This Earth

This Earth has been in existence for quite a long while and do I wonder how many folk consider that, also how much this amazing planet has changed over time. We as humans haven’t been here all that long and it is generally believed that as a race, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa during a time of dramatic climate change some 300,000 years ago. Like other early humans that were living around that time we gathered and hunted for food, evolving behaviours that helped us to respond to the challenges of survival in unstable environments. To begin with, we certainly had a few ideas about ourselves and the Earth itself that have proven to be wrong. There have been a number of misconceptions, again now proved to be incorrect, a few of these being as follows. Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures were originally painted with bright colours, but they only appear white today because the original pigments have deteriorated. Some well-preserved statues still bear traces of their original colouration. Also, the tomb of Tutankhamen is not inscribed with a curse on those who disturb it, this was a media invention of 20th-century tabloid journalists. The ancient Greeks did not use the word ‘idiot’ to disparage people who did not take part in civic life or who did not vote. An idiot was simply a private citizen as opposed to a government official. Later, the word came to mean any sort of non-expert or layman, then someone uneducated or ignorant, and much later to mean stupid or mentally deficient.

Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David in 1784.

According to ancient Roman legend, the Horatii were triplet warriors who lived during the reign of Tullus Hostilius (r. 672–640 BC). Accounts of his death of vary, as in the mythological version of events he had angered Jupiter, who then killed him with a bolt of lightning. But non-mythological sources describe that he died of a plague after a ruling for 32 years. There is also no evidence of the use of the Roman salute by ancient Romans (as depicted in the above painting) for greeting or any other purpose. The idea that the salute was popular in ancient times originated from the painting but it then inspired later salutes, most notably the Nazi salute. Another idea was that Julius Caesar was born via Caesarean section, but at the time of his birth such a procedure would have been fatal to his mother and Caesar’s mother was still alive when Caesar was 45 years old. The name ‘caesarean’ probably comes from the Latin verb ‘caedere’, meaning ’to cut’. Also there is the myth of the Earth being flat. In fact the earliest clear documentation of the idea of a spherical Earth comes from the ancient Greeks in the 5th century BC. The belief was widespread in Greece when Eratosthenes of Cyrene, a man of learning who lived from around 276BC to 194 BC who was a mathematician, geographer, poet, astronomer and music theorist. He also became the chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria and he introduced some of the terminology still in use today. As a result, most European and Middle Eastern scholars accepted that the Earth was spherical and belief in a flat Earth amongst educated Europeans was almost nonexistent from the Late Middle Ages onward, although fanciful depictions appear in some art. However, by the 1490’s there was still an issue as to the size of the Earth and in particular the position of the east coast of Asia. Historical estimates from Ptolemy, also a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer and music theorist, placed the coast of Asia about 180° east of the Canary Islands. It was Columbus who adopted an earlier (and rejected) distance of 225°, added 28° (based on Marco Polo’s travels), and then placed Japan a further 30° east. Starting from Cape St Vincent in Portugal, Columbus made Eurasia stretch 283° to the east, leaving the Atlantic as only 77° wide. Since he planned to leave from the Canaries, 9° further west, his trip to Japan would only have to cover 68° of longitude. Columbus mistakenly assumed that the mile referred to in the Arabic estimate of 56⅔ miles for the size of a degree was the same as the actually much shorter Italian mile of 1,480 metres. His estimate for the size of the degree and for the circumference of the Earth was therefore about 25% too small. The combined effect of these mistakes was that Columbus estimated the distance to Japan to be only about 5,000km, or only to the eastern edge of the Caribbean whilst the true figure is about 20,000km. The Spanish scholars may not have known the exact distance to the east coast of Asia, but they believed that it was significantly further than Columbus’s projection and this was the basis of the criticism in Spain and Portugal, whether academic or among mariners, of the proposed voyage. The disputed point was not the shape of the Earth, nor the idea that going west would eventually lead to Japan and China, but the ability of European ships to sail that far across open seas. The small ships of the day simply could not carry enough food and water to reach Japan as Columbus’s three ships varied in length between 20.5 and 23.5 metres, or 67 to 77 feet, and carried about 90 men. In fact the ships barely reached the eastern Caribbean islands as already the crews were mutinous, not because of some fear of ‘sailing off the edge’, but because they were running out of food and water with no chance of any new supplies within sailing distance. They were on the edge of starvation. What saved Columbus was the unknown existence of the Americas precisely at the point he thought he would reach Japan. His ability to resupply with food and water from the Caribbean islands allowed him to return safely to Europe, otherwise his crews would have died, and the ships foundered. Since the early 20th century, quite a number of books and articles have documented the flat Earth error as one of a number of widespread misconceptions in the popular views of the Middle Ages and although the misconception was frequently refuted in historical scholarship since at least 1920, it persisted in popular culture and in some school textbooks into the 21st century. An American schoolbook by Emma Miller Bolenius published in 1919 has this introduction to the suggested reading for Columbus Day, October 12th: “When Columbus lived, people thought that the Earth was flat. They believed the Atlantic Ocean to be filled with monsters large enough to devour their ships, and with fearful waterfalls over which their frail vessels would plunge to destruction. Columbus had to fight these foolish beliefs in order to get men to sail with him. He felt sure the Earth was round”.

The semi-circular shadow of Earth on the Moon during a partial lunar eclipse.

Pythagoras in the 6th century BC and Parmenides in the 5th century BC stated that the the Earth was spherical and this view spread rapidly in the Greek world. Around 330 BC Aristotle maintained on the basis of physical theory and observational evidence that the Earth was indeed spherical and reported an estimate of its circumference the value was first determined around 240 BC by Eratosthenes. By the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy had derived his maps from a globe and developed the system of latitude, longitude and climes. His Almagest was the Greek-language mathematical and astronomical treatise on the apparent motions of the stars and their planetary paths. One of the most influential scientific texts in history, it canonised a geocentric model of the Universe that was accepted for more than 1,200 years from its origin in Hellenistic, in the medieval Byzantine and Islamic worlds as well as in Western Europe through the Middle Ages and early Renaissance until Copernicus. It is also a key source of information about Ancient Greek astronomy. The work was originally written in Greek and only translated into Latin in the 11th century from Arabic translations. It is fascinating to consider that in the first century BC, Lucretius opposed the concept of a spherical Earth because he considered that an infinite universe had no centre towards which heavy bodies would tend towards. Thus he thought the idea of animals walking around topsy-turvy under the Earth was absurd. By the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder was in a position to claim that everyone agreed on the spherical shape of Earth, though disputes continued regarding the nature of the antipodes, and how it was possible to keep the oceans in a curved shape.

