Category: history

Did Ancient Troy really exist?


When Homer’s Iliad was first written down in the 8th century BCE, the story of the Trojan war was already an old one. From existing oral tradition, audiences knew the tales of the long siege, the epic duels outside the city walls, and the cunning trick that finally won the war. 


In the end, the magnificent city was burned to the ground, never to rise again. 


But had it ever existed? By the time the field of archaeology began to take shape in the 19th century, many were skeptical, considering the epic to be pure fiction, a founding myth imagining a bygone heroic era. But some scholars believed that behind the superhuman feats and divine miracles there must have been a grain of historical truth – a war that was really fought, and a place where it happened.


Frank Calvert was one such believer. He had spent his youth traveling and learning about ancient civilizations before accompanying his brother Frederick on a diplomatic mission to the northwest Anatolian region of Çanakkale. It was here that Homer described the Greek encampment at the mouth of the Scamander river. And it was here that fate brought Frank into contact with a journalist and geologist named Charles Maclaren. Locals and travelers had long speculated that Troy might’ve stood on one of the surrounding hilltops. But Maclaren had been one of the first to publish a detailed topographical study of the area. He believed he had found the site – a 32-meter mound known by the name Hisarlık, derived from the Turkish word for “fortress.” Frank Calvert began to survey the site, but lacked the funds for a full excavation. This was where the wealthy German businessman and amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann came in. At Calvert’s invitation, Schliemann visited the grounds in 1868, and decided to excavate. Eager to find the ancient city, Schliemann tore massive trenches all the way to the base of the hill. There, he uncovered a hoard of precious artifacts, jewelry, and metalwork, including two diadems and a copper shield. Schliemann took full credit for the discovery, announcing that he had found Troy and the treasure of its king Priam. But the real treasure was elsewhere.


When later archaeologists studied the site, they realized that the mound consisted of no less than nine cities, each built atop the ruins of the last. The layer Schliemann had uncovered dated back to the Mycenaean Age, more than 1,000 years too early for Homer. But inside the mound was indeed evidence for a city that had thrived during the Bronze Age, with charred stone, broken arrowheads, and damaged human skeletons suggesting a violent end. It was Troy VII, contained in the middle layers and now ravaged for a second time by Schliemann’s careless excavation. The settlement, spanning some 200,000 square meters and home to as many as 10,000 people, thrived until around 1180 BCE. Its position at the southern entrance of the Dardanelles strait would’ve made a formidable strategic location for both defense and trade. Most importantly, there are the remains of a massive fortification wall – perhaps the very same one from which Priam and Hector once watched the Greeks approach. 


Of course, it’s difficult to be certain that these ruins are the true remains of ancient Troy, and scholars still dispute whether the Trojan War as described by Homer ever happened. Yet the evidence is strong enough that UNESCO has labelled Hisarlık the archeological site of Troy. Regardless of its identity, thanks to persistence, a bit of faith, and a lot of research, archaeologists are bringing the long-buried secrets of an ancient, lost city to light.

From the TED-Ed Lesson Did ancient Troy really exist? – Einav Zamir Dembin

Animation by Cabong Studios

Sister Rosetta Tharpe All this new stuff they…

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

All this new stuff they call rock ’n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now… Ninety percent of rock-and-roll artists came out of the church, their foundation is the church.

A hipster queen among hipsters, she was already empowering herself (doubly) even before the very word was created. Love.

[Impressed with the amount of legitimate tags that I can use in this post to be this (more or less) a science blog]

teded: On August 28, 1963, American civil righ…


On August 28, 1963, American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his infamous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., in which he states: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Today, as we honor Dr. King, let us take a moment to reflect upon the contents of this very speech, the progress we’ve made since 1963, and the work we’ve yet to do to end racial discrimination across the globe. The full-length speech can be read here.

From the TED-Ed Lesson How to use rhetoric to get what you want – Camille A. Langston

Animation by TOGETHER

55 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his infamous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

In the mid-16th century, Italians were captiva…

In the mid-16th century, Italians were captivated by a type of male singer whose incredible range contained notes previously thought impossible for adult men. However, this gift came at a high price. To prevent their voices from breaking, these singers had been castrated before puberty, halting the hormonal processes that would deepen their voices. Known as castrati, their light, angelic voices were renowned throughout Europe, until the cruel procedure that created them was outlawed in the 1800s.


From the TED-Ed Lesson Why does your voice change as you get older? – Shaylin A. Schundler

Animation by @rewfoe

teded: On this day in 1911, Italian nationalis…


On this day in 1911, Italian nationalist, Vincenzo Peruggia, stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. The painting was missing for more than 2 years, but in December 1913, Peruggia was finally caught and the Mona Lisa, now the subject of a major news story and a household name, was recovered.

The disappearance of Da Vinci’s painting was briefly attributed to French poet and radical, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was even arrested in September of 1911 as the prime suspect in the theft, but after five days with no evidence, he was released.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The poet who painted with his words – Geneviève Emy

Animation by TED-Ed and @charlottecambon

The Genius of Marie Curie



Growing up in Warsaw in Russian-occupied Poland, the young Marie Curie, originally named Maria Sklodowska, was a brilliant student, but she faced some challenging barriers. As a woman, she was barred from pursuing higher education, so in an act of defiance, Marie enrolled in the Floating University, a secret institution that provided clandestine education to Polish youth. By saving money and working as a governess and tutor, she eventually was able to move to Paris to study at the reputed Sorbonne. here, Marie earned both a physics and mathematics degree surviving largely on bread and tea, and sometimes fainting from near starvation. 


