The Earth Isn’t Flat?!

Continuing with our scientific discoveries that changed history and impacted our perception of the world…In case you had not noticed: the Earth IS spherical. Well, I know that may come out as a shocker, but please do remember, this was disputed and not very well understood for centuries! The idea that our planet was entirely flat was conceived by many people-and disbelieved by others, for sure. In fact, it has been pointed out that by the 14th century, no scholar would have happily supported the idea of a flat Earth, despite it perhaps being represented as such. However, we have to consider that artistic representations such as the triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronimous Bosch, where the world is depicted on a 2 dimensional flat circle, are mere conventions. It would not be until the Renaissance that perspectives and three-dimensionality really picked up. Moreover, there were certain mythologies such as in the early Mesopotamian culture, where the world was believed to be some sort of floating disk on water and surrounded by air and sky. These type of concepts is what promoted the flat outline of cartography in the early maps. So, it would seem that we may have understood this matter poorly all along. Stephen Jay Gould pointed this out and suggested there is sufficient evidence to believe that the Greeks knew the spherical profile of the planet. Therefore this would have been knowledge passed out to future generations. Pytagoras was one of the first defenders of this idea back in the 6th century BC, and even though it was not until after Aristotle empirically agreed to this thesis c.330 BC, the concept then was widely embraced within the Hellenistic world. For your information, the way Aristotle became aware of the spherical nature of the world was mainly through astronomy and the observation of the southern constellations positions. Moving in to the Middle Ages, even in the early part of the period, people like Bede, would write treatises including theories about the Earth not being flat, as it is explained in The Reckoning of Time. Moreover, in the Islamic world the Earth had been not only accepted as spherical, but they had also managed to discern a good approximation of its circumference by the 9th century. This all obviously transpired in the 16th century, when Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magallan) and Juan Sebastián Elcano provided a practical demonstration of the round nature of the planet by achieving the circumnavigation of the Earth (1519-1522).

So, where did we get this idea of the planet being flat?! Well, funny that you say that, because it will seem that after realising our mistakes and accepting our error, throughout the 17th century this was used as ammo for the feuding Christian factions in the West. James Hannam notes how this was an argument used by the Protestants against Catholic teachings. This put many men of science at stake, and it created a harsh environment for the education of people. It came to discredit many religious theories, and vice versa many Christians started to question this perfectly valid idea of the actual shape of the world. Tensions started brewing. Nevertheless, the issue only developed further up to the 19th century. With the rise of Darwinism, evolution proved that the Christian doctrine may have been flawed with regards the understanding of human life on Earth. The Western world was torn between science and religion…And you all were blame it on the Middle Ages, huh? “The Dark Ages”. What is the Dark Ages if not another Romanticised concept of a distant past, where people were misguided and believed the Earth was flat…Follow me? Modernity had just as much to do with the damning of scientifically proven facts as did Antiquity.

Granted, the disbelieve was mostly amongst the lay folk and no scientist of note ever even considered it an option. But the quarrel had already begun; and that is how myths come alive. Nevertheless, there were modern men trying to prove, not only that the planet had a globular shape, but precisely that it was not entirely rounded, but more like an ellipsis with slightly flattened poles. This was the quest that Pierre Louis Maupertuis (1698–1759) proceeded to achieve. The French mathematician and philosopher even went on an expedition to Lapland to determine the correct shape of the world. And this concept is nowadays supported by the field of geodesy-the section of mathematics that deals with the measurement and representation of the Earth. By these principles, in fact, the Earth is, or rather should be considered as an oblate spheroid- but we will take sphere as a close approximate. Of course, the crazy theories about the flat conception of the planet have been disproved and rebated in the 20th century, and it is mostly safe to say: it is common knowledge the Earth is a sphere. But, there are some that persevere this is not the case. Of course, every case has its followers to the core…I mean, were you aware of the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), better known as the Flat Earth Society? Well, these folks, whose leader was Samuel Shenton, found this group in 1956 in Dover (UK). Shenton’s intention was to get the idea of a flat Earth to the children before the educational system would teach the otherwise. The society found a home in California too, where Shenton’s correspondent, Charles K. Johnson furthered these ideas, taken them to the extreme…He seemed to truly believe that there was some sort of conspiracy to keep us all away from the idea of our mostly liquid, blue, flat paradise…The society did die out by the 1990s, after a fire in its headquarters, and particularly following the death of Johnson in 2001.

So, I guess there is a lesson to learn from our own contradictory nature and understanding of events. There will always be sceptics in the world- being these scientists, men of faith or ordinary people. However, this does not discredit the theories and evidence developed by any scientific, humanistic or philosophic trend. As ridiculous as it may sound to us, the concept of a flat world helps us grasp how much human thought has evolved, and ultimately the sciences, arts and our way of life with it…

My trip to Oxfordshire and a few reflections.

Welcome to another blog post, where I talk to you about my trip to Oxfordshire. I hope you will find it informative and interesting and maybe inspire you to go and visit yourself. Now before I start, my purpose of my visit to this county was to study the English Civil War. Oxford was Charles I capital and it was here where he was based during most of the conflict.  I will also talk about a few reflections I had whilst in Oxfordshire regarding the English Civil War

So firstly Oxford, it is a beautiful city with grand old architecture. Of course, if you want a tour, you will mainly hear about the university, and I mean Oxford university, not oxford brooks! But the history in the city is amazing, if you want natural history, science, literature, it is all there, just not what I wanted, which was the civil war! It’s amazing isn’t it, that the place that was the Kings own capital, hardly has any history in it about it! Around oxford apparently, they have the parks peace parks, stopping any re-enactments from taking place there, which I just find frankly absurd! Nonetheless, the city, with the likes of the famous group of writers (the inklings, such as C.S.Lewis and Tolkien), being known to meet in a pub known as the Eagle and the Child, it certainly has a lot of inspiration! What does strike me, is that they mention all these famous person who went there, however, one whom I would like to point out Cecil Rhodes, was quite a nasty person and well, shouldn’t really be celebrated like he was!

Oxfordshire however, saw many battles during the Civil war, and you would expect to find a lot of information on them at the battle sites…right? Wrong, sadly there is hardly anything there! One would expect to at least have sign posts to the battlefields like they do at Naseby, but alas, only Chalgrove Field was shown. Nonetheless, Oxfordshire has still so much more history to offer than the civil war, take a look at Blenheim Palace, I have to say I was in awe, my inner Leveller (as I have now called it) was clearly upset, but one cannot go to Blenheim and not be impressed. It is a beautiful place. It is interesting to note how they love to compare Churchill to the first duke of Marlborough every time. So so wrong in my opinion! They are completely different people, you can’t compare them.

Of course when you see museums, you have to remember that it will have some bias, you cannot show something without it. However, they seemed to show Churchill in a way that was so over the top it was ridiculous, historians have recently contested the importance of the politician, but that whole debate was not there, not surprising I guess, but do be careful when you do visit museums, remember there is always a bias!.

So what did I actually find in Oxfordshire that helped me in my research of the Civil War? Well, there were the occasional monuments, if you looked hard enough, a few to Levellers, who were executed for their mutinies at the end of the Civil war. However there are none that are to the common soldier. I was quite surprised, especially when you think that Britain lost at least 13% of its population to the war. The most information I found were in churches, memorials to generals or captains, the upper class so to speak. However the churches had the most information to give, and some even had information about the people that were remembered there.

For most of the research, I could not rely on the internet or on road signs, they did not give a lot, but using the local knowledge of the local populace, you can find things you would have never known about, therefore if you really want to uncover the truth, as our duty as historians should be, then do not be afraid to get into the field and ask people, they know more than you think! Nonetheless, one thing I did learn was how the English Civil War has become forgotten, its importance played down. Especially in this day and age, where revolutions seem to be a common occurrence, and with a distrust of politicians in our own country, it just seems all too familiar. My trip to Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties just showed me that we must learn and remember the past. I find Tristam Hunts books on the Civil war a masterpiece, in it, he notes that modern conversations really find their routes in the Civil war. I spent my evenings reading his book The English Civil War at first hand, and it really helped with my understanding of events.

And another book I read whilst on my holiday was Thomas Hobbes’s book Leviathan, again another amazing book, in which, we can learn a really important fact. The state is nothing more than a Leviathan, in other words it is a giant that collects and encompasses the strengths of a nations people to secure a monopoly over violence (look at Nation making for a clearer understanding). It can be seen throughout history that when a group tries to take control of that power, it is usually through violent suppression and elimination of their rivals, but if the Leviathan strength weakens and eventually fails, other groups will emerge to fight for the enormous privileges hat go with a leading a state. For me it just shows the failings of communism, but that’s not my argument right now. Its that the Civil war should be our starting point when we look at today’s events, and if we can learn from those mistakes of the past, we can avoid them. I think that was partly Hobbes’s reason for writing this book, that at the end of the day, it was futile.

So to conclude, Oxfordshire was a great place to visit, I really learnt so much whilst I was there, but I was disappointed in the lack of Civil war information. If we don’t try and learn from the past then events will happen just as Hobbes said they would. Nonetheless, for a place of literature inspiration and a place to see one of England’s great Universities then it worth a visit, it was such a beautiful and interesting area!

Radiation and Marie Curie

One more update for you within our month of scientific discovery and inventions that impacted history! Today we will talk about Marie Curie and her discovery of radio which drove her entire career, and that of her husband. Marie Curie lived a very interesting life, however I will be focusing more on her discovery of radiation and how it has impacted us now. I do apologize for the shortness of post in advance, but I have been incredibly busy in the last few months!

So, first off, I had better tell you of the life of this remarkable woman. Her maiden name was Marie Sklodowska and was born in Warsaw in 1867, and she would go to Paris and then studied to graduate in physics in 1893 and mathematics in 1894. Clearly a bright woman! She would soon meet a man by the name of Pierre Curie. He was a professor at the School of Physics, and with the help of his brother, had discovered piezo-electricity.

Marie had made headways into the research of radiation, and was soon joined by her husband who was fascinated by what she had done and found and constructed sensitive laboratory equipment. So perhaps it should be really classed as a team effort!

According to the Science Museum, (where I have accumulated most of my blog post), Marie carried out the chemical separations and her husband, Pierre took the measurements. ‘In July 1898, using basic chemical refining methods, they isolated a product from pitchblende about 400 times more active than uranium. This they named polonium in honour of Marie’s native Poland’. However this was just the start of it all, they would carry on with the refining which was noted by Marie as exhausting until the winter of 1898 where the couple announced the discovery of an even more radioactive substance which they would call radium. This discovery had far-reaching effects; opening up the fields of radiotherapy and nuclear medicine.

Sadly her husband would die in 1906, which would leave her with her two remaining daughters. However, Marie would not give up on her work. During the First World War she had established a front-line X-ray service in the battlefields of Belgium and France, she would do many tasks such as fundraising, training staff and driving the X-ray vans. This could be labelled as even a bigger achievement as she used her knowledge to help the front line soldier, saving many lives.

Her work would however prove fatal as she eventually died in 1934 from the cumulative effects of radiation exposure. It must be noted as well that once radium was found it was used in all sorts of day to day materials, even toothpaste, which had disastrous consequences!

Her work has helped millions of lives from then to now.  In a way we take the discovery of radiation for granted, its in our every day’s life.   However one must note that there is a danger of relying on such technology too much, and sometimes, specifically in the medical field, you just can’t beat the human mind.

Watson & Crick & the discovery of the structure of DNA

James Watson and Francis Crick are very famous amongst the scientific community. In 1962 they both won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for successfully finding the structure of DNA. However before explaining the roles of Watson and Crick I believe it is important to introduce the previous studies of other scientists in this field in order to see how Watson and Crick made their discovery.

In the late nineteenth century a German Biochemist discovered the nucleic acids. Nucleic acids are large molecules where genetic information is stored. They are made up of phosphoric acid, sugar and nitrogen bases. It was later confirmed that the sugar in the nucleic acids can be of two varieties ribose or deoxyribose, RNA and DNA respectively. It was not until the 1940s that it was found DNA carried genetic information by an American scientist Oswald Avery and by the late 1940s it was generally accepted that DNA was a genetic molecule. In 1948 the spring coil theory was put forth by Linus Pauling.

This set precedent for what was to happen in the 1950s. Frances Crick was graduate student, graduating from University College London and was stationed at Cambridge University along with research fellow James Watson who graduated from the University of Chicago and Indiana University. At Cambridge Watson and Crick became interested in earlier work regarding DNA and they specifically wanted to create an actual picture of the molecule. Coinciding with Watson and Crick’s endeavours at Cambridge, DNA research was also taking place at King’s College in London. Franklin and Wilkins were using X-ray diffraction to study DNA. Watson and Crick used their results in order to continue their own research.

In April 1953 they discovered a molecular structure of DNA, the double helix. The double helix is formed by double-stranded molecules of DNA. This model of Watson and Crick’s has accounted for how DNA works, how it replicates and how genetic coding occurs on it. The term double helix grew significantly upon James Watson’s book The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. This discovery has been pivotal in the discipline of Molecular biology and studies still to this day stem from 1953. It is also currently used in the National Curriculum for GCSE Biology students. DNA models of the double helix are used is even used in popular culture on the CBS show The Big Bang Theory and most notably in film the starting credits of the X-Men franchise.

However it is important to mention that it was not only Watson and Crick that brought about the discovery. It should also be acknowledged that Franklin and Wilkins owed much to the discovery in 1953. Wilkins and Franklin used their knowledge of Physics to help solve biological problems like DNA. Unfortunately Franklin died in 1958 before the Nobel Peace prize for Medicine was awarded and perhaps due to this may have been the ‘forgotten discoverer’. Although Wilkins shared the award with Watson and Crick he too has to some extent suffered from the same fate. Some recent reports suggest sexism could be the reason as for why Franklin’s work is often overlooked however this does not explain Wilkins. Looking at all the information as a whole it is easy to simply draw conclusions that some of Franklin and Wilkins work was stolen. However there must be an appreciation for the evolution of others ideas and concepts when it comes down to discoveries, without other peoples work beforehand can we truly discover? See the Guardian’s article for more information-

Archimedes – Science Megamind

Following our theme of inventions and scientific waves that change history, today we will be dedicating this spot to a very important man in the history of science: Archimedes. He was a remarkable figure that produced multiple contributions to several fields, particularly mathematics, but also physics, engineering and astronomy. With such a profile, he could simply go amiss. Of course, his achievements and personal story are too great to be discussed in one mere update, and I will have to keep things to a brief overview. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy this look over his life.

