Sunday, 18 November 2007

Miserere mei, Deus

Recently I've been listening again to Arvo Pärt's setting of the Miserere: Psalm 51 in the Hebrew (and usual English) order. Pärt's music sustained my devotional life --- such as it is --- through many expatriate years, and this setting of the great Biblical text is my personal favourite, and surely one of the best among Pärt's compositions.

It takes a little patience to approach it. An open copy of the Latin text will help, unless you know the psalm well enough in English (and have enough bluffer's Latin) to wing it as the song proceeds. The first three verses are quiet and reflective, almost to the point of stillness, until at peccatum meum contra me est semper (3b: "my sin is ever before me"), the setting falls endlessly into a great pit of music: the Dies Irae, no less.

Nine minutes in, one finds that all of this has been a preliminary. Stillness and quiet return, and the psalm begins a long slow climb of complexity, volume, and spirit, building to a sustained climax from verses 13-17: its two great peaks at Docebo iníquos vias tuas (13a: "Then I will teach transgressors your ways"), and holocaustis non delectaberis (16b: "You are not pleased with burnt offering") will take your breath away. And then verse 17's reflection, that the sacrifice [acceptable to] God is a broken spirit, appears as a still small voice after the storm.

This is a clever, sensitive, faithful reading of the psalm, and revelatory if you've been brought up (as I was) on sentimental and popular treatments that focus on verses 10-12. Let the reader understand: music, and specifically a demanding musical setting, can teach. This is how it's done.

An acquaintance was recently taking a shot at that most stationary of targets, the current state of Christian music. ("How the mighty have fallen" pretty much sums it up.) And it's true that there is very little to say in its defence. But I will defend Pärt anywhere, and in any company.


Recently I've been enjoying xkcd, aptly described on its site as "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." This example is "Fall Apart", from 5th May last year.

It's not for everyone, by any means, but if you've ever been a geek, or loved one, you'll find something here to like. Spoiler Alert is one of the more accessible examples of the strip's sense of humour. (Note: it means what it says.)

Thursday, 15 November 2007

The future of charm physics

It was my privilege, back in August, to chair the panel discussion that closed the International Workshop on Charm Physics at Cornell University.

My writeup for the conference proceedings, The future of charm physics: a discussion, is available on the web as arXiv:0711.1636 [hep-ex].

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Rosetta is passing by ...

... making its closest approach to the earth later today (at 20:57 UTC, 13th November). The Rosetta spacecraft is on its way to meet, orbit, and land on a comet; this earth pass is a gravity assist manoeuvre to modify its orbit (it beats using a lot of fuel and money).

But you'd be lucky to learn any of this from a casual glance at the project's website. As for me: if I were running the world's second-ranked planetary science programme, I would be making sure that the websites for my missions were better than those of the competition. PR matters. I am not asking for mere empty slickness: Lord knows there is enough of that already. But do none of these people have primary- or high-school-age children who they want to enthuse about the solar system?


UPDATE: And right on cue, they do post a news item: Rosetta Second Earth Swing-by, on the bottom left of the page. I suppose it's better late than never. Actually I am being a little unfair as there is an ESA page on Rosetta, separate to the project home page, where there seems to have been a suitably public fuss for a while. So watching the project's own homepage appears to be a bad way of finding out what's going on, unless one wants to read every fine detail ...

For those interested in the misidentification of Rosetta as a previously unknown asteroid, about to make a close pass of he earth: see the comments below.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Breaking the ice

Saturn's moon Dione, a thousand-kilometre-wide ball of ice around a rocky core, as photographed by NASA's Cassini probe. The scratches are bright-walled canyons on the moon's surface.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Image details (from the Cassini multimedia pages): The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Sept. 30, 2007. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 45,000 kilometers (28,000 miles) from Dione and at a Sun-Dione-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 36 degrees. Image scale is 3 kilometers (2 miles) per pixel.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Brisbane in the NYT

Australia's fastest-growing city has made the travel pages in the New York Times, under the heading Once Just a Stopover, an Australian City Grows Up.

I was in Brisbane for a week last year at a conference, travelling from our accomodation to the convention centre each day by ferry on the river, and thinking "I could get used to this".