A Ghost Ship

I first read about the "ghost ship" Mary Celeste when I was a boy. It intrigued me. In 1872, it was found floating, unmanned, and abandoned, in the Atlantic Ocean, near the Azores. 

What we know for sure is that it was an American brigantine merchant ship that had been at sea for about a month leaving New York City for Genoa. When she was found, she was fully stocked with six months’ worth of food and supplies. The ship was completely seaworthy. The weather was calm. It had no distress signal flying. No signs of violence or mutiny. But all of her passengers and crew were gone.

The ship’s lifeboat was also gone. That would lead to the conclusion that they had abandoned the ship. Their personal possessions and valuables were untouched, so they must have left in a hurry. 

The ship’s papers, navigation equipment, and two pumps were also missing. But the logbook remained.

Over the years, theories, myths and false histories about the abandoned ship appeared. The earliest theories, as you might guess, were the least plausible. Sea monsters? No. And yet many decades later, alien abduction was suggested. A storm, waterspout, tsunami? Unlikely based on the remaining evidence. Piracy or mutiny seemed more likely. But what would pirates have taken? And where was the crew?

In 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) wrote "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement", a short story based on the mystery. He mistakenly spelled the vessel's name as Marie Celeste and the story, full of myths, led to the misspelling and the myths to become more commonly believed.

The Mary Celeste‘s cargo was 1,700 barrels of raw alcohol. When the ship was sailed by a crew from the ship that found her to Gibraltar, a British vice-admiralty court convened a salvage hearing being more concerned about who now could claim the ship. It was discovered that nine of the barrels were empty. Had the barrels leaked and the fumes ignited? Alcohol burns at such a low temperature and even a large explosion could have left the ship and remaining barrels undamaged, but it would have frightened the passengers and crew to abandon the ship. 

But wouldn't they have seen later that a subsequent explosion did not occur and returned? Or did they attempt to make land or get so far from the ship that bad weather, starvation or thirst killed them?

The day before they reached the Azores, they changed course and headed north of Santa Maria Island, perhaps seeking haven, and the night before the last entry in the ship's log, the Mary Celeste faced rough seas and winds of more than 35 knots. 

We still don't have a definitive answer to this mystery. A 2007 Smithsonian Channel documentary, noted that the ship's pump was found disassembled on deck for repair. Had the captain thought they might have taken on too much water in storms? The filmmakers also thought the ship's chronometer was faulty. Did the captain believe incorrectly that they were close to Santa Maria when they were actually 120 miles away from it and that they should abandon the ship because of water taken on and go for help?

In any case, there were no survivors. No one to tell the true tale.

Who Created Bitcoin?

Prevailing bitcoin logo

Bitcoin is the decentralized digital currency that launched in 2009 but has been getting a lot of attention lately as its price soars. It's somewhere around $56-60,000 when I'm writing this post.

It is known that the first known commercial transaction using it was in 2010 when programmer Laszlo Hanyecz bought two pizzas for 10,000 bitcoins. Clearly, it was not worth as much back then. I read that in 2010 it went from $0.008 to a leap of around 8 cents

The domain name was registered in August 2008. That October a link to a paper authored by Satoshi Nakamoto titled "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System" was posted to a cryptography mailing list. It has been more than a dozen years and we still don't know the identity of its creator other than the pseudonym he/she/they used - Satoshi Nakamoto

It's not that people haven't tried to figure out Nakamoto's identity. but there hasn't been convincing proof or who the creator was - though some people have said that they were the creator of Bitcoin.

Why Are More Children Near-Sighted These Days?

Image by Nguyen Dinh Lich from Pixabay

Near-sighted people can see things fine up close, but they struggle to see things when they’re further away.  More children than ever before are having trouble with their vision. Near-sightedness is on the rise. 

New research suggests two causes: children spending more time looking at screens, and children spending less time outside. 

The pandemic has made things worse. One survey found that 44 percent of U.S. children are using electronic devices for over four hours a day. That is more than double the rate before the pandemic. With kids online for school, four hours actually seems low because I don't think kids have reduced their non-school time staring at screens.

Experts say exposure to outdoor lighting helps eye health and people should try to look away from screens at least every 20 minutes. Being outside requires eyes to focus at varying distances and in variab;e lighting situations.


The Piltdown Man Hoax

Skull of the "Eoanthropus Dawsoni" (Piltdown Man) Wellcome M0013579
Skull of the "Eoanthropus Dawsoni"

In 1912, the Piltdown Man was presented to the Geological Society of London. Near the village of Piltdown in southern England, a laborer was digging in a gravel pit when he found a piece of what appeared to be a skull. He gave it to local archaeology hobbyist Charles Dawson, who thought it looked like some ancient human remains. 

Dawson brought the skull fragment and other bones from the site, to the Natural History Museum in London. Along with Arthur Smith Woodward, the museum’s Keeper of Geology, the pair believed they had skeletal evidence of the missing evolutionary link between apes and humans.

Smith Woodward reconstructed the skull fragments and hypothesized that they belonged to a human ancestor from 500,000 years ago. The discovery was announced at a Geological Society meeting and was given the Latin name Eoanthropus dawsoni ("Dawson's dawn-man").

It got a lot of attention from the public, but there were scientists that said the skull was not authentic. Still, it received more attention and the idea that such a discovery had been made in England was very appealing.

  Illustration of Piltdown Man (Eoanthropus). Wellcome M0001114

It wasn't until 1953 that new tests on the skull revealed the Piltdown Man to be an elaborate hoax.

Who perpetrated the hoax? That is still not certain but Dawson and Woodward are the leading suspects. The skull was constructed in part from orangutan bones, and it was done well enough to fool archaeologists for more than 40 years. 

A curious other suspect was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame. Doyle lived near the site and had access. He was also a doctor and a fossil collector and had specialized knowledge of anatomy and would have had access to bones. But Doyle was also a spiritualist who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead. He also was upset with the scientific community that dismissed his séances. Other than revenge, there seems to be little motive for Doyle perpetrating the hoax.  I have also read that Doyle may have left clues about the hoax in his novel The Lost World.

The fossil was introduced as evidence by Clarence Darrow in defense of John Scopes during the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. Darrow died in 1938, fifteen years before Piltdown Man was exposed as a fraud.

The Piltdown hoax is still talked about because (in a good way) it generated a lot of attention around the subject of human evolution and because it remained accepted for such a long time before it was debunked.

Rotating a Building

This just does not seem possible. 

In 1930 the Indiana Bell building in Indianapolis was rotated 90 degrees. It took a month to move the 22-million-pound structure. It was rotated 15 inches per hour. 

But here is the most unbelievable part. All 600 employees kept working while it was being done.

There was no interruption to gas, heat, electricity, water, sewage, or the telephone service they provided. No one inside felt it move. People could still enter and exit the building via an entryway that also moved.

Bell bought the building but needed bigger headquarters. They planned to demolish it but that would've interrupted phone service for a big chunk of Indiana, which they didn’t want to do. So, they lifted the whole building with steam-powered hydraulic lifts, then set it on enormous pine logs. It was moved via hand-operated jacks, which pushed it over the logs 3/8" at a time. Once the building rolled far enough forward, the last log would be moved to the front.

It seems like something done in building the Great Pyramids.

Indiana Bell Telephone Company added a second building alongside its headquarters after they pivoted it 90 degrees on its side.

An interesting sidebar to the story is that the project’s lead architect was Kurt Vonnegut, Sr, father to the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Kurt senior was following in the footsteps of his own father, architect Bernard Vonnegut.

The building was demolished in 1963.