A brief history of the universe


I know I’ve been really into TEDTalks lately, but they’re just so darn informative and entertaining! In this video, David Christian explains how complexity has formed over the history of the universe:

All that work, just to lead to this!

Whiskey + history

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What happens when you down a bottle of alcohol and live to tell the tale? (Or, at least, a tale about an American president). One brave director and several famous actors found out:

The next one is disabled, but you should seriously SERIOUSLY watch it on YouTube:


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A few months ago I went to a show called the 1968 Exhibit at the Minnesota History Museum. It was devoted to the events of that singular year, of which there were many: the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and MLK Jr., the election of Nixon. The exhibit was also filled with music posters, toys, magazine advertisements, clips of movies and TV shows, and plenty of avocado green and harvest gold.

I had not been particularly interested in attending, but was extremely impressed with the amount of material displayed and its presentation. In the January room was a full-size helicopter from the Vietnam War and in the December room was a space capsule next to a broadcast of the Apollo 8 mission that orbited the moon. You could make your own album cover and vote for one of the presidential candidates who ran for office in 1968. (Tangential story: the results of the vote were shown realtime on a monitor above the voting booth and were heavily skewed toward Robert F. Kennedy. There were also plenty of votes for candidate Ronald Reagan, while Nixon and Humphrey lagged way behind. After I “cast my vote” I stepped outside the blue curtain to see a high school kid wearing a Romney button–Santorum had won Minnesota’s primary the day before–who was watching the results closely. And then I saw him beckon over one of his classmates and give him $5 to vote for Reagan. Voter intimidation, buying elections? Start ’em young).

One potential implication of the exhibit was that 1968 was more important than neighboring years. Certainly it was a year of great change, politically and culturally. But while the significance of some events is immediately apparent, others can be understood better only in retrospect. It makes me wonder what 2012 will look like, what shape it will take, when it matters only to historians.

Garden of Love, my 1968 retrospective

How to be a historian


What you’ll need: A vivid imagination, a tolerance for dust

Songlist: John Lennon’s Remember or any of these songs about historical events

Further reading: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

25,000-year-old handprints at cave in Lascaux

I had an epiphany during college. It was sophomore year and I was walking with a friend who had chosen history to be his major; I was still undecided. History, he told me, explains how the world came to be and gives us guidelines for how to live our lives in the present. Only by studying history will we ensure a better future.

It occurred to me then that history is a lens like any other potential college major, and our field reflects the way we understand the world. An economics major could easily argue the same point: decisions are driven by economic factors and economics therefore explain the way the world works. A psychologist would say the same thing for psychology, as would a physicist for physics, and so on.

I ended up choosing creative writing as a major because I understand the world as a vast network of stories. History is full of such stories. However, in high school, I never got that sense. I memorized dates and names of famous wars and men. But data doesn’t interest me nearly as much as narrative and so I never took any history classes in college.

It’s only after I started this blog that I realized how fascinated I am by history. If you’ve followed, you may have noticed that I often include a post about the history of the week’s theme, whether about spies, diseases, beer-brewing, or witches. I spend countless hours researching these histories and find myself engrossed in their richness.

Nazi soldiers sightsee in Paris

Two weeks from today I’m flying to Paris; I’ve been researching the city’s history in preparation. The period of the Nazi occupation particularly interests me. Whenever I learned about terrible historical events as a schoolchild, I would always imagine myself a hero: the person who gave food and shelter and transportation to the persecuted, the voice of reason that opposed the rulers. Though certainly there were some Parisians who “resisted” the Nazis, most inhabitants tried their best to continue their lives as normally as possible. I wonder what I would have done–written secret pamphlets and distributed them at risk of being executed? Helped foreign nationals escape into the unoccupied territory? Would I instead have accepted an invitation to a concert at the German Institute if it meant warmth and a filling meal? Or perhaps I would have clung to my ration cards, avoided making eye contact in the streets, and kept my mouth closed.

Each choice is illustrated in history by a multitude of narratives. And, due to my chosen major in college, I am of course creating my own.


Henna, kohl, and sacred makeup

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While makeup in modern American culture is often considered frivolous, throughout history it has been a powerful indicator of identity, often with spiritual significance.

My first thought of makeup as indicator of identity was of geisha women in Japan, whose white face makeup is instantly recognizable. In fact, the elaborate hair styles, beautiful kimonos, and full makeup that I associate with the word geisha is worn primarily by maiko, or apprentice geisha. Geisha wear more subdued makeup to accentuate their natural beauty, usually only applying the full makeup–faces painted white with rice powder, teeth blackened, lips reddened with safflower–for the most formal occasions.

Henna designs on a bride's hands

Henna is used for formal occasions throughout the world. Brides from India to Morocco are painted with elaborate henna tattoos just before their weddings. The intricate patterns of mehndi, the name of these henna paintings in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, are more than just ornamentation. They are described in the Vedas, ancient ritual books dating back three thousand years, as being symbolic of the Inner and Outer Sun (traditional mehndi designs include a sun drawn on the palm of one’s hand). Henna is believed to contain some of the goddess Lakshmi’s essence and thus the wearer is imparted with Lakshmi’s sacred protection.

