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Friday 20 November 2020

The Planets

Andrew Cohen with Brian Cox
The Planets (5*)

This is a book packed with incredible, fascinating detail which Mrs. D. has thoroughly enjoyed being told about, especially when watching television, reading a book of her own or settling down to go to sleep.

My knowledge of the solar system had changed little since the nineteen-sixties. It was based on the moon landings, a 1957 set of Brooke Bond tea cards, the nineteen-sixties encyclopaedia Knowledge which came out in weekly parts, and my dad’s Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia from the nineteen-twenties. These two tea cards just about sum it up.

I mentioned this at home, and for my birthday there appeared a brand new copy of The Planets by Andrew Cohen with Brian Cox, published in 2019 to accompany the television series of the same name. Professor Cox presented the series: it gave him an excuse to pose in all sorts of weird and wonderful locations, such as the Wadi Rum in Jordan, and pretend he was on the surface of other worlds. He is credited with just one of the six sections of the book. The others are by Andrew Cohen, the executive producer of the series.

It is very readable and accessible. Perhaps only once or twice did I feel bogged down in too much information, but that may have been because I was rushing to get to the next astonishing section. Let me pick just a few of the snippets Mrs. D. so much appreciated hearing about, to try on your loved ones in deciding whether or not to get the book yourself.  

Olympus Mons

1) There are some extraordinary mountains elsewhere in the Solar System. Olympus Mons on Mars, a volcano of 21,000 metres, is around two and a half times the height of Mount Everest. It looks a bit like, well, yes, it does. 

Artist’s impression of the Curiosity sky crane

2) Staying on Mars, the Curiosity landing vehicle has provided us with many high quality images of the surface. It was so heavy (998kg or around a ton) that to have dropped it on to the surface in the usual way could have damaged it beyond repair. It was therefore lowered gently at a rate of one metre per second from a “sky crane” hovering twenty metres above the surface. The sky crane then flew off so as not to fall on the landing vehicle. How on earth did they think of that, and how did they get it to work?


3) The planetary orbits have not always been as they are now. It is thought that as the Solar System was forming, four and a half billion years ago, Jupiter moved closer to the sun and then back out again (known as the grand tack hypothesis), taking with it thousands upon thousands of blocks of rocks and ice to form the asteroid belt. This reduced the amount of material available for the inner planets to form, which is why Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are much smaller than Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Artist's impression of the surface of Titan

4) The time-scales are unimaginable. Over the next five billion years, the Sun will grow hotter and expand to engulf Mercury and Venus, although the lifeless, burnt-out Earth may just escape this fate. At the same time, the outer planets will begin to warm. Worlds such as Titan, a moon of Saturn where lakes and rivers of methane run through mountains of ice, will thaw to have oceans of liquid water full of complex organic chemicals, just the kind of place where life might originate all over again.  


5) Pluto, which was only discovered in 1930 and appears in the Brooke Bond tea cards as the ninth planet, is no longer classified as a planet …

[note: at this point Mrs. D. snatched the book from Tasker’s grasp and beat him about the head with it].

The NASA images are in the public domain.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Thursday 12 November 2020

Penelope Lively: Moon Tiger

Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger (5***)

Yet another Booker Prize winner not read at the time: from 1987 in this case, sought out after reading Treasures of Time and A House Unlocked which we inherited from my mother-in-law. Moon Tiger is highly regarded, and rightly so. I was not disappointed.

It begins with an elderly woman dying in a hospital bed. Not the most appealing topic I can think of, and not a particularly likeable woman. She had once been a highly intelligent, attractive and successful popular historian who looked down on those not so gifted, such as her sister-in-law and even her own daughter. Yet, without much perseverance, you are drawn in and begin to warm to the character.

As she lies there, mind wandering, she begins to write a history of the world, no “nit-picking  stuff” but “… the whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute – from the mud to the stars”. It is really her own history: the lifelong competition with her brother, her relationships with her daughter, the father of her daughter and the lover she found and lost as a war correspondent in Cairo, and the phases of her life before, during and after.

