The short version: in the beginning, there was nothing, which then exploded.
The longer version: all the matter in the universe was compressed into the smallest possible volume. Try to understand that this is so much matter that the force of gravity warps the laws of physics as we know them. The whole thing is is under so much pressure that it explodes – forming the universe as we know it as the laws of physics change radically from picosecond to picosecond, and eventually energy cools and congeals into matter.
It’s like they say: “it all started with the Big Bang!”
In the early millenia of what is sometimes referred to as the Hadean era of the Earth, there were no rocks as we would commonly understand the term – it was too hot for them to form. Still, the Earth was slowly cooling and solidifying. It’s worth noting that the Sun itself was not as hot at this time – like the larger planets of our solar system, it was still accreting matter to itself. Rockballs like the Earth (and Mars and Venus) were largely done with this process (although the occasional meteor or cometary impacts still occurred).
By the end of this era, approximately 3,800,000,000 years ago, the Earth had cooled sufficiently to allow for the stable formation of rocks, and its surface had begun to split into tectonic plates. Most importantly for humanity’s future, life had begun: the earliest evidence of photosynthesis dates from around this time.
The majestic oceans of planet Earth were formed neither quickly nor simply. It took literally millions of years between the first surface water’s appearance and the creation of the primordial sea.
Several factors contributed to this: the gradual cooling of the Earth was the first and most important, but also important was the slow release of water from existing minerals, the condensation of steam, and even the addition of water in the form of ice from occasional cometary collisions with the planet.
The first waters soon became the habitat of early prokaryotes – whose biochemical processes led to the formation of still more water. Indeed, it is possible that the majority of water on the planet today exists as a result of these organisms.
The earliest known bipedal vertebrate, eudibamus cursoris was a small parareptile. The sole specimen that has been found (in Thuringia, Germany) measured about 25 cm long – about the size of a house cat. Reconstructions of it give it an appearance resembling a cross between a tiny velociraptor and a modern iguana.
The sole specimen of it known to science was discovered in 2000 by a paleontological team including David S. Berman, Robert R. Reisz, Diane Scott, Amy C. Henrici, Stuart S. Sumida and Thomas Martens. The species is believed to have existed for a span of about five million years or so.
Pangaea was a super-continent – an agglomeration of multiple continents – that came into being about 250 million years ago. It was composed of all the continents we know today fused into a single landmass, surrounded by a single ocean (called Panthalassa) – and was the last time such a thing occurred. In fact, it was slightly larger than the combined areas of the modern continents, as supercontinent formation tends to lead to lower sea levels.
Pangaea (the name comes from the Greek Pan meaning All and Gaea meaning Earth) existed during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, and its best known inhabitants were the dinosaurs. It began to break up approximately 75 million years after it formed, although the continents would not reach anything approximating their modern positions until only about 35 million years ago, when the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia.
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.
Not actually true mammals, but instead mammaliformes, the members of the sub-class Allotheria are distinguished from other mammals chiefly by their dentition, which featured lower molariform teeth equipped with two longitudinal rows of cusps. Extant from the Late Triassic through to the Early Oligocene, the Allotheria were rodent-like animals in appearance.
They were widespread, found on all continents including Antarctica (which was considerably warmer in this era), and included in their ranks herbivores, carnivores and omnivores. Unfortunately for biodiversity, the last of them died out between 33.9 and 28.4 million years ago, give or take 100,000 years.
Australopithecus was an early proto-hominid that evolved in Eastern Africa around 4 million years ago. It consisted of a number of sub-species: A. anamensis, A. afarensis, A. sediba, and A. africanus; and two more sub-species whose genus is disputed: A. robustus and A. boisei. Over the course of two million years or so, the various Australopithecenes ranged across Eastern and Southern Africa.
The Australopithecines evolved about 2 million years after the split between the ancestral roots of humanity and chimpanzees (our closest relative), and one or more of the various sub-species of Australopithecus is likely to have been the progenitor of the Homo Genus, to which modern humanity (homo sapiens sapiens) belongs.
The earliest species to evolve in the genus homo was Homo habilis, which is believed to have evolved in Africa from Australopithecene ancestors (although which of several species of australopithecus was the direct ancestor is not known). The genus homo would go on to become the most successful species in the entire history of the earth, until it created a global ecological catasprophe in the early to mid twenty first century, which destroyed all the members of that genus, and almost every other genus above the size of bacteria.
(By the way, if you’re reading this, you’re either a homo, or an extraterrestrial intelligence that’s very tolerant of our immaturity.)
(Man, I love that pun.)
The earliest known member of the genus Homo, habilis evolved on the savannah of Africa between 2.5 and 2 million years ago. They are believed to have been the earliest part of our evolutionary chain to have been fully bipedal, to have lost (almost all of) the body hair that other primates have, and to have lived entirely on the ground – although possibly still gathering fruit from and seeking shelter in trees, much as we still do.
The reasons for this evolutionary move are many, but some of the more important ones include greater access to water, increased dietary variety and increased use of tools in hunting, which also made defence against predators easier than it had been for their australopithicene ancestors.
Okay, this one’s a bit of a reach, but work with me here.
At some point, boats were invented. We do not when, or where, or by whom. Nor, Mr Brown’s opinions aside, do we know what gender the inventor had.
What we do know is that, at the very latest, humans arrived in Australia having traveled by boat approximately 65,000 years ago. However, some evidence suggests that boats were actually invented in the Indonesian archipelago somewhere around 900,000 years ago.
The classic ‘caveman’, Neanderthals – homo neanderthalensis – were native to Europe, Western Asia and Central Asia. The earliest Neanderthal characteristics evolved at around this time – fossil evidence (admittedly incomplete) suggests that the full differentiation of the species had taken place by 130,000 BCE.
