April 14, 1958, Pupnik

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took the small dog home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”


At the dawn of the space age, no one knew whether the human body could survive conditions of rocket launch and space flight. The US Space program experimented with a variety of primate species between 1948 and 1961, including rhesus monkeys, crab-eating macaques, squirrel monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and chimpanzees.

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“Miss Baker”

On May 28, 1959, a squirrel monkey named “Miss Baker” became the first of the US space program, to survive the stresses of spaceflight and related medical procedures.  A rhesus monkey called “Miss Able” survived the mission as well, but died four days later as the result of a reaction to anesthesia.

Soviet engineers experimented with dogs on a number of orbital and sub-orbital flights, to determine the feasibility of human space flight.  The Soviet Union launched missions with positions for at least 57 dogs in the fifties and early sixties, though the actual number is smaller.  Some flew more than once.

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Laika

Most survived.  As with the early US program, those who did not often died as the result of equipment malfunction.  The first animal to be sent into orbit, was a different story.

Three dogs were plucked from the streets of Moscow and trained for the purpose.  “Laika” was an 11-pound mutt, possibly a terrier-husky cross.  In Russian, the word means “Barker”.  Laika was chosen due to her small size and calm disposition.  One scientist wrote, “Laika was quiet and charming.”

First, were the long periods of close confinement, meant to replicate the tiny cabin of Sputnik 2. Then came the centrifuge, the highly nutritional but thoroughly unappetizing gel she was meant to eat in space, and then the probes and electrodes that monitored her vital signs.

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Sputnik 2, Pre-Launch Propaganda

The day before the launch sequence, Vladimir Yazdovsky took her home to play with his kids.  “I wanted to do something nice for her,” he explained. “She had so little time left to live.”

Laika and capsule

Laika was placed inside the capsule for three days, tightly harnessed in a way that only allowed her to stand, sit and lie down.  Finally, it was November 3, 1957.  Launch day.  One of the technicians “kissed her nose and wished her bon voyage, knowing that she would not survive the flight”.

Sensors showed her heart rate to be 103 beats/minute at time of launch, spiking to 240 during acceleration. She ate some of her food in the early stages, but remained stressed and agitated. The thermal control system malfunctioned shortly into the flight, the temperature inside the capsule rising to 104°, Fahrenheit.  Five to seven hours into the flight, there were no further signs of life.

There were official hints about Laika parachuting safely to earth, and then tales of a painless and humane, euthanasia.  Soviet propaganda portrayed “the first traveler in the cosmos”,  heroic images printed on posters, stamps and matchbook covers.   Soviet authorities concealed Laika’s true cause of death and how long it took her to die.  That information would not be divulged , until 2002.

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In the beginning, the US News media focused on the politics of the launch.  It was all about the “Space Race”, and the Soviet Union running up the score. First had been the unoccupied Sputnik 1, now Sputnik 2 had put the first living creature into space.  The more smartass specimens among the American media, called the launch “Muttnik”.

Sputnik 2 became controversial, as animal lovers began to question the ethics of sending a dog to certain death in space. In the UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals received protests before Radio Moscow was finished with their launch broadcast.  The National Canine Defense League called on dog owners to observe a minute’s silence.

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Protesters gathered with their dogs in front of the UN building, to express their outrage.  In the Soviet Union, political dissent was squelched, as always. Of all Soviet bloc nations, it was probably Poland who went farthest out on that limb, when the scientific periodical Kto, Kiedy, Dlaczego (“Who, When, Why”), reported Laika’s death as “regrettable”.  “Undoubtedly a great loss for science”.

Sputnik 2 and its passenger left the vacuum of space on April 14, 1958, burning up in the outer atmosphere.

It was not until 1998 and the collapse of the Soviet tower of lies, that Oleg Gazenko, one of the scientists who had trained the dog, was free to speak his mind. “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us”, he said, “We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We shouldn’t have done it…We did not learn enough from this mission to justify the death of the dog”.

AFTERWARD

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As a lifelong dog lover, I feel the need to add a more upbeat postscript to this thoroughly depressing tale.

“Belka” and “Strelka” spent a day in space aboard Sputnik 5 on August 19, 1960 and returned safely, to Earth.  The first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive.

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Charlie, (l) and Pushinka, (r)

Strelka later gave birth to six puppies fathered by “Pushok”, a dog who’d participated in ground-based space experiments, but never flew.  In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev gave one of them, a puppy called “Pushinka,” to President John F. Kennedy.

Pushinka and a Kennedy dog named “Charlie” conducted their own Cold War rapprochement, resulting in four puppies. JFK called them his “pupniks”. Rumor has it their descendants are still around, to this day.

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Pushinka and her “pupniks”, enjoying a moment on the White House lawn

Tip of the hat to the 2019 Vienna Film Award winning “Space dogs” for the artwork at the top of this page.

February 15, 1946 ENIAC

We are surrounded today by computing horsepower, undreamed of by any but the science fiction buffs of earlier generations. The 8088-processor powered IBM personal computer released 40 short years ago had eight times more memory than “Apollo’s brain”, the guidance computer navigating Apollo 11 to the moon and back, ten years earlier.

In the age of sail, naval combat was “muzzle to muzzle”. Before 1800 most such actions took place at ranges between 60 and 150 feet (18 – 46 m).

USS Constitution in combat during the War of 1812

The Civil War Battle of Cherbourg in 1864 pitting the Mohican-class sloop-of-war USS Kearsarge against the Confederate commerce raider CSS Alabama, opened at 3,000 feet (910m).

Battle of Cherbourg, 1864

In 1884 the invention of the steam turbine produced speeds in naval vessels, never before dreamed of. By the turn of the 20th century, rifled guns of vastly larger size hurled explosive ammunition over the horizon. Enormously complex fire control solutions had to be calculated for range, movement of both vessels, elevation, the yaw of the firing ship, meteorological conditions, even the ambient temperature in powder magazines.

