Twenty-Six Soldiers of Lead

There’s a quote that is bouncing about on the internet that has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Johannes Gutenberg, some random French printer, and a couple others.  It goes “Give me twenty six soldiers of lead and I will conquer the world.”  Essentially, it’s a more eloquent version of the phrase “knowledge is power.”

Image result for degree in historyLet’s be honest, not all knowledge is power…

Gutenberg himself recognized that principle in the 1440s, and his gift to history was that he wanted to market knowledge.  Before waxing about Gutenberg’s invention and his impact and all that, there are a few things that people should know:

Das ist ein Gutenberg Press.  Basically, you’d put down your lettering, flop a page on top of the letters, stick the thing under the flat press, twist the knob and Bob’s your uncle.

1. Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press, or the concept of the printing press.  Chinese woodblock printing was being used during the Tang dynasty in the mid 600s, and they had likely taken the idea from earlier use of seals that impressed images and words on clay and silk.  Block printing was very much a thing by Gutenberg’s time, the only difference is that he was a European and dealt with roughly 26 characters instead of the 10,000 or so that Chinese printers had to mess with.

2. Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type printing either.  Again, China did that in the the 1040s when a guy named Bi Sheng built a set of clay characters and popped them into a box character side up.  The top of the types would be covered in inks and then the thing would be used like a wood block print.  Again though, the issue was that a typographer would need to rifle through an incredible number of clay dies to find the one he needed, rather than Gutenberg’s compact squad of letters.

Image result for chinese block printingChinese wood block and movable type were pretty normal for about 800 years before Gutenberg came about.

3. Gutenberg didn’t even invent the press, according to John Man, author of Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words, Gutenberg started off as a mirror maker in Aachen, Germany.  Pilgrims to the city wanted mirrors, and Gutenberg realized the power of mass production when meeting mass demand.  Gutenberg used a press similar to the design to that of an olive or grape press.

Image result for renaissance olive axel pressIt is possible to enjoy your job too much.

4. Gutenberg DID however invent a metal alloy that provided him with durable, easy to cast letters.  This invention combined with the above things produced his printing press.  The man was deep in debt over the production costs, but was able to produce and sell around 200 bibles at an impressive cost.  Each book cost as much as three clerks’ annual salary.

Gutenberg lost his printing business in a lawsuit within a few years of his first sale.  His financier who had loaned him the startup money, Johann Fust, sued and won, taking Gutenberg to the cleaner over the failure of settlement.  Gutenberg’s invention, however, caught on like wildfire.  The middle class was ravenous for knowledge, even though many of them were illiterate (odd thought, that European mass literacy follows books rather than the reverse.  That means you had a period of time where most people had books or access, but couldn’t really read them).  When Archbishop Adolph II raided the city that Gutenberg was based out of, oodles of printers fled the city and spread into other parts of Europe, sharing the information more widely.

Interestingly enough, much of the early printing press material was not religious work or political pamphlets; the thing people were exceptionally ravenous for was travel writings.  People wanted to know more about the world around them and Gutenberg opened the door just a smidgen more than before.  Arguably one of the greatest inventions of human history, Gutenberg’s creation and his “twenty six soldiers of lead” allowed mass education and mass imagination to flourish more Europe had seen before.  Some people even claim that Gutenberg’s press was the seed of insight that grew into mechanization and manufacturing because it was the first poignant shift away from professional artists and craftsmen into an era of gears and machines.

Image result for books


Pisani refloated his ships and sailed on.

While reading Roger Crowley’s book, “City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas”, I stumbled across one of the greatest things that happens in a history book.  A line that the author drops with obscene nonchalance, yet it contains another book or two worth of information in a few short words.  In this case, it was a paragraph about an ongoing naval battle between Genoa and Venice, where the Genoans caught Venice’s admiral Nicolo Pisani in the harbor of Negroponte.  Crowley writes, “chased back to Negroponte with an inferior force, [Pisani] scuttled his galleys in the harbor rather than risk a fight.  Doria [the Genoan admiral] was forced to withdraw.  Pisani refloated his ships and sailed on.”

