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Leiden and Universe Awareness

This has been an exciting week of planning. You don’t tend to think of planning as being an exciting process, but this was. I traveled to Leiden in the Netherlands to visit the world famous Pedro Russo. If you were involved in any part of the International Year of astronomy in 2009, you will have had emails beginning “Dear Friends” giving you weekly updates about exciting astronomical events happening in local and remote parts of the world. Pedro now is the international coordinator for the Universe Awareness programme, based in University of Leiden. Recently he and I have taken the reins of an IAU task force for children and schools, under the guidance of the IAU‘s office for astronomy development. The 2 of us and our task force members are tasked with helping to form a strategy which will inspire children and schools in developing countries to engage in science investigations at any level.

It was rather a jolly week all told. I stayed in a very pretty part of Leiden in a huge town house which the owner is exploring turning into a guest house, using the Netherlands “4 bed rule” – where any house can be a guest house as long as you don’t rent more than 4 rooms out. Pedro used his powers to persuasion to get me a bike to use for the week too, which was incredibly handy for getting around. It took some mastering because it had neither brake levers nor gears. You had to back-pedal to brake. I only fell of once or twice. Per journey. I will certainly be taking my Brompton on my next visit.

We spent a very fruitful week discussing plans for our IAU task force (I really think we should have an outfit like superheroes or at the very least a sports strip), created a collaboration between our 2 projects (Las Cumbres Observatory and Universe Awareness), and had a jolly time throwing science outreach ideas around.

I gave a science communication seminar about the citizen science mission of Las Cumbres Observatory on the Wednesday to a packed lecture room (actually, there was quite a lot of space). It seemed to go down well, and I had nice comments from people which always helps. One of the ladies attending had told me that she had seen Brian Cox give a TED talk and she thought he was “hot”, but when she watched Wonders of the Solar System the “hotness” waned, and finally he “was totally out of hotness”. When I saw her texting during my seminar I saw this as an opportunity to acquaint every one with this story and speculate if she was updating the “hotness” of my talk. She told me afterwards, that if I’d had any “hotness” it had all gone now. She also said I was like a “chubby” Pedro. I will leave the final word on that up to the discerning reader…

On my final night we took a trip to the Hague to sample the delights of a local festival, Pop Hot Spot, where we were introduced to the music of a band of 16 years olds called Jungle by Night. Their musical genre was something called Afro beats (which I have never heard of) but reminded of prog-rock music, particularly Yes. Maybe in 40 years they will still be touring and making a comfortable living of the songs they wrote in the youth. I rather enjoyed what they had to offer, particularly where they said that the next song was inspired by Murder, She Wrote. I’m not entirely sure of the root of this inspiration, but you never can tell with these arty types. Maybe there was an off stage murder, or maybe they composed it in Cabot Cove.

17 May was a public holiday in the Netherlands in celebration of the newly regenerated Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, so that mankind can get on with religious wars and prejudice for the foreseeable, without the almighty giving them disapproving looks. The owner of this car is clearly a big fan of Jesus’ mum. They missed a trick. If only they’d had the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) stenciled onto a BMW. Notice the dinosaur on the dashboard; they’re clearly not all bad.

The Cardiff-Amsterdam city hopper service by KLM makes it so convenient to pop over the Leiden I hope this is the beginning of more collaborative trips, in both directions.

A word to the wise, there are the most delicious waffles to be had in the vending machine of the Leiden University Physics department. Only 80c too.

Eurocycle: a holiday in Netherlands and Belgium

In August 2010, Haley and I had decided to take 2 weeks off. Haley was just about ready to chew a lump out of her computer and throw undergraduates through her 3rd floor office window, so a break was very necessary. We phoned a variety of travel agents but because it was all done in rather a hurry, with only a weeks notice, there was nothing suitable. We considered going on a cruise, but Haley decreed it was SilverSea or nothing. Cruising was off.

