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Subject: ‘Space’

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Megalithic monuments had an astronomical purpose

Posted in Archaeology, Astronomy, Famous landmarks, Prehistory, Space on Saturday, 15 February 2014

This edited article about Prehistoric astronomy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 553 published on 19 August 1972.

Carnac,  picture, image, illustration
Original arrangement of stones at Carnac, Bretagne

It seems that Neolithic Man, who inhabited Europe about 3,500 years ago, was not the simple farming type that the history books would have us believe. Recent scientific research has shown that these people went to extraordinary lengths to solve the complex problem of the Moon’s motion and had an astonishing knowledge of astronomy and geometry.

Surveys carried out on Megalithic monuments in Scotland and France show that what seemed to be just geometrical patterns of stones were in fact observatories that were used for determining the Moon’s motion. From there findings it has been found these people had a far greater understanding of lunar astronomy than any of their descendants were to have for the next 3,000 years!

In the 18th century it was realised that Stonehenge, on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, was aligned with the mid-summer sunrise and was perhaps used on this day for religious or mystical rites. More recently one expert has suggested that the way the stones are arranged at this famous monument made it possible to predict eclipses of the Sun, an event which would have had a special and awe-inspiring significance for these early peoples.

To understand just how great the problems of building these observatories were for Neolithic Man it is important to know something of the Moon’s complicated motion through the sky.

To observers in Prehistory the most striking fact would be that the rising and setting points of the Moon change rapidly from night to night. In the Outer Hebrides, where most of the important Megalithic sites are found, it is possible for the Moon to rise and set almost in the north one day, and then two weeks later it barely manages to rise above the southern horizon for more than a few hours. When it does rise, it appears at different heights in the sky and over a period of 18.61 years goes through a full cycle of different positions and setting and rising points.

Only by constant observations over decades and even centuries could these early stone circle builders establish the reference points needed to construct their observatories.

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How Christmas may have changed in the Twenty-first Century

Posted in Christmas, Science, Space, Technology on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about Christmas first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 519 published on 25 December 1971.

Santa on Mars, picture, image, illustration
Santa Claus on Mars

For astronauts sitting down to dinner in a space-station orbiting the Earth, it still looks like a traditional Christmas of three decades earlier.

The table and folding chairs may be made of a super-light titanium-aluminium alloy, but the goodies laid out for Christmas dinner are not space-age at all. There is roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, plum pudding, hot mince pie, and trifle.

These men, spending Christmas two hundred miles above the Earth, are lucky – their dinner stays on the table. The huge space station turns slowly like a giant wheel, so that centrifugal force creates a kind of artificial gravity. Otherwise the men, chairs and table, would be floating around in the pressurized cabin like fish in an aquarium, bumping into elusive turkey drumsticks and mince pies. Weightlessness might be amusing, for a while at least, but it would hardly be in the traditional Christmas spirit, and it would be scientifically impossible to pull crackers!

Five other astronauts, however, on a special space mission to the Planet Neptune, will have to stretch their imaginations to the limit to make things seem like Christmas at all. Their Christmas dinner will consist of turkey-flavoured protein powder moistened with distilled water, sucked slowly from polythene bags. Pulling crackers and untying presents will be out, but at least they will be able to play Christmas music from their tape-cassettes, and watch Christmas programmes on their transistorized colour TV.

On Earth, in a flat on the 385th floor of a super-skyscraper in Manchester, the Jones family is entertaining the Green family. The Greens have arrived from California after a journey of just under forty minutes by a hyper-sonic jet airliner, because their friends the Joneses promised to treat them to a traditional English Christmas dinner.

And the meal they are now enjoying is traditional, and perhaps even more English and “Christmassy” than it might have been if they had lived back in 1971, in spite of thirty years progress in science and technology.

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Frogmen salvage sunken treasure and stabilise space capsules

Posted in Historical articles, Sea, Space, Weapons, World War 2 on Thursday, 3 October 2013

This edited article about frogmen originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 417 published on 10 January 1970.

