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France's Failed Attempt to Turn the Sahara Desert into a Fertile Sea
Jules Verne used the failed project as inspiration for his last adventure novel
In 1870s France, Ferdinand de Lesseps was a rock star. This was the man who had dared to dream the Suez Canal into being. Finished in 1869, the canal not only shaved off 6,000 km (nearly 4,000 miles) off the sea voyage from Europe to Asia, it also turned Africa into an island. De Lesseps was a world-changer. French public opinion hailed him as le grand Français; the imperial government made him a viscount.
Casting about for the next world-changing scheme, de Lesseps fell upon a plan to create a giant inland sea in the North African desert. The idea was not his own , but it took the Great Frenchman's seal of approval to propel the plan from obscurity to nationwide prominence.
The father of the 'Sahara Sea' was François Élie Roudaire, a French army captain who had been tasked in 1864 with mapping the more inaccessible parts of Algeria, then a French colony . In 1874, the military geographer was the first to establish that the so-called Chott  el-Mehrir, in the south of Constantine province and close to the border with Tunisia, was situated well below sea level .
Knowing his classics, Roudaire couldn't help thinking that this submarine salt plain might once have been the seabed of the fabled Bay of Triton . Described by Herodotus but unknown to modernity, the lake's debatable existence and location constituted an Atlantis-type mystery popular among geographers. Could Chott el-Mehrir be contiguous with other chotts towards the Tunisian coast, forming a the ghostly imprint of a former sea inlet? And… could this semi-mythical body of water be resurrected?
Detailed overview of the chotts across the Algerian-Tunisian border. They are coloured in too optimistic a shade of blue.
In the immediate aftermath of de Lesseps' triumph at Suez, a project of that magnitude might not have seemed impossible. But that still leaves the question: Why recreate that ancient sea at all?
Two words: mission civilatrice , the French take on the White Man's Burden. On the eve of Europe's Scramble for Africa, France's grip on a large swathe of the continent - from the Maghreb to the West African coast - was already tightening. With it came plans to bring order and progress to the continent, perhaps in the form of a Trans-Sahara Railroad ; and why not by re-creating an inland sea that would bring commerce and agriculture to the otherwise useless desert…
Roudaire laid out his plan in the May 15, 1874 issue of the Revue des Deux Mondes. To reanimate the Bay of Triton as far inland as 380 km (235 miles) from the Gulf of Gabès, on the Tunisian coast, he proposed to breach the coastal 'isthmus' of 20 km (13 miles) wide and 45 m (150 feet) high and siphon Mediterranean water inland via a canal that would be 190 km (120 miles) long. The resulting sea would have an average depth of 23 m (78 ft) and a surface area of about 5,000 km2 (3,100 sq. mi), which is roughly double the size of Utah's Great Salt Lake, or 14 times the size of Lake Geneva.
The admirable Triton: a map indicating the presumed location and extent of the ancient body of water.
The price tag: a mere 25 million francs . A small investment with a large return. The reanimated bay would, so Roudaire thought, be big enough to alter the local climate, turning the surrounding desert into a breadbasket: a vindication of France's enlightened policies, with tangible benefits for the local population. "The Sahara is the cancer eating away at Africa", Roudaire wrote. "We can't cure it; therefore, we must drown it".
Perhaps Roudaire found it fitting that the Sahara Sea would not only bring progress and prosperity, but also fulfil an ancient prediction. Legend has it that the god Triton himself, seated on a brazen tripod, had foreseen that, when a descendant of the Argonauts would come and carry off that tripod from his temple, a hundred Grecian cities would be built around the lake. And wasn't 19th-century Imperial France a worthy transmitter of the values and virtues of Antiquity? Creating what Roudaire called une mer intérieure africaine - a miniature Mare Nostrum  - would confirm France as a clear successor to the Roman Empire.
And yet, however high-minded the plan, Roudaire's large inland sea would also serve a more cynical, military purpose: "Un canal, large et profond, isolerait le sud tunisien […] et aiderait la pacification de la region". The Sahara Sea would isolate the rebellious tribes of southern Tunisia, making it easier to contain and subdue them.
