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JULY   2020
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Friday, July 02, 2010


I love the fourth of July, what with the fireworks and the Sousa Marches, and the flag which, I proudly fly. But there is a tinge of sadness too, because the greatest fireworks display in the sky, at least over the last millennium, occurred on the fourth of July, in the year 1054, and was achieved at an unbelievable cost. On that date, the court astronomer Yang Wei-Te, was shocked to see a new star, what the Chinese called a guest star, blaze into existence, where no star had been visible before.
This new star was reddish-white. It had rays visible streaming from all four corners, and was four times brighter than Venus, which is normally the brightest object in the night sky, besides the moon. This guest star was so bright that it was visible during the day for over three weeks. After that it remained visible at night, although now yellow in color, for three years, until the middle of April, 1057. And then, according to the Chinese, the “guest” faded into obscurity.
The Anasazi Indians of the American desert southwest also noticed the guest star, and recorded it in their rock art and pottery. It is recognized as the same guest star the Chinese saw because the Anasazi pictographs include the new star and the moon. And modern astronomers have calculated that on July 5, 1054, the crescent moon, as seen from North America, would have been just 2 degrees north of where the guest star was seen. Carbon-14 dating of the art indicates it was created about 1060, plus or minus fifteen years. Unfortunately there are no Anasazi left to confirm this story, and, for some reason, no Europeans saw the guest star.
The next time human eyes alighted on this guest star, they belonged to the cheerful English physician and astronomy nut John Bevis, who, in 1731, happened to be looking through a telescope in just the right direction. He had never heard of the Chinese guest star, no European had. But John noted fuzzy “strings of gas and dust” in an empty patch of the constellation Taurus, to the right of the bull’s right horn.
The tip of that horn is in fact a bright star called Aldebaran, an Arabic name which means “the follower”, because Aldebraran seems to follow the Pleides across the sky. The Pleides are a bright point of light that forms the tip of the bull’s other horn. Blevis called his fuzzy patch “M1”, and noted it in a manuscript, complete with drawings that recorded its position in the sky. But John’s publisher went broke, and his book was never published. And poor John died in 1771, when he fell off his telescope. And it looked for awhile as if the guest might escape further notice.
But bits and pieces of John’s manuscript fell into the hands of Charles Messier, a French astronomer who was collecting material for his own star chart, published in 1774. Charles gave full credit for the original observations to poor John, and even used John’s designation of M1,, but it became known as “Messier 1”.
In 1847, another Englishman, the third Earl of Rosse, using a better telescope, drew his own images of John Blevis’ “M1” in Taurus, and decided that it was a nebula (Latin for “cloud”.) He sketched it looking like a crab’s claw. Later, when Rosse could afford a better telescope, he realized that M1 did not look like a crab, but the name stuck. And thus the guest star known as M1 in Taurus, more commonly became known as the Crab Nebula.
By the early 20th century it was known that the crab was expanding, at something on the order of half of the speed of light (which is about 186,000 miles. or 300,000 kilometers per second). But, of course, as fast as the speed of light is, it still takes light from the crab over 6,000 years to reach the earth, meaning the crab is 6,000 light years away. But people were only beginning to realize how amazing the crab actually was.
Late in the 1950’s a woman attending an open house in the Universtiy of Chicago’s telescope appraroached astronomer Elliot Moore, and told him that the crab appeared, to her, to be flashing. Elliot assured the woman that all stars seemed to twinkle, to which she insisted that as a pilot she knew what stars did, and this one was not twinkling. It was flashing. Elliot dismissed her story, but it turned out that the lady was right, and the atronomer was wrong.
On the night of November 28, 1967 a Scottish Quaker and Cambridge graduate student named Jocelyn Bell Burnell was working with undergraduates when she noticed what she called “scuff” on her radio telescopes’s data printout, indicating a rythmic, regular and unexpected radio signal. Over eight weeks her team, and her advisor Dr. Anthony Hewish, tried to elimiate all logical sources for this interference, and failed. Could this have been a Jodie Foster “Contact” moment? As a joke, Joycelyn labled her discovery LGM – 1, for Little Green Men, Source One. Eventually other similar sources of regularly pulsing radio waves were located, originating from other spots in the sky, and the joke was dropped. For practical reasons, the sources were remamed “pulsars”, because they seemed to pulse with energy. In 1974 Dr. Hewish was awarded a Nobel Prize for Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery. She was not slighted because she was a woman, but because she was a graduate student.
