Monthly Archives: January 2014

January 31, 1910 (a Monday)

Ichthyostega

On this date, the Swedish geologist and paleontologist Gunnar Säve-Söderbergh was born. He took bachelor’s and licentiate’s degrees at Uppsala University in 1931 and 1933, respectively, and was appointed professor of historical geology at Uppsala in 1937.

In 1928, Säve-Söderbergh led a team that discovered extraordinarily fossiliferous beds in the upper Devonian of east Greenland. These 360-million-year-old rocks contained numerous fossils of bony fish and one set of particularly interesting remains. These latter fossils possessed a fish-like tail, ribs, and back, yet also had limbs with fingers and toes. This new species was dubbed Ichthyostega by Säve-Söderbergh in 1932 and was described in a series of papers by Erik Jarvik. It is widely featured in the scientific literature as the first “four-legged fish”. Although Ichthyostega may not be the ancestor of today’s terrestrial vertebrates, it no doubt is a transitional form.

The hind limb of Ichthyostega.

Ichthyostega‘s combination of fish and amphibian characters led to speculation about how the origin of tetrapods and the invasion of land by vertebrates could be related. One hypothesis, formulated by Joseph Barrell and later revised by Alfred Romer, held that one group of fish, such as Ichthyostega, adapted to more terrestrial environments due to the drying of Devonian ponds. Recent discoveries have changed this conception entirely.

Säve-Söderbergh was made an honorary doctor at Uppsala in 1942 and was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1948. Unfortunately, tuberculosis put an untimely end to his career. He died in 1948 at Solbacken, a sanatorium in Dalarna, Sweden.

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January 30, 1862 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin (1855)

On this date, in a letter to J.D. Hooker, Charles Darwin made a prediction that was not confirmed until very recently. Darwin had recently received many orchids from James Bateman, including one very intriguing species called the star-of-Bethlehem or comet orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale Thouars). Native to Madagascar, the comet orchid blooms beginning in December and is phalenophilic, meaning “moth-loving”. Its waxy white flowers are scentless during the day and both highly visible and fragrant after dark to attract the night-fliers. Most notably, each flower has a remarkable spur or nectary up to 30 centimeters (12 inches) long, but only the tip of the spur contains nectar. In today’s letter, musing on what could suck the nectar from such a flower, Darwin predicted that an insect with an extremely long proboscis would be discovered and that it would be the major pollinator of the orchid.

In 1856, a sphinx moth had been discovered in southeastern Africa. It was named Macrosila morgani, Morgan’s sphinx moth. But no one associated the moth on the continent of Africa with the orchid on Madagascar. Charles Darwin died in 1882. Twenty-one years after his death, a subspecies of Morgan’s sphinx moth was discovered on the island. And it fit Darwin’s prediction, having a proboscis long enough to reach into the tip of the orchid’s nectary. In 1903, the sphinx moth’s genus was reclassified to Xanthopan and the ‘predicted’ Madagascan moth was named Xanthopan morgani subspecies praedicta (although the subspecies was later determined to be invalid, since it is identical to the mainland form of the species).
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January 30, 1868 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin (1854)

On this date, the first edition of The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication by Charles Darwin was published. It is probably the second in importance of all his works. This was a follow-up work, written in response to criticisms that his theory of evolution was unsubstantiated. Darwin here supports his views via analysis of various aspects of plant and animal life, including an inventory of varieties and their physical and behavioral characteristics, and an investigation of the impact of a species’ surrounding environment and the effect of both natural and forced changes in this environment.

January 29, 1697 (Julian calendar/old style: a Friday)

William Blake's unflattering portrait of Isaac Newton, painted in 1795.

William Blake’s unflattering depiction of Isaac Newton, painted in 1795.

As much as Isaac Newton is revered today, there was wide dispute about his achievements during his lifetime. Although he did develop the mathematical field of calculus to help describe planetary motion, his fellow mathematician and rival Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz developed his own calculus right around the same time. Leibnitz and his colleague Johann Bernoulli certainly heard about Newton, but doubted his ability, so they devised a test.

In June 1696, Jean Bernoulli addressed a letter to the mathematicians of Europe challenging them to solve two problems: (1) to determine the brachistochrone between two given points not in the same vertical line, that is, the curve between two points that is covered in the least time by a point-like body that starts at the higher point with zero speed and is constrained to move along the curve to the lower point under the action of constant gravity and assuming no friction; and (2) to determine a curve such that, if a straight line drawn through a fixed point A meets it in two points P1, P2, then AP1m+AP2m will be constant. This challenge was first made in the Ada Lipsiensia for June 1696. Leibniz and Bernoulli were confident that only a person who knows calculus could solve this problem.

Which curve is the fastest?

Which curve is the fastest?

Six months were allowed by Bernoulli for the solution of the problem, and in the event of none being sent to him he promised to publish his own. The six months elapsed without any solution being produced. However, he received a letter from Leibniz, stating that he had “cut the knot of the most beautiful of these problems,” and requesting that the period for their solution should be extended to Christmas next, so that the French and Italian mathematicians might have no reason to complain of the shortness of the period. Bernoulli adopted the suggestion, and publicly announced the postponement to notify those who might not see the Ada Lipsiensia about the contest.

On today’s date, Newton returned at 4:00 pm from working at the Royal Mint and found in his post the problems that Bernoulli had sent directly to him; two copies of the printed paper containing the problems. Newton stayed up to 4:00 am before arriving at the solutions; on the following day he sent a solution of them to Montague, then president of the Royal Society for anonymous publication. He announced that the curve required in the first problem must be a cycloid, and he gave a method of determining it. He also solved the second problem, and in so doing showed that by the same method other curves might be found which cut off three or more segments having similar properties. Solutions were also obtained from Leibniz and the Marquis de l’Hôpital. Although Newton’s solution was anonymous, he was recognized by Bernoulli as its author; tanquam ex ungue leonem (“we recognize the lion by his claw”).

January 28, 1858 (a Thursday)

Eugene Dubois

On this date, the Dutch surgeon, anthropologist, anatomist, and paleontologist Eugene Dubois was born. Dubois vowed to prove Darwin right by finding “the missing link”, the evolutionary connection between apes and modern humans. In October of 1891, while digging into fossil-rich ash and river sediments on the island of Java in what is now Indonesia, he found skeletal remains of what he later named Pithecanthropus erectus. The name meant “ape-human which stood upright.” Now known as Homo erectus or informally as “Java Man”, it is considered to be the direct ancestor of modern humans. Dubois was the first person to ever deliberately search for fossils of human ancestors. Only a handful of fossil humans had already been discovered, all Neandertals, and those were by chance.

The Homo erectus skullcap (Trinil 2, holotype) discovered by Dubois.

Early African Homo erectus fossils (sometimes called Homo ergaster) are the oldest known early humans to have possessed modern human-like body proportions with relatively elongated legs and shorter arms compared to the size of the torso. These features are considered adaptations to a life lived on the ground, indicating the loss of earlier tree-climbing adaptations, with the ability to walk and possibly run long distances.

The most complete fossil individual of this species is known as the “Turkana Boy” — a well-preserved skeleton (though minus almost all the hand and foot bones), dated around 1.6 million years old. Microscopic study of the teeth indicates that he grew up at a growth rate similar to that of a great ape. There is fossil evidence that this species cared for old and weak individuals. The appearance of Homo erectus in the fossil record is often associated with the earliest handaxes, the first major innovation in stone tool technology.

Generally considered to have been the first species to have expanded beyond Africa, Homo erectus is considered a highly variable species, spread over two continents (it’s not certain whether it reached Europe), and possibly the longest lived early human species — about nine times as long as our own species, Homo sapiens, has been around.

January 27, 1945 (a Saturday)

Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children's barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945.

Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945.

In mid-January 1945, as Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz camp complex, the Nazi SS began evacuating Auschwitz and its satellite camps. Thousands had been killed in the camps in the days before these death marches began. Nearly 60,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, were forced to march west from the Auschwitz camp system to the city of Wodzislaw in the western part of Upper Silesia. SS guards shot anyone who fell behind or could not continue. Prisoners also suffered from the cold weather, starvation, and exposure on these marches. More than 15,000 died during the death marches from Auschwitz.

On today’s date, the Soviet army entered Auschwitz and liberated more than 7,000 remaining prisoners, who were mostly ill and dying. It is estimated that at minimum 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of these, at least 1.1 million were murdered.

Today Auschwitz is considered a World Heritage Site, and its grounds and structures, still mostly intact, serve as a living holocaust museum. In 2005, the UN General Assembly designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, every member state of the UN has an obligation to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.

January 26, 1915 (a Tuesday)

Ashoka's Edict at Maski, Raichur district, Karnataka, India.  This edict confirmed the name ASOKA for "Devanampriya Piadassi".

Ashoka’s Edict at Maski, Raichur district, Karnataka, India. This edict confirmed the name ASOKA for “Devanampriya Piadassi”.