As you probably know already, Archimedes was actually born in Syracuse (modern-day Sicily) c.287 BC. His date of birth is not entirely set in stone, neither is his background-some such as Plutarch link him with Hiero II, ruler of the province at the time. In addition, we know due to Archimedes’ own writing that his father was an astronomer named Phidias, as he explains in The Sand Reckoner- the work he produced in order to determine the upper limit of grains of sand that could fit within the universe. In this treaty he not only figured a way of naming large numbers, but also tried to come to terms with the dimensions and measurements of the universe. Archimedes great knowledge and critical thinking seems to have been developed by his studies and education in Alexandria. Not much is known of his career in the egyptian city, but one can assume he was greatly influenced by the work of Euclid and his geometrical treaties complied in The Elements. Much of his scientific developments is preserved in letters that he exchanged with his friend Eratosthenes of Cyrene, who was also based in Alexandria, and seems he was in charge of keeping the library’s collection. However, Archimedes eventually went back to his natal Syracuse, where he spent the rest of his life. In fact, it is said that he played a vital role during the Second Punic War (c.218-c.201 BC) in the defense of the city. In 214 BC Syracuse was under siege from the Roman army for two years and Archimedes contributed with some of his inventions. This seem to include a system of mirrors to concentrate and redirect sunlight in a way that it would ignite the invaders approaching the coat by boat – yes, the death ray! Yet, the conception of such a mechanism is still highly questioned and scholars look upon it with scepticism. Moreover, Archimedes came up with ingenious use of physics to aid the fortifications of the city. Here, his famous quote “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I will move the world” comes into play. Thus, it seems that this thought of the lever may have been implemented into weaponry and machines such as the catapult and the claw. However, the defense of the city will not prevail and eventually the Romans would take control of it, which would concur in the genius’ death. It is supported that he was engrossed in his calculations and diagram making, when a Roman soldier disturbed him. Archimedes seems to then have told off the soldier, and this one, offended by the mathematicians dismissal, killed him on the spot. However the accounts that shed some light on Archimedes life and death were written nearly a century after his death, so the accuracy or likelihood of this scenario is difficult to determine. Archimedes was buried in Syracuse; his tomb representing his lifetime of devotion, representing his famous diagram (a sphere in a cylinder of the exact height and diameter). It seems that this was what he wished for his burials as he considered his discovery and calculation of the formula for the volume of a sphere was his greatest achievement. Unfortunately, his burial seems to have been forgotten or not kept well, for it is said that it was Cicero himself who years later came to Syracuse and took upon the responsibility to paying homage to the scientist. Apparently he found the poorly kept grave at Agrigentine gate, cleaned it up, and put it back in the place it deserved within its community and the world.

So after a quick bio of our science superhero, it would be appropriate to have a quick over some of his work-other than those that I have mentioned already. Now, the man produced and developed tones of materials and experiments, and I would not be able to go in lots of details regarding these, as you can pretty much write a thesis on Archimedes contributions to science. But I will provide you with a sample of those who I found more interesting.

As we have previously discussed the principle of lever, I guess it is necessary to then address Archimedes’ screw. The story behind the creation of the screw comes from a ship that was overflowed with water leaking from the hull. Therefore, he mastered this hollow tube with a spiral and a handle at one end to drain out the water. I believe this to be a pretty important scientific contribution, as the screw has since not only helped with drainage and pumping systems, but has played a fundamental role in irrigation, which makes it key for agriculture. Moreover, one cannot forget or ignore the famous Archimedes principle: his work relating hydrostatics and that is widely known by the expression Eureka! This story explains how inspiration came to him while having a bath, as he noticed the amount of water displaced overflowing the bath, which was proportional to the amount of his body which was submerged. In this way, he figured out the issue of floating bodies and their specific gravities.  Another noteworthy contribution is the calculation of pi as expressed in The Measurement of the Circle, which are of invaluable importance in the field of geometry and mathematics. Furthermore, Archimedes Method Concerning Mechanical Theorems is something that could be understood as an idealist dream. In this piece, he establishes the process of discovery in mathematics. This was a way for him to formulate his discoveries and the process behind them, in an attempt to develop a method to apply and further the mathematical field. For sure, he did not promote this as the ultimate proof, but rather as a set of guidelines and principles to satisfy scientific curiosity and desire. In a way, it is more a practical philosophic thesis than anything else. Some defend the idea that if the Method would have not gone lost until its rediscovery 1906 in Constantinople (also known as the Archimedes Palimpsest), the Renaissance mathematicians and scientist that he so inspired and followed much of his other work, perhaps would have then be able to fulfil his mathematical dream.

…Of course, I could continue with the others – Archimedes cattle problem, stomachion, the quadrature of the parabola, etc., but if you want to learn some science…Then, be a proper Greek scholar and go find some for yourself. Allow my quick introduction to serve as inspiration for more Archimedes and science to come. And keep an eye on the rest of our updates for the month!

Mustafa Kemal AtatÜrk

Mustafa Kemal, also known as Mustafa Kemal AtatÜrk was a former officer serving in the Ottoman and Turkish army, a revolutionary and the first president of the newly formed Republic of Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1922.

Kemal was said to have been born on 19th May 1881 in Saloncia, Ottoman Empire to Zübeyde Hanım and Ali Rıza Efendi in a Muslim Middle class household. This was due to the fact that the Ottoman Empire recognised the two calendars, the Rumi and Hijri calendars, yet it was unknown what calendar Kemal’s birth was registered under. It was generally accepted to have been on 19th May 1881 within the Gregorian calendar since the historian Reşit Saffet Atabinen put forth the suggestion. However this has been disputed amongst some individuals, yet Kemal himself registered his birth 19th May 1881 on all documentation. The name Kemal is also of interest as there are some theories as to how Mustafa received this additional name. According to Mustafa’s biographer Andrew Mango it was used because Mustafa picked it himself. However other theories suggest it stemmed from his school life. One theory suggests it was used in order to distinguish him from another student in his school who had the same name.

