never there

In Our Time: The Cell

This week we listened to the In Our Time programme on the cell while we had our Sunday morning breakfast. This is a subject about which I know rather more than the average educated layperson*, so I was curious to see if it'd hold up as still being interesting. It did :)

In the 45 minutes they managed to cover an impressively large amount of ground. Starting with a brief intro on what a cell is (building block of biological organisms, but just like the atom once you look more closely there's a lot more going on inside than you thought), then moving on to how big (not very) and how many in a person (a lot, but even all those human cells still only add up to 10% of the cells in your body, the rest are bacterial). They then covered in chronological order the three main stages in life on earth (if you're thinking from a cellular perspective). First there were prokaryotes - bacteria are this sort of cell. These are the simplest sort of cell - a membrane bag that makes the important chemicals be more concentrated inside than they are in the sea. They have DNA (the metaphor they used was of a library), RNA (copies of blueprints from the library) and proteins (built from the blueprints), and they make the needed energy to do their internal chemistry by transporting protons across the outside membrane. But they don't have any divisions on the inside of the cell, everything's in the bag together.

Then about a billion years later the eukaryotes appear (an amoeba is a single-celled eukaryote) ... and Melvyn Bragg managed to mispronounce eukaryote more ways than I could count in 45 minutes - the best was when he turned it into something resembling "erotic" ;) Eukaryotic cells have subdivisions inside them - they're named for having a nucleus which is a compartment that holds the DNA, they also have mitochondria which were originally free living prokaryotic bacteria. These are the true determinant of eukaryotic cells - they evolved by one cell type engulfing another type, and then living in a symbiotic relationship where the internal bacteria provide energy for the outer cell. It's thought this arose once and only once. So having more energy and having separate compartments (many of them, not just the two I mentioned) lets them maintain a bigger genome (the fragile DNA is kept away from the rest of the machinery, they have enough energy to do more reactions) and do more complex chemistry.

Next stage (after about another billion years) is the arise of multicellular organisms (like people! tho that took a while) - which are lots of eukaryotic cells stuck together. In this last section they managed to touch on the two sorts of cell division, cell specialisation by controlling which genes are switched on or off, and even some relatively recent research that shows that the control switches for the genes might be quite a long way away on the DNA strand so the way the DNA folds up in the nucleus is important (now that's a hard problem to solve)**. Oh, and also to mention the true distinction between male & female (female gametes provide the mitochondria).

The experts on the programme were Steve Jones from UCL, Nick Lane (also UCL) and Cathie Martin (JIC and UEA). Unfortunately Prof. Martin wasn't quite up to the normal standard - she was both nervous & used too much jargon. Either one alone would've been OK, but the two together made her contributions somewhat confusing to follow. Which is a shame, because she came across as someone who knew her stuff (as did the other two) but wasn't comfortable with explaining it to non-scientists (in contrast to the other two).

But that quibble aside, it was interesting to listen to, and I thought it provided a very good high-level run through a complicated subject. It's always nice when things like this hold up even if you already know what they're talking about, gives you confidence that the ones you don't know are equally accurate :)



*Amusingly one of the further reading suggestions on the Radio 4 website for the programme is for a textbook I had to buy for my first year undergrad - Alberts et. al. "Molecular Biology of the Cell" ... it's the 2nd edition I have on the bookshelf upstairs, seems they're up to a 5th edition now.

**One of the things I was doing during my last post-doc was looking for the β-catenin promoter, so this was particularly interesting. Mapping the 3D structure of the DNA to make sure all the various bits line up with the right genes has got to be complicated. And I bet it changes based on what cell type, which other genes are switched on or off etc.
never there

Andrew Marr's History of the World; Wartime Farm

The fourth episode of Andrew Marr's History of the World was mostly about the European Renaissance - but not about what happened during it. Instead it was about what happened in the rest of the world that made it possible for Europe to go from being a cultural backwater to a vibrant civilisation with pretensions towards becoming one of the dominant cultures of the world. We did open with the Vikings, tho, who were a little shoehorned into the theme (but you can't really miss them out). In 10 minutes it only had time to skim over the ground covered in Neil Oliver's 3 part series - the emphasis here was firmly on the founding of Russia when the Vikings took over the area around Kiev (founding Kiev itself) and ruling the native Slavs. I think the relationship to the theme was supposed to be how Russia provided a large (Orthodox) Christian country to the east of Europe, expanding Christendom considerably & insulating northern & western Europe from the various empires to the East.