They were not, as is often thought, the ancestors of modern humanity, but rather a rival species that our ancestors wiped out in a competition for space and resources.
The earliest known example of tool making by a hominid species, the Mousterian tools were created by members of the species homo neanderthalensis. They were primarily a flint-based technology, consisting mostly of cutting and scraping tools. Their name derives from Le Moustier in France, where such tools were discovered. However, it is unlikely that Le Moustier is the actual site of the tools’ origin, as similar tools have been found throughout Europe, the Near East and North Africa. Wherever they were invented, they clearly disseminated widely and – one assumes – swiftly.
The advent of tool making is the beginning of humanity’s technology-enabled conquest of the world. Up until this point, our ancestors were one species among many – a little smarter than most, but not especially better adapted than any other. Tool making changed that, making hominid species deadlier and more efficient hunters, and leading in time to the technological civilization that anyone reading this lives in today.
The actual origin of religion is a hotly debated topic in anthropoligical circles. We don’t know exactly when or how it happened. We know that it pre-dated the invention of writing, but not by how much. And we don’t know what the first religious beliefs were – do cave paintings represent a recording of a successful hunt, or a devotion to the aurochs spirits?
It is generally – though not universally – accepted that the ritualisation of death and burial, and the invention of the funeral, mark the earliest evidence of a belief in an afterlife or a spirit world. We know nothing of what was believed, but the care and attention which our ancestors paid to the arrangement of the dead, the things they buried with them and the markers left at gravesites – all of these imply a developing spirituality. We cannot say exactly where it happened, but somewhere in this process, the idea of God was invented.
In the traditions of the Indigenous Australian peoples, their ancestors were created with the land, at the dawn of what is called the Dreamtime, the Dreaming or Alterjinga.
Science tells it a little differently. The original ancestors of the people now known as the Australian Aboriginals emigrated to Australia at some point between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago, with an increasing amount of evidence supporting the earliest date. Due to the wide variation of dates, it is unclear whether they arrived here after a sea crossing, or via a landbridge now submerged. It is not known where they first set foot in Australia, nor how many separate waves of migration occurred.
What is for certain is that these people dwelt in Australia with little or no contact with the rest of the world (the Macassar fishing fleets being one of the few exceptions), for thousands of years before European settlement in 1788. Whether or not one accepts the Dreamtime legend, there remains an undeniable case for considering them to be the traditional owners of the land, displaced and disenfranchised by European imperialism.
It’s unclear exactly how our nearest hominid relatives went extinct, but the leading candidates are our direct ancestors: whether fucking or fighting.
I mean that quite literally: some of them interbred with homo sapiens until they no longer existed as a separate species, or they just plain got killed by other homo sapiens. At their widest range, Neandertals occupied lands from Ireland and Spain in the west through to the southern Urals in the East. They did not go extinct everywhere at the same time, of course, but the precise details are somewhat obscured by the incompleteness of the fossil record.
The most recent Ice Age – or more precisely, the most recent glacial maximum of the current Ice Age – ended a little under 10,000 years ago, having lasted some 70,000 years itself. The abrupt climactic changes (abrupt in a geological sense) contributed to mass extinctions of various animal species, notably the woolly mammoth, although it is also believed that hunting by early humans also contributed to at least some of these extinctions.
In geological terms, the end of the last Ice Age is recorded as the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene epochs.
It’s Atlantis. Everyone knows the basics: an advanced civilisation on a large island or small continent in the Atlantic Ocean, sunk beneath the ocean in a single day.
The Atlantis story originated in two works by Plato, the Critias and the Timaeus. These tell the story of Atlantis – created by the sons of Poseidon, ruled the world as an economic superpower, and finally destroyed by the gods of Olympus for its hubris.
Of course, so far as anyone can tell, Atlantis never truly existed. It was a myth, a parable regarding the dangers of arrogance and pride.
Stop me if you heard this one: so, a naive chick is tricked by some snake into eating something she probably shouldn’t have. Suddenly much less naive, she tricks her partner into seeing things her way. We’ve all heard it a million times, right? Except that in this case, the chick is Eve, the snake is better known as the Serpent in the Garden, and her partner, of course, is Adam.
It turns out that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil tells you that it is evil to be naked, which is why when God (who is elsewhere described as both omniscient and omni-present) comes back, Adam hides from Him, so that God – who has seen him naked as often – if not more often – than any parent has ever seen their child, will not see him naked again.
God, in his infinite forgiveness, expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and sets an angel with a flaming sword to stop them from returning.
Anyway, it’s all holy and ineffable, so quit your snickering.
Legend has it that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was born in a most unusual way: when Cronus led his fellow Titans in a rebellion against their father, Uranus, the final victory was achieved when the son castrated his father, and cast his genitals into the ocean (accounts vary as to whether this was offshore from Paphos in Cyprus or the island of Cythera). Aphrodite sprung fully formed and already an adult from the foaming waves of the wine dark sea.
Aphrodite was known to the Romans as Venus, and it was under this name that she became popular with later Europeans, notably as the subject of the painting “The Birth of Venus” by Botticelli, and numerous surviving sculptures, such as the Venus de Milo.
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people… the Druids
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock… Of Stonehenge!
Stonehenge was constructed out of massive slabs of bluestone, by persons unknown using means unknown for reasons unknown, on a field on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire, England.
Theories abound as to its purpose, although as the lyrics above suggest, it is generally believed to have been something druidic. Suggestions include it being a burial ground, a primitive observatory, or a place for human sacrifice. Less likely theories argue that it was constructed by Atlanteans or aliens.