We both like cycling but Haley is rubbish with hills. We did not want to fly anywhere, so the obvious choice was to catch the train to Brussels and potter about on the bikes. We have gorgeous, little, folding Brompton bikes which we both adore. There are plenty of companies which will rent you bikes and ferry your luggage from guest house to guest house (Skedaddle, CTC are a few we considered). We decided we would do it alone. It wasn’t just the cost although tour companies are very much more expensive than the equivalent days in nice hotels, and don’t usually include flights to the starting point. We wanted to go at our own pace, did not really want to be sociable with the rest of the pack after a hard day’s cycle, and wanted have flexibility to change plans en route. Plus the tour companies usually offer unidentified guest houses.

The alternative is to carry everything with you. It was amazing how much you don’t actually need.

Essential kit:

  • Padded cycle shorts – We were skeptical but after the first 50 miles we found they were a godsend. We got undershort variety so you can wear normal clothes over them. It does feel like you are wearing a nappy when you walk in them. Don’t wear pants (those are British not American pants) with them. It might seem gross but trust me.
  • Sugary snacks – Kendal Mint Cake would have been ideal, but for us it was Jelly Babies. You need something which will give you enough of a boost to carry you through a few extra miles at the end of the day.
  • Sturdy pannier bags – we bought the Brompton own brand ones with bracket. It was incredible how much weight they can take, thanks to the excellent design. Much better to push it than carry it.
  • GPS – We bought the iPhone app Trails. It will cache maps (from OpenCycle map) so you don’t need to have a working cellular data network available. We would been lost without it. Literally lost. It has loads of great features e.g. recording your route,

Day 1:

  • Cycle from our house to Cardiff Central station
  • Cardiff Central to London Paddington
  • London Paddington – London St Pancras
  • London St Pancras – Brussels (Eurostar)
  • Brussels – Amsterdam (on the speedy Thalys)

The cycle through London we suspected would be the most stressful part of the journey on Day 1. Not at all. Boris has done a marvellous job of creating dedicated cycle paths and lanes, some of which even have their own traffic lights. We both felt much safer than cycling around Cardiff – with its onesize fits all, bus-taxi-cycle lanes.

The Thalys train is flame red, but be careful at Brussels International station, they might be typically belgian and switch the platform on you with 5 minutes to go and only make the announcement in Flemish and French. It was a miracle we made it.

We arrived in Amsterdam in the early evening having left Cardiff in the morning. You could have flown much quicker, but we were on holiday and the journey was part of that. Anyway trains are great.


View Netherlands & Belgium Eurocycle 2010 in a larger map

We spent a couple of days in Amsterdam doing touristy type things which you can read about on the part 1 of my Eurocycle blog (written en route using the marvelous iPad).

Day 2:

  • Amsterdam to Leiden

Leaving Amsterdam in a southern direction you should look out for the combined LF2/LF7 route. At waymarker 62 these two routes separate. We went South West on LF2 toward waymarker 68 – 01 – 39. We carried on following the LF2 until point 05, where we headed towards Leiden 05 – 73 – 74 – 70. Its a beautiful cycle mostly along canals with lots of windmills. Very friendly dutch, lycra-clad giants offered help to a lost looking welshman and his wife.

We had actually bought a map but because the first part wasn’t on it we were totally unprepared for how long it would take and arrived just after dark. I would not recommend cycling these routes in the dark because they are mostly unlit and some of the paths are veeeeery narrow, alongside canals.

We were staying with a friend in Leiden who welcomed us into the house, exhausted, slightly smelly, and in desparate need of a strong cuppa and sit down. She then made us cycle across the city to a restaurant. I very nearly dozed off in my soup. Fortunately, nobody noticed. You can read all about the journey from the blog I did at the time.

Day 3.

  • Leiden to The Hague
  • The Hague to Delft
  • Delft to Rotterdam

If you have a GPS machine or a GPS smart phone app (like the rather good Trails) handy you can download our route for day 3 (GPX format).

We left Leiden quite early and had a very enjoyable lunch in the Hague during the heat of the day in a square just behind the Binnenhof. There were lots of business men and women, all looking the trendy mix of professional and fashionable, and us in our cycling gear looking grubby.

Delft was our next destination and is a beautiful place with a gigantic Nieuwe Kerke (New Church). It is rather strange because it was built as a Lutheran cathedral, so unlike every other cathedral or large church I’ve been in there is no focus towards the east end where the high altar would have been. Have an ice-cream and sit in the square gazing at the Kerke at one end and the equally stunning town hall at the other. It was so hot, my ice-cream made a bid for freedom down my inside leg. Most embarrassing.

