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.


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. Galileo’s drawings show that he observed Neptune on December 28, 1612, and again on January 27, 1613 when it was in conjunction with Jupiter; but on both occasions he mistook it for a fixed star because his telescope was insufficiently powerful to show it as a disk.

However, in July 2009, physicist David Jamieson suggested that Galileo was indeed aware that there was something unusual about Neptune. In one of his notebooks, he noted the movement of a background star (i.e. Neptune) on January 28; a dot in Neptune’s position drawn in a different ink indicates that he found it on an earlier sketch, drawn on the night of January 6, and suggesting that he had searched through his earlier observations. But he does not appear to have identified the moving object as a planet; he never published his observations; and as far as is known, he never attempted to observe it again.

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.

The Universe Between (1965), by Alan E. Nourse

As I explained in previous posts, between 1970 and 1971 I read three science fiction stories which remained lost to me until the internet age. The first two were Second Ending by James White and The Eternal Now by Murray Leinster. Both were novellas featured in science fiction anthologies that I had borrowed from the local library during 1970. A year later, I encountered The Universe Between, a novel by American author and medical doctor Alan E. Nourse. It comprises three parts set several years apart and is a ‘fixup’ of two short stories, The Universe Between and The High Threshold, both published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1951.

By 1971 we had moved house to rural Buckinghamshire, and my journey home from school was no longer a simple bus journey. It involved catching a bus, then rendezvousing with my mother as she collected my brother and sister from their schools. In an era before mobile phones and texting, this was a somewhat haphazard procedure. Also, if school ended early due to sport being rained off, it could entail a wait of two or three hours. I typically passed the time in the library near my school. I could not borrow books from it, but there was a reading room where I could read them.

The library was well stocked with science fiction and it was on one such occasion that I read The Universe Between. I must have picked it up because I had read several books by Alan E. Nourse including Raiders from the Rings and Rocket to Limbo. What is odd is that despite this I retained absolutely no memory of the title or author of the book, despite clearly recalling two other titles on the shelves. These were In our hands, the stars, by Harry Harrison and The Jagged Orbit, by John Brunner, neither of which I read (I have still never read the latter).

I also evidently never quite finished the book, because although it made a considerable impression, I have no recollection of the twist at the end. On the other hand, I do recall that as the time for the bus approached, I was skimming the pages in order to finish the book, so it is possible that I simply missed the twist.

Part One (3 November 1978) The Door into Nowhere
The novel begins dramatically with a screaming man being dragged from a chamber and sedated. Within minutes, the man is dead from shock – the fifth casualty of a low temperature physics experiment by Dr John McEvoy, a forty-year-old researcher at Telcom Laboratories, New Jersey. The dead man is holding a tennis ball – which has somehow become inverted, with rubber on the outside and fuzzy down on the inside.

McEvoy was researching the effects of low temperature on spacecraft components. His experiment involved cooling a cube of tungsten metal to temperatures very close absolute zero, but the cooling pump was so effective that the temperature hit and possibly even dropped below absolute zero. The cube vanished and was replaced by pale blue glowing area resembling a hypercube. McEvoy believed that he had accidentally opened up a ‘threshold’ – a portal into a universe with four spatial dimensions, rather than the three of our everyday experience. But attempts to investigate the threshold proved disastrous. Everybody sent into it had died; their nervous system simply unable to cope with something completely alien to their experience. In addition to the tennis ball returned by the last man, a pencil belonging to one of the earlier victims was also reversed, ending up with lead on the outside and wood on the inside.

Understandably, McEvoy’s employers want to shut down the experiment, but McEvoy wants to make one last attempt – with somebody young enough to retain sufficient mental flexibility to withstand the shock of entering a four-dimensional universe. Psychiatrist Ed Benedict recommends the troubled but highly intelligent and adaptable 17-year-old Gail Talbot. Gail takes an instant dislike to McEvoy, but she agrees to enter the portal.

