Archive for November, 2010

Geopolitical humour

November 30, 2010

Here is an aerial view of the headquarters of Iran Air, in Tehran:

Yes, that is a Star of David on the roof. How could such a thing happen?

Iranian media explained that the Iran Air building was, in fact, constructed by Israeli engineers. . .

Heh. The building was put up sometime before 1980. All these years, then, there have been Israeli engineers walking around with songs in their hearts. They have my admiration.

(Hat-tip: Joe Carter)

Moffat: Einstein Wrote Back

November 26, 2010

Einstein Wrote Back
My Life in Physics
John W. Moffat (Thomas Allen, 2010)
244 p.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, my office was adjacent to an office occupied by John Moffat. He would pop in occasionally to chat, and once or twice to ask us to work out a tricky integral, but I never had the opportunity to work closely with him. By reputation he was something of a maverick, working on ideas one or two steps outside the mainstream, always with an interest in whether the data could be accounted for by means different from the conventional explanation.

From time to time I picked up hints that his education and entry into physics had been rather unorthodox. It was rumoured that as a young man he had lived in Paris and pursued the art of painting before turning to the sciences. Indeed, I once saw a book of photographs of his paintings. Yet I never had — or, at any rate, never took — the opportunity to talk with him about this at any length.

I was delighted, therefore, to see that he has published a memoir. It is principally an account of his early life, and in particular of the way in which he came to study physics, which turns out to have been even more unconventional than I had suspected. In addition to his interesting biography, a chief pleasure of the book lies in Moffat’s hilarious, and often touching, first-hand stories about his encounters with many of the great physicists of the twentieth century.

As a child his schooling had been somewhat desultory, and he showed no special aptitude for mathematics or science. He took up painting as a young man, and moved to Paris to study with Serge Poliakoff. After some time, however, it became clear that it was not easy to earn a living at that noble art, and he returned home to Denmark, pondering his future. It so happened that he stumbled upon some of the popular cosmology writing of Sir Arthur Eddington, and these books changed his life, permanently. Moffat puts it this way:

After reading the books, I began having strange visions of the structure of the universe and the fabric of space-time as revealed by Albert Einstein. In these daydreams, I tried to comprehend how the universe was structured. These daydreams were intuitive forms rising from my subconscious rather than conscious attempts to understand the universe. The visions seemed to indicate some primal urge developing in me to connect with the stars and galaxies of the universe.

Under the sway of this powerful experience, he resolved to pursue theoretical physics, and in particular to study Einstein’s general relativity. With no training whatsoever in mathematics or physics, he began frequenting a local library and reading everything he could find on the subject. Incredibly, within a year he had taught himself enough mathematics and physics to compose an original paper on an aspect of general relativity. Even more incredibly, a family friend arranged for him to meet with one of the great physicists of the century, and certainly the greatest physicist in Denmark, Niels Bohr.

This meeting provided Moffat with the entry point he needed, and it was just the first in a series of remarkable meetings with the luminaries of modern physics. Bohr sent him to Erwin Schrödinger, and Schrödinger wrote him a letter of reference to Cambridge. (Moffat was a British citizen, and had a better chance of pursuing graduate studies there.) Surprisingly, Cambridge agreed to accept him into the doctoral program, despite his lacking an undergraduate degree of any kind, and he began formal studies under the supervision of Fred Hoyle.

During this transition period, Moffat wrote to Einstein, who was then at Princeton, and, to his surprise and delight, he received several thoughtful and encouraging letters in return. These letters gave him the confidence to imagine that he could succeed as a physicist, and it makes good sense that he has structured his memoir around them.

As a graduate student, post-doc, and young professor, Moffat crossed paths, and sometimes swords, with an amazing number of famous physicists: Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, Abdus Salam, Murray Gell-Mann, and others. His stories about these meetings are tremendously entertaining. It is said that genius is to madness near allied, and these stories provide evidence to that effect.  More than once I had to set the book down for laughter and astonishment. He relates all these tales with a good-natured affection, as well he might.

