Sorry, this entry is only available in Italian.
Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.
DAY 6 – THE ANIMALS OF THE EARTH
The well-known detail: A friend of yours posts alarming news on Facebook: due to overpopulation, the number of the living would now have exceeded that of the dead. It honestly seems an exaggeration, and yet you are curious: how many people have lived and died in the whole history of humanity?
The background: This is a rather controversial empirical calculation (1)An excellent study on the history of the calculation of the dead, and its socio-political implications, is How Many People Have Lived on Earth?, by Oded Carmeli, Haaretz, 11 October 2018., which might easily be interpreted for political purposes (or distorted—if necessary—to make more or less plausible predictions about the future of humanity). Furthermore, there are intrinsic methodological problems: the further one goes back in time, the more difficult it is to estimate the effective population size, population growth and life expectancy, not to mention the remotest prehistory in which the same concept of homo sapiens seems to vanish.
If we want a reference number anyway, we can refer to a study by the Population Reference Bureau published in 2018, according to which the number of living human beings (7 and a half billion at the time of the estimate) would constitute about 6.9% of the people born throughout history. The total number of human beings ever appeared on the Planet would therefore be 108.6 billion, of which 101 billion are already dead. The afterlife, it must be said, seems to be quite crowded and its ranks grow with every passing second. (2)If you want to know the data updated in real time, go and check worldometers.info.
But these figures fade if we think of how many animals and plants there are in the world.
Our planet has a radius of 6371 km; the portion that allows life, starting from the air (the lower layers of the atmosphere), passing through the surface and reaching the subsoil, is just 20 km high.
So the biosphere turns out to be just a very thin layer that covers the Earth, yet it houses an inconceivable number of living creatures.
It is estimated that the living species are approximately 8.7 million, of which 370,000 are plants, 23,000 fish, 8700 birds, 6300 reptiles, 4500 mammals, 3000 amphibians, 900,000 insects and 500,000 belong to other taxonomic groups.
We’ve managed to discover and catalogue only a small part of all these species: 86% of land creatures and 91% of marine creatures are still unknown. And many of these will be forever, because climate change is accelerating the process of extinction: many species are disappearing in this very moment, without our having ever noticed their existence.
If the sheer number of species is impressive, the figures become even more inconceivable if we consider the number of specimens for each species.
Let’s focus on animals, for example: how many are there? Once again, we cannot know for sure, but considering insects might give us a rough idea. Ants are about 10,000 quadrillion (that is, million billion). Based on this figure, some scientists estimate that the total number of insects amounts to 10 quintillion, or 10 billion billion.
These are just the insects, to which we must add all other animals—from eagles to squids, from men to reptiles—plants, fungi, protozoa, chromista, bacteria…
The numbers go beyond understanding and we are only ever considering living creatures.
Now try and imagine how many plants and animals have died from the moment life appeared on Earth… if you can.
The Sixth Lesson: Dismantling fake news on overpopulation is easy, but it opens up a dizzying amount of numbers. The biosphere in which we live is at the same time a ‘thanatosphere’: it almost takes your breath away to contemplate the immeasurable quantity of death that supports the swarm of life and melts with it. On the other hand, none of the creatures that have inhabited the planet in the past million years has ever really gone away, they are all still in circulation. This life is already an afterlife.
Note [ + ]
|1.||↑||An excellent study on the history of the calculation of the dead, and its socio-political implications, is How Many People Have Lived on Earth?, by Oded Carmeli, Haaretz, 11 October 2018.|
|2.||↑||If you want to know the data updated in real time, go and check worldometers.info.|
First of all some quick updates on my upcoming activities.
- On November 1st, together with my friend Luca Cableri, I will be a guest of the Trieste Science+Fiction Festival. We will talk about wunderkammer and space, in a conference entitled The Space Cabinet of Curiosities. — November 1st, 10 am, Teatro Miela in piazza L. Amedeo Duca degli Abruzzi 3, Trieste.
- On November 3rd I will speak at Sadistique, the BDSM party organized every first Sunday of the month by Ayzad. The title of my speech: “Pains are my delight”: Erotics of martyrdom. Obviously, given the private context, access is forbidden to the curious and to those who have no intention of participating in the party. Consult prices, rules of conduct and dress code on the event’s official page. — November 3rd, 3-8 pm, Nautilus Club, via Mondovì 7, Milano.
