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Witchcraft and the Art of Winemaking

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Getty Images

Maybe you’ve heard a bad bottle of wine being described as “corked.” This is the fault of TCA, a chemical compound that contaminates wine barrels and corks, giving vino an odor similar to Grandma’s dirty basement or a wet dog. Corked wine isn’t pleasant, but it certainly sounds more appealing than a bottle filled with witch pee—reportedly a common problem in 16th century Italy, when people thought that witches, after retiring from their midnight parties on the Satanic Sabbath, would break into wine cellars and urinate and defecate in the bottles and casks after drinking their fill. Villages would regularly toss out barrels of wine, convinced they’d been contaminated with unholy excrement.

The northern province of Friuli had some help with the problem. The Benandanti, or Good Walkers, were members of an ancient agrarian cult that believed themselves to be practitioners of white magic, and used their powers to protect vintners and farmers.

Membership in the Benandanti was an accident of birth. Children who emerged from the womb with their faces wrapped in a caul, or a piece of amniotic membrane, were thought to have healing powers and the ability to see witches, making them prime candidates to join the group. As children like this grew, they were said to go into a trance and experience strange visions on specific nights. Around the time a benandante turned 20, another benandante would come to visit them during one of these visions and show them the purpose of the trances. Their spirits would reportedly leave their bodies and ride roosters, goats or other animals through the sky, drinking the neighbors’ wine and joining other Benandanti in the woods.

But that's not all they did: The Benandanti would also battle the witches during their Satanic Sabbath by flanking them and attacking them with stalks of fennel. The witches fought back with stalks of sorghum. If they won the battle, crops would wither, children and animals would get sick, and the town's wine casks would become toilets. If the Benandanti won, though, the nearby villages would be safe and prosperous for the season. The fields would be fertile, the animals healthy, and the wine clean and delicious.

Unfortunately, the Benandanti were active during the Roman Inquisition, which prosecuted scores of people for heresy, blasphemy, sorcery, and witchcraft. Inquisitors investigated the Benandanti and at first claimed them heretics, but ultimately decided that their activity was “benign magic” and not Satanic.

No Benandanti were executed, but the Inquisition’s initial denounciation of them left unpopular with the villagers. They became synonymous with the very witches they fought against, and the cult declined and disappeared, leaving the wine to fend for itself.

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Medicine
Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

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NASA // Public Domain
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History
On This Day in 1983, Sally Ride Made History
NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

Thirty-five years ago today, on June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. She flew on the space shuttle Challenger on a six-day mission. She had previously helped build the shuttle's robot arm, and now she operated it in space. Not only was she the first American woman to go to space, she was the youngest astronaut in space, at age 32.

(As with many space-related firsts, that "American" qualifier is important. The Soviet space program had sent two women cosmonauts into space well in advance of Ride. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova flew all the way back in 1963, and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. They also sent various younger people to space, including Tereshkova.)

Ride represented a change in the previously completely male astronaut program. Although NASA had unofficially tested women in the late 1950s as part of the Mercury program, the idea of sending women into space was quickly discarded. NASA policy for decades was that only men would be considered as astronauts. It took until 1978 for NASA to change the policy—that year, six women became astronauts: Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Kathryn Sullivan, Anna Fisher, Margaret Rhea Seddon, and Shannon Lucid.

Ride and her colleagues were subject to an endless barrage of sexist media questions, curious how women might fare in space. They also encountered institutional sexism at NASA itself. Ride recalled:

"The engineers at NASA, in their infinite wisdom, decided that women astronauts would want makeup—so they designed a makeup kit. A makeup kit brought to you by NASA engineers. ... You can just imagine the discussions amongst the predominantly male engineers about what should go in a makeup kit."

Ride held a Ph.D. in astrophysics, two bachelor's degrees (English and physics), and had served as CapCom (Capsule Communicator) for the second and third shuttle flights, STS-2 and -3. She was an accomplished pilot and athlete, as well as a Presbyterian elder. She was closely connected to Challenger, performing two missions on it and losing four fellow members of her 1978 class when it exploded.

After her astronaut career concluded, Ride served on both the Challenger and Columbia disaster review panels. During the former, she leaked vital information about the Challenger disaster (o-ring engineering reports), though this wasn't broadly known until after her death. She wrote educational books and founded Sally Ride Science. She was asked to head up NASA by the Clinton administration, but declined.

Ride died in 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her obituary made news for quietly mentioning that she was survived by her partner of 27 years, Tam O'Shaughnessy. Although Ride had come out to her family and close friends, the obituary was the first public statement that she was gay. It was also the first time most people found out she'd suffered from pancreatic cancer at all; she asked that donations in her memory be made to a fund devoted to studying that form of cancer.

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