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The 2018 World Cup continues. We have come, at last, to the semi-final matches and one burning question is on everybody’s mind: “does this thing even have a mascot?”  The answer, as it turns out is a resounding “yes”.  Exercising uncommon self-restraint, the Russians managed to find a mascot who is not a bear! They didn’t sugarcoat the formidable nature of their vast cold, forested realm though– the mascot of the 2018 Russian Worldcup is a ravening wolf—a wolf wearing special goggles to keep the blood out of his eyes.

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The wolf’s name is Zabivaka which means “He who scores goals” or possible “He who accomplishes goals [by means of cunning social media manipulation].”  The wolf was the apparently legitimate winner of an apparently legitimate election, and since we are all busy ascertaining what exactly has gone wrong in real elections around the world, we will accept that as a fact (although this wolf beat out a cat and cosmonaut tiger, which hardly seems like the result one would expect from an internet competition).

Clearly, I am poking some fun at Zabivaka (and, um, also at the fact that our national leaders are so pusillanimous and power-hungry that they are happy to let Russia call the shots here in America for less money than Larry Ellison spends on a single dessert), but he really is a cute little wolf.  I especially like his gleeful eyes and the wild disheveled (yet naturalistic) look of the fur near his paws.  I hope we have some more wolf-mascots soon: he has the fearsome appearance one would expect from a Siberian wolf, yet he is genuinely likable and cuddly too.

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Astute observers will note that this post contains almost nothing about actual World Cup soccer (or “football” as it is known in the rest of the world).  This is as it should be, since Americans know almost nothing of the sport other than that it takes place with a spherical ball and a great deal of running about.  A friend of mine speculates that soccer is slow hockey, but, when we tried to watch a match our attention wondered off before we found out whether this is true (although it snapped back for the thrilling zero-zero finale).  Despite this handicap in understanding the game: my predictions from the last post did quite well.  Of the 4 teams in the quarterfinals with red uniforms, 3 made it to the semi-finals.  Since one of the 4 matches involved two teams with red uniforms pitted against each other, the “reds” had to lose one (likewise there was a match with no red uniforms, which explains how the French “bleus” got the semi-final).  I guess I will go on record as saying the winner will wind up being Belgium, since a Belgian friend helped me program my magical online oracle.  If this doesn’t sound right to you, you can go to the magical omniscient fish we made and ask it yourself.   One of these days we have to see if anybody else has a flounder mascot.

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Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata)

Ribbon Seal (Histriophoca fasciata)

Here is a beautiful marine mammal which is somewhat underappreciated. The ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata) is a gorgeous medium sized true seal (Phocidae) which lives in the Arctic edges of the North Pacific. Populations of the seal range from northern Alaska down the Aleutians and from the Kamchatka Peninsula down along the coast of Asia to the Koreas and the northern tip of Japan. The ribbon seal is the sole surviving member of its genus and it is notable for its lovely yet bizarre coat—the adult seals are black with undulating ribbons of white running around their entire bodies.

Ribbon Seal, Photo by Michael Cameron.

Ribbon Seal, Photo by Michael Cameron.

Ribbon seals dive deep into the pelagic depths to hunt their prey. The diving mammals live on pollacks, eelpouts, cod, and cephalopods which they hunt at depths of 200 meters. The seals themselves are preyed on by polar bears, orcas, and large sharks—including sleeper sharks—huge predators of the benthic depths.

Pacific Sleeper Shark (Somniosus pacificus)

Pacific Sleeper Shark (Somniosus pacificus)

The seals are approximately human size: both males and females grow to about 1.6 m (5.2 ft) long, and weigh 95 kg (210 pounds). In ideal circumstances they can live longer than 25 years. Ribbon seals reach sexual maturity somewhere between the ages of two and six (depending on gender, diet, and heredity). They give birth to adorable fluffy white/silver pups who nurse for only four weeks before being forcd to hunt on their own!

Ribbon Seal Pup

Ribbon Seal Pup

Ribbon seals were overhunted by humans for their fur, but they live in such remote regions that they have probably never been in real danger of extinction. Their real numbers of ribbon seal populations are somewhat unknown but are estimated to be around 250,000. I can’t find any information about why they have such remarkable coats, so I will go ahead and guess that it is because they are fashionable!

