“The Most Intelligent Photo Ever Taken”: The 1927 Solvay Council Conference, Featuring Einstein, Bohr, Curie, Heisenberg, Schrödinger & More

A curious thing happened at the end of the 19th century and the dawning of the 20th. As European and American industries became increasingly confident in their methods of invention and production, scientists made discovery after discovery that shook their understanding of the physical world to the core. “Researchers in the 19th century had thought they would soon describe all known physical processes using the equations of Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell,” Adam Mann writes at Wired. But “the new and unexpected observations were destroying this rosy outlook.”

These observations included X-rays, the photoelectric effect, nuclear radiation and electrons; “leading physicists, such as Max Planck and Walter Nernst believed circumstances were dire enough to warrant an international symposium that could attempt to resolve the situation.” Those scientists could not have known that over a century later, we would still be staring at what physicist Dominic Walliman calls the “Chasm of Ignorance” at the edge of quantum theory. But they did initiate “the quantum revolution” in the first Solvay Council, in Brussels, named for wealthy chemist and organizer Ernest Solvay.




“Reverberations from this meeting are still felt to this day… though physics may still sometimes seem to be in crisis” writes Mann (in a 2011 article just months before the discovery of the Higgs boson). The inaugural meeting kicked off a series of conferences on physics and chemistry that have continued into the 21st century. Included in the proceedings were Planck, “often called the father of quantum mechanics,” Ernest Rutherford, who discovered the proton, and Heike Kamerlingh-Onnes, who discovered superconductivity.

Also present were mathematician Henri Poincaré, chemist Marie Curie, and a 32-year-old Albert Einstein, the second youngest member of the group. Einstein described the first Solvay conference (1911) in a letter to a friend as “the lamentations on the ruins of Jerusalem. Nothing positive came out of it.” The ruined “temple,” in this case, were the theories of classical physics, “which had dominated scientific thinking in the previous century.” Einstein understood the dismay, but found his colleagues to be irrationally stubborn and conservative.

Nonetheless, he wrote, the scientists gathered at the Solvay Council “probably all agree that the so-called quantum theory is, indeed, a helpful tool but that it is not a theory in the usual sense of the word, at any rate not a theory that could be developed in a coherent form at the present time.” During the Fifth Solvay Council, in 1927, Einstein tried to prove that the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (and hence quantum mechanics itself) was just plain wrong,” writes Jonathan Dowling, co-director of the Horace Hearne Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Physicist Niels Bohr responded vigorously. “This debate went on for days,” Dowling writes, “and continued on 3 years later at the next conference.” At one point, Einstein uttered his famous quote, “God does not play dice,” in a “room full of the world’s most notable scientific minds,” Amanda Macias writes at Business Insider. Bohr responded, “stop telling God what to do.” That room full of luminaries also sat for a portrait, as they had during the first Solvay Council meeting. See the assembled group at the top and further up in a colorized version in what may be, as one Redditor calls it, “the most intelligent picture ever taken.”

The full list of participants is below:

Front row: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, C.T.R Wilson, Owen Richardson.

Middle row: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr.

Back row: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, JE Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Fowler, Léon Brillouin.

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

How Levi’s 501 Jeans Became Iconic: A Short Documentary Featuring John Baldessari, Henry Rollins, Lee Ranaldo & More

In his memoir Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, the American Japanologist John Nathan remembers evenings in the 1960s spent with Yukio Mishima, whose work he translated into English. “I listened raptly as he recited passages from The Tale of the Heike that revealed the fierceness and delicacy of Japan’s warrior-poets, or showed me the fine calibration of the Chinese spectrum,” Nathan writes. “One night he stood up abruptly from behind his desk, asked me to wait a minute, and left the room. When he came back he had changed into a pair of blue jeans and a thick black leather belt. He explained that he had been sandpapering the jeans to make them identical to the pair Marlon Brando had worn in The Wild One.”

Even a figure like Mishima, who within a few years would die in an ultranationalistic ritual suicide after a hopeless attempted coup, felt the allure of American blue jeans. Though Nathan doesn’t note whether Mishima’s pair were genuine Levi’s 501s, the exacting standards to which Mishima held himself in all respects would seem to demand that measure of authenticity.




