Thursday, April 26, 2012

The City That Was Destroyed by a Fireball

Peshtigo, Wisconsin. October 8, 1871. A tiny, little logging town in the heart of America. Largely unknown, and yet the site of one of the most severe, under-reported fires not just in American history, but in human history as well; an event that left 1,200 people dead in less than 10 minutes, as a giant fireball engulfed the town, the countryside, and everything else in its path.

October 8th was a Sunday: hot and dry, with less than two inches of rain that summer. The population of the town that morning was roughly 2000, and they had been beaten down by the relentless drought and heat. In addition to the townsfolk, the population had swelled even more over the past few weeks, thanks to the abundance of volunteers in town to help fight the small wildfires that were already popping up across the area. There were so many small fires that the smoke hung in the air like a heavy drapery, making it difficult to breathe.

At 8:30 pm, there was a dull roar that raised the alarm in the town. Strong winds had whipped the surrounding wildfires into a blazing inferno that was barreling towards Peshtigo. Firefighters quickly threw in the towel, when their buckets of water failed to stop the blaze. Suddenly, a surge of flames, roasting at over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, blasted into the town. The combination of heat and wind created superheated tornadoes with terrifyingly strong speeds. Sand, debris, and burning chards and embers began to rain down on the town, almost as if fire were dropping from Heaven itself. People ran for their lives.

According to eyewitness accounts, the air was literally on fire. In addition to the terrifying sound of the fire licking away at the buildings, the town began to fill with the shrieks and cries of its citizens, as they watched each other being burned alive. Panic turned into hysteria. Some people jumped into wells, only to find the water there boiling; some dropped dead as they breathed, the air being so hot it burned their lungs.

There was only one possible escape: the river, and they headed that way in droves. With hundreds of people standing on it, the bridge over the river collapsed. Those that weren’t crushed, rushed deeper into the river, seeking protection, only to be flattened by falling debris, burned by sparks that fell from the sky or drowned by the multitudes of people crowding in.

An excerpt from "The Great Peshtigo Fire” gives this first-hand account:
It was about ten o'clock when we entered into the river. ... Once in water up to our necks, I thought we would at least be safe from the fire, but it was not so; the flames darted over the river as they did over the land, the air was full of them, or rather the air itself was on fire.

After 90 minutes, the burning hell’s winds changed direction, the fire blew back on itself, and it burned out. The next day, it began to rain.

More than 1,200 people died that day in less than 10 minutes.  The entire town was destroyed, save for one building which managed to survive. In the surrounding land, over 1.25 million acres of forest and prairie were charred to nothing.

Eventually the town recovered and people returned. Peshtigo, Wisconsin still exists today.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Boy Who Was Lost for 25 Years

In 1986, Saroo Brierley was a five-year-old boy in Khandwa, India. One day, he was following his brother around at his job: a sweeper on India’s trains. The work was dirty and long, requiring his brother to work late into the night. As it got later, Saroo grew tired. Eventually he sat down on a seat at one of the station benches while his brother worked and he fell asleep.

Saroo Brierley
When he awoke, his brother was nowhere to be seen. Saroo was scared and panicked. There was a train in the station, waiting. Saroo, thinking his brother must be on the train, jumped onboard before it left. Still exhausted and not seeing his brother like he had hoped, he fell asleep again.

When he awoke for the second time, everything, including his life, had changed. He found that 14 hours had passed and he was now in a strange city. It was a sprawling metropolis; a city of massive scope and size. It was Calcutta, home to millions of people (roughly 9.1 million in 1981 and 11.1 million in 1991), and a place that dwarfs New York City in size. The city is spread out over 728 miles, and comprises 3 different municipal corporations, 39 local municipalities, 72 smaller cities and 527 towns and villages, all combined under one giant umbrella of unity. Calcutta proper is 71 square miles alone.

It is notorious for its slums, with millions living along roads, railway lines and waterways. Thirty-three percent of the city’s population lived in the slums and Saroo found himself there…alone and confused.

He lived for a year on the streets, begging for food and anything else he could get his hands on. Luck was on his side when, in 1987 he was taken into an orphanage and was adopted by an Australian couple. The couple took Saroo to Tasmania, where he lived for the next 25 years.

The day came when he wanted to find his birth family. But being only five at the time, and illiterate, he had no idea what the name of his hometown was. So he decided to use math and Google Earth. Looking at Calcutta on a map, and knowing he had traveled 14 hours in his sleep, he calculated his time on the train, with the rate of speed of Indian trains and came up the figure of 1200…1200 kilometers. He circled a radius around Calcutta, extending 1200 kilometers and went to work on Google Earth, scanning the satellite images of the countryside, looking for landmarks that he could remember from his childhood.

