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Friday, 28 August 2015

Lord, what foods these morsels be

 Some of me pomes that I assembled for a writer's festival, and then didn't use.

Carpe fortuna

The finest perfumes in the land
Will make some noses runny;
The dinner that the hawk has planned
Is bad news for the bunny.

Fortune can be cool or hot,
When there's a chance, just grab it.
Your lucky rabbit's foot was not
So lucky for the rabbit.

Rabbit pie

The rabbit served in sundry ways
Has dietary merits.
Eat just that for thirty days,
Then take a dose of ferrets.

Currawong stew

That currawong, up in the sky
Will surely grace my pan,
For as it flies, I hear it cry
Quite clearly, "Coq-au-vin".

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Curtiosity about measurement

Begin with the last one!

We must remember that measures were made for man and not man for measures
— Isaac Asimov ( - 1992), Of Time and Space and Other Things, 1965.
Whether or not a thing is measurable is not something to be decided a priori by thought alone, but something to be decided only by experiment.
— Richard P. Feynman (1918 - 1988), The Feynman Lectures on Physics, 1963.

A reference scale seen in a museum in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons
— T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965), The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 51.

Throughout the kingdom there shall be standard measures of wine, ale and corn.  Also there shall be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and halberject; namely [a width of] two ells within the selvedges.  Weights [also] are to be standardised similarly.
Magna Carta, signed June 15, 1215 A.D.

Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour's landmark
Holy Bible, Deuteronomy, 27:17.

Puck: I'll put a girdle round about the earth
      In forty minutes.
— William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), Midsummer Night's Dream, II. i. 175-6

A false balance is an abomination to the Lord: but a just weight is his delight.
Holy Bible, Proverbs 11:1.

Since we are assured that the all-wise Creator has observed the most exact proportions, of number, weight and measure, in the make of all things, the most likely way, therefore, to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the creation, which come within our observation, must in all reason be to number, weigh and measure.
— Stephen Hales (1677 - 1761), quoted by Paul Davies in The Mind of God, Penguin Books, 1990, p. 144.

Measurements of cosmic rays were being made on a disused platform of the Aldwych Underground railway.  Certain unexpected differences were detected in the intensity of the rays coming down in different directions through the hundred feet of London clay overhead.  These anomalies puzzled the scientists greatly for some days.  Then at length they hit on the very simple explanation.  The direction from which unexpectedly large numbers of rays were coming turned out to be the direction of the tramway tunnel that runs under the middle of the Kingsway . . . By means of cosmic rays we were able to take a cosmic-ray picture of a part of London's underworld in much the same way that X-rays are used to photograph the human body.
— P. M. S. (later Baron) Blackett (1897 - 1974), 'The Curious Phenomena of Cosmic Rays', a radio talk given in 1942, and published in Science Lifts the Veil, British Council, 1942.

Of course it will soak through at last, as all great scientific truths do — such as the doctrine of Natural Selection and the peculiar properties of the stuff called Ether, not to speak of Magna Carta, which even the poorest scavenger in the street to-day reveres as the origin of his freedom.
— Hilaire Belloc (1870 - 1953), 'Talking of the Nordic Man' in Stories Essays and Poems, Everyman Library 948, 1957, 50.

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?  Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket or weighed the mountains on the scales or the hills in a balance?
Holy Bible, Isaiah 40:12, New International Version.

I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
— William Thomson [Lord Kelvin], Lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1883.

Bischoff, one of the leading anatomists of Europe, thrived some 70 years ago.  He carefully measured brain weights, and after many years' accumulation of much data he observed that the average weight of a man's brain was 1350 grams, that of a woman only 1250 grams.  This at once, he argued, was infallible proof of the mental superiority of men over women.  Throughout his life, he defended this hypothesis with the conviction of a zealot.  Being the true scientist, he specified in his will that his own brain be added to his impressive collection.  The postmortem examination elicited the interesting fact that his own brain weighed only 1245 grams.
Scientific American, March 1992, 8, quoting from an unidentified source in Scientific American, March 1942.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The caustic bite of alkali

Most of the words beginning with al-, scientific and mathematical terms like algebra and alcohol, come to us from Arabic, where the 'al' part is the equivalent of 'the' in English. Alkali in Arabic is al kali, otherwise known to us as wood ash, high in potassium, and mainly used to make soap, when it is added to rendered fat.

