21 August 2018

U is for Unicorns

The unicorn is a legendary creature that has been described since antiquity as an animal, often horse-like, with a single large, pointed, spiraling horn projecting from its forehead. The unicorn was mentioned by the ancient Greeks in accounts of natural history by various writers. Its popularity reached its peak in the chivalry novels of the Middle Ages.

While the unicorn legend evolved in the West, a Japanese creature called a kirin was a fierce creature that sought out criminals, punishing them by piercing them through the heart with its horn. In China, there was a similarly named qilin which reportedly didn't harm anyone, and even appeared to Confucius' mother before he was born.

If you’re looking to hunt down a unicorn, but don’t know how or where to begin, try Lake Superior State University in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. There's a list of their Unicorn Hunting Regulations here.

20 August 2018

T is for Trousers

Many Victorians thought the word 'trousers' so rude that they often used euphemisms instead of mentioning that vulgar word.

These included ‘sit-upons’, ‘inexpressibles’, ‘unutterables’ and ‘unwhisperables’.

19 August 2018

S is for Space

Of course! We are one big, happy fleet! Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? [pause] It is very cold in space!
Khan, from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

So, is it true that space is always cold?

Actually, you are asking the wrong question. Space is mainly empty - no air, no matter, nothing. It’s only when you put something in space, like an asteroid, a satellite, or even an astronaut, that you can measure temperature. If you're in total darkness at the coldest spot in the known universe, the vacuum of space can get down to -270.45 degrees Celsius (reportedly the temperature of the cosmic microwave background radiation, which permeates the entire Universe). Which is as cold as it can get.

However, in direct sunlight near Earth, temperatures can vary wildly. A piece of bare metal in space, under constant sunlight can get as hot as 260 degrees Celsius. This is obviously dangerous to astronauts who therefore take great precautions to protect themselves if they are called to carry out an EVA (extravehicular activity, or spacewalk). That's why astronauts wear reflective white spacesuits, complete with both heaters and cooling systems.

18 August 2018

R is for Ravens

There is a superstition that states that if the Tower of London's six ravens are lost or fly away, "the Crown will fall and Britain with it". Undoubtedly, this is just a piece of British legend - the Tower's official historian has himself stated that the "tower's raven mythology is likely to be a Victorian flight of fantasy".

According to that legend, they have kept ravens here ever since the reign of Charles II - and reportedly against the wishes of the king's astronomer at the time, John Flamsteed, who complained the ravens impeded the business of his observatory in the White Tower. (The Observatory was subsequently moved to Greenwich.)

Nevertheless, the modern-day Beefeaters are not taking any chances. As of 2018, the names of the current Tower ravens are Jubilee, Harris, Gripp, Rocky, Erin, Poppy and Merlina. There are seven ravens at the Tower - the required six, plus they keep one as a spare! Their wings aren't clipped - the Tower's Ravenmaster occasionally trims some of the ravens' primary and secondary flight feathers to encourage them to stay at the Tower. All the ravens are thus able to fly but are happy to call the Tower their home. The ravens are free to roam the Tower precincts during the day and can be seen during the tour of the building.

17 August 2018

Q is for Queen Victoria

During the course of her 63-year-long reign, Queen Victoria was attacked on at least seven separate occasions by men. Because of the seriousness of this, all are recorded in history as assassination attempts. Many happened while the Queen was travelling in her carriage, and at least four of the attempts involved a gun. In one case, someone struck Victoria in the head with his cane. The blow was so strong that it reportedly drew some blood.

None of the men who attempted to assassinate the Queen were sentenced to death. Most were found to be of unsound mind and were either banished to a penal colony or held in custody for the duration of Victoria’s reign.

16 August 2018

P is for Pirates

The traditional literary image of a pirate is of a seafarer who stole great sums of money and buried it on a desert island, with its location marked by a treasure map.

Not so. There are very few documented cases of pirates actually burying treasure, and no documented cases of a historical pirate treasure map. Most of what we know about pirates and buried treasure comes from the pages of Treasure Island.

It's true, pirates raided many ships, but most of the time the items stolen were practical things - food, water, alcohol, weapons, or clothing. These things were be needed immediately, so weren't buried. In many cases the ship itself was taken or scavenged.

The pirate most responsible for the legends of buried treasure was Captain William Kidd. The story was that Kidd hid valuables (gold and silver) from a plundered ship called the Quedah Merchant on Gardiner's Island, near Long Island, New York.  He was subsequently captured and returned to England, and the buried loot found and used as evidence against him. Kidd was then put through a very public trial and executed in 1701.  Although much of Captain Kidd's loot was recovered from his wife and various others who were given it for safe keeping, there was still much speculation that a vast fortune remained, buried in another location. None has ever been found. Some are still looking for it...

