Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Six

Why is Easter such a movable feast?

Whether you are a believer or not, Easter is one of those points in the calendar that seems to give us a psychological lift. Summer is on its way and, if we are lucky, it might even bring some warmer weather with it. But unlike Christmas which is fixed rigidly on December 25th, irrespective of what day of the week it falls on, the date of Easter is movable, much to the consternation of those who like certainty in such matters. Why is that and what are the rules which determine the date of Easter?

The starting point in our enquiries is the Gospels. All four disciples (Matthew 26.2, Mark 14.1, Luke 22.1, and John 18.39) agree that the crucifixion of Christ took place in conjunction with the Jewish feast of Passover. The first three describe the Last Supper, traditionally placed as taking place on the Thursday, as a Passover meal whereas John’s account suggests that on the morning of Christ’s death the Jewish authorities hadn’t yet eaten their Passover meal. Our story is complicated enough that we will quickly pass over that little discrepancy.

The festival of the Passover, commemorated to celebrate the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, begins at sundown of the fourteenth day of Nisan. Its date is determined by the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The early Christians wanted to maintain the link between the death and resurrection of their Lord with the dating of the Jewish festival. As the latter was movable, based on lunar and solar cycles, so too was Easter.

By 325 CE, however, the Church authorities decided to add some intellectual rigour to the dating of Easter. At the Council of Nicaea they laid down the basic rules which are still used today. They took as their starting point the vernal equinox. They also wanted Easter to fall on a Sunday. The understanding of the celestial spheres and the orbit of the moon had advanced sufficiently that astronomers could estimate the date of all future full moons. So, an algorithm was developed which fixed Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. If the calculated Ecclesiastical Full Moon (EFM) falls on a Sunday, Easter will be the following Sunday. That means that Easter will always be between one and seven days after the EFM.

There was a tiny bit of a problem, though.

The vernal equinox itself is not a fixed date. The Nicaean Council used March 20th as the cornerstone for their calculation, it is known as the Paschal equinox, simply because it happened to be the date of the vernal equinox in the year of their deliberations. This means that the calculated EFM dates can be out of whack by as much as two days with the actual full moon we see in the night sky.

The next complicating factor was the introduction of the Gregorian calendar by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582 to replace the Julian calendar, replacing ten dates in that month to realign the Paschal Equinox with the seasons. By that time, of course, we in Britain had split with the Catholic church and not having truck with foreign ways (where have we heard that before?) did not adopt the new calendar until 1752. So for near on two centuries our Easters were out of line with those celebrated by the Catholic church.

The Eastern Orthodox churches were also having nothing to do with the Gregorian calendar reforms and to this day they still use the Julian calendar. Although they use the methodology established by the Council of Nicaea the date ranges in which their Easter celebrations fall can differ markedly. The last time the two festivals coincided on the same date was as recently as 2017 and they will do again in 2025.

The upshot of all this is that Easter can fall between March 22nd and April 25th using the Gregorian calendar whereas the Eastern churches can celebrate Easter between April 4th and May 8th. Easter this year is quite late but not as late as it will be in 2038, when it will fall on the latest possible date, April 25th. The last time Easter fell on March 22nd was way back in 1818 and it won’t settle on that date again until 2285. I don’t think I will be around to see it.

There have been attempts to pin Easter down. The Second Vatican Council agreed to a fixed date in 1963, provided agreement could be reached amongst all the Christian churches. A further attempt to resolve matters was made at the meeting of the Council of World Churches in 1978 in Aleppo where it was proposed that the latest scientific methods for calculating the full moons would replace that developed in 325CE.

Nothing has come of that initiative and for me, that’s no bad thing. Easter would lose some of its charm if it was a fixed date in the calendar.

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Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Five

Why are most display watches set to ten past 10?

I have been thinking about buying a new watch over the last few weeks. With the ubiquity of mobile devices such as smart phones, there is something anachronistic about feeling you need something on your wrist for you to consult if you need to know what time it is. At my time of life, I hardly need the chronological precision that a decent watch gives me to regulate my activities. Sometimes I barely know what day it is.

But old habits die hard. For over half a century I have had a timepiece strapped to my left wrist and on the occasions I have not worn one, either because I have forgotten to put it on or it has broken, I somehow feel under-dressed. It is a kind of comfort blanket and wear one I will continue to do.

What struck me as I browsed at jewellers’ window displays and catalogues was that invariably those watches which had a conventional face as opposed to those digital abominations were invariably photographed as showing the time as ten past 10 or, for those manufacturers showing a rebellious streak, ten to 2. Why was that, I wondered?

It has not always been thus. Back in the 1920s and 30s watches were invariably set to 8:20. The Hamilton Watch Company bucked the trend in 1926 when their watches in advertisements showed the time as 10:10. Rolex followed suit in the 1940s and Timex, with their Marlin model in 1953, began to move their advertisements to the now accepted default time. Other manufacturers bowed to peer pressure and by the 1960s ten past 10 it was.

The reasons for the transition are quite easy to understand and it is all about presenting the watch to its best advantage. The hands are symmetrical, a look most people find more appealing than an asymmetrical one, and the two hands, as well as not overlapping so that they can be admired, allow the manufacturer’s logo, usually placed immediately below the figure of 12, to be seen clearly. The lower part of the face, where other features of the watch such as the date and day of the week are displayed, is unobstructed. The clincher is that the V-shape that the hands make represent a smile, a happy face, whereas the inverted V of 8:20 looks like a frown. And we all respond positively to a smile, don’t we?

Marketeers have long been associated with the dark arts, so is there a deeper, psychological reason behind the portrayal of watches? To answer this question we need to look at some research conducted by Ahmed Karim, Britta Lutzenkirchen, Eman Khedr, and Radwa Khalil, reported in the August 2017 edition of Frontiers in Psychology.

The first of their experiments involved showing a group of people pictures of twenty watches, with their faces set at one of the following settings, 10:10 (the happy face), 8:20 (the sad face) and 11:30, the latter selected because it was neutral and had no associations with human physiognomy. In what the uncharitable may view as a scientific demonstration of the bloomin’ obvious, the results showed that the happy face setting elicited greater feelings of pleasure amongst the viewers than the other two settings.

Perhaps of greater interest was the finding that the sad face setting did not affect feelings one way or the other. For those keen to understand the differences between the sexes, the research showed that the female participants registered stronger expressions of pleasure from the 10:10 setting than did their male counterparts. The researchers thought that this was in line with earlier studies in which women were shown to be better at recognising facial expressions and empathising with them than men.

Showing the watch faces alongside pictograms of happy and sad faces confirmed the assumption that the upturned V-shape was associated with a smile and the inverted V with a frown. However, the good vibes generated by the cheerful 10:10 setting were not strong enough to convince the participants to buy, although the inclination to buy was stronger than that generated by the other settings.

I think the case for any deeper psychological significance in the face display is unproven. In any event, if you are presented with a page of smiling watch faces on a page, the good feelings engendered by one are neutralised by the same feelings that come from the others, forcing you to make your selection based on other criteria.

So, the answer is simply a case of aesthetics, one that has clearly stood the test of time.

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Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Four

Is there anything in grape or grain, but never the twain?

It has always struck me that there is something of the puritan about a hangover. After all, you pay at leisure for some momentary pleasure. Oscar Wilde, perhaps, got it right; moderation in everything, including moderation.

Seasoned topers have their own tried and tested methods of avoiding hangovers. Mine is to stick to one type of drinks and on no account to mix beer and wine. My hangover cure is to have a hair of the dog, the original phrase was to have a hair of the dog that bit you, as soon as I can stomach it.

But am I being unnecessarily cautious in my choice of drinks? Is it just quantity and not type that leads to a hangover?

My attention was drawn to the February 1st 2019 edition of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, not part of my staple fare of reading material, I must confess, and an article with the unappetising subtitle of “A randomised controlled multi-arm matched triplet cross-over trial of beer and wine”. It outlined the research carried out by four principal researchers at the German university of Witten/Herdecke.

I will not bore you with the minutiae of the study, if you’re interested, follow this link , but they set out to find, in a controlled experiment, whether drinking beer and then wine or wine and then beer or just beer on its own or simply wine had any effect on the intensity of your hangover. It is gratifying to learn that the best brains are plying their grey cells to these problems of our diurnal existence.

They assembled a group of 90 volunteers, I can’t imagine they were hard to come by, who were aged between 19 and 40. Each was given the same meal, the condemned man and all that, and then they were split up into groups.

The first group drank two and half pints of lager, donated by Carlsberg, and then four large glasses of white wine. The second group drank the wine first, followed by the lager. The third group drank either only lager or just wine. Each participant was monitored regularly and when their breath alcohol concentration reached 0.11%, they stopped drinking and were packed off to bed with a glass of water of a size commensurate with their body weight.

The next day, they were quizzed as to how they felt, just what you want after a night on the tiles, and their responses were scored against the Acute Hangover Scale, developed by some scientists in the early 21st century to measure immediate hangover symptoms. I must look into this. Around 10% of the participants reported what the Australians colourfully term an upchucky moment.

A week later, the groups reassembled and drank the reverse of what they had consumed the previous time. Again, they were monitored and the intensity of their hangovers were recorded.

When it came to comparing the results, the scientists found no obvious correlation between the order that you consumed beer and wine or whether you restricted yourself to one or the other on the intensity of your hangover. In a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, for which scientific endeavour has been renowned over the centuries, they were forced to admit that it was quantity that impacted your hangover and that warning signs such as feeling tipsy and/or nauseous were reliable indicators that you might feel under par the following morning. You don’t say!

