Archive for the History Category

Death and Shingles

Posted in Biographical, History, Mental Health with tags , , , , , on August 31, 2017 by telescoper

So it is now twenty years to the day since news broke of the death of Diana Spencer, formerly the Princess of Wales, along with Dodi Fayed and driver Henri Paul, after a car accident in Paris. I’ve noticed many people posting their memories on social media of where they were when they heard that Diana had died so I thought I’d do the same as I remember it very well.

In the weeks leading up to 31st August 1997 I had been suffering from shingles, a very unpleasant condition that results from the reactivation of the virus responsible for chicken pox, which I’d suffered from as a kid. Shingles causes nasty skin rashes, but on this occasion I was also treated to a spell of almost total deafness. This is a fairly unusual side-effect of the disease but is well known to occur in some cases. Hearing loss caused in this way can be permanent, but thankfully mine wasn’t.  I responded rather well to the anti-viral drugs I was given and it took only a matter of weeks for my hearing to be fully restored.

Suddenly becoming deaf was an unsettling enough experience, but it was even stranger to have been unable to hear anything during the period just after Diana’s death, which turned out to be one of the weirdest times of my life.

On the morning of 31st August 1997, which was a Sunday, I got up rather late and went to the local newsagent to buy a Sunday paper. They were sold out of everything. I thought that was a bit strange but walked out unaware of the reason everyone was buying papers that morning. I went back to my flat – I was living in London at the time – made breakfast, and did some reading. I was looking forward to the football match that was going to be live on TV that afternoon – Liverpool versus Newcastle Utd – but didn’t switch on the TV until it was just about the start. All I saw was a shot of an empty Anfield and some football pundits talking. I assumed there had been a bomb score or something, but I couldn’t hear so had no idea. I decided to have a look at Ceefax (remember that?) and then found out the story.

I was shocked, of course. She was still young when she died and I was fully aware of the reputation she had earned through numerous acts of kindness, e.g. towards people living with AIDS. That said, I was completely unprepared for the events of the following week which seemed to me to amount to an outbreak of national hysteria. I don’t know if it was more extreme in London than elsewhere in the UK, but I felt the whole country had lost its grip. Together with the sense of isolation caused by my deafness, it was a most uncomfortable time. I was saddened by her death, but I just couldn’t feel the extreme grief that others seemed to be displaying about someone that I didn’t know personally. Worse, there was a palpable sense of pressure being exerted on people to fall into line with the deification of Diana. Anyone who expressed anything even slightly short of devout praise was treated as some kind of blasphemer. It is probably the only time in my life I’ve felt that I was the only one to have remained sane while everyone around me had gone mad.

As my hearing slowly recovered I decided to go out with some friends for a drink in a pub in Bethnal Green. I mentioned in a conversation that I never knew her personally and therefore found it hard to understand how the feelings of grief people professed to having could be genuine and that the whole atmosphere that had been created seemed to me to be profoundly unhealthy. A bloke from another table came across and threatened me with violence unless I stopped `insulting Diana’. Insulting Diana was not at all my intention, though I think what the bloke was angry about was the (probably correct) interpretation that I was criticising those who had bought into the Diana cult.

Anyway, over the week following her death my hearing had improved a little bit, so I decided to watch the memorial service on TV. I couldn’t hear the music or speeches very well, but I remember watching the soldiers carrying Diana’s coffin into Westminster Abbey. It must have been a very heavy coffin as it was a very wobbly process and I thought at one moment the pall-bearers might drop it. They slowly approached stone structure on which the coffin was to be laid. Then I heard the commentator on TV solemnly announce that it was “placed on the catapult”.

This is novel, I thought. She’s going to be launched into the hereafter on a ballistic trajectory through the stained glass windows.  However, that didn’t happen and the service continued without an aerial display.

I found out much later that the word used was not catapult, but catafalque….





The Story of the 1919 Eclipse Expeditions

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2017 by telescoper

Unless you have been living on another planet, you will know that today there will be an eclipse of the Sun although from the UK it will be rather underwhelming, as only about 4% of the Sun’s disk will be covered by the moon; for totality you have to be in the United States.  For the record, however, the eclipse will begin 15:46 GMT on August 21 out over the Pacific. It will reach the coast of Oregon at Lincoln City, just west of Salem, at 16:04 GMT (09:04 local time) where it will reach its maximum  at 17:17 GMT (10:17 local time). The path of totality will then track right across the United States to South Carolina. For more details see here. Best wishes to all who are hoping to see this cosmic spectacle! I saw the total eclipse of August 11, 1999 from Alderney in the Channel Islands, and it was a very special experience.

