The Mayflower Conundrum

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower" (Painting circa 1754) Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

by Marcel Haas

Judging by the onslaught of advertisement for genealogy kits, quick tests to find out one’s genetic heritage, there is a rapidly growing market for selling and buying knowledge of our heritage. Of course, many of us have grown up with stories of family history: Grandparents talking about the struggles of their lifetime, parents reminiscing about holidays when they were little, and even stories of our own – the first love, the last cigarette, and the latest conference trip to Europe. Beyond our immediate memory, however, few families (at least in Germany) record their history in writing. Maybe they keep letters and postcards, perhaps some aunt or uncle keeps a record of a near-mythical great-grandmother born in the mid-nineteenth century, but on average it would be hard to find anyone with complete knowledge of their ancestral history.

In America, the situation looks slightly different, at least judging from several encounters and conversations I have had over the years across the United States. Here, many people will refer to a specific ancestor from a long-gone century that crossed the oceans to come to the young United States (or the British colonies). They can also add an exact description of their genetic ancestry. More than once, I saw faces light up with delight when I answered the question of my nationality with “German,” only eclipsed by the heartfelt joy in explaining to me that they, too, were “German.” In a few cases, people I talked to were even able to tell me about the very German ancestor who had come to the US. Now, I don’t want to sound dismissive. Of course, I understand the value of oral histories transmitted in families, and I can see in the history of a country like the United States, shaped so heavily by immigration, the reason for a hunger for genealogical knowledge. Nevertheless, I cannot but feel a slight discomfort when dealing with such ancestral stories.

One of my most memorable exchanges happened just last year, while I stood at the counter of a grocery store in Mount Pleasant. My accent had peaked the interest of the guy next to me in line, and he was overjoyed to hear that I was indeed German, like him, as he told me. In fact, he explained, his family had traced his direct ancestry to one of the people traveling on the Mayflower! Of course, I was a bit sceptical, considering that the Mayflower Puritans were mostly English. I did not want to be pedantic, so I let him tell me his story, paid, and left the store. Identity is a complicated and sensitive matter, and he was surely entitled to decide his own. However, the encounter remained with me, if only for the strange mix of self-declared German and Mayflower ancestry.

For one, if the ancestor he identifies most with was on the Mayflower, why did he immediately emphasize his being German with me? How did the English Mayflower ancestor and “Germanness” correlate (let alone the fact that in 1620, there was no Germany in sight)? And above all, and that is really the subject of this post, what were his other 65,535 ancestors doing in 1620?

What emerges, is a simple problem of mathematics. If one assumes a generation to be around 25 years, then someone born into my generation is 16 generations removed from someone old enough to have been on the Mayflower. In general, anyone alive today would be directly descendant from a total of 131,072 people alive since 1590. Since that does not count siblings, cousins, and their respective relations, the grand total of relatives each one of us must have over the course of only the last four hundred years should be roughly around 400,000. (I admit, this is only my lazy estimation.) Thus, only considering ancestors alive in 1620, besides his ancestor of Mayflower fame, our friend from earlier could be proud of 65,535 other people. Some of them lived probably all over Europe, in Sweden and Finland (many of whom came to Michigan in the 19th century), in France and Italy, Poland, Russia, North Africa, Asia, and Great Britain. (Again, this is based on my lazy generalization. If I would speculate based on historical movements this post would be a small book.) A good amount of his ancestors in 1620 were most likely living across North America. Arguably, the great majority of his ancestors must have been poor, some were rich, a few of some fame. Some might have died in debtors’ prisons in England, some of the plague, some of the ague in Michigan. Some might have been Moravians, some Jewish, maybe some were Muslims, and some believed in non-Abrahamic religions. Perhaps one of his ancestors really came with the Mayflower.

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books.

These are ten generations. I gave up looking for a chart with sixteen generations, probably because that wouldn’t have fit on my house front. (This can be bought at Masthof Books.

