Chasing the Sun: The woman forgotten by science

Annie MaunderImage copyright RAS/DORRIE GILES
Image caption Annie Maunder: A pioneer of solar astronomy

On the far side of the Moon lies the Maunder crater, named after two British astronomers – Annie and Walter Maunder.

Annie worked alongside her husband at the end of the 19th Century, recording the dark spots that pepper the Sun.

The name Maunder is still known in scientific circles, yet Annie has somehow slipped from history.

“I think the name Maunder is there and we have all rather forgotten that that’s two people,” says Dr Sue Bowler, editor of the Royal Astronomical Society magazine, Astronomy and Geophysics.

“She was acknowledged on papers, she published in her own name as well as with her husband, she wrote books, she was clearly doing a lot of work but she also clearly kept to the conventions of the day, I think.”

The ‘lady computers’

Annie Scott Dill Russell was born in 1868 in Strabane, the daughter of a Reverend.

Clearly of fierce intelligence, she won a scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge, and became one of the first female scientists to work at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

In the courtyard of the observatory, looking over the park, curator Dr Louise Devoy, tells me what little they know about her work.

The Royal Observatory, GreenwichImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in 1933

“She was one of what we now call the ‘lady computers’ employed in the early 1890s by the then Astronomer Royal, William Christie,” she explains.

“I believe she came from Northern Ireland and she worked here for several years on very low pay just like many of the computers here, both male and female.

“In terms of what she actually did here, we have very little concrete record or photographs.'”

‘Grit and devotion’

Female scientists were hindered because of their gender until the 1920s and 30s, despite superb skills and experience, says Dr Devoy.

At Greenwich, employing women with a university education in mathematics was an audacious experiment.

Women were only considered because the Astronomer Royal needed skilled assistants but could afford only lowly computers – historically, schoolboys on a wage of £4 per month.

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland
Walter MaunderImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Walter Maunder met Annie after the death of his first wife and collaborated with her until his death

Maunder was offered a post as a lady computer, which meant a huge drop in pay for someone who had been working, briefly, as a school teacher.

Letters show that she appealed for more money but was turned down.

The lady computers would carry out routine calculations to turn raw observations into usable data. They were also trained to use telescopes.

At times, this meant walking through Greenwich Park at night without a chaperone, an activity that was frowned on at the time.

“In an age when many middle-class women were still chaperoned, the grit and devotion of these young women astronomers, clad in their clumsy long gowns as they worked at their telescopes or in the laboratories, were surely remarkable,” wrote the science historian and astronomer Mary T Brück.

In 1892, the names of Annie Russell and fellow Greenwich astronomer Alice Everett were put forward to become fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society.

However, they failed to gain enough of the popular vote in a secret ballot and were rejected.

The RAS had long argued that since the pronoun “he” was used in the charter, women could not be admitted alongside men.

Instead, Annie Russell and Alice Everett, who had studied together at Cambridge, joined the amateur British Astronomical Association (BAA).

Alice Everett grew tired of the low pay and left Greenwich, eventually developing an interest in the new field of television. Annie Russell stayed on.

“She was clearly very tough and wanted to follow her science,” says Dr Bowler.

“She sat the [difficult] mathematical Tripos at a time when women couldn’t actually be awarded a degree and there were even protests at Cambridge against the whole idea of giving women degrees.

“So she was clearly tough enough to do that and to do it well and to succeed then in getting employment as a scientist, which was fairly rare anyway – astronomy was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit.”

Studying the Sun

Annie Russell married her colleague Edward Walter Maunder in 1895.

Under civil service rules, as a married woman, she was forced to give up her paid position, bringing the age of lady computers to an end.

“She did come back as a volunteer during the First World War and then she was taken on as a paid employee later in the 1920s,” says Dr Devoy.

On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting togetherImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption On board ship: Annie and Walter Maunder can be seen sitting together
Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipseImage copyright MAUNDER FAMILY
Image caption Family photos show preparations for observing an eclipse

Annie worked alongside Walter taking photographs of the Sun, laying the groundwork for a modern understanding of solar activity.

“They would take photographs of the Sun every clear day just to note where the sunspots were and to sketch where they were,” says Dr Bowler. “But she also, as a trained mathematician, put quite a bit of effort into analysis. She wasn’t just writing things down; she wasn’t just Walter’s assistant.”

Annie Maunder went on many scientific expeditions to observe eclipses around the turn of the century, often as the only woman. She travelled to Lapland, India, Algiers, Mauritius and Labrador.

She even designed her own camera to take spectacular pictures of the Sun, including the first photograph ever of streamers from the Sun’s outer layer, or corona.

“She particularly caught an extremely long ray – a streak of the corona – coming out from the Sun, while it was eclipsed, that nobody had ever seen before – a feature of the corona that people just didn’t know about,” says Dr Bowler.

“I’ve seen photos of her adjusting the instruments. She’s taking her photographs. She’s not at all a passenger.

“It may have been only socially acceptable for her to go because she’s travelling with her husband but she was on official scientific expeditions and her photographs were acknowledged as among the best.”

The Heavens and Their Story

The conventions of the time meant that Annie’s photographs were published under her husband’s name and she could not speak at scientific meetings.

However, she was eventually made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1916, 24 years after first being proposed.

Annie Maunder medal Image copyright RAS
Image caption The RAS has set up the Annie Maunder medal

She was involved with promoting astronomy to a general audience as vice president of the BAA and edited the in-house journal.

In 1908, the Maunders published the book, The Heavens and Their Story, which was aimed at popular science.

The book was released under both their names, but her husband acknowledged in the preface that it was almost all her work.

The Maunders are also well known for the butterfly diagram, which shows how the number of sunspots varies with time, and the Maunder Minimum, a period in the 17th Century when sunspots all but disappeared.

Much of their work still holds true today.

Annie’s legacy

This year, Annie’s name is being remembered through the inaugural Annie Maunder Medal, to recognise public engagement in science.

“She is an ideal person for that medal to be named after,” says Dr Bowler. “That’s largely what she was doing, certainly later in her career.”

Annie Maunder died in 1947, long after her husband.

On a leafy street near Clapham Common I find the Victorian terraced house where she spent her final years.

From the outside there is nothing to speak of the pioneering scientist.

Yet, despite perhaps not getting the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, she clearly left her mark on science.

“From her letters which are in the Royal Astronomical Society archives she was a very strong-minded, very decided personality,” says Sue Bowler.

“She didn’t mince her words. She’s really quite amusingly rude in some of her letters and very precise.

“I really admire her – she’s one of the people I would definitely have at my dream dinner party – I think she would be extraordinarily interesting.

“And her thoughts, her opinions about the paper based on her observations are very modern and form the basis for solar physics through a lot of the years following.”

UK’s forgotten woman astronomer honoured

TelescopeImage copyright TOM KERSS, BRENDAN OWENS
Image caption Professional astronomers through to school children will get to use the new telescope set-up

The Royal Observatory Greenwich (ROG) is to start studying the sky again after a break of 60 years.

British astronomy’s historic home has installed new telescopes in its Grade II listed Altazimuth Pavilion, which has also undergone a restoration.

The new facility is to be named after Annie Maunder, one of the first female scientists to work at the ROG and who made key discoveries about the Sun.

Professionals, amateurs and school children will use the instruments.

MoonImage copyright  NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption  Today’s technology, combined with new processing techniques, can achieve great results

Why is this important?

The new telescope is named after a forgotten giant of UK astronomy, Annie Maunder, who had to battle the prejudice and conventions of her time (the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century). The move should help highlight her contributions for a new generation.

In addition, our cleaner air and better tech is making astronomy possible again in our cities.

As urban centres have expanded, the artificial glow of buildings and street-lights – along with smog – has drowned out the faint objects in the night sky that astronomers want to study.

So, in the last few decades, stargazing has moved out of town where you can get darker skies. But a combination of new technology and cleaner air means that astronomers will be able to use the Royal Observatory Greenwich again.


SunImage copyright NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM, LONDON
Image caption  The new set-up will look at the Sun – just as Annie Maunder did in her day

Charles II founded the Greenwich site in 1675. Its purpose was to map the stars and compile tables that could then be used for navigation at sea.

It was a working observatory until 1957, after which serious science retreated to the countryside to get away from urban smog and light pollution. But with cleaner air and new technologies, it is now possible for telescopes to take very decent pictures again from the capital, says ROG astronomer Brendan Owens.

“We can use what are called narrow-band filters to get around the light pollution, and then there are the new processing techniques. We can take very fast frame-rate snapshots and use only the steadiest shots to build the final result. It’s known as ‘lucky dip imaging’,” he told BBC News.

The Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT) is actually a four-in-one instrument.

It comprises three smaller refractors around a top-end, 14-inch (35.5cm) aperture Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.

Users will be able to study the Sun and the planets in our Solar System, but also look beyond to more distant stars and planetary nebulae (great clouds of gas and dust).

For the system to be used to look at the Sun is particularly apt in the context of Annie Maunder.

ScreenImage copyright TOM KERSS, BRENDAN OWENS
Image caption The ROG plans to start slowly but over time will ramp up activities

Who was Annie Maunder?

One of the “forgotten giants” of British astronomy, she got a job at Greenwich in 1891 working as a “lady computer”, doing supporting calculations for male scientists. But she became an adept observer in her own right, and with her husband, Walter, broke new ground in our understanding of how the Sun goes through its cycles of activity.

Given the times, all the credit went to Walter. That has changed in recent years with reappraisals finally – and properly – recognising her enormous contributions.

“She remained on staff here in Greenwich until 1895 when she had to resign because, as per civil service rules back then, she couldn’t be married,” explained Dr Louise Devoy, the Curator of ROG. “But she remained very active, particularly with the British Astronomical Association, and indeed she came back to Greenwich in WW1 as a volunteer because of the shortage of staff when all the men joined up.

“The new telescope set-up will have a huge capability to image the Sun, with a special hydrogen alpha filter so you can really see activity such as flares (big outbursts).”

Annie Maunder on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, NewfoundlandImage copyright ALFRED JOHNSON/ANNIE MAUNDER’S FAMILY
Image caption Annie Maunder pictured on an eclipse expedition in Labrador, Newfoundland

The new installation comes thanks to a successful appeal for funds.

ROG museum members, private donors and the public gave £150,000 towards the project.

The money has finally enabled proper restoration work to be completed on the Altazimuth Pavilion, which was in urgent need of repair.

“It’s a beautiful Victorian building that suffered major bomb damage. Half the building was obliterated during WWII,” said Brendan Owens.

“It was reconstructed by the time the ROG became a museum, but it was never perfect and over time, brick work crumbled and damp had crept in. When we decided on the restoration, we could have included just museum space but we saw a wonderful opportunity to make it a multi-purpose, 21st-Century observatory.”

Mr Owens said it would take a while to get the new facility running at top speed. Conversations are being held now with universities to see who would like to make use of Greenwich in their studies.

As ever, the ROG wants the public involved as much as possible. Images taken by the AMAT will be streamed online, and content shared with schools through the Peter Harrison Planetarium. There will be workshops at the observatory as well.

The ground floor of the pavilion will have an exhibition space, with a section dedicated to telling the story of Annie Maunder.

Altazimuth PavilionImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Altazimuth Pavilion: An exhibition on the ground floor will tell the story of Annie Maunder

Biography: J.M. Barrie SCOTTISH AUTHOR

J.M. Barrie, in full Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, (born May 9, 1860, Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland—died June 19, 1937, London, England), Scottish dramatist and novelist who is best known as the creator of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up.

The son of a weaver, Barrie never recovered from the shock he received at six from a brother’s death and its grievous effect on his mother, who dominated his childhood and retained that dominance thereafter. Throughout his life Barrie wished to recapture the happy years before his mother was stricken, and he retained a strong childlike quality in his adult personality.

Barrie studied at the University of Edinburgh and spent two years on the Nottingham Journalbefore settling in London as a freelance writer in 1885. His first successful book, Auld Licht Idylls(1888), contained sketches of life in Kirriemuir, and the stories in A Window in Thurms (1889) continued to explore that setting. The Little Minister (1891), a highly sentimental novel in the same style, was a best seller, and, after its dramatization in 1897, Barrie wrote mostly for the theatre. His autobiographical novels When a Man’s Single (1888) and Sentimental Tommy (1896) both feature a little boy in Kirriemuir (“Thrums”) who weaves a cloak of romantic fiction between himself and reality and becomes a successful writer. Most of those early works are marked by quaint Scottish dialect, whimsical humour and comic clowning, pathos, and sentimentality.

