Cosmological Notes

Today is Ash Wednesday, and the battle between Carnival and Lent has been decisively won for another year by the roundheads.

Battle of Carnival and Lent - Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Battle of Carnival and Lent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Given that the date of Ash Wednesday is determined by celestial data (Easter Sunday is held on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox), it is cosmologically appropriate (I suppose) that today it was revealed to me that 70,000 years ago our solar system was host to another star, a dark star that passed through the Oort Cloud only 0.8 light years from our sun. This is a tiny distance. The star, being a dark star, is now 20 light years from earth, and it would never have shown as more than a star of low magnitude; but the thought of such a vast body passing through our galactic home, so to speak, is rather shocking.

I am sure there are cosmologies (personal, if nothing else) in which both Ash Wednesday and all that it entails and the appearance of another star in our solar system would be compatible. And come to think of it is many years since I read the Book of Apocalypse, who knows what is revealed when those seals are opened.


And where there are gods and zodiacs, there are demi-gods and heroes. I read today (and unfairly wished on one of my students, whose job in industrial robotics has only a tenuous link with the subject) a very lengthy but very interesting article in the New Yorker, an interview with/profile of Jonathan Ive, head designer at Apple, responsible for the iPod, iPhone, iPad and iWatch, and also now the various operating systems (IOS – Apple apparently calls the software design department Human Interface, to distinguish it from Industrial Design).

Ive discusses his approach to design, his impatience with poor design, his obsession with angles and bezels and ‘transitions’; he talks about the pressure of taking decisions that could cost billions in lost revenue, reveals a hazy notion of office geography (he thinks all the buildings in the Apple complex, known as the Infinity Loop, are linked in the same way his and Jobs’s were – they are not), and most of all talks about the Watch, the first Apple product that takes on a technology older than the company itself.

I am neither an Apple fanboy nor a ready believer in non-material cosmologies, but Jobs and Ives I would suggest are already entered in the lists of mythical beings, untouchable heroes due for astralization, so remote and placidly deific (Jobs really only because he is now dead) are they. Ives’s natural habitat for the moment is the dust-free, clutter-free minimalist design studio at Apple; he would be just as home in the dust-free, clutter-free expanses of interstellar space.


Beekeeping School

I like the idea that if you want to keep bees you should go to school and take a course and get a qualification. Still more I like the idea of doing such a course myself. As I imagine it, the curriculum would demand that I get togged up in the protective gear and spend hours each day making the bees drowsy and checking on my honey supply and my crop of beeswax.

Beekeepers - Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Beekeepers – Pieter Bruegel the Elder

There’s probably more to it than that. One of my current students, Krzysztof, has done such a course in his native Poland and is now set to work at his family firm, one of the largest honey conglomerates in the country. They export and import honey, produce honey, most likely eat a lot of honey for breakfast.

Krzysztof tells me that honey tastes vary from country to country as well as from person to person (personally, I’m not that keen; nationally, I’m a pretty avid consumer). It seems that Polish honey sells well in Polish stores and on the Polish aisles in supermarkets in the UK. It is, as Krzysztof describes it, a taste of home, a taste that varies almost entirely based on the food crop the bees feed off. In California, for instance, bees mostly feed off almond plants (almonds are 100% pollinated by bees, and 80% of the world’s almonds come from California). In Europe, alfalfa, a fodder plant, is popular, and is also dependent on bee-pollination. Farmers will often place their hives alongside their alfalfa fields.

And so on. Many bee facts. Not that long ago we experienced a bee invasion in Room 5 (where I was also teaching yesterday); I speculated at the time that it might be an instance of colony collapse disorder. When I told my colleague Tancred about this, he related that in the eighteenth century in Britain bees were almost entirely wiped out in an epidemic of colony collapse, and hives were repopulated from continental Europe. Now, if you want to find a truly indigenous British honey bee, you will have to go to the Hebrides.

It’s amazing how deep bee facts go when you scratch the surface.

Joan Baez and Peggy Seeger

I confess I’m a little mystified by the genealogy of the folk music scene, which seems on the whole a complex arrangement of Seegers and MacColls, with Bob Dylan somehow always blowing in the wind somewhere, ready to betray everyone by ‘going electric’, but I think it will be important news to aficionados of the genre that both Joan Baez and Peggy Seeger will be appearing at the Cambridge Folk Festival in July/August this year.

The folk music scene of the 1960s was closely associated with political protest, an antidote to the anodyne pop of the Beach Boys and the early Beatles and their contemporaries, whose teen rebelliousness was always firmly contained both by the big business they worked for and the uniform suits they wore. Thus Joan Baez is credited with popularising the music of Dylan, three of whose songs she sang at Woodstock in 1969, but also with the protest anthem We Shall Overcome, which had previously been much played by Pete Seeger (Peggy’s half-brother). And Peggy Seeger had her passport revoked (this in the 1950s) for a visit she paid to Communist China (it is not recorded if she did any singing on the trip).

Joan Baez has played the Cambridge Folk Festival before, as it happens, in 1982. Here she is, doing a brief set.

The Cambridge Folk Festival runs from 30th July to 2nd August at Cherry Hinton Hall, and will also feature Wilko Johnson, something called Passenger, Joan Armatrading, and a selection of other rum-sounding outfits. For details and tickets go here.

Robot Surgeons

Around fifteen years ago I taught a Lieutenant Colonel in the Italian Airforce who among other things had responsibility for setting up and overseeing a joint venture between a hospital in Tirana and a hospital in Milan, which allowed the hugely under-resourced Albanian surgeons to consult directly and in real time with their counterparts in Milan. They could share X-ray images or other data, and consult on non-routine matters of diagnosis and surgical technique.