Looking at these numbers, one cannot but feel overwhelmed – and confused. After all, we cannot possibly all have 65,536 ancestors in 1620, as the total number of original ancestors would be larger than the number of people who ever lived on this planet. The consequence is simple: At some point in time, the chances are high that we are all related somehow. That one nameless ancestor from the Mayflower likely features in the family trees of millions of Americans alive today – people who would identify as Anglo-Saxon, Hispanic, African American, Native American, Asian American, and more. Ultimately, one ancestor in 1620 is nothing compared to the people we are today. While it is surely fascinating to know that someone of our blood line did great things, it is also important to remember that all of us come from a rather small number of Homo Sapiens about 350,000 years ago.

Disclaimer: As my worried fifth grade teacher can confirm, math is not my strong suit. I have assumed the average duration of 25 years for one generation. Others have used 30 years or 32 years. If I would change my earlier example according to these calculations, the number of direct ancestors in 1620 is quite a bit lower. However, since I haven’t counted the people related to my grocery store friend in 1620 (as in cousins, siblings of ancestors, and their offspring), I believe I have used fair numbers. If I did make a mistake, please let me know (or comment below).


New Year, new editor

Chiara visiting the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century under Justinian I. The cistern was also one of the locations of the 1963 James Bond movie  From Russia with Love.

Chiara visiting the Yerebatan Sarnıcı in Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century under Justinian I. The cistern was also one of the locations of the 1963 James Bond movie From Russia with Love.

By Chiara Ziletti

The holiday break has been great (probably even more than great if – like me – you love having a lot of time to read on the couch), but the new semester is finally here. It is time to roll up the sleeves, put away all the decorations, and get ready for this new adventure.

My name is Chiara Ziletti, and I have the pleasure to be the new editor of [Re]collection. I come from Italy, and I am a third-year student in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program here at Central Michigan University. Allow me to introduce myself.

Back in school, my relationship with history was one of “love and hate.” Something in it attracted me (for example, I have always loved visiting museums and historical places), but most of the time the amount of dates to be memorized discouraged any deeper approach to it beyond the basic “let’s study to pass the test.” After high-school, I decided to study Italian Literature at University of Pavia (which was founded in 1361, more than 650 years ago!), and it was during those years that I discovered my passion for history. Classes like philology and history of Italian Language had already captivated me. I loved to understand why and how Italian had evolved from Latin, but the real breakthrough was the Early Modern European History class. It was while taking that class that I realized how much I actually enjoyed studying history despite being very bad at remembering dates. This happened because for the first time a professor made me realize that history was more than just sheer memorization. Finally, someone was teaching me about broader historical events and concepts. Thanks to that professor, I became aware – borrowing from Fernand Braudel – of the longer and broader social, economic, and cultural trends and forces beyond the history of events; and I was fascinated. I loved the deeper understanding coming from the combination of these different historical planes; and those aspects of human history capable of transcending time conquered my imagination. After that experience, I began to take more and more classes in history, enabling me to deepen my knowledge and understanding of both the past and our own reality (all this enriched by the development of critical thinking and writing skills).

Following my bachelors, I earned my Masters Degree in European History (again from University of Pavia). During my Masters, I also had the opportunity to do a four months internship in Istanbul with the Erasmus Placement program. Istanbul is a big and chaotic city, but it is also fascinating and full of history. Therefore, even though I was doing my internship at Maltepe University on the Asian side of the city, I had the opportunity to go visiting all the historical sites on the European side over the weekends – what a dream!

After obtaining my Masters, my personal adventure brought me to CMU, where I was admitted in the Transnational and Comparative History PhD program. Here I furthered my training as a historian, and soon I will have to take my Comprehensive examination (for a taste of the fear, imagine Darth Vader approaching on the notes of the Imperial march). In addition to this, I also had the opportunity to work as a Teaching Assistant for the Department of History (an enriching experience), and now I am the new editor of [Re]collection after Jennifer graduated last semester. I want to congratulate her on her success. Furthermore, I want to thank her for her wonderful job here in the past year. If I feel more confident about my future work here, it is thanks to the solid path she traced.

