May 2014 in Review

This is an index and summary of the things I’ve talked about over the last month. Links for multi-post subjects go to the first post (even if it’s before this month), you can follow the internal navigation links from there. (TV shows without full posts will not be linked, but will be listed.)



“Ink and Steel” Elizabeth Bear. Third book in the Promethean Age series, part of Read All the Fiction. Kept.

“The Dervish House” Ian McDonald. Near future science fiction set in Istanbul. Library book.

Total: 2


“Plantagenet England 1225-1360” Michael Prestwich. Part of the New Oxford History of England.

Total: 1


Shakespeare and His World – a course on Future Learn about the life, times and plays of Shakespeare.

Total: 1


Ancient Lives, New Discoveries – exhibition at the British Museum about 8 of their mummies that have been CT scanned.

Total: 1



Bright Side.

Landing Zone.

Onward to Victory!.

Total: 4


Hindu Ideas of Creation. In Our Time episode about Hindu creation myths.

Photosynthesis. In Our Time episode about photosynthesis.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In Our Time episode about the Fitzgerald translation of several quattrains attributed to Omar Khayyam.

The Tale of Sinuhe. In Our Time episode about The Tale of Sinuhe which is a piece of Middle Kingdom Egyptian literature.

Total: 4


“The Eloquent Peasant” Linda Steynor. Talk given at the May meeting of the EEG.

Tyndale Society Study Day (10 May 2014) – a study day in Ipswich with three biographical talks about Ipswich connected men who were important in the English Reformation (Thomas Wolsey, John Bale and Thomas Bilney) and one talk about Ipswich as a late medieval port.

Total: 2



24 Hours on Earth – nature documentary looking at the effects of the diurnal cycle on animals and plants. Lots of neat footage and a voiceover with somewhat clunky and distracting metaphors (“Soon the sun’s rays will flip the switch and it will be light” !?)

Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

David Attenborough’s First Life – series about the origins of life and the evolution of animals.

Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population – part of the This World series this is a lecture presented by statistician Hans Rosling. It’s a very entertaining yet informative look at population growth and poverty throughout the world. It’s the answer to fears about the booming population (we’ve actually reached peak child so growth is already slowing and will top out in the next few decades). And also a look at whether or not we can really pull the third world out of extreme poverty (it’s already happening). He also talked a bit about climate change but was less convincingly reassuring about that!

The First World War – a 10 part series covering the whole of the war.

Heart vs Mind: What Makes Us Human? – poor programme trying to find a physical basis for the metaphorical idea that the heart is the seat of emotion.

How to Get Ahead – series about court life during a three different historical periods.

Ian Hislop’s Olden Days – a series about the British fascination with an idealised past.

Krakatoa Revealed – somewhat chilling documentary about the 19th Century eruption of Krakatoa and what we’re learning about the certainty of future eruptions of Krakatoa.

Monkey Planet – series about the biology and behaviour of primates.

Mud, Sweat and Tractors – series about the history of farming in 20th Century Britain.

The Necessary War – documentary arguing that the First World War was necessary (paired with The Pity of War.)

Pagans and Pilgrims – series about the sacred places of Britain, presented by Ifor ap Glyn.

The Pity of War – lecture arguing that the First World War was a senseless & unnecessary waste of life (paired with The Necessary War.) Plus a debate on the subject.

Precision: The Measure of All Things – series about measurement and the history of measurement.

The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars – Peter Barton talking about the mining under the Somme battlefield in WWI.

A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

Total: 17

The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars

Continuing with our recent WWI theme we watched a one-off programme about the tunnels under the Somme battlefield presented by Peter Barton. The title (The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars) and a bit of the introductory segment have an air of Discovery Channel-esque “we will Solve The Mystery!”, but the programme as a whole steered away from that and was very interesting. It combined the history (who built the tunnels & why) with footage from an archaeological dig at the site which included people going into the tunnels for the first time since the battle of the Somme itself.

