Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘bizarre’

29 MARCH, 2012

Ancient Romans’ Fanciful and Entertaining Pre-Scientific Beliefs about Animal Behavior


What the greed of the octopus has to do with the ram’s preferred bedside and the hyena’s gender-bending.

We don’t know much about the Roman writer, collector, and moralist Claudius Aelianus, better-remembered as Aelian, except that he was born sometime between A.D. 165 and 170 some 25 miles outside of Rome, and that he made obsessive almanac-like collections on esoteric and odd topics. Though few of those survive, his magnum opus, De Natura Animalium (On the Nature of Animals), was popular enough in his heyday to survive largely intact, enduring as the only know work of Aelian’s today. The collection features seemingly random stories about animals, selected for no other reason that Aelian found them interesting, and serves as a kind of early encyclopedia of animal behavior rooted partly in mythology, partly in the speculative science of the day, and partly in Aelian’s own liberties as a storyteller.

In Aelian’s On the Nature of Animals, writer and Encyclopedia Britannica contributing editor Gregory McNamee resurrects the best of these stories, full of sketchy science and fanciful facts, to offer unprecedented insight into how ancient Romans thought of animals — a curious precursor to today’s scientific fascination with animal minds, and a fascinating caricature of our tendency to imbue the minds of others, be they animal or human, with the characteristics, qualities, and motives of our own.

Aelian was also a clever publisher with a keen sense of what people would find interesting and of how to get them interested in the obscure and exotic — the hallmark of a great curator. McNamee writes in the introduction:

Aelian knew as much as any person of his time about animals. He knew what this contemporaries knew, and he knew what they would find exotic. On the Nature of Animals is thus both a wonderful window onto the beliefs of ordinary people and a testimonial to the transmission of knowledge in the ancient world. It is also a great entertainment to read, as Aelian ponders the ways of the animals an tries to work them out, sometimes successfully, by our lights, and sometimes not.

A few entertaining, enlightening, scientifically egregious selections:

The OCTOPUS is greedy, sneaky, and voracious, and it will eat anything. It is probably the most omnivorous creature in the sea. Here is the proof: in times of hunger, it will eat one of its own tentacles, thus making up for a lack of prey. When better times come, it grows back the missing limb. Nature thus gives it a ready meal in moments of want.

If you were to see a male HYENA this year, next year you would see female one. The reverse is true. Hyenas share both sexes, and they marry, and having done so, they change sex year by year. This a fact and not a fancy tale, and it makes the stories of Caeneus and Teiresias seem quaint.

The ELEPHANT is frightened of rams and the squaling of pigs, and the Romans put both to use in sending the elephants of Pyrrhus of Epirus in flight, by which the Romans won a resounding victory. The elephant is also easily overcome and mollified by a woman’s beauty. At Alexandria, in Egypt, it is said that an elephant competed with Aristophanes of Byzantium for the love of a garland maker. The elephant loves fragrances and is entranced by the smell of flowers and perfumes.

When a LION grows old, burdened by age, he cannot hunt. He hides himself away in caves or lairs in the jungle, and he does nothing about hunting even the weakest of his former prey, for he is self-conscious about his age and well aware of his incapacity. His young will come get him and take him out while they hunt, but leave him behind whenever they give chase to some animal. When they have successfully hunted, then they invite their old father to the feast. He comes quietly up, step by step, almost at a crawl, and meekly embraces his children, licking them, and then eats with them. No Solon had to deliver this as a law to the lions: nature, which supposedly knows nothing of law, teaches them to do these things. This is a a law that is immutable.

The female DOLPHIN has breasts like a human woman, and she suckles her young with abundant milk. Dolphins swim in a body, ranked by age. The young swim in front, and after them the adults. The dolphin loves her children and protects them: first come the young, then the females, then the males, all alert and on guard, keeping an eye out on the whole school. What, O great Homer, would Nestor say, whom you call the foremost tactician among all the heroes of his time?

During winter the RAM will sleep on its left side, while after the venereal equinox it sleeps on its right side. At each change of the season, it changes its way of sleeping.

When CRANES squawk, they bring on rain showers. So it is said — and also, that cranes have some sort of power which arouses women and causes them to dispense sexual favors. I take this at the word of those who have seen it happen.

In the prologue, Aelian conveys a healthy ethos that many contemporary writers — or creators in any discipline, for that matter — would be wise to take heed, balancing pride in one’s work with realism about the all too common compulsion to please all critics:

For my part, I have gathered everything I could learn on the subject here, and put it all into ordinary speech. It seems to me that the result is noteworthy. If you think so, then I hope these words will be useful to you. If not, give them to your rather to keep and study. Not everything pleases everyone, and not everyone wants to study everything. Plenty of other writers have come before me, but that should not disqualify me from praise, if it really is true that this learned book is far ranging and well written enough to deserve attention.

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21 MARCH, 2012

27 of History’s Strangest Inventions


If you can’t deliver the newspaper on your amphibious bicycle, you can always fax it.

“If at first an idea is not absurd,” Albert Einstein famously said, “then there is no hope for it.” Sometimes, however, absurd is just absurd — yet, even so, it’s a fascinating slice of history’s collective direction of curiosity and experimental innovation. After those vintage versions of modern social media and yesteryear’s visions for the future of technology, here come some of history’s most weird and wonderful inventions, from wooden swimwear to spectacles for reading in bed, captured in archival public domain images by Holland’s Nationaal Archief.

One-wheel motorcycle

Germany, 1925

Manual dredger

Workers operated the so-called bucket dredger with their arms and legs using stepper boards. The machine is a small model, but whether it was actually realized is unknown.

Bike tyre used as a swimming aid

Invented by Italian M. Goventosa de Udine; maximum speed: 150 kilometers per hour (93 mph).

Steam automobile design circa 1845

Amphibious bicycle

This land-and-water bike can carry a load of 120 pounds; Paris, 1932

All-terrain car

This all-terrain car can descend slopes up to 65 degrees; England, 1936.

Radio stroller

Stroller equipped with a radio, including antenna and loudspeaker, to keep the baby quiet; USA, 1921.

Wooden bathing suits

Wooden bathing suits, supposed to make swimming a lot easier; Hoquiam, Washington, USA, 1929

Ice sailboat

In the 17th century, it was so cold that meteorologists spoke of a Little Ice Age. The ice sailboat addressed the challenge of transporting goods over frozen lakes and rivers. Designed by A. Terrier, January 17, 1600

Radio hat

Portable radio in a straw hat, made by an American inventor in 1931

Wetlands windmill

A windmill for draining wetlands, lightweight enough to function in marshy areas. It was designed by C.D. Muys in 1589 but was never built.

Bulletproof glass

Demonstration by NYPD's finest shooter, 1931

Clap skate

In 1936, inventor R. Handl came up with the movable heel plate, but it wasn't until 1996 that this concept revolutionized skating.

Extensible caravan

Built by an unknown French engineer in 1934.

Piano for the bedridden

Piano especially designed for people confined to bedrest; Great Britain, 1935

Hamblin glasses for reading in bed

A pair of spectacles especially designed for reading in bed; England, 1936

Electrically heated jacket

Electrically heated vest, developed for the traffic police in the United States, 1932. The power is supplied by electric contacts in the street.


A turntable linked to a film projector. It comes with single, dual and triple turntable. Designed by F.B.A. Prinsen, 1929

Car with shovel for pedestrians

Invented for the purpose of 'reducing the number of casualties among pedestrians;' Paris, 1924

Hearing light for the blind


Early GPS

Yesteryear's TomTom, a rolling key map that passes through the screen in a tempo determined by the speed of the car; 1932

Folding bridge for emergencies

The emergency bridge can easily be transported on a handcart; invented by L. Deth. The Netherlands, 1926

Booted rubber boat

Drawing of a 'pneumatic sports- fish and hunt boat,' an inflatable boat for one person with boots attached; The Netherlands, 1915

Faxed newspaper

In 1938, the world's first wireless newspaper was sent from WOR radio station in New York City. In this photo, children are reading the children’s page of a Missouri paper.

Snowstorm mask

Plastic face protection from snowstorms. Canada, Montreal, 1939

Gas-resistant stroller

A wartime stroller equipped with gas protection; England, Hextable, 1938

Revolver camera

A Colt 38 carrying a small camera that automatically takes a picture when you pull the trigger. At the left: six pictures taken by the camera. New York, 1938.

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02 JANUARY, 2012

Mail-Order Mysteries: Real-World Stuff from Vintage Comic Book Ads


What hypno-specs and atomic pistols have to do with the duality of the human condition.

We’ve already learned that comic books can be a remarkable medium for nonfiction, but it turns out they can also be a vehicle for the most fantastically fraudulent fringes of fiction. Pop-culture historian Kirk Demarais set out to explore the artifice of childhood by ordering the curious, outlandish, improbable products marketed to kids in the ads on the back of comic books from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He shares his findings — funny, bizarre, a little bit heartbreaking — in Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!, a compendium of over 150 such peculiar collectibles, each dissected through the entertaining lens of what was promised and imagined versus what was actually received.

To [young] me the ads’ seductive nature was the result of a powerful combination of factors. Most obviously, the products were otherworldly: X-ray vision, karate courses, a money-counterfeiting device — they almost seemed too good to be true. For the first time, I wasn’t thinking in terms of playthings; these were life-enhancers that offered the means to satisfy a familiar range of wish-fulfillment, including power, glory, revenge, and romance.” ~ Kirk Demarais

While infinitely amusing, Mail-Order Mysteries also pokes at the architecture of our deepest-running wiring to fall for fads, to seek shortcuts, to suspend our disbelief in the hope of becoming a better version of ourselves with minimal effort. Equal parts optimistic and tragically flawed, these parallel capacities for wonder and for guile capture one of the most tender dualities of the human condition.

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08 DECEMBER, 2011

From Frida Kahlo to Freud, Finger Puppets of Cultural Icons


Unibrows for fingers, or what Einstein’s ‘do has to do with silent film and the Cuban Revolution.

A little over a year ago, I came across a line of literary action figures that quickly became a reader favorite. (Let’s face it, the Brontë Sisters power dolls render one powerless to resist.) Now comes a series of finger-puppets-slash-magnets from the folks at Philosophers Guild, depicting cultural icons across the arts (Warhol, Van Gogh), science (Einstein, Freud), politics (Gandhi, Che Guevara) and beyond.

Ranging from the delightful (Come on, it’s Frida Kahlo. As a finger puppet.) to the borderline inappropriate (The Buddha, really?) to the comically charming (How adorable is fuzzy-haired Einstein?) to the amusingly off-character (Is it just me, or does Freud look like he wants to bake you cookies?), these farcical fellows are a zany invitation to have a sense of humor about the figures and characters we normally regard with our highest cultural uptightness.

Andy Warhol

Vincent Van Gogh

Sigmund Freud

The Buddha

Charlie Chaplin

Mahatma Gandhi

Che Guevara

Sherlock Holmes


Albert Einstein

Frida Kahlo

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