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Cutting down history

10 Jan

Death of the “Mammoth Tree” – Birth of Conservation

8 Jul

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/jun/27/giant-tree-death-conservation-movement
 

How a giant tree’s death sparked the conservation movement 160 years ago

160 years ago a giant sequoia in California was cut down, becoming the inspiration for the national park system

Leo blog on mammoth tree : in Calaveras County

Tourists inspecting the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ in Calaveras County, California, c1860. The ‘Mother of the Forest’, without its bark, can be seen in the background. Image: LoC

Today marks the 160th anniversary of a seminal, but largely forgotten moment in the history of the conservation movement.

On Monday, 27 June, 1853, a giant sequoia – one of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring sights – was brought to the ground by a band of gold-rush speculators in Calaveras county, California. It had taken the men three weeks to cut through the base of the 300ft-tall, 1,244-year-old tree, but finally it fell to the forest floor.

A section of the bark from the “Mammoth Tree”, as newspapers soon described it, had already been removed and was sent to San Francisco to be put on display. The species had only been “discovered” (local Native American tribes such as the Miwok had known of the trees for centuries) that spring by a hunter who stumbled upon the pristine grove in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada whilst chasing an injured bear. Word of the discovery quickly spread.

In the age of PT Barnum‘s freak shows, the speculators, mostly gold miners, had sensed a commercial opportunity. The section of bark – re-erected using scaffold, with a piano inside to entertain paying visitors – would later be sent to Broadway in New York, as would the bark from a second tree felled a year later. The bark of the “Mother of the Forest” – as the second tree was named – would even go on to be displayed at London’s Crystal Palace causing great excitement and wonder in Victorian England before it was destroyed by fire on 30 December 1866. (The bark of the original mammoth tree was also lost to fire as it lay in storage in New York in 1855. A fitting end, perhaps, as fire plays such a crucial role in the life cycle of giant sequoias.)

The fame of the trees was such that a hotel was quickly built at the site to host the influx of tourists. To entertain the guests, tea dances were regularly held on the stump of the mammoth tree and a bowling alley was built on the now prone trunk. (This page has a wonderful range of images of the Mammoth Tree and the Mother of the Forest.)

The remarkable, engaging story of these two doomed trees is too detailed to be told here, but what is worth recalling on this anniversary is the reaction their destruction caused in the media at the time – and its subsequent effect on some progressive politicians a decade later when they cited their felling and exploitation as an inspiration to establish what later came to be known as the US national park system.

Leo blog on mammoth tree : Tourist walking by 'The Father of The Forest

Tourist walking by ‘The Father of The Forest” in Calaveras Grove, California c.1880s. Photograph: Alamy

Was the outrage expressed by some in the popular media of the day evidence of the first stirrings of an environmental consciousness in the US? It would be wrong to assess such statements without noting the historical context of that age – a time of the “manifest destiny” when nature was viewed as a God-given resource for Mankind to exploit – but it is also hard to ignore the clear outrage and bemusement among some commentators that such magnificent natural specimens had been brutalised in this way.

According to Gary D Lowe, a local historian, author and “Big Tree” aficionado, the first-known negative commentary came a month before the tree was felled. An article in the Sonora Herald, a local newspaper, reported that Captain Hanford, the man leading the enterprise, “is about stripping off the bark”. The report went on: “This will of course kill the tree, which is much to be deprecated.”

On 27 June, 1853 – the same day the tree finally fell – a report in San Francisco’s Placer Times and Transcript also noted an article, again in the Sonora Herald, expressing regret that Captain Hanford was preparing for a “portion of the mammoth tree” to be sent to New York.

“Amator” [Latin for “friend”] is dreadfully shocked at the vandalism and barbarity of flaying that giant of the woods, and depriving California of its greatest “growing” exponent.

However, the same report also goes on to say that the stripping of the tree’s bark is “characteristic of California enterprise” and that Hanford’s efforts to exhibit the bark in New York will allow “millions of the inhabitants of the earth to see it, has rendered his adopted state a lasting benefit, given to science a page, and the world a natural curiosity”. So any sadness at the tree’s demise was counteracted by the boost to local pride.

Leo blog on mammoth tree : people on trunk of a giant tree in Calaveras County, California

Two people standing on the stump of the ‘Mammoth Tree’ at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, California. Photograph: Jeff Compasso/Alamy

But these were reports in local newspapers with little influence outside the communities they served. A far more significant report came that autumn when Maturin M Ballou, the Boston-based editor of Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion, one of the most widely read magazines of the day, printed an illustration of the “largest tree yet discovered in the world” on 1 October, 1853. The accompanying text said:

To our mind it seems a cruel idea, a perfect desecration, to cut down such a splendid tree…In Europe, such a natural production would have been cherished and protected, if necessary, by law; but in this money-making, go-ahead community, thirty or forty thousand dollars are paid for it, and the purchaser chops it down, and ships it off for a shilling show! We hope that no one will conceive the idea of purchasing the Niagara Falls with the same purpose!…But, seriously, what in the world could have possessed any mortal to embark in such speculation with this mountain of wood? In its natural condition, rearing its majestic head towards heaven, and waving in all its native vigour, strength and verdure, it was a sight worth a pilgrimage to see; but now, alas, It is only a monument of the cupidity of those who have destroyed all there was of interest connected with it.

Five months later, on 11 March, 1854, Ballou printed a further remark in his magazine:

A tree of such gigantic proportions as well might excite the wonder and curiosity of the world. Although the destruction of such a magnificent object was an act of vandalism not to be forgiven, yet the desecration has been committed, and it is useless now to reiterate our vain regrets.

However, the ripples of outrage took a further year – and the stripping of the Mother of the Forest – to really gain traction. Then came this editorial in the New York Herald, dated 17 December, 1855:

The finest, the most beautiful and symmetrical of these trees, (though not the largest) has been cut down…From this beginning, unless the Goths and Vandals are arrested in their work, the destruction of the incomparable forest will probably go on till the last vestige of it is destroyed. In this view, the point that we make is, that the State of California and the Congress of the Union should interpose to preserve these trees, as the living proofs that the boasted monarchs of the wood of the Old World are but stunted shrubbery compared with the forest giants of our own country. We say that Congress should interpose, upon the presumption that these trees are public property, are on the public lands of California, and because Congress has already interposed to protect the public live oak forests of Florida from the rapacity of unscrupulous speculators…We repeat, that it is the duty of the State of California, of Congress, and of all good citizens, to protect and to preserve these California monuments of the capabilities of our American soil. Let it be the law that this…Mammoth Grove shall stand.

The next notable article was printed in the March 1859 issue (pdf) of Hutchings’ California Magazine. It was also later reprinted the following year in the popular tourist guide, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California:

In our estimation, it was a sacrilegious act; although it is possible, that the exhibition of the bark, among the unbelievers of the eastern part of our continent, and of Europe, may have convinced all the “Thomases” living, that we have great facts in California, that must be believed, sooner or later. This is the only palliating consideration with us for this act of desecration.

And then, in 1864, came the culminating moment when John Conness, the senator from California, rose in Congress to make a speech urging his colleagues to pass a bill that would see the now nationally famous Yosemite Valley and its neighbouring grove of sequoias in the mountains above Mariposa secured and protected “inalienable forever”. In making his case, he directly referenced the fate of the felled trees at Calaveras just over a decade earlier:

From the Calaveras grove some sections of a fallen tree were cut during and pending the great World’s Fair that was held in London some years since…The English who saw it declared it to be a Yankee invention, made from beginning to end; that it was an utter untruth that such trees grew in the country; that it could not be; and, although the section of the tree was transported there at an expense of several thousand dollars, we were not able to convince them that it was a specimen of American growth. They would not believe us. The purpose of this bill is to preserve one of these groves from devastation and injury. The necessity of taking early possession and care of these great wonders can easily be seen and understood.

The bill passed and the “Yosemite grant” paved the way for the first official national park being established at Yellowstone in 1872. Celebrated conservationists such as John Muir would all later visit the stump of the original “mammoth tree” to reflect on both its fate and influence. However, the grove of sequoias at Calaveras – where the story of the US conservation movement arguably began – did not become a state park until 1931 following a decades-long fight to see off the desires of lumber companies.

Today, the trees are now safe from the “Goths and Vandals”, but not, alas, some of the side-effects of modern civilization: urban ozone, climate change, uncontrolled frequent fires, to name but a few.

Leo blog on mammoth tree : Over 100 people stand atop of and around a logged giant sequoia tree

Over 100 people stand atop of and around a logged giant sequoia tree, Calaveras County, California, 1917. Photograph: A. R. Moore/National Geographic Society/Corbis

The world’s last WWI veteran – It’s only in history books now

7 Feb

 

 

This is Harry Patch, he was born June 17th 1898 and he died July 25th 2009 at the age of 111.

