Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Independence Day

July 4, 2015

The Fourth of July is the day on which the American people celebrate their independence from Great Britain. It is not actually clear why Independence Day is the Fourth. Congress actually passed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776. It has often been thought that the Declaration was signed on the fourth, but that doesn’t seem to be true. There wasn’t any one time when the members of Congress signed the Declaration and there were a few who didn’t get around to signing it until August. Nevertheless, the fourth is the date that stuck. As John Adams wrote to Abigail.

English:

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

And so it has been, for the last 239 years. May God bless America and grant us many more years of freedom.

Happy Independence Day.

What Amazon Still Sells

June 24, 2015

Yesterday, Amazon announced that it would no longer sell items depicting the Confederate flag due to the controversy surrounding this symbol following the terrible crime committed in Charleston. I applaud Amazon for deciding to discontinue sales of an item that many find offensive and consider to be linked to racism and oppression. Yet, I cannot help noticing that Amazon continue to sells many other items linked to some of the worst regimes in history. If Amazon has a new policy of not selling offensive merchandise, then why do they continue to sell some of the following items.

You can still buy a Che Guevara t-shirt through Amazon.

Che Shirt

Che Guevara was an Argentine Marxist who helped Fidel Castro come to power in Cuba. He was also a psychopath and a murderer. He set up Castro’s secret police and ruthlessly crushed all opposition to Castro’s rule. He enjoyed his work, personally participating in the torture and execution of dissidents. Even a tyrant like Castro couldn’t stand him so he sent Che off to export the Revolution in Africa and mainland South America. In Africa, Che made amazingly racist observations about the guerrillas he was sent to train. Che was executed in Bolivia. For some unknown reason, this murderer and despot has become a pop culture symbol of freedom and resistance against tyranny.

The Confederate flag is banned but you can still get an old Soviet flag.

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Tens of millions of people were murdered by the evil and oppressive regime that this flag represents, yet somehow it is less offensive than the Confederate flag. Why?

You can also get the flag of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, AKA North Korea.

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This is the country with the worst civil rights record in the world, at present, yet its flag is less offensive than the Confederate’s. It’s true that they don’t have slaves in North Korea, unless you consider that everyone is a slave in that country.

You can still get an SS flag.

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You know, the fun-loving guys who just happened to murder something like ten millions people in the Holocaust.

You can get nice, inspirational posters of Communist mass murderers.

 

And a wonderful portrait of the Fuehrer himself.

Hitler

I believe that  each of these items to be far more offensive than the Confederate flag. So, when is Amazon going to end their sales? Not any time soon, I expect.

 

The Confederate Flag

June 22, 2015

Here is another petition from Moveon.org that I won’t be signing.

Dear MoveOn member,

I’m Karen Hunter, a fellow MoveOn member, and I started a petition to the South Carolina Legislature and Governor Nikki Haley.

On the heels of the brutal killing of nine black people in a South Carolina church, it’s time to put a symbol of rebellion and racism behind us and move toward healing and a better United States of America.1 Can you join me in telling South Carolina lawmakers:

Symbols of hate and division have no place in our government. It’s time to stand up for what’s right and take down the Confederate flag!

Sign Karen’s petition

The Confederate flag is not a symbol of southern pride but rather a symbol of rebellion and racism.

Tell South Carolina lawmakers: Symbols of hate have no place in our government.

Click here to add your name to this petition, and then pass it along to your friends.

Thanks!

–Karen

I have never been a fan of the Confederate States being a Yankee and a Unionist and I have no great attachment to the Confederate flag, seeing it as a symbol of treason and slavery. Nevertheless, I am not going to sign a petition telling the state of South Carolina that they cannot fly the Confederate flag in any official capacity. I do not live in South Carolina so it seems to me that it would be a little presumptuous to tell the people of South Carolina what they can’t do. I resent it when outsiders tell us what to do here in Indiana, and I imagine that the South Caroliners feel the same way. Besides, the killing at the South Carolina church was committed by a twisted individual, not a piece of cloth. This petition is a despicable attempt to make use of a terrible crime to promote a political agenda.

By the way, the flag that is most people think of as the Confederate flag:

Confederate Battle Flag

 

wasn’t actually the national flag of the Confederate States of America. That is the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s command. The battle flag eventually became the most popular symbol for the Confederacy, especially after the Civil War, but it was never the official national flag of the CSA. There were, in fact, three successive designs for the Confederate national flag approved by the Confederate Congress. It seems as if they had some difficulty creating a flag that pleased everyone.

The first design, the Stars and Bars, closely resembled the Stars and Stripes of the United States.

Stars and Bars

Many Southerners still felt some attachment to the old flag and still felt themselves to be Americans, though deserving their own nation and so this first flag of the Confederacy was deliberately designed to resemble the familiar Stars and Stripes. The Stars and Bars was created by Nicola Marschall and was adopted on March 4, 1861. It originally had seven stars to represent the first seven states to leave the Union and join the Confederacy. As more states seceded, more stars were added until at last there were thirteen, representing the eleven Southern states that made up the CSA along with the border states Kentucky and Missouri, which had not seceded but did have representatives in the Confederate Congress.

