Rees for the Stars

The first of two virtual conferences today was at the Royal Astronomical Society, by the Lord Rees of Ludlow, the society’s president from 1992 to 1994.

A brief introduction was given by executive director Philip Diamond, who announced that it was the last in their 2021-2 lecture series.

Rees is a former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He said that the college looked much the same three centuries ago as it does today. Newton’s legendary apple tree incident occurred when he was sent home during the 1665 plague outbreak. Sadly, none of the students put into lockdown during the COVID pandemic have had similar moments.

Rees proudly displayed his photograph of the lunar surface, autographed by seven astronauts who had been there. He noted how rapidly space exploration had progressed, from the launch of Sputnik in 1957, to dogs, then Yuri Gagarin, then the moon landing in 1969. Today only the elderly, such as his lordship, can actually remember watching the moon landing when it first happened. He and his contemporaries firmly expected to have conquered Mars within another twenty years. Alas we are still waiting.

Rees discussed the book The End of Astronauts which he co-authored with Donald Goldsmith. Artificial intelligence has become greatly more sophisticated with each decade since the time of the Apollo program. Miniaturised probes are already exploring much of the Solar System, especially Mars. Perseverance can navigate around rocks, whereas Curiosity needed to call back for instructions. The only downside is that the shear amount of time needed to travel to the outer planets often means that the probe’s technology is already obsolete by the time it arrives to start its survey. With each advance in artificial intelligence, the practical case for sending humans into space gets weaker. Robots can simply hibernate along the journey whereas humans need to sleep, eat and breathe. Also, fundamentally, they are disposable. NASA’s astronaut projects since Apollo have been limited to the International Space Station and the Hubble telescope. They are constrained by political pressure, especially since the Challenger disaster. Although this only represents a 2% overall failure rate, which would easily be acceptable in other fields, the public attitude towards NASA was damaged irreparably.

In a “terrifying” speech to a thousand GCSE students last month, Rees asked how many would actually endure the long journey to Mars. Only half would, but curiously all would be willing to send someone else away. One in particular was put off by the notion of a forty-minute delay in communications with Earth – a stark reminder of the change in expectations compared to the age of exploration by sea.

Rees believes that from now on state-funded scientific exploration of space is best accomplished by unmanned machines, while human journeys should be the preserve of prize-seekers in the private sector (where a greater level of risk is tolerated). He would support the efforts of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos over any more missions by NASA. He recalled that the former wishes “to die on Mars, but not on impact”, which could be plausible if he lives another fifty years. The term “space tourism” is highly misleading. This is a dangerous sport for intrepid exploration. Mass emigration to escape Earth’s problems should not be expected for there is simply nowhere habitable.

The professor then moved on to the possibility of life elsewhere. He said that settlers on Mars would be beyond the clutches of regulators on Earth, and that over time their progeny could diverge into a post-human species. Astronomers, he thought, have a special perspective – humans are not the pinnacle of evolution, for our sun has another six billion years to go. We could see a move from Darwinian evolution to secular intelligent design, so that by the time Earth dies the intelligent life on the planet will not resemble us at all. There is a debate among philosophers and neurologists as to whether AI can be truly self-aware. If machines were zombies then we wouldn’t value their experiences. The motives of the post-humans are, at this point, reserved for speculative fiction, though most expect that they would be expansionists. Even if life originated on Earth it need not remain a trivial feature of the cosmos – humans could found a galactic diaspora. Colonisation would take less time than has already elapsed since the Cambrian explosion.

The topic of life on other worlds has been hugely exciting for astronomers in the past twenty years. Nearly all stars are orbited by a retinue of planets. The first exoplanet was discovered in 1992, with several thousand more coming since. Planets are not observed directly, but detected by their effect on their stars. The brightness of a star is briefly dimmed when a planet moves in front of it. Kepler used this method to find several thousand stars with planets around them. The case study of TRAPPIST-1, discovered in 2000, shows a “miniature system”, the innermost planet having an orbit of one Terran day and the outermost an orbit of two weeks. Four of them are within a habitable zone that in principle could allow the existence of water, thus supporting life. It is frustrating that we cannot see planets directly, though in theory we could with a sufficiently large telescope. The European Extremely Large Telescope is planned to have a mirror thirty-nine metres wide. The James Webb Telescope is smaller but has the advantage of viewing infrared. The differing shades of blue on Earth could indicate the presence of oceans, continents and an atmosphere, while the time taken for each pattern to reoccur would indicate our rotation period.

In summing up, Rees said that we understand evolution but not the origin of life. Evidence of civilisation on other planets might only exist for a short time, and not be synchronised with that on Earth. Life may not yet have evolved, or could have already been superseded by machines. If the search for extraterrestrial intelligence fails then we can be less cosmically modest, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Following the presentation there remained a few minutes for questions and answers.

