May 20, 2013
When the great minds of science gathered at the U.S. National Museum (now known as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History) on April 26, 1920, the universe was at stake. Or at least the size of it, anyway. In scientific circles, it was known as the Great Debate, and although they didn’t know it at the time, the astronomy giants Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis—the two men who came to Washington, D.C., to present their theories—were about to have their life’s work eclipsed by Edwin Hubble, a young man who would soon become known as the greatest astronomer since Galileo Galilei.
Harlow Shapley arrived from the Mount Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, home of the world’s most powerful observational device—the 100-inch Hooker Telescope. A Californian who had studied at Princeton, Shapley came to the Great Debate to advance his belief that all observable spiral nebulae (now recognized as galaxies) were simply distant gas clouds—and contained within one great galaxy, the Milky Way.
On the other hand, Curtis, a researcher at the Lick Observatory near San Jose and then director of the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, believed that the spiral nebulae existed far outside the Milky Way. In fact, he referred to them as “island universes,” and he estimated that they were much like the Milky Way in size and shape.
After presenting their respective ideas to each other in advance, the two astronomers entered the auditorium that evening and engaged in a lively, formal debate over “The Scale of the Universe.” In essence, they disagreed on “at least 14 astronomical issues,” with Curtis arguing that the sun was at the center of what he believed was a relatively small Milky Way galaxy in a sea of galaxies. Shapley maintained his position that the universe comprised one galaxy, the Milky Way, but that it was much larger than Curtis or anyone else had supposed, and that the sun was not near its center.
Each man believed his argument had carried the day. While there was no doubt that Curtis was the more experienced and dynamic lecturer, the Harvard College Observatory would soon hire Shapley as its new director, replacing the recently deceased Edward Charles Pickering. Both men, it would turn out, had gotten their theories correct—partially.
Back in California, a 30-year-old research astronomer, Edwin Hubble, had recently taken a staff position at the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he worked beside Shapley. Hubble was born in Missouri in 1889, the son of an insurance agent, but at the end of the century his family moved to Chicago, where he studied at the University of Chicago. A star in several sports, Hubble won a Rhodes scholarship and studied at Oxford. Though he promised his father he’d become a lawyer, he returned to Indiana to teach high school Spanish and physics (and coach basketball). But he remained fascinated by astronomy, and when his father died, in 1913, the young scholar decided to pursue a doctorate in the study of stars at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory.
He completed his dissertation (“Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae) and received his PhD in 1917, shortly before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War I. It would be said that while he was in France, he taught soldiers to march at night, navigating by the stars. When he returned to the United States, Hubble was hired by George Ellery Hale, the director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, where he set about observing and photographing stars that were thought to be located in the Andromeda nebula within the Milky Way.
In October 1923, Hubble was examining photographs he had taken of the Andromeda nebula with the Hooker Telescope when he realized that he might have identified a Cepheid variable—an extremely luminous star. Hubble thought he might be able, over time, to calculate its brightness. And in doing so, he might accurately measure its distance.
For months, Hubble focused on the star he labeled “VAR!” on the now-famous photograph. He could determine by the star’s varying, intrinsic brightness that it was 7,000 times brighter than the sun, and according to his calculations, it would have to be 900,000 light-years away. Such a distance obliterated even Shapley’s theory on the size of the universe, which he estimated at 300,000 light-years in diameter. (Curtis believed it was ten times smaller than that.)
The implications of a star nearly a million light-years away were obvious, yet Shapley quickly dismissed his former colleague’s work as “junk science.” But Hubble continued to photograph hundreds of nebulae, demonstrating a method of classifying them by shape, light and distance, which he later presented to the International Astronomical Union.
In essence, he was credited with being the first astronomer to show that the nebulae he had observed were neither gas clouds nor distant stars in the Milky Way. He demonstrated that they were galaxies, and that there were countless numbers of them beyond the Milky Way.
Hubble wrote Shapley a letter and presented his findings in detail. After reading it, Shapley turned to a graduate student and delivered the remark for which he would become famous: “Here is the letter that has destroyed my universe.”
