Category: Science

The Ghost Map

When I learned Steven Johnson (my favorite author) has a new book out, it prompted me to finally read one of his previous books that’s been on my list for a while.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World was a timely read, for obvious reasons. Though cholera is a different beast than COVID (“Imagine if every time you experienced a slight upset stomach you knew that there was an entirely reasonable chance you’d be dead in forty-eight hours”), its effect in this story and throughout history shows us both how far science has come since the Victorian Age and how vulnerable we remain to infectious diseases.

What I love most about this book—even beyond the historical factoids and masterful storytelling you can expect from any Johnson joint—is that it’s basically a murder mystery, with cholera as the microbial serial killer and an unlikely detective duo of a doctor and a priest hunting it during a deadly epidemic in the crowded, putrid London of the 1850s.

Call it an epidemiological thriller. Probably not much competition in that sub-genre, but Johnson made the most of it.

Quotes

I like Johnson’s description of London at the time:

an industrial-era city with an Elizabethan-era waste-removal system as perceived by a Pleistocene-era brain.

On the topography of progress:

The river of intellectual progress is not defined purely by the steady flow of good ideas begetting better ones; it follows the topography that has been carved out for it by external factors.

On great intellectual breakthroughs:

It is rarely the isolated genius having a eureka moment alone in the lab. Nor is it merely a question of building on precedent, of standing on the shoulders of giants, in Newton’s famous phrase. Great breakthroughs are closer to what happens in a flood plain: a dozen separate tributaries converge, and the rising waters lift the genius high enough that he or she can see around the conceptual obstructions of the age.

On miasma theory and the “sociology of error”:

It’s not just that the authorities of the day were wrong about miasma; it’s the tenacious, unquestioning way they went about being wrong. …

How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time? How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence that contradicted their most basic theories? These questions, too, deserve their own discipline—the sociology of error.

Laboratories of theology

Here’s two quotes I re-encountered while going through my reading notes.

From Lab Girl by Hope Jahren:

My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. The machines drone a gathering hymn as I enter. I know whom I’ll probably see, and I know how they’ll probably act. I know there’ll be silence; I know there’ll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t. Elevated to my best self, I strive to do each task correctly. My lab is a place to go on sacred days, as is a church. On holidays, when the rest of the world is closed, my lab is open. My lab is a refuge and an asylum. It is my retreat from the professional battlefield; it is the place where I coolly examine my wounds and repair my armor. And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.

From Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane:

My sense is that the search for dark matter has produced an elaborate, delicate edifice of presuppositions, and a network of worship sites, also known as laboratories, all dedicated to the search for an invisible universal entity which refuses to reveal itself. It seems to resemble what we call religion rather more than what we call science.

We’re in this together

Via Kottke, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom’s opening remarks at today’s media briefing on COVID-19 officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Despite the alarm that word may raise raises, Adhanom concluded his remarks with some wise words:

Let me give you some other words that matter much more, and that are much more actionable.

Prevention.

Preparedness.

Public health.

Political leadership.

And most of all, people.

We’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable.

Burn this into bronze: We’re in this together, to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable.

Black hole stun from backwater bipeds

In case you haven’t been following the news (and who can blame you?), that’s the first-ever image of a black hole:

There’s plenty of writing out there on what it means, much of it going over my head, but here’s some grounding perspective from Scientific American:

It is also worth noting that in the two hours after the press conference, at least six scientific papers on the observation have appeared online. They almost certainly contain clues and new questions that will take more time to process than a 24/7 news cycle can tolerate. For now, though, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the strangeness of nature, and the remarkable fact that these sentient, tool-using bipeds on a small world in a backwater solar system somehow managed to turn their planet into a telescope and take a picture of an exit chute from the universe.

Atlas of a Lost World

We think of ourselves as different from other animals. We extol our own tool use, congratulate our sentience, but our needs are the same. We are creatures on a planet looking for a way ahead. Why do we like vistas? Why are pullouts drawn on the sides of highways, signs with arrows showing where to stand for the best view? The love for the panorama comes from memory, the earliest form of cartography, a sense of location. Little feels better than knowing where you are, and having a reason to be there.

— from Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs, a meaty and winding travelogue around North America investigating notable Pleistocene spots, like the Bering land bridge in Alaska and the woolly mammoth remains in Clovis, New Mexico.

I recently realized how fascinated I am with prehistoric people and their times: What was life like back then? How similar were Ice Age humans to us? Childs goes a long way in finding out, hiking through tundra and camping out in a polar vortex and trudging through Floridian swamps. Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, mythology, and philosophy all come into play.

“Science is useful,” he writes. “It fills in the blanks with precision, but history is ultimately more about stories and the unfolding of human whims.”

My Birthday Planets

Thanks to Fourmilab (via kottke), I discovered exactly how the planets were aligned on the day of my birth:

Solar-914.gif

You can find your own here.

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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