Friday 20 February 2015

Condensing Eight and Two Centuries of History - Magna Carta and Waterloo

Following my last blog entry about astronomy, a subject in which hundreds of years as they are measured on Earth are merely microcosmic, realising that 2015 sees the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, in feel it is appropriate for this to look at hundreds of years in the context of human history. Not only are hundreds of years a long time in human terms, but the hundreds of years that have followed these events show us how interlinked a process history is, as a opposed to a series of isolated events.

A tendency that people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, can often have is in being able to see detail, however minute, not initially seeing the bigger picture or chain of events. In clinical speak and as described by Professor Uta Frith in her public lecture at Newcastle University last December, this form of perception is often referred to as Weak Central Coherence. Frith also did say though that despite the use of the word weak, Weak Central Coherence is also a strength in being able to see detail. Rather than Weak Central Coherence, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I like to describe it as 'eye for detail'. Eye for detail combined with cultivated awareness helps to see the wider context as to where the detail fits.

The tendency of going off on a tangent presents a bit of challenge to me in writing this entry. The two anniversary subjects that it is about are indirectly made possible by one another and their relevance to the present day are separated not only by hundreds of years but by many details into which it is easy to become sidetracked into, which my old school reports suggested that I had a tendency to do, including into those irrelevant. So to condense it down, in some instances, I may skip across hundreds of years in a single paragraph or sentence, which Shakespeare described as 'compressing years into an hourglass'.

Magna Carta Moument, Runnymede, Surrey
When going into the details of historical events, one may eventually read into their origins, and it is surprising how many such significant historical events together with many present-day rights and civil liberties have their roots in a document handwritten on sheets of sheep skin (vellum). Signed by King John at Runnymede following a dispute with a group of rebel barons in 1215, the Magna Carta, or 'Great Charter', itself originated from a sequence of events with King John's unsuccessful attempts to reclaim his ancestral lands in France culminating in a disastrous and costly military expedition in 1214, escalating his barons distrust of him. The singing of the charter that followed saw that the king would be under law and lay the foundations for modern democracy not just in present-day Britain, but throughout the world.

Though in the broader spectrum of human history, going back thousands of years, many of the earliest known ideas of democracy and representative government originated in ancient Greece, many democratic principles and civil liberties familiar in our lives today can be traced to Magna Carta's detailed clauses, including Clauses 39-40 that focus on liberties and properties, permitting no free man to be seized except by law and the state not to help itself to private land. As described by the respected historian David Starkey, though the document contains extensive detailed clauses, it lacks any great statement of principle, leaving its principles hidden within its finer details.

The format of Magna Carta, being full of fine detail but lacking in weight-carrying statements has left it open to different interpretations, resulting in it being a subject of dispute among ruling elites and its importance as a mandate resurface in both times of peace and war. All of which has led to a course of history that has seen two invasions by invitation, a civil war and further afield, a war of independence and a revolution. After signing Magna Carta, King John's appeal to the Pope to have the charter annulled led to the First Barons War, which saw England's lesser-know 'invitation to invade' when rebel barons attempted to install Prince Louis, son of Philip II of France, to the throne as their 'anyone but John' candidate. The lack of a rival claimant to the throne had only strengthened King John's power.

Magna Carta's purpose of keeping the King under law wasn't truly to awaken until over 400 years later when Charles I, whose belief in the divine right of kings, saw him ignore both the Magna Carta and parliament trying to rule like an absolute monarch. To enforce Magna Carta, a civil war lasting seven years was needed, followed by the king's trial and execution. The freedoms that Magna Carta sought to protect were then denounced by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's unpopular puritanical regime, resulting in the Restoration of the Monarchy after Charles II returned from exile. Magna Carta would resurface once again towards the end of the 16th century when religious tensions mounted with James II secret conversion to Catholicism opened the way for the better known invitation to invade in 1688, which history would call the 'Glorious Revolution', when William of Orange and James II's daughter Mary were offered the crown providing they accepted both Magna Carta's terms and the sovereignty of parliament.

While royalty gradually conceded power in Britain, on the other side of the channel, royal absolutism held firm in France. Meanwhile, Magna Carta's principles were taking root across the Atlantic in Britain's American colonies, with the charter forming the basis of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, won in 1783. While the American Declaration of Independence can be seen as a 'descendant' of Magna Carta, the French Revolution that took place a few years later (1789), can be seen as a 'child' of the American Wars of Independence. French involvement in the wars of independence together with the loss of its North American colonies following the Seven Years War (1756-1763) had contributed to huge debts, placing a heavy burden on the French peasantry, which the Court of Versailles appeared oblivious to. With no Magna Carta or equivalent, violent revolution was needed to overthrow royal absolutism.

Lion Mound overlooks the Waterloo Battlefield, Belgium
The collapse of the Ancien Regime in France would later see the rise to power of Napoleon and his ambitions bringing the whole of Europe, including Britain which he famously described as a 'nation of shopkeepers' under his rule. The Napoleonic Wars that followed lasted over 12 years resulting in over six million casualties,saw Napoleon gain and regain domination of Europe until his eventual defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) in present day Belgium by the Allied Forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field Marshall Gebhard Lebrecht von Blucher. Wellington wanted everyone involved in the battle to have a medal to be designed by master engraver Benedetto Pristrucci. Due to its size and weight, the medal was never completed. But 200 years later, the London Mint Office has issued 500,000 free medals to mark the battle's bicentenary.