So one day, God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, got pissed off at basically everyone. I mean everyone.
Except for this one guy, Noah. And Noah’s family and their families. And all but two of each different kind of animal. God told Noah that he was planning to flood the entire planet and drown, well, everyone. He further instructed Noah to build an ark of the dimensions 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, to carry those whom God, in his infinite mercy, had deemed worthy of salvation.
Admittedly, no one’s quite sure exactly how big a cubit is – it’s based on the length of one’s forearm, but of course, no two forearms are exactly the same size either. What is fairly certain is that there’s no way that any such creation could be large enough to fit two of every animal, even allowing for excluding fish.
So God, in all his moodswingy glory, decided to wipe out the entire human race.
Except for this one guy, his wife, his three sons and his three daughters-in-law. So Noah gets told to engage in one of the world’s most unlikely acts of carpentry. He builds an Ark in which to place a breeding pair of every kind animal in the world – which, by the way, would totally not fit in the cubic volume of Ark, unless “cubit” is an ancient hebrew word for “mile” – and apparently successfully places them there.
And then God makes it rain for forty days and forty nights. Fortunately, the flooded Earth has a very low albedo, and all this water eventually evaporates into the vacuum of space, allowing the ludicrously small gene pool we are allegedly all descended from to not suffocate from the vast quantities of water vapour in the air. And there’s a rainbow.
And down the rainbow rode the Norse gods, and they looked at Noah for a while, told him “no way are you getting into Valhalla” and then rode back up the rainbow to Asgard.
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows God’s mercy at its finest. After he threatens to destroy the cities, Lot, who resides in one of them, bargains with his god, finally convincing him to spare the cities if Lot can find five righteous men in them (apparently, righteous women aren’t good enough).
The bar is not set high: Lot himself is considered righteous, although he clearly suffers from the sin of pride (it takes a pretty big ego to bargain with god as an equal). However, he does have one virtue that god appreciates, that of shameless toadying. Indeed, Lot is so desperate to curry favour with god and his servants that he offers his virgin daughters to the baying mob to do with as they please if they will simply consent to leave god’s servants alone.
For this, god spares Lot and his daughters, allowing them to flee the city before he smites down upon it with great vengeance and furious anger – although Lot’s wife, whose only crime is to like watching explosions, is turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment – which is pretty harsh considering how few fans of action movies have ever been similarly afflicted.
It’s unclear exactly what killed the mammoths off, although there are two leading contenders: the end of the last Ice Age made climates generally warmer (although the last ice age ended several thousand years before the extinction was complete) and predation – the predator in question being, of course, us.
At one point, mammoths were found across most of the northern reaches of Europe, Asia and America, in several different species, but bit by bit, these were hunted to extinction. The shrinking of their optimal habitat as the ice retreated probably made the hunting easier, but their extinction was a certainty as soon as our ancestors developed a taste for mammoth-meat.
The last known population of mammoths, that on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Sea to the north of Chukotka (the easternmost part of Asia), became extinct in about 1650 BCE, having survived their relatives on St Paul Island, Alaska, by about 1100 years.
There are two Niobes in Greek Myth: one was the daughter of Tantalus, and a prideful mother whose children were slain by Apollo and Artemis. The other, less well-known, was the daughter of Phorenus, and the mother, by Zeus of Argus – for whom the city of Argos was named.
It should be noted also, that thus Argus was not any of the other figures in Greek Myth named either Argos or Argus – he was not the shipwright who built the Argo, nor the son of Jason and Medea named for that shipwright. Neither was he a legendarily faithful dog whose master was Odysseus, nor the hundred-eyed giant known as Argus Panoptes. He was just this guy, who happened to be the third king of Argos, and the first child Zeus had by a mortal woman. He would have lots of half-siblings, mostly posthumously.
By William Henry Goodyear, A History of Art: For Classes, Art-Students, and Tourists in Europe, A. S. Barnes & Company, New York, 1889. Page 158. Scanned by Dave Pape., Public Domain, Link
As mentioned in:
When You Sleep — Cake
One of the best known stories in the Bible, the Exodus or Exit from Egypt, is the escape of the Israelites from slavery under the Pharoahs. The particular Pharoah in question is not specified in the Bible (and speculation about who it is has been a scholarly pastime for centuries), but whoever it was, he was clearly cut from the same cloth as the most stubborn, stupid and self-destructive leaders of history.
It’s only after numerous plagues – which kill off a goodly portion of his subjects – that he agrees to let the Israelites go. And even then, he changes his mind once more, pursuing them with his army…
…only to be killed, along with his army, when Moses unparts the Red Sea and the Israelites make good their escape to the Sinai, where they spend the next four decades preparing to invade Canaan and begin the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has continued, intermittently, ever since.
No doubt you’re familiar with the story: during the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the Sinai desert between fleeing Egypt and entering Canaan, they encamped for some time at the foot of Mt Sinai.
At one point, God summoned Moses, his chosen prophet and the leader of the Israelites, to the top of the mountain, and here he gave him stone tablets upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments – one of the world’s earliest legal codes that is still known to us.
When Moses carried the tablets back down the mountain, he was sufficiently enraged by the conduct and reaction of his fellow Israelites that he broke them half. Fortunately, God had made a backup copy, and Moses was able to once more bring the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Jewish tradition holds that both sets of tablets were stored inside the Ark of the Covenant, which implies that their current resting place is a non-descript government warehouse somewhere in the USA.
Moses’ right hand man and heir, Joshua was the leader who led the Israelites into Canaan after their 40 years of exile in the Sinai desert.
