The Talmud Is Finally Now Available Online

In South Korea, where I live, the Talmud is a bestseller. Just a few years ago the New Yorker's Ross Armud reported on the improbable publishing success, in this small east Asian country, of Judaism's "dense compilation of oral laws annotated with rabbinical discussions, consisting of about two and a half million words." Some of those words dealing with such pressing questions as, "If you find a cake with a pottery shard in it, can you keep it? Do you have to report the discovery of a pile of fruit? What do you do if you find an item built into the wall of your house?"

The much shorter "Korean Talmud," Armud writes, with its parables, aphorisms, and topics that run the gamut "from business ethics to sex advice," makes a reader feel like "the last player in a game of telephone." But Joshua Foer, the science writer who co-founded Atlas Obscura, might say that the Jewish Talmud has long left even Jewish readers in a similar state of befuddlement — if, indeed, they could find the text at all. Looking to get a handle on the Talmud himself back in 2010, he found that, shockingly, the internet had almost nothing to offer him. And so he began working, alongside an ex-Google engineer collaborator named Brett Lockspeiser, to correct that absence.

"Last year, after years of work and negotiations, Foer and Lockspeiser finally succeeded in their quest," writes the Washington Post's Noah Smith. "Through a nonprofit they created called Sefaria, the men are bringing the Talmud online in modern English, and free of charge." Sefaria's library, available on the web as well as in app form, now includes a variety of texts from Genesis and the Kabbalah to philosophy and modern works — and of course the Talmud, the centerpiece of the collection, the relevant resources for which had not been in the public domain and thus required no small amount of negotiation to make free.

Sefaria's creators have combined all this with a feature called "source sheets," which allow "any user on the site to compile and share a selection of relevant texts, from Sefaria or outside, surrounding a given issue or question." (Smith points to the most popular source sheet thus far, "Is One Permitted to Punch a White Supremacist in the Face?") At about 160 million words with 1.7 million intertextual links and counting, the site has made a greater volume of Jewish texts far more accessible than ever before. Readers, even non-Orthodox ones, have been discovering them in English, but if Sefaria wants to increase their traffic further still, they might consider uploading some Korean translations as well.

via Kottke

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Flannery O’Connor Renders Her Verdict on Ayn Rand’s Fiction: It’s As “Low As You Can Get”

For all the grotesque humor of her stories and novels, Flannery O’Connor took the writing of fiction as seriously as it is possible to do. Even at the age of 18, she saw the task as a divine calling, writing in her journal, “I feel that God has made my life empty in this respect so that I may fill it some wonderful way.” Intense self-doubt also made her fear that she would fail in her mission, a too-familiar feeling for every creative writer: “I may grovel the rest of my life in a stew of effort, of misguided hope.”

In acquiring the needed confidence to push through fear, O’Connor also acquired a theory of fiction—a serious and demanding one that left no room for frivolous entertainments or propaganda. “I know well enough that very few people who are interested in writing are interested in writing well,” she told a student audience in her lecture “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” (collected in Mystery and Manners).

Writing well, for O’Connor, meant pursuing “the habit of art,” a phrase she took from French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. While she admits that Art is “a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand,” her definition is simple enough, if vague: “something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself.” When she gets into the meat of these ideas, we see why she could be so harsh a critic of fellow writers in her many letters to friends and acquaintances.

In one particularly harsh assessment in a May, 1960 letter to playwright Maryat Lee, O’Connor wrote, “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

The reference to Spillane is interesting. Rand corresponded with the crime novelist and admired his work, seeming “greatly pleased,” William Thomas writes at the Randian Atlas Society, by his “sense of life,” if not “enamored of his skill in conveying it.” Surely Rand’s hyper-individualistic, purely materialist “sense of life” repelled O’Connor, but her objections to Rand's fiction would have certainly—if not primarily—extended to the writing itself.

In her lecture, O’Connor elaborates on her definition of the art of fiction by telling her audience what it is not:

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.

Rand’s fiction presents readers with speechifying heroes who serve as one-dimensional exponents of Objectivism, and cardboard villains acting as straw caricatures of the democratic or socialist philosophies she loathed. Books like Atlas Shrugged embody all the marks of amateurism, according to O’Connor, of writers who “are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.”