British gold mining engineer C. Beadon did not, in his wildest dreams, think he would soon be creating history when he went for a stroll around the hillocks of Maski in Raichur district’s Lingsugur taluk. Way back in 1915, on January 26, he chanced upon a minor edict on a boulder in a cavern. Historians and scholars of India and abroad were thrilled over the discovery because, for the first time, it revealed beyond doubt that the “Devanampriya” (Sanskrit, meaning “The Beloved of the Gods”) and Priyadarsi (Sanskrit, meaning “He Who Looks On With Affection”) referred to in a number of ancient edicts across the country was none other than the legendary Mauryan emperor Ashoka (or Asoka) the Great, one of the world’s most remarkable rulers.

Numerous stories about a great emperor called Ashoka appear in ancient Vedic literature, the Asokavadana, Divyavandana, and Mahvamsa. For many years, westerners considered them to be mere legend. They did not connect the Vedic ruler Ashoka, grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, to the stone pillars inscribed with edicts that are sprinkled all around the edges of India. The pseudonym “devanampriya” found in a number of edicts had, till the British engineer found the Maski edict, remained a mystery. Research scholars struggled hard to unearth the mystery but met with no success.

The Maski edict in Prakrit language, carved in Brahmi script and dated 256 BCE, changed the very course of historians and experts’ understanding of ancient Indian history. The Maski edict clearly told the world that it was Ashoka who had had the inscriptions carved under the name “Devanampriya”. The inscription has a mention of “Devanampriya Asoka”.

A few years later one more edict was found at Gujarra in Madhya Pradesh that also shows the Name “Asoka” in addition to the usual “Devanampriya Piyadasi”.

Ashoka’s edicts made during his reign are dispersed in more than thirty places throughout the areas of modern-day Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan and represent the first tangible historical evidence of Buddhism.

Zen stones

Ashoka was born in 304 BCE to the Mauryan emperor Bindusara and his queen, Dharmā (or Dhammā). He was the grandson of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the Mauryan dynasty. It is from his mother’s exclamation “I am now without sorrow” upon his birth that Ashoka got his name. His name “aśoka” means “painless, without sorrow” in Sanskrit (the a privativum and śoka “pain, distress”).

Ashoka was given the royal military training knowledge. He was a fearsome hunter, and according to a legend, killed a lion with just a wooden rod. He was very adventurous and a trained fighter, known for his skills with the sword.

Bindusara’s death in 273 BCE led to a fratricidal struggle over succession. Ashoka managed to become the emperor by getting rid of the legitimate heir to the throne by tricking him into entering a pit filled with live coals. His coronation occurred in 269 BCE, four years after his succession to the throne.

Ashoka is said to have been of a wicked nature and bad temper. He submitted his ministers to a test of loyalty and had 500 of them killed. He also kept a harem of around 500 women. When a few of these women insulted him, he had the whole lot of them burned to death. He also built an elaborate and horrific torture chamber, which was like a hell on Earth. This torture chamber earned him the name of Chand Ashoka (Sanskrit), meaning Ashoka the Fierce.

Ashokan Pillar in Vaishali in the Indian state, Bihar.

Ashokan Pillar in Vaishali in the Indian state, Bihar.

While the early part of Ashoka’s reign was apparently quite bloodthirsty, he became a follower of the Buddha’s teaching after his conquest of Kalinga on the east coast of India in the present-day states of Orissa and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh. His 13th inscription (Rock Edict No. 13 [S. Dhammika]) tells us:

Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more died (from other causes). After the Kalingas had been conquered, Beloved-of-the-Gods came to feel a strong inclination towards the Dhamma, a love for the Dhamma and for instruction in Dhamma. Now Beloved-of-the-Gods feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

Indeed, Beloved-of-the-Gods is deeply pained by the killing, dying and deportation that take place when an unconquered country is conquered. But Beloved-of-the-Gods is pained even more by this — that Brahmans, ascetics, and householders of different religions who live in those countries, and who are respectful to superiors, to mother and father, to elders, and who behave properly and have strong loyalty towards friends, acquaintances, companions, relatives, servants and employees — that they are injured, killed or separated from their loved ones. Even those who are not affected (by all this) suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all (as a result of war), and this pains Beloved-of-the-Gods.

It is even said that in the aftermath of the Battle of Kalinga, the Daya River running next to the battle field turned red with the blood of the slain. As the legend goes, when Ashoka was walking through the grounds of Kalinga after his conquest, rejoicing in his victory, he was moved by the number of bodies strewn there and the wails of the kith and kin of the dead. This sight made him sick and he cried the famous monologue:

What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant… What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

The brutality of the conquest led Ashoka to adopt Buddhism. His conversion occurred around 260 BCE, and he used his position to propagate the relatively new religion to new heights, as far west as ancient Rome and Egypt.

After his conversion, Ashoka came to be known as Dhammashoka (Sanskrit), meaning “Ashoka, the follower of Dharma”. He defined the main principles of dharma (dhamma) as nonviolence, tolerance of all sects and opinions, obedience to parents, respect for the Brahmans and other religious teachers and priests, liberality towards friends, humane treatment of servants, and generosity towards all. These principles suggest a general ethic of behavior to which no religious or social group could object.

During the remaining portion of Ashoka’s reign, he pursued an official policy of nonviolence (ahimsa). Even the unnecessary slaughter or mutilation of animals was immediately abolished. Wildlife became protected by the king’s law against sport hunting and branding. Limited hunting was permitted for consumption reasons but the overwhelming majority of Indians chose by their own free will to become vegetarians. Ashoka also showed mercy to those imprisoned, allowing them leave for the outside a day of the year. He attempted to raise the professional ambition of the common man by building universities for study, and water, transit, and irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He treated his subjects as equals regardless of their religion, politics, and caste. He is acclaimed for constructing hospitals for animals and renovating major roads throughout India. The kingdoms surrounding his, so easily overthrown, were instead made to be well-respected allies.

Some critics say that Ashoka was afraid of more wars, but among his neighbors, including the Seleucid Empire and the Greco-Bactrian kingdom established by Diodotus I, none could match his strength. Therefore, his new policies were most likely not for geopolitical reasons.

Asoka died in 232 BCE in the thirty-eighth year of his reign.

References:

January 26, 1792 (a Thursday)

Robert Brown as a young man.

On this date, the Scottish botanist Robert Brown read his first scientific paper entitled “The botanical history of Angus“, to the Edinburgh Natural History Society, although it was never published in print in his lifetime.  He was born on 21 December 1773, so that he was but a little over eighteen when he read this essay.  Later in life, he made important contributions to science largely through his pioneering use of the microscope.

In 1827, while examining pollen grains under a microscope, Brown observed minute particles within vacuoles in the pollen grains executing a continuous jittery motion. He then observed the same motion in particles of dust, enabling him to rule out the hypothesis that the effect was due to pollen being alive. Although Brown did not provide a theory to explain the motion, and Jan Ingenhousz already had reported a similar effect using charcoal particles in German and French publications of 1784 and 1785, the phenomenon is now known as “Brownian motion.”  [In 1905, Albert Einstein postulated that Brownian motion was direct evidence of molecular action, thus supporting the atomic theory of matter.]

The cell.

Robert Brown is perhaps most famous for identifying a structure within cells that he named the “nucleus” in a paper read to the Linnean Society of London  in 1831 and published in 1833. Furthermore, he suggested that the nucleus may be an essential component of the cell. He discovered the nucleus while studying orchids microscopically, in the cells of the flower’s outer layer. The nucleus had been observed before, perhaps as early as 1682 by the Dutch microscopist Leeuwenhoek, and Franz Bauer had noted and drawn it as a regular feature of plant cells in 1802, but it was Brown who gave it the name it bears to this day (while giving credit to Bauer’s drawings). Neither Bauer nor Brown thought the nucleus to be universal, and Brown thought it to be primarily confined to Monocotyledons.

January 25, 1995 (a Wednesday)

A Black Brant XII rocket like this one caused the Norwegian rocket incident.

A Black Brant XII rocket like this one caused the Norwegian rocket incident.

On this date, the so-called Norwegian rocket incident, also known as the Black Brant scare, occurred.

It began when Russia’s early-warning defense radar detected an unexpected missile launch near Norway. Russian military command estimated the missile to be only minutes from impact on Moscow. Moments later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, his defense minister, and his chief of staff were informed of the missile launch. During its flight, the rocket eventually reached an altitude of 1,453 kilometers (903 mi), resembling a U.S. Navy submarine-launched Trident missile. As a result, Russian nuclear forces were put on high alert, and the nuclear weapons command suitcase was brought to Yeltsin, who then had to decide whether to launch a nuclear barrage against the United States.

Five minutes after the launch detection, Russian command determined that the missile’s impact point would be outside Russia’s borders. Three more minutes passed, and Yeltsin was informed that the launching was likely not part of a surprise nuclear strike by Western nuclear submarines. Tracking the trajectory had taken eight of the ten minutes allotted to the process of deciding whether to launch a nuclear response to an impending attack (Trident submarine missiles from the Barents Sea could reach Russia’s mainland in ten minutes).

These conclusions came two minutes before Yeltsin and his commanders should have ordered a full-scale nuclear attack based on standard launch-on-warning protocols. Later, it was revealed that the missile, launched from Spitzbergen, Norway, was actually carrying instruments for scientific measurements. The rocket fell harmlessly to Earth as planned, near Spitsbergen, 24 minutes after launch. Nine days before, Norway had notified 35 countries, including Russia, of the exact details of the planned launch. The Russian Defense Ministry had received Norway’s announcement but had neglected to inform the on-duty personnel at the early-warning center of the imminent launch. The event raised serious concerns about the quality of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear systems.

The Norwegian rocket incident was a few minutes of nuclear tension that took place nearly four years after the end of the Cold War. In this post-Cold War era, many Russians were very suspicious of the United States and NATO. It was the first and only incident where any nuclear weapons state had its nuclear suitcases activated and prepared for launching an attack. While not as well known an incident as the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, the 1995 incident is considered by many to be just as, if not much more, severe.

References:

January 25, 1900 (a Thursday)

Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky

On this date, the noted geneticist Theodosius Grygorovych Dobzhansky was born in Ukraine (then part of Imperial Russia). He emigrated to the United States in 1927. Dobzhansky was a central figure in the field of evolutionary biology for his work in shaping the unifying modern evolutionary synthesis. The key revelation was that mutation, by creating genetic diversity, supplied the raw material for natural selection to act on. Instead of mutation and natural selection being competing explanations for evolution, they were joined in this new synthesis.

In particular, Dobzhansky provided laboratory evidence for natural selection and variation where previously there had been only field observation. His work with Drosophila, or fruit flies, provided new evidence that supported Darwin’s theory that natural selection, acting on genetic variation in populations, is a driving force in evolution.

Dobzhansky is remembered today not only for his strictly scientific achievements, but also for his deep concern about the possible misunderstanding and misuse by society of the concepts of genetic variation. He is perhaps best remembered for the following statement:

Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.

References:

January 24, 1850 (a Thursday)

Hermann Ebbinghaus

On this date, the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was born.

The scientific study of memory started with the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus, published in 1885 in the book Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. He was a careful, cautious researcher who followed simple but logical procedures.

Ebbinghaus devised a set of items to be committed to memory that would have no previous associations, the so-called nonsense syllables. These each consist of two consonants separated by a vowel (C-V-C) that does not spell anything in one’s language — in English, BAF would be an example. Ebbinghaus constructed 2,300 of these items and then proceeded to memorize them in lists of about 20. He learned each list of these syllables until he had reached a pre-established criterion (perfect recall), and then recorded how many he was able to retain after specific time intervals. He also noted how many trials were necessary for relearning after the syllables had been forgotten. His first set of trials took place over the course of one year (1879-1880) and he replicated the experiments three years later.

The curved brown and dotted lines represent forgetting curves; the green line represents the learning curve. Relearning at periodic intervals produces forgetting curves that are progressively flatter.

Ebbinghaus made several findings that are still relevant and supported to this day. First, arguably his most famous finding, the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve refers to the exponential curve that describes how fast we tend to forget information after we have learned it. The sharpest decline is in the first twenty minutes, then in the first hour, and then the curve evens off after about one day.

The learning curve, which was described by Ebbinghaus, refers to the curve that describes how fast we relearn information. The sharpest increase occurs after the first relearning (“repetition”), and gradually evens out, meaning that less and less new information is retained with each successive relearning. Like the forgetting curve, the learning curve is also exponential.

The Ebbinghaus Illusion. Note that the orange circles appear of different sizes, even though equal.

Interestingly, Ebbinghaus is also credited with discovering an optical illusion now known after its discoverer — the Ebbinghaus illusion, which is an illusion of relative size perception. In the best-known version of this illusion, two circles of identical size are placed near to each other and one is surrounded by large circles while the other is surrounded by small circles; the first central circle then appears smaller than the second central circle. This illusion is now used extensively in research in cognitive psychology, to find out more about the various perception pathways in our brain.

References:

  • Plucker, J. A. (Ed.). (2003). “Human intelligence: Historical influences, current controversies, teaching resources”. Retrieved 24 Jan 2012 from http://www.indiana.edu/~intell

January 24, 1961 (a Tuesday)

One of the Mk 39 nuclear weapons at Goldsboro, largely intact, with its parachute still attached.

One of the Mk 39 nuclear weapons at Goldsboro, largely intact, with its parachute still attached.

On this date shortly after midnight, a B-52 plane broke up in midair, accidentally dropping two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs over Goldsboro, North Carolina, according to a 1969 U.S. government report on the incident. The document says one of the bombs should have detonated — parachutes were deployed and triggers were armed — but one low-voltage switch failed to activate as it should have, preventing what would have been devastating and widespread damage. The report was only recently declassified by the U.S. and published by The Guardian on 20 September 2013.

The bomb carried a 4-megaton payload, equivalent to 4 million tons of TNT explosive and 260 times more powerful than the one that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Fallout from the explosion could have spread to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even New York City, affecting millions of people, the report said.

There had been speculation that the event more than 50 years ago was extraordinarily serious, but the US government has long denied its nuclear arsenal has put Americans at risk through safety flaws. The declassified report was the first conclusive evidence of how close the U.S. came to nuclear devastation that day.

“It would have been bad news in spades,” wrote the author of the report, U.S. government scientist Parker F. Jones. “One simple, dynamo-technology, low-voltage switch stood between the United States and major catastrophe,” wrote Jones. “The MK Mod 2 bomb did not possess adequate safety for the airborne alert role in the B-52.”

Jones titled his report “Goldsboro Revisited or: How I Learned to Mistrust the H-Bomb,” a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 nuclear satire, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

What the Goldsboro blast would have looked like.  This is the only time we tested this warhead at full yield, the detonation “Cherokee” at Operation Redwing, in 1958.

What the Goldsboro blast would have looked like. This is the only time we tested this warhead at full yield, the detonation “Cherokee” at Operation Redwing, in 1958.

The report was uncovered by the U.S. investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act while he was researching a book on the nuclear arms race, now published as Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Schlosser told The Guardian that he had found at least 700 noteworthy incidents involving nuclear weapons that took place between 1950 and 1968 — but the public largely doesn’t know about any of them.

“The U.S. government has consistently tried to withhold information from the American people in order to prevent questions being asked about our nuclear weapons policy,” Schlosser said. “We were told there was no possibility of these weapons accidentally detonating, yet here’s one that very nearly did.”

No-Touch Torture: January 24, 1997 (a Friday)

On this date, in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by The Baltimore Sun on 26 May 1994, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassified and released a heavily redacted version of its Vietnam-era training manual called “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation — July 1963,” a comprehensive guide for teaching interrogators how to effectively create “a world of fear, terror, anxiety, [and] dread.” (Note: The word KUBARK was the CIA’s cryptonym for itself.)

The 1963 KUBARK manual was the result of years of research that began after the United States learned that American prisoners of war in Korea had been subjected to “mind-control” techniques by their captors. That history was immortalized in John Frankenheimer’s political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), which features a character who is “brainwashed” to become an assassin for an international communist conspiracy.

27 Apr 1966, Thanh Quit, South Vietnam -- A Vietnamese soldier threatens a Viet Cong prisoner with a knife during an interrogation.

27 Apr 1966, Thanh Quit, South Vietnam — A Vietnamese soldier threatens a Viet Cong prisoner with a knife during an interrogation.

Not to be outdone by a communist regime in the art of brainwashing, on 13 April 1953 CIA director Allen Dulles authorized the MK-ULTRA project, launching a decade of mind-control research. After years of conducting covert experiments, at times on unsuspecting Americans, using hallucinogenic drugs, electric shocks, and sensory deprivation, the agency apparently decided that the best methods for extracting information from detainees come through psychological torture. These methods were incorporated into the 1963 KUBARK manual. Joseph Margulies, a law professor at Northwestern University Law School in Chicago and author of Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power (2006), in an interview on 24 October 2007 said, “The CIA had funneled millions and millions of dollars into research after the Korean War culminating in this KUBARK Manual. And it has been correctly called the Bible of coercive interrogations.” The CIA then field-tested psychological torture on South Vietnamese civilians suspected of being Viet Cong sympathizers during the Vietnam War.

The CIA’s discovery of psychological torture was a counter-intuitive breakthrough — indeed, the first real revolution in this cruel science since the 17th century. Although seemingly less brutal, “no-touch” torture leaves deep psychological scars. The victims often need long treatment to recover from trauma far more crippling than physical pain, and the perpetrators can suffer a dangerous expansion of ego, leading to cruelty and lasting emotional problems.

