Courtesy ArniEinOne legend connected to the Nordic Vikings got a strong jolt of reality with the discovery of a possible "sunstone" on a shipwreck off of Great Britain. Viking lore claimed that the sailors used such a stone to determine the position of the sun, even on cloudy days or when the sun had dropped below the horizon.
The stone is an Icelandic spar about the size of a pack of cigarettes that has a crystal appearance. Due to its shape and material, the sunstone can diffract light into two distinct rays which can be used to determine the position of the sun. This particular stone was found on a ship that sank in 1592 and was found close to other navigational equipment. The theory is that the stone would have been used as a back-up to a conventional compass on the more modern ship.
Why have no Viking sunstones been found? The strongest theory is that the stones were shattered in the cremation rituals given to dead Vikings. Researchers will now be able to tinker with the newly found sunstone to learn more about how Vikings possibly used them.
Courtesy University of LeicesterToday, many of our former leaders get dropped into the dust bin of cable news commentators and talk radio hosts. But 500 years ago, the options appeared to be a little more drastic.
Researchers yesterday announced that they've confirmed that the bones they found last fall buried under a parking lot in Greyfriars, England, are that of infamous King Richard III.
Further investigation of his full skeleton shows that King Richard suffered traumatic, and fatal, injuries in the course of fighting the Battle of Bosworth. But further analysis also shows that he very likely suffered "humiliation injuries" after his death, signs of displeasure from those who did not agree with his politics or leadership. Click here to learn more about the scientific techniques being used to glean this forensic information from the king. Included is a graphic description of the humiliation injuries King Richard sustained.
Courtesy University of LeicesterAuthorities are also saying that finding the remains of King Richard will reopen the thinking of the young monarch's short reign. Popular depiction since his death was that King Richard was an evil, ruthless killer. Following his demise, a different branch of monarchy came into power and very well could have had an agenda of discrediting his legacy. Already, the discovery of the bones show that Richard III did suffer from severe scoliosis, but probably didn't have the hunchback that legend claims. Could this be the first of several King Richard III myths to be debunked?
After the research is completed, the plan is to entomb King Richard's remains at Leicester Cathedral and to have an interpretive center across the street to tell the details of king's newly discovered story.
Courtesy National ArchivesSomeone contact Mulder and Scully. Recently declassified documents show that the US Air Force was actually working on building flying saucers in the 1950s. Known as Project 1794, the four digitized documents available on the National Archives website, indicate the program involved development of a disk-shaped aircraft capable of achieving air speeds between Mach 3 and Mach 4 (2,300-3,000 mph) and a height of 100,000 feet! Propulsion was based on the Coandă effect, created by high-speed rotation of the saucer's outer rim. Jet turbines supplied the power. Avro Canada, a Canadian aircraft manufacturer, was also in on this very secret project. The truth might out there, but we might have to wait until the remainder of the two full boxes of documents is digitized and posted online.
Courtesy Mark Ryan
The long spell of unusually hot weather (see Thor's post) may have you looking for some relief, so let me suggest you head for northern Minnesota. No, I’m not talking about Duluth or the North Shore of Lake Superior (it’s been hot there, too), but way up north to the Soudan Underground Mine State Park on the southeast shore of Lake Vermilion (Map). The Soudan Mine is one of several underground mines that once operated in the Ely area, and was the oldest and deepest mine in Minnesota. It’s the perfect place to bring the whole family to learn about Minnesota’s iron mining past and descend a half mile into the earth where you can experience for yourself what it was like to work in an underground mine. An added perk during these steamy summer days is the fact temperature in the mine year-round is a cool 51°F.
In June, my brother Pat and I made one of our frequent geo-tours north, and this time our primary goal was to visit the Soudan mine. After some time exploring Manitou Falls near Superior, Wisconsin, and the eerily fog-shrouded Palisades on the North Shore, we made a beeline up to Ely where we spent the night. The next morning we drove the twenty miles west to Soudan, arriving just after 9am. As we neared our destination, the headframe of Shaft #8 could be seen looming above the ridge-line, making it fairly easy to find the park. Shaft #8 is the operational shaft that takes you underground.
