Harvard Removes the Human Skin Binding from a Book in Its Collection Since 1934

In June of 2014, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty’s Houghton Library put up a blog post titled “Caveat Lecter,” announc­ing “good news for fans of anthro­po­der­mic bib­liop­e­gy, bib­lio­ma­ni­acs, and can­ni­bals alike.” The occa­sion was the sci­en­tif­ic deter­mi­na­tion that a book in the Houghton’s col­lec­tion long rumored to have been bound in human skin — the task of whose retrieval once served, they say, as a haz­ing rit­u­al for stu­dent employ­ees — was, indeed, “with­out a doubt bound in human skin.” What a dif­fer­ence a decade makes: not only has the blog post been delet­ed, the book itself has been tak­en out of from cir­cu­la­tion in order to have the now-offend­ing bind­ing removed.

“Har­vard Library has removed human skin from the bind­ing of a copy of Arsène Houssaye’s book Des des­tinées de l’âme (1880s),” declares a stren­u­ous­ly apolo­getic state­ment issued by the uni­ver­si­ty. “The volume’s first own­er, French physi­cian and bib­lio­phile Dr. Ludovic Bouland (1839–1933), bound the book with skin he took with­out con­sent from the body of a deceased female patient in a hos­pi­tal where he worked.” Hav­ing been in the col­lec­tion since 1934, the book was first placed there by John B. Stet­son, Jr., “an Amer­i­can diplo­mat, busi­ness­man, and Har­vard alum­nus” (not to men­tion an heir to the for­tune gen­er­at­ed by the epony­mous hat).

“Bouland knew that Hous­saye had writ­ten the book while griev­ing his wife’s death,” writes Mike Jay in the New York Review of Books, “and felt that this was an appro­pri­ate bind­ing for it — ‘a book on the human soul mer­its that it be giv­en human cloth­ing.’ ” He also “includ­ed a note stat­ing that “this book is bound in human skin parch­ment on which no orna­ment has been stamped to pre­serve its ele­gance.” This copy of Des des­tinées de l’âme isn’t the only book rumored — or, with the pep­tide mass fin­ger­print­ing (PMF) tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped over the past decade, con­firmed — to have been bound in human skin. “The old­est reput­ed exam­ples are three 13th-cen­tu­ry Bibles held at the Bib­lio­thèque Nationale in France, write the New York Times’ Jen­nifer Schuessler and Julia Jacobs.

Jay also men­tions the espe­cial­ly vivid exam­ple of “an 1892 French edi­tion of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug, adorned with a skull emblem, is gen­uine human skin: Poe en peau humaine.” In gen­er­al, Schuessler and Jacobs note, the largest num­ber of human skin-bound books “date from the Vic­to­ri­an era, the hey­day of anatom­i­cal col­lect­ing, when doc­tors some­times had med­ical trea­tis­es and oth­er texts bound in skin from patients or cadav­ers.” Now that this prac­tice has been retroac­tive­ly judged to be not just deeply dis­turb­ing but offi­cial­ly prob­lem­at­ic (to use the vogue term of recent years) it’s up to the anthro­po­der­mic-bib­liop­e­gy enthu­si­asts out there to deter­mine whether to put the items in their own col­lec­tions to the PMF test — or to leave a bit of macabre mys­tery in the world of anti­quar­i­an book-col­lect­ing.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Old Books Bound in Human Skin Found in Har­vard Libraries (and Else­where in Boston)

When Medieval Man­u­scripts Were Recy­cled & Used to Make the First Print­ed Books

Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Man­u­script in the World

A Mes­mer­iz­ing Look at the Mak­ing of a Late Medieval Book from Start to Fin­ish

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

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

A Student Writes a Rejection Letter Rejecting Harvard’s Rejection Letter (1981): Hear It Read by Actor Himesh Patel

The doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er and sports edi­tor Paul Devlin has won five Emmy awards, but he may well be bet­ter known for not get­ting into Har­vard — or rather, for not get­ting into Har­vard, then reject­ing Har­vard’s rejec­tion. “I noticed that the rejec­tion let­ter I received from Har­vard had a gram­mat­i­cal error,” Devlin writes. “So, I wrote a let­ter back, reject­ing their rejec­tion let­ter.” His moth­er then “sent a copy of this let­ter to the New York Times and it was pub­lished in the New Jer­sey sec­tion on May 31, 1981.” In 1996, when the New York Times Mag­a­zine pub­lished a cov­er sto­ry “about the trau­ma stu­dents were expe­ri­enc­ing get­ting reject­ed from col­leges,” she seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty to send her son’s rejec­tion-rejec­tion let­ter to the Paper of Record.

