February 21, 2017
The distance to heavenly bodies as well as the total size of the Universe has been commonly underestimated throughout the entire history of astronomy. From the time of the ancient Greeks and even in recent years, new discoveries have forced us to think bigger about just how vast and distant the Universe is. Currently we have no evidence to prove that the Universe is not infinite in size.
In his time, Aristotle lays down principles of the Universe that would go unchanged for 2000 years. He used philosophy and logic as the basis for his teachings of the natural world instead of experimentation. As such he believed that the Universe was finite, and bounded by a sphere containing the fixed stars.
Outside of the sphere there was nothing. Between this sphere and the moon's orbit was an intermediate region which contained the Sun and all of the planets. The Earth was stationary and at the center of the Universe. Within the Earth-Moon region existed everything that changed. This included thunderstorms, rainbows, comets, etc. Everything beyond the Moon remained the same forever...
January 2, 2017
The term 'barbarian' has usually been used by civilized people to refer to any neighboring peoples who might not be as civilized as themselves. Throughout history, the 'barbarians' who posed a real threat to civilization belonged almost entirely to one extraordinary group of men: the nomads from the steppes and deserts in the very center of the Old World. These nomadic tribes consistently plundered a wide range of advanced cultures from China, the Middle East, India, and all the way to Europe. And it was only the Old World that experienced attacks from this extraordinary breed of humanity.
It took only a slight disturbance to set these nomadic horsemen into action and away from their arid pastures. A dispute could break out between tribes, or a drought or population increase would drive them outward in any direction. This usually ended in them invading their neighbor's lands. Their neighbors, in turn, were then set into motion, invading their neighbor's lands as well. As years went by, the effects of these movements extended over thousands of miles across the vast expanse of Asia and Europe...
August 19, 2016
Einstein first formulated the Theory of Relativity and presented it along with his field equations in Berlin to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on November 25, 1915. They state a radical new view of gravity in which gravitationally large objects curve space and time. After years of work, Einstein had finally arrived at a truly general theory of relativity. He described his new equations as "the most valuable discovery of my life."
In England, Sir Arthur Eddington had been receiving whisperings of the new equations from his friends in the field of astronomy and was quite excited about them. He wanted to prove the Theory of Relativity somehow. The task would be reasonably done since Einstein had clear predictions that could be used to test his theory.
One prediction from the new theory was that light would bend as it passed by a large source of gravity, such as the sun. But the sun's intense rays made observing stars extremely inaccurate while they were so close. Luckily a solar eclipse was predicted to occur on May 9th of 1919...
June 14, 2016
James Cook was a skilled English explorer credited with charting the coasts of New Zealand and Australia, and discovering Hawaii, among other achievements. Cook was employed continuously in the British Navy and his pay was enough to set up a modest home for his wife and children in the Mile End Road in London. He was a full time surveyor and cartographer. His charts were regularly available from publishers in London.
Cook was born in Yorkshire, England in a town along the east coast. He is a quiet and capable man who has the ability to rise up to problems and somehow come away from them with much more than is expected. But acknowledgment and promotion come slowly to those who are quiet and capable. And so it took James Cook until the age of 40 to be promoted to lieutenant by the Royal Society for yet another ship to be sent to the Pacific...
March 20, 2016
Much attention is paid these days to the economic growth of our modern economies and the resulting growth of individual wealth. There is no shortage of theories as to what causes this growth or what hinders it. But the track record of this growth of personal wealth is far less debatable.
Scottish economist Angus Maddison was one of the first to notice a startling discontinuity in economic growth around 1820. Among his findings were a doubling of average life span, a near quadrupling of education levels, and the rapid disappearance of illiteracy, all in the four decades before World War I. His most notable finding was that before 1820 economic growth was essentially nonexistent, and after, explosive and sustained.
To start off lets take a look at per capita GDP in America adjusted for inflation. This is the amount of wealth available to each and every individual in terms of 1998 US dollars. You can see how closely growth matches the 2% per year average...
December 23, 2015
Spontaneous peace and goodwill between soldiers in opposing armies occur in all wars. At least since Troy, chronicles have recorded a pause in fighting to bury the dead, pray, negotiate peace, or to give a moment for soldiers to show respect to their enemies. However none had occurred with the scale or duration, or with the potential to change things, as that of the Christmas Truce of World War I.
Since Germany's declaration of war on August 1, 1914, hundreds of thousands of lives had been lost. An appeal for a ceasefire from Pope Benedict XV only weeks after the war had broken out was immediately rejected by leadership on both sides as "impossible." The war slogged on with soldiers dying endlessly in brutal trench warfare.
Both sides thought that the war would be over quickly. But Christmas was fast approaching with no conceivable end to the conflict in sight...
December 17, 2015
Of all the songs ever written, the simple ones can be some of the best. "Dona Nobis Pacem," which means 'Grant Us Peace,' is one such song. The song's simple but powerful message is still very relevant in today's world.
The origin of the song is not definitively known. It is sometimes attributed to Mozart but the source is usually listed as "Traditional" in most musical texts. While is is a beautiful piece, from an academic standpoint is is not very well written. This likely means that the hymn has its origins in folk music. Our best guess is that it is an old Christmas song written in the 16th or 17th Century by an unknown composer in Germany. It has long since been widely used in several other European countries.
November 2, 2015
Chivalry generally refers to a code of ethics adhered to by knights during the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Duty and honor were foremost among the personality traits that were most valued and admired.
During these times, it took a great deal of cunning and self preservation measures to survive a world of shifting loyalties. Dukes, barons, and other nobles took advantage of the general chaos to strengthen themselves by any means they could.
Kings as a rule had to be constantly on guard for any conceivable threat to their position of power. In these dangerous times, kings and barons strengthened their households by hiring bands of soldiers sworn to loyalty only to them. These men were equipped at their king's expense with armor and weapons and also wore the crest of the king they served.
In time these men came to be known as knights. Their strong morals, military traditions, and strict code of behavior soon became the stuff of legend...
August 7, 2015
Charles Martel was a ruler of the Carolingian Frankish Empire in the early 8th century AD. The empire encompassed the territories of much of modern day France, western Germany, Switzerland, as well as Belgium and the Netherlands, and was the dominant Christian power in Western Europe at the time. Having won a civil war between two competing kingdoms in 724, Charles had secured his position as head ruler of the entire Carolingian Empire, but had not yet been granted the title of King.
Although he was constantly repelling Saxon and Bavarian armies, as well as other threats, the empire was for the most part secure. Charles supported St. Boniface and other missionaries in their efforts to convert all remaining German tribes to Christianity as a way of uniting his region. The European continent was slowly becoming more prosperous and stable. But a new threat had begun working its way towards the heart of Western Civilization 100 years prior to Charles' rule.
July 12, 2015
Johannes Kepler was a brilliant mathematician who is credited with discovering the true nature of the planets' motion around the sun. He was born on December 27, 1571, in Weil-der-Stadt, near Württemberg in the Holy Roman Empire, which is present day southwest Germany. The eldest child in a very poor Protestant family of seven children, his childhood was not an easy one. He was a sickly child who was struck by smallpox at the age of six and would suffer ill health throughout his life. His father, having no trade, became a mercenary and went off to fight Protestant insurgents in the Netherlands, rarely returning home.
Kepler's family was so poor that had he lived in any other part of Europe he would have almost certainly not received any education. He was very fortunate, as was the field of astronomy, that a new mode of education had been introduced by the Dukes of Württemberg, who had embraced the Lutheran doctrines. They set up a system of scholarships for poor but gifted children from Protestant families...
May 25, 2015
The dominant mood in Western Civilization prior to 1914 was one of pride in its heritage, and confidence in its future progress. Advances in science and technology, as well as art and culture, the rising standard of living for all classes, the spread of democratic institutions, and a position of power and influence in the world all contributed to a sense of optimism. Furthermore, Europe had avoided a general war since the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. And the great powers had not waged war on one another since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.
Over the past 2000 years, Western Civilization had risen to become an advanced industrial civilization spreading democracy and individual freedoms, as well as sharing a vast amount of technology and culture over the entire globe. It was consistently leading the world away from despotism and towards a culture that highly valued the individual. Per capita GDP broke away on a dramatic rise starting around 1820 as a result of the industrial revolution. Advances in transportation and communication were spreading people and ideas across the entire planet...
