Reviews

Sunday, July 01, 2001


Left: In 19th-century France, workers crushed chestnuts with iron-spiked wood and leather clogs. Right: Steel sabbatons completed the dress-up armor of 15th-century German nobles.
Photographs courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum
You'll find footwear of the famous at Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum, including one of John Lennon's Beatle boots, a pair of Elvis Presley's blue patent loafers, and a pair of Marilyn Monroe's red leather heels. You'll also find a remarkably diverse array of clogs, boots, sneakers, slippers, and sandals worn by people from many different walks of life, including hunters and shepherds, divers and skaters, aristocrats and Apollo astronauts. In the Bata galleries (www.batashoemuseum.ca), footwear is celebrated as a marvel of both engineering and anthropology. "Shoes are such a personal artifact," says Sonja Bata, wife of Czech-born shoe manufacturing magnate Thomas Bata, who founded the museum in 1979. "They tell you about the owner's social status, habits, culture, and religion. That's what makes them special."

The stripes and red coloring on these felt and leather boots from 19th-century Tibet indicate they were worn by a high-ranking official.
Photograph courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum
The primary purpose of footwear, of course, is to provide protection against the elements. Ice-age cave paintings in the Pyrenees show early humans wrapping their feet in skins, presumably to ward off frostbite. But over the years shoes have also been put to more specialized uses. During the 19th century, French workers donned boots equipped with clusters of 3-inch-long ridged iron spikes to crush chestnuts; the sharp points released tannic acid from the nuts, which was then used to tan animal hides. Farmers, meanwhile, used shoes furnished with metal and leather leg braces, which fastened the wearer to tree trunks and freed the hands for pruning branches. During World WarII, Dutch smugglers put on clogs that had a heel marking carved into the forepart of the sole; the footprints suggested the wearer was moving in the opposite direction. Similarly, some boots worn by American soldiers in Vietnam were designed for deception; the soles left the imprint of native sandals going the other way.

In 19th-century Syria, wealthy women donned high-stilt sandals at public baths.
Photograph courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum
Through much of history, shoes have served as potent social and political emblems. In China, well-born young girls had their feet painfully bound so as to fit into tiny, delicately embroidered shoes, some no longer than 3 inches. An edict issued in 1363 by England's Edward III forbade commoners from wearing shoes that had elongated toes, and nobles were restricted to toes that stretched no more than 24 inches. High heels became popular among England's upper classes in the 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, who presumably thought that an extra few inches in height would give her small frame a more regal standing. The style gave rise to the term well-heeled. Another word that derives from shoes: sabotage. During the French Revolution, angry peasants ruined the mills owned by the ruling classes by throwing their wooden shoes, called sabots, into the machinery.

The Bata Museum also chronicles the techniques used to manufacture shoes. Until the industrial revolution, shoes were handmade by skilled cobblers; only with the invention of modern machinery such as the sewing machine could shoes be mass-produced. The rise of mass production led to permanent adoption of shoes shaped specifically for right and left feet; before then shoes could often be worn on either foot.

For a recent exhibit at the museum, designers envisioned footwear of the future. Among the tantalizing ideas: a shoe with a computer mouse embedded in the sole that would allow the wearer to navigate not the Earth but the Internet.


 


Movies

Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure
Directed by George Butler. Produced by White Mountain Films and NOVA/WGBH

Lost Worlds: Life in the Balance
Directed by Bayley Silleck. Produced by Primesco.

Trying to bend nature to human desires can be an awesome task, as two new IMAX films lavishly illustrate. Nature rarely gives in without a fight.

