February 7th, 1497: The Bonfire of the Vanities

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Florence, Italy must have been a fascinating place to be in the 15th century.  In the century after the bubonic plague ravished most of Europe and decimated its population, Florence had become the birthplace for a new way of life that we now refer to as the Renaissance –  meaning “the rebirth.” Art and leisure became prioritized over simple survival, humanistic ideals and a healthy dose of skepticism began to mix with traditional church teachings, and scholars turned back to the classic philosophies of Greece and Rome as a model for an educated and introspective society.

It’s impossible to point to a single cause for this paradigm shift in European life, but we can come up with a virtual laundry list of possibilities. The plague changed every aspect of European life and destroyed the old feudal systems that dominated not only economics but social strata as well.  The Church found itself with a shortage of priests and a population that questioned how their God could have allowed such suffering.  Perhaps the notion of just how brief and fragile life really is caused people to look more towards seeking pleasure during their time here instead of just pining for the ethereal sort.

Regardless, these Renaissance ideals would eventually bring the modern world things like the Protestant Reformation, European exploration and colonization, and the scientific breakthroughs that formed the foundation for modern medicine. But not quite yet – in 1497 we’re still faced with an identity crisis between religion and humanity.

Italy was geographically poised to be the first to usher in the new dawn; their location along Mediterranean trade routes allowed them to be the first to receive both new materials and new ideas. They were also firmly under the thumb of wealthy ruling families, particularly the Borgias and the Medicis, and had been for quite some time. Powerful, connected, and often ruthless, the Medicis were patrons to budding artists, bankers, politicians, and even popes. Their influence reached into almost every aspect of Florentine life during the Renaissance and beyond.

The Medici family often called the shots when it came to deciding who would be awarded certain societal benefits as well. One such darling of the family, at least early on, was a Dominican Friar named Girolamo Savonarola.

To say that Savonarola wasn’t a fan of the secular ideals of the Renaissance would be an understatement. He spent most of his ordained career preaching repentance and urging people to return to the church. In 1490, under the influence of Medici family member Lorenzo the Magnificent, he came to Florence. He attracted a group of followers who clung to his urgings to cleanse Italy of corruption – both within the ruling class and the religious class. His words often incited political reform in their wake, changing aspects of Florentine society to become more modest and demure.

Along with his boisterous preaching, Savonrola claimed the capability to perform miracles and to experience religious visions, and a cult of personality formed around him and his message. Unfortunately for the monk, his message directly threatened the power of the corrupt church, and it’s supporters – the Medici family being first and foremost.

In February of 1497, while Florence was preparing for its pre-Lenten carnivale, Savonarola and his followers were preparing for a different sort of event – a massive bonfire where they would burn anything seen as too secular or wanton – books, make-up, artwork, musical instruments, and anything remotely related to astrology or paganism. The influence that Savonarola and his followers had was so far reaching that even Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli is rumored to have added his own sketches and painting of scantily clad mythological figures into the inferno. It was a Bonfire of the Vanities – a literal and figurative decimation of Renaissance ideals. It’s impossible to know what invaluable pieces of art and literature were taken from the world that day, before their value was even realized.

Despite his almost cult-like following, Savonarola made enemies as well – and some of his enemies were very powerful. Citing the influence that Savonarola had on policies in Florence, Pope Alexander VI (a Borgia) excommunicated him. Public opinion turned against him when a challenge to prove his divinity by walking through fire fizzled out and angered the crowd who had been waiting to see him (or a surrogate) attempt the feat.

Soon after, Savonarola was arrested, tortured, and forced to recant his anti-Church sentiment. He was declared a heretic and burned after being hanged on a cross in Florence’s town square in 1494. Perhaps it was his own vanities — his boasting of miracle work, the delight in seeing his followers wail at his feet, the showboating of the failed fire walk — that led to his demise as well.

Still, his influence lives on. His manuscripts on church corruption – those that survived – went on to inspire Martin Luther’s own thoughts on church reform and led to the Protestant Reformation several decades later.

 

 

February 5th, 1958: The United States Loses a Nuclear Weapon – Maybe

As far as nuclear weaponry goes, there’s really no such thing as a minor accident. I mean, we’re talking about three and a half tons of uranium and plutonium capable of annihilating everything within 20 square miles of its path; the slope between mishap and catastrophe is steep and slippery.  The consequences of an accidental detonation would be devastating to hundreds of thousands of people both in the blast zone and those within the path of its radioactive fall-out.

A thermonuclear bomb is definitely not something you’d want to just lose track of, but astonishingly, on this date in 1958, that’s exactly what happened.

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Image Source: Lindsay Magnum, NPR

It was the thick of Cold War, a full decade before the first anti-proliferation treaty, and Air Force pilots were running a training simulation from Homestead AFB in Florida. The purpose of the mission was to test the reaction time of F-86 fighter pilots stationed at Charleston AFB. Three B-47s ran the mission, and one of them was fitted with a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb that had been “safed” by removing the active plutonium trigger. The only reason it was included at all was so the bomber could realistically mimic the speed and maneuvers of an actual Soviet threat.

All seemed to be going well. The waiting F-86 pilots scrambled to meet the B-47s as they came into Charleston’s airspace, but suddenly two of the planes collided, leaving the pilot hauling the hydrogen bomb no choice but to attempt an emergency landing, ditching the bomb into the water before he did. Luckily, both pilots survived.

There was no explosion as the bomb hit the water, indicating it remained intact. Still, despite the relatively shallow waters of coastal Tybee Island, Georgia, subsequent searches failed to locate and retrieve the weapon. After two and a half months of searching, the military gave up.

