Category Archives: Reading

The Myth Of The Starbow

Cover of Starburst, by Frederik PohlThus, with all Einstein numbers of flight [velocity as a proportion of the speed of light] greater than 0.37 a major dark spot will surround the take-off star, and a minor dark spot the target star. Between the two limiting circles of these spots, all stars visible in the sky are coloured in all the hues of the rainbow, in circles concentric to the flight direction, starting in front with violet, and continuing over blue, green, yellow and orange to red at the other end.

E. Sänger “Some Optical And Kinematical Effects In Interstellar Astronautics” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (1962) 18(7): 273-7


Above is one of the earliest descriptions of the appearance of the sky as seen from a spacecraft travelling at close to the speed of light, written more than half a century ago. It predicts something remarkable—that the sky would be dark both ahead of and behind the spaceship, and between these two extensive discs of darkness a rainbow would appear. One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon that I’ve found appears on the cover of Frederik Pohl’s 1982 science fiction novel, Starburst, shown at the head of this post. (This is both unexpected and ironic, for reasons I’ll reveal later.)

Now, I’ve recently invested four posts in systematically piecing together the appearance of the sky from a spacecraft moving at close to the speed of light. If you’re interested, the series begins here, builds mathematical detail over the second and third posts, and draws it all together, with illustrations, in the final one. Using the equations of special relativity for aberration and Doppler shift, and applying them to black-body approximations of stellar spectra, I was able to come up with some pictures using the space simulator software Celestia.

Here’s a wide-angle view of the sky ahead seen when moving at half the speed of light:

Sky view ahead at 0.5c
Click to enlarge

And a tighter view at 0.95 times light speed:

Sky view ahead at 0.95c
Click to enlarge

And at 0.999 times light speed:

Sky view ahead at 0.999c
Click to enlarge

No sign of Sänger’s “minor dark spot” ahead, and no real indication of a rainbow. The stars appear hot and blue ahead, in a patch that becomes more concentrated with increasing speed, and that central area is surrounded by a scattered rim of red-shifted stars, shading off into darkness all around. At very high velocity, the blue patch begins to fade. (For a detailed step-by-step explanation of all this, see my previous posts, referenced above.)

What’s going on? Well, Sänger made an embarrassing mistake:

For simplicity’s sake we may assume that the stars in the sky, as seen from the space vehicle when at rest, are all of a medium yellow colour of perhaps λ0 = 5900Å.

He modelled all the stars in the sky as if they emitted light at a single wavelength, like a laser! Unsurprisingly, when these monochromatic stars were Doppler-shifted, they passed through all the colours of the rainbow before disappearing into ultraviolet wavelengths (ahead) or infrared (behind). Hence the dark patches fore and aft of Sänger’s speeding spacecraft, and the rainbow ring between.

But of course real stars emit light over a range of wavelengths, with peak emissions that vary according to their temperatures. As I explained in previous posts, when real stars are Doppler-shifted they change their apparent temperature, so the stars ahead of our spacecraft appear to get hotter, while those behind appear cooler. Hot stars may look white or blue, but never violet. Cool stars may be yellow or orange or red, or faded to invisibility, but there is no temperature at which they will appear green. And the fact that stars of different temperatures are scattered all across the sky means that Doppler shift can’t ever produce the concentric circles of colour that Sänger imagined. Sänger’s rainbow is a myth, based on a fatally erroneous assumption (“for simplicity’s sake”) that really should have been picked up by reviewers at the British Interplanetary Society.

Sänger’s idea would have vanished into appropriate obscurity, were it not for the fact that science fiction writer Frederik Pohl was a member of the British Interplanetary Society, and received its monthly journals. Writing about it later, Pohl mistakenly recalled reading Sänger’s article in another BIS publication, Spaceflight. (BIS members received one publication as part of their membership, and could pay to receive the other, too—it seems likely Pohl subscribed to both.) He later described his encounter with Sänger’s article like this:

Before I had even finished it I sat up in bed, crying “Eureka!” It was a great article.

“Looking For The Starbow” Destinies (1980) 2(1): 8-17

Pohl loved this image of a rainbow ring, and called it a “starbow”. He went on to feature the starbow in an award-winning novella, “The Gold At The Starbow’s End” (1972):

The first thing was that there was a sort of round black spot ahead of us where we couldn’t see anything at all […] Then we lost the Sun behind us, and a little later we saw the blackout spread to a growing circle of stars there.
Even the stars off to one side are showing relativistic colour shifts. It’s almost like a rainbow, one of those full-circle rainbows that you see on the clouds beneath you from an aeroplane sometimes. Only this circle is all around us. Nearest the black hole* in front the stars have frequency-shifted to a dull reddish colour. They go through orange and yellow and a sort of leaf green to the band nearest the black hole* in back, which are bright blue shading to purple.

If you’re on the alert, you’ll notice that Pohl got the colours the wrong way around—Sänger’s prediction placed red behind and violet ahead (not Pohl’s “purple”, which is a mixture of red and blue).

When Pohl’s novella was published as part of a collection, its striking title was used as the book title, and Pohl’s description (including the reversed colours) leaked into the cover art of one edition:Cover of The Gold At The Starbow's End, by Frederik PohlPohl was a skilled and popular writer, and he cemented the erroneous “starbow” into the consciousness of science fiction readers.

Also in 1972 the space artist Don Davis, cooperating with the  starship designer and alleged translator of Ice-Age languages (among many other things) Robert Duncan-Enzmann, produced a distinctly weird New Age image of the starbow, which you can find here. I have scant idea what that’s about.

But then, in 1979, along came John M. McKinley and Paul Doherty, of the Department of Physics at Oakland University, Michigan. They had a computer, and they were unconvinced by Sänger’s identical monochromatic stars. They instead modelled the real distribution of stars in Earth’s sky, approximating each one as a blackbody radiator of the appropriate temperature, and applying the necessary relativistic transformations:

One prediction for the appearance of the starfield from a moving reference frame has been circulated widely, despite physically objectionable features. We re-examine the physical basis for this effect. […] We conclude with a sequence of computer-generated figures to show the appearance of Earth’s starfield at various velocities. A “starbow” does not appear.

“In search of the ‘starbow’: The appearance of the starfield from a relativistic spaceship” American Journal of Physics (1979) 47(4): 309-15

The physicist (and science fiction writer) Robert L. Forward mischievously forwarded a preprint of McKinley and Doherty’s article to Pohl. And Pohl, tongue firmly in cheek, described this experience in the Destinies article I quoted above:

… “there is no starbow,” they conclude. True, they then go on to say, “we regret its demise. We have nothing so poetic to offer as its replacement, only better physics”—but what’s the good of that?

Only slightly chastened, Pohl later went on to expand the novella “The Gold At The Starbow’s End” into a frankly-not-very-good novel, Starburst, the cover of which appears at the head of this post, resplendent with a starbow. I find it difficult to imagine the confusion that might have led to that cover, given that Pohl had removed the starbow from his narrative, while managing to give McKinley and Doherty a very slight (but distinctly ungracious) kicking in the rewrite:

Right now we’re seeing more in front than I expected to and less behind. Behind, mostly just blackness. It started out like, I don’t know what you’d call it, sort of a burnt-out fuzziness, and it’s been spreading over the last few weeks. Actually in front it seems to be getting a little brighter. I don’t know if you all remember, but there was some argument about whether we’d see the starbow at all, because some old guys ran computer simulations and said it wouldn’t happen. Well, something is happening! It’s like Kneffie always says, theory is one thing, evidence is better, so there! (Ha-ha.)

As the cover of Starburst suggests, the starbow was just too good an image to die easily, and few science fiction readers (or writers) read the American Journal of Physics. Undead, the starbow continued to trudge forward—a zombie idea. In September 1988, Robert J. Sawyer had a short story published in Amazing Stories, entitled “Golden Fleece”. It scored the coveted cover illustration for that month:

Amazing Stories, Golden Fleece 1988It’s a slightly confusing image, illustrating a key event in the story. The vehicle in the foreground is a shuttle-craft, which is escaping from the large spacecraft in the background, a relativistic Bussard interstellar ramjet travelling from right to left. And there’s a starbow! And it’s the wrong way round again, with red at the front! I haven’t read Sawyer’s original short story, but I have read the 1990 novel of the same name, in the form of its 1999 revised edition:

The view of the starbow was magnificent. At our near-light speed, stars ahead had blue-shifted beyond normal visibility. Likewise, those behind had red-shifted into darkness. But encircling us was a thin prismatic band of glowing points, a glorious rainbow of star—violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red.

