Autumn equinox

equinox

The phenomenon is neatly demonstrated by Stellarium. The Sun is at the point where the ecliptic intersects with the celestial equator. Hence day and night are of equal length. Tomorrow and for the next six months, the Sun will be south of the equator and the nights will be longer than the days.

HMS Belfast

2019-09-07 18.48.01

Launched on St Patrick’s Day 1938, at Harland & Wolff Belfast, HMS Belfast is the largest surviving British warship from World War II.  A group 3 Town-class ‘large light cruiser’, she has a displacement of 11,500 tons and is armed with twelve 6-inch guns in four turrets. The seemingly oxymoronic designation reflects inter-war naval treaties. Any non-capital ship armed with guns of a calibre above 6.1 inches was deemed to be a ‘heavy cruiser’, and there were strict limits to the numbers of such ships a navy was allowed to possess. But there were no such limits on light cruisers. Consequently, navies began building large but relatively under-gunned cruisers. The US Navy’s Brooklyn class was another example of the type. Perhaps the best-known ship of this class was the USS Phoenix, later serving with the Argentine Navy as the ARA General Belgrano.

The Belfast was commissioned in August 1939, less than a month before the outbreak of the war. In November, she struck a mine while leaving the Firth of Forth. One man was killed and 46 officers and men injured. The ship sustained heavy damage and was out of action until November 1942. Belfast spent 1943 on Arctic convoy duty, and on Boxing Day of that year, flying the flag of Rear Adm. Robert Burnett, she took part in the Battle of the North Cape, off the coast of Norway. While escorting a convoy, she encountered the German battleship Scharnhorst and coordinated the defence of the convoy, forcing the Scharnhorst to turn away. Belfast shadowed the Scharnhorst by radar, enabling the battleship HMS Duke of York to intercept the German warship. As the Duke of York made radar contact, Belfast illuminated the Scharnhorst with star shells. Soon after, the two capital ships began slugging it out, but the Scharnhorst was heavily outgunned by the British battleship. The Scharnhorst fought to the bitter end, but eventually sank with the loss of all but 36 of her crew.

Belfast’s next battle honour came on D-Day, when she took part in the naval bombardment that preceded the Normandy landings. During her five weeks off Normandy, she fired 1,996 rounds. This was her final action in European waters.

After undergoing a refit, Belfast was deployed to the Far East to take part in the war against Japan, but the Japanese surrendered before she saw action. With the war over, she remained in the Far East and was the Far East Squadron’s headquarters ship during the 1945 Yangtze Incident, when the British frigate HMS Amethyst was trapped in the Yangtze River by Chinese communist forces.

From 1950 to 1952, Belfast was involved in the Korean War, taking part in coastal patrols and bombarding shore targets in support of ground forces. During the course of the conflict, she steamed over 80,000 miles (130,000 km) in the war zone and fired more than 8,000 rounds. She paid off in Chatham on 4 November 1952 and entered reserve at Devonport on 1 December.

Between 1955 and 1959, Belfast underwent an extensive refit, during which her bridge was rebuilt and her tripod masts replaced with lattice masts. It was a swansong for a ship now essentially obsolete in an era where ships were armed with guided missiles rather than large-calibre guns. She took part in a number of naval exercises in the Far East, but in December 1963 she was finally decommissioned.

While Belfast was laid up at Fareham Creek, Portsmouth, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in preserving a 6-inch gun turret but then began to consider the possibility of preserving the entire ship. The Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum and the Ministry of Defence established a joint committee, but after several years of can-kicking, the Paymaster General decided against preservation. The Belfast looked to be bound for the scrap yard, but in March 1971 a former captain, Rear-Adm. Sir Morgan Morgan-Giles, now Conservative MP for Winchester, formed a trust and argued strongly in Parliament for the preservation of his former command. He was supported by Gordon Bagier, Labour MP for Sunderland South, who had served in the Belfast at the Battle of the North Cape. Although the ship’s movable equipment had already been stripped out, the government postponed scrapping and in July agreed to hand Belfast over to the HMS Belfast Trust. On 15 October, the ship was towed to her present location above Tower Bridge, and six days later, on Trafalgar Day, she opened to the public for the first time. Belfast became the first naval vessel to be preserved since Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.

Although the Belfast was an immediate hit with the public, the Trust struggled financially, and in 1977 the Imperial War Museum sought government permission to take over the running of the ship. Approval was given, and on 1 March 1978, Belfast was transferred to the Imperial War Museum. She remains at Tower Bridge to this day, where she is frequently ‘visited’ by warships of the Royal Navy and other navies. Unlike Victory, the name Belfast was not ‘retired’, and the third of the new Type 26 frigates will be named HMS Belfast. The original Belfast will be renamed HMS Belfast (1938). This is perhaps a little unfortunate, given her distinguished service in both WW II and the Korean War.

Space Agent and the Ancient Peril (1964), by Angus MacVicar

I encountered this ‘juvenile’ science fiction novel by Scottish author Angus MacVicar in 1966 at the age of ten, about a year into my SF-reading career. You should never judge a book by its cover, but it was hard for me to resist the dramatic image of two men stranded on the top of an erupting volcano, with two flying saucers circling above, and the Moon apparently about to crash into the Earth. But like so many books I borrowed from local libraries as a boy, it subsequently remained lost to me until the coming of the internet.