The conventional image of WWI fighting is of men in trenches, going over the top, barbed wire, and artillery bombardments. What’s often forgotten or not known (and certainly I hadn’t really thought about before) is that both sides also tunnelled under the enemy trenches and detonated explosives underneath them. This happened all along the Western Front, but Barton was concentrating on telling us about the Somme battlefield (because of the archaeological dig, I assume) where the mining was also planned to play a large part in the battle of the Somme. Mining has been a part of siege warfare for centuries, if not millennia, and Barton showed us some mines under the walls of the castle at St Andrews, Scotland which had been dug in the 16th Century. He said that the way mines were dug hadn’t really changed in that time – dig under the enemy fortifications hopefully without being heard, hollow out a big chamber and stuff it with explosives, blow up the enemy above you. And the counter tactics are also much the same – listen for tunneling, dig towards the noise (from below if you can, above if you must), enter their tunnels or blow them up first. So if you took a 16th Century miner and dropped him into a WWI group of miners he wouldn’t need much training to get the hang of the few technological differences.

The British miners were not drawn from the Army. Instead they were firstly sewer diggers (claykickers) and later coal miners who were brought into the army structure & given uniforms, but really just there to do their one job – dig tunnels (quietly). Often these were men who’d been refused when they tried to join the infantry – generally as they were too old, which for this job meant only that they were more experienced. Barton spent a bit of time showing us (with the help of some demonstraters) how they built the tunnels through clay or through chalk, and also gave us an idea of the physical difficulties and dangers the men faced. There were all the risks that are normally associated with tunneling or mining, but also the constant fear of being detected. Barton pointed out that mining was one of the most brutal aspects of a brutal war. It had significant effects on the morale of the normal infantry, knowing that their trenches might suddenly be blown up. And for the miners it was worse. If one side detected the other mining, they would tunnel to underneath them and then detonate explosives directly under they enemy tunnel. But first they would wait and listen till as many men as possible were in the tunnel above. And once the first explosion was done, they’d dig out a new chamber to fill with explosives, then once they heard the rescue party come along for the first casualties they’d blow out the second chamber. All about maximising the dead from a single detection of a tunnel. During the war detection technology increased in sophistication. At first it was simply a matter of listening through a pipe, or setting out a tray of water and watching for ripples. But later much more sophisticated detectors were invented that could detect tunnelling at up to 100 feet away in clay, or 250 feet in chalk.

The plan for the battle of the Somme included two extremely large quantities of explosives under the German trenches, which would break the German lines and also take out some troublesome machinegun posts. One tunnel was dug as planned, the other couldn’t quite get close enough so two chambers were built at that end with enough explosive that the distance didn’t matter. And all the explosives were detonated as intended – Barton walked round the top of one of the craters that still exists today, it’s absolutely huge. But through no fault of the tunnellers it was not enough – in particular the one under the machinegun post had been detected late in the process and the Germans had evacuated their guns and troops, then set up again once the explosion was over. The other explosion also didn’t do as much damage to the German troops or their morale as the planners had hoped. And so the easy victory the British Army had hoped for turned into one of the biggest disasters of the war, with more than 10,000 casualties on the British side in the first day alone.

A sobering programme, as WWI programmes often are. Barton did a good job of not just explaining the facts, but also of getting across something of what it would’ve been like to be there.

We watched very little TV last week, the only other things was episode 2 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

In Our Time: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a poem by the 19th Century English poet Edward Fitzgerald which is a loose translation of several quatrains attributed to the 11th Century Iranian poet Omar Khayyam. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Charles Melville (University of Cambridge), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Kirstie Blair (University of Stirling), and they talked about both what is known about the original Persian verses and author as well as Fitzgerald’s version.