It was decided the year after Jocelyn’s discovery, that the pulsars were in fact, neutron stars. The star that exploded to create the guest star in the sky over China in 1054, started out 10 times the size of our sun. After its super nova explosion, what remained was a star, dead center of the crab, just 6 miles in diameter, rotating 30 times a second, or at roughly 4 million miles an hour. That spin creates a huge magnetic field, throwing out 100,000 times the energy thrown out by our own sun, all ripped from the atoms in the space surrounding the pulsar. The energy from the pulsar itself is emitted only in the higher energy parts of the spectrum, above the visual range. Seen by a radio telescope, the pulsar seems to blink on and off, 30 times a second. In fact it is not blinking, but like a light house beacon, it's emitted energy is confined by the neutron star's magnetic fields into narrow pathways, which sweep over our planet from 6,000 light years away.
So it was, without a doubt, the biggest 4th of July fireworks display in human history, a crashing explosion of  light and an electromagnetic display on a galactic scale. The star that exploded here must have consumed an entire solar system, planets and moons and perhaps even life forms. The bomb must have gone off 6,000 years before the light ever reached us. The ice age was barely over. Humans had barely invented the wheel. We had not yet writing. But we would know, eventually, that the light reaching us from the Crab Nebula is emited by photons passing through heavy elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and iron. And that is a very distrubing piece of information.
I refuse to believe that an entire solar system was destroyed for our entertainment or edification. Why it was destroyed, if there was a why, we will may never know. But we do know that the heavy elements giving color to the Crab Nebula, and to similar nebula across the universe, could only have been produced in a super nova explosion, like the one that was seen on July 4, 1054. And those are the heavy elements that make up….us.
Happy Fourth!
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Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I might have voted with the rest of the jury in the Perry trial, voted for guilt, even though one of the defendants had been charged with being a witch, and I don’t believe in witches. That was Joan Perry. She and her sons, John and Richard, were also hanged, but she was hanged first. The authorities were hoping the older boy, Richard, freed from Joan's witchcraft, would confess. But he did not. Which leaves me to wonder if being a witch was just an ‘eggcorn’ for that other crime women are often accused of being guilty of.  And then to everyone’s surprise, after Richard, too, was dead, the youngest boy, John, whose confession had led to the prosecution of his entire family, recanted. Still the judges remained certain. So John was duly hanged as well. If I had been the judge, I like to think that John's recantaion would have led me to have second thoughts. Of course, by then it a little was too late. (http://www.usingenglish.com/glossary/eggcorn.html)
The story behind the trial takes place in Chipping Camden, in the Cotswold of England. "Chipping" is an old Welsh word for market, and “wold” is Welsh for an upland meadow, so this was a market town amidst the rolling limestone hills and open fields which were once the property of the Saxon King, Harold.
Under the Normans it became sheep country. In 1340, in Chipping Camden, the wool merchants were already so wealthy they built a hall on the High Street, using the honey-colored “Cotswold stone” as facing.
Even today Chipping Camden looks as if it were untouched since the middle ages. In fact, this western corner of England was a violent incubator for the industrial revolution.
It is human nature that wealth surrounded by poverty requires a human justification. So it was no accident then that the Nuevo-rich Calvinist wool merchants in the Cotswold welcomed a belief in predestination – the certainty that they were wealthy and successful because God predestined them to be wealthy and successful before they had even been born. Thus the will of the successful was God’s will. Of this the Calvinists were certain. And they were certain that opposing them was to oppose God’s will.
Thus, after seven years of civil war, these dead-certain Calvinists were comfortable in beheading their intransigent King, and suspected Catholic, Charles I, in 1649. But the Calvinist experiment in government came to an end on January 1st, 1660 when soldiers under Colonel George Monck crossed the River Tweed at the village of Coldstream, thus earning the regiment the eternal and future title “The Coldstream Guards”.
A month later they were in London, and in late April Charles Stuart, son of the last King of England, was crowned Charles II, the next King of England. But if anybody thought the restoration of the monarchy was going to return a certain stability to Britain, they were about to suffer a very rude awakening.
Three months later, on Thursday, August 16th 1660, the estate manager for a wealthy Calvinist merchant left his home in Chipping Camden, tasked to walk the two miles to the village of Charingworth. His name was William Harrison and he must have been an amazing fellow, as he was already 70 years old, and facing an eight mile hike to collect rents for his merchant master and return home by dark; except, he did not return.
 At about 9 p.m. his servant, John Perry, was sent out to look for the old man at Charingworth and Paxford. The next morning Harrison’s son went out to search for them both. The son found John Perry, who explained he had been looking Mr. Harrison all night. Together they continued looking, and later that morning found William Harrison’s hat, slashed by a knife, and his shirt, caked in blood.
Over several days of constant questioning, John Perry told several stories but finally admitted he suspected his own mother and brother of robbing the old man and then murdering him. And even though Joan and Richard both insisted on their innocence, the investigators felt certain that John had not lied, since he had implicated himself by admitting he had suggested the crime. Wells, ponds and streams were searched for poor Mr. Wilson’s body, or the rents he had collected. No trace of the old man or the money was found. The Perry family was held over the winter for trial.
