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“Magic is an art form where you lie and tell people you are lying”…

 

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Left: “Pheon Waltz Song” with Herrmann dancing on the cover, 1896. (Photo courtesy of New York Public Library). Right: Poster of Herrmann and Company, around 1905. (Photo courtesy of McCord Museum)

In Baltimore, 1878, an eerie silence settled over the crowd in Ford’s Grand Opera House. The boisterous applause for Herrmann the Great’s wondrous illusions, in which the nattily dressed magician in a black velvet suit pulled a rabbit from his hat and levitated a sleeping woman, had abruptly stopped. A net was stretched across the full width of the theater, and the audience knew that the culmination of the evening — the cannon act — had arrived.

A young woman dressed in spangled red tights stepped into an upper stage box where the cannon waited, and was helped into the barrel. When she had vanished from view, Herrmann the Great yelled out: “Are you ready!”

“Yes,” came her muffled response. “Go!”

There was an explosion.

A flash of gunpowder.

And she flew 50 feet through the air.

Only when she landed safely in the net and the smoke cleared did the audience break into a thunder of cheers that lasted on and on as the curtain rose and fell over the bowing Herrmann the Great and the intrepid young woman.

Although the 19th-century audience might not have noticed, she’d also been the evening’s levitating sleeper, the bicycle rider who carried a girl on her shoulders, and the dancer who spectrally swirled in red silk like a pillar of fire. Her name was Adelaide Herrmann, Herrmann the Great’s wife and daring assistant. She was not supposed to be a human cannonball.

She’d taken over that role in Caracas, Venezuela, when their trapeze artists quit halfway through a South American tour, and she described her anxiety the first night “as a condemned man must feel as the fatal hour approaches.” But as she was loaded into the cannon, she showed no fear.

In 1896, Herrmann the Great — a.k.a. Alexander Herrmann — died, leaving his wife responsible for a traveling company, a herd of performing animals, and a lot of debt. If she was frightened, if she was weary, she hid it just as well as she did that night when she was first shot out of a cannon. Adelaide had no choice but to promote herself from assistant to headliner and take center stage.

“Hearts may be torn, bitter tears may be shed, but we of the stage have a jealous mistress in the public, which demands that we be gnawing at the soul,” she wrote.

She would become the Queen of Magic — one of the most celebrated magicians in the world…

When her husband died and left her penniless, audacious Adelaide Hermann transformed from lowly assistant to “the Queen of Magic”– the extraordinary story: “She Caught Bullets with Her Bare Hands — and Made Magic’s Glass Ceiling Disappear.”

* Teller

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As we believe in magic, we might spare a thought for Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (née Cary), the naturalist and educator who was the co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College; she died this date in 1907.  After the death of her husband, Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, with whom she traveled on scientific expeditions, she settled on the idea of college for women in the “Harvard Annex” in Cambridge; in 1894 the Annex became Radcliffe College.  She served as its first president until 1899, then honorary president until 1903.  Her books include A First Lesson in Natural History (1859), and A Journey in Brazil (1867).

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Written by LW

June 27, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The imaginary is what tends to become real”*…

 

Tik-Tok of Oz, L. Frank Baum, Chicago, 1914.   Courtesy, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Maps enjoy a long tradition as a mode of literary illustration, orienting readers to worlds real and imagined. Presented in conjunction with the bicentenary of the Harvard Map Collection, this exhibition brings together over sixty landmark literary maps, from the 200-mile-wide island in Thomas More’s Utopia to the supercontinent called the Stillness in N. K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Visitors will traverse literary geographies from William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County to Nuruddin Farah’s besieged Somalia; or perhaps escape the world’s bothers in Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood. At this intersection of literature and cartography, get your bearings and let these maps guide your way…

The map above is one of over 60 currently on display at the exhibition Landmarks: Maps as Literary Illustration, at Harvard’s Houghton Library, as part of year-long celebration of Houghton’s 75th birthday.  In addition to the examples mentioned above, the collection includes the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and the late Ursula K. Le Guin, and spans everything from love stories to fairy tales. It runs through to April 14, 2018.

See also “Charting the Geography of Classic Literature.”

