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Thursday, 11 July 2019

Fast transport and slow deaths


The factors that influence the spread and/or limitations of disease can often be quite unexpected, and in some cases, the causes remain unknown.

The delivery of tea to England by fast ship may have kept the English drinking tea, which constrained them to boil their water to make the tea, which killed the bacteria that caused cholera and other diseases. On the other hand, fast transport also caused some curious outbreaks of disease.

Airport malaria is a known phenomenon today, where people close to airports may very occasionally catch malaria when an infected mosquito emerges from an aircraft and draws blood from somebody before it dies. That sort of thing was far less likely in the days of steamships, but not impossible, even with a sailing ship like the barque Hecla, which once carried yellow fever to Wales.

Hecla reached Swansea with a cargo of copper ore from Cuba on 8 September 1865, and did not raise the quarantine flag. The ship had left one crewman, dead of yellow fever in Cuba, and she was under-crewed due to three deaths at sea that were put down to yellow fever.

Another sailor, James Saunders, died just after landing, and doctors judged this to be yellow fever, so his body was immediately buried in a tar sheet, his house was cleared and disinfected with lime wash and chloride of lime, and his clothing and bedding were destroyed.
Nobody had any idea that the disease was spread by mosquito bites, so the ship’s water supply, almost certainly complete with mosquitoes in all stages of life, was left unexamined. The ship’s owners resisted moving the ship, and while it was disinfected, though it later moved after locals intimated that it might mysteriously catch fire. This removal would have had no effect on the mosquitoes, though the fire would have curtailed the outbreak.

Before the outbreak ran its course, at least 27 people fell ill with yellow fever and 15 of them died, while there were a few other “possibles”, but how did a tropical disease reach Wales? Yellow fever and its mosquitoes had travelled from Africa to the Caribbean with African slave ships and been established there, but non-tropical Wales was safe from any permanent threat from yellow fever, back then.

The ship travelled in warm weather that let the mosquitoes survive, and it arrived in warm weather, which allowed the mosquitoes to spread, briefly into parts of Swansea. Still, in these days of global warming and climate change, who can say what the future might hold?
*
In China in the late 19th century, political unrest was common, but new technology brought hope to some of China’s urban poor. They could take steam trains into rural areas to shoot, kill and skin ground rodents, and take the skins back to the city for sale. In an age before plastics, skins were always saleable, and if the local people had silly traditions, like not shooting a sick-looking animal, the city slickers saw those animals as fair and easy game.

Bubonic plague is a disease that harms rodents, fleas and humans. A flea bites an infected mammal, gets an infection that blocks its bloodsucking apparatus, so the next time it tries to feed, some of the plague bacteria “blow back” into the new food source, and so the disease spreads. When a host dies, fleas move to any other warm body—like the person skinning the old rodent host.

The hunters caught fast steam trains back to the city before they fell ill, and from there, bubonic plague infected rats in the city, either from the hunters or from fleas that were still in the fur of the skins. Over time, some of the rats found their way onto fast steam ships that went around the world from Chinese ports.

In earlier times, plague usually killed the rats before sailing ships reached port, but steamships bustled from port to port, and sooner or later, some of the rats made it to the other end, found their way ashore to die, and shared their fleas and their ills. Indian ports were hit, along with those in Sydney, San Francisco, Madagascar, Paraguay, South Africa and more. In every port, people died because of fast ships.
*
There is fairly wide agreement that the spread of HIV was brought about by long-haul truck drivers in Africa making use of prostitutes along the way, followed by an entry into the more general population of the western world, thanks to jet aircraft. The world got lucky with SARS, as my next two posts will explain.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Strange armour

Curiosities from the scrap folder

A Cork Ship.—The Mobile papers report the arrival of a great curiosity at that city, a vessel made entirely of cork, which is lying at one of the wharves. That she will never sink may be true enough, but the other claim of the Mobilians, that “she will last forever,” requires some proof.
Scientific American, April 28, 1866, p. 276.

Charles Atherton was the Chief Engineer at Her Majesty’s Royal Dockyard, Woolwich. When he wrote to The Times in January 1859 about his idea for filling vessels with of light material, up to the waterline, people paid attention. Essentially, he wanted to ensure that no matter how badly holed a ship was, it would never settle lower in the water, because no shot, no reef, no ram could harm the bottom layer. Gunboats, floating-batteries and mortars would all become unsinkable, so long as the guns and crew survived. Suitable solids might be:

…cork shavings, light wood sawdust, rush stems, cotton waste, flocks, hemp, and other lightweight material, which, by the aid of a solution of gutta percha or other chemical process, would form a solidifying mass, so tough that it could not be knocked to pieces by shot, and so light that it would only be one half the specific gravity of water, and therefore, unsinkable, however perforated by shot… 
— The Times Wednesday, Jan 12, 1859; pg. 6; Issue 23201; col E.