Moffat went on to have a very successful career. He is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, and is on staff at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where he pursues an active research program. This memoir, which makes a nice pendant to his earlier book Reinventing Gravity, is well worth the attention of anyone with an interest in the human side of the sciences.


I did not know that books could have trailers, but apparently they can. Here is the trailer for “Einstein Wrote Back”:


Related reading: John W. Moffat – Reinventing Gravity

Music about music

November 22, 2010

Today is the feast of St. Cecilia, the patroness of music and musicians. To celebrate the day, I thought to put together an ‘audio gallery’ of music about music — that is, music that in one way or another celebrates musicians, music-making, or music itself. I drew up a preliminary list of 12 or 15 pieces, but I ran out of time before I could prepare them all. It is probably just as well.

I will proceed in chronological order, more or less, starting with something medieval. Here is Musicalis scientia / Scientia laudabili, a witty two-part motet that is a dialogue between Music and Rhetoric. Music, singing the upper part, begins by listing the names of a long string of music theorists, and then addresses Rhetoric as follows:

I wish to greet them, and observe
Their rules, entrusted to you
To use as you please
So your rhythms may not be contrary
To the rhetorical model
Or to the grammatical form.

Meanwhile (for this dialogue is really a double monologue, with both parts sung simultaneously), Rhetoric begins in this way:

To that praiseworthy science,
Venerable music,
The science of rhetoric sends greetings
With every reverence.

and then goes on to complain about music that is written for too many voices, which results in “simple things being divided”, and asks that Music provide a remedy. And Music does: the two voices of this piece come together periodically in a complex rhythmic interplay called “hocketing”, in which the voices alternate notes in a single melodic line. It is a nice example of a divided thing being made simple. As I said, it’s very witty, and it has a nice swing to it too:

Henry Purcell’s Music for a While is perhaps my personal favourite of all the pieces gathered in this post. It’s a beautiful, melancholy song about the enchanting power of music, written as incidental music for a play.  My favourite performance of the song is this one, by Alfred Deller.

Music for a while
Shall all your cares beguile.
Wond’ring how your pains were eas’d
And disdaining to be pleas’d
Till Alecto free the dead
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands.

Schubert’s song An die Musik is another favourite, a lovely tribute to the consolation music brings.  Here it is sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, with Gerald Moore at the piano, from a 1961 broadcast. A translation of the text is as follows:

To Music

Oh lovely Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s fierce orbit ensnared me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Carried me away into a better world!

How often has a sigh escaping from your harp,
A sweet, sacred chord of yours
Opened up for me the heaven of better times,
Oh lovely Art, for that I thank you!

Vaughan Williams wrote several pieces about music.  His Serenade to Music, written for a group of 16 soloists, sets the passage about music from Act V of The Merchant of Venice.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
WW Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!
Peace, ho! the moon sleeps with Endymion
And would not be awak’d. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Here is the closing section, beginning at “Music! hark!”, in a performance led by Sir Adrian Boult.  This video very helpfully includes subtitles:

(The earlier part of the piece can be heard here.)

Benjamin Britten (whose birthday is today, incidentally) also wrote a number of pieces that could have qualified for inclusion in this post. I am selecting a portion of his Rejoice in the Lamb, a setting of the strange and wonderful poetry of Christopher Smart. In this section a group of musical instruments are summoned to the praise of God, and then we hear of the “magnitude and melody” of God’s own harp, which brings peace to the living and the dead.

For the instruments are by their rhimes,
For the shawm rhimes are lawn fawn and the like.
For the shawm rhimes are moon boon and the like.
For the harp rhimes are sing ring and the like.
For the harp rhimes are ring string and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are bell well and the like.
For the cymbal rhimes are toll soul and the like.
For the flute rhimes are tooth youth and the like.
For the flute rhimes are suit mute and the like.
For the bassoon rhimes are pass class and the like.
For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place and the like.
For the clarinet rhimes are clean seen and the like.
For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound and the like.

