Too Cute to Spook

It’s Fright Night!

Too Cute to Spook

What fun!

Too Cute to Spook

Haunted lollies…

Too Cute to Spook

These biscuits are very loud!
They are orange scream Oreos…

Too Cute to Spook

Spooky marshmallows…

Too Cute to Spook

These muffins are not very scary.

Too Cute to Spook

This is better!

Too Cute to Spook

Eyeball candy!

Too Cute to Spook

Shall we watch a scary movie?

Too Cute to Spook

We can’t watch Fantasia. It’s too scary!

Too Cute to Spook

Monsters Inc looks good.

Too Cute to Spook

There is Toy Story of Terror…

Too Cute to Spook

Let’s watch Harry Potter! And drink butterbeer!

Too Cute to Spook

A Day Without Laughter Is A Day Wasted

‘That slave you sold me died.’
‘Goodness me, he never did that when I owned him.’

Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar
Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

One of Enoch Powell’s most famous quips was prompted by an encounter with the resident House of Commons barber: a notoriously chatty character, who enjoyed treating captive clients to his views on politics and the state of the world. When Powell went in for a trim, the barber asked the standard question: “How should I cut your hair, Sir?” “In silence”, was Powell’s instant riposte.

Even Powell’s political enemies have usually admitted, a bit grudgingly, that this was a rather good joke. But what they haven’t realised is that it has a history going back more than 2,000 years. Almost exactly the same gag features in a surviving Roman joke book: the Philogelos (or Laughter Lover), a collection of wisecracks probably compiled in the fourth or fifth century CE. As with most such collections, some of the jokes included were already decidedly old by the time they were anthologised. In fact, we can trace the “chatty barber” gag back to Archelaus, a fifth-century BCE king of Macedon. The “how should I cut your hair?” question was standard even then. And Archelaus is supposed to have replied to his own garrulous barber, “In silence”.

Presumably part of the fun for Powell (who was a better classicist than politician) was that he knew exactly how ancient the joke was. Whereas others admired what they believed to be his spontaneous quip, he must have been taking pleasure in the secret knowledge that he was merely repeating the age-old gag of an ancient Macedonian king, and one that may already have been prompting more groans than giggles when it was featured in the Roman Philogelos.

That joke book is one of the most intriguing survivals from the classical world. Containing some 260 short gags, written in Greek (we shouldn’t forget that the Roman empire was effectively a bilingual culture, using both Latin and Greek), it has come down to us in various, slightly different versions, painstakingly copied out by medieval monks – who no doubt got more fun out of this than out of some of the classical texts they were made to transcribe. We have no real idea of who originally compiled it, still less why they did so. One ancient encyclopedia seems to suggest that it was the kind of book that you would take to the barber’s shop (a well-known haunt in the Roman world of jokesters and gossips, never mind garrulous hair-cutters). Modern explanations have ranged from seeing it as an aide-memoire for a Roman standup comic to imagining it as a rudimentary database for some ancient theorist of jokes and laughter. (Sadly, there is no very reliable English translation in print, but Dan Crompton’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum gives a fair idea of the flavour, as does an online version by William Berg.)

Back in antiquity there were plenty of other books of this type. In fact, collections of “wit and wisdom” of famous rulers and politicians seem to have been a thriving literary genre in the Roman period. We have a few quotations from a compendium of jokes of the first emperor Augustus (not all brilliant: When a man was nervously giving him a petition and kept putting his hand out, then drawing it back, the emperor quipped, ‘Hey, do you think you’re giving a penny to an elephant?’). And we get a rather sharper sense of fun from some of the surviving jokes of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Rome’s celebrity orator now has the reputation of being a rather pompous and deeply conservative preacher. But 2,000 years ago Cicero was well known for his wit (“far too funny for his own good”, or “a laughter addict” was the Roman judgment). His bons mots were collected in three hefty volumes, of which we just have a few excerpts. One favourite was his swipe at the apparently diminutive husband of his daughter: Seeing his son-in-law, Lentulus, a short chap, kitted out with a long sword, he said, ‘Who tied my son-in-law to his sword?’ (There are worse.)

The Laughter Lover is the only collection to come down to us more or less complete. It’s arranged broadly according to the subject matter of the jokes. Most of those in the first half of the book, a hundred or so, have as their theme (and victim) a character called in Greek a “scholastikos” – sometimes translated as an “egghead” or “absent-minded professor”. Whatever you choose to call him, the scholastikos is so clever that he’s stupid, and regularly uses his (ostensibly) highly trained brain to come to precisely the wrong conclusion. A scholastikos went for a dip and nearly drowned. So he swore that he’d never go near water again until he’d learned to swim, is a fairly typical example. “False analogy syndrome”, as a philosopher might call it, is the scholastikos’s most besetting sin – as in this classic case of advice given by an “egghead doctor”: ‘Doctor,’ says the patient, ‘whenever I get up from my sleep, for half an hour I feel dizzy, and then I’m all right.’ And the doctor says, ‘Get up half an hour later, then.’

