A story of hummingbirds, space exploration, Napoleon, Le Petit Prince, the Mistress of the Robes, Arizona, a famous painting, and possibly more.
As an independent writer, there are no rules for presenting news. The news doesn't even have to be about something new; I often prefer new perspectives above new facts. And I like the dreamlike connections between personal experiences, little-known facts, history, and science. Connecting dots that don't need to be connected enriches the way we can see our world. I will call this story hummingbirds; if you follow the flow of my thoughts, you will see why.
The most original 'new' news came this week from far away. NASA's Perseverance rover on Mars was the first spacecraft to record sounds from another spaceship on another planet. The charming, if I may use that word for a helicopter, little Ingenuity made its fourth flight on the Red Planet. A microphone aboard Perseverance captured the humming sound of its blades.
Listen to this tiny Martian hummingbird; I find this fascinating.
I wrote before about Ingenuity here, days before it became the first aircraft in history to make a powered, controlled flight on another planet. With this first recording of its humming sound, the flying on Mars becomes even more real. Nasa scientists made it easier to hear by isolating the 84-hertz helicopter blade sound and increasing the volume of the remaining signal.
Hummingbirds in Arizona
The hum is loudest when the helicopter passes through the field of view of the camera. An experience that is not unlike the passing of a hummingbird. I remember hearing that five years ago in Arizona. I had to speak in Tucson, and I used the visit to stay quite a bit longer to find a Costa's hummingbird in the desert. But it was May, and I had arrived too late in the season to find them. The desert was already too warm, and the nectar sources had dried up. So the little birds had left for the cooler mountains where they love to spend the summer. Luckily I could still see them flying in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Tens of millions of years before scientists at NASA were searching for a way to fly Ingenuity in the 'thin air' of Mars, hummingbirds had to deal with a similar challenge of dealing with lower air density at higher altitudes. With a typical wingbeat that is already an impressive 80 times per second, the power needed to hover at higher altitudes increases significantly. Therefore, the hummingbirds living at higher altitudes have developed larger wings to fly in low-density air.
As you would expect, the hummingbirds flying a bit higher on earth have a relatively more straightforward challenge than Ingenuity. If a hummingbird wants the same flight experience as Ingenuity, it would have to fly at about 35 kilometers above the earth's surface to feel the highest atmospheric density on the Red Planet. On the other hand, gravity on Mars is just 38 percent of that on earth, which is a bit of an advantage for Ingenuity, although it certainly doesn't compensate for the thin air challenge.
It turns out that the Nasa engineers worked out similar solutions as the hummingbirds' evolution: increase the wingbeat, use lighter wings, reduce overall weight, and especially opt for larger wings.
NASA's answer to increasing the wingbeat was to increase the rotor's spin to about five times the number of rotations per minute that a helicopter on earth needs to lift off.
You could argue that Ingenuity is a bit of a Dumbo look-alike (Disney's cute little flying elephant with its big ears). It is only 50 centimeters high, with four giant blades mounted on counter-rotating rotors, each spanning 1.2 meters. A normal drone would never have worked, or it would have to be so huge that NASA couldn't transport it to Mars.
The weight of Ingenuity (1,8 kilograms) and its wings are kept as low as possible; each pair of the big rotor blades weighs just 56 grams. Hummingbirds also have particular wings; they do not have an alula, the small 'bastard wing' about midway on the inside of their wings, which you can best describe as the thumb of modern birds.
Science can be fascinating; we fly a humming little helicopter on the Red Planet that uses some 20 million years of evolutionary wisdom of the hummingbirds. And this happened in the week that it was 200 years ago that Napoleon died, a conqueror who had never even dreamed of conquering space (otherwise, the ambitious emperor would undoubtedly have tried). So much has changed in two centuries.
Oxidized iron minerals cause the red, rusty color of Mars in the Martian dirt. And this color was for the Romans a good reason to name the planet after their god of war; the reddish hue was reminiscent of blood.
This warlike image of Mars remained attractive to some for millennia. Napoleon was one of them. In 1802 he insisted that Antonio Canova, who was regarded by many as the world's best living artist, would come to Paris to model a bust of him. Once back in Rome, Canova made a full-length heroic nude sculpture named 'Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker.' The French ambassador to Rome was profoundly impressed and made sure this 'most perfect work of this century' was sent to Paris. Have a look at this photo:
Napoleon refused to accept it, for it was "too athletic." I sympathize with the embarrassed little emperor, and I can understand that he banned the public from seeing it. I doubt if Napoleon would appreciate what happened since to his statute. It is exhibited for all to see, in all its athletic beauty, including the tiny fig leaf that may have been part of Napoleon’s worries. Even worse is its location: it stands in the former house of the Duke of Wellington, the man who defeated him at Waterloo.
Let me add a historical note to this last sentence: Wellington and Field Marshal Von Blücher, who led the Prussian Army, should both be mentioned. But the German contribution in beating the French dictator seems to have faded in most history books after the alliances changed a century later. Meanwhile, Napoleon, who has killed between three and seven million people, seems to have a pretty good reputation these days. History is fascinating.
So if you want to view all that Napoleon did not want you to see, you can visit the house known as Number One in London, Apsley House. If you have been to London, you have likely seen it on Hyde Park Corner, a short walk from Buckingham Palace. I have passed it hundreds of times in my life but must admit that I have never been inside. I might do so next time in London to let you know what I find there, but I hope the statute is not the main attraction. It is indeed much more 'athletic' than Napoleon was, although this may also be the right moment in this story to correct here the myth that Napoleon was short. Unlike his reputation, he was not small by the standards of the early 18th century in France. At about 170 centimeters (5'6 Ft In), he was slightly above average height.
