Monday, March 31, 2008

Study Shows Life Was Tough for Ancient Egyptians

CAIRO (Reuters) - New evidence of a sick, deprived population working under harsh conditions contradicts earlier images of wealth and abundance from the art records of the ancient Egyptian city of Tell el-Amarna, a study has found.

Tell el-Amarna was briefly the capital of ancient Egypt during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who abandoned most of Egypt's old gods in favor of the Aten sun disk and brought in a new and more expressive style of art.

Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt between 1379 and 1362 BC, built and lived in Tell el-Amarna in central Egypt for 15 years. The city was largely abandoned shortly after his death and the ascendance of the famous boy king Tutankhamen to the throne.

Studies on the remains of ordinary ancient Egyptians in a cemetery in Tell el-Amarna showed that many of them suffered from anemia, fractured bones, stunted growth and high juvenile mortality rates, according to professors Barry Kemp and Gerome Rose, who led the research.

Rose, a professor of anthropology in the University of Arkansas in the United States, said adults buried in the cemetery were probably brought there from other parts of Egypt.

"This means that we have a period of deprivation in Egypt prior to the Amarna phase," he told an audience of archaeologists and Egyptologists in Cairo on Thursday evening.

"So maybe things were not so good for the average Egyptian and maybe Akhenaten said we have to change to make things better," he said.

Kemp, director of the Amarna Project which seeks in part to increase public knowledge of Tell el-Amarna and surrounding region, said little attention has been given to the cemeteries of ordinary ancient Egyptians.

"A very large number of ordinary cemeteries have been excavated but just for the objects and very little attention has been paid for the human remain," he told Reuters.

"The idea of treating the human remains ... to study the overall health of the population is relatively new."Paintings in the tombs of the nobles show an abundance of offerings, but the remains of ordinary people tell a different story.
Egypt Will Fight for Ancient Artifacts

Rose displayed pictures showing spinal injuries among teenagers, probably because of accidents during construction work to build the city.

The study showed that anemia ran at 74 percent among children and teenagers, and at 44 percent among adults, Rose said. The average height of men was 159 cm (5 feet 2 inches) and 153 cm among women.

"Adult heights are used as a proxy for overall standard of living," he said. "Short statures reflect a diet deficient in protein. ... People were not growing to their full potential."

Kemp said he believed further excavations in Tell el-Amarna would "firm-up" the conclusions of his team.

"We are seeing a more realistic picture of what life was like," he told Reuters. "It has nothing to do with the intentions of Akhenaten, which may have been good and paternal toward his people."

Happy Seward’s Day!

In March 1867, the Russian Empire sold Russian America, the territory that would later become the State of Alaska, to the US Government for $7.2 million or about 1.9¢ per acre.

Tsar Alexander II was fearful that he was going to lose the Alaskan territory (including the Aleutian islands) to the British in a future conflict. The colony was never profitable anyway, so he told the Russian minister to the United States to negotiate the sale.

Secretary of State William Seward sealed the deal and was promptly derided for spending so much money on a land so far away. Newspapers labelled the deal "Seward’s folly", "Seward’s icebox", "Andrew Johnson’s polar bear garden", and our favorite: "icebergia."

In 1890s, gold was discovered in Alaska, and in 1968, oil, so Seward
had the last laugh. Today, the last monday of March is celebrated in Alaska as "Seward’s Day."

Sunday, March 30, 2008

10 Jobs You Didn’t Hear About on Career Day

1. Filibuster

Long before the term “filibuster” came to be associated with elected officials, it was actually associated with violence and trickery. (Wait a second …) In the 1600s, pirates known to the Dutch as vrijbuiters pillaged the West Indies, and eventually, the word was assimilated into the English language as “filibusters.” Between 1850 and 1860, the name was used to refer to the American mercenaries who attempted to revolutionize Central America and the Spanish West Indies. The most famous of these filibusters was William Walker, a U.S. citizen who succeeded in gaining control of Nicaragua in 1856 by overthrowing the nation’s administration. Walker became president of Nicaragua, but only until May 1, 1857, when a coalition of Central American states ousted him. Because filibusters of previous centuries strove to interfere with foreign regimes, the term evolved to refer to anyone who attempted to obstruct the government, as our legislators occasionally see fit to do when a particularly troublesome bill comes before them.
2. Lungs

a.alchemist.jpgPerhaps the cruelest case of naming irony in history, anyone employed to fan the fire in an alchemist’s workshop was known as a “lungs.” And because most alchemists were constantly trying to make gold out of lead and other such base metals, you can only imagine what kinds of dangerous materials were floating about in the labs. As a result, the actual lungs on a lungs gave out relatively quickly, leading to a profession with widespread early retirement.

sineater.jpgNo matter how much you loved Grandma and Grandpa, you can probably admit your forebears weren’t perfect. So, if you ever had a loved one that passed on before his or her last chance at absolution, it makes sense that you might want to call in reinforcements. Fortunately for the fretful and grieving of yore, there was the town sin-eater. For a small fee, the sin-eater would gladly scarf down a meal (usually bread and ale) that had been placed on the deceased’s chest. By letting the food lie atop the dearly departed for a while, it was believed the vittles would absorb the last transgressions. And, once the food was gobbled up by the sin-eater, Grandma or Grandpa could get into heaven without any major roadblocks.
4. Knocker-Up

In British towns of yore, particularly those with a mine or mill as the center of commercial activity, knocker-ups were responsible for going from house to house to wake workers in the mornings. The title, not surprisingly, came from the sound they made rapping on windows. As for the evolution of the term “knocking,” it also denoted a collision of sorts, and in the 17th century, it was used in reference to childbirth. Even poet John Keats wrote of “knocking out” children in some of his odes. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that Americans began using the phrase as slang for getting a woman pregnant.
5. Ratoner