Courtesy Mark RyanThere are two tours into the mine available to the public: the High Energy Physics Lab tour and the Mine History tour. These are separate tours and can't be taken together, and since our time was somewhat limited, Pat and I opted for the history tour. It was slightly longer (about 90 minutes) , included some geology, and seemed like the way to go. So we bought our tickets and while waiting for the tour to start, we checked out the grounds and buildings where the implements and artifacts once used for mining can still be seen. These included the crushing house, the dry house, and drill shop.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe machinery in all these buildings stand idle today, but not so with the engine house. The equipment there still drives the cables and hoist that delivers visitors to and from the mine. Beneath the headframe, Pat sighted several bats fluttering up from the shaft. Three bat species inhabit the mine: the little brown, Eastern pipistrelle, and Northern myotis. But don’t worry, they weren’t any bother at all during the tour.
Across the road from the headframe is a deep, long gash in the ground overgrown with vegetation that was once one of the original open pit mines. Staring down into the hole, it’s not hard to imagine the difficulty the miners faced extracting ore from its steep walls. Pat and I didn’t have time to take the hiking trail far enough to see the much-photographed Soudan Iron Formation outcrop – something I regret - but we did see a couple other open pit mines on the property.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe first iron ore mined in Minnesota was taken from an open pit in Soudan, and shipped by train to Two Harbors at Lake Superior in the early 1880s. The promise of gold had attracted a lot of prospectors to the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota, including George Stuntz, a Duluth civil engineer who established the Vermilion Trail into the area. But instead of gold, he found iron ore. The Vermilion Range, with its rich iron ore, would be the first of several major iron ranges discovered across northern Minnesota. In nearly 80 year of operation, Soudan produced nearly16 million tons of rich iron ore that were shipped across the Great Lakes to steel mills in the East or in later years, sent by train down to the steel mill in Duluth. (I worked at the US Steel mill in Duluth for a year. My first job was on the high-line tracks where iron ore and other steel-making materials were delivered by train to the open hearth furnaces. During lunch, I’d watch my co-workers tap the furnaces. When the molten steel was ready to go, alarms and sirens would sound as a small bomb was sent into the furnace that would blow out the plug, forcing the molten steel to pour out into giant multi-ton ladles. Very impressive and extremely noisy!).
At 10am sharp we gathered with other visitors for the tour. After a quick video explaining an overview of the mine and its history, everyone grabbed a hardhat and loaded into the shaft’s elevator or “man cage” as the miners called it. A dozen of us crammed into the cage for the ride down. It wasn't too bad but it bordered on stuffy, especially in the heat. Our tour guide, a very pleasant young woman, eagerly imparted her knowledge of the mine’s history and the safety issues involved with the tour. She informed us that back when the mine was operational eighteen miners usually wedged into the cage for each transport.
Courtesy Minnesota Geological SurveyThe ride down to Level 27 took under three minutes. The shaft is angled about 78 degrees so besides traveling half a mile underground we also moved 500 feet north of the headframe and underneath the nearby old open pit mine. During our rattling, rapid descent, our guide held her flashlight against the scuffed window so we could see something - the occasional reflection of dim light as we shot past levels - otherwise it would've been a pretty dark ride. Two levels (#12 and #22) were lighted because they’re still used to pump out the relatively little water seeping into the mine.
Courtesy Mark RyanLevel 27, the deepest level in the shaft, was lighted, too, at least where the elevator stopped. The physics lab is located on the same level and we could see its entrance as we exited the elevator. We were joined by a couple more guides who herded us into small rail cars for the last leg of the trip, this time horizontally through a dimly-lit 3/4 mile passageway called a drift. The mineshaft and drift were dug out through Ely greenstone. As promised the temperature in the mine was a cool 51°F and a refreshing break from the surface heat. At least I thought so. Some folks were wearing sweatshirts or light jackets, but I was comfortable in just a t-shirt and shorts.
