Archive for the History Category

Changing Time Again

Posted in History with tags , , on October 30, 2022 by telescoper

Some time ago, before the Covid-19 Pandemic, the European Parliament approved a directive that would abolish `Daylight Saving Time’. Unfortunately that plan has been ‘paused’ and this year we had to go through the usual rigmarole of putting the clocks back. Fortunately most devices do this automatically, though I have never figured out how to change the time on the clock on my cooker which means that we’re now in the 5 months of the year during which it shows the correct time.

I’ve long felt that the annual ritual of putting the clocks forward in the Spring and back again in the Autumn was a waste of time effort, so I’ll be glad when this silly practice is terminated. It would be far better in my view to stick with a single Mean Time throughout the year. I’m only disappointed that this hasn’t happened already.

The marvellous poster above is from 1916, when British Summer Time was introduced. I was surprised to learn recently that the practice of changing clocks backwards and forwards in the UK is only about a hundred years old and was introduced as an emergency measure in wartime. To be honest I’m also surprised that the practice persists to this day, as I can’t see any real advantage in it. Any institution or organisation that really wants to change its working hours in summer can easily do so, but the world of work is far more flexible nowadays than it was a hundred years ago and I think very few would feel the need.

Anyway, while I am on about Mean Time, here is a another poster from 1916.

Until October 1916, clocks in Ireland were set to Dublin Mean Time, as defined at Dunsink Observatory, rather than at Greenwich. The adoption of GMT in Ireland was driven largely by the fact that the British authorities found that the time difference between Dublin and London had confused telegraphic communications during the Easter Rising earlier in 1916. Its imposition was therefore, at least in part, intended to bring Ireland under closer control. This did not go down well with Irish nationalists.

Ireland had not moved to Summer Time with Britain in May 1916 because of the Easter Rising. Dublin Mean Time was 25 minutes 21 seconds behind GMT but the change to GMT was introduced in Ireland at the same time as BST ended in the UK, hence the alteration by one hour minus 25 minutes 21 seconds, i.e. 34 minutes and 39 seconds as in the poster.

Britain will probably never scrap British Summer Time on the grounds that whatever the EU does must be bad. What will happen to Northern Ireland when Ireland scraps Daylight Saving Time is yet to be seen…

Remembering Violet Gibson

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , on October 23, 2022 by telescoper

A few years ago I posted an item about Violet Gibson. Last week Dublin City Council unveiled a plaque in her memory, outside her childhood home, which reminded me of her story.

The story of Violet Gibson is both bizarre and tragic. She was born in 1876 into a well-to-do family living at No. 12 Merrion Square in Dublin, where the above plaque is now located. Her father, Edward Gibson, was made Baron Ashbourne in 1886. To cut a long story short, Violet Gibson turned up in Rome in 1926 where, at 11am on 26th April of that year, she attempted to shoot Fascist Leader Benito Mussolini with a pistol. She only failed in this task because Mussolini moved his head at the instant she pulled the trigger, and the bullet just grazed his nose. She tried to fire again, but her gun jammed. She was then seized by the angry mob of fascist supporters with whom she had mingled to get close enough to shoot. She was almost lynched but saved by the police. Eventually, the authorities came to the conclusion that she was insane and she was sent back to England. She spent the rest of her life in a psychiatric institution in Northampton. She died there in 1956, at the age of 79.

P.S. If you want to find out more about Violet Gibson, I recommend a book about her life called The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stonor Saunders.

R.I.P. Maarten Schmidt (1929-2022)

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 20, 2022 by telescoper

Once again I find myself having to pass on some sad news. Astronomer Maarten Schmidt has passed away at the age of 92. The highlight of his long and distinguished career was the discovery, in 1963, that quasars showed hydrogen emission lines that revealed them to be at cosmological redshifts. Together with Donald Lynden-Bell (who passed away in 2018), Schmidt was awarded the inaugural Kavli Prize for Astrophysics in 2008.

Rest in peace, Maarten Schmidt (1929-2022).

Tywysog and Taoiseach

Posted in History, Irish Language with tags , , , , on September 12, 2022 by telescoper

When I heard that King Charles III has conferred the title “Prince of Wales, Tywysog Cymru”, on his eldest son and heir William, I was intrigued by the appearance of the Welsh word Tywysog because of its similarity to the Irish word Taioseach. There aren’t that many words that sound so similar in Welsh and Irish because the two language groups to which they belong diverged in the distant past. Their similarity suggests to me a common etymology that pre-dates the development of the two distinct branches of the Celtic languages that we now refer to as Goidelic and Brythonic. There isn’t any literature to go on, as ancient Celtic languages were primarily oral, but the theory is that both words are derived from a Proto-Celtic form towissākos.

