What Planet is This?

30 Oct 2005

Lichen and Air Quality

In 1866 the leading Finnish lichenologist William Nylander noticed that some lichens growing in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris didn't occur in any other part of the city. He realised that the lack of air pollution in the gardens was enabling the lichens to grow there, and that lichens are therefore an indicator of air quality.

Lichens had already been in use for years to test acidity. Litmus paper is made from the Ochrolechia tartarea and Rocella tinctoria varieties. Though Rocella is described as early as 1599, it was Ochrolechia that was first used to make the paper, in the 16th century in Holland, where manufacture continues to this day. The exact process is still kept secret, but involves ammonia, sodium carbonate, lime, and potash in a fermentation and extraction procedure.

There are four kinds of lichen. Foliose lichens are leaf-like; Fruticose lichens are bushy or shrubby; Squamulose lichens are scaly and may have stalks called podetia; and Crustose lichens are crusty. In general, the following table is a yardstick for measuring the local amount of sulphur dioxide (SO2), and hence the local air quality:

  • Heavily polluted air - No lichen, only green algae
  • Polluted air - Crustose lichen, e.g. Lecanora
  • Moderate air - Squamulose and Podetial lichen
  • Clean air - Foliose and Fruticose lichen
  • Very clean air - Sensitive species such as Ramalina, Usnea, and Lobaria

But to get an accurate indication of pollution you'll need to identify specific species. Doing so can even identify the kind of pollution since, for example, Hypogymnia physodes is tolerant of SO2 and ozone but not fluoride, Lobaria pulmonaria is sensitive to SO2 but mildly tolerant of ozone, and Lecanora conizaeoides is a very toxitolerant bioindicator in general. The constant ebbing and flowing of pollution levels can provide some interesting situations:

The levels of air-borne sulphurous pollution have been dropping and this has enabled many species to return to areas where they have been absent for over 100 years. Indeed the appearance on concrete paving stone in Middlesex of the grey-green lichen Lecanora muralis caused some consternation. It was not recognised as a lichen by many people and correspondence to the press suggested that it had come from outer space!

Whilst Lecanora muralis is said to look like mutated chewing-gum, some species of lichen are in fact edible. The tree-hair lichen, Bryoria fremontii, was considered by some societies to be a food for times of famine, and by others a delicacy. In Japan, Umbilicaria esculenta is the most famous edible lichen. And Reindeer lichen, Cladonia rangiferina, gets its name from being edible to reindeer, but is in fact edible to humans too when properly cooked.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Lichen and Air Quality", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/lichen

06 Oct 2005

Origins of a Pronoun

In Old English, the nominative singular first person pronoun was ic. The Oxford English Dictionary says that after the Norman conquest, the north of England retained this original pronoun in forms such as ic, icc, ig, hic, ik, yk, ike, and hyc. Southern England, on the other hand, palatised it to create such forms as ich, hich, ych, yche, iche, ih, and ihc. By the 14th century the north started to drop the velar plosive before consonants, giving the form i, and by the 15th century this was used in front of vowels too, along with the variant forms hi, j, e, y, Y, and I. The south persisted with ich.

There's a joke about this dialectal division between north and south in the Second Shepherds' Play, the greatest of the Wakefield Cycle of mystery plays from the 15th century, wherein a northern thief called Mak tries to steal some sheep from shepherds Coll, Gyb, and Daw. He attempts to affect a southern accent but fails to keep it consistent:

What! ich be a yoman, I tell you, of the kyng,
The self and the same, sond from a greatt lordyng,
And sich.
Ffy on you! Goyth hence
Out of my presence!
I must haue reuerence.
Why, who be ich?


Bot, Mak, is that sothe?
Now take outt that sothren tothe,
And sett in a torde!

There is evidence to suggest that this play was still being staged at least as late as 1520, by which time you'd've thought that ich would've been supplanted by I and the joke rendered opaque. In fact, ich held on for a long time. Shakespeare uses some southern dialectal variations in King Lear when he has Edgar say, "keepe out che vor'ye, or ice try whither your Costard, or my Ballow be the harde; chill be plaine with you". Edward Phillips describes it as "a Word us'd for I in the Western Parts of England" as late as 1706. In his book on the dialect of the West Country in 1869, James Jennings even records the word utchy being used for I in the south of Somerset, which he believes to be a corruption of the disyllabic iche. Utchill for "I will", as well as utchy, was heard by Prince L. L. Bonaparte in the same region in 1875.

When the northern forms of the pronoun established themselves, squeezing ich into the obscure hinterlands of Somerset, capital I most of all became predominant. But why this irregular form appeared at all is somewhat of a mystery. Capital I was first used in the late 14th century, and co-existed with lowercase i and y until the middle of the 15th century, with the i being often dotless. The dot on the minuscule i started to appear as a diacritic in Latin manuscripts of the 11th century to particularize a minim stroke as being a separate letter, especially in the case of -ii where it might be confused with -u. Now the dot is taken to be an inherent part of the glyph.