In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium spontaneously emitted a mysterious X-ray-like radiation that could interact with photographic film. Curie soon found that the element thorium emitted similar radiation. Most importantly, the strength of the radiation depended solely on the element’s quantity, and was not affected by physical or chemical changes. This led her to conclude that radiation was coming from something fundamental within the atoms of each element. The idea was radical and helped to disprove the long-standing model of atoms as indivisible objects. Next, by focusing on a super radioactive ore called pitchblende, the Curies realized that uranium alone couldn’t be creating all the radiation. So, were there other radioactive elements that might be responsible?


In 1898, they reported two new elements, polonium, named for Marie’s native Poland, and radium, the Latin word for ray. They also coined the term radioactivity along the way. By 1902, the Curies had extracted a tenth of a gram of pure radium chloride salt from several tons of pitchblende, an incredible feat at the time. Later that year, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel were nominated for the Nobel Prize in physics, but Marie was overlooked. Pierre took a stand in support of his wife’s well-earned recognition. And so both of the Curies and Becquerel shared the 1903 Nobel Prize, making Marie Curie the first female Nobel Laureate.


In 1911, she won yet another Nobel, this time in chemistry for her earlier discovery of radium and polonium, and her extraction and analysis of pure radium and its compounds. This made her the first, and to this date, only person to win Nobel Prizes in two different sciences. Professor Curie put her discoveries to work, changing the landscape of medical research and treatments. She opened mobile radiology units during World War I, and investigated radiation’s effects on tumors.


However, these benefits to humanity may have come at a high personal cost. Curie died in 1934 of a bone marrow disease, which many today think was caused by her radiation exposure. Marie Curie’s revolutionary research laid the groundwork for our understanding of physics and chemistry, blazing trails in oncology, technology, medicine, and nuclear physics, to name a few. For good or ill, her discoveries in radiation launched a new era, unearthing some of science’s greatest secrets.

From the TED-Ed Lesson The genius of Marie Curie – Shohini Ghose

Animation by Anna Nowakowska

In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered rad…

In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium. Claimed to have restorative properties, radium was added to toothpaste, medicine, water, and food. A glowing, luminous green, it was also used in beauty products and jewelry. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century we realized that radium’s harmful effects as a radioactive element outweighed its visual benefits.

Unfortunately, radium isn’t the only pigment that historically seemed harmless or useful but turned out to be deadly. That lamentable distinction includes a trio of colors and pigments that we’ve long used to decorate ourselves and the things we make: white, green, and orange.

To learn about these other ‘deadly colors’, watch the TED-Ed Lesson History’s deadliest colors – J. V. Maranto

Animation by Juan M. Urbina

The shortest-known paper published in a seriou…

The shortest-known paper published in a serious math journal: 2 Succinct Sentences. (Via Open Culture) – PDF

As Sean Carroll says in his FB page:

The shortest math paper ever reminds us why mathematicians think that P doesn’t equal NP, even if they can’t yet prove it. It’s much easier to check solutions to problems (P) than it is to actually solve them (NP).

Below you can see how a CDC 600 computer looks like around 1964-1969.

[Image credit: Jitze Couperus, Supercomputer – The Beginnings – Flickr]

The First Asteroid Ever Discovered


On the night of January 1, 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi, a priest in Palermo, Italy, was mapping the stars in the sky. Over three nights, he’d look at and draw the same set of stars, carefully measuring their relative positions.


That night, he measured the stars. The next night, he measured them again. To his surprise, one had moved. The third night, the peculiar star had moved again. This meant it couldn’t be a star at all.


It was something new, the first asteroid ever discovered, which Piazzi eventually named Ceres. Asteroids are bits of rock and metal that orbit the Sun. At over 900 kilometers across, Ceres is a very large asteroid. But through a telescope, like Piazzi’s, Ceres looked like a pinpoint of light similar to a star. In fact, the word asteroid means star-like. You can tell the difference between stars and asteroids by the way they move across the sky. Of course, Piazzi knew none of that at the time, just that he had discovered something new. To learn about Ceres, Piazzi needed to track its motion across the sky and then calculate its orbit around the Sun. 


So each clear night, Piazzi trained his telescope to the heavens. Night after night, he made careful measurements, but from his observations he learned that Ceres was only visible in the sky during the day. It would take another year and a lot of astronomers to nail down Ceres’ path, but we haven’t lost track of it since.


Today, we can do something that Piazzi could only dream of: send spacecraft to study asteroids up close. One spacecraft called Dawn journeyed billions of kilometers over four years to the main asteroid belt. There, it visited Ceres and another asteroid, Vesta. Dawn’s stunning images transformed Piazzi’s dot of light into a spectacular landscape of craters, landslides, and mountains.


From the TED-Ed Lesson The first asteroid ever discovered – Carrie Nugent

Animation by TED-Ed / Reza Riahi

My first code in Mathematica goes back to V2 (…

My first code in Mathematica goes back to V2 (1991) for the first reliable graphical environment from Microsoft (Windows 3.0, 3.1), lab reports improved instantly. Many things have changed in three decades in the world of computer algebra systems, even to the point to be of (irremediably) minority use, mostly because there are plenty alternatives both for high (Matlab, Octave, Sage) and low level (C, C++, Fortran…), or both (Python, Java, R…). But for people of a couple of generations (those born in the 60s and 70s or so) coming from an almost purely analogical world, seeing a pioneer (back then and now) of that generation as Stephen Wolfram (1959), posting this about the software that he himself had developed from the scratch before his 30 birthday, well, it makes us… happily nostalgic.