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In 1344, disaster struck the populous agricultural lands between the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in China. Crops not withered by drought were devoured by locust swarms.  Plague stalked the starving masses.  Among the many victims of the catastrophe were the Zhu family, destitute peasant farmers who had already given away the majority of their children to adoption or concubinage. Father, mother, and eldest son died of plague, leaving their teenage son Zhu Yuanzhang penniless, starving, and surrounded by the decaying bodies of his family.  He begged the landlord for a small burial plot but was angrily rebuffed; only with help from a kindly neighbor was he able to dress his dead kin in rags and inter them in a shallow grave.  It was a miserable start to what was arguably the most meteoric social climb in history.

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With a long chin and pocked face, Zhu Yuanzhang was regarded as exceptionally ugly.  As a newborn he was unable to eat and nearly died. His father had promised Zhu to the Buddhist monastery at Huangjue should the baby somehow survive.  When his family perished, sixteen year old Zhu remembered this promise (and possible source of livelihood) and set out to take up a monk’s life.  Yet drought meant that there were not enough rations for new novices: the monks gave Zhu a bamboo hat and an earthenware bowl and sent him off to wander China as a beggar.

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It was a time of tumult. A century earlier the Mongols had conquered all of China and installed themselves as a supreme caste atop the ancient culture, however, by the mid 14th century, Mongol hegemony was coming undone due to factional political quarrels. As the last Mongol emperor fretted in his palace in Dadu (Beijing), rebels and bandits sprang up everywhere.  Through this broken land, Zhu wandered as a mendicant. He slept in outbuildings and ate scraps or lived rough and hungry in the wilderness. However during these ragged years he also began to make friends among the “Red Turbans,” a diverse network of rebels who identified themselves with red banners and headwear.

These Red Turbans had started out as a network of secret societies based on religious concepts imported along the Silk Road from Western Asia. They were incorporated into a larger messianic anti-Mongol movement by Monk Peng, a firebrand rebel who won many ordinary farmers and workmen to his cause before being captured and killed.  Ostensibly the Red Turbans sought to reestablish the Song dynasty (which had ruled before the Mongols) and they hung their hopes on the putative last heir to the Song, Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance”.  In reality, the movement’s identity and aims were a front for several different factions vying for power not just with the Mongols and grasping warlords, but with each other.

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Red Turban warrior fighting a Mongol.

Zhu made friends with some northern Red Turban sympathizers before he returned to the monastery to become literate, but the government (perhaps not unreasonably) feared that the monks were consorting with rebels and burned the temple.  At the age of 24, Zhu Yuanzhang left monastic life and joined the Red Turbans with the not-very-exalted rank of corporal, yet the rebel army offered unparalleled opportunity for advancement.

One of the leaders of the Red Turbans was a grandee named Guo Zixing. Guo’s father had been a fortune-teller (i.e. a con-artist) who had married the blind and not-very-marriageable daughter of a landlord and then shrewdly used the resultant dowry to build a fortune. Guo recognized similar potential in Zhu—the ugly ex-monk was not only relentless and brave in battle, but also had a knack for judging men and convincing them to follow him.  Guo acted as Zhu’s patron and helped the young man take command of larger and larger groups of rebels.  While Guo’s actual sons died of war and ill fortune,  Zhu wisely married Guo’s adopted daughter and became the second in command of their faction. When Guo himself perished, Zhu, the former peasant, became general.  Zhu’s ever expanding army twice assaulted Nanjing, cultural and economic center of southern China, and the second time they successfully took the city.

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Once Zhu captured Nanjing, victory followed victory thanks to his political wiles and administrative prowess. He forbade his men from taking plunder and sternly enforced standards of good conduct. This adherence to Confucian principles made him more popular than other upstart warlords, whom he and his generals defeated one by one. Zhu’s greatest problem during this period of ascendency was how to leave behind the Red Turban movement without losing his own followers.  Although it had provided him with a ladder to national power, his affiliation with the red Turbans was preventing China’s elite literati and aristocrats from supporting him.

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Additionally, Zhu’s most powerful military competitor was Chen Youliang, leader of the multitudinous Red Turban faction in the west.  Their conflict came to a climax in 1363 with a thrilling battle on Lake Poyang, China’s largest lake.  Zhu Yuangzhang’s smaller fleet utilized fireships, gunpowder explosives, trebuchets, and boarding tactics against Chen Youliang’s fort-like tower ships. The battle was the largest navy battle in history and lasted for over a month but ended with Chen’s death and a resounding victory for Zhu, who thereafter ceased to participate directly in fighting. The only figure left who could pit the Red Turbans against Zhu Yuangzhang was Han Shantong, the “little prince of radiance,” pretender to the Song throne who drowned in highly suspicious circumstances when he was under Zhu’s care in 1366 (which allowed Zhu to officially denounce the violence and mayhem of the Red Turbans).