The programme then moved on to look at the rise of the Mongols - Marr told us some of Temujin's early life story, before he became Ghengis Khan. Then looked at how after the conquest of China (impressive in its own right) the Mongol army took on Chinese war technology and this combination of the horse nomad warriors & the great siege machines led to them sacking several of the core cities of the eastern Islamic world. Which obviously weakened the Islamic empire - allowing those pesky European crusading knights to have more successes than they otherwise would have. (The Crusades weren't really touched on much in the programme, the emphasis was on showing more of the stuff we probably didn't already know about the era.) And also opened up the Silk Road more - ruled over now by a Mongol Empire. The next sequence was about Marco Polo who travelled from Venice to the heart of China during the time it was ruled by Kublai Khan, and acted as an ambassador for the Khan for a while. (If he is to be believed, or indeed even existed ...) And this opening up of trade across the whole of Europe & Asia also had the unfortunate side-effect of bringing diseases across the whole land - the Black Death originally broke out in China, and was spread by traders across the whole landmass. Moving on in history he also covered the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks.

Other subjects covered were the mathematical & scientific golden age of the Islamic world during the period we call in Europe as "the Dark Ages" - concentrating on the work of Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (I totally copied that spelling from wikipedia, so I hope it's right! He's the chap whose work was developed into the modern concept of algorithms, so called from the Europeanisation of his last name.) And the meeting between the Mali Empire & the rest of the world (effectively) when Mansa Musa visited Cairo en route to Mecca when he was performing the Hajj. This both collapsed Cairo's economy (he and his entourage gave away so much gold that the price of gold plummeted and took 10 years to recover), and introduced the Europeans & the Middle East to someone to buy gold from. I think he said that within a century 20% of the gold in Europe came from mines in Mali.

And we finished with Leonardo da Vinci & the painting of the Last Supper - which (along with lots of Leonardo's other interests) in many ways draws upon & expands the artistic, mathematical and scientific knowledge gained by the Europeans trading with the Islamic world & beyond.

This is one of my favourite bits of history, so it wasn't a surprise I already sort of knew most of it already (still fun to watch, though :) ). But I was amused to note how many of the names of people I knew as leaders in the game Civilization IV :)




For the second programme of the evening we watched the first episode of Wartime Farm. We'd been a little dubious about this from the description, so were prepared to bail if we decided we didn't like it. But actually it was a really interesting programme with less dramatisation than I'd feared. The premise is a group of historians/archaeologists living on a farm for a year working the land the way that it would've been done during the Second World War. For this first episode they were mostly concentrating on the first year or so of the war, and on how farms throughout Britain were being reorganised in a massive agricultural revolution to double their food output. Most of Britain's food was imported pre-war & the threat of a U-boat blockade meant that this couldn't continue after war was declared. The presenters told us about things from a mix of a modern & an in character perspective, melding the two together during any single section. Which sounds like it should end up a mess & hard to follow, but actually worked really well. So Ruth Goodman told us about the kitchen conveniences she was getting both by showing us how they worked in a way that wouldn't quite've been necessary for people of the time (pointing out how much quicker it is to mop a lino floor than scrub a stone one), but also exclaiming over how modern things were (like the paraffin heated stove rather than a range). The "modernisation" of the farm included using a tractor instead of horses - much quicker to plough once you got it going. Once you got it going ... easier said than done, it seemed. And getting an oil driven electricity generator, that let you charge up big batteries and then have lights on after dark!

There were also interviews with people who either remembered the war (an old chap who'd been 7 and a farmer's son when war broke out, and remembered the switch to using tractors etc) or were experts on parts of the history of it. The bit that was most startling to me was that I had no idea that there were trained guerilla groups made up mostly of farmers (it was a reserved occupation) and farmer's wives (in the intelligence arm of the organisation). These were top secret at the time, and were effectively a resistance movement in waiting - and people kept it very very secret, they told us that there were couples who were both in the organisation but didn't tell each other until decades after the end of the war. And the historian who was telling us about that bit said he had done interviews with surviving members who would only discuss people who had already died, not any still living ex-members. It really brought home how much they believed that Britain was going to be invaded, which it's easy to gloss over from my perspective as someone born about 30 years after the war ended - it's history to me & I know we won without being invaded, and you hear more about the Blitz and D-Day than you do the rest of the war.
northumberland, walk

"Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

This has turned out to be a somewhat topical entry, as Hilary Mantel has just won the Booker Prize for "Bring Up the Bodies". It's the second book of what will be a trilogy and is a novelisation of the life of Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry VIII's more well known courtiers. The story can't really be spoilt, as it's following history pretty closely - Cromwell starts from humble beginnings and rises to prominence first as the servant of Cardinal Wolsey, and then manages to survive the Cardinal's downfall going on to work directly for the King. He is important in the engineering of the break with Rome & the dissolution of Henry's first marriage so that Henry can marry Anne Boleyn, then instrumental in the subsequent downfall & death of Anne. After this he first rises higher (and is even granted a title) but then his enemies contrive to bring about his execution after the failure of Henry's fourth marriage (which was to a woman Cromwell had found and put forward as the right candidate).