Ain’t it grand to live in a world where the Black Death isn’t a daily concern? Fortunately, when it was an issue, a ratoner was there to lend a helping hand. A ratoner was a rat catcher, who served a vital role in maintaining the health of the villagers. Those of us accustomed to modern pest control techniques might be a bit surprised to learn about the disposal method employed by a typical Victorian-era ratoner, though. After capturing the rodents, he would set out for the town pub, where dogs made a sport of devouring the day’s catch. This earned extra cash for the ratoner and was considered great entertainment by saloon regulars. The most famous ratoner, Jack Black, was appointed Royal Rat Catcher in the mid-19th century and bred some of his more interesting and colorful finds as household pets. In fact, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter is said to be dedicated to her personal rat, one of Jack Black’s progeny.
6. Alnager

In merry olde England, an alnager was a sworn officer of the court who garnered much esteem. He was responsible for ensuring that woolen goods were of the highest quality and that no one was being cheated on the amount of fabric ordered. The job was important not only because the king earned taxes from wool sales, but also because goods approved by the alnager carried the town’s seal of approval. But, as the textile trade grew, it became nearly impossible to hold all wool to the same standards of size and density, so the king abolished the position. Today, you might know the alnager’s modern incarnation best in sticker form, a.k.a., “Number 6.”
7. Badger

Picture 24.pngOdd as it may sound, badgers were part of the rat race in prior centuries, serving as intermediaries between the producers of goods and the consumer. Most often, they traded in corn and other foodstuffs, buying from farmers and reselling the goods at markets in town. And if you think the salespeople at Macy’s are tough, some historians think badgers were so persistent in pushing their products that the term came to be associated with an often annoying and forceful adamance—i.e., “badgering” anyone in sight to buy from you instead of another vendor.
8. Gong Farmer

Not unlike “The Gong Show,” a gong farmer was far from being the cream of the crop—and even that might be the understatement of the year. In Tudor England, a gong farmer’s job was to empty the town toilets. But the job did have its perks. Typically, a gong farmer would “mine” the waste for any items of value that might be found amongst the city’s excrement—a penny here, a button there—before it was used as manure or thrown into the river. For a while, it was falsely believed that gong farmers were immune to the plague, but you can’t help wonder if that was more of a pity belief, like the whole idea that being hit by bird droppings is good luck.
9. Fuller

Making textiles hasn’t always been such a streamlined process. Once upon a time, there were spinners to spin the thread, weavers to weave the cloth, and fullers to finish the goods once they came off the loom. Almost Lucy-and-Ethel style, fullers walked on the back side of the cloth to bind the fibers together and give cohesion to the newly woven fabric. But stomping alone wouldn’t accomplish this feat. Instead, fullers soaked the cloth in a mixture of clay (“fuller’s earth”) and urine while it was being trampled. In fact, medieval housewives often earned extra cash by saving the family’s urine and selling it to the fuller, and some schools even had children use one bucket as a toilet for the same purpose.
10. Bullocky

It sounds like Lewis Carroll came up with this word around the same time he was writing “Jabberwocky”, but a bullocky was actually a person who drove cattle to market. Yet, the bullocky and the Jabberwock might share something in common—nonsense. According to some historians, to say bullocks swore like sailors would be an insult to sailors. In fact, it was the bullocks’ foul mouths that led the term to be associated with bastardized speech. That, combined with the fact that they worked with “bull” (which had the same connotations we know today), could have helped bullocky evolve into a term for ridiculous or dispensable speech.

Lillian Asplund Leaves Titanic Memories as Its Last Living Survivor

Lillian Asplund was born in southern Sweden. Her father was a laborer who had dreams of moving the family to California so he could build a better future for his family as part of the American dream. He copied what California had to offer his family from a brochure, apparently so he could tell his wife about it. The family planned the move to America. Ms. Asplund’s father bought third class tickets for himself, his wife, his four sons and his daughter on the maiden voyage of the state of the art ship, Titanic.

Lillian Asplund never talked about her trip from Sweden to America. She never talked about the night the Titanic sank taking with it her father and three older brothers. She, her mother and her baby brother were the only ones in that family to survive that night. When Ms. Asplund died at age 99 years of age, she was the last survivor of the Titanic who had memories of it. Only one other survivor remains, but he was a baby at the time. After her death, family members found a shoe box in which she had kept her memories from the night that defined the rest of her life. The contents of that shoe box are some of the rarest historical artifacts from the Titanic and are going up for auction soon. Among them were notes Mr Asplund had copied from a flyer promoting the benefits of living in California, an American dream that enticed the family to set sail for a new life.

An incredibly rare and water-stained ticket for the luxury liner was also found. Only a handful of Titanic tickets are in existance as most of them sunk with the ship.

The paper documents recovered from his body miraculously survived for 12 days after the disaster because Mr Asplund’s lifejacket kept his coat’s breast pocket out of the water.

His pocket watch which stopped at 19 minutes past two - the exact time the liner sank - was also found on him. And a heart-rending note written by his grief-stricken mother in which she wrote of how she hoped to see her son again in heaven formed part of the collection.

The stunning archive includes a sad photograph of Lillian, her mother Selma and three-year-old brother Felix, who both survived, at her father’s grave in 1912. Aside from the interest of the rare items from the Titanic, the belongs of Ms. Asplund could be pieced together to give insight into the events that happened that night culminating in the demise of her family.

Carl Asplund, a 40-year-old labourer, bought seven third class tickets for the Titanic’s maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on April 10, 1912.

With him were wife Selma, then aged 38, and five children Filip, 13, Clarence, nine, Carl Edgar, five, Lillian, five, and Felix, three.

