The Beauty and the Terror

The human body is the only machine for which there are no spare parts.

Dr. Hermann Biggs (1859-1923)

Last week, Professor Harrington described “the beauty and the terror” of the study of human anatomy. The secret workings of the body’s interior are beautiful in their intricacy and precision; however, the study of life by means of death – not to mention the often crooked means by which a body was obtained for such study – could equally inspire terror. I can only imagine (at least until I finally get to dissect something, hopefully this autumn) the feeling of looking at the exposed viscera of a deceased organism, particularly a human. I imagine feeling vulnerable and exposed – a strange sensation of seeing and smelling and touching solid manifestations of the parts of me that usually exist only as abstract concepts. I know that I have a liver like I know that Bangkok is the capital of Thailand: it is a semantic fragment with which I have no direct experience. Our skin usually protects us from knowing ourselves too intimately for comfort, but in an instant of involuntary identification with an opened cadaver, the dermal barrier is breached, and we are turned inside out. If we gaze long into a body, the body will gaze back into us. To me, this would be a paradigmatic experience of sublimity, in the Burkean sense.
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She Blinded Me with Natural Philosophy

Image by Randall Munroe (xkcd.com)

The word “science” dates back to around 1300 C.E. The word “scientist,” on the other hand, didn’t exist until 1833. Until then, the men (and, rarely, women) who tinkered with chemicals and stared at the stars were said to be practicing a branch of philosophy related to the workings of the natural world. These “natural philosophers” (or “naturalists,” who focused on biology) were not usually university professors or professional researchers. Unlike today, Oxford and Cambridge weren’t research institutions so much as finishing schools for wealthy, young, strictly Anglican gentlemen. The kind of cutting-edge research we associate with universities today was conducted in completely different places in late Romantic and early Victorian England. Independently wealthy gentlemen with time to spare sometimes pursued scientific research in their homes for their own entertainment. If you didn’t have an inheritance to live off of, you could still spend your time on research if you could attach yourself to a wealthy patron who could cover your living expenses and finance your experiments. Many officials of the Anglican Church studied the workings of God’s world between sermons. Among those who were obliged to work for a living, the advent of patent law encouraged competitive innovation in major industries like mining and construction, opening the door to advances in fields like thermodynamics and chemistry.

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Something in the Way She Moves?

Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his own body!

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

If you pity Mr. Hardy, consider the predicament of every poor man who is thrown into relations with a far more precarious object: a woman’s body. This is an issue that seems to have flustered many a nineteenth-century doctor. Women’s bodies were embarrassing, mysterious, and inevitable, and nobody really knew what to do with them. The female body’s place in Victorian culture is a web of contradictions – a nebulous swirl of ignorance, allure, prudery, dignity, exploitation, and general awkwardness.
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The Jungle

The nutrition labels on my cereal boxes not only list every single ingredient, they also warn consumers about potential trace allergens...


...and provide a detailed nutritional breakdown of the contents.

We tend to ask a lot of questions – and demand a lot of answers – about what we put in our bodies. Is it organic? Is it all-natural? Is it genetically modified? Is it processed? Where did it come from? Was it traded fairly? What happened to it between harvest and hearth? How salty is it? Does it contain MSG? Does it contain animals? Does it contain animal products? Has it ever touched anything that touched an animal product? Has it ever come within thirty feet of a tree nut? Will it send me into anaphylaxis?

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Honey, I Shrunk the World

Be careful what you tweet for.

Part of an interactive installation by digital artists Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead. The piece, "London Wall," is currently on display at the Museum of London; it is composed of tweets and text messages from a three-mile radius around the museum.

If you want to contact somebody, you have seemingly innumerable methods to choose from. You can write a letter. You can call. You can page. You can email. You can Skype. You can fax. You can Facebook-stalk. You can instant message. You can text. You can tweet. You can blag. Soon, I expect, you’ll even be able to woof:

The Office, NBC

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Shameful Manoeuvres

This week, we had two “mini-projects” of independent web exploration: one on the Victorian Dictionary, and one on medical advertisements located at the British Library. As intended, this was a simple and fun way to dip our toes into Victorian culture, but in a way, it was also somewhat shocking – Victorian London’s soft underbelly was suddenly and painfully exposed, and I almost felt guilty for mercilessly ripping into it. 

Almost.

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