Archive for Paris

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.

Home Thoughts of Paris

Posted in Biographical with tags , on November 16, 2015 by telescoper

Like many of you I’ve been following the events in Paris over the last few days with a mixture of shock and horror but I couldn’t think of anything useful or insightful to say on this blog. It’s truly terrible to see the levels of cruelty and inhumanity that people can descend to, enough to make one feel ashamed to be human, but the frenzied speculation on the net about the nationality of the assailants – based on very dubious documentary evidence – is’t helping anyone. Whoever they were or wherever they came from I doubt if we’ll ever really know what this murderous gang thought they were going to achieve when they set out on their killing spree on Friday evening. I’d be surprised if any of them could actually articulate their reasons for being involved, any more than a typical British soldier could explain, if asked, what he thought he was achieving by his presence in Iraq or Afghanistan.

It’s a matter of great shame that we have become relatively hardened to the news of deaths abroad. Practically every day we hear of killings of occupying troops, insurgents, or non-combatants in the Middle East or elsewhere but we Europeans seems to pay them little attention now. The sickening bombing of a funeral in Beirut killed 44 people on Thursday, but went largely unnoticed. The death toll in Paris is now at least 129, but this is just a tiny fraction of the number of lives lost to violence around the globe this year.

We live a relatively peaceful life in the West, with the result that it hits us rather hard when we can no longer keep such events at a safe distance in our minds, when they strike on familiar territory, such as was the case for the British in the London bombings of 2005. Only then do we see the horror close-up and personal. The people of Paris have to deal with that reality now, but we shouldn’t forget that in small towns we’ve never heard of all around the world many others are frightened and grieving too, and probably for just as little reason.

I don’t live in Paris, but I have been there many times and do have colleagues who live there, most of them in the suburb of Saclay. They’re all safe and unharmed. There will be many others who can’t say the same thing and my thoughts are with them at this terrible time. It must be very tough for Parisians as they try to restore normality to their lives, but that’s what they must do. The deadly attacks on Friday were not attacks on military targets. They were attacks on a sports stadium, a music venue and some bars and restaurants. The survivors owe it to the dead, the injured and the bereaved to carry on their lives regardless and to refuse to be intimidated by terror. I know that’s easy for me to say. I’m not there. But if London can do it in the wake of the atrocities of 2005, then so can Paris.

I find myself feeling much the same as I did in 2008 after a terrorist attack in Mumbai and in 2010 when the murderer Raoul Moat met a violent end in Rothbury. As I get older memories of places I’ve visited are increasingly precious and it’s deeply unsettling when those memories are corrupted by violence. But I am sure that Paris will survive not only as a place of happy memories for me, nor simply as a symbol of so many of the freedoms that others would destroy, but as a real place where real people continue live the way they want to live, in peace and liberty.

Contact

Posted in Art with tags , , , on December 16, 2014 by telescoper

As I mentioned in my previous post, yesterday evening  I attended the opening of a new show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The first thing to say is that the Fondation Louis Vuitton building, designed by Frank Gehry, is an absolutely amazing structure. It was dark and rainy when I arrived there yesterday and I failed to get any decent pictures of the outside but if you google around you will see what I mean. The interior of the building is an extraordinary as the outside; indeed, it’s such a complex topology that the distinction between inside and outside gets completely lost. It’s definitely a work of art in its own right and enormous fun to wander around, although some of the terraces and balconies are not suitable for those of us who are afraid of heights especially since the only barriers are transparent.

Anyway, the installation I mainly went to see, by Olafur Eliasson,  called Contact, is built around two large spaces on the lower ground floor of the Fondation Louis Vuitton building. The first room is semi-circular in shape and darkened. Along what would be the diameter were it a full circle there is a mirror, just in front of the centre of which there is a bright light surrounded by metallic structure in the form of a mesh. The light illuminates a strip of the circular wall, with darkness above and below, and not only casts a shadow of the mesh against the curved wall but also does the same for the people in the room. The radius of the semicircle is about 25 metres so the room can accommodate many people.

