Reviews

Saturday, May 29, 2004

EXHIBITS

A Dead Whale Tells a Living Tale

Visitors watch as a charming old New England museum restores a legendary leviathan to glory

By Sy Montgomery

From the Deep: The Sperm Whale, Bone by Bone

New Bedford Whaling Museum

18 Johnny Cake Hill

New Bedford, MA

(508) 997-0046

www.whalingmuseum.com

Courtesy of Dr. Michael Moore/WHOI and the Cape Cod Stranding Network

Beached on Nantucket in 2002, this gigantic blunt-snouted, conical-toothed sperm whale was later stripped of its flesh and blubber. Its skeleton now begins an unexpected afterlife in a Massachusetts museum.

Shortly after you enter the New Bedford Whaling Museum, you may be anointed by the substance that made this Massachusetts city one of America’s wealthiest in the 1800s: whale oil. It still sometimes drips from the skeleton of a 66-foot blue whale that hangs from the ceiling of the Jacobs Family Gallery. A century after the American whaling industry went into a dramatic decline, a whale’s death has once again proved a boon to New Bedford. The museum cleaned and mounted the bones of this youngster—hit by a tanker off Newfoundland Bay in 1998—and built a new gallery around them.

Suspended in a perpetual dive, the blue whale skeleton’s imposing yet unchanging presence stands in contrast to the hubbub of activity set off by the museum’s latest acquisition: a 48-foot sperm whale beached off Great Point, Nantucket, on June 7, 2002. The 126 bones of the latter-day leviathan, some laid out on tables, others in drawers, form the centerpiece of an exhibition entitled From the Deep: The Sperm Whale, Bone by Bone. Designed to show the public the meticulous process of slotting the whale’s bones together, the cetacean work in progress is also a much sought after prize for the museum. “This was our signature species,” says executive director Anne Brengle. “The sperm whale made New Bedford the whaling capital of the world.” Sperm-whale oil was so fine it could be used in delicate machinery, and the waxy spermaceti in the head (thought, wrongly, to be the whale’s semen) made candles that burned bright.

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Student Emilie Calvin of Rhode Island’s Roger Williams University places one of the sperm whales’ 7-foot-long, 15-pound ribs in the sun to dry.

Such whale products are on display in abundance at the museum, which was founded in 1907 as a monument to the whaling industry. The extensive collection includes an 89-foot half-scale model of a three-mast whaling bark and an eclectic assortment of scrimshaw, figureheads, paintings, books, and whaling implements. These artifacts tell the story of a violent and opulent era when krill-filtering baleen from the mouths of whales was used to make carriage springs and corset stays, when oil from their blubber ran machines, and when nearly half the world’s whaling fleet and catch passed through New Bedford. From the Deep now inaugurates a new era for the museum devoted to the whale’s perspective: its evolution, biology, and conservation.

Putting the sperm whale’s bones together are self-described whale gypsies Andrew Konnerth, a biologist, and his artist-jeweler wife of 57 years, Jean, who travel the world reassembling whale skeletons. Wearing blue plastic aprons and rubber gloves, wielding paintbrushes and putty knives, the lively couple is also part of the museum’s display. Separated by rope from the scientists and their student helpers, the public can watch the skeleton take shape like a giant jigsaw puzzle. The scientific team will also cheerfully answer visitors’ questions. (“What color is whale pee?” asks one little boy. “The same color as ours, probably,” replies Konnerth.)

But the bones, too, speak directly to visitors, echoing the life of the animal to which they once belonged. The skull, which weighs 1,060 pounds and stretches 14 feet—nearly one-third of the length of the body—resembles a delicate chariot. Bone is absent from the upper front portion of the head, which was once occupied by a bathtub-shaped organ filled with waxy spermaceti. Researchers still debate the function, but spermaceti may help protect the whale’s brain during its extremely deep dives. The spermaceti organ is also thought to act as an acoustical lens to focus infrasonic sound waves into a beam that bounces off objects, enabling the whale to “see” them in the dark. This focused energy may even be used to stun prey in the inky depths.

Each bone is surprisingly light and delicate for its size. Floating in the salty ocean, whales do not need a heavy skeletal structure to support their weight. The fragility of their bones, though, poses special problems for the Konnerths. The skull, for instance, can’t be set upside down or it would be crushed by its own weight. But at least the bones are clean and white and, unlike those of the blue whale skeleton, grease free. That’s due to a novel method of cleaning. Instead of submerging the 45-ton carcass in the ocean, where tidal movements and sea creatures could clean the bones—as was done with the blue whale—the museum’s restoration team buried the sperm whale for three months in a 60-ton layer cake of hay mixed with bacteria-rich horse and elephant manure, procured from local farmers and an obliging zoo. The bacteria ate the flesh and oil, and the heat generated in the rotting hay and dung cooked them off. Exhumed in November 2002, the bones spent the winter in a trailer and were then bleached in the summer sun before entering the museum in November 2003.

From the Deep will, of course, cease to be a work in progress once the skeleton is reassembled by the summer of 2005. Gone will be the disarticulated bones, the students and scientists, the tables, drills, and hand tools. Instead the skeleton, mounted by wire from both floor and ceiling, will float at eye level for visitors, attesting in a new, permanent exhibit to the evolving relationship—happily, a more respectful one—between humans and whales.

SCIENCE BEST SELLERS

1. THE FABRIC OF THE COSMOS: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality

By Brian Greene, Alfred A. Knopf

2. THE ANATOMY OF HOPE: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness

Jerome Groopman, Random House

3. THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Epic Story of the 1918 Pandemic

By John M. Barry, Viking Press

4. THE BIG YEAR: A Tale of Man, Nature, and a Fowl Obsession

By Mark Obmascik, Free Press

5. LAB 257: The Disturbing Story of the Government’s Secret Plum Island Germ Laboratory

By Michael Christopher Carroll, William Morrow

6. MIND WIDE OPEN: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

By Steven Johnson, Scribner

7. THE SCIENCE OF GOOD AND EVIL: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

By Michael Shermer, Times Books

8. INTERNAL BLEEDING: The Truth Behind America’s Terrifying Epidemic of Medical Mistakes

By Robert Wachter and Kaveh Shojania, Rugged Land

9. GORGON: Paleontology, Obsession, and the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth’s History

By Peter Ward, Viking

10. OUT OF GAS: The End of the Age of Oil

By David Goodstein, W. W. Norton

BOOKS

A Man After His Own Heart

By Charles Siebert

Crown, $23.95

A Man After His Own Heart: A True Story
A Man After His Own Heart: A True Story

Late one winter night in 1998, Charles Siebert, a Brooklyn poet and essayist, witnessed an event that few people outside the medical profession  ever see: a heart harvest. He accompanied a team of surgeons as they removed a still-beating heart from a donor (the victim of a brain aneurysm) and transplanted it into the chest, and life, of a waiting recipient. Siebert’s voyage that evening took him to the edge of cardiac medicine—and, as he recounts in his luminous book, A Man After His Own Heart, to the core of himself.

Siebert’s story is at once a medical drama and a memoir, a biography of the heart and of his own obsession with it. His physical descriptions—including the moment when, unexpectedly, an attending surgeon places Siebert’s hand directly on the transplanted heart—are delicate and arresting. Meanwhile, suffusing the medical narrative is another, more intimate one. At the outset Siebert admits to being what physicians call a heart hypochondriac. His father’s death, from a congenital form of heart failure, has become a driving preoccupation. Mistaking his heart anxieties for heart attacks, Siebert visits the emergency room repeatedly. At night, sleepless, he presses his ear to the pillow and listens fearfully for the sound of his heart’s “faint, brief snare-beats, like boot steps through wet snow.” He interviews cardiac researchers at the National Institutes of Health to explore whether he, too, carries the gene for his father’s disease; he meets a family who has the gene, all of whom live with the knowledge of their eventual undoing. He meets the “pole pushers”—cardiac patients desperately awaiting donated hearts to replace their own. And he follows the harvesters, and so comes to meet the heart firsthand.

With urgency and grace, Siebert transforms the journey into a Conradian exploration of inner space. His goal is nothing less than “the rehumanization of the heart,” a recognition that the heart is no mere pump, as some physicians still insist, but a sophisticated participant in the regulation of emotion. The heart has a mind of its own: It secretes its own brainlike hormones and actively partakes in a dialogue among the internal organs—a dialogue on which cardiac researchers are only beginning to eavesdrop. The heart likewise undergoes all manner of organic change inflicted on it by the tempestuous brain and its neurochemicals. As one doctor explains, people do suffer heartbreak, literally.