2019-08-05-11.21.23.jpg

Space Agent and the Ancient Peril is the last book in a three-volume series about the UN’s ‘space agent’ Jeremy Grant. The series as a whole is a follow-up to the better-known five-volume ‘Lost Planet’ series which began eleven years earlier when Grant, then aged sixteen, left Australia to join his Scottish uncle Dr Lachlan McKinnon on an expedition to the ‘lost planet’ of Hesikos in the latter’s privately built spaceship. All the stories are written in the first person from Grant’s POV.

In the 1950s, just half a century had passed since the pioneering days of aviation, when the likes of the Wright Brothers, Louis Blériot, and A.V. Roe built and flew their own aeroplanes. It wasn’t perhaps unreasonable to suppose that space travel might develop the same way. But by 1964, when Ancient Peril was published, it was clear that only the two most powerful nations in the world – the United States and the Soviet Union – had the resources to send humans into space. It was utterly beyond the means of Scottish uncles, no matter how brilliant, to build spaceships. Hence we find Jeremy Grant now working for the United Nations. Uncle Lachlan doesn’t feature in this story; neither does space travel. All the action takes place on Earth.

Grant is recovering from a bout of flu when his boss, UN Chief Commissioner Earl Easterman talks him into accompanying archaeologist Spencer Johnson on an expedition to investigate the ancient city of Tiahuanaco on the Bolivian Altiplano. Located a few miles east of Lake Titicaca, the site is attributed to the Inca but it is so remote that only two archaeological expeditions have visited it in the past hundred years. Nobody has been there at all for thirty years. Prof. Johnson has requested Grant’s assistance as he is recognised as the world’s leading authority on space and interplanetary matters. He is interested in the controversial theories of two archaeologists – H. S. Bellamy and Arthur Posnansky.

After meeting in Florida, the two fly to La Paz, where a sympathetic army chief provides a helicopter to transport them to the site, along with a jeep and supplies. The night before the expedition, the helicopter pilot tells Grant that some indigenous people claim that their ancestors had lived in Tiahuanaco millennia ago. Strange godlike men had helped them to build the city, but it was then devastated by a terrible cataclysm.

The helicopter delivers Grant, Johnson, and their equipment to Tiahuanaco without event, and the two set to work. Of particular interest to Johnson is a great megalithic arch known as the Gate of the Sun. He believes that it depicts flying fishes and toxodons – the latter (a hoofed mammal) extinct for twenty thousand years. And how would the Inca have known about tropical flying fish? Johnson has a theory, but he refuses to say what it is. He wants to see if Grant independently reaches the same conclusions.

As Grant is about to articulate his thoughts, the pair are attacked by a group of hostile Urus – indigenous people apparently motivated by robbery. Outnumbered, they are saved by the intervention of a tall man, who commands the attackers to desist and requests that Grant and Johnson accompany him. The man is living in an Uru village about twenty minutes away in the jeep from the site. His house contains an extensive library of books including works by Wells, Steinbeck, Sartre, and Chekhov – but also works by Bellamy and Posnansky on Tiahuanaco.

Grant has any number of questions, but feels unable to ask them, that his thoughts are somehow constrained by the presence of the stranger. Johnson thanks him for his timely intervention, and he is finally able to ask him who he is. The man says that for them to understand they must come with him on a journey to a time when the Earth was at peace. His words become pictures which become a living reality. They are standing on a quay in the port of Tiahuanaco, watching a ship enter the harbour. They have been transported twenty thousand years into the past, when the city lay on the shores of an island and was home to a great civilisation.

Grant and Johnson find themselves dressed in local costume, and able to speak and understand the Tiahuanacan language. They have a basic understanding of the world to which they have been transported: Tiahuanaco is one of twelve island states around the world – others include neighbouring Andea, and to the east are Lemuria, Thule, Hi Brazil, and (of course) Atlantis. Some months earlier, two ‘angels’ named Shamhazi and Azazel with ‘strange eyes’ had arrived in ‘chariots of fire’. These strangers had instigated a building program involving novel architectural techniques and requiring the import of large quantities of andesite (an igneous rock similar to basalt and rhyolite) from the quarries in Andea. Curiously, nobody seems to know just why the project has been initiated – not even council headman Chirguano.

Tiahuanaco is a peaceful, prosperous island state, but divisions are beginning to appear. The building program has made the shipowners and building contractors extremely rich – and greedy. They have banded together to keep wages low and hours long. While a ship is being unloaded of its andesite cargo, an overseer named Caingang assaults one of the dockers. Grant intervenes, and a brawl breaks out. It is abruptly halted when Shamhazi appears and introduces himself to Grant and Johnson. He appears to have stopped the fighting by telepathic command.

The pair accompany Shamhazi to the house he shares with his brother, Azazel. There they also meet a young Tiahuanacan woman named Ishtar, who is running a school for orphan children and has limited telepathic abilities. Grant and Johnson learn that Shamhazi and Azazel are from an Earth-like planet named Ophir. The planet is being affected by increasingly extreme seasonal temperature variations, and by quakes. Its inhabitants decide that they must evacuate to Earth. Advanced parties are sent out to make peaceful contact. Disc-shaped spaceships, powered by nuclear rim jets, are constructed for the purpose (they are identical to a spacecraft designed by Uncle Lachlan which featured in an earlier story).

Soon after their arrival, the Ophir people learn of the existence of a rogue planet named Luna that on several occasions in the past approached the Earth, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. This last happened ten thousand years ago, but another close approach is due soon. In Tiahuanaco, Shamhazi and Azazel instigate the construction of a quake-proof city with the same architectural techniques used to resist the quakes on Ophir. The scientists of both Earth and Ophir are confident that the effects will be relatively minor and will be withstood by the new cities – but Shamhazi and Azazel are able to pick up the thoughts of somebody who does not agree, a brilliant mind superior to even the best minds of Ophir. The two ‘angels’ want Grant and Johnson to investigate, believing the Tiahuanacans might be more ready to share their thoughts with them than has hitherto been the case. The pair agree to help and are joined by Ishtar.

The group learn that there are only five astronomers in the city – a professor and four lecturers at the University of Tiahuanaco. Ishtar has also learned of an elderly man named Yurucaré, one-time head of the Andea Observatory. He is an expert on Luna, but his theories have long since been discredited. But Ishtar senses that one of the lecturers – a young man named Tamanaque – is holding something back. Grant and Johnson make arrangements with Chirguano to visit University of Tiahuanaco’s observatory.

When they arrive, however, they are told that nobody is available to show them around. Johnson hits on the idea of sending a message to Tamanaque, who replies that he will meet them that evening alone, with the telescope directed at Luna.

Soon after darkness, Grant and Johnson meet Tamanaque, who shows them the telescope. It is second only to the instrument in Andea. Tiahuanacan astronomers are aware of the existence of the planet Neptune and are apparently familiar with Newtonian physics. Through the telescope, Grant looks at the constellations of the Belted Warrior, the Little Toxodon, and the Wry-necked Swan, with Luna prominent in the latter (the Belted Warrior is presumably Orion but it is not clear what if any are the present-day equivalents of the other two; there is nothing resembling a wry-necked bird on the ecliptic near to Orion). Tamanaque then produces a series of unfinished and unverified calculations that suggest that instead of passing Earth, Luna will be captured into a permanent orbit and become a satellite. The gravitational effects of the initial capture will trigger a global cataclysm – in just three days from now. But nobody believes his theory, and he has been forbidden to mention it. Some time earlier, Yurucaré came to similar conclusions. Nobody believed him, and when he would not be silent the Tiahuanacan elite dismissed him from his post and imprisoned him. They feared that his tale of doom would spread panic and jeopardise their lucrative shipping and construction businesses.

At that moment, Chirguano and Caingang burst in, with the intention of arresting Tamanaque. The are accompanied by the Professor, who believes that Tamanaque is mad. With some help from Tamanaque, Grant and Johnson overpower the intruders and tie them up. They force the Professor to tell them that Yurucaré is being held in an underground prison known as the Methane Corridors, located by a natural gas reservoir that supplies the city’s heating and lighting. They have until dawn – when Chirguano, Caingang, and the Professor will be found – to spring Yurucaré from the high-security jail.

This proves ridiculously easy. Grant, Johnson, and Ishtar gain access to the Methane Corridors by climbing down a ventilation shaft. Tamanaque wants to accompany them, but Grant and Johnson insist that his knowledge of Luna makes him too valuable to risk. They soon locate Yurucaré’s cell, overpower a guard, free the elderly scientist, and climb back to the surface. After Yurucaré rests, he and Tamanaque review the Luna calculations in a shelter beneath Shamhazi and Azazel’s house.

The next day, Chirguano and Caingang, accompanied by armed guards, come looking for Grant, Johnson, and the escaped Yurucaré. Shamhazi uses his telepathic powers to convince Caingang that the suspects are not there. Meanwhile, Yurucaré and Tamanaque are still trying to complete and verify the latter’s calculations. Not until evening do they reach a conclusion – and find that the situation is even worse than they believed. Tamanaque’s timing was in error: Luna is approaching ten times faster than he originally supposed, and the capture is just hours away.

Shamhazi summons the citizens of Tiahuanaco to a public meeting, with Grant, Johnson, and Yurucaré in attendance; meanwhile Azazel, Tamanaque, Ishtar, and her pupils head for high ground. A large crowd soon gathers. Grant notices Chirguano and Caingang, who look watchful but take no action. Yurucaré’s warning about the imminent thread serves only to anger the crowd, who are about to riot when the sun sets and Luna is seen to be double its normal size. It is visibly speeding away from the Wry-necked Swan, and growing brighter every second. Shamhazi implores the crowd to come with him to the relative safety of the high ground, where their children can be evacuated to Ophir. But the crowd panics. Most of them rush back to the town to try to retrieve their possessions. Children are trampled in the rush

The group head for high ground. Not until they are halfway up the mountainside do any of the Tiahuanacans heed Shamhazi’s advice and start to follow. Shortly before they reach the summit, winds begin to increase, and the first earth tremors are felt as Luna draws nearer. Both increase steadily as they reach the summit and meet Azazel, Tamanaque, Ishtar, and the orphan children. Azazel tries to make telepathic contact with Ophir to summon help and is eventually successful. By now, volcanoes are erupting in the Andes and the noise of wind and earthquakes makes speech impossible. Tidal waves are sweeping towards Tiahuanaco, where people are still fleeing across the plateau. The whole scene is bathed in the bright-as-day light of Luna.

