The Secrets of Beethoven’s Fifth, the World’s Most Famous Symphony

Revered by music lovers of tem­pera­ments as var­ied as Peanuts’ Schroed­er and A Clock­work Orange’s AlexLud­wig van Beethoven is one of the most cel­e­brat­ed com­posers in the West­ern clas­si­cal music canon.

Sym­pho­ny No. 5 in C minor is sure­ly one of his most rec­og­nized, and fre­quent­ly per­formed works, thanks in large part to its dra­mat­ic open­ing motif –


Music edu­ca­tor Hanako Sawa­da’s enter­tain­ing TED-Ed les­son, ani­mat­ed by Yael Reis­feld above, delves into the sto­ry behind this sym­pho­ny, “one of the most explo­sive pieces of music ever com­posed.”

Mid­dle and high school music teach­ers will be glad to know the cre­ators lean into the height­ened emo­tions of the piece, depict­ing the com­pos­er as a tor­tured genius whose pierc­ing gaze is bluer than Game of Thrones’ Night King.

Beethoven was already enjoy­ing a suc­cess­ful rep­u­ta­tion at the time of the symphony’s 1808 pre­miere, but not because he toiled in the ser­vice of reli­gion or wealthy patrons like his peers.

Instead, he was an ear­ly-19th cen­tu­ry bad ass, pri­or­i­tiz­ing self-expres­sion and pour­ing his emo­tions into com­po­si­tions he then sold to var­i­ous music pub­lish­ers.

With the Fifth, he real­ly shook off the rigid struc­tures of pre­vail­ing clas­si­cal norms, embrac­ing Roman­ti­cism in all its glo­ri­ous tur­moil.

The famous open­ing motif is repeat­ed to the point of obses­sion:

Through­out the piece, the motif is passed around the orches­tra like a whis­per, grad­u­al­ly reach­ing more and more instru­ments until it becomes a roar.

Besot­ted teenagers, well acquaint­ed with this feel­ing, are equipped with the inter­nal trom­bones, pic­co­los, and con­tra­bas­soons of the sort that make the piece even more urgent in feel.

Just wait until they get hold of Beethoven’s Immor­tal Beloved let­ters, writ­ten a few years after the sym­pho­ny, when the hear­ing loss he was wrestling with had pro­gressed to near total deaf­ness.

Whether or not it was the com­pos­er (and not his biog­ra­ph­er) who char­ac­ter­ized the cen­tral motif as the sound of “Fate knock­ing at the door,” it’s an apt, and riv­et­ing notion.

Take a quiz, par­tic­i­pate in a guid­ed dis­cus­sion, and cus­tomize Hanako Sawada’s les­son, “The Secrets of the World’s Most Famous Sym­pho­ny,” here.

Lis­ten to the sym­pho­ny in its entire­ty below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beethoven’s Unfin­ished Tenth Sym­pho­ny Gets Com­plet­ed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence: Hear How It Sounds

Did Beethoven Use a Bro­ken Metronome When Com­pos­ing His String Quar­tets? Sci­en­tists & Musi­cians Try to Solve the Cen­turies-Old Mys­tery

Watch Ani­mat­ed Scores of Beethoven’s 16 String Quar­tets: An Ear­ly Cel­e­bra­tion of the 250th Anniver­sary of His Birth

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday. 

An Introduction to Nicolas Bourbaki, One of the Most Influential Mathematicians of All Time … Who Never Actually Lived

In 20th-cen­tu­ry math­e­mat­ics, the renowned name of Nico­las Bour­ba­ki stands alone in its class — the class, that is, of renowned math­e­mat­i­cal names that don’t actu­al­ly belong to real peo­ple. Bour­ba­ki refers not to a math­e­mati­cian, but to math­e­mati­cians; a whole secret soci­ety of them, in fact, who made their name by col­lec­tive­ly com­pos­ing Ele­ments of Math­e­mat­ic. Not, mind you, Ele­ments of Math­e­mat­ics: “Bourbaki’s Ele­ments of Math­e­mat­ic — a series of text­books and pro­gram­mat­ic writ­ings first appear­ing in 1939—pointedly omit­ted the ‘s’ from the end of ‘Math­e­mat­ics,’ ” writes JSTOR Dai­ly’s Michael Barany, “as a way of insist­ing on the fun­da­men­tal uni­ty and coher­ence of a dizzy­ing­ly var­ie­gat­ed field.”