While he was concerned with warships withstanding fire, if Atherton’s solution had been applied to the “unsinkable” Titanic, it would have stayed afloat. The usual maritime practice of putting heavy items as low as possible, in order to move the centre of gravity down is an effective way of enhancing stability, but it takes a toll by increasing a vessel’s sinkability.

At the end of the year, Scientific American mentioned the scheme, but the writer said that cork would not suit, because heated shot could set fire to it, but that a suitable material ought to be able to be found. Half a century on, most lifeboats were fitted with sealed cork-filled compartments and self-draining seacocks to keep them afloat under the worst of conditions, but armour and armour-plating became the preferred solutions.












Mind you, if you knew where to look, the idea had been around for quite a while. The New York Times reported on an old patent in 1862, giving the date of issue as March 19, 1814. (‘The First Iron-Clad’, New York Times, May 30, 1862.)

The following day’s issue of Scientific American stated that a plan for a ball-proof vessel had been patented, “forty-eight years ago”. In each case, the patentee is said to be one Thomas Gregg, and the thrust of the report in each case was the same, that the idea behind the Merrimac (a Confederate ironclad warship) was by no means new.

It has to be said that this was during the US Civil War, and there is no evidence in the on-line records of the US Patent Office of Mr Gregg or his design. Perhaps it was a piece of wartime propaganda? The design and the illustration from Scientific American appeared again in 1889 in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, in an article sponsored by Gregg’s family.

It was in the early years of ironclad-mania that the attempt was made to dress warships up in sheepish clothing. In the 1860s, Australian wool growers were shearing huge flocks, and there must have been some fear of a glut. How their hearts must have sung when they heard that the Royal Navy was testing compressed wool as a way of blocking shot that hit their ships.

The plan was apparently to give ships a fleecy coat of pressed wool, 10 or 12 feet thick. Sadly, the graziers’ hopes were dashed when after tests, The Times reported in March 1864 that “the experiment of Wednesday proved the wool rather more permeable to shot than almost any other novelty that has yet been fired at.”

Every ship that sails the oceans represents a compromise. Sailing vessels had to trade off a reduction in strength from thinner hulls in order to float higher and sail faster—or to carry more cargo. A broad-beamed vessel would carry more cargo, but it would wallow along, losing time. That brings me to shipwrecks, and I shall go there next.




Saturday, 29 June 2019

Fossils from Spain, Portugal and Morocco


My travels were partly
financed by this book.
Our recent trip (the main reason for little communication over May-June) was mostly in areas where the streets are paved with fossils. We were mainly over an old coral reef that reaches out from Iberia to Hungary, and the limestone flagging turned up many fossils.

A-D were metamorphosed ripple shale in Chefchaouen, Morocco, E-F were from the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, G-H were flagging in Ronda (Spain), I-K and M Lisbon, L and N-S were Obidos, T-Y Coimbra. With the exception of the first four, which were cleaved, the rest were cut and somewhat polished slabs.

Anybody, any hints on IDs would be good.

The coin? That's an Australian 50 cents, 38 mm across. Several of our companions saw me picking up coins as I walked around, and expressed surprise at me finding so much money: they had missed seeing me layong the coin down in the first place. I use them as a scale that will still be in circulation when I drop off the twig.



A-D were metamorphosed ripple shale in Chefchaouen, Morocco,




E-F were from the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca



G-H were flagging in Ronda (Spain)



I-K and M Lisbon,






L and N-S Obidos








T-Y Coimbra in Portugal








Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Fast transport and slow deaths

It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The factors that influence the spread and/or limitations of disease can often be quite unexpected, and in some cases, the causes remain unknown.

The delivery of tea to England by fast ship may have kept the English drinking tea, which constrained them to boil their water to make the tea, which killed the bacteria that caused cholera and other diseases. On the other hand, fast transport also caused some curious outbreaks of disease.

Airport malaria is a known phenomenon today, where people close to airports may very occasionally catch malaria when an infected mosquito emerges from an aircraft and draws blood from somebody before it dies. That sort of thing was far less likely in the days of steamships, but not impossible, even with a sailing ship like the barque Hecla, which once carried yellow fever to Wales.

Hecla reached Swansea with a cargo of copper ore from Cuba on 8 September 1865, and did not raise the quarantine flag. The ship had left one crewman, dead of yellow fever in Cuba, and she was under-crewed due to three deaths at sea that were put down to yellow fever.

