Pushing the boundaries of the human species

Tim Peake

Official NASA portrait of British astronaut Timothy Peake.

This lunchtime Astronaut Tim Peake will make British space history becoming the first member of the UK to officially undertake a space walk. He and his colleague will spend a whopping 6hours and 30minutes outside the International Space Station to fix a solar panel. At 12:55pm (GMT) this lunchtime you can watch the events unfold live online via NASA from 11:30am (GMT).

I was thinking about this on my way back from fitness class this morning. I marvelled at the fact these people will be quite literally pushing the boundaries of the human species and what we can achieve. Today I will sit at my desk and put some words to page (hopefully!). No contrast really. But then I got to thinking how PhD students push different boundaries – we push the limits of academic research, or at least we are supposed to. So today as I undertake my own academic “space walk” I will be thinking of Major Peake and his colleagues as they float outside the ISS pushing themselves mentally and physically and brining humanity that one tiny step closer to life in space.

So, one wordy step closer to a PhD for me and one weightless step for Major Tim Peake.


Of Writing, Getting Ideas and Following Through

This is a great post about being a writer and the writing process: Of Writing, Getting Ideas and Following Through. I don’t necessarily think of myself as a writer.  I don’t have a literary–geared mind, nor am I obsessed with great literary figures of past and present. But, as a researcher I am a writer, just not in the conventional sense or in the sense of the image I have in my own mind of what or who a writer is. Writing is all about what you want to say and the audience you are addressing. For me writing my PhD has very much been about fishing for the right ideas, phrases and individual words – something I had not so eloquently thought until reading the post by ofopinions.

As quoted by ofopions: “When things are going well, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with my mind. Writing walks, speech runs and talk flies. Other times, though, it’s like fishing.” – Dylan Moran.

Source: Of Writing, Getting Ideas and Following Through

Writer’s block: inevitable but fixable

I was just reading an interview with the author Neil Gaiman and found this answer on the topic of writer’s block rather relevant:

“Writer’s block is this thing that is sent from the gods—you’ve offended them. You’ve trod on a crack on the pavement, and you’re through. The gods have decided. It’s not true. What is really true is you can have a bad day. You can have a bad week. You can get stuck. But what I learned when I was under deadline is that if you write on the bad days, even if you’re sure everything you’ve written is terrible, when you come to it tomorrow and you reread it, most of it’s fixable. It may not be the greatest thing you’ve ever written, but you fix it, and actually it’s a lot better than you remember it being. And the weird thing is a year later when you’re copyediting and reading the galleys through for the first time in months, you can remember that some of it was written on bad days. And you can remember that some of it was written on terrific days. But it all reads like you. Fantastic stuff doesn’t necessarily read better than the stuff written on the bad days. Writers have to be like sharks. We keep moving forward, or we die.”

For the whole article see here: https://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/1084.Neil_Gaiman


Film Review – Monuments Men

For those of you who might not know the film is about a group of US soldiers who are detailed to save as much of the art work and other cultural treasures that they can during World War II. It stars a host of famous names including Matt Damon and George Clooney (who also directed it), and for Downton Abbey fans, Lord Grantham also stars. The team are under pressure to save thousands of pieces of artwork, sculptures etc. before they are spirited away or destroyed by the German army. They are also faced with saving as much as they can before the Russians steal the treasures as compensation for the 20 million or so civilian lives lost during the war. The US soldiers aimed to return as much as they could to its original homes.

The film is very well made and as far as I could tell, historically accurate (World War II is not my area of specialty). The acting is maybe a bit limp in places and you never really feel an emotional attachment to the characters. There is one scene in which one of the team receives a audio message from home and his comrade plays it for him over the camp speakers. The message is from is daughter and grandchildren and they sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. This, for me, was the most poignant scene in the film. It wasn’t because of the emotional connection with the character as this didn’t really exist, it was more for the fact that it makes you think about the soldiers of the war and how hard it must have been for them to be separated from their families. That doesn’t quite do it justice but you get the idea. It brought the emotional hardships of the war home.

