The Reign of Terror

You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged.

Beheading someone is harder than it looks. Just ask Mary Queen of Scots. Well, you can’t, she got her head chopped off, but by all accounts it was a messy business. The first axe blow missed her neck, cutting instead into the back of her head. The second stroke was more successful, cutting through most of the neck, but the executioner had to have a third go at it to grind through the last bits of gristle.

This kind of thing was not at all uncommon. Anyone who’s ever had to chop firewood knows that it’s an inexact business at the best of times, and the neck is a pretty thick, solid object to try to cut through in a single stroke.

So it’s not surprising that people developed machines to do the job more efficiently (the option of just not cutting heads off at all evidently being regarded as folly).

The basic idea of a guillotine is simple enough. The amount of force a human can impart to an axe or sword is limited by their musculature. If you attach the blade to a great big weight and drop it, the speed, energy and momentum of the blade are only limited by how high you can drop it from. Add some vertical guide rails and a neck-holding device at the bottom to make sure it hits its target, and away you go.

The guillotine is indelibly associated with Revolutionary France, but similar devices precede it by hundreds of years. The Halifax Gibbet was built by the good burghers of that town in response to increasing problems of the theft of cloth, a major trade good of the time. No one knows exactly when it was built, though there is apparently a reference to it dating from around 1280, but we know it stayed in use till 1650, when Oliver Cromwell banned the practice. (And when Cromwell thinks your punishments are excessive, it’s time to take a good hard look at yourself.)

It was a simple enough device: two tall vertical runners holding a large, heavy block of wood with an axe head attached to the underside. The hapless thief would be placed with his neck on the block beneath the blade, the executioner would tug on a rope to release the securing pin, and the blade would fall. In a macabre twist, if the conviction was for theft of an animal, the animal in question would be tethered to the gibbet’s rope and then driven off, pulling out the pin. In this way the animal would execute the person who tried to steal it.

The Earl of Morton, a Scottish nobleman and leading opponent of Mary, Queen of Scots, was so impressed with the Halifax Gibbet that he brought the design to Edinburgh, where a more portable version was constructed in 1564. Unlike the English model, this one was flat-packed and stored away in between beheadings. The Scottish Maiden, as it was called, did merry business, taking 150 heads in as many years – including that of Morton himself.

These early devices are basically the same as the classic French guillotine, apart from one technological advance. Both the Halifax Gibbet and the Scottish Maiden have horizontal blades, either straight or slightly curved. The blade on the French version is steeply angled.

To see why, take a knife and cut through something reasonably solid from the fridge – some cheese or meat, say. If you try to cut by pushing the blade straight down, it’s hard – you have to apply quite a lot of force. But if you move the blade horizontally as you cut down, it’s a lot easier. To put it slightly more formally, if the direction of motion of the blade is perpendicular to the blade, then the required cutting force is at a maximum: as the angle increases away from the perpendicular, the force required decreases. When Mary’s executioner struck her neck with his axe, the blade would have been nearly perpendicular to the blow. (The kind of axe he used has sadly gone unrecorded. A curved axe blade would have been better than a straight blade in this respect, but would not have made a dramatic difference.) In the end, he had to resort to a sawing motion to finish the job, giving him the benefit of horizontal slicing.

The angled blade of a guillotine achieves this automatically. The larger the angle, the greater the ratio of horizontal to vertical slicing, and the less force needed to achieve the cut. In practice, the angle can only get so large before the whole mechanism becomes unwieldy: more difficult and expensive to manufacture, and requiring an increasingly high vertical drop. So the final design is a compromise between theoretical cutting efficiency and practical engineering.

So by the eighteenth century, the French had perfected a machine to carry out swift, efficient beheadings. To see why this would become such an icon of the Revolution, we have to look at the man who the machine would eventually be named after: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. As a physician turned politician, Guillotin’s main work during the revolution was in medical reform. He proposed that a single method of execution should be used in France, and that it should be the beheading machine. There were two reasons for this: one humanitarian, one political. He thought mechanical decapitation would be a virtually painless form of death, and he wanted all citizens to be treated equally, regardless of class. Hitherto, beheading had been reserved for the nobility, while peasants were generally hanged – or worse.

His proposals were accepted, and the classlessness of the new death penalty was amply demonstrated in the Reign of Terror that followed the Revolution. Tens of thousands were executed for political crimes regardless of class, and often regardless of evidence.

The guillotine remained the standard method of state execution in France right through to the twentieth century. It was also adopted in some parts of Germany, but only saw intensive use there once the Nazis came to power. Hitler, it turned out, was a big fan. The improved German models were shorter, for use indoors, and featured all kinds of handy features such as a metal bucket for the head, a spout to direct the blood downwards into a drain, and a forehead strap to keep the victim’s head steady. Over 11,000 people died in the Nazi guillotines, approaching but not matching the figures for the Reign of Terror in France.

It was the swift efficiency of the guillotine that attracted the Nazis to the device, with turn-around times between executions of just a few minutes. Achieving a more humane execution was the last thing on their minds.

And maybe it’s just as well. The guillotine purports to offer an instant death, but from the time of its mass deployment in the French Revolution questions were being asked about how long a decapitated head can live.

There are various tales of guillotined heads remaining apparently alive for many minutes post-execution, but these are mostly apocryphal. The most famous of these is told of the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was sent to the guillotine on charges for which he was posthumously exonerated. It is said that he asked a student to observe his severed head, and that he would continue blinking for as long as he could in order to establish how long consciousness would last. The student watched Lavoisier’s eyes blink for fifteen seconds before they finally closed for good. It is a stirring tale of scientific dedication in the face of terror and injustice, rendered only slightly less compelling by the fact that it appears to have been made up some time in the last twenty years.

The most widely credited testimony comes from Dr Gabriel Beaurieux, who described the experiment he was allowed to perform at the guillotining of Henri Languille. In his account, the severed head remained capable of full eye contact and responsive to Languille’s name being shouted for 25-30 seconds. Even this, though, is under some cloud of doubt, as contemporary photographs of the event are inconsistent with the doctor’s account, and he is not mentioned in the official report.

It would be difficult these days to devise an ethical experiment to sort the matter out once and for all. However, we do know enough about anatomy to be fairly sure that a severed head would have at most a few seconds of consciousness, as the intercranial blood pressure rapidly falls. This is consistent with the more pragmatic observations of British commando pioneers Fairbairn and Sykes, whose table of the effects of severing various arteries in the enemy indicates that, when the carotid artery is cut, unconsciousness occurs in five seconds,and death in twelve. This sets an upper limit on how long a completely severed head could live.

It would be a painful few seconds, and in that respect probably less humane than the long drop hanging technique perfected by Albert Pierrepoint, or the Russian method of shooting in the back of the neck. However, this search for a painless method of execution is a rather artificial exercise. It may be possible to deliver a near-painless death to an animal, but a person condemned to die understands what is to happen to them, and experiences the terror and anguish of death long before the sentence is carried out. Simply to wait for execution is the most wracking torture, regardless of the method of death that is ultimately employed.

There is no such thing as a humane method of execution, and the attempt to create one is really about enabling the people doing the killing to feel better about it. An execution machine like a guillotine is about more than an efficient decapitation: it is about distancing the executioner, the onlookers and the whole of society from the reality of judicial murder. This reaches its ultimate form in the present-day US, with its ritual of killing by lethal injection. The drugs mandated for use in execution are chosen not to minimise the pain of the condemned person, but to give the outward appearance of a gentle slipping away at the cost of actual agony, while the entire process mimics as closely as possible a genuine medical treatment, right down to the redundant swabbing of the skin before the needle is inserted.

The guillotine itself is no longer in use. France executed its last prisoner in 1977. With the death penalty now abolished throughout the EU, and falling out of favour in most of the world outside the US and China, this device of terror is now confined to the museum, as a reminder of less civilised times. Perhaps, in time, the other paraphernalia of state killing will join it.

The Sensorites

We can read the misery in her mind

It’s all about death. Most things are, when you get down to it.

It’s also something of a historical accident.

