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Saturday, 3 December 2016

The jolly Hobart parson

This affable bloke is on my list for a more detailed treatment at some stage.  One of the reasons that it won't be too soon is that another book has been given the green light.  More on Australian Backyard Earth Scientist in my next post.  Probably.  It's written, I am cleaning up the 5th draft, so there are probably only three more to go before I get back to playing.

When Robert Knopwood was 8, his father died, leaving massive debts which required that part of the family estate be sold. He went to Cambridge to study for the ministry, but got in with the “hunting and shooting set”. By the time he was ordained as a priest, he was heavily in debt, and had to sell half of his property in 1789, and he must have continued in those ways, because in 1795, he had to sell the remainder.

With no income, he served wherever he could, and was in the West Indies before becoming David Collins’ chaplain as Collins set out to establish a colony in Port Phillip Bay. This was not a success, and Collins took the whole colony off to the Derwent River, establishing Hobart. Knopwood remained in Van Diemen’s Land until his death in 1838.

They were not all happy years, because in spite of getting a number of land grants, Knopwood had no money sense at all, and he was continually hounded by creditors. His diary reveals that he was genuinely ill for many years, but his capacity for liquor was such that people usually assumed his frequent indisposition was alcohol-related.

All the same, until 1819, he ministered to a parish that stretched all the way to Port Dalrymple (Launceston), and his life was by no means horrid. Manning Clark said that Knopwood “… drank wine, smoked a pipe, hunted, fished, and enjoyed the world hugely …”.

Clearly, he fitted in well in a colony where the governor (Collins) had a convict mistress. In Sydney, Lachlan Macquarie had a low opinion of Knopwood.

There was one affair which may have accounted for this: it involved a ship called Argo, 19 barrels containing 2800 gallons, about 12 700 litres, of spirits referred to as “arrack”, and probably made from rice. This had been smuggled ashore, and when it was seized, Knopwood in his role as magistrate, became officially involved. This may have hurt him, because the common gossip at the time was that Knopwood had a hand, and perhaps an interest, in the affair.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Curtiosity about Scientific methods

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

— Thomas Gray (1716 - 1771) Elegy in a Country Churchyard.

It seems to me that there is a great deal of ballyhoo about scientific method.  I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it.  Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it.

— P. W. Bridgman (1882 - 1961), Reflections of a Physicist, 1949.

The great tragedy of science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

— Thomas Henry Huxley, (1825 - 1895), Biogenesis and Abiogenesis; Collected Essays viii.

We physicists are always checking to see if there is something the matter with the theory.  That's the game, because if there is something the matter, it's interesting!

— Richard Feynman, QED, Penguin Books, 1990, 8.

It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast.  It keeps him young.

— Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression, Methuen University Paperback, 1967, p. 8.

Play is a means by which young animals are trained for the responsibilities and conflicts of adult life.  The higher the animal the longer is the period of play and the more keenly it is enjoyed.  There is something of Peter Pan in all of us and in good scientists more than most.

— Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute 1915 - 1965, Melbourne University Press, 1971.

Louis Pasteur, portrait, Musée d'Orsay

Preconceived ideas are like searchlights which illumine the path of the experimenter and serve him as a guide to interrogate nature.  They become a danger only if he transforms them into fixed ideas — this is why I should like to see these profound words inscribed on the threshold of all the temples of science: 'The greatest derangement of the mind is to believe something because one wishes it to be so...'

— Louis Pasteur (1822 - 1895), quoted by Robert S. de Ropp in The New Prometheans, 1972, p. 80.

The story is told in the University of Paris that the philosophers there once disputed among themselves as to the number of teeth in a horse's mouth.  It was argued that the number could not be a multiple of three, because that would imply disrespect to the Trinity; nor could it be a multiple of seven, for God created the World in six days and rested upon the seventh.  Neither the authority or Aristotle nor the ingenuity of the schoolmen could resolve the problem, but it was finally settled by a young man, who opened the mouth of a horse, and counted the teeth.  The doctors of the University were not convinced by this novel and unintellectual procedure; but the opening of the horse's mouth marks the birth of the scientific method.

— Professor Eric Ashby, The Place of Biology in Australian Education, inaugural lecture, Sydney, 1939.

