Posts Tagged ‘blog: true stuff from old books’.

True Stuff: Radium

Thanks so much to those who came out to the Ann Arbor talk on Wednesday! Especial thanks to Eli, Matt, and Shirley of the Ann Arbor District Library for making the trip totally smooth; Kelly and Mike for kind hospitality; Nealie and Flex for incredible graciousness (they took me to the Henry Ford Museum! I took pictures of steam gauges!!) and everyone I’ve met in Michigan this week. I have many thanks to extend for the Dearborn trip as well (Morgan, Becca, Arica, Vicky, Hannah, et al) but let’s leave it at, if you think you ought to be thanked, you are.

I am in Charlotte now for Heroes Con! It’s all this weekend at the Charlotte Convention Center! How about that!

ANYWAY. I came across this article tonight in a 1904 issue of a magazine called Technical World. It’s a really interesting piece about the discovery and properties of X-rays and radioactivity, but these few paragraphs in particular caught my eye:

…[Radioactive] complex molecules are continually disintegrating into simpler ones, and in so doing are setting free the energy that was originally put into them when the processes of life first built them up into their complex forms…

[This energy is] enormously greater than the energies involved in any of the ordinary chemical transformations. The disintegration of a gram of uranium…sets free at least a million times as much energy as that represented in any known chemical change taking place with a gram weight of any compound substance.

The experiments of the last eight years have marked a most notable advance in science, in that they have proven the existence of this immense store of sub-atomic energy. It seems highly improbable, however, that this energy can ever be utilized on the earth to serve man’s economic needs.

…Radium may possibly prove to be of some practical value in the cure of disease, although it is too early yet to assert even this with assurance.

Nailed it.

BONUS: Another mention of radium in Popular Science, 1921:

I guess that’s one way to get a “natural, healthy glow.”

True Stuff: Idealized vs. Realistic Portraiture

In my last post on the ethics of photo retouching, and how it’s been prevalent since the birth of photography, commenter Pelotard mentioned the official Soviet portraits of Gorbachev:

…And how they always conveniently seemed to leave something out.

This got me thinking about idealized portraiture in general. It goes back as long as portraiture itself, of course; early classical portraits of emperors and such tended to cycle through emphasis on either a rugged, realistic appearance (as would befit a warrior and statesman) or an angelic, unblemished appearance (as would befit a god). In the same way, later emperors (such as Constantine) saw value in associating themselves in the public eye with prior, well-regarded emperors. Constantine went so far as to wear the same haircut as Trajan:

(In my interview with the world’s foremost beard expert, Dr. Christopher Oldstone-Moore discusses a similar trend in the history of beards. Alexander the Great wished to be seen as a god, i.e. youthful and athletic, so he wore no beard. Hadrian, however, wished to be seen as a philosopher and thinker, so he did wear a beard. It was a cyclical fashion.)

There are cycles in contemporary fashion too, of course: the recent few years have seen a huge rise in oversharpened, deliberately un-airbrushed celebrity portraits like those of Martin Schoeller. But as you might imagine, I’m personally particularly interested in how people felt on the subject 100+ years ago.


True Stuff: The Ethics of Retouching

Modern-day photo retouching (as in here and here) is a big business in the world of magazines and advertisements and mass media, and every now and then there’s an outcry about how fake it all is. It distorts perceptions of beauty and reality, and elevates celebrity onto weird unblemished pedestals.

Before lumping this into “a problem with our modern world” too fast, though, remember that it was always thus: kings and queens were flattered by their bust-sculptors and portrait-painters, and as soon as photography was invented, there were retouchers. Drawing onto negatives with a pencil to prompt prints to come out lighter, or delicately scratching away emulsion to prompt prints to darken, they removed stray hairs, straightened noses, and erased double chins from the very first.

Here’s a bit from “A Magazine of Photographic Information,” March 1900 edition:

Retouching has been much condemned, alike by those who cannot practise it, and by those of artistic trend; we must admit that in many hands its use is pushed far beyond its legitimate scope, and with deplorable results. If, however, we judge a process by its abuse, then all photography must be placed under the ban, for certain it is, that many things photographic are produced which are without any merit whatsoever beyond the negative one of probable impermanence.

The article continues on to be quite prescient:

The Coming Retouching

What retouching should be, it is impossible to say. The retouching of the future is a matter of gradual evolution, rather than of demonstration. Probably the amateur will suggest it in part, but it should come more from the steady worker who day by day steadily pencils over his pile of negatives. It may safely be said that, far from being superseded, retouching, in a modified form, will be more universal in the future than in the past. Possibly it will often be nearer “faking” than retouching, but there will be few pictures, save those of beginners, which will be “straight prints from straight negatives.”

Here’s a bit from the 1898 book Amateur Portraiture at Home, which realizes it has to dip into the subject of retouching, but sure isn’t happy about it:

True Stuff: ‘Beauty and the Beard,’ 1939

Here’s an article I came across in the London Times, 1939, regarding the inherent beauty of the beard as a subject for photography.

Coincidentally (or not?), 1939 is the same year of LIFE Magazine’s epic double-page photo-spread exalting every type of beard! What a year to be alive!

Full transcript of the article below. (more…)

True Stuff: Socrates vs. the Written Word

Previously, I shared a curmudgeonly 1889 article about the menace of electricity and the telephone and its spiritual cousin, a fifteenth-century screed lamenting the printing press. I’m collecting data here in service of a hypothesis that progress is universally despised, that the “get off my lawn you whippersnappers” feeling that we all occasionally experience is more tied to our makeup as humans than the technology and the changes themselves. These feelings, I posit, are universal, and perhaps make us feel disconnected — we see others doing things differently, and experiencing life in a different way, and we can’t understand it, or all we can see is what they’re missing. If only they would realize! But those people are not bad — they are simply native to the next thing, perhaps, and they experience the world slightly differently. And so the world turns.

When I mentioned that I supposed this curmudgeonly sentiment against progress was common all throughout history, some commenters pointed me to the Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue of around 370 B.C.

In it, Socrates recounts to Phaedrus the Egyptian legend of Theuth, the god who invented “numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.” Theuth presents the Egyptian king Thamus with his many inventions, and Thamus

…said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, “This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”

But Thamus replied, “Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.

“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b)

To which Phaedrus calmly replies: “Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.”