When the ship hit an iceberg and started to sink on the night of April 14, the Asplunds made a decision that the family should die together along with the 1,500 who perished.

But, according to an account Selma Asplund later gave, at the last moment Felix and Lillian were thrown into lifeboat 15 by an unknown person. Mr Asplund then pushed his wife forward to go with them.

She was haunted by the memory of the faces of her husband and three sons peering over the rail moments before the ship sank. Her husband’s drowned and frozen body was recovered from the Atlantic 12 days later but there was no sign of his three sons.

Found in the pockets of his brown overcoat were his gold watch, two small keys for a safety box on board which stored the family’s life savings, and his gold wedding ring.

Also recovered were two pocket books, one of which contained his notes on their new life in California. It is thought he had copied out a flyer designed to entice people to California to show his wife.

Part of it read: “California wants people like you, now is your time to come here. We have green grass and wild flowers at this time of year and all the facilities you can have.

“An ideal home we can offer you we think. Perhaps you don’t believe what we are saying about our climate and city. Come and see it with your own eyes.”

Other papers on him included a letter dated February 28, 1912, telling Mr Asplund he had as job waiting for him.

His possessions were handed to Mrs Asplund who also kept a cold and heartless letter from White Star Line dated May 11, 1912.

It told her they were giving her late husband’s effects back as they were of “small value”. Mr Aldridge said: “This letter states that the items were of low value which is ironic considering just how much they are worth now.”

Mrs Asplund stored the moving letter written by her mother-in-law, Kristina Samuelsson, 16 months after the tragedy, in the box.

In it she states how much her eyes hurt from where she has been in mourning.

She wrote: “My nerves are so weak and my eyes are so poor because I have been crying so much but I hope that my grieving days soon will have an end and I will join the final rest where God has promised to wipe out the tears from all the faces.”

Mrs Asplund died aged 91 on April 15 1964 - 52 years to the day of the disaster. After her death Lillian Asplund put her mother’s wedding ring in the box alongside that of her father’s gold band.

Felix Asplund died in 1983 aged 73 and Lillian passed away in 2006. The auction takes place on Saturday, April 19.


Monday, March 24, 2008

The Confederacy's Special Agent

The Confederacy's Special Agent
Written by Richard Solensky on March 10th, 2008 at 4:10 pm

Thomas H. HinesThomas H. HinesIn late 1863, the ongoing War Between the States was not going well for either the Union or the Confederacy. Two years of armed hostility had led to a stalemate, with mounting casualties on both sides. Protests were widespread, some of which even turned into riots. In order to quell opposition and further the war effort, President Lincoln had suspended certain civil liberties. Congress was bitterly divided along party lines, with a significant faction calling for a peaceful settlement. The partisanship had spread to the press and state governments, each side viciously attacking the other. The governor of Indiana went so far as to dissolve the state legislature and run the state as a military dictatorship. The upcoming Presidential election was looking to be a real corker, with the prospects for Lincoln's re-election looking very dim.

Seeing an opportunity to turn the tide in their favor, Confederate leaders recruited sympathizers and infiltrators to engage upon a campaign of guerrilla warfare. Millions of dollars were set aside to finance the plan, with bonuses to be given to saboteurs in proportion to the damage they wrought. A good portion of those funds was specifically designated for cross-border operations from Canada, where a number of Confederate officers and prominent sympathizers had fled. At the very least, they hoped to cause an uprising of sufficient proportions that some Union troops would have to be redeployed away from the Confederate front. This was the start of what would become known as the Northwest Conspiracy.

These operations were placed under the command of Captain Thomas Henry Hines, a Kentuckian who had contacts within the pro-South underground networks along the Ohio River. Hines’s mission, which he chose to accept, was to go to Toronto, contact those officers and agents, and carry out "any hostile operation", provided he did not violate Canadian neutrality. Hines and other Confederate leaders felt that by raising insurrections in those states, they could gain enough influence there to turn them against the Union and bring about a Confederate victory.

Although he was only in his twenties, Hines certainly had experience in dangerous undercover operations. Under the command of Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan, Hines had participated in raids by leading a unit of Confederate soldiers disguised as Union troops who were looking for deserters. When discovered, he fled by swimming across the Ohio River under a hail of gunfire. He was reunited with General Morgan a week later, and though the pair were soon captured by Union soldiers, Hines somehow managed to break them both out of the Ohio Penitentiary. Running into Union troops in Tennessee, he also provided a distraction for Morgan that allowed the general to escape while he himself was captured. That didn’t stop the slippery Hines; he regaled his captors with amusing anecdotes until he had the chance to subdue his guard. He then made good his own getaway.

President Lincoln and General McClellan, 1862President Lincoln and General McClellan, 1862Capt. Hines hoped to take advantage of a “fifth column” of sympathizers, already in place. Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan had been settled in large part by people from the southern states, many of whom were "Copperheads" with Confederate sympathies. While they may not have been too keen on slavery, they still felt that blacks were inferior to whites, and didn't care for the arrogance of the New England abolitionists. When war began to seem inevitable, “peace societies” started to form. With names like Knights of the Columbian Star and Sons of Liberty, they grew in popularity. Members underwent rituals and swore oaths, often oblivious to the true nature of the leaders' subversive and dangerous plans. The Knights of the Golden Circle was one of the largest and most active. In 1861, they were openly recruiting for the Confederate Army in Illinois, and they engaged in gun-running and guerrilla raids in Iowa. By 1862, they were estimated to have as many as 80,000 members.

In the summer of 1864, the conspirators had men and materiel in position and were ready to strike. The armies of the North and South were both stalled in the field, and the Democratic presidential candidate Gen. George McClellan was highly favored to win the election that fall on a peace platform. Hines and his cohorts concocted a grand scheme: They would build a skilled army by attacking Union prisoner-of-war camps and freeing the detained Confederate troops. These tens of thousands of experienced soldiers could then arm themselves by raiding nearby armories. With simultaneous strikes across the northwest, a general uprising was sure to follow.

Their first planned action was to attack Camp Douglas, a poorly-guarded prisoner-of-war camp in Chicago. For maximum psychological effect, the raid was scheduled to coincide with the Democratic National Convention in late August, 1864. Under normal circumstances, it would not have been difficult to add the thousands of soldiers to the Confederate cause, however the city's defenses were reinforced for the convention. With a victory by McClellan in the presidential election seemingly guaranteed, most of Hines’ potential recruits didn’t want to risk life or limb, and he was unable to secure enough volunteers. Hines could talk his way out of trouble, but he couldn't talk others into it.

All was not lost; the conspirators also planned a nearly identical and simultaneous assault in Indianapolis. The Union received word of the plot from Felix Stidger, a Union counterspy who had once held the office of Grand Secretary of the Sons of Liberty. Union Col. Henry Carrington arranged for a dramatic midnight sweep, arresting five leading conspirators. When Indiana judges handed down death sentences for two of the prisoners, there were riotous rumblings among the citizenry. Confederate supporters answered a call to arms, and began to conduct military drills. Col. Carrington, Governor Morton, and other Indiana officials wrote to Washington DC warning that the state was on the brink of chaos. At the eleventh hour, President Lincoln intervened and commuted their sentences to life imprisonment.

Henry B. CarringtonHenry B. CarringtonA few weeks later, the Conspiracy was dealt a severe blow when Union forces penetrated Confederate lines in Georgia and seized Atlanta. With a Union victory and Lincoln's re-election now seemingly inevitable, time and money were both running short. The Conspirators were forced to turn to drastic actions.

On September 19, 1864, John Yates Beall led a group of plotters onto the Lake Erie steamer Philo Parsons in Detroit as ordinary passengers. Beall persuaded the captain to make an unscheduled stop at a town in Canada, where more of his conspirators boarded, smuggling aboard weapons and other equipment. The raiders' target was the USS Michigan, the linchpin of the Union's defense of Lake Erie, and the only serious military obstacle between the conspirators and the POW camp on Johnson's Island. If the conspirators could take the Michigan, it would be a simple matter to liberate the prisoners, raid the armory, and use the resulting army to beleaguer Union forces in Ohio. As the Philo Parsons neared Johnson's Island, Beall put a gun to the helmsman's head, and ordered that everyone but his own men be put ashore. Beall then steamed his prize to a point off Johnson's Island to await a signal from the Michigan, where a fellow plotter had befriended the captain. Unbeknownst to Beall, however, the agent aboard the Michigan had been discovered and arrested, and had spilt every bean. After a prolonged wait with no signal from the Michigan, Beall was forced to abandon the plan amidst murmurs of mutiny. He set course for Canada, landed everyone ashore, and then burned the Philo Parsons.

In October the conspirators tried again. About 20 of Hines’ agents sneaked over the Canadian border into St Albans, Vermont, intent upon plundering and burning the village in “retribution” for Union wrongdoings. On October 19, they staged a simultaneous robbery of the town’s three banks. They jayhawked over $200,000 before fleeing back to Canada, but a woodshed was the only casualty in their effort to torch the city . Canadian authorities were able to arrest most of the raiders, but the Canadian court ruled that they were "legitimate military belligerents" and ordered their release without extraditing them to the Union. The loot they had on them when they were captured was returned to St. Albans.

One opportunity remained to inspire an anti-Union uprising in the northern states. Even as the Confederacy was collapsing, Hines rallied his forces one last time to take Camp Douglas in Chicago. It was to be a surprise attack under the cover of darkness, with Conspiracy agents tasked to cut the telegraph wires and burn the railroad depots. The liberated prisoners of war would then take possession of the city, seize the banks, and "commence a campaign for the release of other prisoners of war in the States of Illinois and Indiana, thus organizing an army to effect and give success to the general uprising so long contemplated by the Sons of Liberty." The assault was scheduled for Election Day, November 8, 1864.

Camp DouglasCamp DouglasIn the days leading up to the attack, the plotters assembled men and munitions, compiling a sizable cache of resources. Hines' well-armed militia of over 100 "bushwhackers, guerrillas, and rebel soldiers" stood a very good chance of overwhelming the defenses of Camp Douglas, and the release of the 10,000 or so Confederate prisoners would be a force to be reckoned with. On the night before the raid, however, Hines and his co-conspirators were paid an unexpected visit by the commander of Camp Douglas: Col. Benjamin J. Sweet. He was accompanied by a posse of Union Army agents. Having been tipped off by suspicious activities and rumors, Sweet foiled the plot just before it could spring into action. He seized the cache of weapons and used it to reinforce the Chicago's military guard, thereby ensuring the city's safety. The raid's leaders and several Sons of Liberty officers were arrested, though Hines– the mastermind of the conspiracy– was nowhere to be found. He turned up outside of Chicago sometime later, allegedly having evaded capture by hiding inside a mattress.

A few more desultory attempts were made. An attempt to put New York City to the torch started some twenty fires, but they were quickly controlled and there was no resulting panic or uprising. John Beall tried derailing Union trains near Buffalo, NY. All three of his attempts failed. The Conspiracy's last gasp was thwarted by an alert U.S. Consul in Bermuda, where doctors were treating an outbreak of yellow fever. The official discovered that a certain doctor from Kentucky had been secretly shipping the victims' blankets and clothing to conspirators in Canada. The scheme was to ship the contaminated goods back into the northern U.S. in the hopes of starting an epidemic. Even if that plan had been carried out, the intended victims had nothing to fear: yellow fever is spread through mosquito bites, not contaminated clothing.