The second part of the book features a range of other comic-type characters: from crooked fortune tellers and cowardly boxers to sharp-talkers, men with bad breath and – a predictable target in this decidedly misogynistic culture – “oversexed women”. By far the largest category after the scholastikos, though, are jokes at the expense of particular nationalities, and they bear more than a passing resemblance to “Irish” jokes, or “Belgian” jokes as told in France. Some of the main victims are the people from the city of Abdera, in what is now northern Greece. Why they, above others, should have been targeted for the ancient equivalent of the “how many Irishmen does it take to change a lightbulb” treatment, we haven’t a clue. But joke after joke homes in on their stupidity: A man from Abdera, seeing a eunuch chatting with a woman, asked someone else if it was the eunuch’s wife. When the man observed that a eunuch couldn’t have a wife, he said, ‘Ah, so it’s his daughter then.’ And so on, in a fairly predictable vein – though with occasional surprises. One “joke” features a man from Abdera catching sight of a runner who has just been crucified. “By the gods, now he really is flying,” he says. Crucifixion isn’t exactly part of the repertoire of modern jokes, even at the most tasteless end of the spectrum.

That crucifixion gag raises the question of how far Roman jokes – or indeed the whole culture of Roman laughter (when you do it, how and at what) – are like our own. Some of the jokes in the Philogelos do seem to match modern expectations – not only Powell’s “chatty barber” quip (which in the Roman joke book is put in the mouth of a “sharp talker”). Another has sometimes been claimed, perhaps over optimistically, to be the ancestor of Monty Python’s “dead parrot” sketch. It features the scholastikos again: ‘That slave you sold me died,’ a man complained to a scholastikos. ‘Goodness me,’ he replied, ‘he never did that when I owned him.’ But there are also quite a number that would never get a modern audience cracking up. Try A scholastikos had bought a house and went around carrying one stone from it to show people what it was like. However you say it, it falls flat.

The truth is that some of these jokes might not have seemed very funny to the Romans either, no matter how the most sparkling ancient comic might have delivered them. There isn’t a joke book in the world that doesn’t include some real duds; and I doubt if the Philogelos was any exception. But we still face much bigger issues. Leaving aside the bad jokes, how far should we imagine that jokes and laughter are a universal, “natural” human phenomenon transcending boundaries of time and space? Or how far are they culturally specific, with people in different places and in different historical periods laughing at very different prompts in very different ways? Why on earth should we expect to “get” 2,000-year-old jokes at all?

It is clear enough that there are major cultural differences involved in laughter and humour. Any English speaker who has tried to tell (or fully understand) a joke in France will know the problem – just as some ancient Romans were well aware that the conquered Germans had different rules of laughter from their own (“The Germans don’t laugh at vice”, as one curmudgeonly Roman critic observed). And, more domestically, any parent will know what an effort it is to socialise a child into laughing at the “proper” targets: the fat lady on the bus, no; The Simpsons, yes.

And it’s not just a matter of what we choose to laugh at; there’s the question of how, physically, people laugh, too. The most famous anthropological example of this comes from the pygmies of the Ituri Forest in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not only do the pygmies “laugh easily” compared with other more dour and solemn tribes, but they laugh in a very distinctive way. They are supposed to lie down kicking their legs in the air, panting and shaking in paroxysms of hilarity. For those of us trained in less flamboyant expressions of mirth, this might seem an over-exuberant or contrived display, but the pygmies have so internalised the conventions of their own culture that it is, for them, quite “natural”. (Or so, at least, it seemed to the popular anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who is – so far as I am aware – the only western writer known to have actually witnessed this display, and who had his own romantic axe to grind about the fun-loving forest people. But the colourful image of the pygmy kicking his legs in the air has proved such a compelling example of the different conventions of laughter that even the most hard-headed theorists have been reluctant to abandon it.)

The issues get even more marked – and more complicated – when we try to insert a chronological dimension too. It might seem to go without saying that there were different codes of practice in the laughter of the past. But how do we reach them and what do they mean? Vic Gatrell’s brilliant City of Laughter points to the bawdiness of 18th century humour in London even – or especially – among the elite (plenty of “low manners in high places” as he nicely puts it). But how does that fit with the oft-cited views of Lord Chesterfield in the 1740s, that audible laughter was extremely vulgar and that a gentleman should at all costs avoid laughing out loud? On the surface Chesterfield seems to lie at the opposite end of the laughter spectrum from the laughing pygmy (and Nietzsche was of the view that most Englishmen were, more or less, buttoned up in a sub-Chesterfield kind of way). But there is more than meets the eye here too: for all his strictures on audibly cracking up, his lordship was also a celebrated wit and prankster. Did he not expect people to laugh out loud at his pranks?

The other side of laughter is its apparent biological universality. The human being is, almost by definition, the only animal in the world to laugh. That, at least, is what many people have insisted from antiquity on – while prompting at the same time all kinds of counter-claims that other species share our expression of mirth (monkeys and, most recently, rats being the most common candidates, though there is one suggestion, in an ancient Jewish commentary, that for some reason Aristotle thought herons were laughers too). The biological baseline here is usually the laughter caused by tickling, which most of us assume to be some simple form of reflex action. We are not entirely right on that (you cannot, significantly, produce laughter by tickling yourself, and at least one classical writer thought that the lips were the prime site for tickling rather than – as we would more likely have it – the soles of the feet or the armpits, which itself suggests a cultural aspect to the phenomenon). But even so laughter on being tickled is so widespread across the human race that it is as near to a “natural” reaction as we can get.

Some critics would go a lot further to suggest that the fundamental ways in which jokes and other forms of display elicit laughter follow universal laws across the human species – no matter what the different culturally specific prompts might be (whether a crucified runner for the Romans, or Bart Simpson for us). Freud, for example, famously saw laughter as a form of “relief”. In the simplest terms, when we laugh at a joke about (say) an undertaker, what causes our diaphragm to pulsate and chest to heave, he said, is the release of the psychic energy that would otherwise have been used to repress our anxiety about death that the joke expresses. (He had more trouble explaining on these principles why we laugh at clowns, but he managed – albeit rather tortuously.)

