Category Archives: Science

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek

In the summer of 2013 I interned at the Leo Burnett advertising agency’s corporate library and archives. In the course of my work I came upon boxes of original conceptual artwork and copy from the 1950s and ’60s of the famous brands Leo Burnett created: the Marlboro Man, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy. They also created several of Kellogg’s famous clan of characters: Tony the Tiger, Snap Crackle and Pop, Toucan Sam. At the time I marveled at these artifacts merely as a student of history and consumer familiar with these characters. But now, having read Howard Markel’s new book The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, I see those characters not as the foundation of the Kellogg’s brand, but, since they were created after both Kelloggs died, as its unintentional consummation.

If you’re like me, you:

(a) didn’t know there was more than one Kellogg;

(b) didn’t know one of them was John—a renowned doctor in his time (1880s-1940s), founder of the Sanitarium in Michigan, and “better living” proponent who was way way ahead of his time on dangers of prolonged sitting, meat consumption, smoking, and the benefits of exercise—and the other was Will, John’s long-suffering younger brother, dour millionaire magnate of the Kellogg cereal line we all know (that’s his signature on the box); and

(c) didn’t know they hated each other’s guts.

Markel covers a lot of ground in this family biography. On one hand this provides readers with a backstory I suspect most haven’t heard before, like how the Kelloggs were reared in an apocalyptic Seventh-Day Adventist culture that valued health reform and that bankrolled the Sanitarium in Battle Creek that sprung John to global renown. John was the idea man, the charismatic physician into what would now be called alternative medicine, and (let’s be honest) overbearing asshole. Will, conversely, was the details man, adept business manager, and John’s put-upon lackey before he set off on his own to expand his cereal empire and his bitterness toward John. (He was also an overbearing asshole.) Because of long-held resentments and their similar products with the same last name, the brothers sued each other throughout the 1910s and never reconciled, even into old age.

On the other hand, Markel covers so much ground and in a sometimes scattershot way that it can be an exhausting read. As a physician and medical historian himself, Markel shines in the parts about John’s development as a doctor and how it influenced his products. He illustrates the cruel irony of brothers so focused on creating products and principles based on health and “better living” for others feeding a most unhealthy rancor towards each other. He also ably balances the brothers’ colorful back-and-forth over the years, thanks to an abundant written record at his disposal. But the parts about the inner workings of the businesses get repetitive and wearying, and the last few chapters—tackling the post-litigious years and John’s unfortunate promotion of eugenics—feel tacked on when they could and should have been better integrated into the narrative, which is as a whole chronologically discombobulating.

Nevertheless, this is an illuminating portrait of a foundational American family and their business empire. Though not quite a tragedy in the end, given the Kellogg Foundation’s continued charitable work (thanks to Will leaving his millions with them after alienating all his progeny), it is a grim reminder of the power we waste on hatred and how wealth can’t cure, in Markel’s words, a “damaged soul.”

Ötzi-quel

This ongoing saga of Ötzi the Iceman fascinates me. I first learned of him from Radiolab a few years ago, but turns out we keep learning more about this mythic Italian mummy:

The more scientists learn, the more recognizable the Iceman becomes. He was 5 feet 5 inches tall (about average height for his time), weighed 110 pounds, had brown eyes and shoulder-length, dark brown hair, and a size 7½ foot. He was about 45, give or take six years, respectably old for the late Neolithic age — but still in his prime.

Still kinda blown away science can figure this stuff out:

From examining traces of pollen in his digestive tract, scientists were able to place the date of Ötzi’s death at sometime in late spring or early summer. In his last two days, they found, he consumed three distinct meals and walked from an elevation of about 6,500 feet, down to the valley floor and then up into the mountains again, where he was found at the crime site, 10,500 feet up.

More to come, I hope.

Refer Madness: PB & A

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Here’s an interesting one that came to the desk: the PseudoBulbar Affect. (Pseudo “false” + Bulbar, referring to the brainstem.)

A patron said she had it and was looking for some scholarly information about it. According to PBAinfo.org, PBA occurs when “certain neurologic diseases or brain injuries damage the areas in the brain that control normal expression of emotion. This damage can disrupt brain signaling, causing a ‘short circuit’ and triggering involuntary episodes of crying or laughing.”

These outbursts can be inappropriate (spontaneous crying or laughing when neither are warranted) and exaggerated (more intense or larger than the situation merits). Common causes include traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s or dementia, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The first reference to PBA is credited to the Charles Darwin, in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and it’s in the kind of language that sounds crass now to our more medically enlightened ears: “We must not, however, lay too much stress on the copious shedding of tears by the insane, as being due to the lack of all restraint; for certain brain-diseases, as hemiplegia, brain-wasting, and senile decay, have a special tendency to induce weeping.”

The more you know.

The Hunt for Vulcan

I’ve never forgotten the scene in Men in Black, when Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) are sitting on a bench facing the New York City skyline. Jay has gotten a brief but shocking glimpse of the secret alien world Kay is trying to recruit him into, one that few people know about.

“Why the big secret?” Jay asks. “People are smart. They can handle it.”

“A person is smart,” Kay responds, but “people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

This scene came to mind right after I finished reading Thomas Levenson’s new book The Hunt for Vulcan: …And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe. Levenson writes about the now-forgotten period between 1859 and 1915 when scientists believed our solar system had a planet called Vulcan within Mercury’s orbit. An anomaly in Mercury’s orbit affected its gravitational trajectory just enough to suggest another mass was tugging on it. Professional and amateur astronomers alike made several attempts to observe this mystery mass, and some reported doing so. But it wasn’t until decades later, when Einstein applied the principles of his new theory of relativity to the orbital calculations, when those sightings were finally reclassified as misidentified stars and the coulda-woulda-shoulda planet Vulcan was expunged from the solar system.

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The Martian

I conducted an experiment with The Martian. Too many times I’ve read a book before seeing its movie version and have come out of the theater disappointed they didn’t show this or showed too much of that, and above all that I knew what was going to happen. Seems the conventional wisdom is that you should read the book beforehand to get the truest experience first and prepare for seeing the movie, but this doesn’t make any sense. Prepare for what? Knowing what’s going to happen so you’re not surprised? I like not knowing what’s going to happen in a movie. So I postponed reading Andy Weir’s book until after I saw the movie.

Ridley Scott’s rendition captures the book quite well. It condenses Watney’s extensive, often mind-numbing passages on the technical aspects of his survival process while maintaining the spirit of the book. (At some point a character tells another “Walk me through it,” and I thought that could easily be the title.) Watney’s play-by-play is (mostly) fascinating, absolutely, but changing it for the movie to Matt Damon directly addressing the camera/mission log allows us to see Watney’s personality come to life in real time.

The movie also, for me, elevated interest in the deliberations at NASA and on the Hermes. Screenwriter Drew Goddard cleaned up a lot of Weir’s cringeworthy dialogue in the book, or at least made it more palatable for the very talented supporting cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kristin Wiig (!), and Sean Bean on earth, and Jessica Chastain et al on the Hermes.

The book lived up to its reputation as an exciting, extremely detailed, chatty thriller slash user manual. I assumed, having seen the film, that I knew how it was going to end—that they wouldn’t have made any drastic changes to the conclusion—but it’s a testament to Weir that I stayed with it the whole time. Indeed, my palms were sweating during the climax. No doubt there’s a scientific solution for that.

How to Feel Small

I like things that make me feel small.

Like If The Moon Were Only 1 Pixel, a “tediously accurate scale model of the solar system” that, as you scroll horizontally, reveals the vast span of our neighborhood:
moon

Or Why Time Flies, a philosophical exploration of our fungible awareness of time:
time

Or The Scale of the Universe (my favorite), which, as you zoom in and out, shows the comparative sizes of all creation, from the largest supercluster to the smallest neutrino (notice how everything at some point is the same size):
scale

Or Lightyear.fm, a “journey through space, time & music” that plays songs of the past according to how far their waves have traveled from Earth since they were released:
lightyear

How We Got to Now

howI couldn’t put down How We Got To Now, Steven Johnson’s six-part book on “innovations that made the modern world.” The book is an exposition on the theory of the “hummingbird effect,” which occurs when “an innovation, or cluster of innovations, in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” The theory is so named because of how hummingbirds evolved a new way to float midair while extracting nectar from flowers, thus having one phenomena (plant reproduction) effect change in another seemingly unrelated one (bird anatomy).