The projectile in flight is subject to forces such as gravity, drag, wind and air pressure and, at longer ranges, even latitude and rotation of the planet. Any given salvo may be accurately fired at a moving target only to fall harmlessly, several ship lengths behind. With the other guy shooting back, there isn’t always another chance to get it right.

Battle of Jutland, WW1

On land, artillery fire control solutions are nearly as complex and all of it, pertains only to a single gun. What is to be done then, about training all the guns on a warship, against a single target. What about a whole fleet?

Over time, increasingly accurate solutions were devised but, by World War 2, the race for fire control supremacy had outstripped the old ways. The penalty for failure was the difference, between life and death.

Extreme slow motion image, of air patterns around a bullet, in supersonic flight

We are surrounded today by computing horsepower, undreamed of by any but the science fiction buffs of earlier generations. The 8088-processor powered IBM personal computer released 40 short years ago had eight times more memory than “Apollo’s brain”, the guidance computer navigating Apollo 11 to the moon and back, ten years earlier.

The iPhone 5s has 1,300 times the computing power, of the Apollo moon lander.

A wonder for its time, IBM PC processors could address up to 64k at a time, within the computer’s (max) 1 mb memory. The 80286 based PC/AT released three years later sported a 20mb internal hard drive. Today, 128 bucks at Walmart will get you 4 Gigabytes of memory and a 160 gig, hard drive.

Back to artillery. The idea of a calculating machine was anything, but new. The abacus has been around for 3,000 years. The hand operated Antikythera analog computer dredged up from the ocean bottom in 1901, may go back as far as 205 BC. The 12th century “castle clock” invented by the Muslim polymath Ismail al-Jazari may be the world’s first programmable computer, capable of showing local time, lunar and solar orbits and even adjusting for length of day at certain times of the year.

Modern recreation of the ancient Antikythera mechanism

The US Army commissioned a study for a giant electronic “brain” to calculate firing tables back on May 31, 1943. Work began with Johns Hopkins physicist John Mauchly with chief engineer John Presper Eckert of the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering.

It took a year for the team to design the machine and another 18 months to build it. The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) was officially powered up in November, 1945.

The one thing those ancient machines have in common, is they were all hardware. “Software”, as it was known to programmers of the 1940s, had instructions written directly into the machine, in binary code.

The war was over in December 1945 but the military still had work for ENIAC to do. The first real-world calculations were performed On December 10.

ENIAC was formally dedicated at the University of Pennsylvania on February 15, 1946. Risible though the machine may be by modern standards, ENIAC was a wonder of science and technology, for its time. The press dubbed the thing, a “Giant Brain”. A trajectory taking 20 hours to calculate by humans took 30 seconds. One ENIAC was the computational equal, of 2,400 humans.

What the press didn’t know, was behind the scenes. In the early days of the war, the Moore School of Engineering worked with the Ballistic Research Laboratory (BRL) where a team of 100 “human computers” were trained to hand-calculate firing tables for artillery shells. With so many men off to war and programming seen at that time as “clerical work” the BRL hired, mostly women.

These were the “Top Secret Rosies”, the female “computers”, of WW2. When the ENIAC project began six of them came over, as programmers.

Marlyn Wescoff [left] and Ruth Lichterman were two of the female programmers of ENIAC. H/T Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Projects involved design for the hydrogen bomb, weather predictions, cosmic-ray studies, thermal ignition, random-number studies and wind-tunnel design.

ENIAC began as a room-sized modular computer comprised of individual panels, to perform different functions. Numbers were sent back & forth on buses, called trays. At its height ENIAC had 18,000 vacuum tubes, 7,200 crystal diodes, 1,500 relays, 70,000 resistors, 10,000 capacitors and something like 5 million hand soldered joints occupying 1,800 square feet. The machine consumed 150 kilowatts of electricity. Rumor had it when ENIAC was switched on the lights in all Philadelphia, dimmed.

All things must come to an end. ENIAC, once a wonder of science and technology was already obsolete, by 1956. At its height, the machine weighed in at 25 tons and performed 5,000 calculations, per second. Weighing in at 4.55 ounces the iPhone 6, performs 25 Billion calculations per second.

Today the electronic descendants of ENIAC perform tasks of increasing, even mind boggling complexity. Mapping the human genome. Climate research. Exploration, for oil and gas.

Before long top-of-the line mainframe computers were performing at a rate not in the thousands of instructions per second but MIPS. Millions of instructions per second. The first supercomputer arrived in 1965 with so much horsepower as to require a whole new unit of measure: FLOPS “floating-point operations per second”.

The term wasn’t in use during ENIAC’s day but, if it was, that bad boy was chunkin’ along, at 500 FLOPS. Supercomputer performance metrics have since climbed the metric decadic system, bending vocabularies to new and hitherto unimagined heights. KiloFLOPS was eclipsed by megaFLOPS and gigaFLOPS and continued ever onward. The “tera” prefix (Trillion) gave way to the dizzying petaFLOP, or one one quadrillion: a thousand trillion floating point line operations, per second.

“The IBM Blue Gene/P supercomputer “Intrepid” at Argonne National Laboratory runs 164,000 processor cores using normal data center air conditioning, grouped in 40 racks/cabinets connected by a high-speed 3-D torus network”. H/T Wikipedia

In April 2020 the distributed computing network folding@home acheived computing performance of one exaFLOPS. Unless you’re in interplanetary space I can’t think of another use, for such a number. Unless we’re talking about the federal debt.

As of January 2021 no single machine has scaled such heights, but they’re working on it. One exaFLOPS. A quintillion floating point line operations, per second. The estimated speed at the neural level, of the human brain.

February 5, 62AD End of the World

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water.


On February 5 in the year AD 62, an earthquake estimated at 7.5 on the Richter scale shook the Bay of Naples, spawning a tsunami and leveling much of the coastal Italian towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum and surrounding communities.

