the new ussr illustrated

assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics

a brief history of pre-20th century European violence, part 2

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not quite a game

not quite a game

In my first post in this series I wrote about the 17th century and wars. In this post I’ll look at the wars of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Britain was more or less at peace in 1700, but it was soon involved in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), a messy dispute, ostensibly about who should succeed the mentally and physically incapacitated Charles II on the Spanish throne. The death toll may have reached a few hundred thousand, but of course little clear data is available. The war divided Spain itself, but essentially it pitted the France of Louis XIV against its neighbours, including the British, the Dutch and the so-called Holy Roman Empire. It brought to an end the Habsburg dynasty in Spain.

Meanwhile elsewhere in Europe the Great Northern War (1700-21) was being fought. The Russian Tsar Peter the Great and his allies were fighting to curtail the power of the Swedish King Charles XII. Sweden had created an empire for itself out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War, but the Great Northern War finally ended Sweden’s dominance and established Russia as a major power. Again the casualties numbered a few hundred thousand – many dying of famine and disease. The Battle of Poltava, won by the Russians, was the most decisive single event.

Queen Anne’s War (1702-13) was arguably not a European War, or arguably a fully European War fought on American soil, often with most of the combatants on both sides being American Indians. Casualties, however, were relatively light. Also, during the War of the Spanish Succession there was an internal revolt of Huguenots (Protestants) in the isolated Cévennes region of France. The Huguenots had been persecuted for decades, but in the case of this uprising, known as the Camisard Rebellion, atrocities were committed on both sides. Hostilities began in 1702, and the ‘troubles’ weren’t settled until the death of Louis XIV in 1715.

Further east in Hungary a group of noblemen enlisted the aid of Louis XIV to bring about an end to Austrian Habsburg rule in the region. The consequent conflict is known as Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703-11), a complex affair which also involved the Ottoman Turks, who had only recently given up all their Hungarian territories. Rakoczi, one of the noblemen, was unsuccessful, but he’s considered a national hero by Hungarians today.

The Russo-Ottoman War 1710-11 broke out largely as a result of Russian pressure on the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed III to hand over Sweden’s Charles XII, who had taken refuge at the Ottoman court during the Great Northern War. The conflict drew in Cossacks on both sides, and the Swedes aligned with the Turks. Some 50,000 were killed.

The Ottoman-Venetian War of 1714-18 was the seventh of that name. The Republic of Venice had, up to that time, been a powerful state for a full millennium, but it was in decline having lost its greatest overseas possession, the island of Crete, in the late 17th century. It had, however, captured the Greek Morean Peninsula from the Ottomans, who were determined to regain it. They mustered a huge army, and were often savage in victory, but the Venetians were saved from complete humiliation by the intervention of Austria in 1716.

In 1715 the first Jacobite rising saw a number of battles fought in Britain, including Sherrifmuir and Preston. The Jacobites  were supporters of the ‘Tory’ James Stuart, son of the deposed King James II, against the Whig George I. The Catholic Jacobites also featured in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-20), in which they supported Spain against the quadruple alliance of Britain, France, Austria (representing the Holy Roman Empire) and the Dutch Republic. Savoy joined this alliance later. This was the only occasion in the 18th century that Britain and France were on the same side. The war was also fought in America. The allies were victorious, unsurprisingly, and Philip V of Spain soon sued for peace.

The Russo-Persian War (1722-3) was a result of the expansionist policies of Peter the Great, and of his concern about Ottoman expansion in Safavid Persia. Thousands died in these ‘manoeuvres’, which today would be a matter of diplomacy. All the territory gained by Peter was ceded back to the Persians by Empress Anna of Russia in 1732, to secure Persian support in the next great conflict with the Ottomans.

A brief Anglo-Spanish War (1727-9) saw the Spanish lay siege to Gibraltar while the British blockaded Porto Bello, both unsuccessfully. The Treaty of Seville at the end of this ‘war’ saw everything returned to the status quo, though of course thousands of lives were lost, mostly, as usual, from famine and disease.

One of the bloodiest wars in the first half of the 18th century was the War of the Polish Succession of 1733-8, not to be confused with the 16th century war of the same name! This war saw France, Spain, the Duchy of Parma and the Kingdom of Sardinia rallying in support of one aspirant to the Polish throne, while the Russian Empire, Habsburg Austria, the Kingdom of Prussia and Saxony supported another. The casualties, which may have numbered around 100,000, were mostly French and Austrian. It resulted in the Treaty of Vienna, the ascension of Augustus III to the throne, and various transfers of territories in the endless carving and recarving of the meat of Europe. Meanwhile the Austro-Russian-Turkish War (1735-9), a struggle between the Russians and Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire, ended largely in a stalemate, with several tens of thousands dead, almost entirely of famine and disease.

One could go on, and on. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-8) involved, again, most of the European powers and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Between this and the French Revolutionary Wars at the end of the eighteenth century, which killed an estimated 1 million people (one historian, James Trager, estimated 3-600,000 deaths in the suppression of the Vendee revolt within France in 1793) there were of course numerous conflicts large and small, including the bloody Seven Years War (1756-63, though many historians argue for a longer period), which also saw at least 1 million dead.

The Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century built on the warfare habits of the French revolutionaries. There are no accurate figures, of course, in any of these wars – any more than there are accurate figures on the deaths caused by the US invasion and occupation of Iraq today – but an estimate of 2 million dead as a result of Napoleon’s campaigns is regarded as moderate. This was certainly the largest death toll of any war or campaign of the nineteenth century. Of the other wars of the century, the Crimean War (1853-6) killed about 300,000, three more of the many Russo-Turkish Wars (1806-12, 1828-9 and 1877-8) each killed about 200,00, a conservative estimate, and the Franco-Prussian War killed anywhere from 200,000 to above 700,00o, depending on various historians.

I’ve only included here the major conflicts civil and international, within Europe, but of course European forces were in conflict in Africa, Asia and the Americas throughout the century. It’s also never been easy to determine the eastern boundary of Europe. The ethnic cleansing of the Circassian peoples on the north-eastern shores of the Black Sea was undoubtedly one of the most murderous campaigns of the 19th century, with wildly varying estimates claiming up to 1.5 million deaths. Whether or not this was a specifically European holocaust is obviously a trivial question.

Although there was something of a lull in warfare at the end of the nineteenth century, attitudes towards war, its manliness and its character-building nature, were still dominant, as we can see in much of the rhetoric that preceded and influenced the so-called Great War. It was the carnage of that war, it seems, that first started to change attitudes, reflected in the war poets and in the criticisms aired thereafter. The Second World War, and particularly the horrors of Nazism, had a catalysing effect, and the culturally decisive decade of the sixties (and another war in South East Asia) succeeded in irreversibly changing attitudes to war, manliness and much else besides.

So ends part 2 in this series. Next I want to go back over that 300-year period from 1600 to the beginning of the twentieth century to look at domestic and other forms of violence within European society.

 

Written by Stewart Henderson

July 19, 2014 at 7:02 pm

Posted in history, violence, war

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how much damage is synthetic fertiliser doing to soil?

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“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Fertilizer_by_the_Numbers_Ch2

In a recent conversation, in which I was accused of being too black-and-white about the positives of conventional agriculture and GMOs, the damaging effects of synthetic fertiliser were mentioned as a negative, as it ‘kills the soil’s organisms, including earthworms’.

So now I’m going to focus on that issue specifically, and follow the evidence where it leads me. There’s no doubt that intensive agriculture and mono-cropping are having a negative impact on soil quality, just as there’s no doubt that intensive agriculture  is currently required to feed the world’s human population. So what’s to be done? First, we could reduce or stabilise the world’s population, which we’re trying to do. Second, we can try to find biotech solutions, developing a type of intensive agriculture that’s less damaging to the soil and the environment – and organic approaches might help us in this. GMOs also offer promise, developing crops which require less in the way of fertilisers and pesticides, and deliver higher yields.

There are other ways of looking at this and so many other problems, as I’ve recently become aware of complexity theory, which I’ll write about soon, but for now I’ll look at the claims being made and the solutions being offered.

So what exactly is synthetic or chemical fertiliser doing to our soil?  Needless to say, in order to obtain accurate data in answer to this question we have to negotiate our way through sources  dedicated to maximising, or minimising, the harm being done. So I’ll start with a definition. Here’s one from a website called Diffen, dedicated apparently to making unbiased comparisons between rival goods and services, in this case chemical v organic fertilisers.

A chemical fertiliser is defined as any inorganic material of wholly or partially synthetic origin that is added to the soil to sustain plant growth. Chemical fertilisers are produced synthetically from inorganic materials. Since they are prepared from inorganic materials artificially, they may have some harmful acids, which stunt the growth of microorganisms found in the soil helpful for plant growth naturally. They’re rich in the three essential nutrients needed for plant growth. Some examples of chemical fertilisers are ammonium sulphate, ammonium phosphate, ammonium nitrate, urea, ammonium chloride and the like.

Diffen goes on to describe the pros and cons, but there isn’t much detail beyond high acidity and ‘changes to soil fertility’. A 2009 article in Scientific American goes further, describing these mostly petroleum-based fertilisers as having these dire effects:

wholesale pollution of most of our streams, rivers, ponds, lakes and even coastal areas, as these synthetic chemicals run-off into the nearby waterways.

What this article doesn’t mention is that human waste (i.e feces), grey water etc is also getting into our waterways and causing damage, and it’s hard to separate out these many forms of pollution. In any case, I’m confining this piece to direct damage to the soil rather than to waterways, important though that obviously is.

One of the principal causes of soil degradation is leaching, the loss of water-soluble plant nutrients through rains and storms, and irrigation. Fertiliser can contribute to this problem. When nitrate (NO3) is added to the soil to boost plant growth, excess NO3 ions aren’t able to be absorbed by the soil and are eventually leached out into groundwater and waterways. The degree of leaching depends on soil type, the nitrate content of the soil, and the degree of absorption of the nitrates by the plants or crops on that soil.  Again, though, the leaching is caused by water, and the soil degradation is largely a natural process, though over-irrigation can contribute. This is why the older soils, such as those in Australia, are the most lacking in nutrients. They’ve been subjected to eons of wind and water weathering. The richest areas have been renewed by volcanic activity.

Not all chemical fertiliser is the same, or of the same quality. Phosphate fertilisers commonly contain impurities such as fluorides and the heavy metals cadmium and uranium. Removing these completely is costly, so fertiliser can come in grades of purity (most backyard-gardener fertiliser, the stuff that comes in little pellets, is very pure). Many widely used phosphate fertilisers contain fluoride, and this has prompted research into the effects of a higher concentration of fluoride in soil. The effect on plants has been found to be minimal, as plants take up very little fluoride. Livestock ingesting contaminated soils as they munch on plants could be a bigger problem, as could be fluoride’s effect on soil microorganisms. Fluoride is very immobile in soil, so groundwater is unlikely to be contaminated.

Acidification from the regular use and over-use of acidulated phosphate fertilisers has been a problem in some areas, particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia, where aluminium toxicity has caused severe soil degradation. Acidity of soils is a serious problem in Australia, where in NSW more than half the agricultural land is affected. Most agricultural plants require a pH of 5.5 to 8.0 to grow best, though some plants are  much more tolerant than others of lower pH levels. Surface acidity can be corrected with the application of ground limestone, but subsurface acidity is a growing problem and much more difficult to correct. Acidification is generally a slow natural process caused by wind and water weathering, but it can be greatly accelerated by the use of fertilisers containing ammonium or urea. It can also be caused by a build-up of organic matter. As an example of the complexity of all this, superphosphate doesn’t directly affect soil acidity but it promotes the growth of clover and other legumes, a build-up of organic matter which increases soil acidity.

A comment on fertiliser and worms. No, they don’t kill worms, and because they stimulate plant growth they’re likely to increase the population of worms – but there are worms and worms. Some are highly invasive and have been transported from elsewhere. Some can be damaging to plants. At the same time new plants, and new worms, tend to adapt to each other over time. Again, complexity cannot be underestimated.

Another concern about chemical fertiliser, again not connected to soil quality as such, is nitrous oxide emissions. About 75% of nitrous oxide emissions from human activity in the USA came from chemical fertiliser use in agriculture in 2012, and we are steadily adding to the nitrous oxide levels in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas which, on a unit comparison, is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

In conclusion, it’s likely that everything you do in agriculture has a downside. There are no free lunches. The key is to obtain as much knowledge as possible, not only about your patch, but about nutrient and resource cycles generally. It’s all connected.

Oh and above all be sceptical of some of the ridiculous claims, and the ridiculous propaganda, out there. Check them out on a reputable, evidence-based site.

Written by Stewart Henderson

July 13, 2014 at 1:42 pm

the rise of the nones, or, reasons to be cheerful (within limits)

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This is a presentation based on a couple of graphs.

The rise of the nones, that is, those who answer ‘none’ when asked about their religious affiliation in surveys and censuses, has been one of the most spectacular and often unheralded, developments of the last century in the west. It has been most spectacular in the past 50 years, and it appears to be accelerating.

The rise of the nones in Australia

500px-australianreligiousaffiliation-svg

This graph tells a fascinating story about the rise of the nones in Australia. It’s a story that would I think, share many features with other western countries, such as New Zealand and Canada, but also the UK and most Western European nations, though there would be obvious differences in their Christian make-up.

The graph comes from the Australian Census Bureau, and it presents the answers given by Australians to the religious question in the census in every year from 1901 to 2011. The blue bar represents Anglicans. In the early 20th century, Anglicanism was the dominant religion, peaking in 1921 at about 43% of the population. Its decline in recent years has been rapid. English immigration has obviously slowed in recent decades, and Anglicanism is on the nose now even in England. In 2011, only 17% of Australians identified as Anglicans.  The decline is unlikely to reverse itself, obviously.

