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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

WSU teacher helps investigate historical mysteries

Scott Rolle, Brad Meltzer, Christine McKinley, and Buddy Levy. Eric Ogden

Scott Rolle, Brad Meltzer, Christine McKinley, and Buddy Levy. by Eric Ogden

Tune in to the History Channel Thursday evening for the first episode of Decoded, which features a team of historical investigators including WSU faculty member Buddy Levy.

A ten-part series, Decoded will examine persistent historical questions, such as whether Meriwether Lewis really committed suicide and the location of the lost Confederate treasury.  With mechanical engineer Christine McKinley and lawyer Scott Rolle, Levy is sent out by history enthusiast and best-selling author Brad Meltzer to track down answers to the questions uncovered in the course of his research.

Levy is a clinical associate professor in the English department, teaching writing and literature.  He is also the author of Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (Bantam Dell 2007) and American Legend: the Real-Life Adventures of David Crockett (Putnam 2005).  A forthcoming history, River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon (Bantam Dell) is due for release in early 2010.

As a freelance journalist, Levy has covered adventure sports around the world and is a frequent contributor to a number of magazines.

Decoded premieres December 2 at 10 p.m. on History.

The Daily Evergreen ran a story on Dec. 1 about the show, including some interviews with Levy’s students.

UPDATE: The New York Times also has a good article about the show, “Searching for Clues in History’s Nooks.”

Watch the trailer:

It’s in the P-I: WSU Look at Seattle’s Ecotopia

The Seattle P-I’s Strange Bedfellows blog has a fun take on a new book by WSU historian Jeffrey Craig Sanders. Quothe the lede:

“Seattle business interests battling Greens and neighborhood groups over a downtown development project. No, this isn’t a story about the tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In Seattle & the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia, historian Jeffrey Craig Sanders examines the creation of Emerald City fault lines that continue to dominate local political debates.”

Andrew E. Larsen/papalar photo courtesy of Flickr--

Calling the book “a good primer on how our city’s complex politics came to be,” the blog highlights how Sanders sees a recurring cast of characters in many of Seattle’s development disputes.

“Some of the protagonists in the Commons fight are still active in the tunnel controversy. Sanders writes about Frank Chopp, who, prior to becoming the ultra powerful speaker of the state House of Representatives, was a vocal neighborhood activist who once built a geodesic dome in a rented parking space and railed against poor people being pushed out by gentrification. John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition also makes an appearance.”

Read more here.

And kudos to the P-I for soldiering on in its second year of a purely digital life. Kara Swisher’s BoomTown says the “paper”–sorry, old habits die hard–is drawing 4 million unique visitors a month. A spokesman reports profitability is around the corner.

Archiving, on their own terms

Back in 2002, Kimberly Christen took a dissertation research trip to the newly opened Darwin branch of the National Archives of Australia.

She saw troves of cultural artifacts — baskets, photos, music recordings and more, including many from the Warumungu Aboriginal community she had been working with since 1995.

The indigenous tribe had little to no access to the materials housed in the faraway archives, open to the public, seen by whomever.

Moreover, if they viewed the archives, there were items they just didn’t want to see.

A slide made by Kimberly Christen shows ways that indigenous artifacts and stories have been handled.

In their culture, as in many indigenous communities, the public exhibits violated their cultural protocols. For example, the Warumungu people do not want to see images of dead relatives. Some items are appropriate only for male or female viewers, while others might be limited by viewers’ age or sacred status within the community.

The Warumungu wanted to view their materials on their own terms.

Over time, Christen, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in the Washington State University Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies, began researching ways to create a separate digital archive for the community. The archive would include all of the materials from the museum, but within the software, viewing is restricted along culturally appropriate lines. The two archives are kept separate, so Warumungu people can have their own version aside from the public version.

This is all part of the greater trend of repatriation and bringing back in indigenous voices to tell their own stories, she says. It began in the early ‘90s, when museums were ordered to start giving human remains back to their original tribes. Christen has taken that idea and applied it to a new corner of archival work.

“Digital repatriation has taken off,” she says.

The project launched in 2007, and shortly thereafter, indigenous communities from all over the globe began requesting their own version.

In March, Christen received a $49,606 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a free, open-source software that would work for everyone.

For Christen, such archives aren’t about “correcting” or rewriting the record. It’s expanding the record to include the native experience. It’s history with a conscious, she says.

“These materials are theirs … we took this stuff,” she says. (more…)

The Optics Man of Cairo

Geologist and science scribe Kirsten Peters regularly writes on the art and science of discovery for her Rock Doc column, syndicated in newspapers across the country and available at Her latest column, a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University, marvels at the man widely considered the Father of the Scientific Method.

Sometimes it pays to spend ten years in detention. Not that a person would ever want that to happen, but if it did – could you put the time to good use?

That’s a question I’ve asked myself. I’ve also asked my students exactly the same thing. The value of a good high school or college education, I say to them, is that it should give you the tools to use time like that well. What would you do with it?

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

One thousand years ago an Arab man named Ibn al-Haytham found himself under house arrest in Cairo. That far back ago in time, we don’t know much of the specifics of Ibn al-Haytham’s life. But we do know he was a towering giant of an intellectual in his day.

If you give a thinking person ten years to think, don’t be surprised if there are some powerful results in the end. In Ibn al-Haytham’s case, a good argument can be made that the ten-year gap in his life was quickly followed by the release of his major book on optics. That book was pivotal to our lives today, because optics was hardly the only issue it addressed.

In the ancient world – more than 1,000 years before Ibn al-Haytham’s own life – Greek philosophers had two main theories of vision. One theory (advanced by Ptolemy and Euclid) was that “vision rays” left the eye and went out to objects around us in the world. The other was put forward by Aristotle. The great philosopher had argued a “form” of some sort comes from an object in the world around you and enters your eye so you can see it.

Ibn al-Haytham pointed out, first, that not all the ancient Greek authorities could be right, since they followed two contradictory ideas on the subject. Then he noted that we don’t have vision unless there is light around us: either light from the object we are seeing (like a lamp) or light rays from reflected light (like sunlight in the day). So light, first, is what we need to understand in order to better understand vision.

Using only logic like this and a few simple experimental materials – a pinhole in a curtain or a hollow straight tube – Ibn al-Haytham went on to deduce a great deal about modern optics. Light rays travel in straight lines. Light on flat mirrors is reflected in one set of ways, and on curved mirrors in others.  Light is refracted (bent) when it moves from air to water.

Most importantly of all, Ibn al Haytham did all this good work using experiments and observations, writing out for his readers what they could do to show themselves the same evidence he had seen and reach the same conclusions.

That’s not bad for 10 years of work under nice conditions. For 10 years in detention, it’s really a remarkable feat.

Two hundred years passed after the death of the Arab scholar before a Christian monk took up a translated volume of the work and saw its value. Roger Bacon was our hero’s name. He was not Francis Bacon – there are two Bacons rattling around in history. Roger Bacon repeated some of Ibn al-Haytham’s experiments – but he also endorsed for the Christian tradition this new method of gaining new knowledge about the natural world. Experiments and testing of physical facts, Bacon argued, were the most productive ways to learn about the physical world around us. Others around Bacon were soon on board with the program, and Medieval Europe began to have at least an inkling of the modern, scientific method.

The reason science and engineering have been able to progress so much in our lifetimes is that the method of running experiments and testing results is enormously successful.  But in the old world, it was far from clear that this approach would lead to the most sound results.

We owe Ibn al-Haytham and Roger Bacon a lot, not just for their good work on optics, but for recognizing the power of the scientific method that has given us so much today.