Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.
The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.
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.
Alarming events were in store for Sicily at the beginning of the summer of 1831. On 28 June, small earthquakes rocked the western end of the island, and these continued occurring day after day. On 4 July, the unpleasant scent of sulfur spread through the town of Sciacca. On the 13th, the people of St. Domenico spotted smoke from far offshore. Normally, volcanic activity would be the obvious culprit, but these black plumes were out on the water. Maybe, the residents suggested to one another, a boat was on fire. The crew of a passing ship had other ideas: the captain noted that the water under the smoke was bubbling vigorously. He was convinced that what they were dealing with was a sea monster. But a second ship brought reports of masses of dead fish in the water, entirely undevoured.
This disturbance was, in fact, a volcano erupting from just under the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. By the 17th of July, a new island some 25 feet high had appeared off the coast of Sicily. And that was only the beginning. The volcano went on spewing lava over the course of the next week until the island was four times its original height and seven kilometers around, with two peaks and even two small lakes. The new island lay between Europe and Africa right where the Mediterranean narrowed, putting it in the middle of an ongoing flurry of nautical trade and military maneuvers. Several countries observed simultaneously that the infant rock would likely prove extremely valuable to whichever country owned it, and at least three of them raced to claim it. As it turned out, none of them would succeed.
Roy Sullivan was a ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, USA. He became famous for unwittingly shattering a rather unenviable world record. This newer, shorter, experimentaler podcast episode tells his story.
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.
The naked mole rat, Heterocephalus glaber, is fleshy, furless, buck-toothed and brazenly ugly. Yet what these small East African rodents lack in terms of good looks, they make up with an impressive array of biological quirks. These misnamed mammals are neither moles nor rats, and in terms of their social behaviour are actually closer to bees, wasps, ants, and termites than to other backboned animals.
They live in underground cooperative colonies of up to 300 individuals with a dominant breeding “queen” and celibate soldier and worker castes. Biologists have identified only one other vertebrate—the closely related Damaraland mole rat—that uses this rigid reproductive and social structure. Until the late 1970s scientists believed that this trait, known as eusociality, was confined to insects.
Naked mole rats deploy several impressive feats of physiology, including an apparent imperviousness to pain, a casual disregard for low-oxygen environments, and resistance to cancer. Indeed, these unsightly creatures both baffle and buttress Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in multiple remarkable and apparently self-contradictory ways.
It was the summer of 1936 when Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the atom-smashing cyclotron, received a visit from Emilio Segrè, a scientific colleague from Italy. Segrè explained that he had come all the way to America to ask a very small favor: He wondered whether Lawrence would part with a few strips of thin metal from an old cyclotron unit. Dr Lawrence was happy to oblige; as far as he was concerned the stuff Segrè sought was mere radioactive trash. He sealed some scraps of the foil in an envelope and mailed it to Segrè’s lab in Sicily. Unbeknownst to Lawrence, Segrè was on a surreptitious scientific errand.
At that time the majority of chemical elements had been isolated and added to the periodic table, yet there was an unsightly hole where an element with 43 protons ought to be. Elements with 42 and 44 protons—42molybdenum and 44ruthenium respectively—had been isolated decades earlier, but element 43 was yet to be seen. Considerable accolades awaited whichever scientist could isolate the elusive element, so chemists worldwide were scanning through tons of ores with their spectroscopes, watching for the anticipated pattern.
Upon receiving Dr Lawrence’s radioactive mail back in Italy, Segrè and his colleague Carlo Perrier subjected the strips of molybdenum foil to a carefully choreographed succession of bunsen burners, salts, chemicals, and acids. The resulting precipitate confirmed their hypothesis: element 42 was the answer. The radiation in Lawrence’s cyclotron had converted a few 42molybdenum atoms into element 43, and one ten-billionth of a gram of the stuff now sat in the bottom of their beaker. They dubbed their plundered discovery “technetium” for the Greek word technetos, meaning “artificial.” It was considered to be the first element made by man rather than nature, and its “short” half-life—anywhere from a few nanoseconds to a few million years depending on the isotope—was the reason there’s negligible naturally-occurring technetium left on modern Earth.
In the years since this discovery scientists have employed increasingly sophisticated apparatuses to bang particles together to create and isolate increasingly heavy never-before-seen elements, an effort which continues even today. Most of the obese nuclei beyond 92uranium are too unstable to stay assembled for more than a moment, to the extent that it makes one wonder why researchers expend such time, effort, and expense to fabricate these fickle fragments of matter. But according to our current understanding of quantum mechanics, if we can pack enough protons and neutrons into these husky nuclei we may encounter something astonishing.