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Friday, 17 July 2009

The Assassin's Blade

If we want to get rid of an MP we're unhappy with, we usually have to wait for the next general election and cast our vote. But in the bloodthirsty days of the French Revolution, heads literally rolled under Mme Guillotine's glittering blade. Today is the anniversary of the execution of a young woman who loved her country and feared for her friends.
Charlotte Corday, born in 1768, was a supporter of the Girondin faction. The Girondins were under attack in the French Assembly by the implacable Robespierre and Marat. As the Revolution grew ever bloodier, the Girondins, alarmed by the monster they’d helped create, tried to halt its progress. But the Girondins quickly fell victim to the guillotine. Charlotte believed total civil war was imminent. She decided the only way to save France and stop the bloodshed was to assassinate the pitiless Marat; she tricked her way into his house, and slew him while he was bathing.
Charlotte was sentenced to death, but showed no fear: ‘I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.’ She was guillotined on 17 July 1793. Despite her sacrifice, Marat’s death didn’t stop the deluge of victims; countless others were doomed.

Image: Charlotte Corday. Beeton’s Dictionary of Universal Biography, (Ward, Lock & Tyler, 1870.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Destination Moon

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landings, it’s worth taking a look at what was known about our satellite less than two centuries ago. Its orbit and movements were pretty accurately known, and its surface reasonably well mapped.
A writer in the Penny Magazine (22 June 1833) humorously speculated whether imaginary inhabitants of the near side of the moon read Penny Magazines which described the appearance of the planet Earth, and if moon dwellers discussed what kind of creatures lived on a planet wreathed in vapours.

The writer, however, finished his discussion by explaining to his readers that ‘the existence of any animal like man is impossible’ on the moon, not just because of the length of the lunar day and night, but because of ‘the want of an atmosphere.’ So nineteenth century scientists had a pretty good idea about conditions on our companion in space.

A very exciting new website will go live this week, which will explore the story of Apollo 11’s astronauts in a ‘real-time’ recreation of this never-to-be-forgotten mission. I was just eleven years old that summer, and I vividly recall holding my breath as the astronauts piloted their fragile craft down to the moon's surface, and the relief when they arrived safely at their destination.

Image: Telescopic appearance of the Moon, Penny Magazine, 22 June 1833, Author’s collection.