Box Hill, Surrey

Stunning views from the summit of Box Hill, part of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

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It’s Star Trek, Jim, but not as we know it

If you were a boy in the second half of the 1960s, there is a good chance that you will remember TV 21, the boy’s magazine that ran comic strips based on Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL 5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds, presented as if they were current stories in a 2060s newspaper.

Much less well known is Joe 90: Top Secret. TV 21’s ‘newspaper of the future’ format was extremely successful at first, but as the 1960s neared an end, sales began to fall. The initial readership had aged into their teens, and potential new readers were now too young to have watched the earlier Anderson shows. Attempts to reboot the ‘Anderverse’ with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Zero X (the latter was a spaceship that featured in both Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet) failed to halt the decline.

So, in January 1969, Joe 90: Top Secret was launched as a companion to TV 21. Like its parent publication, it ran comic strips based on science fiction-themed TV shows, although this time there was no attempt to link them into a shared universe. In addition to the eponymous Joe 90, the magazine featured Irvin Allen’s new series Land of the Giants, the British spy series The Champions, and an unfamiliar strip featuring the adventures of Captain Kurt and the crew of the Universe Star Ship Enterprise. Yes, this was my introduction to Star Trek, six months before it made its first appearance on British television.

Star Trek had been running in the States since 1966, and it was now well into its third and final season, but it did not debut on BBC television until 12 July 1969 – just over a week before Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap for mankind’. Consequently, most UK readers of Joe 90 had never heard of the show. Two decades later, Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spinoffs would also take several years to make their way across the Atlantic, but by this time – even before the internet – Star Trek was a global phenomenon and the tabloids were making execrable jokes about “to baldly go” in reference to Patrick Stewart’s lack of hair long before Captain Picard and the Enterprise-D first featured on BBC television in September 1990.

Writer Angus Allan doesn’t seem to have had much Star Trek source material to go on at first, but his inventive story lines, and the artwork by artists including the legendary Mike Noble, more than made up for this.

The Universe Star Ship Enterprise left Earth’s atmosphere to embark on a five year deep space exploration. Massive in proportion and manned by thousands, the Enterprise’s mission is to make peaceful contact with any form of life in the universe.

In addition to ‘Captain Kurt’, the bridge crew included ‘the strange Mr Spock’, helmsman Sulu, and navigator Bailey. The latter appeared in only one episode of the TV series: the first-season episode The Corbomite Manuever. It seems probable that that excerpts from this episode were the only source material initially available to the Joe 90 artists and storywriters.

In the first story arc, hostile robots take over the Enterprise and land the starship on their planet. Not until Voyager would TV viewers see a Federation starship make a soft-landing on a planet (albeit the movie Generations featured the saucer section of the Enterprise-D making a crash-landing). Other oddities included shuttles that resembled miniature versions of Thunderbird 2 and ‘repair waggons’ equipped with grapples. The Enterprise was armed with turret-mounted lasers rather than the more familiar phasers and photon torpedoes.

Gradually, the UK Star Trek strip caught up with the TV series. The error with Kirk was soon corrected; Dr Mc Coy joined the crew for the second strip, and Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov soon followed. The transporter (albeit referred to as a teleport) appeared in the third strip and the sixth strip (which coincided with the belated appearance of Star Trek on British television) saw the Enterprise equipped with phasers and more conventional Galileo-class shuttles (albeit misspelt). However, readers had to wait until early 1970 before the Klingons and the Romulans made an appearance.

Joe 90 survived for 38 issues before it was merged into its parent publication TV 21, which ran for a while as TV 21 & Joe 90 before reverting to its original title. Star Trek survived these changes, and a later merger with Valiant. It ran until the end of 1973, a total of 257 episodes before it was finally dropped.

This offbeat incarnation of Star Trek was then largely forgotten for forty years. The stories were never published in the United States. Eventually, in 2016, thanks to the endeavours of enthusiast Rich Hanley, they were brought back into print. Between March of that year and September 2017, the entire series was published in a three-volume collection.

Gillette building, Brentford

The Gillette building was a factory and UK headquarters of the Gillette Company (now part of the Procter & Gamble corporation). The Grade II listed Art Deco building is located on “Gillette Corner” at the junction of the Great West Road and Syon Lane. Designed by Sir Banister Fletcher, Jr., it opened early in 1937. The cast iron lanterns now flanking the main entrance are re-purposed Victorian gas lamps that were converted to electricity and set up on stone plinths.

Sir Banister Fletcher, Jr. and his father Banister Fletcher, Snr. are best known for the textbook A History of Architecture,which remains in print to this day as Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture and is now in its twenty-first edition.

The Gillette factory closed in 2006 when production moved to Poland. The closure of the Brentford site and Gillette’s warehouse and distribution facility at Hemel Hempstead, Herts, cost 450 jobs.

There have been various proposals to redevelop the Brentford site. To date the site has changed hands twice since the closure. Plans for a hotel and business park failed to go ahead after the 2008 financial crisis. The current owners, Gillette Corner Holdings (unconnected to the Gillette Company), acquired the site for £23 million in 2013.

Quintin Hogg Memorial Ground, Chiswick

The Quintin Hogg Memorial Ground, informally known as the Polytechnic Ground, is a major sports centre in Chiswick, West London. The ground was opened in 1906, and it now includes floodlit synthetic turf pitches, netball and tennis courts, and natural pitches for cricket, rugby, and football. Quintin Hogg, for whom the ground is named, was an amateur sportsman, businessman, educational reformer, and philanthropist. He is best known for founding The Polytechnic (later known as the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL); now the University of Westminster). His descendants include three generations of Conservative politicians.

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A carefully restored sign states that the sports grounds are “for the recreation of members and students of the Polytechnic 309 Regent Street London W1”. The 40-acre site became the home of the Polytechnic Harriers athletics club, and it also hosted football, cricket, and tennis clubs. These clubs drew large crowds to their events, so in 1938 the grounds were expanded by the purchase of an additional 20 acres for an athletics stadium comprising a cinder running track and a state-of-the art cantilever stand.

The Modernist-style grandstand was designed inhouse by Joseph Addison, head of the Polytechnic’s School of Architecture. The roof is supported by a beam 78 feet long by 7 feet deep, which in turn is supported by two octagonal pillars. The front section of the roof projects a further 30 feet over the lower seating deck. The stand seats 658 spectators and additionally houses offices, club rooms, and dressing rooms.

It was hoped that the stadium would become London’s principle athletics venue, but the intervention of the war and the opening of the National Sports Centre at Crystal Palace in 1964 meant that these hopes were never realised. By the 1970s, cinder tracks had fallen out of favour as all-weather surfaces came into use, and the Polytechnic Stadium fell into decline. In 1985, the male-only Harriers merged with the women’s Kingston Athletics Club and moved to Kingston. The by now run-down stadium was partially renovated for use by Fulham Rugby League Football Club (originally a spin-off from Fulham FC, now known as London Broncos), who played there from 1985 to 1990, but plans for a permanent move fell through.

The grandstand, now a Grade II listed building, was eventually restored, but the revamp left it flanked by a fitness centre and a health club that HRH Prince Charles would certainly classify as carbuncles. The former cinder track has been turfed over, but is unused as a playing-area, with the consequence that the stand’s seating area likewise is unused.

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In addition to the Polytechnic stadium, the grounds also incorporate a large pavilion with two function rooms, catering facilities, bars and changing rooms. The sentry-box style cricket scoreboard, sadly, is no longer in use and has been superseded by an electronic scoreboard mounted on the pavilion.

Restored Modernist 1930s grandstand, Isleworth

These days, nearly all modern sports stadia offer spectators a column-free view of the action. One of the most common ways of achieving this is by roofing a grandstand with a cantilever roof. The first cantilever stand at an English football ground was the one at Scunthorpe United’s Old Showground, opened in 1958. Much larger cantilever stands soon followed at Hillsborough and Old Trafford, although stands with column-supported roofing continued to be built for many years afterwards.

