February 1, 2002 — The Patriot Act takes effect in the USA

The PATRIOT Act (in full: the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001) doesn’t just mark the zenith of Congress’ love affair with torturous acronyms. It also marks the point where, in the name of protecting the freedoms of American citizens, Congress (with the enthusiastic collaboration of the executive branch) deemed in necessary to restrict, abrogate and even destroy those self-same freedoms.

Among other things, it introduced a sweeping new surveillance regime (including controversial provisions such as library record data mining and so-called “roving” wiretaps), increased the punishments for terrorism, provided for compensation for the families of people killed by terrorists, and beefed up both border security and the investigation of money laundering. In short, it was a mixed bag of things, some of which had a fairly tangential relationship to terrorism. Supporters of the Act (and it would cost a politician their career not to be one) said it was a reasonable and logical step to fight terrorism; opponents decried its attack on civil liberties and constitutional rights.

April 13, 1953 — The CIA launches the MK-ULTRA project

CIA director Allen Dulles ordered the creation of the MKUltra project intending it to create techniques to fight what was believed to be an extensive Communist brain-washing program (at various times identified as being conducted by one of, or some combination of, North Korea, China and the USSR). Its scope became broader than that, attempting to create drugs for mind control, for compelling the truth from interrogation subjects, for duplicating the symptoms of various diseases, for stimulating or retarding aging, and more. Often, subjects were experimented on without their knowledge or consent, leading to several nervous breakdowns and at least one confirmed suicide, as people who did not know they were drugged assumed that they were losing their minds.

The project ran from 1953 through to 1973, although many of the records of it were destroyed in 1974 (a measure ordered by CIA director Richard Helms as the Watergate scandal mounted). This lack of records helped to conceal the extent and outcomes of the program when they were investigated by both the Church Committee and the Rockefeller Commission, but enough was found to confirm much of what was suspected of the program, and the information made public. A further investigation took place in 1977, after the discovery of MKUltra records that had escaped the destruction of the rest due to being misfiled. Afterwards, several of those drugged in the program sued the government for the lack of informed consent, not all of them successfully. Even now, it is not clear whether we know everything about the MKUltra program.

September 3, 1941 — Zyklon B is first used at Auschwitz

One of the deadliest chemicals ever invented, Zyklon B is a derivative of Prussic acid. It was invented in 1922 by a small team of German chemists led by Nobel Prize winning chemist Fritz Haber, whose previous creations included mustard gas and other chemicals of warfare used in World War One.

In 1941, the gas was first deployed in three death camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek, and Sachsenhausen. Its first large scale use was one September 3, when 600 Russian POWs, 250 Polish POWs and 10 criminals were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some of the victims survived more than 24 hours of exposure to the gas – when this was discovered, additional quantities of it were pumped into the killing chambers. By the time the war ended, an estimated 1.2 million people were killed with Zyklon B, most of whom (960,000) were Jews.

August 21, 1831 — Nat Turner’s Rebellion begins

Nat Tuner was a black slave in Virginia who believed he was divinely inspired to lead his people to freedom. The rebellion he led in 1831 is the single largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States of America, with a death toll of at least 160 people (100 of them black, including Turner himself, 60 of them white).

The rebellion was a bloody and vengeful affair on both sides, but in the end, Turner’s slaves – for the most part lacking horses and firearms – had little chance against the white establishment. Many of them were killed in the fighting, and the few surviving ringleaders were tried and hung – by people who believed they were divinely inspired to deny them their freedom.

January 13, 1129 — The Knights Templar are officially recognised by the Catholic Church

The actual beginnings of the Knights Templar (or to give their full title, “the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon”) go back another ten years, to a French crusader and knight named Hugh de Payens. De Payens recruited eight other knights (all his relatives by marriage or blood). They took upon themselves the task of guarding all pilgrims in the Holy Land. (Yes. Nine of them. And their horses. To cover all of Outremer.)

In 1129, at the Council of Troyes, the Knights were officially recognised by the Catholic Church, largely thanks to the efforts and influence of Bernard of Clairvaux (later St Bernard, although not the one the dog breed is named for – that’s Bernard of Menthon), who was a hugely influential figure in the Church (and also the nephew of one of the nine original members). The meteoric rise of the Knights Templar began here, with Bernard promoting their Rule as the noble ideal to aspire to. Their ranks and coffers swelled, and then, so did the rumours. Less than two centuries after their founding, the Knights Templar would be denounced as heretics and disbanded.

33 CE — Mary Magdalene gives birth to the son of Jesus

Assuming that Jesus did have a child (and there is, in fact, some textual evidence to suggest this in some versions of the Bible, although it is more an implication than a statement), the chances are that the boy – variously named, most interestingly as Mérovée, the legendary founder of the Merovingian dynasty that later ruled France – was born in either 33 or 34 CE, after his father’s death.

However, much to the disappointment of fans of Dan Brown, there is little enough historical evidence to confirm the existence of Jesus, let alone that of any children of his. To say nothing of the fact that Mary Magdalene is not the only woman identified in legend as a wife of Jesus, nor of the legends that their child was actually a girl named Sarah.

In all probability, there was no Grandson of Man.

circa 65,500,000 BCE — The Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event wipes out the dinosaurs

Everyone loves the dinosaurs. A lot of people – if the Jurassic Park films are to be believed – would like to see them come back. But without their extinction, we wouldn’t be here today.

Even now, it’s still not clear what exactly caused the extinction event – but the best known hypothesis is that of Luis and Walter Alvarez, which states that a meteoric or cometary impact caused a nuclear winter-like effect that altered the climate drastically, wiping out something like 75% of all species alive at the time. The effects were particularly felt by larger species – which included most dinosaurs.

In the wake of the event, now open evolutionary niches were occupied by mammals and birds, including our own ancestors.