What Planet is This?

23 Jul 2005


According to author Charles Nicholl, ghiribizzi is an Italian word for the dizzy headed feeling of there being so many ideas. It was used in reference to Leonardo Da Vinci, probably the best candidate for epitomising the word.

Sir Issac Newton had the same problem. He'd wake up in the morning, swing his legs out of bed, and freeze there because he'd be overcome by the possibilities of thought. Descartes did most of his thinking in bed too. Sir Francis Bacon agreed that "to spend too much time in studies is sloth", but I don't think he looked upon sloth as being a good thing, whereas Dr. Johnson declared that anyone who rose before eight in the morning was a fool.

And you can't argue with Dr. Johnson, even if he didn't cater for polyphasic or circadian sleepers like myself. A friend of mine, Tav, recently declared with great enthusiasm that the perfect sleeping schedule is to go to bed when it gets dark, wake up before twilight to get all of your work done, and then go out and enjoy the sunshine, which sounds like the best policy.

Or it would be the best policy if there were any sunshine to enjoy. Here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland we have rather a lot of a little thing called rain. "If the sun don't come then get a tan from standing in the English rain" as John Lennon put it, in the song that fades with a little radio snippet from a production of King Lear. The Beatles had earlier staged a production of Pyramus and Thisbe from A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is not something I'd envisaged them doing. Strange how A Midsummer Night's Dream is often chopped into smaller parts, as with the publication of The Merry Conceits of Bottom the Weaver in the mid-17th century.

The 17th century was nuts anyway. England saw the king overthrown and Cromwell heading parliament for the interregnum. But the man spelled at as "atte" so we deposed him, put Charles II back onto the throne, and never again dared upset the royals. I hope that Prince Charles, who will reign as George VII, spells "at" properly. Since an heir to the throne can ascend under any of their forenames, Charles could technically rule as King Arthur, that being one of his names. George VI, the Queen's father, also had Arthur as a middle name, and Henry VII even named his eldest child, born on the 20th September 1486, Arthur, in an attempt to cement the Tudor line into the mythology of England.

But that Arthur died, so we ended up with the eighth Henry who had six wives and three children that went on to be monarch, a word derived from the Greek monos archein, which means one ruler. I could never cope with just one ruler when I was at school since they'd always break too easily. The wood ones would last about a day, and the plastic ones... well one of them exploded once. Now I have a steel ruler, and that appears to be lasting.

Even the prototype for the metre SI unit was originally made from metal, being platinum, but physical prototypes have a history of being rather inaccurate. The platinum metre ruler was, for example, 0.2mm too short, and now the metre is defined in terms of the speed of light. The prototypical kilogram, a lump of platinum-iridium held by the National Physical Laboratories, was also found to be variable in weight, but only because it was accruing pollution from jet planes that were passing overhead. Don't place sensitive laboratories under flight paths; or flight paths over sensitive laborotories!

Observatories have it even worse, of course. You can't place them anywhere where there's light pollution, so basically you're looking for a huge mountain, the sea, or, preferably, space. But as Ashot Chilingarian, who runs a cosmic ray observatory on Mount Aragats, knows, mountains aren't ideal: the roof of his observatory keeps blowing off in gales. And it takes him ten hours just to get to the place, in an old bulldozer. So scientists have happily been working on laser guide stars for telescopes to improve their clarity by correcting against turbulence.

They're not the only ones pumping lots of juice into the atmosphere. The HAARP project in Alaska recently succeeded in creating the world's first ever artificial aurora... but nobody saw it since the scientists were all inside monitoring the instruments. They only know about it because the amount of energy they were pumping into the sky must have been sufficient to cause an aurora.

Of course, it might be advisable to take that cum grano salis when you consider scientists' records on this sort of prediction. Astronomers are particularly bad at it, as Charles Fort reported. In December 1639, Kepler predicted that Venus would make a path underneath the Sun and that its next actual transit would not be until 1761. Lansberg, another important astronomer, predicted that it would actually go above the sun. An amateur astronomer just eighteen years old, Jeremiah Horrocks, reasoned that if one great astronomer said it'd go under and another said it'd go over, it may actually make a transit. And it did, so at least somebody was watching it.

There's not as much for amateur astronomers to do these days, though Transient Lunar Phenomena are still vogue, and if you have good enough equipment you might still discover a supernova. But be careful, or not: too much star gazing might make you dizzy.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Ghiribizzi", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/ghiribizzi


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Periodical essays on linguistics, history, and much more, from Shakespeare to post Romano-​British findings. Like Notes and Queries sans the queries and solely antiquarian disposition.

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