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October 28, 2002

The Confederacy is Evil

Based on a (very good and civil, mind you) e-mail conversation I had over the weekend, I think now is a fine time to expand some points I made here over a year ago, when I wrote my "Southern Heritage is a Crock" column. So here we go:

The Confederate States of America was a fundamentally evil institution. Period, end of sentence. That's "evil," spelled "E-V-I-L." "Evil," as in "morally reprehensible," "sinful," "wicked," "pernicious," "offensive" and "noxious." "Evil," as in "the world is a demonstrably better place without this thing in it." Evil. That's right, evil. Once again, for those of you who haven't figured it out yet: Evil. And for those of you yet hard of hearing, the ASL version:

Really, I don't know how much clearer I can make it.

The CSA was a fundamentally evil institution because it codified slavery into its system of government; N.B: Article IV Section 2 of the Constitution of the Confederacy. And lest you think this was just some sort of mamby-pamby sop thrown in the CSA constitution to please the slave-holders, let's go to the historical record, to a speech by CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens in March of 1861, in which he discussed the CSA Constitution at great length. The entire text is here, but allow me to excerpt considerably (and to place emphasis on the relevant passages) from Stephens' comments about slavery and its role in the CSA, both in its constitution and in its very formation:

"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution -- African slavery as it exists amongst us -- the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. [US President Thomas] Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted.

"The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery -- subordination to the superior race -- is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind -- from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity.

"One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics; their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just -- but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails.

"I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal."

Lots of Confederate sympathizers like to say that what the Confederacy was really about was state's rights, and all that. But I don't know. Let's put on one side a bunch of Confederate sympathizers who understandably want to downplay their fetish's unfortunate association with that whole "people owning people" thing. And on the other side, let's put the CSA's second-highest executive, speaking about a Constitution he helped create, specifically discussing the role of slavery in his country's formation. When it comes to what the Confederacy was really about, who are you going to believe?

Yes, the United States had slavery (and continued to have it, even during the Civil War; that Emancipation Proclamation thing of Lincoln was only effective in rebellious states), and isn't blameless of other nasty habits, including brushing the natives off land it wanted to own. However, the United States did not codify evil into its Constitution by enshrining the practice of slavery; as Stephens proudly notes, it took the CSA, among all other countries in the world, to do that. The United States has done evil, but is not fundamentally evil in its formulation, as is the CSA.

It comes to this: When someone tells you the Confederacy was about something other than people owning people, they're either being intentionally disingenuous or (more charitably) are ignorant about the deep and abiding role slavery had in the formation of the CSA. It was about other things, too. But, and in an entirely appropriate, non Godwin-izing use of this particular political entity, the Third Reich was about more than just exterminating the Jews. It just happens that that's the one cornerstone policy of the Reich that, you know, sort of stands out.

Given that the CSA is a fundamentally evil institution, it's clear that any of its trappings are symbols of evil, including those flags Confederate sympathizers love so well. This is a pretty cut and dried thing: If the answer to the question "Was this symbol/flag/insignia/whatever used as an identifying object by the Confederate States of America?" is "Yes," then it is, point of fact, a racist and evil symbol. If you're wearing such a symbol or otherwise endorsing it in some public way, it's not unreasonable for people who see you wearing such symbols (particularly the descendants of former slaves) to wonder if you're either racist and somewhat evil yourself or, alternately, just plain dim.

If you have an ancestor who fought for the CSA, then, yes, he fought for an evil institution -- but no, I don't think it makes that individual evil in himself. I think it's perfectly reasonable and right for the descendants of Confederate soldiers to note the bravery and valor with which they fought, and to commemorate their individual efforts on the field. I think it would be nice if they additionally noted that it was sad that the government for which they fought was ultimately undeserving of their blood and defense, and that it was rightfully expunged from the world, but that's another matter entirely.

(My correspondent this weekend asked me an interesting question as to whether a memorial for American soldiers who died in combat should include names of Confederate soldiers -- the genesis of this question being some fracas he'd heard about at a northern university that was putting together such a memorial. My response is that it shouldn't, for the reason that either the CSA was its own country, in which case its soldiers weren't "American" soldiers ("American" understood to refer to citizens of the US), or it wasn't its own country and the Confederate soldiers were in open and treasonous rebellion, and as a general rule one does not commemorate traitors, particularly ones whose rebellious actions ultimately caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. I don't have a problem with such memorials in formerly Confederate territory, but the rest of the United States is not obligated to follow suit.)

