Archive for RAS Club

An Astronomical Anniversary

Posted in Biographical, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 10, 2020 by telescoper

I was reminded via Twitter that today is the 200th anniversary of the first formal meeting of the Astronomical Society of London which took place on 10th March 1820. This society turned into the Royal Astronomical Society when it was given a Royal Charter in 1831. Here is the first page of the the Minutes of that first meeting:

Those of you who have been paying attention will recall that the decision to form the Society was taken at a dinner in January 1820 and the bicentenary of this event was celebrated in January by the RAS Dining Club (of which I am a member).

Club Dinners usually take place after the Open Meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society on the second Friday of the month. Sadly, however, there won’t be a Club Dinner this Friday as it has been cancelled owing to the Coronavirus emergency. I’ll have to make do with beans on toast again then.

Incidentally, I thought I’d share this list of the first 200(ish) members of the Royal Astronomical Society (PDF) kindly sent to me by former Cardiff colleague Mike Edmunds. There are some illustrious names among the early members, including Laplace and Bessel, as well as some oddities, such as His Excellency Alexis Greig (Vice Admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy) and Edward Riddle, Esq. (First Mathematical Master, the Royal Naval Asylum).



200 Years of the RAS Club

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 11, 2020 by telescoper

Here I am in Heathrow Terminal 2 waiting for flight back to Dublin. I managed to get to London from Birmingham in time for a special dinner to mark the 200th anniversary of the RAS Club. As I have mentioned in previous posts, 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.

Since the RAS Club always dines on the second Friday of the month after Ordinary Meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society itself, January 10th was the closest date to that first dinner. As expected for such a special occasion, there was a very big turnout with more than double the usual number of diners (and many more guests than usual). It was very nice to see some people I haven’t seen for ages! The food and wine were excellent and we ended with champagne and a slice of a cake baked and decorated for the occasion. Unfortunately it was so crowded in the Gallery Room that I couldn’t get close enough to take a photo of it before it was whisked away to be cut into slices.

After dinner we had some speeches, including one really brilliant one by my former colleague from Cardiff days, Mike Edmunds who had researched the `14 gentlemen’ who attended that first dinner. I had known previously that Charles Babbage and John Herschel were there but here (thanks to Mike) is a complete list:

Charles Babbage, Esq. M.A. F.R.S. L. & E. No. 5 Devonshire Street Portland Place
Arthur Baily, Esq, Gray’s Inn
Francis Baily, Esq. F.R.S. & L.S. Gray’s Inn
Major Thomas Colby, of the Royal Engineers, LL.D. F.R.S. L. & E. Tower
Henry T. Colebrooke, Esq. F.R.S. & L.S. Albany, Piccadilly
Olinthus G. Gregory, LL.D. Professor of Mathematics Royal Military Academy, Woolwich
Stephen Groombridge, Esq. F.R.S. S.R.A.Nap. Blackheath
J.F.W. Herschel, LL.D. F.R.S. Slough
Patrick Kelly, LL.D. Finsbury Square
Daniel Moore, Esq. F.R.S. S.A. & L.S. Lincoln’s Inn
Rev. William Pearson, LL.D. F.R.S. East Sheen, Surrey
James South, Esq. F.R.S. and L.S. No. 11 Blackman Street Southwark
Charles Stokes, Esq. F.R.S. S.A. & L.S. Gray’s Inn
Peter Slawinski D.P. Proff. University Wilna

P.S. Because I was attending the LGBTQ+ STEMinar I couldn’t get to the ordinary meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society earlier in the day, which was a shame because it was there that the winners of this year’s awards were announced. You can find a full list here. Congratulations to all!

Exams and Anniversaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 9, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow (10th January)  is the start of our mid-year examination period here at Maynooth University. It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, especially those who are further on in their courses for whom these papers have greater importance. In particular I’d like to send my best wishes to students on my fourth-year module on Astrology Astrophysics and Cosmetics Cosmology, whose paper is tomorrow.

On the equivalent day last year I reflected on examinations and in particularly on the fact that the system of education both here in Ireland and in the United Kingdom places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment compared to learning and understanding.