Does what you’ve said imply the end of astronauts as a profession?

I can’t predict more than fifty years ahead. We think human spaceflight should be left to private adventurers. Robots are better for state efforts.

Will there be a replacement for chemical rocket engines?

It’s certainly conceivable. Nuclear can provide low thrust for long periods. Ground lasers can push a small spacecraft by sail.

Will the first human on Mars inevitable contaminate the biosphere?

We have to be very careful, treat Mars like the Antarctic. Also, bringing organic material back could contaminate Earth.

Which planetary body has the best potential for life?

Looking under ice is obvious. Any evidence of life on other planets could help explain the origin of life on Earth. If life originated twice independently within the same star system it’s probably widespread.

What are the prospects for manufacturing probes in space to keep the technology up to date?

The Space Station has done some research and development. We would like to build a telescopes in space with an iterferometer. It should be a target for the 2068 centenary. Building solar panels in space would be good – you get ten times the power per square metre compared to the sunniest spot on Earth.


Women in Medieval London

This afternoon I attended a virtual lecture by the Guildhall Library entitled Women in Medieval London. The speaker was Caroline Barron, Professor Emerita at Royal Holloway and President of the British Association For Local History.

She began by saying that it made a difference to be able to physically meet again, though she still welcomed those watching on Zoom. She showed two maps of London produced by the Historic Towns Trust – one for 1300, the other for 1520. She said that it is much more difficult to map medieval London compared to other English towns such as Norwich or York due to the extreme scale of change that has taken place over the centuries. One cannot simply work backwards from a 1970s Ordnance Survey, but must instead work from the ground up with surviving deeds and wills.

The Black Death killed half of London’s population. As in the Second World War, this resulted in a lot of women filling vacancies left by the slain men. London had over a hundred county churches in 1300, but pre-Reformation records only survive for thirty of them. Records survive from local governments and the Livery Companies. There are plenty of wills left by widows, but very few from wives or maidens. There are very few private papers, letters or diaries from which to glean intimate personal information. Women never served as sheriffs, aldermen or mayors, but exercised public authority in other ways. Barron cited the example of a 1372 dispute between dyers, leather sellers and pouch makers, the eventual agreement for which cited John & Agnes Blackthorn, John & Lucy Whiting, and Richard & Catherine Weston. Another example was Alice Holford serving as bailiff of London Bridge for over twenty years. Very little record survives of medieval attitudes towards female authority. Accounts from ward moots of Queenhithe show complaints about John of Ely, assayer of oysters, delegating his functions to women, who then allowed good and bad oysters to be mixed.

Outside of nunneries it appeared that very few women remained unmarried. City custom allowed married women to trade as femme sole, and allowed girls to be apprenticed (meaning that the husband was not involved). A proclamation in 1404 required every apprentice to be enrolled at the Guildhall, explicitly referring to both male and female.

Chattel was more important in London than elsewhere, for the rural gentry tended to have most of their wealth tied up in land. When a man of the city died, custom dictated that one third each went to his widow, his children, and a charitable cause. A London widow was also entitled to dower until death or remarriage, and could remain in her husband’s residence indefinitely unlike elsewhere. On 12th January 1465 the Court of Aldermen declared every woman married to a freeman and living with him at his death (important because divorce was very difficult prior to the reformation, so failed coupled would often resort to simply living apart) inherited his freedom to trade for as long as she lived in London and did not remarry. Barron mentioned Stephanie Hovland’s thesis on apprenticeships in medieval London, and showed the indenture of Katharine Nougle from 1392. Hovland found that only thirty such documents survived (partly because the Chamberlain of London’s records were destroyed in a fire), of which nine were for women. There are references to female apprentices in cases at the Mayor’s Court, and in provisions of men’s wills, such as the cutler Philip Waltham (d. 1426) who specified that his three apprentice girls should receive 6s8d if they behaved well towards his wife Ellen. About three quarters of men appointed their widows as executors.

A fascinating document is the original (not copied) will of Emma the Smerewyf from 1260. It was A5 in size and held four seals. It is kept in the Bodleian Library despite her living in London. She left property in the parish of St. Sepulchre to her husband, who in turn left it to a clerk, who in 1278 gifted it to Osney Abbey, which was then absorbed by Christ Church College in 1545. Emma gave a house and all her utensils to her husband with the condition that after his death they went to the poor. She distributed over £40 in alms to the poor, to various nunneries and to St Mary’s Hospital in Bishopsgate. She had a second house in St. Sepulchre, which she used to set up a chantry. Apparently childless, she named her nephew Alan as an executor and gave him five marks of silver. In the thirteenth century the custom against will-making by married women had not yet been established.

