Episode 49: You’re A Wizard, Scotus!

Shea shares some new words named for some old people, then Aaron talks patrons through the science of nuking stuff into space… kind of.

Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that is made up of words.

I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me is:

I’m Aaron, and this week I learned superhero names and porn star names are basically the same thing: a bad description of whatever skills or oddities you’re famous for… Did I mention we’re doing a review of Justice League: Snyder Cut for patrons? No. Well we are… all 9000 sections of it.

Wicked words

This week when I was delving into the internet I found myself on the topic of words again. There seems to be no dearth of information on etymology and word origins and for some reason I am absolutely fascinated with it. So today I bring interesting words, and many you know, that all have roots in a person’s name. If you remember our quiz from last year and I mentioned Gerrymandering, from Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814). The shape of one of the voting districts suggested the body of a salamander, prompting a staffer at the Boston Gazette to coin the word Gerrymander. There are loads of words out there named for people, so let’s take a look at some interesting origins.

The Irish invented boycotting because of the English. This all started in 1880 when Charles Stewart Parnell, whom I had never heard of but was a pretty popular Irish member of Parliament, decided that the English Government had failed them in their time of need and that they must seize control of their own destiny. This was not long after the terrible potato famine, BTW. Parnell was the son of a Protestant landowner who organised the rural masses into agitation against the ruling Landlord class, the Brits mostly, to seek the 3 Fs: Fixity of Tenure, Freedom to Sell and Fair Rent. Something that was incredibly lacking at the time and because of the terrible conditions and the rising rent many Irish were forced out of their homes onto the streets. Before this in 1870, landlords, many of them absentee, owned 80% of all the land of Ireland, while 50% of tenants occupied holdings of less than fifteen acres; more than three quarters of all holdings were annual tenancies.

During this the “hero” or our story, Charles Cunningham Boycott comes to town. Boycott was an English land agent working for Lord Erne, a major landowner in the Lough Mask area of County Mayo who lived off the exorbitant rents he charged tenants. Boycott, you see, was a former army officer and had served in the British Army 39th Regiment, which brought him to Ireland. After retiring from the army he threw his lot in with Lord Erne and took pleasure in the many bloody evictions that were to come.

Boycott got right to work, evicting many tenants for not paying/being able to afford rent and quickly the ire for him grew. As new Irish laws were passed in hopes of lowering rent and making it easier to exist while Irish, Boycott kept working. Soon his tale of evictions would come to a head when Boycott set about evicting 11 tenants the locals had had enough. The Mayo branch of the Irish Land League urged Boycott’s employees to withdraw their labor and began a campaign of isolation against Boycott in the local community. This campaign included shops in nearby Ballinrobe refusing to serve him, and the withdrawal of services. Boycott found himself a marked man, not fearing violence but even worse the scorn, silence, and disdain of simply everyone he encountered.

Furious, he made a fatal mistake by informing the all-powerful London media of his plight. The campaign against Boycott became a huge issue in the British press after he wrote the following letter to The Times.

“Sir, The following detail may be interesting to your readers as exemplifying the power of the Land League. On the 22nd September a process-server, escorted by a police force of seventeen men, retreated to my house for protection, followed by a howling mob of people, who yelled and hooted at the members of my family.

“On the ensuing day, September 23rd, the people collected in crowds upon my farm, and some hundred or so came up to my house and ordered off, under threats of ulterior consequences, all my farm labourers, workmen, and stablemen, commanding them never to work for me again.

“The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house, and I have just received a message from the postmistress to say that the telegraph messenger was stopped and threatened on the road when bringing out a message to me and that she does not think it safe to send any telegrams which may come for me in the future for fear they should be abstracted and the messenger injured. My farm is public property; the people wander over it with impunity. My crops are trampled upon, carried away in quantities, and destroyed wholesale.

“The locks on my gates are smashed, the gates thrown open, the walls thrown down, and the stock driven out on the roads. I can get no workmen to do anything, and my ruin is openly avowed as the object of the Land League unless I throw up everything and leave the country. I say nothing about the danger to my own life, which is apparent to anybody who knows the country.’