One of the theories about the capital is that it represents the same kind of particularization, but the dot was already becoming available, and moreover even the absorption of the pronoun into surrounding words (e.g. icham, ichill, ichot) doesn't put it in an ambiguous context. As well as the co-existence problem, any theory of the capitalisation that somehow depends on i being too typographically insignificant or mistakable has to contend with the fact that John Wyclif's Bible from 1388 uses uppercase Y for the pronoun in a medial setting. Also relevant may be the fact that John Barbour's 1375 poem The Bruce (the first purely Scottish literary work), whose texts are from the 15th century, uses both Ic and Ik capitalised.

Charles Bigelow proposed in 1998 that the change may have been phonological in nature, reflecting the diphthongisation that occured changing ɪ to əɪ (I to @I in X-SAMPA). The original pronunciation is apparent in the enclitic absorption of the pronoun as a suffix in words such as haddy and hauy, i.e. I had and I have, both of which were used by Chaucer in his Treatise on the Astrolabe. But if Barbour's Ic and Ik have to be taken into account, this theory is made unlikely. Moreover, it would seem more natural to indicate diphthongisation by using an actual diphthong, as happens sometimes with Scots such as in "Aw was up at Allokirk the day, an' div ye ken what the craiturs war sayin'?" from S.R. Crockett's Stickit Minister of 1893, though the diphthong is much less emphatic in Scots than English.

Another theory is that of ego. Though it is without direct precedent, some languages do capitalise the second person pronoun. In German, Sie and its declensions are capitalised, as are Lei and Loro in Italian, and occasionally U in Dutch. These are all the formal versions of the second person pronoun. In Polish, pronouns referring to a recipient are always capitalised, irregardless of grammatical person. These are all the opposite of ego, of course, intended to flatter or show respect to the party being communicated with; it'd be an interesting psychological idiom if English did the inverse, but the fact that it lost its informal second person pronoun somewhat negates that. The theory of ego falls at the fact that the idiom of capitalisation didn't take hold on any of the other forms of the pronoun, even though as with Y, Ik, and Ic it did appear rarely.

Though they don't stand up to inspection when taken individually, a combination of the theories could be the answer. Some intangible mixture of aesthetics, convention, phonology, clarity, egotism, and a very loose orthography seem to have conspired in the period of English's greatest upheaval to produce a form which appears natural today but makes as much etymological sense as the l in could or the b in debt. Though we crave discrete atomic answers, language is driven by consensus and convention. Even though there is no historical rationale for the capitalisation, we're forced to retain it because of convention. But as with all conventions, they can change rapidly and unpredictably, and such seems to have been the case with the first person singular pronoun.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Origins of a Pronoun", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/pronoun

01 Oct 2005

Toot and Hustle

The etymology of the word hackney has, according to the OED, "engaged the most eminent etymologists" without much conclusive result. There are two main uses of the word: the first is the old village of Hackney, now a borough of London, which was called Hacan Ieg in Old English, meaning either Haca's Island or Hook Island. The confusion is over its relationship to the French word haquenée, ambling nag, and the subsequent relationship to the second use, that of London's Hackney Carriages. Consensus is converging on the place engendering the French word, which then got used as the name for the carriages' horses.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the Irish playwright and statesman, said in his A Trip to Scarborough of 1777 that "the streets, some time ago, were paved with stones which, aided by a hackney-coach, half broke your bones". At the same time, between 1750 and 1786, the traveller and philanthropist Jonas Hanway was resident in London, where he carried an umbrella in rainy weather. He was the first person to habitually do so in the capital, and for his groundbreaking actions he came under great derision from the hackney-coachmen. The coachmen figured that if umbrellas became popular, nobody would take a cab, so they'd toot and hustle Hanway, driving right up to him to splash him with guttersludge.

It's ironic that a progenitor of what is now an English institution should have besmeared another such institution, but Jonas Hanway stated that tea is injurious to the British nation. He was denounced for these startling remarks by no less than Dr. Johnson and Thomas de Quincey. In any case, Hanway and later pioneers such as John Macdonald eventually won the Great Umbrella War. Thanks to Hanway, indeed, umbrellas were at first often referred to as hanways. Eventually they also became known as brollies, gamps, and dozens of variations on the 19th century American word bumbershoot. In England, the probability of there being rain has fancifully been called the brollability. The equivalent German word, regenwahrscheinlichkeit, is sadly not as catchy.

The first dedicated gamp shop was James Smith and Sons, of Foubert Street, London, which opened in 1830. It still exists, though in 1857 it was relocated to 53 New Oxford Street which is now a Grade II listed building. The umbrellas that they sell are generally steel-ribbed, but this was a late innovation by Samuel Fox in 1852. This exposes the fact that umbrellas are descended from parasols, from which they only differ in the medium that they keep from one's head. One of the first people to describe parasols was Aristophanes, in his 411 BC play Thesmophoriazousae—one of those sesquepedalianly named Greek works like the Batrachomyomachia. "Hêmin men gar sôn eti kai nun tantion, ho kanôn, oi kalathiokoi, to skiadeion (we safekeep still our looms, our spindles, our baskets, and our parasols)", says the Leader of the Chorus, in her defence of women.