The major conflict recorded by the Bible in this period – which was, in all fairness, an invasion and conquest of Canaan by the Israelites – was the battle of Jericho. The Israelites under Joshua laid siege to this town (which is one of the oldest continually occupied human settlements in the world). The Israelites spent a week carrying the Ark of the Covenant around the city while holding horns in front of it – on the seventh day, they blew the horns, and the walls came down. Stripped of their greatest defence, the Canannites of Jericho well slaughtered and the town razed – only a turncoat who had assisted the Israelites (and her family) was left alive.
The best known of all of the Egyptian Pharaohs, largely due to the sensational circumstances of his tomb’s discovery in 1924. At the time he was placed in it, Tutankhamen is believed to have been about 18 years old, and to have been Pharaoh for about a decade. His age has led many to speculate that he may have been assassinated by his regents, who wished to keep power and legally would not be able to do so once the Boy King reached adulthood.
However, recent research points at a combination of diseases (chiefly malaria, which he seems to have suffered from several times in his short life) and congenital defects (most likely due to the inbreeding that was common in many pharaonic dynasties) as the actual cause of his death – although the political advantages remain the same regardless of the cause.
The Minotaur was not the son of king Minos of Crete, but no doubt he felt responsible for it – it was the child of his wife and a sacred bull of Posiedon (or possibly a god in the form of said sacred bull). But it was too dangerous to let roam free; too holy to kill. Minos, along with his advised Daedelus, devised a solution: they would imprison the creature in a maze, the original Labyrinth.
The question still remained of what to feed the beast. Fortunately, at around this time, Minos won a war with Athens, and as part of the terms of surrender, he required them to send a dozen Athenian youths each year – which he then deposited in the Labyrinth: meat for the beast. This plan could have gone on for ever, but a young Athenian of dubious morality and considerable political skills by the name of Theseus got in the way of it.
Jason was a little-known hero who, in order to win the throne of Iolcus (in Thessaly), recruited a mighty crew and set sail in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. They found it only with the assistance of the goddess Hera and the princess Medea, who betrayed her father and eloped with Jason and the Fleece. Jason made it safely home, claimed the throne and married Medea. This did not end well for either of them.
Jason’s crew was a who’s who of Ancient Greek heroes. It included Hercules, Theseus, Castor, Pollux, Laertes (father of Ulysses), Bellerophon, Iolaus, Nestor, Orpheus, Deucalion, Asclepius, Atalanta, Peleus (father of Achilles) and Autolycus. In fact, not counting the heroes of the Trojan War (who were mostly not yet born at this point), the only significant Greek hero not to participate was Oedipus.
One can’t help thinking that Leda knew more than she was telling. Legendarily one of the most beautiful women in ancient Greece, this queen of Sparta dallied with a swan (who, it turned out, was actually Zeus in disguise), and gave birth to perhaps the only woman to be more beautiful than her: Helen (later of Troy).
In fact, she gave birth to four children, two sets of twins. Half of them were mortal, the children of Tyndareus (her human husband), and half were half-divine, the children of Zeus. Which children are descended from which father is inconsistent across the various tellings of the myth, although a majority of versions record that Helen was half-divine (accounting for her legendary beauty).
Call him Odysseus or Ulysses, there’s never been any denying his cunning or his pride – and this particular incident in his legend displays both to full advantage.
It so happened that Ulysses’ ship was on course to pass by the island of sirens – horrible monsters who used their bewitching song to lure sailors to their deaths (they ate them, and not in the good way). Ulysses decided that he wanted to be the first man to hear their song and live.
This is how he did it: he commanded his men to tie him to the mast, then to stop their ears with wax, and to neither remove the wax nor let him loose until such time as the island was out of sight. His plan worked to perfection, and he remains the only man to have heard the sirens sing and lived to tell the tale.
Samson is one of the great heroes of Judges era of the Isrealites. A judge and priest, he was also a mighty warrior, gifted by God with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man. (I don’t describe him this way by accident – Samson was explicitly one of the inspirations for Siegel and Shuster in creating Superman.) He had strength and skill at arms that made him a great hero to his people at a time when they were under constant attack from the Phillistines.
His great success came at a price, however. It’s fairly well-known that his power would desert him if he shaved or cut his hair. Less well-known is that he was also forbidden to drink alcohol. But maybe it was worth it to him. This is a man who once tore a lion apart with his bare hands. Who smote the Phillistines ‘hip and thigh’ – on one occasion, using ‘the jawbone of an ass’ as a weapon – and mowed through their armies like the Rambo of his day. Who, on one particularly slow day, tied flaming torches to the tails of no fewer than three hundred foxes, and drove the panicked animals through the farms of his enemies.
Understandably, he did not endear himself to the Phillistines, but they were unable to defeat him by force of arms. And so they resorted to guile.
Samson’s wife, Delilah, was approached by the Phillistines and bribed to cut his hair. Thus weakened, Samson was easy prey for his foes, and was captured, blinded and imprisoned in one of their temples where anyone could mock or hurt him without penalty. To the extent that his story has a happy ending, it is that many years later, God answered his prayers to restore his strength long enough for him to pull down the temple on top of himself and all his foemen inside it.
Chapter Seventeen of the First Book of Samuel describes Goliath thusly:
And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goli’ath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.
And he had a helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.
And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.
And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.
6 Cubits and a span is 2.97 metres (or 9 foot 9 inches, if you prefer). Fortunately for the Israelites, it turns out that this Schwarzenegger of the ancient world has a glass jaw, or rather, a glass forehead. (And a suspiciously convenient gap in his helmet of brass.)
David, our Israelite hero, is able to slay the Phillistine man-mountain with a single well-cast stone, that cracks open his mighty head and kills him stone dead. David goes on to become King of all Israel; Goliath doesn’t go on at all.