In 1914, British adventurer Sir Ernest Shackleton aimed to cross Antarctica on foot, but frozen seas trapped his ship, Endurance, before he and his 27-man crew even had a chance to alight on land. When shifting ice slowly began to crush the vessel, the men had to improvise ever more resourceful ways to stay alive. Eventually they abandoned ship in lifeboats, only to wind up marooned on barren Elephant Island. To get aid, Shackleton and two companions rigged a sail to one of the lifeboats and made a desperate voyage through tumultuous seas to a whaling station 800 miles away. Seventeen months after the journey began, Shackleton returned with help and rescued every member of his crew. Mixing archival photos and footage taken by Endurance's cameraman with believable reenactments of the doomed expedition and swooping pans over the forbidding sea ice, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure manages to be both gorgeous and gripping.

Lost Worlds tells a less harrowing but equally sobering tale. The movie's choppy narrative begins and ends in Tikal, once the center of the Maya empire and now a mammoth ruin in Guatemala. The city was home to an estimated 50,000 people but was abandoned by A.D. 1000, probably because its inhabitants overtaxed the resources of the surrounding rain forest. With the help of computer graphics, the filmmakers re-create Tikal in all its glory, revealing gleaming temples surrounded by ecological devastation.

Lost Worlds is most insightful when it draws parallels between Tikal and modern cities such as New York, whose 8 million residents place huge demands on natural resources. In one jaw-dropping sequence, the camera races into a Manhattan kitchen faucet, through the plumbing, and all the way up to the Catskill Mountains, where the intermingling of rain, minerals, trees, and cleansing microbes yields a supply of pure drinking water. But what will happen to New York should the water ever run out?
Corey S. Powell

 


Books

The Cooperative Gene:
How Mendel's Demon Explains the Evolution of Complex Beings

Mark Ridley
The Free Press, $26.

If, as scientists presume, all processes follow the easiest path, then we should expect evolution to have favored simple, single-celled organisms like bacteria. So how is it that complex, multicellular creatures like swans, elephants, and biologists evolved to roam Earth? Ridley, an Oxford University zoologist, has an answer for this basic riddle: Mendel's demon. Simply put, evolution finally overcame biology's mistakes.

Unicellular life appeared about 3.5 billion years ago on Earth, "almost instantaneously, as soon as it was possible," Ridley says. Some 3 billion years later, multicellular life, such as worms and anemones, emerged. Ridley attributes the huge lag to errors in genetic copying. In order to reproduce successfully, an organism has to minimize the number of mistakes it makes while copying its genes and passing them on to offspring. Too many blunders in copying these bits of genetic code and further reproduction, as well as evolution, halts in its tracks. The evolution of sexual reproduction was key to overcoming such errors, says Ridley. By concentrating copying errors in some offspring and leaving others more or less error-free, sex was highly successful at purging errors. At the same time, however, sexual reproduction created a new problem by introducing so-called selfish genes that try to increase their chances of being passed down by crippling other genes.

Ridley theorizes that complex life was given an opportunity to evolve by the development of biological mechanisms that neutralize selfish genes by increasing the randomness by which genes are inherited. Ridley calls these mechanisms Mendel's demon, after Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who first recognized the random nature of inheritance. According to Ridley, Mendel's demon not only prevented selfish genes from simply sabotaging their way into descendants, it also gave them an incentive to cooperate with other genes, and thus assured the evolution of complex life. And there is most likely more to come, he suggests. We still make about 100 gene-copying errors per offspring, but gene therapy and other new techniques hold out the possibility of cutting mistakes back strongly. Biotechnology, says Ridley, may prove every bit as powerful an evolutionary goad as Mendel's demon.
Eric Powell

The Invention of Clouds:
How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies

Richard Hamblyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24.

Eighteenth-century scientists had a zeal for orderly classification of every aspect of the natural world. Animals, plants, minerals— all fell into place without too much trouble. But one of the most wondrous elements of nature defied simple systematization: clouds. "They drift, not into continuity, but into other, temporary states of being, all of which eventually decompose, to melt into the surrounding air," writes Hamblyn.

Natural philosophers tried to categorize the airy creations, believing that "if the clouds could be rationally and convincingly explained . . . then so could anything else in nature, for they represented the most extreme manifestation of the ungraspable." Robert Hooke produced a cloud vocabulary that featured such adjectives as hairy and wav'd, and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck created categories such as pommelés (dappled clouds) and en balayeurs (broomlike clouds). But the names failed to stick.

Then, one evening in December 1802, Luke Howard, a reticent 30-year-old London chemist, delivered a lecture entitled "On the Modifications of Clouds." He argued that there are only three fundamental types of clouds and named them with descriptive Latin words: cirrus (meaning fiber or hair), cumulus (heap or pile), and stratus (layer or sheet). Howard theorized that water droplets condense into one of the primary forms depending on prevailing humidity, temperature, and air pressure, and that, as conditions change, so do the shapes of clouds.

The publication of Howard's paper established the new nomenclature in the scientific world and made Howard a revered figure among poets and artists who saw in the new taxonomy a transfiguration of humans' relationship to aerial nature. The German writer and scientist Johann von Goethe was even inspired to write a rhapsodic poem on clouds titled "In Honour of Howard." Among its lines: "As clouds ascend, are folded, scatter, fall,/Let the world think of thee who taught it all."
Tim Stoddard

 


Toys

This is an extended version, exclusive to the Discover Web site, of the article that appears in Discover Magazine.

The Terminator skull can spy on you and deliver messages in an eerie robotic voice.
Photograph courtesy of UIT
I'll Be Watching You

Harness smart-toy technology to the power of the Internet and what do you get? A desktop effigy that can respond to commands issued by a puppet master in cyberspace. United Internet Technologies' new metallic skeletal head, which is modeled on the robot in the Terminator movies, connects to a computer via a serial port. By logging onto the company's Web site (www.uitlive.com) or any chat room equipped with their Intelligent Control Interactive Technology (I-C-IT) software, anyone playing with a "T2 endoskeleton" can cede operational control to an online pal.

Glowing red eyes in the toy skull house cameras that send a Web-cast image of the surroundings to the remote puppet master. Using a computer mouse or joystick, the far-off controller can prompt the skull to stare at someone and track his movements around a room. The puppet master can also type messages on a keyboard that are filtered through state-of-the-art text-conversion software and delivered by the Terminator skull in an eerie clipped voice. Any Net-accessible device can control it, so the head can suddenly blurt out a message sent by a mobile phone or handheld computer. Due in October, the skull will cost $50 to $100, depending on its size and the quality of the cameras in its eyes.

Joining the endoskeleton are plush cartoon characters (about $20), that don't have cameras but have the advantage of being full-bodied so they can sit on top of your monitor, so they can connect to the computer optically. The software installed in the computer creates a dot of light on the screen that can be moved to any location. A sensor in the toy is positioned directly over the dot. Data for speech and movement are converted to flashes of light, which are fed to the toy from the dot. "For example, if the mouth has four or five positions, it gives a relative number from where the mouth was to where it should be now," says Andy Rifkin, Chief Technology officer of United Internet Technologies in Los Angeles. "We can have four dots up at the same time, each one conveying different information to a different character."

The toys will come with some simple games, but Rifkin says they will come out with complex adventures in about a year, where these desktop backseat drivers can be advisors or adversaries -- telling the human players where to go, or making fun of their scores. They may also soon interact with TV shows, videos, educational CD-ROMS, or even help with French pronunciation. "We're working with a robotic kit company so that this will bring their kits to life," says Rifkin. "It enables any product to communicate and it works in any networked environment."
Fenella Saunders


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The Bata Shoe Museum is located at 327 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5S 1W7. Phone: 416-979-7799; also see its Web site: www.batashoemuseum.ca.

For more about the film Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, including a list of theaters at which it will play, go to main.wgbh.org/imax/shackleton/sirernest.html.

For information about the technology behind the Terminator head, go to www.icit.com.

UIT has in the works other characters that will use optical technology to get commands from a computer. For more, see www2.uitlive.com/ investor/pr/wbwb041701.html.
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