Tag Archives: Science

The macabre death of Antoine Lavoisier

Hi folks this week I am sharing a rather macabre tale. I should state up front, while this tale features a real, historical figure and his death, it could very well be a tall tale. Please proceed with caution dear reader. Take this with a grain of salt. Today’s tale revolves around the final moments of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794), aristocrat, philanthropist, and father of modern chemistry.

Among his achievements, Lavoisier defined the properties of a number of elements and set the stage for the periodic table. He was partially responsible for the metric system of measurement. Lavoisier was a campaigner for social change, advocating for better street lights in Paris, an aqueduct to bring Parisians clean water, and for cleaner air – Lavoisier believed gun powder particularly was a pollutant and dangerous to people in ways beyond the obvious. He was a man who understood the importance of science in his, and future societies – founding two schools – the Lycee Lavoisier, and the Musée des Arts et Metiers.

Antoine Lavoisier

Unfortunately Antoine Lavoisier also lived in the time of the French Revolution. His scientific and humanitarian work should have granted him immunity from mob justice, but he owned shares in The Ferme Générale – the company who collected taxes for the crown. With poverty and taxation driving forces behind the revolution, the last thing you wanted to be come the reign of terror was a tax collector, or profiteer from public taxes.

On 24th November 1793 Lavoisier was among a group of 28 citizens arrested for tax fraud. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be executed on 8th May 1794. Lavoisier allegedly begged for clemency due to his scientific accomplishments and public works, but the judge was alleged to have said “La revolution ńà pas besoin de savants” – the revolution does not need scholars. The revolution didn’t need stenographers either apparently, so we have to trust the eyewitness accounts …. but there is something of the spirit of the reign of terror in the judge’s comment is there not?

The method of execution would be the guillotine – a newfangled decapitation device proposed as a more humane alternative to the axe, by the physician and politician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. It was designed by another French physician, Antoine Louis. It should be noted there were earlier machines of a similar type, the 16th century Halifax Gibbet the notable example. Under the shadow of the blade, legend has it, Antoine Lavoisier had one final experiment to carry out. The following, if true, seems absolutely horrific to me – just imagine all those thousands of victims of the guillotine, in the wake of their apparent demise.

Lavoisier’s final experiment sought to answer the question what happens to a human being after their head is separated from their body? The ultimate answer is clear, but does the shock of the blade instantly end them, or does a head look up in silent horror at it’s decapitated body for a time? History is full of urban legends on the subject, all easily dismissable. Mary Queen of Scots’ lips allegedly kept moving for fifteen minutes after her beheading. Today we might put that down to the last bursts of nerves and synapses, in her time people wondered what she was trying to tell them. Similarly it was claimed Sir Everard Digby, conspirator in the Gunpowder plot to kill Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James I, loudly proclaimed his innocence for some time after his noggin was cleft from his body. Antoine Lavoisier proposed to answer this question by blinking once a second for as long as he could.

On 8th May 1794, an assistant nearby to conduct his final experiment, Lavoisier kneeled down under the blade and steeled himself for the deadly impact. The blade fell. The assistant knelt down and began to count
“Un- duex – trois – quatre… still blinking…. Sinq – six – sept – huit -nuef – dix. I have no idea if the assistant counted ‘Mississippi’s’ or not in between – onze Mississippi- douze Mississippi – treize Mississippi … but it is believed Lavoisier blinked up to 20 times before he expired. Whether there is any truth in this is anyone’s guess- though it seems far more likely than the account of Charlotte Corday, the assassin who stabbed the pro revolution polemicist Jean-Paul Marat while he took a bath. In the wake of her execution her cheeks allegedly flushed red with indignation. Cardiologists state a brain can survive four seconds without blood flow if decapitated from a standing position, and up to twelve seconds if reclined when the blade fell.

France would use the guillotine as a form of execution from 25th April 1792 to September 10 1977 – the final execution one Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian national who tortured and murdered his ex-girlfriend, Elisabeth Bousquet. They would officially abolish execution by guillotine in September 1981.

Hamida Djandoubi, the last person guilotined by the French.

