Sep. 27, 2011


by William Matthews

"Mixes easily," dictionaries
used to say, a straight shot from the Latin.
Chemists applied the term to matter's

But the Random House Dictionary
(1980) gives as its prime meaning:
by frequent and indiscriminate

changes of one's sexual partners." Sounds
like a long way
to say "slut," that glob of blame we once threw
equally at men and women, all who slurred,

slavered, slobbered,
slumped, slept or lapsed, slunk or relapsed, slackened
(loose lips sink ships) or slubbed, or slovened, But soon
a slut was female. A much-bedded male.

got called a ladies' man; he never slept
with sluts. How sluts
got to be sluts is thus a mystery,
except the language knows what we may

have forgot. "Depression" began its career
in English in 1656, says
the OED,
and meant (science jargon) the opposite

of elevation—a hole or a rut,
perhaps, or, later, "the angular
distance of a celestial object
below the horizon,"

as Webster's Third (1963)
has it. There's ample record of our self-
deceit: language,
the furious river, carries on its foamed

and sinewed back all we thought we'd shucked off.
Of course it's all
pell-mell, head over heels, snickers and grief,
love notes and libel, fire and ice. In short:


"Promiscuous" by William Matthews, from Search Party: Collected Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Samuel Adams (books by this author), statesman, political philosopher, and writer, and a leader of the movement that became the American Revolution. Adams was born in Boston in 1722, the son of a wealthy ship owner and brewer. He was college-educated, studied law for a while, worked in a counting house and then, using a loan from his father, set himself up in business as a brewer and promptly lost everything, including his father's money. Adams also failed as a tax collector for the British colonial authorities, and when the senior Adams died, the son quickly ran through the family fortune. In short, Samuel Adams was as disaster of a businessman, but as a statesman and polemic writer, he excelled.

In 1765, Adams was elected to the Massachusetts Assembly, where he served as clerk for many years and where he first proposed the idea of assembling a continental congress. Adams had long been writing essays on liberty and virtue, having declared in a 1749 piece in the Public Advertiser that "Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt," and made himself a highly visible politician, a popular leader who spent a great deal of time in the public eye, agitating for liberty and against British control.

In 1776, Adams became one of the delegates to the First and then the Second Continental Congress, which had its headquarters in Philadelphia. He was noted for his oratory skills and the passion and eloquence with which he advocated for independence from Britain. And as one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, he earned the title of Founding Father.

By December of 1776, the British general, Cornwallis, had captured Fort Lee in New Jersey, 100 miles to the northeast of Philadelphia, and the members of the Continental Congress hurriedly adjourned to Baltimore to put some distance between themselves and the British. They stayed for two months, and to say they were unenthusiastic about Baltimore is something of an understatement, one delegate referring to that muddy burg as an "extravagant hole."

The delegates returned to Philadelphia in March of 1777, but the British ordered a focused attack on the city and, on September 11th, met the revolutionary forces at Brandywine Creek on the outskirts of the city. The American Army was completely outflanked. General Washington was forced to retreat, by September 26th, Cornwallis was leading his vanguard into Philadelphia, and the Continental Congress was once more forced to flee.

On September 27th, 1777, Samuel Adams's 55th birthday, Congress convened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then a town of 6,000 nestled into rolling hills that would have been ablaze with autumn color. The delegates reviewed correspondence and field reports from their generals, and discussed how best to supply the Army with firearms, shoes, blankets, stockings, provisions, and other necessaries. They also decided that the British were still too close for safety and determined that the following day they would repair to the town of York, comfortably the other side of the Susquehanna River, giving Lancaster the distinction of being the only city to have been the nation's capital for just one day.

On this day in 1905, the German physics journal Annalen der Physik [Annals of Physics] published Albert Einstein's "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content," (books by this author) which produced arguably the most famous equation in all of physics, E=mc2. The paper was one of four Einstein published that year — papers that subsequently have been nicknamed the Annus Mirabilis papers — four remarkable papers that added up to a miraculous year for both Einstein and physics and changed our views on space, time, and the fundamental nature of matter.

Einstein had completed training to be a physics and mathematics teacher at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich in 1901, but he was unable to find a teaching post and ended up accepting a position as a technical assistant in the Swiss Patent Office. At that time, he lacked access to extensive scientific research materials and to fellow physicists with which to discuss his work, so in 1902 he formed a discussion group with a philosophy student (who had answered a newspaper ad Einstein had placed, hoping to find students to tutor to supplement his income) and a neighbor who was a mathematician. No instruction or tutoring ever took place, and the three ended up reading and debating physics, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Don Quixote — whatever interested them — jokingly calling themselves the "Olympia Academy." Their discussions had a lasting influence on Einstein's scientific and philosophical outlook.

Much of Einstein's work in the Patent Office related to questions about electromagnetism and the new field of wireless communication, and these types of technical problems show up in the thought experiments that led him to his groundbreaking conclusions about the nature of light and the fundamental connectivity of time and space. The hypothetical scenarios and thought experiments by which Einstein came to these conclusions in many ways sound apocryphal in their elegance, as in the case of his solution to the problem of the motion of light, which came to him after seven years of struggle like a revelation, in the middle of a conversation with a friend.

On March 18, 1905, the year he was 26, Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric effect, showing that light, which had been thought to always travel in continuous waves, can only be absorbed or emitted by an object in discrete packets — a complete reversal of an accepted physical truth. Two months later, he published his work on Brownian motion, explaining the long-standing physics problem of how it is that small particles suspended in stationary liquid can still be seen to move continuously and in a random fashion without any forces acting on them. In June, the work that Einstein derived from his revelation on the motion of light, what we now know as his special theory of relativity, was made public and introduced a new theory of time and distance that overturned what had previously been understood about the nature of existence. And finally, on September 27th, in the three short pages of "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend Upon Its Energy Content," he made matter and energy equivalent when he derived equations that show that "if a body gives off [energy], its mass diminishes by [the ratio of that energy to the speed of light] ... so we are led to the conclusion that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy-content." In seven months, Albert Einstein had answered questions that had plagued scientists for generations and overturned hundreds of years of understanding of how the universe operated.

After his final article, exhausted, he retreated to his bed for two weeks. But, still, as he told a friend in the patent office, "My joy is indescribable."

On September 27th, 1822, a brilliant young French scholar named Jean-François Champollion (books by this author) announced to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belle-Lettres in Paris that he had unlocked the key to translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, the familiar "picture language" of elegant birds and feathers and serpents that covers Egyptian temples and monuments.

The ancient Egyptians had used hieroglyphics for 3,500 years, beginning around the 33rd century B.C. But by the fourth century A.D., few Egyptians were still capable of reading them and, soon after, the knowledge was entirely lost. By Champollion's time, hieroglyphics was a dead language, admired for its graceful lines and beautiful images but its meaning a complete mystery for more than a thousand years.

Twenty-some years before Champollion's announcement, Napoleon Bonaparte led a military campaign into Egypt. His troops were accompanied by a corps of arts experts and scientists. And when, in the course of building fortifications near the town of Rosetta, an officer stumbled across a block of stone covered with inscriptions, he thought it might be important, pulled it from the construction, and handed it off to the scholars.

What he found was named the Rosetta Stone, a four-foot-high by two-foot-wide block of black basalt divided horizontally into three bands of script: two mostly intact bands with ancient Greek at the bottom and an unrecognizable script in the middle, and a partial band of familiar if unintelligible hieroglyphs at the top. The middle band was eventually identified as demotic — the cursive script that was widely used by those of the ancient Egyptian public who were literate — and it was immediately clear to the scholars that all three bands of writing detailed the same information.

Ancient Greek was well-known to 18th- and 19th-century academics, and they began by translating the bottom, revealing that the stone commemorated the second-century B.C. Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy V, decreeing him a god, the son of the Sun. It detailed Ptolemy's victory in battle and the good deeds he performed for the Egyptian temples. And it ended with detailed instructions for his worship: to keep his feast for five days at the start of the year, to wear garlands and perform sacrifices in his honor, and for the people to enshrine him in their homes and honor him monthly and yearly, so that all men of Egypt might know him and magnify his name.

Scholars began transcribing the unknown texts, beginning with the middle band because it was relatively undamaged and looked so much more like letters than the hieroglyphs did. Knowing the content of the Greek, and having located the names "Ptolemy" and "Alexander" in that portion, they were able to identify places in the demotic that seemed to correspond to those sounds. This was the first key to the code, and in 1802 a British linguist by the name of Thomas Young took up the task, finished translating the text, and began working on the hieroglyphics.

Young repeated the step that had led to the decipherment of the demotic when he realized that within the hieroglyphs were certain repeating groups of symbols that were enclosed by ellipses like little fortifications, and that these cartouches seemed to be of a quantity and placement that suggested they might also represent names or the phonetic sounds that built names. Young was correct, determining that the cartouches served to enclose and protect the names of important people like Ptolemy and Alexander, and successfully deciphered five of them. But the rest of the hieroglyphics remained a mystery.

When Jean-François Champollion came across Young's work, he correctly realized that hieroglyphics is not a writing system of symbols — like French or English, which use symbolic letters to represent individual sounds — but that it was phonetic, using more than 5,000 distinct characters that could be used to represent vocal sounds, ideas, a word or phrase, or to show context to the reader. To put this into perspective, imagine if English functioned this way, and that one of our characters was a picture of an eye — this eye could represent an actual eye, the singular pronoun "I" or the sound we associate with the letter "i," the act of seeing, or the emotions that describe loneliness or solitude — all depending on its context.

Understanding this, and knowing the symbols within the cartouches, Champollion quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, a rather amazing feat given the complexity of the language. These were attached to the letter that announced his linguistic coup to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belle-Lettres, which immediately published his paper and alphabet. Champollion's letter marks the breakthrough to reading ancient Egyptian, which opened up thousands of years of Egyptian history to scholars eager to be able to read it. Although others worked on the problem of the Rosetta Stone, and contributed to its decipherment, Champollion is considered to be its ultimate translator, and thus the father of modern Egyptology.

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