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Friday, February 1, 2019

John Harrison, Not Fake News, Quote for the Month: A Poem by The Chancellor of Manchester University

John Harrison at Greenwich Royal Observatory 

I recently read about a carpenter called John Harrison who in the face of tremendous opposition, dedicated his lifetime to creating a clock that would save the lives of thousands of people.

John Harrison with his H4 

Back in the 18th century, Britain led the world in discovery of our planet by sea, in much the same way as the USA led the discovery of our moon and beyond through NASA in the 20th century.

Up until the 20th century, the only way for Britons to go abroad was by ship. In order for ships to reach their destinations as safely and as directly as possible, the captain needed to know at all times exactly where his ship was. The problem was that until Harrison's timepieces were invented, there was no reliable way of calculating Longitude (Latitude was easy). This meant that thousands of people were losing their lives at sea due to ships running aground or getting lost and running out of provisions with crews and passengers dying of scurvy, a terrible way to die. King George 3rd launched a competition with a prize of £20,000 (about £3 million today) for the person who could invent a reliable measure of Longitude. 

John Harrison was a humble carpenter from Yorkshire born in 1693. The time-pieces that he produced from metal with no training are quite magnificent and extraordinary works of art. Not only is their beauty breath-taking, but they still work, and eventually, after a battle lasting his entire life, they won him the prize. The scholars of the day were astronomers and believed the answers lay in measuring from the position of the stars and planets. This was actually possible to do but fiendishly complex, leading to frequent mistakes, and hard when the sky was cloudy! They held top positions, were supported by Parliament and many of them ridiculed Harrison's timepieces. With an accurate clock, it was possible to calculate Longitude relatively easily based on the time from your point of departure. His marine clocks were the first to be accurate enough for this purpose and to work on a ship where traditional pendulum clocks were totally inaccurate due to the movement of the ship and the weather conditions.

H1 completed in 1736

H4 completed in 1759
His four masterpieces that he spent much of his life making are on display in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich where his rivals used to study the stars to try to solve the Longitude challenge. The first three, H1, H2 and H3 are all working perfectly just as in the 18th century. H4, a copy of which helped Captain James Cook successfully reach Australia, is also on display but is switched off as it is the only one of the four which requires oiling and constant use would wear the parts out unlike the others which are eternal!

The clocks were left to decay in a store room in Greenwich until Rupert Gould spent much of his life restoring them, free of charge, in the early 20th century. But that's another story!

Greenwich Observatory circa 1700

View from the Observatory on January 27th from the Shard, The City, Canary Wharf to the O2

New Feature "Not Fake News"

Fake News has become a major scourge of society. Generations brought up with social media as their main source of information find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction, particularly when there are professional organisations seeking to mislead in order to manipulate public opinion, voting outcomes and and a whole range of scams. 

I have decided to create a new feature in my blog called 'Not Fake News'; true stories that sound too improbable to be true! Here is my first one: 

"Calls for M&S boycott following discovery of “Allah” toilet paper"

M&S accused of printing the arabic script for Allah on its toilet roll

A Marks & Spencer customer has called for a boycott of the company after discovering what he thought was the word 'Allah' imprinted on its toilet roll. 

WhatsApp users have been sharing a video of a man showing a packet of the M&S Aloe Vera 3-ply toilet tissue and claiming it showed the word ‘Allah’ in Arabic within its design. 

Speaking in the video, the unidentified man says: “Recently I bought toilet tissue from Marks & Spencer and subhan’Allah (Glory to God) when I opened one of them, it has the name of Allah, as you can see. So please brothers and sisters, prevent yourselves from buying this toilet tissue, or try to boycott Marks & Spencers, insha’Allah (God willing) because every toilet tissue has the name of Allah on it.” 

More than 2,000 people have signed the petition to boycott M&S and at the time of writing the video has had more that 145,000 views. 

I think the best response I have seen to this was in The Sun newspaper: 'Should have gone to Specsavers".

Making a Difference (a poem to be read aloud) 

We are shaking and waking and breaking indifference 
We are quaking and taking and making a difference 

We are working observing recording researching 
Wherein we’re conferring subverting referring 

We’re counting the minutes the moments the loss 
Redressing the balance addressing the cost 

We are citing and fighting it’s all in the writing 
The spark is igniting in dark we are lightening 

We are breaking the brackets the fact is the planet’s 
In rackets and rackets of rackets in brackets 

The systems the victims the damning the scamming 
The biased predicting the beating and banning 

The skills we exchange the breaking of chains 
The actions sustained the makers of change 

To relentless censors the damned and defenceless 
Our words are the action the louder reaction 

When no one is listening we hear 
When heads turn away we volunteer 

We work we stand tall we rise up to be counted 
We climb mountains 

We are shaking and waking and breaking indifference 
We are quaking and taking and making a difference 

Lemn Sissay, Chancellor of The University of Manchester

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