Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

Digs and Buildings, Oak Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, August 1931

Nova Scotia’s notorious money pit

Canada’s maritime provinces may not be the first place you think of when you hear the words “buried treasure,” but for over 200 years, treasure hunters have had their eyes on tiny Oak Island in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent—and at least six lives lost—in repeated attempts to excavate one of the world’s most infamous alleged treasure sites. What could be worth so much effort? Possibly an enormous cache of gold and silver, ancient manuscripts, or…nothing at all.

Can You Dig It?

The story begins in 1795, when a boy was wandering around on the island and found a curious depression in the ground. Right above this depression was an old tackle block hanging from the limb of a large oak tree, as though someone had used it to lower something heavy into a hole. Having heard stories about pirates frequenting the area in centuries past, the boy immediately suspected buried treasure. He returned the following day with two friends and began digging. A few feet down, the boys found a layer of flagstones; 10 feet below that was a wooden platform. Both of these markers strongly suggested the hole was man-made. They kept going, but by the time they reached 30 feet, they realized there was no end in sight and called it quits.

Several years later, having secured some financing and additional help, they returned, this time digging to more than 90 feet—hitting several additional wooden platforms on the way down. At 90 feet they found a stone inscribed with strange symbols they could not decipher. (Later, some would claim that the symbols were a cipher for “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried,” but that stone was soon, conveniently, lost.) Just below that was a layer of mud. Probing down into the mud with a crowbar, they hit another solid surface—perhaps another wooden platform, or perhaps a treasure vault. But when they returned the next day, the shaft had filled with 60 feet of water, which foiled all attempts at bailing. Shortly thereafter, they tried to dig a parallel shaft, thinking they’d get below the treasure and tunnel in horizontally—but this second shaft filled with water as well. The first crew of treasure hunters abandoned their dig.

In 1849, a second group attempted an excavation. Then another, and another, and another. Each time, treasure hunters made some intriguing discovery, but each time, their attempts to go deeper were frustrated—by flooding, cave-ins, accidental deaths, and other misfortunes. On several occasions, workers attempted to drill into the earth beneath the water that filled the pit, and the drills brought up some interesting fragments—a piece of gold chain here, some wood there…and a small scrap of parchment that had one or two letters written on it. The evidence suggested that below more layers of earth and wood was an empty space—a vault containing chests, perhaps with gold coins inside. But these were just educated guesses, because no one could actually get down to them. Some attempts to widen or deepen the hole—or to get at the treasure indirectly through other holes—caused whatever the drill bits had hit to sink even farther down. The diggers eventually realized that the flooding was due to two or more horizontal tunnels that ran to the shore, and had seemingly been dug as booby traps. Unfortunately, repeated attempts to block those tunnels also failed. By the early 20th century, so many large holes had been created that the original location of the so-called money pit was no longer certain.

Excavations using modern equipment in the 1930s enlarged the main hole greatly, but still nothing of value was found. In the decades since, various groups have made additional attempts to unearth the treasure, digging ever larger and deeper holes, and although more intriguing objects have been uncovered, there’s still no definitive proof that there is, or was, a treasure there. Following years of legal disputes about the ownership of the land and the rights to any treasure that may be buried there, agreements were finally reached among various parties with a financial stake in the site and the provincial government. Excavation work is ongoing, and has been documented on the History Channel’s series The Curse of Oak Island since 2014.

Getting to the Bottom of It

Over the centuries, dozens of theories have been advanced as to what the Oak Island treasure really is. One popular theory holds that it’s Captain Kidd’s fortune—or that of some other pirate. Another says it’s the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. Some say (based apparently on that one tiny piece of parchment) that it’s Shakespeare’s original manuscripts. Others say it must be the Holy Grail. Although proponents of each of these theories make persuasive arguments as to why they must be correct, a recurring theme is that any treasure hidden so carefully and protected so elaborately as to defy two centuries’ worth of determined treasure hunters must be unfathomably important.