The nineteenth century spiritualism craze hit Britain just when science was reshaping itself. Some of this reshaping was institutional. Professional scientific institutions were being established, that would transform scientific research from a hobby for learned gentlemen into a career for smart professionals. And some of it was conceptual. The strange phenomena of electricity and magnetism were being systematically investigated and codified, the inner workings of the nervous system were beginning to be exposed, and the full spectrum of light from radio waves to X-rays was opening up.

This created an intellectual environment of strange new forces acting between disconnected bodies as if by magic, of mysterious transmissions through unexplained media, of thoughts and feelings carried by electrical forces. The apparent world became a small circle of light in a darkened vastness, into which the lanterns of science were only beginning to penetrate. Just as geology and evolution opened up great vistas of unknown time, so did physics, chemistry and anatomy reveal that the apparent world is but a small sliver of the full breadth and depth of nature.

So when mediums showed up claiming to be able to speak to the dead, or when thoughts seemed to pass from one mind to another without conscious communication, the intellectual world was primed to conceptualise these phenomena in a new way: not as the work of gods or devils, but as the results of the same unknown forces that enabled electric currents to pass between disconnected wires, radio waves to travel great distances, nerve impulses to cross the synaptic gap.

The pioneering chemist William Crookes was the first to attempt scientific measurements of spiritualist phenomena. When the medium Daniel Dunglas Home appeared to be able to levitate, Crookes carefully measured the force per square inch with a pressure gauge, proving to his own satisfaction at least that there was such a thing as psychic force. The physicist William Barrett conducted experiments on thought transference, and along with scientific colleagues investigated the mind-reading abilities of the five children in the Creery family.

These scientists developed the idea that there was some new force, hitherto unknown to science, that mediated the mental and spiritual realm. This force allowed communication between living minds and between the living and the dead, and could move objects in the physical world. This idea became institutionalised: alongside such respectable establishments as the Royal Society, the Institute of Chemistry and the Society of Telegraph Engineers there was established the Society for Psychical Research.

Make no mistake, these researchers were a minority, The bulk of the scientific establishment dismissed spiritualism as the work of charlatans and mountebanks, and the psychic force as a product of self-delusion and sloppiness. In this, they were entirely right. The fashionable mediums of the day were unmasked or confessed to fraud, Daniel Dunglas Home’s conjuring tricks were exposed, while the Creery children eventually revealed the code-systems they used to communicate.

However, something was lost when these psychic investigations were discredited. To get an idea of what that was, we can look to more recent times, and what was possibly the greatest act of telepathy in human history.

When Queen were on stage at the Live Aid concert in 1985, there was an idea within the mind of Freddie Mercury. That idea was “Freddie Mercury is awesome”. Mercury managed to transmit that idea into the minds of the tens of thousands of people in the audience at Wembley Stadium. That is in itself an impressive feat of telepathy. But thanks to the global satellite broadcast of the event, Mercury was able to transfer this mental construct from his own mind directly into the minds of an estimated one and a half billion people worldwide. And thanks to the video recording being readily available on the internet, Freddie Mercury’s ghost can continue to implant this idea into the minds of millions, long after his death.

The fact that this telepathic influence can be mediated by video recordings tells us something very significant. Whatever it is, it can be encoded in audiovisual data. In other words, it requires no novel or mysterious physical medium, just sound waves and photons. Telepathy, whatever it is, is explicable without any new laws of physics.

Now you may be objecting at this point, saying “That’s not telepathy. That’s just charisma”. Well, yes, it is charisma, and Freddie Mercury was undoubtedly one of the most charismatic men who ever lived. But charisma is just a label for a kind of mental influence that is not at all well understood. We could just as well call it telepathy.

But of course telepathy requires a receiver as well as a transmitter. That’s where the other half of the telepathic equation comes in – empathy. Whether it’s being able to share in another person’s emotions, sense the interpersonal atmosphere in a room, or guess at hidden concerns, empathy involves reaching out to other people and absorbing some part of their thoughts and emotions.

The linking of minds that is at the heart of telepathy happens, in this view, when charisma and empathy both reach out and connect with on another. The more powerful one of these is, the less powerful the other needs to be. The preternatural charisma of Freddie Mercury can reach a vast audience with no particular talent for empathy, while a natural empath can gauge the feelings of people of indifferent charisma.

And it’s empathy and charisma that are the vital components of apparently supernatural cases of mental contact. The stage illusionist Derren Brown repeatedly cites charisma as a vital characteristic for anyone trying to simulate Victorian-style mediumship and spiritualism, whether for entertaining conjuring shows like his own performances or for cruelly fleecing bereaved people out of money by purporting to actually speak to their dead loved ones. Meanwhile the well-meaning souls who attend psychic training schools are effectively given courses in developing their empathic abilities: close listening and sensitivity.

So when we strip away the charlatanry and self-delusion, the phenomena that were investigated by psychical researchers make sense as a combination of charisma and empathy. It is unfortunate that, as official science became established and demarcated, these phenomena ended up in the institutions of psychical research rather than psychology.

The investigation of these phenomena is still geared towards finding some extra force in nature, just as it was back in the nineteenth century. The only difference is that, following trends in physics, the purported mechanisms invoke quantum mechanics rather than electromagnetism – and lest you think that is any more plausible, take a look at the entry for The Keys of Marinus to see how subtle the actual physical processes of quantum action at a distance really are. Meanwhile, rigorous study of thought transference as a mundane psychological phenomenon seems mainly to be done by stage illusionists, who for understandable reasons tend not to write up their investigations in peer-reviewed journals.

We’ve seen how thought transference – telepathy – became separated from mainstream science, but why does that separation exist to this day? What is the resistance to bringing it back into the fold as a mundane, if sometimes baffling, psychological phenomenon? Well, the general air of disreputability that has always hung around this field would explain why the scientific establishment would resist, but there’s a deeper reason. The established psychical investigators are determined to find proof of something beyond normal psychology in these processes, and have been ever since the birth of psychical research, for a profound and powerful reason.

They want to find proof of life after death.

If the human mind can exist in some medium unknown to mainstream science, if it can communicate in some way unbounded by any physiological basis, then there would be some hope that the mind could continue to exist, to experience, to communicate after the physical destruction of the body.

This is why the original psychical investigators got so interested in spiritualism in the first place. It’s what continued to motivate them even as they sought to put some respectable distance between their researches and the charlatanry of mediumship. And it’s why established psychical research still draws in some brilliant and respected scientists at the ends of their careers, as they face the cruel inexorability of old age. The study of telepathy might provide psychologists with new insight into how charisma and empathy work, but they will do nothing to banish the fear of death, or to bring back lost loved ones. And as long as there is some activity with the trappings of science that promises to do just that, there will always be enthusiasts who refuse to let go of the possibility that their experiments might just open the path to a world beyond the grave.

The Aztecs

Three days from today. The moon will pass before the sun and then all will be in darkness.

Total solar eclipse showing solar corona

Total eclipse of the Sun

Astronomy is the oldest science.The remains left behind by ancient civilisations show that they paid close attention to the celestial motions of stars and planets – and with good reason. The celestial sphere is a precise instrument for time-keeping and direction-finding, more constant and reliable than any earthly mechanism. They may have lacked telescopes, but the peoples of ancient Babylon, Egypt, China, Greece and Mesoamerica kept careful records of precise naked-eye observations that gave them a reliable dataset that stretched back centuries.

With so much detailed information on the rising and setting of the Sun and stars, of the phases of the Moon and its motion against the stellar background, of the peculiar wandering stars called “planets”, early astronomers could establish calendars, predict agricultural seasons, devise systems for navigation at sea. Astronomy today may seem remote from practical concerns, but in those days it was a matter of life and death for rulers, their subjects, and whole kingdoms.

Into this serene heavenly clockwork, disruptive influences would suddenly protrude. Meteors, that seemed like falling stars and occasionally brought chunks of heavenly iron to Earth. Comets, signs of ghostly foreboding that presaged great turmoil. But none were more closely studied, and none more feared, than eclipses.

To understand why, we first have to look at the two different kinds of eclipse: lunar and solar. This diagram shows the basic idea – not to scale, of course.

