The Queen of Science

When researching women of science, Mary Somerville is a name that frequently crops up. Since past societies often wrote women out of history, Mary Somerville must have been a scientist of some significance to feature so often in biographies of other women (and men). Mary Somerville receives a mention in two of my recent blogs about female scientists (Ada Lovelace and Caroline Herschel), so it is about time I focused on Mary’s life and achievements.

Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville – Thomas Phillips

Born on 26th December 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland, Mary was the second of four surviving children to Vice-Admiral William George Fairfax (1739-1813) and Margaret Charters. Despite her father’s position, his pay was meagre, and Mary grew up in poverty in her childhood home at Burntisland, Fife. To earn some extra money, Mary’s mother grew and sold vegetables and fruit and kept a cow for milk. Mary’s father spent much of her early life at sea, leaving her mother to give her a rudimentary education by teaching her to read the Bible.

When Mary was ten years old, her father returned from his recent voyage and expressed his discontent with Mary’s lack of education. After scraping together as much money as possible, Fairfax sent his daughter to a boarding school in Musselburgh for a year, where she learnt English grammar and French.

Over the following year, Mary developed a fascination with shells and small sea creatures, which she found while spending hours on the beach. When at home, her mother expected Mary to help around the house, but she often retreated to her father’s library to read. As a result, her parents sent her to a local school to learn the more feminine art of needlework. Mary expressed her contempt in her memoirs, admitting she “was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Mary Somerville as a Young Lady – John Jackson

Aware of her desire to learn, the headmaster of the village school paid home visits to Mary to teach her about geography. This came to an end after her 13th birthday when her mother sent Mary to writing school in Edinburgh, where she also studied arithmetic. In her spare time, Mary attempted to teach herself Latin, later seeking the help of her uncle, Rev. Dr Thomas Somerville (1741-1830). Mary also taught herself the Greek language and how to play the piano during school holidays and, instead of returning to the writing school, enrolled at an art school run by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840). Nasmyth also had an interest in astronomy and mechanical science, and he gladly became Mary’s tutor on the subjects.

In 1797, Mary’s father helped Admiral Adam Duncan (1731-1804) beat the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown while serving on HMS Venerable. For this, Fairfax earned a knighthood and became Colonel of Marines. The family’s income significantly increased, and they joined Edinburgh socialites at many social events, where Mary earned the nickname “the Rose of Jedburgh”. When at home, Mary’s parents expected her to play the traditional role of a daughter, but when not in public, Mary focused on playing the piano, painting and studying algebra. Sadly, the family’s good fortune was marred by the death of Mary’s older brother Samuel, who died while serving in the East India Company’s military service, aged 21.

Self Portrait – Mary Somerville

In 1804, Mary met a distant cousin, Captain Samuil Samuilovich Greig (1778-1807), a Russian Consul. The same year, Mary married Grieg, some claim by force and moved to London. In 1805, they welcomed a son, Woronzow (1805-65), named after a Russian diplomat. Their second son, George, soon followed, who Mary nursed while simultaneously trying to study science and mathematics. Grieg disliked his wife’s intellectual pursuits and actively tried to prevent her. The unhappy marriage came to an end in 1807 with the death of Grieg. Mary returned to Scotland with her sons, but sadly the infant George died the same year.

The money left by her late husband allowed Mary to pursue the intellectual interests that Greig had forbidden. She resumed her mathematical studies with the encouragement of the Church of Scotland minister and scientist John Playfair (1748-1819), who introduced her to William Wallace (1768-1843). Mary regularly wrote letters to Wallace, discussing her mathematical learnings, and he, in turn, suggested books to read. Gradually, Mary’s studies grew to include astronomy, chemistry, electricity, geography, magnetism and microscopy.

Mary practised her mathematical skills by solving problems posed in the journal of the Military College at Marlow, now known as Sandhurst. Several of her solutions featured in the Mathematical Repository under the pseudonym “A Lady”, but one particular result earned Mary a silver medal in 1811.

William Somerville c. 1840

When not studying, Mary spent time with her family, who introduced her to people of note, including her cousin Dr William Somerville (1771-1860), the inspector of the Army Medical Board. Somerville actively encouraged Mary’s ambitions and helped her learn about physical science. In 1812, Mary married William Somerville, with whom she had four children: Margaret Farquhar (1813-23), Thomas (1814-15; died in infancy), Martha Charters (1815-79) and Mary Charlotte (1817-75).

Mary’s husband was elected to the Royal Society, which boosted their reputation in society, acquainting them with many writers and artists, including J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). In 1819, the Somerville’s moved to Hanover Square, London, so that Mary’s husband could accept the position of physician at Chelsea Hospital. Meanwhile, Mary began tutoring a friend’s daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815-52). At a scientific gathering, Mary met Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who was “making his Calculating-machines”. Mary later introduced Lovelace to Babbage, which sparked a significant professional relationship.

A German governess looked after Mary’s children, allowing her the freedom to mingle in society. She became well known by scientists and mathematicians, both in England and abroad. Together, the Somervilles travelled around Europe, meeting people of note, who often returned the visit. The only thing marring this idyllic lifestyle was the death of their eldest daughter Margaret in 1823.

In 1826, Mary published her first scientific paper, The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum, in the Royal Society’s journal. One reader, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), declared she was “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe – a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Subsequently, Mary received a commission from Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham (1778-1868), to translate the Traité de mécanique céleste (“Treatise of celestial mechanics”) by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Not only did Mary painstakingly translate the lengthy treatise from French to English, she embellished it with her knowledge about the mathematics behind the workings of the solar system, saying, “I translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language.” This translation, published under the title The Mechanism of the Heavens in 1831, made Mary famous throughout the English speaking world. Cambridge University used the publication as a textbook until the 1880s.

Mary’s translation continued to garner praise over the next few years, particularly from “many men of science”. In 1834, Mary was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Bristol Philosophical Institution and the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève. She also received an annual £200 civil pension from the British Crown, although spent most of her time in Italy. Despite this, the Somervilles faced a financial crisis in 1835 as the needs of their children increased as they neared adulthood. Money made from Mary’s book and future publications often saved them from bankruptcy, although Mary always maintained she only wrote for pleasure. Mary’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834, sold over 15,000 copies, making it one of the biggest selling science books of the 19th century. In a review of the book, the polymath Rev Dr William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the word “scientist”. Until then, the term “man of science” was the usual description, but this did not befit a woman.