The cycle to Rotterdam was less pleasant because we were rather tired, hot and my knee was playing up. We may also have gone the wrong way once or twice which is never good for morale. Our hotel was a corporate, businessman type of hotel with no soul and certainly no room service. Despite lots of pain in my knee, we hobbled off to find dinner in this industrial city. You have to look really hard for something nice, but eventually found a charming deli which turned into a restaurant at night.

Day 4:

  • Rotterdam (Netherlands) to Antwerp (Belgium)

The next day my leg was so bad we had to change our plans and catch the train all the way to Antwerp. There we had a marvelous time, staying in a gorgeous boutique hotel (Hotel Julien) and catching up with the adventures of the little giantess (an annual city-wide artistic spectacular).

Day 5:

  • Antwerp to Dendemonde
  • Dendemonde to Ghent

When it was finally time to move on we left quirky Antwerp on the faithful LF2 just outside Antwerp castle and the statue of the giant who used to rule the city. The weather was decidedly grotty and as we cycled warily through the industrial part of the city that the cycle path dragged us through, the rain came down. We had light-weight waterproofs but quickly these became drenched and rather cold. We stayed on the LF2 until the town of Schelle, then we jumped onto the LF5. One of our friends, Sarah (who blogs over at One Small Step) recommended the Temse to Dendemonde route, and she was right – it was a beautiful cycle. Make sure you jump over the river and have a look at the little market town of Temse.

The route we followed on the map (again thanks to OpenCycleMap.org), by the waymarker numbers, was:

  • 57-59-41-42-43-33-32-70–30-34-31-54-01-02-03–75 for a pop over the bridge to Temse and back to 03–04-05-06-08-76-67-ferry to-68-57-56-99-89

My knee was totally knackered by the time we got to Dendemonde so we elected to take the train the rest of the way to Ghent. Sadly Ghent was a bit of a let down after all the fun to be had in Antwerp. There were some pretty bits but most of the city seemed to be under heavy re-construction.

Day 6:

  • Ghent to Bruges

You can download our route part of day 5 and all of day 6: Temse to Bruges for your GPS thingy (GPX format).

…more coming

Day 7:

  • Bruges to Brussels
  • Brussels to London St Pancras
  • London St Pancras to London Paddington
  • London Paddington to Cardiff Central
  • Cardiff Central to our little house

Stand up and be scared

Yesterday was the most terrifying Halloween I’ve had for many a long year. It was finally my time to do stand-up comedy at the Bright Club Wales. I had tentatively agreed to do it way back in April when I saw a colleague, Peter Coles, doing a turn. I have had a naive curiosity about doing stand-up and I have always wanted to give it a go. Because I firmly believe that you should never be too scared to give anything a go, I signed up.

I’ve done after-dinner speeches, been best-man at 2 weddings and regularly give public talks so I thought I would be fine. Until I remembered that this time I had to be funny. It wasn’t an option to go on stage and be amusing and sweet in a slightly awkward way. I actually had to make people laugh. Fortunately, it went really well and I had an amazing time on stage. I decided better of doing a Brian Cox impression.

Before you watch be warned there is strong language from the start – it got me a cheap laugh!

There were a couple of other amateur acts including Rhys who used to be a student of mine, and some professional acts; Bob Ramsey, a spirit medium (he looked more like a large to me) and Jon Chase (aka Oort Kuiper), a really brilliant rapper and science communicator. His video of the Periodic Table rap is great.

And lastly, many thanks to MC Dean Burnett for invaluable advice while I was preparing my set.

Astronomers like to MOVE IT

Most of us talk with our hands. I do. Particularly when I’m trying to explain a difficult concept in physics. The first, and most lasting, recollection that one of my best friends has of me is waving my hands around trying to explain some long forgotten point about astronomy.

Whilst editing some video for Teapots from Space, my friend Jon remarked that with the sound off the astronomers looked like they were dancing…..so on a rainy afternoon I explored that a bit more.

