Tag: Exploration

To the Uttermost Depths and Back


During the decades humans first reached outer space, they were also reaching for the ocean’s uttermost depths.  They even managed to reach those depths before placing a man in orbit.

“Opening the Great Depths: The Bathyscaph Trieste and Pioneers of Undersea Exploration,” by Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mathers tells that story.  It is a history of Trieste. It also fits Trieste into its historical context.

The authors reveal an unexpected origin for the bathyscaph: high altitude ballooning. Its initiator, Swiss academic Auguste Piccard made his name in the 1920s setting altitude records in free-flight balloons. His purpose was scientific, measuring cosmic rays at stratospheric altitudes. He was equally interested in plumbing the ocean’s depths. He used concepts developed for balloons in designing the bathyscaph, an ocean-plumbing balloon. Gasoline substituted for hydrogen to provide buoyancy, iron shot provided ballast, with the crew in a pressurized spherical compartment.

Book Review: Superior Rendezvous Place


The city of Thunder Bay, in northern Ontario near the far western end of Lake Superior, is a curious city when one looks into it.  As cities go, the entity is quite young, having only been formed in 1969.  But it was formed by the merger of 3 smaller cities, one of which bore the name of Fort William, and Fort William itself had, for a brief moment in time, a crucial role in the settlements of both the Canadian and American interiors.  As its name implies, it was initially an actual Fort – a fortified settlement, but not a military one.  Fort William was a trading and commercial hub, a deliberate outpost of the same sort of ventures that gained India for Britain.  Fort William was the key interior post of the Northwest Company.  As with its more famous British contemporaries, the Hudson Bay Company and the East India Company, the NWC’s pursuit of trade in effect claimed much of what today is western Canada.  Moreover, much of early American trade either crossed through, or crossed swords with the traders of the NWC.  Superior Rendezvous-Place: Fort William in the Canadian Fur Trade, by Jean Morrison, is an approachable history of this settlement, and its significant, if rather brief time as a vital hub of early Canada.

These are 10 man canoes – still much smaller than the big trading canoes.

Superior Rendezvous-Place begins with background history on the discoveries of the interior of North America, French and British explorations, and early commercial networks for shipping manufactured goods in, to barter with the natives in exchange for furs (chiefly beaver), and to then packaged and ship the furs back out to ports, thence to Europe.  In the absence of roads, the many lakes and rivers of the Canadian interior were mapped and surveyed for the purpose of the portage – trade routes navigated by crews in massive birch-bark canoes.  The French developed their network across what is today lower Canada and Michigan, across the Great Lakes, and from there even further into the interior.  The British, by way of the Hudson Bay Company, entered the interior from Hudson Bay.  In the 7 Years War (the French and Indian War), France lost Canada, and the Scottish Clan McTavish, eager businessmen, saw an opportunity to replace the old French network with one of their own.

A Viking and an Italian Got on a Boat…with a Pole?


Columbus Erikson PulaskiPresident Trump has issued the standard annual proclamation for Columbus Day, without any bowing to the oppressive white man narrative. Nor, did he leave the “Columbus wasn’t first” script dangling, as he had already issued the lesser-known annual proclamation for Leif Erikson Day! In between those two proclamations about dead white guys, he issued a third! Friday, October 11, marked the anniversary of the death of General Pulaski! I considered some highlighted themes in the proclamations and offer brief analysis.

Presidential Proclamation on General Pulaski Memorial Day, 2019
Issued on: October 10, 2019

On General Pulaski Memorial Day, we remember Brigadier General Casimir Pulaski, the great Polish hero who fought and died in America’s noble pursuit of freedom during the Revolutionary War. We honor his bravery and unwavering commitment to liberty and self-government, and we pay tribute to the abiding friendship between the United States and Poland, which has prevailed since General Pulaski took up the sword on behalf of the American cause and helped forge our young Republic.

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We live in an age of information overload (however muddled by misinformation). With each decade, the potential for individual persons to learn about distant things improves. Books, radio, telephones, automobiles, television, internet, and many other innovations combine to provide access to pictures, stories, and people around planet Earth.  Among the most recent technological advances are […]

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I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday. Book Review ‘To Clear Away the Shadows’ a fusion of societies By MARK […]

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OK, I’m a day late (as a new retiree I’m probably a dollar short too), but I was just reading a Wall Street Journal Best of the Web column (possibly behind a paywall) on the trend of city and state governments to ditch Columbus Day and replace it with “Indigenous People’s Day.” Although the column […]

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Tourists of Our Own Planet


IMG_0725Having now added the Villa Borghese Gardens, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the Pantheon to the list of sights I’ve seen in Rome, I can now reasonably claim as to have visited the main highlights within Italy’s capital city (the sights without await my third visit).

