Friday, January 27, 2023

What’s Up With the Very Real ‘Doomsday Clock’?

On January 23, 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a non-profit research and education organization based in Chicago, moved the hands on its Doomsday Clock forward to 100 seconds to midnight – the closest in its 74-year history. According the Bulletin, this change reflects the growing threat posed by climate change, nuclear proliferation, and misinformation, and the increasing unwillingness of world leaders to respond to said threats. But just what is the Doomsday Clock, anyway? Where did it come from, how its it updated, and what can it tell us about the ever-changing risk of global catastrophe in the 20th and 21st Centuries?

The Doomsday Clock traces its origins back to 1945 and the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that year, a group of Chicago scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, including metallurgist Hyman Goldsmith and biophysicist Eugene Rabinowitch, founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, a monthly newsletter aimed at keeping the public informed of the emerging danger of nuclear weapons. Two years later, when Rabinowitch and Goldsmith decided to expand the newsletter into a proper magazine, they asked artist Martyl Langsdorf, wife of physicist and Bulletin member Alexander Langsdorf, to design the cover. At first Martyl considered drawing a giant letter “U” to represent Uranium, but after listening to conversations between other Bulletin scientists, she realized that essence of the publication was not nuclear weapons themselves but the dire risk of global catastrophe they posed. Thus, according to the Bulletin’s website:

“She drew the hands of a clock ticking down to midnight. Like the countdown to an atomic bomb explosion, it suggested the destruction that awaited if no one took action to stop it.”

The Doomsday Clock debuted on the cover of the June 1947 issue of the Bulletin, with the hands set at seven minutes to midnight. Though this position originally had no particular meaning – Martyl admitting that she placed the hands for “aesthetic reasons” – it would nonetheless form the baseline for all future adjustments. The decision whether to move the hands – and how far – is made every January based on changes in technology and geopolitics over the previous year. Originally this decision was made by founding editor Eugene Rabinowitch himself, but after his death in 1973 the responsibility passed to the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which currently includes 13 Nobel laureates.

In the 74 years since its creation, the Doomsday Clock has been changed 24 times. The first change was made in 1949 in response to the Soviet Union detonating its first atomic bomb, an event which drastically changed the climate of the Cold War and lead the bulletin to move the clock to three minutes to midnight. Other events which pushed the clock closer to midnight include France and China developing nuclear weapons in the early 1960s, the escalation of the Vietnam War in 1968, and President Ronald Reagan pulling out of disarmament talks in 1980; while events which pulled back the clock include the world’s scientists collaborating during the 1957-58 International Geophysical Year, the United States and Soviet Union signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Prior to 2020, the closest the clock has come to midnight is 2 minutes in 1953, when the United States and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons within six months of each other, while the furthest it has been is 17 minutes following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Strangely, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis – the closest the world has ever come to all-out nuclear war – had no effect on the clock, as the crisis was resolved long before the Bulletin could meet to discuss it. Furthermore, the crisis resulted in major global policy changes – such as the creation of the famous Moscow-Washington Hotline – which made the world a significantly safer place.

Due to its simplicity and visceral immediacy, the Doomsday Clock quickly became an icon and an enduring symbol of the Cold War, inspiring countless works of popular art such the Iron Maiden song “Two Minutes to Midnight” and the Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen. And as the times have changed, so too has the Doomsday Clock. In 2007, designer Michael Beirut updated the Clock’s design to give it a more contemporary feel, while in 2009, when the Bulletin retired its print edition and became a digital-only publication, the Clock also made the transition, and now appears as a regularly-updated logo on the Bulletin’s website. In 2016 the Bulletin also commissioned a physical Doomsday Clock to hang in the lobby its Chicago office, which attracts thousands of tourists every year.

Other changes have been more fundamental. While the Clock has long been associated with the threat of nuclear war, in more recent years the Bulletin has kept its eye on more current and emerging threats to civilization, including climate change, biotechnology, cyberwarfare, and even artificial intelligence. Indeed, the Bulletin’s rationale for moving the Clock to 100 seconds to midnight in 2020 – the closest in its entire history – was as follows:

“Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

Nonetheless, the threat of nuclear war continues to factor heavily into the Clock’s setting, as evidenced by its being set forward to 5 minutes in 2007 following nuclear weapons tests in North Korea and the resumption Uranium enrichment in Iran.

Yet despite the Doomsday Clock’s iconic status, it has faced considerable criticism over the years, with many questioning the validity of the Bulletin’s process for setting its hands and even the clock’s very value as an indicator of global risk. Much of this criticism has centred on the clock’s representation of risk, which some like Anders Sandberg of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University view as inherently flawed. According to Sandberg, the various risk factors measured by the Clock are fundamentally different and thus cannot be easily compared. They are also all manmade, meaning that:

“…the normal forms of probability estimate are not just inadequate, they are actively misleading. [The Clock is] not an exact measure and it’s also combining several things. It was perhaps much easier when they started, when it was just nuclear war, but since then we have gained other existential risks.”

But even when applied to nuclear warfare alone, says Sandberg, the Clock’s very design makes it less than useful as an indicator of risk, as its inexorable “countdown” model implies that global catastrophe is inevitable rather than something we can actively avoid. Furthermore, Sandberg argues that the clock’s fundamental mission – to remind humanity of how close it is to disasters-  may in fact be counterproductive, stating:

“You can’t live your life at 3 minutes to midnight.”

This view is shared by Katherine Pandora, a history of science researcher at the University of Oklahoma, who argues:

“Having authorities state that an emergency is at hand is an effective way to gain someone’s attention and have them primed to take immediate action, which is the logic behind the clock’s minutes-to-midnight gambit. Asking successive generations of people to sustain a constant sense of emergency is a contradiction in terms. The unintended effects of this directive can impede a successful resolution of the issue at hand and undermine the working relationship between experts and nonexperts. I don’t think that using apocalyptic rhetoric helps us to do the hard work of discussing difficult and complicated issues in a democracy.”

Nonetheless, Pandora praises the efforts of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to keep the public informed about emerging global threats, stating:

“It is the prodigious amount of research and analysis that ground the conclusions in the reports that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issues that are the real tools for mobilizing discussion among all of us on critical issues.”

The Doomsday Clock has also received criticism from right-wing commentators, who accuse it of being, in the words of journalist John Merline, “little more than a Liberal angst meter.” These critics argue that despite founding editor Eugene Rabinowitz’s assertion that:

“The Bulletin’s clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age.”

… the clock’s movements are motivated merely by political ideology, moving closer to midnight during Republican administrations and farther away during Democratic ones. However, a cursory look at the clock’s history reveals this to be untrue, as the clock was backed off significantly under Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, and moved forward under Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Other right-wing criticism has centred on the Bulletin’s 2017 Doomsday Clock statement in which it argued:

“Information monocultures, fake news, and the hacking and release of politically sensitive emails may have had an illegitimate impact on the US presidential election, threatening the fabric of democracy.”

This has led commenters to accuse the Bulletin of equating “fake news” with nuclear warfare as an existential risk to civilizations.

But most criticisms, whether liberal or conservative, appear to miss the fundamental point of the Doomsday Clock. As the Bulletin states on its website:

The Doomsday Clock is not a forecasting tool, and we are not predicting the future. Rather, we study events that have already occurred and existing trends. Our Science and Security Board tracks numbers and statistics—looking, for example, at the number and kinds of nuclear weapons in the world, the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the degree of acidity in our oceans, and the rate of sea level rise. The board also takes account of leaders’ and citizens’ efforts to reduce dangers, and efforts by institutions—whether of governments, markets, or civil society organizations—to follow through on negotiated agreements.

The Bulletin is a bit like a doctor making a diagnosis. We look at data, as physicians look at lab tests and x-rays, and also take harder-to-quantify factors into account, as physicians do when talking with patients and family members. We consider as many symptoms, measurements, and circumstances as we can. Then we come to a judgment that sums up what could happen if leaders and citizens don’t take action to treat the conditions.

The Bulletin acknowledges that at its heart, the Doomsday Clock is – and has always been – a symbol, an easily digestible representation of global risk intended to spark discussion and spur action. And in response to accusations of political partisanship, the Bulletin offers a sobering reminder:

“Ensuring the survival of our societies and the human species is not a political agenda. Cooperating with other countries to achieve control of extremely dangerous technologies should not involve partisan politics. If scientists involved with the Bulletin are critical of current policies on nuclear weapons and climate change, it is because those policies increase the possibility of self-destruction.”

