Tuesday, 28 January 2014


Auschwitz, in south-western Poland was liberated 69 years ago yesterday (27th January 1945) by the Red Army.

Millions of Polish and other European Jews were held prisoner there in appalling conditions and many were been killed in the gas chambers. Auschwitz, was the most notorious of the Nazi death camps.

When Germany began to realise it was about to lose control of Auschwitz, German guards were given orders to destroy the crematoria and gas chambers. Tens of thousands of prisoners - those who were able to walk - were moved out of the prison and forced to march to other camps in Germany. When the Red Army arrived at the camp they found only a few thousand prisoners remaining - the ones who were too sick to leave.

In July 1944 details were revealed of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were sent to Poland many of whom ended up in Auschwitz. They were loaded onto trains and taken to the camp where many were put to death in the gas chambers. Before they went they were told they were being exchanged in Poland for prisoners of war and made to write cheerful letters to relatives at home telling them what was happening.

According to the Polish Ministry of Information, the gas chambers were capable of killing 6,000 people a day. Since its establishment in 1940 to its liberation in 1945, only a handful of prisoners managed to escape to tell of the full horror of the camp.

The capture of Auschwitz came as the Red Army made important advances on three fronts: in East Prussia to the north, in western Poland and as Silesia in eastern Germany. Fighting continued around the historic Polish western city of Poznan.

The Polish capital, Warsaw, was also liberated in January 1945 after five-and-a-half years of German occupation.

On 8 May 1945 a State commission compiled by the Soviets with advice from Polish, French and Czechoslovak experts revealed the full horror of conditions at the camp. Nearly 3,000 survivors of various nationalities were questioned and on the basis of their evidence the report estimated 4,000,000 people had perished there between 1941 and early 1945. The dead included citizens from the Soviet Union, Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Italy and Greece. 

The commission, which had previously investigated conditions at Majdanek, Treblinka and other camps, described Auschwitz as the worst in its experience. It found evidence of experiments carried out on humans "of a revolting character".  According to the evidence, the commission said the Germans had moved out up to 60,000 inmates - those still fit enough to walk - when they retreated. The few thousand who were left behind were freed by the Russians.

They also found seven tons of women's hair, human teeth, from which gold fillings had been extracted and tens of thousands of children's outfits. The final death toll was later revised by the Auschwitz Museum, to between 1 and 1.5 million, including almost 1m Jews.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Picture of the Month

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The first photo upon discovery of Machu Picchu, 1912.

I visited Machu Picchu on a tour of South America three summers ago. It was one of the best five weeks of my life, and I plan on writing a proper blog post on Machu Picchu (which absolutely fascinated me) at some point this week. For now, enjoy this picture of it!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Queen Elizabeth I

Yesterday, 15th January, marked 454 years since Queen Elizabeth I was crowned queen of England. As I am studying the Tudors for my AS history exam I thought it appropriate to do a short blog post on her.

Two months after the death of her half-sister, Queen Mary I of England, Elizabeth Tudor, the 25-year-old daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was crowned Queen Elizabeth I at Westminster Abbey in London.

The two half-sisters, both daughters of Henry VIII, had a stormy relationship during Mary's five-year reign. Mary, who was brought up as a Catholic, enacted pro-Catholic legislation and made efforts to restore papal supremacy in England. A Protestant rebellion ensued, and Queen Mary imprisoned Elizabeth, a Protestant, in the Tower of London on suspicion of complicity. After Mary's death, Elizabeth survived several Catholic plots against her; although her ascension was greeted with approval by most of England's lords, who were largely Protestant and hoped for greater religious tolerance under a Protestant queen. Under the early guidance of Secretary of State Sir William Cecil, Elizabeth repealed Mary's pro-Catholic legislation, established a permanent Protestant Church of England, and encouraged the Calvinist reformers in Scotland.

In foreign affairs, Elizabeth practised a policy of strengthening England's Protestant allies and dividing her foes. Elizabeth was opposed by the pope, who refused to recognize her legitimacy, and by Spain, a Catholic nation that was at the height of its power. In 1588, English-Spanish rivalry led to an abortive Spanish invasion of England in which the Spanish Armada, the greatest naval force in the world at the time, was destroyed by storms and a persistent English navy.

With increasing English domination at sea, Elizabeth encouraged voyages of discovery, such as Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world and Sir Walter Raleigh's expeditions to the North American coast.

The long reign of Elizabeth, who became known as the "Virgin Queen" for her reluctance to endanger her authority through marriage, coincided with the flowering of the English Renaissance, associated with such renowned authors as William Shakespeare. By her death in 1603, England had become a major world power in every respect, and Queen Elizabeth I passed into history as one of England's greatest monarchs.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Circus

On 9th January 1768 the first modern circus was ever staged by Philip Astley in London. It featured trick riders, acrobats, clowns, trained animals and other familiar exhibits you would be likely to see now if you visited a modern-day circus. Astley discovered that if he galloped in a tight circle, centrifugal forces allowed him to perform seemingly impossible feats on a horse's back, and on January 9 he invited the public to see him wave his sword in the air while he rode with one foot on the saddle and one on the horse's head.

