Lesson #247: Benham’s Top

Autobiographical note: Despite my strong desire to do so, yesterday’s reports of a possibly habitable planet will not be discussed at length. One word though: AWESOME!!!

Benham’s top is a scientific mystery developed by a toymaker.

In 1894, English toymaker C.E. Benham discovered that a specific pattern of black lines on a white disk, when spun, would cause Fechner colours.* Not only are there Fechner colours, different people see different colours. Several sites I looked at noted that the author saw red. I happen to see green.

Technically speaking, the mystery is the mechanism behind Fechner colours, not why Benham’s disk, specifically, causes the phenomenon. It just happens that Benham’s top is the most demonstrative example. Regardless, scientists have no explanation for why the brain perceives colour when none is present.**

*Fechner colours are colours that aren’t really there and are named for the 19th century German psychologist Gustav Fechner who first studied why people see colour in rotating black and white patterns.

**For more information see the lower parts of this page.


Lesson #246: Herod’s Tomb

It’s been a while (since my holiday in the Middle East, in fact) since religious history made its way into the lessons. Religion seems to come up in waves in my life and I’m riding out one of those waves at the moment…the Durkheim discussion the other night, the Pew Research article and the premiere of the latest installment of Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary, Baseball* yesterday and today, I happened to stumble on information about Herod’s tomb.

Herod’s tomb was recently discovered (in 2007, which in archaeological terms is like if it happened this morning in the real world**) at the site of the Herodium, 8 miles south of Jerusalem. Archaeologists discovered an ornately embellished broken sarcophagus on the site — though no bones…it is suspected that the rebels may have removed them during the Jewish War — of Herod’s hilltop fortress, a site built up, quite literally — Herod built a mountain from a low hill —  in celebration of a victory over the Parthians in 40 CE and destroyed by the Romans in 71 CE in response to rebels using it as a second base of operations.*** Ongoing excavations have also uncovered a theatre and frescoes at the Herodium.

A couple of related articles, here is a very interesting article about what killed Herod, as decided by modern doctors about ten years ago.  This is a really good examination of the legacy of Herod the Great that describes his career as “daring and bloodstained,” which, though flowery, is spot on.

*Lest you think that’s sacrilege, see the opening narration of the movie Bull Durham (it starts around 1:25). Also, this is at least the third time Bull Durham has been mentioned in this blog. Like with reading The Iliad, if you haven’t seen it, it’s time.

**Seriously, the guy who discovered it had been looking for it since 1972. 35 years just looking for something. This is why I’m not an archaeologist. I once told an archaeologist colleague of my mother’s that while I find the subject fascinating, I don’t have the patience to dig for five months just to find a few pottery sherds.

***For the historical dates and stuff, see Josephus’ The Jewish War.

Lesson #245: Oxford’s New Words

The Oxford Press have released their word list for the 2010 Oxford American Dictionary.

Some of the words are relatively new, like hashtag or webisode, but some of them, like straightedge or “to heart”, date at least as far back as my high school/early college years, so I’m a bit confused as to how it has taken this long for them to make their way into Oxford’s world.

If you’re interested, you can see the list of new words here.

Lesson #244: The Dancing Plague of 1518

Autobiographical note: I was actually going to write about Chaos Magic (because a friend and I were discussing it, hockey and whether Durkheim’s definition of religion is too open to abuse and/or making a mockery of religion), but I couldn’t get it to come out right, so I’ll just link to it and you can read up on it as you please.

In July 1518 in Strasbourg, France, a woman named Frau Troffea inexplicably started dancing, and didn’t stop. Within a month, she was joined by 400 more dancers, many of whom eventually died of exhaustion, heart attack or stroke.

There are primary source documents to indicate that this was a legitimate occurrence, lest you doubt that 400 people were dancing manically and without stopping. The physicians’ notes, sermons and local reports are a boon to historians on the subject. The cause, however, is in question. At the time, it was believed that the people had drawn the wrath of  St. Vitus*, who was said to deliver “plagues of compulsive dancing.”

The modern explanation of the events falls on two possibilities. The first is a mass psychogenic illness brought on by stress resulting from a widespread famine. The second is ergotism, a mild ergot poisoning. Ergot is a mold that grows on damp rye and consumption of the mold can cause delirium, hallucinations and seizures. However, historian John Waller suggests that the former is a more likely cause than the latter because ergotism causes a loss of blood to the limbs, which would make the afflicted move more like zombies (my word, not his) than dancers.**

*St. Vitus is, in modernity, the patron saint of dancers. And of Bohemia, which explains the gorgeous Gothic (and neo-Gothic…it’s a long story) cathedral dedicated to him (and apparently St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert) in Prague.

**For more information see here and here.

Lesson #243: ETAOIN SHRDLU

What? You read that right.

ETAOIN SHRDLU are the 12 most common letters in the English language. They are also the two “home” columns on a Linotype keyboard.

The phrase was fairly commonly seen in type, accidentally of course, up until the 1960s and it was a mistake. A typist would run his hand down the columns to indicate there was a mistake in the line and that it should be eliminated, but proofreaders make mistakes and things go to print with misplaced semi-colons or (at times hilariously) missing commas, and so ETAOIN SHRDLU would sometimes make it into my grandparents’ newspapers.*

The term ETAOIN SHRDLU has come to mean something that is nonsensical or absurd. There is a play I stage managed in college called The Adding Machine, about a man who is replaced by an adding machine after 25 years on the job and then kills his boss, that has a character named Etaoin Shrdlu.

For more on the frequency of letters, in itself a really interesting breakdown of English, see here.

*More can be read here (with a printed example) and here.

Lesson #242: The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Random side note totally unrelated to anything: I find spam comments particularly hilarious. They’re often completely unrelated to anything in the post or they’re freakishly overly congratulatory. But I got the very best spam comment of this short-lived blog today. The comment? “Bow-chica-w0w-wow.” The post? The Bixby Letter post. I had to laugh. After all, nothing says porn music like a letter of condolence.

There is a Burmese legend that holds that the 10th century king Theinhko was usurped when he was killed by a local farmer. This in itself is not really uncommon; kings were usurped all the time through the middle ages. What’s awesome is the how. According to the legend, Theinhko was on the run from a band of rebels and, hungry, ate a farmer’s cucumbers without permission. The farmer, Nyaung-u Sawrahan, then killed the king and took his place on the throne.

There’s not an awful lot of actual evidence to support this and Cambodia has a similar legend, but if you’re interested, you can read more (but not much) here and here.

Lesson #241: Darth Vader at the National Cathedral

I’ve seen the Star Wars trilogy exactly once. I was about 10. But Darth Vader sort of permeates pop culture, so here we are.* It turns out that there is a grotesque of Darth Vader on the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.**

I find this equal parts sacrilegious and awesome!

Autobiographical note: I am disproportionately annoyed by people who don’t know the difference between a grotesque and a gargoyle. I have no idea why.

*In fact, one of my favourite Eddie Izzard segments is the Death Star Canteen bit, which is made ever more entertaining when acted out by Lego men.

**For more information see the National Cathedral’s website here.