Mary Somerville – James Rannie Swinton

Due to her love of astronomy, Mary joined in the discussions about a hypothetical planet on the other side of Uranus. She wrote of her predictions in later editions of Connexion, which were fulfilled in 1846 by the official discovery of Neptune. Two years later, Mary published her third book, Physical Geography, the first English textbook on the subject. Mary described the structure of planet earth, including land, mountains, volcanoes, oceans, rivers and lakes. She also discussed weather, temperature, plants, animals and prospects of the human race. Setting the book apart from modern publications is Mary’s Victorian view that humans are superior to all other life forms. Physical Geography sold more copies than her previous books and earned her the Victoria Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. A decade later, she was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society.

Haliomma Echinaster, a marine phosphorescence.

Although Mary Somerville continued to study and join in mathematical and scientific discussions, it was not until 1869 that she published her fourth book. Molecular and Microscopic Science took ten years to complete and on several occasions Mary admitted she regretted the subject choice. “In writing this book I made a great mistake, and repent it. Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind. If I had devoted myself exclusively to that study, I might probably have written something useful, as a new era had begun in that science.” Nonetheless, the book proved successful and contained up-to-date information about atoms and molecules, plant life, and animals. It also contained 180 illustrations, which significantly increased the cost of the publication.

Shortly before the publication of her final book, the British MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73) asked Mary to be the first to sign a petition for female suffrage. Unfortunately, the petition was unsuccessful. In her autobiography, published posthumously from many letters to and from Mary, she declared, “British laws are adverse to women.” Throughout her life, Mary felt the effects of the male-dominated world, particularly in childhood when she could not study the same subjects as her brothers. Fortunately, she also saw positive changes, such as higher education establishments opening to women.

On 29th November 1872, Mary Somerville passed away aged 91 in Naples. Her husband predeceased her by 12 years, and Mary’s daughters helped to look after her for the remainder of her life. Mary was buried in the English Cemetery in Naples, and the following year, her letters and memoirs were published under the title Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville. The book includes letters to and from family, friends and notable public people, including Ada Lovelace.

Mary Somerville lived on through her work and books, some of which universities continued to use until the 20th century. She has also been honoured several times over the past century and a half, including the naming of Somerville College at the University of Oxford in 1879, one of the first women’s colleges. Also named after the first person to be called a scientist is Somerville Square in her home town Burntisland, Somerville House boarding school in Australia, and Somerville Island in Canada.

Whilst it is true that many honours come after a person’s death, Mary Somerville received some during her lifetime. In 1835, when Mary was 55 years old, a ship named Mary Somerville set sail. Belonging to Taylor, Potter & Co., of Liverpool, the ship sailed to and from India and the West Indies carrying trading goods. The ship worked for 17 years until it disappeared after departing from Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean on 18th October 1852. When she did not appear at her destination, she was presumed to have foundered, and all crew were believed dead. The ship may have nearly reached the British Isles because, on 11th January 1853, a chest belonging to the Mary Somerville washed up on Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

Mary’s legacy continued into the 20th century when an asteroid discovered on 21st September 1987 was named 5771 Somerville in her memory. This asteroid, the size of a minor planet, orbits the sun once every five years and seven months (2,029 days). The small Somerville crater on the eastern side of the moon also honours Mary Somerville.

Perhaps Mary Somerville’s greatest honour to date is becoming the face of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £10 note. In February 2016, RBS held a public vote on Facebook to decide which Scottish figure should replace the nobleman Lord Ilay (1682-1761), who had appeared on the note since 1987. Wishing to change the material of the note from paper to polymer, RSB thought the public should have a say about the design. Voters had a choice between several notable people, including Mary Somerville, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) and Thomas Telford (1757-1834). The new note, featuring a young Mary Somerville on one side and a picture of two otters on the reverse became legal tender in Scotland on 4th October 2017.

Google Doodle 2nd February 2020

On 2nd February 2020, Mary Somerville received her most recent honour with a Google Doodle. For 24 hours, a cartoon version of Mary sitting at a desk was the first thing people saw when visiting the Google website. Doodle designer Alyssa Winans commented that she admired Mary’s “voracious appetite for learning”. Winans hoped “this Doodle will shine a light on Mary Somerville’s contributions, and people will feel inspired to explore a broad range of interests.”

Like Winans, I hope this blog has shone a light on Mary Somerville’s contribution to science and mathematics. She wrote several successful books at a time when being a female writer was challenging. Mary Somerville was also a vocal advocate for equal rights, and it is thanks to her, or at least a reviewer of her books, that the gender-neutral term “scientist” came into the English language.


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The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

William Herschel (1738-1822) is remembered for the discovery of the planet Uranus. He discovered infrared radiation and became the first President of the Royal Astronomical Society. He is also the older brother of Caroline Herschel, the first female scientist to receive a salary, the first woman in England to hold a government position, and the discoverer of several comets. Yet, despite these achievements, Caroline is rarely mentioned in history books. Her brother was the more important of the siblings because he was a man. So, let’s rediscover this lost heroine of astronomy.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel was the eighth of ten children born on 16th March 1750 in Hanover, Germany, to oboist Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. Not all the children survived infancy, and those that did received a basic education at home. Issak made more effort to teach his sons than his two surviving daughters, who learned little more than reading and writing. Her father never thought Caroline would amount to much, particularly after she caught typhus at the age of ten. The illness stunted her growth, never growing taller than 4 feet 3 inches, and affected her eyesight.

Typhus put an end to Caroline’s regular education, and her mother did not expect her to find a husband. She insisted Caroline train as a house servant, although Issak continued to teach his daughter in secret. Following her father’s death in 1771, Caroline’s older brothers William and Alexander invited her to move with them to Bath in England, where they worked as musicians. They thought Caroline could work with them as a singer and perform in churches. It took some time to persuade their mother to let Caroline travel to England, but she eventually joined her brothers in August 1772.

As well as singing, Caroline looked after William’s household at 19 New King Street, Bath, which is now the location of the Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline found it difficult to mix in society but soon gained the opportunity to continue her education. Caroline’s brothers taught her arithmetic and to play the harpsichord, as well as regular singing lessons. She became the lead singer at William’s oratorio concerts, although only agreed to perform if her brother conducted. She gained a reputation for her voice after singing a solo in Handel’s Messiah in 1778, but her reluctance to work with other conductors led to a decline in her singing career.

Alongside infrequent public performances, Caroline focused her attentions on looking after her brother’s home. William left his music career behind, choosing to focus on his passion for astronomy. Whilst William studied, Caroline did “what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, […] what he commanded…” As time went on, Caroline grew interested in her brother’s work and shared his excitement for the stars. During the 1770s, William built several telescopes, grinding the lenses by himself rather than purchasing inferior ones. It was with one of these that William discovered the planet Uranus on 13th March 1781.