Socrates is one of the most influential, and also most enigmatic, figures in Western Philosophy. An Athenian who lived at the dawn of both writing and philosophy, if he wrote anything himself it has not survived, and today he is known only for the works of others that mention him. Foremost among these are the works of his student, Plato, similarly influential in philosophy, but also prone to idealize his master.
Socrates was particularly noted for his contributions to the field of ethics, and for his creation of the Socratic Method, a philosophical tool no less useful today than it was 25 centuries ago. He was also, if the writings about him are to be believed, a great fan of irony. He was, of course, executed for heresy, although his trial and death appear to have been the result of political infighting, and thus the charge may not accurately reflect the true reasons for his downfall.
One of the most influential works in Chinese history, the Analects of Confucius were written over a period of several decades during the Warring States period.
Ever since copies of the Analects first begin to be distributed, over 2000 years ago, it has shaped Chinese society, teaching the Confucian virtues to generation after generation. Its influence has also been felt in other parts of Asia, as it slowly diffused into other nations and cultures.
Even today, the Analects remains one of the canonical texts that any serious Chinese scholar (or scholar of China) must read and understand in order to be considered properly educated.
The self-proclaimed First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang is one of the most important figures in Chinese history. Under his leadership, massive reforms to the legal and economic systems took place – and, not incidentally, numerous scholars and writers were outlawed or executed, and their books burned. He also decreed vast infrastructure projects, including a massive program of road-building, and the creation of the Great Wall of China.
Huang was not responsible for the entire wall, but rather, for the construction of links between pre-existing sections and extending the ends of the them. The project was a long one, and would be completed for centuries, but it sure kept thousands of peasants to busy to rebel for generations at a time, and may have even served some defensive purpose (which is usually considered to be the reason for its construction).
In the final engagement of the Punic Wars, the Roman forces brought to war to the very doorstep of Carthage. From 149 BCE until the spring of 146 BCE, they laid siege to the city itself, which is located near the site of modern Tunis. The Romans could probably have won sooner, but incompetent commanders hamstrung their efforts. By the time they finally breached the walls and poured into the city, the Carthaginians had turned every building into a fortress, and armed every citizen.
However, the battle was never seriously in doubt. Although both sides suffered terrible losses, a Roman victory was inevitable once the city itself was invaded. The fall of Carthage represented the demise of the last organised opposition to Roman expansion in the Mediterranean, as the Carthaginians were their major rivals in the early days of Roman civilisation.
Although it is commonly taught that the Romans plowed Carthage under and sowed salt in the new fields, this claim does not appear in any contemporary sources, and appears to be an invention of nineteenth century historians.
She was the widowed queen of Egypt and mother of the heir by birth of Julius Caesar; he was the man who had exposed and shamed the conspirators that killed Big Julie. She was the last of the last: the last descendent of Ptolemy I, of the thirty-third and final dynasty to rule Egypt independently. They were, legend tells us, besotted with each other at first sight.
Never mind that Mark Antony was married to the sister of his fellow Triumvir, Octavius. Never mind that his dallying in Egypt made it possible for Octavius to raise an army against him in Rome, and lead it to a decisive naval victory over Antony’s forces at Actium in 31 BCE. Never mind that Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, was herself the mother of one of those who stood between Antony and the imperial throne.
Because the heart wants what the heart wants, and for a decade, the hearts of Antony and Cleopatra got what they wanted.
The Flavian Ampitheatre – better known today as the Colosseum in Rome – was constructed between 72 and 80 CE. It is called Flavian because that was the name of the Imperial House that built it, Emperor Vespasian and his sons and successors Titus and Domitan being the three Emperors most associated with the building.
In addition to the gladiatorial contests, chariot races and executions that it is remembered for, the Colosseum was also the site of animal hunts, mock naval and land engagements (often re-enactments of famous battles) and theatrical presentations. It could seat 50,000 people at peak capacity, and continued to be used as a site for entertainments after the fall of Rome.
It was later used variously as a quarry, a fortress, housing, workshops and religious shrines. Today, it is an archaeological and tourist site, one of Rome’s premier attractions from the Imperial Roman era.
The scourge of the world, the cause of oh so many cases of lung cancer and emphysema, cigarettes were first invented by the Maya people of pre-Columbian Meso-America. They apparently used them in religious ceremonies, a use that was later taken up by the Aztecs and other peoples of the Americas. Famously, it was then introduced to the Court of England by Sir Walter Raleigh, and quickly spread to Europe as well.
The Maya and Aztec civilisations featured short enough lifespans to probably not notice the effects of long term smoking, and the ritual nature of their tobacco use kept it reasonably infrequent too. It would take the mass production and consumer culture of Western Civilisation to truly bring cigarettes to their full disease-causing potential.
The Children’s Crusade is the name given to a variety of fictional and factual events which happened in 1212 that combine some or all of these elements: visions by a French or German boy; an intention to peacefully convert Muslims in the Holy Land to Christianity; bands of children marching from various other European nations to Italy; and finally, the children being sold into slavery and failing entirely in their admittedly unlikely and quixotic mission.
It has become a byword for tragedy, waste, naivete and religious stupidity, although of course, since it was never officially sanctioned by Rome, the Catholic Church denies all responsibility for it.
It’s not true to say that Sir Walter Raleigh – privateer, nobleman, favourite of Queen Elizabeth I, soldier, sailor, explorer and unsuccessful quester for the fabled city of El Dorado – killed more men than cancer.
However, as the man generally credited with the introduction of tobacco products to England – where they became popular at court, thus guaranteeing their spread throughout the rest of the nation and rival European courts (fashion is a harsh mistress) – he should at least be thought of as one of cancer’s most able accessories before the fact.