So, just how dangerous is it to have a probably plutonium-less thermonuclear weapon just hanging out in a coastal bay? That’s a question up for some debate, and the position you take probably depends on just how much you trust the government.

Although some chose not to believe the Air Force’s position that the bomb was “safed” in the first place, there’s a good deal of evidence to suggest they’re telling the truth. Not only does the pre-crash paperwork specify it was a simulated bomb, but records show that removal and replacement of the plutonium core was standard procedure.

The true danger probably lies not with the possibility of a massive blast, especially since decades worth of salt water would have compromised the electronic components needed for one, but with the the uranium that the bomb contains.  Some have voices concerned that someone could use uranium to create a bomb of their own, but modern scientists view that as unlikely.  The bomb is currently believed to be buried under 5-15 feet of silt, which helps keep it stable and unlikely to corrode and seep into the aquifer.

According to a 2008 article from NPR, the Air Force’s position is that the bomb – wherever it may be – is safer just where it is.

“In a 2001 report on the search and recovery of the bomb, the Air Force said that if the bomb is still intact, the risk associated with the spread of heavy metals is low. If it’s left undisturbed, the explosive in the bomb poses no hazard, the report said. It went on to say that an ‘intact explosive would pose a serious explosion hazard to personnel and the environment if disturbed by a recovery attempt.’ ” 

So, although the Tybee Bomb may not be as big of a mystery or threat as it once seemed, it’s hardly the only missing member of our nation’s nuclear arsenal – in fact, dozens of incidents in the past seven decades have led to a number of missing bombs, dotting the waterways of the world.

Probably.

February 2nd, 1709- Marooned Castaway Alexander Selkirk is Rescued

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There was little doubt in anyone’s mind at Alexander Selkirk was headed for a life of trouble.

As a youth, he’d twice been summoned before his local church council to answer for such indiscretions as pummeling his siblings and not conducting himself properly during services. In the 1841 book, The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, The Real Robinson Crusoe,   author John Howell politely describes Selkirk’s own mother as realizing that he was “one that would pass through some great events,” and “being guilty of very bad behavior.”  To keep him out of trouble  – or at least away from jail – she encouraged him to leave his native Scotland and take to the sea as a privateer during the War of Spanish Succession.

It wasn’t unusual for men, especially those without financial means, to turn to the ship life when it seemed they were out of other options. After all, a privateer is really just a government-sanctioned pirate – Selkirk and his comrades aboard the Cinque Ports were tasked with attacking Spanish ships and looting anything of value they had on board, keeping a percentage and returning the rest to the English navy. Their ship and others like it were given Letters of Marque from the crown – a sort of permission slip for piracy. It was hard work and an often fruitless journey.  At sea for over a year they suffered both gains and losses at the hands of the Spanish and French.

In 1704, Captain Thomas Stradling sailed the Cinque Ports to the island of Mas a Tierra, off the coast of Chile. It was their second stop there in six months; the first almost ended in mutiny as the crew refused to reboard the ship.  This time, Selkirk staged a one-man protest about the condition of the vessel. It was in horrible condition, he argued and needed repair. It was damaged by worms and leaking, and Stradling was an ineffective leader who frequently quarreled with his crew.

Selkirk was taking his chances, he said, on the island. Captain Stradling agreed and provided a few rudimentary necessities (“a gun, a knife, a hatchet, some oats and tobacco, as well as a bible, books of devotion and some navigational instruments“) before ordering the rest of his crew back to ship.

Legend has it that Selkirk immediately regretted his impending isolation and asked to come back to the ship, but was swiftly denied.

“His heart sunk within him, and all his resolution failed. He rushed into the water and implored them to return and take him on board with them. To all his entreaties his comrades turned a deaf ear, and even mocked his despair; denouncing the choice he had made of remaining upon the island, as rank mutiny, and l describing his present situation as the most proper state for such a fellow, where his example would not affect others.”- John Howell, The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk

Selkirk was not only alone on an island 400 miles away from the closest land mass, but he was also in danger from an island inhospitable to human life. Living on the beach proved impossible when aggressive mating sea lions came to shore. Seeking shelter inland, he found that conditions were slightly better – wild goats and cats left behind by sailors provided a source of food, and protection from the rats that chewed at him while he slept – respectively.

As our old friend Alex adapted to island life and the unending solitude that his voluntary marooning brought, he discovered that the animals weren’t the only threat to his life. Twice, Spanish ships came to shore; as an enemy sailor, he would have be arrested, tortured, and most likely killed. Luckily, he was spared that fate and remained undetected and evasive.

After four years living on Mas a Tierra, Selkirk was finally rescued by an English ship, Duke. His perseverance and survival skills had made him lonely, but otherwise in relatively good shape (his only complaint was that he was unable to wear shoes after not doing so for years) – unlike the crew of the Duke, who needed his help supplying food for the crew from his supply of goats.

After returning to England, Selkirk enlisted in the Royal Navy, married, and was buried at sea when he died of yellow fever at around 45 years old. He outlived most of the original crew of the Cinque Ports; the ship was indeed unsafe and riddled with worm-eating holes. It was abandoned after taking on water off the coast of South America, and just 18 men survived, only to be captured by the Spanish and subjected to what we can only guess were fairly brutal conditions.

Selkirk’s most famous pseudo-claim to fame may be that he is credited as being the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel about a shipwrecked sailor and his adventures on a deserted island. The myth is so prevalent that Mas a Tierra was even renamed Robinson Crusoe Island and multiple sources relay the connection as fact. But, as this National Geographic article points out, Crusoe was probably an amalgamation of several shipwrecked and marooned sailors whose stories were well known when Defoe was writing his book, and Selkirk’s circumstances make a direct correlation unlikely.