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By 1367, through force of arms, Zhu Yuangzhang had defeated all other likely contenders for the throne. The last Yuan emperor fled north and Badu fell in 1368.  Zhu Yuanzhang, son of the lowest peasants, assumed the mandate of heaven and proclaimed himself the Hongwu Emperor—first emperor of the Ming dynasty, the longest lasting and most stable dynasty in Chinese history.  The Ming dynasty was one of the high-water marks of Chinese society. Not only was the dynasty known for military conquest, agricultural innovation, and artistic greatness, but in the early 15th century it was at the forefront of science and exploration. Vast Ming fleets comprised of 400-foot long sailing junks explored as far as India, and Africa. Had Zhu Yuangzhang’s empire kept its initial impetus, who can say what would have happened?  As it is, the spirit of his reforms long outlived the Ming dynasty and remains an integral part of Chinese statecraft.

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The Mausoleum of Zhu Yuanzhang in Contemporary Nanking

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife get in their car in Serbia five minutes before they are both shot

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife get in their car in Serbia five minutes before they are both shot

A century ago, on June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist. The assassination began a terrible sequence of political events which ineluctably dragged the nations of Europe (and eventually most of the world) into World War I –and eventually into World War II as well. Western society had been running blindly towards a terrible abyss: Franz Ferdinand’s death was when everyone unknowingly stepped off the edge and plunged into horror.

An abandoned trench destroyed by shellfire, Delville Wood near Longueval, Somme, September, 1916

An abandoned trench destroyed by shellfire, Delville Wood near Longueval, Somme, September, 1916

Historians are still arguing about the agonizing and labyrinthine causes of the war (which would almost certainly have happened whether or not the Archduke had been shot). His death was merely the incandescent spark which fell into a pile of explosives. In the coming days and years, the world will look back on the events of those times from the temporal distance of a century and we will all try (again) to figure out how everything went so completely wrong. This is a very necessary exercise for humanity: the same forces which caused the First World War are always at work–gnawing at all we have tried to build like the great serpent Níðhöggr chewing away the roots of Yggdrasil.

Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand

Today, however, let us ignore the larger issues of what caused World War I and concentrate instead on a single person, Franz Ferdinand himself—because he was a deeply strange individual from an odd and convoluted family. His personal story is a troubling and sad story. To begin with, Franz Ferdinand had not initially been the heir to the Imperial throne. The real rightful heir was Rudolf Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, however Rudolf abdicated his inheritance (and his life) in 1889 when he shot 17-year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera in the head and then turned the gun on himself. The murder-suicide was believed to be an emotional response to an imperial edict from Rudolf’s father Franz Joseph I, who had ordered the crown prince to end his love affair.

Crown Prince Rudolph & Baroness Mary Vetsera

Crown Prince Rudolph & Baroness Mary Vetsera

After the death of Rudolf (who was the only son of Franz Joseph I), Franz Ferdinand’s father Karl Ludwig became the heir to the throne, however Karl Ludwig quickly chose to renounce the throne and die of typhus. This left Franz Ferdinand in a position which he had not expected. He was an ultra-conservative aristocrat and military officer which a morbid obsession for trophy hunting (his diaries indicate that he personally killed 300,000 animals); but he was also a well-known romantic. This latter aspect of his personality became a huge problem which nearly ripped apart the Austrian imperial family (anew). In 1894 Franz Ferdinand met Countess Sophie Chotek and fell deeply in love, but the Countess was not a member of one of Europe’s ruling royal families. In his new role as heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand was expected to marry someone fitting of his station, but he refused to do so. The Pope, the Tsar, and the Kaiser interceded between the Emperor and the Archduke until eventually a solution was found. The couple would be married, but none of their children would inherit the throne. The Countess was elevated to but she was to be treated as a sort of underclass concubine at court (although she was at least styled as “Princess”).

Pre-1900 pastel painting of Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg held at Artstetten Castle Museum.

Pre-1900 pastel painting of Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg held at Artstetten Castle Museum.