The umbrelliferous ingenuity displayed by the fairer sex persisted through to the first half of the 18th century: fifty years before Jonas Hanway's pioneering efforts, there are infrequent accounts of umbrellas being used by women. That their use was strictly for the ladies can be seen in this excerpt from the Female Tatler of 12th December 1709, Issue 68, as requoted in William Sangster's wonderful 1871 Umbrellas and Their History: "The young gentleman borrowing the Umbrella belonging to Wills' Coffee-house, in Cornhill, of the mistress, is hereby advertised, that to be dry from head to foot on the like occasion, he shall be welcome to the maid's pattens." In other words, if you're fit for an umbrella, you're fit to be a woman.

The Female Tatler was one of the first ladies' periodicals, and though it only ran between 1709 and 1710, it was often absolutely hilarious. Take the following advertisement from Issue 67 of 7th December 1709: "Lost in last July, behind the late Sir George Whitmore's, a maidenhead, the owner never having missed it till the person who since married her expected to have had it as part of her dowry. If the pastry cook in Fleet Street, who is supposed to have brought it away out of a frolic, will restore it again to Mrs. Sarah Stroakings, at the Cow-House at Islington, he shall be treated with a syllabub."

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Toot and Hustle", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/tootandhustle

03 Sep 2005

Electrophonic Sounds from Bolides

On 19th March 1719 a very bright meteor, usually known as a fireball or bolide, was seen across England and Scotland. A broadside was issued about this and other "Strange and Wonderfull Apparitions", reporting that in the air over Glasgow the bolide was seen as "a great and surpriseing Light of several Coulers, and immediatly thereafter, there appeared as it were a large Flaming Sword to the amasement of all Spectators, and immediatly vanished".

Edmond Halley, who would replace John Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal the next year, collected a series of accounts of this bolide and published them in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. The sightings enabled him to derive the bolide's course by triangulation, and as Halley concluded, "they abundantly evince the height thereof to have exceeded sixty English miles." Halley also wrote about the effects of fancy that people under the bolide's path reported, including "hearing it hiss as it went along", feeling "the Warmth of its Beams", and such like, which were ridiculous.

At that time the origin of meteors was unknown. The Apparitions broadside says that people thought that the meteor "touched the Earth, and Came down with a great Noise, which made many of the beholders run into their Houses". People continued to report sounds associated with meteors, and after another remarkable bolide in 1783 the physician Sir Charles Blagden published a study into the subsequent hissing reports, linking the noises with electricity but noting it as a point to be cleared up by future observers.

The debate carried on into the twentieth century. In 1933 noted meteor researcher C.C. Wylie dismissed noises accompanying meteors as a purely psychological phenomenon, claiming that people who know the mechanisms behind meteors never report associated noises. In 1937 Stanley Smith Stevens coined the term "electrophonic noise" for sound heard by electrical stimulation, which Peter Dravert adapted in 1940 as "electrophonic bolides" for meteors which cause electrophonic noise.

The first major turn towards the acceptance of electrophonic bolides came with C.S.L. Keay's 1980 theory of Geophysical Electrophonics whereby radio waves emitted by meteors could be transduced into audible noise by objects on the ground. It was another remarkable bolide that had prompted his studies, one which passed over Sydney, Australia, on 7th April 1978. First published in the journal Science, Keay's theory was such that meteors can emit radio waves in the VLF range, which is an equivalent frequency to audible sound. It also proposed a mechanism by which these radio waves could be produced, called the "magnetic spaghetti" effect, though it wasn't until 1990 that they were first detected by a Japanese team at Nagoya University.

The first recorded evidence of aural electrophonic noise associated with a meteor came in November 1998 when Dejan Vinkovic, Slaven Garaj, and others recorded several such noises on the Mongolian steppes a dozen miles south of Ulan Bator. The team also took video footage of the events, and their findings were subsequently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. Vinkovic went on to coordinate the GEFS or Global Electrophonic Fireball Survey, which collects reports of electrophonic noise and conducts further research into the phenomenon.

The question is still not settled. Keay notes that there may be other natural sources of electrophonic noise, such as very bright auroræ, nearby lightning, and earthquakes. It would also seem that even if electrophonic noises are a genuine yet rare phenomenon, the psychological theory may still account for a huge portion of the reports. Nor is Keay's theory accepted as a universal explanation yet. For example Andrei Ol'khovatov, an electrophonic noise researcher, writes of "how little we know still", believing that the level of VLF generated by some audible meteors is insufficient for the perceived effect, and that people would otherwise hear man-made VLF transmitters.

In 1999, astronomer Martin Beech discerned and wrote a paper on a separate category of the fizzing, hissing, swooshing noises reported from the sky: he theorises that there are shorter more concentrated electrophonic pops called bursters. So although Keay has said he believes he's "solved the problem and started a new science", the situation looks set to get increasingly more complex as substantial reliable data is accumulated. Twenty-five years into the fledgling field of electrophonogy, there is no doubt plenty more to be discovered.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Electrophonic Sounds from Bolides", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/electrophonic

31 Aug 2005

Onomasticon Physiologus

In 1584 a Kentish man named Reginald Scot published an argument against the persecution of witches, which Scot took to be illogical and irreligious, called the Discoverie of Witchcraft. The book was ahead of its time, and Scot had to be very cautious to make sure that he didn't come across as being irreligious himself, so he couches his arguments in very pious terms, quoting scripture and backing up his arguments with quotes from the likes of Aristotle and Cornelius Agrippa.