In 1782, Caroline and William agreed to a final musical performance, after which William accepted the position of court astronomer to King George III (1738-1820). They moved to a shabby cottage in the village of Datchet, from where William could be on hand for the king at Windsor Castle. Her brother wished Caroline to be his assistant, which involved spending hours polishing mirrors, positioning telescopes and recording William’s astronomical observations. Initially, Caroline hated this work but soon grew to enjoy it after William asked her to “mind the heavens” with a telescope for interesting objects.

Caroline started keeping a record book in which she noted all her observations. These she compared with the Messier catalogue, a list of 110 nebulae and faint star clusters compiled by French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817). On 26th February 1783, Caroline spotted a nebula that did not appear in the catalogue. After more observation, she discovered a dwarf elliptical galaxy, now known as Messier 110, orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy. Although the discovery was recorded in Caroline’s name, William did not want to miss out on future discoveries and took over the searching, relegating his sister to note and measurements taker.

Noting his sister’s disappointment, William constructed a telescope for Caroline to use, although he still required her to take notes. Every night, William shouted out his sightings, which required Caroline to quickly look them up in either the Messier catalogue or the Catalogus Britannicus. The latter was a 3,000-star catalogue compiled by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (1646-1719). Unfortunately, neither list suited the Herschel sibling’s work, so Caroline created her own catalogue.

On 1st August 1786, while her brother was away, Caroline borrowed William’s telescope to sweep the sky, where she spotted an unknown comet. Over the next eleven years, she discovered eight new comets, although only five appeared in the Royal Society’s journal Philosophical Transactions under her name. Caroline also observed a comet that the French astronomer Pierre Méchain (1744-1804) had spotted a decade before, yet the Society named it after the third person to detect it, Johann Franz Encke (1791-1865). Unlike Caroline and Méchain, the German astronomer calculated that the comet orbits the Earth once every 3.3 years. Thus, the comet is known as Encke’s Comet.

After Caroline spotted her first comet, William presented her to the royal family at Windsor Castle. For some time, Caroline was known as the first woman to discover a comet, although later evidence proves this incorrect. Maria Kirch (1670-1720) is officially the first woman to spot a comet, but this knowledge remained hidden for many years because her husband, Gottfried Kirch (1639-1710), claimed it under his name. Nonetheless, Caroline’s reputation grew, and she reported her second find directly to the Astronomer Royal, the Reverend Doctor Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811).

Caroline became familiar with several well-known members of the Royal Society, including its president, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who rose to fame after accompanying Captain James Cook (1728-79) to Australia. Caroline announced the rest of her comet discoveries directly to Banks, including her eighth and final comet, which she observed on 6th August 1797 without the aid of a telescope. During this time, Caroline received an annual salary of £50 (equivalent to £6,400 in 2021) from the king, making her the first woman in England with an official government position. She was also the first paid woman in the field of astronomy.

Both Caroline and William continued to struggle to cross-reference their findings with Flamsteed’s catalogue, frequently resorting to Caroline’s previous notes instead. Other astronomers also faced similar difficulties, so William recommended his sister write a cross-index for all to use. The project, which took Caroline 20 months to complete, resulted in Catalogue of Stars, Taken from Mr. Flamsteed’s Observations Contained in the Second Volume of the Historia Coelestis, and Not Inserted in the British Catalogue, published by the Royal Society in 1798. This new catalogue included all the stars listed by Flamsteed and 560 new findings. Unfortunately, rules forbade women from writing scientific documents, so the catalogue appeared under William’s name.

The payment for the new catalogue supplemented Caroline’s income, affording her more independence. Her brother’s marriage in 1788 to a widow named Mary forced Caroline to move into external lodgings, but she still returned to the main house to work with her brother. Unfortunately, William denied her a copy of the key to his observatory and workroom, meaning she could never work alone. Caroline destroyed her journals from this period, so her true feelings are unknown, but biographers suggest Caroline felt bitter and jealous of William’s wife, the usurper of her position in the household. On the other hand, French geologist Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (1741-1819), who befriended the siblings, claimed they worked well together. Caroline also looked after the house and observatory whenever William was away. Letters sent to and from Mary in later life also indicate a loving relationship, often writing fondly about her nephew John (1791-1871).

Although Caroline had restricted access to her brother’s observatory, she continued to make independent discoveries and contributed to many astronomical projects. In August 1799, Caroline received an invitation to spend a week in Greenwich as a guest of the Royal Family, which she readily accepted. Despite being a woman, Caroline’s fame grew, and many respected her as the true author of the Catalogue of Stars and discoverer of comets.

When William passed away in 1822 after a long illness, his grief-stricken sister returned to Hanover, Germany. Caroline later admitted she regretted leaving England, but she continued her astronomical studies from her new home. Using her brother’s notes, Caroline verified William’s work and produced another nebulae catalogue to aid her nephew John in his aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps. Due to this work and the determination to write her memoirs, Caroline made no further original discoveries in the night sky. Nonetheless, she continued to attend events with other scientific luminaries and remained a respected astronomer.

In 1828, Caroline received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society for her “recent reduction, to January, 1800, of the [2,500] Nebulæ discovered by her illustrious brother, which may be considered as the completion of a series of exertions probably unparalleled either in magnitude or importance in the annals of astronomical labour.” She was the first woman to receive such an honour and remained the only person of her sex until 1996 when Vera Rubin (1928-2016) received the medal for her work on galaxy rotation rates.

In 1835, the Royal Astronomical Society elected Caroline an Honorary Member. She shared the honour of the first female member with the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville (1780-1872). Three years later, Caroline achieved the same status at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. At the age of 96, Caroline also received recognition from Frederick William IV of Prussia (1795-1861). “In recognition of the valuable services rendered to Astronomy by you, as the fellow-worker of your immortal brother, Sir William Herschel, by discoveries, observations, and laborious calculations,” Caroline accepted another Gold Medal for Science.

“The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.” This is the inscription on Caroline Herschel’s gravestone in the cemetery of the Gartengemeinde, where she was buried after passing away peacefully on 9th January 1848, at the age of 97. Forty years later, the Austrian astronomer Johann Palisa (1848-1925) named a comet after Caroline’s middle name Lucretia, proving her reputation lived on after her death. Two of her independent discoveries also share her name, Caroline’s Cluster and Caroline’s Rose, as well as a crater on the moon. Yet after this, Caroline Herschel’s fame faded away until the second half of the 20th century.

Caroline Herschel reappeared in 1968 when feminist poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) penned Planetarium, subtitled, “Thinking of Caroline Herschel … astronomer, sister of William; and others.” One verse of the poem refers to “a woman ‘in the snow among the Clocks and instruments or measuring the ground with poles’ in her 98 years to discover 8 comets”, which presumably refers to Caroline’s work, although she passed away just short of her 98th birthday. Yet, Rich’s work is only loosely inspired by Caroline Herschel and does not highlight her achievements or reveal anything about her life.

During the 1970s, feminist artist Judy Chicago (b.1939) honoured Caroline with a table setting in The Dinner Party. This installation artwork, which is on display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, symbolises the work of 39 women throughout history. The artwork consists of tables in a triangle formation, each side representing a period of time. Caroline Herschel sits between Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and the Native American woman Sacagawea (1788-1812) on the American to the Women’s Revolution side of the table. Another side represents women from prehistory to the Roman Empire, for instance, Boadicea and the Hindu goddess Kali. The third side seats women from the beginnings of Christianity to the Reformation, including Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), Hildegarde of Bingen (1098-1179) and Elizabeth I (1533-1603).

Each place setting in The Dinner Party features an embroidered cloth featuring the sitter’s name and images to represent their accomplishments. Upon this sits a napkin, cutlery, a goblet, and a decorated plate. Chicago painted an eye in the centre of Caroline Herschel’s plate to represent the astronomer looking through a telescope. The tablecloth features stars, clouds, sun and eight comets.

Whilst Judy Chicago recognised the talents and achievements of 39 women, including Caroline Herschel, the artwork does little more than introduce their names and hint at their career. To fully appreciate these forgotten women, people need to read, learn and talk about them to keep them alive. In Ancient Egypt, a soul never died whilst someone remained alive to speak its name. Although this belief is not a part of modern religions, the premise is the same. Without educating others about historical figures, they will metaphorically die, just like Herschel almost did before poets and artists like Rich and Chicago resurrected her. Fortunately, several books concerning Caroline Herschel have appeared during the 21st century, so her memory continues to live.

Last year, Argentina released several satellites named after women of science, including Caroline Herschel, and in 2016, Google remembered her 266th birthday with a “Google Doodle”. Other than this, little else has helped return Caroline to her former glory. Famous during her lifetime, Caroline’s achievements have since gone unnoticed. This is largely due to society’s attitudes towards women in the 18th and 19th century. Unable to publish her work under her own name, Caroline’s brother took the credit. Whilst this was not a problem at the time, because friends and acquaintances knew it was Caroline’s work, the people of the future wrongly assumed William Herschel made the discoveries. In the 21st century, it is time for women of the past to reclaim their achievements and receive the same respect as male figures.


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Destination Moon

It has been fifty years since Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind and stepped onto the moon. In celebration of this anniversary, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London is currently staging the UK’s biggest exhibition dedicated to our celestial neighbour, The Moon. With over 180 objects, including artefacts from NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, the exhibition explores what the Moon has meant to us from the beginning of time to the original “Space Race” and the potential plans for the future.

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We have all seen the Moon: we have seen it when it is full and we have seen it when it is only partially visible. It is general knowledge that the Moon orbits the Earth but what is it? Why is it there? What is its purpose? What are its secrets? The exhibition opens with a look at the workings of the Moon and how we began to discover everything we know now.

The Moon is Earth’s natural satellite and formed roughly four and a half billion years ago. Throughout this time, it has been visible to the naked eye and observed by billions of people. Different cultures have related to the Moon in various ways, however, by the constant study of the Sun, Moon and Earth, philosophers, scientists, and astronomers have come to understand the Moon’s relationship to our planet.

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One of the earliest artefacts in the exhibition is a fragment of a Mesopotamian tablet dated 172 BCE. Inscribed in cuneiform, the tablet describes the rituals that took place during a lunar eclipse. Today, a lunar eclipse is an exciting phenomenon and is usually advertised and talked about long before the event. For the Ancient Mesopotamians, however, a lunar eclipse represented evil forces and bad omens. Astronomers relied on the Sun and Moon to regulate their calendars and interpret signs from their gods. Darkness caused by a lunar eclipse was something to be feared and the natives spent the day banging kettledrums and singing funeral songs to chase away any evil spirits.

Suffice it to say, the Mesopotamians did not understand the occurrence of a lunar eclipse, therefore, it was only natural that they were afraid. A lunar eclipse occurs when the Moon, Earth, and Sun are exactly or very closely aligned; the Sun on one side of the Earth and the Moon on the other. The Earth completely blocks any direct sunlight from reaching the Moon; the only light it reflects comes from the Earth itself, giving the Moon a reddish glow.

A solar eclipse, on the other hand, must have been equally, if not more, scary for the ancient population. When the Moon perfectly aligns between the Sun and the Earth, a small portion of the Earth is engulfed in shadow. From Earth, the Moon can be seen to pass over the Sun, completely covering it for a couple of minutes. Unaware of the astronomical explanations, to the Ancient Mesopotamians, it would appear that the Sun had disappeared, which they attributed to supernatural causes.

By 1000 CE, astronomers were beginning to understand the movements of the Moon, however, they still used it to make predictions. In The Principles of Astrology by the Persian astronomer Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī (973-1050), the different phases of the Moon are explained to be caused by reflected sunlight. Initially, people believed the Moon produced light, like stars, however, this was eventually found to be false.

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It takes the Moon 29.5 days to make a complete orbit of the Earth. During this time, the Moon appears to change shape each night, going from full to a tiny slither and back again. The shape we see is the shape of the directly sunlit portion of the Moon as viewed from Earth. The angle of the Sun, Moon and Earth’s position, dictates the amount of sunlit Moon we see, as shown in James Reynolds’ diagram.

There are eight key phases of the Moon that have been named. When we can see a full circle, the Moon is aptly called a Full Moon. A half-circle is either the First Quarter or Last Quarter of the cycle, and complete darkness is called a New Moon. Between the New Moon and the First Quarter, the shape is known as a Waxing Crescent, and between the Third Quarter and New Moon, a Waning Crescent. The phases between a Full Moon and the Quarter Moons are called Waxing Gibbous and Waning Gibbous respectively.

James Reynolds also published information about the Moon’s influence on the Earth’s tides. The Moon has a slight gravitational pull on the planet, causing the oceans to rise towards it, thus causing high tides. When the waters are not directly in line with the Moon, they remain low. The Sun also has a gravitational pull on the planet, so when the Moon and Sun align, which they do twice a month, the tides are at their highest. These are known as Spring Tides, deriving from the concept of the tide “springing forth,” and has nothing to do with the time of year. During the First and Third Quarter Moon, the tides are at their lowest. This is called a Neap Tide.

