January 1, 1995 Rogue Wave

“None of the state-of-the-art weather forecasts and wave models—the information upon which all ships, oil rigs, fisheries, and passenger boats rely—had predicted these behemoths. According to all of the theoretical models at the time under this particular set of weather conditions, waves of this size should not have existed”.

From the time of Aristotle, mankind has looked to the field of scientific inquiry to explain the world around us.

From Copernicus to Charles Darwin to Stephen J. Hawking, the greatest of scientific minds have struggled to explain not only “that” the universe works, but also the “how” and the “why”.

We live in a near-miraculous age, when science has conquered complexities from space travel to molecular biology, to medicine, climate and astral physics.

Except sometimes, science has not the foggiest notion of why things happen.

Rogue Wave

In 1826, French scientist and naval officer captain Jules Dumont d’Urville described waves as high as 108.3 feet tall, in the Indian Ocean.  Despite having three colleagues as witnesses, d’Urville was publicly ridiculed by fellow scientists. “Everybody knew” at that time, that no wave could exceed 30 feet.   Walls of water the size of 10 story buildings, simply didn’t exist.

Either that, or very few who’d ever seen such a thing, lived to tell about it.

For nearly 100 years, oceanographers, meteorologists, engineers and ship designers have used a standard linear model to predict wave height.  This model suggests that there will hardly ever be a wave higher than 50 feet. One of 100 feet or larger is possible but unlikely, occurring maybe once in 10,000 years.

Serious study of the subject is younger than you might think.  The first scientific article on “freak waves” was written in 1964, by professor Lawrence Draper.   Far from ridiculing old sailors’ stories about monster waves, professor Draper posited not only that wave heights “can exceed by an appreciable amount the maximum values which have been accepted in responsible circles“, but also a terrifying phenomenon he called ‘freak wave holes’, the exact opposite of a rogue wave.  God help anyone caught at the bottom of one of those things.

rogue wave_destructionOnce considered mythical but for the old sailor’s stories and the damage inflicted on ships themselves, the first scientific measurement of a rogue wave occurred in the North sea in 1984, when a 36′ wave was measured off the Gorm oil platform, in a relatively placid sea.

What really caught the attention of the science community was the “New Year’s wave” measured from the Draupner oil platform off the coast of Norway, on January 1, 1995.  Laser instruments measured this thing at 84-ft.  Oil platform damage above the water line, confirmed the measurement.

Not to be confused with a tidal wave which is caused by underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption, a rogue wave is a different kind of animal. Oceanographers define rogue waves as being two or more times the height of the mean top-third of waves, in any given sea state.

rogue wave (3)

These literal freaks of nature are rare, unpredictable, appear and disappear without warning or trace, and are capable of sudden and catastrophic damage.  Modern ships are designed to withstand a “breaking pressure” of 6 metric tons per square meter or 21psi. A 39-ft wave in the usual linear model produces just over a third of that. A rogue wave can generate breaking pressures of 140psi and more.

In 2000, the British oceanographic research vessel RRS Discovery measured individual waves up to 95.5-ft. Analysis of the data took years, noting that “none of the state-of-the-art weather forecasts and wave models—the information upon which all ships, oil rigs, fisheries, and passenger boats rely—had predicted these behemoths. According to all of the theoretical models at the time under this particular set of weather conditions, waves of this size should not have existed”.

rogue wave (2)

In December 1900, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald McArthur vanished from the Flannan Island lighthouse, in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland.  No serious storm had been reported between the 12th and the 17th, and there was speculation about supernatural causes.  Subsequent inspection revealed wave-damage, 200ft. above sea level.

flannan-isles-lighthouseIn 1909, the 500-ft. cargo liner SS Waratah disappeared off Durban South Africa, with 211 passengers and crew.

The liner RMS Queen Mary was broadsided by a 92-ft. monster in 1942, nearly pushing the 1,019-ft vessel over on her side. The 81,961-ton liner listed all the way over to 52°, before slowly righting herself.

In 1966, heavy glass was smashed 80-ft. above the waterline of the Italian liner SS Michelangelo, killing three and tearing a hole in her superstructure.

In 1995, the 963-ft. RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was forced to “surf” a 95-ft. behemoth to avoid being sunk. The ship’s master said this thing “came out of the darkness” and “looked like the White Cliffs of Dover.”

