Book, Exhibit and Television Reviews

From electric washing machines to the future of robotic pets, these books, exhibits and shows are not to be missed.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

BLUE MONDAY: Doing Laundry in America
National Heritage Museum, Lexington, Massachusetts
Through March 4, 2006 www.monh.org

 

Solace from stress can take strange forms. Some people seek tranquility in yoga or bungee jumping; for others, doing laundry induces an incomparable feeling of calm. The swirl of colors as the clothes tumble and spin in the washing machine can exert a hypnotic effect, and the sight of a pile of clean, ironed, and folded garments offers a serene sense that, for a short while and in a small way, one has smoothed away the chaos of the world.

Alas, it was not always this easy. Back in the 18th century, laundry was a two-day affair that involved hauling water from a well, chipping soap into flakes, soaking clothes overnight, pounding them in a tub, boiling and tinting grubby items with a blueing dye, rinsing repeatedly, and then wringing, starching, drying, dampening, and ironing clothes with a heavy iron heated over a hearth. It was hard labor, and it was primarily performed by women.

The invention of washing machines changed all that, and an engrossing exhibition documents how this modest piece of technology transformed American society in a most dramatic way. Blue Monday—the blue refers to the dye that made clothes glimmer white, and Monday was once the preferred day for washing—is an exceptional collection of washing gadgets and widgets: soap chippers, mangles, wringers, irons, stirrers, and plungers, as well as old soap boxes and "magic" detergents. The best items in the exhibit, however, are the washing machines, many of them manually operated by cranks or handles. There are only a few of our familiar automatic electric appliances.

That's because for more than a century after the first patent was issued to a New Hampshire inventor in 1797, the washing machine was a mechanical contraption powered by people, not motors. All such machines had to fulfill two basic requirements: They had to pound, paddle, rub, or squeeze the clothes while agitating the water by rocking, turning, or boiling it. A collection of miniature salesmen's models—carried around in place of brochures, apparently—shows how some of the early machines worked. Users of the 1888 Edwards' Compound Lever Washing Machine pulled a handle back and forth, forcing clothes in a collapsible cage to be squeezed, tugged over ribbed bars, and drenched in jets of water. The square, wood-topped Wonder Washer, patented in 1904, featured a crank that turned a rudderlike agitator, as well as a ledge on which a wringer could be perched.

Over the last 200 years, more than 20,000 patents have been issued for washing machines both fanciful and functional. The Easy Vacuum Electric Washer, produced from about 1910 through the 1930s, used suction, generated by cup-shaped devices moving up and down inside the tub, to agitate and clean "the daintiest lingerie or the heaviest blankets." The Maytag washer proved popular in the 1930s with rural customers, many of whom did not have electricity, because it could be powered by a gasoline engine. Not until 1937 was the first fully automatic machine introduced. The Bendix Home Laundry—a gleaming white capsule with a window at its center that looks out like a dolorous cyclopean eye—was the first machine to wash, rinse, and spin clothes in one cycle. Laundromats quickly adopted it.

Invention did not stop at washing machines. Nineteen-year-old Mary Potts of Ottumwa, Iowa, was a pioneer in ironing innovation: In 1871 she patented a "sad iron," which could be filled with a material that did not conduct heat, such as plaster of Paris. (She claimed it stayed hot longer.) She also invented a detachable wooden handle, which enabled the user to quickly swap a cooled iron for a freshly heated one.

Such entrepreneurial women were probably a rarity, though. Mostly women appear in the exhibit's extensive collection of old advertising posters as toilers or targets of seductive marketing. In one ad dating to the 1950s, a woman kneels beside a dryer, gazing adoringly at her husband, her mouth slightly open, as he smiles somewhat sinisterly down at her. "Mamma's S-o-o-o-o Happy," reads the text. "Dad bought her an ELECTRIC CLOTHES DRYER." The irony, of course, is that such laborsaving devices liberated women from their dubious role as domestic icons. No longer chained to a two-day cycle of washing and ironing, they were free to leave the home and pursue professional lives. Goodbye, Blue Monday. And good riddance.


 

Interactive Stem Cell Exhibit
Exploratorium, San Francisco
Through January 8, 2006,
www.exploratorium.edu

An exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco is designed to cut through some of the hyperbole about stem cells and give concerned citizens a glimpse of the real thing. Embryonic mouse stem cells magnified 5,000 times put out fingerlike projections as they spread across an inch-wide microscope slide projected onto a full-color 42-inch plasma screen. If left alone in the culture medium, the cells will default into beating cardiac muscle cells, but for the moment they are biological blank slates, unspecialized blobs that can differentiate into any cell in the body if fed the right factors and nutrients. If researchers can unlock the secrets of this cellular process, therapies that replace diseased cells with healthy ones may one day be possible—brain-cell transplants to combat Alzheimer's, for instance, or even the creation of whole organs from scratch. In the meantime,the museum display strips away their mystique. "We wanted to let the public see that these are not fetuses or anything like that—they really are just cells," life sciences director Charlie Carlson says. —Elizabeth Svoboda



HIDING IN THE MIRROR: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, From Plato to String Theory and Beyond, by Lawrence M. Krauss; Viking, $24.95

WARPED PASSAGES: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, by Lisa Randall; Ecco, $27.95

 

"String theory is still promising," Nobel physics laureate Frank Wilczek once quipped, "and promising, and promising." The theory, which attempts to unite quantum mechanics and relativity and to wrap all of nature's forces into one tidy mathematical package, has been promising for more than 20 years now. Depending on which variant you prefer, string theory holds that reality consists of infinitesimal strings, loops, or membranes vibrating in a hyperspace of 10, 11, or fill-in-the-blank dimensions. The trouble is, proponents have not produced an iota of empirical evidence for strings. That's why University of Toronto physicist Amanda Peet—a proponent!—recently called string theory a "faith-based initiative."

Yet the hypothetical hyperspace wherein strings supposedly dwell entrances many gifted physicists, including Lisa Randall of Harvard, coinventor of a popular variant of string theory. In most versions, the extra dimensions are "compactified," or rolled up into small balls, which explains why they cannot be detected. In Randall's model, which she describes in Warped Passages, some extra dimensions, or passages, as she calls them, can remain hidden even if they stretch to infinity. Randall is an enthusiastic narrator who leavens her prose with references to such pop culture phenomena as the group Talking Heads ("And you may ask yourself, Am I right? . . . Am I wrong?"). But her boosterish presentation will seem awfully familiar to anyone who has read The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, and she never seriously grapples with the shortcomings of strings.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss of Case Western Reserve University takes on that job in Hiding in the Mirror. No knee-jerk skeptic, Krauss would be thrilled to see experiments validate string theory, especially Randall's version, which she developed with his former student Raman Sundrum. He is nonetheless disturbed by string theory's repeated failure to live up to its hype. Early on, for example, string theory promised to make our cosmos seem less arbitrary by revealing a logical necessity to our laws of physics and constants of nature. But as Krauss notes, the various string theories exacerbate this problem because they allow for more than a googol (1 followed by 100 zeros) different possible universes with properties radically unlike our own. Krauss casts doubt on the hope of Randall and others that the Large Hadron Collider of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research in Geneva, due to come online in 2007, will yield definitive evidence for one particular string model.

Sounding more like a postmodern philosopher than a physicist, Krauss wonders whether string theory stems from an innate human tendency to believe that "just beyond our reach, just behind the mirror, lies the key to knowledge." After all, mystical dimensions have played a recurrent role in our imaginings, from Dante's visions of paradise to Rod Serling's Twilight Zone monologue ("There is a dimension beyond that which is known to man"). Krauss admits that he feels the allure of higher dimensions, too, but he fears that faith in unproven string theory might empower those who claim "that science itself is merely another kind of religion." Indeed, references to strings and higher dimensions are already a staple of New Age "science" books. Yet if academic scholars can keep writing papers on the evolution of Renaissance chamber-pot design or political allusions in Beowulf, it's likely that a few obsessives will always continue to fiddle with strings. String theory will still be promising, and promising, and promising. —John Horgan



OUR INNER APE: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, by Frans de Waal; Riverhead Books, $25.95

Human nature is a mix of selfish cruelty and cooperative kindness. As the aftermath of hurricane Katrina so powerfully demonstrated, some people will open their homes to strangers during a crisis, while others will run riot. Wherein lie the roots of this paradox? According to primatologist Frans de Waal, we need look no further than our close cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos, to find out.

Humans share not only a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos but common behaviors too.Chimps are socially calculating, and they can be decidedly nasty. Bonobos, on the other hand, tend to be more egalitarian, and they often stave off conflict with lots of sex. Yet neither species is entirely vicious or always conciliatory, and each seems to experience love, empathy, and sharing—for good reason. Like humans, both species are social animals, and in order to survive in an unpredictable world, they must strike a balance between the two extremes. De Waal makes his case primarily with engaging anecdotes drawn from a lifetime of observing primates in captivity.

At the Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, for example, he watched male chimpanzees join forces for months to topple the highest-ranking male, females band together to protect each other from male aggression, and the whole colony dole out revenge when required. In one case, two young chimps lingered in the outdoor enclosure one evening and delayed dinner for everyone else. The next morning, the rest of the group cornered and beat them. That evening, the youngsters were the first to come in. On the other hand, de Waal also saw impressive signs of reconciliation and attachment among chimpanzees. The animals make close friendships, hoot in celebration, and kiss each other in greeting.Such behavior is even more exaggerated among the lightly built bonobos, each of which uses sex with every member of the group—male and female both—to say hello or calm tensions. As with chimps, however, female bonobos have more social power, and males can be highly competitive.

Assuming that social behavior has a genetic component, it is likely that humans have inherited similar tendencies toward both aggression and mutual aid. Thus the view of human nature as irredeemably cruel, warlike, and selfish—or as inherently peace loving—is a mistake, argues de Waal. We are a species "capable of unbelievable destruction of both its environment and its own kind, yet at the same time possess[ing] wells of empathy and love deeper than ever seen before." —Meredith F. Small



WORMWOOD FOREST: A Natural History of Chernobyl, by Mary Mycio; Joseph Henry Press, $27.95

After the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor on April 26, 1986, a parade of doomsayers predicted that the end of the world was near. Among them were Christian believers who mistranslated the Ukrainian word Chernobyl as "wormwood," the bitter plant that was said to have sprung up in the path of the serpent to prevent its return to Eden.

In fact, a more accurate translation of Chernobyl would be "mugwort," a milder herbal relative of toxic wormwood that seems more at home in the magical world of Harry Potter. Author Mary Mycio does indeed display a Harry Potter-ish spirit as she dons Soviet army surplus camouflage and ventures out into the restricted landscape of Chernobyl, an area known today as the Zone of Alienation, which straddles the former Soviet states of Belarus and Ukraine. At the center of the zone is the Shelter Object—a giant concrete-and-steel "sarcophagus" that encases the damaged reactors and close to 200 tons of uranium.

Yet the surrounding radioactive landscape that Mycio describes is hardly as forbidding as aficionados of the book of Revelation might imagine. While the ghost town of Pripyat' registered dosages of up to 300 milliroentgens per hour in the wake of the meltdown, most areas in the Zone of Alienation show average radiation readings of 43 microroentgens per hour—the same dosage absorbed by residents of Denver. Since the most badly injured animals died before they could pass their altered genes on to their offspring, there are no three-headed calves in the zone. The only mutants that Mycio mentions are a few partially albino-faced barn swallows.

For most animals, it turns out, the absence of humans more than compensates for the impact of radiation. Perversely, the Chernobyl accident created a mildly radioactive Eden whose ecology brings to mind the unspoiled landscape of Europe before the arrival of human predators from Africa. The wormwood forest and its radioactive rivers are home to thriving colonies of beavers, wolves, lynx, black storks, white storks, red deer, and moose. Vines bend under the weight of massive tangles of wild grapes, and two introduced bands of Przewalski's horses—the closest living relatives of Europe's original horses—roam free.

