Archive for the ‘Q&A’ Category

When Venus Transits the Sun: A Q & A with astronomer Richard Strom

Understanding Science is a new event series of scientific seminars for the general public, brought to you by The Institute of Physics (IOP), RSC and Euraxess: Researchers in Motion. This Wednesday, Richard Strom (NAOC, ASTRON & University of Amsterdam) discusses “When Venus Transits the Sun: Heroic efforts to observe a rare event.” This event is brought to you by The Institute of Physics (IOP), RSC and Euraxess: Researchers in Motion.

Here, event speaker astronomer Richard Strom gives some insight into the once in a lifetime phenomenon. 

Mengfei Chen: What actually happens when Venus transits the Sun? What does it look like?

Richard Strom: Only the inner planets (Venus and Mercury) can pass between the earth and the sun, blocking a tiny amount of sunlight. During a Venus transit the sunlight is dimmed by about 0.1% (it’s a mini- mini- mini-solar eclipse). In that sense not very impressive. But a transit of Venus can be seen with the unaided eye (Mercury cannot, it’s too small), provided solar glare is dimmed (for example by haze, smoke, observing when the sun is near the horizon, or through a solar filter). It looks rather like a small sunspot, and in fact many medieval reports of transits were actually observations of sunspots. Someone I know who saw the 2004 transit of Venus said, it looks like someone punched a hole in the sun.

MC: Have you seen it? Could you describe the experience?

RS: I have seen it, with the aid of a telescope. While nowhere near as impressive as a solar eclipse, it was a special moment to think that no one then alive had seen the previous Venus transit (in 1882). Unlike a sunspot, the shadow of the planet was perfectly round, with a clean, unfuzzy appearance; beautiful in its modest way.

MC: When was the transit first predicted? Observed?

RS: Kepler in 1630 predicted that there would be a Venus transit in 1631, but it could not be seen from Europe. In 1639, the brilliant English amateur Jeremiah Horrocks predicted – just weeks before the event – and then observed the first transit on 24 November (old style). He and his fellow amateur William Crabtree were the only observers of the 1639 transit.

MC: Why were the attempts to see the transit heroic?

RS: To achieve the scientific aims, a transit had to be observed over a wide range of latitude, so teams were sent to remote locations. The heroism in the eighteenth, and to a lesser extent nineteenth, century lay in getting there. Many expedition members suffered hardship, and a not insignificant number lost their lives.

MC: Scientifically, why was the transit important?

RS: For two centuries it was seen as the best method for determining the distance between the Earth and the Sun, which is technically called the astronomical unit. It is the fundamental unit of distance in astronomy, our measure of scale from the nearest stars to the furthest galaxies.

MC: When will the next transit occur? 

RS: 105 years and 6 days after my talk, on 11 December 2117. If it’s cloudy where you are, no fear. There’ll be a repeat in December 2125.

Correction: An earlier version of this post credited the answers to Professor Richard de Grijs.

Julia Boyd on the Lost World of Beijing’s Earliest Expats

Julia Boyd’s latest book, A Dance with the Dragon, is a fascinating glimpse into the lost world of Beijing’s first expats. Drawing on previously unpublished historical sources, Boyd paints a colorful world populated by diplomats, adventurers, scientists, missionaries and Russian refugees. Set against the backdrop of some of the most dramatic decades of the 20th century, it is a story of people willfully ignoring the forces sweeping the country around them, submerging themselves in the whirl of picnics, parties and polo ponies while China reeled from the forces of revolution, civil war and the Japanese invasion.

Mengfei Chen: How did you become interested in this topic?

Julia Boyd: Having met my husband John in Beijing – at a British Embassy picnic in the Western Hills in 1975 – I have always had a soft spot for the city. A few years ago I was looking for an interesting subject to write about and it struck me that this period of Beijing’s history, i.e. from the Boxer uprising in 1900 to 1949, might be just that. I don’t think I was wrong!

MC: Can you give a quick and dirty overview of Beijing’s foreign colony?

JB: Beijing’s foreign community from 1860 (when diplomats were first allowed to live in the city) until Mao Zedong’s victory was never very large but it was a rich mix. Initially it consisted mainly of diplomats and missionaries with the odd journalist, banker, academic and adventurer thrown in. But by the late 1920s Beijing had also become a magnet for artists and writers (Robert Byron wrote “The Road to Oxiana” there in 1935), as well as for scholars and even some scientists.

In my view the 1920s were the golden era for foreigners since “Peking” had modernised just enough to make things reasonably comfortable but not so much that its unique way of life had been seriously eroded. Think of the joys of living in a courtyard house!

Moreover Beijing’s stunning temples and palaces, not to mention its wall and gates, were all still intact. When the foreigners wanted to escape the heat and pressure of life in Beijing, they could retreat to the Western Hills where (cosseted by teams of servants) they could rent a Buddhist temple for next to nothing. Their charmed life, however, came to a distinctly unpleasant end when in 1943 so many of them found themselves in the Japanese internment camp at Weihsien. By December 1948, when Mao’s troops were besieging Beijing, the only foreigners left were the inevitable diplomats and missionaries, a few hardy academics and those who, like the White Russian refugees, had nowhere else to go. The party was over.

MC: You write that Beijing’s expats were a different breed from their Shanghainese counterparts. How so? What do you think accounts for this and do you think this difference has persisted into the present?

JB: Well, the behavioural incentives were so different. Shanghai was developed, virtually from nothing, by Westerners for commerce and business while in Beijing, (where commercial activity was prohibited on any large scale) the diplomats were locked in a wrestling match with the Chinese authorities and where even the most insular foreigner could hardly ignore the city’s extraordinary cultural riches. The International Settlement in Shanghai was huge – around 10,000 foreigners but in Beijing it never numbered more than about 3-4000. I think that because the Beijing lot thought they were more sophisticated and cultured, they looked down on the “Shanghailanders” who in turn probably thought the Beijing foreigners snobbish and effete. This rivalry was reflected in frequent disputes between the diplomatic and commercial views of China’s future.

MC: Why do you think 1920s Shanghai – the setting of innumerable books and films –  has had such a monopoly on the popular imagination?

JB: Shanghai was a volatile place, a classic intersection between East and West. On the one hand the lifestyle was glamorous exuding ‘anything goes’, but on the other there was real suffering, poverty and lawlessness. At a time when the pleasure-loving West was seeking new highs, such a mix provided wonderful copy for films and literature – and of course still does .

MC: Where did Beijing’s expats come from? Why were they here? Did you have a favorite subject to write about?

JB: Diplomats and missionaries always made up a large percentage of the foreign community but Beijing also attracted literati, dropouts, academics, widows, remittance men refugees and explorers from all over the West. The Peking Union Medical College drew many fine doctors and nurses to the city while it was a  particularly exciting period to be an archaeologist or palaeontologist based there. It’s hard to choose a favourite character but, rather to my surprise, I became fond of General Stilwell. Before he was appointed commander of the US forces in China and Burma in the Second World War, he had been a language student and military attache for many years in Beijing. He loved China and its people and, although soldiers don’t come much tougher than ‘Vinegar Joe’, he was very fond of Chinese art and collected ivory fan handles. Just before he left Beijing in 1939, he gave a banquet for 12 rickshaw boys in his courtyard house.

MC: Are there still signs of this era in modern Beijing? 

JB: There are a few but you need a strong imagination to conjure up this period. Having said that, much of the legation quarter still exists including the entrance to what was once the British Legation. The Peking Union Medical College is one of the finest surviving buildings from this period and is still a hospital. I did once manage to talk my way into the old Peking Hotel’s stunning ballroom before going up on to the hotel roof – a favourite dance place for the foreigners. Although I have been to Beijing many times it was only a couple of years ago that I first visited the surprisingly deserted Temple of Agriculture where public executions took place. I was also pleased to discover Sun Yat-sen’s  Russian-made steel coffin in the Azure temple and to spend a reflective hour in the eunuchs’ temple. A number of temples survive in the Western Hills where it is possible to get some sense of why the foreigners loved spending so much time there.

MC: At the end of the book, you write:

Nevertheless (with honourable exceptions) they [Beijing’s expats] stand guilty of a massive failure of imagination. Had they been more astute and less incurious, keener to nurture China’s self-confidence rather than undermine it, had they not lived so insistently in their own bubble and had they been, above all, less convinced of their own superiority, their legacy in China might not now be regarded with quite such contempt and China’s recovery of its former prestige would surely have proven less traumatic.

Can you unpack this statement a little? What is this legacy and what can Beijing’s latest pack of expats learn from it?

JB: The legacy is, I fear, a continuing difficulty in developing fundamental mutual confidence in a world that will only survive on a basis of real trust and active cooperation. Of course it always takes two to tango but looking ahead, I think perhaps the most important message for us expats is never to forget the deep continuity of China’s cultural tradition and behaviour patterns, and to keep on studying them and trying to understand them better.

The Christmas Day Dash – Q&A with Tim Luard

Tim Luard’s new book, Escape from Hong Kong tells the little known story of the daring Christmas Day escape made by 60 Chinese, British and Danish intelligence and military personnel on the eve of the Japanese invasion. Led by the one-legged Chinese Admiral Chan Chak, the men fled to safety on the mainland, traveling on five small motor torpedo boats, walking for four days through enemy lines before making it to safety in Chongqing and Burma.

Luard, the BBC World Service’s former man in Beijing, will be speaking about his book on June 13 at 7:30 pm.

Mengfei Chen: Set the scene a little. What was 1940s Hong Kong like? How did things change after the Japanese invasion, if at all?

Tim Luard: Compared with Shanghai, say, Hong Kong society in 1940 was rather Victorian and straitlaced, at least on the surface. There was little or no racial mingling – British civil servants risked losing their jobs if they married a non-European and Chinese were legally barred from living on the Peak.

Britain’s war with Germany and China’s ongoing invasion by Japan both seemed far away. But with a Japanese army now hovering on the border, the normally quiet colony was soon awash in a fin-de-siecle atmosphere of gossip, intrigue and excess: it became flooded with Chinese refugees and triads, foreign adventurers such as ‘Two-Gun Cohen’ and ‘One-Arm Sutton’ and Japanese spies and fifth-columnists. At the last minute, two battalions of semi-trained Canadians were brought in to reinforce the small garrison of unmotivated, malaria-ridden British and near-mutinous  Indian troops.

