Update: You can now watch the recording of the talk via the link below.
Edinburgh to Hawai’i: the short astronomical career of John Walter Nichol
20 November 2020, 19:30-21:00 – Free
The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh (via Zoom for members; visitors can watch live via their YouTube channel): further details here.
The name John Walter Nichol enters the history of astronomy for his participation as an observer in one of the British expeditions to observe the transit of Venus in 1874. He was said to have been an assistant at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, but little else has been added; he was just one of the small army of observers mobilised that year. He is, however, brought to life in the caricatures that another member of his expeditionary team produced to record their ‘Life and Adventures’ on expedition. These prompted me to find out more: what brought this Edinburgh native to astronomy and to Hawai’i, and where did he go next?
Last October, back in the days where we could meet physically in actual auditoriums, I gave two talks about the history of astronomy, practical mathematics, observers and voyages of scientific exploration. They are both now available to view online.
Expeditionary Astronomers: the 1769 Transit of Venus and British Voyages of Scientific Exploration, at the Royal Astronomical Society on 11 October 2019 (30 minutes).
Mathematical Practice and 18th-Century British Voyages of Scientific Exploration, at the Museum of London for the annual Gresham College Lecture of the British Society for the History of Mathematics on 23 October 2019 (45 minutes).
Longitude found! The book has been published, the exhibition has opened, and so far all is going pretty well. Although, of course, there are things I would have liked to have changed or tweaked, I am really pleased with how both look and with the message that is, by and large, coming across.
It’s difficult to get an impression of an exhibition through photographs, rather than actually being there. It is a three or even four dimensional experience that involves light, sound, space and (occasionally) touch as well as objects and text. It surrounds you and you move through it and across it over time. Nevertheless, because it was amazing for me to see it after so long existing only in lists of objects, label text and designers’ drawings, I put up a picture gallery over on The H Word, with captions that offer a whistle-stop tour.
The exhibition has been previewed and reviewed positively. Maev Kennedy at the Guardian focused on Hogarth as well as Harrison, noting the rich variety of objects on display. In the Times [£], Libby Purves said that the story “is elegantly and excitingly displayed”.
All very pleasing, but the work is a long way from over. There are lots of events for Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich. Have a look at the link to see what’s on. I personally (so far…) will be doing the following:
There are all sorts of things going on at the “Dark & Stormy” Late at the National Maritime Museum on 24 July, but Richard and I will be there to give gallery tours and/or Pecha Kucha presentations
25-26 July is the Longitude Project conference at the NMM, Longitudes Examined, in which I’ll be on the final discussion panel
I will be joining David Barrie, author of Sextant, for a book event and signing at Waterstones Trafalgar Square on 27 August (TBC)
On 30 October I will be giving one of the Maritime Lectures at the NMM (probably on Nevil Maskelyne’s contribution to the longitude story, since I hope the collection of essays on him that I have edited will be out by then).
I’m looking forward to all of this, but seeing it all written out is a little daunting! A lesson to share is not to take on a new lectureship in the same year as you have to deliver books, exhibitions and a large number of events – I also have a significant amount of preparation to do for my new autumn teaching (not to mention some chapters and reviews to deliver over the summer).
The lone (mad) scientist is a common trope in science fiction, but hidden away is a fascination with secret and semi-secret societies who work for the future of all mankind. This talk will look at the representation of the Royal Society in science fiction and fantasy as fact, fantasy and metaphor.
Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
The original story is about an artificial satellite, the Royal Observatory, the Greenwich Meridian and possible solutions to the problem of finding longitude at sea. It is a perfect accompaniment to the Longitude Season, just getting underway in Greenwich.Secondly, yesterday saw the republication of the 1870-71 short story, The Brick Moon, by Edward Everett Hale. It is being published by Jurassic London, along with a new story, Another Brick in the Moon, by Adam Roberts. Details of the publication are available here, and also from this post by Richard Dunn, Senior Curator at Royal Museums Greenwich, who co-wrote the introduction with Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
Finally, as well as a major exhibition on the longitude story (opening in July), this season also includes an art and fiction response. Already open at the Royal Observatory is Longitude Punk’d, an intervention in, or takeover of, the pre-existing longitude galleries. Author Robert Rankin and other artists and makers have come up with a whole range of more or less ludicrous or plausible ideas about solving longitude or alternative realities in which clock maker John Arnold made himself clockwork legs and Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne built an airship and hoped to contact parallel universes – just in case they knew his longitude. Read more from the curator here.