In 1770 Astley built a roof over his ring and named it Astley's Amphitheatre. In 1772 Astley performed his show in front of King Louis XV, and set up a permanent show in France in 1782. That same year a competitor in London set up The Royal Circus just down the road from Astley's ring. By the time of Astley's death, in 1814, he had set up 18 other circuses in cities across Europe.

The name 'circu's was derived from the Roman name for the circular theatres where chariot races were held and was adopted as the generic name for this form of entertainment in the 19th Century.

In 1792, English John Bill Ricketts opened the first American circus in Philadelphia and later opened others in New York City and Boston. President George Washington reportedly attended a Ricketts circus and sold the company a horse. Smaller traveling circuses arose in Europe in the early 19th century, visiting towns and cities that lacked elaborate permanent shows. Larger traveling tent shows evolved in the 1820s. In 1859, the Cirque Napoleon in Paris offered the first "flying trapeze" act, which remains a popular component of the modern circus.

In 1871, William Cameron Coup and showman P.T. Barnum opened an enormous circus in Brooklyn that they dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth." Ten years later, Barnum went into business with James Anthony Bailey; the "Barnum and Bailey" circuses were so large they required simultaneous performances in three rings.

In 1884, the five Ringling brothers staged their first circus, and they soon were buying out other circus companies, including Barnum and Bailey, which they purchased in 1907. During the next three decades, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows grew into the largest touring organization in the world, with hundreds of tents and an army of workers and performers. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey downsized after World War II but continues to tour today. Canada's Cirque du Soleil, which gave an artistic sensibility to its acrobatic acts while shunning the use of animals, was an innovative circus development of the late 20th century.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Fermat's Last Theorem

In 1995, British mathematician solved the 358-year-old mathematical theory, Fermat's Last Theorem, which was widely regarded as the most difficult maths problem in the world. 

Fermat's Fermat's Last Theorem is a theory written by Pierre de Fermat in 1637 that states that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = c for any integer value of n greater than two.

Fermat famously wrote the theory in the margin of a copy of Arithmetica where he claimed he had a proof that was too large to fit in the margin. No successful proof was published until 1995 despite the efforts of countless mathematicians during the 358 intervening years. The unsolved problem stimulated the development of algebraic number theory in the 19th century and the proof of the modularity theorem in the 20th century. It is among the most famous theorems in the history of mathematics and prior to its 1995 proof by Andrew Wiles it was in the Guinness Book of World Records for "most difficult mathematical problems".

The Theorem itself is a deceptively simple statement within mathematics that Fermat famously stated he had solved around 1637. His claim was discovered some 30 years later, after his death, as a bare statement in the margin of a book, but Fermat died without leaving any proof of his claim.

The claim eventually became one of the most famous unsolved problems of mathematics. The attempts made to prove it during that time prompted substantial development of number theory and over time Fermat's Last Theorem itself gained legendary prominence as an unsolved problem in popular mathematics. It is based upon the well known formula ("Pythagoras' Theorem") for a right-angle triangle discovered by the ancient Greek mathematician Pythagoras: a2 + b2 = c2

The Pythagorean equation has an infinite number of whole-number solutions, representing the sides of a right-angle triangle; these solutions are known as Pythagorean triples. Fermat conjectured that the more general equation an + bn = cn had no solutions in positive integers a, b and c for any integer greater than 2 — in other words that although a2 + b2 = c2 had an infinite number of whole-number solutions, the similar equations
a3 + b3 = c3
a4 + b4 = c4
an + bn = cn
for any other integer exponent n greater than 2 would have no solutions in positive integers. Although he claimed to have a general proof of his conjecture, Fermat left no details of his proof apart from the special case n = 4.

In 1816 and again in 1850, the French Academy of Sciences offered a prize for a general proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. In 1857, the Academy awarded 3000 francs and a gold medal to Kummer for his research on ideal numbers, although he had not submitted an entry for the prize.[127] Another prize was offered in 1883 by the Academy of Brussels.[128]

In 1908, the German industrialist and amateur mathematician Paul Wolfskehl bequeathed 100,000 marks to the Göttingen Academy of Sciences to be offered as a prize for a complete proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. On 27 June 1908, the Academy published nine rules for awarding the prize. Among other things, these rules required that the proof be published in a peer-reviewed journal; the prize would not be awarded until two years after the publication; and that no prize would be given after 13 September 2007, roughly a century after the competition was begun. Wiles collected the Wolfskehl prize money, then worth $50,000, on 27 June 1997.

Prior to Wiles' proof, thousands of incorrect proofs were submitted to the Wolfskehl committee, in the first year alone (1907–1908), 621 attempted proofs were submitted, although by the 1970s, the rate of submission had decreased to roughly 3–4 attempted proofs per month. Mathematical historian Howard Eves even said, "Fermat's Last Theorem has the peculiar distinction of being the mathematical problem for which the greatest number of incorrect proofs have been published."