Liam Shaw

17 May 2022

Stolen Time

In Hogarth’s An Election Entertainment, depicting the 1754 Oxfordshire by-election, a placard lies on the floor: ‘Give us our Eleven Days’. The slogan refers to the adoption of the Calendar (New Style) Act, which caused eleven days in September 1752 to be removed from the calendar. The idea that there were actual riots over the erasure bobs up like a historical beachball no matter how often it is punctured. It’s all too easy to imagine people taking to the streets in outrage at the bureaucratic theft of time. UK universities were invited to begin their submissions to REF2021 in February 2020. 

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8 December 2021

Rivers of Fire

We have an eyewitness account of the 1646 eruption in the form of a letter from the governor of Tenerife, Alonso de Yclan y Valdès, to the king of Spain. I consulted the copy in the British Library; it was almost like reading the news.

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16 September 2021

How to Track a Mammoth

What little we know about individual mammoths is often constrained to their last moments, based on where their skeletons were found – a struggle in the sticky tar – or the record of violent trauma inflicted by human weapons. But recent developments in isotope dating allow for longer narratives.  

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30 March 2021

Gears within Gears

Researchers at UCL have published a complete model for the inner workings and front display of the Antikythera mechanism. The ancient device, recovered from a shipwreck in 1901, has long been thought to have shown a model of the Greek cosmos, with the Sun, Moon and five classical planets rotating around the Earth, controlled by a fiendish set of gears. The UCL team argue that theirs is the first model to match all the existing evidence.

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26 February 2021

‘What’s That Noshin’ On My Laig?’

According to a study published in Nature last month, oceanic shark numbers have declined by 70 per cent since 1970. Three-quarters of ocean-going shark and ray species are now threatened with extinction. Yet we are still more likely to feel that sharks are a threat to us than the other way round. Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws – both symptom and cause of that feeling – was published 46 years ago, in February 1974. Production of the movie version began that summer, filmed in the village of Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard. A few years ago I went for a swim at the beach there. I had never considered myself afraid of sharks. But with every stroke I glanced backwards over my shoulder towards the open water.

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11 January 2021

Platypuses do it differently

Of all the mammals, the naturalist George Shaw (no relation) wrote when he first described it in 1799, the platypus ‘seems the most extraordinary in its conformation’, exhibiting ‘the perfect resemblance of the beak of a duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped’. Last week, the first near-complete platypus genome was published.

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8 December 2020

‘They spend it all on clipboards’

A stretch of the River Lugg was destroyed last week. ‘The river and its banks have been bulldozed, straightened and reprofiled into a sterile canal,’ Hereford Wildlife Trust reported, ‘with all bankside and riverside habitats completely obliterated.’ What used to be a gentle brook flowing between picturesque, entangled banks now looks like a storm drain: barren mud criss-crossed with the imprints of bulldozer tracks.

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13 September 2019

A sharp crack and a heavy explosion

The first V2 to hit London fell on Staveley Road, Chiswick, on the evening of Friday, 8 September 1944. There was a small gathering to commemorate the 75th anniversary at the site last Sunday. Unlike the V1s, which you could hear coming with the buzzing of their pulsejet engine – Iris Murdoch described watching them ‘tottering past the window’ – V2s gave no warning at all. Fired from continental Europe and tracing out a parabola into space, they fell at supersonic speed from at least fifty miles up.

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13 June 2019

A Sort of Inverse Square Law

Seventy-five years ago, on 13 June 1944, a pilotless aircraft flew over the south of England in the early hours of the morning. Its engine buzzed loudly, giving off flames in the moonless night, until it cut out somewhere over the East End of London at 4.25 a.m., and crashed in Mile End along with nearly a tonne of explosive. The blast destroyed a railway bridge, killed six people, injured 42 and made two hundred homeless.

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1 November 2018

Fool the Discriminator

Last week Christie’s sold at auction a portrait ‘created by an artificial intelligence’ for $432,500. The canvas from the art collective Obvious was described as a portrait of the fictional ‘Edmond Belamy’, and signed with an equation: It expresses the concept underlying the class of machine-learning algorithms known as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs), which were used to produce the portrait.

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