One of 500,000 free medals issued to mark the Bicentenary of Waterloo
As well as peace in Europe for much of the next 50 years after Waterloo, a legacy that emerged from the Napoleonic wars, currently a topical and divisive issue in British politics, was the concept of a unified Europe, sharing the same principles of government, units of measurements, a single currency and civil code. I rarely cover politics in my blog entries due to its divisive nature which sometimes 'overheats', but something I will say is that while the present day system of European unity, the European Union, isn't without its controversies, I am grateful that it has contributed to preventing full scale war in Europe on the level of the Napoleonic Wars or the two world wars. That said, the current situation in eastern Ukraine will be a test of its ability to uphold peace and security. Recent times have also seen rights and freedoms, many of which have their roots in Magna Carta, come under threat with the war on terror, in which tensions have been heightened by recent events including the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France and cafe shootings in Denmark and Australia. Such rights are often overlooked during times of insecurity, making Magna Carta as relevant in many ways now as it ever has been.

Interlinking historical events often ends up with one's walls being covered in flow diagrams, as the walls of Clare Sainsbury's (author of Martian in the Playground) hall of residence room at the University of Oxford was! Being a visual thinker, flow charts often help. What this particular writing exercise has shown me is that, as well as interlinked, as Leo Tolstoy described, history is an inexorable process, a continuum, which one man alone cannot influence. There are theories and principles from the past that have relevance to the present day, as well as mistakes from which to learn for the benefit of humanity.

Monday 2 February 2015

From your own backyard to the edge of the Solar System and Beyond

When we think of the terms space and astronomy, some of the first visual images that tend to come to mind are of worlds far away. In many ways, astronomy starts much closer to home, not just with what one can see in the night sky on a clear night from their back garden, but also from natural features common in everyday life, including pebbled rocks and ripples in sand. Such features are usually considered unremarkable because they are a common feature of our natural surroundings, especially for those of us who live near the coast, but when we see similar features on other worlds in the Solar System, we get excited!

Pebbled rocks on Titan photographed by Huygens
Note their similarity to pebbled rocks on Seaburn Beach, Sunderland

Images from the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, taken by the Huygens probe in 2005 showed pebbled rocks on the surface generated excitement as they confirmed the existence of surface liquid, the only place in the Solar System apart from Earth where surface liquid has been found. Though rather than water, Titan's lakes are made up largely of methane, ethane and propane. More recently, the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/C-G showed rippled landscapes similar to sand ripples commonly found on beaches on Earth being constantly shaped and reshaped by the tide. Such findings arouse excitement in the world of astronomy as they provide insight into what an early planet Earth may have been like when it was forming, long before it could support life, but while conditions that would later enable the planet to support life were developing, including the presence of water in solid, liquid and gas form together with a climate and atmosphere conducive for life to evolve into its many forms present today, including us.

Ripples on Comet 67P/C-G photographed by Rosetta
Again note their similarity to ripples on Seaburn Beach

Like railways, a subject that has featured much on this blog, astronomy is also considered and sometimes stereotyped as an Aspergic subject, perhaps for the level of detail and data it involves and the different colours and features visible on different planets and the shapes of the constellations. For some, including for myself when younger, may be an escape from coping with the ever-confusing social world on Earth looking out to where there may be worlds far away across space and time where they feel they would be more accepted, especially if they feel that aren't accepted in the society they live in or feel frustrated at not being able to make sense of the social world. This may also explain inspirations for science fiction, another past-time enjoyed by many people on the autistic spectrum.

As well as people with Asperger's Syndrome, it is a subject that has in recent times opened up to wider audience with the effect of Professor Brian Cox's documentary series and Stargazing Live. Locally in the North East, general interest and participation in astronomy also appears to have increased through Northumberland National Park together with Kielder Water and Forest Park being awarded 'Dark Sky' status and Look North weather forecaster and reporter Hannah Bayman's enthusiasm for the subject, including its effects on the weather, and in turn, how it affects our daily lives, often when we are least aware of it. Public participation in astronomy locally in Sunderland was evident during Sunderland Astronomical Society's 'Jupiter Night' last month held at their Cygnus Observatory located at Washington Wetlands Centre where a sizeable crowd turned out to get a look at Jupiter and the night sky's other sights through the several telescopes available.