Now, look: I understand that for a lot of Confederacy fans, it really isn't about race or anything else other than pride for the South. My response to that is: Groovy. Go for it. Love the South. What y'all need to do, however, is get some new symbols, some that don't hearken back to the Dixie Days, when you went to war for the right to keep owning people. The Confederacy was evil, and now it's dead, and its being dead is front and center the best thing that there ever was about it. There is the South, and there is the Confederacy, and a good thing for you and for the rest of us would be the realization that these two things don't have to be synonymous.

Posted by john at 08:35 PM | Comments (9)

October 25, 2002

We Need New Constellations

I've been spending the last few days working with the constellations, drafting images for the cartographers over at Rough Guides to turn into actual star charts (hint: It's easier to do when you're making screenshots off of astronomy software, as I've been doing. Yes, you have to get permission from the software makers before you do this sort of thing. Yes, I did). There are 88 officially recognized constellations, but I ended up with 69 charts, on account that I paired up several of the smaller and/or less impressive constellations. Sad to say, many constellations just don't rate their own star chart.

It's not like they care, mind you. They're just abstract representations of earthly objects projected into the sky by humans, using stars that have only a passing relationship to each other. Stars that look close in our night sky can be hundreds of light years apart; it's that whole "space is three dimensional" thing (and actually, space is four dimensional -- some stars we see in the sky may already be long-dead and gone, it's just taking a while for the news to reach us, thank you very much Dr. Einstein).

I don't think most people realize how many strange and pointless constellations are sitting up there in the sky. In a way, this is only natural (said, of course, ironically): Most of us live in urban areas, where light pollution and other sorts of pollution conspire to blank out fainter stars from our view. I remember living in Chicago and looking up and being able to see nothing but the 10 or 20 brightest stars -- really not enough to go naming constellations by. Since many of the more obscure constellations are composed mainly of faint stars, why should people know them? When it comes to constellations, you can't know what you can't see.

The other reason is that constellations just don't mean what they used to people. When you've got PlayStation 2, what do you need with the constellation Vulpecula (this is not a knock on PlayStation 2, said the Chief Entertainment Media Critic for Official US PlayStation Magazine, quickly, before he can get fired for disloyalty). If you can make out and recognize the Big Dipper (which, strictly speaking, is an asterism, not a constellation), or maybe Taurus or Orion, you're doing just fine.

Still, it's interesting to know what weird and freaky objects are up there in the sky. For example, did you know that there's a giraffe walking around near the celestial north pole? It's the constellation Camelopardalis (pictured above), which, being circumpolar as it is, is always hovering in the night sky here in the northern hemisphere. Its near neighbors include two bears, a bobcat, a dragon, and a guy carrying around a couple of goats. I think it's a little out of place.

The fact of the matter is that Camelopardalis is a fairly recent constellation, created just a few hundred years ago by an astronomer who noticed that there was this wide swath of space with no constellation in it; he just spotted a few dim stars (none higher than 4th magnitude, which means you won't be able to see them n the suburbs), strung 'em together, and there you have it -- instant constellation.

Other lesser-known constellations in the northern sky: Delphinus and Equuleus (the dolphin and horse, respectively), Sagitta (the arrow) and Vulpecula (the fox), Corvus and Crater (a crow and a cup, and they actually share a mythological story together), Canes Venatici (hunting dogs) and Coma Berenices (Berenice's hair, and isn't that a weird one: A wig in space). The thing about these constellations is that if you can identify one of them, you're probably the sort of person who can identify them all. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind you. I am writing an astronomy book, you know. I want you to be know these things.

The earth's southern hemisphere has a lot of unfamiliar constellations for most of us, but that's to be expected, since most people on the planet live in the northern hemisphere, rather above the equator, thus there are constellations down under that we never see: Chameleon, Pavo, Apus, Hydrus, Tucana, Octans -- all circumpolar to the South Pole.

Be that as it may, the southern hemisphere has a lot of constellations seem a little odd in their own right; many of them were described and created during the Age of Exploration (when the Europeans hopped in their ships to travel the world and surprise the natives of other lands with Jesus and smallpox), and so describe scientific objects: Microscopes, telescopes, compasses, air pumps, carpenter's levels, chisels, pendulum clocks and octants. A fan of rationality though I may be, I'm not at all impressed with any of these: I want the night sky to be filled with wild animals and mythological heroes, not to resemble Galileo's laboratory.

