The History of the 1918 Flu Pandemic, “The Deadliest Epidemic of All Time”: Three Free Lectures from The Great Courses

In one cascade of events after another, people are finding out the normal they once knew doesn’t exist anymore. Instead it feels as if we’re living through several past crises at once, trying to cram as much historical knowledge as we can to make sense of the moment. 2020 especially feels like an echo of 1918-1919, when the “deadliest epidemic of all time,” as The Great Courses calls the “Spanish flu,” killed millions (then the U.S. devolved into a wave of racist violence.) By offering examples of both negative and positive responses, the history, sociology, and epidemiology of the 1918 flu can guide decision-making as we prepare for a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

The Great Courses started offering free resources on the coronavirus outbreak back in March, with a brief “What You Need to Know” explainer and a free lecture course on infectious diseases. After catching up on the history of epidemics, we’ll find ourselves naturally wondering why we learned little to nothing about the Spanish flu.




The three-part lecture series here, excerpted from the larger course Mysteries of the Microscopic World (available with a Free Trial to the Great Courses Plus), begins by boldly calling this historical lacuna “A Conspiracy of Silence.” Tulane professor Bruce E. Fleury quotes Alfred Crosby, who writes in America’s Forgotten Pandemic, “the important and almost incomprehensible fact about the Spanish influenza, is that it killed millions upon millions of people in a year or less… and yet, it has never inspired awe, not in 1918 and not since.”

Epidemic diseases that have had tremendous impact in the past have become the subject of literary epics. Few epidemics have accomplished mass death “through sheer brute force” like the 1918 flu. The numbers are truly staggering, in the tens to hundreds of millions worldwide, with U.S. deaths dwarfing the combined casualties of all the country's major wars. Yet there are only a few mentions of the flu in American literature from the time. Fleury mentions some reasons for the amnesia: WWI “took center stage,” survivors were too traumatized to want to remember. We may still wonder why we should look back over 100 years ago and learn about the past when current events are so all-consuming.

“History compels us not to look away,” professor Fleury says, “lest we fail to learn the lessons paid for by our parents and our grandparents.” Faulkner, it seems, was right that the past is never past. But we need not respond in the same failed ways each time. The ability to study and learn from history gives us critical perspective in perilous, uncertain times.

Sign up here for a free trial to the Great Courses Plus.

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Watch “Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know,” and the 24-Lecture Course “An Introduction to Infectious Diseases,” Both Free from The Great Courses

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

Nikola Tesla’s Grades from High School & University: A Fascinating Glimpse

In the history of science, few people got a rawer deal than Nikola Tesla. Cruelly cheated and overshadowed by Edison and Marconi (who patented the radio technology Tesla invented), the brilliant introvert didn’t stand a chance in the cutthroat business world in which his rivals moved with ease. Every biographer portrays Tesla as Edison’s perfect foil: the latter played the consummate showman and savvy patent hog, where Tesla was a reclusive mystic and, as one writer put it, “the world’s sorcerer.”

“Unlike Tesla,” writes biographer Michael Burgan, “Edison had barely gone to school: Tesla was amazed that a man with almost no formal education could invent so brilliantly.” (He would have a different opinion of Edison years later.)




Tesla began his own education, as you can learn in the survey of his high school and university grades above, with much promise, but he was forced to drop out after his third year in college when his father passed away and he was left without the means to continue. As PBS writes, Tesla showed precocious talent early on.

Passionate about mathematics and sciences, Tesla had his heart set on becoming an engineer but was “constantly oppressed” by his father’s insistence that he enter the priesthood. At age seventeen, Tesla contracted cholera and craftily exacted an important concession from his father: the older Tesla promised his son that if he survived, he would be allowed to attend the renowned Austrian Polytechnic School at Graz.

It was during his time at technical school that Tesla first devised the idea of alternating current, though he could not yet articulate a working design (he was told by a professor that the feat would be akin to building a perpetual motion machine). He solved the engineering challenge after leaving school and going to work for the Central Telephone Exchange in Budapest.

While walking through a city park with a friend, reciting Goethe’s Faust from memory, Tesla recounts in his autobiography, a passage inspired him “like a flash of lightening” and he “drew with a stick on the sand the diagram shown six years later in my address before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.” The story is one of many in which Tesla, a voracious reader and infinitely curious autodidact, draws on the extensive knowledge that he gathered through self-education.

His patent applications—Croatian scholar Danko Plevnik notes in the introduction to a series of essays on Tesla’s self-schooling—show “the erudition of a learned man, broad knowledge which by far surpassed the knowledge he could acquire through formal education only.” In his lectures, articles, and speeches, Tesla demonstrates a “familiarity with philosophy, science history and invention-related thought, methodology of science, as well as other areas of knowledge that were not included in the subjects and courses he attended through his schooling.”

