Tag Archives: history

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).

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, History, Travel

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.

10 Comments

Filed under Culture, History, My Life & Stuff That Happened, Travel

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!

9 Comments

Filed under Culture, Current events, Food, History

Update on Newton’s Apple Tree

A special welcome to new subscribers who came here after seeing the previous post on Freshly Pressed, WordPress’s showcase of selected blog posts. I was grateful that they included my apple-y article, and wonder whether, if that has been freshly pressed, we’ll get apple juice, and eventually cider…

The title card from the section of the Paralympics opening ceremony called “Gravity”

Turns out that the Paralympic opening ceremony was titled “Enlightenment”. Who knew? The section called “Gravity” used a title card (see illustration) , but the name of the production as a whole was never shown or announced. (One of the presenters said something about enlightenment being a theme of the evening and of Professor Hawking’s life; that was about it.)

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, the Enlightenment brains behind the Declaration of Independence

So what I saw (see previous post) as a tribute to the scientific revolution was really a tribute to enlightenment in many forms, including the capital-E Enlightenment of which Newton was a part—an intellectual revolution in which people turned to reasoning and science to determine how society should work. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson produced the Declaration of Independence as part of the politics of that Enlightenment, although today sometimes it seems we’re living, to go by current US politics at least, in the Endarkenment.

Sir Isaac Newton

Newton dedicated himself to truth, as a good Enlightenment scientist would, quoting in his notebook a sentiment that goes back to Aristotle that loosely translates as “Plato is my friend, but truth is a better friend”, meaning he would choose truth over whatever an authority told him. (A loose translation is good enough, not least because Newton wrote it in Latin when Aristotle’s original was in Greek—go figure.)

I would be doing Newton a poor service, then, if I didn’t correct mistakes when they come to light. So, many thanks to WordPress blogger 3arn0wl who suggested that the tree I said was a descendant of Isaac Newton’s original was in fact the original tree itself, still growing after more than 400 years, which turns out to be true, or at least, almost certainly true.

Pity the other trees in the Woolsthorpe Manor orchard. Newton might even have seen apples fall from this tree from time to time, but not on the one crucial occasion.

I spoke with Ann Moynihan, National Trust Support Officer for Woolsthorpe Manor, to get the true story, and found her a gold mine of information. The celebrated tree, the most famous apple tree since the Garden of Eden, was identified by about 1779 as the one from which Newton said he saw the apple fall; that’s less than 65 years after he died. So while we don’t have firm proof, it’s very likely to be the right tree; dendrochronology (tree ring measurements) show that the tree is over 400 years old; and we’re not likely to get any closer to the truth than that.   It’s possible that by 1779(ish) folklore could have pushed in already and marked the wrong tree as the hallowed one, but why, as William of Ockham might have said, complicate the story?

Ten years ago, Newton’s apple tree and 49 others were designated Great British Trees in honor of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

The tree being so famous, when it blew over in a storm in 1810 the press got the story and ran with it, lamenting the death of the tree in quantities of ink—but the tree wasn’t dead. People rushed to make a profit on boxes and even chairs made of the dead branches, but the remnants of the tree sent up new shoots; there was life in the old fruit yet.

In fact, Ann suggested that the tree regenerated a la Dr Who.  (I’ll have to explain for those who haven’t encountered Dr Who, but with apologies to Ann, because a joke is never funny if you have to explain it; in short, Dr Who is a character in a science fiction television show who, whenever the actor playing the character quits but producers want to keep the show going, is said to have “regenerated”, and come back to life looking like the new actor who will take the character on.)

Key fobs made from branches pruned from Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree, on sale in the shop at Woolsthorpe Manor.

Ann wasn’t familiar with the story I heard from the staff member in the shop at Woolsthorpe Manor, about the tree having been tested against the DNA of a piece of wood signed by Newton himself, but said that the Royal Society has a piece of wood from the same tree—and here, Americans and other non-British readers might want a word about the RS, which is proud to claim Newton as a former member.

The London premises of the Royal Society

Officially, it’s the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge; the American equivalent would be the US National Academy of Sciences, but the RS is 200 years older than the USNAS. It’s a nonprofit body of eminent scientists who support excellence in science, giving grants for research and education projects and advising the government on scientific issues. The RS has recently made a picture database available on the internet; you can try looking up “Newton apple tree” (see Featured Links), or better yet, read the RS’s blog about the pictures of Newton’s apple tree in their collection (click here).

And in its collections of amazing items from the history of science, the Royal Society has a piece of the original apple tree, a piece that’s been up in the space shuttle. The RS lent the 4-inch chunk to British astronaut Piers Sellers who took it up in 2010, along with a picture of Sir Isaac Newton, for what was meant to be the final voyage of the Atlantis shuttle.  (The Atlantis got a reprieve and kept flying, eventually carrying out the last shuttle mission when the program closed down in 2011.)

Piers Sellers, Anglo-American astronaut, took a fragment of wood from Newton’s apple tree on a space shuttle flight.