[BTW, Ayzad recently launched his own podcast Exploring Unusual Sex, you can listen to it on Spreaker and Spotify]
- I remind you that on November 14 we will inaugurate the collective art exhib REQVIEM at Mirabilia Gallery in Rome. The exhibition, organized by l’Arca degli Esposti and curated by Eliana Urbano Raimondi and myself, will feature works by 10 international artists within the context of the only Roman wunderkammer. — November 14th, 7 pm, Galleria Mirabilia, via di San Teodoro 15, Roma.
Without further ado let’s start with our selection of links & weirdness!
- In his encyclopedia of natural history L’univers. Les infiniment grands et les infiniments petits (1865) Felix A. Pouchet recounts this case which allegedly happened in 1838 in the French Alps: “A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friends. Some peasants, hearing her screams, hastened to the spot but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of a precipice. The child was not carried to the eagle’s nest, where only the two eagles were seen surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not until two months later that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delec, frightfully mutilared, and lying upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.“
- The Halloween special which caused the death of a young boy, pushing the BBC to pretend it never even aired: a nice video tells its story. (Thanks Johnny!)
- Fungi that turn insects into zombies: I’ve already written about them a few years ago in my little ebook (remember it?). But this video about the cute Entomophthora muscae has some truly spectacular images.
- Seal your grandfather in a glass cube, place it on the lawn instead of garden gnomes; or use his head as a “paper weight or as a door stop“. A 1903 patent which strangely enough didn’t catch on.
- If you are a bit paranoid by nature, don’t read the following sentence: a Japanese stalker who had been harrassing a pop star managed to find out the woman’s address by studying the reflections in her pupils every time she posted a selfie.
- Hollywood’s most famous femme fatale of the silent era was also a goth: the dark sex appeal of Theda Bara.
- When the obsession for shows becomes art: here are some of the fiberglass sculptures by Costa Magarakis. (Thanks Eliana!)
- Italian creativity really tops itself when it’s time to put up a scam. A small business car ran over a wild boar in the Gallura countryside, forest rangers were alerted so that the accident damage could be reimbursed by the municipality. It turned out the boar had been just taken out of a freezer. (Article in Italian, via Batisfera)
- In 1929, the Australian writer Arthur Upfield was planning a detective story and while chatting with a friend he came up with a method for the perfect murder. So perfect in fact, that his novel couldn’t even work, because the detective in the the story would never have solved the case. He needed to find a flaw, one small detail that could expose the culprit. To get out of the impasse the frustrated writer began to discuss the plot with various people. Little did he know that one of these listeners would soon decide to test the method himself, by killing three men.
- I sometimes think back to a little book I had as a kid, Idées Noires by Franquin. Here is an example of the Belgian cartoonist‘s very dark humor.
- A little anecdote on the healing power of music. At the end of the 1950s the great pioneer of free jazz Sun Ra (who claimed to be an alien from Saturn) played a gig at Chicago mental hospital, as an experiment of musical therapy. It is said that a patient, who hadn’t moved or talked in years, got up from her chair, walked over to the piano, and shouted: “You call that music?“
- What would you like to happen to your social media accounts after your death? Here is a handy guide to digital death discussing your various options. (Thanks Kaylee!)
- The more we study plants, the more we get the idea that they could have come kind of conscience. I will quote the opening of this article from last year, including all the relative links: “Under poor soil conditions, the pea seems to be able to assess risk. The sensitive plant can make memories and learn to stop recoiling if you mess with it enough. The Venus fly trap appears to count when insects trigger its trap. And plants can communicate with one another and with caterpillars. Now, a study published recently in Annals of Botany has shown that plants can be frozen in place with a range of anesthetics, including the types that are used when you undergo surgery.“
- If this isn’t enough, meet the mold with 720 sexes.
- In the photo above, model Liliana Orsi exhibits the new “atomic hairdo” created by the Roman hairdresser Eusebio De Luca in 1951, and inspired by the atomic mushrooms of the infamous Bikini atoll tests. Apparently, making this masterpiece of dubious taste took 12 hours of coiffure.
- If you can read Italian, I’ve been interviewed by Obiettivo Investigazione, a forensic science magazine.
- Sophie Blanchard was the first female professional aeronaut, and made 67 ascents in a balloon. She died in 1819 when, while flying over the rooftops of Paris in her hydrogen-inflated balloon, she had the not-so-bright idea of lighting fireworks.
- The always excellent Elizabeth Harper wrote a nice piece on the Sanctuary of the Beheaded in Palermo.
- An since we’re talking about beheadings, I took the above photograph at Vienna’s Kriminalmuseum di Vienna. It is the head of criminal Frank Zahlheim, and on the cultural implications of this kind of specimens I wrote a post last year that you might want to re-read if you’ve got five minutes.
- Greta Thunberg becomes a pretext to clarify what autism and Asperger’s syndrome really are (article in Italian).
- In England, back in the days, whenever someone died in the family the first thing to do was tell the bees.
- To conclude, I leave you with a picture of a beautiful Egyptian mummified phallus (circa 664-332 a.C.). See you next time!
Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.
DAY 5 – THE ANIMALS OF WATER AND HEAVENS
The well-known detail: Around April-May, when plants become luxuriant again after winter hibernation, for many people the nightmare starts again: rhinitis, asthma, conjunctivitis. If you don’t know anyone who is allergic to pollens, maybe you are the one: in Italy, about one person out of five suffers from this chronic disease.
The background: Pollens cause the majority of allergies, but it is wrong to assume that these tiny grains are the only little creatures flying in the wind.
In 1910 some German scholars had already discovered some algae that live in the air; in the 1960s Malcolm Brown of the University of Austin, Texas, noticed that some types of clouds contained certain species of algae along with many other microbes.
Actually, a beautiful and seemingly clear sky is not only crossed by flocks of birds: to date, 1,000 species of bacteria (with a concentration of about 500 per m³), 40,000 varieties of fungal spores and hundreds of algae have been detected in the air, along with mosses, protozoans and liverworts.
Not to mention the most minute insects or those spiders that produce a spider’s web and let it swing until a draught lifts them in flight and then drops them off many miles away.
Aerobiologists, who study this biodiversity throbbing in the atmosphere, use the term ‘aeroplankton’ to define these floating organic particles as a whole, by analogy with the floating aquatic organisms carried by sea currents or freshwater pools.
Aeroplankton literally means “wandering in the air”: although unable to fly autonomously, some of these living creatures eat, evacuate and even reproduce in the sky.
The Fifth Lesson: Try and imagine that the sky is like the sea. Trees and plants grow attached to the seabed, mammals and other land creatures crawl and walk over them. We are also there, submerged under thousands of meters of an ethereal substance, where countless tiny creatures frantically move. Above the surface of this enormous ocean that covers everything, nothing is left but the sidereal cold.
This image – which is not so visionary, as we have learned – may not provide a relief against allergy symptoms … but our small daily problems are going to be less burdensome when looked at from this perspective, bearing in mind that we are part of a strange, absurd, gigantic bubble in which everything is impregnated with life.
Today Bizzarro Bazar is 10 years old.
I don’t want to indulge in self-congratulations, but allow me a little pride because this is quite an achievement — for all of us.
In a dimly lit room, a thirty year old man is typing on a laptop.
The Internet was a different place then, so much so that it feels like a century ago.
Michael Jackson had died less than two months earlier, the news causing all major word websites to crash. Facebook was starting to outnumber MySpace. SMS were the only way to text your friends; in Italy perhaps a dozen people were testing this new esoteric thing called Whatsapp.
The Web looked promising. Many were convinced the internet would be the key to improving things, canceling boundaries and distances, promoting solidarity, forging a new, connected and cooperative humanity.
One fundamental tool for the imminent social revolution (there was no doubt about this) would be blogs, as they were the main tools to democratize culture, making it freely available to all.
If you were looking for a website dedicated to the macabre and the marvelous, you would have surely come across the glorious Morbid Anatomy, which back then was at its peak; there were a few good thematic blogs, but nothing in Italian.
So that afternoon of August 20th I registered the name of this blog on WordPress, wrote a welcome post (with a nod to Monty Python), and I sent an email to a dozen friends inviting them to take a look. My hope was that at least some of them would be interested for a month or two. I needed to tell someone how incredible, terrible and amazing this reality we often take for granted seemed to me. How many unexpected treasures hide behind those things that terrify us most, if we only care to understand.
CUT TO: August 2019.
In a dimly lit room, a forty year old man is typing on a laptop.
The magical world of the internet has changed, and it no longer feels that magical.
Many feel harassed by its ubiquitous tentacles that crush every cell of time and life. Users have become customers, and you don’t need to be a hacker to know that the Web is full of dangers and traps. The Internet is today a privileged tool for those who want to spread fear and hatred, erase all diversity, strengthen barriers and boundaries instead of overcoming them. At first glance it would seem that the dream has been crushed.