Three perfectly parallel lines which met each other at ninety-degree angles to form a perfect square with seven triangular sides…

The 4-D universe is impossibly strange, but Gale gradually manages to make sense of it. She soon realises that by turning though a ‘strange angle’ she can return to her own world any time she wishes. She also realises that only a newborn baby, experiencing both sides of the threshold, could ever properly adapt to the 4-D universe. If McEvoy continues trying to send adults there, they will fare no better than the five who have already died.

Gail ‘turns the odd corner’ back into her own world; McEvoy questions her, but she remains silent. At first, McEvoy thinks she is in shock like the others, but he soon realises that she is holding back and begins to threaten her. Gale escapes by turning the ‘strange invisible corner’ back into the 4-D universe.

Part Two (13 March 2001) The Universe Between
It is now more than twenty years later. The Earth is now critically short of iron ore, uranium, and fossil fuels. All of these are available in abundance on Mars, Venus, and the Moon – but although space travel has existed since the 1960s, the technology does not exist to build space freighters capable of bringing mineral resources back to Earth in sufficient quantities [in the 1950s, when the two short stories were written, it was believed that Venus resembled Earth’s Carboniferous period, though by 1965 results from the Mariner 2 flyby had shown that this view was incorrect]. Earth’s economy – booming since the end of the Cold War and the establishment of the International Joint Conference – is facing collapse.

Dr Hank Merry is part of a team led by the now elderly McEvoy at Telcom that is attempting to build a ‘transmatter’ – a Star Trek style transporter. The team is facing an ultimatum from the Joint Conference – get the device working or the project will be axed, and efforts will be focused on developing space freighters. The prototype is several weeks away from completion when for no apparent reason it starts working. An aluminium block vanishes from the transmitter plate and instantly reappears on the receiver plate thirty feet away. But the device doesn’t work very well. A pencil comes back reversed, like the one from the Threshold project two decades earlier. A lightbulb explodes. Some objects don’t come back at all. Then news comes in that Lower Manhattan has completely vanished….

Gail, now married to Ed Benedict and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has a 17-year-old son, Robert who – as Gail intended – been familiar with the Threshold from birth. She has rebuffed all attempts by McEvoy to make contact, even threatening to invoke Privacy Laws. Robert has long been in contact with the Thresholders, but he has learned very little about them. Matters are not helped by his inability to describe the synaesthesia-like sensations he experiences in the Thresholders universe, such as his hand ‘feeling green’. Nevertheless, the Thresholders seem friendly – but now, he senses that something is very wrong.

The Benedicts believe that there is a connection between Merry and McEvoy’s experiments, the unease in the Thresholder universe, and the disappearance of Lower Manhattan. When Robert visits the Thresholder universe again, he returns with a pencil marked with the Telcom logo. After trying unsuccessfully to phone McEvoy, they travel by ‘aircar’ (yes, that twenty-first century cliché, a flying car) to the Telcom Laboratories in New Jersey to persuade McEvoy to halt his ‘transmatter’ experiments. In the meantime, there are more disappearances, in Philadelphia and in upstate New York. McEvoy is sceptical but Merry is more sympathetic and wants to shut down the experiment. Robert provides a demonstration by picking up an aluminium test block, entering the Thresholder universe and re-appearing thirty feet away with the cube. He suggests that the transmatter is having a similar effect to the earlier low temperature experiments in opening a portal to the Thresholder universe – but unlike his own movements through it, the transmatter is causing devastation there.

McEvoy is then notified that Ed’s call to his office was traced by Security, ‘somebody in Washington’ has now connected the old Threshold project with the disasters, and the Benedicts are wanted for questioning. Accompanied by Merry, Ed, Gail, and Robert try to get away before Security arrive to arrest them. They make good their escape via the Thresholder universe, holding Merry’s hands and telling him to keep his eyes closed to protect his sanity. McEvoy subsequently contacts the group via a scrambler to tell them he has tried to turn off the transmatter – but the device is continuing to operate. Meanwhile, the disappearances are continuing with a theatre in New Jersey. Merry suggests that the Thresholders are simply trying to take out the transmatter before it destroys them completely. Their aim is not very good, but they are gradually zeroing in on their target.