It turned out that Devlin’s let­ter had already run there, hav­ing long since gone the pre-social-media equiv­a­lent of viral. “The New York Times accused me of pla­gia­rism. When they dis­cov­ered that I was the orig­i­nal author and they had unwit­ting­ly re-print­ed them­selves, they were none too hap­py. But my mom insists that it was impor­tant to reprint the arti­cle because the issue was clear­ly still rel­e­vant.”

Indeed, its after­life con­tin­ues even today, as evi­denced by the new video from Let­ters Live at the top of the post. In it actor Himesh Patel, well-known from series like Eas­t­En­ders, Sta­tion Eleven, and Avenue 5, reads aloud Devlin’s let­ter, which runs as fol­lows:

Hav­ing reviewed the many rejec­tion let­ters I have received in the last few weeks, it is with great regret that I must inform you I am unable to accept your rejec­tion at this time.

This year, after apply­ing to a great many col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, I received an espe­cial­ly fine crop of rejec­tion let­ters. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the num­ber of rejec­tions that I can accept is lim­it­ed.

Each of my rejec­tions was reviewed care­ful­ly and on an indi­vid­ual basis. Many fac­tors were tak­en into account – the size of the insti­tu­tion, stu­dent-fac­ul­ty ratio, loca­tion, rep­u­ta­tion, costs and social atmos­phere.

I am cer­tain that most col­leges I applied to are more than qual­i­fied to reject me. I am also sure that some mis­takes were made in turn­ing away some of these rejec­tions. I can only hope they were few in num­ber.

I am aware of the keen dis­ap­point­ment my deci­sion may bring. Through­out my delib­er­a­tions, I have kept in mind the time and effort it may have tak­en for you to reach your deci­sion to reject me.

Keep in mind that at times it was nec­es­sary for me to reject even those let­ters of rejec­tion that would nor­mal­ly have met my tra­di­tion­al­ly high stan­dards.

I appre­ci­ate your hav­ing enough inter­est in me to reject my appli­ca­tion. Let me take the oppor­tu­ni­ty to wish you well in what I am sure will be a suc­cess­ful aca­d­e­m­ic year.


Paul Devlin
Appli­cant at Large

How­ev­er con­sid­er­able the mox­ie (to use a whol­ly Amer­i­can term) shown by the young Devlin in his let­ter, his rea­son­ing seems not to have swayed Har­vard’s admis­sions depart­ment. Whether it would prove any more effec­tive in the twen­ty-twen­ties than it did in the nine­teen-eight­ies seems doubt­ful, but it must remain a sat­is­fy­ing read for high-school stu­dents dispir­it­ed by the sup­pli­cat­ing pos­ture the col­lege-appli­ca­tion process all but forces them to take. It sure­ly does them good to remem­ber that they, too, pos­sess the agency to declare accep­tance or rejec­tion of that which is pre­sent­ed to them sim­ply as neces­si­ty, as oblig­a­tion, as a giv­en. And for Devlin, at least, there was always the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Read Rejec­tion Let­ters Sent to Three Famous Artists: Sylvia Plath, Kurt Von­negut & Andy Warhol

T. S. Eliot, as Faber & Faber Edi­tor, Rejects George Orwell’s “Trot­skyite” Nov­el Ani­mal Farm (1944)

Gertrude Stein Gets a Snarky Rejec­tion Let­ter from Pub­lish­er (1912)

Meet the “Gram­mar Vig­i­lante,” Hell-Bent on Fix­ing Gram­mat­i­cal Mis­takes on England’s Store­front Signs

Steven Pinker Iden­ti­fies 10 Break­able Gram­mat­i­cal Rules: “Who” Vs. “Whom,” Dan­gling Mod­i­fiers & More

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.

