Marcin Wodziński on Historical Atlas of Hasidism

WodzinskiHistorical Atlas of Hasidism is the very first cartographic reference book on one of the modern era’s most vibrant and important mystical movements. Featuring sixty-one large-format maps and a wealth of illustrations, charts, and tables, this one-of-a-kind atlas charts Hasidism’s emergence and expansion; its dynasties, courts, and prayer houses; its spread to the New World; the crisis of the two world wars and the Holocaust; and Hasidism’s remarkable postwar rebirth. Historical Atlas of Hasidism is visually stunning and easy to use, a magnificent resource for anyone seeking to understand Hasidism’s spatial and spiritual dimensions, or indeed anybody interested in geographies of religious movements past and present.

What exactly is the Historical Atlas of Hasidism?

This is the first cartographic interpretation of the mystical movement of Hasidism. 280 pages of large-format, full-color maps, images, and text about Hasidism, from its origins in the mid-eighteenth century until today.

What is the appeal of the Atlas?

Whoever gets it into his or her hands will notice that the atlas is simply beautiful. With more than one hundred charts, tables, and unique images, and with 74 beautifully designed full-color maps, this is simply a pleasure to flip through. But I believe there is much more to it. The atlas presents in a visually attractive, easy-to-understand cartographic form the spatial, physical, and visual dimension of a mystical movement. More than that, it demonstrates the meaningful interrelations between the movement’s spatiality and spirituality: Hasidism has been conditioned by its geographic characteristics not only in its social organization, but also in its spiritual life, type of religious leadership, and cultural articulation. On the more general level, this atlas offers an innovative way of looking at a religious movement that might be inspiring for anybody interested in the history, sociology, or geography of religions. This is why I believe the atlas will have a wide readership.

Why does Hasidism require a special Atlas?

Hasidism is one of the most important religious movements of modern Eastern Europe, contemporary Israel, and North America, and this for a number of reasons. For example, this is one of very few successful attempts at creating a religious movement that is both egalitarian and mystical, a real exception in the history of world religions. In addition, many people today are captivated by the extraordinary social and political success of the Hasidim, far beyond their rather moderate numbers. But maybe most importantly, even for those who have never heard the name of Hasidism, the image of traditional Jewry, of the “authentic Jewishness,” is informed mostly by Hasidism. Even though I disagree with this over-simplifying narrative, I believe it vividly represents the importance of the phenomenon.

But why maps, why an atlas as opposed to a standard monograph?

How otherwise could we capture the spatial dimension of the movement? If you believe, as I do, that the Hasidim were not only otherworldly mystics, but also down-to-earth residents of specific locations in very specific historical context of Eastern Europe, then you need to ask what is relation between these two. The maps are not only the easiest way to show it, but they allow for much more than textual exposition. And, besides, today in the digital age, visualization might be the only way to get through with a complex message.

To put this same question another way: you’ve written on Hasidism before; what is unique about this book?

I published my first book in Hasidism twenty years ago and I am still proud of this juvenile publication, as I am of other books I published later. But this book is indeed special. My previous books on Hasidism were more specialist, addressed mostly to the academic readers. This one is addressed to a wide group of readers, academic and lay. Each of the nine chapters introduces in a short, accessible way some central features of Hasidism, such as emergence, development of leadership, relation between religious centers and peripheries, demography, crisis of war and the Holocaust, etc. This very accessible introduction leads to the analysis of how these phenomena were affected by and found representation in space. In other ways, each chapter attempts to be accessible, but at the same time to offer some innovative understanding of the movement (and of a spatial dimension of any religion by implication). The same way, the maps have been conceptualized so that they communicate both the big message, something that you might grasp in the blink of your eye, and a far more developed, complex message, something that you need to read the map carefully for in order to see and understand. In this sense, the atlas both makes the history of Hasidism accessible to a freshman and introduces an expert knowledge on aspects that will be hopefully novel to both the students of Hasidism and a larger group of historians, sociologists, and geographers of religions.

Is it really a book for everybody?

I wouldn’t put it that way. The book is academic. But we, the cartographer and I, made a lot of effort to make it accessible, attractive, and engaging for a wide group of non-academic readers, too, e.g. those interested in Jewish history, Judaism, and history of religion more generally. Also, as the maps contain much geographical detail, e.g. thousands of places of residence of Hasidic leaders, thousands of Hasidic prayer halls, this will be of interest also to lay readers interested in local history, family histories, etc.

The scope of the Atlas sets it apart from other publications. Can you explain how?

This atlas broadens our understanding of Hasidism in three important ways. First, it looks at the movement beyond the Hasidic leaders at thousands of their followers living far from Hasidic centers. This is new, innovative, and I think very needed corrective to the dominant trends in research on Hasidism. Second, it examines Hasidism in its historical entirety from its beginnings in the eighteenth century till today. Very few publications are similarly comprehensive. Most importantly, responding to the challenge of digital humanities, it uses the diverse collection of qualitative, but above all quantitative data of diversified origin, including extensive GIS-processed databases of historical and contemporary records. The largest database is nearly 130 thousand records! Several others have thousands of records. I don’t know any similar publication on Hasidism, or, indeed, on any other religious movement.

Does the Atlas have real world applications?

I believe every knowledge has real world applications, at least by making us wiser. Well, of course, some sections might have direct application. For example my mapping of the settlement patterns among Israeli Hasidim might be successfully used by the Israel city planners or government administration in allocation of resources. For some others, the atlas might become an inspiring guidebook for cultural, or, indeed, spiritual tourism in Eastern Europe. Hasidism pilgrimages are today enormous enterprise with tens of thousands of Hasidim and non-Hasidim visiting graves of the tsadikim and other Hasidic sites. Finally, many maps are simply beautiful, so my wife says they will make perfect print for tablecloths, T-shirts, and postcards. We can’t wait to open a souvenir shop!

Marcin Wodziński is professor of Jewish studies at the University of Wrocław in Poland. His many books include Hasidism: A New History (Princeton) and Hasidism and Politics: The Kingdom of Poland, 1815–1864. Waldemar Spallek is assistant professor of geographic information systems and cartography at the University of Wrocław in Poland.

Keith Whittington: Campus protests should stop at the door of the classroom

by Keith Whittington

Campus free speechProtests are a time-honoured tradition on college campuses – memorably exemplified by the protests of 1968 by the grandparents of the current generation of students. They reflect the passionate energies of students discovering their own priorities and commitments, and finding their voice in national conversations. Protests spring from the stimulating intellectual environment and vigorous debate found on college campuses, where students are willing to think about more than just the upcoming party or how to grab the rungs on the career ladder. 

Not that universities should encourage student protests, but neither should they try to quash them. What universities must insist on, however, is that student protests be compatible with the larger functioning of the university; they should not hinder the ability of anyone on campus to pursue their own activities or the central mission of the university in advancing and disseminating knowledge. There are a lot of people on a college campus, and university administrators need to coordinate their activities without getting in each other’s way. Protests are legitimate among those activities, but they do not take priority.

Students are not always inclined to respect those boundaries. Of late, student activists have found themselves provoked by disagreements with guest speakers whom faculty members have invited to speak to classes; by the subjects and readings that professors have assigned in their classes; even by the behaviour of professors themselves. Activists have found such controversies sufficient to justify disrupting classes in order to voice their objections. In doing so, they undermine the ability of other students to learn and to take full advantage of their own collegiate opportunities, as well as the ability of professors to exercise their academic freedom to teach unmolested.

Securing academic freedom in universities so that professors can publish and teach the fruits of their expertise ‘without fear or favour’ as the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Declaration of Principles put it in 1915, has been an ongoing struggle, largely against the corrupting influence of forces outside the university proper, be they wealthy benefactors, politicians or the general public. But the ability of a university teacher to communicate, in the words of the AAUP, to his students ‘the genuine and uncoloured product of his own study or that of fellow-specialists’ can as easily be threatened from within, by pressure from students or campus administrators. Students in the classroom deserve from the professor ‘the best of what he has and what he is’ – professional judgment, ‘intellectual integrity’, and an ‘independence of thought and utterance’. Universities are valuable, in part, because they serve as an ‘inviolable refuge’ from the tyranny of democracy that demands that everyone think alike, feel alike and speak alike. The university is ‘an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen’.