Another sailor, James Saunders, died just after landing, and doctors judged this to be yellow fever, so his body was immediately buried in a tar sheet, his house was cleared and disinfected with lime wash and chloride of lime, and his clothing and bedding were destroyed.

Nobody had any idea that the disease was spread by mosquito bites, so the ship’s water supply, almost certainly complete with mosquitoes in all stages of life, was left unexamined. The ship’s owners resisted moving the ship, and while it was disinfected, though it later moved after locals intimated that it might mysteriously catch fire. This removal would have had no effect on the mosquitoes, though the fire would have curtailed the outbreak.

Before the outbreak ran its course, at least 27 people fell ill with yellow fever and 15 of them died, while there were a few other “possibles”, but how did a tropical disease reach Wales? Yellow fever and its mosquitoes had travelled from Africa to the Caribbean with African slave ships and been established there, but non-tropical Wales was safe from any permanent threat from yellow fever, back then.

The ship travelled in warm weather that let the mosquitoes survive, and it arrived in warm weather, which allowed the mosquitoes to spread, briefly into parts of Swansea. Still, in these days of global warming and climate change, who can say what the future might hold?
*
In China in the late 19th century, political unrest was common, but new technology brought hope to some of China’s urban poor. They could take steam trains into rural areas to shoot, kill and skin ground rodents, and take the skins back to the city for sale. In an age before plastics, skins were always saleable, and if the local people had silly traditions, like not shooting a sick-looking animal, the city slickers saw those animals as fair and easy game.

Bubonic plague is a disease that harms rodents, fleas and humans. A flea bites an infected mammal, gets an infection that blocks its bloodsucking apparatus, so the next time it tries to feed, some of the plague bacteria “blow back” into the new food source, and so the disease spreads. When a host dies, fleas move to any other warm body—like the person skinning the old rodent host.

The hunters caught fast steam trains back to the city before they fell ill, and from there, bubonic plague infected rats in the city, either from the hunters or from fleas that were still in the fur of the skins. Over time, some of the rats found their way onto fast steam ships that went around the world from Chinese ports.

In earlier times, plague usually killed the rats before sailing ships reached port, but steamships bustled from port to port, and sooner or later, some of the rats made it to the other end, found their way ashore to die, and shared their fleas and their ills. Indian ports were hit, along with those in Sydney, San Francisco, Madagascar, Paraguay, South Africa and more. In every port, people died because of fast ships.
*
There is fairly wide agreement that the spread of HIV was brought about by long-haul truck drivers in Africa making use of prostitutes along the way, followed by an entry into the more general population of the western world, thanks to jet aircraft. The world got lucky with SARS.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Extinction and endangered species

Sorry, I have been overseas, and returned with significant vertebral problems that have limited my ability to add things, but deadlines had to come first. Normality (and my vertebrae) are now more or less restored.

It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


What makes a species endangered? A trained biologist’s quick stab at a general answer would be “a loss of biodiversity”, meaning no longer having a wide range of species living in a system, so they interact with each other, and provide checks and balances for each other.

In simple terms, a forest is more than just a bunch of trees. A plantation of pine trees (or any other trees, for that matter) is not really a forest because it is a monoculture, and worse than that, all of the trees are of the same age, with no old growth forest.

At times, populations may rise and fall in old growth forest, but over a long enough period of time, there is a balance in the species found there. In any ecosystem, very few species are really essential.

In most cases, a species which is eliminated will be replaced in its function by some other species, either one that is present already, or one that moves in when a competitor is removed. Unfortunately, there are a few species that are keystone species, and like the keystone in a stone arch, take that away, and the whole structure will collapse.

Worse, some unexpected and inconspicuous life form may prove to play an essential role, so that removing a mere fungus, or a tiny mammal, or an insignificant spider, may be all that is needed to trigger wild swings in populations that eliminate more species, until all that is left is sterile ground.

What this means is that if there is an endangered species in a forest or any other ecosystem, the whole community may be at risk. In the same way, if biodiversity, the range of species present, is reduced, other species will be put at risk.

While biodiversity, having a range of species present, is important, it is equally as important to have genetic diversity within each species, a range of genetic adaptations that may be needed in a population under different conditions.

This is an important consideration when zoos are engaged in captive breeding programs, where it is important to exchange animals from different zoo populations, or where it may even be necessary to remove a dominant male who is siring too many offspring.

Biodiversity can be affected in many ways. One serious problem comes from introduced species which usually have no controls in their new environment. Introduced species can arrive either by themselves, carried by the wind, the waves, or migrating birds, but many more arrive when aircraft or ships carry species to new places, deliberately, or by accident.

