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 (http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=arundel_ms_263_f104r). 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  (https://www.bl.uk/events/leonardo-da-vinci-a-mind-in-motion).



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 (https://www.thoughtco.com/possessive-genitive-case-1691645).   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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obgeTFvdVqI contains several examples. I would not describe the sounds as sweet harmony but science, Shakespeare and Pythagoras are not too far apart. 

Saturday, 2 February 2019

China

Shakespeare only uses the word China once in his entire works. In Measure for Measure Act II, Scene 1 Pompey refers to dishes being offered not being China dishes but still very good.  Search for orient instead and there are seven instances in total but five of these refer to pearls and the other two to a general eastward direction. It is likely that even if Shakespeare's audiences did not own pearls they would have been aware of their round shape and brightness and so would have understood the allusions to tears (Richard III, Act IV, Scene4 and Venus and  Adonis line 1001) or the dew on a plant bud (Midsummer Night's Dream Act IV, Scene 1 & Passionate Pilgrim line 132)  In Antony and Cleopatra (Act I, Scene 5) Alexas refers to Mark Antony in complimentary terms as an oriental pearl. Shakespeare often writes of merchants and traders and also of high value gifts given to the nobility so it is odd that he does not refer to China or Manchuria as the place of origin of the traded goods. Shakespeare must have heard of Marco Polo as his account of his travels to the East was a bestseller. However, like China, Marco Polo is also absent from his works.  In a couple of days time on February 5th it will be the Chinese New Year the time of which is set by the lunar calendar and the new moon. In England it is more or less impossible to be unaware of this as every supermarket seems to have a prominent a seasonal display of Chinese food, woks and cooking utensils. Looking to the South on February 1st the old moon, Jupiter and Venus formed a straight line in the morning sky. Venus is to the left and Jupiter is to the right. In astrology the conjunction of these two beneficial planets is thought to be extremely favourable. In Chinese astrology the year of the pig which begins in three days time is considered auspicious as the pig is considered to attract success so the astrological signs are all there for an extremely favourable and auspicious Chinese new year. 
  



Sunday, 13 January 2019

Anglo-Saxon Influences

When I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s we were taught the Anglo-Saxon's were defeated in 1066 and the middle ages ended in 1485. However, the past is not that simple.  The British Library are currently hosting an exhibition of manuscripts called Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms Art, Word and War (https://www.bl.uk/anglo-saxons). Although most of the surviving manuscripts are royal charters and ecclesiastical in nature there are a few scientific items that have survived.  Harley MS2506 is an astronomical compilation from about 990 CE with added illustrations from the 11th century. This work in Latin draws on Pliny the Elder and Marcus Cicero but the drawings are Anglo-Saxon.  The phases of the Moon are drawn only in outline and show no details of the Lunar surface.


The 11th century manuscript MS Tiberius B contains  map of the known world. This is sometimes known as the Cotton map. It shows Great Britain in some detail as well as the Scottish islands.  Of course it was well known at this time that the Earth was spherical not flat and Bede in his work "The Reckoning of Time" wrote that "the roundness of the Earth, for not without reason is it called 'the orb of the world' on the pages of Holy Scripture and of ordinary literature. It is, in fact, set like a sphere in the middle of the whole universe." 

When Isidore of Seville was not busying himself hunting for witches or producing racist literature and anti-jewish tracts he tried to compile a book of containing everything there was to know. "De Natura Rerum" or On the nature of things that was dedicated to the Visogothic King Sisebut in 612 or 613 CE.  Isidor took much of his text from Lucretius (99 to 55 BCE) and his set of six didactic poems also called De Natura Rerum. Isidor's work was hardly original and was intended to be a summation of everything known about the natural world up to that point. Isidore included a map of the Universe with the Earth at its centre. Venus is called Lucifer and Vesper could be either Mars or Venus in the evening sky and Jupiter is called Fofton.  
It is clear that there has been few scientific advances in the Anglo-Saxon period (in fact the Anglo-Saxons did not even have a word for the natural sciences).  The Anglo-Saxons did not go away with the Norman conquest in 1066 their ideas, art and culture endured and shaped people's behaviour for many centuries. In Shakespeare's time the vast majority of people believed that the Earth was the centre of the Universe and some still believed that the Earth was flat. Astrology still was held in high regard and it is clear that people thought illness could result from an unfavourable alignment of the planets. Shakespeare was writing in a time when the old beliefs were being replaced by science, logic and reason and his works are a reflection of the time in which they were written. But science and religion need not be enemies. In the 20th century Albert Einstein wrote "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind ". Einstein also wrote that  "Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man". In Shakespeare's time such views would have got a scientist in serious trouble with the church but thankfully today we live in a more enlightened age.




Saturday, 5 January 2019

Timon's Jupiter

On the 31st December there was going to be a planetary alignment in the dawn sky. Venus, Jupiter, Mercury and the crescent Moon would appear in the straight line to the South East. However the 31st was totally overcast and so was Jan 1st. On the morning of Jan 2nd there were some breaks in the cloud so I took my camera to work. At 07:15 there was a cloud break in the right place. I pulled over into a lay by and took about 20 photos with my Canon compact. Most were terrible but one captured Venus, Jupiter, The Moon and just below the Moon the star Antares can be seen.  Mercury which was low on the horizon was obscured by clouds but is just visible to the left of Jupiter.
Here is a close up.
Should we be worried about such planetary alignments? Shakespeare's Timon of Athens certainly was and speaks of a planetary plague caused by Jupiter in the sky over Athens.  In Act IV, Scene 3 Timon says "Be as a planetary plague, when Jove will over some high viced city hang his poison". In 1348 King Phillip VIth of France asked the medical faculty of the University of Paris to find a cure for the Bubonic Plague that was sweeping across Europe. The faculty replied with an astrological chart showing a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in Aquarius in 1345 on March 20th. The medics concluded that this showed that the plague was an unstoppable force of nature caused by planetary alignments and the best they could do was try to offer palliative care. Shakespeare's age marks the dawn of the age of science and reason but the old ways and beliefs were still evident. No doubt many in the audience would have agreed with Timon's statement and feared the malign influence of the planets.