Reviews

Monday, January 01, 2001


Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the great 18th-century seducer Casanova also had a trick or two up his elegant sleeve when it came to contraception. One of his favorite methods required a half lemon, scooped of its pulp: The rind served as a cervical cap and the acidic juice as a potent spermicide.

The legendary lothario's obsession with prophylactics is not unique, judging from the assembled evidence at the History of Contraception Museum. Indeed, as long as humans have been enjoying sexual pleasure, they've been seeking ways to avoid its natural consequences. "What you realize is that every strategy has been tried before," says Percy Skuy, the founder of the museum and a past president of the pharmaceutical company Janssen-Ortho, which houses the collection at its Toronto headquarters. Surveying the more than 600 items on display, one must agree: The Pill may have hastened the sexual revolution, but oral contraceptives, sponges, cervical caps, and condoms were playing a role in sexual freedom hundreds of years earlier. The sheer ingenuity of some of the methods and devices, odd as they may seem, is staggering. "You cannot help but have tremendous respect for the creativity people have demonstrated," says Skuy.

Even more striking is the intuitive grasp of conception fundamentals that many of the earliest methods convey. Thousands of years before scientists identified spermatozoa under the microscope, women were relying on techniques that inhibited the passage of seminal fluids. Women along the Mediterranean inserted sea sponges rinsed in acidic lemon juice or vinegar before intercourse. In India and Egypt, they used vaginal suppositories of highly acidic crocodile or elephant dung. Egyptian women also ground acacia leaves with honey to make prophylactic pessaries; the plant ferments into lactic acid, a spermicide that is employed in some of today's contraceptive jellies.

There were plenty of misguided practices as well. Women in ancient India tried to ward off pregnancy with vaginal fumigation— a special kettle produced the supposedly protective steam. Chinese women, meanwhile, drank poisonous concoctions of lead and mercury. During the Middle Ages, when superstition replaced science, European women sported amulets fashioned from a weasel's testicles, mule earwax, or a bone taken from the right side of a black cat. If the latter charm failed to work its magic, "it was because the cat wasn't black enough," says Skuy.

Bloopers are not confined to the distant past, of course. Until recently, generations of women had depended on douching, which doctors now believe actually gives sperm a push upstream. Some women continue the practice, however, using water, soap, even cola. By any measure, though, the contraceptives of the modern era— the Pill, IUD, under-the-skin implant, and condoms— are far more reliable than the methods that came before. Even Casanova's lemon.

 


Art

SKYSCAPES Artists have been fascinated by the sky no less than scientists, especially the sky of the American West. This meteorological showcase stretches uninterrupted over flat lands for miles, a giant canvas for nature's limitless elaborations of light and color. Capturing those ephemeral images has been a challenge to generations of artists. Two with original approaches are photographer Richard Misrach and ceramic artist Don Jones.

The images in Misrach's The Sky Book (Arena Editions, $65) are at once objective recordings (he gives the date, time, and place where each was taken) and subjective expressions. The cloud covers, celestial bodies, and especially the pure colors that transform the vault over Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah have an abstract purity that evokes wonder and inspires meditation.

Jones's work with clay is equally evocative. To create what he calls "atmospheres," the Albuquerque artist throws on a potter's wheel spheres, ovoids, cones, and tori, then decorates them with his visions of the colors and clouds of New Mexico's day and night skies, and fires the vessels in a kiln (see www.highfiber.com/~claysky). The result: shimmery, sculptural skyscapes that you can hold in your hands.

 


Books

The Hole In the Universe: How Scientists Peered Over the Edge of Emptiness and Found Everything
K.C. Cole
Harcourt Inc., $24.

Jerry Seinfeld Used to joke that his television series was about "nothing," but viewers knew that the show really was about everything. So, too, in science, the study of nothing lies at the heart of disciplines ranging from mathematics and physics to chemistry and biology. "Nothing is the all-important background upon which everything else happens," says veteran science journalist K.C. Cole. "Without it, the universe is theater without a stage." Yet nothing remains an ungraspable concept, the central hole in our understanding of the cosmos.

At once no thing and some thing, nothing is the ultimate paradox. Consider the mathematical naught, or zero, which apparently developed independently in diverse ancient cultures, including Babylonia, India, the Arab world, and the Maya empire. Initially used simply as a marker for an empty place, or as Cole puts it, "a container for a little bit of nothing," zero soon was also employed to signify nothing's exact opposite. Just string a series of goose eggs behind a numeral, and the sums could suggest infinity. Cole quotes an old saying: "In arithmetic as in politics, the importance of one is determined by the number of zeros behind him."

Physicists especially are consumed by the "properties of things that can't be seen, don't matter, don't exist, or are generally AWOL," says Cole. Among physicists' favorite things: gravity, time, black holes, neutrinos, and magnetic monopoles. By plunging into the void, scientists are formulating new concepts, from string theory to supersymmetry, that define the nature of the universe and explain its origins. In the beginning there was the void, Cole notes, and "when nothing changed, the universe was born."

What's absent or lacking is as significant as what's present in our understanding of just about anything, including how our brains perceive the world and people around us. What we don't feel or remember, or don't say or hear, can be just as revealing and instructive to psychologists and neuroscientists as the most sophisticated brain scans. Cole offers an eerie example: After an elevated train line was torn down in New York City, people would awake at night and call the police, claiming to have been disturbed by strange noises. "What they were sensing," she says, "was the absence of the rattling of trains that they had become so accustomed to hearing." They were hearing the sound of nothing.
Eric Powell

Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America
Kim Todd
W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95.

Pigeons, honeybees, and brown trout are so familiar in the American landscape that most people think they have always been here. Not so. They are just a few of the more than 4,500 alien species that have been introduced and have flourished in the United States, often with devastating effects. Although some exotics have been carried here by chance, many others have been introduced deliberately. "People brought species here to provide food, keep them company, remind them of home, attract tourists, and spur good hunting," author Kim Todd observes. "Others regarded exotic species . . . as the means to make their fortunes . . . Still others were renegades, fueling their own dreams as they unlatched the cages."

Todd re-creates the all-too-often neglected human dramas— and sometimes farces— that attended the arrival of nearly a score of exotics, including Canadian mountain goats in Washington State, Chinese pheasants in Oregon, and the European gypsy moth in Massachusetts. The latter entered the United States in 1868 under the auspices of Leopold Trouvelot, an astronomer obsessed with breeding a silkworm to jump-start a homegrown silk trade. For years, scientists had been trying to find an insect that would spin a finer, stronger thread than that produced by native American species and that would be hardy enough to withstand the harsh winters of New England, where the textile industry was based. Trouvelot thought he had the solution: He would cross a North American species of moth with its European relative. But some of the imported gypsy moth eggs got loose, and soon alien insects were munching every leaf in reach. Today they devour millions of acres of forests each year.

More bizarre is the story of eccentric New York City pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin, the man behind the starling invasion. A lover of Shakespeare, he was also a dedicated member of the American Acclimatization Society, founded in 1871 to assimilate "such foreign varieties of the animal and vegetable kingdom as may be useful or interesting." Marrying his two passions, Schieffelin determined to introduce into the United States every bird featured in Shakespeare's plays. The starling had a brief mention in Henry IV, so that was enough to bring in 80 European starlings and set them free in Central Park.

Todd effectively uses these entertaining tales to make a deeper point: The years of biological tinkering have shaped the look of America, once the new Eden, every bit as much as our grand buildings and constructions. "We chose starlings and gypsy moths and honeybees just as clearly as we chose the Grand Coulee Dam and the Sears Tower," she says.
Paul D. Thacker

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Compiled by Eric Powell


 
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