Yet other species just invaded with humans. Hawaii has a problem with what they regard as the brown tree snake of Guam (Boiga irregularis). This snake wiped out many bird species on Guam after it arrived there from either Australia or New Guinea, probably by plane during World War II. In recent times, it has been known to travel to the islands of Micronesia by plane, riding in cargo crates.

With no natural predators and no competition from other species, it thrived on Guam. Twelve bird species have since disappeared from the island, and several others are approaching extinction, and lizards, small mammals and domestic poultry are under threat.

Even forest trees are at risk, now that the birds that pollinate their flowers have been wiped out. In the next century, gaps will begin to appear in the canopies of these forests. Usually, spindly young trees live on the forest floor, waiting for an opening to give them light to grow. When a gap appears, they race to be the first to plug the gap, but in time, there will be no seeds, and no small trees lying in wait.

Native bat numbers are also down. Yet in spite of all this damage, it was almost 50 years before the snake was identified as the cause of the decline in bird numbers on Guam.

In their own environment, most species are controlled, because over time, predators and diseases have evolved ways to eat them or kill them, so that when their numbers increase, there is a natural checking system in place.

When outside species arrive in a new place, there are no predators available to control them, so the only real population control comes when they run out of food. By the time that happens, they are likely to have reduced a number of food species, and a number of competitors which rely on that resource, to the brink of extinction.

When rats were accidentally introduced into New Zealand, for example, they found a number of ground-nesting birds, whose eggs were an excellent food source. Because there were a number of bird species, and because rats can eat many other things as well, the rats could continue to flourish, even when the bird numbers crashed.

In Australia, many small marsupials found themselves facing a double threat. The first half came from rabbits, which out-competed and outbred them, while sheep and cattle reduced the available food and also changed the habitats forever.

If that wasn’t enough, the second threat came from foxes and feral cats, which were able to survive on rabbits, but found the small marsupials to be easy and tasty morsels. Once again, even when their numbers crashed, the predators were able to live on rabbit, while still taking the odd marsupial.

The small marsupials, generally ranging in size from about that of a mouse to that of a young rabbit, were able to survive normal predation from dingoes, but introducing rabbits allowed dingo numbers to increase. As we will see in a moment, that brought a further problem for the small marsupials.

Another threat, at least to some animals, can be hunting, usually for food, but also for trophies, or even because of rarity. One of the best-documented hunting extinctions is the story of the great auk, a flightless bird that looked like a cross between a duck and a penguin.

We really should look at the auk, so that's up next.

Monday, 6 May 2019

My father would be appalled



My father was a very old-fashioned type, a bit of a stick-in-the-mud, a dour Calvinist in thought but not in action, but mostly, he was a very private man. He died, 51 years ago, thinking he took his secret to the grave.

It seems that a couple of years before he married my mother, he was engaged to somebody else, and while the record was there in the newspapers, who would ever bother to poke around in the SMH for 1941?

The problem is that we have a fairly unusual spelling of our surname, and the National Library of Australia has been putting "historic" newspapers (that means 1803 to 1954, though sometimes they reach later) online.

I'm a bit of a power user of the service, and I was idly searching on our surname when the engagement notice bobbed up. It's not a highly interesting item: probably they just didn't hit it off, or she found a Yank or something. The interesting thing to me is that even though he probably never even told my mother about this, I now know. Our world is changing...

I just idly typed in my surname, which has an odd spelling, and flushed an amazing number of hits out of the papers: the funeral of a grandfather, the death of a great-aunt at two months who was, I think, unknown to anybody, the weddings of uncles and births of cousins — and that engagement.

I have also managed to trace the outline of my great-grandfather's insolvency, though there's more to learn there, and I won't be chasing it in a hurry, because family history isn't high on my list of things to do, but the option is there. I just use my search skills to flag stuff so that others with my surname can access it easily, should they wish to do so.

The interesting thing is that the National Library has the newspapers scanned by machine, but then allows registered users to correct the text. The top four contributors have corrected more than 10 million lines between them, while I'm just over the half-million mark, but most of mine relate to the periods and topics I research for books.

Occasionally I need to really chase something down, and in those cases I add comments that will help other researchers that come after me. In other words, it's one of those collaborative things that historians will look back on as the real heart of the internet. I also create a lot of lists, also with annotations.

Interestingly, it appears that everything I do is available if you know how to look for it. Unlike my father, I have no illusion that I have that many secrets. I just have to put the best spin on them that I can.

The link? http://trove.nla.gov.au/ I recommend a day spent playing with it!

If nothing else, you will get some idea about what your descendants may be able to find out about you.

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

Developing measurement standards

It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


In early human societies, the main needs were for standard fair measures for length, weight and volume. With those sorted, you could measure out food, drink, cloth, and most of the other products early humans wanted to trade with each other.