Student protestors who interfere with classroom teaching because a professor has departed from their preferred orthodoxy are as guilty of intruding on academic freedom and subverting the mission of the university as the corporate baron who seeks the dismissal of a disfavoured professor who has offended that baron’s economic or ideological interests.

In 2017, activists at Northwestern University in Illinois forced the cancellation of a sociology class because they objected to its students hearing from and interacting with an agent of the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This January, activists at the University of Chicago launched a sit-in in the classes of a business school professor in an attempt to force him to disinvite the former White House aide Steve Bannon from speaking on campus. And in 2017, activists at Reed College in Portland, Oregon engaged in an extended in-class protest of a core humanities course until the faculty agreed to shift its focus away from the origins of Western civilisation. By disrupting professors from teaching their courses as they think best, and preventing other students from participating in such courses as they wish, activists assert their own superior authority to dictate the limits of academic freedom and to demarcate the boundaries of acceptable intellectual enquiry on campus.

To be sure, there are reasonable arguments to be had over the value of hosting in-class conversations with government agents, or re-structuring humanities courses to better reflect the history of the students taking them: some might say there were even better arguments to be made against inviting Bannon to campus. However, by protesting, instead of arguing, student activists risk having those arguments drowned in the wash of media publicity that invariably comes their way. They will be seen, to be sure, but they very likely will not be heard.

In practical terms, universities should insist on boundaries to how those debates are conducted, boundaries that draw the line at disruptions that impede both teaching and learning. Students concerned about the fossil-fuel industry should not be allowed to prevent other students from hearing their professors lecturing on petroleum engineering. Students who regard Marxism as a dangerous philosophy should not be allowed to disrupt sociology classes on Marxist theory. Campus protests are valuable as a means for calling attention to a cause and generating interest in a set of ideas. They are sometimes a necessary prelude to action. But they hamper rather than advance the mission of the university when they go beyond publicising issues to become instruments for denying others on campus the ability to pursue their own educational projects.

Academic freedom in universities has been hard-won, and so universities have an obligation to prevent protests from intruding into the classroom. University codes of conduct routinely try to strike just such a balance, by facilitating freeranging discussion of any set of ideas or concerns that teachers or students might want to raise and explore, while prohibiting actions that infringe on the rights of others to use and enjoy university facilities and programmes. Teaching students is at the heart of what universities do. But teaching requires that students and their professors be able to gather together on campus unmolested by those who might object to what is being taught, how it is being taught, and by whom. Campus regulations should be designed and administered to protect that most basic educational function of the university.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on American constitutional theory and law. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech.

Hans-Lukas Kieser on Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide

PashaTalaat Pasha (1874–1921) led the triumvirate that ruled the late Ottoman Empire during World War I and is arguably the father of modern Turkey. He was also the architect of the Armenian Genocide, which would result in the systematic extermination of more than a million people, and which set the stage for a century that would witness atrocities on a scale never imagined. Here is the first biography in English of the revolutionary figure who not only prepared the way for Atatürk and the founding of the republic in 1923, but who shaped the modern world as well. In this major work of scholarship, Hans-Lukas Kieser tells the story of the brilliant and merciless politician who stood at the twilight of empire and the dawn of the age of genocide.

Though you have written a number of books in history, this appears to be your first biography. What led you in this direction?

I have written a variety of biographical articles, all related to the modern Levant. Yet, this is indeed my first book-length biography. There were two main motivations for writing me this biography of Talaat Pasha.

First, Talaat was the main political actor in the 1910s, the last years of the Ottoman Empire, when he led a single-party regime. All those interested in that area in modern history must therefore be able to know him well. Yet, oddly, there doesn’t exist any non-Turkish biography of this paradigmatic politician.

Second, the last Ottoman decade and its wars, including the Balkan Wars, the Great War, the Armenian genocide, and the war for Asia Minor, have remained a Pandora’s box in need of historical clarification. I navigate with my readers through turbulent and complex, dramatic and impactful times, always focusing on the mastermind Talaat as well as late Ottoman Istanbul and its provinces. The Ottoman capital was the center of a still-huge Empire, a hub of European diplomacy, and a hotspot of international dynamics.

What is an example of Talaat Pasha’s influence still being felt in Turkey today?

A blatant legacy is ongoing genocide denial based on arguments already made by Talaat in 1915. Another legacy is favoritism instead of meritocracy, because leader-centered partisan regimes need systemic corruption to maintain their power. Talaat’s leadership had blended imperial pride, Turkish nationalism, and Islamism. Turkey’s current re-embrace of charismatic leadership and its post-Kemalist return to political Islam is not surprising if we understand that Talaat had been a first father—before Kemal Atatürk—of post-Ottoman Turkey. The “Kemalist revolution” did not undo pre-republican fundamentals. In his effort to concentrate power, the current president Erdogan largely draws on patterns and ideologies used by these historic leaders, both marked “sons of an Empire.” Whereas both Talaat and Atatürk had claimed a progressive departure from religious conservatism, Erdogan identifies also with the conservative legacy of Sultan Abdulhamid II and other sultans before him.

How do modern Turks reconcile the positive things that resulted from Talaat Pasha’s actions with the atrocities that he perpetuated?

Talaat’s corpse came pompously back from Berlin to Turkey in 1943, in a joint venture of Adolf Hitler’s and İsmet İnönü’s governments. Lauding books and articles by former party friends were published in the years afterwards. Talaat, the former grand-vizier, won thus again public credit as a patriot and great statesman. Streets, schools, and mosques were named after him. Nevertheless, he remained associated with the Great War: a lost war little-remembered in Kemalist Turkey, except for the victory at Gallipoli. The atrocities against non-Turkish Ottoman citizens in and after the Great War were almost totally repressed from public memory. For such a spirit, almost no negative things must be reconciled with the progressive revolution achieved by the unique Atatürk, prepared by Talaat. Compared to previous governments, the current AKP regime publicly remembers much more the Great War, that great jihad and its battles. Yet, it does this without soul-searching or an acknowledged need and effort of reconciliation—because, in Erdogan’s words, there was “never genocide or ethnic cleansing in our history.”

What are some of the things you’d like readers to take away from this book?

I’d like my readers to take away from this book interest in, respect for, and better knowledge of topical challenges of the late Ottoman world, today’s Middle East. These are challenges that subsist to this day because their peaceful solution surpassed the political resources and the will of the contemporary rulers. More than a hundred years later, consensual polities for people from different religions, but with equal rights, are still utopian. The Levant, the cradle of monotheism, is under the spell of competing apocalyptical expectations.

Also, I’d like my readers to revolt in spirit and intellect against attempts at doing away with, instead of meeting, universal challenges, and against disfiguring historical truths for state and personal interests. Talaat pioneered patterns of miscarried modernity, in particular demographic and economic engineering including genocide. Inspired by his party friend Ziya Gökalp, a modern prophet of Turkish-Muslim greatness, Talaat had given up in the early 1910s on seeking a democratic social contract, starting instead comprehensive press control and prosecution of rivals. Talaat’s rule made Asia Minor a “national home” for Muslim Turks, excluding other peoples rooted in the same geography. Talaat thus shaped politics in the post-Ottoman Levant for a hundred years to come.

Hans-Lukas Kieser is associate professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle in Australia and adjunct professor of history at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. His many books include Nearest East: American Millennialism and Mission to the Middle East, World War I and the End of the Ottomans: From the Balkan Wars to the Armenian Genocide, and Turkey beyond Nationalism.