Courtesy Mark RyanAt the end of the tunnel we detrained and were led up a metal spiral staircase (the miners used ladders) to reach the stope, a large, cavernous space carved into of the ore layer. Our guide pointed out some of the geological features including adjacent greenstone layers, mineral veins of copper, and of course, hematite. She explained how holes were drilled into the walls of the ore body, and explosives placed inside for blasting. After the controlled explosion, and before any miners were allowed in, a barman was sent in to knock down any loose rock from the ceiling. Barring was one of the higher paying jobs in the mine but probably the most dangerous.
The miners used the “cut and fill” method to mine the ore from the ceiling. Waste rock was let drop and used to create an ever-rising artificial floor that remained pretty much the same distance from the ceiling being mined. This eliminated waste rock disposal to the surface. The dense ore, which weighed as much as 325 pounds per cubic foot, was sent down chutes into granby cars on the level below them for transportation back to the skip that carried it up to the top. The granby cars and skip each held 6 tons of ore and miners were paid according to the amount of ore they sent up to the surface. There, the ore was dumped into larry cars and transported to the crusher house for crushing, then either loaded into waiting train cars or stockpiled for later shipping.
Courtesy Jvstin via FlickrThe iron deposits found at Soudan precipitated out of an ancient sea during the Early Precambrian period about 2.7 billion years ago. The iron was deposited on pillow basalts extruded during earlier volcanic activity. Pillow basalts form when molten rock comes in contact with water. The iron, which also originated from volcanic activity, interbedded with deposits of mud and sand forming what’s called a banded iron formation or BIF. Unlike the large and extensive single bed of iron ore occurring in the Mesabi Range, the iron ore at Soudan was laid out in small lenses. More pillow basalt flowed atop the iron layers. Later, probably through hydrologic processes, the iron content was enriched and the entire sequence tightly folded and deformed by tectonic forces from regional mountain-building episodes (orogenies) and later baked by the underground upwelling of magma during intrusion of the Duluth Complex gabbro. The heat and pressure metamorphosed the sequence, transforming the basalt into Ely greenstone (shist). The entire sequence eventually ended up nearly vertical in an anticline with layers of hematite, jasper, and chert sandwiched between layers of greenstone (also known as chlorite).
Miners working the underground mine at Soudan often referred to it as the “The Cadillac of Mines”. Compared with other underground mines near Ely, it was relatively dry, the temperature was a comfortable 51 degrees year round, and fresh air permeated all the levels. But to show that it wasn’t all rosy, our guide demonstrated what it must have been like for the miners before electricity. The mine chamber was well lighted for us tourists but to give us an idea what the early miners experienced she extinguished all the lights and held a single burning candle near her face. It wasn’t very bright at all and kind of spooky.
Courtesy Mark RyanLater, when electricity was put in, lighting improved, and power drills were used in the mining process. After a sufficient warning, our guide played for us a recording of the sound made by a single drill at work just to give us an idea of the noise level produced. The decibel level I remember from working in the steel mill was nothing compared to what the miners must have endured when several drills were going at once. It’s no wonder many of them suffered hearing loss after years working the mine.
As steelmaking processes were refined, the need for Soudan’s rich ore diminished. Using low-grade iron taconite became more economical for use with new oxygen-fed furnaces. Soudan shut down operations in 1962. The next year, after all the stockpiled ore had been shipped, US Steel Corporation gave the mine and an additional 1100 acres of land to the state of Minnesota for $1. The stipulation was that the site be used for educational purposes. Minnesota turned the site into a state park in 1965.
Courtesy Mark RyanI found the Soudan Underground Mine State Park well worth the trip. Where else can you travel a half-mile underground into 2.7 billion year-old rock formations and cool off at the same time? (The temperature at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is much hotter than at the top). Soudan's a great place to learn about Minnesota mining history, see area wildlife and check out some of the unique geology in the Lake Vermilion region that helped make Minnesota a leading iron ore producer.
Entry to the park is free and requires no state park sticker. The mine tours, however, require a fee. Pat and I paid $12 each. Kids are cheaper. The tours begin on the hour from 10am to 4pm daily. Tours for the High Energy Physics Lab occur only twice each day, the first at 10am and the second at 4pm. As I mentioned before, you can't combine tours so you have to pick either the historic one or the physics one. Mine tours are available from late May until the end of September. Follow this link for additional information.
On our way home, Pat and I agreed we'd come back sometime soon for the High Energy Physics Lab tour where physicists investigate things like the particle mass of neutrinos, and detect other dark matter particles. The lab is run by the University of Minnesota. However, I recently learned there’s a third mine tour available at Soudan, one offered only to organized groups. This one is more geology-focused and instead of riding the train through the 3/4 mile of Ely greenstone to the ore body, participants walk through the drift and are given a detailed lesson in geology along the way. I definitely have to join me up with one of those groups. Maybe next summer.
Did I mention it’s 51°F in the mine?
Short video of Soudan Underground Mine tour
Minnesota mining history
More DNR Soudan info
Gigapan of Soudan Mine site
Soudan at Wikipedia
DNR Soudan Mine site
MN Conservation Volunteer article on Soudan Mine
Paleontologist Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang found the 314 slides while searching through the vaults of the Survey headquarters near Keyworth, UK. Each slide contains a polished thin section of a fossil plant, prepared for viewing under a microscope. But the best thing about the discovery is that some of the slides are of specimens collected by the young Charles Darwin during his legendary voyage on the Beagle. Darwin’s theory of evolution and subsequent book On the Origin of Species resulted from much of what he discovered during the five-year voyage. Among the specimens collected by Darwin is a piece of petrified wood from an island off the coast of Chile in 1834.
Falcon-Lang figures the collection has been languishing unregistered in the cabinet for 165 years. Joseph Hooker, a botanist and close friend of Darwin, worked briefly for the Geological Survey in the early 19th century, and given the job of cataloging the collection. But before Hooker could properly register the fossils, he left on an expedition to the Himalayas and the collection was soon forgotten. In the passing years the cabinet got moved several times until it reached its current storage place deep in the recesses of the Geological Survey where it was found in April of last year.
According to Falcon-Lang the lost fossils, some of which can be viewed on line, will add greatly to current science, and he expects some great scientific papers to result from the collection.
Courtesy Mark RyanOkay. It’s 2012! The beginning of a brand new year. A time for making resolutions, a time for change. That special new era that began with a magical tick past midnight on December 31st when you suddenly emerged from a decades-long thick-skinned cocoon of self-destructive behavior, and miraculously transformed into a brand new person of action, rebirth, and eventual six-pack abs.
Okay, maybe not suddenly, but let’s say 12 to 15 hours after midnight when you finally came out of the bacchanalian stupor you’d plunged yourself into the night before.
But the point is you can now become that perfect human being you (and mainly your mother) always suspected was hiding beneath that sweatpants ensemble. Imagine what you can do now when you replace your mantra of instant gratification with one of self-control. Nicotine’s mastery over your soul will dissipate like a smoke-ring in the breeze. Inappropriate outbursts at dinner parties will be a thing of the past as you’re transformed into the designated driver instead of driving the host’s porcelain bus. Oatmeal will substitute for Twinkies for breakfast, and broccoli will become your new BFF.
The possibilities for improvement seem limitless, don’t they? It just takes a little effort.
