This being the 200th edition of The Post, a celebration of the number 200 is in order.
Two Hundred Years Ago
The Caribbean nation of Haiti was born in a slave rebellion. From 1802 to 1804, residents of the island fought a war of independence against France; on 1 January 1804, independence was formally declared. Currently one of the poorest nations in the world, Haiti is observing its bicentennial amid civil unrest and violence. Persons opposed to the rule of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide have launched an armed rebellion and now control areas in the northern part of the country. As of this writing, Aristide and the rebels are negotiating a power-sharing agreement but are at an impasse; Aristide wants to finish out his term as President, but the rebels insist that he step down. Known for more than just vodou, Haiti has given the world wonderful music, art, and food.
Leaving the modern world for a while, here's what else happened in 1804:
- Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was born in London on 21 December 1804. He trained as a solicitor and went into politics, eventually becoming Prime Minister in 1868. He also had a keen interest in literature and wrote several novels, unlike some politicians I could name, whose reading material appears limited to comic books. His first novel, Vivian Grey, was published in 1826 and sold very well. He continued to write throughout his life, up until the time he retired from politics in 1880. However, after the 1880 publication of Endymion he became seriously ill and died less than a year later.
'As a general rule the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information.'
Writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was born 4 July 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, USA. His best-known works are The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. As a young man he fell in with the Transcendentalists, who believed that human existence transcended the physical realm and who rejected formalism in favour of individual responsibility. (This philosophy did not appeal when I first encountered it at the age of 17, intent as I was on exploring the physical realm in as irresponsible a fashion as possible.) Hawthorne's later writings show some Transcendentalist influence; The Scarlet Letter, for example, contrasted puritan morality with passion and individualism. Ol' Nathaniel wasn't the life of the party, though, which isn't too surprising given that he spent his last years battling severe mental illness.
'What other dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's self!'
Musician Johann Strauss Sr (1804-1849) was born 14 March 1804 in Vienna, Austria. He became an apprentice bookbinder in 1816 and soon began studying the violin. He found work as a violinist for the chapel of Michael Pamer but decided he'd rather lead his own orchestra. After doing the usual 'starving musician' routine, he toured Europe and became enormously successful, even playing at the crowning of Queen Victoria in London. He is remembered today as the composer of The Radetsky March.
Strauss so loved the limelight that he made every effort to prevent his sons from following in his footsteps. Fortunately for the world, the sons weren't having any of it and went on to become composers and leaders of their own orchestras. Johann Jr eventually became even more popular than his father. He is known today as The Waltz King for such compositions as The Beautiful Blue Danube, Tales from the Vienna Woods, The Emperor Waltz and others, and he had the fashionable set dancing their feet off. Hard as it is to believe, in his day the waltz was considered scandalous. (Apparently Transcendentalism was making the rounds in Europe as well.)
Meanwhile, shuffling off this mortal coil in 1804:
Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was born in the East Prussian city of Königsberg and died there 12 February 1804. He led an unusually placid life, never travelling more than 50 miles beyond his birthplace, but as a thinker he was hugely influential. Much of his work addresses the question 'What can we know?' Kant said that our knowledge is limited to mathematics and the science of the natural, empirical world. It is impossible, he argued, to extend knowledge beyond that, because the mind plays an active role in creating its experiences and can't be trusted beyond the verifiable realm of space and time. His detractors summarized this position as 'Kant Can't' or, on occasion, Kant's Cant.
'Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.'
- Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was born near Leeds in the northern English county of Yorkshire and died in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, USA. One of the intellectual giants of Western civilisation, his work laid the foundation for that branch of science we now call chemistry, which in turn gave us the chemistry set1. He was best known for his experiments with gases and is considered the discoverer of oxygen. This was a good thing, since it gave us something to breath besides carbon dioxide and methane, which was notoriously smelly2. He also messed around with carbon dioxide and invented carbonated water, most of which eventually wound up in red-and-white cola drink cans. His unorthodox religious and political views made life uncomfortable in England, 'uncomfortable' being a euphemism for 'getting your house burned to the ground', so he and his family emigrated to the US in 1794, where he founded the first Unitarian Church in America. (I bet we could blame him for Transcendentalism.)
'The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate.'
And Speaking of Chemistry...
Odd as it may seem, the material world is made up of fewer than 200 different kinds of atoms, at least as far as we know today. Claims for two additions to the Periodic Table, 113 (ununtrium) and 115 (ununpentium), were made in February 2004.
2204 AD: will there be colonies on Mars and its moons, Phobos and Deimos?
Mars was named for the Greek god of war. Not surprisingly, 'phobos' is the Greek word for panic or flight and 'deimos' is Greek for fear or dread. From a distance, the moons' irregular, elongated shapes make them resemble rocky, grey potatoes.
Scientists aren't sure where the two moons came from. According to one theory, they were created by the breakup of a larger moon circling Mars, whose gravitational pull would have turned the original moon into a pile of rubble. The larger pieces would eventually fall and crash into Mars, leaving the smaller pieces in orbit. If this theory were true, then the moons should be made of the same stuff. To date, however, photographs of Phobos and Deimos suggest that this is not the case. We'll just have to go there to find out one way or the other.
At present, both moons have near-circular and near-equatorial orbits, but Phobos' orbit has been decaying since its discovery in 1877. Scientists have predicted that Phobos will crash into Mars a few million years. Would-be colonists best keep this in mind.
200 - 200/2 - 200/4 - 8 = 42. And that's the truth.