Category Archives: History

Wherein I make the acquaintance of the most prominent citizen of Dorset

Aerial photo of the Giant, courtesy of Wiki Commons

Aerial photo of the Giant, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Some years ago, when I was living in Belgium, my parents came to visit, and we drove over to England to see a cousin who lived here. (Well, we crossed the Channel by hovercraft, but you know what I mean.)

I don’t remember where we ended up going sightseeing, but I remember very well where we didn’t go: to the little village of Cerne Abbas, in Dorset, to see the Cerne Abbas Giant.  My cousin diplomatically vetoed that as inappropriate for the conservative sensibilities of the party there assembled; you can see why from the photos.

The naked and decidedly male Cerne Abbas Giant is one of many, many displays known as hill figures or chalk figures in the UK, but one of only three—the others being the Uffington White Horse and the Long Man of Wilmington—that are thought to date from ancient times.  Nobody knows who made them or why, but made they were, by cutting through the green turf and down to the white chalk beneath, and filling up, with more chalk, the troughs that were cut.   (You knew southern England is built on lots of chalk, right?  Chalk is what puts the white in the White Cliffs of Dover.)

The Giant, as included on an Ordnance Survey map of 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Giant, as included on an Ordnance Survey map of 1891, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I finally saw the Giant last week, though he looked a little the worse for wear.  His head was pretty much gone, for starters, at least when looking with the naked eye—nakedness being something of the point of the priapic Giant.  Lots of the interior details—the lines that you might see as ribs or as a six-pack; the pectorals and nipples—that makes this figure different from most others, which are plain, seem to have disappeared, too, along with his left arm and a good bit of the club he holds in his right hand.  What he had instead, when I visited, was a somewhat polka-dotted (UK: spotted) midriff, with sheep as the polka-dots.

It takes a lot of work to keep the grass from growing back over the white outlines of a hill figure; it turns out that one good way of keeping the plants in check is to allow sheep to graze the hillside. (Not cattle; their hooves would mar the lines, apparently.)  But sheep don’t have the ability—nor yet the tools—to do the job entirely by themselves.  The National Trust, in charge of the maintainance, says it costs £1 per metre to re-furbish the white lines, which are about a foot wide (or 0.3 metre, if you prefer not to mix your measurements).  As the Giant is the largest hill figure in these islands at 55 metres (180 feet) tall and 51 metres wide, and carries a club 37 metres long, that’s a lot of metres of outline to keep up, and it looks like it’s been a while since the Giant has had an overhaul.

The Giant as I found him, lines fading, and dotted with sheep, who are clearly no respecters of persons

The Giant as I found him, lines fading, and dotted with sheep, who are clearly no respecters of persons

During WWII, the Giant was covered over on purpose, to prevent German planes from using him as a landmark.  More recently, he’s been used to advertise a variety of products, including condoms and, in 2007, The Simpsons Movie.  For that, a comparably scaled (but non-aroused) Homer Simpson, in underpants and waving a doughnut, appeared on the hill next to the Giant.  Funny, but…unfortunate.  Let the Giant have his gravitas.  (Homer was rendered in water-soluble paint, and washed away in the next rain, so that’s okay.)

Another man-made feature, known locally as the Trendle, sits over the Giant’s left shoulder.  That’s a rather odd name for a rectangular geoglyph (design on the ground) since trendle comes from earlier terms meaning round or circle or wheel.  The Trendle is also called the Frying Pan (again, a round name for a square figure); the Giant is also called the Old Man, or the Rude Man (or so say internet sources; I’ve never heard anybody use those names); and the hill itself is call Giant Hill or Trendle Hill.

Renovation work in 2008

Renovation work in 2008, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And while we’re on place names, what about Cerne AbbasCerne may be related to words meaning a circle, or a cairn (a pile of stones), while Abbas indicates an abbot. And in fact a nearby abbey, complete with abbot, flourished there until Henry VIII rousted out all the monasteries and took their lands and money in the 16th century.