Maximalist plan, with both the canal, and all to be submerged areas shown. Note the comparison map of Lake Geneva, inset lower right hand corner.
Roudaire didn't just appeal to public opinion; he also made sure to address the Great Frenchman directly. In a letter to de Lesseps, he explained that creating the Sahara Sea would result in:
"an immense amelioration of the climate of Algeria and Tunis, since the moisture caused by the evaporation  from the vast expanse of water will be driven by the prevailing southerly winds over these countries, forming a layer of humid atmosphere which will greatly mitigate the intensity of the solar rays and retard the cooling of the earth by radiation during the night. The proposed sea, too, being navigable for ships of the greatest draught, will also open a new commercial route for the districts lying to the south of the Aurès  and the Atlas range; while watercourses which from the south, west, and north converge towards the shotts, but which are now dry during the greater part of the year, will again become rivers, as the once undoubtedly were, leading ultimately to the fertilisation of vast tracts of now desert land on their banks".
De Lesseps bought into Roudaire's vision. With Suez Canal Man on board, France's political, scientific and literary elites followed suit. The Académie des Sciences supported the idea, and the French government provided Roudaire with a budget of 35,000 francs for a trigonometrical survey of the chotts towards the Tunisian coast.
In blue, the areas that are actually below sea level.
These expeditions must have been the high water mark of Roudaire's life. He was promoted, to chief of squadron. Great things were expected of him - to be the next French world-changer. And he traveled in style, accompanied by two engineers, a doctor, a purser, a draughtsman and twelve chasseurs d'Afrique .
Roudaire undertook two expeditions, to the Chott el-Gharsa in 1876 and to the Chott el-Djerid in 1878. The results were mixed, at best: Roudaire was able to establish, at least to the satisfaction of de Lesseps, that the chotts indeed were an ancient seabed. But the Tunisian chotts turned out to be truncated by elevated thresholds. The Chott el-Djerid, which is closest to the sea, was actually situated significantly above sealevel.
Only slightly daunted, Roudaire tried to save his scheme by lengthening his proposed canal while also decreasing the area to be flooded. But it was no use. France's scientists and engineers turned against the scheme — the former citing bad geography and geology, the latter an estimated cost ballooning to over a billion francs. In 1882, a high commission advised the French government against proceeding with the plan.
But Roudaire and de Lesseps couldn't help believing in the Sahara Sea. With private money, they founded a Société d'études de la mer intérieure africaine. Under its auspices if no longer the French government's, Roudaire in early 1883 left Touzeur for a fourth expedition . Even at that palliative stage of the plan, the Boston weekly Littell's Living Age, still proclaimed: "This is the plan which M. de Lesseps has been engaged in investigating, which Commandant Roudaire has been advocating for some ten years, and which may be said to have a calculable, if not a very immediate, chance of being carried out."
When Roudaire returned to France, he faced illness and criticism. Both the scientific milieu and his military hierarchy condemned his dogged adherence to what seemed to everyone else a lost cause. The forlorn pioneer of the Sahara Sea died in 1885 at the age of 48, of a fever he brought home from his last expedition.
Roudaine was survived by his African Inland Sea Research Society, which restricted itself to exploring the feasibility of an agricultural colony near Gabès, sinking artesian wells into the sand to fertilise the desert. Lack of results led to the society's dissolution in 1892.
As visionary as it was impracticable, the idea for a Sahara Sea tickled the fancy of Jules Verne, the grandfather of science fiction. In Hector Servadac (1877; a.k.a. Off on a Comet) he refers to Roudaire's scheme as if it is actually taking shape. In his last adventure novel, L'Invasion de la mer (1905; a.k.a. The Invasion of the Sea), he revisits the plan, with Berbers and Europeans fighting over the plan, only to have an earthquake create it anyway.
Verne revisited the idea of a Sahara Sea in his last book.