Thorntonbank Wind Farm near the Belgian coast.

In the above image of Thorntonbank Wind Farm, the lower parts of the more distant towers are increasingly hidden by the horizon, demonstrating the curvature of the Earth. But even in the modern era, the pseudoscientific belief in a flat Earth originated with the English writer Samuel Rowbotham in his 1849 pamphlet ‘Zetetic Astronomy’. Lady Elizabeth Blount established the Universal Zetetic Society in 1893, which published journals. There were other flat-Earthers in the 19th and early 20th centuries and in 1956, Samuel Shenton set up the International Flat Earth Research Society (IFERS), better known as the “Flat Earth Society” from Dover, England, as a direct descendant of the Universal Zetetic Society. In the era of the Internet, the availability of communications technology and social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter these have made it easy for individuals, famous or not, to spread disinformation and attract others to erroneous ideas, including that of the flat Earth. I still smile at the advert I once saw which read “Join the Flat Earth Society – branches all around the world”. To maintain belief in the face of overwhelming contrary, publicly available empirical evidence accumulated in the Space Age, modern flat-Earthers must generally embrace some form of conspiracy theory out of the necessity of explaining why major institutions such as governments, media outlets, schools, scientists, and airlines all assert that the world is a sphere. They tend to not trust observations they have not made themselves, and often distrust or disagree with each other. As so many do over so many things. I think that what can also be difficult to comprehend or imagine is the sheer size of our Earth, our solar system, the Milky Way and beyond. Science has enabled us to see, through microscopes and the like, things which are so tiny that we need devices to perceive them. We do now have telescopes, but even those often use infra-red (which our eyes cannot see naturally) to ‘see’ what is a great distance from our planet. On one of the websites I look at there are often questions raised which are good ones, but equally there are a few which show that the writer seems to have no concept of how large the Universe really is. As an example, one question recently shared was “If telescopes can see billions of light years away, what stops us from seeing detailed images of planet surfaces to check for plants or other life?”. The answer given was that the Andromeda Galaxy is actually about 2.5 million light-years from Earth, but even when we use the Hubble telescope to see the surface of the planet Mars which is only about 0.000042 light-years away, the sharpest image of the surface of Mars is very blurry like the one below. This is because of the relative sizes of the planets. For example the Andromeda galaxy, although incredibly distant, is so large that its relative size, when viewed from Earth, is massive. From here we should understand why distant galaxies can be seen well with a telescope.

The Andromeda Galaxy.
The surface of Mars.

So far as this Earth is concerned, whilst we have generally explored almost the entire continental surface, with the exception of Antarctica that is, there are substantial parts of the ocean that remain unexplored and not fully studied. Even the latest technological advances for mapping the seafloor are limited by what they can do in the oceans. I have mentioned before about a computer app that is freely available and which also utilises a website called What3Words. It divides the world into individual three-metre squares and gives each one a unique three-word address, in order for people to be easily found in emergencies. It also gives people without a formal address access to one for the first time, whether a permanent address or if halfway up the side of a mountain, for example. I think this is especially useful for emergency services to locate people, even in the sea as the UK version includes that. Whether we think this is a good thing or not, it means that everywhere in the world now has an address, even a tent in the middle of a field or a ditch on the North York Moors! The website is and one example, in this case the entrance to Peterborough railway station, is and clicking this link opens a web page showing a map of Peterborough, with the square allocated by what3words to the railway station entrance. There are no duplications. This program is available on Apple and I believe Google, I think it may be of use to folk on such things as countryside walks or simply meeting up with friends.

In previous blog posts I have written a little about this Earth, its language and transportation by road and rail as well as aviation. Each have their individual benefits and we have certainly come a long way in these things. Sadly however, so many advances have been as a result of wars, with either individuals or groups for some reason wanting to better another. As a result I still struggle to comprehend this human need. Still, it is going on around us and I expect will continue to do so for years to come, long after I am here. Just as those who lived for a time but passed away, so will others. I remember when I was quite young talking to our local vicar after he had talked about heaven and earth and me saying to him how I thought that Heaven must be a very big place, thinking about all the many people who had died over time. I remember the vicar smiling gently and telling me that I was applying Earthly values to Heavenly things. I didn’t understand him at the time, but I learned in time that he was right. It took a long time to realise just how vastly, hugely enormous the Universe is, we simply cannot imagine it. But it exists, at least I believe it does! So when I learn of how certain people in this beautiful Earth are behaving, I think on how their lives will end, new ones will spring up, things will change and I hope, in years to come, we may yet learn to all live peacefully together. You will forgive me if I do not hold my breath on that one though! This world turns, the seasons change, no matter what our individual thoughts or our beliefs may be. There is good in the world, we must believe in it, do all we can, openly and honestly, and be thankful for what we have. We still have a few million years left!

This week…a tale from a few years ago.
I had bought an old Land Rover Series 3 which was quite good, but I found it needed a bit of repair on the steering mechanism. It meant that as I was driving along, rather than steer straight I was correcting it, so the vehicle would seem to almost ‘wander’ from side to side a little! I was driving home one day and was stopped by a local policeman, who stood by the driver’s open window in a way that he could smell my breath – Land Rovers sit quite high up on the road. He asked me if had been drinking or had I only just bought the vehicle. He already knew the answers to both questions, but was checking with me! I assured I had not been drinking but had recently purchased the vehicle, he agreed and even recommended a local garage who specialised in Land Rover repairs. I was advised to get the steering problem attended to as soon as possible and when I took it to this garage, the staff there were sure they actually knew who this policeman was as he himself was the proud owner of a Land Rover and was a regular customer of theirs!

