Man-Bats and Bipedal Moon Beavers

January 10, 1834 was a remarkable day in the history of humankind. It was the day Sir John Herschel, a noted English astronomer and son of William Herschel, the discoverer of Uranus, first gazed through his super-powered telescope and observed life on the moon.

The account of his wondrous findings first appeared in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, but since obviously no one reads scientific journals, the story didn’t really take off until a more layman-friendly version written by Herschel’s colleague Dr. Andrew Grant appeared as a series of feature articles in the New York Sun penny newspaper beginning August 25, 1835.

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If this man told me he saw a herd of moon unicorns, I might believe him. “Sir John Herschel with Cap” by Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The articles started with a thorough description of Herschel’s unique telescope and continued over the course of the next five issues to describe details of landscape, plant life, and numerous animal species, including unicorns, herds of moon bison, spherical amphibians, bipedal beavers, and winged human-like creatures dubbed Vespertilio-homo, or Man-bat.

The sixth and final installment detailed a superior example of Vespertilio-homo, which engaged in the most civilized of activities in close proximity to a structure that appeared to be a sapphire temple. Then it went on to explain that as the scientists took a break to discuss their findings, they accidentally left the lens of the high-powered telescope directed toward the sun and burned down a portion of the observatory. Sadly by the time repairs were made, the moon was no longer in a position conducive to further observation.

Now, as an intelligent reader of all true things on the Internet, you may have begun to realize by now that this story that really did run in the New York Sun, might not have been entirely factual. But the readers of the Sun were somewhat less sophisticated than the average discerning readers of today. And there was just enough truth to the story to make it sound kind of plausible to those who weren’t really paying attention, including a fair number of scientists who were thrilled by the discovery.

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It’s hard to argue with an honest man.

For example, it is true that Sir John Herschel traveled to South Africa in January of 1834 with a powerful telescope. It’s true, also, that the scientific community of the day was still somewhat divided on whether or not life on the moon could be possible. Herschel himself had not yet come down on one side or the other of the issue.

It’s true, too, that there had been, at one time, an Edinburgh Journal of Science, and that no one read it. Or at least no one had read it in the several years leading up to the Sun article because it had ceased to be in print. And when one considers that pretty much every sane person believed in roaming herds of moon unicorns, it’s not hard to see why everyone got so excited.

But there was no such person as Dr. Andrew Grant. He was likely an invention of reporter Richard Adams Locke.  He never actually claimed responsibility for writing the articles, possibly because as a former editor of the work of Edgar Allan Poe, there’s a pretty good chance Locke plagiarized the whole story from Poe’s The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaall.

But wherever it came from, the story was a huge success. Some readers were skeptical, of course, but they tweeted about it and shared the stories to their Facebook walls all the same. And within little more than a month the story had been picked up and repeated so many times, news of it had travelled all the way to Europe, where, to the credit of the European media, it was known most often as a silly American hoax.

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Wait a minute. Where’s the American flag? I bet this picture was taken on a Hollywood soundstage. By New York Sun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The New York Sun did admit to the hoax eventually, but there was no retraction and with the exception of the editor of its biggest competitor, who was probably just bitter he hadn’t thought of it himself, no one seemed to care all that much. Even Sir John Herschel mostly just found the whole thing amusing. After a while he did get a little tired of answering questions about it in the middle of his very serious and important scientific lectures that no one was really listening to anyway. Still, questions about the hoax were preferable to the standard, “So,” snort, giggle, giggle, “has your dad looked at Uranus lately?”

And so the world went on, bipedal moon beavers and man-bats once again became the stuff of legend, and journalism and perhaps humankind in general continued down a very slippery slope. These days reporters can’t remember whether or not their helicopters were shot down, politicians may become confused about their own well-documented heritages, and overwhelming evidence of perjury isn’t nearly enough to pursue charges. Really, in the grand scheme of lies, the Moon Hoax isn’t so bad. I mean it’s not like Richard Locke got drunk and vandalized a bathroom or anything.

On the Origin of Clutter by Means of Accidental Collection, or the Preservation of Favoured Artwork in the Struggle for Back to School Organization

Finally a new school year has begun for my children. For the most part it’s going well. My youngest loves his teacher. She seems warm and genuine and well organized, which is a great place to start. My older son is now navigating the halls of middle school, where he has so far managed to remember his locker combination and land in classes taught by teachers as wonderfully quirky as he is. I suppose it takes a special kind of crazy to teach middle schoolers.