“Pisani refloated his ships and sailed on”

Image result for Venetian People historySince a picture of Nicolo Pisani does not seem to exist on the internet, pretend this image of two random stereotypical Venetian masqueraders is actually an image of Pisani lifting the boats from the sea with his bare hands.

This battle happened in 1351, how in the dickens did the Venetians salvage scuttled boats from the harbor or Negroponte without some sort of exceptional technology that allowed them to pump air into a ship some ten or fifteen feet or more deep in the water? The assumption is that the water of the harbor would need to be at least ten feet deep to allow for merchant ships to sail in and out; though it is possible that the ships were not totally submerged, though the scuttling was designed to prevent damage to the ships and crew, and partially submerged ships are still vulnerable to fire and damage.  In the modern era, raising a ship is a technological endeavor that uses cranes and pumps and hydraulics, so how then did a handful of merchant marines from a half millennium ago lift the ship out of the water?

Image result for negroponte greeceThis is a picture of Negropone’s harbor, just to give some context.  Venice straight up Lazarus’d galleys and went on their merry way without even a footnote in history.

The answers to the questions about how the plucky Venetians figured out how to lift the ship remain elusive and apparently unresearched.  As for the simple act of raising a ship or doing other versions of marine salvage, one of the earlier references of a salvage operation comes from Albrecht von Treileben’s salvage of the Vasa in Sweden.  According to some sources, Treileben used diving bells to assist his divers while they meandered around in the ship 100 feet below the surface of Stockholm’s harbor.  Simply peeling cannons out of the water took thirty years between 1630 and 1660, nearly three hundred years after Pisani’s actions.  Not only was it three centuries later, the Vasa salvage was a monumental undertaking and required engineering minds from England and Germany to just get the expensive parts of the ship back (people were salvaging the cannons before the main body, which was only raised out of the water in 1961).  Crowley’s Venetians seem to be otherwise unphased by the difficulty of the more modern undertaking of actually raising a ship.

Image result for sunken wooden shipFor reference, this is what a scuttled ship looks like; somewhat like a sad fish bowl decoration.

The practice of marine salvage was quite normal, in fact, Samuel G. Margolin has an article in the “North Carolina Historical Review” that describes the legal ramifications in the late 1600s Carolinas if one went off “wrecking”, or pilfering the remnants of a shipwreck (technically the products still belonged to the merchant shipping company, so it was theft.  Individuals who were caught wrecking were often branded with a letter T by their left thumb to mark them permanently as a thief).  In one case, a man named “Captain Anthony Dawson” was hanged because he had apparently been attempting to disable the wrecked ship during the rescue operations to “imbezell purloyne and convey away” all her “sailes rigging apparell furniture and stores in his possession.”  Perhaps more damning than his attempts to steal the sails and drapes was that Dawson was described as “having not the fear of God before his eyes and his alegiance to… the King not regarding.”

Actual information on the history of raising ships is much more difficult to find than the filching of stuff that was in a shipwreck.  In a newspaper from 1945, buoyancy and air-tightness were discussed in a set of lectures by a speaker at the Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Association, where the primary method of lifting the ships is described as a pump that forces air into the underwater vessel, thereby displacing the water and eventually raising the ship.  If the hole in the ship gapes too widely, divers need to be sent in first to repair the inside of the ship to a degree.  Hydraulics and pumps allow the modern person to raise a boat, but earlier references to similar technology becomes much more sparse.  Perhaps the earliest reference to a raising of a ship came a full two centuries after Pisani, when Henry VIII’s flagship, Mary Rose capsized and sank right in front of him in 1545.  At low tide, wires were passed beneath the ship and fastened to pontoons.  When high tide arrived, the boat was lifted off the bottom of the seabed and could be towed to shallower water, at which point the process would be rinsed and repeated.  The pontoon method failed and the Mary Rose remained underwater until 1982.

