17 November 2011

To Infinity and Beyond

The science of Astronomy has fascinated me from a very early age. However, I’m not exactly the most mathematically-minded of persons, so much of what I read in astronomy books and magazines sails over my head in terms of nitty-gritty detail, but I certainly don’t let this put me off the sheer wonder factor that such texts and images can inspire.

Amateur astronomy is one of the most accessible scientific hobbies open to anyone. All you need is a dark sky and your eyes. You don’t even need a fancy telescope, but just a moderate sized pair of binoculars will help immensely. I gave up observing though when I was still fairly young. Living in the suburbs of London wasn’t exactly the best place to carry out this hobby. Light pollution, tall trees and surrounding buildings made it a frustrating hobby – even when you discount the many tediously long nights where the weather wouldn’t play ball and remained cloudy. But, over the course of this last year or so, even though I now live in a much more central city location, I have taken up my binoculars again and found that one needn’t be put off by such urban handicaps. It’s still possible to see plenty even from the centre of a large city like London. Just the other night I completed the last page in a new observing notebook which I began back in January. Having initially tasked myself with sketching small groups of stars, and following the changing positions of Jupiter’s Galilean satellites, as well as tracking and observing artificial satellites in earth orbit, my notebook has been filled with a wonderful record of fascinating sights which would otherwise have gone by unnoticed to me.

When I was at school one of our teachers tasked us with an assignment to write an essay about the life and discoveries of a famous scientist. Knowing of my interest in astronomy, my teacher suggested I write about the astronomer, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953). Hubble was a topical name at the time as this was the year that NASA launched the now famous Hubble Space Telescope. Hubble, in whose honour the famous telescope is named, is the astronomer credited with proving the existence of galaxies beyond our own Milky Way. His observations and interpretation of astronomical data also contributed to the theory of the metric expansion of the universe and the ideas of Big Bang cosmology, although he himself apparently had his doubts in these areas. 

The Hubble Space Telescope was launched in 1990, and after a fault with its main mirror was eventually rectified by the installation of corrective optic components a few years later, the telescope floating high above the atmospheric distortions of our planet has gone on to return stunning images of the heavens better than any Earthbound telescope could hope to achieve. It has also contributed data measurements which have helped to deepen our understanding of the expanding universe.

An interest in astronomy is bound to be allied to an interest in spaceflight too. I was around six years old when the Space Shuttle first began operational missions into low earth orbit. I recall the excitement amongst my school friends on the day of the first fully operational flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia in November 1982, and so it was with fond sadness that I watched the final launch of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in July this year live on-line on NASA TV. Towards the end of its twenty years, the Space Shuttle programme focussed mainly on missions to the International Space Station. The ISS, like the Soviet Space Station Mir before it, has fascinated me. The ISS is such a large construction that it is easily seen with the naked eye when you know where and when to look. I’ve managed to track several passes over London throughout the course of this year. I’ve also managed to listen to some radio transmission voice communications too. It’s quite a mind boggling feeling to hear the voices of the astronauts as you watch them whizzing overhead in a small dot of bright light.

Satellite tracking is also another interesting part of astronomy. When I first began observing as a child you’d soon notice the difference between the slow steady transit of an artificial satellite compared to the fast initially bright and then slow-fading passage of a ‘shooting star’ or meteorite entering the Earth’s atmosphere. But nowadays, with the easy accessibility of relevant data via the internet, it’s possible to know not just which satellites you’ve been observing and what their functions are (communications, weather, military, etc), but also when they will appear. ENVISAT is one of my favourites – watching it appear in the dark sky as it catches the sunlight and then following its slightly orange coloured dot winking as it glides across the arc of the sky is again quite a sight. ENVISAT, which was launched in 2002 by the European Space Agency from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket, is an advanced polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite which provides measurements of the atmosphere, ocean, land, and ice. It too has returned some interesting images, such as the recent ash plumes in the atmosphere from Icelandic volcanoes which have disrupted commercial air travel.

