Saturday, 14 September 2019

Cosmic Ullage

Ullage or ouillage comes from the old French ouiller which is the unfilled head space above a liquid in a container. In manufacturing processes it can also mean any small amount that is left over from a packing process which is insufficient to fill a keg or container. For example 1003 litres of a liquid would fill 200 x 5 litre containers and leave 3 litres of ullage over. Modern computerised stock control and processing systems find ullage a problem to handle. However, I have learned to love it. The ullage can be used for quality control testing, decanted into samples to send to potential clients or sometimes just kept to one side for in house use. When a production process yields the required amount of containers to fill a customer's order and leave a few litres or kilos over everyone is happy. When a process runs short there are problems and questions are asked. In my experience its much better to have a slight excess at the end and a quieter life! Mr Micawber in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens would certainly agree. A surplus of 6d on his annual accounts brought happiness but a deficit of 6d brought misery. I don't know if astronomers ever used the term ullage but even the ancients know about a surplus in the Lunar yearly cycle and the Solar year.  The Solar year is 12.368 lunations, so between twelve and thirteen full Moons. This is sometimes referred to as the over plus of the Moon or the Silver fraction. It comes to 10.875 days, however, the Lunar fraction is more interesting. 0.368 lunations is the fraction 7/19 to within 0.1% accuracy. The fraction 7/19 was obviously known to the architects who designed Stonehenge. The Aubrey Circle and the Sarsen Circle  at Stonehenge have diameters of 283 feet and 104 feet respectively which are in the ratio 7/19. Also if we draw a pentagram inside a circle of diameter 13 units the pentagram arms have lengths of 12.368 units. If we add the lengths of all five star arms together we get the number of full Moons in five years 61.82. 

The ancient Gaulish Celtic calendar was based on a five year Lunar cycle. This calendar was used in the second century CE but was only rediscovered in fragmentary form in 1897 in Coligny in France. There was an error of 6 hours every five years so about 0.014%.  Our current calendar has an error of 0.06% which is why we have leap years to reset the lost day every four years. The ancient Gauls only had to reset 6 hours every five years so arguably had a better system. 

Just like the ancient astronomers who looked for symmetry in the night sky the scientist Albert Einstein in our time also looked for symmetry in 1905 when  working out his theory of special relativity. Einstein once famously said he had three rules of work. Out of clutter find simplicity. From discord find harmony and in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. 

Like Einstein our ancestors found harmony in discord and realised that the Lunar ullage, or over plus of the Moon, could be explained by the fraction 7/19 and that they could then use this fraction to keep track of time and create a simple effective yearly calendar. Life would never be the same again!

A Micro Moon

On Friday 13th of September the Moon was at its furthest point from the Earth (the Apogee).  The effect of this extra distance was that there was a full Moon on the 13th that was about 10% smaller than normal.  The night sky was clear and the full Moon was bright and easy to observe. To me the Moon did not look that much smaller than normal but it was exceptionally clear in the night sky. Although the Moon is regarded as a constant and the ancients used the lunar cycle to set their calendars the variation in distance of the Moon to the Earth results in Super Moons and Mini Moons so its actually quite inconstant. Although we are enjoying a fine autumn at the moment with temperatures in the mid seventies during the day, and clear night skies, at 5am the constellation Orion can be seen in the morning sky due South. A reminder that the seasons turn and that winter is not too far away. 

Sunday, 1 September 2019

The Medicean Stars

In Sidereus Nunceus Galileo reported observing four objects orbiting Jupiter. However, in some places he calls these objects stars and in other places planets. He used the terms interchangeably. Galileo did not give names to the four objects he observed but instead called them The Medicean Stars or Cosmica's Stars (Cosmica Sidera). Galileo was very interested in cultivating wealthy patrons such as the Duke of Tuscany to sponsor his work. Simon Marius another Renaissance astronomer discovered Jupiter's moons only a few days after Galileo but did not publish his findings until 1614 in Mundus Iovialis some four years after Galileo. The moral of this study is do not be slow to publish, Marius had mentioned the four Jovian moons briefly in an Almanac in 1611 but this was still a year after Galileo had gone to press. However, we have Marius to thank for the names Callisto, Europa, Io and Ganymede that are now widely used for the four Galilean moons (the Medicean Stars or Cosmica's Stars never really caught the public's imagination). Needless to say Galileo did not agree with Marius's naming system and used instead the nomenclature Jupiter I to Jupiter IV. This system was initially adopted by astronomers but as soon as other Jovian moons were discovered with better telescopes the Roman numeral system became awkward to use and Marius's names became more widely adopted. When Sidereus Nuncius first appeared not everyone agreed with Galileo's findings but even with a simple spyglass like Lippershey's "Looker" it is possible to see craters on the lunar surface as Galileo had observed.  Eventually Galileo's view of the cosmos prevailed and by the time that Simon Marius published his finding Galileo had become the most famous astronomer in Europe.



Thursday, 22 August 2019


I caught up with Jim Al Khalili's excellent BBCFOUR programme Revolutions about the history of the telescope last night on I-player. He passed straight over the Tudor period and the Digges-Bourne telescope did not get a mention. However,  it was a very interesting programme all the same. A replica of one of Galileo's telescopes was dramatically cut open to reveal how the tube was made.  It was made from wooden dowels bound together, like the matts that are used for rolling sushi, which was then covered with embossed leather. Another method telescope manufacturers used at the time was to make papier mache tubes around a wooden pole and then to slide them off when they were dry. What I didn't know was that samphire was used by Murano glass makers in the glass making process to make totally clear glass. This part of the programme was presented by Shelley James.