The wood ash was made in 19th century Britain by heating wood in a clay pot, hence it went by the name pot ash. When Humphry Davy made a metal by electrolysis from a preparation of pot ash or potash, he Latinised its name as potassium, but then came a problem.

The element could not have the symbol P, because that letter had already been used for phosphorus. So by looking backwards, a new Latin name was created: kalium, and that allowed the chemists to identify potassium, derived from potash by the symbol K, reminding us of the Arabic al kali.

Chlorine-caustic soda works, Wikimedia
Alkalis of various sorts were important in the early 19th century, as industry began to grow. Originally, textiles were bleached with ammonia derived from stale urine, and stale milk, which was acidic, but as the industries scaled up, there was no longer enough urine to go around, though the acid was replaced after about 1750 by dilute sulfuric acid.

Just as importantly, cloth then needed to be expose to sunlight over several weeks, and that tied up valuable agricultural land, and the cloth was likely to be stolen. So factory owners were keen to make stronger bleaching chemicals.

By 1800, 'alkali' was an essential raw material for making paper, glass, and soap, and in bleaching and dyeing. The alkali known as 'soda' (more recently soda ash) was usually obtained from the barilla plant found around the Mediterranean, or from burning kelp plants, but early industrial chemistry was pushed along tremendously by the need to make these chemicals more efficiently.

Quality was also a problem, and by 1806, French chemists were using an instrument like a burette, called an alkalimeter, in order to measure the strength of the alkalis produced. Like the Germans in the First World war, the French found themselves restricted by a British naval blockade.

This stopped them accessing American sources of potash during the Napoleonic wars, and so research continued — leading, in passing, to the accidental discovery of iodine when Bernard Courtois was working with ash from seaweed to make saltpetre.

He later passed this information on to Sir Humphry Davy, who proposed the name "iodine", from the Greek word for the colour violet, iodes, just a moment he took off from discovering the alkali metals.

During the 19th century, and into the 20th century, the 'alkali town' existed as a sort of hell on earth, where smoke, acid fumes, chlorine and other gases filled the air and attacked the lungs of residents. The products, said one critic, were " . . . pills, coal, glass, chemicals, cripples, millionaires and paupers." To that, we might add corpses and a strong chemical industry.

The ancient Egyptians used alkali, which they called natron or natrium, depending on whether you consult a Greek or a Roman source, and the name tells us straight away that this was a soda ash, or impure sodium carbonate. 

Sodium, when Davy discovered it, could not be represented by the symbol S, which was already being used for sulfur. So he turned to the Latin and Greek name for the source, realised that N had been used for nitrogen, and that is how sodium gained the symbol Na.

One major source for the natron, which the Egyptians used in mummifying, was a set of lakes to the south of Egypt, including, perhaps, Lake Natron, near the border between Kenya and Tanzania, south-west of Nairobi.

Today, this lake is famous mainly for the flamingoes that live there, but it seems a little distant to be the source of all the natron that was needed by the Egyptian undertakers. Certainly we know that the natron came from a lake, because this is clearly stated in The Book of the Dead, but the actual lake involved is still a matter for conjecture.

