The mystery of the Wanggongchang Explosion

Ancient Chinese figures regard a small gunpowder explosion.
Ancient Chinese figures regard a small gunpowder explosion.

In the spring of 1626, during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor — the last ruler of the Ming dynasty — a catastrophic explosion devastated Beijing. As many as 20,000 people were reportedly killed, and entire square miles of the city were completely obliterated. Yet despite the large scale of destruction, and the generally meticulous recordkeeping of the imperial court, the cause and nature of the explosion are still subject to fevered speculation. Some even suggest that it never actually occurred at all.

The earliest account of the event appears in an official gazette (dibao) from the summer of 1626, reprinted later under the title “Official Report on a Heavenly Incident” (see Feng 2020):

When the sky was bright and clear, there was a sound like a roar from the northeast to the southwest corner of the capital, and the ashes rose and the houses were uprooted. In a moment there was a great earthquake, and the sky and the earth collapsed, and it was dark as night. From Shunchengmen in the east to Jinbu in the north, three to four miles in length, the surrounding area was destroyed, affecting tens of thousands of homes and people. The area around Wang Gong’s factory is completely devastated, with pieces of corpses everywhere, a suffocating smell filling the air, and rubble falling from the sky, confusing the vision. It is difficult to describe this heartbreaking sight. The roar of the explosion was heard from Hexiwu in the south, in Tongzhou in the east, in Miyun, and Changping in the north.1

Feng (2020, p. 74) notes two ways that this report differs from “conventional” gazettes:

The first is that it includes no reference to imperial edicts or court memorials; instead, it features copious entries describing how people, including the emperor and officials, suffered from the catastrophic explosion. Second, the text delineates an extensive array of abnormal and uncanny scenes that occurred in multiple locations across Beijing, conveying an atmosphere of panic in the capital. These elaborate narratives of “strangeness” stand in sharp contrast to the typically terse accounts of disasters in other gazettes.

Setting aside these reports, the simplest explanation for the explosion is not so strange at all: an accidental ignition of stores at the Imperial Gunpowder Workshop (Wanggongchang). Indeed, the Wanggongchang Armory, which produced nearly two tons of gunpowder per week2, was located near the epicenter of the blast. Yet while this account might seem to accord with the principle of Occam’s Razor, some argue that the details don’t add up. In particular, analysis suggests that the destruction described in contemporary records would have required explosive force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, orders of magnitude more than even the largest plausible stockpiles of black powder could produce.3 Others contend that specific elements of the official narrative (a “roaring rumble” from the northeast, a bright streak of light, mushroom-shaped clouds) are inconsistent with a gunpowder explosion.

Alternative explanations abound. A 1986 conference in Beijing

explored all the possible causes of the incident from a spontaneous explosion of black powder to a natural gas leak, and the more far-fetched theories of meteorites, hidden volcanoes, and an underground nuclear discharge. The conference participants ultimately concluded that an earthquake resulted in a release of gasses at the site which ignited a massive explosion and firestorm which destroyed the area.

Other more “outlandish” theories, Jeremiah Jenne notes, “have implicated supernatural forces and even an interplanetary nuclear strike on Beijing.”

The reality may be far more mundane than any of the above. Feng (2020) argues that historical accounts of the explosion immediately sought to “politicize” it. In fact, the Tianqi Emperor was not a popular figure. He was, as Jenne recounts, “an odd young man, more comfortable in a carpenter’s shop than reading documents. […] Power devolved to his mother and the eunuchs, in particular, the infamous Wei Zhongxian, one of the most corrupt officials in Chinese history.” Along these lines, Feng suggests that “the ‘Official Report’ emphasizes the strangeness of the explosion in a manner that subtly aims to provoke the audience’s suspicion of the eunuch faction.” Perhaps the real story, then, is one of exaggeration for political effect — an industrial explosion embellished and distorted to tar a distrusted group.

 

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74 interesting facts from 2020

2020 was by no means a good year, but it was certainly an eventful one. The flood of daily developments made it easy to lose track of any given story, and there’s a lot that slipped by us totally unnoticed.

The New York Times, however, has compiled a list of 74 “interesting, striking, or delightful” facts that appeared in its reporting over the course of the year. There’s some fascinating stuff on it, e.g.:

January

1. Japan’s legal system has a 99 percent conviction rate.
Carlos Ghosn, at Home but Waiting for the Next Move



2. Fishing remains the United States’ second most dangerous profession, after logging.
Overtaken by Frigid Seas, Hours From Help, There Was Little Chance of Survival



22. Years after Wyatt Earp’s famous turn at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Ariz., he rambled around Los Angeles as an unpaid consultant for silent cowboy movies.
Richard Prince: This Ain’t No Retrospective, It’s a Rodeo



23. In Finland, a tradition of getting drunk at home in your underwear is so commonplace that there’s a word for it, “kalsarikännit.” The rough translation is “pantsdrunk.”
Getting Tipsy at Home in Your Underwear

55. The beaches of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, are covered with “blubberstones” — gravel mingled with rendered fat, vestiges of the mass killings of seals and whales.
Grief and Geology Both Take Time in ‘The Book of Unconformities’



56. Martha Stewart, who has a line of CBD products, including pâte de fruit, was introduced to the palliative effects of cannabis by Snoop Dogg, a friend, at Comedy Central’s 2015 “Roast of Justin Bieber.”
Martha Stewart, Blissed Out on CBD, Rides Out the Pandemic

You can check out the complete list here.

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Knecht Ruprecht, the rustic Christmas farmhand of German folklore

Knecht Ruprecht
Knecht Ruprecht (left) is a servant of St. Nicholas in German folklore.

While supported logistically by a workforce of Christmas elves, the Santa Claus of American folklore largely works alone. European tradition, in contrast, assigns a variety of helpers and companions to assist St. Nicholas in his yearly duties (the most well known, perhaps, being Krampus). One such figure, originating in Germany, is Knecht Ruprecht (possibly a precursor to Belsnickel). Dating at least to the 17th century (and meaning “Farmhand Rupert” or “Servant Rupert”), Knecht Ruprecht

is St. Nicholas’s most familiar attendant in Germany. According to some stories, Ruprecht began as a farmhand; in others, he is a wild foundling whom St. Nicholas raises from childhood.

Ruprecht wears a black or brown robe with a pointed hood. Sometimes he walks with a limp, because of a childhood injury. He can be seen carrying a long staff and a bag of ashes, and on occasion wears little bells on his clothes. Sometimes he rides on a white horse, and sometimes he is accompanied by fairies or men with blackened faces dressed as old women.

Like Krampus and Belsnickel, Knecht Ruprecht is something of a “bad cop” counterpart to St. Nick:

According to tradition, Knecht Ruprecht asks children whether they can pray. If they can, they receive apples, nuts and gingerbread. If they cannot, he hits the children with his bag of ashes. In other versions of the story, Knecht Ruprecht gives naughty children gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while well-behaving children receive sweets from St. Nicholas.

With one day left until Christmas, you better be good lest Knecht Ruprecht hit you with a bag of ashes!

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Astronomers detect mysterious signal from nearby star

Is it a message from an alien civilization? Probably not, but it’s a sufficiently strange to raise eyebrows in the scientific community. National Geographic reports:

Astronomers searching for signs of life beyond Earth have spotted something strange. An as-yet unexplained radio signal appears to be coming from the direction of the star closest to the sun—a small red star roughly 4.2 light-years away called Proxima Centauri. Adding to the excitement, at least two planets orbit this star, one of which might be temperate and rocky like Earth.



Breakthrough Listen, a decade-long search for alien broadcasts from the nearest million stars, was using Australia’s Parkes Observatory to study Proxima Centauri when the team detected the conspicuous signal, which they dubbed BLC-1. […] 



Although the signal is faint, BLC-1 passed all the tests the Breakthrough team uses to filter out the millions of signals generated by humans: It was narrow in bandwidth, appeared to drift in frequency, and disappeared when the telescope shifted its gaze from Proxima to a different object.

You can read the full story here.

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Tonight is Krampus Night

A vintage illustration of Krampus.
In Central European folklore, Krampus is a horned figure described as “half-goat, half-demon,” who during the Christmas season punishes children who have misbehaved.

Fewer Christmas traditions are stranger than that of Krampus. Krampus, as you may be aware, is St. Nicholas’s sinister (and lesser-known) demonic sidekick. If old St. Nick is the good cop who rewards well-behaved children with gifts of toys, Krampus is his bad cop counterpart: he punishes naughty children by beating them with birch switches (and by terrifying them with his demonic visage). Truly unlucky troublemakers might be kidnapped away in the basket he carries strapped to his back. The tradition recalls the old trope of saints vanquishing demons through the power of God and forcing them into their thrall, but likely has deeper roots in pre-Christian Alpine customs.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with Krampus, although his profile has grown in recent years (owing in part, no doubt, to the 2015 holiday horror film of the same name). But he is widely celebrated across several parts of Europe, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and surrounding regions. Young men in these parts will traditionally dress up as Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December (the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas), and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. So grab your mask, hit the streets, and get in the Krampusnacht spirit — just be prepared for some weird looks if you’re not in Europe.

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The biggest waves on the Great Lakes

A massive wave pounding the shore along Lake Michigan, 2018.
A massive wave pounding the shore along Lake Michigan, 2018. https://www.boreal.org/2018/10/11/181867/photo-gallery-winds-whip-up-20-foot-waves-on-lake-superior

The Great Lakes, though their water is fresh, are so large they are often described as inland seas. Collectively, the Great Lakes region is sometimes called the “Third Coast”1 — and given its 5,300 miles of coastline2, it’s more than just a branding attempt to put the area on equal footing with the East and West coasts. But just how far does the comparison extend?

Far enough: even the lesser Great Lakes have seen waves large enough to make even the saltiest of sailors blanch. Waves on Lake Michigan can reach 20 to 23 feet3. More than 100 meteotsunamis — tsunami-like waves generated by rapid changes in barometric pressure — occur across the Great lakes each year. And in October 2017, the Great Lakes Observing System’s buoys recorded the largest waves it had ever detected: 28.8 feet on Lake Superior4. (The system’s records date back to 1979.)

Below, you can see footage of some truly monstrous waves on Lake Superior from 2018:

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“Jap Herron,” the novel Mark Twain allegedly posthumously authored via Ouija board

Jap Herron
In 1917, two spiritual mediums published a book they claimed had been dictated by Mark Twain’s ghost via ouija board.

Mark Twain, beloved humorist and the “father of American literature,” died in 1910. Ordinarily, you’d expect this would mean the end of his writing career (especially since this time, reports of his death had not been exaggerated). He was so dedicated to his craft, however, that his work apparently continued even from beyond the grave — at least, according to two spiritual mediums who claimed contact with Twain’s departed soul.

Emily Grant Hutchings and Lola V. Hays profess to have begun receiving messages from Mark Twain via Ouija board at a St. Louis seance in 1915. Over the next two years, Twain’s spirit would allegedly dictate an entire novel to the duo from the great beyond. The book, titled Jap Herron: A Novel Written From the Ouija Board, was published in 1917.

Ouija boards were in vogue at the time, and this wasn’t the first ghost-written work of fiction to grace the literary world; St. Louis writer Pearl Curran (a friend of Hutchings) published several novels that she claimed had been authored by a spirit named Patience Worth. The gimmick was one the public seemed to respond to: the novel sold, and generated sufficient attention to warrant a “review” in The New York Times. An excerpt from the Times:

The ouija board seems to have come to stay as a competitor of the typewriter in the production of fiction. For this is the third novel in the last few months that has claimed the authorship of some dead and gone being who, unwilling to give up human activities, has appeared to find in the ouija board a material means of expression.

[…]

The story itself, a long novelette, is scened in a Missouri town and tells how a lad born to poverty and shiftlessness, by the help of a fine-souled and high-minded man and woman, grew into a noble and useful manhood and helped to regenerate his town. There is evident a rather striking knowledge of the conditions of life and the peculiarities of character in a Missouri town, the dialect is true, and the picture has, in general, many features that will seem familiar to those who know their “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” A country paper fills an important place in the tale, and there is constant proof of familiarity with the life and work of the editor of such a sheet. The humor impresses as a feeble attempt at imitation and, while there is now and then a strong sure touch of pathos or a swift and true revelation of human nature, the “sob stuff” that oozes through many of the scenes, and the overdrawn emotions are too much for credulity. If this is the best that “Mark Twain” can do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.

The book caused its share of controversy: Clara Clemens, Twain’s daughter and executor of his literary estate, threatened legal action;  Hutchings, Hays, and their publisher agreed to cease publication and to destroy remaining copies of the work.

Of course, there are some who suggest that Twain didn’t die in 1910 after all.

You can read the full New York Times review here, or check out the text of Jap Herron (which did ultimately survive) itself here.

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Fuzzy green “glacier mice” puzzle scientists

Glacier mice
Glacier mice are colonies of mosses found on some glaciers which appear to move non-randomly across the ice.

“What the heck is this!” was the reaction of one glaciologist when he first encountered glacier mice.1  Long known to researchers but still not fully understood, glacier mice might best be thought of as bundles of moss that form pearl-like around pebbles or other impurities on glacial surfaces.

Found as far afield as Alaska, Chile, and Norway, glacier mice were first described in 1951 by Icelandic meteorologist Jón Eyþórsson, who referred to them as jökla-mýs (Icelandic for “glacier mice”).2

What’s particularly curious about these “critters,” however, is that they seem to move around much more than any ordinary moss might.

From NPR:

The movement of the moss balls was peculiar. The researchers had expected that the balls would travel around randomly by rolling off their ice pedestals. The reality was different. The balls moved about an average of an inch a day in a kind of choreographed formation — like a flock of birds or a herd of wildebeests.

 

The researchers considered several possible explanations. The first, and most obvious one, is that they just rolled downhill. But measurements showed that the moss balls weren’t going down a slope.

 

“We next thought maybe the wind is sort of blowing them in consistent directions,” says Bartholomaus, “and so we measured the dominant direction of the wind.”

 

That didn’t explain it either, nor did the pattern of the sunlight.

 

“We still don’t know,” he says. “I’m still kind of baffled.”

You can listen to an 11-minute NPR story about glacier mice here:

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With billions under lockdown, the Earth’s crust is quieter

We find ourselves at an unprecedented point in history: the majority of humanity, nearly 4 billion souls, are now under lockdown, either totally confined to their homes or ordered to leave only for vital business.1

And it turns out that people are moving around so much less that it’s seismologically notable. Scientific American reports:

Just as natural events such as earthquakes cause Earth’s crust to move, so do vibrations caused by moving vehicles and industrial machinery. And although the effects from individual sources might be small, together they produce background noise, which reduces seismologists’ ability to detect other signals occurring at the same frequency.



Researchers who study Earth’s movement are reporting a drop in seismic noise—the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust—that could be the result of transport networks and other human activities being shut down. They say this could allow detectors to spot smaller earthquakes and boost efforts to monitor volcanic activity and other seismic events.



A noise reduction of this magnitude is usually only experienced briefly around Christmas, says Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, where the drop has been observed.

Sounds like some successful social distancing! You can check out the full article here.

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The unnerving link between pandemics and psychosis

As we continue to face down the coronavirus, and begin to use our time in quarantine to ponder its possible long-term consequences, Vice.com reports on an unexpected side effect of similar disease outbreaks.

