Consumed By the Volcano's Fiery Wrath
Courtesy of Ministered Per I Beni le Attivita Culturali-Soprintendenza Acheolocica Di Pompeii
A glass-eyed bronze statue of Apollo, Greek god of the arts, was excavated from the Pompeii house of Julius Polybius in the 1970s.
The victims of Mount Vesuvius clutched their treasures in vain
By Heather Pringle
Until the late summer of A.D. 79, Pompeii was renowned chiefly for fertile vineyards and grand villas to which the cream of Rome's society—including, perhaps, Julius Caesar's father-in-law—fled each summer to escape the heat. The hillsides flanking Mount Vesuvius formed some of the most desirable real estate in the Roman Empire. But at one o'clock in the afternoon of August 24, la dolce vita ended abruptly. In less than a day, the fiery mountain spewed enough ash and rock to bury Pompeii and two neighboring towns, Herculaneum and Oplontis, beneath as much as 70 feet of volcanic debris. More than 2,000 people perished, many within minutes.
The eruption was one of the greatest natural disasters to strike the ancient world, and a fascinating exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago conveys the horror. Pompeii: Stories From an Eruption takes a CSI: Crime Scene Investigation approach, focusing on the victims' last moments as they ducked for cover from the hail of molten rock. Organized by the archaeological superintendent of Pompeii, the show features nearly a dozen plaster casts of victims—curled in the fetal position or clinging together in grim extremis—as well as nearly 500 of the treasures they pocketed or abandoned.
To date, archaeologists have unearthed nearly 1,500 buildings in Pompeii, from
the poetically named Villa of Mysteries to the sterner sounding House of the Moralist. They also continue to scrutinize remains from several surrounding Roman towns. Death visited the region in a variety of macabre forms. In Pompeii, chunks of volcanic rock rained down from the sky, battering people in the streets and pounding roofs until they collapsed, killing those huddled beneath. Later, a cloud of gas and cinders heated to 750 degrees Fahrenheit surged down the slopes, burning all those in its path.
Nearly 2,000 years later, the excavated buildings are replete with poignant stories. Along the floor of a gladiator barracks in Pompeii, archaeologists unearthed a trove of ornamental bronze armor and the corpses of several gladiators chained to a wall, abandoned at the last moment by their guards. In the arcades above the beach at Herculaneum, excavators found the tangled remains of at least 300 men, women, and children who had pinned their last hopes on a rescue by sea, which never came. As the exhibition reveals, the evacuees carried small bronze lamps to light their way (the eruption had darkened the sky) as well as their most precious possessions: gold rings, beaded necklaces, earrings, silver spoons, perfume vials, and coins wrapped in cloth. One pragmatic soul clutched a surgical kit with needles, knives, and tweezers.
So immediate was the onset of the disaster that inns, workshops, wineries, and villas were preserved as they were—an astonishing boon to modern archaeologists. At the exhibition, visitors can mull over Roman creature comforts, from a small terra-cotta garden statue and elegant shell-shaped silver bowls to a large iron brazier and a carved wooden dining couch, known as a triclinium, on which banqueters reclined.
But the show's real highlights are the dazzling frescoes that illuminated Roman life. Patrons quaffing wine by the jug at the Inn of Salvius, for example, could leer at a fresco showing a popular Pompeian streetwalker named Myrtale and two scuffling dice players. At the other end of the social scale, the patricians who dined at an imperial pied-à-terre south of Pompeii feasted their eyes on a spectacular scene depicting Apollo and seven muses. Some art historians believe the luxurious lodging may once have belonged to Nero because the mural's themes are intimately linked to the infamous emperor, who took his own life in A.D. 68.
As self-assured and sophisticated as the Roman Empire once was, it was powerless against the cataclysmic forces unleashed by Vesuvius. Clearly, Pompeii is an object lesson in humility—one we seem destined to repeat. Many volcanologists predict that another major eruption of Vesuvius could occur in the 21st century. To coax families away from the red zone, the Italian government is offering a $35,000 per household incentive to leave.