Edwin Hubble would continue measuring the distance and velocity of objects in deep space, and in 1929, he published his findings, which led to “Hubble’s Law” and the widely accepted realization that the universe is expanding. Albert Einstein, in his theory of general relativity, produced equations that showed that the universe was either expanding or contracting, yet he second-guessed those conclusions and amended them to match the widely accepted scientific thinking of the time—that of a stationary universe. (He later called the decision to amend the equation “the biggest blunder” of his life.) Einstein ultimately paid a visit to Hubble and thanked him for the support his findings at Mount Wilson gave to his relativity theory.
Edwin Hubble continued to work at the Mount Wilson Observatory right up until he died of a blood clot in his brain in 1953. He was 63. Forty years later, NASA paid tribute to the astronomer by naming the Hubble Space Telescope in his honor, which has produced countless images of distant galaxies in an expanding universe, just as he had discovered.
Articles: “Star that Changed the Universe Shines in Hubble Photo,” by Clara Moskowitz, Space.com, May 23, 2011, http://www.space.com/11761-historic-star-variable-hubble-telescope-photo-aas218.html. “The 1920 Shapley-Curtis Discussion: Background, Issues, and Aftermath,” by Virginia Trimble, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, v. 107, December, 1995. http://adsbit.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/nph-iarticle_query?1995PASP%2E%2E107%2E1133T “The ‘Great Debate’: What Really Happened,” by Michael A. Hoskin, Journal for the History of Astronomy, 7, 169-182, 1976, http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/cs_real.html “The Great Debate: Obituary of Harlow Shapley,” by Z. Kopal, Nature, Vol. 240, 1972, http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/shapley_obit.html. “Why the ‘Great Debate’ Was Important,” http://apod.nasa.gov/diamond_jubilee/1920/cs_why.html. “1929: Edwin Hubble Discovers the Universe is Expanding,” Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science, http://cosmology.carnegiescience.edu/timeline/1929. “The Great Debate Over the Size of the Universe,” Ideas of Cosmology, http://www.aip.org/history/cosmology/ideas/great-debate.htm.
Books: Marianne J. Dyson, Space and Astronomy: Decade by Decade, Facts on File, 2007. Chris Impey, How it Began: A Time-Traveler’s Guide to the Universe, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.
December 14, 2012
Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.
Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.
All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.
The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. (More…)
November 9, 2012
When he was born he had such a sleepy disposition his parents named him Goyahkla—He Who Yawns. He lived the life of an Apache tribesman in relative quiet for three decades, until he led a trading expedition from the Mogollon Mountains south into Mexico in 1858. He left the Apache camp to do some business in Casa Grandes and returned to find that Mexican soldiers had slaughtered the women and children who had been left behind, including his wife, mother and three small children. “I stood until all had passed, hardly knowing what I would do,” he would recall. “I had no weapon, nor did I hardly wish to fight, neither did I contemplate recovering the bodies of my loved ones, for that was forbidden. I did not pray, nor did I resolve to do anything in particular, for I had no purpose left.”
He returned home and burned his tepee and his family’s possessions. Then he led an assault on a group of Mexicans in Sonora. It would be said that after one of his victims screamed for mercy in the name of Saint Jerome—Jeronimo in Spanish—the Apaches had a new name for Goyahkla. Soon the name provoked fear throughout the West. As immigrants encroached on Native American lands, forcing indigenous people onto reservations, the warrior Geronimo refused to yield.
Born and raised in an area along the Gila River that is now on the Arizona-New Mexico border, Geronimo would spend the next quarter-century attacking and evading both Mexican and U.S. troops, vowing to kill as many white men as he could. He targeted immigrants and their trains, and tormented white settlers in the American West were known to frighten their misbehaving children with the threat that Geronimo would come for them.
By 1874, after white immigrants demanded federal military intervention, the Apaches were forced onto a reservation in Arizona. Geronimo and a band of followers escaped, and U.S. troops tracked him relentlessly across the deserts and mountains of the West. Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3,000 miles—and which included help from Apache scouts—he finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife. He was “anxious to make the best terms possible,” Miles noted. Geronimo and his “renegades” agreed to a two-year exile and subsequent return to the reservation.