For O’Connor, the habit of art requires keen observation of complex human behavior, compassion for human failings, a genuine openness to paradox and the unknown, and a preference for idiosyncratic specificity over grand abstractions and stereotypes—qualities Rand simply did not possess. Perhaps most importantly, however, as O'Connor told her student audience in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” the writer’s “moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” One imagines O’Connor felt that Rand's moral sense could only produce profoundly impoverished drama.

Read more of O'Connor's letters, full of her informal literary criticism, in the collection The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O'Connor.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear the Last Time the Jimi Hendrix Experience Ever Played Together: The Riotous Denver Pop Festival of 1969

You know it’s got to be bad when you quit the Jimi Hendrix Experience just months after the revolutionary, expansive Electric Ladyland hit number one on US and UK charts, but if you’re Noel Redding, you’re plenty fed up with the psychedelic circus. “The recording sessions were ridiculous,” Redding told Rolling Stone in a 1969 interview, “and on stage, it was getting ridiculous.” The last straw for Redding had come a few months earlier at the Denver Pop Festival in June. After tear gas forced the band offstage, fired by police at an unruly crowd, “I went up to Jimi that night,” says the bassist, “said goodbye, and caught the next plane back to London.”

Tensions had been building for months. Hendrix wanted to expand the band, without consulting Redding or Mitch Mitchell. Recording sessions for the double Electric Ladyland had been notoriously riotous. “There were tons of people in the studio,” Redding remembered, “you couldn’t move. It was a party, not a session.” Hendrix's perfectionism had him pushing for 40-50 takes per song. But the problems weren't all under his control. The three-day Denver festival—headlined by Three Dog Night, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa, Tim Buckley, Johnny Winter and the Experience—was beset with violence, part of the general devolution of the decade.

Overzealous cops battled gatecrashers who showed up looking for a fight. Tear gas wafted through the air. Iron Butterfly supposedly encouraged fans to bring a fence down. Festival promoter Barry Fey remembers Joe Cocker curled up in the bathroom in a fetal position: “He was scared to death. ‘Is this what America’s all about?’”

But Jimi’s drug use had also taken its toll on his relationships. Fey’s account of his state that night is sad and sobering:

There's a lot of stories, but the worst one is Hendrix…. I had Jimi September 1, 1968 at Red Rocks. We had become such good friends in a year or so. I mean, I just loved him. He was such a great guy. And then nine months later at the Denver Pop Festival, I get to talk to Noel and Mitch, and they said, 'We're not going to play with him anymore, Barry.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' They said, 'We can't stand him. Since you've seen us last, he's discovered heroin, and you can't deal with him.' And then he showed up, and he hardly knew who I was. 

But onstage, Jimi was Jimi, cracking esoteric jokes and shredding with abandon. In the audio at the top, hear the band’s full Denver Pop Festival set, which closed out the chaotic proceedings on Sunday night. Hendrix jokes about the tear gas as the band tunes up, then they launch into Swedish duo Hansson & Karlsson's “Tax Free.”

Jimi plays “The Star-Spangled Banner”—two months before his blistering Woodstock rendition—and the audio cuts out at the end of “Purple Haze,” right before the last song of the night, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” when the police fired off more tear gas and “the wind whipped in the stadium,” writes Ultimate Classic Rock, and “blew the toxic fumes back toward the stage. With their eyes burning and their lungs choked for air, the Experience set down their instruments for the final time and fled for cover.”

See the setlist, minus “Voodoo Child,” below:

  1. Tax Free
  2. Hear My Train A Comin'
  3. Fire
  4. Spanish Castle Magic
  5. Red House
  6. Foxy Lady
  7. Star Spangled Banner
  8. Purple Haze

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness.

The Brains of Jazz and Classical Musicians Work Differently, New Research Shows

All of the musicians I’ve played with have been improvisers, whether they came from jazz, rock, folk, or whatever. As a loose improvisor myself, I've found it difficult to collaborate with trained classical players. It’s not for lack of trying, but—while we like to think of music as a universal language—the means of communication were strained at best. Classical musicians have a hard time with spontaneous composition; jazz players are generally comfortable with loose technique and can adapt to experiments and unexpected shifts.

I’d always chalked this difference up to different kinds of training (or lack thereof in my case), but a new study by researchers in Leipzig suggests a deeper neurological basis, at least when it comes strictly to jazz versus classical musicians. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences studied the brains of thirty pianists—half jazz players, half classical. They found, the Institute reports, that “different processes occur in jazz and classical pianists’ brains, even when performing the same piece.”

