Archive for December, 2011

Scientific American on the Fox Sisters

December 26, 2011

I’m afraid you haven’t got long to peruse it, but there’s all sorts of great stuff in the Scientific American archive, available from 1845 – 1909 for free until the end of the month. Here’s a snippet from 1848 (Vol.5, 8th Dec, transcribed below) on the infamous Fox Sisters (though not naming them). It’s more cynical than sceptical, but you have to love the Victorian turn of phrase, and they do have a point about the lack of falsifiable information that mediums produce:

‘There has been quite an excitement in Rochester, N.Y., about mysterious sounds heard by visitors in the presence of three bespirited young ladies. Committees of ladies and gentlemen  have been appointed to try and find out the cause,  but all  in vain.  The  ladies’committee divested the  be-spirited damsels of their clothing to find out whether that something or  other,  we suppose, was not concealed underneath,  but the  sounds were heard just  as well. They were placed on feather beds  and all  sorts  of  non-electric conductors, but the sounds were heard just the same – thus proving,  no doubt, that there is no relationship between spirits and magnetic current. The sounds reported to be heard, are certain raps on the floor or wall, and these raps have been formed into a kind of alphabet,  to repeat certain names, &c. (queer, this, very). We perceive by the names of some of the gentlemen on the committees, that they are men of high standing in Rochester, and some we know personally. It will all turn out to be a piece of nonsense,  because the raps and all that has been done, is stuff – nothing sensible or of utility. All ghost stories are made up of just such miserable fiddle-faddle – and we all know that the swallowing of pins, mounting the air on broomsticks, &c., constitute the amount of witch learning.’

Eye-Eye, Cap’n!

December 24, 2011
Perusing the most interesting Lifehacker blog yesterday, I came across mention of a suggestion that pirates’ eye-patches were used to preserve night vision when moving between the deck and interior of a ship. It’s one I’ve heard before, and Wikipedia refers to it in more general, nautical terms. The first listed source is the Encyclopaedia Britannica, though I can’t find any entry entitled ‘Eye Eye Matey’. The redundant section immediately below references the Mythbusters episode where they tried it out, and found it to be plausible enough. As that last link shows though, there is no actual historical precedent for the idea.

This led me to consider where the pirate/eye-patch thing did in fact come from.

Here I will direct readers to the rather good Athenaeum Electronica blog, which has covered this very issue in some detail. I broadly agree with their concluson that our modern and specific association with pirates most likely originates with the classic 1950 movie version of ‘Treasure Island’, as depictions of patched-up pirates are few and far between prior to that.

However, I think there’s more to it than that, something that the great post linked above has missed by limiting his research to pirates specifically. The one-eyed, peg-legged sailor is actually an older trope, used to imply the rough and dangerous life of a naval seaman or officer; see the early C19th cartoon reproduced here, this 1851 fictional description of veterans at the Greenwich Hospital (complete with ‘iron hooks’!), or this 1828-dated fictional use of a ‘factitious leg and black eye patch’. Whilst these injuries may not have been as ubiquitous in reality as the stereotype implied, they would have been fairly common amongst veterans of all services, and sadly are again common today thanks to the Afghan and Iraq wars. And sailors could still find work with a missing eye, as Samuel Johnson’s diary shows. The skillset of a seaman was far more valuable to a ship’s captain than his depth perception. In any case, direct injury wasn’t the only threat to one’s eye; disease too was a serious problem.

I would also note that the line between historical pirates and other sailors was less clear in the past, what with the prize money system and letters of marque. Today’s sailors have nothing in common with their piratical counterparts.

This being so, consider this Punch illustration from 1896:

Perhaps it was intended to reference the fairly-recently (1883) published ‘Treasure Island’, but given the inclusion of a sailor’s hat, I have a feeling that it’s really a continuation of the ‘disabled seaman/old sea dog’ trope that’s still going today, independent of (or perhaps interdependent with) things piratical. After all, Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t just create the idea from whole cloth. He designed Long John Silver’s appearance to be familiar to the audience – not necessarily as a pirate, but as a grizzled sailor.

I realise International Talk Like a Pirate Day is a way off, but be sure to include an eye-patch in your Pirate Regalia…

Turin Breaks

December 20, 2011

More Turin shroud nonsense, this time from some scientists. More detail in said scientists’ own words that you won’t find in the media here. Now, the ‘scientists say’ headline is always annoying, because like most people, individual scientists and even teams of scientists, get things wrong. Saying ‘scientists say’ makes it sound like Science itself has pronounced on the matter. In fact, it has – the scientific and historical consensus on the Turin shroud is pretty damn solid.

But if one scientific study contradicts this, it’s surely worth looking at. Unfortunately this seems to be another case of specialists in one area trying to apply their skills outside their area of expertise. Just because these guys have recreated the shroud using intense ultraviolet radiation, doesn’t mean that’s the only way of doing it. High-end replica medieval swords are CNC-machined – one would not suggest that medieval blacksmiths had access to the silicon chip. In fact, plenty of others have recreated the ‘shroud’ using other, medievally-appropriate means. Even if, as claimed in this report from the same institution, no-one has precisely managed it at a chemical level, just because this method works doesn’t mean it was supernatural levels of UV (i.e. God did it). At least the article contains a balancing quote from another Italian academic, but because he isn’t quoted giving his reasoning, he just comes across as a scoffer.

We might also wait for replication of the findings before even accepting that this method is a valid means of reconstruction, let alone the way the Almighty pulled it off.

That about sums it up. I will add that it’s extremely intellectually dishonest of this ENEA organisation to imply that they’ve proven the shroud genuine. It’s also confusing, because the lead scientist in question also contributed to this sensible piece on the dangers of pareidolia. Clearly the image on the shroud doesn’t fall into that category, but I’d expect someone who’s aware of that phenomenon to be a little more critically-minded.

Oh, and it’s not really news. This lot published their findings 18 months ago now (more from 2008 listed here). This more PR-friendly attention-grab may prove to be a risky strategy – going for short-term press attention over scientific credibility could backfire for them what with the deep cuts being made to government-funded institutions around Europe. Unless the alternative energy source that ENEA is hoping to harness is…no, it couldn’t be

For more, see Doubtful Newsblog, which links to a Telegraph blog post from Tom Chivers with a wonderfully Brian Coxesque title;

‘The Turin Shroud is Fake. Get Over It.’