Reviews

Monday, February 20, 2006
RELATED TAGS: DARWIN, MATH, NUCLEAR PHYSICS
The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers by Darwin's son Francis.
Photo courtesy Denis Finnin/AMNH

EXHIBITIONS

Darwin in Real Life

Mounted on a carrot and a plum, two soldiers armed with swords and trumpets make war on one another. The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers is no ordinary child's sketch. The artist was a young Francis Darwin, son of the celebrated Charles, and the drawing appears on the back of a manuscript page of his father's most famous work, On the Origin of Species. Tucked away in a glass case in a corner of the American Museum of Natural History's new Darwin exhibit, the page is one of only 28 to survive from the original manuscript of what many called "the book that shook the world." It also succeeds in doing what all the fierce debates cannot. It shows Charles Darwin not as a figurehead in a great fight but as a real human and a devoted father, loath to waste paper, who gave his children discarded manuscript sheets to scribble upon.

Far from being an icon, Darwin was a man who led a dramatic life. He had adventures in exotic lands, fathered 10 children with his wife (and cousin), Emma Wedgwood, and conducted experiments on earthworms, barnacles, and insects (he once lay motionless on his couch to let a wasp drink from his eye). For 20 years he struggled with an idea so revolutionary that "it is like confessing a murder," as he later said to a botanist friend. His bold spirit is captured in the exhibit's unusual displays: Museumgoers can browse through cases filled with Darwin's microscopes and handwritten letters as well as view live Galápagos tortoises, an iguana, and a clutch of ornate horned frogs—a sampling of the animals that the young naturalist sent back to England during his 1830s voyage on the Beagle.

In tracing Darwin's life, the exhibit also reveals how biology was transformed from the 19th-century dalliance of a privileged youth into a scrupulous, testable science. At the University of Cambridge in the 1820s, where he planned on entering the clergy, the young Charles spent most of his time hunting beetles—a passion reflected in the cartoon that his friend Albert Way drew of him riding atop a giant beetle, captioned with the words, "Go it, Charlie!" Darwin soon branched out into the study of fossils and geology—two fields that were then changing rapidly. By examining rock formations, geologists had discovered that the world was far more ancient than the biblically derived figure of about six thousand years. Fossils showed that some species had gone extinct in the distant past, for reasons unknown.

Darwin was just beginning to understand these findings when he was invited in 1831 to serve as an unpaid naturalist on the HMS Beagle, a former navy ship set to voyage around the world. In a letter to his physician father, Robert, Charles listed the elder Darwin's objections to the expedition: "disreputable to my character as a clergyman hereafter"; "a wild scheme"; "that my accommodations would be most uncomfortable"; and "that it would be a useless undertaking." Yet not only did Charles Darwin embark upon the journey, it would also transform his vision of the natural world—and ours.

The exhibit admirably re-creates that revolution in his understanding. In one room, two preserved modern armadillos stand next to a model of a giant extinct relative called a glyptodont, fossils of which Darwin found in Argentina. At the time, he wondered whether one animal had given rise to the other. In the same room is a replica of a rocky outcrop on the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin saw daisies the size of trees and iguanas that dive into the ocean to eat seaweed. Such unique species on so isolated an archipelago led him to wonder if they had adapted over time to their environment.

Yet he returned to England unsure of the mechanism that could cause this adaptation. He scribbled in notebooks—facsimiles of which are on display—until he hit upon the idea of natural selection. Certain variations, he hypothesized, would lead to more reproductive success than others and, over many generations, could cause dramatic changes. Lineages could split from each other like branches on a tree. Darwin's sketch of this evolutionary tree—as electrifying to see as Einstein's original "E=mc2"—is right there on display.

But Darwin was also terrified as to how his ideas would be received, and for years he amassed evidence to back them up. He laid rabbit bones on his billiard table to measure their variations and spent eight years studying barnacles. The exhibit replicates his tool-filled study in his home, Down House, but it also offers delightful clues to his family life. An 1838 letter from his then-fiancée, Emma, describes her future husband as "the most open, transparent man I ever saw. . . . He is particularly affectionate . . . and possesses some minor qualities that add particularly to one's happiness, such as not being fastidious, and being humane to animals."

