Real, replica, fake or fiction?

When we allowed a Steampunk ‘intervention’ into Flamsteed House and the Time and Longitude Gallery at the Royal Observatory Greenwich last year, in the exhibition Longitude Punk’d, reactions were varied. Many were really positive about bringing some imagination and artistry in to explore the themes, objects and spaces and we undoubtedly attracted at least a few visitors who might not otherwise have gone.

There were, however, more than a few staff and visitors who were annoyed that we were mixing fact and fiction and taking away the authoritative voice of the Museum. How would people learn anything? How would they know what was real history and which were the real objects? Either proving or entirely dismissing their point, most visitors, particularly tourists there for a photograph on the prime meridian, probably didn’t even realise that they were not seeing a straight forward exhibition.

What those who worried about ‘reality’ perhaps don’t fully appreciate is the extent to which fictions and fakes are always a part of museum displays. It is the joy of something like this exhibition – or the really wonderful Stranger than Fiction exhibition at the Science Museum – that they force you to think harder about what we’re presented with and how we too blindly trust the authority and ‘reality’ of certain modes of presentation.

For me, this photograph I took in the Royal Observatory’s Octagon Room during Longitude Punk’d nicely brings out some of what I mean.

The Octagon Room at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, with 'Margaret Maskelyne's Orrery Gown' by Jema 'Emilly Ladybird' Hewitt. (Photo: Rebekah Higgitt)
The Octagon Room at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, with ‘Margaret Maskelyne’s Orrery Gown’ by Jema ‘Emilly Ladybird’ Hewitt. (Photo: Rebekah Higgitt)

While, even for the non-too eagle-eyed, it is clear that the dress in the centre, created for Longitude Punk’d, is not 18th century, for most visitors it might appear that this is a modern piece, with historical nods, simply dropped into a 17th-century space. It is a fiction dropped into history. But things are not what they seem.

Firstly, of course, we can note the museological trappings that make this space very different to the one that John Flamsteed knew. There are barriers, electric lights and museum labels, also a smooth, light wood floor. But what of those paintings? The instruments? The clocks and panelling?

A right old mix-up is the answer. Artfully arranged to evoke the 1676 engraving of the room by Francis Place:

Prospectus intra Cameram Stellatam [View inside the Star Room] (Photo: National Maritime Museum)
Prospectus intra Cameram Stellatam [View inside the Star Room] (Photo: National Maritime Museum)
What we have is a mixture of ‘original’ pieces, later historic objects, 20th-century replicas and 21st-century recreations. The room, much altered over the years, has been completely recreated. The engraving doesn’t give us much information on the nature of the panelling, but restoration work on the rooms downstairs suggested that a fake wood effect had – at least there – been an early wall treatment. Thus an original ‘fake’ effect has been ‘authentically’ recreated, possibly in the wrong space.

The astronomical quadrant, on the left, is a ‘real’ historic object, but some 75 years too late for this set-up. The telescope on the right (out of sight in my picture, but recreating the one in the engraving) is pure prop, without lenses. It used to offer those who bothered to take a look a view of a faded slide of Pluto (the cartoon dog). Now, after much effort of the sort that only those acquainted with the pace of change in large museums will appreciate, it has a picture of Saturn (the planet), fuzzed and chromatically distorted to give some sort of idea of what it was like looking through an early telescope. Obviously Saturn ain’t really visible, through the windows, in the daylight.

What of the paintings? Well, the rather splendid portrait of Charles II (left) is from 1670. I assume (correct me if I’m wrong – annoyingly the catalogue entry doesn’t give the provenance) that this has stayed at Greenwich, if not this room, throughout the centuries – it is certainly similar to the one in the engraving. However, for the purposes of this post we should note that it is nevertheless “thought to be a copy of a Lely”.