To the Greeks of Aristotle's time, and for two thousand years afterward, scientific truth was best discovered and expressed by deducing the nature of things from a set of self-evident premises, which accounts for Aristotle's believing that women have fewer teeth than men, and that babies are healthier if conceived when the wind is in the north.  Aristotle was twice married but so far as we know, it did not occur to him to ask either of his wives if he could count her teeth.  As for his obstetric opinions, we are safe in assuming he used no questionnaires and hid behind no curtains.  Such acts would have seemed to him both vulgar and unnecessary, for that was not the way to ascertain the truth of things.  The language of deductive logic proved a surer road.

— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin Books, 1986.

The long chains of simple and easy reasonings by means of which geometers are accustomed to reach the conclusions of their most difficult demonstrations had led me to imagine that all things, to the knowledge of which man is competent, are mutually connected in the same way and that there is nothing so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach, or so hidden that we cannot discover it, provided only that we abstain from accepting the false for the true and always preserve in our thoughts the order necessary for the deduction of one truth from another.

— René Descartes (1596 - 1650), Discourse on Method, 16.

Hypotheses lead persons to try a variety of experiments, in order to ascertain [test] them.  In these experiments new facts generally arise.  These new facts serve to correct the hypothesis which gave occasion to them.  The theory thus corrected serves to discover more new facts, which . . . bring the theory still nearer the truth.

— Joseph Priestley (1733 - 1804), The History and Present State of Electricity, with Original Experiments, 1767. p. 421.

One is at liberty to suppose that somewhere along the way the scientist has intuitively abstracted rules of the game for himself, but there is little reason to believe it.  Though many scientists talk easily and well about particular individual hypotheses that underlie a concrete piece of current research, they are little better than laymen at characterizing the established bases of their field, its legitimate problems and methods.

— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970, p. 47.

According to [Popper], it is the task of the scientist, guided by the knowledge of his time, to propose a theory that takes into account what is known, but which, over and above this, forecasts what future experiments and observations should show.  It is only if a theory submits itself to empirical tests that one can call it scientific.  If such an empirical test goes against the theory, then the theory has been disproved.  If it agrees with the forecasts of the theory, then it becomes the task of the theorist to go on making more and more forecasts, to go on sticking his neck out.  A theory is scientific only as long as it lives dangerously.  If it is not at risk, it is not part of science.

— Sir Hermann Bondi, Setting the Scene.

No scientific theory is a collection of facts.  It will not even do to call a theory true or false in the simple sense in which every fact is either so or not so.

— Jacob Bronowski (1908 -    ), Science and Human Values, Julian Messner, 1956.

In parts of biology — the study of heredity, for example — the first universally received paradigms are still more recent; and it remains an open question what parts of social science have yet acquired such paradigms at all.  History suggests the road to a firm research consensus is extraordinarily arduous.

— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition, 1970, p. 15.

Men who have excessive faith in their theories or ideas are not only ill-prepared for making discoveries; they also make very poor observations.

— Claude Bernard (1813 - 1878)

It is the greatest discovery in method which science has made that the apparently trivial, the merely curious, may be clues to an understanding of the deepest principles of nature.

  Sir George Paget Thomson (1892- ????)

Science cannot discover truth, but it is an excellent means of discovering error.  The residuum left over after errors are eliminated is usually called scientific truth.

— Kenneth Boulding

It remains true that, on the large lines, Richelieu could afford to be sincere, Bismarck could not; and to be compelled to insincerity in the large lines is a heavy burden, a large tax upon energy.

— Hilaire Belloc (1870 - 1953), 'Richelieu and Bismarck' in Stories Essays and Poems, Everyman Library 948, 1957, 197.

The main difference of modern scientific research from that of the Middle Ages, the secret of its immense successes, lies in its collective character, in the fact that every fruitful experiment is published, every new discovery of relationship explained.

— H. G. Wells (1866 - 1946), quoted in Aubrey's Brief Lives, Penguin Books, p. 69.

Scientists who are more interested in experiments than in ideas are liable to quote Huxley's remark about 'the tragedy of a beautiful theory destroyed by one little fact'.  I found it of enormous interest, mixed rather often with alarm and despondency, to watch over a decade clonal selection theory being destroyed several times by what appeared to be incompatible facts.  Yet, over the same years, virtually every new discovery of general significance made clonal selection seem more and more reasonable.  The little 'hard fact' in biology nearly always includes someone's interpretation and interpretations have a tendency to change.  No single experiment ever established one biological generalisation or refuted another.  Immunology is perhaps one of the most soft-edged of the biological sciences.

— Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute 1915 - 1965, Melbourne University Press, 1971.

The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one question grew before.

— Thorstein Veblen (1857 - 1929), The Place of Science in Modern Civilization.

At first useless, these facts had to remain unperceived until the moment when the needs and progress of science provoked us to discover them.

— Etienne Geoffroy St Hilaire (1772 - 1844), quoted by Stephen Jay Gould in 'How does a panda fit?' in An Urchin in the Storm, Penguin, 1987.

Friday, 18 November 2016

A visit to the Sydney volcano

Looking east, near Green 4.
Yes, that's right, Sydney has a volcano — or at least a remnant in the form of some contact metamorphism.  The last time I visited this was 41 years ago, and I had trouble finding precise information on the web, so this post is in part to save others the searching annoyance I had. The assorted technical words are there to catch the attention of people's web searches. The rest of you, just enjoy the views, OK?

The short version: look for the structure on the right, and go around to the left of it. The neck will be in front of you. The coordinates are, near enough, -33.887471, 151. 285581.

Detailed version
Looking south, on the coast, southern end of golf course
On the premises of the North Bondi Golf Club, there is an outcrop of sandstone which has been turned to quartzite. The standard view is that this is the result of contact metamorphism from a volcanic neck that burnt its way through the Triassic Hawkesbury sandstone. There are also a number of weathered dykes in the area.

The location is near Green 4.  I got off the 380 bus near Wallis Parade, scrambled up the slope to the golf course, and made my way cautiously across course.  After a bit of poking around to the south, where I saw this amazing pair of weathered-out dykes — or is it a trio?
I think the left-most is just a joint.

No matter, I found the columnar jointed quartzite when I clambered on top of the sandstone structure in the first picture, found a tee, and then looked down.  I scrambled back down the quite daunting sandstone stairs (no hand-rail!), and went around to get my shots. 

Looking north from the quartzite
I then took one more shot to guide those coming behind me. The chimney from the sewage treatment works (top left cornert) is a good landmark, and I was looking north here, from just beside the quartzite. You can just see North Head in the distance, out on the right.

That left that part of my morning done, so I skittled back down to the road to catch a 380 bus further north, getting off at Macquarie Light, a remarkably early Sydney structure.

MACQUARIE TOWER and LIGHT, is situated on the highest Part of the Outer South Head of Port Jackson Harbour, in Latitude 33° 51’ 40” S and Longitude 151° 16’ 50” E. from Greenwich. The Height of the Light from the Base is 76 Feet; and from thence to the Level of the Sea 277 Feet, being a total Height of 353 Feet.—The Inner South Head bears from the Light-House N. by W. ¾ W. distant 1¼ Miles. The Outer North Head bears from it N. by E. 2 Miles. The Inner South Head and Outer North Head, lay N. E. ½ E. and S. W. ½ W. of each other, distant 1 1-10th Mile. The Light can be seen from S. by E. to N. by E. Those lines of Bearing clearing the Coast line ½ a point each way, and may be discovered from a Ship’s deck on a clear Night, 8 Leagues. The North End of the Sow-and-Pigs Reef bears from the Inner South Head, S. W. by. W. ½ a Mile. N. B. The Bearings are Magnetic, and the Distances computed in Nautic Miles. The Variation 9° Easterly.
(signed) J. Oxley, Surveyor General.
Sydney, New South Wales,
29th April, 1818.
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 20 June 1818, 1,

Cactus (probably Opuntia, a weed.)
 After that, it was plants. I have been teaching my young charges at Manly Vale Public School this week, and one of the things I introduced them to, in my role as "visiting scientist", was the one on the left, Kunzea ambigua, which is important on North Head, and hard to photograph. I was fairly satisfied with this one, though I was happier with the bee that was burying itself in a cactus flower.

Still, this last one would have pleased my children most, because I introduced them to the art of determining gender in she-oaks, an Australian and Pacific native genus.

They delighted in spotting the trees and shouting "boy-tree" and "girl-tree", once they cottoned onto how to tell which was which. This Allocasuarina distyla is a girl-tree, as they would all have known, because they now recognise male and female flowers.