Harry was the last living man to have fought in the trenches in the First World War, the last living man to have been wounded during WW1, the last living man to have fired a gun in WW1…..

92 years before his death, on his 19th birthday Harry was in the trenches in France and was later badly wounded by artillery fire during the Battle of Passchendaele where over 500,000 died over a period of less than 4 months. The shelling was so intense that it is estimated there were over 1,000,000 shell holes to a square mile.

 

 

 

This is the village of Passchendaele before and after the battle:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are Harry’s own words about what he experienced:

A rude awakening
 
I had a brother who was a regular soldier. He was in Africa when the war broke out. He was a sergeant major in the Royal Engineers, who fought and was wounded at Mons. And they kept him in England after that, as an instructor. He never went back and he used to tell me what the trenches were like. I didn’t want to go. I knew what I was going to. A lot of people didn’t and when they got to France they had a rude awakening.
 
The trenches were about six feet deep, about three feet wide – mud, water, a duckboard if you were lucky. You slept on the firing step, if you could, shells bursting all around you. Filthy.
 
 
Infected by lice
 
From the time I went to France – the second week in June 1917 – until I left 23rd December 1917, injured by shellfire, I never had a bath. I never had any clean clothes. And when we got to Rouen on the way home they took every stitch of clothing off us: vest, shirt, pants, everything and they burnt it all. It was the only way to get rid of the lice. For each lousy louse, he had his own particular bite, and his own itch and he’d drive you mad. We used to turn our vests inside out to get a little relief. And you’d go down all the seams, if you dared show a light, with a candle, and burn them out. And those little devils who’d laid their eggs in the seam, you’d turn your vest inside out and tomorrow you’d be just as lousy as you were today. And that was the trenches.
 
 
Fighting for their lives
 
You daren’t show above otherwise a sniper would have you. You used to look between the fire and apertures and all you could see was a couple of stray dogs out there, fighting over a biscuit that they’d found. They were fighting for their lives. And the thought came to me – well, there they are, two animals out there fighting over dog biscuit, the same as we get to live. They were fighting for their lives. I said, ‘We are two civilised nations – British and German – and what were we doing? We were in a lousy, dirty trench fighting for our lives? For what? For eighteen pence a flipping day.’
 
 
Life in the trenches
 
You got tots of rum.There were many a man who didn’t like rum, didn’t drink it. It used to warm you up. Life in the trenches, well…can you imagine now, going out from this room along the corridor and there is a trench dug across the lawn. Six feet deep and three feet wide. There is water and mud in the bottom. You sit on a trench at the side to sleep, don’t matter whether it is wet, fine, hot or cold. Four days you are there and you got to stick it. That was the conditions.
 
If any man tells you he went into the front line and he wasn’t scared – he’s a liar. You were scared from the moment you got there. You never knew. I mean, in the trench you were all right. If you kept down, a sniper couldn’t get you. But you never knew if the artillery had a shell that burst above you and you caught the shrapnel. That was it.
 
 
Shell shock
 
You were in that trench. That was your front line. You had to keep an eye on the German front line. You daren’t leave. No. I suppose if you left, and some of them did, they were shot as cowards. That is another thing with shell shock – I never saw anyone with it, never experienced it – but it seemed you stood at the bottom of the ladder and you just could not move. Shellshock took all the nervous power out of you.
An officer would come down and very often shoot them as a coward. That man was no more a coward than you or I. He just could not move. That’s shell shock. Towards the end of war they recognised it as an illness. The early part of the war – they didn’t. If you were there you were shot. And that was it. And there’s a good many men who were shot for cowardice and they are asking now … that verdict be taken away. They were not cowards.
 
 
Sleep in the trenches
 
Rats as big as cats. Anything they could gnaw, they would – to live. If you didn’t watch it, they’d gnaw your shoe laces. Anything leather, they would nibble that. As you went to sleep, you would cover your face with a blanket and you could hear the damn things run over you.
 
As you to sat on the firing step, you could have a doze. Not much more. Half-past seven in the morning, stand-to and you’d have an inspection. Last thing at night, you’d have an inspection. You had to sleep in between.
 
 
No Man’s Land
 
Probably you’d hear something in No Man’s Land. It might have been a working party. You reported it. The officer would have a look through his field glasses. If it was any good and it wasn’t British, give them a burst. Number One would give them a shot or two out of the Lewis gun, and after firing that Lewis gun from one aperture, we would always move down the trench. This was because, if it was spotted by a German observer there, the range was sent back to their artillery. Staying put was an invitation for half a dozen rockets. If you stayed where you were, you chanced it.
 
 
Going ‘over the top’
 
Never forget it. We crawled, couldn’t stand up – a sniper would have you. I came across a Cornishman, he must have been from ‘A’ or ‘B’ companies who were the assault companies when we went over. ‘C’ and ‘D’, we were support. I came across a Cornishman, he was ripped from his shoulder to his waist – shrapnel.
Now a bullet wound is clean, shrapnel will tear you all to pieces. He was laying there in a pool of blood. As we got to him, he said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human aid. Before we would pull out the revolver to shoot him, he died. I was with him in the last seconds of his life. hen he went from this life, to whatever is beyond.
 
Now what I saw in the way of sights at Passchendaele and at Pilkem – the wounded lying about asking you for help – we didn’t have the knowledge, the equipment or the time to spend with them. I lost all my faith in the Church of England.
 
And when that fellah died, he just said one word: ‘Mother.’ It wasn’t a cry of despair. It was a cry or surprise and joy. I think – although I wasn’t allowed to see her – I am sure his mother was in the next world to welcome him. And he knew it. I was just allowed to see that much and no more. And from that day until today – and now I’m nearly 106 years old – I shall always remember that cry and I shall always remember that death is not the end.
 
You’ve got a memory. You’ve got a brain about the size of a tea cup. I’ve got a memory that goes back for 80 or 90 years and I think that memory goes on with you when you die. And that’s my opinion. Death is not the end.
 
 
Shooting to kill
 
I never knew Bob [Harry’s friend and gunner] to use that [Lewis] gun to kill. If he used that gun at all, it was about two feet off the ground and he would wound them in the legs. He wouldn’t kill them if he could help it.
[A German soldier] came to me with a rifle and a fixed bayonet. He had no ammunition, otherwise he could have shot us. He came towards us. I had to bring him down. First of all, I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped the rifle and the bayonet. He came on. His idea, I suppose, was to kick the gun if he could into the mud, so making it useless. But anyway, he came on and for our own safety, I had to bring him down. I couldn’t kill him. He was a man I didn’t know. I didn’t know his language. I couldn’t talk to him. I shot him above the ankle, above the knee. He said something to me in German. God knows what it was. But for him the war was over.
 
He would be picked up by a stretcher bearer. He would have his wounds treated. He would be put into a prisoner-of-war camp. At the end of the war, he would go back to his family. Now, six weeks after that, a fellow countryman of his pulled the lever of the gun that fired the rocket that killed my three mates, and wounded me. If I had met that German soldier after my three mates had been killed, I’d have no trouble at all in killing him.
 
 
Losing friends
 
The night we caught it, we were in the front line and we were going back. We had taken the German front line, the German support line and we were coming back from the German support through the German old front line. We had to cross what was the old No Man’s Land. It was crossing there that a rocket burst amongst us. It killed my three mates, it wounded me. We were on open ground.
 
September 22nd, half-past ten at night. That’s when I lost them. That’s my Remembrance Day. Armistice Day, you remember the thousands of others who died. For what? For nothing. And today you would never get another trench warfare. Never. Today, you got the internal combustion engine, the one like you drive your car and improvement on that. It’s entitled a man to fly, and today a trench is no good. He simply goes down the trench with his machine gun – that’s it. You’ll never get another trench war.
 
 
Being wounded
 
You didn’t know you were hit. You never heard the bullet or the shell that hit you. All I can remember was a flash, I went down, blew me down. I suppose I had enough sense, I saw the blood, I had a field dressing on. I must have passed out. How long I lay there I don’t know.
 
Next thing I found I was in a dressing station. The field bandage had gone, the wound had been cleaned and a clean bandage on it. Around about it was a disinfectant of some sort, to keep the blinking lice away from the blood.
 
I lay there all the next day and the doctor came to me. ‘You can see the shrapnel – it must have been a ricochet.’ It was just buried in. He said to me, ‘Would you like me to take that out?’ I said, ‘How long will you be?’ He said, ‘Before you answer yes. With no anaesthetic in the camp at all, we’d used it on all the people more seriously wounded than you are.’ He said, ‘If I take that shrapnel out it will be as you are now.’ Pain from it was terrific. I said, ‘Alright carry on.’ Four fellahs held me down, one on each arm, one on each leg, and I can feel the cut of that scalpel now as he went through and pulled it out.
 