It’s not clear why the monks and their abbot allowed such a pagan symbol to dominate the skyline—and maybe they didn’t.  Some people claim the Giant isn’t as old as all that, and the lack of criticism from the abbey is part of their evidence.  The first solid written record—which describes money spent on the never-ending task of clearing the weeds from the white lines—seems to date from the 17th century, whereas writers in the middle ages mention the White Horse of Uffington; the late appearance of written records, too, might suggest that the Giant didn’t appear much before the records did.

A Roman depiction of Hercules with club and lion skin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Roman depiction of Hercules with club and lion skin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There are some—particularly since more lines, now obscured, seem to indicate the Giant used to carry a cloak or skin over his left arm—who say the figure is a traditional Roman depiction of Hercules, which would make him about 2000 years old, but then again, there are those who think some 17th-century servants cut out the Giant to criticize the way the landowner ran his estate.  I can’t imagine how servants had the time or the energy to organize such a protest, or how they thought it would help their situation, but that’s no more strange than the theory that somebody cut the figure to insult Oliver Cromwell (who helped overthrow the monarchy for a while in the 1600s) or that the monks themselves did it, to irritate the abbot.  Okay, this was before television and paperback books, but I thought the monks filled their long quiet evenings with prayer and/or flagellation, and besides—any monks, servants, or Royalists who started work on the figure would surely have been caught before they finished it; all the powers that be would have had to do was wait for them to come back.  (The Trendle, in any case, is an Iron Age construction, probably a fortification.)

Homer Simpson with the Giant

Homer Simpson with the Giant

A local legend says that a real giant was killed on that very hillside, and people cut an outline in the turf around his body, which would make Giant Hill the first crime scene to sport a chalk outline of the victim.  (Textbooks for modern detectives point out that such chalk outlines are seldom required, but also admit that every force seems to have at least one “chalk fairy” who can’t resist drawing them.) Many local people have, rather than speculate, accepted the Giant as a fertility symbol, whether they believed a woman who slept on the hill would conceive soon afterward, or that having sex on the giant assured fertility, or that dancing around a maypole in the Trendle assured fertility, or…there are probably infinite variations.  Some said a woman who walked around the figure three times would ensure that her lover was true; I’d say your lover could get up to a lot of mischief while you were hiking around and around.  In any case, every May Day, a troupe of Morris Men still dance in the Trendle and in the streets of Cerne Abbas to ensure good crops.

So I finally made the acquaintance of the most prominent citizen of Cerne Abbas. Long may he ensure the fertility of the beautiful Dorset countryside.

Panorama including Giant Hill (the Giant is in the red circle).  Courtesy of Ernest Adams

Panorama including Giant Hill (the Giant is in the red circle). Courtesy of Ernest Adams

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Gotland Rocks 1: Fårö

[I’m back in the UK, but my mind is still on Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic]

According to the Guta Saga, the ancient tale of the origins of the place,

Gotland was first discovered by a man called Tjelvar.  Then, Gotland was so bewitched that it sank beneath the waves by day and rose again at night.  This man, however, was the first to bring fire to the island, and afterwards it never sank again.

As Gotland is a solid—if small—island, that’s some powerful bewitchery going on.  In fact, “Gotland” is not only the name of one island; it’s also the name of the whole province including a few smaller islands, only one of which is inhabited enough so’s you’d notice.  This is the first post of three or so that make up something of a photo safari through the remarkable stones—natural or erected—of the island of Gotland and of that smaller island, sometimes called its ‘sister island’, Fårö.

That's me in the purple parka, at Langhammers, on the northern tip of faro

That’s me in the purple parka, at Langhammers, on the northern tip of Fårö

The most famous of the stones of Fårö (pronounced something like FAW-roo) are the rauks (pronounced, um, pretty much like rocks) which were left behind on the west cost of the island when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated.

And that one's not by any means the only one; when you see a cluster of them, you can imagine folktales about trolls or giants very easily.

And that one’s not by any means the only one; when you see a cluster of them, you can imagine folktales about trolls or giants very easily.

Now, if these stones look familiar, it’s likely that you’ve been to a Bergman film; Ingmar Bergman lived on Fårö and used it as a backdrop more than once.  (Visitors can stop in at the Bergman Center to see exhibitions and learn more about Bergman and Fårö, though it was closed for renovation when I was there.)

Lighthouse on Faro

Lighthouse on Fårö

A Victorian-era lighthouse and…

This labrynth on Faro, half-covered by snow, could have been built last summer or centuries ago -- hard to say

This labrynth on Fårö, half-covered by snow, could have been built last summer or centuries ago — hard to say

an unexpected, unsignposted labrynth  rounded out the day on Fårö, where the most interesting stones were posed by nature; on Gotland itself, the stones arranged by humans were more interesting, starting with the Bronze Age, boat-shaped, burials.

Which I’ll tell you about in the next post (if the island I’m on doesn’t sink beneath the waves in the meantime).

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He’s Nailed It (or in Swedish: “Spikning”)

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

The cafe in the library at the Hogskola on Gotland

Visby (see previous post) is a summer town, where most visitors go to enjoy the beach.  Sure, the medieval walls and the museums are there year-round, but some tours and other visitor services only run mid-June to mid-August.  So why would I go there in an unseasonably frigid April?  To watch my husband, Ernest Adams, take part in a strange European ceremony left over from the Middle Ages.

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest's was added

And on the other side of the room is the plank for spikning; this photo shows publications in place before Ernest’s was added

But first, you need a little paragraph of history to get the background:  The Protestants split off from the Catholic Church in the 16th century as the result of a movement called the Protestant Reformation, which was kicked off by a German monk called Martin Luther, who famously nailed 95 theses to the door of a church.  The biggest bee in Luther’s bonnet was about the selling of indulgences, that is, people paying money to the church for official documents saying that their sins would be forgiven.  Luther was appalled that the tremendously wealthy Pope Leo X would defraud people of money when surely only God could forgive sins (and without money changing hands, even if the church did need the money to repair St Peter’s Basilica), and Luther not only said so, he pretty much wrote down 95 reasons why and nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg, in Germany, in 1517.

Selecting a place for the nail (Stephen on the bench, Ernest standing by)

Selecting a place for the nail before the audience arrives (Prof. Stephen Batchelder on the bench, Ernest Adams kibbitzing from the floor)

Now, having learned about that years and years ago, I had always assumed this was a bit of seriously in-your-face vandalism in the cause of religious activism, and that nailing his opinions up on the church door was a slap in the face of the establishment, but I’ve recently learned that I’d gotten it absolutely wrong.  Nailing your thesis to the door—or to whatever other bit of architecture was traditional where you lived—was, back then, a valid means of scholarly publication.  You wrote your argument and nailed it up so people could take your paper down off the door, read it, and put it back for the next person to read.

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

Dr Ernest presents his doctoral work

And in some parts of Europe they continue the practice to this day, generally nailing up the theses (US: dissertations) of new PhDs. The author pounds in a nail and hangs the thesis on it by a loop of string, the idea being that the public can take down the document, read what someone has written, and then come to hear the author’s defense (aka their orals,  oral examination, or viva), prepared with questions to ask.  And that’s why I went to Visby: because my husband’s colleagues at the Hogskola på Gotland, a university where he’s a part-time lecturer, asked him to nail up his PhD thesis—something of an honour, since he earned his degree elsewhere.

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest's dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

Stephen makes a hole in Ernest’s dissertation/thesis with an electric drill, after the speeches and before the nailing

The spikning (nailing) ceremony didn’t actually involve a church door, or any door at all.  Spikning ceremonies at Gotland  use a plank of wood set into the wall of the library’s café.   And they haven’t been nailing theses on Gotland for very long; the Hogskola there is the youngest university in Sweden, although it’s merging this summer with the prestigious university in Uppsala (established 1477) where they’ve been nailing up papers for centuries.  Some new PhDs in Uppsala, it seems, use hand-forged iron spikes; my husband actually ordered some of these, but they didn’t arrive in time for him to use one. (So now we’ve got a couple of hand-forged iron spikes lying around.  Any ideas on what we could use them for?)

Ernest's hammers in the nail

Ernest hammers in the nail

At some Swedish institutions, your adviser signs off on your thesis by writing Må spikas—meaning “May be nailed”; at some, nailing up your thesis is a requirement for getting your degree.  Some require you to give a copy of the thesis to the university library as well, as that’s a bit more practical for readers, and some have gone over to what’s called e-spikning or e-nailing—posting theses on-line.  I rather like the sound of the Institute of Technology at Linköpings Universitet, where PhD candidates nail their theses to “the oak outside…building C”, which seems much more authentic than the bulletin boards and such that other places use.

Ernest and the Rektor

Ernest and the Rektor

The University of Gothenburg’s School of Global Studies advises students to “contact the reception for borrowing a drill, hammer, and nail.”  That would have been handy at Gotland, where staff made arrangements for the hammer and nail to show up at 2:00, but they didn’t arrive until 3:00, brought by a young woman in blue jeans, a striped T-shirt, and running shoes, whom Ernest thought at first was someone from the facilities staff.  She turned out to be Erika Sandström, Rektor of the university, that is, the head of the whole institution, what in the US we’d call the President and in the UK we’d call the Chancellor.   That mix of formality and informality is particularly Swedish, I’m told, and I rather like it; they seem to value substance over formalities.

Colleagues and game design students at the party

Colleagues and game design students at the party

At 3:00 the speeches started, with professor Stephen Batchelder introducing Ernest, and then turning the microphone over to Ernest to talk a little about what he’d written, after which Stephen drilled a hole through a copy of the thesis with an electric drill (whatever they used in the Middle Ages, it must have taken a lot longer).  Then we all trooped into the café where Ernest stood on a bench to reach the empty spot they’d chosen in advance (and into which they’d secretly drilled a pilot hole).  He pounded in the nail, hung up the thesis, got a bouquet and a gift (and a hug from the Rektor), after which we all had drinks and canapes.

The process works!  Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The process works! Just as we were leaving, I snapped this unknown woman taking down a thesis to have a look.

The punchline here is that Martin Luther probably didn’t nail his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, or at least that’s the most recent word from historians who’ve looked at the evidence.  That church burned down in 1760, but was rebuilt, and in the 19th century it was given new doors, with Luther’s 95 arguments inscribed in bronze.

In any case, now my husband is not just Ernest, but Dr Ernest; his dissertation/thesis—Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling—is the last student paper he’ll ever have to write; and you could say, using an American expression, that he’s nailed it.

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An English Christmas 3 (Revisited) : Bring Us a Figgy Pudding

This post, part of the sequence that first ran in the Christmas season of 2010, should have been gone live yesterday, but my hosting duties got in the way of my posting duties.  Hope you’ll enjoy the original post and updates in any case.

Don’t want to make your own? Traveltrade.visitlondon.com posts this photo with a suggestion that you buy your pudding from Fortnum & Mason.

It’s Christmas day as I write this so, since I’ve told you about Christmas cake and mince pies, there’s just time to tell you about Christmas pudding before the holiday is over, and I’ll have covered the Big Three.

Christmas pudding is traditionally a steamed concoction of dried fruits and suet held together with a minimal amount of breadcrumbs or flour. It’s also called plum pudding, but doesn’t have plums and probably never did; the name comes from the prunes that it used to have and that some recipes still call for.

Update: But as I learned from a guest at Christmas dinner yesterday, at one time raisins could be called plums.  In fact, any fruit that in any way resembled a plum could be called one; the Oxford English Dictionary features a quote from the 18th century in which somebody refers to a “great Plum” that “is called Mango”.  Hmmm.

Some recipes use a lot of dried figs; puddings like today’s Christmas pudding probably inspired the “bring us a figgy pudding” line in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”.

And Christmas puddings are soaked with spirits—as is pretty much everything in the United Kingdom at Christmastime, including the inhabitants.

There are some pleasant traditions associated with Christmas pudding. For starters, for at least the last 150 years there’s been a tradition that everyone in the household should take a turn stirring the pudding, and the longer you stir, the more good luck you’ll have in the next year. Clearly some sly cook 150 years ago came up with this as a labour-saving idea.

In another tradition, the cook adds coins or other inedible prizes to the pudding, and each diner has a chance of finding one—if not breaking a tooth on it. Christmas puddings are best eaten carefully.

Originally the prizes were coins, and if you found one in your portion, you got to keep it. Nowadays it’s more likely that the cook will stir in symbolic objects, little trinkets about the size of charms on a charm bracelet, though the symbolism varies from family to family. For some, a tiny horseshoe means good luck, or a tiny anchor means you’ll find a safe harbour (which could be interpreted as a new home, a new job, or anything else you like).

