Ordinary Meeting, 2009 December 12
George Alcock in Antarctica
Mr Shanklin explained that he would be describing some of the sights which might have appealed to George Alcock's many interests, had he had the chance to travel on a hypothetical trip to Antarctica. He remarked that Alcock (1912-2000) was perhaps the greatest visual observer in the Association's history; his impressive tally of astronomical discoveries included five comets – C/1959 Q1, C/1959 Q2, C/1963 F1, C/1963 S2 and C/1983 H1 – as well as six novae – HR Del (1967), LV Vul (1968), V368 Sct (1970), NQ Vul (1976) and V838 Her (1991). Mr Shanklin added that the Association had honoured these superb observational achievements by arranging for a plaque to be erected to Alcock's memory in Peterborough Cathedral, which had been unveiled by the Astronomer Royal, Prof Sir Martin Rees, in 2005. However, Mr Shanklin also added that astronomy had represented but one of Alcock's many enthusiasms, and that he had also been keenly interested in many other areas of natural history.
Embarking on his hypothetical journey, Mr Shanklin first described some of the astronomical sights which Alcock might have seen, commenting that Antarctica's incredibly dark, dry and transparent skies afforded a tremendous view of meteor showers, the Magellanic Clouds, and of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon. But he added that much of the natural history and meteorology of Antarctica would surely also have appealed to Alcock's interests, and went on to describe some of the Antarctic wildlife which might have appealed to him, ranging from penguins and albatrosses to seals and whales.
Mr Shanklin closed with a discussion of the information about the Earth's climate which could be gleaned from Antarctica, describing how cylindrical cores drilled out from the Antarctic ice could be analysed to see how their chemical composition changed with depth. He explained that these revealed how the Earth's atmosphere and climate had changed over the past few hundreds and thousands of years. He noted that these studies revealed a very strong historical correlation between the concentration of carbon dioxide/methane in the atmosphere and the planet's surface temperature, which seemed particularly worrying when viewed alongside plots of the atmosphere's current carbon dioxide content, which was as far above its historical average as it had been below during the last ice age.
Following the applause, the meeting broke for tea. After the break, the President invited the Director of the Association's Meteor Section, Dr John Mason, to speak.