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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize.   The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors.  To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard).  This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.

Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana.  He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!


The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles.  The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship.  If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success.  On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all.  Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.

But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory.  He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard.  “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said.  The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware.  They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor.  Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him.  By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships.  The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana.  Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.


Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves.  The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile.  Thus ended his political and military career.   The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world.  But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet.  I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up.  However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.



OK, yesterday I promised we would get to the space news.  Clearly the real story is the earthlike planet right in our backyard (erm, relatively speaking). However it isn’t going anywhere right now so I am going to blog about it later when we have all had a moment to think about the real implications.  The space story I am looking at today is closer to home, but still takes place out there in the black: back in October of 2014, NASA lost communication with Stereo B one of two paired spacecraft which orbited the sun from the distance of Earth.

The solar observatory spacecraft allow stereoscopic viewing of the sun.  One spacecraft Stereo A was ahead of Earth on its orbit, whereas Stereo B trailed behind us.  The two observatories allow us to study coronal mass ejections and other stellar phenomena.  In 2011, the craft were 180 degrees apart from each other—allowing humankind to view the entire sun at once for the very first time (a truly remarkable milestone, when you think about it, which I heard nothing about at the time).


Sadly, however, in 2014, as part of an automation and attitude test, Stereo B began to spin.  Mission controllers then lost contact with the craft which (because of the nature of its work) was on the other side of the sun!  NASA has patiently waited till the orbital path of Stereo B carried it further towards Earth and has used the Deep Space Network, a networked array of radio telescopes to find the errant craft.

We are still working on figuring out what sort of shape the poor guy is in (and maybe rehabilitating the spinning observatory), however I feel the story is worth telling as a sort of reminder of the fleet of crafts we have up there, which we don’t think about very often.


Zhu Di (1360 – 1424) was the fourth son of the Hongwu Emperor (who, coincidentally, had a great many offspring).  When Zhu Di ascended to the throne he styled his reign as the “Yongle” reign (which means “perpetual happiness”).  The Yongle Emperor was everything an absolutist Chinese emperor was supposed to be.  His armies smote the enemies of China.  He moved the capital city to Beijing (where it remains to this day) and built the Forbidden City.  He instituted the rigorous examination system which came to dominate Chinese civil service.  Under his rule, infrastructure leaped forward to a level previously unknown in China (or anywhere else, for that matter).  The peasantry was happy and successful.  Culture, arts, industry, trade and knowledge flourished.  It was a glorious golden age for China.


The Forbidden City as Depicted in a Ming Dynasty Painting

The Yongle Emperor was one of China’s greatest emperors—he is on a short list with Tang Taizong, Wu of Han, and Song Taizu.  During his time, China was the richest, most prosperous, and most advanced society on earth. He will be recalled forever as one of history’s truly greatest leaders…but…

Whenever the Yongle Emperor is mentioned, so too, his problematic accession must be mentioned. For Zhu Di was not the Hongwu Emperor’s first choice of heir…or even the second for that matter.  Zhu Di’s nephew, Zhu Yunwen ascended the throne as the Jianwen Emperor in 1398 (in accordance with ancient rules of strict primogeniture).  The Jianwen Emperor feared that all of his many uncles would prove troublesome to his reign, so he began a campaign of demoting and executing them (Jianwen means “profoundly martial”).  In accordance with the universal rules of irony, this pogrom caused Zhu Di, then the Prince of Yan, to rise against his nephew.  In the civil war between the Prince of Yan and the “Profoundly Martial” emperor, the former thoroughly thrashed the latter.  In 1402, Zhu Di presented the world with the unrecognizably charred bodies of the Jianwen emperor, the emperor’s consort, and their son.  In that same year he proclaimed himself the Yongle Emperor (and launched his own far more ruthless pogrom against extended family and against orthodox Confucians who had stood against him).


Detail of the hilt of a Yongle era Chinese sword

So the reign of the Yongle Emperor began against an uninspiring backdrop of civil war, charred relatives, and general devastation.  Worst of all, (from Yongle’s perspective), those charred bodies were suspiciously unrecognizable. Rumors spread that the Jianwen Emperor had taken a page from his grandfather’s playbook and escaped the palace dressed as a begging monk.  Maybe he is still out there somewhere living anonymously like Elvis and Hitler.


This story of palace intrigue and feudal strife, lead to a bizarre postscript which is also one of the grace notes of the Ming Dynasty. Chinese society has traditionally looked inward, but the Yongle Emperor was convinced (so it was whispered) that the Jianwen Emperor was still running around somewhere.  To distract the nation from this possibility (and perhaps to find the usurped emperor living abroad and rub him out), the Yongle Emperor commissioned a fleet like no other—a vast treasure fleet to explore the known world.  The largest vessels of this fleet were said to be immense ocean-going junks 137 m (450 ft) long and 55 m (180 ft wide).  They were crewed by thousands of people and outfitted with fabulous canons. With hundreds of supporting vessels, these treasure ships sailed to Southeast Asia, India, and Africa (under the command of the fabulous eunuch admiral Zheng He).  The treasure fleets left behind the traditional medieval maritime sphere of local commerce, small scale warfare, neighborhood tribute. They were on course for the true globalism which marked the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but alas, Yongle died as he personally led an expedition against the Mongols.  China’s eyes again turned towards its own vast internal universe. Maritime voyages and global exploration quickly became a thing of the past.


Artist's conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Artist’s conception of the Kicksat deploying a fleet of tiny microchip satellites (Ben Bishop)

Have you ever wanted to have a fleet of numerous extremely tiny micro-satellites in outer space doing your bidding? Well, if so, there is bad news for you: an experimental satellite meant to test out a new paradigm for launching multiple tiny space vehicles ended in failure earlier this month. Microsatellites have become common in low earth-orbit in recent years, but the Kicksat was a special sort of tiny satellite. Within the little 10cm by 10cm by 30cm “mothership” were 104 truly tiny space vehicles which had a flat square shape measuring only 3.5 cm square by 3 mm thick.  Each weighed about 5 grams.  The little satellites (whimsically named “sprites”) were meant to launch from the central satellite in spiral waves. Each sprite included a microprocessor, a solar cell, and a radio system—some of the tiny craft had more elaborate microelectromechanical sensors.


The anatomy of a "sprite" satellite

The anatomy of a “sprite” satellite

Aerospace engineers had hoped that the tiny crafts would provide useful data on the behavior of small craft in space since the behavior of materials and systems in space change based on scale (particularly solar sails—which become more efficient and viable). Unfortunately it seems that solar radiation caused the system clock to reset—thus delaying the secondary sprite launch until after the main satellite burned up in reentry. Still, the telemetry of the mothership functioned properly (and also provided a valuable lesson about the need for radiation shielding). The project may evolve into a second iteration based on lessons from the failure of the first attempt and it has provided us with an amazing computer simulation of launch (below).

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