The doctor came to me some hours later. He said, ‘You want this shrapnel as a souvenir?’ I said, ‘Throw it away,’ and I never saw it again. I met his son, who was also a doctor, at Buckingham Palace eighty years later. He told me that if the shrapnel was a quarter inch deeper, it would have cut a main artery and that was it.
 
 
Going home
 
The fellah in the next bed said to me, ‘If he writes anything in that book on the table, a green book, you’re for Blighty.’ Well I didn’t believe him, and then some hours later somebody came in, they called my name, my number. I was out on the Red Cross truck down to Rouen … And there we had a bath, got rid of the lice, they burnt our clothing. We could see the hospital ship. We were out on the hospital ship, but never sailed that night. There was a rumour of a submarine in the Channel. We sailed the next night and came to Southampton. I think if I had gone to the field dressing main station, I don’t think I ever would [have sailed]. It was the fact that it was the advanced dressing station and they wanted the beds. Get rid of him.
 
 
Mutiny
 
‘E’ company were about a thousand strong. We had an officer we didn’t like. He used to take us out route marches. We didn’t like it. That afternoon he wanted the ‘E’ company on parade for bayonet practice. The war had been over for months. The sergeant major opened the door. Somebody threw a boot at him. He went back, reported it.
 
The officer came and they told him flat that they weren’t going out on parade. Well, he went back to the company office and about thirty of the men followed him and they asked for him. He came out, he pulled his revolver out and he clicked the hammer back. Nobody said anything. We had all been on the range. I was on fatigue that morning so I wasn’t on parade. Nobody said anything.
 
They all went back to their huts and they rounded up what ammunition they could and went back and they asked for the officer again. He was a captain, risen from the ranks. He came out and he clicked the hammer back on his revolver. He said, ‘The first man who says he is not going on parade, I’ll shoot him.’ No sooner had he said that, when thirty bolts went back and somebody shouted, ‘Now shoot you bugger if you like.’ He threw the revolver down, disappeared. We were all run up for a mutiny.
 
We had a brigadier come over from the mainland to hear the officer’s side of it. Then he said, ‘I want to hear the men.’ Twenty or thirty of the men went behind a screen and they told him. They said, ‘We don’t want bayonet practice. We’ve had the real bloody thing. Some of us are wounded by bayonets.’ The outcome was that there were no parades except just to clear the camp, just fatigues. The officer was moved to a different command. We never saw him again. It’s a damn good job we didn’t.
 
 
The price of war
 
It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it … the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. The Second World War – Hitler wanted to govern Europe, nothing to it. I would have taken the Kaiser, his son, Hitler and the people on his side … and bloody shot them. Out the way and saved millions of lives. T’isn’t worth it.
 
 
Breaking the silence

Opposite my bedroom there is a window and there is a light over the top. Now [when the staff go into that room] they put the light on. If I was half asleep – the light coming on was the flash of a bomb. That flash brought it all back. For eighty years I’ve never watched a war film, I never spoke of it, not to my wife. For six years, I’ve been here [in the nursing home]. Six years it’s been nothing but World War One. As I say, World War One is history, it isn’t news. Forget it.

 
 
And here is Harry upon his return to the battlefield at age 109:

 

 

from:  MarkNH @ ar15.com

“To my old master…” – A Letter From a Former Slave

2 Feb

 

http://www.readersupportednews.org/news-section2/316-20/9746-a-letter-from-a-former-slave

 

Random history for the week. The last line is greatness.

 

 

A Letter From a Former Slave
By Letters of Note
01 February 12

In August of 1865, a Colonel P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee, wrote to his former slave, Jourdan Anderson, and requested that he come back to work on his farm. Jourdan – who, since being emancipated, had moved to Ohio, found paid work, and was now supporting his family – responded spectacularly by way of the letter seen below (a letter which, according to newspapers at the time, he dictated).

 

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy, – the folks call her Mrs. Anderson, – and the children – Milly, Jane, and Grundy – go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve – and die, if it come to that – than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

 

The New French Hacker-Artist Underground

30 Jan

Awesome story about a group of rogue art and history restorers in the Parisian underground.
 
 
 
 
 
 
The New French Hacker-Artist Underground
 
By Jon Lackman Email Author

 

Photography: UX

A mysterious band of hacker-artists is prowling the network of tunnels below Paris,
secretly refurbishing the city’s neglected treasures.
Photo: UX

 

Thirty years ago, in the dead of night, a group of six Parisian teenagers pulled off what would prove to be a fateful theft. They met up at a small cafè near the Eiffel Tower to review their plans—again—before heading out into the dark. Lifting a grate from the street, they descended a ladder to a tunnel, an unlit concrete passageway carrying a cable off into the void. They followed the cable to its source: the basement of the ministry of telecommunications. Horizontal bars blocked their way, but the skinny teens all managed to wedge themselves through and ascend to the building’s ground floor. There they found three key rings in the security office and a logbook indicating that the guards were on their rounds.

But the guards were nowhere to be seen. The six interlopers combed the building for hours, encountering no one, until they found what they were looking for at the bottom of a desk drawer—maps of the ministry’s citywide network of tunnels. They took one copy of each map, then returned the keys to the security office. Heaving the ministry’s grand front door ajar, they peeked outside; no police, no passersby, no problem. They exited onto the empty Avenue de Sègur and walked home as the sun rose. The mission had been so easy that one of the youths, Natacha, seriously asked herself if she had dreamed it. No, she concluded: “In a dream, it would have been more complicated.”

This stealthy undertaking was not an act of robbery or espionage but rather a crucial operation in what would become an association called UX, for “Urban eXperiment.” UX is sort of like an artist’s collective, but far from being avant-garde—confronting audiences by pushing the boundaries of the new—its only audience is itself. More surprising still, its work is often radically conservative, intemperate in its devotion to the old. Through meticulous infiltration, UX members have carried out shocking acts of cultural preservation and repair, with an ethos of “restoring those invisible parts of our patrimony that the government has abandoned or doesn’t have the means to maintain.” The group claims to have conducted 15 such covert restorations, often in centuries-old spaces, all over Paris.

What has made much of this work possible is UX’s mastery, established 30 years ago and refined since, of the city’s network of underground passageways—hundreds of miles of interconnected telecom, electricity, and water tunnels, sewers, catacombs, subways, and centuries-old quarries. Like computer hackers who crack digital networks and surreptitiously take control of key machines, members of UX carry out clandestine missions throughout Paris’ supposedly secure underground tunnels and rooms. The group routinely uses the tunnels to access restoration sites and stage film festivals, for example, in the disused basements of government buildings.

UX’s most sensational caper (to be revealed so far, at least) was completed in 2006. A cadre spent months infiltrating the Pantheon, the grand structure in Paris that houses the remains of France’s most cherished citizens. Eight restorers built their own secret workshop in a storeroom, which they wired for electricity and Internet access and outfitted with armchairs, tools, a fridge, and a hot plate. During the course of a year, they painstakingly restored the Pantheon’s 19th- century clock, which had not chimed since the 1960s. Those in the neighborhood must have been shocked to hear the clock sound for the first time in decades: the hour, the half hour, the quarter hour.

Eight years ago, the French government didn’t know UX existed. When their exploits first trickled out into the press, the group’s members were deemed by some to be dangerous outlaws, thieves, even potential inspiration for terrorists. Still, a few officials can’t conceal their admiration. Mention UX to Sylvie Gautron of the Paris police—her specialty is monitoring the city’s old quarries—and she breaks into a wide smile. In an era when ubiquitous GPS and microprecise mapping threaten to squeeze all the mystery from our great world cities, UX seems to know, and indeed to own, a whole other, deeper, hidden layer of Paris. It claims the entire city, above- and belowground, as its canvas; its members say they can access every last government building, every narrow telecom tunnel. Does Gautron believe this? “It’s possible,” she says. “Everything they do is very intense.”

 

It is not at all hard to steal a Picasso, Lazar Kunstmann tells me. One of UX’s early members and the group’s unofficial spokesman, Kunstmann—the name is almost certainly a pseudonym, given its superhero-like German meaning, “Art-man”—is fortyish, bald, black-clad, warm, and witty. We’re sitting in the back room of a student cafè, downing espressos and discussing the spectacular theft in May 2010 of 100 million euros’ worth of paintings from the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. He disputes the contention of a police spokesperson that this was a sophisticated operation. According to an article published in Le Monde, a solitary individual unscrewed a window frame at 3:50 am, cut a padlock from a gate, and strode through the galleries lifting one work each by Lèger, Braque, Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso. “The thief was perfectly informed,” the officer told the newspaper. If he hadn’t known the window had a vibration detector, he would’ve just broken it. If he hadn’t known the alarm and part of the security system were broken, he wouldn’t have wandered throughout the museum. If he hadn’t known the schedule of night rounds, he wouldn’t have arrived in the middle of the longest quiet period.

