Mohamed Noor on Live Long and Evolve

Live Long and Evolve CoverIn Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.

You teach courses introducing genetics and evolution, yet rather than writing a book that simply presented the science from your courses, you wrote this book that uses examples from a fictional TV show. Why?

My aim is to try to reach people who may be less inclined to read something that seems like a textbook, but who may consider a different “entry-point” to learning about science and evolution in particular. Science fiction is popular and often quite approachable, so leveraging interest in science fiction may be a means for getting people excited about learning the scientific truths (or fallacies) underlying in what’s presented. Reading or watching science fiction is often what inspired people to become scientists, so why not use its popularity to have people learn more science?

But why Star Trek? Isn’t that about space travel in the far future? Do they really cover much genetics and evolution?

Part of the stated mission of the spaceship in many Star Trek series is “to seek out new life”. You may be surprised at how much genetics and evolution crop up across the series given this emphasis: for example, roughly one quarter of the episodes of the 2001-2005 series Star Trek Enterprise had the word “DNA” in the script, and an episode of the current series Star Trek: Discovery references results from a 2015 genome sequencing study. Importantly,Star Trek tries to explain observations in the context of science rather than falling back on magic or “the Force.” More generally, Star Trek offers a very large and mostly internally consistent volume from which to draw examples. Over 700 non-animated Star Trek episodes and 13 movies have aired so far (with one series continuing). That’s a lot of material, making it possible to find examples of almost anything you could want to explain! Of course, while what I’ve told you above is all true, a big added reason for me is that I just love Star Trek, and I think a lot of other people do, too.

How do you approach the science in your book?

The book follows the structure and topics of an introductory biology course at Duke University, where I teach. Each chapter is devoted to a broader idea, like “common ancestry of species” or “microevolutionary processes”. Within each chapter, I start sections by describing a scene from a Trek episode or movie that is relevant. The scene is described in enough detail that someone who hasn’t seen the episode gets the gist of what happened. I then talk about the underlying science that was described using real examples and analogies, and I try to mention recent research in these areas when appropriate. Finally, I return to the focal scene as well as other depictions in Star Trek and assess the accuracy of what was shown and/ or speculate on what may not have been shown (or suggest a tweak to what was shown) that would make it more precise. I follow this approach for several specific topics within each broader chapter idea to help the reader learn the underlying biology.

But how good is the science in Star Trek? Presumably it often gets things quite wrong in terms of biology, like showing hybrids between alien species. Don’t these errors make it hard to teach people your science if you’re using flawed material as your source of examples?

Trek definitely takes some liberties with the biology. There are also times when it gets things quite wrong. However, these errors often reflect broader misunderstandings the public (and sometimes scientists as well) have about genetics and evolution, and thus they provide teachable moments. For example, there’s an episode in which the cast are infected with a virus that caused them to “de-evolve” into various other life-forms (e.g., a spider), due to activating the introns within genes. This example is ludicrous, but it then opens the door to discussing misconceptions about evolution and ancestry and why they are wrong. For instance, humans share a common ancestor with spiders, but none of our direct ancestors were spiders. This is analogous to how we share a common ancestor with our second-cousins, but none of our second-cousins was a direct ancestor of ours. I discuss the evidence for evolution and common ancestry in some detail to try to combat these misconceptions. Later in the book, I also discuss what introns are and why they do not retain instructions for earlier evolutionary states.

How has your background in genetics and evolution informed this book?

While my intent is to cover some basics principles of evolution, one cannot understand evolution without a grasp of genetics, so I present a lot of genetics in the book as well. Genetics and genetics-related terms also seem to crop up in the public eye frequently: DNA sequencing, cloning, personal genotypes, epigenetics, CRISPR, etc. Even beyond explaining evolution, I am eager to have readers learn some basic genetics so they understand what is and what is not possible in real life.

If you wanted people to learn just one thing about evolution, what would it be, and is that one thing covered in your book?

The most basic evolutionary concept is the truth of all species on Earth sharing a common ancestor. We are related to other animals, to plants, and even to bacteria, and the evidence for these relationships is overwhelming. I cover this at some length in the book. However, another idea which I personally have found fascinating since college is how evolution by natural selection is a “mathematical inevitability” if a species has three simple features: heredity (offspring typically resemble parents more than random other individuals), variation (offspring vary in their traits), and differences in survival or reproduction associated with the varying traits. This concept, too, is covered in the book using examples from reproducing “nanites” in an episode of Star Trek.