Also on the equivalent day yesterday I was about to travel to London to attend my first LGBT+STEMinar at the Institute of Physics in London. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a similar thing, getting up at stupid o’clock
to travel to Birmingham for the 2020 event. The main difference this year (apart from the change of venue) is that I’m not giving a talk this time. This is good news for me (because it means I can relax a bit more) and for the attendees (because they don’t have to listen to me rambling on like they did last year).

I won’t be able to stay to the end of the LGBT+STEMinar, however, as I have to get to London. As I have mentioned previously here, 2020 marks the bicentenary of the Royal Astronomical Society:

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.

To be precise, the Society only became the `Royal Astronomical Society’ in 1831 when it was granted a Royal Charter by William IV, but its roots go back to 1820.

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. The Dining Club always meet on the second Friday of the month, which means that tomorrow is the closest date to that very first meeting. There will therefore be a special club dinner tomorrow night, with more guests than usual. I’m looking forward to it a lot, actually, although I’m slightly apprehensive about the fact that I’ll be relying on the train to get me there in time!

Dinner with Wagner

Posted in History, Opera with tags , , , on October 13, 2019 by telescoper

Before dinner with the RAS Club on Friday evening I was looking through the display cabinets at the Athenaeum and saw this, the record of a dinner involving a member and guests on 23rd May 1877. The member was electrical engineer, businessman and Fellow of the Royal Society Carl Wilhelm Siemens and among is guests was Richard Wagner:

Dinner started early and was evidently a lengthy affair, much like Wagner’s operas!

That reminds me of a famous review of one of Wagner’s operas by a critic who clearly wasn’t a fan.

Parsifal is an Opera by Richard Wagner that starts at half past five. Three hours later, you look at your watch and it’s quarter to six.

P.S. There is a photograph taken of Wagner (whose 64th birthday was on 22nd May) during his visit to London in 1877:

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:

Dress Codes

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick one before I scoot off to London for this month’s Royal Astronomical Society meeting (and subsequent Club dinner).

Today is the last day of “Revision Week” so I had a two-hour revision class this morning. I gave my final proper lecture at Cardiff University before Christmas, in fact, but this morning was the last teaching of any sort I’ll be doing here before I move to Sussex at the end of the month. If any of the students taking The Physics of Fields and Flows happens to read this, then I wish them the best of luck in next week’s examination!

I won’t be able to mark the scripts (and thus find out how well they’ve all done) until I return from a trip to Brighton next week to carry out interviews for three lectureships in astronomy at Sussex recently advertised. I’m looking forward to that, but I think the three days will be just as gruelling for the panel as for the candidates.

There were some sarcastic comments at the start of today’s class about the fact that I was wearing a suit and tie. It reminded me of an old joke: “Q: What do you call a ‹insert name of institution> graduate who’s wearing a suit? A: The Accused.” I think I can guess which institution most Cardiff students would pick as the butt of that one.

In fact the reason I’m wearing a suit today is that there’s a dress code for the RAS Club, which dines at the Athenaeum. It’s not very strict, actually, just jacket-and-tie, but I usually dust off one of my suits for the occasion as I don’t mind dressing up now and again. The only other clubs I’ve been to that operate a dress code have been very different, but I’ll draw a hasty veil over that.

The RAS Club isn’t particularly posh, actually, nor is it as stuffy as people seem to think. This evening is the Parish Dinner at which the Club elects new members. It’s nice to see quite a few youngsters among the candidates, but the election procedure is so dotty it’s impossible to predict who will get in!

Coincidentally, I got an email about the dress code for next week’s interviews. “Smart casual”, apparently. Since I don’t really know what that means I think I’ll wear a suit, which presumably most of the male candidates will too.

It always seems to me rather peculiar, this thing of dressing up for interviews. The default style of dress for academics is “scruffy”, so it’s a bit odd that we all seem to pretend that it’s otherwise for interviews. I suppose it’s just to emphasize that it’s a formal occasion from the point of view of the interview panel, and to show that the candidates are taking it seriously. I don’t really pay much attention to what interviewees wear, other than that if they look like they’ve just been dragged through a hedge one might infer that they’re  a bit too disorganized even to be a member of the academic staff at a University or that they’re not really putting enough effort into the whole thing.

