Shen Kuo’s “Strange Happenings”

Shen Kuo was a polymath, scientist, and statesman of Song Dynasty China (circa 960-1279 CE). Shen was at least pretty danged good at archaeology, astronomy, botany, cartography, ethnography, geology, hydraulic engineering, math, meteorology, pharmacology, and zoology. He was also an academy chancellor, diplomat, government finance minister and state inspector, military general, musician, and poet.

Among Shen Kuo’s most famous works is The Dream Pool Essays. Written in virtual isolation at his private garden estate outside of what is now Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province, China, Dream Pool Essays contains writings on astronomy, botany, geology, natural phenomena, zoology, moveable type printing, and Shen’s personal beliefs and philosophy. It also contains a section called “Strange Happenings,” which recounts a UFO sighting. That is not a typo.

Not As Good As Stranger Things

“Strange Happenings” recounts the tale of an unidentified flying object spotted in the skies above the city of Yangzhou. During the reign of Emperor Renzong (1022-1063 CE), a bright, pearlescent object was supposedly seen multiple times during over multiple nights. Similar reports were made by villagers in Anhui and Jiangsu to the east.

An actual photo of the UFO from the Song Dynasty.

Shen recounts one villager’s story, in which intense beams of light blazed out of the craft’s door as it opened; the outer shell then opened, revealing a “big pearl the size of a fist, illuminating the interior in silvery white.” The light was said to be too bright to look at, and powerful enough to be seen from ten miles away. “The spectacle was like the rising Sun,” the villager reported, “lighting up the distant sky and woods in red.” The object then flew off at high speed and disappeared over the horizon.

“Strange Happenings” also reports that Yibo, a well-known poet from the nearby city of Gaoyou wrote a poem about his encounter with the pearl-like craft. This and other publicity led the city of Fanliang in Yangzhou to build what was called the “Pearl Pavilion,” a place where tourists could travel to by boat and stay, in hopes of a UFO sighting.

Photo credit: Marcο_Paiola via / CC BY-NC-ND

The Science of Film, Music & Art

The Science of “Gertie the Dinosaur”

Gertie the Dinosaur is one of the most famous early animated films. Created in 1914 by American cartoonist Winsor “Big Winnie” McCay, the short film was used as an interactive part of McCay’s vaudeville act. McCay would “command” Gertie to do tricks, and the dinosaur would enthusiastically oblige, much to the delight of audiences. Citizen Kane himself later hired McCay and effectively shut down his act; McCay then added a live-action introduction to the animated film for its theatrical release.

Art is Science is Art

Gertie the Dinosaur was the first animated film to use keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, and animation loops to create the illusion of steady and lifelike movement onscreen. Would-be intellectual property thief, and fellow American animator, John Randolph “Big Johnny Randy” Bray tried to patent a number of McCay’s animation techniques, fortunately to no avail. Bray is also believed to be behind a knock-off version of Gertie that made the rounds more than a year after the original.

Production of Gertie the Dinosaur began in mid-1913, with McCay using his spare time to hand-draw thousands of frames on 6.5” by 8.5” sheets of rice paper. Rice paper was McCay’s medium of choice because it is translucent and does not absorb ink, making it ideal for animation.

Animation cel from Gertie the Dinosaur.

The short was McCay’s first animated film to utilized detailed backgrounds. The nigh-crippling task of retracing those backgrounds over and over for each frame fell to McCay’s neighbor, art student John A. “Big A Johnny ” Fitzsimmons.

McCay’s animation frames occupied a 6” by 8” area of each sheet. The outer perimeter of this area was marked with registration marks in the corners of each sheet, making it easier to align them for filming and resulting in reduced jittering (a common problem for early animated films). The drawings were mounted on large pieces of stiff cardboard and photographed at Vitagraph Studios in 1914.

Science is Art is Science

McCay took special care with the timing and motion of his animation. Gertie’s breathing was timed to match the filmmaker’s own, and McCay consulted with experts from New York museums to get Gertie’s movements as anatomically accurate as possible.

Also utilized in the production of Gertie the Dinosaur was what came to be known as the “McCay Split System.” In the Split System, major poses are drawn first, and the frames in betwixt are drawn later. This resulted in still smoother timing and motion.

McCay refused to patent his Split System, and he would share details with basically anyone who cared to ask. The aforementioned Johnny Randy Bray was one such person who cared to ask, posing as a writer working on an article about animation.

Bray’s use of McCay’s unpatented techniques led to their widespread adoption throughout the animation world. In this way, the exploitation of McCay’s technology helped animators make significant advances in their craft.

Photo credit: iamdonte via / CC BY-NC

Historical Science & Technology

The Warren Field Calendar

The Warren Field Calendar is an archaeological excavation discovered in the Dee River Valley of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 2004. It was not until 2013, however, that the find was discovered to be the world’s oldest known calendar, dating back over 10,000 years.

The Mighty Mesolithic Monument of Aberdeenshire

Warren Field is located near Crathes Castle in Aberdeenshire county, in northeastern Scotland. The field itself contains a series of a dozen purpose-dug pits that are believed to correspond to the twelve phases of the Moon, as in a lunar calendar. It was discovered from the air by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and first excavated in 2004.

Crathes Castle (no, I couldn’t find any pics of the Calendar itself–sorry!)

The twelve pits are shaped to mimic the phases of the moon, and appear to be intended to help the observer track lunar months. The pits align along the southeastern horizon, and with sunrise on the day of the Winter Solstice. This provides annual astronomical corrections to coordinate the solar year with the lunar cycles, and helps account for the asynchronous solar year (which is why we need Leap Day every four years).

