Lesson #359: 1 Planck

Today, I learned that the smallest unit of measure is a Planck.

A Planck measures 1.616199(97)×10−35m, which is really, really, really effing small.

So this is kind of a cheat because I don’t actually quite understand the use of the Planck length. I know it’s a constant in quantum physics and is directly related to Planck’s constant (h-bar*, which I know a little more about because I happen to know that ΔE x Δt  ħ/2, which is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle), and I know that it is the outcome of taking Għ/c3 (the square root of the gravitational constant times Plank’s constant divided by the speed of light cubed), but outside of that, my grasp of quantum physics is so limited that the entire concept is hard for me to wrap my head around. Especially now that I’m not living with physicists who were able to dumb everything down for me.

Still though, it’s a good thing to know for Jeopardy! or at a random party.

*My physicist friends used to joke that someday they were going to open up a bar and call it H-bar, but it would be written like so: Ħ. I fully support that idea! 

Lesson #358: Wagner’s Flamingo Feather Rug

Apparently, Richard Wagner was a big fan of the colour pink, including for his undergarments. I feel like Hitler must have ignored this particular piece of information.

Anyway, for his 66th birthday, Wagner’s wife, Cosima, had a rug made for him. A bright pink rug made of flamingos’ breast feathers. That was bordered with peacock feathers.

Read more here.


Lesson #357: When A Quote is Not A Quote

This is a lesson that isn’t really a lesson in anything other than assuaging my own curiosity.

Over the whole of a body of work, Milan Kundera is, hands down, my favourite author. I think he’s brilliant. He’s existentialism the way I wish I’d learned existentialism in college. Instead, I got Sartre bashing me over the head with his point.* I’m not a fan. My first introduction to Kundera was The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I think is his strongest work (I’ve since read all of his books except The Joke and Life is Elsewhere, both of which are sitting in my library waiting for me to pick them up) and remains one of my three favourite books ever written.

It’s been a while since I read it, so memory fails me some in direct quotes, but something I’ve read over and over again since my last reading of the novel is, “there is no perfection only life.” And it’s always attributed to Kundera. And always to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Except that it’s not from the novel at all. And I know this because I’ve been re-reading it in its original French.** Only to find it didn’t exist. So I found PDFs both in English and French and did a search. It’s not there. The quote is made up.

Which is too bad; it’s a wonderful sentiment.

*In fairness, I did also get Duras, whose style is much closer to Kundera than to Sartre. The Lover is still one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read.

**Technically, it was originally written in Czech, but its first publication was in French.

Lesson #356: The Zamburak

Today’s lesson comes by way of a Rock, Paper, Cynic comic. First off, Rock, Paper, Cynic is awesome and you should read it.*

Moving on…

Holy crap, you guys, camel cavalry! Camel cavalry with mounted cannons!

Technically the comic is incorrect; the zamburak (or zumbooruk) is the mounted cannon, not the camel with the mounted cannon. But the point remains. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of information available on the zamburak.

There’s some etymology here, but there’s not really anything to verify any of the information listed on the Wikipedia page, which is disappointing. The zamburaks were mostly used by the Persians and Indians as light artillery, though the range and accuracy wasn’t particularly good. They were used in combat against the British in the Anglo-Afghan and Anglo-Sikh wars in the 19th centuries, but had been used for centuries before that, at least as far back as the Persian Safavid Empire.

You can read more here. And you can see a LEGO version here.

*This one is still my favourite! It plays to both my love of words and my deep, deep love of dark humour. And if you read French and have a basic understanding of Canadian politics, read this one.

Lesson #355: Why Halley’s Comet Returns

I have a very distinct memory of being five or six and my mother waking me and my brother up in the middle of the night* and driving us out into the middle of nowhere, where it was cold, to meet up with some friend of hers who had a telescope. She wanted us to see Halley’s comet. I found out, years later, that my father thought this plan somewhat foolish because my brother, who is two years younger, and I were so young he doubted we’d remember it. But I think it’s cool that she took us because she wanted to give us the chance to see it once. If we’re lucky, we’ll see it again (I’ll be 81 the next time it swings by), but we’ve seen it once, and that’s once more than most people I know.

I got here via this io9 article about what the Star of Bethlehem might actually have been — since it wasn’t likely a random star that appeared to be all “hey dudes, over here!” to the Wise Men. It’s interesting reading if you have a few minutes to spare.

