Wednesday, 27 November 2013

V2 rockets - not my department ...

A few years ago, I happened to visit the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama -- yes, Noble Readers, I do get around somewhat - and I saw there preserved, almost as if in aspic, the office of Wernher von Braun.

Now, Wernher von Braun, you may recall, was the German rocket scientist who worked to develop the equipment that would eventually put a man on the moon. A previous blog of mine mentioned some of von Braun's earlier handiwork: the notorious V2 missile, used by the Nazis to kill several thousand people in my city. So you can imagine that I have mixed feelings about the man and my brief moment looking into his office ...

Did America do right by spiriting this Nazi (and he was a Nazi all right) off to Alabama to get the jump on the Russians so far as the next phase of weapons development was concerned? Sure.  No question. Much better than hanging him after a short appearance in Nuremburg. It might even be argued that we (I use the term loosely to include myself) managed to turn a Nazi back into a human being. Personally, I doubt von Braun spent much time confronting himself with moral
questions, but then what do I know?

One of my particular heroes is a guy named Tom Lehrer, part scientist, part piano-playing satirical song-writer, all-round genius. If you don't know of him already, go Google him and you could learn much from his current incarnation on Youtube -- "Lehrer" is, after all, German for "teacher."

For your edification, here's what Tom, writing in the early 'Sixties, said about Wernher:

Friday, 22 November 2013

The Vengeance Weapon

Yesterday, I drove a couple of miles to a local spot that is quite significant in world history. Now, I know what you're thinking, Noble Readers: you only have to poke a pointed stick into the ground in London to have the the black gold of history come spurting out. But my short trip was not of the kind that results in the discovery of some lost medieval king under a car park.  No, it was a sad and poignant little visit to a very ordinary suburban street that for a brief moment within living memory was turned into a living hell.

At about a quarter before seven in the evening of the 8th of September, 1944, an explosion in Chiswick, West London, killed three people. One was 63 year-old Ada Harrison, another was a Royal Engineer called Bernard Browning who was on leave and hoping to see his girlfriend, and the third was a three year-old called Rosemary Clarke. Twenty-two other people were injured.

The explosion made a crater forty feet across and thirty feet deep, and demolished a dozen houses in Staveley Road. More had to be torn down because of the damage they sustained. The authorities said a gas explosion was to blame, but they knew very well that this blast was nothing of the sort. They knew, because they had been told by their military ntelligence people to expect it, that this was caused by a warhead.

Winston Churchill was informed that a rocket had been launched from the Hague in Nazi-occupied Holland, had traveled up to the very fringes of Outer Space, and had then dropped supersonically to earth, completing what was the world's first ballistic missile attack.

In all, more than three thousand V2s were launched on London and, later, Antwerp, killing and maiming thousands of victims. A very sad tale could be told about every one of them. There is a small, recently-placed memorial to the tragedy that took place outside No. 5 Staveley Road. If you wait there long enough, the sight of it will bring a tear to your eye.

You might like to see this video on YouTube


Friday, 15 November 2013

Anyone for Sphairistike?

As a previous blog has vouchsafed to you, Noble Reader, I did my teenage astronomy at Rossall College. This is a private school on the Irish Sea coast in an area known as the Fylde. Believe it or not, this unlikely spot is, after a fashion, the home of one of the world's greatest sports.

Whether or not the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton -- and it's rather doubtful that the Duke of Wellington ever made a remark to that effect -- it's pretty certain that the love of ball games was well established among the children of Britain's ruling elite even in the mid-eighteenth century.

Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Rossall old boy, later served in the Indian army, and on his return to England began to market a set of equipment to allow owners of country houses with neatly-kept lawns to play a new game he had invented. This diversion was more spirited than croquet and required fewer participants than cricket. He called it "Sphairistike." That is what you call a real fifty-dollar word. It's ancient Greek for "skill at ball games." Not the sort of trade mark you choose if you want your product to take off, you may say, but then at the time marketing was in its infancy and most of the people who could afford the kit (and the lawn) would have had at least a smattering of classical languages.

Many rule changes later, the game has evolved into a world sport which gives pleasure to millions and disappointment to English hopes every year. (Yes, Andy Murray, is indeed not English.) But just imagine if old Major Wingfield had opted to name his game after himself. Then, the sporting courts of Wimbledon might have been owned and organized by the All England Clopton Club. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Watch out for Comet ISON!

Hi Noble Readers, it's time to turn your attention skyward in anticipation of what might be one of the great astronomical events of the decade. I have been an amateur astronomer for many decades and never seen a comet to compare with the comets of history. However, despite our light-polluted skies, we may this December see one such.

Comet ISON is heading for a close encounter with the sun later this month, and if it is not vaporized or torn apart, it should be visible to the naked eye in December. It is expected to pass just about 600,000 miles from the sun's surface on November 28.

If predictions prove correct, the comet should be visible to the naked eye in Earth's early morning skies in early December and throughout the night beginning in January.