Eventually, he found a waterfall he used to play around and found his hometown: Khandwa. Traveling there, he was flooded with memories and was able to guide himself to his old house…only to find it locked up and desolate. Carrying a photo of himself as a child, he began to talk to neighbors, who told him the family had moved many years ago. About to give up hope, a man eventually led him to another house, where he found his mother.

He learned that his brother had been found dead a month after he disappeared, cut in half on train tracks. It is unknown if it was an accident or not.

Saroo still lives in Tasmania, but keeps in regular touch with the family he lost 25 years ago.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The World Treasure Lost in a Painting

The Battle of Marciano by Giorgio Vasari (1563)
The Battle of Marciano is a massive paintingit covers an entire wall in Florence's city hall. It was painted in 1563 by Giorgio Vasari, who was employed by the Medicis, who had recently returned to power and wanted the walls of city hall covered with frescoes and depictions of their military victories.

In the 1500s the city hall, also known as Palazzo Vecchio, had a grand ceremonial chamber called The Hall of 500. It was here that Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo were commissioned to do works.

Dr. Maurizio Seracini has been looking for one of Leonardo DaVinci's most famous, and never found, paintings, The Battle of Anghiari. It was the biggest painting Leonardo ever created. Roughly three times the width of The Last Supper, he ultimately abandoned it for reasons left unknown. According to an article about this in The New York Times, he "left a central scene of clashing soldiers and horses that was hailed as an unprecedented study of anatomy and motion. For decades, artists like Raphael went to the Hall of 500 to see it and make their own copies."

Cerca Trova-"Seek and ye shall find"
In 1975, Seracini was looking at Vasari's painting which is now in the Palazzo Vecchio, when he noticed a small little flag in one of the scenes. On it was written "Cerca Trova", which means "Seek and ye shall find." Seracini was intrigued and thought that this may be a sign.

Using old clues from writings and other paintings, it turns out that Leonardo's painting should have been located at the very spot of the flag in Vasari's painting. Using radar, Seracini discovered that Vasari hadn't plastered his work right on top of the previous one. Instead, he had created new wall and had them erected IN FRONT of the old walls, leaving a small gap behind only one section.

The gap is right behind the "Cerca Trova" flag.

So the new question was: is Leonardo's most famous, lost painting still there, if it was there at all? Had Seracini solved one of art's biggest mysteries?

It wasn't until 2005 that Seracini got a chance to answer those questions. With help form the U.S., he got a device that can send beams of neutrons harmlessly through the walls. According to The New York Times article,

One device can detect the neutrons that bounce back after colliding with hydrogen atoms, which abound in the organic materials (like linseed oil and resin) employed by Leonardo. Instead of using water-based paint for a traditional fresco in wet plaster like Vasari’s, Leonardo covered the wall with a waterproof ground layer and used oil-based paints.

Early reports show that something is there. Until that wall is removed (and delays with the Italian government are all that stand in the way), we won't know for sure if Vasari saved a world treasure or not. But according to Wikipedia:

In March 2012 researchers said "the material found behind the Vasari wall shows a chemical composition similar to black pigment found in brown glazes on Leonardo's Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist, identified in a recently published scientific paper by the Louvre, which analyzed all the da Vinci paintings in its collection."

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Witch Trial That Changed Legal History

In modern times, we have seen children as young as three being in court and giving testimony. The effect can be powerful and the testimony truly damning. But in the not so recent past, children under 14 were considered to be unreliable witnesses. This all changed in the 17th century with a notorious witch trial.

 Illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth's 1849 novel, The Lancashire Witches.
In this trial, nine-year-old Jennet Device, an illegitimate beggar, gave evidence in the 1612 Pendle witch trial in Lancashire, England. Her evidence and testimony, allowed partly because of the rampant witch fear spurred on by King James I and his book Demonology, led to the execution of 10 people, including all of her own family.

At the time Lancashire had a reputation for being full of trouble-makers and subversives. Jennet lived with her mother Elizabeth, her grandmother Demdike, older sister Alizon and brother James in the village of Pendle. Villagers dubbed Demdike a "cunning woman.” In March 1612, Alizon cursed a peddler who would not give her any pins. The peddler collapsed and his son reported it to an ambitious local magistrate, Roger Nowell.

Nowell interviewed Alizon, who confessed to “bewitching” the peddler, but also accused the Device family’s neighbors of bewitching and killing four people. The neighbors pointed back at Demdike, calling her a witch. (The families just happened to be feuding.) Norwell arrested all the parties involved (including neighbors Anne Whittle (also known as Chattox) and her daughter Anne Redferne).

In his book Demonology, James I wrote: "Children, women and liars can be witnesses over high treason against God." This influenced the justice system and led to Nowell using Jennet as his key witness. The clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, wrote a book of all the notes he made of the trial, which became a bestseller and spread the story far and wide.