So that's an extremely simplified potted biography of the main character of the novels. I read the first book ("Wolf Hall", which won the Booker prize in 2009) earlier this year, it covers the time of the Cardinal's fall and Anne Boleyn's rise as well as multiple flash backs to Cromwell's early life. "Bring Up the Bodies" covers much less time - just the last year of Anne Boleyn's life. And I would assume part 3 will take us through to his fall from grace & death.

This is a period of history I'm particularly interested in, so it's not surprising that these books are right up my street. I also liked the style they're written in - it's (mostly) present tense, and while it's (mostly) in third person it's like it's the story Cromwell is telling himself about what's going on around him. As if he's constantly editorialising inside his head about what's happening and what it means. It's also very stylised, which is a constant reminder that this world of the court of the Tudors isn't our world, the people are obviously still people like us but they have different expectations, different ways of behaving, they see the world differently. And a lot of the story happens in the gaps between what people say, or in the meanings behind the words.

Here's a bit from around the middle of the book, when Cromwell has trapped Mark Smeaton into confessing to adultery with Anne Boleyn. Cromwell is deciding who else to arrest from the string of names that Smeaton has given as also guilty and discussing it with Wriothesley (aka Call-Me-Risley). Thomas Wyatt is said to have been a lover of Anne's before her marriage to Henry, and is a friend of Cromwell's:

He turns. 'Call-Me. You're early today?'
'I could not sleep. A word, sir?'
So today the positions are reversed, it is Call-Me-Risley who is taking him aside, frowning. 'You will have to bring in Wyatt, sir. You take it too much to heart, this charge his father laid on you. If it comes to it, you cannot protect him. The court has talked for years about what he may have done with Anne. He stands first in suspicion.'
He nods. It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not simply talk to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn: he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.
But he decides to give Wriothesley an explanation he can follow. 'It is not Wyatt,' he says, 'who stands in my way with the king. It is not Wyatt who turns me out of the privy chamber when I need the king's signature. It is not he who is continually dropping slander against me like poison into Henry's ear.'
Mr Wriothesley looks at him speculatively. 'I see. It is not so much, who is guilty, as whose guilt is of service to you.' He smiles. 'I admire you, sir. You are deft in these matters, and without false compunction.'
He is not sure he wants Wriothesley to admire him. Not on those grounds. He says, 'It may be that any of these gentlemen who are named could disarm suspicion. Or if suspicion remain, they could by some appeal stay the king's hand. Call-Me, we are not priests. We don't want their sort of confession. We are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use.'


That shows us both Cromwells, the one inside his own head who's doing good for people, who's got good motivations but who does what is necessary if the king wills it. And that's a truth about him, it is the way he is. But it's also true what he tells Wriothesley, that's also the way that Cromwell is. And even though we see the story through Cromwell's editorialising eyes we still get to see how he must look to the outside world, and how even on the inside he is that calculating despite the stories he tells himself. All through this book, and the last, we see Mantel's Cromwell taking note of every time he's mocked or pushed aside by the gentlemen of court. Put down because he's just a common born man who happens to be useful to the King, by men he considers as worth less than him for all their titles and noble birth. And we see him taking note of those that mock the memory of Cardinal Wolsey. That bit about what a paragon of virtue Wyatt is also shows us what he thinks of the rest of the court, like George Boleyn, Anne's brother. The sudden drop into coarseness there is something that happens often throughout the book and in Henry VIII's court. They might all be putting on a show as honourable chaste & chivalrous knights, but behind that act there's a lot of illicit sex and petty vindictive behaviour. And plenty of gossip and jostling for position & status. Which in the end is what does for Anne Boleyn, whether or not she did commit adultery she didn't act in a way that made it unbelievable so once the mud was flung it stuck.

Anne Boleyn's downfall is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery - the various records from the time or shortly after are contradictory & show their biases. What's known is that four gentlemen of the court (including George Boleyn) and Mark Smeaton, a common born lute player, were tried and executed for adultery with Anne, and she herself was executed for the same crime. High treason, as her alleged adultery put the succession in doubt. Mantel makes the point in her afterword that as no-one now knows what actually happened she's not putting forth "the truth" she's giving us a plausible possibility of how Cromwell saw those events. It certainly feels true to the character she's written and to the times he lived in.