Yet I am still here, writing on the very same blog. The Internet has remained in many ways an extraordinary space in which new initiatives are organized, different points of view are discovered, in which at times you may even change your mind.
What has all this got to do with a little blog about death, taboos, freakshows, bizarre collections and historical oddities?
In a sense I believe that here, you and I are doing an act of resistance. Not so much in a political sense — the polis cares about what happens inside or around the city walls — but some kind of cultural resistance. One might say we are resisting banality, and reduction of complexity. The lovers of the bizarre are people who prefer questions over answers, and want to explore ever stranger places.
In spite of the incalculable hours I spent studying, writing, answering all the questions from readers (and fixing bugs and server issues, damn), Bizzarro Bazar has always remained an ad-free, uncensored space.
With its 850 posts, it now looks like a mini-encyclopedia of the weird & wonderful. And if I reread some bits here and there, I can see my writing style gradually evolve thanks to your advice and your criticisms.
The web series I released this year on YouTube is a fundamental step in this long journey, carried out with passion and some sacrifices. We have invested so much effort, so many resources in it, and your response has been enthusiastic.
Many of you have expressed the hope that there might be a second season, so let’s get to the point: for the first time Bizzarro Bazar is summoning its army of freak and heretic followers!
We started a campaign on the Italian crowdfunding website produzionidalbasso.com to finance the new season.
Here is the video for our project (be sure to turn on the English subtitles):
This is our only chance at the moment to keep the most anomalous Italian web series alive. But in reality it means much more.
If you help us, what will see the light will no longer be “the Bizzarro Bazar series”, but your own series.
The (Google-translated) page for our campaign is available at THIS LINK.
Shortlink to copy and share with friends: bit.ly/bizzarrobazar
Note: for us, the best method to receive a donation is by credit card/wire transfer, because PayPal is bleeding us with very high commissions, but shhhh, I didn’t tell you anything. 😉
Thank you all for these unbelievable ten years, thanks if you’ll be kind enough to consider donating… and to those who will shamelessly spam our project among their acquaintances.
Still and always, vive la Résistance! — in other words,
The Corpse on Stage
Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.
Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible.
With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.
Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.
Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.
However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.
The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.
Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).
Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.
The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.
But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.
Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.
A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.
De Raadt writes about this picture:
This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.
In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.
The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.
Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.
This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).
A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.
With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.
Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.
With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.
Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.
This article is a spin-off of my previous post on the relationship between anatomy and surrealism.
We have all heard of particle accelerators, if only for the “discovery” of the Higgs boson a few years ago.
And there are just two questions laymen like us ask themeselves about these machines:
1. What the heck are accelerators anyway, and how do they work?
2. What happens if I put my hand in a functioning particle accelerator?
Okay, maybe I’m the only one asking the second question.
Anyway, regarding question #1, CERN’s official website puts it this way:
An accelerator propels charged particles, such as protons or electrons, at high speeds, close to the speed of light. They are then smashed either onto a target or against other particles circulating in the opposite direction. By studying these collisions, physicists are able to probe the world of the infinitely small.
When the particles are sufficiently energetic, a phenomenon that defies the imagination happens: the energy of the collision is transformed into matter in the form of new particles, the most massive of which existed in the early Universe. This phenomenon is described by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, according to which matter is a concentrated form of energy, and the two are interchangeable.
As for the second question, from a quick search it turns out that I’m not the only fool asking it: on the internet, as soon as one claims to be working on an accelerator, he or she is overwhelmed by the requests of those who can’t wait to get hit by a bundle of protons in the hope of acquiring superpowers.
Even some physicists at CERN have tried to answer the age-old question of the hand-in-the-accelerator, in the first 4 minutes of this video.
And yet, either because they might know everything about physics but they’re not doctors, or because it is too childish and frivolous a question, these luminaries seem rather clueless and their attempts to answer can be summed up in a quite embarrassed “we don’t know”. (How come they didn’t prepare a better answer? Has no one ever asked them stupid questions before?)
Well, no harm done, because on this delicate issue the only scientist whose answer I would blindly trust is not at CERN, but in Russia.
His name is Anatoli Bugorski, and he didn’t put his hand in a particle accelerator… he stuck his whole head in one.
On 13 July 1978 Bugorski was inspecting the U-70 synchrotron at the Institute of High Energy Physics in the city of Protvino.
