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REVIEW: STAR TALKS TO BOY SCOUTS BY GEORGE FORBES

From St Andrews University Newsletter, No 222, April 2003

Return to: www.observatorypitlochry.com

This is a small volume, 28 pages of A5 including covers. It is a re-print of the original leaflet produced by Forbes in 19 II, but it is not a facsimile edition. There is a danger that a review of a book this small may either be bigger than the book itself, or so short as to say no more than that the reviewer enjoyed reading it, which I did.

Within this small volume is packed a lot of information. It is in five sections, which I imagine were planned as separate talks to fit into the program of Scout meetings. These talks are intended for observant and interested people. For example, it is assumed that if the Scouts camped near the sea, they would have noticed when the tide was high, or low, and that the tides did not occur at the same time each day.

Part I is a quick introduction to some of the constellations that can be seen from northern latitudes. Part II covers the motion of the stars and how, knowing the date, the northern stars can be used to tell the time. The method is not the same as you would find on a present day "star clock", it is actually better since you don't have to be able to see the Plough.

Part III contains those old faithfuls for Scouting, the 32 points of the compass and how to use a watch, and the sun, to find south. I must admit to never having found a use for more than 16 points of the compass; I use degrees if I need anything finer than that-but I know them because I was (some years ago) a Scout!

Part IV brings us back to the motion of the Sun and how, from your own observations, you can work out that the Sun moves amongst the stars. We are also given an accurate method of determining local noon by the Sun so you can check your watch. This includes a passing mention that a correction of quarter of an hour is sometimes needed due to the 'irregular motion of the sun'. No reference to the fact that your longitude also has an effect-here in St Andrews our corrected sundial would still be 12 minutes slow because of how far west we are of Greenwich!

Part V continues the theme by showing how to find the time from the sun if you know where south is. This is followed by a quick run through a few interesting topics that have not been covered so far: a formula to work out the age of the moon on any date after 1 January 1910; a description of the Solar System and a list of all 8 planets (Pluto is a post-19ll invention); a quick description of comets and meteors and where they come from; finally a description of gravitation, tides and how to determine the establishment of a port, so you can predict (approximately) the tides.

Added to the book is a biography of George Forbes. Born in 1849 his education included St Andrews University, where his father was Principal. He became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Anderson's University (now Strathclyde) where he lectured on electricity for traction and researched the speed of light. He then went to Hawaii in 1874 to observe the transit of Venus and came back the' direct' way via Peking, the Gobi desert, Siberia and St Petersburgh!

In 1880 he moved into electric power engineering and persuaded the London Underground to use electric traction. About this time he invented the carbon brush for electric motors and dynamos-then sold the patent rights to Westinghouse for £2000 and eventually would have died in poverty if some friends had not rescued him!

From here he moved, via consulting on hydro-electric dams and naval gunnery, to a house, with observatory, in Pitlochry-now overlooking a hydro-electric dam which he proposed in the 1900s but which was only built in the 1950s. Eventually some friends persuaded him to move to the south of England where he died in 1936.

His house in Pitlochry still has the observatory and is available as a holiday home. Have a look at http:// www.observatorypitiochry.com if you want to know more.

Roger Stapleton


Tim Dawson tim@timdawsn.demon.co.uk
Telephone: 07984 165251

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