Impeccable Science: Habits of Expression, Arm Joints and Atheists

Today’s long-overdue impeccable science is drawn from a pleasantly-sized 1832 volume entitled The Youth’s Book on Natural Theology; Illustrated in Familiar Dialogues, With Numerous Engravings. 

For those who don’t know, natural theology argues for God’s existence based on observations of nature, so, while not a purely “scientific” tome by contemporary definitions, this book does contain highly-detailed descriptions of entomology, human anatomy, animal behavior, electricity, and air pressure, all of which the author relates to intelligent design.

The chapter descriptions are truly brilliant litanies. My favorites are “Radius. Ulna. Button-head. Joint-oil. Gristle. Ligament. Wisdom and goodness of God.” and (not pictured here) “Mouth of animals; particular design in forming them. Wood-pecker. Cross-bill. Bills of ducks and geese. Oyster-catcher. Choetodon. Chance. Atheism.”

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I will give an extremely special prize as well as certain micro-celebrity to any blog reader who can provide documentation of herself reciting these enumerations at a poetry reading.

As for the impeccable science that I’ve promised you: after a lengthy description of the nerves of the face and the ways that nerves control muscles, author Rev. T. H. Gallaudet proceeds to explain facial expressions, which “seem to be the very coming out of the soul.”

You, like me, may be thinking, “but I want my soul to stay in, where it belongs,” but that’s not what Rev. T. H. Gallaudet wants to talk about! No, he wants us to understand how uniquely human are facial expressions:

Many animals, you know, have no such expressions of face at all; and none of them have any thing like the different kinds,–the beauty, the strength, and the meaning, which the expressions of the human face have… a dog expresses a very few things by his face. A man can express,–oh! how many different kinds of thoughts, and feelings, in his countenance.

To which I say:

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Gallaudet has proof, though! Just look at these lifelike engravings of a woman with soulful eyes and a disenchanted pup with Farrah Fawcett hair:

Why, you may ask, does that dog look so vacuous? In part, explains Gallaudet, it’s because animals don’t have souls, which I’m not prepared to debate here. In other part, it’s because:

Some [beasts] have some muscles and nerves, in their faces, like ours; but none of them as many; and most of them have very few, indeed… They do not think and feel, as we do… even, if they had a soul like ours, it could not show itself, its thoughts and its feelings, on their faces, as our souls do; because they have not the muscles and nerves, that are necessary to give all kinds of expressions to the face.

Hmmm. We may have to agree to disagree here, sir.

What about human facial expressions, though? What do those do, besides proving that we have souls?

Well, they can show our habits of expression, which I think is an old-fashioned way of saying that if you make a funny face for too long, you’ll get stuck that way. For instance, look at this disheveled man who apparently strikes strange children in the street. He’s been angry for so long that “he can hardly look pleasant, if he tries”:

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And here’s the same man after brushing his hair and putting on a less-floppy collar:

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Just kidding! That’s a different man. That’s Uncle John, who’s full of kind and benevolent feelings. That’s why his eyebrows look so neat.

On a completely different note, I would be loathe to sign off without showing you this engraving–demonstrating the difference between instinct and behavior–of a woman frightening off a tiger with her parasol. It’s science! Impeccably!

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Scientific Methods: Appleton and The Young Chemist

We wanted to share some excellent scientific illustrations from a recently-cataloged, 1897 edition of John Howard Appleton’s The young chemist: a book of laboratory work for beginners. 

Appleton, born in Maine in 1844, was a chemistry professor at Brown University, as well as the Rhode Island State Sealer of Weights and Measures. (What a fantastic title, right?) He wrote twelve chemistry texts, including The young chemist, which was first published in 1878.

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The Year-Book of Education for 1879 describes The young chemist thusly:

The Young Chemist is a manual of instruction in chemistry on the experimental or object method, of which the characteristic advantages as regarded by the author are: the apparatus described and the supplies called for are of the simplest character; the experiments are described in clear and simple language, and in direct form; dangerous experiments are excluded; the chemical elements are discussed in a scientific order; formulas and reactions are introduced freely, so that the student learns the new nomenclature and the new notation without suspecting it.

This description fails to mention the detailed illustrations, which really have everything one could want in terms of chemistry-themed visuals:

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Test tubes! Open flames!

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A guy blowing bubbles in a beaker!

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Quartz (SiO2) crystals, which looks to be straight out of the Cueva de los Cristales!

If this blog post is causing you to have an insatiable urge to carry out simple science experiments, you should check out NPR’s article on experiments using leftover Halloween candy. Just make sure to keep Appleton’s hints in mind.

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Impeccable Science: Flannel Frippery and Blasting the Blooming Complexion

Today’s impeccable science is drawn from the 1851 Buchan’s Domestic Medicine: or The Family Physician, a book that is a fantastic mix of sound advice, terrifying recommendations, gruesome descriptions of 19th century afflictions, and fanciful language.

The book’s segment on sleep and clothing appears near the beginning of the book, as proper attention to both (alongside aliment, air, and exercise) is a crucial element of good health. Buchan begins by counseling readers that “too little sleep weakens the nerves, exhausts the spirits, and occasions diseases; and too much renders the mind dull, the body gross, and disposes it to apoplexies, lethargies, and such like.”

Who wants weak nerves and a gross body? Not me! Probably not you! Thus, take note: “For adults six or seven hours is certainly sufficient,” counsels Buchan, “and no one ought to exceed eight.” And if one does sleep more than eight hours? “The indolent custom of lolling abed for nine or ten hours not only makes the sleep less refreshing, but relaxes the nerves, and greatly weakens the constitution.”

Ok, so less sleep is better, as long as it’s not too little sleep. But when should we sleep?

Nature points out night as the proper season for sleep. Nothing more certainly destroys the constitution than night-watching. It is great pity that a practice so destructive to health should be so much in fashion. How quickly the want of rest in due season will blast the most blooming complexion, or ruin the best constitution, is evident from the ghastly countenances of those who, as the phrase is, turn day into night, and night into day.

Oof, who wants a ghastly countenance? Definitely not me! I should sleep at night! And I should arise early in the morning, at least according to Buchan, for “surely the fore-part of the day is fitter both for business and amusement. I hardly ever knew an early riser who did not enjoy a good state of health.”

These recommendations, mind you, sound solid to me, so I’m inclined to heed Buchan’s following suggestions on clothing. He derides the corset, disparages the too-tight shoe, and scorns young men who wear flannel.

Flannel indeed is now worn by almost every young fellow. This custom is extremely preposterous. It not only makes them weak and effeminate, but renders flannel less useful at a time of life when it becomes more necessary. No young person ought to wear flannel, unless… some… disease renders it necessary.

Well! Avoid flannel! And while you’re at it, remember these wise words: “Finery is only the affectation of dress, and very often covers a great deal of dirt.”

Art//Archives, and a Human Combustion Addendum

First: today (right now!), from 10:30 – 1:00, we’re having our regular open hours in Special Collections. This week we’re featuring books on the topic of fruit, in honor of the raspberries and mulberries that are currently attracting huge numbers of birds to my backyard, much to the detriment of the car parked in the driveway.

Above left are some plums from George Brookshaw’s 1817 Groups of Fruit, Accurately Drawn and Coloured After Nature, with Full Directions for the Young Artist: Designed as a Companion to the Treatises on Flowers and Birds. Above right you can see a frankly terrifying “Banana Trumpeter” from the 1935 children’s book Tommy Apple and His Adventures in Banana-Land.

Second: as a follow-up to our post a couple of weeks ago on the flames of intemperance, I received an email from someone who may or may not have been my mother with a link to this excellent article on the spontaneous human combustion scene in Dickens’s Bleak House, as well as the corresponding 19th century furor over the fact that Dickens was purportedly fueling “a world of spontaneous combustion truthers”.

Here’s Bleak House illustrator Hablot Knight Browne’s rendering of the gruesome scene:

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Impeccable Science, or, the Flames of Intemperance

What do you do when you want to evaluate if an article is a reliable, credible source of information? Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, my favorite wellspring of writing advice, counsels that “responsible, credible authors will cite their sources so that you can check the accuracy of and support for what they’ve written.” Sensible advice, in my opinion.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take a look at this July 1812 issue of The Emporium of Arts and Sciences (vol. 1, no. 3), which features some of the most fantastically impeccable science I have ever encountered in my short but highly scientific life.

The name sounds pretty legit, no? It even says “sciences” in the title!

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How reliable is the author? Does he cite his sources so that we can examine the support for what he’s written?

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Ooo, yes, plenty of (poorly photographed) footnotes, and some of them are even in French! This author does his homework, and he’s bilingual, to boot. I’m leaning towards deeming this a trustworthy source for information about…

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“Combustion of the Human Body, produced by the long and immoderate use of Spirituous Liquors”.

