01 August 2022

"The Fate of Rome: climate, disease, and the end of an empire" - updated

This is the best book I've read in several years.

If someone had asked me a month ago why the Roman empire fell, I might have concocted a reply implicating lead in the drinking vessels, debauchery and dissolution, and the rise of Goths and Huns.  This book very cogently, and reasonably concisely (300 pages) explains how climate change and a series of pandemics absolutely destroyed what had been a pan-Mediterranean empire.

I found this set of parallel timelines to be quite useful:

The first point of note is that the previous rise of the Roman empire had also been fueled by climate change -  in this case the favorable "Roman Climate Optimum."  Starting in about 200 BC the Mediterranean region experienced increased precipitation, resulting in bountiful production of wheat in north Africa, which was in effect the breadbasket for the emerging empire.  With abundant food and population growth, growth was easy, and by the time of emperor Antoninus Pius (who ruled from 138-161) the empire stretched from the north of Britain to the south of Egypt and from the Atlantic to the edges of Asia -

Linking these areas together for the delivery of food, goods, and armies was the key to the establishment and power of the empire, but that network of ships and roads would later become pathways for the dispersion of novel pathogens.  

Prior to the rise of the Roman empire...
"Life was slow, organic, fragile, and constrained.  Time marched to the dull rhythms of foot and hoof.  Waterways were the real circulatory system of the empire, but in the cold and stormy season the seas closed, and every town became an island. Energy was forbiddingly scarce.  Human and animal muscle for force, timber and scrub for fuel.  Life was lived close to the land.  Eight in ten people lived outside of cities... Survival depended on the delivery of rain in a precarious environment.  For the vast majority, cereals dominated the diet.  "Give us this day our daily bread" was a sincere petition.  Death always loomed.  Life expectancy at birth was in the 20s, probably the mid-20s, in a world where infectious disease raged promiscuously..."
Then the rains of the Climate Optimum came, extensively and predictably in a region that even today is noted for extensive dryness.  Human populations grew, cities bloomed, civilization organized.

The collapse of the empire began in the second century, when the Antonine plague became pandemic in extent.  By the middle of the third century the climate had reverted back to seasonal drought, and a second pandemic swept the area.  By the fifth century the climate advanced from drought to the "late antique little ice age," which unleashed the overwhelming Justinianic Plagues from the mid-500s to the mid-700s.  When the cities were depopulated, they were easy prey for the Goths and Huns. 

That's the TL;DR.  Here are some additional notes that I jotted down for myself for future reference.
"Population growth was the unintended outcome of countless, razor-thin changes in the narrow margins between life and death... Mortality was blindingly high... Even by the low standards of all underdeveloped societies, the actuarial tables of the roman world were grim.  Average life expectancy at birth fell somewhere between twenty and thirty years.  The blunt force of infectious disease was, by far, the overwhelming determinant... the obligatory response is high fertility.  The burden of fertility fell heavily on the bodies of women... Roman law allowed girls to be married starting at age twelve.  Most women married in their mid-teens... Women who bore sufficient numbers of children were granted robust legal privileges.  Contraception was primitive, at best... The woman surviving to menopause bore something like six children, on average..."

"... possibility that the Romans had a modest role in accelerating climate change.  Orbital, solar, and volcanic forcing are unmoved by human affairs, and the Romans did not pollute the atmosphere sufficiently to trigger climate change.  But the Romans did fell forests in massive swaths.  Woodland was cleared for agriculture.. and consumed huge forests for fire and fuel... Hadrian was concerned enough about the dwindling supply of long timber to claim certain Syrian forests as imperial property and exert control over their exploitation."

"By its nature, Roman civilization seemed to unlock the pestilential potential of the landscape.  The expansion of agriculture brought civilization deeper into habitats friendly to the mosquito.  Deforestation facilitated the pooling of water... Roman roads... cut directly through the malarial Pontine marshes.. Urban gardens and waterworks brought mosquitoes and humans into unbearably close quarters... The roman Empire was an  unintended experiment in mosquito breeding."