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Massive though the damage had been, the region around Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples had long been a favorite vacation destination for the upper crust of Roman society. Crowds of tourists and slaves bustled in and out of the city’s bath houses, artisans’ shops, taverns and brothels, adding their number to some ten to twenty thousand townspeople.

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water.

And yet, these are only “signs”, in hindsight. Pompeiians of 62AD didn’t even have a word for Volcano. That would come much later with the eruption of Mt. Etna. The word is derived from “Vulcan”. The Roman God of fire.

So it was reconstruction began and continued, for the next seventeen years.  Until that day the world, came to an end.

Long dormant and thought to be extinct, nearby Mount Vesuvius had been quiet for hundreds of years.  Historians have long believed Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79AD but recently discovered graffiti referring to the calends of November more likely put the date, at October 17. 

The day dawned as any other, the first plumes of white smoke appearing, sometime around breakfast. By that afternoon the 4,203-foot stratovolcano was belching fire, propelling a scorching plume of ash, pumice and super-heated volcanic gases so high as to be seen for hundreds of miles.

The Melbourne Museum has created a stunning, eight-minute animation, of the event.

For the next eighteen hours the air was thick with hot, poisonous gases, as volcanic ash rained down with pumice stones the size of baseballs.  No one who stayed behind stood a chance, nor did countless animals, both wild and domestic.

Citizens tried to save themselves using tunics, as makeshift masks. Then came the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust raced outward at 400 miles-per-hour in the “base surge” phase carrying gases super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit. The bodily fluids of anyone left alive at this time burst instantly, into steam.

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The victims of Mt. Vesuvius’ wrath left their imprints in the ash and rock which would be their tomb.  2,000 years later, remarkably life-like plaster casts, depict the final moments of these unfortunate men, women and children.

The suffocating, poisonous clouds of vapor and rock dust pouring into the city, soon  put and end to all that remained.  Imagine putting your head in a bag of cement, with someone pounding the sides.  Walls collapsed and roofs caved in, burying the dead under fourteen feet or more of ash, rock and dust. Neither Herculaneum, Pompeii nor their surrounding communities would see the light of day, for nearly two thousand years.

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Today we remember the Roman author, naturalist and military commander Gaius Plinius “Pliny’ Secundus for his work Naturalis Historia (Natural History). We see his work in the editorial model of the modern encyclopedia.

With the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum already destroyed, Pliny raced to the port of Stabiae some 4½km to the southwest, to rescue a friend and his family. The sixth and largest pyroclastic surge trapped Pliny’s ship in port, killing the author and everyone in the vicinity. That we have an eyewitness to the event is thanks to two letters written by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), Pliny’s nephew and a man he had helped to raise, from boyhood.

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Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Property owners and thieves returned over time to retrieve such valuables as statues. The words “house dug” can still be found, scrawled on the walls.  And then the place was forgotten, for fifteen hundred years.

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An underground channel was dug in 1562 to redirect waters from the river Samo, when workers ran into city walls.  The architect Domenico Fontana was called in and further excavation revealed any number of paintings and frescoes, but there was a problem.

This stuff was downright pornographic.

According to the Annus Mirabilis written by English poet Philip Larkin, sex wasn’t even until 1963, in the British Isles.

“…So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP…”

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Pompeian artwork ranges from the merely hedonistic, to the pornographic

The ancients seem to have been rather more uninhibited.   In fact, life in some quarters was nothing if not hedonistic.  Pompeii itself has been described by some, as the “red-light district” of antiquity.  I’m not sure about that, but the erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum were WAY too much for counter reformation-era sensibilities. 

The place was quietly covered up and forgotten. For another two hundred years.

Pompeii was first excavated in earnest in 1748 but it took another hundred years for archaeologists’ findings to be organized, cataloged and brought to museums.  In 1863, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that occasional voids in the ash layer were in fact the long since decomposed bodies of the doomed victims, of Vesuvius.

A technique was developed of injecting plaster.  Today we can see them in excruciating detail, exactly where they fell.  Men, women and children, the dogs, even the fresh-baked bread, left out on the counter to cool.

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Today you can tour the lost city of Pompeii, from the baths to the forum, to the Lupanar Grande, where the prostitutes of Pompeii once “entertained” clients.  Ongoing excavation is all but a race with time, between uncovering what remains, and preserving what is.  Walls surrounding the “House of the Moralist” collapsed in 2010, so-called because its wealthy wine merchant owners posted rules of behavior, for guests to follow: “Do not have lustful expressions and flirtatious eyes for another man’s wife“.

Fun fact: A majority of Ancient Pompeiians had near-perfect teeth due to naturally occurring fluorine and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.

There were other signs of what was to come. Tremors. Springs dried up. Fish died and floated on the river Sarno, victims of increased acidification of the water. Heavy rains were blamed for the collapse of the Schola Armatorium in 2010, the House of the Gladiators.  Fierce recriminations have followed and doubt has been cast on local authorities’ abilities, to properly preserve what has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Be that as it may, 2,000-year-old buildings do not come along every day.  There is no replacement for antiquity.

January 28, 1986 Space Truck

STS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight aboard the Russian capsule Vostok 1.

The idea of a reusable Space Transportation System (STS) came around as early as the 1960s, as a way to cut down on the cost of space travel. The final design was a reusable, winged “spaceplane” with a disposable external tank and reusable solid fuel rocket boosters. The ‘Space Truck’ program was approved in 1972, the prime contract awarded to North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), with the first orbiter completed in 1976.

Early Approach and Landing Tests were conducted with the first prototype dubbed “Enterprise”, in 1977. A total of 16 tests, all atmospheric, were conducted from February to October, the lessons learned applied to the first space-worthy vehicle in NASA’s orbital fleet.

o-columbia-shuttle-disaster-facebookSTS-1, the first mission of the “Space Shuttle” program launched aboard “Columbia” from the Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida.  It was April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of the first human spaceflight aboard the Russian capsule Vostok 1.