The red striped bar represents Catholics – I’ll come to them in a moment. The grey hatched bar represents devotees of other Christian denominations. In the last census, just under 19% of Australians were in that category, and the percentage is declining. The category is internally dynamic, however, with Uniting Church, Presbyterian and Lutheran believers dropping rapidly and Pentecostals very much on the rise.

The green hatched bar represents the nones, first represented in 1971, when the option of saying ‘none’ was first introduced. This was as a result of pressure from the sixties censuses – that seminal decade – when people were declaring that they had no religion even when there was no provision in the census to do so. Immediately, as you can see, a substantial number of nones ‘came out’ in the 71 census, and the percentage of ‘refuseniks’ (the purple bar) was almost halved. But then in the 76 census, the percentage of refuseniks doubled again, while the percentage of nones increased. The Christians were the ones losing out, a trend that has continued to the present. Between 1996 and 2006 the percentage of self-identifying Christians dropped from 71% to 64% – a staggering drop in 10 years. The figure now, after the 2011 census, is down to 61%. If this trend continues, the percentage of Christians will drop below 50% by the time of the 2031 census. Of course predictions are always difficult, especially about the future.

One thing is surely certain, though. Whether or not the decline in Christianity accelerates, it isn’t going to be reversed. As Heinrich von Kleist put it, ‘When once we’ve eaten of the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence’.

The situation after the 2011 census is that 22.3% of Australia’s population are nones, the second biggest category in the census. Catholics are the biggest with 25.3%, down from 26% in 2006 (and about 26.5% in 2001). The nones are on track to be the biggest category after the next census, or the one after that. Arguably, though, it’s already the biggest category. The refusenik category in the last census comprised 9.4%, of which at least half could fairly be counted as nones, given that the religious tend to want to be counted as such. That would take the  nones up to around 27%. An extraordinary result for a category first included only 40 years ago.

Let me dwell briefly on this extraordinariness. As you can see, in the first three censuses presented in this graph, the percentage of professed Christians was in the high nineties. That’s to say, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, virtually everyone one identified as Christian. This represents the arse-end of a scenario that persisted for a thousand years, dating back to the 9th and 10h centuries when the Vikings and the last northern tribes were converted from paganism. We are witnessing nothing less than the death throes of Christianity in the west. Of course, we’re only at the beginning, and it will be, I’m sure, a long long death agony. Catholicism still has an iron grip in South America, in spite of the scandals it’s failing to deal with, and it’s making headway in Africa. But in its heartland, in its own backyard, its power is greatly diminished, and their’s no turning back.

The rise of the nones worldwide

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But there’s an even more exciting story to tell here. The rise of the nones isn’t simply a rejection of Christianity, it’s a rejection of religion. And with that I’ll go to my second graph. This shows that the nones, at 750 million, have risen quickly to be the fourth largest religious category after Christians, 2.2 billion, Moslems, 1.6 billion, and Hindus, 900 million. These numbers represent substantial proportions of the populations of Australia and New Zealand, Canada, the USA and western Europe, as well as nations outside the Christian tradition, such as China and Japan. Never before in human history has this been the case.

One thing we know about the early civilisations is that they were profoundly religious. The Sumerians of the third millennium BCE, the earliest of whom we have records, worshipped at least four principal gods, Anu, Enlil, Ninhursag and Enki. These, as well as the Egyptian god Amon Ra, are among the oldest gods we can be certain about, but it’s likely that some of the figurines and statues recovered by archaeologists, such as the 23,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, represented deities.

Why was religion so universal in earlier times?

We don’t know if the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians and Indus Valley civilisations were universally religious, but it’s likely that they were – because supernatural agency offered the best explanation for events that couldn’t be explained otherwise. And there were an awful lot of such events. Why did the crop fails this time?  Why has the weather changed so much? Why did my child sicken and die? Why has this plague been visited upon our people? Why did that nearby mountain blow its top  and rain fire and burning rocks down on us?

Even today, in our insurance policies, ‘acts of god’ - a most revealing phrase – are mentioned as those unforeseen events that insurers are reluctant to provide cover for. Nowadays, when some fundie describes the Haitian earthquake or Hurricane Katrina as a deliberate act of a punishing god, we laugh or feel disgusted, but this was a standard response to disasters in earlier civilisations. Given our default tendency to attribute agency when in doubt – a very useful evolutionary trait – and our ancestors’ lack of knowledge about human origins, disease, climate, natural disasters, etc, it’s hardly surprising that they would assume that non-material paternal/maternal figures, resembling the all-powerful and often capricious beings who surrounded us in our young years, and whose ways are ever mysterious, would be the cause of so many of our unlooked-for joys and miseries.

Why has that universality flown out the window?

It’s hardly surprising then that the rise of the nones in the west coincides with the rising success and the growing explanatory power of science. For the nones, creation myths have been replaced by evolution, geology and cosmology, sin has been replaced by psychology, and a judging god has been replaced by the constabulary and the judiciary. I don’t personally believe that non-believers are morally superior to believers because we ‘know how to be good without god’. We’ve just transferred our fear of god to our fear of the CC-TV cameras – as well as fear for our reputations in the new ultra-connected ‘social hub’.

It’s obvious though that the scientific challenge to ye olde Acts of God is very uneven wordwide. In the more impoverished and heavily tribalised parts of Africa, India, China and the Middle East, the challenge is virtually non-existent. Furthermore, it’s a very new challenge even in the west. To take one example, our understanding of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity has greatly increased in recent times through advances in technology and also in theory, most notably tectonic plate theory. This theory was first advanced in the early 20th century by Alfred Wegener amongst others, but it didn’t gain general scientific acceptance until the sixties and didn’t penetrate to the general public till the seventies and eighties. Even today in many western countries if you ask people about plate tectonics they’ll shrug or give vague accounts. And if you think plate tectonics is simple, have a look at any scientific paper about it and you’ll soon realise otherwise. Of course the same goes for just about any scientific theory. Science is a hard slog, while the idea of acts of god comes to us almost as naturally as breathing.

In spite of this science is beginning to win the challenge, due to a couple of factors. First and foremost is that the scientific approach, and the technology that has emerged from it, has been enormously successful in transforming our world. Second, our western education system, increasingly based on critical thinking and questioning, has undermined religious concepts and has given us the self-confidence to back our own judgments and to emerge from the master-slave relationships religion engenders. The old god of the gaps is finding those gaps narrowing, though of course the gaps in many people’s minds are plenty big enough for him to hold court there for the term of their natural lives.

The future for the nones

While there’s little doubt that polities such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union will become increasingly less religious, and that other major polities such as China and Japan are unlikely to ‘find’ religion in the future, we shouldn’t kid ourselves that any of the major religions are going to disappear in our lifetimes or those of our grandchildren. Africa and some parts of Asia will continue to be fertile hunting grounds for the two major proselytising religions, and Islam has as firm a hold on the Middle East as Catholicism has on Latin America. If you’re looking at it in terms of numbers, clearly the fastest growing parts of the world are also the most religious. But of course it’s not just a numbers game, it’s also about power and influence. In all of the secularising countries, including the USA, it’s the educated elites that are the most secular. These are the people who will be developing the technologies of the future, and making decisions about the future directions of our culture and our education.  So, yes, reasons to be cheerful for future generations. I look forward to witnessing the changing scene for as long as I can

more on organic food

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labels

Since my post of almost a year ago, on the marketing scam that is ‘organic’ food, I’ve noted that this niche market continues to be less niche and more mainstream, so that I no longer make an effort to avoid it. As long as the food’s fresh, tasty and nutritious, I’m happy.

And yet… I think part of my irritation is that I hate fashion. I mean, why the fuck do all these drongos go around wearing Hurley tank-tops and t-shirts? It’s not as if they’re even remotely interesting or imaginative or anything.

However, I must admit the fashion for ‘organics’ is more comprehensible to me than the fashion for Hurley or Nike, labels for goods that are clearly no better than those of their rivals. It seems that organic food has captured the imagination largely because it sounds environmentally positive for those who want to do the right thing without thinking about it too much. Okay it’s a bit more expensive, but there has to be a price for being on the side of the angels, and it’s nice to be trendy and holier-than-thou at the same time.

Then there are the hardened ideologues who take to ‘organics’ as to a religion, actively seeking converts and feeling smugly superior to those who haven’t yet been ‘saved’.  Among those are the real fanatics who warn that conventional food is killing us, that GM ‘horror’ foods and the agribusinesses pedalling them will take over the world and make zombies of us all, and/or that there’s a conspiracy to hide from us the damage that chemically-infested conventional food is doing world-wide.

Of course some will describe me as an ideologue through-and-through, or at least as a hopelessly biased person making fatuous claims to objectivity – a description I’m quite accustomed to hearing – but I can only do my best to be open-minded and undermining of my own prejudices. And if that doesn’t convince anyone I’ll soldier on anyway.

One excuse for returning to the subject is a blog/website called Academics Review, subtitled ‘testing popular claims against peer-reviewed science’, which has posted a piece called ‘Organic Marketing Report‘. Dr Stephen Novella has spoken about the piece on the SGU podcast and on Neurologica blog, but I want to take the opportunity to revisit the issue, as I’ve done so many times in my mind.

For me, three popular claims are made about ‘organic’ food, a kind of ‘nest of claims’ of increasing grandeur and complexity. The most basic claim is that it tastes better, the middle claim is that it’s more nutritious, and the grandest claim is that it’s better for the environment. So let’s look at these claims one at a time, with particular reference to the Academics Review post, where it can help us.

taste

The perception of taste is one of the most subjective and easily manipulable of all our perceptions. Researchers have had a field day with this. You may have heard of the experiments done with white wine dyed with food colouring to look like red, and how this fooled all the wine experts. Numerous other experiments have been done to show that our taste perception can be influenced by mood, by colour, by setting and by the way the food is talked up or talked down before tasting. Then there’s the question of differences between people’s taste buds. What are taste buds? These are the areas on the surface of the tongue, the soft palate and the upper oesophagus that contain taste receptors. Taste buds are constantly being replenished, each one lasting on average 5 days, and it’s estimated that we’ve permanently lost half of our taste receptors by the age of 20. Separate receptors for the basic tastes of bitter, sweet and umami have been found, and the hunt is on for sour. It’s likely that the number of receptors and differences in action of those receptors varies slightly in individuals, so it’s pretty well impossible to get anything substantive out of individual claims that x tastes better than y. However, if in a blind tasting, with a good sample size, we get 80%, or a substantial majority, saying that x tastes better than y, that would be significant.

Of course, it’s difficult to control for all the variables and just to test for ‘organic’ versus conventional. The age of the food, freshness, soil quality, method of growing and various other factors not directly related to organics would have to be neutralised. So we have to take a skeptical approach to all findings.

One blind tasting, reported on here, compared tomatoes, broccoli and potatoes. 194 ‘expert food analysts’ tasted the food and found, according to the report, that the conventional tomatoes tasted sweeter, juicier and more flavoursome than ‘organic’ ones. No significant differences were noted with the broccoli and potatoes. The report doesn’t give the percentage of experts who preferred the conventional tomatoes, and there were some vital differences in the way the produce was grown. In all, not a very convincing study either way.

A series of informal taste tests, conducted in 2007 by Stephanie Zonis, an organic food advocate, comparing eggs, yoghurt, cheese, raspberries and peanut butter among other foodstuffs, found mixed results, mostly a tie in each case, though it seems not to have been a blind tasting and was entirely subjective. She showed commendable honesty, ending with the remark that she didn’t buy organic for the taste.

This cute little video has 3 different products – eggs, carrots and goat’s cheese – and three different subjects tasting them, all of them food experts. Results again are mixed, but the subsequent discussions show that it isn’t the organic v conventional distinction that matters so much. With the cheese it’s the cultures used to produce them, with the carrots it’s the soils and climate, with the eggs it’s whether they’re free range or battery animals, how long the eggs having been hanging around in the supermarket, etc. There are just too many variable to make these kinds of tests particularly useful.

The taste issue regarding organics, I contend, will never be resolved. The trouble is, organic food is constantly touted by advocates (though, to be fair, not all of them) as having superior taste.

Guys, stop doing that.

nutritional content and health

Organics are often recommended as the healthier option, and there are, it seems to me, two aspects to this claim. First, that they contain more and/or better nutrients, and second that they’re healthier because they contain less ‘toxic chemicals’ in the form of pesticides and/or fertilisers. Naturally most consumers of organic foods conflate these two separate issues.

So let’s look briefly at the nutrient issue first.

The Mayo Clinic, the Harvard Medical  School and various other reputable sites that I’ve checked out have all said much the same, that there is no statistically significant evidence that organic food is more nutritious. Of course you will be able to find studies, amongst the very many that have been carried out, that do provide such evidence, but that’s to be expected. Overall the jury’s still out. I don’t think it’ll ever be in. Personally, though, I think we can bypass the findings of endless studies by asking the question “How can nutrients be added to food by organic practices?” I can’t quite see how the practices of organic farming – no synthetic fertilisers or pesticides, no food irradiation, no GMOs - can by themselves add to the nutrients of food grown conventionally. If anyone can explain to me how they can, I’d be prepared to take the studies more seriously.

A more complex issue is that of organics and food safety and public health.

This issue is largely a negative one – that organic foods are healthier because of what they don’t have. Unfortunately, this often involves playing up, as much as possible, the risks and dangers of conventional food. The Organic Marketing Report makes some disturbing points here, quoting one organics promoter, Kay Hamilton, speaking at a conference in 1999: If the threats posed by cheaper, conventionally produced products are removed, then the potential to develop organic foods will be limited. In other words, it’s in the interests of organic food marketers to stress the dangers of conventional foods at every opportunity, and this is being done all over the internet, in case you haven’t noticed.