Here’s a (not very good and slightly damaged) scan of a picture from that eclipse that I found last night in a box of old photographs:

Before starting I can’t resist adding this excerpt from the Times warning about the consequences of a mass influx of people to Cornwall for the 1999 eclipse. No doubt there are similar things going around about today’s eclipse:

I did write a letter to the Times complaining that, as a cosmologist, I felt this was very insulting to druids. They didn’t publish it.

This provides me with a good excuse to repost an old item about the famous expedition during which, on 29th May 1919, measurements were made that have gone down in history as vindicating Einstein’s (then) new general theory of relativity. I’ve written quite a lot about this in past years, including a little book and a slightly more technical paper. I decided, though, to post this little piece which is based on an article I wrote some years ago for Firstscience.




The Eclipse that Changed the Universe

A total eclipse of the Sun is a moment of magic: a scant few minutes when our perceptions of the whole Universe are turned on their heads. The Sun’s blinding disc is replaced by ghostly pale tentacles surrounding a black heart – an eerie experience witnessed by hundreds of millions of people throughout Europe and the Near East last August.

But one particular eclipse of the Sun, eighty years ago, challenged not only people’s emotional world. It was set to turn the science of the Universe on its head. For over two centuries, scientists had believed Sir Isaac Newton’s view of the Universe. Now his ideas had been challenged by a young German-Swiss scientist, called Albert Einstein. The showdown – Newton vs Einstein – would be the total eclipse of 29 May 1919.

Newton’s position was set out in his monumental Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687. The Principia – as it’s familiarly known – laid down a set of mathematical laws that described all forms of motion in the Universe. These rules applied as much to the motion of planets around the Sun as to more mundane objects like apples falling from trees.

At the heart of Newton’s concept of the Universe were his ideas about space and time. Space was inflexible, laid out in a way that had been described by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid in his laws of geometry. To Newton, space was the immovable and unyielding stage on which bodies acted out their motions. Time was also absolute, ticking away inexorably at the same rate for everyone in the Universe.

Sir Isaac Newton, painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Picture Credit: National Portrait Gallery,

For over 200 years, scientists saw the Cosmos through Newton’s eyes. It was a vast clockwork machine, evolving by predetermined rules through regular space, against the beat of an absolute clock. This edifice totally dominated scientific thought, until it was challenged by Albert Einstein.

In 1905, Einstein dispensed with Newton’s absolute nature of space and time. Although born in Germany, during this period of his life he was working as a patent clerk in Berne, Switzerland. He encapsulated his new ideas on motion, space and time in his special theory of relativity. But it took another ten years for Einstein to work out the full consequences of his ideas, including gravity. The general theory of relativity, first aired in 1915, was as complete a description of motion as Newton had prescribed in his Principia. But Einstein’s description of gravity required space to be curved. Whereas for Newton space was an inflexible backdrop, for Einstein it had to bend and flex near massive bodies. This warping of space, in turn, would be responsible for guiding objects such as planets along their orbits.

Albert Einstein (left), pictured with Arthur Stanley Eddington (right). Picture Credit: Royal Greenwich Observatory.

By the time he developed his general theory, Einstein was back in Germany, working in Berlin. But a copy of his general theory of relativity was soon smuggled through war-torn Europe to Cambridge. There it was read by Arthur Stanley Eddington, Britain’s leading astrophysicist. Eddington realised that Einstein’s theory could be tested. If space really was distorted by gravity, then light passing through it would not travel in a straight line, but would follow a curved path. The stronger the force of gravity, the more the light would be bent. The bending would be largest for light passing very close to a very massive body, such as the Sun.

Unfortunately, the most massive objects known to astronomers at the time were also very bright. This was before black holes were seriously considered, and stars provided the strongest gravitational fields known. The Sun was particularly useful, being a star right on our doorstep. But it is impossible to see how the light from faint background stars might be bent by the Sun’s gravity, because the Sun’s light is so bright it completely swamps the light from objects beyond it.


A scientific sketch of the path of totality for the 1919 eclipse. Picture Credit: Royal Greenwich Observatory.