What this all means for me is that I am a more or less full-time writer again, and that’s going okay, too. In the five days they’ve been back at school. I’ve managed to draft several short stories and prep a good chunk of the first draft of a novel for the impending painful process of substantial revision.

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You know, maybe I’ll just shove the door closed and not open it again until the school supplies come home at the end of the year.

But I’ve also had to take a little time to get my space organized for long days alone in front of the computer. As I’ve mentioned before, I work in a little hidey hole of a room tucked down a dark hallway in my basement, a place where sometimes the dog even forgets to look for me.

I like having this space, but it can feel a little dismal at times, especially since it often becomes the staging area not just for my writing, but for my organizing as well. Like, for instance, when it came time to buy school supplies a few weeks ago, I started by sorting through the supplies from last year that had been unceremoniously dumped from backpacks on the floor of the closet of my hidey hole. The backpacks were there, too.

Also there were the remains of art projects and reports and poems and notes and all the precious little papers from a year of school that a mom can’t quite bring herself to throw out. And maybe a few from previous years as well.

I know, I know, it was my New Year’s resolution to pare down on the clutter, but in my defense, I also have yet to lose that pesky ten pounds. Actually, I’ve done fairly well sorting through and throwing away or donating my own stuff. With the kiddos it’s always a little harder. I know I’m not alone in this because even Charles Darwin struggled when it came to throwing out the artsy creations of his children.

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I’m not always disorganized. And the hallway is maybe a little less dark these days.

 

We know because in 2003, Cambridge University and the American Museum of Natural History launched a collaborative effort to digitize all of Darwin’s writings and make them available online. The project is ongoing, but currently includes more than 23,000 digital images. This is pretty cool if you’re interested in getting to know the man behind one of the most influential (and contentious) scientific theories of all time.

But the coolest part to me is the handful of remaining pages of original handwritten text from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Man, was he good with a title! There are only about thirty or so of these pages still in existence and at least some of them are probably still around because a young Darwin artist or two drew on the backs of them.

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Occasionally little surprises show up among my notes on the chalkboard wall in my office. I don’t erase them unless I absolutely have to.

 

The collection includes more than fifty examples of the Darwin children’s drawings and stories, all preserved on what the evidently thrifty Charles Darwin must have considered scrap paper, not realizing that his handwritten notes and papers might one day be of interest to posterity.

What it seems he did realize is that in addition to being the man behind the theory that lit the field of natural science on fire, he was also a father of some pretty great kids, and their contribution to his life’s work wasn’t something he could part with.

As I work my way through the clutter and get settled back into my hidey hole, I realize I’m not going to be able to throw out those little bits of creativity, either. I haven’t come up with any great scientific theories (yet), and I doubt very much that the mess from the floor of my office closet will ever be catalogued and digitized for the benefit of the world. But if I’m wrong, everyone will know that I’m the mother of some pretty great kids.

http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/slide-show-darwin-children-doodles

Growing Up is Overrated

In 1959, John Scurlock discovered his employees engaging in a surprising activity. A successful engineer, Scurlock had lent his inventive expertise to both the oil and gas industry and to projects at NASA, and then decided to turn his attention to tennis, a sport he loved. What he came up with was a rapidly inflating cover that could be spread out to protect a clay tennis court at the first inkling of rain.

His invention may have been great for that, had his employees not discovered that it was also quite bouncy. What Scurlock quickly realized was that his adult employees might actually have been incapable of resisting the urge to bounce and that what he’d invented was not a tennis court cover at all. Instead it was a play structure that he called the Space Walk.

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It was really only a matter of time before Bounce Houses and elite sporting events got together. By User:Azbounce4kids (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Over the next decade, Scurlock’s invention got a little safer (with the addition of walls) and he entered the rental business, providing hours of bounce house fun for birthday parties, school fairs, and company picnics. But even though it has obvious adult appeal, bounce castles have generally been considered the realm of children.

Until now.

For the past couple of years, a new themed run has swept across the US and Canada, called the Insane Inflatable 5K. The event is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a 5K with about a dozen inflatable obstacles set up along the route. Participants climb, jump, slide, fall, and yes, bounce. Often on purpose. Sometimes on their backsides. Because it’s super fun.