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Human Aviation

We have for so many years been fascinated by watching birds fly and tried to do so ourselves. There are a few myths and legends of flight and my research has found some entertaining ones – these are just a few of them. According to Greek legend, Bellerophon the Valiant, the son of the King of Corinth, captured Pegasus the winged horse who took him into a battle against the triple headed monster, Chimera. In an Ancient Greek legend, King Minos imprisoned an engineer named Daedalus and with his son Icarus they made wings of wax and feathers. Daedalus flew successfully from Crete to Naples, but Icarus tried to fly too high and flew too near to the sun, so the wings of wax melted and Icarus fell to his death in the ocean. It is also said that King Kaj Kaoos of Persia attached eagles to his throne and flew around his kingdom, whilst Alexander the Great harnessed four great mythical winged animals called Griffins to a basket and flew around his realm. But in fact I understand it was around 400 BC that the Chinese first made kites that could fly in the air and this started us thinking about flying. To begin with, kites were used by the Chinese in religious ceremonies and they built many colourful ones for fun, then later more sophisticated kites were used to test weather conditions. Kites have been as important to the invention of flight as they were the forerunner to balloons and gliders. We have tested our ability to fly by attaching feathers or lightweight wood to our arms to enable us to fly naturally but the results were often disastrous as the muscles of human arms are simply not like the wings of birds and do not have the required strength. But an ancient Greek engineer named Hero of Alexandria worked with air pressure and steam to create sources of power and one of the experiments he developed was the ‘aeolipile’ which used jets of steam to create rotary motion. Hero mounted a sphere on top of a water kettle, a fire below the kettle turned the water into steam and the gas then travelled through pipes to the sphere. Then two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides of the sphere allowed the gas to escape, which gave a thrust to the sphere that caused it to rotate. Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480’s and he had over 100 drawings that illustrated his theories on flight, but his Ornithopter flying machine was never actually created. Though it was a design that he created to show how man could fly and the modern day helicopter is based on this concept. The two brothers Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier were inventors of the first hot air balloon and they used the smoke from a fire to blow hot air into a silk bag which was attached to a basket. The hot air then rose and allowed the balloon to become lighter than air. In 1783 the first passengers in the colourful balloon were a sheep, rooster and duck. It climbed to a height of about 6,000 feet and travelled more than 1 mile and after this first success, the brothers began to send men up in balloons. The first manned flight was on November 21, 1783, the passengers were Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent. Meanwhile, George Cayley worked to discover a way that man could fly. He designed many different versions of gliders that used the movements of the body to control and a young boy, whose name is not known, was the first to fly one of his gliders. Over fifty years Cayley made improvements to the gliders, changing the shape of the wings so that the air would flow over them correctly. He also designed a tail for the gliders, to help with the stability. He tried a biplane design to add strength to the glider and recognised that there would be a need for power if the flight was to be in the air for a long time. Cayley also wrote ‘On Ariel Navigation’ which showed that a fixed-wing aircraft with a power system for propulsion and a tail to assist in the control of the airplane would be the best way to allow man to fly. A German engineer, Otto Lilienthal, studied aerodynamics and worked to design a glider that would fly. He was the first person to design a glider that could fly a person and which was able to fly long distances. He was fascinated by the idea of flight. Based on his studies of birds and how they flew, he wrote a book on aerodynamics that was then published in 1889 and this text was used by the Wright Brothers as the basis for their designs. Around the same time, Samuel Langley who was an astronomer realised that power was needed to help man fly. He built a model of an aircraft which he called an ‘aerodrome’ that included a steam-powered engine and in 1891, his model flew for three-quarters of a mile before running out of fuel. Langley then received a $50,000 grant to build a full sized ‘aerodrome’, but it was too heavy to fly and it crashed. He was of course very disappointed at this and gave up trying to fly. His major contributions to flight involved attempts at adding a power plant to a glider, he was well known too as the director of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC in the U.S.A.

A Wright Brothers Unpowered Aircraft.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were very deliberate in their quest for flight. First, they read about all the early developments of flight. They decided to make “a small contribution” to the study of flight control by twisting their wings in flight. Then they began to test their ideas with a kite. They learned about how the wind would help with the flight and how it could affect the surfaces once up in the air and using a methodical approach concentrating on the controllability of the aircraft, the brothers built and tested a series of kite and glider designs from 1898 to 1902 before attempting to build a proper powered design. The gliders worked, but not as well as the Wrights had expected based on the experiments and writings of their predecessors. Their first full-size glider, launched in 1900, had only about half the lift they anticipated. Their second glider, built the following year, performed even more poorly, but rather than giving up, the Wrights constructed their own wind tunnel and created a number of sophisticated devices to measure lift and drag on the 200 wing designs they tested. As a result, the Wrights corrected earlier mistakes in their calculations and along with much testing and calculating they produced a third glider with a higher aspect ratio and true three-axis control. They flew it successfully hundreds of times in 1902, and it performed far better than the previous models. The next step was to test the shapes of gliders much like George Cayley did when he was testing the many different shapes that would fly. Finally, with a perfected glider shape, they turned their attention to how to create a propulsion system that would create the thrust needed to fly. The early engine that they designed generated almost 12 horsepower, that is the same power as two hand-propelled lawn mower engines! The “Flyer” lifted from level ground to the north of Big Kill Devil Hill, North Carolina, at 10:35 a.m., on December 17, 1903. Orville piloted the plane which weighed about six hundred pounds. The first heavier than air flight traveled one hundred twenty feet in twelve seconds. The two brothers took turns flying that day with the fourth and last flight covering 850 feet in 59 seconds, but the Flyer was unstable and very hard to control. The brothers returned to Dayton, Ohio, where they worked for two more years perfecting their design and finally, on October 5, 1905, Wilbur piloted the Flyer III for 39 minutes and for about 24 miles in circles around Huffman Prairie. He flew the first practical aircraft until it ran out of fuel. By using a rigorous system of experimentation, involving wind-tunnel testing of airfoils and flight testing of full-size prototypes, the Wrights not only built a working aircraft the following year but also helped advance the science of aeronautical engineering. The brothers appear to have been the first to make serious studied attempts to simultaneously solve both the power and control problems. These problems proved difficult, but they never lost interest, eventually solving them. Then, almost as an afterthought, they designed and built a low-powered internal combustion engine. They also designed and carved wooden propellers that were more efficient than any before, enabling them to gain adequate performance from their low engine power. Whilst many aviation pioneers appeared to leave safety largely to chance, the Wrights’ design was greatly influenced by the need to teach themselves to fly without unreasonable risk to life and limb, by surviving crashes! This emphasis, as well as low engine power, was the reason for low flying speed and for taking off in a headwind. Performance, rather than safety, was the reason for the rear-heavy design because the wing designs made the aircraft less affected by crosswinds and easier to fly. Since then, many new aeroplanes along with different engines have been developed to help transport people, luggage, cargo, military personnel and weapons around the globe, but their advances were all based on these first flights by the Wright Brothers.