Kemal wished to pursue a Military career and in spite of his parents not wanting him to he enrolled himself into the Ottoman Military Academy in 1899. He eventually went to the Ottoman Military College afterwards and graduated Constantinople in 1905 in as a staff captain and was assigned to the Fifth Army in Damascus. He did this for two years until he was promoted to a Senior Captain rank in Macedonia, when stationed in Macedonia he joined the Committee of Union and Congress (CUP). This was an organisation designed to be a secret society that aimed to promote liberal reform within the empire, eventually becoming more of a political organisation by the time Kemal joined. Before the First World War he was involved in two wars the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912) and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

When the First World War broke out the Ottoman Empire allied itself with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, otherwise known as the Central Powers. Kemal led the Fifth Army at the time of the Battle of Gallipoli. The Fifth Army’s purpose was to defend the Dardanelles then known as Hellespont, which separated Europe and Asia Minor. For the Allies this battle proved to be flawed and fatal, however for Kemal it proved to be successful as he anticipated correctly where the allied forces would land. After Gallipoli he then served in East Thrace at Edirne and commanded the XVI corps after a Russian offence in the Anatolia region. However this did not last long as the Russians withdraw from the war as a result of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Soon after Kemal was in charge of the Seventh Army in the summer of 1917, yet this appointment did not last very long either as he did not get along with a German general after a disagreement mounted as Kemal claimed there was a lack of resources for troops at the Palestinian front and subsequently resigned as a result of this. Interestingly, Kemal was not afraid to stand up in what he believed in for a second time. This time he was invited to Germany and witnessed how the war was being conducted on the western front and supposedly made it known to Kaiser Wilhelm himself that Germany looked as though they would lose the war.

After the First World War the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist and the countries that were part of that empire became independent republics, including Turkey and a war of three years to place in order for Turkey to officially become independent after an election Kemal won the presidency. With Turkey’s independence came much reform and modernisation, this was something Kemal strongly advocated for as the first President of Turkey and the term Kemalism was established. This way of thinking pushed for a more democratic and westernised way of life for the Turkish people which deviated from the days of the Ottoman Empire, however at the same time it was not detrimental to their Religion, Islam. These reforms did much to improve finance, the economy, social and judicial procedures in Turkey, including education opportunities.

Reforms first occurred with the modernisation of the constitution in 1921. It was Kemal who was the driving force for these reforms and the most prominent of these was in 1921, when the Turkish constitution did not abide the law from a Sultan. Another major reform was the new location for Turkey’s capital. Previously when the Ottoman Empire was still in existence it was Constantinople, today known as Istanbul. However it was in 1924 when further adoptions were made to the constitution and consequently fully replaced the one from 1921. It was in 1924 that the title of Caliphate was abolished in Turkey, a term that had been in use since the Ottomans came to power in the sixteenth century.

With a wave of reform came opposition, those that did not like Kemal’s ideas for the modern Turkey, particularly with the abolition of the Caliphate. One of these said persons was Sheikh Said, a tribal chief of a Naqshbandi order. The Naqshbandi order relates to the Sunni branch of Islam and a spiritual order of Sufism. They claim to trace their ancestry back to the first Caliph, Abu Bakr the father-in-law to the prophet Muhammad. Sheikh Said was opposed to Kemal’s westernised concepts and how he had implemented them to Turkey. He led a rebellion against the reforms taking place and this rebellion was named after him as the Sheikh Said Rebellion. Another prominent opposition against Kemal was an attempted assassination. This occurred in 1926 and the motive again was said to have been a dislike for the abolition of the Caliphate. After this assassination attempt was uncovered it stopped not only the assignation but further political activists who posed as a threat to Kemal’s presidency, these individuals were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.

If you enjoyed reading this post I suggest you read one of my earlier posts concerning the First World War about my own Great-Grandfather and his experience of Gallipoli, fighting for the allied forces.

Democritus and Atomic Theory

So this week we will be looking at what we believe are some of the most vital inventions and discoveries in science throughout history, and when looking at important discoveries or inventions throughout history it is impossible to ignore the significance that the proof of atomic theory has, with it being so fundamental and part of the most ambitious and advanced scientific discoveries to this day, all while still not being exactly figured out yet.

Atomic theory as we know it today is the product of hundreds, or possibly thousands of different insights, with each scientist building upon previous work, mostly in the 19th and early 20th century, until we get to the understanding of atoms and what they do that we have now. But the idea surely had to start somewhere didn’t it? While it is impossible to say with certainty that no one before had ever had the idea that things had some sort of limit to how small they can be, the first evidence we have of anyone having this thought comes from ancient Greece, primarily from the pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus, and perhaps with some credit owed to his mentor Leucippus.