The programme started with Melville giving some brief context for Omar Khayyam. He lived in what is now Iran in the 11th Century AD, during the time of the Seljuk Turks. During his lifetime and in the initial period afterwards he was best known as a mathematician and scholar. He wrote an important treatise on geometry and was involved in revising the solar calendar so that it once again matched the seasons of the year. Melville said that this time period in Iran was a transition to a more conservative society and a return to the core values of Islam, and the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are out of step with this attitude. The first mention of Khayyam writing poetry comes 60 or 70 years after his death, as part of a denunciation of him as a heretic by holding up an example of a quatrain he supposedly wrote which contained heretical views. There isn’t actually any hard evidence that Khayyam wrote any of the quatrains associated with his name, but by the 15th Century there are manuscripts of collections of Persian quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. He may’ve written some of them, Melville explained that making up snippets of poetry was a sort of parlour game in the court circles that Khayyam moved in during his life. All three experts agreed that it was reasonable for Fitzgerald to believe that the manuscript he had contained at least a core of quatrains written by Khayyam and others that had later been attributed to Khayyam.

Edward Fitzgerald was a privileged member of the British upper class who lived in the 19th Century. His mother was one of the wealthiest women in the country, and the family took the Fitzgerald name because of a bequest from one of her relatives. He was educated at a public school in Bury St Edmunds, and went to Cambridge University at a time where he met people such as Tennyson. However he was also self-taught, and most of his knowledge of English literature & poetry came from his own wide reading. He is a sort of counter-example for the increasing professionalisation of writing and publishing during the Victorian period – self-taught, rather eccentric and wealthy enough to just publish his writing without needing to submit it to a publisher etc. Despite all his advantages he did not have a particularly happy life. His childhood wasn’t terribly happy, in particular his mother was rather distant. He didn’t marry young, and when he finally did marry it quickly became clear that it had been a terrible mistake for both parties. At around the same time his closest male friend, Cowell, went to India for two years and Fitzgerald felt abandoned – this was a time period (the 1850s) when there was a reasonable chance that Cowell would die in India. When Cowell left he gave to Fitzgerald a copy of a manuscript of Persian poems, the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and Fitzgerald flung himself into learning Persian and translating these poems.

The basic format of the original poems is that each is a standalone piece consisting of four lines, or perhaps two lines each of which is split into half. In the original Persian collections they are organised alphabetically based on the the last rhyme of each. One of the experts (Melville?) suggested that in some ways they occupy the same sort of cultural niche as limericks do in British verse (except without the expectation of them being rude, that limericks have). They’re short pieces with a defined format that you might expect people to just make up on the fly. As well as a particular meter they also have two possible rhyming schemes – one is AAAA (ie all four lines end the same way) and the other is AABA. Melville said that this is a traditionally Persian form of poetry, pre-dating the rise of Islam, and although it has this defined format it’s much less rigid and formal in structure than Arabic poetry.

Fitzgerald’s translation of these poems is definitely not a literal translation. To achieve it, first he had to learn Persian and then he translated the poems into medieval Latin. From there, he translated them into English. He also organised the quatrains he picked into a single poem made up of four line stanzas. This follows an overarching narrative of “the day of life” – morning (birth), noon and night (death). Something that’s present in the original and that particularly spoke to Fitzgerald is a sense of nihilism and of needing to take your pleasures in the here & now rather than hoping for better things after death. In his letters, particularly to Cowell, Fitzgerald expressed many scandalously atheist & nihilistic views – Blair reminded us that he’s writing this translation at the time that people are beginning to question the literalness & accuracy of Bible translations, and during the time when the Origin of the Species is being written. It’s probably those elements of the poems that Fitzgerald seized on about a lack of belief in the afterlife and a hedonistic approach to the world that are the same elements that were being cited as indicators of Khayyam’s heresy back in the 12th Century.

During the programme Melville (who works on Persian history) read out some of the original Persian poetry, so we got a feel for the rhythm and rhymes of the original. Karlin and Blair both read parts of Fitzgerald’s verse (they’re English literature academics) and discussed how Fitzgerald made the unusual rhyme scheme (to English ears) work with the poem, for instance in this stanza:

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake!”

The third line with it’s non-rhyming end is the one talking about being awry and the whole quatrain is about this seeming awryness actually being done on purpose (as it is in the poem). Fitzgerald also wove into the poem a lot of allusions to other great works in the English language – including Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And that all gives it a richness and connection for an English reader that a more literal translation might lack.

Initially the poem was not a success – it sold only a single copy in its first year after publication. But this copy found its way to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who liked it, and once people heard of it via them then it became an incredibly influential poem. The experts were saying that a part of its popularity was in the way it embodied a decadent, hedonistic Orientalist view of “the East” that was appealing to the Victorians (I cynically think it’s so they could have their cake & eat it – get the pleasure of the poetry and of the images it conjures up whilst assuring themselves they’re better than that). Interestingly as the poetry became influential in Britain it sparked a revival in Iran – and Omar Khayyam is now more famous as a poet in Iran that ever before. In Britain after the Second World War there has been something of a drop off in popularity of the poem – Blair suggested this is in part because of a reaction by a new generation against something that was so popular in a previous generation. Blair and Karlin both said they don’t teach it at undergraduate level – in part because it’s so difficult to categorise. Is it a piece of 19th Century English poetry? But it’s heavily based on a Persian original. Yet how can you teach it as a work by Omar Khayyam, when it’s not really known whether it was by him and even if it was, Fitzgerald’s translation is so non-literal that you aren’t really looking at the original?

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

“Ink and Steel” Elizabeth Bear

Ink and Steel is the third book in Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series. It’s the first part of a tightly linked duology set in Elizabethan England, with Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare as our view point characters. It opens with Marlowe’s death, but given his presence as a character in Whiskey and Water (set some 400 years later) it comes as no surprise that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of him. He’s “rescued” by one of the Queens of Faerie – Morgan – and while he is still alive, he can’t leave Faerie for long, so as far as the world of the living goes he might as well be dead. But Marlowe has no desire to give up his ties to the world just yet.

The Shakespeare strand of the story begins with him still in shock from the news of his friend’s murder, and learning that Marlowe had been part of a secret society – the Prometheus Club – sworn to protect England and her Queen. Marlowe’s plays had been a part of their protections, there was a magic in them to nudge events along in the right way. And now William Shakespeare is being asked to step into that role, and to start moving in a world of politics and intrigue. Made even more difficult by the fact that Marlowe’s murder implies a traitor within the Prometheus Club.

The plot then follows both of them as they try to fit into their new roles & worlds – separately and together. Kit was always supposed to survive (not that he knows it at first) but he wasn’t supposed to end up bound to a Faerie Queen, and a lot of his story is about him figuring out why Morgan “rescued” him and what she wants with him. And that’s the plot thread that comes to a resolution to provide a climax to this book – Shakespeare’s dealing with the aftermath of Marlowe’s murder out in the human world is mostly not tied up.

I like Bear’s Shakespeare. I like the other characters too, but having been learning a bit more about the historical character recently it was neat to see how she weaves her imaginings in with the known facts. Particularly good was the way that Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife is fleshed out – Anne is a character as well, and even though you always see her through Shakespeare’s eyes you get a feel for the woman’s character. And also for the relationship between the two in all its complexity. Bear makes one reason that Shakespeare spends so much time in London and not in Stratford with Anne a reason of love – in this story Anne nearly died when giving birth to the twins, and so Will doesn’t want to risk getting her pregnant again. Of course in the 16th Century there aren’t contraceptives or abortions, the only way to avoid children is to not have sex. He stays away so that he won’t give into temptation, and she knows this and hates it (and its necessity) too. But he also stays away because he’s got a good life in London, and because the theatre is as important to him as his family.

The setting feels realistic, rather than modern people slapped down in “ye olden days”. The characters don’t have modern attitudes, even the sympathetic ones say or do things that would feel out of place now but just right in context. Particularly attitudes towards women – who are mostly secondary characters in the story (rather than viewpoint characters) but are a lot more central to events than the men whose eyes we see through really appreciate. Attitudes to sexuality are also full of things that are seen as hopelessly bigoted today. Part of Shakespeare’s character arc during the book has him discovering that his prejudices about women, and about non-hetrosexuals, aren’t as founded in reality as he might think. It’s not just attitudes that evoke the people of a different era – the dialogue is Elizabethan-lite. It’s not an accurate representation of how people would’ve spoken at the time, but it’s full of little turns of phrase that evoke the era. For example: “Richard, you come hand in hand with fortune tonight. You did perchance bring wine?”. And Shakespeare’s lines are full of wordplay and being clever with words, not in an obtrusive way but just enough to make you believe he’s the man who wrote the plays.