But grand visions never die, they just wait for the next visionary. In 1919, the Roudaire plan was cited as the inspiration for schemes to insert canals deep into the Tunisian interior. As late as 1958, French scientists were proposing versions of the plan. Even today, some suggest Roudaire's vision could still be realised. No canal required: by pumping water into the Chott El-Djerid, a submarine area west of Gabès of about 8,000 km2. The justification is the same as Roudaire's: creating an evaporation surface of such size would increase rain in the area, enhancing agricultural opportunities.
But perhaps ancient curses outweigh modern ideas of progress (or simply outlive them). The same legend mentioned above has it that the locals, when hearing Triton's prediction of a hundred Greek towns crowding around their lake, grabbed a hold of his magic tripod, and hid it in a place safe from the descendants of the Argonauts.
The Sahara Sea not only claimed the life of François Élie Roudaire, it also seems to have tainted the further career of Ferdinand de Lesseps. His later attempt to dig the Panama Canal  ended in a gigantic failure and a bribery scandal - for which he received a prison sentence in 1893. It was only commuted because of his advanced age. He died a year later.
The Sahara Sea remains what it was when Roudaire first conceived it: a desert mirage, shimmering in the untouchable distance. Unless and until someone finds Triton's tripod...
Strange Maps #617
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 Nor was the Suez Canal an original idea by de Lesseps. In 1832, while in quarantine on board a French mailboat off Alexandria, he came across a feasibility study into the subject, produced by Jacques-Marie Le Père, the director of Bridges and Roads on Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (1798-1801). Le Père's Mémoire sur la communication de la mer des Indes à la Méditerranée par la mer Rouge et l’isthme de Soueys had been published in Paris in 1822. ↩
 Whether Algeria was a 'colony' or simply a part of France depends on how charitable a view you hold of France's dominion over the country. Th French conquered Algeria in 1830 and annexed it in 1848, at which time its coastal zone was divided into three departments. These were considered a part of France just as much as any other 'metropolitan' department, although the native Algerians were granted considerably less rights than other French citizens - about 1 million of which had colonised the coastal districts by the middle of the 20th century. ↩
 'Chott' is the French spelling for an Arab word meaning 'bank' or 'coast', and is pronounced shot. The word describes salt lakes in the northern Sahara across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia that receive some water in wintertime, but are dry most of the year. ↩
 At -40 metres (-130 ft), the area holds the distinction of being Algeria's lowest point. ↩
 Triton is not a place but a person, or rather a god. The son of Poseidon, Triton is a merman (upper body of a man, the tail of a fish) who in the story of the Argonauts dwells on the coast of Libya, where the Argo is cast into Tritonis palus, a marshy lake out of which the god himself has to guide Jason and his crew. ↩
 Literally, 'civilising mission'. The idea was not just to govern colonised people, but to assimilate them into European culture by having them adopt the French language, French culture and dress, and the Christian religion. ↩
 The French idea to link Algiers and Abidjan by rail rivalled the British scheme for a Cape-to-Cairo railway; neither proposal would come to fruition. ↩
 Small change compared to the 430 million francs it cost to dig the Suez Canal. ↩
 'Our Sea' in Latin, a term used by the Romans, first for the eastern Mediterranean, then for the entire sea, as their empire expanded its control over its shores in the first century BC. The term was resurrected by Italian nationalists in the late 19th and by Italian fascists in the early 20th century. For more on Italy's colonial ambitions under Mussolini, see #325. ↩
 Elsewhere, Roudaire cleverly draws analogy to de Lesseps' achievement by comparing his inland sea (and its projected rate of evaporation) to the Bitter Lakes, bodies of water that were created specifically for the Suez Canal. Although much smaller, they are positioned at a similar latitude (near the 34th parallel north). ↩
 An eastern extension of the Saharan Atlas range, situated in northeastern Algeria. Because of its inaccessibility, it remains relatively underdeveloped and retains its Berber character. The Aurès range was where Berbers in 1954 started the rebellion that would morph into the Algerian War of Independence. left Algeria in 1962. ↩
 Light infantry corps recruited mainly from the European settlers in North Africa (the so-called 'pieds-noirs'), as opposed to the Spahis, which were raised from the native North African population. The Chasseurs d'Af distinguished themselves in the Crimean War, 's invasion of Mexico, and both World Wars, among other conflicts. They corps were disbanded after Algerian independence, but a (mechanised) successor regiment was reinstated in 1998. ↩
 In that year, de Lesseps visited the chotts himself, reporting that the canal in his estimate would cost five years' work and cost 150 million francs. ↩
The young man died nearly 2,000 years ago in the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii.
- A team of researchers in Italy discovered the intact brain cells of a young man who died in the Mount Vesuvius eruption in A.D. 79.
- The brain's cell structure was visible to researchers (who used an electron microscope) in a glassy, black material found inside the man's skull.
- The material was likely the victim's brain preserved through the process of vitrification in which the intense heat followed by rapid cooling turned the organ to glass.
Almost 2,000 years ago, Mount Vesuvius — located on the gulf of what is today Naples in Campania, Italy — erupted, burying the ancient cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii beneath hot ash.
Recently, a team of researchers in Italy discovered the intact brain cells of a young man who died in the disaster in A.D. 79. The team studied remains that were first unearthed in the 1960s from Herculaneum, a city once nestled into the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. The man was around 25 years old when he perished and was discovered lying face-down on a wooden bed in Herculaneum's Collegium Augustalium (the College of the Augustales), located near the city's main street. The building was the headquarters of the cult of Emperor Augustus who was worshipped as a deity, a common Roman tradition at the time.
Discovery of cells
Electron microscope image of brain axons.
Credit: PLOS ONE
Now, subsequent research has described how the researchers, using an electron microscope, discovered cells in the vitrified brain. According to Petrone they were "incredibly well preserved with a resolution that is impossible to find anywhere else." Additionally, the team used another method called energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy to determine the chemical compounds of the glassy material. The sample was rich in carbon and oxygen, which indicates that it was organic. The researchers compared those ancient proteins to a database of proteins found in the human brain, and found that all of the discovered proteins are indeed present in human brain tissue.
Additionally, Petrone and his team suspect they also discovered vitrified nerve cells in the ancient victim's spinal cord and cerebellum based on the position of the sample in the mind of the skull and the concentration of the proteins.
These impeccable preservations of brain tissue are unprecedented and will undoubtedly open the door to new and exciting research opportunities on these ancient people and civilizations that weren't possible until now.
The Italian research team will continue to study the remains to learn more about the vitrification process, including the precise temperatures the victims were exposed to and the cooling rate of the ash. They also, according to Petrone, want to analyze proteins from the remains and their related genes.
New data have set the particle physics community abuzz.
- The first question ever asked in Western philosophy, "What's the world made of?" continues to inspire high energy physicists.
- New experimental results probing the magnetic properties of the muon, a heavier cousin of the electron, seem to indicate that new particles of nature may exist, potentially shedding light on the mystery of dark matter.
- The results are a celebration of the human spirit and our insatiable curiosity to understand the world and our place in it.
If brute force doesn't work, then look into the peculiarities of nothingness. This may sound like a Zen koan, but it's actually the strategy that particle physicists are using to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current registry of all known particles and their interactions. Instead of the usual colliding experiments that smash particles against one another, exciting new results indicate that new vistas into exotic kinds of matter may be glimpsed by carefully measuring the properties of the quantum vacuum. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's go piecemeal.
It is fitting that the first question asked in Western philosophy concerned the material composition of the world. Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle credited Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) with the honor of being the first Western philosopher when he asked the question, "What is the world made of?" What modern high energy physicists do, albeit with very different methodology and equipment, is to follow along the same philosophical tradition of trying to answer this question, assuming that there are indivisible bricks of matter called elementary particles.
Deficits in the Standard Model
Jumping thousands of years of spectacular discoveries, we now have a very neat understanding of the material composition of the world at the subatomic level: a total of 12 particles and the Higgs boson. The 12 particles of matter are divided into two groups, six leptons and six quarks. The six quarks comprise all particles that interact via the strong nuclear force, like protons and neutrons. The leptons include the familiar electron and its two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. The muon is the star of the new experiments.