Given the fact that so many constellations are dim and/or obscure and/or just plain lame, I have an idea. I say we yank most of the constellations. I figure we have to keep the signs of the zodiac, otherwise we'll have to fund an Omnibus Astrologers' Assistance Bill in congress, and then keep on some of the most obvious constellations in both hemispheres: Orion, Centaurus, Ursae Major and Minor, Crux, and so on. Say, the top 25 or 30 constellations get to stay. The rest: Gone. Then we start voting on new constellations -- and by "we" I mean pretty much the whole planet. You may not know this, but the night sky is officially pretty damn Eurocentric, up to and including the parts that can't actually be seen from Europe (although there is a Native American in the southern sky -- Indus -- and I bet he's surprised to be so far from home). It can't hurt to let the voting power of China or India put in a constellation or two (or three, whatever).

The only rules I'd put in would be that the new constellations couldn't be of real people -- thus avoiding the constellations Mao, Elvis and Dale Earnhardt -- and that we'd pretty much want to avoid any technological advance of, oh, the last 100 years. That way we're not stuck with the constellations TiVo, Nintendo or Cell Phone. Other than that, let 'em rip. We'll let the astronomers keep the old constellations, of course, because there's no point in having to rename the entire sky for scientific purposes. It's like how they use Metric and stuff. You know, just because they do doesn't mean we have to. And it'll get people looking up at the sky again. That's not bad.

Oh, come on. It'll be fun. You won't miss dumb ol' Camelopardalis anyway.

Posted by john at 08:42 PM | Comments (19)

October 11, 2002

The Coming War

Since it looks like we're heading toward one, here's my take on war.

1. It should be done if it's necessary. For now, I'll be vague as to what constitutes "necessary" because it's very much open to interpretation.

2. If you're going to do it, then you should make sure your opponent ends up as a grease spot on the wall, and that his country is reformulated so that it never ever bothers you again.

In the best of all worlds, both of these are fulfilled; you have no choice but to go to war, and you squash your opponent like a plump grape underneath a sledgehammer. But to be entirely honest, if I had to choose between the two of these, I'd pick number 2, if only because if we must participate in an unjust war, 'tis better it was done quickly. That way the stench of our pointless involvement is over quickly, and we expend as little matériel as possible (not to mention, you know, the deaths of those who fight our wars for us are kept to a minimum). Also, if you have the first, but not the second, what you end up with is a long-standing crapfest that you will ultimately have to revisit, whether you wish to or not.

Such as it was with the Gulf War. I'm not a terribly big fan of that war, but I'm perfectly happy to cede the point that it was necessary to some great extent. Yes, it was a war about oil. Thing is, while we can argue about the need to reduce our oil consumption (I tend to think the greatest advance in technology in the last couple of decades is the coming age of fuel cell and alternate energy cars), ultimately we still do need oil, and certainly needed it in 1990.

And of course it's not like it was just a war about oil on our side of the fence; had Kuwait's primary export been goat meat, Saddam would have been less likely to get all fired up about reintegrating the lost 19th province of Iraq. The Gulf War also offered the added attraction of the possibility of turning Saddam into a fine particulate mist with the aid of a well-placed smart missile. He's a morally disagreeable enough person, and his regime largely worthless enough to have made the case for its dismantling persuasive.

The Gulf War took place while I was in college, and I remember being at candlelight vigils in the quads, not to pray that the US stopped the madness of the attack, but that we kicked the righteous hell out of the Iraqis and that it would all be over quickly. I had a brother in the Army, who was over there in the fight. The longer the fighting went on the better the chance something bad would happen to him. Fortunately, it was over quickly, and we learned what happens when a large but poorly-trained, badly-equipped army goes head-to-head with a highly-trained, massively-equipped army: The poorly-trained army loses people by a ratio of more than 100 to 1. We squashed the Iraqi army, all right.

But we didn't squash Saddam or his regime, and ultimately, I find this inexplicable. Saddam should have not been allowed to continue to rule. His personal detention (to say the least) and the dismantling of his political machine should have been part of any surrender. War isn't a football game, after all, where the losing coach gets to try to rebuild for next season. Particularly in Saddam's case, where he was the aggressor; he started it. The penalty for starting a war (which, to be clear, you then lose, miserably) should be a nice 8x8 cell with no phone privileges until you die.

Lacking the will to depose Saddam, we (and by we I mean the US and the UN) should have been willing to back up the weapons inspectors with the immediate and massive threat of force. Simply put, any facility that the weapons inspectors were denied entry to should have been bombed into pebble-sized pieces within 15 minutes of the inspectors leaving the area. Aggressive countries that have been defeated in war do not have the luxury of "national dignity" or whatever it is you want to call it. The fact that we just spent more than a decade letting a hostile regime jerk the world around is angrifying (a new word. Use it. Love it).