Mantel does a very good job in getting across just how claustrophobic and paranoid this must've made the court, too. Things are dredged up from conversations long ago and cast in a new light by later events. How can you remember everything you might've said that is now not acceptable? If spending time in private conversation with a member of the opposite sex is now sufficient proof of adultery, what might you be accused of? There are two moments in the book where everything suddenly shifts and you can see how precarious the situation is for England or for Cromwell. First the King is injured in a tournament & they think he is dead (and this is in fact the beginning of the end, as it does re-open an old wound on his leg, but the characters don't know this). Elizabeth is but a baby, Anne is pregnant (and not yet disgraced) - will the Boleyns rule in Elizabeth's name? Will part of the country rise up in arms to support the claim of Mary? Civil war looms, chaos is on the horizon. And the king, thankfully, revives. When Anne miscarries shortly afterwards, that's really the first nail in her coffin - Henry has had a stark reminder that he needs a legitimate son (as has the court). If Anne's not providing one, perhaps she isn't the right wife for him.

The second is personal to Cromwell, but has the same shock and fracturing effect in the book (as it is, after all, Cromwell's story). Henry feels Cromwell has overstepped in something, and viciously rants at him, making his displeasure clear. And it's starkly clear just how much Cromwell's career, and even life, are dependent on the King's whim. And how few of the court are his friends in truth. The moment passes, Henry comes as close to apologising as the King ever does - partly by entrusting Cromwell with the task of finding out how to extricate the King from his no longer wanted marriage.

The personal is very much the same as the political. Who is friends with whom, who respects whom, the little things people say when they think they're safe are all the things that shape the political course of the whole country. And Mantel brings that vividly to life, through the eyes of a man who catalogues and weighs up everything to see what it's worth and how it can be of use. In many ways Cromwell is a monster, he engineers the deaths of several people throughout these books in fairly cold blood - but always able to tell himself it's for the good of the country. Yet Mantel still makes him sympathetic, you can see how he does what he has to to survive and to keep his own people safe, and he is doing what his prince requires for the stability of the realm.

I thoroughly recommend the book (but read "Wolf Hall" first!).
northumberland, walk

Prometheus

We went to see Prometheus at the cinema ages ago, but I'm reminded of it again because the blu-ray J bought has just arrived & J spent a large chunk of the weekend watching the extras & commentaries (as well as re-watching the film). I've seen quite a few people in various places online saying how crap the film was, but to be honest I completely disagree with that. I suppose I should point out that I see very few films, so perhaps I'm just not as jaded as the general cinema-going population. Also I haven't actually seen the Aliens films (although I'm aware of the plots of them and have seen clips/bits over J's shoulder, and have read some of the spin-off & tie-in novels). Even above & beyond my general dislike of narrative entertainment in visual form I'm particularly not keen on seeing gruesome things so sci-fi horror isn't really my thing. But that does mean I didn't go into watching Prometheus expecting it to be another instalment in a franchise that was dear to me (like I think a lot of people did) - so I didn't have to reset my expectations to the reality of the film. Although that did also mean I spent more of it watching from behind my hands than I'd expected, coz J had said in advance he didn't think it'd be that gory ;) But equally I think the real reason I liked it better than other people I've seen comment on it is likely to boil down to it being my sort of story & not theirs, and that's perfectly reasonable.

This isn't a review, it's more a collection of thoughts & impressions. Collapse )
never there

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 5

This Sunday we listened to the last part of the In Our Time series on the Written Word. This covered the impact writing, and printing, has on science. As was a theme throughout the series they started with someone telling us how the Mesopotamians did it first, followed up by someone telling us how Egypt actually got there are least as early if not earlier ;)

The first scientific writings that we know of (from either culture...) are astronomical observations, applied arithmetic (for things like building pyramids, as well as accountancy) and medical observations & treatments. The Greeks then took this further by systematising & analysing data on many different things, biological as well as physical & chemical. The programme made the point that a lot of our words for scientific processes come from the Greek - analyse, theory etc. This Greek knowledge & process was then transmitted via the Islamic world to Renaissance Europe and taken forward by new scientists in the Enlightenment era.

