In the previous post I looked at the possible origins of the phrase 'big bang' -- as in 'Big Bang' -- in Operation Big Bang, the partial destruction in 1947 of Heligoland, a German island in the North Sea. I also suggested that there was longer history to the phrase 'big bang', which I'll also dig into here -- partly for its own sake, partly to illustrate how easy it is track a term's popularity over time in the British Newspaper Archive (BNA). And partly because I love the headline above, over 70 years before the other Big Bang was 'photographed' by COBE....continue reading
There have been many big bangs. One particularly important one is the 'Big Bang' in which the Universe began, according to current cosmological understanding, approximately 13.8 billion years ago. This was not a bang at all, in the sense of an explosion, because there was nothing to explode into -- rather it was space itself which was expanding, as it has continued to do for 13.8 billion years. Why, then, do we use this evocative but misleading name for what is arguably the most important event to have ever taken place? It was famously coined by cosmologist Fred Hoyle in a BBC Third Programme broadcast on 28 March 1949 to describe the expanding universe concept, then the main competing theory to one he helped develop, the (now-discredited) steady-state (or continuous creation) theory (emphasis added):
We now come to the question of applying the observational tests to earlier theories. These theories were based on the hypothesis that all the matter in the universe was created in one big bang at a particular time in the remote past. It now turns out that in some respect or other all such theories are in conflict with the observational requirements.1
The term 'big bang' stuck -- or it least it did from the 1970s -- and it now stands for the entire cosmological theory of which it is just one part.2
But why did Hoyle choose that particular phrase, 'big bang'? On one level it is simply catchy, evocative and onomatopoeic. Hoyle himself said later that 'I was constantly striving over the radio -- where I had no visual aids, nothing except the spoken word -- for visual images [...] And that seemed to be one way of distinguishing between the steady-state and the explosive big bang'.3...continue reading
- Fred Hoyle, script, March 1949; in Fred Hoyle: An Online Exhibition. Apparently reprinted in Listener, 7 April 1949, but I haven't seen this.
- Helge Kragh, ‘Big Bang: the etymology of a name’, Astronomy & Geophysics 54, no. 2 (2013): 2.28-2.30.
- Quoted in ibid., 2.29. Kragh argues, I think persuasively, that Hoyle did not intend 'big bang' to be derisive, as is often said.
After taking some time to recover after the marathon Road to War, I'm taking part in a new series of talks with ABC New England North West's Kelly Fuller, along with fellow members of the UNE School of Humanities Nathan Wise (who came up with the concept), Sarah Lawrence and Richard Scully (and more, if we can persuade them!) This time the unifying theme is much broader: we will be looking at turning points in history. So we can range far and wide, rather than having to focus on the events of a single week in 1914 or 1915. You'll be able to find all the talks at SoundCloud.
I was first up, and decided to talk about the launch of Sputnik I on 4 October 1957, not only in terms of starting the Space Age, but also because it created no small amount of fear in the United States as the prospect of a (mythical, as we now know) missile gap opened up. I wish I'd had more time to go into that side of the response to Sputnik, because they strike me as being something similar to the kind of panics I'm interested in for Britain earlier in the century. But different. The oddest response is perhaps that of Little Richard, one of the pioneers of rock 'n' roll, who was actually on stage in Sydney when he saw what he thought was Sputnik, and interpreted it as a sign of the End Times. Have a listen if you'd like to know more!
Image source: NASA.
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.
So, to wrap up this accidental series. 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.
In my post about the lingering scientific interest in the Martian canals hypothesis after 1909, I said that there was a problem with journal coverage. What do I mean by this? Have a look:
This is a repeat of the first plot in the previous post, showing the number of articles published in peer-reviewed astronomical journals mentioning 'Mars' and 'canals' between 1861 and 1970, only this time for each of three journals: Observatory, Journal of the British Astronomical Association, and Popular Astronomy. I chose these three because they were the journals which had the most such articles, both over the entire period and in the peak decade of the 1890s.
In a recent, hmm, let's call it a discussion resulting from an old post I wrote about the US Air Force's one-time interesting in mapping Mars, I tried to assess how scientific interest in the Martian canals hypothesis lingered after the early 20th century, and said I would run up some figures to illustrate the data. So here they are.
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.
Dr Beachcombing of Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog kindly dropped me a line to alert me to his post about Public Service Broadcasting, a British music duo who draw on old propaganda and information films for inspiration and samples. A number of these are from the Second World War period, including 'Spitfire', 'London Can Take It', 'Dig For Victory', and 'Lit Up'. My favourite is the one above, 'If War Should Come'. Based on the 1939 GPO film of the same name, despite/because of the remixing and the electronica it is nicely evocative of the shadow of the bomber.
There have been a lot of stories in the press recently with titles like 'Churchill ordered UFO cover-up, National Archives show'. Actually, the TNA files -- part of an ongoing series of releases of UFO-related files -- don't show this at all, as is clear if you read the article more closely.
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.
[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]
'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.