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The Coat of Arms of Modern Georgia

The Coat of Arms of Modern Georgia

Let’s return once more to the Caucasus region and explore the region’s tumultuous political history—this time through the opulent window of crown jewels.  Regular readers will know that I am fascinated by crowns—which are constantly being crafted for the whims of various sovereigns and then stolen/usurped/destroyed as nations fight for political hegemony.  The Caucasus, which lies between East and West–and at the crossroads of multiple religions and empires—has been particularly susceptible to dynastic turnover.  The Kingdom of Georgia was created in the 10th century AD and burgeoned during the 11th–12th centuries but disintegrated completely at the end of the 15th century due to Turco-Mongol incursions.  In the late eighteenth century two of the smaller kingdoms left over from the wreck of old Georgia came together to form the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti.

Crown of George XII of the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti

Crown of George XII of the Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti

The kings of the new kingdom aspired to create a powerful European state of the modern style, but the new realm soon came under attack from the marauding Qajar Dynasty of Persia (lead by the insatiable Shah Agha Muḥammad Khān Qājār.  The ancient crowns of old Georgia vanished in 1795 (apparently looted by the Persians).  King George XII of Georgia ordered a new crown of suitable modern design for his 1798 coronation.  The crown was crafted in Russia and was encrusted in cut jewels (including 145 diamonds, 58 rubies, 24 emeralds and 16 amethysts). The crown was a circlet surmounted by eight arches which supported a globe (with a red cross on top).  Ironically George XII had little time to enjoy his new crown: he petitioned the czar for assistance in squelching internal strife and Persian invasions—Czar Paul I acceded to his request by annexing Georgia as part of the Russian Empire.

As Explained in this Simple Map...

As Explained in this Simple Map…

In 1800, following the death of George XII, the crown was sent to Moscow and deposited in the Kremlin among Russian imperial crowns. In 1923 the Bolsheviks presented the crown to the National Museum of Georgia in Tbilisi, but the communists could not keep their hands off the monarchist relic. In 1930 the crown of George XII was again sent to Moscow where it was broken apart and plundered—much like Georgia itself.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp

Born in 1857, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky grew up in a remote province of Tsarist Russia with his 17 brothers and sisters. His father, Edward Ciołkowskia, was a Polish orthodox priest who had been deported deep into the heart of Russia as a result of his political activities.  Edward Russianized his name and married an educated Tartar woman: the two then proceeded to have many children (of whom Konstantin was fifth). When he was 9 years old Konstantin caught scarlet fever and barely survived.  Once he finally recovered, he was deaf or very nearly so.  Because of his hearing problem he was denied admittance to elementary school and he quickly fell behind his peers. His mother died when he was 13 and his family’s poverty prevented him from moving forward in the world.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky on a Soviet Stamp ( I'm sorry that I'm still thinking about stamps even in the midst of this remarkable tale)

This is a very grim and Russian story so far but here is where it becomes extraordinary. Isolated and alone, Konstantin made his way to Moscow.  He was teaching himself at the Chertkovskaya Library where a very strange and brilliant man named Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov was an employee. Fyodorov was a transhumanist philosopher and a futurist who believed that humankind’s path forward leads ultimately to technological transcendence and divinity. He felt that scientific progress would eventually lead to physical immortality and then ultimately to the resurrection of all people who have ever died (Fyodorov liked to think “outside of the box”).  With the tutelage and mentorship of Fyodorov, Tsiolkovsky taught himself math. He took an active interest in Fyodorov’s scientific philosophy and even began to wonder what could be done with all of the immense number of dead humans if and when they returned. The thought led Konstantin Tsiolkovsky to think about outer space and the subject came to dominate the rest of his life.

