Garden news update

I’ve been keeping an eye on the new weed which had appeared next to the stub of the tree I removed recently, as told here. Or really, that should be “weed”, as will be revealed now. I noticed that it was growing like the clappers – it about quadrupled in size over less that 2 weeks. This is the photo from the previous post, taken on 1 September:


And look at it now (this was Saturday the 14th):


Now, I had seen that sort of growth before, and that was when that tree was first growing as a sapling. So I went out and checked, and sure enough: the “weed” is no weed at all, it is the tree coming back. Those twigs are emerging from the stub of the tree which was left, and they are growing and putting out leaves as fast as they can, to make the most of the wonderful September weather we’ve been having.

So, what to do? I think I will leave them for now. Winter will come soon, the leaves will fall off, and the tree will stop growing for a bit (I think…). And if it does grow too big again, I will just saw it off. For now, I am enjoying the greenery.


Through a glass smearily

Okay, can I just ask – what’s up with modern spectacle lenses?

This is what happened this morning:

I put my glasses on but noticed that they were rather dirty, a few smears and droplets from when my eyes were watering yesterday. So I got one of those little wipes to clean them. You know the kind, the individually wrapped moist things. Not very good for the environment, I know, but practically the only thing that will have any effect. I wiped the glasses and inspected them. They were not really clean. The wipe was drying out already, so I had thrown it away. I had a go with one of the cleaning cloths that came from the optician with the glasses. That seemed to make it worse. So I opened a second wipe, repeated the process, put the glasses on. Vision still slightly weird. I held them up against the light. Greasy smears all over. I had another go with the soft cloth, which resulted in nothing but a redistribution of the grease. By now I had wasted seven minutes just to clean my glasses. I needed to get to work, so I gave up, put in contact lenses and went.

I might tackle the glasses with the only other working method I know, which is to wash them with washing up liquid, then carefully dab them (don’t wipe, whatever you do!) with a paper towel.

But seriously, why is that? Why is it impossible to remove the grease from the glasses, even with chemicals and such? This is something I first noticed maybe seven or eight years ago. It didn’t use to be like that. Is it that fancy anti-glare coating that the grease is clinging to? Is it something else about modern lenses? I don’t know. I just know that I struggle to see clearly.

I don’t know how other people do it. I see them wiping their glasses with handkerchiefs, on their jumpers and put them on without fainting, induced by the rainbow fractals dancing before their eyes. George Smiley is always wiping his glasses on the end of his tie. Makes me wonder how he could ever see anything at all. Or perhaps the silk did the trick? I’ve got silk ties, maybe I should give that a try?

Our optician in Germany cleaned glasses with ultrasound. If that device was available for domestic use, maybe I need one. I remember they had sonic showers in some Star Trek novels. If I lived in Star Trek world, I’m sure I wouldn’t have a problem getting my glasses clean. But then they didn’t really bother with glasses anymore in Star Trek.

Garden news

Okay, I don’t actually have a garden. I’ve got a gravelled back yard the size of a beach towel, surrounded by an 8-foot high wall. But in order to have something planty, I put out two large tubs about 10 years ago. I have had all kinds of things in there. An attempt to grow Foxglove and Hollyhock failed, probably because there is very little light. But the Crocus and Snowdrop bulbs I planted came out nicely. The first year I had lots of Crocuses and Snowdrops. The next year there were fewer. Year 3: hardly any. Year 4: only leaves. So those disappeared, and I didn’t replace them. From then on I practiced  zero effort gardening and did absolutely nothing whatsoever. Nevertheless, things have grown in the tubs. One year I had some Willowherb, but sadly that didn’t come back. I’ve had Cranesbill for a few years, with nice purple flowers, but this year there were only leaves. A few unidentified weeds sprang up. Moss appeared, the kind which carries its seeds on stalks, like little lanterns. Fern appeared in the other tub, nice and green. And then one year a tree appeared. Actually, I had already had a tree years before, but that grew out of the gravel next to the house, and I was worried about the roots and getting into trouble with the landlord. So when the trunk reached a diameter of close to an inch, I felled it. But this tree was in one of the tubs, so I wasn’t worried about the roots going anywhere. Also I thought the lack of space would restrict its growth. It did grow for a couple of years, just a stick with twigs, then with some leaves. One year the leaves all turned black and fell off, and I thought that was that, but the tree survived. And grew. And grew. And grew and grew and grew. Last summer I looked out of the back door one day and realised, blimey, I have a canopy!


