We should just trust the experts. But wait: to identify true expertise requires its own kind of even more specialized expertise. Besides, experts disagree with each other, and over time disagree with themselves as well. This makes it challenging indeed for all of us non-experts — and we’re all non-experts in the fields to which we have not dedicated our lives — to understand phenomena of any complexity. As for grasping climate change, with its enormous historical scale and countless many variables, might we as well just throw up our hands? Many have done so: Neil Halloran, creator of the short documentary Degrees of Uncertainty above, labels them “climate denialists” and “climate defeatists.”
Climate denialists choose to believe that manmade climate change isn’t happening, climate defeatists choose to believe that it’s inevitable, and both thereby let themselves off the hook. Not only do they not have to address the issue, they don’t even have to understand it — which itself can seem a fairly daunting task, given that scientists themselves express no small degree of uncertainty about climate change’s degree and trajectory. “The only way to learn how sure scientists are is to dig in a little and view their work with some healthy skepticism,” says Halloran. This entails developing an instinct not for refutation, exactly, but for examining just how the experts arrive at their conclusions and what pitfalls they encounter along the way.
Often, scientists “don’t know how close they are to the truth, and they’re prone to confirmation bias,” and as anyone professionally involved in the sciences knows full well, they work “under pressure to publish noteworthy findings.” Their publications then find their way to a media culture in which, increasingly, “trusting or distrusting scientists is becoming a matter of political identity.” As he did in his previous documentary The Fallen of World War II, Halloran uses animation and data visualization to illuminate his own path to understanding a global occurrence whose sheer proportions make it difficult to perceive.
This journey takes Halloran not just around the globe but back in time, starting in the year 19,000 B.C. and ending in projections of a future in which ring seas swallow much of Amsterdam, Miami, and New Orleans. The most important stop in the middle is the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution of the 17th through the 19th century, when science and technology rose to prominence and brought about an unprecedented human flourishing — with climatic consequences that have begun to make themselves known, albeit not with absolute certainty. But as Halloran sees it, “uncertainty, the very thing that clouds our view, also frees us to construct possible answers.”
Xiulin Ruan, a Purdue University professor of mechanical engineering, holds up his lab’s sample of the whitest paint on record. Purdue University/Jared Pike
Surely, you’ve heard of Vantablack, the high-tech coating invented by UK company Surrey NanoSystems that absorbs over 99 percent of light and makes three-dimensional objects look like black holes? Aside from its controversially exclusive use by artist Anish Kapoor, the blackest of black paints has so far proven to be most effective in space. “You can imagine up in space people think of it as being really black and dark,” Surrey NanoSystems chief technical officer Ben Jensen explains. “But actually it’s incredibly bright up there because the Sun’s like a huge arc lamp and you’ve got light reflecting off the Earth and moon.”
All that sunlight can make certain parts of the world unbearably hot for humans, a rapidly worsening phenomenon thanks to climate change, which has itself been worsened by climate control systems used to cool homes, offices, stores, etc. Since the 1970s scientists have attempted to break the vicious cycle with white paints that can cool buildings by reflecting sunlight from their surfaces. “Painting buildings white to reflect sunlight and make them cooler is common in Greece and other countries,” notes The Washington Post. “Cities like New and Chicago have programs to paint roofs white to combat urban heat.”
The problem is “commercial white paint gets warmer rather than cooler,” writes Purdue University. “Paints on the market that are designed to reject heat reflect only 80%-90% of sunlight and can’t make surfaces cooler than their surroundings,” since they absorb ultraviolet light. That may well change soon, with the invention by a team of Purdue engineers of an as-yet unnamed, patent-pending ultra-white paint that has “pushed the limits on how white paint can be.” Those limits now fall just slightly short of Vantablack on the other side of the spectrum (or grayscale).
An infrared camera shows how a sample of the whitest white paint (the dark purple square in the middle) actually cools the board below ambient temperature, something that not even commercial “heat rejecting” paints do. Purdue University/Joseph Peoples
Two features give the paint its extreme whiteness. One is the paint’s very high concentration of a chemical compound called barium sulfate, which is also used to make photo paper and cosmetics white.
The second feature is that the barium sulfate particles are all different sizes in the paint. How much each particle scatters light depends on its size, so a wider range of particle sizes allows the paint to scatter more of the light spectrum from the sun.
This formula “reflects up to 98.1% of sunlight — compared with the 95.5%,” of light reflected by a previous compound that used calcium carbonate instead of barium sulfite. The less than 3% difference is more significant than it might seem.
Xiulin Ruan, professor of mechanical engineering, describes the potential of the new reflective coating: “If you were to use this paint to cover a roof area of about 1,000 square feet, we estimate that you could get a cooling power of 10 kilowatts. That’s more powerful than the central air conditioners used by most houses… If you look at the energy [savings] and cooling power this paint can provide, it’s really exciting.”