The Prophet Mohammad dyed his beard with henna, and thus some Muslim men use henna in their beards to emulate Mohammad. This practice is considered sunnah, or fortunate, due to its relation to the Prophet. While some Muslim men dye their beards only after making the hajj to Mecca, it is more commonplace in certain cultures. For instance, we have a large Somali population in the Twin Cities and many elderly Somalian men here have bright orange beards (local blogger Ifrah Jimale addressed this question in her “Ask a Somali” column; she noted that henna was a luxury in Somalia and thus it might carry some cache in the United States).

Rock that eyeliner, girl

Other cosmetic substances were used not only for religious reasons but also medicinally. Galena, or kohl, worn ubiquitously in ancient Egypt, possesses disinfectant and fly-deterrent properties. Also, much like modern day athletes wearing black stripes below their eyes to reduce glare, Egyptians wore kohl to protect their eyes from intense sun. But eye makeup in ancient Egypt had other protective characteristics; the Egyptian word for eye-palette even derives from their word for “protect.” Powdered green malachite when applied to the eyes was thought to imbue the wearer with protection from Hathor, the goddess of beauty, joy, and love.

Man, it’s time for my makeup to do a little more work; all it boasts is SPF. When I go to the cosmetic aisle at CVS tomorrow, I should look instead for makeup that boasts a high GPF: Goddess Protection Factor.

Babel and The Bible

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I especially like Pieter Brueghel the Elder's interpretation of the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel towers high as allegory, as genesis story, as good ol’ fashioned storytelling. Painters have depicted it countless times, and theologians, literary theorists, and linguists have read into it a million ways.

I brought out my Theories of Translation book and read over philosopher Jacques Derrida’s essay on Babel. He writes that Babel as a name is the name of God, yet Babel as a noun (and now as a verb in English) signifies confusion. Here is his thesis, as I read it: “In giving his name, a name of his choice, in giving all names, the father would be at the origin of language, and that power would belong by right to God the father. And the name of God the father would be the name of that origin of tongues. But it is also that God who, in the action of his anger, annuls the gift of tongues, or at least embroils it, sows confusion among his songs, and poisons the gift.” (That last phrase is a pun on the German noun Gift, which means “poison”). Later in the essay he goes on to say, “This story recounts, among other things, the origin of the confusion of tongues, the irreducible multiplicity of idioms, the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility. Now, in general, one pays little attention to this fact: it is in translation that we most often read this narrative.”

Let’s face it: the stories of the Old Testament are confusing. The God of the Old Testament is especially confusing, full of vengeance and jealousy, enigmatic and indecipherable. He is nothing like the New Testament’s God, a Being who is as equally full of love and sacrifice. And so if we build on Derrida’s thesis, the Tower of Babel story is one of the most telling of the Old Testament God’s character: he sets himself as the origin, as the word, the primogenitor, and yet punishes his people so they cannot speak of him. God becomes unknowable, unpredictable. And so his people must rely on translation, which is anything but reliable.

Adam and Eve in fifteenth-century Italian orchard?

It is thus troubling when religious fundamentalists hearken back to the literal words of a religious text: not only have cultural norms changed over the course of 2+ millennia, the words themselves have most likely been translated. Of course, Muslims consider the Quran to be God’s word, verbatim, passed to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic. There is a standardized compilation of Muhammad’s text that has not changed, and the Quran in translation is technically not the Quran. Even in the case of this holy book, though, words that have remained in common usage have connotatively and qualitatively changed and thus there plenty of subtleties that contemporary Muslims would understand only with the assistance of historical accounts. (Side note: in translation class, we read a relatively long article that spoke only of one particular Italian word that is most commonly translated into English as “orchard;” the point of the article is that “orchard” does not call to mind the images that the Italian word would for fifteen century Italians, and yet the article concluded that “orchard” is the best–and only–possible translation of the word).

Christians who read the Bible in English are reading through at least two translations, and most likely many more: for some versions Aramaic made its way into Greek, and from there Latin, then German, and finally English. If plenty can be lost in a direct translation, imagine the material that is lost in four. And yet some translations are said to be divinely inspired. The Septuagint, the Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament was said to be created like this:

King Ptolemy once gathered 72 Elders. He placed them in 72 chambers, each of them in a separate one, without revealing to them why they were summoned. He entered each one’s room and said: ‘Write for me the Torah of Moshe, your teacher.’ God put it in the heart of each one to translate identically as all the others did.”

If the Tower of Babel tells the story of the splitting of tongues, the writing of the Septuagint sounds like a miracle of God’s atonement. What He has separated and confused He reunites so that all may speak and know His name. As we Americans say, E pluribus unum.

2011 yearbook

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Reviewing images of the past year might make a person think that the only things that happened were natural disasters (flooding in Thailand and Pakistan, earthquake and tsunami in Japan, tornadoes and hurricane Irene in the USA) and riots (Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, London burning, and education protests in Chile). While looking back on these photographs it’s easy to get depressed about the devastation that has occurred in 2011. There are also wonderful images, though–of Christians in Egypt protecting Muslims during prayer, and of the first same-sex couple to get married in New York.

Most of the pictures in these end-of-year lists are not particularly artistic; indeed, their function is to document the events of the year, not present pleasing compositions. However, a few images stuck out to me:

Chile's Puyehue volcano erupts, doing its best Mount Doom impersonation

A Buddha head is submerged in Thailand floods

The only light in North Korea shines on Kim Il-Sung

A black rhino is transported to a preserve in South Africa. And yes, this is the black rhino's preferred method of transportation.

Libyan rebels are serenaded as they force a regime change

What are your favorite images of the year?

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