Archive for the History Category

Fascism is coming..

Posted in History, Politics with tags , on May 19, 2019 by telescoper

Rally for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, Earl’s Court, London July 1939.

Beer-brandishing ‘Man of the People’, Oswald Mosley.

Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policemen instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika.

George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937.


Unsound History of the Sound of Space

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff on May 16, 2019 by telescoper

Here’s a fascinating blog on the astronomy history which is well worth reading, so I thought I’d reblog to draw it to your attention!


Among others, it features Robert Grosseteste who I wrote about here.

The Renaissance Mathematicus

Those readers, who have been around for a number of years, will know that from time to time the Renaissance Mathematicus has hosted guest posts. One thing that we are very proud of is the very high standard of the authors, who have delivered up, at our invitation, those literary #histSTM highpoints. We only host the best! Todays guest post continues this tradition with a real star of the world of science, science writing and #histSTM, Tom McLeish FRS. Tom was Professor of Physics at Durham University, where he was one of the initiators and chief investigators of the on going Ordered Universe international research project: InterdisciplinaryReadings of Medieval Science: Robert Grosseteste (c.1170–1253).

800px-Grosseteste_bishop !4th Century portrait of Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tom is now Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics at the University of York (I think he’s doing a slow…

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Eddington at the `Del-Squared V Club’

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 15, 2019 by telescoper

I’m up to my eyeballs in matters Eddingtonian these days preparing for the big centenary, so I thought I’d share this which I was reminded about this morning. The official results of the 1919 Eclipse Expeditions were announced at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and Royal Astronomical Society on November 6 1919. Members of a certain physics graduate student society at Cambridge, however, were treated to a sneak preview in October of that year, to which the minutes of the 83rd Meeting of the `Del-Squared V Club’ attest:

Arthur Stanley Eddington gave a talk at that meeting, a brief note of which appears on the right-hand page of the minute book shown above. You can see the Newtonian value for the expected deflection of 0.87 seconds at the bottom of the page. There’s also a nice reference to `The Weight of Light’. I had no idea Eddington was a lightweight speaker, but there you are.

I don’t think the Del-Squared V Club exists* any more, so I won’t make the joke that if you want to phone them up you have to go through the operator

*I’m reliably informed that it has been defunct since 1970.


Revolution in the Skies: The Experiment that made Einstein Famous

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 14, 2019 by telescoper

At the risk of being a complete bore about the 1919 Eclipse Expeditions, here is a plug for a public talk I am giving in Maynooth on 29 May 2019, the centenary of the event itself.

Here is the blurb:

Albert Einstein is the undisputed genius whose insights have revolutionised the way we think about the Universe. He is also a cultural icon whose fame extends far beyond the realm of theoretical physics.

Einstein’s transition to global stardom can be dated precisely to 29th May 1919, the date of a total solar eclipse at which the first measurements were made of the bending of light by the Sun’s gravity that tested Einstein’s then new general theory of relativity. The announcement of the results created an unprecedented media sensation: news of Einstein and his revolutionary theory made front-page news around the world.

To mark the centenary of this historic event, Peter Coles will describe the historical and scientific background to an experiment that changed the world, and explain why it was such an important event both for Einstein the physicist and Einstein the celebrity.

The event will be on the North Campus of Maynooth University. It is free, but please register at the Eventbrite site here if you want to attend so we can get an idea of numbers. If, for some reason, you can’t get to Maynooth, we are planning to do a live feed of the talk too, so please watch this blog for more details.

The Observer and the Eclipse

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 12, 2019 by telescoper

Not surprisingly, given that the centenary is fast approaching, pieces are appearing in the mainstream media about the 1919 Eclipse Expeditions that first measured the deflection of light by the Sun’s gravitational field. One such article, by Robin McKie, appears in today’s Observer. It’s a nice piece, though it concentrates almost entirely on Eddington’s measurements taken at Principe. In fact it was Crommelin’s measurements from Sobral that proved decisive.