The exhibit falls short in addressing Darwin's impact on modern biology. Panels discuss new fossils that shed light on human evolution, as well as lab studies that show bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics via natural selection. It's a worthwhile effort, given the current controversy over teaching evolution in public schools. But this part of the exhibit feels like a jumble. Over the past century and a half, scientists have discovered many things about life that Darwin didn't know—DNA, for starters. As a result, evolutionary biology has developed dramatically in ways that can't be summed up as an afterthought. Darwin's life was certainly fascinating enough to carry a one-man show. But it's important to remember that he really was just one man.

"Darwin," at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, through May 29, 2005.

Jessica Ruvinsky made contributions to this review. 

Whatever the Eyes See, the Brain Turns Bottoms Up

A pitch-black tunnel, cramped and twisting, opens onto a vast pink-toned chamber with giant inverted fungi spinning overhead. Welcome to the "Upside Down Mushroom Room," an installation by Belgian artist Carsten Höller that explores a famous experiment performed in 1896 by George Malcolm Stratton, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Stratton knew that images are projected onto the retina upside down, and that the brain flops them so that we see the world the right way up. So he set out to learn what would happen if he went about his daily routine wearing glasses that reversed the image on his retina. At first hewas wildly disoriented, but at the end of eight days, his brain perceived the world as it had been before he donned the specs. Höller's psychedelic 'shrooms exert a similar effect. Recessed ceiling lights dot the floor, suggesting that the room is topsy-turvy. But the pull of gravity—and the viewer's brain—belie that information. As Stratton discovered, the brain is remarkably adept at doing illusory cartwheels. A few days after he removed the special spectacles, his world returned to normal.  —M. G. Lord

The Upside Down Mushroom Room appears through February 20 in Ecstasy, an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in which 30 artists explore altered modes of perception via painting, sculpture, film, video, and photography. 


BOOKS

In Perpetual Pursuit of Unfathomable Incalculable Infinitude

THE INFINITE BOOK: A Short Guide to the Boundless, Timeless, and Endless
John D. Barrow
Pantheon Books, $26

Infinity is not just a very big number but also a mathematical quantity so paradoxical it can produce effects that seem positively spooky. Consider, for instance, the case of German mathematician Georg Cantor, who went completely bonkers after proving that some infinities can be larger than others. In 1891 he showed that the infinite number of points between 0 and 1 on a foot-long ruler was larger than the infinite number of whole integers. If he expressed the position of these ruler points as a list of decimal numbers, say 0.1111111111 . . . , 0.1211111111 . . . , 0.1311111111 . . . , and tried to put them into one-to-one correspondence with the integers 1, 2, 3 . . . , Cantor found that he could always come up with yet another decimal number between 0 and 1 that was not on the list. This forced him to conclude that there were indeed more decimals than integers.

Cantor's capacity to cope with such strange thoughts was evidently so strained that he suffered a series of mental breakdowns that sidetracked his academic career. But many other deep thinkers have grappled with the topic of infinity with less tragic results, and one of them, British mathematician John Barrow, is also—fortunately for readers—a lucid and compelling writer. In The Infinite Book, Barrow covers a lot of territory, ranging from Cantor's proofs to the fact that there are enough combinations of neurons in the human brain to accommodate 1,070,000,000,000,000 different thoughts. He even addresses such theological questions as whether a god with infinite powers exists and, if so, whether such a deity could create something more infinite than itself.