They spent a while looking at Newton's notebooks, which are kept at Cambridge. These (and other scientists' notebooks) evolved from the commonplace books that educated people would keep at this time into something closer to a modern lab book. Commonplace books were notebooks where someone would write down facts & quotations & such that caught their interest or that they wanted to remember. Newton's books started off like this, but soon became places where he wrote down what experiments he'd performed & what he'd observed - like diagrams of a particular prism set up & details of what he saw. Or an experiment where he stuck a wooden bodkin in behind his eyeball and deformed the curvature of the eyeball and recorded what that did to his vision ...

So the handwritten word was (and still is) important in the doing of science, in recording what you tried, what happened, what you think that means & what you'll do next. The printed word is important in the dissemination of scientific knowledge - relatively large numbers of identical books can be produced, and then not only can more people read them but also discussions can refer to specific things & be sure they're the same in the book their correspondent has.

Overall this was an interesting series, although at times it felt far too Euro- or British-centric. I guess this was partly because he was visiting British places that held early writings, and those collections are bound to be biased towards more local things.
never there

Andrew Marr's History of the World; In Search of Medieval Britain

Started off the evening with the third episode of Andrew Marr's History of the World - this one was about the Word and the Sword, basically the rise and spread of Buddhism, Christianity & Islam with a few side stories. He started off with the story of Ashoka who killed and conquered his way to ruling an empire that covers most of modern India. But then after witnessing the appalling slaughter he himself had caused he converted to Buddhism and spent the rest of his (long) reign promoting peace and tolerance throughout his land and actively spread Buddhism as a religion.

The first of the side stories was about the First Emperor of China - who came to power around the same time as Ashoka and in much the same murderous way. But he had no moment of conversion, instead ruling his newly unified China with an iron fist. His mausoleum is apparently enormous - the only part that has been excavated is the Terracotta Army, but there's a palace extending back beneath the hill behind where that lies. After his death (of mercury poisoning from an "elixir of immortality" which was anything but) the Han Dynasty ruled over China for about the same time period as the Roman Empire existed - and this was the next topic.

Well, sort of. What he actually covered was the final fall of Egypt, Cleopatra & Caesar's relationship and then their deaths (skipping quite quickly over the Mark Anthony bit) and Egypt's assimilation into the Roman Empire. The spin he was putting on this was that Caesar effectively saw that Cleopatra was worshipped as a god in Egypt and thought this was a good idea so went home to Rome to do the same. Leading to the Senate not being happy and murdering him (but actually all his successors were worshipped as gods, so the idea took hold). And then he cast the rise of Christianity as being partly a reaction against this politicised religion in the empire, people going back to a faith in something that was more personal to them. This wasn't quite the spin I was expecting, so it ended up feeling like he'd kinda skewed things to make it fit his theme for the programme.

Early Christianity through to its establishment as the religion of the Roman Empire was told through the lens of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus and his subsequent spreading of the gospel throughout the empire, and Perpetua's imprisonment and martyrdom for her faith. And ending with the Romans having effectively assimilated the faith into their political & military structures.

The feeling of stretching to fit the theme was not helped by the next side-story which really did seem shoehorned in. We had a brief trip across to the Americas, and the Nazca people. These are the people who made the massive line drawings on their land, and their civilisation collapsed around 600AD due to human exacerbated environmental disaster. Basically they were cutting down trees to create more arable land, but then when they had 30 years of excessive rain the lack of trees meant the soil was washed away. Which made the succeeding 30 years of drought even less survivable than it otherwise would've been. This didn't really fit the theme, but it happened in this time period so they told us about it anyway, with some reference to the religion and the increased numbers of human sacrifices during the end of the civilisation as they frantically tried to appease their gods.

And then it was back to the theme - with the meteoric rise and spread of Islam. They did another good job of juxtaposing the stories told to highlight the similarities between the different topics. In this case we had the almost martyrdom of Bilal to mirror Perpetua's martyrdom as the entry point for the story of early Islam. Bilal survived, however, to become the first muezzin. And the spread of Islam by conquest was contrasted with the slower spread of Christianity by the travels of the Paul and the Apostles.