STARRY-EYED BUT STALWART
Look up at the night sky. How far away are the stars? That fundamental mystery, which had stumped sky watchers through the ages, was solved by Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an obscure 19th-century Harvard College Observatory assistant with a vigilant eye.
When Leavitt graduated from Radcliffe College in 1892, astronomers had been
Courtesy of the Harvard College Observatory
"We work form morn till night/Computing is our duty," the chorus sings in The Observatory Pinafore, an operetta written in 1879 for Harvard's team of spirited star mappers.
able to determine the distance to a few nearby stars by observing their minute shifts in position as Earth orbited the sun—an effect called parallax. But the distance to other far-flung stars was unfathomable; only by knowing the exact amount of light a star emits could an observer know if the glow was from a weak star close by or a brilliant star thousands of light-years away.
Leavitt chanced upon a powerful way of gauging light emission after she and a small group of fellow "computers" were hired by Harvard observatory director Edward C. Pickering to record every star in the sky. For a wage of 25 cents an hour, Leavitt pored over thousands of photographic plates, pinpointing variable stars called Cepheids, unstable balls of hot gas that brightened and dimmed as
Miss Leavitt's Stars:
The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe
George Johnson; Atlas Books, $22.95
they expanded and contracted like giant balloons. While tabulating the variable stars in two southern galaxies called the Magellanic Clouds, she realized that the Cepheids behaved in a predictable fashion: Those that cycled the fastest (about one day) were the faintest, and those with longer light-and-dim periods (a few months) were the brightest. And because all the stars in the Magellanic Clouds were approximately the same distance from Earth, her data provided a reference point for mapping stars elsewhere in the universe.
True to stereotype, Leavitt was a quiet and modest soul. Only a few photographs survive, along with some letters from her family and coworkers. But Johnson, a science reporter for The New York Times, paints a luminous portrait of her and shows how her patient work sparked an explosion of astronomical creativity. Indeed, within a few years of Leavitt's discovery, astronomers were able to measure the size of the Milky Way: more than 100,000 light-years in diameter. Then, in the 1920s, Edwin Hubble used the Magellanic Cepheids to map galaxies beyond the Milky Way. In taking his measure of distant stars and galaxies, Hubble made another wondrous discovery: The universe is expanding. —Laurence Marschall
BEAUTY AND HER BONES
Dimpled by deftly spaced holes and covered in a tracery of writing, this 19th-
Aaron Diskin/PI Press/Henry Galiano
century skull (left) once served as a teaching tool for the dubious art of phrenology: the divination of personality by analysis of the bumps on people's heads.
A Scientific and Pictorial Investigation
R. McNeill Alexander
Photography by Aaron Diskin PI Press, $37.50
Owned by Louis Auzoux, physician to Emperor Napoleon III, the skull is one of many often playful, occasionally unsettling images to appear in a quirkily illustrated introduction to the science of osteology. A knock-kneed skeleton seems to stroll through a forest; a baby's fragile skull rests on the remains of a papery wasp's nest; and a misshapen foot, crushed by Chinese foot binding, sits beside the shoe into which it once could slip. An accompanying narrative explains how these dry bones were once living organs, molded by evolution, disease, and even fashion. Through the book's wit and art, even the squeamish will see beauty in a sinuous section of the spine. —Jessa Forte Netting
WHEN RHINO WAS THE RAGE
Far too seldom are lovers of science and literature treated to a historical biography of a rhinoceros. In fact, Clara's Grand Tour is probably the first of its
kind. I hope that it is not the last. For here is a profile that shows—importantly—that animals, like individual people, can profoundly affect entire cultures and that the effect can persist for many centuries. Such an animal was Clara—a three-ton Indian rhinoceros whose travels across Europe once caused an international sensation.
Clara's Grand Tour:
Travels With a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe
Atlantic Monthly Press, $22
Undertaking a grand tour was exciting enough for a human in 1741, a time before steam trains or modern roads. For a rhino, it was unprecedented. None of Clara's kind had set three-toed foot on European soil from the 3rd to the 16th centuries.
