Tuesday, May 22, 2007

After 65 years, submarine gives up its macabre secret

By Kathy Marks in Sydney
Published: 23 May 2007
Sixty-five years after it vanished, a Japanese midget submarine that sank an Australian warship in Sydney harbour during the Second World War has yielded up its secrets.

The two-man submarine was one of three midgets that sneaked into the harbour in May 1942 to attack the American battle cruiser USS Chicago. Two were damaged and scuttled by their occupants, who shot themselves. The third fired a torpedo that missed the Chicago but blew up a converted ferry, HMAS Kuttabul, killing 19 Australian and two British ratings.

The third submarine disappeared under heavy fire, and could not be found. It became one of Australia's most enduring maritime mysteries. In November, recreational divers stumbled across it, in 54m (177ft) deep water off Sydney's northern beaches. The location of the 46-tonne submarine was kept secret while military divers examined the wreck.

This week the site was disclosed by the government, which said the bodies of the crew, Petty Officer Mamoru Ashibe and Sub-Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban, were probably still inside. It will be left undisturbed. Divers collected a jar of sand from the seabed beside it, to present to the families of the men.

The site has been declared a protected zone, with exclusion enforced by alarms and cameras, and fines of $1m (£416,000). Australian authorities said it would be too difficult and expensive to salvage the wreck in open sea.

Mr Ashibe's brother, Itsuo, told Australian television earlier this year that he hoped the submarine would be raised. "I would like to take home an article left by my brother, or even a broken piece of the top of the sub," he said. "Then it would mean my brother came home."

The submarine was entangled in torn fishing nets, which navy divers cut away in order to map and survey it. Photographs show it sitting upright on the sea floor, largely intact.

The daring assault by the midgets shook Sydneysiders out of their apathy, and sparked fears of a Japanese invasion. Until then, despite the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin in the north, locals had felt untouched by the war.

The subs, launched from a mother submarine 35 miles east of Sydney Heads, were on a mission to divert Allied naval power from the decisive battle fought near Midway in the Pacific, a week later in June 1942.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

How Monet's cataracts coloured his view of the lilies

By Jonathan Brown
Published: 16 May 2007


Monet's series of paintings depicting the dappled light playing across the water-lilies at his home in Giverny are considered some of the finest works by the French Impressionists.
But new research suggests the famously blurred effect achieved by the master's brush strokes may have been a literal representation of how he saw the world.
Monet's deteriorating sight, caused by the onset of cataracts, has long been the subject of speculation by art historians. A computer simulation carried out by an ophthalmologist at Stanford University has now cast new light on the state of Monet's vision and the effect it had on his work.
According to Professor Michael Marmor, the artist's failing sight was a source of frustration to him in the early decades of the 20th century. "He wrote letters to friends, [complaining] how colours were getting dull, and it was hard to tell them apart, and how he had to label tubes of paint," Professor Marmor said. "He was very vocal about how his failing eyesight was affecting him."
Monet's cataracts caused the lens of his eye to become denser and more yellowish. One immediate effect was to blur colours and reduce their intensity. "It was getting harder for him to see," Professor Marmor said. "[His eyesight] was getting blurrier, but he was probably more bothered by the progressive loss of colour vision."
The academic has illustrated how Monet's worldview changed by altering a photograph of his 1899 painting of the ornamental Japanese bridge in his garden. The adjusted photo shows that as the artist's sight got worse, so the bright, floral shades of pink and blue disappeared, leaving muddier browns, reds and yellows. The study, published in the Archives of Ophthalmology, argues that two later paintings of the bridge with strong red-orange and green-blue tones would have appeared almost identical to him.
Monet eventually had surgery in 1923 - just three years before his death from lung cancer at the age of 86. But afterwards he complained incessantly that his sight was first too yellow and then too blue. He destroyed much of the work he completed while suffering cataracts and the few pieces that survive were rescued by family or friends. When Monet eventually went back to painting, he completed the lily series that now hangs in the Orangerie.
Professor Marmor has also examined the life and work of the painter Edgar Degas, thought to have suffered from maculopathy - a condition which seriously affected his central vision. The evidence could force a dramatic reappraisal of both artists' work, he believes. "I think it points out very dramatically some physical limitations that they had, which limited their ability to paint."
But Chris Riopelle, curator of 19th-century painting at the National Gallery, said: "It does not entirely answer the questions - after surgery, Monet's style did not alter radically."