Impressive, right? No, Kunstmann says. “He ascertained that nothing was working,” Kunstmann sighs, knowing full well the shoddy security of the museum in question. “The exterior is full of graffiti artists, the homeless, and crack smokers,” he goes on. This would have made it easy for the thief to blend in and surreptitiously watch the windows all night, observing how the guards circulated.

 

 

Photo: UX

UX members restored the Pantheon’s 19th-century clock.
Photo: UX

 

A serious thief, Kunstmann says, would have taken an entirely different approach. In the same building, a sprawling and grand old structure called the Palais de Tokyo, is a restaurant that stays open until midnight. An intelligent thief would order a coffee there and then wander off through the building. “Lots of things have alarms,” Kunstmann goes on. “But you try to set them off and they don’t sound! Why? Because they don’t get turned on until 2 am.” (The museum claims that the alarms work 24 hours a day.) Moreover, there are whole stretches of wall where all that separates the museum from the rest of the building is a flimsy drywall partition. “You just—” Kunstmann makes a punching motion with his hand. “If the guy had been at all professional, that’s what he would have done.”

UX has made a study of museum security, in keeping with its concern for Paris’ vulnerable treasures—a concern not always shared by the city’s major cultural institutions. Once, after a UX member discovered appalling security lapses in a major museum, she wrote a memo detailing them—and left it, in the middle of the night, on the desk of the security director. Rather than fix the problems, the director went to the police, demanding they press charges against the perpetrators. (The police declined, though they did tell UX to cool it.) Kunstmann feels sure that nothing has changed since the break-in at the Museum of Modern Art; the security remains just as subpar as ever, he says.

Kunstmann has a gloomy view of contemporary civilization, and in his eyes this affair illustrates many of its worst faults—its fatalism, complacency, ignorance, parochialism, and negligence. French officials, he says, bother to protect and restore only the patrimony adored by millions—the Louvre, for example. Lesser-known sites are neglected, and if they happen to be out of public view—underground, say—they disintegrate totally, even when all that’s needed is a hundred-dollar leak repair. UX tends the black sheep: the odd, the unloved, the forgotten artifacts of French civilization.

It’s difficult, though, to give an accounting of just how extensive those labors of love have been: The group cherishes its secrecy, and its known successes have been revealed only inadvertently. The public learned of the group’s underground cinema after a member’s bitter ex-girlfriend told the police. Reporters caught wind of the Pantheon operation because UX members erred in supposing they could safely invite the building’s director to maintain his newly fixed clock (more on that later). In general, UX sees communicating with outsiders as perilous and unrewarding. Kunstmann does tell me a story from a recent job, but even that is shrouded in misdirection. Some members had just infiltrated a public building when they noticed kids horsing around on the scaffolding at a construction site across the street, climbing through open windows, and doing dangerous stunts on the roof. Pretending to be a neighbor, one member phoned the foreman to warn him but was chagrined at the response: “Instead of saying, ‘Thanks, I guess I’ll close the windows,’ the guy says, ‘What the fuck do I care?’”

 

Photograph: UX

They also hosted an underground art show featuring replicas of paintings stolen in a 2010 heist.
Photo: UX

 

An outsider might wonder whether the teens who founded UX were really so different from those thrill seekers across the street today. Would they rat out their former selves? But when UX members risk arrest, they do so with a rigorous, almost scientific attitude toward the various crafts they aim to preserve and extend. Their approach is to explore and experiment all through the city. Based on members’ interests, UX has developed a cellular structure, with subgroups specializing in cartography, infiltration, tunneling, masonry, internal communications, archiving, restoration, and cultural programming. Its 100-odd members are free to change roles and are given access to all tools at the group’s disposal. There is no manifesto, no charter, no bylaws—save that all members preserve its secrecy. Membership is by invitation only; when the group notices people already engaged in UX-like activities, it initiates a discussion about joining forces. While there is no membership fee, members contribute what they can to projects.

I can’t help but ask: Did UX steal the paintings from the Museum of Modern Art? Wouldn’t that be the perfect way to alert the French to the appalling job their government does protecting national treasures? Kunstmann denies it with a convincing curtness. “That,” he says, “is not our style.”

The first experiment by UX, in September 1981, was an accidental one. A Parisian middle schooler named Andrei was trying to impress a couple of older classmates, boasting that he and his friend Peter often snuck into places and were about to hit the Pantheon, an enormous former church that towers over the fifth arrondissement. Andrei got in so deep with his boast that to save face he had to follow through—with his new friends in tow. Like Claudia and Jamie in that famous children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, they hid out inside the building until it closed. Their nocturnal occupation turned out to be shockingly easy—they encountered no guards or alarms—and the experience electrified them. They thought: What else could we do?

Kunstmann, a classmate of Andrei and Peter’s, joined the group early on. They quickly branched out from mere infiltration. Obtaining the tunnel maps from the ministry of telecommunications and other sources greatly expanded their access. Many Parisian buildings connect to these passages through their basements, which are as badly secured as the tunnels themselves. Most officials, Kunstmann says, act as if they believe in this absurd principle: Tunnel access is forbidden, thus people don’t go there. This, he adds sardonically, is “a flawless conclusion—and what’s more, a very practical one, because if people don’t go there, then it’s unnecessary to do more than lock the entrances.”

 

 

Photograph: UX

The unauthorized cinema that UX built beneath the Palais De Chaillot.
Photo: UX

 

It wasn’t until I went down into the tunnels myself—which is illegal and punishable by a fine of up to 60 euros, though explorers rarely get caught—that I understood why French officials are so complacent. Finding an unlocked entrance, without UX’s know-how, required a 45-minute walk from the nearest subway. UX has access to dry and spacious tunnel networks, but the more easily entered ones that I traveled that day were often tiny and half-flooded. By the time I’d retraced my steps, I was exhausted, filthy, and bleeding all over from scrapes.

In some places, UX has been able to create covert connections between networks, using (among other tricks) an invention they call the rolling basin. This is a passage in the bottom of a tunnel that appears to be a grate with water under it; in fact, both grate and water are part of a movable tray on rollers. Voilè0—a trapdoor to another tunnel in a different network. The tray itself is made of concrete, so even if someone raps it with a stick, it sounds solid. Kunstmann says UX has a certain weakness for such contrivances but will never possess enough time and cash to build them as extensively as he’d like. “If tomorrow everyone in UX became billionaires, we’d set dues at a billion euros,” he jokes. (But, he adds, “we’ll never be billionaires, because we’re working as little as possible so we can spend as much time as possible on UX.”)

So what does the group do with all this access? Among other things, it has mounted numerous clandestine theater productions and film festivals. On a typical festival evening, they screen at least two films that they feel share a nonobvious yet provocative connection. They don’t explain the connection, leaving it up to the audience to try to discover it. One summer, the group mounted a film festival devoted to the theme of “urban deserts”—the forgotten and underutilized spaces in a city. They naturally decided the ideal venue for such a festival would be in just such an abandoned site. They chose a room beneath the Palais de Chaillot they’d long known of and enjoyed unlimited access to. The building was then home to Paris’ famous Cinèmathèque Franèaise, making it doubly appropriate. They set up a bar, a dining room, a series of salons, and a small screening room that accommodated 20 viewers, and they held festivals there every summer for years. “Every neighborhood cinema should look like that,” Kunstmann says.

The restoration of the Pantheon clock was carried out by a UX subgroup called Untergunther, whose members are devoted specifically to restoration. The Pantheon was a particularly resonant choice of site, since it’s where UX began, and the group had surreptitiously screened films, exhibited art, and mounted plays there. During one such event in 2005, UX cofounder Jean-Baptiste Viot (one of the few members who uses his real name) took a close look at the building’s defunct Wagner clock—an engineering marvel from the 19th century that replaced an earlier timepiece. (Records indicate the building had a clock as far back as 1790.)

Viot had admired the Wagner ever since he first visited the building. He had meanwhile become a professional horologist working for the elite firm Breguet. That September, Viot persuaded seven other UX members to join him in repairing the clock. They’d been contemplating the project for years, but now it seemed urgent: Oxidation had so crippled the works that they would soon become impossible to fix without re-creating, rather than restoring, almost every part. “That wouldn’t be a restored clock, but a facsimile,” Kunstmann says. As the project began, it took on an almost mystical significance for the team. Paris, as they saw it, was the center of France and was once the center of Western civilization; the Latin Quarter was Paris’ historic intellectual center; the Pantheon stands in the Latin Quarter and is dedicated to the great men of French history, many of whose remains are housed within; and in its interior lay a clock, beating like a heart, until it suddenly was silenced. Untergunther wanted to restart the heart of the world. The eight shifted all their free time to the project.