It was the first, and (to-date) only manned maiden test flight of a new system in the American space program.

This first flight of Columbia would be commanded by Gemini and Apollo veteran John Young and piloted, by Robert Crippen. It was the first of 135 missions in the Space Shuttle program, the first of only two to take off with external hydrogen fuel tanks painted white.  From STS-3 on, the external tank was left unpainted, to save weight.

All told, Columbia flew 28 missions with 160 crew members traveling 125,204,911 miles in 4,808 orbits around the planet.

Initially, there were four fully functional orbiters in the STS program: Columbia joined after the first five missions by “Challenger”, then “Discovery”, and finally “Atlantis”.  A fifth orbiter, “Endeavor”, was built in 1991 to replace Challenger, which broke apart 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986, killing all seven of its crew.

Rescue and recovery operations were delayed for fifteen minutes, as debris rained from the sky.

FILE NASA PORTRAIT OF COLUMBIA MISSION CREW

STS-107 launched from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia on January 16, 2003.

Eighty seconds after launch, a piece of insulating foam broke away from the external fuel tank striking Columbia’s left wing, leaving a small hole in the carbon composite tiles along the leading edge.

Three previous Space Shuttle missions had experienced similar damage and, while some engineers thought this could be more serious, none was able to pinpoint the precise location or extent of the damage.  NASA managers believed that, even in the event of major damage, little could be done about it.

These carbon tiles are all that stands between the orbiter and the searing heat of re-entry.

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December 2, 1988 ‘Atlantis’ mission narrowly missed repeting the Columbia disaster, four days later. “More than 700 heat shield tiles were damaged. One tile on the shuttle’s belly near the nose was completely missing and the underlying metal – a thick mounting plate that helped anchor an antenna – was partially melted. In a slightly different location, the missing tile could have resulted in a catastrophic burn through”. H/T Spaceflightnow.com

For Columbia, 300 days, 17 hours, forty minutes and 22 seconds of space travel came to an end on the morning of February 1, 2003.  Over the California coast and traveling twenty-three times the speed of sound, external temperatures rose to 3,000° Fahrenheit and more, when super-heated gases entered the wing’s interior.

231,000 feet below, mission control detected four unconnected sensors shut down on the left wing, with no explanation.   The first debris struck the ground near Lubbock, Texas, at 8:58am.  The last communication from the crew came about a minute later.

Columbia disintegrated in the skies over East Texas at 9:00am Eastern Standard Time.

Debris and human remains were found in 2,000 locations from the state of Louisiana, to Arkansas. The only survivors were a can full of worms, brought into space for study.

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“Mon Landscape” by Petr Ginz

Payload Specialist Colonel Ilan Ramon, born Ilan Wolferman, was an Israeli fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut to join the NASA space program.

Ramon is the son and grandson of Auschwitz survivors and family member to several others, who didn’t live to tell the tale. 

In their memory, Colonel Ramon reached out to the Yad Vashem Remembrance Center, for a holocaust relic to bring with him into space.

Petr Ginz lived for a time in the Theresienstadt ghetto, where he drew this picture.  A piece of teenage imagination:  the Earth as it may appear, from the moon.

Petr Ginz would be murdered in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz though his drawing, survived.  He was 14 years old.  Colonel Ramon was given a copy. A young boy’s drawing of a safer place.  This would accompany the astronaut, into space.

Today, the assorted debris from the Columbia disaster numbers some 84,000 pieces, stored in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.  To the best of my knowledge, this drawing by a boy who never made it out of Auschwitz, is not among them.

Afterward:

Andrew “Drew” Feustel is a car guy, with fond memories of restoring a ’67 Ford Mustang in the family garage in North suburban Detroit.

When he’s not fixing cars he’s an astronaut, and veteran of two space missions.  For a time he was a colleague of Colonel Ramon.  The pair had several close friends, in common.

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The ‘car guy’ in space thing seems to have worked. NASA reports “The spacewalkers overcame frozen bolts, stripped screws and stuck handrails, four new or rejuvenated scientific instruments, new batteries, a new gyroscope and a new computer were installed. | NASA photo

In March 2018, Feustel left for his third spaceflight, this one a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station.  Before he left, Rona Ramon, widow of the Israeli Astronaut, gave him another copy of Petr Ginz’ drawing.

The circle was closed.  This fruit of a doomed boy’s imagination once again broke the bonds of space. This time, it also home.

January 23, 1960 Into the Abyss

On this day in 1960, submarine commander Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard mounted that hallway, climbed into the sphere and closed the hatch. The dive to the bottom of the world began at 0823.

For most of us, the oceans are experienced as a day at the beach, a boat ride, or a moment spent on one end of a fishing line.

There is one global ocean divided into five major basins: the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Arctic. Covering 70 percent and more of the planet, the oceans contain 97% of all the water, on earth.

Yet when it comes to exploration we are strangers, to 80 percent of it.

For most dive organizations, the recommended maximum for novice divers is 20 meters (65 feet). A weird form of intoxication called nitrogen narcosis sets in around 30 meters (98 feet). Divers have been known to remove their own mouthpieces and offer them to fish, with tragic if not predictable results. Dives beyond 130 feet enter the world of “technical” diving involving specialized training, sophisticated gas mixtures and extended decompression times.

Oxygen literally becomes toxic around 190 feet.

On September 17, 1947, French Navy diver Maurice Fargues attempted a new depth record, off the coast of Toulon. Descending down a weighted line, Fargues signed his name on slates placed at ten meter intervals. At the three minute mark, the line showed no sign of movement. The diver was pulled up. Petty Officer Fargues, a diver so accomplished he had literally saved the life of Jacques Cousteau only a year earlier, was the first diver to die using an aqualung. He had scrawled his last signature at 390 feet.

The man had barely scratched the surface.