Some 15 years ago, when the organic marketing push really started to get under way in the USA, conventional food producers expressed concern to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) that the organic movement was seeking to increase market share by promoting bogus claims about its own products and misinformation about conventional practices. In response, the USDA, with support from the organic food industry, sought to clarify the then recently developed formulation of the organic marketing label. The Secretary of Agriculture had this to say in 2000:

Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.

Not surprisingly, though, these remarks have fallen on deaf years, and consumer surveys regularly show that organic food is perceived as healthier, safer and more nutritious, both in the US and elsewhere. Also, a study by the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service showed that people bought organic on the basis of the organic label or seal, rather than their understanding of the organic definition. Some 79% of those familiar with the seal could not identify the production standards behind the seal. As many independent observers have noted, the aggressive marketing of organic produce, with little concern for accuracy, has been the main driver of sales. US observers have also noted that the responsible regulators in terms of consumer protection and truth in advertising, namely the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been ineffective due to lack of resources and a lack of will to investigate vague and nebulous claims.

The organic food industry constantly plays on public fears in its marketing strategies, without necessarily telling outright lies. For example, a campaign by the USA’s  Organic Trade Association, using the slogan ‘Organic, it’s worth it’ trumpeted the fact that “All products bearing the organic label must comply with federal, state, FDA, and international food safety requirements”, as if this wasn’t the case with conventional food. Similarly, Stonyfield Organic, a major US producer of organic foods, made a decision in August 2013 to add to the organic seal on their products the term ‘no toxic pesticides used here’, as if this marked them out from other food producers.

If we look beyond the aggressive marketing, which appears to be a mixture of deliberate misinformation and wishful thinking – a sort of naturalistic utopianism, – we find no clear evidence at all that organic food is either more safe or more nutritious than conventional food. The most comprehensive meta-analysis of these claims to date was published by Stanford University School of Medicine in September 2012. The study ‘did not find evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives’ (that’s a quote from the above-linked ‘Organic Marketing Report’).

The authors of the Organic Marketing Report have little to say about the broader environmental claims made by the organic food industry, because they’ve found from their own market research that the industry sees that health and safety concerns are the main drivers of consumer organic purchasing. So the focus of the industry has been on driving home the message that conventional food is unhealthy if not dangerous, and less nutritious. This message is succeeding in spite of a complete lack of scientific support. People should, I think, be more annoyed than they currently are about a campaign of exaggeration and misinformation that is in no way aligned to the evidence.

I should point out that, while many organic growers are sincere in their belief that they’re producing safer foods, the fact is that using ‘natural’ fertilisers and pesticides is not necessarily safer. David Waltner-Toews provides a salutary example in his excellently-titled book The Origin of Feces:

In spring 2011, a mutant, severely pathogenic, and antibiotic-resistant strain of E coli spread across 13 countries in Europe, sickening more than 3000 people and killing 48. The normal home for all E coli species, most of which are law-abiding, contributing members of society, is in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals – that is, in excrement. This epidemic, however, was spread through fresh sprouts from an organic farm in Germany. The  original contamination source was identified as fenugreek seeds from Egypt. The genetic make-up of the strain of E coli includes material last seen in sub-Saharan Africa.

Waltner-Toews isn’t trying to bag organic farming here – this is about the only mention he makes about organics in his book. As one of the world’s foremost experts on shit, or manure if you prefer, his concern is to educate us on the enormous complexity of the ‘shit cycle’, and its potential for harm as well as good. It’s a complexity that, I suspect, few commercial organic producers are aware of, though they’re dedicated to the idea that their naturally-fertilised produce is safer than conventional stuff. Sadly, food regulators have been conned into believing this, and organic foods, like naturopathic ‘medicines’, are nowhere near as rigorously checked and tested as their conventional counterparts. More than thirty years’ experience of studying manure and fecal-borne infections has convinced Waltner-Toews that these fecal-borne infections are becoming more frequent and more dangerous because global in their reach, due to the internationalism of modern agribusiness. The lack of monitoring of ‘organic’ production with its ‘safe’ natural fertilisers and pesticides is arguably a greater threat to global health than conventional production, which is well-regulated and heavily scrutinised, at least in the west.

environmental impact

Probably the most important claim made by the organic movement, though not as attention-grabbing as the health and safety claims, is that it is more sustainable and has less of an environmental impact than conventional farming and food production. This is, of course, a very difficult claim to analyse because of the enormous variations within conventional food production, but let’s look at some problems with the claim. First, if the organic marketeers succeed in their clear aim of taking over the world, there will be a problem of space. Small-scale backyard organic producers often con themselves into thinking ‘if I can do it, the world can’, but this is a false logic. In my own small backyard I’ve grown – ‘organically’ I suppose – lettuce and spinach and rocket and tomatoes and quinces and almonds and a whole range of herbs, and if I wasn’t such a slackarse I could produce much more, but the fact is that I work for a living, and increasingly my burgeoning neighbourhood is becoming stacked with medium to high-density housing for corporate types who have no time for gardening even if they had an interest, and they have no gardens to garden in anyway. And I suspect a high and growing percentage of these young corporate types  would swear by ‘organic’ food. So just a clear-eyed view of the square kilometre or so around my home tells me feeding the multitude with organics would be quite a feat. As James Mitchell Crow reports, in the science magazine Cosmos, ‘Yields drop when switching to organic, and there isn’t enough organic fertiliser to go around anyway’. As long-time organic farmer Raul Adamchauk (one of the world’s foremost experts on organic farming) puts it:

The challenge for organic agriculture is to help solve the global issues of feeding people in the face of climate change and with increasing population… On some level, it becomes clear that organic agriculture isn’t going to do that by itself. No matter how you figure it, there aren’t enough animals making enough waste to fertilise more than a small fraction of the cropland that we need.

Much more land, therefore, would have to be dedicated to agriculture, with consequences for forestation and biodiversity  - and then there’s the fertiliser problem. There are solutions, but the organic movement’s ideological negativity towards biotechnology will block them for the foreseeable future.
These global problems hold little interest, however, for most urban organic consumers. They’ve largely swallowed the negative message that conventional food is both unhealthy and environmentally damaging. For some, it’s part of a whole ideology of anti-modernity – the modern world is toxically chemical and we need to get back to nature.

