Vague ramblings

Night, lights

Posted in That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 24 December, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I drove down Olney High Street and as I passed One Stop it seemed to me that the lights were designed to offer a path to the church end of town. I don’t know if that was intentional, although the effect would be even more compelling were the spire of St Peter and St Paul Church more brightly lit. But that’s a small grumble: the lights made for some cool pictures, so enjoy the video.

Merry Christmas and all the best for 2018.


No time to reflect right now…

Posted in Music, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 21 December, 2015

Ordinarily I would post something pensive and reflective at this time of year. I might yet, but in the mean time:


Below is the official video, and these are the places you can buy it:

• iTunes –
• Amazon –
• Google Play –
• 7 Digital –

The National Health Service at No 1 for Christmas. How bloody cool would that be?

Buy it, STREAM IT on Spotify (10 plays of at least 30 seconds = 1 purchase, and that is where Justin bloody B**ber is winning). And tell everybody you have ever met to do so too.

(Edit: to be fair to the Beibs, even he wants it at No 1. He is Canadian, so understands the value of universal health care)

Seriously. What are you waiting for?

The heat is on

Posted in Life, Reason, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 18 January, 2015

Following on from the news that 2014 was the hottest year on record, and probably the hottest for a couple of thousand years, comes this utterly marvellous visualisation by Bloomberg (click the link and scroll down to start).

A simple idea, brilliantly executed.

Just in case you are one of those delusional fools who think global warming is a conspiracy by scientists: The brutal truth: 13 of the 14 hottest years on record were in the 21st Century. And it is our fault.

A much travelled phrase springs to mind:

We have not inherited the Earth from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children.


Maddy’s still got it…

Posted in That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 24 December, 2014

…although the definitive version was by the Francis Bacon School Senior Girl’s Choir, 1978-9. But you had to be there…

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Philae and Rosetta: On the unexpected beach

Posted in Musing, Reason, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 16 November, 2014

The speeding bullet aimed at a speeding bullet

In a private corner of the internet I was discussing the ESA’s Rosetta/ Philae mission. The general consensus was – quite correctly in my view – that this is one of the finest achievements of science ever (and, let’s not forget, engineering) as well as, perhaps, the greatest single act of navigation bar none. Who would have thought that watching a group of uber-geeks staring at screens could be so damned enthralling?

But the inevitable question came up: couldn’t the €1.4bn have been spent on something more useful. What use is it?

Setting aside that this sum would only buy you about half of a modern nuclear submarine – and that a sub can’t “land on a speeding bullet from a speeding bullet” I’m not convinced by the value for money arguments, but there is much more that the small-of-vision should consider. Here are some points I raised.

When Clair Patterson set about establishing the age of the Earth – which he achieved – he also discovered a mounting environmental crisis caused by putting lead – one of the most toxic substances known to man – in petrol. It wasn’t his objective, but in looking for one thing he discovered another;

When Alexander Fleming failed to tidy up his Staphylococcus experiment, he did not know he would discover penicillin. He was working on one problem, but stumbled into a much bigger solution;

If Horace Wells hadn’t been paying attention at an exhibition, then nobody may have benefitted from him realising that a chap playing with nitrous oxide had injured himself without feeling it, thus discovering anaesthesia (he wasn’t the only one, but he was a key player).

Lack of imagination as to the benefits of seeking knowledge for its own sake is the cross to bear for the small of mind. But let’s look forward and consider these ideas that could, potentially, benefit from the Rosetta mission:

1. Celestial navigation
Parking Philae has been compared to hitting a speeding bullet from another speeding bullet. With manned missions to Mars in early planning, and OSIRIS-Rex launching next year to (potentially) explore the commercial exploitation of asteroids, the knowledge gained from this mission is incalculable (including the failures: rockets that spend 10 years in sleep mode turn out not to be that reliable);

2. The nature of threats
That sooner or later an object big enough to threaten civilisation will head towards us is inevitable. The knowledge gained in missions such as Rosetta will make an invaluable contribution to our chances of being able to park it somewhere harmless. (The Voyager probes’ discoveries about the atmospheres of the outer planets have greatly improved meteorological models of Earth);

3. Planning
The speed of light delay to Rosetta is about 15 mins. Any practice at remote operation is valuable, especially if it saves having to put people in harm’s way. It won’t be Bruce Willis who saves us from the threat in point 2 above. Further, the lessons in how to make durable equipment will surely make human space flight safer;

4. The origin of the universe
Quantum theory lies at the root of much of the stuff around you that you take for granted. Einstein – who knew a thing or two – was sceptical about it. I read today that we have no quantum theory of gravity, and that it is needed to understand the earliest moments after big bang. The physic is way (and I mean waaaay) beyond me, but the idea that such physics could contribute massively to technology isn’t;

5. The origins of life (which is what the mission is primarily concerned with)
Understanding the most fundamental nature of our existence – in particular how genetic information forms – would have profound implications for medicine, ecology, biochemistry and many other fields.