It would be nice to say that he died of lung cancer, but actually, he was beheaded in what many believe to have been a political maneuver aimed at placating the Spanish (whom Raleigh had fought during the Armada incident and the related war), and something of a miscarriage of justice (since King James, Elizabeth’s successor, did not have much love for her former favourites).
Hardly anyone at all knows it, but this ode of Thomas Gray’s is the origin of one of the English language’s most often quoted aphorisms: “ignorance is bliss”. One rather wonders if Thomas Gray himself would still agree, at least insofar as ignorance covered his works or his self. To be fair, Gray was not praising ignorance, but rather, the innocence of childhood.
Gray was an academic and a poet. He studied and worked at Cambridge most of his adult life, and was regarded as one of the greatest poets of his age during his lifetime, even though his total works amount to less than a thousand lines of poetry – whatever else can be said of him, Gray clearly favoured quality over quantity. His wordsmithing was not limited to the occasional aphorism: Gray is the originator of several phrases that are now horribly time-worn cliches, including “far from the madding crowd”, “kindred spirit” and “the paths of glory”.
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Til The Ocean Takes Us All — The Cat Empire
The French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” is usually translated as “Let them eat cake”, and is widely attributed to Marie Antionette.
However, in the original – Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which he finished writing in 1769, when Marie Antoinette was 13 – the remark is attributed only to “a great princess”. The phrase was attributed to Marie Antionette only after the Revolution began, and many citations for it exist prior to this, and not referencing her. In fact, the emerging consensus among historians at this time is that the Rousseau was referring to Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, and pre-dates Marie Antionette by at least a century.
Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Tent is perhaps the best known – and most notorious – of the various travelling outback boxing shows that once went from town to town in Australia. It put on displays of bare-knuckle boxing as well as occasional bouts where locals could try their luck against the professional boxers.
It was a brutal sport, and often exploitative – but it was also one of the few ways a black man could make a living, albeit a dangerous one that might leave you maimed. The outback boxing circuit flourished for a few decades, but it largely faded away by the time of World War Two.
A Jew from Prague who fled the Aunschluss in 1938, Franz Werfel was also a playwright noted for his satirical plays about the Nazis (written before 1938). He and his wife Alma (the widow of Gustav Mahler) fled to Paris, where they were safe until the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 – when they fled once more, going into hiding and eventually reaching Portugal, from whence they took ship to New York. It was during this period, sheltered by assorted sympathisers, that Werfel learned the story of St Bernadette Soubirous, who had reported 18 separate visions of the Virgin Mary while at Lourdes. Some of this was told to him by people who had actually met Bernadette, although it is likely that their accounts were somewhat embroidered.
Werfel wrote the saint’s story largely as a tribute and thanks to the people who had helped them in France, Spain and Portugal (something he had promised them while fleeing the Nazis), and it was published in 1942 and spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list, including 13 weeks at the top of it. In 1943, it was adapted as a film which was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 4 of them.
After her first visit in 1929, painter Georgia O’Keeffe became enamoured of the landscapes and colours of the American South West. She spent at least a part of each year there. Many of her paintings, including some of her best known, such as Summer Days (1936).
In 1945, she bought a property at Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, and began renovating it. In 1949, she permanently relocated there, producing numerous paintings, sketches and sculptures. She eventually moved to Santa Fe as old age took its toll on her health, where she died in 1986. Her artistic legacy is vast and she is particularly noted for her contributions to abstract landscape painting.
A collection of some 28 short stories that loosely tell the story of the human colonization of Mars between the years 1999 and 2057, Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” is one of the classics of science fiction, and one of the first science fiction books to be seen as art. Bradbury’s lyrical prose style illuminates these tales, elevating them above the work of his contemporaries.
While the Mars he depicts is very much an early twentieth century vision of Mars, with canals and Burroughsian Martian natives, it remains one of the greatest works of science fiction, and has never been out of print since its initial publication. About half the stories in it had been published previously as short stories; the other half were original, and later editions contained still more new stories of Bradbury’s Mars.
First published in February of 1951 (the exact day is, alas, lost to history), ‘The Illustrated Man’ is a volume of some eighteen short stories, loosely connected by a framing device: the title character. The Illustrated Man is a carny worker, and each of the stories in the book is represented by one of his tattoos.
Only one of the stories was original to the book, although several of them were revised by Bradbury to better fit the frame concept.
Bradbury’s best known novel is a savage and dystopian satire of media trends in Bradbury’s day. He foresaw such implausibilities as wall-sized tv screens with hundreds of channels of aneasthetizing pap playing 24 hours a day, while literacy was not merely rare but close to outlawed. It was a world where firemen start fires instead of putting them out, but only to burn books.
As such, it played into the prejudices that every new medium has faced, that it would enfeeble the minds of those who followed it. “Fahrenheit 451” depicts a world where every channel is Fox News (or some close affiliate), and the only escape is to destroy it all and start anew in the ashes of the world – although Bradbury himself (an Emmy winner) presumably has a more nuanced attitude to the glass teat than this novel would indicate
Adapted from his 1953 short story of the same title, Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” is one of his best known books. It consists of a series of short stories linked together by recurring characters and themes. The book follows the exploits of Douglas Spaulding, a 12 year old boy, across a summer in his small town named Green Town. It has a sequel, “Farewell Summer” and a related book of vignettes entitled “Summer Morning, Summer Night”. Thematically, it is also linked to “Something Wicked This Way Comes” which addresses similar ideas with a different set of characters.
It is widely considered Bradbury’s most personal work, and Douglas Spaulding is an obvious stand in for a young Bradbury. The book has been adapted into film and radio, and remains a good seller.