Let's turn our attention to the new war we'll be having soon. Toward the first point, is this war absolutely necessary? I doubt it. I think it would be much more useful to swarm the country with weapons inspectors and high-altitude bombers that track their every destination. After the first few times Saddam's precious presidential palaces are turned into powder when the inspectors are turned back, they'll get the clue. I see nothing wrong with reminding Iraq on the point of a missile of its obligation to let us look anywhere for anything. Clearly they won't like it, but, you know. So what.

Many suggest that the purpose of the coming war will to be to assure that Iraq cannot ever threaten any of us, but this achieves the same goal at lesser cost (and without exposing our military to undue chance of death). If indeed containing that threat were the goal of the upcoming war, this works just as well, and will have the additional value of being what was actually the correct response anyway, and only the better part of a decade late.

However, it's clear that Dubya wants a war for purposes not related to weapons containment; indeed, his administration is utterly disinterested in that aspect of the Iraq problem, except as a convenient trope to sell the war to inattentive voters. Dubya wants regime change, and I can sympathize. Saddam has been in power a decade longer than he should have been, and I can think of worse uses of the American military than clearing out bad governments around the world. If Dubya said something along the lines of "First we get rid of Saddam, and then we're going to pay a call to Robert Mugabe," well, that's a barricade that I'd be inclined to rush.

I'm not holding my breath on that pronouncement, however. Ultimately I suspect that Dubya wants Saddam out as part of a father-avengement thing, although what Bush I needs to be avenged for is unclear; Bush I isn't dead at the hand of Saddam, after all, nor injured, nor in fact seriously put out in any recognizable way. I believe at best Dubya is avenging his father's taunting at the hands of Saddam. If that's the case, Dana Carvey had better go to ground as quickly as humanly possible. This is of course a poor reason to send a nation into war, but Dubya does have the advantage of a decade's worth of stupidity in dealing with Iraq providing him with some actual legitimate reasons to plug Saddam.

Let's get down to brass tacks. On balance, the end results of fighting this war will be (cross fingers) the removal of Saddam and the dismantling of his political state and (incidentally) a clearing out of whatever weapons capability that may exist. For those reasons, I'm not opposed to fighting a war with Iraq now. Be that as it may, even those people who fully support a war against Iraq are rather painfully aware that the stated reasons that the Dubya administration wants to gear up for war are window dressing for a revenge fantasy. It is possible to fight a just war for less than entirely just reasons. We're about to do it.

Just, necessary or not, let's hope that this war is total, complete and ends with Saddam dead or in chains, his system smashed, and Iraq occupied in the same manner as Japan or Germany was at the end of WWII, with an eye toward making the revamped country successful and benign (the scariest things to come out of Japan and Germany in the last 55 years, after all, were Godzilla and the Scorpions, respectively). Anything less will be, in a word, unforgivable. If we mean to wage war, let's wage war like we mean it.

Posted by john at 08:45 PM | Comments (3)

October 08, 2002

Wanted: Authors

I've had a long and somewhat excruciating journey back from San Francisco, although thanks to standard airline practice of overbooking and begging for volunteers, I am now the owner of a free trip to anywhere in the continental US. Depending on future travel plans, I actually made a profit on the trip. So it's not all bad. Be that as it may, I have to play catch up on a number of things, including invoicing my clients for the month. In short. no recap of my journey (I can assure you, however, that I had a really fabulous time). Maybe later.

Instead, I present to you an article I wrote for the Dayton Daily News, which appeared this last Sunday. It's a response to a NY Times article by author Joseph Epstein, in which he suggested that everyone who thinks they might want to write a book should just keep that book to themselves. As you might expect, I think Epstein's opinion on the matter is entirely full of crap.

I'd've linked to the article on the DDN site if it were up there, but it's not. I'm presenting it here instead. This is the "unedited" copy; it differs slightly from the printed version, which was edited for space and does not have me using the phrase "shove it" -- which to be entirely honest, I didn't really expect to survive the editing process anyway. Anyway, here we go.


Wanted: Authors

By John Scalzi

Author Joseph Epstein had a message for would-be authors this week Drop dead.

"According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them -- and that they should write it," Epstein wrote in the September 28 edition of the New York Times. "As the author of 14 books, with a 15th to be published next spring, I'd like to use this space to do what I can to discourage them."

And discourage them he does. Epstein -- a professor at Northwestern whose most recent book, curiously enough, is called Snobbery The American Version -- notes that every year 80,000 books are already published in the United States, "most of them not needed, not wanted, not in any way remotely necessary." Many people who want to write a book, Epstein suggests, do so with the idea of leaving something for posterity, and to proclaim their personal significance to the world. However, Epstein notes, "Writing a book is likely, through the quickness and completeness with which one's book will die, to make the notion of oblivion all the more vivid."

