List of Figures

April 27, 2010

Reconstruction of mythical creatures

In 1914, Austrian paleobiologists Othenio Abel suggested that the mythical Cyclops were based on fossil skulls of dwarf elefants abound on Cyprus, Crete and Sicily. Well, you can see his point:

Of course, a much more likely scenario is the reverse one: using fossil evidence to support existing myths. There is a wonderful late Renaissance example of that: Klagenfurt Dragon. Believe it or not, this curious-looking beast is the earliest known reconstruction of an extinct species:

Let me explain. There is an ancient local legend about an insidious water dragon Lindwurm who lived in the swamps, before people came to settle the region. Lindwurm had been happily eating virgins and killing livestock, until he was eventually slain by a knight. The dragon’s swamps were finally drained, and the town of Klagenfurt was founded. So, when a giant skull of an unknown animal was unearthed in a local quarry circa 1335, the locals just knew it was Lindwurm’s. The relic was kept in the townhall. In 1590, Ulrich Vogelsang modelled the head of his dragon statue on the skull. It wasn’t until 1840 that the skull was identified as a cranium of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros; nine years later it became one of the first exhibits the Naturhistorisches Landesmuseum. It’s still on display:


April 26, 2010

Euclid vs. Pythagoras

Of the hundreds upon hundreds of the known proofs of the Pythagorean theorem, Euclid’s proof has to be the most famous one. It is Proposition 47 of Book 1 of his immortal work, Elements. No copies of the original text survive, but all the known Greek versions and translations base the theorem’s proof on the same device. In mathematical folklore it is known variously as “bride’s chair”, “Franciscan’s cowl”, “peacock’s tail”, “windmill” or (in Russia) “Pythagorean pants”.

Probably the easiest way to understand the proof is to read it in the Oliver Byrne’s 1847 edition. Byrne aimed to present Euclid’s proofs in terms of pictures, using as little text — and in particular as few labels — as possible. Also, he went totally bonkers with color. I love it!

If you think the proof is unobvious and unnecessary complicated but strangely beautiful, you should know: Schopenhauer has described it as a “brilliant piece of perversity”.

April 25, 2010

Early evolutionary trees of life

Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species wasn’t rich in figures. In fact, this diagram was its only illustration:

The funny thing is, it’s virtually unknown to non-specialists, whereas this scribble from Darwin’s notebooks is something of an evolutionary icon:

Of course, the “tree of life” (visual) metaphor had been used by naturalists for some 200 years before Darwin, but only as a representation of the history of life. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that evolutionary theories of one sort or another appeared, and so did evolutionary trees of life. To name a few: Augustin Augier had a very detailed one for plants in 1801[1]; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published a sketchy diagram for animals in 1809[2]; Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, anonymously published by Robert Chambers in 1844, had an even sketchier one, where fish, reptiles, and birds are represented by branches from a path leading to mammals[3]; finally, in 1858, just a year before the Origin of Species, Heinrich Georg Bronn published a hypothetical phylogenetic tree labeled with letters[4].

A recent 2009 paper in Journal of the History of Biology[5] adds a new and marvelous image to this list. Please meet: the foldout diagram titled “Paleontological chart” from Edward Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology, first published in 1840[6]:

What’s wonderful about it (apart from the multiple roots, sick-cacti-like appearance and the hilarious crowns over men and palms) is that it wasn’t meant to be an evolutionary tree; furthermore, once a tree of life image became closely associated with Darwin, Hitchcock dropped it altogether. As the paper’s abstract puts it: “Whereas Lamarck, Chambers, Bronn, Darwin, and Haeckel saw some form of transmutation as the mechanism that created their ‘trees of life’, Hitchcock, like his contemporaries Agassiz and Miller, who also produced ‘trees of life’, saw a deity as the agent of change. Through each edition of his book Hitchcock denounced the newer transmutationist hypotheses of Lamarck, then Chambers, and finally Darwin in an 1860 edition that no longer presented his tree-like ‘paleontological chart’.”