I wish everyone a happy new year and the best for this new semester. As always, we continue to welcome your submissions!


Eclipses Have History Too

Headline in New York Times, Dec. 3, 1919.

Headline in New York Times, Dec. 3, 1919.

By Jennifer Vannette

Yesterday, like so many others, my family and I gazed at the sky to watch the Great American Eclipse of 2017. Waiting and looking, we began to share stories of past eclipses witnessed. My husband also shared a story of of how a combination of eclipse timing and geopolitics "saved" our understanding of science.

When one thinks of World War I and advancement in science, the tendency is to slip into a discussion of technological advances that brought about modern warfare, but before war broke out, scientists had their eyes turned to the stars.  On August 21, 1914, Europe experienced a total solar eclipse. Much like today, scientists traveled to the path of totality, which passed through Sweden, Germany and Ukraine. A team of British scientists led by Erwin Finlay-Freundlich traveled to Crimea to make measurements, but did not have the chance because WWI broke out and the team spent the war interned in Russia.

These scientists did not just want to observe an eclipse. They expected to disprove Albert Einstein's new theory of special relativity, which rubbed up against Newtonian theories. Einstein said that that space and time were not static; we observe things differently than each other, and the speed of light is the only constant. The question at the heart of this theory was whether light would bend due to the gravity of a massive object. As Universe Today explains, "...astronomers soon realized that the best time to catch this in action would be to measure the position of a star near the limb of the Sun — the most massive light bending object in our solar system — during a total solar eclipse." It's not that the light would only bend during an eclipse, but rather it was the only time the sun was blocked out enough to allow for detection. But, war did not wait for celestial observations and two eclipses during WWI in Europe, in 1914 and 1916 passed without data collection.

Now, had the observations been made in 1914, there would have been problems with the results aligning with Einstein's theory, and special relativity might have been challenged more greatly. However, in 1915, Einstein published a series of papers on general relativity, which corrected for some issues in special relativity. Space explains: "One of the key tenets of general relativity is that space is not static.  The motions of objects can change the structure of space. By contrast, in Newton's view of the universe, space is "inert."In Einstein's view, space is combined with another dimension — time — which creates a universe wide "fabric" called space-time. Objects travel through this fabric, which can be warped, bent and twisted by the masses and motions of objects within space-time." So, this time scientists wanted to try to observe the curve of light.

The next chance to take measurements in an attempt to prove or disprove general relativity came in 1919. At this point, resources could be dedicated to scientific activities and the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society sent expeditions to Brazil and to the island of Principe, off the west coast of Africa to look for evidence of the light curving. The eclipse happened to be the longest of the the 20th Century at six minutes of totality. The Royal Societies analyzed the data and found Einstein's theories correct. The news was published in the New York Times on Dec. 3, 1919, and for the first time non-scientists learned of the new scientific theory.

As a historian, the story intrigued me, and a quick search to sort out some of the fuzzy details helped me realize that the history of science, left in the hands of scientists, can sometimes cause some confusion. The details are fuzzy because the stories are simply passed down as a fun aside. So this one comes with conflicting accounts. Some scientists related the anecdotes as WWI saving the theory of general relativity because due to errors, it might have been disproven in 1914. Because Einstein had time to revise and further consider relativity and publish more in 1915, this meant that the 1919 observation proved successful. Others argue that due to WWI, Einstein remained cut off from the scientific community and if it were not for Dutch and British scientists continuing to communicate with him, no one would have heard of his theories. Scientists naturally get caught up in the science, making it difficult to pin the story down. A brief search only yielded one book on the topic, and it is heavy on equations. However, critical understanding of how science is not developed in a vacuum (sorry, couldn't resist) but is truly affected by current events can make scientific understanding more accessible to the general public, and even help us contextualize current debates.