"The effects of malaria include severe malnutrition, leaving its victims vulnerable to other infections...Malaria clears the path for vitamin-deficiency disorders like rickets, and can increase susceptibility to respiratory infections such as tuberculosis... But it could always kill quickly, too, and it is probable that immigrants were particularly vulnerable... If the Roman Climate Optimum was indeed an especially wet period, it was a boon for the mosquitoes and the parasites they ferried... Malaria was endemic in Rome and other core regions..."
The first "great pestilence" (the Antonine Plague) was probably smallpox.  Contemporary accounts suggest it arrived via the Red Sea axis after having devastated Arabian kingdoms in ancient Yemen.  For diagnosis we have detailed descriptions by the renowned physician Galen, who treated "countless" victims: "its attendant symptoms were fever, a black pustular rash, conjunctival irritation, ulceration deep in the windpipe, and black or bloody stools."  If the scabs dried and fell off like scales, the victim might recover.

Smallpox would be directly transmitted by the inhalation of infectious droplets expelled by an infectious person.  The incubation period averaged about 12 days, so the virus could travel a long distance before overwhelming the host.  The rash started as vesicles, then became pustular, then scabbed.  The patient would be infectious until after the scabs fell off, leaving disfiguring scars.  There are references to smallpox-like epidemics in China in the fourth century and in Indian texts of the sixth century.  A Persian physician devoted an extraordinary treatise to the differential diagnosis of smallpox vs. measles.
"A fuller picture is likely to emerge as more genomic data is recovered from archaeological samples.  At present, one hypothesis is that Variola evolved from a rodent orthopoxvirus to become an obligate human pathogen, in Africa, sometime before the Antonine Plague.  The biologcal agent of the second-century pestilence could represent an especially virulent lineage of Variola that went extinct, or an ancestral form of the virus that evolved into a milder medieval form of smallpox.  And it still could have been caused by some other biological agent altogether, although there are no serious candidates at present."
In April of AD 248, the city of Rome celebrated its 1000th birthday by slaughtering a "veritable zoo, of the most extravagant creatures from around the world... thirty-two elephants, ten elk, ten tigers, sixty lions, thirty leopards, six hippopotami ten giraffes, one rhinoceros... and countless other wild beasts, not to mention a thousand pairs of gladiators."

"... just when the Romans most needed a buffer against bad fortune, the Nile abandoned them spectacularly.  In AD 244, the waters failed to rise.  IN AD 245 or 246, the floods were weak again."  [grain prices soared spectacularly]

The second pandemic (the Plague of Cyprian) struck in recurring waves from AD 249-262.  The etiology is a bit uncertain, but it is known to have emerged from Africa (Ethiopia), then extended north and west.  Archaeologists have found mass graves in Upper Egypt with lime poured over bodies that were then incinerated.
"The geographic scope of the pestilence was vast.  'There was almost no province of Rome, no city, no house, which was not attacked and emptied by this general pestilence.'  It hit the largest cities like Alexandria Antioch, Rome, and Carthage, but also remote urban areas.  It was an "empire-wide event."  
The pandemic disease was characterized by fever, diarrhea, ischemia of the extremities, conjunctival hemorrhages, with deafness and blindness in the aftermath - symptoms suggestive of a viral hemorrhagic fever.  The winter seasonality suggests an organism that transmits by interpersonal contact.  "Only one family of hemorrhagic viruses seems to provide a best match for both the pathology and epidemiology of the Plague of Cyprian: filoviruses, whose most notorious representative is the Ebola Virus."