Like the related Dandelion Wine, Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (a title taken from Macbeth) is largely inspired by his childhood fascination with travelling carnivals. In particular, when Bradbury was 12, a carnival magician named Mr Electrico exhorted him to “Live forever” – Bradbury began writing the next day.
The novel was a great success for Bradbury, both critically and commercially. It has been adapted for film, stage and radio – the first film adaptation was even written by Bradbury himself – and has greatly influenced the writers who followed Bradbury, especially those who, like him, blend horror and fantasy elements in their works. In particular, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King have both cited this novel as a major influence on their own writing.
When it was first created, the Neutron Bomb was hailed as a triumph of efficiency and progress. In theory, it would kill the population of its affected area, while leaving the buildings standing. The bomb would have a lesser degree of heat and concussive force than an ordinary nuclear bomb, but a greatly increased amount of radiation.
The bomb was never used in a combat situation, and its production has been largely discontinued. The United States, the Soviet Union, China and France all had developed neutron bombs, but no country is currently known to deploy them.
“S is for Space” is a collection of science fiction short stories written by Ray Bradbury and published by Doubleday. It was released in August 1966, and sold respectably (for a science fiction/fantasy hardcover).
It included 14 stories, including the classic “Dark They Were, And Golden-Eyed” (which later gave its name to a bookshop in London that specialised in science fiction and fantasy books).
The South’s Gonna Do It (Again) — The Charlie Daniels Band
Originally written in 1967, “The Halloween Tree”‘s first incarnation was a script that Bradbury planned to turn into an animated film in collaboration with Chuck Jones. When those plans fell through, Bradbury re-worked it as a novel, which was published in 1972.
Twenty years later, he finally got the chance to do it as the animated film he’d planned, although alas, Chuck Jones was not involved. Regardless of this, the animation was produced in 1993 with Bradbury himself providing the voice of the Narrator, and went on to be a commercial and a critical success. It also made Bradbury one of the few winners of a Hugo to also win an Emmy.
It’s probably a good thing that Nick Cave decided that suicide really didn’t suit his style. From relatively inauspicious beginnings, the members of the Boys Next Door would form the nucleus of the Birthday Party, Nick Cave’s first truly great band, who would in turn pave the way for the Bad Seeds.
“Shivers” remains a perennial favourite of fans of Australian goth and alternative music, and if JJJ hadn’t rejigged the Hot 100’s rules to make it a year by year thing, it would still be placing respectably in it each January.
One of the earliest and best arcade games, infamous for its simple vector graphics and unjustly overlooked for the difficulty and depth of its game play, Asteroids was never as popular as Space Invaders or Pac-Man, although historically, it’s almost as iconic. But its simplicity ultimately worked against it: there was nowhere to go to build a franchise out of it, not even any easy way to create variant forms of it (there’s no game that serves as the Galaga to Asteroids’ Space Invaders, for example).
Asteroids had a reasonable reign in the arcades, but even prettying up the graphics couldn’t do that much to keep it current as display technologies improved and newer games took over the marketplace. But to those of us who loved it, it will never die.
One of the earliest side-scrolling arcade video games, and probably the best known and most successful side-scroller, Defender was the single best-selling game ever to come out of the Williams Electronics workshops. Defender was a legendarily difficult game, in which it was never possible to actually finish – the game just continued to scroll from right to left, with an endless stream of enemies appearing.
It was an important evolution in gaming: the horizontal scrolling of the game was a massive advance in gaming formats that paved the way for a multitude of successors, imitators and evolutions – few of which managed its challenging game play as well.
One of the classic arcade shoot-em-up games, Centipede was released in June 1980. Its success can be roughly measured by the number of sequels, clones and ports that it spawned. Although not as large a franchise as Space Invaders, Pac-Man or Donkey Kong/Mario, it is still one of the few games to have survived from its arcade beginnings to all the current games platforms.
One of the most fondly remembered arcade games of its era, Berzerk combined fast shooting action with (at the time) groundbreaking speech synthesis samples – many of which have been sampled in assorted songs and other video games in tribute to Berzerk. Most of these samples came from the robots who were the player’s main enemy in the game.
The main enemy of Berzerk, Evil Otto, appears to be a malign basketball, but he is also the only arcade game villain to have caused deaths in the real world, with two different people succumbing to heart attacks (as teenagers, yet) after marathon Berzerk sessions.
It was nothing short of a revelation.
A host playing music clips or having bands perform live in the studio was nothing new, but it was the way Basia went about it. For a start, she didn’t pass herself off as an expert, just an enthusiastic fan. And the music! At that time, Australian television played mostly mainstream acts from the UK, the US, or home. Basia took the title of her show as a mission statement: she didn’t care where in the world a piece of music came from, so long as it was good.
Fans responded to this approach, and the show rapidly went from playing once a week to screening four times a week. It only lasted three years, but those three years saw the Australian music landscape changed forever, with international influences becoming stronger, and local bands given a shot at reaching a national audience rather than just however many people could fit in the pub.
Mouse Trap was a 1981 arcade game released by Exidy, A fairly obvious Pac-Man ripoff, it was successful enough that it was also ported to three different home game systems ColecoVision, Intellivision and the Atari 2600.
Mouse Trap did at least change up certain aspects of the game from Pac-Man – there were doors that players could open and close, it was possible to store power pills for later use, there were six rather than four hunters, and bonus items were available constantly rather than intermittently. The game had a small but devoted following, however, by 1999, very few of the arcade versions of it were still extant.
One of the all time classics of arcade gaming, Frogger is a simple enough game in its concept: you have to steer a frog across a busy highway. How hard could that be, right?