A visual of the Pontoon method from “Bells, Barrels and Bullion: Diving and Salvage in the Atlantic World, 1500 to 1800” by John E. Ratcliffe

The style used for the failed raising of the Mary Rose would likely have been as close to the technology that would have been available to the Venetians at the time, but the pontoon method requires several turns of the tide, and works very slowly.  Based on that, it must be assumed that one of several things is at play in the story of Pisani refloating his ships and sailing on:

  1.  Crowley made an assumption in his writing and simply passed over the information without worrying about the accuracy of the statement with regards to either the scuttling or the refloating of Pisani’s ships.
  2. Venice had access to pumps or some other technology that is not found on Google or, and they were able to raise ships without struggle.
  3. Pisani’s ships were scuttled in shallow water parts of the harbor, making the repair easier and the subsequent bilge pumping possible.
  4. Pisani never actually scuttled his ships or refloated them.  People in history tell self aggrandizing stories about their exploits with shocking regularity (here’s looking at you, Bernal Diaz del Castillo), it’s quite possible that Pisani never sank his ships but told people that he had and the source survived the last 600 years.
  5. Lastly, it is possible that I have neither access to, nor the understanding of maritime history and technology enough that I would be able to do justice to the question of raising a ship 600 years ago.  The raising of the Mary Rose is theoretically the most important single thing to show that Pisani’s actions are possible, but it was the most difficult source to find.

In the end, the mysteries of the raising ships of Pisani have yet to be answered definitively or with ease.  The act of raising a ship in the 1350s is nearly two hundred years earlier than the next most notable example, and even then the Mary Rose refloating was a failure.  Pisani sank and floated a substantial number of galleys in a single season.  In all likelihood, either a piece of vital information is missing or a piece of information was fabricated.


Crowley, Roger. “City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas”, (Randomhouse, 2011).

Margolin, Samuel G. “”Contrary to All Law and Justice”: The Unauthorized Salvage of Stranded and Sunken Vessels in the Greater Chesapeake, 1698-1750.” The North Carolina Historical Review 72, no. 1 (1995): 1-29.

Critchley, Geo. R. “(2) HOW WRECKED AND SUNKEN SHIPS ARE SALVED.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 93, no. 4686 (1945): 164-72.

Ratcliffe, John E. “Bells, Barrels and Bullion: Diving and Salvage in the Atlantic World, 1500 to 1800.” Nautical Research Journal 56, no. 1 (2011): 34-56.

To ice, or not to ice

There are times where a little knowledge of biology can be harmful to understanding.  For example, whenever the body is accosted by injury or illness, the natural response is typically inflammation (redness, heat, swelling and a few other things).  By biological standards, swelling is a good thing.  It increases the ability of fluid to move around near the injured area, allowing increased blood flow and enabling the body to fight off the nasty things that are damaging it faster and more effectively.  Along comes the question that any runner will have run across: should I ice a swelling injury?  Admittedly, my first reaction would be “well, golly, if swelling is the body fighting back, you should let it run its course!”  Turns out, sports therapy disagrees with my limited understanding of the body’s innate responses to injury.

The human body, much like the human race, tends to overreact to anything that happens to it.  Rolled ankles and sore joints will typically get a similar, albeit weaker, response to more severe injuries such as gashes and busted bones.  Given that over time, humanity has gotten surprisingly good at adding exoskeleton systems to reinforce injured limbs, it makes sense that we reduce swelling with most injuries simply because we (by we I mean doctors) can typically help the injury more than the body can.  Why let the body make clumsy efforts at repairing a bone if you could just reset it and lock the thing in place with a plaster mold until it seals together?

The long story short of the icing debate is: swelling bad, ice good.

The standard for sports medicine is to ice an acute injury and to heat a chronic one.  Acute injuries are those that happen suddenly and for obvious reasons (rolled ankle is a great example; when it happens, you know it happened).  Acute injuries are sudden and the body’s response is a five alarm fire of swelling and redness.  Adding ice to the injury will do what ice does best: shrink down the blood vessels and reduce blood flow to the injured area.  Reduced blood flow reduces swelling, which in turn will allow the area to move without discomfort or pain.  Icing is done for things like sore muscles, reducing the swelling will allow use of the muscle without reducing mobility.  Science says to only ice for 10 minutes at a time for every hour, otherwise you run the risk of causing limited frostbite damage to the skin (also, wrap your ice in a towel, no skin to ice contact)

Never let the ice touch the skin.  It never goes well.

As for heating, sports therapy says to do that for chronic injuries.  Chronic injuries are those that happen over time, things like stress fractures and grinding joints.  Heating the area improves blood flow to it and increases the overall ability of the body to heal the damaged zone.  The general rule of thumb is that you want moist heat to help the body the most (like a hot towel that you lay over the knee or something like that).  Heating a swollen area is a no go, increasing the flow of fluid to a place already swollen can cause some types of damage or stretching to the skin.

As for what makes something chronic or acute…  The technical definition is rather limited.  Generally, the standard is to ice something that is less than 24 hour old, and to heat something that is more than 48 hours old.  Anything in between those two is sort of the gray zone where you aren’t sure if it was a minor injury or if it is something that will stay with you for a long time.


Ancient Grecian iMac

In April of 1900, a cadre of Greek sponge divers (literally divers who collect sponges off the sea bed) located a shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera (anti-kith-era).  When the first diver whipped off his helmet and babbled about having found treasure, the world did not know just how impressive the find was.  Dozens of statues, adornments, objects, jars, pots and whatnot were brought up.  Artifacts from over 2,000 years before, dating back to somewhere around 140 BCE.  Among the finds were some of the most impressively preserved bronze statues from the era.

The Antikythera philosopher and the Antikythera youth.  Bronze sculptures of exceptional quality and craftsmanship.

Two years later, when the excitement had died down a bit, curators began to work with the less impressive finds from the Antikythera shipwreck.  Among the doodads and chunks of pots that they parsed through was a blob of wood and bronze, previously unnoticed because of how prosaic it was.  While checking over the artifacts, archaeologist Valerios Stais noticed that there was a gear squashed into the metal.  His first assumption was that the thing was some sort of astrological clock, built by the Greeks millenia before Enlightenment Europeans even tried to puzzle together a clockwork.  Historians and archaeologists largely ignored the claims of Stais, arguing that a geared mechanism would be far beyond the capacity of ancient people, even the Greeks.

This is the main gear, it has over 200 fine teeth and served a specific purpose.  For some perspective, when this thing was made, Caesar was still around.  The Antikythera device was Thousands of years ahead of its time.

The mechanism was relatively forgotten until the 1950s, when an Archaeologist and a Nuclear Physicist worked together and X-ray’d the entire bronze piece, finding several more layers of gears and inscriptions underneath the outer corrosion.  The device was recreated in the flurry of research that followed the find.  Inventors found that the mechanism was likely used to tell time on an astrological scale.  Spinning one of the nobs would cause the device to whir to life and would show you the relative positions of the Sun, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as showing the relative position of stars, the day, and perhaps most importantly, it could predict eclipses far in to the future.  The mechanism even had advanced enough mechanics that it could take into account the epicycles of Greek astronomy (Greeks had a Geocentric model of the universe, everything revolved around Earth.  If you think that the planets revolve around the Earth, then you have to come up with a really creative way of explaining positions of the planets.  Instead of going with a Heliocentric model, most Europeans agreed upon the idea that planets would orbit Earth all the while making tiny orbits of their own about imaginary centerpoints.  The bobbling of the planets in a Geocentric model would more or less align the positions of the planets, but it made the math impressively difficult to do.)

If you have 8 minutes to watch, this video gives a more complete description as well as a more visual model of the mechanism:

Epicycles made the math work, but at what cost…

60 years of work has come up with several conclusions: That we don’t know who made the thing; it may have been directly based on a device made by Archimedes, it may have been an original creation by a Greek mathematician.  That we really are unsure when it was made; recent findings say 205 BCE, older beliefs say 140 BCE (this is important, it means the math that the mechanism used was either a Greek creation or a Babylonian creation depending on when it was built).  That we are fairly sure that there must be other inventions like this one, and that the Greeks were advanced far beyond our wildest dreams in their technical skills.  Until we find something else similar to it, the Antikythera mechanism remains the only ancient computer we have ever found.  Cicero talks about there being devices like it, planetariums and similar manual automatons, but all we currently know about the impressive computers of the ancient world comes from a small box of bronze, tin, and wood that we scraped off the sea floor.