Bridgeman Art Library
Clara-inspired crafts include this 18th-century bronze rhinocerous clock
It's not hard to see why. A rhino can eat 150 pounds of plants a day, and transporting one from Asia or Africa to Europe necessitated crossing tempestuous seas on a sailing ship crammed with cargo and crew. Prior to Clara's tour, many scholars doubted such a creature existed. The only European images of rhinos had been copied from a 1515 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, who had never seen one himself. His portrait gave the rhino an imaginary horn on its neck and decorative armor plating.
Clara caused a hubbub everywhere she went in Europe. Empresses and princes eagerly received her, and artists preserved her image in oils and in porcelain and marble sculptures. She ignited a rage in Paris for "all things rhinocerotic," including hornlike coiffures and erect head feathers for carriage horses. Even after these fads faded, she influenced literature, science, and language across the continent. Some of the world's famous thinkers pondered what Clara could teach them about God, natural history, and science. French philosophers such as Abbé Raynal and the Comte de Buffon made connections between the fossils of extinct rhinos and elephants found in America and a living, breathing animal. She helped propel an intellectual hunger for encyclopedias and anatomical atlases.
Glynis Ridley, an English professor at the University of Louisville, has done a splendid job tracing Clara's travels through newspaper accounts, broadsheets advertising her appearance, and representations of her in fashion and art. She also conveys the awe with which Clara was greeted at a time when the world was poorly mapped and so many of its human and animal inhabitants unknown. That capacity for wonder, writes Ridley, "is still very much a part of us." Perhaps this captivating portrait of a single 18th-century rhinoceros will inspire us to preserve her endangered kin in the current century. —Sy Montgomery
THE STRANGE SEDUCTION OF A FRIGID LAND
What is north? It is an impulse, a yearning, and a fear as well as a direction. That is the north of Peter Davidson's book, which has little to say about the dwindling of the Arctic ice cap, the receding of Greenland's glaciers, or the pollution now so concentrated on the roof of the world. This is a book about poetry, myth, and art, and the myriad ways in which artists, poets, and explorers have filtered the
The Idea of North
Reaktion Books, $27
north's stark natural splendor through their imaginations. But it's impossible to read Davidson's account without thinking of the kinship between poets and scientists. They may respond to north's magnetism differently, but they share the urge toward empty spaces and undistilled light, a sense of the north as a place of purification or a place of evil.
A professor of English at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Davidson has compiled an extraordinary catalog of the shapes the north has taken in the minds of humans. To Ovid, he reminds us, the north meant modern Bulgaria. To the poet W. H. Auden and the artist Eric Ravilious, it meant Iceland. The north can be as domestic and intimate as the shoreline cottages of summering Scandinavians, or it can conjure up the deranged fantasies and imagined lands embodied in Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire.
Whatever the north is, it is as various as the humans who have written about it, painted it, explored it, or sung songs about it. In his odyssey, Davidson skips from Russian poet Osip Mandelstam's description of "ice diamonds" in a frozen stream to a 1427 Danish geographer's map showing Greenland as a home of pygmies, griffins, and unipeds. Along the way he glances briefly at the narwhal—a rare Arctic whale whose twisted tusk inspired tales of unicorns—or pauses to consider the fate of the sea otter, hunted to near extinction for its luxuriant fur.
The Idea of North is a work of genuine erudition, guiding readers northward out of their home ground and into unknown territory. All the more regretful, therefore, that it lacks an index—a near-criminal offense in a book of this kind. We make our way happily from north to north with Davidson as our guide. But when it comes to retracing our steps, we are on our own, in a trackless landscape marked only by black runes on a snowy plain. —Verlyn Klinkenborg
Cosmic Fun for Billions and Billions
When Carl Sagan's masterful series Cosmos aired for the first time in 1980, it
The fiesty Zula Patrol tackles evil and intergalactic science.
opened viewers' eyes to the vast scope of the universe and inspired a generation of future scientists. This fall, the Science Channel is rereleasing the 13-part series after giving it a good polish to remove a quarter century of outdated information and computer graphics. Digitally remastered and with many new animations (though some still show their age), it remains an unparalleled look at cosmic marvels from atoms to galaxies.