Here again, I’m lucky enough to have heirlooms handed down from my mother-in-law. In our Christmas puddings, you might find a silver sixpence, a button, a thimble, or a ring said to be a grandmother’s wedding ring, though if it was, the grandmother must have had truly tiny hands. The coin predicts wealth in the new year, the button says you’ll get new clothes, the thimble means plenty of work, and the ring stands for love. (You can keep the luck, but you have to give the prizes themselves back. In the first place, they don’t make silver sixpences anymore.)

We had our Christmas pudding earlier today—flaming Christmas pudding at that. You pour warmed brandy over the pudding and put a match to it. If you dim the lights before dessert, it looks pretty impressive, with blue flames flickering all over and around the dark pudding. And in case there isn’t enough liquor involved in the making of the pudding or the flaming of the pudding, you serve it with a hard sauce made of butter, sugar and brandy, that melts over the hot pudding.

I was asked for fruitcake recipes after the Christmas cake article, so I’ve put recipes for Christmas cake and for Christmas pudding in the Featured Link section (right hand side of the screen). My favorite Christmas pudding comes from a chef called Nigel Slater; his is the only one I’ve seen that calls for dried apricots. The first time I made it, I didn’t have all the dried fruits it called for, so I substituted more apricots for anything I didn’t have, the result was fabulous, and now I add extra apricots on purpose.

Of course, you’re supposed to make the pudding ahead—in earlier times, some people made the pudding at New Year’s and kept it to eat at the following Christmas. For those who don’t have time for such things, or confidence that a pudding made 12 months ago is still edible, there are plenty of Christmas puddings in the supermarkets, most of them in microwaveable bowls so there’s no steaming.

Or you could order Christmas pudding at High Timber, a restaurant in London that serves the dish, but only to diners who sign a legal waiver. They’re afraid you’ll sue if you chip a tooth, or swallow one of the charms. A serving isn’t cheap, either, at £7, but that’s because you get to keep the charms—and they come from Tiffany’s.

Merry Christmas!

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A Last Word about Isaac Newton and a First Word about William Blake

Sorry that there hasn’t been a post here for a couple of weeks; sometimes real-world deadlines intrude. I hope to get back on schedule soon.

A peek through the main gate of the British Library in London, where you can just make out the colossal statue of Newton, hunched over, measuring with a compass, or as the British would say, with compasses.

Although I’ve never posted about the British Library in London, it’s one of my favorite places over here. Heck, it’s one of my favorite places on the planet—and while that’s mainly because of the books, manuscripts, maps, and more that they keep inside, there’s also the sculpture outside to consider.

The first thing you see if you enter through the main gate is a statue of Isaac Newton, by artist Edouardo Paolozzi. With a name like that, of course he must be…Scottish. He came from the north side of Edinburgh, but perhaps, given that his parents were Italian, he felt at home in the pedestrian court enclosed by the wings of the British Library, as it’s officially called the piazza.

Paolozzi’s Newton

Paolozzi’s bronze version of Newton is almost 4 metres tall—that’s about 13 feet, and that’s to the top of the curve of its back.  If that hunched-over giant stood up, it would tower over the rest of us. That’s common enough for public statues, but perhaps especially appropriate for Newton, who said that if he saw farther than others had seen, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants—those scientists and mathematicians who went before—and Einstein presumably stood on the metaphorical shoulders of the giant Newton in his turn.

Blake’s Newton

But the giant Newton in the Library’s piazza isn’t standing at all, nor is it looking out at the world, because Paolozzi based his design on William Blake’s painting of Newton. While Blake would have appreciated the monumental size of the statue, I’m guessing that’s about the only thing he’d approve about the piece. He wouldn’t have found Newton a fit subject for a national institution dedicated to human thought, life, art, philosophy, and more. The Blake engraving that inspired Paolozzi is actually titled Newton: Personification of Man Limited by Reason.