Except that it apparently wasn’t important enough for whoever hid it to come back for it—or pass on information of its whereabouts to anyone else.

And that assumes there’s something hidden there in the first place. There might not be. There is some evidence to suggest that the original “pit,” as well as the tunnels that fed water into it, were actually natural formations, and that the wooden “platforms” found at various points were nothing more than dead trees that had fallen into a hole once upon a time. What of the tackle block? And the gold chain? And the parchment? And the stone with the mysterious message? Well, all these artifacts have disappeared, and even if someone produced them, it would be impossible to prove they came from the pit. They could have been planted; they could also have been imagined. At no point in the last 200 years was work on the site controlled or documented carefully as an archeological dig would have been. All we truly have are the reports of people who wanted desperately to believe they were about to find a fabulous treasure.

Perhaps some day, when the best technology has been brought to bear on the problem (or there’s nothing left of the island but a gigantic hole), the Oak Island Mystery will be resolved once and for all. But we may ultimately find that the only real money on Oak Island came from a TV show.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 23, 2005.

Image credit: Richard McCully [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Elizabeth Tower

Big Ben and beyond

And now for something slightly different.

Years ago on my first visit to London, I took in many of the standard tourist attractions—dutifully snapping photos, reading the histories in the guide books, and so on. But I quickly realized that there was a disconnection between the kinds of things I find interesting and the kinds of things most tourists find interesting. Take Big Ben, for example. You can’t go to London without seeing (and hearing) Big Ben. It’s just one of those things. (And it’s a rather prominent feature of the skyline, too, so it would be difficult to avoid seeing even if you wanted to.) So we saw Big Ben. But other than having heard about it in children’s songs and stories since I was young, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to be so excited about. I’ve seen clocks. I’ve heard bells. Here’s one that’s larger than average. So?

It was not until well after I returned that I discovered a whole list of facts about Big Ben I hadn’t previously known. Although individually these facts are not extraordinarily impressive, I think that collectively they are rather interesting. If my British readers, for whom all of this is probably old news, will forgive me, I’d like to present a sampling of interesting things about the world’s most famous clock tower:

  • The part and the whole: For starters, contrary to common usage, Big Ben is actually the nickname of a single bell—not of the clock itself, the tower in which it is installed, or the building of which the tower is a part. The building is the Palace of Westminster, commonly known as the Houses of Parliament. The tower that houses the clock was previously known as the Clock Tower of the Palace of Westminster, but was renamed the Elizabeth Tower in 2012, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. The tower, in turn, houses the clock—officially known as the Great Clock of Westminster. It has four faces, one very large bell, and four smaller bells. The largest bell, which chimes on the hour—and which, by the way, is not visible from the outside—is the Great Bell of Westminster, or Big Ben for short. It was cast in 1856 and is one of Britain’s largest bells, at 9 feet (3m) in diameter.
  • For whom the bell is named: According to most accounts, Big Ben was named after Sir Benjamin Hall, Commissioner of Works at the time of the bell’s construction. Sir Benjamin was a large man, and so the nickname seemed appropriate given the size of the bell. However, others say the clock was named after champion boxer Benjamin Caunt. In either case, it was a man named Benjamin who had the nickname “Big Ben” first.
  • Cracks and replacements: The original specification for the clock had called for a bell weighing 14 tons. The foundry, however, made a much larger, 16-ton bell—which cracked during testing. So a different foundry was selected, and the original bell melted down as raw material for a second bell, which weighed 13.8 tons. This bell was thoroughly tested before being installed in the clock tower. After just one month in operation, though, the new bell also cracked—though not as severely as the first. The crack was filled, a lighter clapper installed, and the entire bell rotated so that the clapper struck an undamaged portion of the bell. This arrangement has survived ever since, but the crack affected the character of the bell’s tone as well as the pitch, which was originally an E.
  • The Liberty Bell connection: Whitechapel Foundry, where the (second and final) bell was cast, had also cast the Liberty Bell—which cracked on its first public ringing—almost exactly a century earlier, in 1752. By yet another coincidence, the Great Clock of Westminster famously broke down in 1976, the U.S. bicentennial year, requiring major reconstruction.
  • Accuracy: The Great Clock of Westminster is one of the largest mechanical clocks in the world—and, to this day, one of the most accurate. Its original specification stipulated that the first ring of the clock each hour should be within one second of the correct time. The leading clock designers of the day considered that an unreachable goal, because the hands and other exposed parts were subject to the action of wind, moisture, temperature changes, birds, and other variables that could easily throw off its accuracy by more than a second. However, after winning a design competition, Edmund Beckett Denison was hired to design the clock, which did in fact obtain the specified accuracy. When minor adjustments need to be made to regulate the clock’s speed, pennies are placed on the clock’s pendulum to alter its weight slightly.