I apologize— that’s TWO things about evolution rather than one, but there’s so much fascinating science in this field that it is hard to pick a single example. To quote the last line of Darwin’s most famous book, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


Mohamed Nooris a professor and former department chair of the Biology Department at Duke University. He previously wrote the book You’re Hired! Now What? A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

David Lindo on How to Be an Urban Birder

Urban birding is fast becoming ornithology’s new rock ’n’ roll. Birds and birding have never been cooler—and urban birding is at the cutting edge.

How to Be an Urban Birder is the world’s first guide to the art of urban birding—which is so easy and great fun! Here, urban birding pioneer David Lindo tells you everything you need to know about birds and birding in towns and cities in the UK.

How did you first become interested in urban birding?

I believe that my interest in birds spawned from a previous life. Yes, I was once a Puma! I hunted birds then somewhere along the line I started to watch them. Fade to black. Credits.

Actually, I was born in northwest London with an innate interest in natural history. Initially, it was the invertebrates in my garden that caught my attention. Eventually, by the time I was six birds had entered my life. I had no mentor nor was there anyone around to teach me so I had to educate myself. By the age of eight I was a veritable walking encyclopedia on birds.

What are the characteristics that separate an ‘urban birder’ from a more traditional birder?

The biggest difference between urban versus rural birder is style. Urban Birders tend to wear less green and have a more fashionable look. As an Urban Birder you will have to work harder to tune into nature’s wavelength over the hubbub of the city but once you are locked in you will be on the same wavelength as the folks in the country.

What inspired you to write this book?

How to be An Urban Birder has to be defined as a labor of love. It took me five years to pen and I felt that it was a book that I needed to scribe. Over the years many people have asked me to define Urban Birding so I decided to write the definitive guide to being an urban birder, especially seeing as I am The Urban Birder!

What has been your best experience as an urban birder?

My best moments as an Urban Birder usually occur when I least expect it often in the most innocuous locations. Examples could include an Osprey flying over Covent Gardens in Central London, a Red-naped Sapsuckeron a solitary palm tree in the middle of Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles. Staying with LA, I will never forget watching a vagrant wintering Black-and-white Warblerin a rough junkie infested park in the Downtown area!

What about your biggest challenges?

I think that the biggest challenges in my urban birding life is getting members of the general public, local authorities and city councils to protect vulnerable urban sites. All too often the hand of ‘development’ has touched and ruined great urban wildlife spots.

What kinds of people are drawn to urban birding, and how are activities like this important to conservation efforts?

The types of people attracted to Urban Birding are often what I term as ‘bird-curious’. In other words, folk who are curious about birds but typically feel too nervous to get involved. Once these people realize that they do not have to be an expert or even know the names of birds, they come forward.

Urban Birding is a great way to get city people involved in nature. These people may not ever become full blown and paid-up birders but they will at least become aware that nature exists within their urban areas. Hopefully, they will then go on to become part of what I term as the ‘Conservation Army’ – a vast swathe of environmentally aware urbanites who will have empathy for the plight of nature around the world.

What are some tips you’d give to aspiring urban birders who are just starting to bird watch as a hobby?

My main tip to aspiring Urban Birders is to enjoy yourselves. Don’t worry about the need to learn all the names and songs but instead, revel in the excitement of just watching and listening. Over time, the names and identity of the birds will fall into place.

Discover a local patch and make it your own. Visit it on a regular basis and get to know the birds that inhabit the space. You will soon find that your knowledge of birds will increase at an amazing pace. Oh, and don’t forget to look up!


David Lindo, popularly known as The Urban Birder, is a naturalist, writer, broadcaster, speaker, photographer, wildlife tour leader and educator. His mission is to connect the city folk of the world with the wonderful wildlife that is all around them—even in the middle of the Concrete Jungle. His motto is simple: Look up! He is also the author of The Urban Birder and Tales from Concrete Jungles: Urban Birding around the World (both Bloomsbury). He is a Londoner and runs the website The Urban Birder World.

You can follow David Lindo on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Walter Perez on Galápagos

The Galápagos Islands are home to an amazing variety of iconic creatures, from Giant Tortoises, Galápagos Sea Lions, Galápagos Penguins, and Ghost Crabs to Darwin’s finches, the Blue-footed Booby, and Hummingbird Moths. But how precisely do these animals manage to survive on—and in the waters around—their desert-like volcanic islands, where fresh water is always scarce, food is often hard to come by, and finding a good mate is a challenge because animal populations are so small? In this stunning large-format book, Galápagos experts Walter Perez and Michael Weisberg present an unprecedented photographic account of the remarkable survival behaviors of these beautiful and unique animals. With more than 200 detailed, close-up photographs, the book captures Galápagos animals in action as they feed, play, fight, court, mate, build nests, give birth, raise their young, and cooperate and clash with other species.