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References

 What is the Doomsday Clock? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/

Mecklin, John, This is Your COVID Wake-Up Call: It is 100 Seconds to Midnight, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, https://thebulletin.org/doomsday-clock/current-time/

 

Doomsday Clock Moves Closest to Midnight in its 73-Year History, ABC News, January 23, 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-24/doomsday-clock-moves-closest-to-midnight-in-73-year-history/11896294

 

Huffstutter, P.J, Doomsday Clock Moving Closer to Midnight? The Spokesman-Review, October 16, https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1314&dat=20061016&id=tGdWAAAAIBAJ&pg=5932,54244942006

Criss, Doug, Running the “Doomsday Clock” is a Full-Time Job. Really, CNN, January 26, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/26/world/doomsday-clock-scientists-trnd/index.html

 

Benedict, Kennette, Science, Art, and the Legacy of Martyl, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 9, 2013, https://thebulletin.org/2013/04/science-art-and-the-legacy-of-martyl

Ukman, Jason, Doomsday Clock Ticks Closer to Midnight, The Washington Post, January 10, 2012, https://ift.tt/vhAmx72

Barasch, Alex, What the Doomsday Clock Doesn’t Tell Us, Slate, January 26, 2018, https://slate.com/technology/2018/01/what-the-doomsday-clock-doesnt-tell-us.html

Ghose, Tia, Is the Doomsday Clock Still Relevant? Live Science, 2016, https://www.livescience.com/53801-doomsday-clock-relevance.html

 

Hopper, Tristin, Why the Doomsday Clock is an Idiotic Indicator the World’s Media Should Ignore, National Post, January 25, 2018, https://nationalpost.com/news/world/why-the-doomsday-clock-is-an-idiotic-indicator-the-worlds-media-should-ignore

 

Merline, John, The Famed ‘Doomsday Clock” is Little More Than a Liberal Angst Meter, January 25, 2019, https://www.investors.com/politics/commentary/the-doomsday-clock-measures-liberal-angst-not-global-risk/

The post What’s Up With the Very Real ‘Doomsday Clock’? appeared first on Today I Found Out.



from Today I Found Out
by Gilles Messier - January 27, 2023 at 12:13PM
Article provided by the producers of one of our Favorite YouTube Channels!
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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Review: Trader Joe's Maple Pancake Flavored Puffs



These snacks looked kind of like the legendary Shearer's Caramel Corn Puffs, with a soft of caramel-like color and knotty shapes, though a bit thicker. ...

from Taquitos.net Snack Reviews
by January 26, 2023 at 10:02AM

Death by Blue Peacock Britain’s Bizarre and Deadly Cold War “Rainbow Codes”

In the world of modern weaponry, a good name can go a long way when it comes to the intimidation factor. Names like “Hellfire”, “Sidewinder”, “Stinger”, and “Javelin” convey menace and devastating firepower, making it abundantly clear that you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of these weapons. But what if you were confronted by a weapon named “Blue Peacock, or “Green Bamboo,” or “Orange Poodle”? While such oddly-named weapons with such names might seem more likely to make the enemy die of laughter, these are in fact real codenames used by the British Military during the early days of the Cold War. And though they may seem outwardly laughable, these names served a deadly serious purpose. This is the strange tale of the Rainbow Codes.

In military security, codenames serve to obscure the purpose of an operation, person, or piece of equipment while providing an easy-to-remember designation for everyday use. Therefore, for maximum security, a codename should be completely random and have nothing to do with what it is protecting. However, one group that doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo are the Nazis. Throughout the Second World War, German military administrators, seemingly unable to help themselves, indulged in the unfortunate habit of bestowing secret weapons and operations with meaningful, symbolic names, often drawn from Germanic mythology. Consequently, Allied intelligence agencies were often able to work out the meaning of codenames from context alone.

For example, early in the War, the German Luftwaffe and British Royal Air Force were engaged in a shadowy arms race known as the “Battle of the Beams.”  In September 1940, as part of the larger campaign now commonly known as the “Blitz”, the Luftwaffe began round-the-clock strategic bombardment of London and other major English cities in the hopes of forcing Britain to sue for peace. While bombing at night made the German bombers less vulnerable to British fighter aircraft and antiaircraft guns, it also made it much harder for them to find their targets. Consequently, the Germans developed an electronic navigation aid known as Knickebein [“kuh-nick-uh-bye-n”] or “crooked leg”. The system used a pair of transmitters based in mainland Europe to project a pair of overlapping radio beams over the intended target. If the bomber pilot flew straight along the beam, he heard a continuous tone; if he strayed to the left or to the right, he head a string of Morse code letters. Knickebein was used successfully for several months until the British learned of its existence and developed countermeasures to jam the system – whereupon the Germans switched to a more sophisticated system known as X-Gerät, [“Gerr-ate”], which used multiple beams that intersected over the target. This, too, proved highly effective at first, and was largely responsible for the success of the November 14, 1940 raid that devastated the city of Coventry. Eventually, however, the British worked out how X-Gerät worked and once again succeeded in jamming the signal.

Wary that the Germans would try again, R.V. Jones, Britain’s Assistant Director of Scientific Intelligence, set out to identify the next electronic navigation system and develop countermeasures before the Germans could even field the new device. Combing through German Enigma messages – which British codebreakers had recently cracked – Jones discovered references to a mysterious device codenamed “Wotan.” Consulting with an expert on German culture, Jones discovered that “Wotan” or “Odin” was the one-eyed king of the Gods in Norse and Germanic mythology. Knowing of the German’s love of meaningful codenames, Jones deduced that “Wotan” was likely a single-beam navigation system. He turned out to be correct: Wotan, also known as Y-Gerät, worked by transmitting a signal from a ground station to a receiver aboard the bomber aircraft, which then transmitted its own signal back. In this manner, the position of the aircraft could be accurately determined. Armed with this educated guess, Jones sent out aircraft equipped with radio receivers to track down the beams. Unfortunately for the Germans, their choice of  45 MegaHertz for Y-Gerät turned out to be a poor one, for it just so happened to match the transmitting frequency of the dormant pre-war BBC television transmitter at Alexandra Palace. Using this transmitter, Jones was able to send false, distorted signals back to the German bombers, causing them to drift off-course and drop their bombs over empty countryside. When the Germans eventually discovered the jamming, they abandoned the radio navigation concept entirely – a defeat brought about in part by a poorly-chosen codename.

Later, in August 1944, German navy Sub-Lieutenant Hans-Joachim Förster, commanding the Type VII U-boat U-408, achieved a remarkable feat by sinking two warships and two merchant ships in the English Channel in the span of five days. Though Allied submarine hunters scoured the area mercilessly, strangely none were able to detect U-408, and none of the 92 depth charges they dropped came anywhere close to the submarine. Shortly thereafter, other ships began reporting encounters with similarly undetectable “phantom U-boats”, baffling Allied military analysts. Soon, however, interrogations of captured U-boat crewmen revealed that the Germans had begun experimentally covering U-boats with a strange coating composed of thick rubber tiles covered in small dimples. At first, the purpose of this coating eluded Allied scientists, who theorized that it offered protection against depth charges or greater underwater speed – similar in principle to the dimples on a golf ball. However, experiments quickly discredited both theories. It wasn’t until prisoner interrogations and decrypted Enigma intercepts revealed the name of the coating – Alberich [“Ahl-burr-rick”] – that the Allies realized its true purpose. In Norse and Germanic folklore, Alberich is the magical king of the Dwarves who possesses the ability to become invisible. The Allies thus deduced that the coating was intended to absorb sound waves and make U-boats invisible to ASDIC, an early form of sonar. However, only a handful of U-boats were ever fitted with Alberich – too few and too late to have any significant impact on the course of the war.

This is not to say that the Allies weren’t above employing meaningful codenames for their own amusement. For example, in 1943, British Intelligence launched Operation Mincemeat, an elaborate deception meant to divert German troops away from Operation Husky – the planned Allied invasion of Sicily. The operation involved dressing up a dead body as a fictitious military officer, packing its briefcase and pockets with fake documents, and dumping it off the coast of  neutral Spain. It was hoped that the documents – which indicated that the Allies would land in Greece, not Sicily – would eventually find their way into German hands. Though the mastermind of the operation, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, was offered a selection of randomly-generated codenames, he chose “Mincemeat” largely so he could announce the success of the operation with the thematically appropriate message “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole” – and for more on this strangest of deceptions, please check out our previous video The Bizarre World War II Plan to Score a Major Victory for the Allies.

Having learned a valuable lesson from the Germans, at the end of the war the British Ministry of Supply developed a foolproof scheme for generating truly random codenames, known as the Rainbow Codes. The system worked by pairing a random colour with a random noun, creating easy-to-remember codenames that were by design completely unrelated to the project they were meant to conceal. While effective, the system resulted in some truly bizarre and decidedly un-intimidating combinations, such as “Green Cheese” – a nuclear-tipped anti-ship missile; “Orange Poodle” – an early-warning radar; and “Yellow Duckling” – an infrared-based submarine detector. Others were slightly more intimidating, such as “Black Knight” – a rocket test vehicle; “Blue Steel” – a nuclear air-launched standoff missile; and “Red Rapier” – an air-launched cruise missile. Occasionally, these random combinations actually resulted in meaningful names, such as “Black Maria” – slang for a police van; “Red Duster” – a nickname for the Red Ensign, the flag flown by British merchant ships; “Blue Danube,” “Blue Moon”, “Blue Streak”, and “Yellow Sun.” And in case you are wondering, these codenames refer to, respectively: an aircraft Identification Friend or Foe or IFF device; an antiaircraft missile; a nuclear warhead; two intercontinental ballistic missiles; and a nuclear weapon casing, meant to house the “Green Grass” and “Red Snow” warheads.