The Wright Flyer, the first sustained flight with a powered, controlled aircraft.

In fact the history of aviation extends for more than two thousand years, from the earliest forms such as kites, even attempts at tower jumping all the way through to supersonic flight by powered, heavier-than-air jets. The discovery of hydrogen gas in the 18th century led to the invention of the hydrogen balloon at almost exactly the same time that the Montgolfier brothers rediscovered the hot-air balloon and began manned flights. With various theories in mechanics by physicists during the same period of time, notably fluid dynamics and Newton’s Laws of Motion led to the foundation of modern aerodynamics. Balloons, both free-flying and tethered, began to be used for military purposes from the end of the 18th century, with the French government establishing Balloon Companies during the Revolution. Experiments with gliders provided the groundwork for heavier-than-air craft and by the early 20th century advances in engine technology and aerodynamics made controlled, powered flight possible for the first time. The modern aeroplane with its characteristic tail was established by 1909 and from then on its history became tied to the development of more and more powerful engines. The first great ships of the air were the rigid dirigible balloons pioneered by Ferdinand Von Zeppelin, a name which soon became synonymous with airships and dominated long-distance flight until the 1930s, when large flying boats became popular. The ‘pioneer’ era from 1903 to 1914 also saw the development of practical aeroplanes and airships and their early application, alongside balloons and kites, for private, sport and military use. Eventually though, flight became an established technology and over a period of a few years more controls were added, providing a recognition of powered flight as something other than the preserve of dreamers and eccentrics. Such things as ailerons, also radio-telephones and guns were included and it was not long before aircraft were shooting at each other, but the lack of any sort of steady point for the gun was a problem. The French solved this problem when, in late 1914, Roland Garros attached a fixed machine gun to the front of his aircraft. Aviators were styled as modern-day knights, doing individual combat with their enemies. Several pilots became famous for their air-to-air combat, the most well known being Manfred von Richthofen, better known as the ‘Red Baron’, who shot down eighty planes in air-to air combat using several different planes, the most celebrated of which was a red triplane, that being one fitted with three wings. France, Britain, Germany, and Italy were the leading manufacturers of fighter planes that saw action during the war, then in the years between the two World Wars there was really great advancements in aircraft technology. Aircraft evolved from low-powered biplanes and triplanes made from wood and fabric to sleek, high-powered monoplanes made of aluminium, based primarily on the founding work of Hugo Junkers during the World War I and its adoption by other designers. As a result, the age of the great rigid airships came and went. The first successful flying machines that used rotary wings appeared in the form of the autogyro which was first flown in 1919. In that design, the rotor is not powered but is spun like a windmill by its passage through the air whilst a separate power-plant is used to propel the aircraft forwards. Helicopters were developed and in the 1930s, development of the jet engine began in Germany and in Britain and both countries would go on to develop jet aircraft by the end of World War II. This era saw a great increase in the pace of development and production, not only of aircraft but also the associated flight-based weapon delivery systems. Air combat tactics and doctrines took advantage. Large-scale strategic bombing campaigns were launched, fighter escorts introduced and the more flexible aircraft and weapons allowed precise attacks on small targets with various types of attack aircraft. Also, new technologies like radar allowed more coordinated and controlled deployment of air defence.

Messerschmitt Me262, the first operational jet fighter.

The first jet aircraft to fly was the German Heinkel He178 in 1939, followed by the world’s first operational jet aircraft, the Me262 in July 1942. British developments like the Gloster Meteor followed afterwards, but these saw only brief use in World War II. Also, jet and rocket aircraft had only limited impact due to their late introduction, fuel shortages, also the real lack of experienced pilots as well as the declining war industry of Germany. In the latter part of the 20th century, the advent of digital electronics produced great advances in flight instrumentation and “fly-by-wire” systems with the 21st century bringing the large-scale use of pilotless drones for military, civilian and leisure use, also inherently unstable aircraft such as ‘flying wings’ becoming possible with their use of digital controls.

The DeHavilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner which also saw service in the Royal Air Force.

Also after World War II, commercial aviation grew rapidly, using mostly ex-military aircraft to transport people and cargo. By 1952, the British Overseas Aircraft Corporation (BOAC) had introduced the Comet into their scheduled service. Whilst a technical achievement, the plane suffered a series of highly public failures as the shape of its windows led to cracks due to metal fatigue. The fatigue was caused by cycles of pressurisation and depressurisation of the cabin and eventually led to catastrophic failure of the plane’s fuselage. By the time the problems were overcome by making the windows oval rather than square-shaped, other jet airliner designs had already taken to the skies. Much more could be written here about the changes, including the ‘jet age’, supersonic flight, even getting into space but I think that will be for another time. Suffice to say that 21st-century aviation has seen increasing interest in fuel savings and fuel diversification, as well as low-cost airlines and facilities. Also, much of the developing world that did not have good access to air transport has been steadily adding aircraft and facilities, though severe congestion remains a problem in many up and coming nations. But we continue to strive, to develop. On 19 April 2021, the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) flew successfully an unmanned helicopter on Mars, making it humanity’s first controlled powered flight on another planet. ‘Ingenuity’ rose to a height of 3 metres and hovered in a stable holding position for 30 seconds, after a vertical take-off that was filmed by its accompanying rover, ‘Perseverance’. Then on 22 April 2021, ‘Ingenuity’ made a second, more complex flight, which was also observed by ‘Perseverance’. As an homage to all of its aerial predecessors, the ‘Ingenuity’ helicopter carries with it a very small, postage-stamp sized fragment from the wing of the 1903 Wright Flyer.

