Stardogs and Pupniks

On August 19, 1960, two female dogs called Belka (Squirrel) and Strelka (Little Arrow) were launched into space aboard the Soviet's Sputnik 5 spacecraft. They returned to Earth a day later. This earned them the distinction of being the first mammals to return alive from Earth's orbit.

The Russians sent many dogs into sub-orbital space, to an altitude of 100km – Dezik, Tsygan, Lisa, Ryzhik, Malyshka, Otvazhnaya, Snezhinka – all stray dogs chosen by the space programme under the assumption that they would be more accustomed to extremes of temperature and other deprivations.

The most famous of the Soviet space dogs, Laika, was the first living Earth-born creature in orbit, but she died during the flight.

A few months after Strelka returned from orbit she became a mother to six puppies fathered by another space dog called Pushok. One of these puppies, Pushinka (Fluffy), was given to the Kennedy family by Premier Khrushchev in 1961. Since the exchange happened in the midst of the Cold War, Pushinka was thoroughly frisked in case she was carrying spying devices or hidden microphones. Pushinka fell for Charlie, the Kennedy's Welsh Terrier and gave birth to four puppies (JFK called them "pupniks"): White Tips, Streaker, Butterfly, and Blackie. Butterfly and Streaker were given away to children in the midwest, but White Tips and Blackie stayed on at the Kennedy home on Squaw Island.

Bertha Benz’s Roadtrip

On the morning of August 12, 1888, Bertha Benz, wife of German engine designer Karl Benz, woke early. She got her two teenage sons Eugen and Richard out of bed, and the three of them left their house in Mannheim, pushed her husband's newly-constructed Patent Motorwagen a little way down the road so as not to wake Karl, and  drove the vehicle to Pforzheim, 106 kilometres away. Bertha Benz was the first person to drive a car any further than the perfunctory and carefully monitored trips undertaken during workshop trials. Although Mrs Benz claimed that she undertook the journey because she wanted to visit her mother, she did have another motive. She aimed to prove to her husband, who had kept the motor car under wraps that it was marketable and would be financially viable once the public (who were mostly scared witless) had seen it.

Bertha, who was 39 when she made the historic trip, was well-acquainted with the Motorwagen, which was little more, as its name suggests, than a motorised carriage, with two wheels at the back and one at the front, and an open cabin. She planned her route, which she did not know as well as she knew the car, so that they would drive through towns which had pharmacies. At the time, petroleum was only available as Ligroin, a form of petroleum ether sold as a cleaning fluid, in small bottles. Along the way, Benz employed the services of a blacksmith to mend a broken chain and a cobbler to replace the leather brake linings. She unblocked a fuel pipe with a hairpin and used one of her garters to insulate a wire. Once she had reached Pforzheim, more than twelve hours later, she informed her husband by telegram of her party's safe arrival.

The publicity which the alarming sight of the car engendered was exactly the reaction Bertha wanted. She also recommended that Mr Benz add another gear to the engine because she had encountered difficulties driving up hills.

Last year the Bertha Benz Memorial Route was officially approved as a route of the industrial heritage of mankind.

Photograph: Bertha Benz around 1870. Bühler, Mannheim-Automuseum Dr. Carl Benz, Ladenburg

Drinking the stars

A statue of Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, stands outside the Moët et Chandon cellars in Rheims, a tribute to his contribution to the invention of champagne. Although the monk is often incorrectly credited with inventing the drink, famously exclaiming "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars" when first he sampled the drink, he was actually more concerned with getting the bubbles out of his wine, than in. The Dom was intent on improving the fermentation of the still wines of the Champagne region. Often, the secondary fermentation or refermentation which occurred once the wine had already been bottled, could push the cork out of the bottle or cause a bottle to explode resulting in a chain reaction as the other bottles, similarly pressurised, did the same in response to the shock of the initial explosion. Pérignon avoided white grapes because of their tendency to re-ferment and  established a set of rules for winemaking which insisted that only Pinot Noir be used to make fine wine. It was he who developed a technique for making white wine from red grapes, something which vintners had been attempting for years. The church’s desire for historical importance and prestige is the likely reason for the myth which so romantically links the monk to the invention of bubbly.

In 1821, Dom Groussard, one of Pérignon's successors at the Abbey of Hautvillers gave an account of the night of August 4, 1693 when Pérignon suppposedly made the discovery. Groussard's fabulous report also makes Pérignon the first to use corks in wine bottles. The story that Pérignon was blind comes from his documented habit of blind-tasting the grapes without knowledge of which vineyard they were from, to avoid having his perception clouded. 