I am very sorry to draw your attention to flamboyant moves of Dr Chris North, Dr Rob Simpson, Dr Pete Hargrave and Prof. Peter Coles. Actually, I’m not. They are guilty as charged!

Naked twix

Tea twix tube

This is a quick blog response to Amanda (famous for her Astropixie blog). She is currently observing at the AAT (Anglo-Australian Telescope) and because the weather is exceedingly inclement, they are spending the long, starless nights doing Tim Tam Slams. While I was a PhD student I became a little bit obsessed with doing Tea-twix-tubes or twix-straws. The idea is similar. Jon and I thought we’d show you how it’s done.

First, take your scrumptious Twix finger

Next bite the ends of it (you can see me having a good old chew in the picture). This is essential to getting a good draw of tea through the body of the twix finger. Use the moments after you have bitten the ends of your twix off to go and make a nice hot cuppa, or you might be tempted to gobble the rest of the finger straight off. Don’t try this with coffee and definitely not hot chocolate (unless you want to be bouncing off the walls like a toddler on Haribo). Tea works best. We are British you know.

Dip the end of your twix into the tea and suck quite hard. Don’t be put off by the twix getting a little soggy. You will taste tea through the twix, so if you have really hot tea, its best to put your twix in the fridge for a little bit so you scold your tongue.

Its so delicious you won’t want to stop.

When the chocolate is starting to melt its best to abandon your new straw and munch away at it. You’ll find it is slightly slimy but utterly delicious! Fortunately a twix is more substantial than a Tim-tam so there is little danger of having to fish the soggy remains out of your cup.

Liven up any cup of tea with a Twix Straw!

Autons

First aid and invasion of the autons

This week I thought “Why not do a first aid course?”. The company offered us all a day out at the American Red Cross, to learn CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), basic first aid, and some tips on when to use an AED (automated external defibrilator). It was rather a jolly day, despite being constantly reminded not only of our own mortality, but how ‘dangerous’ CPR could be. Dangerous to the first aider. We saw countless videos where we told to find an antibacterial gauze before you give someone the kiss of life.

Did you know that the person next to you could have AIDS or hepatitis? Its a battle-ground, and you have to protect yourself. So keep your antibacterial gauze handy if you think you might need to snog someone back into the land of the living. Otherwise, you are in danger. Not ‘at risk’, actually ‘in danger’. Just imagine what you could pick up on the bus or, worse yet, in a night club. Be careful when a cashier hands you your change in the supermarket. They might have just sneezed on your money. It turns your blood cold, doesn’t it.

We spent a good portion of the day role playing with these sleepy fellows. Be careful, I suspect they might be Autons

Mine was really poorly. He experienced choking, difficulty breathing, a sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack. Fortunately I am now trained. I tried a polo mint on him first. He didn’t take to that so I whipped out the AED and zapped him. An AED, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is rather like a Speak-and-spell but with a cheeky little afterbite. Rather disturbingly, a disembodied voice tells you what to do at each step; where to put the pads, how long to wait, if there is a pulse, when its going to shock. The only thing it doesn’t tell you is the cost, but who wants to know that when you’re ill, you might have a heart attack.

The depressing fact is that americans have to pay for every trip in an ambulance – $3000 thank you very much. Republicans are perfectly comfortable with socialised military, police, fireservice and ambulance service. But medicin? Hell no! those illegal immigrants and homosexuals will use my tax-dollars for treating their perverted diseases.

Maybe I’m old fashioned but I don’t want even 30 seconds contemplation of whether I can afford an ambulance trip and hospital stay, if my nearest and dearest is involved in a serious accident. When you put a price tag on it, that is what happens. Its a very Thatcherite principle. If you can afford $1000+ per month, you get insurance. If you can’t you, are treated like a second-class citizen, suffer poor health and end up with huge and unpayable debts.

If you think that paying $100 for a prescription (as Haley recently paid for eye drops) which would be available over the counter at Boots the chemist, in UK for £7, you are stupid or corrupt. Socialized health care is a right not a luxury.

