Archive for the History Category

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia

Posted in History, LGBT with tags , , , , on May 17, 2017 by telescoper

Today is May 17th, which means that it is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. If you’re wondering why May 17th was chosen, it’s to commemorate May 17th 1990, which is when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of “mental illnesses”.

Please remember at although attitudes in the UK are much more enlightened than they were only a few years ago, homophobic violence still happens with distressing frequency and in over 70 countries around the world being gay is still a criminal offence.

Even if you don’t identify yourself as LGBT+ then this should still be an important day for you. Here, for example, is a handy guide produced by Pride in STEM on how to be an ally:

Taking the Biscuit

Posted in Beards, History with tags , on May 17, 2017 by telescoper

During the course of a short perambulation around Bologna this morning I came across this statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famous biscuit manufacturer.

Apologies for the stray light affecting the picture. It was a very sunny morning!

I was subsequently surprised to discover via the interwebs that the Garibaldi biscuit is in fact an English invention, first produced in 1861 and was inspired by a visit to England by Garibaldi in 1854. No doubt it was his impressive beard that made him so popular.

Semper Cavete Quod Idibus Martiis

Posted in Film, History with tags , , on March 15, 2017 by telescoper

Today is the Ides of March so I thought I’d keep up the little tradition I’ve established of posting this  priceless bit of British cultural history relevant to such a fateful day.

This is from the First Folio Edition of Carry On Cleo, and stars the sublime Kenneth Williams as Julius Caesar delivering one of the funniest lines in the whole Carry On series. The joke may be nearly as old as me, but it’s still a cracker…

P.S. On a less frivolous note, today the good folks of the Netherlands are going to the polls. I hope that they use their votes wisely, but am more than a little nervous about the outcome.


Barddoniaeth ar gyfer Dydd Gŵyl Dewi

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , on March 1, 2017 by telescoper

Well, today is St David’s Day so let me first offer a hearty “Dydd Gwŷl Dewi Sant hapus i chi gyd” (happy St David’s Day to you all).

Over the years, I seem to have established a tradition of posting a bit of poetry to mark this special day for Wales and the Welsh and I was looking for a piece of verse to put up this time round, when I came across a poem that seems very appropriate for a number of reasons. It was written in Welsh by Hedd Wyn (born Ellis Humphrey Evans) who lived from 1887 to 1917; Hedd Wyn was his bardic name and it translates (roughly) as “pure peace”.

Hedd Wyn was a non-conformist Christian and a pacifist who was conscripted into the British Army to serve in World War 1. He was posted to Flanders and was killed in action on the first day of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. He was hit in the stomach by a shell and died later of his wounds. The battle stumbled on for months of horrific slaughter as the planned Allied offensive foundered in the mud of Passchendaele and ended, as had the Battle of the Somme a year earlier, in a bloody stalemate.

A few weeks before his death, Hedd Wyn wrote a poem called Yr Arwr (‘The Hero’) which was submitted for the prestigious Bard’s Chair at that year’s National Eisteddfod. It was announced on 6th September 1917 that  he  had won the prize, posthumously. The bard not being able to sit in the the chair, it was draped in black cloth. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was present at the ceremony.

The poem Yr Arwr is a very long work, running to 13 pages of manuscript, which is not practicable to post here, but here’s another poem by Hedd Wyn to mark the centenary of his death. This is called Rhyfel (‘War’). I only have a few words of Welsh, but because of the occasion,  it seems appropriate to post this in its original language. You can find English translations here and on the Wikipedia page here. Translating poetry is always very difficult, but the sense of the poem is of a world in chaos that has been abandoned by God.

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.

100 Years of Jazz on Record

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , , on February 26, 2017 by telescoper

Today marks a very significant centenary in the history of music, specifically Jazz. Much of the origins and early development of Jazz is lost in the mists of time, but there is one point on which most music historians agree. The first commercial recording session that produced a record that nowadays is recognisable as Jazz happened exactly one hundred years ago today, on 26th February 1917, in the New York studios of the Victor label.

The band was called the ‘Original Dixieland Jass Band‘. A few months later they changed the “Jass” to “Jazz” and the name stuck. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band is usually referred by Jazz buffs as the ODJB.