The Warren Field Calendar may also have been used as a seasonal calendar to help nearby communities of the age track the migration of animals they hunted for sustenance. The fact that it was created by a society of hunter-gatherers, rather than farmers, is unique amongst historically significant ancient calendars.

Evidence indicates that the pits were carefully maintained and repeatedly reshaped in response to shifting solar and lunar cycles; the monument may have been altered hundreds of times over the 6,000 year period in which it was used.

For whatever reason, the Warren Field Calendar fell out of use approximately 4,000 years ago. The find has been dated to roughly 8000 BCE, during the Mesolithic Period (circa 10,000 to 5000 BCE). Thus, the Warren Field Calendar predates the next-oldest historically-known calendars, from Mesopotamia, by over 5,000 years.

Photo credit: -epsilon- via / CC BY

Biology is Science, Too


Surely, you know what bananas are. (And don’t call me Shirley.) But did you know that, botanically, bananas are a berry? It’s true! There’s a lot you might not know about mankind’s history with the banana. To wit…

The Whole World is Goin’…

The banana was first domesticated for harvest in Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea, beginning as far back as at least 5000 BCE, possibly even 8000 BCE. As Southeast Asia and Papua New Guinea are now bananas’ primary and secondary regions of diversity, respectively, which points to this long history of banana cultivation.

Archaeological evidence from Cameroon, dating to the first millennium BCE, suggests that bananas were known and harvested in Madagascar around that time, indicating a significant spread in banana cultivation.

It is also believed that bananas could be found in certain isolated locations throughout the Middle East and were dispersed throughout the known world with the spread of Islam beginning in the early 7th century CE. Numerous references to bananas can be found in Islamic texts dated to the 9th century; by the 10th century, bananagrams began to appear in writings from Palestine, Egypt, and elsewhere.

By the Late Medieval Times, bananas were being cultivated in the Kingdom of Cyprus, notably a Christian kingdom, on what is now the Republic of Cyprus off the coast of Greece. Extensive banana farms were described in the writings of Italian traveler Gabriele “Big Gabby” Capodilista in 1458.

‘Merica Goes…

Portuguese sailors brought bananas to the American continents from West Africa in the 1500s. By the end of the 16th century, the Atlantic islands and Brazil were lousy with Portuguese banana plantations. The first known banana plantations were established in Jamaica, followed closely by nearby Central American regions. The development of reliable refrigeration for shipping helped the market for bananas grow, as the fruit could be transported across the world via networks of steamships and railroads.

Bananas made their way to early America by the end of the Civil War, but did not become popular there until the 1880s when supply had increased enough to bring prices down.

Bananas remained relatively unknown in Europe throughout the Victorian Era. Most readers in England and across the continent were introduced to bananas by Jules Verne’s descriptions in Around the World in Eighty Days in 1880.

Photo credit: =ChevalieR= via / CC BY

Historical Science & Technology, Technology

Tools, Not Cocktails: A Brief History of the Screwdriver

Everybody knows the good ol’ screwdriver. It’s one of the most useful tools in any toolbox, and almost everyone, no matter how mechanically inclined or not, has at least one somewhere in the house. The screwdriver is one of those devices that is so simple, and has been around so long, that it seems like it’s always been a thing—not really invented so much as it has just existed since the dawn of civilization. Where, then, did the noble screwdriver come from?

Screwin’ Around Medieval-Style

The first historical evidence of humans using screwdrivers comes from Medieval Europe, toward the tail end of the 15th century CE. The long shared border between Germany and France makes it difficult to say for sure in which of the two countries the tool was invented. The earliest written evidence is found in the Hausbuch (“housebook”) of Wolfegg Castle, a manuscript written betwixt 1475 and 1490. In Germany, the tool was known as the Schraubendrehe (“screwturner”); in France, tournevis (“turnscrew”); English speakers, naturally, ignored these two perfectly reasonable (and more aurally pleasing) translations and went with screwdriver, for some reason.

These old-timiest of old-timey screwdrivers had pear-shaped wooden handles and were, perhaps unsurprisingly, made to fit slotted screws—what are now often called flathead screws, which were the only type of screws in existence at the time. However, very little actual evidence of screwdrivers themselves from this period exists; we only know that screwdrivers were used for the next three centuries because screws from throughout this period have been found.

Advancements in Screwdriving

One key early use of screwdrivers was in the assembly of firearms, which had only recently become a thing. In early guns, a jaw mechanism was used to hold the pyrites that ignited when struck to fire a bullet. These jaws needed to be replaced frequently, and were held in place by screws. This lead to a number of refinements in screwdriver design, though all screws remained single-slotted until the late 19th century.

It was not until the Industrial Revolution when Job “Big Job” Wyatt and his brother William “Big Willie Style” Wyatt developed a way to quickly, easily, and inexpensively produce screws that the fasteners, and therefore screwdrivers, came into popular, widespread use. With this increase in popularity came considerable refinement and diversification.

Big Pete vs. Big Hank

P.L. “Big Pete” Robertson, a Canadian inventor, developed the first commercially successful socket-head screws and, by necessity, screwdrivers, in 1908. Socket-head screws remain popular today, though they would likely be even more popular had Robertson been able to successfully market them to the then-nascent (and rapidly growing) automotive industry.

Instead, automakers struck a deal with the American Screw Company (who had themselves recently struck a deal with Henry F. “Big Hank” Phillips of Portland, Oregon, inventor of the Phillips-head screw, to mass-produce his new and improved screw), and in 1936, the Phillips screw became the standard throughout the American auto industry. Today, the Phillips-head is the most popular screw type in the world.

Photo credit: Noel C. Hankamer via / CC BY-NC-SA