Forward To The Past

If by any means you have a problem with the title of this piece, I would suggest you first pick it up with Robert Zemeckis, the writer and director of the movie Back To The Future, I mean- if we can go back to the future, why can’t we go forward to the past? “The force is strong with me though I’m not a Jedi” – you have to recite that in Dart Vader’s voice (don’t worry, this is not yet another star wars fantasy post, we’ve all had enough of that this month).

That being said, unlike Back To The Future, we’ll ski back through time and place to explore an episode from the people of the past. Thanks to documentation and history, we have much higher chances of being more accurate than Zemeckis’s movie. Although we’ll not be completely accurate, because a piece of history from first millennium has a very good chance of being inaccurate and biased, especially if we have to base our knowledge on ancient scrolls or archaeological findings that survived, “survivorship bias”.

Talking about survivorship bias, in the year 1941 during the World War II, the American Army had a living testimony of the term survivorship bias. The military was engulfed with problem of few war planes returning home after an operation, most of them couldn’t make it back perhaps due to air missile attacks or they couldn’t withstand the intercontinental arsenal thrown at them from opposition infantry troops. The then Department of Defense decided to solve the problem by putting additional armors to the fighter jets. They could however afford just a limited weight of armor onto the airplanes, because full-body reinforcement will make the plane too heavy to fly.

The strategic and logistics team decided to inspect the few planes that returned from the operation and observed that most of the damages on these planes happened on the tail and wings. Now it is only logical to try and reinforce those parts with more armor if one wants to make the plane stronger- and that was just what the team did. Alas! To their surprise, the result after adding armor to those parts of the planes was even poorer. They had fewer number of planes returning home than before.

They decided to implore the help of a man name Abraham Wald. Dr. Wald was a Jewish-Austrian born mathematician and statistics expert, who fled to the United States shortly after the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938 (most people in the field of econometrics will perhaps be familiar with his name).

Via The National WWII Museum
Via The National WWII Museum

Upon seeing the problem, Mr. Wald drew diagram of the planes and shaded the areas damaged and wrenched by bullet holes – believe it or not, the diagram above is Wald’s actual diagram. He made a judgment that seemed rather ridiculous at first, but on a second look, it was in fact ingenious. He told the army to use the available armor to reinforce the parts of the planes that weren’t affected by the damages, and leave the damaged regions unarmored; his conclusion was that the army might have fallen prey to survivorship bias. Meaning they considered only planes that survived. The destroyed planes didn’t return because the parts other than the tail and wings were damaged, implying the plane could still fly with little damages to the tail and wings, but will crash if the other parts are affected. And there was a remarkable improvement on the number of surviving planes after Mr. Wald’s intervention. This reminds me of a saying from Reza Aslan, that “if all we know about planes is from the TV/media, then it’s enough for us to conclude that all planes that takeoff eventually crash, that is because the media never reports a plane that takes off and lands safely. On a slightly different sad-note, Mr. Abraham Wald died of plane crash in India in 1950 along with his wife.

Our next stop is Pompeii- and yes, that’s where the story of this article resides; all that flashback was a by-the-way. Pompeii is an ancient city in modern Italy near the Bay of Naples, although it is not much a city now as it was before 79 AD. The city is named after General Pompeii, whose was defeated by Julius Cesar in his quest for formation of an Empire. Apart from being a thriving residential city, Pompeii was famous mainly for its amphitheater fans and their enthusiasm for gladiator championship. It was a city believed to have had a population of about 10,000 people and even at then, it had such a complex water distribution channel, gymnasiums and of course, a state-of-the-earth stadium for the gladiator championship. They were quite erotic people too; they even had brothels whose Erotic Frescoes and wall paintings are enough to set the ambiance.

Louis S. Glanzman/National Geographic
Louis S. Glanzman/National Geographic

Above is a rendering of how the city is believed to have been in 70s AD. All that civilization came to an end upon the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The active volcanic mountain that exploded in 79 AD and buried the whole city of Pompeii, destroying and covering all its inhabitants in volcanic ash and pumice. This indirectly preserved the whole city is in a form of “time capsule” for archaeologists only to discover it 1600 years later.

.This picture taken on Nov. 9, 2012 through the protective glass of the Orto dei fuggiaschi (The garden of the Fugitives) shows the 13 bodies of victims who were buried by the ashes as they attempted to flee Pompeii during the 79 AD eruption of the Vesuvius volcano.  stone men 2



As if I can see the evening of August 24th AD 79, when Mt. Vesuvius decided it is time to vomit some magma to the earth crust. Families are closing up for the day, slaves pushing hard to complete the days’ work and collect their wages. Headsmen are just returning from their grazing field, having no idea it’s the last they they’ll ever need to pasture the animals.

Many of the accounts we know today about the escapade of that day was from a letter sent by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (otherwise known as Pliny the Younger) to Cornelius Tacitus, who was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. Plinius happened to escape the disaster and he wrote a letter about the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. In his words, Pliny wrote : “Now came the dust, though still thinly. . . .  following us like a flood poured across the land.. . . You could hear women lamenting, children crying, men shouting. Some were calling for parents, others for children or spouses; they could only recognize them by their voices. Some bemoaned their own lot, other that of their near and dear. There were some so afraid of death that they prayed for death. Many raised their hands to the gods, and even more believed that there were no gods any longer and that this was one last unending night for the world. . . . . We stood up and shook the ash off again and again, otherwise we would have been covered with it and crushed by the weight. . . . I might boast that no groan escaped me in such perils, no cowardly word, but that I believed that I was perishing with the world, and the world with me, which was a great consolation for death. . .  Fear was the stronger, for the earth was still quaking and a number of people who had gone mad were mocking the evils that had happened to them and others with terrifying prognostications. We still refused to proceed until we heard news of my uncle, although we had felt danger and expected more.”

(Epistolae, Book VI, 16 and 20)
(Epistolae, Book VI, 16 & 20)- The letter from Pliny to Tacitus

Although the Roman Empire is generally conjectured to be a Male gender-dominated society engulfed in slavery, murder and all sorts of discriminations, there are significant female figures such as Eumachia; a public priestess in Pompeii whose euregetism and philanthropy cannot be overlooked. She funded the construction of a large public building in Pompeii for the poor, out of her goodwill and kindness – a behavior that is seldom seen from the rich at that time.

Some researchers believed the destruction happened when the city was about to have a big election, judging from the slogans of change, zealotry and vendetta inscribed in the walls of the city, it is typical to imagine that the people weren’t exactly happy with the ruling power then. The Romans even long before Christ are quite cosmopolitan. In fact, food items from as far as Indonesia were found to be consumed in Pompeii and grains from North Africa, Egypt and Palestine are imported into the city.

Mt. Vesuvius on the other hand is still regarded as the most dangerous volcano, not only because it’s the only volcano in the European mainland to have erupted in the last hundred years, but because of the 3 million people settling at its vicinity- well within the proximity for an eruption.

By Abubakar Adamu.


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