For all its glory, the Standard Model described above is incomplete. The goal of fundamental physics is to answer the most questions with the least number of assumptions. As it stands, the values of the masses of all particles are parameters that we measure in the laboratory, related to how strongly they interact with the Higgs. We don't know why some interact much stronger than others (and, as a consequence, have larger masses), why there is a prevalence of matter over antimatter, or why the universe seems to be dominated by dark matter — a kind of matter we know nothing about, apart from the fact that it's not part of the recipe included in the Standard Model. We know dark matter has mass since its gravitational effects are felt in familiar matter, the matter that makes up galaxies and stars. But we don't know what it is.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned.
Physicists had hoped that the powerful Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would shed light on the nature of dark matter, but nothing has come up there or in many direct searches, where detectors were mounted to collect dark matter that presumably would rain down from the skies and hit particles of ordinary matter.
Could muons fill in the gaps?
Enter the muons. The hope that these particles can help solve the shortcomings of the Standard Model has two parts to it. The first is that every particle, like a muon, that has an electric charge can be pictured simplistically as a spinning sphere. Spinning spheres and disks of charge create a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the spin. Picture the muon as a tiny spinning top. If it's rotating counterclockwise, its magnetic field would point vertically up. (Grab a glass of water with your right hand and turn it counterclockwise. Your thumb will be pointing up, the direction of the magnetic field.) The spinning muons will be placed into a doughnut-shaped tunnel and forced to go around and around. The tunnel will have its own magnetic field that will interact with the tiny magnetic field of the muons. As the muons circle the doughnut, they will wobble about, just like spinning-tops wobble on the ground due to their interaction with Earth's gravity. The amount of wobbling depends on the magnetic properties of the muon which, in turn, depend on what's going on with the muon in space.
Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
This is where the second idea comes in, the quantum vacuum. In physics, there is no empty space. The so-called vacuum is actually a bubbling soup of particles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second. Everything fluctuates, as encapsulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Energy fluctuates too, what we call zero-point energy. Since energy and mass are interconvertible (E=mc2, remember?), these tiny fluctuations of energy can be momentarily converted into particles that pop out and back into the busy nothingness of the quantum vacuum. Every particle of matter is cloaked with these particles emerging from vacuum fluctuations. Thus, a muon is not only a muon, but a muon dressed with these extra fleeting bits of stuff. That being the case, these extra particles affect a muon's magnetic field, and thus, its wobbling properties.
About 20 years ago, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory detected anomalies in the muon's magnetic properties, larger than what theory predicted. This would mean that the quantum vacuum produces particles not accounted for by the Standard Model: new physics! Fast forward to 2017, and the experiment, at four times higher sensitivity, was repeated at the Fermi National Laboratory, where yours truly was a postdoctoral fellow a while back. The first results of the Muon g-2 experiment were unveiled on 7-April-2021 and not only confirmed the existence of a magnetic moment anomaly but greatly amplified it.
To most people, the official results, published recently, don't seem so exciting: a "tension between theory and experiment of 4.2 standard deviations." The gold standard for a new discovery in particle physics is a 5-sigma variation, or one part in 3.5 million. (That is, running the experiment 3.5 million times and only observing the anomaly once.) However, that's enough for plenty of excitement in the particle physics community, given the remarkable precision of the experimental measurements.
A time for excitement?
Now, results must be reanalyzed very carefully to make sure that (1) there are no hidden experimental errors; and (2) the theoretical calculations are not off. There will be a frenzy of calculations and papers in the coming months, all trying to make sense of the results, both on the experimental and theoretical fronts. And this is exactly how it should be. Science is a community-based effort, and the work of many compete with and complete each other.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned, even if less exciting than new particles. Or maybe, new particles have been there all along, blipping in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum, waiting to be pulled out of this busy nothingness by our tenacious efforts to find out what the world is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.