No. 54 | The Accident
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How long does a building stand before it falls?
How long does a contract last? How long will brothers share the inheritance before they quarrel?
How long does hatred, for that matter, last?
Time after time the river has risen and flooded.
The insect leaves the cocoon to live but a minute.
How long is the eye able to look at the sun?
From the very beginning nothing at all has lasted.
Galileo taught mathematics at the University of Pisa from 1589 to 1592, and sometime during this period he mounted a dramatic public demonstration of one of his more unorthodox notions. Clutching two lead spheres of different sizes and masses, he climbed the stairs of the campanile, the bell tower in the Piazza del Duomo, behind the cathedral. The young professor then proceeded—before an assembly of expectant onlookers, many of them faculty and students from the university—to drop the test objects simultaneously from the upper balcony. The plummeting orbs reached the ground together; with no temporal interval between their terrestrial impacts, a single resounding thump announced their coincident landing. Aristotelian physics, for ages the dominant paradigm, held that the velocities of free-falling bodies moving through the same medium vary in direct proportion to their weights. Galileo’s so-called Leaning Tower of Pisa Experiment conclusively disproved Aristotle’s doctrine of natural downward motion: heavier objects do not fall to earth faster than lighter objects, after all. In a veritable instant, the old certainties, all those dusty apriorisms of ancient and medieval inheritance, were upended. Science and knowledge had at last entered the modern era.
Two hours east of Los Angeles, three hours west of Las Vegas, and many miles from the nearest traffic light or roadside diner lies a single boulder in the Mojave Desert claimed to be the largest rock in the world—at least until 2000, when a large chunk broke off, neatly and without provocation. Now split in two, it is still called Giant Rock. Graffiti blackens the lower surface and ATVs roar nearby. There is an occasional tourist.
For two eccentric Californians, Frank Critzer and George Van Tassel, the immense girth of Giant Rock was not simple geological happenstance but a sign portending mystical significance. In the hands of these two men, Giant Rock became the locus of a strange episode in the twentieth-century history of the American West. Like all Western heroes, Critzer and Van Tassel felt themselves poised between worlds, and at the threshold of civilization. Both felt vitalized and validated by the rock, and both saw it as a natural hub, laboring for decades to make it a gathering place. Absolutely inert and yet fecund, Giant Rock was less a rock than a destiny.
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
One afternoon in May of 1853, the painter Eugène Delacroix went for a walk in the forest with two old friends. As they walked, the three men returned to topics they had discussed before: questions of spontaneity, how finished pictures are “always somewhat spoiled” compared to sketches. Together they admired a famous oak tree. They talked about Racine. Then they went back to Delacroix’s house for dinner. After the meal, Delacroix later recalled, “I made them try the experiment which I had done myself, without planning it, two days before.” The experiment was simple. First, he passed around a set of unusual pictures, photographic calotypes that Eugène Durieu, a pioneer in the new medium of photography, had taken at his request.1 In these small amber images, a naked man and woman appeared—sometimes alone, sometimes together; sitting, standing, or kneeling; often staring warily back at the lens. The naked couple are memorable to posterity, because they were among the first humans to be photographed without clothes. If they weren’t the Adam and Eve of photographic nakedness, they were among the earliest citizens of that now fairly populous realm. But they didn’t beguile or even impress the great painter and his companions. “Poorly built, and oddly shaped in places,” as Delacroix drily put it, the two models were “not very attractive generally.” After his friends had spent some time examining the calotypes, Delacroix asked them to look at a second set of pictures, ones that should have been much more appealing. These were engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi, the celebrated Renaissance printmaker whose compositions were based on designs by, among others, Raphael and Michelangelo. Delacroix’s experiment was in effect a beauty contest. When it came to depicting the body, how would the new “machine-art” fare against human skill? How would photographic nakedness compare to idealized nudity? The result was decisive and unsettling. Looking at the older nudes, Delacroix’s little group saw them with new eyes.
In an article in the Spectator in July 1711, the eponymous character Mr. Spectator—as written by Joseph Addison, one of the magazine’s founders—described his exercise routine. When in town, and therefore not able to go out riding, “I exercise myself an Hour every Morning upon a dumb Bell that is placed in a Corner of my Room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require of it in the most profound Silence.”1 We know dumbbells now as handy at-home pieces of gym equipment—free weights that have been around, in some form, at least since ancient Greek athletes used halteres to increase the length of their long jumps. But the dumbbell that Mr. Spectator refers to, and from which the heavy gym weights borrow their name, is something different. An illustration of a similar piece of equipment, published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1746, shows a wooden contraption in which two crossed bars with weights on the ends are mounted on an axle, around which is wound a length of rope. This mechanism would be elevated within a room, or placed in a garret, with the rope hanging down for a person standing below to pull. It mimics the apparatus used for ringing church bells, with the bell itself replaced by two weighted bars—it’s these that resemble the dumbbells of today.
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.