When the Japanese finally invaded, within hours of Pearl Harbour, their battle-hardened forces proved vastly superior.  Their planes had a free run of the skies and their lightly equipped men swept through the New Territories and Kowloon in a matter of days. Hong Kong Island valiantly withstood a week-long siege, but the end was only a matter of time.

On Christmas Day 1941 – with all water, power and communications cut off and enemy troops all over the island – the Governor had little choice but to surrender.  All non-Chinese were rounded up into camps, and after several days of looting and rape Hong Kong spent the rest of the war as a brutally run Japanese colony.

 MC: The Christmas Day Dash is such a great story. It’s even got a one legged admiral. Why is it so obscure?

TL: Chan Chak, who’d lost a leg during the defense of Canton, was Nationalist China’s top man in Hong Kong.  He proved such a staunch ally during the invasion that the British determined to help him get away afterwards.  So, within hours of the surrender, after swimming under fire to an island and  hiding in a cave, the Chinese admiral and a mixed group of senior British personnel (who would likewise have faced a particularly nasty time in Japanese hands) were whisked off to the mainland in all that remained of the Royal Navy – five old torpedo boats, crewed by some fifty sailors.  The entire party, including a dog named Bruce, then walked for four days through Japanese-occupied China – guided by guerrillas, who carried the Admiral in a sedan chair – arriving to an ecstatic welcome at the nearest Nationalist Army outpost at Waichow (Huizhou).

After many more adventures as they crossed China and Burma, the main naval party reached Britain five months later, their families having long given them up for dead.  They were told not to talk about their experience, since their route had to be kept secret for use by others escaping from the camps in Hong Kong over the next four years. It’s really only now, with the release of official documents and the finding of long-forgotten diaries and letters, that the full story has come out.  My wife and I got together with other escapers’ descendants – her father was part of the group – to form the Hong Kong Escape Re-enactment Organisation (HERO) and managed to retrace the original journey to Waichow.

MC: Did you have a favorite character?

TL: The escape group was made up of a kaleidoscope of colourful characters, from the redoubtable, beady-eyed little admiral to a huge, hard-drinking chief petty officer from Plymouth whose jokes kept everyone entertained along the way. But I think my favourite is a crusty World War One veteran called Horace Gandy, who had been brought out of retirement to command Hong Kong’s small torpedo boat flotilla. He was a stickler for discipline and Royal Navy tradition, but always quick to side with his own men against others in the party from rival outfits such as the army. He kept a detailed diary in which he complains that the escape plan is as “clear as mud” to him and berates those who take the wrong route as “BFs” (Bloody Fools). But he soon warms to the Chinese admiral, lending him his elegant naval cap and jacket after he emerges from the water in his underwear, even though this means he himself has to wear an uncomfortable “battle bowler,” or steel helmet, for the rest of the 80-mile march.

MC: You talk a little about the complicated and sometimes uncomfortable way the Christmas Day Dash fits into the current Chinese government’s historical narrative. Why do you think it is so cumbersome and how have they tried to deal with the episode?

TL: Little has been published in the People’s Republic about the escape, presumably because Admiral Chan was a close associate of President Chiang Kai-shek. When we applied to visit China for our re-enactment, there was a long pause before the Foreign Ministry finally issued something called Directive 143, declaring that the escape was “an extraordinary episode of Sino-British joint action” and that our group, HERO, was  “A Good Thing”.  Four 15-member committees were appointed to prepare for our visit, and one of them duly produced China’s own history of the escape. This played down the Nationalist admiral and instead gave the credit to the fledgling communist movement of the time. It said the escape had been personally ordered by Mao’s right-hand man, Zhou Enlai. The communists are not mentioned at all in most of the accounts from the time.

MC: What was the most surprising fact or anecdote you came across during your research?

TL: The single most surprising aspect of the escape to me was the way the Chinese and British worked so closely together, having kept themselves so rigidly apart in the past. This was the first if not only time in history that British servicemen accepted the leadership of a Chinese officer. And then there was the attitude of the ordinary Chinese villagers, deep in Japanese-occupied territory. Despite the huge rewards on offer, not a single Chinese villager gave the mainly British escape group away. These were possibly the first foreigners to be seen in these parts of China since the ravages of the Opium War, 100 years before. But this rumbustious group of heavily bearded British mariners were welcomed wherever they went with pots of green tea and buckets of hot rice and vegetables – and the local temple floor to sleep on. Commander Gandy wasn’t the only one who found both food and accommodation took some getting used to. But basically they were all just happy to be free – and having the adventure of their lives.

Tim Luard will be speaking at The Bookworm Beijing on  Wednesday, June 13 at 7:30pm. Tickets available at The Bookworm. This event is brought to you by RAS Shanghai.

The Bookworm Download Map

Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road,

Chaoyang District, Beijing

100027, P.R China

Tel: (010) 6586 9507

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