The engraving also shows us a painting of the Duke of York, later James II, who had been, perhaps significantly, Lord High Admiral until 1673. However, the one that is currently there is in fact a commissioned replica from 1984. I have no idea what happened to the (copy?) Lely of James that was originally there. Did Charles survive and not James because of an anti-Catholic Astronomer Royal (nearly all of them, I reckon, before the 20th century)? Answers below, please.

The clocks, originally by Thomas Tompion, are perhaps the most complex story of all. Again, what’s in the two images appears to match but that’s about where it stops. Famously, after Flamsteed’s death his wife Margaret sold off the books and instruments at the Observatory, fairly seeing them as private property since they had either been bought by or gifted to Flamsteed. The clocks, therefore, left the observatory.

Today, one of the clocks is back, but on the other side of the room. That is because it was altered and its original 13-foot pendulum changed so that it could be turned into a longcase clock. The clock, with the original dial fitted into an 18th-century wooden case and its mechanism on display in a late 20th-century glass case, is a completely different beast. Next to it is a (wonderful) interloper: a Tompion longcase, which only moved to the Observatory in 2010.

What you can see in the top picture is two replica dials (although the one on the far right is a replica of a sideral clock that, although it was included in the Place drawing, seems never to have actually been installed at the Observatory: a replica of a fiction, therefore) and a reconstruction. The reconstruction, a “tribute” to Tompion by a horology student at West Dean College, has a transparent dial so that the extraordinary pendulum, with a backwards-and-forwards rather than side-to-side motion, can be admired. Excitingly, though, for seekers of ‘reality’, the clock’s positioning was “made possible as many of the original holes for the mount fittings are still visible.”

There we have it. The most original thing in the room are some holes behind the skirting.

Science fictions and the history of science

Cross-posted from Science Comma blog.

For those who are fans of sci-fi, or interested in how sci-fi plays into the history of science, there are some things you might want to take a look at.

Firstly, this Friday there is a free lunchtime lecture at the Royal Society on “The Royal Society and science fiction”, being given by Professor Farah Mendlesohn, who is head of department for English, Communication, Film and Media at Anglia Ruskin University. The blurb reads:

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.

For those who can’t make it to London, the talk should be available, like the Society’s other events, as a video afterwards.

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.

Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon
Cover of the newly published edition of The Brick Moon

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.

Longitude Season has started…

There has already been plenty of longitude on this blog, The H Word and the Longitude Project blog, so apologies that there is more to come. This has all been leading up to 2014, the tercentenary of the first Longitude Act, and the start of Longitude Season at Royal Museums Greenwich. It seems like a good idea to put in one place where we’ve been and some of what’s happening this year.

The Board of Longitude Project logo.
The Board of Longitude Project logo.

First came the Board of Longitude Project. A five year, AHRC-funded research collaboration between the National Maritime Museum and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. The team is/was: Principal Investigator Simon Schaffer, Co-Investigators Richard Dunn (Senior Curator and Head of Science and Technology at NMM) and me; two postdocs (Alexi Baker and Nicky Reeves) and three PhD students (Katy Barrett, Eoin Phillps and Sophie Waring). Very shortly joining us as engagement officer is Katherine McAlpine.

Then came the brilliant digitisation project, a JISC-funded digitisation of the Board of Longitude archive, together with related papers from Cambridge University Library and the NMM. Because of its association with the research project and the Museum, this came with lots of add-ons beyond the scanning and listing, and you can read more on the site and at my Guardian post here.

This year is about delivery and public engagement: four exhibitions, two books and a conference (although there’ll be more scholarly books, collections and articles to come out of the project in following years).


Already open at the Royal Observatory is Longitude Punk’d, which is a steampunk intervention (invasion?) into the courtyard and Flamsteed House that plays with existing spaces and displays, the themes of travel and longitude and with art/science, fact/fiction, real/fabricated. You can read more about it in this post by curator Heloise Finch-Boyer. It is inventive, playful and very funny, but can also confuse and is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. As a response to the problem of denuding the existing galleries in order to put on the main longitude exhibition (see below), it is really brilliant. Once the two exhibitions exist together I hope everyone will be happy! Hashtag is #LongitudePunk’d

Also at the Observatory is a small image and text display, Start to Satellites, about the development of satellite navigation, which takes the story of navigation well beyond the 18th and 19th one about longitude.

