Month: March 2012

Another NY Times Article on Museums

The NY Times is once again covering museums. The latest article, “In Texas Tradition, Museums That Enshrine the Quirky,” underscores how any collection of things can be displayed and called a museum. Apparently, collectors in Texas take seriously the American Association of Museums’ criteria that to be a museum it must make a “unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world.”

Article in the NY Times on quirky museums in Texas.

This gives us The Eight Track Tape Museum and the Devil’s Rope Museum or Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum. Some of these museums seem more durable than others. Some seem to have descended into obscurity, leaving only a website to mark their passing. They force us to confront again what distinguishes a museum from a personal collection, and when does a personal collection become a museum.

The Mythical Flat Earth Past

The common claim that Columbus proved that the earth was round is the zombie myth from hell. It refuses to die. Every year students arrive in my intro class having been taught that people in the Middle Ages believed the earth was flat and that Columbus proved them wrong. This past semester, every student believed this to be true (see my post on the “Biography of a Map”).

Recently President Obama claimed that if opponents of alternative energy had lived during Columbus’s time they would not have believed that the earth was round and that they would have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. There are two problems with this claim. First, Columbus and his contemporaries did not believe the earth was flat. Second, the Flat Earth Society was not founded until the late 19th century (if you can believe the website). See his comments at 1:05–1:10 on this video. It is appalling that President Obama would repeat this “Columbus proved the earth was round” myth.

TPM calls Obama out on his use of history.

Interestingly, only a few places have called President Obama on his error. TPM points out his mistakes in “Obama Mangles U.S., World History in Energy Speech. Strangely, they cite Stephen Jay Gould’s book Dinosaur In a Haystack (1995) rather than readily accessible articles that confront this myth. By citing Gould’s book, they fail to understand how this Columbus myth was the creation of 19th-century Protestants who wanted to portray the Catholic Middle Ages as anti-intellectual. The Columbus myth does work for these anti-Catholic and later anti-religion polemicists. Two readable articles are J. Russel’s “Inventing the Flat Earth” in History Today 41 (1991) and L. Cormack’s “That Medieval Christians Taught that the Earth Was Flat” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Cambridge: HUP, 2009), 28–34.

Philadelphia Science Festival

Next month is the second Philadelphia Science Festival. Once again, one of the events will feature a group of historians of science paired with comedians from the Philly Improv Theater. In last year’s show, “Seemed Right at the Time,” historians picked some episode in from the history of science and explained how it was rational and made sense in its historical moment. These included medieval robots, witchcraft, Mesmerism, yellow fever treatments, and astrology (there is a partial YouTube video here—unfortunately, the mic broke during my section so I’m not in the video). The show was a big success.

Philly Science Festival again features historians of science.

The new show is “Life, Sex, Death (and Food): A Historical Look at the Science that Drives Us” on 26 April. This year’s program promises to be great. We’ve spent more time planning and organizing the show. The topics are both fascinating and potentially hilarious: the banana as food & as comedic prop; vibrators & contraception; the undead in the middle ages; monstrous births in early modern Europe.

Title page from a pamphlet describing a monster born in Kent, 1609.

Monstrous births were not unusual in 16th- and 17th-century England. Numerous broadsheets and pamphlets reported strange and wondrous births. I’m talking on one particular case of a monstrous birth that occurred in 1569. Agnes Bowker reportedly gave birth to a dead cat. Proceedings began almost immediately to determine if a crime had been committed. Testimony was taken. A postmortem examination of the cat indicated that it had been alive—they found inside it both bacon and bits of straw. Agnes crafted a number of stories about bestiality and sexual relations with men. Finally, she confessed to having been seduced and violated in a church. For an excellent account of this story, see David Cressy’s Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England. For a riotously funny account, attend next month’s “Life, Sex, Death (and Food): A Historical Look at the Science that Drives Us”.

Creativity, Inspiration, and Persistence

I am once again thinking about the value of persistence.

My students had to hand in papers today. Although I encouraged them to hand in drafts—I’ve never had much success in requiring drafts—and tried to scare them into taking me up on my offer, a minority gave me a draft. As a result, I fielded a number of panicked conversations yesterday. In most cases, students doggedly maintained that they do their best work under a deadline or when inspired. While I was gently chastising them, I was thinking of my colleagues and all too often myself. The trope of inspiration or creativity seems incredibly powerful, almost paralyzing.

Inspiration and creativity don’t materialize out of thin air. They don’t arrive just in time to help finish that project whose deadline is looming (or has just passed). They don’t have any agency at all. Creativity and inspiration are not the motive forces behind something but the product of persistence and diligence. This is true in all creative activities—writing, drawing, painting, building, etc.

Austin Madison’s letter on persistence.

A few examples help make this point. First, the letter at left was written by a Pixar animator Austin Madison (Thanks to Notorious Ph.D. and her post “Persist”for drawing my attention to this letter). He makes the point that most of your creative life and energy is spent in the “frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode.” That is to say, producing anything is often an exercise in combatting despair. The more often you win that battle the more creative you are.

Similar examples abound from the world of writing. Anthony Trollope claimed to write every morning from 5:30-8:30 A.M., before going to work. Many of the most prolific and often creative authors wrote according to a persistent schedule, before the invention of writer’s block (see Joan Acocella’s “Blocked” in The New Yorker from a few years back). Looking to the history of science we find additional examples from such “geniuses” as Isaac Newton. Newton is famous for such statements as:
“I keep the subject of my inquiry constantly before me, and wait till the first dawning opens gradually, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
“If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent.”

Every semester I find myself struggling to instill in students habits that generate creative thought and inquiry. That struggle motivated my efforts to structure the research papers in my courses the last couple years. See, for example, How to Teach Curiosity in the History of Science and Modeling Curiosity in the History of Science and Formulating Questions in the History of Science and Explaining Good Questions in the History of Science or previous posts here on last semester’s mapping project.

But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that persistence applies equally to me and my colleagues. Students often reflect what they see their mentors doing. If we wait for inspiration or claim to work best under deadlines, we shouldn’t be surprised if students do the same.

Is Everyone a Historian?

I worry, constantly worry, about what makes any form of history—though I am most concerned with the history of science—a distinct discipline with a particular expertise. Both a broad, non-academic public and the more narrow academic audience fail to recognize history’s unique methodological and philosophical approaches or the historian’s unique domain of expertise. Perhaps because everybody has access to the past, to history, and because the historian’s craft doesn’t seem to depend esoteric knowledge or technical languages, the barrier to doing history appears low.

Elise Blackwell wonders why so many people want to be writers.

I take small solace from the fact that historians are not alone. In a recent post at The Chronicle, Elise Blackwell asks: “Is Everyone a Writer?.” As her title suggests, she wonders why so many people think they can write a book and why they would want to write a book? She concludes by pointing out that even writing a book does not mean you are a writer, that you have acquired the unique expertise that distinguishes writers:

But I do hope that those who are hobbyists—or who view writing as therapy or just want a book under their belt or write for any reason other than to make literature—understand when I have to tell them no, they cannot audit our graduate literary fiction workshop. That workshop is populated by people who have already put in years of study and practice, who may have gone into debt or alienated sensible family members or at the least have bypassed or forsaken profitable careers. They have done this and moved from wherever they were to my city for the sole purpose of apprenticeship in a particular art form. They don’t want to be writers; they are writers.

Blackwell’s essay prompts me to wonder: Is everyone a historian?