In reality, that means I’ve barely scratched its surface, something my parents — who’ve got months of experience in Rome — proved repeatedly by suggesting we visit what was ostensibly “some random church” that turned out to house a masterwork. Informed Romans could doubtless run circles around them, and people with genuine expertise in the subject could — on a good day — credibly say they “know” the city. But me? I’m just a tourist.

In an age when Google Earth covers the entire globe — and when we spend billions imaging our solar system’s smaller, more distant bodies — it’s easy to think that we’ve already learned most of Earth’s secrets. But as The Economist suggests, it’s likely more true that we’ve just noticed the most obvious, exceptional points on our planet, and that there’s a great deal left to explore — both things we’ve heard about but haven’t truly studied, as well as countless mysteries and discoveries of which we’re completely ignorant:

What Happened to My Ride into Space?


Saturday was the 57th anniversary of the first satellite in orbit, the Soviet Sputnik. It was also (not coincidentally, because the date was chosen) the tenth anniversary of the winning of the Ansari X-Prize, a $10M award for the first vehicle to fly into space (i.e., above 100 kilometers altitude) twice within a period of two weeks. On that date, a decade ago, SpaceShipOne made its second flight into suborbit and claimed the money (technically, it wasn’t won until a day later, because one of the prize rules was that the pilot had to survive at least 24 hours after landing, presumably to ensure that the landing was sort of “safe”).

I attended the anniversary celebration in Mojave, with a lot of people more luminary than me. My old (in both senses of the word) friend Alan Boyle at NBC (who was also in attendance) has the story.

Pluto: Terra Cognita (Almost)


Pluto_animiert_200pxThe image at your right is currently the best and clearest one we have of the former planet Pluto, now correctly classified as a dwarf planet.* If it looks unimpressive to you, you’re not alone.  Based on a series of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope this fuzzy blur is the best we can do with the technology currently in place.

One of the great things about modern astronomy, however, is that our technology can move at incredible velocity. Literally. In the case of the New Horizons probe, our technology is moving at about 31,500 mph. On July 15, 2015 — one year from yesterday — that will put it within just 17,000 miles of this distant little ice world. For the first time, we’ll see exactly what Pluto looks like, and in HD. You’ll likely never see this picture again outside of a history book.

This will be the first time in my lifetime — all 33 years of it — that we’ve seen something this famous and this unknown up so close. By the time I was born, we had sent probes to Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, and Voyager II swept by Uranus and Neptune before I was old enough to appreciate them; all of them were — to a fair extent — known quantities. This isn’t to say that our discoveries and explorations within our own solar system since then haven’t been amazing: we’ve explored miles of the martian surface, discovered the lakes and rivers of methane on Titan, geysers on Enceladus, orbited major asteroids, and impacted comets head on.

Remember When Heroes Were … Well, Heroic?


shutterstock_130076768As we get ready to celebrate the centennial of the Great War, there is another event (rightly overshadowed) with a coinciding 100th anniversary: the doomed but heroic adventure of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. This was one of the last great episodes in the age of adventurous and daring enterprise. The expedition was underwritten and funded by private donors and investors, and it was manned by volunteers recruited partly through classified ads. What an age!

A little over a decade later, perhaps the last great adventurous enterprise occurred with the race for the Orteig Prize, offered to the first person to fly non-stop from North America to Europe. (If you want to read a completely brilliant account of the contest, I’d strongly recommend Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic by Joe Jackson. You won’t be disappointed ). Once again, the efforts were privately underwritten and funded. And the players, who ranged from the mighty and famous to the common and obscure, were visionaries and heroically motivated. The winner became the most famous and easily recognizable person on the planet!

The last great adventure — perhaps eve — was the space race. Nobody who lived at the time can forget the nearly universal awe and admiration for the astronauts. The obvious difference in that case was that it was a government enterprise, the exploratory equivalent of the Manhattan Project. But the players were still heroic. It’s ironic and sad that a recent cover of the Smithsonian’s Air And Space magazine showed Shuttle astronauts, now gray and jowly men striving manfully to hold their guts in until the shutter released.  I sighed.