According to ancient reports, Democritus was born in about 460 BC.  His work has survived only in secondhand reports which are sometimes unreliable or conflicting. Most of the best evidence comes from Aristotle, who regarded Democritus as an important rival in natural philosophy. Of what Aristotle wrote about Democritus only a few passages survive, and those are also quoted in other sources themselves. But from these sources it appears Democritus took over and developed the views of his elder mentor Leucippus, of which very little is known about. Although it is possible to distinguish some of the work as that of Leucippus, the overwhelming majority of reports refer to either both Democritus and Leucippus, or to Democritus alone. The developed atomist system is often essentially considered to be Democritus’ own work.

Ancient sources describe Democritus’ atomism as one of a number of attempts by early Greek natural philosophers to respond to the challenge made by Parmenides, another of the philosophers. Today it is accepted that this is the reason for Democritus to start considering the theory of atoms. Parmenides argued that it is impossible for there to be change without something coming from nothing. Since the idea that something could come from nothing was generally agreed to be impossible at the time, Parmenides then stated that change is merely an illusion. In response, Leucippus and Democritus, along with other philosophers developed systems that made change possible by showing that something should not need to come from nothing. These responses to Parmenides suppose that there are multiple unchanging material principles, which persist and merely rearrange themselves to form the changing world of appearances. In the atomist version by Democritus, these unchanging material principles are indivisible particles, the atoms. The atomists are said to have fundamentally taken the idea that there is a limit to the number of times something can be divided, which tackles the paradox of the impossibility of traversing infinitely divisible magnitudes.

The atomists held the view that there were two fundamental parts of reality that make up the natural world, atoms and void. Atoms, from the Greek adjective atomos or atomon, which means ‘indivisible,’ are infinite in number and vary in size and shape, and are perfectly solid. They move about in an infinite void, repelling one another when they collide or combining into clusters by means of tiny hooks and barbs on their surfaces, which become entangled. Other than changing place, they are unchangeable, ungenerated and indestructible. All changes in visible objects of the world are brought about by relocations of these atoms. As Aristotle then described, the atomists reduce all change to the change of place. Macroscopic objects in the world that we experience are really clusters of these atoms and therefore changes in the objects we see such as growth are caused by rearrangements or additions to the atoms composing them. These atoms were considered to be eternal, but the objects made of them were not. They said that our world and the species within it have arisen from the collision of atoms moving about in such whirl, and will all disintegrate in time.

Much of this is obviously a sort of philosophical stab in the dark, with them at the time being completely unable to observe or test the theory without something like an electron microscope. Although we can see that at a base level Democritus had a surprisingly similar idea to the Atomic theory that was developed thousands of years later. Even though we know, or maybe think we know far more today, we also know that we aren’t quite done figuring it out yet. And anyway, when you start considering these things with quantum theory, who even knows what we know? For now all I can say is that Democritus had a good idea and it took about 2300 years before anyone properly looked into it.

Cantona – Ancient Ghost Town

The site of Cantona in the modern state of Puebla (Mexico) is one of those golden and mysterious archaeological finds that the experts are still trying to figure out. One of the main mysteries about this place is who actually occupied or originally settled in this ancient city. The experts suggest this could have been a settlement of the pseudo mythological Olmec people, but the archaeological finds are inconclusive. Even the name of the settlement is disputed, and this could be key for our understanding of the site. According to the native inhabitants of the San Pedro Tepeyahualco area, the city’s name should be Caltonac.


Cantona was discovered in 1855, allegedly by Henri de Saussure, but it was Nicolas de Leon who in the early 1900s did extensive research on the site, leaving a comprehensive survey of the structures and discoveries he came across. The plot occupies around 12 kilometers and has been divided in three different sections, being the southern area-which corresponds with the Acropolis- the predicted location for archaeologists and other scholars as it is the best preserved. The whole city is structured in different patios and stone workshops and seems to lack the characteristic stucco decorations of other Mesoamerican sites. Moreover, some unusual find have been unearthed in Cantona. Currently, there are 27 ballgame courts that have cropped up in different areas of the city. The most visited aspect of this settlement is the Plaza de la Fertilidad, which receives it name from the phallic statues that are depicted all around this main square.

One of the latest items of debate about Cantona is the reason for its abandonment – or presumed abandonment. It has been argued that the sudden leave of inhabitants in this area was caused by a severe drought, however that theory is contested. The site is located in a volcanic basin; a good resource for obsidian which was highly demanded for tool making and trading purposes. The area flourished with the help of the materials available, and seems to have reached a peak of 90000 inhabitants before the mass exodus. Archaeologists are certain the evacuation of this area would have occurred between 900 AD and 1500 AD. Certainly the climatological circumstances of the area would have not contributed to a balance environment optimal for human live. It seems that the monsoon season was quite pronounced and was followed by severe droughts, resulting in numerous bad crops and issues with water supplies. It has been suggested this processed was particularly acute for about 650 years, perhaps fitting with the time frame previously suggested for the abandonment of the city. On a contrary note, however, it seems this period of harsh climate changes coincides with population increases in the area. So this has pushed researchers in Mesoamerican history to look elsewhere for the causes of the inhabitants moving out of the site. It has been considered that because this was a firmly fortified city, political unrest and general weather difficulties all over the place may have driven people to move in despite the hardship. Nevertheless, this did not stop the situation from deteriorating, leading to the eventual and full desertion of Cantona by its population.