They first established a workshop high up in the building, just below its dome, on a floor where no one (including guards) ever went anymore—”a sort of floating space,” as Kunstmann describes the room, punctuated by narrow slits for windows. “It looked down on all of Paris from a height of 15 stories. From the outside it resembled a kind of flying saucer; from the inside, a bunker.” The workshop was outfitted with eight overstuffed armchairs, a table, bookshelves, a minibar, and red velvet drapes to moderate the ambient temperature. “Every element had been conceived to fold up into wooden crates, like the ones visible throughout the monument,” Kunstmann says. In the dead of night, they climbed endless stairs, hauling up the lumber, drills, saws, clock repair equipment, and everything else required. They updated the workshop’s outdated electrical wiring. They spent 4,000 euros on materials, in all, out of their own pockets. On the terrace outside they set up a vegetable garden.

 

 

Photo: UX

A mechanism that UX uses to pick locks.
Photo: UX

 

Like at the Museum of Modern Art, where a thief made off with millions in precious art with shocking ease, security at the Pantheon was slipshod. “No one, neither police nor passersby, worried over people entering and leaving the Pantheon by the front door,” Kunstmann says. Nevertheless, the eight equipped themselves with official-looking fake badges. Each had a photograph, a microchip, a hologram of the monument, and a barcode that was “totally useless but impressive,” Kunstmann says. Only very rarely did passing policemen ask questions. At most, it went something like this:

“You’re working at night? Can we see your badges?”

“Here.”

“OK, thanks.”

Once the workshop was complete and thoroughly cleaned, the eight got to work. The first step was to understand how the clock had gotten so degraded—”a sort of autopsy,” Kunstmann says. What they discovered looked like sabotage. It appeared that someone, presumably a Pantheon employee tired of winding the clock once a week, had bludgeoned the escape wheel with an iron bar.

They brought the clock’s mechanism up to the workshop. Viot trained the group in clock repair. First, they cleaned it with what’s called the clockmaker’s bath. This started with 3 liters of water carried up from the public bathrooms on the ground floor. To that was added 500 grams of soft, highly soluble soap, 25 centiliters of ammonia, and 1 tablespoon of oxalic acid—all mixed at a temperature of more than 280 degrees Fahrenheit. With this solution, the group scrubbed and polished every surface. Then they repaired the mechanism’s glass cabinet, replaced broken pulleys and cables, and re-created from scratch the sabotaged escape wheel (a toothed wheel that manages the clock’s rotation) and missing parts like the pendulum bob.

As soon as it was done, in late summer 2006, UX told the Pantheon about the successful operation. They figured the administration would happily take credit for the restoration itself and that the staff would take over the job of maintaining the clock. They notified the director, Bernard Jeannot, by phone, then offered to elaborate in person. Four of them came—two men and two women, including Kunstmann and the restoration group’s leader, a woman in her forties who works as a photographer—and were startled when Jeannot refused to believe their story. They were even more shocked when, after they showed him their workshop (“I think I need to sit down,” he murmured), the administration later decided to sue UX, at one point seeking up to a year of jail time and 48,300 euros in damages. Jeannot’s then-deputy, Pascal Monnet, is now the Pantheon’s director, and he has gone so far as to hire a clockmaker to restore the clock to its previous condition by resabotaging it. But the clockmaker refused to do more than disengage a part—the escape wheel, the very part that had been sabotaged the first time. UX slipped in shortly thereafter to take the wheel into its own possession, for safekeeping, in the hope that someday a more enlightened administration will welcome its return.

Meanwhile, the government lost its lawsuit. It filed another, which it also lost. There is no law in France, it turns out, against the improvement of clocks. In court, one prosecutor characterized her own government’s charges against Untergunther as “stupid.” But the clock is still immobile today, its hands frozen at 10:51.

The members of UX are not rebels, subversives, guerrillas, or freedom fighters, let alone terrorists. They didn’t repair the clock to embarrass the state, nor do they entertain dreams of overthrowing it. Everything they do is intended for their own consumption; indeed, if they can be accused of anything, it’s narcissism. The group is partly responsible for the fact that it is misunderstood. Its members acknowledge that most of its external communications are intended as misdirection—a way to discourage public officials or others from meddling in its operations. They try to hide themselves within the larger mass of Parisians who venture into the city’s recesses simply as partiers or tourists.

Why do they care about these places? Kunstmann answers this question with questions of his own. “Do you have plants in your home?” he asks impatiently. “Do you water them every day? Why do you water them? Because,” he goes on, “otherwise they’re ratty little dead things.” That’s why these forgotten cultural icons are important—”because we have access to them, we see them.” Their goal, he says, isn’t necessarily to make all these things function once again. “If we restore a bomb shelter, we’re certainly not hoping for new bombardments so people can go use it again. If we restore an early 20th-century subway station, we don’t imagine Electricitè de France will ask us to transform 200,000 volts to 20,000. No, we just want to get as close as possible to a functioning state.”

UX has a simple reason for keeping the sites a secret even after it has finished restoring them: The same anonymity that originally deprived them of caretakers “is paradoxically what’s going to protect them afterward” from looters and graffiti, Kunstmann says. They know they’ll never get to the vast majority of interesting sites that need restoration. Yet, “despite all that, the satisfaction of knowing that some, maybe a tiny fraction, won’t disappear because we’ll have been able to restore them is an extremely great satisfaction.”

I ask him to elaborate on their choice of projects. “We can say very little,” he replies, “because to describe the sites even a bit can give away their location.” That said, one site is “belowground, in the south of Paris, not very far from here. It was discovered relatively recently but elicited very strong interest. It totally contradicts the history of the building above it. In examining what’s belowground, one notices that it doesn’t correspond to the information one can obtain about the history of the site. It’s history in reverse, in a way; the site was dedicated to an activity, structures were placed there, but in fact the site had been dedicated to this activity for quite a long time.”

Walking across the Latin Quarter alone on a balmy evening, I try to guess what site Kunstmann is describing, and the city transforms before my eyes, below my feet. Did counterfeiters once operate out of the basement of the Paris Mint? Was the Saint-Sulpice church founded on the site of an underground pagan temple? Suddenly, all of Paris seems ripe with possibility: Every keyhole a peephole, every tunnel a passageway, every darkened building a theater.

But it’s also clear that UX retains its love affair with its first and best canvas, the Pantheon. While this story was closing, a colleague needed to reach Kunstmann about a fact-checking question. Kunstmann had told her to call “any time,” so even though it was 1 am in Paris, she rang. When he picked up the phone, he was panting—from moving a couch, he said. She asked her question: When the clock had stopped chiming after the repair, what time remained frozen on its face? As it happened, Kunstmann was in the Pantheon at that very moment. “Hold on,” he said. “I’ll look.”

Hugh Glass – survival is a hell of an instinct

22 Jan

Think you’re tough?

Get this…

Hugh Glass (c. 1780 – 1833) was an American fur trapper and frontiersman noted for his exploits in the American West during the first third of 19th century.

Glass’s most famous adventure began in 1822, when he responded to an advertisement in the Missouri Gazette and Public Adviser, placed by General William Ashley, which called for a corps of 100 men to “ascend the river Missouri” as part of a fur trading venture. These men would later be known as Ashley’s Hundred.

Near the forks of the Grand River in present-day Perkins County, in August 1823, while scouting alone for game for the expedition’s larder, Glass surprised a Grizzly mother bear with her two cubs. Before he could fire his rifle, the bear charged, picked him up, and threw him to the ground. Glass got up, grappled for his knife, and fought back, stabbing the animal repeatedly as the grizzly raked him time and again with her claws.

Glass managed to kill the bear with help from his trapping partners, Fitzgerald and Bridger, but was left badly mauled and unable to walk. When Glass lost consciousness, Henry became convinced the man would not survive his injuries.

Henry asked for two volunteers to stay with Glass until he died, and then bury him. Bridger (then 17 years old) and Fitzgerald stepped forward, and as the rest of the party moved on, began digging his grave. Later claiming that they were interrupted in the task by an attack by “Arikaree” Indians, the pair grabbed Glass’s rifle, knife, and other equipment, and took flight.

Bridger and Fitzgerald reported to Henry — wrongly it turned out — that Glass had died.

Despite his injuries, Glass regained consciousness. He did so only to find himself abandoned, without weapons or equipment, suffering from a broken leg, the cuts on his back exposing bare ribs, and all his wounds festering. Glass lay mutilated and lame more than 200 mi (320 km) from the nearest settlement at Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River.

In one of the more remarkable treks known to history, Glass set his own leg, wrapped himself in the bear hide his companions had placed over him as a shroud, and began crawling. To prevent gangrene, Glass laid his wounded back on a rotting log and let the maggots eat the dead flesh.

Deciding that following the Grand River would be too dangerous because of hostile Native Americans, Glass crawled overland south toward the Cheyenne River. It took him six weeks to reach it.

Glass survived mostly on wild berries and roots. On one occasion he was able to drive two wolves from a downed bison calf, and feast on the meat. Reaching the Cheyenne, he fashioned a crude raft and floated down the river, navigating using the prominent Thunder Butte landmark. Aided by friendly natives who sewed a bear hide to his back to cover the exposed wounds, Glass eventually reached the safety of Fort Kiowa.

After a long recuperation, Glass set out to track down and avenge himself against Bridger and Fitzgerald. When he found Bridger, on the Yellowstone near the mouth of the Bighorn River, Glass spared him, purportedly because of Bridger’s youth. When he found Fitzgerald, and discovered that Fitzgerald had joined the United States Army, Glass purportedly restrained himself because the consequence of killing a U.S. soldier was death. However, he did recover his lost rifle.

A monument to Glass now stands near the site of his mauling on the southern shore of Shadehill Reservoir on the forks of the Grand River.

Dissolve My Nobel Prize! Fast! (A True Story)

19 Oct

http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/10/03/140815154/dissolve-my-nobel-prize-fast-a-true-story?f=5500502&ft=1

 

Dissolve My Nobel Prize! Fast! (A True Story)

by

 

 

It’s 1940. The Nazis have taken Copenhagen. They are literally marching through the streets, and physicist Niels Bohr has just hours, maybe minutes, to make two Nobel Prize medals disappear.

These medals are made of 23-karat gold. They are heavy to handle, and being shiny and inscribed, they are noticeable. The Nazis have declared no gold shall leave Germany, but two Nobel laureates, one of Jewish descent, the other an opponent of the National Socialists, have quietly sent their medals to Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics, for protection. Their act is probably a capital offense — if the Gestapo can find the evidence.

 

Inconveniently, that evidence was now sitting in Bohr’s building, clearly inscribed “Von Laue” (for Max von Laue, winner of the 1914 Prize for Physics) and “Franck” (for James Franck, the physics winner in 1925) — like two death warrants. Bohr’s institute had attracted and protected Jewish scientists for years. The Nazis knew that, and Niels Bohr knew (now that Denmark was suddenly part of the Reich) that he was a target. He had no idea what to do.

How To Get Rid of A Nobel Prize Medal

On the day the Nazis came to Copenhagen, a Hungarian chemist named Georgy de Hevesy (he would one day win a Nobel of his own) was working in Bohr’s lab. He wrote later, “I suggested that we should bury the medal(s),” but Bohr thought no, the Germans would dig up the grounds, the garden, search everywhere in the building. Too dangerous.

So Hevesy’s thoughts turned to chemistry. Maybe he could make the medals disappear. He took the first one, he says, and “I decided to dissolve it. While the invading forces marched in the streets of Copenhagen, I was busy dissolving Laue’s and also James Franck’s medals.”

This was not an obvious solution, since gold is a very stable element, doesn’t tarnish, doesn’t mix, and doesn’t dissolve in anything — except for one particular chemical emulsifier, called “aqua regia,” a mixture of three parts hydrochloric acid and one part nitric acid.

As you can see in this video from the University of Nottingham, dissolving gold is a slow business. The narrator (who looks like he was cast by Mel Brooks, but is presumably, the real deal) explains that nitric acid loosens the gold atoms, after which hydrochloric acid moves in, using its chloride ions to surround and transform the gold. While the video shows the reaction in sped-up form, remember, in 1940, they weren’t dissolving little bits of gold. Hevesy’s beaker contained two hulking gold medals …

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwnKU89CCdI

 

It must have been an excruciating afternoon. De Hevesy, in his autobiography, says because gold is “exceedingly unreactive and difficult to dissolve,” it was slow going, but as the minutes ticked down, both medals were reduced to a colorless solution that turned faintly peach and then bright orange. By the time the Nazis arrived, both awards had liquefied inside a flask that was then stashed on a high laboratory shelf. Then, says science writer (and Radiolab contributor) Sam Kean, in his book The Disappearing Spoon:

…When the Nazis ransacked Bohr’s institute, they scoured the building for loot or evidence of wrongdoing but left the beaker of orange aqua regia untouched. Hevesy was forced to flee to Stockholm in 1943, but when he returned to his battered laboratory after V-E Day, he found the innocuous beaker undisturbed on a shelf.

Georgy de Hevesy

 

Back in Denmark, de Hevesy did a remarkable thing. He reversed the chemistry, precipitated out the gold and then, around January, 1950, sent the raw metal back to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. The Nobel Foundation then recast the prizes using the original gold and re-presented them to Mr. Laue and Mr. Franck in 1952. Professor Frank, we know, got his re-coined medal at a ceremony at the University of Chicago, on January 31, 1952.

Niels Bohr also had a Nobel medal, but he’d put his up for auction on March 12, 1940, to raise money for Finnish Relief. The winning bid was anonymous, but later, Mr. Anonymous gave Bohr’s medal to the Danish Historical Museum of Fredrikborg, where it can be seen today.

Three winners, three medals — each of them sold or dissolved, then replaced. In wartime, it seems, Nobel medals get around

 

 

The Man Who Rode the Thunder

17 Oct

Shamelessly re-posting from Damn Interesting:

http://www.damninteresting.com/rider-on-the-storm

 

I’d have shit my pants loooooong before getting to the ground.

 

Rider on the Storm

Posted by Alan Bellows on 06 October 2011

In the summer of 1959, a pair of F-8 Crusader combat jets were on a routine flight to Beaufort, North Carolina with no particular designs on making history. The late afternoon sunlight glinted from the silver and orange fuselages as the US Marine Corps pilots flew high above the Carolina coast at near the speed of sound. The lead jet was piloted by 39-year-old Lt Col William Rankin, a veteran of both World War 2 and the Korean War. He was accompanied by his wingman, Lt Herbert Nolan. The pilots were cruising at 47,000 feet to stay above a large, surly-looking column of cumulonimbus cloud which was amassing about a half mile below them, threatening to moisten the officers upon their arrival at the air field.

Mere minutes before they were scheduled to begin their descent towards Beaufort, William Rankin heard a decreasingly reassuring series of grinding sounds coming from his aircraft’s engine. The airframe shuddered, and most of the indicator needles on his array of cockpit instruments flopped into their fluorescent orange “something is horribly wrong” regions. The engine had stopped cold. As the unpowered aircraft dipped earthward, Lt Col Rankin switched on his Crusader’s emergency generator to electrify his radio. “Power failure,” Rankin transmitted matter-of-factly to Nolan. “May have to eject.”

Unable to restart his engine, and struggling to keep his craft from entering a near-supersonic nose dive, Rankin grasped the two emergency eject handles. He was mindful of his extreme altitude, and of the serious discomfort that would accompany the sudden decompression of an ejection; but although he lacked a pressure suit, he knew that his oxygen mask should keep him breathing in the rarefied atmosphere nine miles up. He was also wary of the ominous gray soup of a storm that lurked below; but having previously experienced a bail out amidst enemy fire in Korea, a bit of inclement weather didn’t seem all that off-putting. At approximately 6:00 pm, Lt Col Rankin concluded that his aircraft was unrecoverable and pulled hard on his eject handles. An explosive charge propelled him from the cockpit into the atmosphere with sufficient force to rip his left glove from his hand, scattering his canopy, pilot seat, and other plane-related debris into the sky. Bill Rankin had spent a fair amount of time skydiving in his career—both premeditated and otherwise—but this particular dive would be unlike any that he or any living person had experienced before.

As Rankin plunged toward the earth, licks of lightning darted through the massive, writhing storm cloud below him. Rankin had little attention to spare, however, given the disconcerting circumstances. The extreme cold in the upper atmosphere chilled his extremities, and the sudden change in air pressure had caused a vigorous nosebleed and an agonizing swelling in his abdomen. The discomfort was so extreme that he wondered whether the decompression effects would kill him before he reached the ground.

