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The Essay
Show #313
Calendar Nexus
David Gunn

Once every 183 years or so, a nexus of coincidental events occur on a certain date that flout logical explanation. In the Gregorian calendar year 2001 -- and, if calculations are correct, also in the year 5,280 -- May 26 is such a date. But to take coincidence to a level of pure incredulity, it is moreover a trail of previous May 26s. At first blush, these ten events would seem to share no commonality other than the date. But, thankfully for this essay, the truth is much more bizarre.

Abraham de Moivre, born May 26, 1667, was a mathematician and marketeer. He amassed a fortune by franchising his de Moivre's theorem, a trigonometric formula that he devised to obtain roots of complex numbers. But his true passion was probability theory. On May 26, 1754, while conducting a random event experiment in which he flipped a coin an indeterminate number of times to determine the probable head or tail of a chicken, he instead inadvertently corroborated the existence of Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Geissler, a German glassblower who would not be born for more than a half century -- May 26, 1814. Exit de Moivre, enter Geissler, who made glass scientific instruments that were much in demand by scientists throughout the world. In particular, his "Geissler tubes" -- glass cylinders filled with rarefied gases with electrodes sealed into the ends -- became essential for chemists studying electrical phenomena. On May 26, 1863, an anonymous, helmeted chemist in Virginia City, Montana, employing a Geissler tube to conduct an experiment on an electric chicken, instead unwittingly discovered the world's richest gold placer deposit there at Alder Gulch, which was so named in honor of the soon-to-be-entréed chicken. Precisely one year later, a grizzled old grubstaker, en route to the assay office in town with a bag of this placer gold, found Austrian tourists Max and Mary Urban on the trail, destitute and starving. Touched by their plight, he split the gold with them. They recovered nicely and returned to Vienna where, on May 26, 1872, Mary bore a son, Joseph, who would one day distinguish himself as a scenic designer for the Ziegfeld Follies in New York City. Beginning in 1910, these Follies would provide endless hours of inspiration to Dora Angela "Isadora" Duncan, a modern dance pioneer born on May 26, 1877. She had wearied of her own free style of dance, in which she performed barefoot in loose, flowing tunics; the extravagantly costumed, precisely synchronized routines of the Follies were just the inspiration she needed to reconstitute her career. One of Duncan's adoring post-recontextualization fans was English conductor and composer Eugene Goossens, born May 26, 1893. In May of 1927 (alas, it was on the 25th), he conducted in her honor a piece he had written for her, "Ma belle écharpe." In a bizarre twist of fate, Duncan's "beautiful scarf" would be the cause of her death a mere four months later. But it is the scarf that forms the next link in this May 26 concatenation.

Inventor Charles Mees, born May 26, 1882, was instrumental in the technical advancement of 20th century photography. He created a production process for the synthesis of organic chemicals for research, the process used to place culpability on the scarf in determining the death of Isadora Duncan. The date was September 30, 1927, but because of problems with the lunar-solar calendar that year, it was temporarily reassigned as May 26th. Mees' connection to these May 26 events is only tangential, because he neither cared for modern dance, nor 20th century English music, nor anything to do with glassblowing. His organic chemical synthesis process was, nevertheless, an important component of a 1950 anatomy class at the University of Michigan Medical School attended by Jack Kevorkian, born May 26, 1928. The former pathologist, you may recall, gained notoriety in the 1990s for his crusade to legalize physician-assisted suicide. But it was Kevorkian's facility with the accordion that leads the chain of events to today's dénouement. While playing in a hospital dance band in Pontiac, Michigan in May of 1979, his style was discovered and assimilated by no fewer than three composer-musicians whose subsequent influence remains to this day: jazz legend Miles Davis (born May 26, 1926), who briefly changed his name to "Kilometer," in homage to Kevorkian's accuracy of playing, which Davis rated at about 62%; singer Hank Williams, Jr. (born May 26, 1949), son of the Major League Baseball home run king; and William Bolcom (born May 26, 1938), winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Music and an anagram of "wool ball mimic."

But the chain linkage need not stop with today's 313th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar. Probability theory and the head and tail of that chicken that started the whole improbable concatenation suggest that some connection will continue until the next nexus in the year 5,280, or so, and that today's link is likely to involve old Kalvos.