In fact, even in the 1950s, cantilever stands were nothing new. They first appeared at continental racecourses as early as 1906, but it was not until the late 1920s that they found their way to Britain.

One of the earliest still existing was built for University College School Old Boys’ Rugby Football Club at Macfarlane Lane, Isleworth in 1935. Constructed from reinforced concrete and featuring Crittall windows, it was designed by club members Brian Sutcliffe and HC Farmer.

In 1968, the ‘Old Gowers’ entered into a groundshare with Centaurs RFC, who had been forced to leave their home at the Lyons Sports Ground, Sudbury after it was sold by its owners, J. Lyons and Co. The ‘Old Gowers’ subsequently left in 1979, preferring to use the more centrally-located playing fields of their parent institution in Hampstead. Centaurs continued to use the ground alone until 2000, when rising costs forced the club to move to Richmond and rent a council-owned pitch.

Thereafter the stand fell into disrepair. In 2001, it was designated a Grade II listed building, and two years later it was placed on the Heritage At Risk Register. However, in 2005, the ground was taken over by a five-a-side football company, and in 2010 a £1.5 million refurbishment of the stand, its bar, and rear pavilion was completed. Restored to its former glory, it is a fine example of Modernist architecture, although there is now very little action to be seen from its bench seats. In order to preserve its setting, the enclosed five-a-side pitches were sited some way away from the stand. The turf fronting the stand is used only occasionally for football.

How did the Greeks learn that the Earth is round?

When the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes estimated the circumference of the Earth around 240 BC, it was common knowledge that the planet was spherical. But prior to the sixth century BC, belief in a flat earth was common. Early Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hebrew, and Homeric Greek cosmologies all viewed the Earth as flat. The Hebrew cosmology viewed the Earth as a disk supported by pillars and surrounded by a primal Ocean. Below it is an underworld known as She’ol and above it, again supported by pillars, is the Firmament of Heaven, a solid dome separating the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets from the Ocean of Heaven. It is not clear how or when the shift to the modern view of a spherical Earth came about. The earliest references to a spherical Earth come from ancient Greek sources, but there is no account of how the discovery was made.

Is it possible that under suitable conditions, the Earth’s curvature could be seen with the naked eye? Strictly speaking, what we mean here is a curved horizon rather than the curvature of the Earth. It is, nonetheless, an artefact of a spherical Earth. If Bronze Age people were able to see a curved horizon, it might have given them a strong hint that they were living on a sphere, not a plate.

Almost half a century ago, I watched in wonder as live TV pictures showed Neil Armstrong take his ‘giant leap for mankind’. The blurry pictures appeared to show the curvature of the Moon’s surface clearly visible in the background. It is also apparent in the colour picture Armstrong took as Buzz Aldrin exited the lunar module to join him on the lunar surface.

The Moon is of course much smaller than the Earth at just over a quarter of the diameter. Consequently, the lunar curvature is almost four times as pronounced as that of earth; moreover, it appears so prominent in the photographs as to suggest that Terrestrial curvature should at least be perceptible at ground level.

But first, let’s take a closer look at the picture of Aldrin climbing down the ladder of the lunar module (you’ll have to google it; it is NASA copyright and I can’t post it here). Does it really show the lunar curvature? The answer is ‘no’. The horizon is tilted due to the camera angle; it’s not actually curved. But the horizon is very close – as one would expect on a small planet, and this combines with the camera angle to give an illusion of a curved horizon. For our observer of average height, the distance to the horizon is 2.4 km (1.5 miles) as opposed to 4.7 km (2.9 miles). This is of course an effect of the curvature, but it’s not the same as seeing a curved horizon.

It is often claimed that the curvature of the Earth can be seen from an aircraft, a mountain, or even a tall building. The idea is that if you sight the horizon looking out to sea over a level straight edge such a ruler from approximately a metre, you should be able to see a convex meniscus. Unfortunately, you need to be very high up for this method to work. Standing on a clifftop looking out to sea you will see nothing (I’ve tried). In fact, even from an airliner at 35,000 feet it is hard to see (although it is clearly visible at 60,000 feet from high-altitude aircraft such as Concorde). There are many photographs purporting to show a clear curvature from ordinary airliners, but the ‘curvature’ in these cases will almost certainly be due to barrel distortion of the lens used to take the picture. We can thus rule out any possibility that Bronze Age people could have seen the Earth’s curvature for themselves.

