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Vomit for Science

27th September 2010

Just when I’d lost all hope for science, along came this:

Comic of Vomiting for Science

(Click on image for a larger and much better copy.)

Now you’re thinking, “Har, har, what an immature comic. Nothing so stupid as that ever happened.”

But there you’d be wrong, my friend. First, it actually did happen. Second, it was brilliant science of the good old fashioned kind. (As for whether my rendition is immature, we’ll pass over that subject.)

Pernicious anemia is a sickness caused by loss of gastric parietal cells, and subsequent inability to absorb vitamin B12. For the whole story, ready the Wikipedia article on pernicious anemia1. To make a long story short, part of the process of coming to an understanding of the sickness involved this:

The British physician Thomas Addison first described the disease in 1849, from which it acquired the common name of Addison’s anemia. In 1907, Richard Clarke Cabot reported on a series of 1200 patients with PA. Their average survival was between one and three years. Dr. William Bosworth Castle performed an experiment whereby he ingested raw hamburger meat and regurgitated it after an hour, and subsequently fed it to a group of ten patients. A control group were fed untreated raw hamburger meat. The former group showed a disease response whereas the latter group did not. This was not a sustainable practice, but it demonstrated the existence of an ‘intrinsic factor’ from gastric juice.

There you have it: Eating raw hamburger and then vomiting it back up to feed to someone else–all in the name of science. Vomiting is bad enough, but can you imagine eating raw hamburger? It’s so slimy and sticky, I don’t think I’d be able to wait an hour before it came spewing back up. Yes sir, back in the good old days you had to be a real man if you wanted to be a scientist.



How do You Say Oops in Spanish?

20th May 2010

There are, perhaps, few more ignoble ways for a battleship to go down:

In the Second World War, Bahia was once again used as a convoy escort, sailing over 100,000 nautical miles (190,000 km; 120,000 mi) in the span of about a year. On 4 July 1945 she was acting as a plane guard for transport aircraft flying from the Atlantic to Pacific theaters of war. While Bahia’s gunners were firing at a kite for anti-aircraft practice, one aimed too low and hit depth charges stored near the stern of the ship, resulting in a massive explosion that incapacitated the ship and sunk her within minutes. Only a small portion of the crew survived the blast, and even fewer were still living when their rafts were discovered days later.

That is definitely an “oops” moment.

One Response to How do You Say Oops in Spanish?

  1. Arlan says:

    Ay chihuahua!

Comments are closed.

Benjamin Peirce – Math Poet

16th April 2010

I am not good at math. The farthest I ventured into this field was basic trigonometry and advanced algebra–and I don’t think I retained very much of the latter. But as much as this subject is alien to me–a field in which I have not a scrap of skill–I can still recognize that it is important. It is when I read about a genius in math, and how they see and feel math, that I begin to dimly see how much is beyond my vision.

Benjamin Peirce (4 April 1809 – 6 October 1880) was an American mathematician who taught at Harvard University for forty years. He made contributions to celestial mechanics, number theory, algebra, and the philosophy of mathematics. He was a rare genius of math. Edward Waldo Emerson relates a story of George Flagg about Peirce: “His talk was informal, often far above their heads. ‘Do you follow me?’ asked the Professor one day. No one could say Yes. ‘I’m not surprised,’ said he; ‘I know of only three persons who could.’ At Paris, the year after, at the great Exposition, Flagg stood before a mural tablet whereon were inscribed the names of the great mathematicians of the earth for more than two thousand years. Archimedes headed, Peirce closed the list; the only American.

Peirce could rhapsodize about math like a poet might write about nature. He said,

Geometry, to which I have devoted my life, is honoured with the title of the Key of Sciences; but it is the Key of an ever open door which refuses to be shut, and through which the whole world is crowding, to make free, in unrestrained license, with the precious treasures within, thoughtless both of lock and key, of the door itself, and even of Science, to which it owes such boundless possessions, the New World included. The door is wide open and all may enter, but all do not enter with equal thoughtlessness. There are a few who wonder, as they approach, at the exhaustless wealth, as the sacred shepherd wondered at the burning bush of Horeb, which was ever burning and never consumed. Casting their shoes from off their feet and the world’s iron-shod doubts from their understanding, these children of the faithful take their first step upon the holy ground with reverential awe, and advance almost with timidity, fearful, as the signs of Deity break upon them, lest they be brought face to face with the Almighty.

And in talking about symbolism in math he begins to sound like a poet discussing the use of symbolism in poetry:

Some definite interpretation of a linear algebra would, at first sight, appear indispensable to its successful application. But on the contrary, it is a singular fact, and one quite consonant with the principles of sound logic, that its first and general use is mostly to be expected from its want of significance. The interpretation is a trammel to the use. Symbols are essential to comprehensive argument. [...] In Algebra, likewise, the letters are symbols which, passed through a machinery of argument in accordance with given laws, are developed into symbolic results under the name of formulas. When the formulas admit of intelligible interpretation, they are accessions to knowledge; but independently of their interpretation they are invaluable as symbolical expressions of thought. But the most noted instance is the symbol called the impossible or imaginary, known also as the square root of minus one, and which, from a shadow of meaning attached to it, may be more definitely distinguished as the symbol of semi-inversion. This symbol is restricted to a precise signification as the representative of perpendicularity in quaternions, and this wonderful algebra of space is intimately dependent upon the special use of the symbol for its symmetry, elegance, and power.

I don’t get the meaning of the square root of minus one, but I do get the importance of symbols.

Peirce was, to those who studied math, both a character and a delight. As a pupil of Peirce, Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled,

He gave us his “Curves and Functions”, in the form of lectures; and sometimes, even while stating his propositions, he would be seized with some mathematical inspiration, would forget pupils, notes, everything, and would rapidly dash off equation after equation, following them out with smaller and smaller chalk-marks into the remote corners of the blackboard, forsaking his delightful task only when there was literally no more space to be covered, and coming back with a sigh to his actual students. There was a great fascination about these interruptions; we were present, as it seemed, at mathematics in the making; it was like peeping into a necromancer’s cell, and seeing him at work; or as if our teacher were one of the old Arabian algebraists recalled to life.

Speaking of Peirce, Abbott Lawrence Lowell said,

Looking back over the space of fifty years since I entered Harvard College, Benjamin Peirce still impresses me as having the most massive intellect with which I have ever come in contact, and as being the most profoundly inspiring teacher I ever had. … As soon as he had finished the problem or filled the blackboard he would rub everything out and begin again. He was impatient of detail, and sometimes the result would not come out right; but instead of going over his work to find the error, he would rub it out, saying that he had made a mistake in a sign somewhere, and that we should find it when we went over our notes. Described in this way it may seem strange that such a method of teaching should be inspiring; yet to us it was so to the highest degree. We were carried along by the rush of his thought, by the ease and grasp of his intellectual movement. The inspiration came, I think, partly from his treating us as highly competent pupils, capable of following his line of thought even through errors in transformations; partly from his rapid and graceful methods of proof, which reached a result with the least number of steps in the process, attaining thereby an artistic or literary character; and partly from the quality of his mind which tended to regard any mathematical theorem as a particular case of some more comprehensive one, so that we were led onward to constantly enlarging truths.

I will never travel in such circles, or understand such things, but somehow I can still feel a bit of sympathetic delight with those who find such fascination in learning and understanding things.




7th February 2010

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is the name of a town in Wales. It is true, in spite of it sounding like some kind of joke children might make up. The long form of the name is the longest officially recognized place name in the United Kingdom and one of the longest in the world. The name means “St Mary’s Church (Llanfair) of a hollow (pwll) of white hazel (gwyngyll) near (goger) the swirling whirlpool (y chwyrndrobwll) of the church of St Tysilio (llantysilio) with a red cave ([a]g ogo goch).”

The solemnity of this fact is somewhat ruined because the village was originally known as Llanfair Pwllgwyngyll and only in the 1860s was the longer name artificially contrived as a publicity stunt. Nonetheless, the name stands and as of this writing the Wikipedia article has a sound file demonstrating how the name is pronounced. Think you can say it?



2 Responses to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch

  1. Cadie says:

    When I first saw this post at a glance in my reader, I thought some spam had come through. :P

    Yeah, the intrigue of a name like that is kind of ruined when it was contrived as a publicity stunt, even though it does actually mean something.

  2. Cadie says:

    It doesn’t sound as long when they guy says it. It also sounds a lot more interesting and un-silly than it looks when it’s written out.

Comments are closed.


24th January 2010

The weird word for today is: Errhine


From Latin errhīnum, from Ancient Greek ἔρρῖνον, from ἐν (“in”) + ῥίν (“nostril”).


Meaning: Causing an increase in mucus within the nose, and hence causing one to sneeze.

My comment: Dust would fit this for me. “The errhine dust is bothering me today.” Dust does a lot of increasing mucus and sneezing on me.



Bucer on Bigamy

23rd December 2009

Consider this another entry in my erratic, informal, exploration of lesser known aspects and events within the history of Christianity.

Did you know early Protestant leaders defended bigamy on theological grounds? To put it that way makes it sound worse than it is–and yet not. The attempt to justify bigamy was not a concerted act of the Reformed Protestant movement as a whole–any insinuation as such would be dishonest. Nonetheless three very prominent Protestant leaders were involved in this scandal, and that is reason enough for those who claim any degree of Protestant heritage to stop and pondering the roots of this failure.

Martin Bucer (early German Butzer) was a leader during the early Protestant Reformation. He began his religious life as a member of the Dominican Order, later having his vows annulled and joining the work of the Reformation. He had extensive contact with Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and, at the end of his life, with Thomas Cranmer influenced the second revision of The Book of Common Prayer in England.

The Reformation is a fascinating time in history, particularly in regard to religious matters. It was a time of upheaval, strife, and oppression. This confluence of events has the effect of shining a bright light on the nature of men in all of their contradiction, weakness, and insight. Under the pressure of trying times people reveal more about themselves than we might like, and in looking over the historical record of such things a person can find much to ponder about men and their ways.

I agree with certain things said by various leaders in the Reformation, but I am always extremely disconcerted by a common habit in some circles of enthusiastically embracing a Reformation figure, be it Calvin, Luther, or someone else. The great names in the Reformation were deeply flawed men–and in that broken state no different from any other man or woman. A careful reading of history shows them as people who were inconsistent in what they said and did, even flatly contradictory. They were often wrong, or only partly right. They often did not follow right knowledge with right action. Those who today enthusiastically cling to some leader of the Reformation as a model for emulation open themselves to the charge of being either ignorant of what those people said and did and so living in a fantasy, or deliberately blind and so living in a delusion.

I don’t claim to be any better than those men of the Reformation. But I don’t think my faults should be hidden or denied and neither should the faults of those claimed as leaders. The desire to hide the Bigamy scandal is wrong. The weakness brought to light by the Bigamy scandal was more than an isolated and regrettable incident. It was a sign of a deeper problem, and those who brush it all aside remain willfully unreflective. Error ought to be exposed, and named for what it is.

The Reformation period was complex, with many different historical events interweaving to create the full picture. Anything so short as a Wikipedia article will be overly simplistic, leaving much out (and one could even argue presenting a biased account). But for a single event illustrating the flaws of Martin Bucer and the Reformation men of his age consider the following:

In November 1539, Philip asked Bucer to produce a theological defence of bigamy, since he had decided to contract a bigamous marriage. Bucer reluctantly agreed, on condition the marriage be kept secret. Bucer consulted Luther and Melanchthon, and the three reformers presented Philip with a statement of advice (Wittenberger Ratschlag); later, Bucer produced his own arguments for and against bigamy. Although the document specified that bigamy could be sanctioned only under rare conditions, Philip took it as approval for his marriage to a lady-in-waiting of his sister. When rumours of the marriage spread, Luther told Philip to deny it, while Bucer advised him to hide his second wife and conceal the truth. Some scholars have noted a possible motivation for this notorious advice: the theologians believed they had advised Philip as a pastor would his parishioner, and that a lie was justified to guard the privacy of their confessional counsel. The scandal that followed the marriage caused Philip to lose political influence, and the Reformation within the Empire was severely compromised.

Appalling is not too harsh a word to describe this. These men are supposed to be pillars of truth and moral integrity, and they conducted themselves like weasely political lackeys. People today who attempt to cover over these failings, or excuse them, in a desire to venerate their chosen heroes do not do the truth any favors.

The lives of the Reformers were messy, and at times even ugly. I do not consider this cause to discard all they have said, but it is reason to be very careful about heaping praise or following carelessly in their footsteps.

What caused Luther and Bucer to err in such an obvious way? It was a weakness not unique to them: They wanted to please men and they got loose with the truth to reach that end. The more one understands church history the more one sees this terrible flaw. It is a universal siren’s call–deadly, and pervasive. When a fear of men, or desire to please them, is ruling within a church this attitude does far more damage than any persecution from without.



22nd December 2009

I came across this interesting word and thought to share it:


Etymology – Back-formation from frowsty

Noun. (plural frowsts)

1. Stuffiness; stifling warmth in a room.
* 1916, John Buchan, Greenmantle
I was pretty bad myself, but managed to move about all the time, for the frowst in my cabin would have sickened a hippo.

Verb. to frowst (third-person singular simple present frowsts, present participle frowsting, simple past and past participle frowsted)

1. (intransitive) To enjoy a warm, stuffy room.
* 1902, Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories

The cure for this ill is not to sit still, / Or frowst with a book by the fire;

The sound of the word brings both toasty and frosty to my mind in the nature of synonym and antonym. (Not to say it is literally the case.) In any event, the word is deliciously obscure, providing those of us who are conversationally handicapped with something to utter during an awkward moment in a full room.


2 Responses to Frowst

  1. Bridget says:

    That’s the word to describe work today.

    I’m inclined to turn on the a/c to dispel the frowst that entered the shop through the large windows.

    Interesting word.

  2. rundy says:

    I recently saw another interesting word. Sadly, I didn’t make a notation of it, so it passed me by.

Comments are closed.

The Brokenness of William Cowper

6th December 2009

Have you ever heard of William Cowper? Probably not. But it is much more likely that you know some of what William Cowper has written. Know the phrase, “Variety is the spice of life”? That was William Cowper–

Variety’s the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavour.

(Book II, The Timepiece, l. 606)

And if you go to church, or sing hymns, you may know more of what he has written. Perhaps most famous:

There is a fountain fill’d with blood,
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Wash’d all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransom’d church of God
Be saved, to sin no more.

E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.

Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy power to save;
When this poor lisping stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave.

Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared
(Unworthy though I be)
For me a blood-bought free reward,
A golden harp for me!

‘Tis strung and tuned for endless years,
And form’d by power divine,
To sound in God the Father’s ears
No other name but Thine.

But then also,

Oh! for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refershing view
Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return!
Sweet the messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

And finally,

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

William Cowper and John Newton wrote a hymn book called Olney Hymns. It was very popular in its day and some survive in popularity today. To have written such great hymns William Cowper must have been a great man, right? But the story of William Cowper’s life is not what you would expect after reading those hymns.

Cowper suffered from severe manic depression and in 1763 when he was offered a Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords, he broke under the strain of the approaching examination and experienced a period of insanity. At this time he tried three times to commit suicide and was sent to Nathaniel Cotton’s asylum at St. Albans for recovery. Then again in 1773, Cowper, now engaged to marry Mrs. Unwin, experienced a new attack of insanity, imagining not only that he was condemned to hell eternally, but that God was commanding him to make a sacrifice of his own life.

In the aftermath of his suicide attempts he penned the following poem,

Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion,
Scarce can endure delay of execution,
Wait, with impatient readiness, to seize my
Soul in a moment.

Damned below Judas:more abhorred than he was,
Who for a few pence sold his holy Master.
Twice betrayed Jesus me, this last delinquent,
Deems the profanest.

Man disavows, and Deity disowns me:
Hell might afford my miseries a shelter;
Therefore hell keeps her ever hungry mouths all
Bolted against me.

Hard lot! encompassed with a thousand dangers;
Weary, faint, trembling with a thousand terrors;
I’m called, if vanquished, to receive a sentence
Worse than Abiram’s.

Him the vindictive rod of angry justice
Sent quick and howling to the center headlong;
I, fed with judgment, in a fleshly tomb, am
Buried above ground.

It is a sad loss that the people singing “There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins” do not really know the man who wrote those words. When people go to church to sing hymns they want to think about great hymns written by great men. But it would be better if they knew also “Hatred and vengeance, my eternal portion” for though those words do not rest sweet upon the ear, they speak words of truth, words of brokenness, needed to be heard. All the great men people think they see are broken men. They are broken in ways that shock and dismay us. And far from being a thing shirked from, it should be a truth that informs our understanding of words lifted in praise.


(1) Wikipedia article on William Cowper:
(2) Selected quotations from William Cowper:
(3) Poems of William Cowper:
(4) Olney Hymns Online:

Cyril Connolly on Writing

16th September 2009

If you spend enough time wandering about on the internet you will discover people fretting about the audience for their writing. It is a common affliction of those who write–they want the public to be pleased, and to pay attention. But a few people take a different stand.

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the
public and have no self.

–Cyril Connolly



Apocalpyse Past

8th June 2009

If you read enough history, you come across all sorts of fascinating stories. Some things are just plan educational–you didn’t know that had happened before. And some historical occurrences put things in perspective that life could be a lot worse.

The following two stories have a superficial similarity, but their outcomes are radically different. The first seems like the Egyptian plague of darkness as recorded in Exodus chapter 10. The second even sounds a bit like the afflictions in Revelations that accompanied the seals, trumpets, and the bowls in Revelations chapters 6, 8, and 16.

New England’s Dark Day

Date: May 19th, 1780

An unusual darkening of the day sky is observed over the New England states and parts of Canada. The darkness was so complete that candles were required from noon on. It did not disperse until the middle of the next night. According to Professor Samuel Williams of Harvard College, the Darkness was seen at least as far north as Portland, Maine, and extended southwards to New Jersey. The Darkness was not witnessed in Pennsylvania.

The earliest report of the darkness came from Rupert, New York, where the sun was already obscured at sunrise. Professor Samuel Williams observed from Cambridge that: “This extraordinary darkness came on between the hours of 10 and 11 A. M. and continued till the middle of the next night.” Reverend Ebenezer Parkham, of Westborough, Massachusetts, reported peak obscurity to occur “by 12″, but did not record the time when the obscuration first arrived.

At Harvard College, the obscuration was reported to arrive at 10:30 AM, peaking at 12:45 PM, and abating by 1:10 PM, although a heavy overcast remained for the rest of the day. The obscuration was reported to have reached Barnstable, Massachusetts, by 2:00 PM, with peak obscurity reported to have occurred at 5:30 PM.