I don’t mean to single Sawyer out, because lots of authors were still invoking the starbow in their writing, but his 1999 novel is the most recent persisting version of the starbow I’ve turned up so far, particularly notable because it recycled the Amazing Stories cover art:Cover of Golden Fleece by Robert J. SawyerTwenty years after McKinley and Doherty wrote “We have nothing so poetic to offer as its replacement, only better physics”, the starbow lived on.

And you can still find it—order a starbow painting by Bill Wright on-line, here.

Note: I happened upon Stephen R. Wilk’s How The Ray Gun Got Its Zap, which I’ve previously reviewed, while searching for references to the starbow. Wilk’s chapter “The Rise And Fall And Rise Of The Starbow” overlaps with some of what I’ve written here, but also discusses starbow-like manifestations in film.

* Pohl’s “black holes” are the patches of sky devoid of visible stars ahead of and behind the narrator’s spaceship, as predicted by Sänger, not the astronomical objects of the same name.

Helen Czerski: Storm In A Teacup

Cover of Storm In A Teacup, by Helen CzerskiI studied physics because it explained things that I was interested in. It allowed me to look around and see the mechanisms making our everyday world tick. Best of all, it let me work some of them out for myself. Even though I’m a professional physicist now, lots of the things I’ve worked out for myself haven’t involved laboratories or complicated computer software or expensive experiments. The most satisfying discoveries have come from random things I was playing with when I wasn’t supposed to be doing science at all. Knowing about some basic bits of physics turns the world into a toybox.

I commended Helen Czerski to your attention, as a physics popularizer, in one the earliest posts I made on this blog. At that time I was enthusing about her BBC4 series Colour: The Spectrum of Science. Since then I’ve also enjoyed Sound Waves: The Symphony of Physics and From Ice to Fire: The Incredible Science of Temperature. Czerski is a working physicist, with an interest in oceanography. What she’s been doing with her TV science popularizations is to take a big, sweeping theme in physics (light, sound, temperature) and to tease apart its relevance to everyday life as well as to cutting edge science—sometimes there are practical demonstrations, sometimes interviews with scientists, and sometimes Czerski gets to wander around in exotic locations, looking valiant and contemplative (something which seems to be absolutely required these days, for any science thread on television).

This approach carries over into her first book, Storm In A Teacup, subtitled The Physics of Everyday Life. The deal here is that Czerski identifies something interesting in a trivial aspect of daily experience, links that to a fundamental principle of physics, and then gallops off in various interesting directions, highlighting more stuff that is driven by the same physical principle.

So the popping of popcorn takes us to the Gas Laws, which take us to rocketry, steam engines, elephant’s trunks, katabatic winds and diving whales. A little “do this with your kids” experiment involving a bottle of lemonade and a handful of raisins provides the starting point for a dissertation on gravity and buoyancy, which touches on the Titanic sinking, high diving, weighing scales, the design of Tower Bridge in London, tightrope walking and the manoeuverability (or otherwise) of T. rex. Other chapters deal with the importance of characteristic length and time scales to physical phenomena, wave motion, phase changes, centrifugal force and electromagnetism. The final chapter, entitled “A Sense Of Perspective”, pulls many of these themes together by exploring their relevance to human beings, to the planet Earth, and to the existence of civilization.

Czerski communicates her own enthusiasm very well, and leavens the narrative with personal anecdotes, which reveal (among other things) a certain obsession with mugs of tea and slices of toast. Most of the physics was familiar to me, but watching Czerski draw her links to many disparate phenomena was always entertaining. And occasionally, there’s an amazing fact: she tells us that the Titanic sank in water that was only fourteen times deeper than the ship’s length (I’d have guessed much deeper than that); explains why pigeons bob their heads back and forth when they walk (unless they’re walking on a treadmill); and why UK pennies manufactured after 1992 stick to magnets, while earlier coins don’t (I was immediately set rummaging for pocket change to test this one for myself).

The final chapter manages to produce some of those grand-scale revelations that the late Carl Sagan deployed so well, shocking the reader (at least momentarily) into a completely new view of the world:

Some of the water [in Antarctica] has been frozen for a million years. […] In contrast, the molecules being pushed out of Hawaii’s volcanoes as lava are only just dropping below 1,100°F for the first time since the Earth was formed, 4.5 billion years ago.

And the idea Czerski presents a few pages later, that civilization can be  summed up by two inventions, the candle and the book (portable energy and portable information), just jumped straight into my head and has been camped there ever since.

So if, like Czerski, you enjoy having a little toolkit in your mind that turns the everyday world into a toybox (and if you don’t, why on Earth are here?) then you’ll enjoy this book. A lot.

Stephen R. Wilk: How The Ray Gun Got Its Zap

Cover of "How The Ray Gun Got Its Zap", by Stephen R. WilkI sometimes think that we should spend at least a little time explaining everyday manifestations of physics to undergraduates, so that they can talk about phenomena that appear in everyday lives.

How The Ray Gun Got Its Zap (2013), is subtitled Odd Excursions Into Optics, which (combined with the manifesto above) pretty much covers what it’s about.

Stephen R. Wilk is a Contributing Editor for the Optical Society of America (OSA), with a CV that includes time spent working with lasers in both academic and commercial laboratories. The book is made up of a series of short articles, which are revised and expanded versions of pieces originally published by OSA’s Optics and Photonics News, as well as The Spectrograph, the newsletter of the George R. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory at MIT.

The object of the exercise, Wilk says, was “Education by Stealth”—packaging some useful nugget of science into an article that strayed entertainingly into little-visited byways.

For the book, he has sorted his articles into three sections—History, Weird Science and Pop Culture.

“History” covers a lot of ground, including: how the ancients might have been able to do close miniature work using a pinhole, before magnifying lenses were invented; a mysterious optical phenomenon sighted by Antonio de Ulloa in 1735; the real reason Newton insisted on having seven colours of the rainbow; and the history of the camera lucida, an open-air version of the more familiar camera obscura projection system.

Camera Obscura
A camera obscura being used to project an image into a darkened room for copying

Some of the “Weird Science” isn’t particularly weird—there’s a very satisfying and comprehensive article on retroflectors, for instance. I also enjoyed the discussion of the derivation of the expression “once in a blue moon”, but the description of how Mie scattering can conspires to make the full moon actually appear blue was utterly impenetrable—Wilk describes the shape of a graph to us, instead of plotting one and marking it up appropriately. And that’s a serious shortcoming of this book, I have to say—Oxford University Press seem to have been happy to spring for a few uninformative copies of historical illustrations, but the book doesn’t contain a single original diagram. It’s a book on optics, with no diagrams!

Here’s Wilk, forced to verbally handwave a Penta Prism reflector, without recourse to illustrations:

This is a block of glass with two faces set at an angle of 45º to each other. Next to each of these are two faces, usually square, that meet at a right angle to each other and each of them makes a [sic] angle of 112.5º with the other two faces. The prism can work as it is, with only four faces, but the 45º angle is far from the rest of the prism and gives it an unwieldy long “tail” […] so it’s usually cut off, adding a fifth face, hence “penta” prism.

Got that? I thought not. Here’s a diagram:

Image by DrBob, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

A fair proportion of “Weird Science” is laser-heavy: edible lasers, pyrotechnic-pumped lasers, laser systems that have never been used, the author’s own problems with lasers … It’s Wilk’s special interest, but this was the least interesting section for me, in the main because, in his enthusiasm, Wilk occasionally forgets to translate for his lay audience:

You can perform this trick with perfectly reflecting metal microspheres, too, but you have to suspend them in a beam having a TEM01 “donut” mode, for obvious reasons.

Well, yeah. Obviously.

Finally, “Pop Culture”. Here, Wilk riffs on anything vaguely optical that takes his fancy: the infamous patent on the idea of using a laser pointer to play with your cat; the development of the ideas of “ray guns” and “tractor beams” in science fiction; whether it might be possible to create jewels that glow in the dark, like in the movies; and how lasers have been portrayed by film-makers over the years.

It’s all great fun, I suspect there’s something here for everyone with any interest in optics, and I am positively in awe of Wilk’s ability to ferret out obscure references and the earliest historical glimmerings of scientific ideas.

But it could have been so much better with diagrams, graphs, and some better proof-reading—shame on the Oxford University Press.*

* Well, actually, it turns out there’s no shame on Oxford University Press with regard to the lack of illustrations—I must apologize to them for my mistaken assumption. Stephen R. Wilk has contacted me to set the record straight—the lack of illustrations was an authorial decision, not an editorial one. After an extremely time-consuming process sourcing illustrations for a previous book, he made a conscious decision to try to do without them in this one.

