In 1744, a young geographer living in Spanish-colonial Peru with his wife and children decided the time had come to move the family back to his native France. Jean Godin des Odonais had come to Peru in 1735 as a part of a small scientific expedition and had ended up staying much longer than expected. He’d married a young woman from a local aristocratic family and now the couple had two children and a third on the way. But news from France eventually brought word of Godin’s father’s death, meaning that there was an inheritance to sort out. It was time to return.
Making travel arrangements from such a distance, however, was going to be a challenge. Perhaps, Godin reasoned, he and his family could travel to the colony of French Guiana at the other end of the Amazon River, then find places on a ship back to France. In order to establish whether this was plausible, Godin decided to travel ahead to French Guiana and make inquiries.
From its headwaters in Peru, the Amazon goes downhill. From this point, virtually everything for Jean and Isabel Godin did the same. Left behind, Isabel spent years waiting for word from her husband. Eventually, due to an improbable series of mishaps and misery, Isabel ended up stranded alone in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, hopelessly lost and so far into starvation that her chances of survival were vanishingly small.
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Near the heart of Scotland lies a large morass known as Dullatur Bog. Water seeps from these moistened acres and coalesces into the headwaters of a river which meanders through the countryside for nearly 22 miles until its terminus in Glasgow. In the late 19th century this river adorned the landscape just outside of the laboratory of Sir William Thompson, renowned scientist and president of the Royal Society. The river must have made an impression on Thompson—when Queen Victoria granted him the title of Baron in 1892, he opted to adopt the river’s name as his own. Sir William Thompson was thenceforth known as Lord Kelvin.
Kelvin’s contributions to science were vast, but he is perhaps best known today for the temperature scale that bears his name. It is so named in honor of his discovery of the coldest possible temperature in our universe. Thompson had played a major role in developing the Laws of Thermodynamics, and in 1848 he used them to extrapolate that the coldest temperature any matter can become, regardless of the substance, is -273.15°C (-459.67°F). We now know this boundary as zero Kelvin.
Once this absolute zero temperature was decisively identified, prominent Victorian scientists commenced multiple independent efforts to build machines to explore this physical frontier. Their equipment was primitive, and the trappings were treacherous, but they pressed on nonetheless, dangers be damned. There was science to be done.
Sometime in the 1940s, an improbable encounter occurred at a mental institution in Maryland. Two women, each of whom was institutionalized for believing she was the Virgin Mary, chanced upon one another and engaged in conversation. They had been chatting for several minutes when the older woman introduced herself as “Mary, Mother of God.”
“Why you can’t be, my dear,” the other patient replied, unable to conceive of such a notion. “You must be crazy. I am the Mother of God.”
“I’m afraid it’s you who are mixed up,” the first asserted, “I am Mary.”
A hospital staff member eavesdropped as the two Virgin Marys debated their identities. After a while the women paused to quietly regard one another. Finally, the older patient seemed to arrive at a realization. “If you’re Mary,” she said, “I must be Anne, your mother.” That seemed to settle it, and the reconciled patients embraced. In the following weeks the woman who had conceded her delusion was reported to be much more receptive to treatment, and she was soon considered well enough to be discharged from the hospital.
This clinical anecdote was retold in a 1955 issue of Harper’s Magazine, and a highly-regarded social psychologist named Dr. Milton Rokeach read it with great interest. What might happen, he wondered, if a psychologist were to deliberately pair up patients who held directly conflicting identity delusions? Perhaps such psychological leverage could be used to pry at the cracks of an irrational psyche to let in the light of reason. Dr. Rokeach sought and secured a research grant to test his hypothesis, and he began canvassing sanitariums for delusional doppelgängers. Soon he found several suitable subjects: three patients, all in state care, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. And he saw that it was good.
On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel.
In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon—one of the largest to have been built at that time—toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. “Strindberg and Fraenkel!” Andrée cried, “Are you ready to get into the car?” They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the “Örnen,” the Swedish word for “Eagle.”
“Cut away everywhere!” Andrée commanded after clambering into the Eagle himself, and the ground crew slashed at the lines binding the balloon to the Earth. Hurrahs were offered as the immense, primitive airship pulled away from the wood-plank hangar and bobbed ponderously into the atmosphere. Their mission was to be the first humans to reach the North Pole, taking aerial photographs and scientific measurements along the way for future explorers. If all went according to plan they would then touch down in Siberia or Alaska after a few weeks’ flight, laden with information about the top of the world.
Onlookers watched for about an hour as the voluminous sphere shrank into the distance and disappeared into northerly mists. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel would not arrive on the other side of the planet as planned. But their journey was far from over.
Please give an uncomfortably warm welcome to our newest author, Gustaf Hildebrand.
The meeting had not gone well, the man gloomily reflected as he was driven out of East Berlin. His head was still heavy after a few too many snifters of cognac. The American’s ambitious scheme to build a life and career in Moscow had sputtered to an unforeseen halt not unlike a Trabant’s two-stroke engine; the only concession the Russians had made was to invite him back for another meeting in two weeks’ time. The three KGB representatives he had talked to didn’t seem very enthusiastic about his offer to defect from the US Army.
The date was 22 February 1953. It was George Washington’s Birthday, a holiday for all American troops stationed in Berlin. The drunken man being shuttled out of East Berlin in a Soviet car was Robert Lee Johnson, a 31-year-old sergeant in the United States Army. Most competent intelligence services would have considered the Army clerk useless, dismissing him as an embittered bureaucrat with a grossly inflated sense of self-worth. Nine years later he would, through a combination of luck and circumstance, become one of the most destructive spies the KGB had ever implanted into the US military.
It’s a testament to the strength and versatility of the human brain that anyone with at least half of one tends to assume that their senses give them direct access to objective reality. The truth is less straightforward and much more likely to induce existential crises: the senses do not actually provide the brain with a multifaceted description of the outside world. All that the brain has to work with are imperfect incoming electrical impulses announcing that things are happening. It is then the job of neurons to rapidly interpret these signals as well as they can, and suggest how to react.
This neurological system has done a pretty good job of modelling the world such that the ancestors of modern human beings avoided getting eaten by sabre-toothed tigers before procreating, but the human brain remains relatively easy to fool. Optical illusions, dreams, hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and the placebo effect are just a handful of familiar cases where what the brain perceives does not correspond to whatever is actually occurring. The formation of a coherent model of the world often relies on imagined components. As it turns out, this pseudo-reality in one’s imagination can be so convincing that it can have unexpected effects on the physical body.
On 12 November 1971, in the presidential palace in the Republic of Chile, President Salvador Allende and a British theorist named Stafford Beer engaged in a highly improbable conversation. Beer was a world-renowned cybernetician and Allende was the newly elected leader of the impoverished republic.
Beer, a towering middle-aged man with a long beard, sat face to face with the horn-rimmed, mustachioed, grandfatherly president and spoke at great length in the solemn palace. A translator whispered the substance of Beer’s extraordinary proposition into Allende’s ear. The brilliant Brit was essentially suggesting that Chile’s entire economy—transportation, banking, manufacturing, mining, and more—could all be wired to feed realtime data into a central computer mainframe where specialized cybernetic software could help the country to manage resources, to detect problems before they arise, and to experiment with economic policies on a sophisticated simulator before applying them to reality. With such a pioneering system, Beer suggested, the impoverished Chile could become an exceedingly wealthy nation.
In the early 1970s the scale of Beer’s proposed network was unprecedented. One of the largest computer networks of the day was a mere fifteen machines in the US, the military progenitor to the Internet known as ARPANET. Beer was suggesting a network with hundreds or thousands of endpoints. Moreover, the computational complexity of his concept eclipsed even that of the Apollo moon missions, which were still ongoing at that time. After a few hours of conversation President Allende responded to the audacious proposition: Chile must indeed become the world’s first cybernetic government, for the good of the people. Work was to start straight away.
Stafford Beer practically ran across the street to share the news with his awaiting technical team, and much celebratory drinking occurred that evening. But the ambitious cybernetic network would never become fully operational if the CIA had anything to say about it.
Please give a warm welcome to our newest author Mr J A Macfarlane. Hip-hip...!
Engineers need to have faith in their designs, but not many would necessarily be confident enough to put their lives at risk just to prove it. It takes a great deal of faith to design a lighthouse for the most dangerous reef in the English Channel, especially when no-one has ever built a lighthouse on the open sea before. It takes rather more to actually build it. And one approaches the shores of hubris when one decides to visit said lighthouse with a massive gale on the way. But when Henry Winstanley, an 18th-century English eccentric, designed and constructed the world’s first open-sea lighthouse on a small and extraordinarily treacherous group of rocks fourteen miles out from Plymouth, he was so confident in his building that he blithely assured all doubters he would be willing to weather the strongest storm within its confines – a boast he had the chance to live up to when he found himself in his lighthouse as the most violent tempest in England’s history approached its shores.