Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, July 1, 2024

The disappearing island

Sometimes I don't understand my fellow humans at all.

Take, for example, our habit of drawing imaginary lines all over the place and then pretending those lines should have an impact on what can do.  Over here, you have to follow one set of rules; walk ten meters to the west and cross an invisible line some random person made up, and you have to follow a completely different set of rules.  You want to purchase liquor, own a gun, marry someone of the same sex, gamble, get decent health care or a good education?  Whoa, you first better figure out where the lines are and make sure you're on the right side!  In order to cross some lines (legally, at least) you have to have a specific little booklet and let a grim and humorless person stamp it first.  Try to get across without a booklet and stamp, and boy, are you in trouble.  In fact, some people take these invisible lines so seriously they'll kill anyone who tries to cross.

This kind of behavior may well explain why the aliens take one look at Earth and then warp right the fuck out of the quadrant.

One of the weirdest examples of this phenomenon has to do with an on-again, off-again island in the central Mediterranean, about halfway between Tunisia and the island of Sicily.  You probably know this is a tectonically-active region -- Sicily is the home of Mount Etna -- so there are a number of small volcanic islands and seamounts dotted around the place.  One of these is called (depending on whom you ask) Empedocles Seamount or Graham Island or Île Julia or Isola Ferdinandea.

The reason for the multiple names is that prior to 1831 it had been a submarine volcano, on the order of six meters below sea level at lowest tide.  But then it erupted (as volcanoes are wont to do) and suddenly the peak of the seamount was above sea level.

That's when the fun began.

In August of that year, British sea captain Humphrey Fleming Senhouse saw the newly-formed island (at that point pretty much just a bunch of hot rocks barely poking up out of the water), and in the fine old British tradition of spotting a place and saying "Mine!", claimed it for the British crown.  He named it Graham Island after Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty.  The problem was, French geologist Constant Prévost was also nearby studying the volcanoes in the region, and when the island appeared he thought King Louis Philippe I of France might fancy having a bunch of rocks, so he claimed it for France (and named it Île Julia, supposedly because it appeared in July).  But it wasn't long before the Sicilians, who after all were nearest to the place, said, "The hell you say" and claimed it for their own, renaming it for a third time Isola Ferdinandea (after King Ferdinand II of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies).

As far as I know, the Tunisians decided to leave well enough alone and didn't get involved.

A page out of Constant Prévost's field journal, showing the eruption of whatever-its-name-is [Image is in the Public Domain]

Diplomatic wrangling ensued.  One of of the concerns surrounded whether this was a sign of increasing volcanism, and if it might ultimately link up Sicily with Tunisia, and where would they draw the invisible lines if that happened?  The British were adamant that they wanted it for its strategic location, and drew up plans for building a naval base there.  The French, more luxury-minded, started thinking about a holiday resort.  The Sicilians mostly just said the Italian equivalent of "But... but it's ours," to no particular effect.

It's uncertain what the ultimate outcome of the dispute would have been, because within a few months it became obvious that Graham/Julia/Ferdinandea Island was shrinking.  It turned out that the eruption had mostly produced tephra -- a loose, porous, crumbly rock that doesn't withstand erosion.  Like, at all.  In January 1832 it was reported as barely visible, and by that summer the island had disappeared entirely.  The French, British, and Sicilians all sort of kicked at the dirt and said, "Awww, rats" in an embarrassed sort of way, and then toddled off to look around for other arbitrary and pointless things to fight about.

So at the moment it's back to being Empedocles Seamount, with its peak about eight meters below water level.  Amazingly, though, the dispute is still bugging people.  In November of 2000, some Sicilian divers went down and planted a marble plaque with a Sicilian flag on the top of the seamount, with the idea being if it ever surfaces again the Sicilians will already have laid claim to it.  The plaque has an inscription that reads, "This piece of land, once Ferdinandea, belonged to and shall always belong to the Sicilian people."

Within six months, the combination of waves and tectonic activity fractured the plaque into twelve pieces.  

The whole affair made me think about the quote from Voltaire: "God is a comedian playing to an audience which is afraid to laugh."

But more to the point: is it just me, or is this kind of behavior seriously weird?

I think we accept it just because it's so common, but really, I find myself much more in sympathy with a lot of the Indigenous peoples, who when they first ran into Europeans (whose capacity for invisible line-drawing is second to none) couldn't even understand what the invaders meant when they said "this land is mine now."  The land was here long before you were born, and will still be here long after you're dead.  What does it mean to say it's "yours"?  And it's more bizarre than that when you start factoring in things like mineral rights.  Okay, legally I own 3.5 acres of land.  Do I own what's underneath it?  If so, how far underneath?  Do I own a gradually narrowing conical chunk of material extending all the way to the Earth's center?

What the fuck would that even mean, that I "own" something that I'll never see, never touch, and is in fact physically impossible to reach?

I dunno.  Apparently it makes sense to other people, so maybe I'm the weird one.  All I know is when I think about things like this, and other stuff we argue incessantly about -- like what comprises ninety percent of politics -- I'm hoping the aliens will at least slow down their passage by Earth long enough to pick up a passenger.


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