You know, with obesity plaguing the US, this would be a perfect time to let go of the game controller, drag your ample hinderbutt off the couch, and get some of that exercise you’ve been promising to do since 1988. It doesn’t mean you have to join a high-priced health club, or spend hours contorted into a pretzel at a local yoga class. The easiest thing to do is just head outside for a good old fashion walk, a nice long stroll in the bracing winter air. It’s not going to cost you a cent to do it (unless you live here in Minnesota and the legislature decides to tax it to help pay for a brand new stadium for the Vikings).
What’s that you say? You’d like to lose those extra 65 lbs but you just can’t seem to get motivated? What? You think it sounds like a nice idea but it’s only 25° above zero? Yes, yes, I know. Getting all bundled up in long underwear, winter coat, and boots to face the elements is a real drag.
Well, poooooooooooor you. WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH! You are unbelievable. What a sniveling crybaby! Is that all you can do is whine? You think it’s too cold? You crave motivation?! Well, here’s some motivation for you: Starting next weekend, have your mommy drive you to the Science Museum of Minnesota and buy you a ticket for the Omni Theater so you can watch the magnificent Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, one of five large format films that are part of the museum’s annual OmniFest 2012.
Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure is an amazing - no! – an astounding story of man against nature. It details the struggles of the fearless and eternally optimistic Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 men who set sail on the ship Endurance headed for Antarctica. I don’t want to give away the story but let’s just say after you see what these courageous guys endured over a period of seventeen months, I guarantee you’ll feel deeply ashamed for driving to work in your heated car and living inside four walls.
OmniFest 2012 runs from January 6 – February 17, 2012 at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omni Theater, and features five big-screen films: Amazing Caves, Amazon, Wolves, Search for the Great Sharks, and of course Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure. The films rotate throughout the day, so check the OmniFest 2012 website to make sure you have the correct times for the shows you want to see. Of course, if you were anything like Shackleton, you'd just show up after a 20 mile trek in the blinding snow and expect things to work out your way. Wimp!
A couple weeks ago, I introduced Buzzketers to scenario-based decision-making (SBDM) as a way to plan for an unknowable future. You can check out that original post here.
In theory, scenario-based decision-making (SBDM) is a four-step process:
ORIENT: Identify the client, issue, and participants.
EXPLORE: Conduct pre-workshop participant interviews to identify both the important certain and uncertain factors/drivers.
SYNTHESIZE: Participants develop different, but equally plausible scenarios. They focus not on what should be, but on what could be. They discuss implications and effects of each scenario and identify possible early indicators.
ENGAGE: Plans of action are developed that answer what should happen if a given scenario “comes true.”
As with most good things, in reality, SBDM is not a tidy four-step process; it’s less of a science and more of an art. Last month, I got to be a fly on the wall at the St. Paul Climate Change Adaptation Scenario Planning Workshop (“Workshop”), an exercise in SBDM that took place right here at the Science Museum of Minnesota. My next post will be primarily about the conclusions of my group and the Workshop as a whole, but first I want to share a general observation:
SBDM is messy because people are messy. We each have unique personalities, experiences, and values that cause us to think about the world around us differently than everyone else. That’s pretty cool! But you can see why asking a group of individuals to collaborate on a thought experiment might be troublesome. It’s kind of like trying to get all the balls in the cart after recess. Order from chaos.
The Workshop’s goal was to have a discussion between three groups of people that don’t often have the opportunity to talk deeply about climate change: public professionals, business people, and academicians. Talk about a group with different personalities, experiences, and values!
Asking scientists and engineers to make educated guesses about the future is tricky. Asking decisionmakers to talk about what could be instead of what should be is tricky. Why? Because doing so goes against how they usually go about their business. Scientists and engineers are trained to study a world that can be measured and repeated. Decisionmakers are trained to make their best judgments for the future and rule out inferior possibilities. In asking them to make educated guesses about a possible future, even if it’s not a future for which they would hope, SBDM asks both groups to go outside their comfort zone.
The beauty of SBDM is that it takes messy people outside their comfort zone to create a masterpiece of a resource that will help plan for an unknowable future.
In preparing to write this post, I was investigating ways in which we as a society plan for an unknowable future. Naturally, I began with psychics (wouldn’t you?). Did you know that there is an American Association of Psychics? Or that right here in St. Paul you can pay $150.00 for your “One Year Future Forecast” or a “Five Year Future Overview” at a place called Astrology by MoonRabbit? And my personal favorite, did you know that in 1995 it broke that the U.S. government had spent millions of dollars on psychic research?
You’ll be happy to know public officials and decisionmakers (following the lead of businesses) have developed a better method to plan for an unknowable future called scenario-based decision-making. That sounds fancy and all, but it really begins with a simple tool: imagination.
Before you get all up in arms saying, “KelsiDayle, imagination isn’t that much better than psychics,” let me correct you: Yes, it is. At least it can be.
What were you thinking? That decisionmakers willy nilly imagined any old plan for the future?! No. Not when their using SBDM (my fingers are lazy, so I’ve created my own acronym for the much longer scenario-based decision-making… you know, what we’re talking about here). The key to SBDM is plausibility (believability, credibility, or having an appearance of truth or reason). Participants of varied expertise get together and hash out the facts they know and make a list of the important unknowns. Then they use their imagination to project (kind of like predict, but based on present facts) multiple future scenarios that are different but equally plausible given what they know and what they expect might happen to the unknowns. Finally, they create plans for how they might respond to each scenario. Ta-da!
Alright, it’s more complicated than that, but I don’t want to overwhelm you too much… at least not in one blog post, so I’m going to write a series of posts.
Up next, I’ll share about my own experience with SBDM, the city of St. Paul, and the Science Museum of Minnesota.
A psychic told me it’s going to be great.
On November 10, 2011, at 17:25 UTC (or 11:25am Central Standard Time), a shallow quake occured in Greece about 11.8 miles NE of the town of Patras. According to the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre, this earthquake had a magnitude of 5.1 (later downgraded to a 4.6) and was a relatively shallow quake at 5 km (approximately 3.1 miles) below the Earth's surface.
This region is characterized by a high level of seismicity, and small tremors are continually recorded along the coast of Patras. Another interesting aspect of Patras is that in antiquity, there was an ancient oracle, over a sacred spring, dedicated to the goddess Demeter. Professor Iain Stewart from the University of Plymouth has been studying a supposed link between ancient. sacred places in Greece and Turkey and seismic fault lines. Many ancient temples and cities lie along those fault lines and this may not be merely due to chance, but they may have been placed there deliberately.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
For example, the Oracle at Delphi has been given a geological explanation. The Delphi Fault (running east-west) and the Kerna Fault (running SE-NW) intersect near the oracular chamber in the Temple of Apollo. In that area, bituminous limestone (i.e. limestone containing bitumen, a tarlike deriviative of petroleum) has a petrochemical content as high as 20%. Analysis of spring water in the area showed the presence of hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene. Geologists have hypothesized that friction from fault movement heats the limestone, causing the petrochemicals within to vaporize. It has been suggested that exposure to low levels of the sweet-smelling gas ethylene would induce a trance, or euphoric state. Could the naturally occuring ethylene account for the strange, prophetic behavior of the Pythia (the priestess at the Temple of Apollo)?
The Delphi research is certainly persuasive, and received favorable coverage in the popular press and Scientific American, but it has come under criticism. Critics argue that the concentrations of ethylene identified by the researchers would not be sufficient to induce a trance-like state, and thus the connection to the mantic behavior of the Pythia is dubious.
Report: Geomythology: Geological Origins of Myths and Legends
Article: Breaking the Vapour Barrier: What Made the Delphic Oracle Work?