Another theory, which goes back in some form to ancient Greek philosophy, argues that all laughter is an expression of superiority: it is, in other words, always an aggressive response, a form of derision or mockery (laughing at, rather than with). Modern evolutionary biologists have also chimed in here, tracing laughter’s origins among the earliest humans back to the roars of triumph in the combat between primitive primates (or alternatively to an aggressive baring of the teeth as they faced up to each other). Why, on this theory, we should laugh at puns is not clear. But perhaps they too had something to do with ritualised contests for supremacy in the world of early man. Or perhaps not.

The third main theory is often called the “incongruity theory”. For this sees laughter as a response to the illogical or the unexpected. Aristotle offers a very simple example of this: “On he came, his feet shod with his – chilblains.” This raises a laugh, Aristotle explains, because the listener expects the word “sandals” not “chilblains”. And far more complicated versions of it have been developed right up to the present day, including some very influential theories that put incongruity, or the unexpected, at the very heart of verbal joking (“When is a door not a door?” “When it’s a jar” being only the most obvious example). One big problem here, though, is why the mental recognition of some form of incongruity should produce the physical movements and distinctive sounds that we call “laughter”.

It would be unwise simply to dismiss these attempts at universalising theory out of hand. Laughter feels much the same in every context in which it occurs, from being tickled to watching a sitcom, so it is not necessarily unreasonable to seek out some single underlying cause that might transcend time and space. Besides, recent work in neuroscience has come closer to unearthing the areas of the brain and the neuro-pathways that govern the production of laughter in humans, and possibly other species. All the same, the more you look at laughter’s history, the more it seems that – whatever the biological substrate – culture has a bigger part than nature to play in the whole process. But, as the Philogelos and its modern reception hints, it’s probably more complicated than any such simple opposition between nature and culture might imply.

A few years ago the standup comedian Jim Bowen scored a great success with a performance of a selection of jokes from the Laughter Lover; the audience, it is said, were in stitches. How do we explain the fact that Roman jokes can still get an audience cracking up, so many centuries later, in such a radically different world?

In part, it is probably because we do still share with antiquity some of the same prompts to laughter – whether that is because of some universal structure of joking, or rather because, as Powell’s borrowing reminds us, ancient jokes are sometimes the direct ancestors of our own modern comic quips. In fact, well before Powell, wits and scholars from the Renaissance onwards turned directly to ancient texts for their inspiration when they started to lay the groundwork for modern European “laughter–culture”, and to put together all those hugely popular collections of jokes and “merry tales”; it was, after all, less work than making up the jokes themselves. One 18th century classicist is even said to have planned to write a scholarly edition of the best-known joke book of that period, Joe Miller’s Jests, in order to show that every single joke in it was descended from the ancient Laughter Lover. He would have been wrong – but not as wrong as you might think.

But there was more to Bowen’s success than that. It partly rested on careful selection (I rather doubt that the one about the crucified runner made the cut); partly on clever translation into modern joking idiom, which acts as an implied instruction to laugh (“There was a scholastikos, a barber and a bald man …”); and partly on the important comic skills of delivery and timing. But, perhaps even more, it rested on the audience’s desire or even determination to laugh. They had come in order to laugh. Why else go to see a standup? Bowen himself played on the absurdity of the whole occasion, to the extent that many of the most determined laughers were no doubt also laughing at themselves for laughing at these very, very old Roman jokes, which in other circumstances might not have been funny at all. It’s the hilarity of bluff and double bluff, and the pleasure of self-irony.

In fact, I half suspect that Bowen’s version of the Philogelos – and maybe, before that, Powell’s version of the “chatty barber” – might have prompted more enthusiastic guffaws today than it ever did in the classical world itself.

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up by Mary Beard, is published by University of California Press.

Article appeared in the Guardian, 28 June 2014.

A Day WIthout Laughter Is Wasted

The Other Opera Gala

A glorious mixture of chocolate ganache, sponge, buttercream and coffee!

The Other Opera Gala

It is hard to say exactly who invented the Opéra Cake. Some sources claim there was a type of Opéra Cake sold in Paris as long ago as 1890, and some think the Parisian specialty was created closer to 1950. But the point about which there is no controversy is the only important point: The greatest Opéra Cake is made at Dalloyau. There, executive pastry chef Pascal Niau makes a cake as sleek and smooth as an opera stage and as gloriously delicious as La Boheme is affectingly beautiful. And Dallyoyau claim the cake.

The Other Opera Gala

In 1955, Cyrique Gavillon invented the desert of the 20th century and allowed Dalloyau to make history. Genius Pastry Chef, he dares creating an avant-garde design by making a parallelogram that goes against the standards in the cakes realm then, fluffy and full of decorations.

The boldness is also in the taste, completely new: the flour is almost gone to make room for the coffee and the chocolate. One bite is enough to enjoy the intensity of a coffee cream associated with the strength of a chocolate ganache on a base of joconde biscuit impregnated with coffee syrup.

Astonished with the appearance of the cake, Andrée Gavillon spontaneously compares it to the stage of the Opera Garnier in Paris. Its name is found, the cake will be called “the Opera”.

The mythic cake evolves over the ages: lightened in sugar, it gains in intensity with a stronger Italian style roasted coffee and a 70% cocoa chocolate blend from Venezuela.