How did you start as a photographer?

Approximately 30 years ago, my Dad was known as the official photographer for the small town I grew up in. He photographed weddings, baptisms and different events in town. I am not sure if he really understood photography, but I was curious and started to wonder if I could take better pictures. I begged my Dad to let me take a picture with his Polaroid camera. That was the moment I became hooked on photography. 

Moving to the Galapagos as a young teenager, I had the opportunity to buy my first camera and started taking pictures of  the animals to show my family and friends in mainland Ecuador. For the past twelve years working as a Galapagos Naturalist Guide I have met both amateur and professional photographers which became an everyday learning experience.  I also participated in photography workshops with photo experts from National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions because I enjoyed talking and learning about photography.

With my understanding of the fauna of Galapagos and my photography skills, I was able to create this book.

Do you enjoy working in the Galapagos? Why?

I have lived in the Galapagos for more than twenty years and, for the last twelve years, worked as a Galapagos Naturalist Guide and Photographic Instructor onboard the National Geographic/Lindblad Expeditions ships – the Endeavorand the Islander.

My day-to-day routine in the Galapagos is like attending university; every day is a learning experience because you never know what you are going to see while you are out in the field. People often think that by seeing the same sites and wildlife every day must be boring and tiring, but to be honest it is one of the best jobs on the planet. It is rare that you are paid for doing what you enjoy, like capturing these unique moments in nature with my camera.

Why do you photograph the pictures you do? What is your favorite picture? 

After 12 years of photographing animals in action, I have learned that animals are very unpredictable. Animals that you see everyday in their daily activities can surprise you. You never know when a unique moment in nature may occur. 

Working as a photographer and naturalist in the Galapagos, I have become an expert in anticipating and predicting what is going to happen with the wildlife around me. I capture unique moments in nature that you will probably never see or have a chance to photograph again.  As a visitor to the Galapagos, you may be lucky enough to see one unique moment. However, the likelihood of realizing that this moment was a unique in nature is low. For me, being able to photographically document and share these unusual occurrences is the reason behind the book. Because of this truth, I do not have a single favorite photograph. All of them are my favorites because each shot is unique.

When taking a picture, how many shots do you take of the same action?

Working in the Galapagos as a photographer and naturalist for more than twelve years has given me a deep understanding of animal behavior. It is like going to a zoo but with one exception—you are inside the enclosure and a part of the story. 

Being part of the story has given me the opportunity to predict the precise moments when animals are ready to fight, mate, steal and eat. I am always ready to capture that precise moment in time when nature’s movements occur, when I hold the shutter button down I capture the movements of the wildlife. The end result of these subjects in action became the title of the book: Galapagos: Life in Motion.

How would you describe your day to day life in the Galapagos? 

Working in the Galapagos is like a dream come true. I never imagined that I would have to get up at the crack of dawn to head to work, and that my office would be in the field in the Galapagos archipelago. Every day I escort people onto the different islands and explain the importance of the Galapagos to the guests. Watching the expression on the faces of both adults and children as they explore this enchanted land is rewarding and brightens my day.


Walter Perez is a photographer and naturalist who has been working in the Galápagos for two decades. His award-winning photograph of a Great Frigatebird stealing nesting material from a Red-footed Booby, Battle of the Sticks, which is featured in this book, is on permanent display at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus. He lives in Galápagos, Ecuador.

Joseph Barber on The Chicken

The Chicken coverInherently social creatures, chickens are enjoying a renaissance as prized members of many households and small farms. From feathers and flock formation to imprinting and incubating, The Chicken by Joseph Barber provides a comprehensive, richly illustrated guide to understanding how chickens live, think, and act both alongside people and independently.

How did you get involved with chickens?

When I finished my undergraduate degree in London, I was hooked on the subject of animal behavior, and knew I wanted to continue studying this subject. I even came across the perfect PhD project that was focused on researching cheetahs in the Serengeti. You cannot get much cooler than that in terms of an animal behavior research project. However, I wasn’t even close to being qualified for research in this environment given that the most fearsome animal I had worked with at that point was a bank vole (and no, they are not fierce!).

Instead, I found a research project focusing on the social behavior of laying hens at the University of Oxford under the supervision of Professor Marian Dawkins. This was an amazing opportunity to work under one of the foremost experts in behavioral research. It also meant I had to get up close and personal with chickens. In fact, the chickens at Oxford were the first chickens I had ever really interacted with, and they were a little terrifying at first—what with their beady eyes and dinosaur-like legs. Over the three years of my research, I certainly developed an appreciation for these birds and their strong personalities. What I never learnt to appreciate was their desire to pull the hairs on my legs as I was cleaning their enclosures.

