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.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Roça Sundy

Drove up to Roça Sundy after dark, in official convoy - which entails having the emergency lights flashing the whole way. Not sure how this helps. But plaque is already installed, and hidden in fabric before tomorrow's ceremony. It looks a little higher than design, to the point that steps were built in front of it, but should be great!

Better, though, was the welcome given us by the people of Sundy. As we pulled up, they were gathered around a fire and floodlight in the central clearing. Drumming, singing and dancing greeted the visitors and the president. Absolutely wonderful of them, and I can't wait to go back in daylight to properly meet these incredibly friendly people.

Santo Antonio

Welcome from president José Cassandra and more public lectures (again to a packed room) in Santo António, the capital of Príncipe. A lifesize copy of the plaque (just visible behind our legs) was well received, and will stay here to entice people to travel up to Roça Sundy, where Eddington made his observations. The government building, where the talks were held is of fantastic colonial architechture, with high ceilings and a particularly beautiful wooden staircase spiralling up from the entrance hall. It looks out on a revently renovated and calm town square, as well as the tennis court where Eddington played.

To Príncipe

At last, and in a very excited mood, we flew first thing this morning to Príncipe. What a beautiful island - even more so than São Tomé, with rugged volcanos everywhere, shrouded in dense green rainforest. And the beach where we are staying on Bom-Bom island is indescribably beautiful. Couldn't help running straight into the sea as soon as we arrived, for a quick swim before the afternoon's work.

The (Dornier 228) plane was quite an experience. The pilot himself described it affectionately as a "van with wings". We'd chartered it to make four shuttle runs between the islands, gradually carrying over the whole delegation (at eighteen seats per run, that increased Príncipe's population by 3%). When it arrived on São Tomé a couple of hours late from Cameroon for reasons unknown, the extra lie-in was actually very welcome. Things sped up - by the time we had got off the plane and greeted the Scientists In The World team, who had been at schools on Príncipe all week, it was flying back for the next shuttle. Unfortunately, that was the last we were to see of it, as a tyre burst after the third run. One group is therefore stuck in the wrong island, and hoping to fly over very early tomorrow morning for the ceremony. Fingers crossed...

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Sightseeing at the equator

I skipped the conference today, and went sightseeing. At 7:30 (8:00 léve léve time), I caught an employee shuttle bus from one of the big resort hotels here in town. It wound for two and a half hours over bumpy roads, past some stunning beaches and volcanic landscape to the extreme southern end of the island. It was insisted that I take the passenger seat up front. Without exception, I have found the people here incredibly friendly and with time they have been willing to spend helping me find something, take me somewhere or translate! By now, waiting beside the road for fallen trees to be cleared from the road, and detours from a collapsed bridge to ford the river are old hat, and the journey went well.

From the southernmost point, we got onto an open motor boat to take us to the small Ilhéu de Rolas, which includes another resort run by the same company. I've been diligently carrying my waterproof coat everywhere with me. But of course, it was at exactly this moment, amidst the rollercoaster waves and precisely the one time I had no hope of opening my bag safely, that the heavens opened. I spent the rest of the day soaked and splashing inside my boots, feeling a little silly about the perfectly dry and rather heavy coat in my rucksack. But the rain is warm and actually rather refreshing.

Once the boat landed (and the rain abruptly stopped), I quickly headed off into the forest. Pushing overgrown leaves aside, I followed a winding trail of sorts up the side of an extinct volcano. The greens are amazing, with damp cool spots in the shade and oppressive humdity buzzing under respiring banana fronds. Occasionally, the sound of a falling coconut or a wild pig grunting under a boulder rips through the forest. At the top, the rim of the crater reveals a giant caldera, plunging back down in the centre. As the ferns give way to giant lettuce-like leaves, covered in enormous spider webs (tiny spiders), I expect dinosaurs to leap out from every other turn.

A monument marks the line of the equator, and I pause for a photo before plunging back into the forest. There animals are interesting too: lizards everywhere, dragon flies, land crabs and more pigs, wallowing in a deep pool of mud before my approach scares them off. Eventually, the forest thins, giving war to palm trees. Wary of the now more frequent sound of coconuts falling after the heavy rains, I suddenly stumble onto a deserted beach. Bright blue water crashes onto the aa rocks (good one for scrabble, that), and shoots into the air through a blowhole. Not a soul has disturbed the sand, and I sit on driftwood for a long drink in the heat.

The amazing beaches continue as I head back around the coast, hidden in little coves, some inaccessible except via the sea. It's been a few hours since I saw another person, and I eagerly hop back over the rocks to the boat to the mainland.

The boat has been cancelled. Frantic wait for another, followed by a bus that I'm allowed to ride on, and I make it back to São Tomé just in time for dinner at the Potuguese ambassador's house. See: it's not been a day off all day at all!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009


Half the displays installed successfully in the university, where they will be on show during an eclipse conference tomorrow. Slight problem with adhesives in the humid climate; overcome the old-fashioned way with hammer and nails.

Ate chicken curry in hotel to celebrate. Slightly lame, but I've been hankering after it for days. :)

Word is getting out around the islands

Pedro spent the day talking. Morning: interview on the national radio station. Afternon: at a conference in the Centre for Portuguese Culture, attended by a full room of interested locals. Maybe they'd heard about it on the radio. Evening: the daily newspaper and (shown in photo) Portuguese national TV station RTP. Only three days to go before the anniversary celebrations on Príncipe, and momentum is gathering.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Africa Day

Today is Africa Day, and it brought a mixed bag in São Tomé. Celebrations began in the morning at the local school. Unfortunately, rain at lunch time halted proceedings before, and a fight broke out in town. My taxi driver assured me this was very rare (and I have otherwise felt completely safe), with island life running more usually to the local motto "léve léve".

So I léve léved the afternoon away, waiting for things to happen at their own pace. The photo was taken from the roof of the main market, whose busy hustle overflows into the surrounding streets. It's a great place to watch the world go by. The rain had cleared by evening. The Africa Day party restarted in the central park, popcorn began to flow, and everyone (now friends again) danced together - to some thumping bass and reassuringly cheesy disco lights.

The day was rounded off with a soirée at the Brazilian embassy. This honoured the simultaneous RAS expedition to Sobral, from where the 1919 eclipse was also visible.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Rainy season

Today's deluge proved that May on São Tomé is still just within the rainy season. Everyone was out and about on the streets as soon as it finished - and very friendly on a relaxed Sunday afternoon. Just thank heavens the clouds parted right on cue at 2:15pm on 29 May 1919.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Arrived in São Tomé

Stopping on the larger of the two islands for a few days to install the exhibition and attend conferences. The plaque has been shipped on ahead with the governor, who is an absolute star for schmoozing out 75kilos of excess luggage, and the Scientists In The World team. They will be doing outreach in schools on príncipe, and staying in Roça Sundy itself. Can't wait to join them!

Friday, 22 May 2009

A blur of airports

Conference in Lisbon today was a huge success. The SdG has just discovered a cache of letters from the RAS, asking permission and help for an expedition... written as early as 1914. These expeditions take some planning!

Standing at the monument in Lisbon harbour to the Portguese explorers who left from this point to discover the world. As much as I am currently fed up with waiting lounge after waiting lounge after waiting lounge, I have to say that the modern way of travelling to Sao Tome is convenient. Comparatatively. :)

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Start of official celebrations

The anniversary celebrations kick off today, at the Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa in Portugal. The full programme includes an address by José Cassandra, President of Príncipe and Prof. José Mariano Gago, Portuguese Minister for Science.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A plan comes together

Phew! I have my fingers crossed as I type (and am still sat on the edge of my seat), but the plan seems to be coming together. I love it.