In any case the facts about Cantona, as many of the other sites and cultures we have explored from Meso and Southamerica, are still quite scarce. I hope the future years will tell us some more about what actually happened in this place, and more interestingly, where did the people of Cantona go…?

Napoleon’s Forgotten Tin Cans

Whilst getting ready for this paper I was quietly watching the television, late at night, when a story came to help me. The show was a documentary about Waterloo. The story was, roughly, about a private and his food on the morning of the battle, or rather, about the lack of food. So as the Foot Guards were occupying the Hougoumont farm that would become one of the decisive points of the fight, the rank and file were soaked after a terrible night. And hungry. Not very promising for the clash to come.

Private Clay of the 3rd Foot Guards recalls in a letter how a butcher was found amongst them after a thorough search, and how he was given the task of getting a pig and butcher it. Thus, every man was given a meagre meal consisting in a small piece of bread of about one ounce, in addition to a piece of pig, varying in size and quality (probably depending on how close an acquaintance you were of the aforesaid butcher and/or the Sergeant Major). Private Clay was quite happy with his share, that being a big piece of the head. However, upon cooking it, he found it unsavoury and too rare for taste, not having salt at hand and all that. So after a little munching, he gave up and saved it for later. Later on the day, the not really well nurtured troops defending Hougoumont dragged endless numbers of French units to the fray, thus contributing to the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Napoleon himself was very aware of the importance of food in the Army. It was him who famously said that “an army marches on its stomach”. It went bad in Russia, and in the eve of Waterloo his soldiers were as bad fed and as soaked by the rain as the British were. So his Army was, maybe, not that willing to march. Anyway, food has been a source of trouble for the military since the beginning of time. You need lots of food to feed an army in the field, and you need it in a specific time and place- usually when moving every now and then. No food, no strength. So how do you feed the Army, then?

The documentary was hosted by actor Sean Bean, well-known as the heroic Richard Sharpe in the popular television series. If you are familiar to the series, you would easily remember his despair when Sergeant Major Harper is not around to get the tea going. Or maybe you’d recall that in many an episode meals were provided by Harper’s own Spanish mistress, then wife. As imperfect as a television series could be as a history source, the depiction is accurate enough. For a long time, the rules only amounted as to the quantity of raw food the soldiers were entitled to. It was up to them to get it cooked. And that, obviously, was in the lucky days, when rations were abundant and available. If you were on patrol duty, in hostile territory, or simply the campaign was not entirely going favourably…well, food could be a big issue. Then, usually, the only thing soldiers could do was living of the land…if there was anything to grab, which was not always the case. Think about Napoleon’s Armeé in Russia: the Russians took everything with them in their retreat; then came the snow, and the freezing cold. Nothing to eat on the way back to France.

There are multiple sources that give us quite a good idea of what you could expect to eat while serving in the military. Bread was always a staple, with some kind of meat to go with it. Dutch soldiers around 1650 were favoured with cheese and got cod or meat in alternate days. The all-powerful Spanish Tercios soldiers were entitled to a pound of bread, another of meat (or fish, surely if cheaper or available), as well as a pint of wine a day. They had to pay for it and cook it, occasionally resorting to robbery, threatening the merchants or simply requisitioning the villagers’ food- which was quite cheaper and of course made a strong case for resentment amidst the Dutch civilians. Salted pork was always a great favourite. The British soldiers at Waterloo were supposed to get roughly 25 ounces of bread, 15 of salted meat and about 30 of vegetables. We may ask Private Clay, but I’m afraid that was more the exception than the rule. Old Byzantine soldiers were expected to grind their own flour, and their tent-equipment included a hand-mill and cooking utensils. They usually double-baked the dough, having then hard tack, easier and faster to do, and longer-lasting. Preservation was difficult for the Romans and the Byzantines, and was no better for the Tercios, the Dutch, or the Napoleonic era troops. In the end, food poisoning, food bad preservation and sheer hunger driving to eat whatever was at hand, were in some campaigns deadlier than swords or bullets.

As for the usual question about being able to fight with what, to a modern eye, may well seem as not enough food, or not varied enough (not to mention not tasty enough), there is a funny insight in one of Asterix comic-books. As Asterix and Obelix are asked to take care of a youngster who has enrolled with the Legions. As themselves are in the training phase, they are served their first meal. Gruesome gruel could be a fair view of it. Then our Gallic heroes reckon the Roman Legions must be truly strong, because, they say, the strength of an army is given by the quality (or better that lack of it) of its food. I mean, when Napoleon’s artillery is pounding the ground you are on, it matters quite little if you had a proper breakfast that morning- one guess is either hold fast or run fast, regardless of the menu.

