No. 51 | Wheels
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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.
Leland de la Durantaye
Death and fashion are sisters, though not everyone knows this. They have known periods of estrangement, but these have been without cause, for they share not only a mother but a calling. It is with these family matters that Giacomo Leopardi begins his “Dialogue Between Fashion and Death,” written in 1824, when Leopardi was twenty-six years old, and published in a book he titled Operette morali (which is normally rendered in English as Essays and Dialogues, but whose title means “diminutive moral works”). The book does not offer a bright view of existence. Its last lines (spoiler alert) are: “If I were offered, on the one hand, the fortune and fame of Caesar or of Alexander, pure of all stains, and, on the other, to die today, and if I were to make a choice, I would say, to die today, and I would not need time to think it over.”
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.
In the 1990s, Los Angeles held the dubious title of “bank robbery capital of the world.” At its height, the city’s bank crime rate hit the incredible frequency of one bank robbed every forty-five minutes of every working day. As FBI Special Agent Brenda Cotton—formerly based in Los Angeles but now stationed in New York City—joked at an event hosted by Columbia University’s school of architecture in April 2012, the agency even developed its own typology of banks in the region, most notably the “stop and rob”: a bank, located at the bottom of both an exit ramp and an on-ramp of one of Southern California’s many freeways, that could be robbed as quickly and as casually as you might pull off the highway for gas.