But the weapon with perhaps the most deceptive Rainbow Code name was “Blue Peacock”, also known as “Blue Bunny” or “Brown Bunny.” Despite the cuddly image conjured by those names, Blue Peacock was truly horrific in concept. Essentially a nuclear land mine, the weapon consisted of a ten-kiloton “Blue Danube” warhead meant to be buried along the European border with the Soviet Union. In the event of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the mines would be detonated by remote control, obliterating large numbers of Soviet troops and heavily irradiating the border, rendering it impassable to further waves of invaders. To protect the warhead against the elements, it was housed in a 7-ton steel casing, internally pressurized to prevent water from leaking inside and fitted with anti-tampering switches that would detonate the weapon if it was moved. However, the design suffered from one major flaw: in the winter, the weapon could potentially get so cold that its detonating mechanism would be rendered inoperative. Several conventional solutions were suggested, such as wrapping the weapon in insulating blankets, but one proposal was so out of the box that it has gone down in history as one of the most bizarre and outlandish plans in the history of warfare. The plan called for – and we can’t make this stuff up – live chickens to be placed inside the weapon’s protective case and provided with a supply of food, water, and air. This would keep the chickens alive for about a week, during which time their body heat would keep the detonating mechanism at a functional temperature. Thankfully for PETA members everywhere, this bonkers plan was never implemented; indeed, the whole Blue Peacock project soon eventually abandoned as it was realized that intentionally nuking an allied nation’s territory was perhaps taking things a bit too far. Being top-secret, all records of Blue Peacock were sealed in the archives and the whole scheme forgotten until April 1, 2004, when the documents were finally declassified. Given the date, the media naturally assumed that the whole “Chicken Powered Bomb” proposal was some sort of elaborate practical joke, forcing Tom O’Leary, head of education and interpretation at the National Archives, to appear before the press and solemnly assure them that:

“It does seem like an April fool but it most certainly is not. The Civil Service does not do jokes.”

The Rainbow Codes system was used until 1958, when the Ministry of Supply was broken up and its duties divided between the War Office, the Air Ministry, and the civilian Ministry of Aviation. In its place, the various services adopted an alphanumeric code system consisting of two random letters paired with three random digits – such as the WE.177 series of air-dropped tactical nuclear bombs. But while such codes arguably do an even better job of concealing their true purpose, one has to admit they lack the quaint charm of the Rainbow Codes, a relic of a more innocent time when one could officially name a world-ending nuclear weapon “Brown Bunny” and still keep a straight face.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References

Johnson, Brian, The Secret War, The Anchor Press, Ltd, Tiptree, England, 1978

 

“Stealth” U-Boats, Deutsches U-Boot Museum, http://dubm.de/en/stealth-u-boats/

 

U-Boat U-480: the Hunt for Nazi Germany’s Rubber Stealth Submarine, YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMByX0xKILg

 

The Real Meaning of the Words: a Pedantic Glossary of British Nuclear Weapons, https://web.archive.org/web/20120314120957/http://www.mcis.soton.ac.uk/Site_Files/pdf/nuclear_history/glossary.pdf

 

Gibson, Christopher, United Kingdom Aerospace and Weapons Projects, https://web.archive.org/web/20121024123107/http://www.skomer.u-net.com/projects/start.htm

 

Cold War Bomb Warmed by Chickens, BBC News, April 1, 2004, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3588465.stm

 

Edwards, Rob, British Army Planned Nuclear Landmines, New Scientist, July 16, 2003, https://ift.tt/tW6kZir

 

The post Death by Blue Peacock Britain’s Bizarre and Deadly Cold War “Rainbow Codes” appeared first on Today I Found Out.



from Today I Found Out
by Gilles Messier - January 26, 2023 at 09:04AM
Article provided by the producers of one of our Favorite YouTube Channels!
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Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Review: Muddy Bites Waffle Cone Snacks Milk Chocolate



These snacks were shaped like mini ice cream sugar cones, or really like the broken-off bottoms of the kind of cones that have chocolate inside the base. ...

from Taquitos.net Snack Reviews
by January 24, 2023 at 09:15AM

Friday, January 20, 2023

Review: Andes Creme de Menthe Thins



The chocolate mints from Andes are one of those snacks that are just so good that we tend to compare all sort of chocolate mint snacks to them, and we've even reviewed some of the brand's spinoff candies — cookies and a full-size candy bar -- but we never actually reviewed the original. ...

from Taquitos.net Snack Reviews
by January 20, 2023 at 06:57PM

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Thursday, January 5, 2023

What Person Has Murdered the Most People Directly By Their Own Hand, And Who Has Saved the Most Lives?

While many a historic leader can be credited with sometimes even millions of deaths via their orders, with perhaps the poster children of this in modern times being the likes of Hitler and Stalin, these individuals themselves only killed in a somewhat abstract way- not by their own hand directly. Which brings us to the topic of the day- who killed the most people directly by their own hand? And, on the more positive side of things, what bastion of awesome saved the most lives directly by their own hand?

As for the negative side of this lively coin, one could argue that Brigadier General Paul Tibbets and Major General Charles Sweeny (or their respective bombardiers, Colonel Thomas Ferebee and Captain Kermit Beahan) hold the record here with their respective bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 70,000-140,000 people in the former, and 60,000-80,000 in the latter.  However, arguably a more darkly impressive spree of mass murder, and fitting slightly more firmly in the “directly by their own hand” classification would be the man who is, according to Guinness World Records, the “Most Prolific Executioner” of all time- Stalin’s own Vasili Blokhin.

Born to a Russian peasant family in 1895, as a young man Vasili quickly earned a reputation for “chernaya rabota”, or “black work”, while serving in the Tsarist army during World War I- gaining recognition from Stalin himself for his covert assassinations, torture, and executions. Blokhin quickly rose through the ranks of Russia’s secret police at the time—the NKVD—eventually becoming the head of the Kommandatura department, members of which were all approved by Stalin and took orders directly from him, carrying out black work missions specific to furthering Stalin’s cause.

Among other things in this role, Blokhin oversaw many mass executions and executed several high-profile individuals himself, including Mikhail Tukachevsky, Marshal of the Soviet Union, and two of the former NKVD chiefs under whom he had previously served.

But Blokhin’s most infamous deed was performed at the bloody Katyn Massacre. In 1939, just over two weeks after Germany invaded Poland, Soviet forces entered the eastern side of Poland. Though they didn’t officially declare war, they captured over 20,000 Polish officers and detained them in Soviet prison camps.

But what to do with them? Well, Stalin being Stalin, on March 5, 1940, Stalin ordered the executions of all Polish officers being held…

This brings us to why Vasili Blokhin is arguably the biggest direct mass murdered in human history. Helping out in killing off these 20,000 or so officers, over a twenty-eight day period, Vasili personally performed over 7000 of these Polish executions at Katyn, averaging killing almost 300 people a night by his own hand…

On this note, usually, the executions would take place from dusk til dawn, with Blokhin working nearly uninterrupted each night. As to how he managed so many murders in such a short span by his own hand, the system setup was extremely efficient. The executions would go like this: after signing identification papers, officers were led with their arms bound into a small room that was equipped with soundproofed walls, a drain, and a hose. Forced to their knees, a single shot was delivered to the back of the prisoners’ heads, killing them instantly. Their bodies would then be dragged through a second door away, the room would be hosed down, and the next prisoner would be brought in.

As for what he used for this, Blokhin favoured the 7.65 mm Walther PPK pistol. For Blokhin, it didn’t have as much of a kickback as other guns, which meant less pain in his wrist after performing hundreds of executions every night. The pistols also rarely misfired, which meant the victims could be killed with one shot nearly every time someone pulled the trigger.

This gun was also favored for these executions because the pistols were the make carried by German officers. Thus, in the event that the mass graves were discovered, the bodies would contain bullets from a German-style pistol and the Soviets could deny responsibility for the deaths.

Going back to Vasili, on April 27, 1940, Blokhin was awarded with the Order of the Red Banner for carrying out this amazingly bloody organized mass killing. The Order was traditionally given to military personnel who displayed “exceptional courage, self-denial, and valour during combat”. That said, given the Soviets didn’t exactly want to advertise what Vasili had done, he was given the Order secretly.

On that note, in 1941, Stalin found himself in an alliance with the Polish government after the Germans invaded Russia. At this point, he released hundreds of thousands of Poles from prison camps, and was pressed on several occasions to account for the many thousands of missing POWs. Stalin pled ignorance on this, but in 1943 the truth began to emerge with the discovery of the mass graves at Katyn. As was the plan from the beginning if discovered, the Soviet government denied all responsibility and blamed the Germans. It wasn’t until 1990 and Mikhail Gorbachev’s institution of openness that the truth was revealed through a series of documents highlighting the country’s role in the massacre.