Originally published 21st February 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

The Carrington Event

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Hi folks welcome to this week’s Tale of History and Imagination. First thing I should say, I often play fast and loose with the quotes and today this is especially true. Sorry fans of Henry David Thoreau. Second I am putting the Somerton man topic to one side for a while – it is a multi- parter, and I am stretched thin as it is at the moment. Once the podcast is up we’ll take a trip to Sommerton beach, I promise.
This week I wanted to do something a little different. Let’s just jump in and I’ll explain why I am fascinated by this tale at the end.

The date of today’s tale, September 2nd 1859. The location, many – but let’s start off where I started the first blog – in Boston, Massachusetts. It is 9.30 am at the telegraph office on 31 State Street and the air is positively electric – quite literally electric. The telegraph operators, like many others across the country had fired up the machine that day only to find sparks coming from the telegraph machines. In some cases the sparks had set fire to nearby objects. Any time I have heard this story operators got electrical shocks or burns – though none of the dozen secondary sources I have read on this make this claim. In Boston, if you remember my bit on Samuel Morse, the home of the telegraph – they simply unhooked the batteries. Imagine their shock and amazement when the telegraphs kept running anyway. The air was so charged that day, that the machines kept on going, as if they were somehow possessed. A telegraph station in Portland, Maine had gotten the same idea, and shared their amazement with 31 State Street. Across much of the USA this behaviour was observed.

That night people stared up to the sky in amazement. That, in the dead of night it was bright enough to read a newspaper is one thing, but the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights normally only ever seen at far north latitudes, could be seen in the tropics – reports coming from places as far afield as Cuba and Hawaii. On the same night the Aurora Australis, the southern lights were on display. As far north as Santiago, Chile people stared in wonder, and perhaps a little dread. The New York Times wrote, the following day

“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this colour were most abundant to the North East and North West of the zenith… There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid”

You may wonder what on earth could cause such a thing. Some at the time, no doubt attributed it to the divine. Others at the time put forward suggestions which included volcanoes giving off a massive amount of gas all at once, or a meteor shower turning to a pink mush in our atmosphere. An amateur astronomer in Surrey, UK by the name of Richard Christopher Carrington had a pretty fair inkling what had caused the phenomenon. On the 28th August 1859 he had been staring out 150 million kilometers away, at the surface of our sun. for five years he had spent many an hour staring out to space, and had noticed solar flares – explosions of energy with an average power rating of 1,000 atomic bombs going off- before. Carrington observed a number of solar flares over the following day, till there was a particularly large one on September 1st. This was the one which caused what is now known as a Coronal Mass ejection. I’m not super clued into science (hence not Tales of Science and Imagination) but my understanding is the Corona is a huge ring of plasma which surrounds the sun – this is the halo you can see in a solar eclipse. Occasionally, when a solar flare is powerful enough, it ejects huge sums of plama out of the Corona, out into the wilds of space- often followed by a powerful wave of electro-magnetic energy. Of course we are on a tiny spheroid, a very long way from the sun. We rarely get hit, but this wave – hereafter known as the Carrington event – hurtled towards us, clearing 150 million kilometers in a little over 17 hours. At the time the experts of the day, Lord Kelvin included, dismissed Carrington’s explanation as preposterous. Over time he was proved Oll Korrect, in the Boston speak of the time. Carrington’s event would be the most powerful of it’s kind – scientific measurements of nitrogen levels in ice show, at least in the last 500 years, his solar storm was twice as powerful as the next most powerful event to hit the earth.

But what would happen if we got hit with a Carrington event part two? It would be pretty right? Free electricity? Well… this is how I got to thinking this story would make a good post.