It’s a conclusion players themselves intuitively understand. As jazz pianist Keith Jarrett once said, when asked if he would ever play both jazz and classical in concert, “No… it’s [because of] the circuitry. Your system demands different circuitry for either of those two things.” This isn’t due to hard-wired biological differences, but to the way the brain creates pathways over time in response to different musical activities. As neuroscientist Daniela Sammler puts it:

The reason could be due to the different demands these two styles pose on the musicians—be it to skillfully interpret a classical piece or to creatively improvise jazz. Thereby, different procedures may have established in their brains while playing the piano which makes switching between the styles more difficult.

On its face, the study may hardly seem illuminating. We have long known that repeated actions change the structure of the brain, so why should it be different for musicians? Things get a little more interesting as we dig into the details. One finding, study author Robert Bianco notes, shows that jazz pianists “replan… actions faster than classical pianists” and were “better able to react and continue their performance” when asked to play a harmonically unexpected chord within a standard progression (see graph below).

On the other hand, Science Daily reports, classical pianists’ brains showed, “a stronger awareness of fingering, and consequently they made fewer errors while imitating the chord sequence.” The critical distinction between the two relates to how they plan movements, with classical pianists focusing on the “How” of technique and jazz players on the “What” of adaptation to the unexpected.

Other studies substantiate the findings. Researchers at Wesleyan University focused on the role of what they call “expectancy” in three groups: jazz improvisers, “non-improvising musicians,” and non-musicians. Jazz players trained to improvise not only preferred unexpected chords in a progression, but their brains reacted and recovered more quickly to the unexpected, suggesting a higher degree of creative potential than both classically trained musicians and non-musicians.

“The improvisatory and experimental nature of jazz training,” the study’s authors write, “can encourage musicians to take notes and chords that are out of place, and use them as a pivot to transition to new tonal and musical ideas.” However, the comparison between the two groups does not place value on one over the other.

While jazz improvisation may better teach creativity, classical training, as neuroscientist Ardon Shorr argues in his TEDx talk above, may better train the brain in information processing. These studies show that the effect of music on the brain cannot be studied without regard for the differing neurological demands of different kinds of music, just as the study of language processing cannot be limited to just one language.

Such studies can also give us an even greater appreciation for the rare musician who can easily switch between jazz and classical in the same performance, like the late, great Nina Simone. See her work a Bach-influenced fugue into "Love Me or Leave Me," at the top.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Particle Accelerators, 3D Modeling & Artificial Intelligence

Everyone knows that Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, entombing the Roman town of Pompeii in ash. Almost everyone knows that it also did the same to several other towns, including wealthy Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples. Countless scholars have dedicated their lives to studying these unusually well-preserved first-century ruins and the historical treasures found within. We now understand a great deal about the layout, the structures, the social life of Herculaneum, but some aspects remain unknowable, such as the contents of the scrolls, charred beyond recognition, that fill its libraries — or at least that remained unknowable until now.

"In the 18th century, workmen employed by King Charles III of Spain, then in charge of much of southern Italy, discovered the remains of a magnificent villa, thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (known as Piso), a wealthy statesman and the father-in-law of Julius Caesar," writes Smithsonian's Jo Marchant. There, "in what was to become one of the most frustrating archaeological discoveries ever, the workmen also found approximately 2,000 papyrus scrolls." But since the heat and gases of Vesuvius had turned them "black and hard like lumps of coal"  — and indeed, some of Charles III's workmen mistook them for coal and threw them away — attempts to open them "created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text."

The time of Charles III barely had sufficient know-how to avoid destroying the scrolls of Herculaneum, let alone to read them. That task turns out to demand even the most cutting-edge technology we have today, including custom-made 3D modeling software, artificial intelligence, and the most advanced x-ray facilities in existence. Marchant's article focuses on an American computer scientist named Brent Seales (Professor and Chair of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky), whose quest to read the Herculaneum scrolls has become a quest to develop a method to virtually "unroll" them. This requires not just the computing power and logic to determine how these blackened lumps (Seales calls two of them "Fat Bastard" and "Banana Boy") might originally have opened up, but the most advanced particle accelerators in the world to scan them in the first place.