As for the man himself, Blokhin didn’t live to see his deeds publicly recognized. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, he was forced to retire. During the deStalinization campaign that followed, Blokhin was stripped of his rank and turned to alcoholism. A combination of drink and insanity reportedly led to his death in 1955, the cause of which is officially listed as suicide. If true, and not simply suicided, this means he can add his own life to his record murder tally.

As for that tally, along with the approximately 7000 prisoners of war Blokhin personally executed at Katyn, he is reportedly directly responsible for the deaths of many thousands of other people in prison camps during the Second World War, aptly earning him that title of “Most Prolific Executioner” in the Guinness Book of World Records and, as far as we can find, caveats about pushing a button to drop a nuke aside, also the human in history who has the notorious distinction of killing the most people directly by his own hand.

So what about the other side of this coin? The person who has directly saved the most lives? Once again various arguments could be made about world leaders, such as Teddy Roosevelt who, among other things, negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, earning him the Nobel Peace Prize, and then followed this up more significantly by preventing what would end up being WWI, at least for several years.

On this one, in 1905 tensions were mounting between the somewhat allied France and Britain, with Germany on the other side, thanks to the First Moroccan crisis. In a nutshell, this was on its face an issue of which European power should hold sway over Morocco. But more deeply, this was about Germany getting a little nervous over Britain and France buddying up to one another during the crisis, French expansion of influence, and how this all shifted power in Europe.

As tensions rose, Germany attempted to get an official position from the U.S. and Roosevelt, but the general contention at this time in the U.S. was that the country should stay out of the conflict. So Roosevelt stayed more or less neutral publicly.

Eventually Germany considered simply going to war with France, but were concerned that the British would ally with the French in retaliation. In part thanks to Roosevelt’s previous good work helping to mediate the Russo-Japanese War conflict resolution (which, again, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize), Roosevelt was turned to to help convince France to agree to the conference between the different countries in this conflict (13 in total attended).

After securing a promise from Germany that it would back the Roosevelt’s decisions during the conference- at this time, Germany was under the impression Roosevelt would favor them, rather than be neutral- Roosevelt agreed to help and was able to convince France to attend.

This was a key point because the conference almost devolved completely at one point, at the same time France was beginning to march troops towards the German border, with Germany in turn mobilizing its own forces in response.

But once Roosevelt joined in the conference, after securing Frances’ attendance, he then put forward a proposal to resolve the conflict, which heavily favored France. Naturally, Germany rejected it.  However, with little support outside of Austria-Hungary, and the U.S. not backing them as they’d thought, along with their previous promise to Roosevelt to back the U.S.’ decisions, Germany finally gave in.

Ultimately the conference had a peaceful ending, with France’s position more or less winning out, though there were a few face saving provisions thrown the German’s way.

Without Roosevelt helping to convince the French to attend the conference and his work in it, or had the conference broken off, the conflict would have likely escalated to war, which given many of the treatise that led to the escalation of WWI and the two sides involved here, this may well have seen some version of WWI happen almost a decade sooner than it eventually did.

Granted, given that many millions ultimately died anyway when the war did eventually kick off about a decade later, one could argue that Roosevelt did not save millions by his efforts in this peace conference, but simply delayed some people’s deaths who ultimately fought in WWI and were old enough in 1905 to have fought in that one too, had it come to be.

Other arguments for the individual who saved the most lives directly could be made about various scientists, particularly in the medical end of things, such as Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine, among countless other scientists and inventors out there who have saved millions of lives by their direct actions.

A perhaps more obscure individual who has saved millions to date is one James Harrison of Australia- the man with the golden arm. As to how he’s saved so many, Harrison’s blood contains an antibody called Rho(D) Immune Globulin that is used to treat Rhesus disease, a severe form of anemia where antibodies in a pregnant woman’s blood destroy her baby’s blood cells.

James Harrison may never have discovered this quirk in his bloody if it were not for the fact that when he was 13 in 1949, Harrison had major chest surgery. The surgery required transfusions of almost three-and-a-half gallons of blood. During the three months he spent recovering in the hospital, grateful for the donated blood that had saved his life, he pledged to start donating his own as soon as he was legally old enough as a way to pay back the kindness of the strangers who donated the blood he used. (At the time, one needed to be 18 to donate blood.)

In 1954, when Harrison turned 18 and started giving blood, it was quickly discovered that his blood contained a rare, very valuable lifesaving antibody that could be used to treat Rhesus disease.

At that time, Rhesus disease was killing tens of thousands of babies per year (around 10,000 annually in the U.S. alone), as well as causing major birth defects such as brain damage. Most people (about 85%) have a special protein in their blood cells called the Rh factor, which makes them Rh positive (positive blood type); the remainder, who lack Rh factor, are called Rh negative (and have a negative blood type).

Women who’ve been pregnant may remember the Rh blood test, which screens to detect any incompatibility. As to why this is important, as noted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “If [mother] is Rh-negative and . . . baby is Rh-positive, [mother’s] body will react to the baby’s blood as a foreign substance. [Mother’s] body will create antibodies (proteins) against the baby’s Rh-positive blood . . . . Rh incompatibility is more likely to cause problems in second or later pregnancies [when] Rh antibodies can cross the placenta and attack the baby’s red blood cells . . . lead[ing] to hemolytic anemia in the baby.”

Luckily, if an incompatibility is found early on, there is a prenatal treatment (Rh immune globulin) that will prevent any problems before they start. This works by introducing antibodies that will attach to Rh-positive red blood cells.  This effectively makes it so the mother’s immune system won’t detect and then try to destroy them.

Going back to Harrison, when the discovery was made about Harrison’s blood, he agreed to undergo extensive tests and experiments that eventually led to the development of a vaccine called Anti-D. Harrison said he was eager to help but some precautions were taken in case something happened to him during the testing. “They insured me for a million dollars so I knew my wife Barbara would be taken care of. I wasn’t scared. I was glad to help,” Harrison said in a 2010 interview.

Besides letting himself be used as a guinea-pig in the development of the Anti-D vaccine,  Harrison has donated an extreme amount of plasma. Plasma can be given every two to three weeks, unlike whole blood, which is only recommended to be donated every six weeks. This allowed Harrison to donate 1,173 times in the around six decades he did it, only stopping in 2018 because Australian policy does not allow people over 81 to donate.

In all, it is estimated Harrison has helped save about 2-2.5 million people so far through his actions. Among that number, his own daughter, Tracey, had to have the Anti-D injection after the birth of her son.

But all of these individuals, while their direct actions may have saved even upwards of millions cannot compete with yet another individual who bears the name Vasili, in this case one Vasili Arkhipov, the man who quite literally saved the world.

For reference here, when he did this, there were approximately 3.2 billion people on Earth, a rather large percentage of which arguably would have perished without his actions, and humanity and Earth forever changed after.

So how did Vasili save the world?

In 1962, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were on the brink of possible mutual destruction- the world as a whole was facing a possible nuclear winter and all the devastation that would come with it. The Cold War had been escalated to “tepid” and was close to becoming hot with the failure of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and the ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis.

In May 1962, Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro reached a “secret” agreement that allowed the Soviets to start building missile sites in Cuba, including stocking them with nuclear missiles- 42 of them.

It should be noted here that the U.S. at this time had nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy that could hit Moscow within 16 minutes of being launched.  On the flip-side, the Soviets had plenty of nukes pointed at and perfectly capable of destroying the U.S.’ allies throughout Europe.  However, the Soviets did not have nearly the capability to destroy targets in the U.S. itself.  Certainly, they had enough nukes to destroy all the major cities in the U.S. and more, but they were lacking in reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles to adequately function as a “mutual destruction” deterrent.  Indeed, there were some among the U.S. brass that felt the loss of allies throughout Europe and the lesser direct causalities from long range nukes that managed hit their targets in the U.S. were acceptable losses given the payoff would be the annihilation of the Soviet Union and the end of that threat to the United States.  So if the Soviet Union had nukes in Cuba, that tipped the balance in the Cold War back to near even, rather than in the U.S.’s favor as before.

In the fall of 1962, the United States sent a US U-2 aircraft to fly over Cuba to attempt to confirm the rumors that they had heard about the Soviet missile sites in Cuba.  On October 14th, 1962, the U-2 arrived back with pictures of these missiles sites. A day later, the pictures were presented to President Kennedy. Tensions rose and alarms were sounded. And, thus, on October 15th, 1962 the 13-day ordeal that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis began.

This brings us to the man of the hour Vasili Arkhipov.

Arkhipov was born on January 30th, 1926 to a poor, peasant family near Moscow in the town of Staraya Kupavna. At the age of 16, he began his education at the Pacific Higher Naval School. Vasili saw his first military action as a minesweeper in the Pacific Theater at the tail end of World War II.  In 1947, he graduated from the Caspian Higher Naval School and served on submarines in the Soviet Black Sea, Northern, and Baltic fleets. In 1961, Vasili got his first taste of crisis management in an incident that, while extremely momentous, wasn’t even close to what he’d help with later.

