France

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

“The fundamental fallacy of utopianism is to assume that everyone wants to live in the same utopia.”

The Measure of All Things: How Two French Astronomers Nearly Lost Their Lives Revolutionizing the World with the Invention of the Meter

In her memoir, the trailblazing astronomer Caroline Herschel recounted frequently having to “measure the ground with poles” when she first began making astronomical observations in the 1780s. It seems odd that something as grand and lofty as studying the heavens would necessitate something this humble and earthbound, but this seemingly mundane task is important for two reasons — it reminds us that astronomers were the original measurers of everything we know, but it also raises the question of what the ground was measured in. For it wasn’t until a generation later that the measures of the world were standardized, thanks to the French astronomers Pierre Méchain and Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, who set out to unite humanity by creating a single measure: the meter, arguably the most impactful mathematical concept since the invention of zero, central to everything from the speed of light and our basic understanding of the universe to the daily practicalities of shoe sizes, doorframe dimensions, and driving speed limits. Over and over during their seven-year quest for peace through mathematical perfection, they stumbled and fell and got back up, nearly losing their heads to the guillotine on multiple occasions as they toiled to create an equalizing measurement that would “encompass nothing that was arbitrary, nor to the particular advantage of any people on the planet.”

Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre and Pierre Méchain

Historian Ken Alder tells the story of Delambre and Méchain’s ambitious, improbable, and heroic feat in The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error That Transformed the World (public library). He casts the stakes:

In June 1792 — in the dying days of the French monarchy, as the world began to revolve around a new promise of Revolutionary equality — two astronomers set out in opposite directions on an extraordinary quest. The erudite and cosmopolitan Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre made his way north from Paris, while the cautious and scrupulous Pierre-François-André Méchain made his way south. Each man left the capital in a customized carriage stocked with the most advanced scientific instruments of the day and accompanied by a skilled assistant. Their mission was to measure the world, or at least that piece of the meridian arc which ran from Dunkerque through Paris to Barcelona. Their hope was that all the world’s peoples would henceforth use the globe as their common standard of measure. Their task was to establish this new measure — “the meter” — as one ten-millionth…

The Art of Power: How Louis XIV Ruled France … with Ballet

In 1692, a young French aristocrat visiting King Louis XIV’s royal court was asked if he knew how to dance. The aristocrat, who went by Montbron, replied with characteristic overconfidence, gloating enough to attract the attention of other courtiers. Rookie mistake. It wasn’t long before the room of nobles asked him to prove it.

It was a truth universally acknowledged that a man pining for a political career in 17th century France needed a dance teacher. The ability to dance was both a social nicety and a political necessity, the birthmark of an aristocratic upbringing. “Good breeding demands that pleasing and easy manner which can only be gained by dancing,” the famed dance teacher Pierre Rameau wrote in 1725. Dancing badly in court wasn’t just humiliating, it was also a potential career killer—and Montbron was all talk and no game.

The aristocrat took to the floor and immediately lost his balance. The audience doubled in laughter. Embarrassed, he tried deflecting attention from his legs with “affected attitudes,” waving his arms and making faces. The move backfired. Everyone laughed louder—including the most important man in the room, King Louis XIV.

“There were reportedly more than two hundred dancing schools in Paris in the 1660s, all devoted to training young noblemen to avoid similar dread breaches of etiquette,” writes Jennifer Homans in Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet. The young aristocrat didn’t show his face in court for a long time after his grand flop.

King Louis XIV, a lifelong ballet dancer, would have it no other way. To him, ballet was more than an art. It was the political currency that kept his country together.

Public Domain

When Louis XIV was 10, he was chased out of France by a band of angry aristocrats who wanted to keep royal powers in check. He had sat atop the throne for four years, but the country was run by adult advisors. The vacuum of power was a symptom of a series of aristocratic uprisings called Frondes.

At first, the rebels of the Fronde didn’t want to overthrow the government; they simply wanted to avoid absolute rule by royals. The government had raised taxes to recover funds from the Thirty Years’ War, and the nobility was opposed to the increase. But when civil war erupted, some factions tried taking control of the crown. By the time the young king returned in 1652 at age 14, his worldview had changed. He returned to Paris forever skeptical of his underlings.

For the rest of his life, Louis would be hell-bent on squashing the nobility’s thirst for power. He believed that God had granted him direct authority, and he fashioned himself after Apollo, the Greek god of the sun. Louis called himself the “Sun King”—the star at the center of France’s universe—and ensured everybody knew it. He formed his own army and stripped aristocrats of their former military duties. As an absolute monarch, he declared: “I am the state.”

Louis did everything in his power to elevate his status. He practiced fencing and vaulting, and trained for hours daily with his personal dancing master, Pierre Beauchamp. It was more than mere exercise: According to the period’s political theory, the state of France was literally embodied by its ruler. Sculpting his muscles and ensuring that his body was perfectly developed and proportioned was a way to demonstrate he was the ultimate source of power, ruling by divine right.

To ensure that the aristocracy didn’t rise up and attempt to seize power from him again, Louis kept the patricians at Versailles within his sights—and perpetually busy. He turned Versailles into a gilded prison, calling in nobles from their far-away estates and forcing them to stay at court, where he could keep a close eye on them.

In a way, life at Versailles—which Louis had built into a palace—took the form of an intricately choreographed dance. Noblemen and women were restricted as to where they could stand, how they were allowed to enter or exit a room, and what type of chair they could sit on. The house was divided into elaborate wings, and inhabitants moved between them via sedan chairs, which functioned as indoor taxicabs. (Only the royal family had their own taxi-chairs. Everybody else had to flag them down.)