But conventional food production, like science, never stands still. Over the past 50 years, during which the world’s population has doubled, food production has increased by 300%, though land taken up with such production has increased by only 12%. These astonishing statistics describe the results of the green revolution begun by Norman Borlaug in the sixties and still ongoing. The green revolution saved millions of lives, and could even be ‘blamed’ for contemporary obesity problems. Here are some more statistics: In 1960, the world’s population stood at just over 3 billion, and the average calorie consumption per person per day was 2189 (according to the UN Dept of Economic and Social Affairs). By 2010 the population was near 7 billion, and the average consumption had risen to 2830. Yields per hectare of rice, wheat, maize and other cereals have been spectacular, and these increases have been attributed more or less equally to improved irrigation, improved seeds and more effective synthetic fertiliser. There have been downsides of course, but biotechnological solutions, if they could be applied, would greatly improve the situation. They include not only pest-resistant and higher-yielding GMOs, but such exciting developments as precision agriculture, an automated agricultural system which restricts pesticide and fertiliser use to those areas of a crop that need them, reducing wastage to a minimum.

The green revolution has been far more beneficial than harmful, and the harms have been exaggerated by the ideologues and marketeers of the organic movement, but organic techniques have been effective in many areas, especially in low-tech farming. The real problem isn’t organic farming per se, it’s ideology, ignorance and sometimes downright dishonesty. Almost all the food we eat has been genetically modified – especially if you’re a vegetarian. It was through playing around with modifications and noting recessive and dominant traits in peas that Mendel discovered genes, that’s to say, he discovered just what it was that we’d been manipulating for millennia. We have transformed the food we eat to make it more tasty and filling and life-giving, though for centuries we barely knew what we were doing. The ‘nature’ that some of us want to go back to is entirely mythical. And we’re not being poisoned by our food, we’re too smart and determined to thrive for that.

Written by Stewart Henderson

June 28, 2014 at 7:56 pm

a brief history of pre-20th century European violence, part 1

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The second siege of Namur, 1695

The second siege of Namur, 1695

A few years back I read Niall Ferguson’s The war of the world: twentieth century conflict and the descent of the west. It was published in 2006. More recently, in 2011, Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature was published, and it would seem that the two books are talking almost exactly opposite tales. I’ve not read Pinker’s book, but I’ve heard him talking about it, and I understand the thesis pretty well. In fact I largely shared Pinker’s view even before he wrote the book, and before I read Ferguson’s. Not that Ferguson’s book wasn’t interesting and full of incident, but the central thesis of the west’s descent into a quagmire of violence struck me as unconvincing. The huge numbers killed in the 20th century’s two world wars, and in other conflicts such as occurred in Rwanda and Cambodia were partly the result of greater killing technology, partly the result of a massive population increase, and partly the result of ideological fixations being played out to their logical conclusions. Of course all these features – the technology, the population and the ideologies – are still with us, but other forces have gradually risen, at least in the ‘west’, to keep them in check. I’d like to look at those forces in detail in another post, but for now I want to take a look at violence, both domestic and national-political, in Europe over the past few centuries, because I think Ferguson’s greatest error in his book was selectivity. He chose to focus on the twentieth century, and his treatment of earlier centuries was cursory at best. Naturally he argued that there was an extended period of peace before the outbreak of the Great War, but even that limited claim probably wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny. We’ll see. I’ll begin my overview of violence in Europe at around the year 1600, for no reason other than I have to start somewhere, and I don’t want the post to be too long. So I’ll be covering some 300 years, with the obvious understanding that life was no less violent before this period. I’ll start with war violence, and finish with the more complicated picture of state-sanctioned, public and domestic violence.

the violence of warfare

In 1600 Elizabeth was still on the throne in England, and Spain was probably not yet fully conscious of its decline as a European power. There were plenty of tensions between these two countries, one newly Protestant, the other staunchly Catholic, but Spain had other concerns. In July 1601 the Flemish city of Ostend, in what is now Belgium, was subjected to what turned out to be one of the longest sieges in human history. Some 35,000 were killed or wounded by the time the Dutch surrendered to the Spanish in September of 1604. Considering that the total population of Europe was about a tenth of what it is today, that’s a significant figure. And it was only one event, albeit a particularly bloody one, in a long war, the Dutch War of Independence, also known as the Eighty Years’ War. A year before the siege, the Battle of Nieuwpoort, which the Dutch ‘won’ – their casualties were fractionally less than those of Spain – resulted in some 4,500 casualties. The long conflict – it lasted from 1568 until the end of the Thirty Years’ War of middle Europe, in 1648 – obviously resulted in many thousands of casualties, but merging as it did with the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, it’s hard to find a separate estimate.

The Thirty Years’ War itself was the most horrific internal war ever experienced in Europe, to judge by percentage of the total population affected. Estimates of the death toll range from 3 to 11.5 million, an incredible figure, though nothing compared to the Mongol slaughter of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, which saw between 30 million and 60 million dead, a veritable emptying of the Eurasian population.

The Treaty of London, signed in 1604, brought to an end what historians now call the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604. Arguably this wasn’t so much a war as a series of battles or raids separated by years of tension and intrigue.  The execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots accelerated the conflict, the main events of which included the raid on the Armada by Drake in 1587, the destruction of the Armada in 1588, the disastrous campaign of the ‘English Armada’ in 1589, and a number of inconclusive skirmishes in the region of the Spanish Main in the 1590s. Casualties are of course hard to determine, but it’s estimated that some 25,000 died in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, many of disease and hunger in the aftermath.

Spain was also a belligerent in the Irish Nine Years War, which came to an end in 1603. This was an uprising of Irish clans, supported by the Spanish, against English rule. It resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, mostly Irish, and mostly of resultant famine and disease. Meanwhile, the Polish-Swedish War (1600-11) saw another waste of resources and manpower. It was largely due to the ambitions of Sweden’s Charles IX and the Catholic Sigismund II Vasa, and the truce that followed years of battle was short-lived. The resumption of hostilities was just another aspect of the Thirty Years’ War. I can find no clear account of casualties, but in one famous battle, the Polish-Lithuanian victory at Kircholm in 1605, some 6000 Swedes were apparently wiped out.

In 1606, the Peace of Zsitvatorok brought to an end the Long War (1591-1606) between the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, the first serious encounter between Christian and Moslem forces in eastern Europe since the Hungarians were slaughtered by the forces of Suleiman I at Mohacs in 1526. Significant events in this war included the Battle of Calugareni (1595), a major Wallachian (Romanian) victory, and the Battle of Keresztes (1596), a horribly bloody affair with massive casualties on both sides, with this time the Ottoman army scoring the victory. These two battles alone resulted in around 60,000 deaths. 17th century battles (since we’re supposed to be working from 1600) include Guruslau (1601) and Brasov (1603). War losses were heavy – certainly over 100,000.

The War of the Julich Succession was a convoluted Middle-European conflict (1609-14) between forces supporting and opposing the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s attempts to expand Habsburg Territory. It involved a number of sieges and skirmishes and was another precursor to the Thirty Years’ War.

The Polish Muscovite War (1605-1618) was essentially a series of incursions into Russian territory by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at a time when Russia was wracked by civil conflict. Important events included the Battle of Klushino (1610) and the Siege of Smolensk (1609-11), which resulted in great loss of life, especially on the Russian side.