Ultimately, Epstein concludes, "Misjudging one's ability to knock out a book can only be a serious and time-consuming mistake. Save the typing, save the trees, save the high tax on your own vanity. Don't write that book, my advice is, don't even think about it. Keep it inside you, where it belongs."

Well, as the author of or contributor to several books, I'd like to offer a counter-proposal for you would-be authors As nicely as humanly possible, tell author Joseph Epstein to take his advice and shove it. There are many things this world has too much of, but books and storytellers are not two of them.

Epstein is right about some things. Most of the people who think they want to write a book never will. Of those who start, most will give up about 50 pages in, when they realize writing a book is actually work. Most of those who manage to finish writing a book will never see their book published, or will have to resort to vanity presses, and most copies of the book will sit the boxes in which they were delivered. Of those authors that do get published (and get paid for it), most will have the dubious pleasure of watching the book disappear off bookstore shelves in a few short months, to migrate to the remainders bin or sent off to be pulped into paper towels. If you want immortality, negotiate with your higher power, not a book publisher.

But to say that book-writing is difficult and publishing industry is competitive is not the same as saying that people should not write books. That's like saying that because most people will never get signed by a major label or make an album, they shouldn't bother to learn an instrument. Or that since most people will never be hired as a chef or open a restaurant, they should just stick to microwave meals. Thing is, most people have figured out that they'll never be a four-star chef or a rock star. Most people don't even worry about it. In each case, the skill is its own reward.

That's why people should write books. They should write books because it shows a love of language and because writing is a skill worth having. I don't think anyone would argue that we as a people should leave literacy and self-expression up to the professionals; among other things, that's a fine way to narrow down that professional class.

People should also write books because despite Epstein's implicit dismissal, every human being has a story to tell, and most of us have more than one. Admittedly, most people can't write well enough to write a whole book. Most people can't knit a sweater or compose a song, either -- but could with time, effort and encouragement. Likewise, writing is a skill that improves with practice. Could having 81% of the American population working on their writing skills really be such a bad thing?

Anyway, here's a secret writers don't want you to know: Good writers are frequently not the professionals. As just one famous example, "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling was a divorced mother on public assistance before she started writing, scratching out pages in a café while her daughter napped. Presumably Epstein would have encouraged her to smother Harry Potter in the literary womb. Good writers come from everywhere; good stories -- and good books -- are often where we least expect them.

Let me provide another example closer to home. There's a guy down the street from me named Darrell Gambill. He's not a professional writer; he has a farm and works as a machinist at Goodyear. He had a story he wanted to write, about boxers and guardian angels. So he wrote it His book, The Lion's War, was published last year. I don't know how well The Lion's War is doing; I don't expect to see it on the bestseller lists or taught in classrooms around the US, or made into a feature film. But so what? The author wrote the story he wanted to tell. I'm glad he didn't save the typing, or the trees, or the tax on his own vanity. His book is outside, which, contrary to Epstein's opinion, is where books belong.

Posted by john at 08:48 PM | Comments (4)

October 03, 2002

Noah's Flood: DId it Happen?

Finally got my copy of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Through the Universe, and was mildly surprised to learn that the cover art was different than what is pictured On Amazon. It's actually blue and black. So if you've ordered it, don't be shocked when it looks different. It's a feature, not a bug.

With that, I'm out of here for a few days. I'm off to San Francisco to see a few folks and to speak at JournalCon 2002; I'll be on the panel discussion "Writing for Fun and Profit." That's fair since I do both. I'll be back on Monday but probably won't update this site until Tuesday at the earliest but more likely next Wednesday. Until then -- well, it's a big Internet. I'm sure you'll keep yourself amused. Here's one last science article to send you off.


Did Noah's Flood Really Happen?
Some think they've found the historical event that launched the legend of Noah's Ark. Others aren't so sure.

You know the story of The Flood, of course: One day God, annoyed with humanity, decides that what the Earth really needs is a good long soak. So He commands His faithful servant Noah to build an ark to hold two of every species (except livestock and birds, for which he needs to carry seven pair of each -- a detail many people forget); once that's accomplished, God unleashed a flood with rain that lasted for the fabled 40 days and 40 nights.

Many Christians take this account as the gospel truth. Others, however, wonder if the story of Noah isn't rooted in some more local and less globally catastrophic event -- one memorable enough, however, to spawn a series of flood legends. Besides the Biblical story of the flood, other civilizations in the Eastern Mediterranean area also had significant flood legends, including the Greeks (who has Zeus creating a flood to punish the wicked), and the Sumerians and Babylonians, whose flood legends also include a righteous family, and an ark filled with creatures (the Sumerian version even had the ark's owner, a fellow named Utnapishtim, release birds to find land).

