Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

01 OCTOBER, 2012

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

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How a tiny cluster of genes and proteins gave rise to zombie and vampire mythology.

Our understanding of what it means to be human hinges on an understanding of consciousness and, perhaps more than anything, a sense of control over or, at the very least, access to it. But what happens when a microscopic particle enters the body, takes hold of the mind, and gnaws away that access to our own consciousness? Is what remains “human”?

In Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus (public library), Wired senior editor Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy, a husband-and-wife duo, trace the fascinating history of the ubiquitous and menacing virus that shaped everything from the Holy Crusades to modern zombie and vampire pop-culture mythology.

Wasik and Murphy write:

It is the most fatal virus in the world, a pathogen that kills nearly 100 percent of its hosts in most species, including humans. Fittingly, the rabies virus is shaped like a bullet: a cylindrical shell of glycoproteins and lipids that carries, in its rounded tip, a malevolent payload of helical RNA. On entering a living thing, it eschews the bloodstream, the default route of nearly all viruses but a path heavily guarded by immuno-protective sentries. Instead, like almost no other virus known to science, rabies sets its course through the nervous system, creeping upstream at one or two centimeters per day (on average) through the axoplasm, the transmission lines that conduct electrical impulses to and from the brain. Once inside the brain, the virus works slowly, diligently, fatally to warp the mind, suppressing the rational and stimulating the animal. Aggression rises to fever pitch; inhibitions melt away; salivation increases. The infected creature now has only days to live, and these he will likely spend on the attack, foaming at the mouth, chasing and lunging and biting in the throes of madness — because the demon that possesses him seeks more hosts.

If it sounds like a horror movie, we should not be surprised, for it is a scenario bound up into our very concept of horror. Rabies is a scourge as old as human civilization, and the terror of its manifestation is a fundamental human fear, because it challenges the boundary of humanity itself. That is, it troubles the line where man ends and animal begins.

Such is the paralyzing fear of rabies, in fact, that when Louis Pasteur was developing the very vaccine to fight the menace and had to extract the virus from the jaws of madly growling infected dogs, he and his two collaborators kept a loaded gun ready — not just for the dog, but for any researcher who got bitten and infected. Mary Cressac, the niece of Pasteur’s collaborator Emile Roux, recalls:

At the beginning of each session a loaded revolver was placed within their reach. If a terrible accident were to happen to one of them, the more courageous of the two others would put a bullet in his head.

And yet, more than two centuries after Pasteur successfully pioneered the rabies vaccine, 55,000 people die from rabies globally each year. Curiously, the greatest risk of rabies for humans in the developed world today comes from bats, which can bite you in your sleep without awaking you. Once the virus has progressed, the two most common symptoms in humans are hydrophobia — a deathly, irrational fear of water — and hypersexuality, which causes some patients to experience hourly involuntary orgasms.

Though certainly not for the squeamish, Rabid offers an illuminating, terrifying, yet strangely entertaining chronicle of this tiny cluster of proteins and genes that has the power to challenge and, ultimately, alter our very conception of what it means to be human.

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Richard Feynman Explains Where Trees Actually Come From and How Fire Works

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How the light and heat of the sun made their way into your fireplace.

We’ve already seen that trees can be powerful purveyors of philosophy, keepers of deep time, and visual metaphors for evolution — but where do they actually come from?

There’s a reason Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science, adviser of future generations — earned himself the moniker “The Great Explainer.” In this short clip from BBC’s 1983 series Fun to Imagine, Feynman explains where trees actually come from the air and why the light and heat emanating from a burning fire are in fact the light and heat of the sun, “stored sun” that made its way into the fireplace via the substance of the tree:

Is this the second most astounding fact about the universe, or what?

Krulwich Wonders

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27 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Timeless Lessons in Ingenuity and Entrepreneurship from the Story of Polaroid

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The Apple of yore’s eye, or what modern entrepreneurs can learn from Edwin Land.

In 1942, iconic inventor and Polaroid founder Edwin Land stood up in front of his employees and boldly laid out a vision for incremental success that soon catapulted Polaroid into cultural legend status. By the 1970s, a billion Polaroid photographs were being shot every year, and Polaroid had no real competitor. Fast-forward three decades, to the era-defining surge of digital photography, and it wasn’t long before film photography in general, and Polaroid in particular, became a fringe fixation for specialty hobbyists and artists. Between 2001 and 2009, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy twice, was sold three times, eventually discontinued Polaroid film in 2008, then filed for Chapter 11 in 2012. What happened, and what does its story reveal about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the pursuit of creative vision?

That’s precisely what New York magazine senior editor Christopher Bonanos explores in Instant: The Story of Polaroid (public library) from Princeton Architectural Press — a fascinating tale of rapid rise, catastrophic collapse, and the riveting ride between the two, at once told like never before and strangely familiar in its allegorical quality. Bonanos writes:

When it introduced instant photography in the late 1940s, Polaroid the corporation followed a path that has since become familiar in Silicon Valley: Tech-genius founder has a fantastic idea and finds like0minded colleagues to develop it’ they pull a ridiculous number of all0nighters to do so, with as much passion for the problem-solving as for the product; venture capital and smart marketing follows; everyone gets rich, not not for the sake of getting rich. For a w while, the possibilities seem limitless. Then, sometimes, the MBAs come in and mess things up, or the creators find themselves in over their heads as businesspeople, and the story ends with an unpleasant thud.

The most obvious parallel is to Apple Computer, except that Apple’s story, so far, has a much happier ending. Both companies specialized in relentless, obsessive refinement of their technologies. Both were established close to great research universities to attract talent (Polaroid was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it drew from Harvard and MIT; Apple has Stanford and Berkeley nearby). Both fetishized superior, elegant, covetable product design. And both companies exploded in size and wealth under an in-house visionary-godhead-inventor-genius. At Apple, that man was Steve Jobs. At Polaroid, the genius domus was Edwin Herbert Land.

And, indeed, the parallels between the two visionaries are innumerable — key among them, perhaps, being the adamant belief in creative vision over consumer demand: “Marketing is what you do when your product is no good,” Land famously proclaimed, insisting that you had to give people something they didn’t know they wanted but, once they faced with it, found it irresistible; “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” Jobs famously said. Even their showmanship bore striking resemblance:

At Polaroid’s annual shareholders’ meeting, Land often got up onstage, deploying every bit of his considerable magnetism, and put the company’s net big thing through its paces, sometimes backed by a slideshow t fill in the details, other times with live music between segments. A generation later, Jobs did the same thing, in a black turtleneck and jeans. Both men were college dropouts; both became as rich as anyone could ever wish to be; and both insisted that their inventions would change the fundamental nature of human communication.

But Land was much more than a great showman — he was an extraordinary inventor. In his lifetime, he received 535 United States patents and advised several presidents, including Nixon, who once reportedly asked an aide, “How do we get more Dr. Lands?” (The irony, of course, is that “Dr.” was a cultural rather than academic honor, as Land had dropped out of Harvard.) Perhaps most noteworthy, however, was his cross-disciplinary curiosity, something both great scientists and great artists have advocated for:

[A]longside his scientific passions lay knowledge of art, music, and literature. He was a cultured person, growing even more so as he got older, and his interests filtered into the ethos of Polaroid. His company took powerful pride in its relationship to fine artists, its sponsorship of public television, even its superior graphic design. He liked people who had breadth as well as depth — chemists who were also musicians, say, or photographers who understood physics. He took very good pictures, too.

That’s particularly noteworthy as Land himself didn’t grow up in an intellectual household and was in fact known to bemoan the dearth of books in his childhood home. His intellectual path was the result of semi-serendipitous meandering: As a youngster, he stumbled upon a copy of the 1911 edition of physicist Robert W. Wood’s Physical Optics, where he became mesmerized by the polarization of light. Then, while at summer camp, he saw a demonstration of a Nicol’s prism — a clear crystal cut at such an angle as to act as a natural polarizer — and, as the saying goes, the rest was history.

Land embodied another essential quality of a true entrepreneur — the ability to spot serendipitous opportunity as it arises as a byproduct to a deliberate effort, or something once ingeniously termed “chance-opportunism” and deemed essential in scientific creativity. Bonanos writes of the science and serendipity behind Polaroid’s rise:

A polarizer is a unique type of filter, and its properties are best explained with an oversimplification that Land himself often used. Waves of light, as they come at you, vibrate in every plane, vertically, horizontally, and at all angles in between. Certain crystal structures can function as gratings, allowing through light that vibrates in just one plane. If you picture the beam of light as a handful of thrown straws, oriented in every direction, the polarizing filter is a picket fence. The only straws that come through are the ones that align with the slots between pickets. Sunlight is also polarized when it bounces off a flat, nonmetallic surface, like a lake or the roadway in front of you, causing glare. Adding a polarizing layer to sunglasses blocks light vibrating in that one plane, wiping out the glare and helping drivers see the road or fishermen spot trout beneath the surface of a stream. Photographers, too, use polarizing filters to even out lighting.

[…]

Polarizers rather than pictures would define the first two decades of Land’s intellectual life, and would establish his company and career. Instant photos were an idea that came later on, a secondary business around which his company was completely re-created.

Another seemingly radical distinction that gave Land an edge were his recruiting tactics, specifically with regards to hiring female scientists. After he became close with Clarence Kennedy, an art-history professor at Smith College, Land realized he could scout smart and creative science-inclined women in Smith’s art-history department. He would send them off for a couple semesters’ worth of science courses, producing, as Bonanos puts it, “skilled chemists who could keep up when the conversation turned from Maxwell’s equations to Renoir’s brush strokes.” Inside Polaroid, these cross-disciplinarily gifted women were referred to as Princesses.

The rest of Instant goes on to explore both the science and the cultural mythology behind Polaroid, zooming in on Land’s singular lens on entrepreneurship and extracting from it both an inspired and timeless story of ingenuity, and a cautionary tale of boom-and-bust trajectory, brimming with lessons for modern tech mavericks.

Infographic via 1,000 memories; Edwin Land portrait via History of Science

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