After some arguments, Security agree to guarantee unobstructed passage, and the Benedicts return to New Jersey. Robert uses the transmatter to enter the Thresholder universe in the hope of determining why the device is so destructive. All this accomplishes is to give the Thresholders an exact fix on the transmatter, which vanishes just seconds after Robert’s return. McEvoy blames Robert for device’s disappearance and demands that he re-enters the Thresholder universe to ask for its return.

Robert agrees. Unable to communicate directly, he tries to project his thoughts – and finally gets through. The Thresholder universe was indeed being torn apart by the transmatter – but when Robert explains the problems his world is facing, they agree to help. The Thresholders can guide humans and cargoes between any two desired points, simply by taking a shortcut through their universe. To demonstrate the technique, they send Robert to Mars and back. He returns to McEvoy’s laboratory and confronts the incredulous scientist with a handful of Martian iron ore.

Part Three (five years later) The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
It is now five years later, and thanks to the Thresholders, humans have spread across half of the galaxy. The system Robert Benedict has set up with the Thresholders entails a network of stations where humans or goods are sent through into the Thresholder universe, rotated through minute angles, and hence returned to any desired point on Mars, Venus, or anywhere else.

There is a thriving city, Ironstone, on Mars, and interstellar colonies on many worlds including 61 Cygni and Rigel [the former now thought to lack planets; the latter incorrectly described as a red star]. But not all is well: both humans and cargoes are periodically going astray. An exploration party bound for Saturn has disappeared, and a large consignment of steel piping destined for Ironstone has arrived in a molten state 850 miles away. Hank Merry is catching a good deal of flak over the latter and recalls Robert from Rigel for assistance.

Robert, who has been working as a trouble-shooter, admits that he feels like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, unable to control the technology he has released. Shortly afterwards, a new crisis looms as three men return from 61 Cygni, all of whom are running high fevers. They claim that they returned to the colony after attending a conference on Earth, only to find the settlement had gone. Soon afterwards, all three had begun to experience fever symptoms.

The problems appear to stem from an inability to communicate anything beyond broad concepts with the Thresholders. The resolution to the story explains how this was achieved, with a twist on the final page.

Did I want to finish the story or simply reread the last section which I had been forced to hurry? I don’t remember, but on the last day of term, school finished early, and I headed straight for the library in eager anticipation. To my considerable disappointment, the book wasn’t there. Nor was it when I next had a free afternoon the following term. From time to time, I’d go to the library, but it never came back onto the shelves and I never saw it again. I looked for it at my own local library without success – at which point it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember the title or the author.

The years passed, and many times I puzzled as to the identity of what I now termed ‘the Book’. As a student in London in the mid-1970s, I looked for it without success in Foyles. In the late 1980s, I borrowed the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction from the local library and speculated (correctly as it turned out) that both the author and title were probably contained therein – but none of the sections on interdimensional travel referenced it. As previously described, with the coming of the internet I identified and sourced copies of the other two stories, but with The Universe Between I remained hampered by lack of both author and title. Early in 2000, I posted an enquiry on a science fiction forum. Somebody claimed to remember it and posted the ending (of which I was still ignorant) but they never gave the author or title, leaving me none the wiser. It began to look as if the mystery of ‘the Book’ would never be solved.

Then, one evening, late in 2003, I decided to try a search with the still fairly new search engine Google; in 2000, I had still been using Yahoo and Excite. I carried out the same searches I had done on previous occasions – ‘tungsten cube’, ‘hypercube’, ‘absolute zero’, ‘four spatial dimensions’, etc. Immediately, I hit on a ten-year-old thread where two physicists were discussing low-temperature physics, one of whom claimed to be reminded of “a science fiction story by Alan E. Nourse”. It was a breakthrough moment. A book by Nourse would have immediately attracted me back in 1971. After pulling up his full bibliography, I took a guess that The Universe Between was the long-lost title, and a further search soon confirmed that this was the case. The thirty-two-year long quest was over, and it took just minutes to locate and order a second-hand copy on line. It was sheer luck: a few weeks later, the thread could no longer be found and nothing else came to light. However, repeating the above search now (just over fifteen years later) readily identifies ‘the Book’.

