+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts from January 2021

Photo post of the week

Or, the local neighbourhood

The combination of being back at work, and the ongoing pandemic situation (particular disastrous in this misgoverned country) means that photography at the moment is limited to things we can photograph whilst walking-for-exercise (if it was walking-for-fun it would be strictly forbidden, of course). Luckily, there are enough interesting views within walking distance that it doesn’t have to be a completely fallow period. Last weekend, when it was cold, I took the camera out and have already posted here the photos I took of Ridgeway Park Cemetery. However, as it was such a cold and icy day, there were plenty of others too. Being an inner city area, we naturally have dystopian motorway overpasses…

M32 viaduct over the River Frome

However, there’s also the wide open spaces of Eastville Park.

Eastville Park

Eastville Park

The park’s pond had frozen and refrozen a few times over the preceding days, and The Children enjoyed seeing how far sticks would slide across the surface of the ice.

Frozen pond

The river, though, was unusually clear. We stood a while by Stapleton Weir and watched the river water foaming over the edge.

Stapleton Weir

All in all, it’s not too bad an area to live in.

Yet another crafting project (part one)

Some more cross-stitch

Attentive regular readers might remember that in the lead-up to Yuletide, our office held a Christmas Craftalong, in which everyone who was interested got together in a remote meeting and did the same small cross-stitch kit together. After I’d finished it, I said:

Will I go on to do more cross-stitch? Well, it was a fun way to spend a few evenings. Maybe if I can find some more kits that aren’t irredeemably twee, I might do.

It didn’t take me long, really, before I was on the internet searching for cross-stitch kits or just patterns that I’d be happy to put up on the wall when finished. However, a few weeks later, everything has arrived and I’ve been able to make a start.

The start of some more cross-stitch

I won’t say what it is for now, although you’re welcome to try and guess. The design, when it arrived, suddenly looked much bigger than it did on-screen, so this might take me a little bit longer to finish than the Christmas robin did.

New star in the sky

Or, some astronomy news

When you’re learning about astronomy, you quickly get used to the idea that on a human timescale everything is static and nothing really changes. The Earth is going to be swallowed up by the sun,* but it won’t be for a few billion years yet. When you look up at the sky the light you see from other stars has been travelling for hundreds, thousands or millions of years. In general this is all part of the Copernican principle: on a universal scale there’s nothing special about where we are or when we are, other than that we could only be living at a time and place where planets are commonplace. Therefore, there’s not a very high chance of anything special happening whilst we’re looking.

However, that doesn’t mean that interesting things can’t happen. Before the end of the century, there will briefly be a new brightest star in the sky.

The star in question is V Sagittae (or V Sge to its friends). Sagitta—not to be confused with Sagittarius— is a small constellation adjoining Cygnus. Unless you’re an astronomy fan it’s the sort of constellation you might not even have noticed, as it’s small and it doesn’t have any very bright stars in it. Living where we do, I’d struggle most nights to see even its brightest star with the naked eye. V Sge is in theory just about visible in The Child Who Likes Animals’ telescope; it’s around magnitude 10, although it varies quite a bit and over quite short timescales.

Since it was first discovered it’s been realised that it was a bit unusual. It’s a binary system, with an “ordinary” sun-like star orbiting around a smaller white dwarf. More recently, astronomers realised that the pair of stars were getting noticeably brighter over time as their orbit shrinks and they get closer to each other. Last week, it was announced that at some time in the last three decades of the current century, they will finally spiral into each other and temporarily become the brightest star in the sky. If you want to know full details, this is the press release of the announcement from Louisiana State University, and here are links to the full data.

At present the time range is a bit on the vague side, but it will almost certainly happen in a 32-year span centred on 2083. No doubt, now that more astronomers know about this, we’ll get more data over the next few years to narrow down the time range. And even before then, V Sge will probably get a bit brighter over time, as it’s doubled in brightness in the past 90 years. I might even see if we can see it ourselves now if we get good conditions: its part of the sky is well-positioned for early evening viewing from here at this time of year. I’m not likely to see it go nova myself, but The Children might do.

* Assuming nothing else catastrophic happens to it first, such as being kicked out of the Solar System completely. It’s unlikely but it’s not impossible.

Local cemeteries, redux

Or, improvements in photography

Regular readers might remember the post last week about Ridgeway Park Cemetery, a small and heavily overgrown cemetery bordering Eastville Park in Bristol. As our daily exercise at the weekend, I took The Children back there again, but took the Proper Camera with me this time.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

It was an excellent winter’s day for taking the camera out, and you can certainly see the difference when compared to the previous photos.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

We took the opportunity, as it is winter, to poke around in some of the parts of the cemetery that are completely overgrown and virtually impassable in summer.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

I won’t post the full set of photos here because there’s quite a few, but you can go and look at them on Flickr if you’d like; I’ve tried to transcribe some of the inscriptions too.

Just like clockwork (part one)

Time for a building project

Back in the mists of time on Boxing Day, I posted a clue as to what one of my Christmas presents was. A model tram from UGears, which I have been slowly assembling since.

It’s been a fun project, but I’m not completely sure it lives up to the promise on their website that “no glue, special expertise, tools or equipment are required”. With a fair wind and if everything goes well, then maybe. When I opened the box, the kit consisted of:

  • Various laser-cut plywood sheets.
  • Two rubber bands.
  • A small square of fine sandpaper.
  • A number of cocktail sticks, individually wrapped.
  • A glossy and comprehensive instruction book.

The instruction book is very good and very clear, with each step being shown as a 3D-rendered diagram. However, it starts off listing the extra pieces of equipment you need which aren’t supplied:

  • Candle wax, to lubricate the moving parts.
  • A knife, to cut some of the cocktail sticks to length.

With those to hand, you start off by assembling various gear shafts. Each of these assemblies consists of the gears themselves, four wooden wedges that are inserted through the gear centres, and a cocktail stick that has to be squeezed through a small hole left right in the middle where the four wedges meet.

The first gear shafts

These are the first ones in the instructions; gears, but also the main “wheels” that the tram sits on. The instructions say the cocktail stick should be inserted symmetrically, with the same length protruding from each end, so it’s very helpful to have a small steel rule to assist with doing it by eye. If the “axle” isn’t symmetrical, a measuring tool is included in the kit to indicate how much the stick should project from one end.

Inserting the cocktail sticks was the first big hurdle. Making the kit in the advised way—assemble the wedges into the gears then slide the cocktail stick down the middle—is very hard to do without accidentally blunting the sharp points at the ends. Unless you’re dealing with one of the gear shafts which needs one or both ends trimming short, this is a problem, because it’s very easy to blunt the sticks to the extent they won’t work any more. I found for most it was easier to assemble the shafts in a slightly different order: take one gear, insert the wedge pieces and the cocktail stick into that gear alone, then squeeze the wedges together at the other end and slide the other gear over the wedges’ clip-shaped ends.

The tolerances of the cocktail sticks don’t help, either. Some parts require sticks to be inserted into holes in the plywood parts, and these are all supposedly a push fit. What quickly became clear is that the cocktail sticks are made to rather looser tolerances than the laser-cut parts: some sticks will be a reasonable push-fit in the holes, and some will have no chance of going in. With these parts, I ended up picking which stick I was going to use, then opening out the hole with a broach to fit. If I went a bit too far and made it a sliding fit, I used a little dab of Resin W to glue the stick in place.

The parts for a pawl

You can see this under way with these parts for the pawl which holds the “rubber band shaft” tight after it’s been wound. You can also see that here I’m reusing a cocktail stick whose end I have already wrecked, in a position where it will be trimmed off short. As the lowest of the three holes in each pawl piece is rather close to the edge, I found one of the narrower sticks in the kit for that position, so it wouldn’t need opening out at all. You can clearly see the different widths of the supplied cocktail sticks, and on the right-hand pawl piece you can see how much I’ve had to open out the uppermost hole, compared to the unmodified bottom hole, in order for the fat stick at the top to be a push fit into it. Using a broach for this, it’s easy to roughly remember how much of the broach’s cutting length is needed to get the hole to around the right width before you start testing for fit.