The tree was by now as high as the wall. This spring and summer it added a few feet – it’s incredible how quick these things grow! The canopy was now so thick that there was hardly any light coming into the yard. I had to switch on my kitchen lights in the middle of a summer’s day just to see what I’m doing. I thought, maybe that tree needs to go after all, but I was reluctant to get rid of it. Think about it: a real tree, in my tiny back yard – how cool is that?


At this point I should mention that there was a second tree, or rather a bush, a Holly Bush. This, too, had been growing for some years, right next to the wall, and occasionally I had cut branches off when they stretched across the opening of my back door. The bush was now half covering the kitchen window.

So a couple of weeks ago I decided that it can’t go on like this. The tree was infested with some parasite again. I couldn’t figure out what. Something that left a sticky, possibly sweet, residue on the leaves, because the tree was frequented by wasps and flies, who appeared to be picking up (licking?) something from the leaves. I suspect aphids. Also at the top something was eating the leaves, reducing them to skeletons. So I got my saw out and started sawing. The trunk was about 2 inches, maybe less, in diameter at its thickest, so it wasn’t difficult to bring the tree down. I cut the branches off, cut everything into pieces, and stuffed it into rubbish sacks ready for removal. There were a lot of ladybirds of different varieties on the tree, and a number of spiders. I also spotted a cute Harvestman. I shook some of them off, but a few would have gone into the sacks. I didn’t tie them shut very tightly, though.

Next I also removed the Holly, partly because I was worried about it growing right next to the wall, partly as punishment for pricking my backside while I was busy with the other tree.

I am a bit sad about losing the tree, but there are upsides. Light is coming into my kitchen again. The sun can dry the gravel after it has rained. The tree doesn’t take the light away from the smaller plants in my tubs. Because they are of course still there. There are actually two more trees growing in one of them, but they have been there for several years and are still tiny. The fern is still there. And I noticed, right next to the stub of the trunk, a new weed is coming up, bright and green. I haven’t identified it yet. I’m hoping it will flower.

As for the waste, I carted that to the nearest recycling centre, where they collect garden waste in a huge container (you have to remove it from the plastic bags of course). A sign explained that it is sold on to a garden centre, which processes it into soil. It’s the circle of life…

Nature in my hand

I just want to quickly relate what happened to me this morning, because it was so lovely.

I used to have a really close bond with nature, I could immerse myself in it and I could draw strength from it. It wasn’t just an interest in the science, there was an emotional – spiritual, if you like – element as well. I’ve lost that a bit over the past few years as I’ve been sliding into what I call my mid-life crisis. I’ve been trying to get that feeling back, along with the attempt to slowly turn my life around into something happier again.

But enough with the generalities, this is the wildlife experience this morning which made me happy. As I was walking to my car, I spotted a beautiful moth sitting right there on the pavement. It was pink and green, with white legs and antennae. Quite a large moth as well. At first I feared it might be dead, but not so. Perhaps it was just exhausted. I managed to coax it onto my finger and carried it a bit further until I spotted a convenient bush. I tried to deposit it on a leaf, but it refused to go. It clung to my finger and vibrated its wings. At first I thought it had injured its leg as it was tucked under at a strange angle, but then it righted itself. Eventually the moth took off and settled on a leaf by itself, quite hidden away and out of sight. Perhaps it just needed to warm itself up with a bit of wing exercising. I was satisfied that the moth was safe and continued on my way to work. But it was such a nice experience to have it sitting on my hand, looking at it up close and feeling its little scratchy feet and the buzz from its wings.

I couldn’t take a picture, but I looked it up afterwards. It was an Elephant Hawk-Moth. Isnt’ it stunning?


