Friday 14 July
The papers are full of the story of the new exhibition opening in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich today. 'Death in the Ice' tells the story of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated expedition to find the North-West Passage and the remarkable discovery of his two ships in Canadian Arctic waters.
The exhibition also vindicates the reputation of John Rae, the Orkney-born doctor from the Hudson's Bay Company who tirelessly sought for Franklin and his men, travelling through the harshest of conditions. Inuit hunters told him they had met a group of white men 'travelling in company southward over the ice, and dragging a boat and sledges with them.' Later in the season the inuit had come across the bodies of the men, dead from starvation, with signs that desperation had led to cannibalism.
Rae was vilified for reporting this, and he is the only great Arctic explorer without a knighthood. He survived where Franklin did not because he learned to live off the land, and the life within it. He could walk on snowshoes 50 miles and more in a day, travelling when needed through darkness and snowstorms, and carrying a pack or pulling a sledge. He made long journeys – going on one occasion over 1,000 miles on foot, and at another time close to 1,400 miles by small boat, during which time he charted over 600 miles of unexplored coastline.
He was arguably the greatest Arctic explorer of them all, and perhaps one day may get his proper recognition.
Monday 17 July
On a visit to the Eden Valley in Cumbria, in a world of open landscapes of fields and woodland, with hedgerows and drystone walls and old routes across the hills. The road out of the valley climbs over the Hartside Pass and leads to Alston, England's highest market town, with steep cobbled streets and houses going back to the 17th century. It grew up around lead mining and has a deserved reputation for its food.
While enjoying home bakes in a café, it turns out that a lady there has a Roman fort on her farm – and just a couple of miles out from the town, there it is: Epiacum to the Romans, Whitley Castle today. It is the perfect position for a fort, with sweeping views in all directions, linked in those days to a network of signal stations. It may have controlled and protected lead mining in the area in addition to supporting defences on Hadrian's Wall. It's not been excavated, but the grass-covered shape is clear, with steeply rising and falling defensive earthworks. Walking around it in the bright sunshine is a delight, with information set out with thought and care by the family who own the land.
Many years of research in Moray by the late Ian Keillar produced strong hints of a Roman presence further north in Scotland than previously thought, and some of his aerial photographs show shapes that look very much like a Roman fort, with long straight sides and rounded corners. One of the sites he found, Birnie in Moray, has yielded up two rich hoards of Roman coins, although it seems to have been a native site. There is an opportunity awaiting any young archaeologist who studies Ian's work.
Friday 21 July
At the Morayvia science and aerospace centre to hear the second Professor George Fraser Memorial Lecture, and both Morayvia and George are shining examples of how to do things superbly. At Morayvia you can see aircraft that have flown historic missions. They have a Nimrod airframe and cockpit, Jet Provost and Vampire aircraft, and a complete Sea King search and rescue helicopter. And they also have some of the people who flew on them, enjoying getting together in their retirement to tell what it was like to be out there above the North Sea on patrol. They strip down and refurbish aircraft, removing wings for painting and dismantling engines for cleaning.
The site, the former Kinloss primary school, has a glow of enjoyment about it, and it's steadily growing, with a planetarium and a locally-constructed wind tunnel and much else to see. It's the ideal place for a lecture in memory of a man who did so much for space research, the late Professor George Fraser, director of the University of Leicester's space research centre. Born just along the road in Burghead in Moray, he was a world expert in X-ray astronomy and detector physics, with a lead role in the development of the instruments aboard a variety of missions into space. The speaker is well chosen – Professor Martin Hendry of the University of Glasgow – with a look at new developments on the way with gravitational waves. George Fraser died far too young – he was only 58 – and the aim of the memorial lecture is to highlight and continue the inspiration he gave to space exploration, to the dreams he stimulated and the means he provided towards realising them.
Thursday 27 July
Driving north to Orkney in the sunshine, and with just enough time to stop in Helmsdale at Timespan to sit in the sunshine by the river with a fresh crab sandwich and a pot of tea. There's the sound of the water, and of an oystercatcher coming in from the sea, and a look up to the stone bridge and the clock tower. If I had longer, I would explore the displays, which feature the landscape and history of the area. There are details of fossils and an ancient meteor crater, stories of peat work and the Kildonan gold rush, drawings of the aurora and photographs from herring days.
