(Roughly) Daily

“Not with a bang, but with a whimper”*…

 

death

Death Table from Tuberculosis in the United States, prepared for the International Congress on Tuberculosis, September 21 to October 12, 1908. Image: U.S. National Library of Medicine

 

Recent history tells us a lot about how epidemics unfold, how outbreaks spread, and how they are controlled. We also know a good deal about beginnings—those first cases of pneumonia in Guangdong marking the SARS outbreak of 2002–3, the earliest instances of influenza in Veracruz leading to the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009–10, the outbreak of hemorrhagic fever in Guinea sparking the Ebola pandemic of 2014–16. But these stories of rising action and a dramatic denouement only get us so far in coming to terms with the global crisis of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic has blown past many efforts at containment, snapped the reins of case detection and surveillance across the world, and saturated all inhabited continents. To understand possible endings for this epidemic, we must look elsewhere than the neat pattern of beginning and end—and reconsider what we mean by the talk of “ending” epidemics to begin with…

Contrary to hopes for a tidy conclusion to the COVID-19 pandemic, history shows that outbreaks of infectious disease often have much murkier outcomes—including simply being forgotten about, or dismissed as someone else’s problem: “How Epidemics End.”

* T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

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As we contemplate the end, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Nettie Maria Stevens; she was born on this date in 1861.  A geneticist– and one of the first American women to achieve recognition for her contributions to scientific research– she built on the rediscovery of Mendel‘s paper on genetics (in 1900) with work that identified the mechanism of sexual selection: its determination by the single difference between two classes of sperm—the presence or absence of (what we now call) an X chromosome.

220px-Nettie_Stevens source

 

“Everything we know and love about the universe and all the laws of physics as they apply, apply to four percent of the universe”*…

 

dark matter

 

In 1969, the American astronomer Vera Rubin puzzled over her observations of the sprawling Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s biggest neighbour. As she mapped out the rotating spiral arms of stars through spectra carefully measured at the Kitt Peak National Observatory and the Lowell Observatory, both in Arizona, she noticed something strange: the stars in the galaxy’s outskirts seemed to be orbiting far too fast. So fast that she’d expect them to escape Andromeda and fling out into the heavens beyond. Yet the whirling stars stayed in place.

Rubin’s research, which she expanded to dozens of other spiral galaxies, led to a dramatic dilemma: either there was much more matter out there, dark and hidden from sight but holding the galaxies together with its gravitational pull, or gravity somehow works very differently on the vast scale of a galaxy than scientists previously thought.

Her influential discovery never earned Rubin a Nobel Prize, but scientists began looking for signs of dark matter everywhere, around stars and gas clouds and among the largest structures in the galaxies in the Universe. By the 1970s, the astrophysicist Simon White at the University of Cambridge argued that he could explain the conglomerations of galaxies with a model in which most of the Universe’s matter is dark, far outnumbering all the atoms in all the stars in the sky. In the following decade, White and others built on that research by simulating the dynamics of hypothetical dark matter particles on the not-so-userfriendly computers of the day.

But despite those advances, over the past half century, no one has ever directly detected a single particle of dark matter. Over and over again, dark matter has resisted being pinned down, like a fleeting shadow in the woods. Every time physicists have searched for dark matter particles with powerful and sensitive experiments in abandoned mines and in Antarctica, and whenever they’ve tried to produce them in particle accelerators, they’ve come back empty-handed. For a while, physicists hoped to find a theoretical type of matter called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), but searches for them have repeatedly turned up nothing…

Dark matter is the most ubiquitous thing physicists have never found. Is it time to consider alternative explanations? “Does dark matter exist?

[image above: source]

* Neil deGrasse Tyson

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As we interrogate the invisible, we might recall that it was on this date in 1944 that one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history occurred; the blaze broke out during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was attended by an estimated 7,000 people.  It killed 167 people; more than 700 were injured.

240px-Htfdcircusfire

Because of the paraffin wax waterproofing of the tent, the flames spread rapidly

hartfordcircusfire-1024x762

Emmett Kelly holding a water bucket on what became known as “the day the clowns cried

 

Written by LW

July 6, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Study the past if you would define the future”*…

 

plague-6-kings-and-queens-vs-the-plague-in-medieval-europe-2_orig-1024x545

A segment of Danse Macabre, Bernt Notke, late 15th century

 

“If the Black Death caused the Renaissance, will COVID also create a golden age?”

Versions of this question have been going around as people, trying to understand the present crisis, reach for history’s most famous pandemic.  Using history to understand our present is a great impulse, but it means some of the false myths we tell about the Black Death and Renaissance are doing new damage, one of the most problematic in my view being the idea that sitting back and letting COVID kill will somehow by itself naturally make the economy turn around and enter a period of growth and rising wages.

Brilliant Medievalists have been posting Black Death pieces correcting misconceptions and flailing as one does when an error refuted 50 times returns the 51st (The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad compared to the Renaissance!!!).  As a Renaissance historian, I feel it’s my job to shoulder the other half of the load by talking about what the Renaissance was like, confirming that our Medievalists are right, it wasn’t a better time to live than the Middle Ages, and to talk about where the error comes from, why we think of the Renaissance as a golden age, and where we got the myth of the bad Middle Ages.

Only half of this is a story about the Renaissance.  The other half is later: Victorian Britain, Italy’s unification, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, ages in which the myth of the golden Renaissance was appropriated and retold.  And yes, looking at the Black Death and Renaissance is helpful for understanding COVID-19’s likely impact, but in addition to looking at 1348 we need to look at its long aftermath, at the impact Yersinia Pestis had on 1400, and 1500, and 1600, and 1700.  So:

• This post is for you if you’ve been wondering whether Black Death => Renaissance means COVID => Golden Age, and  you want a more robust answer than, “No no no no no!”

• This post is for you if you’re tired of screaming The Middle Ages weren’t dark and bad! and want somewhere to link people to, to show them how the myth began.

• This post is for you if you want to understand how an age whose relics make it look golden in retrospect can also be a terrible age to live in.

• And this post is for you if want to ask what history can tell us about 2020 and come away with hope. Because comparing 2020 to the Renaissance does give me hope, but it’s not the hope of sitting back expecting the gears of history to grind on toward prosperity, and it’s not the hope for something like the Renaissance—it’s hope for something much, much better, but a thing we have to work for, all of us, and hard…

University of Chicago historian, novelist, and composer Ada Palmer (@Ada_Palmer): “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.”

* Conficius

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As we look back, we might send thoughtful birthday greetings to al-Ghazali; (he was born (as nearly a scholars can figure) on this date in 1057.  One of the most prominent and influential philosophers, theologians, jurists, and mystics of Sunni Islam, he published prolifically– perhaps most notably here, the Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (“Incoherence of the Philosophers”), a significant landmark in the history of philosophy, as it advanced the critique of Aristotelian science developed later in 14th-century Europe.  Indeed, al-Ghazali has been credited with kicking off what has been called “the Golden Age of Arabic philosophy.”

Al+Ghazali+2 source

 

Written by LW

July 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“We shall go wild with fireworks”*…

 

tgatl4kQFS7AUlHzCifW_fireworks-web

 

Every Fourth of July, half a million people trek out to San Diego’s parks and beaches to watch the Big Bay Boom, one of the West’s biggest fireworks displays. But in 2012, the show became an international punchline when a glitch caused 18 minutes of pyro to go off in a blinding, deafening 30 seconds. It would become one of the loudest, most epic fails in Internet history, tweeted and viewed around the world…

 

On this pandemic-attenuated Fourth, a blast from the past: “An Oral History of the Great San Diego Fireworks Fail of 2012.”

On vaguely-related note, this short video, reputedly the most watched news clip ever:

* Natsuki Takaya

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As we light the fuse, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…

Use it or lose it.

505px-United_States_Declaration_of_Independence source

 

“Candy is dandy”*…

 

Haribo

Haribo– the originator of the “Goldbear,” or as it’s more popularly known, the gummy bear– recently released a centennial Passport edition that samples from international varieties. It includes Goldbears, Starmix, Matador, Tagada, and Rotella

 

A hundred years ago, the first Haribo factory cranked up its confectionery machines on the banks of Germany’s Rhine River. Started by 27-year-old Hans Riegel, the business stayed modest and local—until the founder made a marvelous culinary discovery. The exact formula to his bear-shaped success remains a secret to this day, but its recipe includes gelatin, sugar, a copper kettle, a rolling pin, and the magic of thermodynamics.

Haribo Goldbear gummies are now one of the top-selling candies in the world, spawning dozens of copycats and filling hundreds of fingerprint-smudged waiting-room jars. The company has grown out of Riegel’s home city of Bonn with 16 factories across Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America. It’s slated to break ground on its first US production facility in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, in fall or winter.

The company cooks up 100 million gummy bears a day—on top of numerous other mouth-puckering chews. It sells more than 1,000 varieties globally and launches fresh lines every season, like this summer’s limited Passport edition [above]. “Because of the way we produce our candies, we can make a lot of flavors and profiles with agility,” says Lauren Triffler, head of corporate communications of Haribo of America. US gummy fanatics can only choose from a modest 19 options at the moment. The sheer scale of the company makes it a powerhouse for profit, but it also lets it redefine how the candy industry creates certain fruit flavors, says Yael Vodovotz, a food-innovation scientist at Ohio State University. “They follow the trends and make the choices that change tastes.”

Anointing a new flavor to the Haribo lineup, however, takes some confection-making perfection. The company’s food scientists test each recipe exhaustively for aroma, texture, and regional preferences. The last step is key to ensuring a gummy will succeed across multiple markets. For example, Triffler says, Americans and Germans don’t always agree on what a “lemon” candy should taste like, making it tricky to develop a single yellow piece for a mix that suits everyone’s tongues. The company even had to change up Riegel’s famous recipe when introducing Goldbears stateside in the 1980s…

No one knows your sweet tooth better than a 100-year-old company: “The intense flavor science behind Haribo’s gummies.”

* Ogden Nash

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As we indulge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1985 that the honey bee was designated the official state insect of Missouri.

State-Insect source

 

 

Written by LW

July 3, 2020 at 1:01 am

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