All are present in her thoughts at the same time. Episodes from different periods come out of sequence, told from different points of view – hers, her brother’s, her daughter’s – sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third. The analogy is the moon tiger, “… a green coil that slowly burns all night, repelling mosquitoes, dropping away into lengths of grey ash, its glowing red eye a companion of the hot insect-rasping darkness.” Like memory, it becomes a messy spiral of ash in the saucer. 

As in her other books, Lively is re-working her recurring themes and concerns: the interpretation and reinterpretation of memory, how different people’s memories of the same events can differ, how the past relates to the present, and personal history. It results in a complex structure despite which the narrative moves adroitly forward, a considerable feat for an author to pull off, perhaps even more accomplished than A. S. Byatt’s Possession, the 1990 winner which I also admire.  

It reminds me of T. S. Eliot:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Fort William

Ben Nevis from Corpach
Ben Nevis across Loch Linnhe from Corpach

I was a bit apprehensive when Mrs. D. and I set off for Fort William last week. It is thirty years since I was last there and when your age begins to begin with a seven you wonder what you can no longer do. Was I still up to walking in the Scottish Highlands? Did I have the stamina? Would my legs and back last out? How would I cope with the long drive? 

I used to go there a lot. The first time was in 1964 with my parents when I took this shaky photograph of the Ballachulish ferry with my Brownie Starmite camera. The ferry avoided a nineteen-mile detour round by Kinlochleven which could take over an hour in holiday traffic. It was replaced by a road bridge in 1975, but the old ramps are still serviceable as the modern picture shows. 

Ballachulish Ferry 1964

Ballchulish Bridge

I went again on camping and walking trips with friends in the seventies and eighties. We pitched our tents countless times at Glencoe and Fort William, and passed through on our way to Skye. 

We always walked the big stuff. We climbed Ben Nevis straight up the four thousand feet from Glen Nevis: up the steep grassy slope into the Coire Eoghainn corrie where we heard a cuckoo, then up the boulders of the right shoulder and on through the snow to the top. Much more fun than the relentless ‘pony trek’.

Climbing Ben Nevis 1974
Nearing the top of Ben Nevis from the south via Coire Eoghainn, 1974

We back-packed and wild-camped our way across Rannoch Moor which, unlike now, was practically empty of any other walkers. We traversed the ridge of Aonach Eagach in Glencoe, the scariest walk I have ever done, stupidly going around some of the pinnacles instead of scrambling over them. Even scarier than the Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle in Skye.

Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle, 1976
Paths along the Cuillin ridges above Glen Brittle, Isle of Skye, 1976

We tried nothing like that this time, not that we would have done anyway, but poor visibility and a wind-chill equivalent of -7°C (19°F) on the peaks around Ben Nevis gave a good excuse. We could see the mountains in the murk but rarely the tops. However, there are lots of low-level walks around Fort William I would never have considered in earlier years. 

There is a stunning walk of around four miles there and back from the end of Glen Nevis to the Steall waterfall. When I trekked the 13 miles from Corrour in the opposite direction in the nineteen-eighties there was hardly anyone around, but on this day there were lots, some coaxing five year-old children over the steep and rocky terrain, everyone soaked, but everyone with smiles on their faces. 
From Steall looking East
Looking East from Steall in Glen Nevis

From Steall looking West
Looking West from Steall in Glen Nevis

Steall Waterfall
The Steall Waterfall

For more solitude we went to Loch Arkaig to the west of Loch Lochy in the Great Glen. The track along the north shore is one of the routes to the remote and sparsely populated Knoydart peninsula, reachable only by boat along the coast or a sixteen-mile hike across rough country. The story of how the population was cleared by the landowner in the eighteen-fifties and left to survive out in the open is cruel beyond belief. We walked a couple of miles along a forestry road on the south shore before retracing our steps thoroughly soaked. Even my underpants were wet. Trying to survive out in the open in weather like that does not bear thinking about, even with the protection of modern outdoor clothing. 
Forestry track, south shore of Loch Arkaig.
Forestry track along the shore of Loch Arkaig
Eas Chia-Aig Waterfall
Eas Chia-Aig Waterfall near Loch Arkaig