As a postscript, a few years ago I ordered an old copy of another book I had read as a boy – The infinite worlds of Maybe, by Lester Del Rey. As was a common practice at the time, the dust jacket contained a list of other science fiction stories for consideration. Among them were five Alan E. Nourse titles, including the following:

A scientist conducting experiments on low temperature inadvertently trespasses on another universe – and the results are startling. 18s net

The Eternal Now (1944), by Murray Leinster

As I explained in this post last year, as a schoolboy almost fifty years ago I read large quantities of science fiction, including three works that remained lost to me until the arrival of the internet three decades later. The first of these, as described in that post, was Second Ending, by James White. The second of these was a novelette entitled The Eternal Now, by the extremely prolific American author William Fitzgerald Jenkins, published under his most commonly used pen name Murray Leinster. The story first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in September 1944 and was reprinted in Fantastic Story Magazine in January 1953. Its first and to date only appearance in book form was in the 1965 anthology The Shape of Things, edited by Damon Knight.

2019-03-19 10.22.24

It was in this volume, with its surrealist artwork by Eugene Berman (for years I wrongly assumed that it was by Dali), that I first encountered Leinster’s chilling tale of a world frozen in time.

The story’ protagonists are two rival scientists: Dr Harry Brett and Professor Aldous Cable. With a name like Harry Brett, the first named just has to be the good guy. Prof. Cable is the villain, his frustrations at being unable to match Brett’s achievements having driven him to the brink of madness. The story begins in an office building on Forty-second Street, New York. Brett is being introduced to a “a very pretty girl” (as a young woman might have been described in 1944) named Laura Hunt by the latter’s uncle when… “He felt an intolerable shock in every atom. It was like a blow which hit him simultaneously all over, inside and out. He had a feeling of falling endlessly and a sensation of bitter cold. His eyes were closed, and he opened them…

He and Ms Hunt find themselves in a ghostly, frozen world, devoid of sound, colour, or smells. They appear to be in a city, on a terrace outside a penthouse – but in its Stygian gloom, it is unlike any city they have ever seen. There is a climbing plant with grey leaves and grey stalks. When Brett’s jacket brushes against a leaf, the jacket is ripped. Brett examines the seemingly fragile leaf and finds that it is rigid and immovable, harder than iron. He strikes a match – in its light, the leaf’s colour is restored. Similarly, his own dead-grey skin appears normal once more. He is struck by a horrible suspicion about what has happened, but he decides for now not to share his knowledge with Hunt.

Four years earlier, Brett had made an alarming discovery. Einstein had shown that an object travelling close to the speed of light has almost infinite mass and a time rate close to zero. Brett had found that the reverse also applies: if you remove the mass from an object, its time rate will become almost infinite. He built a mass-nullifier and tested it with a live mouse. In just a second, the mouse became a heap of dust. Somebody at such an accelerated time rate could experience decades or indeed a whole lifetime, while no more than an infinitesimal fraction of a second passed in normal time. Terrified by the implications of his discovery, Brett had abandoned his experiments and destroyed his apparatus. But somebody else has made the same discovery and used it to bring them both here – and Brett had a pretty good idea who it is….

Aldous Cable had for a time been the youngest full Professor of Physics in America, but his reputation had never increased. A vain and arrogant man, he was constantly announcing enormously important discoveries that never quite worked out in practice. The reality was that he was not qualified for original and independent research, and eventually he had had to resign his professorship and work as Brett’s assistant. He had proved to be capable in this role – but he certainly wasn’t happy about it. Now Brett realises that Cable has managed to reproduce his experiments and build a mass-nullifier for himself. He obviously intends Brett to share the fate of his experimental mouse – and Hunt, with whom he was shaking hands, has been inadvertently caught up in the feud. The two of them are trapped in a world in which time is frozen, illuminated only by the ghostly grey light of gravitational vibrations. Normal colour can only be restored with matches and other sources of light brought into the accelerated time state.