Blake’s The Spiritual Form of Nelson Leading Leviathan

I say he’d approve of the scale of the bronze Newton because Blake lamented, back in the earliest 19th century, that huge civic artworks had fallen out of fashion, because he liked the idea of getting to paint 100-foot-high versions of his works The Spiritual Form of Pitt and The Spiritual Form of Nelson. That would be something like an American artist today saying it’s too bad the country has lost its taste for what Blake called “paintings on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of the nation” and proposing 100-foot-high interpretations of The Spiritual Form of Obama and The Spiritual Form of General Petraeus. Even in 1805, I think that was probably seriously weird.

Blake was a poet, a painter, a visionary, an illustrator, a prophet, an engraver, and possibly a madman. He began seeing visions at age 9 and saw them all his life, so you can see how, since he thought these were glimpses of something eternal, divine, and true, he’d think that using reason might but a damper on things.

A page from Blake’s America: A Prophecy, typical in that he printed the page from his own engraving, and colored the illustrations by hand.

Blake eventually worked out an entire mythology involving a pantheon of figures you might call demigods, as an illustration of his ideas of the divine and eternal, and of mankind’s place within the grand scheme of things.  He presented his creations in epic poems as well as in artwork, usually in illuminated books which he engraved and then, helped by his wife, painted on the colors by hand.

In this mythology, mankind’s long-ago fall from grace was a fall out of eternity and into time and space, which fractured Albion—the Cosmic man and, while we’re at it, the personification of England—into four parts. Now, here it really gets messy, because everything is overloaded, carrying more than one meaning. But we only need to look at one of the four: Urizen.

The title page of The Book of Urizen. Behind him there’s a tree which has bent over and re-rooted, to grow again. If you read the previous post, you might recognize that as something you’ve heard of before…

Urizen is a creator god (except that he isn’t) and maps in some ways to the Biblical Jehovan (except that he doesn’t; I told you Blake was seriously weird). Urizen is man’s reason, without the stabilizing balance of the three other qualities Blake found essential—emotion, imagination, and instinct—and is an oppressor, an enslaver, of humanity.  His name is a pun on horizon, indicating that his vision is limited, and on your reason.

Urizen as The Ancient of Days

Blake’s painting of Newton casts him as Urizen (compare the illustrations), and shows him measuring and calculating, having turned his back on the beauty and variety of nature as shown in colors on what looks to me like lichen-encrusted rock. Blake despised Newton’s approach; 100 years or so after Newton, when rest of the world venerated Newton in large part for his experiments with light and vision, Blake said Newton brought us night rather than light, and that Newton’s single vision didn’t compare to Blake’s own fourfold vision. Newton might have stood on the shoulders of giants, but Blake suggested that Newton saw so little from his perch that he might as well have been asleep. He lumped Newton, materialist philosopher John Locke, and Francis “Father of Empiricism” Bacon together as what has been called an infernal trinity. They were to Blake ‘the three great teachers of atheism, or Satan’s Doctrine’, though Newton was not an atheist at all, but quite the contrary; he thought the precision and mechanics of the universe was evidence of the Creator.

In this view of the sculpture, the bolts/pivots for the joints show up a bit better–look at his shoulder, and at his ankle

Paolozzi took Blake’s view of Newton as advocating a mechanistic universe and ran with it, making his Newton out of metal and making the features of his body segmented, idealized, and symmetrical; removing the colors, the lichens and the rock entirely; seating his figure on some kind of rectilinear constructed box; and even showing the bolts that hold the body together, the pivots of the joints, making sure we can see the linear divisions between the pieces of the head, suggesting Newton’s head was made of precisely manufactured units. Paolozzi might as well have said “Yeah, Newton gave us a measured, understandable, reasonable, quantifiable view of the world—and isn’t it great?”

In any case, Paolozzi’s Newton provides the perfect segue from the previous posts on Newton to the next posts, which will involve Blake—because it was Blake who wrote the lines of the hymn “Jerusalem” that one little choirboy sang near the beginning of the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and I figured there must have been lots of Americans who, if they understood what the song was about at all, didn’t understand why the English apparently chose a piece about Jerusalem as a patriotic song. It’s just one more basic fact of British life in the collection of elements of Britishness set out in that ceremony, and one I plan to tell you about next time.