Report: Oracle at Delphi May Have Been Inhaling Ethylene Gas Fumes
Related Report: Earthquake Faulting at Ancient Cnidus, SW Turkey
Courtesy Wikimedia Creative CommonsHalloween is coming up soon and what better way to scare the tar out of everybody than with another Black Plague story.
Researchers from Germany and Canada have now determined that the pathogen existing today that infects the human population with bubonic plague is the same one that caused the horrific pandemic known as the Black Plague (aka Black Death) during the Middle Ages,
In the 14th century (1347-1351) the the plague devastated much of Europe. It was brought on by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and thought to have originated in China. Rats, infested with fleas carrying the bacteria, spread the fatal pathogen via the trade routes and across Europe, wiping out one-third of the human population. This is a conservative estimate; some claim as much as 60 percent of the population was eradicated!
Whatever the case, imagine even a third of all your acquaintances, friends, and relatives suddenly dying from what one 14th century chronicler described as “so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death.”
And it was an extremely horrible death, to say the least, as Michael Platiensis makes clear in his writings from 1357:
“Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.“
[Above quoted in Johannes Nohl, The Black Death, trans. C.H. Clarke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1926), pp. 18-20]
The Black Plague was the second of three great waves of plague that raged across Europe during historical times. The first, known historically as the Plague of Justinian, took place in the 6th century and affected the Byzantine Empire and much of Europe. The last major wave, known as the Great Plague of London, killed about 100,000 of the city’s population in 1664-65. In the two centuries that followed, waves after wave of the plague continued to devastate the European population although on a lesser scale. These outbreaks although sometimes as virulent, were often more isolated regionally or within a city and kept Europe’s population from rebounding for a good century and a half.
The plague presents itself in three ways: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. All three infections are caused by Y. pestis. With bubonic plague, the lymph nodes become painfully swollen into what are termed buboes – hence the name bubonic. Scepticemic plague, the rarest of the three forms, infects the blood. Both bubonic and scepticemic, if left untreated, result in death between 3-7 days after infection. Pneumonic is the most contagious since it infects the lungs and is easily spread through the air in a spray of water droplets. It’s also the most lethal and usually kills its victims in one to three days. Each form can present itself on its own or can progress into all three. It’s thought the Black Plague was mainly a combination of the bubonic and pneumonic forms. (The practice still used today of saying, “Bless you” after someone sneezes is a holdover from the 14th century plague) The only defense against the pandemic was avoidance of fleas and the fatally sick. Not easy to pull off when rats and the afflicted were widespread. Infected families were generally quarantined, their houses marked with a red cross, and left to fend for themselves.
The plague had a tremendous effect on European life in the Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War actually paused briefly in 1348 for lack of soldiers. The plague had wiped out too many of them. Economically, wages rose sharply because the workforce was also greatly reduced. Shop owners suffered because no one dared step outside the confines of their own homes, so supplies rose and prices dropped. The removal of the rotting corpses required relatives either doing it themselves and further risking infection, or paying premium prices for some other poor schlub to do it. The dead were buried as quickly as possible, often in mass graves.
In the recent research which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Johannes Krause and his colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth enamel of five corpses from one of these 14th century mass burial sites in London (under the Royal Mint!). Using the latest technology to sequence the DNA fragments, the researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany, and McMaster University in Canada, decoded a circular genome called pPCP1 plasmid that comprises about 10,000 positions in the Y. pestis DNA. When they compared it with the genome of the pathogen’s current strain, the genetic information appeared to have changed very little over the past six centuries. (It should be noted that the researchers suspect the pathogen that occurred in the 6th century may have been a now-extinct strain of Y. pestis or one completely unrelated to bubonic plague.)
So, that means the very same nasty contagion – the one that terrorized and devastated so much of Europe for so many centuries in the Middle Ages - is still with us today. Luckily, the bubonic plague can be held at bay with antibodies if treated in time. But what happens if Yersinia pestis mutates into a strain against which current antibodies are useless? If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, I don’t know what will.