Archive for Fire

Devastating news from Cape Town

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on April 18, 2021 by telescoper

(Pictures from here.)

A devastating fire that seems to have started somewhere on Table Mountain has swept onto the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, even engulfing the splendid library (last picture; that’s the special collections part in flames).

It’s terrible to see a place you know go up in flames but at least the campus was evacuated before the fire reached it.

I’ve been to UCT several times, including a long visit in 1995 when I wrote a book with George Ellis. The last time was in 2012; see here. During those visits I was based in the Department of Applied Mathematics, which is on the Upper Campus. From what I’ve seen that building has been completely destroyed by the fire, which seems to be out of control.

I’ve not heard any reports of casualties – thank goodness – but it’s still devastating.

UPDATE: Here is an update on the situation in the Library

UPDATE: I’ve heard from George Ellis that the fires are now out: the Maths and Physics & Astronomy buildings have survived.

Our Lady of Paris

Posted in Architecture, History with tags , , , , on April 15, 2019 by telescoper

As I write, a catastrophic fire is raging in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Having started on the roof (or perhaps in a space underneath it), the flames spread rapidly through the mediaeval timbers of the building, bringing down the ceiling onto the nave, and causing the spire to collapse.

Restoration work on the roof started just four days ago and the area where the fire began was surrounded by scaffolding. Though nobody yet knows for sure what caused the fire, it seems likely to have been something to do with the ongoing repairs.

Watching the video streamed live from the scene with increasing horror, it seemed to me that the firemen were helpless to halt the advancing inferno. They just couldn’t get enough water onto the top of the huge structure quickly enough to contain the blaze. It was heartbreaking viewing. I fear very little will be left standing and most of the interior will have been completely destroyed, as this drone picture suggests:

At least there seem to have been no fatalities, although one brave fireman is reported to be seriously injured.

The loss of an iconic building like Notre Dame is shattering event for anyone who has been there, as I have on several occasions. Nobody who has seen the splendour of the 13th Century Rose Windows, for example, will ever forget the experience, so the destruction feels like losing a part of one’s own life. But above all it is a terrible loss for the people of Paris, as Notre Dame is the embodiment of so much of that beautiful and ancient city’s history.

Nobody put this better than Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame de Paris:

Notre Dame de Paris, in particular, is a curious specimen of this variety. Every surface, every stone of this venerable pile, is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and of art. Thus—to mention here only a few of the chief details—whereas the small Porte Rouge almost touches the limits of fifteenth century Gothic delicacy, the pillars of the nave, by their massiveness and great girth, reach back to the Carlovingian Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One would imagine that six centuries lay between that door and those pillars. Not even the Hermetics fail to find in the symbols of the grand doorway a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph. Thus the Roman Abbey—the Church of the Mystics—Gothic art—Saxon art—the ponderous round pillar reminiscent of Gregory VII, the alchemistic symbolism by which Nicolas Flamel paved the way for Luther—papal unity—schism—Saint-Germain-des-Prés—Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie—all are blended, combined, amalgamated in Notre Dame. This generative Mother-Church is, among the other ancient churches of Paris, a sort of Chimera: she has the head of one, the limbs of another, the body of a third—something of all.

I’m sure Parisians will be in a state of shock tonight and that will turn to something very close to grief. Mere words from me won’t help much, but let me in any case express my profound sadness and sympathy to my French friends and colleagues in Paris and around the world.

But if I know them at all, the French will soon set about the task of rebuilding, probably creating something majestic and extraordinary to replace what has been lost.

UPDATE: the morning after, it seems the fire was brought under control quickly enough to save the walls and towers, and at least one of the Rose Windows.

That this has been achieved owes everything to the courage and skill of the Pompiers, 500 of whom fought the blaze last night. Magnifique.

Fire Escapes

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 13, 2013 by telescoper

When I checked into Twitter this morning I was perturbed to see a flurry of panicky messages from astronomers down under. No wonder. The bush fires that have been raging in New South Wales for some time yesterday threatened to engulf the world-famous Siding Spring Observatory – the largest optical observatory in Australia – where 12 important telescopes are located, not to mention the people that operate them.

I’ll direct you to Amanda Bauer’s blog piece for dramatic coverage of what was obviously a terrifying and exhausting night, as flames and smoke crept remorsely closer to the observatory buildings.


At about 3.30pm local time, the buildings were evacuated and soon afterwards the fire penetrated the perimeter of the Observatory itself and subsequently swept through the complex. Temperatures inside some of the domes went as high as 100 °C and a lot of the electrical equipment has clearly been damaged.

Scary stuff but, most importantly of all, at least nobody was hurt. It also seems that damage to the observatory buildings and equipment was relatively slight. That however is a preliminary assessment, and may well be revised when it’s safe to enter the area again. Wildfires of this sort are extremely frightening things, so this must have been a very difficult time for those involved but, fingers crossed, it seems not to have turned out as badly as some feared.

Coincidentally, I had a little fire drama at home myself last night, although I hasten to add it was not on the same scale as the goings-on in Siding Spring. The weather in Cardiff being rather inclement I decided to complete my Saturday afternoon shopping with the purchase of a sack of logs for the fire. I have central heating, so don’t actually need the open fire for warmth, but it does add an extra level of cosiness on a winter evening. It also provides something to look at which is more interesting than the television I no longer possess…

It’s not all that easy to get a fire started in my grate, but I managed at the first attempt yesterday. Wood has a tendency to spit and crackle while burning so I put the fireguard around..

(The flames weren’t actually that purple colour, more of a reddish orange; I think the flash on the camera is responsible for the change of hue.)

Anyway, I kept the fire going all through the evening which meant by the time I was ready for my nightcap I had no logs left. I then remembered a bit of wood (or, more accurately, MDF) that was left over when I had some shelves fitted. I found it in a cupboard and chucked it on the fire and left the room to make a drink.

A couple of minutes later my smoke alarm went off. Bemused, I ran back into the living room and found it filled with acrid smoke, produced by the veneer that coated the bit of surplus shelf, which was being produced in quantities too large for the chimney to cope with.

I hastily switched off the alarm and opened all the windows and doors on the ground floor, much to the amusement of the folk passing my house on the way home from the pub. Ironically my attempts to stay warm and cosy all through the evening had ended with arctic winds blowing through the house. The smoke cleared fairly soon, although the smell of it was still lingering this morning.

Still, nobody was hurt and there was no serious damage to buildings or equipment. And at least now I know my smoke alarm does actually work…