Two Books About Longitude

Covers of two books about longitudeIt is well known by all that are acquainted with the Art of Navigation, That nothing is so much wanted and desired at Sea, as the Discovery of the Longitude, for the Safety and Quickness of Voyage, the Preservation of ships, and the Lives of Men.

The British Longitude Act (1714)*

As a sort of vague follow-up to my review of three travel books about lines of latitude, here are two books about longitude—specifically, about the historical problem of finding one’s longitude at sea.

Missing, you may notice, is the “obvious” book about the longitude problem, which almost everyone has heard of—Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995). I’ve omitted it deliberately, because I find it difficult to say anything polite about it—Sobel frames her narrative as the struggle of an oppressed work-class hero against a self-serving intellectual elite. That styling brought her book great popular success, but at the expense of … well … at the expense of the facts.

I offer these books, instead, as a sort of antidote to Sobel’s version. Derek Howse’s Greenwich Time And The Longitude (1997) is a reissue of his Greenwich Time And The Discovery Of The Longitude (1980). It was updated and republished by the National Maritime Museum as an “Official Millennium Edition”, presumably in anticipation of millennial interest in the topic of the Greenwich meridian and the International Date Line. And Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt’s Finding Longitude (2014) is a companion volume to the Ships, Clocks & Stars exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, held to mark the tercentenary of the British Longitude Act (a quote from which opens this post). In fact, the book was published in the USA under the title Ships, Clocks & Stars. Since both books come from the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, they’re copiously illustrated with photographs, charts and documents from the museum’s collection.

Both tell the story of how, in the eighteenth century, the problem of how to find longitude at sea was solved. Finding Longitude is the better illustrated; Howse’s book gives a more extensive treatment, and moves on in its second half to the related topics of Greenwich time, timekeeping in general, and how the prime meridian came to be defined by the Greenwich Observatory.

By the time the story opens, mariners were able to find their latitude fairly easily, if they had a sight of the sun or the stars. But they could not work out their longitude except by dead reckoning. What was needed to determine longitude was a way of comparing the local time (determined from the sun and stars) with the time at some remote reference point with known longitude—either the ship’s home port or some  standard location like Greenwich or Paris.  From the difference between local time and reference time, and the knowledge that one hour’s difference in time equates to fifteen degrees of longitude, it would then be straightforward to work out how far one’s ship was to the east or west of the reference point.

The Longitude Problem

But how do you work out the time at some reference location you can’t see? By the start of the eighteenth century, there were two techniques that looked like they might just, possibly, provide a solution.

The first potential solution was to use the moon as a clock. It moves quite briskly across the background stars, covering a distance equal to its own diameter in about an hour. So if you could measure the angular distance between the moon and a reference star (or, in daytime, between the moon and the sun) you’d have an absolute measure of time, which you could compare to the local time of day and deduce your longitude. There were several problems with that. At the start of the eighteenth century, astronomers didn’t know the position of the stars or the orbit of the moon accurately enough to make this “lunar distance method” work. And even if they had known the position of the stars and moon well enough to work out exactly where they should be at a given time and date, they didn’t have portable instruments that could make the necessary angular measurements accurately enough from the heaving deck of a ship at sea.

The second potential solution was to carry reference time with you—setting an extremely accurate clock before you left home, and checking this timekeeper against the local time of day whenever you needed to know longitude. The problem with that was that the clocks of the day were simply not accurate enough, even on land, let alone when exposed to the temperature variation, dampness and hectic motion of shipboard life.

That was the background to the British government’s Longitude Act of 1714, which established a prize of £20,000 of public money, to be awarded to anyone who could come up with a sufficiently accurate solution to the problem, which was “Practicable and Useful” (two words that would be the cause of immense ill-feeling in years to come). This was a positively jaw-dropping sum of money—estimates vary, but it was certainly the equivalent of one or two million pounds in today’s currency, if not more. It was also, as Dunn and Higgitt point out, an early example of scientists managing to drive government policy. The august members of the Royal Society were pretty sure that the longitude problem could be solved, if only enough people could be persuaded to think about it. And £20,000 certainly proved to be persuasive. The members of the Board of Longitude (who administered the prize money) received all sorts of more-or-less crazy submissions, many of which were, after the fashion of the time, lampooned in cartoons and scurrilous verse. I feel particularly sorry for William Whiston and Humphry Ditton, whose proposal came to the attention of the satirical Scriblerus Club. Both Finding Longitude and Greenwich Time reproduce the poem that resulted, which was structured around the irresistible rhymes of Whiston / pissed on and Ditton / shit on.

The membership of the board was made up of politicians, senior officers of the Royal Navy, and scientists. Being of a mathematical bent, the scientists had a keen interest in the lunar distance method of finding longitude, which was gradually becoming more practical with the publication of John Flamsteed’s catalogue of accurate star positions (1725), the independent invention of the double-reflection quadrant (a precursor to the marine sextant) by John Hadley and Thomas Godfrey (1731), and the publication of Tobias Mayer’s improved tables for the motion of the moon (1752).

Three key publications for the lunar distance method
Click to enlarge
Three publications that made the lunar distance method possible:
Flamsteed’s star catalogue (1725)
Hadley’s double-reflection quadrant (1731)
Mayer’s lunar tables (1752)

In the midst of all this, in 1736, there appeared John Harrison, a self-taught clock-maker, who offered for the Board’s consideration a prototype marine timekeeper that addressed many of the problems that had, up to that point, bedevilled clocks at sea. The Board ordered a sea-trial, and Harrison’s clock performed well. Over the next 24 years, Harrison went on to refine his ideas through a further three timekeepers before submitting his final version, a large watch designated H-4 by historians, for a further sea-trial in 1761.

Sobel’s version of this story has unfortunately become the default narrative. Harrison slaves away for decades on his timekeepers, while the scientists on the Board of Longitude (particularly the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne) rush to perfect the lunar distance method, in direct competition with Harrison for the coveted £20,000 prize. To this end, Maskelyne dishonestly exploits his position to misrepresent the performance of Harrison’s H-4, and to persuade the Board and government to keep changing the rules so that Harrison is denied the prize he deserves, despite H-4 performing to all the required criteria in its sea-trial.

But Howse, Dunn & Higgitt are careful to tell the other side of the story. While Harrison was developing his timekeepers, the Board repeatedly provided him with interim awards—£3250 over 24 years, the equivalent of £135/year. If we check typical annual incomes for the period concerned, we find that the Board was providing Harrison with an income that placed him in the top few percent of earners in England at the time. Harrison of course had to buy tools and materials from this allowance, but if influential members of the Board had really wished to blight Harrison’s chance of winning the prize, why would they have afforded him such a good income over so many years? And there’s no evidence that Maskelyne ever made any application for prize money himself, despite his key role in the development of the lunar distance method into a practical (if time-consuming) solution to the longitude problem. Tobias Mayer’s widow received a payment of £3000 in recognition of her late husband’s work on improved lunar tables, and Leonhard Euler received £300 for his work on the mathematics of the moon’s orbit, but Maskelyne seems to have regarded his work on the problem as being no more than his duty as Astronomer Royal.

Towards the end of Sobel’s narrative, Harrison is denied the longitude prize unless he hands over his four timekeepers to Maskelyne, publicly reveals all the secrets of their design, and undertakes to build two more. At this point, Sobel portrays Harrison as a broken man being cheated and bullied into submission. But the problem for Harrison was always with those two words “Practicable and Useful” in the original Longitude Act. Harrison seems to have been naive, imagining he was entering a competition to produce one timekeeper that could perform to the required standard in one test. Whereas he was actually being asked to provide a solution that could be rolled out and used by hundreds of ships. Until the workings of Harrison’s timekeeper were generally known, and there was a demonstrated potential for other devices to reproduce H-4’s success, the government was unlikely to disburse a large quantity of public funds.

But in exchange for his devices, an explanation of their workings, and an undertaking to make copies, Harrison was offered half the prize money—£10,000, or something like a million pounds in modern money. Does that seem unreasonable?

In total, after King George III had intervened to order a further payment, Harrison received £23,065 of public funds for his work on marine timekeepers. The total disbursed for the successful development of the lunar method of finding longitude was just the £3,300 that went to Mayer and Euler. That hardly supports the idea that there was an institutional bias against the timekeeper method. Indeed, Maskelyne and his colleagues had always understood something that Harrison seems never to have grasped—timekeepers and lunar distances were not competitors, but complementary techniques. If the timekeeper stopped, there was no way to recover your longitude unless you could do a lunar distance observation. But conversely, if the moon was invisible (because of cloud or proximity to the sun), then a reliable timekeeper would fill the gap.