“Authenticity,” of course, is a quality from which Levi Strauss & Co. have drawn a great deal of value for their brand, their signature riveted denim product going back as it does nearly a century and a half, to a time when rugged pants were in great demand from the miners of California’s gold rush. But it was in the economically flush and newly media-saturated decades after the Second World War that jeans took their hold on the American imagination, and soon on the world’s.

The pants, the myth, and the legend star in The 501 Jean: Stories of an Original, a threepart series of short documentaries produced by Levi’s themselves and narrated by American folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Its gallery of 501-wearers includes such job titles as Musician, Photographer, Garmentologist, Biker, Creative Director, Music/Style Consultant, and Urban Cowboy. Conceptual artist John Baldessari discusses the childhood love of cowboy shows that lodged jeans permanently into his worldview. Album designer Gary Burden brings out his own work, a copy of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, to demonstrate the impact of jeans on popular music. That both Burden and Baldessari have passed away since these videos’ production underscores the current fast departure of the generations who took jeans from the realm of the utilitarian into that of the iconic — some of whose members have doubtless chosen to be buried in their 501s.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletterBooks 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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

It’s a good bet your first box of crayons or watercolors was a simple affair of six or so colors… just like the palette belonging to Amenemopet, vizier to Pharaoh Amenhotep III (c.1391 – c.1354 BC), a pleasure-loving patron of the arts whose rule coincided with a period of great prosperity.

Amenemopet’s well-used artist’s palette, above, now resides in the Egyptian wing of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Over 3000 years old and carved from a single piece of ivory, the palette is marked “beloved of Re,” a royal reference to the sun god dear to both Amenhotep III and Akhenaton, his son and successor, whose worship of Re resembled monotheism.




As curator Catharine H. Roehrig notes in the Metropolitan’s publication, Life along the Nile: Three Egyptians of Ancient Thebes, the palette “contains the six basic colors of the Egyptian palette, plus two extras: reddish brown, a mixture of red ocher and carbon; and orange, a mixture of orpiment (yellow) and red ocher. The painter could also vary his colors by applying a thicker or thinner layer of paint or by adding white or black to achieve a lighter or darker shade.”

(Careful when mixing that orpiment into your red ocher, kids. It’s a form of arsenic.)

Other minerals that would have been ground and combined with a natural binding agent include gypsum, carbon, iron oxides, blue and green azurite and malachite.

The colors themselves would have had strong symbolism for Amenhotep and his people, and the artist would have made very deliberateregulated, evenchoices as to which pigment to load onto his palm fiber brush when decorating tombs, temples, public buildings, and pottery.

As Jenny Hill writes in Ancient Egypt Onlineiwn—colorcan also be translated as “disposition,” “character,” “complexion” or “nature.” She delves into the specifics of each of the six basic colors:

Wadj (green) also means “to flourish” or “to be healthy.” The hieroglyph represented the papyrus plant as well as the green stone malachite (wadj). The color green represented vegetation, new life and fertility. In an interesting parallel with modern terminology, actions which preserved the fertility of the land or promoted life were described as “green.”

Dshr (red) was a powerful color because of its association with blood, in particular the protective power of the blood of Isis…red could also represent anger, chaos and fire and was closely associated with Set, the unpredictable god of storms. Set had red hair, and people with red hair were thought to be connected to him. As a result, the Egyptians described a person in a fit of rage as having a “red heart” or as being “red upon” the thing that made them angry. A person was described as having “red eyes” if they were angry or violent. “To redden” was to die and “making red” was a euphemism for killing.

Irtyu (blue) was the color of the heavens and hence represented the universe. Many temples, sarcophagi and burial vaults have a deep blue roof speckled with tiny yellow stars. Blue is also the color of the Nile and the primeval waters of chaos (known as Nun).

Khenet (yellow) represented that which was eternal and indestructible, and was closely associated with gold (nebu or nebw) and the sun. Gold was thought to be the substance which formed the skin of the gods.

Hdj (white) represented purity and omnipotence. Many sacred animals (hippo, oxen and cows) were white. White clothing was worn during religious rituals and to “wear white sandals” was to be a priest…White was also seen as the opposite of red, because of the latter’s association with rage and chaos, and so the two were often paired to represent completeness.