Not only did he memorize entire books of poetry, but he could accurately foresee the future of technology, his keen insight honed both by his studies of the sciences and the humanities. Until fairly recently Plevnik writes, “Tesla’s education was referred to sporadically, as if it had not influenced his scientific reflection, experimenting and inventions.” That is in large part, many Tesla scholars now argue, because the best education Tesla received was the one he gave himself.

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

Take a Virtual Tour of the Mütter Museum and Its Many Anatomically Peculiar Exhibits

A few months before Philaelphia’s Mütter Museum, exercising now familiar COVID-19 precautions, closed its doors to the public, it co-sponsored a parade to honor the victims to the previous century’s Spanish Flu pandemic, as well as "those who keep us safe today.”

The event was part of a temporary exhibition, Spit Spreads Death: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 in Philadelphia.

Another temporary exhibition, Going Viral: Infection Through the Ages, opened in November, and now seems even stronger proof that the museum, whose 19th-century display cabinets are housed in the historic College of Physicians, is as concerned with the future as it is with the past.

For now, all tours must be undertaken virtually.




Above, curator Anna Dhody, a physical and forensic anthropologist and Director of the Mütter Research Institute, gives a brief introduction to some of the best known artifacts in the permanent collection.

The museum's many antique skulls and medical oddities may invite comparisons to a ghoulish sideshow attraction, an impression Dhody corrects with her warm, matter-of-fact delivery and respectful acknowledgment of the humans whose stories have been preserved along with their remains:

Mary Ashberry, an achondroplastic dwarf, died from complications of a Cesarean section, as doctors who had yet to learn the importance of sterilizing instruments and washing hands, attempted to help her deliver a baby who proved too big for her pelvis. (The baby’s head was crushed as well. Its skull is displayed next to its mother’s skeleton.)

Madame Dimanche is represented by a wax model of her face, instantly recognizable due to the 10-inch cutaneous horn that began growing from her forehead when she was in her 70s. (It was eventually removed in an early example of successful plastic surgery.)

Albert Einstein and the conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker are among the household names gracing the museum’s collection.

One of the most recent additions is the skeleton of artist and disability awareness advocate Carol Orzel, who educated the public and incoming University of Pennsylvania medical students about fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), a rare disorder that turned her muscle and connective tissue to bone. She told her physician, Frederick Kaplan, below, that she wanted her skeleton to go to the Mütter, to join that of fellow FOP sufferer, Harry Eastlack… provided some of her prized costume jewelry could be displayed alongside. It is.

Get better acquainted with the Mütter Museum’s collection through this playlist.

The exhibit Spit Spreads Death is currently slated to stay up through 2024. While waiting to visit in person, you can watch an animation of the Spanish flu’s spread, and explore an interactive map showing the demographics of the infection.

h/t Tanya Elder

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Here latest project is a series of free downloadable posters, encouraging citizens to wear masks in public and wear them properly. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Albert Einstein’s Grades: A Fascinating Look at His Report Cards

Albert Einstein was a precocious child.

At the age of twelve, he followed his own line of reasoning to find a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. At thirteen he read Kant, just for the fun of it. And before he was fifteen he had taught himself differential and integral calculus.

But while the young Einstein was engrossed in intellectual pursuits, he didn't much care for school. He hated rote learning and despised authoritarian schoolmasters. His sense of intellectual superiority was resented by his teachers.




In Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, author Abraham Pais tells a funny story from Einstein's days at the Luitpold Gymnasium, a secondary school in Munich now called the Albert-Einstein-Gymnasium:

At the Gymnasium a teacher once said to him that he, the teacher, would be much happier if the boy were not in his class. Einstein replied that he had done nothing wrong. The teacher answered, "Yes, that is true. But you sit there in the back row and smile, and that violates the feeling of respect that a teacher needs from his class."

The same teacher famously said that Einstein "would never get anywhere in life."

What bothered Einstein most about the Luitpold was its oppressive atmosphere. His sister Maja would later write:

"The military tone of the school, the systematic training in the worship of authority that was supposed to accustom pupils at an early age to military discipline, was also particularly unpleasant for the boy. He contemplated with dread that not-too-distant moment when he will have to don a soldier's uniform in order to fulfill his military obligations."

When he was sixteen, Einstein's parents moved to Italy to pursue a business venture. They told him to stay behind and finish school. But Einstein was desperate to join them in Italy before his seventeenth birthday. "According to the German citizenship laws," Maja explained, "a male citizen must not emigrate after his completed sixteenth year; otherwise, if he fails to report for military service, he is declared a deserter."

