Brain Pickings

Wheels of Change: How The Bicycle Empowered Women

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A visual history of the steed upon which women rode into a new world.

As much as I love bike culture and everything bikes stand for, I, like many, may have underestimated the profound significance of the bicycle as a cultural agent of change. Thanks to a brilliant new book, I no longer do. National Geographic‘s Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) (public library) tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity.

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

Image: Colorado Historical Society (Cycling West, Vol. 6 April 15, 1897, Scan #30000557) | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)

Image: History Colorado (Lillybridge Collection, Scan #20000294 | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

Image: (c) Beth Emery Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881

Image: (c) Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Image: (c) Norman Batho Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

Many [female cyclists on cigar box labels] were shown as decidedly masculine, with hair cut short or pulled back, and smoking cigars, then an almost exclusively male pursuit. This portrayal reflected the old fears that women in pants would somehow supplement men as breadwinners and decision-makers.” ~ Sue Macy

Poignant and playful, Wheels of Change explores the early history of women in bicycling with equal parts illuminating insight and freewheeling fun.

via Sarah Goodyear / Grist

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What Is Time? Michio Kaku’s BBC Documentary

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What string theory has to do with fish mating and your sleep-wake cycle.

We have a soft spot for BBC documentaries that attempt to answer some of life’s biggest questions. Previously, we’ve explored the nature of reality, how music works, is there God, the politics of fear and where innovation comes from. Last week, we saw this beautifully filmed teaser for an NPR story on why time seems to fly by as you get older:

So it made us wonder about the nature of time: What is it, how do we experience it, why does it play the tricks it does on us? Luckily, there’s a BBC documentary that explores precisely that: Time is a fascinating four-part series by string theory pioneer and prolific author Michio Kaku exploring our sense of time passing, the biological clocks governing our bodies, the geological clues to the depth of time on a planetary level, and the cosmic origin of time itself.

As a physicist, I’ve spent most of my life studying time and I know it’s one of the greatest mysteries in all of nature. We all know that time is out there, but we can’t see it, feel it, taste it, touch it, or smell it. So how does it exert such power over our lives? In this program, I’m going to find out.” ~ Michio Kaku

The series is now available online in its entirely, compiled in this playlist for your illuminating pleasure:

Time drives every second of our lives in ways we can scarecely imagine. But what is time? This is the quest to understand time and our place within it. It’s a journey that starts with cutting-edge discoveries into what makes us tick and ends with the mind-boggling implications of cosmological time. It’s a journey that reveals something extraordinary: The more we understand time, the more we find that it is time that makes us uniquely human.”

For an even more mind-bending look at the trickeries of time, we highly recommend Kaku’s classic Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time — not only a deeply fascinating yet digestible distillation of the iconic physicist’s work, but also a fine companion read to the 7 newly digitized Einstein gems we featured earlier this month.

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An Ode to the Brain: TED + Carl Sagan, Autotuned

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Between our deep love for TED, our fascination with music and the brain, and our soft spot for remix culture, it’s hard not to fall for An Ode to the Brain by John Boswell of Symphony of Science fame — an ingenious autotune remix of footage from various TED talks, Discovery Channel programming, Carl Sagan documentaries and other fine purveyors of neuroscience insight.

For our very own remix tribute to TED, do revisit our TEDify side project.

Thanks, Chris

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The Word Project: Obscure Words in Bricolage

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What avian resemblance has to do with the study of soil and the irresistible urge to dance.

We love words and language, especially artful intersections of lingolove and design. Earlier this week, we spotlighted illustrator Veronika Heckova’s lovely Words Without Words project and, thanks to reader Cassandra Marketos, we discovered the utterly wonderful work of artist Polly M. Law. The Word Project is a compendium of 100 odd and obscure words, illustrated in Law’s signature bricolage paper-dolls style.

Strigiform: (adj) resembling an owl; Struthiform (adj) resembling an ostrich

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Dinomania: (n) irresistible urge to dance

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Godwottery: (n) an overly ornate garden

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Pedology: (n) the study of soils

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Lucubrate: (v) to work by artificial light

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Bibliotaph: (n) a person who hides books

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

Empyreal: (adj) celestial, elevated

Image courtesy of Polly M. Law

At once whimsical and illuminating, The Word Project is a playful and inspired gateway into grown-up vocabulary, approaching the intellectual with the kind of childlike curiosity we so encourage.

Thanks, Cass

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