The problem with the Stars and Bars was that it too closely resembled the Stars and Stripes. As the Civil War got under way, attitudes in the South hardened and more people wanted a flag that was clearly distinct from the North’s flag, which was coming to be associated with abolitionism. Also, the two flags were similar enough that they caused confusion on the battle field. One solution, proposed by General P. G. T. Beauregard, was to have two flags, one, the Stars and Bars to be used for official purposes, and one battle flag for use for military purposes. This idea was adopted and a rejected design for the national flag by William Porcher Miles was adopted. This was the familiar rebel flag. Miles had thought to adopt the South Carolina “Secession Flag”.

 

South_Carolina_Sovereignty-Secession_Flag.svg

 

Miles simply removed the crescent and palmetto design and then changed the cross shape to a “saltire” shape on the advice of a Jewish friend who believed that a symbol associated with Christianity might cause offense to Jews and even some iconoclastic Protestant sects.

The Stars and Bars continued to be used until it was replaced on May 1, 1863 by a new flag referred to as the “Stainless Banner”, designed by William T. Thompson.

us-csa2

This flag placed the design of the battle flag in the upper left quarter on a white field. The Confederate Congress did not specify the meaning of the symbolism of the white field, but Thompson stated that it symbolized the South’s struggle to maintain the “Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race”.

This flag also had some problems. It was feared that the predominate white color could be mistaken for a flag of truce or surrender if the battle design or southern cross were hidden. Therefore a third design, the “blood stained banner” was adopted by the Confederate Congress on March 4, 1865.

Third Flag

Lee surrendered a month later on April 9 and the Confederate States of America was defeated before many of these flags could be manufactured or the Confederate Congress could adopt yet another design.

Of all these flags, only the Battle Flag or the Southern Cross has managed to capture the imagination of the people of the South and has become the symbol of the South. The Rebel flag wasn’t seen much in the decades after the Civil War, except as part of the general “Lost Cause” nostalgia that came to be associated with the Old South. This started to changed around the middle of the twentieth century. During World War II, some units associated with the South adopted the Confederate flag as their emblem and a Confederate flag was raised during the Battle of Okinawa. The Confederate flag began to be more prominently used during the Civil Rights era when it became a symbol of resistance against desegregation. White supremacist groups have continued to use this flag as a symbol, but then so have many Southerners who are not particularly racist and want to express pride in their region.

So, should the state of South Carolina fly the Confederate battle flag at its State House? As I said, as I do not live in South Carolina, I really don’t have any right to tell South Carolina what flag they can fly. If they were to ask my advice, however, I would tell them that they should not. A flag ought to symbolize the whole community and any Confederate flag simply cannot do this. Any African-American, the descendant of slaves, could not help but dislike a flag that is the symbol of a nation created for the express purpose of ensuring his ancestors remain in bondage. I know that many people in the South see the Confederate flag as a symbol of their heritage, but perhaps this is one part of their heritage they should not celebrate. There is a New South, prosperous and diverse, that has been emerging in recent decades. Maybe it’s time to leave the Old South of slavery and segregation behind.

 

Islam Means Peace

June 19, 2015

I have been called a bigot twice in the past week. To be honest, I am not at all offended. Whatever the origin of the word “bigot” (from French meaning a religious hypocrite, perhaps originally from German “bei Gott” or by God), the contemporary meaning of the word is increasingly one who tells truths the left doesn’t want to hear.

The first time was I was called a bigot was over my insistence that Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner is still a man no matter how strongly he feels that he is a woman. To tell the truth, I am just about over that particular struggle against reality. In fact, I would have nothing to say about Mr. Jenner’s life choices were it not that it illustrates a distressing tendency among our intellectual and media elite to consider that feelings and words determine the nature of reality better than actual, empirical observations and facts.  But enough of that.

The second time, I was not personally called a bigot. A Facebook friend of a friend posted a link and video describing some recent atrocities committed by some practitioners of the Religion of Peace. Someone commented that these people were violent extremists and their actions in no way reflected the real beliefs of the vast majority of peaceful Moslims. After all, he asserted, Islam means peace. I, and several others, including the author of the post, responded by posting quotations from the Koran and pointed out that people in the Islamic State have been following the example of Mohammed. He responded in the usual logical fashion by calling the lot of us bigots. Naturally, I was intrigued by the question of the etymology of the word Islam so I did a little research.

Islam is an Arabic word, of course, and Arabic is a member of the Semitic family of languages along with Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, and many others. One thing that the Semitic languages have in common is that most words are formed from roots, usually of three consonants, with express basic concepts. The actual words are formed by adding vowels and affixes. The triconsonantal root that seems to be most often used as an example in textbooks and Wikipedia is K-T-B, which essentially means to write or something written. Some of the words in Arabic formed from the root K-T-B include kataba “he wrote”, yahtub “he writes”, kitab “book”, katib “writer”, maktab “desk” or “office” and many others. Hebrew also forms words from the K-T-B root, such as katabu “I wrote”. The word Islam is derived from the root S-L-M, which does mean peace, among other concepts. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is derived from the S-L-M root as is the Arabic for peace, salaam. Jerusalem and Solomon are names derived from S-L-M. So, etymologically, Islam is derived from the same root as peace.