This first incident happened when Vasili was appointed deputy commander of the new K-19 sub (known today as “the Widowmaker” thanks to the 2002 movie K-19: The Widowmaker, but in its day nicknamed by the Russians “Hiroshima”). This sub was one of the first Soviet nuclear submarines, which was also equipped with a nuclear ballistic missile. On July 4th, 1961, as the sub was conducting exercises near Greenland, a major leak was discovered in the radiant cooling system.  Since no backup cooling system was installed pre-sail, the reactor on the sub was in real danger of a nuclear meltdown.  In order to prevent a nuclear accident unlike any the world had ever seen before, the captain of the sub sent workers into high-radiation areas to build a cooling system on the spot. Every member of the sub did what they could to prevent disaster, including Vasili, lending his engineering expertise to help contain the overheating reactor.  The crew succeeded, but not before these workers and many on the crew developed radiation sickness. Every worker that was sent as first responders into the high-radiation areas died within days.  Due to this, a mutiny nearly erupted on board the K-19 sub. Vasili backed his captain in continuing the work and was, eventually, awarded a medal for his bravery in a time of crisis and loyalty to the Soviet Union. All of this was a precursor to the day Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.

After his time on the K-19 sub, Vasili was made second in command on the B-59, one of four attack submarines that was ordered to travel to Cuba on October 1st, 1962. The sub contained 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear, holding approximately the same yield as the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.  The captains of each of the four subs were given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes at their own discretion, so long as they had the backing of the political officer on board. Unknown to the crew of the B-59, the United States began their naval blockade of Cuba on October 24th and informed the Soviets that they would be dropping practice depth charges (think warning shots) to force subs to surface and be identified.

Moscow could not communicate this information to the B-59 due to it being too deep underwater to receive radio transmissions.

And so it was that on October 27th, 1962, US destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph located the sub, trapped it, and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface. The sub’s crew, which had been traveling for nearly 4 weeks with very little communication with Moscow, was very tired and not aware of the circumstances. The sub’s captain, Valentin Savitsky, believed that nuclear war had already broken out between the Soviet Union and the US and wanted to fire the nuclear torpedo. The political officer concurred. All that was normally needed to launch.

Fortunately, particularly given the heightened tensions at the time, in this case, one other person had veto power over firing besides the captain and the political officer- the second in command Vasili Arkhipov.  You see, Vasili, despite being second in command on the B-59, was the leader of the fleet of the four Soviet subs sent.  Had Vasili not been present, nuclear war would have likely happened as both the captain and the political officer wanted to launch the nuclear torpedo and would otherwise have been able to.

However, Vasili vehemently disagreed, arguing that since no orders had come from Moscow for many days, such a drastic action was ill-advised and the sub should surface to contact Moscow to assess the situation. A heated argument broke out- legend, probably false- says punches were thrown.  Eventually, though, Vasili won the day (his reputation as a hero in the K-19 mutiny reportedly helped in the debate) and the sub surfaced. Upon surfacing, they were met by their American enemies and instructed to head back to Russia.  They obliged, (additionally, they began to have mechanical issues on board the sub) and headed east. Nuclear war was averted. Vasili Arkhipov was a hero… again.

When the sub arrived back in Russia, the crew of the B-59 were met with trepidation, however. After all, they had pretty much surrendered to the Americans. Said one Russian admiral to the submariners, “‘It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.”

Despite the not-so-hero’s welcome he originally received from the Soviets upon his return, Vasili continued serving in the Soviet Navy and ultimately in 1975 was promoted to rear admiral. Later, he would become the head of the Kirov Naval Academy. He retired in the mid-1980s, and passed away in 1999 at the age of 73 as the result of complications due to radiation poisoning from back aboard the K-19.

Despite few in the wider world having heard of him or ever giving him credit, at least one person recognized the significance of what Vasili had done that 27th of October, 1962- his wife, Olga, Vasili, who always recognized him as the man who saved the world, stating,

“The man who prevented a nuclear war was a Russian submariner. His name was Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband, always.”

The post What Person Has Murdered the Most People Directly By Their Own Hand, And Who Has Saved the Most Lives? appeared first on Today I Found Out.



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The Most Disastrous Space Mission Ever

On July 20, 1969, American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered the immortal words “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” bringing to a close the decade-long Space Race between the US and USSR. While the Americans beating the Soviets to the moon might seem inevitable in hindsight, this was not always the case. Indeed, the early days of the Space Race were marked by a seemingly endless string of spectacular Soviet achievements, including the first earth-orbiting satellite, the first animal in space, the first spacecraft to reach the moon, the first spacecraft to photograph the far side of the moon, the first man in space, the first woman in space, and the first “space walk.” Meanwhile, the American space program struggled to keep pace, resulting in a series of embarrassing, high-profile failures – and for more on that, please check out our previous video ‘Kaputnik’: America’s Largely Forgotten Disastrous First Attempt to Launch a Satellite. But this seemingly unstoppable Soviet success hid a dark reality. While NASA operated in the full light of public scrutiny, the Soviet space program was cloaked in military secrecy, concealing a deeply flawed system rife with corruption, incompetence, and government officials more than willing to place political and ideological goals above the safety of cosmonauts. And never did these fatal flaws become more apparent than on April 24, 1967 when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov became the first person to die on a space mission. This is the story of the ill-fated flight of Soyuz 1.

Following the final mission of Project Mercury in May 1963, NASA announced it would be moving on to the more sophisticated 2-man Gemini and 3-man Apollo programs. In an attempt to one-up the Americans and score another propaganda victory, the Soviets hastily modified the Vostok spacecraft which had carried Yuri Gagarin and five other cosmonauts into orbit, deleting the ejection seat and other equipment to allow three cosmonauts to squeeze inside. The resulting spacecraft, named Voskhod, or “sunrise”, first flew on October 12, 1964 with cosmonauts Vladimir Komarov, Konstantin Feokistov, and Boris Yegorov aboard. This was the first spaceflight in history with a multi-person crew. Five months later, Voskhod 2 achieved another milestone when cosmonaut Alexei Leonov performed the world’s first “space walk”, floating outside the spacecraft for a brief 12 minutes. Yet despite these accomplishments, both missions were plagued with problems. The crew of Voskhod 1 had to diet in order to fit into their spacecraft, and without ejection seats, spacesuits, or other safety equipment, had no way of surviving a major emergency. Meanwhile, Leonov’s space suit ballooned in the vacuum of space, nearly preventing him from fitting back through the airlock. The spacecraft also tumbled violently on reentry and landed 400 kilometres off-target in the Ural Mountains, forcing Leonov and crewmate Pavel Belayev to spend a long, cold night in the capsule surrounded by hungry wolves before being rescued. In light of these difficulties, Soviet designers decided they had pushed the Vostok capsule technology as far as it could go and switched their focus to a far more sophisticated spacecraft design called Soyuz, or “union.”

Soyuz was the Soviet answer to the American Apollo spacecraft. A significant improvement over the crude Vostok and Voskhod capsules, Soyuz featured engines, thrusters, and automated guidance systems that allowed it to change its orbit and altitude, rendezvous and dock with other spacecraft, and perform a variety of other sophisticated maneuvers. Launched atop the massive N-1 rocket – the Soviet equivalent of the American Saturn V – the Soyuz was designed carry two cosmonauts on a lunar orbit rendezvous mission broadly similar to that used by Apollo. However, as with most Russian hardware, the design philosophy of Soyuz – and indeed the Soviet Lunar Program as a whole – was considerably different from its American counterpart. As the N-1 rocket was less powerful and efficient than the Saturn V, the LK Lander – the Soviet equivalent of the Apollo Lunar Module – had to be significantly smaller, and could only carry a single cosmonaut to the lunar surface. And since the Soyuz and LK lacked an Apollo-style docking hatch, said cosmonaut was forced to transfer from one spacecraft to another by performing a brief spacewalk. But the Soyuz did have certain advantages over Apollo. While Apollo had only a single crew compartment, Soyuz had two: a bell-shaped descent module in which the crew launched and returned to earth, and a spherical orbital module for use in space, giving the crew significantly more leg room. Also, unlike Apollo, which was powered by hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells, Soyuz featured a pair of solar panels, giving it much greater endurance.

However, these enhanced capabilities came at the cost of greater complexity and a longer development cycle, and the Soviet space program soon entered something of a lull, with no manned missions being flown for a full two years. Meanwhile, the first three unmanned tests of Soyuz ended in disaster, with Soyuz 7K-OK No.1 blowing up shortly after launch and Kosmos 133 and 140 suffering catastrophic guidance system failures and tumbling violently to earth. These setbacks made it unlikely that a manned mission could be flown before 1968. At least, that would have been the case had it not been for that great bugbear of Soviet technological development: politics. In the two years since Voskhod 2, the Americans had flown no fewer than 10 Project Gemini missions, accomplishing many important firsts including the first American spacewalk, the first two-week-long space flight, the first controlled rendezvous of two spacecraft, and the first docking of two spacecraft. In the process NASA had mastered all the skills it needed for a trip to the moon and was ready to move forward with Project Apollo, the first flight of which was scheduled for later February 1967. The government of Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin was thus anxious to launch a new manned mission and regain some of the momentum lost over the past two years. There were also other, more ideological factors. 1967 marked not only the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution but also the 97th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth. Furthermore, Brezhnev was scheduled to attend a summit of Soviet Bloc leaders in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia in May of that year. A successful manned mission, it was argued, would not only commemorate the revolution and demonstrate what the Soviet system was capable of, but would also give Brezhnev something to boast about at the summit. Not content with a mere shakedown cruise, the Politburo instead planned a spectacular demonstration whereby two Soyuz spacecraft – one carrying a single cosmonaut and the other three – would be launched within a day of one another and dock in orbit. Two cosmonauts would then don spacesuits and spacewalk from one spacecraft to another. With this ambitious plan in hand, Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov ordered Space Program chief Vasily Mishin to prepare the Soyuz for launch no later than May 1 – International Workers’ Day.

Mishin was horrified by the order. Not only had the spectacular failures of Kosmos 133 and 140 clearly demonstrated that the Soyuz design was nowhere ready for manned flight, but inspectors at the OKB-1 design bureau had uncovered no fewer than 203 potentially fatal flaws in the spacecraft. Nonetheless, under intense political pressure from Ustinov and the Politburo Mishin began preparing the prototype vehicles for flight and a crew was duly selected for the historic mission. Vladimir Komarov, veteran of Voskhod 1, would pilot Soyuz 1, while Alexsei Yeliseyev, Tevgeni Khrunov, and Valeri Bykovsky would crew Soyuz 2, with Yeliseyev and Khrunov being chosen to spacewalk over to Komarov’s ship. Komarov’s backup pilot would be none other than his close friend Yuri Gagarin, national hero and the first man in space. Like Mishin, Komarov and Gagarin were apprehensive about the safety of the new spacecraft. However, their concerns were met with great hostility from the Politburo, with Ustinov even threatening to strip Komorov of his military honours if he refused to fly the mission. In a desperate bid to save his friend from what he believed to be a suicide mission, Gagarin wrote a 10-page memo and gave it to his friend Venyamin Russayev in the KGB to pass up the chain of command. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union was a society that tended to punish the bearers of bad news, and everyone who came into contact with the memo was either demoted, fired, or reassigned – including Russayev himself, who was banned from ever associating with the Soviet space program. Meanwhile, Gagarin’s memo disappeared into the vast Soviet bureaucracy and never reached the higher authorities.

According to author Piers Bizony, shortly before the scheduled launch date Komarov met with Russayev, who asked him why he didn’t simply refuse the assignment. According to this account, Komarov burst into tears and explained:

“If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead. That’s Yura, and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.”

In reality, it was highly unlikely that Gagarin would ever be called to fly, being too much of a national asset and propaganda symbol to risk on such a dangerous mission. There was thus nothing more either man could do; one way or another, Komarov would fly the mission.

On the morning of May 23, 1967, Komarov arrived at Launch Complex 1 at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and climbed aboard his spacecraft. According to a widely-circulated account by Russian journalist Yaroslav Golavanov, Yuri Gagarin made one last effort to save his friend, storming onto the launch pad and demanding to be put in a spacesuit. Whether Gagarin was attempting to replace Komarov on the flight or simply disrupt the launch process and force the mission to be scrubbed is unknown, but no corroborating accounts have ever been found and the whole incident is believed to be nothing more than an urban legend. Whatever the case, Soyuz 1 lifted off successfully at 3:35 AM Moscow time with Komarov aboard and soon attained its planned orbit.

Almost immediately, however, the mission ran into trouble as one of the spacecraft’s two solar panels failed to deploy. This not only starved onboard systems of vital electrical power, but the stuck panel blocked the vital solar and ion-flow sensors used by the guidance system to maintain the spacecraft’s orientation. This in turn caused the spacecraft to tumble, preventing the one good solar panel from being aimed at the sun and causing further power shortages.The lopsided panels also unbalanced the spacecraft, making it difficult for Komarov to control his attitude manually. Komorov tried desperately to correct these issues, even kicking on the wall of the spacecraft in an attempt to free the stuck panel, but these efforts proved fruitless. Komarov’s problems were made even worse by an unfortunate quirk of the Soviet space program. Whereas NASA was able to establish a global network of tracking stations based in friendly nations or on picket ships in the ocean, allowing continuous communication with orbiting spacecraft, Soviet stations could only be placed within the Soviet Union and certain regions of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, meaning that for nearly half of every orbit, Komarov was on his own.

For nearly 20 hours Komarov and the mission control team lead by Boris Chertok tried valiantly to correct the spacecraft’s problems and save the mission. However, the attitude control problems soon caused Komarov’s maneuvering thruster fuel and batteries to become depleted, and on the 13th orbit the decision was made to bring Komarov home. This in turn led to the cancellation of Soyuz 2, which was scheduled to launch early the next morning. With Soyuz 1 down to only its backup battery, Mission Control planned to bring Komarov down on his 17th, 18th, or 19th orbits, when it would be daytime over the Soviet Union. With the automatic attitude control systems still out of commission, Komorov would have to align the spacecraft manually for retrofire and maintain his attitude throughout the burn. However, as the burn would have to be performed on the night side of the planet, Komarov was unable to use the special vzor optical sight designed for precisely this purpose. Instead, a technique was developed whereby Komarov would sight the moon through the spacecraft’s periscope, echoing the dramatic manual reentry of American astronaut Gordo Cooper during the Mercury-Atlas 9 mission on May 15, 1963 – and for more on that, please check out our video  “I’ll Do it Myself”: The Greatest Feat of Piloting in Space on our sister channel Highlight History.

At 6:20 AM Moscow time on April 24, Komarov fired his engine to begin his reentry burn. However, Komarov was unable to maintain his attitude and the onboard computer shut off the engine prematurely. Komarov had not slowed down sufficiently to reenter the atmosphere, so another attempt was scheduled for his 19th orbit. With his backup battery running dangerously low, it would be his last chance to return home. While the computer again shut off the engine ahead of schedule, the burn was nonetheless successful and Komarov jettisoned the spacecraft’s instrument and orbital modules. Due to the asymmetry of the spacecraft and the imperfect burn the reentry was rougher than usual, the spacecraft spinning wildly and subjecting Komarov to intense G-forces. But the spacecraft held together, and as the atmosphere thickened and the capsule began to slow down it appeared as though Komarov might actually survive the harrowing mission. But when, at an altitude of 10 kilometres, the capsule deployed its drogue parachute, the main chute failed to deploy. Komarov immediately deployed his reserve chute, but this became tangled around the first drogue, preventing it, too, from deploying. In that moment, Vladimir Komarov’s fate was sealed. With nothing to slow it down, the capsule plunged to earth like a meteorite at a speed of 140 km/hr, slamming into the ground in Orenburg Oblast, south Russia, around 7AM. The tremendous impact flattened the 2-metre-tall spacecraft down to 70 centimetres and ignited the landing rockets designed to further slow Komarov’s fall, causing the spacecraft to explode into flames. A recovery team circling in a helicopter landed and rushed into action, attacking the inferno with fire extinguishers and shovelfuls of dirt. But it was already too late; by the time the crew extinguished the blaze and opened the crumpled hatch, all that remained of Vladimir Komarov was a charred lump 30 cm wide and 80 cm long, the only recognizable feature being a single heel bone. Bizarrely, an official autopsy report authoritatively listed the cause of death as severe injuries to the skull, spinal cord, and bones.

Despite a thorough investigation by the Soviet authorities, the cause of the fatal parachute failure has never been definitively established. Some sources state that the parachute design was changed at the last minute, such that they could no longer fit in the original containers. With no time to change the design before the launch deadline, the parachutes were instead packed into the undersized containers with wooden mallets, preventing them from deploying properly. Other sources ascribe the failure to faulty pressure sensors, while still others, including mission controller Boris Chertok, blame a glue-like thermal protective coating applied to the surface of the spacecraft. This coating was cured by placing the spacecraft in a large oven called an autoclave. When Soyuz 1 was treated, the covers for the parachute containers were not yet available, meaning that the coating could easily have seeped into the containers, gluing the parachutes in place. Test versions of the spacecraft were not subjected to the autoclave treatment, preventing the problem from being spotted earlier. If this theory is correct, then the same flaw would also have affected Soyuz 2, meaning that Komarov’s death inadvertently saved the lives of his three comrades.