How to Predict What the World Will Look Like in 2122: Insights from Futurist Peter Schwartz

“It’s very easy to imag­ine how things go wrong,” says futur­ist Peter Schwartz in the video above. “It’s much hard­er to imag­ine how things go right.” So he demon­strat­ed a quar­ter-cen­tu­ry ago with the Wired mag­a­zine cov­er sto­ry he co-wrote with Peter Ley­den, “The Long Boom.” Made in the now tech­no-utopi­an-seem­ing year of 1997, its pre­dic­tions of “25 years of  pros­per­i­ty, free­dom, and a bet­ter envi­ron­ment for a whole world” have since become objects of ridicule. But in the piece Schwartz and Ley­den also pro­vide a set of less-desir­able alter­na­tive sce­nar­ios whose details — a new Cold War between the U.S. and Chi­na, cli­mate change-relat­ed dis­rup­tions in the food sup­ply, an “uncon­trol­lable plague” — look rather more pre­scient in ret­ro­spect.

The intel­li­gent futur­ist, in Schwartz’s view, aims not to get every­thing right. “It’s almost impos­si­ble. But you test your deci­sions against mul­ti­ple sce­nar­ios, so you make sure you don’t get it wrong in the sce­nar­ios that actu­al­ly occur.” The art of “sce­nario plan­ning,” as Schwartz calls it, requires a fair­ly deep root­ed­ness in the past.

His own life is a case in point: born in a Ger­man refugee camp in 1946, he even­tu­al­ly made his way to a place then called Stan­ford Research Insti­tute. “It was the ear­ly days that became Sil­i­con Val­ley. It’s where tech­nol­o­gy was accel­er­at­ing. It was one of the first thou­sand peo­ple online. It was the era when LSD was still being used as an explorato­ry tool. So every­thing around me was the future being born,” and he could hard­ly have avoid­ed get­ting hooked on the future.

That addic­tion remains with Schwartz today: most recent­ly, he’s been fore­cast­ing the shape of work to come for Sales­force. The key ques­tion, he real­ized, “was not what did I think about the future, but what did every­body else think about the future?” And among “every­body else,” he places spe­cial val­ue on the abil­i­ties of those pos­sessed of imag­i­na­tion, col­lab­o­ra­tive abil­i­ty, and “ruth­less curios­i­ty.” As for the great­est threat to sce­nario plan­ning, he names “fear of the future,” call­ing it “one of the worst prob­lems we have today.” There will be more set­backs, more “wars and pan­ics and pan­demics and so on.” But “the great arc of human progress, and the gain of pros­per­i­ty, and a bet­ter life for all, that will con­tin­ue.” Despite all he’s seen – and indeed, because of all he’s seen — Peter Schwartz still believes in the long boom.

Relat­ed con­tent:

In 1997, Wired Mag­a­zine Pre­dicts 10 Things That Could Go Wrong in the 21st Cen­tu­ry: “An Uncon­trol­lable Plague,” Cli­mate Cri­sis, Rus­sia Becomes a Klep­toc­ra­cy & More

Pio­neer­ing Sci-Fi Author William Gib­son Pre­dicts in 1997 How the Inter­net Will Change Our World

In 1922, a Nov­el­ist Pre­dicts What the World Will Look Like in 2022: Wire­less Tele­phones, 8‑Hour Flights to Europe & More

In 1926, Niko­la Tes­la Pre­dicts the World of 2026

M.I.T. Com­put­er Pro­gram Pre­dicts in 1973 That Civ­i­liza­tion Will End by 2040

Why Map­mak­ers Once Thought Cal­i­for­nia Was an Island

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.

Watch Laurie Anderson’s Hypnotic Harvard Lecture Series on Poetry, Meditation, Death, New York & More

These days the term mul­ti­me­dia sounds thor­ough­ly passé, like the apoth­e­o­sis of the 1990s tech­no-cul­tur­al buzz­word. But per­haps it also refers to a dimen­sion of art first opened in that era, of a kind in which trend-chasers dab­bled but whose poten­tial they rarely both­ered to prop­er­ly explore. But hav­ing estab­lished her­self as a for­mal­ly and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly dar­ing artist long before the 1990s, Lau­rie Ander­son was ide­al­ly placed to inhab­it the mul­ti­me­dia era. In a way, she’s con­tin­ued to inhab­it it ever since, con­tin­u­al­ly press­ing new audio­vi­su­al plat­forms into the ser­vice of her sig­na­ture qual­i­ties of expres­sion: con­tem­pla­tive, artic­u­late, high­ly digres­sive, and final­ly hyp­not­ic.

Ander­son­’s com­mit­ment to this enter­prise has brought her no few hon­ors. Biogra­phies often men­tion her time as NASA’s first (and, it seems, last) artist-in-res­i­dence; more recent­ly, she was named Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty’s 2021 Charles Eliot Nor­ton Pro­fes­sor of Poet­ry. This posi­tion entails the deliv­ery of the Charles Eliot Nor­ton Lec­ture, a series meant to deal with poet­ry “in the broad­est sense,” encom­pass­ing “all poet­ic expres­sion in lan­guage, music, or the fine arts.”

Nor­ton lec­tur­ers pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture include Leonard Bern­stein, Her­bie Han­cock, and Jorge Luis Borges. “I am pret­ty sure that the Nor­ton com­mit­tee at Har­vard made an enor­mous mis­take when they asked me to do this lec­ture series,” Ander­son told the Har­vard Gazette, “and it was real­ly my own sense of the absurd that made me want to say yes.”

Few could seri­ous­ly have doubt­ed Ander­son­’s abil­i­ty to rise to the occa­sion. She did, how­ev­er, face a unique chal­lenge in the his­to­ry of the Nor­ton Lec­tures: deliv­er­ing them on Zoom, that now-ubiq­ui­tous video-con­fer­enc­ing appli­ca­tion of the COVID-19 era. Despite belong­ing to a gen­er­a­tion not all of whose mem­bers demon­strate great pro­fi­cien­cy with such tech­nolo­gies, Ander­son her­self appears to have tak­en to Zoom like the prover­bial duck to water. Such, at least, is the impres­sion giv­en by “Spend­ing the War With­out You: Vir­tu­al Back­grounds,” her six-part Nor­ton Lec­ture series now avail­able to watch on Youtube. Its sub­ti­tle hints at one fea­ture of Zoom of which she makes rich use — but hard­ly the only fea­ture.

Through­out “Spend­ing the War With­out You,” Ander­son also super­im­pos­es a vari­ety of vir­tu­al faces over her own: Sig­mund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Loni Ander­son, and even her musi­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor Bri­an Eno. This sort of thing would­n’t have been pos­si­ble even in the long­time fan­ta­sy she cites as an inspi­ra­tion for these lec­tures: host­ing a radio show at 4:00 a.m., “a time when real­i­ty and dreams just sort of merge and it’s hard to tell the dif­fer­ence between them.” That’s just the right head­space in which to lis­ten to Ander­son make her ele­gant­ly spaced-out way through such top­ics as her life in New York, tai chi and med­i­ta­tion, lan­guage as a virus, the death of John Lennon, the cul­ture of the inter­net, Cather­ine the Great, the com­bi­na­tion of sound and image, The Wind in the Wil­lows, non-fun­gi­ble tokens, and Amer­i­can cheese. Tak­ing advan­tage of her dig­i­tal medi­um, she also plays the vio­lin, explores vir­tu­al realms, and dances along­side her younger self.

The col­li­sion of all these ele­ments feels not unlike Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell, Nam June Paik’s tele­vi­sion broad­cast of New Year’s Day 1984. Ander­son also took part in that project, shar­ing with Paik an artis­tic will­ing­ness to embrace new media. “I’ve almost always been a wire­head,” she says in these lec­tures 38 years lat­er. “But it’s become a night­mare in some ways, with peo­ple attached now to their devices, with a death grip on their phones. At the same time, it’s the same machine that cre­at­ed celebri­ty cul­ture.” Look­ing back on a “humil­i­at­ing” clip of her­self and Peter Gabriel per­form­ing on Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell, she recalls her state of mind dur­ing the com­mer­cial and tech­no­log­i­cal onrush of the 1980s: “Every­thing was mov­ing fast, and I just was­n’t think­ing. That’s my excuse, any­way.” See the full lec­ture series here, or up top. The lec­tures will be added to our col­lec­tion: 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Lau­rie Ander­son Read from The Tibetan Book of the Dead on New Album Songs from the Bar­do

Lau­rie Ander­son Intro­duces Her Vir­tu­al Real­i­ty Instal­la­tion That Lets You Fly Mag­i­cal­ly Through Sto­ries

Lou Reed and Lau­rie Anderson’s Three Rules for Liv­ing Well: A Short and Suc­cinct Life Phi­los­o­phy

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Her­bie Han­cock Presents the Pres­ti­gious Nor­ton Lec­tures at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty: Watch Online

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

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.