We were running late this week, so only had time for a half hour programme for the second one of the evening. We have had a couple of episodes from the middle of a series called In Search of Medieval Britain sitting on the PVR for ages, so we watched one of them. The premise of this series is Alixe Bovey (a lecturer in medieval history at Kent) travelling about the country following the Gough Map (a map dating to 1355-1366 which was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1809). In the episode we watched she visited Melton Mowbray, Lincoln and Sherwood Forest. In Melton Mowbray she helped make an authentic pork pie from the era. In Lincoln she visited the cathedral, which for 200 years held the title of tallest building in the world. Then the spire fell down in the 1500s (probably because the wood frame rotted) and it was no longer taller than the Great Pyramid. It was still the tallest point in Lincolnshire though. And finally in Sherwood Forest she told us about real outlaws (who were a much more murderous and unpleasant bunch than the fictional Robin Hood), and visited the oldest pub in the country. She also talked to some people who were making authentic medieval beer - with hissop instead of hops as the bittering agent. It was amusing to see her not drink any on camera, the "oh it's delicious" after the camera panned away from her was pretty fake I think ;)

I wish we'd managed to record all of these, this one was quite fun :)
northumberland, walk

Adventures in Geocaching, Part 5

Saturday was another bright & sunny day, so we headed off to Thetford Forest to try & find some more geocaches. We sort of misjudged the times, we'd originally planned to have lunch at home but then realised it would take longer to drive there than we'd thought so left earlier with a plan of getting lunch somewhere near Thetford. Which was successful, but perhaps taking a picnic lunch and leaving even earlier would've meant we could do the whole walk we'd planned. Still, it was a nice lunch at a pub seemingly attached to a Premier Inn in Thetford.

Day 11

day 11 map


We parked in Santon Downham with the idea that we'd do the circular walk that took in the 11 caches in the Santon Downham set ("Santon Circular 1" etc) and 3 Church Micro caches - a 4.5 mile walk with 14 caches, which seemed like it would work out. In the end though we did about half of the walk, including looking for caches 1, 2, 3, 9, 10 & 11 of the circular set and 2 of the church ones ("Church Micro 1486 - Santon Downham" and "Church Micro 1485 - All Saints Santon"). This truncation was because we spent so long looking for numbers 1 & 2 in the circular walk (and failing to find them :( ) that at about 5pm we decided to cut back towards the car rather than head even further away. It was still half 6 by the time we got there tho! The bit I could record on My Tracks (my battery started to run out part way round) was 3.8 miles so I suspect we still did about 4.5 miles what with the faffing about and the completely wrong turn we took at one point as well.

It felt like a disappointing day, but actually we found 6 of the 8 we looked for. The problem was that we started off by not searching for one because there were too many people there (that was actually number 11 and we went back and found that at the very end), then of the next 3 we only found 1 despite spending over an hour looking between the other two. The guy who'd put these caches down was very very good at hiding them - perhaps too good for us. But having said that, we did find all the next ones we looked for - hidden in the ends of sticks or little painted magnetic button sized ones. Well camoflaged. I think we may need to return with reinforcements sometime!

The walk was good, too, although I was a bit cold having misjudged the temperature of the sunny looking day. And I got a few pics :)

Swans Swans Old Post Box Santon Downham, in the Domesday Book St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham St Marys Santon Downham River All Saints Santon Flower Getting Dark Getting Dark Amusing Sign
never there

"Felines - fact and fiction in Ancient Egypt" Joyce Filer (EEG meeting talk)

Sunday was the October meeting of the Essex Egyptology Group and our speaker this month was Joyce Filer. She used to be the Curator of Human and Animal Remains at the British Museum, and for one of her masters degrees her dissertation subject was cats in Egypt which is what she was talking to us about.

Her talk covered quite a lot of ground during the hour & a half she was speaking. Part of it was about the more modern representations of Egyptian cats - quite a few 19th Century oil paintings scattered through her slides, all with black cats in and the occasional tiger skin. One of her main themes was how this was actually a completely unrealistic depiction of what ancient Egyptian cats would have been like. She showed us pictures of a few species of wild cats that are prevalent in the area, most of them are sandy coloured with stripy markings. Which is a much better colour scheme if you're trying to blend into the desert or marshes of Egypt. And if you look at cat mummies that have been unwrapped then the remaining fur is generally of that sort of colour. The solid black or solid white colour of more modern cats is actually an artefact of breeding. And she made a point that the perception of Egyptian cats as black is heavily influenced by the statues we've found - most of which are bronze and have corroded to a blackish/greenish colour. At the time they were made, they'd've been a brown colour much more like the cats themselves.

She also showed us a lot of depictions of cats in Egyptian art. These (as with all Egyptian art) are both representative & symbolic. There are scenes which show cats as part of the family - trustingly sitting near people, allowing their kittens near people. Wearing collars and jewellery (did they really wear earrings? Who knows, but they're often shown with earrings). But the symbolic side of it comes from how the cats are often shown as sat beneath a woman's chair - they are a symbol of fertility, associated with the feminine.

