Refraction: April 29th, 1811


The ‘fishery’ was both a dangerous place, and an uncertain one. On Monday April 29th both the Hope, and the Vigilant struck whales, and in the afternoon, as the wind fell, the sea began to freeze. Scoresby, for whom the problem of accurately deteermining longitude became a longstanding obsession, set about taking measurements, taking advantage of the clear sky, and the visibility of sun and moon. While engaged in this activity, he also noted a strange optical illusion, illustrated above, in an image from his 1823 book, Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery, and also described in his Account of the Arctic Regions. In the 1811 journal he describes it thus:

The Air near the horizon though cloudless was so variable in Density that the Circumferencial boundary appeared hilly replete with [ringes? see Ian C. jackson, 2003] of [one third] or [half] a degree of Altitude[.] A ship also to the NEd appeared to be on her beam ends, but whether this was the Case or it was an optical deception I could not at this time determine[.] … The case of the ship last night proved to have been an optical deception for this morning she appeared in her natural position.

Crossposted from Letters to Elizabeth

Scoresby’s Map of Greenland, 1822

In 1822 William Scoresby Jr., commander of the ship Baffin of Liverpool, spent the summer months in the Arctic, catching whales and mapping the coast of Greenland. It is sometimes difficult, looking back from the twenty-first century, to remember where to leave gaps when making sense of history, to remember what wasn’t known. This map, which you can click to see in more detail, is a good example. Scoresby’s voyage of 1822 came in the wake of two significant voyages of discovery funded by the Admiralty under John Barrow. As a mere whaler Scoresby had been passed over in the search for the North West Passage in favour of Captain John Ross, whose failed expedition of 1818 met with widespread public ridicule, and William Parry, who was more successful in his expedition of 1820.

Scoresby was not a man to harbour grudges, but he must have felt wounded by the rejection, given that he was widely acknowledged at the time to be the foremost expert on the Arctic region. His voyage in 1822, commanding the ship he had designed and had built for the purpose in Liverpool three seasons earlier, was primarily to catch whales. Without government assistance, Scoresby had to make his voyage pay. And pay it did: despite sailing outside the usual fishing grounds around Spitzbergen, and despite narrowly avoiding shipwreck, Scoresby brought back a full ship.

More importantly, Scoresby’s map of the Eastern coast of Greenland, as well as his examinations of the ‘mineralogy’ and botany of the region, were a significant advance on what had existed before. In the section of the map shown here the gaps are obvous. Huge areas of the land back from the coast are uncharted; the assumption was that rather than being a single large landmass, Greenland was in fact a series of small islands joined together by ice. At the end of his 1822 journal, published in 1823 as A Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery in 1822, Scoresby quotes a letter from Sir Charles Giseiké on ‘the Structure of Greenland’:

It is past doubt, that the whole coast of Greenland formerly consisted of Large islands, which are now, as it were, glued together by immense masses of ice.

Such inlets, or rather firths (fiords), which once formed sounds or passages, terminate always, according to my observations, with glaciers filling up the valleys at each end. Such is (to confine myself to the more northern latitudes), the ice-firth, or ice-bay, of Disco Bay, in 68° 40′. Such, also, is Cornelius Bay (North-east Bay, or Omenak’s Fiord), 71½°, the north-eastern arm of which is blocked up at both ends with ice running through a valley, and bending rather towards the ENE.

Scoresby named many of the headlands and islands he discovered after his friends and acquaintances back in Liverpool. If you look closely at the map you will see ‘Scoresbys Sound’ (named after his father) and ‘Jameson Land’ after his mentor Professor Jameson of Edinburgh University, but this section of coastline he names the ‘Liverpool Coast’: names such as Holloway Bay (after a Liverpool minister) and Rathbone Island (after the famous Liverpool shipping family who were close friends) betray Scoresby’s affection for the city. Many of these names did not make it onto the official Admiralty maps or were replaced by later navigators.

Saving Bletchley Park Huts Campaign

The Shedworking blog is publicising the campaign to save the rapidly crumbling Bletchley Park huts. These were home to the most strategically important shedworkers in history: they cracked the codes used by the Germans during World War II and helped bring the war to its conclusion.

As we all know, the Bletchley Park huts are in considerable danger. Happily, campaigners are working hard to save these historic shedlike atmospheres. For more details, please go to Save Bletchley Park and the Saving Bletchley Park blog … [Link]

Edit 9 February 2009. Bletchley Park Hut 6 has been entered for the 2009 Shed of the Year competition. The entry on Readersheds is here. And it’s in a sorry state. A good showing during Shed Week, which begins on July 6th, might help save this historic hut.

Cello Scrotum Is All In The Mind

As a former teenaged cellist I was pleased to read a BBC report claiming that Cello Scrotum, a debilitating and painful illness, much feared in the 1980s, is a hoax. From the report:

Elaine Murphy – now Baroness Murphy – dreamt up the painful complaint in the 1970s, sending a report to the British Medical Journal.

She came clean when the hoax resurfaced in the 2008 Christmas edition.

A BMJ spokesman said the inclusion and subsequent debunking of “cello scrotum” had “added to the gaiety of life”.

Unfortunately, it seems the complaint, which was invented in the 1970s, has already made it into scientific journals, raising the fascinating possibility that people may actually have received treatment for it, or perhaps have used it to explain an inconvenient rash.

Julian Lloyd-Webber was not available for comment.

A Bad Week For Neanderthals

Last week was a bad week for Neanderthals. First we found out that they came under bombardment by modern humans and were unable to respond. And now it turns out they couldn’t stand the heat. The New Scientist asks Did Neanderthal Cells Cook as the Climate Warmed?

Neanderthals may have gone extinct because their cells couldn’t cope with climate change, according to a new hypothesis presented at a genetics conference this month.

Metabolic adaptations to Ice Age Europe may have proved costly to Neanderthals after the continent’s climate started to change, says Patrick Chinnery, a molecular biologist at Newcastle University, UK.

He and colleague Gavin Hudson identified potentially harmful mutations in the newly sequenced Neanderthal mitochondrial genome. In particular, the researchers found genes that are associated with neurodegenerative diseases and deafness. “If they were found in modern humans they would be bad news,” Chinnery says.

The extinction of Neanderthals, close relatives of modern humans, some 25,000 years ago remains unexplained.