Diagram showing configuration of lunar eclipse

Lunar Eclipse

The Sun is in yellow, and the blue Earth orbits around it. The Moon, shown in white, orbits round the Earth. When the Sun, the Earth and the Moon are all lined up so that the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow (shown in grey), we have a lunar eclipse. If you were sitting on the near side of the Moon, you would see the Earth pass in front of the Sun, blotting it out for a while. If you’re on Earth, looking up at the Moon, you see something more remarkable: the Moon turning a dark, ominous red.

Why red? Well, as the Sun’s rays pass through the Earth’s atmosphere, they bend a bit. This is diffraction – the same effect that makes a stick seem to bend when you put it in water. These light rays illuminate the Moon so it doesn’t completely disappear even though it is cut off from the Sun’s direct light. But these light rays aren’t just bent: they’re reddened. As the light passes through the atmosphere, it scatters off the molecules of nitrogen, oxygen and other gases, and blue light scatters much more that red light. So the blue light tends to scatter away, while the red light keeps going in more or less the same direction. This is why sunsets are red, and it’s why the light striking the Moon during a lunar eclipse is also red. Indeed, the Moon is being bathed in the light from every sunset on Earth.

If we now switch the alignment round, so that the Earth is in the Moon’s shadow as shown in the next diagram, we have a solar eclipse.

Diagram showing configuration of solar eclipse

Solar Eclipse

From a suitable vantage point on Earth, the Moon blocks out the light of the Sun. In a curious cosmic coincidence, the apparent size of the Moon as seen from the Earth is almost exactly the same as the apparent size of the Sun. This means the Moon can exactly block out the whole solar disc. When it does so the hot outer atmosphere of the Sun – the corona – that we normally can’t see due to the Sun’s glare suddenly appears in the darkened sky. It’s quite a sight. Meanwhile the Earth appears to darken and cool, until the Moon moves past the Sun and daylight is restored.

But notice that the Moon’s shadow is much smaller than the Earth’s. In the case of a lunar eclipse, the whole Moon could easily fit inside the shadow of the Earth, while in a solar eclipse only a small part of the Earth is covered by the Moon’s shadow. This fact was crucially important for the ancient astronomers, as we shall see in a moment.

Now these rather noddy diagrams I’ve drawn are rather too simplistic. They show the Sun, Moon and Earth tracing out perfectly circular orbits in a single plane. If that were the case, eclipse prediction would be easy: every Full Moon would be a lunar eclipse, and every New Moon would be a solar eclipse. One of each, every month. Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

The most important factor is that the orbit of the Moon around the Earth is not in quite the same plane as the orbit of the Earth around the Sun: there’s an angle of about five degrees between them. That may not sound like much, but it’s enough that perfect alignments of all three bodies are rare.

Nowadays we can predict eclipses accurately, thanks to Newton’s laws of motion and the theory of celestial mechanics that is built on them. But the ancient astronomers didn’t have that kind of understanding. If they were going to predict eclipses, they would have to do it by detailed, long-term observation of the motions of the Sun and Moon, analysing these long sequences of data to find any regularities that would hold a clue as to when these special alignments would take place.

And that’s just what they did.

The most important of these regularities is the Saros Cycle. This is a period of 223 months: about 18 years, 11 days and 8 hours, and it is the time it takes the Earth, Moon and Sun to orbit around and come back into approximately the same alignment relative to each other. So, if there’s an eclipse today, then there will be another in just over 18 years. Now, eclipses aren’t simply 18 years apart – there are all kinds of other cycles going on as well, which mean more eclipses within that period, but if you observe enough eclipses and use this 18-year trick for each one you can start to build up a reasonable set of predictions.

A big problem with this technique is that the Saros is not a whole number of days. For a lunar eclipse that’s not such a big deal – it may happen eight hours late, but you should still get it on the right night. For solar eclipses, though, it’s more of an issue. Remember that the Moon’s shadow on the Earth is relatively small, only about 100km across, and the eclipse happening eight hours later also means it happens in some distant part of the Earth that happens to be in the Moon’s shadow at the time – as far as you can tell, there has been no eclipse at all. It’s not all hopeless, though: three times eight is 24, and so three Saros cycles add up to a whole number of days, bringing the solar eclipse back to roughly your neighbourhood.