By April 1865, the War Between the States was over. President Johnson continued Lincoln's policies of reconciliation, and in the following month, offered a wide-ranging amnesty to all but high-ranking officers of the Confederate forces. By simply swearing an oath of allegiance to the United States, they would be forgiven of their rebellious activities. Hines, who was biding his time in Canada by studying law, accepted the offer. He returned to his native Kentucky, where he soon opened a law practice in Bowling Green. He ended his career by serving two terms as the Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. He died in January of 1898.

General Robert E. Lee surrenders to General Ulysses S. GrantGeneral Robert E. Lee surrenders to General Ulysses S. GrantBecause it was technically unsuccessful, the story of Captain Hines and the Northwest Conspiracy is often overlooked in discussions of the American Civil War. Most modern historians blame the organization's failure on Hines' overestimation of the Sons of Liberty and their comrades-in-arms; it turned out that these rabble-rousers were all talk, with very little inclination for significant action. Hines also consistently underestimated his enemy's intelligence-gathering abilities, which allowed the Union Army to hamper many of his schemes before he could carry them out. Nevertheless, Hines and his co-conspirators came very close to influencing the course of the war on several occasions, and might have done so were it not for the sharp eyes and good fortune of a few men of the Union Army.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Buffon, the Enlightenment sensation

Buffon, the Enlightenment sensation
The finest pen of his age, a giant of natural history, geometry and art: Buffon deserves to be restored
Matthew Cobb

Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon
Edited by Stéphane Schmitt and Cédric Crémière
1,677pp. Gallimard. £65.
978 2 07 011803 8

Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon
Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roy – Tome I (1749)
Edited by Stéphane Schmitt and Cédric Crémière
1,367pp. Champion. 150euros.
978 2 74 531601 1

This year marked the tercentenary of the birth of two of the greatest naturalists of the eighteenth century – the Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707–78) and the Frenchman Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707–88). In April, Linnaeus’s 300th birthday was celebrated in the scientific journals, museums put on special exhibits, newspapers published articles about his influence. But for Buffon’s birthday, in September, there were no candles on the cake. Even in France, not much fuss was made – a conference in Dijon, a few displays at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, a flurry of publishing; and that was it.

Fame is relative – Buffon has a crater on the Moon named after him, Linnaeus does not – but while the name of the Swedish thinker should provoke a glimmer of recognition in most biology students, that of Buffon is more likely to conjure up the athletic Italian goalkeeper than the father of French natural history. This is unfortunate, as Buffon was one of the great figures of biology, and one of the publishing sensations of the Enlightenment. Buffon’s ambition was astonishing: he wanted to summarize all human knowledge about the natural world, under the title L’Histoire naturelle, which began to appear in 1749. Not surprisingly, he did not complete this mammoth exercise – he managed to publish “only” thirty-six volumes in the space of thirty-nine years, limiting his focus to mammals, birds and minerals, while a further eight volumes appeared after his death.

Buffon’s contemporary influence was massive. Not only did he sell vast quantities of books, but his approach deeply influenced the most famous eighteenth-century publication, Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Some entries in the Encyclopédie were simply taken from Buffon, and Diderot followed Buffon’s lead in considering that natural history provided a key for understanding the whole of the world. Diderot also agreed about the importance of the comparative method – one of the foundations of Buffon’s epistemology. With this kind of intellectual pedigree, and a superb style – Rousseau said of him, “C’est la plus belle plume de son siècle” – Buffon should be more widely read.

The best bits of Buffon have now been condensed by Stéphane Schmitt and Cédric Crémière, and bound in the dark blue leather of the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Schmitt is also the driving force behind the ambitious project from Éditions Honoré Champion – republishing the whole of L’Histoire naturelle for the first time in over a century. The first wrist-spraining volume has just appeared, and it is a marvellous monument to Buffon’s vision, and to Schmitt’s scholarship. Schmitt’s Introduction is informative, insightful and comes complete with up-to-date references to the secondary literature. His extensive notes to Buffon’s text provide a detailed commentary, helping the reader notice subtleties of language, references to other thinkers and other uses of similar phrases or ideas elsewhere in the later volumes. With one 1,363-page volume complete, Schmitt can look forward – with joy or trepidation, it is hard to tell – to spending the rest of his career on this project.

These books are being published at a time when the whole of Buffon’s work is available in text-searchable form on the web, for free. This tells us something about Buffon, and contrasts his lasting impact with that of Linnaeus. Linnaeus might have come up with a system for classifying organisms which is still with us today, but few people would want to read the book he wrote to outline his method. The first edition of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae (1738) ran to just eleven pages and was essentially an index to previously published works – pretty dry stuff. Buffon, on the other hand, is worth reading. And if you are going to read a book (rather than analyse the text), then you want a proper book, not a shimmering screen or a bulky print-out. The publishers clearly think there is some money to be made from these bold ventures – libraries, and, in the case of the Pléiade volume, individuals, will rightly want to own these books.

One of Buffon’s pithy phrases from L’Histoire naturelle – “Le style, c’est l’homme même” – has passed into the French language. This corresponds perfectly to the relation between L’Histoire naturelle and Buffon the man. The monumental series of books that make up L’Histoire spanned the whole of human knowledge; they were produced by a man with a monumental appetite for work, and a vast range of interests. Buffon, who was reputed to work fourteen hours a day, spent the spring and summer in Burgundy writing his book while wearing manchettes (oversleeves) to protect his elegant cuffs. During autumn and winter, he would move to Paris, where he was in charge of the Cabinet du Roi, which at the end of the eighteenth century became the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.