Inaugurated in 1967, this circular accelerator with a perimeter of 1.5 km had held the world record in beam energy for five years (the “70” refers to the amount of gigaelectronvolts it can reach in its final phase); and still today it is the most powerful accelerator in all of Russia.
Inspecting such a monster is not quite like opening the hood of your car anche and checking the engine – although, for this writer, these two activities are equally esoteric. To perform maintenance that morning, Burgoski had to actually slip into the accelerator circuit. Therefore, before heading downstairs, he told the control center to turn off the beam in the next five minutes.
He arrived at the experimental room a minute or two in advance, but did not pay it too much attention because he found the door was open; furthermore, the safety signal was off, meaning that the machinery was no longer in operation. “How efficient, my good old pals, up at the station! – he must have thought – Knowing I was coming down here, they’ve already turned everything off.”
All being nice and quiet, he decided to open the accelerator.
What he didn’t know was that the door had been left ajar by mistake; and that the light bulb inside the warning sign had just burned out.
As soon as he peeked inside the corridor, his head was instantly pierced by a beam of protons of 2×3 millimeters in size, shot at a dizzying speed.
Burgoski saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns”, as the beam entered the back of the skull and, in a fraction of a second, burned a straight line through his brain, coming out near his left nostril.
The whole thing was too fast for Burgoski to feel any pain; but not fast enough (at least, this is what I like to imagine) to prevent him from mentally cursing the security staff.
Burgoski was taken to the infirmary, and within a short time the left half of his face was swelling. The beam had pierced his middle ear, and the wound continued to slowly burn the nerves in his face. But the real problem was radiation.
In that thousandth of a second, Bugorski had been exposed to a radiation of 200,000 / 300,000 röntgen, which is 300 times greater than the lethal amount.
To the scientists, this unfortunate graduate student had suddenly become an interesting case study.
Burgoski’s days were numbered, so he was rushed to a clinic in Moscow to be placed under observation during what were presumably the last couple of weeks of his life. Scholars came from all over just to watch him die, because no one before him had ever been the victim of such a concentrated beam of radiation, as this article in The Atlantic reminds us:
unique to Bugorski’s case, radiation was concentrated along a narrow beam through the head, rather than being broadly distributed from nuclear fallout, as was the case for many victims of the Chernobyl disaster or the bombing of Hiroshima. For Bugorski, particularly vulnerable tissues, such as bone marrow and the gastrointestinal track, might have been largely spared. But where the beam shot through Bugorski’s head, it deposited an obscene amount of radiation energy, hundreds of times greater than a lethal dose.
Yet, in spite of any prediction, Burgoski did not die.
Following the accident he completely lost hearing from his left ear (replaced by a tinnitus), suffered epileptic seizures and facial hemiparesis for the rest of his life. But apart from this damage, which was permanent but not lethal, he recovered his health completely: within 18 months he was back to work, he completed his doctorate and continued his career as a scientist and experimental coordinator.
He was forbidden from talking about his accident until the end of the 1980s, due to Russia’s secrecy policy surrounding anything even remotely connected with nuclear power. Burgoski is still alive and well at the age of 77.
Maybe his story does not exactly answer our childish question about what would happen if we stuck our hand inside an accelerator, but it can give us a rough idea.
As summarized by Professor Michael Merrifield in the aforementioned video:
One, two, three!
Watch the elephants standing
All the fleas jump
Watch out, here comes the trainer!
Vinicio Capossela, I pagliacci (2000)
Fleas that pull carriages and horses, fleas diving into a glass of water from the top of a trampoline, duelling with tiny swords, even shooting themselves from a miniature cannon just like the most famous human cannonballs.
The circus has always thrived on the most extreme, impossible challenges, as only the ordinary is left out of the Big Top. It is therefore only natural that classical animal trainers – who made dangerous and enormous beasts bend the knee – would be featured alongside the opposite end of the spectrum, those tamers who managed to make microscopic creatures perform exceptional stunts.
This is why the Flea Circus is one of the most enduring (albeit misunderstood) sideshow acts.
First of all, let’s address the question that might already cross your mind: are there any fleas in these shows at all, or is it just an optical illusion?
The short answer is that yes, in the beginning real fleas would be used; then gradually the number slipped into the field of illusionism.
It is worthwhile, however, to enjoy the longer answer, retracing the fascinating story of this strange entomological circus – which was invented by an Italian.
A Brief History of the Microscopic Circus
It all started when, in 1578, a London blacksmith named Mark Scalliot, in order to show off his skill, built a tiny lock complete with a key made of iron, steel and brass, for the total weight of “a grain of gold”. He then forged a golden chain composed of 43 rings, so thin that it could be tied around the neck of a flea. The insect pulled the padlock and the key with it.
Almost two centuries later, in the attempt to replicate Scalliot’s publicity stunt, a watchmaker named Sobieski Boverick built an ivory mini-carriage “with figures of six horses attached to it—a coachman on the box, a dog between his legs, four persons inside, two footmen behind, and a postillion on the fore horse, all of which were drawn by a single flea”.
In the 1830s, inspired by these two predecessors, the Genoese emigrant Luigi Bertolotto employed the little pests for the first time in a circus context, exhibiting his trained fleas in Regent Street.
Following in Boverick’s steps, he too proposed the number of the flea pulling a carriage with horses – an element that would later become a mainstay of the genre – but his show went far beyond that: with the typical Italian taste for theatricality, Bertolotto turned his fleas into proper actors.
He made tiny custom-made suits, and delighted his audience with several tableaux vivants featuring several fleas at a time. First of all there was the Arab scene which saw the Sultan as protagonist, with his harem and the odalisques; then came the hematophagous version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
One of the highlights was when the insects did a pocket-size reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo, in which the amused spectators could recognize Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Blücher, all dressed in uniform. Another part of the show was the fancy ball, in which a pair of insects dressed in gorgeous clothes danced accompanied by an orchestra of 12 elements.
The public was astonished and laughed at the evident satire: here is the lavish world of high society, miniaturized and ridiculed; here are some great war heroes, personified by the lowest animals in all creation. You could have crushed with one finger even the Emperor himself.
Bertolotto became the first (and last) true flea superstar; his fortune was such that he left for an international tour, finally settling in Canada. Imitators soon began to appear, and although they never topped his fame they spread the flea taming act throughout the world.
There were many incarnations of the Flea Circus, ranging from the most basic street performance, often employing a simple suitcase as a stage where fleas made elementary stunts, to more elaborate versions.
The last great flea manager was in all probability William Heckler, a circus performer who at the beginning of the 20th century left his career as a strongman to devote himself full-time to fleas. After touring the United States far and wide, in 1925 his circus became part of the Hubert’s Museum in Times Square.
Here for a few dollars you could see Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar (who would later appear in Tod Browning’s Freaks), Olga the Bearded Woman, Suzie the Elephant-Skinned Girl, and snake charmer Princess Sahloo. Another, smaller princess performed in the museum’s cellar: Princess Rajah, the flea who played the role of the oriental dancer in Professor Heckler’s circus.
In addition to performing traditional athletic feats, such as jumping into a hoop or kicking a ball, Heckler’s fleas played a xylophone (allegedly made of nail clippings), juggled small balls, and staged boxing matches on a miniature ring. Heckler continued to work with his mini-cast until the 1950s: at the height of his success, his show could yield more than $250 a day, the current equivalent of $3,000.
The Infernal Discipline, or How To Tame A Flea
Human fleas, in spite of their annoying bites and the fact that they can be carriers of plague and other dangerous diseases, are actually really extraordinary insects.
Imagine you could jump more than 90 meters vertically, leaping over the Statue of Liberty, and 230 meters horizontally. This, in proportion, is the ability of the pulex irritans.
The muscles of its hind legs are not the only ones responsible for this incredible propulsive force: in fact they prepare the jump by compressing and slowly distorting an elastic pad composed of resilin, which during this “charging” phase is kept locked by a tendon, and can thus store muscle energy. When it comes to jumping, the tendon snaps back into position therefore releasing the pad. The flea takes off with a dizzying acceleration of 100 times the force of gravity. To put things in perspective, a person can only withstand a vertical acceleration of 5g before passing out.
You might then understand how the first and biggest problem a trainer had to solve was how to convince his fleas not to jump off the scene.
For this purpose the insects were kept for a long time in a test tube: they would hit their heads on the glass until they learned that jumping was not an appropriate behavior. A more drastic remedy consisted in gluing them onto the stage or tying them to some object, but this could only work for those elements of the “cast” that were supposed to remain still (for instnace the orchestra players).