Once his controversial marriage had happened, Franz Ferdinand became less controversial: he raised a family and assumed more and more imperial honors and duties. On June 28th, 2014 he was visiting Sarajevo with his wife and his advisors when Nedeljko Čabrinović, tried to assassinate him by throwing a grenade at his car. The bomb missed and injured the occupants of the following car. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie decided to visit the people who were injured in the grenade attack, however the changed itinerary confused their chauffeur who got lost and had to back up to get back on course. Gavrilo Princip was sitting a t a café when he saw the Archduke’s car slowly backing up the street. He got up and walked over and shot Sophie in the abdomen and Franz Ferdinand in the neck.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, on their state visit to Sarajevo. The illustration was published in the French newspaper Le Petit Journal on July 12, 1914.

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, on their state visit to Sarajevo. The illustration was published in the French newspaper Le Petit Journal on July 12, 1914.

The archduke was more concerned for his wife than for himself. As the car accelerated away from the gunman, he cried out “Sophie dear! Don’t die! Stay alive for our children!” As his increasingly alarmed aids and underlings begin to realize the gravity of the situation, Franz Ferdinand began to repeatedly say “It is nothing,” again and again until he fell silent and died. Sophie likewise died of blood loss on the way to the hospital. Then, because of the loss of this middle aged couple, the world began to fall apart.

The Imperial Crown of the Austrian Empire. Schatzkammer. Vienna, Austria.

The Imperial Crown of the Austrian Empire. Schatzkammer. Vienna, Austria.

The crown to the Austro-Hungarian Empire is one of the most splendid of all crowns (look for a post about it next week), but considering the stories of Franz Ferdinand, Franz Joseph I, Sophie Chotek, and Crown Prince Rudolf, one could legitimately wonder whether it is accursed. Considering the tragedy that spiraled outward in greater and greater circles from the death of the archduke and his wife, one wonders if the whole world might likewise suffer from some evil dementia.

The Atacama Desert (towards the Andes)

The Atacama Desert (towards the Andes)

The Atacama Desert of Chile is the driest place on Earth.  The desert is bounded in the west by the Chilean Coastal Range, which blocks moisture from the Pacific.  On the east of the Atacama run the mighty Andes Mountains which catch almost all the rainfall from the Amazon Basin.  Thus trapped between ranges, the desert receives 4 inches of rain every thousand years.  Because of the dryness, people are very sparse in the Atacama: they are found only at rare oases or as desiccated (but well preserved) mummies lying in pits.

The high altitude, dryness, and lack of nearby cities (with their lights and radio waves) make the Atacama a paradise for astronomers.  On a mountaintop 8000 feet up on the Atacama side of the Andes, engineers and scientists are working to put together one of the wonders of this age.

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The Giant Magellan Telescope (hereafter the “GMT”) will be a miracle of engineering.   When it is completed in 2019 it will be larger than any telescope on Earth.  The scope is so giant that it will be mounted in a huge open, moving building (rather than the gun-turret-like buildings observatories are traditionally housed in).  No organization on Earth is capable of making a mirror large enough for the necessary purposes, so seven immense 8.4 meter mirrors are being used together to create a single optical surface with a collecting area of 24.5 meters (80 feet in diameter). The mirrors are the pinnacle of optics: if they were scaled up to the size of the continental United States, the difference between the highest and the lowest point would only be an inch.

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The scope will be much more powerful than the Hubble telescope and take much clearer pictures despite being within the atmosphere of Earth.  In the past decade, telescope makers have used cutting edge engineering to compensate for atmospheric distortions.  To do so they fire multiple lasers grouped around the primary mirrors high into the atmosphere.  These beams of light excite sodium atoms in the sky which fluoresce—creating tiny “stars” of known wavelength, which serve as points of reference for the adaptive optics.  The official website of the GMT further explains the mechanism used to counteract atmospheric turbulence once these benchmarks are obtained:

The telescope’s secondary mirrors are actually flexible. Under each secondary mirror surface, there are hundreds of actuators that will constantly adjust the mirrors to counteract atmospheric turbulence. These actuators, controlled by advanced computers, will transform twinkling stars into clear steady points of light. It is in this way that the GMT will offer images that are 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

The telescope is designed to solve some of the fundamental mysteries about the universe. Scientists hope it will help them find out about the nature of dark matter and dark energy (which are thought to make up most of the mass of the universe).   Astronomers also hope to find out how the first galaxies formed and (perhaps) to ascertain the ultimate fate of the universe.  Most excitingly of all, the telescope should be large enough to peek at some of the exoplanets we are discovering by the thousands.  If life exists anywhere near us, the GMT should provide us with compelling evidence in the next twenty years.