Then Hunt notices a yellow glow coming from inside the apartment. Inside, they find the source of the glow is a flashlight. Somebody has used a mass nullifier on it and left it there for them to find. Next, they come to a stairwell, lit by the yellow glow of a candle. Further yellow glows have evidently been left as markers. With no other choice, Brett and Hunt follow the trail towards a lighted door. By now, Brett is in no doubt that Cable is responsible for what has happened. There will be a gloating message from Cable recalling the mouse experiment and promising to look out for the heap of dust he will soon become. But he is wrong. Inside a candlelit room is Cable himself, accompanied by about a dozen others.

Cable has indeed built a mass nullifier. He has used it to bring a group of people he had previously impressed with his boasting into the accelerated time state. They were terrified but entirely at his mercy. Only Cable’s mass nullifier could bring food and water into their world. Cable also used it to steal large quantities of jewellery, which he distributed to his unwilling followers. Eventually, Cable had agreed to return to the normal world – only to find that his mass nullifier would not take them back. The device could bring things from the normal time state, but it could not put them back.

Cable had dismantled and reassembled the mass nullifier to no effect. He had built two more, but they too worked in only one direction. Finally, he had been forced to turn to the man whose success has driven him all but insane with jealousy. He locks Brett and Hunt in a small room he has outfitted as a workshop and orders Brett to make the mass nullifier work. With the device working, he will send his group, Hunt, and himself back to normal time – but he makes it clear that he doesn’t intend for Brett to join them.

With a working mass nullifier, Cable could steal, abduct, or murder with complete impunity. But Brett realises there is another trick Cable could pull that could destroy cities or even entire countries. He could do this even with his one-way nullifier, and if he thinks of it, he is certainly insane enough to do it….

You will not be surprised to learn that a) Brett soon figures out what is wrong with Cable’s mass nullifier; b) he and Hunt escape Cable’s clutches; c) they rescue Cable’s followers; d) Cable comes to a sticky end; and e) Brett and Hunt live happily ever after. For the full details see this spoiler.

As with Second Ending, The Eternal Now was a title that stuck in the mind, but Murray Leinster was an author I was at that time unfamiliar with. A couple of years later, I did read some of his work but unlike with James White I did not make the connection. The authorship of The Eternal Now remained unknown until early in 2000, when I managed to identify it with the assistance of the primitive search engines of that time. I didn’t come across Google until 2002, but even with Google it’s not particularly easy to find as a search on ‘The Eternal Now’ brings up over a quarter of a billion hits. A book by Paul Tillich with the same title is a confounding factor. However, I did eventually manage to identify Murray Leinster as the author and The Shape of Things as the anthology I had read thirty years earlier. I recognised the book cover, triggering a memory that had remained dormant for all those years. From there it was a simple matter to source a paperback copy online.

The Eternal Now acknowledges its origin of its plot in The New Accelerator, by H. G. Wells, in which a Professor Gibberne invents an elixir that produces similar effects to Leinster’s mass nullifier. The concept of people experiencing an accelerated time rate also featured in the Star Trek original series episode Wink of an Eye. All of these stories suffer from the same fundamental plot flaw: not only would leaves and water be reduced to immovable solids, but the air would also become solid and anybody experiencing such accelerated time rates would die almost instantly.

The educational cruises of the BI Line

The words ‘educational cruise’ give an insight into life in Britain fifty years ago, and a world very different from that of today. There was, of course, no internet, no Facebook, no Instagram. Devices like smartphones were still science fiction, as was the idea of computers as mundane household appliances. Air travel had only just become affordable, and holidays abroad were still a novelty. The 1960s saw considerable social changes, but they were still the era of the post-war consensus. By today’s standards, both Labour and the Conservatives would be viewed as hard left. The idea of ‘the common good’ still had some currency among big companies and running affordable cruises for school children was an obvious idea for shipping company directors not obsessed by the bottom line.

Educational cruising began in the 1930s using troopships, that were otherwise idle during the summer months. They allowed the pupils to see for themselves places they had otherwise for the most part come across only in history and geography lessons. The war put an end to these first educational cruises, and they were not resumed after the war as National Service kept the troopships busy. However, the British Government ended National Service and the use of ships for troop movements in 1960, and the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) decided to convert the 1937-built 11,600-ton troopship MS Dunera to a full-time ‘schoolroom at sea’, with dormitories, classrooms, swimming pool, games rooms, a library, and assembly rooms. The Dunera began her new life as an educational cruise ship in 1961, and she was joined by her half-sister MS Devonia a year later. The educational cruise program was a success, and in 1965 a third ship was added.