On Sunday, January 6th, 1661, fifty lunatics (most of them ex-soldiers from Oliver Cromwell’s Calvinist army), calling themselves Fifth Monarchists, stormed into St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and started roughing people up. They shot one poor fellow who talked back to them. They were preparing the way, they said, for the return of Jesus Christ, whom they intended to crown the next King of England. It took an armed band of militia to chase the loonies out of the church.
Three days later they stormed a prison and tried to free the prisoners. None of the prisoners was insane enough to follow the fanatics. They stayed in their cells. This time it took the loyal Coldstream guards to trap the loonies in a couple of taverns and through musket fire and the bayonet, finish them off. The leaders were captured, tried for treason, hanged, drawn and quartered. It seemed there was such an air of uncertancy hanging over England, inspiring the citizens to begin to demand certainty.
In April of 1661 the Perry family were brought to trial and duly hanged, one after the other. And if there were second thoughts after John's gallows conversion to innocence, they were put aside.
For even if Joan and Richard Perry had not killed poor Mr. Harrison, then John Perry, the self confessed murderer, certainly had. And it was certainly important that justice was seen to be done. Without the certain avenging hand of justice there would be no respect for the law, and English society would return to the rule of the beast, the rule of eat or be eaten. And then in 1662, wonder of wonders, William Harrison walked back into to the village of Chipping Camden, certainly alive and allegedly well.
When questioned the old man (he was now seventy-two) told a murkey tale of being set upon, stabbed, kidnapped, hustled aboard a ship, and sold in a Turkish slave market. He escaped, he said, when his master had died. Mr. Harrisin claimed he then caught a ship back to England. As others have noted, “The story told by Harrison is conspicuously and childishly false.” And as a Mr. Paget noted, “much profit was not likely to arise from the sale of the old man as a slave…especially as the old man was delivered in a wounded and imperfect condition.”
So where did Mr. Harrison disappear to in the summer of 1660? Given that transportation in that age was mostly limited to “shanks mare”, William Harrison could not have walked more than a few miles. He must have been close enough to Chipping Camden to have heard, in the eight months between his disappearance, the trial and the hanging sentence of his accused murderers, of their impending deaths. And yet the old man did not return.
But why did he wait two years to return? Why not sooner? Why return at all? And why did John Perry tell such wild tales? Why did he send his own mother and brother to the gallows? Why did he not recant until the last moments of his life? Could torture, the standard meathod used for questioning at the time, have produced this false testimoney? Perha;s; it all remains a mystery. 
And all we know for certain is that John Perry, Richard Perry and Joan Perry slowly strangled at the end of a rope, as punishment for a crime which they did not commit. Every thing else about this case is a mystery and a wonder. It is the Camden Wonder.
It is a wonder that, 300 years later, juries remain so certain that they continue to take the lives of those accused, when they have no earthly reason to be so certain, and certainly no heavenly justification either.
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Sunday, June 27, 2010


I can’t think of a love triangle that ever turned out productively for the participants, from King David who did not let morality stand between him and separating Bathsheba from her husband, Uriah the Hittite...
...through King Arthur, who let morality prevent him from separating his beloved Guinevere from her lusted after Lancelot....
, through the swelled egos of John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards and Rielle Hunter...
...and winding down the Appalachian Trail with the romantically addled Maria Belen Chapur, Jenny Sanford and the man in the middle, Governor Mark Sanford. And the “ménage-a-fools” between “Big” Jim Fisk, Josie Mansfield and Edward Stokes repeated the same sad story, with an unfortunate familiar final twist.
These self destructive convergences usually leave the participants exhausted and mumbling some absurd self justification, like “The heart wants what the heart wants”, when, in truth, the more apt description might be, “Stupid is as stupid does.” It needs to be noted that none of these disasters, which we all are suffer from, from time to time, could occur without the active participation of all members, and the participants may be helpless, but they are never blameless.
“Big” Jim’s friends, who knew his love letters to Josie to be harmless drivel, urged him to publish them first, and thereby remove their threat. But this “Prince of the Erie Railroad”, this master of Wall Street, this robber baron supreme, refused to do. Instead he bemoaned his fate, “By the Lord, this is my heart that you want me to make a show of, and I won't.” He was, however, willing to make a lesser show of it, slower and more deliciously painful, and far more dramatically detailed, by not either paying the $200,000 demanded by Stokes (he could easily afford it) or publishing the letters. So, the curtain went up on the Third Act of the melodrama
About one on the afternoon of January 6, 1872, “Big” James Fisk got the word that a grand jury had indicted Josie and Edward Stokes for blackmail. He was in the offices of the Erie Railroad, on the second floor of his own Grand Opera House, when he heard. At about 3:30 pm, a visiting friend, gambler John Chamberlain, was leaving the Opera House, when he saw a carriage crossing the intersection of 8th Avenue and 23rd Street. As the carriage clipped past him, Chamberlain saw, peeking out from the passenger compartment, and staring up at the Erie Corporate offices, Edward Stokes.