Sunderland Astronomical Society's Cygnus Observatory
At first the sky was cloudy but it cleared up later and visitors were able to get some good views of Jupiter and its moons through the Cygnus Observatory's 14-inch reflector telescope and also of Comet Lovejoy before it disappears from sight, after which it won't appear again for over another 8,000 years. As well as the sights of the night sky, something that the event showed was both how great a social and family activity astronomy can be, including families affected by autism, especially if the skies are cloudy. Many people on the autistic spectrum can experience meltdowns or panic attacks in crowded places. Though avoidance of such situations is understandable, the lack of a viable alternative to being around others can also lead to social isolation and anxiety. Sometimes a way of learning to cope with such situations is to experience them at first in such an environment where they are with someone who understands their difficulties and where they are around like-minded people perhaps at an event related to an interest, and can provide a release from stresses and anxieties. With patience, social skills that develop over time through experience of such events can help one cope with and become more confident and assertive in social situations.
Readers of this blog may well remember me talking about how one of my favourite aspects of astronomy is how the stars in the night sky being as they were so many years ago can in effect represent your past while you are tuning into the present in a mindfulness context. One of my other favourite aspects of astronomy from the perspective of curiosity is how astronomical discoveries alter humankind's perception of the universe, including human convention on naming, classifying and cataloguing new worlds when they are discovered, and how knowledge gained from space exploration can often radically alter previous theories and pre-conceptions we may have had about the Solar System, the universe and our place within it. On such theory that had been suggested in the 19th century was that water arrived on earth courtesy of comets. This theory had briefly resurfaced with the Rosetta Mission, but though Rosetta's observations showed there was water vapour present on Comet 67P/C-G, it contains a higher level of deuterium than hydrogen than water vapour on earth has, making the theory that water arrived on Earth via comets unlikely.

Three such important discoveries that have radically changed human perception of the Solar System and the wider Universe include William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in 1781, the first planet discovered with the aid of a telescope, Edwin Hubble's 1923 observation that showed Andromeda as a galaxy beyond the Milky Way and most recently, the confirmation of the existence of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, a region of many small, icy worlds orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. Though many other important astronomical discoveries have been made, these three particular discoveries opened human perception up to a much bigger Solar System, and in the case of Hubble's observation, a bigger Universe. Such discoveries have seen us alter previous theories and opening up further possibilities for us to approach using beginner's mind. This may involve building on present theories or taking apart old theories, altering them completely. As well as altering perception of the Solar System, the discovery of the Kuiper Belt, also altered human naming convention which saw the downgrading of Pluto from being the ninth planet from the Sun to being a 'dwarf planet' that orbits the Sun with many other companion worlds in the Kuiper Belt. Similarly, over 200 years earlier, Ceres, the first asteroid to be discovered by Guiseppe Piazzi in 1801, had been considered a 'planet' until within two years, two more bodies with similar sizes and orbits were found and astronomers began classifying them separately as 'asteroids'.

The 2006 Definition of a Planet published by the International Astronomical Union that 'downgraded' Pluto was merely an exercise in naming convention, with little to do with science. Though naming conventions are necessary to help us identify different worlds, sometimes just from such terminology it is easy to develop assumptions of what they may be like, and may turn out very different when observed up close. With the Dawn spacecraft due to visit Ceres (now 'upgraded' to dwarf planet status) next month and New Horizons due to visit Pluto, together with its largest moon Charon and the Kuiper Belt region in July, 2015 could be a fascinating year for astronomy with new knowledge to be gained from largely unexplored worlds and regions of the Solar System. Providing we learn from experience and mistakes, including the loss of the Beagle due to land on Mars in 2004 and the technical difficulties the Philae lander had when landing on Comet 67P/C-G, further space exploration this century could shed much new light on the Solar System building on knowledge already accumulated from previous missions.

Such missions can play a part, not just in arousing further interest in astronomy, but further general public interest and participation/engagement in science, a mission of Professor Brian Cox in his recently appointed role as the Royal Society's Professor for Public Engagement, whose own astronomical inspirations came from the Apollo Moon Missions and probes to the planets when growing up in the 1970s. Public awareness of and participation in science involves more than just scientists themselves and those who come from scientific backgrounds, but also the enabling of those like myself who have little scientific education or experience beyond GCSE level, or who, like me, considered themselves to be 'hopeless' at science at school, to make invaluable contributions. Such a wide range of public participation in science is important as science affects us all in various ways, directly and indirectly.

Kielder Observatory, Northumberland
Starting from observation of your natural surroundings on Earth and what can be seen in the night sky from your backyard, curiosity may lead one to enquire deeper into astronomy and its related sciences. As well as at the top level through the Royal Society, at grass roots level developments like the Kielder Observatory (the vision Gary Fildes) and local astronomical organisations including Sunderland Astronomical Society, Northumberland Astronomical Society and many others throughout the country also serve an important role in enabling access to those who wish to pursue it further.

As access to the night sky is free, astronomy is well placed to enhance public engagement in science, as it is a science to which the amateur can not only make a significant contribution to but obtain much enjoyment from. Just to get simple enjoyment out of it, one doesn't necessarily have to spend a fortune on state-of-the art equipment, a notion that the late former Sky at Night presenter Sir Patrick Moore helped to dispel, as much can be seen with a small pair of binoculars or even the naked eye on a clear night from your backyard. Above all, as Jupiter Night showed, it is also highly enjoyable as a family and social activity.

Special thanks to Sunderland Astronomical Society, Northumberland Astronomical Society and all involved in organising Jupiter Night and their hospitality.