Sunday, 24 April 2016

Beige Birthdays, Purple Rain, and some Black Hole Blues

It was sad to hear of the sudden death of Victoria Wood last week. She died, aged 62, following a short illness. I am sure she will be missed by many people. Her observations on everyday life and experiences resonated with me and I am sure many others. All were beautifully delivered in her broad Lancashire accent (she was born in Prestwich, a place dear to my heart). One of my favourite quotes was her boyfriend comment – ‘all my friends started getting boyfriends, but I didn’t want a boyfriend, I wanted a thirteen-colour biro’.

The pop star Prince also died suddenly last week. He was 57 years old. He was a phenomenally successful song writer and performer and his work was said to be immensely influential with other artists. However, I must be one of the few people who feel I am missing something. I don’t understand the enthusiasm and acclaim for his work. Even his most famous song ‘Purple Rain’ (which as I write this blog is at #1 in the UK and US charts) is losing its appeal through over play during the last 48 hours. That was something that didn’t happen to me when David Bowie died, aged 69, early this year and his music was played 24 hours a day.

Sadly there has been a lot of celebrity deaths this year. There were 4 such deaths between Jan and March in 2012, and 24 in the same period this year, and now 2 more. Many of these famous people dying belong to the so called ‘baby-boom’ generation that is, those born between 1946 and 1964. In fact people between the ages of 65-69 are most likely to die in this group. Slightly concerning, as I was born in 1955.

Last week also saw the commemoration activity celebrating the life and work of one William Shakespeare, who died on the 23rd April, 1616. What I didn’t realise until last week was that over 50% of the world's children read the work of Shakespeare, or that his favourite colour was Teal (a kind of blue) fringed with purple. Spooky if you look at this picture of a rare stamp which was produced at the tail end of the ‘baby boomer’ years, 1964. Its rarity comes from the fact that the knight should have been white. And of course the Queen was 90 years old last Thursday. Apparently she hates the colour beige, her favorite colour is blue, and nearly a third of all her outfits are blue, including everything from Teal to Navy Blue.

Last week it was colours that attracted to the title of a book which makes for fascinating reading: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space. It is a book written by Janna Levin, which describes the multi-million dollar experiment to find and measure gravitational waves.  The language is challenging and alien and the text full of words and ideas I have never encountered before. It tells the story of the development of the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo). Ligo itself is a fascinating concept – 2 tubes, 1.2 meters in diameter, and 4 kilometres long, set at right angles to each other, within which laser light travels. This light bounces of mirrors so perfect that they reflect 99.999% of the light. It is the tiny movement of these mirrors that signals a passing gravitational wave.

The gravitational wave is caused by black holes colliding out in space, and the collision is ‘heard’ rather than seen. But for me, it is not this amazing scientific breakthrough that was interesting but the tale of one of 3 people responsible for making it happen. It is the story of Scottish physicist Ronald Drever. Ronald worked as a Professor at the California Institute of Technology (Catech) – ranked the number one university in the world in the Times Higher Education ranking since 2013. He almost fitted the archetypical professor stereotype. He was eccentric – short, dumpy, unkempt, habitually carrying his papers in 2 supermarket carrier bags. He never married, didn’t have a wide circle of friends and was not interested in material things.

Whilst Ronald was undoubtedly brilliant, some would say a genius, he wasn’t a team player. Others working with him found his approach increasingly difficult and in 1997 he was asked to leave the Ligo project. Soon after he was diagnosed with dementia. He now lives in a care home in Scotland. Understanding the success of the Ligo project is beyond my comprehension. Ronald’s current situation isn’t. I wish him well.  As many people know, black is my favourite colour, and I hope in Ronald’s world there is a memory somewhere of the importance of being able to hear black holes colliding.