Yet another day saw us in Glen Roy. What an incredible place that is. Twelve thousand years ago it was a glacial lake, marked out by three successive shore lines (the “parallel roads”) along the sides of the valley – the lowest is the oldest and the highest the most recent. Analysis of the sedimental layers show that the lake system existed for 515 years, and when the ice-dam finally burst it released five cubic kilometres of water in a spectacular “j√∂kulhlaup” that carved out the River Spean gorge. The entire glen is full of glacial features. 
Glen Roy
Glen Roy - the "parallel roads"

Glen Roy
Glacial deposits in Glen Roy

Glen Roy
Glen Roy
Despite sunny periods to begin with in Glen Roy, the weather soon turned for the worse, and again we had to retreat. In fact, we got soaked every day. We originally booked the cottage for early June but rearranged it for the end of October because of lockdown. For the whole week we got out promptly each morning, returned to the cottage to dry out and have something to eat, and then went either for a touristy drive to somewhere like Oban or Glenfinnan, or did our local walk. 
The cottage was at Banavie at the end of the Caledonian Canal between the sea lock which opens into the sea loch at Corpach and the flight of eight locks known as Neptune’s Staircase, which made a handy three-mile circular walk, usefully past a bottle bank. All in all, we had a good week despite the wetness, with so many bursts of intense happiness I thought I was beginning to turn into Gerard Manley Hopkins. And yes, given drier weather, I might still be up to something a bit more challenging. Not Ben Nevis, though.

Neptune's Staircase
Banavie: Neptune's Staircase

Caledonian Canal at Corpach
Looking towards the sea lock on the Caledonian Canal at Corpach

Jacobite Express and Neptune's Staircase
Another view of Neptune's Staircase at Banavie:
Heritage 4-6-0 ‘Black Five’ 44871 running tender-first crosses the Caledonian Canal
returning to Fort William from Mallaig with the Jacobite Express excursion train
on the 30th October 2020

Lastly, for any bovine photographers out there, this is what you have to cope with on some of the quieter roads. Remember to fold your mirrors in. 

Cows on road to Strontian

Sunday 1 November 2020

New Month Old Post: Hi there Duggy!

A student sends an awkward email to an eminent professor

Early in the nineteen-nineties, I came across a strikingly enlightening piece of research that suggested that girls who learn things together, remember much more than boys. It was an experiment in which pairs of eight-year-old children explored an interactive videodisk – the kind of thing that tells an illustrated story in which, if you click on a word or group of words, it reads it out, and if you click on an object or character in a scene then something happens, for example clicking a parked car in a street scene sets off the alarm, or clicking a tray of biscuits in a kitchen makes them sing. It was a new and unusual experience at the time. 

Some weeks later the children were asked to write essays about it on their own. The surprising result was that girls who had been paired with other girls remembered twice as much as boys or girls who had been paired in other combinations.* There were other aspects to the experiment too, making a useful contribution to the idea that educational software can encourage learning through collaboration as well as individually.

I stumbled upon this as a new lecturer in a recently upgraded northern ex-polytechnic, hoping to carve a niche for myself by devising innovative courses about emerging technologies. I asked students each to lead a small, short seminar about a published research paper from a list. One student, let us call him Arshad, chose the paper about the pairs of children and the videodisk. 

Email was relatively new in those days. Some university staff still resisted its use, and those who welcomed it were having to come to terms with the accessibility and informality it brings. We took pains to educate students about the possible pitfalls. It seemed inevitable that things would sometimes go wrong, but it was with disbelief that I read the email Arshad had sent to the author of the research paper.