So Einstein found a way to get a doctor's permission to withdraw from the school on the pretext of "mental exhaustion," and fled to Italy without a diploma. Years later, in 1944, during the final days of World War II, the Luitpold Gymnasium was obliterated by Allied bombing. So we don't have a record of Einstein's grades there. But there is record of a principal at the school looking up Einstein's grades in 1929 to fact check a press report that Einstein had been a very bad student. Walter Sullivan writes about it in a 1984 piece in The New York Times:

With 1 as the highest grade and 6 the lowest, the principal reported, Einstein's marks in Greek, Latin and mathematics oscillated between 1 and 2 until, toward the end, he invariably scored 1 in math.

After he dropped out, Einstein's family enlisted a well-connected friend to persuade the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or ETH, to let him take the entrance exam, even though he was only sixteen years old and had not graduated from high school. He scored brilliantly in physics and math, but poorly in other areas. The director of the ETH suggested he finish preparatory school in the town of Aarau, in the Swiss canton of Aargau. A diploma from the cantonal school would guarantee Einstein admission to the ETH.

At Aarau, Einstein was pleasantly surprised to find a liberal atmosphere in which independent thought was encouraged.  "When compared to six years' schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium," he later said, "it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority."

In Einstein's first semester at Aarau, the school still used the old method of scoring from 1 to 6, with 1 as the highest grade. In the second semester the system was reversed, with 6 becoming the highest grade. Barry R. Parker talks about Einstein's first-semester grades in his book, Einstein: The Passions of a Scientist:

His grades over the first few months were: German, 2-3; French, 3-4; history, 1-2; mathematics, 1; physics, 1-2; natural history, 2-3; chemistry, 2-3; drawing, 2-3; and violin, 1. (The range is 1 to 6, with 1 being the highest.) Although none of the grades, with the exception of French, were considered poor, some of them were only average.

The school headmaster, Jost Winteler, who had welcomed Einstein into his home as a boarder and had become something of a surrogate father to him during his time at Aarau, was concerned that a young man as obviously brilliant as Albert was receiving average grades in so many courses. At Christmas in 1895, he mailed a report card to Einstein's parents. Hermann Einstein replied with warm thanks, but said he was not too worried. As Parker writes, Einstein's father said he was used to seeing a few "not-so-good grades along with very good ones."

In the next semester Einstein's grades improved, but were still mixed. As Toby Hendy of the Youtube channel Tibees shows in the video above, Einstein's final grades were excellent in math and physics, but closer to average in other areas.

Einstein's uneven academic performance continued at the ETH, as Hendy shows. By the third year his relationship with the head of the physics department, Heinrich Weber, began to deteriorate. Weber was offended by the young man's arrogance. "You're a clever boy, Einstein," said Weber. "An extremely clever boy. But you have one great fault. You'll never allow yourself to be told anything." Einstein was particularly frustrated that Weber refused to teach the groundbreaking electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell. He began spending less time in the classroom and more time reading up on current physics at home and in the cafes of Zurich.

Einstein increasingly focused his attention on physics, and neglected mathematics. He came to regret this. "It was not clear to me as a student," he later said, "that a more profound knowledge of the basic principles of physics was tied up with the most intricate mathematical methods."

Einstein's classmate Marcel Grossmann helped him by sharing his notes from the math lectures Einstein had skipped. When Einstein graduated, his conflict with Weber cost him the teaching job he had expected to receive. Grossmann eventually came to Einstein's rescue again, urging his father to help him secure a well-paid job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office. Many years later, when Grossmann died, Einstein wrote a letter to his widow that conveyed not only his sadness at an old friend's death, but also his bittersweet memories of life as a college student:

"Our days together come back to me. He a model student; I untidy and a daydreamer. He on excellent terms with the teachers and grasping everything easily; I aloof and discontented, not very popular. But we were good friends and our conversations over iced coffee at the Metropol every few weeks belong among my nicest memories."

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Dyson Creates 44 Free Engineering & Science Challenges for Kids Quarantined During COVID-19

A heads up: Dyson has "created 44 engineering and science activities for children to try out while at home during the coronavirus pandemic, from making a balloon-powered car to building a bridge from spaghetti," writes the Dezeen website. They go on to add: "Comprised of 22 science tasks and 22 engineering activities, the Challenge Cards can be completed by children using common household items such as eggs, string and balloons." You can also find a related playlist of videos on YouTube, one of which appears above.

This engineering/science activities have been added to our refreshed collection, 200 Free Kids Educational Resources: Video Lessons, Apps, Books, Websites & More. If you know of any great K-12 resources, especially ones that are always free, please add them in the comments below, and we will try to add them to the list.

via Dezeen

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Simulating an Epidemic: Using Data to Show How Diseases Like COVID-19 Spread

Disease modeling as a science has come into its own lately, for heartbreakingly obvious reasons. What may not be so obvious to those of us who aren't scientists is just how critical data can be in changing the course of events in an outbreak. Virus outbreaks may be “acts of God” or acts of unregulated black markets and agribusinesses, but in either case, statistical models can show, concretely, how collective human activity can save lives—and show what happens when people don’t act together.