She didn't just talk about domestic cats, she also talked about the bigger cats that are seen in Egyptian art. Leopard, cheetah and possibly serval skins are part of the regalia of high-ranking priests, and so are often shown in tomb paintings. Lions are obviously part of Egyptian symbolism - sphinxes with lion bodies, gods & goddesses with lion heads (like Sekhmet). And depicted being brought as presents to Pharaohs, or being hunted by Pharaohs. But not tigers, because tigers are native to India (which is probably why they show up in 19th Century artistic representations of ancient Egypt - they are painting the exotic lands they actually know, rather than thinking about what the reality would be).

As well as this she showed us some of the evidence from mummified cats. And made the point that these can show us what species were definitely mummified, but not rule out anything else being mummified because a large number of cat mummies were destroyed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for fertiliser or as fuel for steam trains! The mummies that remain do show some striking similarities - cats were generally either 4 to 5 months old or 9 to 12 months old. And most have had their necks wrung. She made the point that this suggests that cats were "farmed" for mummification, both to get the large numbers required and to get the right ages.

Joyce Filer is a good speaker, and this was a good talk - not only informative but also containing many entertaining anecdotes about her own cats, and her time working at the British Museum.
never there

In Our Time: The Written Word Part 4

This episode focused on the use of the written word in telling stories - both literature and history. It opened by looking at cuneiform tablets on which are written various legends including the legend of Gilgamesh. This was discussed as being one of the first known instances of literature in the ancient world & I could see J raising his eyebrows disbelievingly during it ... and sure enough, they followed up with a segment on Egyptian literature, which can be shown to have started earlier although most of the surviving fragments are from later schoolboy copies of the originals.

Then we took a quick jump to Greece & Herodotus the Father of History. Having just watched the Andrew Marr programme which also touched on Herodotus I auto-completed that in my head with "and also known as the Father of Lies" ;) I did wonder what the Chinese might've had to say about Herodotus being the first historian, I don't know but I rather suspect that they'll've had historians before him. Having said that, this is a particular definition of history - history as both a narrative & as an argument, so perhaps that is something new at that time. I really don't know. [Edit: J pointed me at a bbc news article about Sima Qian, who seems to be regarded as the Herodotus equivalent for China - he published his history of China (Shiji) around 91BC and thus post-dates Herodotus by a few centuries. So I take back that criticism.]

And then the programme was onward to medieval Europe. In particular he looked at examples from Anglo-Saxon England - both of literature (Beowulf) and of history (Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England). He made the point that this is the moving of English culture from an oral tradition to a written one - the copy of Beowulf that survives was about the size of a hardback book, so portable and able to be read by oneself or to a small group. Whereas the original context of the poem would be that it was memorised by trained performers, so you'd hear it at public recitals (or private if you were wealthy enough).

And that move from people remembering things (and maybe not remembering them ...) to writing them down leads into the next episode which is about the impact of writing & printing on science.
never there

Vikings; Andrew Marr's History of the World

We watched the third & last episode of Vikings last night. This one was split into two - firstly Oliver covered the Vikings' exploration to the West and then in the second half he looked at how the Vikings stopped being Vikings. So the programme started off by looking at Viking ocean-going ships, and a bit of sailing & rowing in a replica, and talked about how you had to be a bit flexible in your destination given their navigational technology. And sometimes when you were heading for Shetland you might end up in Orkney, but that's OK. And sometimes you might end up somewhere completely different - as happened when a boat blown off-course discovered Iceland. I think he was saying that Iceland was a complete accident, but after they found out there might be new lands out in the ocean they deliberately went looking for them. So they settled Greenland and even made it to the east coast of North America. The further flung colonies died off, but the Icelandic people are descended from those Viking colonisers and even some of their traditions lasted into modern times (like their government was a proto-democracy from as long ago as the Viking era). There was an amusing segment of Oliver having to eat various traditional Viking "delicacies" (in a restuarant in Iceland that has this as its theme), like "rotten shark" and various bits of a sheep one doesn't normally eat (testicles, brains). Accompanied by descriptions from an Icelandic man who was dressed up like a Viking and very much in "torment the foreigner" mode ;)

The second half looked at how and why the Vikings stopped being what we think of as Vikings. Some of this came down to conversion to Christianity - while there'd been Christians in Denmark from fairly early on in the Viking era it wasn't until the late 900s that Harald Bluetooth (the King of Denmark) converted and made Christianity the official religion of the kingdom. This was apparently largely for political reasons, as it made it less possible for the Holy Roman Emperor to add Denmark to his territories if that meant he was attacking a fellow Christian ruler rather than a godless heathen people. Other rulers in Scandinavia followed suit, and the differences between the old religion and the new changed the focus of the people. No longer was life all about heroic deeds and gaining enough glory so that when you died in battle you went to Valhalla. Now you should focus on living as good (and meek & mild) a life as possible to avoid eternal damnation in the hereafter.

