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This week in history: Huaynaputina

February 21, 2020

This week in 1600, South America experienced the most violent volcanic eruption in its recorded history. The volcano known as Huaynaputina, in Peru, exploded, and the impact was global. The surrounding area was devastated, of course – much of it buried in six feet of volcanic ash and rock. But the eruption also altered global climate, as major volcanoes sometimes do – with ash and other particulates flung into the sky blocking sunlight around the world, leading to falling temperatures. That in turn brought famines, floods, droughts, and waves of cold weather to various regions in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the eruption of Huaynaputina and other volcanoes around the same time probably contributed to the Little Ice Age: a period of historic cold weather around the world, from the 1600’s to, arguably, the 1800’s.

The image above is an artist’s depiction of Arequipa, the city closest to Huaynaputina, showing ash falling on the city following the eruption.

This week in history: William Henry Harrison

February 14, 2020

William Henry Harrison, America’s 9th President, was born this week in 1773. Harrison probably would not be pleased to learn his greatest legacy: establishing the system for presidential succession, by dying in office. The Constitution has surprisingly unclear terms about succession, so when Harrison died in 1841, no one knew if the Vice President would become President or just exercise some or all of the President’s powers. Harrison’s Vice President, John Tyler, brought order to confusion by claiming a constitutional mandate and taking the oath of office as President. Vice Presidents have seamlessly succeeded to the presidency ever since, whenever the chief dies in office.

Harrison was a successful general, best known for the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, where he defeated Tecumseh, the leader of a Native American tribal federation. The battle gave the future President a nickname, and during the 1840 election, his ticket’s campaign slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Harrison turned 68 shortly after winning the election, making him America’s oldest President until Ronald Reagan (140 years later). He died because he insisted on giving his extremely long inaugural speech – the longest in U.S. history – outside on a cold and rainy day. He contracted pneumonia soon after the inauguration and died 31 days later.

This week in history: Groundhog Day

February 5, 2020

This past Sunday, the U.S. and Canada celebrated Groundhog Day (along with the Super Bowl). According to legend, if a groundhog sees its shadow on February 2nd, after emerging from its burrow, winter will continue for six more weeks. If the groundhog sees no shadow, spring will arrive early. So Groundhog Day involves a reversal of assumptions: clear weather on 2/ 2 means more winter, since clear skies lead to shadows, while cloudy weather means an early spring. Read more…

This week in history: the Diet of Worms

January 31, 2020

This week in 1521 saw the opening of the Diet of Worms: the great meeting of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire to address the turmoil created by Martin Luther. Luther was a clergyman and professor who had repeatedly criticized the Church and attacked its doctrines. His aggressive and outspoken writings had found sympathetic ears across Germany and the rest of the empire, striking fear in the Catholic establishment. Emperor Charles V presided over the Diet, in the city of Worms in the German Rhineland, and he summoned Luther to answer for his views. Luther naturally feared that attending the Diet would lead to his death, but his patron and protector, Elector Frederick III of Saxony, negotiated safe passage to and from the meeting. Read more…

The Chief Justice Can Call Witnesses

January 30, 2020
Marshall would never stand for impeachment without witnesses

Would John Marshall, our most influential Chief Justice (1755-1835), have stood for a trial without witnesses?

Under the Constitution, the Vice President presides over the Senate — except during presidential impeachment trials. The Vice President would inherit the President’s position if the trial led to conviction, so the Founders feared the VP’s bias. Who then? An obvious choice would be the President pro tempore of the Senate: the Senator who presides in the Vice President’s absence. Or the Senate could elect another Senator. But instead of those natural choices, the Founding Fathers reached out of Congress and chose the Chief Justice of the United States. Why? Read more…

As Benedict Arnold means treason, Donald Trump will mean corruption

January 28, 2020

Here’s a prediction. As Benedict Arnold has come to mean treason to Americans, Donald Trump will someday mean corruption. And politicians who support him will be painted by the same brush.

Benedict Arnold and the impeachment of Donald Trump Read more…

This week in history: Caligula

January 25, 2020

This week in 41 CE, a faction Roman leaders assassinated their emperor, Caligula. The emperor had oppressed the nobles and the Senate (though not necessarily the common people), so this was not the first plot against his rule. The trigger for this final and successful conspiracy isn’t entirely clear, but Caligula had recently announced plans to move his seat of power from Rome to Alexandria, in Egypt. That would have robbed the Roman elite of much of their power. Another theory suggests Caligula was just too dangerous, since he was mentally imbalanced and possibly insane. His enemies claimed Caligula considered himself a god – and not just holy and exalted, like the two Roman emperors before him, but actually a living deity, on par with Jupiter and Minerva. They also say he slept with his sisters, as gods do, made his horse a senator, declared war on Neptune, and worst of all, executed high-ranking Romans on a whim. Whatever the cause, a faction of the imperial Praetorian Guard and some senators attacked Caligula as he addressed a troupe of actors near his palace. Caligula’s more loyal German guard – foreigners from the wild lands of the north – arrived quickly to rescue the emperor, but too late: the conspirators had stabbed him 30 times. The conspirators also killed Caligula’s wife and young daughter, no doubt to avoid repercussions, but they did not catch the emperor’s old uncle, the lame, stammering scholar Claudius. Loyal member of the Praetorian Guard escorted Claudius to safety and soon proclaimed him emperor. So it fell to Claudius to execute the conspirators and restore order, and possibly sanity, to the Roman Empire. Read more…

This week in history: Captain Cook

January 16, 2020

This week in history, the United Kingdom’s Captain James Cook celebrated two accomplishments. In 1773, he led the first known expedition to sail south of the Antarctic Circle. Cook and his crew were trying to find an imagined continent called Terra Australis – or to prove that it didn’t exist. Scholars had long believed the Earth must be “balanced,” with the same amount of land in the northern and southern hemispheres. The south had too little, so there had to be a missing continent. But Cook sailed to every predicted location of Terra Australis (“southern land”) and found nothing but open water, more or less disproving the theory. (Cook did not find Antarctica, though he suspected its existence. But this actual southern continent was too small to support the Terra Australis “hemisphere balance” theory.) Read more…

Who Thought Up Dog Domestication, People or Dogs?

January 11, 2020

Scientists used to think Stone Age people domesticated the dog by adopting wolf pups and breeding the friendliest of them, or the most obedient. But more recent thinking says dogs domesticated themselves.

dog domestication: a grey wolf in the Bavarian forest

You want to choose my mate? Good luck with that …

Read more…

This week in history: Louis Braille

January 10, 2020
Bronze bust of Louis Braille, created by Frédéric-Étienne Leroux (1887)

This week in 1809, Louis Braille was born in a small French town called Coupvray. He’s known for creating the braille reading and writing system for the visually impaired. Louis lost his eyesight at age 5. At age 10, he enrolled in one of the first schools for blind children. The school used the “Haüy system” for reading, named after its inventor, the school’s founder. Books were simply printed with raised letters the reader could feel. But the Haüy books were very heavy, and the students had a hard time reading them. Braille wanted something better. In 1821 he stumbled across a military communication system designed for silent night reading. It used raised dots and dashes on thick paper. This “night writing” was too complex, but it inspired Braille. By 1824, at just 15 years old, he had created his own, far better system. Read more…

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