6. And then of course there’s…
Well, I can’t put it better than Professor Brian Cox did, so won’t try:

“Science is unreasonably effective. It’s generated knowledge beyond all expectation. It’s also delivered perspective. Yes, we are an insignificant speck in an infinite universe but we’re also rare. And because we’re rare, we’re valuable. So what are we to do to secure our future? We must learn to value the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and not just because it grows our economy or allows us to build better bombs. We must also learn to value the human race and take responsibility for our own survival. Why? Because there’s nobody else out there to value us or to look after us. And finally, most important of all, we must educate the next generation in the great discoveries of science and we must teach them to use the light of reason to banish the darkness of superstition. Because if we do that then at least there’s a chance that this universe will remain a human one.” (The Human Universe, 2014)

It is as well that Isaac Newton didn’t stop at thinking “Oooh, must get some cinnamon in” when he watched the apple fall (although that may well have solved his hunger problem). Or that Columbus didn’t report,”Yeah, we rocked up on an unexpected beach. That nails it. We might as well stay home now.”

The unexpected beach is about the stage we are at with the Solar System right now. The team behind Rosetta and Philae are direct descendants of Columbus, and Cook and Halley and all the others who provide empirical evidence of a simple truth: that humanity is made up of compulsive explorers.

And we wouldn’t be here without them.

Modern explorers

Letter to an Unknown Soldier

Posted in Life, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 4 July, 2014

Letter to an Unknown Soldier is partly an arts project, but mostly a memorial for the fallen of World War One. “A new kind of memorial made by thousands of people” as its home page says. As of this writing more than 7,000 contributions have been published and the range of moods and styles is striking.

If you think you have something to say, then why not say it in a letter?

Check it out: 14-18 NOW Letter to an Unknown Soldier

This is mine: Letter to George

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Ground Zero: 10 years in 3 mins

Posted in That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 16 May, 2014

No further comment needed.

Do the right thing: it is part of you

Posted in Life, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 30 April, 2014

I found this via the splendid  The Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine page on Facebook (follow that and the equally spiffing I Fucking Love Science and you will get all the sciencey goodness you can cope with).

It seems the ability to make quick moral judgements and to determine whether the best thing to do is reward or punish is innate – a sense of justice is part of us.

Have a read – it is very interesting – and don’t forget to click through to the linked Youtube video. If you are in need of a top up to your “faith in humanity” levels, it will certainly provide it.


Cosmos: from Sagan to Tyson, children playing on the seashore

Posted in Reason, That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 24 March, 2014

If you haven’t yet started watching Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new imagining of Carl Sagan’s 1970s documentary series Cosmos, then you are missing a marvellous thing. Seriously – get on it right now.

It is no surprise that Tyson follows Sagan in starting out on a seashore – the very same shore, in fact. The allusion to Newton is impossible to escape and patently deliberate:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Sagan’s original is not hard to find. It is more explicitly didactic than the new version, perhaps because it came from a less entitled time, when people didn’t mind having things explained to them as if they were grown-up and able to pay attention. Tyson doesn’t dodge his task, but adopts a more modern approach familiar to any writer’s group: show, don’t tell.

He shows with the story of Giordano Bruno, a 16th Century monk who asked a simple question: If God is infinite, how can his universe be so puny as to have Earth at its centre? He was burned at the stake, of course. But when small-minded fundamentalists claim to have all the answers, it is as well to remind them that a monk illustrated how stupid – and disrespectful to their God – their assertions are.

Tracey at Fairborne

Latter day Newtons, circa 1973

Then there was evolution. Nothing was dodged here and the idiotic falsehood that the eye could not possibly have evolved by accident was laid bare: we are shown – literally shown – how step by patient step, the eyesight of life improved. From just enough to help microscopic organisms avoid too much light, to the beautiful irony of an organ adapted perfectly for aquatic life being not quite so marvellous on land.

No quarter was given and the frothing outrage of creationists on the social networks was a joy to behold – while also being rather sad, as their child-like certainties provoked childish temper tantrums. It was done with a nod and wink, with clarity and with the best of modern TV technology brought to bear, including animation presumably directed by Seth MacFarlane. And it was unmerciful. It was brutal.

It was factual.

And then came the flourish, the pointing out of the one thing that sets science apart from pretty well every other philosophy. “How did life begin?” asked Tyson: “We don’t know – yet.” I have lost count of the times followers of woo – from odd religions to homeopaths to mediums – have grumbled: “Well, science doesn’t have all the answers,” as if this in some way is a criticism, rather than the highest possible praise that it is.  Incidentally, science is working on the whole ‘how did life begin” thing.

Tyson’s frequent allusions to Sagan are unobtrusive, but welcome to those of us who remember the original: they stem from a deep-rooted admiration and respect for the man, touchingly demonstrated in a moving tribute at the end of the first episode.

This is science education of the highest order, not once shouting “Yah! Boo” at the ignoramuses and charlatans peddling lies about everything from climate science to vaccinations nor even the Creationists to whom reason is a mortal foe.

Instead it explains things in a way accessible to anyone interested enough to watch. If you doubt that, read of the impact it made on one six year old.

Enjoy the show – then go back and watch Carl’s original. ‘cos, why wouldn’t you want to watch the greatest science communicator of the last century, after watching once of the finest of the present?

Then, maybe, go play on a beach for a while.

Earthrise: 45 years on. Exactly

Posted in That which is cool by Ian Cundell on 24 December, 2013

“Oh my God, look at that picture over there!”

250/f11 – nice work Hasselblad.

Go on. Admit it. You are awe-struck.

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