Lesson #288: Da Vinci and Machiavelli Try to Steal a River.

This might be the most awesome bit of random historical trivia I’ve come across in years.

Once upon a time, some artist/inventor/all around dude we have to thank for pretty much everything that has happened since the Renaissance called Da Vinci and some evil mastermind who became an adjective and fathered political science called Machiavelli decided to get together and steal the Arno river from Pisa.

Like you do.

In 1503, Florence was at war with neighbouring republic Pisa. Because Pisa was able to block Florence’s access to the sea, Florence was having internal problems on account of the Borgias wanting power, and both Florence and Pisa wanted control of the river Arno, Machiavelli and Da Vinci decided to put their heads together to figure out a way to sort out the Arno situation. Their plan? Divert the Arno away from Pisa leaving Florence as a port city.

After Da Vinci spent the summer of 1504 drawing up incredibly detailed maps of the Arno, construction began on the project that autumn.

Unfortunately, it was a massive failure. The technology of the time didn’t allow for fast, efficient digging of ditches (though apparently Da Vinci drew up plans for a machine to do the work) and the channels that were dug were too shallow for the project, so the river never followed its new course. Efforts were made to rectify the situation, but a storm caused much of it to collapse. The Pisans took care of what the storm left, and no new attempts were made at diverting the Arno.

You can read more about this here and here.

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Lesson #287: Geoff the God of Biscuits

…and Simon the God of Hairdos.*

I came across a list today of the minor Roman Gods. And there are LOTS of them. The Romans had a God for everything. Like hinges.

Oh yes, they had Cardea, Goddess of Door Hinges.

Carnea fared a little better. She was the Goddess of Door Handles, but also of the Heart and Other Organs.

Other awesome minor Gods: Febris (protectress against fevers), Fornax (Goddess of the Oven and Bread), Laverna (Goddess of Trickery), Lima (Goddess of Thresholds), Mefita (Goddess of Vapours Gasses from the Earth), Penates (God of the Storeroom), Potina (Goddess of Children’s Drinks), Robigus (protector of corn from diseases), Subrincinator (God of Weeding), and Viriplacaa (Goddess of Marital Strife).

Still, those aren’t that, um, crappy…

Cloacina was the Goddess of the Sewer.

You can read more here and here.

*This is funny only if you’ve ever seen Eddie Izzard’s Dress to Kill.

Lesson #286: Bright Blue Lobsters

If you don’t know the song ‘Lester the Lobster (From P.E.I.)‘, this is probably nowhere near as funny to you as it is to me.

Everyone* knows that lobsters are the same colour of red as PEI soil. Except when they’re not. There’s a genetic disorder that causes a rare few to be born bright blue. I’m talking the same flashy blue that people paint their cars.

The most recent ones caught (there seems to be a newspaper article about this every two years or so) were caught off the coasts of PEI in June and County Clare in August. The odds of catching one? One in four million. The most rare lobster is the albino. The odds of catching an albino is one in 100 million, though one was caught last year off Gloucester, Massachusetts.

*Okay, everyone who is familiar with Lester the Lobster

Lesson #285: The Interstate Straight Mile Myth

This was sort of prompted by a conversation I had with my best friend, who called me today to talk about the possibility of revolution in America. We don’t often share the same intellectual interests, so this caught me a bit off guard. But I’m not going to lie; it was kind of awesome. I don’t find so many opportunities these days to talk about my area of expertise, so when I can dive into revolutionary theory, (even if it’s not about NI,) I’m game. This later descended into a conversation about how if I ever move to Florida, I need to get a Vespa.*

You have almost certainly heard that one mile in ever four (or five, depending on the source) in the US Interstate System is legally required to be straight for the purpose of landing aircraft during an emergency. It’s one of those things that gets passed around in those “fun facts” emails.

And it’s a complete lie.