Assembled pawl awaiting trimming

Once the parts were pushed onto the sticks, the ends of two could be trimmed off, leaving a single shaft for it to pivot on.

Completed pawl

Building all the various gears and related parts took quite a few hours, so it was rather pleasing how easily the main framework of the tram fitted together, and how straightforward it was to slip the ends of each shaft into their appropriate hole in the frames. It was rather pleasing, too, to find how well the initial gear chain rotated. It links the wheels together, and also includes a shaft which seems to be in there purely to make a clicking noise.

You might notice that the pawl from the previous photos hasn’t been fitted to the main assembly yet. That comes later, and was a little bit more fiddly. We’ll come on to that another time.

To be continued.

Sons and daughters of the soil

On local history (in general)

A train of thought has been slowly easing into the station over the past few days, after I read a very interesting blog post by historian Caitlin Green about the Ridings of Lindsey and the route between Lincoln and Grimsby—at any rate, the route between Lincoln and Grimsby mapped in 1675 by the Scottish cartographer John Ogilby. Ogilby was the creator of Britannia, Britain’s first road atlas, in the form of 100 cross-country routes drawn as strip-maps at a scale of 1 inch to the mile. Nottingham to Grimsby via Lincoln is map 78.

I recall watching a documentary when I was a child about the history of mapping, which discussed Ogilby, and for some unknown-to-me-reason it was illustrated with rostrum shots of Ogilby’s Grimsby-to-Lincoln route. I was baffled and amazed. Firstly, that of all places, they had decided to show a map of the very village I was living in at the time; and secondly, that our village was on Ogilby’s map. Our village was on a route from Grimsby to Lincoln, but it certainly wasn’t on the main one.

Nowadays there are basically two reasonable routes between Grimsby and Lincoln. You have the main road, the A46, with various straightened-out parts and bypasses and suchlike. Parallel to half of it, though, is the B1203: in general it still goes through villages rather than around them, and it goes up and down a lot more. The A46 cuts across the Wolds from Grimsby to Caistor, then runs south along their foot to Market Rasen, minimising the time it spends on the hilly ground. The B-road’s route is closer to a crow-flies route from Market Rasen to Grimsby, but as a result much more of its route is in the hills. This is the route that appears on Ogilby’s map, following much the same route as the B1203 today. However, it wasn’t until I read Dr Green’s post the other day, that it really occurred to me that, of course, Ogilby’s route didn’t quite follow the same route as the modern roads. The question of exactly which routes were meant by Ogilby when compared to modern topography is a very interesting one.

My thoughts on this led to a bit of a Twitter discussion with Dr Green,as to how Waltham has developed over the years and how the pre-enclosure road from Waltham to Scartho might have survived as a footpath down to the 1950s. That’s not really what I wanted to talk about today, though, although I might possibly write something about it in the future. The train of thought that’s been wandering around in my head this week is more about the importance of fine-grained local history, and how easily it is lost.

The Mother spent a lot of time over the last twenty years researching our family tree—or, rather, her family tree, as she gave up on my dad’s when she discovered a number of things in the early 20th Century which didn’t quite tally with her views on how People Used To Behave.* From her grandmother, she inherited a Victorian Bible with lists of various marriages and dates of birth inscribed on the flyleaf, and various stories about how her family were descended from Spanish pirates who had settled in Cornwall in the 16th century. These had presumably all come from her grandmother’s parents, who had been the first generation to move out of their tiny Cornish fishing village and had moved to London to marry and have children. I don’t remember meeting my great-grandmother, but apparently she was always also very proud of her “genuine Cockney” roots, having been born in Soho. My mother got right onto all of this, feeding the information into Ancestry, linking it up with other people who could trace their roots back to the same Cornish fishing village, and so on. However, all she ever seemed to be interested in were names on a chart. She entered different ancestors’ names into the data like a birdwatcher who is only interested in ticking each species off in a book, or a trainspotter who does nothing more than gather numbers. That’s…not really what history means to me. To me, history is more about what these people actually did. How they lived their lives, and what the world was like around them.