After the second pandemic there was widespread anarchy, loss of resilience, and increasing problems contending with barbarians.
"By design, the Roman frontier system was defensible, not impenetrable.  But almost simultaneously, in the early AD 250s, the defensive network imploded along all of the main fronts.  'The Alemanni, having devastated the Gauls, penetrated into Italy... Greece, Macedonia, Pontus, and Asia were destroyed by Goths.  Pannonia was plundered by Sarmatians and Quadi.  Germans advanced all the way to the Spains.'"
Slavery was ubiquitous across the empire in this era.
"To own a slave was a standard of minimum respectability.  In the fourth century, priests doctors, painters, prostitutes, petty military officers, actors, inn-keepers, and fig-sellers are found owning slaves.  Many slaves owned slaves.    Even assistant professors in Antioch had a few slaves."
And economic stratification was enormous.
"The top senatorial families of late antiquity owned stupendous wealth... each of the great senatorial houses in Rome was like a city in its own right... incomes the equivalent of something like the production of 80,000 family farms, per year."
The fourth century also marked the rise of the Huns.  Their migration toward the west can be considered an environmental event.  It was a time of megadrought in the steppe.  
"The last two decades from ca AD 350 to 370 were the worst multidecadal drought event of the last two millennia.  The nomads who called central Asia home suddenly faced a crisis as dramatic as the Dust Bowl.  The Huns were armed climate refugees on horseback.  Their mode of life enabled them to search out new pastures with amazing speed.... By AD 370, Huns had started to cross the Volga River.  The advent of these people on the western steppe was momentous."
What made the Huns overwhelming were their horses and speed of movement, and their composite reflex bow (effective to about 150 meters).  The land north of the Danube had been dominated by Goths in a kind of equilibrium."In AD 376, in flight from the Huns, Goths appeared en masse seeking asylum inside Roman borders.  Upwards of 100,000 Goths - men, women, and children - may have sought help."  With the Roman empire "reeling," Attila "scaled up the Hun war machine." "Throughout the 440s, he wasted the Balkans and engorged his royal circle on plundered wealth.

In AD 447 a massive earthquake knocked down the great walls of Constantinople, including 57 defensive towers.  The city was defenseless.  What saved Constantinople were its endemic diseases.  
"'Against the stone of sickness they stumbled and the steeds fell... He who was skillful in shooting with the bow, sickness of the bowels overthrew him...'  What actually repulsed the invaders was seen, from one perspective, as "heaven-sent disasters: famine and some kind of disease."  The retreat was in fact the predictable biological consequence of intruders colliding with the indigenous disease ecology.  The heartland of empire was a gauntlet of germs.  The unsung savior of Italy in this affair was perhaps even malaria."
After the Huns retreated in the fifth century, the Roman empire was in ruins.  The western Roman army "ceased to exist as a state institution."  By AD 476 there was no Roman emperor in the west.  The cities shriveled.  Money was scarce.  The churches found themselves the wealthiest landowners and institutions.

When Rome tried to rebuild in a suboptimal climate, their focus was on securing huge hoards of food.  The principal food was bread, which required huge granaries full of wheat. 
Granaries were everywhere in the later Roman world.  the stockpiling of grain was deeply rooted in the Mediterranean psyche.  In the empire, the vast network of cities, ships, and stores of grain created an ecosystem.  This ecosystem served as an invitation for a species uncannily evolved to be commensal - literally, to "share a table" - with us: Rattus rattus, the black or ship rat...

The fusion of global trade and rodent infestation was the ecological precondition for the greatest disease event human civilization had ever experienced: the first pandemic of plague... In 541 plague appeared on the shores of Egypt..." [presumably having come from the Indian subcontinent via the trade routes along the Red Sea]
It required one last twist of fate for the bacterium to make its grand entrance into the roman world.  The Asia uplands had prepared a monster iin the germ Yersinia pestis.  The ecology of the empire had built an infrastructure awaiting a pandemic.  The silk trade was ready to ferry the deadly package.  But the final conjunction, what finally let the spark jump, was abrupt climate change.  The year AD 536 is known as a "Year without Summer."  It was the terrifying first spasm in what is now known to be a cluster of volcanic explosions unmatched in the last three thousand years.  Again in AD 540-541 there was a gripping volcanic winter... the AD 530s and 540s were not just frosty.  They were the coldest decades in the late Holocene.  The reign of Justinian was beset by an epic, once-in-a-few-millennia cold snap, global in extent."
Because this Antonine [bubonic] plague was rat-borne, it had the ability to infiltrate and devastate rural areas as well as urban ones.  The Medieval Black Death (14th century) is estimated to have killed 40-60% of all the people in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.  This sixth century one was probably similar.  The empire crashed again.  There were no people to harvest the decreased crops, no money to pay the armies, inheritance systems were obliterated, building activity ceased.  During this Late Antique "Little Ice Age", Pope Gregory's Rome "may have been home to as few as 10-20,000 souls huddled inside its walls; they would barely have filled a corner of the Colosseum."
"AD 536 was the coldest year of the last two millenniaAverage summer temperatures in Europe fell instantly by up to 2.5 degrees, a truly staggering drop.  In the aftermath of the volcanic eruption in AD 539-40, temperatures plunged worldwide.  In Europe, average summer temperatures fell again by up to 2.7 degrees."
There is modern evidence that the volcanic activity at this time may also have been accompanied by diminished solar output.   When Pope Gregory sent missionaries to convert the pagans of the British Isles, "there were no towns, no villas and no coins."
"Most towns suffered a fate somewhere between hollowing out and utter annihilation.  Rome is only the most famous and dramatic instance of the urban death spiral.  Procopius claimed that by AD 547 there were only 500 people in the city: the number may not be entirely credible, but the point is made

