Ticking Time Palm

Ancient Israel was renowned for its date palm plants, which were widespread in thick forests and reportedly bore delicious fruit. The dates were a staple food for dwellers of the Judaean Desert. Sometime around the year 1300, however, a confluence of catastrophes—agricultural, economic, and climatological—killed many of the trees, and over time the palms became so uncommon that a French explorer in the 16th century doubted that the ancient date trade could ever have been particularly noteworthy. Within the following few centuries, that particular variant of date palm was extinct, and became entirely the stuff of legend.

In the mid-1960s, archaeologists at the clifftop palace of Herod the Great in Masada, Israel uncovered a 2000-year-old jar containing seeds. These turned out to be seeds of the long-extinct date palm. In 2005, researchers treated three of these seeds with fertilizer solutions and planted them in pots to see whether they were still capable of germinating. One of the seeds did indeed sprout, and it yielded a large, healthy date palm that the researchers nicknamed ‘Methuselah’ (not to be confused with the famous bristlecone pine of the same name). Within a decade Methuselah was almost ten feet tall, and producing pollen.

Date palms come in separate male and female plants, only the females being able to produce fruit. Methuselah is unfortunately male. However, scientists speculate that Methuselah could be used to fertilize a female plant of a closely related Egyptian date palm, resulting in fruit as soon as the early 2020s, offering humanity access to a legendary flavour that has not been tasted in centuries.

Aluminum Illuminated

The apex of the Washington Monument
The apex of the Washington Monument

Shortly after aluminum was first discovered in the early 19th century it was counted among the most precious metals on Earth owing how difficult it was to obtain the pure metal. At $1,200 per kilogram, it was worth more by weight than gold or platinum.

By 1884 the price had fallen a little, but it was still valuable enough that the US government commissioned a pyramid of the metal to use as the apex of the US Washington Monument. At 100 ounces it was the largest single piece of aluminum ever cast at that time. Before engineers affixed it to the top of the new tower in an elaborate ceremony, the pyramid spent two days in the window of Tiffany’s in New York City, gawked at by passers-by.

Later in the 1880s, however, researchers found a new method to extract aluminum from common bauxite. The price plummeted to $0.60 per kilogram by the early 1900s. Scientists now know that aluminum is the most abundant metal on Earth.

Although the element’s discoverer Humphry Davy originally named it “aluminum”, a name which follows the -um pattern established by similar elements (platinum, molybdenum, etc), the metal is known as aluminium in most places outside of the United States. This is due to an anonymous contributor to the British journal Quarterly Review in 1813 who felt “aluminum” was not sufficiently ostentatious, and insisted with inexplicable success that chemists insert the superfluous vowel.

When the Wright brothers needed a lightweight engine for their heavier-than-air flying machines, they used aluminum, but painted it black to throw their competitors off the scent. Still, aluminum proved too malleable to be a common aircraft building material until 1901, when German scientist Alfred Wilm accidentally discovered that an aluminum alloy with about 4% copper, heated to high temperatures and then left to slowly cool, was considerably stronger than aluminum alone, or any alloy cooled with the rapid “quench hardening” used for other metals. This slow-cooled alloy is an integral part of airplanes and architecture even today.

Although it is not the best conductor of electricity, aluminum is used almost exclusively in main overhead power lines due to its light weight. If a better conductor such as copper were used, many more poles and pylons would be necessary to keep the lines aloft.

Hasty Hostilities

Zanzibar, an island nation that is now part of Tanzania, has been a contested territory for centuries. Starting in the 15th century, interested parties from Portugal, Oman, Germany, and Britain vied for the right to settle in Zanzibar and to decide whether to continue or abolish its slave trade.

In 1890, Zanzibar was declared a protectorate of the British Empire. And three years later, the Britain-friendly sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini came to power. Sultan Hamad died unexpectedly on 25 August 1896; his young cousin, Khalid bin Bargash, was suspected of having poisoned him. Young Khalid thumbed his nose at the British by swiftly moving into the palace without their permission, and ignoring a warning from the British consul to cease and desist. Instead, Khalid mobilized nearly 3,000 soldiers and civilians in the palace square, as well as a variety of military equipment that the British had gifted to the previous sultan.

The British, in response, readied warships in the harbor and delivered ultimatums demanding that Khalid leave the palace. Khalid remained defiant.

At 9:00am on 27 August 1896, three British ships opened fire on the palace. By 9:02am Khalid had fled, and most of his weaponry had been destroyed. The open fire ended at around 9:40am. A new (British-approved) sultan was in place by the afternoon.

Unsurprisingly, given that the British commanded the most powerful navy in the world, the war was a lopsided one. While approximately 500 Zanzibaris were killed, only a single British sailor was wounded. As the Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted between 38 and 45 minutes in total, it remains the shortest war in history.