Next up will be the main event: Ships, Clocks & Stars: the Quest for Longitude, opening to the public on 11 July. It is an object-rich, historical telling of the story, supported by AV and interactives, with Richard Dunn as the lead curator, me (though my involvement has somewhat diminished since I left the museum) and an NMM team involving Kris Martin, Claire Warrior and Matt Lawrence. I hope it will be fab, and you will hear more anon! Hashtag is #ShipsClocksStars

Last to open will be Art and Science of Exploration, a rehang in The Queen’s House that focuses on the art surrounding the voyages of James Cook. It will be the first opportunity to have Stubbs’s kangaroo and dingo properly on show, alongside paintings by Hodges and Webber. In many ways it will be a natural extension of the main exhibition, which features a section on Cook’s voyages, a key testing ground for new longitude techniques. Hashtag is #ArtSciEx

There will be lots of events on during the run of the exhibitions, so keen an eye on the website. The hashtag for the season as a whole is #WhereOnEarth.


The official book accompanying the exhibition has been written by Richard Dunn and me, and is published by Collins. Called Finding Longitude, it is already available on Amazon for pre-order. It’s available on Kindle and a paperback edition will be sold in the exhibition shop (with luck the hardback trade edition will also make it to paperback?). This follows the same narrative as the exhibition, taking the story well beyond Sobel’s John Harrison focus, and is beautifully illustrated with historical painting and objects. It is out on 19 June.

Out in the autumn is a collection of essays on Nevil Maskelyne, published by Hale Books, called Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal. I have edited it and there are chapters and sections by me, plus chapters by Jim Bennett, Mary Croarken, Nicky Reeves, Rory McEvoy, Alexi Baker, Caitlin Homes and Amy Miller, largely coming out of the symposium we held back in 2011. This should also be well-illustrated with images from the NMM’s collections and, although not in any way replacing Derek’s Howse’s biography of Maskelyne, adds some interesting different angles.


The big conference for the project, and the exhibition, is Longitudes Examined: Tercentenary Conference on the History of the Board of Longitude and the Determination of Longitude at Sea. The programme is now available online and looks brilliant (I’m not speaking, although will be part of the final discussion panel, so I’m allowed to say that)! 

Farewell Greenwich Mean Time (see you in October)

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this was first published on 30 March 2014.

The 24-hour Shepherd Gate Clock outside the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, displaying Greenwich Mean Time to the public.
The 24-hour Shepherd Gate Clock outside the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, displaying Greenwich Mean Time to the public.

It has become something of a tradition on this blog to mark the biannual change of the clocks and, although I no longer work at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, it’s a habit that sticks. This time, as we say farewell to it until the autumn, it seems a good opportunity to reminisce about Greenwich Mean Time.*

Why Greenwich time? And what’s mean about it?

Mean time is clock time. It is a regularised, idealised version of solar time that is tracked not by the apparent motions of the Sun, observed by shadows on sundials, but by a mechanical device that splits the solar day into equal parts. Mean time ticks away at the same pace no matter the season. The difference between the two is described by the equation of time.

Establishing the relationship between mean solar time and apparent solar time only really became possible, or useful, with the arrival of the pendulum clock in the 1650s. This made the mechanical clock, for the first time, a scientific instrument. Christiaan Huygens, who developed the first prototype pendulum clock in 1656, was able to produce reasonably accurate tables of the equation of time in 1665.

However, it fell to John Flamsteed to publish tables in 1672-3 that tackled the problem in what became the standard way. He provided the formula by which apparent solar time could be converted into Mean Time.