When we moved to Waltham, before I started school, we moved to a new-build house on a clean new estate with barely any sense of history. My parents, too, seemed to have no sense of history or of the landscape around us. I remember asking The Mother one day what we might find if we did an archaeological dig in the garden, and she replied with: “nothing at all, it was just a field.” It took a few years before I realised that one farmhouse left behind on the estate was much older than all the other buildings; or before I realised that one cul-de-sac was in the middle of a mature avenue of trees. As far as my family were concerned, or anyone I knew, the village was tabula rasa, a clean slate with no history save for the old windmill and the part-Saxon church. All of the roads might for all I knew have been there for eternity, whether built two or two hundred years before. History, to me, was the sharp-angled village library, built in 1981.

At secondary school we learned about enclosure and were shown before and after maps of each of the local villages. Most of the roads, we were told, were built at enclosure, which is why they have sharp bends or zig-zags where they cross the parish boundary. So how did people travel before that? There were few if any roads marked on the pre-enclosure maps. What route was John Ogilby marking on his map, if all the roads were built later? If I thought at all to ask any of these questions, nobody quite knew how to answer them.

I recall someone from my parents’ generation who had grown up in the village telling us that a slight rise in the Grimsby road, close to the old village school, was called Pepper’s Hill. As a name, it didn’t appear on any maps, and I have no idea where it came from, or where she had got it from. Moreover, why did nobody else know about this, and why had nobody told me?

Traditionally, history was always seen as a grand progression of Great Men, of names and dates and battles and similar Important Events. That’s still believed in some regressive, reactionary circles, but it’s not true. There are many histories, and everyone’s story is a history in itself. I love the history of place, the fine-grained history and archaeology of a small piece of topography, the sort of history that asks where the roads really did run in a particular village a few hundred years ago. It’s one of the reasons I waffle on here so much about local cemeteries and suchlike, and why I think it’s worthwhile to look at just how individual places and neighbourhoods have changed. It’s even more important to look at a regular neighbourhood than it is to study the history of a castle or a palace; but so much is lost, or overlooked, or just forgotten. My great-great-grandparents left Cornwall, and left behind them so much knowledge of their tiny village and of their local towns that is all gone completely now, so much dust in the wind. I can go back to where they came from and walk the same streets; I can go to the village museum and see walls of photos of Victorian fisherman who are probably all distant relations of myself; but I have no connection with that landscape or with any of the people. My family has jumped too many times, and broken its connections at each one.

If you go all the way back, back to when the English first arrived here, just think: there is so much that has been forgotten and lost. There are so many rivers in England called Avon, and we do not know the pre-English name for any of them, because Avon is just the Welsh word for “river”. There are so many kings of Britain, from the period after the Romans left and before the English arrived, whose names and numbers and forts are forgotten and missing from the record completely, because they had the misfortune to lose a war. The history we do have now is the history of survivors, but sometimes we should remember there is a history of the forgotten too.

This post is a bit of a mish-mash, a bit of a strange ramble around my mind, but I suppose what I’m really trying to do is set out some sort of a manifesto, for why I like to study history, for why I went and got myself a degree in archaeology, and for what I think is important in those fields. Above all, this is a plea to know the land around you, know its shape and how it came about, know what was here before you and what you have inherited. I hope that wherever I live in the future I will always try to learn about the landscape around me; and hopefully now I’m an adult I will have the resources to be able to do that. This land is our land, but we merely hold it in trust for our descendents; and the same goes for our history too.

* My great-grandparents got together circa 1910 or so but never actually married—because my great-grandfather was already married to someone else. Allegedly, a few decades later someone used this fact to taunt my grandmother, and she immediately punched them to the floor. There were also other bits which would be hard to even draw on a standard family tree, such as the distant relative of my dad who got married to his stepmother’s sister.

Under clear skies

Or, some unexpected astronomy

“Is it cloudy or clear?” said The Child Who Likes Animals yesterday evening after finishing his tea.

“I don’t know,” I said, knowing the weather forecast was showing a solid grey sky for the whole of the evening. “Let’s have a look,” knowing there was little risk of us being able to look at the stars.