Harvard’s Digital Giza Project Lets You Access the Largest Online Archive on the Egyptian Pyramids (Including a 3D Giza Tour)

Noth­ing excites the imag­i­na­tion of young his­to­ry-and-sci­ence-mind­ed kids like the Egypt­ian pyra­mids, which is maybe why so many peo­ple grow up into ama­teur Egyp­tol­o­gists with very strong opin­ions about the pyra­mids. For such peo­ple, access to the high­est qual­i­ty infor­ma­tion seems crit­i­cal for their online debates. For pro­fes­sion­al aca­d­e­mics and seri­ous stu­dents of ancient Egypt such access is crit­i­cal to doing their work prop­er­ly. All lovers and stu­dents of ancient Egypt will find what they need, freely avail­able, at Har­vard University’s Dig­i­tal Giza Project.

“Chil­dren and spe­cial­ized schol­ars alike may study the mate­r­i­al cul­ture of this ancient civ­i­liza­tion from afar,” Harvard’s Meta­l­ab writes, “often with greater access than could be achieved in per­son.” The project opened at Har­vard in 2011 after spend­ing its first eleven years at the Muse­um of Fine Arts, Boston with the goal of “dig­i­tiz­ing and post­ing for free online all of the archae­o­log­i­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion from the Har­vard University—Boston Muse­um of Fine Arts Expe­di­tion to Giza, Egypt (about 1904–1947),” notes the about page.

The Dig­i­tal Giza Project was born from a need to cen­tral­ize research and arti­facts that have been scat­tered all over the globe. “Doc­u­ments and images are held in far­away archives,” the Har­vard Gazette points out, “arti­facts and oth­er relics of ancient Egypt have been dis­persed, stolen, or destroyed, and tombs and mon­u­ments have been dis­man­tled, weath­er-worn, or locked away behind pas­sages filled in when an exca­va­tion clos­es.” Oth­er obsta­cles to research include the expense of trav­el and, more recent­ly, the impos­si­bil­i­ty of vis­it­ing far-off sites.

Expand­ing far beyond the scope of the orig­i­nal expe­di­tions, the project has part­nered with “many oth­er insti­tu­tions around the world with Giza-relat­ed col­lec­tions” to com­pile its search­able library of down­load­able PDF books and jour­nal arti­cles. Kids, adult enthu­si­asts, and spe­cial­ists will all appre­ci­ate Giza 3D, a recon­struc­tion with guid­ed tours of all the major arche­o­log­i­cal sites at the pyra­mids, from tombs to tem­ples to the Great Sphinx, as well as links to images and arche­o­log­i­cal details about each of the var­i­ous finds with­in.

For a pre­view of the mul­ti­me­dia expe­ri­ence on offer at the Dig­i­tal Giza Project, see the videos here from project’s YouTube chan­nel. Each short video pro­vides a wealth of infor­ma­tion; young learn­ers and those just get­ting start­ed in their Egyp­tol­ogy stud­ies can find lessons, glos­saries, an overview of the peo­ple and places of Giza, and more at the Giza @ School page. What­ev­er your age, occu­pa­tion, or lev­el of com­mit­ment, if you’re inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about the pyra­mids at Giza, you need to book­mark Dig­i­tal Giza. Start here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Who Built the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids & How Did They Do It?: New Arche­o­log­i­cal Evi­dence Busts Ancient Myths

A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Orig­i­nal Col­ors Still In It

What Ancient Egypt­ian Sound­ed Like & How We Know It

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

The Little-Known Female Scientists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Century Ago: An Introduction to the “Harvard Computers”

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

As team names go, the Har­vard Com­put­ers has kind of an odd­ball ring to it, but it’s far prefer­able to Pickering’s Harem, as the female sci­en­tists brought in under the Har­vard Observatory’s male direc­tor were col­lec­tive­ly referred to ear­ly on in their 40-some years of ser­vice to the insti­tu­tion.

A pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal sto­ry has it that Direc­tor Edward Pick­er­ing was so frus­trat­ed by his male assis­tants’ pokey pace in exam­in­ing 1000s of pho­to­graph­ic plates bear­ing images of stars spot­ted by tele­scopes in Har­vard and the south­ern hemi­sphere, he declared his maid could do a bet­ter job.

If true, it was no idle threat.

In 1881, Pick­er­ing did indeed hire his maid, Williami­na Flem­ing, to review the plates with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, cat­a­logu­ing the bright­ness of stars that showed up as smudges or grey or black spots. She also cal­cu­lat­ed—aka computed—their posi­tions, and, when pos­si­ble, chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion, col­or, and tem­per­a­ture.

The new­ly sin­gle 23-year-old moth­er was not une­d­u­cat­ed. She had served as a teacher for years pri­or to emi­grat­ing from Scot­land, but when her hus­band aban­doned her in Boston, she couldn’t afford to be fussy about the kind of employ­ment she sought. Work­ing at the Pick­er­ings meant secure lodg­ing and a small income.

Not that the pro­mo­tion rep­re­sent­ed a finan­cial wind­fall for Flem­ing and the more than 80 female com­put­ers who joined her over the next four decades. They earned between 25 to 50 cents an hour, half of what a man in the same posi­tion would have been paid.

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

At one point Flem­ing, who as a sin­gle moth­er was quite aware that she was bur­dened with “all house­keep­ing cares …in addi­tion to those of pro­vid­ing the means to meet their expens­es,” addressed the mat­ter of her low wages with Pick­er­ing, leav­ing her to vent in her diary:

I am imme­di­ate­ly told that I receive an excel­lent salary as women’s salaries stand.… Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a fam­i­ly to take care of as well as the men?… And this is con­sid­ered an enlight­ened age!

Har­vard cer­tain­ly got its money’s worth from its female work­force when you con­sid­er that the clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems they devel­oped led to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of near­ly 400,000 stars.

Flem­ing, who became respon­si­ble for hir­ing her cowork­ers, was the first to dis­cov­er white dwarfs and the Horse­head Neb­u­la in Ori­on, in addi­tion to 51 oth­er neb­u­lae, 10 novae, and 310 vari­able stars.

An impres­sive achieve­ment, but anoth­er diary entry belies any glam­our we might be tempt­ed to assign:

From day to day my duties at the Obser­va­to­ry are so near­ly alike that there will be lit­tle to describe out­side ordi­nary rou­tine work of mea­sure­ment, exam­i­na­tion of pho­tographs, and of work involved in the reduc­tion of these obser­va­tions.

Pick­er­ing believed that the female com­put­ers should attend con­fer­ences and present papers, but for the most part, they were kept so busy ana­lyz­ing pho­to­graph­ic plates, they had lit­tle time left over to explore their own areas of inter­est, some­thing that might have afford­ed them work of a more the­o­ret­i­cal nature.

Anoth­er diary entry finds Flem­ing yearn­ing to get out from under a moun­tain of busy work:

Look­ing after the numer­ous pieces of rou­tine work which have to be kept pro­gress­ing, search­ing for con­fir­ma­tion of objects dis­cov­ered else­where, attend­ing to sci­en­tif­ic cor­re­spon­dence, get­ting mate­r­i­al in form for pub­li­ca­tion, etc, has con­sumed so much of my time dur­ing the past four years that lit­tle is left for the par­tic­u­lar inves­ti­ga­tions in which I am espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed.

And yet the work of Flem­ing and oth­er notable com­put­ers such as Hen­ri­et­ta Swan Leav­itt and Annie Jump Can­non is still help­ing sci­en­tists make sense of the heav­ens, so much so that Har­vard is seek­ing vol­un­teers for Project PHaE­DRA, to help tran­scribe their log­books and note­books to make them full-text search­able on the NASA Astro­physics Data Sys­tem. Learn how you can get involved here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

Women Sci­en­tists Launch a Data­base Fea­tur­ing the Work of 9,000 Women Work­ing in the Sci­ences

Real Women Talk About Their Careers in Sci­ence

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Harvard Students Perform Amazing Boomwhacker Covers of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,” Toto’s “Africa” & More

Short­ly before he died, Queen’s front­man, Fred­die Mer­cury, famous­ly remarked, “Do what­ev­er you want with my life and my music, just don’t make it bor­ing.”

Mis­sion accom­plished, thanks to the Har­vard Under­grad­u­ate Drum­mers, more com­mon­ly known as THUD.

The ensem­ble, which rehears­es week­ly, is will­ing to con­sid­er any­thing with per­cus­sive potential—plastic cups, chalk­boards, buckets—as an instru­ment, but is best known for its vir­tu­oso boomwhack­er per­for­mances.

boomwhack­er, for the unini­ti­at­ed, is a light­weight, hol­low plas­tic tube, whose length deter­mines its musi­cal pitch. When smacked against hand or thigh, it pro­duces a pleas­ing­ly res­o­nant sound. Col­or-cod­ing helps play­ers keep track of which boomwhack­er to reach for dur­ing a fast-paced, pre­cise­ly orches­trat­ed num­ber.

In the­o­ry, boomwhack­ers are sim­ple enough for a child to mas­ter, but THUD takes things to a lofti­er plateau with cus­tom craft­ed sheet music sys­tem­ized so that no one play­er gets stuck with an impos­si­bly com­plex task.

“A lot of it real­ly comes down to feel and mus­cle mem­o­ry,” THUD’s assis­tant direc­tor Ben Palmer told The Irish Exam­in­er. “After play­ing the song enough and inter­nal­is­ing it, we have a sense of where our notes come in. Also, many times our parts will play off each oth­er, so we give each oth­er cues by look­ing at each oth­er just before we play.”

(That Ker­mit the Frog-like voice chim­ing in on THUD’s “Bohemi­an Rhap­sody” cov­er, which many view­ers have mis­tak­en for an obnox­ious audi­ence mem­ber get­ting a lit­tle too into the pro­ceed­ings, is actu­al­ly an ensem­ble mem­ber help­ing the oth­ers stay the course.

As seri­ous as the group is about rehearsal and pro­vid­ing local school kids with free inter­ac­tive music lessons, their live shows lean in to the silli­ness inher­ent in their cho­sen instru­ment.

This good humored self-aware­ness defus­es the snarki­er com­ments on their YouTube chan­nel (“So this is why Har­vard’s tuition is so expen­sive…”)

Check out more THUD per­for­mances on the group’s YouTube chan­nel, or help defray their oper­at­ing costs with a pledge to their Patre­on.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pachelbel’s Chick­en: Your Favorite Clas­si­cal Pieces Played Mas­ter­ful­ly on a Rub­ber Chick­en

The Orig­i­nal Noise Artist: Hear the Strange Exper­i­men­tal Sounds & Instru­ments of Ital­ian Futur­ist, Lui­gi Rus­so­lo (1913)

The Health Ben­e­fits of Drum­ming: Less Stress, Low­er Blood Pres­sure, Pain Relief, and Altered States of Con­scious­ness

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inkyzine.  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.

Harvard Gives Free Online Access to 40 Million Pages of U.S. Case Law: Explore 6.4 Million Cases Dating Back to 1658

There was a time—a strange time in pop cul­ture his­to­ry, I’ll grant—when legal dra­mas were every­where in tele­vi­sion, pop­u­lar fic­tion, and film. Next to the barn-burn­ing court­room set pieces in A Few Good Men and A Time to Kill, for exam­ple, scenes of lawyers por­ing over case law with loos­ened ties, high heels kicked off, and mar­ti­nis and scotch­es in hand were ren­dered with max­i­mum dra­mat­ic ten­sion, despite the fact that case law is a nigh unread­able jum­ble of jar­gon, cita­tions, archa­ic dic­tion and syn­tax, etc… any­thing but brim­ming with cin­e­mat­ic poten­tial.

Do law stu­dents and legal schol­ars dis­agree with this assess­ment? It’s beside the point, many might say. The cen­turies-old web of case law—reinforcing, con­tra­dict­ing, over­turn­ing, cre­at­ing pat­terns and structures—is the very stuff the law is made of.