I have no idea what the long-term effect will be of my teaching them that particular skill, but I am sure that in some way, it will have opened somebody's heart and mind to a new way of thinking.

That means I win!

Monday, 14 November 2016

The gold mine that never was

James Daly ended his life on the gallows, but for a while, he probably hoped that he had a chance of leaving Botany Bay, one way or another. Like a lot of history, there are different versions. This might be because Daly told different stories at different times. 

Then again, maybe the people who wrote about it were more interested in telling a good yarn. Whoever really wrote George Barrington’s A Voyage to Botany Bay was a good story-teller, but it probably wasn't the alleged author.

Barrington was a pickpocket who could pass as a gentleman. He spoke well, and probably got away with a lot because he had good manners when he robbed you. That said, most of what we know about him is fantasy, created by him or somebody else. [1] For example, Barrington almost certainly did not write the prologue to a play, first heard in 1796, and referring to the convicts: —

True patriots all, for be it understood,
We left our native country for our native country’s good.

That was probably the work of Henry Carter, but it gets worse when we look at what Barrington tells us about Daly (he called him Dailey).

First, Daly was hanged at the end of 1788, and Barrington only arrived in Sydney in 1791. The book in which the story appears was published in 1803, but after about 1800, Barrington was probably either mentally ill or an alcoholic.

Perhaps somebody else wrote the book and put Barrington’s name on it because he was a celebrity. (Yes, they had celebs right back then!) So the book might have been written by Barrington, but taking into account the probabilities, most probably it wasn’t.

There are better accounts, written by people who were in Sydney at the time, so here are the most likely facts. To begin with, while Daly is the most common spelling used today, he was also known as Daley and Dealey.

He was tried at the Old Bailey as James Dealey on May 26, 1784. [2] The charge was stealing clothing and a small wooden trunk, the property of Joseph Shilling. He was sentenced to be transported for seven years. No place was specified, but after almost three years in a prison or a hulk, he left Portsmouth in Scarborough in May, 1787.

He landed safely in Sydney, but apparently had no wish to stay there, and so in August of 1788, he hatched a plan to get away. Some of the transport ships had remained in Sydney, providing accommodation for some of the First Fleeters until there were houses, huts or other shelters.

More importantly, the ships provided safe storage for the food, the tools and other essentials that the First Fleet had brought. By August, the ships were almost unloaded, and ready to sail away, and Daly and a lady friend hoped to sail with them.

We don’t know exactly how they hoped to do it. Daly later asked to be pardoned and sent away as a reward for “finding a gold mine”, but some people thought he really planned to use the “gold dust” he made to either buy his way onto a ship or maybe he just wanted to buy things from the ships’ crews before they left, using the fake gold.

The source of the gold varies: George Barrington said the gold came from a broken ring, other and miore reliable accounts said it came from a sovereign that Daly had got hold of. We do know for sure that he made some stuff up that looked like gold, and when it was tested with acid by one of the two convict silversmiths, the gold seemed genuine.

Having announced his find, Daly showed samples of his “gold”, and tried to drive a hard bargain. He offered the secret of his gold mine’s location in exchange for pardons for himself and the woman he was living with, a passage back to England on one of the transports, and a sum of money, according to John Hunter—though Hunter couldn’t later remember how much Daly wanted. [3]

Daly was only in his mid-twenties, and not very bright, if you look at the evidence from his Old Bailey trial. He was in no position to bargain with the tough officers who were the colony’s authorities. The governor was away exploring and they refused to deal. Rather, they ordered Daly to show them the mine right away. Nervously, Daly went down to South Head in a boat with the adjutant, Captain Campbell, a corporal and several marine privates.

They landed, probably at Watson’s Bay, though it might have been some other beach near South Head. Daly persuaded Campbell to send the boat away, arguing that the smaller the number who knew the secret, the better. Then he led the party inland, before, as Hunter puts it, seeking “permission to go to one side for a minute upon some necessary occasion”.

Back then, a common English term for what later Australians would call “the dunny” was “the necessary”. In other words, Daly went off to relieve himself, and knowing the tracks through the coastal scrub, he headed back to the settlement at Sydney Cove. Once there, he said he had left Campbell and his men happily in charge of the gold mine. He quickly headed for his tent, grabbed up a few possessions, and went bush.