But, there is more to the meaning of S-L-M than “peace” and the word peace itself often means more than simply the absence of conflict. The full meaning of S-L-M includes the concepts of being whole, safe, secure, in health. Shalom and salaam used as greetings mean more than simply wishing the person greeted to be at peace, but also include a wish that for the person to be in good health and to prosper. And, as we have seen from the words derived from K-T-B, a concept expressed by a triconsonantal root can cover a range of meanings. The more precise meaning of the word Islam is submission to the will of Allah, which brings peace and well being.

Most people in countries that have been attacked by Islamic terrorists believe that these terrorists are monsters, or cowardly extremists who have distorted the peaceful tenets of Islam. Surely, most the majority of Muslims want to live in peace. Only a bigoted Islamophobe would state that all Muslims are violent or that Islam encourages terrorism. This belief may be comforting to those who do not wish to face hard facts, but it is not useful because it is not true.  The terrorists have more support in the Islamic world than many in the West are willing to acknowledge. This does not mean that all Muslims are terrorists or killers, but a large number are on the side of the terrorists and we ought to try to understand why.

Few people fight wars just for the sake of fighting. In almost every case, those who go to war fight to make a peace more advantageous or more just for their side. The allies went to war against Nazi Germany in order to bring about a peace in which the Nazis were destroyed. If the Nazis had been victorious in World War II, there would have been peace, but not the peace that the allies would consider a just peace. When the Muslims say they follow a religion of peace, they are being completely honest. Extremists like the late Osama bin Ladin and the Islamic State do not fight and commit terrorist acts just for the sake of violence. They want peace as much as we do. The difference is that their idea of a just peace is one where the entire world is in proper submission to Allah and Islam is the the dominant, if not the only, religion. A peace in which Islam co-exists peaceably with other religions would not be not a just or honorable peace since it leaves large numbers of people still in rebellion against Allah.

We like to say that the terrorists are monsters and their acts are senseless, but they do not see themselves in that way. They believe that they are fighting for a better world and from their point of view, we in the West, are the aggressors. The West and particularly the United States plays a vastly disproportionate role in setting the cultural and political norms throughout the world and our values are often hostile to the values of many devout Muslims. We believe our values, like treating women like human beings, not stoning gays, democratic governments that protect freedom of religion, are universal value held by all people of good will. They find such such values to be alien and repugnant, an offense against the divine law. When Westerners state that Islam should modernize and become more tolerant, they interpret it as an invitation to return to the state of Jahiliyyah, the time of pre-Islamic ignorance. Imagine how you might feel if your faith and your cherished values were under attack in the books, movies, music, etc put out by a foreign culture that dominates the world of entertainment. (Well, actually if you are a conservative Christian you don’t have to imagine it.) Mark Steyn and others worry about the emergence of Eurabia. Many in the Islamic world worry about the seductions of Western culture.

This is why many Muslims who are good people who do want to live in peace feel sympathy for terrorists and Jihadists. They want a world at peace and in its proper place under submission to Allah and His law. That is also why drawing a connection between Islam and terrorism is not ignorant bigotry but an understanding why many Muslims believe we are an enemy that they must fight. Pretending a problem does not really exist does not make it go away and ignorance is seldom bliss.

Rise of the Nones.

June 5, 2015

There has been quite a lot already said about the results of the recent Pew poll on the religious affiliations of the American people, most of the sharp decline of the number of Americans identifying as Christians over the last decade with a corresponding increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation.

The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing, according to an extensive new survey by the Pew Research Center. Moreover, these changes are taking place across the religious landscape, affecting all regions of the country and many demographic groups. While the drop in Christian affiliation is particularly pronounced among young adults, it is occurring among Americans of all ages. The same trends are seen among whites, blacks and Latinos; among both college graduates and adults with only a high school education; and among women as well as men.

To be sure, the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, and a large majority of Americans – roughly seven-in-ten – continue to identify with some branch of the Christian faith.1 But the major new survey of more than 35,000 Americans by the Pew Research Center finds that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. And the share of Americans who identify with non-Christian faiths also has inched up, rising 1.2 percentage points, from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014. Growth has been especially great among Muslims and Hindus, albeit from a very low base.

Here are the charts that came with the article

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PR_15.05.12_RLS-00

 

There is a lot more to the article which I cannot summarize in a way to do it justice. You really ought to read the whole thing, if you haven’t already.

So, what is going on here? In the past there has often been a large number of unaffiliated young people, nominally Christian but not attending any church or being particularly religious. Generally, as these young people grow older and start families, they join a church and become more active in religion. This does not seem to be happening now. The decline in the number of Christians affects all age groups, races, levels of education, etc.

Could it be that that large numbers of American Christians are finally seeing the light? Thanks to the Internet, information about science, history and religion is more available than ever before. Religions depend on the ignorance of their adherents and it could be that more and more former Christians have been learning the truth and converting to Reason by abandoning such archaic superstitions like belief in God. That is how many atheists might interpret these findings. I am not so sure. I think something more subtle but no less momentous is occurring.

