Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

26 AUGUST, 2011

The Ghost Map: Hard Lessons in Epidemiology from Victorian London

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What an ill Victorian infant has to do with the power of maps and the future of modern cities.

At around 6AM on the morning of August 28, 1854, the Lewis infant started vomiting and excreting greenish stools with a pungent smell. Her mother gathered the soils in a bucket of tepid water and tossed them into the cesspool in the family cellar. So began the story of London’s most horrific epidemic, the Broad Street cholera outbreak. In The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, Steven Johnson, easily my favorite nonfiction writer working today, unleashes his signature cross-disciplinary thinking to explore the intricate interconnections between the spread of the disease, the rise of cities, the mysteries of medicine, and the very nature of scientific inquiry.

It’s the story of two men, Dr. John Snow and Rev. Henry Whitehead, who began to suspect the true cause of the outbreak and were eventually proven right by a rigorous, contested investigation. But Johnson’s genius is in his ability to translate the fascinating but seemingly irrelevant into a highly context of excruciating relevance, exploring what this story means for the liabilities and vulnerabilities of modern cities. (Cue in Monday’s omnibus of 7 essential books on cities)

This is a story with four protagonists: a deadly bacterium, a vast city, and two gifted but very different men. One dark week a hundred fifty years ago, in the midst of great terror and human suffering, their lives collided on London’s Broad Street, on the western edge of Soho.

This book is an attempt to tell the story in a way that does justice to the multiple scales of existence that helped bring it about: from the invisible kingdom of microscopic bacteria, to the tragedy and courage and camaraderie of individual lives, to the cultural realm of ideas and ideologies, all the way up to the sprawling metropolis of London itself. It’s the story of a map that lies at the intersection of all those different vectors, a map created to help make sense of an experience that defied human understanding.”

I’m a big believer in the power of maps as great sense-making mechanisms, so I find The Ghost Map deeply fascinating and an extraordinary feat of intelligence. It also makes me wonder how an epidemic of this scale would unfold today, at a time when evolved high-tech mapping tools like Ushahidi would not only glean better understanding of how the deadly wave is propagating but also track its progress in real-time and offer a powerful weapon in the arsenal of man’s epic battle against microbe.

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25 AUGUST, 2011

19th-Century Anthropomorphic Animals from the NYPL Archives

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What kimono-wearing rabbits and ice-skating camels have to do with solving information overload.

The New York Public Library has long been leading the way with smart digitization projects that make its vast and remarkable collections accessible to the world at large. And while the disconnect between accessibility and access may loom larger than ever in the age of information overabundance, it only takes a bit of curiosity and patience to find in these archives utterly fascinating historical materials. Case in point, these weird and wonderful anthropomorphic animals from the 1800s culled from NYPL’s Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection, including some early six-panel comic strips, with original captions from the collection and brimming with the subtle humor of the era — a fine fictional complement to the very real emotional lives of animals you might recall from several weeks ago.

Assembly of the notables at Paris, February 22, 1787 (1875)

Animals kissing, eating, listening to music, and dancing

The duel (1857)

Ice skating camel. (ca. 1898)

King Noble the Lion slaying a sheep (1846)

Monkey throwing a bucket of water at a cat on the street

Nursing the invalid

Pig and bear playing on a swing

Le procès des chiens (1849)

Une visite le jour de l'an : les joujoux (1876-1878)

Rabbits wearing kimonos

For more on the curious history and psychology of anthropomorphism in art and culture, see Lorraine Datson’s Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism.

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25 AUGUST, 2011

A Definitive Guide to Leonardo da Vinci’s Paintings and Drawings

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From anatomy to aviation, or what Leonardo’s drawings reveal about cross-disciplinary creativity.

Leonardo da Vinci possessed a rare kind of cross-disciplinary genius. It’s safe to say the Italian painter, engineer, architect, sculptor, scientist and futurist was one of the greatest minds that ever lived, a kind of intellectual and creative powerhouse that influenced centuries of thinkers to come. Now, his life and legacy live on in the simply titled but wildly ambitous Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings — a remarkable two-volume tome from Taschen () that surveys da Vinci’s life and work in unprecedented detail, from in-depth interpretations of all 34 of his famous paintings to breathtaking full-bleed details of his masterworks to an extensive catalog of 663 of his drawings. This being a Taschen production, it’s as lavish as they come, at 700 pages, 6.5 pounds and nearly the size of the Mona Lisa, and features appropriately supersized blowups of Leonardo’s paintings balanced with insightful contextualizations by Renaissance theorist Frank Zöllner and art historian Johannes Nathan for the perfect blend of scholarly and stunning.

If Leonardo’s thirst for knowledge and discovery was still held in check in this vision by his fear of the threatening unknown, by the end of the 1480s at the latest he had thrown himself with unbridled enthusiasm into the study of a wide range of fields. While working on the preparations for the Sforza monument, he also embarked on more in-depth studies into the proportions of the human body, anatomy and physiology. These studies, which Leonardo’s contemporaries frequently dismissed as the artistically unproductive whims of a restless mind, have been acknowledged since the 19th century as the forerunners of an empirical science based on the accurate observation of natural phenomena. In his studies of the human body, for example, and above all in his direct visual translation of his findings and insights, the artist was undoubtedly many generations ahead of his contemporaries.”

From how the Vitruvian Man revolutionized the anatomical understanding of human proportions to Leonardo’s fascination with the brain to what his flying machine sketches taught the designers and engineers of the then-future, Leonardo da Vinci: The Complete Paintings and Drawings presents a remarkable reminder of the cross-disciplinary curiosity and rigorous dedication that fueled one of humanity’s most prolific, profound and masterful creators.

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24 AUGUST, 2011

1493: An Uncommon History of How Columbus Changed the World

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What events from half a millennium ago can teach us about the globalization debate today.

In 2005, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann came to be regarded as the most ambitious and sweeping look at pre-Columbus North and South America ever published. This month, Mann is back with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created — a fascinating look at one of the lesser-known, lesser-considered aspects of what happened when Columbus and his crew set foot on American soil: the environmental upheaval that began as they brought plants, animals and diseases that forever changed the local biosphere, both in America and in Europe once the explorers returned to the Old World. Known as The Columbian Exchange, this process is considered the most important ecological event since the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the paradoxes at its heart echo today’s polarized views of globalization as either a great cross-pollinator or a great contaminator of cultures.

From the outset globalization brought enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains. It is true that our times are different from the past. Our ancestors did not have the Internet, air travel, genetically modified crops, or computerized international stock exchanges. Still, reading the accounts of the creation of the world market one cannot help hearing echoes — some muted, some thunderously loud — of the disputes now on the television news. Events four centuries ago set a template for events we are living through today.”

Mann illustrates the fascinating interplay of organisms within ecological systems and the intricate yet powerful ways in which it impacts human civilization. For instance, when the Spaniards brought plantains to South America, they also brought the tiny scaling insects that live in their roots, which turned out to be delicious new food for the local fire ants. This led to a plague-sized explosion in fire ant population, which forced the terrified Spaniards to live on the roofs of their ant-infested houses and eventually drove them off the islands.

The most striking impact of The Columbian Exchange, however, comes from epidemiology. Because pre-Columbus America had no domesticated animals, it also had no animal-borne diseases. But when the Europeans came over, they brought with them enough disease to wipe out between two thirds and 90% of people in the Americas over the next 150 years — the worst demographic catastrophe in history by a long stretch. While early diaries mentioned these epidemics in describing life in the 1500s and 1600, it wasn’t until the 1960s that epidemiologists and historians realized the true scale of the death toll in the decades following Columbus’s arrival.

NPR’s Fresh Air has an excellent interview with Mann.

From how tobacco became the world’s first global commodity to how forests were transformed by a new earthworm, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created will change the way you look at ecology, economy and epidemiology, and radically shift how you think about “local” and “global.”

Images via Wikimedia Commons

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