In 1999, two Columbia University researchers named William Ryan and Walter Pitman put out a book called Noah's Flood, which offered a tantalizing suggestion The flood in question happened near the Black Sea around 7,000 years ago. At this time, the theory goes, glaciers left on the European continent from the last ice age melted, sending their runoff into the Mediterranean Sea. As the Mediterranean Sea swelled, it breached the land at the Bosporus Strait, near where Istanbul stands. This breach released a flood of water into a freshwater lake that sat where the Black Sea is today. This freshwater lake was quickly inundated with salty Mediterranean water (at the rate of six inches per day) and grew to the present size of the Black Sea within a couple of years -- bad news for the humans whose homes and villages were situated on the shores of the former freshwater lake, and certainly memorable enough to be the basis for many a flood legend.

Ryan and Pittman's flood theory appeared to get a major boost in 2000, when famed underwater explorer Robert Ballard discovered the remnants of human habitation in 300 feet of water, 12 miles into the Black Sea, off the coast of northern Turkey. Ballard also found evidence of the Black Sea changing from fresh water to salt water: Sets of freshwater shells that dated back 7,000 years, followed by saltwater shells that dated back 6,500 years. Somewhere between those times, it seemed, the Black Sea was born out of a freshwater lake. It's also the historically correct time for Noah's famous flood.

Aside from the obvious housing problems that this rising tide of saltwater presented anyone living on the edge of the freshwater lake, it would also have the rather unfortunate side effect of killing anything that lived in the freshwater lake itself -- most creatures that live in freshwater environments will die off in saltwater environments (and vice-versa).

However, the newly arriving saltwater species wouldn't have been much better off: Salt water is denser than fresh water, so the new water from the Mediterranean sank under the fresh water, and the oxygen exchange between these levels of water was pretty much blocked. Any saltwater creatures that came along for the ride eventually suffocated. All those dead animals probably made the Black Sea a stinky place to be for a while. The silver lining here, however, is that oxygen-free water makes for a fabulous medium to preserve shipwrecks. Any boat that's sunk to the bottom of the Black Sea since about 5500 BC is still there, unmolested by local marine life.

So, case closed, right? We've found the famous Biblical flood? Not so fast: In May of 2002 a group of scientists published an article in GSA Today, the magazine of the Geographical Society of America, refuting the idea of a sudden flood of Mediterranean seawater flooding into the Black Sea area. Their contention is that based on mud samples they've found in the Marmara Sea (just on the other side of the Bosporus Strait from the Black Sea), there has been interaction between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea area for at least 10,000 years -- suggesting that the Black Sea filled in over a much slower period of time: About 2,000 years or so. So while the water levels in the Black Sea definitely rose, the rate of their rise wouldn't constitute a "flood" by any conventional standard of the word.

That's where the debate stands at the moment -- those who think the Black Sea was created in two years, and those who contend it was created in two thousand. In the scientific search for Noah's Flood, the jury is still out.

Posted by john at 08:51 PM | Comments (4)

October 02, 2002

Alternate Universes

I'm continuing my cavalcade of science-related pieces in honor of the release of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Through the Universe, to which I contributed a significant number of the articles contained therein. The pieces you're reading here this week are rather similar in tone and content to the pieces you'll find in the Uncle John's books (explicitly in the case of the articles I wrote, and implicitly even in the one I didn't, since they wouldn'ta bought so many of my pieces if they didn't fit the general tone of their book), so if you like it, consider getting the book (click on the graphic for an Amazon link). Remember: You don't have to only read it in the bathroom. Also remember the contest I'm running: The winner will get a whole stack of Scalziana. Yes, that's a word. At least it is now.


In an Alternate Universe the Cubs Win the World Series Every Year

Ready to get your mind blown? Get a load of this The "Many Worlds Interpretation" of quantum physics.

Chicago Cub fans are a long-suffering lot: Their beloved Cubbies have been choking for almost a century now, failing every year since 1908 to win the World Series. And there's no relief in the form of Chicago's other team, the White Sox, which have found themselves similarly throttled since 1917. At least their misery is shared by Boston, whose Red Sox have been laboring under the "Curse of the Bambino" since 1918.

But what if we told you Cubs and Sox fans that your misery is unfounded -- and that in fact your teams have won the World Series? Not just since 1908 (or 1917, or 1918), but every single year since. That's right. Each of these teams. The World Series. Every. Single. Year. It's true.