Maurice Fargues prepares for his final dive

For oceanographers, all that water is divided into slices. The top or epiplagic Zone descends from 50 to 656 feet, depending on clarity of the water. Here, phytoplankton convert sunlight to energy forming the first step in a food chain, supporting 90 percent of all life in the oceans. 95 percent of all photosynthesis in the oceans occur in the epiplagic zone.

The mesopelagic or “twilight zone” receives a scant 1% of all sunlight. Temperatures descend as salinity increases while the weight of all that water above, presses down. Beyond that, lies the abyss.

Far below that the earth’s mantle is quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates. Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. The longest mountain range in the world runs roughly down the center, of the Atlantic ocean.

The Atlantic basin features deep trenches as well, sites of tectonic fracture and divergence. Far deeper though are the Pacific subduction zones where forces equal and opposite to those of the mid-Atlantic, collide. One plate moves under another and down into the mantle forming deep ocean ridges, the deepest of which is the Mariana Trench, near Guam. The average depth is 36,037, ± 82 feet, dropping off to a maximum depth of 35,856 feet in a small valley at the south end of the trench, called Challenger Deep.

If you could somehow pull up Mt. Everest by the roots and sink it in Challenger Deep, (this is the largest mountain on the planet we’re talking about), you’d still have swim 1.2 miles down, to get to the summit.

The air around us is liquid with a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. It’s pressing down on you right now but you don’t feel it, because your internal fluid pressures push back. A column of salt water exerts the same pressure at 10 meters, or 33 feet.

Fun fact: The bite force of the American Grizzly Bear is 1,200 psi. The Nile Crocodile, 5,000. The pressure in Challenger Deep is 1,150 atmospheres. Over 16,000 pounds per square inch.

The problems with reaching such a depth are enormous. The “crush depth” of a WW2 era German submarine is 660-900 feet. The modern American Sea Wolf class of nuclear submarine collapses, at 2,400.

In the early 1930s, Swiss physicist, inventor and explorer Auguste Piccard experimented with high altitude balloons to explore the upper atmosphere.

The result was a spherical, pressurized aluminum gondola which could ascend to great altitude, without use of a pressure suit.

Within a few years the man’s interests had shifted, to deep water exploration.

Knowing that air and water are both fluids, Piccard modified his high altitude cockpit into a steel gondola, for deep sea exploration.

By 1937 he’d built his first bathyscaphe.

“A huge yellow balloon soared skyward, a few weeks ago, from Augsberg, Germany. Instead of a basket, it trailed an air-thin black-and-silver aluminum ball. Within [the contraption] Prof. Auguste Piccard, physicist, and Charles Kipfer aimed to explore the air 50,000 feet up. Seventeen hours later, after being given up for dead, they returned safely from an estimated height of more than 52,000 feet, almost ten miles, shattering every aircraft altitude record.” – Popular Science, August, 1931

Piccard’s work was interrupted by WW2 but resumed, in 1945. He built a large steel tank and filled it with low-density non-compressible fluid, to maintain buoyancy. Gasoline, it turned out, worked nicely. Underneath was a capsule designed to accommodate one person at sea-level pressure while outside, PSI mounted into the thousands of atmospheres.

The craft, with modifications from the French Navy, achieved depths of 13,701 feet. In 1952, Piccard was invited to Trieste Italy to begin work on an improved bathyscaphe. In 1953, Auguste and and his son Jacques brought the Trieste to 10,335 feet.

Auguste Piccard at one time or another held the records for altitude, and for depth

Designed to be free of tethers, Trieste was fitted with a pair of 2HP electric motors, capable of propelling the craft at a speeds of 1.2mph and changing direction. After several years in the Mediterranean, the US Navy acquired Trieste in 1958. Project Nekton was proposed the same year, code name for a gondola upgrade and three test dives culminating in a descent to the greatest depths of the world’s oceans. The Challenger Deep.

Trieste received a larger gasoline float and bigger tubs with more iron ballast. With help from the Krupp Iron Works of Germany, she was fitted with a stronger sphere with a thickness five inches and weighing in at 14 tons.

Piccard and Walsh aboard Trieste, January 23, 1960

The cockpit was accessible, only by an upper hallway which was then filled with gasoline. The only way to exit was to pump the gas out and blow out the rest, with compressed air. On this day in 1960, submarine commander Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard mounted that hallway, climbed into the sphere and closed the hatch. The dive began at 0823.

The bathyscaphe Trieste, on the surface

Trieste stopped her descent several times, each time a new thermocline brought with it a colder layer of water and neutral buoyancy, for the submersible. Walsh and Piccard discussed the problem and elected to gamble, ejecting some of that buoyant gasoline. By 650 feet, thermocline problems had ended.

By 1,500 feet, the darkness was complete. The pair changed their clothes, wet with spray from a stormy beginning. With a cockpit temperature of 40° Fahrenheit, they would need dry clothes.

Looking out the plexiglass window, depths between 2,200 and 20,000 feet seemed “extraordinarily empty”. By 14,000 feet the pair was now in uncharted territory. No one had ever been this deep. At 26,000 feet, descent was slowed to two feet per second. At 30,000 feet, one.

At 1256 Walsh and Piccard the bottom could be seen, on the viewfinder. 300 feet to go. Trieste touched down in a cloud of silt, ten minutes later. Not knowing if the phone would work at this depth, Walsh called the surface. “This is Trieste on the bottom, Challenger Deep. Six three zero zero fathoms. Over.” The response came back weak, but clear. “Everything O.K. Six three zero zero fathoms?” Walsh responded “This is Charley” (seaman-speak, for ‘OK”). We will surface at 1700 hours”. 37,800 feet.

The feat was not unlike the first flight into space. No human had ever reached such depths and never would, again. Unmanned deep sea submersibles have since visited the Challenger Deep, but this was the last manned voyage, to the bottom of the world.

