Ditching the Lecture Hall for the Recording Studio: One Historian Is Using the Power of Podcasting to Inspire a Whole New Audience

History is dying at U.S. colleges and universities.  Enrollment in undergraduate history courses is way down since 2010, and the number of history degrees awarded annually has likewise been falling faster and faster.  The most recent data show a 9% nationwide drop in history degrees awarded in 2014 compared to 2013, with an even sharper 13% decline at the nation’s top universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. (1,2,3,4)  So, is history just getting old?

On the contrary.  At least outside of academia, history has never been more popular.  Cultural icons including Barack Obama and Bill Gates have cited history books such as Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress as among their favorite books of all time.  The History Channel has enjoyed a resurgence in viewership since 2013, and judging by the reception of more epic productions, from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie Lincoln in 2012 to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical Hamilton in 2015, it’s clear that public hunger for history is only growing.  What, then, accounts for lackluster lecture hall attendance?

“Part of the problem is that much of academic history has become too esoteric,” says podcaster Brad Harris, who holds a PhD from Stanford in the history of science and technology.  “Course content has been shifting away from big ideas like the rise of modern science and democracy to narrower studies of things like the politics of emotion and cultural constructions, which many students find less relevant to their interests.”  Moreover, Harris contends that college history courses have never been more cynical.  “Too many professors dwell on what humanity has done wrong–who we’ve oppressed, what we’ve destroyed–and not enough on what humanity has done right–who we’ve liberated, what we’ve invented.  Where’s the inspiration?  It’s no wonder people are ditching history lectures.”  And now, so has Brad Harris.

Since leaving academia in 2015, Harris has been working full-time to offer an attractive alternative for people who want to learn history, providing content that is as informative as a college lecture but as entertaining as a cinematic production: a podcast called How It Began: A History of the Modern World.  Available everywhere podcasts are found, and also from his website, howitbegan.com, How It Began interprets a broad array of the most important scientific, technological, and cultural advancements in history, from dog domestication to the Scientific Revolution.  Here is an excerpt from the show's introductory episode:

In each episode, we will fly through the centuries to follow the seeds of an innovation or discovery as it blossoms into one of the many fruits of modernity.  Far from a catalog of dead men and dates, How It Began offers a cinematic-like immersion into the stories behind some of our species’ greatest achievements.  The overall theme?  Celebration!  We are fortunate to be descended from men and women who dared to dream big and even die for the cause of progress.  Their work is unfinished, and some parts of modernity are even worse than before.  But most are better, much better.  And we have more tools than ever to fix what’s still broken.  

Brad Harris hopes his show’s focus on modern progress will captivate people who crave more inspiring explorations of history, and judging by How It Began's reception so far, he seems well on his way to achieving exactly that.  

Episodes are between 30 and 60 minutes long and released every month or so.  The podcast explores a wide range of topics, from the rise of modern surgery and computers to the development of the English language and the theory of evolution.  "Wolves to Dogs: The Origin of our Alliance" was one of the most popular episodes of Season One.   In a more recent episode, Harris reveals the surprising correlations between the spread of coffee consumption and the establishment of modern institutions:

1. "New Data Show Large Drop in History Bachelor's Degrees," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, March 2016: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/new-data-show-large-drop-in-history-bachelors-degrees
2. "Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, September 2016: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2016/survey-finds-fewer-students-enrolling-in-college-history-courses
3. "The Rise and Decline of History Specializations over the Past 40 Years," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, December 2015: https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/december-2015/the-rise-and-decline-of-history-specializations-over-the-past-40-years
4. "The Decline and Fall of History," Niall Ferguson, published by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, October 2016: https://www.goacta.org/images/download/Ali-Ferguson-Merrill-Speech.pdf


This is a guest post by Morgan Stewart, an educational consultant and founder of Within Reach Educational Consultants.