Salvage frogman, picture, image, illustration
A frogman discovering the long-lost wreck of the Girona by Andrew Howat

What is the link between a frog croaking in a village pond and Apollo II landing in the Pacific after its trip to the Moon? The answer is a frogman.

Every time an American space capsule returns to earth, United States Navy frogmen are rushed to the spot by helicopter to fit a buoyancy collar on the capsule, which acts as a lifebelt round its base. This has been standard practice ever since 1961, when an invaluable capsule sank.

It would be claiming too much to say that frogmen owe their existence to the humble frog. Friends of the duck might be among the first to object, because the flippers, which are one of the trademarks of frogmen, were inspired by the webbed feet that so many animals use for swimming. Yet as the frogman swims swiftly underwater in his rubber suit, his legs and long flippers make him look very like a frog with its legs stretched out when swimming or leaping in the air.

The story of the frogman dates from the Second World War. Just before the war, underwater swimming as a sport, using “swim-fins,” was beginning to be popular where the water was warm enough. When war broke out in 1939, methods were considered for attacking enemy shipping in harbours by stealth. The Italian Navy experimented with midget craft of every sort, including “human torpedoes” and successfully damaged two British warships in Alexandria Harbour in 1941. Underwater swimmers were used by the Italians, but it was the British who invented the frogman’s distinctive suit.

They studied Italian successes. Flippers were clearly essential. Men using them can not only swim faster, but also can more easily dive down or shoot up to the surface. To combat bitterly cold water a suit of rubber sheeting was developed and, with new oxygen breathing apparatus the underwater gear was complete. It was given exhaustive tests in a closely guarded swimming bath. One look at the new costume left no-one in any doubt as to what its wearer’s name should be. The frogman was born! An extra bonus was that even very ordinary swimmers became really expert underwater because of the flippers.

Frogmen proved invaluable. They formed underwater demolition teams and destroyed obstacles in invasion areas. The invasion of Europe in 1944 would have been held up without them. They cleared minefields in advance, then cleared captured harbours. This meant that armies and supplies could be rushed to the battle zones. A thousand frogmen were in action before the American invasion of the Japanese-held island of Okinawa in 1945, working for three days in very cold water.

In peacetime, frogmen have added salvage operations to their other roles – and police work as well.

The St Paul’s Girls’ School music master who composed ‘The Planets’

Posted in Education, Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Music, Space on Tuesday, 1 October 2013

This edited article about music originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 414 published on 20 December 1969.

Gustav Holst, picture, image, illustration
Gustav Holst

In the spring of 1913 Gustav von Holst, the director of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, went on holiday to the Spanish island of Majorca. There the English-born composer delighted in watching the clear night sky, and noticing how much larger and nearer the stars appeared to be. This heightened his interest in astrology, and on his return to England he became fascinated by the personalities of the various planets.

“As a rule,” he wrote to a friend, “I only study things that suggest music to me. . . . Then recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely . . . everything in this world . . . is just one big miracle. Or rather, the universe itself is one.”

So von Holst, who was of part-Danish descent, began work on his revolutionary orchestral suite, The Planets, which was to become a landmark on the British musical scene. The suite is in seven contrasting movements, beginning with Mars, the Bringer of War, which the composer wrote shortly before the start of the First World War.

During the hostilities, Holst dropped the German-sounding “von” from his name and went to Turkey to organize musical entertainments for the British troops out there. He completed Mercury, the Winged Messenger, in 1917, and so his suite was ready to be performed by a full orchestra.

The Planets was first heard at a private concert given for Holst and his friends in September 1918. The music, with its vitality and brilliant orchestration, made a profound impression on all who heard it. Holst’s own favourite movement was Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, with its deeply felt sense of the passage of time.

Two years later public performances were given in London and Chicago, and the suite rapidly gained popularity. Even the quiet Venus and mystical Neptune movements were acclaimed by the public and critics alike, and the modest, forty-six-year-old composer was besieged by well-wishers.

Success had not come easily to Gustav Holst, who had started his professional life as a village organist and choirmaster in the Cotswolds, at a salary of £4 a year. After leaving his home town of Cheltenham, he was at one stage forced to make a living as a trombonist in various theatre orchestras.

His appointment to St. Paul’s School – where he had his own soundproof workroom – ended his financial insecurity. And his Planets suite became one of the favourite pieces of music of such famous men as Lawrence of Arabia.

H G Wells was a draper’s assistant with a vivid imagination and literary ambitions

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Space on Tuesday, 17 September 2013

This edited article about H G Wells originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 404 published on 11 October 1969.

Kipps by H G Wells, picture, image, illustration
A scene from 'Kipps' by H G Wells

Each morning at 7 o’clock sharp 15-year-old Herbert George Wells and his fellow draper’s apprentices were brusquely roused from their dormitory beds. Anyone who failed to get up had the sheets pulled from him and was likely to have something docked from his meagre wages. After this rude awakening, the day proper began for the trainee shop assistants.

“We flung on old suits,” said Wells, “tucking our nightgowns into our trousers, and were down in the shop in a quarter of an hour, to clean windows, unwrap goods and fixtures, dust generally before eight.

“At eight we raced upstairs to get first go at the wash basins, dressed for the day and at half-past eight partook of a bread and butter breakfast before descending again.”

From then on the day was one of almost unbroken tedium. Wells had to bring samples to the window-dresser, arrange counter displays, carry headless dummies from the costume room, refill the pin bowls, and prepare the paper and string for the dozens of parcels that left the Southsea Drapery Emporium.

“There were a hundred small fussy things to do, straightening up, putting away, fetching and carrying. It was not excessively laborious but it was indescribably tedious. . . . The length of those days at Southsea was enormous until closing time; then the last hour fell swiftly past me to “lights out” at half-past ten.”

After two years of this drudgery, the unhappy apprentice could stand it no more. “I had reached a vital crisis of my life,” he stated. “I felt extraordinarily desperate and, faced with binding indentures and maternal remonstrances, I behaved very much like a hunted rabbit that at last turns and bites.”

To the distress of his mother, Wells quit his job and started on the path that was to take him to worldwide fame as a novelist, short story writer, and sociologist. But despite his many later triumphs, Wells never forgot or forgave his superiors in the drapery shop.

Twenty-four years later, in 1905, he published his renowned novel, Kipps, the Story of a Simple Soul. In the book Wells appears lightly disguised as Art Kipps, a humble draper’s apprentice. After coming into some money, Art rises in the social scale and falls in love with a girl from a better background than his own.

His adventures in society are both humorous and touching, and it is fascinating to discover whether Kipps will marry “above” himself, or settle for Alice, the housemaid who has always admired him. Although H. G. Wells – who was born in Bromley, Kent, in 1866, and died in 1946 – wrote more than 30 books, none of them can rival Kipps, which has justly been called the first modern novel.

The inevitable journey from Hitler’s V2 rocket to Sputnik I

Posted in Aerospace, Communism, Engineering, Famous news stories, Historical articles, Science, Space, Technology on Thursday, 9 May 2013

This edited article about Sputnik originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 247 published on 8 October 1966.

V2 rocket, picture, image, illustration
Hitler's V2 rocket

The Second World War accelerated interest in the development of rockets, and by 1945 the famous V2, forerunner of modern rocket systems, was a familiar phenomenon. Scientists and engineers, in both the Eastern and Western worlds, strove to perfect a rocket powerful enough to launch an artificial satellite.

These early satellites were needed to study the problems and dangers that faced Man when he ventured into the upper atmosphere and out into space.