President Kennedy and President Joao Goulart on a state visit to Washington April 4, 1962, a year before the US supported a coup to overthrow him and began spreading the KUBARK manual across Latin America.

President Kennedy and President Joao Goulart on a state visit to Washington April 4, 1962, a year before the US supported a coup to overthrow him and began spreading the KUBARK manual across Latin America.

The fear of Communist expansion into the Western Hemisphere grew rapidly after Fidel Castro’s 1959 victory in the Cuban Revolution. His victory not only prompted the 1964 U.S.-supported overthrow of democratically-elected Brazilian President Joao Goulart; it also encouraged the CIA to spread KUBARK across the continent to help prop up pro-U.S. governments. After the Brazilian coup, right-wing military leaders across Latin America began seizing control from democratically-elected governments with U.S. encouragement, School of the Americas degrees, and a copy of the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK manual.

Of course, CIA-supported subversive activities in Latin America actually began before the 1959 Cuban Revolution. On 27 June 1954, the democratically-elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was overthrown by CIA-paid and -trained mercenaries, making way for the U.S. to install a series of military dictatorships that waged a genocidal war against the indigenous Mayan Indians and against political opponents into the 1990s. Arbenz’s offense was to confiscate unused land owned by the United Fruit Company to redistribute under a land reform plan and to pay compensation based on the vastly understated valuation the company had claimed for its tax payments. Arbenz “was not a dictator, he was not a crypto-communist,” said Stephen Schlesinger, an adjunct fellow at the Century Foundation and co-author of Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala (1999). “He was simply trying to create a middle class in a country riven by extremes of wealth and poverty and racism,” Schlesinger said.

Thanks to a mandatory declassification review request filed by MuckRock user Jeffrey Kaye, a less-redacted version of the KUBARK manual was made available by the CIA on 25 February 2014. Revelations from the new release include the CIA’s admission to doctoring detainees’ interrogations tapes, a practice it considered “effective” in making it seem as though the detainee had confessed, and using foreign intelligence services for detention and interrogation purposes. The references to foreign intelligence services mean that rendition is not a product of the post-9/11 world; it is a practice at least 50 years old. Supporting this, CIA ex-Deputy Counsel John Rizzo said in a recent Democracy Now interview that “[r]enditions were not a product of the post-9/11 era…renditions, in and of themselves, are actually a fairly well-established fact in American and world, actually, intelligence organizations.”

Also released on 24 January 1997 to The Baltimore Sun in response to the same FOIA request was the “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual — 1983.” This CIA training manual details torture methods used against suspected subversives in Central America during the 1980s, refuting claims by the agency that no such methods were taught there.

The “Human Resource Exploitation” manual, which drew heavily on the language of the 1963 KUBARK manual, was altered between 1984 and early 1985 to discourage torture after a furor was raised in Congress and the press about CIA training techniques being used in Central America. Those alterations and new instructions appeared in the documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, supporting the conclusion that authorities were well aware these abusive practices were illegal and immoral, even as they were being used then and after. A cover sheet placed in the manual in March 1985 cautions: “The use of force, mental torture, threats, insults or exposure to inhumane treatment of any kind as an aid to interrogation is prohibited by law, both international and domestic; it is neither authorized nor condoned,” but with the caveat that forms of torture and coercive techniques “always require prior [headquarters] approval” first.

Despite the revisions to the CIA’s “Human Resource Exploitation” manual in 1985, the practice of torture by that agency continued and, in fact, was expanded after 11 September 2001. The torture of detainees at the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has been well documented and is common knowledge. Even Susan Crawford, the former Bush Administration’s top official for reviewing practices at Guantanamo, publicly admitted in January 2009 that torture happened there. “We tortured [Mohammed al-] Qahtani,” she said. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case [for prosecution].” In his memoir Decision Points (2010), George W. Bush states unequivocally that he authorized the torture, including waterboarding, of individuals held in U.S. custody. And on 24 July 2014, the European Court of Human Rights finally officially confirmed the fact, which the U.S. and European governments have sought to deny for more than a decade, that the CIA operated a secret torture center on Polish soil in the aftermath of the attacks on the U.S. on 9/11. In a historic ruling, the court concluded beyond reasonable doubt that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri and Abu Zubaydah were held in secret and tortured by the CIA at a military base called Stare Kiejkuty in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is the first time that any court anywhere has ruled on the CIA’s secret prisons. Most of the abuses we’ve become far too familiar with through the above revelations — hooding detainees, stress positions, sexual humiliation, exposure to extremes of hot and cold, light and dark, sound and silence — are part of the comprehensive arsenal of techniques first institutionalized in the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK manual.

On 22 January 2009, a newly inaugurated President Obama promised to “return the U.S. to the moral high ground” by signing a series of executive orders. One ordered the closing of Guantanamo and secret CIA prisons; another prohibited torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the CIA. Nevertheless, Obama’s own Justice Department has continued to subject people facing terrorism-related charges in this country to prolonged pretrial solitary confinement and sensory deprivation — conditions that have been condemned by the international community as torture. Waterboarding may have ended, but the U.S. continues to torture terrorism suspects in American prisons.

Alarmingly, a 2011 FBI “primer” on overseas interrogations, which became public on 2 August 2012 as a result of a FOIA action taken by the American Civil Liberties Union, repeatedly and favorably cites and encourages FBI interrogators to read the CIA’s 1963 KUBARK manual. The primer’s title, “Cross Cultural, Rapport-Based Interrogation,” is ironic because it encourages FBI agents to request that detainees in foreign or military custody be put in isolation to prolong the detainee’s fear for interrogation purposes. The encouragement of fear-production through isolation is a disquieting sign that some elements of the CIA’s psychological torture model continue to have currency in the government, despite the scandalous record of U.S. prisoner abuse in the “war on terror” and the Obama administration’s pledge to end torture.

References:

January 24, 1839 (a Thursday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

 

January 23, 1967 (a Monday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, the U.S. Supreme Court in Keyishian v. Board of Regents of University of State of New York ruled that faculty members’ First Amendment rights were violated by a state requirement that they sign a certificate stating that they were not and never had been Communists and by vague and overly broad restrictions on verbal and written expression. Specifically, political “loyalty oaths” required of New York State employees (including educators) under state civil service laws were declared void, and New York education laws against “treasonable or seditious speech” were found to violate the First Amendment right to free speech. Thus, the Court finally awarded to teachers and professors the full complement of free speech and political privacy rights afforded other citizens.

The Supreme Court famously emphasized the importance of academic freedom in higher education:

Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. . . The classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas.’ The nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection.’ 

January 22, 1561 (Julian calendar/old style: a Wednesday)

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon, an English lawyer, statesman, essayist, historian, intellectual reformer, philosopher, and champion of modern science, was born on this date in London. His works established and popularized an inductive methodology for scientific inquiry, often called the Baconian method or simply, the scientific method. His demand for a planned procedure of investigating all things natural marked a new turn in the rhetorical and theoretical framework for science, much of which still surrounds conceptions of proper methodology today.  Francis Bacon influenced all of science, once proclaiming, “I have taken all knowledge to be my province.”

Bacon’s works include his Essays, as well as the Colours of Good and Evil and the Meditationes Sacrae, all published in 1597. His famous aphorism, “knowledge is power” (scientia potentia est), is found in the Meditations.  He also wrote In felicem memoriam Elizabethae, a eulogy for the Queen written in 1609.  The principal work of Francis Bacon is Instauratio magna scientiarum (The Great Restoration of Learning), which was intended to embrace the entire field of knowables, both theoretical and practical. But of this vast work he finished only the first and second parts: De degnitate et augmentis scientiarum (Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning, published 1605), and Novum organum scientiarum (New Organ of Learning, published 1620).  Bacon left only notes for what was to have been the other parts of his monumental work.  Interestingly, in the Novum organum he cites three world-changing inventions:

Printing, gunpowder and the compass: These three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world; the first in literature, the second in warfare, the third in navigation; whence have followed innumerable changes, in so much that no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.

Bacon is also one of the few homosexual writers from periods as distant as the Renaissance for whom there is contemporary testimony about his sexuality. On 17 April 1593, Bacon’s mother wrote to his brother Anthony (also gay) castigating Bacon for keeping “that bloody Percy . . . as a coach companion and bed companion”, as well as others including Jones, Markes, Enney “and his Welchmen one after another.” “Bed companion” need not have implied eroticism since the nonsexual same-sex sharing of beds was common in the period, but “coach companion” would have been recognized as a sexual reference and thus defines “bed companion” here as one, too. Coaches were one of the few places in those times that provided privacy for a sexual liaison, and “coach” language was commonly used in the Renaissance to signify a sexual connection. In any case, Lady Ann’s major distress was not that her son was gay, but that it violated decorum for a nobleman to allow a servant to sleep in the master bedroom; she felt that a lower-ranking bedroom would have been more appropriate.