In terms of the overall series this and its sequel are the other half of the backstory for the events of Whiskey and Water – this is about Kit Marlowe and Faerie and Hell. It’s also something of an origin story for the Prometheans, who are not (all) the antagonists in this book. In Elizabethan England they are not just one society, they’ve split into two with different interpretations of their goal to protect the realm & Queen. And different methods they’re willing to use. I think the Prometheans of the 20th Century novels grow out of the Prometheans that Shakespeare is part of, not the ones he’s working against. Although I’m not entirely sure about that. But that means that the organisation that’s on the antagonist side in books 1 & 2 is on the protagonist side in books 3 & 4. And I like the way that this story is not the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, instead it’s more complicated and more of a matter of perspective.

As well as sacrifice and choices which run as themes through the whole series this book also has a lot of time being out of joint which feels significant. A lot of the communication is asynchronous – by letters only sporadically delivered/collected. And time runs differently in Faerie, so Kit and Will can never be quite sure how long has passed for the other one. I’m not sure what the deeper significance is, but it definitely feels like something I’m intended to notice.

This book is a return to the heights of Blood & Iron for me – a combination of my favourite historical era and the Fair Folk.

Monday Link Salad

A neat set of photos someone took for a photography project – each pair is herself dressed as a teenager from each decade of the last century, one from mainstream culture, one from a counterculture.

Another gamification of learning site is Memrise which helps you memorise things (unsurprisingly) by making it into a game. There’s a variety of subjects, quite heavy on the languages. I’m having a go at learning some Chinese characters (with accompanying Mandarin pinyin).

An app I recently installed in Notegraphy, which takes your text and typesets it in a decorative fashion. I’m … not sure about it. I tried it out with the text of the first quatrain from Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Most of the styles (not the one I used) take the first letter and turn it into something decorative and then repeat it – I would rather the large decorative one be a part of its word. I suspect I could do things I like better in the Gimp if I wanted to, but this is easier.

TV set to record this week:

The Necessary War; The Pity of War; David Attenborough’s First Life

The Necessary War and The Pity of War were a pair of programmes from the BBC about the First World War that aired a couple of months ago. In The Necessary War Max Hastings put the case for WW1 being, ultimately, necessary despite the loss of life etc. And in The Pity of War Niall Ferguson argued that it was all a terrible and costly (in terms of lives) mistake – this programme finished with a debate. I found myself not entirely agreeing with either position, although I preferred Hastings’s presentation as Ferguson was more than a touch smug and flippant. Both were looking at this from a very British perspective, the question wasn’t so much “was the War worth it?” as “should Britain have gone to war in 1914?”.

Hastings’s main point was that at the time the decision to go to war was made it seemed the least of all possible evils. He argued that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then there was a reasonable chance that Germany would’ve overrun France, and then Britain would later have faced war with a much bigger Germany which would be more capable of disrupting British shipping (and thus the British economy and empire). So he suggested that at the time, and with hindsight, war seemed inevitable the only question was “now or later?”. He also discussed how the atrocities perpetrated by the German army as they rolled over Belgium meant that this was the moral choice as well as the politically sensible one and that a Europe dominated by the Kaiser’s Germany would not be a pleasant place to live. I was somewhat less convinced by his attempt to present the Versailles Treaty as a good thing just because it was better than what the German’s would’ve imposed if they’d won (there’s a lot of room between that and “good” after all).