I'll end this mega-post here, with the observation that not only is the book interesting because of the factual material, but it is also extremely well-written from a language and stylistic standpoint.  This author knows how to tell a story.  I'll write a separate post to list the new words I learned while reading the book. 

p.s. - I'm not back to blogging regularly yet.  Just had to finish this post so I can return the book to the library. 

30 July 2022


I am overwhelmed with "things to do," and the blog has to go near the bottom of the list.  So probably no new posts for several weeks or more.  Bye for now.

27 July 2022

Divertimento #192

GIFs again.  I have literally thousands of regular text/article links, but these gifs are easier to post.  Note you may have to unmute some of the videos.

Oppenheimer's famous quote "... now I have become death, destroyer of worlds..."
How screw anchors work
Applying a new floor in a warehouse
The letters on a Rolls-Royce hubcap always remain upright
House on Cape Hatteras succumbs to coastal erosion
Some cars make fake engine sounds
A family having dinner
Extracting copper from cables

Frog escapes from snake
Magpie uses rocks to displace water
Dog vs. snake (dog wins in style)
This is a solifuge
Orangutans are powerful animals
Mountain goat approaching terminal velocity during descent
Hedgehogs taking a dust bath

Nature and Science
Sky event when rocket leaves atmosphere
Global shockwave of the Tonga volcano explosion
Walking on a natural bridge
Pollen released from a tree
A blowhole on the coast of India

Impressive or Clever
Kaleidoscope on a planter in a botanical garden
Woman shows how to alert chickens re a nearby hawk
Drone footage of a tornado
Extracting lithium from a battery and placing it in water
Adding pinstriping to a car
Quiet but effective student protest
If you like powerwashing videos, you will love this

Sports and Athleticism
Absolutely awesome volleyball rally
How to carry firewood back to your campsite

Fails and wtf
Skimmer found on a public ATM in Vienna

Humorous or cheerful
Supercut of scenes from Lord of the Rings involving two females interacting
Coyote and cat playing

Credit for all of the photos to Marcie O'Connor, who posted these as part of a larger gallery of natural events happening at Prairie Haven.  Identities and details about the plants and critters in the images are available at the source link.  And after you are done browsing the gallery there, take a few moments to explore the rest of the website...
"This blog tells the story of the old farm we bought in 2000, and the adventures we’ve had living here.

Our land is in the Driftless Area – the part of the midwest that was never covered by glaciers. Because of its rugged terrain, the land still has many remnants of the pre-settlement landscape – dry bluff prairies, overgrown savannas, sedge meadows and wet prairies. We’re working to protect and expand those remnants,  and to preserve their habitats for the native plants and animals that depend on them."


Had to look up the term for this.  Related to schadenfreude, but not the same:

Displeasure at another's good fortune is Gluckschmerz, a pseudo-German word coined in 1985 as a joke by the pseudonymous Wanda Tinasky; the correct German form would be Glücksschmerz. It has since been used in academic contexts.

Veggies going to market

Photographed in Cameroon (credit Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images), via The Guardian


The Pulpí Geode is eight metres wide, two metres high and two metres deep. "When it comes to a geode, by definition, this is the biggest ever discovery," she noted, adding that Pulpí is not to be confused with another crystal marvel, the Naica Mine in Mexico, which has larger spars (15m long compared to Pulpí's two metres), but which is a cave lined with crystals rather than a geode. 

The geode here in Spain was originally spotted by miners in the Mina Rica, a silver mine which operated from 1873 to 1969. But it wasn't until years later, in 1999, that geologists found it again and brought it to the world's attention.

"When [the original miners] blasted this rock and found a geode, they probably got upset because they didn't like finding these crystals," said Carretero. "It meant extra work to get rid of them. They weigh a lot and were not profitable."
The story continues at the BBC.

