The More Things Change | Issue 09

The More Things Change | Issue 09

29 April – 5 May

This week in history, some new places are confirmed to exist, and forensic science becomes a thing.

30 April, 1492: After two years of negotiations with the Spanish government, Christopher Columbus received his commission of exploration. He then sailed off to Central and South America and went after everyone’s gold. To his credit, he brought the existence of the Americas to popular attention in Europe, and is one of the best-known people to have claimed that the Earth was in fact round, even though one time he looked at the stars wrong and thought it was shaped like a pear. Unfortunately for Columbus, though, he apparently insisted throughout his life that the Americas were a part of Asia instead of a new continent, which is probably why said continent was eventually named after someone else.

5 May, 1905: In the UK, a trial began that would be the first to use fingerprint evidence to gain a conviction for murder. CSI it was not: the evidence was mostly eyewitness accounts and statements from the suspects’ girlfriends that made them look very suspicious. Pretty much the only forensic evidence was one right thumbprint, and if the police hadn’t had suspects in the first place they’d have never gotten anywhere with it. Fingerprint matching was a new practice at that point, rivalled by a system called anthropometry (which was actually total rubbish), but it succeeded in this trial and has done ever since. CSI still manages to depict it wrong, though. You should get an expert to declare a definite match instead of just letting a computer do it for you, but presumably they don’t want to spend the money on actors for that.

1 May, 1930: Pluto, that least fortunate of celestial bodies, was officially named. It had previously been referred to as Planet X by the astronomer who spent years trying to find it, and could have been named Percival after him, but the tradition of naming planets after Roman gods prevailed (Uranus being the one exception, for the pedants out there). Thus the newly-discovered planet was named after a god who sat around and ruled over dead people all day. The name then became popular in wider culture, and was given most notably to a Disney character and a new element. Pluto is now officially called 134340 Pluto after losing its status as a planet in 2006, which must have been fairly depressing for the person who suggested its name in the first place.
This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2013.
Posted 3:14pm Sunday 28th April 2013 by Jessica Bromell.