* Carl Friedrich Gauss
As we count ’em up, we might send starry birthday greeting to Erasmus Reinhold; he was born on this date in 1511. A mathematician and astronomer, Reinhold was considered to be the most influential astronomical pedagogue of his generation. Today, he is probably best known for his carefully calculated set of planetary tables– the first– applying Copernican theory, published in 1551.
“In a house where there are small children the bathroom soon takes on the appearance of the Old Curiosity Shop”*…
A ubiquitous element of our modern-day bathrooms, the medicine cabinet is also one of the home’s most particularized containers—stocked with substances and technologies used in healthcare and grooming, it functions both as personal pharmacy and private salon. Indeed, the medicine cabinet emerged across the early part of the twentieth century not just in tandem with public health policy initiatives but also, importantly, with the developing consumer market for the goods and tools of personal care. Its signature aesthetic—mirror, glass, and gleaming metal—would seem to have as much in common with the presentational seductions of the department store display case as with the sanitary spaces of the physician’s examining room.
As historian Deanna Day has written, stewardship of this container—as with so many of the domestic responsibilities associated with practices of health and bodily maintenance—has long been understood to be a task to be undertaken by women. A well-stocked and carefully curated medicine cabinet conveyed care and successful home management, while an overstuffed or unconsidered one ran afoul of received ideals of motherhood. Yet while women were responsible for the cabinet’s care and contents, certain products essential to their own health and hygiene were long thought to be inimical to it. Jeffrey Kastner spoke with Day, currently a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation…
* Robert Benchley
As we clean our mirrors, we might recall that it was on this date in 1963 that the first residential Trimline telephone in the U.S. was placed into service by the Michigan Bell Telephone Company. It was rolled out across the country by ATT in 1965 (for an optional $1 monthly extra charge).
The dial and hang-up button were no longer on a remote base, but instead integrated into the handset, midway between the microphone and speaker. A call could thus be dialed from the handset alone– more convenient in the kitchen or while in bed (though still at that time rarely in the bathroom). In 1977, Fortune selected the Trimline as one of the country’s 25 best-designed products.
If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.
― Dorothy Parker
29 more at “31 Jokes Every Grammar Nerd Can’t Help But Love.”
* (an admittedly sexist) Edgar Allan Poe
As we ruminate on the rules, we might send shocking birthday greetings to a man who broke most of them: the enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud; he was born on this date in 1854. With his buddy, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was a leader of the Decadent Movement; fueled by absinthe and hashish, he succeeded in shocking a literary establishment that was nonetheless awed by his visionary verse, which influenced modern literature and arts, inspired a number of important musicians, and prefigured Surrealism.
All known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s
– Paul Valéry
Photographer Robert Ormerod took a road trip from Roswell, New Mexico to Area 51, exploring our fascination with the unknown by immersing himself in the lore extra-terrestrials… and in the lives of those who seek them.
More of his photographs, with his commentary, at “Inside the everyday world of UFO hunters.”
* tagline of The X-Files
As we deliberate the Drake Equation, we might send ideal birthday greetings to Marsilio Ficino; he was born on this date in 1433. An Italian scholar and Catholic priest, he was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance. The first translator of Plato’s complete extant works into Latin, he was important in the revival of Neoplatonism, and was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day. His Florentine Academy was an attempt to revive Plato’s Academy, and influenced both the direction and the tenor of the Italian Renaissance and thus the development of European philosophy.
Ficino was also an astrologer, and is credited with having inspired the Tarot card deck– the Tarot of Marseilles– that was the pattern from which many subsequent tarot decks derive.
“in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious”*…
Of all the bizarre facets of quantum theory, few seem stranger than those captured by Erwin Schrödinger’s famous fable about the cat that is neither alive nor dead. It describes a cat locked inside a windowless box, along with some radioactive material. If the radioactive material happens to decay, then a device releases a hammer, which smashes a vial of poison, which kills the cat. If no radioactivity is detected, the cat lives. Schrödinger dreamt up this gruesome scenario to mock what he considered a ludicrous feature of quantum theory. According to proponents of the theory, before anyone opened the box to check on the cat, the cat was neither alive nor dead; it existed in a strange, quintessentially quantum state of alive-and-dead.
