The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena

A photo I snapped on a previous visit to the Herschel Museum of Caroline's trinket box, complete with a lock of William's hair and her worry-bead.

Come Sunday I shall take the train to Bath for the INSAP VII conference: The Seventh international conference on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, held this year in Bath, home to Caroline and William Herschel (as well as their younger brother Alexander): a conference of precisely 100 delegates who will convene at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution to share their work, ranging from art to academic studies – and a novel, of course! – all inspired by astronomy.

The opening reception will be held at the Herschel House, the home at New King Street where the Herschels used to live and work. The following week is packed with 20-minute talks and presentations, and I’m glad to be giving a reading from my manuscript on Monday so I can then relax and enjoy. I adore Bath! So, I shall give a reading from Double the Stars: The Life and Adventures of Miss Caroline Herschel. And I’m sure I’ll meet a great number of interesting and talented people, as well as see a few people I’ve met before in my astronomical adventurings, not least Michael Hoskin, leading Herschel scholar, and Peter Hingley, Librarian at the Royal Astronomical Society and the very person who told me about the conference.

Mushrooms at the Whipple Museum!

Bremia lactucae
A microscopic fungus which Dr. Weston made into a glass model.
A reminder that the Whipple Museum Fantastic Fungus day draws near: it will take place on 30th October.
Please remember: this event is free but phone 01223 330906 to book a space!
To whet your appetites for a mushroom-filled day, below is an abstract from Ruth Horry, who will give a brief talk on the scintillating Dillon Weston glass fungi models which make up part of the Whipple Museum’s collection and are the inspiration for this poetry workshop. To view a Weston glass model of Bremia lactucae fungus (shown left in real size on a leaf,) click here.
Talk title:  glass fungi models in the Whipple Museum’s collection
In the Whipple Museum’s Main Gallery, a collection of delicate glass models reveal a beautiful hidden microscopic world of fungi. When fruit goes mouldy or vegetables turn rotten, many of us would turn away in disgust. But for fungus-expert Dr. William Dillon Weston (1899-1953), studying diseases of fruit and vegetable crops was his lifetime’s passion, in both his scientific work and his spare time.
By day, Dr. Dillon Weston carried out research experiments at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in Cambridge. His scientific work included investigating how fungal diseases spread through the air, using equipment strapped to aeroplane wings and an experimental transatlantic airship. At night, however, his hobby was creating hand-made glass models of the microscopic fungi that he studied. Almost 100 of these delicate fungi models are held in the Whipple Museum’s collection, all made between 1936 and 1953. They show the structures of disease-causing fungi including the potato blight fungus and moulds found on bread and vegetables. My talk will introduce the models and explore the artistic and scientific inventiveness of their maker, whether he was crafting models in glass or chasing crop diseases through the air.

Ruth Horry is a former member of Whipple Museum staff, currently working on her PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

Naturewatch: window-ledge, at home

Spider & Web.
8/10/10: The ladybird invasion has begun. They gather and huddle together high in the grooves of our window-frame for winter. As I was looking at the various ladybirds (many harlequins, unfortunately,) I noticed a common garden spider, Araneus diadematus, busily repairing its web after discarding a snack. Guess what it was? Yup, a ladybird. The spider has pitched up just outside the window and it was awesome to watch. I managed to get one not-awful picture, but really, it was about watching the swift and delicate process of the spider weaving its web. I love that the web is far from perfect, too. That’s not how nature works!
I do enjoy watching these things, though to be fair I wasn’t terribly pleased (though I was certainly excited, in a shrieking kind of way,) when a very large, hairy Tegenaria scooted from who knows where right under Dani’s seat at the computer. He was the one who leapt onto the chair; I got the Spider-Catcher. Which, for the record, was a gift from me to Dani so I wouldn’t have to catch the spiders all the time. To be fair, he ended up catching it because I couldn’t quite get it. We do so enjoy chucking them out the window, just over the doorway where the neighbours we don’t like live. The spiders won’t be hurt by the fall, and I like to imagine them immediately running into the neighbour’s flat to wreak havoc (which probably never really happens).
At least we don’t live in Australia…

Fantastic Fungus Day at the Whipple

Four our next writer-in-residence event at the delightful Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, I am hosting a ‘Fantastic Fungus Day’ centred around a free poetry workshop. This event is open to all and FREE, so please sign up or help spread the word!
The workshop is part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. It will take place on Saturday, 30 October from 10-2, with a 1-hour lunch break.
The workshop will encompass the spectacular Dillon Weston hand-made glass fungus models which are part of the Whipple Museum’s collection. You can read more about the glass models here.
What: FREE creative writing workshop. Please note that booking is required for this event.
Telephone: 01223 330906
Writers are invited to look, listen, and write in a workshop which will include a talk on the history of the glass fungi models on display in the Whipple Museum, a discussion on mushrooms in medicine, and a collection of poetry about mushrooms.
  • 10:00-10:30: Introductions; Kelley Swain, writer-in-residence at the Whipple, will lead a reading and discussion of samples of mushroom poetry. Guests will each receive a packet of collected mushroom poetry.
  • 10:30 – 11:00: PhD student Ruth Horry will give a short talk on the Weston display of glass fungi.
  • 11:00-11:30: Time for discussion, writing, and examining the glass fungi models.
  • 11:30-12:00: Reconvene for short talk on the history of mushrooms in medicine by Dr. Richard Barnett, author of the wonderful Medical London.
  • 12:00-1:00: Break for lunch.
  • 1:00-1:30: Time for discussion, writing. Real mushrooms will be available as writing prompts.
  • 1:30-1:50: Those who wish to share what they have written will be invited to do so.

