Tag Archives: Science

The Road to Comps Part 10: Literary and Print Culture Part 2

Welcome back to the “teach yourself literary criticism in 12 easy steps” portion of this endeavor.  This will actually (likely) be s shorter than average post as almost half of the readings subdivided here were companions or intros to Poe or Twain.  The differences in which are interesting themselves and something I will come back to at the end.

Temple and the Forum

The first at bat here (world series between the Indians and Cubs is currently underway)  is a holdover from when my rough lists included much more about the history of display and museum culture/theory. The Temple and the Forum: The American Museum and Cultural Authority in Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, and Whitman will be one of those books I try to teach with in the rare event there are any tenure track positions available when and if I survive all this. Les Harrison looks back at the developments of three “American” museums: Peale’s, Barnum’s, and the Smithsonian.  The idea of democratic, or even public, discourse is shaped by the architecture of these buildings and the cities where they reside(d). The temple is filled with reverence for more than holy nature, but it is the paramount example of unidirectional authority. Specialist (or at least the initiated) were the ones dispensing and recollecting the order of nature. The forum on the other hand was (and is) the bustling arena for opinions, thoughts, private enterprise, and in some of the examples of Barnum: the popular, the bizarre, and the humbug.

But, it isn’t just about museums. The subtitle is your pocket-seized who’s who of American literature.  Hawthorne emerges as the showman shining the spotlight on the tensions between the temple of the official history and the forum of fiction. Interestingly, Harrison sets Melville’s Moby Dick up as a confrontation with both the temple and the forum for the manner in which both were being controlled and shaped by Ahab-esque showmen.  Stowe’s work seems to follow the same arc as the museums–from a Peale light narration through the stage plays and literal exhibition in the forum of theatre in not one, but two extremely popular forums in New York alone. Wrapping up with Whitman Harrison situated Specimen Days under the complete iron dome of the capital building finalizing the United States growth politically, scientifically, and through much personal exertion on Whitman’s part, culturally.

A Fictive People

A Fictive People could follow a few paths, but its subtitle Economic Development and the American Reading Public set out from the cover to explain the impact of such things as high literacy rates, improved printing technology, new schooling systems, and the “cult of domesticity” had on the “golden age of reading.”  This isn’t a cause an effect history. It is almost the opposite. Ronald Zboray moves from the earlier travel records of Europeans visiting America through the merchant travels of booksellers and increased publishing all to show that far from democratizing the populace, economic development actually exacerbated the regional differences within the country, and not just in literary tastes.

Even after the development of a book trade, distribution networks were still differentiated by region, tastes and consumption (of potable and non potable goods) remained stratified by class, colonial preferences still remained (even if dress in new post colonial clothes). On the other side of the analysis Zboray reveals that reader’s tastes were not as radically divided aling gender lines. It would appear, to paraphrase someone we will be talking about later, that the arrival of a “mass literary marketplace” in the 1850s have been greatly exaggerated.

American Literature and Science

Understanding American literature in the antebellum, and most of the post-bellum period means understanding the entire cultural context of the United States. This is true for American Science, American religion, American art, and American Apparel. The collection of essays in American Literature and Science (ed. Robert Scholnick) cuts a cross-section through the period with a host of well-known American men of letters. During the early republic science and literature could be pursued together in the cases of Franklin and Jefferson. The growing schism between the two towards separate specialties and professions are chronicled by Thoreau, Poe, and Emerson among others.  The essays fall short of the modern period, although Scholnick does mention modern essayist such as Stephen J Gould, Lewis Thomas, and John McPhee at varioud times in the introduction. The later chapters highlight how science and literature still speak to each other, sometimes subliminally, across the rift that is modernism. In the closing essay N. Katherine Hayles discussions (airs her justified annoyance) that most of the science and literature literature focuses on how science influences (or influenced) literature. In the end science, like literature, is a cultural construct and both of them need to be considered (and understood) as two sites within a complex cultural field” (229).

Walt Whitman

Walt. Whitman.  I have never especially cared for poetry. Sometimes I still have a bit of an issue with the fact that it is perfectly okay for it to not rhyme. So, coming to Whitman as a cultural icon instead of an iconoclast probably sets me at a disadvantage when considering his mark on American Culture. Luckily David Reynolds (we’ve discussed some of his other work before) has a giant horse pill of a book to help reposition Whitman within a broader cultural context (sometimes created by Whitman).  Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography  I think is less about Whitman’s life regarding Whitman and more a biography of cultural told through the development of Whitman. This is like thinking that Anne Rice just wanted to write books about world history and decided that the immortal undead is the best vehicle for such.

Reynolds takes down this notion that Whitman is America and American is Whitman. I was unaware that this was the case. This was my first exposure to Whitman’s bohemian ways endearing him as America’s native son. Good thing, because it turns out that such a notion isn’t entirely true.  The overall arc of Whitman’s life fits with the arc of American culture. His best plan was living longer than many of his contemporaries. For many of the cultural monoliths we do not have baselines for comparison pre and post civil war. Reynolds begins and ends the book with Whitman’s 70th birthday to show that the zenith of the American Cultural celebration for Whitman coincided with the author’s largest absorption of capitalism and self promotion.

The middle bit of this nearly 700 page handbook to the 19th century is filled, sometimes to overflowing, of analysis or art, literature, and science. Similar to Reynolds other work Waking Giant it borders on sensory overload for the reader but provides a familiar avenue to access Whitman for nearly anyone.  Reynolds also uses the same high school yearbook type run of portraits in the center of the book. He also includes some of the art discussed as corresponding (in most  cases 1:1) with lines of Whitman’s poems. The Alfred Jacob Miller piece is striking because I blogged about it for an art history course and I will be taking up studies of Miller in a few weeks. Maybe this means I am on the right track. When Whitman’s likeness is used for cigars it is more or less proof that he has become American culture. Reynolds, and perhaps Whitman himself, believes that this was less than what Whitman was hoping for. Even at the end of his life Whitman lamented not getting through to the “people” and being a more powerful agent of social change in the the world, especially after the  Civil War. As I stated earlier, I think that to follow Whitman through the 19th century is to follow American Culture through the same.

The cigars were called "blades o' grass"
The cigars were called “blades o’ grass”

Poe and Twain. I am not sure this isn’t akin to that Beatles or Elvis question from Pulp Fiction. That is to say that you are one or the other. You may be an Elvis person that likes some Beatles stuff, but you can’t be booth. (Man, there is a lot of italics emphasis in this post). Is it the same for Poe and Twain. It seems that way, but then you can break it down farther with Poe. Do you prefer Poe’s poetry or prose? I have always preferred the prose with the exception of The Raven and Annabelle Lee. Again this is how I came to Poe first, so reading in these companions that it is only recently his fiction has become mainstream, is a bit of a shock.

The introductions are the same, but the companion to the works are markedly different. What if Poe had lived as long as Twain?
The introductions are the same, but the companion to the works are markedly different. What if Poe had lived as long as Twain?

Poe, whatever his faults, seems to have always had his finger on the pulse of American Culture. Like Whitman’s lament Poe never really reached the “people” either, save the immense popularity of The Raven. (he even wrote that the bird outdid the bug, in response to the poem overshadowing his most popular prose The Gold-Bug).  He is seen as a hoaxer with Hanns Phaal and Balloons, or MS found in a bottle. He was also an astute critic in the press, much to the detriment of his personal amicability. His science work may arguably be ancestral to science fiction. With Eureka, which was dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt,  among others being prescient into the 20th century. His satire of Egyptomania and deferment to science in “Some Words with a Mummy” is one of my personal favorites.

Cambridge Companion to Poe

Back in American Literature and Science the Poe chapter looks at his use of Newtonian and Platonic theories of optics. Looking and seeing is a lasting distinguishing theme in my own work, probably only second to authenticity and authority. The work here allows for both Newton and Plato to argue the same case. Newtonian optics for the actual mechanical process of looking, and more or less sight, while the older “untrue” system is where the seat of imagination and actual “seeing” comes into play. This is the type of thing that give examples to Poe’s brilliance. There is almost no escaping tragedy in Poe’s life, some self-inflicted, most beyond his own control. Poe, defining, or defiling genres is at his best and the most tragic thing for American literary culture is that he died in the middle of it. Better known, if not better appreciated in Europe it seems fitting to end with the modern cliché that he was known as a genius in France.

