The planet Venus normally sticks close to the Sun and so can only be seen very shortly after sunset, to the west (or before sunrise, to the east, when it is a morning star). But every 584 days, when it reaches maximum elongation in its orbit, it is far enough from the Sun in apparent terms that it remains visible for quite some time after dusk. It also relatively close to the Earth at this time and so unusually bright: only the Moon is brighter. At such times Venus dominates the western sky and it can be very startling, especially for the infrequent stargazer.
As it happens, Venus reached maximum elongation on 11 February 1913, right in the middle of the phantom airship scare. The above thumbnail probably isn't very clear, but the full-size version, made with Stellarium, shows the western horizon from London at 8.30pm on 21 February 1913, the beginning of the scare's peak. (London without any buildings, light pollution or clouds, admittedly, but the view would have been roughly the same from anywhere in the British Isles.) Venus can be seen low above the horizon, almost exactly due west, and extremely bright (apparent magnitude -4.1, though extincted by the atmosphere to -3.2). Anyone who happened to glance in that direction would see a brilliant light hovering in the distance, very different to the other stars and even planets. If they watched it for a few minutes they might see it drifting northwards and perhaps sinking lower; if there were clouds scudding by or trees waving in the wind the effect might be enhanced. It would be very easy to think an aircraft was flying about, equipped with a searchlight. ...continue reading →
So, to wrap up this accidentalseries. To check whether professional astronomical journals displayed the same patterns in discussing 'Mars' and 'canals' as the more popular/amateur ones I again looked at the peak decade 1891-1900, this time selecting only the more serious, respected journals. However, because of the French problem I had to exclude L'Astronomie and Ciel et Terre (the former was apparently more popular anyway). So for my top three I ended up with Astronomische Nachrichten, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (PASP) and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS). Astronomische Nachrichten ('astronomical notes') was the leading astronomical journal of the 19th century, founded 1821. It published articles in a number of languages including English. Fulltext Service seems to be multilingual, as it picks up the German (at least) equivalents of Mars/Martian and canal/canals. That doesn't help with the French problem, but that will only affect a small minority of Astronomische Nachrichten's articles. The Astronomical Society of the Pacific was founded in California as a joint amateur-professional organisation. Its PASP is now a very highly regarded journal, although I must admit I don't know if this was always the case. MNRAS is the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain. It also happens to be where my solitary peer-reviewed astronomy article was published (and when I say 'my', I think approximately 1 sentence relates to research I actually undertook), but even so it really is a highly-respected journal. ...continue reading →
My source is the ADSLabs Fulltext Service. ADS is the Astrophysical Data System, an online database of articles published in astronomy and physics journals. Which doesn't sound so amazing these days, but it was in 1994 when I first used it! (More on its history here.) The interface has changed remarkably little since then, but it is still free and very comprehensive. While it is primarily an abstract service, fulltext is available for many older articles -- but only as non-searchable images. Moreover, not all articles have abstracts. However, the text of articles from most of the major journals have been OCRed into a parallel database, the Fulltext Service. Like the classic ADS Abstract Service, this was not designed with historians in mind, but it's still quite useful. ...continue reading →
The cover-up is supposed to have taken place in the Second World War.
Nick Pope, who used to investigate UFO sightings for the MoD, said: "The interesting thing is that most of the UFO files from that period have been destroyed.
"But what happened is that a scientist whose grandfather was one of his [Churchill's] bodyguards, said look, Churchill and Eisenhower got together to cover up this phenomenal UFO sighting, that was witnessed by an RAF crew on their way back from a bombing raid.
"The reason apparently was because Churchill believed it would cause mass panic and it would shatter people's religious views."
The scientist 'said' this in 1999, nearly half a century after the incident is supposed to have taken place and a quarter century after his grandfather died. So it's only hearsay: there is no evidence from the war itself or from any witnesses that this cover-up actually took place. ...continue reading →
'To-day and To-morrow' was a series of over a hundred essays on 'the future' of a diverse range of subjects, which were published in pamphlet form by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. between 1924 and 1931. The authors are equally varied: some were acknowledged experts in their fields, others seem to have been chosen for their ability to provoke. Some of the 'To-day and To-morrow' essays have since attained classic status; most have been forgotten. But as a whole they are an impressive testimony to a vibrant, wideranging (and idiosyncratic) kind of British futurism, and I think they deserve more attention. Some of them have been reprinted from time to time, and if you're rich you can buy nearly all of them in collected volumes through Routledge, but otherwise there are so many they are are hard to track down. So I've tried to compile a definitive list of the series' titles (which are mostly classical allusions) with links to online sources for the texts and some sort of author biography, where available. Google Books has many of them, but only snippets or previews, so I've linked to other sources where possible. Additions and corrections are welcome.
