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a pirate's life for me

PiratejenlucIf you're anything like me, you thrilled to Johnny Depp's glorious performance as the winsome, piratical rogue, Captain Jack Sparrow, in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, Jen-Luc Piquant and I are waiting on tenterhooks for the next installment in the ongoing saga, Dead Man's Chest, to arrive in the DC area, even though Jen-Luc correctly points out that it's a rare case when sequels live up to the original. (She holds out no hope whatsoever for the third installment, currently in production.)

Still, what is it about pirates that holds such universal appeal, for all of us, not just for the lovely Elizabeth Swann? Jen-Luc maintains its all about "the look" -- swashbuckling boots, colorful jacket and bandanna, a jaunty eye patch -- and has adapted her own personal style for the occasion. I would make the case that it's the salty pirate speech; in fact, you can translate this entire blog post into Pirate-Speak by clicking on this link and typing in the appropriate URL. (It's also amusing to type in the URL of, say, the typically fusty George Will's latest column; his conservative musings take on an entirely different flavor when rendered in Pirate Speak.)

British comedic author Gideon DeFoe tackles this very issue in the opening chapter of his most excellent book, Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. (The paperback version just released in the US comes bound together with DeFoe's own sequel, Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab, but in this post, we're focusing on the scientists, for obvious reasons.) The pirates in question, those scurvy knaves, are lolling about the deck of their ship, debating the best thing about being a pirate. One says the looting, another marooning, still another sings the praises of pirate grog, and a fourth insists it's the Spanish Main. A brawl inevitably develops, cut short by the appearance of the Pirate Captain, who settles the dispute by declaring that the best part of being a pirate is... the sea shanties.

This might be a good place to point out that the Pirate Captain is not the brightest bulb in the Yuletide tree, and that pirates are not known for their sophisticated musical tastes. DeFoe's book, however, is bloody brilliant. Sure, it has a silly premise: the pirates mistakenly loot the H.M.S. Beagle -- on its second voyage, to the Galapagos Islands, circa 1831 -- believing it to be carrying gold rather than exotic natural specimens. (Note that Jen-Luc has adopted a cute little lizard rather than the customary parrot, in keeping with the Galapagos theme.) They sink the ship, and feel kinda bad about it. So they agree to transport Charles Darwin, Captain Robert FitzRoy, and Mister Bobo (Darwin's trained "Man-Panzee") back to Victorian London.Beagle

Like I said, a silly premise. But DeFoe includes fascinating factual tidbits in the footnotes, so he's no slouch when it comes to history, scientific or otherwise. According to one footnote, Darwin memorably described the Beagle voyage in a letter as being "one continual puke." There is also a footnoted mention of John Venn (born in 1834, a few years after the book's events supposedly took place), a British logician and philosopher best known for introducing "Venn diagrams" around 1881. It's nice to see such a fine meshing of silliness with snippets of serious science, even if the price is an occasional anachronism. It's all in the name of good clean fun. And did I mention there's a feisty damsel in distress named Jennifer, who ends up joining the pirate crew? Really, what's not to love in such a book?

In the course of their adventure, the pirates crash London's Royal Society, donning pens, rulers and white lab coats to disguise themselves as scientists. The pirates show an uncanny knack for engaging in scientific discourse, "nodding politely and saying 'Really?' a lot as they listened to [the scientists] drone on about their latest inventions and discoveries." Sounds like the average scientific press conference, doesn't it? Personally, I think the technical sessions at meetings would be livened signficantly if the speakers were clad in Pirate garb. They should also be armed with cutlasses so they could -- as the Pirate Captain is wont to do -- use said weapons to run through any especially obstrepterous colleagues in the assembly.

A bit of the science behind nautical navigation is to be expected, of course. The Pirate Captain's cabin is equipped not just with the usual nautical maps and charts, but also an astrolabe. Astrolabes are very ancient instruments -- possibly dating as far back as the Second Century, B.C. -- for determining the time and position of the stars in the sky. They were mostly used in astronomical studies, not for navigation, but there was a mariner's astrolabe, a simple ring marked in degrees for measuring celestial altitudes.

