When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

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Excited Elgar

1901: “Gosh! man I’ve got a tune in my head.” The effervescent composer was Edward Elgar, writing to his friend August Jaeger, and the tune was the trio section of the first Pomp and Circumstance march, later set to words in “Land of Hope and Glory”.

Source: Jerrold Northrop Moore, Elgar and His Publishers: Letters of a Creative Life (1987), vol. I, p. 267

Vexed Question

1998: Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel’s leading rabbis, pronounced on the vexed theological issue of whether Jews should be allowed to pick their noses on the Sabbath. Nose-picking risks dislodging nasal hairs and is therefore similar to shaving or cutting hair – activities forbidden on the Sabbath – but the rabbi ruled that the habit was harmless and permissible.

Source: The Guardian, 12 January 1998

Criminal Genius

1995: Justin Kruger and David Dunning illustrated their article “Unskilled and Unaware of It” with the example of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight with no obvious attempt at disguise. When arrested shortly afterwards, Wheeler expressed surprise that the lemon juice he had rubbed on his face had failed to make him invisible to surveillance cameras. Why lemon juice? Because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, so, as any fool knows, rubbing it on the skin obviously makes one’s features invisible. In their article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kruger and Dunning argued that, not only are the McArthur Wheelers of this world incompetent, but their incompetence means that they don’t realize they are incompetent.

Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 1999

Nobel Hotspot

Derek Walcott, photographed by Bert Nienhuis in 2008

1992: If braininess were measured in terms of number of Nobel Prize winners relative to size of population, Saint Lucia would have a strong claim to be the world’s brainiest country. The Caribbean island, with a population of less than 150,000, celebrated its first Nobel Prize winner, Arthur Lewis, for economics, in 1979, and its second, Derek Walcott, for literature, in 1992.

Source: Guy Ellis, St Lucia: Helen of the West Indies (2006), pp. 1, 2, 8

Disorientated

NASA photo of cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev

1991: The Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome for the Mir space station on 18 May. During the 312 days he spent in orbit, communist hardliners staged a short-lived coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially ceased to exist. When Krikalev returned to Earth on 25 March 1992, he landed in the newly independent state of Kazakhstan.

Source: Brian Harvey, Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier? (2001), pp. 29–32

Shorter Queues

1990: “I don’t believe all our propaganda about you starving in the West.” The quote, near the end of Robert Carver’s travel book The Accursed Mountains, came from “an intellectual in Leningrad”. “I think you have queues at your shops, like us,” the man said, but “not as long as ours.”

Source: Robert Carver, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania (1998), p. 330

Summary Justice

1989: On Christmas Day, deposed Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were put on trial for genocide, armed attacks against the people, the destruction of buildings and state institutions, and undermining the national economy. The prosecution offered scant evidence, but it was enough to satisfy the military tribunal. In less than an hour the Ceaușescus were found guilty and sentenced to death. The couple were immediately taken outside and shot.

Source: Peter Siani-Davies, The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 (2005), pp. 136–41

Infinitely Slowly

John Mainstone, of the University of Queensland, photographed in 1990 with the pitch drop experiment

1988: For half a century, John Mainstone oversaw the University of Queensland’s pitch drop experiment, in which pitch – the tarry substance used to make boat seams watertight – dripped infinitely slowly from a funnel into a flask. Set up in 1927, the experiment demonstrated that pitch is not a solid, but an extremely viscous liquid.

Although a drop fell from the funnel only once every decade or so, paradoxically, when this happened, it happened in an instant. One weekend in April 1979, aware that a drop was about to fall, Mainstone kept a close watch on the experiment, but nothing happened, so he went home. When he returned on Monday, the drop had fallen. Nine years later, he was determined to witness the next drop, but briefly abandoned his vigil to go for a cup of tea. When he came back, the drop had fallen.

Source: www.wnycstudios.org/story/
267176-never-quite-now

Out Of Limbo

1987: The antiretroviral drug AZT, developed in the 1960s to combat cancer, proved too toxic for its intended use. After years in pharmaceutical limbo, the drug returned to favour in the 1980s when it was found it could treat HIV and AIDS – appropriate, given that it was first isolated from herring sperm.

Source: Barry D. Schoub, AIDS & HIV in Perspective: A Guide to Understanding the Virus and Its Consequences (1999), pp. 177–9

Easy Peasy

1986: A year after CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames began betraying secrets to the Soviets, the American spy agency scheduled a lie detector test for him. Although it was only a routine test, it put the wind up Ames.

He got in contact with the KGB and asked them to suggest ways to foil the polygraph. Their advice: “Get a good night’s sleep, and rest, and go into the test rested and relaxed. Be nice to the polygraph examiner, develop a rapport, and be cooperative and try to maintain your calm.”

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Moscow Calling

U.S. President Ronald Reagan

1985: When his hearing aid started playing up during a White House briefing on the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan turned to intelligence official Robert Gates, smiled, and said, “My KGB handler must be trying to reach me.”

Source: Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (1996), p. 344