17th Century Scientist Gives First Description of Alien Life: Hear Passages from Christiaan Huygens’ Cosmotheoros (1698)

Astrobiologists can now extrapolate the evolutionary characteristics of possible alien life, should it exist, given the wealth of data available on interplanetary conditions. But our ideas about aliens have drawn not from science but from what Adrian Horton at The Guardian calls “an engrossing feedback loop” of Hollywood films, comics books, and sci-fi novels. A little over three-hundred years ago — having never heard of H.G. Wells or the X-Files — Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens answered the question of what alien life might look like in his work Cosmotheoros, published after his death in 1698.

Everyone knows the names Galileo and Isaac Newton, and nearly everyone knows their major accomplishments, but we find much less familiarity with Huygens, even though his achievements “make him the greatest scientist in the period between Galileo and Newton,” notes the Public Domain Review.

Those achievements include the discovery of Saturn’s rings and its moon, Titan, the invention of the first refracting telescope, a detailed mapping of the Orion Nebula, and some highly notable advancements in mathematics. (Maybe we — English speakers, that is — find his last name hard to pronounce?)

Huygens was a revolutionary thinker. After Copernicus, it became clear to him that “our planet is just one of many,” as scholar Hugo A. van den Berg writes, “and not set apart by any special consideration other than the accidental fact that we happen to be its inhabitants.” Using the powers of observation available to him, he theorized that the inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn (he used the term “Planetarians”) must possess “the Art of Navigation,” especially “in having so many Moons to direct their Course…. And what a troop of other things follow from this allowance? If they have Ships, they must have Sails and Anchors, Ropes, Pillies, and Rudders…”

“We may well laugh at Huygens,” van den Berg writes, “But surely in our own century, we are equally parochial in our own way. We invariably fail to imagine what we fail to imagine.” Our ideas of aliens flying spacecraft already seem quaint given multiversal and interdimensional modes of travel in science fiction. Huygens had no cultural “feedback loop.” He was making it up as he went. “In contrast to Huygens’ astronomical works, Cosmotheoros is almost entirely speculative,” notes van den Berg — though his speculations are throughout informed and guided by scientific reasoning.

To undermine the idea of Earth as special, central, and unique, “a thing that no Reason will permit,” Huygens wrote — meant posing a potential threat to “those whose Ignorance or Zeal is too great.” Therefore, he willed his brother to publish Cosmotheoros after his death so that he might avoid the fate of Galileo. Already out of favor with Louis XIV, whom Huygens had served as a government scientist, he wrote the book while back at home in The Hague, “frequently ill with depressions and fevers,” writes the Public Domain Review. What did Huygens see in his cosmic imagination of the sailing inhabitants of Jupiter and Saturn? Hear for yourself above in a reading of Huygens’ Cosmotheoros from Voices of the Past.

Huygens’ descriptions of intelligent alien life derive from his limited observations about human and animal life, and so he proposes the necessity of human-like hands and other appendages, and rules out such things as an “elephant’s proboscis.” (He is particularly fixated on hands, though some alien humanoids might also develop wings, he theorizes.) Like all alien stories to come, Huygens’ speculations, however logically he presents them, say “more about ourselves,” as Horton writes, “our fears, our anxieties, our hope, our adaptability — than any potential outside visitor.” His descriptions show that while he did not need to place Earth at the center of the cosmos, he measured the cosmos according to a very human scale.

Related Content:

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

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads “the Best Cover Letter Ever Written”

In the 1930s, many a writer journeyed to Hollywood in order to make his fortune. The screenwriter’s life didn’t sit well with some of them — just ask F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner — but a fair few made more than a go of it out West. Take the Baltimore-born Robert Pirosh, whose studies at the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin landed him a job as a copywriter in New York. This work seems to have proven less than satisfactory, as evidenced by the piece of correspondence that, still in his early twenties, he wrote and sent to “as many directors, producers and studio executives as he could find.” It wasn’t just a request for work; it was what Letters Live today calls “the best cover letter ever written.”

Pirosh’s impressive missive, which you can hear read aloud by favorite Letters Live performer Benedict Cumberbatch in the video above, runs, in full, as follows:

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Though not known as an unsubtle actor, Cumberbatch seizes the opportunity to deliver each and every one of these choice words with its own variety of exaggerated relish. Though none of these terms is especially recherché on its own, they must collectively have given the impression of a formidable mastery of the English language, especially to the ear of the average Hollywood big-shot. One way or another, Pirosh’s letter did the trick: according to Letters of Note, it “secured him three interviews, one of which led to his job as a junior writer at MGM. Fifteen years later,” he “won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the war film Battleground.”

