Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 14

  • Koko, the female gorilla who could use sign language, besides painting and loving kittens, died on June 19th. But Koko was not the first primate to communicate with humans; the fisrt, groundbreaking attempt to make a monkey “talk” was carried out in quite a catastrophic way, as I explained in this old post (Italian only – here’s the Wiki entry).
  • Do you need bugs, butterflies, cockroaches, centipedes, fireflies, bees or any other kind of insects for the movie you’re about to shoot? This gentleman creates realistic bug props, featured in the greatest Hollywood productions. (Thanks, Federico!)
  • If you think those enlarge-your-penis pumps you see in spam emails are a recently-invented contraption, here’s one from the 19th Century (taken from Albert Moll, Handbuch der Sexualwissenschaften, 1921).

  • Ghanaian funerals became quite popular over the internet on the account of the colorful caskets in the shape of tools or barious objects (I talked about it in the second part of this article — Italian only), but there’s a problem: lately the rituals have become so complicated and obsessive that the bodies of the deceased end up buried months, or even several years, after death.
  • This tweet.
  • 1865: during the conquest of Matterhorn, a strange and upsetting apparition took place. In all probability it was an extremely rare atmospheric phenomenon, but put yourselves in the shoes of those mountain climbers who had just lost four members of the team while ascending to the peak, and suddenly saw an arc and two enormous crosses floating in the sky over the fog.
  • The strange beauty of time-worn daguerrotypes.

  • What’s so strange in these pictures of a man preparing some tacos for a nice dinner with his friends?
    Nothing, apart from the fact that the meat comes from his left foot, which got amputated after an accident.

Think about it: you lose a leg, you try to have it back after the operation, and you succeed. Before cremating it, why not taste a little slice of it? It is after all your leg, your foot, you won’t hurt anybody and you will satiate your curiosity. Ethical cannibalism.
This is what a young man decided to try, and he invited some “open-minded” friends to the exclusive tasting event. Then, two years later, he decided to report on Reddit how the evening went. The human-flesh tacos were apparently quite appreciated by the group, with the exception of one tablemate (who, in the protagonist’s words, “had to spit me on a napkin“).
The experiment, conducted without braking any law since in the US there is none to forbid cannibalism, did raise some visceral reactions, as you would expect; the now-famous self-cannibal was even interviewed on Vice. And he stated that this little folly helped him to overcome his psychological thrauma: “eating my foot was a funny and weird and interesting way to move forward“.

  • Since we’re talking disgust: a new research determined that things that gross us out are organized in six main categories. At the first place, it’s no surprise to find infected wounds and hygiene-related topics (bad smells, excrements, atc.), perhaps because they act as signals for potentially harmful situations in which our bodies run the risk of contracting a disease.
  • Did someone order prawns?
    In Qingdao, China, the equivalent of a seafood restaurant fell from the sky (some photos below). Still today, rains of animals remain quite puzzling.

EDIT: This photo is fake (not the others).

  • In Sweden there is a mysterious syndrom: it only affects Soviet refugee children who are waiting to know if their parents’ residency permit will be accepted.
    It’s called “resignation syndrome”. The ghost of forced repatriation, the stress of not knowing the language and the exhausting beaurocratic procedures push these kids first into apathy, then catatonia and eventually into a coma.  At first this epidemic was thought to be some kind of set-up or sham, but doctors soon understood this serious psychological alteration is all but fake: the children can lie in a coma even for two years, suffer from relapses, and the domino effect is such that from 2015 to 2016 a total of 169 episodes were recorded.
    Here’s an article on this dramatic condition. (Thanks, David!)

Anatomy of the corset.

  • Nuke simulator: choose where to drop the Big One, type and kilotons, if it will explode in the air or on the ground. Then watch in horror and find out the effects.
  • Mari Katayama is a Japanese artist. Since she was a child she started knitting peculiar objects, incorporating seashells and jewels in her creations. Suffering from ectrodactyly, she had both legs amputated when she was 9 years old. Today her body is the focus of her art projects, and her self-portraits, in my opinion, are a thing of extraordinary beauty. Here are some of ther works.
    (Official website, Instagram)

Way back when, medical students sure knew how to pull a good joke (from this wonderful book).

  • The big guy you can see on the left side in the picture below is the Irish Giant Charles Byrne (1761–1783), and his skeleton belongs to the Hunterian Museum in London. It is the most discussed specimen of the entire anatomical collection, and for good reason: when he was still alive, Byrne clearly stated that he wanted to be buried at sea, and categorically refused the idea of his bones being exhibited in a museum — a thought that horrified him.
    When Byrne died, his friends organized his funeral in the coastal city of Margate, not knowing that the casket was actually full of stones: anatomist William Hunter had bribed an undertaker to steal the Giant’s valuable body. Since then, the skeleton was exhibited in the museum and, even if it certainly contributed to the study of acromegalia and gigantism, it has always been a “thorny” specimen from an ethical perspective.
    So here’s the news: now that the Hunterian is closed for a 3-year-long renovation, the museum board seems to be evaluating the possibility of buring Byrne’s skeletal remains. If that was the case, it would be a game changer in the ethical exhibit of human remains in museums.

  • Just like a muder mystery: a secret diary written on the back of floorboards in a French Castle, and detailing crime stories and sordid village affairs. (Thanks, Lighthousely!)
  • The most enjoyable read as of late is kindly offered by the great Thomas Morris, who found a  delightful medical report from 1852. A gentleman, married with children but secretly devoted to onanism, first tries to insert a slice of a bull’s penis into his own penis, through the urethra. The piece of meat gets stuck, and he has to resort to a doctor to extract it. Not happy with this result, he  decides to pass a 28 cm. probe through the same opening, but thing slips from his fingers and disappears inside him. The story comes to no good for our hero; an inglorious end — or maybe proudly libertine, you decide.
    It made me think of an old saying: “never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing“.

That’s all for now folks!

Bizzarro Bazar a Palermo

Sorry, this entry is only available in Italiano.

Macabre Masks

The Templo Mayor, built between 1337 and 1487, was the political and religious heart of Tenochtitlán, the city-state in Valley of Mexico that became the capital of the Aztec empire starting from the 15th Century.
Since its remains were accidentally discovered in 1978, during the excavations for Mexico City’s subway, archeologists have unearthed close to 80 ceremonial buildings and an extraordinary number of manufacts from the Aztec (Mexica) civilization.

Among the most peculiar findings, there are some masks created from human skulls.
These masks are quite elaborate: the back of the skull was removed, probably in order to wear them or apply them to a headgear; the masks were colored with dye; flint blades and other decorations were inserted into the eye sockets and nostrils.

In 2016 a team of anthropologists from the University of Montana conducted an experimental research on eight of these masks, comparing them with twenty non-modified skulls found on the same site, in order to learn their sex, age at death, possible diseases and life styles. The results showed that the skull masks belonged to male individuals, 30 to 45-years old, with particularly good teeth, indicating above-average health. From the denture’s shape the anthropologists even inferred that these men came from faraway locations: Toluca Valley, Western Mexico, the Gulf coast and other Aztec towns in the Valley of Mexico. Therefore the skulls very likely belonged to prisoners of noble origins, excellently nourished and lacking any pathologies.

Human sacrifices at the Templo Mayor, for which the Aztecs are sadly known, were a spectacle that could entail different procedures: sometimes the victims were executed by beheading, sometimes through the extraction of the heart, or burned, or challenged to deathly combats.
The masks were produced from the bodies of sacrified warriors; wearing them must have had a highly symbolic value.

If these items survived the ravages of time, it’s because they’re made of bones. But there existed other, more unsettling disguises that have been inevitably lost: the masks made from the flayed skin of a sacrified enemy’s face.

The conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo described these skin masks as tanned to look “like glove leather” and said that they were worn during celebrations of military victories. Other masks, made of human skin, were displayed as offerings on temple altars, just as a number of the skull masks, reanimated by shell and stone eyeballs, noses, and tongues, were buried in offerings at the Templo Mayor. Because a defeated enemy’s former powers were believed to be embedded in his skin and bones, masks made of his relics not only transferred his powers to the new owner but could serve as worthy offerings to the god as well.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Aztec Masks, in Mexicolore, September 2012)

During a month-long ceremony called Tlacaxiphualiztli, “the Flaying of Men”, the skin of sacrified prisoners was peeled off and worn for twenty days to celebrate the war god Xipe Totec. The iconography portrays this god clothed in human skin.

Such masks, wether made of bone or of skin, have a much deeper meaning than the ritual itself. They play an important role in establishing identity:

In Aztec society a warrior who killed his first captive was said to ‘assume another face.’ Regardless of whether this expression referred literally to a trophy mask or was simply a figure of speech, it implies that the youth’s new “face” represented a new social identity or status. Aztec masks therefore must be understood as revelations, or signs, of a person’s special status rather than as disguises […]. In Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs, the word for face, xayacatl, is the same word used to refer to something that covers the face.

(Cecelia F. Klein, Ibid.)

Here is the interesting point: there’s not a single culture in the whole world which hasn’t elaborated its own masks, and they very rarely are simple disguises.
Their purpose is “the development of personality […], or more accurately, the development of the person [which] is a question of magical prestige“: the masks “are actually used among primitives in in totem ceremonies, for instance, as a means of enhancing or changing the personality” (Carl Gustav Jung, The Ego and the Uncoscious, 1928, p. 155).

Much in the same way, the decorated skulls of Templo Mayor are not so “exotic” as we might like to imagine. These manufacts are but a different declination of ideas we are quite familiar with — ideas that are at the very core of our own society.

The relationship between the face (our identity and individuality) and the mask we wear, is a very ancient paradox. Just like for the Aztecs the term xayacatl could indicate both the mask and the face, for us too they are often indistinguishable.

The very word person comes from the Latin “per-sonare”, “to resound through”: it’s the voice of the actor behind his mask.
Greek tragedy was born between the 7th and 5th century BCE, a representation that essentialy a substitute for human sacrifices, as Réné Girard affirmed. One of the most recognized etimologies tells us that tragedy is actually the song of the scapgoat: an imitation of the ritual killing of the “internal stranger” on the altar, of the bloody spectacle with which society cleansed itself, and washed away its most impure, primiteve urges. Tragedy plays – which Athenians were obligated to attend by law, during Dionysus celebrations – substituted the ancestral violence of the sacrifice with its representation, and the scapegoat with the tragic hero.

Thus the theater, in the beginning, was conflict and catharsis. A duel between the Barbarian, who knows no language and acts through natural instinct, and the Citizen, the son of order and logos.
Theater, just like human sacrifice, created cultural identity; the Mask creates the person needed for the mise-en-scene of this identity, forming and regulating social interactions.

The human sacrifices of the ancient Greeks and of the Aztec both met the same need: cultural identity is born (or at least reinforced) by contrast with the adversary, offered and killed on the altar.
Reducing the enemy to a skull — as the Aztecs did with the tzompantli, the terrible racks used to exhibit dozens, maybe hundreds of sacrifice victims skulls — is a way of depriving him of his mask/face, of annihilating his identity. Here are the enemies, all alike, just bleached bones under the sun, with no individual quality whatsoever.

But turning these skulls into masks, or wearing the enemy’s skin, implies a tough work, and therefore means performing an even more conscious magical act: it serves the purpose of acquiring his strength and power, but also of reasserting that the person (and, by extension, society) only exists because of the Stranger it was able to defeat.

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 7

Back with Bizzarro Bazar’s mix of exotic and quirky trouvailles, quite handy when it comes to entertaining your friends and acting like the one who’s always telling funny stories. Please grin knowingly when they ask you where in the world you find all this stuff.

  • We already talked about killer rabbits in the margins of medieval books. Now a funny video unveils the mystery of another great classic of illustrated manuscripts: snail-fighting knights. SPOILER: it’s those vicious Lumbards again.
  • As an expert on alternative sexualities, Ayzad has developed a certain aplomb when discussing the most extreme and absurd erotic practices — in Hunter Thompson’s words, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro“. Yet even a shrewd guy like him was baffled by the most deranged story in recent times: the Nazi furry scandal.
  • In 1973, Playboy asked Salvador Dali to collaborate with photographer Pompeo Posar for an exclusive nude photoshoot. The painter was given complete freedom and control over the project, so much so that he was on set directing the shooting. Dali then manipulated the shots produced during that session through collage. The result is a strange and highly enjoyable example of surrealism, eggs, masks, snakes and nude bunnies. The Master, in a letter to the magazine, calimed to be satisfied with the experience: “The meaning of my work is the motivation that is of the purest – money. What I did for Playboy is very good, and your payment is equal to the task.” (Grazie, Silvia!)

  • Speaking of photography, Robert Shults dedicated his series The Washing Away of Wrongs to the biggest center for the study of decomposition in the world, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. Shot in stark, high-contrast black and white as they were shot in the near-infrared spectrum, these pictures are really powerful and exhibit an almost dream-like quality. They document the hard but necessary work of students and researchers, who set out to understand the modifications in human remains under the most disparate conditions: the ever more precise data they gather will become invaluable in the forensic field. You can find some more photos in this article, and here’s Robert Shults website.

  • One last photographic entry. Swedish photographer Erik Simander produced a series of portraits of his grandfather, after he just became a widower. The loneliness of a man who just found himself without his life’s companion is described through little details (the empty sink, with a single toothbrush) that suddenly become definitive, devastating symbols of loss; small, poetic and lacerating touches, delicate and painful at the same time. After all, grief is a different feeling for evry person, and Simander shows a commendable discretion in observing the limit, the threshold beyond which emotions become too personal to be shared. A sublime piece of work, heart-breaking and humane, and which has the merit of tackling an issue (the loss of a partner among the elderly) still pretty much taboo. This theme had already been brought to the big screen in 2012 by the ruthless and emotionally demanding Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
  • Speaking of widowers, here’s a great article on another aspect we hear very little about: the sudden sex-appeal of grieving men, and the emotional distress it can cause.
  • To return to lighter subjects, here’s a spectacular pincushion seen in an antique store (spotted and photographed by Emma).

  • Are you looking for a secluded little place for your vacations, Arabian nights style? You’re welcome.
  • Would you prefer to stay home with your box of popcorn for a B-movies binge-watching session? Here’s one of the best lists you can find on the web. You have my word.
  • The inimitable Lindsey Fitzharris published on her Chirurgeon’s Apprentice a cute little post about surgical removal of bladder stones before the invention of anesthesia. Perfect read to squirm deliciously in your seat.
  • Death Expo was recently held in Amsterdam, sporting all the latest novelties in the funerary industry. Among the best designs: an IKEA-style, build-it-yourself coffin, but above all the coffin to play games on. (via DeathSalon)
  • I ignore how or why things re-surface at a certain time on the Net. And yet, for the last few days (at least in my whacky internet bubble) the story of Portuguese serial killer Diogo Alves has been popping out again and again. Not all of Diogo Alves, actually — just his head, which is kept in a jar at the Faculty of Medicine in Lisbon. But what really made me chuckle was discovering one of the “related images” suggested by Google algorythms:

Diogo’s head…

…Radiohead.

  • Remember the Tsavo Man-Eaters? There’s a very good Italian article on the whole story — or you can read the English Wiki entry. (Thanks, Bruno!)
  • And finally we get to the most succulent news: my old native town, Vicenza, proved to still have some surprises in store for me.
    On the hills near the city, in the Arcugnano district, a pre-Roman amphitheatre has just been discovered. It layed buried for thousands of years… it could accomodate up to 4300 spectators and 300 actors, musicians, dancers… and the original stage is still there, underwater beneath the small lake… and there’s even a cave which acted as a megaphone for the actors’ voices, amplifying sounds from 8 Hz to 432 Hz… and there’s even a nearby temple devoted to Janus… and that temple was the real birthplace of Juliet, of Shakespearean fame… and there are even traces of ancient canine Gods… and of the passage of Julius Cesar and Cleopatra…. and… and…
    And, pardon my rudeness, wouldn’t all this happen to be a hoax?


No, it’s not a mere hoax, it is an extraordinary hoax. A stunt that would deserve a slow, admired clap, if it wasn’t a plain fraud.
The creative spirit behind the amphitheatre is the property owner, Franco Malosso von Rosenfranz (the name says it all). Instead of settling for the traditional Italian-style unauthorized development  — the classic two or three small houses secretely and illegally built — he had the idea of faking an archeological find just to scam tourists. Taking advantage of a license to build a passageway between two parts of his property, so that the constant flow of trucks and bulldozers wouldn’t raise suspicions, Malosso von Rosenfranz allegedly excavated his “ancient” theatre, with the intention of opening it to the public at the price of 40 € per visitor, and to put it up for hire for big events.
Together with the initial enthusiasm and popularity on social networks, unfortunately came legal trouble. The evidence against Malosso was so blatant from the start, that he immediately ended up on trial without any preliminary hearing. He is charged with unauthorized building, unauthorized manufacturing and forgery.
Therefore, this wonderful example of Italian ingenuity will be dismanteled and torn down; but the amphitheatre website is fortunately still online, a funny fanta-history jumble devised to back up the real site. A messy mixtre of references to local figures, famous characters from the Roman Era, supermarket mythology and (needless to say) the omnipresent Templars.


The ultimate irony is that there are people in Arcugnano still supporting him because, well, “at least now we have a theatre“. After all, as the Wiki page on unauthorized building explains, “the perception of this phenomenon as illegal […] is so thin that such a crime does not entail social reprimand for a large percentage of the population. In Italy, this malpractice has damaged and keeps damaging the economy, the landscape and the culture of law and respect for regulations“.
And here resides the brilliance of old fox Malosso von Rosenfranz’s plan: to cash in on these times of post-truth, creating an unauthorized building which does not really degrade the territory, but rather increase — albeit falsely — its heritage.
Well, you might have got it by now. I am amused, in a sense. My secret chimeric desire is that it all turns out to be an incredible, unprecedented art installations.  Andthat Malosso one day might confess that yes, it was all a huge experiment to show how little we care abot our environment and landscape, how we leave our authenticarcheological wonders fall apart, and yet we are ready to stand up for the fake ones. (Thanks, Silvietta!)

The Carney Landis Experiment

Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.

One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!

In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.

To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.

At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.

He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.

He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.

The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.

Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.

Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 [5], 447-509) came to these conclusions:

1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.

Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.

After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.

There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.

The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.

On facial expressions related to emotions, see also my former post on Guillaume Duchenne (sorry, Italian language only).

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

He had seen the future. He knew the darkness and the light. He always observed the world with no pulling back, in almost cruel honesty, he did not refrain from sharing his own failures. He understood that those very wounds we all carry inside of us, allowed for beauty.
Lately, he looked like a man preparing for death by getting rid of all his masks, one by one.
It’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” This he wrote just few months ago to Marianne Ihlen, the muse who had inspired him, and who was in those days approaching her own death.

Leonard Cohen’s itinerary was tormented, in a constant precarious balance between the two ends of the spectrum of experience: vice and exstasy, depression and  mysticism, excesses and frugality, cynism and romanticism.
Yet it would be useless to search for any trace of self-indulgence or presumption in his words. Just take a look at any interview, and you will see an almost embarassed modesty (back in the day, his legendary shyness brought him much trouble with live performances), and the courtesy of someone who is well aware of the pain of being alive.