The classic example of a proof that the Earth must be round is the appearance or disappearance of ships over the horizon. As a ship sails away from the land, it will gradually disappear; first the hull, then the superstructure, and finally (for a sailing ship), the masts and sails. Similarly, the upper parts of an incoming vessel will be seen before the hull comes into view. The effect can clearly be seen with a telescope or a pair of binoculars and the internet abounds with photographs and videos taken with high-zoom cameras.

Bronze Age traders were voyaging across the Mediterranean two millennia before the fifth century BC. While ships often kept close to land, prevailing winds meant that it was far easier for Ancient Minoan ships to sail directly from Crete to Egypt, only coasting on the return voyage. The question, then is, why didn’t the Minoans notice the gradual disappearance of their ships below the horizon?

The problem is, there were no telescopes, binoculars, or high-zoom cameras in the Bronze Age. Also, Bronze Age ships were far smaller than modern freighters or liners. If the evidence of the fourteenth century BC Uluburun shipwreck is anything to go by, a typical merchant vessel of that time was only around 15 – 16 m (50 ft) in length, about the size of a present-day Moody 54 sailing yacht. Even the triremes that came into use as warships in the late sixth century BC were much smaller than a present-day coastal freighter.

Would even a keen-eyed observer have been able to see that the hull of an outward-bound Bronze Age ship vanished while its sails remained visible? Even if they could, would they have been able to do so with enough consistency to realise that it was a distinct phenomenon and not just an artefact of sea, weather, or lighting conditions?

Let us assume that an individual of average height (eye level 5ft 7 in or 1.7 m) is sited on the shore, watching a ship of comparable size to the Uluburun merchant vessel standing out to sea:

Length of hull = 15 m approx.;
Height of hull above waterline = 2 m approx.;
Hoist of mainsail = 15 m approx.

Using a computer program that takes eye height and target distance, and calculates target hidden height, we find that the hull will have just disappeared as the ship reaches 10 km (6.2 miles) from the shore. At that distance, the sail will subtend 15/10,000 = 1.5 e-3 rad = 5 arcmin. This is about the same apparent size as a five pence coin or a US or Canadian dime viewed from 12 metres (39 ft). For a second observer, sited on a clifftop at a height of 10 m (32 ft), the whole of the ship will still be visible, but the hull will subtend an angle of just 2/10,000 = 2 e-4 rad = 0.7 arcmin above the waterline. This is less than the apparent diameter of Venus, and I think that it would be quite difficult to distinguish the hull from the sea even under favourable conditions. In conclusion, I am by no means convinced that it ever occurred to Bronze Age people that ships were doing anything other than vanishing into the distance.

How, then, might sixth century Greek scholars have deduced that they were living on the surface of a sphere? There are several clues that can be gleaned from the night skies. Long before the sixth century BC, astronomers were aware that the stars at night all appear to revolve in a clockwise direction around a fixed point. That fixed point is the celestial North Pole, which is the point in the sky that would be directly overhead if you were standing at the geographical North Pole. But for observers sited elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, the celestial North Pole appears in the sky due north and at an altitude above the horizon corresponding their latitude: thus from London, it is to be found at about 51 ° 30’ above the horizon, but from Athens, only 38 °.

The celestial North Pole is currently marked by the moderately bright star Polaris, but in classical antiquity there was no naked eye star close to the spot. Instead, navigators used the entire constellation of Ursa Minor for navigation purposes. It would nevertheless have been apparent from travellers’ tales that the further south you went, the lower in the sky this constellation would appear. Furthermore, constellations that are circumpolar (never setting, or as Homer put it, “never bathing in Ocean’s stream”) as seen from Greece would at times be out of view. But other, more southerly constellations would rise higher in the night sky, and the Southern Cross, which disappeared from the Mediterranean skies around 1700 BC, would come into view. Such reports could only be explained if the Earth was spherical.