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The National Science Foundation was initially going to contribute heavily to the telescope but, since the United States Government has become indifferent to science and knowledge, other institutions have been forced to pick up the slack.  The scope is being built by a cooperative effort between The University of Chicago, The University of Texas at Austin, The Australian National University, The Carnegie Institution for Science, Harvard University, The Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, Texas A&M University, & The University of Arizona (so you can probably help out by donating to any of these institutions, particularly the lovable University of Chicago).

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Before Thanksgiving, I posted a column about the confusing circumstances behind the names of turkeys. It turns out that the noble birds derive both their English and taxonomical names from being mistakenly identified as guinea fowl.  What I failed to explain in that column was how guinea fowl came by their scientific name “Meleagrides” which in turn became the genus name for American turkeys (Meleagris).

So where did guinea fowls get their name?  According to The Metamorphosis by Ovid, after Althaea, the Queen of Calydon, burned a magical log and thereby killed her son Meleager–an act which was bitter revenge for Mealeager killing another of her sons along with her brother in an intoxicated fight–she understandably became unhinged with grief (all of this is related in yesterday’s post if you are having trouble keeping up with the mayhem). Althaea then killed herself, leaving her daughters to cope with a complete family catastrophe.  Their distraught lamentation was so absolute and cacophonous that Artemis pitied them and transformed them into guinea fowl–which became sacred to her.  Of Meleager’s sisters, only Gorge and Deianara (who had their own sad destinies to pursue) were spared this fate.

Death of Meleager (Roman, 2nd century AD, marble)

So it turns out that turkeys are ultimately named after a heroic Greek spearman who was tragically destroyed by a bitter twist of fate after a drunken brawl (or by the wrath of Artemis, depending on how you look at mythological causality).  The paths of fate are strange indeed.

An Aerial View of Lochnagar Crater in Summer of 2009

On July 1st 1916 at 7:28 AM, the British Army detonated the Lochnagar mine–two underground charges of a high explosive compound called ammonal (respectively 24,000lb and 30,000lb) thereby entirely vaporizing a large section of trenches filled with German infantryman.  This was only one of 17 giant mines which the British exploded in Northern France that morning.  In fact there were an original total of 21 buried explosive charges—but, because of various exigencies, two of these were not exploded until much later on July 1st (one of the remaining charges was detonated by lightning many years after the war, and another was never found).

One of the Other 17 Mined Explosions that Morning (Hawthorne Ridge)

The explosions followed 16 days of heavy artillery fire and immediately preceded a general infantry charge which began the Battle of the Somme. It was an appropriately apocalyptic beginning of the worst day ever for the British armed forces—by midnight there were 57,470 British casualties (19,240 of whom died of their injuries).  The battle of the Somme itself ground on until 18 November, 1916 by which point it had claimed over 1,200,000 casualties from both sides.  More than three hundred thousand people were killed during the course of the battle.

Lochnagar Crater after the Battle of the Somme

Today the huge scars from that morning have been filled in by farmland—with the notable exception of Lochnagar crater, which was privately purchased and left as a monument to the futility and destruction of World War I. Erosion is taking its toll on the crater, yet, even after nearly a century, the great hole still has a diameter of approximately 91 meters (300 feet) and a depth of 21 meters (70 feet).  Lochnagar crater is said to be the largest extant crater created by human artifice during war (obviously pit mines and nuclear test sites are much larger).  It still possesses a unique horror—a round void in the placid farmlands of Picardy. To this day the grain fields around it yield rusted rifles, dented helmets, and skeletons in addition to wheat.

I am writing about this disquieting pockmark as preparation for writing about Armistice Day later this week, when we can reflect on World War I — surely one of the most comprehensive disasters to befall humankind.  I am also writing about the largest wartime crater on earth, as an opportunity to note how feebly small it is in comparison to even modest meteor impact craters such as Lake Lonar or Kaali Craters, both of which happened in the remote past–to say nothing of giants like the Manicouagan Crater in Quebec which has a diameter of 70 kilometers (even after 225 million years of erosion).

A High Altitude Photo of Manicouagan Crater

Of course all of this should really be cause to reflect on how lucky we are—not only have we missed the Great War (except for you, Florence Green, if you’re reading this), but we have also missed all sorts of other unfortunate events.  Today at 6:28 PM EST, an asteroid passed by the Earth.  At its closest point it was nearer to us than the moon.  The space rock (unsentimentally named “2005 YU55”) was about the size of an aircraft carrier and was traveling faster than 13 km (8 miles) a second.  An amateur astrophysicist on the web estimates that it would have created a crater more than 5 kilometers in diameter if it had struck a limestone region of Earth.

Asteroid 2005 YU55

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