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25 August 79AD 25 August 2009

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Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 'Eruption of Vesuvius' (1813)

My dear Tacitus: You say that the letter I wrote for you about my uncle’s death made you want to know about my fearful ordeal at Misenum (this was where I broke off). ‘The mind shudders to remember … but here is the tale’.

After my uncle’s departure I finished up my studies, as I had planned. Then I had a bath, then dinner and a short and unsatisfactory night. There had been tremors for many days previously, a common occurrence in Campania and no cause for panic. But that night the shaking grew much stronger; people thought it was an upheaval, not just a tremor. My mother burst into my room and I got up. I said she should rest, and I would rouse her if need be. We sat out on a small terrace between the house and the sea. I sent for a volume of Livy; I read and even took notes from where I had left off, as if it were a moment of free time; I hardly know whether to call it bravery, or foolhardiness (I was seventeen at the time). Up comes a friend of my uncle’s, recently arrived from Spain. When he sees my mother and me sitting there, and me even reading a book, he scolds her for her calm and me for my lack of concern. But I kept on with my book.

Now the day begins, with a still hesitant and almost lazy dawn. All around us buildings are shaken. We are in the open, but it is only a small area and we are afraid, nay certain, that there will be a collapse. We decided to leave the town finally; a dazed crowd follows us, preferring our plan to their own (this is what passes for wisdom in a panic). Their numbers are so large that they slow our departure, and then sweep us along. We stopped once we had left the buildings behind us. Many strange things happened to us there, and we had much to fear.

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24 August 79AD 24 August 2009

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Angelica Kauffmann, 'Pliny the Younger and his mother at Misenum' (1785)

My dear Tacitus: You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible. I am grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if you treat it. He perished in a devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities, but this will be a kind of eternal life for him. Although he wrote a great number of enduring works himself, the imperishable nature of your writings will add a great deal to his survival. Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter. It is therefore with great pleasure that I take up, or rather take upon myself the task you have set me.

He was at Misenum in his capacity as commander of the fleet on the 24th of August, when between two and three in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view of the phenomenon. The cloud was rising from a mountain – at such a distance we couldn’t tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches’. I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.

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Art, forensic astronomy, and Edvard Munch’s Krakatoa sky 12 May 2009

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Texas State University astrophysicist Donald Olson practices what he calls ‘forensic astronomy’ – using science to investigate artistic, literary and historical puzzles. An article in Smithsonian Magazine looks at his work and some of the puzzles he has investigated, including where on the English coast Julius Caesar’s invasion fleet landed in 44BC, why the United States Marines ran aground offshore during their amphibous landing on Tarawa in 1943, when Ansel Adams took some of his most celebrated photographs, and why Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) has that anguished blood-red sky (a memory of the effects of the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, Olson suggests).

Interesting and controversial stuff from the art/science frontier zone: Jennifer Drapkin and Sarah Zielinski, ‘Forensic astronomer solves fine arts puzzles’, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2009 (via SciTech Daily Review).

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