Tanya Bub & Jeffrey Bub on Totally Random: A Serious Comic on Entanglement

BubTotally Random is a comic for the serious reader who wants to really understand the central mystery of quantum mechanics—entanglement: what it is, what it means, and what you can do with it. A fresh and subversive look at our quantum world with some seriously funny stuff, this book delivers a real understanding of entanglement that will completely change the way you think about the nature of physical reality.

Why a quantum comic?

TB: The idea came to us when we were working on an illustration for a somewhat tricky section of Jeff’s last book. What we wanted was for readers to have that “Aha!” moment of understanding when you experience something directly. Wouldn’t it be cool if instead of just telling you about how weird quantum mechanics is, we could somehow hand you an object that has all the weirdness of quantum entanglement baked into it, so that you get to play with it and see for yourself. We agreed that would be great, but how? That’s when we came up with idea of crafting a quantum object and making it “real” in the form of an experiential comic. The first strip was rough but we could sense that the feeling of understanding you got from it was really different and had a lot of potential. So we started to play around with the idea of doing a full-length quantum comic as a totally new way of giving people a direct understanding of what’s so puzzling and fascinating about quantum mechanics.

Sounds great but can a comic really get across such a difficult topic?

JB: When you think about it, the early guys like Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger didn’t read about quantum mechanics, not initially anyway. They were looking at the results of experiments and trying to imagine a reality that could explain what they were seeing. The comic more or less puts you in their shoes. Yes, the object you get to play with is simpler than what they had to deal with, but mostly all we do is remove any distracting noise that’s not relevant to the mystery of entanglement, which Schrödinger recognized as “the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics, the one that enforces its entire departure from classical lines of thought.” So the reader gets to personally see how all the crazy stuff they came up with, like dead and alive cats, many worlds, apparent faster-than-light signaling, and so on, just sort of naturally falls out of the thing you are “holding” in your hands. We wanted people to experience that same feeling of having the rug pulled out from under their understanding of how the world works that Einstein, Bohr, and others had when they were first faced with quantum phenomena. There’s a very fundamental and disturbing challenge to your commonsense picture of reality when you see how something that seems so self-evident can turn out to be wrong.

What’s with the hands?

TB: Ah yes, the hands! So, the whole idea behind the book is to drag you into the puzzle of entanglement, right? We don’t know what you look like or who you are but we know that if you’re reading the book your hands are holding it. So we thought, what if we actually draw you, your hands, into the book and make you one of the main characters. Because in the end you’re the one who has to figure things out and you’re the one who has to grapple with the questions and ideas that continue to trouble physicists and philosophers to this day.

The other characters in the book, J and T, are obviously you, Jeff and Tanya, the two authors. Are the characters true to life and does their relationship reflect your father/daughter relationship?

JB: I don’t know what your relationship is with your parents or kids but imagine if you tried to write a book with one of them. You start to get a picture. There’s this relationship, this connection that is necessarily going to be a part of the process. It’s there, and what you want to do is use it to fuel the creative process, but you also can’t let it get out of control.

TB: To be honest, the writing of this book included shouting matches as well as huge laughs and in the end it was those things that made it so intense and so much fun. Anyway, because the book asks you, the reader, to be present, we felt it was only fair to  really be in there ourselves in some genuine way that reflected our own process in wrestling with these questions. So yes, while J and T are caricatures, they are in some sense real, and they capture the essence of our relationship and the experience of writing the book.

You also have historical characters like Einstein, Bohr, and Schrödinger in the book. How do they fit in?

TB: OK, so you’ve been playing with your designer quantum object, which as you know is a pair of entangled coins, and you are convinced that something is terribly strange about them and you now have all these questions buzzing though your head. That’s when “Einstein” comes along. He’s the first physicist you encounter. He takes a look at your coins and in his own words tells you what he thinks of them. Exactly why he finds them so very interesting and troubling. And by “in his own words” what I mean is direct quotes taken from some of his most well-known papers, but tweaked so that his words apply precisely to your coins, the entangled coins with which you are now intimately familiar. So in the course of the book you get to understand the subtle thinking of some of the greatest minds in physics, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Everett, von Neumann, about quantum mechanics, in their own words, but applied to something that you grasp in both the literal and figurative sense.

Einstein is represented as a delivery truck driver, Bohr is a Freudian therapist, von Neumann is a private eye. What was the thinking behind that?

TB: We really wanted to avoid the trap of having talking-head characters with long monologues. We felt that in order for the book to work we needed to take advantage of what comics are good at. Comics can put you in a place, give you an experience, have action, be funny, be outrageous. We really wanted our book to play on the strengths of the medium. So we gave each character a personality and job that somehow reflected the essence of their approach to quantum theory. Einstein as the blue-collar delivery truck driver brings the message of commonsense reasoning to the debate. Von Neumann as the private eye believes that a witness is required to close the case. Bohr uses psychotherapy to help you let go of your preconceived ideas about reality.

Does the book relate to modern-day thinking and technologies?

JB: Yes! You’ve probably seen stuff in the news about quantum technologies. We took the top three hot topics, quantum cryptography, quantum computing, and quantum teleportation and presented them in terms of three challenges that you have to solve using your wits and your entangled coins. By the end of this section you’ll have a personal understanding of how quantum entanglement can be used to do stuff that is otherwise impossible, since you will have just done it yourself. It’s quite funny too.

Who is this book for? Can someone with no background in quantum mechanics understand it, or is it for people who already know something about the subject?

TB: So, there’s no math at all in the book and in that sense anyone can pick it up. No previous knowledge required. So, really, there are no prerequisites other than being curious and open-minded. But the book will challenge some of your very fundamental ideas about how the world works. In other words, it really makes you think. If you are looking to shake up your conception of reality and you are willing to actively participate in the puzzles of quantum entanglement then you are exactly the kind of reader this book is written for. You could be someone who has never thought about quantum mechanics at all, or you could be someone who has an understanding of the math and formal arguments but don’t feel that you have fully grasped their conceptual significance. It’s also for people intrigued by the subject who may have read popular science books or seen documentaries on quantum mechanics but still feel like outsiders and don’t want to take someone else’s word for it anymore. I guess in the end it’s for people who want to really “get” the significance of entanglement for themselves.

Tanya Bub is founder of 48th Ave Productions, a web development company. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Jeffrey Bub is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at the University of Maryland, where he is also a fellow of the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science. He lives in Washington, DC.

William B. Helmreich on The Manhattan Nobody Knows

HelmreichBill Helmreich walked every block of New York City—six-thousand miles in all—to write the award-winning The New York Nobody Knows. Now he has re-walked most of Manhattan—721 miles—to write this new, one-of-a-kind walking guide to the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. Drawing on hundreds of conversations he had with residents during his block-by-block journey, The Manhattan Nobody Knows captures the unique magic and excitement of the island and highlights hundreds of facts, places, and points of interest that you won’t find in any other guide.
 
 
What is this book about?

It’s a detailed guide book to exploring Manhattan, block-by-block.

There are many guide books on Manhattan. How is this one different?

This book is unique two ways. First it focuses on the unknown places in Manhattan. NYC attracts over 65 million tourists a year, many of who have been there several times. But if you’re looking for something really new, then this is the book for you. Second, this book is based on hundreds of conversation I had with people who actually live in these neighborhoods. Their stories are fascinating. Of course, the book has lots of intriguing photos and a map for each of Manhattan’s 27 neighborhoods, each of which I’ve walked through.

Four years ago, you came out with The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles In the City. That book covered every borough, including Manhattan. Is this all new material?

I’d say about 98% of it is brand new. If I had simply taken material from the first book, then why should people read it? And reviewers would have written it off as just a rehash of that book. I re-walked Manhattan, covering 775 miles.

And how were you able to find new material?

Because the city is always changing and because I now had the chance to cover it in much greater detail. This is the second in a five book series on each borough and all of them are based on fresh material. The Brooklyn Nobody Knows came out last year and the Manhattan book well be followed by volumes on Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.

What are some of the most interesting things you discovered?