An article called "The night the Brits invented Champagne" on the Napa Valley website,, quotes recent research by champagne expert, Tom Stevenson, which shows that it was the English who first began making sparkling wine. Wine production stopped in England in about 1350 when the warming Gulf Stream changed course and the island was faced with a cooler climate not suited to viticulture. So the British began importing their wine. In 1662, several decades before the French laid claim to "sparkling" champagne, the English added sugar and molasses to the wine while it was still in barrels. Also, the nature of champagne meant that bottling it required strong glass. It was an Englishman, Sir Robert Mansell, concerned that valuable wood was being used to make charcoal instead of building ships, who persuaded King James I, in 1615, to ban wood for heating. The sea coal used in its place produced higher temperatures and consequently produced stronger glass bottles able to withstand the pressure of the bubbles. Mansell retired from the navy and gained a monopoly over the very profitable manufacture of glass. does end the article with a faint apology to the French: "Each generation in France contributed advances in the making of Champagne. So, let the debate continue, but let us not forget that while the French may not have invented this elegant elixir, they surely perfected it, and that, dear drinkers, is what really counts."

Photograph: Statue of Dom Pérignon at Moët et Chandon

Rail in an Exiled Land

It was during the reign of Csar Alexander II  that the original plans to construct the Trans-Siberian Railway, a route which would connect the Russian capital St Petersburg with the Pacific ocean port of Vladivostok, were first approved. The idea had been bandied about since the 1850's as a solution to the non-existent transport infrastructure and inhospitable climate of Siberia, but found no government support until the 1880's, after the assassination of the Csar, when his son and heir Alexander III, admitted: " I have read so many reports from the Siberian governors that now I can admit with sadness that the government did almost nothing to satisfy the needs of this rich but neglected region. It is time to correct this mistake."

Siberia, Turkic for "sleeping land", is synonymous with involuntary exile. Before it was linked by the construction of the railroad to the rapidly industrialising Russia of Nicholas III, Siberia was used as a prison colony for those deemed neblagonadiózhni or untrustworthy, by the government. It is estimated that around 1.2 million prisoners were deported to Siberia during the 19th century.

In 1885, American explorer George Kennan undertook a journey to the region. At the outset, Kennan, who began his working life at the age of twelve, in the employ of the Cleveland and Toledo Railroad Company telegraph office, was profoundly supportive of the Tsarist Russian government and its policies, but changed his mind when he made the acquaintance of exiled dissidents during his travels. Many of these meetings are documented in his book Siberia and the Exile System, first published in 1891.

Alexander II was apparently liberal – it was he who proposed the emancipation of the serfs with the statement, "It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below",  and his vision which first saw the need to develop the natural resources of Siberia by building a railway. But he was for the most part ineffectual, governed by the over-arching greed of the nobility. He could not hand over land to the serfs without ruining the ruling classes and could not free the serfs without giving them land – a catch 22 which led to strengthened support for populist movements like Narodnaya Volya, the People's Will, ultimately responsible for his assassination, after four failed attempts, on 13 March, 1881. His heir, Alexander III,  adopted policies intended to correct what he considered the excessively liberal tendencies of his father's reign. He sought to strengthen and centralise the Imperial administration, and to bring it under his personal control. The practice of exile remained firmly in place, as Keenan notes in his book, executed at the whim of the administration, often with no grounds for punitive measures: " ... no man knows at what moment he may be seized and cast into prison or doomed to exile without even a hearing."

The Trans Siberian Railway was officially completed on July 21, 1904.

Photograph: Portrait of  Sophia Nikitina, a young girl who was attending school in Kiev when she was banished by "administrative process" to one of the remote provinces of Eastern Siberia. In the winter of 1884-1885, Nikitina contracted typhoid fever and died in a lazaret, or hospital, in  Áchinsk, 3 000 miles from home. Her story was recorded by George Kennan in his book Siberia and the Exile System .
Image Credit: George Kennan Papers, Library of Congress

Water of life

fet190709Life in Ndumo, in the most northerly reaches of KwaZulu Natal can be described as harsh at best. The town, which borders on the Ndumo Game Reserve and looks out across Swaziland and Mozambique, is at the end of a bone-jarring 17 kilometre gravel road – the "gravel" in this case consists of large chunks of local stone, hence the bumpy ride. To add insult to the injurious commute, Ndumo has one of the highest HIV and TB infection rates in the country as well as being plagued by seasonal outbreaks of malaria.

Read more ...

The gun that changed the world


In July 6, 1947, the Avtomatni Kalashnikova (Automatic of Kalashnikov) went into production in the Soviet Union.The story goes that its self-taught, lowly-born inventor Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, was prompted to create it in 1941 after the Red Army was decisively defeated by the Germans at the Battle of Bryansk. Kalashnikov, who was 21 at the time was shot in the shoulder and endured a two day journey on foot before reaching a hospital. Plagued by nightmares of the slaughter, he conceived of a simple but revolutionary killing machine that would ensure that his comrades were never again overcome in battle.