Just a couple of years later, Flamsteed was appointed the first Astronomer Royal and moved into the newly built observatory in Greenwich. There, he and his patrons had installed state-of-the-art pendulum clocks by the best clockmaker available, Thomas Tompion. With observations of the Sun and the help of his tables, Flamsteed set these clocks to the local time: Greenwich Mean Time.

Greenwich time became important because there were people measuring it and because other people made use of astronomical observations based on it. Flamsteed’s catalogue of stars, which was to become a standard reference work for the following decades, listed their positions based on Greenwich time.

It was one of Flamsteed’s successors, Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal from 1765 to 1811, who did most to ensure that GMT mattered to more than just astronomers. Under his initiative, observations made at Greenwich were processed into tables that could be used by navigators and cartographers to establish positions at sea or on land. This was the Nautical Almanac, first published for the year 1767.

Surveyors of the Royal Navy and the Ordnance Survey relied on data that was based on observations made at Greenwich, meaning that their charts and maps used Greenwich as a reference point. More precisely, this was the meridian (north-south line) on which the chief telescope at Greenwich was mounted. The Greenwich meridian thus became a prime meridian for British mapping, and east-west position was measured from there. To establish longitudes it was necessary to know the difference between local time and GMT. This could be worked out with astronomical observations and the tables of the Nautical Almanac and, increasingly, with chronometers set to GMT.

The move of GMT from the specialist worlds of astronomy, navigation and surveying into civilian life was down to the increasing role of technologies and cultures that demanded standardization. The arrival of railways made timetabling a necessity. Telegraph systems made it both desirable and possible to know what time it was elsewhere. Factory work made production and payment dependent on timekeeping.

GMT became “Railway Time” in the 1840s, and Britain’s legal standard time in 1880. Despite what you’ll often read, it did not become an international standard in 1884. In that year an international conferencedid recommend the adoption of the Greenwich meridian as the world’s reference point for time and longitude, but it was just a recommendation.

What actually happened as a result of the International Meridian Conference, and what did not, is a story for another post. See you back here on 26 October.

* Our standard time is now in fact Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), derived from International Atomic Time but as close as darn it to GMT.

Messing with time

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, first posted on 31 March 2013, the first day of British Summer Time.

Analogue clock

It’s hardly surprising that I’ve become very aware of time and how we measure it since beginning work at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. What has really struck me is how much we, on the one hand, are resentful at any suggestion that we alter the way we measure time and, on the other, have done just that many times over the course of history.

Although it’s useful publicity for the Observatory, I never cease to be amazed that the change of the clocks, which happens twice a year ever year like … err… clockwork, is always a news story. Suggestions that we might do away with British Summer Time, or shift to what is euphemistically called Double Summer Time (aka Central European Time) are huge debating points. The fact that we do, or the fact that we might cease to, add leap seconds are stories that both receive many column inches.

Although the introduction of BST was a very 1900s notion of making better – that is, more healthful and productive – use of our long summer days*, history suggests that it takes something like a world war to implement such seemingly radical changes. There is often a sense that diverting from whatever it is we are used to is, somehow, unnatural. It certainly seems unnatural when we are ripped untimely from our beds but, even before the arrival of this annual ritual, there was nothing natural about the way we measured time.

Take GMT, which traditionalists are keen to defend by rejecting summer time and by adding leap seconds to ensure that we do not drift too far from having the midday sun above the meridian at Greenwich at noon. In the scheme of things, it is almost as much of a novelty as BST. It only became official standard time in Britain in 1880, even if it had been used in specific contexts, like railway timetables or in navigation, some time before. Its use as a standard to which international time zones are aligned was a matter of slow adoption from the late 19th century onward.

The implementation of a national standard time, which might be some 20 minutes different from your local time, should you live in the west of the country, was seen by some as an unnecessary novelty. There were those who made a stand, and even today the chimes at Christ Church in Oxford still stick to local time. As can be imagined, the idea being floated at the end of the 19th century that there might be a universally-adopted International Time was much mocked, resented or worried about.

