Reading can be dangerous. Nay, fatal.

Warning: This post contains hideous little-known secrets (redundancy is fun). Read at your own risk.

Going crazy on a Monday like every other day? Well, not any more. Read on, and you’ll finally find the courage (protip: look behind the sofa) to self-administer a full frontal lobotomy.

Mark Twain once famously said: Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint. A prescient man, Twain. But it’s not just the so called health books. Any book can prove fatal. Think: paper cuts. Ouch! Or even think of two-thousand page tomes classified as handbooks. You just have to drop (up) one accidentally on your head. And the rest will be an admixture of mangled anatomy and sad irony.

Read this. (Again, at your own risk.) The author here recounts several anecdotes confirming the dangerousness of reading. As you begin, you’ll see how The Brothers Karamazov is capable of inflicting more than just spiritual injury. And do have a look (or two, or ten) at the cartoon accompanying the article. Here it is for your viewing pleasure. Have a gander. And while you are at it, have a goose as well.

readingisdangerous.jpg

And finally, here’s a cautionary poem by Barbara Hamby titled Reading Can Kill You. Decide for yourself if she is half or quarter or three-fourths kidding.

Curiosity killed the cat, they say. I am beginning to wonder if Curiosity is a book.

So. The proof as you can see has long migrated from the pudding, and now rests squarely in this post. Like a wise person once said, the moral of Snow White is never eat apples.

(Originally written on 1 September, 2013.)

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David Rakoff on making art

David Rakoff made readers laugh. Underneath his humorous writing is a melancholic current that touched those who read him. A celebrated writer, Rakoff notably won the Thurber Prize for American humour in 2011. He died in 2012 of cancer. He was 47.

I want to post two things from his book Half Empty which talks of making art. If you think about these, the sentiments would apply to just about any creative pursuit. And to life as well.

Here’s what Rakoff has to say on what being an artist really means.

… hanging out can be marvelous. But hanging out does not make one an artist.

[…]

…the only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating yourself long enough to push something out.

And this:

The Myth of the Bohemian persists with good reason. Given the choice between a day spent giving oneself over to oil painting, or one spent in the confining grid of office cubicles, most folks would opt for the old fantasy of the carnal chaos of drop cloths, easels, turpentine, raffia wrapped Chianti bottles holding drippy candle ends, and cavorting nude models, forgetting momentarily the lack of financial security and the necessary hours and hours of solitude spent fucking up over and over again.

These passages speak to me. If you want to be an artist, you make art. And when you are on that path, you are going to be alone, and you will make mistakes again and again and again.

Tolerance of self. Acceptance of an imperfect self.

Perhaps this is just a note to self. A much needed one as I am working on an article that refuses to write itself. Right, who am I kidding, yes?


Philosopher’s Wool and a Walk Down Chemistry Lane

Zinc oxide is philosopher’s wool. It is formed when zinc burns in air. The white fumes that form as a result of this burning produce a wool like substance, earning it the epithet – philosopher’s wool.

I went on Google Books to find some early references of the oxide, and what I found thrilled me.

The first is a treatise titled Chemical Instructor: Presenting a Familiar Method of Teaching the Chemical Principles and Operations of the Most Practical Utility to Farmers, Mechanics, Housekeepers and Physicians and Most Interesting to Clergymen and Lawyers. Intended for Schools and Popular Class-room by Amos Eaton. This was published in 1822. Eaton famously co-founded the Rensselaer School for ‘the application of science to the common purposes of life’ and was an advocate for the inclusion of women in science.

The following is an image from his treatise on Google Books describing the classroom demonstration of the preparation of philosopher’s wool.

 

And the following are two rather telling highlights from the Preface of the same treatise.

Here’s another book titled Chemical experiments : illustrating the theory, practice, and application of the science of chemistry, and containing the properties, uses, manufacture, purification, and analysis of all inorganic substances : with numerous engravings of apparatus, etc. by G. Francis. This was published in 1842.