Ferguson on the other hand thought that if Britain had stayed out of the war in 1914 then the world would’ve been a better place both in the short term and in the long run. But I’m afraid he didn’t convince me at all, except that I do agree that with the benefit of hindsight the First World War was an appalling waste of lives and didn’t even produce a lasting peace. His arguments were mostly appeals to emotion and he also used counterfactuals to illustrate what he thought would’ve happened if Britain had stayed out of the war. His key idea was that he thought the conflict would’ve remained European without Britain’s intervention, and that a Germany that had conquered or otherwise overrun France and Belgium wouldn’t have expanded further. There was a strong air of “who cares about the French and Belgians” although he didn’t go as far as to say that – but having recently watched both The Necessary War and the series based on Hew Strachan’s book about WW1 I was struck by his complete lack of mention of the way the Belgian and French civilians were treated by the advancing German army at the beginning of the war. It wouldn’t’ve fit very well with his “playful” suggestion that a Europe “dominated” by the Kaiser’s Germany would’ve been “just like our modern EU” (although he conceded that Angela Merkel is rather nicer than the Kaiser). He didn’t come across as having much more than wishful thinking to back up his idea that peace and harmony would’ve reigned as soon as Germany finished conquering Belgium, breaking the back of France and defanging Russia.

The debate at the end of The Pity of War was both with experts, and with the audience for Ferguson’s lecture (he lectured, Hastings did more of a standard documentary programme). No-one seemed to agree much with Ferguson and he got taken to task for his flippancy about the EU by a rather formidable woman in the audience too 🙂

In the end I think I agree with Hastings that the choice to go to war was the best one that the British leadership could see at the time. And I think without the examples of WW1 and WW2 we wouldn’t all be as wary of global modern warfare – which doesn’t make them good things at all, just sadly inevitable.

David Attenborough’s First Life was a two part series about the origins of animal life on our planet. It goes before his series about the evolution of the vertebrates (which we watched last year), and so only mentioned vertebrates right at the very end. Although it was called “First Life” he really wasn’t interested in anything except animals, and so we didn’t get to see much about the prokaryotes (who were the first life) or even eukaryotes prior to the development of multicellular organisms. And plants were only ever mentioned in passing.

So in episode 1 he covered the evolution of organisms like sponges, and looked at the fossil record of a group of now long extinct animals which had a different body plan to our own. These were all sedentary and had grew by branching with each branch being a smaller version of the whole organism. These died out (Attenborough said “inevitably” but I’m not quite sure why), and the last part of that programme looked at the Cambrian Explosion which is the name given to the sudden rise of diversity of animals with a more familiar body plan. These were generally capable of movement and have head ends and tail ends to their bodies. And even teeth! Episode 2 focussed on arthropods, and in particular the insects and the colonisation of the land. In particular he looked at the way that the development of hard shells to fend off predators lead to being able to leave the water (because their bodies didn’t collapse or dehydrate). And we were shown lots of awesome trilobite fossils from a particularly well preserved fossil bed in Morocco.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 3 of Churches: How to Read Them – series looking at symbolism and so on in British churches.

Episode 1 of A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley – series about the popular fascination with murder in late Victorian & Edwardian times.

Episode 1 of Mud, Sweat and Tractors – series about the history of farming in 20th Century Britain.

Shakespeare and His World (Course on Future Learn)

Shakespeare and His World was a 10 week course on Future Learn which finished just a couple of weeks ago. The course was run by Warwick University and presented by Jonathan Bate (with Jennifer Waghorn as moderator). And in the 10 weeks it covered a huge amount of ground! Each week focussed on a particular theme and there were 6 or 7 video lectures, each of which featured an object from Shakespeare’s time – most of these were from the collections of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, and most of the videos were filmed there. And eight of the weeks featured a particular Shakespeare play, which also illustrated the weekly theme. We were looking at both what the plays told us about the time they were written in, and what contemporary events & things influenced the writing of the plays. As well as this we also looked a little at the plays as plays rather than historical items – their themes & characters and so on. Obviously in the time available all of this was covered at a fairly superficial level – an overview rather than anything in depth, but there were normally links to places to find out more about the featured objects and some ideas for further investigating the plays.