*Apologies to all scientists who would prefer better explanations of relativity.

Local Schools: Then and Now

Students’ names and initials carved into the wall of a schoolhouse in Grantham, Lincolnshire.  The building dates to the late fifteenth century. Photo by Carrie Euler.

Students’ names and initials carved into the wall of a schoolhouse in Grantham, Lincolnshire.  The building dates to the late fifteenth century. Photo by Carrie Euler.

By Carrie Euler

I have spent much of the summer writing a draft of what I hope will be the first peer-reviewed journal article to come out of my new project on local schools in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England.  It has led me to ponder some interesting similarities and differences between education then and now.

Some things have not changed.  Then as now, most people placed a high value in education and saw it as a path to upward mobility.  Most of these schools were founded on charitable endowments made by middle and upper-class men who wanted to give less fortunate children (mostly boys—more on that in a minute) in their hometowns the chance to obtain an education for free.  They would set aside money or land to support the salary of a schoolmaster and stipulate that the master was not to charge the students any fees.  This is why many schools in this period were referred to as “free schools.”  Then as now, most parents sent their children to these local schools, rather than to distant boarding schools, and most clearly paid attention to and cared about what their children learned.  In one case, parents complained about a certain schoolmaster and said their children were “losing their time” with him (i.e. wasting their time).  This reveals another similarity to the present day: an uneasy relationship between teachers and scholars, on the one hand, and the non-academics whose children they were teaching on the other.  In some cases, it is clear that the non-academics respected teachers and university scholars.  The founders of several schools stipulated that if the school trustees needed advice or somehow failed to appoint a schoolmaster when the position became vacant, the advice or appointment would be made by the fellows (professors) of a specific college at Oxford or Cambridge.  Nevertheless, documents relating to charitable donations to Oxford and Cambridge colleges themselves often reveal a belief among the donors (wealthy businessmen) that the fellows were lazy, ivory-tower types not to be trusted with money.  Also, like today, teachers were not paid very much compared to other professionals and often had to find second and third jobs to make ends meet.  Finally, another similarity that surprised me a little was the difficulties teachers had disciplining students.  The popular stereotype of pre-modern schools being institutions with fierce discipline because schoolmasters were allowed to inflict corporeal punishment seems to be overblown.  Yes, there was corporeal punishment at times, but it is clear that, just as teachers do today, masters often struggled to control students.  The most amusing example is that in several schools across the two English counties that I studied, it was apparently a tradition for the students to break all the schoolhouse windows on the last day before Christmas.

Of course, there are things about education that have changed a great deal since the seventeenth century, mostly for the better.  The most obvious is the increase in female students in the modern period.  Between approximately 1500 and 1650, girls would only have been present in the primary schools, up to about age eight.  After that, boys could move onto the secondary schools, known as “grammar schools” (because they taught mostly Latin grammar), where girls were not allowed.  Starting around 1650, though, there are a few secondary schools for girls only, and by the eighteenth century, a few that admit both.  Women were not allowed in universities, however, until the nineteenth century.  Another obvious difference is that there was no such thing as public education.  None of these schools was funded by the state, and there was no belief in education as a right.  Consequently, while the number of schools gradually increased over the entire period I am studying, a much smaller proportion of the population received an education and became literate than today.  Finally, while the low pay and little respect teachers received was arguably similar to today, schoolmasters four hundred years ago actually had it worse in many ways because their jobs were, for the most part, subject to the whims of the parents and boards of trustees set up by the charitable endowments.  There were no unions and no onsite administrators, like principles or counselors, to help the teachers in the case of crisis or corruption.  I did encounter one legal case in which a schoolmaster successfully sued the trustees for breach of contract, but this was pretty rare.

If there’s one thing that most historians can agree on, it’s that progress over time is not a given, but in the area of education, it appears that the modernity brought mostly positive changes.  I have learned a lot through this research and hope to continue to do so as I expand the project in the future.