John Aubrey in his Brief Lives (composed 1665-1690) says quite bluntly that Bacon “was a pederast” and had “ganimeds and favourites” (“pederast” in Renaissance diction meant generally “homosexual” rather than specifically a lover of minors, as indicated by “E. K.”‘s use of it when discussing the Colin-Hobbinol peer-relationship in Spenser’s 1579 The Shepherd’s Calendar; “ganimed” of course derives from the mythical prince abducted by Zeus to be his cup-bearer and bed-warmer.) The Puritan moralist Sir Simonds D’Ewes (Bacon’s fellow Member of Parliament) in his Autobiography and Correspondence discusses Bacon’s love for his Welsh serving-men, in particular a “very effeminate-faced youth” whom he calls “his catamite and bed-fellow” (“catamite” is a corruption of “Ganymede”). The diary entry for 3 May 1621 — the date of Bacon’s censure by Parliament — reveals the full extent of Bacon’s homosexuality, and is worth quoting extensively if only because it has been suppressed in the only printed edition of the D’Ewes’s autobiography (not published until 1845), and has been studiously ignored by most of Bacon’s modern biographers:

. . . the favour he had with the beloved Marquis of Buckingham emboldened him, as I learned in discourse from a gentleman of his bedchamber, who told me he was sure his lord should never fall as long as the said Marquis continued in favour. His most abominable and darling sinne I should rather burie in silence, than mencion it, were it not a most admirable instance, how men are enslaved by wickedness, & held captive by the devill. For wheeras presentlie upon his censure at this time his ambition was moderated, his pride humbled, and the meanes of his former injustice and corruption removed; yet would he not relinquish the practice of his most horrible & secret sinne of sodomie, keeping still one Godrick, a verie effeminate faced youth, to bee his catamite and bedfellow, although hee had discharged the most of his other household sevants: which was the moore to bee admired, because men generallie after his fall begann to discourse of that his unnaturall crime, which hee had practiced manie yeares, deserting the bedd of his Ladie, which hee accounted, as the Italians and the Turkes doe, a poore & meane pleasure in respect of the other; & it was thought by some, that hee should have been tried at the barre of justice for it, & have satisfied the law most severe against that horrible villanie with the price of his bloud; which caused some bold and forward man to write these verses following in a whole sheete of paper, & to cast it down in some part of Yorkehouse in the strand, wheere Viscount St. Alban yet lay:

Within this sty a *hogg doth ly,
That must be hang’d for Sodomy.

(*alluding both to his sirname of Bacon, & to that swinish abominable sinne.)

But hee never came to anye publicke triall for this crime; nor did ever, that I could heare, forbeare his old custome of making his servants his bedfellowes, soe to avoid the scandall was raised of him, though hee lived many yeares after his fall in his lodgings in Grayes Inne in Holbourne, in great want & penurie.

Sir Francis Bacon’s relationships — like those of his King — closely followed the pattern of patron/favourite. More specifically, he had a preference for young Welsh serving-men. The roll of attendants for Bacon’s household in 1618 lists a total of 75 attendants, of whom some 25 were gentlemen waiters. There was Francis Edney, who, upon Bacon’s death in 1626, received “£200 and my rich gown”; young Thomas Meautys, who was to become Bacon’s secretary-in-chief; a Mr Bushell, “gent. usher,” who came to the household in 1608 as a lad of fifteen, and who remained until Bacon’s death; Edward Sherburn, groom of the chamber; and, above all, young Tobie Matthew, who was left only a ring to the value of £30, but who had become Sir Tobie through Bacon’s efforts, and who was well able to care for himself.

Tobie, widely acclaimed for his charm and good looks, had appeared in a play at Gray’s Inn in 1595, and he quickly became Bacon’s most particular friend, intelligencer and confidant. Tobie had previously served as a spy on the Continent, where he had met and been befriended by Buckingham. A contemporary observed that Tobie, while lodging with Bacon at York House, had “grown very gay or rather gaudy in his attire, and noted for certain night walks to the Spanish Ambassador.” Tobie was the inspiration for one of Bacon’s most famous essays, “Of Friendship.”

Although Bacon married, he did so late (at the age of 45), and his marriage produced no children.

Bacon’s biographers often find all this evidence “inconclusive.” This is simply because they cannot accept the notion that a person can be brilliant, virtuous, healthy, and gay at the same time. Historians regularly hide what they cannot deny, and suppress evidence of the homosexuality of historical figures. Happily, Bacon’s most recent biographers Liesa Jardine and Alan Stewart in Hostage to Fortune: The Troubled Life of Francis Bacon (1999) make no attempt to deny the evidence, and even add to it.

Suggested reading:

January 21, 1799 (a Monday)

James Gillray's caricature in 1802 of Dr. Jenner administering a smallpox vaccination to an unnerved woman. The cows emerging from the bodies of those inoculated point to the fear of the new vaccination, created from cowpox.(Library of Congress).

Until Edward Jenner came along, the only way to prevent smallpox was through a procedure called variolation (from variolae, Latin for “smallpox”) — the deliberate infection of an individual with smallpox. While in Constantinople in 1717, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador, had learned about variolation, which had originally been developed in Asia. In 1721, at the urging of Montagu and the Princess of Wales, several prisoners and abandoned children were inoculated by having smallpox scabs from a recent victim inserted under the skin. As expected, they then contracted a mild form of the disease. Several months later, the children and prisoners were deliberately exposed to smallpox. When none contracted the disease, the procedure was deemed safe and members of the royal family were inoculated. The procedure then became fashionable in Europe. Between 1% to 2% of those variolated died as compared to 30% who died when they contracted the disease naturally.

However, variolation was never risk-free. Not only could the patient die from the procedure but the mild form of the disease which the patient contracted could spread, causing an epidemic. Victims of variolation could be found at all levels of society; King George III lost a son to the procedure as did many others. Edward Jenner was himself variolated while at school. He was “prepared” by being starved, purged and bled; then locked up in a stable with other artificially infected boys until the disease had run its course. He suffered particularly badly. It was an experience he would never forget.

Edward Jenner, a rural English doctor, is shown injecting his first patient, James Phipps, in 1796, using fluid obtained from one of the blisters on the hand of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes, standing behind him.

Jenner, an English physician, used folk knowledge to find an alternative to variolation. Recognizing that dairymaids infected with cowpox were immune to smallpox, he deliberately infected James Phipps, an eight year old boy, with cowpox on 14 May 1796 by placing fluid from a victim’s sore into two small incisions on the boy’s arm. A week later, Phipps developed the symptoms of cowpox, including infected sores, chills, head and body aches, and loss of appetite. The child recovered quickly. On 1 July 1796, Jenner variolated Phipps using fluid from smallpox pustules, and he had no reaction. Jenner inoculated the boy several more times in this manner with the same results. After repeating the experiment on other children, including his own son, Jenner concluded that this procedure, later named vaccination (from vacca, Latin for “cow”) by Louis Pasteur, provided immunity to smallpox without the risks of variolation. Jenner rejected the suggestion that he could become personally wealthy from his new smallpox vaccination, and he planned to share it with all of England and the world.

In late 1796, Jenner submitted a paper to be considered for publication in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, England’s premier scientific journal. However, the Council of the Royal Society rejected the article and berated Jenner in scathing terms, characterizing his findings as unbelievable and “in variance with established knowledge”. It advised him that advancing such wild notions would destroy his professional reputation.

In June of 1798, Jenner independently published the findings from all of his research to date, including reports of the cases from his first manuscript and nine other patients he had vaccinated beside Phipps. This seventy-five-page book was titled An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, a Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of The Cow Pox. Again, the London medical establishment was extremely negative toward his findings. Some prominent physicians questioned the validity of his findings. Others, who were profiting handsomely from variolation, attacked Jenner for fear of losing their lucrative monopoly on protecting the public from smallpox.

After the publication of his book, Jenner tried for three months to find people who would agree to be vaccinated in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of the procedure. He did not find a single volunteer because of the public attacks on his professional competence. Instead, Jenner pursued his goal of popularizing vaccination indirectly, through London physicians to whom he provided vaccine.

And so, on this date, Dr. William Woodville, a physician at the London Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital in England, first began inoculating the general public with Jenner’s vaccine. The results over the next four months were largely favorable to the new practice but contradicted several of Jenner’s claims, since approximately 60% of patients developed generalized pustular eruptions and were thought to be infectious. Jenner argued that Woodville’s vaccines had become contaminated with smallpox. Woodville ultimately accepted that this was the case. (Cowpox samples often became contaminated with smallpox itself because those handling it worked in smallpox hospitals or carried out variolation.) Nevertheless, despite the calumnies of the skeptics and confusion among its supporters, cowpox inoculation spread remarkably quickly in Britain, in the rest of Europe, and in other parts of the world.