In Inwood Hill Park I met an 84 year old man who has lived in a cave for about twenty years. Very articulate and committed to being at one with nature, he’s a modern-day Thoreau. In Washington Heights, I came across a block of old wooden frame house hidden away, east of St. Nicholas Avenue. On the Upper East Side, I spoke with a woman who had made a secret visit to her church in 2003. On the Lower East Side, I discovered the city’s smallest shoe repair shop, 5 feet high and 5 feet wide, run by a Chinese immigrant. In Midtown Manhattan I stumbled across the only bookstore in the world devoted to the life and works of Winston Churchill; some of these books go for more than $100,000.

William B. Helmreich is the author of many books, including The Brooklyn Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide and The New York Nobody Knows, which won the Guides Association of New York Award for Outstanding Achievement in Book Writing. He is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and at CUNY Graduate Center.

Brian Stanley on Christianity in the Twentieth Century

StanleyChristianity in the Twentieth Century charts the transformation of one of the world’s great religions during an age marked by world wars, genocide, nationalism, decolonization, and powerful ideological currents, many of them hostile to Christianity. Written by a leading scholar of world Christianity, the book traces how Christianity evolved from a religion defined by the culture and politics of Europe to the expanding polycentric and multicultural faith it is today—one whose growing popular support is strongest in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, China, and other parts of Asia. Transnational in scope and drawing on the latest scholarship, Christianity in the Twentieth Century demonstrates how Christianity has had less to fear from the onslaughts of secularism than from the readiness of Christians themselves to accommodate their faith to ideologies that privilege racial identity or radical individualism.

Have there been any previous world histories of Christianity in the twentieth century before?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is only one or two, and they tend to be shorter text-book surveys that concentrate on Christianity in the Western world. There are several good one-volume histories of Christianity, and a few introductions to the contemporary reality of Christianity as a world religion, but historians of religion have generally avoided the twentieth century. They have been much more interested in the nineteenth century, when the churches were wrestling with the problems of industrial society and the questions raised by modern science and biblical criticism. The implicit, and false, assumption seemed to be that by about 1914 the crucial issues had all been decided, and that it was all downhill for Christian belief from then on.

What has been the biggest challenge in writing it?

Having written the book, I can readily appreciate why nobody has attempted quite this sort of project before: the need to try to do justice to all continents and all strands of the Christian tradition has made this the most difficult book I have ever undertaken.

Possibly the stiffest challenge has been deciding what to leave out, since no book of this nature can be totally comprehensive. I had to make my own decisions about which case studies to include and which to omit, and inevitably these decisions become quite personal. Another historian coming from a different sector of the Church and possessing different expertise would make a different selection.

Do you think Christianity was weaker or stronger in the year 2000 than it was in 1900?

Undoubtedly stronger, at least in terms of its global reach and its absolute numerical strength. Christianity by the end of the century was truly a global religion in a way it was not in 1900, despite all the efforts of Victorian missionary expansion.  Many parts of the Christian community had also discovered new sources of vibrant spirituality and confidence in their sense of mission, though it is hard for hard-pressed Christians in Europe or the eastern seaboard of the United States to appreciate that. But this is not a triumphalistic narrative of Christian progress: the churches in every continent in the twentieth century had to negotiate obstacles that were, if anything, even greater than those they had faced in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the percentage of the world population in 2000 that professed Christian allegiance was marginally lower than it was in 1900.

What challenges does your book pose to Christians?

It will force them to ask hard questions about the frequent failure of their predecessors to preserve the integrity of Christian faith in the face of enormous pressures—and I am not thinking of the pressures of overt state persecution so much as the insidious attractions of alluring ideologies that gnawed away at the fabric of historic Christian belief from the inside. The Church in every age, including our own, faces such pressures, and it is not very good at spotting them when they come along.

And what challenges does it pose to those who are not Christians?

My book suggests that the once-popular grand narrative of the twentieth century as the age of irreversible secularization on a global scale is demonstrably false, even though, as I have just acknowledged, the churches too often laid themselves open to racist or materialist perspectives that subverted the foundations of Christian belief. The history of Christianity is a constantly fluctuating narrative in which multiple challenges, such as those of injustice and oppression, provoke remarkable resurgences of Christian faith. These in turn invite their own contrary reactions whenever growing churches become too powerful or comfortable for their own spiritual good. Both believers and unbelievers should be challenged by this book.

What predictions would you make about the shape of Christianity in the year 2100?

My stock answer to this question is to say that the future is not my period. Most predictions made in 1900 about the spiritual course of the century to come—whether from Christian or atheistic sources—proved spectacularly wrong. Hence caution is the order of the day. But it seems likely that Christianity will continue to diversify in its multiple centers of gravity, and that its historic European lines of division inherited from the Reformation era will continue to fade in importance, being replaced by other fault lines of a more cultural nature. The current arguments over sexuality are one obvious example of that. Whatever the world Church will look like in 2100, it is probable that it will need another historian ambitious (or foolish!) enough to attempt a century from now to explain exactly what has changed, and why.

Brian Stanley is professor of world Christianity at the University of Edinburgh. His books include The Global Diffusion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Billy Graham and John Stott and The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910.

Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

How the big pieces fit together: Europe’s place in the multipolar world

by Dr. John C. Hulsman

Introduction: The Lesson of the G7 train wreck

It’s official. After the calamitous G7 summit meeting in Canada, it is clear that an unbound Donald Trump is Europe’s worst nightmare. Although with typical unnecessary narcissism, he came late and left early, what Donald Trump did in his few short hours on Canadian soil will be commented on for years, as he emerged as a virtual caricature of everything Europeans hate about Americans.

Preternaturally over-confident and under-prepared, arrogant, and self-regarding, the president urged Russia be readmitted to the G7 club (despite its iron-clad control of Crimea and ruination of eastern Ukraine), doubled down on enraging European and Canadian allies alike over the brewing trade war (‘America is not a piggy bank’), and generally confirmed everyone’s worst fears that the White House actually prefers dealing with America’s authoritarian foes, such as China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, rather than the vexing, well-meaning, but weak democratic pygmies who populate the standard multilateral meeting. Surely, after such an odious display the rest of the democratic world must rise up in righteous indignation and…

Well, the best I can come up with is snub Trump administration appointments at formal cocktail parties. For the bleak truth lying behind Donald Trump’s appalling, wrong-headed policies and behaviour in Canada is that the rest of the democratic world is pathetically weak and bereft of agency. As such, while they seethe with disgust at having to put up with the odious president, there is nothing practically they are prepared to do to stop him. This most transactional of presidents has inadvertently but graphically illustrated how practically irrelevant America’s western allies, particularly in Europe, truly are.

Be careful what you wish for

This is all so different from the dreams of a new multipolar world that so animated European thinkers during the long days of the bipolar Cold War. Then, European policy intellectuals—particularly in France—dreamed of living in a multipolar age that would follow victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, a time when Europe would finally achieve the strategic flexibility to have its own independent foreign and security policy, no longer shackled to (but still vaguely allied with) the US. But this long-term strategic goal amounted to little more than emotional wish-fulfilment, predicated as it was on two unremarked upon suppositions.

The first was that the relative diminution in American global power would be meekly accepted by a US long used to running things. In other words, a series of President Obamas would shepherd the US to accept its new central, but relatively more limited, structural position in the multipolar world. To put it mildly, a President Trump—whose very campaign slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ is an overly emotional refutation of America’s relative decline—was not reckoned on.

Second, it was blithely assumed by European thinkers that their continent would undoubtedly and effortlessly emerge as the principal new force in this new world of many powers. As China rose during the latter days of the Cold War, following Deng Xiaoping’s historic opening in December 1978, European thinkers did foresee a world where a rising Asia would join America, Europe, Japan, and a diminished Russia as the main players on the global strategic scene (India was little thought of). But the notion that Europe would be by a long way the weakest of these great powers—politically divided, economically sclerotic, and militarily puny—never entered their thoughts.

As a result, while European thinkers seemed to pine for a multipolar world, in reality it was a new era where their continent was rising—as America was falling and the Soviets were non-existent—that was their real dream. Donald Trump’s petulant performance (and Europe’s anaemic non-response) at the just concluded G7 meeting glaringly illustrates that today’s world is simply not the sort of multipolarity European thinkers ever had in mind.

What Europe Should Do

Most foreign policy articles (and I have written over 500 of them) are cries in the wilderness, futile exercises where the analyst proposes outcomes that they know will never come to pass. Nevertheless, it remains the duty of every political risk analyst to try, to posit what can be practically done to retrieve strategic situations, for irretrievable decline is a choice and not a preordained destiny.

In this spirit, what can Europe do to make itself relevant as a Great Power in the real multipolar era we actually now live in? First, psychologically accept that while Trump is an extreme case, American leaders in general are transactional in nature; they will only take European concerns on board if it is viewed as a serious power capable of going its own way in terms of genuine practical policy consequences. Global politics is not a debating society; what matters are the views of the great strategic players, and the power they bring to bear—political, economic, strategic, diplomatic, and social—to further their interests. Europe must stop passively watching the world, and either master history, or history will surely master it.

Second, the Europeans have to act in a far more unitary manner in terms of foreign and security policy. Russia, an economic basket case in comparison (its economy is smaller than that of Italy), is the relevant comparison. For all that it is a corrupt, demographically decaying one-trick economic pony, a decrepit gas station utterly dependent on the spot price of oil and natural gas, Moscow punches far above its actual weight on the global scene.

The reason? President Putin can make decisive, unitary, foreign policy decisions for his country that are quickly acted on. Russia—as the Crimea episode illustrated—is still prepared to spend blood and treasure, to make real sacrifices to further the country’s foreign policy goals and interests. At present, I am not sure many in Brussels would be prepared to sacrifice a week’s holiday to do much of anything. For once and for all, Europe and its leaders have to decide if their foreign policy amounts to merely virtue signalling, or whether they are prepared to make the sacrifices to actually matter in the world.  

 To do so, an inner core of the key western European states—Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and The Netherlands—must move ahead, and actually begin to craft such a common foreign policy. Failure to do so will inevitably lead the other great powers to cherry pick Europe, to keep dividing the place precisely because it is inherently divided. It is not the fault of the outside powers, as states since time immemorial have taken advantage of their rival’s weaknesses. Rather it is the fault of a Europe that simply can’t get its act together.

Finally, as the mediocre age of Merkel subsides, endemic problems must be solved, rather than merely managed. Across the continent, Europe must free up its animal spirits and find a way to increase average growth rates to around two percent, if horrendous rates of youth unemployment and endemic economic torpor are to be righted. President Macron’s courageous and largely successful labour market reforms are a start, by more needs to be done.

With France as a nucleus, and after decades of torturous (and maddening) inaction, the major European countries must commit themselves to some level of serious defence spending, as without an army their moralistic lectures are just that, and nothing more. Finally, and again Macron is onto something here, ‘A Certain Idea of Europe,’ the idea of a strong, distinct, unique and blessed Europe, a sacred place whose interests and values are worth fighting for on the global stage, must be advanced as a unifying clarion call to action.

It is not too late for Europe to emerge as its thinkers once dreamed it would, and Trump’s odious behaviour in Canada surely serves as a call to arms. But it is one minute to the midnight of Europe’s strategic irrelevance.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political-risk consulting firm. He is the author of To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk. He lives in Milan, Italy.

Katrina van Grouw: Flight of the Peacocks

A peacock’s train is not its tail! You can see its real tail, lying flat against the magnificent fan-shaped train when it’s fully spread.

There’s something missing from my living room.

I know there’s something missing because there’s over a square yard of bookcase visible that I haven’t seen for years, revealing a lot of books I’d forgotten I own. The obscuring object, shrouded in cloth wraps, has now gone, and my books have re-materialised as from behind a stage curtain.  It’s a small step back towards normality after the domestic chaos that came with The Unfeathered Bird (and became even worse with Unnatural Selection).

Although the house is, and will probably always be, full of skeletons, saying farewell to the two enormous paintings—the diptych— that was created for the jacket illustrations of The Unfeathered Bird is at least a step in the right direction. As I write, the paintings are somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean on a one-way trip to America. Their final destination: the offices of Princeton University Press, New Jersey, where they belong.

If you’re not already familiar with the book, the paintings are of a peacock; front and back view. It’s an unfeathered—well, partly unfeathered peacock. One of the most frequently-repeated untruths about birds is that a peacock’s splendid fan-shaped train, bedecked with glittering iridescent “eyes”, is its tail. It’s not. Its elongated feathers actually originate from the lower back and rump. A peacock’s tail feathers are actually very plain things, just long grey-brown feathers that you can see lying close to the back of the train when it’s fully spread. For this reason I chose to leave the train and tail feathers onthe otherwise naked skeleton.

The idea came from a specimen in the collections at Naturalis, the Natural History Museum of the Netherlands in Leiden, where Husband was formerly curator in charge of birds and mammals. It was one of a set of now rather old and tatty skeletal preparations that included some feathers left in place. This particular specimen happened to be a white peafowl, which I decided would be a good idea so as not to detract from the limited palette used in the book.

Although the Leiden specimen provided the inspiration for the paintings, its posture, like that of so many historical museum specimens, wasn’t sufficiently accurate for my needs. For that we had to prepare a fresh specimen of our own. By pure co-incidence a taxidermist friend of Husband’s, a man named Bas, had recently acquired a dead peafowl that was surplus to requirements. The story’s quite an amusing one and is worth telling:

Bas was contacted one day by a farmer asking the price of having a dead pheasant mounted. He quibbled over the price but reluctantly agreed; only to turn up not with a pheasant but with a fully-grown peacock. Any taxidermist will tell you that peafowl are a lot more difficult to prepare than pheasants. Bas quite correctly pointed out that peafowl and pheasants were not the same price, at which the irate farmer (equally correctly) pointed out that peafowl are members of the pheasant family. The two scowled at one another for a matter of minutes before the farmer, accepting defeat, flung the dead bird at Bas and stormed off, never to return!

Husband prepared its skeleton in the required posture from knowledge gained during a lifetime of studying living birds. Like virtually all the skeletons in both my books, it was boiled down on the kitchen stove, bleached and dried on the draining board, and re-assembled on the dining table. This was also the skeleton that I used for the peacock illustration in side view, inside the book. For several months the two paintings, along with a very large easel, and the skeleton, formed a little enclave; a little ‘world of peacocks,’ circling the window, as I worked on them simultaneously; blocking out the light, filling the house with the smell of paint, and allowing peacocks to dominate the living room for the first time.

Inspired in my formative years by John James Audubon’s colossal Birds of America I have the ridiculous habit of producing all my artworks life-sized (I’ve only recently grown out of this since I’ve been producing illustrations of cattle and horses). All the skeletons in The Unfeathered Bird—the storks, pelicans, swans; even the ostrich body— were drawn to this scale, which entailed wrestling with easels in spaces barely big enough for even the cat to squeeze past, and all of the pictures have had to be stored somewhere in our very, very tiny house.

The skeleton used in side view in the book doubled up as the model for the cover paintings.

While peacock skeletons may not be that big, with the feathers on and shown life-sized, they’re enormous; too big by far to hang on the walls at home, or even to take upstairs to be stored. So apart from a few outings to be hung on exhibition, they’ve been blocking access to my living room bookshelves since 2011.

The paintings were done in acrylic, with paler layers underneath the darker brown surface. I worked in pencil on top of that, and scraped away the top layer of paint for some of the highlights on the bones, and added deeper shadows in acrylic. So if you look at them closely you can see pencil lines as well as painted areas.

On the ground, at the bird’s feet is a cast feather—a homage to the 17thCentury Dutch painter Melchior d’Hondecoeter whose splendidly animated scenes of poultry, waterfowl and exotic birds were always marked by his motif of a floating feather. I put these feathers on the inside flaps of the jacket, too.

I painted the entire bird almost to the tips of its spread train, but in the end chose to crop the digitized versions significantly for the book jacket, so as not to lose the details of the skeleton. I came frighteningly close to cropping the actual paintings—cropping with a saw, I mean—too, when I was faced with the problem of transporting them to exhibitions. Thankfully I decided not to.

The paintings’ first trip was to the picture framers’ and it was very nearly disastrous. Artists have a tendency to work on borrowed time and when it came to exhibitions I was no different. I had the diptych submitted for its first exhibition almost before it was finished and rushed the paintings to the framers thoroughly encapsulated in bubble-wrap without realizing that the varnish wasn’t fully dry. I peeled off the packaging to find a pattern of circular marks all over the surface, like a magnified newspaper photo.

You know how sometimes when things are truly calamitous you just stay unnaturally calm and collected, while you might over-react at a lesser accident? Well, this was one of those moments. The framer repeated in awe how he wouldn’t have been so cool in the same circumstances, as he scurried about the workshop finding rags to soak in turpentine. Amazingly with solvents, a hairdryer, and a lotof patience we managed to restore the surface to its desired finish. 

The first aid accomplished, we set ourselves to choosing a frame. I’m usually a person who knows exactly what I want when I go to a picture framers’, but this diptych was unlike anything I’d done before. Grinning, the framer disappeared into a back room. “I always knew the right picture for this would show up sooner or later” he called above the grating of heavy objects being moved around. “You’ll either love this, or hate it.” He emerged some minutes later with a splendidly extravagant white baroque moulding, several inches thick. I loved it.

Diptych on display. The peacocks were exhibited publicly several times and looked stunning wherever they went. Here they’re at an exhibition of artworks from The Unfeathered Bird.

The paintings’ public debut was at the prestigious Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London. After that it was the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition at the same gallery. Then a series of solo exhibitions: at the Natural History Museum at Tring, Nature in Art, and my local museum in Buckinghamshire. They looked spectacular every time.

I had various offers of private sales, including one from a wealthy art collector in Florence, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted by the money and by the space to be regained in my living room. But it simply didn’t feel right to separate them from the context they were created in. As paintings they’re not, in fact, the best things I’ve ever done. But they’re the cover of The Unfeathered Bird—the book that dominated and changed the course of my adult life—and, for me, that makes them very special indeed.

In the idyllic world of daydreams there is a Katrina van Grouw Museum, established to preserve for posterity all the artworks from the books along with the skeletons and other specimens that were prepared exclusively for them. In that world, the peacock diptych hangs on the far wall to greet awestruck fans as they enter. “Are those the cover pictures?” they’ll whisper, “They’re so much larger than I thought they’d be”. “I can’t believe I’m finally seeing the real thing.

Sadly that world doesn’t exist and probably never will. But there was another option…

I am blessed with having a truly excellent publisher. No, I’m not just saying that because I’m writing this blog post for them. Princeton University Press has been marvellous. They’ve given me free rein to produce the books I want, trusted my every decision, and rooted for me every step of the way. They’ve shown endless patience, wild enthusiasm, and heart-warming kindness.  For a long time I wondered how I could possibly thank everyone. I could send flowers – or give some prints to individuals. But the more people I worked with, the more it seemed the entire staff was on my side. There would be bound to be someone I’d miss, and there are probably people who’ve worked on my books whose name I don’t even know.

Then it struck me that I could thank everyone, every single day, by sending my peacocks to Princeton where they’d be permanently associated with me and my books, and a permanent message of thanks to everyone who works there. Not just as a message to those directly involved, but as a symbol of generic appreciation from an author to a publisher.

Authors can be a bit surly on occasion. We work alone for years nurturing our ideas into tangible form and, at the end of it, when we’d guard our creations with our very life, we’re thrust into a team-work situation with our precious books in the middle. Perhaps unsurprisingly we can come across as rather defensive; resentful even, so I can imagine that working for a publishing company must sometimes seem a thankless task.

My peacocks are there to say that it’s not a thankless task.

If you work for Princeton University Press I hope that, as you walk past the two paintings in the foyer—and especially if you might not be having the best of days—you’ll look up at them and know that an author is grateful.

I, meanwhile—well I’ll be happily re-acquainting myself with all those books I’d forgotten I own…

 

Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird and Unnatural Selection, inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.

Unnatural Selection is a stunningly illustrated book about selective breeding–the ongoing transformation of animals at the hand of man. More important, it’s a book about selective breeding on a far, far grander scale—a scale that encompasses all life on Earth. We’d call it evolution.

Suitable for the lay reader and student, as well as the more seasoned biologist, and featuring more than four hundred breathtaking illustrations of living animals, skeletons, and historical specimens, Unnatural Selection will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in natural history and the history of evolutionary thinking.

Eli Maor on Music by the Numbers

MaorThat music and mathematics are somehow related has been known for centuries. Pythagoras, around the 5th century BCE, may have been the first to discover a quantitative relation between the two: experimenting with taut strings, he found out that shortening the effective length of a string to one half its original length raises the pitch of its sound by an agreeable interval—an octave. Other ratios of string lengths produced smaller intervals: 2:3 corresponds to a fifth (so called because it is the fifth note up the scale from the base note), 3:4 corresponded to a fourth, and so on. Moreover, Pythagoras found out that multiplying two ratios corresponds to adding their intervals: (2:3) x (3:4) = 1:2, so a fifth plus a fourth equals an octave. In doing so, Pythagoras discovered the first logarithmic law in history.

The relations between musical intervals and numerical ratios have fascinated scientists ever since. Johannes Kepler, considered the father of modern astronomy, spent half his lifetime trying to explain the motion of the known planets by relating them to musical intervals. Half a century later, Isaac Newton formulated his universal law of gravitation, thereby providing a rational, mathematical explanation for the planetary orbits. But he too was obsessed with musical ratios: he devised a “palindromic” musical scale and compared its intervals to the rainbow colors of the spectrum. Still later, four of Europe’s top mathematicians would argue passionately over the exact shape of a vibrating string. In doing so, they contributed significantly to the development of post-calculus mathematics, while at the same time giving us a fascinating glimpse into their personal relations and fierce rivalries. As Eli Maor points out in Music by the Numbers, the “Great String Debate” of the eighteenth century has some striking similarities to the equally fierce debate over the nature of quantum mechanics in the 1920s.

What brought you to write a book on such an unusual subject? 

The ties between music and mathematics have fascinated me from a young age. My grandfather played his violin for me when I was five years old, and I still remember it quite clearly. He also spent many hours explaining to me various topics from his physics book, from which he himself had studied many years earlier. In the chapter on sound there was a musical staff showing the note A with a number under it: 440, the frequency of that note. It may have been this image that first triggered my fascination with the subject. I still have that physics book and I treasure it immensely. My grandfather must have studied it thoroughly, as his penciled annotations appear on almost every page.

Did you study the subject formally?

Yes. I did my master’s and later my doctoral thesis in acoustics at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. There was just one professor who was sufficiently knowledgeable in the subject, and he agreed to be my advisor. But first we had to find a department willing to take me under its wing, and that turned out to be tricky. To me acoustics was a branch of physics, but the physics department saw it as just an engineering subject. So I applied to the newly-founded Department of Mechanics, and they accepted me. The coursework included a heavy load of technical subjects—strength of materials, elasticity, rheology, and the theory of vibrations—all of which I did as independent studies. In the process I learned a lot of advanced mathematics, especially Fourier series and integrals. It served me well in my later work.

What about your music education?

I started my musical education playing Baroque music on the recorder, and later I took up the clarinet. This instrument has the unusual feature that when you open the thumb hole on the back side of the bore, the pitch goes up not by an octave, as with most woodwind instruments, but by a twelfth—an octave and a fifth. This led me to dwell into the acoustics of wind instruments. I was—and still am—intrigued by the fact that a column of air can vibrate and produce an agreeable sound just like a violin string. But you have to rely entirely on your ear to feel those vibrations; they are totally invisible to the eye.