So keep those eyes peeled.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Law Really is an Ass ...

How is it that it takes graduates, supposedly the intellectual cream of society, two years at a specialist school and several further years working in practice, to acquaint themselves with the labyrinthine complexity of our system of law, but a person charged with breaking it will be told that ignorance of the law is no defence?

The only safe course is to assume that everything is illegal and do nothing, but then how can a person who dares even to walk down the street consider themselves innocent until proven guilty?

Two kinds of "Proof"

You often hear debaters talking about proof, and it's pretty clear in most cases they don't know what they're talking about. So as a public service, Noble Readers, I thought I would offer my two pennies worth on the topic. 

As anyone who has a taste for hard liquor will tell you, there are different sorts of proof, but we might, on this occasion confine ourselves to two in particular, and to draw the distinctions between them. First let's look at "mathematical proof."  Mathematical proof is the sort that the Greek geometer Euclid liked to demonstrate. It consists of stating a set of initial assumptions which are regarded as facts, and using logic to build on those assumptions. The result is a new fact which must be inescapably true if the assumptions you begin with are true.

This is all very well in mathematics, which is a subject that lives in its own little idealized world. But what about the "real" world? Science must live in the real world, because the whole idea of science is to describe the real world. Science uses mathematics help it to do this. A lot of the time it uses a branch of mathematics called "statistics" to work out what is likely to be true or false, at other times it will attempt to describe the real world using equations that express physical laws. One example of the latter are the equations that describe the way an object with a given mass falls in a gravitational field when there is no air present to alter its motion. You can, if you feel it necessary, alter those equations to descibe the way the same object moves when there is air present. Or you can alter the equations another way to describe how the same object would move if it were dropped, not on Earth, but say, on the moon or on Mars.

But to return to the idea of scientific proof: science doesn't prove facts like mathematics proves facts. The way science works is by excluding concepts that can be shown to be wrong. Let me illustrate: science does not say things like "the Earth is round," rather it says things like, "the Earth cannot be flat because ..." and then comes a set of observations that show why it cannot be flat. Questions that are amenable to scientific investigation, therefore, have to be "falsifiable," that is, open to being proved false, a condition famously set forth by the philosopher Karl Popper.

So next time you hear someone say "science has proved that" something or other is so, you know they don't know what they're talking about.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Gosh Wow Factor

Anyone who knows me, Noble Reader, will tell you that I am a man of serial enthusiasms. I develop a spike of interest in something which peaks and dies away with a period of perhaps two years: cactuses, steam engines, spiral staircases, &c., all have come and gone. But the one life-long interest that has stayed with me is astronomy.

When I was 13 years-old I used to go along to Rossall College, a minor public school in the north west of England,  where a venerable, and to me, gigantic, telescope had been made available through the kindness of one of the house masters. I would bicycle three miles to the said institution and collect the keys and a box of eyepieces and make use of this neglected observatory which housed a big, brass refractor made by Thomas Cooke and Sons of York.

Picture, if you will, the biblical Saul on his way to Damascus, and the moment when the scales fell from his eyes. Well, I had my own equivalent epiphany of sorts, and it happened in Rossall College observatory.

What happened was this. One particularly crisp, clear night I spent an hour in candlelight (there was no mains electricity) lining the telescope up and setting the clock drive so that it would remain pointed at a particular point in the sky. What I wanted to see was located in the constellation of Andromeda, which was just rising to its highest point. It was the famous M31, a neighbouring galaxy, the only one easily visible to the naked eye, and an object pretty similar to the galaxy we live in, which we call the Milky Way. When I say "neighbouring", I should add that M31 is a couple of million light years away, which means that it's so far from us that light takes a couple of million years to get to us. Considering that light always travels at 186,000 miles per second, that's really quite a long way. Actually, when it coms to galaxies, M31 is pretty well our closest, the furthest that we've measured being more than thirteen billion light-years away.

Anyhow, there was I, all set up with that big six-inch refractor pointing at M31. I positioned myself at the gently moving eyepiece and shut my eyes. The idea was to get "dark adaption." If you shut your eyes, they get used to the darkness, so that when you open them again very faint objects appear momentarily much brighter. I thought I'd give myself twenty minutes. Then I looked.

Gosh? Wow?

A faint patch of haze with a slightly brighter centre. Big deal.  But to me it was a very big deal. While I had had my eyes closed I had been reflecting on what was actually about to happen. The particles of light -- photons -- that were coming down that telescope and would soon be hitting the retina of my right eye had come from more than a hundred million different stars. Those photons had travelled across 2 million light years of empty space and would find their final destiny interacting with the light-sensitive chemicals in the retina of my eye. Amazing enough in itself, but the more I thought about it, the more amazing it became: that photon journey had begun two million years ago -- before my own species had even evolved.

That's quite a thought, and on the whole, I'd say it rates both a gosh and a wow.

These are pictures of Rossall College!