In DeFoe's book, the Captain likes to fiddle with his astrolabe for show, pretending he can carry out complex calculations in the midst of casual conversation, but he isn't entirely sure of the difference between an astrolabe and a sextant. The sextant wasn't invented until the 18th century, and quickly displaced the mariner's astrolabe for navigational purposes because it was much more precise. A sextant measures the angle of elevation of a celestial object above the horizon. Using this angle, combined with the time of measurement, enables the navigator to calculate a precise position line on a nautical chart. For example, a sextant could be used to sight the sun at high noon in order to determine one's latitude. Hold the thing horizontally, and you can measure the angle between any two objects: say, a couple of lighthouses, giant Galapagos sea turtles, or mermaids lazily sunning themselves on conveniently located boulders.

There's also mention of the famous Beaufort wind force scale, a 19th century means of empirically describing wind intensity based on observed sea conditions. It was the brainchild of Sir Francis Beaufort, a British naval officer and friend of Darwin who sought to remove the subjective measures for windy weather observations at sea by describing wind conditions according to the effect on the sails of a man of war, then the main ship of the Royal Navy. The original Beaufort scale ranged from 0 to 12 (later extended to 16), and its descriptions ranged from "just sufficient to give steerage" to "that which no canvas can withstand." As the albino pirate correctly points out, a Beaufort scale ranking of 6 would be a "strong breeze," while 8 would indicate a "fresh gale" -- or, per the Pirate Captain, "that which will make a pirate's trousers billow about so it looks like he has fat legs." (Hurricanes, in case you're interested, begin at 12 on the Beaufort scale, which corresponds to a Category 1 hurricane on the modern Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Even as far back as 1712, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico were beset by hurricanes. That year, according to DeFoe's informative footnote, a single storm destroyed some 38 ships moored in Port Royal's harbor.)

Beaufort isn't the only historical personage to make a cameo appearance in DeFoe's novel. FitzRoy really did captain the Beagle and select Darwin as the onboard naturalist, despite purportedly not liking the shape of Darwin's nose. (Hey, that could get really irritating on a long sea voyage, particularly on a tiny ship like the Beagle, which was a mere 90 feet long.) He was an amateur meteorologist, eventually heading the British Meteorological Department and pioneering the printing of a daily weather forecast in newspapers. Alas, the unfortunate FitzRoy did indeed commit suicide in 1865 by slitting his own throat, ostensibly in a fit of depression over not being selected as Chief Naval Officer in the Marine Department.

And while crashing the Royal Society, the pirates encounter James Glaisher, an English meteorologist who tells them of his passion for "lighter-than-air" ships, a.k.a. "dirigibles." The concept dates back to 18th century France, when the Mongolfier brothers (paper makers by trade) noticed that smoke from a fire built under a paper bag would cause the bag to rise into the air. The science behind this is simple: the hot air inside expanded, and thus weighed less, by volume, than the surrounding air. The Mongolfiers built the first hot-air balloons around 1782. Another Frenchman, Henri Giffard, built the first dirigible, inflated with hydrogen, a gas that is naturally lighter than air at normal temperatures. Alas, as the 1937 Hindenburg disaster revealed, hydrogen is also highly flammable; modern airships use helium, an "unburnable" gas.

Glaisher was indeed a pioneering balloonist, making numerous ascents between 1862 and 1866 to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at the highest possible levels. On one such flight, he and his pilot, Henry Coxwell, set a world record of 29,000 feet, nearly losing their lives in the process. Glaisher passed out from the lack of oxygen, while Coxwell's hands were so stiff with cold he could barely manage to free a tangled valve and thereby halt their ascent to even higher (and more deadly) altitudes. (An artist's rendition of Glaisher's harrowing experience can be seen at right.) They still hold a few world records in this area -- not that this was Glaisher's primary motivation, nosiree. As the fictional Glaisher explains to DeFoe's assembled pirates, "What is science for? Pushing back frontiers! The thrill of discovery! Advancing the sum total of human knowledge and endeavour! And looking down ladies' tops!" Glaisher

I actually learned something new from DeFoe's footnotes regarding dirigibles, namely, that helium wasn't technically "discovered" on earth until about 1895, despite being abundant in the universe. I also learned that America, in particular, faces a looming helium shortage. It turns out that almost all of the global supply of helium is located within 250 miles of Amarillo, Texas; it's distilled from accumulated natural gas, extracted during the refining process. Since the 1920s, the US has considered its helium stockpile as an important strategic natural resource, amassing some 32 billion cubic feet in an underground bunker in Texas, but now, it's selling off that stockpile bit by bit to interested industrial buyers.

