Wednesday Jun. 15, 2016

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A Life

Each afternoon he took his pipe
and led his goats beyond the pasture
to a neighbor’s field behind his farm—
not exactly his but not exactly not.

As the goats clipped the tall grasses,
he sat in the chair he never failed
to bring. Sometimes he read, most often
not. The vetch climbed the goldenrod,

the dandelions turned from gold
to globe, and every day he went,
thinking to himself how good it was
to be almost but not entirely alone.

“A Life” by Michelle Y. Burke from Animal Purpose. © Ohio University Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The Magna Carta — the “Great Charter” — was sealed on this date in 1215. England’s King John was facing a political crisis that was approaching civil war. England’s barons felt the Crown had gone too far in its taxation of the noblemen and the church, in order to pay a mercenary army and finance the Third Crusade. The barons drew up a list of grievances. Most of the document dealt with those specific complaints, but there were also some revolutionary ideas in the charter — including the idea that the king should be subject to the same law as everyone else in the land. Other kings had granted charters, but John was the first one to be forced into it. He met with the barons under a yew tree in the meadow of Runnymede, near the River Thames, and there placed his seal on the charter.

John had no intention of upholding the Magna Carta as written, and he wasted no time in heavily editing it. As a peace treaty of sorts, it failed. But it opened up a dialogue about the proper relationship between a monarch and his subjects. Over the centuries, much of it has been repealed, but a few of the clauses remain as a cornerstone of British law — particularly the third clause, which states: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.”

The influence of the Magna Carta and its core principles can be seen in the United States Bill of Rights (1791); the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); the European Convention on Human Rights (1950); and the constitutions of many modern nations. Four copies of the original charter remain.

On this day in 1752, Benjamin Franklin is believed to have performed his famous kite experiment and proved that lightning is electricity. He tied the kite to a silk string with an iron key on the end of the string. From the key, he ran a wire into a Leyden jar, a container that stored electrical charge. He then tied a silk ribbon to the key, which he held onto from inside a shed, to keep it dry. The electrical charge from the storm overhead passed through the key and into the Leyden jar.

Franklin, as it turns out, was lucky to have conducted this experiment safely. Several others who attempted it after him were electrocuted. He used the information he gained to design lightning rods, which conducted a storm’s electrical charge safely into the ground. One of Franklin’s lightning rods saved his own house years later, during a storm.

Although Franklin described his kite endeavor in a letter later that fall, the full account of the experiment wasn’t written down until 15 years after the fact by a man who wasn’t even present: Joseph Priestly. However, he wrote it after detailed correspondence with Franklin, so his account is generally believed to be reliable.

Today is the birthday of the man who once said, “The doodle is the brooding of the hand.” That’s cartoonist Saul Steinberg, born near Bucharest, Romania (1914). He studied sociology and psychology at the University of Bucharest, and then studied architecture in Milan. He never designed a single building, but began a career in art instead. He later said that the study of architecture was excellent training for art. “The frightening thought that what you draw may become a building makes for reasoned lines,” he said.

He left Italy when the Fascist government began enacting anti-Semitic laws, and while he waited for a U.S. visa, he started drawing cartoons and sending them to American magazines. In 1941, he published his first drawing in The New Yorker: a reverse centaur, with a horse’s head and a man’s rump. In 1942, the magazine sponsored his visa. He worked with The New Yorker for more than 50 years, drawing covers, cartoons, and hundreds of illustrations for the magazine.

He also served his new country during World War II. He taught Chinese guerillas how to blow up bridges, and he worked for the Office of Strategic Services, drawing anti-Nazi cartoons that were dropped behind enemy lines. He also served as a kind of war correspondent in cartoon form, sending illustrations home to The New Yorker. They were collected and published in a book, All in Line (1945). It was the first of several books, including The Passport (1954), The New World (1965), and The Discovery of America (1993).

One of his most famous — and most imitated — illustrations is “A View of the World from 9th Avenue.” It appeared on the cover of a 1976 issue of The New Yorker, and it embodies the stereotypical New Yorker’s view that Manhattan is the center of the world. Late in life he said that he would forever be remembered as “the man who did that poster.”

It’s the birthday of Norwegian composer Edvard Hagerup Grieg, born in Bergen, Norway (1843). Grieg lived a busy life as a composer, conductor, and piano soloist throughout Europe. Early in his career, he was taken under the wing of the great Norwegian violin virtuoso Ole Bull, who shared with Grieg his love of Norwegian folk melodies. That love later inspired many of Grieg’s best-known pieces, including the incidental music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the Lyric Pieces, and the Norwegian Dances. He wrote the big, full-bodied Piano Concerto in A Minor, but he made his reputation primarily with smaller pieces, full of Norwegian character — pieces that Claude Debussy called “bonbons wrapped in snow.”

It’s the birthday of science writer Dava Sobel (books by this author), born in New York City (1947). Her mother was trained as a chemist and her father was a doctor, and she started out as a science writer for IBM. She began freelancing, and eventually got a job writing about science for the New York Times.

 Her big breakthrough came in 1996, when she published Longitude, which tells how the 18th-century scientist and clockmaker William Harrison solved the problem of determining east-west location at sea. Sobel barely had enough money to finish the research for the book, and only 10,000 copies were printed on the first run, but Longitude became a surprise best-seller in America and England. It also helped popularize a new genre — offbeat books about lesser-known historical subjects.

Longitude begins: “Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved. At a touch, I could collapse the toy into a flat coil between my palms, or pop it open to make a hollow sphere. Rounded out, it resembled a tiny Earth, because its hinged wires traced the same pattern of intersecting circles that I had seen on the globe in my schoolroom — the thin black lines of latitude and longitude. The few colored beads slid along the wire paths haphazardly, like ships on the high seas [...] Today, the latitude and longitude lines govern with more authority than I could have imagined forty-odd years ago, for they stay fixed as the world changes its configuration underneath them — with continents adrift across a widening sea, and national boundaries repeatedly redrawn by war or peace.”

Sobel’s novel Galileo’s Daughter, about the correspondence between the great Italian astronomer and his favorite daughter, nominated for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography.

Her latest book is about Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicholas Copernicus. It came out in 2011 and is titled More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos.

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