Week 1 was an introductory week which looked at what we know of Shakespeare’s life story and also set him in context as an Elizabethan playwright and poet. We also read Venus and Adonis, one of Shakespeare’s poems. The second week was the first one with a play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. The theme was Shakespeare’s time in Stratford, in particular his schooling, and this was a good play to illustrate it because although the town in the play is Windsor there’s internal evidence that suggests Shakespeare was actually basing it on Stratford. And he made use of the sorts of people he would’ve known growing up to provide characters for the play – in particular there’s a small part for a schoolboy called Will which is generally assumed to be an author-insert.

Week 3 used A Midsummer Night’s Dream to focus on the theatre in Elizabethan England – chosen because of the play within a play sequence. Week 4 was about war, using Henry V as the illustrative play. Bate made the point in this week that Shakespeare was a war poet for the first half of his career – England was at war with Spain in this period – so Henry V isn’t just looking back to former glories but is also saying something about contemporary events in particular the defeat of the Armada. Week 5 moved on to look at finance, using the Merchant of Venice. As well as the obvious use of Shylock the moneylender to think about how Elizabethan money & finances worked, we also looked at how Shakespeare often used Venice as a mirror for London. And of course we also covered Elizabethan attitudes to Jews, as well as looking at how Shylock has been portrayed through the ages since the play was written. Shakespeare himself seems to be making a more nuanced point than some later stagings of the play.

I’m afraid this is turning into a bit of a laundry list, but I’m trying not to go into too much detail otherwise this post will go on forever!

Week 6 used Macbeth to look at witches and medicine. Because of studying the play at school around 25 years ago I was expecting the bits about witches, but I hadn’t really thought about what the play tells us about medicine of the time before. Sadly the discussion section for this week (about similarities and differences between modern & 16th Century medicine) got over-run by people enthusing over herbal remedies being better than “all those chemicals” and misplaced nostalgia so I stopped reading it before my blood pressure rose too much. The seventh week used Othello to look at the interactions between Christendom and the Islamic world. Again Shakespeare is more nuanced than some later stagings of the play – the villain of the play, after all, is Iago who is a white Christian (although notably with a Spanish name). Othello the Moor is basically a good man who is led astray by Iago’s playing on his insecurities.

The eighth week looked at what Classical culture meant to the people of Shakespeare time, and also to look at how “the East” was regarded. The illustrative play chosen was Anthony and Cleopatra which obviously gives us an image of orderly moral Rome vs the opulent decadence of Egypt. And it was also a play designed to appeal to James VI & I by implying he occupies the place of Augustus in his own time, seen in the play as unifier and peacemaker. Week 9 was the last week with a play – fittingly this was The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last solo authored play. This was used to illustrate the “Brave New World” of the Americas that the Stuart age was beginning to successfully colonise. And also to think about how the art of the theatre was similar to the art of magic in The Tempest so Prospero’s final speech retiring from his art can be seen as Shakespeare’s final speech too. And the last week was a brisk trot through Shakespeare’s legacy looking at how he grew from being regarded as one of the Elizabethan playwrights into “the Greatest Playwright of All TIme”.

I’m glad the information, including videoes & links, is still available on Future Learn for those of us that did the course – I’m not sure I got everything out of the course that I could and some weeks I definitely skimped on due to lack of time. Even tho by the end I was thinking it had out stayed its welcome a bit (8 plays in 8 weeks is a lot to read and contemplate) I’m glad I did it 🙂

In Our Time: Photosynthesis

In the end nearly all life on Earth depends on sunlight for its energy source. Heterotrophs like ourselves are a step or two away from the sunlight, but ultimately it’s the process of photosynthesis that fuels our food and thus ourselves. Photosynthesis also, as a byproduct, provides the air we breathe. The three experts who talked about it on In Our Time were Nick Lane (University College London), Sandra Knapp (Natural History Museum) and John Allen (Queen Mary, University of London).