For example, epidemiologists and biostatisticians have shown in detail how social distancing led to a “decline in the proportion of influenza deaths,” one study concludes, during the 1918 flu pandemic. The same researchers also saw evidence in their models that showed “public risk perception could be lowered” when these practices worked effectively, leading people think they could resume business as usual. But “less social distancing could eventually induce another epidemic wave.”




To say that it’s a challenge to stay inside and wait out COVID-19 indefinitely may be a gross understatement, but hunkering down may save our lives. No one can say what will happen, but as for how and why it happens, well, “that is math, not prophecy,” writes Harry Stevens at The Washington Post. “The virus can be slowed,” if people continue “avoiding public spaces and generally limiting their movement.” Let’s take a look at how with the model above. We must note that the video above does not model COVID-19 specifically, but a offers a detailed look at how a hypothetical epidemic spreads.

Created by YouTuber 3Blue1Brown, the modeling in the top video draws from a variety of sources, including Stevens’ interactive models of a hypothetical disease he calls “simulitis.” Another simulator whose work contributed to the video, Kevin Simler, has also explained the spread of disease with interactive models that enable us to visualize difficult-to-grasp epidemiological concepts, since "exponential growth is really, really hard for our human brains to understand” in the abstract, says YouTube physics explainer Minute Physics in the short, animated video above.

Deaths multiply faster than the media can report, and whatever totals we come across are hopelessly outdated by the time we read them, an emotional and intellectual barrage. So how can we know if we’re “winning or losing” (to use the not-particularly-helpful war metaphor) the COVID-19 fight? Here too, the current data on its previous progress in other countries can help plot the course of the disease in the U.S. and elsewhere, and allow scientists and policy-makers to make reasonable inferences about how to stop exponential growth.

But none of these models show the kind of granularity that doctors, nurses, and public health professionals must deal with in a real pandemic. “Simulitis is not covid-19, and these simulations vastly oversimplify the complexity of real life,” Stevens admits. Super-complicating risk factors like age, race, disability, and access to insurance and resources aren’t represented here. And there may be no way to model whatever the government is doing.

But the data models show us what has worked and what hasn't, both in the past and in the recent present, and they have become very accessible thanks to the internet (and open source journals on platforms like PLOS). For a longer, in-depth explanation of the current pandemic's exponential spread, see the lecture by epidemiologist Nicholas Jewell above from the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI).

It may not sway people who actively ignore math, but disease modeling can guide the merely uninformed to a much better understanding of what’s happening, and better decisions about how to respond under the circumstances.

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

The “Feynman Technique” for Studying Effectively: An Animated Primer

After winning the Nobel Prize, physicist Max Planck "went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, 'Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?' Planck said, 'Why not?' And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, 'Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.'"

That this intellectual switcheroo never actually happened didn't stop Charlie Munger from using it as an opener for a commencement speech to USC's Law School. But when a successful billionaire investor finds value even in an admittedly "apocryphal story," most of us will find value in it as well. It illustrates, according to the Freedom in Thought video above, the difference between "two kinds of knowledge: the deep knowledge that Max had, and the shallow knowledge that the chauffeur had." Both forms of knowledge have their advantages, especially since none of us have lifetime enough to understand everything deeply. But we get in trouble when we can't tell them apart: "We risk fooling ourselves into thinking we actually understand or know something when we don't. Even worse, we risk taking action on misinformation or misunderstanding."




Even if you put little stock into a made-up anecdote about one Nobel-winning physicist, surely you'll believe the documented words of another. Richard Feynman once articulated a first principle of knowing as follows: "You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." This principle underlies a practical process of learning that consists of four steps. First, "explain the topic out loud to a peer who is unfamiliar with the topic. Meet them at their level of understanding and use the simplest language you can." Second, "identify any gaps in your own understanding, or points where you feel that you can't explain an idea simply." Third, "go back to the source material and study up on your weak points until you can use simple language to explain it." Finally, "repeat the three steps above until you've mastered the topic."

We've featured the so-called "Feynman technique" once or twice before here on Open Culture, but its emphasis on simplicity and concision always bears repeating — in, of course, as simple and concise a manner as possible each time. Its origins lie in not just Fenyman's first principle of knowledge but his intellectual habits. This video's narrator cites James Gleick's biography Genius, which tells of how "Richard would create a journal for the things he did not know. His discipline in challenging his own understanding made him a genius and a brilliant scientist." Like all of us, Feynman was ignorant all his life of vastly more subjects than he had mastered. But unlike many of us, his desire to know burned so furiously that it propelled him into perpetual confrontation with his own ignorance. We can't learn what we want to know, after all, unless we acknowledge how much we don't know.

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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.

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