On 4th October, 1957, the U.S.S.R. launched the world’s first artificial satellite. Called Sputnik I, this first explorer of the upper atmosphere weighed 184 pounds and was a polished metal sphere about 23 inches across. Travelling at a height which varied between 133 and 585 miles, it circled the Earth once every 95 minutes. Until the batteries powering the radio transmitter failed, it relayed back much information to the Russian scientists.

America built the world’s largest telescopes which looked into Deep Space

Posted in America, Astronomy, Historical articles, History, Philanthropy, Science, Space on Wednesday, 8 May 2013

This edited article about astronomy originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 247 published on 8 October 1966.

Andrew Carnegie, picture, image, illustration
Andrew Carnegie in 1913

There can be few people who have not heard of the Palomar Reflector, which has a mirror 200 inches across. It is much the most powerful telescope in the world, and it has allowed astronomers to look further into space than they would ever have been able to do without it. It is known as the Hale Reflector, in honour of the man who planned it, but who died before it was completed: George Ellery Hale.

Hale was born in 1868, in Chicago. Astronomy was his boyhood interest, and at the early age of 23 he became famous for his invention of an instrument known as a spectroheliograph, used in studying the Sun. Even as a young man, Hale was far-sighted; he knew that if men were to probe into the depths of the universe, large telescopes would be needed. Unfortunately, such instruments are very expensive indeed. It did not seem likely that any Government would put up the money for a giant telescope, and so Hale looked around for someone who would be prepared to do so.

In 1892 he met Charles Yerkes, a millionaire who owned a large part of the city of Chicago. Yerkes could afford to pay for a large telescope, and he agreed to finance the project. It was decided that the telescope should be a refractor, collecting its light by means of a lens known as an object-glass; the optics were made by Alvan G. Clark, the world’s leading expert. Clark’s object-glass, 40 inches in diameter, turned out to be well-nigh perfect. The telescope was set up in a new observatory outside Chicago, named in honour of Yerkes – with Hale, naturally enough, as its first Director.

Within a few years the Yerkes 40-inch had more than justified the 34,900 dollars spent in building it, but Hale was not satisfied. His motto was ‘More light!’ and he knew that the essential thing was to collect the light from immensely faint, remote stars and star-systems. The 40-inch, powerful though it was, had its limitations, and Hale made up his mind to obtain something better.

There were hopeless difficulties in the way of making an object-glass more than 40 inches across. However, a reflecting telescope collects its light by means of a mirror instead of a lens, and there seemed every chance that a huge mirror could be made – if only the money could be found.

Again Hale was lucky. Andrew Carnegie, one of the few men as wealthy as Charles Yerkes, had set up a financial trust known as the Carnegie Foundation, and this trust agreed to finance a reflector with a 60-inch mirror. George Ritchey, at that time unrivalled as a mirror-maker, took charge of the optical work, and in 1908 the new telescope was ready. It was placed in an observatory on Mount Wilson, a peak in California, from which the observing conditions were particularly good.

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In 1938 many Americans believed the Martians had landed

Posted in America, Communications, English Literature, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Space, Theatre on Friday, 12 April 2013

This edited article about H G Wells originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 223 published on 23 April 1966.

War of the Worlds panic, picture, image, illustration

Hysteria swept American cities during the Welles broadcast of the H G Wells classic, by Andrew Howat

The evening of October 30, 1938, was just like any other quiet Sunday night to most of the people of America. Many families were at home reading the papers or contentedly listening to the radio.

There were two programmes that night which attracted large audiences. One was a long-running comedy series, and the other a play produced by the actor-writer Orson Welles, whose talent was already winning him wide fame. He was presenting a dramatization of H. G. Wells’s classic science-fiction novel, The War of the Worlds.*

The listeners prepared themselves for an hour of cosy thrills but, after the opening announcement, the play did not start. Instead there was dance music.

