Sunday, April 22, 2007

Why did Descartes die?

René Descartes, the man considered as precursor of Scientific Method and author of revolutionary books such as his Discourse on Method, died in obscure circunstances that were not cleared out until recently.

In 1646, the impulsive Queen Kristina of Sweden, ethusiast of Arts and Philosophy (although not with deep thoughts, as Descartes himself admitted), started to write letters with the philosopher, who was at that time retired in Nederlands. Impressed by his teachings, she invited him to the Swedish Court as a guest to give her lessons on Mathematics and Philosophy. This was part of her plan to be surrounded by great European thinkers and transform Stockholm into a cultural centre.

After some forceful "invitations", for which the queen sent one of her admirals, and later even a warship, in 1649 Descartes reluctantly accepted her proposal. In Stockholm he was received with high honours, incorporated to the Swedish aristocracy, and granted conquered lands in Germany.

Death at the Court

He did not enjoy life in the court, however. Apart from some punctual jobs (such as some lines in French for a ballet, or plans for the Swedish Academy) he only had to teach the queen during the mornings. The problem is that Kristina got up extremely early, and scheduled their lessons at 5 in the morning in the middle of Swedish winter. This was very hard for Descartes, who was used to stay in bed reading and thinking until noon. He usually said, "men's thoughts freeze here in winter, same as water". Five months after his arrival, the 11th February 1650, he died.

The official version of the time was that he died of pneumonia. After treating the French ambassador in Stockholm, who had contracted this contagious illness, Descartes got also ill and died one week later. Considering he was not used to nordic cold, this seems plausible. He was buried in a cemetery for unbaptised kids (because he was a catholic in a protestant country), and some years later his remains were moved back to France. Closed case.

However, the French ambassador, Hector P. Chanut, graved this quote in his headstone: "he expiated his rivals' attacks with the innocency of his life". So, he could have been murdered. There was enough reasons actually, as he was a catholic with more influence than most nobles. He could have been considered dangerous and cause of the Queen's catholicist trends (who, four years later, abdicated, converted, and moved to Rome).

Proof of the lie

In 1980, by complete chance, the prove was found. The German scientific Eike Pies, reviewing letters from his ancestor Willem Piso at Leyden University (Nederlands), saw a letter sent to him by Johann van Wullen, personal doctor of Queen Kristina and witness of Descartes' agony. In that letter, the details on the symptoms are described day by day: weakening, vomits, diarrhoea, dizziness, skin's pigmentation, cutaneous damages, entheritis... symptoms commonly found in an Arsenic intoxication.

So, Descartes was almost certainly poisoned. How was the truth hidden? In the letter, Wullen points out that the Queen asked to read it before being sent, and ordered that it never fell in strange hands. Kristina probably wanted to save the prestige of Swedish monarchy, already target of rumours and palace intrigues because of the Queen's excentricities. This way, the murder was never investigated. And History books still tell the "official" version of the facts.

Monday, April 09, 2007

History of chopsticks

Following a good comment from K-dreaming about the History of the fork, I have searched about History of chopsticks.

It is commonly admitted that chopsticks appeared in China around 5000 years ago. Before that date, food was taken from big pots in the fire pricked in long sticks directly cut from trees. Later on, with the increasing population, fuel resources became scarce. This slowly lead to a new way of cooking that required less wood, for which food was cut in small pieces so that it took less time to cook. Then food could be eaten directly from the pot, eliminating the need of knives, and tree branches gradually became chopsticks.

Although the most ancient existing pair of chopsticks dates from the Tang dynasty (7th-10th centuries), it is written in the Liji (Book of Rites) that chopsticks were used already during the Shang dynasty (16th-12th centuries BC). Sima Qian stated in his History book, that the last king of the dynasty used ivory chopsticks. According to experts, bamboo and wooden chopsticks should date at least from 1000 years earlier. In the following centuries, bronze, golden and silver chopsticks became fashionable. Specially the latter were popular among aristocracy, as it was thought that silver became black when it was in contact with poison. This belief is exaggerated (actually silver does not react to arsenic neither to cyanide), but there is something true: rotten eggs, onions and garlic expell hydrogen sulphyde, which does change the colour of silver.

Probably, Confucius' teachings contributed to promote the use of chopsticks at the table. He said, literally: "the honorable and correct man is well aware of the differences between slaughterhouse and table. And does not allow the use of knives at his table." Because of Confucius' popularity, who was by the way a vegetarian, this sentence eliminated the Western habit to use knives at the table.

Around the 6th century, the use of chopsticks spread to other countries such as Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Although in Japan it was first used only for religious ceremonies, it soon acquired culinary popularity, and the Japanese even created a new kind of chopsticks typical of their country: with a more sharpened point than Chinese ones, and attached at the base. From the 10th century this attachment disappeared and the became the Japanese chopsticks we know nowadays. They were also spread in Thailand, but in the 19th century the king Rama V introduced Western table utensils, limiting the use of chopsticks only to noodles.

Tools similar to chopsticks were found in the archeological findings in Meggido (Israel), belonging to Scythian invaders of Canaan, and contemporary of Moses and Josuah. This discovery reveals the extension of trade between Middle East and Far East in ancient times. Chopsticks were also common tools used by the Uyghurs in the steppes of Mongolia during the 6th-8th centuries.