“In The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster”, Potts recounted how Jennet's mother Elizabeth screamed out when her daughter entered the court. Jennet demanded her mother be removed and then climbed on a table and calmly denounced her as a witch.

In the book, Potts writes that this is what Jennet said:
"My mother is a witch and that I know to be true. I have seen her spirit in the likeness of a brown dog, which she called Ball. The dog did ask what she would have him do and she answered that she would have him help her to kill. At 12 noon about 20 people came to our house - my mother told me they were all witches."

She named six people whose names she knew and her mother and brother.
James denounced his mother Elizabeth too but Jennet then turned on her own brother and said he had been a witch for three years. She said she had seen his spirit kill three people.

Her testimony and evidence, as it were, was enough to convince the jury that all those arrested were guilty of witchcraft. The next day they were all hanged at Gallows Hill.

Pott’s writings and Jennets evidence were included in a reference handbook for magistrates, “The Country Justice.” The book was used by all magistrates, including those involved in the Salem Witch Trials in colonial America, in 1692. Most of the evidence there was given by children. Nineteen people were hanged from this testimony. Before Jennet testified against her family, children could not be credible witnesses; she changed that with the broken necks of innocent people.

Twelve years later, Jennet, too, was accused of witchcraft, along with 16 others, by 10-year-old Edmund Robinson. They were found guilty, but the case was referred to a Privy Council, due to lack of evidence (owed in part to England’s growing skepticism over witchcraft). Edmund admitted he lied, because of the stories he read about Jennet and the Pendle witch trial.

Jennet was last heard of in 1636, where she was stuck in Lancaster Castle, being unable to pay for her boarding there during her trial. As a beggar, she would have been unable to pay and thus never able to leave.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Free-Fall From Space

Many of us gone sky-diving or bungee or base jumping. The more daring of you may have even done some extreme free-falling. But none of us have ever done what Joseph Kittinger did on August 16, 1960: free-fall from space.

Joseph Kittinger
Kittinger performed the free-fall as part of a government experiment on how such high altitudes affect humans. To this day he still holds world records from this one jump alone: the highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest free-fall, and fastest speed by man through the atmosphere.

It all started in 1949, when Kittinger joined the Air Force as an aviation cadet. In 1953, he got the chance to participate in a rocket-sled experiment to test the effects of gravity on the human body. With land-speed legend John Paul Stapp overseeing, Kittinger flew at an astounding 632 mph! After the success of the rocket-sled experiment, he was transferred to something called Project Excelsior, which translates to “ever upward.” The project was to test the effects of extreme high altitude exposure to humans. (The rumor was that it was to see if astronauts could free fall from a space vehicle back to Earth if there was ever a problem. There has been no evidence to support this claim.)
 Kittinger dive seen from the Excelsior 

The first test was a disaster that nearly claimed his life. Jumping from 76,000 feet, Kittinger’s parachute malfunctioned and wrapped around his neck. He passed out and was only saved when his emergency chute launched at 10,000 feet and he was revived upon touching the ground. He made another attempt in December of 1959, falling from 74,700 and free-fell from 55,500 feet. Then, in August of 1960, he went up again in a special balloon and basket (called the Excelsior gondola). He reached an unheard of 102,800 feet, or 19.4696 miles. At this height, the air was a freezing minus 94 Fahrenheit, at which he stayed at for almost 12 minutes, despite a rupture in the right hand of his suit which exposed his hand to frostbite. After jumping, he free-fell for nearly five minutes, reaching a speed of 614 mph, all but breaking the sound barrier. He landed safely on the ground in jump that lasted over 13 minutes.

Here's the incredible video from YouTube:

He went faster than any other human being outside of a vehicle.

Later in life he spent 18 hours at 82,200 feet and flew 483 missions in the Vietnam War, before being shot down and held as a prisoner of war for a year. In 1983, he flew a balloon from Las Vegas to New York in under 72 hours and later still became the first man to fly across the Atlantic in a balloon, setting a solo record flight of 83 hours and 40 minutes.

According to Wikipedia:

Kittinger is currently advising Felix Baumgartner on a planned free-fall from 120,000 feet (about 36,000m). The project is called the Red Bull Stratos project and has collected leading experts in the fields of aeronautics, medicine and engineering to ensure its success. Felix Baumgartner will also become the first person ever to break the sound barrier while in free fall, if his jump is successful. Baumgartner's jump will be used to test the next generation of full pressure suits, used in space and to collect useful medical and scientific information. Although the jump was planned for 2010, it has been delayed by a legal case between Red Bull and promoter Daniel Hogan, who claims that he was first to propose the jump to Red Bull in 2004, and alleges that Red Bull backed out before resurrecting the project some years later. The lawsuit was resolved out of court in June 2011.

Born in 1928, he now lives in Orlando, Florida.

***New Update: Read about Felix Baumgartner's freefall by clicking here.