Anyway, the article gives me a (very brief) mention courtesy of the piece I wrote in Nature a few weeks ago:

For many years at Cardiff I ran an undergraduate project in which the students had to reanalyze the measurements from the eclipse expeditions. That is possible because all the necessary star positions are tabulated in the paper by Dyson et al. (1920). It is undoubtedly the case that Eddington had to improvise a bit because of the unexpected problems that arose in the field, but this is actually quite normal. As a famous general put it `No plan of battle survives first contact with the enemy’. I remain convinced that Eddington didn’t do anything dodgy, but you don’t have to take my word for it: if you don’t believe me then go ahead and look at the data yourself! At the very least you will then understand what a difficult experiment this was!

The Bloody History of Mount Street Bridge

Posted in History with tags , , , on April 27, 2019 by telescoper

Easter was quite late this year, as it was in 1916, the year of the Easter Rising: Easter Monday fell on 22nd April 2019, and on 24th April 1916 – the day that the uprising started. People who were brought up in Ireland would have learnt much events of 1916 at School, and through the annual commemorations, but we weren’t taught anything about the Easter Rising in Britain, so I’ve just picked up bits and pieces here and there from reading about it. This week one of the articles that particularly struck me was about the Battle of Mount Street Bridge so I thought I’d write a little bit about it here.

To begin with, here is an old map I came across a while ago that shows the extent of the area of Dublin seized by the rebels in 1916:

You can click on the map to make it clearer. The area of interest here is towards the right of the map, inside the blue perimeter marked ‘3rd Battalion’. The road marked in red leading North West to the Mount Street Bridge past the Beggars Bush Barracks (also marked in red) is Northumberland Road. It changes name to Mount Street on the other (NW) side of the bridge. Northumberland Road forms a junction with Haddingdon Road near the Barracks.

Most of the city’s street layout has survived intact so it is possible to walk around and visit many of the locations on this map, many of which still bear the scars of the Easter Rising. It’s quite a strange feeling doing that, as it brings the violence of the past rather too close for comfort. I think Mount Street Bridge is a good illustration. I walked through the area last year without knowing that it had such a bloody history, but now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to visit it again without getting the shivers. Still, at least it makes one feel grateful to be living in a time of peace though some people don’t seem to think that’s very important these days.

Anyway, the large area surrounded by the blue line to the right of the map was occupied on the 24th April 1916 by the 3rd Battalion of the Irish Volunteers under the command of one Éamon de Valera. De Valera commanded a relatively small contingent of fewer than 150 rebels, with a headquarters in Boland’s Bakery.

At 11am on 24th April 1916, acting under de Valera’s instructions, Lieutenant Michael Malone led 16 Volunteers from the 3rd battalion towards Mount Street Bridge, a key crossing point over the Grand Canal for a road that leads directly into the heart of Dublin. Their task was to stop British reinforcements entering Dublin from the South East. They set up several strong points either side of the bridge, marked on the map by the sold blue circles.

Meanwhile, British High Command in England received an urgent request from Ireland for reinforcements needed to put down the uprising. On the evening of 24th April 1916, the 59th North Midland Division received orders from Brigade HQ to ‘stand to’ for an immediate move. The division consisted of three brigades; 176th (2/5th, 2/6th South Staffordshire regiment, 2/5th, 2/6th North Staffordshire regiment); 177th (2/4th, 2/5th Lincolnshire regiment, 2/4th, 2/5th Leicestershire regiment) and the 178th infantry division (2/5th, 2/6th, 2/7th and 2/8th battalions of the Sherwood Forester regiment). The men were apparently enthusiastic at the thought of active service overseas and believed they were on their way to France or Flanders. In fact the Division began immediate embarkation for Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), Ireland.

