Gulliver’s Travels

Jonathan Swift wrote a classic book called Gulliver’s Travels that borders on science fiction. It was written before ‘science fiction’ was what you called such books. In this book he wrote about two moons circling Mars. His descriptions of their size and orbital distance weren’t perfect but surprisingly accurate. He did this one hundred years before they were described by astronomers.




Phobos, on of Mars’ two moons

Phobos is roughly the diameter of San Francisco.

Lightning Strikes

A church steeple in Germany was struck by lightning and destroyed on April 18, 1599. The members of the church rebuilt it. It was hit by lightning three more times between then and 1783, and rebuilt again and again. Every time it was hit, the date was April 18.

Once every three or four days an American dies due to being struck by lightning.

Two-thirds of the people struck by lightning survive.

Men are six times more likely to be struck by lightning than women.

If you stand under an oak tree, you are much more likely to be struck by lightning that if you stand under many other kinds of trees. Why are oaks more dangerous? Their roots go deeper which make a better electrical ground.

An average bolt of lightning is less than one inch thick. The electricity is thirty million volts.

Thunder storms can approach as fast as fifty miles per hour.

Three Unfortunate Ship Captains

Captain Edward Smith decided to ignore suggestions to slow his ship down while going through waters known to have icebergs. He wanted to be sure to arrive on time. It was his ship’s maiden voyage. The year was 1912 and he was in charge of the largest ship, in fact the largest moving machine, ever built. It was called the Titanic. You know the rest of the story.

What you may not know is that Captain Smith made another fatal error that day: He did not inform the passengers as to the severity of the situation, once they hit the ice, and did not stay on board long enough to help people get into the lifeboats in an organized way. As a result, many lifeboats left with just a few passengers, although they each had a capacity for seventy people. More than 1,500 passengers who could not get on lifeboats died in the mishap.


Unfortunate ship captain Edward Smith
Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic

In 1991, MTS Oceanos, another cruise ship, started taking on water in heavy seas and lost power. Just like the captain of the Titanic, Captain Yiannis Avranas did not help the passengers escape. Instead, he abandoned the bridge almost immediately. Guitarist Moss Hills and his wife Tracy, who were hired as entertainers on the ship, went up to the bridge to find out what was happening. Upon finding no one in charge, Moss himself called in a mayday, which eventually brought rescue for everyone on board just moments before the ship sank.

Almost exactly one hundred years after Titanic, Captain Francesco Schettino ignored the sea lane map and maneuvered his large cruise ship, Costa Concordia, close to Isola del Giglio, an island just off the coast of Italy, evidently so his passengers could enjoy the close passage. His ship gored itself on a rock outcropping and capsized. Water flooded vital equipment resulting in a power outage. This captain, too, left the ship early. Not only did he not help his passengers into lifeboats, he told the passengers nothing, leaving them to mill around aimless and confused in the darkness while the ship floundered with no one in control.

The captain was found a short time after the little mishap smoking a cigarette under a staircase. Then, he left in one of the first lifeboats, and refused to re-board his ship and take charge of the evacuation when ordered to do so by the Italian Coast Guard.

The passengers and the mostly untrained crew had to organize their own evacuation. The crew were mostly restaurant, cleaning and entertainment staff, so were not trained in safety procedures. Among the most helpful people in the evacuation, and the last to leave were Tracy and Moss Hills. That’s right, the same couple who were on the MTS Oceanos!

Even though the ship did not fully capsize, being only meters from the coast, and even though the water was warm and calm, at least thirty people died.

What’s with these captains? Psychologists say it is not uncommon for good people to act poorly in such situations. When one is in charge of a lot of people, and something goes terribly wrong, the one in charge will often freeze up with fear, rendering them useless in an emergency.

A Pig Caused the War of 1812

It is possible that a single pig caused the War of 1812. This pig was always getting into the neighbor’s yard and eating up prized shrubs and flowers. Finally the neighbor got mad and killed the pig with a pitchfork. The pig’s killer was a congressional candidate who lost the election by one vote. This was the vote cast against him by the late pig’s owner presumably because he was upset about the loss of his pig. When the matter of deciding about the war was voted upon, the issue passed by one vote. This was the vote of the candidate who had won the election by one vote.