Photosynthesis happens in plants, in structures called chloroplasts inside plant cells. At the botanical level Knapp explained that photosynthesis is the plant taking in CO2 and water, and turning those into oxygen and sugars using the energy from sunlight. After she had set the scene the two biochemists moved on to talk a bit about the molecules involved in making this process work. Lane explained the complexity of the protein complexes that are needed, in terms of their size. On the one had they’re very small – each chloroplast is less than a tenth of a millimetre across, yet they are packed full of thousands of clusters of photosynthetic apparatus. But from another perspective they’re very big – if you were to be shrunk to the size of an oxygen atom then the photosynthetic complexes would look like vast industrial cities.

Chlorophyll is a critical component of the process, it does the actual light harvesting. Allen gave quite a good verbal description of a chlorophyll molecule – first imagine a line of four carbon atoms with a nitrogen at the end, and then imagine this formed into a ring (a pentagon). Then imagine four of those in a line, then form them into a ring with the nitrogens all in the centre. This is the head of the chlorophyll molecule, and in the centre spot sits a magnesium atom which is essential to the process. One of the four rings has a tail which is insoluble in water but soluble in fats, and so it is what anchors the chlorophyll in the chloroplast membrane (which is made up of fats).

There are actually 300 or so chlorophyll molecules involved in each photosynthetic operation. The light is absorbed by one and then an electron is excited and leaves the chlorophyll molecule. This bumps into another and detaches an electron from it, and it bumps around a bit like a ball in a pinball table. Eventually it reaches one special chlorophyll molecules which uses the energy to “crack” a water atom. They didn’t really explain the details of the process (and I have long since forgotten them from the days when I had it memorised!), but from here you either follow a process that ends up with glucose (stored energy) and oxygen (toxic waste) or you use the protons from the water (protons are hydrogen nuclei, so that’s what you get if you break up the water and strip the electron off the hydrogen atom) to generate ATP (the energy currency of all cells).

One of the biochemists (Lane, I think) said that ATP is a bit like the coins you put in a coin operated machine. Any time a cell needs energy to do something it uses ATP to power the process. ATP is made either during photosynthesis, or by a process called respiration that both plants and animals do. In essence both do the same thing, but photosynthesis starts with light and respiration starts with glucose. Both processes build up a proton gradient across a membrane – on one side of the membrane there are lots of protons (generated from the H2O or glucose), on one side there are very few. Movement of these protons through the membrane only occurs in channels created by protein complexes that use the energy of this potential difference to generate ATP.

So that’s, in basic terms, the process. They also talked a bit about why plants are green – which is one of those “that’s a good question, but we’re not sure” moments. In one sense (which Knapp pointed out) chlorophyll is green because that’s the wavelength of light it reflects. But more interesting is why plants aren’t black – surely it would be most efficient to absorb all the light? There is some idea that higher wavelengths of light might damage the plants, so are reflected, but it’s not that simple because they don’t just absorb red light (which would be safest). In this bit of the discussion they also mentioned the nifty reason why rainforest plants tend to have red undersides to their leaves. Not much light makes it down to the leaves of plants that aren’t up in the canopy, so it’s important to get as much as you can out of the light you do get. So the red underside reflects red light back up to the top surface of the leaf for another chance of using the energy from it.

Another subject covered was the evolution of photosynthesis, and how plants acquired the ability. And what effect this had on the planet. Photosynthesis evolved in cyanobacteria, which are single celled organisms. Chloroplasts are actually descendants of these free living organisms, which were absorbed or engulfed by ancestral plant cells. So plants didn’t evolve the ability to photosynthesise themselves, instead they make use of a cell that already had the ability. The evolution of photosynthesis had a huge effect on the planet – using up the CO2 in the atmosphere had a cooling effect, and actually led to an ice age, a snowball earth. Release of O2 was also not good – it is very reactive, and was actually toxic to most organisms at the time. Bragg was fascinated by the idea that something that’s so essential to most life nowadays was once a toxic waste product.

This was a bit of an odd subject for me to write up – I think I’ve mostly covered what they talked about, but I’m very aware that I used to know a lot more about it. I can remember having the photosynthetic pathway memorised (along with the various steps in respiration too), I just can’t remember any of it! So I know the above is simplified, but I no longer know what the details should be. A bit of a weird sensation.