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Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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Christmas at LBJ's White House

Published in Celebrity

President Johnson and his family did not usually celebrate Christmas at the White House, but his wife Lady Bird persuaded him to do so in 1967. The charm of that event is currently on view in two display cases at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin.

The Johnson family Christmas stockingsTwo Christmas stockings, a gift from a friend and first used in '67, show memorable moments from their lives. The President's stocking shows a little boy under the sign Johnson City, signifying he was born there. Air Force One, and a map of Texas, also adorn the stocking. A smaller map of the state appears on his wife's stocking, emblazoned with the place Karnack, where she was born. She is also depicted as First Lady in a yellow gown.

Lady Bird's gold brocade outfit from 1967The actual gold brocade outfit she wore in the lead photo with this story, as she looks at her grandson Patrick, is also on display. Several of the ornaments from the White House tree are also being shown, along with a photo of their dog Yuki sitting under the White House Christmas tree.

While much scholarly work goes on here, and most of the exhibits focus on the serious issues of his presidency, this little glimpse into a happy day of a turbulent period is most welcome at this time of year.

The LBJ Library and Museum is open daily throughout the year. Visit their website:


Leonardo da Vinci in Texas

Published in Art Scene

The inventive genius of Leonardo da Vinci is currently on display at the Texas Museum of Science. While he is best known as the painter of the Mona Lisa, and his name has been famously co-opted by the da Vinci Code, his most lasting legacy is in the field of engineering.

Even though most of his inventions never left the pages of his notebooks, they were re-created several years ago in Italy. This impressive suite of models was later acquired by a firm in San Antonio, which places it in different venues throughout the year. The signage of the exhibit is in English and Spanish, as the exhibit is quite popular in Mexico.

The lead photo shows Leonardo's concept for a hang glider, where the pilot could adjust the angles of the outer portions of the wings via a system of ropes and pulleys.

Leonardo's concept for a battlefield tankMany of the models rely on ropes and pulleys for a wide variety of potential uses, but the centrepiece of the exhibit is a prototype tank for use on the battlefield. It looks a bit like a wooden UFO. Visitors can enter and see the portals above where lookouts could spy potential targets for the cannons mounted below. In reality it was never built, but tanks did become a lethal reality a hundred years ago in World War I.


Fans of Star Wars will especially enjoy the grandfather of C3PO. At first glance it looks like just a suit of armor, but wait a while and a panel on its chest opens to reveal a series of spinning wheels. The suit of armor then moves, seemingly by magic. This first design for a humanoid robot was certainly his most fanciful creation, as there was no obvious way to power it 500 years ago although there is speculation he envisaged making it move by some use of water or weights.

The main display space of the Texas Museum of Science and Technology is devoted to the Leonardo exhibit, which is on display until late January 2018. Well worth the trip to Cedar Park, a small town north of Austin.

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Sicily and the Enlightenment

Published in Books

Even now Sicilians have a strong streak of independence from Italy, but in the 18th century it was a barely governable portion of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. Both realms had the same king, but he resided in Naples, leaving the nearly impossible job of running Sicily to a Viceroy. This book is about one of those viceroys, Domenico Caracciolo.


The author of this intriguing biography, Angus Campbell, sadly died in 2015 at age 76, but his intimate knowledge of the Sicilian experience lives on in these pages. He married a Sicilian and lived in western Sicily for the last 15 years of his life. The subject of his book was born in Spain exactly 300 years before Campbell died, and lived nearly as long as Campbell: 74 years.


Campbell quotes an author from 1785 as writing “The Sicilians are looked on as foreigners in Naples; at Court as enemies.” The Court referred to is the royal court of King Ferdinand and his politically savvy wife Maria Carolina, who was to prove a great influence in the life of Caracciolo.


The title of the book gives one the expectation of learning how Sicily advanced as the result of Enlightenment ideals, but it is actually a depiction of how entrenched baronial influence made sure most of Caracciolo's reforming zeal was consigned to the graveyard. Essential to change was the full backing of Ferdinand, but he had little interest in politics and rarely offered such support.


Campbell tells us the Viceroy from 1755 to 1774 “was much loved by the barons because he elected not to interfere with them.” They likewise hated Caracciolo, who reluctantly took over in 1781, “more than a year after his initial appointment.” He lingered as long as he could in his beloved Paris, where he performed diplomatic duties for the kingdom. The first half of the book details his early life and career in both Paris and London, where he visited silk warehouses with a view to reforming the Sicilian silk manufacturing business. His sensible proposals were blocked by vested interests, just what he encountered 17 years later when he became Viceroy.


His greatest legacy turned out to be scientific. “Caracciolo had Giuseppe Piazzi put in charge of the observatory” which was funded by money that came into the government coffers when Caracciolo disbanded the hated Inquisition of the Catholic Church. The author provides no dates or details on this important development, but it was in 1786 that Piazzi was appointed to the chair of Astronomy and charged with the project of setting up an Observatory. The Viceroy did not live to see the astronomical observatory, as he died three years later in his new position as Prime Minister to the King, the most senior government post that Queen Maria Carolina arranged for him to get. Piazzi achieved fame in 1801 by discovering Ceres, the first known asteroid, from the observatory in Palermo.


Campbell has given us a wonderfully detailed account of the political and personal machinations of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. This serves as an excellent counterpoint to the well-known memoirs of Lord Acton, a close confidant to Queen Maria Carolina, and a man Caracciolo dealt with as both friend and foe for many years.




Sicily and the Enlightenment: The World of Domenico Caracciolo, Thinker and Reformer. Published by I.B. Tauris (London), $35.

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