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. Wells’ 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 “Apocalypse 1896: Gabriel Tarde and the Fortunate Catastrophe”
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.
The Extreme Life of the Seaby 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 Seais 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.
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.”
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 Domeis an exploration of history. Continue reading “Due dosi di Brunelleschi”