And finally, when ships were able to set off to sea equipped with both marine timekeepers and lunar distance tables, Dunn and Higgitt offer a killer statistic—despite all that effort and grief, there had been no reduction in shipping losses by the end of the eighteenth century. What eventually changed the game was not the trick of finding longitude at sea (canny mariners had managed to work around that problem for centuries), but the nineteenth century practice of using these navigational techniques to prepare more accurate sea charts. Only once the charts had hazards correctly marked could knowing your longitude protect you from danger.

Of the two books, Finding Longitude deals with the Harrison episode in most detail, and has many beautiful illustrations. Howse provides more practical detail, but fewer and smaller illustrations, and less coverage of the Harrison/Maskelyne conflict.

And if you would like to understand why I have such an antipathy to Sobel’s Latitude, I can recommend Davida Charney’s critique in her article “Lone Geniuses In Popular Science” (210KB pdf).

Harrison's Time-Keeper
The Board of Longitude finally got to publish details of Harrison’s work in 1767

* Actually officially named An Act for providing a Publick Reward for such Person or Persons as shall discover the Longitude at Sea. But life’s too short.

Arthur Gould Lee: No Parachute & Open Cockpit

Covers of two books by Arthur Gould LeeI reflect on how amazing it is that I’m here at all, sailing along nearly three miles up in a flimsy contraption made of wood and quivering fabric, suspended on air, sustained only by the wind rushing under the wings. I think how not long ago the aeroplane didn’t exist at all, no man had ever flown into the skies, and now there are thousands of us sharing in a marvellous adventure, but half of us out to kill the other half.

Arthur Gould Lee, No Parachute (1968)

Arthur Gould Lee served in the Royal Flying Corps (the air arm of the British Army) during the latter part of the First World War, and went on to a career in the Royal Air Force which lasted until 1946. After retirement, he wrote a number of memoirs describing his time in the air services during the period in which the concept and execution of “war in the air” were being invented, more or less from scratch. These two books cover his Royal Flying Corps years, and are complementary works.

No Parachute (1968) consists of a selection of long letters he wrote to his wife from France while serving with No. 46 Squadron during 1917-18. These are interspersed with diary entries, and lightly edited to insert details of locations and operations that would not have been let pass by the censor at the time. Its successor, Open Cockpit (1969), covers the same time period, bracketed by descriptions of the author’s experiences in flying training, and as a flying instructor shortly before the war ended. Each chapter has a theme—dog-fights, offensive patrols, trench strafing, fear, the uses and dangers of clouds—and allows Lee to look back on the events described in No Parachute with the more analytic eye that comes from the passing of forty years.

Lee was lucky, in many ways. A concussion sustained during a crash in training meant that his transfer to combat flying was delayed—he arrived in France with 85 hours’ flying experience, instead of the 15-20 that were standard at the time. He also narrowly missed the carnage of “Bloody April”, 1917, when the R.F.C. sustained huge combat losses and the average lifetime of a new pilot was just two weeks, with many being killed on their first encounter with better-trained and better-equipped German pilots. He also avoided having to fly some of the early obsolete aircraft provided for the R.F.C., which provided little more than target practice for the superior German Fokkers and Albatroses, and instead served in the Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Camel. And, once in combat, his letters home relay a cheerful litany of narrow escapes, forced landings, and bullet holes found in aircraft and clothing, which must have driven his long-suffering wife mad with anxiety.

The interest here is in the evocative detail—the layers of clothing required for a patrol at 20,000 feet (in an open cockpit, with no supplementary oxygen!); a sudden encounter with a British shell, blurring past the plane at 8,000 feet on its way to the German lines; the smell of phosphorus when a stream of tracer bullets passes close by, and the acrid smell of nearby anti-aircraft shell explosions; the burnt castor oil streaming back from the rotary engine, making face, goggles and clothing filthy; and the reeking whale grease the pilots would rub on their faces to prevent frostbite at high altitude.

The equipment was catastrophically unreliable—hardly a page goes by without someone’s engine cutting out, or someone’s gun jamming, both a potentially lethal turn of events in combat. Gun jams were so common that the pilots carried a hammer in the cockpit, with which to striking the cocking lever in an effort to drive a faulty cartridge into the breech so that it could be cleared.

The letters reproduced in No Parachute convey the overwhelming immediacy of the experiences, and also plot Lee’s course, over the course of a few months, from wide-eyed innocent to grizzled combat veteran. We see, too, how he descends from an initial unreflective exultation in combat into weary and nerve-shredded combat fatigue. Despite his protestations, the station medic eventually diagnoses Lee’s recurring abdominal pain as psychosomatic, and arranges a transfer to Home Establishment, where Lee ends the war as an instructor (but develops appendicitis, perhaps proving his point about the abdominal pain).

The overview provided by Open Cockpit lets Lee put things into context—why Distant Offensive Patrols were flown, and why pilots found them both risky and pointless; the unproductive dangers of trench strafing; the detailed process of getting an aircraft into the air, or coordinating an airborne attack; what pilots carried in the cockpit, and why. (In this last category, I had been puzzled, when reading No Parachute, about why Lee had lost a shaving kit when forced to abandon his plane in no-man’s-land—it turns out that, with engine failure over enemy territory so common, the pilots always carried a sort of overnight bag in readiness for being taken prisoner.)

Taken together, this pair of books provides a marvellous insight into the strange and perilous lives of what Lee calls the “winged striplings” of the R.F.C. Since their original publication in the late ’60s they have gone through a number of well-deserved reissues, most recently the finely produced and rather lovely Grub Street hardbacks pictured at the head of this post.

I knew that although I had not been killed, something in me had. Something had gone out of me and was buried, and would always be buried, in a hundred cemeteries in France and in England, along with the companions of my youth who had died that our country might live.

Arthur Gould Lee, Open Cockpit (1969)

Timothy Caulfield: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

Cover of "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?"

I’d love to feel pure, happy and lighter. Okay, I’m not sure what that would feel like, but it sounds better than I usually feel. Who wouldn’t want to feel like that? Given the warm and friendly vibe on the Goop website—it was, after all, to quote the website, “created to celebrate all life’s positives”—I am expecting a warm and happy vibe at Goop HQ.
I am mistaken. Apparently I am not one of life’s positives.

Timothy Caulfield is a Professor of Law at the University of Alberta, with an interest in Public Health and health policy-making. He’s also good at choosing book titles, since I bought this one on the strength of the title alone. (Spoiler alert: the answer to the title question is “Pretty much, yes.”)

I’d probably have been content if Caulfield had simply spent the book debunking the health, beauty and life-style pronouncements of Paltrow and her celebrity peers. But Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? is actually a much better and more significant book than that—a wide-ranging examination of celebrity culture and its implications.

The book has three sections, entitled “The Illusion of Celebrity Authority”, “The Illusion That You Too Can Be A Celebrity” and “The Illusion That Celebrity Status Is Worth Having”. Which pretty much sums up the content.

The first section deals with what I expected from the title—celebrity advice on diet, “cleansing”, supplements, organic food, beauty products and cosmetic surgery. You’ll not be surprised to learn that most of the advice reviewed is content-free, but Caulfield has some killer statistics—a study by the University of Guelph of herbal dietary supplements which showed that, of the supplement suppliers they tested, 83% had replaced the herb described on the label with some other herb. Even if herbal dietary supplements worked, you wouldn’t be getting what you paid for, fourth-fifths of the time. (But then again, if they worked they’d be held to better regulatory standards.) I also enjoyed the “admittedly small” but “kind of funny” study that looked at the behavioural traits of people who ate organic foods, compared to those who don’t. The “organic” group were more self-righteous and judgmental, and less altruistic, than the “non-organic” group.

But after successfully and entertainingly skewering the usual suspects, Caulfield moves on to the more interesting problem of why people pay attention to celebrity advice in the first place. His thesis is that we are hard-wired by evolution to assess those in our social group, and to follow the lead of those we deem most healthy and successful, because (back in the days we were part of a roaming band of plains apes) those individuals were probably giving us good advice on how to not die before we passed on our genes. But nowadays social media has meant that celebrities look like they’re part of our group—we can (if we’re so inclined) see what they’re having for breakfast, hear what they think about current affairs, and track their love-lives. And their social media presence is designed to portray them as happy and healthy and successful—that pushes all the “leader” buttons in our primitive plains-ape brains, and before we know it we’re undergoing colonic cleanses and having buttock fat injected into our faces, because these beautiful and charismatic folk seem to think it’s a good idea. (I see “we”, but of course you and I are too wise for this sort of thing.)