If you aren’t a space shuttle astronaut or a Fellow of the Royal Society, and you can’t get to Lincolnshire to visit the tree yourself, you still might be closer to the tree that you might suppose; shoots from Newton’s tree have been sent all over the world, grafted onto different rootstock, and produced genetically identical trees.  In Britain, the tree grows in Cambridge at Trinity College and in the University’s Botanic Garden; elsewhere in the UK they have the ‘same’ tree at the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Oxford, the Institute of Physics in York, and—though I haven’t confirmed this one—Kew Gardens in Kew, in London.  With pointers from Ann and some serious Googling, I’ve found more instances of Newton’s tree in the US (MIT), Korea (the Korean Research Institute for Standards and Science, in Daejeon), Australia (Monash University), and China (at Nanjing University and at TianJin University).

A descendant of Newton’s apple tree growing in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, although the photographer, rather unusually, seems to have been more interested in the trunk than in the leaves

I feel very much more enlightened now, on the subject of Newton’s tree, which is presumably not one of the enlightenments the producers of the Paralympic opening ceremony had in mind, but that’s okay; I took their point about seeing disabled people in a new light as well.  After watching Olympic athletes show how far you can push the human body to do amazing things, I thought I must have seen the absolute limit of achievement in sports, but the Paralympics showed me how wrong I was; like the best in any field of endeavor from sports to science, the Paralympians push the boundaries even farther.

Photos of Woolsthorpe Manor orchard are mine, the “Gravity” title card is a screen shot from the Channel 4 coverage of the Paralympics, and all other photos are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.

9 Comments

Filed under Culture, Technology, Travel

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

36 Comments

Filed under Arts, Culture, Food, History, Sports, Technology, Travel

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.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

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.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

Remarkable gilt decorations on the bow

Being an historically minded visitor, I went along to Bristol a while back, and visited.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

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.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

The ‘Mr Brunel’ I met on my visit

Very clever design – but then, clever design is what made Brunel famous.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

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”.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

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.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

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.
.
.
.
.
.
.

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.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

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.

6 Comments

Filed under Culture, History, Technology, Travel

The Greatest Britons: Two Guys With Cigars

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, played by Kenneth Branagh in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics

The opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics each featured, near the beginning, a guy with a cigar reciting from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  A lot of viewers would have recognized Winston Churchill in the closing ceremony, whether from war movies, history class, or documentaries; he was  Prime Minister of the UK during the second world war.  But the cigar-chewer in the opening ceremony was someone non-Brits aren’t likely to have run across.  Some people thought it was Charles Dickens and some went for Abraham Lincoln, but in fact the actor was playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

As that probably doesn’t tell you much, I’m here to answer the question “Who was Brunel?”, which is the easy part.   “Why were these guys quoting Shakespeare?” is harder.

Winston Churchill, played by Timothy Spall in the closing ceremony at the 2012 Olympics

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a 19th-century engineer who designed and built bridges, tunnels, viaducts, railway lines, and ships in an era in which that kind of civil and mechanical engineering was comparable to today’s Silicon Valley for excitement, new technologies, and transformed economies.  Victorian industrialists—of the type in the Olympics’ opening ceremony, who raised the smokestacks of the factories and presided over the change from the agricultural to the industrial—invested in the huge projects that engineers such as Brunel dreamed up.  Note I have to say “such as” Brunel because I can’t say “like Brunel”, as nobody else was like him:  he was the greatest.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself

Brunel was born into engineering.  His father, a civil engineer and inventor, could have been wealthy if only he’d remembered to patent his inventions, but died nearly penniless, dependent upon his more famous—and more solvent—son.  ‘Our’ Brunel’s father, despite being knighted by King Edward VII and boasting membership in the Royal Societies of multiple countries, spent time in debtor’s prison, until the government bailed him out on condition he wouldn’t leave England.  An imminent deal with the Tsar scared them into forking over the money; they didn’t want Brunel (Senior) moving to Russia and building marvelous things there.

Straight out of school, 16-year-old Isambard began to work for his father, soon running the era’s hottest project: building the world’s first tunnel through the soft mud that lies under a navigable river—in this case, the Thames.  The Brunel tunnel is still there,and still in useby the London Overground Railway.  Opened to the public in 1843, it didn’t even need refurbishment until the 1990s, though building the tunnel cost several lives and almost killed young Isambard.  After a terrible accident and a long recovery Brunel (Junior) went on to different kinds of engineering work of his own, most notably for the Great Western Railway.

Statue of Brunel at Paddington Station in London

On the first train ride Brunel ever took, he jotted down some notes, the jagged letters showing how jerky the train was, and added “The time is not far off when we shall be able to take our coffee and write, while going noiselessly and smoothly at 45mph – let me try”.  He got his chance to build a railroad–only two years after his first ride.

The financial backers of the Great Western Railway wanted to connect London with the popular holiday (US: vacation) spots in southwest England by rail, which was no small thing in the 1830s.  You had to get approval from Parliament, and counter the arguments of people who claimed railway passengers wouldn’t survive going through tunnels (they’d smother), or feared that cattle would be harmed by walking under a railway bridge, or—my favorite—were concerned, as was the provost of Eton College, that the railway would be “dangerous to the morals of the pupils”.

The SS Great Britain in drydock today

Brunel had to testify before Parliament for eleven days, but eventually Great Western got permission to build the railway.  Then Brunel suggested they go one better: why not operate steamships, too?  A passenger ought to be able to buy one Great Western ticket, he said, and travel all the way from London to New York.  While they chewed on that, Brunel surveyed the new line himself and did ingenious things with the gradients and with the gauge (distance between the rails) to smooth out the ride.  And a few years later, they let him design the ships.

People clearly thought he could do whatever he set his mind to do.  He experimented with trains propelled by carbon dioxide (the Gaz Engine), which didn’t work, and with trains pushed by air rushing to fill a steam-engine-generated vacuum (the Atmospheric Railway), which did work, but not very well. One modern author suggests that if he had wanted to build a steam rocket to go to the moon, someone would have paid to let him try it.

The SS Great Britain in 1844, believed to be the first photo ever taken of a ship

But before designing ocean-going ships for treacherous Atlantic crossings, his only experiment in nautical design was the Bertha, a dredger that removed silt from the Bristol docks.  Even more formidably, the general wisdom said steamships couldn’t cross the ocean; steam for short stretches, sure, but for the Atlantic you had to have sails.  But where Brunel was concerned, the general wisdom often proved wrong.

If you visit the SS Great Britain today, you might meet “Mr Brunel”. Photo by Paul Blakemore, used here by courtesy of the SS Great Britain Trust

He’s probably best remembered for his ships (though Britain’s fascination with the sea may be a factor there).  First came the SS Great Western—in its day, the largest steamship ever, wooden-hulled with paddle wheels for propulsion and a few sails to keep it upright. Next came the SS Great Britain—even larger, with an iron hull and a screw propeller.  You can visit the ship today in Bristol, where it sits as a museum in the same shipyard, in fact in the very same drydock, in which it was built. It was so big they had to adapt the locks between the shipyard and the ocean before it could get out, but Brunel’s last ship, the SS Great Eastern, was even bigger than that.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol. The toll hasn’t changed since 1952, so drivers pay 50 pence to take a car across, though they don’t bother to collect the 5 pence from pedestrians and cyclists anymore.

Brunel died not long after the SS Great Eastern’s maiden voyage.  As a memorial, some of his fellow engineers drummed up funding and completed the Clifton Bridge, which Brunel had designed and begun building almost 30 years before.  (The original project had been abandoned when the money ran out.)  The new bridge was finished in 1864, though without the decorative sphinxes on the tops of the towers that were part of the decorations called for in the original design.

Kenneth Branagh, when he isn’t playing Brunel. He’s one of the UK’s leading Shakespearian actors, but a wider American audience might remember him as Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies.

Back in 1836, the first iron rail of the Clifton Bridge, when laid across 700 feet of empty space over the Avon, had fallen into the water 300 feet below. Brunel said as soon as they could put another in place, he’d ride across it in a basket to show it was safe.  He got stuck halfway across, and had to swing himself out of the basket and up to the bar to get it going again.  That’s where the analogy with today’s Silicon Valley breaks down: people like Steve Jobs have given us marvelous new technology, but they never had to risk their lives to do it; they didn’t contend with exploding steam boilers, they weren’t caught in unfinished tunnels when the river decided to flood in, they didn’t have to do death-defying aerial acrobatics to prove their projects were safe.  You can’t call Brunel the chief geek of his day; he was a bit more Indiana Jones and a bit less Bill Gates, though it’s mindboggling to think what Brunel might have created if he’d had a Bill-Gates sized bank balance to draw on.

And finally, Timothy Spall when he’s not playing Churchill, although in this photo he is in costume for another film. He’s also a major actor here, but going with the people-have-probably-seen-the-Harry-Potter-films approach, I’ll say you might have seen him as Peter Pettigrew, aka Wormtail.

Getting back to the Olympic ceremonies where we started, I should mention that Brunel and Churchill are linked by more than just being British public figures often photographed with cigars; Churchill came first and Brunel came second in a poll a few years ago for “The Greatest Briton” in all of the history of Great Britain.  The BBC aired new documentaries on the lives of the candidates, current public figures presented the cases of their favourites, and the viewers phoned in their votes. Bookies started out giving 20-to-1 odds against Brunel, but they hadn’t counted on the loyal engineering students of Brunel University in London, some of whom voted multiple times (perhaps the railway had undermined students’ morals; the bookies eventually had to close the book).

So Churchill came first and Brunel came second.  Going on down the list, Princess Diana was third, Darwin fourth, and Shakespeare fifth, which brings us back to why Churchill and Brunel were quoting Shakespeare.  But on that question, your guess is as good as mine.

Except for photos of the opening ceremony, which are screenshots from the BBC video of the event, and the photo of “Mr Brunel” at the wheel of the ship, which is used by permission of the SS Great Britain Trust, all pictures are from Wikipedia and are used under the Creative Commons license.

10 Comments

Filed under Architecture, Culture, History, Sports, Travel