It became a classic of French pastry and explored different flavors over the decades.

The Other Opera Gala

The classic Opera Cake is a work in six acts. For a cake named after the ornate Opera Garnier in Paris, this is an elegant, if not restrained, affair. The opera house commissioned by Napoleon III is an elaborate Baroque confection and if there’s a similarity with the cake, it lies in the layered interior.

There are three thin layers of almond cake, each soaked in a potent coffee syrup; a layer of espresso-flavored buttercream; one layer of bittersweet chocolate ganache; and a topping of chocolate glaze. Traditionally, the cake is decorated with its name written in glaze across the top and finished with a piece of shimmering gold leaf. It is obviously a rich cake, but it is surprisingly not a filling cake. And the lucky ones don’t have to count calories 🙂

The Other Opera Gala

Opéra Cake Recipe
Serves: 6 to 8
Preparation time: 2 hrs
Total time: 3.5 hrs (includes chilling buttercream and glaze)
Degree of difficulty: Advanced


For almond sponge cake
3 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising), sifted after measuring, plus additional for dusting pan
2 whole large eggs at room temperature for 30 minutes
1 cup almond flour or 2/3 cup blanched whole almonds (see chef’s note, below)
1/2 cup confectioners sugar, sifted after measuring
2 large egg whites at room temperature for 30 minutes
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, foam discarded, and butter cooled

For coffee syrup
1 teaspoon instant-espresso powder
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup Cognac or other brandy

For coffee buttercream
2 teaspoons instant-espresso powder
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 large egg yolks
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into 1cm cubes and softened

For chocolate glaze
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
200g fine-quality bittersweet chocolate (not unsweetened; preferably 70 to 71% cacao), coarsely chopped

Special equipment
25 by 38 cm (15 by 10 inch) shallow baking pan
offset metal spatula
candy thermometer
small sealable plastic bag


Make almond sponge cake
1. Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425°F. Butter baking pan, then line bottom with a sheet of parchment or wax paper, leaving a 2.5cm overhang on short sides, and generously butter paper. Dust pan with cake flour, knocking out excess.
2. Beat whole eggs in a large bowl with a handheld electric mixer at high speed until eggs have tripled in volume and form a ribbon when beaters are lifted, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce speed to low, then add almond flour and confectioners sugar and mix until just combined. Resift cake flour over batter and gently fold in.
3. Beat egg whites in a bowl with cleaned beaters at medium speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar and salt and beat until whites just hold soft peaks. Add granulated sugar, then increase speed to high and beat until whites just hold stiff peaks.
4. Fold one third of whites into almond mixture to lighten, then fold in remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Fold in butter, then pour batter evenly into baking pan, spreading gently and evenly with offset spatula and being careful not to deflate (batter will be about 0.6cm thick).
5. Bake until very pale golden, 8 to 10 minutes, then cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes.
6. Loosen edges of cake with spatula, then transfer cake (on paper) to a cutting board. Cut cake into strips and squares. Trim outside edges slightly, then carefully peel paper from strips and squares and set back on paper.

Make coffee syrup
Stir together espresso powder and 1 tablespoon water until powder is dissolved. Bring sugar and remaining 1/2 cup water to a boil in a 2 litres heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat and simmer syrup, without stirring, 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in Cognac and coffee mixture.

Make coffee buttercream:
1. Stir together espresso powder and 1 tablespoon water until powder is dissolved. Bring sugar and remaining 1/4 cup water to a boil in a very small heavy saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Boil, without stirring, washing down any sugar crystals on side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water, until syrup registers 114°C on thermometer (soft-ball stage; see chef’s note, below).
2. While syrup boils, beat yolks in a large bowl with cleaned beaters at medium speed 1 minute.
3. Add hot syrup to yolks in a slow stream (try to avoid beaters and side of bowl), beating, then add coffee mixture and beat until completely cool, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in butter, 1 piece at a time, and beat until thickened and smooth.

Make chocolate glaze
Melt butter and all but 2 tablespoons chopped chocolate in a double boiler or in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of barely simmering water, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove top of double boiler and stir in remaining 2 tablespoons chocolate until smooth, then cool glaze until room temperature but still liquid.

Assemble cake
1. Put 1 cake square on a plate, then brush generously with one third of coffee syrup. Spread half of buttercream evenly over top with cleaned offset spatula, spreading to edges.
2. Arrange both cake strips side by side on top of first layer (any seam will be hidden by next layer), then brush with half of remaining coffee syrup. Spread half of glaze evenly over top, spreading just to edges.
3. Top with remaining cake square and brush with remaining coffee syrup. Spread remaining buttercream evenly over top, spreading just to edges. Chill cake until buttercream is firm, about 30 minutes.
4. Reheat remaining glaze over barely simmering water just until shiny and spreadable (but not warm to the touch), about 1 minute. Pour all but 1 tablespoon glaze over top layer of cake and spread evenly just to edges. Scrape remaining tablespoon glaze into sealable plastic bag and twist bag so glaze is in 1 corner. Snip a tiny hole in corner and decorate cake (leave a 1cm border around edges). Chill cake until glaze is set, about 30 minutes, then trim edges slightly with a sharp serrated knife.