In flu pandemics of years past — such as the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the 1889-90 influenza — a few doctors noted something striking. Specifically, they observed that a significant number of patients developed symptoms outside the normal set associated with influenza: hallucinations, mental disorders, psychosis. Sophisticated contemporary research lends support to these observations, finding evidence of a connection between the flu and schizophrenia. (For instance, children of mothers who had the flu while pregnant appear substantially more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life.)

Check out an excerpt from Vice’s article below:

While today, we consider viral infections to be diseases of the body—they infect the lungs, give us fevers, stuffy noses, or a cough—throughout history there’s also been a strange link between influenza and psychotic disorders similar to schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder that can affect how people think.
                 
By 1919, the Spanish Flu pandemic had spread influenza to a third of the world’s population, or around 500 million people. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger was treating people at Boston Psychopathic Hospital who’d recently been infected. But his patients had symptoms far beyond what’s usually associated with the flu. In a paper on 100 cases he saw over three months, he described seeing extreme mental disturbances—over half of his patients had some sort of psychosis, and almost two-thirds had hallucinations.
                 
After outbreaks of influenza in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1889, people experienced insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts, and homicidal urges. One neurologist wrote that it wasn’t uncommon for people with the flu to feel “dark forebodings of…impending disaster” or to think they had committed a “fearful crime” and were about to be punished.

You can read the full article here.

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The strange history of Leap Day role reversal

A number of Leap Day traditions involve women proposing marriage to men, who must pay some kind of penalty if they decline.

Historically, subversion has often been a central aspect of holiday celebrations. The Roman festival of Saturnalia, for instance, saw slaves treated to lavish banquets and given license to disrespect their masters for the day. Christmastime festivities in England involved the seasonal appointment of a peasant or lowly sub-deacon as the “Lord of Misrule,” elevated beyond his station and charged with overseeing Christmas revelries. Similar traditions in the Middle Ages entailed designating a “boy bishop” to parody the actual bishop during occasions such as the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Leap Day — February 29 — has its own history of holiday subversion, in this case dealing specifically with gender roles. Throughout Europe and even in parts of the United States, Leap Day has involved flipping the script typically adhered to during the rest of the year when it comes to courtship in particular.

One such tradition involved women proposing to men (February 29 being referred to as “Bachelor’s Day”). The custom seems to originate in the British Isles. According to one account,

[I]t is said that the tradition began in 5th century Ireland when St. Brigid of Kildare bitterly complained to St. Patrick that women had to wait far too long for men to propose.

The legend says that St. Patrick decreed the women could propose on this one day in February during the leap year.

This tradition took a different form in three Illinois cities. For much of the twentieth century, Aurora, Joliet, and Morris, Illinois “replaced city council members, police, and firefighters with women on February 29. But the women had only one real objective: finding a husband.” Vox.com illustrates the day with a newspaper account from 1932:

Guilty, pleaded Mr John Livingston, a popular United States airman, when he was arraigned at the police court at Aurora, Illinois, on a charge that while he was the town’s most eligible bachelor he refused to marry the police magistrate, Miss Florence Atkins.

Your honour is beautiful, but I have maintained my plea of guilty, said Mr Livingston as he awaited sentence.

Miss Atkins, passing sentence, said: In accordance with the old Leap Year custom. I must fine you. You are ordered to buy me a new silk dress.

The prisoner was then released and under the care of the dark eyed Chief of Police, Miss Dorothy Ward, was taken to a shop to make the purchase.

Sadly — or perhaps not so sadly, given their sexist overtones — traditions like these have largely been forgotten. Perhaps it is time to establish a new set of Leap Day observances instead. The most promising alternative might be found in 30 Rock’s Leap Day episode (Season 6, Episode 9), in which “the cast and writers celebrate Leap Day with a Santa Claus-like mascot, a gilled creature named Leap Day William, who lives in the Mariana Trench and trades candy for children’s tears.”

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