That’s mere­ly the tip of Bour­bak­i’s ice­berg of eccen­tric­i­ties. Formed in 1934 “by alum­ni of the École nor­male supérieure, a sto­ried train­ing ground for French aca­d­e­m­ic and polit­i­cal elites,” this group of high-pow­ered math­e­mat­i­cal minds set about rec­ti­fy­ing their coun­try’s loss of near­ly an entire gen­er­a­tion of math­e­mati­cians in the First World War. (While Ger­many had kept its bright­est stu­dents and sci­en­tists out of bat­tle, the French com­mit­ment to égal­ité could per­mit no such favoritism.) It was the press­ing need for revised and updat­ed text­books that spurred the mem­bers of Bour­ba­ki to their col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly pseu­do­ny­mous, indi­vid­u­al­ly anony­mous work.

“Yet instead of writ­ing text­books,” explains Quan­ta’s Kevin Hart­nett, “they end­ed up cre­at­ing some­thing com­plete­ly nov­el: free-stand­ing books that explained advanced math­e­mat­ics with­out ref­er­ence to any out­side sources.” The most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of this already unusu­al project “was the writ­ing style: rig­or­ous, for­mal and stripped to the log­i­cal studs. The books spelled out math­e­mat­i­cal the­o­rems from the ground up with­out skip­ping any steps — exhibit­ing an unusu­al degree of thor­ough­ness among math­e­mati­cians.”  Not that Bour­ba­ki lacked play­ful­ness: “In fan­ci­ful and pun-filled nar­ra­tives shared among one anoth­er and allud­ed to in out­ward-fac­ing writ­ing,” adds Barany, “Bourbaki’s col­lab­o­ra­tors embed­ded him in an elab­o­rate math­e­mat­i­cal-polit­i­cal uni­verse filled with the abstruse ter­mi­nol­o­gy and con­cepts of mod­ern the­o­ries.”

You can get an ani­mat­ed intro­duc­tion to Bour­ba­ki, which sur­vives even today as a still-pres­ti­gious and at least nom­i­nal­ly secret math­e­mat­i­cal soci­ety, in the TED-Ed les­son above. In the decades after the group’s found­ing, writes les­son author Pratik Aghor, “Bour­rbak­i’s pub­li­ca­tions became stan­dard ref­er­ences, and the group’s mem­bers took their prank as seri­ous­ly as their work.” Their com­mit­ment to the front was total: “they sent telegrams in Bour­bak­i’s name, announced his daugh­ter’s wed­ding, and pub­licly insult­ed any­one who doubt­ed his exis­tence. In 1968, when they could no longer main­tain the ruse, the group end­ed their joke the only way they could: they print­ed Bour­bak­i’s obit­u­ary, com­plete with math­e­mat­i­cal puns.” And if you laugh at the math­e­mat­i­cal pun with which Aghor ends the les­son, you may car­ry a bit of Bour­bak­i’s spir­it with­in your­self as well.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Beau­ti­ful Equa­tions: Doc­u­men­tary Explores the Beau­ty of Ein­stein & Newton’s Great Equa­tions

The Math­e­mat­ics Behind Origa­mi, the Ancient Japan­ese Art of Paper Fold­ing

The Unex­pect­ed Math Behind Van Gogh’s Star­ry Night

Can You Solve These Ani­mat­ed Brain Teasers from TED-Ed?

