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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 …

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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…

This week in history: Ceres

January 3, 2020
Ceres

This week in 1801, astronomer-priest Giuseppe Piazzi discovered a new astronomical body between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. He named it Ceres FerdinandeaCeres was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and motherhood – the Latin version of the Greeks’ Demeter, mother of Hades’ wife Persephone. So in choosing Ceres, Piazzi followed tradition: naming astronomical bodies after Roman gods (e.g., Venus, Jupiter, Saturn). In choosing Ferdinandea, however, Piazzi departed from tradition. The name honored Ferdinand III, king of Piazzi’s homeland, Sicily – who was also Ferdinand IV of Naples. The astronomers of other nations declined to honor King Ferdinand, so only the name Ceres stuck. Piazzi originally reported Ceres as a comet, but he suspected it was a planet, and other astronomers soon agreed. By the 1850’s, however, star-watchers had discovered many other small astronomical bodies orbiting between Jupiter and Mars, and they coined a new terms for the whole group: asteroids. Ceres has been considered an asteroid ever since. But Ceres stands out from its crowd, since it’s the biggest asteroid and the only one to be rounded (globe-shaped), due to its own gravity. As a result, Ceres’ status changed again in 2006, when astronomers demoted Pluto from planet status and created a new category: dwarf planet. Dwarf planets are globe-shaped bodies that don’t orbit a planet – they’re not moons – but that have not cleared their orbit of other objects, the way full planets do. Pluto’s demotion outraged many astronomy fans, but Ceres had been promoted. Today, it’s the only object classified as both an asteroid and a dwarf planet. Read more…

This week in history: Hagia Sophia

December 23, 2019
The Hagia Sophia

This week in 537, eastern Roman emperor Justinian I finished construction of the Hagia Sophia: the great cathedral of his capital, Constantinople. Upon completion and for centuries thereafter, it was the largest building in the world. Justinian’s realm was the remainder of the Roman Empire: the original mega-state’s eastern half, which survived the fall of the West and which we call the Byzantine Empire. And the Hagia Sophia became the central cathedral of the eastern region of the Roman Christian Church, not to mention the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Eventually, the two great sections of the church broke into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church — the latter led by the Patriarch of Rome, a.k.a the Pope. The Hagia Sophia remained the central cathedral of the Eastern church and the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when Constantinople fell to Muslim invaders and became the capital of the Turks’ new Ottoman Empire. The conquerors turned the cathedral into a mosque and added its now-iconic minarets: the slender towers you see on many mosques, used for the call to prayer. In the 1930s, however, the new, secular state of Turkey closed the mosque and transformed it into the Ayasofya Muzesi, or the Museum of the Hagia Sophia. You can visit the museum to this day, in Istanbul: the Turkish name for Constantinople. Read more…

Vichy and American Collaborators

December 18, 2019

In 1940, cooperation with the Germans looked like good sense to many French leaders. Germany had conquered most of their country, and by working with the invaders, these politicians and generals could maintain power. Even better, much of the populace favored cooperation. So while some French leaders kept fighting a seemingly hopeless war, others set up the “Vichy government,” which administered much of the country and assisted the Germans during World War II. Aiding the foes of French liberty, however, did these men no good in the long run. After the war, the French jailed or executed much of the Vichy leadership. And the nation came to view them with contempt and loathing. Some Vichy leaders had done great things before 1940, but that does not matter. History has given them an ugly name: collaborators.

Marshal Pétain, first of the Vichy collaborators -- a lesson for impeachment

Marshal Philippe Pétain, once an immensely popular WWI hero — jailed for leading the Vichy government and remembered today as a traitor and collaborator

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This week in history: The Boston Tea Party

December 17, 2019
“Americans throwing the cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River at Boston” from 
The History of North America by W.D. Cooper published in 1789

This week in 1773, the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded British ships in Boston Harbor, and dumped 342 chests of tea into the water. Read more…

This week in history: Encyclopaedia Britannica

December 12, 2019

This week in 1768, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell of Scotland published the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It had just 3 volumes—quite a contrast to the thirty-two volumes of the fifteenth and final edition, published in 2010. Despite small beginnings, Britannica quickly gained a reputation for excellence and was soon considered the most authoritative English language encyclopedia. Ironically given the name, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. has become an American company. Sears Roebuck bought the rights in 1920, and the company now operates out of Chicago. Read more…

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