To study and encourage popular interest in all branches of Science.

Newsletter August 2013

Dear Member,

The Annual General Meeting took place on June 20th at which the President reported that the Society had experienced another very fruitful year, but for him personally, it had been a year of extreme contrasts – misery at the beginning, sadness in the middle and great joy at the end.

An agonizing back problem had prevented him from attending meetings for four months and he thanked Julia for standing in for him during his enforced absence. The sadness came on December 9th 2013 when we received news of the death of Sir Patrick Moore. Patrick had a long association with our Society and we had been featured on the Sky at Night programme several times, the last being in October 2011. On May 1st some 400 guests attended a celebration of Patrick's life and work organized by the BBC at New Broadcasting House. It proved to be a touching tribute to a man whose devotion to the popularization of astronomy was manifest and continued unabated for half a century.

The great joy came at the end of the session when a chance meeting at the Observatory resulted in our Society receiving an anonymous donation of £15,000 to the Observatory fund.

The pleasure continued when, at the annual Observatory staff picnic, Doug & Julia were presented with the Sky at Night Magazine Award for outstanding contributions to the advancement and promotion of astronomy for their combined 104 years volunteering at the Observatory.

Julia & Doug would like to say "thank you" to all those members who 'conspired' in this totally unexpected presentation. Thanks also to Keiron Allen from Sky at Night magazine who presented the award, Paul Abel from the Sky at Night programme for his support and Jon Culshaw for his witty tribute – you all made it a day to remember!


At the last Council meeting prior to the AGM, it was proposed that Julia Daniels be made a Vice President. Council approved the proposal and it was ratified at the AGM. As a Vice-President, Julia is entitled to attend Council meetings and so she resigned as an ordinary member of Council, thus freeing a position for a new candidate.

Council will encounter a problem next year when 4 out of the 5 ordinary members of Council will be forced to resign under the 4 year rule. Accordingly, it was proposed to change Clause 5b of the constitution. Under this new proposal, one member of Council, the longest serving or one wishing to resign voluntarily, will resign each year to be replaced by a new member of Council. This will save us from having to find several new members who are willing to serve on Council in the same year and allows willing ordinary members to continue to serve until new nominations are received. The proposal was discussed at the AGM and approved by all. Clause 5b now reads as follows:

The Council shall consist of the Officers of the Society, as defined in 5a, and five ordinary members, of whom at least one shall retire each year, either voluntarily or the one who has served for the greatest number of consecutive years, or where there is more than one who qualifies, the one selected by ballot of Council members. Any ordinary member of Council retiring under this rule shall not be re-eligible to serve on Council as an ordinary or co-opted member during the subsequent year, but shall be immediately eligible to fill any office as defined in 5a.

At the beginning of the last session, the President (and Astro. Sec.) announced his intention to appoint Simon Lang Joint Astronomical Secretary. There have been several Joint Astronomical Secretaries in the past so there is ample historical precedence for such an appointment. The present Secretary is beginning to feel his age and Simon contributes so much to the astronomy section and to the maintenance of the Observatory, that joint status seems totally logical.

We also congratulate Simon on his recent fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society.


Prior to the AGM, the Hon. Secretary had received no new nominations for Council but due to the resignation of Julia Daniels there was now a vacancy. Accordingly, Julie Atkinson proposed David Brandt as an ordinary member of Council seconded by Doug Daniels and approved by the meeting.

Your Council elected at the AGM is as follows:

Treasurer & Membership Secretary
Programme Secretary
Ordinary Members (Max 5)
Dr. Julie Atkinson
John Tennant
Jim Brightwell
Martin Williams, Peter Stern, Roger O'Brien, Dr. Kevin Devine, David Brandt

Due to an administration error, the Hon. Treasurer's report and balance sheet was unavailable at the AGM. It is now included with this Newsletter.

Also included is the new Programme Card for the 2013-2014 session. I am sure you will agree that once again Jim has put together an interesting and varied programme of lectures. Jim asks that if you attend an interesting talk and you think it suitable for our members, please let him have details and if possible contact details of the lecturer.

The next session of public open nights at the Observatory begins on Friday 13th of September – provided that the sky is clear.

The first lecture of the new session will take place on Thursday September 19th at 8:15 pm when Professor Jonathan Tennyson from University College London will talk on:


I look forward to seeing you at the meeting.


It is proposed to visit the British library for a conducted tour sometime in the near future if there are enough members interested. The British Library charge £85 for a conducted tour so if we can put together a party of 14 members willing to pay £6 each, then it would be possible to take advantage of their offer at reasonable cost.

If you would be interested in taking part in this visit, please register your interest with Peter Stern who is organizing the tour. You can contact Peter by e-mailing h p stern at childs hill dot u-net dot com. (Concatenate with no spaces and appropriate symbols for proper address.) If there is sufficient interest, we can then contact the Library to book a suitable date and time, during the autumn perhaps. It could be an interesting outing.

A Permafrost Problem.

Peter R Wallis

Three scientists have recently warned about additional economic costs arising from warming of the Arctic [1]. They are Gail Whiteman, professor of sustainability, management and climate change at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Chris Hope, reader in policy modelling at Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, and Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge. They are concerned at the prospect of the thawing of the offshore permafrost in response to global warming and believe that the economic costs have not been adequately assessed. Some significant economic advantages have been suggested: opened polar shipping routes and easier access to polar oil and gas. The scientists are concerned in particular at the release of large quantities of methane which are stored in hydrates offshore and believe that the consequences have not been appreciated. It is estimated that there are 50 gigatonnes (Gt) on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf which are likely to be released as the sea bed warms as hydrates are unstable at other than freezing temperatures. This would accelerate global warming, with ramifications far from the poles.

To quantify the effects, they use a mathematical model PAGE09 which has been developed to assess the impacts of climate change and the economic costs of mitigation and adaptation measures. An earlier version was used in the UK's 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Ignoring for the moment the methane release, we can consider two standard scenarios: one is "Business as Usual", in which there is a continuing increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and the other is "Low Emission", where there is a 50% chance of keeping the rise of global mean temperature below 2°C. The model predicts the net economic costs as follows:

Business as Usual :$400 trillion.
Low Emission :$82 trillion.

The scientists then superimposed on the model a decade long burst of 50 Gt of methane between 2015 and 2025. In the first case this adds $60 trillion and brings earlier by between 15 and 35 years the date at which the temperature exceeds 2°C. In the second case the methane burst adds $37 trillion. These costs remain the same even if the methane burst is delayed by 20 years or is spread out over two to three decades; they are halved if the burst is halved. The economic consequences will be distributed around the globe, but the model shows that about 80% of them will occur in the poorer economies of Africa, Asia and South America. The extra methane magnifies flooding in low-lying areas.

The writers point out that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to avoid large methane releases without major reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.

See also the article: METHANE & CLIMATE CHANGE by D.G.D. in the August 2010 Newsletter available on the web site under NEWS Aug 2010.

[1] Nature, 25 July 2013, p401-403.Back

And finally….

Barrister to Coroner: "How many autopsies have you performed on dead people?"
Coroner to Barrister: "All of them, the live ones tend to put up too much of a fight!"

Doug Daniels (HSS President)

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Last updated   27-Jan-2018