You can read more about Seales' work with the Herculaneum scrolls, which after twenty years has shown real promise, at Mental Floss and Newsweek. Though quite expensive (demand for "beam time" on a particle accelerator being what it is), hugely time-consuming, and occasionally, in Seales' words, "excruciatingly frustrating," the invention of a reliable method for reading these and other seemingly lost texts from antiquity could make substantial additions to what we think of as the canon. (The texts revealed so far have had to do with the ideas of Epicurus, a primer on whose philosophy we've previously featured on Open Culture.) But gaining the fullest possible understanding of what our ancestors knew in the first century may first require a few more 21st-century developments in physics and computer science yet.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Brief History of Guitar Distortion: From Early Experiments to Happy Accidents to Classic Effects Pedals

The sound of rock and roll is the sound of a distorted guitar, but the history of that sound predates the genre by a few years. It started out with blues and Western swing guitarists, searching “for a dirtier sound,” writes Noisey in a brief history, “a sound that reflected the grittiness of their music.” That sound was pioneered by a guitarist named Junior Barnard, who played with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and designed his own humbucking pickups to produce a fatter, louder tone and push his small amp into overdrive. As the Polyphonic video above notes, Barnard was an aggressive player who needed aggressive tones, and so, as guitarists have always done, he invented the means himself.

Other forerunners achieved distorted tones by cranking early amps like the 18-watt Fender Super, first introduced in 1947, all the way up, until the vacuum tubes clipped the signal to keep from breaking. Goree Carter, sometimes credited with recording the first rock and roll song, “Rock A While,” pushed the overdriven sound in a heavier direction than Barnard, playing dirty Chuck Berry-like licks in 1949 before Chuck Berry's first hit. Distortion, a sound audio engineers struggled mightily to avoid in live sound and recording, gave blues-based guitarists exactly what they needed for the loud, lewd postwar sounds of rock.

The distorted tones of the 40s came from a deliberate desire for grit. Later, even dirtier, guitar tones were the result of happy accidents. Another contender for the first rock and roll recording—Ike Turner & His Kings of Rhythm’s 1951 “Rocket 88”—contains some very distorted rhythms from guitarist Willie Kizart, who, legend has it, dropped his tweed Fender amp before the session. Sam Phillips “leaned into” the sound, notes Polyphonic, immediately hearing its serendipitous potential.

Seven years later, the evil overdrive of Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble"—so sinister it was once banned from radio—came from an intentional equipment failure. Wray repeatedly stabbed the speaker cone of his amp with a pencil.

Do-it-yourself distortion continued into the sixties. Following Wray’s lead, the Kinks’ Dave Davies slashed his amp’s speaker with a razor blade for the fuzzed-out attack of “You Really Got Me” in 1965. But a few years earlier, “fuzz” had already been codified in an effects pedal: Gibson’s 1962 Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone, partly inspired by another accident, a faulty mixing board connection that distorted Grady Martin’s bass solo in the Marty Robbins’ 1961 country tune “Don’t Worry” (below, at 1:25). The Fuzz-Tone most famously drove Keith Richards’ riff in “Satisfaction,” but it didn't sell well. Other, more popular fuzz boxes followed, like the Arbiter Fuzz Face, Jimi Hendrix’s choice for his distorted tones.

Hendrix brilliantly innovated new guitar effects, and the powerful Marshall amps he played through also drove the distorted sounds of Clapton, Townshend, Page, Blackmore, etc., who competed for grittier and heavier tones and in the process more or less invented metal guitar. In the seventies and eighties, distorted tones took on some standardized forms, thanks to transistors and classic effects pedals like the Ibanez Tube Screamer, ProCo Rat, and Boss DS-1. Distinctions between overdrive, distortion, and fuzz effects can get technical, but in the early days of rock and roll, distorted guitar tones came from whatever worked, and it’s that wild early sound of gear pushed to its limits and beyond that every modern distortion effect attempts to replicate.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Book about Women in Philosophy by Women in Philosophy: Help Crowdfund It

This past summer, we highlighted the Encyclopedia of Concise Concepts by Women Philosophers, a resource that aims to introduce “women philosophers who mostly have been omitted from the philosophical canon despite their historical and philosophical influence.” Now, in a similar vein, comes a book being edited by Rebecca Buxton (Oxford) and Lisa Whiting (Durham). The Philosopher Queens is essentially "a book about women in philosophy by women in philosophy." On this crowdfunding page, Buxton and Whiting elaborate:

For all the young women and girls sitting in philosophy class wondering where the women are, this is the book for you. This collection of 21 chapters, each on a prominent woman in philosophy, looks at the impact that women have had on the field throughout history. From Hypatia to Angela Davis, The Philosopher Queens will be a guide to these badass women and how their amazing ideas have changed the world.

