Friday, 27 February 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

February 27

A positive myriad of happenings for this day down the years – so, if you are intent on making something of a Name for yourself, be it in Academia or elsewhere, then it would probably be best to choose some other date than this one – but we’re going to concentrate on just two in order to cram them in so, without any further ado, let’s get straight on to the first.

That’d be 837, of course, which occasioned “the fifteenth recorded perihelion passage of Halley’s Comet,” which may seem startlingly early for such an achievement until you realise that the first one took place as long ago as 240 BC, which was seen by the Chinese, but Pliny the Elder may even have been first in on the act when he spotted a comet around 467 BC, though it’s not absolutely certain that that one was Halley’s. Our 837 appearance was far and away (you might say) the closest passage to Earth, almost bordering on a near miss, seeing it brushed by within 3.2 million miles (0.03 AU) of us, with its tail sprawled bright across sixty degrees of firmament but, even so, we shouldn’t start imaging a bunch of ninth-century blokes standing around pointing skywards and saying something along the lines of, “Looks like that theer comet o’ Halley’s is showin’ its face again and getting that nigh to the Sun it’ll be perihelion afore we know wheer we are.” Nothing of the sort could possibly have taken place. For a start off, Northerners weren’t invented until much much later, and would not be officially recognised as Raight Good Lads ‘n’ Lasses until September 1399, under Henry Bolingbroke and, even then, they wouldn’t’ve had the faintest idea what perihelion might be – for the non-Astronomers amongst us, that’s the point in an orbit where a planet or, indeed, comet, comes closest to the Sun, the opposite being aphelion, or the furthest point – plus there was the small matter of Halley himself not being born for another eight centuries. Rather sadly, Halley was never to know that it would end up being named in his honour, mainly because that only happened after his death, by which time he had only ever seen it the once, in 1682, having pegged out before it returned, just as he predicted it would, in 1759.

What we can be pretty certain about is that the mere mention of this comet and the Halley name will have polarised almost everyone out there vehemently into one camp or the other: those that insist that it should be pronounced to rhyme with “daily” and those that maintain it rhymes with “valley”, though there will always be one or two of a more LibDem tendency prepared to shed all their principles in order to side with whichever lot looks most like winning, and there may even be a smattering of your Ukip sorts too, who will merely be thinking, “sounds like a bit of a Foreign Johnny to us” (he was born in London, actually). In fact, you’re all about as wrong as an electorate on this one, seeing that in his own lifetime it was spelled as Hailey, Haley, Hayley, Halley, Hawley, and Hawly, to name but a few. Whilst he wasn’t raightly fussed as to how his surname was spelled, when it came to his given name it always had to be, not the more common Edmund, but Edmond.