Introduction to Poe

Mark Twain. Use this in its actual working context and know that the waters are dangerous and shallow here. Twain is one of those people that are eminently miss-quotable for any occasion. Think of him as an American Oscar Wilde. God, he would hate that. You can’t get out of the American school system without getting Twain on you. Unfortunately it is always the same stuff and it is getting harder to wash off. I will stop here to say that to a certain extent I love Twain and have fond memories of reading things that aren’t Tom or Huck related.

Introduction to Twain

Twain was a humorist. He was funny, and that is exactly why he has endured this long. He is still funny. The reason that he is have less to do with his prophetic ability and more to do with the stagnation of culture. I think Twain remains popular because of the massive amounts of anti-intellectualism that is injected into his work. We still have a culture divided over book-learnin’. On one side, it doesn’t teach common sense, but on the other it doesn’t elevate to the levels of pretense that some like to subscribe. If Poe was the pulse of culture Twain is the pulse of class. The companions and introductions all  treat Mark Twain as more than a pseudonym. Samuel Clemens needs a vehicle to travel through the frequently disunited states in order to make reports back to the reader and it not be a personal affiliation. This adds great strength to the ideas brought forth in Fictive People. 

Oxford companion to Twain

Twain’s “hoaxes,” humor, or satire always tend to attack the establishment from the outside. Always the outsider, similar to that honed identity of Whitman and practiced nature of Poe are the hallmarks of Americana. Twain reached the people that Poe and Whitman missed. This seems mainly due to the popular press, and the reading public’s penchant for fiction. In the end Twain spins a good yarn, even if they follow the same model and employ many of the same tropes.

Cambridge companion to Twain
I didn’t read this one, just making you aware that Cambridge has a companion volume too.

There were others writing satirical humor against science and culture, but it was done from a different background, most notably George Derby. Derby was West Point stock from the immortal class of 1846 with Grant, McClellan, Pickett, and Stonewall Jackson. A student of science, Derby, under the name John Phoenix, skewered the plethora of “official report” literature coming in from the American West. Derby makes fun of the scientists Twain makes fun of the science. Derby’s surveyors serve the same purpose as Poe’s (and Locke’s) hoaxes: they are warnings against uncritical acceptance of “facts.” Twain makes fun of the science, and uses that to later launch personal attacks on the likes of O.C. Marsh for mishandling federal funds finding birds with teeth.  More attacks on science (specifically paleontology and the “fossil craze”) in Twain’s “Petrified Man” are hard social commentary. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court presents and even more dire portait of the unstoppable juggernaut of American technology. These aren’t just stories for stories sake, even if they do get absorbed separately from their social warnings.

I don't think Goofy has the same effect on the warning of unfettered American Industry.
I don’t think Goofy has the same effect on the warning of unfettered American Industry.

Understanding more about Twain has led me to realize why I only like some of his work now. Like Poe it is usually his lesser studied (or assigned) works. A Tramp Abroad is one that comes to mind immediately. Although I have a full collection of Twain’s work, I always find myself skipping over Tom, Huck, and Pudd’n Head  for some of the more entertaining collection of essays. The best analogy I can find for moving beyond the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is when you finally outgrow Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama.  Even with their works tilt the same way their methods and means are still markedly different. Twain’s Yankee modernizes (and ultimately destroys) King Arthur’s Court, while Poe’s mummy offers a retort for every piece of ‘modern’ life, save on. The ultimate production of American society, industrial, economical culture is the cough drop. That is probably why I like that story so much.

If You Have a Question About How the World Works

Last week some time a friend of mine sent me a youtube video from a guy called Captain Disillusion (whom I have never heard of until receiving the link) who had a very special guest on his myth debunking channel: it was Beakman!

