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Posts Tagged ‘science’

Blinded by Coffee

September 29, 2014 | by

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Two ordinary humans soon to have their vision sucked out of them by coffee, villainous coffee.

Sadie Stein wrote earlier today about Balzac, who was famously enamored of coffee—especially coffee on an empty stomach—as a creative agent, so much so that it probably killed him. On the other end of the spectrum is J. M. Holaday, a—scholar? an armchair scientist? he’s a man about whom Google reveals little—whose sole publication, an essay called “Coffee-Drinking and Blindness,” survives him. The piece appeared in the North American Review in September 1888. Rhetorically marvelous if scientifically unsound, it argues emphatically that drinking too much coffee will make you go blind. And this was not, to Holaday’s mind, mere conjecture. He begins his essay with bold certitude:

I am satisfied that defective vision and blindness will pretty soon be a prominent characteristic among the American people … I make this assertion without having seen any statistics whatever on the subject of blindness. I found out long ago that a cup of coffee leaves a night-shade on the brain which continues longer than an eclipse of the sun. For some time past I have been consulting with different persons in Council Bluffs, who are suffering with failing sight, and in each instance I ascertained that the unfortunate person was and is a regular coffee-drinker.

Indubitable evidence! Correlation does imply causation! Lest you fear that Holaday is a plant—a tea lobbyist, maybe, or a cola manufacturer—he’s quick to note that he was once fond of coffee himself, though he “now feel[s] free of the coffee-drinking vice, and will have no more trouble with it unless I shall again fall a victim to some church supper or to the magnetic blandishments of some buoyant hostess.” Read More »

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The Ultimate Example of Everything, and Other News

August 27, 2014 | by

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John Ashbery at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2010. Photo: David Shankbone

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, on the New Museum’s current show, “Here and Elsewhere”: “So many of today’s iconic images are made in the Middle East … For visual artists working from the region, this surfeit of spectacles poses a challenge. When everyday life—at least as it is experienced via a computer screen—regularly throws up these images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
  • Ben Lerner at the Met: “What interests me about fiction … is in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”
  • Things that—according to the students and faculty of the first Ashbery Home School, a new writing conference in Hudson, New York—John Ashbery is “the ultimate example of”: “surrealism, realism, hyperrealism, distance, proximity, translation, tradition, the grotesque, the beautiful, the blind, the all-seeing, the old, the young, the queer, the hetero, the hedgehog, the fox, the human, the alien, the bric-a-brac in the cupboard, the masterpiece on the wall, painting, cinema, architecture, life.” (NB the author of this list describes it as “incomplete and incompetent.”)
  • A brief history of the problem of sorting, classifying, and otherwise categorizing things: “It is tempting to think making categories is a straightforward scientific enterprise, and that debates will be clearly settled once we’ve amassed enough data. But the history of science shows this not to be the case … The nature of scientific categories is not merely an empirical issue; it’s also a philosophical one, and one affected by self-interest and social forces.”
  • Today, in posthumous gifts: more than three thousand of Doris Lessing’s books are to be donated to a public library in Zimbabwe, where she lived for twenty-five years.

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Its Light Was Prodigious

August 18, 2014 | by

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Paul Sandby, The 1783 Great Meteor, as seen from the East Angle of the North Terrace, Windsor Castle

As evidenced by its name, the 1783 Great Meteor was, yes, great and meteoric. At the time, not much else could be said about it with certainty—indeed, when it graced the skies of the British Isles 231 years ago today, it prompted a scientific (or pseudoscientific) crisis. Experts rushed to answer that burning—pun intended—question: What the hell was that?

On the night in question, Paul Sandby, a landscape painter, happened to be with Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian philosopher, hanging out on the terrace of Windsor Castle, enjoying the summer night, taking in the solemn spectacle of the sky, when, as Cavallo later wrote,

some flashes of lambent light, much like the aurora borealis, were first observed on the northern part of the heavens, which were soon perceived to proceed from a roundish luminous body, whose apparent diameter equaled half that of the moon, and almost stationary in the same point of the heavens … This ball at first appeared of a faint bluish light, perhaps from appearing just kindled, or from its appearing through the haziness; but it gradually increased its light, and soon began to move, at first ascending above the horizon in an oblique direction towards the east. Its course in this direction was very short, perhaps of five or six degrees; after which it directed its course towards the east … Its light was prodigious. Every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country, in that beautiful prospect before the terrace, being instantly illuminated.

I like the blend of specificity and awe here: Cavallo takes pains to describe the event as accurately as he can, but his account is suffused with the kind of wonder that only comes from confusion. How exciting it must’ve been, not knowing what was happening, not having the rote assurance of a scientific explanation. This was a time, after all, when one could still refer to the skies as “the heavens” without the slightest trace of irony.

In what amounts to an early example of crowdsourcing, artists and scientists came together to corroborate and dispute various accounts of the meteor. Sandby turned in an excellent watercolor of the phenomenon, and a schoolmaster named Henry Robinson made the engraving below. The meteor became the subject of wide speculation in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society; London Magazine ran an absurd account from a British lieutenant who claimed to have seen the meteor reverse its course, “moving back again, the contrary way to which it came.”

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True Objective Occurrences

June 17, 2014 | by

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Crookes in an 1876 portrait from Popular Science

William Crookes, born today in 1832, was a deft scientist—in Britain, he identified the first sample of helium, discovered thallium, invented a radiometer, and developed a vacuum tube to study cathode rays. But he was also a total naïf.

Swayed by spiritualism and the faddish pseudoscience of the day, Crookes regularly attended séances and joined both the Theosophical Society and the Ghost Club—still extant, should you care to sign up. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, perhaps the best-named misguided occultist group in the history of misguided occultist groups, inducted him in 1890.

What drew someone of Crookes’s occupation into such fraudulent circles? Some say it was grief—Crookes’s brother had died from yellow fever at only twenty-one, and the scientist presumably yearned to speak with him again. Whatever the case, Crookes’s research papers on the paranormal, and thus whole years of his life, are swathed in a kind of dramatic irony. He was one of the few men in his profession who bought into these shaky accounts of the otherworldly. His writing on supernatural phenomena, so outwardly rigorous, shines with melancholy when you realize how deeply he wanted to believe. It’s bad science on good faith. Read More »

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The Uncommon Birds of George Edwards

April 3, 2014 | by

Edwards American Kingfisher

The American Kingfisher

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The Bearded Vulture

Edwards The Toucan or Brazilian Pye

The Toucan or Brazilian Pye

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The Golden Bird of Paradise

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The King Bird of Paradise

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The Whooping Crane

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The Black-Capped Lory

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The Green Parrot of the West Indies

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The Longest-Tailed Hummingbird

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The Ornate Lorikeet

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The Penguin

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The Red African Gray Parrot

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The Hawk-Headed Parrot

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The Dodo and the Guinea Pig

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The Summer Duck of Catesby

George Edwards, born today in 1694, is known as “the father of British ornithology”—as fine a paternal legacy as a guy can hope for. Today, his reputation as a naturalist endures in no small part because of his excellent drawings, which introduced English readers to scores of exotic creatures: first and foremost, birds. His greatest work is the four-volume Natural History of Uncommon Birds, whose full august title deserves to be seen in toto: A Natural History of Uncommon Birds: And of Some Other Rare and Undescribed Animals, Quadrupeds, Fishes, Reptiles, Insects, &c., Exhibited in Two Hundred and Ten Copper-plates, from Designs Copied Immediately from Nature, and Curiously Coloured After Life, with a Full and Accurate Description of Each Figure, to which is Added A Brief and General Idea of Drawing and Painting in Water-colours; with Instructions for Etching on Copper with Aqua Fortis; Likewise Some Thoughts on the Passage of Birds; and Additions to Many Subjects Described in this Work.

These drawings are taken from that work, which you can read here. Of particular note is his illustration of the dodo, which was, even then, extraordinarily rare and facing extinction.

As for the man: According to The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and Their Collectors, a contemporary of Edwards’s “described him as of medium stature, inclined to plumpness and of a cheerful, kindly nature ‘associated with a charming diffidence.’”

 

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The Joyce Lee Method of Scientific Facial Exercises

December 11, 2013 | by

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Selected from AbeBooks’ Weird Book Room.

 

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