As it was, when James I came to the throne in 1603, Scot's work was supressed anyway, and James I personally directed his 1597 tract Dæmonologie against "the damnable opinions of two principally in an age, whereof the one called SCOT an Englishman, is not ashamed in publike print to deny that ther can be such a thing as Witch-craft: and so mainteines the old error of the Sadducees, in denying of spirits." Scot passed away four years before James I ascended, at roughly sixty one years of age.

Scot's Discoverie contained many of our earliest references to various acts of prestidigitation and legerdemain, and it's widely believed that Shakespeare consulted it as a source for A Midsummer Night's Dream and possibly Macbeth. One particular passage of the work that stands out and is often quoted is the list of ghouls, apparitions, and creatures of all sorts that Scot casually slips into one of his points:

they have so fraied us with bull beggers, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changlings, Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles, and other such bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadows

Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot, Chapter XV, p.86.

A few centuries later, the exhaustless folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham took this list and expanded on it for a piece of his own called "Ghosts Never Appear on Christmas Eve!". Denham is said to have been born in Gainford, County Durham, on 8th April 1800, and first published this story between 1846 and his death in 1859, but this version is compiled from an 1895 reprint published by the Folklore Society:

ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hobthrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-fooits, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, blackbugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks (necks), waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins (Gyre-carling), pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lianhanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nick-nevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses

The Denham Tracts, Michael Aislabie Denham, vol.2, pp.76-80. Via Asliman and Pechkin, et al., cf. notes.

The instance of "hobbit" in this nomenclator may have been seen by J.R.R. Tolkien and subconsciously recalled later on as the name for his famous creatures, though this is matter of some contention. In any case, Denham didn't go as far with his nomenclator as he could have done. For example, if you take just the synonyms of Will-o'-the-wisp, of which Denham does already have several, you can generate plenty more names:

Billy-wi'-t'-wisp, Bob-a-longs, canwll corfe, corpse-candle, Dead/death-candle, elf-fire, Ellylldan, fetch candles, fetch lights, foolish fire, Friar Rush with a lantern, friars-lanthorn, gealbhan, Gyl Burnt-tayl, Hinky-punk, Hob-and-his-Lanthorn, Hobbledy's-lantern, Hobby-lantern, ignis fatuus, Jenny-burnt-tail, Jenny-wi'-t'-lantern, Joan-in-the-wad, Kit-in-the-candlestick, Kitty-candlestick, Kitty-wi'-the-wisp, Lantern-man, Meg o'th' Lantern, Peg-a-lantern, Peggy-lantern, Peggy wi'th' lantern, Pinket, Spunkie/Spunky, Teine Sith or Fire Faery, walking fire, Will-o'-the-wisp, Will-with-the-wisp, Will-o'-the-Wykes, Willy Wisp.

Will-o'-the-wisps, inamidst.com.

And taking the proper names of spirits would expand it still further, such as those from Samuel Harsnett's classic onomasticon of 1603 which Shakespeare made use of in King Lear:

Maho, Modu, Pippin, Philpot, Hilco, Smolkin, Hillio, Hiaclito, Lustie huffe-cap, Soforce, Cliton, Bernon, Hilo, Motubizanto, Killico, Hob, Portirichio, Frateretto, Fliberdigibbet, Hoberdidance, Tocobatto, Lustie Jollie Jenkin, Delicat, Puffe, Purre, Lustie Dickie, Cornerd-cappe, Nurre, Molkin, Wilkin, Helcmodion, and Kellicocam.

A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, Samuel Harsnett. Via Flibbertigibbet & Purre.

But it was easier for Scot, Denham, and Harsnett to come up with their lists, since they had to watch out for amphisbaenae, basilisks, black dogs, centaurs, chimaerae, cockatrices, cyclopses, dragons, dryads, dwarves, elves, esquilaxes, gargoyles, giants, gnomes, goblins, griffins, hellhounds, the hydra, imps, jackalopes, leprechauns, mermaids, nymphs, pegasuses, phoenixes, pixies, satyrs, selkies, sprites, trolls, unicorns, vampires, and werewolves. Nowadays instead of the bestiary we have the cryptozoological tome, and you're unlikely to see a bigfoot, bunyip, chupacabra, giant squid, the Loch Ness monster, mokele-mbembe, sea serpent, wild haggis, or yeti pottering around in your local high street.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Onomasticon Physiologus", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/bestiary

29 Aug 2005

The Hovering Halligen

Just off of the Schleswig-Holstein coast in Germany lie a series of ten islands called the Halligen. Their name comes from the Celtic for salt, hal, and is the plural of Hallig, the word for each individual isle. The islands are very low lying, and some have been lost to the sea over time whilst others have been fused together by sediment deposits. They are inhabited, and their buildings are constructed on warfts, which are low man-made hillocks. About 350 people live there overall. Each Hallig is about 3–6 miles from its neighbours, which makes conditions for viewing inferior mirages excellent.