Why we have wax

Basically every mammal with ears has it.  The weirdly gooey substance that slowly eeks its way out of the ear canals throughout the day turns out to be much more than an obstacle to hearing.  At the baseline, Ear wax is secreted by modified sweat glands and sebaceous glands.  It comes out in a loosely wax state, measuring around 60% Keratin (same stuff in your hair, nails and in animal horns), 12%+ of Fatty acids and alcohols, and 6ish% Cholesterol (the good kind, not the one that gets stuck in the veins).  The purpose of it is to clean out the ear canal as well as to seal it against water, bacteria and insects.  Without the thick layer of wax blocking the pathway into the ear, it is thought that infection and infestation would be substantially more of an issue.  Earwax itself actually gets produced several layers into the ear canal and is pushed forward in the tube largely by the motions of the jaw.  In essence, the motion of the jaw bone squeezes the cerumen (wax) deeper down the tube until it squirts out into the ear.

Ear wax is actually a genetic trait as well.  It has been found that people of European and African descent predominantly have a variety of earwax known as “moist type” cerumen (brownish golden goo of a roughly honey viscosity.  It’s wet, it’s wild, it’s genetic.)  Whereas Asian and Native American people are found to have “flaky type” cerumen. (looks more like small sheets, it’s more gray and dry.)  Following earwax types has actually been a method anthropologists have used to trace the migration routes of human cultures.  For example, wet type earwax is more common in a specific people within Japan, likely because of a migration of wet type people thousands of years ago who settled in among a flaky earwax majority.

The first real mention of medical treatment of excessive earwax was in a Roman text in the first century by Aulus Celsus.  He wrote about a smattering of ways to cure earaches, each with a special tincture that one needs to squirt into the ear.  No joke, there are at least a half dozen that include grinding up flowers, adding it to honey, possibly adding some radish, and then syringing it directly into the hole.  In my personal favorite example, he writes, “hot oil is poured in, or verdigris mixed with honey or leek juice or a little soda in honey wine. And when the crust has been separated from the ulceration, the ear is irrigated with tepid water, to make it easier for the crusts now disengaged to be withdrawn by the ear scoop” (De Medicina, Celsus, Book 6, 7:7)

For those of you wondering, The above image is of a Roman ear scoop. Basically a knife you wedge into your ear.

The treatment for heavy earwax hasn’t moved too far from the old Roman ways either.  Most treatments for too much earwax are somewhere along the lines of “irrigate heavily until better”.  In one particular moment of creativity, humanity decided the perfect response to giving your ear an enema would be to do the opposite; thus was ear candling born.  Basically described as “alternative medicine”, ear candling is the quack’s approach to ridding a patient of earwax through the reverse of irrigating with water: by using fire instead.  A tube made out of wood of some sort is placed inside the ear, the “doctor” (intentional quotations there) then lights it on fire and allows the flame to burn for a while, at which point the ear candle should have sucked out the impurities and waxes, likely it balances one’s auras as well.  Since 2007, medicinal experts have made it explicitly clear that ear candling is a bad idea.  On two occasions people have lit their homes on fire, one caused death, and on most other occasions, the ear candle just ends up dropping hot ashes into the ear canal rather than siphoning out the badness that it was intended to.

If you learn nothing else, just remember never to put fire INSIDE your ear.