My mother has a habit of sending me emails like this that show up in her inbox because she knows how much I loathe poor research and that I’ll find out the truth for her. And I think she finds my rants about the idiocy of people who pass on such emails without bothering to fact check funny.**

The interstate myth is one I consistently read in emails, but have never bothered to confirm or refute, so when I came across this article written by a DOT historian, I was highly entertained. I feel this guy’s pain. As historians, we are working with a field about which the average person knows maybe 10% of what he thinks he does. The rest? He learned in an email full of “facts” some jackass made up.

According to the DOT, “airplanes occasionally land on Interstates when no alternative is available in an emergency, not because the Interstates are designed for that purpose.”

*Honestly, it’s best not to think too hard on the conversations we have. They’re informed by the shorthand of our long friendship.

**My habit of fact checking all blurbs like this is actually something that drives my friends a little nuts. They say my schooling has completely removed my ability to accept things at face value, and that’s sort of true, but if you’re telling me the etymology of the word posh is as an acronym meaning “Port Out, Starboard Home” in reference to wealthy English people making trips to and from India, it’s a sure bet I’m going to doubt it until my source is something better than “my friend sitting next to me at the bar,” well-read though he may be.

Lesson #284: The Third Anniversary

Today, my (totally awesome) cousin in a major Canadian city and her (almost equally awesome) husband are celebrating their third anniversary. Their wedding remains one of the best parties I’ve ever attended.*

I learned by accident from one of her friends that the traditional gift for the third anniversary is leather.

Don’t think our friends and I aren’t puerile enough to make completely inappropriate jokes about this.

That said, a very happy third anniversary to the Cheesedoodles. CHEESEDOODLES 4EVA!

*It’s really fun to play dress-up sometimes! There’s a particularly entertaining (and totally classy) picture of me in my maid of honour ensemble dancing with one of our friends/their groomsmen in which I’m holding a bottle of beer behind his back that is still one of my favourite pictures of me ever because it’s pretty much the definitive “me” photograph. The wedding was a very classy affair at a very nice private venue, but this was taken towards the end of the night when my cousin and I had given up all pretense of being classy for our (much classier) parents!

Lesson #283: The Dissolved Nobel Prizes

I read a really interesting article on NPR this afternoon (no need to guess which way my politics lean) about how Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen dissolved a pair of Nobel medals in order to avoid their “reallocation” by the Nazis.* Fascinating!

As a student of revolution, I’m a bit of a sucker for things being stuck, as it were, to The Man, so this little bit of trivia is right up my alley. Gold, it turns out, is a particularly stable element, so its dissolution is a bit tricky. But when German physicists Max von Laue (1914) and James Franck (1925) sent their medals to the Institute for safekeeping**, and the Nazis annexed Denmark (more or less) in 1940 and went searching for gold, — in this specific instance, gold that had been illegally removed from the Reich (and very obviously since the prizes bore the names of their winners) —  Bohr, with the help of Hungarian chemist Georgy de Hevesy, who won his own Nobel prize in 1943, decided that the best way to keep the Nazis from the prizes was to dissolve the pair in aqua regia, a solution that is three parts hydrochloric acid to one part nitric acid.

By some stroke of luck, when the Nazis arrived and tossed the Institute in search of gold, the aqua regia solution was left alone on some shelf, and, after the war, the gold was extracted from the aqua regia and sent off to Stockholm to be restruck for von Laue and Franck.***

Bohr’s medal (1922, Physics), incidentally, was sold at auction just prior to the Nazi occupation.****

I love stories like this — and history is replete with them. There are always people who find ingenious ways of circumventing governments and doing what is right and I love that.

*Interestingly, this story came from a book I’m waiting to get from paperbackswap.com, which is a BRILLIANT book trading site.

** von Laue was of Jewish descent and Franck was a known dissident.

***For more information see here and here.

****As a mostly unrelated aside, Bohr’s son won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1975. Also, my physicist friends and I have a running joke about how when they win the prize, they’re going to demand a taco dinner because it’s impossible to eat tacos and retain one’s dignity and the image of this is funny to us. In fairness, the idea of a specific one of said friends winning a Nobel Prize is actually a completely real possibility. Not that I expect, if he won, that he’d actually demand a taco dinner.