Saturday, 17 October 2015

Frieda. women and a fundamental shift

MG writes:
Frieda Petrenko returns to Holby City! Only for a scant one episode a few weeks ago (I am slowly catching up on iPlayer) but she returns! Thank you, the powers that be; thank you! Olga, even with the weight of the additional years upon her, is just simply too gorgeous for words! Might one dare to dream that Fedori might make a more regular comeback into our lives?

MG, may I have my blog back?

Besides Boy and Girl, I have been watching a number of BBC documentaries, mostly about things that I am interested in; the natural world, the oceans and paleontology for example. But I also have been drawn to subjects outside of my immediate purview; who cares about the history of archeaology? (Well, you should! Fascinating stuff!) But the thing which caught my eye was a four-part documentary about women in history and pre-history.

The presenter, and writer I assume, of this was Amanda Foreman, who seems to be an English or History graduate (with a couple of post graduate dissertations) with little or no background in science or archaeology and, I fear, too widely read in Marija Gimbutas and her followers; not to disparage Marija Gimbutas, who I think had interesting, but unproven, or unprovable, ideas.

She casts a seductive caul around the supposed equality of humankind at the dawn of its transition from unthinking ape to cogniscent humans, amenable to settlement not hunter/gathering; how the first human societies gave women equal rights and equal opportunity. The evidence for this is largely predicated on the so-called Earth Mother and Earth Goddess statues prevalent in pre-history and in primaeval sites which show an egalitarian way of community life; Çatalhöyük, which she cites, and Skara Brae, which she does not. Ancient Sumerian 'law' merely reinforces this. There can, however, at least in my mind, be no way that the genesis of life, the birth which only females are capable of, would not engender wonder and a sense of the divine among primitive peoples in the act of giving birth. We have no evidence that the male contribution had any real effect in primitive societies; the notion that sperm and egg needed to coincide was probably alien to 'primitive' peoples; women gave birth through other means, even if intercourse was somehow necessary.

And yet, where did the subsequent notion of male dominance emanate? It appears, almost fully formed, in the laws of Sarkon of Akkad, who conquered the Sumerians and much of the the rest of Mesopotamia somewhere in the 3rd millienim BCE and which later were metamorphised into the Draconian laws of the Assyrian Empire; how women were not allowed to speak 'out of turn'; how women were to be veiled; how women were deemed to be possessions of their land-owning patriarchs; this is not, people, the preserve of Islam, however much the Christian West may like it to be so. It stretches back far into the history of humankind. It is odd, don't you think, that such primitive ideals should be carried forward into the twentieth century when women, in some parts at least, finally got the right to participate in the democratic process?

It is perhaps no surprise, in an increasingly antagonistic and warlike peoples, intent on their own property and their lands, that male, physical strength should come to hold sway, although among more nomadic peoples, females could still hold their own as warriors, albeit as archers; kept out of harm's way, kept out of the melee that was the front line of hand-to-hand combat, where they would have been crushed to oblivion by sheer physical strength. Perhaps that tradition remains alive in the stories of the ancient Greeks and how they subjugated and crushed the Amazon people of the north.

In a largely patriarchal society, from wherever it may have emanated, women were still able, if of the strength of character and to some extent the education, to assert their dominance; could push, force, their way into a male dominated society. Hapshepsut, who ruled Egypt while the son by her husband, but the son of another, still an infant, Thutmose III, languished powerless. Her dominance was so great that successive Pharoahs, most notably Amenhotop II, likely attempted to eradicate her from history by the most brutal means; literally chiseling off her cartouche from every inscription that he could find, although her crime was not that of Akhenatun. Boudicca, although widowed from a king, was able to galvanise a population to rise up in revolt and nearly tore down Roman rule in Britain almost before it had begun; only the disciplined power of the legions, bred to dominance, could defeat her amassed army. The Empress Matilda (Maude) who challenged Stephen de Blois' right of succession to the throne of England and, in so doing, led to the period of English history known as the Anarchy and to the reign and succession of the Angevin kings (and to the banning of the name 'Stephen' from any potential heir to the British throne). Elizabeth I, the last female monarch in the British Isles with true power; her namesake, Anne, Mary and Victoria are/were merely constitutional monarchs. These are the women remembered in the history books. But are there any others?

As Foreman points out; yes there are. The nameless mob of women who marched on the Palace of Versailles and demanded that Louis XVI signed the bill of rights; and won! Olympe de Gouge who maintained, during that same revolution, that liberté and équalité did not only belong to the fraternité but applied to women also and was guillotined for it. (The Jacobins were not about to let a mere woman steal their thunder). Doña Manuela Sáenz, the lover and collaborator of Simon Bolivar, who managed to get herself largely written out of history even while Bolivar gained fame; libertadora del libertador he called her. Millicent Fawcett, a tireless, if moderate, campaigner for women's suffrage who founded Newnham College, Cambridge and opened up university education for women, which was largely denied. Alexandra Kollontai, who sought to move Bolshevik thinking away from a traditional patriarchal view of women and towards a more communal approach to family and children and was consigned to a post as ambassador to Norway for her trouble; Lenin might have been receptive to her ideas but Stalin certainly was not!