For most of its history, the United States has been a Christian nation, despite what the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State might believe. By this, I do not say that the United States was ever a theocracy or that Christianity was ever an official state religion but rather that the great majority of Americans have been at least nominally Christians and America’s politics and culture has been shaped by Christianity. Christianity has been the default option for most Americans, even those who have been largely secular. It has required initiative and perhaps even courage for most Americans to identity as anything other than Christian, especially as an atheist, and most people at most times would prefer to go with the flow. Times are changing, however. America is a more secular and diverse nation than it has been in the past and it is becoming more acceptable to not be even a nominal Christian. What we are seeing, then, is not necessarily a large scale movement of Christians abandoning their faith, but an increasing number of people who no longer feel they have to identify themselves as Christians. Indeed, considering the way Christians are often portrayed by the entertainment industry these days, as hypocritical, hate-filled, small minded prudes and bigots, it is not clear why anyone would want to be known as a Christian, particularly as a member of one of the more conservative or fundamentalist denominations that our social elite holds in such contempt.

There is an exception to this general trend that perhaps proves the hypothesis, Evangelical Protestants, which show only a very slight decline in percentage and an actual increase in numbers. This may be because Evangelicals tend to stress personal conversion more than the Mainline Protestants and the Catholics. For the Mainline Protestants and the Catholics, religion is more a part of their cultural background. You are a Catholic or Methodist because you are born into a Catholic or Methodist family. Evangelicals stress the conversion experience. Evangelicals are saved or born again, not baptized into the faith as infants. It may be that because there is more of a feeling of a break with the past, Evangelicals are more committed to their religion.

What do these trends mean for the future? This may be good for the Church. I would rather have a small church full of people who really believe than a large church with people who are only there, going through the motions, because it is expected of them. I would prefer for people to be honest about their belief, or lack of belief than be a hypocritical believer. There will be challenges for the Christian, though. We have grown up in a country in which Christianity is considered the norm and has played a dominant role in the shaping of our culture. That will be less true in the future. Already, as I have noted, there is an increasing hostility towards all forms of “politically incorrect” Christianity in our entertainment media. That will only get worse. In the past, being a Christian has been considered a good and respectable thing to be. That is already changing. More often than not, in some places, being a Christian means being an ignorant bigot. In the not too distant future, it may well be that admitting to being a Christian will be considered the same as announcing your membership in the Ku Klux Klan. I hope people are ready for this.

No matter what happens, the Church will survive. Indeed, Christianity flourishes best when it is persecuted. The United States and the West generally may not do so well. For the last fifteen hundred years, Christianity has played the major role in making the West what it is. As the influence of Christianity declines can the principles that has distinguished the West from other civilizations survive? The more militant atheists believe that a world in which religion, by which they mean chiefly a world without Christianity, is abolished will be a world which will experience a golden age of rational behavior. History and human nature suggest otherwise. Abolishing religion will not make human beings more rational. It will only cause new superstitions and cruelties to emerge. The history of the twentieth century is largely the history of substitutes for religion in the form of ultra nationalism and militant socialism. That didn’t work out so well.

Wheels within Wheels

June 1, 2015

In the previous post, I left off the history of astronomy with Claudius Ptolemy, the last and greatest of the astronomers of ancient times. It was Ptolemy who brought the science of astronomy to its apex in classical times. In his treatise, the Almagest, as the Arabs came to call it, Ptolemy worked out the geocentric model with the complex system of epicycles that the ancients believed described the universe, along with a catalog of stars and constellations and tables of information on the motions of the planets and eclipses of the Sun and Moon. So well did Ptolemy do his work that the Almagest was the accepted text on astronomy for over twelve hundred years.

The science of astronomy did not stand still after the time of Ptolemy. The Western Europeans were a little distracted by the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and contributed little to the progress of learning for some centuries. Fortunately the ancient learning was preserved in the Greek East and when the Arabs conquered much of the Middle East in the century after the death of Mohammed, they were able to learn much from the peoples they ruled and soon began to make contributions of their own in science and philosophy. The Arabs translated many Greek texts into Arabic which Western scholars discovered and translated into Latin. The contributions made by the Arabs can be seen by the fact that Ptolemy’s standard text is known by its Arabic title and that many stars still retain names derived from  Arabic

Throughout the Early Middle Ages, the Muslims translated Greek texts into Arabic and so helped to preserve them until Western scholars could translate them into Latin once things had settled down in the West. The importance of the Arabic contribution can be seen by the fact that Ptolemy’s book is known by its Arabic title, not to mention that many stars are known by names derived from Arabic; Betelgeuse, Algol, Aldebaran, Deneb, Vega, and many others.

Over time, the Arabs, and later the Europeans, developed better instruments for observing the positions of the stars and planets in the sky and to predict the motions of the planets. As their techniques improved, astronomers were able to revise and update the information on planetary motions collected by Ptolemy, and they also found that more epicycles were needed to explain and predict planetary motions. The Ptolemaic model began to seem increasingly over complicated. The last major revision of the tables of planetary motions was commissioned by King Alfonso X of Castile in the thirteenth century. Alfonso, called “the Wise” was known as a patron of many branches of learning and was himself conversant in the science of astronomy. He is supposed to have remarked that if God had consulted him during the creation, he might have suggested a simpler system than the complicated bicycles of Ptolemy. The king almost certainly did not say this, but the sentiment was shared by many who began to believe the universe shouldn’t be so complicated.