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bats' wing strokes 'defy normal rules of flight'
By Steve Connor, Science Editor
Published: 11 May 2007
Bats use wings to fly very differently to birds, according to a study that has revealed the nocturnal mammals engage in sophisticated aerial acrobatics.

One of the first detailed investigations into the aerodynamics of bat flight shows that they can hover in mid-air by flipping their wings upside down to generate lift on the upstroke as well as the downstroke.

Scientists said that bats often seemed to defy conventional aerodynamic theory because of their ability to twist and turn quickly in mid-flight to avoid predators or catch prey.

"They are a vertebrate version of the bumble bee, which is said to defy scientific logic by being too heavy to fly with such short wings. It's not been known before that bats can generate such high lift forces with their wings," said Anders Hedenström of Lund University in Sweden.

Using a wind tunnel and a fog machine, Dr Hedenström and his colleagues took high-speed video images of a nectar-eating species of bat to study the vortices of air produced by its beating wings. "One of the unusual things we saw was that when the bat flew slowly or hovered it rotated its wings by nearly 180 degrees at the turn of the upstroke and the downstroke. The underside of the wing became the upperside," he said.

A bat's wings are made of flexible membranes stretched over the extended bones of its limbs. This design requires it to keep its wings rigid to produce lift. A bird's wing, however, is naturally more rigid and employs the extra trick of being able to separate its flight feathers on the upstroke so that air can pass through the wing, rather like light passing through an open venetian blind, said Geoffrey Spedding, an aerospace engineer at the University of Southern California, who was part of the research team.

"Instead of feathers projecting back from lightweight, fused arm and hand bones, bats have flexible, elastic membranes that stretch between specially extended, slender bones of the hand," Dr Spedding said. "The bones and wing membranes both change shape with every wing beat, flexing in response to the balance between forces applied by the muscles and competing forces due to the air motion around them," he said. "Where birds can feather their wings, opening the feathers like a Venetian blind, bats must do something different. Hence they have developed a twisting wing path that increases the lift during the upstroke," he added.

The study, published in the journal Science, found that when bats fly slowly they use the rotating-wing "and this difference can be traced to the peculiar upstroke", Dr Spedding said. "That, in turn, is likely to be caused by the collapsible membrane of the bat's wing."

Bats, a protected species, are the only mammal to have evolved self-powered flight and most species are adapted to eating flying insects, consuming up to their own body weight each night. They employ a sophisticated echo-location system to catch prey as well as avoid collisions

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Herod: The Bible's biggest villain

As archaeologists announce they have discovered Herod the Great's burial site, Eric Silver looks at the life of the Jewish king who killed three of his sons, executed one of his wives and ordered the massacre of the innocents
Published: 09 May 2007

Under a brain-numbing sun, the mountain gradually gave up its secrets to the archaeologists' trowels. A flight of stairs - part of the route of the elaborate funeral procession planned by the tyrannical ruler - leads to the very place where the notorious king of Judea was buried.

Yesterday, on the powdery grey flank of an artificial mountain overlooking the Arab villages and Jewish settlements scattered across the Judean Wilderness, Israeli scholars presented their answer to one of the great mysteries of biblical archaeology: the tomb of Herod the Great, a Roman client king who ruled the Jews with the ruthless paranoia of a Stalin or Saddam Hussein from 37BC until his death in 4BC.

For Ehud Netzer, professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University, the find was the culmination of a 30-year search. Herod was known to have been buried at Herodium, the towering desert fortress he built for that purpose a day's march south of Jerusalem.

The Roman historian Josephus Flavius described the lavish funeral procession in his book The Jewish Wars, the unchallenged source book of the Second Temple era. He told how the body was attended by members of the family richly dressed in silks and jewels, how soldiers from across the ancient world paraded in their armour, as for war, accompanied by hundreds of attendants carrying spices such as frankincense. He said the king's body was covered in a purple shroud and carried on a bier.

"The bier," wrote Josephus, "was of solid gold, studded with precious stones, and had a covering of purple, embroidered with various colours. On this lay the body enveloped in purple robe, a diadem encircling the head and surmounted by a crown of gold, the sceptre beside his right hand."

The sarcophagus, with its triangular cover decorated on all sides, was indeed a unique specimen, Professor Netzer said. Its remains were still clearly identifiable although it had been smashed into pieces, probably, he said, by Jewish rebels fighting between the years 66 to 72AD, decades after the king's death.