Kem (black) represented death and the afterlife to the ancient Egyptians. Osiris was given the epithet “the black one” because he was the king of the netherworld, and both he and Anubis (the god of embalming) were portrayed with black faces. The Egyptians also associated black with fertility and resurrection because much of their agriculture was dependent on the rich dark silt deposited on the river banks by the Nile during the inundation. When used to represent resurrection, black and green were interchangeable.

via My Modern Met

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How the Bicycle Accelerated the Women’s Rights Movement (Circa 1890)

The early history of the bicycle did not promise great things—or anything, really—for women at the dawn of the 19th century. A two-wheeled bicycle-like invention, for example, built in 1820, “was more like an agricultural implement in construction than a bicycle,” one bicycle history notes. Made of wood, the “hobby horses” and velocipedes of cycling’s first decades rolled on iron wheels. Their near-total lack of suspension led to the epithet “boneshaker.” Some had steering mechanisms, some did not. Braking was generally accomplished with the feet, or a crowd of pedestrians, a tree, or horse-drawn cart.

Laddish clubs formed and raced around London, Paris, and New York. No girls allowed. The earliest bicycles for women were ridden side-saddle…. But despite all this, it is entirely fair to say that few technologies in history, ancient or modern, have done more to free women from domestic toilage and bring them careening into the public square, to the dismay of the Victorian establishment.




Bicycles “gave women a new level of transportation independence that perplexed newspaper columnists” and the general public, writes Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic, quoting a San Francisco journalist in 1895:

It really doesn’t matter much where this one individual young lady is going on her wheel. It may be that she’s going to the park on pleasure bent, or to the store for a dozen hairpins, or to call on a sick friend at the other side of town, or to get a doily pattern of somebody, or a recipe for removing tan and freckles. Let that be as it may. What the interested public wishes to know is, Where are all the women on wheels going? Is there a grand rendezvous somewhere toward which they are all headed and where they will some time hold a meet that will cause this wobbly old world to wake up and readjust itself?

Women cyclists were seen as the advanced guard of a coming war. “Squarely in the center of this battle was one tool,” notes the Vox video above, “that completely changed the game.” Both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are credited with declaring that ‘woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle,’ a line that was printed and reprinted in newspapers at the turn of the century,” LaFrance writes. By the 1890s, everyone rode bicycles, the first Tour de France was only a few years away, and cycling technology had come so far that it would help create both the car—with its innovative pneumatic tires and spoked wheels—and the airplane, through the experiments of Ohio bicycle-makers the Wright Brothers.

The new bikes, originally called “safety bikes” to contrast them with giant-wheeled penny-farthings that were briefly the norm, may not have developed gearing systems yet, but they were far lighter, cheaper, and easier to ride (comparatively) than the bicycles that had come before, which began as playthings for wealthy young men-about-town. The National Women’s History Museum describes the scene:

At the turn of the century, trains, automobiles, and streetcars were growing in use in urban areas, but people still largely depended on horses for transportation. Horses, and especially carriages, were expensive and women often had to depend on men to hitch up the horses for travel…. Surrounded by inefficient and expensive forms of travel, bicycles arrived in cities with the promise of practicality and affordability. Bicycles were relatively inexpensive and provided men and women with individual transportation for business, sports, or recreation.

Not only did bicycles give women equal access to personal rapid transit, but they did so for women of many different social classes. The leveling effects were significant, as were the changes to women’s fashion. Exposed calves (though still encased in various cycling boots) prepared the way for trousers. Traditionalists were outraged, ceaselessly mocked women on bikes, as they mocked the suffragists, and pushed for restrictions on full freedom of movement. “Whilst the 1890s saw discourses of middle-class femininity become reconciled with the notion of women on bicycles,” The Victorian Cyclist points out, “learning to ride a bicycle required middle-class women to carefully navigate their way through a set of highly conservative and rigid gender norms.”

Despite media efforts to tamp down or tame the revolutionary potential of the bicycle for women, the market that made the machines saw no problem with increasing sales. Bicycle poster art and advertising from the turn of the 20th century is dominated by women cyclists, who are portrayed as ordinary ramblers about town, hip adventurers, ultra-modern “New Women,” and, perhaps less progressively, nude goddesses. Whether we call it Gilded Age, Belle Epoque, or Fin de siècle, the end of the 19th century produced a transportation revolution that was also, through no particularly conscious design of the makers of the bicycle, a revolution in women’s rights and thus human freedom writ large.