Ten minutes later “Big” Jim Fisk was in his own carriage, heading uptown, to 44th Street and Amity Street, later to be renamed 3rd Avenue, to the Grand Central Hotel, around the corner from “Commodore” Vanderbilt’s brand new Grand Central Railroad Station (above). As he entered the hotel “Big” Jim recognized a porter by the name of John Redmond, and asked him to contact one of the guests, a daughter of Samuel B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph. She was living at the hotel, and had recently suffered a death in her family. Redmond followed “Big” Jim up to the stairs toward the second floor lobby.
As they turned the corner at the base of the stairwell, with “Big” Jim leading the way, they were confronted by Edward Stokes, waiting at the top of the stairs. Arm outstretched, he was pointing a handgun down the stairs - at them.  “Big” Jim Fisk stopped, halfway up. Edward said firmly, “I’ve got you now,” and fired twice. Bang! Bang! Both shots hit Fisk, who cried out, “For God’s sake, will anybody save me?” Redmond, the porter, dove for cover. Fisk staggered back to the foot of the stairs, where Redmond and other employees helped him back up the stairs and into an empty room. He never left it.
A bellboy followed Edward (above), and the shooter was arrested trying to leave the hotel a few minutes later. As the police were transporting Edward to jail, he asked if he could go into a bar for a drink. The answer was “no”. He later asked his jailer, “What do you think, is the man seriously injured?”
The man was. To one visitor, “Big” Jim explained he felt as if he had just eaten green apples. “I've got a belly-ache.” The gambler, John Chamberlain, did not believe it when he was told of the shooting. “I’ll lay $500 against $100 that it's false.”
Josie, the self-centered center of this melodramatic triangle affair, had no such doubts. Shocked when a newspaperman told her of the shooting, she blurted out, “Edward must have been insane!” Then she immediately added, “I wish you to understand that I am in no way connected with this sad affair.” And finally she insisted, “I have only my reputation to maintain.” Yes, it was a little late for Josie's reputation, and to contend she had not connection to what had happened,  but she still had hopes.
“Big” Jim Fisk, who had long ago lost his reputation because of his love for Josie, died at 10:45p.m. the next night. They took his body back to his childhood home, in Brattleboro, Vermont.
The newspapers were endless in their praise of the man, as unrelenting as they had been, just days before, in their ridicule of him. His love letters, published a week after his death, were so banal, that they created barely a ripple.
As writer Edmund Stedman noted, “"Had Stokes been an illiterate laborer, he would have dangled in a noose two months later.” But Edmund was still wealthy enough, that, with the help of his family, it took three trials to convict him of manslaughter, and even then he was sentenced to only six years in Sing Sing prison. He was a popular and entitled inmate, and served only four years. Once out he operated restaurants, and ended his life locked in lawsuits with the very people who had rescued him financially after prison. He died in 1901, at the age of 61.
For Josie Mansfield, the loss of “Big” Jim meant not just the loss of financial security, but, more importantly, the loss of drama in her life. She testified at Edmund’s first trial, but was unavailable for the two that followed. She sued “Big” Jim’s widow, Lucy, for that $50,000 she alleged "Big" Jim had invested for her, but the case was thrown out of court. She moved to Paris. She married a rich alcoholic in 1891, and divorced him six years later. In 1897 she moved to Boston to live with a sister, then to Philadelphia to live with another sister. In 1899 she moved to Watertown, South Dakota to live with her brother. She died, back in Paris at the American Hospital, in 1931, having out lived her sugar daddy James, “Big” Jim Fisk, by a lifetime - 60 years. She even outlived the man she had overthrown a fortune for, Edmund Stokes – by 20 years.
At times the three had been a national laughingstock, a pubic delinquency and a media soap opera on a par with Jesse James, Sandra Bullock and Michelle "Bombshell" McGee (et al), with the minor addendum that one member of this most recent triangle seems to have insisted upon being an actual adult. And that brought the entire drama to an early conclusion, much to the media's regret.
But fear not, it will not be long before another trio of thespians feels compelled to raise the curtain on another performance of the same play, and carry the character arc to its illogical and inevitable dramatic conclusion, again. And again. And again. To quote Charley Harper, from "Two and a-Half Men"; Love is not blind. It's retarded."
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