This week…
It just goes to show how some historical events aren’t remembered. Back in 2016, on the television quiz show ‘Pointless’, a relatively young contestant chose to answer the question “Who was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas?”. They answered, somewhat hesitatingly, “J.R.?”, meaning J.R. Ewing from an American television soap opera which was aired on American tv from 1978 to 1991. The correct answer was John F. Kennedy, the former president of the United States, on November 22, 1963.

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Transportation By Road

Road transport started with the development of tracks by us and our ‘beasts of burden’. The first forms of road transport were horses and oxen which were used for carrying goods over tracks that often followed game trails for food along routes such as the Natchez Trace, a historic forest trail within the United States of America. That trail extends roughly 440 miles from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi and links the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. It was created and used by Native Americans for centuries and later used by early European as well as American explorers, traders and emigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. European Americans founded inns along the Trace to serve food and lodging to travellers, however as travel shifted to steamboats on the Mississippi and other rivers, most of these inns were closed. Today the path is commemorated by a parkway which uses the same name as well as following the approximate path of the Trace. In the Palaeolithic Age, we did not need constructed tracks in open country and the first improved trails would have been at fords, mountain passes and through swamps. The first improvements were made by clearing trees and big stones from the path and as commerce increased, the tracks were often flattened or widened to more easily accommodate human and animal traffic. Some of these dirt tracks were developed into fairly extensive networks, thereby allowing for communications, trade and governance over wider areas. The Incan Empire in South America and the Iroquois Confederation in North America, neither of which had the wheel at that time, are examples of effective use of such paths. The first transportation of goods was made on human backs and heads, but the use of pack animals, including donkeys and horses, was developed during the Neolithic Age. The first vehicle is believed to have been the travois, from the French ‘travail’, a frame for restraining horses.

Cheyenne using a Travois.

Travois were probably used in other parts of the world before the invention of the wheel and developed in Eurasia after the first use of bullocks for the pulling of ploughs. In about 5000 BC, sleds were developed which are more difficult to build than travois, but are easier to propel over smooth surfaces. Pack animals, ridden horses and bullocks dragging travois or sleds require wider paths and higher clearances than people on foot and so improved tracks were required. By about 5000 BC, proper roads were developed along ridges in England to avoid crossing rivers and getting bogged down. Travellers have used these ridgeways for a great many years and the Ridgeway National Trail itself follows an ancient path from Overton Hill near Avebury to Streatley. It then follows footpaths and parts of the ancient Icknield Way through the Chiltern Hills to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. Ridgeways provided a reliable trading route to the Dorset coast and to the Wash in Norfolk as the high and dry ground made travel easy and provided a measure of protection by giving traders a commanding view, warning against potential attacks. During the Iron Age, the local inhabitants took advantage of the high ground by building hill-forts along the Ridgeway to help defend the trading route. Then, following the collapse of Roman authority in Western Europe, the invading Saxon and Viking armies used it. In medieval times and later, the ridgeways found use by drovers, moving their livestock from the West Country and Wales to markets in the Home Counties and London. Before the Enclosure Acts of 1750, or to use the archaic spelling ‘Inclosure Acts, covered the enclosure of open fields and common land in England and Wales, creating legal property rights to land previously held in common. Between 1604 and 1914, over 5,200 individual enclosure acts were passed, affecting just under 11,000 square miles. Before these enclosures in England, a portion of the land was categorised as ‘common’ or ‘waste’ and whilst common land was under the control of the lord of the manor, certain rights on the land such as pasture, pannage or estovers (an allowance of land made to a person out of an estate, or other thing for their support) were held variously by certain nearby properties, or occasionally ’in gross’ by all manorial tenants. ‘Waste’ was land without value as a farm strip, often very narrow areas (typically less than a yard wide) in difficult locations such as cliff edges, or awkwardly shaped manorial borders but also bare rock. Waste was not officially used by anyone, and so was often farmed by landless peasants. The remaining land was organised into a large number of narrow strips, each tenant possessing a number of strips throughout the manor and what might now be termed a single field would have been divided under this system amongst the lord and his tenants, whilst poorer peasants were allowed to live on the strips owned by the lord in return for cultivating his land. The system facilitated common grazing and crop rotation. Once enclosures started, the paths developed through the building of earth banks and the planting of hedges.

A Greek street – 4th or 3rd century BC.

Wheels appear to have been developed in ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia around 5000 BC, perhaps originally for the making of pottery. Their original transport use may have been as attachments to travois or sleds to reduce resistance. Most early wheels appear to have been attached to fixed axles, which would have required regular lubrication by animal fats, vegetable oils or separation by leather to be effective. The first simple two-wheel carts, apparently developed from travois, appear to have been used in Mesopotamia and northern Iran in about 3000 BC and two-wheeled chariots appeared in about 2800 BC. They were hauled by onagers, an Asiatic wild ass related to donkeys. Heavy four-wheeled wagons were then developed about 2500 BC but which were only suitable for oxen-haulage and were therefore only used where crops were cultivated. Two-wheeled chariots with spoked wheels appear to have been developed around 2000 BC by the Andronovo culture in southern Siberia and Central Asia and at much the same time the first primitive harness was invented, enabling horse-drawn haulage. Wheeled-transport created the need for better roads, as natural materials were generally not found to be both soft enough to form well-graded surfaces and strong enough to bear wheeled vehicles, especially when it was wet, and stay intact. In urban areas it became worthwhile to build stone-paved streets and the first paved streets appear to have been built around 4000 BC. Log roads, made by placing logs perpendicular to the direction of the road over a low or swampy areas resulted in an improvement over impassable mud or dirt roads, but rough in the best of conditions and a hazard to horses due to the shifting of loose logs. These log roads were built in Glastonbury in 3300 BC and brick-paved roads were built in the Indus Valley on the Indian subcontinent from around the same time. Then improvements in metallurgy meant that by 2000 BC, stone-cutting tools were generally available in the Middle East and Greece allowing local streets to be paved. In 500 BC Darius the Great started an extensive road system for Persia, including the famous Royal Road which was one of the finest highways of its time and which was used even after Roman times. Because of the road’s superior quality, mail couriers could travel almost 1,700 miles in seven days.