When I was a physics undergraduate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a group of students and professors decided to start an amateur orchestra, and I joined. At one of our performances we played Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute. There is one bar in that overture where the clarinet plays solo, and it befell upon me to play it. I practiced for that single bar again and again, playing it perhaps a hundred times simultaneously with a vinyl record playing on a gramophone. Finally the evening arrived and I played my piece—all three seconds of it. At intermission I asked a friend of mine in the audience, a concert pianist, how did it go. “Well,” she said, “you played it too fast.”  Oh Lord!  I was only glad that Mozart wasn’t present!

Throughout your book there runs a common thread—the parallels between musical and mathematical frames of reference. Can you elaborate on this comparison? 

For about 300 years—roughly from 1600 to 1900—classical music was based on the principle of tonality: a composition was always tied to a given home key, and while deviating from it during the course of the work, the music was invariably related to that key. The home key thus served as a musical frame of reference in which the work was set, similar to a universal frame of reference to which the laws of classical physics were supposed to be bound.

But in the early 1900s, Arnold Schoenberg set out to revolutionize music composition by proposing his tone row, or series, consisting of all twelve semitones of the octave, each appearing exactly once before the series is completed. No more was each note defined by its relation to the tonic, or base note; in Schoenberg’s system a complete democracy reigned, each note being related only to the note preceding it in the series. This new system bears a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, in which no single frame of reference has a preferred status over others. Music by the Numbers expands on this fascinating similarity, as well as on the remarkable parallels between the lives of Schoenberg and Einstein.

You also touch on some controversial subjects. Can you say a few words about them?

It is generally believed that over the ages, mathematics has had a significant influence on music. Attempts to quantify music and subject it to mathematical rules began with Pythagoras himself, who invented a musical scale based entirely on his three “perfect intervals”—the octave, the fifth, and the fourth. From a mathematical standpoint it was a brilliant idea, but it was out of sync with the laws of physics; in particular, it ignored other important intervals such as the major and minor thirds. Closer to our time, Schoenberg’s serial music was another attempt to generate music by the numbers. It aroused much controversy, and after half a century during which his method was the compositional system to follow, enthusiasm for atonal music has waned.

But it is much less known that the attraction between the two disciplines worked both ways. I have already mentioned the Great String Debate of the eighteenth century—a prime example of how a problem originating in music has ended up advancing a new branch of mathematics: post-calculus analysis. It is also interesting to note that quite a few mathematical terms have their origin in music, such as harmonic series, harmonic mean, and harmonic functions, to name but a few.

Perhaps the most successful collaboration between the two disciplines was the invention of the equal-tempered scale—the division of the octave into twelve equally-spaced semitones. Although of ancient origins, this new tuning method has become widely known through Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier— his two sets of keyboard preludes and fugues covering all 24 major and minor scales. Controversial at the time, it has become the standard tuning system of Western music.

In your book there are five sidebars, one of which with the heading “Music for the Record Books: The Lowest, the Longest, the Oldest, and the Weirdest.”  Can you elaborate on them?

Yes. The longest piece of music ever performed—or more precisely, is still being performed—is a work for the organ at the St. Burkhardt Church in the German town of Halberstadt. The work was begun in 2003 and is an ongoing project, planned to be unfolding for the next 639 years. There are eight movements, each lasting about 71 years. The work is a version of John Cages’ composition As Slow as Possible. As reported by The New York Times, “The organ’s bellows began their whoosh on September 5, 2001, on what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday. But nothing was heard because the score begins with a rest—of 20 months. It was only on February 5, 2003, that the first chord, two G-sharps and a B in between, was struck.” It will be interesting to read the reviews when the work finally comes to an end in the year 2640.

I’ll mention one more piece for the record books: in 2012, astronomers discovered the lowest known musical note in the universe. Why astronomers?  Because the source of this note is the galaxy cluster Abell 426, some 250 million light years away. The cluster is surrounded by hot gas at a temperature of about 25,000,000 degrees Celsius, and it shows concentric ripples spreading outward—acoustic pressure waves. From the speed of sound at that temperature—about 1,155 km/sec—and the observed spacing between the ripples—some 36,000 light years—it is easy to find the frequency of the sound, and thus its pitch: a B-flat nearly 57 octaves below middle C. Says the magazine Sky & Telescope, “You’d need to add 635 keys to the left end of your piano keyboard to produce that note!  Even a contrabassoon won’t go that low.”

Eli Maor has taught the history of mathematics at Loyola University Chicago until his recent retirement. He is the author of six previous books by Princeton University Press: To Infinity and Beyonde: the Story of a NumberTrigonometric DelightsThe Pythagorean TheoremVenus in Transit; and Beautiful Geometry (with Eugen Jost). He is also an active amateur astronomer, has participated in over twenty eclipse and transit expeditions, and is a contributing author to Sky & Telescope.

Konrad Jarausch on Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century

Broken LivesBroken Lives is a gripping account of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of ordinary Germans who came of age under Hitler and whose lives were scarred and sometimes destroyed by what they saw and did. Konrad Jarausch argues that this generation’s focus on its own suffering, often maligned by historians, ultimately led to a more critical understanding of national identity—one that helped transform Germany from a military aggressor into a pillar of European democracy. The result is a powerful account of the everyday experiences and troubling memories of average Germans who journeyed into, through, and out of the abyss of a dark century.

How did ordinary Germans experience the cataclysms of the 20th century?
During the tumultuous twentieth century, ordinary Germans often felt overwhelmed by events over which they had no control. Starting with the defeat of World War I, they ex­perienced a series of disasters such as hyperinflation, depression, Nazi dictatorship, renewed war, Holocaust, flight and expulsion, division, and Communist repression that left them scrambling to survive. Except for short periods in the late Empire, middle of the Weimar Republic, and beginning of the Third Reich, times were tough and unpredictable, putting a premium on adaptability. As a result of the disastrous decisions of elites, they had to deal with a stunning succession of five different political systems within the course of a single century. In contrast to the normal progression of life stages in more fortunate neighboring countries like Switzerland, the past seemed problematic, the present challenging, and the future uncertain. This book seeks to explore this neglected human dimension of events by drawing on seven dozen untutored autobiographies that cover their entire life-spans from the Empire to united Germany.

What amazing stories do their memoirs tell about suffering, survival, or success?
As related in these personal memoirs, the facts regarding the impact of such upheavals on individual lives are often stranger than fiction. While perpetrators of crimes rarely admit their misdeeds, the many bystanders recount their struggle to cope with multiple dangers by compliance or evasion, seeking to get through them as best as they could. Endlessly repeated at bars and kaffeeklatches, their life-stories focus on avoiding death at the front, not dying in bombing raids, fleeing from the Red Army, making it through post-war hunger and cold, while dealing with a succession of shifting ideological demands. The narratives of political or racial victims such as Communists or Jews instead focus on their suffering and miraculous survival, unlike many comrades or family members killed in mass murder. Only after the war are Western narratives able to celebrate successful rebuilding and prosperity. These are astounding accounts show how normal individuals were trying to live in highly abnormal times. Offering a chorus of diverse voices, the present book is an effort to present their stories to a wider public.

Why did young people born in the 1920s get drawn into the Nazi dictatorship?
The children of the Weimar Republic proved especially vulnerable to Nazi appeals because Hitler’s propaganda promised to lead the young to a better future. The inability of their parents to deal with the effects of the Great Depression had discredited adult leadership. While schools indoctrinated adolescents in racist nationalism, the peer group in the Hitler Youth pressured insecure youths to join the exciting activities like hiking, camping, and paramilitary training. Too inexperienced to develop a political judgement of their own, most young people fell under the spell of the Führer and a movement that vowed to create a true “people’s community” without class distinctions and to make Germany great again by overturning the “shameful peace treaty” of Versailles. Only children from religious families, Communist parents, or Jewish backgrounds were excluded. The overwhelming majority of the young Aryans could feel emboldened by being treated like the avant-garde of a better future. Most did not understand that they would have to pay for this allegiance with their own lives.