Road Closed

Island Park, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Island Park, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Historic flooding in mid-Michigan last week, June 23. Central Michigan University closed for a day, and CM-Life has reported the costs of the damage is expected to be between $7-10 million. Most of the flooding on campus affected basements, but the flood damaged some first floors as well. The buildings with reported damage include: Student Activity Center, Rowe Hall, Calkins Hall, Foust Hall, Dow Science Complex and Theunissen Stadium.

Nearby towns and rural areas also experienced flooding, closing many streets, and drawing comparisons to past floods. Midland, Michigan experienced the second worst recorded flood -- and this just about a year after the 30th Anniversary of the Great Flood of 1986. Like the last major flood, people were out in kayaks and canoes checking damages and aiding others. The year of the Great Flood the state experienced damage from Muskegon to Bay City with 14 dams breaking and over $500 million (which would be about $1.1 billion today) in crop and property damages. We won't know for awhile yet what the damages will cost mid-Michigan. MLive featured photos from the 1986 flood for the anniversary.

So, this week we are cleaning up, putting things back together, and contemplating the historic nature of weather events. Stay dry, friends.

The Pedagogy of Hope

By Brittany B. Fremion

Part of my job (and joy) as a professor and historian is to be actively engaged with the community of scholars in my field and to contribute to its growth outside of the immediate university setting. One of the primary means of doing so is by participating in academic conferences. The major organization for environmental historians hosted its annual conference at the end of March in Chicago. I had the good fortune of being part of one of two roundtables dedicated to finding hope in environmental history. The title of my panel, which focused on hope in teaching, was entitled “The Pedagogy of Hope,” whereas the other revolved around scholarship, “Hope in Environmental History” (check out the conference program here:

In his 1993 presidential address to the American Society for Environmental History, William Cronon identified a key challenge of teaching environmental history: the subject often evokes despair in students. Noting that this emotion seemed neither personally nor politically useful, Cronon called upon environmental historians to communicate the field’s lessons in a more hopeful key. Nearly twenty-five years later, the two roundtables will consider how effectively environmental historians have answered this call. My particular roundtable will feature instructors who have worked to bring hopeful narratives and strategies into their environmentally-themed courses (taken from roundtable abstract).

In my upper-level comparative environmental history course (HST 302) at CMU I have worked to identify ways that reinforce the positive components of my field, despite the persistence of narratives of decline that seem to characterize it (i.e. the looming theme of ecological collapse at the hand of humanity). In order to do so, I often stress that knowledge, as the adage goes, is power. Knowledge of history in particular enables us to make better, more informed decisions in the future, to understand how we got to be where we are, and why multiple perspectives matter. This is particularly important when it comes to environmental issues. We must understand how and why ecosystems have changed in order to develop creative responses to address those changes. The environmental historian plays an especially significant role in helping us recognize our power to dramatically alter the world we inhabit.

The vehicle that carries conversations about the power of individuals to incite change in my classroom is, perhaps oddly, Daniel Quinn's Ishmael (1992). Quinn’s philosophical novel is the first book students read for my course and often their favorite. This work of fiction reorients readers’ perspectives so that they recognize their place within nature, not as separate, through (spoiler alert!) a series of telepathic conversations between a gorilla and student—purposely unnamed or assigned a gender, an effective writing strategy that enables the reader to identify as the student. The conversations are largely driven by questions raised by Ishmael, the gorilla, who is the teacher in this story. One of the first questions he asks the student is about his/her culture’s “creation myth,” to which the student responds with certainty that it is no myth. But Ishmael proves him/her wrong by juxtaposing the human story of creation with that of a jellyfish (you’ll have to get your hands on a copy of the book to better understand why). The moral to this story, and others, is that the Earth exists for no one species in particular; that we, as humans, may not be the pinnacle of creation. Ishmael also points out that we are subject to the laws of nature, challenging the human assumption of control over the environment. As a result, he is able to emphasize that humans, as powerful members of ecosystems, must be better stewards. In the end, he teaches the reader “how to save the planet—from ourselves. With this knowledge, we have the power to change our lives and save the world.”  