Consider the fate of William Schroeder, the second—and longest-surviving—recipient, in 1984, of the Jarvik-7 artificial heart. As a pump, the Jarvik-7 was a resounding success, keeping Schroeder alive for an unprecedented 620 days. The patient’s mental state was another matter. Schroeder was weepy and deeply despondent. (Barney Clark, the first Jarvik-7 recipient, expressed a wish to die or be killed.) The blood still circulated, but something vital—some emotionally charged communication between heart and mind—had been lost. What is it like, Siebert asks, to watch your favorite sports team rally yet not feel your pulse quicken? To see a loved one yet not feel your heart leap? “When someone’s heart is no longer working in concert with those feelings, does he feel that and cry more?” Affirming all myths, the heart truly is a seat of human emotion. The Jarvik-7, in contrast, was deaf to the song of human experience; built to invigorate its patient, it instead alienated him, supplying Schroeder with everything but the will to live. He had the look, Siebert writes, “of a man who has lost his heart.”

A Man After His Own Heart is an unusual mix of genres, and Siebert is the rare writer able to pull it off. (His first book, Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral, was a witty take on Thoreau and the back-to-nature instinct.) He deftly bridges the gap between intellect and emotion—in the process demonstrating what it means to be, in every sense, the author of one’s heart.         

 —Alan Burdick

BOOKS

Party Crasher

It lives in a sewer, it has a long tail, and it wants a share of your supper

By Mary Roach

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants

By Robert Sullivan

Bloomsbury, $23.95

Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants

In what must surely count as the nadir of a strange odyssey, Robert Sullivan finds himself sitting in a cold, dank alley in the middle of the night, observing his newly purchased (and forlornly empty) rat trap, fighting “a savage urge to try one of the Vienna sausages” he has used for bait. It’s a moment that forms the nexus of this drolly entertaining book: Where rats go, so do we. They eat what we eat. They came as immigrants to a newfound land, pushed out the creatures that preceded them, and now multiply at a frightening rate. In short, rats “R” us.

Why investigate these ubiquitous rodents? As Sullivan tells it, he is simply continuing the fine old tradition of Henry David Thoreau, who went to live in the woods in order to contemplate his own place in the world. This author’s idea of an idyll is not Walden Pond but the “swamps and dumps and dumps that were and still are swamps and dark city basements that are close to the great hidden waters of the earth, waters that often smell or stink.” Dumps like Edens Alley in downtown Manhattan, where rats dine on the detritus of an adjacent Irish restaurant and where Sullivan spent a year equipped with a camp stool and a night-vision monocular, observing their scrabbling and scurrying.

One gets the sense that Sullivan has read every rat study ever published and met every rat researcher who ever stalked the animals. The cast of characters in his book includes William Jackson, who first established—by analyzing alley-cat feces for traces of rat—that cats are near useless as rat controllers. Jackson also studied a population of underground rats on the Marshall Islands and found that radiation from atomic bomb tests barely fazed them. We learn that rats can gnaw through aluminum, copper, and iron but have a marked preference for macaroni and cheese; moreover, given a choice of garbage, they would sooner pick the scrambled eggs over raw celery or cooked cauliflower. We also discover that anyone living in a major American metropolis is probably not far away from a rat having sex. In sum, our bond with this rodent is stronger than we care to acknowledge. We are both survivors. We have our boom times and our hard times. And we love cheesy Italian dishes.

FILM

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Focus Features

www.focusfeatures.com/home.php

Memory loss has been a stock movie plot device since the release of 1940s melodramas like Random Harvest, but lately it seems to be everywhere: in mysteries (Memento), in thrillers (Paycheck), and even in comedies (50 First Dates). The ingenious film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind gives the old concept a new twist, envisioning a world in which science has found a way to let people erase painful memories. Clementine Kruczynski (played by Kate Winslet) and Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) are a couple whose lives are transformed when they realize they have the option of deleting their troubled time together. With the aid of a dubious clinic named Lacuna Inc. and a colander-like contraption wired to the head, they wipe out the traces of their tumultuous relationship.