Citations!:*.html*.html#7.3 (this one is the Latin version if you feel frisky)  (seriously.  This exists.  It’s worth a giggle)

Alchemy – the Magnum Opus

In the long history of Alchemy in the world, there have generally been two focuses: creating an elixir of immortality, which caused many a person to drink toxic and deadly concoctions over the years, and creating a Philosopher’s Stone, a rock that could turn lead into gold (a process called Chrysopoeia).  The belief was that “the Perfect Stone” could be used to change the properties of any element and draw out the gold in anything.  Not only capable of that, many alchemists believed that grinding the Philosopher’s Stone into a red powder would make it a water soluble panacea capable of granting the drinker eternal life.

The search for a way to create the Philsopher’s Stone (aka, the Tincture, the stone, the perfect diamond, “our delicious stone”, and hundreds of other names) was known as the Magnum Opus, or the Great Work.  It was considered by many at the time to be the greatest life work of all.  So much so that a minor priest named Nicolas Flamel was referenced in a book that made reference to him creating silver from lesser metals by using a Philosopher’s Stone.  Flamel died in the 1300s, and the book mentioning his success was written in the 1600s, but within 100 years, Nicolas Flamel was enough of a household name that he showed up in the writings of Victor Hugo and Isaac Newton.  Simply the idea that he had found the godstone was enough to propel him to legendary status in Europe.

As far as the actual process of creating a stone capable of transmuting things, the origins are found in Greece and India.  Basic beliefs about the world were that all elements were made of a combination of 4 things: Water, Fire, Air and Earth (or Hot, Dry, Wet and Cold in some other systems).  Because it was known that you could take an alloy metal and reverse the alloy process, ancients believed that they could reverse engineer anything, and all things must come from a fifth element.  The thought was that the fifth element was the philosopher’s stone, and it was the prima materia, the first matter, and by forming it, alchemists could in theory create any element.  Alchemy has existed for thousands of years now, with the search for the stone always being paramount.  Spurred forward by interpretations of the bible and legends about people in every society who discovered the skeleton key to the universe kept the art of alchemy relevant for an extreme amount of time.  Beliefs that Adam was told about the existence of the stone by God at the creation, or the reference to a rejected cornerstone of the Temple of Solomon becoming the chief cornerstone in Psalm 118 have persisted for long enough that Alchemists and their study has survived well into the modern era with a wealth of writings and history recorded about them.  When few people know the meaning behind words like Furrier or Cooper, the title “Alchemist” has survived and locked itself in the modern era with books like the Harry Potter series making it common vernacular.


An Alchemist painting from 1771, Joseph Wright of Derby



Why Waterworld is Wrong: How Gills actually work

Barring other glaring scientific issues the film Waterworld has (like the total loss of all technology because of glacial melting) there is one that should be brought to light.  The movie follows a man named “The Mariner” as he wanders through a flooded post-apocalyptic end of days scenario, fighting bandits and criminals and being outcast because of a simple mutation.  Kevin Costner’s character in the film is able to breathe underwater because he has gills.

Now, it seems like a pretty simple thing, but the science behind gills ruins the sci-fi flavor of the movie.  Gills are an organ that have specially evolved over the course of time to allow animals (fish, mollusks and such) to survive in water.  The gills themselves don’t actually allow the fish to breathe water, rather they allow the fish to pull oxygen out of the liquid.  Given that we mammals breathe air, roughly 200,000 parts oxygen per million; our respiratory tracts are unable to deal with the 4-8 parts per million that water has.  Where Waterworld falls apart is that Kevin Costner is a human being, warm blooded and all that.  What that means is his metabolism is at the level of a warm blooded creature: super high.  Fish along with all gill equipped animals are cold blooded because it reduces the rate at which oxygen is burned within the body among other things.  While the idea is interesting, Costner would not be able to breathe comfortably in water unless he found a way to move water through his gills at 25,000 times the efficiency that fish have.