Chef’s notes:
If you can’t find almond flour, you can pulse whole almonds with the confectioners sugar in a food processor until powdery (be careful not to grind to a paste). To take the temperature of a shallow amount of syrup, put bulb in saucepan and turn thermometer facedown, resting other end against rim of saucepan. Check temperature frequently. Opéra cake can be made 2 days ahead. Cover sides with strips of plastic wrap and top of cake loosely with plastic wrap (once glaze is set) and chill cake. Remove plastic wrap from top immediately after removing cake from refrigerator and bring cake to room temperature, 30 minutes to 1 hour. And voila!

The Other Opera Gala

Alternatively, in Perth, call Ruby’s Patisserie 🙂 It’s what we did!

It’s 11 o’clock!

The Other Opera Gala

The Real Lord of the Rings

The Real Lord of the Rings

The poem appears twice in The Lord of the Rings‍​ first volume, The Fellowship of the Ring.

Having taken him a painstaking 12 years to write, Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, was finally published in full in October 1955, when the last volume, The Return of the King, was released. Urged by his publishers to produce a sequel to his hugely popular The Hobbit, Tolkien wrote what has become the second-biggest selling novel of all time, with over 150 million copies sold. The story of Frodo and his quest to destroy the all-powerful One Ring has been the inspiration for countless other fantasy novels and the source material for one of the most popular film franchises in movie history. New Zealand, where the movies were made, has attracted millions of tourists wanting to follow in Frodo’s large footsteps.

Little bears are far more interested in the real lord of the rings… Saturn!

The Real Lord of the Rings

In the 400 years that telescopes have been turned on the sky, no sight has been more evocative of nature’s ability to surprise than the rings of Saturn, buttery and evanescent, delicate as a butterfly’s wing, crisp as a paper cut, there against all odds, shimmering in the eyepiece like some little bear’s toy 🙂

Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium
Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium
Images taken with blue, green and red spectral filters were used to create this color view, which approximates the scene as it would appear to the human eye. The view was brightened to enhance detail visible in the rings and within their shadows. The images were obtained with the Cassini wide-angle camera from a distance of approximately 999,000 kilometers from Saturn on May 4, 2005, as the spacecraft cruised a few degrees above the ring plane.
Images taken with blue, green and red spectral filters were used to create this color view, which approximates the scene as it would appear to the human eye. The view was brightened to enhance detail visible in the rings and within their shadows. The images were obtained with the Cassini wide-angle camera from a distance of approximately 999,000 kilometers from Saturn on May 4, 2005, as the spacecraft cruised a few degrees above the ring plane.

Few sights in the solar system are more strikingly beautiful than softly hued Saturn embraced by the shadows of its stately rings. The gas planet’s subtle northward gradation from gold to azure is a striking visual effect that scientists don’t fully understand. Current thinking says that it may be related to seasonal influences, tied to the cold temperatures in the northern (winter) hemisphere. Despite Cassini’s revelations, Saturn remains a world of mystery.

We can only be sure that Saturn’s rings are lovely now. And if they are indeed fleeting, as such ages are reckoned for stars and planets, their short life makes them even more wonderful. Don’t miss them!

Currently, the rings’ shadows shield the mid-northern latitudes from the harshest of the sun’s rays. As Saturn travels around the sun in its 29-year orbit, the shadows will narrow and head southward, eventually blanketing the opposite hemisphere.

Saturn is the farthest planet from Earth visible to the naked human eye, but it is through a telescope that the planet’s most outstanding features can be seen: Saturn’s rings. Although the other gas giants in the solar system — Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune — also have rings, those of Saturn are without a doubt the most extraordinary.

Galileo Galilei was the first to see Saturn’s rings in 1610, although from his telescope they resembled handles or arms.

“I discovered another very strange wonder,” he wrote to his patron that year. Saturn, he went on to report, was not one star but three – a large one flanked by two smaller bodies, all in a row.

Galileo never did realize that Saturn had rings. His best drawings depicted a sphere with handles, something like a sugar bowl. Saturn’s form lies totally outside human experience. There simply is no earthy example of a globe surrounded by unattached rings.

The Real Lord of the Rings

It was such a strange notion that he first circulated it to his friends only in the form of an anagram. Only after he was convinced he was not seeing things did he release the key to what it said.

It was a way he could stake his claim to the discovery – science journals had not yet been invented – without making a fool out of himself. If Galileo decided he was wrong, he could have just left the anagram undecoded.

Two years later, Galileo was even more flabbergasted when the smaller objects vanished – as the rings do every 15 years or so when they appear edge-on.

“I do not know what to say in a case so surprising, so unlooked for and so novel,” he wrote.

Over the following years, until his death in 1642, Galileo variously described Saturn as sometimes solitary, sometimes a triple body and sometimes with handles. Another astronomer, Johannes Hevelius, sought to explain this shape-shifting by proposing that Saturn was a rotating ellipsoid, with a pair of crescents attached to its extremities.

It took Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who had a more powerful telescope, to propose that Saturn had a thin, flat ring. He suggested that all the observations of Saturn could be explained if the planet was encircled by a ring. Huygens also initially circulated his theory in the form of an anagram.

The Real Lord of the Rings

Astronomers with even more powerful telescopes discovered that Saturn actually has many rings made of billions of particles of ice and rock, ranging in size from a grain of sugar to the size of a house. The largest ring spans up to 200 times the diameter of the planet. The rings are believed to be debris left over from comets, asteroids or shattered moons. Although they extend thousands of miles from the planet, the main rings are typically only about 30 feet thick. The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft revealed vertical formations in some of the rings, with particles piling up in bumps and ridges more than 3 km high.