A map of Roman roads in 125CE.

With the advent of the Roman Empire, there was a need for armies to be able to travel quickly from one area to another, and existing roads were often muddy, which greatly delayed the movement of large masses of troops. To solve this problem, the Romans built great roads which used deep roadbeds of crushed stone as an underlying layer to ensure that they kept dry, as the water would flow out from the crushed stone, instead of becoming mud in clay soils. The legions made good time on these roads and some are still used now. On the more heavily travelled routes, there were additional layers that included six sided capstones, or pavers, that reduced the dust and reduced the drag from wheels. These pavers allowed the Roman chariots to travel very quickly, ensuring good communication with the Roman provinces. Farm roads were often paved first towards town, to keep produce clean. Early forms of springs and shock absorbers to reduce the bumps were incorporated in horse-drawn transport, as the original pavers were sometimes not perfectly aligned. But Roman roads deteriorated in medieval Europe because of a lack of resources and skills to maintain them. The alignments are still partially used today though, like on areas of our A1 road. The earliest specifically engineered roads were built during the British Iron Age and the road network was expanded during the Roman occupation. New roads were added in the Middle Ages, from the 17th century onwards and as life slowly developed and became richer, especially with the Renaissance, new roads and bridges began to be built, often based on Roman designs. More and more roads were built, but responsibility for the state of the roads had lain with the local parish since Tudor times. Then in 1656 the parish of Radwell, Hertfordshire petitioned Parliament for help in order to maintain their section of the Great North Road. Parliament passed an act which gave the local justices powers to erect toll-gates on a section of the Great North Road, between Wadesmill in Hertfordshire, Caxton in Cambridgeshire and Stilton in Huntingdonshire for a period of eleven years and the revenues so raised were to be used for the maintenance of the Great North Road in their jurisdictions. The toll-gate erected at Wadesmill became the first effective toll-gate in England. Then came the Turnpike Act in 1707, beginning with a section of the London to Chester road between Fornhill and Stony Stratford. The idea was that the trustees would manage resources from the several parishes through which the highway passed, augment this with tolls from users from outside the parishes and apply the whole to the maintenance of the main highway. This became the pattern for a growing number of highways to have tolls on them and was sought by those who wished to improve the flow of commerce through their part of a county. At the beginning of the 18th century, sections of the main radial roads into London were put under the control of individual turnpike trusts. The pace at which new turnpikes were created picked up in the 1750s as trusts were formed to maintain the cross-routes between the Great Roads radiating from London. Roads leading into some provincial towns, particularly in Western England, were put under single trusts and key roads in Wales were then turnpiked. In South Wales, the roads of complete counties were put under single turnpike trusts in the 1760s. Turnpike trusts grew, such that by 1825 about 1,000 trusts controlled 18,000 miles of road in England and Wales. Interestingly, from the 1750s these Acts required trusts to erect milestones indicating the distance between the main towns on the road. Users of the road were obliged to follow what were to become rules of the road, such as driving on the left and not damaging the road surface. Trusts could also take additional tolls during the summer to pay for watering the road in order to lay the dust thrown up by fast-moving vehicles. Parliament then passed a few general acts dealing with the administration of the trusts along with the restrictions on the width of wheels, as narrow wheels were said to cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the road. Construction of roads improved slowly, initially through the efforts of individual surveyors such as John Metcalf in Yorkshire in the 1760s. British turnpike builders began to realise the importance of selecting clean stones for surfacing, and excluding vegetable material and clay to make better lasting roads. Later, after the ending of the turnpike trusts, roads were funded from taxation and so it was that gradually a proper network of roadways was developed in Britain in order to supplement the use of rivers as a system of transportation and many of these roadways were developed as a result of trading of goods and services, such as wool, sheep, cattle and salt as they helped link together market towns as well as harbours and ports. Other roadways were developed to meet the needs of pilgrims visiting shrines such as Walsingham, even to the transporting of corpses from isolated places to local graveyards. Also during medieval England were built the “Four Highways” and Henry of Huntingdon wrote that the Ermine Street, Fosse Way, Watling Street and Icknield Way were constructed by royal authority. Two new vehicle duties were introduced, the ‘Locomotive duty’ and the ‘Trade Cart duty’ in the 1888 budget and since 1910, the proceeds of road vehicle excise duties have been dedicated to fund the building and maintenance of the road system. From 1920 to 1937, most roads in the United Kingdom were funded from this Road Fund using taxes raised from fuel duty and Vehicle Excise duty but since 1937, roads have been funded from general taxation with all motoring duties, including VAT, being paid directly to the Treasury. Tolls or congestion charges are still used for some major bridges and tunnels, for example the Dartford Crossing has a congestion charge. The M6 Toll road, originally the Birmingham Northern Relief Road, is designed to relieve the M6 through Birmingham as the latter is one of the most heavily used roads in the country. There were two public toll roads, Roydon Road in Stanstead Abbots, Hertfordshire and College Road in Dulwich, London and about five private toll roads. However, since 2006 congestion charging has been in operation in London and Durham. Before 14 December 2018, the M4’s Second Severn Crossing, officially ‘The Prince of Wales Bridge’ included tolls, but after being closed for three days for toll removal the bridge opened up again on 17 December 2018 starting with a formal ceremony and toll payment was scrapped. It made its mark in history as it is believed to be the first time in 400 years that the crossing was free!

After the election of the Labour government in 1997, most existing road schemes were cancelled and problem areas of the road network were then subjected to a range of studies to investigate non-road alternatives. In 1998 it was proposed to transfer parts of the English trunk road network to local councils, retaining central control for the network connecting major population centres, ports, airports, key cross-border links and the Trans-European Road Network. Since then, various governments have continued to implement new schemes to build new roads and widen existing ones as well as review other transport infrastructures because between 1980 and 2005 traffic increased by 80%, whilst road capacity increased by just 10%. Naturally, concern has been raised, especially in terms of damage to the countryside. Also, on 4 June 2018, a change in the law meant that learner drivers, who had previously been banned from driving on motorways, were allowed to use them when accompanied by a driving instructor in a car with dual controls. Because motorway driving is not offered as part of the practical driving test in the United Kingdom, these measures were put in place in an effort to teach motorway safety.