The discussion sparked by this book leads students to recognize the significant roles they play as members of campus, regional, national, and global communities—that the knowledge and skills they have acquired in my class (and others) should extend into their daily lives. They have the power to bring about change, whether it’s doing something seemingly nominal (like buying organic fair trade products, recycling, or using public transportation) or recognizably significant (supporting environmental initiatives, engaging in social activism, and/or writing policymakers). This self-awareness is in itself transformative and empowering. And it certainly gives me hope.

Without Faith: Church Interactions

By Jonathan Truitt

This week has been a lesson in irony. This is no reflection on my students or my family, they have all been awesome. Rather, it is on the state of other responsibilities within my professional and personal life. I am a colonial Latin American Historian. My research focuses on indigenous interaction with the Catholic Church in colonial Mexico City. I am not actually interested in whether or not the indigenous population believed in the faith, but rather I’m interested in their day-to-day interactions with it and how those interactions influenced the rest of their community. To put it simply I am trying to remove religion from an examination of religious life. I know what you are thinking, what good is this? The short answer is that the Catholic Church, in order to serve the Spanish faithful in the manner in which they were accustomed, a whole lot of requirements needed to be met in order to operate, and there simply were not enough Spaniards to keep it functioning, so they needed the indigenous population to plug the very large gap.

To place it in more modern terms I think about this interaction in the ways in which people who live in a company town, like Midland, Michigan -- home of Dow Chemical -- interact with the company on a daily basis even if they don’t work for the company. Simply stated a lot of infrastructure needs to be in place to support the people who work for the company. That reaches beyond the business itself and includes everything from supporting a good school system to recreational activities. Whenever the company opens a new plant somewhere they have to make sure they have the infrastructure in place. If they don’t, it can still work, but the results are going to be mixed. This is the very basic version of what I spend my time thinking about when I am not grading, playing with my children, sitting in meetings (though truth be told I am sometimes thinking about this while I am in meetings), working on developing game-based pedagogy, or meeting with students and colleagues.

So where is the irony? My book is written and the press has had it for almost a year at this point. Rather, I should say the presses, plural, because it has been jostled between presses with changing partnerships. They are still very interested in my book and this past Tuesday asked me to make some edits based on a reviewer’s comments on my conclusion. They would like the corrections by the end of next week. The reviewer is having difficulty understanding the premise of my book. The idea of studying people’s interaction with something rather than their actual belief is apparently a hard sell. Here is the irony. My book is reflective of my own interaction with the church. I am not a religious person, yet I attend church regularly with my wife who is a devoted Christian and wants to raise our children in the Christian faith. I am currently getting ready to head to church with my boys (my wife has gone on ahead as she plays hand bells and has a performance today). When I get to church I will be helping out in the nursery, next week I will be at a personnel committee meeting for the church (on which I serve), I have just finished leading an eight-week educational course for children at the church, and have been asked to create a special discussion group on immigration, also for the church. I am a member and many of the people at the church know my views. I value the community and support them in many things and they support me. In my interactions with the community my belief doesn’t matter, but my actions do. This is the very thing that I study and somehow I haven’t made it clear to the anonymous reviewer that my book isn’t about belief, but about the day-to-day interactions, even though I live it. So, as I sit here preparing to take my kids to church I wonder, have I sold you?

Blackbodies and White Lies

Max Planck, 1933

Max Planck, 1933

By Matthew Vannette, Associate Professor of Physics,                                                                                                                                                 Saginaw Valley State University

In the late 19th and into the early 20th centuries, physics had a problem.  The way scientists understood the world at that time could not explain why hot objects, like iron in a blacksmith's forge, glow the precise way they do. Such glowing objects are called blackbodies, and the light they emit is blackbody radiation. The spectrum (how bright the light is at each color) of a glowing body shows a bright peak at middle wavelengths, and gets dimmer at very long, infrared wavelengths and the shorter ultraviolet to X-ray wavelengths.  The particular wavelength where the peak is observed depends on the temperature of the object - higher temperature means a shorter wavelength for the peak.  At the time, Rayleigh's* analysis, using the accepted -- and very successful -- model of light as an electromagnetic wave, predicted that the spectrum should get continually brighter as the wavelength gets shorter, with very short wavelengths being infinitely bright, irrespective of the object's temperature.  Since brighter light means more energy, an infinitely bright light at any wavelength implies that every object gives off infinite energy. 

Rayleigh's result was so wrong it is termed the "ultraviolet catastrophe."  Then, in 1900 a young German physicist named Max Planck settled the matter by introducing energy quantization, the first step toward quantum mechanics.  This was an entirely new way of thinking about things, and it straight-forwardly prevents the infinite energy Rayleigh's model predicts.  Physics was saved.  The idea was so radical that even Planck felt it had no physical basis and that someone smarter would come along and correct it.  But, it solved the problem.

This is the story we tell physics students about the development of quantum mechanics and modern physics.  It has a nice feel to it.  Very scientific method-y, if you will.  And it's a lie.  Planck was not solving the ultraviolet catastrophe known to the rest of the physics community.  Planck's first paper on the subject was published in January of 1900 (though not read at a conference until October of that same year), and he was motivated by a small discrepancy in the long wavelength limit.  Rayleigh's was not published until July 1900.  It just so happens that Planck's work provided a good model over the entire spectrum.  Unless Planck had worked out the ultraviolet catastrophe himself, he could not have been trying to correct for it. And if he had worked it out, for some reason, he chose not to publish. Perhaps he refused to present a model that gave such bad predictions. A core tenet of science is that if the model does not match the data, it cannot be correct, except in a very limited sense.

Understanding the motivations of a researcher is very important. It can reveal subconscious biases that may have led to inadvertent mistakes or omissions. If a particular researcher, then, has the weight of authority, those mistakes and biases can become part of our culture. Even for scientists, it is important to know our history so that we can examine our intellectual forebears honestly. Many years ago, a mentor of mine at Boston College, Andrzej Herczynski said that Einstein was an ordinary genius -- well beyond what our normal minds can expect to achieve -- but Planck was a transcendental genius. We can appreciate Planck's contribution more fully when we realize that he solved a problem well before the rest of the physics community knew there was a problem to solve, and scientists can have a greater understanding for how research and theories are developed.

*British physicist, Lord Rayleigh, John William Strutt




A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Archive

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

Steer Clear of the Swans. British National Archives, Kew, UK (Photo Credit: Jennifer Vannette)

By Jennifer Vannette

We talk about archival work as if it’s always important and serious. To be fair, it mostly is. But sometimes it can be a comedy of errors. Every archive trip is different and every archive you visit has its own rules, style, and vibe.

When I was studying in the UK, I needed to use some Foreign Office papers, which are housed at the National Archives in Kew. I successfully navigated my train south to London and then the Underground out to Kew and was feeling very pleased with myself as I used my smart phone’s GPS to help me find my lodgings and then walk to the archive the next morning. I was there too early, but it was a beautiful day and the grounds were lovely so I wandered around and enjoyed myself. The doors opened, and I walked up to the desk to ask where to go. I still don’t know why they were surprised by my question, but they pointed me to the coat room. In this room, there were all sorts of helpful directions posted about using the lockers, what you could take into the reading room, and the clear bags you would need to use to carry your supplies. They also had umbrella stands, which although immensely practical for the UK, were still a fun novelty for an American. Basically, this room told me everything about using a locker -- something I have know how to do since middle school. The instructions were about to get less clear.