Hang on, what? Drinking too much can make your body catch on fire? I’d consider that “destitute of probability”, as author Pierre-Aime Lair notes that some readers, myself apparently included, may be apt to consider. He promptly addresses our collective doubts:

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Is it more surprising to experience such incineration than to void saccharine urine, or to see the bones softened to such a degree as to be reduced to the state of a jelly? The effects of this combustion are certainly not more wonderful than those of the bones softened, or of the diabetes mellitus.

Point taken– the human body can be strange and marvelous. I still want more proof, though.

In physics, facts being always preferable to reasoning, I shall here collect those which appear to me to bear the impression of truth; and, lest I should alter the sense, I shall quote them such as they are given in the works from which I have extracted them.

Oh good, facts! The author’s “facts” are henceforth presented in nine thoroughly footnoted pages of wildly gruesome recollections wherein women, in their drunkenness, were reduced to piles of ash, often with a few extremities preserved in near-perfect condition. It’s an awful lot to take in, and I’ll spare you the bulk of it, lest you be haunted by nightmares like the ones I’m sure to have tonight. Highlights include a woman whose maid found her as “a heap of ashes, in which could be distinguished the legs and arms untouched”, a room full of “a moist kind of soot” which was “conveyed to a neighbouring kitchen… a piece of bread in the cupboard was covered with it, and no dog would touch it”, a woman whose trunk had “the appearance of a log of wood”, and an ash pile next to an extremely small hearth with a “right foot… found entire, and scorched at its upper junction”.

So, that’s terrifying. For readers who are, no doubt, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of this horrific evidence, the author sums up commonalities in a handy list:

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1. The persons who experienced the effects of this combustion had for a long time made an immoderate use of spirituous liquors.
2. The combustion took place only in women.
3. These women were far advanced in life.
4. Their bodies did not take fire spontaneously, but were burnt by accident.
5. The extremities, such as the feet and the hands, were generally spared by the fire.
6. Water sometimes, instead of extinguishing the flames which proceeded from parts on fire, gave them more activity.
7. The fire did very little damage, and often even spared the combustible objects which were in contact with the human body at the moment when it was burning.
8. The combustion of these bodies left as a residuum fat foetid ashes, with an unctuous, stinking, and very penetrating soot.

All of my modern, feminist sensibilities are offended by the idea that this fate only befalls older women. Why do women have to bear the brunt of the ill effects of heavy drinking? How on earth do fiery accidents distinguish between male and female bodies in the first place? How does one become so deeply imbued with liquor that one’s body is essentially a figgy pudding?

Not to fear, Pierre-Aime Lair can explain.

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The female body is generally more delicate than that of the other sex. The system of their solids is more relaxed; their fibres are more fragile and of a weaker structure, and therefore their texture more easily hurt. Their mode of life also contributes to increase the weakness of their organization. Women, abandoned in general to a sedentary life, charged with the care of the internal domestic economy, and often shut up in close apartments, where they are condemned to spend whole days without taking any exercise, are more subject than men to become corpulent. The texture of the soft parts in female bodies being more spongy, absorption ought to be freer; and as their whole bodies imbibe spirituous liquors with more ease, they ought to experience more readily the impression of fire.

Um. Women have weak fibers and are spongy. But why older women, specifically?

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Dancing and walking, which form salutary recreation for young persons, are at a certain age interdicted as much by nature as by prejudice. It needs therefore excite no astonishment that old women, who are in general more corpulent and more addicted to drinking, and who are often motionless like inanimate masses, during the moment of intoxication, should experience the effects of combustion.

Older women are “spongy”, AND they’re “motionless like inanimate masses”?! They’re more likely to be drunk, and therefore more likely to light on fire while going about their daily business? This is amazing! This is impeccably scientific! Surely our female readers are now convinced not to imbibe in excess.

Does that mean that nothing bad ever happens to men who drink? Not the case, according to dear old Pierre-Aime. It’s just that men don’t burn in place, leaving behind forlorn hands and feet, but rather tend towards having flames shoot out of their bodies.

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Sturmius says, that in the northern countries flames often burst from the stomach of persons in a state of intoxication. Three noblemen of Courland having laid a bet which of them could drink most spirits, two of them died in consequence of suffocation by the flames which issued with great violence from their stomachs. We are told by Thomas Bartholin, on the authority of Vorstius, that a soldier, who had drunk two glasses of spirits, died after an eruption of flames from his mouth.

There are the facts, folks. I’ll let them speak for themselves.

Impeccable Science: the perils of hot tea

Today’s impeccable science comes from the 1841 volume A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School.