Helium is used for arc welding and leak detection, mostly, although NASA uses it to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks. Liquid helium cools infrared detectors, nuclear reactors, and the superconducting magnets used in MRI machines, too. The fear is that, at current consumption rates, that underground bunker will be empty within 20 years, leaving the earth almost helium-free by the end of the 21st century. This could be bad for US industry, not to mention future patients in need of MRI diagnostics. It's also bodes ill for the prospect of fusion using helium-3, a rare isotope that is missing a neutron. Physicists have yet to achieve pure helium-3 fusion, but if they did, we'd have a clean, virtually infinite power source. Or so the theory goes. Still there is hope: the moon's lunar soil is chock-full of helium reserves, thanks to the solar wind. In fact, every star emits helium constantly, suggesting that one day, spaceships will carry on a brisk import and export trade to harvest this critical element. And I daresay it will pave the way for a lucrative "space pirate" business as well.

Perhaps my favorite scene is when the Pirate Captain chases a villainous Bishop through London's Natural History Museum. The latter flings armloads of trilobites culled from the display cases at him, and when the chase moves to the Mineral Room, both men resort to projectiles of various mineral elements, choosing them according to atomic weight. For example, the Bishop hurls a chunk of iron (atomic weight: 55.85), and the Pirate Captain counters with a chunk of nickel (atomic weight: 58.69). Really, how many authors who write silly books about pirates can rattle off the atomic number (44) and atomic weight (101.07) of a rare transition metal like ruthenium? (Jen-Luc pipes in with the pointless information that trace amounts of ruthenium are often added to titanium to improve its corrosion resistance.) Or osmium -- atomic weight: 190.2 -- for that matter?

A few winks at Darwin's expense are inevitable. To make room for Darwin and his crew on the pirate ship, the Pirate Captain makes a few crew members walk the plank. When Darwin objects to the brutality, the Pirate Captain assures him that only "fools and lubbers" would be sacrificed, concluding, "It's for the good of the species." And upon arriving in London, and visiting the Royal Society, the Pirate Captain nobly puts his gift of showmanship to work on Darwin's behalf, assuring the young naturalist that good science isn't enough: "You need a gimmick! A bit of controversy! It's all about the presentation."

These days, of course, Darwin doesn't want for controversy, as that thinly-veiled form of creationism, Intelligent Design, simply refuses to die in school districts across the country. When On the Origin of the Species was first published, Darwin wasn't especially surprised that people -- even his fellow naturalists -- resisted many of his conclusions; there's a letter now up for auction by Sotheby's of London that says as much. But I think he'd be more than a little dismayed to see how people continue to resist the modern theory of evolution, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to support it. There's certainly no debate among respected scientists: just last week, the national academies of some 67 countries issued a joint statement urging schools, parents, teachers, etc. to stop denying the scientific facts of the origin and evolution of life on earth.

The problem is that evolution has been vilified as a lie propounded by godless heathens -- you know, like P.Z. Myers, who routinely incurs the ire of Believers (not just Creationists, either) with his staunch scientific atheism. In fact, there's a big brouhaha fomenting over at P.Z.'s blog right now over his stance on science and religion, specifically over his recent post about whether it's possible for any good scientist to be anything other than an atheist. P.Z. might have a sharp-ish way of expressing himself at times, but it's pretty tough to argue with the sense of this comment:

If a scientist applies the same kind of critical thinking she uses in her work to religion, she gets the same answer an atheist does.... [S]he doesn't have to apply that kind of thinking to every aspect of her life, of course, and none of us do. If she wants to claim she's happy to be a Presbyterian and accepts it as a matter of simple faith, there is no argument, the case is closed, and she can go about her business unhassled by science.