Will there be a proprietary war between major players in the art world to control it? “Ideally,” Kait Sanchez writes at The Verge, “anything that could be used to improve people’s lives while reducing the energy they use should be free and widely available.” Ideally.
Why bother with reason and evidence to make predictions when you can put your faith in a chance roll of the dice? These two methods could be said to represent the vastly divergent ways of science and superstition, two realms that rarely intersect except, perhaps, when it comes to fortune-telling — or, in the argot of the 20th century’s soothsayers, “Futurism,” where predictions seem to rely as much on wishful thinking as they do on intuition and intellect.
In the 1967 short documentary film, The Futurists, above, scientists and visionaries quite literally combine the scientific method with random chance operation to make predictions about the 21st century. Host Walter Cronkite explains:
A panel of experts has studied a list of possible 21st century developments, from personality controlled drugs to household robots. They have estimated the numerical probability of each, from zero to 100 percent. The twenty sided dice are then rolled to simulate these probabilities. A use of random numbers known as the Monte Carlo technique, often used in thinktank games. All of this is highly speculative.
Indeed. The glimpse we get of the future — of our present, as it were — is very optimistic, “and so very, very wrong,” writes Billy Ingram at TV Party — at least in some respects. “Sadly, those past futurists forgot to factor in human greed and the refashioning of Americans’ way to be less communal and more self-centered.” The very medium on which the documentary appeared helped to center selfishness as a cardinal American virtue.
Yet in 1967, the federal government still required major networks to run educational content, even if “network executives understood these programs would end up at the bottom of the Nielsen ratings.” Hence, The Futurists, which aired on primetime on CBS “when the 3 networks would occasionally preempt popular programs with a news feature/documentary.” Despite low expectations at the time, the short film now proves to be a fascinating document.
The rolls of the dice with which it opens are not, it turns out, a “crap game,” but a “serious game at the University of Pittsburgh,” Cronkite tells us before introducing the august panel of experts. We see a number of scenarios predicted for the coming century. These include the vague “increased importance of human concerns,” sci-fi “teaching by direct recording on the brain,” and ominous “tactical behavior control devices.”
Buckminster Fuller even predicts bodily teleportation by radio waves, something like the technology then featured in a brand-new TV show, Star Trek, but not scientifically probable in any sense, either then or now. Nonetheless, there is surprising prescience in The Futurists, as its opening panel of futuristic experts announces their conclusions:
We wind up with a world which has the following features: fertility control, 100-year lifespan, controlled thermal nuclear power, continued automation, genetic control, man-machine symbiosis, household robots, wideband communications, opinion control, and continued organization.
Apparently, in 1967, all the Futurists worth talking to — or so it seemed to the film’s producer McGraw Hill — were men. Theirs was the only perspective offered to home viewers and to the students who saw this film in schools across the country. Those men include not only Fuller, who gives his full interview at 14:30, but also frequent maker of accurate futuristic predictions Isaac Asimov, who appears at the 20:50 mark. Aside from the exclusion of 50% of the population’s perspective, and an overly rosy view of human nature, however, The Futurists is often an uncannily accurate vision of life as we now know it — or at least one far more accurate than most 21st century futurisms of the past.
Between the 1910s and the 1960s, a nature-lover with a sure artistic hand and a yen to see the world could have done much worse than signing on with the Wildlife Conservation Society. During those decades, when the WCS was known as the New York Zoological Society, its “Department of Tropical Research (DTR), led by William Beebe, conducted dozens of ecological expeditions across tropical terrestrial and marine locales,” says the organization’s web site. This long-term project brought together both scientists and artists, who “participated in field work and collaborated closely with DTR scientists to create their illustrations.”
Now the fruits of those artistic-scientific labors have come available in a free online archive containing “just over 2,200 digitized color and black-and-white illustrations of living and non-living specimens created by DTR field artists between 1916 and 1953.”
Their subjects include “mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, marine invertebrates, plants, and fungi,” all originally found in places like “British Guiana (now Guyana), the Galápagos Islands, the Hudson Canyon, Bermuda, the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Venezuela, and Trinidad.”
It was in Trinidad and Tobago that Beebe established his first ecological research station in 1916 — and where his long life and career came to an end more than 45 years later. “Although Beebe’s name is unfamiliar to most today, he was a celebrity scientist in his time,” says the WCS’ about page. “The DTR’s expeditions were covered by the popular press, Beebe’s accounts were bestsellers, and he and the DTR staff published hundreds of articles for both scientists and the general public.” Published in not just specialist media but National Geographic and The New York Times, their illustrations captured the color and movement of the natural realm with a detail and vividness that photography couldn’t.