It took awhile to shove everything in the locker and sort out what I could take with me. Feeling a bit warm from my labors of shoving a backpack and coat into the too small locker, I nevertheless felt ready to get to work. There were signs pointing up the stairs to the reading room, so I started climbing. I came to a landing and found a billboard-sized sign emblazoned “Start Here.” So, I went up to the desk to start.

It turns out that that is not where one begins. Of course not. That would be silly. So, up one more flight of stairs I found a little room where I had to fill out more paperwork, sign more things saying I wouldn’t steal stuff (I had already done this once online), and then wait for my photo to be taken for my Researcher’s ID. Now, at this point I had walked a mile and a half to the archive, wrestled with my locker, walked up two flights of stairs and was super confused about where I was supposed to be. You can imagine how great that picture turned out.

ID in hand, I was sent back down stairs. But not as you might have guessed to the “Start Here” sign. Nope, I had to go to the other side of that floor and go through security. (I still don’t know who actually starts at the desk with the sign. It remains a mystery.) I went to hand over my bag and computer for inspection and dropped the bag; the contents spilled out. I walked through the security barrier and set off the alarm. I was sent back through twice and finally it was okay. At this point the security guards and I are having a good laugh because it was just so ridiculous. It was the start of our ongoing bit. You know, the classic “not you again!” bit. I was a hit with security.

The National Archives houses vast amounts material and hosts so many researchers that it’s no wonder they have really modernized the process. I checked in and was assigned a table at which to sit, and my table number corresponded to my locker number where they would deposit my requested materials. To request materials, I went to a computer bank and swiped my ID. That brought up my table/locker number and then any materials requested would automatically be linked to my number. It was pretty cool. When I finished with a box of materials, I took them to a return desk. The only downside is that unlike smaller archives, there was no personal attention offered by the archivists. And, unlike the security guys, they weren’t very friendly. I discovered that somewhere I lost my pencil (probably when my bag spilled) and the archivist-on-duty would not loan me one. He helpfully suggested I buy a new one at the gift shop. The souvenir pencils were £2 a piece. So helpful.

From the outside, it might look like researchers seem calm, cool, and collected, but some days it's really difficult to not feel foolish. That first day at the National Archives was one awkward moment after another. Every archive is different, so no matter how many you visit, it's just hard to predict what is going to happen. The best thing to do is roll with it and learn to laugh at yourself.


Historical studies… a good excuse to travel. St. Andrews, Scotland

Historical studies… a good excuse to travel. St. Andrews, Scotland

Welcome to this new space created by the Department of History at Central Michigan University. Okay, it’s technically a blog but we like the word 'space' because we hope this becomes a participatory community — a place where you can engage and contribute. 

[Re]collection is a completely new project of the history department and it will certainly evolve over time. Why the name [Re]collection? Mostly because Greg secretly abhors the word "blog," so we had to avoid that. But in all seriousness, we selected a name that evokes the many aspects of life as a historian and historical studies in general. Memory and recollection are an intimate part of studying the past, but even more than that the name evokes the act of collecting evidence and information (Re: collection). It is a space where current and former faculty, students, and friends of the department can gather and share the work that is important to us. We hope you will soon find it an indispensable place for department news and connections. 

[Re]collection will feature posts by faculty, grad students, undergrads, and alumni on a variety of topics. We will offer discussions about teaching, get a glimpse at research in progress, get the insider's view on studying abroad, and learn about what in the world people do with their history degrees. Part of what we plan to do is to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and show people what it is like to study, teach, or otherwise engage with our discipline.

To contribute, send a post that is 500-800 words to Jennifer at You can check out the 'Submissions' tab for more details. No need for a lot of academic jargon. Your post can tell a story, explain a teaching strategy, or seek to foster further discussion about a potential research avenue. Perhaps you want to share about an archival trip or explore public history. Maybe you are knowledgable about digital humanities or the ever-changing job market.  Be creative with your ideas. To build this community we need your contributions. 

Greg Smith, Jon Truitt, and Jennifer Vannette