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These were some (sort of) serious obstacles. It was kind of like a short Tough Mudder, except for people who don’t like to get muddy and really aren’t that tough.

While there’s no age restriction for the event, the participants are pretty overwhelmingly adults. At least that was true at the one in which I recently participated.

 

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you may have stumbled across the fact that I believe in my heart of hearts that running is stupid. But (and I realize that this is a bit hypocritical of me) I also really enjoy participating in race events. I love the camaraderie that comes from accomplishing something challenging in the midst of so many other people who are also accomplishing something challenging. I love the cheering and encouragement that comes from fellow race participants and from those who are watching from the sidelines. And, I admit it, I can’t resist a silly theme.

So when I got the opportunity to participate in the Insane Inflatable (or as we more often referred to it, the Bouncy House 5K), I couldn’t pass it up. In fact, when the group I was originally planning to register with began to waver in their enthusiasm, I found another group willing to go on an earlier date.

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The event wasn’t timed, but I did get a medal. So I’m basically an Olympian now.

 

Running may be stupid, but bouncy houses are super fun and as it says on the back of my new silly themed race shirt, “Growing up is overrated.”

John Scurlock’s employees realized that in 1959 and an amazing industry was born.

On This Site in 1897

I’m not going to lie, it’s been a long summer. And a short summer in some ways. My kids, now 9 and 11 ½  are getting older so they are better at finding ways to keep themselves busy. They’ve got more friends and activities and thoughts of their own. Still, as we wind down these last few days of our more or less 24/7 time together before school starts next week, the season, as it does every year, has gotten the best of me.

I hope to be posting weekly again beginning next Thursday. Today I’m going to shop for new school supplies instead. Perhaps soon I will relate to you the fascinating history behind the number 2 pencil, but I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait for that little gem.

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And Once Again Conspiracy Theorists Get it Right

Today marks the 47th anniversary of American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, that moment when human beings first stepped onto the surface of the moon. Except that according to an article in the October 2, 1909, issue of Scientific American, written by John Elfreth Watkins, Armstrong may not have actually been the first.

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Something about the crosshairs in the upper right hand corner seems off. I’m sensing something fishy about this story. [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Watkins relays an old Chinese legend that claims an official by the name of Wan Hu (or sometimes Wang Tu or Wan Hoo, depending on the source) launched a lunar mission around 2000 BC. According to this legend, Wan Hu strapped forty-seven small rockets to a large wicker chair, sat down, and told his assistants to light him up. Neither the man nor his rocket chair were ever seen again, perhaps an indication of success. And so after Soviet probe Zond 3 did a flyby of the moon in 1965,  a crater on the dark side of the moon was deservedly named for famed Chinese astronaut.

Of course some people believe that Wan Hu faked the entire stunt with the assistance of some fancy camera work under the direction of Stanley Kubrick, a scheme long covered over by a joint effort from the Chinese government and the cryogenically frozen head of Walt Disney.  The evidence is far too involved to go into detail here, but it stems from the numerous drawings of the events that, to the well trained eye, reveal peculiar shadow angles, an oddly marked rock, and an unfurling flag, among other truly alarming details.  Don’t even get me started on the secret clues buried within The Shining.

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If you look really closely at Jack Nicholson’s space helmet, you can totally see a shadowy reflection of an object that might be a boom mic.

Now, I’m not generally a big believer in conspiracy theories, but this one, to me, seems entirely plausible. Because it turns out that prior to the 9th century, the Chinese didn’t yet have gunpowder, and they most certainly weren’t launching rockets in 2000 BC, strapped to a chair or not.

About thirty-five years after the publication of the Scientific American article, American author Herbert S. Zim offered a thoughtful update to the tale in his book Rockets and Jets. He logically placed the story of Wan Hu in the early 16th century. And it was some time after that when the Chinese began to adopt the tale, eventually erecting a statue of this hero of space travel at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center.

But if that’s not enough to convince you that the whole thing might just be made up, MythBusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage attempted to recreate Wan Hu’s famous flight using technology that would have been available in 16th century China. They weren’t successful. And when they cheated and used more modern technology in an attempt to duplicate the results, their trusty dummy Buster wound up blown to bits and, most notably, not on the moon.

So, I think it’s safe to assume the conspiracy theorists have it right this time. Wan Hu could not have been the first man to step on the moon. The honor still belongs to Neil Armstrong, and thankfully, there’s no reasonable debate about that.