As for all the other fleas, which had to perform more complex actions, it was necessary to select those that showed a more docile character (usually females); the bridle was assigned only to the slower ones, which were destined to pull carriages and carts, while the more lively ones became soccer players or divers. All this, of course, if we are to trust the literature of the time on the subject.
In order to force these little daredevils to perform their stunts, various techniques were used – although, to be honest, it’s a bit difficult to view these tricks as a proper “training”.
In fact, if you look at it from a flea’s point of view, the circus appears to be a place of cruelty and terror, in which a sadistic and gigantic jailer is subjecting his prisoners to an endless series of tortures.
Towing fleas were harnessed with a very thin thread of cloth or metal passed around their head; once positioned, this leash would remain there for the insect’s entire life. The difficult part was to exert the right binding pressure, because if the thread was fastened too tight then the flea could no longer swallow, and died.
As for saber-fencing fleas, two small pieces of metal were glued to their frontal limbs; naturally the insects tried to get rid of them, shaking their paws in vain, thus giving the impression of dueling each other.
Soccer players were selected among the fleas that jumped higher: a ball was soaked in insect repellent (often citronella oil, or a disinfectant like Listerine), then pushed towards them as they were kept in a vertical position, and they kicked it away with their hind legs.
Similar trick was used for juggling fleas which were fixed or glued on their back, with their paws up in the air; as they tried to get rid of the toxic ball that was placed over them, they made it roll and spin.
As for the musicians and dancers, an article from 1891 describes the show in detail. Two “dancers” are glued each to one end of a piece of golden paper:
They are placed in a reversed position to each other – one looking one way, the other another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea’s Waltz.
To balance all this horror, let us point out that the flea trainer personally nourished all his precious professionals with his own blood. For the parasites it was certainly a rough and hectic life, but at least they never skipped a meal.
Now you see me, now you don’t:
Illusory Fleas & The Zeitgeist
There does not seem to be a vast literature on fake fleas.
What is certain is that “flea-circuses-without-fleas” began to exist alongside the authentic ones as early as the 1930s. The circus act continued shifting towards the sphere of illusionism and magic until the 1950s, when particularly elaborate versions of the trick began to appear and trainers stopped using real fleas.
Michael Bentine, one of the members of the Goons, had his own circus in which non-existent fleas pushed balls along inclined planes, jumped on a table covered with sand (each jump was “visualized” via a puff of sand), climbed a ladder by “pressing” one step at a time, and splashed into a glass of water. Other fake trainers used magnets and wires to drop the obstacles allegedly knocked off by running fleas, while electric or mechanical gimmicks operated the trapeze and moved the fake fleas balancing on a wire; some mentalists even exploited invisible “telepathic fleas” to read in the minds of the spectators.
Today only one well-known circus still uses real fleas: it is the Floh Circus, which makes its appearance every year at Oktoberfest.
The rest of the few circuses in circulation are all based on illusion: one of the most famous is the Acme Miniature Flea Circus, run by Adam Gertsacov. According to him, this type of show is the purest and most suitable for our times, precisely because it is based on uncertainty:
People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.
Perhaps these fake flea circuses imprudently rely on a kind of naivety which no longer exists.
Yet it is true that, in a time when our perception is constantly challenged, these deceptive gadgets take on an unexpected symbolic meaning. Although designed to be harmless and amusing, they are based on the same principles as the far more menacing deep fakes and all those hate and fear narratives we are daily subjected to: every illusion really only works if we want to believe it.
And while Gertsacov and his colleagues continue to claim the superiority of the art of story-telling over mere reality, the fleas – the real ones – are thankful it’s all over.
Most of the information in this article comes from Dr Richard Wiseman’s Staging a Flea Circus, which contains many other curiosities (for example on the difficulties of finding flea supplies), and from Ernest B. Furgurson, A Speck of Showmanship, in The American Scholar, June 3, 2011.
A good study directory on fleas and their history is The Flea Circus Research Library.
Forget icecream: to fight the heat, nothing better than some icy and chilling reads, directly from my (mortuary) freezer!
- James Hirst (1738-1829) used to ride on a bull he had trained; he kept foxes and bears as pets; he built a wicker carriage so large that it contained a double bed and an entire wine cellar; he installed a sail on his cart, so as to navigate on land, but at the first road bend he ended up flying through a tailor’s window; he saved himself from a duel to the death by placing a dummy in his place; he received dozens of garters from English noblewomen in exchange for the privilege of standing inside his self-constructed eccentric coffin; he refused an invitation from the King because he was “too busy” teaching an otter the art of fishing. (I, on the other hand, have vacuumed the house today.)
