View – History – Flatten layers: Part 1. The Russell Square Aeroplane

One summer morning a jetplane flew south over central London, gear down, seatbelts on, devices off. Thousands of feet below, traffic flowed around Russell Square. An open top bus turned into Bedford Way, plunging its passengers into the shade of the tall university buildings.

Thanks to the aristocrats whose names the streets wear, this part of the city between Euston and Oxford Street is the closest London gets to a grid structure. I know it quite well, but still use the crutch of a map to find my way round. It’s a marauder’s map with me at the centre, surrounded by a shaded circle of confidence that pulses bigger and smaller as my phone singles out satellites, cell towers and WiFi points in the radio spectrum cacophony.

I was not there that day, the day of the jetplane and the tour bus. Yet every time I cross Russell Square, Google satellite map in hand, I walk under the left wing of the jetplane.

Frozen in time, the Russell Square aeroplane looks as though it has landed in the park. The scale is about right. Besides, how without forward motion can it be anywhere but on the ground?

Like saving an image out of Photoshop, the satellite view flattens the layers. The people in the sky (who knows where they came from or how long their journeys?) are suddenly on the same plane as the people on the bus, for whom the passenger jet was nothing but a streak of sound or a vapour trail in the clear blue sky.

I can imagine the bustle when I walk though the square, squinting at my phone screen in the daylight. Not a crash landing for there are no signs of panic around the plane.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Russell Square where the time is forever 10am British Summer Time. Please remain seated until the pilot has switched off the seatbelt signs. On behalf of the airline and our partners may I thank you for flying with us and wish you a pleasant onward journey.

And please mind the picnickers as you disembark the plane.”

If the dust doesn’t settle: Gin, Jetplanes and Transitive Surplus

More than 150 years ago John Ruskin imagined the experience of flight. Now, thanks to Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, we can begin to imagine the possibilities without it.

Robert Paterson provocatively suggests in Volcano & Air Travel – A Black Swan? What might happen:

At the moment we are all treating this event as a temporary inconvenience. But what if this is not temporary? The last time this volcano erupted in 1821 the eruptions lasted for months… So imagine European airspace being closed until September – possible? What then?

Robert has a list of sensible ideas about the impact on airlines, on shipping and other industries. Disruption for some of them could be serious and long-lasting.

But beyond the purely economic effects what could a sustained bar on air travel mean for our working and cultural lives? It might not all be doom and gloom. To see why, let’s revisit a concept proposed by Clay Shirky, most notably in his 2008 essay “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus“.

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Grounded, Ruskin takes to the skies over Europe

On a day without a plane in the sky over Europe it seems appropriate to recall this breathtaking leap of imagination by John Ruskin, a full 50 years before the Wright brothers’ first powered flight (my italicisation):

“The charts of the world which have been drawn up by modern science have thrown into a narrow space the expression of a vast amount of knowledge, but I have never yet seen any one pictorial enough to enable the spectator to imagine the kind of contrast in physical character which exists between Northern and Southern countries. We know the differences in detail, but we have not that broad glance and grasp which would enable us to feel them in their fulness. We know that gentians grow on the Alps, and olives on the Apennines ; but we do not enough conceive for ourselves that variegated mosaic of the world’s surface which a bird sees in its migration, that difference between the district of the gentian and of the olive which the stork and the swallow see far off, as they lean upon the sirocco wind. Let us, for a moment, try to raise ourselves even above the level of their flight, and imagine the Mediterranean lying beneath us like an irregular lake, and all its ancient promontories sleeping in the sun: here and there an angry spot of thunder, a grey stain of storm, moving upon the burning field; and here and there a fixed wreath of white volcano smoke, surrounded by its circle of ashes;