Buffon’s first passion was mathematics, and in 1733 he solved a major problem in probability and geometry, now known as “Buffon’s needle”. This involves calculating the probability that a needle, dropped on to a surface covered with parallel lines, will cross two lines, and requires an estimation of the value of pi. Buffon’s interest in this problem was prompted by trying to work out the odds of winning at a popular gambling game. Given his subsequent conversion to natural history, he would no doubt have been pleased to learn that in the ant Leptothorax albipennis, the workers appear to use a variant of his solution to estimate the size of potential nest-sites by measuring the frequency with which they cross pheromone trails they have laid.

Buffon’s continuing interest in numbers is shown in some fascinating, but depressing, pages of L’Histoire naturelle where he tallied the ages at which people died in and around Paris, and calculated life expectancies. Most children who reached the age of twelve could expect to live until their late thirties, while most of those who made it to fifty could hope to live another sixteen years and seven months. Resolutely cheerful, Buffon claimed that we only start to live morally when we can order our thoughts, and that therefore the first fifteen years of our existence should be discounted. As a result, a twenty-five-year-old would have lived only a quarter of their life, even though they could expect to die aged fifty-six.

Although Buffon was an enthusiastic experimenter – he studied the tensile strength of wood, created a sizeable menagerie and botanical garden, and also investigated the cooling of red-hot iron balls in order to understand the past, present and future of the Earth – much of L’Histoire naturelle is taken up with discussions of the work of other thinkers. In one decisive case, Buffon made what he thought was a fundamental contribution to knowledge, which turned out to be completely wrong. One of the major scientific and philosophical problems of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was “generation” – the appearance of new life. The focus was on how life was formed and shaped, not on the transmission of characters across the generations – “heredity” was used in its modern sense only in the decades after Buffon’s death. Buffon’s view of generation contrasted with the two prevailing sets of ideas – those of the “ovists” and the “spermists”, each of whom argued that their favoured structure was the sole source of new life. In seven chapters of Volume Two of L’Histoire naturelle (sadly not included in the Pléiade edition), Buffon criticized the views of previous thinkers and went on to describe his own observations. He dismissed the suggestion that female mammals had eggs, and claimed instead to have seen “animalcules” in female “semen”, just like those that could be observed in male semen. Exactly what Buffon saw remains a matter of debate, but it definitely had nothing to do with reproduction, and no one could repeat his findings.

On the basis of these mistaken observations, he went on to outline a theory of generation which sounds relatively modern. Some of the molecules contained in food, Buffon argued, were shaped by what he called the animal’s “interior mould” to form the male and female contributions to future life, in the shape of the globules and animalcules he saw down his microscope. Further proof of his hypothesis was provided by the fact that castrated animals grew larger than intact ones – all the molecules that should have gone into making the next generation were used instead to make a bigger animal, he claimed. His theory – which owed a great deal to Galen’s outdated “two semens” theory of generation – never really caught on. Thinkers were not convinced by his dismissal of Reinier de Graaf’s discovery that something released from the ovarian follicle (an egg) went on to form an embryo, and many were uncomfortable with the immaterial “interior mould”, which did not appear to be consistent with the rest of Buffon’s thoroughly materialist approach. On the other hand, there was no overwhelmingly convincing alternative. It was only in the middle of the nineteenth century, with new evidence from anatomy and microscopy, interpreted in the light of heredity and the new cell theory, that the true situation became apparent. Buffon had been wrong, it turned out, but so had everyone else.

Buffon had a long-running dispute with Linnaeus over the validity of the multi-level classification outlined in Systema Naturae, which permeated the whole of L’Histoire naturelle. Buffon argued that only species were real, and that the rest of Linnaeus’s system (kingdoms, orders, classes and genera) was entirely fictitious. We now know that, strictly speaking, Buffon was right – taxonomists have since supplemented Linnaeus’s list by a growing set of phyla, sub-phyla, domains and other interpretive frameworks, which they cheerfully accept do not exist in nature. But Linnaeus’s classification not only helped impose order on the natural world, it contained within it the implicit logic of evolution, of a path of development, which would be put to such devastating use by Darwin. For simple heuristic reasons, Linnaeus’s system triumphed, and Buffon’s criticisms are now forgotten. It has been suggested that Linnaeus got his own back on Buffon for this squabble by naming a genus of toad Bufo, after his French opponent. This is sadly untrue – the Swedish naturalist simply used the Latin word for toad, bufo.

Like virtually all his contemporaries, Buffon did not believe in evolution – the transformation of one species into another. But his view was far more sophisticated than the predominant Christian creationism, or the rigid fixism of taxonomists like Linnaeus. First, Buffon claimed that species were defined not by morphology, but by their behaviour – specifically, by their ability to cross with other members of the same species. This view is essentially the one used today with regard to most living species (things are more tricky with fossils). More important, Buffon’s vast knowledge of natural history led him to recognize that a given species could show widely different forms in different locations, showing something that we would call adaptation. Even more strikingly, the most telling example of Buffon’s thinking in this respect came from humans.

Like his contemporaries, Buffon considered that all humans came from an original stock. But he did not state that the starting point was Adam and Eve. For much of his life, he was effectively an atheist, although he never said as much – indeed, he backed down when the theologians at the Sorbonne attacked his work (the criticisms, and Buffon’s deadpan reply, are reproduced in the Pléiade volume) and, like many others, he grabbed at the last rites when the final moment came. Buffon combined contemporary information about human anatomy, physiology and anthropology in both the Old and New Worlds, in a comparative study of the human race. His survey began in the far north, with the Laplanders, “the inhabitants of Nova Zembia, the Borandians, the Samoiedes, the northern Tartars, the Ostiacks of the Old Continent, and the Greenlanders and savages to the north of the Esquimaux Indians in the New Continent”. His judgement was predictably distasteful: “These people not only resemble each other in deformity, in smallness of stature, and in the colour of their eyes and hair, but also in the dispositions and manners. They are all equally gross, superstitious, and stupid”. This kind of robust description was not limited to humans – Buffon was as rude about nightjars as he was about Ostiacks. After describing the bird’s big bulging eyes and the long black hairs around its beak, he concluded that “the result is a sad and stupid impression, a strongly expressed but dull and unpleasant appearance”.