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

 

A 16th-Century Astronomy Book Featured “Analog Computers” to Calculate the Shape of the Moon, the Position of the Sun, and More

If you want to learn how the planets move, you’ll almost certainly go to one place first: Youtube. Yes, there have been plenty of worthwhile books written on the subject, and reading them will prove essential to further deepening your understanding. But videos have the capacity of motion, an undeniable benefit when motion itself is the concept under discussion. Less than twenty years into the Youtube age, we’ve already seen a good deal of innovation in the art of audiovisual explanation. But we’re also well over half a millennium into the age of the book as we know it, a time that even in its early phases saw impressive attempts to go beyond text on a page.

Take, for example, Peter Apian‘s Cosmographia, first published in 1524. A 16th-century German polymath, Apian (also known as Petrus Apianus, and born Peter Bienewitz) had a professional interest in mathematics, astronomy and cartography. At their intersection stood the subject of “cosmography” from which this impressive book takes its name, and its project of mapping the then-known universe.




“The treatise provided instruction in astronomy, geography, cartography, navigation, and instrument-making,” writes Frank Swetz at the Mathematical Association of America. “It was one of the first European books to depict and discuss North America and included movable volvelles allowing the readers to interact with and use some of the charts and instrument layouts presented.”

Pop-up book enthusiasts like Ellen Rubin will know what volvelles are; you and I may not, but if you’ve ever moved a paper wheel or slider on a page, you’ve used one. The volvelle first emerged in the medieval era, not as an amusement to liven up children’s books but as a kind of “analog computer” embedded in serious scientific works. “The volvelles make the practical nature of cosmography clear,” writes Katie Taylor at Cambridge’s Whipple Library, which holds a copy of Cosmographia. “Readers could manipulate these devices to solve problems: finding the time at different places and or one’s latitude, given the height of the Sun above the horizon.”

Apian originally included three such volvelles in Cosmographia. Later, his disciple Gemma Frisius, a Dutch physician, instrument maker and mathematician, produced expanded editions that included another. “In all its forms,” writes Swetz, “the book was extremely popular in the 16th century, going through 30 printings in 14 languages.” Despite the book’s success, it’s not so easy to come by a copy in good (indeed working) condition nearly 500 years later. If these descriptions of its pages and their volvelles have piqued your curiosity, you can see these ingenious paper devices in action in these videos tweeted out by Atlas Obscura. As with planets themselves, you can’t fully appreciate them until you see them move for yourself.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Look Inside William S. Burroughs’ Bunker

When everybody had one or two vodkas and smoked a few joints, it was always the time for the blowgun. —John Giorno

From 1974 to 1982, writer William S. Burroughs lived in a former locker room of a 19th-century former-YMCA on New York City’s Lower East Side.

When he moved on, his stuff, including his worn out shoes, his gun mags, the typewriter on which he wrote Cities of the Red Night, and half of The Place of Dead Roads, a well-worn copy of The Medical Implications of Karate Blows, and a lamp made from a working Civil war-era rifle, remained.

His friend, neighbor, tourmate, and occasional lover, poet John Giorno preserved “The Bunker” largely as Burroughs had left it, and seems to delight in rehashing old times during a 2017 tour for the Louisiana Channel, above.




It’s hard to believe that Burroughs found Giorno to be “pathologically silent” in the early days of their acquaintance:

He just wouldn’t say anything. You could be there with him the whole evening, he wouldn’t say a word. It was not the shyness of youth, it was much more than that, it was a very deep lack of ability to communicate. Then he had cancer and after the operation that was completely reversed and now he is at times a compulsive talker, when he gets going there is no stopping him.

According to Burroughs’ companion, editor and literary executor, James Grauerholz, during this period in Burroughs’ life, “John was the person who contributed most to William’s care and upkeep and friendship and loved him.”

Giorno also prepared Burroughs’ favorite dishbacon wrapped chickenand joined him for target practice with the blowgun and a BB gun whose projectiles were forceful enough to penetrate a phonebook.

Proximity meant Giorno was well acquainted with the schedules that governed Burroughs’ life, from waking and writing, to his daily dose of methadone and first vodka-and-Coke of the day.

He was present for many dinner parties with famous friends including Andy WarholLou ReedFrank ZappaAllen GinsbergDebbie HarryKeith HaringJean-Michel Basquiat, and Patti Smith, who recalled visiting the Bunker in her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids:

It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes. You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door… he camped in the Bunker with his typewriter, his shotgun and his overcoat.