But by far the most interesting of human spaceflight achievements, or at least the one which perhaps captures the imagination most, has to be the Apollo Moon landings of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Everyone has seen the footage of astronauts bouncing across the surface of the Moon and marvelled at the extreme dangers they undertook in reaching the Moon and returning safely to Earth. Our technologies today have since far exceeded the computers used on the Apollo missions, and who knows where or when human spaceflight will venture next? A return to the Moon? A landing on an asteroid? Or even Mars? There is a wealth of unmanned missions currently in progress in our Solar System. There are even two – the Voyager 1 and 2 probes – which are just on the outskirts of the Solar System, now venturing into the unknown environment of deep space. And many of these can be followed on-line in News reports and on the NASA website. One of the most fascinating this year has been the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) which has sent back some fascinating images of the lunar surface, returning such precise detail that we can actually see the footpaths trodden across the lunar dust by the Apollo astronauts some 40 years ago now. In terms of exploration – the sky is no longer the limit, it’s only the start …

10 November 2011

Searching for the Real Robinson Crusoes

Tim Severin’s Seeking Robinson Crusoe (Macmillan, 2002) is a book which thoroughly explores its subject. Starting with the familiar facts Severin searches out the requisite merits of the Selkirk story and assesses the likelihood of Defoe’s familiarity with it.

As one would expect, Tim Severin begins his book with the accepted ‘real life’ inspiration for Robinson Crusoe – the sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned in 1704 but survived alone for over four years in complete isolation on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Severin himself journeys to the shores of the Juan Fernandez islands, where pitching his tent he tallies his own experiences and observations with the known accounts of Alexander Selkirk’s solitary stay there.

In my opinion, the great achievement of Seeking Robinson Crusoe is the way it successfully marries two genres, part historical narrative and part modern day travelogue, the book takes the reader on a series of adventures, skilfully blending the realities of the past and the present in a remarkable piece of writing. Rightly judging that Selkirk’s story is only one of many such tales of adventure on the high seas in the days when buccaneers and privateers roamed the oceans in search of spoils taken by force from Spanish galleons or Spanish settlements and towns on both the Caribbean and Pacific shores of the New World, Seeking Robinson Crusoe also explores a number of other true histories which, Severin argues, could each have been equally well known to Daniel Defoe.

For example, tracing the story of a Miskito Indian, called Will, who preceded Selkirk as a castaway on Juan Fernandez. Surviving there for three years, Will’s story is supposed to have been in part a plausible inspiration for the character of Man Friday. Miskito Indians, from the swampy coastal region stretching between Nicaragua and Honduras, more commonly known as the ‘Mosquito Coast,’ were often recruited by western sailing ships largely for their prodigious skills in ‘striking’ – this was a technique of spear fishing which often kept entire crews fed in times of extreme adversity. Severin neatly departs from his historical narrative to give an account of his own adventures exploring the Mosquito Coast where he meets the descendents of the Miskito strikers who were such an essential part of the privateer crews, only to find that the buccaneer of bygone days is alive and still at large in these waters where he continues to ply his contraband trade in the form of modern day narcotics trafficking.

Other castaways whom Severin goes in search of include Lionel Wafer, a buccaneer surgeon who after being wounded in a pirate raid persevered with a small band of companions through a relentless set of travails in extremis in order to survive the jungles of Panama. Wafer and his companions were reluctantly helped in part by the Kuna tribe whose descendants were far more welcoming of Tim Severin when he arrived in their community. Here Severin finds that the Kuna have since migrated from the mainland to a chain of small islands where they now lead a communal kind of Crusoe-like existence.

In the wandering course of his researches, Severin encounters many such modern day Robinson Crusoes, including a small detachment of Colombian soldiers who are posted to defend their country’s sovereign claim to a small strip of sand known as the Serrana Bank. This “low, whale-backed sandbank, barely rising above water level” is named after Pedro Serrano who was shipwrecked there in the sixteenth century, and – so it is told – amazingly managed to survive for seven years, even though the desert island gave no shelter nor had any source of fresh water.

In his search to find all these possible and more probable elements of inspiration for Defoe’s hero it is a bygone castaway by the name of Henry Pitman whom Severin finally comes to rescue. Pitman and a small band of companions escaped from ‘white slavery’ in Barbados in a small leaking open boat, crossing some 370 miles of sea, only to fall into the hands of pirates who left them marooned on the island of Salt Tortuga. In retracing Pitman’s voyage, journeying to the island in a small sailing boat himself, Severin discovers a number of parallels as related in Pitman’s own account – ‘A Relation of the great suffering and strange adventures of Henry Pitman’ which was published thirty years before Defoe’s fiction. And, in a further bibliographical rather than geographical excursion, Severin stumbles upon a highly probable and convincing connection between the two men which neatly bolsters his claim that, whilst all these true tales can, and in all likelihood did to varying degrees, contribute towards Defoe’s original inspiration, it is perhaps Pitman’s tale which should be attributed the largest share.