If Pliny is to be believed, the transport of natron had an even bigger effect, but to recognise this, we have to know that 'nitre' and 'nitron' were also acceptable names for this material, even though it contains no nitrogen at all. Here is Pliny in a translation by Philemon Holland in the early 17th century:

"The coast along this river which showeth this kind of sand, is not above half a mile in all, and yet for many a hundred year it hath furnished all places with matter sufficient to make glass. As touching which device, the common voice and fame runneth, that there arrived sometimes certain merchants in a ship laden with nitre, in the mouth of this river, and being landed, minded to seethe their victuals upon the shore and the very sands: but for that they wanted other stones to serve as trivets to bear up their pans and cauldrons over the fire, they made shift with certain pieces of sal-nitre out of the ship, to support the said pans, and so made the fire underneath: which being once afire among the sand and gravel of the shore, they might perceive a certain clear liquor run from under the fire in very streams, and hereupon they say came the first invention of making glass."

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Being nice

There is always a risk, when we consider statements that are more than a few hundred years old, that some of the key words may have altered drastically in the interim, changing the meaning entirely.

When King James II commented that the new St Paul's Cathedral in London was "amusing, awful and artificial", should Sir Christopher Wren have slipped out the back and slit his throat? Not a bit of it: the monarch was merely observing that he considered the building to be pleasing, awe-inspiring and skilfully achieved, and no insult or criticism was intended.

In Richard II, Shakespeare has John of Gaunt say:

Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave,
Whose hollow womb inherits nought but bones.

This prompts King Richard to ask "Can sick men play so nicely with their names?" but this is no praise, as we shall see. In the Reeve's Tale in the Canterbury Tales, Chauce writes "This miller smyled of hir nycetee", which we might be tempted to take to mean he smiled at their nicety, but a more accurate rendering is that he smiled at the simplicity of the two scholars he planned to swindle.

That aside, most of the time when Chaucer uses 'nice', he means foolish, for that was the original meaning of the term. We get this word from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant or unknowing, with the prefix ne- meaning not, and the -scius reminding us of words like scientia, knowledge, or even science. So originally a nice person was somebody who knew nothing, a fool, in other words.

Then began the slow progression of this word to its present meaning of somebody who is inoffensively pleasant. After the simple meaning of 'foolish' that Chaucer has as the primary meaning, the word came to indicate people who are foolishly concerned about particular things, and then it became fastidious and precise, and after that, we might have spoken of somebody being nice in their dress, with no hint of praise intended.

At the time when King Richard spoke to John of Gaunt, though, only one meaning would have existed, but Shakespeare's audience would have understood 'nicely' here to mean something like delicately, or with precision, a sense we preserve today when we speak of somebody making a nice point, or performing something to a nice degree. In the same way, we may speak of somebody having a nice sense of discrimination or honour.

Piero della Francesca?
Finally, it came to our modern sense of 'pleasantly agreeable', and it is a term that is commonly applied to people of a religious persuasion, church-going Christians who might look at Piero della Francesca's Resurrection and admire it greatly. These are people who would admire Piero for depicting himself as one of the sleeping guards outside Christ's tomb, and who would glory in the nice precision with which Piero had identified himself by showing his goitre, an outgrowth of the thyroid gland, caused by a lack of iodine in the diet.

While people closer to the sea got enough seafood to provide the iodine they needed, in some areas, people never saw the sea, and food from the sea could not reach them before it went rotten — unless it was preserved in some way, like anchovies. Seafood was expensive, and so many people went without, and developed goitres as a result.

In extreme cases, iodine deficiency and the goitrous condition can bring about a degree of simplicity and gentleness that was seen by their luckier compatriots as like that of the Christians, or chr├ętiens as the French-speakers in alpine areas called them. That is one version of the origin — the other is that the goitrous were recognised as still being humans with Christian souls, as opposed to the brutes of creation, unbaptised, but incapable of sin.

Either way, the more goitrous among them became known as chr├ętiens, or crestins, and so we got our word 'cretins', now generally misapplied as no more than a term of abuse. Once, though, cretins were a group who were at once nice in both the original and in the more modern sense. If the cretins had been uniformly naughty, though, would that have been a case of a regional sin?