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'Western DC': a New U.S. Capital on the Ohio River
Metropolis, Illinois, a tiny town with a grand name, is a distant echo of this area's planned greatness
Does a central government need to be literally, geographically central? Of course not. In fact, when considered against the territory they govern, the location of many (if not most) national capitals is remarkably eccentric. One of the clearest examples is Moscow, 7 time zones and close to 4,000 miles (almost 6,500 km) west of Russia’s Far Eastern hub of Vladivostok, but less than 260 miles (about 420 km) east of the border with Belarus. Or take the UK: London is closer to Paris than to Newcastle, and Shetland, the UK’s northernmost archipelago, is closer to Norway’s capital than to its own (1).
But on the other hand, some capitals are remarkably central. Take Rome, almost exactly halfway down the boot of Italy. Or Mexico City, not that far from the country’s actual geographical centre (2). Why are so many capitals so noticeably non-central, while others so obviously are? Historically, geographically (and very generally) speaking, two opposing forces are at work in determining whether capitals are central.
The most basic principle is that of radiance. Imagine a powerful city gradually and radially extending its power over the surrounding area. The borders of the resulting nation would be fairly equidistant from the governing centre.
But that principle ignores a basic aspect of physical and human geography - its irregularity. Navigable rivers and inhospitable deserts, impassable mountain ranges and fertile plains all influence the expandability of any empire. The fundamental influence of this irregularity constitutes the second principle, which to a large extent can be reduced to what might be called portuarity (3).
Access to the sea is conducive to commerce and communication, giving port cities a head start in empire-building. Hence the seaside location of many capital cities - a location which obviously also limits their territorial expansion to the non-watery half of their surroundings.
But there may be another factor at work. The powers that be may choose to move the seat of government from one place to another, usually to a more central location. The practical and/or symbolic reasons cited for the move actually serve the same purpose: to strengthen the unity of the country. Planned capitals include:
Probably the most famous - and certainly the most successful - example of a planned capital is Washington DC, a federal district built on the left bank of the Potomac to house the capital of the United States of America. That privilege had passed between New York City, Philadelphia and even Trenton before the District of Columbia was agreed upon as a compromise between south and north.
That choice was not just politically expedient, it was also demographically fortuitous. As shown by a map of the mean centre of America’s population (discussed in #389), DC was built quite close to the US’s demographic centre of gravity as it was then.
But already in 1800, that centre had started its long, westward drift. If the location of America’s capital was a compromise, in between the North and the South of the Original Thirteen States, wouldn’t it make sense to move it west when the country expanded in that direction?
Exactly that was proposed in 1850 - a mere half century after the inauguration of DC as the nation’s capital. By that time, America’s centre of demographic gravity had moved to the western reaches of present-day West Virginia.
This map, drawn up by a William McBean, projector, identifies a circular area on both the Kentucky and Illinois banks of the Ohio river, not far from its confluence with the Mississippi at Cairo, as a so-called Western District of Columbia. The legend of the map “of a part of the SOUTHERN & WESTERN STATES” (4) mentions historic Fort Massac, which would probably have been the centre of the mentioned “WESTERN ARMORY” and places it next to the city of Metropolis, across the river from Capitol City. Those names sounded sufficiently grand for what was judged (or gambled) to be “the probable future site for the seat of Government of the UNITED STATES or Western District of Columbia etc.”
Very little information is available on the nature of the aforementioned Western Armory, its relation to the Western District of Columbia , or for that matter the Eastern one. Does the existence of two DCs imply dual capitals, and would these have been alternating or would they each have co-managed a part of the vast territory?
It’s difficult to determine how serious this area’s bid for the location of a Western DC was. Present-day local maps show no settlement where Capitol City is located on this map, on the Kentucky bank of the Ohio river. Today, there are only two Capitol Cities in the US: as generic definition of the actual capital, Washington DC, or of the generic capital city of the unnamed state that’s home to Homer and the other Simpsons from the eponymous tv series (5).
Was this Capitol City an ephemera, a city the existence of which was postulated on paper, thus to will it into being? If the same thing was attempted with Metropolis, on the Illinois side of the river, at least it worked in that latter case. Metropolis, Greek for the Mother City, is a sleepy little All-American town that in no way resembles a busy metropolis. No US Congress has ever convened here. And no US president was ever resident here.
