Like oil and water, politics and science simply don’t mix. Why? Because, as I say in my recent review of Mark Henderson’s The Geek Manifesto book, “politicians and scientists think very differently and value different things”. Here’s an extract from the post:
“Changing your mind is de rigeur for scientists who come across new evidence; it’s a sign of weakness for a politician. Scientists value experiments and what they can learn from failure; politicians won’t admit that most new policies are in fact experiments and therefore fail to learn anything from them. Scientists want to answer questions; politicians want to talk about solutions. Scientists think their work, and “the numbers”, should do the talking; politicians want qualitative narratives about outcomes and impact. Scientists value evidence-based policy; politicians want policy-based evidence. And so on…”
If you’re following the route of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant today, here’s a handful of boaty Thames facts to impress your friends with:
Battersea park is built from mud and ballast
Brainchild of ship’s carpenter turned master builder Thomas Cubitt, Battersea park opened in 1854. The marshy land was reclaimed by filling it with 750,000 tons of silt and mud excavated from the Surrey Docks. The park’s walls include ship ballast stones salvaged from the river at Greenwich. Sailing ships in the early nineteenth century dropped these stones in the Thames before travelling upriver to unload their cargoes in the Port of London.
Wordsworth saw ships everywhere
Wordsworth’s 1802 sonnet Upon Westminster Bridge describes the view from the Thames at the time: ‘Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie / Open unto the fields, and to the sky’.
A Roman ship was found under the Sea Life Aquarium
The remains of a rounded-bottom Roman vessel, thought to be a 60-ton merchant ship from 300AD, were excavated during the development of the County Hall building in 1910. Made of oak, the fragment was 12m long; the full vessel would have been around 20m. A stone found embedded within the ship’s planks is thought to have been propelled at it by catapult.
Nelson was buried in an enemy ship’s mast
After his death on HMS Victory at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Nelson’s body was placed in a cask filled with brandy – later replaced by spirits of wine. On arrival in England a surgeon removed the musket ball from the body and, after a spell in a brandy-filled lead coffin, Nelson was finally placed in his final coffin, which was made from the mast of a French ship sunk at the Battle of the Nile. This, in turn, was placed within two other coffins – one made of lead, another of wood.
Nelson lay in state in the Painted Hall of Greenwich Hospital for three days and was visited by almost 100,000 people. On 8 January 1806 the coffin was taken upriver by the King’s Barge, followed by two miles of boats. He was buried in the centre of St Paul’s Crypt.
Shakespeare’s Globe is built like a ship
The theatre’s distinctive curved oak timbers are sourced from the same Surrey forest that supplied the Navy’s medieval dockyards with oak frame supports for ship hulls.
The Tooley Street fire led to the establishment of the London Fire Brigade
In June 1861 a warehouse full of jute caught fire on the south bank of the Thames. The worst peace-time fire in the city, the Tooley Street fire spread to other warehouses, wharves and ships and caused more than £2m damage. It was two weeks before the fire was completely extinguished.
Before the fire, the London Fire Engine Establishment was run by insurance companies. Afterwards, they put their premiums up and forced the government to take control. The 1865 Metropolitan Fire Brigade Act created a publicly-funded London fire brigade.
Tower Bridge operators used semaphore
Formally opened in June 1894, Tower Bridge was designed so tall ships could pass through to London’s busy upper pool port. It took eight years to build and cost approximately £1m. Each time the bridge’s arms are raised a total weight of 2400 tons must be moved – in just 1-2 minutes. The bridge operators communicated with ships and traffic via semaphore or signal lights, gongs and steam whistles.
The Design Museum reeks of bananas
The current site of the Design Museum was once a banana warehouse. As a boy, Museum founder Sir Terence Conran visited the docks on the site with his father (a dealer in gum copal resin) to watch freighters from Africa unload their cargoes.
For a more substantial report on the ship and her history read my post for the HMS Beagle Project blog.
The Cutty Sark is part of Royal Museums Greenwich.
Until November 2012 the ship is open from 09:00 to 17:00 Tuesday to Sunday (last admission 16:30).
Booking in advance is recommended, and there are ‘bundle’ offers that let you combine your visit with entrance to the Royal Observatory and/or the National Maritime Museum’s Royal River exhibition.
London’s Archives: home to Shackleton’s book, Darwin’s letters and the world’s first ornithology encyclopedia
What do the first book published in Antarctica, a bunch of letters written by Charles Darwin while on board HMS Beagle and a rare seventeenth century scientific guide to the world’s birds have in common? You can see – and in some cases touch – each of them in an archive somewhere in London.
Archives are the poor relations of museums. We all know you can see weird and wonderful objects in the many museums of London, from the over-stuffed walrus at the Horniman to half of Charles Babbage’s brain at the Hunterian and Winston Churchill’s red velvet romper suit at the Imperial War Museums’ Churchill War Rooms. Museums make us think of ‘things’, stories and – increasingly – interactivity. The word ‘archives’, on the other hand, is synonymous with ‘dusty’ and ‘boring’; it has an air of secrecy, protection and general inaccessibility. On three recent trips to London-based archives these stereotypes were well and truly debunked. They aren’t the poor relations of museums; they’re the wealthy maiden aunt you never knew you had, but who you really wished you’d met.
