Particle Astrophysics and the Sponge House of Doom

January 31, 2011
The Sponge House of Doom

Culross Palace, aka the Sponge House of Doom

As the bard said, the best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft awry. Of course, if you are the Princes Serendip, ye gang doon that path, and find a Grand Adventure.

Number one child is home, on a strange St Andrews style post exam holiday. Californian boyfriend is here too. He expressed a desire to locate Blair Castle, as it might have some connection with his family. A click or two later, Google Maps had us sorted. It was suprisingly close – just over the Forth Road Bridge and turn left. We stepped on the gas and headed towards his heritage.. Well, omitting some tiresome details, an hour or so later we had discovered there are in fact two Blair Castles. Blair-Castle-A , home of Clan Murray, is a 13th century monster brooding over the edge of the Highlands. It is crawling with suits of armour and tourists and so forth. Blair-Castle-B , where we had pitched up, is a Regency Villa, sandwiched between tracts of decayed industrial wasteland, and since 1927 has been a convalescent home for Scottish miners. You can read about its history here, but you can’t go in.

However, we found ourselves on the edge of Culross, which turned out to be the most stunning town : a 16th century time capsule, staring across the Forth at the Grangemouth refinery. It is crammed full of perfect ancient ghosts. The best is Culross Palace, which manages to look simultaneously beautiful and kinda like a giant orange sponge cake. It was shut, so instead the kids fantasised about being swallowed up by the sponge house of doom and never emerging. Next we went to the pub, and then as darkness fell, we roamed around the crumbling Abbey and spooked ourselves. A marvelous day and all by happy accident.

I found myself ruminating on a conversation with M who had complained that particle astrophysics is taking over our subject and killing it, especially in the US. To get big money these days you have to be doing a giant physics experiment with your telescope. You can’t just aim to understand stars, or galaxies, or quasars. You have to be claiming to measure w, or testing strong field gravity. All very nice, but these things are very expensive. As we head towards the funding wall, all we can afford is one or two giant physics experiments.

Astronomy has had a big impact on our understanding of the laws of physics, but, M claimed, this has never been as a result of naive experimental intention. It has always emerged as a happy accident from studying the contents and behaviour of the cosmos – universal gravity from the orbit of the moon, quantum tunneling from the burning of the stars, dark matter from the rotation of galaxies, dark energy from trying to measure q0 and so on.  What we need to do is to encourage diversity, try to understand our surroundings, and keep an open mind.

Of course, that may be a hard sell to funding panels.


Puritan sex, sunburned necks, and wicked bishops

January 2, 2011

So we are halfway out of the dark as that mean ole Mr Sardick said, and more than halfway through that weird Christmas-New-Year holiday vacuum. Time itself gets suspended for two weeks and restarts when the several day hogmanay hangover has finished. Is it really true that Americans take Christmas day off and thats about it ? I guess its the Puritan thing.

We all know, of course, that the Puritans founded America, and that they wore dark clothes, burned innocent women as witches, and disapproved of anything fun, including sex. Well, about half of that is right, but the formation of early America was much more complex, and it seems that actually the Puritans were rather keen on sex. I learned these things from a rather splendid book called “Albion’s Seed : Four British Folkways in America”  by David Hackett Fischer. (Thanks to Jack). The book traces four migrations from different parts of Britain – roughly, from East Anglia to Massachusetts (Puritans), from southern England to Virginia (aristocrats and their servants), from the Midlands and North to the Delaware region (Quakers), and from the Irish/Scottish/English borderlands to the back country (feuding clans). The case Hackett Fischer makes for continuity of culture in these regions is impressive. By “folkways” he means the detailed everyday culture – what time of year people get married, what names they use, their preferred cooking techniques, what games they play, and so on.

The book is full of fascinating insights. Puritanical is not the same as prudish. The Puritans had a very formal code of living, but they were keen on the importance of love between husband and wife, and how this was bonded by good healthy sex. Apparently many later Americans were shocked by Puritan writings, with their graphic description of sexual matters. Puritan families had a fascinating courtship ritual called “bundling”. When teenagers became keen on each other, they would be put to bed together to see if they got on – but wrapped up in separate blankets, and sometimes with a wooden board between them. All carefully calibrated – ready to talk all night, and secretly kiss, but not yet ready for full intercourse. How very practical.

Another  everything-you-know-is-wrong example. According to Hackett Fischer’s book, the term “redneck” does not come from the fact that simple country folk have sunburned necks from working outdoors. It refers to the Presbyterians who had colonised the back-country (Tenessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas), and was already a term of insult by around 1770. Presbyterianism developed in Scotland as an outgrowth of Calvinism. They rejected formal church government by bishops, and formed a new style of Church government by elders (presbyters). Adherents to to Presbyterianism signed a Covenant. Over a long period of Scottish history, who did and didn’t sign the Covenant became part of the bitter political, economic and religious struggles with English authority, with Covenanters swinging back and forth between leadership and oppression. Some Covenanters signed in their own blood, and wore red scarfs to show their position. Many of the early American back-country settlers were of this persuasion, were fiercely proselytising, and from the point of view of the Philadelphia Quakers or the Virginia gentlemen, were also uncouth almost to the point of savagery.

So there you go. All that Bible Belt stuff – Scotland’s fault.