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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
During the first Mastermind of this month on BBC2, the question was asked: “Unless otherwise stated, what’s the speed limit outside built-up areas, for cars and motorbikes, on ordinary single-carriageway roads in Britain?” This was of course part of the general-knowledge round, not the specialist one (I can’t imagine anyone volunteering to expose their possible ignorance of the Highway Code quite as publicly as that – it’s bad enough having to do so in a driving test). The contestant’s answer was a rapid-fire “70!”. Let’s hope that John Humphrys’ equally quick correction to 60 was taken on board by viewers, because all the evidence is that the NSL sign is regarded by many drivers (perfectly reasonably, in my view, given the design of it) as indicating No Speed Limit at all.
Fear not: I have no plans to introduce graphs into these columns, as our [Thames Valley Group] Editor did in this newsletter last month. But an interesting feature of his graph was that only one of the three scales showed clearly where its zero was. To avoid being misled by graphs, especially financial ones, I urge you to look for the zeros (and if you can’t see them, try to work out where they should be). It’s easy for the apparent rise in value of something to be enhanced visually by plotting it using a scale that doesn’t go down to zero. This might be necessary simply to make the change visible, but anyway you have been warned!
In my January column I discussed three activities – driving, taking exercise, and pursuing physics – in which I felt I was in a class of my own: better at them (or faster, in the case of walking) than many people, but not as good (or not as fast) as some others. Maybe I’m just an oddity, but I keep thinking of more such headings where I seem to be in the middle of a spectrum that consists mainly of two groups of the population near its ends.
One of them is well illustrated by these columns: most people are not interested in writing at any length for others to read, while some are good at it and get paid for doing it. Me, I just feel a continual urge to write, without wanting much recognition ... if I’m not on my own in this regard, among members of the Thames Valley Group I mean, then I am sure Richard Porter [our Editor] would like to hear from you with a contribution!
Then there’s piano-playing. Back in March 2009, I explained to you the close parallels that I see between playing the piano – in particular, sight-reading – and driving along a road, especially one that’s new to you: in each activity you are optimizing your speed, looking ahead, trying to anticipate hazards, and so on. Now for many years I’ve practised nothing at the piano except sight-reading. The result is that I can play a huge range of (classical) music straight off the page fairly well, particularly if my fingers still recall a piece from the last time. Most amateurs wouldn’t be able to do this so easily, I think. And at the other end of the spectrum, professional pianists would not dream of playing a piece in public that they haven’t practised to perfection.
A third ‘ability’ that I seem to have (or a sixth, if you’re counting from the beginning) is that ideas come to me, both small ones and big ones, which I really can’t imagine occurring to anyone else (or if they did they would be dismissed pretty quickly). The small ideas sometimes develop into themes for a column. The large ones hold me in a vice-like grip, until I have worked out a way of putting them into practice. Forgive me for describing to you the latest of these.
It connects my piano-playing with an event that I mentioned here two years ago: I was operated on for prostate cancer at the Royal Berks Hospital in Reading. The job was actually done by Robbie the Robot – an extraordinary machine which is of course under the control of the surgeon, but which makes the operation much less invasive (I was home just two days later). However, Robbie is still only half paid for. To attract donations, many people including even the RBH medics have been running marathons, abseiling down the new Blade skyscraper in Reading, etc etc. Madness, I thought!
And then the big money-raising – not to say hair-raising – idea came to me: in short, I shall be in the Recital Room at South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell, on seven afternoons from March into April, playing through all Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas on the magnificent Steinway there, to anyone who likes to listen. This won’t be a performance so much as a personal adventure over about 21 hours, with much enjoyable music but also some that’s fearsome to play. And by my estimate, there are nearly half a million notes to negotiate. I shall face them as if I was tackling the London Marathon: taking several days, and slowing down at intervals.
I am giving myself a target of £1000 to aim at. Already my family have got me off to a good start, I will now email “everyone I know”, and then I hope that people I don’t know will also sponsor me – perhaps even A Physicist’s Readers? If you would like to give me support, you could leave a message and a small donation on my webpage: www.justgiving.com/beethoven32. Or if you would prefer to send a cheque, please call me on 0118 926 4997 for details.
Other amateur pianists will probably think I’m as mad as an abseiler (see above), but with luck, as the music gets more difficult I shall get more used to playing in public. If you feel like dropping in to hear the result, the dates etc are on the webpage. But if only Robbie could be programmed to play the trickier bits of Beethoven for me!
[An update: with two of the seven afternoons of music (and the most difficult) still to be faced, on 10 and 12 April, I am overwhelmed by the total of money so far donated – an absolutely incredible £2500 ... and if you’re reading this at a later date, the final total was just short of £3300.]
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