A World War II picture, Battleground was written at least in part from Pirosh’s own experience: a few years into his Hollywood career, he enlisted and made a return to Europe, this time as a Master Sergeant in the 320th Regiment, 35th Infantry Division, seeing action in France and Germany. After the war he went right back to writing and producing, remaining active in the entertainment industry until at least the 1970s (and in fact, his writing credits include contributions to such programs that defined that decade as MannixBarnaby Jones, and Hawaii Five-O). Pirosh’s was an enviable 20th-century career, and one that began with a suitably brazen — and still convincing — 20th-century advertisement for himself.

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Benedict Cumberbatch Reads a Letter Alan Turing Wrote in “Distress” Before His Conviction For “Gross Indecency”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Medieval Scribes Discouraged Theft of Manuscripts by Adding Curses Threatening Death & Damnation to Their Pages

I’ve concluded that one shouldn’t lend a book unless one is prepared to part with it for good. But most books are fairly easy to replace. Not so in the Middle Ages, when every manuscript counted as one of a kind. Theft was often on the minds of the scribes who copied and illustrated books, a laborious task requiring literal hours of blood, sweat and tears each day.

Scribal copying took place “only by natural light — candles were too big a risk to the books,” Sarah Laskow writes at Atlas Obscura. Bent over double, scribes could not let their attention wander. The art, one scribe complained, “extinguishes the light from the eyes, it bends the back, it crushes the viscera and the ribs, it brings forth pain to the kidneys, and weariness to the whole body.”

The results deserved high security, and Medieval monks “did not hesitate to use the worst punishments they knew” for manuscript theft, writes Laskow, namely threats of “excommunication from the church and horrible, painful death.”


Theft deterrence came in the form of ingenious curses, written into the manuscripts themselves, going “back to the 7th century BCE,” Rebecca Romney writes at Mental Floss. Appearing “in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more,” they came in such creative flavors as death by roasting, as in a Bible copied in Germany around 1172: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”

A few hundred years later, a manuscript curse from 15th-century France also promises roasting, or worse:

Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.

The plucking out of eyes also appears to have been a theme. “Whoever to steal this volume tries, Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!” warns the final couplet in a 13th-century curse from a Vatican Library manuscript. Another curse in verse, found by author Marc Drogin, author of Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses, gets especially graphic with the eye gouging:

To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming ‘oh, oh, oh!’
Remember, you deserved this woe.

The hoped-for consequences were not always so grimly humorous. “Gruesome as these punishments seem,” the British Library writes, “to most medieval readers the worst curses were those that put the eternal fate of their souls at risk rather than their bodily health.” These would often be marked with the Greek word “Anathema,” sometimes “followed by the Aramaic formula ‘Maranatha’ (‘Come, Lord!’).” Both appear in a curse added to a manuscript of letters and sermons from Lesnes Abbey. Yet, unlike most medieval curses, here the thief is given a chance to make restitution. “Anyone who removes it or does damage to it: if the same person does not repay the church sufficiently, may he be cursed.”

Curses were not the only security solutions of manuscript culture. Medieval monks also used book chains and locked chests to secure the fruit of their hard labor. As the old saying goes, “trust in God, but tie your camel.” But if locks and divine providence should fail, scribes trusted that the fear of punishment – even eternal damnation — down the road would be enough to make would-be book thieves think again.

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

The Life & Music of the Godmother of Rock and Roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe

When I was a wee lad I was interested in the history of rock and roll. Where did it come from? Who started it? But also when I was wee, there didn’t seem to be a lot of information around, certainly not in my library downtown. But when Muddy Waters died in 1983, I started to understand that rock and roll was sped-up blues, and pieces started to slot together. However, women weren’t part of the equation. (Blame Rolling Stone Magazine).

That’s a long way of saying the Sister Rosetta Tharpe should be better known than she is, especially as one dubbed the Godmother of Rock and Roll. Playing scratchy, distorted electric guitar and singing as if on a direct line to heaven, Tharpe would go on to influence everybody from Elvis Presley to Chuck Berry, and everybody who came after her. So why is she not more of a household name?

The 2011 BBC documentary above (split into four 15-minute chunks) resuscitates a legend who not only played a mean guitar but set the standard for the gospel-crossover artist, making a name on the gospel circuit, but making her fame in the secular nightclubs of America. Tharpe’s distinction is that she returned to gospel without losing any of her edge.

