I was able to pick up my newly-framed Richard Long picture. This is actually the leaflet from the exhibition in London that I went to a month or so back. It unfolds into a large square but with the fold lines marking the edges of small pictures. It is quite a large picture and I had it framed by the guy who runs the picture stand at the weekly market at Gloucester Green. £60, which was somewhat less than the shocking £200 from the other place we use in Oxford. It now hangs in the main lounge, replacing the two photos I had framed recently. I am very pleased with it indeed.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Timetabling for the new academic year

Bits and pieces are starting to fall into place for the start of the new academic year. The main outstanding question has been what should my third subject. Ideally I would have liked to do the Philosophy of Mathematics course that was on the schedule when I first applied for my course but now seems to have been dropped. So after a look at the other courses, it would seem that Philosophy of Economics is my best bet.

With that in mind it was off to the LSE website to see if there is any timetable info for next term. And, much to my surprise, it actually looks like things fit together rather well. In particular, I may be able to take the historiography course that I spotted last year (too late to see it by then)

So including my two Oxford courses, my timetable looks like


9:00 - 10:00 . Philosophy of Economics Lecture

11:00 - 1:00 . .Representing the past: Historiography and Historical Methods

2:00 - 3:30 . . .Philosophy of Economics Seminar


11:00 - 1:00 . .History of Science lecture and seminar (Kings)

7:30 - 9:30 . . .Writing Biography (Oxford)


10:30 - 12:30 .Latin 1 (Oxford)

Overall I think this is pretty good, if pretty intense on a Wednesday. The main issue will be whether to stay up in London on a Wednesday night.

And as usual, the possibility of having to do some paid work again is rather hanging over me so I am tempted to work flat out for as long as possible. That has had rather a detrimental effect on me since this time last year. But I am still tempted to work this way for the coming period - however long that turns out to be.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

God's Philosophers & Rudolf II

For the past couple of days I have been making my way through Hannam's God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World laid the Foundations of Modern Science. As I suspected, there are a number of things that I have disagreed with. However, I am also much impressed by considerably portions of it.

Indeed, I would say more than that. In many respects, it is an excellent introduction to the Duhem continuity thesis. It seems clear that Hannam has also been influenced greatly by Edward Grant and David Lindberg, but that is no bad thing either.
My main criticism (as with the entirely continuity thesis) is that it rather overstates its case. The best aspects of the argument are that the "scientific revolution" so-called (say 1543 onwards) would have been very different (if not impossible) without prior innovations such as the rise of the Universities, the rediscovery of much Greek thought via Islam and the development of printing. But the case weakens with the detailed examination of individual participants, such as Roger Bacon, Oresme, Buridan, etc. Yes, there are innovations and valid critiques but Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, etc are leagues away from this.

But that said, the story told is pretty good. I particularly liked the sections on Peter Abelard(clearly taken from Clanchy's brilliant Abelard: A Medieval Life which I read last year), Aquinas and the Condemnations of 1277, the Merton calculators and on anatomy. I objected to various sections that seemed irrelevant (such as the discussion of gothic arches in cathedrals) and to what I considered to be some terrible dumbing down in the early chapters producing some quite hideous sentences (in my view). For instance

. . . . . . . The Emperor ruled from the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine
. . . . . . . Empire, which was so called after "Byzantium", the old Greek name for
. . . . . . . Constantinople

I did not find this a very elegant phrase! Perhaps another dozen examples like this!

I also objected to quite a lot of the broad historiographic discussion in the early sections

But that said, it is also very significant to me that such a book has been published. Afterall, I am very aware of the main parts of this story but it had not occured to me that it could be used to write a "popular" history of science book. So I think there is also much to ponder on concerning the publication of this. Afterall, I think it is the first book by Hannam and he doesn't appear to be an academic. That alone should be of high significances to me.

My reading over and above Hannam has mainly been about Rudolf II. I am really keen to visit Prague as a result. Perhaps next year some time? In the meantime, more interesting pictures

Allegedly, this is Kepler explaining his discoveries to Rudolf. Not sure of the details of it though

Spranger's Minerva triumphs over Ignorance - a "northern mannerist" painting from the collection of Rudolf