Quick Take: The Professor and the Madman

Joanne played this audiobook for me on our last long drive; something was vexing me and this true, compelling yarn proved to be the perfect tonic.

I wouldn’t normally warn about spoilers for a book first published in 1998, but I learned today that this book was made into a movie starring Mel Gibson and Brad Pitt which premiered this year (2019) in limited release. If you’re worried about it, there are some slight spoilers below; you can come back and read this after you’ve seen the movie or read the book.

The story starts dramatically with a murder, an unprecedentedly brutal homicide by the standards of London in the 1870s. Dr. William C. Minor, an American whose mental health had eroded since his service in the Civil War, shot George Merrett in the throat and then waited calmly for the police. It had been a terrible mistake he confessed; he was attempting to chase away a man who had broken into his room to torment him, a figment of his dementia. He was soon committed to the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, creating the circumstances where he would become one of the most prolific contributors to the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The book proceeds, at least at first, as a bibiography, by which we understand a biography focused on two subjects. (Editors of the OED please note: this may be the first recorded use of this word as I have just now made it up. This is probably moot however as it doesn’t really seem to be a very good word after all; it sounds like a stutter and is too easily mistaken for ”bibliography.”) The second subject, the titular professor, is Dr. James Murray, who rose from humble beginnings to become the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary throughout the lion’s share of its creation.

Their stories and the interplay between the two men is enthralling, but ”The Professor and the Madman” is far more than a shared biography of two men. The author turns lovely phrases and paints vivid scenes. There is a fascinating account of the debate about whether the word ”protagonist” could ever be used in the plural. The story of the creation of the OED becomes a history of all English lexicography and is far more compelling than it has the right to be.

Like most biographies, the ending is bittersweet. Dr. Minor’s end is pitiful as his facilities continued to desert him. The end of Dr. Murray’s life is a study in unfinished business. He toiled on the OED until his passing just shy of his 80th birthday and did not live to see its completion. But at least there is the coda of the OED itself; completed and now well on its way to a third edition, it can stand as a monument to both of these men’s lives.

Thus, I strongly recommend the book. I can’t speak for the movie, but we plan to check it out at our earliest convenience.

Bottom Line:


Winchester, S., The Professor and the Madman, Harper Collins, 1998.

The Serapis Flag

The Serapis Flag

There are many variations of the United States Flag that were used in the early days of the republic. One of the more interesting is the Serapis Flag which we are now flying. Its existence is intimately tied to the Battle of Flamborough Head fought 240 years ago 0n 23 September 1779.

John Paul Jones

The story of the Serapis flag begins with the story of John Paul, a ship captain. Paul fled his native Scotland after killing a crewman who mutinied over wages, presumably refusing to trust his fate to an Admiralty Court. Paul emigrated to the colonies, renamed himself “John Paul Jones” and befriended Benjamin Franklin. He joined the Continental Navy, rose through the ranks and became the United States’ first famous naval commander. He is sometimes called the Father of the U. S. Navy. By 1779, Jones was in command of the Bonhomme Richard, named in honor Franklin’s pseudonym from Poor Richard’s Almanac.

The Serapis vs. the Bonhomme Richard

Bonhomme Richard was a former merchant ship that had been armed and upgraded to a ship of war. It led, under Jones’ command, a small squadron of ships. Near Flamborough Head, Yorkshire, this squadron encountered a British convoy under the protection of the HMS Serapis. Conflict ensued and Bonhomme Richard took severe damage from the better armed Serapis. When the British captain asked if the Richard had struck her colors (meaning that they had lowered their flag as a sign of surrender) Jones is said to have replied with the famous “I have not yet begun to fight!” The flag, in fact, had been destroyed in the battle.

Eventually, the tide of the battle turned and Jones managed to lash Bonhomme Richard to the Serapis. The American crew was able to board and capture the British ship while their own ship, badly damaged and on fire, sank into the North Sea.

But what does this have to do with the Serapis Flag? Only this. Jones, now in command of the Serapis, put into a neutral Dutch port for repairs. British officials accused Jones of being a pirate and demanded his arrest. He was, after all, sailing a captured ship which was not flying the colors of any known nation. Bonhomme Richard’s flag, remember, had been blown into the sea. A flag was hastily created for Jones’ ship and entered into the Dutch records, allowing the Dutch to officially recognize the captured ship.

The Serapis Flag was created according to a description of United States flag that was provided by Benjamin Franklin, who was then Ambassador to France.

“It is with pleasure that we acquaint your excellency that the flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white, and blue; a small square in the upper angle, next the flagstaff, is a blue field, with thirteen white stars, denoting a new constellation.”

The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States

And thus, this slightly garbled recounting of the Flag Resolution of 1777 is responsible for the distinctive look of the Serapis Flag. Because of this, the flag is also known as the Franklin Flag. It remains popular today and is frequently used in historical displays because of its uniqueness and its recognizably American character.


Picture Credits:

Tranquility Base, Revisited

We’re watching the real time feed of the Apollo 11 coverage. It’s awesome! I’m personally immersed and it’s surprisingly easy to pretend that this is going on right now. It’s nice to remember a time that America did great things. Mostly we’ve seen shots like this one. There’s clearly an alien or a stagehand or something moving around behind the faux lander.

Occasionally we see the simulation of what’s happening inside the capsule. I hate to admit that it looks hilarious. There might be an actual astronaut inside one of the fake suits. That would explain the muffled explanation.

Meanwhile, Armstrong is about to go EVA. They spent a startlingly long time waiting for the cabin to depressurize. And I’m wondering if there’s a guy in a moon man costume somewhere. That’s secret of a successful simulation. Preparation. Will there be moon men? Probably not, but you have to be ready for the unexpected.

Armstrong’s backing out of the lander, still seeing simulations.

Real picture. Very fuzzy. Cronkite thinks Armstrong’s stepped on the Moon. It’s not completely clear to me.

There it is. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Followed by a description of the sand. And the environment.

Now we’re seeing Armstrong bounding around in the low gravity. “That looks like fun” says Cronkite. Later he compares it to walking on a trampoline.

And Aldrin’s on the surface. Soon they’re going to move the camera.

Here’s a shot from the new camera position, with both astronauts.

And they’ve now planted the flag. The point is made that this is NOT the traditional claiming of territory; this is just a statement that we have been there and a reminder of what we’ve accomplished.

Finally, for this post, Armstrong and Aldrin get a congratulatory call from President Nixon. They haven’t been on the moon for an hour yet. If you haven’t watched this yourself, I can’t recommend it more strongly.

Now I’m going to just relax and enjoy. I hope you do too.

One Giant Leap for Mankind

Today is 20 July 2019; fifty years to the day that humans first set foot on another celestial body marking the culmination of the Space Race and one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements.

To commemorate the occasion, we’re flying a flag featuring the NASA Insignia, a streamlined version of the NASA seal. Other than the the fact that it contains text, the insignia is a perfect centerpiece for a flag. It’s striking without being too busy and it’s easy to sketch. It also has nice, clear symbolism.

From the NASA website:

The round red, white and blue insignia, nicknamed the “meatball,” was designed by employee James Modarelli in 1959, NASA’s second year. The design incorporates references to different aspects of the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The round shape of the insignia represents a planet. The stars represent space. The red v-shaped vector represents aeronautics. The circular orbit around the agency’s name represents space travel.

The Symbols of NASA
The NASA insignia and the more formal seal

We spent a decent amount of time deciding which flag to fly for the occasion. Our first thought was the Earth Day flag, and then an Earth Day flag with a stylized crescent moon and the southern cross, but neither of those seemed to feature the Moon clearly enough. There were other options, but the NASA flag seemed most appropriate.

The first two options above could be deemed “photograph flags” and, for my purposes, flying a flag based on a photograph seems fine. If any of the images below were available in flag form, we might have chosen it. Perhaps I’ll order one of these custom made for the 51st anniversary.

The flag played a prominent role in the Lunar Landing. One of the more dramatic moments was the raising of the flag, which I can clearly remember seeing on the teevee. I explicitly recall being puzzled about the flag’s behavior. It seemed to snap out with the top sticking straight out from the pole. I was only five, but this seemed strange. I’d seen flags before and they certainly didn’t do this. It must be something strange about space, I thought. Or the Moon. Or something else. Here’s the news footage.

Astronauts Plant the American Flag on the Moon.

Turns out the flag had its own “frame.” Five year old me missed that. If you have any doubts about the significance of the flag in this event, let’s turn to Arthur C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century. Published in 1986, this book is a collection of Clarke’s speculations about the state of life and technology on this very day. The first chapter is a fictional letter, written by Clarke himself, from his home in Clavius City, Luna on the book’s titular date. It begins thusly.

It doesn’t seem like fifty years – but I cannot be sure which memories are false and which are real. Present and past are inextricably entangled. The monitor screen has just shown the ceremony at Tranquility Base, culminating with the third hoisting of the American flag. It was blown down, of course, by the blast of the Eagle’s ascent stage, and lay there on the trampled Moon soil for thirty-six years until the Apollo Historical Committee reerected it. Then the big quake of 2009 knocked it down again; this time, we’re assured, it would take a direct hit by a fair-sized meteor to lower it…

Arthur C. Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century

It’s a romantic image; historical societies reerecting and preserving the flag for future generations to see and enjoy, but sadly, that may never come to pass. The condition of the flags on the moon is a subject of speculation. The conditions are harsh. The surface is bombarded with UV radiation without the protection we receive from Earth’s atmosphere and the temperature ranges from -280 to +240 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the flags could have disintegrated entirely. At a minimum, the flags must be so sun bleached that they are now completely white. At least as recently as 2012, however, there was evidence that the flags of Apollo 12, 16 and 17 were still standing. You can read about the condition of the flags in the links below.


Apollo 11 on CBS News

In just a few minutes, it will be 20 July, 2019: the 50th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first humans to walk on the moon. I’ve periodically looked for contemporary news coverage on YouTube. In particular, I’ve really wanted to see the interviews on CBS News with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a wealth of things on YouTube now. Here’s a sampling as our first commemoration of the semi-centennial of the first moon landing. I haven’t reviewed all of this yet; I may update the selection as I do.

This appears to be a comprehensive collection of all of the CBS coverage of the landing. It’s only the audio and it’s about 6 hours long.

Coverage of the launch, with video from 16 July 1969.  Arthur Clarke is on hand for some of this.  It looks like this started out as a live stream and it’s now up as a video.

Here’s the live stream of the CBS News Coverage, starting at 3:30 EDT.

This is the CBS coverage from the exact moments of the Moon landing. A bit more than 3 minutes.

And here are Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. About 4 minutes.

You can clearly hear Armstrong’s quote, “One small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind.” Cronkite didn’t quite hear it all first time through. Of course, there were many people who thought it should be “One small step for a man…” Armstrong’s response? “That is what I meant to say and that is what I thought I said.”  It’s possible that he did say that.

Finally, the end of my personal quest, the interview with Clarke and Heinlein.

More tomorrow!