The thing about history is you have to keep relearning it. Your friends here at Air Mail Pilot know you probably don’t want to hear that, but it’s true. Take Wilhelm IV of Hesse-Kassel.
Who? you ask.
We don’t blame you. For more than four centuries he has been “a largely forgotten 16th century German ruler,” as the Times of London puts it.
But now, all of a sudden, Wilhelm is being hailed as one of the late Renaissance’s most important scientists, deserving “a place among the forebears of the Enlightenment,” according to the Times. This is high praise given that, very broadly speaking, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment are the innovative, forward-looking periods of European history that separated the plague-filled Dark Ages from our own plague-filled Modern Era.
Wilhelm, born in 1532, was a landgrave—a noble title that is something like the old German equivalent of a duke. As aristocrats go, he kept extremely busy, helping to smooth over messy religious disputes in his corner of the world while coping with more mundane administrative and financial headaches. He also had eleven children with his wife, Sabine of Württemberg, and several more children out of wedlock, so his plate was definitely full.
But from an early age Wilhelm took a passionate interest in science, particularly astronomy. Better yet, he was good at it. Johannes Kepler, one of the era’s most accomplished astronomers—he figured out how orbits work—later wrote of Wilhelm: “[H]is industriousness and diligence in the celestial science were bigger than one would look for in a sovereign.” This is modest praise, but praise nonetheless.
Even before he succeeded his father at the age of 36, Wilhelm had built an observatory at the family’s castle. After he became landgrave he brought in an expert Swiss clockmaker to fabricate instruments that would allow him to update the star map charted by the ancient Egyptian or Roman or Greek astronomer Ptolemy, which was still in use even though by that point it was 1,600 years old.
Wilhelm and his collaborators produced a far more accurate map in 1587—telescopes still hadn’t been invented, by the way—but their work wasn’t widely circulated until nearly 80 years later. By that time, unfortunately for Wilhelm’s historical reputation, European stargazers were in thrall to a map made by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who had studied with Wilhelm and adopted some of his innovations.
The end result: Brahe got craters on the moon and Mars named after him, plus a planetoid in the asteroid belt, while Wilhelm doesn’t even have a freeway overpass in his honor.
This isn’t meant to cast shade on Brahe, an excellent astronomer who is also worth remembering for the cool brass nose he wore after his flesh nose was sliced off during a duel with swords. And it’s hard to feel too sorry for a landgrave.
But you’re reading about Wilhelm now because two astronomy professors, one German, one Dutch, have just published a paper that analyzes Wilhelm’s star map and claims it was more than twice as accurate as Brahe’s, and even pretty impressive by today’s standards. As the paper states, Wilhelm’s “crucial contribution” was “being the first to alert the European astronomical world to the need of new observations for more accurate positions of the stars… and to act on it!”
Given the scarcity of italics and exclamation points in academic papers, that’s extremely high praise. Wilhelm may get his craters yet.
Pinocchios, beware! South Africa’s Kruger National Park has unveiled plan requiring all new staff to undergo lie-detector tests, in an effort to combat poachers the park believes have infiltrated its ranks.
Kruger National Park, a 7,523-square-foot strip of savanna in the northeast of the country, is home to the largest concentration of rhinoceroses in the world—and the target of countless poachers. In the past ten years alone the park has lost two-thirds of its rhino population to poachers who hunt the endangered animals for their horns. The horns are sold to illegal markets primarily in Asia, where they are seen as status symbols and fetch prices of over $35,000 per pound. Their extracts are also used in traditional medicine formulas.
The Kruger rhinos are protected by a staff of about 400 park rangers, but the park has suspicions that their ranks have been infiltrated by organized groups of illegal hunters who want to kill the rhinos for their horns. Over 40 park staff members have been fired due to connections to the killing of rhinos to date, though only one has been convicted of a crime.
“We know that our staff are approached to provide information and that sums of money involved are big,” Ike Phaahla, a representative from the park, told The Times of London. “We do have suspicions that some of the rangers have been planted there by gangs, but this is difficult to prove if you don’t have clear evidence.”
The park hopes that a polygraph (which consists of sensors attached to a person that flags lies by measuring changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and breath) will expose corrupt individuals, and keep Kruger’s precious rhinos safe.