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Isaac Newton and the Paralympic Apples

Apple dancers at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics

Olympic sports have continued here; the Paralympics don’t end until tonight. British viewers saw the full Paralympic opening ceremony, and we’ve had 4 channels showing events live all day long. I gather that in the US, NBC showed only about 5 hours of the Paralympic action, total—hard to believe.

A performer enters, riding in her wheelchair on a gigantic apple, which sits on a book. Books made up another theme of the ceremony, representing, among other works, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Newton’s Principia Mathematica

The Paralympics’ opening ceremony, like the Olympic ceremony, tackled a revolution, in this case the scientific revolution. The connection between Newton’s apple—represented in many forms, including the real apples given to each spectator on arrival—and the Paralympics might not be obvious, though when you watch some of the people who run on those remarkable blades instead of feet, it’s clear that science and technology underpin some events. But I’d guess that the choice of theme had much to do with the contemporary world’s most famous disabled person being British and a scientist: Stephen Hawking, who narrated the production.

Professor Hawking, looking very small on the main set in the enormous arena

The UK can’t actually claim that the scientific revolution began here—can’t leave out Copernicus for starters, and he was Polish—but I guarantee you that a good proportion of the population finds that the phrase “scientific revolution” brings to mind that apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head 100 years after Copernicus. Newton wasn’t actually conked on the head, but there was an apple tree, he did watch an apple fall and, watching it, wondered why apples always fall down and never out to the side or something, a bit of daydreaming that led to the universal law of gravitation. Descendants of Newton’s apple tree still grow in the same orchard at his home in Lincolnshire, which I visited just a couple of days before those apple-wielding performers (see illustrations) appeared on my TV/telly, so I’m using that as an excuse to write about Newton in the middle of my streak of Olympic-ceremony posts.

A 430-voice chorus sings Principia , a violently discordant piece by composer Errollyn Wallen inspired by Newton’s work

Isaac Newton was born prematurely at Woolsthorpe Manor on Christmas Day 1642, so small that the nurse said he could fit into a quart jug (in the US we’d have said pitcher; Brits think pitcher is as quaint and old-fashioned as Americans think jug is). Servants sent out for supplies for the baby sat down and goofed off rather than hurry, as they didn’t expect him to be alive when they got back anyway.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, where Isaac Newton was born, grew up, and did some of his most famous work.

On the other hand, local superstition at the time held that it was lucky to be born on Christmas Day. It was also supposed to be lucky to be born after the death of your father, as odd as that sounds, and the baby’s father had died a few months before. When his mother, Hannah, remarried, she left three-year-old Isaac at Woolsthorpe Manor with his grandmother. Lots of books will tell you that this meant her new husband didn’t accept his step-son, but the National Trust (historic preservation group that maintains the house) says it’s more likely that Hannah shrewdly left her son in the Newton home to make sure no one questioned his right to inherit the place.

The farm at Woolsthorpe Manor

When he was older, his mother also demanded he do his familial duty and work on the farm—Woolsthorpe Manor sounds grand, but it was really just a glorified farmhouse. Had that worked out, he might have remained illiterate like his father, who never learned to write his own name. (There’s a grid of small cup-shaped gouges on a plaster wall at Woolsthorpe Manor that historians think is an inventory of livestock; presumably that was how you kept track if you couldn’t read or write.) But Newton’s mother found she could lead a scientific genius to the land, but she couldn’t make him cultivate it.

Newton, first scientist ever knighted, was granted a coat of arms; claiming descent from a certain baron, he was allowed to adopt that baron’s ancient symbol. The crossed bones are not uncommon on arms and don’t imply piracy; National Trust staff suggested they are sheep bones, as the family made its money in sheep.

In the end, she allowed him to go to school, and from school to Cambridge, where she expressed her feelings about his choice not to be a farmer by giving him so little money that he had to work as a servant for richer students. It doesn’t seem to have mattered much. The only thing that could keep him away from Cambridge was the plague, which closed the place down in 1665.

As far as is known, this is the apple tree from which Newton said he saw the apple fall, one of several in the orchard that lies just outside the front door at Woolsthorpe Manor. It’s certainly over 400 years old. The variety is Flower of Kent, and it’s a cooking apple.

So Newton went back to the farm and sat there by himself, totally revolutionizing science, later saying “I was in the prime of my age for invention”. He not only saw the apple fall and worked out his theory of gravitation, but developed the three Laws of Motion, invented calculus, worked out principles of mechanics and of planetary motion, and did famous experiments with light. His work always began with observation, and he was such an inveterate experimenter that, rather less famously, he stuck a blunt needle into his eye to see how pressing on his retina would alter his vision.

Performers pull giant apples into the stadium

A trip to Woolsthorpe Manor includes a chance to see the window that Newton covered, leaving only a small opening so that he could direct sunlight through a prism and break white light up into colours. Newton didn’t invent the prism; people knew them from way back. Ships used prisms to let light in below decks, for one thing, and Newton bought his prism at a country fair, maybe sold as toy for children. In any case, before Newton, people thought that prisms added colour to light, and that all colours were mixtures of dark and light, so that (I’m not making this up) one theorist said that red was produced by the purest white light with the least amount of dark mixed in (I know, I know) and black was pure darkness, but if there was just a little light mixed into the darkness, you got a sort of dull blue. Newton used a second prism to bend the light again, merging the colours to produce white light, which pretty much knocked the ol’ prisms-apply-colours theory off the table (and at least it didn’t require any of that needle-in-the-eye business).

A giant apple floats in.  Before Newton, people thought objects contained more or less of properties called gravity and levity, which made those objects heavy or light.  This, then, is an apple full of levity, I suppose.

Isaac Newton ended up the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, an extremely prestigious position. One of his professors had the job, but resigned so Newton could have it; he was that good. Three-hundred and ten years later, Stephen Hawking got the job*, which leads us back to the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, in all its apple-y glory.

Apples floated in on wires. Performers rode in on gigantic apples, dragged in enormous apples on carts, tossed around beachball-sized apples, juggled apples. On cue, everyone in the stadium bit into their free apples for one thunderous communal crunch.

Apples everywhere…

And Professor Hawking told us via his synthetic voice that “There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being”. True, but some are less run-of-the-mill than others, and watching Paralympic athletes you can’t help but be majorly impressed. I’m going to miss the games. (I’ve already looked up a wheelchair basketball team near me and hope to go see them play.) But at the moment, I’m looking forward to tonight’s closing ceremony. Just in case there’s audience participation, I’ve got some apples standing by.

* Lucasian professors are required to retire at 67, so Professor Hawking left the Lucasian Chair in 2009, replaced by physicist Michael Green.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor are mine; others are screenshots from the broadcast of the opening ceremony of the Paralympics

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Brunel, part 2: A Visit to the SS Great Britain

The iron hull

In the previous post, I wrote about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, depicted as a cigar-wielding luminary of the industrial revolution in the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
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The bow

That post ended on Brunel’s three ocean-going steamships, one of which—the SS Great Britain—sits now in the same drydock in which it was built in 1843, an attraction for historically minded visitors.
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Remarkable gilt decorations on the bow

Being an historically minded visitor, I went along to Bristol a while back, and visited.
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The stern, showing the water seal that makes the ship appear to float

A glass seal keeps the elements from corroding the iron hull;  visitors can go below the seal and see the hull up close, while climate control systems minimum corrosion. A few inches of water on top of the glass completes the effect so that the ship appears to float.
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The ‘Mr Brunel’ I met on my visit

Very clever design – but then, clever design is what made Brunel famous.
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The dining room for first class passengers

And the Trust that maintains the ship and museum is passing that legacy on to promising schoolchildren by naming a few “Future Brunels”.
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Steerage, anyone?

These are 11- and 12-year olds chosen for their interest and aptitude in science and engineering and for their ability to work well in groups.
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The deck, with a budding mariner at the ship’s wheel

They take part in 6 activities per year for 5 years, including such events as trips to an amusement park to study the physics and engineering behind the mechanical rides.
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Only way to have fresh milk during the voyage was to bring along sufficient livestock

Fortunately, you don’t have to be a Future Brunel to visit the ship and the museum, which together make up an award-winning heritage attraction on the Bristol waterfront.
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Brunel’s innovative propeller

If you can’t get there yourself, please click on the Featured Link and have a look at the SS Great Britain‘s official website.

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