Bath – Between the Romans, Art and Astronomy

Thanks to two lovely Scottish ladies I spent a wonderful day in Bath.  There’s so much to see and do that this was really just a taster. Foodwise, by the way, I can highly recommend Comptoir Libanais.

Bath is a town full of art and a wide range of architecture. The most famous architectural style is Georgian, like the Circus. The city centre is a world heritage site.

Bath is also the only place in the UK with natural hot springs. It’s possible to go into one of the spas (which I didn’t), or to see how the old Romans did it (which I did). What I admired most at the baths in Bath, however, was a relic of Sulis Minerva, goddess of the hot springs.

My personal highlight was somewhat off the beaten track. Welcome to the Herschel house! Caroline and William Herschel were two astronomers who were famous for their telescopes with home-polished mirrors, and comet hunting. If you feel like walking in their footsteps, you can be a citizen scientist and help with one of the astronomy projects on the Zooniverse platform.

Giving a talk

At some point last August, I was kindly asked by a friend and former student of mine, Milo, to consider giving a talk at an upcoming conference called Dell3i. It was supposed to be something akin to a TED-talk; and after a week or so of weighing pros and cons I decided to say yes.

I want to use this post to do two things: firstly, thank all the people involved who helped me preparing my talk, and secondly give some sources for some of the ideas I mentioned. The reason for the latter is that I drew on a lot of things I have heard and read or experienced over the years, but some people were particularly influential. And I should probably add that this is not a Dell-sponsored post.

So, thank you (in no particular order):

  • Daniel, Monika and Milo for the rehearsals
  • Astrid for a wonderful walk through Oxford
  • Mark for being a (mostly) willing victim
  • Rhiannon, Emily, Pavol, Eva, Barbora, David, Lucia and Alica for listening
  • my colleagues and students for encouraging me
  • Marcel for the book voucher (it’s been put to very good use)

If you’ve been following this blog for longer, you’ll know that I’m doing volunteer work for the citizen science platform Zooniverse. The two photos in the talk, about Galaxy Zoo and Penguin Watch, are copyright of those respective projects.

As mentioned in the talk, Yuval Harari‘s ideas from his book ‘Sapiens’ are fascinating. I took part in his MOOC a few years ago, and I hope he’ll do a similar project again in the future.

Other people whose blogs or books I’ve recently read or who I’ve heard speaking and who had some bearing on this talk were Richard Dawkins, Tayie Selasi, Ann Morgan and Tom Hart. Any factual errors are my own 🙂 .

Now, what was it like? As a teacher, I’m used to being in front of people (I’ve taught classes of 50+ students, tricky to ‘un-front’ that), but having an audience of 100+ and on top of that the cameras was a wee bit otherworldly. And exhilarating, I’ve got to admit. If you want to watch it:

Exploring the East: Nová Sedlica & Poloniny National Park

Travelling to the east of Slovakia is, in principle, really easy and convenient if you don’t shy away from longish bus rides. However, when I looked into where I wanted to go in my week off I found that up-to-date information was tricky to come by, especially in English. Luckily, my students provided me with some ideas where to start. So this post is also a small collection of hopefully useful links should you decide to go on a journey to the East, too.

First of all: transport. To go to the National Park of Poloniny or Bukovske Vrchy, I recommend going from HumennĂ© to Snina or Stakcin by either bus or train. You can find connections here: In Stakcin, there is also the headquarter of the National Park. From there, take the bus to Nová Sedlica. It’s less than 60km but takes almost two hours, because the scenic road is narrow and comes with lots of bends.

In general, there is actually plenty of information on the internet, but most of it is in Slovak. And even though the beech forests are a UNESCO heritage site, people seem to have little interest in it. Several Slovaks I asked about it had never even heard of it before. The whole region between Humenné and the Ukrainian border is called Horny Zemplin, and their website is very good if one speaks Slovak.

Anyway, I made my way there, and my phone was really optimistic:phone

But no, I didn’t cross the border, although that could have happened without me noticing.

I arrived in Nová Sedlica in the afternoon in best hiking weather, so I strolled around the village and along the little river that flows through it. It was very pleasant.


nova-sedlicaIn the distance, I could already see Kremenec, the mountain where Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine share a border on the summit. In the village, however, my interest was kindled by a rather unusual exhibition. Signpost were written in Slovak and Cyrillic which turned out to be Ruthenian, the language of Rusyns. Some of it has some German connections, it seems.

language-exhibit language-exhibitionAs you can see in this last photo, there were some clouds on the horizon, and by the time it got dark it was overcast. I had been looking forward to seeing some really dark skies since the area is Slovakia’s only Dark Sky Park. It was not to be.

The next morning I took off to hike up the mountains, and about half an hour into my little adventure the rain started. Another half an hour or so later, I was – despite my South-Georgia-tested waterproof jacket – beginning to feel like I was having the second shower of the day. The water was forming little creeks under the mighty trees. So I had to think: rain – cold – slipping & hypothermia, rain – noisy – I can’t hear animals, they can’t hear me.

signAt which point I made the unadventurous but sensible decision to turn around. Totally soaked, I reached the entrance of the National Park, where there was a little museum and office for the rangers. It was dry – that was all what I wanted at that point. A young ranger there seem to be glad that I had shown up, and she showed me around the little exhibition while I was drying. This is how I met Archie the European Bison.

archie-the-bisonArchie used to be the alpha-bull in his herd in the park. He was several decades old when he broke a leg and died. But his family is increasing. There are apparently more than two dozen animals now (only a handful were re-wilded), and they roam the region of the Starina basin in the park. I was even allowed to give him a hug – his fur was much thicker than I had expected. My hands almost sank into it. It was also incredibly soft. I also admired other stuffed locals, like a lynx, a wildcat and a Little owl.

So, dry and happy I ventured back outside, where the downpour had stopped. Only for it to start again a few minutes later. I arrived wet and cold at my guesthouse, the lovely Penzion Kremenec, where I spent the afternoon drinking tea made from fresh mint, staring out of the window.

rainWhen it finally stopped raining for good, I took another evening stroll. I admired the lichens and reached the conclusion that I would have to come back.marking