Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
The Icelandic Volcano that Froze the Mississippi, Starved Egypt, and Helped Along the French Revolution
On June 8, 1783, the Laki or Lakagigar volcanic fissure in Iceland erupted. It wasn’t a giant explosion, but it kept going for the next eight months. In that time the Laki sent into the earth’s atmosphere 8 million tons of hydrogen fluoride and 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide.
The visitor to Iceland — as I was recently — commonly tours around Iceland’s many volcanic sights from the Geysir (whence the word “geyser”) to the Blue Lagoon and sees them as charming places. And even the earliest Norsemen to settle in Iceland immediately noticed its volcanic character — “Reykjavik,” meaning “smoky bay,” was so named because the Nordic sailors saw the area covered in geothermal steam. But in the course of history, Iceland’s volcanos often played cataclysmic roles. In 934 A.D., the Eldgja eruption may have led to severe weather conditions in China. In our own time, the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 grounded flights in and out of Europe; I distinctly remember my then colleagues in the U.S. for a conference being unable to return to Germany.
I’ve previously written on this site about Alexander von Humboldt. But the man is the gift that keeps on giving. So here goes again.
In case you haven’t read my earlier post or otherwise know about Humboldt, here is his story in brief: Humboldt was one of the most influential scientists who ever lived, whom hardly anyone today remembers. In large part he invented our modern notion of nature as an interconnected whole — the environment, as it were. Indeed he was one of the first individuals to spearhead the cause of environmentalism and to point out that human activity had a significant impact on the natural world. Even two centuries ago, he recognized and demonstrated the phenomenon of anthropogenic climate change, something that the U.S. government of today refuses to acknowledge.
Let’s face it: There is, by now, no way to turn back the clock on climate change. There is now no way to wrest control of the green house gases that we put into the atmosphere to a sufficient degree so as to forestall significant, if not catastrophic, climate change.
Climate scientists were saying back in the 1990s that we had to do something right now if we were going to have enough time to fix the problem. Well, we didn’t, and twenty-odd years have gone by. And now it appears that the largest economy in the world, the United States, will spend at least another four years deliberately going backward, deliberately polluting the environment more just to be a dick. Indeed, the new U.S. administration denies that climate change is a thing, and EPA scientists are no longer even allowed to use the phrase “climate change” in their papers.
So, the bad news is, we’re screwed.
The good news is that maybe we’re not. It’s time to put on Budyko’s Blanket.
One of the most fascinating things I learned about Inca culture traveling through the former heart of their empire, Peru, has to do with their astronomy.
Every ancient civilization looked to the night sky and the glimmering fires in it for inspiration and for guidance. Indeed, a serious argument has been made that post-industrial humans, unable to discern most of the stars in the sky from most of the places where we live due to light pollution, are fundamentally losing the cosmic perspective that our ancestors had for millennia. We moderns are liable to forget our place in the universe. But that story will have to wait for a later date.
The constellations that Western peoples saw when they looked up are familiar to us as a matter of popular culture: Aquarius, Leo, Virgo, Pisces, Gemini, Scorpio, Orion, etc. Even today many of us obsessively (and entirely irrationally) check our horoscopes on the basis of that view of the stars. Other cultures — India, Babylon, Persia, China — looked up and connected different dots and named different constellations. But usually they were at least connecting the bright dots as well.
The Inca, on the other hand, looked up and focused on the dark spaces in between.
Both George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a Fascist politician’s rise to power in America, It Can’t Happen Here, are now bestsellers. Indeed, Amazon has sold out of both.
But another book ought to be on your reading list as well: The Confidence Game by the science journalist Maria Konnikova.
A study of the art of the con artist and the psychology that leads victims to fall for scams, the book was written and published before most of us thought Trump had any chance of victory, and it was not meant to be political. Yet it reads like a history of his rise.
I didn’t climb Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador, where I was traveling recently.
At 6,263 meters (20,548 ft), Chimborazo is proudly featured on Ecuador’s coat of arms. Besides being the highest mountain in the country, it is also the farthest point on the surface of the earth from its center. Yes, Everest is taller when measured from sea level. But Chimborazo is located on the equatorial bulge (where the centripetal force of the earth’s spinning distorts the planet into an oblate spheroid instead of a sphere), so that its summit is 2.1 kilometers farther from the center of the earth than the summit of Everest.
I didn't climb Chimborazo because I’m no serious mountaineer, not even close, and you have to be one to attempt it.
But Alexander von Humboldt tried climbing it in June 1802.
Boxing Day marked the 236th anniversary of the birth of Mary Somerville, Scottish scientist and polymath. And it so happened that on the day before that, Christmas Day, pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, who established the existence of dark matter, passed away without ever winning the Nobel Prize that she probably deserved. I may be a few days late, but it still seems the week to celebrate Somerville’s legacy.
As Maria Popova noted over at Brainpickings, the very word “scientist” was coined for Somerville’s sake, because the traditional phrase “man of science” was obviously inappropriate for a woman. Another phrase by which Somerville was known was “the queen of science.” When she passed away in 1872, the London Post described her as “the Queen of Nineteenth-Century Science.”
In 1754, the 4th Earl of Oxford, the gothic novelist and Whig politician better known to us by his real name Horace Walpole, found himself reading a Persian fairytale called “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Actually he was probably reading the Italian translation of the story, “Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo,” published in Venice in 1557.
The story begins by explaining that once upon a time, “in the country of Serendippo, in the Far East,” the king had three sons. As the tale progresses, the three princes embark on many adventures and experience many twists and turns before finally reaching a happy ending.
In a letter to Horace Mann (a lot of Horaces back then) dated January 28, 1754, Walpole summed up the tale as one in which its heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” With this quality of fortuitous happenstance in mind, Walpole coined a new word, “serendipity,” now defined (in Merriam-Webster) as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for; also: an instance of this.”
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."