All Giorno had to do was walk upstairs to enjoy Burroughs’ company, but all other visitors were subjected to stringent security measures, as described by Victor Bockris in With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker:

To get into the Bunker one had to pass through three locked gates and a gray bulletproof metal door. To get through the gates you had to telephone from a nearby phone booth, at which point someone would come down and laboriously unlock, then relock three gates before leading you up the single flight of gray stone stairs to the ominous front door of William S. Burroughs’ headquarters.

Although Burroughs lived simply, he did make some modifications to his $250/month rental. He repainted the battleship gray floor white to counteract the lack of natural light. It’s pretty impregnable.

He also installed an Orgone Accumulator, the invention of psychoanalyst William Reich, who believed that spending time in the cabinet would improve the sitter’s mental, physical, and creative wellbeing by exposing them to a mysterious universal life force he dubbed orgone energy.

(“How could you get up in the morning with a hangover and go sit in one of these things?” Giorno chuckles. “The hangover is enough!”)

Included in the tour are excerpts of Giorno’s 1997 poem “The Death of William Burroughs.” Take it with a bit of salt, or an openness to the idea of astral body travel.

As per biographer Barry Miles, Burroughs died in the Lawrence Memorial Hospital ICU in Kansas, a day after suffering a heart attack. His only visitors were James Grauerholz, his assistant Tom Peschio, and Dean Ripa, a friend who’d been expected for dinner the night he fell ill.

Poetic license aside, the poem provides extra insight into the men’s friendship, and Burroughs’ time in the Bunker:

The Death of William Burroughs

by John Giorno

William died on August 2, 1997, Saturday at 6:01 in the
afternoon from complications from a massive heart attack
he’d had the day before. He was 83 years old. I was with
William Burroughs when he died, and it was one of the best
times I ever had with him.  

Doing Tibetan Nyingma Buddhist meditation practices, I
absorbed William’s consciousness into my heart. It seemed as
a bright white light, blinding but muted, empty. I was the
vehicle, his consciousness passing through me. A gentle
shooting star came in my heart and up the central channel,
and out the top of my head to a pure field of great clarity
and bliss. It was very powerful—William Burroughs resting
in great equanimity, and the vast empty expanse of
primordial wisdom mind.

I was staying in William’s house, doing my meditation
practices for him, trying to maintain good conditions and
dissolve any obstacles that might be arising for him at that
very moment in the bardo. I was confident that William had
a high degree of realization, but he was not a completely
enlightened being. Lazy, alcoholic, junkie William. I didn’t
allow doubt to arise in my mind, even for an instant,
because it would allow doubt to arise in William’s mind.

Now, I had to do it for him.

What went into William Burroughs’ coffin with his dead body:

About ten in the morning on Tuesday, August 6, 1997,
James Grauerholz and 
Ira Silverberg came to William’s
house to pick out the clothes for the funeral director to put
on William’s corpse. His clothes were in a closet in my
room. And we picked the things to go into William’s coffin
and grave, accompanying him on his journey in the
underworld.

His most favorite gun, a 38 special snub-nose, fully loaded
with five shots. He called it, “The Snubby.” The gun was my
idea. “This is very important!” William always said you can
never be too well armed in any situation. Of his more than
80 world-class guns, it was his favorite. He often wore it on
his belt during the day, and slept with it, fully loaded, on
his right side, under the bed sheet, every night for fifteen
years.

Grey fedora. He always wore a hat when he went out. We
wanted his consciousness to feel perfectly at ease, dead.

His favorite cane, a sword cane made of hickory with a
light rosewood finish.

Sport jacket, black with a dark green tint. We rummaged
through the closet and it was the best of his shabby clothes,
and smelling sweet of him.

Blue jeans, the least worn ones were the only ones clean.

Red bandana. He always kept one in his back pocket.

Jockey underwear and socks.  

Black shoes. The ones he wore when he performed. I
thought the old brown ones, that he wore all the time,
because they were comfortable. James Grauerholz insisted,
“There’s an old CIA slang that says getting a new
assignment is getting new shoes.”

White shirt. We had bought it in a men’s shop in Beverly
Hills in 1981 on The Red Night Tour. It was his best shirt,
all the others were a bit ragged, and even though it had
become tight, he’d lost a lot of weight, and we thought it
would fit.  James said,” Don’t they slit it down the back
anyway.”