(Image via Wikimedia, by Jean Pierre Hamon, reproduced under Creative Commons Licence)

40 Odd Things

This is in response to King Ben’s Grandma, who also pointed out that there are only 39 things on the list. So the 40th odd thing is that No 31 is missing…You’ll have to read to discover my own personal solution for that problem.

Anyway, it looks like fun, and a convenient way for me to produce a post without any work!

Here goes:

  1. Do you like bleu cheese? Some. I like Stilton.
  2. Coke or Pepsi? I’m not choosy. I don’t drink either very often though.
  3. Do you own a gun? No.
  4. What flavor of Koolaid? We don’t have that over here.
  5. Hot dogs? Yeah, maybe. If I can dictate exactly what’s going in it.
  6. A favorite TV show? Haven’t currently got one. Though I keep re-watching Wolf Hall. Can’t get enough of it.
  7. Do you believe in ghosts? Most of the time, no. But in the middle of the night, and there’s that noise you can’t explain…
  8. What do you drink in the morning? Coffee.
  9. Can you do a push-up? Yes. You said push-up, right?
  10. Favorite jewelry? What I wear most often are the little steel studs which my ears were pierced with 30 years ago. They’ve got little hearts.
  11. Favorite hobby? Reading. Although, as someone pointed out to me years ago, that’s not a hobby, that’s a way of life.
  12. Do you have ADD/ADHD? No.
  13. Do you wear glasses? Yes, but not today. Today I’m wearing contact lenses, so I can wear my non-prescription sunglasses.
  14. Favorite cartoon character? Marcie from the Peanuts.
  15. What three things have you done today? Made sandwich. Drove to work. Ate sandwich for lunch.
  16. Three drinks you drink all the time? Coffee, water, tea.
  17. Current health worries. Nothing really. But I’ve got a dentist appointment coming up…
  18. Do you believe in magic? Only my own personal brand of magic.
  19. Favorite place to be? The seaside.
  20. How did you bring in the New Year? With my sister and brother in law, sampling three different whiskies.
  21. Where would you like to visit? I’d love to re-visit New York City.
  22. Name four people that will play along. I don’t know. Up to you.
  23. Favorite movies? Sense and Sensibility. Once Upon A Time In The West. The Dirty Dozen. The Magnificent Seven. I’m not into rom-coms, but I’m a sucker for Sleepless in Seattle.
  24. Favorite color? Blue.
  25. Do you like sleeping on satin sheets? Not really.
  26. Can you whistle? Yes.
  27. Where are you now? At my desk at work, sneakily typing this between tasks.
  28. Where would you rather be? At home in my armchair with a book and a G&T
  29. Favorite food? Pizza.
  30. Least favorite chore? Vacuuming, particularly the stairs. Pushing that thing around is just too much hard work.
  31. Are you pedantic and can’t bear a list of 40 things which only contains 39? Yes.
  32. What’s in your pockets? A small glass heart which I use as a stim toy. A handkerchief. Yes, an actual cloth handkerchief.
  33. Last thing that made you laugh? I took a box of mints from my parents’ kitchen counter (with permission), took it home, ate one and then saw that they are ‘best before June 2016’. They’re still good though.
  34. Favorite animal? Mouse.
  35. What’s your most recent injury? I don’t really get injuries as such, only bruises. I managed to bump my thigh into the bedpost last week. Twice.
  36. How many TVs are in your house? One.
  37. Worst pain ever? Last year I had stomach pains so bad I thought I was gonna die. Within a couple of hours they were gone. Still don’t know the cause.
  38. Do you like to dance? Yes, particularly round the kitchen.
  39. Are your parents still alive? Yes.
  40. Do you enjoy camping? Haven’t been in ten years. Last time I went, I enjoyed some of it.


I can’t be bothered with themed posts at the moment, so here is some random news from my life.

First up: spider news!

There has been a new kid on the block by the name of Ozyptila praticola, a kind of crab spider.