It’s a ref­er­en­tial tra­di­tion, and when most of the doc­u­ments are in the hands of only a few peo­ple, only those peo­ple under­stand why the law works the way it does. The rest of us are left to won­der why the legal sys­tem is so Byzan­tine and incom­pre­hen­si­ble. Real life rarely has the clar­i­ty of a sat­is­fy­ing court­room dra­ma.

Last year, The Har­vard Crim­son report­ed a seem­ing­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary shift in that dynam­ic, when Har­vard Law’s Caselaw Access Project “dig­i­tized more than 40 mil­lion pages of U.S. state, fed­er­al, and ter­ri­to­r­i­al case law doc­u­ments from the Law School library,” dat­ing back to 1658.  The Crim­son issued one caveat: the full data­base is acces­si­ble to the pub­lic, but “users are lim­it­ed to five hun­dred full case texts per day.” Plan your intense, scotch-soaked all-nighters accord­ing­ly.

Is this altru­ism, civic duty, a move in the right direc­tion of free­ing pub­licly fund­ed research for pub­lic use?  Sev­er­al Har­vard Law fac­ul­ty have said as much. “Case law is the prod­uct of pub­lic resources poured into our court sys­tem,” writes Pro­fes­sor I. Glenn Cohen. “It’s great that the pub­lic will now have bet­ter access to it.” It is indeed, Pro­fes­sor Christo­pher T. Bavitz says: “If we want to ensure that peo­ple have access to jus­tice, that means that we have to ensure that they have access to cas­es. The text of cas­es is the law.”

The law is not a set of abstract prin­ci­ples, the­o­ries, or rules, in oth­er words, but a series of his­tor­i­cal exam­ples, woven togeth­er into a social nar­ra­tive. Machines can ana­lyze data from The Caselaw Access Project far faster and more effi­cient­ly than any human, giv­ing us broad­er views of legal his­to­ry and prece­dent, and great­ly expand­ing pub­lic under­stand­ing of the sys­tem. Harvard’s Library Inno­va­tion Lab has itself already cre­at­ed sev­er­al apps for just this pur­pose.

There’s Cal­i­for­nia Word­clouds, which shows the most-used words in Cal­i­for­nia caselaw between 1852 and 2015, and Witch­craft in Caselaw, which does what it says, with an inter­ac­tive map of all appear­ances of witch­craft in cas­es across the coun­try. There’s “Fun Stuff” too, like a Caselaw Lim­er­ick Gen­er­a­tor, a visu­al data­base that ana­lyzes col­ors in case law, and “Gavel­fury,” which ana­lyzes “all instances of ‘!,’” giv­ing us gems like “Do you remem­ber if it was mur­der!” from Bowl­ing v. State, 229 Ark. 876 (Dec. 22, 1958).

One new graph­ing tool, His­tor­i­cal Trends, announced in June, makes it easy for users to “visu­al­ize word usage in court opin­ions over time,” writes the Library Inno­va­tion Lab. (Exam­ples include com­par­ing the “fre­quen­cy of ‘com­pen­sato­ry dam­ages’ and ‘puni­tive dam­ages’ in New York and Cal­i­for­nia” and com­par­ing “pri­va­cy” with “pub­lic­i­ty.”) Any­one can build their own data visu­al­iza­tion using their own search terms. (Learn how and get start­ed here.) Case law may nev­er be glam­orous, exact­ly, or fun to read, but it may be far more inter­est­ing, and empow­er­ing, than we imag­ine.

Be aware that the Caselaw Access Project could still find ways to restrict or mon­e­tize access, for a short time, at least. “The project was fund­ed part­ly through a part­ner­ship with Rav­el, a legal ana­lyt­ics start­up found­ed by two Stan­ford Law School stu­dents,” reports the Crim­son. The com­pa­ny “earned ‘some com­mer­cial rights’ through March 2024 to charge for greater access to files.” The start­up has issued no word on whether this will hap­pen. In the mean­time, pub­lic inter­est legal schol­ars may wish to do their own dig­ging through this trove of caselaw to bet­ter under­stand the public’s right to infor­ma­tion of all kinds.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bound by Law?: Free Com­ic Book Explains How Copy­right Com­pli­cates Art

Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy: A Free Course from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty

Har­vard Launch­es a Free Online Course to Pro­mote Reli­gious Tol­er­ance & Under­stand­ing

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

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