Widows were the most powerful women in medieval London. Barron found Johanna Hill particularly interesting: She was a Bell Founder, the foundry in Aldgate run by her husband Richard (d. May 1440). He had four apprentices. Johanna was his executor and took over the foundry. On 28th March 1441 she made a contract with Faversham Church to make them five new bells and repair any defective ones. Barron showed some examples of fifteenth century bell founders’ marks, including Richard Hill’s shield of arms which Joanna differenced by a lozenge. Her own will mentioned a bell maker, apprentices, servants, and a scrivener. She left everything to her namesake daughter, who passed the foundry to John Sturdy and his wife (a third Johanna), who made another contract with the same church.

John Minse, an imager, died in the plague of 1348-9 leaving his tenements in St Mildred, Poultry to his widow Matilda with remainder to his daughters Alice and Isabella, and then in default of the heirs of their bodies to a chantry in the parish. Matilda was to be Isabella’s guardian and co-executor with two men: Gilbert de Wendover (ironmonger) and Roger Oathkin (grocer). All three met their own death the next year. Matilda’s will gave her best instruments and a chest to William her apprentice. She transferred him to the service of Br Thomas Hailsham of Bermondsey Priory for the rest of his training. Her house was sold to buy a chantry for herself, her husband and – unusually – her siblings. Her daughters are not mentioned, but in June 1353 there is a mention of Isabella’s guardianship. The orphans of citizens were in those days assigned guardians by the aldermen. She was committed to Thomas de Straundon, a cofferer, with four sureties. In 1355 he rendered account for her inheritance and in April 1362 she came of age, acknowledging her inheritance with satisfaction. It is hard to track her after that, as if she married she would have changed her name.

Barron concluded that women in medieval London were not valued solely for breeding as in the aristocracy, and though lacking governing power could still exercise considerable economic power, especially as the Black Death increased their necessity. The population of England as a whole declined until 1400 and did not pick up again until 1500. One result was a high rate of immigration Flanders to find work.

There followed a question session, the first queries coming from the room:

I thought the husband took all his wife’s property.

Mostly true, but some husbands gave permission for the wife to will separately. Many of the examples were from before that custom solidified.

If women remarried override their wills?

The old husband’s will would not be overridden, but the new husband took take the widow’s inheritance. Wealthy widows were highly sought for this reason, but often they were reluctant to give up their autonomy. Many became vowesses to escape the pressure, and sometimes husbands made this a condition of a larger inheritance.

Why did these female economic freedoms later fall away. Was it simply a matter of there being more men around?

Once the population rose again there was a lot of poverty in England due to unemployment, inflation and pasteurisation of arable land. There was a feeling that women shouldn’t take jobs from men, as in the twentieth century.

What proportion of the later population was middle class (the one for whom we have records)?

Strictly speaking everyone was supposed to draw up a will. We have some from very poor people. Among merchants in the late fourteenth century the wills are full of bequests to the poor.

How literate were the women of this time?

They had a lot of “pragmatic literacy”. There were opportunities to be educated by chantry priests. Women signed their names in documents. Common profit books were passed to both men and women.

The next few questions were through Zoom.

Liz Duchovni: Do indentures survive in other cities so we can compare the gender balance to London?

Some freedom registers survive in York, not necessarily apprenticeship registers. In general the opportunities in London were greater than in other towns. London was exceptional, but then as a London historian I would say that.

Jonathan Wober: To what extent were the privileges for women in London different to other cities?

Legitim was only practised in London and York, where it was abolished in the eighteenth century. My colleague Dr Clive Burgess has not found the same in Bristol. London was the best place for an ambitious woman. That may still be true.

Deborah Stock: What did lower class women do? Were they home based, or doing other work? Within a city context they couldn’t have been agricultural labourers.

There are a lot of bequests in wills to female domestic servants, including dowries so they could marry.

Liz Galaxy: Did women need their husbands’ permission to work?

There were no regulations. I think it would be a strategic decision. It would be in a man’s interest to let his wife trade as a femme sole, since then he was not liable for her debts.

Gillian: What was the average marriage age for women?

Aristocratic girls married as soon as they could physically have children. Apprenticed girls did not marry until course was finished. This could explain why the London population rose at a slower pace than elsewhere.

Gillian: Statue of Licoricia, Jewish moneylender, at Winchester?

I wonder if Emma the Smerewyf was also a moneylender, though if she was setting up chantries she clearly wasn’t Jewish.

Alison Parry: Endowments to poor widows are still going in St Bartholemew’s. Now paid as 20p, only one claims per year. Are there any others?