56020If you are unfamiliar with Beakman let me bring you up to speed. There are many overlaps in production and what networks wanted was pretty similar, but it wasn’t–and isn’t– a Beakman’s World vs. Bill Nye The Science Guy world.  It goes way back to an earlier program called Watch Mr. WizardThat seems like a great place to start:

Don Herbert through a series of assistants taught kids in throughout the 1950s and early 60s. Watch returned briefly in 1971/72 but in 1983 Don Herbert had his own world with Mr. Wizard’s World which was the same format with new assistants.

Mr. Wizard’s World ran until 1990, but Herbert would live another 17 years to see his path well-traveled and extended. He died on June 12, 2007 just a month shy of his 90th birthday.

Something interesting happened in the 90s (if you actually lived through them at an impressionable age like I did, that is the understatement of the century).  Mr. Wizard’s World may have went off the air, but nature and television networks deplore a vacuum and low ratings.

I watched as much television as I could in the 90s. Admittedly that isn’t much since we had three network channels and Fox 29 if it was cloudy. Thankfully that connection improved by the time we got Fox Kids. I thought I was familiar with everything on network television and a saturday morning cartoon snob. Only recently was I introduced to Back to the Future: The Animated Series. I know you are probably thinking “Congratulations, Columbus you’ve discovered something thousands of people already knew about,” but bear with me here, this is important for science programming reasons.

The series was short-lived, consisting of only 2 seasons, but it is interesting for a variety of reasons. I was never into the Back to the Future movies or anything so maybe that is how I missed this. Or, more likely, it came on CBS opposite something I really liked. Either way, I have just recently discovered this thanks to a friend of mine in London (because I hadn’t even stumbled across it on the internet), and want to share a quick bit about how it works and what it means for the rest of the decade.

Each episode was bookended by live action segments with Dr. Emmett Brown himself, Christopher Lloyd, setting up and reviewing the episode AND then explaining some principle of science related to what happened to them. I think it is doubly interesting for me since I am a historian of science to see the science and then a historical perspective and then the science again tied back into the episode, however loosely.

Here is the intro and the opening live segment.

I let it run into the narration for the cartoon to share some fun trivia on this: Even though Lloyd did the live action segments he, unlike Mary Steenburgen and a few others, did not provide the voice of his animated counterpart. The animated Doc Brown is expertly brought to life by the amazing voice talents of Dan Casttelaneta who you may recognize from a bajillion other sources, namely the Simpsons.

Now, the important part: The ending live segment with the science of the water test, more or less.

Did you recognize Doc’s lab assistant? Look again… I’ll wait. The white lab coat and the bowtie? That is Bill Nye in a non speaking, recurring role two years before he gets his own program. The animated Back to the Future ended in December of 1992 and Bill Nye The Science Guy’s debut was the following September. But, a year before something else exploded onto the science scene:

In September 1992 we all broke into Beakman’s World where we were allowed to take up residence until 1997. The show, which is based on a comic called You Can With Beakman and Jaxalso pays homage to Mr. Wizard’s World and Mr. Wizard himself in the form of two puppet penguins named Don and Herb.


Beakman's World Penguins Don and Herb

The program is as full of craziness as it is science and I absolutely loved it. From the Don King hair, to the neon lab coat to the giant lab rat with tattoos it was what I knew science to be and not what I had seen in the stuffy depictions of scowling scientists in the lab. It was fun, the same kind of fun I had when I was looking at bugs under the microscope or trying to figure out what kind of rock I found or what bird was making a particular noise. It was built around not just the experiments that you could perform at home (I made the sugar glass at least twice) but also viewer questions usually answered in a rapid fire round called “Beakmania!” (I am way prouder of that gif than I should be, but it took more than a few tries to get the timing right).

The series moved off of out local station before it ended and I had never seen the godawful season 4 until it reran on Netflix a couple years ago. It was okay, I honestly cannot stand the way they built the last assistant Phoebe (nothing against Senta Moses, but that seasons just got too 90s and too annoying). It was funny watching them again because I remembered episodes and experiments but I had somehow managed to morph Joey and Liza into one person and only ever remembered one person being their throughout the ones I had seen.