Ash Flow from Mount Etna - NASA/courtesy of nasaimages.org

but for the most part a great peacefulness of light, Syria and Greece, Italy and Spain, laid like pieces of a golden pavement into the sea-blue, chased, as we stoop nearer to them, with bossy beaten work of mountain chains, and glowing softly with terraced gardens, and flowers heavy with frankincense, mixed among masses of laurel, and orange, and plumy palm, that abate with their grey-green shadows the burning of the marble rocks, and of the ledges of porphyry sloping under lucent sand. Then let us pass farther towards the north, until we see the orient colours change gradually into a vast belt of rainy green, where the pastures of Switzerland, and poplar valleys of France, and dark forests of the Danube and Carpathians stretch from the mouths of the Loire to those of the Volga, seen through clefts in grey swirls of rain-cloud and flaky veils of the mist of the brooks, spreading low along the pasture lands:

and then, farther north still, to see the earth heave into mighty masses of leaden rock and heathy moor, bordering with a broad waste of gloomy purple that belt of field and wood, and splintering into irregular and grisly islands amidst the northern seas, beaten by storm, and chilled by ice- I drift, and tormented by furious pulses of contending tide, until I the roots of the last forests fail from among the hill ravines, and the hunger of the north wind bites their peaks into barrenness; and, at last, the wall of ice, durable like iron, sets, deathlike, its white teeth against us out of the polar twilight.”

The Stones of Venice – Volume II (1853)

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Reflections on Reading of Mr Joseph Priestley and M Antoine Lavoisier While Travelling by Air Plane Between Leeds and Paris

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air sparks a delightful reverie on the pivotal role of 18th Century scientist, non-conformist minister and poltical thinker Joseph Priestley.

Living in Leeds, I was vaguely aware of Priestley from local museums and the blue plaque at Mill Hill Unitarian Church on City Square. What schoolchild could fail to be impressed by the tale of Priestley inventing fizzy pop after studying the bubbles in a brewers’ vat on Meadow Lane? He open-sourced the method, leaving one Johann Schweppe to make a fortune.

But until I picked up Johnson’s book I hadn’t grasped that Priestley’s years in our Northern English city included experiments that shaped scientists’ understanding of gases, plant and animal life, and ultimately our planetary ecosystem.

Johnson tells how, after various gruesome experiments resulting in the suffocation of spiders and mice by placing them in sealed containers, Priestley wondered how long it would take a sprig of mint to succumb to the same fate. (Mint grows like a weed in gardens round us!) To his surprise, the mint lived, thrived even. What’s more, a flame could be lit in the sealed container, something that had not been possible in the containers where animals had expired.

Priestley wrote of his discovery to his friend Benjamin Franklin who almost at once made the further leap that, “I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees…”

Serendipitously, I read this section of the Invention of Air on one of my increasingly regular flights from Leeds to Paris. Across southern England and the Channel, I was engrossed in Steven Johnson’s account of how Priestley made his experimental breakthrough, yet got the explanation wrong. He believed that the animals and flames emitted a noxious substance known as “phlogiston” and identified the gas “mended” by the plants as “dephlogisticated air”.

Then, literally as my plane broke through the clouds on the descent to Charles de Gaulle Airport, the action switched to Paris where the English hacker Joseph Priestley shared his discoveries with French aristocrat Antoine Lavoisier. It was Lavoisier who, after absorbing the implications of Priestley’s discovery, proposed a theoretical framework, correctly identified that a gas was used up in burning and respiration, and named that gas oxygen.

The English hacker, the French theorist, the combination of the two in innovation. The thought made my day, so apologies to the various colleagues upon whom I inflicted this convoluted story.

Sadly neither country was eternally grateful: years later Priestley was forced to flee to the United States after a Church and King mob burned down his Birmingham home and laboratory, while Lavoisier was beheaded in the French Revolution.

I can’t recommend this book enough. If there’s one criticism it’s that Johnson sometimes seems a little too pleased with himself to have hit upon a “long view” narrative linking Priestley with Northern England’s Industrial Revolution preeminance and atmospheric oxygen levels in the Carboniferous Era. But I guess I would be too, if I’d thought of that. It’s engaging, readable, and packed with thought-provoking ideas.

A final thought provoked: many people read while travelling, yet “airport” has become a perjorative term in relation to books. Can someone create a service that helps match reading to travel and create more srendipitous moments like mine? I’m looking at you, Dopplr bookcampers.