A whole lot of gay loving

Last Friday, New York became the 6th US state to behave like a western democracy and vote in favour of the legality of same-sex marriages. This is excellent news.  I was best-man at the civil partnership (as UK law treats same-sex marriages) of 2 very close friends, and it was a deeply moving, beautiful day.  It has however given the fundamentalist crazies cause to thrash about in their trailers and beat their fists on their pulpits. I get very cross when silly, misinformed people pronounce on the morality and legality of these unions.

It’s generally religious people, who claim to embrace society’s downtrodden, who cannot reconcile anything other than a man and a woman as forming a “normal” relationship. Occasionally there is an areligious conservative who expresses these opinions too, but generally they are xenophobic bigots whose arguments are fit for not even the gutter press.

The primary idea which cause religious conservatives to foam at the mouth is that it is an “offense before God”. When you closely scrutinize this it boils down to only a few passages in The Bible. A few in Leviticus (old testament) and a couple in St Paul’s letter to the Church of Corinth (new testament) – St Paul also had a thing about women wearing hats and being quiet. Christians are on really shaky ground if they take Leviticus too seriously because it tells us to do and not do all sorts of things weird things, from burning doves when you are on your monthly, not having tattoos, to wearing clothes made from more than one fabric, and swearing at your parents (that one carries the death penalty, you’ve been warned).  The New Testament actually advises against “sexual immorality” and it is modern Christian mentalists (particularly low-church troglodytes who would welcome back slavery and fiercely defend their right to bear arms) who rewrite this to mean same-sex relationships. What it intended to relate to is incest, rape, sexual slavery and other sexual abuse. These are seriously immoral acts, same-sex relationships are not. No really, compared to all the horrific things humans inflict on one another, it really is not. Don’t be silly. Shush now.  Anyway Southern Baptists are jolly good sports, they’re all about inclusivity so I’ve heard.

Anyway, moral finger wagging aside, there is a deeper misunderstanding about what marriage in a Christian sense is and what it means. Many Christian denominations see marriage as a sacrament, that is something which reflects the divinity of God. This is means, God is a benign creator who has scattered  little parcels across the world which allow you to be more like HIM. Like unlocking achievements in computer games, but without the gold coins falling from the sky or musical jingle. So marriage, and a good marriage allows you to be closer to God, and God isn’t gay, so tough luck. Um, no, that’s just bias. Actually reading the New Testament will show you lots of same-sex loving happening all over the place.
“faith, hope and love”
“love one another with a pure heart, fervently”
Ah ha! “With a pure heart” can’t mean with a gay heart! Silly Billy, it is actually in favour of loving regardless of looks, status, hand-writing, novelty teapot collection, sex or gender, but doing it truthfully.

The really key thing here is that aside from the law (the one courts and lawyers use, not the vague idea of a celestial one), the only people who actually do the marrying are the happy couple.  In a religious sense the priest, minister, justice of the peace, or licensed elvis impersonator are only there as witnesses. It is convenient if they can fulfill the legal (and entirely secular) obligations, but as far as God is concerned it’s a contract between the couple and the almighty. If you were married in a Anglican Church in UK the vicar is licensed to legally marry you, that happens when you sign the register in the private side chapel. The reading of the vows has no legal baring on the marriage, and is just for show. It doesn’t mean it’s not important. In fact if you can say you love the one you are standing in front of, before hundreds of people, and will mop up their sick when they drink too much or whisk them away to Paris when they are stressing their eyebrows off, that’s hugely significant and symbolic, particularly if you mean it.

So if the Christian church doesn’t have any legal part in a marriage, and God would be fine with the couple saying “I do” to each other in private, then what are churches making a fuss about? Well… Exactly. It basically boils down to tradition, handed down from a time when the Church and state were tightly coupled. If you make a judgement which is on shaky scriptural grounds, be very careful how you live the rest of your life. It had better be immaculate.

Q: How many evangelical Christians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: CHANGE?!

Catherine Tate and David Tennant signing autographs

Much ado about Tennant

“We’re going to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing”, Haley said to me in November 2010. “We’ve been here before”, I thought. A couple of years ago we joined the RSC so we could buy advance tickets for the London run of Hamlet (starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart). I say “we” but Haley was far more keen on it than me. I wonder why. If you follow the exploits of David Tennant as closely as our household, you will remember that he suffered a back injury and almost the entire run was performed by the understudy.

7 months later we rock up to Wyndham’s theatre, expecting there to be some disaster and one of the 2 headline actors would be incapacitated. We have a long history of not seeing famous people in plays – Thoroughly Modern Millie (without Amanda Holden), Hairspray (devoid of Michael Ball) and Hamlet (you know all about that). For weeks Haley had been getting a little agitated at the prospect of a Tennant-less Much Ado.

No announcement was made when our tickets were snapped by the usherette; the programme seller showed no sign of nervous twitch. The lights went down, the music started up and Catherine Tate (in the role of Beatrice) was found lying on a sun-lounger. Phew. One down, one to go. Within moments David Tennant (in the role of Benedick) appeared on stage, and finally I could relax and enjoy the show.

Tennant made a most unusual entrance, driving a union flag draped golf cart onto the stage. There was almost a standing ovation when he appeared. The man next to me nearly exploded from the excitement – he was several sheets to the wind already, a middle-aged man with his current female “best-friend”, who reacted in an ostentatiously forced way to everything on stage. Tut, Londoners.

Tennant and Tate were in the roles of Beatrice and Benedick, who rail against the state of marriage to anyone who will listen, are inventively verbose, and cannot stand each other (because they are far too alike). I was interested to see if their chemistry would be similar to that they shared in Doctor Who, where they were chase and platonic. Their transition from people who claim to dispise each other to being the loves of each others lives is entirely believable.

Beatrice has a line about her lending Benedick her heart -  “a double heart for his single one” – Who knew Shakespeare was a fan of Doctor Who? Haley and I shared a knowing look at that point, fortunately it went over the head of the expressive queen next to us.

I’m always slightly uncomfortable with Tennant speaking in his natural accent. Mostly because he does an “english” accent so immaculately that his Scottish accent sounds fake. He acted his socks off, with an amazing amount of energy, including wearing a mini-skirt, bubble wig and pig nose for the “masked ball”, and dancing very “enthusiastically”.

The part of Beatrice also suited Tate, more than I had perhaps given her credit for. There were moments where she slipped into some of her personas, or tailored versions of them, which could easily have been cringey, but instead fitted perfectly with the character who was “born to speak all mirth and no matter”. Her Frankie Howerd impression was nearly as good as David Walliams. She looked gorgeous in her wedding outfit too. There is one very tender moment where she lets down Don Pedro (Adam James) on his offer of marriage, which was a little gem of acting.

There is a wonderfully slapstick scene where first Benedick and then Beatrice overhear characters they respect talking about how much the other secretly admires and loves them. Tennant gradually ends up covering himself with about a gallon of white paint and Tate is unwittingly hoisted 30″ into the air. Haley did an audible sigh when Tennant delivered his “Love me!” soliloquy with white hand-print on his face, and messy, painty hair. He also had tight, cut-off jeans shorts. I swear Haley was dribbling by the end of that scene.

The rest of the cast had a herculean task to match these to giants, but also did very well. Dogberry and The Watch are traditionally the slap-stick, “mechanical” roles but their performances were sadly diminished purely because of the high-energy Doctor-Donna performances. They were still funny and enjoyable, and there was a very sweet old man (Nicholas Lumley) in the watch who reminded me of my dad trying to speak to spanish in a deliberately RP voice. There was also our Barry (Mike Grady) from Last of the Summer Wine, who was conspicuously recognizable but who had hardly any stage time. Hero (Sarah MacRae) and Claudio (Tom Bateman) were everything you would expect from the lesser Shakespearian romantic leads, good looking but one dimensional. Live guitar music by Enzo Squillino Junior, who also played 2 minor roles, was excellent.

It was truly the funniest, most vivid performance of Much Ado I will ever see. The audience was a menagerie of applause when the curtain came down, calling the cast back on to the stage 4 or 5 times, with only the elderly and infirm failing to give a riotous, and well deserved standing ovation.