In an inferior mirage, an inverted image is shown below the original. When this effect occurs at the Halligen, it often has the consequence of making the islands appear to float in the air. German photographer Michael Engler has been recording this phenomenon for decades. Not much of his work is online, but there's one photograph of a floating Hallig from a magazine of 1993, and another (now removed) in a German article about mirages. There's also a wonderful picture of the Schulwarft on the hovering Nordstrandischmoor Hallig, fig. 9 in an optics paper by Eberhard Tränkle.

Superior mirages, on the other hand, show inverted and upright images above the original. In fact, though mirages are generally divided into inferior and superior, there are many more feasible subdivisions. Andrew Young's introduction to mirages shows why and has some further categories such as the Nachspiegelung and mock mirage, but it's obvious that more categories or a better terminology overall are needed.

One of the further subdivisions of mirage is the superior Fata Morgana. The effect gets its name from the shapeshifting Morgan le Fay, who was the half-sister of King Arthur, as depicted in a famous 1864 painting by Sandys. The Fata Morgana can make distant lands visible, elongating cliffs and towns, and making them appear to be distant fairylands. In Iceland, Fata Morgana or the arctic mirage is known as the hillingar. On 17th July 1939, Capt. Robert A. Bartlett observed the Snæfells Jökull glacier in Iceland from the sea mid-way between Iceland and Greenland, at a distance of 335–350 miles. A mirage had bent the light so far around the horizon that he was able to see over 240 miles further than normal, making it the furthest land sighting by a mirage so far recorded.

Other mirage types include green flashes, the Fata Bromosa, and Novaya Zemlya effect. These names are actually related to the kind of thing appearing in the mirage, and green flashes for example can be formed in four different ways. The Fata Bromosa is a mirage of fog, and the Novaya Zemlya effect is an arctic mirage of the sun that makes it visible many days before it's due to rise.

It has been conjectured by W.H. Lehn and others that mirages could be the basis of sundry historical discoveries and myths. Iceland may be visible from the Faroe Islands roughly 260 miles away, for example, through the arctic mirage. There are also many reported phantom towns, armies, ships, and so on. In Chapter 31 of New Lands, Charles Fort records that "upon Aug. 2, 1908, at Ballyconneely, Connemara coast of Ireland, was seen a phantom city of different-sized houses, in different styles of architecture; visible three hours." Of course there is a danger of overascribing too, but mirages are a universal and common phenomenon that must form at least a part of our history.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "The Hovering Halligen", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/halligen

27 Aug 2005

Cerne Abbas

Nestled in the valley of the River Cerne in Dorset is the ancient village of Cerne Abbas. It is generally thought that the name "Cerne" is derived from the Celtic god Cernunnos, who also gave his name to, for example, Herne Hill in London. The abbey which gave Cerne Abbas the second part of its name was founded by the homilist Ælfric in 987.

The most famous natural feature of the village is its holy well, at one time called The Silver Well but now more often known as St. Augustine's Well. An 11th century Benedictine biographer named Goscelin (or Gotselin) wrote that St. Augustine not only created the well but named the town, which Goscelin records as Cernel, from the Latin and Hebrew phrase "Cerno El". William of Malmesbury later repeats the story, and Thomas Hardy calls the place "Abbot's-Cernel" in his novels.

But the village is most famous for the chalk figure of a 180 ft. tall naked man cut into the overlooking hillside, complete with a turgid 30 ft. penis, known as the Cerne Abbas Giant. It is one of only two such human chalk figures in Britain. The debate over its origin stretches back for as long as the figure has been recorded, though it has generally been considered to date from Iron Age times. Recent archæological and archival evidence, however, suggests a more curious later origin.

The earliest reference to the Giant is from the churchwardens' accounts of 4th November 1694, "for repaireing of ye Giant 3s. 0d." Since the Giant needs recutting every thirty years, it must've been at least thirty years old by then. One of the next mentions of it is by the Rev. John Hutchins in a letter of 1751, where he writes he was told by the steward of the lord of the manor that the Giant was "a modern thing", cut by Denzil Holles only a century before. As Jeremy Harte explains, this prosaic theory was "passed over disdainfully by the clerics", but other circumstantial evidence has been offered in support.

The records of the Abbey do not once, for example, mention the Giant up to the Abbey's dissolution in 1539, though such a blatant local symbol is unlikely to have been tolerated. Moreover, Denzil Holles, who had owned the land between 1654 and 1662, was a noted opponent of Oliver Cromwell and had once described him as a "witch working to overthrow the realm". As Ronald Hutton puts it, the theory is that the Giant was a "joke on Cromwell's image as 'the English Hercules'", and indeed the Giant has come to earn the sobriquet of Hercules, along with others such as the "Rude Man". Hutton does, however, think that an ancient origin is still possible.

Harte on the other hand believes that Lord Holles may have just recut a figure that was laid down thirty years previously, in the 1630s, noting that Holles was "enjoying a country retirement after a stressful parliamentary career: it is hard to see what motive he would have for doodling a rude Giant on the slopes of his property." More recently, a survey suggested that an animal hide was once dangling from the Giant's left arm, though this trope is also identified strongly with the figure of Hercules. The skin must've been lost by the mid-18th century, because it isn't visible on the 1764 survey performed for Dr. William Stukeley, which also shows that the penis may have fused with what was once the Giant's navel.

Other evidence for a 17th century date comes from the fact that many other chalk figures are known to have been carved in the 15th to 17th centuries, for example at Oxford in the 1640s and in Plymouth by 1486, the latter of which was ordered destroyed by Charles II. The only other chalk man in Britain, the Long Man of Wilmington, has recently been tentatively dated to c.1545 by Dr. Ed Rhodes of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology at Oxford, using a technique called thermoluminescence, following excavations by Prof. Martin Bell and his team at the University of Reading. This technique is similar to the Optically Stimulated Luminescense (OSL) used on the Uffington White Horse to prove that that was cut in the Bronze Age, making it currently the only proven ancient chalk drawing in Britain.

On 23rd May 1996, a mock trial was held to determine the date of the Giant, and the majority settled on an ancient origin. It seems, however, that this is out of a sense of wanting the Giant to be something of grand antiquity, and the scientific consensus is slowly converging upon the more modern date. Researchers are now planning to apply the optical techniques used to date the other chalk figures to the Cerne Abbas Giant, so even if it does turn out to date from the historical period, it will probably be archæological techniques that have the greatest share in settling the question.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Cerne Abbas", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/cerne

26 Aug 2005

Dirigibles from Deutschland

Thirty four days after the 16th December 1914 gunboat bombardment of Scaborough and Hartlepool, which killed 114 people, the first ever air raid on England was wrought by three Zeppelins of the German navy. Designations L3, L4, and L6 made their way to the foggy and rainy East Anglian coast, leaving Germany in the afternoon to reach Norfolk by nightfall, but L6 had to turn back due to bad weather. The remaining two targeted the towns of Yarmouth and King's Lynn: L3 dropped eleven bombs on the former, and L4 dropped sixteen on the latter and surrounding area. Four people and one dog were killed in the attack. Steve Snelling has written an excellent summary of what happened that night.

Whilst Snelling's account gives an overview of the confusion on the ground, and in the air for that matter, it misses some of the interesting minutiæ. Even the newspapers were inconsistent, The Times putting out bemuddlefraught reports saying first that one or two airships made the raid, and then later that coastguards and others saw as many as six craft. In Great Yarmouth the craft could not be seen directly, but the tremendous din of the engines, the flares they put out, and of course the terrifying report of the bombs, made them hard to miss:

It was plain that the source of the
disturbance was aircraft, though precisely
of what kind could only be conjectured. The
opinion is generally held that it was a dirigible,
for what appeared to be searchlights were
seen at a great altitude. Others, however,
say that the lights were not the beams of a
searchlight, but the flash of something re-
sembling a magnesium flare.

The Times, Wednesday, 20th January 1915; p.8

What had transpired between 8:20 and 11 PM on that evening of 19th January is made clearer in the coverage that continues in the press for many days afterwards. A stiff upper lip is kept about the affair, and there's an interesting mix of the typical and the tragic, as if it's uncertain whether to play down the enemy's power or to play up the tragic losses. But there are some tongue-in-cheek jocular moments inamidst all that had gone on:

Only one bomb fell on a building and that
did not explode; it crashed through the roof
of a stable in the midst of densely-populated
alleys, and became embedded in the straw.
A pony kept it company all night and it was
not discovered until this morning. [...]
The pony, by the way, seemed a bit restless
during the night, but was unhurt.

The Times, Thursday, 21st January 1915; p.9

Some of the bombs did not explode, and two of those were displayed later in the Drill Hall near St. Peter's Church in Yarmouth. One correspondent got to see the bombs, and even tested their explosive, as reported in the same article as the pony incident above:

The upper part, for all the world
like the "cone" to be found in every art class-
room, is made of thin metal and packed with a
resinous substance which, after experiment on a
very small scale in an ordinary firegrate, I
found to be highly inflammable.

On the other hand, there is the poignancy of and outrage at the attacks on unarmed innocent civilians, and everyone from the American Press to the Bishop of Carlisle were condemning the raids. One especially resilient moment is that of the inquests into the deaths of Samuel Smith and Miss. Martha Taylor in Yarmouth, and Mrs. Gazeley and Percy Goat in King's Lynn. The borough coroner, Mr. J. T. Waters, said of the former that "the wanton killing of harmless people was nothing short of murder"; and the inquest of the latter concluded that they had "met their deaths by an act of the King's enemies".

A more sinister side of the story that has attracted little subsequent attention is the possible use of signals from the ground to guide the Zeppelins, which are said to have "spent hours hovering in lonely places" waiting for their ground based counterparts. It's commonly reported, however, that only Fritz, the L3's commander, knew where he was, and that Count Platen-Hallermund of the L4 was hopelessly lost and off-course. Nevertheless, the actions of various people on the night of and prior to the attack were said in some cases to be quite extraordinary.