The Map of Math­e­mat­ics: Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Fields in Math Fit Togeth­er

Why the World’s Best Math­e­mati­cians Are Hoard­ing Japan­ese Chalk

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 the Survivors of Pompeii Escaped Mount Vesuvius’ Deadly Eruption: A TED-Ed Animation Tells the Story

We tend to imag­ine Pom­peii as a city frozen in time by the erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius, inhab­i­tants and all, but most Pom­pei­ians actu­al­ly sur­vived the dis­as­ter. “The vol­cano’s molten rock, scorch­ing debris and poi­so­nous gas­es killed near­ly 2,000 peo­ple” in Pom­peii and near­by Her­cu­la­neum, writes Live Sci­ence’s Lau­ra Geggel. Of the 15,000 and 20,000 peo­ple in total who’d lived there, “most stayed along the south­ern Ital­ian coast, reset­tling in the com­mu­ni­ties of Cumae, Naples, Ostia and Pute­oli,” accord­ing to the lat­est archae­o­log­i­cal research. Vesu­vius may have made refugees of them, but his­to­ry has revealed that they made the right choice.

Pom­pei­ians in par­tic­u­lar, as the TED-Ed les­son above depicts it, faced three choic­es: “seek shel­ter, escape to the south on foot, or flee to the west by sea,” the lat­ter made a viable propo­si­tion by the town’s loca­tion near the coast.

The video’s ani­ma­tion (script­ed by archae­ol­o­gy Gary Devore) dra­ma­tizes the fates of three sib­lings, Lucius, Mar­cus, and Fabia, on that fate­ful day in A.D. 79. “Fabia and her broth­ers dis­cuss the recent tremors every­one’s been feel­ing,” says the nar­ra­tor. “Lucius jokes that there’ll always be work for men who rebuild walls in Pom­peii.” It is then that the long-rum­bling Vesu­vius emits a “deaf­en­ing boom,” then spews “smoke, ash, and rock high into the air.”

Gath­er­ing up his own fam­i­ly from Her­cu­la­neum, Mar­cus goes sea­ward, but the waves are “brim­ming with vol­canic mat­ter, mak­ing it impos­si­ble for boats to nav­i­gate close enough to shore.” As sub­se­quent phas­es of the erup­tion fur­ther dev­as­tate the towns, the luck­less Lucius finds him­self entombed in the room where he’d been await­ing his fiancée. Shel­ter­ing with her hus­band and daugh­ters, and hear­ing the roof of her home “groan under the weight of vol­canic debris,” Fabia alone makes the choice to join the stream of human­i­ty walk­ing south­east, away from the vol­cano. This sounds rea­son­able, although when Wired’s Cody Cas­sidy asks Uni­ver­si­ty of Naples Fed­eri­co II foren­sic anthro­pol­o­gist Pier Pao­lo Petrone to rec­om­mend the best course of action, the expert sug­gests flee­ing to the north, toward Her­cu­la­neum and final­ly Naples — and more imme­di­ate­ly, toward Vesu­vius.

“The road between Pom­peii and Naples was well main­tained,” Petrone tells Cas­sidy, “and the writ­ten records of those who sur­vived sug­gest that most of the suc­cess­ful escapees went north — while most of the bod­ies of the attempt­ed escapees (who admit­ted­ly left far too late) have been found to the south.” Should you find your­self walk­ing the thir­teen miles between between Pom­peii and Naples in the midst of a vol­canic erup­tion, you should “avoid overex­er­tion and take any oppor­tu­ni­ty to drink fresh water.” As Petrone writes, “only those who man­aged to under­stand from the begin­ning the grav­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion” — the Fabi­as, in oth­er words — “escaped in time.” The likes of Mount Vesu­vius would seem to rank low on the list of dan­gers fac­ing human­i­ty today, but near­ly two mil­len­nia after Pom­peii, it is, after all, still active.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Destruc­tion of Pom­peii by Mount Vesu­vius, Re-Cre­at­ed with Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion (79 AD)

See the Expan­sive Ruins of Pom­peii Like You’ve Nev­er Seen Them Before: Through the Eyes of a Drone

High-Res­o­lu­tion Walk­ing Tours of Italy’s Most His­toric Places: The Colos­se­um, Pom­peii, St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca & More

Archae­ol­o­gists Dis­cov­er an Ancient Roman Snack Bar in the Ruins of Pom­peii

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Erup­tion of Mount Vesu­vius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Par­ti­cle Accel­er­a­tors, 3D Mod­el­ing & Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

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.