Exactly as you imagine the situation became a major story in the English press and funds were raised by the Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, and other papers to send farmers from the Orange North to harvest the crops. In response, a group of about 50 Ulster Loyalists volunteered to come to Boycott’s aid and bring in his crops. Newspapers sent correspondents to the West of Ireland to cover the story and the Fifty Orangemen from County Cavan had to be guarded by a regiment of the 19th Royal Hussars and more than 1,000 men of the Royal Irish Constabulary were deployed to protect the harvesters. The episode cost at least £10,000 to harvest about £500 worth of crops. Totally worth it guys!

Boycott left Ireland on December 1, 1880, in disgrace, his name forever attached to a campaign to bring down tyrants. Boycotting had dramatically strengthened the power of the peasants, and by the end of 1880, there were reports of boycotting from all over Ireland. The events at Lough Mask had also increased the power of the Land League, and the popularity of Parnell as a leader. Non-violent and successful it was one of the most successful tactics ever used against the British in Ireland.

Let’s roll the times back a bit and travel south to London. “Luddite” is now a blanket term used to describe people who dislike new technology, but its origins date back to an early 19th-century labor movement that railed against the ways that mechanized manufactures and their unskilled laborers undermined the skilled craftsmen of the day.

The original Luddites were British weavers and textile workers who objected to the increased use of mechanized looms and knitting frames. Most were trained artisans who had spent years learning their craft, and they feared that unskilled machine operators were robbing them of their livelihood. When the economic pressures of the Napoleonic Wars made the cheap competition of early textile factories particularly threatening to the artisans, a few desperate weavers began breaking into factories and smashing textile machines. They called themselves “Luddites” after Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who was rumored to have wrecked a textile apparatus in 1779.

There’s no actual evidence that Ludd existed but what little I could find says in 1779, either after being whipped for idleness or after being taunted by local youths, he smashed two knitting frames in what was described as a “fit of passion”. This story is traceable to an article in The Nottingham Review on 20 December 1811, but there is no independent evidence of its truth. John Blackner’s book History of Nottingham, also published in 1811, provides a variant tale, of a lad called “Ludlam” who was told by his father, a framework-knitter, to “square his needles”. Ludlam took a hammer and “beat them into a heap”. News of the incident spread, and whenever frames were sabotaged, people would jokingly say “Ned Ludd did it”. Just because a person may not exist did stop him from eventually becoming the mythical leader of the movement. The protestors claimed to be following orders from “General Ludd,” and they even issued manifestoes and threatening letters under his name.

The first major instances of machine breaking took place in 1811 in Nottingham, and the practice soon spread across the English countryside. Machine-breaking Luddites attacked and burned factories, and in some cases they even exchanged gunfire with company guards and soldiers. The workers hoped their raids would deter employers from installing expensive machinery, but the British government instead moved to quash the uprisings by making machine-breaking punishable by death.

The unrest finally reached its peak in April 1812, when a few Luddites were gunned down during an attack on a mill near Huddersfield. The army had deployed several thousand troops to round up these dissidents in the days that followed, and dozens were hanged or transported to Australia. By 1813, the Luddite resistance had all but vanished. It wasn’t until the 20th century that their name re-entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for “technophobe.”

What kind of show would we be if we didn’t pepper in some crazy woo. A tall, striking doctor with an unusually piercing gaze sits opposite his patient, firmly pressing her knees between his own. He stares fixedly into the patient’s eyes, stroking her limbs, and then passing his hands in front of her body in a series of cryptic motions. Is this man a hypnotist or a movie villain? A healer or a charlatan? In the case of Franz Anton Mesmer, the answer to all of the above could be yes.

Mesmer was an 18th century doctor who developed the theory of animal magnetism, as well as a related style of treatment that came to be known as mesmerism. His theories were debunked in his time and sound bizarre today, but some credit him with laying the foundation for the practice of modern hypnotism. He is also part of the select group of people in history to have an entire verb—mesmerized—named for him.

So, what is animal magnetism? It’s the name Mesmer gave to what he believed to be an invisible natural force (Lebensmagnetismus) possessed by all living things, including humans, animals, and vegetables. He believed that the force could have physical effects, including healing. Wow, sounds technical.

While studying law and medicine, Mesmer encountered astronomer Maximilian Hell and his treatment of patients using magnets to produce artificial “tides” in the body that Mesmer began referring to animal magnetism. While that may sound like some sort of sexy super power, Mesmer’s meaning was a bit more literal.

His theory held that all living beings have a magnetic fluid running through their bodies, and that this fluid could be transferred between bodies and even to inanimate objects. Health was a result of the magnetic fluid being in balance, while illness was the result of blockages. Taking a page from Hell, Mesmer began working with patients by using magnets to move their fluid around and restore their health. But he eventually abandoned the magnets after deciding that an individual with particularly strong magnetism (such as himself, of course) could achieve the same effect by laying hands on or passing his hands over a patient’s body. He settled in Vienna and opened his “clinic” to many well known socialites including Mozart and Joseph Haydn. Eventually his results would be called into question, also some reports of inappropriate touching would see him fleeing to Paris in 1778.

Without internet and quick reporting Mesmer was able to start up again and was inundated with as many as 200 clients a day, making it difficult to treat them individually. Fortunately, the resourceful doctor harnessed his supposed ability to transfer animal magnetism to inanimate objects and built a helpful contraption, which he called the baquet. The apparatus consisted of a large wooden tub filled with iron filings, glass bottles, and water, magnetized by Mesmer himself. Iron rods protruded from the top, which patients would press to the ailing parts of their bodies.

The room was richly appointed and dimly lit, the air filled with incense and weird melodies from an instrument called a glass harmonica. The afflicted sat in a circle around the baquet, hands linked, receiving a healing dose of Mesmer vibes. Mesmer, meanwhile, prowled the room outfitted in an aristocratic wizard getup, complete with a lavender robe and a magnetized metal wand. Patients (most often women) were frequently seized by violent convulsions and fits of weeping or laughter, necessitating their removal to a separate crisis room. Mesmer disappeared for long periods of time to attend to the women, which led to some raised eyebrows.

Eventually rumors and doubts began circulating about Mesmer’s Paris operation as well. In 1784, King Louis XVI—worried because his wife, Marie Antoinette, was among Mesmer’s clientele—ordered a commission to examine his methods. The group, which included chemist Antoine Lavoisier and visiting American diplomat Benjamin Franklin, was actually less concerned with whether Mesmer’s methods worked than with whether he had discovered a new type of physical fluid. After an inquiry into the practices of Mesmer protégé Charles d’Eslon, it was determined that no such fluid existed. Soon afterward, Mesmer left the city. He wandered around Europe, then lived for years as a relative exile in Switzerland before dying in Austria in 1815.

Mesmer did manage to stumble on something still relevant in modern psychological practice. For it wasn’t the righting of a fluid imbalance or Mesmer’s superior magnetism that relieved people of their suffering; it was his ability to induce a suggestive mental state through which ailments, often of a psychological nature, could be alleviated. This technique—stripped of the mysticism and pageantry—remains the basis of hypnosis, which, while still controversial, has become recognized as a valid therapeutic technique. Today his history is lost to most but his name will live on whether we know it or not, I just hope you were mesmerized.

John Duns Scotus was a renaissance man centuries before the Renaissance even took place. His exact birthdate is unknown, but he became a Franciscan priest in March of 1291, when he was probably in his twenties. He later went on to become a master philosopher, linguist, theologian, and metaphysical thinker.

Scotus’ life’s work was all about the study of this world and the next. After reading theology and philosophy at Oxford, Scotus went on to teach at the University of Paris. He was later expelled from the country after siding with the pope during a dispute between the Catholic Church and the King of France. He was eventually permitted to return, and continued to teach in France until he was granted the title of Doctor of Theology and made a Franciscan Master, after which he moved to a Franciscan school in Cologne, where he would spend the rest of his days.

During his studies and teachings, Scotus devised a convoluted philosophical explanation for the existence of a metaphysical God, as opposed to a material “Man in the Sky.” Perhaps more famously, he also envisioned a defense of the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary herself. Due to the intricacy and complexity of his theories, Scotus was given the terrific papal title, “Doctor Subtilis,” or “The Subtle Doctor.” His teachings came to be known as “Scotism,” while his most devoted students and followers were known as “Dunsmen.”

For some reason, Scotus was also a proponent of the use of pointy hats. It has been said that he was inspired by the use of such hats by wizards, and also conversely that it was Scotus’ love of the headgear that inspired the popular image of wizards wearing conical caps. Whichever version is true, they were both meant to denote wise men. In fact, Scotus believed the pointed shape of the hat would, in some metaphysical way, act as a reverse funnel for knowledge, with wisdom flowing into the pointed tip, and spreading into the brain below. These hats became popular among the Dunsmen, and were soon viewed not just as a symbol of Scotism, but as a signifier of high intelligence.

All was well in the world until the mid 16th century when church scholars began to turn on him. Apparently his theories on god and the divine were viewed as overly complex, convoluted, and in conflict with the more humanistic views emerging with Renaissance thought. The remaining Dunsmen, who continued to devote themselves to Scotist thought, began to be thought of as hopelessly behind the times, or just plain stupid. Thus the Dunsmen, or Duns, came to be associated with idiocy, and their pointy hats became symbols of this ignominious new reputation.

The heyday of the dunce cap (or the low point of disruptive children) seems to have been the Victorian era, when use of the dunce cap as a disciplinary symbol took off in Europe and America. The classic image is of a sullen child in a basic cone hat adorned with the word “dunce” or simply a large letter “D,” who is sent to a stool in a corner of the classroom. It was as much a punishment as a warning to other children thinking of potentially acting out. Great teaching technique, guys!

While the use of the pointed cap may have eventually fallen out of favor, the practice of putting kids in a “dunce’s corner” continued well into the 2000s in some parts of England. In a 2010 Telegraph article, it was reported that putting kids in the dunce’s corner had at last been forbidden in a number of areas.

The dunce cap may have gone out of style as a popular form of punishment, but as an icon it lives on. These days, calling someone a dunce continues to be an effective, if slightly archaic, insult. But there may be hope for the hat yet.

Today John Dun Scotus is thought to be one of the great thinkers of the Middle Ages. He was even beatified in 1993 by Pope John Paul II, in recognition for his contributions to religious theory. Perhaps there is still room for the cap to be viewed as the symbol of learning it once was. Or it may just be used for wizards.

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Spacebombs, the Flame Thrower!

After all, the real money is in merchandising!

Spaceballs and other Star- stuff aside, what’s the fastest thing in space?

Soon it will be the Polar Solar Probe. As it falls further into the Sun’s gravity well it’s expected to reach some 700,000mps. Which is about 5 times as fast as the manhole cover Dr. Robert R. Brownlee shot into space in the late 50’s.

Nuclear stuff was all the rage in the 50’s, it was pop culture gravy, fashionable make-up, and totally how we were going to beat the Soviets and prove radioactive Jesus’ superiority for good. Fortunately, by that time, the writing was kind of on the wall regarding the health effects of radiation exposure. And so, starting in 1962, the US would conduct all nuclear tests underground.

Of course, they had no idea what that would do. “What if we cracked the Earth in twain?” one scientist said, and “What if we make a volcano?” said another before the nuttiest of them finally got to the real questions like “What if we blast a tunnel into Hell?” and “won’t someone please think of the children?”. The possibilities were endless, we had to know!

In preparation, Dr. Alvin Graves, Division Leader of the Test Division at Los Alamos—or Project Y (yep, the Manhattan Project one) asked Dr. Brownlee to figure out how to blow stuff up under ground without killing everyone or clearing a path for the Great Old Ones’ return.

Operation Plumbbob was not as much fun as it sounded. In total they detonated 29 nuclear explosions—two of which, Dr. Brownlee’s, we’re concerned with.

His first test, called Pascal A, was exactly what you’d expect. Sure, he did a bunch of science words I don’t know, and probably, like, some math, but ultimately there was very little information to go on so… they just kind of dug a 450 ft deep (150m) hole and put a bomb in it.

To quote Dr. Brownlee:

In 1956 we were severely limited in computing capabilities-compared to nowadays they were laughable, and miniscule, and arguably nonexistent. I had the equations of state of four materials. They were air and water, aluminum and uranium. As it happens, there is a lot of aluminum in NTS soil, so I called that “earth”. I called that of uranium “fire”, and the others were air and water, so with earth, air, fire and water, how could I fail?

Sadly, he did not become the Avatar. But, indeed, it is hard to fail at blowing up a hole when you have as free access as anyone has ever had to an ok-to-splode nuclear stockpile.

Dr. Brownlee would describe the explosion as, essentially, the world’s largest roman candle. Sadly, no imagery exists.

Having successfully completed an underground test without killing Earth, they continued with their investigation of how to prevent radioactive leakage. So, they put a lid on it.

Again from Dr. Brownlee:

I was allowed considerable freedom to choose other parameters as I wished. For example, what might the efficacy of plugs of various masses be, and where might they be placed for optimum results?

And so we get to what every headline for this story calls a manhole cover. I’m going to go ahead and dispel this notion… a manhole cover is a, roughly, 250lb, cast iron disk meant to withstand cars driving over it while still allowing potentially explosive poo-gas to escape. According to wikipedia results may vary by region—I guess reinforced glass and plastic are popular in some areas. This cap was 4-inches of steel, weighing some 2,000 pounds (or 900kg) and was welded to the bomb-hole.

To measure… stuff—because remember kids, the difference between fucking-off and science is recording measurements of stuff—the DOE used a high speed camera with a millisecond frame rate to capture the cover’s assent.

As an aside, when I first read this detail I thought I had found the BS linch-pen of this story. Surely, 1000 frame-per-second cameras hadn’t been invented yet, right? Turns out high speed cameras date back to 1878 when Eadweard muybridge filmed a racehorse in as high as speed as was then possible to see if, at any point, all its feet were off the ground at the same time. There was some bullet photography and so on, then in the 1930’s Eastman Kodak made a 16mm camera that ran film at 1000 frames/s. Our nukes used a similar camera. Interestingly, at the time, the leader was The Japanese Institute of Aeronautical Research which made a 60k fps camera in 1931. By comparison in 2018 the INRS team at Universite De Recherche, created T-CUP to photograph femtosecond-range experiments like those dealing with light/matter interactions. It reports to capture 10 trillion fps.

Anyway, back to nuking a metal disk into space.

On August 27, 1957, Pascal-B was detonated, equivalent to 300 tons of TNT. Relatively small bomb honestly. The shockwave was expected to take 31 milliseconds to reach the lid, but it never did—because physics is trippy. Dr. Brownlee mentioned the distance of the cap to the bomb, turns out even on a 500ft nuke-track that matters. The bombs were “plugged” with 2 tons of concrete. The plug in a gun is pushed out of the barrel by gas expansion, so too was the cap. Except here the gas was not the result of a violently exothermic reaction, like igniting gunpowder (well, ok yeah I guess it was but work with me here). The concrete was immediately superheated and vaporized… and it had to go somewhere.

Dr. Brownlee would describe the cap taking off “going like a bat!” which I guess was ye-oldie for hella fast.

Despite the camera’s speed it only caught the cap in a single frame—and even that was a half-in, half-out kinda deal.

Without two frames it’s hard to measure an object’s speed. Instead Dr. Brownlee did his best to work out how fast it would be going to get that far in the frame from time of detonation. The results involved some guesswork to be sure but the result was described by Dr. Bownlee to to Bill Ogle, deputy division leader, by his own recollection:

Ogle: “What time does the shock arrive at the top of the pipe?”
RRB: “Thirty one milliseconds.” Ogle: “And what happens?”
RRB: “The shock reflects back down the hole, but the pressures and temperatures are such that the welded cap is bound to come off the hole.”
Ogle: “How fast does it go?”
RRB: “My calculations are irrelevant on this point. They are only valid in speaking of the shock reflection.”
Ogle: “How fast did it go?”
RRB: “Those numbers are meaningless. I have only a vacuum above the cap. No air, no gravity, no real material strengths in the iron cap. Effectively the cap is just loose, traveling through meaningless space.”
Ogle: And how fast is it going?”

This last question was more of a shout. Bill liked to have a direct answer to each one of his questions.

RRB: “Six times the escape velocity from the earth.”

Apparently Bill was delighted with measuring something in escape velocities and told everyone who would listen how escape-y it was. For those keeping track, that would be about 125,000 mph. Apparently, one needs to maintain an approximate 28,00mph to maintain low Earth orbit (LEO). So crazy town fast. New Horizons does about 36,373mph for comparison.

The “manhole cover” was never found and was presumed to have been shot into space.

… you know… maybe.

Here’s the thing about all this. Now that we have computers to do the math and way, way more experience with aerodynamics, nuclear bombs, material properties, and, you know space—it seems pretty unlikely that this is touring the solar system.

Bill’s explanation was a crowd pleaser and he loved to please crowds. So as is the way, the rumor, lie, whatever you want to call it from Bill made its way around the world before Dr. Brownlee could even form a rebuttal.

As usual, the facts never can catch up with the legend, so I am occasionally credited with launching a “man-hole cover” into space, and I am also vilified for being so stupid as not to understand masses and aerodynamics, etc, etc, and border on being a criminal for making such a claim.

To that point, I’ll simply quote him again:

we were able to achieve complete containment for almost every test, and for all but a handful of those that had containment “failures”, nothing was detected off site. So I would judge our containment efforts to be quite successful.

Dude’s no dummy.

So what happened? Far more likely that speeding to the stars is the notion that it burned up or was otherwise destroyed.

One theory that allows it to keep going, and going, and going… is that the force of the explosion, plus the heat and resistance of atmospheric friction would have caused the cap to further dome in on itself creating a bullet shape as the center continues to be propelled and the malleable edges fall behind it. This is actually the process used by a class of military weapon called an Explosively Formed Penetrator. In this theory, morphing into a more aerodynamic shape allows it to maintain momentum and reach space.

That said… prolly not. If Dr. Brownlee’s calculations were even close to correct, and I mean we can safely give a wide-ass margin of error, the cap would have suffered the same fate as a meteor entering the atmosphere. You know, iron stuff burning up into nothingness.

Some back-of-the-napkin math puts 60 km/s around half million atmospheres of drag that would result in adiabatic heating in excess of the iron cap’s enthalpy threshold. Which is to say it would build up and store heat rapidly until it reached the maximum storable heat and vaporized (well, Ionized).

I tried to do the math on the heat generated at those speeds by a minimally domed plate with an assumed Air Drag Coefficient in the 1.9 to 2.1 range but every calculator I could just shit the bed when I entered the Pascal-B cap information. One told me the parameters entered fell outside reality, so… yeah.

For another point of comparison, the fastest conventional vehicle I could find was DARPA’s Falcon HTV-2, which reached speeds of Mach 20, or a mere 13,000mph, at which point it started burning up and the onboard computer noped the fuck out and “commanded flight termination” by putting the Falcon in a controlled roll and pitchover maneuver to descend directly into the Pacific Ocean. So… yeah. At those speeds it reached 3,500 degrees and flew for nine firey minutes. The space shuttle re-enters at about mach 25… but then, it’s also trying to slow down.


Thanks for listening, I’m Shea, and this week I learned that the longest drum solo was 10 hours and 27 minutes and was performed by a child sitting behind a very patient man on Delta flight 693 from LA to Tokyo. Before we go, I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-host, Aaron.

Find out more about the show, social links, and contact information at InterestingIfTrue.com.

Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms.
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