Those who investigate the history of the clock’s design and operation will find many other fascinating facts, including any number of controversies and scandals that emerged during the years of its construction…and the presence of a prison cell in the clock tower, intended to hold Ministers of Parliament who have breached parliamentary privilege (though it has not been used for this purpose in over a century). All that to say, Big Ben is very much more than an oversized clock bell, but its most interesting features, like the bell itself, are nearly always hidden from public view.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 27, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Bones in the Paris catacombs

Man-made calcium deposits

Paris is a shockingly large city. There are many fine vantage points from which to view the panorama, including the Montparnasse Tower, Sacré Coeur, the Eiffel Tower, or the bell towers of Notre Dame. I’m sure everyone who looks out over the vast expanse of Paris has a different impression; mine has been, overwhelmingly, “Gosh, that’s a lot of limestone.” With very few exceptions, the buildings of Paris are uniformly beige, limestone being the preferred building material—and not just for the buildings either, but for bridges, sidewalks, and monuments. As far as the eye can see in every direction, the earth is covered with stone. A splash of green, like a park, or gray, like the Seine, seems strangely out of place. All that stone had to come from somewhere, but it never occurs to most people to wonder where that might have been. Most of it was quarried locally, and what’s particularly interesting about this is that the empty spaces left when the limestone was removed—mind-bogglingly huge volumes of space—are largely still vacant, hidden beneath the city streets.

The Other French Empire

On visits to Paris and during the years I lived there, I spent a good bit of time underground. I took countless trips on the Paris Métro, of course, and I’ve spent several enjoyable afternoons exploring the public portion of the vast Paris sewer system, not to mention visiting the archeological crypts near Notre Dame. But these are merely the tip of the iceberg. Underneath Paris the real action—so to speak—is in the hundreds of kilometers of abandoned limestone quarries, part of which have been turned into a depository for the bones of millions of former citizens. As with all the underground attractions in Paris, only a portion of the catacombs is officially open to the public; this visitor-friendly section is known as the Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, or simply the Catacombs.

Unlike the many lavish museums, cathedrals, and tombs in Paris, the entrance to the catacombs is a simple black door in a small building that you could easily miss if you blinked while walking by it. On our first visit, it took some time to find it because we were expecting something much more prominent. After we paid our entrance fee, we passed a sign reminding visitors that flash photography is strictly forbidden, then descended a long spiral staircase and entered a small gallery of photographs and drawings. Leaving the gallery, we began walking through long, dark, damp tunnels whose only significant features were signs at intervals stating when they had been built. Tourists zipped past us, talking loudly and snapping flash photos. I began to feel like the day would have been better spent sitting in a café drinking coffee and eating croissants. But then we passed through a larger chamber with a sign over the entrance to a dark hallway that said: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” (“Stop! This is the empire of death.”).