* André Breton

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As we find our way, we might send the best of all possible birthday greetings to lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, Renaissance humanist, and councillor to Henry VIII of England, Sir Thomas More; he was born on this date in 1478.  He is probably most widely known these days as the subject of Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons, which dramatized More’s fate (he was beheaded) when he refused to accept his old friend Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the newly-established Church of England.  (More was acting in accordance with his opposition to Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and the Protestant Reformation…  for which he was canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI.  Interestingly, he is also remembered by the Church of England as a “Reformation martyr.”)

But also importantly for the purpose of this post, More was also the author of the widely-read and widely-influential Utopia— his map from which is on display at the Houghton.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of More

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Written by LW

February 7, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Is a Hippopotamus a hippopotamus or just a really cool Opotamus?”*…

 

Dutch artist Florentjin Hofman, known for his massive sculptures (including his giant rubber duck), has floated a giant hippo, “HippopoThames,” down London’s iconic river.

Follow it’s progress past landmarks old and new here.  And see more of Hofman’s work here.

* Mitch Hedberg

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As we watch ourselves at the watering hole, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that George Franklin Grant was awarded a patent for the first modern wooden golf tee.  Grant was a dentist, one of trio who patented golf tees: in 1922, dentist William Lowell designed a red-painted, cone-shaped, wooden peg with a small concave platform that was patented and became the world’s first commercially produced golf tee called the “reddy tee.”  Recently dentist, Arnold DiLaura, patented the Sof-Tee, a tee that sits on top of the ground instead of in it.

Grant was a graduate of Harvard dental school, where he later taught– Harvard University’s first African-American faculty member.  He was renowned internationally within his profession for his invention of the oblate palate, a prosthetic device he designed for treatment of the cleft palate.

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Written by LW

December 12, 2014 at 1:01 am

“Nothing is invented, for it’s written in nature first…”*

 

Norwegian nature photographer Kjell Bloch Sandved has devoted his photographic career to capturing the beauty of the world we live in and along the way, amassed a collection of butterfly and moth images with interesting patterns on their wings. Sanved’s keen eye took notice of the spectacular shapes the natural designs came in, recognizing their resemblance to letters of the alphabet. As a result, he formed the Butterfly Alphabet.

Featuring all twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, as well as the ten single-digit numbers (0 through 9), Sandved assembled a wonderfully-colorful collection of readable butterfly and moth wings…

Read more at “Entire Alphabet Found on the Wing Patterns of Butterflies,” and see more at Sandved’s website.

* Antoni Gaudi

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As we float from letter to letter, we might send bucolic birthday wishes to Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (née Cary), the naturalist and educator who was the co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College; she was born on this date in 1822.  After the death of her husband, Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz, with whom she traveled on scientific expeditions, she settled on the idea of college for women in the “Harvard Annex” in Cambridge; in 1894 the Annex became Radcliffe College. She served as its president until 1899, then honorary president until 1903. Her books include A First Lesson in Natural History (1859), and A Journey in Brazil (1867).

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Written by LW

December 5, 2013 at 1:01 am

Preparing a meal that C.P. Snow would have enjoyed…

 

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John Lanchester writes:

When Ferran Adrià, the Spanish maestro who is undisputedly the most influential chef of the last two decades, gave up cooking at his restaurant El Bulli, he announced that he was going to be starting a number of projects. One of them is intended to be a foundation dedicated to the study of himself. Another was a collaboration on the subject of food and science with Harvard. I think quite a few people, on first hearing about that, scratched their heads and wondered what a joint venture between the two might be like. On the one hand, seawater sorbet and ampoules of reduced prawn head bouillon (two Adrià signature dishes). On the other, Helen Vendler. Outcome not obvious…

What we outsiders didn’t know is that all undergraduates at Harvard are required to take at least one class in science. As a result, the university offers some courses designed to be appealing to the kinds of student who wouldn’t be studying science unless they had to. Once that’s known, it makes a lot of sense to involve Adrià, who is rock-star famous in the world of food, in a course designed to appeal to the clever and curious and artily-minded young. So here it is: SPU27, an acronym standing for Science of the Physical Universe 27. Spelled out in English, the name of the course is Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science…

Once upon a time, to take a course like SPU27, you had to be young enough and lucky enough in all the relevant ways to get to Harvard. Today, all you need is to be lucky enough to have access to a computer with an internet connection. SPU27 is part of a remarkable experiment in open access university education called EdX, a collaboration between Harvard and MIT, which gives away entire courses, online, for free…

I registered for EdX and sat down in front of SPU27x (which started on 8 October; you can still sign up and do the course in time to get a certificate). My intention was to ‘audit’ it, i.e. do as much of it as I felt like without subjecting myself to anything too obviously worky. Also, the science of cooking is one of my interests, and I was quietly confident that I knew most of it already. That turned out not to be the case. Looking at the review materials before starting the course, I found myself trying to remember how to calculate the volume of a sphere – it’s (4/3)πr3, in case you too have forgotten – and crunching logarithms in an attempt to answer e3.5=x (answer, x=33.12, obv).

The lectures are broken up into segments of about ten minutes, followed by multiple choice questions which you can do at your leisure, or not, and submit your answers towards a certificate of completion, or not. (Certificates you have to pay for. Everything else is free.) In the first lecture Adrià showed off a few culinary tricks; the second quickly had us working with Avogadro’s constant to determine the number of molecules in a given amount of matter. Homework involves an experiment to calibrate the accuracy of your oven, and some calculations to ascertain the number of various molecules in a recipe for aubergine with buttermilk sauce. Then there’s a test: ‘Estimate the concentration in mol/L of protein using the fact that the average protein is 300 amino acids long and the average amino acid has a mass of 110 amu.’  Er … I think I’ll phone a friend on that one. All this was by way of working with ‘the equation of the week’, which is how SPU27 is structured: it teaches, both by lecture and by hands-on demonstration, the profound and endlessly satisfying mystery of how mathematics penetrates into matter.

In summary, the course is more rigorous, and more educational, than I’d thought it would be… MOOC’s [Massive Open Online Courses] like this one offer something simpler, and in its way purer: education for its own sake. They are purely educational, in the way that so much education increasingly isn’t, as it goes further and further in the direction of box-ticking and teaching to the test. Although it’s already possible to extract a great deal of use from MOOCs, as in the comp sci example I mentioned, I suspect a lot of the good they bring to the world won’t be in the form of anything useful. Instead they offer anyone who can be bothered the chance to learn things just for the sake of learning. As lifetimes get longer, there’s less need for people to stop learning, and less need for the experience of education to be something confined to ghettos of the young. Avogadro’s constant, which is used to tell you the number of molecules in a given amount of matter, is 6.022 x 1023. Isn’t that cool? And now I’m off to calibrate my oven by observing the melting point of sugar. I see in the course notes that the full protocol for doing that comes from a book called Cooking for Geeks.

Read the whole piece at the London Review of Books.  And learn to cook in a way that bridges C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”— sign up for the course here.

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As we wear our lab coats into the kitchen, we might send surprising birthday greetings to Rene Magritte; he was born on this date in 1898.  Magritte made a living as a draftsman and an advertising artist before putting together the paintings (largely impressionist and futurist in style) for his first show in his native Belgium… at which critics heaped abuse on his work.  Disheartened, Magritte moved to Paris, and fell in with Andre Breton, who helped him become the integral part of the Surrealist Movement that he became.

“The Son of Man”

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Written by LW

November 21, 2013 at 1:01 am

Fitness for the rest of us…

“All you need is a chair and two paper plates…”

[TotH to Everlasting Blort]

As we commit ourselves to continuous improvement, we might recall that it was on this date in 1878 that C.A. Parker (Harvard, Class of 1880) won the first American bicycle race, run at Beacon Trotting Park in Allston (Massachusetts), a half-mile course designed for sulky racing.  A Doubletree Hotel currently stands on the spot.

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Say when…

Introducing When the What?— “It’s Timeline Time!”

More (and larger) hand-drawn histories at When the What?  [TotH to Brain Pickings]

As we get our stories straight, we might wish an isolationist Happy Birthday to historian and Republican politician Henry Cabot Lodge; he was born in Boston on this date in 1850.  One of the first students to earn a Harvard doctorate in history and government (1876), Lodge represented his home state in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1887 to 1893, and in the Senate from 1893 to 1924.  After World War I, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, he led the successful fight to keep the U.S. out of the League of Nations, arguing that membership in Woodrow Wilson’s proposed world peacekeeping organization would threaten the sovereignty of the United States by binding the nation to international commitments it would not or could not keep.  (Hear Lodge’s case against the League, from the Library of Congress’ collection, here.)

source: Library of Congress

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