Friday, 22 August 2008

Pulling things together

After a couple of days recovering from the journey back from Italy, and faced with the potentially depressing issue of my MSc timetable, I have, finally, begun to pull things together a bit more.

Over the last two days, I have been reading Owen Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read which has kept my enthusiasm high - it is not a very academic book, but is quite a thriller in its way. It reminds me of the Johnny Depp film, The Ninth Gate in a way. Indeed, as a result, we watched this film last night.

I am now feeling far more positive about the timetabling issue. I now plan to do the Philosophy of Science course in my first year and leave History of Science till year two when I should be able to work virtually full time on it. Philosophy of Mathematics will be my third subject (if it is offered in 2009/10) and I will try and attend some seminars for the other courses if possible. As part of my de-cluttering of the garage, I have found some back copies of the British Journal for Philosophy of Science which I am going to have a skim through, and I have bought a copy of John Losee's A Historical Introduction to Philosophy of Science, which is not too long and should bring me up to date with broad issues.

And hopefully, I will remain sufficiently motivated to keep doing my notes on all my recent reading in History of Science.

It should also be said that part of my motivation for this has come from Wolf's Treehouse, where the issue of following your passions is addressed at some length. The MSc is my passion and I don't want the experience to be tarnished in any way.

New developments

Thursday August 20th, 2008

My IT account at LSE is now functioning, giving me access to both a complete set of old exam papers and draft timetabling information for the next academic year. I have printed off most papers for most subjects for the last 6 or 7 years and so have a pretty good idea of the sorts of things asked for the subjects I am planning to do. As a result of this, I have narrowed my course choices down to History of Science (a definite choice), Philosophy of Mathematics (not available in 2008/09 but a definite if available for 2009/10), Philosophical Foundations of Physics, Philosophy of the Biological and Cognitive sciences, Philosophy of Economics and Philosophy of Science - I have to pick three from these six.

But the timetabling news is not good. I am working on the assumption that I will do one subject in 2008/09 and the remaining two in 2009/10. I had hoped to do the History of Science paper first, but the only subject that looks like it might work from the point of view of me attending lectures and seminars is Philosophy of Science, which is timetabled for 6:00pm till 8:30pm on a Tuesday evening. This subject was perhaps my fourth choice, but may have to be my year one choice. This isn't ideal, but might be ok. However, I have taken quite a few setbacks on various things recently and am tempted to treat this development negatively. Maybe I should just wait a day or two and see how I feel then. And afterall, this doesn't mean the history of science work I have been doing recently has been wasted.

A huge number of history of science books have arrived since I went away - ordered after hearing of my acceptance to LSE. Highlights include Koyre's The Astronomical Revolution and Newtonian Studies, Finocchiaro's The Galileo Affair, The Cambridge Companion to Newton, Gingerich's The Book Nobody Read, Casper's biography Kepler, Kepler's Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, Galileo's Dialogue concerning the Chief World Systems, and so on. All stuff I was really looking forward to reading in great detail in the next 9 months or so, but which might now be delayed till the year after.

Travelling through France - Day 3

A mosquito got into the car at some point last night and I now have another dozen bites to add to the hundred or so that I eventually accumulated in Italy. You definitely do get somewhat immune to them after a while but the first bit of itchiness is certainly intense. My bites today are on my face, my feet and my back - all areas that could well have been exposed overnight.

The weather has changed as I've driven north - the closer I get to England, the gloomier and wetter it has become. I stopped at Caen to do one last bit of wine buying at the Le Clerc hypermarket and then started the last leg of the journey to Cherbourg. Tempted by stopping at Bayeaux to see the famous tapestry, but was hit by a huge rain storm as I got close and decided instead to push on further.

Instead I made a short detour off my route to visit Utah Beach, one of the beaches used in the D-day landings. A surpringly large number of visitors when I was there. I can remember watching the D-day episode of "The World at War" on tv years ago (maybe mid 1970s?). I thought the tank traps and barbed wire were actually quite a sight. The tank was a bit silly though, I thought

Tank traps on the dunes

The beach itself

I decided to have one last nice meal for my trip having spotted a nice looking place in a nearby village. Moules marniere, followed by an entrecote steak and a creme brulee, washed down with a small carafe of the house red. Not bad at all.

Read chapter 2 of Wolf's Treehouse while eating - even though this is my fifth time of reading, I am still seeing new stuff in it and it remains extremely thought provoking.

Restaurant near Utah Beach

It rains for most of the rest of the day. I am among the first cars to arrive for the ferry but among the last to board. The crossing is on a high-speed ferry and only takes 2.5 hours. I am home by just before midnight - the car has made it. For the next few days, I will be sorting out wine, carrying on de-cluttering the garage and starting to think about what will be required work wise over the next few months.

Travelling through France - Day 2

I am getting better at sleeping in the car. Last night I carefully created a cover for the hand brake and also a better pillow. So a fairly decent night's sleep. Awake around 6:00 in time to see Orion just rising ahead of the sun. This is the first time I have seen Orion since the winter and the earliest I have seen it during a year for many years (since I would be out camping or fishing in the early morning)

I have decided on my final route to Cherbourg and will be going north via Cahor and Limoges. I got to Cahor about 8:00am and spent a very pleasant hour or so reading about the creation of the Galileo tomb in Santa Croce that I had seen the few days earlier. The attempts to compare Galileo with Michelangelo were very interesting arguments - you would have expected someone like Galileo to have never had a monument in a Catholic church.

Time for a bit of a walk round Cahor, though this was my third visit of the summer.

The famous fortress bridge in Cahor

Local Cahor wine - a major theme of my wine buying today

My wine buying today was centered on the Carrefour supermarket on the edge of Cahor. I selected 30 or 40 bottles today, mainly local Cahor reds, but also some Bordeaux wines, etc. Then just north of Cahor I came across a local product centre and bought another 18 bottles of "black wine" - really looking forward to having this when I get home.

Chateau for sale north of Cahor

Lunched at another really beautiful picnic area / service station near Limoges. Pate, cheese, melon and bread from the supermarket this morning. And more reading from my current Galileo book.

Limosin cows near the service station

The downside of this route was that I would have to drive about 80km on relatively small, non-motorways. I could have done this tomorrow but decided to try and get it over with this afternoon, and it was very hard going. So Limoges to Poitier was not my favourite bit of the journey.

Past Poitier and towards Le Mans, the number of really nice Service areas seemed to drop and for a while I was having trouble finding somewhere adequate to spend the night. Eventually setted in somewhere just north of Le Mans. Only about 200km to go to Cherbourg now.

Not the nicest overnight stopping point

Travelling through France - Day 1

Seven hours sleep overnight, which was pretty good given the circumstances. Only woke up a couple of times. But I do ache quite a bit from sleeping in such a cramped space. I noticed that some of the other travellers who weren't in RVs had tents with them which they set up next to the car - unfortunately, my tent was somewhere in the roof box and would have been tricky to find. But my plan now is not to be tempted to stay in any hotels. Instead, I am planning to spend all the money I would have spent on hotels, on wine instead.

So I acquired about a dozen bottles this morning as I made my way throught Southern Provence. I am very taken with the service stations that feature "Products Regionaux". One of the ones I stopped in today had a huge wine selection - and some very good offers on half cases.

Parked up for lunch near Narborne

By early afternoon, I had reached Carcassone, the famous medieval walled-city. Linda and I have been close to this on many occasions in the past without actually being able to stop at it. But it is high-season of course and the place was packed out - virtually bumping into people all the time.

Highlights of my couple of hours there was a sitar player by the cathedral and two French girls playing folk music. Stayed and watched each for quite a while. Also there was the photographic gallery of someone called Gerard Sioen who is a superb landscape photographer. I would have liked to buy one of his books but they were far too expensive. You could get his photos framed, some of them were really large prints and did look very good.

The first person I have seen playing sitar for ages - a god chance to really study something of the technique of playing. Very impressive.

The girls did do a rather odd version of "Danny Boy" for some reason

Gerard Sioen's "Purple and Green" from his book on photos of Provence

Carcassone from the motorway

I stopped at a service station based around an exhibition centre for the Canal au Midi. This had a decent enough restaurant where I had dinner. I have started reading Naomi Wolf's "The Treehouse" again (maybe for the fifth time!) as I am hoping to use it to raise my commitment levels for the work tasks I have ahead, which will then support my MSc properly.

Travelling through Italy

So my stay at the lovely Villa Casamanza ended this morning with a 7:00am departure. I have four days in which to drive to Cherbourg for the ferry, a journey of about 1500 miles, but one in which I do have plenty of time to stop off places on the way. So today's first leg of the journey is the two hours drive to Florence and a few hours having a walk round a few places I have picked out.

A last view at dawn from the front terrace towards Assisi (hidden in the mist in front of Mount Subasio)

The first light of day catches the front of the house - entrance to the lounge and my bedroom above

Car packed and ready to depart
Last view back to the villa - nestled on the hillside to the left of the picture

The car has not been working well since Spain and has been producing lots of black smoke from the exhaust on occasions. With the car loaded down with stuff, I am going to have to take the driving very easily. So I was expecting to spend most of the journey back to the UK in the slow lanes of motorways. There was not much traffic early in the morning and the drive to Florence was uneventful. I had aimed for the Piazza Michaelangelo but came into town slightly west and ended up parked on a meter for a few hours near the bridge three down from the Ponte Vecchio. A short walk to the Piazza della Signoria and a remarkably expensive coke and cake (Euro15!) at a cafe, but this did give me a chance to plan my morning's sight seeing.

Church on the left bank of the Arno

Widely considered to be the worst statue in the Piazza della Signoria, but I am actually rather fond of Neptune. Locals call it "Il Biancone" - the big white man

The door to the Duomo - queues were already hundreds of metres long to either get into the main building or, especially, to do the climb to the top of the dome
My planned first stop today was the Museo di San Marco. This is a former Dominican monastery and contains many works by Fra Angelico, one of my favourite painters. In particular, when the monk's cells were being restructured, he painted most of them with devotional frescos. And there is one of his most famous "Annunciations" painted on the wall at the top of the stairs.
But the highlight for me was the Signoria Alterpiece by Fra Bartolomeo in the main museum. This painting is still in its preparatory stages. The cartoon has been drawn and the picture shaded to outline tones prior to it actually being painted. It shows the Patron Saints of Florence in conversation about the Immaculate Conception, and has strong political overtones as it symbolises free democratic discussion. It was left unfinished when its political message was no longer required.
I took half a dozen photos (no flash) before asked not to by a museum person. Not sure that non-flash photos can do any harm, but maybe a blanket ban stops autoflashes.

I was later able to find a print of this picture in the museum shop which I am very pleased with.
Overall, a great museum to visit - obviously overshadowed in Florence by the Uffizi and the Galleria dell'Accademia, which also had huge queues outside it as I walked back towards Santa Croce.
Reading my guidebook to Florence, I had discovered that Santa Croce is like Westminster Abbey in London in that it is where a number of notable people are buried, as with Isaac Newton in London. So one of my main aims in visiting Santa Croce was to see the famous tombs, two in particular.
Michelangelo supposedly chose this spot for his tomb so he'd be able to see Brunelleschi's dome on judgement day. The three statues represent Architecture, Painting and Drawing

Michelangelo's tomb in Santa Croce

And opposite to Michelangelo is the tomb of Galileo. Much of my study this past week has been of Galileo and a trip to see his tomb was definitely a neat way to end this study week. He only has two statues on his tomb, representing Astronomy and Geometry. (later edit - I would find out a few days later that the original plan was to have a third statue so as to be symmetrical with Michelangelo opposite, but that the chosen subject, Philosophy - what we would call Science - was considered too provocative when the tomb was created, even though this was nearly 100 years after Galileo had died)

Galileo's tomb - completed in 1737, 95 years after his death. Prior to this, Galileo's remains had been buried in a tiny chamber under the bell tower at Santa Croce.

Elsewhere in Santa Croce, there are tombs to Machiavelli and Dante, among others
One room to the side had a number of illuminated music manuscripts - always a favourite with me.

Photo from 1966 showing the extent of the flooding that year - 5 metres deep in the church

The cardboard-like facade to Santa Croce
After a lunch in the square opposite Santa Croce, I was starting to make my way back to the car when I had one of those events in life that is so disappointing as to completely overwhelm how I was feeling after my wonderful morning in Florence. I knew that Florence did contain a science museum but didn't know where it was and couldn't find a mention of it in the guide book I had with me. It turns out to be on the right bank of the Arno just beside the end of the Uffizi
But terrible news on arriving at it. The main exhibition at the moment is on Galileo's telescopes and the museum had shut 10 minutes before I arrived at it. Having spent all week studying Galileo in great detail, this exhibition would have been the highlight of my time here. I even tried to work out whether I could stay in Florence till Monday and still make the ferry on Tuesday. What a disappointment!

Last photo of Florence for this trip - looking back along the Arno towards the Ponte Vecchio.

From Florence, I picked up the motorway to Pisa - the Fi-Pi-Li - then turned north towards Liguria and France. After a brief stop in San Remo for some food - and it was absolutely packed out there compared to my last visit in late June - I crossed the border into France about 7:00pm, before stopping at the first picnic area service station that I then came to. Dozens of RVs were parked up here and many were barbequing supper. I read for a couple of hours listening to music, before finding a suitable arrangement for my sleeping bag across the front seat of the car and settling down for the night.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Last full day in Italy

Friday August 15th, Villa Casamanza, Nr Perugia, Umbria, Italy

Last full day and my regular combination of study and art! Most of the morning was spent on an article on Galileo and Scripture, which was very interesting. This also suggested a possible MSc thesis on the alternative ideas on "proof" in astronomy for Galileo and Kepler. Galileo was much more linked with Aristotelian ideas, while Kepler was more of a free spirit.

