Aldous Huxley Trips on Acid; Talks About Cats & the Secret of Life (1962)

Dystopia and drugs: these are the two concepts most commonly associated with Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World and, decades later, advocated the mind-expanding possibilities of psychedelic substances. The sociopolitical realities of the 21st century have prompted us to return to and more fully understand what Huxley was trying to tell us with his novelistic vision of a society engineered and automated into total submission. But how many of us really understand his perspective on what the drugs did for his thinking?

Huxley may have written eloquently on the subject, most popularly in 1954's The Doors of Perception, but in the audio clip above we can hear some of that thinking straight from the visionary's mouth. "This is a recording of Aldous Huxley on 100 μg of LSD, made on December 23 1962," writes the uploader, "gonzo philosopher" Jules Evans. "The trip sitter is his wife, Laura Archera Huxley." A trip sitter, for the uninitiated, is like the designated driver of a psychedelic journey, a companion who stays on the ground to look out for the one who gets high. (This same wife would, the following year, take Huxley on his final trip, the one that would take him all the way out of this world.)

Huxley "discusses the secret of life — to be oneself and at the same time 'identical with the divine.' And he wonders about the value of blasting off into the stratosphere, like Timothy Leary." Leary, a fellow champion of psychedelics, began his career as a clinical psychologist at Harvard and ended up dedicating his life to the possibilities of LSD, along the way popularizing the phrase "turn on, tune in, drop out." "Tim is alright," says the tripping Huxley. "He's just sort of... an Irishman, banging around, but I think he's doing a lot of good." But in Huxley's view, Leary also "just wants to be an ass. We all have to be forgiven for something. My God, will you forgive me!"

In just three minutes drawn from a longer recording stored at UCLA's Huxley archive, the writer makes a variety of other observations as well. These include the desire of drug-users to "take holidays from themselves," the value of psychedelic experiences showing people that "they don't have to always live in this completely conditioned way," and the challenge of having to be "completely boxed up in oneself as that cat is" — as he gestures, presumably, toward a household pet — "at the same time one has to be completely identical with God!" LSD has reportedly led some of its users to communion with the divine, but on this trip Huxley settles for trying to commune with the feline. After a brief attempt at speaking the cat's own language, he returns to English to make a broader point about the human and animal condition: "Luckily he doesn't have our problems. But he has his own."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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 Short Animated Introduction to Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Philosopher

Ten years ago, a film came out called Agora, a biopic of philosopher and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandria, daughter of mathematician Theon, the last recorded director of the Library of Alexandria. The movie wasn’t well-reviewed or widely seen, which is neither here nor there, but it was heavily criticized for historical inaccuracies. This seemed a little silly. “One does not go to the movies to learn about ancient history but to be entertained,” as Joshua J. Mark writes at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Agora is not an accurate rendering of the little we know of Hypatia, but neither is Spartacus, a far more entertaining film, an accurate depiction of the 2nd century B.C.E. gladiator and rebel.

And yet, we should know who Hypatia was, and we should understand what happened to her, something many of the film’s religiously-motivated critics refused to admit, claiming that the depiction of hostile, anti-intellectual Christians in the movie was nothing more than prejudicial animus on the part of director Alejandro Amenabar. The truth is that “the anti-intellectual stance of the early church is attested to by early Christian writers,” Mark points out. And “the historical records state” that Hypatia “was beaten and flayed to death by a mob of Christian monks who then burned her in a church.”

The TED-Ed video above calls this mob a “militia” who saw Hypatia’s scientific pursuits as “witchcraft.” The charge is, of course, specifically gendered. The manner of her death was so brutal and shocking that “even those Christian writers who were hostile to her and claimed she was a witch,” Mark writes, “are generally sympathetic in recording her death as a tragedy. These accounts routinely depict Hypatia as a woman who was widely known for her generosity, love of learning, and expertise in teaching in the subjects of Neo-Platonism, mathematics, science, and philosophy.”

As is the case with many ancient figures, none of her own writings survive, but both her contemporary critics and sympathetic students record similar impressions of her intellectual curiosity and scientific knowledge. The short video lesson tells us Hypatia was born around 355 A.C.E., which means she would have been around sixty years old at the time of her death. She lived in Alexandria, “then part of the Egyptian province of the Eastern Roman Empire, and an intellectual center.” Educated by her father, she surpassed him “in both mathematics and philosophy, becoming the city’s foremost scholar.”