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Orrery

Whilst studying the Moon and Sun, astronomers began to look further out into space, discovering other planets and stars. By watching these astronomical bodies, it has been possible to work out the relative motions of the planets in our solar system. An orrery, such as the one on display made by John Addison, represents these motions. When moving, the model planets revolve around the sun at the same ratio as the real planets. This model also contains the Moon, which rises and falls, mimicking the tilt of its orbit.

Before the world learnt about the Moon’s function, many theories and beliefs developed that usually tied in with various religions. When looking at the Moon, particularly when it is full, it is possible to see different shapes and shadows, which we know now to be craters and highlands. Before this was common knowledge, people made up stories about the shapes they could see, the most famous being the “man in the moon”. Others claimed to be able to see a woman in the moon and others a “banished man” carrying a bundle of sticks. The latter comes from a European story about a man who was banished to the Moon as punishment for collecting sticks on the Sabbath, the day of rest.

From the Pacific Northwest Coast of America, people believed they could see the shape of a toad on the Moon. A story claims that a wolf fell in love with a toad, however, the toad did not trust the wolf and in an attempt to escape, leapt onto the Moon. In China, on the other hand, the shapes take the form of a rabbit with a pestle and mortar. This rabbit, named Yutu, was the companion of the Moon Goddess Chang’e, who was banished to the Moon for stealing the elixir of life.

In Hinduism, the moon god is known as Chandra. One story claims he was cursed by twenty-six of his wives for spending too much time with his twenty-seventh wife. Plagued by illness, he waxed and waned in a cycle similar to the lunar phases.

In Greek Mythology, the Moon goddess Selene fell in love with a mortal, Endymion. To preserve their love forever, Selene put her lover into an eternal sleep so that she could visit him every night. A scene from this myth is shown in a painting by the French artist Victor-Florence Pollet (1811-83).

Pagan’s often celebrated the Full Moon, believing it was the perfect time to cast spells. Witches and wizards gathered on the night of the Full Moon to perform incantations around a cauldron of flickering flames. Other cultures also used the Moon as a cause for celebration. The Kwak’wala speaking tribes on the Northwest Coast of Canada hold potlach gatherings where high ranking members of the community wear carved Moon Masks and compete in ceremonial dances. The dancer who earns the audience’s approval is the “better” Moon. An example of a mask dating from 1983 is on display as part of the exhibition.

As well as worshipping the Moon in various ways, ancient civilisations used the Moon as a guide to the passing of time. Religious festivals were marked by the Moon’s phases and many of these traditions are still in use today. The majority of the world uses the solar (Gregorian) calendar to determine the date and time of year. Some cultures, such as Chinese and Islamic, continue to use the lunar calendar. Unlike the solar calendar that consists of 365 days, the lunar year lasts 354 days. Due to being shorter, each year begins eleven days later than the previous in relation to the solar calendar. This is why the dates of Muslim festivals, such as Ramadam, occur earlier each year. The first sighting of the Crescent Moon is a sign of a new Islamic month.

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In China, traditional events occur concerning the position of the Moon. For example, Chinese New Year happens on the second New Moon after the Winter Solstice (21st December). Events such as these were recorded in almanacs, such as the ancient manuscript on display at the museum. Customarily, old almanacs were burnt to release their powers back to the Moon, however, this manuscript (877 CE) was discovered in a hidden cave in China at the beginning of the 20th century, thus has been preserved for posterity.

Many cultures gave the Full Moons names in relation to the weather or festivities held during those seasons. Before calendars were invented, people could keep track of the time of year by counting the Full Moons. In some North American communities, the twelve Full Moons were known as Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, Sap Moon, Worm Moon, Planting Moon, Strawberry Moon, Thunder Moon, Grain Moon, Harvest Moon, Hunter’s Moon, Beaver Moon, and Cold Moon. The Planting Moon, which occurs in May, and the Harvest Moon (September) were guides and instructions for farmers. Snow Moon (February) and Thunder Moon (July) warned of extreme weather conditions.

The old names for the Full Moon have mostly been confined to the past, however, the Harvest Moon is occasionally still referenced. The Harvest Moon is traditionally the Full Moon that takes place closest to the autumn equinox (21st September). Unlike the other Full Moons of the year, the Harvest Moon rises closest to the sunset, allowing it to shine brightly all night. Before artificial lighting, farmers were able to use the moonlight to continue harvesting crops after sunset. John Linnell (1792-1882), an English landscape artist, painted families returning from the fields with the Harvest Moon lighting their way.

The Moon has been a regular feature in artworks throughout the centuries. As well as Linnell’s Harvest Moon, the exhibition features a handful of paintings by a variety of artists, including J. M. W. Turner’s (1775-1851) Moonlight on River. Landscape artist Henry Pether (d.1865) also produced a painting of the Moonlight reflecting on the river. The Thames and Greenwich Hospital by Moonlight highlights the blueish glow the Moon casts across the water. John Constable (1776-1837) used similar blue shades in his painting of Netley Abbey by Moonlight. The colours give Southampton’s medieval monastery a melancholy, mystical air.

Contemporary artists continue to feature the Moon in their artworks, such as Leonid Tishkov (b.1953), who created the giant mobile installation of a crescent moon that hangs in the centre of the gallery. The Russian artist takes his installation around the world, photographing it in a variety of landscapes and city spaces. When the photographs, such as one showing the Moon in bed, are placed together, they tell the story of a man who discovered the Moon in his attic and decided to spend his life with her despite being a rather unconventional couple.

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Of course, these artworks featuring the Moon are not scientifically accurate. The first drawing of the Moon from telescopic observations was produced by Thomas Harriot (1560-1621). The mathematician and astronomer who founded the English school of algebra noticed the various contours and shapes on the Moon and produced the first lunar map based on these. We now refer to the shaded lunar plains on the map as seas.

Whilst Harriot was celebrated for his achievement, it was the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who received the most praise for his telescopic observations of the Moon. Galileo interpreted the shadows on the Moon as craters and mountains, claiming that the Moon had a similar landscape to Earth. This led Galileo to make the groundbreaking announcement that the universe was not Earth-centred. Through his observations of the Moon, planets, and stars, Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius containing his theory that the planets revolved around the Sun and not around the Earth as previously believed. Despite these findings, it took the population of the world a while to accept his ideas. The Catholic Church condemned Galileo for “vehement suspicion of heresy”.

The English artist John Russell (1745-1806) who produced portraits during the day, spent the night making detailed images of the Moon. Using a telescope, most likely an earlier version of James Nasmyth’s (1807-1890) on display in the exhibition, Russell spent twenty years making pencil sketches of the Moon. Later, using pastels, Russell produced a series of Moon portraits showing the various stages of the Moon, which included all the visible shapes and shadows. Russell preferred Gibbous Moons because they gave off the strongest contrast of shadows.