The Ingrian War (1610-17) was an attempt by Sweden to also take advantage of Russia’s internal conflicts. It ended with the treaty of Stolbovo which stripped Russia of access to the Baltic Sea for about a century.

These are the main European conflicts leading up to the Thirty Years’ War, which sucked most continental conflicts into it, up to mid-century. However, there was another conflict that can be clearly separated from it; the English Civil War (1642-51). This conflict directly killed more than 80,000 in England alone, at a time when the English population was around 5 million. As usual during this era, disease killed more people than combat, and war-related deaths are estimated at around 190,000. Related conflicts in Scotland in the period killed around 60,000 out of 1 million, and in Ireland the devastation was by far the greatest, with the best estimate put at over 600,000 dead – about 40% of the population. These conflicts are sometimes known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-51), though the conflicts continued until the Restoration under Charles II in 1660.

You might think that an exhausted peace would prevail after these massive British and European conflicts. You’d be wrong. The First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-4), an entirely naval affair, saw at least 5,000 deaths, and 1652 also saw the Battle of Batih, in which an estimated 8000 Polish forces were massacred by Crimean Tatars. But even before that there was plenty of conflict. In 1648, the year the Treaty of Westphalia brought to an end the Thirty Years’ War, civil wars erupted in France. These events have become known as the Fronde, and they lasted until 1653, when Royal authority was restored. Though the death toll was comparatively small, the turmoil was disturbing enough to cause the incoming monarch, Louis XIV, to move his residence out to Versailles.

In 1654 the Battle of Shepeleviche marked the beginning of the Russo-Polish War, which ran until 1667. Smolensk was again besieged during the conflict. In one battle alone, the Battle of Okhmativ (1655), some 9000 died on the Russian side. 1654 was also the year of the first of the ‘Battles of the Dardanelles’, part of the Cretan War (1645-69), also known as the Fifth (yeah, that’s right) Ottoman-Venetian War, fought between the State of Venice and its allies and the Ottoman Empire. This one was fought over Crete, hence the name.

Shortly after the Thirty Years’ War, Sweden, which had emerged from the devastation as a semi-great power, made a series of attacks on the   Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, itself weakened by war with Russia and the Cossacks. These attacks became known in Poland as the Swedish Deluge, which reached its height between 1655 and 1660. Approximately one third of the Commonwealth was wiped out, and Swedish casualties too were very high. Sweden’s warmongering King, Charles X Gustav, also attacked Denmark to precipitate the Dano-Swedish War of 1558-60, but Dutch forces and later those of Brandenberg, Poland and Austria came to Denmark’s aid, and after the Swedish king’s death in 1660 a peace treaty, the Treaty of Copenhagen, was signed which decided the borders of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the same borders that exist today.

Meanwhile in Portugal, a revolution in 1640 had deposed the 60-year Spanish Habsburg monarchy, leading to skirmishes and more serious warfare with Spain, up to the Treaty of Lisbon in 1668. This 28-year period has become known as the Portuguese Restoration War. Portugal was already sporadically at war with the Dutch, mainly in relation to territories in Africa and the Far East, with the Dutch keen to muscle in on Portuguese Territories (complicated by the fact that the Portuguese were under Spanish dominion at the time). The Dutch-Portuguese War, largely a naval affair, lasted from 1602 to 1663. The Dutch were assisted by the British until 1640 when the Brits switched sides.

In 1667-68 France, under their young and ambitious King Louis XIV, chose to invade and take possession of lands in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands, presumably because it was the done thing for a mighty Prince to prove himself on the battle field. The French were successful enough in this ‘War of Devolution’, but a Triple Alliance of England, Sweden and the Dutch Republic, together with other stakeholders, forced Louis to realise the limitations of his power, and he had to hand back most of his gains. This pointless but hardly bloodless campaign clearly indicates the fashion for warfare of the time.

Louis wasn’t finished with the Netherlands, though. He sought to break up the Triple Alliance by seeking the support of the British against the Dutch Republic. He knew it was a shaky alliance because only months before it was made, the British and the Dutch had been at war. He also knew that Britain was concerned about Holland’s rise as a naval power, so he put all his energies into war preparations and alliance negotiations. In 1672, four years after the ‘War of Devolution’, the French army marched into what was then called the Dutch United Provinces, a month after Britain declared war. The consequent conflict, known as the Franco-Dutch War, lasted until 1678. The French gained a lot of territory, but lost the support of the Brits early on, and by war’s end most neighbouring nations had hostile relations with France. Again, virtually impossible to determine casualties, but military pundits claim 20,000 to 30,000 dead from one battle alone, at Seneffe (1674).

Swedish involvement in the Franco-Dutch War, on the French side, led to the Scanian War (1675-9), in which Denmark-Norway responded to a call for support from the Dutch United Provinces by invading areas of Sweden still in contention along the borders of Norway, Denmark and Brandenberg. Of course it was, as usual, a grab for power and territory. Scania is an area of what is now southern Sweden. The Danes scored most of the victories in the war, which further eroded Swedish power in northern Europe, but the Danes were forced by the Treaty of Fontainebleau (dictated by the French) to give up all their territorial gains. Another exercise in bloody futility.

Meanwhile on the other side of Europe, the Polish-Ottoman War (1672-76) – aka the 2nd Polish-Ottoman War – arrayed the forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against those of the Ottoman Turks. After a number of battles and sieges and such, the Commonwealth was weakened to the extent that a number of foreign powers were encouraged to take advantage of it. However it rallied and scored some notable victories in the 3rd Polish-Ottoman War (1683-99), after which both Poland and the Ottoman Empire went into steep decline. The Ottoman Turks had also made war on the Russians (the Russo-Turkish War, 1676-81) to little effect, apart from much loss of life. In fact the period from 1683 to 1699 is referred to by historians as the Great Turkish War. The Turks lost a lot of territory in the period, but in spite of such disasters as the Battle of Zenta (1697), in which about 30,000 Turks died, they weren’t finished yet.

In England the Monmouth rebellion of 1685, against the newly crowned but highly unpopular king, James II, a fanatical Catholic, was a harbinger of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, inaccurately described as a bloodless revolution, which deposed James II and snuffed out the last hope of a return to ‘official’ Catholicism in Britain.

1688 also marked the beginning of the Nine Years’ War, not the last conflict of the seventeenth century but the last one I’ll describe here. This was a conflict between James II’s powerful successor William of Orange (William III of England) – allied with a number of other powers such as Charles II of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I – and the ever-ambitious Louis XIV. James II had fled to the French court after being deposed, and he sought French assistance to regain the British throne. Louis was in the process of wreaking havoc in the Rhineland – his forces completely destroying some 20 large towns, including Heidelberg, Mannheim, Worms and Speyer, and numerous villages – but he was still inclined to help his fellow Catholic regain his god-given throne. Other European leaders (both Protestant and Catholic) rightly or wrongly imagined Louis had hopes of make James a ‘vassal king’. Louis was probably sincere in his desire to see a Catholic returned to the British throne (I’ll write about his revocation of the Edict of Nantes and its aftermath when I come to state-sanctioned violence), but he also wanted to distract William from protecting the Low Countries (nowadays Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of north-west Germany) from his incursions. He also believed, apparently, that William’s invasion would meet with greater hostility than it did, and that England would likely be plunged into civil war by the event.