For the trumpet of God is a blessed intelligence
And so are all the instruments in Heav’n.
For God the Father Almighty plays upon the harp
Of stupendous magnitude and melody.
For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.


I wanted to include some popular music in this post as well, but I have had a very difficult time coming up with anything. My wife, whose tastes in music are almost orthogonal to my own, thought of this song by Natasha Bedingfield, which is about how hard it is to write a song. That’s witty enough for me to overlook the drum loops:

The only other popular song I could think of is Bob Dylan’s “Lay Down Your Weary Tune”. I love this song. In each stanza a different part of nature — the wind, the rain, the river — serenades the weary traveller with a music that surpasses all art. Come to think of it, this song would make a decent lullaby:

Lay down your weary tune
Lay down the song you strum
And rest yourself ‘neath the strength of strings
No voice can hope to hum

If you can think of anything else that could have been included in this post (I can), please leave a comment.

Lulla, lullay

November 18, 2010

This post is for any parents who may be reading. I am interested to hear about the lullabies you particularly like(d) to sing to your children.

I sing to our daughter nearly every night, and it is one of my favourite parts of the day. Last night I was warbling away, in my usual fashion, but each time I would finish a song she would raise her head from my shoulder and ask for another one. (“More.”) I tried to oblige, but after a time I ran out of ideas. When I began to entertain thoughts of singing “Enter Sandman”, I knew it was time for a fresh infusion of songs.

I have a small stock of lullabies that fall roughly into two groups: children’s songs and religious songs. In the former group are old and faithful tunes like “Lullaby and Good Night” and “Rock-a-bye Baby” as well as ditties like “How Much is that Doggy in the Window?” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” (I tend to turn slightly doleful as night falls.)

My repertoire of religious songs is rather spare. Mostly I rely on “Amazing Grace” and “Salve Regina”, with occasional forays to “Jesus Loves the Little Children”. I don’t much care for that latter one, but beggars can’t be choosers, and, somewhat to my surprise, I’m a beggar.

The comments are open if you would like to say a word or two about your favourite lullabies.

Carleton Lifeline

November 16, 2010

Carleton Lifeline, the pro-life student group at Carleton University in Ottawa, has been in the news quite a lot recently. Last month five members of the group were arrested for erecting the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) on campus at a location not approved by the university’s administration — that is, in a public location, not tucked away somewhere. GAP is a controversial display that shows graphic photos of aborted babies and equates abortion to genocide.

I have seen the GAP display myself, and there can be little doubt that it is disturbing. I think there are good grounds, even from a pro-life point of view, to be seriously critical of it. Yet the appropriate response to the display, especially on a university campus, is surely vigorous discussion and debate, not police cars and handcuffs. I do believe that Carleton University handled the whole affair shamefully.

But not shamefully enough, apparently. Yesterday the Carleton Undergraduate Students’ Association (CUSA) announced that Carleton Lifeline’s status as a campus club is being revoked. Effectively, Lifeline is being kicked off campus, forbidden from using campus facilities or planning campus events.

This is not entirely surprising. Something very similar happened to the University of Calgary’s pro-life group not long ago, and, in any case, anyone who has spent enough time on a university campus soon learns that student campus politics leans so far to the left that it makes Jack Layton look like Preston Manning. Sending dissenters to Siberia is a tried and true tactic.

It turns out, though, that there is a surprise hidden in the fine print of this story. The particular reason CUSA cites for revoking Lifeline’s status is that Lifeline’s constitution, which states, obviously enough, that “Carleton Lifeline shall work to promote the legal protection of the unborn and their basic human rights to life”, is in conflict with CUSA’s own Discrimination on Campus Policy. The Discrimination on Campus Policy actually says — and my mouth gaped in disbelief when I read it — that “actions such as any campaign, distribution, solicitation, lobbying, effort, display, event etc. that seeks to limit or remove a woman’s right to choose her options in the case of pregnancy will not be supported”. What an absurdly partisan position to be endorsed by a group that, ostensibly at least, represents the entire undergraduate student body! This, I am afraid, makes Carleton look very bad indeed.

Carleton Lifeline has a lawyer, and his reply to CUSA mounts a convincing argument, on procedural grounds, that CUSA cannot dismiss Lifeline from campus in this way. But the argument should not have to be procedural, as though the suppression of pro-life views on campus would be acceptable if only done properly. It would not be acceptable.

If you would like to send the folks at Lifeline a word of encouragement, you can find them here.


UPDATE: Two of the five arrested at Carleton last month were on the Michael Coren show recently to talk about their ordeal. It is worth watching.

Mullins: Cluny

November 12, 2010

In Search of God’s Lost Empire
Edwin Mullins (Novalis, 2006)
245 p.

Nine hundred years ago the monastery of Cluny stood at the center of European culture, a powerhouse in the arts, in politics, and in religion. Today almost nothing remains — even the massive church has been torn down, its stones irretrievably dispersed. In this little book Edwin Mullins gives us a popular history of the monastery from its founding in the tenth century, through its rise to power in the high medieval period, and down to its decline and eventual destruction.

To relate the history of Cluny is, in many respects, to rehearse the history of medieval Europe itself, for the monastery was involved in most of the major events of the times. When the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV went to Canossa and stood, barefoot, in the snow, submitting to the authority of Pope Gregory VII, the abbot of Cluny was there. When the pilgrimage to Santiago became a rallying point for the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula, Cluny built churches and hostels along the route to aid and protect the pilgrims, and financed military operations against the caliphate. When Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders, a Cluniac monastery was established in the city within months. It was at Cluny that the first flying buttresses were built, launching the Gothic movement that revolutionized European architecture. Through the centuries, its abbots were advisors to popes, kings, and emperors.

Cluny's Coat of Arms

The abbey was founded in 910 by William I, Duke of Aquitaine, and he placed it under the direct authority of the Pope, an innovation that was to contribute directly to its prestige and power in later years. The golden age for Cluny, it is fair to say, was the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, a period almost entirely dominated by three exceptional abbots: St. Odilo (994-1049), St. Hugh the Great (1049-1109), and Peter the Venerable (1122-1156). It was during Peter’s abbacy, when Cluny had grown to be enormously wealthy on the strength of contributions from many powerful figures, that St. Bernard of Clairvaux launched his famous critique of the whole ethos of Cluniac monasticism, arguing instead for the ascetic rigour and simplicity of the nascent Cistercian Order. Cluny persisted, of course, in spite of this challenge, but the zenith of its influence had passed, and Bernard’s criticism made it clear that the moral authority, at least, of Cluny had been eclipsed by the newcomers.

Cluny’s sphere of influence was reduced by slow degrees as Europe entered the pre-modern and early modern periods. By the sixteenth century it had come under control by the French monarchy, and the post of abbot had become a prestige political appointment without much connection to monastic life. Even so, it was not until 1790 and the French Revolution that Cluny was dissolved, by order of the French National Assembly, and a number of its monks guillotined.

The buildings, including the magnificent abbey church, remained for a short time, but were then purchased by a group of three men – each of whom, I am inclined to say, would have been better hung, drawn, and quartered. They turned the abbey into a quarry, systematically dismantling it and selling it, stone by stone, until, by 1820, almost nothing was left. And so it remains today. It is a tragic end, for even if the decline and fall of Cluny was, in some sense, bound to happen, the mere existence of its ruins would serve as a reminder to later times. As it is, it has been almost entirely erased; it is not only gone, but also forgotten.

Perhaps the most enduring contribution made by Cluny to western Christianity is the establishment of the feast of All Souls, which was first instituted in 1030 by Abbot Odilo for local observance at Cluny, and later expanded by papal decree to the entire Catholic Church.