And if I had longer I would have stopped off too in Dunbeath, the birthplace of the writer Neil M Gunn. I've been reading 'Highland River', dedicated to his brother John, a physics graduate. It's a hauntingly beautiful book, which suggests that the physicist and the fisherman are searching for the same thing, something far and deep, beyond the waves and the wind. He describes how they share a discipline of thought, which for the fisherman comes from traffic with the sea, and looking ahead into the distance. 'A seaman's eyes develop a far-sighted steadiness, through which the waves seem to roll and wash.'
Saturday 29 July
Sun shining brightly at the Pierhead in Stromness, where the town is celebrating its 200 years of burgh status, and the days of the former town council. If anyone today proposed a Scottish local authority reform devolving water and sewerage powers to small towns, down to a population of no more than 2,000, most people would be incredulous. The disbelief would have grown even further if it was also suggested that communities could have the power to build houses and rent them out – and also manage streets and street lighting, licensing, libraries, and piers and harbours. But it happened, and we all took it for granted, and the people who worked for the old town councils found simple and efficient ways to do things. So in wintry weather, all the shopkeepers were out in the street, clearing the snow and piling it high. Then the council lorry came along and they loaded it up – and that was the street clear and clean and a pleasure to walk through.
Stromness has a fine golf course overlooking Hoy Sound because two townsmen had a conversation on the street in 1923 and noted that the farm of Ness was coming up for sale. The people of the town raised the money, and ploughed the fields, and gathered stones off them, and they moved the dykes and laid the greens and built the tees – and there it is today.
At this morning's ceremony the leader of Orkney Islands Council looks back at the history of Stromness, through the Hudson's Bay trade, the Greenland whaling, the herring fishing, and more recently oil and renewables. He looks ahead to new opportunities coming with the expansion of the research campus: a time to catch the wave as it moves forward.
Monday 31 July
Bright sunshine in North Ronaldsay for the start of the island's second Sheep Festival. A drystone dyke, over 12 miles long, encircles the island, confining the native seaweed-eating sheep to the shore. The people of the island manage the sheep and maintain the dyke in a communal system, but heavy storms have caused an extent of damage that is proving too much for them. So volunteers from across Britain have come north, to spend a fortnight in the island, dyke-building by day and in the evenings enjoying a festive programme of social activity. The area where they're working has seen a whole section of dyke flattened by the waves, and the line of the dyke is now being moved a short distance back, to a securer position.
Larger stones are brought for the foundation and then the builders get under way, while the others bring a steady supply of stone from the shore. There are discussions along the way, and every now and then a pause to look out over the sea, turquoise over a sandy bed in the bay, and the waves coming in soft and white. Several seals are undecided about whether to stay on the warm rocks in the sun or whether to slide off into the water. There is the sound of seabirds and the sight of bright flowers; and then looking round, the dyke has moved a stage higher, and the builders are running out of stone – and the speed of the carriers moves up a notch as they respond.
By the end of the day there is an impressive sight of the length of dyke completed; and a hot shower and a late-afternoon seat in the sun are a great joy, with the evening meal and music to follow. The sheep are used for meat and wool, with the clip spun in the island's wool mill, using specialist machinery sourced from Prince Edward Island. There is a bird observatory, a lighthouse, and a long history depicted in the archives in one of the churches. The island is working on an application for international dark skies status, and is also hoping to appoint a community development officer in some months' time, and is hoping that someone with a young family will apply.
Thursday 3 August
A news report says that the Humanist Society Scotland has urged the Scottish government to end NHS funding for homoeopathy referrals. It's not immediately clear to me what the connection is between homoeopathy and humanism and I decide not to try to find out. But then I see a comment related to another subject. 'Homeopathy has continually been shown, time after time, to be no more effective than a simple placebo effect.' There is an assumption here that the placebo effect is a kind of zero baseline, but this is most certainly not borne out by research.