Russell’s detailed studies of the Moon allowed for the Moon’s libration – the slight wobble of the Moon on its axis – to be modelled on a globe known as a Selenographia. The brass globe also maps out the various shapes and shadows that Russell observed and painted.

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Images of the Moon became more accurate after the invention of photography in the early decades of the 19th century. The first lunar photographs are believed to have been taken in the 1840s, however, not many survive. On loan from the Science Museum Group are two daguerreotypes of the Moon taken in approximately 1850. Daguerreotypes were an early method of photography made on specially-treated silver surfaces. The examples on display were taken by John Whipple (1822-91) and George Bond (1825-65) and were seen by millions of people at the Great Exhibition in 1851.

Through the aid of telescopes and photography, astronomers were able to produce fairly accurate maps of the Moon. Working from hundreds of drawings, the amateur astronomer Hugh Percy Wilkins (1896-1960) was able to produce the most detailed lunar map ever made. This map was used by the Soviet Union and NASA during their “Space Race”.

The Space Race began during the Cold War in 1957 and lasted until 1969. Whilst the Soviet Union and the USA could not attack each other violently, they competed to prove their superiority and technological power by racing to become the first nation to reach the Moon. In 1955, the USA announced their plans to launch an artificial satellite into space, however, once the Soviets learnt of the plan, they fought to beat them to it, launching Sputnik 1 in 1957. The satellite orbited the Earth for three weeks after which the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, with Laika the dog on board. Sadly, the dog died within a few hours of the launch, however, that did not deter the Soviets or the USA who began sending various animals into space.

The Soviet Union became the first nation to land a man-made object on the Moon. Their robotic probe Luna 1 travelled close to the Moon at the beginning of 1959, however, half a year later, Luna 2 (crash)landed onto the surface.

In 1958, the US government founded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in order to compete with the Soviet Union. NASA’s first space program, Project Mercury, launched two chimpanzees into space to test the future of human space flight. Once again, the Soviet Union beat them to it and on 12th April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934-68) completed one orbit of the Earth. A mere few weeks later, Alan Shepard (1923-98) became the first American man in space.

Once they knew human beings could be successfully launched into space, NASA launched its Apollo Space Programme, the programme that would eventually see humans walk on the Moon. Before that, the Soviet Union launched the first woman into space. To date, Valentina Tereshkova (b.1937) has been the only woman to fly solo on a space mission. She spent three weeks in space during which time she orbited the earth 48 times.

The Soviet Union also became the first nation to launch the first multi-person crew. In 1964 Vaskhod 1, carrying three people, reached an altitude of 336 km (209 miles). Two years later, the Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (b.1934) completed the first space walk. To prove the Americans could do it too, Ed White (1930-67) achieved the same feat three months later.

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Earthrise

Although the Soviets were the first to launch a multi-person crew, on Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 became the first crewed mission to orbit the Moon. They were the first humans to see the far side of the Moon and were witness to the Earth rising beyond the Moon, as photographed by Bill Anders (b.1933).

Finally, on 21st July 1969, the USA won the “race” when Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong (1930-2012) stepped out onto the Moon. Watched by millions of people on television back home on Earth, Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon, shortly followed by Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (b.1930).

It took over 400,000 people to get Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon, as well as the ten men that followed. The photograph of the Cape Kennedy Space Launching Station taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) in 1967 shows only a small section of the Mission Control Center.

The hype surrounding the Apollo missions increased the closer it got to the reality of men walking on the Moon. Toys, magazines, books and films were produced and sold in honour of the momentous event. British textile designer Eddie Squire (1940-95) was inspired by the lunar landing and produced designs in commemoration. This includes a denim jacket (on show in the exhibition) and Lunar Rocket furnishing fabric.

Before the launch of Apollo 11, American artist Paul Calle (1928-2010) was granted privileged access to the astronauts. He watched them go about their preparations to enter the spacecraft, making on the spot sketches all the while. Apollo 11 was a mission full of danger and the astronauts were aware these could be their final moments on Earth.

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Thankfully, the astronauts returned to Earth as heroes. Armstrong and Aldrin explored a small portion of the Moon for 21 hours whilst Command Module Pilot Michael Collins (b.1930) orbited the Moon alone in the spacecraft Columbia. Whenever Collins flew behind the Moon, all communication signals were cut off with Earth; he was truly alone.

The crew kept in contact with NASA’s ground control via special headsets, such as the “Snoopy Cap” worn by Buzz Aldrin. Named because it resembled the head of the beagle Snoopy in Charles M. Schulz’s (1922-2000) Peanuts Cartoons, the dog also became a mascot for the mission.

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The astronauts left the US flag and a note saying, “We came in peace for all mankind,” and returned with a sample of moon rock. President Richard Nixon (1913-94) ordered that all nations on Earth be given a sample of moon rock as a diplomatic gift. Although 270 “goodwill” moon rocks were presented, 180 are now unaccounted for, either lost or stolen. Fortunately, the United Kingdom is still in possession of their particles of moon rock embedded in plastic, which is on display as part of the exhibition.

There have been a total of 17 Apollo missions and twelve men have walked on the Moon, however, no one has been there again since 1972. The first Apollo mission resulted in disaster when a launch test in 1967 went wrong, causing a fire and killing all three crew members. After this, Apollo missions 2 through to 6 were un-crewed and stayed relatively close to Earth. The first successful crewed Apollo mission took place on 11th October 1968. The crew stayed close to the Earth’s orbit and tested command and service modules for almost eleven days.

As mentioned earlier, Apollo 8 became the first mission to orbit the Moon. Setting off on 21st December 1968, the crew reached the Moon on Christmas Eve, returning to Earth six days after launch. Apollo 9 spent 10 days in low-Earth orbit so that the astronauts could test engines, life-support, and navigation systems. This was all in preparation for the eventual touchdown on the Moon. Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing; the craft stopped 15.6 km (9.7 miles) from the surface of the Moon before returning home.

The entire world celebrated the first Moon landing in 1969, however, the Apollo missions did not stop there. In November of the same year, two more men walked on the Moon. Apollo 12 focused on extracting rock from the Moon’s surface.

Apollo 13 was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded, leaving the crew with limited life-support. With help and advice from the ground crew, the astronauts put makeshift repairs in place and returned safely to Earth. In January 1971, Apollo 14 successfully reached the Moon where they stayed for two days. During this time, the astronauts conducted experiments and had a game of golf.