Among these was a Polish priest who lived some two hundred years after Alfonso. This priest was named Mikolaj Kopernik, better known by the Latinized version of his name, Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus was a true renaissance man who was learned in such diverse fields as mathematics, canon law, medicine, economics, classical languages, diplomacy, politics, and astronomy. It is in that last subject that he is remembered today. Copernicus came to realize that understanding the motions of the planets would be much easier if he simply assumed that the planets revolved around the Sun rather than the Earth.

Copernicus

Copernicus

The retrograde motions of the planets could simply be explained by their overtaking the Earth as they orbit the Sun. Copernicus seems to have developed his heliocentric theory by 1514 and spent much of the rest of his life working on his book “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” or “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”. Although Copernicus showed the manuscript to his friends and interested scholars, he was reluctant to actually publish his masterpiece for fear of the public ridicule such a radical theory might bring him. It was only after his friends assured him that the book would be favorably received and he was dying that Copernicus agreed to publish De revolutionibus in 1543.

De revolutionibus was favorably received by the few people who actually read it. The fact was that Copernicus’s book was so abstruse and technical that only astronomers and mathematicians could really appreciate and understand it.

It was in Latin and the script was hard to read too.

It was in Latin and the script was hard to read too.

Copernicus’s heliocentric model was not generally accepted for some time. The fact that the assumption that the Sun was at the center of the Solar System made calculating the motions of the planets less complicated did not necessarily made that assumption true and there was good reason not to believe the Earth moved. In fact, the Copernican model did not make the calculations that much less complicated. Like Aristotle and Ptolemy, Copernicus believed that the planets moved in perfect circles and his theory still required some epicycles to agree with observations. It was not until 1610 when Johannes Kepler proposed his first law of planetary motion, that the planets orbit the Sun not in circles that the need for epicycles was finally done away with. The heliocentric model then clearly provided a simpler means of understanding the motions of the planets and so was quickly adopted by most astronomers even though there was not yet clear proof that it was actually true.

Which brings us back to Galileo and the Church. In 1632, the year Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, the heliocentric model was rapidly gaining acceptance, yet from a strictly scientific viewpoint, the Church was quite correct in regarding the model with skepticism, even if it was not correct from any viewpoint to put Galileo on trial, although as I said Galileo himself was mostly to blame for his troubles. And, here I have to ask again, why was the heliocentric theory adopted a century before it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt?

Scientists like to portray themselves cool, logical, unbiased observers interested only in the facts, that is the results of their observations and experiments. Any hypothesis, no matter how attractive, must be put aside if the observations do not agree with it. In fact, scientists are subject to the same sorts of biases as everyone else and a candid view of the history of science will show many instances when scientists have clung to a hypothesis even when the facts seem to show otherwise. This is not always a bad thing. I would even go further and state that this is often a good thing. Sometimes intuition serves as a better guide to discovering the truth than logic and sometimes finding the truth requires ignoring the facts that seem to point in a certain direction while pursuing an underlying truth.

One of the biases that has proven to be most useful in understanding the nature of the universe we live in is the idea that the universe is, as bottom, a simple place that we can understand. If things get to be overly complicated, it is usually taken as a sign we are moving in the wrong direction and should seek a simpler explanation. This is no scientific reason for believing this is the case, yet this bias has proven to be useful over and over again. Ptolemy’s epicycles became more and more complicated, so astronomers switched to the simpler heliocentric system, and were proven right. Physicists and chemists in the nineteenth century were dismayed to discover more and more chemical elements with no clear pattern, until they discovered that all these elements could be explained by the three particles, electrons, neutrons, and protons found in the atoms of every element. Physicist were then confused by the many sub atomic particles they kept discovered, until they learned that these particles were composed of a handful of still smaller particles called quarks. This is really the essence of science, to find simple patterns to explain complex phenomena and this process requires intuition and imagination as much as it requires logical thinking and careful observation. So, Galileo was right, even when he was wrong.

Galileo Was Wrong

May 31, 2015

That is the idea behind an odd website that I found which promotes the theory of geocentrism or the idea that the Earth is the center of the Solar System and that the Sun revolves around the Earth. Geocentrism was, of course, the idea held by every astronomer and scientist up until 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus proposed his heliocentric, or Sun centered, model of the Solar System. For about a century there was a fierce debate among scientists and philosophers over the true structure of the universe. Heliocentrism won out, of course, and no educated person of the twenty-first believes that the Earth is at the center of the universe. Because of this, those who historically had supported Copernicus’s model, such as Galileo are held to be on the right side of science and history, while those who clung to the older geocentrism, such as many officials of the Roman Catholic Church, seem to have been backwards and on the wrong side. This website contends that in the controversy between Galileo and the Catholic Church, the Church was, in fact, in the right and Galileo was in the wrong, hence the title. The strange thing is that the website is actually correct, in a funny sort of way. Galileo really was in the wrong and the Church was right to be skeptical of Copernicus’s theories.