But really, a whole book about chickens?

My PhD research focused on the social behavior of chickens. This subject area represents a tiny slice of what makes chickens so interesting (yes, a slice of the chicken pie, if you like that sort of thing). The various chapter authors in this book all bring their own amazing expertise in terms of discussing the evolutionary history of the birds, their anatomy and physiology, their complex behavior, their treatment in captivity, and the delightful range of appearances and characteristics of the many breeds of chickens that exist. In other words, there is so much to learn about chickens that there is probably no single person who knows everything there is to know.  More importantly, the reason for this book is to encourage people to develop their own appreciation of chickens, especially people who might be considering having their own backyard chickens.

Why have backyard chickens?

Well, because the plentiful supply of eggs you can get will taste far better than intensively farmed eggs you buy, and can give you great satisfaction in terms of bringing food to your table from your own backyard. Even if you didn’t want eggs, chickens can be wonderfully fun to watch as they wreak havoc on the bugs and vegetables you have in your gardens. You can find many online retailers selling the most exotic chicken coops you can imagine if you want to get really fancy, and the possibilities for posting chicken-related pictures on social media are endless (#drinkingwithchickens on Instagram as an example).

Any interesting chicken stories or facts?

Based on my experience, if you hold a chicken under your arm whilst wearing a lab coat, and if you keep your keys in your lab coat pocket, then the chances are high that you will end up with chicken poop on your keys. Also, if you study chickens for 3 years, everyone will buy you chicken-related gifts for your birthday and any and all other celebrations. There are just so many chicken-themed gifts that can be bought at any time of the year. To be honest, I think it made all my relatives very happy that I studied chickens, because they always knew what to buy me! And finally, chickens don’t fly very well, but they have still have the ability to generate significant lift when motivated. A single hen who freaks out at a sudden sound or movement can trigger a superabundance of flapping birds trying to get away from whatever it was the first bird thought was worth fleeing from. This explosion of feathered fowl and sawdust can be terrifying for a human caught up in the midst of it whilst innocently gathering eggs from the nest boxes.

So, why did the chicken cross the road?

It is definitely important to ask this. From a research perspective, a potentially easier question would be “how would we determine why the chicken crossed the road?” Since chickens cannot tell us the answer directly, we only have their behavior to go on to figure out an answer.  What we are interested in as animal behaviorists is what is it that motivates a change in behavior. Is it something internal, such as hunger, or something external, such as the sight of a predator or something that other members of the social group are doing? Chickens tend to perform a lot of socially facilitated behaviors—that is, they tend to do what other birds in the flock are doing, at the same time and in the same location. It is easier to spot predators if there are lots of eyes scanning the environment. So, chances are high that most chickens cross the road because they are simply following the chickens ahead of them. As for the first bird who crossed it—perhaps she was actually riding on the back of an alligator who was chasing a clown who lost his wallet in the laundromat which just happened to be on the other side of the road.

After reading this book, will I stop wanting to eat chicken?

My PhD research and the topic of the class I teach at Hunter College both focus on animal welfare. This is a hard subject to define easily, but one way to think about welfare is to consider whether the animals we house in captive environment can cope with the challenges they face in these environments. If our farmed animals experience pain everyday because they are housed on a hard concrete surface, or if they are frustrated because they cannot perform a behavior that they are highly motivated to perform, then these would be examples of poor welfare. In these cases, the animals are faced with negative experiences that they cannot overcome. The more we understand about farm animals, the easier it becomes to see where their captive environments are not set up to meet their various needs. There are certainly farming practices that turn people off intensively farmed food once they learn about them. This book provides great insights into the life of chickens, and so can be helpful to people as they think about whether the meat or eggs they eat come from an environment that they feel is welfare friendly or not. With a little research, it is absolutely possible to find local farmers who rear animals in a way you would hope they would be reared. Indeed, if you have chickens in your own backyard, you can be far more certain that the eggs you eat come from well-appreciated birds reared in an environmentally sustainable manner!

Joseph Barber is a senior associate director at the University of Pennsylvania, and an adjunct professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

Asma Naeem on Black Out

Black Out Naeem book coverBefore the advent of photography in 1839, Americans were consumed by the fashion for silhouette portraits. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now, the first major publication to focus on the development of silhouettes, gathers leading experts to shed light on the surprisingly complex historical, political, and social underpinnings of this ostensibly simple art form. Silhouettes registered the paradoxes of the unstable young nation, roiling with tensions over slavery and political independence.  Presenting the distinctly American story behind silhouettes, Black Out vividly delves into the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of this evocative, ever popular form of portraiture.