But I leave you with, perhaps, the most important woman in all of history; Margaret Sanger. Who she, you ask. In the early 1950s, Sanger encouraged philanthropist Katharine McCormick to provide funding for biologist Gregory Pincus to develop the birth control pill which was eventually sold under the name Enovid and freed women forever from the burden of becoming brood mares. I may be biased but I can think of nothing which enabled women to empower themselves than the freedom which 'the pill' gave to them; to have the enjoyment of sex and intimacy without marriage and the threat of pregnancy. It is surely this which the almost subliminal feminist  movement would ultimately latch upon. Women, finally, had control of the worst inconveniences of their bodies and could strike; not back but out! And this they have done. To the betterment of all humankind.

I can only hope that they will prevail!

Monday, 12 October 2015

Apollo 13, Challenger and towing fees in outer space

When they come to write the history of the twentieth century, what will they write about? The two great, global wars; the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution; women's suffrage; relativity and quantum mechanics;  the rise of fundamentalism both Christian and Islamic and Marxist; the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA;  the development of antibiotics; the great strides in social welfare and public health; the acceptance that gays exist and must not be stigmatised, to name but a few.  Included in the above litany will surely be mankind's first steps on another celestial body; Armstrong and Aldrin's first 'moonwalk'.

It is, I think, interesting that after Apollo 11 the world's interest waned quite dramatically; how many of you can even name the pilot of the Command Module let alone a single participant in the subsequent missions bar one? Bar one? Yes, everybody knows Jim Lovell. And why? Because Lovell was in charge of Apollo 13 and surely the progenitor of one of the most famous and understated quotes in all of history; "Houston, we've had a problem." And perhaps, only perhaps, Jack Swigert might also be known or remembered as the astronaut who 'mixed the tanks' that led to the disaster, although I don't believe he was at fault.

I have just watched Ron Howard's film of the Apollo 13 'crisis' for the first time; I don't know why I have never watched it before now. MG, who was a teenager at the time, remembers it well; how all of his school friends held their breath and could only pray that NASA could have invented the space shuttle before they did, although they probably wouldn't have had the time to prepare a rescue mission even if NASA had possessed such a craft at the time.

It is difficult, I think, in the wake of 9/11, the events in Libya, Egypt and Syria, ISIL and Al-Qaeda. to understand how the fate of three individuals, who well knew the risk, could capture the imagination of  the entire world; or at least that portion who had access to television. It is difficult, MG says, now to capture that feeling of hope and despair in equal measure that NASA would, somehow, bring those three astronauts home safely despite the odds being stacked so heavily against them.

The film, as far as I can determine, is accurate. Yes, there are a few instances subject to 'artistic licence' but these are minor and do not detract from the assertion that this is an accurate portrayal of what went on in Apollo 13 at the time. However, what is the legacy of Apollo 13?

The legacy is, I believe, Challenger and, to a lesser extent, Columbia. (And Feynman's stunt with the 'O' ring in ice-cold water was true theatre; probably what made him such a good teacher when he wasn't playing bongos or gallivanting around with any woman who would entertain him :)

NASA as an institution became, I believe, so enamoured of its role as the agency that could do anything, hadn't they after all brought Apollo 13 home safely against all the odds, that they thought, subliminally, that they could do anything; fix anything. The Apollo 13 mission was a high point in humankind's capacity for inventiveness and collective cool thinking under extreme circumstances; making something out of what was to hand and in a most limited time. Nothing could ever go wrong that NASA engineers couldn't put right.

I believe that this complacency led to the decision to launch Challenger when a more prudent soul, or one less complacent, would have chosen to delay the mission again. Although with the benefit of hindsight, it is always easy to judge in the aftermath of a disaster, NASA's own risk analysis was seriously awry when calculating the odds for launch or abort.

Without denigrating the prodigious effort made by the engineers, both the time of the incident and at long before (they had already run simulations of similar, possible problems in previous Apollo mission simulations), they had, in my opinion, luck on their side; however, they say that fortune favours the brave!

To end on a lighter, Wikipedia note: 'As a joke following Apollo 13's successful splashdown, Grumman Aerospace Corporation pilot Sam Greenberg (who had helped with the strategy for re-routing power from the LEM [Lunar Excursion Module] to the crippled CM [Command Module] issued a tongue-in-cheek invoice for $400,540.05 to North American Rockwell, Pratt and Whitney, and Beech Aircraft, prime and subcontractors for the CM, for "towing" the crippled ship most of the way to the Moon and back. The figure was based on an estimated 400,001 miles (643,739 km) at $1.00 per mile, plus $4.00 for the first mile. An extra $536.05 was included for battery charging, oxygen, and an "additional guest in room" (Swigert). A 20% "commercial discount," as well as a further 2% discount if North American were to pay in cash, reduced the total to $312,421.24. North American declined payment, noting that it had ferried three previous Grumman LEMs to the Moon (Apollo 10, Apollo 11 and Apollo 12) with no such reciprocal charges.'