“Ranging from depictions of single specimens to complex narrative images that show where and how animals lived,” these images are available in geographically and chronologically organized collections at the WCS’ online archive. As many as possible are credited to their artists — Isabel Cooper, Toshio Asaeda, George Alan Swanson, Frances Waite Gibson, and others — which ensures that this wealth of nature illustrations will do its part to not just renew interest in Beebe’s life and work but generate interest in those who entered into this adventurous collaboration with him. But then, Beebe himself articulated best what we can learn from appreciating these works of scientific art: “All about us, nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes.”
What’s the world’s oldest computer? If you answered the 5-ton, room-sized IBM Mark I, it’s a good guess, but you’d be off by a couple thousand years or so. The first known computer may have been a handheld device, a little larger than the average tablet. It was also hand-powered and had a limited, but nonetheless remarkable, function: it followed the Metonic cycle, “the 235-month pattern that ancient astronomers used to predict eclipses,” writes Robby Berman at Big Think.
The ancient artifact known as the Antikythera mechanism — named for the Greek Island under which it was discovered — turned up in 1900. It took another three-quarters of a century before the secrets of what first appeared as a “corroded lump” revealed a device of some kind dating from 150 to 100 BC. “By 2009, modern imaging technology had identified all 30 of the Antikythera mechanism’s gears, and a virtual model of it was released,” as we noted in an earlier post.
The device could predict the positions of the planets (or at least those the Greeks knew of: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), as well as the sun, moon, and eclipses. It placed Earth at the center of the universe. Researchers studying the Antikythera mechanism understood that much. But they couldn’t quite understand exactly how it worked, since only about a third of the complex mechanism has survived.
Image by University College London
Now, it appears that researchers from the University College of London have figured it out, debuting a new computational model in Scientific Reports. “Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself,” lead author Tony Freeth tells The Engineer. In the video above, you can learn about the history of the mechanism and its rediscovery in the 20th century, and see a detailed explanation of Freeth and his team’s discoveries.
“About the size of a large dictionary,” the artifact has proven to be the “most complex piece of engineering from the ancient world” the video informs us. Having built a 3D model, the researchers next intend to build a replica of the device. If they can do so with “modern machinery,” writes Guardian science editor Ian Sample, “they aim to do the same with techniques from antiquity” — no small task considering that it’s “unclear how the ancient Greeks would have manufactured such components” without the use of a lathe, a tool they probably did not possess.
Image by University College London
The mechanism will still hold its secrets even if the UCL team’s model works. Why was it made, what was it used for? Were there other such devices? Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another several decades to learn the answers. Read the team’s Scientific Reports article here.
Maybe you’ve sung the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” and wondered who this good king was. The carol wasn’t written until the 19th century, but “Wenceslas was a real person,” writes NPR’s Tom Manoff, the patron saint of the Czechs and “the Duke of Bohemia, a 10th-century Christian prince in a land where many practiced a more ancient religion. In one version of his legend, Wenceslas was murdered in a plot by his brother,” Boleslav, “under the sway of their so-called pagan mother,” Drahomíra.
Wenceslas’ grandmother Ludmilla died a Christian martyr in 921 A.D. Her husband, Bořivoj, ruled as the first documented member of the Přemyslid Dynasty (late 800s-1306), and her two sons Spytihnĕv I (circa 875–915) and Vratislav I (circa 888–921), Wenceslas’ father, ruled after their father’s death. The skeletal remains of these royal Bohemian brothers were identified at Prague Castle in the 1980s by anthropologist Emanuel Vlček. Due to advances in DNA analysis and imaging, we can now see an approximation of what they looked like. (See Spytihnĕv at the top and Vratislav at the bottom in the image below.)
The project proceeded in several stages, with different experts involved along the way. “First,” notes Archaeology, “detailed images of the bones were assembled using photogrammetry to form virtual 3-D models” of the skulls. Then, facial reconstruction expert Moraes added muscle, tissue, skin, etc., relying on “multiple three-dimensional reconstruction techniques,” Davis-Marks writes, “including anatomical and soft tissue depth methods, to ensure the highest possible level of accuracy.” DNA analysis showed that the brothers likely had blue eyes and reddish-brown hair.
Spytihnĕv and Vratislav’s other features come from the best guess of the researchers based on “miniatures or manuscripts,” says Frolík, “but we don’t really know.” Do they look a bit like video game characters? They look very much, in their digital sheen, like characters in a medieval video game. But perhaps we can anticipate a day when real people from the distant past return as fully animated 3D reconstructions to replay, for our education and amusement, the battles, court intrigues, and fratricides of history as we know it.
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.
Those in a position to know suggest that vermin shy away from yellowish-greens such as that favored by the Emperor because they “resemble areas of intense lighting.”
We’d like to offer an alternate theory.
Could it be that the critters’ ancestors passed down a cellular memory of the perils of arsenic?