The plaque has arrived safe and sound in Lisbon. The team will rendezvous there tomorrow for the start of the official anniversary celebrations, then carry it the rest of the way as hand luggage (yikes). The press release is fleshing out nicely, and my shiny new iPhone is charged up to send back photos of the various ceremonies. Hmm, I hope that works - I kind of used this excuse to myself to justify the expense. And finally, my visa to travel into Sao Tome was granted this morning. Kind of last minute, but hey: all's well.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Sky at Night

There's now just under a week before we leave, and the pressure is rising. There are last-minute preparations for the exhibition in Sao Tome, and making sure the plaque actually arrives with us. DHL report the parcel as having "irregular delays", whatever that means. Unfortunately, while the UK service desk is open at weekends, the parcel is currently half-way through France: and they're closed. Draw your own conclusions about European working rights.

In brighter news, the expedition's first UK press coverage arrived in this month's BBC's Sky at Night magazine. Best of all, they sent me a copy of the whole magazine, so I get to relax for an hour this afternoon with a cup of tea and a read.

Friday, 24 April 2009

The plaque is ready to go

The manufacture of the commemorative plaque has been completed, and it's looking beautiful! The design is engraved into brushed stainless steel, and describes the personalities and scientific excitement of the eclipse in diagrams and Portuguese/English text. This is being shipped out and will be unveiled at Roça Sundy on 29th May.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

The tickets are booked...

We have booked our plane tickets to São Tomé e Príncipe. True to our attempt to turn this into a journey that will promote not simply astronomy but also the local economy and tourism potential, we are going with STP Airways, the country’s only airline that operates a single flight between Lisbon and S.Tomé once a week. Fingers crossed, STP Airways will continue to be in business until May. We’ve heard good things about it, but it had to stop its flights intermittently once before. (By the way, for the ordinary traveller a cheaper option during the summer holiday season may be the Portuguese Pestana group, which offers a package tour that includes charter flight and accommodation).

Before heading out to STP, we will spend two days in Lisbon where we’ve been invited to participate in a celebration of the 1919 Eclipse Expedition organised by the Portuguese Geographical Society. Their enthusiasm and effort is really quite impressive. The celebration will include an opening ceremony on Thursday, 21st of May, and on the following day, a symposium with several speakers including the President of Príncipe (José Cassandra) which is an autonomous region of this small island state, the Portuguese Minister of Science and, from our team, Pedro Gil Ferreira. A truly grand opening to this exciting trip!


Monday, 16 March 2009

Commemorative plaque design

The design of the commemorative plaque has been finalised, and it is being fabricated by Premier Engraving. The plaque will be installed at the Sundy plantation, and unveiled at a ceremony on 29 May 2009: the 90th anniversary of the solar eclipse.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Eddington had set off by now...

In the days of steamships and postwar troop transportation, it took a long time to sail to Africa. Eddington had to set off on the 8th of March 1919. Well, he intended to arrive in time to take some pre-eclipse exposures of the Hyades star cluster while it was still visible at night, so he left earlier than he needed to. In the end, it was lucky because he spent a month waiting for onward transportation from Madeira. But in the mean time, at least he enjoyed the cakes on board - which were not subject to rationing and filled with raisins to "pre-war levels". And the bananas on Madeira. Sir Arthur Eddington seems to have some sort of banana adict.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Background reading

I just spent a fantastic few hours at the Einstein Papers Project on CalTech campus. Einstein bequeathed all his papers to Jerusalem University, but a copy of them all is stored at CalTech, where they are gradually being translated (most are in German) and published. The archive includes correspondence between Einstein and Eddington, discussing the expedition and later works, as well as the fiasco over the Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal, which was planned to be awarded to Einstein in 1920, but wasn't. Wow, scientific progress in those days was slow, being conducted by transatlantic airmail... and maybe more thoughtful than astro-ph... The archive also includes letters Eddington wrote to his mother during his (long) journey to Principe and from the island. More on those to follow.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Web page goes live!

This first report is posted in a jubilant mood, coincidentally from an international conference on gravitational lensing near Frankfurt. Many of Europe's lensers are gathered to review and coordinate plans for a year's research. And this anniversary year should be very exciting: with the opening of two brand new telescopes designed specifically to measure gravitational lensing, and the planning of a satellite to do even better from orbit. Lensing has come a long way in the 90 years since its first observation. Eddington would have been pleasantly surprised!