Archive for Burlington House

Eye on Burlington House

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 27, 2020 by telescoper

Having been forewarned of this story as soon as my copy of Private Eye arrived (this morning, owing to the Bank Holiday weekend) I headed straight to this:

It sounds rather alarming for the Royal Astronomical Society, which is currently accommodated in Burlington House in Piccadilly, but I do remember something similar being in the air not too long ago when I was a Member of RAS Council. The Government of the time threatened to increased rents and everyone involved with the RAS, including its Fellows, was a bit worried but an agreement was struck. Presumably now the leases are up for negotiation again?

It’s worth pointing out a few inaccuracies in the Eye piece.

  1.  “..the six Learned Societies complacently assumed they would continue to pay a peppercorn rent forever”. This is untrue as the rents have been renegotiated before (see above).
  2.  “The Royal Academy is still relatively flush….but the other five are effectively broke”. I don’t know anything about the others but I’d be very surprised if the Royal Society of Chemistry is “effectively broke” given the income from its academic publishing wing. It also has sizeable industrial income, as does the Geological Society. The Royal Astronomical Society has sizeable reserves in the form of a portfolio of long-term investments built up over the 200 years of its existence but it tends not to use them to fund expenditure; its main cash flow is provided again by academic publishing, especially Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This year – the bicentenary of its foundation – is a bit of an exception because it has dipped into reserves to fund a series of celebratory outreach activities.
  3. The description of “vast clubbable tearooms” is inaccurate too. The RAS occupies rather cramped accommodation in one corner of Burlington house. There is a Fellows’ Room but it is rather small. There are staff offices, a (small) lecture theatre and an important historical library. There are also the President’s Apartments (which I have of course never seen).

I wouldn’t put it past this particular Government to kick out the Learned Societies and outsource Burlington House to Serco but even if this does happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  In my view the RAS needs to shake off the fusty image that its current accommodation in what looks like an old museum tends to perpetuate.  It has always been the case that most of the regulars at the monthly Open Meetings in Burlington House are based in or near London, which means many Fellows don’t get the chance to be involved. Would it really be all that bad for the Royal Astronomical Society had to move? They may have to overhaul their finances anyway if their publishing revenues dry up…

Why not use the opportunity to move the Society out of London altogether to a place with a strong astronomical connection, Bath for example, although that would admittedly make it difficult to get to the Athenaeum in time for dinner…

And if “commercial rates” are going to be the thing for Government-owned buildings, shouldn’t the occupant of 10 Downing Street be charged for his accommodation?

 

 

A Diary of the Other Place

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 1, 2019 by telescoper

The arrival yesterday of this year’s Royal Astronomical Society diary reminded (for obvious reasons) that next year (2020) sees the bicentenary of the Society and that there will be a number of special events to mark the occasion.

According to the brief history published on the RAS website:

The ‘Astronomical Society of London’ was conceived on 12 January 1820 when 14 gentlemen sat down to dinner at the Freemason’s Tavern, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. After an unusually short gestation the new Society was born on 10 March 1820 with the first meeting of the Council and the Society as a whole. An early setback, when Sir Joseph Banks induced the Duke of Somerset to withdraw his agreement to be the first President, was overcome when Sir William Herschel agreed to be the titular first President, though he never actually took the Chair at a meeting.

The Society became the `Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1831 when it was granted a Royal Charter by William IV, but this is no time to be quibbling about names.

It’s not only the Royal Astronomical Society that has survived and prospered for two hundred years. The group of `gentlemen’ who met for dinner in January 1820 has also carried on in the form of the RAS Club which is, of course, older than the RAS itself.

As well as being a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (and having twice served on its Council), I also have the honour of having been elected a Member of the RAS Club about 11 years ago. I blogged about this here.

The members of the RAS Club are all Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society. All you have to do to join the Royal Astronomical Society is to find two Felllows to support you, pay some money and sign your name in a book, but to get into the RAS Club you have to be elected by the existing membership. Nominations are solicited each November (via a process called `The Naming of Names’) and the elections held – usually with a great deal of confusion about the voting system – in January. Frankly, it’s all a bit dotty, but I like it. I don’t really carte much for the real world anyway. The club’s various little rituals are a bit bizarre, but quaintly amusing in their own way, and the proceedings are remarkably lacking in pomposity.

Nowadays, the RAS Club usually meets at the Athenaeum in Pall Mall, shortly after the end of the monthly `Ordinary Meetings’ of the RAS at Burlington House (always referred to at the Club as `another place’) which happen on the second friday of each month. That is except when the RAS meeting is the annual National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) which is held at a different location each year; on these occasions the club also meets, but at an appropriate alternative venue near the NAM location.

I think the RAS Club (and even the RAS itself) is sometimes viewed with suspicion and perhaps even hostility by some astronomers, who seem to think the club is a kind of sinister secret society whose existence is intrinsically detrimental to the health of astronomy in the UK. Actually it’s just an excuse for a good nosh-up and some daft jokes, although I was initially disappointed to find out that there wasn’t after all a covert plan for world domination. Or if there is, nobody told me about it.

The other common complaint is that the club’s membership is just a bunch of old male dinosaurs. Now it is true that your typical member of the RAS Club isn’t exactly in the first flush of youth, but that’s no excuse for ageism. And the club does try very hard to secure encourage nominations from female Fellows and the gender balance is improving steadily.

The diary reminded me also that the first meeting of the RAS of the new term, and hence the first Club dinner, will be on Friday October 11th. I hope to be there to find out more about the plans for the bicentennial dinner in January 2020…

Anyway, as a postscript, although many of my colleagues seem not to use them, I like old-fashioned diaries like the one above. I do run an electronic calendar for work-related events, meetings etc, but I use the paper one to scribble down extra-curricular activities such as concerts and cricket fixtures, as I find the smartphone version of my electronic calendar a bit fiddly. I’m interested to know the extent to which I am an old fogey so here’s a little poll on the subject of diaries: