Archive for the History Category

The Dead Zoo

Posted in Architecture, History, Television with tags , , on August 1, 2022 by telescoper

I don’t often post about television but I couldn’t resist a quickie about a fascinating programme I just watched called The Dead Zoo, about Dublin’s splendid Natural History Museum, which opened in 1857. I visited this place way back in 2019 on which occasion I took this picture of the interior:

I thought the museum was wonderful if a bit creepy. I remember thinking while I wandered around that I wouldn’t like to be stuck there overnight, surrounded by over 10,000 dead animals in Victorian glass cabinets. It would make a grand setting for a ghost story!

The building had been somewhat neglected and the splendid roof was prone to leaking, so the Museum was closed for renovation in 2020 and all the specimens on the upper floors – including the huge skeleton of a Fin Whale that you can see in the photo hanging from the ceiling – were removed to a storage facility.

This operation -carried out against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic – is the subject of Paul Duane’s excellent documentary, the trailer of which you can watch here:

If you didn’t get the chance to watch it you can catch it on the RTÉ Player.

The work on the roof and other renovations will take some time to complete but the ground floor will re-open to visitors tomorrow (2nd August 2022). I imagine it will be pretty busy and you have to book in advance, though as with all Ireland’s National Museums, admission is free.

A pretty simple thing…

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 27, 2022 by telescoper

In a state of not inconsiderable excitement, I showed the above picture (which appears in yesterday’s post) to a friend who shrugged and said “It doesn’t look like much..”. My response was “Well, you wouldn’t look like much at z=16.7…”

That reply was of course inspired by a famous exchange between Fred Hoyle and R.O. Redman recounted here:

Fred once started a talk by saying, ‘Oh, Ooh, basically a star is a pretty simple thing.’ And from the back of the room was heard the voice of R. O. Redman, saying, ‘Well, Fred, you’d look pretty simple too, from ten parsecs!

I’ve heard this story told by many people in different versions involving different characters, including Eddington, but I think it is generally accepted to have been between Hoyle and Redman, though this may well not have been the first comment of its type. If anyone knows any more please let me know!

James Webb: the wrong name for a Space Telescope

Posted in History, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on July 13, 2022 by telescoper

Following yesterday’s excitement about the new images from the James Webb Space Telescope I thought I’d share this video documentary that explains why the choice of name for this facility is highly inappropriate and should be changed. This is a matter I’ve blogged about previously, in fact, but the video is new.

A Grim Centenary

Posted in History with tags , , , on June 28, 2022 by telescoper

Today marks the centenary of the “official” outbreak of the Irish Civil War. Full-scale conflict had been threatening to erupt since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 as many people who had fought so hard for independence were profoundly unhappy that the treaty had not delivered the Republic that was their wish. For example, members of the Dáil Éireann of the “Irish Free State” formed in 1921 still had to swear allegiance to the British Monarchy. Ireland did not formally become a Republic until 1949.

Exhausted by the War of Independence and fearful of British threats should the Treaty fail, a majority of the general population in Ireland accepted its terms, but a sizeable minority were determined in their opposition. In April 1922 anti-Treaty forces seized and occupied the Four Courts in Dublin with the aim of paralyzing the administration of the Free State. On June 22nd 1922 Field Marshal Henry Wilson was assassinated outside his home in London, allegedly by members of the anti-Treaty IRA. British authorities ordered their troops to attack Dublin in response, but the attack didn’t go ahead.

At dawn on 28th June 1922, one hundred years ago today, pro-Treaty forces began bombarding the Four Courts in Dublin with two 18-pounder field guns, borrowed from the British Army, in an attempt to dislodge the anti-Treaty forces. In a week of fighting the Four Courts were destroyed along with many important documents, and an archive going back 1,000 years.

So began a terrible Civil War which lasted almost a year.

Schrödinger’s Theatre

Posted in Education, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on June 21, 2022 by telescoper

Although it’s relatively old news in Ireland, a colleague recently sent me a story from Physics World about Trinity College Dublin’s decision to change the name of its Schrödinger Lecture Theatre (to the Physics Lecture Theatre). The Provost, Fellows, Foundation Scholars and the other members of Board, of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin (to give it its proper title) took this decision in the light of revelations about Erwin Schrödinger‘s predatory sexual conduct towards very young girls.

According to my careful research carried out by reading his Wikipedia page, Schrödinger never actually worked at Trinity College Dublin; the Theatre in question was named in his honour after he delivered his famous lectures on What is Life there in 1943.

Reactions to the decision to rename the Theatre have generated a wide range of reactions from physicists and non-physicists alike. For my part I think it is the right decision. As the Physics World article states:

As an educational institute, we cannot condone or glorify someone who abused the trust between teacher and student.

Jonathan Coleman, Head of School Physics TCD

To me this is quite different from attaching Schrödinger’s name to his equation or even his cat. His unsavoury conduct should not mean that his scientific achievements should be “cancelled” . These are and should continue to be recognized through terms like Schrödinger’s Equation. As far as I am aware, however, Schrödinger did not build any lecture theatres.

It’s up to Trinity to decide what to call its rooms, of course, but that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to have opinions about the decision. I’d therefore invite you to express yours through the following poll:

Of course if you wish to expand on your opinion you may do so through the box below.

Summer Solstice 2022

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff on June 21, 2022 by telescoper

The Summer Solstice in the Northern hemisphere takes place today, Tuesday 21st June 2022, at 10.14am Irish Time (9.14 UTC). Among other things, this means that tomorrow is the longest day of the year around these parts. According to this website, the interval between sunrise and sunset in Dublin today will be 17 hours 5 minutes and 6 seconds. which is 2 seconds longer than yesterday while tomorrow will be four whole seconds shorter than that.

It’s all downhill from now on.

Days will get shorter from tomorrow until the Winter Solstice in December, although this does not mean that sunset will necessarily happen earlier on 22nd than it does tomorrow. In fact it is a little later. Nor does it mean that sunrise will happen later tomorrow; in fact it is a little earlier.

You can find such things out by looking at a table of the local mean times of sunrise and sunset for Dublin around the 2022 summer solstice. This shows that the earliest sunrise was actually on 17th June and the latest sunset is on 25th.

This arises because there is a difference between mean solar time (measured by clocks) and apparent solar time (defined by the position of the Sun in the sky), so that a solar day does not always last exactly 24 hours. A description of apparent and mean time was given by Nevil Maskelyne in the Nautical Almanac for 1767:

Apparent Time is that deduced immediately from the Sun, whether from the Observation of his passing the Meridian, or from his observed Rising or Setting. This Time is different from that shewn by Clocks and Watches well regulated at Land, which is called equated or mean Time.

The discrepancy between mean time and apparent time arises because of the Earth’s axial tilt and the fact that it travels around the Sun in an elliptical orbit in which its orbital speed varies with time of year (being faster at perihelion than at aphelion).

If you plot the position of the Sun in the sky at a fixed time each day from a fixed location on the Earth you get a thing called an analemma, which is a sort of figure-of-eight curve whose shape depends on the observer’s latitude. Here’s a photographic version taken in Edmonton, with photographs of the Sun’s position taken from the same position at the same time on different days over the course of a year:


The summer solstice is the uppermost point on this curve and the winter solstice is at the bottom. The north–south component of the analemma is the Sun’s declination, and the east–west component is the so-called equation of time which quantifies the difference between mean solar time and apparent solar time. This curve can be used to calculate the earliest and/or latest sunrise and/or sunset.

A 25th Birthday Celebration

Posted in History, Maynooth with tags , , , on June 16, 2022 by telescoper

Today saw a celebratory barbecue on campus to commemorate 25 years of the creation of the National University of Ireland Maynooth now known as Maynooth University, my current employer, as an independent university. The institution was set up as the result of the Universities Act 1997 which was signed into law in May 1997 and came into operation on 16th June 1997 – i.e. 25 years ago today – as a result of the subsequent Commencement Order.

I was unable to attend the event on campus today to celebrate this anniversary because of pressure of work. With a €13.2 million surplus to spend on it, the party was probably very good, but I know I’m not alone among my colleagues in finding little to celebrate in our present predicament of inadequate resources, staff shortages and overwork.

Old School, Old Home

Posted in Biographical, History, Television with tags , , , , , on June 14, 2022 by telescoper

I’ve posted a few times posted about Benwell,  the part of Newcastle in which I grew up. For example I’ve posted about the little house where my first memories live here, and there’s an old photograph of it here:

The house itself (ours was the one on the left on this picture) was built of brick but to the left hand side you can just see a stone wall. The two cottages were demolished some time ago, along with Pendower School which was behind them as viewed from the picture.

I recently came across a picture of Pendower School taken sometime in the early 1990s when it was all boarded up and being sold for redevelopment.

The roof area with the fence around actually had a playground on it, used by Pendower Girls’ High school which occupied most of the building. The Infants and Junior schools which I attended were contained in the wing on the far right of the picture, the Infants downstairs and the Juniors upstairs. The school was built in 1929 and closed in 1992. It was used as a store for some time and then demolished.

The whole area including the school and the old cottages has now been covered with new houses, but for some reason they left the stone wall, part of which you can see to the left of the two cottages of the first picture. These were both taken from Ferguson’s Lane, which is immediately behind the stone wall to the left of the old photograph.



In the second picture you can see the filled in outlines of the door which led to our backyard (on the right) and (on the left) the holes through which the coalman used to deliver the coal that was the only form of heating in the house. There was no central heating and no heating at all upstairs, incidentally, so we had very cold bedrooms in winter!

Anyway, my excuse for reposting this trip down Ferguson’s Memory Lane is that I recently came across this fascinating picture taken from the West in 1897 of the old Benwell Village:


I had never seen this picture before but I am now quite sure from looking at street maps of the time that the houses you can see at the far left are in fact the cottages shown in the very first picture of this blog, including the one I lived in! I had never thought about it before, but notice how close the roofline is to the top of the first floor windows. Note also the wall separating them from the rest of the row as they were originally on a private estate.  In the background you can see Benwell Towers which, many years later, is where the TV series Byker Grove was filmed.

The row of houses you can see includes two pubs: The Hawthorn and The Green Tree. Both pubs survived in name though the newer premises were on opposite sides of the road when I lived there. These houses and pubs were all demolished long before I was born to make way for a road (Fox & Hounds Lane) which is basically continuation of Ferguson’s Lane but curving to the left.

A slightly better view from the early 1900s again shows the cottages on the far right. If you click to expand it you can see the drainpipe coming down the front of the house beside the first set of windows, exactly as in the first image on this blog.

Here’s a slightly different view of the same area, taken in 1920 and showing both sides of Ferguson’s Lane, again with Benwell Towers in the distance.

The lamppost is very useful for orienting these three images!

The cottages on the right no longer existed by the time I lived in Benwell: the new Hawthorn Inn stood at their location. At the far end of that row of houses was the old Smithy part of which became a dodgy garage called HQ Motors, which when I lived in the area was guarded by a very scary dog called Patch.

I never really knew what the old Benwell Village looked like. Now I have a much better idea, despite the fact the School the cottages and the pubs have now all vanished!

From Labour to Labor

Posted in Crosswords, History, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 22, 2022 by telescoper

I don’t know very much about Australian politics but I was delighted yesterday to hear news of Rupert Murdoch’s defeat in the Federal elections. The losing leader of the illiberal party, and previous PM, Scott Morrison, has now resigned. I’ve got nothing against Mr Morrison’s family, but I’m glad he’s going to be spending more time with them.

One thing that confused me is that the victorious Australian Labor Party is the spelling of the word “Labor”. I think Australians use the English spelling “labour” for the noun or verb so why the political party uses a different spelling for the political party is unclear to me. It is however just a name, and we all know that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Some people refer to “labor” as the American spelling but it’s not as simple as that. The English word “labour” is derived from the 3rd declension Latin noun labor/laboris from which in turn is derived the verb laborare. The same sort of Latin origin is the case for many other familiar words: honor, color, valor, humor, vapor, rigor, and so on. All these were original Latin nouns that came into English via Norman French in the course of which they acquired the “u”.

The person responsible for the spelling of these words in American English (ie “labor” etc) was Noah Webster who thought English spelling was unnecessarily complicated and reverted to the Latin in these cases. It was also he who turned “centre” into “center”, for example. This spelling was introduced in his famous dictionary, first published in 1828, and subsequently acquired by the G&C Merriam Co and still in circulation nowadays after many revisions as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Anyway, my point is that the English often look down on such spellings as “labour” and “colour” as vulgar Americanism but these are the “original” (unfrenchified) spellings.

It’s interesting that Norman French words sometimes displaced Old English words entirely but sometimes the Old English form survives as synonym. For example, the Old English word for “colour” is “hew” which survives as the English “hue”. The Old English word for “labour” is “swink” which has completely disappeared from common usage (though it is listed in the One True Chambers Dictionary with the description archaic).

All of which nonsense gives me an excuse to mention that I managed to get an HC (“Highly Commended”) for my clue in Azed Competition No. 2603 which I thought was a very tough puzzle to complete, which is no doubt why there were only 117 entries!

The Old Rugged Cross – George Lewis

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , on April 15, 2022 by telescoper

A descendant of Senegalese slaves, George Lewis was born in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1900 where he learned to play the clarinet and started to play with jazz bands in the 1920s. Many musicians left New Orleans for Chicago during that period but Lewis stayed and lived on in relatively obscurity until the New Orleans “revival” began in the 1940s. After appearing on records with likes of Bunk Johnson, Lewis became a sort of Patron Saint of traditional jazz, with a style rooted in the home-town traditions of Gospel Music and Street Parades that was very different from that of the popular clarinetists of the Swing Era such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Lewis was never a great player from a technical point of view, but he was an authentic emblem of early Jazz and the back-to-basics move he represented proved very popular especially in Western Europe and Lewis had a late renaissance in his career in which he travelled widely playing with “traditional” bands around the world during the height of the “trad” boom of the fifties and sixties. He died in 1968.

Anyway, because it’s Good Friday I thought I would post this video of him in his later years playing the hymn The Old Rugged Cross, which was written in 1912 and has been a staple of New Orleans funeral processions ever since: