Photographing historical books at the Royal Society

Letter from Charles Babbage to J F W Herschel on 4 July 1814.
Letter from Charles Babbage to J F W Herschel on 4 July 1814.

On the 19th June I was given the opportunity to take some photos for Wikipedia of historical books that are part of the Royal Society’s collection. They’ve all been uploaded onto Wikimedia Commons under a CC-0 license as the original works are in the public domain, and hopefully they’ll make their way into articles over time. Here’s the description posted to WikiProject Royal Society by Johnbod:

(June 2014) As part of Wikipedia:WikiProject Royal Society a special photo session in the Royal Society Library in London has resulted in Commons:Category:Royal Society Library, with over 50 photos of their treasures, mostly 17th century manuscripts, including several of Herschel’s correspondence with Charles Babbage, Charles Blagden‘s diaries, the 1st edn of Sylva, by John Evelyn, one of the early minute books, Robert Boyle‘s notebooks etc, the manuscript fair copy of Newton’s Principia etc. Please add these to articles as appropriate. Many thanks to User:Mike Peel for coming from Manchester to take the photos!

What happens when you release photos on Wikimedia Commons?

The London Eye at night

I started making my photographs available on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons licence in 2006. Since then, I have uploaded over 3,500 photos to Commons, and I plan to upload many thousands more in the future. The main reason I started to upload my photos was to illustrate Wikipedia articles, and that’s still a big reason why I have continued doing so. However, only 16% of the images I’ve uploaded are currently used on the Wikimedia projects. So, why am I continuing to upload so many images?

My hope is that, in the long run, my photos will help preserve history. I hope that they will provide a record of the state of things today to others looking back at this time in the future, in a similar way to how we look at 50-year-old photos today. I want to make sure that those looking back on our history don’t have to worry about the copyright of those images, but can freely use them in their own projects.

However, there is a great shorter-term outcome that keeps me motivated to continue uploading my photographs: how people have been making use of my photos today in ways I never anticipated when uploading them. Some examples of this (amongst many others) include:

Michael Nielsen

  • In December 2007 I took a photo of the London Eye; I uploaded it to Commons a month later. I was taken aback in August 2008 when I got an email out of the blue from a couple who had recently gotten engaged on the London Eye – they’d found my photo and loved it so much that they had it printed on canvas. Due to a mistake by the delivery company, they accidentally received two copies of it – so they got in touch with me and sent me the extra copy! To this day this print acts as a focal point for my flat.
  • At Science Online London 2011, which took place at the British Library, I took a photo of Michael Nielsen. The photo was subsequently published by the New York Times, with Michael Nielsen letting me know that this had happened.
  • More recently, I was contacted by Nature Cymru who wanted to let me know that they had used one of my photos in their latest edition – a picture of seagulls nesting in Conwy Castle. I uploaded this photo as part of a series of photos I took of Conwy Castle, and this was the photo I expected to be of least use – but it turned out to be the first of this set of photos to be reused.

Seagulls nesting at Conwy Castle

One of the lessons I’ve learnt throughout this is that, realistically, no-one respects the licence that your photo is licensed under – they’ll simply use it for their purposes. If you try to keep full copyright of your photo and deny people the use of the image, then you’ll be ignored – but if you release it under a free license then you’ll be able to reasonably ask for proper attribution. Also, people will generally go out of their way to let you know that they are using your image under a free license, if you ask them to, but if you restrict the use of the image then they’ll simply use it without letting you know.

Time for a new website!

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this website – too long! So, welcome to the new version of my website. 🙂

You might notice that I’ve switched from using MediaWiki to WordPress. Sadly, it seems that MediaWiki isn’t the best software to use for a personal website – it seems that it’s too easy for spammers to attack, and a bit too cumbersome to administer. WordPress has been making great improvements since I started having this website (now over a decade ago!), hence why I’m now giving it a go as my main website rather than just as a blog. The main thing I’m worried about by doing this is the lack of integration with Wikimedia Commons (which was via InstantCommons on the old MediaWiki website) – it will be interesting to see how well WordPress will cope with embedding content from Commons here…

If you spot any bugs, or can’t find anything that used to be here, then please comment below so that I know about it and can fix it! Note that it may take a while for the DNS to update from the old server to this new one, so you may still see my old website randomly for a while… This site will hopefully be available at rather than my backup domain in the very near future…

Spherical Cows

There’s a classic joke in physics, which according to Wikipedia goes like this:

Milk production at a dairy farm was low so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the farmer received the write-up, and opened it to read on the first line: “Consider a spherical cow…”

This was the first thing that sprang to mind* after reading the excellently named Cosmic Variance’s recent post “Blogs That Should Exist“. “Spherical Cow” could have been an excellent name for a blog, and I was very tempted to rename this fledging blog as such. Tragically, the .com address is already registered, but is completely unused! The .net domain – the second choice for a top-level domain on the internet – is also registered, but at least that’s used for physics education (albeit underused).

So, at least for now I’ll stick with using my real name as the name of the blog (assuming I end up writing enough for this to count as a proper blog). For those of you that want a physics or astronomy blog but don’t want to use your real name, here’s a few suggestions**. Note that I haven’t googled them, so some (or even all) may already exist.

  • Heisenberg’s Uncertainty
  • Big Crunch (perfect for these apparently uncertain times)
  • Cosmic Dust
  • Inflationary Times
  • The Galactic Bar
  • Spinning Science

Or, if nothing appeals, make up something with an “X” in the name. That always seems to go down well.

* although perhaps “Spherical Moose” should have sprung to mind, considering I’ve spent the evening watching Northern Exposure whilst making pretty plots for a paper

** No guarantees as to their originality or humour are made. They might not even make sense.

Cold Tea Syndrome

Symptoms: Your cups of tea go cold before you finish drinking them.

Possible causes: overwork, distractedness, or living in Siberia / the Antarctic / the Arctic etc.

Solutions: Focus more on drinking tea, less on doing anything else at the same time. Tea is important! Alternatively, devote effort into proving the second law of thermodynamics wrong, thus allowing the creation of a perpetually re-heating cup of tea.

Hello again, World!

I’ve decided to bring my blog back to the world. Hello again, World!

Not only will this let me share my most random thoughts with the world, it will let other people comment on my thoughts (always an interesting exercise), and will provide a potential distraction during my thesis writing (hopefully not, but I hear that procrastination tools are always good during thesis writing…possibly not for the thesis, though).

It will also let me point out various photos as I upload them to my gallery. Who knows, perhaps someone reading this will be inspired to give comments on my photographs, so I can improve my photography skills?

Fundamentally, I believe feedback on what I say and do to be of great importance. This blog will hopefully let people give that feedback easier (or improve their efficiency in ignoring me, if they want), and also lets me give that feedback to other people. And of course it lets me participate in the blogosphere – that wonderful new tool for spreading information around.

So, hello again, world. I apologise for the mess around here: it will be tidied up sooner or later…

</end of rambling, and talking in third person>

Hello. I’m a crackpot. What’re you?

Crackpot – INTJ
20% Extraversion, 73% Intuition, 73% Thinking, 86% Judging People hate you.Paris Hilton hates Nicole Richie. Lex Luther hates Superman. Garfield hates Mondays.
But none these even rates against the insurmountable hate, people have for you.

I mean, you’re pretty damn clever and you know it. You love to flaunt your potential. Heard the word “arrogant” lately? How about “jerk?” Or perhaps they only say that behind your back.

That’s right. I know I can say this cause you’re not going to cry. You’re not exactly the most emotional person. You’d rather spend time with your theoretical questions and abstract theories than with other people.

Ever been kissed? Ever even been on a date? Trust me, your inflated ego is a complete turnoff with the opposite sex and I am telling you, you’re not that great with relationships as it is. You’re never going to be a dude or chick magnet, purely because you’re more concerned with yourself than others. Meh. They all hate you already anyway.

How about this- “stubborn?” Hrm? Heard that lately? All those facts which don’t fit your theories must just be wrong, right? I mean, really, the vast amounts of time you spend with your head in the clouds…you’re just plain strange.


Well, I found that amusing. I don’t think I even have an ego. But then, that could be my ego trying to hide itself… anyway, try the Brutally Honest Personality Test.

Handwriting and Psychology

I just came across Kei’s post about what handwriting shows of your personality, and I had to give it a go. (I guess it’s an interesting form of procrastination – I should really be writing an essay atm!). So, out comes the graphics tablet, followed by a short pause as I try to remember how to write. My sample:

The results (and my comments):

  • You plan ahead, and are interested in beauty, design, outward appearance, and symmetry.
    • OK, true to a certain extent.
  • You are a shy, idealistic person who does not find it easy to have relationships, especially intimate ones.
    • True with the first bit, less sure about the second bit – but then, because of the first bit, I’ve not really got much experience of the latter bit!
  • You are diplomatic, objective, and live in the present.
    • Fair enough.
  • You are not very reserved, impatient, self-confident and fond of action.
    • hmm; a little translation’s needed here. So I’m not reserved, but I am patient, not very self-confident, and I’m not fond of action. I’d say that I was reserved, and that I don’t mind action, but the middle bit’s probably correct.
  • You enjoy life in your own way and do not depend on the opinions of others.
    • Well, I _try_ to. I’m not sure how well I succeed, though. Darned ego.