Fitting excellently into that tradition of adventure writing which it sets out to examine, Seeking Robinson Crusoe shows us what it once truly was to live and survive on the knife edge of a larger and perhaps more forbidding world; where everyday existence could be a plight to survive in defiance of the odds even before one found oneself marooned upon some far flung, desolate and inhospitable shore. The main strength and success of the book undoubtedly lies in Severin’s accomplished ability to plait together the twin strands of a historical narrative, which he fully explores in the present, and gives thereafter his own true and faithful account. His adept travel writing skills certainly allow him to portray with real immediacy the tough realities and the extreme hardships which many of these now quaintly fabled, old sea-dogs of a former age managed to endure (or not as the case may be). He also manages to show us how the myth of the castaway as embodied by Defoe’s fictional creation continues to endure in all the many modern day counterparts he meets as real characters living in our own day. He splices these two narratives perfectly into a single perspective. Severin’s writing has a lightness of touch which carries the book swiftly with assurance. He stops to colour his prose only where it is most suited to dwell slightly longer than usual. The text is also complimented with maps and illustrations of mainly historical relevance; the only thing to be regretted is that there are no photographs of Tim Severin’s own remarkable journeys in search of the eponymous castaway.

6 November 2011

On Top of the World

One of the great joys of travelling is simply seeing the world. Places, people, cultures, scenery, and climate can all be entirely different to what we know and are most familiar with - experiencing new things and appreciating difference can reward our efforts and enrich our view of the world - and this is why I like to travel.

I’m very lucky because I often cross the globe in unusual ways. By truck, by freight plane, sometimes even by boat. Last month I made what will possibly be the single longest journey of my life. I travelled from Tokyo in Japan, via Krasnoyarsk, Siberia in Russia, to Frankfurt, Germany. And then, after an overnight stop in Frankfurt I continued on to Mexico City, Mexico, via Chicago, USA. I flew the whole way by Freighter, not your usual airliner – just me and the flight crew. Our route took us across Russia to Europe, then out over Britain and Ireland, up to Greenland, then down through Canada, past the Hudson Bay, across the Great Lakes to Chicago, and then further down the US until we reached Mexico. Most of the way I sat in the cockpit and during the day we had amazing views of the scenery below.

The top photo is me sitting in the navigator’s seat in the cockpit of an MD-11 Cargo Freighter. These are medium-sized freighter planes with three engines, one under each wing and one as part of the tail fin. They were originally devised as replacements for the more well-known DC-10. The upper deck behind the cockpit is the main cargo hold, which is curtained off with a huge chain-link crash net. There’s a small rest area, with two seats, the galley and toilet immediately behind the cockpit. The plane changed crews at each stop-off, and for most of the way the crew consisted of a pilot and co-pilot. On one stage there were three crew, a captain and two co-pilots. They each took command of the aircraft in shifts throughout the flight.

Behind me, through the window, can be seen the bright white snowy landscape of Greenland and the clear blue vault of the Arctic sky. The subsequent two photos show the east coast and the third is the west coast. The small white dots speckling the frozen sea around the cliffs in the first picture are icebergs. The second shot shows the vast ice-sheet which covers most of the Greenland landmass. You can imagine how deep it must be by looking at the tips of the mountains which only just manage to peep through the snow and ice (this isn't cloud) in places close to the coast. The immense weight of this ice-sheet is thought to have depressed the centre of the landmass several hundred metres below sea level. The final photo shows a glacier terminating into a fjord on the west side of the coast.

Travelling by Freighter is a unique experience every time. The lack of creature comforts isn’t necessarily appealing to everyone. These aircraft can be noisy and uncomfortable. The rest area of the MD-11 smells a lot like a large canvas army tent. And you certainly have to bring your own entertainment – there’s no in-flight films or music – so be sure to pack an ipod and a book or you’ll die of boredom, especially on a night flight. If it’s day time though you can look out the window (assuming you have one – not all cargo aircraft do!). So much of the world is missed by flying on commercial airliners where the routines of the flight require the passenger to bed down and close the windows and eat at set times. I’ve spent many hours looking out of the windows of cargo planes – watching the purple sunrise over the Gobi desert, or the sun shining on the lakes and glaciers around Mount McKinley in Alaska. And my high school geography lessons paid off when on one flight the crew and I tried to spot the remnants of long extinct volcanoes around Mount Ararat on the Turkish-Iranian border.