In closing, I would like to make a few remarks about Mullins’ particular account of Cluny’s history. My basic judgment is that it is a sound history, informative, with the principal points well described, and Mullins’ admiration for Cluny is evident. Behind this foreground, however, is the background, and here I have serious reservations about what Mullins has written. He is writing a book about the medieval period, and he hardly passes up a chance to look down his nose at it. We learn about the medieval “morbid obsession with death”, and its “unrelenting misogyny”. Religious art, prior to Cluny, is described as “a crude instrument of Church doctrine and grotesquerie”. The Second Crusade he characterizes as a “punitive reconquest and a further onslaught on Islam”. (The fall of Edessa, which provoked the Second Crusade, is, however, not described as a “punitive reconquest”, and I wonder why?) His basic position seems to be well summarized by this excerpt:

It remains one of the overwhelming contradictions of the Middle Ages that an ethos which was so dogmatic and doom-laden, so misogynist, so moralistic and disapproving of all the sensual pleasures of day-to-day life, should yet have succeeded in creating so much that is the very opposite of those attitudes.

He is referring specifically to the beauty and brilliance of Cluny’s achievement. The picture he seems to have in mind is that Cluny, the jewel of medieval culture, sat like a glowing emerald on the peak of a great, smelly, steaming pile of — well, I will simply say that this view of things seems to me unlikely to be correct. The contrast between Cluny and the culture of which it was a part cannot have been quite so sharp and stark, the contradiction not quite so overwhelming. And I do not think that it is his opinion of Cluny that needs revision.


When I said that Cluny is both gone and forgotten, I may have spoken hastily. Le Monde recently reported on a project to create a virtual model of Cluny as it once was.  Several photographs are included in the report, and they are spectacular. I would love to know more about this project.  (Hat-tip: Ionarts)

Around and about: video edition

November 10, 2010

Time has been short of late, but here are some interesting things I’ve come across:

  • Another volume in Dylan’s Bootleg Series was released late in October.  This one, Volume 9: The Witmark Demos, is a 2-disc set of early recordings. Some of the 47 songs are familiar from Dylan’s early records, though they are given here in different versions, and a fair number were previously heard, also in slightly different versions, on the Bootleg Series, Volume 1. Even so, this is a wonderful collection. Dylan was in his early 20s when he wrote the songs, and we can hear him trying his hand at the various genres of American roots music. Not all of the songs are of the highest quality, but many are very good, and that voice.
  • Speaking of Dylan, the bad boys at Korrektiv have dug up a project from a few years back called Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, in which gospel music luminaries tackled Dylan’s overtly Christian songs.  It sounds terrific. 
  • Speaking of gospel, I have been listening a lot lately to Mavis Staples’ recent record You Are Not Alone, and I am loving it. Here is the title track in a spare arrangement.  Jeff Tweedy is on guitar, but it’s the voice and the song that are the real attractions: 
  • Speaking of attractions, the teenaged girls of the world and I were anticipating Taylor Swift’s latest record, which dropped a week or two ago, and has since sold gazillions of copies. There’s nothing on it quite as beguiling as “Love Story”, but it’s a good record that, on balance, I think I like better than its predecessors. The critics, too, have generally seen fit to praise rather than pan.
  • Speaking of pan, I came across an interesting panel discussion on the theme “The Imagination of C.S. Lewis”. The participants are Douglas Wilson (who recently co-published a book with Christopher Hitchens), N.D. Wilson (who is currently writing a screenplay for The Great Divorce), and Alan Jacobs (author of The Narnian). It’s a wide-ranging conversation, touching on Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Planet Narnia, the film adaptations, Tolkien, and other topics, from people who know what they’re talking about. I found it worth my time. [Unembeddable, but viewable here.]
  • Speaking of Narnian film adaptations, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will be released in just a few weeks. This will be the first film in the series not directed by Andrew Adamson, so there are perhaps some grounds for hope that it will capture the Narnian magic better than its predecessors did. We’ll see.
  • Speaking of magic, David Bentley Hart, who surprised me some months ago by recommending a book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, follows up with a short philosophical essay inspired by garden fairies.

How I spent my vacation

November 9, 2010

Poor technique, but good results.