We elected to carry on the jolly mood we felt after the show, and visit a local pub for a quick drink. We wandered past the stage door, where I managed cajole Haley into waiting to see the cast (“they’ll never come out”). Within 3 minutes Tennant and Tate burst through the doors and despite several terse A4 posters on the wall saying they wouldn’t, they enthusiastically began signing programmes, having photos taken, and chatting to the rapidly swelling crowd. Haley refused to go too near because she was “embarrassed” and then spent an hour moping because the David Tennant didn’t look past the 100-odd people in the crowd to share a magical moment with her, where their eyes would meet and he would fall hopelessly, madly, and deeply in love with her but recognise the impossibility of the situation, give her a loving but tragic smile then quickly look away with a tear in his eye.

See it if you can. I will use the word. It was awesome.

Tolkien and psycholinguistics

A good friend of mine has written a book. I’m quite excited about it. Being an academic I know lots of people who have published, because in universities that is the convenient way that pen-pushers measure how clever, hard-working, REF-able, or just highly-cited regardless of research quality you are. Publish or perish. Most of these publications are academic papers, very few are books, and even fewer are digestible by a non-specialist audience. In my experience, only one features hobbits.

Yesterday was the book launch and instead of a boozy reception with a couple of incoherent speeches in management speak by a publisher, there was a rather civilized afternoon mini-conference and a glass of something alcoholic, with salted peanuts. Tasty.

The subject of the book and the conference: Tolkien and Wales.

There were 3 talks (or papers as humanities academics call them) about different aspects of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s writing and career which particularly related to the Welsh language. As an scientist it amuses me when people give talks by standing at a podium and reading from a prepared script. It’s a difference in culture, but Haley and I shared a knowing look.

The first talk given by Dimtri Fimi (UWIC) described something really strange about Tolkien, verging on the disturbing. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings and any of the other Middle Earth epics, it won’t have escaped your notice that large portions of it were written in ‘foreign’ languages. These languages were constructed from old J.R.R.’s imagination, but heavily influenced by present or historical European languages. The 2 mature languages which Tolkien developed were Sindarin and Quenya (both elven languages). They were modeled on Welsh and Finnish, respectively. Dr Fimi gave numerous examples comparing welsh grammar with sindarin grammar, and I was amazed that they both us almost identical mutations.

Now comes the wacky part. In a 1955 lecture, Tolkien claims readers of The Lord of the Rings would enjoy them because he had constructed languages, or particularly Sindarin (the welsh one) to resonate with all British people. He believed that the welsh language was somehow genetically imbedded in ever British person, because before the Romans, Angles, Saxons, Normans and any other invaders arrived Britain was occupied by the Welsh. To say that people love Tolkein’s epic mythology because he has unlocked some hidden room in our genetic make-up which predisposes Britons to feel an emotional response towards the books makes you wonder if he had been at the wacky-backy. Many of the names sound welsh. Arwen, for instance, is actually a welsh girls’ name (a shortened form of Arwenna) as well as being Liv Tyler’s elven character. We were even treated to an antique recording of Tolkien speaking Sindarin, which I have to say, to my heathen ears sounded rather like when I accidentally tune into Radio Cymru.

Tolkien revealed this was his intention in a lecture in 1955, 2 years after Watson and Crick had discovered the structure of DNA, so genetics was a very new science and it is unclear to me from Dr Fimi’s talk whether Tolkien truly meant genetics or if he meant it was some sort of telepathic, ancestral link (which presumably ignores ancestors who also spoke other languages). Its like suggesting that my favourite colour was blue because my great-great-great….. grandfather’s favourite colour was also blue.

What a funny fish Tolkien was.

The second paper was by Simon Eckstein (Swansea University) and compared Tolkien with a contemporary of his, and author I had not heard of called David Jones. As you can tell from his name, he was of welsh ancestry, although born in England. The main thrust was that both Tolkien and Jones sought to create mythology that was unique to Britain. We have King Arthur (who was Welsh, incidentally) but we don’t have anything as old Zeus, Odin or the Lorelei. Certainly nothing Bronze Age. Mr Eckstein asserted that this was because Welsh was the language of these legends, but they became inaccessible once the dominant language of Britain moved to that of the new invaders. In the Crystal Maze this would have been an automatic lock-in. The lock-in was so pronounced because welsh, being a bardic language, has a vocabulary which is difficult to translate into Old, Middle or even modern English. Eckstein gives the example of the word Hiraeth, which describes the feeling isolation when being taken away from someone or something you love. A bit like homesickness and yearning for the lush pleasant land of Wales.

