Gabriel Tarde’s The Underground Man (1896)
In the decades before the First World War, End of the World visions were influenced by major scientific discoveries of the 19th century. People became aware that the sun, the earth, and the human species itself were moving on a historical trajectory, one that would come to an end naturally, without any need for some divine entity to drop the curtain. The astronomer Camille Flammarion explored different natural scenarios for the End of the World in his 1893 novel La fin du monde, while H.G. Well’s pathbreaking The Time Machine (1895) described the evolutionary deterioration of humanity and the gradual extinction of all life on earth under a dying sun.
But French sociologist Gabriel Tarde would have none of this cosmic fatalism. In his brief, bizarre 1896 novel, Fragment d’histoire future (published in 1905 in English under the title The Underground Man, with an introduction by none other than H.G. Wells), the extinction of the sun is the best thing that ever happens to us. Living deep underground, cut off entirely from nature, surviving humans have a perfect society where they go about nearly naked in the geothermal warmth, eat synthetic food, and devote all their efforts to happiness and aesthetic achievement. Continue reading
Representative image of the precautions needed to protect my creative endeavors. Surviving photograph shows use of a primitive Lite Brite
When I was young, I used to build elaborate castles out of wooden blocks. Then, my younger brother Ben, would come running through and smash it all to pieces. Ben was a metaphor for the way my high school history book1 presented a variety of groups like the Mongols, the Huns, the Vikings, and the Sea Peoples (oddly not the Conquistadors, etc.) as nightmarish, irresistible, and bent on wanton destruction. Like my brother, they were external forces of chaos that swept in, pushed “Western Civilization” to the breaking point, and then mysteriously vanished. Of these groups, the Sea Peoples distance in the past made them, by far, the most mysterious.
In Eric H. Cline’s 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed2 does not set out to clarify the record on the Sea Peoples – they remain pretty clouded in the mists of time. Rather, Cline walks us through what historians know, suspect, and argue about. Cline’s goal is to help us understand what collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age, what “collapse” actually meant, why it was so important, and what were the factors that caused this change. Continue reading
The Extreme Life of the Sea by father-son team Stephen R Palumbi (marine biologist) and Anthony R Palumbi (science writer & novelist) was, to me, like a grown-up version of some of my favorite childhood books – books of interesting animal facts, like how high a mountain lion can jump or how fast a house fly can fly.
The Extreme Life of the Sea is less narrative and more an enthusiastic sharing of cool things in the sea, which are loosely tied together in thematic sections. It is not, however, just a collection of “gee whiz” facts. The compelling vignettes help to convey broader concepts of science and nature with excitement and enthusiasm.
Most of all, the Palumbis remind the reader that science and nature are not just important, they are fun. Continue reading
“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci
I recently received, as a gift, My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals and My Last Supper: Second Course by Melanie Dunea. As the titles suggest, the books ask chefs about their ideal final meal on Earth.
The gift was very appropriate because I regularly ask people this question. It was, I believe, one of the first questions I asked The Wife when she was still The-Really-Interesting-Woman-I-Want-To-Date, and it is a question that I ask everyone that I interview for a job. During one such interview, another manager exclaimed, “That’s a really morbid question.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Continue reading
Il Duomo, Florence, Italy (Photo Credit: MarcusObal; CC BY-SA 3.0)
Filippo Brunelleschi is justifiably famous for his design of the dome of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo). Famous enough that my household contains not one, but two books about Brunelleschi and his dome, as I recently discovered.
The first is Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, in which King follows the career of Filippo Brunelleschi and the long process that lead to the construction of what may still be the most impressive dome in the long history of human architecture. The story of Brunelleschi and his dome is gripping. If a book about early Italian Renaissance cathedral architecture can be called a “page turner”, Brunelleschi’s Dome deserves the title.
The second is Pippo the Fool, a children’s book written by Tracey Fern and illustrated by Pau Estrada. The books cover much of the same ground. Indeed, Pippo the Fool uses King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome as a reference (yes, it is a children book that lists its references – be still my beating heart). Pippo the Fool, however, is meant as a narrative illustration of an individual genius triumphing over the odds and bullies based upon Brunelleschi’s life; whereas Brunelleschi’s Dome is an exploration of history. Continue reading