Why Russia has not yet conquered Ukraine

Nearly five months into its senseless war against Ukraine, Russia has concocted a wild new explanation for why the Kremlin’s plans for a quick takeover fell apart so spectacularly—because Ukrainian troops were turned into superhuman killing machines during “secret experiments” in American-run biolabs, of course.

Never mind the myriad reports of Russian troops refusing to fight by the thousands, sabotaging their own shoddy equipment and even deliberately wounding themselves to abandon the war, Russian lawmakers claim the real setback for Moscow was “drugged up” Ukrainian soldiers.

That claim was made Monday by two Russian lawmakers heading up a commission to investigate “biolaboratories” in Ukraine, Kommersant reported...

“And we see: the cruelty and barbarity with which the military personnel of Ukraine behave, the crimes that they commit against the civilian population, those monstrous crimes that they commit against prisoners of war, confirm that this system for the control and creation of a cruel murder machine was implemented under the management of the United States,” Yarovaya was quoted telling reporters.../

The claims appeared to be a new take on the biolabs conspiracy theory that Russia’s Defense Ministry has routinely rolled out to try and justify the war.

While the conspiracy theory dates all the way back to the Soviet Union, it has been amplified more frequently by Kremlin figures after the Feb. 24 invasion, as Moscow’s initial claim that it invaded Ukraine in order to “de-Nazify” a country led by a Jewish president failed to gain much traction beyond its own domestic propaganda.
One almost has to admire the brazenness and audacity of these outright lies.  It sort of reminds me of.... 

Magnet fishing

As reported by the StarTribune:
Long before next week's fishing opener, a few Minnesota anglers were avidly casting lines into the water and hauling in hefty catches.  But they weren't hooking walleye, bass or northern pike. They were hoping to reel in an antique metal sign, a safe full of money, maybe even a gun.

It's part of a new, and admittedly niche, sport of magnet fishing, where you "fish" with a super-powerful magnet tied to a strong line.  Most of the time, magnet fishers pull in mundane scrap metal: old nails and bolts, a length of rebar, fish hooks, beer bottle caps...

Even if it's just scrap metal, local magnet fishers don't catch and release, but rather dispose or recycle their finds and consider themselves to be helping the environment by hauling hundreds of pounds of metal out of local rivers and lakes...

The hobby is also growing in parts of Europe, where there's a lot of metal in canals and other bodies of water thanks to centuries of warfare.

"England is very, very big for magnet fishing," Shoemaker said.
More information at the link.  I've wanted to do something like this ever since I was a kid in a boat spotting lost lures at the bottom of a lake.

Reposted from last year to add this display of magnet fishing catches:

In the discussion thread, the OP reports that he submits all the retrieved firearms for local police to evaluate, and that he has helped solve four cold cases.  Lives in Georgia.

Looks interesting...

Via Le Cafe Wittypoots.  DVD requested from our library.  Has any reader seen it?  Care to offer comments?

26 July 2022

Seeking assistance with the translation

In the photo above is a member of my extended family visiting the Museo Nacional de Antropología de México last week.

She is apparently trying to convey some message or emotion (?awe) with her hand gestures, but I have no clue.  Can some younger reader help out an old Boomer?

25 July 2022

Isabella and the pot of basil

Every month I have the joy of participating in a Zoom session with a group of Boston-area gardeners.  This past Sunday one person in the group mentioned that she had just returned from a visit to Greece where the basil had an unusually strong and pleasant flavor.  We have pots-full of basil on our deck, but it's all of one type, so I started looking up different strains of basil.  At the Wikipedia entry I encountered the image above of Isabella and the Pot of Basil - an 1868 painting by William Holman Hunt depicting a scene from John Keats' poem of the same name.
The painting portrays Isabella, unable to sleep, dressed in a semi-transparent nightgown, having just left her bed, which is visible with the cover turned over in the background. She drapes herself over an altar she has created to Lorenzo from an elaborately inlaid prie-dieu over which a richly embroidered cloth has been placed. On the cloth is the majolica pot, decorated with skulls... [with the basil]. Her abundant hair flows over the pot and around the flourishing plant, reflecting Keats's words that Isabella "hung over her sweet Basil evermore,/And moistened it with tears unto the core." Behind her, next to the doorway, are a pair of pattens, next to the edge of a cassone.
As an old English major, I was intrigued by the reference to a Keats poem with which I was unfamiliar, so I looked for more examples.  Here is a rendition by George Grenville Henry Manton (1855-1932), from the Wycombe museum:

And one by John William Waterhouse (1908):

And a fourth one, by Edward Reginald Frampton, in which the basil pot is actually placed on a religious altar:

The final step was to locate the Keats poem, which I found in an old Modern Library edition down in a basement bookcase.