As so often happens when researching a subject such as this, the more one finds it seems the more there is to be found! Suffice to say that in addition to the above there is so much more that can be said about transportation by road, but I think this is enough for now!

This week…
Did you hear about the man who began a career by writing dirty jokes, but then went on to create proper poetry? He went from bawd to verse…

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Whilst browsing through websites for some information, I found the following question which was: “Will aliens have similar mathematics and natural science in this universe if they exist? One answer given was “Not just similar, but identical. Their bit of universe will likely be exactly like ours, and if they explore it, they will arrive to the same description of it as we do. If they are able to come here, their physics are likely to be more advanced than ours, but everything we have in common will be identical. They may or may not use a different base in mathematics than we do. We commonly use base 10, but the principles of mathematics is actually independent of the base, and we can as easily do the same mathematics with base 2 (computers already do that), 16 (people often use that as a compromise when talking to computers) or 20 (ancient Mayans, for instance). It’s all down to what axioms they decide to use, and if they want their mathematics to be useful to describe physics, they have to use the same axioms as well.” There are also a few folk here on Earth with crazy ideas and one person asked if there is a risk that hostile aliens could find the location of Earth and invade. Of course, the question really is how big is the risk – because of course it will never be demonstrably zero. It is impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, even when it’s as intangible as a risk. Therefore, it only makes sense to look at the factors that decrease the risk – at what makes it unlikely that hostile aliens could find the location of Earth and invade. The following is a reply given by a scientist. “First, consider interstellar separation. Our current knowledge of physics implies that nothing can travel faster than light and anything which does approach that speed suffers massively from the effects of time dilation. So either the aliens will take tens of thousands of years to travel from star to star, or time dilation makes it a one-way trip because if they return to their home planet, it will be tens of thousands of years older than when they left. The distance they must cover is mind-bogglingly huge, and the trip is expensive, dangerous, and long – unless they’ve cracked the light-speed barrier, which is very unlikely. Next, the likelihood of Earth being a useful target is low because there are few planets that are even similar to, let alone the same as, another. The aliens would have to find the Earth to be the most viable source of something valuable to them, even though their planet is vastly different from Earth. Their needs, through evolution, will match what exists on their own planet rather than here. Volatiles (hydrogen, methane, etc.) are easier to gather from gas giants and moons, metals are easier to mine from asteroids and comets. Of course, even if there are aliens that find our planet useful, they could be on the other side of the galaxy rather than anywhere near Sol. It’s likely they’ll never find us in the galactic forest or through all the clutter of gas, other systems, and so on. But for what purpose would they be hostile? There is as much if not more chance they would be indifferent, or helpful. Why travel across interstellar distances just to pick a fight? Following on from that, with great intelligence comes great insight and inquisitiveness and the effort towards scientific advancement. These things tend to replace or least greatly diminish the initial basic instincts of fear, suspicion and violent tendencies. Finally, these aliens need to exist in the same time period we do. The universe and our galaxy have great age – a long past covering billions of years, and an equally long future. We have existed for a mere eye-blink of time. The aliens probably wouldn’t arrive until long after we leave, if we ever learn the secret of getting around from star to star like they do. Either that, or they arrived before we existed and moved on. With all those factors counting against invasion, it seems there’s a very low risk”. I also recall an episode of ’Star Trek – The Next Generation’ which involved languages. In it, Deanna Troi, the ship’s counsellor, picked up what to you and I would be a drinking cup. But she pointed out to the captain, Jean-Luc Picard, that were he to show this item to someone from a different galaxy, they might perceive the cup in quite a different manner. For example, they might see it as a treasured item, to be revered, something originally owned or used by a great ruler. Or it might be symbolic, an item shown one to another to demonstrate overcoming an enemy and in that way creating a friendship between nations. Then again, it might be an item for two leaders to drink from, thus sharing an agreement. Different countries on Earth use language as it is a structured system of communication used by us humans. Languages can be based on speech and gesture, it can be spoken, by sign or written. The structure of language is its grammar and the components are its vocabulary. Many of our languages, including the most widely-spoken ones, have writing systems that enable sounds or signs to be recorded for future use. Our language is unique among the known systems of animal communication in that it is not dependent on a single mode of transmission (sight, sound, etc.), it is highly variable between cultures and across time, it also affords a much wider range of expression than other systems. Human languages have the properties of productivity and displacement, they also rely on social convention and learning. Estimates of the number of human languages in the world vary between 5,000 and 7,000, though precise estimates depend on an arbitrary distinction being established between languages and dialects. Natural languages are spoken, signed or both. However, any language can be encoded into secondary media using auditory, visual, or tactile stimuli, for example writing, whistling, signing, signalling or braille.

The English word ‘language’ derives ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European tongue through Latin and Old French. The word is sometimes used to refer to codes, ciphers and other kinds of artificially-constructed communication systems such as ways used for computer programming. Over the years there have been attempts to define what language is and one definition sees language primarily as the mental faculty that allows humans to undertake linguistic behaviour, to learn languages and to produce and understand utterances. This definition stresses the universality of language to all humans, and it emphasises the biological basis for the human capacity for language as a unique development of the human brain. But another definition sees language as a formal system of signs governed by grammatical rules in combination to communicate meaning. This definition stresses that human languages can be described as closed, structural systems consisting of rules that relate particular signs directly to particular meanings.

A conversation in American Sign Language.