I learned that when burned to ash samphire yields pure sodium salts (the ash is mixed with water, filtered and the liquor is recrystallised) that when added to molten glass lower the melting point enabling it to stay liquid for longer and allowing time for any entrapped air bubbles to escape. The end result is totally transparent glass perfect for spectacle lenses and decorative art. Samphire, also known as glasswort,  is a corruption of St Pierre and there are two common types. Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) was mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear. (Act IV Scene - Edgar looking down Dover's cliffs says "Half way down, hangs one that gathers samphire. Dreadful trade"). Shakespeare  objected to the way rock samphire was collected by dangling young boys on ropes over the cliff edges in Dover.  Marsh Samphire (Salicornia) grows on sea marshes and is easier to collect (watch out for quicksand!). In the Tudor period both types of samphire were pickled in barrels and used as a winter source of green vegetables. It must have been the Tudor equivalent of Sauerkraut!!  Fresh sea marsh samphire is called sea asparagus, I have eaten it but I much prefer real asparagus! I didn't realise until last night that the sea vegetable samphire helped facilitate the invention of reading glasses and the telescope. From my school days I can remember a cheery song that we used to sing in music lessons "we are the boys who never tire, we are the boys who gather samphire". I doubt being dangled off a cliff on the end of  rope was quite so cheery! Thankfully we live in more enlightened times these days. BBCFOUR really does have the best documentaries on TV.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

A possible solution to Beinecke MS408 using transliterated phoenetic Hebrew

A possible solution to Beinecke MS408 using transliterated phoenetic Hebrew: The use of transliterated phonetic Hebrew is proposed as a possible solution to Beinecke MS408. The manuscript may contain details of astronomical events, herbal medication and possibly occult practice.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Zenodotus and Metadata

The great library of Alexandria was founded in the fourth century BCE. Zenodotus was one of the first head librarians of the library. He assigned different rooms to different subject texts, which he then racked alphabetically, and then to further aid scholars he placed small tags on each papyrus scroll detailing their contents. These day we would call these tags metadata. Not a bad idea for around 280 BCE. The contents of the library were damaged by several fires and fighting over the centuries and much of the knowledge it once housed has become lost. The final destruction of the library's contents was in March 415 CE when it was completely destroyed by rampaging monks who also murdered the librarian's daughter (Hypatia the daughter of Theon Alexandricus). For many people this event marks the beginning of the Dark Ages.  It must have been a magnificent building in its time as Alexandria was a rich trading city with money to spend on grand civic projects like  a house of muses (or musaeum from where we get the word museum). A later superintendent of the great library was Erastosthenes who worked out the circumference of the Earth by measuring the angle of the Sun at the Summer solstice in Syrene and Alexandria. Erastothenes knew that the two cities were  10 camel days apart and from this he worked out the Earth's circumference to be 5000 Stadia. A figure slightly too high (46250 km) compared with the modern figure (40030 km) but a very good estimation in my opinion considering it was based on camels. In the classical world Alexandria was second in size and importance only to Rome. A canal provided fresh water from the Nile and Egyptian wheat fed the citizens of the Roman empire.  Jump forwards to 2013 and Zenodotus became the inspiration for an open access science repository at CERN which anyone can use subject to agreeing to their standard terms and conditions.  

Having written my article about the Voynich, the Zenodo open repository seemed a good place to post it.  I did look at a few open access journals but they charge fees usually around USD1000 per article. That's fine if a research grant is available but I have been working in my spare time and paying my own expenses.  There are many advantages to Zenodo and one major benefit is that each uploaded article gets a unique reference ID.  I uploaded my completed article a week ago but kept it locked to allow time for final checking. I decided to made a few minor changes and correct a few typos that I did not spot earlier.  I have now fully unlocked it  as 10.5281/Zenodo.3370418 at I fully realise that should anyone bother to read my article they will most probably disagree with my proposals but I have no academic reputation or affiliation to defend so I can take whatever criticism is meted out in my direction. What I did discover whilst researching my article was that many academics will go out of their way to help people who ask for help. I sent out several emails asking for assistance to people I had never met and unfailingly I  got very detailed answers by reply, sometimes with attachments.  It was very reassuring for me to discover  how gracious many academics are. It would have been very easy to hit the delete key when my email hit their in boxes but they did not. The Internet connects us together and can be real force for good. I think this is what Sir Tim Berners-Lee envisaged all those years ago.   

Saturday, 10 August 2019

The Gap Years

Over the past twenty years I have spent a lot of time trying to decode the text of Beinecke MS408 also known as the Voynich manuscript. One side effect of spending too much time studying the Voynich is that  Voynichese symbols seem to appear everywhere. Here is a vet surgery sign from Alt Rudow in Berlin that looks uncannily like a symbol on folio 1r of the Voynich manuscript.

In August 2010 I was working in Berlin but was able to keep up with news from the UK on the Internet. The TV in my hotel room received BBC World but this was the only English language channel available from the UK.  On 11th August when I logged into the Internet to check the UK news first thing in the morning  it was clear that something extraordinary had happened overnight. The TV review columnists were incensed both in the national daily papers and even in some local newspapers. Twitter was imploding and many Bloggers were very angry about something.  What could have been the cause of such an outrage?  I investigated further. It seemed that on August 10th 2010 at 9pm a lady history presenter on BBC Four had dared to make a documentary about the Anglo-Saxons whilst wearing pointy boots. Obviously this was too much for some people to take (many years later Prof Mary Beard caused a similar media frenzy for wearing sparkly trainers in a documentary about the Romans). I could not access BBC I-player from Berlin but I decided I must try to watch this programme when I returned to the UK.   When I was at secondary school in the early 1970s we studied the Romans one summer term, their society was brutal by modern standards with arena blood sports and slave labourers but they had some understanding of science and technology.  After the summer holidays we returned to school and our history teacher (a tall, thin, old man in a worn tweed jacket who smoked incessantly and spoke down to us all the time to make it clear we were not his intellectual equals - we students all called him Lord Haw Haw) jumped forwards to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. I asked the history teacher "what happened between the Romans and the Norman invasion?". "Nothing much" he replied. "Nothing!" I replied incredulously "surely something must have happened?"  The teacher thought for a moment then replied "King Alfred burned some cakes but now back to 1066".  And that was the end of the matter for nearly 40 years.   Pointy boots aside I found Treasures of the Anglo Saxons very enlightening and entertaining. There was technology and learning in the gap years between the Romans leaving the UK in circa 410 CE and the arrival of the Normans in 1066 CE and far more went on than King Arthur's Great British Bake Off failure. Science and learning did not leave with the Romans.

I realised that to better understand the Voynich manuscript I needed to better understand the period that had gone before to put it into historical perspective. I needed to fill in the gap years in my knowledge between 410 to 1066 to better understand the Renaissance era when the Voynich manuscript was created. I have been trying to decode the Voynich for about 20 years now in my spare time. It is a academics graveyard and it is a destroyer of academic reputations. Publish in a peer reviewed journal and be damned. However, I do not have an academic  reputation to defend so I intend to publish my thoughts to the Internet in the near future. 

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Leonardo's Notebooks

Yesterday I went to the British Library to see the exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci's notebooks. Leonardo's notebooks date from 1478 to 1519 but the exhibition featured three from 1478-1518 (Arundel), 1506-1510 (Leicester) and 1487-1505 (Forster). No photographs were allowed inside the exhibition but several images are available on line at the British Library website ( 
I got there early and had the room to myself for about ten minutes. What is interesting is that some of Leonardo's notebooks are very small, one was about 3" x 2" and he crammed them with writing and drawings made in intricate detail. I was struggling to study them with my 2.5 Dioptre reading glasses. The quill he used must have had a nib the size of a pin and every square centimetre is covered in writing.  There are very few gaps. Leonardo was fascinated with the movement of water and how it reflected light. He was also interested in the destructive power of water and how tidal deluges could destroy property and natural features. Leonardo was able to explain ashen light or Earthshine seen on the dark section of the Moon. He explained this as light reflected from surface of the Earth's oceans onto the lunar surface. He realised that the Moon only reflected light and did not create it. He also realised that the Moon was made of opaque rough solids and not pure crystal as had been thought since ancient times. 
What is interesting is despite Leonardo's great insight and his many inventions which predate the modern age his theories and many discoveries remained largely hidden and did not result in any great technological advances.    To understand better how knowledge was propagated in 1538 Cambridge University Press was awarded a letters patent by King Henry VIII allowing the printing house to publish material for open reading and circulation. Patent is from the Latin pateo "to lay open". A copy of the letters patent is shown below which has a reproduction of the monarch at the top left.
The opposite of letter patent was letters close (Latin clausae) which are documents for private circulation. This gives us an idea of how printed knowledge was circulated. It was either closed for a specific readership or open for a general readership. Even when printed for open readership academic books might be written in an obtuse and deliberately confusing manner. For example della Porta wrote that his works on optics were not for the common herd! In the modern era the Russian philosopher George Gurdjieff wrote a deliberately confusing book called Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson. Gurdjieff stated that he "buried the truth deep like a bone that a dog could scratch for". Leonardo's notebooks give us a deep insight into the man himself and how he studied and observed natural phenomena and then tried to explain them using the science of the time. But ultimately he wrote his findings down for himself for personal reference and not for general circulation. If we jump forward 100 years to Galileo his scientific works were clearly written and intended for open circulation but this got him into no end of trouble with the church leaders which is another story. 

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Et obscuratus Lunae obscuratur

Two nights ago there was a lunar eclipse over the UK and most of Europe. Some people were lucky enough to see this event in its entirety ( but the sky above Cambridgeshire was covered in a thick layer of clouds. At almost the end of the eclipse the clouds overhead cleared slightly and I managed to take the photo below. It was just after midnight and the Moon was moving out of totality but the right hand edge is still in the Earth's penumbra.  The bright spot just visible at 5 O'clock to the Moon is Jupiter.  However, just like London Buses there is always another one coming along. There will be another Lunar eclipse visible from the UK in November 2021.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Two Lenses and a Drainpipe

Before Fran Lippershey mounted two convex lenses in series in 1608 to make a working refracting telescope there is no evidence that anyone thought of doing this before him. Lenses and magnifying glasses were known to Roger Bacon in 1250 but in the intervening 358 years since then nobody thought to use two lined up together.  To test what such a primitive device could image I bought two magnifying glasses from a Poundshop and fitted them to opposite ends of a drainpipe (in the middle ages a similar tube could have been made of Papier Mache formed around a wooden pole and then slid off when it was dry). On July 15th the sky was clear and a nearly full Moon was visible. I rested my telescope on the window ledge facing the Moon.

I took about 20 photos. Most were terrible but a few were acceptable, here is one of the best ones. The level of aberration was very high and most of the photos I took contained multiple overlapping images blurred with rainbow light diffraction.

At least three types of Lunar surface are visible, darker areas (the maria), lighter areas and some white patches. The white patches correspond to the Lunar Highlands and the areas around large craters such as Tycho and Copernicus but the craters themselves remain stubbornly out of sight. My guess is that people did try this experiment with Lenses before Lippershey but because the results were so poor they were never written down for posterity. 

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Shakespeare's Script

In the collection of the British Library there is the only surviving example of a play script written by William Shakespeare in his own hand ( The Book Of Thomas More, a multi author work that contains three pages that are in Shakespeare's own handwriting.

In the playscript Sir Thomas More speaks to a murderous mob intent on killing and expelling foreign refugees who have moved to London and urges them to show compassion lest they be in the same position in the future and are forced to seek sanctuary overseas. Shakespeare's lines are very well written and relevant to our modern age. Sir Thomas More's gentle words wins over the crowd who decide not to riot and disperse peacefully.
In my previous post I mentioned the Liber Floridus which was written by Lambert, a canon of the church in St Omer, around 1120 CE. We know next to nothing about Lambert but in Liber Floridus he as left a self portrait showing the Liber Floridus being complied. 

However, matters are not so simple with the venerable Bede.  A stained glass window in Gloucester Cathedral shows Bede dictating his works to a scribe.
To further complicate matters Bede's scribe used Latin but with three additional Anglo Saxon characters plus some Tironian shorthand (the symbol 7 is used as and).  Further details and examples can be found at
The period in which Bede lived (672 to 725 CE) was a time of change when Christianity coexisted with the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic beliefs so it not surprising that Bede's scribe used a mix of Latin and Anglo-Saxon characters to transcribe Bede. There are some parallels here with the renaissance era when the science and religion co-existed although not always peacefully. In Bede's works and also in Shakespeare's handwriting phonetics wins over grammar. Words are written down as they sound and if additional characters are needed to create the correct vocalisation then they are used. We do not need to be too worried about this so long as the message remains clear over the centuries.  

Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Book of Flowers

The role of universities in the UK has changed over the past 40 to 50 years. In the 1960s and 70s universities tried to educate students in a wide area of subjects to produce graduates who were equally at home in the sciences as well as humanities and the arts. Often the first year was common to all degrees and specialisation only started in the second year. We can get a glimpse of this in the book The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury which was televised by the BBC in  1981 with Sir Antony Sher playing the lecherous lecturer Howard Kirk. In the BBC TV adaptation a group of rather half hearted students are sent to study sociology with Howard Kirk not because they want to but because they must study and pass the course in order to pass the year and progress to study their chosen subjects. 

When I attended university in the late 1970s things were starting to change. There was more emphasis on specialisation but we still had to take and pass a general studies course every year that had to be unrelated to our chosen subject of study. Also there were compulsory courses that everyone had to attend on subjects like: preparing for work, industrial relations, economics, & information technology. The lecturers were all rather left leaning as a I remember and we students doubted if any of them had ever worked outside of a university. In the largely pre-computer age of the 1970s information science was mainly concerned with classification systems, however, I remember one lecture very clearly. The course leader told us that up until the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo (i.e. the renaissance) it was possible for an intelligent person to know everything that was known up to that point and to be able to keep that information in their brain without having to resort to writing anything down.  Of course people did write things down but it was possible to write a single book all encompassing book of everything. I have mentioned Isidore of Spain in previous postings. Bede in the UK wrote the reckoning of time De temporum ratione in about 725 CE which give instructions on how to calculate the date of Easter as well as musings on cosmology.  In the 12th century a monk Lambertus wrote a book that is nowadays called Liber Floridus or the Book of Flowers. In his work Lambertus draws on Bede and Helperic. In Liber Floridus on page 25V Lambertus writes.

Luna proprium non habet lumen. Sed in modum speculi irradiata a sole resplendet. Numquam ab eo totus tegi aut occultare potest Hilperico testante; Sol radios suos etiam cum sub terra esset undique ad superiora remittit.

A loose translation would be:
The Moon does not have light of its own. But it shines as a mirror when it is irradiated by the Sun. As Helperic says, the Moon can never be entirely covered or hidden by the Sun. The Sun sends its rays above in all directions even when it is below the earth.
In another section of the book Lambertus writes.
Luna dicta quasi lucina eo quod a sole lumen recipiat. Lune eclypsis est quociens in umbram terre luna incurrit. Annus lunaris annus brevis dicitur quia luna ceteris sideribus terris vicinior in breviori orbe celerius peragit cursum suum videlicet triginta diebus vel viginti novem. Lunam terra maiorem Beda affirmat. Quod enim sol percurrit trecentis sexaginta diebus, Luna currit in uno mense lunari, qui mensis annus lunaris dicitur
Which again translated means:
The Moon is called a small light because it receives its light from the Sun. Lunar eclipses happen when the Moon finds itself in the shadow of the Earth. The Lunar year is called “short year” because the Moon is faster than the other astral bodies: being closer to Earth, it runs a smaller circle in a shorter time, i.e. thirty or twenty-nine days. Bede says that the Moon is larger than the Earth. What the Sun travels in three hundred sixty days, the Moon travels in a single Lunar month: a month is called a lunar year.

Bede was convinced that the universe was Earth centred and to explain solar eclipses had to assume that the Moon is larger than the Earth. In addition to sections on cosmology Liber Floridus contains sections on astrology and herbal medicine and theology. Combining herbalism and astrology is common in many surviving manuscripts and books from this period. The aim of the authors was to produce a single volume that included all the medieval reader needed to know. Books like this were hugely influential and shaped the medieval mindset. Shakespeare was aware of the uses of medicinal herbs and also the use of herbs in witchcraft and so were his audiences. We certainly see this in A Midsummer Night's Dream but in Romeo and Juliet Friar Laurence makes a remarkable speech. He says in Act II, Scene 3 "Within the infant rind of this small flower Poison hath residence and medicine power: For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part; Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart. Two such opposed kings encamp them still In man as well as herbs, grace and rude will; And where the worser is predominant, Full soon the canker death eats up that plant"Both healing power and killing power reside in plants and it is up to the skill of the practitioner to select if the use is for good or evil.  I will return to these issues in a future blog post which will re-examine Bede and Lambertus and look for parallels in the academic's graveyard that is the Voynich Manuscript.


Saturday, 1 June 2019

A Day at the British Museum

I spent yesterday at the British Museum. I went along to see the Munch Exhibition and to hear the excellent talk on Munch by Dr Janina Ramirez. However, there is always lots to see at the British Museum and even when I think "that's it I have seen it all" I just turn a corner or walk down one of the labyrinthine corridors and find something new to see.
In a room dedicated to the enlightenment there is a glass case containing John Dee's magic seals and one of his shew stones. This shew stone is a highly polished obsidian mirror from Mexico but others were lenses and mirrors.  How did it work?  The shew stone was placed on top of the magic seal, the correct incantation was recited and an image of angel or spirit would appear in the polished surface who would explain the mysteries of the Universe. In earlier posts I have asked the question why did not John Dee (or one of his friends like Leonard Digges) simply use his high grade mirrors or lenses to create a telescope to unravel the mysteries of the night sky. There is no doubt that John Dee had the optical kit to do this if he had wanted. However, in the Tudor period science and magic were seen as being very similar. In the intervening centuries they have diverged. If John Dee felt he could gain knowledge of the Universe from an angel in his shew stone then he would not have felt the need to construct an optical device. Of course this does not explain how an image in a polished surface was able to communicate with John Dee? If we are charitable we might suggest he could lip read. Of course he could have made the whole thing up as a means of obtaining money from the gullible. 
John  Dee is regarded as the model for Shakespeare's Prospero. Scientists in Shakespeare are few and far between but many of Shakespeare's characters are knowledgeable about astronomy and the natural world. Prospero is the exception as he engages himself in study and is almost a scientist.  But let us look at The Tempest Act 1, Scene 2.  Prospero has two slaves to do his bidding, Ariel and Caliban,  he says "I find my zenith doth depend upon a   most  auspicious star".  Ariel is a spirit who can cause ships to sink and is powerful and can control the natural world. Prospero could use Ariel's powers to do good but instead he uses Ariel's powers for vengeance. Prospero is a certainly  a very complex character. Did Shakespeare see that science could be used for good as well as manipulated for self gain? Shakespeare is showing us that control of the natural world can be used for good and bad. Prospero sees the errors of his ways in the end and frees both Ariel and Caliban (Caliban we assume is left to roam the island he calls his home). The ending is optimistic but do the ends justify the means? Shakespeare leaves this question open for his audiences to discuss in the following days. Even today we do not have answers to these questions.  