A good introduction is an article by Professor Walter Brown in the January 1998 issue of Scientific American. In addition to examples of his own work in treating depression with a placebo, he quotes from a remarkable experiment carried out at the University of Kansas Medical Center in the late 1950s. Researchers wanted to investigate the effectiveness of a surgical method for treating angina. So the doctors divided them up into two groups performing the surgical procedure with one group, and with the other making only a chest incision but doing nothing further. And the result? 'Among the patients who received the actual surgery, 76% improved. Notably, 100% of the placebo group got better.'
Professor Brown goes on to set out the case for including placebos as part of a doctor's armoury and showed how various ethical issues could be intelligently resolved. What he said then has added weight today, when medical services are facing huge challenges with antibiotic resistance. There is general agreement that one of the factors is overprescribing by doctors, often under pressure from patients. In such situations, use of a placebo would both save money and reduce antibiotic exposure. All this is nothing to do with homoeopathy or humanism, just a hope that the scientific research on the placebo effect can be disentangled from both.
Saturday 5 August
Just reading online reviews of the new book by Rebecca Stott – 'In the Days of Rain: A Daughter, a Father, a Cult.' She tells of her childhood as a memory of a narrow group which isolated members from the world, and filled the children with the terrors of imminent destruction of the world as punishment for sin. There is a terrible raw power in the extracts, as she describes how her father's life broke up and also her own. But the sheer integrity in which they both responded to the damage, in a search for the truth, is inspirational. How, wondered her father, could a group of good people have allowed themselves to be taken over by a harmful influence? 'On his deathbed he was still wrestling with that question, and the task that he gave me was to take his unfinished memoirs and try to figure out the answer.'
And she has kept her word, laying open her own self in the process. I start to wonder if that search for the truth has shaped her thinking today, and particularly her ability to probe deep into the mind of others. Her first book 'Ghostwalk' is on one level a multi-layered novel and on another level a remarkable insight into the mind and world of Sir Isaac Newton. She combines analysis with insight so well in her books on Charles Darwin and in fact she stands out as a historian of science as well as a novelist of real power. And Newton and Darwin were in the front line in trying to break through mindsets, entrenched into the thinking of their time. I wonder if the perspective on the pressures of a cult has also helped her with identifying older rigidities of thought, and recognising the achievement of those who struggle free?
Sunday 6 August
I'm glad I decided to disregard the rain clouds and go for a walk on the beach at Lossiemouth as they gradually dispersed to leave warm sunshine and blue sky above, with the sea far out and a great stretch of sand with seabirds standing on the edge of the water. Walking along and leaving the town and the houses behind, I find myself turning again to the question of how do we filter out what really matters from all the clutter that surrounds us. I then realise that René Descartes had one answer. The knowledge of his time was in the form of an agglomeration of books, particularly the Bible and the works of Aristotle, and much of the philosophy of the time was about looking for written sources and precedents.
He noted that despite all the brilliant people who had pursued philosophy of the time, there wasn't a single matter which wasn't in dispute, and so, he said, 'I did not presume to anticipate that my success would be greater in it than that of others. And that is why, as soon as my age permitted me to quit my preceptors, I entirely gave up the study of letters; and resolving to seek no other science than that which I could find in myself or the great book of the world.'
So off he went on the road, despite indifferent health and despite the build-up of the thirty years' war which would take whole regions of Europe into ruin and chaos. And in a snowbound inn in the winter of 1619, half asleep and half awake, he found the pieces coming together in his mind for a complete restructuring of Western philosophy. He drew a line between the external world, which we can measure and agree about and the internal world which is more ambiguous. The external world is characterised by one single feature – location. But that aspect of location is shared by the heavens above and the earth beneath, so they can be brought together, and a great locational web can be cast over them all, integrating them into a unified mathematical picture.
Did he do it despite the gathering clouds of war, or did they somehow add an urgency and a sharpness to his thinking? And who will do the work we need today to cut their way through the cluster of thought in a squabbling world and give us a new Cartesian-like clarity?
The photograph is of Stromness