Throughout history, humans have speculated about the origins of language but interestingly theories about the origin of language differ in regard to their basic assumptions about what language actually is. Some theories are based on the idea that language is so complex that one cannot imagine it simply appearing from nothing in its final form, but that it must have evolved from earlier pre-linguistic systems among our pre-human ancestors. The opposite viewpoint is that language is such a unique human trait that it cannot be compared to anything found among non-humans and that it must therefore have appeared suddenly in the transition from pre-hominids to early man. Because language emerged in the early prehistory of man, before the existence of any written records, its early development has left no historical traces, and it is believed that no comparable processes can be observed today. Theories which stress continuity of language often look at animals to see if, for example, primates display any traits that can be seen as analogous to what pre-human language must have been like and to this end, early human fossils have been inspected for traces of physical adaptation to language use or pre-linguistic forms of symbolic behaviour. Among the signs in human fossils that may suggest linguistic abilities are the size of the brain relative to body mass, the presence of a larynx which is capable of advanced sound production as well as the nature of tools and other manufactured artefacts. The formal study of language is often considered to have started in India with Pānini, a 5th century BC scholar of grammar who formulated 3,959 rules of Sanskrit. However, Sumerian scribes already studied the differences between Sumerian and Akkadian grammar around 1900 BC. Subsequent grammatical traditions developed in all of the ancient cultures that adopted writing. In the 17th century AD, the French developed the idea that the grammars of all languages were a reflection of the universal basics of thought, and therefore that grammar was universal. Spoken language relies on the human physical ability to produce sound, a longitudinal wave propagated through the air at a frequency capable of vibrating the ear drum. This ability depends on the physiology of the human speech organs. These organs consist of the lungs, the voice box (larynx) and the upper vocal tract – the throat, the mouth, and the nose. By controlling the different parts of the speech apparatus, the airstream can be manipulated to produce different speech sounds. Some of these speech sounds, both vowels and consonants, involve release of air flow through the nasal cavity. Other sounds are defined by the way the tongue moves within the mouth such as the l-sounds, called laterals as the air flows along both sides of the tongue, and the r-sounds. By using these speech organs, humans can produce hundreds of distinct sounds. Some appear very often in the world’s languages, whilst others are more common in particular language families, areas, or even specific to a single language.

An ancient Tamil inscription at Thanjavur.

But languages express meaning by relating a sign form to a meaning, or its content. Sign forms must be something that can be perceived, for example, in sounds, images, or gestures, and then related to a specific meaning by social convention. Because the basic relation of meaning for most linguistic signs is based on social convention, linguistic signs can be considered arbitrary, in the sense that the convention is established socially and historically, rather than by means of a natural relation between a specific sign form and its meaning. As a result, languages must have a vocabulary of signs related to specific meaning. The English sign “dog” denotes, for example, a member of the species ‘Canis Familiaris’. Depending on its type, language structure can be based on systems of sounds (speech), gestures (sign languages), or graphic or tactile symbols (writing). All spoken languages use segments such as consonants or vowels, many use sound in other ways to convey meaning, like stress, pitch and duration of tone whilst writing systems represent language using visual symbols, which may or may not correspond directly to the sounds of spoken language. Because all languages have a very large number of words, no purely logographic scripts are known to exist, although the best-known examples of a logographic writing system are Chinese and Japanese. Written language represents the way spoken sounds and words follow one after another by arranging symbols (letters, numbers, etc) according to a pattern that follows a certain direction. The direction used in a writing system is entirely arbitrary and established by convention. Some writing systems use the horizontal axis (left to right as the Latin script, or right to left as the Arabic script), whilst others such as traditional Chinese writing use the vertical dimension (from top to bottom). A few writing systems use opposite directions for alternating lines, and others, such as the ancient Maya script, can be written in either direction and rely on graphic cues to show the reader the direction of reading. In order to represent the sounds of the world’s languages in writing, linguists have developed the International Phonetic Alphabet which is designed to represent all of the discrete sounds that are known to contribute to meaning in human languages.

The Basic Structure of an English Sentence.

It is not realistically possible in this blog post for me to go into such things as grammar, parts of speech, word classes and syntax, especially as languages differ so widely in how much they rely on processes of word formation. For example, an English sentence can be analysed in terms of grammatical functions, like “The cat” is the subject of the phrase, “on the mat” is a locative phrase, and “sat” is the core of the predicate. Another way in which languages convey meaning is through the order of words within a sentence. The grammatical rules, or syntax, determine why a sentence in English such as “I love you” is meaningful, but “love you I” is not. Syntactical rules determine how word order and sentence structure is constrained, and how those constraints contribute to meaning. For example, in English, the two sentences “the slaves were cursing the master” and “the master was cursing the slaves” mean different things, because the role of the grammatical subject is encoded by the noun being in front of the verb, and the role of object is encoded by the noun appearing after the verb. What can make other languages difficult to learn is because the above rules may be different through other languages! I will not go into detail over these things or aspects like the ‘accusative case’ and the ’nominative case’ which are far beyond me! Suffice to say it has been found that whilst we have the ability to learn any language, we do so if we grow up in an environment in which that language exists and is used by others. Language is therefore dependent on communities of speakers, most usually where children learn language from their elders and peers and they themselves transmit language to their own children.

Owing to the way in which language is transmitted between generations and within communities, language perpetually changes, diversifying into new languages or converging due to contact with others. The process is similar to the process of evolution, but languages differ from biological organisms in that they readily incorporate elements from other languages through the process of diffusion, as speakers of different languages come into contact. Humans also frequently speak more than one language, often acquiring their first language or languages as children, then learning new languages as they grow up. Because of the increased language contact in our globalising world, many small languages are becoming endangered as their speakers shift to other languages that then afford the possibility to participate in larger and more influential speech communities. For a while, the Welsh language feared to be was dying out but happily more and more people are speaking it, as well as it being taught. Some years ago I learned a few words of Welsh and was amazed to find how similar some words in that language were to other languages, for example French. I have also had a look at Old English, but as my research proved, despite Old English being the direct ancestor of modern English, it is almost unintelligible to contemporary English speakers.

The first page of the poem Beowulf, written in Old English in the early medieval period (800–1100 AD).

To finish this week, I have included a point which actually relates to the main text above, but which I feel is quite humorous and it is this.
Many languages have grammatical conventions that signal the social position of the speaker in relation to others, like saying “your honour” when addressing a judge. But in one Australian language, a married man must use a special set of words to refer to everyday items when speaking in the presence of his mother-in-law…

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