The veracity of the results has already been challenged. One scientist pointed out that the researchers had studiously avoided dark drinks, like red wine and beer. These alcoholic beverages contain congeners which, whilst adding flavour and character, have unpleasant side-effects which can increase the likelihood and intensity of your hangover.

But if the German study is to be believed, we can rid ourselves of the canards that you should never mix beer with wine or if you do, drink beer first.

I will enjoy testing out their results.

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There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Three

Martha Coston (1826 – 1904)

For a century or more the Coston flare system was the usual way by which ships could communicate with the shoreline and vice versa. Indeed, its use was a requirement of marine insurers. The signals were produced in the form of cartridges which were fired into the air from a signal-pistol. There were three colours, white, red, and blue, and by sequencing them a rudimentary form of messaging, akin to semaphore but one that could be used at night, was developed. The light emanating from the pistol was so bright that the signaller was advised not to look at it. The point, of course, was that it could be seen from a distance.

So whose brainwave was it?

Step forward, Martha Coston, the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame. Her tale is one of triumph over adversity. If being widowed at the age of 21 in 1848 with four children to look after was not enough, further misfortune befell her when two of her children and her mother died shortly afterwards. She needed to find a way of supporting herself.

Going through her deceased husband’s papers, Martha found that he had been working on a system for signalling at night. Benjamin’s papers consisted of plans and chemical formulae and whilst there was a kernel of an idea, a lot of work would be needed to bring it to reality. Indeed, it took ten years of hard work for Martha to create a workable system.  As she wrote, “The men I employed and dismissed, the experiments I made myself, the frauds that were practiced upon me, almost disheartened me; but … I treasured up each little step that was made in the right direction, the hints of naval officers, and the opinions of the different boards that gave the signals a trial. I had finally succeeded in getting a pure white and a vivid red light.”

Needing a third colour, the breakthrough came when she was watching a fireworks display in New York City to celebrate the completion of the transatlantic telegraph cable in 1858. The blue fireworks were particularly luminous and visible – a blue flare would complete her system. On 5th April 1859 a patent, number 23,536, was granted for a night signalling system. Sadly for Martha, the inventor on the patent was named as Benjamin, her involvement being relegated to that of administratrix of her husband’s estate.

The US Navy were interested in the flare system and placed an order for $6,000 worth of flares from the Coston Manufacturing Company, which Martha had established. She then went on an extended tour of Europe, getting patents for her invention in England, France, Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands. Returning to the US in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War, Martha persuaded Congress to buy the US Patent to her invention but they were only prepared to pay $20,000 rather than the $40,000 she wanted.

The US Navy used the Coston flare system extensively during the conflict and they were particularly key in coordinating efforts in the battle of Fort Fisher in 1865 and spotting blockade runners. The Coston Manufacturing Company were knocking the flares at less than cost price and after the war, Martha calculated that the government owed her $120,000 in compensation. With some reluctance, they offered her a measly $15,000.

In 1871, Martha was awarded a US patent in her own right, number 115,935, for improvements to the night signalling system and by the mid 1870s all the US Life Saving Service stations were equipped with Coston flares. Martha also sold her signals to navies, shipping companies and yacht clubs around the world.

Business boomed until the adoption of ship radios. But Martha said she always had to be “ready to fight like a lioness” against chauvinism, prejudice and attempts to rip her off. She persevered and for this is a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame. Indeed, her presence lights it up, you might say.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

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There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Two

Mary Anderson (1866 – 1953)

It’s an everyday scene. You jump into your car, notice the windscreen is a bit smeared, so you flick a switch and two mechanical arms, fixed to the exterior of your car, spring into action and clear it for you. When it is raining or snowing, the windscreen wipers are invaluable to help you see where you are going. But have you ever considered whose brainwave the wipers were?

This is where the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Alabama born Mary Anderson, comes in.

While in New York during the winter of 1902 Mary was travelling on a trolley car and it was sleeting. The stately progress of the vehicle was interrupted every now and again because the driver had to get out and clear the front window of the snow and ice that had accumulated. Instead of fuming about the delay that this operation caused to her journey, Mary started wondering whether some kind of blade could be produced which the driver could operate from inside the trolley car, allowing him to clear the screen without having to stop and start the vehicle.

Food for thought, indeed.

When she got back to Birmingham, Alabama, Mary’s musings were sufficiently advanced that she was able to commit a rudimentary design to paper. She then wrote a description of how it might work and hired a local company to make a working model. It was remarkably simple, consisting of a lever fixed to the inside of the vehicle which controlled a rubber blade fixed to the exterior of the windscreen. By controlling the lever, the blade, which was counterweighted to ensure contact, would go back and forth across the windscreen, clearing it of any obstructions. The blade was detachable, “thus leaving nothing to mar the usual appearance of the car during fair weather.