Kermit the Frog Gives a TED Talk About Creativity & the Power of “Ridiculous Optimism”

In 2015, 3.8 bil­lion years after “cre­ativ­i­ty emerged” out of “sheer­est empti­ness,” Ker­mit the Frog was tapped to give a talk on cre­ativ­i­ty at TEDx­Jack­son.

How did a local, one-day event man­age to snag such a glob­al icon?


The famed frog’s cre­ator, Jim Hen­son, spent his first decade in Mis­sis­sip­pi (though Ker­mit was born of a ping pong ball and Henson’s mother’s old coat after the fam­i­ly relo­cat­ed to Mary­land.)

The con­fer­ence took place 15 years after Henson’s untime­ly death, leav­ing Ker­mit to be ani­mat­ed by Steven Whit­mire, the first of two pup­peteers to tack­le a role wide­ly under­stood to be Henson’s alter ego.

The voice isn’t quite the same, but the man­ner­isms are, includ­ing the throat clear­ing and crum­pled facial expres­sions.

Also present are a num­ber of TED Talk tropes, the smart phone prompts, the dark stage, pro­jec­tions designed to empha­size pro­found points.

A num­ber of jokes fail to elic­it the expect­ed laughs … we’ll leave it up to you to deter­mine whether the fault lays with the live audi­ence or the mate­r­i­al. (It’s not easy being green and work­ing blue comes with chal­lenges, too.)

Were he to give his TED Talk now, in 2021, Ker­mit prob­a­bly wouldn’t describe the audience’s col­lec­tive deci­sion to “accept a premise, sus­pend our dis­be­lief and just enjoy the ride” as a “con­spir­a­cy of crazi­ness.”

He might bypass a bina­ry quote like “If neces­si­ty is the moth­er of inven­tion, then cre­ativ­i­ty is the father.”

He’d also be advised to steer clear of a pho­to of Miss Pig­gy dressed as a geisha, and secure her con­sent to share some of the raci­er anec­dotes… even though she is a known atten­tion hog.

He would “tran­scend and include” in the words of philoso­pher Ken Wilber, one of many inspi­ra­tions he cites over the course of his 23-minute con­sid­er­a­tion of cre­ativ­i­ty and its ori­gins, attempt­ing to answer the ques­tion, “Why are we here?”

Also ref­er­enced: Michelan­ge­lo, Albert Ein­stein, Sal­vador Dali, Charles Baude­laire, Zen mas­ter Shun­ryū Suzu­ki, math­e­mati­cian Alfred North White­head, author and edu­ca­tor, Sir Ken Robin­son (who appears, briefly) and of course, Hen­son, who applaud­ed the “ridicu­lous opti­mism” of fling­ing one­self into cre­ative explo­rations, unsure of what one might find.

He can’t wan­der freely about the stage, but he does share some stir­ring thoughts on col­lab­o­ra­tion, men­tors, and the impor­tance of main­tain­ing “beginner’s mind,” free of pre-con­cep­tions.

How to cul­ti­vate beginner’s mind?

Try fast for­ward­ing to the 11:11 mark. Watch for 20 sec­onds. It’s the purest invi­ta­tion to believe since Peter Pan begged us to clap Tin­ker Bell back to life.

Do you? Because Ker­mit believes in you.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Wit­ness the Birth of Ker­mit the Frog in Jim Henson’s Live TV Show, Sam and Friends (1955)

Watch Blondie’s Deb­bie Har­ry Per­form “Rain­bow Con­nec­tion” with Ker­mit the Frog on The Mup­pet Show (1981)

Jim Henson’s Com­mer­cials for Wilkins Cof­fee: 15 Twist­ed Min­utes of Mup­pet Cof­fee Ads (1957–1961)

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

The Mathematics Behind Origami, the Ancient Japanese Art of Paper Folding

The two char­ac­ters at the core of origa­mi (折り紙), one of the best-known Japan­ese words around the world, mean “fold­ing” and “paper.” You might well have guessed that, but giv­en the vari­ety and elab­o­rate­ness of the con­struc­tions pro­duced by origa­mi mas­ters over the past few cen­turies, the sim­plic­i­ty of the prac­tice’s basic nature bears repeat­ing. Those mas­ters must devel­op no slight degree of man­u­al dex­ter­i­ty, it goes with­out say­ing, but also a for­mi­da­ble math­e­mat­i­cal under­stand­ing of their medi­um. In many cas­es that under­stand­ing is intu­itive; in the TED-Ed les­son above, origa­mi artist Evan Zodl makes it explic­it.