As the wind roared in his ears, he gasped up oxygen from his emergency breathing apparatus while resisting the urge to pull his parachute’s rip cord; its built-in barometer was designed to auto-deploy the parachute at a safe breathing altitude, and his supply of emergency oxygen was limited. Opening the chute early would prolong his descent and might result in death due to asphyxiation or hypothermia. Under normal circumstances one would expect about three and a half minutes of free-fall to reach the breathable altitude of 10,000 feet. The circumstances, however, were not normal. After falling for a mere 10 seconds, Bill Rankin penetrated the top of the anvil-shaped storm. The dense gray cloud smothered out the summer sun, and the temperature dropped rapidly. In less than a minute the extreme cold and wind began to inflict Rankin’s extremities with frostbite; particularly his gloveless left hand. The wind was a cacophony inside his flight helmet. Freezing, injured, and unable to see more than a few feet in the murky cloud, the Lieutenant Colonel mustered all of his will to keep his hand far from the rip cord.

After falling through damp darkness for an interminable time, Rankin began to grow concerned that the automatic switch on his parachute had malfunctioned. He felt certain that he had been descending for several minutes, though he was aware that one’s sense of time is a fickle thing under such distracting circumstances. He fingered the rip cord anxiously, wondering whether to give it a yank. He’d lost all feeling in his left hand, and his other limbs weren’t faring much better. It was then that he felt a sharp and familiar upward tug on his harness–his parachute had deployed. It was too dark to see the chute’s canopy above him, but he tugged on the risers and concluded that it had indeed inflated properly. This was a welcome reprieve from the wet-and-windy free-fall.

Unfortunately for the impaired pilot, he was nowhere near the 10,000 foot altitude he expected. Strong updrafts in the cell had decreased his terminal velocity substantially, and the volatile storm had triggered his barometric parachute switch prematurely. Bill Rankin was still far from the earth, and he was now dangling helplessly in the belly of an oblivious monstrosity.

 

“I’d see lightning,” Rankin would later muse, “Boy, do I remember that lightning. I never exactly heard the thunder; I felt it.” Amidst the electrical spectacle, the storm’s capricious winds pressed Rankin downward until he encountered the powerful updrafts—the same updrafts that keep hailstones aloft as they accumulate ice–which dragged him and his chute thousands of feet back up into the storm. This dangerous effect is familiar to paragliding enthusiasts, who unaffectionately refer to it as cloud suck. At the apex Rankin caught up with his parachute, causing it to drape over him like a wet blanket and stir worries that he would become entangled with it and drop from the sky at a truly terminal velocity. Again he fell, and again the updrafts yanked him skyward in the darkness. He lost count of how many times this up-and-down cycle repeated. “At one point I got seasick and heaved,” he once retold.

At times the air was so saturated with suspended water that an intake of breath caused him to sputter and choke. He began to worry about the very strange—but very real–possibility of drowning in the sky. He began to feel his body being peppered by hailstones that were germinating in the pregnant storm cell, adding yet another concern: that the icy shrapnel might shred his fragile silk canopy.

Lt Col Rankin was uncertain how long he had been absorbing abuse when he began to notice that the violence of his undulations was ebbing. He was also beginning to regain some sensation in his numb limbs, indicating that temperatures were warming. And the rain—which had previously been splashing him from every conceivable direction—was now only falling from above.

Moments later the moist Marine emerged from the underside of the cumulonimbus cloud amidst a warm summer rain. Below was a flat expanse of North Carolina backcountry, with no immediate signs of civilization. But Rankin’s parachute was still functional, and he was just a few hundred feet from the ground, so all seemed relatively well. But the storm had one last parting gift. As Rankin neared the ground a sudden gust of wind whisked him into a thicket. Helpless, he was pushed into the branches of a tree where his parachute became ensnared, and his momentum caused him to plow headfirst into the trunk. Fortunately his flight helmet kept his brain box from taking any serious damage.

 

Bill Rankin removed himself from the troublesome tree and assessed his situation. The time was 6:40 pm. Bill’s brutalized body had spent around forty minutes bobbing around the area of atmosphere which mountaineers refer to unfondly as the Death Zone. Applying his Marine training, Rankin started walking in a search pattern until he located a backroad. He stood at the roadside and attempted to flag down the automobiles that occasionally passed, but it took some time to find a passerby bold enough to brake for a soggy, bleeding, bruised, frost-bitten, and vomit-encrusted pilot. Finally an obliging stranger stopped and drove Rankin back to a country store in the nearby town of Ahoskie, NC where he used the phone to summon an ambulance. While he awaited its arrival he took the luxury of slumping to the floor for some much-needed rest.

In the aftermath of his ordeal Lt Col William Rankin spent several weeks recovering in the hospital. His injuries were surprisingly minor, however, consisting of superficial frostbite and a touch of decompression shock. He eventually returned to duty, and the following year he chronicled his perilous adventures in a now out-of-print book entitled The Man Who Rode the Thunder.

No human before or since Bill Rankin is known to have parachuted through a cumulonimbus tower and lived to tell about it. Lt Col William Henry Rankin passed away on 06 July 2009, almost exactly 50 years after his harrowing and history-making ride on the storm. Cue epic organ solo.

You

17 May

Just some scientific food for thought on a lazy morning while packing to leave town for a few days [with no intentions of starting a religious or philosophical debate]. It just struck me as a very thought provoking piece that is somehow introspective on a cosmological scale… as bipolar as that sounds.

This is the first part of the introduction to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally under-appreciated state known as existence.

Why atoms take this trouble is a bit of a puzzle. Being you is not a gratifying experience at the atomic level. For all their devoted attention, your atoms don’t actually are about you – indeed, don’t even know that you are there. They don’t even know that they are there. They are mindless particles, after all, and not even themselves alive. (It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.) Yet somehow for the period of your existence they will answer to a single overarching impulse: to keep you you.

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting – fleeting indeed. Even a long human life adds up to only about 650,000 hours. And when that modest milestone flashes past, or at some other point thereabouts, for reasons unknown your atoms will shut you down, silently disassemble, and go off to be other things. And that’s it for you.

Still, you may rejoice that it happens at all. Generally speaking in the universe it doesn’t, so far as we can tell. This is decidedly odd because the atoms that so liberally and congenially flock together to form living things on Earth are exactly the same atoms that decline to do it elsewhere. Whatever else it may be, at the level of chemistry life it curiously mundane: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, a little calcium, a dash of sulfur, a light dusting of other very ordinary elements – nothing you wouldn’t find in any ordinary drugstore – and that’s all you need. The only thing special about the atoms that make you is that they make you. That is of course the miracle of life.

Whether or not atoms make life in other corners of the universe, they make plenty else; indeed they make everything else. Without them there would be no water or air or rocks, no stars and plants, no distant gassy clouds or swirling nebulae or any of the other things that make the universe so usefully material. Atoms are so numerous and necessary that we easily overlook that they needn’t actually exist at all. There is no law that requires the universe to fill itself with small particles of matter or to produce light and gravity and the other physical properties on which our existence hinges. There needn’t actually be a universe at all. For the longest time there wasn’t. There were no atoms and no universe for them to float about in. There was nothing – nothing at all anywhere.

So thank goodness for atoms. But the fact that you have atoms and they assemble in suck a willing manner is only part of what got you here. To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed wince the dawn of time, most – 99.9 percent – are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a plane that is very good at producing life but even better at extinguishing it.

The average species on Earth lasts for only about four million years, so if you wish to be around for billions of years, you must be as fickle as the atoms that made you. You must be prepared to change everything about yourself – shape, size, color, species affiliation, everything – and to do so repeatedly. That’s much easier said than done, because the process of change is random. To get form “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule” (as Gilbert and Sullivan put it) to sentient upright modern human has required you to mutate new traits over and over in a precisely timely manner for an exceedingly long while. So at various periods over the last 3.8 billion years you have abhorred oxygen, then doted on it, grown fins and limbs and jaunty sails, laid eggs, flicked the air with a forked tongue, been sleek, been furry, lived underground, lived in trees, been as big as a deer, and as small as a mouse, and a million things more. The tiniest deviation from any of these evolutionary shifts, and you might now be licking algae from cave walls or lolling walruslike on some stony shore or disgorging air through a blowhole in the top of your head before diving sixty feet for a mouthful of sandworms.

Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely – make that miraculously – fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, everyone of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stranded, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment in order to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result – eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly – in you.

”The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”

– Freeman Dyson

Lost in Translation

9 May

[i think this was a WSJ article… lost the link]

Lost in Translation
New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world; a different sense of blame in Japanese and Spanish

Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?

Take “Humpty Dumpty sat on a…” Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say “sat” rather than “sit.” In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can’t) change the verb to mark tense.

In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.

In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you’d use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you’d use a different form.

Do English, Indonesian, Russian and Turkish speakers end up attending to, understanding, and remembering their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages?