Produced by Konami, and distributed by Sega and Gremlin all around the world, it was very successful as an arcade game. So it’s no surprise that it would be ported to various computer and gaming systems. Perhaps more surprising, in thirty years, it hasn’t lost much in popularity – it’s now available for nearly any platform it can be, in a variety of remakes and sequels, most of them with greatly revised and improved gameplay.
One of the most successful game franchises of all time – if not the most successful franchise – Donkey Kong originally started life as a Popeye game. Nintendo didn’t have the rights to Popeye, so they altered the characters into more original ones – although as the obviously King Kong inspired name of the game suggests, not that original. Still, it’s a good thing for them they did.
The Donkey Kong franchise has done very well itself, but Donkey Kong was also the origin of Mario, who would go on to become Nintendo’s flagship character and a highly successful game franchise in his own right. To date, across assorted media, there are more than 20 Donkey Kong games (depending on how one counts different versions of the same game), and another 30+ Mario games. It’s hard to imagine that a Popeye franchise would have been that popular.
Of all the events I’ve classified as Dateless here – meaning that, for one reason or another, no way existed to date them accurately, this is the most peculiar. But the information does not seem to be anywhere on the web – even Microsoft’s own site does not record the release date of this, the earliest version of their cd-rom encyclopaedia, Microsoft Encarta.
Encarta is in many ways a bridge between traditional encyclopedias such as the Britannica, and internet based encyclopedias such as Wikipedia. While its editing policies and hard-coded nature are in the tradition of the Britannica, its searchability represented a massive advance, as did its use of hyperlinking between articles and the inclusion of animations or archival footage to help illustrate articles.
If anyone reading this owns any copy of Encarta, I’d be curious to know whether Encarta’s entry for itself lists its original release date.
Brian May described this song as his own little science fiction story.
It concerns a group who set out in a space ship, sailing ‘across the milky sea’ (which is a reference to both the Milky Way and to a pre-Queen band of Freddie Mercury’s, Sour Milk Sea), in search of a newer and better world. Their quest is ultimately successful, but their return to Earth That Was sees them fall foul of relativistic time dilation.
Brian May described this song as his own little science fiction story.
It concerns a group who set out in a space ship, sailing ‘across the milky sea’ (which is a reference to both the Milky Way and to a pre-Queen band of Freddie Mercury’s, Sour Milk Sea), in search of a newer and better world. Their quest is ultimately successful, but their return to Earth That Was sees them fall foul of relativistic time dilation.
Today’s entry in the Rock ‘n’ Roll History of the World could just as easily find a home in the Daft Lyrics Database.
You see, although Zager and Evans were quite happy to prophesy on at 1010 year intervals from 2525, they seem to have somehow forgotten to specify just what would actuallly happen in that year.
Either that, or what man and woman will find in the year 2525 is the year 3535, which seems to suggest that 2525 will be the year in which the human race develops time travel, thus making the doom-saying of the rest of the song trivially easy to sidestep.
In the year 3535, it appears that humanity lives in a brave new world where psychiatric drugs are mandatory – not so much prozac nation as prozac planet. And these drugs, well, they make lying impossible, so either we’re all much more guarded or we’re all much more blunt.
Either way, it makes me think of the film Equilibrium, because you’d probably need that sort of police force to run such a state.
It’s unclear whether or not Zager and Evans believe that there will be starvation in the year 4545 – they say there will be nothing to chew, but that could also mean that we take all our nourishment in pill form.
More disturbingly – for anyone who isn’t a musician, at least – apparently there will be nothing to see, implying that the year 4545 will be marked by a year long eclipse and blackout. Alternately, it’s possible that Zager and Evans were members of the music video backlash before there was music video, or that the future they project is simply so incredibly boring that one wonders why they bothered…
By the year 5555, two important questions will have been resolved for humanity:
1) the conflict between leisure and exercise will be decided in favour of leisure, as we substitute cute little mechanised karts (or possibly some form of un-armoured personnel carriers) for legs. Apparently, they will also feature Dr Octopus-like arms, too, as we will apparently not use any of our limbs.
2) natural evolution will finally lose its race with technologically-assisted evolution.
Of these, the first forecast seems less likely, unless teledildonics has also made incredible advances (not impossible in 2500 years, I guess…)
Apparently, by the year 6565, genetic engineering will finally be caught up with by social change. Not only will it be possible to completely order up the genetic makeup you want in your… let’s call them offspring, shall we? – but there will apparently no longer be any stigma whatsoever attached to being a single parent.
Not only that, but it appears that people will actually not be as socially maladjusted as you might think from all of this – although we will not yet be immune to the sorrows to which humanity is heir.
Zager and Evans rather depressingly assert that we’ll still be waiting for Judgement Day in 5000 years’ time. God, it seems, moves in ways that mysterious and ineffable, but above all, slow.
To be fair, Z&E also set this point as a deadline for God, and state that if he hasn’t made it be then, he might as well not bother, and we should stop waiting for him.
If they’re right, it would seem that there would never be a Rapture, which may or may not be good thing, depending on your beliefs.
So it seems that there’s a deadline: God’s only going to give us 8510 years (plus however many there were BC, I guess), and then he’s going to pass judgement on the whole Human Race Project, and like as not toss the whole thing out and start over.
Or so Zager and Evans would have us believe. The fact that there’s a next verse to this song, taking us even further into the future, tends to belie the danger of God returning to square one here.
It turns out that Zager and Evans were more optimistic than Joss Whedon: he thought that Earth That Was would be used up more than 7000 years earlier. Still, it’s the same destination: Earth completely used up and nothing left, an ecological crash from which there is no recovery.
Indeed, there may not even be any humans left to see it – presumably 9595 is the point where the last microbes can no longer make it, either.