Led by cornettist Nick LaRocca and clarinettist Larry Shields, the ODJB was a group of white musicians from in and around New Orleans who had picked up their musical ideas from listening to musicians there, including playing for the pioneering mixed-race band led by Papa Laine, before moving to Chicago which is where they were spotted by representatives of the Victor label. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s worth emphasizing that 1917 was also a significant year for New Orleans itself, as that was the year that the red light district Storyville was shut down (as a threat to the health of the US Navy). Since Storyville had provided many of the opportunities for black musicians to work, its closure started  a mass exodus to Chicago. That, and a desire among black musicians to leave the deeply racist South, is why most of the classic “New Orleans” Jazz records were actually made in Chicago.

Although they don’t represent the true origins of jazz, the ODJB were fine musicians who played with a great deal of pizzazz and were highly original and innovative. Audiences also found them great to dance to. The first single to be issued as a result of the historic first session was Livery Stable Blues. It was an instant hit and was followed by dozens more. As well as leading to fame and fortune for the ODJB, it paved the way for a century of Jazz on record.

Robert Grosseteste and the Ordered Universe

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 22, 2017 by telescoper

Tomorrow I’m off to the historic city of Lincoln to give a public lecture, the inaugural Robert Grosseteste Lecture on Astrophysics/Cosmology.

This new series of lectures is named in honour of Robert Grosseteste (c. 1175 – 9 October 1253), a former Bishop of Lincoln, who (among many other things) played a key role in the development of the Western scientific tradition. His De Luce seu de Inchoatione Formarum (“On Light or the Beginning of the Forms”), written around 1220, includes pioneering discussions about cosmogony, which contains many ideas that resonate what I shall be talking about in my lecture. In particular, De Luce explores the nature of matter and the cosmos. Seven centuries before the Big Bang theory, Grosseteste described the birth of the Universe in an explosion and the crystallisation of matter to form stars and planets in a set of nested spheres around Earth. It therefore probably represents the first attempt to describe the ordered system of the Heavens and Earth using a single set of physical laws.

Anyway, this led me to an interesting website about an interdisciplinary project that involves discussing Robert Grosseteste in the context of mediaeval science, called “Ordered Universe”. Here’s an interesting video from that site, which features both historians and scientists.

Haydn and the Herschels

Posted in History, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by telescoper

Last night I was listening to a broadcast of a concert performance of Haydn’s “Creation” on BBC Radio 3, featuring the London Philharmonic under the direction of Sir Roger Norrington. During the interval (between Parts I and II) the presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch cast doubt in the story (which I’ve heard quite often), that Joseph Haydn was at least partly inspired to write The Creation by a trip he took during a stay in England to see the observatory of astronomer William Herschel. This story is repeated in a number of places around the web, including here, from which source I quote:

On 15 June 1792. Joseph Haydn visited William Herschel – basoonist, composer, astronomer – at his observatory near Slough. Herschel introduced Haydn to the Milky Way and, quite possibly, the planet Uranus, which he’d discovered ten years earlier. Some say Haydn took this glimpse of the infinite as the inspiration for his oratorio The Creation. Seems plausible.

It does indeed seem plausible. It is a matter of record that Haydn did  visit the Observatory House in Slough on 15th June 1792, which is where William Herschel lived with his sister Caroline at the time. (Interestingly, the day before this visit Haydn was at Ascot watching the horse-racing.)

However, according to William Herschel’s own records he wasn’t at the Observatory House on this day. In fact he had been away since May 1792 visiting various locations in England and Wales, before eventually arriving in Glasgow to receive an honorary degree. The notion that Herschel provided Haydn with the inspiration to write The Creation is therefore false.

Or is it?

William Herschel may not have been at home when Haydn called on 15th June 1792, but Caroline certainly was: Haydn’s name is recorded in her visitor’s book on that date. In his diary Haydn makes a note of the dimensions of the telescope (40ft) but does not mention actually looking through it, which is not surprising if he was there during the day.  There’s no other record of this visit of which I’m aware that says for sure what happened on that day, but Caroline certainly could have described what she had observed during her career as an astronomer, both on her own and with William, and also shown Haydn drawings, catalogues and star charts. Caroline Herschel was an extremely accomplished astronomer in her own right, so who’s to say it was not she rather than her brother who provided Haydn with the inspiration for his oratorio?

So it could well be that it was Herschel that inspired The Creation after all, but Caroline rather than William…