I guess that the idea does make sense – your psychology will affect your handwriting, as it will affect everything else that you do (how you approach it, how much care you put into things, etc.). The question is more how much you can successfully read into it. I’m surprised that the website doesn’t ask for feedback on its results, to try to improve its responses – but then, would people really enter the truth about themselves into a website like that?

Finally, there’s one sentance on the website that I really liked. After you’ve put in your handwriting sample, and got the results, the page says “Like handwriting analysis itself, the evaluation you just received is not a replacement for professional help.” So it’s telling me I need professional help? Gee, thanks!


A realization I had recently relates to one of the fundamentals of physics – it’s all about differences. Once more, it seems, I’m going to run into problems with the english language in this post – although in this case, that could well just be me. What’s probably going to cause more of a problem is that I’m going to talk about religion a bit later on.

At no point in physics, except in the occasional theory, do we ever talk about something that’s omnipresent (defining this as being constant everywhere), or ubiquitous (being constant at all times). Yes, I know that omnipresent doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the same everywhere – but it will here. And yes, I know that things like the speed of light are constant everywhere – but that’s not what I’m meaning. To describe exactly what I mean, I’m going to have to go into those theories that break this rule of mine – for example, the . To put it precisely,

If something is present at every point that we look at, then we can’t detect it.

But, you’ll say, a piece of wood is present at every point on the piece of wood – true, but the only way we can detect that wood is from an external point of view, such that we recognize that the wood is something different from air. Or to look at it another way, from within the wood – what we see are the particles which make up the wood, made measurable by the lack of stuff surrounding the particles (imagine an atom; it’s some small bits surrounded by nothing).

Let’s look at the theories that state that something is omnipresent. Luminiferous Aether was a theory from the end of the 19th century, invented as something to propagate electromagnetic radiation – or light. The theory is now obsolete.

Let’s take another; the Higgs Field. This is a recent theory (suggested in 1963; it’s a hot topic at the moment) that basically says that particles are given their mass through interactions with an all-permeating (i.e. omnipresent, by my definition), constant field. I’ll say now that I don’t like this theory – simply because it must be omnipresent. It does, however, have a testable spin-off – the Higgs boson. Whether or not this will be found is something for the guys at CERN to discover (or possibly a future particle accelerator, if CERN doesn’t find it), but the omnipresent field will never be testable.

And as a final example, let’s take God. Up to a short time ago, I always thought that God was omnipresent (not necessarily by my definition), but it’s worth reading the Omnipresence article at Wikipedia to find out why this was not always so (in christian religion, that is). Let’s take the modern perspective that God is omnipresent (by the standard definition). If God is omnipresent by my definition, then physics will never be able to come up with a proof of God’s existence, or a proof that God doesn’t exist. I guess we’ll have to wait until we die to find out the definite truth one way or another.

Dodging the Paradoxes

Once more, this is a post about the Physics and Reality course I’m doing at the moment, although this is slightly off-topic. What I intend to state, along with a couple of examples, is that science has a history of investigation not because of the big questions, but despite them.

What do I mean by this? Let’s take a fairly old example – Zeno’s paradoxes. These basically state the problem of change – “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.” (Aristotle Physics VI:9, 239b15). What was science’s answer to this? Newtonian mechanics and calculus. I don’t think it’s really gotten much further than that. Since then, we generally just take the position of not worrying about it and getting on with things.

A more recent example would be the Big Bang. Basically put, the age-old question is: where did the universe come from? Well, scientists have poured huge amounts of effort into this, and have come up with the Big Bang model – and this is as close as we can get to answering the question. Science will most likely never come up with a definitive answer to the question; that stays firmly in the grip of religion.

Another example, and the final one I’ll give, would be Quantum Mechanics. This basically puts a fundamental limit on what we can know beyond a certain point – via the uncertainty principle – and I’m slowly getting the feeling that it’s basically saying “don’t worry about it; it’s all just magic”. Which to me seems to be the complete opposite of what science is.