The controversy between Galileo and the Church has often been depicted as part of the never ending battle between the light of science and religious ignorance. It is generally accepted by historians today that Galileo’s troubles had far less to do with an alleged anti-science position taken by the Catholic Church and more to do with contemporary Italian politics and Galileo’s own irascible personality. What is generally less well known is that the Church had good scientific reasons to oppose Galileo. Neither Copernicus or Galileo had any way to prove that the Earth moves around the Sun. With his telescope Galileo did discover the four largest moons of Jupiter and the fact that Venus shows phases, which indicates that it orbits the sun. These discoveries were certainly  suggestive in that they showed that not everything in the sky directly orbited the Earth, but it was possible that while Venus and the Galilean satellites orbited the Sun and Jupiter, the Sun and Jupiter revolved around the motionless Earth. In fact, there wouldn’t be any conclusive proof that the Earth moves until eighty years after Galileo’s death when the astronomer James Bradley discovered the phenomenon of the aberration of light caused by the Earth’s motion through space.  By this time, there was hardly any doubt about the Earth orbiting the Sun.

Why were astronomers so quick to discard the millenia-old and common sense idea that the Earth rests motionless at the center of the universe without any direct proof? The answer is that a heliocentric Solar System better accounted for the motion of the planets. In order to understand this, we will have to go back to the origins of the science of astronomy.

No one knows where or when people began to really observe the night sky and take note of the motions of the heavenly bodies. It must have seemed obvious that the Earth was a flat surface with the sky a dome enclosing it. The Sun, Moon and stars rose into the sky moved from East to West across the sky and then set beneath the Earth. At some point, these early observers noticed that not all of the objects in the sky moved along with the background of stars. These objects seemed to wander about the sky, so the Greeks referred to them as planetes, or wanderers. There were seven of these “planets”. the Sun and Moon, and five star like objects that were named Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. It may seem strange to refer to the Sun and Moon as planets but they like the other planets, moved across the sky against the background of the fixed stars.

The Greeks and the Romans knew that the Earth is round and the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle held that the circle was the perfect shape. Because they believed that the Heavens were perfect and unchanging, as opposed to our corrupt and changing Earth, they believed that the seven planets orbited the Earth in perfect circles. This was the model proposed by the ancient Greek astronomers, especially the last and greatest of the Hellenistic astronomers, Claudius Ptolemy, who lived in the second century AD. For this reason the geocentric model is often called the Ptolemaic model.

There was a major problem with the model proposed by the ancient Greeks, the planets do not move in perfect circles across the sky from West to East against the background of the stars. The planets moved in different paths across the sky and at different speeds. Sometimes they seemed to move backwards in what was called retrograde motion.

This image was created as part of the Philip G...

The retrograde motion of Mars(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Earth passes Mars, the latter planet will t...

As Earth passes Mars, the latter planet will temporarily appear to reverse its motion across the sky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This apparent retrograde motion is is observed because the planets revolve at varying distances from the Sun and so orbit at varying velocities around the Sun. The Earth being closer to the Sun than Mars travels faster than Mars and so occasionally overtakes the other planet. Venus and Mercury travel faster than Earth and overtake us occasionally. You might be able to get an idea of how this works by considering a group of cars travelling on an Interstate. If I am driving at 60 miles per hour and pass a car that is going at 55 miles per hour, that other car will seem to be going backwards even though we are both going in the same direction. As a car travelling 65 miles per hour passes me, I will seem to be moving backwards to them.

 

In order to account for these dependencies between Aristotelian theory and astronomical observations, Greek astronomers hypothesized that while the planets move in perfect circles, they also moved in smaller circles within the circles. Thus, the heavens were full of wheels within wheels. It was Claudius Ptolemy who developed this system to the form that was used in Medieval astronomy.

epicycle-epicycle

It is easy to disparage Ptolemy for developing such a cumbersome system of concentric circles, but remember he did not have the telescope or many of the instruments invented to observe the motions of the planets that came into use in later years. He certainly cannot be blamed for assuming that the Earth is motionless. After, we cannot feel the Earth move and if we had to go by our own personal observations, we could only conclude the same. In fact, Ptolemy’s system was able to predict the motions of the planets with a high degree of accuracy and this was what the ancient and medieval astronomers were most concerned with.

There is much more to say about how later generations of Islamic and European astronomers refined and improved Ptolemy’s model as better astronomical instruments were invented and how Ptolemy came to be at last dethroned, but I am afraid that will have to wait for another post.

 

Memorial Day

May 25, 2015

Today is Memorial Day, the day we honor those who have fallen fighting for their country and for freedom.

Graves_at_Arlington_on_Memorial_Day

Memorial Day first started to be observed after the Civil War. That war was the bloodiest in American history and the casualties of that war were unprecedented. The number of killed and wounded in the three previous declared wars, the War of Independence, the War of 1812, and the Mexican War, were insignificant compared to the slaughter house that the Civil War became. After the war people in both the North and South began to commemorate the soldiers who died for their country. The date of this commemoration varied throughout the country until it settled on May 30.