Despite these lazy prejudices, Buffon argued that all humans deserved to be treated in the same way. He was ferociously hostile to slavery and to the “miserable condition” of the Africans. He attacked the lies told by the slavemasters about the alleged indifference of Africans to suffering: “How can men, in whose breasts a single sentiment of humanity remains unextinguished, adopt such detestable maxims? How dare they, by such barbarous and diabolical arguments, attempt to palliate those oppressions which originate solely from their thirst for gold?”. To explain why there were so many different types of human, he drew a striking parallel with animals: in northern latitudes, mammals such as weasels and hares have white fur in the winter, while those in southern regions are darker. Buffon’s conclusion – based partly on some highly dubious dissections – was that heat was the prime cause of the variation in human skin colour. We are still unsure exactly why this variability exists, but Buffon was probably at least partly right. However, although he suggested that environmental conditions led to physical changes in animals and humans, this was not “evolution” but “degeneration”, a decline in the outer form compared to the “inner mould”.

In the final volumes of L’Histoire naturelle, Buffon divided the whole of natural history into a series of lengthy epochs. In print, he estimated the age of the Earth to be around 75,000 years; in private he considered it to be more like 10 million years. Such radical views were in the air – as Buffon was dying, the Scottish farmer and physician James Hutton claimed that the age of the planet was “a thing of infinite duration”. Buffon’s view of the future was revolutionary – based partly on those experiments on hot metal balls, he concluded that the world was doomed to death by freezing. Our current climatic predicament would no doubt have struck him as a mere statistical blip on an ineluctable process of cooling. This vision of the vast depths of the geological past and future mark Buffon as one of the earliest modern thinkers about time and the fate of the planet.

The strengths of L’Histoire naturelle do not lie only in Buffon’s style – it also contains some superb engravings that accompany the text. There were 1,008 coloured plates in L’Histoire naturelle des oiseaux alone, and the dozen or so tiny black-and- white reproductions in the section of the Pléiade edition dealing with birds do them no justice. Fortunately, the tercentenary has led to a spate of Buffonesque publications – Schmitt and Crémière have overseen a new edition of L’Histoire naturelle des oiseaux, complete with figures, while Le Grand Livre des animaux de Buffon, by Claudia Salvia, and Buffon illustré: Les gravures de “L’Histoire naturelle” (1749–1767), by Thierry Hoquet, both do what they say on the tin.

The Pléiade Oeuvres provides the reader with a taste of Buffon’s grandeur, but the true extent of his genius, and of the incredible wealth of contemporary sources he plundered, recycled and interpreted, can be found only in the full thirty-six-volume series. Until the Champion volumes are all published, the best solution will be to combine the Pléiade with browsing through, which contains the full text of L’Histoire naturelle. But whatever the advantages of the web, a book is still the best place to read.

Matthew Cobb is Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour at the University of Manchester. His book, The Egg and Sperm Race: The seventeenth-century scientists who unravelled the secrets of sex, life and growth, appeared in paperback earlier this year.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

To its creator, Roget's Thesaurus was synonymous with therapy.

To its creator, Roget's Thesaurus was synonymous with therapy.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 9, 2008; BW15


Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus

By Joshua Kendall

Putnam. 297 pp. $25.95

You're likely to find a copy of Roget's Thesaurus or one of its innumerable derivatives in the reference library of anyone who writes English well and -- perhaps more revealing -- in the library of anyone who writes English badly. It is at once an immensely useful compilation of synonyms that enables writers to identify the exact words they need, and a crutch leaned upon by journalists, speechwriters, graduate students, academics and others who sometimes are more concerned with sounding learned than with actually being learned.

For precisely this second reason the thesaurus has been a source of controversy ever since Peter Mark Roget brought out his first edition of 1,000 copies in May 1852. Though Roget's motives in compiling the thesaurus were scholarly and, so Joshua Kendall argues in this biography, therapeutic, some critics were quick to point out, accurately, that a book such as this encourages laziness and glibness rather than diligence and precision. My father, an elegant prose stylist, regarded Roget's with scorn and tried to discourage his students, not to mention his children, from using it. As for myself, I find it an immensely useful tool for recalling words that have slipped from my totally fallible memory, but I like to think -- I certainly hope -- that I do not use it in the service of mere pretentiousness.

Roget himself seems to have been utterly devoid of pretense. Born in London in 1778 into a family of French Huguenots, he had a difficult and occasionally painful childhood, a pattern that continued well into adulthood. His father, Jean, was a minister who contracted tuberculosis when the boy was six months old. He moved to Geneva with his wife in search of a rest cure, leaving Peter with his grandfather and namesake, Peter Romilly, but died in 1783, leaving Catherine Roget with their 4-year-old son and a brand-new daughter. She was 28 and devastated by her loss. For the rest of her life she was subject to depression and other forms of mental distress, and, right up to her death in 1835, she was more burden than blessing to Peter; she "became excessively dependent on Peter -- so much so that she almost began living through him." As for him:

"Jean Roget's early death had . . . profound effects on his son. Though the young boy would keep his feelings to himself, loss, and the fear of loss, were to shape the way Peter saw the world. The adult Roget would reveal this lifelong struggle in a poignant list, 'Dates of Deaths,' which he appended to the front of his 'List of Principal Events,' a telegraphic rendering of the major milestones of his life. . . . Included are the names of about thirty people -- those family members and friends who meant the most to him. Its first two entries are 'Jean Roget, 1783' and 'Peter Romilly, 1784.' By the time he was five, Peter was forced to cope with the unexpected deaths of both his beloved father and his doting grandfather."