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Through the Looking Glass

My replica of Lippershey's looker with a convex objective and concave eyepiece is easy to use and has the advantage of producing an image the right way up. However, for astronomy its poor at best.
I took over 100 images this week and these are the two best.  There is just too much distortion from two lenses in series to see surface of the Moon in any detail.  Are craters visible? Possibly but it is hard to tell.

After midnight it is possible to view both Jupiter and Saturn in the May night sky. I took this photo with the looker at about 02:30 looking South-East. The faint row of lines left centre at the bottom are street lights from nearby Ely. Jupiter is to the right and Saturn to the left. Again there are few details other than both objects are spheres and other objects are pinpoints of light that might suggest that they are further away.
Had someone have tried this experiment before Hans Lippershey they would have got similar results. Galileo was able to get around the problems of lens aberration and poor magnification by grinding his own lenses. The Digges-Bourne telescope uses a mirror and a single lens to produce an image and so does not suffer so badly from distortion but it has a tiny field of view and produces an inverted image. However, that said it is possible to see far more in the night sky with the Digges-Bourne telescope with greater clarity than with Hans Lippershey's Looker.  The Digges family were reasonably affluent and acquainted with John Dee who had a first class collection of optics including mirrors. Perhaps for this reason Leonard Digges decided on a combination of a lens and a mirror when designing his perspective glass rather than two mirrors.  We will never know but like Shakespeare's Richard II when looking through a perspective the wrong way all is confusion.  

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Sir Ian McKellen and Shakespeare

On Saturday we went to the Cambridge Arts Theatre to see Sir Ian McKellen and his one man show. It was sold out. The first half of the show was devoted to Lord of the Rings and his life story. To celebrate his 80th birthday this year Sir Ian decided to give 80 shows at some of the theatres and locations in the UK that he had visited in the past. He was at college in Cambridge in the early 1960s and performed on the stage at the Arts Theatre. The second half of the evening was devoted to Shakespeare and his 26 plays (Sir Ian did not count collaborations like Two Noble Kinsmen which he termed apocryphal). Having performed many of Shakespeare's plays Sir Ian was able to give an interesting insight from an actor's perspective. For example he much preferred to play Mercurio in Romeo and Juliet because Mercurio has all the fun unlike the lovestruck Romeo. Sir Toby Belch's part in Twelfth Night is wordy and hard to learn so was not one of his favourites. Sir Ian drew a comparison between Richard III and Hamlet. Both are friendless (or do not trust their friends) so instead they talk to the audience and confide in them rather than the other characters on stage.  Sir Ian thought "Now is the winter of our discontent" was Shakespeare's best opening line. "It grabs the audience's attention" he explained "the performance is happening now, tonight, on this stage not last week or next week or somewhere else". That is the immediacy of theatre.  Finally Sir Ian had a lot to say about MacBeth and its undeserved reputation as an unlucky play. He explained that audiences love MacBeth and will always turnout to see it wherever it is performed. It has witches, a ghost, and a riddle that we know the answer to but which MacBeth does not. In the past companies of actors working in repertory theatre would put on a new play every one to two weeks and would be paid a percentage of the box office takings. If a play bombed at the box office it would often be pulled early and replaced with MacBeth with the hope of making up the lost revenue so that the actors could get paid.  After the show Sir Ian waited in the foyer to meet people and collect for several worthy causes. I managed to take this photo with my phone camera. The yellow bucket was for the collection not a prop from the performance. It was a very enjoyable evening with Sir Ian listening to his many entertaining anecdotes. I never thought I would get up close and actually talk to him to him but I did.


Sunday, 12 May 2019

Codex Arundel

Leonardo Da Vinci's drawing of the first quarter moon from 1511 was mentioned in an earlier posting (ibid 16th September 2017). However, Leonardo made another sketch of the Moon in Codex Arundel ( Leonardo was convinced there was water on the Moon's surface which reflected the Sun's light towards the Earth.

In the bottom right hand corner are two freehand sketches labelled Terra and La Luna.  The drawing of Earth shows the Mediterranean with Italy and Greece and outlines of Asia, Europe and Africa. The Caspian Sea can be seen to the right of the Black Sea.
The sketch of the Moon, which is not even a true circle and was done in haste, shows less detail but some of the lunar maria can be clearly seen.  I have enlarged the Leonardo image here and  placed it next to a photo of the Moon for comparison. Leonardo has used the same diagonal line shading on both maps so if this represents land on the Earth map it could be assumed that Leonardo thought the same was true for the Moon and he thought that over half of the lunar surface was covered in water.
Much of Codex Arundel is concerned with optics and the transmission of light but even Leonardo, the man who thought up many inventions of the modern age, did not think to connect two lenses together to magnify the Moon in the night sky and get a better view of the lunar seas. There will be an exhibition of Leonardo's notebooks this summer at the British Library. It will very exciting to see these documents on display and to learn more about his genius and the age in which he lived  (

Saturday, 11 May 2019

A Diabolical Interlude

The weather always wins so far as optical astronomy is concerned.  Both the night and day sky have been totally overcast all week. It is pointless trying to see the stars at night when it is impossible to even see the Sun during the day because of thick grey clouds. In this respect optical astronomy has not changed over the centuries. Thick clouds hamper observations. 
When I was at school I learned about the Romans and despite their owing slaves and enjoying blood sports they did value science and technology. They certainly knew how to move huge quantities of water around in aqueducts, build impressive amphitheatres, straight roads and had an understanding of the natural world and medicine.   However, Rome fell and Europe entered the middle ages.  Surprisingly there were still inventions in the middle ages and a degree of building expertise as evidenced by the many cathedrals, fortresses and castles that survive today.   In a recent BBC Four documentary Dr Janina Ramirez termed the style of some of these buildings as Perpendicular Gothic.

Unlike the Roman period where a useful invention might be widely adopted and put to good use, in the middle ages a new invention might be denounced as diabolical and being the very work of the devil.  Two inventions from the middle ages that got church leaders very hot under the dog collar where buttons and forks. Buttons allowed for clothes to be adorned and where denounced as a source of vanity and but the greatest denunciation was reserved for forks, or the very instruments of the devil himself, which would serve to weaken the human race. The church elders reasoned that if Jesus and the disciples and the church fathers did not use forks then there was no need to anyone else to use them and it was far better to eat in the manner of Jesus with fingers (See Inventions of the Middle Ages by Chiara Fugoni, Folio Society, London, 2012). However, one invention did get an ecclesiastical seal of approval, magnifying glasses and lenses were quickly adopted by the Dominican order shortly after first being made around 1285 CE. At the Basilica San Niccolo in Treviso a series of  murals show painted in 1352 show several church elders using magnifying glasses and glasses to read holy manuscripts. Cardinal Nicholas De Rouen is shown below with his magnifying glass. By 1400 it had become common to depict St Luke wearing glasses to write his eponymously named gospel. In 1564 Pieter Brueghel the elder even painted a nativity scene with one of the bystanders wearing glasses to see the infant Jesus more clearly nearly 1300 years before glasses were invented. This did not strike anyone as being in the least bit strange!

So not all inventions in the middle ages were denounced. In the 14th century a cheap pair of glasses cost 5 to 8 Soldi. A mason or skilled worker could expect to earn 17 Soldi a day so glasses were affordable to most of the population. The unanswered question is why did no one think of aligning two magnifying lenses or high power glasses to make a basic telescope to view distant objects? Architects building the immense cathedrals and palaces in the middle ages could surely have made use of such devices for accurate surveying and inspecting the building work going on high in the air over their heads.  However, there are no surviving records that anyone did do this simple experiment with two lenses to make a simple refracting telescope until Hans Lippershey in 1608 over 300 years after lenses were first produced.  Possibly such was the power of the church in the middle ages that any potential experimenters were discouraged for fear of being denounced from the pulpit and told they would burn in hell fire for inventing diabolical instruments. Thankfully we live in more enlightened times these days and can use buttons and forks freely without fear of eternal damnation.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Distant Trees

Last night was very overcast and at 3 am I could barely see Jupiter in the night sky. Nearby Saturn was totally obscured and there was no Moon. There was no possibility to conduct any sort of  astronomical experiment with my DIY "looker". Fortunately it was not raining this morning so I took the two photos shown below of some  distant trees two gardens away from the same position, one with the looker and one without. I used my camera on the same manual setting (to avoid any automatic correction or zoom). On more distant objects I got a better magnification than before possibly up to 8X. The area I zoomed in on is circled in red. The perimeter is slightly blurred but the centre is sharper and individual pine needles can clearly be seen. Using the looker it is possible to see pine cones and birds that are invisible to the unaided eye. Using Google Earth I was able to determine the top of the pine tree was 90 metres away from where I was standing and a pine needle is about 2mm diameter. The Moon is approximately 363,104,000 meters away which means that I should be able to resolve features over 10 Kilometres in size on the lunar surface on a clear night. Our telescopes have got better but we are still defeated by the weather!!

Saturday, 4 May 2019

The Looker

Roger Bacon the English philosopher (1210-1294) experimented with lenses and constructed an optical device that was reported to make stars appear nearer and also could show the future. However, he never wrote down a description of his device apart from one very vague sentence about using two lenses to make something far away seem close (De Scientia Experimentalis contained in Opus Majus - Lenses and specula may be so figured that one object may be multiplied into many that those which are situated a great distance my be made to appear very large and those which are obscure very plain and we can make stars to appear wherever we will). Bacon's main work the 840 page Opus Majus, which was completed in 1267, is only a summary of a larger work that he intended to produce for Pope Clement IVth but if he did ever complete the work it has since been lost. Lenses were invented in Italy around 1287 and we know this because of a record of a sermon  given by a Dominican friar  Giordano de Pisa given on Feb 23th 1306 who mentioned that "the art for making eyeglasses was less than 20 years old". Giordano de Pisa did not denounce the invention of lenses as the work of the devil and witchcraft but was actually very supportive of them. Hans Lippershey is nowadays credited with the invention of the telescope in 1608 because of his patent application made to the States General of the Netherlands on October 2nd 1608 for a Kijker or Looker.  One apocryphal story about the discovery of the telescope is that Hans Lippershey's children were playing with discarded lenses in his workshop and noticed that by  holding two lenses together they could magnify distant objects. So if we assume Lippershey took a year to perfect his device and to apply for a patent and take 1287 as the year that lenses were first made this leaves a gap of  1607-1287 = 320 years for someone to make a two lens viewing device and to document it. To me this seems a rather long time and very strange. I decided to repeat Lippershey's experiment. I used a convex objective and a concave eye piece using cheap lenses that I bought in discount stores. The body of the telescope was made from a empty coconut macaroon container. The magnification is about 6 to 8X and using the telescope I was able to read the number plate of a car parked a couple of hundred meters away that I could not read unaided. The advantage of the combination of convex and concave lenses is that the magnified image appears the right way up and is not inverted. Now I must wait for a clear night to see what details this crude telescope will show in the night sky.