The author was Professor Dougman Fairwood, an eminent and influential Head of Department in a top Russell-group university, author of numerous books, review articles and research papers across a wide range of topics. He had been awarded many high-value research grants, guided no end of doctoral students to successful completion, served on government advisory committees and was internationally respected in his field. You get the idea. Think of those over-achieving grey academics who only creep into the public eye when they advise or criticise governments in times of crisis. Most are pathological workaholics and take themselves very seriously. They get upset if you don’t address them formally, or fail to treat them with the respect and deference they think they deserve. 

This is the email Arshad sent:


Subject: Study questions?
Hi there
Hows it going,, My name is Arshad A-----, Im a student at --- University, Currently I am reviewing one of your publications titled “------------ ---- ----- ----------”. Its realy cool and I would be very gratefull if you or you coauthor Mrs Farwood would be so kind to answer a few questions reagding the study.
1 - Was there any initial asumptons taken into account about the children taking part in the study? (if any, how valid were the asumptons?).
2 - Taking a retrospective look at the study, how well do you think the study was carried out?, do you think anything was overlooked in terms of implemantaion or methodolgy?
3 - Do you think your study has any implicatons or links to other ideas?
4 - How importantly do you think your study is relevent today and more importantly in the future?
Thanks in advance
Keep it up
Arshad A-----.
It was not long before an angry reply was circulated to staff.
Dear Colleagues

The attached is a message received both here and by my co-author, and comes, apparently, from a --- University student. The student does not identify his Department, so I’m sending this complaint to the Heads of Psychology, Education, Computer Science, Engineering, Multimedia and Information Systems, with a copy to the Vice Chancellor.

Your student appears to be writing an assignment on one of our papers, and the questions that we are being asked are just the kinds of questions that a tutor might set. Is it your practice to have your students get the answers to their questions by doing the equivalent of looking at the back of the book? Obviously not, and you might want to take some action to inform the student about your preferred practice.

But the main reason for writing is to complain about the e-mail itself. The interrogational style had ------ and I phoning each other to ask what was going on here. Speaking for myself, I am decidedly cheesed off with this e-mail. Being asked to justify the validity of my own assumptions, or the relevance of my work, is something that I do not expect from a student hoping to pass a term paper. Of course, if you believe that your student is doing exactly the right thing here, then I would be especially grateful to hear from you.

Best regards

Dougman Fairwood.

Professor Dougman P. Fairwood BSc PhD DSc CPsychol FBPsS
Head, Department of -----
University of -----

cc Professor Susan A. Fairwood BEd PhD

I can think of at least five so-called rules of email etiquette Arshad ignored, but even had all been followed correctly, the content was way out of order. Students may well have genuine grounds for writing to staff at other universities, but they should always pass it by their own supervisors first. They certainly should not do it in such a clumsy and tactless way.

I drafted a grovelling apology but never had to send it. It turned out that our Head of Department had already apologised on behalf of the university believing that Arshad had been reading around for his final-year project. No one ever associated his email message with the course I was teaching. That was fortunate because at the very next academic conference I attended, I got into conversation with the friendly chap sitting next to me and asked his name. “I’m Doug Fairwood,” he answered and invited me along for a coffee. We had an interesting chat about interactive videodisks.

I raised the matter of the email with Arshad but he paid little attention, and when his seminar came along it was fairly obvious he had not really read or understood the research paper at all. He still graduated that year with a respectable degree – well, he was a nice enough lad and the university did not like us to fail people. I wonder what he’s doing now.

* One possible reason for the girls’ so much stronger recall is rehearsal, i.e. the more you repeat something the better you will remember it. Girls, being more sociable, seem more likely to have talked about their experiences afterwards between themselves, possibly in play. Strangely, the authors did not consider this in their paper. Professor Fairwood seemed very interested when I suggested it to him.