In the evening, Governor Phillip returned to Sydney Cove, and the man William Bradley called “the Goldfinder” [4] surrendered later, saying he would only tell the governor about his mine. Alas, the governor was unimpressed and ordered that Daly get fifty lashes for “his conduct respecting Captain Campbell”.

John Hunter said one of the two silversmiths tested the sample and confirmed the presence of some gold, while Watkin Tench [5] said later that the assay detected the presence of brass. One way or another, Daly confessed all, and gained another hundred lashes, and had to wear a canvas frock with the letter R (for ‘rogue’) on it. In December, burglar Daly stole clothes worth eight shillings and three pence. He was sentenced to hang, and the following day, December 3, he did just that.

To put Daly’s theft in perspective, 8/3 was about a week’s pay for an agricultural labourer in England at that time, and Hogarth’s 1751 painting Gin Lane features the slogan “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence”, so that much would keep somebody dead drunk for seven weeks.

Daly’s original sentence of seven years had also been for taking clothes worth 54 shillings, but in an isolated colony, the offence of lesser value was far more serious.

It was a sad end for Australia’s first goldfinder. Later, even when most people had forgotten Daly’s name, they remembered his “gold mine”, and a number of early real finds were dismissed as similar fakes.

Perhaps rational people assumed all gold finds were fakes, but conspiracy theories happened even then, and some of the other convicts believed the find was real, and that the authorities had forced him to offer a false confession—and then silenced him for good.

[1] ‘Barrington, George (1755–1804)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 May 2012.
[2] JAMES DEALEY, Theft: grand larceny, 26th May 1784 (Reference Number: t17840526-89),
[3] Hunter, John, An Historical Journal, 57-58. Online at
[4] William Bradley, A Voyage to New South Wales, December 1786 - May 1792, 122.
[5] Watkin Tench Sydney’s First Four Years, 137, note on p. 303.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The Great Speewah Laziness Contest

Right: about the working dogs of the Speewah.  It's funny, you know, the way that dogs get like their owners, or maybe it's the other way around, since intelligent dogs always seem to be around intelligent owners, but sometimes it goes too far.  Take Lazy Harry: he was even lazier than his dog, or so some people said: I reckon it was touch and go.  As soon as you saw Harry and his dog walking somewhere, you'd twig straight away that if they went any slower they'd be walking backwards.  Harry could shear all right, but in everything else, he was slower than watching grass grow in a drought.

He was working down the Big Smoke at one stage, getting sheep from the rail siding to the abattoir, but he kept getting later and later each day.  The boss got stuck into him, but Harry had the answer: "I can't wake me dog up", he says.  The boss sacked him in the end, but he never could work out whether Harry was lazy or stupid.  We knew, though: he really earned his name.

One time, I seen a tiger snake, and I yells "There's a tiger snake, beside your foot," expecting him to jump out of the way rather fast. But Harry just turns slowly and asks "Which foot?"  That's how lazy Harry was.  And he was standing leaning on a post once, on the Bandywallop road, when a bloke asks him which is the way to Bandywallop.  "Question's too hard," says Harry.

Well the bloke offers him the price of a beer for the information, so Harry tells him the way to go, and the bloke offers him the money.  "Just slip it in me pocket, will yer?" says Harry.

He was tough, though.  Had to be, to go with his laziness, and clever as well.  I remember once I pointed out to him that the thing he was using as a pillow was a steel drainpipe, and I suggested to him that it might not be too comfortable.  "No worries," he told me.  "She'll be sweet — I've got it stuffed with straw."  But he was still lazy, and that brings me to this laziness competition they had one Sunday on the old Speewah station.  Everybody who entered had an hour to get an apple from the other side of the stockyard and eat it, all in the laziest way possible.  Well, Lazy Harry felt he was honour-bound to take out the prize, but he was up against a mean field.

First, there was this big hairy Scotsman, who sort of sauntered across, got to the apple in about 45 minutes, then lay down in some nearby shade, and slowly ate the apple, finishing right on the bell.  The crowd went wild at this, and thought he'd take the prize, but then there was this Irishman up next.

He walked calmly across to the apple, getting to it after just one minute, and gulped it down.  People reckoned he had to be mad, but the next thing he did was to lie down in the same spot, which was out in the sun, and snooze for the next fifty eight minutes, so he got points for being too lazy to move into the shade, and he'd had a good long rest.

Then came this Englishman, who lay down near the start, in the shade, rested for fifty nine minutes, then sprinted for the apple, opened his mouth, and crammed the whole lot in, just as the bell went.  So he got points for a fifty nine minute rest, for staying in the shade, and he looked like a certain winner.  Nobody could beat that, but Lazy Harry was looking quietly confident.

Harry walked up to the start line, and said to the boss, who was acting as umpire: "What do I have to do to win this competition?"  The boss assumes Harry was asleep before, and so he patiently explains the rules, about the time limit, getting to the apple and eating it, and doing it in a lazier way than all the others.

Lazy Harry shrugs his shoulders and wanders off, saying "Blow that for a joke.  It's too much like hard work!", and the crowd goes wild with rage, especially the ones that had put their money on Lazy Harry to win.  Harry ignores all that and flops down in the shade.

Then over all the fuss and bother, Crooked Mick's voice comes loud and clear: "If Harry's too lazy to even pick up the apple, then he just has to be the winner, eh boss?"  Well the boss thought about this for a moment, and then realised that as you'd expect, nobody else had come anywhere near being as lazy as Lazy Harry.  Except maybe his dog, and the dog couldn't stand eating apples, so he wouldn't enter.  He was lazy, but he was smart that dog.  If he'd set his mind to it, he could've won, easy, but he knew how much mental effort he'd have to put in.

* * * * *

Note: there is a whole book of these stories, which I am currently pitching to publishers, but they will probably appear in an e-book.

There will be quite a number of these on the blog, all with the tags Speewah and Crooked Mick.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Curtiosity about altruism and evolution

More unused epigraphs...will they never end?

I do not see that any good can come from killing our relations in battle.
Bhagavad Gita, 1:31, in the translation of Eknath Easwaran, Arkana Books, 1985.

I'd lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins.
— J. B. S. Haldane (1892 - 1964), showing a mathematical geneticist's view of altruism.

As man advances in civilization and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instinct and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
— Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), as quoted by Ashley Montagu, On Being Human, pp 23-24.

After much consideration, it is my mature conclusion, contrary to Herbert Spencer, that the co-operative forces are biologically the more important and vital. The balance between the co-operative and altruistic tendencies and those which are disoperative and egoistic is relatively close. Under many conditions the co-operative forces lose. In the long run, however, the group centered, more altruistic drives are slightly stronger. If co-operation had not been the stronger force, the more complicated animals, whether arthropods or vertebrates, could not have evolved from simpler ones, and there would have been no men to worry each other with their distressing and biologically foolish wars. While I know of no laboratory experiments that make a direct test of this problem, I have come to this conclusion by studying the implications of many experiments which bear on both sides of the problem and from considering the trends of organic evolution in nature.
— Warder C. Allee, 'Where Angels Fear to Tread', Science, 97, 1943: 521, quoted by Ashley Montagu, On Being Human, pp 41-42.

Friday, 28 October 2016

About bridegrooms

A word like this is subject to a lot of folk etymology, particularly at weddings, where drunken uncles deliver slightly tearful speeches of great passion in which they derive 'bride' from 'breeding'. At this point the rest of the family shuffle slightly, being less drunk than the uncle, and wondering where he will stray, but then the drunken uncle steers away from such difficulties, and explains that a groom is a servant to devoted to the service of the bride. The shuffling starts again as the more alert members of the family hope he will not allude to the veterinary sense of servicing, but his tongue is now unable to get around 'veterinary' and he moves on to the next item.

As so often happens with drunken uncles, this hypothetical but regrettably omnipresent uncle is dead wrong, right down the line. In Old English, brýd meant "one owned or purchased", but the word itself seems to come from an Old Teutonic root meaning 'to cook', and which we preserve today in words like 'brew', whether it is a witch's brew or a brew of tea or ale, and also in words like 'broth', which is sometimes rendered in Scots ballads as 'broo' or 'bree'. It may even be the origin of 'broil', which came into Middle English from the French brouiller.

So the drunken uncle is wrong, because we derive 'breed' from the Old English brédan, which has also given us 'brood', 'bred' and 'breedling', a person born and bred in a place, but not 'bride'. The bride likewise has nothing to do with 'bread', which derives from the Old English bréad, meaning 'piece', a word which replaced hláf, the Old English form of 'loaf', some time before 1200. (The expression 'a piece' possibly lives on in Glaswegian English, where it is a slice of bread.)