If the trades were to be fair, all measures had to be the same, and this meant comparing them back to a common standard that all people could reach. But even at the heights of the Roman, Mongol and Inca Empires, the fastest messenger service could only cover between a hundred and a hundred and fifty kilometres a day.

Freight carriers and ordinary folk, travelling on foot with a load, would only travel about thirty kilometres a day, or perhaps fifteen if they were travelling with stock. So copies of the standards for weight and length either had to be distributed widely, or they had to be established locally. In most cases, people just set up their own local standards.

Typically, they would use the local ruler’s body, so a digit was the width of the king’s finger, and a cubit was the distance from the king’s elbow to the tip of his longest finger.

Obviously this sort of thing makes problems: what happens if the throne is taken over by a midget? Or a giant? Obviously people needed a better standard, preferably an international one, so measurements no longer had to be given in London inches, or Paris inches.

The foot is a convenient sort of unit, and so is the inch, and even the yard has a comfortable sort of feel about it. In the end, when the French Revolutionaries did away with their monarch, they changed the units as well.

The basis, they proposed, would still be about the same as one yard, but it would be defined in a non-human, international way. It was to be one ten-millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator on a meridian passing through or near Paris, Dunkirk and Barcelona. (They chose that meridian, because a ten-degree length of it had just been accurately surveyed, between 1792 and 1799.)

This measurement system was known as the metric system, and it is more or less what we use today. We now call our measurement system SI (for Système Internationale), and the metre is now defined from the speed of light, now defined for all time as 299,792,458 metres per second, with the second defined by a special clock called a caesium clock.

These are standards any large laboratory in the world can reproduce whenever they want to. The standard international kilogram used to be a platinum-iridium cylinder, stored at Sèvres, near Paris, between 1889 and November 2018. On the latter date, a new standard was announced, to apply from May 2019.

The change was forced because the standard cylinder had lost about 50 micrograms over the past 130 years. Now the world will use a value of Planck’s constant. This will be 6.62607015 × 10-34 m2 kg/s, and for valid reasons, that now sets the mass of the kilogram totally.

Now back to the French Revolution: why were the French so keen on new standards? Maybe it had something to do with the three different standards of length in use in just one city, Bordeaux, in 1800. In a case like this, it would pay to shop around before you bought anything, and maybe the people of Bordeaux felt they were wasting too much time!

We certainly know that the lack of standards annoyed the nobles of Norman Britain. When they assembled to meet with King John, they placed this passage in the Magna Carta:
Throughout the kingdom there shall be standard measures of wine, ale and corn. Also there shall be a standard width of dyed cloth, russet, and halberject; namely [a width of] two ells within the selvedges. Weights [also] are to be standardised similarly.
From 1215 until now, the process of standardisation has been slow. It was only a generation ago that the United States inch (2.54005 cm) and the British inch (2.5399956 cm) were brought into line with the Canadian and Australian inch (2.54 cm).

So even where the metric system is not used, the “local” units are tied to the international metric standards, and the era of local units has almost passed. Mind you, with the loss of those units, a great deal of romance has passed away as well, but that assertion requires illustration.

Early English units for measuring liquid started with the mouthful, which was about 15 millilitres. Twice this was a jigger or handful. Two handfuls made a jack, or jackpot, and two jackpots made a gill, or jill.

When Charles I needed more money, he placed a tax on the jackpot, and reduced its size, so there would be more of them. The gill was (by its definition as two jackpots) also reduced in size, much to the annoyance of the common people.

The pail was another measure, about the size of a gill. Given that King Charles wore a crown, until he was beheaded a few years later, you may now be able to read the old rhyme about Jack and Jill with more understanding. Just one question remains unanswered: was Jack anything to do with the Jacobites, who took their name from the Latin form of James, Jacobus?

Just to finish the sequence of old liquid measures, two gills made a cup, and two cups a pint. There were two pints to the quart; and two quarts made a pottle; while twice a pottle was a gallon. The double gallon was also called a peck; the double peck was a half bushel; and obviously two half bushels made a bushel, which was eight gallons, or about 35 litres. Two bushels filled a cask; and two casks made a barrel or chaldron. Doubling the barrel gave us a hogshead of about 280 litres. 

Some of these terms are still in common use today. And even though we have largely changed over to metric measurements, there are other hangovers from the past as well. The size of the type used in a book is measured in points, with 72 points to the inch.
Wind speeds are still measured in knots (nautical miles per hour), and diamonds are weighed in carats (not to be confused with the karat, which is a measure of the purity of gold.

And you may still have inches on your feet, even if you live in a country which mostly uses metric standards. In the time of Edward I of England, the inch was defined by “three grains of barley dry and round make an inch”. To this day, the difference between a size five shoe and a size six shoe is still just one barley corn, a third of an inch!

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Conservation

It will possibly be my last book, but Not Your Usual Science is going to be HUGE, close to 1.5 million words, equal to a dozen 'airport books', the thick tomes you buy to read on a long flight. It collects together many of the articles and essays that I have generated over the past 35 years, covering science, how science works and how what we now call science was put together. It even includes some of the blog entries that have appeared here. In due course, it will be released as an e-book.

Here's a small taste of it...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


This term covers the protection and preservation of the Earth’s resources (e.g. plants, animals, land, energy, minerals) or of historical artefacts (including books, paintings and monuments) for the future. The term is most widely used with reference to the environment.

Most people today think the conservation movement began with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, but conservation is far older than that. As far back as 1860, laws were introduced in Tasmania, Australia, to protect native species of bird, and extinctions in the 1600s (the aurochs in Poland, 1627, the dodo in Mauritius, some time in the 1670s) had all had an impact.

By 1680, Poland had introduced reserved forests for the European bison, or wisent, and that probably saved many other species as well. The publication of Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell in the early 1830s made people far more aware of extinction, as did the publications of Charles Darwin, who even commented about Australia’s need to preserve its wild life:
A few years since this country abounded with wild animals; but now the emu is banished to a long distance, and the kangaroo is become scarce; to both the English greyhound has been highly destructive.
—Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, 1836.
Later on, Darwin’s friend, the ornithologist John Gould said something similar:
Short-sighted indeed are the Anglo-Australians, or they would long ere this have made laws for the preservation of their highly singular, and in many cases noble indigenous animals; and doubly short-sighted are they for wishing to introduce into Australia the productions of other climes …
—John Gould (writing in 1863), quoted in A. B. Costin and H. J. Frith, Conservation, Pelican Books, 1971, 131.
As well, the British were beginning to see some of the problems of deforestation in their Indian and African settlements, and ever since then, scientists have been aware that extinction is demeaning of life.

Rachel Carson was certainly responsible for making the general public aware of some of the many problems that come from using pesticides, and she made the general public aware of the word ‘ecology’, but others had known of both the word and the more general conservation problem throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The earliest recorded use of the word was in 1873, and the Journal of Ecology (the title is a sign that ecology had finally been noticed) was first published in 1912. In fact, there were many other people who delivered the same message, as much as forty years earlier, but Rachel Carson did it better.

When she wrote, Carson was much more forceful in her care and compassion, and more poetic in her writing, so she drew people’s attention more effectively to what was happening. As well, there were many more people around, and many more chemicals. The time was right.

The impact was greater because pollution was increasing very fast, and killing people all over the world. In some parts of the world, pesticide pollution is still on the increase. More to the point, like Charles Darwin, Carson offered a huge range of examples.

In the most general terms, pollution happens when something is released into the environment of a living thing, to the harm of that living thing. Plants need phosphates and nitrates to grow, but if they get too much phosphate or nitrate, the plants can be killed.

Once the harm starts, helpful fertiliser becomes pollution. The phosphates and nitrates which you put on your garden or farm are not pollution. Not, that is, until they wash off into a neighbouring creek, and start poisoning the algae in the creek.

Faecal pollution of the Australian bush by dogs is a problem: because most bush plants have adapted to low levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, and the contamination allows weeds which otherwise would be starved out to gain a toehold.

So the best thing that conservationists can do is to seek strategies which maintain the balances of nature, to ensure that the various extremes of human exploitation are kept under control, and to ensure that biodiversity and genetic diversity are not threatened too drastically.

In the earth sciences and agriculture, conservation is more concerned with management of resources such as water, and with manipulation of the environment to provide convenient circumstances.

For example, a scheme was seriously put forward at one stage to use nuclear explosives to cut a channel from the sea to the usually dry Lake Eyre in South Australia, the aim being to increase evaporation and hence increase the rainfall in the area.

Flying over Lake Eyre, look for pelicans in the lower left quadrant.
This would have needed to be a large channel, as the total drop from the sea to Lake Eyre is only about 10 metres, but the increased rainfall would undoubtedly have an impact on the flora and fauna around the lake, and also on the pelicans which reproduce there when the lake fills with water from rain falling in Queensland. There would also be long-term problems with the salt left behind by the evaporating sea water, which would also impact on other species in the lake and surrounding areas.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Crooked Mick goes to war


This marks a turn-around, because Stewart the Sandgroper nudged me at just the right time, so I pulled this (and the other 85,000 words that go with it) off the back burner, and I am now pitching it to publishers. Remember, this is part of something far bigger.