Josey, Lester, Bones, Beakman
Josey, Lester, Bones, Beakman
Bekaman's World Liza
Lester, Beakman, Liza

But what really made the show tick was the chemistry between the folks making it, the limitless guest characters played by the trio–Art Burn in his diner, Meekman, the school nurse, Woody Chipper, the sports announcers, the game show contestants–and, above all, a man in a giant rat suit. 46fac0f07be5a6c1e56affa072321cbb37542b64aa4ce9b670da5b6b270ca331_mediumimg5bgfDsRi

One of the other bits I really, *really*, enjoyed about Beakman was the “smokey door of history™” when famous folks would show up and talk about their stuff.

For instance:

I am working on cutting and collecting all of these because I use them when I teach the History of Science. They aren’t perfect, but they are memorable. I haven’t found and loaded it yet, but one of the earliest ones they did was on Maria Mitchell and her works with comets. This episode aired in 1994 and I was in graduate school for the second time in Spring of 2015 before I heard of her again.

A year following Beakman,  Bill Nye the Science Guy hit the airwaves on PBS. The closest PBS channel for us was out of Houston 120 miles away and just out of reach of our antenna so I was in high school before I ever saw my first episode of Bill Nye. Whose popularity made me an instant defender of Beakman and the gang.

Bill Nye is fun. But is had such a different feel than Beakman to me, it feels like, I dunno, safer fun. One of the biggest differences here is that Bill Nye is an actual scientist in real life and Paul Zaloom is a puppeteer and comedian.

The 90s were weird (again understatement). It was a decade of dueling doubles with two takes on the same premise: Beakman’s World/Bill Nye, Armageddon/Deep Impact, and Tombstone/Wyatt Earp to name a few off the top of my head.

One of the most interesting things about the Bill Nye/Beakman overlap is the show rules for The Science Guy explicitly pointing out things done in Beakman’s World (without saying the name) that his show would not do:


Number 3 and 4 specifically. I am not certain if number 2 is a dig on the BogusScope® or not.  I have never confirmed them as direct points of departure from Beakman, but I suspect they are. Incidentally I have an autographed copy of this, but it is framed and it photographs lousily.

Bill Nye’s show ran out in mid 1998, only 6 months after Beakman and company packed it in. Bill boasted 100 shows, Paul had only 91, but both of their impacts cannot be understated and should not be ignored. They continued a them of education a generation of kids to go out and *do* science, and better yet showed them how. I still use the how to make a fossil project with I talk to kids with the Paleo Porch Mini Mobile Museum. This is far more than falling into the hashtag battles of #TeamBeakman or #TeamNye. I honestly believe these shows helped a ton of homeschool kids learn better science than they would have gotten otherwise. I like them both, I will always prefer Beakman to Bill. My wife had never seen Beakman’s World until we started watching it over dinner in 2014. We remain a house divided.

More instructors teach with Bill Nye Videos than Beakman. Maybe that is because they were easier to get and use coming from PBS and not our plebeian channels. To be completely fair in that sense, Bill’s shows are more thematically aligned and cohesive, but Beakman had one thing Bill could never equal and that was Lester the Rat.

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 1.54.51 PM
We Miss You Mark Ritts.

I honestly don’t know where this leaves us. It is 2016, certain politicians believe Bill Nye is just a television host and he has debated the most famous creationist in the world. Bill is fighting the good scientific fight on GMOs and vaccines and such. We still need to educate kids on a level they can have to themselves. I was an ardent rule follower, but I always found Bill Nye just as stuffy as the scientists in books and film. It was Beakman who embodied what I felt about science and what it could do and what I could do with it. So, that is what I cherish, even above the terrible puns which I use every single chance I get. It was amazing to see Beakman back in character on youtube, making fun of the people that brought him there because they didn’t bother to learn how magnets work and “you don’t have to know how is was faked, to know that it is fake”

Great to see you again Paul.