First impressions entering this space are quite strange. First, the room seems to be exactly circular. Then you realise there is a mirror and the mixture of geometrical and human shadows on the circular section of wall. Once you have taken in the true geometry, however, there is stull the fun of watching how people behave within it. Like many of Olafur’s works, this one is as much created by the people who enter the room as it is by the artist.

My phone wasn’t really up to taking pictures of this – and in any case it’s something to be experience rather than seen in a photograph, but here are some attempts. In this one,  very large shadow in the middle is mine:

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contact_5

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The second room is a quadrant rather than a semicircle, with mirrors along the two straight edges creating the impression of a complete circle. This time, instead of a single point of light in the centre there is a horizontal illuminated stripe of an intense orange-red which, in the mirrors, creates in the viewer the impression of being in the middle of a ring of light.

My first impression when I entered this part of the installation was to recall some of the lighting effects near the end of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

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This is evocative of attempts that have been made from time to time to construct cosmological models with a compact topology, such as a finite flat space with its edges identified to form a torus.

In between these two large spaces there are a number of smaller pieces involving curved mirrors devices that invert and otherwise distort the images of people moving around inside the exhibition, one in particular producing an amazing holographic effect. Knowing how these things work does not diminish their power to amaze and to make you want to reach out and try to touch what is not really there..

contact_3

Anyway, that’s all just a taster. You really have to see it to appreciate it. It’s a show that asks very interesting questions about we use light in order to perceive space and indeed how we construct space itself through our own imagination.

Arrivé à Paris

Posted in Art with tags , , , on December 15, 2014 by telescoper

Well, here I am in a misty and murky and rather cold Paris. My first trip on the Eurostar from St Pancras as it happens. I’ve used the train to get to Paris before, but the last time was a long time ago when it departed from a temporary station at Waterloo. Anyway, there’s a direct train from Brighton to St Pancras International. Although it was about half an hour late, I still had time for a bite to eat before boarding. The train was pretty full, but ran on time and I got into Gare du Nord just before 4pm local time. A short (and inexpensive) trip on the Metro brought me to the hotel where I’ll be staying the night.

There is a conference going on in Paris this week about Planck but that’s not why I’m here. In fact I’m attending the opening of “Contact”, an exhibition by Olafur Eliasson at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

olafur

I was toying with the idea of combining this event with the Planck meeting, but (a) I’ve got too much to do to stay for the whole week and (b) I don’t think there’ll be much new at the Planck meeting anyway.

Anyway, Olafur very kindly asked me to write something for the  catalogue, as the exhibition has something of an astronomical theme and I guess that’s why I got the VIP invitation. There’s something called a cocktail dinatoire afterwards which I presume involves large amounts of alcohol. That may fortify me for the impending REF results, which are due out later this week..

Anyway, I’ll post about the exhibition if I get time tomorrow morning before the  journey home. It doesn’t open for the general public until Wednesday 17th December, by the way, in case you’re in Paris and thinking of taking a look for yourself.

Planck Talks Online!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 11, 2014 by telescoper

After yesterday’s frivolity, I return to community service mode today with a short post before a series of end-of-term meetings.

You may recall that not long ago  I posted an item about a meeting in Ferrara which started on 1st December and which  concerned results from the Planck satellite. Well, although the number of new results was disappointingly limited, all the talks given at that meeting are now available online here. Not all of the talks are about new Planck results, and some of those that do are merely tasters of things that will be more completely divulged in due course, but there is still a lot of interesting material there so I recommend cosmology types have a good look through. Any comments would be welcome through the usual channel below.

I’ll take this opportunity to pass on another couple of related items. First is that there is another meeting on Planck, in Paris next week. Coincidentally, I will be in Paris on Monday and Tuesday for a completely unrelated matter (of which more anon) but I will try to keep up with the cosmology business via Twitter etc and pass on whatever I can pick up.

The other bit of news is that there is to be a press conference on December 22nd at which I’m led to believe the outcome of the joint analysis of CMB polarization by Planck and BICEP2 will be unveiled. Now that will be interesting, so stay tuned!

Oh, and my poll on this subject is still open: