December 19, 1843 A Christmas Carol

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842

It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season.  Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts, and our favorite Christmas specials on TV.  I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.

Wait … What?

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; all were behind the young author when he came to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

Dickens traveled to Watertown, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan underwent their mutual education, a half-century later.  He also visited a school for neglected boys in Boylston.  He must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison, he later wrote that “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

In February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked in those mills.  Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England suffered in the comparison.  Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, no doubt comparing them with the teeming slums and degraded conditions in London.

lowell-offering-coverHe left with a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same mill girls, which he later described as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”

Over a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and dean at Boston University, read the same 400 pages that Dickens read.  She couldn’t help but notice similarities between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after Dickens’ visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.

The research that followed was published in the form of a thesis, later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“Dickens and Massachusetts

The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits

How Massachusetts shaped Dickens’s view of America”

Edited by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin

Published May 1, 2015.

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 173 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

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December 17, 1900 The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

On December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian. That was considered too easy

In the 5th century BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus taught that the world was made of atoms.  Physically indestructible and always in motion, these atoms are infinite in number, differing only in shape and size.  Democritus taught that everything around us is the result of physical laws without reasoning or purpose.  He asked only “what earlier circumstances caused this event?” Philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates took a less mechanistic approach, asking “What purpose did this event serve?”, while Plato disliked him so much he wanted to burn all his books.

Democritus also taught that there are an infinite number of worlds with inhabitants like us, though the prevailing view in antiquity was that the Earth was special, that we are alone.

In the time of Copernicus in the 1600s, it became widely believed that there is life on other planets.  Astronomers saw several features of the moon as evidence, if not of life, then at least that intelligence had at one time paid a visit.

Interest in Mars began to develop in the 1870s, when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli described physical features of the red planet as “canali”.  The word means “channels” in Italian, but it was mis-translated as “canals”.  The English speaking world was off to the races.extraterrestrial-life

Speculation and folklore about intelligent life on Mars was soon replaced by the popular concept that canals had been excavated by intelligent Martians.

The idea was near universal by the turn of the century.  On this day, December 17, 1900, the French Academy of Science offered a prize of 100,000 francs to the first person to make contact with an alien civilization, provided that it was anything but Martian.  That was considered too easy.

war-of-the-worlds-alien-tripod-attackingThe British author H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1897, telling the story of an alien invasion of earth by Martians fleeing from the desiccation of their planet.  The story was adapted to a radio drama broadcast on Halloween, 1938, so realistic that many listeners sued the network for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”.

The idea of life on Mars persisted until the 1960s, when close observations of the Martian surface were made possible by the Mariner series of spacecraft.

While much of “mainstream” science seems to steer clear of the subject, the University ofis-anybody-out-there California at Berkeley is running a “distributed computing effort” to identify extraterrestrial life, called SETI@home.   With an original objective of 50,000-100,000 home computers, SETI@home currently operates on over 5.2 million computers.  With the introduction of the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, or “BOINC” (I didn’t make that up), SETI@home users can even compete with one another, to see who can process the maximum number of “work units”.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-alien-portrait-stars-image14135012The website explains their mission:  “SETI@home is a scientific experiment that uses Internet-connected computers in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can participate by running a free program that downloads and analyzes radio telescope data”.

You, too can participate at http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/, on your Windows, Apple or Network PC, or your Sony PlayStation 3.  Please feel free to insert the “there-is-no-intelligent-life-here” joke of your choice HERE.

November 29, 2004 Godzilla

“He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one”

In 1954, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) was fishing near the Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific. On March 1, 23 fishermen were witness to a western sky that “lit up like a sunrise”. For eight minutes, they watched the mushroom cloud rise into the sky.  And then came the sound of the explosion. Next came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll that fell like snow from the sky.

These fishermen returned to Yaizu, Japan two weeks later, all 23 suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums, and other symptoms.  They were now “hibakusha”.   “Explosion-effected people”.

It had been only nine years since the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a fierce anti-nuclear sentiment was building in Japan. In this context, there arse a metaphor for all that destruction.  Literally rising from the sea, this product of the Japanese entertainment industry took the form of a monster:  “Godzilla”.

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, meaning gorilla, and “kujira”, meaning whale. It was the Gorilla Whale, with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on its back and skin modeled after the keloid scarring of the hibakusha.

MCDGODZ EC052The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin, then changing the speed at playback.

The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, becoming the standard for most of the Godzilla films.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little confusing in the 1998 American remake “Zilla”, when he started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. He is the best known, but certainly not the only such creature. You may remember other kaiju, including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

Godzilla appeared in 28 original films by the Toho Co., Ltd studios, and countless remakes. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

On this date, November 29, 2004, Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame”, timed to coincide with the release of the movie “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version is spawned by “environmental pollution”.  It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole. The film grossed less than $12 million after a production budget of $19 million, so ol’ Godzilla may stay frozen up for a while, this time. But you never can tell about these things.