For several days before the Dark Day, the sun as viewed from New England appeared to be red, and the sky appeared yellow. While the Darkness was present, soot was observed to be collected in rivers and in rain water, suggesting the presence of smoke. Also, when the night really came in, observers saw the moon as red as blood.

Regarding the cause of this strange event, it is speculated that the likely cause of the Dark Day was smoke from massive forest fires in Ontario, Canada.

The above information was extracted from the Wikipedia article(1) on the event. You can find a little more info (including a few more anecdotes) at a Wired article(2)

The Desolation of Iceland

Date: June 8th, 1783

The dark day of New England ended up being a fascinating (or frightening) piece of phenomena, but in the end it caused no lasting harm–at least to those recorded as having observed it. Not so for the June 8th eruption of Mount Laki in Iceland three years later. The effects from this were of staggering, apocalyptic, proportions.

According to Wikipedia:(3)

On 8 June 1783, a fissure with 130 craters opened with phreatomagmatic explosions because of the groundwater interacting with the rising basalt magma. These are sometimes mistaken by non-volcanologists as being “plinian” but are not. Over a few days the eruptions became less explosive, Strombolian, and later Hawaiian in character, with high rates of lava effusion. This event is rated as VEI 6 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, but the eight month emission of sulfuric aerosols resulted in one of the most important climatic and socially repercussive events of the last millennium.

The eruption, also known as the Skaftáreldar (“Skaftá river fires”) or Síðueldur, produced an estimated 14 km3 (3.4 cu mi) of basalt lava, and the total volume of tephra emitted was 0.91 km3 (0.2 cu mi). Lava fountains were estimated to have reached heights of 800-1400 m (~2,600-4,600 ft). In Great Britain, the summer of 1783 was known as the “sand-summer” due to ash fallout. The gases were carried by the convective eruption column to altitudes of about 15 kilometres (10 mi). The aerosols built up caused a cooling effect in the Northern Hemisphere.

The eruption continued until 7 February 1784, but most of the lava was erupted in the first five months. Grímsvötn volcano, from which the Laki fissure extends, was also erupting at the time from 1783 until 1785. The outpouring of gases, including an estimated 8 million tons of fluorine and estimated 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide gave rise to what has since become known as the “Laki haze” across Europe.

One of the most important climatic and socially repercussive events of the last millennium? Why don’t the history books they give you in school spend more (any?) time on this? You get to read all about Pompeii and its obliteration, but hear nary a word about this.

Continuing from the Wikipedia article:

The consequences for Iceland — known as the Mist Hardships — were catastrophic. An estimated 20-25% of the population died in the famine and fluorine poisoning after the fissure eruptions ceased. Around 80% of sheep, 50% of cattle and 50% of horses died because of dental and skeletal fluorosis from the 8 million tons of fluorine that were released.

A first person account states,

“This past week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulfur and salt peter, all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils, and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in color and gravel slides turned gray. All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned gray, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements.”

And Gilbert White recorded at Selbourne that,

The summer of the year 1783 was an amazing and portentous one, and full of horrible phaenomena; for besides the alarming meteors and tremendous thunder-storms that affrighted and distressed the different counties of this kingdom, the peculiar haze, or smokey fog, that prevailed for many weeks in this island, and in every part of Europe, and even beyond its limits, was a most extraordinary appearance, unlike anything known within the memory of man. By my journal I find that I had noticed this strange occurrence from June 23 to July 20 inclusive, during which period the wind varied to every quarter without making any alteration in the air. The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust- coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. All the time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic, and riding irksome. The country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun;

And as for the wider impact on Europe,

An estimated 122 Tg (120 million tons) of sulfur dioxide were emitted: approximately equivalent to three times the total annual European industrial output in 2006, and also equivalent to a Mount Pinatubo-1991 eruption every three days. This outpouring of sulfur dioxide during unusual weather conditions caused a thick haze to spread across western Europe, resulting in many thousands of deaths throughout 1783 and the winter of 1784.

The summer of 1783 was the hottest on record and a rare high pressure zone over Iceland caused the winds to blow to the south-east. The poisonous cloud drifted to Bergen in Norway, then spread to Prague in the Province of Bohemia by 17 June, Berlin by 18 June, Paris by 20 June, Le Havre by 22 June, and to Great Britain by 23 June. The fog was so thick that boats stayed in port, unable to navigate, and the sun was described as “blood coloured”.

Inhaling sulfur dioxide gas causes victims to choke as their internal soft tissue swells. The local death rate in Chartres was up by 5% during August and September, with over 40 dead. In Great Britain, the records show that the additional deaths were outdoor workers, and perhaps 2-3 times above the normal rate in Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire and the east coast. It has been estimated that 23,000 British people died from the poisoning in August and September.

The haze also heated up causing severe thunderstorms with hailstones that were reported to have killed cattle until it dissipated in the autumn. This disruption then led to a most severe winter in 1784, where Gilbert White at Selborne in Hampshire reported 28 days of continuous frost. The extreme winter is estimated to have caused 8,000 additional deaths in the UK. In the spring thaw, Germany and Central Europe then reported severe flood damage.

The meteorological impact of Laki resonated on, contributing significantly to several years of extreme weather in Europe. In France a sequence of extremes included a surplus harvest in 1785 that caused poverty for rural workers, accompanied by droughts, bad winters and summers, including a violent hailstorm in 1788 that destroyed crops. This in turn contributed significantly to the build up of poverty and famine that triggered the French Revolution in 1789. Laki was only a factor in a decade of climatic disruption, as Grímsvötn was erupting from 1783-1785 and a recent study of El Niño patterns also suggests an unusually strong El-Niño effect between 1789-93.

Did you read that? It produce three times the sulfur dioxide of the annual industrial output of Europe in 2006! It puts things in a bit of perspective. People are all in a tizzy over global warming, or the possibility that a meteor could hit earth and cause catastrophic damage. And if a big one did strike, it could cause terrible destruction. But something doesn’t have to fall from the heavens to do that. The ground can simply erupt from beneath our feet. Imagine what would happen if Laki erupted again like it did in 1783, or even worse?



Herbert Spencer on Protecting Fools

4th May 2009

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.

–Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer said that, but it isn’t really a quote that originated with him. The book of Proverbs holds the same sentiment, and however wrong Herbert Spencer was on some things this statement is certainly true, and very applicable today.

On Spring

4th May 2009

As we are currently in the midst of spring, this quotation seemed appropriate:

If Spring came but once in a century, instead of once a year, or burst forth with the sound of an earthquake, and not in silence, what wonder and expectation there would be in all hearts to behold the miraculous change! But now the silent succession suggests nothing but necessity. To most men only the cessation of the miracle would be miraculous and the perpetual exercise of God’s power seems less wonderful than its withdrawal would be.

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Those words could be applied to many things beyond even spring.

A Word From Madison

4th May 2009

Today we bring you a word from James Madison on government and oppression:

Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments, the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from the acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the Constituents.

–James Madison

It seems a very apt observation for this present time.

Deportation and Death

7th April 2009

Armenians being deported

Armenians On Deportation March (source)

This is what loosing everything you had looks like. This is what facing starvation, and death looks like. Between 600,000 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Armenian genocide. Is this a bit of history you aren’t familiar with? Read more about it(1).


Forty Minute War

18th December 2008

Elsewhere, I wrote about the three hundred and thirty-five year war(1). To fill in the opposite end of the spectrum, I now present to you the “Forty Minute War” otherwise known as the Anglo-Zanzibar War(2). It began something like this:

The Anglo-Zanzibar War was fought between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar on 27 August 1896. The conflict lasted approximately 40 minutes and is the shortest war in history. The immediate cause of the war was the death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on 25 August 1896 and the subsequent succession of Sultan Khalid bin Barghash. The British authorities preferred Hamud bin Muhammed, who was more favourable to them, as Sultan. In accordance with a treaty signed in 1886, a condition for accession to the sultancy was that the candidate obtain the permission of the British Consul, and Khalid had not fulfilled this requirement. The British considered this a casus belli and sent an ultimatum to Khalid demanding that he order his forces to stand down and leave the palace. In response, Khalid called up his palace guard and barricaded himself inside the palace.

The whole thing ended something like this:

The ultimatum expired at 09:00 East Africa Time (EAT) on 27 August, by which time the British had gathered three cruisers, two gunships, 150 marines and sailors and 900 Zanzibaris in the harbour area. The Royal Navy contingent were under the command of Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson whilst their Zanzibaris were commanded by Brigadier-General Lloyd Mathews of the Zanzibar army. Around 2,800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most were recruited from the civilian population, but they also included the Sultan’s palace guard and several hundred of his servants and slaves. The defenders had several artillery pieces and machine guns which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships. A bombardment which was opened at 09:02 set the palace on fire and disabled the defending artillery. A small naval action took place with the British sinking a Zanzibari royal yacht and two smaller vessels, and some shots were fired ineffectually at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they approached the palace. The flag at the palace was shot down and fire ceased at 09:40.

The Sultan’s forces sustained roughly 500 casualties, while only one British sailor was injured. Sultan Khalid received asylum in the German consulate before escaping to Tanganyika. The British quickly placed Sultan Hamud in power at the head of a puppet government. The war marked the end of Zanzibar as a sovereign state and the start of a period of heavy British influence.

Not very good foresight on the part of the momentary Sultan.


The Bhopal Disaster

17th December 2008

China has been in the news a lot recently for its poor health record. It is a sad fact that they are not the only country with this problem, and that this is not a new problem. Let me take you back to Bhopal, India in December 1984. According to the Wikipedia article(1):

The Bhopal disaster was an industrial disaster that occurred in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India, resulting in the immediate deaths of more than 3,000 people, according to the Indian Supreme Court. A more probable figure is that 8,000 died within two weeks, and it is estimated that an additional 8,000 have since died from gas related diseases.