My mate, Baron Munchausen, asked me why there were no women in the story, and I assured him that there were women on the Speeewah. He says I have to prove it, so I told him about Smiling Annie's Snake Circus.

This tale, apparently written by a thumbnail dipped in tar, was in among Cruciform’s papers, stuck to the bottom of one of the tin boxes. It is in plain English, but clearly escaped the eyes of the security people who vetted the papers. This single plain English account confirms what Cruciform’s coded notebooks tell us, that Mick and Cruciform were working together during the war.

Crooked Mick was quite old when World War I broke out, so he had to dye his hair in order to join up. He joined the Light Horse, but kept on breaking the horses he was given, and the army wouldn’t let him bring in his own horse. He even broke a few heavy horses they let him try, but he was so strong, they asked him to be their farrier, and he agreed, knowing that once he got to the front he could do some good.

When the Brass decided to send the Light Horse to invade Gallipoli in the Dardanelles, the lads had to leave their horses behind, so Mick should have stayed in Egypt with the horses, but he hid in the hold until it was too late to send him back. Then when two of the motorboats that were supposed to tow the troops to shore broke down, Mick jumped into the water and swam to the beach, towing five longboats.

That was how he came to be one of the first ashore when the ANZAC troops landed. Once across the beach, Mick set to work digging trenches and tunnelling under the enemy’s trenches, but unfortunately, he was soon being given orders by an English officer who wasn’t very bright.

“Dig there”, the Pommy would say, pointing at the ground, and Mick would take off in a tunnel going north, never stopping to question the order he was given. You can still see some of these tunnels: they went under the enemy lines and mostly came out on the opposite shore of the peninsula. If the Poms had paid attention, they could’ve gone through those tunnels and attacked the enemy from the rear.

After a while, Mick realised that this digging wasn’t achieving anything, so he started doing things his mates thought might be useful for the war effort. One of his best tricks was throwing dead donkeys with devastating accuracy at the Turkish officers, in their bunkers, half a mile behind the lines.

The result was that their high command promptly told the Turkish soldiers to stop shooting at Simpson and his donkeys, because every dead donkey was being used to wipe out some of the Top Brass. After that time, it was only those Turks who hated officers who fired at Simpson’s donkeys.

Mick dug most of the trenches for our blokes, and chucked all his spoil into the Turks’ trenches for good measure, which got the Turks really cranky, and then he found out about jam tin bombs. That got the Turks seriously upset, because Mick could throw further than they could, and he used all his cricketing skills to drop them into a trench every time. These jam tins had a fuse, the explosive out of twenty bullets, and any old scrap iron or rocks that came to hand. Somebody told me he also used nitrogum, and that we’re not supposed to mention that, but I will.

Mick might have won the war for us, if he’d been allowed, but the Poms kept being stupid. The Turks brought in this big field piece, just to try and get him, and Mick and his mates had no ammo left, as they’d used it all to make jam tin bombs. All they had was a pile of lead bullets from the cartridges. So Mick opens fire with those, against the field gun.

I know, of course, you can’t shoot bits of lead. You need the stuff that goes bang, and that was all used up, but Mick wasn’t shooting the bullets, he was throwing them.

Now you might say that still wouldn’t do much against a field gun, but that’s if you fight fair, as the Poms call it. Mick was belting the bullets down the barrel of that field gun so hard that they wedged at the far end. That made a sort of blockage so the next time the Turks fired the gun, it jammed the round in the barrel and the gun blew up. Our blokes thought it was a great joke, and started collecting more ammo so Mick could spike the other guns. That was when the Poms bought into it.

Some Pommy brass hat said Mick’s activities were unsporting, because the guns were sitting targets. Anyhow, one of our blokes decked him, and Mick said he’d better stop then and there, or some of the diggers’d get into trouble. So Mick dug through quietly into the Turks’ trenches and dumped the unconscious officer there, then backfilled the tunnel, but the Turks were fussy.

A discerning Turkish soldier called Mehmet thought this was no better than littering, and he brought the officer back across No Man’s Land and dropped him on our side. The Turks thought this was so funny, they erected a statue to commemorate it, but in the 1950s, there was nearly a diplomatic incident, and with the help of Lord Casey, they made up a cover story. Don’t believe it.

The Respect to Mehmetçik Memorial (Turkish: Mehmetçiğe Saygı Anıtı).


The officer was never the same again, but Mick’s company named him Puddles, and kept him as a pet. Some people reckon he later became Jacko the Hatter, on the Speewah, but Jacko seems to be a bit brighter than that officer.

