Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


I ENJOY Sirius XM satellite radio, everything from Radio Classics (channel 82) through Met Opera Radio (channel 74) to ’40s on 4 (you guessed it, channel 4). Likely because of its World War II era, this last one occasionally plays big band renditions of our armed forces’ songs.

First came thoughts of our English language: It’s “Anchors Aweigh,” not “Away.” And whatever are those “Caissons” that keep “Rolling Along”?

Then I sensed there’s a mini science essay lurking within each branch’s song.

The “Marines’ Hymn” is the oldest of these. In traveling “from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli,” it commemorates the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848, and the First Barbary War, 1805. But this is geography and military history, not science.

The science comes in the next line, “fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea.” Grant me a fire-fight interpretation, and I give you the Four Basic Elements of the Ancients: Earth, Water, Air and Fire.

These four were elemental in ancient Egyptian thought. Buddha’s teachings are organized around them. Aristotle used them in his understanding of the world.

The earliest descriptions of matter involved only four basic elements.

It was only later that alchemy evolved into modern chemistry and its increasingly fine gradations of matter.

Even today, in astrology and tarot, Earth, Water, Air and Fire take on special meaning. But these are not science.

“Anchors Aweigh” has been the official song of the U.S. Naval Academy since 1906. Hauling the anchor off the seabed and thus adding this component’s weight to that of the ship leads directly to Archimedes Principle: The buoyant force exerted on a body immersed in a fluid is equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by that body.

An anchor on the seabed isn’t part of the ship’s weight. Once it’s “aweigh,” its contribution is included.

It may not be noticeable to observers (because of the differences in mass of ship and anchor), but the ship settles ever so slightly after the anchor leaves the seabed.

There’s an automotive analogy here, though a sketchy one: An anchor that’s aweigh is akin to a car’s sprung weight.

Our mini-essays in science must take a brief hiatus here out of my own ignorance. I always thought that a “caisson” was a gun carriage used by the artillery. With this in mind, it would have led to Newton’s Third Law of Motion—the one about actions having equal and opposite reactions—and what happens when an artillery piece is fired.

Well, forget it. Actually, a caisson is a carriage used to haul ammunition or explosives, not the artillery piece itself.

A caisson “rolls along,” but not with an artillery piece aboard. Image from the Illinois National Guard.

Worse than this, “The Caisson Song” isn’t even the official U.S. Army song. In Googling the topic, I stumbled on tales of John Philips Sousa maybe or maybe not stealing it from First Lieutenant Edmund L. Gruber, inter-unit rivalries within the U.S. Army and other stuff.  Interesting, and I encourage you to look it up as well; but it ain’t science.

“The U.S. Air Force” has been that branch’s official song since it was established as a separate service in 1947. “Off we go into the wild blue yonder” leads to the obvious question, why is it blue up yonder?

The blue is because of Rayleigh scattering. Light from the sun consists of a full spectrum, red, orange, yellow through green, blue and violet (plus other wavelengths that aren’t visible). Passing through the atmosphere, the red end travels unscathed. However, the blue gets affected by nitrogen molecules that then radiate it in all directions.

Rayleigh scattering affects the blue side of our visible spectrum. Image from

We look up and we perceive this Rayleigh scattering as a blue sky—and not so wild after all. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2012

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