For those too young to appreciate Sagan's paean to "all that is, or ever was, or ever will be," PBS has launched The Zula Patrol, a space cartoon with a zany
premise. The evil Dark Truder, a spudlike villain with a toupee sidekick, schemes to take over the universe. Luckily, a gang of cheerful aliens from the planet Zula manages to foil his plans every time—while learning valuable lessons, of course. Each episode emphasizes a few facts: for example, that nine planets in our solar system orbit the sun and that the surface of Mars is orange red and lacks liquid water. True, it's a simple view of space that doesn't always reflect up-to-the-minute research, but for kids in kindergarten through second grade, the series is an upbeat and engaging way to learn some science basics. —Elise Kleeman
A PURE SWEET SOUND RINGS AGAIN
The late Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was renowned in equal measure for his brilliance and his eccentricities: He frequently hummed along with his own playing and refused to give public recitals for the last 18 years of his life, saying that "at live concerts I feel demeaned, like a vaudevillian."
More than two decades after Gould died from a stroke at age 50, a company
named Zenph Studios has summoned his musical spirit for a startling encore. Zenph developed a technique that takes old, crackly audio recordings—among them Gould's landmark 1955 version of Bach's Goldberg Variations and 1955 improvisations by jazz pianist Art Tatum—and turns them into pristine performances. Not only are the new recordings note-perfect and static-free, but they exactly re-create the phrasing, tone, and dynamics in the pieces as they were originally played.
The secret of Zenph's system lies in its software and in a computer-driven grand piano called the Yamaha Disklavier Pro. To create their "reperformances," the company copies data from old gramophone records onto a hard drive, then analyzes the sound waves that emerge with the aid of an algorithm that selects only musical notes and eliminates noise, such as coughs, scratches, and—alas, for fans who enjoy the uniquely Gouldian quirk—humming. A disc of the cleaned-up performance can then be inserted into the Disklavier, played, and rerecorded to produce a rich and pure sound. Zenph hopes to see its first commercial recording released early next year. —Josie Glausiusz
WE ALSO LIKE
1. ZAMBA: The True Story of the Greatest Lion That Ever Lived
Ralph Helfer, HarperCollins
2. THE LADY AND THE PANDA: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal
Vicki Constantine Croke, Random House
3. THE DEVIL'S TEETH: A True Story of Survival and Obsession Among America's Great White Sharks
Susan Casey, Henry Holt
4. EVIDENCE OF HARM: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy
David Kirby, St. Martin's Press
5. ROVING MARS: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet
Steve Squyres, Hyperion
6. THE GRIZZLY MAZE: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession With Alaskan Bears
Nick Jans, Dutton
7. EVERYTHING BAD IS GOOD FOR YOU: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books
8. THE LONG EMERGENCY: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century
James Howard Kunstler, Atlantic Monthly Press
9. TEN HOURS UNTIL DAWN: The True Story of Heroism and Tragedy Aboard the Can Do
Michael J. Tougias, St. Martin's Press
10. STEALING GOD'S THUNDER: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America
Philip Dray, Random House
FREUD'S FREE CLINICS: Psychoanalysis & Social Justice, 1918–1938 Elizabeth Ann Danto;
Columbia University Press, $29.50 Psychoanalysis has often been seen as the realm of the rich, but Freud believed that the poor had an equal right to mental health. Social work professor Danto shows how Freud's concern led to the founding of 10 European clinics that offered free treatment for shell shock, neuroses, and other disorders. The clinics, reviled by the Nazis as "Jewish-Marxist filth," were closed with the advent of World War II. —Josie Glausiusz
WONDER SHOWS: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion
in America Fred Nadis; Rutgers Unversity Press, $26.95 A lantern that revealed "apparitions of the dead and absent" and an "oxyhydrogen" microscope that projected 40-foot-wide fleas are among the gimmicks that 19th-century showmen took on the road. Nadis traces the history of this peculiar blend of science, commerce, and hocus-pocus—a tradition that survives today in New Age festivals that peddle crystal singing bowls and "life energy amplifiers." —Alex Stone