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Shakespeare His House and Apostrophes

Within the past few months the historian Geoffrey Marsh has tentatively identified the house where William Shakespeare lived in London. It was at 35 Great St Helens, a site next to St Helen's church and now occupied by an office block.  How did Geoffrey Marsh who is a director of a department of the V&A identify this? We know from a 1598 tax return that he lived in the St Helen's area near to the present location of Liverpool Street station (Shakespeare's name is on the bottom of the list shown below). Mr Marsh discovered that he was a tenant of a house owned by the Company of Leather Sellers who owned one of the houses that overlooked St Helen's churchyard so he was able to pinpoint the location.

What does this area look like today? The image below is a screenshot from Google maps.
St Helen's is still there and thriving. Back in the 1970s Dick Lucas the rector realised that the many students who lived in the Bishopsgate area had course work to study and essays to write on Sundays and also many of them worked to supplement their income so could not attend a traditional Sunday morning service but were free to come in the evenings.  Also some students did not get up in time on a Sunday morning to get to a 10 O' Clock service. The solution was to hold a 7 O' Clock in the evening service with a contemporary  approach. Some forty years later the services are still being held but are now at 6 O' Clock not seven.  The church survived the Great Fire of London and also the Blitz but was damaged by the IRA attack on the Baltic Exchange in the early 1990s. If Shakespeare returned to London today he would still recognise the church building but little else in Great St Helen's. Shakespeare was certainly energised by his time in London and meetings with scholars, actors, other playwrights and nobles. Also it is hard to imagine  Shakespeare writing the Henry plays without having spent time in a London tavern and studying some of the disreputable characters who frequented them.
Today when we write or read the phase Shakespeare's House we give little thought to the apostrophe that designates a possessive. In French it is not so easy to express ownership so we get convoluted phrases like "Ou est la plume de ma tante?" In Old English Shakespeare's house would have been originally written as "Shakespeare his house" but over time the his became contracted to an apostrophe followed by the letter s.  Another theory is the Saxon genitive ending -es became contracted to 's over time and the genitive ending became merged with the possessive ending. Although the genitive and possessive cases are not strictly one and the same thing (   Today it does not strike us as odd that we use a final  letter s to indicate a plural or a letter s with an apostrophe to indicate a possessive.
Most early printed copies of a Midsummer Night's Dream have an apostrophe but copies of Loves Labours Lost do not. Peter Quince in a Midsummer Night's Dream says "Have you been to Bottom's House, is he come home yet?" (Act IV, Scene 2).  Today we would say "has he come home yet" but the possessive part of the text is correct in modern English. Elsewhere Shakespeare uses es without an apostrophe. For example in Macbeth (your highnesses pleasure, Act I, Scene 6) and Merry Wives of Windsor (Falstaffes and our meeting Act 5, Scene 3).  Shakespeare lived in a time where science was starting to contradict widely taught religious dogma and also the spoken and written word was changing from old English to a form of modern English. A modern reader can follow a Shakespeare play with ease but will struggle with Chaucer and find most of Beowolf incomprehensible.  If we look a little deeper into Shakespeare's plays beyond the storylines we find a record of the world in which he lived and how society was changing. 

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Rayleigh Scattering

In 1871 Lord Rayleigh published the scientific basis for light scattering by particles which is now called Rayleigh Scattering (Strutt, J.W (1871). "XV. On the light from the sky, its polarization and colour". The London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. 41 (271): 107–120). As a result of light being scattered as it enters the Earth's atmosphere the Moon can appear different colours to viewers on Earth depending on the weather. On Friday 19th April there was scheduled to be a Pink Full Moon. It was an impressive orange on the eastern horizon but not really pink. As the moon rose in the sky it turned to a more usual yellow hue. When the American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon back in the 1960s most people were surprised to see that the lunar surface was grey. Its all an effect of the light. The April full Moon is called a pink Moon because this was the time that Phlox first appeared. However, pale red Moons are possible so one day there could be a pink Moon.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Moonstones in Vienna

The Vienna City Museum has many interesting exhibits that show different aspects of life in the city over the ages. The museum also hosts a small but excellent art collection with paintings by Kurzweill, Klimt, Schiele and Gerstl. One of the museum's strangest exhibits is a Moonstone or Moon Idol that dates from 5,000 to 8,000 BCE (i.e. Iron Age). It looks like a fire grate but the ends are shaped like the crescent moon.
  Moonstones or Moon Idols like this are found in burial sites from this period along with casseroles and foot bowls. The association is that women were responsible for cooking and household duties. The later Iron Age in Austria is known as the Kalenderberg Culture period and there exists pictorial evidence of female deities from the same period found in nearby North East Italy.   
There are very few images of the Moon that have survived from antiquity.  My explanation is that because the Moon could be seen most evenings from Earth there was no need for an artist to make a representation of it unless it was for ritual or ceremonial use.   The ritual and ceremonial use seem to be always in service of a female moon deity. The concepts of a female moon and male sun go back further than the Iron age and were still current in Shakespeare's time. The Moon is Diana (Timon of Athens Act IV, Scene 3, or A Midsummer Night's Dream Act I, Scene 1) or Phoebe (again in A Midsummer Night's Dream Act I, Scene1), or Cynthia (Pericles Act II, Scene 5 and Romeo and Juliet Act III, Scene 5).  The Moon is always the Pale Queen of the Night (Two Gentlemen of Verona Act IV, Scene 2). Shakespeare refers to the Sun as Phoebus (Apollo) and always in the masculine (Hamlet Act III, Scene 2, Romeo and Juliet Act II, Scene 2, Cymbeline Act II, Scene 3, Much Ado About Nothing Act V, Scene 3).  Shakespeare was writing for his time and for his audiences. If the people who paid to go to the theatre understood that the Moon was feminine and the Sun masculine then Shakespeare simply used these analogies in his actor's lines to convey a deeper meaning with fewer words.      

Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Garden Tower

John Flamsteed was appointed Britain's the first Astronomer Royal by King Charles II in 1675.  A year before this in 1674 he studied at Cambridge University with Isaac Newton who, when he was not lecturing, lived at the Tower of London next to the Royal Mint.  John Flamsteed's first observatory was based at the top of the round tower on the north side of the White Tower. However, this observatory had two major problems as any visitor to the Tower of London will quickly spot. Firstly the round tower is on the north side of the White Tower so its view to the south is inconveniently blocked by two square turrets. 
The second problem was the ravens who when not flying around the tower blocking his observations used his instruments as a perch and sometimes even pooped on them.  Most inconvenient!!
   The observatory was located to Greenwich where it has remained to the present day. John Flamsteed laid the foundation stone for the Greenwich observatory in August 1675. Although he had a telescope his preferred instrument was the quadrant which he used to catalogue nearly 3000 stars. His work Historia Coelestis Britannica was published posthumously in 1725. 
Although several of Shakespeare's plays have scenes set in the Tower of London Shakespeare himself has had a long lasting influence on the tower.  Prior to his writing Richard III the Bloody Tower was known as the Garden Tower.   In Act IV Scene 3 the tyrannous and bloody deed is done (i.e. the young princes are dispatched) and also Richard is described a  bloody king (both by Sir James Tyrell). In Act IV, Scene 4 Richard is described as bloody treacherous by the Duchess of York. Although Shakespeare did not use the phrase the Bloody Tower the name stuck in the public's imagination as a result of the popularity of the play Richard III

During my visit to the tower yesterday I overheard one visitor commenting to a friend "its like all the history you need all in one place".  There is certainly a lot to see and one day is not really enough time to see it all.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

A Shakesperian Conspiracy

Whilst the merrie meetings of actors, playwrights, explorers and scientists at the Mermaid Tavern have been well documented there was another group of educated men who met at Syon House, one of Henry Percy's southern estates (the other estate was Petworth). This group included Christopher Marlowe, John Dee, Thomas Harriot, George Chapman, Matthew Roydon and Sir Walter Rayleigh. In 1992 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed a play by Peter Whelan called the School of Night which was inspired by the meetings that took place in 1592 and 1593. In Love's Labour's Lost in Act IV, Scene 3 mention is made of a "suit of night" or a "scowl of night" depending on the edition.  In the Routledge 1859 edition of Shakespeare's complete plays the phrase a "style of night" is used with a dagger mark referring to a marginal note that "school" is used in older versions. The Routledge edition is nicely illustrated at this point with a cupid.
Fortunately the Bodelian Library in  Oxford have digitised a First Folio and made it freely available on line.  Looking at Love's Labour's Lost in Act IV, Scene 3 the word "schoole" is clearly visible.
Of course the blackness that the King is referring to could just be the dark hair of the fair Rosaline who is Berowne's lover.  The truth is that we will never know. Shakespeare was very adept with language uses words and phrases that can have different meanings to different audiences. To the groundlings in the pit the meaning would have been Rosaline's hair. To the more prosperous and educated theatre goers in the boxes it could have meant something different. Sir Walter Rayleigh was accused at one point of being at the centre of a school of atheism in 1592 by the Jesuit Robert Persons who was possibly referring to the Syon House meetings.  In addition John Baines, an anti catholic spy for the privy council accused Christopher Marlowe of reading an atheistic sermon to Sir Walter Rayleigh and others at a group but he was unable to substantiate his claims although he did promise to produce evidence. John Baine's claims are contained in the Baines note  and are based on hearsay (BL Harley MS 6853 ff307-8). Atheism was a serious crime in the Tudor era as it undermined the King or Queen's divine right to rule. However, before Marlowe could be tried he was killed in a duel in May 1593. Shakespeare is thought to have written Love's Labours Lost in either 1594 or 1595. Could this have been a sly reference to his friend Kit Marlowe and the Syon House meetings?  It is not impossible. Shakespeare's command of English in the mid 1590s was such that he was able to use the word honorificabilitudinitabus spoken by Costard the fool in Act V, Scene 1.   The word has alternating vowels and consonants and means the state of being able to achieve honours. Shakespeare only uses this word once in his entire works and doubtlessly was using it to show off his intellect.  

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Musica Universalis

I must have gazed up at the night sky many tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of times during my life but I have never once heard the Musica Universalis, or the music of the spheres. Pythagoras taught that the planets had a harmonic relationship to each other. He identified that the pitch of a musical note is inversely proportional to the length of string that produces it. Extending this theory to the night sky he postulated that the distances between the planets could produce tones or semitones that were inaudible from Earth but filled the spaces between the planets. In Shakespeare's time, however, people thought that they could indeed hear the music of the spheres. In The Merchant of Venice Lorenzo claims to hear the sweet harmony (Act V, Scene 1) and also Pericles in the eponymously named play hears "the rarest sounds, most heavenly music" (Act V, Scene 1). In As You Like It Duke Senior comments to Jacques that "If he, compact of jars, grow musical. We shall have shortly discord in the spheres" (Act II, Scene 7). In Twelfth Night and Anthony and Cleopatra there are also fleeting mentions of the heavenly music (Act III, Scene 1 and Act V, Scene 2 respectively). Clearly Shakespeare's audiences thought it entirely reasonable that the planets and stars emitted musical notes as the passed through the night sky and that on occasion this celestial harmony could be heard on Earth. In 1907 Gustav Mahler completed his 8th Symphony of which he wrote  "Imagine that the Universe is singing and humming. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns that spin". Mahler's 8th is sometimes called the Symphony of a Thousand and is very loud in places! The music of the spheres has in recent years inspired contemporary musicians like Bjork and Mike Oldfield to produce new work. Of course we now know that there is near vacuum between the stars and planets and so there is no medium to propagate sound waves but it turns out that the heavens are not entirely quiet. Radio waves can pass through a vacuum and through the Earth's atmosphere. It turns out that many celestial bodies produce radio waves and can be identified by their unique call signal. A You Tube video contains several examples. I would not describe the sounds as sweet harmony but science, Shakespeare and Pythagoras are not too far apart.