But really, whatever it said was secondary to my thought of “where does Halley’s comet go in the interim?”

Well, it turns out the comet has its own orbit around the sun. It shoots out pretty much perpendicular to the orbits of the planets, out beyond Neptune’s orbit and then makes its way back.

Space.com has a really, really good primer on Halley’s comet that you can read here.

*In reality, it was probably like 10.

Lesson #354: The Phantom Time Hypothesis

I felt this was a rather appropriate topic for today’s lesson considering that our collective understanding of time is so skewed.

Let me start with a disclaimer: The Phantom Time Hypothesis is a revisionist history and something of a conspiracy theory — although I tend to think of conspiracy theories as having malicious intent, which this does not. As a historian, I really enjoy the concept of revisionist history (mostly…I have nothing nice to say about Holocaust Deniers). One of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had was a three hour discourse with a friend in the Texas capital in which we discussed what the world would have been like if the English had voted to keep the sugar islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique, rather than Quebec, after they defeated the French at Quebec City in 1759.* But revisionist history isn’t, you know, real. So take all of this with the knowledge that it’s a fringe theory.

The Phantom Time Hypothesis was born from the great number of seemingly out-of-place medieval forgeries that historians have come across over the years. It proposes that the entire span of time that covers the Early Middle Ages (614-911 CE) were wrongly dated. Or simply didn’t occur and were added, either by accident, or misinterpretation or misrepresentation of documents, to the calendar after the fact.

By this theory, Charlemagne is a legend. And large parts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are made up. And many, many, many other things happened by magic.

The hypothesis was put forward by a German scholar, Heribert Illig, in 1990, in response to the general problems scholars were having with dating (or verifying) documents from the Early Middle Ages. Illig’s evidence? The decline of knowledge and the drop in scientific and architectural advancement between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance (which is effectively what we know as the “Dark Ages”, though my medieval history professor in grad school hated that term), and the lack of archaeological evidence from the time. Illig also suggested that the adjustments made to time in the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 are partially responsible.

Now, this theory is all well and good. Except for a few crucial points. 1. Halley’s comet’s set returns. Science says Halley’s comet has been right on time every time. If 297 years were misplaced, this would not be the case and science would be very concerned.** More importantly, 2. the world outside of Europe. Just because things might be a bit difficult to place in European history does not mean that the world outside of Europe doesn’t exist. For example, the Tang Dynasty in China (625 to 907 CE), which was a period of general stability and progress in China. Among the advances of the Tang Dynasty are gunpowder, woodblock printing, the re-opening of the Silk Road, the spread of Buddhism, and a strong maritime trade industry. It was also a golden age for Chinese art and literature.

But anyway, there it is. According to Illig’s hypothesis, this year is 1717. Welcome to 1717, friends!

For more, read here, here, and here.

*There’s a really great CBC documentary called Big Sugar – which you can watch here in full — that discusses how, despite the fact that the sugar islands were so much more lucrative a seizure for the English than Quebec, concerned about the potential for increased competition (and therefore decreased wealth), the English sugar barons in the Caribbean bought off MPs so they’d vote in favour of keeping Quebec — which obviously allowed Canada to become the country we know today — and turning Guadeloupe and Martinique back over to the French.

**If you’ve not read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it documents every single appearance of Halley’s comet for 500 years. I know this because I wrote a term paper on astronomical events in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in grad school.

Lesson #353: Judas Iscariot, Pilate, Herod, and Jesus’ Speared Side

So I randomly learned that John — which was the last of the Canonical gospels to be written and the one that isn’t synoptic — is the only of the Canonical gospels to make mention of the Roman soldier spearing Jesus on the cross.* Considering the fact that Easter is only two weeks away, I decided to do a textual comparison of Jesus’ crucifixion in each of the four gospels to see what else is dissimilar; it was a pretty fun exercise.

Here’s the list:

- Matthew 27:5 is the only gospel reference to Judas Iscariot’s death. (The only other reference in the Bible is Acts 1:18.)**

- Matthew 27:19 is the only reference to what we call “Pilate’s Dream.” Except that it wasn’t his dream, it was his wife’s.