References:

  • Murray Dworetzky, Sheldon Cohen, and David Mullin, “Prometheus in Gloucestershire: Edward Jenner”, The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology Vol. 112, Issue 4, pp. 810-814 (October 2003)
  • John M. Hull, The philanthropic repertory of plans and suggestions for improving the condition of the labouring poor, (Sold by Suter, Cheapside, and by Snow, 1841) p. 72.
  • John Powell (ed.), Great Events from History: The 18th Century, 1701-1800 (Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press Inc., 2006).
  • History of Medicine Division/U.S. National Library of Medicine/National Institutes of Health, “Smallpox: A Great and Terrible Scourge” last updated 9 Dec 2011, accessed 23 Jan 2012.

January 20, 1633

Galileo

On this date, Galileo, at age 68, left his home in Florence, Italy to face the Inquisition in Rome. After two weeks quarantine (because of the plague) just outside Rome, he arrived there on 13 February.

By 22 June 1633, he had buckled under the threats and interrogation by the Inquisition, and renounced his “belief” that the Earth revolved around the Sun.

Aside from his theoretical works, Galileo made several contributions to “technology” such as an improved telescope, a thermometer, a military compass and many many others. So great was his legacy that he was called by Einstein the “father of modern science.”

January 20, 1692 (Julian calendar/old style: a Wednesday)

On this date [the year to Salemites was 1691, since the new year began on March 25 in those days] in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (present-day Danvers, Massachusetts), Abigail Williams, age 11, and Elizabeth Parris, age 9, began having “fits” involving behavior such as blasphemous screaming, convulsive seizures, trance-like states, and mysterious spells. Soon Ann Putnam, Jr., age 11, Mercy Lewis, age 17, Mary Walcott, also age 17, and other Salem girls began acting similarly.

So began one of the most famous travesties of justice in history – the Salem Witchcraft Trials. The proceedings were notable for their lack of empirical reason, skepticism, and humanitarianism; they were instead based on superstition, ignorance, fear, and intolerance.

The Witch House, the home of Magistrate Jonathan Corwin in 1692.

In mid-February, unable to determine any physical cause for the symptoms and dreadful behavior, the physician William Griggs concluded that the girls were under the influence of an “Evil Hand” – Satan. Under pressure from the Reverend Samuel Parris and magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne to identify the source of their affliction, the girls named three women as witches: Tituba, the Parris’ Caribbean slave; Sarah Good, a homeless beggar; and Sarah Osborne, an elderly impoverished woman. On February 29, warrants were issued for their arrests.

Over the following weeks, other townspeople came forward and testified that they, too, had been harmed by or had seen strange apparitions of some of the community members. By the end of the witch hunt, more than 200 people had been accused of practicing witchcraft – the “Devil’s magic.”

To try the witchcraft cases, Governor William Phips on May 27, 1692 ordered the establishment of a Special Court of Oyer (to hear) and Terminer (to decide) for Suffolk, Essex, and Middlesex counties. The seven magistrates of this court based their judgments and evaluations on various kinds of intangible evidence, including direct confessions (some the result of torture), supernatural attributes (such as “witchmarks”), and especially the reactions of the “afflicted” girls. The latter involved spectral evidence, the appearance of the accused’s apparition or “specter” to an “afflicted” girl, and the test of touch, the sudden cessation of her fit after being touched by the accused witch. Spectral evidence was based on the assumption that a witch could send out his/her specter, an incorporeal being indistinguishable to those who could see them from the witch himself/herself. The specter had human powers of sight, hearing, speech, and touch and superhuman ones of locomotion, so it could torment and afflict the “saints” to lead them astray. The touch test was based on the assumption that the girl was made well by physical contact with the witch because it allowed the witch’s evil to flow back from the “afflicted” girl.

English courts, while recognizing the credibility of “spectral evidence,” refused to prosecute alleged capital offenses on the basis of “spectral evidence” alone. That was not the case in New England. During the witch trials the “afflicted” girls claimed that various people of Salem Town and Salem Village had appeared to them to lead them into witchcraft and to cast spells upon them. Furthermore, the girls claimed to see “specters” even in the courtroom. The magistrates accepted such evidence as credible and admissible for judgment and sentencing. Thomas Brattle described the court procedure in a letter he wrote (see below) to the General Court of Massachusetts in October:

First, as to the method which the Salem Justices do take in their examinations, it is truly this: A warrant being issued out to apprehend the persons that are charged and complained of by the afflicted children, (as they are called); said persons are brought before the Justices, (the afflicted being present.) The Justices ask the apprehended why they afflict those poor children; to which the apprehended answer, they do not afflict them. The Justices order the apprehended to look upon the said children, which accordingly they do; and at the time of that look, (I dare not say by that look, as the Salem Gentlemen do) the afflicted are cast into a fitt. The apprehended are then blinded, and ordered to touch the afflicted; and at that touch, tho’ not by the touch, (as above) the afflicted ordinarily do come out of their fitts. The afflicted persons then declare and affirm, that the apprehended have afflicted them; upon which the apprehended persons, tho’ of never so good repute, are forthwith committed to prison, on suspicion for witchcraft….

Gallows Hill

The first case brought to the special court was Bridget Bishop, an older woman known for her gossipy habits and promiscuity. She was tried on June 2 and, on June 10, became the first person hanged on what eventually became known as Gallows Hill. Troubled by this event, Governor Phips consulted the ministers of Boston, including Increase Mather and his son, Cotton. They wrote the Return of the Ministers Consulted, in which they advised caution in the witchcraft proceedings but concluded:

Nevertheless, we cannot but humbly recommend unto the Government the speedy and vigorous prosecution of such as have rendered themselves obnoxious, according to the direction given in the laws of God, and the wholesome statutes of the English nation, for the detection of witchcrafts.

Five people were sentenced and hanged in July, five more in August and eight in September. One accused witch (or wizard, as male witches were often called) was pressed to death on September 19 because he refused to enter a plea to the charges of witchcraft against him. On October 3, after 20 people had been executed in the Salem witch hunt, the Reverend Increase Mather, who was the father of Cotton Mather and then president of Harvard College, delivered a sermon entitled Cases of Conscience concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men, in which he denounced the use of spectral evidence – the girls’ visions – and said:

It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than one innocent person be condemned.

On October 8, 1692, Thomas Brattle, a merchant, mathematician, astronomer, and Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote an eloquent letter (quoted above) criticizing the witchcraft trials and convictions to the members of the General Court. This letter and Increase Mather’s Cases of Conscience apparently had great impact on Governor Phips, who on October 12 prohibited further imprisonments for witchcraft. On October 26, the General Court dismissed the Court of Oyer and Terminer, and on October 29, the Governor formally dissolved it. On November 25, 1692, the General Court created the Superior Court of Judicature to try the remaining witchcraft cases, but spectral evidence was now disallowed. This time, only 3 of 56 defendants were condemned, and Phipps pardoned them along with five others awaiting execution. In May 1693 Phips pardoned all those who were still in prison on witchcraft charges. They were free – provided they could pay their jail bills.

On August 25, 1706, Ann Putnam, Jr. publicly apologized in Salem Village Church for causing the deaths of innocent people and said it was due to a “great delusion of Satan.” Eventually, the colony admitted the trials were a mistake and compensated the families of those convicted. However, Massachusetts did not formally apologize for the events of 1692 until 1957 – more than 250 years later.

The tragic events in Salem Village in 1692 clearly illustrate why alleged supernatural entities or forces are no longer admissible in legal proceedings as evidence of the guilt or innocence of the accused. The Enlightenment, beginning in the late 1680s, contributed to the end of witchhunts throughout Europe and America by pointing out that there was no empirical evidence that alleged witches caused real harm and by emphasizing that the use of torture to force confessions was inhumane. The Enlightenment also resulted in replacing superstition with science, which does not use supernatural entities or forces to explain natural phenomena – such as the bizarre behavoir of Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris.

References:

January 20, 1862 (a Monday)

In medical knowledge, Egypt leaves the rest of the world behind.

The Odyssey, Book 4 by Homer

Zen stones

The Edwin Smith Papyrus

On this date, in the city of Luxor, Egypt, the American Egyptologist Edwin Smith made an important historical discovery when he bought an ancient papyrus from a dealer named Mustapha Aga. After Smith died in 1906, his daughter, Leonora Smith, gave the papyrus to The New York Historical Society. In 1920, James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute of Chicago, was asked to translate the papyrus. Finally, in 1930, Dr. Breasted published the English translation for The New York Historical Society (University of Chicago Press). The papyrus now resides at The New York Academy of Medicine, where it has been since December 2, 1948.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the first known medical document dating from the 17th century B.C.E. However, it is thought to have been based on earlier documents, possibly by the 27th century B.C.E. medical writer and architect Imhotep, among others, since the papyrus appears to be a compilation of work based on the writing of multiple authors. This would make it the oldest of all known medical papyri. According to Breasted, the papyrus is a copy of an ancient composite manuscript which contained, in addition to the original author’s text, a commentary added a few hundred years later in the form of 69 explanatory notes (glosses). The treatise contains 48 systematically arranged case histories, beginning with injuries of the head and proceeding downward to the thorax and spine, where the document unfortunately breaks off. These cases are typical rather than individual, and each presentation of a case is divided into title, examination, diagnosis, and treatment. The treatment of these injuries is rational and chiefly surgical; there is resort to magic in only one case out of the 48 cases preserved. The Edwin Smith Papyrus is of special interest to the anatomist because it describes the sulci and gyri on the surface of the brain, the meninges (coverings of the brain), and the cerebrospinal fluid for the first time in recorded history.

January 19, 1833 (a Saturday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin entered the eastern mouth of the Beagle Channel during his voyage around the world on HMS Beagle. He wrote in his Beagle diary:

In the morning, three whale-boats & the Yawl started with a fair wind. — We were 28 in number & the yawl carried the outfit given to Matthews [Rev. Richard, Missionary] by the Missionary society. The choice of articles showed the most culpable folly & negligence. Wine glasses, butter-bolts, tea-trays, soup tureens, mahogany dressing case, fine white linen, beaver hats & an endless variety of similar things shows how little was thought about the country where they were going to. The means absolutely wasted on such things would have purchased an immense stock of really useful articles. Our course lay towards the Eastern entrance of the Beagle channel & we entered it in the afternoon. The scenery was most curious & interesting; the land is indented

HMS Beagle at Ponsonby Sound in the Beagle Channel, by Conrad Martens.

with numberless coves & inlets, & as the water is always calm, the trees actually stretch their boughs over the salt water. In our little fleet we glided along, till we found in the evening a corner snugly concealed by small islands. Here we pitched our tents & lighted our fires. Nothing could look more romantic than this scene: the glassy water of the cove & the boats at anchor; the tents supported by the oars & the smoke curling up the wooded valley formed a picture of quiet & retirement.

References:

January 18, 1823 (a Saturday)

William Buckland

William Buckland

William Buckland, Professor of Geology at Oxford University and an ordained priest in the Church of England, had been contacted by the Talbot family of Penrice Castle on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales, England, who had reported finding “bones of elephants” on 27 December 1822. Descending into Paviland Cave (or Goat’s Hole Cave) on today’s date, Buckland discovered one of the best-known prehistoric burials in Britain – the notoriously misnamed “Red Lady of Paviland.”

In the field, Buckland had identified the skeleton as male, suggesting that the bones were those of a Customs Officer murdered by smugglers. By the time of publication later that year, however, the gender and age of the skeleton had changed with a new and better, but still erroneous, story.

Found at Paviland

Buckland, a devout Christian, believed no human remains could have been older than the Biblical Great Flood, and thus wildly underestimated its true age, believing the remains to date back to the Roman era. He believed the skeleton was female in large part because it was discovered with decorative items, including perforated seashell necklaces and ivory jewelry. These decorative items combined with the skeleton’s red dye caused Buckland to mistakenly speculate that the remains belonged to a Roman prostitute or witch. He later wrote in his book Reliquiae Diluvianae (Evidence of the Flood):

[I found the skeleton] enveloped by a coating of a kind of ruddle…which stained the earth, and in some parts extended itself to the distance of about half an inch [12mm] around the surface of the bones… Close to that part of the thigh bone where the pocket is usually worn surrounded also by ruddle [were] about two handfuls of the Nerita littoralis [periwinkle shells]. At another part of the skeleton, viz in contact with the ribs [were] forty or fifty fragments of ivory rods…[also]…some small fragments of rings made of the same ivory and found with the rods… Both rods and rings, as well as the Nerite shells, were stained superficially with red, and lay in the same red substance that enveloped the bones.

The “lady” has since been identified as a man, probably no older than 21, who lived about 26,000 years ago (26,350 ± 550 BP). It remains the first human fossil found and identified soon after its discovery and the oldest anatomically modern human remains found in the United Kingdom.

Buckland is also famous for being the first person to discover, name, and scientifically describe a fossilized creature that came to be recognized as what Richard Owen was to call a dinosaur. Buckland’s name for the animal was Megalosaurus, Greek for “great lizard”. Though he was not the first person to find a Megalosaurus bone (Robert Plot discovered a fossilized femur of one as far back as 1676), Buckland was the first to realize that these fossils belonged to an unknown class of huge reptiles. According to his calculations, the animal must have exceeded forty feet in length and weighed as much as a large elephant. Some people think his 1824 paper to the Geological Society of London (“Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield”) inaugurated the modern study of dinosaurs.

Buckland’s interest in dinosaur remains included more than bones. He also carried out a large amount of research into fossilized dinosaur feces. At a meeting of the Geological Society of London on 6 February 1829, Buckland described them and introduced the term coprolites (from the Greek words “kopros”, meaning dung, and “lithos”, meaning stone). His paper, “On the Discovery of Coprolites, or Fossil Faeces, in the Lias at Lyme Regis”, states that they have “undergone no process of rolling, but retain their natural form, as if they had fallen from the animal into soft mud, and there been preserved,” later comparing them to “oblong pebbles or kidney-potatoes.”

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

William Buckland Fossil Faeces (Coprolites).

Interestingly, Buckland was very eccentric. He caused such a stir with his explicit lectures on the mating habits of reptiles that The Times of London felt he should restrain his enthusiasm “in the presence of ladies”. He always wore his academic gown when out digging for fossils. The hallway of his Oxford home was lined with the skulls of animals. Monkeys, a bear (in a mortarboard) and a hyena, amongst other animals, had the run of the house (the hyena ate the family’s guinea pig).

But strangest of all was Buckland’s diet. He was a committed zoophagist — an eater of animals. All animals. In Buckland’s opinion, the Creator had placed the creatures of the world at Man’s service, to feed and clothe him and to be his companions, and it was Man’s duty to eat the rich bounty of foods provided by the Almighty for his sustenance. And eat them he did — from elephant trunk soup, panther chops, horse tongue, porpoise head, crispy mice in batter, kangaroo ham, and eland steaks to accidentally grilled giraffe (there had been a fire at the London Zoo). He found the taste of mole to be the worst, until he tasted bluebottles.

Once, while touring a church, the local vicar showed him “martyr’s blood” dripping from the rafters — Buckland dropped to his knees and began to lap at the miraculous liquid, which was, he announced between laps, bats’ urine. On a visit to Nuneham House, he was shown a silver casket holding what was reputed to be the heart of King Louis XIV of France. Before anyone could stop him, Buckland announced, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” before snatching it up and swallowing it.

Buckland’s eccentricities earned him a famous description by Charles Darwin, who wrote: “though very good-humoured and good-natured [he] seemed to me a vulgar and almost coarse man. He was incited more by a craving for notoriety, which sometimes made him act like a buffoon, than by a love of science.”

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January 17, 2012: British scientists announce ‘lost’ Darwin fossils rediscovered

A glass microscope slide from the British Geological Survey preserves a fossil specimen from Chiloe Island, labeled *C. Darwin Esq.*

A glass microscope slide from the British Geological Survey preserves a fossil specimen from Chiloe Island, labeled *C. Darwin Esq.*

On this date, British scientists announced the rediscovery of scores of fossils that were collected by the great evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin and his peers but were lost for more than 150 years.

Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that in April 2011 he stumbled upon the glass slides containing the fossils in an old wooden cabinet that had been shoved in a “gloomy corner” of the massive, drafty British Geological Survey (BGS). Using a flashlight to peer into the drawers and hold up a slide, Falcon-Lang saw one of the first specimens he had picked up was labeled “C. Darwin Esq.”

Falcon-Lang’s find was a collection of 314 slides of specimens collected by Darwin and other members of his inner circle, including John Hooker — a botanist and best friend of Darwin — and the Rev. John Henslow, Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge, whose daughter later married Hooker. Also included were some of the first thin sections ever made by William Nicol, the pioneer of petrography. The first slide pulled out of the dusty corner at the BGS turned out to be one of the specimens collected by Darwin during his famous expedition on the HMS Beagle, which changed the young Cambridge graduate’s career and laid the foundation for his subsequent work on evolution.

J.D. Hooker

J.D. Hooker

Falcon-Lang said one of the most “bizarre” slides was a specimen of prototaxites, a 400 million-year-old tree-sized fungi. The collection of slides had been assembled by Hooker while briefly working for the BGS in 1846, according to Royal Holloway, University of London.

The slides — “stunning works of art,” according to Falcon-Lang — contain bits of fossil wood and plants ground into thin sheets and affixed to glass in order to be studied under microscopes. Some of the slides are half a foot long (15 centimeters), “great big chunks of glass,” Falcon-Lang said.

Royal Holloway, University of London said the fossils were ‘lost’ because Hooker failed to number them in the formal “specimen register” before setting out on an expedition to the Himalayas. In 1851, the “unregistered” fossils were moved to the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly before being transferred to the South Kensington’s Geological Museum in 1935 and then to the BGS’s headquarters near Nottingham 50 years later, the university said.