Vladimir Komarov received a state funeral in Moscow’s Red Square on April 26, 1967, his charred remains lying in state before being interred in the Kremlin walls. It was the second fatal space accident that year after the Apollo 1 fire of January 27, prompting a group of American astronauts to send a message of sympathy to the Soviet National Academy of Sciences:

 We are very saddened by the loss of Col. Komarov. We feel comradeship for this test pilot because we have met several of his fellow cosmonauts and we know that we are all involved in a pioneering flight effort that is not without hazard. We particularly want to express our deep sense of sympathy to Mrs. Komarov, their children and his fellow cosmonauts.”

The secretive and mysterious nature of the Soviet space program has long provided fertile ground for speculation and conspiracy theories, and the tragic flight of Soyuz 1 is no exception. Over the years a number of myths have grown up around the ill-fated mission, including that Premier Kosygin and Komarovs wife called the doomed cosmonaut via video phone to tell him he was a hero, and that American listening stations in Turkey picked up radio transmissions of Komarov angrily cursing the Soviet government as he plummeted to his death. Both these claims are easily disproven, however, as Soyuz 1 did not have videophone equipment installed and mission transcripts reveal that Komarov was calm, collected, and professional until the very end, his actual last words being recorded as:

“I feel excellent, everything is in order. Thank you to everyone. The separation- ”

The tragedy of Soyuz 1 had a profound effect on the Soviet space program comparable to that of the Apollo 1 fire on NASA. The Soyuz spacecraft would not fly again until October 26, 1968, piloted by cosmonaut Georgi Beregovo, while the docking and crew transfer planned for Soyuz 1 and 2 would not be accomplished until the dual flights of Soyuz 4 and 5 on January 14, 1969. By this time, however, the Americans had pulled far ahead in the Space Race, with Apollo 8 successfully orbiting the moon and Apollo 9 successfully testing the Lunar Module in orbit. Meanwhile, all four test launches of the N-1 rocket ended in massive explosions, dashing any hopes of the Soviets reaching the moon. The successful July 20 landing of Apollo 11 was merely the final nail in the coffin.

Yet in spite of its early teething problems, the Soyuz spacecraft would go on to become the indispensable workhorse of the Soviet and later Russian space programs. With only 4 fatalities over 54 years and 150 crewed launches, it is the most successful and reliable manned spacecraft in history, and for a 9-year period between the last Space Shuttle launch in 2011 and the first crewed SpaceX Dragon spacecraft mission in 2020, the only means of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. With the basic design being continuously upgraded, the rugged Soyuz will likely continue to serve Russia and the world’s space transport needs for many decades to come. Thus, while the tragedy of Vladimir Komarov and Soyuz 1 serves as a tragic reminder of the failings of the Soviet system, it is also a perfect encapsulation of that great motto of space exploration: Per Ardua Ad Astra – “through adversity to the stars”.

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Expand for References

Krulwich, Robert, Cosmonaut Crashed to Earth ‘Crying in Rage,’ NPR, March 18, 2011, https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2011/05/02/134597833/cosmonaut-crashed-into-earth-crying-in-rage

 

Soyuz 1, Space Safety Magazine, http://www.spacesafetymagazine.com/space-disasters/soyuz-1/

 

Newitz, Annalee, What Really Happened to Cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, Who Died Crashing to Earth in 1967? Gizmodo, December 4, 2011, https://ift.tt/Fig9ka1

 

Soyuz 1, Encyclopedia Astronautica, http://www.astronautix.com/s/soyuz1.html

The Hero of Soyuz 1, Between Myth and Reality, BBVA OpenMind, April 24, 2019, https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/science/leading-figures/the-hero-of-soyuz-1-between-myth-and-reality/

 

Teitel, Amy, How Vladimir Komarov Died on Soyuz 1, The Vintage Space, October 21, 2020, https://ift.tt/G3wnts4

 

Soyuz 1 Flight Planning, Russian Space Web, http://www.russianspaceweb.com/soyuz1-planning.html

 

 

The post The Most Disastrous Space Mission Ever appeared first on Today I Found Out.



from Today I Found Out
by Gilles Messier - December 17, 2022 at 02:49PM
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Friday, December 16, 2022

The Real Q from James Bond and the Ingenious Inventions

The first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, appeared on bookstore shelves on April 13, 1953. Its author, Ian Fleming, had served in British Naval Intelligence during WWII, and based much of his famous super-spy’s world on his own personal experiences. For example, Bond himself was inspired by Fleming’s own personality and tastes as well as numerous wartime intelligence operatives including Canadian spymaster William Stephenson and Serbian triple agent Dusko Popov; while “M,” Bond’s boss and head of MI6, was based on Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming’s superior in Naval Intelligence – as well as Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the first director of the Secret Intelligence Service or SIS, who signed his name on official documents as “C.” But one character whose inspiration has never been firmly established is “Q”, Bond’s long-suffering purveyor of spy gadgets. Short for “Quartermaster,” a naval officer responsible for provisioning ships, the character as portrayed in the Bond films never appears in Fleming’s novels, though “Q Branch” and its inventions are referred to throughout. Nonetheless, two men are believed to be the inspiration for the fictional department, both of whom helped create some of the Second World War’s most offbeat and unusual clandestine equipment.

The first possible candidate is Christopher Clayton Hutton, known to his friends as “Clutty.” Born in 1893 in Birmingham, during the First World War, Hutton fought as an infantryman on the Western front before joining the Royal Flying Corps, completing his flight training in 1918 but serving barely a year before being demobilized. In the 1920s and 30s Hutton worked as a journalist and film publicist, but when war broke out again in 1939 he volunteered to re-join the RAF only to be rejected on account of his age. Not a man to give up easily, he began pestering various Government departments with telegrams urging them to make use of his talents in any way they deemed fit.

To Hutton’s surprise, he was soon approached by Colonel Norman Crockatt, head of the newly-formed organization MI9. During his interview Hutton revealed his lifelong obsession with illusionists and escapologists, revealing that in 1912 he had challenged the great Harry Houdini that he could not escape from a crate built by the workers from his uncle’s factory. Houdini simply bribed the workmen to build the crate with dummy nails, and easily won the bet. This was apparently enough to convince Crockatt of Hutton’s usefulness, for as he later stated:

“This officer is eccentric. He cannot be expected to comply with ordinary service discipline, but he is far too valuable for his services to be lost to this Department.”

Hutton was duly placed in charge of developing equipment to help Allied airmen shot down over occupied Europe evade capture. Though the RAF impressed upon every man that it was his duty to escape and re-join the war effort, this was easier said than done. With most of Western Europe under Nazi control, a downed airman’s only option was to make his way to a neutral country like Spain or Switzerland or make contact with local resistance networks who could hopefully spirit him back to England. This involved walking hundreds of kilometres across territory patrolled by German troops and the Gestapo, and risking betrayal by civilians and militia groups sympathetic to the Nazi regime.

In order to determine the bare minimum an airman needed to make a successful escape, Hutton met with MI9 technical officer Lieutenant Johnnie Evans, one of the few POWs to escape German captivity during the First World War. Evans revealed to Hutton that there were three things an escaping pilot needed: a map to find his way across the country, a compass, and – most importantly – food. Hunger, Evans explained, was an escapee’s worst enemy, as it made him take risks like as trying to steal or beg food from civilians, making him likelier to be captured. Hutton thus developed an emergency food pack housed in a small metal box like a cigarette case, which contained high-energy foods like chocolate powder and condensed milk, stimulant tablets, and a rubber water-bag. While better than nothing, pilots downed over the North Sea soon reported that the box was insufficiently waterproof and that seawater quickly leaked inside and ruined the food. Hutton thus designed a new ration pack in the form of a cylindrical clear-plastic bottle with a wide mouth and waterproof cap.

To provide pilots with a robust and easily-concealable map, Hutton hit upon the idea printing the image onto silk handkerchiefs, which required the development of special printing techniques to prevent the ink from smudging. Hutton also printed escape maps on Japanese mulberry paper, which could be soaked in water, rolled into a small, easily concealable ball, then unfolded and spread smooth without wrinkling. More ingenious still was a map printed on a set of playing cards, which had to be soaked in water, peeled apart, and taped together to reveal the whole design.

Completing Evans’ trio of essentials was a miniature compass hidden inside an airman’s tunic button. In a testament to Hutton’s attention to detail, the button compasses were manufactured with a left-hand thread, such that if a German tried to unscrew it the regular way, it would not open. Hutton also produced a variety of regular-looking objects which could be used as compasses, including magnetized pencil clips which could be balanced on a pencil-point, magnetized razor blades which could be floated on water or suspended from a string, and fountain pens with magnetized nibs and filling levers.

Such was Hutton’s genius that many of his creations solved problems few of his colleagues had ever considered. For example, while the heavy fleece-lined boots worn by airmen protected them from the freezing temperatures at high altitudes, on the ground they quickly became a liability, becoming hot and sweaty, inflicting blisters, and making the airman extremely conspicuous to passers-by. Hutton thus designed “escape boots” in which the upper and lower portions were connected by a thin strip of webbing. Using a folding knife stored in a special pocket, an airman could cut away the upper portion of the boot, leaving a pair of more comfortable and ordinary-looking civilian shoes. Another footwear-related innovation was the Gigli saw, a wire-like device used by surgeons for delicate bone-cutting operations. Hutton covered the saw in felt to disguise it as an ordinary shoelace, thus providing downed airmen with a handy means of cutting through bars, fences, and other obstacles.