The rings are generally named alphabetically in the order they were discovered. They are usually relatively close to each other, with one key exception caused by the Cassini Division, a gap some 4,700 km wide. The main rings, working out from the planet, are known as C, B and A, with the Cassini Division separating B and A. (In 1675 the Italian-French astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini discovered that the rings were split into two parts by a dark band that is now known as the Cassini Division.) The innermost is the extremely faint D ring, while the outermost to date, revealed in 2009, could fit a billion Earths within it.

The Real Lord of the Rings

Mysterious spokes have been seen in Saturn’s rings, which might form and disperse over a few hours. Scientists have conjectured these spokes might be composed of electrically charged sheets of dust-sized particles created by small meteors impacting the rings or electron beams from the planet’s lightning. Saturn’s F Ring also has a curious braided appearance — it is composed of several narrow rings, and bends, kinks, and bright clumps in them can give the illusion that these strands are braided. Changes in the rings of Saturn, as well as the rings of Jupiter, are caused by impacts from asteroids and comets.

The first spacecraft to reach Saturn was Pioneer 11 in 1979, flying within 22,000 km of it, which discovered the planet’s two of its outer rings as well as the presence of a strong magnetic field. Voyager’s cameras resolved Saturn’s rings into thousands of tiny ringlets resembling the grooves on a phonograph record. There were tiny so-called shepherd moons patrolling the edges of rings, keeping them in line with gravitational tugs, dark spokelike streaks, perhaps caused by interactions with Saturn’s magnetic field. And even a kinked and braided ring. The Voyager spacecraft also sent back data that led to the discovery or confirmation of the existence of nine moons.

The Real Lord of the Rings

Voyager 1 was launched on September 5, 1977 on a mission to study the outer Solar System and eventually interstellar space. Voyager 1 was the first space probe to provide detailed images of the two largest planets and their major moons. The spacecraft, travelling at 64,000 km/h, is the farthest man-made object from Earth and the first one to leave the Solar System. Its mission has been extended and continues to this day, with the aim of investigating the boundaries of the Solar system, including the Kuiper belt, the heliosphere and interstellar space. It still receives routine commands and transmits data back to the Deep Space Network, no longer has the capability to take images as the computer controlling the camera has been repurposed.

As it completed its primary mission and was leaving the Solar System, it was commanded by NASA to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth across a great expanse of space, at the request of astronomer and author Carl Sagan. It was on February 14, 1990, that the spacecraft looked back at our solar system and snapped the image that would become known as the “Pale Blue Dot”.

This image of Earth is one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun. This image is part of Voyager 1's final photographic assignment which captured family portraits of the Sun and planets.
This image of Earth is one of 60 frames taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990 from a distance of more than 6 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In the image the Earth is a mere point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. Our planet was caught in the center of one of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the Sun. This image is part of Voyager 1’s final photographic assignment which captured family portraits of the Sun and planets.

Sagan wrote in his “Pale Blue Dot” book: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

Voyager 1 also snapped the first-ever pictures of the planets from its perch at that time beyond Neptune. The “family portrait” of the planets captures Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth and Venus from Voyager 1’s unique vantage point. A few key members did not make it in: Mars had little sunlight, Mercury was too close to the sun, and dwarf planet Pluto turned out too dim.

These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever "portrait" of the solar system taken by Voyager 1, which was more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic.
These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever “portrait” of the solar system taken by Voyager 1, which was more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic.

The Cassini spacecraft was launched on October 15, 1997. It went by Venus in April 1998 and June 1999, Earth in August 1999 and Jupiter in December 2000 and finally settled into orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004. Among its prime objectives were to look for more moons, to figure out what caused Saturn’s rings and the colors in the rings, and understanding more about the planet’s moons. Perhaps Cassini’s most detailed look came after releasing the Huygens lander towards Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Huygens descended through the mysterious haze surrounding the moon and landed on Jan. 14, 2005. It beamed information back to Earth for nearly 2.5 hours during its descent, and then continued to relay what it was seeing from the surface for 1 hour, 12 minutes. In that brief window of time, researchers saw pictures of a rock field and got information back about the moon’s wind and gases on the atmosphere and the surface.

One of the defining features of Saturn is its number of moons. Excluding the trillions of tons of little rocks that make up its rings, Saturn has 62 discovered moons as of September 2012. NASA lists 53 named moons on one of its websites. Cassini discovered two new moons almost immediately after arriving (Methone and Pallene) and before 2004 had ended, it detected Polydeuces.

Since the planet was named after Cronus, lord of the Titans in Greek mythology (Saturn in Roman mythology), most of Saturn’s moons are named after other Titans, their descendants, as well as after giants from Gallic, Inuit and Norse myths.

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is slightly larger than Mercury, and is the second-largest moon in the solar system behind Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. (Earth’s moon is the fifth largest.) Titan is veiled under a very thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere that might be like what Earth’s was long ago, before life. While the Earth’s atmosphere extends only about 60 km into space, Titan’s reaches nearly 10 times as far. The atmosphere contains a number of hydrocarbons, chemicals that primarily make up fossil fuels on Earth. Methane rain falls from the sky and moves through the moon’s icy crust. A recent study detected propylene, a chemical used to make plastics, in the planet’s atmosphere.

These moons can possess bizarre features. Pan and Atlas are shaped like flying saucers, Iapetus has one side as bright as snow and one side as dark as coal. Enceladus shows evidence of “ice volcanism,” spewing out water and other chemicals from the 101 geysers spotted at the moon’s southern pole. A number of these satellites, such as Prometheus and Pandora, are shepherd moons, interacting with ring material to keep rings in their orbits.