And it finished up by looking at the re-conquest of England by Canute (grandson of Harald Bluetooth), and how his empire of most of Scandinavia and England gave him social status within Europe to a degree where the son of the Holy Roman Emperor married Canute's daughter. I was vaguely entertained by them spelling Canute like that, as I thought we spelt it "Cnut" these days ... perhaps that's easily mis-read? ;)

A good series overall :) I think it's a shame it was done in three episodes, it made some of it feel quite shallow. In particular I think this episode could have been split into two and filled out an hour for each very easily. I'd've liked to hear more about the Greenland and Newfoundland colonies in the first half, and seen some of the evidence for them. And I'd've liked a bit more about the legacy of the Vikings in the second half - a particular thing I felt was missing was that the Normans are descended from Vikings (if I remember correctly) and this wasn't even mentioned.




The second episode of Andrew Marr's History of the World covered "the Age of Empires", starting with the Assyrians and stopping just short of the Romans ... which seemed an odd choice of stopping point given the title, but I guess we cover the Romans next time. As well as the Assyrians it covered the Persians, Alexander the Great, Athens & their democracy, and a very well juxtaposed series of segments on the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates. The primary theme was how this era was defined largely by war and brutal conflicts between peoples, and how this wasn't unmitigatedly bad for society. Teachings & innovations that are still followed today grew out of people dealing with this violence.

So he looked at how both the Persians and later Alexander the Great tried to integrate their empires of disparate peoples, which could be viewed as the first attempts at a multicultural society (after the violence & slaughter that lead to the empires). Obviously the democracy of Athens was held up as the birth of the government type most in use throughout the West - but he didn't shy away from pointing out how it wasn't quite what we think of as democracy, and in many ways only worked because those who could vote had free time to do so because their slaves were doing the work. And Marr also highlighted the accidental nature of history here - if the Persians had conquered Athens like they tried to do then perhaps we'd have a different form of government now, at the very least it wouldn't be called democracy. Another accident of this sort is that the Persian King Cyrus freed the Jews from their exile in Babylon, and this had a large impact on the development of Judaism. Were Cyrus not to have conquered Babylon, or not to've sent the Jews home, then again the world might be very different today.

The pieces about the Buddha, Confucious and Socrates looked at how these men had such different impacts on their societies but started in many ways from similar places. All were a reaction of sorts to the violent world around them. The Buddha went out from his privileged life, and sought answers to what the meaning of life was and how one should best live. He reached Enlightenment and taught and promoted a peaceful inward looking religion with no hierarchy or restrictions on who could follow it. Confucious also went out from a privileged life to walk and teach among the people, but his message was about creating a peaceful well-ordered society by conforming to the rules for appropriate behaviour. Heavy on respect and outward appearances, focused on the good of the whole people rather than the salvation of a single person. Socrates wasn't leaving a life of privilege but he was reacting to the violent and uncertain world around him - Athens and in particular its democratic form of government felt under threat. But he didn't react by conforming, or by retreating from the world to seek inner peace, he reacted by questioning and pushing at the boundaries of what was proper or traditional. Trying to shape a better world by never being satisfied with the easy answers. And then this lead to his death, executed as a traitor in a situation which no society since has had answers to either - if you allow free speech, at what point do the needs of the society outweigh this? What should society do when someone's right to question runs into the society as a whole's needs?

While I enjoyed most of the episode, and also found it thought provoking in places, there was one bit that made me roll my eyes a bit. There was a segment on the development of the alphabet, which managed to make it seem like the Phoenicians were the first (and only) people ever to connect what was written down with the sounds that were made. So it ignored completely the evidence of syllabic writing systems (like Linear B where every sign is a particular consonant+vowel combination), which can also be read back by sounding out the symbols. The difference with the alphabet as we use it is the flexibility it gives, where you can phonetically write down languages not constructed in the same way as the language the alphabet was originally designed for (this is harder to do with syllabic systems if the syllables are not the same across the languages - think about Linear B and then think of how English isn't always consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel). I guess that segment was just very simplified, but it was almost to the point of being wrong.

The dramatic reconstructions continue to amuse me with their irreverence and melodrama. Croesus about to be burnt to death was particularly amusingly done. I'm really not normally a fan of playacting bits in history programmes, so I feel the need to mention again how entertaining they are :)