The 20,500-ton 480 ft (146 m) SS Nevasa had been built for BI to government order and was launched on the Clyde in November 1955; she and with her sister ship the Bibby Line’s SS Oxfordshire were the largest purpose-built troopships ever constructed in the United Kingdom. She could accommodate 500 officers and their families and 1,000 NCOs and men on the troop deck. She was thus almost new when the end of trooping at sea made her redundant. She was laid up in the River Fal, Cornwall, in 1962 but in 1965 BI decided to return her to service as their third educational cruise ship. The conversion, carried out at Falmouth, cost £500,000. (The Oxfordshire was renamed Fairstar and repurposed first as an immigrant ship on the Australia run, and later as a cruise ship.)

By now, BI were running 60 educational cruises a year. But the Dunera and Devonia were thirty years old, so in 1967 they were retired and replaced by the SS Uganda, a 14,400-ton 517 ft (158 m) cargo-liner built 1952. The Uganda operated between London and East Africa, but increasingly she was losing passengers to air travel. Unlike the Nevasa, whose dormitories were equally suited to school children as to soldiers, the Uganda required major work to convert her to an educational cruise ship. Decks were inserted in her cargo holds, which now became the dormitory accommodation with a total of 920 berths. The conversion raised her passenger capacity from 300 to 1,226, her tonnage to 16,900 tons, and cost the substantial sum of £2.8 million.

The differing origins of the two ships is apparent in these photographs: the purposeful, no-nonsense appearance of the Nevasa (left) contrasts with that of the Uganda (right). The latter’s graceful lines had suffered to an extent during the conversion to an educational cruise ship, but she still retained the look of an ocean liner. Both were handsome ships – and they were real ships, not like the motorised barges used for cruising now.

It is now fifty years since I sailed in the Nevasa on Cruise No. 132 with my school during the 1969 Easter Holiday. We were accompanied by schoolmasters Mr Terry (English) and Mr Stone (French). We flew out from Gatwick (Laker Air BAC 1-11) to join the ship at Venice. From the plane, I took this shot over the Alps.


From the airport, we transferred to a watercraft, which took us along the Grand Canal to the ship.

The intended subject of the first picture was, I am sure, the gondolas, but the church in the background is the Chiesa di San Marcuola. As this picture shows, it is more or less unchanged half a century later.


Aboard, we were taken to our dormitory, Baffin, located near the bow on D Deck (the dorms were all named for either explorers or admirals). After an interminable wait for our turn to visit the ship’s canteen, we went ashore, and Mr Terry took us to a church he claimed had been the inspiration for the school’s late nineteenth century chapel. The chapel is said to have been inspired by a Venetian church, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, but having since visited it I am not convinced it’s the same church we were shown that day.

My memory is that the interior was what I now know to be fairly typical of a Venetian church, whereas the marbled interior of the Santa Maria dei Miracoli is somewhat atypical.

berko chapel

The school chapel, by contrast, is a fairly typical Gothic Revival religious building with an interior that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike its supposed Venetian counterpart.

We were then divided into groups of four and left to explore on our own. We went up the Campanile in Piazza San Marco, and visited a glass factory where I bought four glass animals. Sadly, all have long since broken, but I have never seen anything of comparable quality for the price on my many visits to Venice in adult life.

01-004-venice - bridge of sighs

An obligatory shot of the Bridge of Sighs.

We sailed overnight, and after a day at sea reached Dubrovnik in what was then Yugoslavia. During the day at sea, Messrs Stone and Terry gave us a talk about Dubrovnik. I’ve heard that pupils on term-time cruises had several hours of regular lessons when at sea, but this was not the case for cruises taking place over the school holidays. Instead of maths and Latin, we had informative lectures about the ship’s next port of call. There were also activity groups – I joined the Chess club (I was a moderately good player who once finished runner-up in the junior school championship).

At sea.