The 1975 sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is widely blamed on the 1-2-3 punch of a freak wave phenomenon peculiar to Lake Superior, known as the “three sisters”.


In 2007, NOAA compiled a catalog of over 50 historical incidents, most likely associated with rogue waves.

Serious scientific study of non-linear fluid dynamics began only 20-30 years ago. Researchers now believe that ‘super rogue waves’ of up to eight times the surrounding sea state, are possible.

rogue wave
“The Perfect Storm” movie based on the Sebastian Junger book of the same title depicts the last moments of the Gloucester fisherman Andrea Gail in September, 1991

European Space Agency satellite radar studies have proven that waves cresting at 65 to 98-ft. occur far more regularly than previously believed. Rogue waves occur several times a day, in all of the world’s oceans. One three-week period in 2004 identified over ten individual giants measuring 82-ft. and above, in the South Atlantic, alone.

MIT researchers Themis Sapsis and Will Cousins working with the Office of Naval Research, the Army Research Office and the American Bureau of Shipping have combined high resolution scanning technology with advanced algorithms, to digitize and map the sea state in real time, to predict the possible formation of rogue waves. The method only gives 2-3 minutes warning, but that is enough. Research is ongoing. Lighthouse keepers, mariners and oil platform operators the world over, anxiously await the results.

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 reason or purpose, asking only “what circumstances caused this event?”

Philosophers like Aristotle and Socrates took a less mechanistic approach, asking “What purpose did this event serve?” Plato disliked Democritus so much that he wanted to burn all his books.

The prevailing view throughout antiquity was that our planet is special, that we are alone in the cosmos.  Democritus believed there were infinite numbers of worlds such as our own, with inhabitants like ourselves.

In the time of Copernicus, it was 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 intelligent life had once 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.

Speculation and folklore about intelligent life on Mars was soon replaced by a popular near-certainty that canals were excavated by 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.

6a00d83542d51e69e201b8d160dcaf970c-500wiEarly radio experiments by Nikola Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi left both inventors believing they had picked up, in Marconi’s words, “queer sounds and indications, which might come from somewhere outside the earth.”

In 1924, the idea was put to the test.  Believing that martians might attempt to communicate on the day the two bodies were in closest proximity, August 21, 1924 became “National Radio Silence Day”.  Americans were urged to observe “radio silence” for the first five minutes of every hour, while a radio receiver at the U.S. Naval Observatory, two miles aloft on board a dirigible, listened for the signal that never came.

20171023_wow-cc_f840The British author H. G. Wells wrote the War of the Worlds in 1897, telling the story of an alien earth invasion by Martians fleeing the desiccation of their own planet.  The story was adapted to a radio drama broadcast on Halloween, 1938, a production 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 of California at Berkeley is running a “distributed computing effort” to identify extraterrestrial life, called “SETI@home”.


The website explains the 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”.

With an original objective of 50,000-100,000 home computers, SETI@home had 1,525,050 users as of January 2015.  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 most “work units”.

You, too can participate at http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/, on your Windows, Apple or Network PC, or your Sony PlayStation 3.  Please let me know if you make contact.

September 12, 1940 Lascaux Caves

Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.  Four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzer columns had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people shocked and prostrate in the wake of their surrender, that June.  All those years their government had told them, the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot Line was more than a match for the German military.

France had fallen in six weeks.

On June 18, Charles DeGaulle addressed the French nation from his exile in Great Britain, exhorting his countrymen to fight on.  Resist.  The idea caught on quickly in occupied regions.

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the southern part of “La Métropole” in July, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Resistance against this new government in Vichy was slower to form.  This was, after all a French government, and French attitudes took a decidedly anti-English turn with the July 3 British attack on the French fleet, at Mers-el-Kébir.

Before long, Vichy’s collaborationist policies hardened French attitudes against itself. The French Resistance was born.

Sometime around this period, a tree fell unseen near the French village of Montignac.  On September 12, 1940, 18-year old Marcel Ravidat was walking his black & white mongrel dog “Robot”, in the woods.  Coming upon the downed tree, the pair noticed a deep hole had opened up, where the tree had once stood.  Stories differ as to which of the two went down the hole first, but it soon became clear.  Marcel Ravidat and his dog had discovered something more than a mere hole in the ground.