"Not in this world," you say. And you know what? You're exactly right. Not in this world. But in other worlds, and in other universes, each of which has been created from our universe. It's doable in something that is called the "Many Worlds Interpretation" of the universe, and it's actually possible, thanks to the deeply freaky and unsettling nature of quantum physics.

Here's how it works. Think about an electron. Now, most people think of an electron as a little ball that whirls around the nucleus of an atom, very quickly. But a quantum physicist would tell you that in reality, an electron isn't a ball, but a haze of mathematical probabilities, all of which exist at the same time. The electron could be in point A, or it could be at point Z, or in any (and every) point in-between. It's only when you make the effort to observe the electron -- to actually look at the thing -- that the electron "decides" where it wants to be, and picks one of its possible locations to be at. For folks who don't regularly dabble in quantum physics, the idea of a sub-atomic particle "deciding" to physically exist only when you observe it is more than a little creepy. But, hey, that's how the universe is; we're just telling you about it.

Up until 1950, scientists handled the idea of an electron (or any quantum event) collapsing into one possibility by suggesting the idea of multiple theoretical "ghost worlds" in which the electron shows up at a different point -- as many possible points as it's possible for that electron to collapse into. However, these "ghost worlds" don't actually exist; they're just a theoretical construction that's convenient to use. Well, in 1950, a Princeton graduate student named Hugh Everett said: What if these "ghost worlds" actually existed?

In Everett's theory, an electron collapses into a single point when it's observed, just like it always does. But the event also creates entirely new alternate universes, into which the electron collapses to a different point -- so the universes that are created are exactly the same, except for the position of that one single electron. How many universes are created? One for every single possibility. Depending on the quantum event, that can be quite a few universes, just from a single electron collapsing. Consider how many electrons exist in the universe (our universe), and you're presented with a staggering number of universes being created, every instant, throughout the entire span of time that our universe has created. And that's just with the electrons (there are, of course, other quantum events).

Again, this idea is truly wild. But the thing is, the physics on this theory checks out. It really is possible that the universe works this way. The catch (and there's always a catch) is that there's no way to test it. Any universes that are created from the quantum splittings are impossible for us to visit or observe.

What happens with these possible "other" universes? Well, they just keep existing -- away from us, in their own space. There's no reason to assume that what happens in those universes from the instant they split off from our own is what happens in our universe. In alternate universes, anything can -- and as far as we know, anything does -- happen. In a universe that split off from our own in 1908, it's perfectly conceivable the Cubs came back in 1909 to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates to the NL pennant -- and then took the Series again from the hapless Detroit Tigers for the third year running. And then came back in 1910 (which they did in our universe, incidentally), and won the Series again (which they did not). And again in 1911, and in 1912, and so on and so on. Admittedly, this would get boring for anyone who's not a Cubs fan. But don't worry, guys. In other universes, your team is the one that wins every single year, or (if you choose not to be greedy about it), any year you wish for it to win.

This doesn't just work with baseball, either. Ever wonder what it would have been like if you'd married someone else? You did -- in another universe. Wanted to be an astronaut? You are -- in another universe. Wanted to race a monkey-navigated rocket car across the Bonneville Salt Flats? You did it, baby. Just not here. Yes, it's a little sad the other yous are having all the fun. On the other hand, think of all the other yous that are sleeping on steam grates or doing time in the big house for petty larceny or woke up in the hospital with their bodies amputated from the third vertebrae down and a doctor saying "What the hell were you doing, letting a monkey navigate your rocket car?" You'll realize this world is not so bad. Even if the Cubs don't have chance.

Posted by john at 08:53 PM | Comments (2)

October 01, 2002

Fun Diseases

I'm continuing my cavalcade of science-related pieces in honor of the release of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Through the Universe, to which I contributed a significant number of the articles contained therein. The pieces you're reading here this week are rather similar in tone and content to the pieces you'll find in the Uncle John's books (explicitly in the case of the articles I wrote, and implicitly even in the one I didn't, since they wouldn'ta bought so many of my pieces if they didn't fit the general tone of their book), so if you like it, consider getting the book (click on the graphic for an Amazon link). Remember: You don't have to only read it in the bathroom. Also remember the contest I'm running: The winner will get a whole stack of Scalziana. Yes, that's a word. At least it is now.


Have We Got a Disease For You!

Looking for a little something to make you stand out from the infectious crowd? One of these maladies may just do the trick.

We know how it is. You want to be different from the other guy. Everyone else is walking around with a cold or a flu -- your standard issue rhinovirus or influenza bug -- but you want something different. Something that you're just not going to catch on any street corner. Well, then, come one down. Right now we've got a nice suite of diseases, maladies and genetic conditions that will make you stand out in the crowd, if only because you'll have to be locked in a sterile room with two or three levels of biological isolation protocols placed between you and the outside world. Won't that be fun? Oh, don't worry. Some of these diseases and maladies aren't even fatal.