The official German response was predictably in support of their actions, but Count Reventlow in the Deutsche Tageszeitung of 21st January went to even more outrageous lengths by suggesting in the most bombastic terms that the Zeppelins were merely reconnoitering England and that they had been fired on first:

It is an established fact that, when our airships
were, in order to fly to the fortified place of Great
Yarmouth, merely flying over other places or cities,
they were shot at from these places. It may be
assumed with certainty that these shots, which were
aimed at the airships from below, hit them, and
probably they wounded or even killed occupants of
the airships. This involves an English franc-tireur
attack, ruthlessly carried out in defiance of Inter-
national Law and in the darkness of the night, upon
the German airships, which, without the smallest
hostile action, wanted to fly away over these places.

The Times, Tuesday, 26th January 1915; p.7

In fact, many of the bombs were dropped on rural areas, and the Zeppelins were only intercepted by one sentry on their entire journey, by which time the bombs were already falling:

Close by was
stationed a sentry, who said one bomb fell near
him, but did no damage and only struck the
quay. He immediately fired upon the air-
vessel. All who were in the neighbourhood at
the time state they saw a tall flame and
then came a terrific report.

The Times, Wednesday, 20th January 1915; p.8

Since they were able to get by so unimpededly, there were calls for aeroplanes to protect the coast. It was said that "most people one meets express surprise that a Zeppelin could travel from one end of Norfolk to the other without being intercepted by a single aeroplane or high-angle gun." This raid was more of the nature of a trial run, however, and subsequent Zeppelin attacks focussed increasingly on more high-profile sites such as London. Eventually, phosphorus incendiary bullets were developed to bring the Zeppelins down, and seventeen were brought down in that fashion. The final raid was on 5th August 1918 when the L70 capitained by Peter Strasser, the commander of the whole airship programme, was brought down just off of the Norfolk coast by Great Yarmouth where it all started.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Dirigibles from Deutschland", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/dirigibles

25 Aug 2005

Outrage at Old Ford

London, 9th January 1838. Afore the public assembled at the Mansion House, a letter from a Peckham resident was read out loud by mayor Sir John Cowan. It alluded to a media cover-up of a number of recent assaults on young ladies, by a gentleman from the "highest ranks of life" that had struck a wager to dress up and prank the people of London. Many of the Mansion House crowd had heard of the events, and related their own news. Over the next few days, the mayor was bombarded with letters detailing other recent attacks.

The perpetrator was consistently described as having some most eccentric characteristics: he was said to dress in oilskin clothes, have whirling eyes, and be able to breathe fire. Most characteristically of all, however, was the fact that his heels were equipped with a spring mechanism that enabled him to traverse walls when fleeing his crime scenes. The papers termed him Spring Heeled Jack, and covered the unfolding story. It was fifty years after the monster, and fifty before the ripper, that this most perplexing of criminals was at large.

Even the Duke of Wellington, now in his seventies, lent a hand and took to the streets at night on horseback attempting to apprehend the scoundrel. It was proposed that the fire-breathing was a stage trick, and in one of the most prominent cases, an attack on the eighteen year old Miss Jane Alsop, a Mr. Farrell of the Pavilion Theatre was brought in as an expert witness to testify as to which compounds could be used to produce such an effect.

It was a quarter to nine on the evening of February the 20th. Sunset had been at a quarter past five, so it was pitch black outside Mr. Alsop's cottage in Bearbinder Lane, recorded as Berebyndereslane in 1341 but now called Tredegar Road, between what were then the villages of Bow and Old Ford. Bear-bind Cottage, as it was called, was "at a considerable distance from any other", and indeed the Greenwoods' 1827 Map of London only shows one one residence along Bearbinder Lane, opposite what is now Shetland Road. Mr. Alsop's daughter Jane heard a commotion at the gate outside and opened the front door to find a stranger who said he was a policeman, who called to her: "For God's sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane!"

Jane brought the policeman a candle whereupon she saw that he had "a most hideous and frightful appearance, and vomited forth a quantity of blue and [white] flame from his mouth, and his eyes resembled red balls of fire." He then attacked her, clawing at her shoulders and neck, before her sister, Mrs. Harrison, came and pulled her inside. Mrs. Harrison later testified that at this time "her sister's dress was nearly torn off her; both her combs dragged out of her head, as well as a quantity of her hair torn away." But the attacker had been beaten and fled, dropping his cloak in the process, which was not found.

This was reported in The Times of 22nd February, on p.6, and is usually the only part of the story that is retold. It's even the full extent of the coverage on Wikipedia, but the story didn't stop there. The next week, everyone who was concerned in the "Outrage at Old Ford" was summoned to Lambeth-street-office, to be interrogated by the investigating officer, Mr. Hardwick, in front of a county magistrate. The room was packed on each of the two days over which the case was heard.