Jews who had rebelled against Roman rule in 66AD and took refuge at Herodium were the most likely suspects. "The rebels," explained Professor Netzer, "were known for their hatred of Herod and all that he stood for as a puppet ruler of the Romans."

Herodium was one of Herod's many architectural masterpieces in the Holy Land, and according to some, his finest work. A man of great ego and architectural vision, this was the place he had chosen to be not only his burial place but also his memorial.

Herod was also responsible for the rebuilding and expansion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the desert fortress of Masada, as well as building up the port city of Caesarea and other major projects.

Herod's tomb is no 21st-century Tutankhamen treasury. There are no bones, let alone a mummified body. What Professor Netzer unearthed on the West Bank three weeks ago were dozens of fragments of finely dressed pale-pink limestone, elegantly carved with rosettes, decorated stone urns and the remains of a stone podium 10 metres square on which the mausoleum is believed to have stood.

All that is left of Herod is his notoriety - which in the view of many people, was well-earned. To Christians, he was the king who ordered the massacre of the innocents, described in St Matthew's Gospel (though in no other source). St Matthew tells how, soon after the birth of Jesus, three wise men from the east came to Herod and asked where they could find "the one having been born the king of the Jews". Herod, who feared the rise of a a rival for his kingdom, ordered the slaughter of all boys up to the age of two in Bethlehem.

Joseph, who had been warned in a dream that Herod intended to kill Jesus, fled with his family to Egypt, where they stayed until after Herod's death.

To his Jewish subjects Herod was at once a benefactor and a scourge. Kenneth Spiro, a modern American rabbi, defined him as "a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis", but acknowledged that he was "also the greatest builder in Jewish history".

Jona Lendering, a Dutch historian of the Holy Land, summed him up thus: "With building projects, the expansion of his territories, the establishment of a sound bureaucracy, and the development of economic resources, he did much for his country. However, many of his projects won him the bitter hatred of the orthodox Jews, who disliked Herod's Greek tastes - tastes he showed not only in his building projects, but also in several transgressions of the Mosaic Law."

Not the least of these was the erection of a golden eagle, the symbol of the Roman Empire, at the gate of the Jerusalem Temple, which was torn down by Jewish students just before his death.

Herod, the son of an Idumean father and Arab mother, encouraged the Jews to practise their faith, however. He married Mariamne, a princess of the deposed Hasmonean royal family, to buttress his legitimacy (having put aside his first wife, Doris, in order to do so). Above all, he rebuilt and greatly expanded the Temple. It is said to have taken 10,000 men 10 years to build the retaining wall of the massive man-made platform on which Al Aqsa mosque now stands. One face is the Western Wall, the holiest of Jewish sites.

"The sanctuary," Josephus wrote, "had everything that could amaze either mind or eye. Overlaid all round with stout plates of gold, in the first rays of the sun it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who endeavoured to look at it were forced to turn away as if they had looked straight at the sun."

Herod brought prosperity and a measure of stability to the land. He skilfully played off the rivals among his Roman masters. He commanded his troops to victory over local foes. But, like tyrants throughout history, he feared plotters, real or imagined, and liquidated anyone he thought might challenge his supremacy. These included two high priests - one his father-in-law Hyrcanus, the other his brother-in-law Aristobulus - who were drowned in a bathing pool, as well as 46 judges of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court.

Not even those who Herod supposedly loved passionately were spared the paranoid monarch's wrath. Convinced by his sister Salome that his beloved Mariamne was being unfaithful, he planned to have her murdered. According to Josephus, once Mariamne found out about the plot to have her killed she stopped sleeping with her husband but this simply convinced Herod that he was right to suspect his favourite wife in the first place and he swiftly had her put on trial for adultery. "As soon as his passion [anger] was over," Josephus wrote, "he repented of what he had done and his affections were kindled again." But it was too late. Mariamne had been executed.

Mariamne's mother, Alexandra, who had colluded in her trial, was also executed after she accused Herod of being unfit to rule in a bid to seize power.

Nor did he spare his sons. "It is better to be Herod's dog than one of his children," the Roman emperor Augustus is said to have drily remarked. (Augustus should know; he gave permission for their executions.)

Herod's two sons by Mariamne, Alexandros and Aristobulus, were strangled on their father's orders after being found guilty of high treason. (Herod's heir, Herod Antipas, the king who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist, is alleged to have incited his father's anger against his half-brothers.)

Antipater, his son by his discarded first wife, was also executed, accused of involvement in the insurrection that led to the smashing of the golden eagle.

Of Herod's monuments, many can still be seen: the Temple platform and the Citadel near Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem; Herodium, the only one to carry his name, and its sister fortress Masada, overlooking the Dead Sea; the massive structure erected over the traditional burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in Hebron; the ruined Mediterranean port city of Caesarea; and a winter palace complex excavated by Professor Netzer near Jericho in the 1970s.

The professor still has to prove to some scholars that he has indeed found Herod's tomb. An official of the Palestinian antiquities authority, visiting the site yesterday, noted that the Israelis had found no inscription. Stephen Pfann, a Christian textual scholar at the University of the Holy Land, hailed the find as "a major discovery by all means," but cautioned that more research was needed."We're moving in the right direction," he said. "It will be clinched once we have an inscription that bears his name."

Professor Netzer, who learned his trade under the celebrated Yigael Yadin at Masada, is confident of his attribution, however. "The location and the unique nature of the findings, as well as the historical record, leave no doubt that this was Herod's burial site," he insisted.

The stones bore all the marks of majesty, he said, and the sarcophagus was similar to those found at the Tomb of the Kings in Salah ed-Din Street in East Jerusalem. "It's not every rich Jew or citizen of this time that could afford this royal sarcophagus," he argued. "This podium, this base, is a well-executed monument. The stone work is very different from any we know elsewhere in Herodium." The location was right, he added. Pottery and coins found on the site showed that so was the date.

But the work is not over. Excavation began as recently as August 2006. Professor Netzer will keep on looking for the clincher.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Reformed bandit queen runs for parliament

By Kathy Marks, Asia-Pacific Correspondent

Published: 04 May 2007

Seema Parihar was one of the most feared bandits in northern India. Then she became an actress, starring in a film about her life. Now she wants to be a politician, and is standing for parliament in a by-election this week.

Ms Parihar, who faces 29 charges of murder, robbery and kidnap, has a famous role model: Phoolan Devi, the "Bandit Queen". Devi became a member of parliament in 1996 after a long career roaming central India's desolate valleys.

Devi stole from and killed wealthy, upper-caste landowners who she said exploited impecunious landless farmers. She was murdered in 2001, while still a politician.

Ms Parihar never met her, but her example inspired her. "I want to be another Phoolan," she told the Associated Press. "She had done a lot for the poor and downtrodden."

Born into a poverty-stricken family in Uttar Pradesh state, Ms Parihar was abducted by a gang of dacoits, or bandits, at the age of 13. Raped repeatedly and forced to marry a much older gang member, she spent nearly 20 years living in the ravines bordering the Chambal river, Devi's former territory. Eventually she became gang leader, before surrendering to police in 2003.

Although still awaiting trial, she is eligible to contest the by-election to represent the Bhadoi district in India's Lok Sabha, or lower house. Only convicted criminals are disbarred from office, and the backlog of cases means it could be years before she goes to court.

At the height of her dacoit days, Ms Parihar reportedly killed 70 people, kidnapped 200 others and looted 30 houses, according to the Indian media. She was equally at ease handling a .303 revolver and an AK-47 assault rifle.

Now she is a reformed character, she says, and preaches a message of peace. " I have seen violence in my early days. This has not helped anyone," she told an election rally in Bhadoi, 185 miles south-east of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. "We want peace and justice for all."

Ms Parihar, a candidate for the Indian Justice Party, says that she gave herself up because she was fed up with a life of violence. She also had a son.

"I laid down my arms for my son," she told Indian media. "I didn't want my son to grow up in a hostile environment and turn into an outlaw like me."

Now she wants to help other female dacoits. No woman embraces that life voluntarily, she says. Most were abducted or lured into the jungle by their boyfriends.

The constituency that she hopes to represent was held by Devi until she was killed by one of the upper-caste Hindus against whom she fought in her bandit days.

Ms Parihar said: "Had Phoolan Devi still been alive, she would still have been representing this seat in the Lok Sabha.

"To be honest, I have not come here to take her place, but merely to complete the works left unfinished by her."

The seat fell vacant after the last incumbent died.

Ms Parihar's past may not be held against her. In the state legislature in Uttar Pradesh, where elections are taking place, about 100 members face criminal charges. Many Indians are already familiar with her story, thanks to the 2004 film, Wounded, about her life. Shooting of the film was delayed because Ms Parihar was in jail, and the director, Krishna Mishra, had to appeal to the Supreme Court to get her released on bail.

Ms Parihar says that if she is elected, she will start a rehabilitation programme for former dacoits.