But the national or local times that seemed more meaningful to people are, of course, also artificial products. They are expressed as mean time, which is an averaging out of Sun’s the apparent motion that was adopted in deference to the introduction of a new technology – the clock. Clock time is produced by an artificial system that imperfectly mimics “real” time, which is a product of the Earth’s daily rotation and annual orbit.

The difference between mean time and “real” or apparent time is expressed by what’s called the Equation of Time. This was first calculated in the second half of the 17th century, when the introduction of pendulum clocks made the business of artificial timekeeping sufficiently precise. The fact is, the Sun is rarely at its highest point over the Greenwich meridian at the moment our watches show noon.

Things get even more complex when we start looking into how calendars have been calculated and established. These are fascinating histories that are intertwined with everything from the story of astronomy to how we live and order our lives. Our time has been messed with for centuries and it is not, forgive the pun, a clock that can be turned back.

* Personal gripe: many people seem to think that putting the clocks back in Winter is “daylight saving” and is designed, somehow, to give us more daylight. Guys: “daylight saving” is used in Summer and nothing, but nothing, will create more daylight in Winter.

Heritage and the Royal Institution

Cross-posted from The H Word blog [first published 29 January 2013].

The Royal Institution
The Royal Institution in about 1838, by T H Shepherd. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It has been interesting to observe reactions to the recent news about the financial troubles at the Royal Institution potentially being so severe that they might have to sell their Georgian premises on Albemarle Street. There have been calls and petitions to save the building based on an appeal to history and nostalgia. Equally, there have been questions (e.g.herehere, and here) about the RI’s modern role and whether this is well-served by a vast Mayfair building and the traditions that it celebrates.

Without treading too far into the question of what the RI does or should do as an institution for the communication of science in the 21st century, it is worth thinking about it as a site of scientific heritage and ask what makes it unique and worth preserving even if the Royal Institution itself should cease to exist.

Scientific heritage can be a difficult thing to assess, preserve and interpret. Removed from their context, old scientific instruments are apt to lose much of their meaning. Those which survive in museums are often not those which were ever used, for outdated equipment tends to be replaced and thrown away. The large technology and infrastructure of modern science poses enormous challenges for collection and preservation. Buildings in which scientific work has been done are often unexciting architecturally and opaque to the uninitiated.

Unesco, responsible for the inscription of World Heritage, has recently begun to notice that scientific heritage is under-represented on its lists. The problems of aesthetics and size are pertinent, along with the fact that science is often not understood as a manifestation of human culture in the same way that palaces, art works or technological sites like bridges and railways are.

When Unesco weighs up the importance of world heritage, it does so with the aid of three categories: immovable, moveable and intangible heritage. The first includes buildings, monuments, sites and landscapes. Plainly some of these are movable, or at least alterable, but they are associated with a particular place and very often the linking of a set of buildings or their placing within a landscape lends them greater significance than they might have on their own.

Moveable heritage, broadly speaking, consists of things that could end up in museums, such as paintings, objets d’art, textiles, scientific instruments, furniture, books and manuscripts. While individual items of immovable heritage may be hugely important or valuable, their inclusion within a larger collection, or their placing within a particular location can greatly enhance their significance and meaning.

Finally, intangible heritage is the stuff that is harder to pin down. Unesco defines it as including “living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally”. Things inscribed as intangible heritage include dances, festivals, recipes and a bewildering variety of traditions.

Intangible ideas and traditions can also play an important role in assessing the significance of items in the other two categories. Given the fact that the history of science is associated with many intangibles (i.e. things that we no longer touch or hold) – such as people, ideas, skills, discussions and so on – it is clear that this third category can be an extremely useful concept to bear in mind.

Arguably, when all three of these types of heritage come together, we have something particularly valuable. I am lucky enough to work within a World Heritage Site which includes a site of outstanding scientific significance. The Royal Observatory includes buildings designed for science, which are enhanced by their housing historic instruments used on that site, and other wonderful objects. On top of this there are the intangibles associated with the work of the Astronomers Royal and with the concepts of the Prime Meridian and Greenwich Mean Time.