Physically, they were very small books (pott octavo, to be precise), easy to slip into a pocket, and numbered only a hundred pages or so, in large type and generous margins. Their price was 2/6, about the same price as a cheap novel, but five times the price of the later, hugely successful Penguins. So they did not attract a mass readership, but do seem to have been much read by the chattering classes. (See Peter J. Bowler, Science for All: The Popularization of Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2009), 139.) Many of the titles went through multiple impressions. And at least one was discussed in the House of Commons. ...continue reading →
A random thought while sitting in a lecture today: if there is (or can be) such a thing as total war, does that imply that total peace is a meaningful concept?
Firstly, what is total war? One definition, drawn from the ubiquitous set of conference proceedings edited by Stig Förster et al (and more directly, from today's lecture notes), goes something like this. Total war consists of:
total aims: e.g. the destruction of an enemy nation
total methods: e.g. bombing cities
total mobilisation: e.g. conscription for both the armed forces and for labour
total control: e.g. censorship, dictatorship
More briefly, total war is the subordination of every other consideration (law, custom, morality, etc) to the prosecution of war. Total war is an ideal form of warfare, something which can be approached more or less closely, but which can never actually be fully attained. Well, hopefully not, because that would be bad.
So what would total peace look like? I don't think it can simply be the absence of total war; that's just peace generically. Total peace must be total in some sense. ...continue reading →
I've been reading a curious tome by Robert William Cole, called The Struggle for Empire. It's curious because the empire of the title is the British Empire, or rather the Anglo-Saxon Empire, and the struggle takes place in interstellar space. And because it was published in 1900! It has a good claim to being the first space opera ever written.
The basic plot is as follows. It is the year 2236. The Anglo-Saxon Empire rules, not just the Earth, but the entire Solar System and many stars beyond. Its only rival is Kairet, a planet orbiting Sirius which has a vast empire of its own. The two empires have co-existed uneasily until now, but Sirian settlers on a distant planet called Iosia clash with the Anglo-Saxons who nominally control it. The Anglo-Saxon Empire sees its chance and declares war. It assembles a huge fleet of warships and dispatches it towards Sirius. But deep in interstellar space, it encounters an even bigger Sirian fleet. The Earth forces are shattered, and fall back on the Solar System. Neptune is besieged. A titanic battle at Jupiter leads to the destruction of two of its moons and the scorching of its sky. Anglo-Saxon warships entrenched on the Moon ambush the approaching Sirian fleet, causing severe losses, but cannot prevent the bombardment and destruction of the imperial capital, London. But now an English scientist unveils a new weapon which makes Sirian warships fall from the sky. This decisively alters the course of the war: the Sirian fleet is destroyed, and Earth forces penetrate to Kairet and destroy its capital. The Sirians agree to pay a huge indemnity, and their ships are prohibited from leaving their system. The interstellar war has lasted for five years, and the struggle for empire has turned decisively in favour of the Anglo-Saxons ... ...continue reading →
Via Bad Astronomy comes news of an update to the Mars component of Google Earth. Most interesting to me are the overlays of historical maps of Mars from the 19th and 20th centuries, including those made by Giovanni Schiaparelli (1890), Percival Lowell (1896) and E. M. Antoniadi (1909). Schiaparelli and Lowell's maps showed the infamous canals of Mars; Antoniadi's more detailed map did not, and is supposed to have finished off the canals as a scientific controversy, at least according to according to Steven J. Dick's brilliant history The Biological Universe: The Twentieth-Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). But from some of my own work I've seen evidence that the canals and the associated question of intelligent life on Mars survived into the 1920s. And now Google Earth shows me this beautiful map made by the US Air Force in 1962. This Mars was festooned with canals, half a century after they had largely been discarded by the scientific community.
A little digging shows why. The map, known as the MEC-1 prototype, was prepared to assist with the upcoming Mariner missions to Mars. E. C. Slipher, late director of the Lowell Observatory (a major centre for planetary research), helped make it. Slipher had got his start under Lowell himself in the late 1900s, and used his mentor's old observations to compile MEC-1. So it's no surprise it has canals, then. Slipher seems to have remained an advocate of the canals right up until his death in 1964. Perhaps fortunately for him, he didn't live to witness Mariner 4's flyby of Mars in 1965, which revealed an apparently dead planet. But if it had not, the USAF would have been well placed to explore the Martian megascale hydraulic system.