On the other hand, some people feel so uncomfortable in anything other than jeans and a T-shirt that putting on a suit would either be an unbearable ordeal for them or conflict with their self-image in some fundamental way. Neither of these are intended, so if that’s going to be the case for you, just dress as you normally do (but preferably with something reasonably clean).

This is the time of year that many undergraduate students are putting in their applications for PhD places too. I sometimes get asked (and did yesterday, in fact) whether a (male) candidate for a PhD place should wear a suit and tie for the interview. Having conducted interview days for many years at a number of different institutions, my experience is that a small proportion dress formally for PhD interviews than for job interviews. My advice to students asking about this is just to say that they should try to look reasonably presentable, but suit–and-tie are definitely not compulsory. It’s unlikely the staff interviewing you will dress formally, actually…

Anyway, my views may well differ from those of  my readers so here’s a poll.

I realise this post is written from a male perspective, as women’s clothes are a mystery to me. I hope someone can explain through the comments box what the equivalent categories are for female persons?  At least women are spared the choice of whether or not to wear a tie. Is there an equivalent quandary?

Astronomy in Darkness

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2012 by telescoper

Yesterday, being the second Friday of the month, was the day for the Ordinary Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (followed by dinner at the Athenaeum for members of the RAS Club). Living and working in Cardiff it’s difficult for me to get the specialist RAS Meetings earlier in the day, but if I get myself sufficiently organized I can usually get to Burlington House in time for the 4pm start of the Ordinary Meeting, which is open to the public.

The distressing news we learnt on Thursday about the events of Wednesday night cast a shadow over the proceedings. Given that I was going to dinner afterwards, for which a jacket and tie are obligatory, I went through my collection of (rarely worn) ties, and decided that a black one would be appropriate. When I arrived at Burlington House I was just in time to hear a warm tribute paid by a clearly upset Professor Roger Davies, President of the RAS and Oxford colleague of the late Steve Rawlings. There then followed a minute’s silence in his memory.

The principal reaction to this news amongst the astronomers present was one of disbelief and/or incomprehension. Some  friends and colleagues of Steve clearly knew much more about what had happened than has so far appeared in the press, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to make these public at this stage. We will know the facts soon enough. A colleague also pointed out to me that Steve had spent most of his recent working life as a central figure in the project to build the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the world’s largest radio telescope. He has died just a matter of days before the announcement will be made of where the SKA will actually be built. It’s sobering to think that one can spend so many years working on a project, only for something wholly unforeseen to prevent one seeing it through to completion.

Anyway, the meeting included an interesting talk by Tom Kitching of the University of Edinburgh who talked about recent results from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Lensing Survey (CHFTLenS). The same project was the subject of a press release because the results were presented earlier in the week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas. I haven’t got time to go into the technicalities of this study – which exploits the phenomenon of weak gravitational lensing to reconstruct the distribution of unseen (dark) matter in the Universe through its gravitational effect on light from background sources – but Tom Kitching actually contributed a guest post to this blog some time ago which will give you some background.

In the talk he presented one of the first dark matter maps obtained from this survey, in which the bright colours represent regions of high dark matter density

Getting maps like this is no easy process, so this is mightily impressive work, but what struck me is that it doesn’t look very filamentary. In other words, the dark matter appears to reside predominantly in isolated blobs with not much hint of the complicated network of filaments we call the Cosmic Web. That’s a very subjective judgement, of course, and it will be necessary to study the properties of maps like this in considerable detail in order to see whether they really match the predictions of cosmological theory.

After the meeting, and a glass of wine in Burlington House, I toddled off to the Athenaeum for an extremely nice dinner. It being the Parish meeting of the RAS Club, afterwards we went through a number of items of Club business, including the election of four new members.

Life  goes on, as does astronomy, even in darkness.

