Archive for the History Category

Charles Kingsley on the Irish

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , on September 4, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been aware since my schooldays that there has been (and still is) a significant tendency among the English (especially their governing classes) to regard the Irish as lawless barbarians, but this quote which I found in a book I’ve been reading really took my breath away. It’s from a letter written by Charles Kingsley to his wife in 1861, while he was travelling through an Ireland still reeling from the devastation of the Great Famine:

But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault, I believe that there are not only more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.

This passage is revolting in so many ways that I don’t think it needs any further comment, but it is worth mentioning that Charles Kingsley was, by the standards of his time, regarded as something of a progressive. As well as being a Church of England priest, Professor of History and a novelist (I read The Water-Babieswhen I was a child), he was also a social reformer involved in such initiatives as the working men’s college and labour cooperatives. Clearly his concern for the poor and oppressed didn’t extend much beyond his own people.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Charles Kingsley did his undergraduate studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as did I (thought not at the same time).


Sheila Tinney et al.

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 2, 2018 by telescoper

I came across the above picture via Twitter the other day. It was taken about 75 years ago, in 1943, the year that Erwin Schrödinger gave his famous lectures in Dublin on the topic What Is Life? Schrödinger is second from the right in the front row, next to Arthur Stanley Eddington (who is to his left as you look a the picture). Next but one to Eddington (to his left as you look at the picture)  is Éamon de Valera (who was Taioseach at the time; apparently he dragged all his cabinet along to Schrödinger’s lectures) and next to him (on the left as you look at the picture) is Paul Dirac. That’s quite a front row!

I’m afraid I don’t know the identity of most of the other people in the picture, apart from the lady on the far left who is Dr Sheila Tinney. She completed a PhD under the supervision of Max Born in just two years and was held in very high regard as a physicist, not least by Schrödinger himself. Sheila Tinney spent her academic career at University College Dublin and passed away in 2010 at the age of 92.

The gender balance in physics has improved a bit since 1943 but we still have a long way to go! Note also the numerous men in clerical garb.

There is a conference coming up in Dublin to mark the 75th anniversary of the What is Life lectures, and there has been quite a lot of interest in Schrödinger in the Irish media as a consequent, such as this piece in the Irish Times.

I guess most readers of this blog will know that Éamon de Valera set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS) in 1939 in order to create a position for Schrödinger, who was then basically a refugee from the Nazis. He had attempted to settle in Oxford but his unconventional domestic arrangements – he lived in the same house as his wife and his mistress – met with disapproval. Dublin was far more tolerant, and he took up the post of Director of Theoretical Physics at DIAS in 1940 and stayed in Ireland for 17 years.

If you ask me for a personal opinion about Schrödinger’s private life then I have to say two things. One is that all three members of his ménage à trois seemed quite happy with the arrangement as well as the affairs that Schrödinger had outside it. His wife also had numerous affairs, including one with physicist Hermann Weyl. Unconventional it may have been, but most conventions are pretty silly in my view.

On the other hand, there is a part of Schrödinger’s life that I do find entirely reprehensible, and that is the way he treated some of the women with whom he had affairs. As the Irish Times puts it

‘For Schrödinger, the mystical union of sexual love did not endure for long .. With Erwin it was never able to survive tidings of pregnancy.

The Schrödingers did (unofficially) adopt one of the children he fathered outside his marriage, but he strikes me as someone who wanted (or perhaps needed) the sexual and emotional fulfillment his lovers could give him, but wasn’t prepared to accept the responsibility that goes with human relationships. That strikes me as a very selfish attitude.

Golf and other Hazards

Posted in History, Maynooth, Sport with tags , , , , , on August 27, 2018 by telescoper

Back in the office with a few minutes to go before a meeting starts I thought I’d give a little insight into life in the throbbing metropolis that is Maynooth, County Kildare. This week sees the start of the World Amateur Team Golf Championships, which is being held at Carton House (above) which is a short walk from downtown Maynooth. Some of the competitors will be staying on Maynooth University campus for the duration, which will no doubt provide welcome revenue.

Now the game of golf is obviously of no conceivable interest to anyone, but the venue – Carton House – is quite fascinating. The current house was built on the Carton Estate in the 18th Century to accommodate the Earl of Kildare, when their fortunes had slowly recovered after Thomas Fitzgerald (`Silken Thomas’) the 10th Earl of Kildare was executed, along with several others of the Fitzgerald family, by Henry VIII for plotting a rebellion against the English. If you have been paying attention you will know that it was the Fitzgeralds who built the stone castle in Maynooth that was destroyed in the 16th Century. Carton House is at the other end of town, and is approached by a very pleasant tree-lined avenue. The extensive grounds are also surrounded by a wall. The latter-day Fitzgeralds obviously wanted to keep the hoi polloi at arm’s length.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, Carton House fell into disrepair in the second half of the 20th Century and was eventually sold off and turned into a hotel and spa resort, with two golf courses.

In the meantime, among many other things, Carton House and it its grounds were used as one of the locations for Stanley Kubrick’s (1975) film Barry Lyndon. That was of course before the beautiful landscaped gardens were destroyed and turned into golf courses. I went for a pleasant walk in the grounds earlier this summer, during the heatwave, but the path runs alongside a small lake beside one of the fairways where a group of people were openly committing acts of golf. A not-very-competent member of this group sent several balls into the water before finally managing to hit dry land with a tee shot. For a while I wished I’d brought a tin hat with me.

D.G. Bradman b Hollies 0

Posted in Cricket, History with tags , , on August 14, 2018 by telescoper

It was on this day 70 years ago (i.e. on 14th August 1948) that the great Australian batsman Sir Donald Bradman played his last Test innings, against England at the Oval. He didn’t know it would be his last knock but Australia won the match by an innings so he never got to bat again in the match, which was the last in the five-match Ashes series that Australia won 4-0.

Bradman needed only to score four runs to finish with a Test batting average of 100, but he was out second ball to the legspinner Eric Hollies, for a duck, and his average was stuck on 99.94.

Here’s a short video of Bradman’s last Test innings, featuring commentary by John Arlott:

Two things struck me when I watched this just now. One is that Norman Yardley’s decision to give Bradman three cheers at the start of his innings may have seemed very sporting at the time, but I’m sure it put the batsman off and I wonder if that was Yardley’s calculated intent?

The second striking thing is the poor state of the pitch, with huge footmarks clearly visible. Although Hollies was bowling round the wicket presumably to exploit them, it’s not clear these played a role in Bradman’s dismissal. It looks to me that he played a loose shot at a full delivery, probably a googly that turned a little. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that batsmen of Bradman’s era had to play on uncovered wickets. I won’t dwell on this point for fear of starting to sound like Geoffrey Boycott, but it does reinforce just how remarkable Bradman’s average really was. Add to that the fact that England had been bowled out on that strip in their first innings for just 52!

Eric Hollies may have been a good bowler, but his record with the bat was at the opposite extreme to Bradman, scoring a total of 37 runs in 13 Test matches, at an average of 5.28. His total of 1,673 runs in first-class matches was 650 fewer than his haul of wickets, and only once (in 1954) did he reach 30 in an innings. In fact, he did not reach 20 in any innings between 1946 and 1953, and equalled an all-time first-class record, between July 1948 and August 1950, of seventy-one consecutive innings without reaching double figures.

Although Australia won the Ashes convincingly in 1948, the Australian camp was not entirely harmonious. The tension therein largely originated in the fact that Bradman was a Protestant and there was a Catholic faction in the touring party that didn’t like him for essentially tribal reasons. Indeed, I’m told that some former Australian players in the Press Box burst out laughing when `The Don’ was out for a duck that day.

Brú na Bóinne

Posted in Art, Biographical, History with tags , , on August 6, 2018 by telescoper

Today is Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa (August Bank Holiday) in Ireland, but I thought I’d pop into the Department at Maynooth University to say farewell to the guests at the Quark Confinement Conference, the last of whom depart today. As I mentioned on Saturday I helped guide a party of around 40 conference participants around the prehistoric sites at Brú na Bóinne.

There’s a huge amount of information on the official website for this site and there’s no point trying to repeat it here, but I will say a few things. First of all, the site is about 5 miles inland (west) along the River Boyne from Drogheda. There is a huge amount of archaeology in the Boyne Valley and it’s impossible to see all of it in the half-day trip we had on Saturday, so we went to just one of the three major megalithic sites in the area, at Knowth. The two other sites are Newgrange and Dowth (where another passage tomb has just been discovered), neither of them far from where we were but we didn’t have time to visit them. In order to restrict numbers, access to all three of these monuments is by guided tour only. You have to take a shuttle bus from the main visitor’s centre, which is near to the oldest site at Newgrange. You could see all three in a day but you need at least an hour at each one to appreciate it fully, plus time to get to and fro by shuttle bus.

Anyway, people do say that the main Knowth monument is the most impressive not least because the main passage tomb has never collapsed. You can see from the above picture that the main structure is surrounded by many smaller structures. The `passage’ is about 40 metres long:

Guests at the site are not allowed into the depths of the site, but there is an antechamber with a display explaining what the interior looks like. The passage is quite constricted and oppressive: anyone over 5 foot tall would have to crouch. It’s also not inconsiderably creepy!

I took the above picture with my mobile phone. Here is one with a better camera and a flash which gives you a better idea of the construction:

Incidentally, this and the other structures nearby are all called `passage tombs’ because evidence of cremation has been found inside them, and (in the case of Knowth) a basin stone on which remains had been placed, but it is generally accepted that they were much more than just graves. They were probably temples of some sort. Each of three major monuments at Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth, has a convincing astronomical alignment but each is different: there are alignments with sunrise at the winter solstice (Newgrange) and summer solstice (Dowth); there are two alignments at Knowth for the two equinoxes.