In July 1971, the Apollo 15 team were able to explore 17.5 miles of the Moon’s surface. Before returning, they left a memorial on the Moon to commemorate the fourteen astronauts and cosmonauts who died during the Space Race. Apollo 16 brought back more samples of moon rock, and one astronaut left a photo of his family on the Moon. Finally, Apollo 17 broke records with the longest stay on the Moon, the longest moonwalk and the largest collection of lunar samples. There were plans for Apollos 18, 19 and 20, however, significant budget cuts meant they had to be abandoned.

“The Moon is a mysterious world to us. We have a responsibility to explore and understand it.”
– Wu Weiran, Chinese Lunar Exploration Program, 2019

The exhibition ends with a look at the plans for a future visit to the Moon. It may take another 15 to 30 years to get humans back on the Moon, but a British team are building an experiment to fly on the Luna 27 in 2023.

The future for the Moon is uncertain. Will humans walk on it once more? Will we be able to live on the Moon? Many signs point to the answer “yes”, however, this leads to further questions, such as, “Who owns the Moon?” and “Would we end up causing damages?” Most importantly, the moral debate as to whether it is right to experiment with the Moon causes us to wonder if we should leave it alone.

The Moon exhibition takes visitors on a journey from the ancient past to the distant future. From myth and legend to scientifically proven fact, the National Maritime Museum has succeeded in delivering the biggest, most interesting exhibition about the Moon. With an in-depth look at the Apollo 11 mission, it is a perfect way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing.

With tickets priced at £9 per adult and £4.50 for students, The Moon can be visited up until 5th January 2020.


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Harry Potter: A History of Magic

“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

On 26th June 1997, J. K. Rowling published her first book in what turned out to be a highly successful, worldwide phenomenon. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that has affected the hearts of millions of people and changed children’s literature forever. With seven books in the original series, it has become a multimedia marvel.

In honour of the 20th anniversary, a magical exhibition has been put together, combining a vast amount of detail from the Harry Potter series, with examples of “magic” from the real world.

What better place to host the exhibition than the British Library with its enormous collection of rare and ancient books. Being located a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross Station, which fans will know is where the famous Hogwarts Express sets off from, is an added bonus.

Centred around the Hogwarts curriculum, the exhibition takes a look at the various forms of magic that have been experimented with throughout history, evidenced with examples of literature and ancient objects.

Expertly designed to look like settings from the Harry Potter world, references to scenes from the books are interspersed with the collection, creating a magical and exciting atmosphere. Even before entering, the dangling winged keys above the heads of those queuing for their timed entry, hint of the adventure inside.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic also contains a history of the franchise with details provided by J. K. Rowling to explain the development of her ideas. From a shaky beginning to the most popular fantasy fiction, Harry Potter has been on a remarkable journey.

It is hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter, particularly for people, like myself, who were only six years old in 1997, however, J. K. Rowling initially struggled to find a publisher. Several had already rejected the manuscript before Rowling sent it to Bloomsbury, yet, even at this stage, it was not certain whether the staff would agree to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It took the strong opinion of one young person to convince the team to approve the proposal.

The founder of Bloomsbury, Nigel Newton, took the manuscript home and gave it to his daughter Alice. Who better to judge the merits of a children’s book than an eight-year-old reader? Her response set the publication in progress:

“The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read!” – Alice Newton, aged eight.

The original print run was small – 500 copies – suggesting the publishers had little hope that Harry Potter would be a success. However, the interest of a film director helped to seal its fate. Steve Kloves came across the title within a dozen synopses for potential films. Intrigued by the logline, “A young boy goes to wizard’s school,” he sought out the book and was hooked immediately.

The film introduced many more people to the Harry Potter books and they were soon flying off the shelves. Today, over 450 million copies have been sold and the story has been translated into 80 different languages. It has been the most successful venture in children’s publishing.

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The two parts are designed to be watched in one day or on two consecutive nights

Success continued with the publication of companion books, such as The Tales of Beedle the Bard in 2008, and Fantastic Beasts in 2001. The latter inspired the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), and there has also been a stage production titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016).

 

Displayed throughout the exhibition are examples of J. K. Rowling’s preliminary thoughts and work. These include typewritten first drafts, handwritten notes, sketches of Hogwarts and characters, and detailed plans.

More recently, the first three books in the Harry Potter series have been republished in a large, hardback, illustrated format. Jim Kay, the illustrator, has produced amazing drawings of the characters and settings. These are not influenced by the films starring Daniel Radcliffe, making them unique and original. Many of these are also featured in the exhibition.

Potions

The first subject in the Hogwarts curriculum to appear on the journey around the exhibition is Potions, taught for the majority of Harry’s time at the school by the nefarious Professor Snape. People have been making potions for hundreds of years, believing they can cure illnesses and other impossible things. This is evidenced by Jacob Meydenbach’s book Ortus Sanitatis, owned by the British Library, which contains information and recipes for hundreds of potions.

Visitors have the opportunity to try their hand at creating a couple of the potions that feature in the Harry Potter books. An interactive screen instructs the player to insert various ingredients into a digital cauldron. Get it right and a bottled potion appears, however, making a mistake may result in an explosion!

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Ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn’s head

In the 18th century, apothecaries sold potions or medicines made from natural ingredients for a variety of ailments. These establishments were recognised by wooden and ivory signs in the shape of a unicorn. The horn, however, was the tusk of a narwhal rather than a real unicorn horn, which was, obviously, harder to come by!

Although the Harry Potter series is a fictional creation, J. K. Rowling based a lot on truth and history. It is impressive to note the extent to which she researched, even some of the things she invented are based on existing ideas. The philosopher’s stone referenced in the title of the first book was believed to make its owner immortal. In the 15th century, George Ripley (1415-90), an alchemist, produced an illustrated scroll with instructions about how to make a philosopher’s stone. The manuscript, which has rarely been unrolled due to its size, sits in an extremely long display case for everyone to see.

The characters in Harry Potter are invented by the author, however, one name that features on a required book for the potions class is Nicolas Flamel, who did exist. A replica of his 15th-century tombstone sits to one side of the Ripley Scroll.

Herbology

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Culpeper’s English physician and complete herbal…1789

A double archway leads from the Potions section to the Herbology area. This was a core subject at Hogwarts but was also taught in the real world. Herbology is essentially the study of plants and their uses. For years, people relied on this knowledge to create ointments and medicines, even potions. The British Library has a copy of a book called Culpeper’s English Physician; and Complete Herbal which was first published in 1652. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) was an unlicensed apothecary who wanted herbal knowledge available to everyone, hence why it was written in English rather than the traditional Latin. J.K. Rowling often consulted this book when researching for Harry Potter.