Following such speculations is a great deal of fun, but don't expect to reach any satisfying conclusions. Infinity, by its very nature, seems to pose more questions than it answers. In one of the more provocative examples of this logic, Barrow speculates that, if the universe is infinite, everything that ever is or ever was must occur an infinite number of times. If that is so, dear reader, Barrow's book has already been published an infinite number of times. Furthermore, this review has already been written by an infinite number of me's, published in an infinite number of editions of this magazine, and read by an infinite number of you's. —Laurence Marschall

Ephemeral Beauty of Flies

A DAZZLE OF DRAGONFLIES
Forrest L. Mitchell and James L. Lasswell
Texas A&M University Press, $39

The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once watched enrapt as a dragonfly emerged from its dull larval husk to reveal wings that grew "like gauze" before it flew across the fields, "a living flash of light." Alas, the beauty that Tennyson celebrated is as ephemeral as the insects are elusive. While alive, dragonflies rarely sit still for close observation, and in death they lose their brilliance, turning a sickly brown. Mitchell and Lasswell, who are both entomologists, succeeded in capturing the creatures in all their glorious color by setting them chilled (and thus subdued) on the glass of a standard office scanner. One of the subjects they gently froze in time is the common green darner, a voracious and speedy predator whose wing veins serve as airfoils. The luscious photographs are accompanied by tales and poetry that chronicle the very long history of dragonflies, from the appearance long before the dinosaurs of the 250-million-year-old, foot-long behemoth Meganeuropsis to the insect's ubiquity in human myth as snake doctor, devil's horse, and Zuni "guardian of the seeds." —Jessa Forte Netting 


WE ALSO LIKE

GLOBAL WARMING: Personal Solutions for a Healthy Planet
Chris Spence; Palgrave/Macmillan, $24.95 
Be a hero: Save the planet from destruction. Spence, a journalist, recommends a range of activities to battle climate change and prevent drought, famine, and floods. Bring your own bag to the grocery store (12 million barrels of oil are needed to meet the yearly demand for plastic bags in the United States), vote for green candidates, and veg out (methane, a major component of cow burps and intestinal gas, is second only to carbon dioxide in contributing to global warming). Oh, and ditch that SUV.

CLIMATE CHANGE BEGINS AT HOME: Life on the Two-Way Street of Global Warming by Dave Reay (Macmillan, $24.95), in which the author, an ecologist and founder of the climate change Web site www.ghgonline.org, decides that "feeding George W. dolls to my Labrador" is an inadequate way to fight global warming. He invests in composting worms to recycle his tea bags and potato peels, stocks his house with low-energy lightbulbs, and advocates myriad ways in which we could all reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 60 percent.  —Josie Glausiusz


RESTAURANTS

MOTO
945 West Fulton Market
Chicago

Tonight's Special: Edible Books And Balloons

Ink-jet printing is not an obvious culinary tool, but at the Chicago restaurant Moto, the ink is made of soy and the paper of edible starch. A customized printer puts the finishing touch on a delectable dish called cartoon sushi, an emulsion of snapper and mako wrapped in starch paper emblazoned with 20 photographs of maki rolls (below right). Chef Homaro Cantu, a whimsical practitioner of the science of molecular gastronomy (see "Cooking for Eggheads") is keen to embrace technology not often found in American cuisine. Liquid nitrogen, a centrifuge, and high-pressure chambers all fit comfortably within his kitchen-cum-lab.

In Cantu's hands, for example, the liquid nitrogen becomes a tool for coalescing a puréed head of romaine lettuce into flavorful pearls of Caesar salad, chilled to –273 degrees Fahrenheit. Carbonation adds fizz to real fruit: An orange bubbles like Orange Crush soda when squeezed, the result of hours of compression in a carbon dioxide tank at 60 pounds per square inch. Sea bass arrives raw in a heat-retaining resin box heated to 200 degrees, cooking to perfection on the table while two other courses pass by. Dessert is the most impressive course of all. Cantu fills a sphere with the juice of yuzu (a Japanese citrus) and spins it while it is chilled with another dose of liquid nitrogen. What emerges is a thin, spherical shell, almost an edible balloon. All that is missing is helium to make the balloon float, and Cantu hopes to add that touch someday soon.

Behind the scenes, Cantu continues to experiment: A medical centrifuge, designed to separate blood proteins, could clarify rich, thick meat stocks. A high-powered laser could cook beef with a precision impossible on a grill (although Cantu has had difficulty obtaining a laser powerful enough for the job). Cantu also sees a humanitarian end to his culinary trickery. He envisions dispensing vitamin-enriched edible books in regions where people suffer from malnutrition; each page would be both food and information about when and how best to eat it.  —Corey S. Powell


TELEVISION

An Amber Window on a Vanished World

JEWEL OF THE EARTH
With Sir David Attenborough
PBS, February 14, 2006

Amber was once thought to be solidified sunshine, until the Roman historian Pliny the Elder burned a piece and smelled the pine resin from which it is formed. Nature's translucent golden bauble started out as a sticky brown liquid—a kind of Band-Aid that some trees secrete over wounds—and now is a window into a prehistoric world. In the NOVA documentary Jewel of the Earth, David Attenborough reconstructs a 20-million-year-old Dominican forest ecosystem by examining tiny fauna and flora trapped in the fossilized goo. Some of the most common occupants of the Dominican amber are stingless bees, which collected resin for its antibiotic properties and fell prey to assassin bugs with lots of the sticky stuff slathered on the tips of their legs. A damselfly indicates the forest was brimming with tank bromeliads, tree-dwelling plants with water-filled cups that were also home to tadpoles and marsh beetles. Bamboo seeds caught hairs that were shed by big cats. The amber lens even offers a glimpse into continental drift: a resin-gripped honeypot ant, now resident only in Australia, indicates that that big island down under and the present continent of South America were once one landmass.  —Jessica Ruvinsky

 

OPERA

Aria for the Apocalypse

Doctor Atomic
An Opera by John Adams
Libretto by Peter Sellars

Like a gigantic meatball trussed in a tangle of spaghetti, a wire-wrapped bomb hangs over the stage during the entire second act of John Adams's new opera Doctor Atomic. Beneath the bomb sits a baby's crib. The message is glaringly obvious: The birth of the atomic bomb signaled the death of innocence, not just for the world but for science too.

Or did it? J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project and the "Doctor Atomic" of the title, certainly seemed to think so. In 1947 he told an audience at MIT that "in some sort of crude sense…the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." Yet for all the destruction it wreaked, the dropping of the atomic bomb was only the culmination of a catastrophic war in which tens of millions of people had already been annihilated with the aid of incendiary bombs, gas chambers, and guns. Oppenheimer himself was convinced that the military use of the atomic bomb might eliminate all future wars.

The atomic bomb does, however, lend itself most suitably to the operatic form, revolving as the genre usually does around themes of passion, disaster, and death. Indeed, this is not the first time a contemporary composer has recognized the seemingly limitless potential for atomic Sturm und Drang; two previous operas—Steve Reich's Three Tales and Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach—take as a central symbol the explosion of a nuclear bomb. Doctor Atomic, which had its premiere at the San Francisco Opera last October and will now travel to Chicago and the Netherlands, has passion and death in abundance, as it swirls with both the turmoil of the bomb's creation and the torment churning in Oppenheimer's head.

Set in 1945, the opera focuses first on Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the bomb was built, and then on the Trinity site in Alamogordo, where the bomb was first tested on July 16 of that year. The libretto, by Peter Sellars, is drawn from original conversations, memoirs, letters, and calculations, as well as songs of the Tewa Indians and the poetry of John Donne, whose "Holy Sonnet XIV" ("Batter my heart, three person'd God"), may have inspired Oppenheimer to name the test site "Trinity." A searing aria based on Donne's sonnet and sung by Gerald Finley in the role of Oppenheimer is the high point of Doctor Atomic. Much of the rest of the music is stark and ponderous. And for all its grand themes, the opera does not offer any new insights into the human condition in the atomic age. That Oppenheimer was deeply conflicted is no surprise; that the bomb itself was the incarnation of evil has been reiterated ad nauseam.

Where the opera does succeed dramatically is in re-creating the sense of terror that surrounded the first test at Alamogordo. A violent electrical storm raked the night sky, and there were fears that the blast would generate enough heat to ignite the atmosphere, triggering a chain reaction that would encircle the globe in a sea of fire. In reality, the tremendous roar of the explosion set off a wave of euphoria and dancing among the watchers. In Doctor Atomic, that bomb blast is signaled only with an abrupt silence. A chorus of technicians, flattened on the stage, slowly raise their heads and stare at the audience.  —Josie Glausiusz

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