Thursday, 20 July 2017

What was the Black Death?

Did bubonic plague really cause the Black Death? This was one of the questions tackled in BBC TV’s Decoding Disaster, which went out under the Timewatch banner.

What is certain is that the epidemic was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, disaster in history, killing perhaps 75 million people in Europe and Asia from 1346 to 1353 – 30 to 40 per cent of the population. The conventional explanation is that it was bubonic plague, carried by the fleas of the black rat, along with pneumonic and septicaemic plague which could be transmitted from person to person.

Sceptics, though, have suggested there were just not enough rats to spread the disease on the scale that happened, so other ideas have been suggested – notably anthrax or some kind of haemorrhagic plague, like Ebola. Others maintain that with a death toll on this scale, a number of different diseases must have been raging at the same time.

At the time, top academics at Paris University came up with their own explanation: a triple conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars in the 40th degree of Aquarius on 20 March 1345, but they were humble enough to acknowledge that some things were ‘hidden from even the most highly trained intellects.’

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World. See also my posts of 19 January and 31 March 2009, 1 September 2011 and 17 December 2013.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Brexitwatch: the Germans have two words for it

Even the most enthusiastic Brexit supporter surely cannot maintain the negotiations are going well. The EU side seems prepared, united and knows what it wants. The UK side appears in crisis: still unprepared, deeply divided, and with no idea of what it wants, let alone how to get it.

Two long German words might help us to do better – Gesinnungsethik and Verantwortungsethik. The first means ‘ethic of conviction’; the second ‘ethic of responsibility’. They reflect a conflict between idealism and pragmatism that came to the fore in the crisis that wracked Germany after the First World War.

Politicians who follow the ‘ethic of conviction’ believe in preserving their moral purity, following the course they ‘know’ to be right whatever the consequences. And if it all goes horribly wrong, that is not their fault.

Increasingly this ‘ethic of conviction’ is the ONLY argument we hear for Brexit: ‘it is the will of the people’. There is no real pretence that leaving the EU will make life better for the British people in any meaningful way. (I have already explained in my post of 15 December 2016 why the ‘will of the people’ argument is bogus.) This is odd in a nation that used to pride itself on its pragmatism.

Those following the ‘ethic of responsibility’ on the other hand, are guided by the likely consequences of their actions and decisions. What will they do to the people affected by them? If Theresa May and her government could switch to this approach, it might help bring them some much needed clarity and avert what is beginning to look more and more like an impending disaster. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

British battleship accidents

On this day…..100 years ago, the Dreadnought battleship HMS Vanguard sank in Scapa Flow in Orkney after a series of explosions. Of the 845 men aboard, only two survived.

Although the First World War was still raging, the most likely explanation for the sinking is thought to be an accidental explosion in the ship’s magazine. Certainly it sank almost immediately.

Nor was this an isolated incident. On 26 November 1914, a series of explosions ripped through the battleship HMS Bulwark as it was moored in the Medway (pictured). The ship was lifted out of the water then fell back in a thick cloud of smoke. There were only a dozen survivors from the crew of 750.

It being war-time, not many details emerged, but a court of inquiry heard that shells aboard were not stored according to regulations, and concluded that the probable cause of the disaster was that cordite charges, kept by a boiler room bulkhead, overheated.

For more, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

My new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians'

On Amazon, first sightings of my new book: 'Secrets of the Centenarians. What is it like to live for a century and which of us will survive to find out?' (Reaktion). Orders being taken now!

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The world's deadliest tower block fires

A retired judge, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, has been appointed to head the official inquiry into London’s Grenfell Tower fire in which at least 79 people died, while the police say they are investigating any criminal offences that may have been committed.

The deadliest ever fire in a tower block (or blocks) was the result of the terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, which cost more than 2,300 lives, but the worst accidental fire was probably the one that raged through the 25-storey Joelma office building in Sao Paulo, Brazil on 1 February 1974. (Grenfell Tower had 24 storeys.)

The blaze happened just a few weeks after the disaster movie, The Towering Inferno, was released, and it became known as ‘the real Towering Inferno’. It was started by an electrical fault on the 11th floor, and spread rapidly thanks to the ready availability of combustible materials such as paper, plastics and wooden walls and furniture.

When the blaze began, there were more than 750 people in the building. More than 170 fled to the roof, but the heat and smoke foiled a helicopter rescue, and about 40 were killed jumping down or trying to get to firemen’s ladders out of reach below them. Altogether up to 189 people died. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Oil tanker crashes + poverty = disaster

When oil tankers crash in poor countries, people often rush to the scene to gather the spilt fuel, often with lethal results. That happened again this week after a tanker crashed on the outskirts of the city of Bahawalpur in Pakistan on Sunday.

It is reported that the vehicle overturned on a sharp bend after the driver lost control when a tyre blew. A crowd of 500 had gathered to try to collect fuel in bottles, cans and household containers when, about 45 minutes after the crash, the tanker exploded.

It took firefighters two hours to put out the blaze. Twenty children were among the 146 dead, and another 80 people were injured. One local man said he had lost 12 relatives.

Probably the deadliest tanker crash ever happened on 2 July 2010 at Sange village in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The vehicle overturned as it was overtaking a bus on a dirt road. Again local people rushed to collect the spilt fuel, and a lighted cigarette caused an explosion, killing at least 230.

For the story, see my post of 7 July 2010. See also my posts of 1 February and 12 October, 2009, and 13 July 2012.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Forest fires

This month’s forest fires in Portugal, which killed 64 people, were the worst in the country’s history. Most of the deaths happened in Pedrógão Grande in the centre of the country when flames swept across a road filled with people trying to escape in their cars.

More than 1,700 Portuguese firefighters fought the blaze along with others from Spain, Morocco, Italy and Canada. Although most reports point to a thunderstorm as the cause, there have been some claims that it was arson.

Probably the deadliest forest fire ever happened in the USA, in Wisconsin on 8 October 1871. It began in the woods after a long dry spell, but was carried on the wind to Peshtigo and other nearby lumber towns on the banks of Lake Michigan, where the sawdust that always clogged the streets provided convenient fuel for the flames.

Peshtigo was burned to the ground, and more than 1,150 people were killed, but because it happened on the very same night as the Great Chicago Fire, it has tended to be rather forgotten.

For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World. See also my posts of 7 February 2009, 3 July 2013, and 7 May 2016.