The very first paragraph of the Preface here reads:

The Chemist and Druggist will find in this small book the best method of manufacturing every chemical substance which he is likely to want. The Lecturer will recognize the most remarkable properties of them all, clearly pointed out by such experiments as are easy and striking. The Student will be able to refer to and to repeat the experiments of the classroom with facility. The Manufacturer will find the economical principles of his trade illustrated and the best receipts for his articles given. While he who seeks amusement only will have a wide field before him, from which he may cull the choicest flowers; and should his means be limited, or his residence remote from cities, still little impediment will arise on this account, as one portion of the book assists the other; one experiment explains the manufacture of that substance of which other experiments explain the nature.

Sample this first page from the Introduction chapter which talks of chemistry in those days, which was a part of Natural Philosophy.

And here’s the combustion of zinc described in the form of a laboratory experiment rather than as a demonstration in the previous treatise.

Reading such texts, how can one miss the romantic appeal of chemistry? I hope more and more chemistry (science) educators take it upon themselves to incorporate such examples from the history of chemistry (science) to enthuse students towards the subject, and to inculcate in them an understanding and appreciation of the development of the subject.

PS. Here’s a poem by Brian Culhane titled Philosopher’s Wool from Able Muse, Winter 2009 issue.

Images from Google Books and archive.org


Mostpeople. A collective noun.

Writing in his foreword to the first edition of Collected Poems, 1938, E. E. Cummings delineates a collective noun called mostpeople. What follows is an incisive characterisation of the group, which makes for a very interesting read. Coming from the poet who exhorted young people “to be nobody-but-yourself (- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everything else…),” this excerpt is worth visiting again and again especially for its “we can never be born enough” declaration.

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople — it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultravoluptuous superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying—

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing: which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life, for eternal us, is now, and now is much to[o] busy being a little more than everything to seem anything, catastrophic included.

On a related note, the “we can never be born enough” phrase reminds me of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Breaking the Fast. There’s a line in the poem that haunts me in the best way possible. “Remember your deepest name,” Nye says. There’s something about it that harks back to the E. E. Cummings excerpt. Here it follows for your reading pleasure.

1.

Japanese teacher says:
At first light, rise.
Don’t hover between
sleep and waking,
this makes you heavy,
puts a stone inside your heart.

The minute you drift back to shore,
anchor. Breathe.
Remember your deepest name.

2.

Sometimes objects stun me,
bamboo strainer, gray mug,
sitting exactly where
they were left.

They have not slept
or dreamt of lost faces.

I touch them carefully,
saying, tell me what you know.

3.

Cup of waves,
strawberry balanced
in a seashell.

In morning the water seems
clear to the bottom.

No fish blocks my view.

Most people are just that: mostpeople. But your job here is to remember your deepest name.


Luminescence

I am on an exciting trip in my head. I am thinking of certain words – of what they do in science and what they do in literature. Whoever it was who said words have power, was very right!

I am taking on ‘luminescence’ today. But I am certain I will be posting on many such words in the days to come, for the journey these words take me on is truly awe-inspiring.

+++

Luminescence is the emission of light by a material after it has absorbed energy.

– Solid State Chemistry and its Applications.

by Anthony R. West

Pictured below is a solution of luminol under UV light.

+++

An Apprenticeship is written by Clarice Lispector.

One of the pages in the book reads: Luminescence.

Nothing else.

I haven’t read the book, but I am moved by Lispector’s writing. Currently reading her A Breath of Life.

Google Books tells me this little something about An Apprenticeship:

An Apprenticeship is Clarice’s attempt to discover just how two people might be joined. Lori’s is not an easy journey, and consequently the book is roughly written, lurching, sometimes giving the impression of an incomplete first draft.

[…]

it contains some of the most beautiful passages Clarice ever wrote.

– Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

by Benjamin Moser

Moser further writes that this is the book where Lispector uses rather avant-garde devices in punctuation. It famously begins with a comma and ends with a colon, he adds. Words aren’t properly capitalised either.

On reading this, my mind immediately raced to Aram Saroyan.

Saroyan is an American poet known for his minimalist poetry. In the 1960s Saroyan stopped the literary world in its tracks and caused a lot more than eyebrows to be raised when he wrote his single word misspelled poem smack-dab in the centre of a sheet of paper. It was:

lighght

Disruptive luminescence. Closing the post with that welcome thought.


Jerome K. Jerome, and a prescription I need

Chapter One of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) sets a witty tone for what comic mayhem is to follow. The author and his two friends George and William, are self-diagnosing what ailments they are afflicted with. The author convinces himself that his liver is out of order because he had been reading a circular describing the symptoms a man could have when his liver is whacked. The author had those symptoms alright. And then some.

His tongue firmly in his cheek, the author then recounts his visit to the British Museum to refer to a medical book for a treatment for hay fever. By the time he is done with the book, he has diagnosed himself to be suffering from a whole gamut of diseases from cholera to typhoid fever. He notes rather ruefully that the only disease he did not have was the housemaid’s knee.

Pondering his rather special case from a medical point of view, the author comes to the delightful conclusion that he is a hospital in himself, and that students of medicine should have no need to “walk the hospitals” if they had him; they’d only need to walk around him, and after that, take their diploma.

Thus wrecked by knowledge, the author pays a visit to his doctor and promptly informs him of his discovery. In his words: I have not got housemaid’s knee… Everything else, however, I have got.

The doctor—a wise man—having examined him, writes him a prescription, which the author takes to the nearest chemist. The chemist has a look at it, and hands it back saying he didn’t keep it. He adds: I am a chemist. If I was a co-operative stores and family hotel combined, I might be able to oblige you. Being only a chemist hampers me.

It’s only then that the author looks at the prescription. It reads:

1 lb. beefsteak, with
1 pt. bitter beer
every 6 hours.

1 ten-mile walk every morning.

1 bed at 11 sharp every night.

And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.

Now, that’s some prescription, wouldn’t you agree?

As it happens, I am in need of a similar prescription. 🙂

 


Ig Nobel, celebrating the unusual in science

It’s no secret that the Nobel prize is the highest award in the natural sciences. There’s however another breed of altogether interesting awards that celebrates dicoveries in science that first make us laugh, and then make us think. The Ig Nobel awards. Presented every year at Harvard by Nobel laureates, the Ig Nobel awards laud the light-hearted side of science. Science and light-hearted, do I hear you murmur with disbelief? Well, yes, that’s a legitimate combination! What follows is  the proof not in the pudding, but in patents and books and journals.

Clocky – The alarm clock on wheels. Can jump from a 3ft nightstand.

The snooze function in the alarm clock is the debilitating soporific weapon in many a crusader’s arsenal. Self included. Now imagine the snooze function in an alarm clock that makes it rise to dizzying heights, or roll to discreet locations, in this case. An alarm clock that leaves you no option but to get up when it goes off! That’s possible on planet earth because of this devious contraption called Clocky. The idea here is that the sly clock runs away from you when it rings at the set time, and in a bid to silence the damned thing you run after it. Neat sensors doing their job rather neatly in here. The simple logic underpinning the device being: now that you have risen, you might as well shine. Gauri Nanda of MIT bagged the Ig Nobel in 2005 for Economics for this invention.

Or consider the Ig Nobel awarded to Thomas Thwaites in 2016 for Biology. Thwaites roamed the Swiss Alps with a herd of goats in a prosthetic goat suit made specifically for this adventure. A British designer, Thwaites survived on grass using an artificial rumen in this holiday he took from being a human. In an NPR interview, when asked if he had learned anything about goat behavior during this experiment, Thwaites replied, “I was trying to forget myself. I wasn’t trying to learn about them.” That’s mindfulness all right atop the Alps in a goat suit.

The GoatMan Thomas Thwaites (L) with a member of his herd.

One of my personal favourites in the Ig Nobel pantheon is the award given to Peter Barss of McGill University, Canada for his impactful paper in The Journal of Trauma, titled Injuries due to Falling Coconuts. Here’s the abstract of the paper. Note the very accurate last sentence.

Falling coconuts – injurious to human health.

Initiated in 1991, the ten Ig Nobel awards given every year, ostensibly though a parody of the Nobel prizes, are in fact awarded to spur people’s interest in science, technology and medicine. It’s ultimately doffing one’s hat to scientific imagination; it’s a nod to the scientific spirit that treads down unusual paths.

Finally, here’s an article I wrote for The Wire last year prior to the Ig Nobel announcement.

PS. The Thomas Thwaites image caption may or may not be a shout out to the person who captioned this Martin Solveig image.