Eddington realised the solution. Observe during a total eclipse, when the Sun’s light is blotted out for a few minutes, and you can see distant stars that appear close to the Sun in the sky. If Einstein was right, the Sun’s gravity would shift these stars to slightly different positions, compared to where they are seen in the night sky at other times of the year when the Sun far away from them. The closer the star appears to the Sun during totality, the bigger the shift would be.

Eddington began to put pressure on the British scientific establishment to organise an experiment. The Astronomer Royal of the time, Sir Frank Watson Dyson, realised that the 1919 eclipse was ideal. Not only was totality unusually long (around six minutes, compared with the two minutes we experienced in 1999) but during totality the Sun would be right in front of the Hyades, a cluster of bright stars.

But at this point the story took a twist. Eddington was a Quaker and, as such, a pacifist. In 1917, after disastrous losses during the Somme offensive, the British government introduced conscription to the armed forces. Eddington refused the draft and was threatened with imprisonment. In the end, Dyson’s intervention was crucial persuading the government to spare Eddington. His conscription was postponed under the condition that, if the war had finished by 1919, Eddington himself would lead an expedition to measure the bending of light by the Sun. The rest, as they say, is history.

The path of totality of the 1919 eclipse passed from northern Brazil, across the Atlantic Ocean to West Africa. In case of bad weather (amongst other reasons) two expeditions were organised: one to Sobral, in Brazil, and the other to the island of Principe, in the Gulf of Guinea close to the West African coast. Eddington himself went to Principe; the expedition to Sobral was led by Andrew Crommelin from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.

British scientists in the field at their observing site in Sobral in 1919. Picture Credit: Royal Greenwich Observatory

The expeditions did not go entirely according to plan. When the day of the eclipse (29 May) dawned on Principe, Eddington was greeted with a thunderstorm and torrential rain. By mid-afternoon the skies had partly cleared and he took some pictures through cloud.

Meanwhile, at Sobral, Crommelin had much better weather – but he had made serious errors in setting up his equipment. He focused his main telescope the night before the eclipse, but did not allow for the distortions that would take place as the temperature climbed during the day. Luckily, he had taken a backup telescope along, and this in the end provided the best results of all.

After the eclipse, Eddington himself carefully measured the positions of the stars that appeared near the Sun’s eclipsed image, on the photographic plates exposed at both Sobral and Principe. He then compared them with reference positions taken previously when the Hyades were visible in the night sky. The measurements had to be incredibly accurate, not only because the expected deflections were small. The images of the stars were also quite blurred, because of problems with the telescopes and because they were seen through the light of the Sun’s glowing atmosphere, the solar corona.

Before long the results were ready. Britain’s premier scientific body, the Royal Society, called a special meeting in London on 6 November. Dyson, as Astronomer Royal took the floor, and announced that the measurements did not support Newton’s long-accepted theory of gravity. Instead, they agreed with the predictions of Einstein’s new theory.

The final proof: the small red line shows how far the position of the star has been shifted by the Sun’s gravity. Each star experiences a tiny deflection, but averaged over many exposures the results definitely support Einstein’s theory. Picture Credit: Royal Greenwich Observatory.

The press reaction was extraordinary. Einstein was immediately propelled onto the front pages of the world’s media and, almost overnight, became a household name. There was more to this than purely the scientific content of his theory. After years of war, the public embraced a moment that moved mankind from the horrors of destruction to the sublimity of the human mind laying bare the secrets of the Cosmos. The two pacifists in the limelight – the British Eddington and the German-born Einstein – were particularly pleased at the reconciliation between their nations brought about by the results.

But the popular perception of the eclipse results differed quite significantly from the way they were viewed in the scientific establishment. Physicists of the day were justifiably cautious. Eddington had needed to make significant corrections to some of the measurements, for various technical reasons, and in the end decided to leave some of the Sobral data out of the calculation entirely. Many scientists were suspicious that he had cooked the books. Although the suspicion lingered for years in some quarters, in the end the results were confirmed at eclipse after eclipse with higher and higher precision.

In this cosmic ‘gravitational lens,’ a huge cluster of galaxies distorts the light from more distant galaxies into a pattern of giant arcs.  Picture Credit: NASA

Nowadays astronomers are so confident of Einstein’s theory that they rely on the bending of light by gravity to make telescopes almost as big as the Universe. When the conditions are right, gravity can shift an object’s position by far more than a microscopic amount. The ideal situation is when we look far out into space, and centre our view not on an individual star like the Sun, but on a cluster of hundreds of galaxies – with a total mass of perhaps 100 million million suns. The space-curvature of this immense ‘gravitational lens’ can gather the light from more remote objects, and focus them into brilliant curved arcs in the sky. From the size of the arcs, astronomers can ‘weigh’ the cluster of galaxies.

