Harpers Ferry Forever

Some of you who may have read my previous blogs could be wondering about the motivation behind this trilogy of blogs on Harpers Ferry.  My first inclination had been to write only this particular blog that I am about to pen, and this was based on a trip that we had made to the town very recently. But then I realized that I have been experiencing Harpers Ferry and writing about it for some time.  Some history in this regard was needed before proceeding.  The earlier blogs on the topic of Harpers Ferry, and the background material needed for them, flowed quite naturally from this realization.

If you are a regular reader of my blog,  you know by now that Harpers Ferry has been a part of my weekend runs for several years on the C&O Canal, although more frequently in the past than in current times.   But one does also occasionally wander into the town itself from across the river, either when one decides to cross over the river to the tip of Harpers Ferry, to the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah, or when one goes into town for tourism purposes when we have visitors from other parts of the world.

Thus is was that we found ourselves recently visiting the place twice this year, in quick succession, accompanying visitors. You would think that such visits into town would tend to become monotonous, but the amazing thing is that I am finding new things about this place called Harpers Ferry.  I am actually beginning to get a better sense for what life must have been for people living here in times past, starting from when Robert Harper moved to the area in the 1760s.  I am now also more fascinated by the history of the town in the simplest sense of the word, i.e., in terms of how people lived there rather than in the sense of its place in history, about how the town grew and even prospered before the inevitable impact of the passage of time, and even about simple things like how the layout of the town changed over the years (there were actually even a few canals that flowed through town at one time or the other).  Perhaps a day can come when I can even get a sense for how people generally felt about their lives in Harpers Ferry.

So what is it that has roused my enthusiasm about the place you ask!  As background for getting a better insight into my frame of mind and my thinking about this subject, I will note that one of the first things worth knowing about current Harpers Ferry is that the National Park Service (NPS) has done a bang-up job bringing the town back to life, both physically and virtually, after its having been destroyed over and over again by floods, something that almost led to abandonment.  Today, people only live in the upper parts of town above the flood lines.  The lower part of the town is dedicated to the tourists.  Besides the mom-and-pop shops and restaurants, there are still many previously abandoned buildings of the old town that remain in this lower part of town.  In spite of having been to Harpers Ferry many times, this was the first time I discovered that many of these abandoned buildings have been converted to museums.   Each building addresses a different aspect of the town’s history and background.  This is a work in progress, but the NPS have already done an excellent job.  There is an attempt to cover all aspects of life in a little town over the entire period of its existence in a systematic way.  Of course, significant turning points in history, like John Brown’s insurrection, and the important battle that took place in and around the town during the civil war, are prominent subjects for presentation, but one also learns about the life of ordinary people, including the experience of blacks at that time in history,  or the commercial story of the town (as noted, it was once a prosperous town), the functioning of the armory that the town came to be identified with, and the impact of the railroad and the floods on the town over the years.  You can feel like you are living the experience.

With more and more trips to the town, I might actually begin to remember what I see and read in the museums and be able to relive those times in my mind rather than just remember the experience of being in the town!   This year was the first time we walked through the ruins of Virginius, a little island on the west side of town that at one time was Harpers Ferry’s center of commerce.  They made good use of the power of the waters of the Shenandoah to fuel the commerce and help the place flourish, by diverting some of the water into tunnels under town in order to use its power. But ultimately the river was not controllable!

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Site of water inlet from the Shenandoah into Virginius
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Waterways below the ruins at Virginius

For the first time, we found the original site of John Brown’s fort, originally a guard and fire house.  The site is on top of an embankment that once used to carry a railroad line into town.  (The remains of the railroad track can still be seen under the sand in places.)  The embankment runs parallel to Potomac street.

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Marker at the original site of John Brown’s Fort

John Brown’s fort has itself been moved around quite a bit over time, even to places outside of Harpers Ferry. It has come to rest in its current location near the confluence of the rivers most recently.

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John Brown’s Fort

And then we discovered the site of the original buildings of The Armory behind the embankment I mentioned earlier.  None of the armory buildings still  remain, having been razed to the ground to support a railroad yard more recently in time.  But you can walk in the area and get a sense for the place.    There are markers that tell you a little more about the place itself.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Picture of buildings on Potomac Street taken from across the armory site and beside the Potomac river

It turns out that after all these years I am still learning new things about Harpers Ferry.  I even have a better appreciation for how the place must have looked in different times.   I will be back, and hopefully I will continue to have my curiosity piqued, and I will actually remember some of things I read, and I will also continue to learn.  Maybe Harpers Ferry will remain with me forever!

Cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

A socially active friend of mine had told me about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch a while back.  He is the type of person who is likely to latch on to out-of-the-mainstream causes, some of which require a lot of work to verify.  I only followed the story in the background of my mind for several years, not certain if there was any exaggeration in the statement of the problem.  The subject seems to have moved into the mainstream in more recent times.

We human beings do not realize the extent of the damage that we are doing to the planet just because we do not see a lot of it with our own eyes. We will also willingly deny the role that we play in the process of its destruction.

What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?  From Wikipedia:
“The patch is characterized by exceptionally high relative pelagic concentrations of plastic, chemical sludge, and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.  Its low density (4 particles per cubic meter) prevents detection by satellite imagery, or even by casual boaters or divers in the area. It consists primarily of an increase in suspended, often microscopic, particles in the upper water column.”

How big is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?  From Wikipedia:
“The findings from the two expeditions, show that the patch is 1.6 million square kilometers and has a concentration of 10-100 kg per square kilometers. They estimate there to be 80.000 metric tonnes in the patch, with 1.8 trillion plastic pieces, out of which 92% of the mass is to be found in objects larger than 0.5 centimeters.”

The reason for my posting of this blog was a mainstream news item that I saw on CNN regarding attempts to try to address the issue.  The project is called The Ocean Cleanup.  They think they are capable of cleaning up 50% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in five years.  Part of the solution is trying to figure how the best way to recycle the garbage that is captured. Hope it all works, and that we can clean up the mess that we have all made!

 

Maria Agnesi, The Greatest Female Mathematician You’ve Never Heard Of : The Conversation

“A passionate advocate for the education of women and the poor, Agnesi believed that the natural sciences and math should play an important role in an educational curriculum. As a person of deep religious faith, however, she also believed that scientific and mathematical studies must be viewed in the larger context of God’s plan for creation.”

http://theconversation.com/maria-agnesi-the-greatest-female-mathematician-youve-never-heard-of-94378

The Simple Algorithm That Ants Use to Build Bridges | Quanta Magazine

(Picture from Quanta Magazine. Credit – Vaishakh Manohar.)

via The Simple Algorithm That Ants Use to Build Bridges | Quanta Magazine

I first learned about how ants work in a cooperative manner in a book that my daughter had bought me for Christmas. The book was all about trails.  (She had figured out the perfect book for my interests!)   There is a chapter in this book about how trails historically came into being, and how these have, over time, led to our modern day system of roads, railroad tracks, and other connections for human travel.

Trails have existed for ages. The concept is not the creation of humans.  Animals of different kinds, using different skills, and for different purposes, have created trails.   There was, and still is, no real planning involved (the way humans would define it) in the creation of animal trails. It is all tied to their inbuilt instinct to survive and exist.

Ants have been creating trails for a long time.  The notable thing about the behavior of ants is that in spite of the fact that they do not have any significant level of individual intelligence, they show a great deal of collective or cooperative intelligence that lets them be effective in complex tasks.  (They do not even depend on the presence of an occasional “smart” ant that can serve as a leader.)  The book describes how their processes work for creating very efficient trails.  (There is even a kind of ant that is blind that is still very effective at this.)  Humans are now trying to understand if any of these processes are useful for our own existence.

Anyway, the article I have linked to is fascinating.  Make sure to watch the videos!

The Downgrading of Nature in a Dictionary

I was stunned when I first read about this. A note about what had happened was in a book that I have just finished about America’s National Parks.  I found confirmation of the facts on the Snopes website.

via Dictionary Drama

I felt a little better after getting a better context for the bigger picture.  Nevertheless,  I feel a little sad about this, and I would also argue that what is going on may not necessarily be a good thing. There are other more important people who also seem to feel the same way.

A Life Inspired by an Unexpected Genius |Quanta Magazine

The mathematician Ken Ono believes that the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan — mathematical savant and two-time college dropout — holds valuable lessons for how we find and reward hidden genius.

via The Mathematician Ken Ono’s Life Inspired by Ramanujan | Quanta Magazine

To Solve the Biggest Mystery in Physics, Join Two Kinds of Law | Quanta Magazine

A different way to look at what the study of physics can be all about.  Perhaps the answer lies in finding a common approach that finds a bridge between the philosophies and approaches of emergence and reductionism.

via To Solve the Biggest Mystery in Physics, Join Two Kinds of Law | Quanta Magazine