Category Archives: Have Science Will Travel

El Dorado – The mythical city at the lake

El Dorado, the city of gold, was a popular legend in the 16th century. At that time, large parts of South America remained undiscovered, so who knew what secrets the continent held?

According to legend, El Dorado was located at Lake Parime. Sir Walter Raleigh was the first explorer to try to find the lake, in 1595. He didn’t find it, but that was no reason to believe it wasn’t there. Maybe they just hadn’t looked closely enough?

Lake Parime, a location marker for the city of El Dorado. At least one of these things is a myth.

Lake Parime, a location marker for the city of El Dorado. At least one of these things is a myth.

Several other expeditions set out in the direction of the supposed lake, but nobody was successful. Of course not. The lake, like the city of El Dorado itself, was just a myth.

Or was it?

According to our modern day oracle of Wikipedia, there is some geological evidence that suggests that there were indeed lakes in the past in the area where Lake Parime was thought to be, and that some those lakes could have carried gold that came from mountains upstream, leading to myths of an entire city of gold. Some researchers believe that the painted rock of Pedra Pintada was alongside an ancient lake. Others have found evidence that a 17th century earthquake drained an entire lake that could have been Lake Parime. But the one research paper cited on Wikipedia as reference to suggest that Lake Parime might have been the lake drained in a 1690 earthquake does not make this assumption at all.

Was there really a city of gold, or even a mysteriously vanished lake?

Citation needed.

 

Map: 1656 Sanson Map of Guiana, Venezuela, and El Dorado . Public domain. Via Wikimedia.

Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

Every summer, the Royal Society in London opens their doors to the public for the Summer Science Exhibition – a week-long science fair, where universities and research institutes from across the UK show off some of their coolest and most popular research. The University of Leicester was there with a replica of the skeleton of King Richard III, whom they found buried under a parking lot a few years ago. The National Physical Laboratory and University of Coventry brought some conductive fabrics. The Royal Geographical Society had a block of ice and 3D images to illustrate their work studying glaciers at Mount Everest. And all of this in the beautiful Royal Society building, with paintings of former presidents (Newton!) on the walls and old equipment showcased in the hallways.

There were some talks and events throughout the week as well, but I didn’t make it to the exhibition until Sunday, and only had time to walk past the stands.

Here’s a quick impression of some of the things I saw!

650th anniversary party for University of Vienna

The University of Vienna is celebrating its 650th birthday this year. Happy birthday!

As part of the festivities, the university organised a three-day festival from June 12 to June 14. I happened to be in town for part of this, so I had a look at some of the booths on Saturday.

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Other parts of the programme included some public lectures, and a “music and science stage”, which included some Austrian science cabaret groups. Here the stage is being set up for Science Busters.

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This week, the University of Vienna continues its birthday celebrations with a film festival.

Interrailing through Europe with Borodin and Mendeleev

Long ago, in a kingdom that no longer exists, a bohemian traveller was mistaken for a fugitive revolutionary, and arrested.

Borodin (left) and Mendeleev (right)

Borodin (left) and Mendeleev (right)

The traveller was Russian chemist and composer Alexander Borodin. He was on his way to Italy with his friend Dmitri Mendeleev. Both men were researchers in the chemistry department of the University of Heidelberg, where they learned the ropes from Robert Bunsen (inventor of the bunsen burner) and Emil Erlenmeyer (inventor of the erlenmeyer flask). In a few years, Mendeleev would develop his own classic staple of chemistry labs – the periodic table – but now he was taking a break from science, and making his way to Italy with his friend.

They travelled light, and brought very little clothes with them. “We wore only blouses, so that we would look like artists”, Mendeleev has said of this trip. “That’s not a bad idea in Italy, because you can get along very cheaply that way. We took hardly any shirts with us, and had to buy new ones when the need arose; we gave these away to the waiters in place of tips. We absolutely let ourselves go in Italy, after the stifling cloistered life of Heidelberg.”

Picture these two men, dressed in their artists blouses, walking across large parts of Switzerland. Looking nothing like the academics they were in Heidelberg, they reached the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. This kingdom no longer exists. The area is now Northern Italy, but was then part of the Austrian Empire, and Austrian police were on the lookout for a political fugitive.

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Seeing a bohemian figure who matched the description of the revolutionary they were told would cross the border that day, the police arrested Borodin.

He was not at all the man they were looking for. Borodin had led a quiet and privileged life, filled with books, music, and education. After graduating from medical school in St Petersburg, he moved to Heidelberg to study chemistry. He spent all of his free time making music, and had already composed several pieces for piano, voice, or string ensembles. Much later, years after his untimely death at a costume party, Borodin would posthumously win a Tony Award for composing the original score used in the musical Kismet. He was a chemist, a musician, a Russian prince’s illegitimate son, a women’s rights activist, and an educator – but not a member of an Italian revolutionary movement.

By the time the police realised their mistake, the real fugitive had taken advantage of the distraction, and crossed the border. When Borodin and Mendeleev finally boarded their train, they were greeted with cheers and applause by the Italian passengers, for unwittingly helping a member of the revolution escape.

We don’t know the identity of the mysterious fugitive, but at the end of the Austro-Prussian War in 1866, the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia was no more. The region became part of Italy, which it still is. And somewhere along the way, two Russian chemists on a low budget holiday may have played a very minor role in shaping the political situation in 19th century Northern Italy.

Source: the book “Borodin”, by Serge Dianin, translated by Robert Lord (1963). Mendeleev’s words about their outfits are quoted in the book, but originally from another book by M.N. Mladentsev and V.E. Tischenko, called “Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev. His Life and Work, Vol I.” (1938). The photo of Borodin and Mendeleev is a crop from a larger photo including two other chemists – Gitinsky and Olevinsky. The original photo was taken in 1860 – the year this story takes place. Lombardy-Venetia map in the public domain, via Wikimedia.

An inch off the top

Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, near Mount Everest, which is peeking through the clouds. Here still extra-tall, in 2012.

Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, near Mount Everest, which is peeking through the clouds. Here still extra-tall, in 2012.

Climbing Mount Everest is now slightly less impressive than it used to be. After the earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, Mount Everest sank by about an inch.

The reason Mount Everest and the rest of the Himalayas are there in the first place is the same force that caused the earthquake that shrunk it: India is slowly pushing against the Asian continental plate.

Patan Durbar Square. This area was damaged in the earthquake. Here still undestroyed in 2012.

Patan Durbar Square. This area was one of the ones heavily damaged in the earthquake. Here still undestroyed in 2012.

We tend to think of plate tectonics as something that happened in the past to shape the continents as they are now, with features like the matching coast lines of Africa and South America just a remnant of an ancient continental break. But the recent earthquake – as any large earthquake does – reminds us that these shifts are still happening, and that geological features we take for granted, like the height of Mount Everest, are still changing. Usually very gradually, but sometimes with a big and abrupt shift.

The earthquake on April 25, and another big one this past week, haven’t just shifted Mount Everest by an inch, but also caused the region around Kathmandu to rise by a few feet. And this was the shift that caused the most damage.

Kathmandu is an old city with a rich history and a poor population. It has the most UNESCO World heritage sites of any city in the world, but more than half of them suffered extensive damage in the earthquakes.

Kathmandu Durbar Square in better days. Not sure which of these buildings are still standing.

Kathmandu Durbar Square in better days. Not sure which of these buildings are still standing.

Thousands of people have died, and even more have been made homeless, or suffered a loss of income. I visited Kathmandu a few years ago and I love the city and its people. So I’m simultaneously impressed by the forces that changed the height of Mount Everest and worried for the local community. Earthquakes are pretty impressive, but not always in a good way!

If you would like to help support the rebuilding of Nepal, please consider donating to a reputable organisation. There are too many to list, and they’re different depending on where you live and what kind of support you want to provide (medical, heritage rebuilding, children, etc), but feel free to ask me on Twitter for recommendations.

All photos by me, and I can never take similar photos again, because even Mount Everest no longer looks exactly like that…

P.S. If the photo captions are confusing, there are THREE places called “Durbar Square” in Kathmandu neighbourhoods. All three are UNESCO sites, and all three were destroyed in the earthquake :(