Two more scenes stuck in my memory. At one point Matt Damon opens a large barrel that appears to be full of gold nuggets. His comrades enquires what they are and Damon informs him that they are teeth. No more is said about this but everyone who has ever studied WWII at school will know that the teeth belonged to the Jews and others who were taken to concentration camps by the Germans. The other scene is a warehouse filled with crate after crate of treasures. This reminded me vividly of the scene at the beginning of the fourth Indian Jones film (certainly not the best one) of the warehouse and also of the scene at the end of the Raiders of the Lost Ark where the box containing the ark is stored in a similar warehouse.

I was fascinated by the historical content of the move. I never before realised just how much art was lost/stolen and in many cases burnt (including pieces by modern masters such as Picasso). I was amazed by how close Europe came to loosing its treasures permanently and by how many of them are still, even now, missing.

I would recommend the film to anyone with an interest in history/art but don’t expect it to blow you away for its cinematic genius. It was enjoyable more for the fact that it was a based on a true and little known story of one of the world’s most defining wars and because it made me want to find out more about the men involved with this mission.

Historical TV – Accuracy, Bonnets, and Blackadder

For the second time this week, I’ve had my perceptions changed. This time by Greg Jenner, who is perhaps most known for being the Historical Consultant to the Horrible Histories series. His thought provoking and downright hilarious lecture last night was entitled “Lavish Dramas, Thoughtful Documentaries, and Idiots Smeared in Poo: Why Making Historical Television is Harder Than You Think”. I could write a series of blog posts about Greg’s lecture; he raised so many interesting points; but I’ll try to keep this to the point! What follows is what I got from his talk.

The lecture was split into three main sections, Documentaries, Dramas, and Comedies. These being the three main genres for historical tele. Greg is unusual in the fact that he has been involved in programs in all three genres.

DOCUMENTARIES: “The past is like a boy-band that got fat – its gone.” Perhaps my favourite quote from Greg’s lecture (and there were so many quotable moments!). Greg pointed out that historical documentaries aren’t really documentaries at all. They are fictional, they state what is currently known about a topic but they are not necessarily accurate. History is not the same as the past. History is the process of attempting to find out what happened in the past but we can never truly know as the past is dead and gone. Each country tends to have its selection of usual topics for historical documentaries. In the UK its things like the Tudors, Ancient Rome, Egyptians, Victorians, the World Wars, Hitler/Churchill, Titanic, and conspiracy theories. Greg highlighted the fact that it is often quite hard to get TV channels to make a program about something which is not a usual topic. He did suggest that Channel 4 were the best for making historical documentaries that can be considered outside the box.

In the USA history is becoming “titilation instead of information”. The need for the dramatic is becoming an increasing problem in the USA. Historical documentaries on the ‘History’ Channel seem more like action movies or quests for the ‘greatest’ / ‘most’ / ‘deadliest’ etc. Doubt in the facts becomes mystery (read in an appropriately mood inducing tone). Historical documentaries in the USA are becoming an entertainment genre and accuracy and debate are being lost at the expense of attractive producers and flashy special effects.

DRAMAS: because “sometimes accuracy is boring”. Many people, especially historians and archaeologists etc. struggle with the inaccuracy of many historical dramas. Greg pointed out that its the documentaries that should be accurate, dramas are supposed to be entertaining and accuracy doesn’t always make the most interesting tele. He suggested that the accuracy should come in the discussions that can be had after the programs – historians should be more involved with talking to and interacting with the general public rather than sitting in their arm chairs and pointing out all the flaw in a “NO, NO, NO” fashion. The past is a powerful thing but historical dramas are not the means to tell us who we are – they are entertainment that is to be enjoyed. Dramas are a fantasy of the past and perhaps the genre should be relabelled Drama Historical as it is the drama that is the most important aspect in order to make them entertaining.

COMEDY: we’ve all seen historical comedies, the most popular perhaps being Blackadder, Monty Python, and Horrible Histories. Greg raised the issue of language and speech in historical tele. In comedies language can immediately tell you an awful lot about a character as we expect certain things of people with certain aspects when in comedy shows. The Romans don’t talk in Latin and the Normans don’t talk in French – everyone speaks English albeit with a wide variety of accents that tell of their nationality. In this sense “The past will always look and sounds like us because we make it now.”. Greg also pointed out that “The past will always be ruined by modernity.” We can never get a true fell for what its was ‘really like’ because we impose our own views on the past. The most interesting ability of comedies to my mind was the ability of characters speaking from an ‘afterlife’ to comment on their own reputations. This was done extremely successfully in Horrible Histories. Their most interesting sketch of this sort re-emerged to the fore last year with the discovery and subsequent DNA identification of Richard III. Horrible Histories had written him a song in which he rails against his villainous reputation. These can also be highly amusing and engaging to children.

Greg finished on the point that it is hard to do history on tele because history itself is hard. I will leave you with that thought after a rather rambling post! More from Greg can be found on twitter @greg_jenner. Thanks to Greg for a refreshing, entertaining, and enlightening lecture!

Archaeological Illustration – It’s All Lies!

Last night I attended a great lecture given by Kelvin Wilson, an archaeological illustrator. The lecture changed the way I look at ‘reconstructions’ of the past and archaeological illustrations. The following is what I got from his talk. First off, archaeological illustrators get you to see the past as THEY see it. It is their interpretation of the information they are provided with. Kelvin’s website is as follows and contains a gallery of some of his fantastic images and a small shop… www.kelvinwilson.com.

First off, Kelvin made it clear throughout that the images you see of ‘reconstructions’ of the past in museums, magazine, publications and books etc are all INTERPRETATIONS of the past. They are not true. They may contain elements that are true, e.g. an accurate representation of a belt buckle, but ultimately they are showing you what the illustrator chose to show you. The goal of most illustrators is to create an image that gets you to like the past. If the image sells well because people like it then the past sells well.

Kelvin suggested that archaeological illustration has gone through certain phases and current illustrators can be fit into one of these categories:

  • the Narrators – they want to tell you a story of the past and so interpret the facts they are given
  • the Educators – they want to educate you about as much of the past as possible therefore they stick to the facts.
  • the Technicians – they want to get as close as possible to a ‘true’ representation of the past.

The illustrations of the past are biased by the aims of the artist. BUT the briefs provided by the archaeologists are also biased in terms of the information gained from a site – we are never presented with the full picture through excavation. Often, archaeologists want the ‘star finds’ to be illustrated all in the same picture, sometimes ignoring the fact that these items might not have belonged to the same person or might have been used at slightly different times.

Kelvin quite strongly made the point that computerised 3D ‘reconstructions’ are no more accurate than illustrations. There tends to be the assumption by academics and the general public alike that if its made on a computer it must be more accurate. This is not the case. 3D artists make the same decisions and go through a similar process in constructing an image to an illustrator. The computer is just another tool, another brush or pencil.

Kelvin ended on a fantastic image. It was of a man in a rather boring street but it was a photographic style image of an eighteenth century street. Kelvin noted the fact that those he showed it to were always unnerved by it given that it was showing a supposed photograph of a street in a time before photography had been invented. He stated his hope one day to create an image of Roman soldiers in this photographic style. I for one would love to see that. It seems like it would make the archaeology even more lifelike in some way. I look forward to the image!

What must be remembered is that archaeological illustrations are NOT REAL representations of past events. They are the illustrators interpretation of object and evidence from a past time.

Thanks must go to Kelvin for an illuminating lecture. I’ll never look at archaeological illustrations in the same way again!