Every evening at sea a movie was shown – “Clambake” (a musical starring Elvis Presley), “Who’s minding the mint?” (a comedy), “Yours, Mine, and Ours” (comedy starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda), and “Custer of the West” (starring Robert Shaw). There seemed to be a distinct lack of movies in the ship – I think these were the only four, and they were shown repeatedly. Most nights there was a disco (or ‘dance’ as it was known) on the after deck. It was very popular, but this was about six months before I first began to take an interest in girls and I often preferred the ship’s library. This featured a large illustrated book about the history of the Earth from its formation to then end of the last Ice Age (I wish I could remember its title). The fo’c’sle was open to dormitory passengers, and it was possible to stand there DiCaprio/Winslet style and get a fine view whenever the ship was close to land (which was often the case). It was a constant source of amusement to those standing in the fo’c’sle that somebody had carved the word ‘VAGINA’ into the paintwork there. The fo’c’sle was off-limits after sunset; this was always announced by playing “Sunset” over the tannoy.

I took a lot of pictures in Dubrovnik, more than I would take elsewhere. Note the Nevasa at anchor out to sea. The harbour was too small for the ship to dock, and we went ashore in the lifeboats. I’d borrowed my mum’s Kodak Instamatic camera for the trip; I got through two film cartridges over the whole seventeen days of the cruise. These were expensive, so I was a little more sparing on subsequent ports of call. Our stay in Dubrovnik was fairly brief: after a few hours exploration, we returned to the harbour where the lifeboats were waiting to take us back to the ship. As we got underway, “A life on the Ocean Wave”, “Hearts of Oak”, and “Rule Britannia” were played over the tannoy. This happened at every subsequent departure, and apparently was standard practice whenever Nevasa left port – a great tradition worthy of this fine ship.

01-015-Crete Knossos

The next port of call was Heraklion, Crete, where we were taken to see the ancient Minoan site of Knossos on the outskirts of the city. At the time, I recall being astonished that dark red paintwork on the columns of the Palace and the vivid paintwork elsewhere could have survived for 3,500 years – I didn’t realise that I what I was seeing was the result of Sir Arthur Evans’ rather fanciful reconstruction less than half a century earlier. The above picture, originally missing, has now come to light, but I think I originally took at least one other.

From Crete we sailed to Rhodes, where again the ship had to anchor out to sea. But the conditions were too rough to use the lifeboats (!) and we were landed in some dubious-looking local vessels. I don’t remember too much else about Rhodes, but I took three photos of a place that I have since identified as Lindos.


Now a major resort, it was apparently much quieter in 1969.

01-019-at sea - messina strait

We then sailed back to Italy, and our next port of call Naples. En route, we sailed through the Messina Strait and then made a close approach to Stromboli. No pictures of the latter, frustratingly.

We spent a few days in Naples, including a visit to Pompeii.

01-026-at sea - gibraltar

Then it was on to Lisbon, our last port of call, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on the way. Lisbon was for me the highlight of the trip, possibly because we stayed for three days and there was a lot to do. On arrival, we went on a coach trip to see a number of local sights. These included the Ponte 25 de Abri suspension bridge over the Tagus (then named for the dictator Antonio Salazar; he had recently been replaced by Marcelo Caetano, but the bloodless revolution that ended the dictatorship was still five years off). We saw the modernist Padrão dos Descobrimentos on the banks of the Tagus (frustratingly covered with scaffolding when I returned to Lisbon for the first time in 2016); the Jerónimos Monastery (which for many years afterwards I confused with Lisbon Cathedral); and a football stadium. I remember that practically everybody thought that this was Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, but somebody in the group said that it wasn’t. I wasn’t particularly into football at the time (in fact nobody in the group was), but everybody knew that Benfica was the Portuguese side Man Utd had beaten the previous year to become the first English (though not the first British) team to win the European Cup (now known as the Champions League). Based on the location of the other sights on the tour, I now believe that what we saw was the Estádio Nacional, where Celtic’s Lions of Lisbon did become the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, a year before Man Utd.

01-027-lisbon - parque eduardo vii

I took just one photograph in Lisbon, the final exposure on the film, of the Parque Eduardo VII.