In Greenwich, the new Caird Library opened last year as part of the Samy Ofer Wing extension. To mark it’s return to full service after a major move, the Library hosted a special bloggers’ preview event a few months ago, which I was delighted to be invited to. In the same week, I went to a public open evening at Kew’s Herbarium, Library and Archives. A few weeks later I checked out the Royal Society’s exhibition of archive treasures*. Here are just some of the amazing things all three archives’ put out on display for their interested guests – a veritable cabinet of curiosities…
The first book published in Antarctica: Aurora Australis (1908)
This 225 page book was published on Ross Island, Antarctica in 1908 by members of the British Antarctic Expedition. Knowing the perils of boredom during the sunless winter, expedition leader Ernest Shackleton shipped “an entire printing and lithographic outfit including the necessary paper” from Southwark-based printing firm Sir Joseph Causton & Sons Ltd to Antarctica. He even arranged for the company to spend three weeks training key members of the expedition team how to use it.
Despite their relative inexperience (the standard length of a printing apprenticeship at the time was seven years), the Antarctica adventurers did a great job. Rather than printing a newspaper as their earlier counterparts had done, they typeset, illustrated, printed and bound an entire book. They even ‘published’ it under their own imprint, the Sign of the Penguins.
There were, the Caird Library blog tells us, plenty of challenges involved with operating a printing press in a cramped and noisy hut shared by 15 men. On one occasion, the candle that was placed beneath the inking plate to keep the ink at the optimum temperature for printing, accidentally melted the only inking roller they had.
The end result, however, is stunning – attractively typeset text, striking etchings and lithographs, clear and consistent printed pages and a hand-coloured title page. Combined with the ‘sign of the Penguin’ colophon, the end product looks as professional as many commercially-printed books today – and yet it was created simply to provide “an interest and a relaxation”.
Diary of a honeymoon on the way to Australia (1857)
A successful gold prospector who returned home to get married, Alfred Withers set sail for Australia with his new wife on January 5th, 1857. They spent the following three and a half months in their “floating home”, a cabin aboard the US-built timber clipper James Baines. During the journey, Withers kept a diary. His hand-painted illustrations give an idea of life aboard ship at the time.
According to the Caird Library blog, Withers and his wife ran the Great Iron Store on Cecil Street in Melbourne for thirty years before retiring back to England.
Letter from Charles Darwin to Reverend John Stevens Henslow (1835)
At Kew, I was rather taken by forty-four letters written by the young Charles Darwin before, during and after his time on HMS Beagle. They had been sent to the Cambridge Professor of Botany Rev. John Stevens Henslow, a man Darwin worshipped so much that the young prodigy became known as “the man who walks with Henslow”. It was Henslow who recommended Darwin as a suitable “naturalist companion” for the Captain of the Beagle Robert FitzRoy. It was to Henslow that Darwin sent the specimens he collected during the six year voyage. And it was Henslow who promoted Darwin’s letters and specimens while he was away, helping him establish himself as an eminent scientist by the time of his return.
For a Darwin and Beagle freak like me, these letters are clearly important. But I was also impressed by the efforts Kew have taken to conserve and present them.
Joseph Hooker’s invitation to Charles Darwin’s funeral (1882)
On a more gloomy Darwinian note, Kew also have the original invitation and accompanying letter that invited Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker to be a pall bearer at his funeral. Hooker was Darwin’s closest scientific colleague. Along with Charles Lyell, Hooker was responsible for jointly presenting Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s papers on natural selection to the Linnean Society in 1858. Hooker was also Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew for twenty years.
The letter accompanying the invitation states:
You are invited to officiate as one of the Pall Bearers at the funeral of the late Mr Darwin which will take place at Westminster Abbey at 12 o’clock (noon) on Wednesday next the 26th inst.
The Pall Bearers will assemble in the Chapter House in the Cloisters at 11.15 and we will arrange for some one to be there to meet you on arrival.
We enclose a card of admission to the Chapter House, together with another card (which you will kindly also bring with you) indicating your position near the Remains.”
The first ornithology encyclopedia (1678)
I went to the Royal Society to attend a talk about the supposed world’s first ornithologist Francis Willughby. A staggering 334 years ago, his colleague John Ray posthumously published the young scientists’s encylopedia of birds, complete with incredible illustrations. There had been earlier illustrated bird guides in both Latin and German, but Willughby’s was the first to take a scientific approach, and was also published (after an initial Latin version) in English.
Like Darwin later, Willughby was “bitten by the snake of learning” at Cambridge – so much so that his tutor wrote him poems about overworking. After he left, he and fellow student Ray travelled around Britain and Europe collecting paintings of birds, observing wild birds and buying dead birds from mediterranean markets – which they later dissected.