I opened the back door, and was rather surprised to see clear skies and good visibility. “LET’S GET THE TELESCOPE OUT!” screamed The Child Who Likes Animals Space. I had been planning to head straight to the sofa and the book I’m in the middle of reading,* but agreed that, if we could come up with a sensible plan for what we were actually going to look at, I would set it all up for him.

We fired up Stellarium and I tried to find things that would be interesting to see and straightforward to find. Outside, I had already seen the cross of Cygnus was fairly high in the sky, with Cassiopeia above it, so I make a risky suggestion. “Why don’t we try to see the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula?” I said, knowing that with our inner-city skies nebulas and other deep-sky objects do not put on a very good show. It does, though, have a very child-friendly name.

I set the telescope up on the table outside, and tried to get my eye in. It was immediately obvious that viewing conditions were on average far, far better than they had been on New Years Eve. The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula has the benefit that it’s close to an easy-to-find star, Alderamin (α Cephei). I quickly navigated ten degrees south to the location of the nebula, was confident I was there from the pattern of the stars. And was there anything? Well … maybe. Charitably, I could convince myself that the sky did indeed look slightly brighter than elsewhere in the sky; that I could see hints of structure that were not just inside my own eyeballs and brain. The Children, though, would have none of it.

Luckily, I’d noticed there was something interesting just by the nebula, and confirmed with the computer that I was looking at Herschel’s Garnet (μ Cephei). It’s a red supergiant star, a thousand times broader than our sun, and a distinctive pale peach colour to the eye—the astronomer William Herschel described it as “deep garnet”, hence the name. As its colour is so clear to see, The Children were reasonably impressed.

As it was so clear, we also pointed the telescope at the Pleiades, the view of which wowed The Child Who Likes Fairies (“There’s literally trillions of stars!”) then, the cluster NGC 7686 and the Andromeda Galaxy. The latter was, to my eyes, a slightly clearer fuzzy blob than it has been in the past, but still just a fuzzy blob. The Child Who Likes Animals said he could see it clearly; The Child Who Likes Fairies could not.

Thinking about what we should be able to see in the sky, I did a bit of maths. Say the pupil of one eye when it’s dilated is about 8mm wide—I’m just guessing this part really. We’re using a 150mm telescope: that’s 350 times as large as a pupil, so it gathers 350 times as much light. That’s a difference in astronomical magnitude of just under 6.4. Now, when I was aiming the telescope last night, once my eyes were adapted I could just about make out stars of magnitude 3.8 to 4.2; such as the stars λ Andromedae, κ Andromedae and ι Andromedae, which I used to find NGC 7686 and which I’ll have to write about again some other time.** I suspect that that’s as good as things are ever going to get in our hazy and light-polluted urban sky. But taking the telescope’s light-gathering power into account, if I’ve got the theory correct, I should be able to see things of magnitude 10 to 10.5 or so through it. Next time we have good seeing, I should test this out: look up at a few things and find out what the official magnitude of the stars I can just barely see is.

When I’ve done that, of course, I should probably think about getting some way to record what I can see, rather than just trying to describe it to you. The Child Who Likes Animals’s telescope is a Dobsonian with an altitude-azimuth mount, which means long-exposure photos are probably out, but I’d like to look at our options and see exactly what we could try to do instead.

* The Northmen’s Fury: A History of the Viking World by Philip Parker.

** Because in looking up their names for this post, I’ve discovered they form part of the former constellation named after Friedrich the Great of Prussia, Honores Friderici.

Look into my eyes

A brief digression into heterochromia

Yesterday’s post about applying human assumptions to the rest of the universe set my mind off running down another tangent, about our tendency firstly to oversimplify the world, and secondly to insist on the validity of our oversimplified mental map of the world in the face of all the evidence that it is wrong.

One of my early memories of The Mother, from before I started school, is talking to her about eye colour: what colour my eyes are and what colour hers are. “Mine are different colours,” she said. “One is greeny-brown and the other is browny-green.” It’s a very subtle distinction to make, even when you’re four years old, but nevertheless one you can understand. “Yours are almost blue,” she said. And—as I learned when I looked—my eyes are almost blue. Most of the iris is a very pale blue-grey. The central ring around the pupil isn’t: it’s a greenish-hazel colour.