The Height of Mathematics

Radhanath Sikdar postage stamp
Radhanath Sikdar postage stamp

The height of Mount Everest was not calculated by George Everest, but by a brilliant mathematician who has since been all but forgotten. Everest himself (who pronounced his name ‘ee-vrist’) had become the Surveyor-General of India in 1830, and by the next year was eagerly seeking a mathematician/topographer for his Great Trigonometric Survey of the area. A local college math teacher sent him the then-19-year-old Radhanath Sikdar. Sikdar was from Bengal and had become semi-notorious as a part of the Young Bengal movement of free-spirited noncomformists (expected to enter into an arranged marriage with a young girl, Sikdar had said no and walked away). However, he was also becoming known for his mathematical talents. Under Everest’s direction, Sikdar distinguished himself almost immediately with his level of technical skill and intellectual creativity. Sikdar would end up inventing a number of new forms of measurement, some of which far outlived him.

Sikdar ended up working for the Survey for more than two decades. Unfortunately, he was often treated unfairly. One edition of a surveyors’ manual left his name off his contributions. On another occasion, when Sikdar spoke up about the Survey taking advantage of some of its employees, he was fined 200 rupees for what the organisation saw as impudence. And due to how valuable his contributions were, when Sikdar attempted to change jobs, Everest denied the request on less-than-truthful grounds.

This was not even the final insult for Sikdar. When Everest retired, Sikdar continued his mapping and calculations under successor Andrew Waugh. Sikdar was able to show through his calculations that ‘Peak XV’ was the tallest in the world from sea-level, and Waugh eventually agreed with his calculations. Although the Survey had been labelling peaks according to what the local people called them, in this case Waugh decided to break with tradition and name the illustrious peak after…Everest. At least one scholarly society at the time took full note of Sikdar’s accomplishments, but in spite of his brilliant contributions, he has mostly been forgotten.

Of Meteors and Men

In the early 1960s, General Electric proposed a system whereby an astronaut in a space emergency might abandon ship and return to the Earth. The system was originally proposed under the acronym M.O.O.S.E. (Man Out Of Space Easiest), but later replaced with the backronym Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment.

The compact design was roughly 200 pounds, and about the size of a suitcase. The endangered astronaut would don their space suit and exit the spacecraft with MOOSE in hand. Upon unpacking the MOOSE, the astronaut would strap a parachute to their chest, clamber into a polyester bag (while in a space suit, in microgravity), and activate a dispenser to inflate the bag with expanding polyurethane foam. Once fully entombed in hardened foam, the astronaut would use a hand-held retrorocket to orient the bowl-shaped escape pod, then engage a small rocket to propel themselves toward the Earth. An ablative heat shield would prevent the bag (and its occupant) from burning up on re-entry1, a radio would provide communication with ground-based stations, a manually-deployed parachute would ensure a survivable landing speed, and the foam underside would serve as a cushion for landing (or as a flotation device for a water-based landing). The polyurethane was formulated such that the astronaut could break their way our of the foamy cocoon upon landing, with easy access to a survival kit while awaiting rescue.

Despite the feasibility of this emergency escape pod, and an encouraging series of ground-based proving tests, neither the US Air Force nor NASA was interested. General Electric quietly shelved the project.

1 Contrary to common belief, when an object enters a planet’s atmosphere, the fiery heat that engulfs it is not due to friction with the air. At the supersonic speeds involved with atmospheric entry, much of the air cannot move aside fast enough, and the air trapped in front of the craft becomes extremely compressed. When a gas is compressed, its temperature increases proportionately, enough to cause combustion in the case of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Friction is a factor, but not a significant one.

Of Earwax and Ethnicity

One way of determining a person’s likely ethnicity is looking inside their ears. Simply put, there are two kinds of earwax: dry and white, or wet and brownish. Genetic research shows that Caucasians tend to have the sticky type, while East Asians generally have the dry kind. This is due to a variant of the ABCC11 gene, which also affects the chemical that produces body odor. Koreans, Japanese, and others of East Asian descent typically have un-sticky earwax and un-smelly bodies due to the same gene.

National Treasure

Inside America’s Mount Rushmore National Monument there is a “secret” chamber known as the Hidden Hall of Records. Therein, under a 1,200 pound granite capstone, which is atop a titanium vault, which encloses a teakwood box, lie sixteen porcelain enamel panels with the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights etched upon them. It also houses a biography of Gutzon Borglum—the supervising sculptor of Mount Rushmore—and the story of the presidents. The builders’ intent was to preserve copies of these documents for the far future. Just outside the vault is an inscription reading:

“…let we place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

—Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor

The Hidden Hall of Records is tucked amidst the cliffs on the backside of the mountain, and is not accessible to the public.

Relatedly, the carved heads are 80 times larger than an average human head. Originally Thomas Jefferson’s face was carved on Washington’s right, but the sculptors decided the rock there was too weak, so they blasted the face away and started again on Washington’s left. The original design of Mt. Rushmore included torsos, but funds ran short and builders stopped while they were a head.

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