How gills work is quite interesting.  They are basically a series of flaps of flesh with a tight lattice of blood vessels, arranged in a sheet to allow for maximum surface area.  The gills are covered with a flap that can be opened and closed at will, allowing the fish to essentially breathe in and out.  The blood vessels carry deoxygenated blood directly from the heart of the fish and push it countercurrent to the water that runs up against the gills.  Through diffusion, upwards of 70% of the oxygen in the water is transferred to the blood stream of the fish.  The issue that fish run into is in the influx of salt/lack of salt in their system from running a constant osmosis (basically a balancing act from zones of high concentration of stuff to zones of low concentration of stuff).  The solution that fish have is two-fold: fresh water fish pee.  A lot.  This helps to remove water from their bloodstream and keep their salt levels higher than the outside liquid.  Saltwater fish have cells that allow them to excrete sodium chloride, keeping their salt levels lower than the water around them.

Just as an interesting addition, not all gills are made equal.  Sharks have more gills then most fish (upwards of 7 to the usual 4 of a fish) and don’t cover them with flaps.  Because of the lack of the flap, most sharks are able to blast water through a special hole in their mouths called a spiracle.  Spiracles funnel water through their mouths directly over the gills.  The water then mimics currents over the gills while the sharks aren’t in motion.  Some sharks are without the spiracle and must remain in constant motion to breathe.  This variety is known as an Obligate Ram Ventilator and includes around 2 dozen species of shark.  The most famous variety of obligate ram ventilator?  The Great White shark.

Citations, because Waterworld should have done their research:

Even the Everyday can be Interesting: History of Glass edition

The lovely thing about history and science is that we don’t realize how much of it surrounds us at all times.  For example, glass, a common mixture of Silicones, Sodiums, Soda ash, Lime and some other pieces is around us at all times.  We drink from it, we look through it, we make art from it, we use it to gaze into space and at small things, we break it at weddings and we break it during drunken fumblings.  It has become an integral part of the American lifestyle and yet it gets very little attention regardless of its ubiquity and interestingness.

Physically, glass is a curious object because it has strange chemical structures.  When molten, glass cools, it attempts to form crystal lattices that would allow it to become fully crystal (“attempts”, let it never be said that glass is doing this on purpose) .  At the atomic level, icosahedrons form and prevent the liquid glass from forming proper lattices and cause a microscopic logjam within the pattern that gives glass the property of being neither quite solid nor quite liquid.  This structuring forms the basis of why glass fractures in the conchoidal way.  It shatters in large parts that stay relatively cohesive, shearing off from each other, leaving a sharp point at the corner of the break.  The conchoidal fractures are what allow obsidian arrows and knives to be so ridiculously sharp (some circumcisions were performed with obsidian knives in the past) and what makes broken glassware such a hazard.  Even today, there is talk about using obsidian scalpels for surgery because the stone is so much sharper than steel.

The first mention of glass’ creation was given by the Roman historian Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historica where he described Phoenician sailors on a beach in 5000 BCE who had nothing to place their cookpots on.  They chose to use the blocks of Soda Ash that they were hauling as the block and the heat of the flames caused the ash and the sand to mix, forming glass.  As is true with most Roman historians, nobody believes them anymore because they had a grand manner of embellishing all their stories and limited archaeological proof to back them up (Atlantis is still MIA, Plato…).

The oldest glassware we know was found in Egypt between 3100 and 2500 BCE, and it began a steady rise to popularity from there on.  Glassblowing was invented in Babylon in sometime around the 200 BCE and glassware began to become available to the mass public.  When the Romans took on glassmaking, the system was further streamlined and sheets of it were beginning to be produced, with some glass “windows” being found in Pompeii.  The Roman sheet glass was not, however, transparent.  It wasn’t until nearly 1000 AD that the Venetians discovered a method for producing thin and clear glass.  Thin and clear glass was wildly popular because of the use it had as windows and storefronts allowing a shop to remain fully enclosed and yet not prevent the windowshoppers from viewing it (incidentally, we likely have the Venetians to thank for the act of viewing products through windows when shopping, but the term windowshopping was not coined until the early 1900s).  The Venetians did what every great inventor has done: tried to stop others from inventing it as well.  The Venetian glassmakers guild attempted to hide their method of production to allow them the monopoly on the market for clear glass, but it was to no avail and the recipe was ferreted out and shared with the rest of the world.