Grant senses that he and Johnson will not be joining the evacuation. Their time in this world is almost at an end.

Two spaceships arrive from Ophir, their nuclear jets somehow capable of making the journey across interstellar space in a matter of minutes.  Grant and Johnson are forgotten by all but Ishtar, who waves as she boards. The two craft depart, leaving the time-travellers alone on the mountain, as depicted on the book’s cover…

…and then they find themselves back in the home of the stranger who stopped the Urus from attacking them. He explains that the descendants of the evacuees waited for centuries. The moon-flood had destroyed Tiahuanaco and the other island-states, and although they receded and new civilisations eventually arose, these were too warlike to permit a return. Only now, he explains, has ‘the second great flood’ begun to drain and the Earth is again at peace. The book ends abruptly as Johnson asks if the people of Ophir are coming back, and the stranger confirms that yes, now they are.

The story is loosely based on a fringe theory put forward by Austrian engineer Hanns Hörbiger in the 1920s and popularised by fellow Austrian H. S. Bellamy after World War II. The late Sir Patrick Moore said that “it is generally agreed that he was an odd character by any standards”. The theory was known as the Welt Eis Lehr (WEL) or Cosmic Ice Theory. Hörbiger suggested that with the exception of the Earth and the Sun, the whole universe is composed largely of ice. The stars are blocks of ice, and Mars is covered in ice to a depth of 400 km (250 miles). Space is filled with rarefied hydrogen, which results in the orbits of Solar System bodies decaying over a long period of time. The Earth will eventually fall into the Sun, but more immediately, the Moon (also composed of ice) is spiralling in towards the Earth and will eventually share the fate of at least six predecessors. Each of these in turn spiralled ever closer to the Earth, causing violent cataclysms as tidal forces pulled the Earth’s oceans into a ‘girdle’ around the equator. The looming presence of these ice-Moons in the sky gave rise to legends about dragons and the like. As the ice-Moons entered Earth’s Roche limit, they were torn apart by tidal forces. Ice and rock bombarded the Earth, and the relaxation of the tidal stresses around the equator triggered earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The oceans flowed back to higher latitudes, causing floods around the world. After Hörbiger’s death, Bellamy developed the theory further, postulating that our current Moon arrived in Earth orbit about 13,000 years ago. For some reason, WEL became extremely popular with the Nazis in pre-war Germany; I suppose it could be said that in comparison to some of their other beliefs, Hörbiger’s theory was more-or-less benign.

Angus MacVicar also refers to the Hörbiger theory in an earlier novel, Peril on the Lost Planet, in which the planet Hesikos is threatened by an asteroid.

Tiwanaku (to use the modern spelling) actually dates to around AD 800 and lay at the heart of one of South America’s great pre-Incan empires. But it was once thought to be much older. For example, The World’s Greatest Wonders – published by Odhams Press Limited in London before the war – gives its age as between 12,000 to 14,000 years old. Before the introduction of radiocarbon dating, another Austrian – Arthur Posnansky – spent many years studying astronomical alignments at Tiwanaku. After considering cyclical changes in the Earth’s axial tilt, he calculated that the alignments matched the solstitial sunrise and sunset in around 15,000 BC. The problem with this approach is that so many statues, stelae, and monoliths have been moved around the site or removed altogether that it is just about impossible to reconstruct accurate sightlines and identify solstitial markers.

Posnansky also claimed that Tiwanaku was once a port on the shores of a Lake Titicaca more than 30 m (100 ft.) deeper than it is today, and he investigated structures that he believed were piers or wharves. According to Posnansky, Tiwanaku served as a port for around 5,000 years until a violent earthquake overwhelmed it in the eleventh millennium BC. Subsequent quakes caused Lake Titicaca to drain, leaving Tiwanaku high and dry. Here it is probably simpler to assume that Posnansky’s ‘wharves’ were actually something entirely different than to postulate a geological upheaval that seems to have left no other evidence.

The carvings on the Gate of the Sun (referred to as the Calendar Gate in the book) include a figure holding a staff in each hand; this motif occurs frequently in the iconography of pre-Columbian South America and is thought to represent a weather god. Professor Johnson’s claims that flying fish and toxadons were depicted are popular with ancient civilisation believers and flying saucer enthusiasts, but they are not widely accepted by mainstream archaeologists.

Tiwanaku is certainly not as isolated as MacVicar suggested. Far from only ever having been visited a handful of times, the site has been extensively studied since the mid-nineteenth century. It is a ninety-minute drive from La Paz, and it has been a major tourist attraction since the 1960s.