Today, in our LOLcats-saturated world, Schrödinger’s strange little tale is often played for laughs, with a tone more zany than somber. It has also become the standard bearer for a host of quandaries in philosophy and physics. In Schrödinger’s own time, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg proclaimed that hybrid states like the one the cat was supposed to be in were a fundamental feature of nature. Others, like Einstein, insisted that nature must choose: alive or dead, but not both.
Although Schrödinger’s cat flourishes as a meme to this day, discussions tend to overlook one key dimension of the fable: the environment in which Schrödinger conceived it in the first place. It’s no coincidence that, in the face of a looming World War, genocide, and the dismantling of German intellectual life, Schrödinger’s thoughts turned to poison, death, and destruction. Schrödinger’s cat, then, should remind us of more than the beguiling strangeness of quantum mechanics. It also reminds us that scientists are, like the rest of us, humans who feel—and fear…
More of this sad story at “How Einstein and Schrödinger Conspired to Kill a Cat.”
* Terry Patchett
As we refrain from lifting the box’s lid, we might spare a thought for Charles Babbage; he died on this date in 1871. A mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer, Babbage is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Anxious to eliminate inaccuracies in mathematical tables. By 1822, he built small calculating machine able to compute squares (1822). He then produced prototypes of portions of a larger Difference Engine. (Georg and Edvard Schuetz later constructed the first working devices to the same design which were successful in limited applications.) In 1833 he began his programmable Analytical Machine (AKA, the Analytical Engine), the forerunner of modern computers, with coding help from Ada Lovelace, who created an algorithm for the Analytical Machine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers— for which she is remembered as the first computer programmer.
Babbage’s other inventions include the cowcatcher, the dynamometer, the standard railroad gauge, uniform postal rates, occulting lights for lighthouses, Greenwich time signals, and the heliograph opthalmoscope. He was also passionate about cyphers and lock-picking.
“Slang dictionaries have always been done by mad people who sit in rooms and make books out of them,” explains Jonathon Green. For 35 years he’s been doing just that: collecting slang words and compiling them into dictionaries.
The biggest of these—Green’s Dictionary of Slang, published in 2010—launched online this week. The online version is made up of 132,000 terms (the original print edition had around 110,000). Users can search for a word and its etymology for free, and subscribers can pay to access a bigger range of citations and a timeline of their evolution…
More of the backstory at “This man has spent 35 years compiling entries for a 132,000-word online slang dictionary that you can search for free.” Browse the dictionary here.
* G.K. Chesterton
As we carefully choose our words, we might doff our hats to Elizabethan poet, courtier, and soldier Sir Philip Sidney, who died on this date in 1586 of an infected thigh wound received in combat with the Spanish at the Battle of Zutphen, after having given his leg armor to a soldier who had forgotten his own. As he lay dying, he gave his water-bottle to another wounded soldier, saying, “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine.” Sidney’s Arcadia (or more fully, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia)– the inspiration for the Gloucester sub-plot in Shakespeare’s King Lear-– was published posthumously.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”*…
The Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 3 (2016) offers a look into the fears of average Americans. In April of 2016, a random sample of 1,511 adults from across the United States were asked their level of fear about 79 different potential sources across a huge variety of topics– crime, the government, disasters, personal anxieties, technology, and others.
As readers can see in the highlights chart above, the top anxiety suffered by Americans is “corrupt government officials”; fully 63% of respondents ranked it “Afraid” or “Very Afraid.” That said, as readers will also see when they click through the link that follows, 10.2% percent of Americans are “Afraid” or “Very Afraid” of “zombies.”
Peruse the results at “America’s Top Fears 2016.”
As we overcome our wistfulness on remembering that this is Oscar Wilde’s birthday, we might recall that it was on this date in 1793, nine months after her husband, the former King Louis XVI of France, was beheaded, that Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine. (Readers who are parents– or collectors– can find commemorative dolls here.)