A precocious youngster in Arkansas during the early 1920s, she became the star of her Pentecostal church starting at four years old. Raised by her mother, then forced into an arranged marriage at 19-years-old to an older preacher, Thomas Tharpe, she kept his name when she left their abusive marriage. She and her mother relocated to Chicago, where blues and jazz were intermingling in a hothouse culture. Decca signed her, and although she told her churchgoing friends that she had to sing these secular songs because of that darned seven-year contract, Tharpe rose to fame quickly. The footage of her singing in front of the Cotton Club band led by Lucky Millinder is one of a cheeky, charming 23 year old.

As the doc makes clear, Tharpe had a rebellious streak, didn’t do what she was told, and pushed boundaries in a very segregated America. She invited the all-white Jordanaires to tour with her, surprising house managers and booking agents alike. And she carried on a love affair and creative partnership with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight for decades, very much on the down low.

So perhaps this is the reason Tharpe has not been on our collective radar—we’ve been slow to admit that rock guitar was created by a queer black woman devoted to the Lord. Nobody in the audience knew this, though, at the abandoned railway station at Wilbraham Road, Manchester, in May 1964. On one side of the station’s tracks, British teenagers were gathered to hear raw, rock and roll from America. On the other side, Tharpe stands with her guitar, wearing a thick coat to protect her from the spring rain. Backed by her band, she channels a holy force and sings about the rain of the Great Flood, the lyrics abstract and repetitive, as if in a trance. The footage opens the documentary and makes as good a case as any of why Tharpe should be part of the pantheon of rock royalty. (You can see the whole clip here.) Back in the States, Tharpe had been eclipsed by Mahalia Jackson, but the Brits didn’t know any of that. They just sense they’ve tapped into one of the sources for the music exploding around them.

It took until 2018 for Tharpe to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, years after all those white boy copycats. Now is the time to re-discover her and hear what you’ve been missing.

Related Content:

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Muddy Waters and Friends on the Blues and Gospel Train, 1964

Watch the Hot Guitar Solos of Sister Rosetta Tharpe

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The Women of Rock: Discover an Oral History Project That Features Pioneering Women in Rock Music

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Saying Goodbye to Charlie Watts (RIP), the Engine of the Rolling Stones for Half a Century

Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones’ iconic drummer since 1962, passed away yesterday from unspecified causes at the age of 80. His death is a great loss for rock and roll. “When Charlie Watts dies, the beat stops,” Rob Harvilla writes at the Ringer, “never to be played again with such mesmerizing force, with such ultra-suave propulsion, with such casually indomitable radness.” These are not technical terms, and Watts was not a technical drummer. “I’m not a paradiddle man,” he said in 2000. “It’s not technical, it’s emotional. One of the hardest things of all is to get that feeling across.”

Watts perfected the indefinable feel of rock and roll by way of jazz, playing along to his favorite records by Charlie Parker — first with a set of wire brushes on an unstrung banjo, then on the first drum kit his father bought him.

From the greats, he learned to swing and mastered dynamics. The commanding martial crack of Watts’ snare held a band of motley pirates together — without him, the Stones might have dissolved into a collection of preening antics and wandering blues licks; with him at the center, they coalesced into a team. “I don’t know how the hell that old sucker got to be so good,” Keef marveled.

Watts would be the last one to talk about how good he was — he hated interviews and stardom in general. “I’ve never been interested in all that stuff and still am not,” he said. “I don’t know what showbiz is and I’ve never watched MTV. There are people who just play instruments, and I’m pleased to know that I’m one of them.” His singular focus came from listening intently to what others were doing, as he says in the interview at the top, and copying what they did, a method he calls “one of my flaws…. I learned by watching.” But the means by which Watts learned to play made him the perfect drummer for the Stones. He watched, listened, learned the songs, then played them perfectly in tune with the band, keeping them in time while responding dynamically to Richards and Jagger’s interplay.

“I should have gone to school and learned how to do it,” Watts says, with typical self-deprecation. Instead, he made his school the jazz clubs of London and Paris, where he went to see Bud Powell’s drummer Kenny Clark. Just as he’d done in his room on his first drum kit, he listened intently and copied what he heard. Watts looked like a man who stood apart from the band, with his world-weary expression, endless collection of sharp suits and reserved demeanor. But when he played with the Stones, they locked together. It was love, he said, “I love this band.”

His life was a testament to the vitality of the music that made him, at 80, still want to go back on the road after announcing just two weeks ago that he’d have to sit out this year’s tour. Forty years ago, Watts couldn’t foresee the band he helped make world famous lasting very much longer. “I never thought it would last five minutes,” he said in 1981, “but I figured I’d live that five minutes to the hilt because I love them. They’re bigger than I am if you really want to know. I admire them, I like them as friends, I argue with them and I love them…. I don’t really care if it stops…. “ Now that he’s gone, it’s hard to see how the Stones can go on.