This book is written both for newcomers to philosophy, as well as all those professors who know that they could still learn a thing or two. This book is also for those many people who have told us that there are no great women philosophers. Please pledge, read this book and then feel free to get back to us.

The two of us are young women who have studied and loved philosophy for many years. This book is borne out of frustration with the total lack of recognition for women in philosophy, not only its history but its current teaching.

Each chapter is written by a woman working in philosophy today. Our chapters and contributing authors include:

Hypatia by Lisa Whiting
Lalleshwari by Shalini Sinha
Anne Conway by Julia Bocherding
Mary Astell by Simone Webb
Mary Wollstonecraft by Sandrine Bergès
Harriet Taylor Mill by Helen McCabe
Christine Ladd-Franklin by Sara Uckelman
Mary Anne Evans by Clare Carlisle
Edith Stein by Jae Hetterley
Hannah Arendt by Rebecca Buxton
Simone de Beauvoir by Kate Kirkpatrick
Iris Murdoch by Fay Niker
Elizabeth Anscombe by Hannah Carnegy-Arbuthnott
Mary Warnock by Gulzaar Barn
Iris Marion Young by Desiree Lim
Anita L Allen by Ilhan Dahir
Azizah Y. al-Hibri by Nima Dahir
... and more exciting chapters yet to be announced.

You can learn more about the project and give it some financial support here. The project so far has 184 backers and has received 27% of its desired funding.

via Daily Nous

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Long-Lost Letter Shows How Galileo Tried to Fool the Inquisition & Escape Censure for Putting Scientific Truth Ahead of Church Dogma (1613)

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “Success in Circuit lies.” No doubt she had more literary, or metaphysical, matters in mind than scientific. But for scientists working in times hostile to change, telling the truth, as they know it, can be dangerous. This applies to EPA scientists working today as it did 400 years ago to European astronomers, who faced censure—with possibly fatal consequences—for contradicting the official version of reality dictated by the Catholic Church and enforced by the Inquisition.

The story of Galileo Galilei’s infamous confrontation with what the Rice University Galileo Project calls that “permanent institution” of the Church, “charged with the eradication of heresies,” has swelled into legend, with the astronomer playing the part of a martyr for reason and evidence. Other versions, like Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileoportray him, writes The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, not as “a martyr-hero but a turncoat, albeit one of genius.” Rather than standing on principle, he hedged and compromised.

A “newer (and, unsurprisingly, Church-endorsed) view,” writes Gopnik, “is that Galileo made needless trouble for himself by being impolitic," and that all the poor Church wanted, “as today’s intelligent designers now say,” was to “’teach the controversy’” between Copernican and Aristotelian theories. Whatever their interpretation, historians of the events leading up to Galileo’s conviction for heresy after the publication of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems now have a new piece of evidence to add to their assessment.

A letter, “long thought lost,” Nature reports, has reappeared, providing “the strongest evidence yet that, at the start of his battle with the religious authorities, Galileo actively engaged in damage control and tried to spread a toned-down version of his claims.” In the seven-page document, written to his friend Benedetto Castelli in 1613, Galileo “set out for the first time his arguments that scientific research should be free from theological doctrine.” Furthermore, and most damningly for him:

He argued that the scant references in the Bible to astronomical events should not be taken literally, because scribes had simplified these descriptions so that they could be understood by common people. Religious authorities who argued otherwise, he wrote, didn’t have the competence to judge. Most crucially, he reasoned that the heliocentric model of Earth orbiting the Sun, proposed by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus 70 years earlier, is not actually incompatible with the Bible.

Copies of the controversial letter circulated, and inevitably made their way into the hands of Inquisition authorities in 1615, forwarded by a Dominican friar named Niccolò Lorini. Alarmed, Galileo “wrote to his friend Piero Dini, a cleric in Rome, suggesting that the letter Lorini had sent to the Inquisition might have been doctored.” He enclosed another, less inflammatory, version, which he claimed was the original. He wrote of the “wickedness and ignorance” of those he claimed had tried to frame him. The Inquisitors, he wrote “may be in part deceived by this fraud which is going around under the cloak of zeal and charity.”

Historians have long known of the two letters, but were uncertain as to whose version of events to believe. The original of the Lorini copy was thought to have been lost, until its recent discovery by postdoctoral science historian Salvatore Ricciardo, who found it, of all places, in the Royal Society library, where it had sat unnoticed for 250 years. The original letter, which Castelli had returned to Galileo, shows edits in his own hand. “Beneath its scratchings-out and amendments, the signed copy discovered by Ricciardo shows Galileo’s original wording—and it is the same as in the Lorini copy” that landed him in trouble.

The evidence proves that Galileo strongly advocated for the Copernican system, and against Church interference in free inquiry, in 1613. In one passage of the letter, originally describing the Bible as “false if one goes by the literal meaning of the words,” Galileo crosses out “false” and inserts “look different from the truth.” In another reference to scripture as “concealing” the truth, he opts for the more theological-sounding “veiling.” The letter shows Galileo softening his views to escape condemnation, but it does not show him recanting in any way.

In 1616, the year after the Church received a copy of the first letter from Lorini and Galileo’s doctored version, he was warned to stop arguing for the Copernican model, though he later received assurances from Pope Urban VIII that he could continue to write about heliocentrism if he presented the idea as a mathematical proposition rather than a statement of fact. Of course, as we know, his continued support for the science earned him permanent house arrest in 1633, and centuries of enduring admiration from the opponents of dogmatic suppression of scientific knowledge.

via Nature

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

In 1900, a Photographer Had to Create an Enormous 1,400-Pound Camera to Take a Picture of an Entire Train

Cameras are small, and getting smaller all the time. This development has helped us all document our lives, sharing the sights we see with an ease difficult to imagine even twenty years ago. 120 years ago, photography faced an entirely different set of challenges, but then as now, much of the motivation to meet them came from commercial interests. Take the case of Chicago photographer George R. Lawrence and his client the Chicago & Alton Railway, who wanted to promote their brand-new Chicago-to-St. Louis express service, the Alton Limited. This product of the golden age of American train travel demanded some respectable photography, a technology then still in its thrilling, possibility-filled emergence.

A truly elegant piece of work, the Alton Limited would, during its 72-year lifespan, boast such features as a post office, a library, a Japanese tea-room, and a striking maroon-and-gold color scheme that earned it the nickname "the Red Train."

Even from a distance, the Alton Limited looked upon its introduction in 1899 like nothing else on the railroads, with its six identical Pullman cars all designed in perfect symmetry — the very aspect that so challenged Lawrence to capture it in a photograph. Simply put, the whole train wouldn't fit in one picture. While he could have shot each car separately and then stitched them together into one big print, he rejected that technique for its inability to "preserve the absolute truthfulness of perspective."

Only a much bigger camera, Lawrence knew, could capture the whole train. And so, in the words of Atlas Obscura's Anika Burgess, he "quickly went to work designing a camera that could hold a glass plate measuring 8 feet by 4 1/2 feet. It was constructed by the camera manufacturer J.A. Anderson from natural cherry wood, with bespoke Carl Zeiss lenses (also the largest ever made). The camera alone weighed 900 pounds. With the plate holder, it reached 1,400 pounds. According to an August 1901 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the bellows was big enough to hold six men, and the whole camera took a total of 15 workers to operate." Transporting the camera to Brighton Park, "an ideal vantage point from which to shoot the waiting train," required another team of men, and developing the eight-foot long photo took ten gallons of chemicals.

The advertisements in which Lawrence's photograph appeared practically glowed with pride in the Alton Limited, billing it as "a train for two cities," as "the only way between Chicago and St. Louis," as "the handsomest train in the world." The whole-train picture beggared belief: though it went on to win Lawrence the Grand Prize for World Photographic Excellence at the 1900 Paris Exposition, Burgess notes, it looked so impossible that both the photographer and Chicago & Alton "had to submit affidavits to verify that the photograph had been made on one plate." We in the 21st century, of course, have no reason to doubt its authenticity, or even to marvel at its ingenuity until we know the story of the immense custom camera with which Lawrence shot it. Today, what awes us are all those smaller shots of the Alton Limited's interior, exuding a luxuriousness that has long vanished from America's railroads. If we were to find ourselves on such a train today, we'd surely start Instagramming it right away.

via Atlas Obscura

Related Content:

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See the First Photograph of a Human Being: A Photo Taken by Louis Daguerre (1838)

The History of Photography in Five Animated Minutes: From Camera Obscura to Camera Phone

Darren’s Big DIY Camera

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests of Three Female Muses: Nico, Edie Sedgwick & Mary Woronov

Artist Andy Warhol shot over 500 silent, black-and-white screen-tests in his famous Factory between 1964 and 1966, documenting the beautiful youth who were drawn to the scene. Sometimes he would chat with the subject beforehand, offering suggestions to help them achieve the type of performance he was looking for. More frequently he took a passive role, to the point of leaving the room during the filming.

The opposite of a people person, he preferred to engage with his subjects by scrutinizing the finished screen tests, projecting them in slow motion to imbue them with an added element of glamour and amplify every nuance of expression. As Warhol wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol:

That screen magnetism is something secret. If you could figure out what it is and how you make it, you'd have a really good product to sell. But you can't even tell if someone has it until you actually see them up there on the screen. You have to give screen tests to find out.

The screen tests are less auditions for roles in Warhol films than pieces of an ongoing project. Warhol played with them, assembling and reassembling them into collections which he screened under such fluid titles as 13 Most Beautiful Women and 13 Most Wanted Men. Some of his test subjects went on to achieve real stardomLou Reed, Dennis Hopper, and Bob Dylan

Others’ fame is forever tied to the Factory.

Edie Sedgwick, above, one of his best known muses, was a troubled girl from a wealthy family. Unlike some of the moodier screen tests, Sedgwick’s is fully lit. She displays a genuine movie star’s poise, barely moving as the camera drinks her in. Her beauty appears untouched by the addictions and eating disorders that were already a driving force in her life.

Actress and painter Mary Woronov emerged unscathed from her time at the Factory. Like Sedgwick, she seemed comfortable with the idea of being observed doing nothing for an extended period. Recalling her screen test experience in an interview with Bizarre, she made it clear that the subjects were far from the center of attention:

Andy put you on a stool, then puts the camera in front of you. There are lots of people around usually. And then he turns the camera on, and he walks away, and all the people walk away too, but you're standing there in front of this camera.

I saw Salvador Dali do one, it was really funny. It's a very interesting film, because it's a way of cracking open your personality and showing what's underneath—only in a visual way, because there's no talking, nothing. You just look at the camera. Salvador made this gigantic pose with his moustache blaring and everything, and he couldn't hold the pose. Not for five minutes. And so at about minute four, he suddenly started looking very, very real.

The camera loves stillness, something model and singer Nico was unable to deliver in her screen test. Perhaps not such a problem when the director has plans to project in slow motion.

As he stated in POPism: The Warhol '60s:

What I liked was chunks of time all together, every real moment… I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves… and I'd film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie.

Factory regular/interior decorator/photographer Billy Name told punk historian Legs McNeil in an interview that the screen tests served another purposeto identify the fellow travelers from among the poor fits:

… it's always cool to meet other artists, you know, to see if it's somebody who's going to be a peer or a compatriot, who you can play with and hang around with or not. Andy was doing a series of screen tests for his films, and we wanted everybody to do one: Dylan, Nico, Dennis Hopper, Susan Sontag, Donovan—everyone famous that came up to the Factory. We'd just film 16mm black-and-white portraits of the person sitting there for a few minutes. So our purpose was to have Dylan come up and do a screen test, so he could be part of the series. That was enough for us. But Dylan didn't talk at all when we filmed him. I don't think he liked us, ha, ha, ha!

Revolver Gallery, devoted exclusively to Warhol, has a gallery of screen-tests on their YouTube channel.

Related Content:

The Velvet Underground & Andy Warhol Stage Proto-Punk Performance Art: Discover the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966)

Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes: Discover the Postmodern MTV Variety Show That Made Warhol a Star in the Television Age (1985-87)

The Big Ideas Behind Andy Warhol’s Art, and How They Can Help Us Build a Better World

Andy Warhol’s ‘Screen Test’ of Bob Dylan: A Classic Meeting of Egos

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.





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