A lot of charities are still going, mostly those which set up schools. Dick Whittington set up almshouses to be run by the Mercers’ Company. These charities have survived better than chantries, which were often lost in the reformation.

Rachael Holter: Would widows automatically lose their freedoms if they remarried?

Widows were known to be very wealthy. When the Guildhall was rebuilt in the late fifteenth century they kept a register of widows from whom to find funds. Not all women wanted to be independent.

Alison Turner: Did male apprentices also need permission to marry?

On the whole male apprentices were not supposed to marry until they completed their courses, whereas it was anticipated that females might do so.


Churchill the Activist: His Dedication to Human Rights

Another presentation by the International Churchill Society, featuring Ankit Malhotra and Zareer Masani.

I asked the final question: “Both sides of the EU referendum were keen to claim Churchill’s legacy. What is known of his views on the optimal level of European political integration?

Justin Reash, the host, joked that “keen” was an understatement.

Masani said that his references to a United States of Europe would not go down well with today’s Brexiteers who constantly go on about how the EU is trying to create just that against everyone’s national interest. He thought that Churchill would not be a typical Brexiteer – he was in favour of European unity, but would have liked to see it include the east of Europe and not just the west as actually transpired.

Malhotra added that the idea of a United States of Europe was provocative at its time and not unique to Churchill – even Gaddafi imagined a United States of Africa – but that the British have always been wary of a larger system of uniform governance which perhaps explains their attitude towards the EU. If they championed an idea they obviously believed in it wholeheartedly, which is why the Council of Europe lives on, perhaps more strongly than the European Union.

Reash said that one of the many reasons for Churchill’s initial interest in the United States of Europe was the sense of collective security, which was shown not to have been achieved at Versailles. Being able to prevent another world war is something we all really want, that legacy now of course bearing fruit in Ukraine.

That Harrison & Graham Sound

Exactly when I first saw Peep Show has slipped from memory. I recall watching New Year’s Eve when it was reasonably new, and also remember parts of Mugging from slightly earlier. I binged the whole of the first seven series on 4oD at some point before the end of 2012, and then watched the final two series as they came out.

My experience with Podcast Secrets of the Pharaohs is even more retroactive – it ended two months ago, and I only came across it last week. Blasting through the lot was made more difficult by the podcast episodes being three or four times the length of their televised counterparts, but also easier by being audio-only, so they could be played as the background to something else.

In some ways it is remarkable that a program which ended over six years ago continues to amass a dedicated following, and that so many lines from it have permeated popular discourse.

Tom & Rob’s commentary is at least as good as that by McNeil and Wang for Voyager, the main differences being that they come from one generation lower and they were not insiders when the series they are reviewing was on air. The lower-concept setting also allows that hosts to compare the events of Peep Show to their own lives. As an aside, it always strikes me as a little strange when the hosts of these kinds of review-tainment programs, whose demeanour is otherwise hintless as to age, start going on about their partners or even children. Of course, neither of them ever had to eat a partly-cremated dog, nor wrestle a burglar to the ground while hosting a dinner party, so there are limits to their personal experience. What struck me most was when they wanted to give advice to the characters, comparing the events of the episodes against merely what their own lives had been, but a surprisingly certain and definite idea of how everyone’s life at various stages is and should be.

In addition to episodic analysis, the podcast also features interviews of nearly all the significant cast members, going into great detail about their experiences with the series and their views on the characters they played.


  • Andrxxw – a YouTuber who also reviewed Peep Show in its entirety, albeit in much briefer form.
  • The Peep Show Reviews Blog – a similar review series in textual format, though it was abandoned after just four series.

Churchill’s Reputation Today

Today I attended a virtual presentation by Dominic Sandbrook to the International Churchill Society, the whole of which has been posted on their YouTube channel.

My question was “Other than Thatcher, is any later prime minister likely to receive a state or ceremonial funeral?”, and Dr. Sandbrook’s reply was “No, Tony Blair might be an obvious contender but I don’t think he would want one. It’s really interesting, the contrast between Blair and Thatcher: Thatcher was tremendously controversial in her lifetime and afterwards. People who voted for Thatcher continue to adore her whereas those who didn’t absolutely despised her. In Blair’s case it’s actually a lot of the people who voted for him who now regard him as the devil incarnate, so I don’t know who the constituency would be to support a Blair funeral – the small constituency of “centrist dads” as I believe they’re called on social media? Most prime ministers end up kind of regressing into obscurity. Harold Wilson won lots of elections and bestrode British politics in the 1960s-70s but basically was a forgotten man by the time he died.” which somehow segued into a discussion of The Crown.