As nearly every member of the band, especially Richards, has said at one time or another, no Charlie Watts, no Rolling Stones. “Charlie’s the engine,” said Ronnie Wood in the Stones documentary Tip of the Tongue. “We don’t go anywhere without the engine.” Wherever they go now, there’s no question the Rolling Stones would have been a different band entirely without him. See some of his best live moments in the clips above and learn what Charlie himself thought of his playing in the short documentary at the top, “If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” a record of his approach to drumming and life in general that captures the true spirit of a rock legend.

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A Visual History of The Rolling Stones Documented in a Beautiful, 450-Page Photo Book by Taschen

The Story of the Rolling Stones: A Selection of Documentaries on the Quintessential Rock-and-Roll Band

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

How the COVID-19 Vaccines Could Be Created So Quickly: Two Animated Videos Explain the How mRNA Vaccines Were Developed, and How They Work

The world now has COVID-19 vaccines, of which more and more people are receiving their doses every day. A year and a half ago the world did not have COVID-19 vaccines, though it was fast becoming clear how soon it would need them. The subsequent development of the ones now being deployed around the world took not just less than a year and a half but less than a year, an impressive speed even to many of us who never dug deep into medical science. The achievement owes in part to the use of mRNA, a term most of us may recall only dimly from biology classes; through the pandemic, messenger ribonucleic acid, to use its full name, has proven if not the savior of humanity, then at least the very molecule we needed.

One shouldn’t get “the idea that these vaccines came out of nowhere.” On Twitter, Dan Rather — these days a more outspoken  figure than ever — calls the prevalence such a notion “a failure of science communication with tragic results,” describing the vaccines as “the result of DECADES of basic research in MULTIPLE fields building on the BREADTH and DEPTH of human knowledge.”

You can get a clearer sense of what that research has involved through videos like the animated TED-Ed explainer above. “In the twentieth century, most vaccines took well over a decade to research, test, and produce,” says its narrator. “But the vaccines for COVID-19 cleared the threshold for use in less than eleven months.” The “secret”? mRNA.

A “naturally occurring molecule that encodes the instructions for occurring proteins,” mRNA can be used in vaccines to “safely introduce our body to a virus.” Researchers first “encode trillions of mRNA molecules with instructions for a specific viral protein.” Then they inject those molecules into a specially designed “nanoparticle” also containing lipids, sugars, and salts. When it reaches our cells, this nanoparticle triggers our immune response: the body produces “antibodies to fight that viral protein, that will then stick around to defend against future COVID-19 infections.” And all of this happens without the vaccine altering out DNA,

While mRNA vaccines will “have a big impact on how we fight COVID-19,” says the narrator of the Vox video above, “their real impact is just beginning.” Their development marked “a turning point for the pandemic,” but given their potential applications in the battles against a host of other, even deadlier diseases (e.g., HIV), “the pandemic might also be a turning point for vaccines.”

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 Harp Played with a Heavy Distortion Pedal

You’ve had the thought experiment in your head. What would happen if you run a harp through a heavy distortion pedal? Now you can see how it all plays out. Emily Hopkins has been playing the harp for over 20 years and has recently taken to experimenting with harp distortion. Above, you can watch her experiment with the Nepenthes by Electrofoods, the heaviest distortion pedal she could find. Other pedal distortion experiments can be found here.

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

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Dying in the Name of Vaccine Freedom

Here’s the context to a sobering newly-released video from The New York Times:

In the video above, Alexander Stockton, a producer on the Opinion Video team, explores two of the main reasons the number of Covid cases is soaring once again in the United States: vaccine hesitancy and refusal.

“It’s hard to watch the pandemic drag on as Americans refuse the vaccine in the name of freedom,” he says.

Seeking understanding, Mr. Stockton travels to Mountain Home, Ark., in the Ozarks, a region with galloping contagion and — not unrelated — abysmal vaccination rates.

He finds that a range of feelings and beliefs underpins the low rates — including fear, skepticism and a libertarian strain of defiance.

This doubt even extends to the staff at a regional hospital, where about half of the medical personnel are not vaccinated — even while the intensive care unit is crowded with unvaccinated Covid patients fighting for their lives.

Mountain Home — like the United States as a whole — is caught in a tug of war between private liberty and public health. But Mr. Stockton suggests that unless government upholds its duty to protect Americans, keeping the common good in mind, this may be a battle with no end.

Sobering indeed…

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