The Ornithology is one of many ‘treasures’ held by the Royal Society. Their current exhibition showcases many more – from familiar and not-so-familiar names. In particular, I was intrigued by two books by women (otherwise sorely under-represented in all three archives ).
The first photographically-illustrated book (1843)
Anna Atkins was a botanist who developed an interest in the ‘new’ field of photography. Her scientific reference book British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions was created using cyanotype printing; she placed her botanical specimens on to paper coated with light-sensitive chemicals, exposed it to light and created these striking white on blue images. Not only did she produce what is claimed to be the first photographically-illustrated book, she’s also regarded as the first female photographer.
Children’s history of science book (1876)
Arabella Buckley was secretary to the Professor of Geology at Kings College, London, Charles Lyell (mentioned above as one of Charles Darwin’s closest scientific allies) until his death in 1875. Having met both men of science and publishers through her work, she then embarked on a series of books popularising science. The first, A short history of natural science, was published in 1876 to positive reviews. Darwin himself wrote to the author saying that the idea “is a capital one, and as far as I can judge, very well carried out”.
Buckley’s motivation could be repeated today without much change. In A short history… she states that she often:
“felt very forcibly how many important facts and generalizations of science, which are of great value in the formation of character and in giving a true estimate of life and its conditions, are totally unknown to the majority of otherwise well-educated persons.”
In total Buckley wrote over ten books. I’m now on the hunt to track down some of these original edition beauties myself:
If you want to track down your own archive treasures…
The Royal Museums Greenwich Caird Library and Archive is open Monday to Friday 10:00 to 16:45 (19:45 on Thursday) and Saturday 10:00 to 13:00 and 14:00 to 16:45. If you’re going during the Olympics, be sure to check before you visit (the Museum is an Olympic venue).
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Herbarium Library, Art and Archives are open Monday to Friday 09:00 to 17:00, though a written application (which can be sent by email) is usually required in advance.
The Royal Society’s Library and Archives are open from Monday to Friday 10:00 to 17:00. The free Treasures exhibition is open on Tuesdays (14:00 to 16:oo) and Thursdays (10:00 to 12:00) until 21 June 2012.
Of course, these are just three of the many eccentric maiden aunt archives in the capital – I’ll certainly be seeking out more..
* I should admit that both the Royal Museums Greenwich and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew are recent clients of mine. However, my visits to their archives weren’t related to the projects I was working on – and any member of the public can follow in my footsteps to see their treasures for themselves. My visit to the Royal Society was solely as a punter, though I’m open to offers to add them to my client list…
The new free Design Museum Collection app for iPad launched last week, soon to be followed by iPhone (available 3rd May) and Android (available 5th June) versions. As you’d expect from an institution committed to “better design, better use of scarce resources, and more innovation”, the interface is quite neat. There’s something strangely compelling about being able to swipe your way through images in a checkerboard style. So far, I’ve spent almost as much time playing with the randomly ordered images and scrolling through them both vertically and horizontally as I have actually exploring the content.
When you do finally click through to a specific object, it’s supported by:
- a large image, which you can isolate and zoom into
- some descriptive text. For a handful of objects, I have to take responsibility for this, since it seems to have come from the Brit Insurance Designs of the Year exhibitions and catalogues that I once edited
- a short video clip (under a minute) putting the object in a broader context. These snippets are presented by the Design Museum Director Deyan Sudjic or the Head of Learning Helen Charman.
- a supporting quote from another design luminary
- a set of additional images, which can be scrolled through, isolated and zoomed into
- information about the object’s category, type, date, designer, manufacturer, place of origin and colour
- the opportunity for users to add the object to their favourites list, share comments and distribute information via Twitter and Facebook
The layout is clean and consistent throughout, so you always know what you’re going to get.
Once you’re bored of playing with the checkerboard browsing interface you can get more serious by exploring the objects through a range of filters, which are accessed by pressing a simple funnel icon. The option to browse by category (architecture, furnitire, graphics, product or transport) appears automatically. Unfortunately the myriad other options – to browse by type (for instance bicycle, bulb, camera, car or chair), date (using a slider control to choose a start and end date) and more (designer, manufacturer, place of origin, colour and material) – were unbeknown to me until I watched the Museum’s launch video below. Nothing on screen hinted that scrolling in the thin left-hand menu bar would reveal them. This is a shame, since exploring the collection in this way helps you to make connections between different entries and ultimately understand the objects themselves to a greater degree.
Aside from the navigation options hidden under a bushell, I have two other minor gripes:
- the long line length and lack of margins makes all the text quite difficult to read
- given that the hidden navigation uses the tags included at the bottom of each object entry I was expecting to be able to click on any of these terms to see other objects tagged in the same way. Instead, you have to go back to the hidden navigation to find, for instance, other objects by the same designer, or from the same period, dampening your motivation to explore those all important connections.
Perhaps these are issues that can be addressed in version 2? For now, this is an appealing and accessible free app that opens up the Design Museum’s extensive collection to anyone. Until 2014, when the Museum is finally able to display its permament collection in a new Kensington home, this may be the only way to discover, talk about and share some of the key designs that have shaped our world.