1,600 Occult Books Now Digitized & Put Online, Thanks to the Ritman Library and Da Vinci Code Author Dan Brown

Back in December we brought you some exciting news. Thanks to a generous donation from Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown, Amsterdam’s Ritman Library—a sizable collection of pre-1900 books on alchemy, astrology, magic, and other occult subjects—has been digitizing thousands of its rare texts under a digital education project cheekily called “Hermetically Open.” We are now pleased to report, less than two months later, that the first 1,617 books from the Ritman project have come available in their online reading room. The site is still in beta, so to speak; in their Facebook announcement, the Ritman admits they are “still improving the whole presentation,” which is a bit clunky at the moment. But for fans and students of this literature, a little inconvenience is a small price to pay for full access to hundreds of rare occult texts.

Visitors should be aware that these books are written in several different European languages. Latin, the scholarly language of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, predominates, and it’s a peculiar Latin at that, laden with jargon and alchemical terminology. Other books appear in German, Dutch, and French. Readers of some or all of these languages will of course have an easier time than monolingual English speakers, but there is still much to offer those visitors as well.

In addition to the pleasure of paging through an old rare book, even virtually, English speakers can quickly find a collection of readable books by clicking on the “Place of Publication” search filter and selecting Cambridge or London, from which come such notable works as The Man-Mouse Takin in a Trap, and tortur’d to death for gnawing the Margins of Eugenius Philalethes, by Thomas Vaughn, published in 1650.

The language is archaic—full of quirky spellings and uses of the “long s”—and the content is bizarre. Those familiar with this type of writing, whether through historical study or the work of more recent interpreters like Aleister Crowley or Madame Blavatsky, will recognize the many formulas: The tracing of magical correspondences between flora, fauna, and astronomical phenomena; the careful parsing of names; astrology and lengthy linguistic etymologies; numerological discourses and philosophical poetry; early psychology and personality typing; cryptic, coded mythology and medical procedures. Although we’ve grown accustomed through popular media to thinking of magical books as cookbooks, full of recipes and incantations, the reality is far different.

Encountering the vast and strange treasures in the online library, one thinks of the type of the magician represented in Goethe’s Faust, holed up in his study,

Where even the welcome daylight strains
But duskily through the painted panes.
Hemmed in by many a toppling heap
Of books worm-eaten, gray with dust,
Which to the vaulted ceiling creep

The library doesn’t only contain occult books. Like the weary scholar Faust, alchemists of old “studied now Philosophy / And Jurisprudence, Medicine,— / And even, alas! Theology.” Click on Cambridge as the place of publication and you’ll find the work above by Henry More, “one of the celebrated ‘Cambridge Platonists,’” the Linda Hall Library notes, “who flourished in mid-17th-century and did their best to reconcile Plato with Christianity and the mechanical philosophy that was beginning to make inroads into British natural philosophy.” Those who study European intellectual history know well that More’s presence in this collection is no anomaly. For a few hundred years, it was difficult, if not impossible, to separate the pursuits of theology, philosophy, medicine, and science (or “natural philosophy”) from those of alchemy and astrology. (Isaac Newton is a famous example of a mathematician/scientist/alchemist/believer in strange apocalyptic predictions.)

Given the Ritman’s alacrity and eagerness to publish this first batch of texts, even as it works to smooth out its interface, we’ll likely see many hundreds more books become available in the next month or so. For updates, follow the Ritman Library and The Embassy of the Free Mind—Dan Brown’s own Dutch library of rare occult books—on Facebook.

Enter the Ritman's new digital collection of occult texts here.

Related Content:

3,500 Occult Manuscripts Will Be Digitized & Made Freely Available Online, Thanks to Da Vinci Code Author Dan Brown

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Aleister Crowley Reads Occult Poetry in the Only Known Recordings of His Voice (1920)

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

How the Brilliant Colors of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made with Alchemy

Today the word "alchemy" seems used primarily to label a variety of crackpot pursuits, with their bogus premises and impossible promises. To the extent that alchemists long strove to turn lead miraculously into gold, that sounds like a fair enough charge, but the field of alchemy as a whole, whose history runs from Hellenistic Egypt to the 18th century (with a revival in the 19th), chalked up a few lasting, reality-based accomplishments as well. Take, for instance, medieval illuminated manuscripts: without alchemy, they wouldn't have the vivid and varied color palettes that continue to enrich our own vision of that era.

Many of the illuminators' most brilliant pigments "didn't come straight from nature but were made through alchemy," says the video from the Getty above, produced to accompany the museum's exhibition "The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts."

Alchemists "explored how materials interacted and transformed," and "discovering paint colors was a practical outcome." The colors they developed included "mosaic gold," a fusion of tin and sulfur; verdigris, "made by exposing copper to fumes of vinegar, wine, or even urine"; and vermillion, a mixture of sulfur and mercury that made a brilliant red "associated with chemical change and with alchemy itself."

The very nature of books, specifically the fact that they spend most of the time closed, has performed a degree of inadvertent preservation of illuminated manuscripts, keeping their alchemical colors relatively bold and deep. (Although, as the Getty video notes, some pigments such as verdigris have a tendency to eat through the paper — one somehow wants to blame the urine.) Still, that hardly means that preservationists have nothing to do where illuminated manuscripts are concerned: keeping the windows they provide onto the histories of art, the book, and humanity clear takes work, some of it based on an ever-improving understanding of alchemy. Lead may never turn into gold, but these centuries-old illuminated manuscripts may survive centuries into the future, a fact that seems not entirely un-miraculous itself.

Related Content:

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1,600-Year-Old Illuminated Manuscript of the Aeneid Digitized & Put Online by The Vatican

Dante’s Divine Comedy Illustrated in a Remarkable Illuminated Medieval Manuscript (c. 1450)

Wonderfully Weird & Ingenious Medieval Books

1,000-Year-Old Illustrated Guide to the Medicinal Use of Plants Now Digitized & Put Online

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.

NASA Puts 400+ Historic Experimental Flight Videos on YouTube

"Video," as we now say on the internet, "or it didn't happen," articulating a principle to which the ever-forward-thinking National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has adhered for about 70 years now, starting with film in the time before the invention of video itself. Even setting aside the wonders of voyaging into outer space, NASA has done a few things right here on Earth that you wouldn't believe unless you saw them with your own eyes. And now you easily can, thanks to the agency's commitment to making the fruits of its research available to all on its YouTube Channel. Take for example this recently-uploaded collection of 400 historic flight videos.

Here we have just a sampling of the hundreds of videos available to all: the M2-F1, a prototype wingless aircraft, towed across a lakebed by a modified 1963 Pontiac Catalina convertible; a mid-1960s test of the Lunar Lander Research Vehicle, also known as the "flying bedstead," that will surely remind long-memoried gamers of their many quarters lost to Atari's Lunar Lander; a spin taken in the Mojave Desert, forty years later, by the Mars Exploration Rover; and, most explosively of all, a "controlled impact demonstration" of a Boeing 720 airliner full of crash-test dummies meant to test out a new type of "anti-misting kerosene" as well as a variety of other innovations designed to increase crash survivability.

These historic test videos were all shot back when the Armstrong Flight Research Center (re-named in 2014 for Neil Armstrong, whose legacy stands as a testament to the cumulative effectiveness of all these NASA tests) was known as the Hugh L. Dryden Flight Research Center: you can watch the 418 clips just from that era on this playlist.

Rest assured that the experimentation continues and that NASA still pushes the boundaries of aviation right here on Earth, a project continuously documented in the channel's newest videos. As astonishing as we may find mankind's forays up into the sky and beyond so far, the aviation engineer's imagination, it seems, has only just gotten started.

via PaleoFuture

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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.

Slow Burn: An Eight-Episode Podcast Miniseries on the Unfolding of the Watergate Scandal

A crime was committed during a presidential campaign. Then came a cover up and other skullduggery. Finally, there was a resignation. Nope, we're not talking about the trajectory of the Mueller investigation. We're talking about Watergate--the subject of Slow Burn, a new, eight-episode podcast miniseries from Slate.

Available on iTunes, the web, and other podcast players, Slow Burn zeroes in on the questions: "What did it feel like to live through the scandal that brought down a president? What was that strange, wild ride like?" Below, you can read the introductory words from the podcast's host, Leon Neyfakh. And then stream the first episode called "Martha," as in Martha Mitchell, wife of John Mitchell, the Attorney General of the United States under President Nixon.