The boy returned to the site with three buddies, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas.  Entering via a long tunnel, the boys discovered what turned out to be a cave complex, its walls covered with depictions of animals.  Hundreds of them.

History is no single narrative.  It is a thousand times a thousand, each layered and intertwined with the other.  Here, four teenagers in Nazi occupied France, had discovered some of the oldest and finest prehistoric art, in the world.

Lascaux 1The Lascaux Caves are located in the Dordogne region, in Southwestern France.  Some 17,000 years ago, Upper Paleolithic artists mixed mineral pigments such as iron oxide (ochre), haematite, and goethite, suspending pigments in animal fat, clay or the calcium-rich groundwater of the caves themselves.  Shading and depth were added with charcoal.

Colors were swabbed or blotted onto surfaces.  There is no evidence of brushwork.  Sometimes, pigments were placed in a hollow tube, and blown onto the wall.  Where the cave rock is softer, images are engraved.

The colour, size, quality and quantity of the images at Lascaux, are astonishing.  Abbé Breuil, a Catholic priest and the first expert to examine its walls, called it the “Sistine chapel of prehistory”.

Lascaux 3The artist or artists who created such images, nearly 2,000 of them occupying some 37 chambers, would have been recognizable as modern humans.  Living as they did some 5,000 years before the Holocene Glacial Retreat, (yes, they had “climate change” back then), these cave-dwellers were pre-agricultural, subsisting on what they could find, or what they could kill.

More than 900 of their images are recognizable as animals. 605 of them have been precisely identified. Hundreds of images depict horses, stags, cattle, lions and bison.  Other subjects appear with less frequency.  There are seven cats, a bird, a bear, a wooly rhinoceros, and one human.

LascauxThe purpose served by these images is unclear.  Perhaps they tell stories of past hunts, or maybe they were used to call up the spirits for a successful hunt.  At least one professor of art and archaeology postulates that the dot and lattice patterns overlying many of these paintings may reflect trance visions, similar to the hallucinations produced by sensory deprivation.

36 animals occupy the “Great Hall of Bulls”, including a single black Auroch specimen measuring 17ft long, the largest such image ever discovered in cave art.  One semi-spherical chamber, the “Apse”, is covered from the floor to its 8’9″ vaulted ceiling with overlapping, entangled drawings and engravings, demonstrating that these people erected scaffolding to create such work.lascaux4b

The Lascaux caves were used by the French Resistance for weapons storage during the war, and opened to the public in 1948.  That would prove to be a mistake.

The underground environment had been stable for all those thousands of years.  Now the light, the air circulation, and the exhalations of thousands of visitors a day, were irreparably changing the cave environment.  By the 1950s, colors had noticeably begun to change and fade.  Crystals and lichens began to grow on the walls, black and white molds grew quickly throughout the cave complex.

The cave was closed to the public in 1963, the paintings restored and a monitoring system installed.  Molds, lichens and crystallized minerals bedevil the ancient cave art to this day.  Only a handful of scientific experts are now permitted access to the site, and that’s only for a few days per month.  Some of the most eminent preservation specialists on the planet continue to wrestle with the problem.

The prehistory buff can find a lot to like in the Vézère region of France.  The valley has 147 prehistoric sites, 15 of them listed as Unesco World Heritage sites.

“Lascaux II” opened in 1983, an exact replica of the Hall of the Bulls and the “Painted Gallery” areas at the original, educating and informing the public without further harm to the archetype.

Inside the museum that houses Lascaux 4 (Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images)

The 800 square meter mobile “Lascaux 3” began a world tour in 2012, scheduled to continue through 2020.  Most recently, the exhibit departed the Kyushu National Museum in Fukuoka, Japan, on September 3.  The €57 million ($68 million), multi-media Lascaux IV opened last December, 8,500 square meters of high-tech exhibit space where each visitor is free to explore four exhibition rooms, equipped with an electronic compagnon de visite, a tablet-like device which looks like it’s been flaked and formed out of slate, Fred Flintstone style.

Kindly permit me a personal note, on which to end.  Years ago, the Long family convened our annual “Blue Gray Ramble” at the Petersburg battlefield, in Virginia.  There’s a cut running parallel to the lines there, almost a ravine, not far from the crater.  The thing has got to be 12 feet deep, narrowing downward to a hard, dry stream bed.

