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A Pirate’s Life for Me: Celebrating the Science of Pirates

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Who says science can’t swashbuckle with the best of them? Jen-Luc Piquant was so very thrilled to learn this week that MIT has been harboring bona fide, certified pirates in their midst. (h/t: The Mary Sue). Indeed, MIT has been doing the certifying! It’s been going on for 20 years, albeit in an unofficial status: students who take courses in “pistol, archery, sailing, and fencing” have traditionally bestowed the honor of being “scurvy scum” (they mean that in the best sense of the words). And now MIT has decided to go ahead and issue pirate certification to those students:

As of this school year, the physical education department is formally conferring pirate status on students, printing certificates on faux parchment with diploma-esque calligraphy. Each paper, authorized by the “swashbucklin’ ’’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology, certifies that the named “salty dog’’ is entitled to a Pirate Certificate “with all its privileges and obligations thereof.’’

Jen-Luc has a new goal in life: to be deemed an official “salty dog” by MIT (although a course at arch-rival Caltech would be closer). She might even be willing to get up at 8 AM for the requisite classes. As The Mary Sue describes it: “They use actual weapons for archery and pistol shooting, and then they go sailing on the Charles River. In the not-at-all-tropical waters of New England. Then again, it’s a small price to pay to become an actual bloody pirate at MIT.”

We have a deep and abiding love of pirates here at the cocktail party (almost as deep as our love for vampires and zombies). It just so happens that I explored the science of pirates way back in 2006/2007, mainly as an excuse to enthuse over an amusing comic novel I’d just read…. [NOTE: Spoilers to follow!]

What is it about pirates that holds such universal appeal? Jen-Luc maintains its all about “the look” — swashbuckling boots, colorful jacket and bandanna, a jaunty eye patch. I would make the case that it’s the salty pirate speech. Who can resist to urge to liven up a humdrum conversation with a bit of “Arrgh! Avast, ye mateys!”?

British comedic author Gideon DeFoe tackles this very issue in the opening chapter of his most excellent book (out for a few years now, and well worth reading), Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. (Squee! It’s been optioned as an animated claymation feature by Aardman Animations!)

The pirates in question, those scurvy knaves, are lolling about the deck of their ship, debating the best thing about being a pirate. One says the looting, another marooning, still another sings the praises of pirate grog, and a fourth insists it’s the Spanish Main. A brawl inevitably develops, cut short by the appearance of the Pirate Captain, who settles the dispute by declaring that the best part of being a pirate is… the sea shanties.

This might be a good place to point out that the Pirate Captain is not the brightest bulb in the Yuletide tree, and that pirates are not known for their sophisticated musical tastes.

DeFoe’s book, however, is bloody brilliant. Sure, it has a silly premise: the pirates mistakenly loot the H.M.S. Beagle — on its second voyage, to the Galapagos Islands, circa 1831 — believing it to be carrying gold rather than exotic natural specimens. (Note that Jen-Luc has adopted a cute little lizard rather than the customary parrot, in keeping with the Galapagos theme.) They sink the ship, and feel kinda bad about it. So they agree to transport Charles Darwin, Captain Robert FitzRoy, and Mister Bobo (Darwin’s trained “Man-Panzee”) back to Victorian London.

Like I said, a silly premise. But DeFoe includes fascinating factual tidbits in the footnotes, so he’s no slouch when it comes to history, scientific or otherwise. According to one footnote, Darwin memorably described the Beagle voyage in a letter as being “one continual puke.” There is also a footnoted mention of John Venn (born in 1834, a few years after the book’s events supposedly took place), a British logician and philosopher best known for introducing “Venn diagrams” around 1881. It’s nice to see such a fine meshing of silliness with snippets of serious science, even if the price is an occasional anachronism. It’s all in the name of good clean fun.

Did I mention there’s a feisty damsel in distress named Jennifer, who ends up joining the pirate crew? Really, what’s not to love in such a book?

In the course of their adventure, the pirates crash London’s Royal Society, donning pens, rulers and white lab coats to disguise themselves as scientists. The pirates show an uncanny knack for engaging in scientific discourse, “nodding politely and saying ‘Really?’ a lot as they listened to [the scientists] drone on about their latest inventions and discoveries.”

Sounds like the average scientific press conference, doesn’t it? Personally, I think the technical sessions at meetings would be livened signficantly if the speakers were clad in Pirate garb. They should also be armed with cutlasses so they could — as the Pirate Captain is wont to do — use said weapons to run through any especially obstrepterous colleagues in the assembly.

A bit of the science behind nautical navigation is to be expected, of course. The Pirate Captain’s cabin is equipped not just with the usual nautical maps and charts, but also an astrolabe. Astrolabes are very ancient instruments — possibly dating as far back as the Second Century, B.C. — for determining the time and position of the stars in the sky. They were mostly used in astronomical studies, not for navigation, but there was a mariner’s astrolabe, a simple ring marked in degrees for measuring celestial altitudes.

In DeFoe’s book, the Captain likes to fiddle with his astrolabe for show, pretending he can carry out complex calculations in the midst of casual conversation, but he isn’t entirely sure of the difference between an astrolabe and a sextant. The sextant wasn’t invented until the 18th century, and quickly displaced the mariner’s astrolabe for navigational purposes because it was much more precise.

A sextant measures the angle of elevation of a celestial object above the horizon. Using this angle, combined with the time of measurement, enables the navigator to calculate a precise position line on a nautical chart. For example, a sextant could be used to sight the sun at high noon in order to determine one’s latitude. Hold the thing horizontally, and you can measure the angle between any two objects: say, a couple of lighthouses, giant Galapagos sea turtles, or mermaids lazily sunning themselves on conveniently located boulders.

There’s also mention of the famous Beaufort wind force scale, a 19th century means of empirically describing wind intensity based on observed sea conditions. It was the brainchild of Sir Francis Beaufort, a British naval officer and friend of Darwin who sought to remove the subjective measures for windy weather observations at sea by describing wind conditions according to the effect on the sails of a man of war, then the main ship of the Royal Navy.

The original Beaufort scale ranged from 0 to 12 (later extended to 16), and its descriptions ranged from “just sufficient to give steerage” to “that which no canvas can withstand.” As the albino pirate correctly points out, a Beaufort scale ranking of 6 would be a “strong breeze,” while 8 would indicate a “fresh gale” — or, per the Pirate Captain, “that which will make a pirate’s trousers billow about so it looks like he has fat legs.”

(Hurricanes, in case you’re interested, begin at 12 on the Beaufort scale, which corresponds to a Category 1 hurricane on the modern Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. Even as far back as 1712, the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico were beset by hurricanes. That year, according to DeFoe’s informative footnote, a single storm destroyed some 38 ships moored in Port Royal’s harbor.)

Beaufort isn’t the only historical personage to make a cameo appearance in DeFoe’s novel. FitzRoy really did captain the Beagle and select Darwin as the onboard naturalist, despite purportedly not liking the shape of Darwin’s nose. (Hey, that could get really irritating on a long sea voyage, particularly on a tiny ship like the Beagle, which was a mere 90 feet long.) He was an amateur meteorologist, eventually heading the British Meteorological Department and pioneering the printing of a daily weather forecast in newspapers. Alas, the unfortunate FitzRoy did indeed commit suicide in 1865 by slitting his own throat, ostensibly in a fit of depression over not being selected as Chief Naval Officer in the Marine Department.

While crashing the Royal Society, the pirates encounter James Glaisher, an English meteorologist who tells them of his passion for “lighter-than-air” ships, a.k.a. “dirigibles.” The concept dates back to 18th century France, when the Mongolfier brothers (paper makers by trade) noticed that smoke from a fire built under a paper bag would cause the bag to rise into the air.

The science behind this is simple: the hot air inside expanded, and thus weighed less, by volume, than the surrounding air. The Mongolfiers built the first hot-air balloons around 1782. Another Frenchman, Henri Giffard, built the first dirigible, inflated with hydrogen, a gas that is naturally lighter than air at normal temperatures. Alas, as the 1937 Hindenburg disaster revealed, hydrogen is also highly flammable; modern airships use helium, an “unburnable” gas.

Glaisher was indeed a pioneering balloonist, making numerous ascents between 1862 and 1866 to measure the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere at the highest possible levels. On one such flight, he and his pilot, Henry Coxwell, set a world record of 29,000 feet, nearly losing their lives in the process.

Glaisher passed out from the lack of oxygen, while Coxwell’s hands were so stiff with cold he could barely manage to free a tangled valve and thereby halt their ascent to even higher (and more deadly) altitudes. They still hold a few world records in this area.

As the fictional Glaisher explains to DeFoe’s assembled pirates, “What is science for? Pushing back frontiers! The thrill of discovery! Advancing the sum total of human knowledge and endeavour! And looking down ladies’ tops!”

Perhaps my favorite scene is when the Pirate Captain chases a villainous Bishop through London’s Natural History Museum. The latter flings armloads of trilobites culled from the display cases at him, and when the chase moves to the Mineral Room, both men resort to projectiles of various mineral elements, choosing them according to atomic weight. For example, the Bishop hurls a chunk of iron (atomic weight: 55.85), and the Pirate Captain counters with a chunk of nickel (atomic weight: 58.69).

Really, how many authors who write silly books about pirates can rattle off the atomic number (44) and atomic weight (101.07) of a rare transition metal like ruthenium? (Jen-Luc pipes in with the pointless information that trace amounts of ruthenium are often added to titanium to improve its corrosion resistance.) Or osmium — atomic weight: 190.2 — for that matter?

A few winks at Darwin’s expense are inevitable. To make room for Darwin and his crew on the pirate ship, the Pirate Captain makes a few crew members walk the plank. When Darwin objects to the brutality, the Pirate Captain assures him that only “fools and lubbers” would be sacrificed, concluding, “It’s for the good of the species.” And upon arriving in London, and visiting the Royal Society, the Pirate Captain nobly puts his gift of showmanship to work on Darwin’s behalf, assuring the young naturalist that good science isn’t enough: “You need a gimmick! A bit of controversy! It’s all about the presentation.”

To that end, the Pirate Captain stages a WWF-style showdown between science — represented in the novel by Darwin’s Man-Panzee, Mister Bobo — and religion, personified by the “Holy Ghost” (actually a pirate named Scurvy Jake in disguise). “The science you are doing is too shocking by half!” the Holy Ghost declares with righteous indignation. “I will lay the smackdown on your wicked ways!” Then Mister Bobo hits him over the head with a folding chair, knocking him out cold, and is declared the victor.

Ultimately, Darwin becomes the toast of London and quite a favorite with the ladies, while Mister Bobo gets featured on the cover of Nature. See? Science always triumphs in the end. Especially with the help of pirates.

Image credits: (top) First image from Aardman Animation’s claymation version of Pirates! An Adventure with Scientists. Source. (center) Design for the H.M.S. Beagle. Source: The Darwin Project. (bottom) Artist’s rendering of James Glaisher’s near-fatal balloon flight on Sept 5, 1862. Source.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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