The other thing that goes wrong when celebrities feel like part of one’s own social group, Caulfield points out, is that the reflex comparison we make between our own lives and the lives of those around us suddenly makes our own lives seem profoundly inadequate. Time was, everyone in the village was as ugly, toothless and destitute as everyone else, and aspirations were correspondingly limited. Now people are comparing their own lives to those of predominantly young, beautiful, wealthy and privileged others, whose public personae have been actively crafted to appear perfect. No surprise, then, that (as Caulfield reports) the more time you spend accessing social media the less happy you are, on average. And you can develop a tendency to do dumb things to yourself, while you strive to match an impossible, fictional standard of youth, health and prosperity. Another killer statistic from Caulfield, this time from the medical journal Paediatrics—approximately 6% of high-school-age boys in that study were taking steroids in order to build muscle mass; another study, from the same journal a couple of years later, reported that 20% of gay teenage boys had used steroids at some time, presumably for the same physique-building purpose.

The second section, “The Illusion That You Too Can Be A Celebrity”, points out how prevalent celebrity aspirations are, and how doomed to failure almost all those aspirants are. Caulfield tells us that, twenty-five years ago, the top five career aspirations of grade-school children were: teacher, banker, doctor, scientist, vet. A recent UK survey replaces those with: sports star, pop star, actor, astronaut and lawyer. (Lawyer? Caulfield, a lawyer himself, suggests that these kids probably aspire to be wealthy, gorgeous, fast-talking movie lawyers, not real lawyers.) More than half of a large group of UK sixteen-year-olds listed “fame” as their primary career goal. Sixteen percent of teenagers in another study thought they were destined to be famous, and 11% were ready to leave school early in order to fulfil that ambition.

And yet the statistics on achieving fame and success through sports, music or acting show the chances are slim to negligible. Caulfield reports one study that suggests aspiring rock stars have a 0.0025% chance of making a UK average income for even one year during their involvement in the music industry. An aspiring actor’s chance of becoming a movie star sits around one in 1.5 million—they are more likely to die in an asteroid impact.

And the third section, “The Illusion That Celebrity Status Is Worth Having”, points out that, after the initial rush, those who achieve celebrity status usually end up no happier than the rest of us—the extra toys and access being counterbalanced by the social pressures and intrusions. It contains a spoof letter addressed to “Dear ‘Committed’ Parent at My Kid’s Hockey/Dance/Music/etc. Class” which reads, in part:

I realize that you want the best for your kid. I realize that you believe he/she is uniquely talented. […] Let’s do the math. (1) The chance of making it big is approximately zero. Do not let confirmation bias fool you. Your kid is not going to be a world-renowned star. It is not going to happen. (2) And even if it does happen (and I can’t emphasize this enough, it probably won’t), there is a good chance that he/she will be divorced, broke and unemployed before he/she hits the age of thirty. […] You are, in effect, wishing your kid a life of financial misery, isolation and lost opportunities. Is this a good idea?

So that about covers that.

The final chapter is, appropriately enough given the foregoing, entitled “The Dream Crusher?” In it, Caulfield is unapologetic for any illusions he has shattered, maintaining that a realistic view of celebrity culture can prevent a lot of disappoint, and save a lot of time and money. And he points out that it’s of course fine to contemplate a life spent in sport, or music, or acting if we love these things—but to think of them as a good route to fame, fortune and happiness is a fundamental error.

Caulfield is always entertaining, he’s done a lot of research, and he knows how to critically appraise a research paper. The book has a massive reference section. My only complaint is that references aren’t flagged in the text—you have to take hints from the dates, names, topics and journals Caulfield mentions, and then burrow through an alphabetical reference list for each chapter. Presumably this was an editorial decision aimed at making the text more approachable, but it is ABSOLUTELY INFURIATING. Apart from that, this is a first-class (but intermittently depressing) read.

Spaceflight Before Spaceflight: Two Books

Two books about spaceflight

There does not seem to be any reason why it should not be possible, by the use of a suitably designed multi-stage rocket, to send a projectile into space beyond the Earth’s gravitation. From the scientific and engineering points of view, interplanetary travel may be considered to be a practical possibility. It is the great expenditure of money and the tremendous demands on man-power which it would involve that will delay its achievement. The enthusiasts say that it could be done in ten years; but the problems to be investigated and to be solved are so many and so varied that I am inclined to give a much more cautious estimate and to say that half a century would not be an unduly long time.

Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal, in the Foreword to Across The Space Frontier (1952)

Across The Space Frontier is an expanded version of a series of articles published in  Collier’s magazine on March 22, 1952, under the title “Man Will Conquer Space Soon”. You can find the original articles on-line, courtesy of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Houston Section, who reissued  the Collier’s articles in their Horizons newsletter of July/August 2012 (22.5MB pdf). The Horizons archive is here, and if you’re interested in these classic articles, you should look through the next seven Horizons issues (up to September/October 2013) too, because they include subsequent Collier’s articles on a variety of spaceflight-related topics.

The book was written in the very earliest days of America’s space programme—an operation at that time based mainly around captured German V2 rockets and German rocket scientists brought to the USA at the end of the Second World War by Operation Paperclip.  At the time of writing, the first artificial satellite was still five years away; the unmanned altitude record was a mere 393 kilometres, achieved by the two-stage Bumper-WAC, essentially a sounding rocket attached to the top of a V2; and the human altitude record was 24,230 m, achieved by test pilot Bill Bridgeman in a Douglas Skyrocket aircraft.

At the core of the book is Wernher von Braun’s vision of how space exploration would proceed over the next decade or so, beautifully illustrated by Chesley Bonestell’s iconic paintings. Willy Ley contributes an article on the concept of a rotating space station. and there are essays by other contributors on topics as diverse as the physiology of space travel, the legal issues which might be raised by space exploration, and the astronomical benefits of siting an observatory in space.

What is interesting about this work, in the present day, is to compare the vision with the subsequent reality. The rocketry is not too much different: von Braun’s design for a conical three stage launch vehicle was 265 feet high and 65 feet wide at the base, compared to the Apollo missions’ cylindrical Saturn V, which was 363 feet high and 33 feet wide. Von Braun’s ferry rocket weighed an estimated 7000 tons and would deliver 36.5 tons to orbit, while the Saturn V weighed 3270 tons and delivered 155 tons to orbit. These differences are probably accounted for by structural economies and improved rocket technology—von Braun’s concept rocket was launched using fifty-one rocket motors powered by a mixture of hydrazine and nitric acid; the Saturn V rose into the air supported by just five huge rocket motors running on kerosene and liquid oxygen.

Von Braun mentioned two possible launch sites for his rockets—Johnston Island in the Pacific, and the Air Force Proving Ground at Cocoa, Florida. The former is the one used in the book illustrations and examples; the latter turned into what we know as the Kennedy Space Center.

But Apollo-era technology diverged strongly from von Braun’s vision in other respects—von Braun envisioned incremental progress into space, consolidating at each step; whereas Apollo turned into a race to get to the moon quickly. So all the stages of von Braun’s planned rocket were recoverable and reusable—the first and second stages parachuting back into the ocean, the third stage sporting wings and returning to Earth as a glider, like the Space Shuttle. The goal of initial launches was to deliver construction materials to low Earth orbit, for the construction of a large rotating space station of the sort depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A mission to the moon would then be launched from the space station, delivering a huge multi-storey lander with the intention of setting up a permanent moon base. Instead, Apollo used disposable rocket stages and shot straight for the moon with a tiny and extremely fragile lander.

Ley’s description of a rotating space station is detailed and fascinating, and the only one I’ve seen that takes into account the  real necessity for careful control of the centre of mass of the structure, to avoid wobbling.

Astronaut illustrated by Rolf Klep (1952)For all I love Bonestell’s space art, my favourite painting in the book is by Rolf Klep, who provided an illustration of a space-suited figure, using a small rocket motor to propel himself around the space station. Clearly visible through the helmet visor, the astronaut is sporting a pair of spectacles. Evidently, the initial exploration of space was envisaged as being a task for stereotypical scientists, not the perfect physical specimens who actually ended up doing the job.