Necktie, blue, hand painted by William.

Moroccan vest, green velvet with gold brocade trim, given
him by 
Brion Gysin, twenty-five years before.

In his lapel button hole, the rosette of the French
government’s Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and the
rosette of the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
honors which William very much appreciated.

A gold coin in his pants pocket. A gold 19th Century Indian
head five dollar piece, symbolizing all wealth. William
would have enough money to buy his way in the
underworld.

His eyeglasses in his outside breast pocket.

A ball point pen, the kind he always used. “He was a
writer!”, and sometimes wrote long hand.

A joint of really good grass.

Heroin. Before the funeral service, Grant Hart slipped a
small white paper packet into William’s pocket. “Nobody’s
going to bust him.” said Grant. William, bejeweled with all
his adornments, was traveling in the underworld.

I kissed him. An early LP album of us together, 1975, was
called 
Biting Off The Tongue Of A Corpse. I kissed him on
the lips, but I didn’t do it .  .  . and I should have.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Discover the First Illustrated Book Printed in English, William Caxton’s Mirror of the World (1481)

The printing history of early English books may not seem like the most fascinating subject in the world, but if you mention the name William Caxton to a book historian, you may get a fascinating lecture nonetheless. Caxton, the merchant and diplomat who introduced the printing press to England in 1476, was an unusually enterprising figure. He first learned the trade in Cologne and was pressured to begin printing in English after the success of his translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a series of stories based on Homer’s Iliad. His first known printed book was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and he went on to print translations of classical and medieval texts from the French.

Caxton’s (often inaccurate) translations became so popular that, like Chaucer, he introduced new standards into the language as a whole with his use of court Chancery English. The books printed at the time also give us a fascinating look at how the printed book evolved slowly as a new source of scientific information and a means of literary innovation.




The so-called Gutenberg Revolution did not usher in a radical break with the late medieval past so much as a gradual evolution away from its adherence to classical and church authorities and chivalric romance stories. It would take early modern writers like Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Francis Bacon to truly revolutionize the possibilities of print.

The first illustrated book Caxton printed in English offers an excellent example of early printing history’s reliance on reproducing extant medieval ideas rather than disseminating new ones. The Mirror of the World, first written in French as L’image du monde, was an encyclopedia based on a 12th century text by Honorius Augustodunensis called Imago mundi. “Encyclopedic texts were popular throughout the Middle Ages,” Glasgow University Library notes. “During this period it was commonly believed that it was possible to create one volume digests of all knowledge,” drawing solely on classical and Biblical authorities. In the introduction to Caxton’s text, we are told that the book “treateth of the world & of the wonderful dyuision [division] thereof.”

We are quite a long way yet from the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba, or “take no one’s word for it.” But Caxton’s press made several medieval manuscript prose works available for the first time to a new readership. “Evidence of early ownership of copies of his editions,” writes the British Library, “suggests the social breadth of that audience, including royalty, nobility, gentry, the mercantile classes and religious houses.” Caxton was “not content to simply draw on  pre-existing markets for manuscripts.” And he would eventually use print “to create new markets for novel and different kinds of writing,” such as the 1485 publication of Thomas Malory’s contemporary Arthurian romance, Le Morte D’arthur.

Representing the confident but cramped worldview of the medieval sciences, the Mirror of the World is “ambitious,” Allison Meier writes at Hyperallergic, dispelling any notion of a flat Earth, with descriptions of “large ideas like the roundness of the Earth and why we experience day and night… Along with some historical information, there are descriptions of the Earth, the solar system, and eclipses. The round shape of the Earth is illustrated by two men who stand back-to-back, walking away from each other and meeting again in a circle. Another describes the same idea with a rock tossed through a hole sliced in the world, with it tumbling out the other side.”

Mike Millward of the Blackburn Museum describes the images further:

The illustrations are woodcut prints which could be printed as part of the text. Caxton’s prints were probably produced in England and are rather primitive. Many are merely illustrative… Others are essential to an understanding of the text, such those illustrating the roundness of the Earth and the effect of gravity, both showing a surprisingly modern understanding

These illustrations, notes John T. McQuillan, assistant curator of printed books at the Pierpont Morgan library, were remarkably preserved from the original French text of two centuries earlier. “Print only carried on existing manuscript and textual traditions,” he notes, “and did not radically alter them, at first. Anyone who wanted to buy this text would have expected it to have these specific illustrations, and Caxton provided that to them.” Pierpont Morgan himself, who owned several of Caxton’s early printed books, “valued Caxton even over Gutenberg,” Meier writes, and “had the printer painted on the ceiling of his library’s East Room.”