- Matthew 27:24 is the only reference to Pilate washing his hands of the whole thing.***

- That said, Matthew is also the only gospel in which Pilate doesn’t point out to the rabble that Jesus has committed no crime.

- Mark 15:1 is the only reference in the story of Jesus’ death to mention the Sanhedrin by name.

- Mark 15:25 is the only reference to the time of Jesus’ crucifixion — 9am (though all three of the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke –  note that from noon until 3, the sky got dark)

- Luke 23:8-12 is the only appearance Herod makes in this part of the Jesus story.

- Luke is the only gospel not to mention Pilate’s choice to flog Jesus.

- Luke is also the only one not to make note of the robe (which in Mark and John is described as purple, but in Matthew is scarlet) and crown of thorns.

- John is all over the effing place (because John isn’t one of the synoptic gospels). John goes off-script. A lot.

- In addition to the spear to the side bit, John is the only one to say that Jesus carried his own cross through the city**** (the synoptic gospels name a man called Simon and note he’s from Cyrene. Mark names his sons for reasons I assume are to distinguish this particular Simon from other guys from Cyrene who bore the same name.) He’s also the only one to make reference to prophecies and broken bones.

-NONE of the gospels give any count on the lashes, although there is all sorts of evidence in Biblical and Talmudic law that would make 39 the fair assumption. And in 2 Corinthians, Paul notes that he had been flogged on several occasions, receiving 40 lashes minus 1 (the reason for this — if you can’t be bothered to read the link above on Biblical/Talmudic law — is that 40 lashes was the legal limit and, in order to avoid going above that, even by accident, the standard was 39). However…as he was in Pilate’s (and, therefore, Rome’s) custody, Jesus was likely flogged by the Romans, who were not likely held to the religious standard that the Jews maintained. So who knows, really?

- Matthew and Mark are the only gospels where Jesus asks, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”; Luke is the only one in which he says, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit”; John is the only one where he says, “It is finished.”

- Matthew and Mark identify two Marys at the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. John notes that Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, his mother’s sister, and Mary the wife of Clopas were in attendance. Luke doesn’t pick anyone out specifically, instead calling them “the women who had followed him from Galilee.” What’s interesting to me here is that this ties back to the lesson from a couple months ago about the adelphoi and the desposyni.

In the entire story of Jesus’ crucifixion, there are only a few things that are the same across the board. They are: Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, the discontent of the Sanhedrin (and the people), the release of Barabbas, that Golgotha (which is only expressly named in Matthew and Mark, though all four refer to it as “the Skull”) was the site of the crucifixion, that the soldiers drew lots for Jesus’ clothing, that there was a plaque on the cross that identified Jesus as “King of the Jews”, that Jesus was offered wine vinegar on a sponge, and that he died. So basically, the story we know as one story, with Judas’ death, Herod, Pilate washing his hands of the whole event, the crown of thorns, the 39 lashes, and our friend Simon the crucifer, is actually a composite of all four gospels, some textual exegesis, and a likely Q source.

So after all of this, I decided to see what the Gnostic gospels have to say. Unfortunately, none of them, complete (Philip, Thomas, — which most scholars acknowledge predates the four Canonical gospels — and Truth) or otherwise (Hebrews, Mary and Judas), tell the story of Jesus’ death. You have no idea how disappointing that was to discover.

Anyway, it actually makes quite a lot of sense that Matthew and Mark are so similar; they’re the two earliest — Mark first, then Matthew. And it makes sense that John would be so dissimilar because it’s the non-synoptic gospel. But I think this is a really interesting exercise in how storytelling works. I’m particularly intrigued by Herod’s late addition to the party. But really, what becomes very, very clear, especially when considering the additions Matthew and Luke make to Mark, is that the scholars’ belief that there’s a Q Source from which Matthew and Luke draw, in addition to Mark, isn’t a crackpot theory. And that aspect actually illustrates exactly where my problem lies in viewing the Bible as a historical document.

Anyway, that was fun! I’ve never actually sat down and done a textual comparison with Biblical text before…

*John 19:34

**This one’s cheating; I know this offhand. I’ve done a lot of research into Judas Iscariot over my many years of academia…I think he’s the most interesting character in Christianity, not because of his position at the time, but because of his image after the fact.

***It shouldn’t surprise anyone with half a brain who was raised in the Christian tradition that this is where we get the idiom “to wash [one's] hands of”.

****John 19:17