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones

Beyond that sign was another world—and one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. What at first appeared to be walls built of small stones were in fact huge, orderly piles of human bones. Tibias and femurs by the thousands were stacked neatly, interspersed with rows of skulls, which were sometimes arranged quite artistically in a cross or other pattern. There were no intact skeletons; the goal of the arrangement had clearly been maximum compactness. I could only assume that the ribs, spines, and other bones filled in the spaces behind the walls of large leg bones. Most of the stacks of bones rose to a height of about 5 ft. (1.5m), and while some were just a couple of yards deep, there was at least one area where the bones stretched back for a good 20 yards (18m), as you could see from the narrow gap left on top. The tunnels of bones stretched on and on; many side passages were blocked with locked gates, but even the path designated for tourists was about a mile (1.5km) long.

The bones began accumulating in the catacombs in 1786, just as momentum for the Revolution was building in Paris. Real estate was scarce while the cemeteries were becoming severely overcrowded. The government decided to reclaim the large swaths of land used for cemeteries by relocating the remains of the departed citizens to the empty limestone quarries, whose tunnels were at that time on the outskirts of town. The process of disinterring the bones from the cemeteries, moving them solemnly into the quarries, and arranging them there took several decades. No attempt was made to identify or separate individual bodies, but each set of bones was marked with a plaque signifying the cemetery they came from and the year in which they were moved. By the time the relocation was finished in 1860, an estimated five to six million skeletons had been moved to the catacombs.

The Outer Limits of the Twilight Zone

Even so, the bones filled only a tiny percentage of the empty quarries. As far as I know, none of the modern maps of the catacombs are exhaustive, but explorers have estimated that there are at least 185 miles (300km) of tunnels in the entire network of catacombs—that’s in addition to the 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels and 124 miles (199km) of subway tracks in the Métro system, though the three systems crisscross and interconnect at various points. Among a certain Paris subculture, exploring these forgotten tunnels is considered a sport. Despite the best efforts of maintenance workers to seal off illicit entrances and police patrols that slap heavy fines on trespassers, the maze of tunnels is so extensive that it is simply not possible to keep ahead of the so-called cataphiles.

The catacombs are eerie—quiet (except for the sounds of water dripping from the ceiling and tourists chatting), dark (except for the dim floodlights and camera flashes), and in many ways, downright depressing. It’s hard not to notice that the bones of these millions of people are all pretty much the same. The skull of a revolutionary may be resting on the leg of an aristocrat; noble and corrupt, young and old, wealthy and poor, all are indistinguishable now. It can give you an entirely new perspective on the concept of human equality. It also, needless to say, gives visitors a very keen sense of their own mortality. It made me wonder fleetingly whether, centuries from now, someone might walk by my bones among millions of others and think, “Gosh, that’s a lot of calcium.”

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 11, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on June 5, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Six degrees of separation diagram

Is it a small world after all?

At family reunions, my mother used to joke about the fact that actress Shirley Jones (of “The Partridge Family” fame) never showed up. Apparently someone had figured out that Jones was a distant relation by marriage, and more than once I heard of plans by one of my cousins to invite her to a reunion just for fun. Whether an invitation was ever actually sent I don’t know, nor can I recall the exact chain of relatives that supposedly connected me to Jones. But I always enjoyed the thought of being related, however distantly, to a celebrity. I imagined showing up at a dinner or award ceremony where I’d be introduced to the rich and famous: “This is Joe Kissell, my third cousin-in-law, once removed.” I didn’t suspect it at the time, but if a prominent sociological theory is correct, I may have indirect social connections to millions or even billions of people.

The theory in question, of course, is that of “Six Degrees of Separation”—roughly, the notion that anyone can form a chain of personal contacts leading to any other person, with no more than six links in the chain. Nearly everyone has heard of this idea, thanks to John Guare’s 1990 play “Six Degrees of Separation” and the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” game that became popular in the late 1990s. But what many people don’t realize is that this game has its roots in serious sociological research, and that work is currently underway to establish the validity of the theory scientifically.

Network (of) Associates

The late Stanley Milgram, a Harvard social psychologist, performed an experiment in 1967 to determine the extent of social networks in the United States. In his study, it took an average of six steps for a letter sent to a random resident of Omaha, Nebraska to reach a target person in Boston—using only personal contacts to form a chain. This was the origin of the “six degrees of separation” idea, but Milgram’s small experiment was hardly conclusive, restricted as it was to a very small sample size (and with all participants within the United States).