In New York, President Grover Cleveland fretted over the terms. In a telegram to his secretary of war, Cleveland wrote, “I hope nothing will be done with Geronimo which will prevent our treating him as a prisoner of war, if we cannot hang him, which I would much prefer.”
Geronimo avoided execution, but dispute over the terms of surrender ensured that he would spend the rest of his life as a prisoner of the Army, subject to betrayal and indignity. The Apache leader and his men were sent by boxcar, under heavy guard, to Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Florida, where they performed hard labor. In that alien climate, the Washington Post reported, the Apache died “like flies at frost time.” Businessmen there soon had the idea to have Geronimo serve as a tourist attraction, and hundreds of visitors daily were let into the fort to lay eyes on the “bloodthirsty” Indian in his cell.
While the POWs were in Florida, the government relocated hundreds of their children from their Arizona reservation to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. More than a third of the students quickly perished from tuberculosis, “died as though smitten with the plague,” the Post reported. Apaches lived in constant terror that more of their children would be taken from them and sent east.
Geronimo and his fellow POWs were reunited with their families in 1888, when the Chiricahua Apaches were moved to Mount Vernon Barracks in Alabama. But there, too, the Apaches began to perish—a quarter of them from tuberculosis— until Geronimo and more than 300 others were brought to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1894. Though still captive, they were allowed to live in villages around the post. In 1904, Geronimo was given permission to appear at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which included an “Apache Village” exhibit on the midway.
He was presented as a living museum piece in an exhibit intended as a “monument to the progress of civilization.” Under guard, he made bows and arrows while Pueblo women seated beside him pounded corn and made pottery, and he was a popular draw. He sold autographs and posed for pictures with those willing to part with a few dollars for the privilege.
Geronimo seemed to enjoy the fair. Many of the exhibits fascinated him, such as a magic show during which a woman sat in a basket covered in cloth and a man proceeded to plunge the swords through the basket. “I would like to know how she was so quickly healed and why the wounds did not kill her,” Geronimo told one writer. He also saw a “white bear” that seemed to be “as intelligent as a man” and could do whatever his keeper instructed. “I am sure that no grizzly bear could be trained to do these things,” he observed. He took his first ride on a Ferris wheel, where the people below “looked no larger than ants.”
In his dictated memoirs, Geronimo said that he was glad he had gone to the fair, and that white people were “a kind and peaceful people.” He added, “During all the time I was at the fair no one tried to harm me in any way. Had this been among the Mexicans I am sure I should have been compelled to defend myself often.”
After the fair, Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show brokered an agreement with the government to have Geronimo join the show, again under Army guard. The Indians in Pawnee Bill’s show were depicted as “lying, thieving, treacherous, murderous” monsters who had killed hundreds of men, women and children and would think nothing of taking a scalp from any member of the audience, given the chance. Visitors came to see how the “savage” had been “tamed,” and they paid Geronimo to take a button from the coat of the vicious Apache “chief.” Never mind that he had never been a chief and, in fact, bristled when he was referred to as one.
The shows put a good deal of money in his pockets and allowed him to travel, though never without government guards. If Pawnee Bill wanted him to shoot a buffalo from a moving car, or bill him as “the Worst Indian That Ever Lived,” Geronimo was willing to play along. “The Indian,” one magazine noted at the time, “will always be a fascinating object.”
In March 1905, Geronimo was invited to President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade; he and five real Indian chiefs, who wore full headgear and painted faces, rode horses down Pennsylvania Avenue. The intent, one newspaper stated, was to show Americans “that they have buried the hatchet forever.”
After the parade, Geronimo met with Roosevelt in what the New York Tribune reported was a “pathetic appeal” to allow him to return to Arizona. “Take the ropes from our hands,” Geronimo begged, with tears “running down his bullet-scarred cheeks.” Through an interpreter, Roosevelt told Geronimo that the Indian had a “bad heart.” “You killed many of my people; you burned villages…and were not good Indians.” The president would have to wait a while “and see how you and your people act” on their reservation.
Geronimo gesticulated “wildly” and the meeting was cut short. “The Great Father is very busy,” a staff member told him, ushering Roosevelt away and urging Geronimo to put his concerns in writing. Roosevelt was told that the Apache warrior would be safer on the reservation in Oklahoma than in Arizona: “If he went back there he’d be very likely to find a rope awaiting him, for a great many people in the Territory are spoiling for a chance to kill him.”
Geronimo returned to Fort Sill, where newspapers continued to depict him as a “bloodthirsty Apache chief,” living with the “fierce restlessness of a caged beast.” It had cost Uncle Sam more than a million dollars and hundreds of lives to keep him behind lock and key, the Boston Globe reported. But the Hartford Courant had Geronimo “getting square with the palefaces,” as he was so crafty at poker that he kept the soldiers “broke nearly all the time.” His winnings, the paper noted, were used to help pay the cost of educating Apache children.
Journalists who visited him depicted Geronimo as “crazy,” sometimes chasing sightseers on horseback while drinking to excess. His eighth wife, it was reported, had deserted him, and only a small daughter was watching after him.
In 1903, however, Geronimo converted to Christianity and joined the Dutch Reformed Church—Roosevelt’s church—hoping to please the president and obtain a pardon. “My body is sick and my friends have thrown me away,” Geronimo told church members. “I have been a very wicked man, and my heart is not happy. I see that white people have found a way that makes them good and their hearts happy. I want you to show me that way.” Asked to abandon all Indian “superstitions,” as well as gambling and whiskey, Geronimo agreed and was baptized, but the church would later expel him over his inability to stay away from the card tables.
He thanked Roosevelt (“chief of a great people”) profusely in his memoirs for giving him permission to tell his story, but Geronimo never was permitted to return to his homeland. In February 1909, he was thrown from his horse one night and lay on the cold ground before he was discovered after daybreak. He died of pneumonia on February 17.
The Chicago Daily Tribune ran the headline, “Geronimo Now a Good Indian,” alluding to a quote widely and mistakenly attributed to General Philip Sheridan. Roosevelt himself would sum up his feelings this way: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
After a Christian service and a large funeral procession made up of both whites and Native Americans, Geronimo was buried at Fort Sill. Only then did he cease to be a prisoner of the United States.
Articles: “Geronimo Getting Square With the Palefaces,” The Hartford Courant, June 6, 1900.” “Geronimo Has Cost Uncle Sam $1,000,000,” Boston Daily Globe, April 25, 1900. “Geronimo Has Gone Mad,” New York Times, July 25, 1900. “Geronimo in Prayer,” The Washington Post, November 29. 1903. “Geronimo Seems Crazy,” New York Tribune, May 19, 1907. “Geronimo at the World’s Fair,” Scientific American Supplement, August 27, 1904. “Prisoner 18 Years,” Boston Daily Globe, September 18, 1904. “Chiefs in the Parade,” Washington Post, February 3, 1905. “Indians at White House,” New York Tribune, March 10, 1905. “Savage Indian Chiefs,” The Washington Post, March 5, 1905. “Indians on the Inaugural March,” by Jesse Rhodes, Smithsonian, January 14, 2009. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialsections/heritage/Indians-on-the-Inaugural-March.html “Geronimo Wants His Freedom,” Boston Daily Globe, January 28, 1906. “Geronimo Joins the Church, Hoping to Please Roosevelt,” The Atlanta Constitution, July 10, 1907. “A Bad Indian,” The Washington Post, August 24, 1907. “Geronimo Now Good Indian,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 18, 1909. “Chief Geronimo Buried,” New York Times, February 19, 1909. “Chief Geronimo Dead,” New York Tribune, February 19, 1909. “Native America Prisoners of War: Chircahua Apaches 1886-1914, The Museum of the American Indian, http://www.chiricahua-apache.com/ “’A Very Kind and Peaceful People’: Geronimo and the World’s Fair,” by Mark Sample, May 3, 2011, http://www.samplereality.com/2011/05/03/a-very-kind-and-peaceful-people-geronimo-and-the-worlds-fair/ “Geronimo: Finding Peace,” by Alan MacIver, Vision.org, http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=12778
Books: Geronimo, Geronimo’s Story of His Life, Taken Down and Edited by S. M. Barrett, Superintendent of Education, Lawton, Oklahoma, Duffield & Company, 1915.