Lieutenant Malone was still fortifying his post in a house at 25 Northumberland Road on 24th April when his attention was drawn to the sound of soldiers advancing towards his position. Assuming this was the anticipated British counter-attack, Lieutenant Masons together with James Grace and three others opened fire on the troops as they reached the junction of Northumberland Road and Haddington Road. The British soldiers were caught completely by surprise. They were not, as it turned out, attempting to assault the rebel positions; they were just returning to their barracks after weekend manoeuvres. Many men fell where they were hit, others ran for cover. They were all unable to return fire, as their rifles were unloaded. After the gunfire had ceased, the street was littered with the dead and dying. Local civilians – the vast majority of whom wanted nothing to do with the uprising – ran from their houses to help the wounded British soldiers.

It was not until early on Wednesday morning (April 26th 1916) that the newly arrived troops from England had disembarked and assembled on the quayside in Kingstown. They were mostly raw recruits who had only just completed six weeks of basic training, and many of them had never even fired a rifle. Orders were received that two battalions were to make their way towards the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Two more were to make their way to Trinity College. The other battalions were to remain in reserve. Carrying their full military kit, the Sherwood Foresters began to march towards the city centre.

On Tuesday 25th April, Malone had sent away three of his companions as they were `only boys’, leaving just himself and James Grace to defend the position on Northumberland Road. On 25th April, as the British troops reached the junction of Northumberland Road and Haddington Road, these two opened fire into the ranks of the oncoming Sherwood Foresters. The first hail of bullets claimed the lives of ten men.

Following instructions they would have been given in basic training, the British soldiers dropped to the ground in response to the gunfire. That would have been a good tactic to have employed when coming under fire in open countryside – such as they might have experienced in Flanders – as they would have had a chance of crawling for cover in a trench or ditch or hedgerow. In this situation, however, it was just about the worst thing they could have done. They lay prone in the middle of the road and were easily picked off by Malone and Grace, firing down on them from the windows of a house on Northumberland Road. To be fair to the British officers in command, urban warfare was a new thing in 1916 – the horrors of, e.g., Stalingrad were still to come – so they didn’t really know what to do.

The British troops regrouped and tried to charge the position where the gunfire was coming from, but were repulsed, suffering heavy casualties. Even more casualties were sustained when they tried to encircle the building. Finally, using grenades, they managed to blow in the front door of 25 Northumberland Road at the same time as others gained entry to the rear of the house via Percy Lane.

A barricade constructed of household furniture blocked those soldiers attempting to gain entry through the front door. As Malone descended the stairs towards the hall, he was confronted by the British soldiers who entered through the back door and was shot dead. In order to clear the house the military threw grenades into the basement but Grace, who was hiding there, had taken cover behind a metal oven and avoided serious injury. He stayed put, and wasn’t found until after the battle. He was arrested by the British authorities, but released at Christmas 1916.

Altogether the fighting at Mount Street resulted in almost two-thirds of the total British casualties during the Easter Rising. A total of four officers and 216 other ranks were killed or wounded during this bloody episode.

This short video gives some more details:

A Short (Physical Review) Letter!

Posted in History, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on April 26, 2019 by telescoper

I think it is Blaise Pascal who is to be credited with the quote frequently paraphrased as “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so here’s a long one instead” but, whoever it was, this afternoon’s interesting theoretical physics seminar at Maynooth University about Magnetic Molecules by Jürgen Schnack of Bielefeld University provided a great example of how a short letter can pay off.

William Giauque was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1949 for his work on the properties (including magnetic properties) of matter at very low temperatures. Among the many achievements that led to this award Giauque was the first person to generate matter in a laboratory with a temperature below 1 Kelvin. This result was described in a publication in Physical Review Letters in 1933. Here is the letter in full:

I’ve seen a number of surprisingly short short communications from this era, but I think this one is the record. I’m not sure how many marks this would get as a lab report from an undergraduate physics student, but it doesn’t seem to have done Giauque any harm to keep it extremely brief!

While I’m here I’ll also mention that this also the common practice of awarding the Nobel Prize for Chemistry on the basis of work that is really Physics is clearly not a recent innovation!