Hutton’s department also produced equipment designed to be smuggled into Prisoner-of-War camps via care packages, sent by various fictitious charitable organizations set up by MI9. This included maps, foreign currency, and identity documents pressed into phonograph records and even Monopoly boards, specially prepared by the game’s British license-holder. But especially vital to a successful escape was convincing-looking civilian clothing or military uniforms, and in providing these Hutton came up with some of his most ingenious ideas. One provision of the Geneva Convention entitled prisoners to receive new uniforms as they became available, so Hutton created a new, fictitious pattern designed to resemble German uniforms as closely as possible. To allow the prisoners to recreate the distinctive gold and silver braid particular to German uniforms, the packages were wrapped in fine metal wire. Upon learning that POWs had become skilled at creating their own false Iron Crosses, Hutton began sending packages wrapped in the same red, white and red-striped ribbons used with the actual medals. Hutton even created blankets bearing sewing patterns for coats, trousers, and other items of clothing, printed in a special invisible ink that was only revealed once the blankets were washed. These could then be turned into suitable escape clothing by the camp tailor. And in a final stroke of genius, Hutton invented a fountain pen with a secret compartment containing ink packs which could be used to dye the cloth various colours.

Hutton’s escape devices were highly valued by Allied airmen, many of whom admitted they would not have gotten far without them. By the end of the war 35,000 Allied personnel managed to evade capture or break out from POW camps, with around 1,500 succeeding in making the “home run” back to England. But the efforts of the rest were not in vain, for guarding and hunting down escaping prisoners tied up massive amounts of German manpower and resources more urgently needed elsewhere, helping to hasten the end of the war.

As for Clutty Hutton, however, his creations would bring him nothing but trouble. After the war, Hutton attempted to recount his wartime exploits in a memoir titled “A Journey Has Been Arranged.” But while he was careful to include only those facts which had already been revealed in other public sources and would be of no strategic value in the Cold War, the British Government nonetheless blocked the book’s publication on the grounds that it violated the Official Secrets Act. What followed was a nearly decade-long legal struggle in which Hutton was subjected to a number of indignities, including the unauthorized publication of his book in heavily-redacted form under a different author. Adding insult to injury, the publisher redacted Hutton’s name in the text and added copious statements disparaging his work and judgement throughout the war. But Hutton prevailed in the end, and his memoir, now titled Official Secret, was finally published in 1960.

But while Hutton certainly fits the profile of James Bond’s “Q,” an even better match is Charles Fraser-Smith, who at one point even worked with Ian Fleming. Born in 1904 in Hertfordshire, Fraser-Smith worked a variety of odd jobs throughout his early adulthood, eventually ending up as a Christian missionary in Morocco. An inveterate tinkerer, in 1939 he gave a sermon at a church in Leeds about the art and virtues of  scrounging, which happened to be attended by two officials from the Ministry of Supply. Soon after, Fraser-Smith was approached and offered a job in the Ministry’s Clothing and Textiles Department.

This was, of course, a cover story, with Fraser-Smith’s real job being to design equipment for the Special Operations Executive, or SOE. Created soon after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, SOE’s mission was, in the words of Winston Churchill, to “set Europe ablaze” and take the fight to the Germans by carrying out espionage, sabotage, and subversion operations behind enemy lines. Among Fraser-Smith’s first assignments was to create forged Spanish Army uniforms for an SOE plan to infiltrate Spain and prevent the then-neutral country from entering the war on the Axis side. Demonstrating his talent for logistics, Fraser-Smith managed to contract some 300 firms around the country to produce the uniforms without any of them discovering just what they were producing or why. In the end, however, the planned operation was never carried out.

Fraser-Smith’s penchant for gadgetry soon led him to develop a variety of exotic devices for both SOE agents and downed Allied airmen. Independently of Clutty Hutton he invented the reverse-threaded button compass and the Gigli saw disguised as a shoelace, as well as a variety of ordinary objects such as pens, flasks, shaving-brushes, and pipes with hidden compartments for concealing camera film, secret messages, and escape maps. Even more James Bond-esque were a pen that fired a tear-gas cartridge and a miniature camera hidden in a cigarette lighter. Further making the case that he was the true inspiration for Q, Fraser-Smith called his creations “Q devices,” after the “Q” ships of WWI – civilian vessels with hidden guns used to ambush German U-boats.

At one point in 1943, Fraser-Smith was instructed to construct an aluminium canister large enough to contain a human body and a load of dry ice with which to keep it preserves. After the war this was revealed to be part of Operation Mincemeat, a plot to dump a body carrying secret documents off the coast of Spain to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies would invade Greece instead of Sicily. And for more on this, please see our video The Bizarre World War II Plan to Score a Major Victory for the Allies. 

Closely fitting the mould of Q branch itself was Station IX in The Frythe, Hertfordshire, which produced various pieces of exotic weaponry and equipment for SOE. Station IX was also known as the Welwyn Experimental Laboratory, and thus many of its creations bore a “wel-” prefix. This included the Welrod, a 9mm silenced pistol; the Welman, a one-man submarine for attacking ships in harbour; the Welfreighter, another miniature submarine for sneaking agents and equipment into enemy territory; the Welbike, a folding motorcycle designed to be dropped by parachute; and the Welpen, Welpipe, and Welfag, single-shot .22-calibre pistols concealed in a pen, smoking-pipe, and cigarette, respectively. The station also produced a variety of other clandestine weapons such as the “footshooter” – which as the name suggests was a booby trap that shot its victim in the foot when stepped on –  as well as a dizzying assortment of explosives, fuzes, and detonators for blowing up ships, railroad tracks, electrical substations, and nearly everything else under the sun. A more subtle sabotage weapon was “Caccolube,” a small rubber bag filled with abrasive carbide powder designed to be slipped into a vehicle’s oil tank. When the oil got hot enough the bag would dissolve, causing the engine to seize within 20 minutes. Slightly more overt was the “Firefly”, a small explosive charge designed to be dropped into the fuel tank; after a certain amount of time immersion in gasoline would cause a pair of rubber washers to swell, triggering the detonator and blowing up the vehicle.

However, for various reasons including supply chain issues, the changing strategic situation on the ground, and fear of German reprisals against civilians, the vast majority of these exotic gadgets never reached the field, with most sabotage operations being carried out using regular weapons and explosives. But the legacy of Station IX and the real ‘Q’s of SOE and MI9 lives on in the iconic spy gadgets of the James Bond movies and the many classic scenes of an exasperated Desmond Llewelyn exclaiming “oh, grow up, 007!”

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

On several occasions in the James Bond films, Q is referred to by his real name, Major Boothroyd. This, too, is based on a real person: Geoffrey Boothroyd, a British firearms expert who in May 1956 sent Ian Fleming a letter criticizing his super-spy’s choice of weaponry:

I have, by now, got rather fond of Mr. James Bond. I like most of the things about him, with the exception of his rather deplorable taste in firearms. In particular, I dislike a man who comes into contact with all sorts of formidable people using a .25 Beretta. This sort of gun is really a lady’s gun, and not a really nice lady at that. If Mr. Bond has to use a light gun he would be better off with a .22 rim fire; the lead billet would cause more shocking effect than the jacketed type of the .25.

 May I suggest that Mr. Bond be armed with a revolver?

 While enthusiastic about Boothroyd’s suggestions, Fleming preferred automatic pistols, so the two settled on a compromise: the .32 calibre Walther PPK, a gun which has become synonymous with James Bond. In recognition of this contribution, in his 1958 novel Dr. No, Fleming named the armorer who presents Bond with his new pistol after Boothroyd. While this was not intended to be the “Q” of Q branch, the two were merged for the film series, with the character being played by Peter Burton in the 1962 adaptation of Dr. No and by Desmond Llewelyn in 17 of the 18 official James Bond films produced between 1963 and 1999.

Expand for References

Dear, Ian, Escape and Evasion: POW Breakouts in World War II, Rigel Publications, 1997

Dear, Ian, Sabotage and Subversion: The SOE and OSS at War, Cassell Military Paperbacks, 1996

Charles Fraser-Smith, Croxley Green History Project, https://www.croxleygreenhistory.co.uk/charles-fraser-smith.html

 

Charles Fraser-Smith, The Legend of Q, https://ift.tt/WdC2ZyY

 

The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, https://ift.tt/YCNT7vM

 

May I Suggest that Mr. Bond be Armed with a Revolver? Letters of Note, June 1, 2011, https://ift.tt/uDsyQ20

The post The Real Q from James Bond and the Ingenious Inventions appeared first on Today I Found Out.



from Today I Found Out
by Gilles Messier - December 16, 2022 at 09:12AM
Article provided by the producers of one of our Favorite YouTube Channels!
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