She eventually succeeded Theon as head of the Platonic school, “similar to a modern university,” and she served as a trusted advisor to the city’s leaders, including its governor, Orestes, a “moderate Christian” himself. Her achievements were many, but her teaching, drawing on Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, and Pythagoras, was her greatest legacy, the TED-Ed lesson (scripted by Soraya Field Fiorio) asserts. Hypatia’s death not only deprived the city of a beloved teacher and scholar. Her murder, at the behest of Alexandrian bishop Cyril, “was a turning point.” Other philosophers fled the city, and Alexandria’s “role as a center of learning declined.”

“In a very real way,” the lesson tells us, “the spirit of inquisition, openness, and fairness she fostered died with her.”

For a more complete treatment of Hypatia's life and intellectual contributions, read Maria Dzielska's book, Hypatia of Alexandria.

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

Leonardo da Vinci’s Elegant Design for a Perpetual Motion Machine

Is perpetual motion possible? In theory… I have no idea…. In practice, so far at least, the answer has been a perpetual no. As Nicholas Barrial writes at Makery, “in order to succeed,” a perpetual motion machine “should be free of friction, run in a vacuum chamber and be totally silent” since “sound equates to energy loss.” Trying to satisfy these conditions in a noisy, entropic physical world may seem like a fool’s errand, akin to turning base metals to gold. Yet the hundreds of scientists and engineers who have tried have been anything but fools.

The long list of contenders includes famed 12th-century Indian mathematician Bhāskara II, also-famed 17th-century Irish scientist Robert Boyle, and a certain Italian artist and inventor who needs no introduction. It will come as no surprise to learn that Leonardo da Vinci turned his hand to solving the puzzle of perpetual motion. But it seems, in doing so, he “may have been a dirty, rotten hypocrite,” Ross Pomery jokes at Real Clear Science. Surveying the many failed attempts to make a machine that ran forever, he publicly exclaimed, “Oh, ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.”

In private, however, as Michio Kaku writes in Physics of the Impossible, Leonardo “made ingenious sketches in his notebooks of self-propelling perpetual motion machines, including a centrifugal pump and a chimney jack used to turn a roasting skewer over a fire.”  He also drew up plans for a wheel that would theoretically run forever. (Leonardo claimed he tried only to prove it couldn’t be done.) Inspired by a device invented by a contemporary Italian polymath named Mariano di Jacopo, known as Taccola (“the jackdaw"), the artist-engineer refined this previous attempt in his own elegant design.

Leonardo drew several variants of the wheel in his notebooks. Despite the fact that the wheel didn’t work—and that he apparently never thought it would—the design has become, Barrial notes, “THE most popular perpetual motion machine on DIY and 3D printing sites.” (One maker charmingly comments, in frustration, “Perpetual motion doesn’t seem to work, what am I doing wrong?”) The gif at the top, from the British Library, animates one of Leonardo’s many versions of unbalanced wheels. This detailed study can be found in folio 44v of the Codex Arundel, one of several collections of Leonardo’s notebooks that have been digitized and made publicly available online.

In his book The Innovators Behind Leonardo, Plinio Innocenzi describes these devices, consisting of "12 half-moon-shaped adjacent channels which allow the free movement of 12 small balls as a function of the wheel’s rotation…. At one point during the rotation, an imbalance will be created whereby more balls will find themselves on one side than the other,” creating a force that continues to propel the wheel forward indefinitely. “Leonardo reprimanded that despite the fact that everything might seem to work, ‘you will find the impossibility of motion above believed.’”

Leonardo also sketched and described a perpetual motion device using fluid mechanics, inventing the “self-filling flask” over two-hundred years before Robert Boyle tried to make perpetual motion with this method. This design also didn’t work. In reality, there are too many physical forces working against the dream of perpetual motion. Few of the attempts, however, have appeared in as elegant a form as Leonardo’s. See the fully scanned Codex Arundel at the British Library.

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

Manuscript Reveals How Medieval Nun, Joan of Leeds, Faked Her Own Death to Escape the Convent

“The timeworn image of cloistered nuns as escapists, spurned lovers or naïve waifs has little basis in reality today,” wrote Julia Lieblich in a 1983 New York Times article, “The Cloistered Life.” “It takes more than a botched-up love affair to lure educated women in their 20’s and 30’s to the cloister in the 1980’s.”

The devotion that drew women to cloistered life in the fast-paced 80s, or today, also drew women in the middle ages. But in those days, an education was much harder to come by. Many women became nuns because no other opportunities were available. “Convent offerings,” Eudie Pak explains at, “included reading and writing in Latin, arithmetic, grammar, music, morals, rhetoric, geometry and astronomy.” Other pursuits included “spinning, weaving and embroidery,” particularly among more affluent nuns.

Those “from lesser means were expected to do more arduous labor as part of their religious life.” Who knows what kinds of hardships 14th century Benedictine English nun Joan of Leeds endured while at St. Clement priory in York? The tedium alone may have driven her over the edge. Nor do we know why she first entered the convent—whether driven by faith, a desire for self-improvement, a “botched-up love affair,” or a less-than-voluntary commitment.

We know almost nothing of Joan’s life, except that at some time in 1318, she faked her death, left behind a fake body to bury, and escaped the convent to pursue what William Melton, then Archbishop of York, called “the way of carnal lust.” Joan’s sisters aided in her great escape, as the archbishop wrote in a letter: “numerous of her accomplices, evildoers, with malice aforethought, crafted a dummy in the likeness of her body in order to mislead the devoted faithful.”

The episode—or what we know of it from Melton’s register—struck University of York professor Sarah Rees Jones as “extraordinary—like a Monty Python sketch.” Joan’s story has become a highlight of The Northern Way, a project that “seeks to assess and analyze the political roles of the Archbishops of York over the period 1306-1406.” A number of records from the period have been digitized, including William Melton’s registry, in which Joan’s escape appears (see the page of scribal notes above).

One of the archbishop's roles involved interceding in such cases of runaway monks and nuns. “Unfortunately,” Rees Jones remarks, “we don’t know the outcome of the case” of Joan. Often, as one might expect, escapes like hers—though few as picaresque—had to do with “not wanting to be celibate…. Many of the people would have been committed to a religious house when they were in their teens, and then they didn’t all take to the religious life.”

The archbishop put matters rather less charitably: “Having turned her back on decency and the good of religion,” he writes, “seduced by indecency, she involved herself irreverently and perverted her path of life arrogantly to the way of carnal lust and away from poverty and obedience, and, having broken her vows and discarded the religious habit, she now wanders at large to the notorious peril to her soul and to the scandal of all of her order.”

Or, as we might say today, she was ready to embark on a new life path. So desperately ready, it seems, that we might only hope Joan of Leeds remained “at large” and found happiness elsewhere. Learn more about The Northern Way project here.

via The Guardian/Medievalist

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

NASA Enlists Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell & 350 Other Artists to Visually Document America’s Space Program

It’s hard to imagine that the space-crazed general public needed any help getting worked up about astronauts and NASA in the early 60s.

Perhaps the wild popularity of space-related imagery is in part what motivated NASA administrator James Webb to create the NASA Art Program in 1962.

Although the program's handpicked artists weren’t edited or censored in any way, they were briefed on how NASA hoped to be represented, and the emotions their creations were meant capture—the excitement and uncertainty of exploring these frontiers.

NASA was also careful to collect everything the artists produced while participating in the program, from sketches to finished work.

In turn, they received unprecedented access to launch sites, key personnel, and major events such as Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 Mission.

Over 350 artists, including Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and Laurie Anderson, have brought their unique sensibilities to the project. (Find NASA-inspired art by Warhol and Rockwell above.)

(And hey, no shame if you mistakenly assumed Warhol’s 1987 Moonwalk 1 was created as a promo for MTV…)

Jamie Wyeth’s 1964 watercolor Gemini Launch Pad includes a humble bicycle, the means by which technicians traveled back and forth from the launch pad to the concrete-reinforced blockhouse where they worked.

Photographer Annie Leibovitz offers two views of NASA’s first female pilot and commander, Eileen Collins—with and without helmet.

Postage stamp designer, Paul Calle, one of the inaugural group of participating artists, produced a stamp commemorating the Gemini 4 space capsule in celebration of NASA's 9th anniversary. When the Apollo 11 astronauts suited up prior to blast off on July 16, 1969, Calle was the only artist present. His quickly rendered felt tip marker sketches lend a backstage element to the heroic iconography surrounding astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. One of the items they carried with them on their journey was the engraved printing plate of Calle’s 1967 commemorative stamp. They hand-canceled a proof aboard the flight, on the assumption that post offices might be hard to come by on the moon.