From Lisbon, we sailed for Southampton. Ahead of schedule, we dropped anchor in Vigo Bay and held a regatta in the lifeboats (nobody was permitted to go ashore). Our boat was disqualified because some idiot took their lifejacket off. For the last night at sea, the school kids put on a cabaret, though I don’t recall anybody from our school taking part. Next morning found the ship entering the Solent. The then brand-new QE 2 was in port when we reached Southampton, and we passed her shortly before we docked. A coach was waiting to take us back to school, and from there I returned home for the remainder of my Easter Holiday.

I still regard the trip as one of the highlights of my schooldays, as do many others, and there is now a Facebook group “S.S. Uganda & S.S. Nevasa” for the now-ageing people who went on the educational cruises. For the record, 1) the food was nowhere near as bad as some people posting in that forum make out and 2) our cruise must have been the only one ever to avoid near-shipwreck in the Bay of Biscay.

Sadly, the Nevasa’s days were numbered. The oil crisis of 1973/74 meant that BI could not afford to keep both ships in service. The Nevasa was newer and faster than the Uganda, but her more powerful military-grade machinery meant that she was more expensive to run. Her final cruise was in December 1974, and she was scrapped in Taiwan in June 1975 just short of her twentieth birthday. With the benefit of hindsight, BI scrapped the wrong ship. In April 1982, Argentine forces invaded the Falklands and the UK government wasted no time in dispatching a naval task force to the South Atlantic to recapture the islands. The Uganda, midway through a cruise, was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence to serve as a hospital ship, a role for which a purpose-built troopship like the Nevasa would have been far better suited.

Uganda’s 315 cabin passengers and 940 school children were landed in Naples and flown back to Blighty. When the ship docked in Naples, the undoubtedly disappointed school children reportedly sang “Rule Britannia“. After undergoing a hasty refit at Gibraltar, Uganda served with distinction in the Falklands War. During the conflict, 750 casualties including 150 Argentinians were treated aboard, and 504 surgical operations were conducted. Her wartime service over, she returned to Britain in August and after undergoing a refit at North Shields, she returned to educational cruising late in September.

It was to be a very brief comeback. In November, the Uganda was chartered for two years as a store ship between Ascension Island and the Falklands. Critics claimed that BI had realised that the Uganda was more profitable in military service than she was as an educational cruise ship, but the reality was that school bookings had fallen off due to uncertainty over when the ship would return to civilian service. After a further refit, she sailed back to the Falklands in January 1983. Her charter ended in April 1985, but after three years of military service, the Uganda – no spring chicken from the outset – was worn out, and BI never restored her as a cruise ship. She was laid up in the River Fal, and eventually scrapped in Taiwan, bringing to an end the era of educational cruising.

Lunar eclipse 21 January 2019

Weather thwarted attempts to obtain photographs of what will be the last total lunar eclipse visible from Britain until 16 May 2022. Good conditions prevailed until about 15 mins before the onset of totality, when the Moon disappeared into the clouds never to return.

I obtained a good shot of the uneclipsed Moon, and subsequent shots at around 40 percent and 80 percent totality. The so-called ‘blood moon’ effect was not visible, and the 80 percent shot looks very little different to an ordinary crescent Moon.

The starling murmuration at Aberystwyth Pier

Every evening at dusk during the winter months, thousands of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) swarm over Aberwrystwyth’s Royal Pier, before swooping down to roost for the night in the mass of girders underneath.

The phenomenon is known as ‘murmuration’, and it is one of the most spectacular wildlife displays in Britain. Local flocks are joined by migrants from northern Europe, who fly south to the relatively mild conditions of Britain. The swarming behaviour is thought to offer safety in numbers from predators such as peregrine falcons, who become confused by the swirling masses.

Aberwrystwyth, where the setting sun forms a fine backdrop to the phenomenon, is one of the most popular sites for observing murmurations, but it may also be viewed on other parts of the UK: Sussex, Brighton, Eastbourne, and other coastal towns in the south such as Bognor, Chichester, and Hastings; displays are also regularly seen over the Somerset Levels, Gretna Green, Blackpool Pier and the Fens of Cambridgeshire.