The RI has a similar combination. It has a building long used for scientific and related purposes, parts of which were designed specifically for their role – most obviously the lecture theatre. It also has significant book, object and archive collections, made more significant by their close association with the place in which they are displayed or stored.

The building and objects are associated with the intangibles surrounding the people and scientific research undertaken at the institution. While Faraday’s electrical work and the discovery of 10 elements are usually highlighted, there was a wide range of work done in analysis and testing materials and techniques, often for private or government clients.

In addition to this, of course, the RI had a key role to play in the story of the relationship between science and the public. It is hard to think of another historic site that has combined these roles over such a long period of time and, especially, one that is still inhabited by the same institution. The RI’s intangible heritage is undoubtedly heightened by this fact.

It is true that the RI’s primary audience was a privileged one, catering for a very different market to, say, popular attractions with scientific content or working men’s institutions. It is not, perhaps, a tradition we would be keen to perpetuate (and the RI certainly does not do so exclusively), but we can recognise that getting society leaders on board with the messages of Davy, Faraday and their successors was hugely significant for British science in the period of its nascent professionalisation.

While science communication and outreach can and should take place beyond such hallowed halls, there is benefit in having at least some of it flavoured and informed by science’s heritage. It reminds us that science is not disembodied, pure knowledge, but that it is created by people in particular times and places, with particular equipment and in response to the demands and possibilities of the society in which they inhabit. The heritage of the RI also shows that science has to be communicated – and that this is a business with a long and often rather repetitive back story from which audiences and communicators alike can learn.

The combination of types of unique scientific heritage at the Royal Institution should be cherished. I also suspect its continuity on one site both enhances its significance and may be the best chance of its preservation.

Drawing Mars in Greenwich: recreating an experiment for Stargazing Live

Cross-posted from The H Word blog.

Recreating Mars drawing experiment in Greenwich
Filming for Stargazing Live at Queen’s House in Greenwich. Photograph: Marek Kukula

This week [NB This post was first published on 7 January 2013] sees the return of the BBC’s highly successful Stargazing Live. It starts on Tuesday, in an episode that follows last year’s biggest astronomy story by focusing on Mars.

In thinking about the search for possible life on Mars, the programme will include some of the historical observations and debates that I discussed in a previous post. I’m delighted that the programme gave us at theRoyal Observatory a chance to recreate a key Greenwich contribution to the story.

This was the 1903 experiment carried out by E. Walter Maunder, an assistant at the Observatory, exploring perception at the limits of vision. It was one element in his campaign against the then-dominant view that the Martian surface was covered with immensely long, wide and straight “canals”, thought by many to the work of an advanced civilisation.

Maunder was not alone, being joined by Eugène Michel Antoniadi andWilliam Campbell, together described in Michael J. Crowe’s The Extraterrestrial Life Debate as “the leaders of a wrecking crew” that demolished the Martian canals.

Maunder, with the assistance of the headmaster of the Royal Hospital School in Greenwich, asked a number of the school’s pupils to draw from different depictions of Mars, placed on a board at the front of the room.His results suggested that, particularly at certain distances, the eye tended to resolve indistinct waves and dots into straight lines, suggesting that the “canals” were an optical illusion rather than real surface features.

Ever since I heard about this experiment, I have wanted to recreate it. Asking people to undertake an exercise like this is a wonderful way to understand the problems and contingencies surrounding astronomical observation and recording (imagine not only peering at this small image, but it flickering in an unsteady atmosphere, and having to keep taking your eyes away in order to represent it on paper). I also wondered if it really worked as Maunder described.

Maunder claimed in his paper that the boys, aged around 12 to 14, were all “wholly and entirely ignorant of the appearance of Mars in the telescope, and of the discussions which have taken place as to the markings on his surface.” I have always wondered if this was true, given the widespread popularity of the Martian canal idea at this period.