The Mars Project was written by Wernher von Braun, and was originally published in German as Das Marsprojekt (1952). The University of Illinois had it translated by Henry J. White and first published it in English in 1953, with repeat editions in 1962 (when von Braun wrote a new preface) and in 1991 (when NASA Adminstrator Thomas O. Paine added a foreword). It formed the basis of an illustrated Collier’s article “Can We Get To Mars?” in the April 30, 1954 edition. The Collier’s article was reproduced in the September/October 2013 edition of the Horizons newsletter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Houston Section. You can download a pdf (6MB) of the relevant newsletter from their archive, and it’s well worth a look for its gorgeous artwork alone.

The Mars Project is a very different beast from Across The Space Frontier. Whereas the latter was aimed at a lay readership, The Mars Project is a technical publication, full of tables, equations and charts. In his spare time, and with his trusty slide-rule, von Braun set out to prove that it was possible to travel to Mars using the known technology of the 1950s. Having worked through the necessary celestial mechanics and rocketry, he concluded that:

… the logistic requirements for a large, elaborate expedition to Mars are no greater than those for a minor military operation over a limited theater of war.

His vision involves the assembly of ten 4000-tonne spacecraft in Earth orbit. Getting the material to orbit would require 950 launches of the “ferry rockets” described in Across The Space Frontier. Because his ferry rockets are fully recoverable, he imagines using 46 of them, with a 10-day turnaround between recovery and launch, to get all the necessary equipment into orbit in just eight months!

His giant interplanetary spacecraft, each about the height of the Statue of Liberty, then set off towards Mars, carrying a total crew of 70. His fuel calculations are based on  hydrazine/nitric acid propellant—but by the time he wrote his 1962 preface, he was pointing out the advantages of liquid hydrogen and oxygen. His calculations concerning the necessary transfer orbits are still valid today, and he correctly pointed out that his astronauts would need to spend more than a year on Mars, waiting for the planetary positions to fall into the correct alignment for their return journey.

Only when he gets us to Mars do his assumptions become invalid. According to the astronomy of the day, Mars’s atmospheric pressure was about 1/12 of Earth’s (we now know it’s only 0.6%). So von Braun is able to get his astronauts to the surface in winged rocket-planes with landing speeds around 200 kph, which can be cranked upright at the end of the mission to return to orbit as conventional rockets. If only Mar’s atmosphere were really that dense! We could have avoided all those awkward parachute/rocket/crane combinations that have actually been needed to get probes safely down to the surface of Mars.

One of the most astonishingly ambitious concepts, in a book full of astonishingly ambitious concepts, is the arrival on Mars. Von Braun imagines his astronauts taking their first landing boat down to the Martian polar ice-cap:

Considering the risk attending a wheel landing on completely strange territory at relatively high speed, it is assumed that the first landing boat will make contact with the Martian surface on a snow-covered polar area, and on skis or runners, minimizing this risk.

And then:

With [ground] vehicles, the crew of the first landing boat would proceed to the Martian equator and there select or prepare a suitable strip for the wheeled landing gears of the remaining two boats.

Yep, that’s just a 5000-kilometre jaunt across “completely strange territory”, with all the gear required to stay alive on the way and build an airstrip when you get there.

Von Braun Mars expedition, by Rolf Klep
Rolf Klep‘s illustration from the Collier’s article

This is a fascinating book, if you enjoy watching a clever man caught pretty much in the act of inventing astronautics, and don’t mind a lot of tables and equations. My only criticism of the University of Illinois’s most recent edition is that they didn’t take the chance to harvest more of the gorgeous paintings used in the Collier’s article. The only one on show is Chesley Bonestell‘s Mars-bound Spaceship Flotilla, which features as the cover art.

Walk The Line: Three Travel Books About Lines Of Latitude

Travel books about latitudeBefore a journey a map is an impersonal menu; afterwards, it is intimate as a diary.

Thurston Clarke, Equator: An Epic Journey (1988)

It’s a rare sub-genre of travel writing, the business of following a line of latitude and seeing where it takes you. Over the years I’ve put together a trio of such books, by very disparate authors. Malachy Tallack is a British journalist and singer-songwriter who wrote about his travels at sixty degrees north latitude in 2016. Long before that, back in 1988, the American historian Thurston Clarke wrote about his efforts to follow the equator around the world. And sandwiched between the two (in time, but not location) is Simon Reeve, a British journalist and television presenter, who between 2006 and 2010 made three travel documentaries for the BBC, in which he travelled around the world along the equator and then on the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. He wrote a book about the Tropic of Capricorn journey in 2008, but his other two circumnavigations remain undocumented so far.

Journeys of Malachy Tallack, Thurston Clarke and Simon Reeve
Source of base map

Malachy Tallack’s 60 Degrees North is subtitled Around the World in Search of Home, and that’s a hint about what you’re getting into with this book, as is the cover blurb that describes it as “brave”.

A bereavement in Tallack’s late teens had sent him back to the Shetland of his childhood, while leaving him with a dislocating sense that there is nowhere he actually belongs. He picks up on the Shetland Islanders’ identification with a sort of circumpolar community, characterized by their high northerly latitude and embodied by the idea of “60 degrees north”—a line of latitude that runs through the Shetland archipelago. So he sets off westward to explore this idea of a community defined by latitude, and to try to find some sort of insight into his own rootlessness. So this is as much a description of a personal journey as it is a travel narrative.

Tallack’s destinations are Greenland, Canada, Alaska, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Each of these countries is sampled by visiting one or two places lying fairly close to the 60th parallel. So some pretty small places stand in for some pretty extensive territories—most notably the little town of Fort Smith on the Slave River stands in for the whole width of Canada from Labrador to the Yukon, and the whole of Siberia is represented by a remembered trip to Kamchatka which happened years before the other journeys described in the book.

Tallack is at his best when describing the history of his chosen locations, in long informative passages. And he has an evocative sympathy for those traditional ways of life that are under threat from the standardizing and “civilizing” agendas of modern society—the Greenlanders who feel that their traditional hunting methods are more sympathetic to the natural world than, say, a battery chicken farm; the Evenk herdsmen who demonstrate their reindeer herding skills for the benefit of tourist cameras. He also writes well about the natural world. Here he is on the topic of the wind in Shetland:

It can, at times, seem so utterly unremitting that the air itself becomes a physical presence, as solid as a clenched fist. And on those rare calm days its absence can be shocking and wonderful.

And he’s a keen observer of human nature, from the obsessive urge to tidy exhibited by the staff in a Russian museum (who are thwarted and disappointed when Tallack leaves their leaflets exactly as he found them), to the easy mutual affection of two shopkeepers and their customer in a remote Norwegian village.

But it’s all very melancholy. Tallack spends much of his time alone, and much of his time feeling slightly oppressed. He’s not very keen on cities, and a bit anxious about wilderness (though he does have fond memories of Kamchatka, visited at a time when he seems to have been a little less careworn). And he projects his worries on to others, most notably when he dithers about whether to take a boat trip from the Alaskan town of Seward:

It was a strange sight, this armada, with its cargo of expectant tourists, eager to glimpse something that perhaps even they could not quite specify. For what was this thing that drew them out there? What was it that took them north in the first place? What exactly did they hope to find?

Speaking as someone who’s been on one of those boats, I can report that it’s not complicated, really—we hoped to find spectacular scenery and interesting wildlife. And we did.

Interspersed with all this is the story of Tallack’s life—the loss of his father at the age of sixteen, rootless time spent in Shetland and Copenhagen and Prague, and what seems to have been a rare happy interlude on Fair Isle. So as his travels went on, I found myself hoping they would lead to a homecoming like the one T.S. Eliot described: “… the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” But it doesn’t turn out like that.

So while wishing Tallack well, and hoping he finally finds somewhere to call home, it was with some relief I moved on to Thurston Clarke. Clarke’s book is more in the traditional mode of travel writing. He throws himself into the journey, chatting to everyone he meets, and pretty much winging it on how he’s going to get from one place to another along the equator. He has an easy, upbeat narrative style, an eye for the odd or telling incident, and an ear for an eccentric conversation. And (apart from the odd explanatory note or funny story) he rarely gives any detail of his own life. He’s essentially the antithesis of Tallack, then. You can get an idea of his style from the following line:

The arrival formalities at Brazzaville’s Maya-Maya airport resemble those of a popular New York discotheque.

Remote locations, lots of hassle, quirky lightness of narrative touch. (On this occasion Clarke had arranged to be recognized on arrival, and so was whisked out of the milling crowds into an air-conditioned VIP area.)

Clarke travels around the world, west to east, making the crossing of each continent into a project in itself. Crossing directly from one continent to the next along the equator is a logistic impossibility—ships rarely make such a crossing, and airlines tend to have their trans-ocean hubs a long way from the equator. So between continent-crossings, he allows himself a bit of R&R in the USA or Europe before heading back south to start again. Although he’s travelling independently, with a visa-stuffed passport, a wodge of currency and no fixed plan beyond an aspirational list of “equatorial things to see”, he is not entirely unsupported. He has arranged to give lectures at various universities along the way, which makes him, to some extent, a representative of the USA, allowing him to call on  occasional assistance from US embassies abroad. And the lectures also give him a sort of “official guest” status that he can trade on with obstructive government functionaries. His other solution to obstructive government functionaries, it must be said, is simply to ignore them. In Libreville, the capital of Gabon, he is told that he needs to write and present multiple letters of introduction to various members of the national and local government before he can possibly travel in the country. He promises solemnly to present the letters the following day, and then gets on the next train out of town.

The narrative is, of course, a little out of date at this remove. Zaïre, miserable and disintegrating as it was even when Clarke visited, had not yet descended into civil war. Nor had Somalia. And of Rwanda an aid-worker could say, in all seriousness, “There is no longer a tribal problem here.”

Deep economic hardship is a recurring theme, as are stories of displaced and disorientated populations and individuals, and Clarke works hard both to help us appreciate their plight, and to explain how things got to be the way they are. And there are very long bus journeys, alarming taxi rides, eccentric expats, dumb tourists,  pickpockets, mountain gorillas, a nuclear test site, amoebic dysentery, and a near-death experience at the hands of drunken Ugandan soldiers.

All of it is narrated in a frank and witty style, punctuated by telling  anecdotes. One anecdote must stand for the many—this one’s about Mbakanda, an equatorial town in what was then Zaïre, which when Clarke visited was gradually losing its European residents:

Mbakanda’s legacy of European toilets was shrinking faster than the number of people accustomed to them. Seats and cisterns cracked, and there were no replacements. Those unused to squatting in a field or outhouse became desperate, and thieves stole from occupied houses. Victims of the toilet bandits visited neighbors and found themselves using familiar porcelain.

Reeve’s book, Tropic Of Capricorn, is subtitled A Remarkable Journey to the Forgotten Corners of the World, which perhaps over-eggs the pudding a little, given his considerable harvest of tourist destinations along the way. Although similar in conception to the two other books, it’s different in execution. Reeve is making a television documentary, so he travels with a small film crew, and is handed off from one local fixer to another as the journey progresses.  Like Clarke, he takes the trip a continent at a time, with time off to rest (and get married!) between continents. His television programmes alternate a series of arranged interviews with episodes in which Reeve stands in front of something impressive, being boyishly enthusiastic. So the book necessarily has the same pattern, but without the visuals. And because he’s making a documentary, Reeve strays farther from his chosen line of latitude than do Tallack or Clarke—he speaks about visiting the “Capricorn countries”, and he travels quite widely in search of good stories.

When I’m reading a book with the intention of writing something about it, I tend to mark evocative or dramatic passages as I go along, for later reference. The problem I had with Reeve’s book is that I was three-quarters of the way through and still hadn’t marked a single passage. Part of that, I think, is because of Reeve’s journalistic background. Things are described in a series of short sentences—one thing happens, then another thing happens, then another thing happens. Here’s an example:

Then, with an almighty tearing noise and a deafening crash, the tree collapses to the ground. It is a bit of a shock.
“Bloody hell!” I exclaim.

And the book was written on the fly, by candlelight or failing laptop battery, as the journey progressed, and then edited on a tight deadline to be released alongside the TV series. So there are some odd turns of phrase—I’m not sure filter-feeding flamingoes can reasonably be described as “munching” their food; nor do I fancy the idea of being “injected” with morning coffee.

Reeve is not so big on history, but very good on current problems. Of all the books, his does the best job of exploring the plight of indigenous peoples, since he deliberately seeks them out for interview. In Africa and South America, he talks to people displaced from their traditional ways of life to make way for logging, soy plantations and even national parks, and he’s at his best when he talks about the distress he feels on their behalf. He reserves his particular ire for the plight of the Australian Aborigine, however, to which he devotes almost an entire chapter, detailing the ways in which Australia has marginalized its first people.

He’s also good on deploying killer statistics, telling us for instance that, throughout history, perhaps half of all humans have died of malaria, or that the South American War of the Triple Alliance killed an astonishing 90% of Paraguayan adult males in the 1860s. (I’m not sure I needed to know where the world’s “third steepest railway incline” is, though.)

He samples tourist attractions at Iguazu, in the Okavango Delta, the Namib Desert, and the Atacama; gets involved in dangerous activities with South African and Brazilian border patrols; goes to visit a diamond mine in Botswana and a sapphire mine in Madagascar; has uncomfortably close encounters with hyenas, hippos, cheetahs and bees; and meets a rat that’s being trained to help clear minefields.

Through it all he’s constantly engaged with the situations he finds people in, and is always trying to tie those local problems in with the bigger global picture of climate change, shifting markets, and even the fashions in charitable giving:

Charitable Westerners donating their cheap clothes to Africa have undercut the local clothing industry. No Mozambican firm could ever make a T-shirt cheaper than a Western T-shirt donated for free.

Well, that’s obvious when you think about it, but I confess it had never occurred to me.

So these turn out to be three very different books—Tallack’s journey is intermittent and patchy, but layered with emotion; Clarke is the most devoted to seeking out his chosen line of latitude, but also the most laid-back; and Reeve is the most engaged, and has the widest variety of experiences. Of them all, I had the most fun with Clarke, and I suspect his is the only book I’ll go back to and read again.

Kit Pedler & Gerry Davis: Three Novels

Novels by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis

None of us set out to do anything more than be technically ingenious. We succeeded and London nearly died. Surely that’s more than enough to make us redirect our activities. The next time it may be the whole world.

Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters (1971)

Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis were a writing duo active in the 1960s and ’70s. They wrote for the BBC’s Doctor Who in the ’60s, giving the world the Cybermen in 1966.

Cybermen (meh)

When I was a solitary, bespectacled and distinctly oikotropic child growing up in Dundee in the 1960s, I never found the Cybermen that frightening, to be honest. I was much more worried about their etymologically linked contemporaries, the Cybernauts—trilby-wearing, karate-chopping killer robots from ITV’s television series, The Avengers.

A cybernaut (yikes)

Anyway, Pedler and Davis went on to invent a fabulously successful television series for the BBC, in the techno-thriller genre—Doomwatch (1970). They tapped into the burgeoning environmental paranoia of the times, and each episode saw the appearance of some new threat to the world (generally produced by careless, malevolent or just plain dumb scientists), which had to be sorted out by a quasi-governmental organization with a formal name that seemed to vary from episode to episode, but which was code-named Doomwatch.
The name pretty quickly entered the lexicon, as a word for any kind of observation intended to avert technological danger—the Oxford English Dictionary records its first usage, other than as a direct reference to the TV series, in 1973.

The formula worked so well for them, they cooperated to produce three novels in the same style—Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters (1971), Brainrack (1974) and The Dynostar Menace (1975), all involving some near-future technological threat that endangers civilization. *

The strengths of the novels are in their meticulous technical descriptions, and in their ability to conjure up striking scenarios that remain in the memory. The weakness is … well, the writing. Pedler and Davis can’t really do conversation very well, and either they or their publisher seem to be in the grip of some sort of punctuation famine—there are a lot of missing question marks, a lot of commas where full stops or semicolons might do the job better, and a lot of places in which the insertion of a humble comma would have made the reading a great deal easier.

I recently decided to re-read them, to see if the striking images were still striking, and how well their “advanced technology” stood the test of time.

First up is Mutant 59: The Plastic Eaters, in which a bacterium engineered to digest plastic escapes into central London. The plot is recycled and expanded from the first episode of Doomwatch. There’s much discussion of bacterial cultures and electron microscopy (Pedler’s day-job was in electron microscopy), and lots of scientists having ill-tempered disputes over molecular design. The peril comes from the way the bacterium strips the insulation off electric wiring and ruptures the plastic seals on gas pipes as it spreads through the sewers and tunnels under London. The striking visuals come from the way kitchen work-surfaces, airliner cabins and trendy “wet-look” PVC clothing melt and puddle as the bacteria do their work. The memorable scenarios are the deserted appearance of an evacuated central London, the slow disintegration and failure of a passenger aircraft in flight over the Atlantic, and the long trek through the tunnels of the London Underground that some of the novel’s characters have to make to reach safety after disaster strikes. The Pan paperback has, I think, a near perfect cover photograph by Julian Cottrell—a fancy briefcase with a combination lock (implying privilege and secrecy), is open to reveal a melted model of a Boeing 727 passenger aircraft (echoing two major themes of the novel, melting plastic and aircraft crashes).