One of Mick’s tunnels was later filled with explosives. There was this Australian scientist bloke called Henry Cruciform, who had made this top-secret explosive out of eucalyptus oil, called nitrogum, and they put barrels and barrels of the stuff into Mick’s tunnel, then backfilled the hole with rocks and stuff.

Once it was ready, they lit a long fuse, and went a long way back. The idea was that the explosion would cave in the Turkish trenches, but the tunnel had gone too deep into solid rock. Instead, all of the rocks that were packed into the hole got blasted out of the tunnel, and went heading off through the stratosphere in the direction of France.

Now there are lots of people who claim they shot down the Red Baron, but if you check the official histories, you will see that Manfred von Richthofen was shot down just an hour after they set off the charge in Mick’s tunnel. What’s more, if you look at the available pictures of the Red Baron’s plane, and examine the wreckage carefully, you can see jagged tears going down through the plane from above: it was Mick’s tunnel, powered by nitrogum and working like a giant gun, that really shot the Red Baron down.

Mick’s time there ended when he drove another tunnel back to the landing beach, so the Anzacs could carry food and ammunition up in safety. Just as he was about to break through the rock at the beach end, he tapped into a spring, and got soaking wet, which washed the dye out of his hair, and he stepped out into the sun with all the dye running out of his rapidly whitening hair.

The brass hats were embarrassed, and they had him sent back home so they could avoid admitting that an old man had been winning the war for them. They used the feeble excuse that he had been eating the rations for five companies — which shows how bad their accounting was, as Mick used to eat that much before he sat down to breakfast.

So in the end, Crooked Mick spent the rest of the war helping this Henry Cruciform bloke, the man who had invented the nitrogum, who was working on forms of psychological warfare. But that was after he got back to Australia: on the way home, Crooked Mick refused to give up fighting.

First there was the German torpedo that was heading for the hospital ship he was travelling on, as they were sailing across the Indian Ocean. Mick saw this torpedo coming and dived into the water, trying to stop it. He was feeling a bit weakened as he was only getting rations for five men, and he was pushed backwards by the torpedo, towards the ship.

I forgot to mention that Mick’s dog had been with him, right through the Gallipoli campaign, and had personally captured twenty Turks before the Poms interfered. They reckoned it was unsporting to point your dog at the enemy trenches and say “Fetch!”. Anyhow, Mick’s dog was there, and he jumps in to help, and between them, they flipped the torpedo over, just as it was about to hit the ship, and it went back to the German submarine, sinking it.

Well Mick was hauled back on deck, and his dog too, and the officers said they’d pretend they hadn’t seen the dog, and that Mick might even get a medal for his brave deed, but that he shouldn’t go diving in the water any more. The next day, though, there was another torpedo, and this time, Mick picked up a lifeboat, and threw it at the torpedo, destroying it. He was about to wipe out the submarine with a second smaller life boat, but he was told to stop, and the submarine got away.

The day after that, it was back again, following the ship with just its periscope showing, so Mick went down to the engine room and borrowed a few spare bits of ironmongery and chucked them at the periscope. He missed the first two throws, but the third shot was with a fly wheel that had a crack in it, and he threw it like a discus.

The fly wheel skipped over the surface and ripped off the periscope, which left a big hole that flooded the submarine and forcing it to the surface, where it was captured by the frigate that was convoying them. Mick was treated like a hero, and given a free run of the galley, which is what they call a kitchen on a ship.

They were close to Fremantle in Western Australia when a third submarine tried to have a go at sinking them, and strictly against orders, Mick dived in once more, pulled faces down the periscope, which made them surface to see what was wrong, and then he threw all of the crew overboard, ripped four plates off the hull to sink the submarine, and swam back to the ship, leaving his dog to round up the prisoners and bring them in.

He might have got away with disobeying orders, but the ship was still going full ahead when he caught up with her, and as he approached the stern, his head came in contact with the ship’s screw, which shattered, leaving the ship stranded off the coast with no form of propulsion. “There’ll be no more going into the galley for you, you one-man galley plunderer!” bristled the captain, who had just realised that not only were they stranded, but that Mick had eaten just about all the food. Anyhow, Mick just grinned, and said that was the answer.

He went down to the engine room, kicked one of the riveted steel plates off each of the ship’s sides, and used two oars, made from the lengths of steel rail the ship was carrying as deck cargo, lashed on the steel plates to make oars and rowed the ship in against the tide.

So in the end, the captain agreed to let bygones be bygones, and they hushed the whole matter up, so Mick wouldn’t get into trouble for disobeying orders. Mind you, they say that scientist bloke Cruciform was on board, and he used his influence to make sure Mick’s name was kept out of the papers by telling Billy Hughes to send out a D notice.

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This story and the related ones all have the tag Crooked Mick on them. Use that to find the rest.