The people who built these extraordinary buildings are thought to have been the first farmers in Ireland (as opposed to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them). It seems likely that the astronomical alignments were to do with some kind of rituals that marked the seasons of the year; the spring equinox would be associated with planting crops and the autumn equinox with harvesting.

The generally good state of preservation of Knowth is partly accidental: at some point in the Iron Age, a Celtic chief decided to build a fort on top of the main tumulus and dig a ditch around its perimeter. The soil removed from the ditch was used to build an embankment on the inside and that provided protection for the right of about 130 kerbstones that surrounds the tomb. Only three of these are missing. They are weathered and worn, which is hardly surprising given that they are 5000 years old, but can be seen in place:

The stones are all carved in different ways – a complete gallery can be found here – but their meaning is lost. As well as the kerbstones there are pieces of quartz and smooth granite stones like large round pebbles, which may have been used for some sort of ritual magic. There are also carved stones inside the monument, including one thought to depict the moon.

For me, it’s the fact that sites like this are so mysterious that makes them so fascinating. Five thousand years is just the blink of an eye on a geological or astronomical timescale, and no doubt the people who lived at Knowth were not all that different from you or I, but what they have left behind is unknowable. If there is life on Earth in 5000 years’ time, what will they think of our civilization?

The stones used at Knowth came from as far away as County Wicklow. It was once believed that these were lugged overland to their current location (which is in County Meath) but the land would probably have been heavily wooded at that time and it is now thought much more likely they were transported by river and sea, probably using log rafts.

As an added bonus you can climb on top of the monument. The view is grand. This is the view to the South, with the hills North of Dublin visible in the distance.

This is to the West; you can see the River Boyne.

The countryside, as you can see, is lovely. Irish agriculture is much less intensive than in England, with the result that woodland and hedgerows are much more abundant. It’s a pity that in so many minds the name `Boyne’ is just an excuse to use a battle that happened over 300 years ago to stir up sectarian conflict.

Anyway, that will have to do. I will definitely return to Brú na Bóinne in the not-too-distant future as I still have to see Newgrange and Dowth. I thoroughly recommend a trip there to anyone visiting Ireland. The professional guides were really good and the visitor’s centre contains excellent reconstructions of everyday life in the neolithic era.

No doubt for a group of particle physicists the site had a particular resonance:

Quark Confinement and Excursion

Posted in Biographical, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on July 31, 2018 by telescoper

Today’s the day that many folks here in Maynooth have been looking forward to for many months. It’s the start of the XIIIth Quark Confinement Conference. This is the latest in a series of biennial meetings:

Inaugurated in 1994 in Como, Italy, this series of conferences has become an important forum for scientists working on strong interactions, stimulating exchanges among theorists and experimentalists as well as across related fields.

The aim of the conference is to bring together people working on strong interactions from different approaches, ranging from lattice QCD to perturbative QCD, from models of the QCD vacuum to QCD phenomenology and experiments, from effective theories to physics beyond the Standard Model.

The scope of the conference also includes the interface between QCD, nuclear physics and astrophysics, and the wider landscape of strongly coupled physics. In particular, the conference will focus on the fruitful interactions and mutual benefits between QCD and the physics of condensed matter and strongly correlated systems·

A conference of over 300 people is a major undertaking for a small place like Maynooth and I hope it all goes well.The participants will start arriving today, and the conference will carry on over the weekend and into Monday (which is actually a Bank Holiday in Ireland, Lá Saoire i mí Lúnasa). Yesterday the organisers were putting the finishing touches to all the arrangements, including putting a team of elves PhD students to work in the Department of Theoretical Physics packing the conference goody bags:

I’m not really involved in this meeting, as it’s not really on my subject, though I plan to drop in on some of the talks. I have, however, volunteered to go along as a kind of escort (so to speak) with one of the excursions on Saturday. I’ll be going with group C, which is doing a tour of the Boyne Valley, taking in the prehistoric tomb complex at Knowth. I only found out yesterday that the local organisers were short of a `responsible adult’ to go with this group but I was delighted to be asked to step in, as the prehistory of this part of Ireland has become a fascination for me since I arrived here. The Knowth complex is probably not as ancient as the perhaps more famous Newgrange site, but the whole area of the Boyne valley is incredibly rich in neolithic remains that connect directly to Ireland’s mythic past. I hope that (a) I manage to shake off the cold I’ve been struggling with since last week before Saturday, (b) the weather’s reasonable and (c) I remember to take my good camera!

The New Henge at Newgrange

Posted in History with tags , , , , on July 26, 2018 by telescoper

Following on from a post last week, and thanks to this website, here is an amazing aerial video, shot from a drone, of a new archaeological discovery at the Newgrange site in County Meath that has been revealed through parch marks in the ground following the recent period of very dry weather.

Newgrange is already established as major prehistoric site, most famous for a neolithic burial mound (which means that it was built before Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza in Egypt). More recent studies, including a passage tomb found at Dowth, also in County Meath, show that the area around Newgrange, in the Boyne valley near Drogheda, was of major importance in the neolithic era.

You can read much more about the new henge at Newgrange and its place in Irish prehistory here.