Space Agent and the Ancient Peril was not that easy to track down, as I could remember only part of the title – Space Agent and the… which told me that it was one of a series of books featuring “Space Agent” but not a lot else. A Google search on the words ‘space agent’ will bring up over 750 million hits including estate agents, NASA, and the European Space Agency. Add ‘Tiahuanaco’ to the search and you will obtain hits on travel agents offering tours of the site. I suspect it was by sheer luck that I tracked down the full title of the book and the name of its author. A further search brought up a picture of the long-remembered cover. I seem to have also been lucky in sourcing a good condition copy at a reasonable price. At the moment, you will not find one for much under £100.

When will we go back to the Moon?

Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. It remains one of the great moments in human history, but what happened next? At the time, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, I assumed that it would only be a few years before humans reached Mars. Half a century later, it sill hasn’t happened.

Six more missions to the Moon followed Apollo XI, of which only the drama of Apollo XIII and the survival of Jim Lovell and his crew made any kind of headlines. A total of twelve people – all men – walked on the Moon. Of the twelve, four are still alive including Buzz Aldrin. Neil Armstrong died in 2012 aged 82. Apollo XVII – the last lunar mission – returned to Earth on 19 December 1972, and no spacecraft carrying a crew has since left Earth orbit.

The exploration of the Solar System has been carried out purely through robot space probes. By 1969, American and Soviet probes had flown past Venus and Mars, returning data and – in the case of Mars – a few low-resolution images. Since then, space probe have reached every planet in the Solar System (including Pluto), with long-duration orbital missions of all the planets out to Saturn, and the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. There have been landings on Mars, Venus, Titan, and several asteroids and comets. There have been active rovers on Mars since 2004. At the beginning of this year, the New Horizons probe returned photographs from the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 Ultima Thule.

But in comparison to the 1960s, human activities in space have progressed at a snail’s pace. The Russians never went to the Moon and turned their attention to space stations in low Earth orbit, which in the long term was more useful than simply duplicating the efforts of the United States. The MIR space station was in service from 1986 to 2000, and was permanently occupied between February 1990 and August 1999. There has been a permanent human presence in space in the International Space Station since November 2000.

Much of the technology of 2019 was certainly science-fiction in 1969 – computers have evolved from room-filling machines affordable only by large companies to mundane household appliances. Much of the gadgetry from the original series of Star Trek – which made its way over here from the States a fortnight before the first Moon Landing – seems quite primitive compared with present-day smartphones, iPads, and the like.

So what of crew-carrying spacecraft? The Russian Soyuz, which first flew in 1967, is still in service. The Chinese Shenzhou – currently the only other crew-carrying spacecraft in service – is based heavily on Soyuz technology. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US has been without the means to launch humans into space, and is having to thumb lifts from the Russians to the ISS. This will change when the privately operated SpaceX Dragon 2 and Boeing Starliner spacecraft come into service later this year.

To date, only the US, Russia, and China have sent humans into space, although citizens of forty countries have flown in space. India plans to launch a crew-carrying spacecraft in December 2021. No other nation currently has plans for an indigenous human spaceflight program.

American plans for an expedition to Mars have come and gone over the years. The Orion program, instigated by President George W. Bush in the wake of the Columbia disaster, has yet to fly with a crew. More recently, the Artemis program has a stated goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024. Proposals include the Lunar Orbital Platform – a space station in lunar orbit, from which landers will take humans to the surface.

The Russians are working on similar proposals with a timescale for the 2030s and a Soyuz replacement known as Federation. Presumably this name-checks the Russian Federation (as Soyuz did the Soviet Union) rather than Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. The Chinese are reviewing preliminary plans for a lunar expedition in the 2030s.

Ten years ago, I expressed the hope that I would live long enough to see humans land on Mars, but this is looking increasingly unlikely.

The Apollo program fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal of putting Americans on the Moon before the end of the 1960s and – no less important – before the Russians. The program was criticised because of the many problems back on Earth. Sadly, these problems have not gone away. The Cold War ended thirty years ago, but it was no more than a brief thaw in East-West relations. It is now clear that geopolitical competition rather than communism vs capitalism lies at the root of the hostility.

The international situation now – eighteen years after 9/11 – is as bad as it has been in my lifetime. Worldwide, the rise of the populist Right continues unchecked. Here in the UK, we have had almost a decade of Tory-inflicted austerity following the global financial crisis of 2008, and the last three years has been dominated by the incompetent shambles of Brexit. Yet these problems are inconsequential compared to the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change.

Nevertheless, we must not turn our backs on space. At minimum, self-sustaining colonies on Mars and the Moon would increase the chances of our survival as a species. I won’t be around in another fifty years time, but I can only hope that by the time we reach the centenary of Apollo XI the world is in a better state than it is now and humanity is firmly established as a multi-planet species.

“Manis” wristwatch from 1955

It is very unlikely that you will be familiar with Manis as a watch brand, but if the watch displayed here is anything to go by they made high quality Swiss watches. According to the warranty certificate and original box, the watch was purchased on 22 October 1955 (eleven days after I was born) at C.W. Reynolds of 99 Upper Parliament St, Nottingham.