A few years before Antonio Canova restyled Napoleon as the Roman God of War, the French Emperor had decided to make Château de Compiègne an imperial domain. Living up to his reputation, he became the man with the most lasting influence in all of its centuries-old history. His alterations make the Château an example of the First French Empire style (1808-1810). Like Apsley House, it is also open to visitors, and you shouldn't miss another sculpture of Canova, this time one which Napoleon did approve of: his mother, Letizia Ramolino.
Napoleon III and Eugénie
Many decades later, his nephew, Emperor Napoleon III, and his wife Eugénie made Château de Compiègne their autumn residence and redecorated some rooms in the Second Empire style. The last monarch of France continued a long tradition; for centuries, it had been the preferred summer residence for French monarchs, primarily for hunting, given its proximity to Compiègne Forest. The first royal residence was built in 1374 for Charles V, and many royals loved the place, including Louis XIV and Louis XV.
There are now three museums in the Château de Compiègne. After you have seen Napoleon's mum, you may want to visit the Museum of the Second Empire, where you can see Franz Xaver Winterhalter's best-known painting: Empress Eugénie Surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting.
“Through the chapel, Sire”
When Eugénie first met Prince Louis Napoléon at a reception after he had become president of the Second Republic, he asked her, "What is the road to your heart?" She answered, "Through the chapel, Sire." Which I believe is a beautiful opening of a fairytale wedding, and I suppose both of them didn't know yet that their future marriage wouldn't be like a fairytale. I guess it wasn't beneficial that six weeks after their marriage in 1853, Emperor Napoleon III returned to his mistress. Nor was Eugénie's statement that the act of intercourse was disgusting. She did give birth to a male heir, and it seems that since then, there was no physical relationship anymore between the two of them.
It is interesting to read the different opinions those days about the social standing of both marriage partners. Those worried that Eugénie was not high enough for Louis Napoleon's match may not have enjoyed reading the British press that held the opposite view and wrote about the parvenu Bonaparte.
I realize that I may soon lose those who started reading this story because of the hummingbirds or other readers that expected space exploration. Let's return to those topics while staying with Eugénie. The missing dot in this story is a rather large asteroid with a diameter of 217 kilometers. It is named after her as 45 Eugenia. There is no connection to the 45 who likes to name everything to himself, and neither did Eugenia ask for this naming.
But she would probably have been charmed by a development long after her death in 1920. Some decades ago, scientists discovered a small moon orbiting 45 Eugenia. The discoverers named it Petit Prince to honor Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's little hero who lives on an asteroid. Later publications say that the name refers to Eugenia's only son. Whomever it may refer to, I prefer this name to that of the second moon that was later discovered; scientists gave it the somewhat nerdy name S/2004 (45) 1.
Let's leave space exploration and that lovely novella with its famous drawings and get back to Eugénie. You may have read about her recently when I dived into the millennia-old history of the Suez Canal, where I mentioned her as having traveled all the way from France to the official opening. That must have been quite a trip considering her dresses. By any of today's standards, she would have been called an influencer. Through her extravagant dress sense, she set the fashion standard and became the most important patron of French haute couture and the flourishing luxury industries of the Second Empire.
In the painting, we see Eugénie with her ladies-in-waiting, a group of six, later enlarged to twelve, most of them were acquaintances to the Empress before her marriage. The Empress is center left with the purple bow. Her 'Mistress of the Robes' was Anna Masséna, the lady in pink, also known as the Princess d'Essling and Duchess of Rivoli. A general's daughter who lived from 1802 until 1887. She was married to Francois Victor Masséna, the second Duke of Rivoli, who happened to be an amateur ornithologist who accumulated 12,500 bird specimens. One of these was a still unidentified hummingbird.
Anna seems to have been a stunning beauty. One of the many men impressed by her was René-Primevere Lesson. He was a surgeon and naturalist who had collected many bird specimens in South America and up along the Pacific coast. In 1882 he left France for a four-year journey to South America and up the Pacific coast. One of these specimens was the same hummingbird as in the prince's collection; Lesson decided to name the bird in honor of Anna.
Fast forward to our age, where we no longer require a Mistress of the Robes, and we are more concerned about pressing issues like halting the loss of nature and global warming. Anna is long forgotten, but Anna's hummingbird is still popular. It has even become the official bird of the city of Vancouver.
The Anna's hummingbirds are now helping our fight against climate change. They have become tiny climate activists with the help of Canada's Migratory Bird Act that protects them; it states that any work that could negatively affect the population has to be halted until nesting season is over.
Conservation officers recently saw the felling of a tree with an active hummingbird nest to make room for the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, one of the federal government's most significant projects. It led to the decision of Environment and Climate Change Canada to order a four-month stop-work order for the pipeline project.
For four more months, we can enjoy the humming of tiny 'Annas,' while Ingenuity is softly humming on Mars, a fig leaf dressed Mars-lookalike Napoleon guards a spiral staircase in London. At the same time, the painting of Eugénie and Anna hangs in the Château de Compiègne, and there is a new humming sound on Mars.
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Costa’s Hummingbird: photo taken by Jon Sullivan, San Diego Zoo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Napoleon: Antonio Canova, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Painting: Franz Xaver Winterhalter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons