I have rejigged the homepage of this website because I thought it was beginning to look a bit tired, and also to give more prominence to the recent articles on Brunel and calendar reform.
The addition of sphinxes and literary snippets is a self-indulgent experiment. The quotations are inspired by an old book in my possession, Introduction to Astronomy, London 1956, by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin. She was a British-born astronomer who moved to America in the 1920s. She earned her PhD from what is now part of Harvard University, on a study of stellar atmospheres. Her book is a delight to read and is peppered with literary extracts.
Discovering things 'farre off"
One of the most surprising outcomes of the research I did for a series of WEA talks on the History of the Universe, was that telescopes definitely go back further than Galileo, and lenses from which telescopes could have been made, go back very much further than that.
The ‘authorized version’ of telescope discovery, is that Hans Lippershey, a German-born Dutch spectacle lens maker, filed a patent for two designs of what came to be known as the telescope in 1608. Spectacle lenses had been around for some time; Roger Bacon had written in 1262 about magnifying lenses, and a painting of Hugh of St Cher, 1352, shows him wearing spectacles.
Galileo heard about Lippershey’s patent, and recognizing the principle, made his own telescopes the following year, as did Simon Marius in Ansbach. But Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, 1175 – 1253, described in De Iride: “This part of optics … shows us how we may make things a very long distance off appear as if placed very close …” Somewhat later, Thomas Digges of Oxford, in 1571, wrote that his father was able: “by proportionall Glasses [to discover] things farre off …” It appears then that there is direct evidence of the use of telescopes in England 400 years before Galileo.
The earliest lenses known were excavated by Sir Arthur Evans in the Royal Palace of Knossos, dating to 1400 BC. Sir Austen Henry Lanyard found a 1.5 inch diameter crystal lens at Nimrud on the Tigris dating to 750 BC - currently in the British Museum. The Greek playwright Aristophanes, 424 BC, referred to a ‘lens’ in his play The Clouds, and Seneca the younger, 1st century AD, who was one time tutor to the Emperor Nero, wrote: “...[written] Letters, however small and indistinct, are seen enlarged and more clearly through a globe of glass filled with water…” The Islamic scientist, Hassan ibn al-Haytham, born in Basra, wrote a treatise on optics in 1021 in which he described the use of convex lenses to magnify images.
Sooner or later anyone messing around with lenses is likely to discover the telescope (or microscope) effect. If manufactured lenses have been around for at least 3,500 years, telescopes have probably been re-invented many times over.
Size matters ...
Yes, we are alone in the universe. I don’t mean that there is no-one else there; we share just this planet with around seven billion other humans, and who can say that orbiting the hundred thousand million, million, million stars in the visible universe, there are not many planets with civilizations containing almost countless individual sentient beings?
The essence of each one of us, is trapped inside a bony sphere connected to the outside world by a few sensors – sight, hearing touch etc. But each of those ‘senses’ consists merely of a series of electrical impulses transmitted to our brains, which then interpret what is being seen, heard, felt etc. Inside our skulls we are completely alone …
And how much space are we alone in? Several Greek philosophers proposed that the stars were just like the sun only much further away, and Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for making the same prediction. But Christian Huygens – the man who invented the pendulum clock – in a book published posthumously in 1698, described measuring the distance of Sirius, the Dog Star. He used a set of very small apertures in his telescope to reduce the brightness of the sun to that of Sirius, and concluded that Sirius was 27,664 times further away – assuming that the Sun and Sirius have the same intrinsic brightness.
Actually, Sirius is much brighter than the Sun, but even so, Huygens’ estimated distance of the star was only two or three times less than the currently accepted figure of 8.6 light years. A truly astonishingly result. It was not until the 1830s that Bessel was able to measure the distance of the stars directly; the nearest star to us, Proxima Centauri, is four and a third light-years away, or about 25 million, million miles. The Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, and currently travelling out of the Solar System at over 37,000 miles per hour, would take nearly 77,000 years to get there. We are alone in an awful lot of empty space …
I’m trying to read Goethe’s Faust for the umpteenth time. The legend of Faust certainly has resonances for those of us in the latter decades of their existence; the promise of knowledge, youth, girls …
But Goethe’s Faust goes much further than that. Most people are familiar with the story via Gounod’s opera. It is based on Goethe, but is reduced to: old man longs for youth, vitality and the benefits that that confers; sells his soul to the Devil for the same, destroys the virtue of a beautiful girl who is later condemned to death for killing their illegitimate child, she is saved at the last minute by a choir of angels, and he is dragged down to Hell by Mephistopheles.
It’s great theatre and Gounod’s music is wonderful, but Goethe’s original Faust is so much more. His Faust is a scholar who has studied the great medieval callings – law, philosophy, medicine and theology – has had great academic honours piled upon him, but realizes that with all that learning, actually, he knows nothing. Thus the quotation ‘what we know we do not need, and what we need, we know not …
Of course there is no solution to this conundrum; the pleasures of youth and its benefits are transitory; we can never know. When it comes down to it, we’re on our own. In the universe. A sobering thought, and one that prompts me to refill my glass …
This week I spoke about Henry John Hatch and his ‘trials’ at the Queen’s Theatre Club in Hornchurch. It was the ninety-fourth time I have given that talk, and I’ll admit to having felt a little jaded with it.
And then I felt guilty, because Henry’s story needs to be told and retold, to constantly remind ourselves of the power of the human spirit.
When I did the original research for the book, and as Henry’s troubles piled up and up to a point where normal mortals would surely have imploded and gone mad, I realized that this was no ordinary story of courage and steadfastness in adversity.
But the acid test of Henry’s character came in reading a story he, himself, wrote in later life; it was published in a compendium of curiosities, The Paglesham Oyster. Henry was no great storyteller, and his writings are somewhat derivative, but his sympathetic tale – founded on his own experiences as a prison chaplain – of a reformed convict, James Thrayle, demonstrated that after all he had been through, Henry John Hatch retained his basic humanity and love for his fellow man.
A memorable day…
Listening to the rousing overture to Wagner’s opera Rienzi on Radio 3 today, took me straight back to a Saturday in the early summer of 1973. I had gone to visit my girlfriend in Reading where she attended the university, and she, knowing my growing regard for Wagner’s music, had got tickets for a local amateur production of the opera.
Wagner composed Rienzi during his ‘Paris’ period, an unhappy time when he was trying to make his mark by writing music with popular appeal. He subsequently disowned it, and Rienzi is rarely performed these days and never at Bayreuth, but it has some excellent and memorable ‘tunes’, and a splendid climax when the Roman Capitol building collapses around the hero.
It was a glorious day, and we took advantage of the weather to go to Henley and enjoy a cream tea overlooking the river. We knew that the opera was going to be long, and one of my girlfriend’s flatmates cooked a fish pie to be eaten before the performance in order to keep us going.
The whole Rienzi experience was most entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable, but at midnight I was sick as dog. I always wondered afterwards which of the sensory excesses it was that was responsible – the cream tea, the fish pie or Wagner. I suspect the fish pie although many would blame Wagner, and that is a pity, because in Rienzi, Wagner succeeded in creating real entertainment.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs