[narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, vanity]

14.5.09

Hot news about one of my books!

THE ZODIAC OF PARIS, a history of the fortunes of a stolen Egyptian zodiac in 19th century Paris, written with Jed Z. Buchwald (Caltech), has just been accepted for publication with Princeton University Press! Yay!

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16.10.08

On Being At Sea & Sort of Liking It.

[Cheese sandwich warning]

Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica, Angela Carter's Burning Your Boats, and Nicholas Christopher's Crossing the Equator top my list of "desert island" books, which I keep in the increasingly wistful and distant but persistent hope that someday I may wind up on just such an island, with just such a library.

Do you see me, atop the rigging, with my sunburned nose in a book? Look, I am waving at you - with my bookmark! Which I made myself, of seagull feathers and hemp and a blue ribbon I might have won sometime, or maybe stolen from the sky.

It is the color of my mother's eyes.

I love adventure stories. They always seem to involve an element of getting back to basics, back to the sea and sky, wind and water. Back to the elemental.

Once, when I was really, or more accurately, metaphorically, at sea, I went to the library, where I always go to get my bearings, and discovered the subject for my graduate thesis. Which started, naturally enough, in a navigation problem: the earth's magnetic field is weak but pervasive. It screws up compasses, makes navigation difficult under cloudy conditions. Someone in the megalomaniacal years of the early nineteenth century decided it would be a good idea to make global observations of this force, over long periods of time, in order to arrive at a method for figuring out what the strength of the field might be anywhere, at any time. Compasses could be corrected by book and algorithm. Sea adventures might yet require the library.

Well.

In the megalomaniaical years of writing my dissertation -- some might recall the party we threw when I finished, how we gave the -e-vite the opening line: Ladies and gentlemen, our long national nightmare is over -- I took a class, taught by my eventual dissertation advisor, on the history of ancient science and its influences on the early moderns, emphasis on Galileo and Newton. Astronomy, physics, mechanics -- I was in my element and out of my depth. (Both clichés are pleasingly exact, like the sciences in question.) For the first session, we were assigned all of Aristotle except the Poetics, which was a pity, given what was about to transpire. Five of us showed up for the first class, I think, including the professor. Class was held in his office. We wedged ourselves around a tiny table as he approached the whiteboard, where he wrote:

Fire. Water. Air. Earth.

"What are these?"

I had been reading Aristotle for days. I had been at sea for weeks. This was a graduate seminar. Surely, the professor could not be starting with Aristotle's doctrine of the elements? It was, if you'll forgive the pun, entirely too elementary.

We sat there, waiting to see who would jump, who would answer first. Perhaps it was a trick question.

"Come on, people," he said. He was getting exasperated. I couldn't blame him. He was all by himself up there, with all of us gawping at him, in confusion and awe and also not a little desperation. "What are these?"

Silence. Back to basics, I thought.

"Nouns," I said. "They are nouns."

Splash! In the laughter that followed, I realized that although we still didn't know where we were going, we had begun.

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2.1.08

I See Dead People['s Books] (LibraryThing)

LibraryThing has a group dedicated to the topic: I See Dead People['s] Books. Despite the ghoulish name, what they're chasing is important from a scholarly point of view -- and a business one, too, I think.

One of the most intriguing books I used for my dissertation was a catalogue of Carl Friedrich Gauss's library. Even though I kept coming back to it, I was never able to solve the basic historiographic problem that it posed: What sort of evidence is this? Evidence of what? What kinds of conclusions can be drawn from these data? (LT has just finished a similar project, a catalogue of Thomas Jefferson's library.)

Current academic historiographical conventions disallow, or at least frown upon, claims like "He was a wit, open-eyed and realistic, but susceptible to the epic kinds of romantic enthusiasms you find in his favorite authors, Walter Scott and Jean Paul."

But people in the business of hand-selling -- booksellers and literary agents -- make these calls all the time.

Library data encode important information. We just don't know what sort of information it is. Is it information about mentalities? Literary influences? Certainly, we learn something about what publishers think is worth publishing at any given time. But it's the decision to own that poses the problem -- and the opportunity.

Reflecting on the Jefferson project, LT's founder Tim Spalding put it this way: "Books are a sort of mental world, and shared books a shared mental space."

It's the "sort of" that gets me. Sort of this, sort of that -- we just don't know what to do with this information. We don't even know what to call it. I like Spalding's spatial metaphor, though. Instead of talking about some vague collective consciousness, we're actually talking about something real, even topographical. A shared library.

I have a feeling when big money gets behind LibraryThing (and it will), the idea will be to automate the hand-selling process. Amazon's "If You Like...Then You'll Like" algorithm isn't nearly as precise as LT's library data because the former is based on what you buy (for yourself, yes, but also for your kids, your mother, who likes how-to manuals, your neighbor who likes Tom Clancy, your nephew who really likes obscure poets, etc. etc.) rather than what you love enough to own, meaning make space in your life (on your shelf) for. In contrast, LT's got the data set that publishers really want, and it's been unavailable until now because people don't make their libraries publicly available. But LT could easily aggregate and anonymize the data, circumventing privacy concerns...

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21.12.07

Myrmecology & the Specific Gravity of the Gods

"Old ideas in science never really die. They only sink to mother Earth, like the mythical giant Antaeus, to gain strength and rise again." -- E. O. Wilson & Bert Hoelldobler, Journey to the Ants (1994)

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12.12.07

All in a Day's Work

On the cover of G. Oster and E. O. Wilson's 1978 Caste and Ecology in the Social Insects, there's arresting illustration of African weaver ants, each of whom typifies or stands for a "caste" within a larger, hierarchically ordered ant-society. The illustration is credited to Turid Hoelldobler, otherwise known as Turid Forsyth, a Canadian artist specializing in botanical illustrations and photographs. If this acknowledgment [search on "turid"] of her contribution to some fieldwork with Steodota fulva is any indication, she was once married to Bert Hoelldobler, a German myrmecologist and co-author, with Wilson, of The Ants (1991), for which they won the Nobel Prize.

While Turid Forsyth is not (yet) listed on Wikipedia's page devoted to scientific illustrators, many other women are. And although this year's meeting of the History of Science Society included three or four sessions devoted to the absence of women in both science and the history thereof, I didn't find any sessions devoted to scientific illustrators. No doubt this has something to do with the fact that they are often cast in a helpmeet's role. One need only think of Catherine Boucher, otherwise known as Mrs. William Blake, who was responsible for etching the plates for many, if not all, of "his" most famous works, to understand how easily this kind of work is forgotten or effaced as a result of long-standing historical misapprehension: the "author" of a book is not by a long shot the only person responsible for its appearance in the world.

You might also be surprised to know that Beatrix Potter made scientific illustrations. So did Cecilia Beaux, one of the most celebrated society portraitists of the Gilded Age.

Beaux's case is interesting: While still a student, Beaux took on various work-for-hire projects including making etchings of fossils for the US Geological Survey. In her autobiography, Beaux reflects on the fossil drawings. At the time, her uncle had just taken her to visit his lithography business in Philadelphia, where she was deeply impressed by the huge stones used in making commercial lithographs. Meanwhile, she was trying to draw fossils from another, smaller set of stones, which recorded an impression in mirror-image, like the lithograph. "Reading" the fossil image off these stones was tightly connected, for Beaux, from what she had seen in at the lithographer's.

But the fossil record was thousands of years old. Beaux' first commercial lithograph was for an advertisement that appeared in a newspaper. Given that her initial work involved her in such extremes of duration -- the eternal, the ephemeral -- is it any wonder that she finally settled on portraiture, the representation immortalization of a single moment in a human life, as her preferred métier?

By 1890, with her lithographic work twenty years behind her, Beaux's artistic star was well on the rise. In the next decade, she would paint portraits of Charles Darwin's daughter-in-law, Maud DuPuy Darwin, Dr. John Shaw Billings, surgeon and librarian to the Army Medical Museum and Library in Washington, DC, and Mary Scott Newbold, wife of the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, before winning a gold medal at the 1899 Carnegie Art Institute's international exhibition, where she was praised by William Merritt Chase as "the greatest woman painter of modern times."

1890 also marked the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray -- which famously concerns itself with matters of temporality and portraiture. If this were the only connection between Wilde and Beaux, pointing out the presence of these themes in their artistic lives would be fairly, er, spurious. But other connections, perhaps equally spurious, can be excavated from the historical record... For instance, Wilde was a close friend of J. M. Whistler, whose famous painting of his mother provided the inspiration for the wistful, ambiguous canvas that is widely believed to have launched Beaux's career, "Les derniers jours d'enfance (The Last Days of Infancy)," which she completed in 1886. Wilde's novel also made explicit reference to the decadent novel, A Rebours, by J. K. Huysmans, who was also an astute critic of impressionism and much admired by Whistler (it seems the feeling was mutual).

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3.11.07

Impossible Object Proves Not So Impossible

The Antikythera mechanism, an ancient device that was likely used to forecast astronomical events, is being subjected to all sorts of interventions, including x-ray tomography, which is revealing previously obscured inscriptions on the device.

The New Yorker covered the story five months ago. So now I know what my current news lag is.

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