Barrie’s marriage in 1894 to the actress Mary Ansell was childless and apparently unconsummated. At an 1897 New Year’s Eve dinner, he met Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, the daughter of writer and caricaturist George du Maurier, a favourite author of his. Conversing with Davies, Barrie sussed out her connection to du Maurier, and she in turn recognized him as the man who sometimes entertained her sons by telling them fairy stories in Kensington Gardenswhile they strolled with their nanny. Barrie had first encountered the eldest two Davies children, George and Jack, earlier in 1897 while walking his Saint Bernard Porthos, who was named in honour of a character from one of du Maurier’s novels.

Having amused the boys with his playful overtures and having charmed Sylvia as well, Barrie soon inveigled his way into the Davies household. Wealthy because of the success of his plays, he provided financial support to and was ultimately treated as a member of the family, who called him “Uncle Jim.” He often initiated games of make-believe with the boys—who, with the births of Peter, Michael, and Nicholas, ultimately numbered five—and accompanied them on family holidays. It was to them, through whom he began to live again the experience of childhood, that he told his first Peter Pan stories, some of which were published in The Little White Bird (1902). Much of that volume was later republished as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906).

Prurient speculation over the nature of Barrie’s relationship with the Davies children persisted into the 21st century. The suggestion of impropriety was sometimes supported by admittedly odd excerpts from The Little White Bird, including one that featured a man plotting to turn a young boy against his mother in order to gain exclusive access to his affections. However, Barrie’s personal associates and most scholars concluded that—although unconventional and perhaps somewhat unhealthy—his attachment to the boys was devoid of any sexual component. Nicholas, the youngest Davies, explicitly addressed the rumours, contending that Barrie was “an innocent” and likely asexual.

Barrie’s idyll of reexperienced boyhood was followed by tragedy. His marriage ended in divorce in April 1910. Sylvia, widowed in 1907, died four months later. Barrie, along with their nurse, Mary Hodgson, assumed guardianship over the boys. He supported them to adulthood, but George died in combat (1915) during World War I and Michael drowned (1921) while swimming with a friend.

The play Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first produced in December 1904, with Gerald du Maurier—Sylvia’s brother and the father of writer Daphne du Maurier—playing both Mr. Darling, the father of the children spirited away by Peter Pan, and Captain Hook, the villainous pirate whom Peter defeats. That play added a new character to the mythology of the English-speaking world in the figure of Peter Pan, the eternal boy. Though the popular conception of the character is that of a charmingly impish figure, bent more on adventure and escaping the tedium of adulthood than anything truly sinister, the Peter of the play and books is anarchical, selfish, and murderous. For example, he kills his compatriots “the Lost Boys” when they show signs of maturing. Notes by Barrie indicate that Peter was in fact intended to be the true villain of the story. The scene in the play introducing Captain Hook was included only as a means of filling the time needed for a set change. The iconic buccaneer was retained in the 1911 novelization of the play, Peter and Wendy.

Most of Barrie’s stage triumphs have been dismissed by critics as marred by ephemeralwhimsicalities, but at least six of his plays—Quality Street (1901), The Admirable Crichton (1902), What Every Woman Knows (1908), The Twelve-Pound Look (1910), The Will (1913), and Dear Brutus (1917)—are of indisputably high quality. Barrie idealized childhood and desexualized femininity but took a disenchanted view of adult life, as reflected in the gentle melancholy of those works. Sometimes he expressed his disenchantment humorously, as in The Admirable Crichton, in which a butler becomes the king of a desert island, with his former employers as serfs; sometimes satirically, as in The Twelve-Pound Look; and sometimes tragically, as in Dear Brutus, in which nine men and women whose lives have come to grief are given a magical second chance, only to wreck themselves again on the reefs of their own temperaments. The elaborate stage directions in Barrie’s plays are sometimes more rewarding than their dialogueitself. Barrie proved himself a master of stage effects and of the delineation of character, but the sentimental and whimsical elements in his work have discouraged frequent revivals.

