Vintage Science Face Masks: Conquer the Pandemic with Science, Courtesy of Maria Popova’s BrainPickings

If you don’t floss or brush your teeth, they will rot and fall out. If you don’t eat fruits and veg­eta­bles, you will get scurvy or some oth­er hor­ri­ble dis­ease. If you don’t use pro­tec­tion… well, you know the rest. These are facts of life we most­ly accept if we care about our­selves and oth­ers because they are beyond dis­put­ing. But the idea of wear­ing a cloth mask when in pub­lic dur­ing a viral pan­dem­ic spread through droplets from the nose and mouth—a prac­tice endorsed by the CDC, the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion, sci­en­tists at Stan­ford, Johns Hop­kins, and pret­ty much every oth­er research uni­ver­si­ty—has become some kind of bizarre cul­ture war.

Maybe some walk around mask-less because they’ve inter­nal­ized the idea that the coro­n­avirus is “over,” despite the fact it’s spread­ing at around 50,000 new cas­es per day in the US, and poten­tial­ly head­ing toward dou­ble that num­ber. Maybe some feel it won’t affect them because they aren’t elder­ly or immuno­com­pro­mised, nev­er mind that virus­es mutate, and that the nov­el (mean­ing “new”) coro­n­avirus has already demon­strat­ed that it is far less dis­crim­i­nat­ing (in pure­ly bio­log­i­cal terms) than pre­vi­ous­ly thought. (In Flori­da, the medi­an age for COVID-19 has dropped from 65 to 37 years old.) Nev­er mind that spread­ing the virus, even if one is not per­son­al­ly at high risk, com­pro­mis­es every­body else.

Are masks uncom­fort­able, espe­cial­ly in hot, humid weath­er? Do they muf­fle speech and make it hard to have sat­is­fy­ing face-to-face inter­ac­tions? Well, yes. But con­sid­er your hour­long masked trip to the gro­cery store against the 12 or 24 or 48 or what­ev­er hour-long shifts med­ical per­son­nel are pulling in emer­gency depart­ments across the coun­try.

It real­ly is the least we can do. And we can do it in style—masks went from scarce, with armies of home­bound neigh­bors sewing home­ly stacks of them, to tru­ly over­abun­dant and fash­ion­able, on the rack of every gro­cery, phar­ma­cy, and con­ve­nience store. It couldn’t be eas­i­er.

If you’re con­cerned about look­ing like every oth­er masked weirdo out there, con­sid­er these masks cre­at­ed by Maria Popo­va of Brain Pick­ings, which she intro­duces with ref­er­ences to Rebec­ca Elson’s poem, “Anti­dotes to Fear of Death.” The sci­ence of pub­lic health may demand that we are grim­ly prac­ti­cal at the moment, but Popo­va wants to remind us that sci­en­tif­ic think­ing is equal­ly invest­ed in the expe­ri­ence of awe and the love of life. By wear­ing these masks, we can com­mu­ni­cate to oth­ers, those who may be feel­ing despon­dent over the sea of masked faces in pub­lic places, that there is beau­ty in the world and we can ful­ly expe­ri­ence if we get through this. Popova’s masks, print­ed and sold by Society6, illus­trate the won­ders of sci­en­tif­ic curios­i­ty with “won­drous cen­turies-old astro­nom­i­cal art and nat­ur­al his­to­ry illus­tra­tions.”

These include “trea­sures like the Solar Sys­tem quilt Ella Hard­ing Bak­er spent sev­en years craft­ing… gor­geous 18th-cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tions from the world’s first ency­clo­pe­dia of med­i­c­i­nal plantsaston­ish­ing draw­ings of celes­tial objects and phe­nom­e­na…trail­blaz­ing 18th-cen­tu­ry artist Sarah Stone’s stun­ning illus­tra­tions of exot­ic, endan­gered, and now-extinct ani­mals; some graph­i­cal­ly spec­tac­u­lar depic­tions of how nature works from a 19th-cen­tu­ry French physics text­book; Ernst Haeckel’s heart­break-foment­ed draw­ings of the oth­er­world­ly beau­ty of jel­ly­fish…William Sav­ille Kent’s pio­neer­ing artis­tic-sci­en­tif­ic effort to bring the world’s aware­ness and awe to the crea­tures of the Great Bar­ri­er Reef; and art from the Ger­man marine biol­o­gist Carl Chun’s epoch-mak­ing Cephalo­pod Atlas — the world’s first ency­clo­pe­dia of crea­tures of the deep.”

Society6 is donat­ing a por­tion of its pro­ceeds to World Cen­ter Kitchen, and Popo­va is donat­ing to The Nature Con­ser­van­cy. You can pur­chase your own vin­tage sci­ence illus­tra­tion mask here and see some of these illus­tra­tions in their orig­i­nal con­text at the links fur­ther down.

Anti­dotes to Fear of Death

Some­times as an anti­dote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quench­ing dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pep­per hot and sharp.

Some­times, instead, I stir myself
Into a uni­verse still young,
Still warm as blood:

No out­er space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drift­ing like a bright mist,
And all of us, and every­thing
Already there
But uncon­strained by form.

And some­time it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ances­tral bones:

To walk across the cob­ble fields
Of our dis­card­ed skulls,
Each like a trea­sure, like a chrysalis,
Think­ing: what­ev­er left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Solar Sys­tem Quilt: In 1876, a Teacher Cre­ates a Hand­craft­ed Quilt to Use as a Teach­ing Aid in Her Astron­o­my Class

Ernst Haeckel’s Sub­lime Draw­ings of Flo­ra and Fau­na: The Beau­ti­ful Sci­en­tif­ic Draw­ings That Influ­enced Europe’s Art Nou­veau Move­ment (1889)

The Phe­nom­e­na of Physics Illus­trat­ed with Psy­che­del­ic Art in an Influ­en­tial 19th-Cen­tu­ry Text­book

The Bril­liant Col­ors of the Great Bar­ri­er Revealed in a His­toric Illus­trat­ed Book from 1893

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

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