Nearly four decades later, as part of the Small World Research Project at Columbia University, sociologists attempted a modern version of the experiment using email. The project worked like this. You registered on Columbia’s website, providing demographic information about yourself and answering a range of questions to help the researchers make sense of their results. You were then presented with the name and location of a target person somewhere in the world. The idea was to send a specially formatted email message to someone you know who you think is closer to the target (in one way or another) than you were. When this next person in the chain received your message, the process repeated until, the researchers hoped, a chain formed all the way from you to the target person. Among other things, the experiment hoped to determine what the average length of such a chain is, providing some statistical validation or refutation of the “six degrees” notion.

Connect Four

The experiment ended after a couple of years, producing some very interesting results (only some of which were ever published). In all, more than 60,000 people from 166 countries participated in the experiment’s first round. Although over 24,000 chains were started, only 384 of them successfully reached their targets. Most of the unsuccessful chains were broken simply because someone along the way chose not to participate. The high number of incomplete chains skews the otherwise impressive results: the successful chains required an average of only four links. However, when they factored in how long the broken chains most likely would have been, had they been completed, the researchers estimated that people are separated by five to seven degrees—with shorter chains expected between people living in the same country. In other words, there’s apparently nothing magical about the number six, but it does happen to be pretty close to the average number of social links most people have to most other people, at least among the 4.2 billion or so of us with internet access.

One of the main goals of this project was to determine which factors people consider in trying to form associative links. Every time participants selected a new message recipient, a form asked why they chose that person—for example, due to geographic proximity or a shared profession or hobby—as well as what their relationship to the person is (friend, coworker, relative, etc.). The experiment found that participants considered geographic proximity and similarity of occupation to be primary factors in choosing how to continue a chain. And although people most frequently chose friends as the next link, professional relationships were much more likely to lead to a successful chain. I participated in a couple of chains in the experiment’s first round, and although I consider myself relatively well-connected, neither of my chains successfully found its target. But the question is not whether there is a link between any two people; it’s how you go about finding it. Email may or may not be the best discovery method, though it certainly does have a kind of efficiency that casual conversation or letter writing do not.

Supposing it turns out that everyone on the planet is indeed connected to everyone else by no more than six steps, so what? Sooner or later, given the sheer number of people on Earth and the ways in which people form networks, the six-degrees-of-separation theory must become nearly certain mathematically. But does that actually mean anything? Will it lead to world peace, or will it just facilitate the spread of viruses—biological or digital? I don’t know, but I’m sure it will lead to something. I mean, Weird Al Yankovic knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who knows Kevin Bacon…and I know a guy who knows Weird Al! Meanwhile, Kevin Bacon is only two degrees from Shirley Jones. I’ll be expecting to see them all at the next family reunion.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 10, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on June 21, 2004.

Image credit: By Daniel Walker [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A glass of bourbon

Because I believe in doing proper research for the articles we run here on Interesting Thing of the Day, I am, as I write about National Bourbon Day (June 14), consuming a glass of Old Forester Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (“The First Bottled Bourbon, Estd 1870,” reads the bottle). I’m doing this for you. Because I care.

Bourbon, which by definition can be made only in the United States, has a specific legal definition. According to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Part 5, Subpart C, §5.22, paragraph (1)(i):

“Bourbon whisky”… is whisky produced at not exceeding 160° proof from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn… and stored at not more than 125° proof in charred new oak containers….

In other words: whisky distilled mostly from corn, aged in oak barrels. Yes, I’m deliberately yada-yada-ing some details, but you can look them up if they’re really important to you. What’s important to me is the flavor (delicious) and the intoxicating effect (significant and rapid). I’m told it’s also useful in certain cocktails, but I prefer mine unadulterated, if it’s all the same to you. Cheers!

Image credit: ctj71081 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day