Keats' Isabella: or the Pot of Basil (1818) is a 43-stanza narrative poem based on a story from Boccaccio's Decameron, about a young woman who falls in love with Lorenzo, who is of lower social class.  Isabella's brothers "resolved in some forest dim/To kill Lorenzo, and there bury him."

The spirit of Lorenzo appears at Isabella's bedside:

It was a vision. - In the drowsy gloom,
     The dull of midnight, at her couch's foot
Lorenzo stood, and wept: the forest tomb
     Had marr'd his glossy hair which once could shoot/ Lustre into the sun....

The spirit tells Isabella what really happened, and in the morning Isabella wakes up energized and ready to do battle:

"But there is crime - a brother's bloody knife!
     Sweet Spirit, thou hast school'd my infancy:
I'll visit thee for this, and kiss thine eyes,
And greet thee morn and evening in the skies"

The next morning with the assistance of a nurse, she sneaks out to the forest...

Then with her knife, all sudden, she began
   To dig more fervently than misers can...
At last they felt the kernel of the grave,
    And Isabella did not stamp and rave...
With duller steel than the Persian sword
They cut away no formless monster's head,
But one, whose gentleness did well accord
With death, as life...

In anxious secrecy they took it home,,
    And then the prize was all for Isabel.
She calm'd its wild hair with a golden comb...
She wrapp'd it up; and for its tomb did choose
A garden-pot, wherein she laid it by,
And covered it with moss, and o'er it set
Sweet Basil, which her tears kept ever wet. 

The basil thrives...

And, furthermore, her brethren wonder'd much
    Why she sat drooping by the Basil green,
And why it flourish'd, as by magic touch;
Greatly they wonder'd what the thing might mean. 

So the brothers steal the pot, break it, see Lorenzo's face, and flee the country to avoid murder charges.  Unfortunately the pot and Lorenzo's head do not make their way back to Isabel, who then spends the rest of her life grieving. 

Piteous she look'd on dead and senseless things,
     Asking for her lost Basil amorously...
And so she pined, and so she died forlorn,
     Imploring for her Basil to the last...
Still is the burthen sung - "O cruelty,
To steal my Basil-pot away from me!"  

That's the story in a nutshell, and it explains why an image of a young woman hugging a pot with a plant in it was such a popular subject for Pre-Raphaelite painters.  To quote the immortal lines of Paul Harvey:  "And now you know... the rest of the story."

Addendum:  Here's the salient passage from Boccaccio's Decameron, courtesy of reader Bob the Scientist:
Not long after, the Nurse having brought her a large earthen potte, such as wee use to set Basile, Marjerom, Flowers, or other sweet hearbes in, and shrouding the head in a silken Scarfe, put it into the pot, covering it with earth, and planting divers rootes of excellent Basile therein, which she never watered, but either with her teares, Rose water, or water distilled from the Flowers of Oranges. This pot she used continually to sitte by, either in her chamber, or any where elsee: for she caried it alwaies with her, sighing and breathing foorth sad complaints thereto, even as if they had beene uttered to her Lorenzo, and day by day this was her continuall exercise, to the no meane admiration of her bretheren, and many other friends that beheld her.
Fulltext of the tale at Science Matters.

Worm grunting - updated

This technique was written up in The Atlantic about ten years ago. It's an extensive and interesting narrative that covers not just the science but the sociology of the process.

The science behind worm grunting is described at this Vanderbilt University website -
In his preliminary research, Catania found some other interesting clues. One was the observation by the famous Dutch ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen that one species of gull performs a “foot paddling behavior” that appears to bring up earthworms to the surface, a response he attributed to an innate reaction that enables the worms “to escape their arch enemy the mole.” More recently the American naturalist John Kaufmann who studied wood turtles reported that they engage in a stomping behavior that brings earthworms to the surface so they can eat them...