One day at the end of April 1973, Richard Nixon stood on a porch at Camp David and told John Ehrlichman he wanted to die. Nixon had summoned Ehrlichman, his long-serving domestic policy adviser, to tell him he was being fired from the White House.

Nixon had been dreading the conversation, but he knew it had to be done. The Department of Justice had recently informed the president that Ehrlichman could be facing criminal charges. Nixon felt the walls closing in.

Later, Nixon would tell the journalist David Frost how he gave his old friend the news: “I said, ‘You know, John, when I went to bed last night … I hoped—I almost prayed—I wouldn’t wake up this morning.’ ” According to Ehrlichman, the president then began to sob. It would be 15 months before he resigned from office.

So, that’s how Richard Nixon felt as the Watergate story went from a curious burglary to a national obsession. What was it like for everyone else? That’s the animating question behind my new eight-episode podcast series for Slate, Slow Burn.

Episode 1: Martha

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Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour, the 19th-Century “Color Dictionary” Used by Charles Darwin (1814)

Before Pantone invented “a universal color language” or big box hardware stores arose with proprietary displays of colorfully-named paints—over a century before, in fact—a German mineralogist named Abraham Gottlob Werner invented a color system, as detailed and thorough a guide as an artist might need. But rather than only cater to the needs of painters, designers, and manufacturers, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours also served the needs of scientists. “Charles Darwin even used the guide,” writes This is Colossal, “during his voyage to the Madeira, Canary, and Cape Verde islands on the H.M.S. Beagle.”

Werner’s is one of many such “color dictionaries” from the 19th century, “designed to give people around the world a common vocabulary,” writes Daniel Lewis at Smithsonian, “to describe the colors of everything from rocks and flowers to stars, birds, and postage stamps.” These guides appealed especially to naturalists.

Indeed, the book began—before Scottish painter Patrick Syme updated the system in English, with swatches of example colors—as a naturalist’s guide to the colors of the world, naming them according to Werner’s poetic fancy. “Without an image for reference,” the original text “provided immense handwritten detail describing where each specific shade could be found on an animal, plant, or mineral. Many of Werner's unique color names still exist in common usage, though they've detached from his scheme ages ago.

Prussian Blue, for instance, which can be located "in the beauty spot of a mallard’s wing, on the stamina of a bluish-purple anemone, or in a piece of blue copper ore.” Other examples, notes Fast Company’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, include “’Skimmed Milk White,’” or no. 7… found in ‘the white of the human eye’ or in opals,” and no. 67, or “’Wax Yellow’… found in the larvae of large Water Beetles or the greenish parts of a Nonpareil Apple.” It would have been Syme’s 1814 guide that Darwin consulted, as did scientists, naturalists, and artists for two centuries afterward, either as a taxonomic color reference or as an admirable historic artifact—a painstaking description of the colors of the world, or those encountered by two 18th and 19th century European observers, in an era before photographic reproduction created its own set of standards.

The book is now being republished in an affordable pocket-size edition by Smithsonian Books, who note that the Edinburgh flower painter Syme, in his illustrations of Werner’s nomenclature, “used the actual minerals described by Werner to create the color charts.” This degree of fidelity to the source extends to Syme’s use of tables to neatly organize Werner’s precise descriptions. Next to each color’s number, name, and swatch, are columns with its location on various animals, vegetables and minerals. “Orpiment Orange,” named after a mineral, though none is listed in its column, will be found, Werner tells us, on the “neck ruff of the golden pheasant” or “belly of the warty newt.” Should you have trouble tracking these down, surely you’ve got some “Indian cress” around?

While its references may not be those your typical industrial designer or graphic artist is likely to find helpful, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours will still find a treasured place in the collections of designers and visual artists of all kinds, as well as historians, writers, poets, and the scientific inheritors of 19th century naturalism, as a “charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.” Flip through a scanned version of the 1821 second edition just above, including Werner's introduction and careful lists of color properties, or read it in a larger format at the Internet Archive. The new edition is now available for purchase here.

via This Is Colossal/Fast Co

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

Read the Poignant Letter Sent to Anne Frank by George Whitman, Owner of Paris’ Famed Shakespeare & Co Bookshop (1960): “If I Sent This Letter to the Post Office It Would No Longer Reach You”

Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.