Einstein didn’t live long enough to see through a gravitational lens, but if he had he would definitely have approved….

Grave Thoughts Again

Posted in Biographical, History, Literature with tags , , , , on August 13, 2017 by telescoper

This is my last full day in Copenhagen before flying back tomorrow evening, so I decided to take care of some unfinished business by visiting the famous Assistens Kirkegård  in the Nørrebro district of the city. I went there five years ago (almost to the day) but on that occasion I didn’t find the memorial I was looking for, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior.

I was surprised to find at the time that his name was absent from the main index, and still doesn’t appear on the maps displayed at the cemetery. Its location is however now on a guide you can find online so I had little difficulty locating it this time round. In case anyone is interested it is in section F, near the western end of the park. Lauritz Melchior was cremated, and his remains interred in a small family plot:

The small slab to the left marks the burial of Lauritz Melchior:

In fact this memorial is not far from that of another famous Dane I missed last time, pioneering physicist Hans Christian Ørsted:

The Hans Christian Ørsted Institute, part of the University of Copenhagen, is a short walk from the main buildings of the Niels Bpohr Institute. It houses Chemistry and Mathematical Sciences and some physicists of the Niels Bohr Institute.

You might think that a cemetery was a rather morbid choice of place to go for a stroll in the sunshine, but actually it’s not that way at all. It’s actually a rather beautiful place, a very large green space criss-crossed by pleasant tree-lined paths. These are poplars:

We British have a much more reserved attitude to cemeteries than the Danes seem to have, at least judging by  their behaviour in this place; joggers and cyclists pass through Assistens Cemetery at regular intervals, and many people were having picnics or just sitting and reading between the gravestones.  I find this matter-of-fact attitude to the dead rather refreshing, actually.

Part of the attraction of Assistens Kirkegård – the name derives from the fact that it was originally an auxiliary burial place, outside the main city, designed to take some of the pressure off the smaller cemeteries in the inner areas – is the large number of famous people buried there, many of whose graves I found last time. I didn’t however notice the large area devoted to common graves nor did I realise that there was a memorial to French and Belgian soldiers of World War 1. Most of these died in 1919, which puzzled me. It turns out that they had been prisoners of war and many of them were ill or injured and had been sent to Copenhagen to recuperate only to be struck down by the Spanish ‘flu epidemic of 1919.

It’s noticeable that some of the smaller graves are extremely well-tended whereas many of the more opulent memorials are in a state of considerable disrepair. I think there’s a moral in there somewhere. My ambition is to be forgotten as quickly as possible after my death so the idea of anyone erecting some grandiose marble monument on my behalf fills me with horror, but I have to say I do find graveyards are strangely comforting places. Rich and poor, clever and stupid, ugly and beautiful; death comes to us all in the end. At least it’s very democratic.

Cat and Beard

Posted in Beards, History on August 12, 2017 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today so here’s a picture of a Victorian lighthouse keeper and his cat.


Boycott’s Hundredth Hundred

Posted in Cricket, History with tags , , , , on August 11, 2017 by telescoper

And now for something completely different.

Forty years ago today, on 11th August 1977, during the first day of Fourth Test against Australia at Headingley Geoffrey Boycott drove a delivery from Greg Chappell to the onside boundary to reach his century. He thus became the first player to reach one hundred first class hundreds in a Test Match at his home territory at Leeds (in the Midlands).

I wasn’t at the match but I did watch it on TV and I remember seeing that shot, which almost hit the non-striking batsman (Graham Roope), as it happened. It was an interesting experience looking back because few people were in doubt that Boycott would get a hundred that day. It seemed to be an historical inevitably.

Boycott went on to make 191 out of an England total of 436. As always for a Boycott innings, it was based around a solid defence and immense concentration, and he didn’t score quickly by modern standards, but he did hit 14 boundaries on the way to his century (and 22 in the innings overall) and I remember him playing some lovely shots.

The frustration of the Australians of having to bowl at Boycott for so long was almost palpable and when they came out to bat it was as if they had lost the will to live. They were all out for 103 in the first innings and, following on, could manage only 248. England won by an innings and 85 runs.

There’s been a lot of media coverage of Geoffrey Boycott’s hundredth hundred but for myself I’ll just say that it’s nice that the occasion reminded me of that wonderful summer of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, during which Virginia Wade had won Wimbledon, and England regained the Ashes.

