September 18

Amber pages

Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer who wrote the first (known) English dictionary, born today in 1709; and you can still visit the house he spent most of his adult life in, in Gough Square, behind Fleet Street - a very nice place to live, then, and today too, if you're the curator who gets the attached cottage as part of salary! 

Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, generally remembered by the Léon not the Jean, and-all-3-quite-possibly-hyphenated, French physicist, the man who used a gyroscope, and then the pendulum most associated with his name, to "demonstrate" (I refuse to use the word "prove") that the Earth rotates on its own axis; born today in 1819. The method, incidentally, was based on Galileo's demonstrations at Pisa - he dropped objects of different weights from the top of the tower, which then smashed on the ground simultaneously, to demonstrate that Aristotle's understanding of the laws of gravity were, actually, just as wrong as his own. Having established that light travels slower in water than it does in air (it doesn't), and measured the speed of light (to within 1 percent of what is currently regarded as the "true" figure), Foucault swung a heavy iron ball from a strip of wire 220 feet (67 metres) long, and in this manner demonstrated - as far as I who am a writer, not a physicist, can understand the matter - that Umberto Eco was an extremely clever writer of completely pointless books.

Greta Garbo (Greta Lovisa Gustaffson), actress, born today in 

Jimi Hendrix, rock 'n' roll guitarist, died, today in 1970. Most of those amazing guitar solos turned out to have been partially pre-recorded, and him playing the rest on stage. I thought only athletes cheated.

Patty Hearst and two "comrades" captured, today in 1975; she had been "kidnapped" by the Symbionese Liberation Army on February 4th 1974, only to appear with a machine-gun in her hands just six weeks later, taking part in a bank robbery in San Francisco. Was she brain-washed? Was it Stockholm Syndrome? Was the kidnapping a fake? Do Americans love conspiracy theories? Is there a movie to be made from this? Could Umberto Eco be persuaded to write the book?

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