Signature of J.M. Barrie.© Photos.com/Thinkstock
J.M. Barrie, c. 1895.© Photos.com/Thinkstock

Barrie was created a baronet in 1913 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1922. He became president of the Society of Authors in 1928 and chancellor of the University of Edinburgh in 1930.

J.M. Barrie, in full Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet, (born May 9, 1860, Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland—died June 19, 1937, London, England), Scottish dramatist and novelist who is best known as the creator of Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up.

The son of a weaver, Barrie never recovered from the shock he received at six from a brother’s death and its grievous effect on his mother, who dominated his childhood and retained that dominance thereafter. Throughout his life Barrie wished to recapture the happy years before his mother was stricken, and he retained a strong childlike quality in his adult personality.

Barrie studied at the University of Edinburgh and spent two years on the Nottingham Journalbefore settling in London as a freelance writer in 1885. His first successful book, Auld Licht Idylls(1888), contained sketches of life in Kirriemuir, and the stories in A Window in Thurms (1889) continued to explore that setting. The Little Minister (1891), a highly sentimental novel in the same style, was a best seller, and, after its dramatization in 1897, Barrie wrote mostly for the theatre. His autobiographical novels When a Man’s Single (1888) and Sentimental Tommy (1896) both feature a little boy in Kirriemuir (“Thrums”) who weaves a cloak of romantic fiction between himself and reality and becomes a successful writer. Most of those early works are marked by quaint Scottish dialect, whimsical humour and comic clowning, pathos, and sentimentality.

Barrie’s marriage in 1894 to the actress Mary Ansell was childless and apparently unconsummated. At an 1897 New Year’s Eve dinner, he met Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, the daughter of writer and caricaturist George du Maurier, a favourite author of his. Conversing with Davies, Barrie sussed out her connection to du Maurier, and she in turn recognized him as the man who sometimes entertained her sons by telling them fairy stories in Kensington Gardenswhile they strolled with their nanny. Barrie had first encountered the eldest two Davies children, George and Jack, earlier in 1897 while walking his Saint Bernard Porthos, who was named in honour of a character from one of du Maurier’s novels.

Having amused the boys with his playful overtures and having charmed Sylvia as well, Barrie soon inveigled his way into the Davies household. Wealthy because of the success of his plays, he provided financial support to and was ultimately treated as a member of the family, who called him “Uncle Jim.” He often initiated games of make-believe with the boys—who, with the births of Peter, Michael, and Nicholas, ultimately numbered five—and accompanied them on family holidays. It was to them, through whom he began to live again the experience of childhood, that he told his first Peter Pan stories, some of which were published in The Little White Bird (1902). Much of that volume was later republished as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906).

Prurient speculation over the nature of Barrie’s relationship with the Davies children persisted into the 21st century. The suggestion of impropriety was sometimes supported by admittedly odd excerpts from The Little White Bird, including one that featured a man plotting to turn a young boy against his mother in order to gain exclusive access to his affections. However, Barrie’s personal associates and most scholars concluded that—although unconventional and perhaps somewhat unhealthy—his attachment to the boys was devoid of any sexual component. Nicholas, the youngest Davies, explicitly addressed the rumours, contending that Barrie was “an innocent” and likely asexual.

Barrie’s idyll of reexperienced boyhood was followed by tragedy. His marriage ended in divorce in April 1910. Sylvia, widowed in 1907, died four months later. Barrie, along with their nurse, Mary Hodgson, assumed guardianship over the boys. He supported them to adulthood, but George died in combat (1915) during World War I and Michael drowned (1921) while swimming with a friend.

The play Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up was first produced in December 1904, with Gerald du Maurier—Sylvia’s brother and the father of writer Daphne du Maurier—playing both Mr. Darling, the father of the children spirited away by Peter Pan, and Captain Hook, the villainous pirate whom Peter defeats. That play added a new character to the mythology of the English-speaking world in the figure of Peter Pan, the eternal boy. Though the popular conception of the character is that of a charmingly impish figure, bent more on adventure and escaping the tedium of adulthood than anything truly sinister, the Peter of the play and books is anarchical, selfish, and murderous. For example, he kills his compatriots “the Lost Boys” when they show signs of maturing. Notes by Barrie indicate that Peter was in fact intended to be the true villain of the story. The scene in the play introducing Captain Hook was included only as a means of filling the time needed for a set change. The iconic buccaneer was retained in the 1911 novelization of the play, Peter and Wendy.

Most of Barrie’s stage triumphs have been dismissed by critics as marred by ephemeralwhimsicalities, but at least six of his plays—Quality Street (1901), The Admirable Crichton (1902), What Every Woman Knows (1908), The Twelve-Pound Look (1910), The Will (1913), and Dear Brutus (1917)—are of indisputably high quality. Barrie idealized childhood and desexualized femininity but took a disenchanted view of adult life, as reflected in the gentle melancholy of those works. Sometimes he expressed his disenchantment humorously, as in The Admirable Crichton, in which a butler becomes the king of a desert island, with his former employers as serfs; sometimes satirically, as in The Twelve-Pound Look; and sometimes tragically, as in Dear Brutus, in which nine men and women whose lives have come to grief are given a magical second chance, only to wreck themselves again on the reefs of their own temperaments. The elaborate stage directions in Barrie’s plays are sometimes more rewarding than their dialogueitself. Barrie proved himself a master of stage effects and of the delineation of character, but the sentimental and whimsical elements in his work have discouraged frequent revivals.

Signature of J.M. Barrie.© Photos.com/Thinkstock
J.M. Barrie, c. 1895.© Photos.com/Thinkstock

Barrie was created a baronet in 1913 and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1922. He became president of the Society of Authors in 1928 and chancellor of the University of Edinburgh in 1930.

WRITTEN BY: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

“The sun began to be darkened”: The strange cloud over much of the world in 536 AD changed history dramatically

Featured image

In the summer of 536, a strange cloud appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Sometimes referred to as “a veil of dust,” something plunged the Mediterranean region and many other areas of the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness.

This foreboding change was recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” Procopius also wrote of disease and war resulting from the blocking of the sun’s light.

A Syrian scribe described the change as “…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray.” Gaelic Irish records describe a “failure of bread” in the year 536.

For many years, historians and scientists have wondered what may have caused Procopius and others to record notable differences in weather. Modern research has provided some interesting theories.

Much of the rest of the world seems to have been impacted by the cloud as well, at least in the northern hemisphere. Studies of tree rings between 536 and 551 show less tree growth in China, Europe, and North America. Less solar radiation reaching the earth resulted in lower temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. The results for humans included lower food production output, famine, as well as increased social and political disruption.

There were specific events recorded that were likely related to the ominous cloud. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, that became known as the Justinian Plague. Estimates are that up to a third of the population perished during the outbreak. Procopius described some of the horrible symptoms as fever and swelling all over the body.

In 536 China, there was famine and drought with many deaths, as well as reports of “yellow dust that rained down like snow.” At the same time, Korea faced massive storms and flooding. Unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.

Scandinavia seems to have been particularly hard hit. Archaeological evidence indicates that almost 75 percent of villages in parts of Sweden were abandoned in these years. One theory is that this displacement of people was a catalyst for later raids by Vikings seeking more fertile land in other parts of Europe and beyond. A Norse poem of the time reads, “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.”

The severe weather may have impacted other historical trends. Among them is the migration of Mongolian tribes westward, the fall of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and the rise and rapid expansion of Islam.

Some historians mark these specific changes in weather patterns as contributing to the historic transition from antiquity to the beginning of the era of the Dark and Middle Ages. It certainly emphasizes the impact rapid climate change may have had on human populations.

What could have caused such a sudden and dramatic change in weather? Experts are divided, and we may never know the whole answer. One theory is that the climate around the world changed based on one giant volcanic eruption, possibly from Central America. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the planet.

Another suggestion is that there were two large volcano blasts within a couple of years of each other, specifically in 536 and 540, causing darkness and cold around most of the world. Clouds of smoke and debris from massive volcanic fires could have spread rapidly.

Evidence of volcanic eruptions was backed up by material found in both the North and South Poles. In both Antarctica and Greenland, sulfate deposits have been discovered dating back to the mid-6th century.

A third theory contemplates the impact of a comet or meteorite crashing into the Earth. Or the possibility of a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Experts generally think this explanation is less plausible than that of volcanic eruptions.

Whatever the cause, people living at the time noticed and recorded a rapid change in nature. Human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many it would have felt like the world were coming to an end.

 Mark Shiffer

A 16th-century fortified Scottish castle was invaded and ransacked by a tiny masked marauder—a badger

Featured image

Never mind armored knights, mounted troops, heavy artillery, or massive cannons. A 16th-century castle in Scotland was recently invaded, ransacked, and held hostage by that most fearsome of modern foes—a “very angry badger.”

The tiny masked marauder entered a cellar tunnel at Craignethan Castle in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, in early April. Staff tried to lure it out with cat food, honey, peanuts, and bananas. They posited that the badger had become confused and lost in the castle’s network of tunnels, trying to seek a way out.

Historic Scotland, the caretakers of the castle, sent the news out via Twitter on April 13, causing a storm of response. “Beware the #AngryBadger!”

“If you’re heading to #CraignethanCastle over the next few days you might find the Cellar Tunnel closed due to the presence of a very angry badger,” Historic Scotland said. “We’re trying to entice it out with cat food & send it home to #chilloot.”

Craignethan Castle was a strong tower castle built in the 1500s to sustain heavy military bombardment, if not nibbles from the weasel family.

The land on which the castle was built was originally a property of the Black Douglases, but was granted to the Hamilton family in 1530. Sir James Hamilton of Finnart, a trained architect and the King’s Superintendent of Palaces, designed the castle on a knoll above a bend in the River Nethan to show off his talent for military architecture. The last great private stronghold constructed in Scotland, it has steep downward slopes on three sides, but on one side it is overlooked by higher ground, a vulnerable flaw in design. The castle and ramparts sit on a traditional large rectangular keep.

In 1536, Hamilton of Finnart hosted King James V for his daughter’s wedding celebrations at the castle. Alas, this did not keep him in royal favor for long. Hamilton was beheaded in 1540 for treason, though his son still managed eventually to inherit the land.

Mary, Queen of Scots is said to have spent a night at Craignethan after her abdication and before she was forced to flee to England. Folk legend has it that her headless ghost haunts the hallways.

 By 1579, the main towers of Craignethan were destroyed by royal decree to render it defenseless. The Hays bought the castle in 1665, and constructed a two-story house in the southwest corner, which still stands today.

Craignethan Castle was given over to state care in 1949, and turned into a tourist attraction. The surrounding ancient woodlands are home to kestrels and sparrowhawks, according to Castles of Scotland website. Not to mention very angry badgers!

“We’ve had to temporarily close Craignethan Castle’s cellar tunnel due to an unexpected guest,” a spokesman for Historic Environment Scotland told the Guardian on April 19. “The tunnel was closed around midday on 12 April. The castle is surrounded by woodland and we believe the badger may have become lost. Staff have been in contact with local wildlife authorities.”

Staff first noticed the tiny masked marauder’s path of destruction. It had dug through loose soil in the stonework, causing a mess. They later saw the culprit. By the weekend, the badger had found its way out of the castle. But it had left enough damage to the stone masonry to cause concerned castle minders to keep the tunnel closed to public.

Historic Scotland reported on Twitter: “While our furry friend left the building over the weekend, we can confirm the #CraignethanCastle cellar tunnel remains closed this week. Our work team on-site need to repair some of the stone masonry the badger damaged. The rest of the castle is open for visitors.”

One of Craignethan’s large rectangular main towers still stands, as does the squat base of another alongside a gatehouse. Inner and outer courtyards are mostly surrounded by massive ramparts.

A ditch in front of the west wall—over which a drawbridge once lay—protected the original castle. In 1962, excavators discovered there a caponier—or a roofless below-ground fortification with firing steps and rifle portals that was connected to the castle via tunnels.

When you consider the badger’s natural proclivities, however, it is actually not all that surprising that one found its way to the castle tunnel.

“Badgers have strong limbs and sharp claws that help them dig burrows and find food underground,” according to Live Science. “They make their homes by digging tunnels and caves and use grass and leaves for bedding. A badger’s home is called a sett.”

Badgers typically consume earthworms and spider larvae, which presumably a nearly 500-year-old castle tunnel would hoard in abundance. We might ask, what took the badger so long to call the castle its home?

 E.L. Hamilton

Scotland’s Isle of Skye reveals landmark dinosaur footprints dated to the Middle Jurassic era

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Footprints belonging to two different kinds of dinosaurs, discovered on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, have revealed new details of how the now-extinct creatures evolved and moved during a period of the Jurassic era. Traces of the dinosaurs were found both as part of trackways and as isolated marks, scientists said.

The fossils were spotted in April 2016 by researchers Davide Foffa and Hong-Yu Yi. The following year, paleontologist Dr Stephen Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh and his student Paige dePolo came back to the site to take a closer look at the prints and find out more. They are not so easy to access, located in the wave-pounded tidal zone of a headland called Brother’s Point. A collaborative study of the footprints by the University of Edinburgh, Staffin Museum, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by dePolo, was presented on April 2, 2018, in the Scottish Journal of Geology, along with a full catalog of images of the 50 footprints.

The team has dated the tracks at about 170 million years of age, and conclude that they were made by the gargantuan animals as they waded through a shallow lagoon. In the distant past, when these tracks were made, Earth was a very different place. It was shortly after the time when Pangaea started to break apart, and our planet was transforming into the continents we know today.

In those days, experts believe that the area of Skye was positioned somewhere in the subtropic belt, with a much warmer climate. According to Brusatte, “This was a subtropical kind of paradise world, probably kind of like Florida or Spain today.”

The latest find of dinosaur prints in Scotland is a source of great excitement in the worlds of paleontology and geology because they are from the Middle Jurassic epoch. As Brusatte explained to National Geographic, this was an important time in dinosaur evolution. It is probably the era when the first birds appeared and the largest species of sauropod were thriving, but dinosaur fossils from this period are scarce compared to other periods. The recent find follows hot on the heels of the discovery in 2015 of hundreds of Middle Jurassic sauropod tracks at another location on the Isle of Skye, Duntulm beach. The Brother’s Point prints were found in older rocks than those of the 2015 discovery.

The study has increased knowledge of dinosaurs from this era significantly and offered some valuable insights: for instance, sauropods were roaming this corner of the globe for a greater period of time than previously thought.

Sauropods were the largest land-dwelling animals at that time, and despite their size, they were plant-eating creatures. The field team not only mapped tracks from sauropods; scattered among them are distinctive three-toed prints belonging to theropods, a distant and more primitive relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. These meat-eating dinosaurs were able to grow to about 6.5 feet in height.

The largest sample of theropod footprint left on the Isle of Skye was about 19.6 inches across, which is still nowhere close to the largest belonging to a sauropod–one example of these was reportedly some 27.5 inches across.

The endeavors of the researchers were not without challenges. As the area is continuously hammered with cold winds and rain, the team could not easily proceed with mapping the area. Another challenge was the high tides that regularly reclaimed the footprints, hence the team were constantly clock-watching while they measured and inspected the tracks on the rocky ledges. They also had to improvise with cameras and equipment, but in the end, it paid off, as 3-D images of the terrain were produced.

Part of the dinosaur traces found were actually hand prints, Brusatte explained, a clue that it was a huge creature in question, like the sauropod. This enormous animal, which could grow up to 50 feet long, needed all four limbs to support itself while lumbering around. The theropod tracks indicate that these dinosaurs walked only on their hind legs.

Sauropods were previously thought to have been purely amphibious creatures, the Smithsonian notes. Paleontologists of the early 20th century believed that sauropods could not walk on the land because of their weight. Evidence that was acquired later on proved the contrary. And the recent finds coming from Scotland suggest that, while some representatives of the species were able to move comfortably on land, others opted to wade through waters near the coast.

In fact, Brusatte remarked to National Geographic, sauropods “were so dynamic and so energetic,” meaning it is likely that they were abundant in various environments as their species spread around the world.

Brusatte also acknowledged that more Middle Jurassic era dinosaur fossils could lurk hidden on the Isle of Skye, hence this might be only the beginning of what this Scottish island has to offer to knowledge of dinosaurs in the world.

 Stefan Andrews