The only humans living in the zone are 300 samosels (self-settlers), who remain there despite a ban by the Ukrainian government. Although Mycio's account suffers from a shortage of hard science about the effects of radiation on these people, her finely detailed first-person investigation of the ecology of the world's most famous disaster area has a haunting grandeur that should appeal to naturalists and fans of the apocalypse alike. —David Samuels


Ending AIDS: The Search for a Vaccine
PBS, December 1, 2005 www.pbs.org/endingaids

When HIV was first identified as the virus that causes AIDS, scientists blithely predicted that a vaccine would be available within two to three years. Two decades and more than20 million AIDS deaths later, a viable vaccine has yet to materialize. Ending AIDS, a PBS documentary appearing on World AIDS Day, December 1, examines why the scientific challenge has proved to be greater than anyone anticipated. HIV mutates rapidly, a cloud of sugar molecules cloaks it from antibody detection, and it disables the very immune system that defends against it. Following teams of researchers from the National Institutes of Health and a local doctor working at a drab clinic in Nairobi, Kenya, the program analyzes some of the 80 trials of 30 different potential vaccines, any one of which, if successful, could prevent the infection of millions of people."I feel like we're making a piece of the cathedral," says Margaret Johnston, assistant director for HIV vaccines at the NIH. "I might not see the end of it [but] all I can say is if you make a contribution . . . you will have contributed to one of the biggest things that's ever been accomplished in biomedical research." —Elise Kleeman


 

ROBOPET WowWee Robotics, $80 www.robopetonline.com

I-DOG Tiger Electronics, $29.99 www.hasbro.com/

Humans seem to be hardwired to love anything even vaguely dog shaped, but sadly, real pooches are forever biting, stinking, and expressing affection for the boss's leg. In recentyears, gadgetmakers have attempted to upgrade Canis lupus familiaris via plastic and silicon, but the results have often been unsatisfying. Long on hygiene and obedience but short on charm, many a Christmas-gift robot dog sleeps in the landfill by Labor Day. So this holiday season, how far have we progressed toward e-Lassie, the perfect cybermutt?

The hot servo-driven dog this year is WowWee Robotics' Robopet. Resembling a cross between a Chihuahua, a wasp, and a security camera, "Robopet is a naturally active robot with a strong personality and a mind of his own," says the instruction manual. True enough, but for my money, its independent streak resembles random convulsions. Far more satisfying are the tricks on demand. Prompted by a remote control, the thing can indeed roll over, howl, scratch, and play dead; it also lifts a paw or walks forward in response to waved hands or sharp sounds.Robopet is no doggy Einstein, but I have owned real dogs that seemed considerably dimmer.

A long slide down on the intelligence, agility, and price scale is i-Dog. The apparent result of too much coffee at the development stage, i-Dog responds to music in its environs or piped through its input jack by shaking its head, waggling its ears, and displaying dancing colored lights where its eyes should be. The effect is mildly diverting but soon leads to one of those "this must make more sense to the Japanese than it does to us" reflections. In short, a digital improvement on Bowser remains beyond the far horizon, and somehow, that seems like wonderful news. —Brad Lemley



WE ALSO LIKE

THE APE IN THE TREE: An Intellectual and Natural History of Proconsul , by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman; the Belknap Press, $26.95 Named after a performing chimp at the FoliesBergère in Paris, Proconsul is a common ancestor of apes and humans that lived in Africa between 21 million and 14 million years ago. In this memoir, paleontologists Walker and Shipman splice stories of their adventures excavating the animal with an analysis of its biology—as revealed by current research and by Mary Leakey, who discovered the first Proconsul skull in Kenya in 1948. —Zach Zorich

MAIMONIDES, by Sherwin B. Nuland Schocken, $19.95 Nuland, author of the acclaimed book How We Die, offers a "Jewish doctor's study of the most extraordinary of Jewish doctors"—Moses Maimonides, 12th-century sage, philosopher, and court physician to Grand Vizier El Fadil of Egypt. Renowned for The Guide for the Perplexed, which harmonized Aristotelian philosophy and Jewish theology, Maimonides also wrote a series of 10 medical texts on topics that included hemorrhoids, poisons, asthma, melancholy, and sexual intercourse. —Josie Glausiusz

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