Jim Kay’s illustrations demonstrate the fictional plants that feature in the novels, but, as always, these are also based on real life. One plant is the mandrake, which does exist in real life, however, the Harry Potter ones have magical qualities; for example, they scream. There are also illustrations to compare the traditional idea of gnomes (red hat, rosy cheeks) with J. K. Rowling’s version (ugly and looks like a potato).

Charms

The curators of the Harry Potter exhibition have gone to great lengths to bring the magic of Hogwarts to life, utilising lighting effects and digital technology. To exemplify the power of charms, a flying snitch (a golden ball with wings) is seen flying across the walls. A disembodied voice chants magic spells such as “Wingardium Leviosa” and “Alohomora” which young wizards are taught at school.

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Liber Medicinalis

Magic words have also been used in real life, although not in quite the same way. Magicians and children’s entertainers still shout “Open Sesame” or “Abracadabra” when reaching the pinnacle of their act, however, “Abracadabra” dates back to the 13th century. The word was believed to have healing powers and patients were instructed to write out the word on eleven lines, leaving out one character each time, to create a triangular shape, which would then be cut out and worn around the neck like an amulet.

In the Harry Potter books, charms are more than waving a magic wand and saying a strange word. Objects can be charmed to move (e.g. the golden snitch and broomsticks), disappear, turn into something else, and so forth. In an empty glass cabinet supposedly hangs Harry’s invisibility cloak, a cloak that has been charmed to make the wearer disappear from sight. However, being an invisibility cloak, no one can see it!

Astronomy

Entering the Astronomy section is like stepping into a pretend observatory. Tiny white lights decorate the dark ceiling making it look like the night sky. Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences in existence, and although it does not involve magic, it is still an important subject in the wizarding world. Scientists have studied the night sky, determining the position of planets and stars, and discovering the secrets of the universe.

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A section of the Dunhuang Star Chart

Evidence of astronomy dates back thousands of years, however, the oldest tangible evidence to be discovered so far is a manuscript produced in China around 700AD. The Dunhuang star chart is two metres long and contains a record of the movements of the stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere. Civilisations used to base important decisions on the position of stars, however, this crosses over into astrology.

When writing Harry Potter, Rowling looked to the starry skies for names for many of her characters. An interactive screen allows visitors to locate certain stars in the sky that have been utilised in the series. Examples are Andromeda Tonks, Bellatrix Lestrange and Remus Lupin.

Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, is another character named after the night sky. Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from Earth and lies within the constellation Canis Major. The star is also known as the Dog Star, which makes it an apt name for the Animagus; Sirius Black can turn himself into a large black dog.

Divination

Divination is the art of predicting the future and is often ridiculed by those who do not believe in this elusive craft; it is no different with the staff and students at Hogwarts. The teacher, Professor Sybill Trelawney, is often mocked and believed to be a fake, however, some of her prophecies prove to not only be true but are vital to the storyline.

Similarly to the methods taught at Hogwarts, predicting the future can be attempted in many different ways. The books and items displayed by the British Library give examples of techniques used across the world. Usually, when picturing a fortune teller, they are seated at a round table with a crystal ball on top. A couple of these are exhibited, along with a fake, digitally powered version that everyone is welcome to play with.

Another common technique of fortune tellers is tarot card reading or cartomancy. The exhibition contains the oldest version of the pack of 52 cards that were produced by a so-called specialist, John Lenthall (1683-1762), in the 18th century. Each card has a different meaning and can predict events in an individual’s future. An interactive table allows people to place their hands in position and receive their own fortune telling.

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John Lenthall’s Fortune-Telling Cards, English

Defence Against the Dark Arts

A compulsory subject at Hogwarts, Defence Against the Dark Arts teaches students how to defend themselves against dark creatures and curses. This plays a vital role in Harry’s story as he fights the Dark Lord as well as other evil characters. However, there is a rumour that the position as teacher of Defence Against the Dark Arts is cursed, especially as they never last longer than a year.

Throughout history, societies have believed in and attempted to protect themselves from evil beings. Sometimes talismans or amulets are worn to protect individuals from harm. Interestingly, the symbol of a snake has also been used for defence purposes, but, on the other hand, some cultures view them as evil.

In the Harry Potter series, snakes are mostly associated with evil. Voldemort, the Dark Lord, has a pet snake who measures at least twelve foot long. For Voldemort, his pet is a form of protection, but for Harry, it represents evil.

Care of Magical Creatures

The final subject is Care of Magical Creatures that is initially taught by the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. Students are taught about a whole range of creatures: what they eat, their natural habitats, which are safe and which are dangerous, and so on. Rowling has used pre-existing creatures from mythology and folklore but adapted them to fit in with the storyline. Some of these include unicorns, dragons, phoenixes and hippogriffs.

Although, nowadays, magical creatures are believed to be a myth, plenty of books have been published on the topic. These books are known as bestiaries and contain detailed information about each curious beast.

Other magical creatures that heavily feature in Harry Potter are ghosts. The Hogwarts castle is full of them and they often interact with the students. Another are owls, which may not register as magical creatures in the real world. In J. K. Rowling’s fictional world, the witches and wizards do not use postmen, instead, they entrust their letters and parcels to an owl to deliver them straight to the recipient.

Jim Kay has produced some wonderful illustrations of the many creatures in the books, some of which can be seen in this section of the exhibition.

Here the exhibition comes to an end. Not only does everyone know more about the famous Wizarding World, they have a greater knowledge about magic in general. Combining Harry Potter and real-life examples of witchcraft and wizardry make the journey through the exhibition extra interesting and inciteful. It is truly eye-opening to discover the connections between the fictional books and “real” world.

J. K. Rowling is a truly admirable author who deserves all the recognition she has received. Harry Potter will never be forgotten and has a promising future with spin-offs, illustrated versions of books, and new forms of merchandise constantly in production.

It is hard to fault Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library has done an exceptional job at sourcing and curating the exhibition. It is set out in a logical format and is easy to navigate. The only downside, if it can be called one, is that it is so popular! Tickets sell out in advance every day, meaning the exhibition gets very crowded. In an attempt to control the crowds, the Library issues timed tickets with a half hour window in which to enter. However, the eager Harry Potter fans turn up at the beginning of their slot resulting in a multitude of people entering at once. The first few sections are particularly difficult to manoeuvre around as everyone fights to see the artworks, books and information.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open until 28th February, so there is still time to go and see the sensational exhibition – if there are any tickets left! Tickets can only be purchased online and cost £16 (£8 for under 17s). There is also an exhibition shop full of Harry Potter merchandise. Unfortunately, this is a bit pricey, but serious fans will be willing to pay the price.

Displays inspired by the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition are open in 20 public libraries across the UK as part of the Living Knowledge Network.