The Club Guest

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 15, 2010 by telescoper

Yesterday I went, as I do from time to time, to the Royal Astronomical Society’s monthly meeting and thence to the RAS Club for dinner. This was the last such meeting before the summer hiatus – they resume in October – and also incorporated the Society’s Annual General Meeting at which new officers are elected, amongst them the new President.  Andy Fabian was the outgoing President, having completed his two-year tour of duty, and he was replaced by Roger Davies.

It was also revealed at this meeting that next year’s National Astronomy Meeting would be in Llandudno. Usually this event is organized by a university and is held in a university town. This year it was in Glasgow, for example. However, the University of Sheffield has pulled out of organizing the 2011 NAM and no other was willing to take on the considerable task of organizing it at such short notice. It was therefore decided to break with tradition and hold the event not on a university campus but at a holiday resort. I’ve never been to Llandudno, but I think it could be great for us astronomers here in Wales to have the Principality host NAM. I suspect, however, that it wasn’t regional politics, but economics, that held sway in reaching the decision. Llandudno is perhaps a bit cheaper than most English seaside towns. I can already hear some of my English colleagues starting to whinge about how difficult it will be to get there, but we’ll see. I just hope I can persuade them to hold it outside Cardiff’s teaching term otherwise I won’t be able to  go even if it is in Wales.

It was interesting to learn about all these developments, and the subsequent Open Meeting was not without interest either. We had talks about volcanic ash (topical, that one), martian meteorites, high-altitude balloon flights and stellar disks. A mixed bag of talks, but all of them very enjoyable.

However, this meeting turned out to be remarkable for a completely different reason. At the end of one of the lectures in the open meeting, a strange woman entered the lecture theatre, walked down the aisle and took a seat in the front row. In fact she first tried to sit in Roger Davies’ seat – he was standing in order to supervise the question-and-answers at the end of the talk – but he asked her to move. Finding a free seat a bit further along,  she removed her hat and  proceeded to brush her hair ostentatiously. As the other talks went on she appeared to pay very little attention to them, preferring instead to look around the room.  I had never seen her before, but open meetings like this often attract visitors and in any case acting a bit strangely is by no means inconsistent with being an astronomer.

The Mystery Guest

After the meeting closed I went for a glass of wine to Burlington House and then to the Athenaeum. There was quite a crowd there and as usual we all had a glass of wine before sitting down. It was only when we started to eat that I realised that this mysterious lady (left) was actually sitting at another table. Since the RAS Club is for members (and their guests) only, I assumed she was with one of the invited speakers at the meeting who, as is usual in such cases, had been invited to the club afterwards as a club guest.

I thought nothing more about this until I saw the Club Treasurer, Margaret Penston, looking a bit agitated,  go to her table and ask The Mystery Guest a question. I couldn’t hear what. Our visitor then stood up, announced she had to be going and left quickly before anyone could do anything about it. It turned out she wasn’t anyone’s guest at all, but had just latched onto a group of people leaving for the club, each of whom assumed one of the others knew her. It being England, nobody asked her who she was or what she was doing there. I have no idea who she was or why she had decided to attach herself to the RAS Club that evening.

All this was hilarious enough but, after she’d gone, it emerged that she had paid for her dinner by “borrowing” money from a genuine club guest, an American astronomer who happened to be sitting next to her and to whom she had introduced herself as the “Contessa” of something or other. Our American friend may have thought it was all an elaborate practical joke, but he was clearly completely dumbfounded by the episode. The Club had a whip round to pay him back the money he had lent her.

On top of all this, some other members of the Club  then pointed out that she had done something  similar on at least three  previous occasions, in locations ranging from Paris to London. Why none of her previous victims had identified her yesterday and drawn attention to her past history I have no idea. If they had she would have been removed earlier.

If the relatively small gathering we had on Friday could furnish three previous examples of this kind of behaviour, then it seems likely that it’s part of a pattern. However, it doesn’t seem likely that she makes her living doing this sort of thing because she’s only  “borrowed” amounts from £5 to £70. Perhaps astronomers aren’t the best choice of target.

I wonder if anyone reading this blog recognizes her and can shed light on her curious behaviour?