The family had called loudly for the police from their top windows after the incident, and it was only then that the mysterious man had vanished. Soon on the scene were a number of people that had been passing, or drinking in the John Bull local pub, "some distance off", where the cries had been heard. One of the witnesses who was passing by was James Smith, a coach wheelwright living at 9 Prospect-place, Old Ford-row. Also present was Mr. Milbank, a carpenter, who had been in the area and was now suspected as being involved, along with a master bricklayer called Payne. Payne and Milbank had been drinking in the White Hart and Morgan's Arms pubs that night, and Milbank said he could remember nothing of the evening from drunkeness. James Smith, on the other hand, remembered the night's events clearly:

"when I had got a few yards up it
(the Coborn-road), I saw the same two men whom I had met
before in Bear Binder's-lane. They were in conversation, and
Payne said to the other, "It was rascally; I would not have
had it done upon any account," or words to that effect. I was
carrying my work upon my shoulder at the time, and they
recognized me, and the man in the shooting-jacket said,
"There's the —— who was in the lane." He then came up
to me, and caught hold of the wheel I was carrying, and
pulled it off my shoulder, saying at the same time, "What
have you to say to Spring Jack?" I desired him to leave
my wheel alone, and then Payne came and took him away.

"I went into the Morgan's Arms public-house, and they fol-
lowed me in, and and went into either the tap-room or parlour.
I inquired of the landlord who the man in the shooting-jacket
was, and he said that his name was Milbank, and that he
resided nearly opposite to his house. I have no doubt but
that the man Milbank was the person who had so frightened
the Misses Alsop; and with respect to the "blue lights,"
neither Mr. Richardson nor myself observed anything of the

The Times, Friday, 2nd March 1838; p.7

Payne admitted to having been with Milbank all night, but after some hesitation denied everything else. Milbank was wearing the same white fustian smoking-jacket to the inquiry that he had been wearing on the night of the incident. The next day, the inquiry continued, but the Misses Alsop refused to change their statements. Though Mr. Hardwick had said that "it was evident, from what had taken place, the two persons suspected knew more about the affair than they wished to acknowledge", when the statements went unchanged the matter was left hanging in the air. The papers report no more, and though it's technically still a mystery, it's not difficult to see what happened.

As John Adcock has put it, "what is reported is suggestive of a fraud on the press and the public by penny-a-line reporters during a slow news and parliamentary period." But it's hard to discover the truth behind the stories now, and even if the Alsop event is representative of the larger macrocosm, some of the earlier attacks especially may be more reputable. It does at least show, amongst other things, that believable stories get repeated as fact, and that great but simple mysteries can be comprised of many small but complex ones.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Outrage at Old Ford", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/oldford

24 Aug 2005

Eppur Si Muove

When Shakespeare's First Folio went to print in 1623, only the seven classical planets were known. Sixteen years later, Giovanni Zupi was the first to prove conclusively that Mercury orbited the sun, by observing its orbital phases. Though Uranus wasn't identified as a planet until 1781, it was spotted in December 1690 by the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, who thought it was a star and duly catalogued it as 34 Tauri. Neptune had been spotted even earlier by Galileo, in 1612 when Shakespeare was writing Henry VIII with John Fletcher, but Galileo had also mistaken it for a star. The Sun and Moon were eventually demoted as planets, and the Earth promoted, giving eight known planets by the turn of the 20th century.

In 1930 the ninth planet, Pluto, was found by Clyde Tombaugh using a Zeiss model blink comparator. A blink comparator is a device which displays two images one after the other in quick succession so that you can easily spot if anything in the field of view has changed. Tombaugh had been looking at two plates of the region of sky around Delta Geminorum (also called Wasat) when he had noticed Pluto blinking at him.

During WWII, Shakespearean scholar Charlton Hinman, or Charlton Joseph Kadio Hinman to give him his full name, had been working for naval intelligence, analyzing "superimposed aerial photographs of enemy installations to see if they had been bombed or repaired." From this he got the idea to make a kind of blink comparator for collating works of literature, and came up with is now called the Hinman Collator. Dr. Ian Gadd has written a short summary of the machine.

The device allowed, for example, William J. Neidig to discover forgery in one of the 17th century quartos of the Merchant of Venice. The quarto stated that it was published by I. Roberts in 1600, but it matched exactly a title page from Pericles printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier in 1619. Jaggard must've forged the copy and then backdated it. The Hinman Collator has also been used to detect other such forgeries.

According to research by Steven Escar Smith in Studies in Bibliography, Volume 53 (2000), by "1978, when the last machine was manufactured, around fifty-nine had been acquired by libraries, academic departments, research institutes, government agencies, a few private individuals, and a handful of pharmaceutical companies." Nowadays, Randall McLeod's Portable Collator or Carter Hailey's portable optical collator known as the "COMET" (yes, Hailey's COMET) are used for this kind of collation work, being cheaper and more portable.

Notwithstanding his categorisational mistake in identifying Uranus as 34 Tauri, John Flamsteed's Historia Coelestis Britannica listed about three thousand stars and gave their positions "much more accurately than any previous work".

Thanks to John Cowan for suggesting the topic and title, and for proofreading.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Eppur Si Muove", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/eppursimuove


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