Here, author Asma Naeem discusses her interest in the form, as well as some of the surprises she discovered during her research.

The exhibit this book accompanies is curated by Naeem and runs through March 10, 2019, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.

What was the inspiration for Black Out?

The spark for Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now happened many years ago on a brilliant sunlit day as I stood in front of an antiques shop in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Tucked in the corner of the window, away from the mahogany Chippendale secretary, Federal convex mirrors, and handsome Windsor chairs, were some of the most arresting objects of early Americana that I had ever seen. The simplicity of design, the lustrous maple and gilt frames, the creamy paper, the intense black shapes cut by human hands, not to mention the intimate nature of the portraits – all of these things formed an indelible impression.

Imagine my pleasure years later when I joined the National Portrait Gallery and became a steward of one of the most stellar collections of silhouettes in the country.

Once I began researching these objects, however, different impressions began to form, impressions of an America that many of us didn’t know existed.

Why did you decide to include both historical and contemporary artists?

Once I decided to create an exhibition on silhouettes, suddenly, everywhere I looked I saw silhouettes—on signage, on book covers, on my mobile phone, and of course, in thrilling contemporary art installations by established and emerging artists alike. I knew then that I had to share these discoveries, known only to handfuls of experts, with the public at large.

What was your research process like?

I conceived of this show four years ago and it has been a years-long journey to find and then narrow down the list of objects for the exhibition. I wanted this show and catalogue to be more than your grandmother’s silhouettes, so I had to spend a lot of time looking for unique objects, both historical and contemporary. I went to many small historical societies to unearth their treasures. I encountered some of the most generous archivists and a few ghost stories along the way! I also had to spend much time accumulating all of the scholarship on silhouettes, much of which is written for antique collectors. For the contemporary works, I visited the artists in their studios or galleries when possible, and had numerous conversations about what I envisioned the show to look like and how their work fit in that vision.

Were you expecting to find so much historical material dealing with race, enslavement, and disability?

Yes, and no. I knew that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the traditional medium of portraiture, oil on canvas, precluded the less wealthy, women, and people of color because of its expensive, exclusive status. I didn’t expect to find such interesting, beautiful portraits of African Americans, the disabled, and such spunky women, particularly within our own collection here at the Portrait Gallery.

What can studying the history of the silhouette teach us about the representation of identity today?

This book will hopefully deepen our understanding of how Americans—women, men, black, white, states men, laborers—wanted to see themselves in the years of the Early Republic. We have always been a polyphonic, vibrant society. It also opens new pathways between our past and our present in terms of period notions of individualism, racial profiling, power, and even how our digital selves can be critiqued through the medium of portraiture.

Who else contributed essays to the book?

This project has been enriched and transformed by some of the most erudite minds in American art and conservation. I was fortunate to have essays written by Alexander Nemerov, the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Stanford University, Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania, and Penley Knipe, the Philip and Lynn Straus Senior Conservator of Works on Art on Paper at the Harvard Art Museums.

Nemerov and Shaw each probe the cultural contours of the remarkable worlds of unconventional nineteenth-century silhouettists Martha Ann Honeywell and Moses Williams, respectively. Knipe carefully examines silhouettes from the inside out, revealing various aspects of their material composition—about the paper, the scissors, and so forth—that many readers will find surprising.

Anne Verplanck, associate professor of American studies and humanities at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, who is one the preeminent scholars on silhouettes in the country, also was generous enough to write entries on many of the objects, not to mention offer her invaluable expertise to me regarding the historical art form on numerous occasions.

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

I hope that readers will find silhouettes as fascinating, complicated, and significant in the history of American art as I do. I very much want the reader to see how silhouettes, like other forms of craft, should no longer be devalued in the art canon, and do, in fact, offer revelatory insights into how our country’s racial, social, and political history. I also would like to see silhouettes repositioned in our understanding of portraiture – what an incredibly popular and democratizing force they were in Early Republic America – well before the advent of photography in 1839. Without silhouettes, we would not have as much insight into the lives of such overlooked populations as the enslaved, same-sex couples, international envoys, and the disabled. And with the contemporary works, I’d offer silhouettes as an enduring, capacious, and utterly modern mode of expression, with their seemingly contradictory qualities of generality and specificity, blackness, playfulness, and the intersection with our social media profiles of our digital selves. The four female contemporary artists featured have created breathtaking, complex works that confirm that silhouettes are here to stay.

Asma Naeem is curator of prints, drawings, and media arts at the National Portrait Gallery.


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.

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.

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.