Another rare books library, Princeton’s Scheide, which holds perhaps the finest collection of early European and American printing in the world, features a scanned full-text edition of Mirror of the World, the first illustrated book printed in England and a work that sits squarely on the threshold between the medieval and the modern, and that challenges our ideas about both designations.

Related Content: 

One of World’s Oldest Books Printed in Multi-Color Now Opened & Digitized for the First Time

See the Oldest Printed Advertisement in English: An Ad for a Book from 1476

The Oldest Book Printed with Movable Type is Not The Gutenberg Bible: Jikji, a Collection of Korean Buddhist Teachings, Predated It By 78 Years and It’s Now Digitized Online

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

20 Lessons from the 20th Century About How to Defend Democracy from Authoritarianism: A Timely List from Yale Historian Timothy Snyder

Image by Rob Kall, via Flickr Commons

Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale University, is one of the foremost scholars in the U.S. and Europe on the rise and fall of totalitarianism during the 1930s and 40s. Among his long list of appointments and publications, he has won multiple awards for his recent international bestsellers Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin and last year’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and WarningThat book in part makes the argument that Nazism wasn’t only a German nationalist movement but had global colonialist origins—in Russia, Africa, and in the U.S., the nation that pioneered so many methods of human extermination, racist dehumanization, and ideologically-justified land grabs.

The hyper-capitalism portrayed in the U.S.—even during the Depression—Snyder writes, fueled Hitler’s imagination, such that he promised Germans “a life comparable to that of the American people,” whose “racially pure and uncorrupted” German population he described as “world class.” Snyder describes Hitler’s ideology as a myth of racialist struggle in which “there are really no values in the world except for the stark reality that we are born in order to take things from other people.” Or as we often hear these days, that acting in accordance with this principle is the “smart” thing to do. Like many far right figures before and after, Hitler aimed to restore a state of nature that for him was a perpetual state of race war for imperial dominance.




After the November 2016 election, Snyder wrote a profile of Hitler, a short piece that made no direct comparisons to any contemporary figure. But reading the facts of the historical case alarmed most readers. A few days later, the historian appeared on a Slate podcast to discuss the article, saying that after he submitted it, “I realized there was more…. there are an awful lot of echoes.” Snyder admits that history doesn’t actually repeat itself. But we’re far too quick, he says, to dismiss that idea as a cliché “and not think about history at all. History shows a range of possibilities.” Similar events occur across time under similar kinds of conditions. And it is, of course, possible to learn from the past.

If you’ve heard other informed analysis but haven’t read Snyder’s New York Review of Books columns on fascism in Putin’s Russia or the former Yanukovich’s Ukraine, or his long article “Hitler’s World May Not Be So Far Away,” you may have seen his widely-shared Facebook post making the rounds. As he argued in The Guardian last September, today we may be “too certain we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1940s.” On November, 15, 2016 Snyder wrote on Facebook that “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.” Snyder has been criticized for conflating these regimes, and rising “into the top rungs of punditdom,” but when it comes to body counts and levels of suppressive malignancy, it’s hard to argue that Stalinist Russia, any more than Tsarist Russia, was anyone’s idea of a democracy.

Rather than making a historical case for viewing the U.S. as exactly like one of the totalitarian regimes of WWII Europe, Snyder presents 20 lessons we might learn from those times and use creatively in our own where they apply. In my view, following his suggestions would make us wiser, more self-aware, proactive, responsible citizens, whatever lies ahead. Read Snyder’s lessons from his Facebook post below and consider ordering his latest book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president [Trump] is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.

via Kottke

Note: This post originally appeared on our site in January 2017.

Related Content:

The Story of Fascism: Rick Steves’ Documentary Helps Us Learn from the Hard Lessons of the 20th Century

Umberto Eco Makes a List of the 14 Common Features of Fascism

George Orwell’s Final Warning: Don’t Let This Nightmare Situation Happen. It Depends on You!

Yale Professor Jason Stanley Identifies 3 Essential Features of Fascism: Invoking a Mythic Past, Sowing Division & Attacking Truth

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

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