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January 17, 1961 (a Tuesday)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Oval Office (29 Feb 1956)

On this date, President of the United States (and former General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the threat of a “military-industrial complex” in his Farewell Address to the Nation:

A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. . .

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together [emphasis added].

Perhaps the most stubborn misconception about the phrase “military-industrial” is that it began life with an attached third term that was excised prior to the speech’s delivery, usually either the word “congressional” or the word “scientific.” However, the historical evidence for both claims is essentially nil – there is no extant draft of the speech that contains any other version of the phrase except the one we know today. The Eisenhower Library has posted online a draft of the speech dated nearly a month before it was delivered, and the phrase military-industrial complex is intact, just as in every other draft. Moreover, a speechwriter staff memorandum dated 31 October 1960 — before the speech had even been drafted — referred to the “war based industrial complex,” very close to the phrase Eisenhower eventually said out loud.

A few months ago, the son of Malcolm Moos, a journalist and academic who was a speechwriter for Eisenhower, came across among his deceased father’s papers a batch of folders marked “Farewell Address.” He sent the boxes off to the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Texas. As archivists began to go through the papers, they discovered twenty-one previously unknown drafts, as well as memos and research materials that had long been missing from the record of one of the twentieth century’s most important speeches.

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Some historians have regarded the Farewell Address as an afterthought, hastily composed at the end of 1960 as an adjunct to the 1961 State of the Union. Others have regarded it as the soulful expression of an aging President who was determined to warn the American people of dangers ahead. But the Moos papers make clear that the address, far from being an afterthought, was among the most deliberate speeches of Eisenhower’s Presidency. Regarded in his day as inarticulate and detached, Eisenhower in these papers is fully engaged, grappling with the language of the text and the radical questions that it raised.

Notable in view of events that have occurred since Eisenhower’s address, George F. Kennan wrote in his preface to Norman Cousins’s 1987 book The Pathology of Power:

Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.

Furthermore, U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined, a situation without precedent in modern history. Here are some excerpts from an article entitled, “Why military spending remains untouchable“, written by Andrew Bacevich and posted by Mother Jones on 28 January 2011:

The Pentagon presently spends more in constant dollars than it did at any time during the Cold War – this despite the absence of anything remotely approximating what national security experts like to call a “peer competitor.” . . .

What are Americans getting for their money? Sadly, not much. . . .

The chief lesson to emerge from the battlefields of the post-9/11 era is this: the Pentagon possesses next to no ability to translate “military supremacy” into meaningful victory. . . .

Yet the defense budget — a misnomer since for Pentagon, Inc. defense per se figures as an afterthought — remains a sacred cow. Why is that? The answer lies first in understanding the defenses arrayed around that cow to ensure that it remains untouched and untouchable . . . . [T]hat protective shield consists of four distinct but mutually supporting layers:

Institutional Self-Interest: . . . within Washington, the voices carrying weight in any national security “debate” all share a predisposition for sustaining very high levels of military spending for reasons having increasingly little to do with the well-being of the country.

Strategic Inertia: In a 1948 State Department document [Memo PPS/23], diplomat George F. Kennan offered this observation: “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.” The challenge facing American policymakers, he continued, was “to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity.” Here we have a description of American purposes that is far more candid than all of the rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy, seeking world peace, or exercising global leadership. . . .

The effort [to maintain this disparity] has been a largely futile one. . . .

Yet . . . the pre-existing strategic paradigm stubbornly persists; so, too, as if by default do the high levels of military spending that the strategy entails.

Cultural Dissonance: The rise of the Tea Party movement should disabuse any American of the thought that the cleavages produced by the “culture wars” have healed. The cultural upheaval touched off by the 1960s and centered on Vietnam remains unfinished business in this country. . . .

In effect, soldiers offer much-needed assurance that old-fashioned values still survive, even if confined to a small and unrepresentative segment of American society. . . .

Misremembered History: . . .American politics once nourished a lively anti-interventionist tradition. Leading proponents included luminaries such as George Washington and John Quincy Adams. That tradition found its basis not in principled pacifism, a position that has never attracted widespread support in this country, but in pragmatic realism. What happened to that realist tradition? Simply put, World War II killed it – or at least discredited it. In the intense and divisive debate that occurred in 1939-1941, the anti-interventionists lost, their cause thereafter tarred with the label “isolationism.” . . .

Like concentric security barriers arrayed around the Pentagon, these four factors – institutional self-interest, strategic inertia, cultural dissonance, and misremembered history – insulate the military budget from serious scrutiny.

Suggested reading:

  • Andrew J. Bacevich. Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books – Henry Holt and Company, 2010).
  • Memo by George Kennan, Head of the US State Department Policy Planning Staff. Written 28 February 1948, Declassified 17 June  1974. George Kennan, “Review of Current Trends, U.S. Foreign Policy,” Policy Planning Staff, PPS No. 23. Top Secret.  Included in the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, volume 1, part 2 (Washington DC Government Printing Office, 1976), 524-525.
  • James Ledbetter. Unwarranted Influence: Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Military-Industrial Complex (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).
  • Jim Newton, “Paper Trail: ‘Ike’s Speech’,” The New Yorker, 20 December 2010, p. 42

January 17, 1834 (a Friday)

August Weismann

On this date, the German biologist August (Friedrich Leopold) Weismann was born in Frankfurt. Ernst Mayr ranked him the second most notable evolutionary theorist of the 19th century, after Charles Darwin. Weismann was one of the founders of modern genetics, who is best known for his opposition to the concept of the inheritance of acquired traits and for his “germ plasm” theory, the forerunner of DNA theory.

During his career, Weismann grappled with Christian creationism as a possible alternative to evolutionary theory. In his work Über die Berechtigung der Darwin’schen Theorie (On the Justification of the Darwinian Theory) published in 1868, he compared creationism and evolutionary theory, concluding that many biological facts can be seamlessly accommodated within evolutionary theory but remain puzzling if considered the result of acts of creation. After he completed this work, Weismann accepted evolution as a fact on a par with the fundamental assumptions of astronomy (e.g., heliocentrism).

In a lecture in 1883 entitled “On inheritance” (“Über die Vererbung”), Weismann proposed the so-called germ-plasm theory of heredity. This theory states that a multicellular organism’s cells are divided into somatic cells (the cells that make up the body) and germ cells (cells that produce the gametes).  His great insight was to see that the two do not exchange information – variation must be produced in the germ cells. In other words, genetic information cannot pass from somatic cells to germ cells and on to the next generation. This was referred to as the Weismann barrier.  In addition, the germ cells are neither influenced by environmental conditions nor by learning or morphological changes that happen during the lifetime of an organism, which information is lost after each generation.  Thus, the germ-plasm theory ruled out the inheritance of acquired characteristics as proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.  In stating definitely seven years later that the material of heredity was in the chromosomes, Weismann anticipated the chromosomal basis of inheritance.

In October 1887, Weismann began the famous experiment of chopping off the tails of fifteen hundred white mice, repeatedly over 20 generations. He subsequently reported that no mouse was ever born in consequence without a tail, stating that:

901 young were produced by five generations of artificially mutilated parents and yet there was not a single example of a rudimentary tail or any other abnormality of the organ.

Weismann knew that it might be objected that the number of generations had been far too small:

Hence the experiments on mice, when taken alone, do not constitute a complete disproof of [inheritance of acquired characteristics]: they would have to be continued to infinity before we could maintain with certainty that hereditary transmission cannot take place. But it must be remembered that all the so-called proofs which have hitherto been brought forward in favour of the transmission of mutilations assert the transmission of a single mutilation which at once became visible in the following generation. Furthermore the mutilation was only inflicted upon one of the parents, not upon both, as in my experiments with mice. Hence, contrasted with these experiments, all such ‘proofs’ collapse; they must all depend on error.

Weismann made it clear that he embarked on the experiment precisely because, at the time, there were many claims of animals inheriting mutilations (he refers to a claim regarding a cat that had lost its tail having numerous tail-less offspring). There were also claims of Jews born without foreskins. None of these claims, he said, were backed up by reliable evidence that the parent had in fact been mutilated, leaving the perfectly plausible possibility that the modified offspring were the result of a mutated gene. The purpose of Weismann’s experiment was to lay the claims of inherited mutilation to rest.  Its results were consistent with Weismann’s germ-plasm theory.

Mitosis and meiosis compared.

Meiosis was discovered and described for the first time in sea urchin eggs in 1876, by noted German biologist Oscar Hertwig (1849-1922). It was described again in 1883, at the level of chromosomes, by Belgian zoologist Edouard Van Beneden (1846-1910) in Ascaris worms’ eggs. However, the significance of meiosis for reproduction and inheritance was grasped only in 1890 by Weismann, who noted that two cell divisions were necessary to transform one diploid cell into four haploid cells in order to maintain the correct number of chromosomes in the offspring.

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