What to Watch, Read and Visit This Month

Our picks explore why Edison electrocuted an elephant named Topsy, a chance to commune with Mendel's peas, and how cartoons taught adults good hygiene.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


What growing up before the camera in the 7 Up series really means

"You will edit this program as you see fit," says Jackie, the subject of a documentary film series that has attempted to capture her life since she was 7 years old. She is speaking to director Michael Apted. "This one may be the first [film] that's about us rather than about your perception of us." She adds, "I cringe when I watch this program."

In the film, 49 Up (First Run Features), which opens on October 6 and will be released on DVD in November, Jackie's exasperation reflects the sentiment of almost half the 11 subjects who, after four decades of participation, seem to have had enough. The movie is the latest installment of an epic project that catches up with the group—representing Britain's upper and lower classes—every seven years. The result is a chronicle of ordinary lives intended to show that people are the product of the socioeconomic environment into which they are born.

The point appears proved. Only one lower-class subject, a Yorkshire farm boy named Nick, seems to rise to the upper middle class, ending up a physics professor. The other subjects uphold Apted's Law. Jackie, a sassy working-class tot, has become a single mother dependent on family and government for assistance. Andrew, a privileged lad who claimed at 7 to read the Financial Times, is a successful lawyer with a pretty wife and two kids.

Granted, the sample size is small, and as Jackie points out, the results are biased by Apted's editing. Still, it is hard to deny that the series is fascinating as a sociological case study. "I think this film is extremely important," says Nick, who goes on to describe how "emotionally draining and wrenching" it is to be interviewed. If anything, it is this extreme discomfort that assures the audience the subjects are portraying themselves authentically. Even so, John, a wealthy subject who openly states that he participates only to promote his charity, dismisses the series as a form of "real-life television with the added bonus that you can see people grow old, lose their hair, get fat.

"But," he asks, "does it have any value?"

It can be argued that the film has more value than many historically important sociological studies, which often depend on questionnaires that attempt to quantify the unquantifiable and rely on college students as subjects. But if this project is dismissed as an imperfect experiment, as it is by many of its participants, perhaps John's question can be answered in a different way by Neil, the only subject who is unrecognizable when compared with his childhood self. The bright, giggling kid in the first film has unkempt hair and a flat affect in the next. At 28 he is homeless, admitting that he has unspecified problems with mental illness. In later films, we see a fellow subject, Bruce, help him establish a life in London, where Neil begins a career in politics. By 49 Up, Neil seems sharp and respected. Did he recover his life because of the camaraderie, attention, and self-examination he experienced from the feedback loop that was a part of being in the 7 Up series? "I see that life comes once, and it's quite short," he says in this latest film, speaking confidently for the first time since he was 7. "And you have to appreciate what's good in it." —Susan Kruglinski and Jocelyn Selim


A trail of ancient genes

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Hero of Socialist Labor and a favorite of Joseph Stalin, rose from poor peasant roots to run the Genetics Institute of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences. From 1927 to 1964, his warped ideas dominated Soviet agriculture. On the basis of dubious experiments, Lysenko postulated that plants could pass environmentally-acquired traits to their offspring, a theory discredited by modern science, not least by the discovery of DNA's structure in 1953. Though his crop programs flopped, all those who opposed Lysenko were ostracized or worse: arrested, confined to insane asylums, sentenced to be shot.

Sean B. Carroll, a geneticist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, sees disturbing parallels between the denial of science in the Soviet Union and the current climate of ignorance surrounding evolution in the United States. Creationists, for example, claim that evolution is a myth, "devoid of any scientific evidence." Yet as Carroll argues in The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution (W. W. Norton, $25.95) the evidence for evolutionary change is written indelibly into our DNA. As scientists race to decode genomes—not just of humans but of bacteria, yeast, chimps, dogs, whales and plants—the number of DNA sequences available for analysis has grown 40,000-fold in the past 20 years, providing unprecedented insight into billions of years of species evolution.

With fervor and clarity, Carroll amasses a glut of facts to refute the twisted logic of the anti-Darwinist camp. Proponents of intelligent design, for example, argue that some supreme being created the first cell four billion years ago with all of its complex biochemical systems complete, including those that were to be used later, say for blood clotting. This, says Carroll, "is utter nonsense that disregards fundamentals of genetics." The rule is "use it or lose it," and indeed, unused DNA code is eroded by constant mutation. For example, the Antarctic icefish, a pale, near-transparent inhabitant of the frigid South Atlantic Ocean, has not only lost its ancestors' power to make oxygen-binding red hemoglobin (which it does not need in the cold oxygen-rich waters) but the two genes that code for hemoglobin have also gone extinct: one has disappeared, and the other remains as a non-coding "molecular fossil," a useless remnant that hints at past use but still resides in the icefish DNA.

Carroll offers much other DNA evidence for evolution. For example, genes for identical traits in unrelated species have evolved independently and repeatedly, suggesting that natural selection acts in similar ways to produce parallel solutions. Both Antarctic and Arctic fish carry antifreeze proteins in their blood, but the genes that code for them not only differ in sequence but arose at different times, since the North Atlantic froze only 2.5 million years ago and the Southern Ocean 10 to 14 million years ago. Carroll also shows how evolution is ongoing in humans: a mutant gene for sickle cell anemia, which protects against malaria, likely evolved in the past 3,200 to 7,700 years—after humans cleared forests for crops and likely encountered malarial mosquitoes, which breed in open pools.

Knowledge of evolutionary biology is not merely for academic dabblers, argues Carroll. The fossil record is littered with once-successful species driven extinct when circumstances changed. The ice-fish itself, though uniquely adapted to frigid waters, could disappear if, as predicted, the temperature of the Southern Ocean rises over the next century. As Carroll concludes, quoting Sir Peter Medawar, "'the alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all.' That is an alternative our species can no longer afford." —Josie Glausiusz 

How Thomas Edison lost the fight over electricity

Edison didn't merely conceive a means of illumination. He designed the practical infrastructure to make it a reality: the generators, power lines, and the form in which electricity would flow. His concept of mass electrification was visionary, but his efforts to impose his plan reveal an odious side of this obsessive genius. AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War (Jossey-Bass, $24.95) charts the demise of Edison's vision of a direct current system and the triumph of alternating current, as promoted by his chief rival, George Westinghouse.

Author Tom McNichol suggests that Edison's obsessive allegiance to DC was guided first by instinct and later by pride. DC sends a constant flow of charge from high to low potential. With AC, the current reverses direction many times each second. The simplicity of DC appealed to Edison's practical mind; AC seemed a fancy European idea. DC had a serious downside, however: Power stations could deliver electricity for only about a mile. Rather than change his position, Edison issued fatuous warnings about AC's "greatly enhanced risks to life and property" and became involved in a smear campaign that began with the public electrocution of dogs, horses, and cattle—experiments purporting to demonstrate the lethality of AC. These efforts culminated in 1903 with the public electrocution of Topsy, a six-ton circus elephant, shown here.

Despite his fearmongering, Edison could not prevail. His own company eventually sidelined him and embraced AC. Ironically, Westinghouse, too, was pushed out by his investors. The golden age of the inventor-capitalist had ended; from now on, the accountants would be in charge. Never one to sit still, Edison had already moved on to other inventions. By the time Topsy was killed, he was on hand with his latest creation, the motion picture camera, to capture the behemoth's death. —Allan Coukell

A Mars of one's own

Road trips seem to inspire deep thoughts, and the arduous journey chronicled by William L. Fox in Driving to Mars (Shoemaker & Hoard, $16) is no exception. Fox accompanies a team of NASA scientists as they drive a refurbished orange Humvee across a frozen channel in the Canadian High Arctic, facing melting sea ice, mechanical breakdown, and the threat of marauding polar bears. Their destination: a dusty crater on the world's largest uninhabited island—the closest thing we have to Mars on Earth. Since 1997, NASA has used the Haughton Crater on Devon Island as a testing ground for rovers, space suits, and other technology being developed for exploration of the Red Planet.

Fox, a poet as well as a space buff, is interested in Mars not only as a literal destination but as a psychological one too. For many years, he writes, Mars was "the blank slate upon which to inscribe fantasies of interplanetary travel," spurring artists, authors, and filmmakers to interpret this unknown world. As data and images from spacecraft increased our scientific knowledge of Mars, the fantasies changed too.

In lyrical prose, Fox ruminates on how these perceptions might influence our attitude toward the planet once human travel is possible. Will we be content to just explore? Or will we want to "terraform" it, modifying the environment to suit our needs? The answers, according to Fox, will come from not only an examination of the science but also the culture of Mars and its place in the human imagination. —Corinna Wu


The inheritance of peas and bees

The Mendel Museum in Brno, Czech Republic, is set on the grounds of the still-active Augustinian abbey that Gregor Mendel called home. Here, the father of genetics famously observed the principles of inheritance in pea plants. Less known is that he applied this work to insects. The low-ceilinged hut of Mendel's 150-year–old apiary, which visitors enter with beeproof hoods, epitomizes the museum's appeal, offering a glimpse into the life of a biological colossus.

By themselves, many of the items on display—like Mendel's glasses and scribbled shopping lists of seeds—might seem mundane, but the presentation is enlivened with contemporary artworks that illustrate the impact of his work. The best of them, Christine Borland's A Treasure of Human Inheritance, is a real-life family tree rendered in translucent agate slices, with each color representing the onset of a symptom of Huntington's disease. In exposing the biological logic behind such inherited diseases, Mendel paved the way for modern-day genetic investigations—a span of progress the humble monk never imagined as he knelt in the abbey soil with his pea plants.

Here in the States, the Field Museum in Chicago has partnered with the Mendel Museum to present the exhibit Gregor Mendel: Planting the Seeds of Genetics, running through April 1, featuring artifacts from the Czech Republic. Homebodies may enjoy the colorful, image-filled companion volume of the same name by Simon Mawer (Harry N. Abrams, $29.95). —Elizabeth Svoboda


Watch cartoons, stay healthy

At the beginning of the last century, three seemingly unrelated concepts emerged and transformed our once dreary and unsanitary world: proper hygiene, public relations, and animated cartoons. Concerned officials at institutions of health (not to mention hawkers of toothpaste and soap) were quick to employ balloon-headed sick people (below) to demonstrate the need for self-care. And so it was probably inevitable that in 1922, before Mickey Mouse ever existed, a young Walt Disney (an obsessive hand washer) would animate dancing toothbrushes for silent films. Disney's fanciful bit of public service, along with many other rare examples of hygienic propaganda for adults, will be screened at The Cartoon Medicine Show: Animated Cartoons From the Collection of the National Library of Medicine, to be shown October 25 and 26 at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. Most interesting are the World War II–era army-commissioned cartoons demonstrating to soldiers with disconcerting levity how to avoid malaria-packing mosquitoes and where to relieve themselves to avoid contaminating their buddies. Also in the lineup are pieces by animation legends Shamus Culhane, Chuck Jones, and Fritz Freleng and a cartoon about the circulatory system improbably directed by Frank Capra, years after he received his Academy Awards and directed It's a Wonderful Life.Susan Kruglinski

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