Computerized rendering shows Trieste at the bottom, January 23, 1960 H/T National Geographic

Afterward: “After the 1960 expedition the Trieste was taken by the US Navy and used off the coast of San Diego, California for research purposes. In April 1963 it was taken to New London Connecticut to assist in finding the lost submarine USS Thresher. In August 1963 it found the Threshers remains 1,400 fathoms (2,560 meters) below the surface. Soon after this mission was completed the Trieste was retired and some of its components were used in building the new Trieste II. Trieste is now on display at the National Museum of the United States Navy at the Washington Navy Yard”. – H/T Forgotten History

January 12, 1992 Daisy Bell

In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

We live in an age when pocket sized devices are capable of producing text from speech, and speech from text. We’ve all tried with varying degrees of success, to dictate a text message or email. It may come as a surprise as it did to me, how long the idea of other-than-human speech has been around.

According to Norse mythology, Mímir was the wisest of the Gods of Æsir. Mímir or Mim was beheaded during the war with the rival Gods of Vanir after which Odin carried the thing around (the head), so that it may impart secret knowledge and wise counsel.

The Brazen Head of the early modern age was the legendary automaton of medieval wizards and necromancers and always said to give the correct answer, provided the question was…just right. William of Malmsbury’s History of the English Kings (c. 1125) contains the earliest known reference to such a talking, Brazen Head. Similar legends followed the polymath Pope Silvester II (c. 946 – 1003), the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus (c.1200 – 1280) and the English philosopher Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294).

Roger Bacon’s assistant is confronted by the Brazen head in a 1905 retelling of the story. H/T Wikipedia

In 1779, the German-Danish scientist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein built a model of the human vocal tract which could produce the five long vowel sounds of the international phonetic alphabet.

Wolfgang von Kempelen of Pressburg, Hungary, described a bellows-operated apparatus in a 1791 paper, including facsimiles of tongue and lips to produce the nasals, plosives and fricatives required to mimic most (but not all) consonant sounds. Charles Wheatstone actually built the thing in 1846 after Kempelen died, calling his acoustic-mechanical speech machine, the ‘euphonia’.

“A replica of Kempelen’s speaking machine, built 2007–09 at the Department of Phonetics, Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany” H/T Wikipedia

At Bell Labs in the 1930s, the pioneering work of acoustic engineer Homer Dudley led to the Vocoder, a portmanteau of voice and encoder, capable of synthesizing and encrypting voice transmissions for use in  secure radio communications. The receiving apparatus or Voder, a keyboard operated device capable of independent speech synthesis, was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair.

In the late 1940s, the pattern playback machines of Dr. Franklin S. Cooper and the Haskins Laboratories converted pictures of acoustic speech patterns, into recognizable speech. In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

“Daisy, Daisy / Give me your answer, do. / I’m half crazy / all for the love of you…”

By sheer coincidence, the English futurist, science-fiction writer and television host Arthur Charles Clarke was visiting his friend and colleague John Pierce at this time, at Bell Labs’ Murray Hill facility.

If you think that name sounds familiar, you’re right. Today, Clarke joins American writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as the “Big three”, in science fiction.

It is Clarke who wrote the script for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 dystopic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke was so impressed with the Daisy Bell demonstration he wrote it into his screenplay. You may remember the climactic scenes of the film as fictional astronauts Frank Poole and Dave Bowman battle for their lives against Discovery’s supercomputer-gone-bad, the HAL9000, “born” this day in 1992 at the HAL Labs in Urbana Illinois, according to the screenplay.

After HAL hurled Frank Poole off into the black void of space and shut off life support to the rest of the crew while still in suspended animation, Dave Bowman is now the sole survivor of the Discovery mission, desperately seeking to unhook the power modules, to the HAL9000.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave”.

In the end, the servant of mankind-turned-evil supercomputer reverted to his most basic programming:

“It won’t be a stylish marriage / I can’t afford a carriage.”

“But you’ll look sweet/on the seat/of a bicycle built, for two.”

Fun fact: English songwriter and composer Harry Dacre first came to the United States, with a bicycle. Complaining about having to pay duty on the thing, Dacre’s American friend and fellow songwriter William Jerome quipped, “It’s lucky you didn’t bring a bicycle built for two, otherwise you’d have to pay double duty.” Dacre was so taken with the phrase he soon used it in a song, first popularized in a London music hall and first performed in the United States, in 1892. “Daisy Bell”.

January 11, 1693 Feeling Puny?

Such an event could happen tomorrow, next year or ten thousand years from now. No one knows. We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

In his 1897 short story The Open Boat, Stephen Crane writes of the puniness of humanity, when bared and exposed to the wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please. “If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? 

Deep in the ground beneath your feet, a rocky shell comprising an outer Crust and an inner Mantle forms a hard and rigid outer shell, closing off and containing the solid inner core of our planet. Between these hard inner and outer layers exists a solid core of material which remains viscous over geologic time, measuring approximately 1,802 miles thick and comprising some 84 percent of the volume, of planet Earth.

The air around us is a liquid, exerting a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. Scientists estimate that pressures within this outer core generate temperatures of 1,832° Fahrenheit near the boundary with the crust, to 6,692° Fahrenheit approaching the core boundary.

As a point of reference, the surface of the sun is about 10,340°, Fahrenheit.

That rocky shell closing us off from all that is actually quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces, (depending on how you define them), and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates.

Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. Roughly equal and opposite to these are the Subduction Zones, where one plate moves under another and down into the mantle.

The planet is literally “eating’ itself.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and one of twenty regions of Italy, lies on the convergent boundary of two such pieces of the planet’s outer shell, where the African plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate.  Over time, the forces built up along these subduction zones, are nothing short of Titanic.

Sicily is also home to the terrifying Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. On this day in 1693, those Seven Mad Gods got together and unleashed on the puniness of humanity, the wrath of the ages.

The first foretaste of what was about to happen began at 21:00 local time, January 9, 1693. The earthquake, centered on the east Sicilian coast and felt as far away as the south of Italy and the island nation of Malta, had an estimated magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale with a perceived intensity on the Mercali Intensity Scale of VIII – XI: Destructive to Very Disastrous.

Mercali describes a Category XI earthquake: “Few, if any, (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges damaged or destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipe lines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly”.

This thing was only stretching and yawning.  Just getting out of bed.

The main shock of January 11 lasted four minutes with an estimated magnitude of 7.4 and a very large area reaching X on the Mercali scale and XI, in the province of Syracuse.

1200px-sicilia_sisma_1693

The soil beneath our feet, ordinarily so substantial and unmoving, behaves like a liquid at times like these in a process called soil liquefaction. Low density, sandy soils compress in response to applied loads while dense soils expand in volume or dilate. Saturated soils are like unto quicksand, as underground liquids are driven up to form miniature volcanoes called “sand boils, water spouting up from the ground in geysers, rising 30-feet and more.

Reflect on that for a moment, if you will. The soil. Behaving like a liquid.

The catastrophic eruption of 1669 was well within living memory and reports describe minor eruptions on this day as well.  As if even a small volcanic eruption could be called “minor”.

Several large fractures opened in the earth, one 1,600-feet long and nearly seven-feet wide.

Meanwhile the ocean withdrew from the coast as the Ionian Sea gathered itself, to strike. The initial withdrawal left the harbor dry at Augusta, damaging several Galleys owned by the Knights of Malta.   The tsunami when it came was eight meters in height (26-feet), inundating an area nearly a mile inland from the coastline.

The final death toll of as many as 60,000 is uncertain, unsurprising in light of the fact that whole regions, were blotted out. 63% of the entire population was wiped out in Catania, 51% in Ragusa. Syracuse, Noto, Augusta, Modica – all lost between one-out-of-five, and one-in-three.

Reconstruction in the wake of the catastrophe was so extensive, as to spawn a new and unique form of art and architecture, known as Sicilian Baroque.

la_cattedrale_di_noto_restaurata
The Cathedral of Noto is one of the many buildings constructed in Sicilian Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693

Today, the colossal Mount Etna remains one of the most active volcanoes, on earth.  Sensors placed along the land and seaward flanks of the volcano reveal the alarming discovery that the volcano itself, is moving.  Mount Etna is sliding at a rate of an inch per year and sometimes more.  One eight-day period in 2008 showed a movement of two inches, raising concerns that Mount Etna may one day collapse into itself.

On May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, resulting in 57 deaths and inflation-adjusted property damage, of $3.3 Billion.  The US Geological Survey called the resulting collapse of the north face of the volcano “the largest debris avalanche on earth, in recorded history”.  Should such an event strike the Stratovolcano that is Mount Etna, the result would be felt from the Spanish coast to the shores of Israel, from North Africa to the French Riviera.

Given geologic time scales, such an event could happen tomorrow, next year, or ten thousand years from now.  No one knows.  We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

castello_di_noto
Ruins of the Norman castle in Noto Antica

Featured image, top of page:  New life before the shattered ruins of the old city of Not (Noto Antica), destroyed on January 11, 1693.  The new city of Noto was built, eleven kilometers away

May 28, 585BC Battle of the eclipse

Dating the historical events of antiquity with any kind of accuracy can be problematic, but not this one.  The “solar clock” can be run backward as well as forward.  Thanks to Herodotus, it’s possible to calculate the date with precision.   May 28 is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity, may be calculated. 

On this day in 585BC, ancient precursors of the Iranian and Turkish people squared off for battle, along the banks of the River Halys in Asia minor.  They were the Indo-Iranian Medes inhabiting the west and north-west of modern Iran, and the Indo-European Lydians inhabiting the west of modern Turkey.  The two sides had been at war for 15 years

Sometime during the battle, the sky began to darken.  It wasn’t long before the sun was obliterated, altogether.   Stunned and terrified, the armies ceased fighting and laid down their weapons.Dating the historical events of antiquity with any kind of accuracy can be problematic, but not this one.  The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the mathematician and astronomer Thales of Miletus predicted the eclipse in a year when the Medians and the Lydians were at war.    The “solar clock” can be run backward as well as forward.  Thanks to Herodotus, it’s possible to calculate the date with precision.   May 28 is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity, may be calculated.

Interestingly, this is believed to be the first solar eclipse to be successfully predicted.

It wasn’t the first recorded eclipse of the sun, just the first to be foretold. Two Chinese astrologers lost their heads back in the 22nd or 23rd century BC, for failing to predict one.  Clay tablets from the Babylonian period record an eclipse in Ugarit in 1375 BC. Other records report solar eclipses which “turned day into night” in 1063 and 763 BC.

Eclipse of ThalesPredicting a solar eclipse isn’t the same as predicting an eclipse of the moon.  The calculations are far more difficult. When the moon passes through the shadow of the sun, the event can be seen over half the planet, the total eclipse phase lasting over an hour. In a solar eclipse, the shadow of the moon occupies only a narrow path.  The total eclipse phase at any given point, lasts only about 7½ minutes.

The method used by Thales to make his prediction is unknown. There is no record of the ancient Greeks predicting any further eclipses. It’s possible that he borrowed his methods from Egyptian astrologers, using their techniques of land measurement (geo-metry in Greek), later codified by Euclid and loved by 8th graders, the world over.unnamed-2Be that as it may, for the first time in history a full eclipse of the sun had been predicted beforehand.  The Battle of Halys marked the first time in history, that a war was ended when day turned to night.  Aylattes, King of Lydia and Cyaxares, King of the Medes, put down their weapons and declared a truce and their armies, followed suit.  With help from the kings of Cilicia and Babylon, the two sides negotiated a more permanent treaty.

To seal the bargain, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis married Cyaxares’ son Astyages.  The Halys River, now known as the River Kızılırmak, was to become the border between the two peoples.

March 9, 1942 Alcan

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor it was never more clear. The Pacific coast was vulnerable to foreign attack.

Discussions concerning a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The concept picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s but the idea was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily pass through their territory, and the Canadian government believed the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

As the first wave of Japanese aircraft descended to the final attack on Pearl Harbor, a force of some 5,900 soldiers and marines under Lieutenant General Tomitarō Horii invaded the American garrison on Guam, some 4,000 miles to the west.   American forces on Wake Island held out a bit longer but, by the 23rd it was over.

Priorities were changing for both the United States, and Canada.   It was never more clear that the Pacific coast, was vulnerable to foreign attack.

The Alaska Territory was particularly exposed. Situated only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, the Aleutian Island chain had but 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes and fewer than 22,000 troops to defend an area four times the size of Texas.

Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., son of the Confederate commander who famously received Ulysses S. Grant’s “Unconditional Surrender” ultimatum at Fort Donelson (“I propose to move immediately, upon your works”), was in charge of the Alaska Defense Command.  Buckner made his made point, succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

The Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February 1942, the project receiving the blessings of Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the United States pay the full cost, and the roadway and other facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Construction began on  March 9 as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction equipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In-between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, hostile, wilderness.

The project received a new sense of urgency on June 7, when a Japanese force of 1,140 took control of Attu Island and murdering Charles Jones, a ham radio operator and weather reporter from Ohio, and taking his wife Etta prisoner, along with 45 Aleuts.  Adding to the urgency was the fact that the Alaskan winter permits no more than an eight-month construction window.  That period was already well underway.

Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches. A route through the Rocky Mountains had yet to be identified.

Radios of the age didn’t work across the Rockies, and the mail was erratic.  The only passenger service available was run by the Yukon Southern airline, a run which locals called the “Yukon Seldom”.  For construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse, it was faster to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to assigned locations was one thing.  Transporting 11,000 pieces of heavy equipment, to say nothing of supplies needed by man and machine, was quite another.

alcan-hwyTent pegs were useless in the permafrost, while the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant waking up in mud. Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day.  Hungry bears raided camps at night, looking for food.

Engines had to run around the clock, as it was impossible to restart them in the cold. Engineers waded up to their chests building pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground which had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers sank in what seemed like stable roadbed.

Alaska Highway Black SoldiersThat October, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers, was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. Sims slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy, Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.

24SOLD-popupA gathering at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942 celebrated “completion” of the route, though the “highway” remained impassable for most vehicles, until 1943.NPR ran an interview about this story sometime in the eighties, in which an Inupiaq elder was recounting his memories. He had grown up in a world as it existed for hundreds of years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day that he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black operator, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers.  The old man’s comment, as best I can remember it, was a classic. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

 

February 29, 1504 Leap Year

According to mathematicians, the method of losing three leap days out of every 400 ought to hold us for about 10,000 years. By that time we’ll have to add a day, somewhere.

Let me know how that works out, would you?

From its earliest inception, the Roman calendar tracked the cycles of the moon.  At least it tried to. The method fell out of phase with the change of seasons and days were randomly added or subtracted in order to compensate. Political campaigns and military conflicts were won or lost, based on the confusion. Things had to change.

In 46BC, Julius Caesar hired Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, more accurately tracking the solar and not the lunar year.  Ol’ Sosigenes was pretty close.  The actual time the earth takes to revolve around the sun is 365.242199 days.1024px-Museo_del_Teatro_Romano_de_Caesaraugusta.43The second month had 30 days back then, when Caesar renamed his birth month from Quintilis to “Julius”, in honor of himself.  Rank hath its privileges.  To this day, it’s why we have “July”.  Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor Caesar Augustus changed Sextilis to Augustus and, you got it, today we have August. The only thing was, that Augustus had only 29 days to Julius’ 31, and we can’t have that.

You see this coming, right?

Augustus swiped two days from the month of the Roman festival of purification.  Februarius mensis wouldn’t even miss them.

Adding a day to every fourth February solved the calendar problem, sort of, but not quite. Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers attempted to fine tune the situation in 1582. No year divisible by 100 would be a leap year, unless that year is also divisible by 400. Ergo, 1600 and 2000 were leap years, but 1700, 1800 and 1900, were not. According to mathematicians, this method of losing three leap days out of every 400 ought to hold us for about 10,000 years. By that time we’ll have to add a day, somewhere.

Let me know how that works out, would you?Leap Year1There is an old legend that St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick back in the 5th century, that women had to wait too long for beaus to “pop the question”. Other versions of the story date back before English Law recognized the Gregorian calendar, meaning that the extra day had no legal status.  Be that as it may, it is customary in many places for a woman to propose marriage on the 29th of February.  According to legend, one old Scottish law of 1288 would fine the man who turned down such a proposal.

In June 1503, Christopher Columbus was on his fourth voyage to the west when his two caravels became stranded, in Jamaica.  Relations with the natives were cordial at first but, after six months, the newcomers had worn out their welcome.  Desperately needing food and provisions, Columbus consulted the Ephemeris of the German astronomer Regiomontanus, where he learned that a lunar eclipse was expected on February 29.

Gathering the native chiefs that evening, Columbus explained that God was about to punish the indigenous people by painting the moon red. The eclipse occurred on schedule to the dismay of the natives, who were eager to promise anything to get the moon back.5a83a64e-9525-4d8c-acab-e92e6a35ba8d-columus_eclipse“With great howling and lamentation” wrote Columbus’ son Ferdinand, “they came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them”.

The explorer retired to his cabin, to “pray”.  Timing the eclipse with his hourglass, Columbus emerged after 48 minutes to announce.  All was forgiven.  God had pardoned the People.

188 years later, to the day.  February 29, 1692.  The first witchcraft warrants went out from a place called Salem Village, calling for the arrest of two social outcasts named Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, and the West Indian slave woman, Tituba.