When I was older, in biology class at school, I found that in class you occasionally discuss things like inheritance and eye colour and so on. The teacher, or someone else in the class, will ask you what colour your eyes are. “Blue on the outside but green in the middle,” is not, it turns out, considered an acceptable answer by most teachers, even less so by most of the other pupils. “That’s impossible,” is the answer you get.* “Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

Similarly, anything along the lines of “My mother says her eyes are slightly different colours” gets the same answer. “That’s impossible. Your eyes can’t be more than one colour.”

None of these people, as you might imagine, ever seemed to think it might be straightforward to confirm or deny whether I was telling the truth, at least not in my case. Even though they could easily have just looked into my eyes, they didn’t bother. It was relatively recently that I discovered it’s called heterochromia—central heterochromia in my case—and it’s sufficiently common for the Wikipedia page to have a gallery of celebrities who have one form or another of it.

Similarly, one of the things we were taught in school biology class was the now extremely discredited concept that there are only a handful of “races” in the world: Caucasian, African, Oriental and so on. The teacher pointed to someone in the class and said “which of these is he?” “Caucasian,” everyone chorused. But then he pointed to one of the children in the class whose parents were from Pakistan—and almost everyone in the classroom seemed completely stumped. “…African?” someone attempted after a lot of hesitation, before I think I put my hand up and said: “Caucasian is the closest.” What I wish I had said, what somebody should have said, is: clearly this classification scheme is a load of nonsense.

There are so many things in the world where, given a simplistic explanation or a simplistic and naieve classification scheme for something, people will believe in it intensely, hold it tight to their hearts, even when it only takes the slightest amount of evidence, staring them straight in the face, to show that it clearly is wrong. There are so many “facts” in history that are accepted as the truth, even when it’s clear to see that they are a nonsense. “Columbus discovered America” is the most blatant example that springs to mind, but there are many, many more. Why do people do that? It’s easy, I suppose. People believe what they are taught, especially when they are taught it when they are easily impressionable.

As for me: well, I did certainly believe everything my teachers told me, when I was young enough. At quite a young age, though, I started to notice when I was being taught things that clearly weren’t in line with the evidence in front of my eyes. The colour of my eyes for one thing. Maybe it’s a curse, to be able to notice that and have to stand back and go “hang on a moment there…” I prefer to think it’s a benefit. I can’t imagine, whichever, that I will ever stop doing it.

* Unless of course the person in question has already read this blog post via a time machine.

The world of the humans

Or, the things we assume just because we assume they'll be like us

A random thought came to me the other day, about how we frame the world. How we conceive of the world, almost entirely around one particular mental framework: that the world and the universe operate in the same way as humans in general and ourselves in particular.

Take, for example, the mayfly. They’re famous for only living a few hours. They emerge, live, reproduce and die in the space of a single day, in the case of many mayfly species. In the most extreme case, Dolania americana live and die in, at most, half an hour for the males, about five minutes for the females.

Except that: of course they don’t, really. We’re talking here about their “adult lifespan”. Most mayflys live about a year, most of which they spend in a “juvenile” state. It’s only the “adult” stage that is quite so brief. It is, it’s fair to say, by far the most visible stage of the mayfly lifecycle. We call it the adult stage because it’s the stage of sexual maturity and reproduction. Mentally, we privilege that stage because most humans spend most of their lives as adults. But for mayflys that’s not really relevant. It’s a tiny fraction of their lives. They don’t even eat in that stage of their life, nor can they. The primary stage of their life, in the sense of it being the one they spend the most of their time doing, is the water-dwelling flightless “nymph” form.

I distinguished above between male and female Dolania americana mayflys. Even these terms, though, are glued on from the human experience, without really considering how relevant and applicable they are. Yes, there are two sexually distinct forms of the species. One of them mates, lays eggs, and then dies; the other mates as much as it can before dying from exhaustion. Being humans, we have an innate tendency to look for parallels and for binary opposites, so we attach the labels “male” and “female”. We probably then also make a lot more assumptions as to what this actually means for the mayflies.