Our guinea pigs were probably familiar with what Mars looks like when photographed today, but less likely than the 1903 schoolboys to think of drawings or canals. An interesting difference was their age and the fact that most of them were art students. This probably produced different results than had we picked people off the street but might compare interestingly with the naval cadets. The latter were encouraged by Maunder, and probably by their education, simply to draw what they could see. Our art students may have been more likely, despite my instructions, to attempt to interpret the image and to consider different graphic approaches to its re-depiction.

It is likely that the experiment took place in the school’s old gymnasium. This no longer exists, so the BBC team opted for another of the school’s former buildings – the beautiful Queen’s House. They set up the experiment pretty faithfully, with distances and scales as specified in Maunder’s paper. Told to draw, our students obliged, and demonstrated that their eyesight and drawing ability was a good deal keener than mine.

Did our results back Maunder’s? Sort of. I didn’t see the generation of any “canals” where little or nothing appeared on the original image, but there were certainly more straight lines. In our small sample, it also appeared that the middle rows were more likely to see these lines than those nearest (who saw more detail) or those furthest away (who saw little distinctly). It could be argued that these distances mimicked the experience of observing with particular-sized telescopes, creating the conditions where the eye tends to resolve indistinct detail into non-existent straight lines.

Maunder’s report of this experiment apparently brought a key ally to the campaign against Martian canals – the veteran Canadian-American astronomer Simon Newcomb. It was, however, just one of the arguments brought – one of the simplest being the point that if straight canals like those reported by Percival Lowell did exist on the curved surface of Mars, they ought to appear curved to the observer on Earth.

In his writings, Maunder focused on scientific evidence and his own experiences as an astronomical observer. He chose to stay clear of the philosophical and religious dimension of the debate, despite the fact that his popular writings in astronomy were usually framed with natural theology and Biblical references.

Religious beliefs could support either position in the debate about the existence of life on other planets. However, it was clear that Maunder, an active member of a small pentecostal, adventist sect, believed man’s relationship with God and place in the universe were unique. He could not countenance intelligent, canal-building Martians – and thus his scientific arguments were motivated by religious belief.

Watch on Tuesday to see how the experiment went and how it fits into the long history of observing Mars and the search for extra-terrestrial life. Also visit Alien Revolution a small, free exhibition at the Royal Observatory, opening in March.

In the end the section of the film that included the experiment wasn’t run live on Stargazing, due to lack of time. Happily, the whole thing was made available online and you can see it here.

Is there ‘a rising tide of irrationality’?

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Painting of a comet over sea by Herbert Barnard John Everett

I often come across the assumption, or assertion, that pseudoscientific views or belief in the paranormal are increasing. Yet the claim that there is a “rising tide of irrationality” seems to be backed by little evidence.

The “rising tide” comment is taken from a tweet by Daniel Loxton, editor of Junior Skeptic magazine, who also recently tweeted:

I keep hammering on point that paranormal claims and attempts to get to bottom of them have always been with us, and always will be with us… 15 Nov 12

This certainly chimes with my view as an historian. Loxton also pointed me to a piece on the data collected since 1990 by Gallup that indicates “the public’s persistent belief in the paranormal”. While particular types of paranormal interest come in and out of fashion, overall it seems that views considered non-, anti- or pseudo-scientific have a fairly static presence.

So why the assertion that it is increasing? Perhaps today we can point to the potential for visibility and collective presence generated by the internet. There are also new ways in which unscientific views have entered the political arena, making them more visible and problematic – something recently discussed by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes inWhy Conservatives Turned Against Science.

But these factors don’t account for the perennial sense of a rising tide. Perhaps it is simply that the more sensitive to or aware of something you are, the more you keep on noticing it. In this case, much of the sensitivity is due to the fact that elements of what is branded pseudoscience can be deeply entangled and competitive with perceptions of orthodox science. (It’s worth having a look at Steven Shapin’s recent review of Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars on the origins of the term.)

Take astrology, for example. It was once intimately connected with astronomy. The words were more or less interchangeable in the early modern period, although for simplicity we can characterise astrology as having been one of the most significant drivers for accurate positional astronomy, alongside timekeeping, surveying and navigation. By the end of the 17th century, for elite astronomers, this connection was disintegrating and, although their data continued to be used by astrologers, the borders between legitimate and non-legitimate uses of astronomy were redefined.

The astrologers did not go away, and popular belief in the effect of heavenly bodies on the mundane world – on individuals, nations, crops, weather or health – certainly remained throughout the 18th century and beyond. A market for astrological publications and symbolism continued to exist, even if it was not until the late 19th century that there was a notable revival of interest in astrology and other things esoteric and spiritual among more fashionable and educated audiences.

One place in which we can trace this ever-present undercurrent of astrological belief is, of all places, in the archive of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich (now held at Cambridge University Library), where a quick search of the online catalogue reveals that Astronomers Royal throughout the 19th and 20th century had to deal with enquiries from the public relating to astrology. Undoubtedly there was such correspondence in the 18th century too, it simply was not kept as diligently.

Astrological enquiries of the mid 19th century – before the revivals of either late 19th-century esotericism or the 20th-century’s New Age – were also referred to in a published account. This was The Midnight Sky, written by one of the Observatory’s assistant astronomers, Edwin Dunkin.

In the second edition, Dunkin described the work of the Royal Observatory, where he had been based since 1838, and noted that,

there is one class of correspondence which, during the author’s long connection with it, he has never known to fail, and which should be alluded to here, to show that, even in this the nineteenth century, there are paradoxers of all kinds, both scientific and social, who call upon the astronomer for advice under difficulties. For it must be acknowledged that the Greenwich astronomer, in addition to his stated public duties, is also very generally supposed to devote some attention to astrology…

He went on to describe “individuals calling frequently at the Observatory gate, requesting information about their future destiny”, letters “enclosing Post-Office orders, requesting a nativity cast in return”, and how “On one occasion, a well-dressed young woman, apparently in great distress, called at the author’s private residence” asking for information about an uncle at sea. “She left in tears, because she was informed that the stars were unable to satisfy her wishes.”

Dunkin’s “final example of the march of intellect in the nineteenth century” was a letter received more than 30 years before: “I have been informed that there are persons at this Observatory who will, by my inclosing a remittance and the time of my birth, give me to understand who is to be my wife. An early answer, stating all relative particulars, will greatly oblige”.

Astrological questions, or ones on Mayan prophecy or UFOs, still come to places like the Royal Observatory. We can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that this puts us in esteemed company, and that ’twas always thus, and ’twill ever be.

More than transitory interest: an instrument of note

Slightly belatedly, here’s a cross-posting of my last post on the Longitude Project blog, which takes a closer look at a significant astronomical relic:

A lesson quickly learned in the world of museum collections and displays – perhaps especially in history of science and technology collections – is that the appeal and aesthetics of an object only rarely match the interest of their story. It has been rightly stated that in many cases when an instrument has made its way into a museum collection, it is probably because it not much used for its ostensible function: it has been admired and collected rather than used, broken and thrown away. [Read more]

An auspicious day to found an Observatory

The Royal Observatory has several possible birthdays. I have, for example, seen it given as 4 March or 22 June 1675. The first is the date of Charles II’s Royal Warrant that ordered the Board of Ordnance to pay for “the support and Maintenance” of John Flamsteed, appointed “our astronomical observator” and charged

to apply himself with the most exact care and diligence to the rectifying the tables of the motions of the heavens, and the places of the fixed stars, so as to find our the so much-desired longitude of places for the perfecting the art of navigation.

The second date is that on another Royal Warrant, this time authorising the construction of the “small observatory within our park at Greenwich, upon the highest ground, at or near the place where the castle stood”.Read More »