15 August 2018

O is for Owls

Three fascinating facts now about owls:

The eyes of an owl are unusual - they have fixed eyes that go far back into their skulls, giving them excellent binocular vision — however, they have to turn their heads to change view. These gives them the fantastic depth perception necessary for low-light hunting. Their close-up vision is not as good, so once they catch their prey they use filoplumes - hairlike feathers on the beak and feet - that act as "feelers".

In many cultures, owls are seen as a symbol of death, and many see their appearance as a sign of impending death. An owl was said to have predicted the death of Julius Caesar! That's possibly why they've been linked so often with Halloween...

Owls are often depicted in fiction as being wise. This possibly stems from Greek mythology, where the owl is the symbol for Athena, the goddess of wisdom. A group of owls is called a parliament, and this is the term used by C.S. Lewis for a meeting of owls in The Chronicles of Narnia.

14 August 2018

N is for Nursery Rhymes

Do you remember some of the nursery rhymes you were taught as a kid? ... many of the meanings are lost or disputed, but here's a few that made me think...

Many scholars agree that Baa, Baa, Black Sheep is a reference to a tax on wool introduced in 1275 by King Edward I. Under these rules, a third of the cost of a sack of wool went to the Crown, another third went to the church and the last to the farmer. The wool of black sheep is said to have been especially prized as it could be made into dark cloth without dyeing.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush is often sung as part of a nursery game. According to historian R. S. Duncan, a former governor of England’s Wakefield Prison, the song originated with their female prisoners, who were exercised around a mulberry tree. "On a cold and frosty morning..."

Jack and Jill is commonly seen as a nonsense verse, particularly as the couple go up a hill to find water, which is usually found at the bottom of hills. However, an woodcut that accompanied the first recorded version of the rhyme showed two boys (not a boy and a girl) and used the spelling Gill not Jill. This may be related to the fact that a Gill is an Imperial unit of fluid measure, defined in the Imperial system as a quarter-pint. In the same system of measure, a Jack is defined as a half-gill. So, Jack and Jill (Gill) represent a eighth-pint and quarter-pint respectively. It has therefore been suggested that the rhyme records the attempt by King Charles I to reform the taxes on liquid measures. Curious...

And finally, Ring A Ring O' Roses  (in the US Ring Around The Rosie)- the most popular contention is that this verse refers to the 1665 Great Plague of London. Sorry, no - even Snopes labels this as false now, and quotes folklorist Philip Hiscock with a more likely suggestion: That the nursery rhyme probably has its origins in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century. The debate continues...  https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/ring-around-rosie/

13 August 2018

M is for Marriage

What finger does the wedding ring go on?

It used to be pretty well accepted most people in English-speaking countries wear their wedding ring on their left hand ring finger. This reasoning can be traced right back to Roman times, and even before that. It was believed that the vein in the ring finger (technically, the fourth finger) on the left hand ran directly to one's heart. Because of this, the Romans called that vein the vena amoris or vein of love. To reinforce the fact that the union was based on love, they'd place the ring on that finger that housed the vein of love to signify the romance the newly married couple shares.

Our modern-day understanding of biology suggests that all your fingers have vein connections to the heart.

There are, however, other cultures with their own traditions about wedding rings. People in many other countries wear a ring on their right hand (including Austria, Denmark, Poland, India, Venezuela and Chile). German couples place a gold band on the left hand before the wedding. After they’re married, they move it to the right hand as a symbol of unity. In The Netherlands, Catholic people wear it on the left, all others on the right. Greek people, many being Orthodox Christians, also wear the wedding rings on the right hand in keeping with Greek tradition. There are bound to be other exceptions.

So, the answer is ... it depends...

12 August 2018

L is for London

One of the key stops in a tour of Central London are the Houses of Parliament, which is situated on on the north bank of the River Thames in the City of Westminster.

The buildings are actually officially known as the Palace of Westminster and it is actually the largest palace in the country. It is the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It has been a Grade I listed building since 1970 and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

The Elizabeth Tower and the clock contained within it are both commonly referred to by the name of its main bell, Big Ben, which is itself an iconic landmark of London and the United Kingdom in general.

The Palace of Westminster has eight bars, six restaurants, 1,000 rooms, 100 staircases, 11 courtyards, a gymnasium, a hair salon, and a rifle-shooting range. Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, it has not been permitted to smoke anywhere inside the Palace since 2005. Members of Parliament may not eat or drink in the Parliamentary chamber; the exception to this rule is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who may have a beverage of the Chancellors' choice while delivering the Budget statement. Traditionally this is an alcoholic beverage, although recent Chancellors have opted for water.