This book has some great advice (eat your vegetables, remember to bathe, don’t drug your babies when they start crying), some dubious advice (treat arsenic poisoning with huge quantities of sugar water, wake up at dawn if you want to be a good American, don’t let babies wear hats), and some downright bad advice (don’t read books unless you want to be mentally ill, and don’t give books to smart children unless you want them to experience “suffering, derangement, disease, and death”).

Our treatise, in the section on healthful food and drink, talks at great length about warm and stimulating beverages. For instance: don’t give your children a lot of sugary coffee (check!), don’t drink too much caffeine if you’re prone to nervousness (check!), and don’t drink very hot tea unless you want all of your teeth to fall out (huh?).

The warning against excessive steaming tea isn’t too far out in left field, as there have been numerous studies noting that scaldingly-hot caffeinated beverages in enormous quantity can cause health problems ranging from esophageal cancer and prostate cancer to bone brittleness and skeletal fluorosis. That said, the book’s Impeccable Science stems from its taking this reasonable premise to a completely illogical conclusion.

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This stern warning begins by describing how, obviously, “if any person should hold a finger in hot water, for a considerable time, twice every day, it would be found that the finger would gradually grow weaker”. (I’ll admit that I haven’t tested this to see if it’s true.)

If you haven’t been too derailed by the image of giving your finger a daily hot water bath, you’ll notice that what follows is somewhere between xenophobic, dentally questionable, and outright incorrect.

The frequent application of the stimulus of heat, like all other stimulants, eventually causes debility. If, therefore, a person is in the habit of drinking hot drinks twice a day, the teeth, throat, and stomach are gradually debilitated… It has been stated to the Writer, by an intelligent traveller, who visited Mexico, that it was rare to meet an individual with a good set of teeth; and that almost every grown person, he met in the street, had only remnants of teeth. On inquiry into the customs of the country, it was found, that it was the universal practice to take their usual beverage almost at the boiling point; and this, doubtless, was the chief cause of the almost universal want of teeth in that Country.

Dear so-called “intelligent traveller”: I’m not sure where you found and surveyed an entire country’s worth of toothless Mexicans, and even if you did encounter some dental atrocities in your travels, your scientific approach is, at best, a fine example of illusory correlation.

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Now I’m going to go drown my sorrows in a cup of black tea. Don’t try to stop me.

Impeccable Science: Finny Tribes, Horse Fishing, and Dental Apparatus

Today’s post highlights science writing which is not only impeccable, but also delightfully florid, with selections from Dr. G. Hartwig’s The Harmonies of Nature, or, the Unity of Creation (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1866). The book itself is an interesting reflection on homeostasis within ecosystems through predator satiation, various instinctual behaviors, and a balance of “passive and active defences“.

The Harmonies of Nature includes some satisfyingly grotesque scientific diagrams, like this cross-section of the “dental apparatus of the Lamprey, & fang fixed to the roof”.

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If that fang fixed to the roof isn’t enough for you, take a gander at this illustration of horses being used to capture electric eels. Hartwig describes it as a “highly entertaining and animated scene”.

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(In the spirit of scientific inquiry/ morbid fascination with this mass of writhing aquatic horses, I had to investigate whether Hartwig’s described equine fishing method was a real thing. Apparently 18th and 19th century scientists were very interested in electrical impulses within animals’ bodies, and did scores of somewhat ghastly experiments including one where the charge from an electric catfish stimulated the sciatic nerve in a recently-amputated frog’s leg, causing the leg to kick a little bell. I can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, among the electrically-curious minds of history was that of German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who convinced understandably leery Guayquerie Indians to help him capture electric eels for study and documentation. In his account of this process, the Guayquerie drove about 30 wild horses and mules into the river, where the animals thrashed about, driving the eels out of the mud and subsequently tiring them out by absorbing numerous benumbing shocks. The exhausted eels could then be pulled to shore with small harpoons. You can read the text of von Humboldt’s distressing account of ‘horse fishing’ here.)

Steering our conversation back to The Harmonies of Nature, let me leave you with one of the most impressive and reassuring sentences I’ve read in a good while:

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Under the protection of an Almighty Lawgiver the equilibrium of the inhabitants of the ocean is thus constantly renewed though constantly assailed; and though the scythe of death is indefatigably mowing throughout Neptune’s domain, it is but to celebrate the eternal triumph of life.

From a current perspective, Hartwig’s earnest confidence in the resilience of Nature’s systems is almost touching. Let’s all keep our collective fingers crossed for the oceanic eternal triumph of life.