Another banker of a bet on this most thorny of subjects is that right now our Astronomer colleagues will be sitting there tutting and fretting and muttering darkly about, “when are you going to get onto the interesting bits about comets, then?” To which, our answer is right now: “1P/Halley is a short-period comet visible from Earth, which reappears about every 75-76 years” (depending on gravitational pulls and stuff) “and it is the only comet clearly visible to the naked eye from Earth.” That better? Though, seeing that what our astro-boffin chums mean by “short period” includes anything that comes round again in less than two hundred years, it’s perhaps as well for the rest of us that they don’t run the buses. Actually, come to think of it, do they though? Halley’s is also the only comet that might appear twice in a human lifetime but, given that the last one was in 1986 and the next not until 2061, that means that the older ones amongst us simply aren’t going to make it and the ones who are young enough to last that long probably didn’t pay enough attention first time round. It travels at a nippy 157,838 mph and gets as far out as Pluto at one end and as close as just 0.6 AU to the Sun (take it from us, you still wouldn’t want to bike it, seeing a whole AU is the distance from Earth to the Sun) at the other.
Right up until the Renaissance, scientists were wildly misled on the subject of comets by none other than Aristotle himself, who reckoned they were disturbances in the Earth's atmosphere, so best give a quick name-check here to Tyge Ottesen Brahe. Tycho, as he is more commonly known, was an astronomer and the Danish All-Comers Whisker-Growing Champion, from the look of him, not to mention an habitual sporter of a brass false nose. Sad to relate, he got into a bit of a heated argument at a wedding (so often the case) with a fellow nobleman called Manderup Parsberg, all over the legitimacy of a mathematical formula (we’ve all of us done that) and, seeing neither of them could prove the other wrong with good old science alone, they decided to settle it by having an old-fashioned duel with swords on 10 December 1566, during which Tycho lost part of his nose. All might have been well, given that they managed to patch things up, including the damaged nose, we presume, only one or other of the hapless pair made some regrettable remark about the other’s hypothesis and it all flared up again, resulting in another duel on 27 December, this time in the dark, would you believe, and, as if to prove the first time hadn’t just been a lucky stroke, Parsberg managed to deprive Tycho of the rest of his hooter. You’d’ve maybe thought that might be an end to the arguing but oh-no: it seems that scientists will quarrel about the least little thing, this time over whether the nose was gold or silver, or even copper or brass, some suggesting he may have had different ones depending on the occasion, and others that he was unlikely to wear as heavy a one as made of precious metal – he wouldn’t’ve done down our way, or not for very long anyhow – until it was definitively established in 2012 to have been brass. (They dug him up just to find out). Apparently, he also had a tame elk, though even here his luck was on the iffy side, seeing that during dinner one day it day it drank too much beer, fell downstairs and died. Quite what the elk was involving himself in upstairs was not recorded.

Brahe’s luck would remain on the dodgy side literally to his dying day, seeing he contracted a bladder or kidney ailment after attending a banquet in Prague, expiring some eleven days later, on 24 October 1601. According to Kepler's first-hand account, Tycho had refused to leave the banquet to relieve himself because it would have been “a breach of etiquette.” Mind you, none of this prevented him from rubbishing Aristotle’s bogus theory about comets and atmospheric disturbances when, in 1577, he proved that comets lack the parallax expected in sub-lunar phenomena and must, therefore, “be further away than the moon.” Which they do, and so they are. He was absolutely right about that. Though perhaps not quite so infallible when it came to the matter of letting the elk spend all evening propping up the bar.

Oddly enough, the comet could have ended up being called Newton’s Comet, which then would’ve meant that the comet we now know as Newton’s Comet would have to have been called Newton’s Other Comet, and then where would be? All of which shows that, boffins though they might be, these Astronomers don’t always think things through properly – just look at the shambles they’ve made of the buses for a start off. Luckily for us, however, Sir Isaac’s comet-studying activities were always somewhat desultory, to say the least, and his whole approach to science was pretty much on the slapdash side. After all, it was blokes like his mate, Halley, who had to persuade him to stop sitting around in orchards all day and finally get round to writing out this Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica thing of his that he was so often banging on about. The story goes that Newton spotted a comet in 1680 and then another in 1681 and rather suspected they might be one and the same thing passing round the back of the Sun but, seeing the whole theory of comets was a tad on the awkward side when it came to fitting them into his precious model of the Universe, he fobbed the entire thing off onto Halley. “My Dear Halley,” he may well have written to his esteemed colleague, “I really would be moft exceeding grateful if you would trouble yourfelf to take a little peek into the matter of my recent fighting of a comet, becaufe frankly, old boy, I really can’t be arfed. Beft, Newt.

Which is precisely what our Edmond went on to do and, by 1705, he’d produced his Synopsis of the Astronomy of Comets, using Newton’s own laws to calculate the gravitational effects of Jupiter and Saturn and so predict that the comet would be back in 1759. Not only that but, using the same laws along with historical records, he was able to establish that Newton’s 1680–81 comet and the ones seen in 1531 (spotted by Petrus Apianus) and in 1607 (by Kepler, taking time out from showing Brahe were the Gents was) were all the same object returning every seventy five years or so, and that it would keep on coming back at that rate from hereon in. Scientific estimations suggest that Halley’s Comet has probably been in its current orbit for something in the region of 16,000–200,000 years, meaning that, if these figures are correct, the only thing in the Universe that has been going constantly round and round and round for longer is the ITV3 repeats of On The Buses.