Another clue comes from the Moon, whose phases might have been recorded as long ago as 35,000 years. When the Moon sets just after sunset, it is seen as a crescent with the illuminated side facing the western horizon; a half Moon (either waxing or waning) is always to be found 90 degrees away from the Sun; a full Moon always rises at sunset; finally, when the Moon rises just before sunrise, it is seen as a crescent with the illuminated side facing the eastern horizon. The phases of the Moon can easily be simulated by illuminating a ball with a torch in a darkened room and observing it from different angles. The Ancient Greeks could have carried out the same exercise, substituting the torch for an oil lamp or candle. A spherical Moon doesn’t necessarily imply a spherical Earth, but it is inconsistent with a flat earth.

Lunar eclipses provide a confirmatory clue. It would long have been known that a lunar eclipse can only happen when the Moon is full, and that a full Moon happens when the Moon is on the opposite side of the sky to the Sun and its entire Earth-facing surface is illuminated. A lunar eclipse must therefore be caused by Earth getting in the way of the Sun and casting a shadow across the surface of the Moon.

This shadow – a shadow of Earth – always appears circular. While a flat plate could cast a circular shadow, it would not always do so. The shadow would depend on the angle of the plate with respect to the Sun, and it would typically appear elliptical. But, regardless of the where the Moon is in the sky when an eclipse occurs, the Earth’s shadow is circular. This can only be explained by a spherical Earth, which casts a circular shadow from all angles.

During the sixth century BC, it is likely that Greek scholars pulled these three strands of evidence together and concluded that the Earth is spherical. It is not clear who made the breakthrough, even assuming it was just one person. It is commonly suggested that Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BC) or at any rate the Pythagorean school first put forward the idea of a spherical Earth.

The pre-requisites for discovering that the Earth is spherical would have been:
1. A literate society with writing technology capable of keeping records of astronomical phenomena.
2. A society in which trade and other long-distance interactions occur, where travellers have opportunities to observe night skies in distant lands.
3. An intellectual climate in which rational investigations of astronomical phenomena are likely to occur.

These conditions were certainly met in the Archaic and Classical periods of Ancient Greece, but what about the earlier civilisations that flourished during the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East? These civilisations interacted in a ‘Club of Great Powers’ from around 1500 to 1100 BC. Their combined realms spanned 20 degrees of longitude from the Hittite capital of Hattusa at 40° N to Nubia at 20° N; there would have been significant differences between the night skies of Anatolia and the southern reaches of the Nile. The keeping of astronomical records goes back to around 1600 BC in Mesopotamia, and astronomy was also important to the Ancient Egyptians for calendrical and astrological purposes. The first two conditions were certainly met. The Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians could surely have deduced that the Earth is spherical. Yet apparently they did not. As noted above, the cosmology of these societies was based upon a flat Earth.

One possibility is that belief in a flat Earth might be an intrinsic feature of the neural architecture of the human brain. South African cognitive archaeologist David Lewis-Williams has noted that a central tenet of many religions is the existence of a three-tiered cosmos with realms located ‘above’ and ‘below’ that of our every-day experience. The Abrahamic tradition of Heaven and Hell are only one example of such a cosmology. Lewis-Williams suggests that the widespread belief in the existence of these other realms arises from visions and hallucinations experienced in altered states of consciousness as may be induced by meditation, psychotropic substances, and various ritual practices. All human brains are wired up the same way, and so all will experience broadly the same visions and hallucinations. The specifics of how they are interpreted varies from culture to culture, but they share the same basic aspects of a Heaven, Earth, and Underworld.

Could this have hampered attempts to interpret celestial phenomena that could not be explained by the standard flat Earth model? Possibly it took the rationalism of the sixth century BC pre-Socratic philosophers to break an ancient, hard-wired mindset, and to allow a truer (albeit still far from complete) view of the cosmos to emerge.