How did World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War break their lives apart?
Instead of ushering in a brighter future with Germans ruling the continent, the Nazi dictatorship unleashed repression, war, and genocide. Already before 1939 the political and racial victims of the Third Reich experienced persecution, incarceration, and expulsion, if fortunate to get away. During the war many Nazi enthusiasts among the young men were killed in action in the Wehrmacht’s war of annihilation during its spectacular victories and inexorable defeats. Young women at the home front had to work in war-production factories, huddle in air raid shelters, and try to flee from the advancing Red Army in order to avoid repeated rape. While political victims suffered in penitentiaries, those Jewish Germans who had not managed to escape in time struggled to survive in the underground, during selection in concentration camps, and in death-marches at the end. Even after the fighting ended, many died of starvation, cold, and disease. Without regard to political commitment or racial belonging, this vortex of death and destruction broke millions of lives apart, leaving even survivors in a sea of suffering.

How did they as adults gradually turn into democrats or communists after the war?
With the end of hostilities, the remaining Weimar children had to pick up the pieces and become responsible adults. Trying to make sense of their horrible experiences, many retreated into their private lives by finishing professional training, getting jobs, and founding families. In the remnants of Germany, divided by the Cold War, they faced an ideological choice: should they try to become Western style democrats or follow the Communist dream of a classless society in the East? Since with American aid the Federal Republic of Germany experienced an Economic Miracle, many were willing to side with the West. Attracted by the promise of a peaceful egalitarianism, others chose the German Democratic Republic of the East even if it was a Soviet satellite. Though a series of Nazi scandals tarnished the Bonn government, ultimately the generational rebellion of 1968 turned it into a liberal society whereas the anti-fascist promise of the SED regime became a communist dictatorship. Only with the peaceful revolution and reunification of 1989/90, did Western democracy win the ideological contest in the end.

Why did their memories become surprisingly self-critical decades after the events?
Though Weimar children were too busy to confront their own past during their professional careers, many begun a painful process of self-examination after their retirement. In a diachronic reflection, these authors compared their youthful Nazi enthusiasm with their adult convictions as democrats or socialists, and tried to figure out how they could have believed such a racist nationalism as adolescents. Encouraged by political leaders, intellectuals and the media, they began to question their own earlier lack of sympathy for their persecuted Jewish neighbors as well as the exploited slave laborers or Russian POWs, pondering what they had witnessed of the mass murder during the Holocaust. In some cases, this admission of guilt for supporting the Third Reich and failing to act humanely towards its victims even led to nervous breakdowns, healed only by active engagement for progressive causes. While all memoirists stressed their own suffering, a minority went even further and embraced a public memory culture that has made Germans exceptionally self-critical when compared with to their former allies.

What lessons of human rights, pacifism and social solidarity do they hold for the future?
In a surprisingly broad consensus, ordinary autobiographies show that Germans have drawn largely similar conclusions for the future. Unfortunately, there are still some nationalist holdouts who blame the harsh treatment by the Allies or hold Hitler and the Nazi bosses responsible for their predicament. But most writers want to teach their own families as well as the general public an essential lesson in order to prevent the recurrence of such horrible events: their political messages cluster around the importance of human rights as antidote to dictatorship; the need for peace as barrier against another devastating world war; and the imperative of social solidarity as obstacle to a return of demagogic populism. Beyond the sheer drama of their life-stories, it is this collective learning process which makes reading these personal accounts worthwhile. As a paradigmatic resume of their broken lives, the autobiographies of the Weimar children emphasize that everyone should heed the warning of their disastrous experiences during the Third Reich.

Konrad H. Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His many books include Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century and Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front. He lives in Chapel Hill and Berlin.

A Big Deal: Organic Molecules Found on Mars

by David Weintraub

MarsIn 1976, both Viking 1 and Viking 2 touched down on the surface of Mars. Both landed on vast, flat plains, chosen because they were ideal locations for landing safely. Perhaps the most important Viking experiment for assessing whether life could exist on Mars was the gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer (GCMS) instrument, built by a team led by Klaus Biermann of MIT. Ultimately, Biermann and his GCMS team reported a definitive answer: “No organic compounds were found at either of the two landing sites.” None, nada, zilch.

This scientific discovery had enormous importance for our understanding Mars. Summing up what we learned from the Viking missions in 1992, and in particular what we learned from the absence of any organics in the sampled Martian soil, a team of Viking scientists wrote, “The Viking findings established that there is no life at the two landing sites.” Furthermore, because these two sites were thought to be extremely representative of all of Mars, they concluded that this result “virtually guarantees that the Martian surface is lifeless everywhere.” 

If Mars is sterile, then SpaceX and NASA and Blue Origin and Mars One can all move forward with their efforts to land colonists on Mars in the near future. They needn’t wrestle with any ethical issues about contaminating Mars.

Fast forward a generation. In a paper published in Science last week, Jennifer Eigenbrode and her team, working with data collected by the Mars Science Laboratory (i.e., the Curiosity rover), report that they discovered organic molecules in Martian soil. The importance of this discovery for the possible existence of life on Mars is hard to overstate. The discovery of organics on Mars is a BIG deal.

Let’s be careful in discussing organic molecules. An organic molecule must contain at least one carbon atom and that carbon atom must be chemically bonded to a hydrogen atom. All life on Earth is built on a backbone (literally) of organic molecules (DNA). And life on Earth can produce organic molecules (for example, the methane that is produced in the stomachs of cows). But abiological processes can also make organic molecules. In fact, the universe is full of such molecules known as PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are found in interstellar clouds and the atmospheres of red giant stars and which have absolutely nothing to do with life.

Repeat: the presence of organic molecules on Mars does not mean life has been found on Mars. The absence of organic molecules in the Martian soil, as discovered in the Viking experiments, however, almost certainly means “no life here.” 

Were the Viking scientists wrong? Yes, in part. Their conclusion that the plains of Mars are representative of every locale on Mars was an overreach. When assessing whether the environment on Mars might be hospitable to life, local matters. That conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, we find significant differences on Earth between the amount and kinds of life in the Mojave Desert and the Amazon River basin. Why? Water.

The vast, flat plains of Mars are free of organics, but they are unlike Gale Crater. Gale Crater was once a lake, full of water and dissolved minerals. We know now that certain locations on Mars that were warm and wet for extended periods of time in the ancient past have preserved a record of the organic molecules that formed in those environments.

Could life have played a role in creating these molecules?  Maybe, but we don’t know, yet. We do know, however, where to keep looking. We do know where to send the next several generations of robots. We do know that we should build robotic explorers that can drill deep into the soil and explore caves in places similar to Gale Crater.

Abigail Allwood, working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is building a detector called PIXL that will be sent to Mars on a rover mission that is scheduled for launch in 2020. PIXL will be able to make smart decisions, based on the chemistry of a rock, as to whether that rock sample might contain ancient, fossilized microbes. A later mission might retrieve Allwood’s PIXL specimens and bring them back to Earth for more sophisticated laboratory studies. With instruments like PIXL, we have a good chance of definitively answering the question, “Does Mars or did Mars ever have life?”

What does the presence of organic molecules in the Martian regolith mean, as discovered by Curiosity? Those molecules could mean that life is or once was present on Mars. Finding those molecules just raised the stakes in the search for life on Mars. The jury is still out, but the betting odds just changed.

Given all we currently know about Mars, should we be sending astronauts to Mars in the next decade? Do we have the right to contaminate Mars if is already home to native Martian microbes? These are important questions that are more relevant than ever. 

David A. Weintraub is professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Life on Mars: What to Know Before We GoReligions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal with It?How Old Is the Universe?, and Is Pluto a Planet?: A Historical Journey through the Solar System. He lives in Nashville.