In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill. This law moved the dates of four holidays, including Memorial Day, to the nearest Monday in order to create three-day weekends. This, I think, was unfortunate. I believe that converting the day on which we honor our fallen heroes into a long weekend tends to diminish the significance of this day. It becomes no more that day to take off work and for businesses to have sales. There should be more to Memorial Day.

 

The Election of 1836

May 3, 2015

At the end of his second term as president, Andrew Jackson was still popular enough that he could have run for a third term if he wanted. Jackson decided to abide by the two term limit precedent set by the previous presidents and instead promoted the candidacy of his vice-president and hand picked successor, Martin Van Buren. It was curious choice given how very different the two men were. Jackson was a rough and ready frontiersman who had worked his way up from an impoverished youth to become a military hero. Van Buren was a smooth politician from New York who was descended from an old Dutch family. Although they agreed on most of the issues, the two men didn’t really have a lot in common. The thing that actually brought them closer together and convinced President Jackson that Van Buren was just the right man to continue his legacy was the Peggy Eaton, or petticoat affair.

Peggy Eaton was a pretty young woman from Washington D. C. who had developed a certain reputation by her teens. In 1816, at the age of 17, Peggy eloped with a thirty-nine year old Navy Purser named John Timberlake. Timberlake died at sea in 1828 and Peggy married an old friend, Senator John Henry Eaton. This would not normally be considered scandalous, except that there were rumors that John and Peggy had been somewhat more than friends and that Timberlake had committed suicide because he learned of her infidelities.

At the beginning of his first term, in 1829, President Jackson had appointed Martin Van Buren as his Secretary of State and his friend Senator Eaton as Secretary of War, and that was when the scandal broke. Peggy Eaton was accused in Washington society of being an adulteress who had married Eaton indecently quickly after the death of her first husband instead of spending a proper time in mourning. In mean girls fashion, all of the wives of the men in Jackson’s cabinet snubbed John and Peggy Eaton and get their husbands to do likewise. Vice-President John C. Calhoun‘s wife Floride was the ringleader of this clique and this, along with their differences over state’s rights led to Jackson dropping Calhoun from the ticket when he ran for his second term, since Jackson, recalling the vicious gossip about his own marriage to his beloved Rachel, took the side of the Eatons, against his whole cabinet, except for Martin Van Buren, who being a widower did not have a wife to fear.

Because President Jackson became involved the petticoat affair caused a schism in his cabinet that made it impossible to govern. Jackson was unwilling to ask his friend Eaton to resign, so in 1831, he had everyone in his cabinet resign and began again with a new cabinet. Since Martin Van Buren was the only member of the cabinet who had treated the Eatons decently, Jackson made him his vice-president for his second term  selected Van Buren as his political successor.

With Jackson’s support, Van Buren easily won the Democratic nomination for president at the convention that met in Baltimore in May 1836. For his running mate, the convention selected Congressman Richard Mentor Johnson from Kentucky. Although Johnson balanced the ticket, being from the South, and something of a war hero from the War of 1812 and the conflicts against the Indians, he was a controversial choice because he had had a longstanding affair with a slave named Julia Chinn, who he treated as his wife.

The American Second Party System was still developing in 1836. There had been some opposition to Jackson from a variety of factions and these came together to oppose Van Buren. The National Republicans from the previous election joined with state’s rights supporters and the Anti-Masonic Party to form the Whig Party. The Whig Party was only united in their opposition to Andrew Jackson and they never did form a coherent party identity before breaking up over the slavery issue. In 1836, this disparate group could not settle on a site for a national convention or a single candidate, so they nominated three presidential candidates with each man appealing to a different region of the country. First there was Senator Daniel Webster from Massachusetts. He was a supporter of Henry Clay and could win New England and the Anti-Masons. Senator Hugh White from Tennessee could attract voters from the South. Finally, there was William Henry Harrison, a Senator from Ohio and the first governor of the Indiana Territory, he was most famous for leading the military force that defeated Tecumseh’s coalition of Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison, then, was a war hero who could really the West. The Whigs hoped that each candidate would be popular enough to defeat Van Buren in his region and since no candidate could gain a majority. The House of Representatives would select the new president from among the top three, presumably Whig, candidates. It was an unusual strategy that has never been tried again. Perhaps because it didn’t work.


There is not much to say about the actual campaign. There was a great deal of personal invective from both sides. The Whigs assailed Van Buren for being merely a clever politician without character or principles who was evasive on where he stood on the issues. The Whigs in the Senate, over which Van Buren presided as part of his duties as Vice-President, tried to embarrass Van Buren and arranged for tie votes, which would oblige Van Buren to cast a deciding, and possibly controversial, vote. The Democrats portrayed Van Buren as a worthy successor to Jackson and attacked the honor and credentials of the three Whigs.

In the end, the Democrats proved to be far better organized than their opponents and proved to be far better at rallying their supporters. Van Buren won the majority he needed. He won 764,168 or 50.9% of the popular vote.  He won 170 electoral votes from states all around the Union. Of the three Whigs, William Henry Harrison proved to be the most popular with 550,816 or 36.6% of the popular vote. Harrison won the mid western states Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, as well as Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey and Vermont for a total of 73 electoral votes. Hugh got 146,109 or 9.7% of the popular vote carrying only Tennessee and Georgia with 26 electoral votes. Daniel Webster won only his home state of Massachusetts and 14 electoral votes. Webster received 41,201 or 2.7% of the popular vote.

The Election of 1836

The Election of 1836

There was one more Whig, Willie Person Magnum who got South Carolina’s 11 electoral votes. South Carolina was the only remaining state in which the electors which selected by the state legislature rather than by popular vote.

Willie Person Magnum

Willie Person Magnum

 

There was one other oddity about the election of 1836. This was the only election in which the Senate selected the Vice President, as provided by the twelfth amendment,

The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

Van Buren’s running mate, Richard Johnson, proved to be very unpopular in the South because of his relationship with Julia Chenn, and 23 of Virginia’s electors who supported Van Buren refused to vote for Johnson. As a result he only received 147 electoral votes, one short of a majority. Johnson easily won the Senate vote which was along party lines 36 for Johnson to 16 for the Whig Francis Granger.

 

Oskar Groening

April 30, 2015

Oskar Groening was an officer of the SS stationed at Auschwitz. He wasn’t directly responsible for any of the killings at that extermination camp. Groening was an accountant charged with taking possession of the belongings of the Jews and other undesirables brought to the camp. For the most part, he worked in the office and kept track of the money. Groening knew what was happening at Auschwitz, and by his own account, he didn’t much care for it. He tried repeatedly to be transferred but his requests were denied. Now Oskar Groening is on trial as an accessory to the murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings. Here is the story I read at Yahoo News.

Hedy Bohm had just turned 16 when the Nazis packed her and her parents onto a cattle car in May 1944 and sent them from Hungary to the Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland.

After three days and nights in darkness, crammed into the standing-room-only car with babies wailing, the doors were flung open. “An inferno,” is how she remembers the scene she saw.

“The soldiers yelling at us, guns and rifles pointed at us,” she recalled. “Big dogs barking at us held back on their leashes by the soldiers.”

One of the black-uniformed men on the ramp was likely SS guard Oskar Groening. Now 93, he goes on trial Tuesday in a state court in the northern city of Lueneburg on 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. Two of those deaths were Bohm’s parents, who are believed to have been killed in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival in Auschwitz.

Groening’s trial is the first to test a line of German legal reasoning opened by the 2011 trial of former Ohio autoworker John Demjanjuk on allegations he was a Sobibor death camp guard, which has unleashed an 11th-hour wave of new investigations of Nazi war crimes suspects.

Prosecutors argue that anyone who was a death camp guard can be charged as an accessory to murders committed there, even without evidence of involvement in a specific death.

Groening has openly acknowledged serving as an SS non-commissioned officer at Auschwitz, though denies committing any crimes. His memories of the cattle cars packed with Jews arriving at the death camp are just are vivid as Bohm’s.

“A child who was lying there was simply pulled by the legs and chucked into a truck to be driven away,” he told the BBC in an interview 10 years ago. “And when it screamed like a sick chicken, they then bashed it against the edge of the truck so it would shut up.”

His attorney, Hans Holtermann, has prevented Groening from giving any new interviews, but said his client will make a statement as the trial opens. Earlier, Groening said he felt an obligation to talk about his past to confront those who deny the Holocaust.

“I want to tell those deniers that I have seen the crematoria, I have seen the burning pits, and I want to assure you that these atrocities happened,” he said. “I was there.”

Though acknowledgement of his past could help mitigate the 15-year maximum sentence Groening faces if convicted, the court’s focus will be on whether legally he can be found an accessory to murder for his actions.

Groening is accused of helping to operate the death camp between May and June 1944, when some 425,000 Jews from Hungary were brought there and at least 300,000 almost immediately gassed to death.

His job was to deal with the belongings stolen from camp victims. Prosecutors allege among other things that he was charged with helping collect and tally money that was found, which has earned him the moniker “the accountant of Auschwitz” from the German media.

Whenever I read of some Nazi war criminal being brought to trial, I have to wonder what the point is. Anyone who has had any role at all in planning  and executing the Holocaust is long dead. Any low level functionaries who might still be living are in their nineties and probably so senile that can scarcely remembered the crimes they might have committed sixty years ago. And what punishment could possibly fit their crimes? Even a life sentence will only be, at most, a few years, hardly enough for justice to be done.

Oskar Groening-then and now

Oskar Groening-then and now

As for Oskar Groening, I wonder if he would be in the legal difficulties he is in if he had decided to remain silent about his experiences at Auschwitz. Perhaps his past would have caught up with him anyway, but I can’t help but feel that he is somehow being punished for opposing the Holocaust Deniers by speaking out about the atrocities he had witnessed and been complicit in. Herr Groening is not Himmler, Eichmann, or Mengele. He is simply a man who wanted to belong to what was regarded as an elite organization and found himself in a Hell on Earth.


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