The watch has a diameter of 33mm, standard for a man’s watch of that time, albeit small by today’s standards. It features an A. Schield 1430 23-jewel manual wind movement with a stated power reserve of 41 hours (38 hours achieved under testing). A. Schield (now a part of ETA) made high quality movements used by many prestigious watchmakers including Jaeger Lecoultre. 23 jewels is a large number for a manual wind movement, although there was also a version of the AS 1430 with the more usual jewel count of 17.

Virtually nothing is known about Manis. It appears to have been a British company, registered by a Maurice Samuels in London. They were presumably a small UK brand using Swiss movements in their watches. A 1957 advertisement for the Manis Watch Company gives two addresses – a main office at 34-35 Hatton Garden, EC1 and a showroom nearby at 94 Hatton Garden, EC1. The advertisement features a clock priced at £52 10 0, a considerable sum of money at the time, suggesting that their products were aimed at the at least reasonably well-to-do.

The warranty for the watch gives an address for repairs at the Hatton Garden showroom. The handling charge of 1/6d (approx £2.00 at today’s prices) might sound modest, but it would not be permitted to make any charge for a warranty repair now.

Hatton Garden is London’s jewellery quarter and the centre of the UK’s diamond trade. 34-35 Hatton Garden today is home to two jewellers at street level, with offices and workshops to let on the upper floors. It has probably changed very little since the 1950s and would have been the likely setting for a small-scale watchmaker. It is probable that the watches were simply assembled from cases, dials, hands, and ébauches sourced from third parties. The showroom at 94 Hatton Garden no longer exists and the address is now part of a building dating to the 1980s.

As far as I can tell from Google, C.W. Reynolds is no longer in business. The address corresponds to a 1950s block holding shops at ground level with offices above.

Although its positional accuracy is not great, the watch keeps outstandingly good time overall and was running at around thirty seconds fast after two weeks.

Unfortunately I know nothing about this history of this watch, though its fine condition and still-existent box and papers suggests that it was well looked after and possibly only came onto the market after the death of its original owner. It was supplied to me by Birthdate Watches for a very reasonable price which included servicing and replacing the hessalite crystal.

Le Verrier, Adams, and Galileo: the discovery of Neptune

Residents of the Montparnasse Cemetery on the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris include such household names as Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, and Camille Saint-Saens. Not quite so well-known outside of scientific circles, but certainly no less revered, is the astronomer and mathematician Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier.

The tomb credits him with the discovery of Neptune in September 1846, making him only the second person ever to discover a planet – and the first to do so by purely mathematical means, unaided by a telescope. But does Le Verrier deserve sole credit, or should it be shared with the British mathematician John Couch Adams? Indeed, should Adams be given sole credit? The debate started soon after the discovery was announced, and it has been going on ever since.

The son of a government official, Urbain Jean-Joseph Le Verrier was born in 1811 in Saint-Lô, Normandy and studied at the École Polytechnique in Paris. An able scholar, he pursued an academic career in the first instance as a chemist, but he made the switch to astronomy when a teaching position came up at the École Polytechnique. His strong mathematical expertise made him well qualified for the job. His work on the gravitational influence of Jupiter upon the orbits of certain comets earned him significant recognition. In January 1846, he was elected a member of the Académie des Sciences.

By this time, Le Verrier was working at the Paris Observatory. The previous year, François Arago, director of the Observatory, encouraged him to work on the perplexing anomalies with the orbit of Uranus. The Sun’s seventh planet is just about visible to the naked eye, but it was not until 1781 British astronomer William Herschel identified it as a planet. Suggestions that it might have been noted earlier, but dismissed as a star, proved to be correct. No fewer than 19 ‘precovery’ observations were found, stretching back to 1690, when John Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, recorded it as a star and gave it the designation 34 Tauri. The problem was that the orbit as computed from these old observations did not agree with that actually observed after 1841. By Le Verrier’s time, Uranus had completed about three-quarters of an orbit around the Sun since its discovery, and a new orbit had been worked out by French astronomer Alexis Bouvard – but the problems had persisted. Up to 1822, the planet seemed to be moving faster than predicted by Newton’s Law of Gravity; but subsequently it was moving too slowly. Attempts to explain the discrepancy included a massive (and somehow unseen) satellite, an impact from a comet, or the existence of a resisting cosmic medium. It was even possible that the fault lay with the Law of Gravity itself.

In 1834, the Rev. Thomas Hussey contacted astronomer George Airy with the suggestion that the gravitational pull of an undiscovered planet was affecting the orbit of Uranus and that the observed orbital data might make it possible to locate the disturbing planet. Hussey was certainly on the right lines, but Airy did not believe that there was any hope of tracking down the planet with the data available, even assuming that it existed at all. Airy – who became Astronomer Royal in 1835 – was equally unforthcoming when Alexis Bouvard’s nephew Eugene contacted him with a similar proposition in 1837.