Science Comics

They exist, and the one I am going to tell you about here is positively amazing on both counts.


If you have been following along with my arc into the madness that is doctoral work you will remember me being greatly aided in sanity by getting back into comic books. Like all things I have tried to absorb everything that is going on in the world thereof and have started following many comic book artist and writers on twitter (Fun fact: many of them are super interactive on social media). They share rants and works in progress (WIP), sketches, updates, previews, and a host of other things.

Twitter is how I found out about the Science comics series. I can’t remember who retweeted some of the art from it (I tried finding it, but my twitter feed is almost as bad as my Facebook overload) and I started tracking it down.

I am trained in paleontology (Eocene, not dinosaurs specifically) and have since moved into the History of Science to study the history of field explorations centered around paleontological madness. I do this on several public fronts which means I get a lot if dinosaur stuff sent my way. I try to keep up with the news and share it through the Paleo Porch Facebook page as well.


I also run a traveling museum of sorts filled with replica dinosaur claws, mammoth teeth, scale skulls, etc. so I am constantly looking for ways to share this stuff with others. This is one of the first reasons I fell in I’ve with :01 First Second’s Dinosaurs Fossils and Feathers. 

I ordered it as soon as I could, and since it is for repeated scientific research, sprang for the hardcover. When I started reading it,  it got even better. Not only was the comics explaining dinosaurs it was explaining how we came to understand earth’s distant geological past. When I got to the folklore explanations I was settled on sharing it with everyone I knew that had kids. For adult versions see Adrienne Mayor’s Fossil Legends of the First Americans and The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times


Then, it got even better. For anyone with more than a passing interesting in the people that shaped what we have come to know as geology there are recognizable names: Smith, Buckland, Mantell, Owen, Cope, Marsh, etc. that form the mental Mount Rushmore of early Paleontology. Or at the very least the most famous (or infamous) accounts in the Bone Wars. They are all here, and they are all described and drawn beautifully.


Following the standards was great and it was looking good enough to suggest to some close colleagues as well, I was just waiting to see if the author (MK Reed) was going to fall prey to the age old Owen complex problem. I cannot tell you how delighted I was (and am) to say that she absolutely did not. In fact Reed blasts Owen for the self-absorbed force of will that he was. If I had to pick a single panel in this entire graphic novel to sum up how accurate the history of science is it would be this one:


because in reality Richard Owen was a butthead of the first order.

The writing is superb and clever and Joe Flood‘s art flows with it unimaginably well.  Dinosaurs Fossils and Feather is filled with not only science but that science’s history as well, and not just the well known history either. Of course the double page spreads of Mary Anning in the Field, of the Crystal Palace, and Roy Chapman Andrews are all prints I wish I had in my office but they include an enormous swath of paleontologist rarely discussed outside hard science circles. Seriously, how many of you know the story about the Transylvanian paleobiologist Franz Nopcsa? Really, see? There you go, he is in this book, in comic form, which hides his tragic ending, but highlights his contributions to geology.


Alfred Wegener is here too! They could have chosen to talk about how he was mostly correct eventually and now we know how brilliant he was, but there is another personal favorite panel of mine included that shows why he was dismissed.


Really, how could a meteorologist (scientific, not TV forecaster by the way) dare think about the continents. Incidentally there is a much anticipated (by me and more than a few other historians of earth science) book about Wegener that is out this year too called Alfred Wegner: Science, Exploration and the Theory of Continental Drift that will be as close to a complete look at Wegener as we will likely ever see.

Get this book. Get it for yourself, get it for your kids, get it for your friends’ kids. The writing is brilliant, the art is stunning, the science is excellent, and the history is fantastic (not just for graphic novel standards but for history standards). If only it were at all possible to have full biographies of each of their included players done in this same tone and style.


I have highlighted only a few great things about this little book. There are many, many more. If I must be hard pressed to find something to complain about, or to point out as a shortcoming, I should choose to saw that I wish this book was a larger format so the pages and art would be larger. 

I will end with a final snapshot merely because I have portraits of E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh hanging in my study at home which would benefit from these more stately bone crests.

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