The Goidelic group comprises Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic; and the Brythonic group comprises Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These are sometimes referred to as q-Celtic and p-Celtic, respectively, although not everyone agrees that is a useful categorization. It stems from the fact that the “q” in Indo-European languages morphed into a “p” in the Brythonic languages. The number five in Irish is a cúig which has a q sound (though there is no letter q in the Irish alphabet); five in Welsh is pump. Contrast with the number two: a dó in Irish and dau in Welsh.

Incidentally, Scottish Gaelic is not the language spoken by the Picts, the Celtic people who lived in Scotland at the time of the Romans, which is lost. Scottish Gaelic is actually descended from Middle Irish due to migration and trading contacts. The Ulster dialect of Irish is in turn much influenced by reverse migration from Scotland. Languages do not evolve in isolation or in any simple linear trajectory.

Contrary to popular belief, Breton is not a Continental Celtic language but was taken to Brittany by a mass migration of people, which peaked in the 6th Century AD, from South-West Britain, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons won a great victory in battle at Dyrham (near Bath) in 577 after which they advanced through Somerset and Devon, splitting the Celts of Cornwall and Wales and leading to the formation of two distinct Brythonic language groups, Welsh and Cornish. Breton is much closer to Cornish than it is to Welsh.

The Continental Celtic languages are all extinct, except for fascinating remnants that linger here and there in local dialect words in French and Spanish.

Anyway, both modern words tywysog and taioseach originally meant “leader”. In Scots Gaelic, tòiseach was the name given to a clan chief; the Irish taioseach had a similar usage. The capitalized form “Taioseach” has only been used for the Head of the Irish Government since 1937 when the name was introduced in the Constitution. It was remarked at the time that An Taoiseach – the equivalent of Prime Minister – has the same literal meaning as “Il Duce” or “Die Führer“…

The last native Welsh Tywysog was Owain Glyndŵr after whose demise in c1415 the title was appropriated by the English monarchy no doubt as part of its rigorous suppression of Welsh identity. The term doesn’t actually mean “Prince” and the “Prince of Wales” is certainly not a leader. If anything the word should be applied to the First Minister of Wales, an office currently held by Mark Drakeford.

P.S. The presence of the “e” in taioseach indicates that the “s” is pronounced like “sh” (as in “Seán”) so the word should not be pronounced “tea sock”…


The End of a Reign

Posted in Biographical, History with tags on September 8, 2022 by telescoper

Just a quick note in the manner of a journal entry to mark the fact that Queen Elizabeth II passed away this afternoon at the age of 96.

I was actually sitting on a plane about to take off for Dublin when the news filtered through. The Irish bloke next to me who knew I was born in England as we had been chatting, asked what happens next – what procedure would be followed to install the next Monarch, King Charles III. I told him that The Queen had been The Queen since before I was born, and had reigned all my life until now, so I had never experienced such an event and had no idea at all what comes next!

All I know is that the funeral of Queen Elizabeth will not happen for another ten days, but King Charles becomes King immediately. I’m not sorry to have made it back to Ireland today. I think I would have found the media coverage in the UK very tedious indeed.

It’s strange to imagine there being a King Charles instead of Queen Elizabeth. I suppose football crowds will henceforth be singing “God Save The King” instead of “God Save The Queen”, although I bet they’ll continue to do it just as tunelessly regardless of the change of words.

Queen Elizabeth was the longest-reigning British monarch by a margin of about 7 years over Queen Victoria. If you reckon history as a succession of Kings and Queens like we were taught to at school then today is a historic day. I can’t help wondering though how many more British monarchs there will be…

Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke: Singin’ the Blues

Posted in History, Jazz with tags , , on September 4, 2022 by telescoper

 Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke became a jazz-age romantic legend not only by playing brilliant cornet but also by drinking too much bad prohibition liquor resulting his premature death in 1931, at the age of only 28. His short life was punctuated by episodes of very bad health caused by chronic alcoholism in an era when the only booze that was available was bathtub gin or rotgut whisky. Despite all his problems, Bix still gave us some of the greatest ever jazz records.