Read more ...

Conquering the Overlord of the Earth


It has been thirty years since the World Health Organisation announced that the smallpox virus was eradicated, 183 years after English physician Edward Jenner discovered that immunity to smallpox could be produced by innoculating a person with material from a cowpox lesion.

Read more ...

On the Front Page of The World

fet280609Had the internet and all its possibilities existed on June 16, 1976, when South African police opened fire on Sowetan school children protesting the use of Afrikaans as an education medium, the shooting of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson might have been witnessed across the globe as shakily-captured low resolution footage posted on YouTube, like the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman shot while protesting the results of the Iranian election held on 12 June. To date, Neda's death, in its various incarnations, has been viewed on YouTube more than half-a-million times.

Read more ...

King of the Wheat Pit

fet_280908According to Charles R. Geisst's book Wheels of Fortune, America's Civil War (1861-1865) brought with it an "unprecedented speculative binge in commodities and gold". Prompted by stories of fortune created on the exchanges and eager to pass on wealth to the next generation in the face of war and increasing urbanisation, ordinary people felt they could play the stock market like professional traders. Professional traders believed that if they had the will and enough "speculative nerve" they could corner the entire supply of grain or gold.

Read more ...

Nothing new under the sun

fet140809Wikipedia records that the United States presidential election of 1856 was "unusually heated". The Republican Party, headed by John Fremont (the bearded character being pulled by a Canuck pony  because of his French Canadian provenance) crusaded against the expansion of slavery.

Read more ...

A shocking tale

fet_240808Using a bicycle as an alternative means of transport to dirty, smelly, expensive cars has not quite taken on here in sunny SA. Some shun them because negotiating our traffic on two wheels is difficult and dangerous since neither the roads nor the motorised vehicles on them make allowances for those propelled by leg power.

Read more ...

Then and now

fet1-170808This picture of the United States mens relay team is one of a series of slides posted on YouTube. The pictures were taken by this user's Unregistered Hypercam 2, a downloadable camera which records what you are doing on your computer. (Apparently, penguin321654 was watching the Olympics).

According to NBC, traffic to their Olympics link has already surpassed the 229 million page views recorded during the Athens Olympics in 2004 but Gawker Media Blog, Valleywag notes that there is frustration at the lack of full screen video and that users are turning to pirated file sharing networks which pipe high definition footage even before they get aired on US television.

Read more ...

Face off

fet1-100808This is a detail from a photo mosaic of Lovemore Matombo and Wellington Chibebe, the President and General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). They were arrested on 8 May for speaking out about the state-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe and are charged with "communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the State".

Read more ...

Culture-killing copyright

fet_150309The chief irony in Sita Sings the Blues, Nina Paley's animated reworking of the Ramayana epic is not in the parallels she draws between her life and Sita's,nor is it in the feminist sub-text or her humourous use of three modern Indian narrators which veteran film critic and screenwriter Roger Ebert calls "as funny as a Saturday Night Live" skit.

Read more ...

A 6.763,035,315 gigabod elephant

fet010309In demographics, the centre of population, or population centroid, of a region, is the geographical point nearest to all the inhabitants of that region, on average. The world's centre of population lies "at the crossroads between China, India, Pakistan and Tajikistan", somewhere in Afghanistan, with an average distance of 5,200 kilometres to all humans.

Read more ...

Iran's sea change

fet210609Before Iran's election results were announced on Monday this week, ushering in violent protest at the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a landslide victory over once-reluctant challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen prophesied a return to the promises of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Cohen takes an annotated look, in Iran Awakens Yet Again, at the country's "quest for representative government" which he says began with the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 that saw the nation establish its first parliament.

Read more ...

A slant on writing for children


On Monday this week, in honour of what would have been Theodor Giesel's 105th birthday, Google festooned its nameplate with the much-loved characters created by his alter egos Dr. Seuss, Theo LeSieg and Rosetta Stone. The good "doctor" (The "Dr." in his pen name is an acknowledgment of his father's unfulfilled hopes that Geisel would earn a doctorate at Oxford) had plenty to say on every subject and was, by his own admission, "subversive as hell". His love of books is best described by a quote from  I Can Read With My Eyes Shut: "The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."

Read more ...

The Fly


Little Fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Read more ...

Why we kiss

3b13826uNinety percent of all people in the world kiss. Even though it inevitably  involves the exchange of saliva and mucous membrane and is most likely to have evolved from a mother's need to premasticate food before transferring it to the mouth of her offspring, the habit has survived.

Read more ...