Napoleon, like thousands of others, was smitten with a hue known as Scheele’s Green, named for Carl Wilhelm Scheele, the German-Swedish pharmaceutical chemist who discovered oxygen, chlorine, and unfortunately, a gorgeous, toxic green pigment that’s also a cupric hydrogen arsenite.
Scheele’s Green, aka Schloss Green, was cheap and easy to produce, and quickly replaced the less vivid copper carbonate based green dyes that had been in use prior to the mid 1770s.
The color was an immediate hit when it made its appearance, showing up in artificial flowers, candles, toys, fashionable ladies’ clothing, soap, beauty products, confections, and wallpaper.
A month before Napoleon died, he included the following phrase in his will: My death is premature. I have been assassinated by the English oligopoly and their hired murderer…”
His exit at 51 was indeed untimely, but perhaps the wallpaper, and not the English oligopoly, is the greater culprit, especially if it was hung with arsenic-laced paste, to further deter rats.
When Scheele’s Green wallpaper, like the striped pattern in Napoleon’s bathroom, became damp or moldy, the pigment in it metabolized, releasing poisonous arsenic-laden vapors.
Napoleon’s First Valet Louis-Joseph Marchand recalled the “childish joy” with which the emperor jumped into the tub where he relished soaking for long spells:
The bathtub was a tremendous oak chest lined with lead. It required an exceptional quantity of water, and one had to go a half mile away and transport it in a barrel.
In Napoleon’s case, arsenic was likely just one of many compounds taxing an already troubled system. In the course of treatments for a variety of symptoms—swollen legs, abdominal pain, jaundice, vomiting, weakness—Napoleon was subjected to a smorgasbord of other toxic substances. He was said to consume large amounts of a sweet apricot-based drink containing hydrocyanic acid. He had been given tarter emetic, an antimonal compound, by a Corsican doctor. (Like arsenic, antimony would also help explain the preserved state of his body at exhumation.) Two days before his death, his British doctors gave him a dose of calomel, or mercurous chloride, after which he collapsed into a stupor and never recovered.
As Napoleon was vomiting a blackish liquid and expiring, factory and garment workers who handled Scheele’s Green dye and its close cousin, Paris Green, were suffering untold mortifications of the flesh, from hideous lesions, ulcers and extreme gastric distress to heart disease and cancer.
Fashion-first women who spent the day corseted in voluminous green dresses were keeling over from skin-to-arsenic contact. Their seamstresses’ green fingers were in wretched condition.
In 2008, an Italian team tested strands of Napoleon’s hair from four points in his life—childhood, exile, his death, and the day thereafter. They determined that all the samples contained roughly 100 times the arsenic levels of contemporary people in a control group.
Napoleon’s son and wife, Empress Josephine, also had noticeably elevated arsenic levels.
Had we been alive and living in Europe back then, ours likely would have been too.
All that green!
But what about the wallpaper?
A scrap purportedly from the dining room, where Napoleon was relocated shortly before death, was found by a woman in Norfolk, England, pasted into a family scrapbook above the handwritten caption, This small piece of paper was taken off the wall of the room in which the spirit of Napoleon returned to God who gave it.
In 1980, she contacted chemist David Jones, whom she had recently heard on BBC Radio discussing vaporous biochemistry and Victorian wallpaper. She agreed to let him test the scrap using non-destructive x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. The result?
.12 grams of arsenic per square meter. (Wallpapers containing 0.6 to 0.015 grams per square meter were determined to be hazardous.)
Dr. Jones described watching the arsenic levels peaking on the lab’s print out as “a crazy, wonderful moment.” He reiterated that the house in which Napoleon was imprisoned was “notoriously damp,” making it easy for a 19th century fan to peel off a souvenir in “an inspired act of vandalism.”
Death by wallpaper and other environmental factors is definitely less cloak and dagger than assassination by the English oligopoly, hired murderer, and other conspiracy theories that had thrived on the presence of arsenic in samples of Napoleon’s hair.
As Dr. Jones recalled:
…several historians were upset by my claim that it was all an accident of decor…Napoleon himself feared he was dying of stomach cancer, the disease which had killed his father; and indeed his autopsy revealed that his stomach was very damaged. It had at least one big ulcer…My feeling is that Napoleon would have died in any case. His arsenical wallpaper might merely have hastened the event by a day or so. Murder conspiracy theorists will have to find new evidence!
We can’t resist mentioning that when the emperor was exhumed and shipped back to France, 19 years after his death, his corpse showed little or no decomposition.
Green continues to be a noxious color when humans attempt to reproduce it in the physical realm. As Alice Rawthorn observed The New York Times:
The cruel truth is that most forms of the color green, the most powerful symbol of sustainable design, aren’t ecologically responsible, and can be damaging to the environment.
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.
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