Flamsteed Astronomy Society

The Ultimate Timeline

Dr Francisco Diego — April 6, 2004

On April 6, 2004 Francisco Diego entertained us in his usual fine style, with a dramatic talk about the entire course of the 14.5 billion (14,500 million) year history of the universe.   Francisco is well known for his evocative use of all kinds of props (more uses than Blue Peter for a container of washing-up liquid).  For this talk he came equipped with 15 metres of cord and a pack of photographs and clothes-pegs.   Somewhat cramped by the limited width of the NMM’s Lecture Theatre, Francisco had to adapt his customary scale and work with just 7 or so metres of cord to represent the 14.5 billion year Ultimate Timeline.   In any case, on this scale it would appear that much of the dramatic history which we profess to understand happened in just the thickness of paint covering the walls at each end of the line.  Following the big bang, all the matter in the universe was formed within the thickness of paint on the first end wall, and over 14 billion years later, we humans and all our miniscule history have happened inside the paint on the second wall!


The Solar System and Earth appeared about two-thirds of the way down the rope, just about 5 billion years (2.5 metres) ago.  There was a good deal of interest when Francisco explained that it is now thought that all the water on Earth came here in comets that collided with the planet as it was cooling down.  As Francisco talked about the creation of life from the first self-replicating molecules, it occurred to us that the great miracle is not so much the creation of living things, but the fact that life on Earth has escaped total extinction for long enough to develop beings to argue about when it will eventually happen!    It was necessary to explain afterwards to Mike D that the universe was not created spontaneously from 14 meters of string and a bag of clothes-pegs.  String theory is something else entirely.   (On the other hand, if we believe quantum mechanics, anything is possible).  For his next trick Francisco will show you how to make a proton cyclotron out of two corks and an empty packet of cornflakes.  (Please ask your Mum before emptying the cornflakes out of the box). 


Francisco shared with Jane Bendall, the honour of being the first speakers at our new regular meeting place in the NMM Lecture Theatre.  In fact Jane opened the batting with an excellent and well-illustrated short talk about her visit to Grahamstown, South Africa to see the oldest camera obscura in the southern hemisphere  -  -

Our guide said “don’t miss the Observatory museum in Grahamstown, its is a stunning little eclectic museum full of artefacts left by Galpin who was not only a jeweller and clock maker but also a keen amateur astronomer”.  Grahamstown is a settler town.  That means that in 1820 the British Government had a brilliant idea and persuaded several hundred British families to immigrate to South Africa to become market gardeners…here’s the monument to those early settlers.  There were just two problems – one is the soil which is thin and drought ridden, secondly there was a vicious war in progress between the Afrikaners and the local tribe and the front line was the area round the new settlement .  With great good sense the settlers hastily migrated into the charming little township of Grahamstown and started to do what they did best - trading with both sides.  Henry Carter Galpin arrived in Grahamstown in 1850.  He was one of those Victorians that one keeps coming across- typically self-confidant, skilled and blessed with great scientific curiosity.   By trade he was a jeweller and on the board in front of his shop he states that he also manufactured chronometers. He built a delightful Victorian house – all wrought iron and balustrades - and eventually added a top story with a little observatory and a very special clock.   On the roof Galpin mounted an 8-inch reflecting telescope and it shares the dome with the only Victorian camera obscura in the Southern Hemisphere, which he built in 1882.