No. 52 | Celebration
Andrea K. Scott
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There are approximately two billion wooden shipping pallets in the United States.1 They are in the holds of tractor-trailers, transporting Honey Nut Cheerios and oysters and penicillin and just about any other product you can think of: sweaters, copper wire, lab mice, and so on. They are piled up behind supermarkets, out back, near the loading dock. They are at construction sites, on sidewalks, in the trash, in your neighbor’s basement. They are stacked in warehouses and coursing their way through the bowels of factories.
The magic of these pallets is the magic of abstraction. Take any object you like, pile it onto a pallet, and it becomes, simply, a “unit load”—standardized, cubical, and ideally suited to being scooped up by the tines of a forklift. This allows your Cheerios and your oysters to be whisked through the supply chain with great efficiency; the gains are so impressive, in fact, that many experts consider the pallet to be the most important materials-handling innovation of the twentieth century. Studies have estimated that pallets consume 12 to 15 percent of all lumber produced in the US, more than any other industry except home construction.2
Christopher Turner and Simon Schaffer
The fantasy of perpetual motion—of machines that run on nothing, and never slow or tire—has come to be virtually definitional of a certain form of vain, irrational ambition. But in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it occupied a significant place in political, economic, and philosophical discourse, situated as it was at the intersection of the market, science, and technology. In his article “The Show That Never Ends: Perpetual Motion in the Early Eighteenth Century,” historian Simon Schaffer traces the idea’s pedigree across an era of fervent speculation, both scientific and commercial, and tells the story of the celebrated, perpetually spinning wheel devised and promoted by the Saxon engineer and clockmaker Johann Bessler, better known as Orffyreus. Why did figures as diverse as Newton and Leibniz show interest in perpetual motion? And what did the phenomenon have to say about the status of “value” and “power” (political, scientific, economic) in the midst of the Enlightenment? Cabinet editor Christopher Turner spoke with Schaffer, professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, by phone.
To him that dies, it is all one whether it be by a penny halter, or a silk garter; yet I confess the silk garter pleases more; and like trouts, we love to be tickled to death.
—John Selden, Table-Talk: Being the Discourses of John Selden, Esq., 1689
THE TICKLISH ANIMAL
Aristotle famously defined man as the rational animal (zoon echon logon), and as the political animal (zoon politikon). But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon, though no less profound, definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes: “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces a movement (independently of the will) in the intelligence which is recognizable. The fact that human beings only are susceptible to tickling is due (1) to the fineness of their skin and (2) to their being the only creatures that laugh.”1 Perhaps this notion of the “ticklish animal” was further elaborated in the second book of the Poetics, the lost treatise on comedy; indeed, the relationship between ticklish laughter and comic laughter remains an open question. Should tickling be investigated under the heading of comedy or of touch? Touch, Aristotle argues, is the most primary sense, and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch thanks to the delicate nature of their skin. Though other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, “man’s sense of touch … excels that of all other animals in fineness.”2 We might view tickling as a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Our peculiar vulnerability to tickling is the price to be paid for more sophisticated and discriminating access to the world.
D. Graham Burnett
In a park I once watched a small boy attempting to feed shelled peanuts to a cautious squirrel. The boy squatted on his haunches, and held forth an open hand: “Here!” he offered with ingenuous sweetness. The squirrel took a hop in his direction, twitching its bushy tail nervously. “Here, eat them,” the boy encouraged, his voice just above a whisper. The squirrel drew a little closer, carefully eyeing the hand and the nuts and the squatting boy. “Eat them!” the boy said again after a pause, a little louder this time—but the scene did not change. And there they stayed, in a taut tableau, until, suddenly, the boy, overcome by love and generosity and other things, sprang to his feet and leapt forward in pursuit of the squirrel, now streaking for the nearest tree. “Eat them! Eat them!” he cried as he ran, wild-eyed, flinging the nuts before him.
Cinema tends to make beautiful people look more beautiful, but it wasn’t always so. In its earliest days, film had an adversarial relationship to beauty, exaggerating the tonal and textural variations of the human face so that even the most stunning heroine became a blotchy caricature. Early black-and-white film stocks—first, orthochromatic film, dominant until 1927, and to a lesser degree its successor, panchromatic film—rendered dark colors darker and light colors lighter, turning features that seemed innocuous off camera (rouged cheeks, a constellation of moles) into distracting blemishes when seen on the screen. Pimples and freckles looked like spots of mud and blue eyes seemed colorless; lipstick made the mouth a cavernous hole and a complexion with sallow or pink undertones appeared, in the term of the time, “negroid.” Techniques borrowed from the stage also proved problematic: face paint used to suggest wrinkles to a theater audience, for example, read as tattoos on film. Cinematic makeup, then, was not born from vanity—it was a necessary antidote to the flawed medium of film.
D. Graham Burnett
Sperm whale teeth vary considerably in size and shape, but their characteristic form is a slightly flattened and bow-curved double-tapering cylinder not exceeding thirty centimeters in length—which is to say, they tend to look something like a fat banana. It’s not quite that simple, though, since many of the larger specimens display a thickening at the gum-embedded end that gives them more the appearance of a spade or wedge, and a conical indentation (a pocket known as the “pulp cavity”) is often seen at the base of the root. There are also almost always a few runty little hook teeth in the mouth of these whales (presumably to aid in grappling slippery squid, the primary prey of the world’s largest predator).
Between forty and fifty of these sundry choppers are configured, well spaced, in two rows along the narrow lower jaw of a mature Physeter macrocephalus (in a full-grown animal that jaw may push fifteen feet in length). When the maw is closed, each tooth has its own pearly little sheath-pocket in the upper tissue of the mouth. This peculiar anatomical adaptation gives the palate of a gaping sperm whale the appearance of a giant pink cribbage board. The ivory pegs stand at attention in ranks below.