Archive for Bath

Astronomy and Forensic Science – The Herschel Connection

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on April 27, 2015 by telescoper

When I was in Bath on Friday evening I made a point of visiting the Herschel Museum, which is located in the house in which Sir William Herschel lived for a time, before moving to Slough.

Unfortunately I got there too late to go inside. It did remind me however of an interesting connection between astronomy and forensic science, through a certain William Herschel..

When I give popular talks about Cosmology,  I sometimes look for appropriate analogies or metaphors in detective fiction or television programmes about forensic science. I think cosmology is methodologically similar to forensic science because it is generally necessary in both these fields to proceed by observation and inference, rather than experiment and deduction: cosmologists have only one Universe;  forensic scientists have only one scene of the crime. They can collect trace evidence, look for fingerprints, establish or falsify alibis, and so on. But they can’t do what a laboratory physicist or chemist would typically try to do: perform a series of similar experimental crimes under slightly different physical conditions. What we have to do in cosmology is the same as what detectives do when pursuing an investigation: make inferences and deductions within the framework of a hypothesis that we continually subject to empirical test. This process carries on until reasonable doubt is exhausted, if that ever happens.

Of course there is much more pressure on detectives to prove guilt than there is on cosmologists to establish the truth about our Cosmos. That’s just as well, because there is still a very great deal we do not know about how the Universe works. I have a feeling that I’ve stretched this analogy to breaking point but at least it provides some kind of excuse for mentioning the Herschel connection.

In fact the Herschel connection comes through William James Herschel, the grandson of William Herschel and the eldest son of John Herschel, both of whom were eminent astronomers. William James Herschel was not an astronomer, but an important figure in the colonial establishment in India. In the context relevant to this post, however, his claim to fame is that he is credited with being the first European to have recognized the importance of fingerprints for the purposes of identifying individuals. William James Herschel started using fingerprints in this way in India in 1858; some examples are shown below (taken from the wikipedia page).


Later,  in 1877 at Hooghly (near Calcutta) he instituted the use of fingerprints on contracts and deeds to prevent the then-rampant repudiation of signatures and he registered government pensioners’ fingerprints to prevent the collection of money by relatives after a pensioner’s death. Herschel also fingerprinted prisoners upon sentencing to prevent various frauds that were attempted in order to avoid serving a prison sentence.

The use of fingerprints in solving crimes was to come much later, but there’s no doubt that Herschel’s work on this was an important step.

Talked Out

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Cosmic Anomalies with tags , , , on November 20, 2009 by telescoper

My trip to Bath yesterday turned out to be very enjoyable and entirely free of aqueous complications. The train ran on time from Cardiff to Bath Spa, although it was hideously overcrowded. About an hour later I was met at the station by Gary Mathlin and taken to the University campus  in his car. I didn’t get to see much of the city because it was already dark, but parts of it are very beautiful in a very Jane-Austen type of way. The University of Bath campus is a very different kettle of fish, a 1960s modernist construction in which I would have got completely lost had I not had a guide. Quite smart though. Better than most of its ilk.

The talk itself was in quite a large and swish lecture theatre. I’m not sure how many turned up but it might have been close to a hundred or so. Very mixed too, with quite a few students and some much older types.

I thought it went down quite well, but you’ll really have to ask the audience about that! I answered a few questions at the end and then there was  a very generous vote of thanks and I was given a gift of a very interesting book published by Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Thereafter I was whisked off to dinner, which I hadn’t realised was going to happen. I had the chance to chat to various people, including students and members  of the William Herschel Society, all of whom were very friendly and convivial after a few glasses of wine. Fortunately, Gary Mathlin lives in Cardiff so he gave me a lift home afterwards so I didn’t get back too late.

This morning I had to head straight to London without going into work in order to get to Imperial College to give a lunchtime seminar at the Theoretical Physics group, which is based in the Huxley building. I think it is named after T.H. rather than Aldous, because I wasn’t offered any Mescalin. Of course seminars like this have a much smaller audience and are much more technical than public lectures, but I still found myself having flashbacks to the previous evening’s lecture. I talked about various bits and pieces arising from work I’ve been doing with various people about the cosmic anomalies I’ve blogged about from time to time.

After this we went to a local pizzeria for a late lunch (and a couple of glasses of wine). I would have liked to stay longer to chat with the folks there, but I wanted to get back to Cardiff at a reasonable hour so I left in time for the 4.15 train.

Walking back home from Cardiff station along the side of the River Taff I was struck by its rather sinister appearance. Still high after the recent rains, and lit only by the lights of the city, it glistened like thick black oil as it flowed very quickly down towards the Bay.  I felt more than a hint of menace in the sheer volume of water streaming past in the darkness.

So far we’ve escaped the worst of the season’s bad weather. The fells of Cumbria, in the far north-west of England, have had 14 inches of rain in 2 days, which is a record. If that happened in South Wales I’m not sure even Cardiff’s formidable flood defences would cope! The  forecast for this weekend is terrible so I don’t think I’ll be doing anything very much outdoors. That suits me, in fact, as all this travelling about has left me well and truly knackered. Time for an early night, I think!