The next step was to determine how the native earthworms respond to the presence of moles. He built a small test box (20x25x19 cm) and filled it with 50 earthworms. The box had a tube in the side that allowed him to introduce a mole to the mix. As soon as a mole began tunneling into the test box, dozens of earthworms popped to the surface, wriggling at top speed with many even crawling over the top of the box.

“Eastern moles don’t come to the surface when they are foraging, so fleeing to the surface provides the worms both immediate safety and the most efficient means for getting away from them,” Catania says...

Finally, Catania compared the vibrations produced by worm grunting and those of a mole burrowing. “The moles are quite noisy. Often you can hear the sounds of a mole digging in the wild from a few feet away,” he said. Analyzing the geophone recordings of the two types of sound, he found that the worm grunting vibrations were more uniform and concentrated near 80 Hz whereas the moles produce a wider range of vibrations that peak at around 200 Hz. Nevertheless, there is a considerable overlap between the two.
Reposted from 2009 to add this video of competitive worm charming in England:

The video prompted me to look up The Eighteen Rules of Worm Charming:
  1. Each competitor to operate in a 3 x 3 metre plot.
  2. Lots to be drawn to allocate plots.
  3. Duration of competition to be 30 minutes, starting at about 2pm.
  4. Worms may not be dug from the ground. Vibrations only to be used.
  5. No drugs to be used! Water is considered to be a drug/stimulant.
  6. Any form of music may be used to charm the worms out of the earth.
Reposted from 2016 to add this photo of a participant in the Falmouth Worm Charming Championships (credit Hugh R Hastings / Getty).

23 July 2022

"This is the coldest summer of the rest of our lives"

That thought-provoking title is not literally true for each individual person, but is true in aggregate for the whole of humanity.  Something to think about.  Credit to Harper's Magazine.

Above: Brittany on fire, July 2022.  Credit Rachel Le Guillou / SDIS 29 / Reuters.
Below: Yosemite area fire, July 2022.  Credit AP Photo/Noah Berger.

20 July 2022

Isidore of Seville is the patron saint of...

Isidore of Seville (Latin: Isidorus Hispalensis; c. 560 – 4 April 636) was a Spanish scholar and cleric. He is widely regarded, in the words of 19th-century historian Montalembert, as "the last scholar of the ancient world".

Isidore was the first Christian writer to try to compile a summa of universal knowledge, in his most important work, the Etymologiae...  This encyclopedia—the first such Christian epitome—formed a huge compilation of 448 chapters in 20 volumes.  He also invented the period (full stop), comma, and colon.

In it, Isidore entered his own terse digest of Roman handbooks, miscellanies and compendia, he continued the trend towards abridgements and summaries that had characterised Roman learning in Late Antiquity. In the process, many fragments of classical learning are preserved that otherwise would have been hopelessly lost; "in fact, in the majority of his works, including the Origines, he contributes little more than the mortar which connects excerpts from other authors, as if he was aware of his deficiencies and had more confidence in the stilus maiorum than his own," his translator Katherine Nell MacFarlane remarks.

Some of these fragments were lost in the first place because Isidore's work was so highly regarded—Braulio called it quaecunque fere sciri debentur, "practically everything that it is necessary to know"—that it superseded the use of many individual works of the classics themselves, which were not recopied and have therefore been lost: "all secular knowledge that was of use to the Christian scholar had been winnowed out and contained in one handy volume; the scholar need search no further".

The fame of this work imparted a new impetus to encyclopedic writing, which bore abundant fruit in the subsequent centuries of the Middle Ages. It was the most popular compendium in medieval libraries. It was printed in at least ten editions between 1470 and 1530, showing Isidore's continued popularity in the Renaissance. Until the 12th century brought translations from Arabic sources, Isidore transmitted what western Europeans remembered of the works of Aristotle and other Greeks, although he understood only a limited amount of Greek. The Etymologiae was much copied, particularly into medieval bestiaries.. 
With that information in hand, we can now to finish the title.  Because he tried to compile all the world's knowledge, he is the patron saint of the internet, computer users, computer technicians, programmers, students.

Modern reality TV

Screencap from a video carried in prime time on most of the major news networks.  
Snarky caption credit to a Harper's Magazine email.
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