Although he was of middle-class white origins, Bix’s playing was deeply admired by leading black musicians of the day notably the great Louis Armstrong. Some years ago I listened to a radio play called Bix: Singing the Blues which is a fictional account of the only occasion in which Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong played together, in a private, after-hours session. Given the description of that as “fictional” I assumed that Bix and Satchmo didn’t know each other well. Recently, however, I came across a recording of Louis Armstrong talking about Bix Beiderbecke that shows I was wrong:

(There is one little bit of confusion in the discussion: Bix wasn’t 31 when he died: he died in 1931, at the age of 28. )

So how good was Bix? Well, make your own mind up. Here is his classic version of Singing the Blues, with Frankie Trumbauer’s Orchestra in 1927, a three minute track in which Bix’s stunning solo starts a minute in and lasts a minute.

Jazz being largely improvised music, it is often a bit rough around the edges; even the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens have their share of duff notes. Bix’s solo on this record with that beautiful ringing, bell-like tone, and effortless swing at what is quite a slow tempo, is as close to perfection as you’ll ever find.

But you don’t need to take my word for it.

During his heyday in the1920s Louis Armstrong played virtually every popular tune that was put in front of him, including many songs that seemed unpromising from a jazz perspective, and in the process turned any amount of base metal into solid gold. Singin’ the Blues was a smash hit, but Louis Armstrong refused to play it. When asked why he replied that he didn’t think he could play it as well as Bix. There is no higher praise.

A Memory of Dunsink

Posted in Biographical, History, Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 2, 2022 by telescoper
Dunsink Observatory

Just time for an early morning post before I get the train in order to attend the second day of this year’s Irish National Astronomy Meeting at Dunsink Observatory (in the above picture, which I took yesterday morning). Incidentally, Dunsink Observatory is Réadlann Dhún Sinche in the Irish language.

Thinking about this meeting ahead of the event reminded me of a loose end, which I managed to tidy up this week.

Once upon a time, before the pandemic, I was involved in various events to celebrate the centenary of the famous eclipse expeditions of May 1919 which had a strong connection with Dunsink Observatory (see e.g. here). Among these things was an invitation to write a paper on the subject, which appeared in Contemporary Physics in June 2019.

Contemporary Physics being a commercial journal the paper was published behind a paywall. The publication rules however allowed the paper to be made freely available after an embargo period of one year.

I had intended to put the paper on arXiv in June 2020 when the embargo period lapsed, but at that point Covid-19 had taken hold, my workload went through the roof and I forgot about it until this week when a combination of my forthcoming trip to Dunsink and the appearance of my student’s first paper on arXiv conspired to remind me. Finally, therefore, the paper has now appeared in a fully open-access form on the arXiv here, just over two years later.

The title is A Revolution in Science: the Eclipse Expeditions of 1919 and the abstract reads:

The first direct experimental test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity involved a pair of expeditions to measure the bending of light at a total solar eclipse that took place one hundred years ago, on 29 May 1919. So famous is this experiment, and so dramatic was the impact on Einstein himself, that history tends not to recognise the controversy that surrounded the results at the time. In this article, I discuss the experiment in its scientific and historical background context and explain why it was, and is, such an important episode in the development of modern physics.

The Death of Michael Collins

Posted in History with tags , , , , on August 22, 2022 by telescoper
Michael Collins in full dress uniform, pictured a few days before his death.

Today marks the centenary of the death of Michael Collins during the Irish Civil War. The event was marked by a ceremony yesterday at Béal na Bláth, where Collins was shot in the head and killed by a sniper on 22nd August 1922. He was 31 years old.

The Civil War had erupted over the the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the pro-Treaty National Army (of which Collins was Commander-in-Chief) fighting against anti-Treaty forces. Opponents of the Treaty felt that the Irish Free State it created fell far short of the Republic they had fought for during the War of Independence. In particular the Treaty required an Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, which many Republicans found totally unacceptable.

On 22nd August, with Free State forces gaining the upper hand, Collins was travelling through County Cork with a convoy including an armoured car, when it was ambushed by soldiers of the anti-Treaty IRA. Instead of trying to escape, the convoy stopped and a gunfight developed during which Collins was shot dead. He was the only fatality. There was no official inquiry into the events at Béal na Bláth and nobody knows for sure who fired the fatal shot. The death of Michael Collins, following the death a few days earlier of Arthur Griffith, was a big setback for the leadership of the Free State and the already bitter Civil War descended into cycle of atrocities and reprisals. The fighting was to grind on until May 1923.

Megalithic Mystery Solved!

Posted in Biographical, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 8, 2022 by telescoper

This morning I realized that almost exactly four years ago I visited the megalithic passage tomb at Knowth. In my post about that visit I mentioned the extraordinary stone carvings found outside the tomb and their possible connection with astronomy. Following on from ChorizoGate I can finally reveal that the solution to this ancient mystery is in fact gastronomical.

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 here.

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.