The new bride might bake the bread (though a wife is 'she who weaves'), but it was the act of cooking, not the product which gave her that name. Still, if the drunken uncle was astray in the bride department, he was completely lost when it came to the groom. The bridegroom was known in Old English as the brýd-guma or the brýdi-guma, literally a bride-man. It was only about the 16th century that the drunken uncles got their way, and the 'gome' of Middle English became a 'groom'.

To follow a side path for a moment, the word 'groom' is of uncertain origin, but it seems to have meant a boy servant originally, but it came to be the name given to certain functionaries in the English royal household, and does so to this day, though one fascinating post, the Groom-porter, first recorded in 1502, and abolished in the time of King George III, was responsible for regulating gaming at court, resolving disputes about gaming and providing cards and dice.

In Shakespeare's time, a groom was generally a lowly person, except in the form 'bridegroom'. King Lear calls Oswald "this detested groom", and at other times, we encounter terms such as "dunghill groom", "meanest groom" or "jaded groom". Shakespeare was well aware of the distinction, for in The Taming of the Shrew, we find Gremio saying of Petruchio:
A bridegroom, say you? 'Tis a groom indeed,
A grumbling groom, and that the girl shall find.
Back now to the path that gave us the original term. The gýma comes from an Old Teutonic root, gumon, meaning 'man', and it is not too hard to see how that root has delivered us 'human', leading along one line of mutation to the French homme and the Latin homo, and even the Spanish hombre and the Italian uomo, while another line gives us 'man', and also the German mann. So literally, a 'groomsman' is just a man's man, while a bridesmaid is just the cook's girl.

Somehow, it doesn't seem quite as romantic. Perhaps there are some things that it is better not to know, especially if you are ever likely to be filling the roll of drunken uncle.

Monday, 24 October 2016

A potted history of climate change

I was searching for a reference that I knew was in my files, and I tracked it down, so here is some surprising news: we knew that "global warming" was happening, way back in 1950!

What is different now is that most reputable atmospheric scientists believe human activity is driving the modern slow warming of our climate. All the same, now we know that global warming is a bad description, so we call it ‘climate change’. Under any name, it’s the same beast, and the same looming disaster, and it was happening 66 years ago.

Oddly, the suspicion that humans are to blame may be even older. The problem before was that there was not a lot of hard science in the arguments, which come down to logic, reason, careful modelling — and interpretation that is likely to be biased by a generous serving of self-interest. That has changed in the last ten years.

Nobody denies that the Earth is getting warmer, because the evidence is there, and it was apparent in 1950, when George Kimble reported in Scientific American that the northern limit of wheat-growing in Canada had moved northward some 2 – 300 miles (call it 400 kilometres), adding that farmers in southern Ontario were experimenting with cotton. While that industry seems not to have taken off, he reported another trend that continues to this day, the northward retreat of the permafrost:
“In parts of Siberia the southern boundary of permanently frozen ground is receding poleward several dozen yards per annum.”
The matter open to question back then was the cause. Kimble noted that the Domesday Book featured 38 vineyards in England in 1086, in addition to those of the Crown. He pointed also to the Greenland colony which was frozen out, back around the mid-1400s and other evidence that climates change. He also looked at Biblical evidence on the distribution of date palms to suggest that conditions in 1950 were much those of Biblical times, providing a picture of a climate that fluctuates around a mean. Maybe it was just one of those cycles.

That was a time before ‘global warming’ when climate change was referred to as the ‘greenhouse effect’. In cold climates, a greenhouse is a glass shed which allows sunlight to shine in, where much of it is absorbed and changed to heat. Glass is less transparent to heat, but a greenhouse does not just trap warmth that way: it also holds a body of warm air around the plants, and protects them from wind-driven evaporation. So while we still speak of ‘greenhouse gases’, it is rare to hear anybody mention the greenhouse effect these days, but even that goes way back.

In the 1820s, Joseph Fourier realised that heat-trapping might occur. Then Svante Arrhenius reminded us in 1896 that both water vapour and carbon dioxide were ‘greenhouse gases’ (escaping that bad analogy is hard) and so water and carbon dioxide would play a role in making the planet get warmer. He also considered changes that might be happening, and consulted Arvid Högbom, who just happened to know all about carbon dioxide sources and sinks.