Though scientists have identified many moons, the chaotic system has other small moons constantly being created and destroyed.

The Real Lord of the Rings

Cassini wrapped up its four-year planned mission in June 2008 and then embarked on the Cassini Equinox mission, which went through to September 2010. During those two years, Cassini flew past Titan 26 times and Enceladus seven times. It also zipped by Dione, Rhea and Helene once.

Now the probe is in the Cassini Solstice Mission, which is intended to last until September 2017. Saturn’s solstices will come in May of that year, meaning it will be summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the southern hemisphere.

Saturn is one of the five planets known since ancient times, and no one knows who first observed it. The planet was named after the Roman god, Saturn, the god of agriculture and the harvest. He is frequently shown holding a sickle in his left hand and wheat in his right hand. In Roman mythology, his mother was Terra (Gaea) and his father was Caelus (Uranus). In Greek mythology, Saturn became the ruler of the universe when he led a successful rebellion against his father, Uranus. He was usurped by his son Jupiter.

16th century engraving of Saturnus
16th century engraving of Saturnus

The most famous temple to Saturn, the Templum Saturni (or Aedes Saturnus), was located at the western end of the Forum Romanum, the heart of commerce for ancient Romans. The temple marks the beginning of the Clivus Capitolinus, the old road that leads up the hill of the Capitol. Still standing today, the temple of Saturn represents the oldest-surviving foundation in the Forum Romanum, having been established between 501 and 498 BCE. Some sources attribute it to the King Tarquinius Superbus, others to Lucius Furius, although the latter dedication could belong to a reconstruction that came after the Gauls set fire to the temple in the early fourth century BCE. The present ruins represent the third incarnation of the Temple of Saturn, replacing the second incarnation destroyed by another fire in 283 BCE. Gradual collapse has left nothing but the remains of the front portico standing. Regardless, the eight surviving columns and the partially intact pediment which displays the inscription Senatus Populusque Romanus incendio consumptum restituit (“The Senate and People of Rome restored what fire had consumed”) represent one of the foremost iconic images of Rome’s ancient architectural heritage.

Ruins of the Temple of Saturn (eight columns to the far right), with three columns from the Temple of Vespasian and Titus (left) and the Arch of Septimius Severus (center)
Ruins of the Temple of Saturn (eight columns to the far right), with three columns from the Temple of Vespasian and Titus (left) and the Arch of Septimius Severus (center)
Puffles and Honey in 2007 at the Roman Forum, with the three columns from the Temple of Vespasian and Titus (right) and the Arch of Septimius Severus (center). Ruins of the Temple of Saturn not visible in the photo.
Puffles and Honey in 2007 at the Roman Forum, with the three columns from the Temple of Vespasian and Titus (right) and the Arch of Septimius Severus (center). Ruins of the Temple of Saturn not visible in the photo.

Isabelle, what did you do?

The Real Lord of the Rings

I brought Saturn home to play!

The Real Lord of the Rings


Opera Gala

Opera Gala

Opera Gala

Little bears are in for a special treat, an opera gala with opera superstar Angela Gheorghiu 🙂

Opera Gala

A glamorous and gifted singer, with a magnificent voice and dazzling stage presence, Angela Gheorghiu has mesmerised audiences around the world and earned spectacular reviews from critics. A natural actress, she conveys her characters with sensitivity and profound feeling. Her performances have made her a standout amongst her generation of singers and confirmed her status as one of opera’s most beloved stars. By fans at least, if not all in management in the opera world. She does have a reputation of being difficult, when she wants to be 🙂 There is a famous story about her clashing with former Met General Manager Joe Volpe in 1996 over a blonde wig she was called on to wear as Micaëla in Carmen. When she refused, Volpe snapped: “The wig is going on, with or without you.” She wore it – but with a hood. Seriously, she has jaw dropping gorgeous raven hair and that should be covered up with a wig?

Opera Gala

Angela Gheorghiu made her international debut as Mimì in La Bohème at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1992.

When Covent Garden announced Richard Eyre’s staging of La Traviata in 1994, Georg Solti was the main attraction; it was the first time he had conducted the opera. When the curtain rose, however, it was the Violetta who grabbed the attention. So overwhelming was Angela Gheorghiu’s performance, and so impressed was Solti, that he persuaded BBC2 to broadcast her performance live, and a star was born.

Sir Georg Solti declared during rehearsals: “I was in tears. I had to go out. The girl is wonderful. She can do everything.”

In 1996, a performance of the same opera was beamed on to a giant screen in the Covent Garden piazza, with newly­weds Gheorghiu and Alagna as the gorgeous lovers, and this time with Simone Young conducting in the pit.

Over the past two decades, her warmth, sophistication and breathtaking talent have kept her in constant demand at the top opera houses, including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, La Scala in Milan, Opera Bastille in Paris and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Her recordings are widely respected, her life occasionally makes the tabloids, and now she has finally set foot on Terra Australis. In her first concert in Australia, at the Sydney Opera House, with a programme of the familiar and the less-so, she gave ample demonstration of the talents that have put and kept her at the top of her profession since 1992.