Zodl’s les­son explains that “though most origa­mi mod­els are three-dimen­sion­al, their crease pat­terns are usu­al­ly designed to fold flat, with­out intro­duc­ing any new creas­es or cut­ting the paper.”(Incidentally, the Japan­ese word for paper art involv­ing cuts is kiriga­mi, or 切り紙.)

An “abstract, 2D design” thus becomes, in the origa­mi mas­ter’s hands, “a 3D form,” but only in accor­dance with a set of four sim­ple rules Zodl explains. He does so clear­ly and under­stand­ably — and in a way that for many of us may exhume buried geom­e­try-class mem­o­ries — but like actu­al works of origa­mi, they’re bet­ter shown than described: hence the vivid accom­pa­ny­ing ani­ma­tions of Char­lotte Arene.

Origami’s prin­ci­ples and prod­ucts may be fas­ci­nat­ing to con­tem­plate, but “the abil­i­ty to fold a large sur­face into a com­pact shape” has also proven to have seri­ous real-world appli­ca­tions. Zodl points to an origa­mi-based re-imag­i­na­tion of “the tra­di­tion­al stent graft, a tube used to open and sup­port dam­aged blood ves­sels.” This in addi­tion to “airbags, solar arrays, self-fold­ing robots, and even DNA nanos­truc­tures” — as well as a mas­sive “star shade” for space tele­scopes that blocks the glare of near­by stars. If you’d like to get start­ed on your own tac­tile under­stand­ing of all this, do have a look at Zodl’s own Youtube chan­nel, as well as oth­ers like Origa­mi Instruc­tions. Don’t let the elab­o­rate­ly fold­ed flow­ers, boats, or ani­mals you’ve seen intim­i­date you; start with a sim­ple box and work your way up from there. If origa­mi shows us any­thing, after all, it’s that com­plex­i­ty begins with sim­plic­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Origa­mi Samu­rai Made from a Sin­gle Sheet of Rice Paper, With­out Any Cut­ting

A Data­base of Paper Air­plane Designs: Hours of Fun for Kids & Adults Alike

MIT Cre­ates Amaz­ing Self-Fold­ing Origa­mi Robots & Leap­ing Chee­tah Robots

Design­er Cre­ates Origa­mi Card­board Tents to Shel­ter the Home­less from the Win­ter Cold

The Art of Let­ter­lock­ing: The Elab­o­rate Fold­ing Tech­niques That Ensured the Pri­va­cy of Hand­writ­ten Let­ters Cen­turies Ago

The Mak­ing of Japan­ese Hand­made Paper: A Short Film Doc­u­ments an 800-Year-Old Tra­di­tion

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.

The Color That May Have Killed Napoleon: Scheele’s Green

“Either the wall­pa­per goes, or I do.” —Oscar Wilde

Look­ing to repel bed bugs and rats?

Dec­o­rate your bed­room à la Napoleon’s final home on the damp island of Saint Hele­na.

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.

Baths also fig­ured in Sec­ond Valet Louis Éti­enne Saint-Denis’ rec­ol­lec­tions of his master’s ill­ness:

His reme­dies con­sist­ed only of warm nap­kins applied to his side, to baths, which he took fre­quent­ly, and to a diet which he observed from time to time.

Saint-Denis’s recall seems to have had some lacu­nae. Accord­ing to a post in con­junc­tion with the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al History’s Pow­er of Poi­son exhib­it:

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.