Remembering Joe Orton

Posted in History, LGBT with tags , , , on August 9, 2017 by telescoper

Joe Orton, photographed on 1st March 1967.

The playwright and author Joe Orton died on August 9th 1967, which is exactly 50 years ago today. I couldn’t resist a short post in his memory.

Joe Orton’s career was very brief – he was only 34 when he died – but reached brilliant heights with a series of anarchic black comedies that both scandalised and entertained Sixties audiences. Such was his success that he is one of the few playwrights to have  his name remembered  in the English language,  in the form of the adjective `Ortonesque’:

Relating to or characteristic of the English playwright Joe Orton or his works, especially in being unconventional and darkly comic.

My first experience of Orton’s plays was seeing an amateur dramatic society production of Loot when I was a student. I have to say it was a dreadful experience, but that was because of the performance not because of the script. Loot is basically a farce, and I think that must be the most difficult form of comedy to do successfully. The timing has to be perfect, the pace has to be relentless and everyone has to act as if all the absurd things going on make perfect sense. Those are tough requirements for amateurs, and even for professionals. The first, provincial, run of Loot was a flop even with an experienced cast. It was only when it was revived a couple of years later that it became a hit.

The circumstances of Joe Orton’s death were terrible: he was battered to death by his partner Kenneth Halliwell  (with whom he lived in a small bedsit) who then committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping tablets. Orton and Halliwell had been in a relationship since 1951.  Joe had never made any secret about his enjoyment of casual sexual encounters – his diaries are full of descriptions of his adventures – but  I think it was the thought of living alone rather than sexual jealousy that Halliwell couldn’t handle.

I never met Joe Orton (I was only 4 when was murdered) but I have over the years met a number of older gay men who knew him (and Halliwell) in various ways (if you get my drift). They all described him in the same way: cute, funny and extremely flirtatious. Watch this clip of him on TV and I think you’ll see why so many people were attracted to his cheekily boyish manner:

Those who knew Halliwell also say that the usual cliché about him as a failure embittered by Joe’s success is not fair. They were an odd couple (for the time) but what they had seemed to work for them, both romantically and creatively. It makes the horrible end of their lives even more difficult to contemplate. Here’s an interview with Kenneth Williams (who was very repressed about his sexuality) talking about Orton (who was quite the opposite), that gives some insight into the relationship between the two:

Rest in peace, Joe Orton (1933-1967), author and gay icon.

They called it Passchendaele

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , on July 31, 2017 by telescoper


One hundred years ago today, on 31st July 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres began. The battle, often called the Battle of Passchendaele, staggered on until November with hundreds of thousands of troops killed. The Allied assault on Ypres was ultimately intended to break through the German lines and capture submarine bases on the Belgian coast. That objective was not reached, and territorial gains were limited to just a few miles at terrible cost in suffering and death.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minster at the time, wrote in his memoirs:

Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …

Others have argued that the Battle of Passchendaele had the important strategic role of taking pressure of the French army further South, which was so close to breaking point that mutinies were breaking out. Although the casualties on both sides were unsustainable, the German High Command knew that American reinforcements would soon enter the fray, and that if they were to win the War it would have to be with a knockout blow the following year. The German offensive of 1918 made substantial inroads through the Allied lines, even threatening Paris, until it was eventually halted and turned into a full-scale retreat.

Whatever the military outcome of the Battle, there is no question about the scale of the suffering of the troops (many of whom, at this stage of the War, were conscripts). The area in which the action took place was mainly low-lying, with a water table just a couple of feet below the surface. The myriad of small streams ditches, and drainage channels that had been developed over centuries to turn it into farmland, were destroyed by heavy shelling so the soldiers had to contend with heavy mud, often strewn with body parts and deep enough to drown in, as described by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem Memorial Tablet:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?

Whenever I read about the terrible events of past wars, the important thing (to me) is not strategy or objectives but the suffering  that had to be endured by ordinary soldiers. It’s important to remember things like Passchendaele to remind ourselves how lucky we are to be living in a time of relative peace. The way the world is heading, however, I worry that may soon be coming to an end. Lest we forget? Far too many people have already forgotten.

P.S. Among those killed in action on the first day of Passchendaele was Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, whom I wrote about here.

P.P.S. The troops shown in the picture above are in fact Australian gunners: the picture was taken in October 1917.