  1. A. Augier, Essai d’une nouvelle classification des vegetaux. Lyon, 1801.
    The tree was rediscovered in 1983: P. F. Stevens, Augustin Augier’s “Arbre Botanique” (1801), a Remarkable Early Botanical Representation of
    the Natural System
    . Taxon, Vol. 32, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 203-211. JSTOR
  2. J.-B. Lamarck, Philosophie Zoologique. Paris, 1809. Google books
  3. R. Chambers, Vestiges of the natural history of creation. London, 1844. Scans
  4. H. G. Bronn, Untersuchungen über die Entwicklungs-Gesetze der organischen Welt während der Bildungszeit unserer Erd-Oberfläche. Stuttgart, 1958. Scans
  5. J. David Archibald, Edward Hitchcock’s Pre-Darwinian (1840) “Tree of Life”. Journal of the History of Biology (2009) 42:561–592. PDF
  6. E. Hitchcock, Elementary Geology. New York, 1840. Google books

April 24, 2010


Easter Island and was unknown to Europeans until the 1722 visit by a Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen. In his journal he briefly notes “remarkable, tall, stone figures, a good 30 feet in height”.

The second to visit, in 1770, were two Spanish ships under command of Felipe González de Ahedo. One of the maps they compiled contains probably the earliest depiction of the moai statues, albeit a very schematic one:

In 1774, the island was rediscovered during the second voyage of Captain James Cook. One of the expedition’s artists was William Hodges, who produced this famous landscape:[1]

In 1786, French explorer Jean François de Galaup La Pérouse reached the island, made a detailed map and wonderingly measured the statues. His artist, Gaspard Duché de Vancy, faced with a task to record such strange images, clearly failed:[2]

This never fails to amuse me. Newsflash: Rapanui are Caucasian!


  1. W. Hodges, A View of the Monuments of Easter Island, Rapanui. 1775.
  2. G. Duché de Vancy, Islanders and Monuments of Easter Island, plate 11 from Atlas du voyage de La Pérouse, Paris, 1785-88.

April 23, 2010

Rupes Nigra

Filed under: Geography — Tags: , , , — Pavel Voronin @ 2:14 am

The earliest recorded use of a magnetized needle for navigational purposes is found in China in Zhu Yu’s book Pingzhou Table Talks of 1119 (written from 1111 to 1117):

The navigator knows the geography, he watches the stars at night, watches the sun at day; when it is dark and cloudy, he watches the compass.

The invention spreads unbelievably fast for the ancient world, reaching the outskirts of Europe in under a century; in 1187 Alexander Neckam reported the use of a magnetic compass on the English Channel.

The first explanation of how compass works was proposed in a mid-14th century book, Inventio Fortunata, one of the most famous lost books of all time. All we know about it is found in a 1577 letter by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, retelling its summary from another now lost book, Itinerarium by Jacobus Cnoyen (to make things funnier, neither Cnoyen nor his sources are now thought to have actually seen the Inventio).

Inventio Fortunata is said to be a travelogue written by a Franciscan friar from Oxford who travelled the North Atlantic region on behalf of Edward III. Most importantly, it contains a description of the North Pole as a magnetic island (“Black Rock”, Rupes Nigra) surrounded by a giant whirlpool and four continents. It gives further sinister details:

In the midst of the four countries is a Whirl-pool, into which there empty these four indrawing Seas which divide the North. And the water rushes round and descends into the Earth just as if one were pouring it through a filter funnel. It is four degrees wide on every side of the Pole, that is to say eight degrees altogether. Except that right under the Pole there lies a bare Rock in the midst of the Sea. Its circumference is almost 33 French miles, and it is all of magnetic Stone.

