How Spanish, not English, was nearly the world's language

The reason has to do with how the wind was blowing in a particular part of the world in August of 1588. It's that specific.

John Lewis Gaddis: I think the favorite lesson that I like to teach is the Spanish Armada in 1588, sent there by King Philip II of Spain, and the defense against the Spanish Armada led by Queen Elizabeth I, and what happened to the Spanish Armada in that situation. 

The reason I like to teach it is because Spain was the global superpower in that period. Spain had conquered almost the entire new world. Britain had not—England as it was at that time—had not even begun to develop colonies. 

And the issue, of course, was Catholicism, and was Catholicism going to be brought back to England after it had been kicked out by Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII. 

So this was what led Philip (believing that he was an agent of the Almighty) to send this largest of all naval forces north into the English Channel as a launch pad for the reconquest by Catholicism of England. And that’s August of 1588. 

Elizabeth’s strategy was not to attempt to directly confront that fleet, because she didn’t have a fleet that was capable of doing that. She certainly could not have confronted directly a Spanish army because she had virtually no army of her own.But she is thinking in terms of geography. She’s thinking in terms of what direction the winds blow in normally in the English Channel. 

And she saw that if she just allowed the Spanish fleet to advance slowly up the English Channel—which it had to do because it was cumbersome—with a few English ships pursuing it and then pick them off as they pursue, and then as they got up to the border of what’s now Belgium and France (where they were going to disembark their troops) realized that taking advantage of the winds, if you just set a few old English ships on fire with explosives on them and send them into the middle of this huge Spanish fleet, that’s going to cause terror and that in itself will be enough to defeat the Spanish. 

So it’s all happening on one evening with the winds in the right direction with eight ships used, and the Spanish completely panicked to the extent of cutting their own anchor cables so more than 100 ships self-destructed in terms of losing control of the ability to navigate. 

The only thing they could do then was to flee, but because of the winds, they had to flee around all of England, around Scotland, down the Irish coast. And by the time they staggered back into Spain they were profoundly depleted. That’s the turning point.

That’s the moment at which it can be said the Spanish Empire reached its high point and then started descending. 

And it’s also the moment at which we can say the English began to become very gradually a superpower. 

And I’m fascinated by the fact that it all can be reduced to a single night in the English Channel, and to the direction in which the winds blew. So that testifies to the importance of seizing the moment. It testifies to the importance of not micromanaging but macromanaging in the sense of delegating authority to the experts, in this case, her own sea captains. Trusting them to do the right thing. Trusting them to take advantage of spontaneous moments. They didn’t have time to consult Elizabeth about the fire ships. 

They didn’t have time to wonder if they sacrificed eight ships, will she get mad and cut off their heads? They figured no, it’s unlikely because she’s a strategist herself. She will understand what that sacrifice achieved. And, of course, that’s what happened. So it’s her great triumph. It’s Spain’s great failure, and you can argue it leads to the development of North America by the British and to the fact that we are sitting here speaking English and not Spanish now.

Want to know the reason much of North America speaks English and not Spanish? It all boils down to a single day in the English Channel in August of 1588, says Yale University history professor John Lewis Gaddis. The Spanish Armada was cleverly chased out of British waters by a rag-tag British fleet that set old ships on fire and pointed them right at the anchored Spanish fleet, causing the Spaniards to cut anchor and flee. Because of the way the wind was blowing, the Spanish ships had to sail all the way around the British Isles (about 2,000 nautical miles) to get home and were soundly defeated. That led, John posits, to the rise of the British empire. John's latest book is the fascinating On Grand Strategy.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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