October 1, 2012
There is nothing remotely Elysian about the Phlegræan Fields, which lie on the north shore of the Bay of Naples; nothing sylvan, nothing green. The Fields are part of the caldera of a volcano that is the twin of Mount Vesuvius, a few miles to the east, the destroyer of Pompeii. The volcano is still active–it last erupted in 1538, and once possessed a crater that measured eight miles across–but most of it is underwater now. The portion that is still accessible on land consists of a barren, rubble-strewn plateau. Fire bursts from the rocks in places, and clouds of sulfurous gas snake out of vents leading up from deep underground.
The Fields, in short, are hellish, and it is no surprise that in Greek and Roman myth they were associated with all manner of strange tales. Most interesting, perhaps, is the legend of the Cumæan sibyl, who took her name from the nearby town of Cumæ, a Greek colony dating to about 500 B.C.– a time when the Etruscans still held sway much of central Italy and Rome was nothing but a city-state ruled over by a line of tyrannical kings.
The sibyl, so the story goes, was a woman named Amalthaea who lurked in a cave on the Phlegræan Fields. She had once been young and beautiful–beautiful enough to attract the attentions of the sun god, Apollo, who offered her one wish in exchange for her virginity. Pointing to a heap of dust, Amalthaea asked for a year of life for each particle in the pile, but (as is usually the way in such old tales) failed to allow for the vindictiveness of the gods. Ovid, in Metamorphoses, has her lament that “like a fool, I did not ask that all those years should come with ageless youth, as well.” Instead, she aged but could not die. Virgil depicts her scribbling the future on oak leaves that lay scattered about the entrance to her cave, and states that the cave itself concealed an entrance to the underworld.
The best-known–and from our perspective the most interesting–of all the tales associated with the sibyl is supposed to date to the reign of Tarquinius Superbus–Tarquin the Proud. He was the last of the mythic kings of Rome, and some historians, at least, concede that he really did live and rule in the sixth century B.C. According to legend, the sibyl traveled to Tarquin’s palace bearing nine books of prophecy that set out the whole of the future of Rome. She offered the set to the king for a price so enormous that he summarily declined–at which the prophetess went away, burned the first three of the books, and returned, offering the remaining six to Tarquin at the same price. Once again, the king refused, though less arrogantly this time, and the sibyl burned three more of the precious volumes. The third time she approached the king, he thought it wise to accede to her demands. Rome purchased the three remaining books of prophecy at the original steep price.
August 28, 2012
What is it that makes us human? The question is as old as man, and has had many answers. For quite a while, we were told that our uniqueness lay in using tools; today, some seek to define humanity in terms of an innate spirituality, or a creativity that cannot (yet) be aped by a computer. For the historian, however, another possible response suggests itself. That’s because our history can be defined, surprisingly helpfully, as the study of a struggle against fear and want—and where these conditions exist, it seems to me, there is always that most human of responses to them: hope.
The ancient Greeks knew it; that’s what the legend of Pandora’s box is all about. And Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of the enduring power of faith, hope and charity, a trio whose appearance in the skies over Malta during the darkest days of World War II is worthy of telling of some other day. But it is also possible to trace a history of hope. It emerges time and again as a response to the intolerable burdens of existence, beginning when (in Thomas Hobbes’s famous words) life in the “state of nature” before government was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and running like a thread on through the ancient and medieval periods until the present day.
I want to look at one unusually enduring manifestation of this hope: the idea that somewhere far beyond the toil and pain of mere survival there lies an earthly paradise, which, if reached, will grant the traveler an easy life. This utopia is not to be confused with the political or economic Shangri-las that have also been believed to exist somewhere “out there” in a world that was not yet fully explored (the kingdom of Prester John, for instance–a Christian realm waiting to intervene in the war between crusaders and Muslims in the Middle East–or the golden city of El Dorado, concealing its treasure deep amidst South American jungle). It is a place that’s altogether earthier—the paradise of peasants, for whom heaven was simply not having to do physical labor all day, every day.