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Age of Power and Wonder: Vintage Science Infographics from 1930s Cigarette Cards

What metal diver suits have to do with electricity generation and the sound spectrum.

Vintage visions of the future of technology abound, and while some futurists’ predictions have been strikingly right, most of them remain delightfully ludicrous. Indeed, any trip in the time machine of science and technology is inevitably accompanied by equal measures of amusement at our past misguidedness, marvel at how far we’ve come, and anxiety about how misguided we ourselves may seem in the future. In the first half of the 20th century, such predictions were a form of popular entertainment and even appeared as collectible cards that came with food and tobacco products.

The New York Public Library has digitized a large collection of such cigarette cards, including a Max Cigarettes series from 1935-1938 titled Age of Power and Wonder — a set of 250 cards predicting advances in science and technology and exploring curious aspects of the era’s existing inventions. Also included in the series were a number of scientific and quasi-scientific infographics, gathered here for your viewing pleasure.

Ordinary white light is made up of a number of colours which, put together, produce ‘white’. The picture shows the first position occupied by infra-red light which has a wave length too long to be visible by the human eye. Immediately above the infra-red comes visible red, and then orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Above the violet is the ultra-violet, the health-giving , invisible, high-frequency rays which have been proven so vital to life. Very much higher up come X-rays and Gamma-rays.

(Complement this with Goethe’s theory of the color spectrum and human emotion.)

The source of sound is always a body in a state of more or less rapid vibration. The number of vibrations (cycles) per second can be measured and so sounds classified according to their cycle values. Thus, like light, sound is arranged in a kind of ‘spectrum’; each sound having a wave-length. Thus, if the frequency of a note be 200 to a second, its wavelength is 1-200 units.
All movement is relative, not absolute. Two cars moving side by side along a road at 60 miles per hour, relative to the road, are stationary in relation to each other. A car is traveling on the road at 60 m.p.h., beside it on the rail a train is traveling at 100 m.p.h. In the air above them a plane is traveling at 200 m.p.h. All the speeds quoted are relative to the surface of the earth. In relation to the train, the aircraft is only doing 100 m.p.h., just as the train is only doing 40 m.p.h. in relation to the car*.
Divers not equipped with any kind of apparatus at all become uncomfortable and run considerable danger if they go beyond 50 feet. Diving to such depths for a living is extremely trying. It shortens life, causes various diseases of the heart and blood, and may result in sudden and painful death. In an ordinary diving suit depths of 150 feet may be reached, but beyond that there is a danger that pressure upon the body would result in injury and death. In the ‘Tritonia’ all-metal suit, twenty times this depth is quite feasible.
Fluid fuel has many advantages over solid fuel; it is easier to handle, can be fed to the fire or furnace without the need for stokers, and it is far cleaner. Moreover, you cannot use coal in the engines of motor cars or aircraft. The supplies of mineral oil which yield petrol are rapidly becoming exhausted. Petrol is being extracted from coal by the hydro-generation process — five tons of coal yielding one ton of petrol. The other four tons are not wasted but produce valuable raw materials and by-products.
The imperfect conductivity of available materials results in great loss of power of current during transit over long distances. The loss occurs even in the cable, which puts up a slight resistance to current. Metals at temperature near -273ºC. have almost perfect conductivity. A method of reproducing this condition of frozen metals might save millions sterling every year.
The importance of the work done in forecasting tidal levels by the ‘Brass Brain’ in Washington is demonstrated in a simple fashion in this picture. Note how a deep draught ocean-going ship can safely pass at high tide and can still do so if low tide levels were a quarter again as high above the sea-bank. Knowing the exact time and level of ebb is vital.

For a bout of excruciating irony, card number 6 in the series examined advances in cancer treatment:

When scientists first began to create synthetic radio-activity, to make substitutes for radium, by bombarding certain atoms with millions of electron-volts, someone suggested, ‘Why make radium to cure cancer? Use the bombarding atoms direct’. This suggestion was adopted by the use of very high voltage X-rays. Many successful experiments have been made.

* Raise your hand if the math here makes you raise an eyebrow.


How to Read Like a Writer

“All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another.”

Reading and writing are inextricably intertwined, and literature — like all cultural creation — is an endless labyrinth of influence. And while some have argued that writing well can be taught, our cultural narrative continues to perpetuate the myth of “God”-given, inborn talent, or what Charles Eames has termed “the ‘gifted few’ concept”.

In Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (public library), Francine Prose sets out to explore “how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught” and lays out a roadmap to learning the art of writing not through some prescriptive, didactic methodology but by absorbing, digesting, and appropriating the very qualities that make great literature great — from Flannery O’Connor’s mastery of detail to George Eliot’s exquisite character development to Philip Roth’s magical sentence structure.

A work of art can start you thinking about some esthetic or philosophical problem, it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction. But the relationship between reading and writing is rarely so clear-cut. . . .

More often the connection has to do with whatever mysterious promptings make you want to write. It’s like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps. I often think of learning to write by reading as something like the way I first began to read. I had a few picture books I’d memorized and pretended I could read, as a sort of party trick that I did repeatedly for my parents, who were also pretending, in their case to be amused. I never knew exactly when I crossed the line from pretending to actually being able, but that was how it happened.

In the age of Fifty Shades of Grey, Prose offers a timely admonition against the invasion of public opinion in the architecture of personal taste:

Part of a reader’s job is to find out why certain writers endure. This may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you. You will do yourself a disservice if you confine your reading to the rising star whose six-figure, two-book contract might seem to indicate where your own work should be heading.


With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.

Echoing Elizabeth Gilbert’s conviction that grad school is detrimental to the spirit of the writer, Prose reflects:

The only time my passion for reading steered me in the wrong direction was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading ‘texts’ in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written.

I left graduate school and became a writer.

Reading Like a Writer comes as a fine addition to these 9 essential books to help you read more and write better, beautifully complemented by the meditations in Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life.

For more timeless and practical advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom on writing, various invaluable insight from other great writers, and the excellent Several Short Sentences About Writing.


The Universe in a Nutshell: Michio Kaku on the Physics of Everything

The history of physics is the history of modern civilization.

How did humanity go from a tribe governed by superstition to a species on the hunt for the Higgs Boson and the deepest secrets of the cosmos? In The Universe in a Nutshell, theoretical physicist and prolific author Michio Kaku — who has previously helped us unravel the mysteries of time — explores why “the history of physics is the history of modern civilization.” From the Big Bang to E=mc2 to the latest bleeding-edge advances in string theory and quantum mechanics, Kaku offers a concise and accessible history of physics, while shining a light on the discipline’s promise to bring us closer to the secrets of existence.

Almost everything you see in your living room, almost everything you see at a modern hospital, at some point or other, can be traced to a physicist.

In contextualizing the role of physics in the development of modern civilization, Kaku quotes legendary science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke:

The video, originally created by Floating University, is available for free courtesy of Big Think.

The desk of Albert Einstein, photographed immediately after his death and featuring his unfinished manuscripts of the Unified Field Theory, a.k.a. The Theory of Everything, which aspired to summarize all the physical forces in the universe.

Kaku’s latest book, Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, came out in February and is guaranteed to give you plenty of pause.

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