It lurked behind the curtain rail, and when I approached, it would come out and wave its front legs menacingly. This is where the fabulous spider guide I got for Christmas came into its own. This kind of spider doesn’t make webs, but sits quietly waiting for prey to come past. Of course it wouldn’t find any in my bedroom. After a few days it had gone, but then it turned up again on a cushion elsewhere in the room. This time I caught it and put it out. I’m very pleased to have seen it, it was a first for me.

And now some sad news: last night my tallest cactus (80 cm!) toppled over and broke in two. I’m very sad and disappointed about this. I’ve had this cactus for 12 years. However, if you ever wanted to know what a cactus looks like on the inside, this is your chance:

Hope to be back with some better news next time.

Women from History: Caroline Herschel

(A slightly belated second contribution to Women’s History Month, but hey – we don’t need to be bound by a particular month, do we?)

My favourite series of books is the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian – the ‘Aubreyad’ as aficionados like to call it. It charts the career of Captain Jack Aubrey in the Royal Navy in the early years of the 19th century. Aubrey is of course fictional, but the very real woman I want to talk about today makes a couple of cameo appearances in the series. Well, she never actually appears as a character, but she is referred to several times. So for starters, I will leave it to Captain Aubrey to introduce her:

‘Tell me, who is the Miss Herschel of whom you spoke with such warm approbation?’ [asks Aubrey’s friend Stephen Maturin]

‘Ah, now, that is another case altogether […]. There is a woman you can talk to as one rational being to another. Ask her the measure of an arc whose cosine is nought, and instantly she replies pi upon two: it is all there, in her head. She is sister to the great Mr Herschel.’

‘The astronomer?’

‘Just so. He honoured me with some most judicious remarks on refraction when I addressed the Royal Society, and that is how I came to know her. She had already read my paper on Jovian moons, was more than civil about it, and suggested a quicker way of working my heliocentric longitudes. I go to see her every time she comes down to Newman’s observatory, which is pretty often, and we sit there either sweeping for comets all night or talking about instruments. She and her brother must have made some hundreds in their time. She understands telescopes from clew to earring, and it was she who showed me how to figure a speculum, and where to get my superfine Pomeranian sludge. And it is not mere theory: I have seen her walking round and round a post in Newman’s stable-yard for a good three hours without a break, putting the last touches to a six-inch mirror – it will never do to take your hand from the surface at that stage, you know – taking snuff from a saucer every hundred paces. An admirable woman; you would love her, Stephen. And she sings, too – hits the note plumb in the middle, as pure as the Carlotta.’

(from The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian)

So: who was Miss Herschel?


Caroline Herschel shortly before her death at 97 years of age 

Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover in 1750 (on 16th March – happy late birthday Caroline!). She had several brothers and sisters, one of whom, Wilhelm (or William) moved to Britain in 1757, where Caroline joined him in 1772. Although both Caroline and William became famous as astronomers, they both had early careers in music. William had been an oboist in the Hanover Military Band, but he also played other instruments. For a while he was the first violin in Charles Avison’s orchestra in Newcastle, and then he had jobs as an organist, first in Halifax, then at the Octagon Chapel in Bath. Not only that, but William Herschel was also a composer, and you can still hear his music played sometimes on the more adventurous classical music stations (worth checking out in my opinion, as is the music of Charles Avison, by the way). When Caroline joined him in Bath, she trained as a singer and performed as a soloist in a variety of concerts which her brother conducted. However, she refused to perform with any other conductor, and as William’s interest in music waned, her career declined as well.

William’s new passion was astronomy, and at first Caroline went along with it simply to support her brother in his endeavours. Soon however, she became interested herself. No doubt those lessons in arithmetic, which she had taken alongside singing, came in handy now.

In 1781, William discovered the planet Uranus – he called it ‘Georgium sidus’ after the king George III. The king was interested and pleased, appointed Herschel as ‘the king’s astronomer’, granted him a pension and asked him to move closer to Windsor. William gave up music, concentrated on astronomy full time and moved house according to the king’s wishes, and Caroline came with him. Working mainly as her brother’s assistant, she acquired more and more knowledge in astronomy herself and took to observing the night sky by herself – ‘sweeping’ it with the telescope.