Carotenosis: Let's start off with something relatively benign, shall we? Carotenosis comes from over ingestion of beta carotene, a pigment that you'll find in vegetables such as carrots -- your body turns it into vitamin A, which is, generally speaking, a good thing. Ingest too much beta carotene, however (say you eat nothing but carrots and drink nothing but carrot juice, just because you were curious to see what would happen) and eventually your skin will turn orange That's carotenosis, a real example of "you are what you eat." Carotenosis won't kill you, it'll just make you look funny, but massive doses of vitamin A can cause: Nausea, vomiting, irritability, hair loss, weight loss, liver enlargement, menstrual problems, bone abnormalities, and stunted growth for the kids. So if you find yourself turning orange, lay off the rabbit food for a couple of days.

Hereditary Methemoglobinemia: You say orange really isn't your color? How do you feel about blue? This genetic malady causes a malformation in the hemoglobin molecule in your blood, reducing your blood's capacity to carry oxygen. This turns arterial blood sort of brownish, and in folks of a Caucasian stripe, this will give your skin a distinct -- and distinctive! -- bluish tinge. True, your blood's not exactly richly oxygenated, but that'll just give you a fashionable appearance of ennui. But there is a catch: Hereditary methemoglobinemia is recessive, so by and large it's prevalent only where (oh, how to put this delicately), a family tree has a few too many recursive branches. This was the case in the most famous case of this ailment, the Fugate family of Kentucky, where a high incidence of cousin-marrying eventually caused a number of Fugates to be blue, and not just in the traditional "I'm feeling mighty low" sense.

Want blue skin but would rather not have father-uncles and sister-cousins? There is also acquired metheoglobinemia, which you can get by exposure to certain toxic chemicals. However, the side effects of this variant are headache, fatigue, tachycardia, weakness and dizziness at low levels of exposure, followed by dyspnea, acidosis, arrhythmias, coma, and convulsions at higher levels, which is then followed by death. Speaking of feeling blue.

Kuru: Enough with this skin color nonsense, you say. Give me a truly distinctive disease! Fine, if you really want to make an impression, try on kuru for size. Even the name tell you it's something truly nasty, since "kuru" means "trembling with fear" in the language for the Fore, the New Guinea highland tribe in which the disease reached epidemic proportions in the middle of the last century. Kuru's first symptoms are headaches and joint pains, followed several weeks later by difficulty in walking, and uncontrolled trembling while asleep or while stressed (which would be most of the time, considering). Tremors become progressively worse, confining the patient to bed. This is followed by total loss of the ability to swallow or eat, and after that you're just a hydrating IV drip away from doom. Oh yes, you'll definitely be the belle of the ball with this one.

One minor detail, which would be how you catch Kuru in the first place You have to eat brains. Specifically, human brains. Even more specifically, human brains already infected with kuru. This is how the Fore got it -- as part of their funeral rituals, they ate the brains of their dead. Not quite up for a Hannibal Lector moment? Well, fine. Let's move on then, shall we.

Necrotizing Fasciitis: Or as you know it, flesh-eating bacteria! The funny thing is (and that's funny as in ironic, not funny as in "non-stop chucklefest"), the affliction does live up to its name The bacteria involved in necrotizing fasciitis (which include the usually somewhat less virulent Group A streptococcus that give us run-of-the-mill ailments like strep throat) can actually eat through an inch of flesh in the space of an hour. What will make you truly paranoid is that early symptoms of necrotizing fasciitis are remarkably similar to flu symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, weakness, muscle pain, and fever.

It's the second set of symptoms -- very painful infection around a cut or a bruise and/or a rapidly growing infection around said bruise -- that will have you rocketing towards the doctors and praying that Western Civilization's rampant misuse of antibiotics in everything from bathroom soaps to livestock feed hasn't caused your personal area of infection to be packed with drug-resistant bacteria that will simply laugh cruelly at whatever it is the doctor administers to fight them.

The good news here is that the odds of your flu-like symptoms devolving into necrotizing fasciitis are a couple hundred thousand to one (your odds are somewhat greater if you've just had chicken pox, however). If you really want to reduce your fretting, wash any cut or scrape you get with warm soapy water, and keep the wound dry and bandaged, just like you're supposed to. And rethink your desire to have a truly unique disease. After considering necrotizing fasciitis, a nice run-of -the-mill cold is beginning to look mighty attractive.

Posted by john at 08:55 PM | Comments (7)