Of course, the campaign of James II, mostly in Ireland, backed by French gold, ships and generals, was a dismal failure. The continental campaign of the French waxed and waned, with notable victories at the Battles of Staffarda (1690) and Marsaglia (1693), and plenty of stalemates and stand-offs. The Wikipedia account of the Nine Years’ War is particularly good, IMHO. In the end though, with god knows how much loss of life, nothing much was achieved, and it ended with Louis XIV more or less back where he was territorially at the beginning of his reign.

So I’ll end my tale of 17th century European war violence here. The tale I’ve told lacks flesh and blood, and the complexity and depth of human motives, decisions and uncertainties, but it was merely intended to show that hardly a year passed in Europe in this era without some battle or siege or skirmish in which large volumes of blood were shed. War was a commonplace of diplomacy, and a commonplace feature of the adventurous male life, and the disease and suffering attendant upon all these battles and struggles no doubt formed the lifeblood of everyday conversation. ‘Were you really at the siege of Namur, uncle? Really? Tell me, what was it like…?’

In the next part I’ll look at the eighteenth century.

 

Written by Stewart Henderson

June 10, 2014 at 8:08 am

the biggest dinosaur?

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5-17-14-Giant-femur-of-saurpod-discovered-in-Patagonia_full_600

Okay I was going to write about the intriguing and tragic figure Ludwig Boltzmann, in keeping with my plan to write connected pieces, but today’s ‘wow’ news reports about ginormous dinosaur bones found in Argentina – already the domain of the largest dino ever found, the sauropod Argentinosaurus – have proved just too irresistible. Ludwig will have to wait. I learned about Argentinosaurus earlier this year while researching dinosaurs for another post, but this recent discovery is of what’s believed to be a new species of titanosaur or giant herbivore. You’ll see pics of the giant thigh bone all over the net, usually with some dusty palaeontologist or farm worker snuggled against it, but scientists are cautioning against too much speculation about this beast’s proportions in comparison to that of Argentinosaurus, from the relatively scant remains found so far. We do love to see records broken, don’t we? In any case the animal’s femur looks like taking the record of biggest bone ever found.

Of course, even if this unnamed beastie was 77 tonnes, as some pundit has calculated it, compared to 70 tonnes for Argentinosaurus, that doesn’t prove that one species in general was larger than the other. Argentinosaurus’ weight has been based on even more scant remains. Take a look at a range of websites, including Wikipedia’s entry on dinosaurs, and you’ll find quite a range of values for the weight of Argentinosaurus. It’s not quite wild speculation, but it’s speculation nonetheless. I’m also wondering, from my profoundly non-expert perspective, if these bones from what is now Argentina reveal the limited range of those creatures or if they’re largely a result of a combination of the right kinds of preservatives – soil type, climatic conditions and so forth – prevailing in that region.

It’s a great time for dinosaur fans. A new species of long-snouted tyrannosaur, named Pinocchio rex, has recently been unearthed, ‘remarkably well-preserved’, in southern China. It’s estimated to have lived about 66 mya, in the late Cretaceous, the last period of the dinosaurs. Not quite the size of T rex, it may have been faster and nimbler. One expert described it as a cheetah to T rex’s lion, because the two tyrannosaurs lived and hunted in the same regions, chasing different prey.

Our new Titanosaur also hails from the Late Cretaceous, though probably earlier than P rex (the Late Cretaceous extends more than 30 million years, from 100 to 66mya).

Incidentally, the record for the smallest dinosaur goes to a birdie from 120 mya called Quiliana, weighing in at 15 grams. Well, that’s according to this site. Wikipedia describes the smallest dinosaur as weighing about 110 grams and measuring about 35 cms but they don’t include ‘avialan’ dinosaurs (i.e. birds). In fact, just about every site I’ve checked out describes a different species. But if you accept, as many do, that birds are dinosaurs, then the smallest dinosaur ever is still with us. The bee hummingbird is only about 5 centimetres long and weighs about 2 grams.

bee hummingbird

Written by Stewart Henderson

May 21, 2014 at 12:08 am

Boyle’s law

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boyle

I think it would be amusing – for me anyway – if my blog posts were connected by threads, one leading to another. For example, the last post on aerosinusitis resulted from comments on my previous one about my recent air travel, and this one results from comments about pressure differentials in the last one, and so on and on.

Well, anyway, Boyle’s law.

Boyle’s law describes how the pressure of a gas increases as its volume decreases.

Take a set amount of gas – that’s to say, a certain mass of gas – and decrease its volume. Then the pressure it exerts increases in proportion. That’s to say, the relationship between volume and pressure is inversely proportional, given a constant temperature and mass. This relationship can be expressed in the formula PV = k, where k is a constant. In ‘word’ terms, the product of pressure and volume is constant, controlling for the other factors. If the pressure is calculated as 6, and the volume 2, then if the volume is doubled to 4, then the pressure will be halved to 3, with, on both occasions, the constant being 12. Another way of expressing this relationship is P1V1 = P2V2.

The English chemist/physicist, or ‘natural scientist’, Robert Boyle, first published the relational law in 1662, though he wasn’t the first to notice a relationship between pressure and volume. Nor did he fully understand the reason for the relationship, because gases were not then seen as molecular, with the molecules in kinetic relationship to each other. However, Boyle’s thinking was moving in the right direction, as he theorised that air – the gas on which he experimented – was ‘a fluid of particles at rest in between invisible springs’. Edme Mariotte of France independently formulated the law a little over a decade after Boyle.

The best physical explanation for the law emerged more than two centuries later, with work on the kinetic theory of gases by James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann. This theory explains pressure within a container as  a result of atoms or molecules colliding with the container at various rates and velocities. It provides a molecular, microscopic accounting of such macroscopic measurements as pressure, volume and temperature. Einstein’s work on Brownian motion, the motion of dust or pollen particles as seen under a microscope, helped confirm the theory, on a level kind of in between the molecular and the macroscopic. Interestingly, the idea that macroscopic conditions might be the result of microscopic bodies in collision was put forward by Lucretius nearly 2000 years ago.

Boyle’s law treats of an ideal gas, something not known or considered at the time because gases under standard conditions of temperature and pressure behave essentially like ideal gases. Other ideal gas laws include Charles’ law, which is a law of volumes, Gay-Lussac’s law, which treats pressure, and Avogadro’s law, which covers the proportional relationship between volume and the number of moles present (molar volume). As always, improvements in technology led to the observation of a wider range of conditions requiring new hypotheses, the confirmation of which led to new knowledge – in this case, the kinetic theory.

Written by Stewart Henderson

May 18, 2014 at 9:03 am

Posted in history, physics, science

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