Now, in the search for better preserved food, armies have a lot to say, one can assume. And so, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the French, who were fighting in multiple fronts and against many a foe, and were resorting to levés en masse to get the numbers working, decided that something had to be done. In 1795, the military issued a decree establishing a gold prize of 12000 francs for a new method to preserve food for the army. An up to then confectioner and chef named Nicolás Appert thought he could do it. (Or so the story goes). But as everything in here seems to be related in some form to Napoleon and his “marching on its stomach” armies, it happened to be but in 1810, in the very middle of the Napoleonic Wars, that Appert came forward with the ingenious solution. After long experimentation, he simply (or not so) put the foodstuffs in glass jars, sealed the jars with cork and wax, then placed the jars in boiling water. And that was it, 12000 well-earned francs from Nicolás who went on with the show writing a book on his methods and opening the first factory of its kind in the Paris outskirts. Unfortunately, it seems mass production couldn’t reach its peak before the invasion of Russia (transport would have been a nightmare, also) so the remnants of the Grande Armée ended up eating their horses and, allegedly, sometimes each other.

Well, as the military requested from Appert-to give him the money-that his method should be open to the public, the benefits of his invention were soon expanded throughout Europe, and even America, by means of adaptation (Peter Durand in Britain, also introducing the tin can) or patent purchasing. Yet, maybe not surprisingly, the military were not taking great advantage of something they had contributed to develop. And in France’s (and Britain’s) next great war, this was going to be, again, a source of misfortunes and the tomb of many.

We all know Florence Nightingale. (She even has her own statue there in London, in the very Crimea Memorial. Wow). Yet rumour has it her works were much ineffectual regardless of the impact she got in the long run. There, in the Crimea, there was a man trying to achieve the same goal, say, saving lives, but in this case with food. Improved food as it was. His name was Alexis Soyer and, you know what? He, too, was a French chef. He went to the Crimea hand in hand with Nightingale, volunteering to advise the army on cooking. When Miss Nightingale left, herself very ill, he took over the kitchens at the Balaclava Hospital, armed with a team of French and Italian chefs. He took to the British army the field canteens the French had introduced during the Napoleonic Wars, and introduce his own device: the Soyer Stove, which was still in service during the second half of the 20th century. He also instructed soldier-cooks, developed simple recipes, even created a long-lasting bread much more palatable than the surviving hard tack. In his superb Crimea (p.355) Orlando Figes gives us this Soyer’s soup recipe, serving fifty:

  1. “Put in the boiler 30 quarts, 7 ½ gallons, or 5 ½ camp-kettles of water.
  2. Add to it 50 lbs of meat, either beef or mutton
  3. The rations of preserved or fresh vegetables
  4. Ten small tablespoonfuls of salt
  5. simmer for three hours, and serve”.

Sick soldiers got well faster, regular soldiers got sick less frequently and Soyer went back to London. It was the second time he achieved success in such a difficult enterprise. The first time had been providing the “famine soup” which saved many lives during the Great Irish Famine of 1847. Then he published a “Soyer’s charitable cookery” book and gave proceeds of it to various charities. Now I’m wondering… where must be his statue? (Appert has one in his hometown, Châlons-en-Champagne)

So, both Appert and Soyer introduced great improvements, even though not completely successful at the time. Army food improved little by little, with little, or no attention whatsoever paid to balance, or specific nutrients. Quite a strange thing if one remembers Napoleon. “An army moves on its stomach”. Yes, my Emperor. Yet they seem to keep on moving quite well, even with poor food. The Russian affaire was another matter, sire, but, you yourself said once: “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”. Nicely put.

The Very Important Dish of Fish and Chips

It’s food month and, while I was trying to think of some obscure meals not even I’d heard of (and I like my worldly foods!), I decided instead to stick to a staple classic, born from England’s Industrial Revolution.

The good old potato – too starchy to count as one of our five-a-day but still everyone’s favourite  vegetable – found its way to England in the seventeenth century by Walter Raleigh. One day, many years later, a very smart and beautiful person decided to fry them and created the chip (although they’re referred to as a denomination of ‘fries’ in nearly every country but England and Australia).

Chips became a common, cheap food in Lancashire in the nineteenth century as it was an affordable and quick meal for a population that was becoming heavily industrial. Fried fish is believed to have been thought up somewhere in London’s East End.

Fish and Chips have become synonymous with England in popular culture, but it’s not an exaggerated stereotype that it is incredibly popular in the UK. Traditionally in Christianity, Fridays are usually days to substitute meat with fish. This tradition in England has stuck with many families, even with decline in religious beliefs, and in England it’s pretty traditional to have fish and chips on a Friday. Chip shops are incredibly common in England so that no estate goes without one. The Hull Daily Mail claimed in 1936 that the fish and chip trade in England “is one which plays an important role in the lives of the people in this country”, not only by being one of the biggest customers of the British fishing industry but because of its cheap and easy availability. In 1926, one particular enthusiast about the British diet claimed in the Essex Newsman that more fish and chips was consumed by thousands of families than bread. Although not exactly held up by actual statistics, this still gives a rather strong image of the meal’s popularity.

Fish and Chip shops were originally small family businesses, which actually operated out of the front rooms of family homes. In the early days of Chip shops, regulations were lax and accidents occurred more than often. The same Hull Daily Mail article mentioned earlier underlines how at the time (1936) new regulations were being put in place to stop any old shop popping up where it pleased, without adhering to health standards. By the end of the nineteenth century, fish and chips were commonplace, and the trade was heavily expanded due to the growing demand of the growing industrial population (and, of course, by holiday-makers who craved their chips on a seaside getaway).


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