On 18th June 1903 Mary submitted her application for a patent for what she quaintly described as a Window Cleaning Device. In the supporting documentation Anderson described how the wiper was to be operated by a handle inside the vehicle which was detachable.

On 10th November she was notified by the United States Patent Office that a patent had been granted, number 743,801, and that she had exclusive rights over her invention for 17 years.

But, as we have seen before, inventing something is the easy part. Making a commercial success of it is another kettle of fish altogether.

Mary started searching for commercial partners but, surprisingly, found no takers. Rather like an aspiring author seeking a publisher, she received rejections by the sack full. Perhaps the letter she received from the Montreal firm, Dinning and Eckstein, on 20th June 1905 was typical; “we beg to acknowledge receipt of your recent favor with reference to the sale of your patent. In reply, we regret to state we do not consider it to be of such commercial value as would warrant our undertaking its sale.”

So that was that and Mary seems to have abandoned her attempts to put her invention into production, concentrating on managing some flats she had built instead.

Her patent expired in 1920. By that time many more people owned cars and vehicle manufacturers were looking to enhance the specifications of their models. In 1922 Cadillac was the first to include windscreen wipers on all of their models and soon they became standard equipment. The timing of their adoption was not coincidental, depriving Mary of cashing in on her simple but essential invention.

It was not until 2011 that Mary’s contribution to automobile safety was recognised by the Hall of Inventors, making her a worthy inductee into our equally illustrious Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

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We Call Upon The Author To Explain

The Eric Hoffer Book Award is one of the top and most prestigious American literary awards for independent books. Last Monday (May 14th) the results of the 2018 Book Award were announced.

I am delighted to reveal that my latest book, Fifty Curious Questions, made its way through a packed field to be named as a Category Finalist. If nothing else, it is gratifying to know that a quirky piece of English whimsy written firmly in a tongue-in-cheek style has transferred successfully across the Atlantic.

The book is available in all formats via

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

Being Jewish, a woman in academia and living in Austria in the 1930s weren’t the best cards to be dealt with in life and so it proved for the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, nuclear scientist, Lise Meitner.

Born in Vienna, Lise was only the second woman to be awarded a degree in Austria. To further her studies she moved to Berlin where she met Otto Hahn and found a position – a cupboard next to a lab and working as a guest without remuneration – at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. It was only when she was offered a paid position elsewhere that her position at the Institute was regularised. In 1917 she and Hahn discovered a new element, protactinium.

In the 1920s and 30s the race was on to find an element heavier than uranium and it was to this problem that Meitner and Hahn applied their not inconsiderable grey cells. They noticed that whenever they put a neutron on to a heavy Uranium neutron, as you do, they ended up with something lighter. Whilst Hahn carried out the experiments it was Lise who came up with the explanation for this phenomenon and realised the import of what they had discovered. The answer was what we now term nuclear fission. What was happening was the neutron was splitting into two parts, unleashing a phenomenal amount of energy in the process. It was this energy which was harnessed to produce nuclear bombs.

By this time, 1938, the Anschluss had occurred and, sensibly, Lise had made good her escape to Sweden. Now that he had the rational explanation to the phenomenon that they had observed, Hahn wrote up the findings and published a paper, ignoring the contributions that Lise had made and, in fact omitting her altogether. Some kindly souls argue that the omission was due to political pressure exerted because of the race and gender of Hahn’s accomplice. Whether this was the case or whether Hahn just grabbed the glory for himself, we will never know. To add salt to the wound, in 1944 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Hahn alone for the discovery of nuclear fission.

Not unsurprisingly, Lise was royally pissed off. She wrote, “I have no self confidence… Hahn has just published absolutely wonderful things based on our work together … much as these results make me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I contributed absolutely nothing to it — and now I am so discouraged.”  Worse still, she was horrified to find that the first use of nuclear fission was to make an atomic bomb and was devastated when the Enola Gay dropped its load on to Hiroshima.

To complete her air-brushing from history, the apparatus that was used to carry out the experiments that led to the discovery of nuclear fission was displayed in Germany’s leading science museum for 35 years without mentioning Lise’s name and role in the experiment.

Lise continued with her researches after the war and helped produce one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors and during the course of her career published some 128 articles. It was only in the mid-1960s that the enormity of her contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission was recognised. Posthumously, in 1992, she had an extremely radioactive synthetic element named after her, Meitnerium (atomic number 109) named after her and at least the Periodic Table bears testament to her brilliance.

Lise, for your contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission being air-brushed out of history, you are a worthy inductee.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone