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Belgium and the Netherlands swap land without a single shot being fired
A victory for common sense, a setback for sex and drugs and rock 'n roll
On 28 November, the Royal Palace in Amsterdam hosted a remarkable land-swap ceremony. With their respective sovereigns looking over their shoulder, the Belgian and Dutch foreign ministers signed a treaty that formalised a territorial exchange between their two countries.
As a rule, countries are nothing if not territorial – in both senses of the word – and borders only change after a high price in death and destruction has been exacted. But Belgium and the Netherlands are adjusting a riverine stretch of their common border without a single shot fired.
There were smiles all round at the Palace, even though the exchange is not entirely equitable. The Netherlands are getting the better deal: gaining about 35 acres of Belgian land, while the Belgians only get about 7 acres in return. But the inconvenience resolved by the exchange is more important to either side than that minor imbalance.
The exchange had been a long time coming. Strange Maps reported on the issue in December 2013. That post is reproduced here below, with the addition of a new map of the area.
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A combination of sex and drugs (and possibly rock 'n roll) is forcing two governments to change the border that divides them. The Presqu'ile de l'Islal, a small Belgian peninsula stranded on the Dutch bank of the river Meuse, is to change hands to eliminate a zone that is, to all practical effects, quite literally beyond the law.
Because of its political status, the uninhabited peninsula is off limits for Dutch police. And because of its geographic isolation, it is out of reach for their Belgian colleagues. These circumstances conspire to make the peninsula a sanctuary for unlicensed sunbathing, loud bacchanalia and unrestricted drug dealing.
The Islal Peninsula is small, no more than 15 hectares (37 acres) in size, or to put it in terms easily understood on either side of the river: about 28 soccer pitches. Yet few locals will have heard of it, perhaps because it's situated in an area already rich in border peculiarities.
Areas shaded red to switch from Belgium to Netherlands, area shaded blue from Netherlands to Belgium.
The Meuse, which springs in France and flows north through Belgium, becomes a border river about 5 kilometres south of the peninsula at Lixhe, where the right bank turns Dutch. Literally a few metres north of the peninsula, both banks become Dutch, keeping Maastricht inside the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The circular land border separating that city from Belgium is 2.4 kilometres away from its ancient city walls - about the distance of a mid-19th-century cannon shot. Just north of Maastricht, the Meuse resumes its function as border river for another 40 kilometres. Beyond that, both sides of the river again go Dutch, and the Meuse eventually bends eastward to its final destination, the port of Rotterdam.
The language border that divides Belgium in a Dutch-speaking north (Flanders) and a French-speaking south (Wallonia) joins the river's course between Maastricht and Lixhe, briefly to become an international border. On the west bank, the tiny Wallonian hamlet of Petit Lanaye blocks Flemish access to the river, if only by about 200 metres. As if in compensation, the Flemish exclave of Voeren, wedged between Wallonia and the Netherlands on the other bank of the river, touches the Meuse for about 300 metres.
So how did Belgium end up with this spit of land, sticking out into the Meuse from the wrong side of the river? The border marker that indicates the territorial divide between the peninsula's Belgian north and its Dutch south is engraved with a date: 1843. Although Belgium traces its independence from the Netherlands to 1830, it took quite a few military campaigns, economic blockades and political negotiations to reach a settlement.
In 1842, Belgium grudgingly abandoned its claims to the eastern parts of Limburg and Luxembourg: the western halves of these areas became Belgian provinces, the rest fell to the Netherlands. Eastern Luxembourg became a Grand Duchy – nominally independent, but ruled by the Dutch king. Although the royal lineage of both countries has since diverged, they still use a variation of the Dutch national flag, and of its national anthem. Eastern Limburg became a Dutch province, and the Meuse the convenient border – except for where it flows through Maastricht: that city held out against the Belgian rebels, and was granted entirely to the Netherlands.
Rivers are frequently used as international borders, for what seems like an obvious reason: they're already there, eliminating the need to negotiate and demarcate a new border. Hence the Rio Grande, separating the US and Mexico. Or the Oder and Neisse, between Poland and Germany. Or the Yalu, keeping China and North Korea apart.
However, this negates another, more ancient function of rivers – they are humanity's oldest highways. Rivers facilitate commerce and communication both between upstream and downstream, and between east and west bank. Plus, rivers are dynamic entities: wait long enough, and they shift their course. What then happens with the border? Does it stay in place, a fossil record of an ancient riverbed, or does it follow the flow of the water, shifting the border to one country's advantage, and another's disadvantage?
Questions like these have frequently led to territorial disputes, even armed conflicts . Which is why river borders need to be defined very precisely. Typically, the actual borderline follows the thalweg – a German word denoting the line connecting the lowest points in the riverbed – instead of the middle of the river. Other options are for the border to run exactly down the middle of the river's width, for it to be on either bank of the river (granting the entire river to one of both border states), or for the entire river to be a condominium .
Each of these options is fraught with problems. The problem in this case, a classic thalweg border, is not that the river has shifted of its own accord, but that it has been rectified to facilitate shipping. Maastricht and especially Liège, just south of the border in Belgium, are busy inland ports, close to the junction of the Meuse with the Albert Canal, which connects the sea port of Antwerp with the Belgian interior.
The problem is, or rather was, that the river's meanders along this stretch proved an serious obstruction to shipping. So the Meuse was rectified, between the 1960s and the 1980s, to allow ships of a certain tonnage (a gentlemen never asks how much) to access the Meuse from the Albert Canal. These works eliminated a formerly very bendy stretch of river, which stranded bits of Netherlands on the Belgian, west bank of the river, and bits of Belgium on the Dutch, east bank of the river.
During and after the rectification, talks were started between both countries to bring their border in line with the new riverbed. But in the 1980s, local politics on the Belgian side of the border were highly explosive: Flemings and Walloons argued about political control over the Flemish exclave of Voeren (Fourons in French), with French-speakers campaigning to return the exclave to Wallonia. The times were not ripe to propose the loss of more Walloon territory, however small, uninhabited and inconveniently located.
In 2011, sanity prevailed. On the insistence of the Dutch authorities, fed up with the nuisance caused by the peculiar status of the Islal Peninsula, negotiations were restarted. Said Egbert Hanssen, spokesperson for the Dutch province of Limburg:
“The nature reserve on the peninsula has become a meeting area for the gay community, who use the area for nudism and occasionally exhibit inappropriate behaviour. They have parties in the area, and leave a lot of refuse in the reservation. But the Dutch police can't do anything about this, as the area is still officially Belgian. Inversely, the Belgian police can't really effectively control the area, as it has to make a giant detour to get there”.
Mr. Rompelberg, the local tenant farmer, has had his fence destroyed more times than he cares to count. Each complaint to the Visé police goes unheeded: the only way they could make it over in time to catch the culprits would be by river speedboat. Which they lack.
An ad hoc committee, comprising the mayors of the two towns involved (Visé in Belgium, Eijsden in the Netherlands) and government officials from either country have now agreed to a transfer of territory. Two bits of Belgium stranded on the Dutch bank of the Meuse would be transferred to the Netherlands: the Islal Peninsula, and a much smaller, unnamed peninsula to the south. In exchange, one tiny morsel of Dutch territory called Petit Gravier, shipwrecked on the west bank of the river, would become Belgian. The Dutch have even agreed to pay 10% of the total cost of €64 million for the fourth lock of Lanaye, now being built in the area. Marcel Neven, the mayor of Visé, remains stoical about his town's loss of territory:
“Yes, we're losing a beautiful area; a paradise for birds and plants. But few of our citizens have ever been there, because it's so difficult to reach, for lack of a decent road. A parliamentary commission visiting to study the situation couldn't even reach the peninsula”.
Perhaps they just weren't as determined as the sex fiends and drug hounds monopolising the area, Neven seems to imply:
“In this day and age, the international border doesn't stop anyone from our city from going for a walk there. And it's only logical for a border river to have one bank entirely in one country, and the other bank in the other country. So it's only normal that principle that the Meuse should mark the Dutch-Belgian border should be maintained here as well. This should have been arranged years ago”.
The Belgian side agreed to the transfer on one condition: that the area's status as a nature reserve be maintained. According to Albert Stassen, District Commissioner on the Belgian side,
“the peninsula at present is under the jurisdiction of the Walloon Department of Forests and Wildlife, but is already being managed by Het Limburgs Landschap, the Dutch wildlife association that manages De Eijsder Beemden, the adjacent nature reserve in the Netherlands”.
The nature reserve is home to a band of koniks – a breed of semi-feral Polish horses – and lies next to a string of river lakes which in summer are a popular recreational area.
The new border will again follow the thalweg of the Meuse, the new one, this time. When the actual transfer of territory will take place is as yet unknown. Officials for the Belgian and Dutch foreign ministries are preparing the dossiers for their respective governments, after which the proposals will need to be ratified by both countries' parliaments.
So, will 2014 see the first border change for Belgium in almost a century ? If the federal parliament in Brussels votes yes, it will violate the spirit and the letter of at least one version of the Brabançonne, the country's national anthem:
Never shall we cede even the smallest plot of land / If but one Belgian, be he Fleming or Walloon, remains alive.
Except, it seems, if that plot of land is used for sex parties and drug dealing – a possibility probably overlooked by the anthem's composers.
UPDATE - Below a detailed map of the border changes, which also involve straightening out a few kinks in the course of the border on the river itself - a remnant of its former pathway.
Aerial map of the border zone taken from this page at the Visé city desk of the Walloon newspaper publisher Sudpresse. Map above provided by E. Berns to the Borderpoint Yahoo Group. Other maps courtesy of Ruland Kolen.
 E.g. the dispute between Iran and Iraq over the exact course of their border along the mouth of the Shatt-al-Arab, which contributed to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). ↩
 The rarest of options – for an example, look no further than just a few dozen kilometres south, to the riverine border between the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and Germany. More on that in this episode of Borderlines. ↩
 In 1919, Belgium annexed the German territories of Eupen and Malmédy as part of its compensation for Germany's invasion in 1914, and the consequent horrors of the First World War. The Netherlands similarly annexed a few areas of Germany after the Second World War, but gave most of them back after a few years. ↩
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
The Drake equation is an example of a broader issue in the scientific community—considering the sheer size of the universe and our knowledge that intelligence life has evolved at least once, there should be evidence for alien life. This is generally referred to as the Fermi paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi who first examined the contradiction between high probability of alien civilizations and their apparent absence. Fermi summed this up rather succinctly when he asked, “Where is everybody"?
But maybe this was the wrong question. A better question, albeit a more troubling one, might be “What happened to everybody?" Unlike asking where life exists in the universe, there's a clearer potential answer to this question: the Great Filter.
Why the universe is empty
Alien life is likely, but there is none that we can see. Therefore, it could be the case that somewhere along the trajectory of life's development, there is a massive and common challenge that ends alien life before it becomes intelligent enough and widespread enough for us to see—a great filter.
This filter could take many forms. It could be that having a planet in the Goldilocks' zone—the narrow band around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist—and having that planet contain organic molecules capable of accumulating into life is extremely unlikely. We've observed plenty of planets in the Goldilock's zone of different stars (there's estimated to be 40 billion in the Milky Way), but maybe the conditions still aren't right there for life to exist.
The Great Filter could occur at the very earliest stages of life. When you were in high school bio, you might have the refrain drilled into your head “mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell." I certainly did. However, mitochondria were at one point a separate bacteria living its own existence. At some point on Earth, a single-celled organism tried to eat one of these bacteria, except instead of being digested, the bacterium teamed up with the cell, producing extra energy that enabled the cell to develop in ways leading to higher forms of life. An event like this might be so unlikely that it's only happened once in the Milky Way.
Or, the filter could be the development of large brains, as we have. After all, we live on a planet full of many creatures, and the kind of intelligence humans have has only occurred once. It may be overwhelmingly likely that living creatures on other planets simply don't need to evolve the energy-demanding neural structures necessary for intelligence.
What if the filter is ahead of us?
These possibilities assume that the Great Filter is behind us—that humanity is a lucky species that overcame a hurdle almost all other life fails to pass. This might not be the case, however; life might evolve to our level all the time but get wiped out by some unknowable catastrophe. Discovering nuclear power is a likely event for any advanced society, but it also has the potential to destroy such a society. Utilizing a planet's resources to build an advanced civilization also destroys the planet: the current process of climate change serves as an example. Or, it could be something entirely unknown, a major threat that we can't see and won't see until it's too late.
The bleak, counterintuitive suggestion of the Great Filter is that it would be a bad sign for humanity to find alien life, especially alien life with a degree of technological advancement similar to our own. If our galaxy is truly empty and dead, it becomes more likely that we've already passed through the Great Filter. The galaxy could be empty because all other life failed some challenge that humanity passed.
If we find another alien civilization, but not a cosmos teeming with a variety of alien civilizations, the implication is that the Great Filter lies ahead of us. The galaxy should be full of life, but it is not; one other instance of life would suggest that the many other civilizations that should be there were wiped out by some catastrophe that we and our alien counterparts have yet to face.
Fortunately, we haven't found any life. Although it might be lonely, it means humanity's chances at long-term survival are a bit higher than otherwise.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization.
- There is a great disconnect between the sciences and the humanities.
- Solutions to most of our real-world problems need both ways of knowing.
- Moving beyond the two-culture divide is an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
For the past five years, I ran the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, an initiative sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Our mission has been to find ways to bring scientists and humanists together, often in public venues or — after Covid-19 — online, to discuss questions that transcend the narrow confines of a single discipline.
It turns out that these questions are at the very center of the much needed and urgent conversation about our collective future. While the complexity of the problems we face asks for a multi-cultural integration of different ways of knowing, the tools at hand are scarce and mostly ineffective. We need to rethink and learn how to collaborate productively across disciplinary cultures.
The danger of hyper-specialization
The explosive expansion of knowledge that started in the mid 1800s led to hyper-specialization inside and outside academia. Even within a single discipline, say philosophy or physics, professionals often don't understand one another. As I wrote here before, "This fragmentation of knowledge inside and outside of academia is the hallmark of our times, an amplification of the clash of the Two Cultures that physicist and novelist C.P. Snow admonished his Cambridge colleagues in 1959." The loss is palpable, intellectually and socially. Knowledge is not adept to reductionism. Sure, a specialist will make progress in her chosen field, but the tunnel vision of hyper-specialization creates a loss of context: you do the work not knowing how it fits into the bigger picture or, more alarmingly, how it may impact society.
Many of the existential risks we face today — AI and its impact on the workforce, the dangerous loss of privacy due to data mining and sharing, the threat of cyberwarfare, the threat of biowarfare, the threat of global warming, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the threat to our humanity by the development of genetic engineering — are consequences of the growing ease of access to cutting-edge technologies and the irreversible dependence we all have on our gadgets. Technological innovation is seductive: we want to have the latest "smart" phone, 5k TV, and VR goggles because they are objects of desire and social placement.
Are we ready for the genetic revolution?
When the time comes, and experts believe it is coming sooner than we expect or are prepared for, genetic meddling with the human genome may drive social inequality to an unprecedented level with not just differences in wealth distribution but in what kind of being you become and who retains power. This is the kind of nightmare that Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Jennifer Doudna talked about in a recent Big Think video.
CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com
At the heart of these advances is the dual-use nature of science, its light and shadow selves. Most technological developments are perceived and sold as spectacular advances that will either alleviate human suffering or bring increasing levels of comfort and accessibility to a growing number of people. Curing diseases is what motivated Doudna and other scientists involved with CRISPR research. But with that also came the potential for altering the genetic makeup of humanity in ways that, again, can be used for good or evil purposes.
This is not a sci-fi movie plot. The main difference between biohacking and nuclear hacking is one of scale. Nuclear technologies require industrial-level infrastructure, which is very costly and demanding. This is why nuclear research and its technological implementation have been mostly relegated to governments. Biohacking can be done in someone's backyard garage with equipment that is not very costly. The Netflix documentary series Unnatural Selection brings this point home in terrifying ways. The essential problem is this: once the genie is out of the bottle, it is virtually impossible to enforce any kind of control. The genie will not be pushed back in.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization
What, then, can be done? Such technological challenges go beyond the reach of a single discipline. CRISPR, for example, may be an invention within genetics, but its impact is vast, asking for oversight and ethical safeguards that are far from our current reality. The same with global warming, rampant environmental destruction, and growing levels of air pollution/greenhouse gas emissions that are fast emerging as we crawl into a post-pandemic era. Instead of learning the lessons from our 18 months of seclusion — that we are fragile to nature's powers, that we are co-dependent and globally linked in irreversible ways, that our individual choices affect many more than ourselves — we seem to be bent on decompressing our accumulated urges with impunity.
The experience from our experiment with the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement has taught us a few lessons that we hope can be extrapolated to the rest of society: (1) that there is huge public interest in this kind of cross-disciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities; (2) that there is growing consensus in academia that this conversation is needed and urgent, as similar institutes emerge in other schools; (3) that in order for an open cross-disciplinary exchange to be successful, a common language needs to be established with people talking to each other and not past each other; (4) that university and high school curricula should strive to create more courses where this sort of cross-disciplinary exchange is the norm and not the exception; (5) that this conversation needs to be taken to all sectors of society and not kept within isolated silos of intellectualism.
Moving beyond the two-culture divide is not simply an interesting intellectual exercise; it is, as humanity wrestles with its own indecisions and uncertainties, an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
New study analyzes gravitational waves to confirm the late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- A new paper confirms Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- The researchers used gravitational wave data to prove the theorem.
- The data came from Caltech and MIT's Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
The late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem is correct, a new study shows. Scientists used gravitational waves to prove the famous British physicist's idea, which may lead to uncovering more underlying laws of the universe.
The theorem, elaborated by Hawking in 1971, uses Einstein's theory of general relativity as a springboard to conclude that it is not possible for the surface area of a black hole to become smaller over time. The theorem parallels the second law of thermodynamics that says the entropy (disorder) of a closed system can't decrease over time. Since the entropy of a black hole is proportional to its surface area, both must continue to increase.
As a black hole gobbles up more matter, its mass and surface area grow. But as it grows, it also spins faster, which decreases its surface area. Hawking's theorem maintains that the increase in surface area that comes from the added mass would always be larger than the decrease in surface area because of the added spin.
Will Farr, one of the co-authors of the study that was published in Physical Review Letters, said their finding demonstrates that "black hole areas are something fundamental and important." His colleague Maximiliano Isi agreed in an interview with Live Science: "Black holes have an entropy, and it's proportional to their area. It's not just a funny coincidence, it's a deep fact about the world that they reveal."
What are gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are "ripples" in spacetime, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, that are created by very violent processes happening in space. Einstein showed that very massive, accelerating space objects like neutron stars or black holes that orbit each other could cause disturbances in spacetime. Like the ripples produced by tossing a rock into a lake, they would bring about "waves" of spacetime that would spread in all directions.
As LIGO shared, "These cosmic ripples would travel at the speed of light, carrying with them information about their origins, as well as clues to the nature of gravity itself."
The gravitational waves discovered by LIGO's 3,000-kilometer-long laser beam, which can detect the smallest distortions in spacetime, were generated 1.3 billion years ago by two giant black holes that were quickly spiraling toward each other.
What Stephen Hawking would have discovered if he lived longer | NASA's Michelle Thaller | Big Think www.youtube.com
Confirming Hawking's black hole area theorem
The researchers separated the signal into two parts, depending on whether it was from before or after the black holes merged. This allowed them to figure out the mass and spin of the original black holes as well as the mass and spin of the merged black hole. With this information, they calculated the surface areas of the black holes before and after the merger.
"As they spin around each other faster and faster, the gravitational waves increase in amplitude more and more until they eventually plunge into each other — making this big burst of waves," Isi elaborated. "What you're left with is a new black hole that's in this excited state, which you can then study by analyzing how it's vibrating. It's like if you ping a bell, the specific pitches and durations it rings with will tell you the structure of that bell, and also what it's made out of."
The surface area of the resulting black holes was larger than the combined area of the original black holes. This conformed to Hawking's area law.