In 1787 Caroline made a discovery of her own – a comet. This made quite a splash at the time: after all, this was the first ‘lady’s comet’. It was indeed very unusual for a woman to make scientific discoveries like that. Most women at the time didn’t get the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and skills needed. William Herschel probably valued his sister most as his assistant in astronomy and as manager of his household, but at the same time he didn’t stop her learning from him or using that knowledge in her own right. It is interesting to note, though, that Caroline made her discovery (and subsequent discoveries) at a time when her brother was not at home. She also took care to announce her discoveries as quickly as she could to influential friends (such as the Astronomer Royal Neville Maskelyne), so that no one could take the credit away from her.


Caroline Herschel’s drawing of her comet observation

Caroline wrote a paper on her comet, which became the first paper by a woman to be read at the Royal Society, and one of the first papers by a woman to be published in a scientific journal. Sadly, in spite of her accomplishments, she could not be elected as a fellow of the Royal Society – they didn’t let women in until 1945!

Caroline went on to discover several more comets, one of which bears her name: 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. She also discovered a nebula, Messier 110 (or NGC  205). And she made more important contributions to astronomy. One was the Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, a revised version of John Flamsteed’s catalogue, which had contained numerous inconsistencies and errors. Caroline’s catalogue was published by the Royal Society in 1798. An interesting point (to me at least) is the fact that William had realised that work on the Flamsteed catalogue needed to be done to make it properly usable, but, as the Wikipedia article puts it, he ‘was reluctant to devote time to it at the expense of his more interesting astronomical activities’. In other words, he couldn’t be bothered with something so boring as checking, cross-referencing and indexing, so he passed that task on to Caroline. She was already used to recording and organising her brother’s observations, and had drawn up her own catalogue, so she was well suited to the task. This own catalogue I just mentioned is something she came up with because she found working with Flamsteed’s catalogue difficult when recording William’s observations. Flamsteed had sorted his catalogue by constellation, and she found it tricky to find in it what particular star William was using as a reference point to the nebulae he was observing. She therefore drew up a new catalogue, which sorted the stars by distance from the Pole Star (or to be more precise, by polar distance, the angular distance of a celestial object on its meridian measured from the celestial pole). This catalogue became the New General Catalogue, which is still used today (hence the number NGC 205 of the nebula referred to above).

This type of work is always perceived as unglamourous and not very sexy, but I say hurrah for cataloguing and indexing. Where would we be without it? Nerd Power! (as my sister likes to say)

Caroline’s achievements were recognised and rewarded in her lifetime. In 1787 the royal court started to pay her a salary – the first woman to be paid for her scientific work. In 1828 she received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and was named an Honorary Member of the same society in 1835.

There has been some debate about how to judge Caroline Herschel’s accomplishments. In the past she has often been seen as nothing but her brother’s assistant – his ‘helpmeet’ as the old-fashioned word goes. More recently, and particularly following the efforts of feminist historians keen to reassess potentially overlooked women of the past, she has been characterised as an astronomer in her own right. So who is right?

I haven’t delved deeply into this debate, nor have I studied Caroline Herschel’s life in great detail, just enough to write this post. But here is what I think: if Caroline hadn’t been a ‘proper’ astronomer, she couldn’t have done what she in fact did. Her discoveries are not in question, but to make them she had to be able not only to use the equipment (remember that William wasn’t around) and to make sense of what she observed. She was also able to describe her observations in scientific terms – again, I don’t think anybody questions that she wrote her articles herself. And even when she was helping her brother, she used her scientific knowledge to do so. She didn’t simply write down what he dictated, but organised it, edited it and extrapolated from it. Even the ‘boring’ tasks of cataloguing and indexing would have been beyond her if she hadn’t been an astronomer. I think you will agree that to call her that is amply justified. As to how she ranks in importance compared to others in her field – well, that’s a debate I don’t even want to get into. All I want to say is that she deserves to be recognised and remembered. At the very least, I hope that my readers will agree with Captain Aubrey’s judgment:

“An admirable woman.”