More than a few visitors to Paris’ fabled Shakespeare & Company bookshop assume that the quote they see painted over an archway is attributable to Yeats or Shakespeare.

In fact, its author was George Whitman, the store’s late owner, a grand "hobo adventurer" in his 20s who made such an impression that he spent the rest of his life welcoming travelers and encouraging young writers, who flocked to the shop. A great many became Tumbleweeds, the nickname given to those who traded a few hours of volunteer work and a pledge to read a book a day in return for spartan accommodation in the store itself.

In light of this generosity, Whitman’s 1960 letter to Anne Frank (1929-1945) is all the more moving.

One wonders what inspired him to write it. It's a not an uncommon impulse, but usually the authors are students close to the same age as Anne was at the time of her death.

Perhaps it was an interaction with a Tumbleweed.

Had she survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps that exterminated all but one inhabitant of the Secret Annex in which she penned her famous diary, she would have made a great one.

He refrained from mentioning his own service in World War II, possibly because he was posted to a remote weather station in Greenland. Unlike other American veterans, he hadn't witnessed with his own eyes the sort of hell she endured. If he had, he might not have been able to address her with such initial lightness of tone.

One can’t help but think how delighted the rambunctious young teen would have been by his sense of humor, his descriptions of his bohemian booklovers’ paradise—then called Le Mistral—and references to his dog, François Villon, and cat, Kitty, named in honor of Anne’s pet name for her diary.

His profound observations on the impermanence of life and the politics of war continue to resonate deeply with those who read the letter as its intended recipients’ proxies:

Le Mistral

37 rue de la Bûcherie

Dear Anne Frank,

If I sent this letter to the post office it would no longer reach you because you have been blotted out from the universe. So I am writing an open letter to those who have read your diary and found a little sister they have never seen who will never entirely disappear from earth as long as we who are living remember her.

You wanted to come to Paris for a year to study the history of art and if you had, perhaps you might have wandered down the quai Notre-Dame and discovered a little bookstore beside the garden of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. You know enough French to read the notice on the door—Chien aimable, Priere d'entrer. The dog is not really a dog at all but a poet called Francois Villon who has returned to the city he loved after many years of exile. He is sitting by the fire next to a kitten with a very unusual name. You will be pleased to know she is called Kitty after the imaginary friend to whom you wrote the letters in your journal.

Here in our bookstore it is like a family where your Chinese sisters and your brothers from all lands sit in the reading rooms and meet the Parisians or have tea with the writers from abroad who are invited to live in our Guest House.

Remember how you worried about your inconsistencies, about your two selves—the gay flirtatious superficial Anne that hid the quiet serene Anne who tried to love and understand the world. We all of us have dual natures. We all wish for peace, yet in the name of self-defense we are working toward self-obliteration. We have built armaments more powerful than the total of all those used in all the wars in history. And if the militarists who dislike negotiating the minor differences that separate nations are not under the wise civilian authority they have the power to write man's testament on a dead planet where radioactive cities are surrounded by jungles of dying plants and poisonous weeds.

Since a nuclear could destroy half the world's population as well as the material basis of civilization, the Soviet General Nikolai Talensky concludes that war is no longer conceivable for the solution of political differences.

A young girl's dreams recorded in her diary from her thirteenth to her fifteenth birthday means more to us today than the labors of millions of soldiers and thousands of factories striving for a thousand-year Reich that lasted hardly more than ten years. The journal you hid so that no one would read it was left on the floor when the German police took you to the concentration camp and has now been read by millions of people in 32 languages. When most people die they disappear without a trace, their thoughts forgotten, their aspirations unknown, but you have simply left your own family and become part of the family of man.

George Whitman

via Letters of Note

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this Thursday for Necromancers  of the Public Domain, in which a long neglected book is reframed as a low budget variety show. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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