Courtesy of Focus Features

In bed, on the beach, in the snow: Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey revisit a fading memory of their early romance.

Eternal Sunshine’s premise sounds like ripe science fiction, but the underlying issues are actually well grounded in current research. The immediate point of reference is Prozac and related drugs that alleviate depression and restore the true self—or destroy it, depending on your perspective. Even memory erasure is not so improbable as many viewers may think. A number of brain researchers are already working on methods to blunt or eliminate certain types of recollections. Larry Cahill of the University of California at Irvine, for instance, has found that drugs called beta-blockers can prevent subjects from forming the heightened memories associated with traumatic events. Such experiments have prompted the President’s Council on Bioethics to warn: “Until recently, the prospect of altering our remembrance of things past—and doing so with precision, getting the better memories we desire without compromising memory as a whole—was mere fantasy. But in the near future that may not be so.”

For those who have not bothered to read the council’s report—that would be most of the country, presumably—Eternal Sunshine offers an entertaining yet intellectually stimulating preview of these possibilities. Kate Winslet’s emotionally naked performance, in particular, illustrates the frightening potential of mind manipulation. Director Michel Gondry and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman treat the proceedings with a realism that encourages the audience to empathize with the characters’ core medical and philosophical quandary: Is taking control of memory an affront to our humanity or the ultimate expression of free will?

Corey S. Powell

GIZMOS

Enigma-E Electronic Enigma Machine

Available at www.xat.nl/enigma-e for 130 euros or for £119.99 via the Web site of Bletchley Park, U.K.

(www.bletchleypark.org.uk)

The most remarkable aspect of the Enigma—the code used by the German military to encrypt radio messages during World War II—was that it was both difficult to break and easy to use, even by someone with no knowledge of cryptography. Use of the code was facilitated by cleverly designed Enigma machines equipped with replaceable rotating wheels. To encode a message, an operator would type words in German into a 26-letter keyboard. Each press of a key sent an electrical signal through an ever-changing maze of wires and wheels that at its end lit up a bulb indicating a different encrypted letter. To alter the code—which at the height of the war was done every day—encoders and the decoders to whom the messages were sent reconfigured the wheels according to a predetermined schedule. To decipher the message, the recipient would simply type it back into his own machine.

Enigma machines are today very expensive and exceptionally rare. One of the few places where they are on display is Bletchley Park, the British site where mathematician Alan Turing inspired the creation of an electromechanical “Bombe” to crack the code—a feat that probably

Press a key on the Enigma-E and a yellow bulb shows the coded letter.

shortened the war by two years. After seeing a vintage Enigma machine in action there, Dutch electronic engineers Marc Simons and Paul Reuvers decided to design a replica. The result is the Enigma-E, a digital, electronic version of the  device that can be purchased and

assembled at home with the aid of a soldering iron. The Enigma-E retains the original’s keyboard and lightbulb display, but the wheels are simulated on computer chips.

What to do with the Enigma-E? Well, try deciphering the code for such messages as “Führung und Truppe müssen von dieser Ehrenpflicht durchdrungen sein” (“Commanders and troops must be imbued with the honor of this duty”), which can be found in the accompanying manual. Or create your own codebooks so that you and a friend can use your Enigma machines to keep messages private. Be warned, though: A virtual Turing Bombe is available online at www.codesandciphers.org.uk/anoraks/index.htm— so your secrets, like those of the German army, may not remain safe for long.             

 —William Jacobs

WE ALSO LIKE . . .

The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus

Owen Gingerich

Walker & Company, $25

The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus
The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus

In The Sleepwalkers, published in 1959, Arthur Koestler claimed that none of Nicolaus Copernicus’s contemporaries had actually read his 1543 masterpiece De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which posited that Earth and the planets orbit the sun. Astronomer Owen Gingerich spent 30 years on a near-obsessive quest to track down copies of De Revolutionibus that were once owned by Galileo, Kepler, and others and proves Koestler wrong. For example, in the margins of one copy, the 16th-century astronomer Thomas Digges wrote “the common opinion errs,” thus enrolling him among readers who accepted the heliocentric doctrine.

Maia Weinstock

 

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