Working our way down the bottom of the cut, we encountered an archaeologist’s dream of fossils:  Gastropods, scallop shells, copepods, shark’s teeth.  The denizens of a long forgotten sea, cast in stone and exposed to the light of a Civil War battlefield.

We were there that weekend to discover history, and that is what we did, albeit from a new and unexpected perspective.

July 28, 1957 Broken Arrow

Since 1950, there have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents.  As of this date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.

At one time, the C-124 was the world’s largest military transport aircraft.  Weighing in at 175,000lbs with a wingspan of 175ft, four 3,500 horsepower Pratt & Whitney propeller engines drive the air frame along at a stately cruising speed of 246 mph.  Manufacturer Douglas Aircraft called the aircraft “Globemaster”.  Airmen called the plane “Old Shaky”.


The Air Force C-124 Globemaster transport left its base in Delaware on July 28, 1957, on a routine flight to Europe. On board were a crew of seven, three nuclear bombs, and one nuclear core. The flight would routinely have taken 10-12 hours.  This trip was destined to be anything but routine.Mk6

Exactly what went wrong remains a mystery, due to the sensitive nature of the cargo. Two engines had to be shut down shortly into the mission, and the aircraft turned back.  The nearest suitable airfield was the Naval Air Station in Atlantic City, but that was too far. Even at maximum RPMs, the best the remaining two engines could do was slow the massive aircraft’s descent into the sea.

sans_titre11An emergency landing on open ocean is not an option with such a large aircraft.  It would have broken up on impact with the probable loss of all hands.   Descending rapidly, the crew would have jettisoned everything they could lay hands on, to reduce weight.  Non-essential equipment would have gone first, then excess fuel, but it wasn’t enough.  With only 2,500ft and losing altitude, there was no choice left but to jettison those atomic bombs.

At 3,000lbs apiece, two of the three bombs were enough to do the job, and the C-124 made it safely to Atlantic City.  What became of those two atomic bombs remains a mystery.  Most likely, they lie at the bottom of the ocean, 100 miles off New Jersey.

The United States Department of Defense has a term for accidents involving nuclear weapons, warheads or components, which do not involve the immediate risk of nuclear war.  Such incidents are called “Broken Arrows”.Image2

Broken Arrows include accidental or unexplained nuclear or non-nuclear detonation of an atomic weapon, the loss of such a weapon with or without its carrying vehicle, and the release of nuclear radiation resulting in public hazard, whether actual or potential.

Since 1950, there have been 32 Broken Arrow incidents.  As of this date, six nuclear weapons have been lost and never recovered.

If you’re interested, a handy “Nuclear Folly Locator” appears at the link below, based on Rudolph Herzog’s “A Short History of Nuclear Folly”.  It makes for some very comforting reading.


 July 16, 1999 Bluetooth

“Bluetooth” came from 10th century Viking King Haraldr “Blátǫnn” (Bluetooth) Gormsson (old Norse), best remembered for uniting the warring tribes and factions of what is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

In 1998, the “Bluetooth Special Interest Group” (SIG) was formed from five companies, to design, implement and manage a method of making electronic devices “talk” to one another, wirelessly.

The name comes from 10th century Viking King Haraldr “Blátǫnn” (“Bluetooth”) Gormsson (old Norse), best remembered for uniting the warring tribes and factions of what is now Denmark, Norway and Sweden.


The first full release of the “Bluetooth” wireless standard was released on this day in 1999, defining a low-cost, low power consumption protocol for “uniting” electronic devices from different manufacturers into a single secure connection.

Dr. Jaap Haartsen, who invented Bluetooth while working at the Stockholm, Sweden offices of the LM Ericsson Company, likens the communication protocol to an 80 lane highway on which two cars are required to stay in the same lane. The trick is to get them to change lanes simultaneously, no matter what the other traffic is doing around them.

bluetoothAs of 2016, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group includes 36,000 member companies, managing a complex network of patents and technology to wirelessly connect as many as seven at a time, among tens of millions of Bluetooth compatible devices.

As for the Bluetooth logo, that’s a “bind-rune”, a ligature of the Viking-age runes for “Hagall” (H) and “Berkanan” (B).  Harald Bluetooth.