Then, just as people were beginning to wonder if something had gone wrong, an announcer broke in with a dramatic “news-flash.” In an excited voice, he said that a professor in an observatory had just noted “a series of gas explosions on the planet Mars.”

This sensational news was followed by a stream of rapid on-the-spot broadcasts. These told the now uneasy listeners that a meteor had landed near Princeton, New Jersey, “killing some 1,500 persons.” Next came the announcement that it wasn’t a meteor after all, but “a metal cylinder containing Martians armed with death-rays,” who had come to wage war on the world!

The sheer brilliance and realism of the reporting convinced nearly everyone that the “invasion” really was taking place. And by nine o’clock that evening panic raged throughout the entire length and breadth of the United States.

In New York City hundreds of families fled in terror from their apartments and sought sanctuary in the parks. In San Francisco, on the West Coast, citizens ran into the streets and searched the sky for the invaders. Some people, thinking they were under gas attack by the Germans, even wrapped wet towels and handkerchiefs around their heads.

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NASA and the USAF developed the X-15 Rocket Plane

Posted in Aerospace, Aviation, Space, Technology on Thursday, 28 March 2013

This edited article about aviation originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 214 published on 19 February 1966.

X-15 rocket plane, picture, image, illlustration

X-15 Rocket Plane by Wilf Hardy

The sun glinting on its metal fuselage, the giant B-52 bomber scored eight vapour trails across the purple sky. Hanging beneath its port wing was a sharp-nosed rocket plane, the X-15, looking like something out of a science fiction story, with its huge wedge-shaped fins and short stub wings.

It was July 17, 1962, and sitting in the cockpit of the rocket plane, wearing a silver pressure suit that was in fact a full space suit, was Major Robert White, a test pilot for the United States Air Force. In a few minutes he would be released from the B-52 and propelled by rocket beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

All the X-15′s complex machinery was working satisfactorily, the big XLR-99 rocket engine was primed and ready to go and the jet fighter chase planes that would help guide the rocket back to base after the flight were in position. The X-15 suddenly dropped away from the bomber’s wing and as the rocket engine exploded into life, a thirty-foot flame, laced with white diamond-shaped shock waves, shot from the tail.

For eighty-four seconds White endured the thunderous roar from the rocket that propelled him to 314,750 ft. above the earth. There he hung in space, at the top of a long curving arc, before skilfully piloting the X-15 back home to Edwards Air Force Base, Southern California.

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Cosmic debris bombards the Earth by day and night

Posted in Astronomy, Science, Space on Monday, 29 October 2012

This edited article about space originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 773 published on 6th November 1975.

Meteor in 1868, picture, image, illustration

The Great Meteor of October 7, 1868

Hurtling through the heavens, a huge mass of rock weighing a thousand tons or more streaked Earthwards. From somewhere in the vastness of space it had been torn away by cosmic forces from its parent body – perhaps an asteroid that had shattered during a collision with another body – and found itself grasped by the Earth’s gravity.

Astronomers in their observations anxiously plotted its course. Its destination appeared to be the western United States where, if it landed, it could tear a huge crater in the Earth’s surface. Buildings would crumble, people would be killed. It would be a disaster.

Fortunately, the date of its appearance, 10th August, 1972, passed without the expected catastrophe. For the monster from outer space skimmed past the Earth just missing it by a mere 58 kilometres, or about 33 miles.

It was lucky for us that it did so, although the Earth is no stranger to visitors – not living ones it should be emphasised – from outer space. Scientists calculate that about twenty average-sized comets have hit the Earth since it was created. These can be imagined as large, dirty snowballs of particles of rock and dust held together by frozen gases.

We are also in the firing line for asteroids, which are made of rock and metal and are the rocky remnants of comets which broke up when the frozen gas, which was holding them together, escaped. Really big ones crash on to the Earth about once every 50,000 years and make a crater about 1 km (over half a mile) in diameter. There is one of this size in Arizona, U.S.A., estimated to be about 50,000 years old.

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