In the Western world, it was the Babylonians who first discovered this 223 month cycle, and we have records of their meticulous astronomical observations that survive from the 17th century BCE. By the time we get to the classical Greeks, eclipse prediction has become much more sophisticated. The 223 month cycle is built into the clockwork computer known as the Antikythera Mechanism, and the most famous Greek astronomer, Ptolemy, had a sophisticated method for predicting both lunar and solar eclipses. The Chinese, developing in parallel, also figured out how to predict eclipses and by the third century CE knew how to predict solar eclipses by analysing the motion of the Moon.

It seems a lot of trouble to go to for something that may be interesting, but isn’t obviously useful. Predicting eclipses won’t tell you when to sow your seeds or when to harvest your crop. So why bother?

In the West and in China, it comes down to this idea of omens: that heavenly occurrences foretell earthly events. Which is a load of rubbish, of course, but they didn’t know that. If the regular motions of the stars and planets predict the regular cycles of the seasons, then doesn’t it seem reasonable that irregular celestial events like eclipses foretell irregular events of Earth – sudden calamities and the like? Ancient rulers in particular took this possibility very seriously. This was good news for astronomers seeking funding, but not so great if they didn’t produce the goods, as two ancient Chinese court astrologers discovered when they were beheaded following an unexpected solar eclipse.

But if we want to see sheer cosmic terror in action we have to leave behind the Chinese, set aside the Greeks and go even further west, to Central America – and the Aztecs.

Like all ancient peoples, the Aztecs had a complex cosmology, explaining in mythic terms how the world came to be, how the gods set the Sun and Moon in the sky, the divine purpose behind creation, and so on. What really distinguishes the Aztec cosmology is the sheer amount of blood involved. Blood made the Sun rise in the heavens. Blood made the crops grow in the fields. Blood was the very fuel of the engine of creation, and without an endless cycle of blood sacrifices the Universe would grind to a halt and catastrophe would come to all humanity. It was the place of humans to play their part in this natural cycle, and the ritual killing of the appointed victims was recognised as a supreme moral duty.

Again, like the other great civilisations of the ancient world, the Aztecs were dedicated astronomers, with a calendar based on celestial observations that ordered their society. In fact, they had two. The first was a solar calendar spanning the familiar 365 days, divided into 18 months of 20 days, each with its own set of rituals – bloodletting, sacrifice, flaying of prisoners and so on – plus a special five-day period at the end of the year. Running alongside this was the ritual calendar of 260 days, comprising 20 periods of 13 days, each dedicated to a different god.

These two calendars would march along out of step with each other for the most part, but every 52 years they would coincide and then the cycle would start up again. The Aztecs believed that, at the end of each 52-year period, the gods might decide to end the world. To stave off this disaster, they performed the New Fire ceremony, in which all fires throughout the Aztec real were extinguished, a man was sacrificed atop the extinct volcano of Huixachtlan, and new fire kindled on his chest and passed out to all the people. This ceremony was always successful.

Every bit as dangerous were the solar eclipses, which the Aztecs understood as the Moon – depicted in their art as a monstrous deity – attacking the Sun. If this attack were not repelled by suitable rituals of bloody sacrifice, the Sun could disappear for ever and the world come to an end. A solar eclipse at the time of the New Fire ceremony would be particularly terrifying, and even a New Moon around this time, with its potential to turn out to be an eclipse, would be a source of great anxiety.

Whether the Aztecs could have predicted these calamitous events with any reliability is not known. Alas, much of the intellectual material of their empire was destroyed in the Spanish conquest, when the Aztecs were overthrown by a more technologically advanced bunch of blood-soaked religious fanatics. What we do have, from detailed records in surviving codices to precise astronomical alignments of key buildings, suggests a remarkably precise degree of astronomical measurement and clever ways of using alternating whole numbers to express fractions of a day in orbital motions. They certainly had some knowledge of the cycles underlying lunar eclipses, and it is entirely possible that they could have matched or even surpassed the Greeks and Chinese in eclipse prediction. It is unlikely that we shall ever know.