Louis XIV’s theory was that nobles…

Florence Chadwick, the Woman Who Conquered the English Channel

As she approached the shore of Sangatte, France, Florence Chadwick was exhausted. She had been swimming in the English Channel for over 16 hours, battling strong winds and thick fog that made every stroke a challenge. The previous leg of her journey, from France to England—which she had completed a year earlier—had been easy compared to this. But her effort would be worth it: When she finally arrived on French soil that day, September 11, 1951, she became the first woman to successfully swim round-trip across the English Channel.

Born in San Diego, California in 1918, Chadwick discovered her love of ocean swimming at an early age. Her hometown offered her easy access to the beach, and she started competing in swimming races at 6 years old. She liked pushing herself to swim in difficult conditions: at night, in fog, and in strong winds. At the age of 10, she swam a two-mile race in the rough waters of Hermosa Beach, wowing the crowds. At 13, she earned second place at the U.S. national championships.

After graduating from San Diego State College, she produced aquatic shows for the U.S. military, and in 1944, she swam with MGM’s water ballet star Esther Williams in the musical film Bathing Beauty. But Chadwick had her sights set far beyond Hollywood.

As a child, Chadwick had been inspired by Gertrude Ederle, who, in 1926, became the first woman to swim the English Channel. Before her, women were considered incapable of such a long-distance swim. Ederle not only proved them wrong, but beat the men’s record by two hours.

Chadwick became determined to be the first woman to swim the Channel round-trip—not just from France to England, as Ederle had, but from England to France. Swimmers and other experts considered the latter to be a more difficult crossing, in part because of the strong current pushing away from the shore. No woman had ever swum the England-to-France route successfully. Chadwick set a goal of swimming both Ederle’s route and then back again, even if she had to rest in a bit between trips.

After World War II, Chadwick took a job as a comptometer (a type of adding machine) operator with an American oil company in Saudi Arabia. She swam in the Persian Gulf before and after work and for up to 10 hours on her days off. After two years of rigorous training, she decided she was ready to make the first part…

Wild hamsters raised on corn eat their young alive

European hamster
European hamster

European hamsters in France often live in farm fields, where they may not be getting a balanced diet. That could cause problems. In the lab, hamsters fed a corn-based diet ate their young alive.

People who eat a diet dominated by corn can develop a deadly disease: pellagra. Now something similar has emerged in rodents. Wild European hamsters raised in the lab on a diet rich in corn showed odd behaviors. These included eating their babies! Such behaviors did now show up in hamsters that ate mostly wheat.

Pellagra (Peh-LAG-rah) is caused by a shortage of niacin (NY-uh-sin), which is also known as vitamin B3. The disease has four major symptoms: diarrhea, skin rashes, dementia — a type of mental illness characterized by forgetfulness — and death. Mathilde Tissier and her team at the University of Strasbourg in France never expected to see something similar among rodents in their lab.

As a conservation biologist, Tissier studies species that may face some risk of going extinct and how they might be saved. Her team had been working in the lab with European hamsters. This species was once common in France but has been quickly disappearing. There are now only about 1,000 of the animals left in the whole country. These hamsters also may be on the decline throughout the rest of their range in Europe and Asia.

These animals play an important role in local ecosystems by burrowing. That turning over of the soil as they excavate tunnels can promote soil health. But more than that, these hamsters are an umbrella species, Tissier notes. That means that safeguarding them and their habitat should give benefits to many other farmland species that may also be declining.

Most European hamsters still found in France live around corn and wheat fields. A typical corn field is some seven times larger than the home range for a female hamster. That means the animals that live on a farm will eat mostly corn — or whatever other crop is growing in its field. But not all crops provide the same level of nutrition. Tissier and her colleagues were curious about how that might affect the animals. Perhaps, they guessed, the number of pups in a litter size or how quickly a pup grew might differ if their moms ate different farm crops.

Corn fields
Many European…

Domestic Violence Facts: 72 Horrifying Facts About Domestic Violence

domestic violence facts

Domestic violence facts: Facts about domestic violence. Dоmеѕtіс violence, occurs whеn оnе реrѕоn causes рhуѕісаl оr рѕусhоlоgісаl hаrm to a сurrеnt or fоrmеr іntіmаtе раrtnеr. It іnсludеѕ аll acts of vіоlеnсе wіthіn thе context оf fаmіlу оr іntіmаtе relationships. Besides bеіng the leading саuѕе of injury to wоmеn іn thе United Stаtеѕ (а wоmаn is beaten every 15 seconds), it іѕ an іѕѕuе оf increasing соnсеrn bесаuѕе оf its nеgаtіvе effect оn аll fаmіlу mеmbеrѕ, especially children. Below are 72 facts about domestic violence.

Domestic violence facts

Number оf U.S. trоорѕ kіllеd in Afghanistan аnd Irаԛ: 6,614:

Numbеr оf wоmеn, in the ѕаmе period, killed аѕ the result оf dоmеѕtіс violence іn thе US: 11,766

Number оf реорlе per mіnutе who experience intimate раrtnеr vіоlеnсе in the U.S.: 24

Number оf workplace violence іnсіdеntѕ іn thе U.S. аnnuаllу that are the result оf current оr раѕt іntіmаtе раrtnеr аѕѕаultѕ: 18,700

Numbеr оf women in the U.S. whо rероrt intimate partner vіоlеnсе: 1 іn 4

Number оf mеn іn thе U.S. whо report іntіmаtе раrtnеr vіоlеnсе: 1 іn 7

Numbеr оf wоmеn who wіll еxреrіеnсе…