More recently, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has enlisted a team of nine artists, designers, and illustrators to collaborate on 14 posters, a visual throwback to the ones the WPA created between 1938 and 1941 to spark public interest in the National Parks. You can see the results at the Exoplanet Travel Bureau.

View an album of 25 historic works from NASA’s Art Program here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 9 for another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Margaret Hamilton Wrote the Computer Code That Helped Save the Apollo Moon Landing Mission

From a distance of half a century, we look back on the moon landing as a thoroughly analog affair, an old-school engineering project of the kind seldom even proposed anymore in this digital age. But the Apollo 11 mission could never have happened without computers and the people who program them, a fact that has become better-known in recent years thanks to public interest in the work of Margaret Hamilton, director of the Software Engineering Division of MIT's Instrumentation Laboratory when it developed on-board flight software for NASA's Apollo space program. You can learn more about Hamilton, whom we've previously featured here on Open Culture, from the short MAKERS profile video above.

Today we consider software engineering a perfectly viable field, but back in the mid-1960s, when Hamilton first joined the Apollo project, it didn't even have a name. "I came up with the term 'software engineering,' and it was considered a joke," says Hamilton, who remembers her colleagues making remarks like, "What, software is engineering?"

But her own experience went some way toward proving that working in code had become as important as working in steel. Only by watching her young daughter play at the same controls the astronauts would later use did she realize that just one human error could potentially bring the mission into ruin — and that she could minimize the possibility by taking it into account when designing its software. Hamilton's proposal met with resistance, NASA's official line at the time being that "astronauts are trained never to make a mistake."

But Hamilton persisted, prevailed, and was vindicated during the moon landing itself, when an astronaut did make a mistake, one that caused an overloading of the flight computer. The whole landing might have been aborted if not for Hamilton's foresight in implementing an "asynchronous executive" function capable, in the event of an overload, of setting less important tasks aside and prioritizing more important ones. "The software worked just the way it should have," Hamilton says in the Christie's video on the incident above, describing what she felt afterward as "a combination of excitement and relief." Engineers of software, hardware, and everything else know that feeling when they see a complicated project work — but surely few know it as well as Hamilton and her Apollo collaborators do.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

What the First Movies Really Looked Like: Discover the IMAX Films of the 1890s

Cinematic legend has it that, back in the early days of motion pictures, audiences would see a train coming toward them on the screen and dive out of the way in a panic. "There turns out to be very little confirmation of that in the actual newspaper reports of the time," says critic and Museum of Modern Art film curator Dave Kehr in the video above, "but you can still sense the excitement in seeing these gigantic, incredibly sharp, lifelike images being projected." But aren't they only sharp and lifelike by the standards of the late-19th century dawn of cinema, an era we filmgoers of the 21st century, now used to 4K digital projection, imagine as one of unrelieved blurriness, graininess, and herky-jerkiness?

By no means. The footage showcased in this video, a MoMA production on "the IMAX of the 1890s," was shot on 68-millimeter film, a greater size and thus a higher definition than the 35-millimeter prints most of us have watched in theaters for most of our lives.

Only the most ambitious filmmakers, like Paul Thomas Anderson making The Master, have used such large-format films in recent years, but 120 years ago an outfit like the Biograph Company could, in Kehr's words, "send camera crews around the world, as the Lumière Company had," and what those crews captured would end up in movie theaters: "Suddenly the world was coming to you in ways that people just could not have imagined. That you could go to Europe, that you could meet the crowned heads, that you could go to see elephants in India..."

Thanks to the efforts of film archivists and preservationists, a few of whom appear in this video to show and explain just what degradation befalls these cinematic time capsules without the kind of work they do, much of this footage still looks and feels remarkably lifelike. "It's worth returning to these images to remind us that movies used to be analog," Kehr says. "They saw things in front of the camera in a one-on-one relationship. This was the world. It was an image you could trust. It was an image of physical substance, of reality. Nowadays we tend not to trust images, because we know how easily manipulated they are." We've gained an unfathomable amount of imagery, in terms of both quantity and quality, in our digital age. But as the sheer "ontological impact" of these old 68-millimeter clips reminds us, even when felt in streaming-video reproduction, our images have lost something as well.

via Aeon

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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