Apollo 11 Moon landing: conspiracy theories debunked

10 Reasons the Moon Landing Could Be a Hoax

 

The Pokémon Pandemic is Upon Us…Go Wash your Hands

In February of 1512, a Spanish Conquistador named Juan Ponce de León received a royal commission to pillage, plunder, and claim the rumored islands northwest of Hispaniola. King Ferdinand specifically wanted this honor to go to Ponce de León, a Spanish son of a good Spanish family, because he did not want to cede any more power to Diego Columbus, the uppity son of that silly Italian fellow who’d done all the exploring for them in the first place.

Ponce de León had travelled to the New World initially on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1493. Though it’s not clear what he did in the meantime, by 1504 he became the right hand man of the appointed governor of Hispaniola, Nicolás de Ovando, by effectively squashing a rebellion by the native Taínos.

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Juan Ponce de Léon, pillager, plunderer, and Pokémon Trainer extraordinaire. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus began Ponce de León’s widely successful career of murder and exploration. He soon set off for the island eventually known as Puerto Rico in search of riches rumored by the Taínos, in exchange for which he enslaved many of them and gave the rest smallpox because he never washed his hands. He did find a great deal of gold, but by the time he returned to Hispaniola, Ovando had been usurped by the pesky Diego Columbus and a power struggle soon raged.

So when King Ferdinand suggested Ponce de León go exploring, he was probably pretty happy to oblige. He was the kind of guy who would jump at the chance to gather slaves, glory, and eternal youth, even if it meant wandering into a dark alley at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Because, yes, I think it’s safe to assume that if Ponce de León were alive today, he would be pretty obsessed with the game Pokémon Go. Now I don’t know where else in the world this game may be at this point, but here in the US, it made its debut earlier this month, and I’m telling you, wash your hands, because the pandemic is coming. If you are in the US and you don’t know the game yet, it’s what those people wandering aimless through your neighborhood while staring intently at their phones are doing.

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There’s one! Oh wait, no, that’s just a toy. photo credit: 对阵/Versus via photopin (license)

I was just a few years too old to get caught up in the Pokémon craze the first time around and I’m going to sit it out this time around, too, so if you one of those obsessed (and I’m betting you’re not because you wouldn’t be wasting time/cell phone battery on reading this post), then I apologize for the following explanation.

As far as I can figure, Pokémon is a game in which you capture little powerful creatures and make them fight each other for your entertainment. In the late nineties, you did this by buying or trading Pokémon cards that you would play against your friends who would try to counter your attack with whatever cards they bought or traded for.

Now it’s gone mobile and realistic-ish, because through the magic of Internet mapping, Pokémon (the critters) can show up anywhere at any time and in order to capture them, all you have to do is throw Pokéballs (whatever those are) at them or hatch them from an egg by walking around like a crazy person.

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Ah the good old days, when Pokémon was just a game that everyone was obsessed with. Oh, wait…

 

And if that’s not exciting enough for you, yes, you can make them fight, and you can take over “gyms” from other Poképlayers (a word I think I just made up, but probably not).  The “gyms” are located in real-life public spaces, businesses, and even private properties that were once designated as something else, without any permission whatsoever given by the property-owners, or any recourse for those who don’t want their property to be a part of the game.

Did I get this about right?

And people have become absolutely obsessed with this game. I know because when I first heard about it maybe three or four days ago, it took over my Facebook feed, where so many of my otherwise pretty rational friends began posting screenshots of all the funny little places they’d found Pokémon, like in the bathroom stall at work. I would say an equal number of otherwise rational friends began railing against the posts and the crazy people stumbling about staring at their phones in places they ought not to have been, like the bathroom stalls of someone else’s workplace. Then I turned on the radio and the dj was droning on and on about Pokémon Go and I realized that even though I didn’t understand a single word, she assumed all her listeners knew exactly what she was talking about. And they probably did.

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Virtual Pokémon in the non-virtual world. I admit, it looks pretty fun. Thanks to my multiple FB friends who, when I put out a call for a pic, obliged quickly and enthusiastically.

 

So why are people so obsessed with the game? All I can think is that they are reliving their childhoods, searching for a little bit of that wonder they felt in their youth, and hoping that by scouring a dark alleyway at 2 o’clock in the morning, and taking over new lands (or “gyms”), perhaps they can find it.

The great rumor mill of history suggests that that’s what Ponce de León was after as well when he stumbled into Florida. In addition to gold and slaves and glory, he was searching for the famed fountain of youth. Of course there are no contemporary sources that suggest this was the case, and even if he was seeking it, he never found it. In 1521, the conquistador was shot by poison tipped arrows fired by native inhabitants of his new land. Sapped of the strength even to throw a Pokéball, he died shortly after. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

But despite the possible private property issues and potentials for abuse, which will need to be worked out, the game seems innocent enough. I wish all the Pokéballers (another word I think I just made up, but probably not) good luck on their quests for youth. But seriously, go wash your hands.

 

BOOM! Aliens: A Detour Through Crazy Town

In 1553, Spanish conquistador Pedro Cieza de León included in the first part of his Crónicas del Perú, a description of what he assumed were trail markers, basically a series of shallow trenches stretching across the plateaus of the Nazca Desert. Then in 1940, historian Paul Kosok flew over the trenches and saw in their patterns the very clear shape of a bird.

Eventually the Nazca lines were discovered to include several hundred animal and human figures of varying sizes covering nearly 200 square miles. Experts determined the lines were pretty simple to make with only very limited ancient trenching tools similar to what non-experts might call “sticks.” Many of these very technical tools have been found near the trenches and have helped scientists to date the designs to between 500 BC and 500 AD.

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It’s completely irrational to assume the Nazca people could have had access to such advanced technology. To my mind, this is definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth.

But no one has been able to come up with a completely satisfactory explanation of why the designs were put there in the first place. It’s been suggested by archaeologists that the trenches may be related to irrigation. Some astronomers think the designs may point out important heavenly bodies or mirror the constellations. Many anthropologists think the designs might be a type of offering to the gods who had the power to either bless or curse crops in the arid land. And one art historian even suggested the lines might be giant ancient textile patterns.

But the most delightful explanation comes from the field of Ancient Astronaut Theory, or as it is more commonly known among professional circles, Crazy Town. What Crazy Town suggests is that the lines and shapes were constructed to commemorate a visit to Earth from aliens, and that they were perhaps even created by the alien visitors themselves.

Because research is tedious and slow and, you know, aliens.

Ancient Astronaut Theorists have enjoyed a certain degree of seeming legitimacy for the last few years because of the History Channel show, Ancient Aliens, which premiered in 2009. Now, I know what you’re thinking. A channel that purports to focus on history while mostly providing reality shows about pawn brokers and monster hunters, parallels pretty nicely a blog that claims to be about history, but winds up being more about my dog.

I like the History Channel, at least some of it. When it started out, its list of programs mostly included thoughtful and well-produced documentaries about World War II. Even today you can occasionally find thoughtful and well-produced documentaries featuring the commentary of actual experts in their respective, non-crazy fields of study. Which is why the History Channel, much like this blog, can still lull you into thinking that it’s a reliable source of solid information.

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As the Nazca people obviously could not have had access to a picture of my dog, this, to my mind, is definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth. via Wikimedia Commons

Because even Ancient Aliens tends to start out sounding pretty legit. The camera swoops in on an ancient landscape. A voice with an unmistakable authoritative ring begins to ask serious, thought-provoking questions. The author of Great Adventures in Crazy Town, sounding more or less like an academic, sums up the conventional archaeological explanation of what you’re seeing. Then, just when they have you thinking that you’re being spoon-fed all the important details that will make you sound brilliant at your next cocktail party: BOOM! Aliens.

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Maybe not my best work, but the fact that five minutes at a craft store and a little hot glue yields this is, to my mind, definitive proof of Extraterrestrial visitation to Ancient Earth. And at least I didn’t end up writing about my dog.

It’s a little disconcerting when a trusted authoritative source takes a detour through Crazy Town. And I imagine that’s how my oldest son felt when he came to me a couple weeks ago with a problem. We were about to leave on a long road trip through the northeast, and I was busy working my way through the packing process so, really, I was in Crazy Town already. He reminded me, a trusted reliable source of all things crafty and motherly, that he needed a space-themed costume for the camp he was scheduled to go to the day after we were due back from vacation.

And motherly craft magic is tedious and slow, and you know, aliens.

BOOM!

 

 

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