The problem was next taken up in 1841 by John Couch Adams, an undergraduate studying mathematics at the University of Cambridge. After completing his degree in 1843, he began working on the Uranus question in earnest, and by the end of that year he had a preliminary solution based on the assumption that the new planet obeyed the Titius-Bode Law, an empirical rule which states that the mean distance from the Sun in astronomical units a for planet m in order from the Sun is given by the numerical sequence a=0.4+0.3 x 2m. Although there was (and still is) no theoretical justification for the law, it had been used four decades earlier to successfully predict the existence of Ceres (which at the time was still recognised as a planet but in an episode foreshadowing the recent Pluto controversy was later downgraded to an asteroid). The result obtained by Adams was sufficiently encouraging to convince him that the unknown planet hypothesis was correct, and by September 1845 he had refined his calculations to the extent that he had an approximate position for the planet.

What he lacked was access to a telescope. Accordingly, he communicated with James Challis, director of the Cambridge Observatory, who suggested he contact George Airy. To this end, in October 1845, Adams twice turned up unannounced at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. On the first occasion, Airy was in France and on the second he was having dinner, and his butler refused to disturb him. Adams left Airy a synopsis of his calculations, to which Airy later raised a query concerning the radius vector (i.e. distance from the Sun at a given time) of Uranus, but for reasons unknown Adams failed to reply (it has often been suggested that Adams regarded the query as ‘trivial’, but some sources dispute this).

Meanwhile, as noted above, Le Verrier had been tasked with the Uranus problem by Arago at the Paris Observatory, and in November 1845 he published his first memoir on the subject. A second memoire followed in June 1846, and on 31 August of the same year he published a predicted position for the disturbing planet in a third paper. Word of the second memoire reached Airy, who wrote to Le Verrier posing the same radius vector question he had asked of Adams. Le Verrier replied promptly, and like Adams, requested Airy’s help in locating the planet.

Airy did not respond, and he also kept quiet about Adams’ work, which he was now inclined to take more seriously. On 9 July, he wrote to Challis at Cambridge, asking him to search for the predicted planet. The 12-inch Northumberland refractor at Cambridge, which Airy himself had designed, was one of the biggest telescopes of its day, and it was far superior to anything at Greenwich. Challis began observing on July 29, but he was hampered by a lack of star charts for the zone of interest, and he was therefore forced to undertake a laborious program of observation and chart the positions of all the stars within it. Essentially, his approach was the same as that used to discover Pluto in 1930: comparing star fields over a period of days in order to find a ‘star’ that moved from night to night. Clyde Tombaugh was able to take photographs of the star fields of interest and use a blink comparator to find the moving dot of Pluto, but in the 1840s astrophotography was still in its infancy.

Le Verrier meanwhile had sent his results to the Paris Observatory, and given that he had been working on Arago’s instructions, it might have been expected that the matter would have been given some urgency. But it was not; a brief search was abandoned early in August. On 18 September, Le Verrier wrote to Johann Galle, assistant director of the Berlin Observatory, asking him to look for the planet at the position he predicted. The letter reached Galle on the evening of 23 September, and after getting approval from his boss Johann Franz Encke (of Encke’s Comet fame), he started a search without further ado. Encke did not take part, possibly because 23 September was his birthday. One of Galle’s students, Heinrich d’Arrest, suggested the use of the new Carta Hora XXI (map for Hour 21, i.e. the portion of the sky between R.A. 21h 00m and 22h 00m), a high-resolution star chart that was so recent it had yet to be sent to the publishers.

Galle took charge of the telescope and described the positions and magnitudes of the stars he could see, while d’Arrest checked them off against the chart. It did not take long to find an eighth-magnitude star that did not appear on the charts; and the object also showed a small disk. Encke was hastily dragged away from his birthday celebrations, and he agreed that the object had a resolved disk. A repeat observation the following night confirmed that it had moved in relation to the other stars, and that it was indeed the predicted planet. It was less than a degree away from the predicted position. Galle then wrote to Le Verrier confirming that his planet did indeed exist.

There was understandable enthusiasm in France, and the fact that the actual sighting had been made in Germany was conveniently forgotten. Le Verrier’s achievement was described by Arago as “…of the most magnificent triumphs of theoretical astronomy, one of the glories of the Académie and one of the most beautiful distinctions of our country.” Then came a nasty surprise for the French in the form of a letter from Sir John Herschel (son of William Herschel) to the Athenaeum Club, making reference to the work of Adams. Shortly afterwards, it emerged that Challis had recorded Neptune four times, with the last observation being made on 4 August. On one occasion, he had even noted that one of the ‘stars’ he had observed “seems to have a disk”. Had Challis compared his observations more thoroughly, he would certainly have made the discovery.

To the British, it was an embarrassingly missed opportunity; to the French it was Perfidious Albion up to its usual tricks. Arago made it clear that Adams had “…no right to figure in the history of the new planet, neither by a detailed citation, nor even by the slightest allusion”. Airy and Challis came in for considerable stick on both sides of the Channel. But neither Le Verrier nor Adams took any part in the rumpus. Adams was happy to acknowledge Le Verrier’s priority, and he did not join in with the criticism heaped on Airy and Challis. When he and Le Verrier finally met face to face, they are said to have struck up an immediate friendship and they remained on good terms for the rest of their lives.

Le Verrier suggested the name ‘Neptune’ for the new planet, but then proposed to have it named after himself. This was not entirely unreasonable, as at the time, Uranus was still widely referred to as ‘Herschel’ or ‘The Georgian Planet’ (after Herschel’s patron King George III). However, the name ‘Neptune’ soon became widely adopted, and at Adams’ suggestion the variant names for Uranus were finally dropped.

So, who really deserves the credit – and the blame?

The Royal Greenwich Observatory was a publicly-funded institution, the purpose of which was the production of accurate tables of star positions for navigators at sea. As Astronomer Royal – basically a senior civil servant – George Airy would not have believed it appropriate to interrupt the Observatory’s program to go hunting for a planet. In any case, there was at that time no suitable telescope at Greenwich: the 28-inch Great Equatorial Telescope (still the seventh largest refractor in the world) did not see first light until 1893. By that time, though, the ‘mission’ of the RGO had been expanded to include astrophysics and astronomical photography. Airy’s decision to ‘outsource’ the search for the new planet to Challis at Cambridge and the Northumberland refractor was entirely justifiable. Airy could perhaps be faulted for his initial scepticism at the possibility of locating Neptune through its effects on the orbit of Uranus, but he acted quickly enough when he realised that two independent researchers had arrived at very similar solutions.

As noted, James Challis was hampered by a lack of star charts for the region, and therefore faced an extremely laborious task. However, it is inescapable that he recorded Neptune on four occasions and failed to recognise it. Challis apparently worked in secret, keeping knowledge of the search from his fellow British astronomers. One can but speculate as to his motives for so doing, but had he recruited one of his students as an assistant (as had Galle), then it is highly likely that he would have made the discovery.

After the row over priority had died down, a consensus emerged that Le Verrier and Adams should be jointly credited as the discoverers of Neptune, although recently it has been suggested that Adams’ predictions were significantly less accurate than those of Le Verrier.

Although Neptune is too faint to be seen with the naked eye, the most basic telescope or even a good pair of binoculars will show it as a bluish eighth-magnitude star. ‘Precovery’ observations were made by Sir John Herschel in July 1830; the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande recorded it twice in May 1795; and the Scottish-born astronomer Johann von Lamont recorded it least three times between 1845 and 1846, with his last observation on 11 September coming just days before the actual discovery. But none of these observers thought it was anything other than a star.

The best-known precovery observation of Neptune was made by Galileo at the very dawn of the telescopic era, more than two centuries before its ‘official’ discovery. The conventional view is that Galileo – as others would do later – mistook Neptune for a star. The first record of a telescope dates to 1608, when the Dutch spectacle-maker Hans Lippershey attempted unsuccessfully to patent it. Hearing of this, Galileo built his own telescope in 1609 and, as is well-known, used it to discover Jupiter’s four major moons. Other discoveries include the craters and mountains of the Moon, the phases of Venus, and the ‘triple’ nature of Saturn (the rings, as seen through his primitive telescope, appeared as a pair of large moons flanking the planet).

In 1980, the American astronomer Charles Kowal and Canadian science historian Stillman Drake found that during the course of his Jovian observations, Galileo had recorded Neptune as an eighth magnitude object on 28 December 1612 and again on 28 January 1613, when it is shown close to the seventh magnitude star SAO 119234. Accompanying the drawings is a note that suggests that Galileo observed (but did not record) the pair the previous night and noticed that they had then seemed further apart.

In 2009, the Australian physicist David Jamieson noted a possible further observation of Neptune. Galileo’s observations on 6 January 1613 show an unlabelled black dot, which is in the right position to be Neptune. Jamieson believes that it is possible that the dot was actually added on 28 January. He suggests that Galileo went back to his notes to record where he had previously seen Neptune. It had then been even closer to Jupiter, but he had initially ignored it, thinking it to be just another unremarkable star. The implication is that on 28 January, Galileo realised that one ‘star’ was moving with respect to the others, and that he had had it under observation since at least 6 January. It suggests that Galileo thought, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, “that’s no star”.

If so, why did Galileo not follow it up? Kowal and Drake suggested that the lack of a suitable mount for his telescope made it impossible to keep track of Neptune once Jupiter had moved away. Jamieson suggests bad weather prevented further observations. However, he also notes that Galileo sent cryptic anagrams to his correspondents to establish priority for his discoveries. Jamieson believes that Galileo’s literature might include a coded reference to Neptune, although as of a decade later it has still not come to light.

REFERENCES:
Jamieson, D., 2009. Galileo’s miraculous year 1609 and the revolutionary telescope. Australian Physics, 46(3), pp. 72-76.
Kowal, C. & Drake, S., 1980. Galileo’s observations of Neptune. Nature, 25 September, Volume 287, pp. 311-313.
Krajnović, D., 2016. The contrivance of Neptune. Astronomy & Geophysics, October, 57(5), pp. 5.28-5.34.
Moore, P., 1993. New guide to the planets. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
Smart, W., 1946. John Couch Adams and the Discovery of Neptune. Nature, 9 November, Volume 158, pp. 648-652.