Late morning into Perugia for the last time. Spent a couple of hours visiting the National Gallery of Umbria to cover the remaining exhibitions over the above the Pintoricchio exhibition that I saw earlier in the week.

And a nice hour spent in a cafe having some lunch and reading the English papers

Anna and David came round late afternoon to bring me four bottles of their own olive oil. They left just as a huge rain storm broke overhead. Thunder and lightning and really heavy rain for 90 minutes and the last chance of a swim gone.

Everything packed up then now into the Land Rover, ready for a 7:00am departure for the UK. Home on Tuesday night, hopefully

Friday, 15 August 2008


Today's trip out as a toss up between quite a few choices. Maybe the long drive to Siena, visiting the cathedral and the bookshops, and seeing the preparations for this Saturday's "Palio" horse race round the Piazza del Campo. Or perhaps a trip to see the villages of Todi, Orvieto and Montefalco, where some of the best wine we drank last week came from. But finally I setttled on Assisi, which I have seen from the terrace of the villa everyday for the last two weeks or so, nestled on the side of Mount Subasio

The key feature is clearly the "absurd" Basillica di San Francisco. Controversial since its completion, it is probably the worst example of a building put up to commemorate the life of someone. But that would be waiting at the other end of town from where I was parked. First stop for me was the Basilica di Santa Chiara. This is also a somewhat unusual looking church with three very ugly flying buttresses on the left side.

Saint Claire was more or less a contemporary of St Francis, and was committed to the same Christian philosophy of poverty. She found the Order of the Poor Claires who resided next door to the first Franciscans. Highlight of this visit was the crypt with her tomb tucked away. Her life is, in many ways, just as interesting as St Francis and Assisi itself seesm to have just as many souvenirs about her as it does about St Francis.

The city was pretty full of people, even mid morning. Large tour groups walking behind their guides holding up umbrellas. A surprisingly large number of monks and nuns walking round as well. Were they locals or on holiday?

Looking towards the centre of the city from St Chiara

The main square of the city - the Minerva Temple facade to the left dates from the Romans

An angel miming to a hippy harp player!

And so after a walk along the length of town, I reached the "imfamous" Basilica di San Francisco. This is a monsterous building dominating the sky line from the valley below at that end of the city. And a truly ridiculous way to commemorate St Francis, a preacher of poverty. The only good thing that can be said about it is that the frescos of St Francis's life were mostly painted by Giotto and members of his school and are interesting for that reason. But whoever could have thought that building this was a symbol of the greatness of St Francis and his message. Totally absurd!

The front facade of the Basillico di San Francisco

View to the valley below

After spending an hour or so in the Basillica it was back along the main street to the Cattedrale di San Rufino. Highlight here was a beautiful statue of St Francis

But at the eastern end of town, close to where I was parked, is the Santuario di San Damiano. This was the tiny church that St Francis had stumbled across in a state of disrepair and where God had apparently spoken to him through a crucifix and instructed him to "restore my house that is falling in ruins". So Francis sold all his belongings and made the repairs. St Claire then lived in this small complex of buildings for the next 40 years or so with the other sisters of her order. And no doubt at all, this is more like the way St Francis and St Claire should be commemorated

Statue of St Claire outside the Santuario

The tiny roof garden where St Claire grew flowers

A fresco of the Annunciation outside in the central courtyard - the lower part is shielded by glass, hence the reflections

The centre of Assisi from the Santuario

So a mixed visit overall. If I hadn't visited the Santuario, I would have probably come away with a much more negative view than I did do. As it was, the Santuario more than made up for the Basillico.

A day at the villa

Villa Casamanza, Nr Perugia, Umbria, Italy

Spent most of today at the villa - working on various books and swimming lots. I haven't done any yoga since everyone left on Saturday, but the swimming has been pretty good instead and I did 100 lengths of the pool today (in two separate swims it must be said)

A slightly better picture of my study area than the one I posted the other day. I may have damaged my camera by crushing a peach against it in my rucsack and it maybe isn't working as it should at the moment!

The typical orange sky just at sunrise

Assisi hidden in mist - maybe I should try to visit there at dawn for some photos?

I read two whole books today, though there were in the Oxford "Very Short Introduction" series - Evolution and Cosmology. The first was actually quite hard I thought. I haven't studied biology since I was about 14 and my reading on it since school has not been much. So quite a lot of the detail was actually quite complicated even though most of the terms were familiar. The Cosmology one was pretty easy though

And tonight I was finally tempted to watch a move on the laptop - the recent Will Smith film "Hancock". This was actually much better than I had expected, though I would have been tempted to have a much bleaker ending and have them both die

Also did the first bit of packing for the journey home - the roofbox and the first boxes into the boot. Loads to do still though.