However, the town’s name links it to another strand of American history - comic book history. Metropolis is the name of the fictional city where Clark Kent/Superman forges a career as both a journalist and a superhero. Ironically, Metropolis, Illinois more resembles the Smallville where Clark Kent grew up.
This has not prevented the town to capitalise on its connection to the caped superhero. Metropolis has been declared “Hometown of Superman” by both DC Comics and by the Illinois State Legislature. It houses a Superman Museum, hosts an annual Superman Celebration, and its town centre is the location of a huge Superman statue.
In early January 2009, president-elect Barack Obama visited Metropolis and had his picture taken with Superman.
Many thanks to Arthur Howe for sending in this map.
Strange Maps #492
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
(1) We could go on with examples aplenty, but the question of precision arises: which is the world’s most eccentric capital (geographically speaking, of course)? Does anyone have a list? I’m guessing such a list would involve calculations taking in the size of each country, and the distance from their geographical centres to their capital cities. Complex stuff. If I’d have to put my money on any capital, it'd be Kinshasa
(2) Whichever centre of Mexico you pick. Methods of measurement vary, as do definitions as to what to include, leading to various claims from a handful of localities, none of them very far from Mexico City though: the city of Tequisquiapan in the state of Querétaro; the Cerro del Cubilete, a mountain in Guanajuato state; two points in Zacatecas state, one of which is the village of Cañitas de Felipe Pescador; and the town of Aguascalientes in the eponymous state.
(3) Or the predominance of the maritime capital, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing.
(4) At the time of publication, only Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and, most recently, California had achieved statehood west of the Mississippi. Hence the designation of the area described as ‘western’ instead of ‘midwestern’.
(5) The Simpsons are keen fans of curious cartography, and maybe even of Strange Maps. Map #459, of Marge Simpson’s European Adventure, shows the diva of Springfield filling out a map of Europe with her remarkable profile. That map was sent in by Micky Hulse (original context here), and the Simpsons reference seems to have come full circle. Many thanks to commenter Jack Hinks for sending in a screengrab from a recent Simpsons episode (cf. inf.)
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A simple trick allowed marine biologists to prove a long-held suspicion.
- It's long been suspected that sharks navigate the oceans using Earth's magnetic field.
- Sharks are, however, difficult to experiment with.
- Using magnetism, marine biologists figured out a clever way to fool sharks into thinking they're somewhere that they're not.
For some time, scientists have suspected that sharks belong among the growing number of animals known to navigate using Earth's magnetic field. Testing anything with a shark, though, requires some care.
The key was selecting the right candidate. Keller and his colleagues chose the bonnethead shark, Sphyrna tiburo, a small critter that summers at Turkey Point Shoal off the coast of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory with which Keller is affiliated.
Bonnetheads elsewhere have been known to complete 620-mile roundtrip migrations. As the lab's Dean Grubbs puts it, "That's not bad for a shark that is only two to three feet long. The question is how do they find their way back to that same estuary year after year." There's a report of a great white shark migrating between two locations, one in South Africa and another in Australia, year after year.
The research is published in Current Biology.
Keller and his team rounded up 20 local juvenile bonnetheads and transported them into a holding tank at the marine lab. For the tests, the researchers simulated three real-world magnetic fields. As the various magnetic fields were activated, the sharks' movements were captured by GoPro cameras and their average swimming orientations calculated by software.
The first simulation, serving as a control, mimicked the magnetic field of the nearby shoal from which the sharks had been captured. When this field was activated, the sharks essentially acted like they were "home," just swimming around as they do.
A second field was the magnetic equivalent of a location 600 kilometers south of the lab within the Gulf of Mexico. When this field was activated, the sharks, apparently mistaking themselves for being far south in the Gulf, began swimming northward toward the shoal.
The opposite occurred with a field standing in for a location in continental North America 600 km north of their home shoal — the sharks began swimming southward.
"For 50 years," says Keller, "scientists have hypothesized that sharks use the magnetic field as a navigational aid. This theory has been so popular because sharks, skates, and rays have been shown to be very sensitive to magnetic fields. They have also been trained to react to unique geomagnetic signatures, so we know they are capable of detecting and reacting to variation in the magnetic field."
His team's experiments confirm what's long been suspected, Keller says: "Sharks use map-like information from the geomagnetic field as a navigational aid. This ability is useful for navigation and possibly maintaining population structure."
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.