These questions touch on all the major controversies in the study of mind, with important implications for politics, law and religion. Yet very little empirical work had been done on these questions until recently. The idea that language might shape thought was for a long time considered untestable at best and more often simply crazy and wrong. Now, a flurry of new cognitive science research is showing that in fact, language does profoundly influence how we see the world.

The question of whether languages shape the way we think goes back centuries; Charlemagne proclaimed that “to have a second language is to have a second soul.” But the idea went out of favor with scientists when Noam Chomsky’s theories of language gained popularity in the 1960s and ’70s. Dr. Chomsky proposed that there is a universal grammar for all human languages—essentially, that languages don’t really differ from one another in significant ways. And because languages didn’t differ from one another, the theory went, it made no sense to ask whether linguistic differences led to differences in thinking.

The search for linguistic universals yielded interesting data on languages, but after decades of work, not a single proposed universal has withstood scrutiny. Instead, as linguists probed deeper into the world’s languages (7,000 or so, only a fraction of them analyzed), innumerable unpredictable differences emerged.

Of course, just because people talk differently doesn’t necessarily mean they think differently. In the past decade, cognitive scientists have begun to measure not just how people talk, but also how they think, asking whether our understanding of even such fundamental domains of experience as space, time and causality could be constructed by language.

For example, in Pormpuraaw, a remote Aboriginal community in Australia, the indigenous languages don’t use terms like “left” and “right.” Instead, everything is talked about in terms of absolute cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), which means you say things like, “There’s an ant on your southwest leg.” To say hello in Pormpuraaw, one asks, “Where are you going?”, and an appropriate response might be, “A long way to the south-southwest. How about you?” If you don’t know which way is which, you literally can’t get past hello.

About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes. They perform navigational feats scientists once thought were beyond human capabilities. This is a big difference, a fundamentally different way of conceptualizing space, trained by language.

Differences in how people think about space don’t end there. People rely on their spatial knowledge to build many other more complex or abstract representations including time, number, musical pitch, kinship relations, morality and emotions. So if Pormpuraawans think differently about space, do they also think differently about other things, like time?

To find out, my colleague Alice Gaby and I traveled to Australia and gave Pormpuraawans sets of pictures that showed temporal progressions (for example, pictures of a man at different ages, or a crocodile growing, or a banana being eaten). Their job was to arrange the shuffled photos on the ground to show the correct temporal order. We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left).

Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west. That is, seated facing south, time went left to right. When facing north, right to left. When facing east, toward the body, and so on. Of course, we never told any of our participants which direction they faced. The Pormpuraawans not only knew that already, but they also spontaneously used this spatial orientation to construct their representations of time. And many other ways to organize time exist in the world’s languages. In Mandarin, the future can be below and the past above. In Aymara, spoken in South America, the future is behind and the past in front.

In addition to space and time, languages also shape how we understand causality. For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.

In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn’t normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn’t encode or remember the agent as well.

In another study, English speakers watched the video of Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” (a wonderful nonagentive coinage introduced into the English language by Justin Timberlake), accompanied by one of two written reports. The reports were identical except in the last sentence where one used the agentive phrase “ripped the costume” while the other said “the costume ripped.” Even though everyone watched the same video and witnessed the ripping with their own eyes, language mattered. Not only did people who read “ripped the costume” blame Justin Timberlake more, they also levied a whopping 53% more in fines.

Beyond space, time and causality, patterns in language have been shown to shape many other domains of thought. Russian speakers, who make an extra distinction between light and dark blues in their language, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue. The Piraha, a tribe in the Amazon in Brazil, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like few and many, are not able to keep track of exact quantities. And Shakespeare, it turns out, was wrong about roses: Roses by many other names (as told to blindfolded subjects) do not smell as sweet.

Patterns in language offer a window on a culture’s dispositions and priorities. For example, English sentence structures focus on agents, and in our criminal-justice system, justice has been done when we’ve found the transgressor and punished him or her accordingly (rather than finding the victims and restituting appropriately, an alternative approach to justice). So does the language shape cultural values, or does the influence go the other way, or both?

Languages, of course, are human creations, tools we invent and hone to suit our needs. Simply showing that speakers of different languages think differently doesn’t tell us whether it’s language that shapes thought or the other way around. To demonstrate the causal role of language, what’s needed are studies that directly manipulate language and look for effects in cognition.

One of the key advances in recent years has been the demonstration of precisely this causal link. It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too. And if you take away people’s ability to use language in what should be a simple nonlinguistic task, their performance can change dramatically, sometimes making them look no smarter than rats or infants. (For example, in recent studies, MIT students were shown dots on a screen and asked to say how many there were. If they were allowed to count normally, they did great. If they simultaneously did a nonlinguistic task—like banging out rhythms—they still did great. But if they did a verbal task when shown the dots—like repeating the words spoken in a news report—their counting fell apart. In other words, they needed their language skills to count.)

All this new research shows us that the languages we speak not only reflect or express our thoughts, but also shape the very thoughts we wish to express. The structures that exist in our languages profoundly shape how we construct reality, and help make us as smart and sophisticated as we are.

Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature. As we uncover how languages and their speakers differ from one another, we discover that human natures too can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak. The next steps are to understand the mechanisms through which languages help us construct the incredibly complex knowledge systems we have. Understanding how knowledge is built will allow us to create ideas that go beyond the currently thinkable. This research cuts right to the fundamental questions we all ask about ourselves. How do we come to be the way we are? Why do we think the way we do? An important part of the answer, it turns out, is in the languages we speak.

Corrections and Amplifications

Japanese and Spanish language speakers would likely say “the vase broke” or “the vase was broken” when talking about an accident. This article says that Japanese and Spanish speakers would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.”

And to liven it up a bit, an excerpt from Discover:

20 19 Things You Didn’t Know About Language

1 The voice box sits lower in the throat in humans than it does in other primates, giving us a uniquely large resonating system. That’s why we alone are able to make the wide range of sounds needed for speech

2 That also explains Mariah Carey, Barry White, and Robin Williams.

3 Unfortunately, the placement of our voice box means we can’t breathe and swallow at the same time, as other animals can (choke).

4 Fortunately, the human voice box doesn’t drop until about 9 months, which allows infants to breathe while nursing.

5 Still the one: Mandarin is the long-standing champ among world languages with 845 million native speakers, about 2.5 times as many as English.

6 But more than 70 percent of all the home pages on the Internet are in English, and more online users speak English than any other language, making it the world’s lingua franca (assuming you consider brb, omg, g2g, and rofl English).

7 Hey, the world will never change—right? English is mandatory for every student in China, starting in third grade. But in America, only 3 percent of elementary schools and 4 percent of secondary schools even offer Chinese.

8 Many science-related English words starting with the letters al—including algebra, alkaline, and algorithm—are derived from Arabic, in which the prefix al just means “the.”

9 This is a legacy of the medieval era, when ancient Greek and Roman knowledge was largely lost in Europe but preserved and advanced among scholars in the Islamic world.

10 Modern technology is making everything smaller, even our words. “Bits of eight” shrank to become byte, “modulate/demodulate” became modem, “picture cell” became pixel, and of course “web log” became blog.

11 At the other end, the longest word recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary is pneumono­ultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling volcanic silicon dust.

12 Grüss dich, Dunkelheit, mein alter Freund. Three- to five-day-olds born into French-speaking families tend to cry with the rising intonation characteristic of French; babies with German-speaking parents cry with falling tones, much like spoken German. Infants may start learning language in the womb, it seems.

13 The neural equipment for language development then seems to ripen between birth and age 3. People deprived of language before puberty (due to isolation or abuse, for instance) might later learn a limited supply of words, but they never develop the ability to make meaningful sentences.

14 Other clues about language processing come from damaged brains. People who have sustained an injury to a region called Broca’s area have trouble producing even short phrases, indicating it is critical to speech.

15 And damage to the brain’s superior temporal gyrus can lead to Wernicke’s aphasia. Patients sound as if they are speaking normally, but what they say makes no sense.

16 In old Westerns, Native Americans often made a sound like “ugh.” This wasn’t a commentary on the plots; it was a naive attempt to reproduce the sound of the glottal stop of many Native American languages, produced by briefly closing the vocal cords during speech.

17 !Say !What? When the Dutch encountered Africa’s Nama people, whose language includes clicking sounds, they dubbed them Hottentots, Dutch for “stuttering.”

18 Really foreign sounds: Spanish Silbo, a whistle language, has only four vowel and four consonant sounds. Audible for miles, it resembles bird calls and is indigenous to—where else?—the Canary Islands.

19 Indian Sign Language is the world’s most widespread silent language, with some 2.7 million users. 20. Another sound of silence: More than one-third of the world’s 6,800 spoken languages are endangered. According to UNESCO, about 200 tongues now have fewer than 10 surviving speakers.

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