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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Just Finished Reading: The Neptune File – Planet Detectives and the Discovery of Worlds Unseen by Tom Standage (FP: 2000)

The whole civilised world rejoiced in 1781 when, for the first time in centuries, a new planet in the heavens was discovered proving beyond doubt the mankind had truly entered the new Scientific Age. As astronomers all across the globe gazed upon the new planet and began to chart its movement joy gave way to puzzlement. The new world, named Uranus, was not behaving as predicted and, as more observations were made its aberrant behaviour only became worse. Checking back in the historical record sightings of Uranus (unknown at the time) didn’t help at all. In fact the more information astronomers had about the planet the less predictable its path through the Zodiac became. So the mystery remained for over 50 years – a puzzle without a solution indeed, as some saw it, without even a possible solution. But if there’s one thing that unites men across space and time is that they can’t resist a challenge no matter how seemingly intractable.

As with all good science any errors must be eliminated and the underlying theories examined for flaws. The observations of the orbit of Uranus were checked, confirmed and checked again. Errors were indeed discovered and eliminated but still the planet was not behaving as it should. Things became so desperate that the very framework of Celestial Mechanics itself – Newton’s Theory of Gravity – was examined for flaws and, with a great sigh of relief, found to be without error. Even ideas of some sort of substance only evident in the outer Solar system enforcing a drag on the new planet where put forward only to be dismissed when the accumulating facts found it wanting. There was only one theory that could account for the path of Uranus across the night sky. Something beyond its orbit must be influencing it. Another, yet undiscovered, body must be influencing its orbit but how could something like that be caught in even the world’s most powerful telescopes without any idea where to look in the vastness of space. To do that you would have to calculate the position of a planet effectively in reverse starting with the perturbation of another world and working backwards to identify what was causing the disturbance and where it was at any particular time. A task, many considered, simply beyond the capability of the human mind.

But in the first half of the 19th century two mathematicians, completely unknown to each other, put their minds to the problem of finding a planet without ever looking through a telescope. They would use mathematics alone to determine exactly where an invisible body was and then, when they were certain, announce it to the world and expect others to actually look for it themselves. The race was on between an unknown English mathematician John Crouch Adams and the famous French scientist and astronomer Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier. Whoever got there first would become world famous and their name would become immortalised as the first man to find a planet by brain power alone.

This was a complete impulse buy from Amazon some months ago and there was a real danger that it would continue to gather dust far into the future without being read. Looking for something different to pass the time with I picked it up recently and was almost immediately hooked. Today we live in an age where new planets on far away stars are discovered on a weekly basis. So much so that new discoveries are rarely reported beyond the scientific press. After the amazing discovery of Uranus and the reality of an enlarged Solar system it must have come as quite a shock when yet another unknown world was discovered between the lines of pages of equations. Like all mysteries, even mathematical ones, the trick is to recognise the clues and to follow them to their conclusion – no matter the prejudices or preconceptions of the investigators. Theory after theory is put forward to explain the observed facts and each is demolished as the mysterious planet eventually named Neptune serenely smashes through them. This is science in action on a grand scale. Observations are made, theories are tested and found wanting, facts are checked and new theories built until, slowly and carefully, the new planet is tamed and becomes one of the family rather than a wayward son.

Of course that was not the end to things. Once the theory was in place and solidified into a useable technique the search for other planets began in earnest. Every slight ambiguity in the orbit of any planet was seen as a potential case of yet another world to be discovered. But over the years they each turned out to be false hopes. But over a century later similar techniques began to produce results and the first planets orbiting other stars emerged from the darkness of deep space. At least from a planetary perspective we were not alone. Well written and full of interesting characters (although not always the nicest or most professional) this is a must read for anyone interested in the history of planet hunting. Recommended.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Academics uncover 30 words 'lost' from English language

From The BBC

15 September 2017

Snout-fair, dowsabel and percher are among 30 "lost" words which experts believe are still in current use. Researchers have drawn up the list to persuade people that these defunct words can still have a relevance. Snout-fair is a word for handsome, dowsabel means "lady-love", and a percher is a social climber. Dominic Watt, senior linguistics lecturer at the University of York, said he hoped people would re-engage with the language of old. The team spent three months searching through old books and dictionaries to create the list.

Mr Watt wants to bring these words back into modern conversations. "We've identified lost words that are both interesting and thought-provoking, in the hope of helping people re-engage with language of old," he said. "Snout-fair", for example, means "having a fair countenance; fair-faced, comely, handsome", while "sillytonian" refers to "a silly or gullible person, esp one considered as belonging to a notional sect of such people". "Dowsabel" is "applied generically to a sweetheart, 'lady-love'". Margot Leadbetter, the snobby neighbour from 1970s BBC sitcom, The Good Life, could be seen as an arch example of a "percher" - someone "who aspires to a higher rank or status; an ambitious or self-assertive person". The BBC series Trust Me is the story of a "quacksalver" - a person who "dishonestly claims knowledge of, or skill in, medicine; a pedlar of false cures".

The list of 30 "lost words" are grouped into three areas the researchers feel are relevant to modern life: post-truth (deception); appearance, personality and behaviour; and emotions. The final list also includes the words "ear-rent" - described as "the figurative cost to a person of listening to trivial or incessant talk", "slug-a-bed" - meaning "a person who lies in late", and "merry-go-sorry" - a phrase used to describe "a mixture of joy and sorrow".

[I do so love the English language. It’s just so rich and full of wonderfully strange words and, especially, insults. I think that ‘percher’ could catch on. It’s very descriptive of the social climber. I really like the idea of ‘ear-rent’. Again very descriptive and so true when you can’t get away from incessant chatting! As to ‘slug-a-bed’ I’m pretty sure I’ve heard my Mum use that so it’s not a dead turn of phrase – at least not in the North of England….. So, English words – use them or lose them.]

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Just Finished Reading: When Britain Burned the White House – The 1814 Invasion of Washington by Peter Snow (FP: 2013)

My knowledge of the War of 1812 was, until I read this informative and entertaining little (239 page) book, practically non-existent. It is, as far as I know, a largely forgotten and ignored conflict over here. I understand that its profile is much bigger in the US. I suppose that I get some points for knowing that the conflict actually occurred. I did, however, think that it was over and done with during the year of 1812 (hence the name). So I was a little surprised with the books sub-title. I was also rather surprised as to the extent of the Whitehouse fire. I believed, rather erroneously, that a British fire had merely scorched the edifice of the Whitehouse rather than completely destroyed the interior. I also had no idea who actually won this particular spat. It seems that it was, in the end, pretty much a draw although it seems that both sides claimed a victory of sorts. We Brits walked away after ‘teaching the Colonials a lesson’ and the USA fought off a world Imperial Power with effectively a ‘rag-tag army of volunteers’. Naturally things were rather more complicated.

Of course a major problem with the War of 1812 was the timing. Being already embroiled in a fight to the death with Napoleonic France an attack on Canada and a declaration of war by the ex-Colonies was felt very much like a stab in the back. Unfortunately we really didn’t have the resources to apply to the problem until Napoleon capitulated and was sent off the exile. With the needed resources now available a much larger force was sent across the Atlantic to ‘give the Americans a drubbing’. In true British style, of course, we sent too small a force to do very much and ordered them to be very careful not to be beaten and humiliated again as they had been in the War of Independence. But, this was the army that had repeated defeated the best of the French generals in Europe and beyond so wasn’t going to pussyfoot around. Determine to make a mark the set about landing troops and basically causing as much trouble as possible. The question was, of course, where could the Brits get the best propaganda victory for the least outlay in gold or blood? The two most tempting objectives where Baltimore and Washington. Baltimore was an economic target but Washington, still under construction, proved too tempting. The idea of taking the enemy capital was just too much to ignore. After facing and defeating several militia armies Washington was indeed taken and selected political targets burned to the ground – all against the express orders of the British commander located back at the landing point. But with the enemy scattered and the capital in flames he could hardly court-martial the hero of the hour. But was the act enough to force the US back to the negotiation table? Maybe just one more example of British power would do it. On to Baltimore! Time was now against the British and Baltimore was a much tougher nut to crack. Already well defended its defences grew even stronger by the day. The shame of Washington had turned to anger and hundreds of men flocked to defend the city every day. But this merely proved to the British that the burning of Baltimore would be all the sweeter. Of course it was not to be. The defences when they were met proved too formidable and without naval support, held at bay by Fort McHenry and others, the small British army could not advance without taking unacceptable losses. Withdrawal was the only sensible option. Soon after agreements were made and the unnecessary war was over – but not before the abortive attack on New Orleans had failed miserably.  

Until recently my knowledge of early American history has been frankly pitiful. Thanks to be two recent history books I certainly know a lot more – admittedly from a very low base! This book in particular was an easy read despite its general unfamiliarity. The author, who I ‘know’ from his TV appearances often alongside his historian son, has a wonderful voice and can convey sometimes complex events with a breezy exciting prose that can leave you breathless as each chapter ends. If, like me, you were ignorant of this rather unusual conflict you could do a lot worse than by starting to address that ignorance here. Recommended.