Saturday, 9 December 2017

The Joy of a Toy

Kevin Ayres was one of the founder members of the Progressive Rock group Soft Machine. In 1968 they recorded a terrific set for French TV on the show "Ce Soir On Danse". It can be seen on You Tube, the audience look like they have having the best times of their lives. It must have been great to have been there. Fast forward to about 9 minutes and watch the band launch into a long psychedelic number that gets the hipster audience up on their feet and gyrating to the crazy, out of this world, music.
Kevin Ayres left Soft Machine shortly after this set and wrote a solo album called Joy of a Toy using a guitar bought for him by his friend Jimi Hendrix. 
A couple of weeks ago I visited The Welney Wetland Trust and a bought a pair of toy folding binoculars in the gift shop for £5.  The magnification is less than double and the lenses are plastic but give a reasonable image.  
If ancient or medieval astronomers would have had access to instruments like this then the history of astronomy would have been very different. I pointed them at the Pleiades early this morning. The sky was completely clear and there was a frost. I could easily see 9 stars through them. I took the image below using one side of the binoculars pressed up against the lens of my Canon Ixus 160. The Pleiades are at 9 O'clock just left of centre.
Zooming in we get.
In Henry IV part 1 (Act 1, Scene 2) Falstaff says "We that take purses go by the moon and the seven stars". The seven stars here are assumed to be the Pleiades. With an inexpensive £5 toy I could see nine stars in the Pleiades!

Pointing the binoculars anywhere in the night sky showed stars invisible to the naked eye. Due South in the sky from where I was standing was Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor and Gemini. I could see all these constellations in far greater detail than I could with my unaided eye. Unfortunately there where no planets above the horizon at the time but I will try to observe Venus and Jupiter later this month when they are in the morning sky.
The ancients had certainly had lenses but there is little evidence they had working telescopes. The Nimrud Lens dates from 750 BCE and is in the British Library.

Aristophanes, refers to the lenses in his Comedy of the Clouds written in 424 BCE:
Strepsiades: “Have you ever seen a beautiful, transparent stone at the apothacaries’, with which you may kindle fire?”
Socrates: “You mean a crystal lens.
If the ancients did have telescopes then the knowledge has been lost. The first documented "telescopes" (i.e. optical devices capable of producing a magnified image) only appear in the Tudor period. We know with total certainty that at least one of Shakespeare's friends looked through one and possibly other acquaintances of his did as well. We will never know if Shakespeare looked though a Tudor Telescope himself and saw the glory of the night sky but we can be fairly confident that people who did do this subsequently told Shakespeare what they saw and he used this information his works. 

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