Inspired by Fyodorov’s wild ideas and by the science fiction of Jules Verne, Tsiolkovsky began to invent the science necessary to carry humans up gravity’s well and beyond this world.  The Encyclopedia of Science summarizes his work as follows:

Tsiolkovsky produced some of the earliest scientific literature on spaceflight, including the classic work Exploration of Space by Means of Reactive Apparatus (1896). In 1898 he derived the basic formula that determines how rockets perform – the rocket equation. This formula was first published in 1903, a few months before the Wright brothers’ historic manned flight. It appeared, together with many other of Tsilokovsky’s seminal ideas on spaceflight, in an article called “Investigating Space with Rocket Devices,” in the Russian journal Nauchnoye Obozreniye (Science Review). Unfortunately, the same issue also ran a political revolutionary piece that led to its confiscation by the Tsarist authorities. Since none of Tsiolkovsky’s subsequent writings were widely circulated at the time (he paid for their publication himself out of his meager teacher’s wage), it was many years before news of his work spread to the West.

No one understood Tsiolkovsky’s work at the time he wrote them.  Today the basic concepts behind space travel—such as multistage rockets, orbital velocity, and compressed liquid fuels–are widely understood [Ed. not according to the comments of any given article about space exploration on CNN] but at the dawn of the twentieth century they were wildly fantastic and incomprehensible to international scientists much less to Tsarist Russians. Tsiolkovsky did not stop at elementary proposals of space travel and the fundamental underpinnings of rocketry.  He also came up with sophisticated ideas such as using graphite rudders for rocket telemetry, cooling combustion nozzles with cryogenic propellants, and pumping fuel from storage tanks into the rocket’s combustion chamber.

Tsiolkovsky's Conception of a Spaceship

His neighbors regarded him as an eccentric outsider—a deaf schoolteacher mumbling gibberish—but Tsiolkovsky kept on coming up with brilliant ideas, some of which are still ahead of their time.  In 1895 he was inspired by the Eiffel Tower to propose the creation of a 35,790 kilometer tall tower surmounted by “a celestial castle” from which objects could be launched directly into space: it was the first conception of a space elevator.   By the twenties, as the scientific minds of the new Soviet Union began to realize how innovative Tsiolkovsky’s ideas were, he was contemplating sustainable space habitats and galactic colonization.

Today Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is considered the father of theoretical astronautics—or more simply the father of spaceflight.  Sputnik was launched on his one hundredth birthday.  Soviet propagandists built many statues and monuments to Tsiolkovsky but the greatest tribute to his legacy (apart of course from humankind’s space programs–which grew from his ideas) has been seen by only a few humans. Tsiolkovsky crater, the most prominent feature on the dark side of the moon is named in his honor.

The Dark Side of the Moon (Tsiolkovsky Crater dominates in the upper left quarter)

 

An anachronistic portrait of Bolesław the Brave wearing the Crown of Poland

According to legend, the first Polish monarch, Bolesław the Brave, received his crown from the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, in 1000 AD when the two commanders met during the Congress of Gniezno.  Bolesław was one of the greatest kings of Eastern Europe.  His sword was allegedly presented to him by an angel and he famously notched it by striking the Golden Gate of Kiev as that great fortified city fell to his army.

An anachronistic picture of Bolesław notching his sword on the gate of Kiev (Jan Matejko)

Unfortunately the crown of Bolesław was lost only a generation later.  History has speculated that it was carried off to Germany by the Queen of Poland, Richeza of Lotharingia, in 1036.  Whatever happened, the Polish monarchy remained crownless until 1320 when a new crown was crafted for the coronation of King Ladislaus the Short.  Because of this latter monarch’s unfortunate epithet, the new crown was also known as the crown of Bolesław the Brave.  This second crown was carried off by Louis I of Hungary in 1370 but found its way back to Wawel (the seat of Polish royal power) in 1410.  During the Swedish Deluge of the mid seventeenth century, when Poland was invaded and occupied by their cold northern neighbors, the crown was hidden away in Spiš.

The Partitions of Poland

Unfortunately Poland has never lacked for bad neighbors: in 1793 Russia and Prussia arranged the Second Partition of the Commonwealth of Poland which divided Polish territory between the two nations. Poland, which had already been stripped of substantial territory by Austria, Prussia, and Russia back during the partition of 1772, effectively ceased to exist. This situation was unbearable to Tadeusz Kościuszko, the American Revolutionary hero (famous today for the delicious mustard which bears his name).  In 1794, Kościuszko lead a great peasant uprising against the armies of Prussia and Russia.  Kościuszko’s rebellion failed gloriously.  Poland was completely divided by Austria, Russia, and Prussia.  The Polish crown was stolen by the Prussian army (as were the rest of the Polish crown jewels).  These treasures were held by the Prussian king until 1809 when he had them melted down and made into coins.  The jewels were given away to the Directorate of Maritime Trade in Berlin.

The Modern Reproduction of the Crown of Poland

A restoration of the crown of Bolesław the Brave was constructed in 2001 out of Prussian gold, imperfect emeralds, synthetic rubies, and cultured pearls.  This new (third?) crown of Bolesław is kept with the one original item from the crown jewels, the notched sword, Szczerbiec, which has somehow survived the tumultuous history of Poland. The sword was owned by a series of Western European collectors during the nineteenth century, returned to Poland by the Soviet Union in 1928, and kept in Canada from World War II until 1959.  Interestingly Szczerbiec is not the original item either. Bolesław’s original sword was lost in the middle ages (carried off by a disgruntled queen as well?) and the ornamental coronation sword which exists today was commissioned by Ladislaus the Short in the 14th century.  The sword still remains controversial: Ukrainians revile the object as a symbol of hatred used by Polish nationalists to whip up anti-Ukrainian sentiments.

Szczerbiec, the notched sword

A satellite above Lake Baikal (image courtesy of Earth Sciences and Image Analysis Laboratory, NASA)

Lake Baikal in Siberia has a surface area of 12,248 sq miles (approximately equal to Belgium).  For a better comparison, Lake Superior has a surface area of 31,700 square miles. However that comparison is in no way apt.  Lake Baikal is prodigiously deep.  It lies on one of the world’s great rift valleys. To its west lies the Eurasian plate and to its east is the Amur plate.  The two plates are springing away from each other at 4 millimeters per year.  In the void between lies Lake Baikal, which is an astonishing 5,380 feet deep.  The 5,700 cubic miles of water contained by the lake compromises twenty percent of the world’s fresh water (not counting ice or water vapor).  It could easily hold all of the water from all of the Great Lakes.  Not only is the lake deep, it is ancient.  Lake Baikal is more than twenty-five million years old, and may be one of the world’s oldest lakes.

Lake Baikal

Lake Baikal contains thousands of species of plants and animals, most of which live no where else on earth.  There is a freshwater seal, the nerpa, which lives on golomyanka, a translucent abyssal fish famous for decomposing almost instantly to fat and bones when exposed to the sun.  There are omuls, lovely small salmonids, caught and smoked by humans around the lake, and there are huge Baikal sturgeons.  The lake is ringed by forested mountains which host brown bear, lynx, wolves, foxes, and wolverines (and maybe the occasional Siberian tiger). These predators live on mountain goats, reindeer, white tailed deer, elk, moose, musk deer, Siberian roe, and wild boar.  The small mammals and birds are too numerous to name.

Golomyanka--An abyssal fresh water fish

The lake’s true oddities are invertebrates which live in the depths. Far beneath the surface, forests of Lubomirskia sponges attain towering heights as they branch into strange shapes.  Benthic and pelagic infusoria are endemic, as are huge predatory swimming flatworms which are covered with suckers.  Shrimp and crustaceans abound.  It has been estimated that the biomass of crustaceans in the lake exceeds 1,800,000 tons. Turbellarian worms, snails and amphipods are also diverse.

An amphipod regards a diver from a sponge forest in Lake Baikal

The Lake is the alleged site of one of the world’s greatest haunted treasures.  Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak, was a tsarist hero who won the golden saber for valor at the battle of Port Arthur.  After the Tsar and his family were executed by Bolsheviks, Kolchak assumed command of the imperial armies during the disastrous civil war.  A substantial detachment of his troops rescued the Empire’s gold reserves (an estimated 1600 tons of gold) and were carrying them across Siberia during the brutal winter of 1919/1920 when temperatures dropped below -60 °F.  Legend has it that both the gold and the troops found their way into Lake Baikal and have never emerged.

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