There are claims that the first colored glass was used in an image in 686, though that era of glassmaking would be unlikely to have an image like the Gothic cathedrals of the 1400s.  When Americans hit the scene in the 1700s, their glass industry had huge demand for the pressed glass that colonial America decorated their homes and stores with.  Henry William Stiegel founded a glassmaking business at the ironworks he bought and named Elizabeth furnace.  Stiegel glass (not to be confused with Glass-Steagall) was opulently successful, until taxation and debt forced Stiegel to sell his forge, where it was later used to make cannonballs for the Continental army.

Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different, even if it comes from an everyday origin.

Citations, because..  Mazel tov!

Dat Glass though..:

Pliny is fun to say:

Timelines of Glass (you can only make glass jokes so many times):

That Glass-Steagall wordplay is my proudest moment of 2014:

These Days it Feels like the 9th Circle.

Dante had it right.  Hell is a flaming pit of darkness and sadness, but when you get down to where it really begins to suck, it freezes over.  The cold of Winter begins to hit and we all make for the nearest heated shrine to pay homage to the thermoelectric gods who provide us with our warmth.  The favorite comment at the bus stop when breath can be seen usually ends up being, “boy, it’s cold out today.”, but is it really?  As a dose of perspective if you ever feel chilly…

If your morning defrosting still seems like a struggle, just remember the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.  November, 1950, -25 degree temperatures impeded the troop retreat away from advancing Chinese and Korean forces.  It was so cold that the rations the soldiers had froze.  Miscommunications with the command ended in troops being sent boxes of tootsie rolls instead of ammunition or rations.  Troops quickly found that the odd little chocolate roll was an ideal food when you were unable to start a fire, and they would stuff their pockets with the tootsie rolls to slowly eat as they thawed (troops remember it taking 20 minutes to eat a tootsie roll because they were so cold).  “Ask any man who served at the Chosin, to be good a tootsie roll must be frozen”

Another famous popsickle of history, Otzi the Iceman famously found dead in the Alps in 1991, expired in a -6 Celsius zone somewhere in the realm of 5,000 years ago.  His unfortunate death in the mountains allowed an uncanny preservation of his corpse because of limited decomposition.  Scientists are still able to say with relative certainty that Otzi was 46, died shortly after eating ibex and venison and had Brown eyes.  His eyes literally froze in good enough condition that we can tell what color they are five millennia later, along with his stomach and whatever parasites he had (whipworm and lyme disease).

If you ever wished to see if you could freeze your eyes inside the sockets whilst still alive, the place to have tested it would have been in Antarctica on August 20, 2010, when it reached -135.8 Fahrenheit or -94.7 Celsius.  To put things in perspective, the coldest temperature ever recorded in Alaska, the place where they still use Sled dogs with surprising frequency, was -80 Fahrenheit.  We’re talking Antarctica was a full 170% colder than Alaska or even the coldest day in the Yukon.

And in the bigger picture, the Antarctic is barely chilly.  The assumed temperature of space is around 3 degrees Kelvin.  That’s somewhere in the ballpark of -270 Celsius, or in layman terms, so cold you’d willingly set fire to yourself on the off chance of feeling warmth again.  The reason it is not colder is because background radiation from the Big Bang is omnipresent and 3 Kelvin, for reasons I’m sure science can answer.  More than that, scientists have been able to reach 0.0000000001 Kelvin in a piece of Rhodium metal in a laboratory.  The popular description to explain just how big this is: “imagine the distance from 0 Kelvin and 273 Kelvin is the distance from New York to Seattle.  We have come within a pencil’s lead of distance to Seattle.”  i.e. really really cold.

We like to think that we rough it in the snow when the Winter hits, but when you consider the facts of the matter, none of us really know what cold is.
Hopefully y’all learned something new, something cool or something different.  Stay warm!

Citations, cuz I don’t know the science well enough to not use them:

Even Hell freezes over’s_Satan

Frozen Chosin

Frozen Eyeballs and Otzi–suffered-Lyme-disease.html

Rilly, Rilly, Chilly places

(additional) Turns out Frostnip and Chilblain are also things…