It was, at the time, a marvellous and liberating use of technology, but looking back now it seems oddly primitive. We are all networked to the hilt: I could probably consult with a surgeon in Albania if you gave me five minutes to think about it. But I spoke yesterday with one of our students, Atsushi Suzuki, about his PhD research, completed last year, and learnt something about the current state of medical robotics. With the right equipment in place, surgeons can now operate remotely and less invasively than ever before, using interfaces adapted to our own motor responses which then scale down movement to micrometre scales, at degrees of fine control barely imaginable a generation ago. A surgeon in Boston could now perform keyhole surgery on a patient in Lagos, and while the equipment is expensive and cost per operation high, recovery times for patients and in consequence hospital stays are much reduced.

This is, moreover, a young science: costs will continue to drop and technologies improve. It seems odd to think that in fifteen years we will be marvelling in turn at the crudeness of medical science in 2015 (metal instruments! cutting holes in people!), but even if we are I don’t suppose we will be boasting that we could ourselves be performing a partial nephrectomy on a different continent with five minutes notice.

Atsushi no longer works in the field of medical robotics – he is in the automotive industry (gall-bladders, spark plugs, what’s the difference?), working for a private company in collaboration with Mitsubishi-Toshiba. But he told me with a twinkle that there may be licensing possibilities down the line, and he clearly retains an academic interest, if nothing else, in the field.

Here is Catherine Mohr speaking on TED in a distant and more primitive 2009, with a lightning spin through medical technologies past and present and future, but focussing on robotic surgery (she has, if I may observe, a somewhat robotic delivery, but what she has to say is interesting nonetheless).

Standing Up, Sitting Down

I’m pleased to say that I work mostly standing up. Teachers generally do. In a tutorial lesson I will spend more time sitting down, but on the whole I patrol the front of my classroom in a region from board to computer. I encourage my students to stand up too – some tutorial students will come and join me at the board and we’ll swap pens back and forth and illustrate our assertions with sketchy diagrams and maps. I’ve had cabinet ministers draw geo-political maps, football aficionados draw formations, engineers draw nuclear power stations and countless bemused managers draw organigrams.

The benefits of standing up are clear – a mainly sedentary occupation can strip two years from your life expectancy and add inches to your waistline, and no amount of regular exercise will make a jot of difference, as we have known since the 1950s when studies were carried out on rates of coronary heart disease in bus conductors vs. bus drivers (read the scary facts, here).

No coincidence, I think, that chefs always work standing up (as one of my students, Ula, a trainee chef, pointed out yesterday in a discussion on the topic). They know what is good for them, and where the dangers lie. Chefs are by no means alone however, even among professions which generally tend to the sitting or even recumbant. Walmart is famous and not alone in insisting its managers conduct all meetings standing up, although this is in the interests of productivity, not of reduced girth. And a few years ago on a trip to Leipzig, when I visited the composer Mendelssohn’s house, I was mildly surprised that his work desk required him to stand – as did his day job as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, for that matter. And as we know, conductors, whether bus or orchestral, live for ever (Mendelssohn being an unhappy exception, an apoplexy having carried him off when he was only 37).

Here is his orchestra then, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, conducted by his successor, Kurt Masur in suitably mobile music, the overture to the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Everything with Cheese

I was pleased to be present a couple of days ago when one of our students, who shall remain nameless – let’s just call him the Major – had a little rant at Italian food. He has just come back from Rome, where, he says, you can only get pasta or pizza and whatever you choose comes with cheese. He said that if any Italian student has anything to say about the food in Cambridge, they will have to go through him.

I say I was pleased to be present, not because I share his opinion on Italian food (although he’s right about the cheese), nor because I am particularly defensive about the food in Cambridge restaurants (in general, it’s pretty poor), but because it is nice to watch people take aim at a few sacred cows once in a while.

Take Eddie Izzard, for example, in the Guardian yesterday, taking a shot at the notion of British humour. However pleased the British might be at the notion of superior or even distinctive national wit, there is, he says, no such thing. There are local subjects and references, a history and tradition of comedy that is self-referential and language and often nation-specific, but there is no underlying structural variant of ‘humour’ that can be applied to whatever and will turn out ‘British’ – or ‘American’, or ‘Italian’, or ‘Russian’ and so on.

Izzard in fact does a lot of his standup now in French, German and Spanish. He wants to add Russian and Arabic (I think I am correct in remembering). He is clearly proficient at learning languages, but not what you’d call an idiot savant. He has had to work hard to achieve his considerable, but not total, mastery. When he started doing gigs in Germany, he simply did not know enough German to get through a whole set, so had to do a question and answer in English to fill the time. He started his Spanish gigs by doing 3 minutes of Spanish, then 5, and so on night after night. Here he is doing his set in Paris:

AstraZeneca and the Cambridge Skyline

I was talking to my students yesterday about skylines, among other things. We compared (via Google) the skylines of Manhattan, Chicago and Taipei, and while we didn’t talk about Cambridge we perhaps should have done; for a small town it has a pretty distinctive skyline, as seen from the backs (I’m referring of course to the profile of King’s College Chapel).

And now it seems there is going to be a new addition. AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company which is moving its R+D arm and its corporate HQ to Cambridge next year, has had its plans for its new building on the Biomedical Campus approved by Cambridge City Council (in spite of over 1200 objections, mainly from animal rights activists – read about that here).

I don’t know that the new building will be an addition to the Cambridge skyline, exactly – Cambridge is pretty low-rise, on the whole – or that it will be a valuable bit of  architecture. The architects explain that the building will be of glass, because a glass building will ‘foster collaboration’, which is tantamount to admitting that they haven’t really given it much thought. But the Biomedical Campus continues its impressive growth in the south of the city, which I suppose must be good for Cambridge; and if nothing else, the new building will not do anything to damage the skyline, which is in fact something of an achievement.