And we’re back!

Dear readers,

After some technical difficulties, I’m finally trying to catch up on my blogging, hence the spate of postings today. Thank you for reading and I hope your writing or other creative endeavours are going well!



Behind the Scenes at the Natural History Musuem

The stores: climate-controlled, pest-controlled, light-controlled...
On Sunday 19 September, Dani and I were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the Natural History Museum’s Darwin Centre II, specifically the entomology stores and even more specifically, the hymenopteran collections. We have our friend David Notton to thank for this treat, as David works as Senior Curator of hymenoptera – that’s social insects, like bees, ants and wasps – and kindly offered to show us his incredible workspace.
Call it luck, serendipity, or fate, but I met David through researching my latest book, which is about astronomy, not insects. My novel Double the Stars, a fictionalized biography of the extraordinary life of astronomer Caroline Herschel, led me to meeting some of Caroline’s descendants, who have proven encouraging and enthusiastic about the book. Cassie, Caroline’s great (great, great) niece, happens to live about 10 minutes’ walk from us, and David is her partner.
David pointing out some hymenopteran samples.
When David and I met, the conversation went something like this:
Me: ‘And what do you do?’
David: ‘I work with ants and bees…’
Me: ‘That’s hymenopterans, right?’
David: [Huge grin] ‘Well done!’
And thus I gave them a copy of Darwin’s Microscope, and subsequently David extended his kind invitation.
David met Dani and me at the reception desk of the Darwin Centre. An excellent picture of this, the newest, 8-story wing of the grand Natural History Museum, can be seen here.…the Darwin Centre is the strange white cube to the left of the grand old Victorian building, within which is ‘The Cocoon’ (more on that later). Some architectural highlights of the DC II are described here.
David took us up to Level 3, behind many locked doors requiring passes, to the entomology floor. A long hallway stretched out with tall glass windows on one side, overlooking the Cocoon. To the right sprawled the office spaces of the entomologists. To the left, another locked door: the Store Room. David swiped his key card, and we walked left. Automatic lights flicked on with the precision of a one-year-old, £78 million new wing. We were greeted by long rows of cool grey cabinets on rollers, which could be pushed back and forth for access: a large part of the 17 million insect specimens housed in the new building.
Darwin's wasp.
Navigating and unlocking cabinets with expert ease, David showed us a ‘sample tray’ to give Dani an idea of what we’re talking about with hymenopterans. I learned that though this does include social insects, they are not all social by any means; David showed us some bees that build individual cells of wax in which to plant their offspring. It’s odd to imagine a bee without a hive!
We saw a tarantula-eating wasp (it was huge, with bright orange wings,) and iridescent bees of brilliant blue and green colours; entomologists still aren’t sure why the bees are so brilliant, as both males and females are iridescent (shaking up the question of sexual selection or favouritism by females). It may have to do with bees being able to see into the infrared spectrum. Apparently, these critters collect bits of pretty things to bring as gifts to the nest, and David cited an example of DDT being carried by some of them! ‘That didn’t last long.’
Of course, I requested the obligatory ‘Darwin Sample,’ which is still, let’s face it, so cool, and David obligingly pulled out a drawer full of teeny, tiny wasps, one of which had pride of place in the middle, with space around it, and a little tag: ‘Conception, Chile. C. Darwin.’ What is likely Darwin’s own handwriting can be glimpsed beneath the typed tag –
it looks like Darwin’s handwriting to me…
Next, David showed us his office area, where he is working on researching some little wasps which look quite a lot like the Darwin specimen. He switched on his microscope and we got to see the little beastie up close.
The icing on the cake was going up to the roof terrace of the DCII for tea and biscuits. Tea and biscuits on the roof of the Natural History Museum! And this was the staff room – these guys get to hang out here every day! I can’t say much more but THANK YOU, David!

Naturewatch: Blackheath and Greenwich Park 6/10/10


Beefsteak fungus

After this morning’s heavy rain, the sun burned so clear that the thick green grass of the heath shone nearly blue. It is a welcome relief after the scorched heath of August, burnt crisp from the dry heat and further damaged by a brush fire. In the Rose Garden on the west side of Greenwich Park, the last of the bushes dropped their petals to the ground, and a bee carefully reaped and sowed an open blossom, riffling through each yellow anther.

In the gated enclosure on the southeast side of the park, about thirty pigeons sat, plump in the manicured grass, each one facing west, the wampum gloss of their breasts acting as little solar panels to soak up the warmth of the afternoon. Meanwhile, larger, reptile-eyed wood pigeons stalked the dim undergrowth, where grew a vast array of mushrooms, from sprouting sticklike armies to dinner-plate sized fungi with names like beefsteak fungus.

The heath boasted fairy rings of mushrooms in its lush grass, and all along the paths of the Park, the woody spikes of horse chestnuts (conkers) plunked beside the more delicate spiny shells of delicious chestnuts. In the Park’s deer enclosure, a Red stag with a large rack of antlers bellowed for a mate, while the little white Fallow deer snoozed in groups on the lawn.