Take a deep­er dive into Napoleon’s wall­pa­per with an edu­ca­tion­al pack­et for edu­ca­tors pre­pared by chemist David Jones and Hen­drik Ball.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why Is Napoleon’s Hand Always in His Waist­coat?: The Ori­gins of This Dis­tinc­tive Pose Explained

Napoleon’s Eng­lish Lessons: How the Mil­i­tary Leader Stud­ied Eng­lish to Escape the Bore­dom of Life in Exile

Napoleon’s Dis­as­trous Inva­sion of Rus­sia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visu­al­iza­tion: It’s Been Called “the Best Sta­tis­ti­cal Graph­ic Ever Drawn”

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.

Dear Facebook, This is How You’re Breaking Democracy: A Former Facebook Insider Explains How the Platform’s Algorithms Polarize Our Society

Is this what we want? A post-truth world where tox­i­c­i­ty and trib­al­ism trump bridge build­ing and con­sen­sus seek­ing? —Yaël Eisen­stat

It’s an increas­ing­ly famil­iar occur­rence.

A friend you’ve enjoyed recon­nect­ing with in the dig­i­tal realm makes a dra­mat­ic announce­ment on their social media page. They’re delet­ing their Face­book account with­in the next 24 hours, so shoot them a PM with your email if you’d like to stay in touch.

Such deci­sions used to be spurred by the desire to get more done or return to neglect­ed pas­times such as read­ing, paint­ing, and going for long uncon­nect­ed nature walks.

These announce­ments could induce equal parts guilt and anx­i­ety in those of us who depend on social media to get the word out about our low-bud­get cre­ative projects, though being prone to Inter­net addic­tion, we were near­ly as like­ly to be the one mak­ing the announce­ment.

For many, the break was tem­po­rary. More of a social media fast, a chance to reeval­u­ate, rest, recharge, and ulti­mate­ly return.

Legit­i­mate con­cerns were also raised with regard to pri­va­cy. Who’s on the receiv­ing end of all the sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion we’re offer­ing up? What are they doing with it? Is some­one lis­ten­ing in?

But in this elec­tion year, the deci­sion to quit Face­book is apt to be dri­ven by the very real fear that democ­ra­cy as we know it is at stake.

For­mer CIA ana­lyst, for­eign ser­vice offi­cer, andfor six monthsFacebook’s Glob­al Head of Elec­tions Integri­ty Ops for polit­i­cal adver­tis­ing, Yaël Eisen­stat, address­es these pre­oc­cu­pa­tions in her TED Talk, “Dear Face­book, This is How You’re Break­ing Democ­ra­cy,” above.

Eisen­stat con­trasts the civil­i­ty of her past face-to-face ”hearts and minds”-based engage­ments with sus­pect­ed ter­ror­ists and anti-West­ern cler­ics to the polar­iza­tion and cul­ture of hatred that Facebook’s algo­rithms foment.

As many users have come to sus­pect, Face­book rewards inflam­ma­to­ry con­tent with ampli­fi­ca­tion. Truth does not fac­tor into the equa­tion, nor does sin­cer­i­ty of mes­sage or mes­sen­ger.

Lies are more engag­ing online than truth. As long as [social media] algo­rithms’ goals are to keep us engaged, they will feed us the poi­son that plays to our worst instincts and human weak­ness­es.

Eisen­stat, who has val­ued the ease with which Face­book allows her to main­tain rela­tion­ships with far-flung friends, found her­self effec­tive­ly demot­ed on her sec­ond day at the social media giant, her title revised, and her access to high lev­el meet­ings revoked. Her hir­ing appears to have been pure­ly orna­men­tal, a pal­lia­tive ruse in response to mount­ing pub­lic con­cern.

As she remarked in an inter­view with The Guardian’s Ian Tuck­er ear­li­er this sum­mer:

They are mak­ing all sorts of reac­tive changes around the mar­gins of the issues, [to sug­gest] that they are tak­ing things seri­ous­ly – such as build­ing an ad library or ver­i­fy­ing that polit­i­cal adver­tis­ers reside in the coun­try in which they adver­tis­ing – things they should have been doing already. But they were nev­er going to make the fun­da­men­tal changes that address the key sys­temic issues that make Face­book ripe for manip­u­la­tion, viral mis­in­for­ma­tion and oth­er ways that the plat­form can be used to affect democ­ra­cy.