- Jason Shulman uses very long exposures to photograph entire films. The result is spectacular: a one-image “summary” of the movie, 130,000 frames compressed in a single shot. “Each of these photographs — says Shulman — is the genetic code of a film, its visual DNA“. And it is fascinating to recognize the contours of some recurring shots (whose imprint is therefore less blurry): the windows of the van in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the static scenic desing in Méliès movies, the bokeh street lights of Taxi Driver. And I personally never thought about it, but there must be so many close-ups of Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat, in order to make that ghostly face appear… (Thanks, Eliana!)
- Since we’re talking about photography, take a look at Giovanni Bortolani’s manipulations. In his Fake Too Fake series he has some fun slicing up and reassembling the body of beautiful male and female models, as in the example above. The aesthetics of fashion photography meets the butcher counter, with surreal and disturbing results.
- It’s still taboo to talk about female masturbation: so let’s talk about it.
A nice article on L’Indiscreto [sorry, Italian only] recounts the history of female auto-eroticism, a practice once considered pathological, and today hailed as a therapy. But, still, you can’t talk about it.
- While we’re at it, why not re-watch that nice Disney cartoon about menstruation?
- I thought I’d found the perfect summer gadget, but it turns out it’s out of stock everywhere. So no beach for me this year. (Thanks, Marileda!)
- You return to your native village, but discover that everyone has left or died. So what do you do to make this ghost town less creepy? Easy: you start making life-size rag dolls, and place them standing motionless like scarecrows in the fields, you place them on benches, fill the empty classrooms, you position them as if they were waiting for a bus that’ll never come. Oh, and you give these puppets the faces of all the dead people from the village. Um. Ms. Ayano Tsukimi is so lovely, mind you, and her loneliness is very touching, but I haven’t decided yet whether her work is really “cheerful” and poetic, as some say, or rather grotesque and disturbing. You decide.
- If you can readItalian well, there is a beautiful and fascinating study by Giuditta Failli on the irruption of the Marvelous in medieval culture starting from the 12th century: lots of monsters, skeleton armies, apparitions of demons and ghosts. Here is the first part and the second part. (Thanks, Pasifae!)
- What is this strange pattern above? It is the demonstration that you can always think outside the box.
Welcome to the world of heterodox musical notations.
- But then again music is supposed to be playful, experimental, some kind of alchemy in the true sense of the term — it’s all about using the elements of the world in order to transcend them, through the manipulation and fusion of their sounds. Here’s another great nonconformist, Hermeto Pascoal, who in this video is intent on playing a freaking lagoon.
- “I am going to seek a great perhaps“, said François Rabelais as he laid dying.
“Now I am about to take my last voyage, a great leap in the dark“, Thomas Hobbes whispered.
“Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!” Karl Marx muttered in his last breath.
Have you prepared your grand, romantic, memorable last words? Well, too bad that you probably won’t get to say them. Here is an interesting article on what people really say while they’re dying, and why it might be important to study how we communicate during our last moments.
- Speaking of last words, my favorite ones must be those pronounced by John Sedgwick on May 9, 1864 during the Battle of Spotsylvania. The heroic general urged his soldiers not to retreat: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Soon after he had said this, a bullet reached him under his left eye, killing him on the spot.
- The always great Nuri McBride on the Great Stink of London, a.k.a. that time when the Thames was “a Stygian pool, reeking with ineffable and intolerable horror“.
- Speaking of scents, I bet you are familiar with the nice good smell of freshly mown lawn.
It’s caused by each blade of grass screaming in agony. You’re welcome.
- At least dried leaves have already stopped suffering, so artist Susanna Bauer uses them to craft amazing crochet works.
- Here is a series of wonderful Victorian illustrations of animals slaying people.
- “Let’s get this party started!” These cheerful and jovial gentlemen who, with admirable enthusiasm, pop their eyes out of their sockets with knives, are celebrating the Urs festival, an event held every year at Ajmer in Rajasthan to commemorate the death of Sufi master Moʿinoddin Cishti. You can find more photos of this merry custom in this article.
- And finally here is a really wonderful short film, recommended by my friend Ferdinando Buscema. Enjoy it, because it is the summary of all that is beautiful in mankind: our ability to search for meaning in little things, through work and creation, and the will to recognize the universal even in the humblest, most ordinary objects.