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Title: Blog by Novelist William S. Frankl, MD

Archive for August, 2018

The Birth of Mass Destruction

Monday, August 6th, 2018

On July 16, 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m., the first atom bomb was successfully detonated at White Sands Proving Ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The assembled scientists wore welder’s goggles and shared suntan lotion. Enrico Fermi took bets on whether the atmosphere would ignite and destroy just the state of New Mexico, or the entire planet. The explosion lit up the sky. The desert sand, largely made of silica, melted and turned to a light green, radioactive glass. Ken Bainbridge, the Harvard physicist in charge of the whole enterprise, known as the Manhattan Project, turned to J. Robert Oppenheimer and said, “We are all sons of bitches now.” On August 6th and August 9th, the United States bombed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, the only time nuclear weapons have been used in the history of warfare. Bainbridge dedicated his life to the eradication of nuclear weaponry.

 

Julius Caesar

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 12 is the birthday of (Gaius) Julius Caesar, born in Rome around 100 B.C. He was the great military leader who managed to capture for the Roman Empire most of what became France and Great Britain.

In a series of dispatches from the battlefield, Caesar became his own war correspondent. Unlike many of the Roman poets and historians of the era, Caesar wrote short descriptive prose that was easy for ordinary people to understand. His stories of military victories turned him into a national hero, but the Roman Senate increasingly saw him as a threat. It passed legislation requiring him to lay down his military command and return to Rome.

But Caesar realized that he had the largest and most battle-tested army in the empire under his command. And if he returned to Rome, his political opponents would end his career. And so, on January 10, 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his army, directly challenging the authority of the Senate. The result was a civil war. Though he was outnumbered in many of the major battles, Caesar won the war. And he was extremely merciful with captured military leaders, because he wanted them as his allies. That might have been his biggest mistake, since it was a group of those men he spared that began to conspire against him.

He was an absolute dictator of Rome, with ambitious plans to redistribute wealth and land. But a group of senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, wanted to bring back the old republic. So they organized an assassination on the steps of the Senate.

The Roman republic never returned. Instead, Rome would be ruled by a series of emperors for the rest of the empire’s existence.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

On July 12 in 1389, King Richard II appointed poet Geoffrey Chaucer to the position of Chief Clerk of the King’s Works in Westminster. Chaucer, the middle-class son of a wine merchant, spent his lifetime associated with aristocracy: as an adolescent, he served as a page for a wealthy household and later fought in France with Edward III, who paid the ransom when Chaucer was captured during a siege. The clerkship came with a significant salary — 30 pounds per year — but a heavy workload: Chaucer supervised the building and maintenance of several royal projects, including the Tower of London and Westminster Palace. Chaucer traveled widely as Clerk, which afforded him the opportunity to meet people across a spectrum of social classes: peasants, nobles, and clergy. Their voices are the narrative cornerstone of Chaucer’s greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, the story of group of pilgrims journeying to St. Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral.

John Calvin/Protestant Theologian

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 10 is the birthday of theologian and ecclesiastical statesman John Calvin (1509) , born Jehan Cauvin in Noyon, Picardy, France. Calvin was raised in a strict Roman Catholic family. His father was employed by the local bishop as an administrator in the town’s cathedral. Calvin was a precocious child, and by 12, he was working in a shop as a clerk and had received the tonsure, the severe haircut that symbolized dedication to one’s church.

Calvin’s father wished his son to be a priest, and sent him at age 14 to Paris to study at the College de Marche in preparation for university. Calvin studied rhetoric, logic, geometry, astronomy, music, and arithmetic. In Paris, he changed his name to its Latin form, Ioannes Calvinus, which in French became Jean Calvin.

Calvin was in his early 20s and working as a humanist lawyer when he had an epiphany sometime between 1528 and 1533. He wrote to a friend, “Being exceedingly alarmed at the misery into which I had fallen, and much more at that which threatened me in view of eternal death, I, duty bound, made it my first business to betake myself to your way, condemning my past life, not without groans and tears.” He left Roman Catholicism to join the Protestant faith. At that time, this was a dangerous and sometimes fatal undertaking: dozens of Protestants were being declared heretics and burned at the stake. Calvin fled Paris and traveled through France, Italy, and Switzerland for the next several years, settling in Geneva.

In 1536, he published the first version of Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he intended as a kind of primer, laying out the general rules of what would be come known as “Calvinism.” The five principles spell out TULIP:

Total depravity: all people are born sinful.
Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.
Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.
Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.
Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.

Calvin continued revising and publishing the Institutes throughout his life. It made him famous. Though he enjoyed an occasional game of shove ha’penny, which was a kind of precursor to shuffleboard, he was somewhat joyless and austere and disapproved of drinking, dancing, saucy songs, and gambling.

In Geneva, he preached over 2,000 sermons, at least once a day, for over an hour at each time. He used no notes. His friends urged him to marry, but he said, “I, who have the air of being so hostile to celibacy, I am still not married and do not know whether I will ever be. If I take a wife, it will be because, being better freed from numerous worries, I can devote myself to the Lord.” He told acquaintances that his wife would have to be “chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for my health.”

When presented with a young woman from a noble family, he at first refused to marry her, but then reluctantly agreed, but only if she learned French, which she did, dutifully. Still, he backed out of the marriage at the last minute and instead married a widow named Idelette. They had several children, but none survived infancy. When Idelette died, he was bereft. He wrote to a friend, “I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life.”

John Calvin died in 1564. Aside from Martin Luther, he’s the most important figure in the second generation of the Protestant Reformation.

 

Nikola Tesla/Scientist /Engineer

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018

July 10 is the birthday of inventor Nikola Tesla , born in Smiljan, Austria-Hungary (now Croatia) (1856). He picked up an interest in inventing from his mother, who used to come up with new and helpful household appliances in her spare time.

He patented the rotating magnetic field, which is the basis for alternating-current machinery, and he also invented the Tesla induction coil, an essential component in radio technology. He sailed to America in 1884, bringing with him four cents, plans for a flying machine, and a few poems he’d written. He got a job with Thomas Edison, but the two had incompatible styles and soon parted ways. Tesla then sold his patent for alternating-current dynamos to Edison’s rival, George Westinghouse. Edison waged a media campaign against Westinghouse, Tesla, and alternating current, but to no avail: the Westinghouse Corporation was selected to provide lighting at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where Tesla demonstrated how safe alternating current was. He would hook himself up to an electric lamp and allow the current to pass through his body on its way to lighting the lamp.

Two years later, Tesla designed one of the first hydroelectric power plants in the country, at Niagara Falls; the plant was soon supplying power to the city of Buffalo, New York. In 1900, he imagined a worldwide wireless communication system that could also provide free electricity via an enormous tower. J.P. Morgan and other investors funded him at first, but then Edison — and Guglielmo Marconi — caught the investors’ eye with their own radio technology. Tesla was forced to scrap his project, literally as well as figuratively: his tower was dismantled and sold for scrap to pay Tesla’s debts. Tesla suffered a nervous breakdown, and eventually died, impoverished and alone, in 1943. His alternating current system is still the standard power system in use in the world today.

 


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