Last weekend I got thinking about the precariousness of the ones and zeros which make up our lives so much these days. First it was going through a collection of CDs full of legal downloads from the iTunes store. When iTunes first came along I was an early adopter- and I spent a tonne of money on my music collection – several hundred CDs worth of music. In 2015 I was sent into a mad panic when my laptop died, taking many gigabytes of data with it. Of course the music library was still on the cloud – I could still download it when I got a new hard drive. I only got as far as the letter E. Spotify had been the new thing for a little while, and iTunes will be up there forever right? Last month Apple announced they were closing down the platform. A second incident jumped out at me – waiting round at my parents’ place to go out shopping with my mum, I stopped to look at the photo albums they have over there – actual physical wooden boxes, with glass covers, and wood bound volumes which sit like upside down files in a filing cabinet. Volume after volume of family memories, some going as far back as my great- grandparents. We may curate our lives in an almost hyper-graphic intensity these days, but you know there is something more ‘real’ to one of George Eastman’s kodak moments… or at the very least, less transitory. Well the scary news is, if Carrington part two happens we may well lose our cloud based existence as easily as I lost that hard drive. Add to this any travel requiring a GPS would be impossible, GPS would bite the dust. Satellites would become useless space junk. The electrical grid, wherever the CME hit, would become worthless as transformer after transformer blew. Potentially we could be plunged back into the past for years.

In a 2011 National Geographic article I read, Daniel Baker of The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics estimated the costs of such an incident, if it hit the USA in 2011, at 2 Trillion dollars. Of course we have only become more reliant on vulnerable technologies – electronic banking among them – since then. Oh, and in 2012, that apocalyptic Mayan year, the Earth only narrowly avoided being hit by another CME almost as big as the solar storm of 1859.

This week’s Tale of History and Imagination is brought to you by well… anywhere which sells solar storm proof external hard drives I guess?

Catch you all next week, for another Tale. As always please share us around, like, comment.

Originally posted 19th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

A “Tales of History and Imagination are all around us” moment: a spy, a physicist and a pop star

Hi folks, …. any time I start with “Tales of History and Imagination are all around us” I’ll be dropping some random snippet of something that has jumped into my head that day [Edit: I dropped this plan soon after. Simone]. The ‘tales of…are all around us’ are just random, off the cuff things that pop up in everyday life, when everyday stuff meets historical insight. As such they won’t have photoshopped [or cartooned] pictures. More official tales are coming.

My random “all around us” piece today. For context I’m at the hair salon, catching up with the gossip in the women’s magazines. I have the magazine open to a page featuring Aussie icon Olivia Newton John quoting Mark Twain
“reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated”.
The story of course that the cancer that has plagued her was back, giving her just two weeks to live. Someone said it on social media, so it must be true right?.

“It is terrible someone would tell such an awful lie about her” the lady painting my grey hairs out of existence said. I agreed. I did stop short of sharing why I find her story interesting however. Spoiler, it has nothing to do with Xanadu, Grease, or the deadbeat ex Patrick McDermott who faked his own death – apparently- to run away from a massive debt… well OK, he is an interesting tale too. What fascinated me about Ms Newton John is tales of her father, and grandfather.

Olivia Newton John’s grandfather was Max Born (1882- 1970), a Jewish- German physicist and mathematician. Vitally important to the development of quantum mechanics, he was nominated numerous times for a Nobel prize in physics – finally winning one in 1954. While at the university of Gottingen, the university became one of the main hubs of physics in the world. His list of notable students is a long one including Enrico Fermi, Max Delbruck, Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. He served in the German army during the First World War. He was peers with Werner Heisenberg.

In 1933, when the Nazi party came to power, Born and other Jewish academics were suspended from Gottingen. Seeing the writing on the wall early on, Born packed up his life, and his family moved to the UK.

Not long after moving to Britain his daughter, Irene, met and fell in love with a Welsh academic, with a background in German literature – Brinley (Brin) Newton John (1914-1992). When World War Two broke out, Brin enrolled in the RAF. Due to his language skills, hwever, he would become an intelligence officer, interrogating captured German pilots – then later a code breaker at Bletchley park. One night in May 1941 he was sent out to Scotland on a secret missing to bring in a recently captured German pilot. The pilot, who deserves his own Tale of History and Imagination, had flown to Scotland to demand an audience with the Duke of Hamilton, and Prime minister Winston Churchill. His mission, unbeknownst to Hitler, was to petition a peace treaty with Britain. The captive was none other than Deputy Fuhrer of Germany Rudolph Hess. Hess would never meet Churchill, and would die a very old man in Spandau prison, but he did get to meet the dad of a bona fide pop star.

Originally published after an appointment at the hair salon, January 27th 2019 by Simone T. Whitlow. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow