Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

01 OCTOBER, 2012

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


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

Timeless Lessons in Ingenuity and Entrepreneurship from the Story of Polaroid


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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26 SEPTEMBER, 2012

T. S. Eliot on Idea Incubation, Inhibition, and the Mystical Quality of Creativity, Plus a Rare Reading


“We do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on.”

In this passage from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (public library), cited in the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, celebrated poet, playwright, and cultural critic T. S. Eliot adds to previously explored theories of how creativity works by taking a curious look at how physical illness brings a near-mystical quality of poetry, driven by two key elements of creativity: the presence of an incubation period when unconscious processing of existing ideas takes place, and the removal of habitual inhibitions, or something John Keats has termed “negative capability”.

That there is an analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny … though, as I have said, whether the analogy is of significance for the student of religion or only to the psychologist, I do not know. I know, for instance, that some forms of ill-health, debility or anaemia, may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing — though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating within the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present form a friendly or impertinent demon. What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression, as I have said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers — which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden. … This disturbance of our quotidian character which results in an incantation, an outburst of words which we hardly recognise as our own (because of the effortlessness), is a very different thing from mystical illumination. The latter is a vision which may be accompanied by the realisation that you will never be able to communicate it to anyone else, or even by the realisation that when it is past you will not be able to recall it to yourself; the former is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper.

Complement this with a rare recording of Eliot reading his celebrated 1915 stream-of-consciousness poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” found in his Selected Poems:

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The History of Medicine in 250 Milestones


From witch doctors to human cloning, a visual chronology of the human quest to master health.

Last year, futurist and author Clifford Pickover brought us The Physics Book — a lavish chronology of physics milestones, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), and one of the 11 best science books of 2011. This season, he follows up with The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (public library) — an equally impressive tome inviting us on “a vast journey into the history of medicine that includes eminently practical topics along with the odd and perplexing.” From practical inventions like eyeglasses (1284), condoms (1564), and cochlear implants (1977) and to era-defining innovations like hospitals (1784), the discovery of viruses (1892), and psychoanalysis (1899) to politicized subjects like abortion (70 A.D.), health insurance (1883), and the birth control pill (1955), the short entries, arranged chronologically from 10,000 B.C. (“witch doctor”) to 2008 (“human cloning”), offer a concise introduction and overview of each medical milestone, alongside a full-page image — ranging from an archeological artifact to a Renaissance painting to bleeding-edge photomicroscopy –that captures its essence and cultural significance.

Pickover writes in the introduction:

When colleagues ask me what I feel are the greatest milestones in medicine, I usually offer three events. the first involves the use of ligatures to stem the flow of blood during surgeries, for example, as performed by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590). he promoted ligature (e.g., tying off with twine) of blood vessels to prevent hemorrhage during amputations, instead of the traditional method of burning the stump with a hot iron to stop bleeding. The second key milestone includes methods for decreasing pain through general anesthetics such as ether, attributed to several American physicians. The third breakthrough concerns antiseptic surgery, which was promoted by British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912), whose use of carbolic acid (now called phenol) as a means of sterilizing wounds and surgical instruments dramatically reduced postoperative infections.

The Medical Book comes as a fine complement to Hidden Treasure, which explored 10 centuries of visualizing the human body in medicine, and The Art of Medicine, a 2,000-year visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity.

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