Archive for the History Category

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…

One Hundred Years of the Cosmological Constant

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by telescoper

It was exactly one hundred years ago today – on 8th February 1917 – that a paper was published in which Albert Einstein explored the cosmological consequences of his general theory of relativity, in the course of which he introduced the concept of the cosmological constant.

For the record the full reference to the paper is: Kosmologische Betrachtungen zur allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie and it was published in the Sitzungsberichte der Königlich Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. You can find the full text of the paper here. There’s also a nice recent discussion of it by Cormac O’Raifeartaigh  and others on the arXiv here.

Here is the first page:


It’s well worth looking at this paper – even if your German is as rudimentary as mine – because the argument Einstein constructs is rather different from what you might imagine (or at least that’s what I thought when I first read it). As you see, it begins with a discussion of a modification of Poisson’s equation for gravity.

As is well known, Einstein introduced the cosmological constant in order to construct a static model of the Universe. The 1917 paper pre-dates the work of Friedman (1923) and Lemaître (1927) that established much of the language and formalism used to describe cosmological models nowadays, so I thought it might be interesting just to recapitulate the idea using modern notation. Actually, in honour of the impending centenary I did this briefly in my lecture on Physics of the Early Universe yesterday.

To simplify matters I’ll just consider a “dust” model, in which pressure can be neglected. In this case, the essential equations governing a cosmological model satisfying the Cosmological Principle are:

\ddot{a} = -\frac{4\pi G \rho a }{3} +\frac{\Lambda a}{3}


\dot{a}^2= \frac{8\pi G \rho a^2}{3} +\frac{\Lambda a^2}{3} - kc^2.

In these equations a(t) is the cosmic scale factor (which measures the relative size of the Universe) and dots are derivatives with respect to cosmological proper time, t. The density of matter is \rho>0 and the cosmological constant is \Lambda. The quantity k is the curvature of the spatial sections of the model, i.e. the surfaces on which t is constant.

Now our task is to find a solution of these equations with a(t)= A, say, constant for all time, i.e. that \dot{a}=0 and \ddot{a}=0 for all time.

The first thing to notice is that if \Lambda=0 then this is impossible. One can solve the second equation to make the LHS zero at a particular time by matching the density term to the curvature term, but that only makes a universe that is instantaneously static. The second derivative is non-zero in this case so the system inevitably evolves away from the situation in which $\dot{a}=0$.

With the cosmological constant term included, it is a different story. First make \ddot{a}=0  in the first equation, which means that

\Lambda=4\pi G \rho.

Now we can make \dot{a}=0 in the second equation by setting

\Lambda a^2 = 4\pi G \rho a^2 = kc^2

This gives a static universe model, usually called the Einstein universe. Notice that the curvature must be positive, so this a universe of finite spatial extent but with infinite duration.

This idea formed the basis of Einstein’s own cosmological thinking until the early 1930s when observations began to make it clear that the universe was not static at all, but expanding. In that light it seems that adding the cosmological constant wasn’t really justified, and it is often said that Einstein regard its introduction as his “biggest blunder”.

I have two responses to that. One is that general relativity, when combined with the cosmological principle, but without the cosmological constant, requires the universe to be dynamical rather than static. If anything, therefore, you could argue that Einstein’s biggest blunder was to have failed to predict the expansion of the Universe!

The other response is that, far from it being an ad hoc modification of his theory, there are actually sound mathematical reasons for allowing the cosmological constant term. Although Einstein’s original motivation for considering this possibility may have been misguided, he was justified in introducing it. He was right if, perhaps, for the wrong reasons. Nowadays observational evidence suggests that the expansion of the universe may be accelerating. The first equation above tells you that this is only possible if \Lambda\neq 0.

Finally, I’ll just mention another thing in the light of the Einstein (1917) paper. It is clear that Einstein thought of the cosmological as a modification of the left hand side of the field equations of general relativity, i.e. the part that expresses the effect of gravity through the curvature of space-time. Nowadays we tend to think of it instead as a peculiar form of energy (called dark energy) that has negative pressure. This sits on the right hand side of the field equations instead of the left so is not so much a modification of the law of gravity as an exotic form of energy. You can see the details in an older post here.

This is the Strangers’ Case

Posted in History, Literature with tags , , , on January 30, 2017 by telescoper

This speech, delivered by Sir Ian McKellen at the Cambridge Union a couple of years ago, is from the play Sir Thomas More  and is widely attributed to William Shakespeare. It’s from Act 2 Scene 4, at which point in the drama Thomas More (who was then London’s Deputy Sheriff) is called upon to put down an anti-immigration riot in the Parish of St Martin Le Grand, that took place on 1st May 1517. In reality  More’s intevention wasn’t effective, and it took the arrival of 5000 troops to disperse the mob.

As well as being powerful for many other reasons, this speech especially fascinating because a hand-written manuscript (thought to be by Shakespeare himself) survives and is kept in the British Library.

The backdrop to this story is that, between 1330 and 1550 about 64,000 immigrants from all across Europe came to England in search of better lives. Locals blamed them for taking their jobs and threatening their culture. Tensions reached breaking point in 1517 and a mob armed with stones, bricks, bats, boots and boiling water attacked the immigrants and looted their homes.  Five hundred years on, and we still haven’t learned.

Here is the text of the speech. As you will see, it basically amounts to the argument “do as you would be done by”, but it is much more powerful when performed by an actor, so do watch the clip too!

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….

Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.