(Admit it, now you're just dying to hop on over there and see for yourself. But please -- not before you finish this post.)

Darwin himself, it should be noted, wasn't an atheist; he described himself in his autobiography as a theist at the time of writing Origin of the Species, although by then he had summarily rejected William Paley's famed "argument from design" which had so influenced him in his youth. In his later years, Darwin was resolutely irreligious, moving firmly into the agnostic camp by the time he died. But he never seemed to feel there was much conflict between science and religion provided -- and this is a critical proviso -- that religion remained a strictly personal matter and was kept separate from science. For Darwin, "the question of god's existence was outside the scope of scientific inquiry."

That seems an eminently sensible viewpoint. Unfortunately, lots of people seem incapable of making these critical distinctions, which is why we end up with situations like the controversy that erupted over setting science standards in Kansas, for example, or the recent landmark court case in Dover, Pennsylvania. That decision stated unequivocally that Intelligent Design was not a science, and should not be included in the science standards set by state Boards of Education. It doesn't get more clear than that, yet the manufactured "controversy" rages on. What's it gonna take to stamp out this pseudo-scientific nonsense once and for all?

We could always make the particularly pig-headed walk the proverbial plank: natural selection in practice, not just theory. Or perhaps scientists should follow the Pirate Captain's lead in DeFoe's novel, and stage a WWF-style showdown between science -- represented in the novel by Darwin's Man-Panzee, Mister Bobo -- and religion, personified by the "Holy Ghost" (actually a pirate named Scurvy Jake in disguise). "The science you are doing is too shocking by half!" the Holy Ghost declares with righteous indignation. "I will lay the smackdown on your wicked ways!" Then Mister Bobo hits him over the head with a folding chair, knocking him out cold, and is declared the victor. See? Science always triumphs in the end. Darwin becomes the toast of London and quite a favorite with the ladies, while Mister Bobo gets featured on the cover of Nature. It's as good a strategy for combating Intelligent Design as any. I say let's set up a booking in Vegas right now and put the smackdown on pseudoscience.


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I hope you are doing well in the rain. Perhaps the appeal was that Pirates are seen as independent adventurers, not tied to some government grant like so many of today's explorers. Also, the clothes were cool.


How does one speak up for religion now without making a fool of oneself?
Or perhaps that's what St. Paul meant when he said that he was a "fool for Christ."
Is it worth it, then, or perhaps it's best just to practice one's religion in secret, while doing science and math in the open.

For Pyracantha: You're mistaken if you thought there was anything in my post suggesting it was NOT okay to have faith in one's religion. My objection is solely to things like Intelligent Design: religion attempting to pass itself off as a legitimate science. No one -- not even PZ the Rabid Atheist :) -- is suggesting that a scientist should feel compelled to deny his/her beliefs, just don't pretend your beliefs have any basis in science. That was the point of my quote from PZ's blog.

You have unwittingly exemplified the problem here: any criticism of ID and/or defense of evolution is automatically assumed to be an "attack" on religion. It just isn't so....

A friend of mine, since deceased, worked at the federal helium plant in Amarillo and retired when it shut down. The plant operated at a profit purifying helium removed from natural gas before the gas was shipped across the country to heat people's homes. As part of a political deal, several billion dollars of debt from government porkbarrel projects in other states was assigned to the plant. (What the projects had in common was that they used helium.) With the interest charges on the huge debt, it looked on paper as if the plant lost money. Therefore, the plant was closed down as a cost-saving measure, and the helium reserves were sold to companies who's lobbyists helped organize the deal. (The government pretended to try to sell the plant, but required that any buyer take over the debt, which exceeded the value of the plant.) Now we are using down the helium reserves that the plant produced while discarding the helium that is removed from the natural gas we burn. At least that's the way he explained it.

It's probably worth bearing in mind (especially by believers in "Intelligent Design") that Darwin finally lost his faith as a result of the illness and death of his daughter Annie, rather than as a result of his scientific researches..

Just found your blog via, errr, something and am thoroughly enjoying reading through your archives. Doubt I'll get any work done today!

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