Rupes Nigra features most prominently on maps from sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The most specific depiction is on 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus[1], where it’s named “Insula Magnetum” and placed off modern day Murmansk:

Probably, the most famous and certainly the most influencial image of the island is that on Mercator’s map published in 1587[2]:


  1. O. Magnus, Carta Marina. Venice, 1539. Black and white; colored: 1, 2, 3.
  2. G. Mercator, Atlas of Europe. 1570-1595. Various scans: 1, 2, 3.

April 22, 2010

Crab Nebula

Filed under: Astronomy — Tags: , , , — Pavel Voronin @ 11:49 pm

On July 4, 1054 A.D. Chinese, Japanese, Native American, and Arab astronomers noticed a new star that was about four times brighter than Venus. According to the records, it was visible in daylight for 23 days, and 653 days to the naked eye in the night sky. This was SN 1054, one of only a dozen supernovae historically observed in our own galaxy. This is how Anasazi people in Chaco Canyon (present-day New Mexico) depicted this extrodinary event[1]:

Remnant of the supernova was discovered by John Bevis in 1731. Later, he added it to his sky atlas Uranographia Britannica[2]; it’s the faintly painted nebula slightly upper-right of Zeta, at the tip of the lower horn of Taurus the Bull:

The object was named “Crab Nebula” by William Parsons, the Third Earl of Rosse, based on a drawing he made with his 36-inch telescope circa 1844:

In 1848, Lord Rosse repeated his observations with a bigger 72-inch reflector, and saw a very different picture:

No surprise there; these days we usually see Crab Nebula looking something like this[3]:


  1. Photos by Ron Lussier (left) and Mark Lansing (right).
  2. J. Bevis, Uranographia Britannica, around 1750. Full scan.
  3. Image by Hubble Space Telescope.

Birds-of-Paradise: The Beginning.

As far as we know, the very first skins of birds-of-paradise were brought to Europe in 1522 by the surving crew members of the Magellan’s circumnavigation voyage. According to the diary of Antonio Pigafetta[1] (the only journal kept during the journey, apart from a formal logbook), the skins were a gift from the sultan of Bacan island (one of the Moluccas) for the emperor Charles V.

According to Pierre Belon’s Natural History of Birds[2], by the end of 1540s mounted birds of paradise “are a common sight in the cabinets of Europe and Turkey”. Nevertheless, when the first image of one was published in 1555 by Conrad Gessner in his famously bizarre “Historiae animalium”[3], it was totally unrecognizable:

The knowledge of the birds true appearance and habits hardly changed for the next century or so. A fine example of this is the set of illustrations in Ornithology, published in 1599 by one the most respected naturalists of the time, Ulisse Aldrovandi[4]:

While the first one is notable for being the first depiction of an identifiable species (Greater Bird-of-Paradise), the other three tell another story altogether. Agressive carcass preparation technique used at the time led the scientists to believe that the birds-of-paradise had no bones, entrails or legs. They were assumed to swim gently among the clouds, living only on sky dew and sun rays, never landing even to breed: female lays her eggs to a special cavity on the male’s back.

Some of these preconceptions proved to be very persistent. Illustrations to a book by John Johnston published as late as 1773[5] include both non-existent species (spot familiar faces!) and a barely recognizable King Bird-of-paradise colored to match a Greater Bird-of-Paradise:

But then you have to remember that European naturalists never saw a single alive specimen until 1825.


  1. A. Pigafetta, “Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo” (Report on the First Voyage Around the World). Paris, 1524-1534. Translated into countless languages and has never been out of print.
  2. P. Belon, L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux. Paris, 1555.
  3. C. Gessner, Historiae Animalium. Zurich, 1551-58, 1587. Best bits.
  4. U. Aldrovandi, Ornithologiae. Boloniae, 1599. Full scan. Birds-of-paradise section: pp. 806-816.
  5. J. Jonston, Histoire Naturelle et Raisonnée des differens oiseaux qui habitent le globe. Paris, 1773-74.

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