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- Moon/June: Umbriel
- Happy Meals now come with Virtual Reality
- Frankenstein was born 200 years ago today
If not exactly 'born', then conceived. We know quite a bit about the circumstances where Mary Shelley first came up with the idea of the story, as she described it in a preface to the third edition of the book. She dreamed of a man creating his own life, and awoke sharply:
I opened mine in terror. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me, and I wished to exchange the ghastly image of my fancy for the realities around. I see them still; the very room, the dark parquet, the closed shutters, with the moonlight struggling through, and the sense I had that the glassy lake and white high Alps were beyond. I could not so easily get rid of my hideous phantom; still it haunted me. I must try to think of something else. I recurred to my ghost story, my tiresome unlucky ghost story! O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night!
This provided enough detail for a team of Texas State University astronomers, led by David Olson, to calculate when that dream must have happened:
In August 2010, Professor Olson, two colleagues and two students went to Lake Geneva to discover when moonlight would have hit the windows, and penetrated the shutters, of Mary Shelley's bedroom. The answer required a visit to the villa, still in private ownership, a study of the terrain, and perusal of weather records.
Shelley reports that she stayed up beyond the "witching hour" of midnight. By 22 June, the moon would then have been a waning crescent, masked by a hillside. But a bright, gibbous moon would have cleared the hillside to shine into Mary Shelley's bedroom window just before 2am on 16 June.
So Shelley's version of events is supported by evidence. Byron probably made his famous ghost story challenge somewhere between 10 and 13 June, 1816. On 15 June, according to both Polidori and Mary Shelley, the party talked about the "principle" of life. The monster and the tormented scientist were dreamed up in the small hours of that night.
One of the things holding back virtual reality is access to headsets - the much ballyhooed Oculus Rift isn't available in Europe yet, and is likely to cost northwards of five hundred quid when it does turn up. There are cheaper alternatives, of course, like Google Cardboard, cheap and cheerful craft-meets-tech kits which turn your smartphone into a workable VR headset.
Taking things a step further: McDonalds in Sweden have spotted that the Happy Meal box is, with a little bit of adaptation, a great way to get VR into kids' hands. (Albeit after they've covered those hands in ketchup and grease.) Enter the Happy Goggles:
The marketing director of McDonalds in Sweden paints a positive picture of the promotion:
"Parents can learn more about their children's knowledge and experience of the digital world. And purposeful gaming can also be a great joint activity that helps families interact on equal terms."
Hackett adds that "this is the first trial run globally" for the Goggles, so there's a chance the program will be expanded if it proves popular.
This week, we're making like musical hall singers and bringing together the moon and June. Yesterday, we caught up with Demois and Phobos, the doomily-named satellites of Mars. Today, we're off to Uranus.
This image of Umbriel gives it a beautiful blue glow, but that's artificial. (It's a map produced by the USGS to give a sense of the surface.) In reality, Umbriel is a dark body. It reflects just 16% of the light that hits the surface - and you would see a little bit of blue if you were there and squinted a bit.
We don't know very much about Umbriel yet, but it could well be have a thick icy surface around a rocky core. Voyager discovered a strange, brightly coloured ring on its surface - perhaps a strange ice feature; and so far astronomers have identified carbon dioxide and water on the planet.
Umbriel takes the same time to rotate as it does to orbit Uranus, about 4.1 days. As a result. it always presents the same face to Uranus.
The moons of Uranus take their names from Shakespeare and Alexander Pope, and Umbriel falls into the latter camp. From Pope's The Rape Of The Lock, Umbriel is a gloomy spirit, who magnifies the misery and depression of the central character, Belinda.
Pope crafted the name basing it in umbra, the latin for shadow. And it's the darkness that makes it such an apt name for a planet which reflects so little light.