The successor volume, Brainrack, has two plot threads—one that kicks off the story, and then peters out; and one that ramps up as the story progresses, to provide the novel’s climax. The early part of the novel raises concerns that computers are becoming so complicated that they can make decisions in ways humans can’t understand. In these days of trained neural networks, that’s now a real worry—for Pedler and Davis to have pointed it out in 1974, in the days when  computers still occupied entire rooms and were programmed with tape and punched cards, was remarkably prescient. The other strand of the story involves the detection of decreasing intelligence (as well as more focal neurological disabilities) in some subgroups of the world’s population. The combination of “too clever by half” computers with dumb operators produces a Perfect Storm during the commissioning of a new nuclear reactor in Orkney, resulting in a core meltdown and a “China Accident” , with a massive release of radiation.

The description of the meltdown, and the story of the protagonist’s escape from the ruined power station, is the high point of the book. On either side of that, things move a little slowly. But the story ends with a dilemma that is familiar to us today, in a different guise—how much present-day technological convenience are we willing to give up, to avoid future disaster?

Finally, The Dynostar Menace. The eponymous Dynostar is an experimental fusion reactor, built aboard an orbiting space habitat. Just before its commissioning run, evidence comes to light that its magnetic field will destroy the Earth’s ozone layer. This is disappointing hocum, of course—merely a McGuffin to set up a powerful dilemma for the characters. In another layer of McGuffin, the Dynostar is already set to be triggered automatically in a computer-controlled sequence that is difficult to stop safely. (This abdication of responsibility to an automatic computer sequence is rendered even less credible by the revelation, early in the novel, that this story is set after the events described in Brainrack.)

Anyway, the reactor trigger sequence must now be shut down by the crew of the space habitat. Who unfortunately start to be murdered by someone among their number who is determined that the automated Dynostar test go ahead as planned, despite the risk to all life on Earth. Cue the search for the cunning, inventive and psychopathic crew-member.

So we have claustrophobia, mounting paranoia, murders and sabotage, and a race against time. There are tense sequences both within the habitat and in space, and the technical depiction of life aboard a space station was fresh and novel back in 1975, drawing as it did on experience from the then-recent 1973 Skylab missions.

But gad, I hate these extremely cunning and inventive psychopathic scientists. They get to do anything they like for as long as it serves the plot, and then can be relied upon for a homicidal melt-down in the closing sequence. And Pedler and Davis struggle to differentiate their various characters well enough for me to keep them straight in my head, let alone to shift my suspicions from one to another as the story progresses. So this is by far the weakest of the three novels.

All the novels are dated by their science and their social milieu. Hulking mainframe computers, wet-look plastic clothes, gay stereotypes—they’re all in there, as well as the obligatory hysterical woman who just needs a good slap to make her pull herself together. Mutant 59 has lasted best, with an unusual plot which is well-explored. Brainrack gets itself muddled between two plot strands, though the central sequence of the reactor melt-down still works. But Dynostar‘s space setting is nowadays too familiar to sustain interest in an otherwise weary and patchy plot.

So if you want a little glimpse of classic 1970s environmental paranoia, take a look at Mutant 59. You can safely leave the other two in the remaindered bin of history.

* They also cooperated on a slim volume entitled Doomwatch: The World In Danger, containing three short stories based on three Doomwatch episodes. Be warned that this was one of a series of early reading texts from Longman’s, known as “Structural Readers”, and so is written in a style not too distant from “Look, John, look. See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.” This renders it pretty much unreadable, paradoxically enough.

 What Pedler and Davis call a China Accident” is now more commonly known by the name China Syndrome, a term that was popularized by a 1979 film of the same name. The molten reactor core burns through the base of the containment vessel and burrows into the ground beneath—fancifully, it keeps going until it passes right through the Earth and reaches China. (Which tells us that the term was coined in America.)

Eric Brown: Wings On My Sleeve

Cover of Wings On My Sleeve by Eric Brown

A new hydraulic-pneumatic catapult was installed which had to be proofed so that its performance could be checked before it was introduced into service. For the first launch with it we used an Avenger as being an old and well-tried faithful. It was a startling maiden effort. The aircraft was shot off so violently that the engine cut and the folding wings unlocked and folded back. It was a nasty sight from the cockpit.

You can’t get much better than test-pilot memoirs, can you? That’s Eric Brown responding with his customary sang-froid to a typical awkward moment in his career—being launched from an aircraft-carrier catapult in an aircraft with a stalled engine and collapsed wings.

Brown’s interest in flying started in 1936 when, on a visit to Germany, he was taken on an aerobatic joyride by Ernst Udet, the First World War flying ace. Brown went on to fly with the Fleet Air Arm at the outbreak of the Second World War, and was part of the early development of flight operations from aircraft carriers. This led on to a posting to the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough, where he tested new aircraft and new aircraft launch and landing systems. Under wartime production pressures, there was always a new aircraft to be tested, and Brown was running multiple test programmes simultaneously, to the extent that during one exhausting month he flew thirty different models of aircraft. Towards the end of the war, the fact that he spoke fluent German got him a job picking up abandoned German aircraft and bringing them back to Britain for testing (where they formed the RAE’s “Enemy Flight”). In the post-war period he spent time seconded to both the German Naval Air Arm and the American Naval Air Test Center.

All of this experience meant that he holds a couple of aviation records that are unlikely ever to be beaten, in these more regimented days—the largest number of aircraft types flown (487), and the largest number of aircraft carrier landings (2407).

Wings On My Sleeve is his autobiography, published in 2006, when he was 87 years old.

I chanced upon it in a bookshop in Oban, quite recently, my attention drawn to the aeroplane on the cover—that’s a slightly cartoonish German Messerschmitt Bf 109, but marked up with British roundels. (Close inspection shows the pilot apparently sitting cheerily on the left side of the cockpit, in a single-seat fighter. Brown must have flinched a little when he saw that.) When I figured out it was holding the autobiography of the man who assembled the Enemy Flight, I bought it.

And it’s a marvellous read, full of incident. There’s the occasion when he baled out of a burning aircraft at 1,300 feet, landed in a duckpond, and was then trapped there by an enraged bull circling the pond. The emergency services were of little help until eventually someone found the farmer, who led the bull away. And there’s the time when Brown, through a certain amount of inattention, landed on an aircraft carrier that not only had no deck crew in place and wasn’t properly aligned with the wind, but which didn’t even have arrester wires properly rigged. It’s difficult to know who was the more surprised—Brown or the ship’s captain. And the occasion when he taught himself to fly a helicopter—he had seen one for the first time a few days previously, when he had experienced a twenty-minute flight as a passenger, and had been given a “large orange-coloured booklet” by the American mechanics who had unpacked and assembled his new Sikorsky R-4B Hoverfly. What could possibly go wrong?

While assembling the Enemy Flight, he once got a little ahead of the advancing Allied armies, and landed at Grove airfield in Denmark before it had been liberated. As he climbed out of his Avro Anson, he was alarmed to see a Luftwaffe major walking towards him; but then relieved when the major offered his ceremonial sword in formal surrender. Brown and his copilot then spent an uneasy night as guests of the Luftwaffe, while they waited for the Allied army to catch up with them. On another occasion he managed to “informally” take a flight in the Luftwaffe’s notoriously explosive rocket-plane, the Me 163B Komet—he was the only British pilot ever to fly one, since all subsequent tests were performed using the aircraft as a towed glider, the rocket motor being deemed too dangerous to use.

And there’s also the story of how Squadron Leader Tony Martindale manage to get a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire Mark XI very close to the speed of sound, and lived to tell the tale (but only just):

One day he dived to [Mach] 0.92, at which point he was pulling about 100lb on the control column to recover, when the over-speeding propeller became detached, together with its reduction gear.
The resultant loss of weight at the front end made the Spitfire tail-heavy and it zoomed almost vertically upwards, blacking out the pilot under a force of 11‘g’. When he recovered his sight again Marty found himself back up at about 40,000 feet with his straight-winged aeroplane now having acquired a very slightly swept-back look. It speaks volumes both for the pilot and the Spitfire that Marty somehow managed to land it back at Farnborough on its wheels …

A photograph exists of the aircraft that “Marty” Martindale successfully glided back to base:

Spitfire XI EN 409 which was used in high speed diving trials in 1944

You really can’t get much better than test-pilot memoirs, can you?