Opera Gala

Angela Gheorghiu has a magnificent, warm voice, with exciting top notes. This she wields with considerable sensitivity and in the French Romantic repertoire and the Italian verismo she probably has no betters. At full throttle she’s thrilling, the upper middle and above proving refreshingly free from strain and any sign of wobble. Her diction is good, too, enabling her to communicate with more than tone and body language alone. Her French offerings ranged from an impassioned rendition of the somewhat overrated Adieu notre petite table from Massenet’s Manon to the same composer’s greatly underrated Pleurez mes yeux from Le Cid, one of those arias that flow over you like a rare honey and that show Gheorghiu’s voice at its very best.

Sporting a sumptuous grey silk taffeta ball gown with a hint of Kiss of the Spider Woman, she was every inch the Diva, blowing kisses to the enthusiastic crowd, clutching her (imaginary) pearls and allowing her musical accomplices the occasional kiss of the regal hand.

Sydney concert
Sydney concert

She also gave a textbook rendition of Carmen’s Habanera, an easy ride perhaps for a soprano but sung with aplomb and cheekiness 🙂 and showing her adept at sensitive register changes that reveal a decent lower range.

Fellow Romanian Maestro Tiberiu Soare conducted the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, with a very clear highlight being the scintillating “Romanian Rhapsody” by Enescu in the second half. A celebrated violinist (he taught Yehudi Menuhin) and composer, Enescu is Romania’s most important musician. With Tiberiu Soare wielding the baton, it was small wonder that the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra gave such a spirited performance. Beginning with some lovely wind playing, the folk tune was taken up by the strings and full orchestra. Graceful swinging rhythms, energetic swirling dances, exciting accelerandos and dynamic contrasts no doubt set many a pulse racing. Featured passages on violin, viola and flute added to the colour and were played with flair and beauty of tone.

But the highlights of the evening were the Italian arias – Madama Butterfly’s Un bel di vedremo, Tosca’s Vissi d’arte and Manon Lescaut’s Sola perduta, abbandonata. These are prime Gheorghiu territory and she embodies these archetypal Puccinian heroines to the manor born. Her Madama Butterfly (hair back and changed into a figure-hugging black, backless number complete with sparkles) embraced the ebb and flow of the vocal line to perfection and her signature Tosca Vissi d’arte was sublime (a sneaky extra costume change into a cerise silk full-length gown) crowned with a spine-tingling B Flat.

Sydney concert
Sydney concert

At the recital’s close, Gheorghiu generously offered four encores that charmed (I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady), amused (a cheeky Romanian folk song) and captivated (“O mio babbino caro”, “Grenada”) in equal measure. She delivered a glorious O mio babbino caro with a ravishing piano top that set the seal on a grand night for singing.

Honey and Isabelle found a kindred spirit who likes lots of dresses and sparkly shoes 🙂 The Melbourne concert showed off a different wardrobe.

Melbourne concert
Melbourne concert
Melbourne concert
Melbourne concert
Melbourne concern
Melbourne concert

They also found her to be warm and generous with her fans.
This is me! With Honey and Angela!

Opera Gala

In October 2012, Gheorghiu received the Nihil Sine Deo royal decoration from His Majesty King Michael I, honouring her contribution to promoting Romanian culture in the world.

Angela Gheorghiu likes collaborating with, and promoting, other Romanian artists, like conductor Tiberiu Soare (together they have played in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Baden-Baden, Regensburg and now in Sydney and Melbourne) and tenor Teodor Ilincăi. In 2004, she made a documentary with BBC Four on Romania, as part of her wish to increase awareness of Romanian music in the west. As part of the Romanian journey, she visited the painted monasteries of Bucovina and performed sacred and secular Romanian music.

She still has a house in Romania and remains loyal to her homeland. She might not acknowledge her non-Romanian soprano contemporaries 🙂 but she does mention other great Romanian sopranos – Hariclea Darcleé (who premiered the role of Tosca), Virginia Zeani (another Romanian soprano legendary for her voice and her startling beauty, and a friend and mentor to Angela) and Nelly Miricioiu (also born in Adjud, Moldova, like Angela; and named after Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba).

Opera Gala

She is outspoken, forthright in her opinions, has fierce self-belief and a steely determination to succeed. And she has become notorious for cancelling engagements (although she is not the only one) and refusing to participate in what she regards as the more out-there demands of opera directors. Her bugbear is the “stupid modernity” of opera productions whose anachronistic, out-of-period settings bear no resemblance to the composer’s conception of the piece. There are plenty of opera lovers who agree and refuse to attend these productions, just as she refuses to be a part of them.

When it’s suggested that her high principles have caused arguments with opera managers, she responds with: “Not arguments. I just said no.” The biggest spats have been at the Met. So I am sure that the New York audience is waiting with trepidation to see if she will appear in Tosca later this month. Especially since she is less than thrilled with the staging of this production. The austere staging, directed by Luc Bondy, was lustily booed when the Met premiered it in 2009, replacing Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved opulent production. Reviews weren’t great either, but it has remained in the repertoire and has been better received since.

Opera Gala

She is compromising because this will be her first Tosca at the Met and she wants to sing Tosca there. Floria Tosca, the beautiful, dark-haired, celebrated singer who is passionately, jealously in love with the painter Cavaradossi, is one of her favourite roles. Plácido Domingo (yes, the tenor) will be conducting. They have worked together many times before, but both singing. The two performances of Tosca in New York are on October 29 and November 2.

Then in January 2016, she will be playing Tosca again at her favourite opera venue, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

What’s a gala without a little cake 🙂

Opera Gala

Opera Gala

Now, about that ticket to Covent Garden…