April 8, 2015
New York City was one of the earliest European settlements in North America and has long been the largest city in the United States. In 1925 it became the first city in the world to obtain a population of over 10 million people. It was in the 1920's that new technology became available that allowed the construction of buildings over 50 stories tall.
These new buildings were constructed differently than those that typically preceded the building boom of the 1920's and 30's. Skyscrapers of this new era were constructed like the cathedrals of old Europe, with the interior columns carrying all of the load, and the walls only acting as curtains.
The construction of sky scrapers in New York City began in downtown, around Wall St. at the lower end of Manhattan Island, but soon spread north. Here's where things begin to get a little more interesting. New skyscrapers were not being built close to downtown, but rather were mostly being constructed in midtown, 4 miles north.
March 15, 2015
Constantine is the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. He did so after witnessing the sight of a cross in the sky along with his entire army. However, his spiritual growth and eventual conversion did not happen at once with this one dramatic event. It began years before this while he was stationed in Gaul along the Rhine frontier.
As Constantine contemplated the imminent outbreak of war with Emperor Maxentius in the Spring of 312, he was greatly worried. Maxentius had an experienced army he had lead to many victories. He controlled a series of well fortified cities in northern Italy, and had been improving the already significant fortifications of Rome for years.
He decides to invade the Italian peninsula from Gaul. This is no easy task, as he must maintain an elaborate supply chain for his army while leaving behind some troops to defend the Rhine frontier while he is gone. This left him with forces much smaller than that of his enemy. Constantine decides to cross the Alps into the Italian peninsula near Mt. Cénis.
February 5, 2015
While it is difficult to give any one definitive reason for the achievements of individuals in the Bach family, there certainly are many factors which worked in their favor. Most notably they all possessed a determined spirit that thrived on adversity. And so it happened that during one of the most tragic periods of German history that the Bachs were able to accomplish outstanding musical achievements. The strong solidarity of their family ties were incredibly helpful as well. Also, they often married women who were themselves descendants of musical families, mixing the creative talent of many sources.
Among J. S. Bach's close relatives there were some very talented composers. However his own father did not exhibit any creative gifts, and this was probably true of his grandfather, Christoph Bach, as well. Therefore it seems as though the musical talent inherited from his father's side accumulated in two generations before bursting forth.
Although Bach's mother died when he was 10 years old, she was still a very important influence on him. The importance of his mother's family is shown by one fact in particular...
January 23, 2015
Eratosthenes was a Greek scientific writer, astronomer, and poet, who is credited with making the first approximation of the size of the Earth for which any details are know. He was born in Cyrene, Libya c. 276 BC. After studying in Alexandria and Athens, he settled in Alexandria around 255 BC and became director of the Great Library there.
In the town of Syene (now Aswan) in Egypt, it was well known that at noon on the day of the Summer solstice, light from the sun would shine directly down a local well. One could look down the well and see his or her own shadow at the bottom, but no shadow from the sides of the well. Eratosthenes found it curious that this never happened at any day in Alexandria. And so he was acutely aware that there was something to be learned from this phenomenon. He began to observe the distance of a shadow caused by a very tall tower in Alexandra. He noted that in Alexandria at the same time, during the same day, sunlight fell at an angle of about 7.2 degrees from the vertical. Eratosthenes records this angle to be "a fiftieth of a circle", as measuring angles in degrees had not yet been adopted from the Babylonians at this point.
Welcome new readers!
In a hope to share any interesting historical stories I come across in the future I will be writing and posting articles whenever I can. Hopefully quite often.
I'll also be keeping you up to date on any good reads I come across in the Recommended section.
Looking for something in particular? Find it more quickly on the Search page.
And here is a complete list of all articles since the beginning.
Size of the Known Universe
Disappearance of Great Nomads
The Eclipse of 1919
James Cook - His First Voyage
A History of Personal Wealth
The Christmas Truce of 1914
Dona Nobis Pacem
The Battle of Tours - 732 AD
Western Civilization prior to WWI
The Bedrock of New York City
Roman Emperor Constantine
The Family Tree of J. S. Bach
Eratosthenes - Earth's Circumference
"It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn."
~ H.G. Wells
The Discovery of the Future