I suppose if the stories were never written down and the indigenous (and minority) welsh-speaking population stopped telling or singing the stories, it is conceivable that many will have been lost. I can’t help feeling that some legends should exist in some form. Maybe they were just evolved into the Arthurian legends and the Mabinogion.

Next and finally was the headline act, my friend Carl. He was a pro at giving his paper. The words were clearly written in a script but they were effortlessly and seamlessly delivered, in a way that made me think that all talks should be given this way. This talk was much less academic, but equally stimulating. He was talking about his new book, but gave us some lovely anecdotes about his research and how he had made discoveries which had been overlooked by others, who had been just a bit lazy. Quite incredibly Carl found references to Tolkien’s understanding of welsh in hand-written notes in the margins of Tolkien’s private library. He also went through hundreds of folios in the Bodleian Library of Tolkien’s notes looking gems which had been badly categorized. It was funny to hear that Tolkien corrected the welsh grammar which appeared in welsh grammar text-books.

I really came to realise that Tolkien had a profound understanding of the way language worked. Its not clear if he ever spoke or conversed in the many languages he knew (he certainly corrected the Swedish and Dutch versions of The Lord of the Rings), but he seemed to love and devour grammar. Anyone who can create not 1, but 2 languages must be some sort of genius with linguistics.

I enjoyed the mini-conference immensely and having bought the book (no T-shirts were available), I’m looking forward to reading more about the crazy genius of J.R.R. Tolkien. However if I had been a person off the street (the Cardiff University community engagement team had advertised the event via university emailshots and in the Big Issue) I might have found it rather heavy on name-checks to academic texts and subject specific terminology; as someone who regularly gives public talks I’m wary of even using the word ‘wavelength‘ in front of a non-specialist audience, let alone ‘philology‘.

Afterwards, Haley said she’d like to write a book and have a mini-conference on it. I rather fancy it too. It was jolly entertaining and a much better use of a Saturday afternoon than watching 22-ish men kick a leather egg around.

To see what all the fuss is about, go and buy Carl’s book Tolkien and Wales

Dance fever

Chaotic pendulous ball

Its generally at this time of year that I remember about Facebook. During the normal course of my life I am happy to say that I can stay away from Facebook for large periods of time. However around Easter is traditionally when the Chaos Ball is, that is the Cardiff Uni, School of Physics annual ball. Each year the ball is organized for the students and by the students, in a very democratic way. This year the highly efficient Natasha and her team of minions delivered a spectacular affair. I’m also amazed she didn’t have an accident with her dress during the ball.

I must say that it is rather fun going to the ball as a member of staff, having gone as a student. When I was a student there was almost no mingling between the year groups. In fact there was very little mingling between our year group, it was very much like school in a lot of respects.

This year I really had not been keen on going to the ball. I could not put my finger on it. I had had a cold the week before and was generally feeling grotty and tired. I thought we would stay until the last dance and that would be it, in bed with a mug of cocoa by midnight. We had arranged to share a taxi home with Peter who lives down the road, and we had all agreed (very sensibly) that we were far too old and crusty to be going on to a club after the week we had just had. Set in stone. No going back. Not even a hesitation.

At 3.30am I had to be dragged off the dance floor and shoved into a taxi before I made more inappropriate comments to students and their friends. I believe I may have started at least one malicious rumour during the night and I lost my camera (the latter turned up in the possession of a student, who had taken blurry pictures of semi-naked men). One student admitted to having stalked me on Facebook, I may have told another student that she was annoying (but in a good way) and said other things that may not of been wholy appreciated. It was like The Hangover, only without marrying a prostitute and taking rohypnol. I think Haley may have stolen a tiger.

I was very glad to have mustered the energy to push through like a little soldier. I am also very glad to have been there when one of our students was proposed to by his long-term partner. It was a very joyous occasion and very brave of them too, being able to feel comfortable to come out to all their peers and lecturers in such a public way. It was very sweet.

The mandatory pictures….I have no defense, but I was very drunk at the time. I was quite surprised how well Peter could dance. He could have been in Pan’s People, if he wore lycra and had big hair.