In the same inter­view she assert­ed that Facebook’s recent­ly imple­ment­ed over­sight board is lit­tle more than an inter­est­ing the­o­ry that will nev­er result in the total over­haul of its busi­ness mod­el:

First of all, it’s anoth­er exam­ple of Face­book putting respon­si­bil­i­ty on some­one else. The over­sight board does not have any author­i­ty to actu­al­ly address any of the poli­cies that Face­book writes and enforces, or the under­ly­ing sys­temic issues that make the plat­form absolute­ly rife for dis­in­for­ma­tion and all sorts of bad behav­iour and manip­u­la­tion.

The sec­ond issue is: it’s basi­cal­ly an appeal process for con­tent that was already tak­en down. The big­ger ques­tion is the con­tent that remains up. Third, they are not even going to be oper­a­tional until late fall and, for a com­pa­ny that claims to move fast and break things, that’s absurd.

Nine min­utes into her TED Talk, she offers con­crete sug­ges­tions for things the Face­book brass could do if it was tru­ly seri­ous about imple­ment­ing reform:

  • Stop ampli­fy­ing and rec­om­mend­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion and bias-based hatred, no mat­ter who is behind itfrom con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists to our cur­rent pres­i­dent.
  • Dis­con­tin­ue per­son­al­iza­tion tech­niques that don’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate between tar­get­ed polit­i­cal con­tent and tar­get­ed ads for ath­let­ic footwear.
  • Retrain algo­rithms to focus on a met­rics beyond what users click or linger on.
  • Imple­ment safe­ty fea­tures that would ensure that sen­si­tive con­tent is reviewed before it is allowed to go viral.

Hope­ful­ly view­ers are not feel­ing maxed out on con­tact­ing their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, as gov­ern­ment enforce­ment is Eisenstat’s only pre­scrip­tion for get­ting Face­book to alter its prod­uct and prof­it mod­el. And that will require sus­tained civic engage­ment.

She sup­ple­ments her TED Talk with rec­om­men­da­tions for arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence engi­neer Guil­laume Chaslot’s insid­er per­spec­tive op-ed “The Tox­ic Poten­tial of YouTube’s Feed­back Loop” and The Fil­ter Bub­ble: How the New Per­son­al­ized Web Is Chang­ing What We Read and How We Think by’s for­mer Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Eli Paris­er.

Your clued-in Face­book friends have no doubt already point­ed you to the doc­u­men­tary The Social Dilem­ma, which is now avail­able on Net­flix. Or per­haps to Jaron Lanier’s Ten Argu­ments for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Read the tran­script of Yaël Eisenstat’s TED Talk here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Prob­lem with Face­book: “It’s Keep­ing Things From You”

The Case for Delet­ing Your Social Media Accounts & Doing Valu­able “Deep Work” Instead, Accord­ing to Com­put­er Sci­en­tist Cal New­port

This Is Your Kids’ Brains on Inter­net Algo­rithms: A Chill­ing Case Study Shows What’s Wrong with the Inter­net Today

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

An Animated Introduction to Albert Camus’ Existentialism, a Philosophy Making a Comeback in Our Dysfunctional Times

When next you meet an exis­ten­tial­ist, ask him what kind of exis­ten­tial­ist s/he is. There are at least as many vari­eties of exis­ten­tial­ism as there have been high-pro­file thinkers pro­pound­ing it. Sev­er­al major strains ran through post­war France alone, most famous­ly those cham­pi­oned by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beau­voir, and Albert Camus — who explic­it­ly reject­ed exis­ten­tial­ism, in part due to a philo­soph­i­cal split with Sartre, but who nev­er­the­less gets cat­e­go­rized among the exis­ten­tial­ists today. We could, per­haps, more accu­rate­ly describe Camus as an absur­dist, a thinker who starts with the inher­ent mean­ing­less and futil­i­ty of life and pro­ceeds, not nec­es­sar­i­ly in an obvi­ous direc­tion, from there.

The ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above sheds light on the his­tor­i­cal events and per­son­al expe­ri­ences that brought Camus to this world­view. Begin­ning in the trou­bled colo­nial Alge­ria of the ear­ly 20th-cen­tu­ry in which he was born and raised, edu­ca­tor Nina Med­vin­skaya goes on to tell of his peri­ods as a resis­tance jour­nal­ist in France and as a nov­el­ist, in which capac­i­ty he would write such endur­ing works as The Stranger and The Plague. Med­vin­skaya illu­mi­nates Camus’ cen­tral insight with a well-known image from his ear­li­er essay “The Myth of Sisy­phus,” on the Greek king con­demned by the gods to roll a boul­der up a hill for all eter­ni­ty.

“Camus argues that all of human­i­ty is in the same posi­tion,” says Med­vin­skaya, “and only when we accept the mean­ing­less­ness of our lives can we face the absurd with our heads held high.” But “Camus’ con­tem­po­raries weren’t so accept­ing of futil­i­ty.” (Here the Quentin Blake-style illus­tra­tions por­tray a cou­ple of fig­ures bear­ing a strong resem­blance to Sartre and de Beau­voir.) Many exis­ten­tial­ists “advo­cat­ed for vio­lent rev­o­lu­tion to upend sys­tems they believed were depriv­ing peo­ple of agency and pur­pose.” Such calls haven’t gone silent in 2020, just as The Plague — one of Camus’ writ­ings in response to rev­o­lu­tion­ary exis­ten­tial­ism — has only gained rel­e­vance in a time of glob­al pan­dem­ic.

Last month the Boston Review’s Car­men Lea Dege con­sid­ered the recent come­back of the thought, exem­pli­fied in dif­fer­ent ways by Camus, Sartre, and oth­ers, that “reject­ed reli­gious and polit­i­cal dog­ma, expressed scorn for aca­d­e­m­ic abstrac­tion, and focused on the fini­tude and absur­di­ty of human exis­tence.” This resur­gence of inter­est “is not entire­ly sur­pris­ing. The body of work we now think of as exis­ten­tial­ist emerged dur­ing the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in con­flict-rid­den Ger­many and France, where uncer­tain­ty per­me­at­ed every dimen­sion of soci­ety.” As much as our soci­eties have changed since then, uncer­tain­ty has a way of return­ing.

Today “we define our­selves and oth­ers on the basis of class, reli­gion, race, and nation­al­i­ty, or even child­hood influ­ences and sub­con­scious dri­ves, to gain con­trol over the con­tin­gen­cies of the world and insert our­selves in the myr­i­ad ways peo­ple have failed and suc­ceed­ed in human his­to­ry.” But the exis­ten­tial­ists argued that “this con­trol is illu­so­ry and decep­tive,” an “allur­ing dis­trac­tion from our own fragili­ty” that ulti­mate­ly “cor­rodes our abil­i­ty to live well.” For the exis­ten­tial­ists, pur­suit of good life first demands an accep­tance of not just fragili­ty but futil­i­ty, mean­ing­less­ness, absur­di­ty, and ambi­gu­i­ty, among oth­er con­di­tions that strike us as deeply unac­cept­able. As Camus put it, we must imag­ine Sisy­phus hap­py. But can we?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Phi­los­o­phy Cours­es

The Absurd Phi­los­o­phy of Albert Camus Pre­sent­ed in a Short Ani­mat­ed Film by Alain De Bot­ton

Why You Should Read The Plague, the Albert Camus Nov­el the Coro­n­avirus Has Made a Best­seller Again

Albert Camus: The Mad­ness of Sin­cer­i­ty — 1997 Doc­u­men­tary Revis­its the Philosopher’s Life & Work

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Exis­ten­tial­ist Phi­los­o­phy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Pos­si­bil­i­ties

The Mean­ing of Life Accord­ing to Simone de Beau­voir

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.

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