Fast-forwarding past 27 February 1594 and the crowning of Henri IV of France, who’s forever cropping up in these columns for ascending to the throne or being crowned or fighting battles over some wool or whatever else he was always getting up to, we now come to 1812 and Lord Byron. Who was an actual Lord and thus entitled to sit in the Upper House, which is what he did, taking up his seat in March 1809, though he never got around to making his maiden speech until 27 February 1812. He was a Nottinghamshire lad, by the bye, having become 6th Baron Byron of Rochdale in 1798 when he was ten, inheriting at the same time the ancestral home of Newstead Abbey (near Mansfield), so perhaps, as we fondly like to imagine, he was not above letting slip the odd, “Hey up, lad,” as we Northerners are wont to do, but he was certainly and without doubt the most famous one of us ever to have perished of fever in Missolonghi. People up North claimed to have heard he had drowned in chip fat – no, he died in Greece.

At the time when he finally did get up onto his hind legs to orate to the House, he was not only not at all famous but hardly anybody had the faintest idea who he was, apart from some baron from way out in the sticks. The proofs for Childe Harold's Pilgrimage had actually gone to the printers’ shop by then but it seems that the luddite of a tradesman kept fobbing him off with excuses for not having them ready on time, which Byron had rather been banking on, to take the heat off the nerve-rackingness of his upcoming speecifying. Influenced by John Hobhouse, Byron had allied himself with the liberal faction of the Whigs led by Lord Holland, and it was at Holland House that he first met Lady Caroline Lamb and then promptly had a steamy affair with her, causing her to describe him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know” (about the highest accolade you can be given, up North), though the numerous other steamy and often dubious affairs he was carrying on may have had something to do with it. He would eventually marry for nothing more than filthy lucre to stave off debt but it was the persistent womanising that caused him to finally flee the country in 1816, never to return.

Seeing the speech was to be his first one, Byron wanted it to go off without any hitches, spending a good deal of time writing it, polishing it up, memorising it to word-perfect and then inflicting it endlessly on any of his friends who couldn’t think up an excuse to get away quick enough. He even did a Thatcher (well, strictly, Thatcher did a Byron) by altering his voice to sound more serious, though (in both examples) it came out sounding stilted. But it was all worth it in the end as it went down a storm, leaving him glowing with success, though a good many of his hearers were not absolutely convinced by his choice of subject matter: he spoke up for the Luddites, who had been busy breaking up the new mechanized weaving frames in his home county of Nottinghamshire simply to avoid having to go through the inconvenience of starving to death. Before the Lords was coming a bill to make the crime a capital (ie hanging) offence and, whilst Byron recognised that property damage was a violation of the law, he was no lover of industrialisation (he was what we’d call a luddite) and thought the measure was taking things a tad too far, remarking of his countymen offenders:

“still there are two things wanting to convict and condemn him, and these are, in my opinion, twelve butchers for a jury, and a Jeffreys for a judge!”

On Tuesday, 10 March 1812, his book finally came out, becoming an instant hit and making its author “the most brilliant star in the dazzling world of Regency London” and the first ever real celebrity. By which time his speech had been safely and successfully delivered and so, thanks to the inefficiency of the chosen printer, our man could be sure that it had gone down well on its own merit and not simply because of any sycophantic desire to toady up with the new toast of the town. The good die young, they say. Alas, so do the bad (Byron was what we’d call “a bit of a lad”) and by 1824 he would be dead. He was just past his thirty sixth birthday.

Halley’s Comet: By NASA/W. Liller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Halley: By SITCK at lb.wikipedia (Transferred from lb.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Aristotle: By Copy of Lysippus (Jastrow (2006)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Newton: Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tycho Brahe: By Eduard Ender († 1883) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kepler: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsByron: By Richard Westall (died 1836) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Lamb: Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Hanging Judge Jeffreys: By Johann Closterman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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