The Plain People Of The Internet: But isn’t that all down to your chromosomes and whatnot? We all have chromosomes! They all have chromosomes! It’s all very basic and that.

Except…that’s not really the case. We have XY chromosomes, where some people have two matching big chromosomes labelled X and some people have one big X one and one small Y one, and we say the former are female and the latter are male. Birds, by comparison, have what are called “ZW” chromosomes: the animals that have one big chromosome and one little one are the ones that lay eggs so we call them female, and the animals that have two big identical chromosomes don’t lay eggs and are called male. Birds and ourselves both evolved from reptiles, not at all that far back in history compared to, say, us and mayflies. There are other reptiles that also use “the ZW system”, but they have different chromosomes for Z and W, showing that they evolved the ZW system independently from the birds and other dinosaurs. And naturally this is without even considering “unusual” cases such as intersex conditions, which we know occur relatively frequently in humans, so must occur relatively frequently in other animals too whether or not anybody has actually noticed. Incidentally, some mayflys can become intersex as a result of parasitic infection and some mosquitos as a result of changes in temperature; that paper also summarises some of the many different genetic and non-genetic mechanisms which determine sexual development in insects.

My point here isn’t just to say that the world is considerably more complex than you thought; more, that at a very basic level, we assign names and labels and modes of thought to things based on nothing more than how we think humans should operate. This is wrong, but it’s also extremely hard to avoid, particularly as it is so deeply embedded in human behaviour and language. One of the tenets of structuralist anthropology—as posited by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, whose master-work on the subject The Raw And The Cooked later became a Fine Young Cannibals album title—is that this is fundamentally part of the way we as humans think: that binary category distinction is effectively hardwired into our thought processes because it is how our brains function at an extremely low level. This hypothesis is completely unproven and rests on slightly simplistic assumptions, but it is certainly an easy pattern of thought to fall into, reinforced by the structure of much human language.*

As a final aside here: maybe this gives us a way to categorise science fiction works, to categorise them into another sort of binary division. Maybe we can say “good science fiction” is science fiction that tries to be open, speculative and imaginative, and that tries to get away from human-frame assumptions such as “there are male and female sexes” or “the most important stage in the organism’s life cycle is the adult stage, the stage in which reproduction occurs”. “Bad science fiction,” then, is the opposite: works that are closed and imagine that all alien life forms still operate entirely within the human frame of reference, where everyone is another humanoid with differently-coloured skin. It might be stupidly simplistic, but it has to be worth a thought.

* An idle thought: I wonder if Levi-Strauss, as a native French speaker, was innately more likely to come up with the idea that human thought tends always to divide things into binary categories, than someone whose first language was say English or German.

More meteors

You wait for months, and then...

Another small astronomy note: the first of the year’s big meteor showers occurs over the next couple of days. I know it’s less than a month since the last big meteor shower of 2020, the Geminids, but tomorrow we have the peak of the Quadrantid shower. They’re a bit harder to see than the Geminids, partly because they’re usually fainter and partly because they’re concentrated into a narrower stream, so they’re seen over a much shorter time-range. Moreover, looking at the weather forecast, I doubt we’re going to have clear enough skies to have any chance of seeing them.

Interestingly, the Quadrantids are named after a constellation that doesn’t officially exist any more. Their name comes from Quadrans Muralis, “the wall-mounted quadrant”, a constellation named in the late 18th century by Jerome Lalande—he named it after an astronomical instrument he’d used to help him map the sky. Naming constellations after scientific machinery was quite fashionable in the 18th century; we still have Antlia, Horologium, Microscopium, Octans and Reticulum in the sky, to name just a few. Nevertheless, when the boundaries of the constellations were officially defined by the IAU back in the 1920s, Quadrans Muralis was left out of the list. Its part of the sky is now mostly split between Draco and Boötes, with a small piece in Hercules. You could argue the Quadrantids should really have been renamed the Boötids, but the old name has stuck.