Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A project. And now?

The notion of “doing a project” in STP has many meanings. People initiate, invite, and participate in projects of one kind or another on a regular basis. Many of these are development projects, for example, in the agricultural or the health sector, which are designed to somewhat improve the rather difficult living situation of the population. But there are problems with projects, which people are only too familiar with, and one of these is their short duration and temporary nature.

Will ‘Eddington in Principe’ be just another of those one-off projects? Before leaving STP, having stayed on for another couple of weeks after the rest of the team returned to the UK, I met up with the Santomean Minister of Education as well as a couple of members of the commission that the ministry had set up in the run-up to the event. I had already heard from Santomean friends about the educational campaign that these teachers and professors had conducted in local schools in April and May, giving lectures and talks so that children and youths across the island would know what Eddington’s expedition and Einstein’s theory of general relativity are about.

In our conversation, now, the Minister assured me that the state and regional government would be keen to work together, to use Eddington, Einstein and Roça Sundy as a kind of focus for development programmes on the island of Príncipe. He conjured images of a teaching and research centre in Sundy, of a beautifully restored plantation for the community, of school children, students, local professors and international visitors who would come here to exchange ideas, learn and discover. All this is possibly too ambitious an idea to ever be realised and still a long way off.

But this project, in the end, had an impact not least because of the many people – from STP, Portugal, Brazil – working together to make it happen. People enjoyed taking part, it was fun and exciting and, for most, something very new. It would already be quite an achievement if we could keep going some of that momentum we generated and, for example, as we discussed with the Santomean government and the regional president of Príncipe, regularly send a scientist or two from Britain to STP to work in and with local educational institutions. The Portuguese NGO Scientists in the World, who were also in STP now, have already made a big step in that direction. It is clear that, not least because of this project, Eddington’s trip to Príncipe is recognised as an important part of Santomean cultural heritage; hopefully, it can be an anchor for future initiatives through which the population of these remote islands may increasingly take part in scientific knowledge and discovery.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Pictures from the ceremony in Roça Sundy

These are some pictures from the ceremony in Sundy on the anniversary of the Eclipse. They show the local community, invited guests, local government and the multi-national team that worked together to make this event a success.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Homeward bound

Nineteen hours and three flights later (some of the connections were pretty tight) it's back to 21st century astronomy.

Following Eddington's footsteps has been an emotional adventure. I've met some wonderful people, seen some incredible places - and, I have to say, mixing in governmental circles anywhere is pretty damn cool! Above all, it has been an honour to celebrate this profound scientific advance, and to share the experience with the people of Príncipe. It is a truly special place and, judging by his letters, one that I think Eddington loved just as much as I did.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Stopover in São Tomé

Fly back to São Tomé, and check into a hotel near the airport. On the beach outside, fishermen are dragging in the last catch of the day. The nets have only been slung out from the beach for an hour but ate already full: there is so much abundance here.

Grabbed a couple of hours of sleep and headed back to the airport in the early hours. It's already a hive of activity - São Tomé is a bustling metropolis compared to Príncipe.

Travellers don't normally cut a connection this fine, the léve léve philosophy making it wise to leave a couple of days' leeway for international flights. However, the eclipse deadline made this impossible unless we wait for Thursday's flight. Fortunately, all goes without a hitch and we head back to Lisbon.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Plaque unveiled

As clouds part right on schedule, just as in 1919, president Cassandra unveils the plaque, installed successfully in its new home. Personally, I'm really pleased with the way it looks. It's slightly higher than design, possibly beacuase the ground is hard, but a concrete step up has been built.

The plaque goes down well with the residents too: I spot bunches of people gathering round it all afternoon, pointing and scratching their chins thoughtfully. A full description of the revolutionary experiment done here is finally available. Together with new displays inside the primary plantation residence (a beautiful colonial-style building, like many on the island, with elegant floor tiles, grand dining room and elegant carved staircase that spirals to the high ceiling) it makes a great tourist attraction for visitors - and this is going to be quite the local hotbed of general relativity!

The presidential party runs inside as the heavens open again. The plaque survives its first rainstorm, and at least looks solid enough to last a long time. We leave epoxy resin to cover the few exposed bolts, and rejoin the party, now continuing with music and dancing on the covered veranda.

Celebrations in Roça Sundy

Banners are out as we arrive at the plantation in a convoy that has grown to almost a hundred delegatess. In an island with a population of fewer than 5000, this represents a huge success!

As you can see in the photo, the dancers and band from last night have all got matching T-shirts made for the occasion.

I have a proper look around the plantation in daylight. It is laid out around a central courtyard, with ornate stables at one end; the church, cantina and owner's residences in a row, opposite the the buildings that used to be slave quarters. The latter are now owned and occupied by their residents. Nothing lasts long in this climate and they have clearly deteriorated. Government-sponsored efforts to repair and preserve the site are being helped by Tulla, who was born here but moved to São Tomé for a career in politics. He shows me the train tracks (and rusting remains of the train) that used to carry cocoa pods to ships waiting at the beach below - and possibly also brought up Eddington's equipment. Tulla's goal is to build a hotel on the beach below, bringing jobs and money to the plantation that could be used to preserve and further repair the buildings and the road.

The kids here are very excited by our digital cameras, and swamp us to see photos of themselves with their friends. They are clearly not overloaded with tired images and video clips like in Europe - and like the website will soon be. I'm feeling daunted by the task of sorting through my 1200 photos (not to mention everyone else's; the islands are too beautiful to put a camera seat for long). About a quarter of those are of excited Roça Sundy kids pulling faces at each other...

With a copy of Eddington's letters at hand, we try to piece together exactly where he was staying, and the location of the his telescopes. He wrote that he could look down from his bedroom window onto the open area where he set up equipment. This would have needed to face North, towards the sea. It's not exactly clear which building he'd have occupied; the primary residence has a date on one wall of 1920: too late, but it may just refer to extensive renovations. Some of the Scientists In The World team are staying there, and their rooms have balconies that overlook suitable sites. Alternatively, a slightly smaller adjacent building is also possible.

A visiting Brazilian astronomy professor suggests that some concrete blocks rising out of the ground in the central courtyard could have been built to securely mount Eddington's telescopes; it's possible, but the oddly-shaped blocks could have been for anything else too. Richard Ellis came here last year and didn't reach a firm conclusion either, so this is likely to remain a mystery.


A new set of postage stamps for São Tomé and Príncipe was released this morning, commemorating Sir Arthur Eddington and the 1919 eclipse.

My postcards home will look rather dapper.