The compilation of lists may seem a strange way to manage life's vagaries, but "Roget managed to stave off madness," which ran in his family, by doing so: "As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery -- that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. He was particularly fond of cataloguing the objects, both animate and inanimate, in his environment. As an adult, he kept returning to the classification of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably both energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay."

Kendall asserts this less as an interpretation than as a given, but it is plausible. Roget was possessed by a "lifelong desire to bring order to the world," and "classifying the world [became] an obsession that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life." He had "an idiosyncratic definition of pleasure," which "had little to do with enjoyment, but everything to do with the intellectual challenge of learning about order." Early in his life it became obvious that he was brilliant, but it took him a long while to find a connection between his obsession with order and his need for a remunerative career.

As a boy he was deeply interested in science. In 1793 his mother took him to the University of Edinburgh, where he "did swimmingly in all his courses" but "had difficulty making friends," the latter no doubt attributable "to his extreme shyness and to what family members referred to as his 'melancholy temperament.' " He was "overly formal and stiff [and] lacked a sense of humor," all of which is to say that -- especially as a young man -- he was more comfortable with words than with people. Yet even with words, he had his limits:

"Peter would never show evidence of a literary sensibility. Those who love literature typically are fascinated with stories and storytelling. But that's not how Roget's mind worked. Lacking a vivid imagination, he was a practical person. Since boyhood, words always constituted the means to an end. All of his scholarly publications, including the Thesaurus, were directed toward disseminating scientific knowledge that ultimately had some useful purpose." He studied medicine, and in 1804 became a physician at the city infirmary in Manchester. This hospital, later known as the Manchester Royal Infirmary, included "a dispensary for outpatients, a ward for the treatment of fever patients, and a psychiatric facility -- then called a 'lunatic asylum.' " He stayed there for four years, lecturing, "working for the passage of new laws and regulations to improve the city's public health," and completing "the first draft of his immortal book of lists." By 1808 he "was ready to move to the big stage -- London," where the following year he set himself up in a handsome house in Bloomsbury. The Royal College of Physicians granted him a library and his uncle Samuel Romilly "helped to found the Northern Dispensary, a free clinic that served the indigent in several sections of London." Roget's London career was launched there. His rise was not exactly meteoric, but by 1827 "he had been elected as one of the two Secretaries of the Royal Society," and the next year "he had begun the first of two one-year terms as president of the Medical and Chirurgical Society."

He had also emerged to a significant extent from the cocoon in which he had sheltered himself from the world. Small and delicate but rather handsome, he "enjoyed going to parties and dances" and "could be entertaining and amusing." Women were drawn to him, but he put off marriage until 1824, when he met and soon married Mary Hobson, 16 years his junior, possessed of "beauty and brains plus considerable wealth -- a noteworthy attribute in an age where the husband automatically assumed control over his new wife's personal property." She was a loving and attentive wife, he a happy husband. They had a daughter, Kate, born in 1825, and a son, John, born three years later. Then, in 1832, Mary was diagnosed with cancer. In April 1833, as Roget put it in his autobiography, his "adored and angelic wife expired" at the age of 38.

Not surprisingly, Roget buried himself in his work. He immersed himself in the study of "natural theology," the linear ancestor of today's "intelligent design," and he published the Bridgewater Treatise, a 250,000-word scientific magnum opus that "was the culmination of his lifelong pursuit, begun in his childhood notebook, to organize the animate world." His contemporaries assumed it would be the crowning work of his career, but that was before the appearance of the Thesaurus in 1852, four years after his retirement. This book, Kendall concludes, "did much more for its creator than it has done for its hundreds of millions of users across the centuries: it enabled Roget to live a vibrant life in the face of overwhelming loss, anxiety, and despair."

As for Kendall's own book, it is well-written and persuasive but largely devoid of narrative tension. It ought to build toward the climactic event of Roget's life, the publication of the Thesaurus, but that arrives almost as an afterthought and is given only a few perfunctory pages. There's a brief epilogue summarizing the book's history since its author's death, including the briefest of bows to the electronic "thesaurus" that now has replaced it on millions of computers, but this too is perfunctory. The Man Who Made Lists is unlikely to be the last word on Peter Mark Roget. *

FDR's Young Admirer

FDR's Young Admirer
By George Will

WASHINGTON -- The letter from a 12-year-old to "my good
friend Roosvelt" is dated Nov. 6, 1940, one day after FDR
won a third term. Saying he is "very happy" FDR won, he
adds: "If you like, give me a ten dollars bill green
american." The letter, an enlarged copy of which is on
display in the National Archives, ends: "Good by. Your
friend, Fidel Castro."

Young Castro with his hand out prefigured his role in
political history. Until its spell was broken, Marxism
mesmerized millions by promising to solve mankind's
economic problem -- abundance without the alienation
caused by work, the French word for which is travail.
Instead, Castro created mendicant Marxism, making Cuba
dependent on huge subventions from the Soviet Union,
which paid eight times the market price for sugar, and
in the process purchased young Cuban men to fight in
various "wars of liberation." When Russia withdrew its
aid, Cuba's economy quickly shrank 35 percent, more
than the U.S. economy contracted (26.5 percent) in the
Depression. Cuba under communism had to import sugar.
Today, Hugo Chavez's Venezuela provides $4 billion of
oil to a Cuba with a GDP of $45 billion.