Carbon dioxide was coming from life forms when they breathed, from volcanoes, and from humans burning fossil and other fuels. The human additions were a very small part of the total in the air already, perhaps one part in a thousand was added by the burning of coal, and there were probably checks and balances. Arrhenius estimated that it would take 3000 years to double the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, if it ever happened, but that such a doubling would raise world average temperatures by 5 to 6°C.

In 1896, the CO2 level was around 290 parts per million: in 2016, the value was estimated at 396 parts per million: we had travelled one third of the projected distance in just 120 years.

To Europeans back in the 1890s, the warming effect seemed nothing to worry about, because nobody had stopped to consider the cascades, the flow-ons that might be driven by that rise in temperature. Walter Nernst, even wondered if it would be feasible to set fire to uneconomical and low-grade coal seams, so as to release enough carbon dioxide to warm the Earth’s climate deliberately!

Scientists are slow to move to a new model, a new way of understanding, something called a paradigm, and just a few years before the world’s earth scientists were shown irrefutable evidence of plate tectonics, we undergraduates in geology were being told by one of our lecturers “go and watch Carey perform at the conference — he’s mad, and thinks that the continents move!”

Sam Carey wasn’t quite right, but he was closer to the truth than his denigrator. It is, however, a well-kept secret that scientists engage in robust rhetoric and vilification. Sam seized on every scrap of evidence to push his own viewpoint, most of the audience laughed dutifully — and felt rather embarrassed a few years later when palaeomagnetic evidence showed that Carey was largely on the money. In the end, the good science was recognised and accepted.

A decade back, global warming was in much the same position, with some of the scientists arguing furiously, even when they agreed on the main principles, and as in the puzzle of the wandering continents, the key evidence is probably there. Mind you, when I covered the 2002 Spring Conference of then American Geophysical Union, there were no nay-sayers there.

The problem is that so long as people can get away with saying "global warming", we are once again stuck with a bad analogy, just as the early 1960s saw us hung up on “continental drift”.

That aside, the cost of disagreement and bickering is remarkably different. It mattered not at all if people disagreed about plate tectonics (except, perhaps, that it makes tsunamis like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami easier to understand), but global warming is likely to be a major disaster for humanity, and any delay has the potential to cost lives. To understand this, we have to accept some puzzling propositions.

To take one example, the formation of sea ice in the Bering Strait is probably what stops Dublin and New York being iced-in each winter. This is because the sea ice is largely free of salt, and leaves a residue of cold brine that drives a current known as the Conveyor, which in turn drives the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream takes warm water from the Caribbean and swirls it up around the North Atlantic, contributing to fogs and breaking icebergs loose, but keeping many ports warm and open, even in winter.

Just as the prion proteins of mad cow disease have more than one stable form, so do weather patterns, and if the weather once drops into a new pattern, we may not be able to bounce it back to where it started. The good news is that as northern Europe freezes over, the glaciers which are now melting away fast will be replenished, lowering sea levels. The increased snow cover will also increase the reflectivity of the northern hemisphere, and that may cool the planet down a little. We just have to hope it does not trigger a new stable pattern that happens to be an ice age.

The actual changes that might follow the breaking point are hard to predict. They are unlikely to be spectacular and major, and probably they will do their harm stealthily, when infrastructure, port facilities and cities are flooded, or when agricultural land is lost, either by being covered by the sea or as a result of drastically changed rainfall patterns. If rock is exposed in Antarctica, this could lead to a low pressure zone over the icy continent that could change weather patterns around the world.

It hasn’t happened yet, but we need to learn from history. Ten years ago, no politician would take a long-term view and force the changes needed in the next thirty to forty years, when most of them are elected for a mere three to four years, and then face the voters again. It is easier to bleat plaintively that there is no real agreement among the scientists yet (there is), or that some eminent scientists (they aren’t: just look at where their funding comes from) believe that there are other explanations.

That load of bollocks saves the politicians from having to act — and the honesty of scientists in saying that they cannot be sure just how things will go wrong allows devious short-term opportunists to prate that “the scientists aren’t sure…”.

Politics is a marvellous human discovery. It is a pity that politicians still have to discover humanity and consider its prospects. It is likely that politics, dithering, duck-shoving and shilly-shallying will make this disaster happen.