Johnson illustrates this theme in six realms: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light. The book is beautifully illustrated throughout with pictures of inventors, innovators, and their creations—famous and obscure—whose intuitive leaps of imagination and engineering influenced the world in ways they could never foresee. Fifteenth-century Italian glassmakers displaced by the fall of Constantinople experimented with new kinds of glass, which found use as proto-lenses for scribes in monasteries (their lentil-like shape inspiring the name lens, from the Latin lentes for lentil), which, along with Gutenberg’s printing press allowing for cheaper and portable books, contributed to the rise in overall literacy, which exposed the farsightedness of these new readers, who suddenly realized they needed lenses to read, thus creating a new market for eyeglasses. As Johnson points out, Gutenberg didn’t set out to create a new market for eyewear: the hummingbird effect simply made it happen step by step.

It’s more complicated than that, and Johnson takes care to paint a much richer and fascinating portrait of this phenomenon in action over centuries. I had a lot of fun reading How We Got to Now because Johnson lays out a continuous string of tasty knowledge nuggets from beginning to end. On every page I learned something that I wanted to write down and share with others. We’re living in a big, beautiful, deep world that has a great story to tell. How We Got to Now helps explain why.

Einterstellar

My new definition of cosmic irony: to be in the midst of Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe as I went to see Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a marvel of a film that directly references Einstein and his theory of relativity. I had a chuckle during the film when that moment arrived, not because I understand the theory of relativity in the least, but because the universe is mysterious and funny in that way.

Einstein would probably agree, according to Isaacson’s book. I picked it up on a whim. For being such a ubiquitous figure I knew nearly nothing about him, and since for the last few years I’ve grown increasingly interested in (and therefore increasingly perplexed by) astrophysics and the stuff of space, I thought a well-regarded biography of one of astrophysics greatest would be a good place to start. And indeed I’d recommend it to anyone, even, or especially, those who will have to skim over the arcane science passages as I did.

I think Einstein would have loved Interstellar.

Deep & The Divine Milieu

freedivercropAt one point in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mason asks his father if there’s magic in the world. Probably not literal magic, his dad replies. But then he asks the boy: if you didn’t know what a whale was and someone told you there was a giant mammal that lived underwater with a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through, wouldn’t you find that pretty magical?

I’d say so. But more than that, I’d call it divine. Scientists, I’m sure, would frown upon using a religious word to describe biological processes and characteristics, but I find it quite appropriate, especially after learning about the profundities of the ocean from James Nestor’s new book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.

Perhaps it’s because the book I read before Deep was Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, a meditation on the earthly omnipresence of the divine. Consistent with the Jesuit motto of “finding God in all things,” Teilhard, a Jesuit priest and archaeologist, saw the natural world’s evolution not in conflict with the eternal Divine, but convergent with it. Thus the “divine milieu” is not just in heaven but on earth too, manifest in the world around us. Deep, though a study in scientific phenomena, aligns in fascinating ways with the spiritual phenomena described in The Divine Milieu.

Consider the “master switch of life,” a term that refers to the physiological reflexes in the human body that are triggered when we enter the water and intensify the deeper we go. This transformation, writes Nestor in Deep, “protects our organs from imploding under the immense underwater pressure and turns us into efficient deep sea-diving animals.” But this isn’t an automatic switch. It requires intensive training, coupled with total peace of mind and body, to fully realize its power and unlock the so-called “doorway to the deep,” the point at about 40 feet down where the ocean stops trying to spit us out and instead draws us down. Surrendering to the immersive power of the ocean is the only way to survive.

Likewise, writes Teilhard in The Divine Milieu: “The man who abandons himself to the divine milieu feels his inward powers clearly directed and vastly expanded by it with a sureness which enables him to avoid the reefs on which mystical ardor has so often foundered.” Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the freedivers Nestor meets all describe their underwater experiences in spiritual, almost mystical terms: “transcendent, life-changing, purifying. A new shimmering universe.” They could see new things in a way that a life on land couldn’t fathom.

The ocean, like the world itself, seems suspended between the tangible and mysterious, the clearly natural yet utterly magical. Nestor’s book is an ode to the people who inhabit that space in-between, who plunge into the unknown to push the limits of human understanding, like theologians of the sea. (Is sea-ologians a word? It should be.) The water beckons us to explore, to contend with the mystery of the divine as Paul does in Ephesians 3:18-19: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

A dive into the water, taken on faith but also with a clear mind, transforms and renews us all. Only when we’re in over our heads, holding our breath as we’re baptized into the deep, do we really live. Sounds like a divine milieu to me.

Originally published at ThinkChristian, August 2014.

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