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Twin Tracks

The Unexpected Origins of the Modern World

James Burke

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Walter Scott created an entirely fictitious Middle Ages for the Scots, with Scots barons, Saxon earls and Crusader knights. He did so well out of his historical novels that he was made a baron and built a fake baronial hall complete with tower.

French president assassinated 1894, stabbed in revenge for state execution of an anarchist. Severed an artery, and surgeons at that time could not repair such a wound. So one of them, Alexis Carroll, decided to find a way. He first took embroidery lessons, then developed a technique with extremely thin needle and fine silk

James Ussher, Primate of All Ireland, is remembered solely for his biblical chronology: Creation happened on Sunday 23 Oct 4004BC, Adam and Eve were driven from Paradise the following Nov 10, and the Ark landed on Mt Ararat Wed 5 May, 1491BC.

Richard Meade pioneered smallpox inoculation in Britain. He gave seven convicts a recently-arrived-from-Europe cowpox serum, then infected them with smallpox. When they survived, royal family took needle, and then everybody else did.

Famous French pastry chef named Careme created a dish for composer Rossini,tournedos Rossini. Saute slices of beef fillet in butter, cover with croutons, top with sauteed fois gras and truffles, drench with pan juices diluted with Madeira and reduced to a demi-glaze.

In late C19, chemists began to investigate coal tar, the waste product from city gas plants that the manufacturers were paying to have taken away. They found artifical dyes - exotic mauves and violets. Paul Erlich, a German medical researcher, discovered that one of them, methylene blue, would stain bugs in agar culture. But he also noticed that it didn't stain some bugs, which implied that they were absorbing it. Which meant that you should be able to do things to the bugs, using those dyes. The first thing he came up with was salvarsan, the first 'magic bullet' against syphilis. In 1908 he won Nobel Prize for inventing chemotherapy.

Of George Sand (real name Amandine-Aurore-Lucille Dudevant), it's hard to remember who she didn't sleep with. After a marriage to an older man she had successive affairs with the rich and famous before ending up with Chopin. "Chopin was Sand's nth affair, an activity she specialised in when not writing highly successful novels and plays. The 11 years she spent with Chopin was a record, and in 1847 she inevitably left him for (many) others."

"Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate from 1841, and the archetypal harrumph Victorian."

James Hutton was a failed Edinburgh doctor who turned to farming his inherited acres. Tramped all over England and Scotland looking at latest agricultural ideas, and musing about land under his feet. Came up with idea of Uniformity - that geology comes from processes that we can see going on today, not from sudden creation or catastrophe. So a cycle of upthrust, followed by erosion to dust which then sedimented under rivers and seas, followed by volcanic upthrust again. And so the Earth was millions, not thousands, of years old.

X-ray diffraction revealed internal structure of atoms. In 1951 Rosalind Franklin used it to see DNA had patterns like spinning four bladed propellers, and that they had some form of helical structure. Francis Crick and James Watson saw her X-ray diffraction pics and then took the next step. They knew that DNA was made of the 4 amino acids adenine, guanine, thymine and cytosine, , so they had to figure out how a helical structure would allow the copying process that genes used to replicate. They realised that if each paired only with the other (A-T, G-C) then a double helix could split and then each side would form a copy of itself. In 1962, Crick and Watson won Nobel. Watson, 4 years dead of cancer, did not.

Charles Wesley came up with a system for studying the Bible that was so methodical that his study group became known as the Methodists. His brother John became the driving force in the movement.

George Romney was a prolific portrait painter - painted everybody who was anybody. Over two decades painted 1500 sitters, some of them three times. One he painted 23 times - Lady Emma Hamilton, a semi-literate farm girl who'd started life as a hooker and then the mistress of a young aristocrat who passed her on to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, the British minister to Naples. And then she famously became the mistress of Horatio Nelson who fell for her after he discovered she never wore underwear.

John Maynard Keynes - second half of C20 most economies run on his ideas - basically raise taxes and lower govt spending in good times, lower taxes and increase spending in hard times. Keynes married a famous Russian ballerina, but she also had to put up with him being gay and having a boyfriend in Cambridge. The ballerina became famous as part of a Russian ballet company that hired artists like Picasso and Matisse to design sets, and a pianist and composer Rachmaninoff. After the Revn he settled in US, where he met and financed another Russian emigre, Igor Sikorsky, who then built the first Pan Am clippers, and later the helicopters which bear his name.

Josiah Wedgewood not only pioneered fine china tableware, he also introduced money-back guarantee. He sent a thousand unsolicited sample sets to Euro aristocrats and got only three returns. Catherine the Great of Russia ordered a service of 952 pieces, which the crafty Wedgewood exhibited (tickets only) before shipping.

Richard Porson, professor of Greek at Cambridge, almost never replied to letters. Nor did he turn up to meetings. Or lectures. Or even live in Cambridge. (His repuation rests on four plays, since he never finished anything else.)

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