Happy Birthday to Nikola Tesla

j9941Nikola Tesla was born on this day in 1856. Here are 10 facts from Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson:

1. Tesla has two meanings in Serbian: it can refer to a small ax called an adze or to a person with protruding teeth, a common characteristic of people in Nikola Tesla’s family.

2. The night Tesla was born there was a severe thunderstorm. The fearful midwife said, “He’ll be a child of the storm.” His mother responded, “No, of light.”

3. Initially Tesla wanted to be a teacher, but he switched to engineering in his second year at Joanneum Polytechnic School in order to work on building a spark-free motor.

4. One of his favorite hobbies was card-playing and gambling. “To sit down to a game of cards, was for me the quintessence of pleasure.”

5. When Tesla came to New York for the first time after living in Prague, Budapest, and Paris, he was shocked by the crudeness and vulgarity of Americans.

6. In 1886, Tesla was abandoned by his business partners and could not find work—he took a job digging ditches to get by. A patent he filed that year for thermomagnetic motor helped him get back on his feet.

7. In April of 1887, he formed the Tesla Electric Company with his two business partners, Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck. His first lab was located in New York’s financial district.

8. Mark Twain was a good friend of Tesla’s.

9. Tesla suffered from periodic bouts of depression. He treated it by administering electroshock therapy to himself.

10. Tesla told a reporter that he did not want to marry because he thought it would compromise his work. He did not have any known relationships with women.

If you would like to learn more, you can preview the introduction of Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age.

Q&A with Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot, authors of The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World

Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot, both of the University of Washington, recently sat down for a Q&A on their new book, The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World. Read on to learn what these four Enlightenment ideas are, and why they remain so important to the understanding of the ideological and political conflicts of our own time.

The Shape of the New jacketWhy are ideas so important to the history of the modern world and also to understanding so much of the contemporary world?

Many of our social, cultural, and political perceptions have been shaped by big ideas first argued by long dead intellectuals.  For example, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton’s argument on the shape of democracy more than 200 years ago continues to play out today in American debates over the size and scope and purpose of government.

Why use the term ‘ideas’ rather than ideology?

Ideology refers largely to already fixed, hardened positions about certain policy choices. The ideas we cover were much broader.  The leading intellectuals who developed them understood many of the conflicting arguments and knew they had to argue their positions in order to have any lasting influence.

What are the “Four Big Ideas” of the title, and why do you focus on them?

Our focus is not on single concepts but entire systems of thought that have affected every level of social experience. Adam Smith wrote about the freedom that individuals must have to decide their material and moral lives and that, if attained, would create the most efficient, prosperous, and free society. Marx spoke of universal equality for humanity, a just and egalitarian world that would arrive due to scientific laws governing history. Darwin took evolution and turned it into a scientific theory of enormous force:  with natural selection as its main mechanism, it gave all life a secular history and human beings a new context liberated from ancient traditions of religious purpose and final principles. Finally, modern democracy gained its first major success through the founders of the United States, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, two brilliant but flawed men whose fierce debates set down essential patterns for how to imagine and institutionalize this new political system that has spread throughout large portions of the world.

You seem to suggest that the most powerful ideas have come from the Enlightenment and mainly from areas like political philosophy, economics, and theories of society or history? Is this correct?

Yes, partly but not political, economic, and social thought alone. Ideas of vital, even extraordinary influence also emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries from the sciences and from religious thought, as shown in our discussion of Darwin and religious fundamentalism in Christianity and Islam. Other domains of thought, such as art and literature, played major roles in the shaping and movement of key ideas.

What are some examples of what you call the “Counter Enlightenment”?

Some hostility came from organized religions that resisted the Enlightenment’s defense of freedom of thought and skepticism about fixed dogma. Much also came from elites opposed to democratization and increased freedom for everyone.  This Counter-Enlightenment has never gone away. Fascism and communism were based on powerful ideas that rejected much of the Enlightenment. Religious opposition remains in some fervent Christian denominations and  in radical Islam there remains bitter hostility to much of modern science and to any questioning of holy texts and authority. Rather than witnessing the continuing expansion of democracy and greater individual freedom that seemed to characterize the late 20th century, some governments, not least China and Russia, reject that side of the Enlightenment and propose instead illiberal forms of autocracy as better alternatives.

What does this have to do with the humanities and social sciences?

We strongly feel that college and university education no longer insists enough on the importance of teaching the ideas on which free, dynamic societies are based. To resist the paranoia about threats coming from all sorts of poorly understood sources we have to reaffirm the importance of the great ideas that shaped so much that we value, and make it known how those ideas were used to combat ignorance and opposition to freedom. Ultimately it is imperative that we understand the ideas that oppose what we value so that we are better equipped to fight against them.

Scott L. Montgomery is an affiliate faculty member in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research. Daniel Chirot is the Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Washington. His books include Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder (Princeton). They both live in Seattle.

#MammothMonday: What’s Next?

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In today’s #MammothMonday exclusive video, Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction, raises big questions about cloning technology and explains how she feels this controversial technology should be used.

You can also listen to Shapiro’s interview on NPR from this past weekend, where she discussed the motivations for bringing back an extinct species, along with some of the specific risks involved with releasing genetically engineered elephants into the wild.

Read Chapter 1, here.

#MammothMonday: How Does the Science of De-Extinction Work?

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Happy #MammothMonday! Today, Beth Shapiro clarifies the science of de-extinction. As she explains, if scientists possess a tiny bit of living tissue from a species that has gone extinct recently, they can bring back that animal through traditional means. However, if the species has been extinct for millions of years and there is no living tissue, the process of bringing the animal back to life is far more difficult. Beth had a terrific piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently that offers much more info, and geneticists have been sounding off on the discussion as well. Check out today’s original video:

Read about de-extinction, in How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-extinction. Preview Chapter 1.

#MammothMonday: Could We Bring Back the Passenger Pigeon?

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Just days ago, scientists were finally successful in sequencing the full mammoth genome. Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth offered commentary on this exciting and ethically controversial achievement. According to the BBC News, “A US team is already attempting to study the animals’ characteristics by inserting mammoth genes into elephant stem cells.”

For today’s #MammothMonday, Beth Shapiro expresses her doubts and concerns about bringing back the passenger pigeon, pointing out the unique difficulties involved in cloning a bird. Learn more about Shapiro’s reasoning in the video below.

Be sure to pick up a copy of How to Clone a Mammoth. You can read Chapter 1, here. Interested in learning more about passenger pigeons? Check out The Passenger Pigeon by Errol Fuller. Read the Introduction.

Beth Shapiro at Kepler’s

Shapiro at Kelper's

Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, has begun her book tour across the US and the UK. Last Thursday, April 16, Beth had a wonderful event at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, where she gave an overview of her intriguing book and fielded questions from the audience. We are featuring content related to How to Clone a Mammoth every Monday on our blog as part of our #MammothMonday series. Be sure to read the first chapter and pick up a copy of the book.

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#MammothMonday: Can We Clone a Mammoth?

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In today’s #MammothMonday post, Beth Shapiro addresses a frequently asked question, “Can we clone a mammoth, if so when is it going to happen?”  In answering, Shapiro brings up a crucial point: What is the audience willing to consider a mammoth? Find out her answer and learn more about How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction in this video:

Be sure to read Chapter 1.

#MammothMonday: What to Bring Back?

How to Clone a Mammoth

Welcome to another #MammothMonday. Beth Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, was recently called by Brian Switek of National Geographic, “the perfect guide to the ongoing discussion about de-extinction.” Today, she continues in that role, answering the question, “What to Bring Back?” In this fascinating video, Beth discusses the thinking behind the decision to bring back a large mammal as opposed to passenger pigeons.

What do you think about the debate around cloning mammoths?

Madness in Civilization

Madness in Civilization is a stunningly illustrated new cultural history of mental disturbance from antiquity to the present time.  Written by Andrew Scull, professor of sociology at University of California, San Diego and preeminent historian of psychiatry, the book’s mesmerizing subject matter ranges from exorcisms to Victorian asylums, from pharmacology to the introduction of psychiatry into popular culture. The Telegraph called it “ambitious and gruesome”, and the book has received wonderful write-ups in The Literary Review and The Financial Times. Scull has been blogging for Psychology Today as well, where he shares insights on his fascinating and frightening work. Check out chapter 1 here, and a slide show of some of the book’s most compelling images:

Types of Insanity
The Tranquilizer, 1811
Maniac in a strait-jacket, in a French asylum.
Battle Creek Sanitarium
Battle Creek Sanitarium
The first stage of General Faradization
The second stage of General Faradization
The third stage of General Faradization
Attitudes passionelles: extase (1878)
Advert for the psychiatric drug Thorazine
Depression Advertisement
Murder of Thomas Becket
Franz Joseph Gall examining the head of a pretty young girl
Hieronymus Bosch's The Cure of the Folly
Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal
No Sex Please! (We're on antidepressants)

'Types of Insanity,' the frontispiece to John Charles Bucknill and Daniel Hack Tucke's A Manual of Psychological Medicine (1858), one of the first widely used textbooks on the diagnosis and treatment of insanity. Wellcome Library, London.

The Tranquilizer, 1811. Its inventor Benjamin Rush boasted that: "Its effects have been truly delightful to me." His patients' reactions are not recorded. Courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland

The French alienist J.-E.D. Equirol included many drawings of insane patients in the throes of their madness, such as this one, in his treatise Des Maladies mentales, published in 1938. Wellcome Library, London.

Photography at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, one of many therapies on offer there. 271

A postcard of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, for affluent and nervous patients. By 1933 it had been forced into receivership, a causality of the Great Depression. The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

The erotic overtones of Charcot’s pictures of his hysterical patients at the Salpêtrière are nowhere more obvious than here. Harvey Cushing/John Jay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, New Haven.

An early advertisement for the virtues of Thorazine, touting its value in curbing the agitated husband's inclination to beat his wife. Wellcome Library, London.

Depressed? We have the solution! An advertisement for 'mother's little helper' - a pill for the housewife trapped in a prison of domesticity. Harvey Cushing/John Jay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, New Haven.

A vivid portrayal of the murder of Thomas Becket, from a mid-thirteenth century codex. The saint's blood was thought to cure insanity, blindness, leprosy, and deafness, not to mention a host of other aliments. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Franz Joseph Gall examines the head of an attractive young woman, while three gentlemen wait their turns to have their own characters read, in a satirical image published in 1825. Wellcome Library, London.

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Cure of the Folly: The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (c. 1494). A doctor, possibly a quack, uses a scalpel to remove the supposed cause of madness from the head of the patient. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal, his hair grown long and his nails like claws. This striking image of the biblical story of the Babylonian king’s madness is a detail from a manuscript painted by an unknown artist in Regensburg, Germany. Paul J. Getty Museum, Los Angeles (Ms. 33, fol. 215v)

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The Tranquilizer, 1811 thumbnail
Maniac in a strait-jacket, in a French asylum. thumbnail
Battle Creek Sanitarium thumbnail
Battle Creek Sanitarium thumbnail
The first stage of General Faradization thumbnail
The second stage of General Faradization thumbnail
The third stage of General Faradization thumbnail
Attitudes passionelles: extase (1878) thumbnail
Advert for the psychiatric drug Thorazine thumbnail
Depression Advertisement thumbnail
Murder of Thomas Becket thumbnail
Franz Joseph Gall examining the head of a pretty young girl thumbnail
Hieronymus Bosch's The Cure of the Folly thumbnail
Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal thumbnail
No Sex Please! (We're on antidepressants) thumbnail

Behind the scenes of the “How to Clone a Mammoth” trailer

Shapiro Image for blog 4.1.15We recently shared the terrific new trailer for How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction. Today’s Mammoth Monday showcases its creation from idea to final product. Peter Durand, the wonderfully innovative director at Alphachimp, wrote a fascinating article for their blog describing the process.

In the fall of 2014, I ran into Beth and her mammoth bones again…I was fortunate enough to scribe for both her National Academies of Science public presentation, part of the Distinctive Voices lecture series. Once again, Beth’s presentation, her personality, and her message were a hit…After her presentation, we looked at the resulting image, and I did not even have to pitch her…we both had the same idea: “We totally have to animate this!”

Read the article and view the images that inspired the process here.

Spotlight on…Scientists

Nikola Tesla, by W. Bernard Carlson

Nikola Tesla
by W. Bernard Carlson

Genius is no guarantee of public recognition. In this post we look at the changing fortunes and reputations of three very different scientists: Alan Turing, Nikola Tesla, and Albert Einstein.

With the success of the recent movie, the Imitation Game (based on Andrew Hodges’ acclaimed biography Alan Turing: The Enigma), it’s easy to forget that for decades after his death, Turing’s name was known only to computer scientists. His conviction for homosexual activity in 1950s Britain, his presumed suicide in 1954, and the veil of secrecy drawn over his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War combined to obscure his importance as one of the founders of computer science and artificial intelligence. The gradual change in public attitudes towards homosexuality and the increasing centrality of computers to our daily lives have done much to restore his reputation posthumously. Turing received an official apology in 2009, followed by a royal pardon in 2013.

Despite enjoying celebrity in his own lifetime, Nikola Tesla’s reputation declined rapidly after his death, until he became regarded as an eccentric figure on the fringes of science. His legendary showmanship and the outlandish claims he made late in life of inventing high-tech weaponry have made it easy for critics to dismiss him as little more than a charlatan. Yet he was one of the pioneers of electricity, working first with Edison, then Westinghouse to develop the technology that established electrification in America. W. Bernard Carlson’s Nikola Tesla tells the story of a life that seems drawn from the pages of a novel by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, of legal battles with Marconi over the development of radio, of fortunes sunk into the construction of grandiose laboratories for high voltage experiments.

By contrast, the reputation of Albert Einstein seems only to have grown in the century since the publication of his General Theory of Relativity. He is perhaps the only scientist to have achieved iconic status in the public mind, his face recognized as the face of genius. Children know the equation e=mc2 even though most adults would struggle to explain its implications. From the publication of the four 1905 papers onwards, Einstein’s place in scientific history has been secure, and his work remains the cornerstone of modern understanding of the nature of the universe. We are proud to announce the publication of a special 100th anniversary edition of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and the recent global launch of our open access online archive from the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, the Digital Einstein Papers.

Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood to be honored at annual conference of the American Meteorological Society

On January 7th and 8th in Phoenix, Arizona, authors Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy were recognized by the Atmospheric Science Librarians International (ASLI) for their books Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History and Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World, respectively.

Canfield’s account of the history and importance of oxygen won him the 2014 ASLI Choice Award and will be recognized as “a well-documented, accessible, and interesting history of this vital substance.” Wood received an honorable mention for this year’s Choice Award in History. Tambora, will be acknowledged as “a book that makes this extreme event newly accessible through connecting literature, social history, and science.” More general information on the awards can be found, here.

Congratulations to Donald E. Canfield and Gillen D’Arcy Wood!


A Four Billion Year History
Donald E. Canfield



The Eruption That Changed the World
Gillen D’Arcy Wood