The incident took place in the early hours of the morning of December 3, 1984, in the heart of the city of Bhopal in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. A Union Carbide subsidiary pesticide plant released 42 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, exposing at least 520,000 people to toxic gases. The Bhopal disaster is frequently cited as the world’s worst industrial disaster.

In summary:

During the night of December 2-3, 1984, large amounts of water entered tank 610, containing 42 tonnes of methyl isocyanate. The resulting reaction generated a major increase in the temperature inside the tank to over 200°C (400°F), raising the pressure to a level the tank was not designed to withstand. This forced the emergency venting of pressure from the MIC holding tank, releasing a large volume of toxic gases. The reaction was sped up by the presence of iron from corroding non-stainless steel pipelines. A mixture of poisonous gases flooded the city of Bhopal. Massive panic resulted as people woke up in a cloud of gas that burned their lungs. Thousands died from the gases and many were trampled in the panic.

A few facts:

  • Apart from MIC the gas cloud may have contained phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride, nitrous oxides, monomethyl amine (MMA) and carbon dioxide, either produced in the storage tank or in the atmosphere. All these gases, except carbon dioxide, are acutely toxic at levels well below 500 ppm.
  • The gas cloud, composed mainly of materials more dense than the surrounding air, stayed close to the ground and spread outwards through the surrounding community. The initial effects of gas exposure were coughing, vomiting, severe eye irritation and a feeling of suffocation. People awoken by these symptoms fled away from the plant. Those who ran inhaled more than those who had a vehicle. Due to their height, children and other people of lower stature inhaled relatively higher concentrations. Many people were trampled trying to escape.
  • Thousands of people had succumbed to gas exposure by the morning hours. There were mass funerals and mass cremations as well as bodies being disposed of in the Narmada river. 170,000 people were treated at hospitals and temporary dispensaries. 2,000 buffaloes, goats, and other animals had to be collected and buried. Within a few days, leaves on trees went yellow and fell off. Supplies including food became scarce due to safety fears by the suppliers. Fishing was prohibited as well which caused further supply shortages.
  • A total of 36 wards were marked by the authorities as being “gas affected”, affecting a population of 520,000. Of these, 200,000 were below 15 years of age, and 3,000 were pregnant women. In 1991, 3,928 deaths had been certified. Independent organizations recorded 8,000 dead the first days. Other estimations vary between 10,000 and 20,000. It is estimated that 10,000 have died since the accident from gas related diseases. Another 100,000 to 200,000 people are estimated to have permanent injuries.
  • The acute symptoms were burning in the respiratory tract and eyes, blepharospasm, breathlessness, stomach pains and vomiting. The causes of deaths were choking, reflexogenic circulatory collapse and pulmonary oedema. Findings during autopsies revealed changes not only in the lungs but also cerebral oedema, tubular necrosis of the kidneys, fatty generation of the liver and necrotising enteritis. The stillbirth rate increased by up to 300 % and neonatal mortality rate by 200 %.

All of this was the result of a very preventable disaster.


World’s Largest Conventional Explosion

16th December 2008

Halifax Explosion

Thirteen miles away (source)

A bit of grim history for you.

The world’s largest conventional explosion (that status a bit disputed) occurred on Thursday, December 6, 1917, when the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was devastated by the huge detonation of a French cargo ship, fully loaded with wartime explosives, which accidentally collided with a Norwegian ship in “The Narrows” section of the Halifax Harbour. About 2,000 people (mostly Canadians) were killed by debris, fires, or collapsed buildings and it is estimated that over 9,000 people were injured.

The Wikipedia article(1) continues: “All buildings and structures covering nearly two square kilometres along the adjacent shore were obliterated, including those in the neighbouring communities of Richmond and Dartmouth. The explosion caused a tsunami in the harbour and a pressure wave of air that snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and carried fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres.

The scale of the disaster is enough to nearly take your breath away reading about it, all the more as you observe the slowly unfolding disaster. Before the explosion occurred, “Hundreds of onlookers gathered on the shores of the harbour, watching as Mont-Blanc eventually drifted into Pier 6 on the Richmond waterfront.” People, unaware of the ship’s cargo, valiantly tried to put out the fire. And then the explosion struck.

At 9:04:35 AM, the cargo of Mont-Blanc exploded with more force than any man-made explosion before it, equivalent to roughly 3 kilotons of TNT. (Compare to atomic bomb Little Boy dropped in Hiroshima, which had an estimated power of 13 kilotons TNT equivalent.). The ship was instantly destroyed in the giant fireball that rose over 1.9 kilometres (1.2 mi) into the air, forming a large mushroom cloud. Shards of hot metal rained down across Halifax and Dartmouth. The force of the blast triggered a tsunami, which rose up as high as 18 metres above the harbour’s high-water mark on the Halifax side. It was caused by the rapid displacement of harbour water near the blast, followed by water rushing back in towards the shore. The effects were likely compounded by the narrow cross-section of the harbour. There was little information documented on this event as witnesses were generally stunned and injured as the wave washed ashore, though the wave contributed to the death toll, dragging many victims on the harbour front into the waters. Imo was lifted up onto the Dartmouth shore by the tsunami. Captain Haakon From and most of the crew that were on the bridge of the Imo and on its decks were killed by the tsunami. A black rain of unconsumed carbon from the Mont-Blanc fell over the city for about 10 minutes after the blast, coating survivors and structural debris with soot.

Three kilotons of TNT might not sound like a lot compared to 13 tons in the Little Boy atomic explosion, but I find it staggering that a ship-load of conventional explosives could produce almost one quarter the destructive force of an atomic bomb. That is a lot of power.

Not only was the town flattened in a manner similar to Hiroshima, but:

Fragments of Mont-Blanc rained down all over the city. A portion of Mont-Blanc’s anchor shaft, weighing 517 kilograms (1140 lb) was thrown 3.78 kilometres (2.35 mi) west of the blast on the far side of the Northwest Arm, which is now part of a monument at the corner of Spinnaker Dr. and Anchor Dr., while a gun barrel landed in Dartmouth, over 5.5 kilometres (3.5 mi) east, near Albro Lake. A piece of wreckage was driven into the wall of St. Paul’s Church, where it remains today.

I want to cringe and shudder when I read things like,

Many of the wounds were also permanently debilitating, with many people partially blinded by flying glass. Thousands of people had stopped to watch the ship burning in the harbour, with many people watching from inside buildings, leaving them directly in the path of flying glass from shattered windows. Roughly 600 people suffered eye injuries, and 38 of those lost their sight permanently.


The only surviving member at the scene was Patricia driver Billy (William) Wells, who was in the vehicle at the time of the blast. He recounts the event for the Mail Star, October 6, 1967,

“ That’s when it happened … The first thing I remember after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine … The force of the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm… ”

It is explained that Billy was standing again as the tsunami came over him. He managed to remain on land.

“ …After the wave had receded I didn’t see anything of the other firemen so made my way to the old magazine on Campbell Road … The sight was awful … with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads off, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires … I was taken to Camp Hill Hospital and lay on the floor for two days waiting for a bed. The doctors and nurses certainly gave me great service ”

For a story of disaster, heroism, and the destructive force of explosive, read the entire Wikipedia article.


Admiral Yi: The Other Lord Nelson

30th October 2008

Many people have heard of Lord Nelson(1) and his famous naval victory in the Battle of Trafalgar(2). Far fewer people have ever heard of Admiral Yi(3) who was every bit as brilliant a naval commander as Lord Nelson, if not more so.

For example, in the Battle of Myeongnyang(4):

on October 26, 1597, the Korean admiral Yi Sunsin fought the Japanese navy at sea in Myeongnyang Strait, near Jindo Island. With only the 13 ships remaining from Won Gyun’s disastrous defeat at the Battle of Chilchonryang, Admiral Yi Sunsin held the strait from a fleet of 133 Japanese warships and at least 200 Japanese logistical support ships. Many Japanese warships were sunk or disabled during the battle and the Japanese were forced to retreat.

Admiral Yi delivered this remarkable victory after his own king had stripped him of his rank and nearly tortured him to death on false charges of treason. The fleet Admiral Yi had carefully built up from 63 ships to 166 was given into the command of a rival admiral–who promptly went off and lost the entire fleet (except for 13 ships) to the Japanese. Admiral Yi was then restored to his command. But King Seonjo, who judged that the Joseon navy had lost their power and would never be restored again, sent a letter to abolish the navy and join the ground forces under General Gwon Yul. To which Admiral Yi responded in his own letter, “…I still own thirteen ships. As I am alive, the enemies will never gain the Western Sea.”

The rest, they say, is history.

Because of his military brilliance and success, Admiral Yi inspired much envy. As a result of this, in the course of his career he was twice falsely accused, stripped of his rank, and tortured. Nonetheless, he continued to faithfully serve his country until his death.He is reputed to be one of the few admirals to have been victorious in every naval battle (at least 23) in which he commanded.

He lived a life one could write a novel about.


2 Responses to Admiral Yi: The Other Lord Nelson

  1. Chunbum Park says:

    I’m writing an article about him at Citizendium:

    Have you read Samuel Hawley’s The Imjin War?

    It goes really in-depth about the admiral

  2. rundy says:

    No, I haven’t read Samuel Hawley’s book. Thanks for the tip!

Comments are closed.