June 21, 1633  Flipping History the Bird

The Inquisition forced Galileo to “abjure, curse and detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to his villa in 1634 to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

Planet Earth exists at the center of the solar system, the sun and other celestial bodies revolving around it.    That was the “geocentric” model of the solar system, the common understanding during the Renaissance.  In the 15th century, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a radically new model.  Copernicus described a “heliocentric” model of the universe, placing the sun at the center, with the earth and other bodies revolving around the sun.

Nicolaus Copernicus

Copernicus resisted the publication of his ideas until the end of his life, fearing that they would offend the religious Interests of the time.  Legend has it that he was presented with an advance copy of his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) as he awakened on his death bed from a stroke induced coma.  He took one look at his book, closed his eyes, and never opened them again.

The Italian physicist, mathematician, and astronomer Galileo Galilei, came along about a hundred years later.  Galileo has been called the “father of modern observational astronomy”, the “father of modern physics”, and “the Father of Modern Science”.  His improvements to the telescope and resulting astronomical observations supported Copernicus’ heliocentric view.  They also brought him to the attention of the Roman Inquisition.

Galileo faces the Roman Inquisition

Biblical references such as, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” (Psalm 104:5) and “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5) became the basis for religious objections to the heliocentric view.  Galileo was brought before  inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani for trial in 1633.   The astronomer backpedaled before the inquisition, testifying in his fourth deposition of June 21, 1633, that “I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it.  For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please”.

The Inquisition forced Galileo to “abjure, curse, & detest” his Copernican heliocentric views, returning him to his villa in 1634 to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo died on January 8, 1642, wishing to be buried in the main body of the Basilica of Santa Croce, next to the tombs of his father and ancestors.  His final wishes were denied at the time, though they would be honored 95 years later.  Galileo Galilei was re-interred in the basilica, in 1737.

Often, atmospheric conditions in these burial vaults lead to a natural mummification of the corpse. Sometimes they look almost lifelike. When it came to the saints, believers took this to be proof of the incorruptibility of these individuals, and small body parts were taken as holy relics.

Galileo's finger
Galileo’s finger

The custom was quite old when Galileo was reinterred in 1737. Galileo is not now and never was a Saint of the Catholic church, though it’s possible the condition of his body made him appear thus “incorruptible”.  Anton Francesco Gori removed the thumb, index and middle fingers on March 12, 1737, an act which would have been very much in keeping with the customs of the times. The digits with which Galileo wrote down his theories of the cosmos.  The digits with which he adjusted his telescope.

Be that as it may, the middle finger from Galileo’s right hand is on exhibit at the Museo Galileo in Florence, Italy, to this day.  The only human fragment in a museum otherwise devoted to scientific instruments.

There is symbolism there, if only I could put my finger on it.

May 28, 585 BC Battle of the Eclipse

This wasn’t the first recorded solar eclipse, just the first to have been predicted beforehand.

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 modern Turkey. They were the Medes and the Lydians. They had been fighting one another for more than 15 years.

A total eclipse of the sun occurred sometime during the battle, causing both Kings and both armies to immediately cease fighting and lay down their weapons.

Solar Eclipse

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Thales of Miletus had predicted the eclipse in a year when the Medians and the Lydians were at war. It’s possible to calculate the date with precision because you can run the “solar clock” backwards as well as forward, and May 28 became one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity are calculated.

This wasn’t the first recorded solar eclipse, just the first to have been predicted beforehand. Two Chinese astrologers had lost their heads for failing to predict one, back in the 22nd or 23rd century BC. Clay tablets from Babylon 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 a lunar eclipse; the calculations are far more difficult. When the moon passes through the shadow of the sun, the event can be seen by half of the planet, the total eclipse phase lasting over an hour. In a solar eclipse, the shadow of the moon occupies only a narrow path, and the total eclipse phase is only about 7½ minutes at any given place.

The method Thales used to make his prediction is unknown, and there is no record of the ancient Greeks predicting any further eclipses. It’s possible that he borrowed his prediction 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.

Be 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 soldiers followed suit.  The kings of Cilicia and Babylon helped negotiate a more permanent treaty.  Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis married Cyaxares’ son Astyages to seal the bargain, and the Halys River, now known as the River Kızılırmak, was agreed to be the border between the two peoples.