This was the focus of his poems, and his musica. The liturgic quality of many of his lyrics was perhaps to him the most natural register to confront the problem of suffering, but he didn’t hesitate to contaminate it with profane elements. In fact his research was always synthetic, an attempt to conciliate the opposites he had lived through: and it also resulted in a patient work of condensing words (five years to write Hallelujah, ten for Anthem). The goal was achieving, as much as possible, a perfection of simplicity.
It led to verses like this one, capable of summarizing in a brief touch the most authentic idea of  love: “You go your way / I’ll go your way too“.

This hunger for transcendence brought the “little Jew” enamoured of the Kabbalah upon different spiritual paths, even locking him up in a Zen monastery — not as a “tourist”, but for six years. Until he realized, as he confessed in his last published single, that his demons had always been shamefully middle-class and boring.

Indeed, that last black jewel, You Want It Darker; a sort of testament or a preparation for the end.
A somber dialogue between the man-Cohen, the Man of every time and latitude, and a God with which no compromise is possible (“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game / If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame”); a God who refuses to stretch out his hand towards man, leaving him lost in his arranged hell (“A million candles burning for the help that never came”).
A cold, enigmatic God, a mystery from which even the Evil seems to stem, so much so that all horror is likely a result of His inscrutable order: if God wants this Earth a little darker, we stand ready to “kill the flame“.
And it is in this desolate landscape that, as a final breath, as an extreme prayer, comes that heartwrenching hineni. “Here I am“, the word Abraham spoke before setting to sacrifice his own son on behalf of the Lord.
I’m ready“, Leonard whispers.

And maybe he really, finally was.

Stoned spiders

1948, University of Tubingen, Germany.
Zoologist H. M. Peters was frustrated. He was conducting a photographic research on the way orb-weaver spiders build their web, but he had encountered a problem: the arachnids he was studying insisted on performing this task of astounding engineering only during the night hours, very early in the morning. This schedule, besides forcing him to get up at an ungodly hour, made photographic documentation quite hard, as the spiders preferred to move in total darkness.
One day Peters decided to call on a collegue, young pharmacologist Dr. Peter N. Witt, for assistance. Would it be possible to somehow drug the spiders, so they would change this routine and start weaving their webs when the sun was already up?

Witt had never had any experience with spiders, but he soon realized that administering tranquilizers or stimulants to the arachnids was easier than he thought: the little critters, constantly thirsty for water, quickly learned to drink from his syringe.
The results of this experiment, alas, turned out to be pretty worthless to zoologist Peters. The spiders kept on building their webs during the night, but that was not the worst part of it. After swallowing the medicine, they weren’t even able to weave a decent web: as if they were drunk, the arachnids produced a twisted mesh, unworthy of being photographed.
After this experience, a disheartened Peters abandoned his project.
In Dr. Witt’s mind, instead, something had clicked.

Common spiders (Araneidae) are all but “common” when it comes to weaving. They build a new web every morning, and if byt he end of the day no insect is trapped, they simply eat it. This way, they are able to recycle silk proteins for weeks: during the first 16 days without food, the webs look perfect. Whe nthe spider gets really hungry, it begins sparing the energy by building a wider-meshes web, suitable to catch only larger insects (the spider is in need of a substantial meal).
After all, for a spider the web isn’t just a way to gather food, but an essential instrument to relate with the surrounding world. Most of these arachnids are almost totally blind, and they use the vibrations of the strands like a radar: from the perceived movements they can understand what kind of insect just snagged itself on the web, and if it is safe for them to approach it; they can notice if even a single thread has broken, and they confidently head in the right direction to repair it; they furthermore use the web as a means of communication in mating rituals, where the male spider remains on the outer edges and rythmically pinches the strings to inform the female of its presence, in order to seduce her without being mistaken for a juicy snack.

peter-witt

During his experimentation with chemicals, Dr. Witt noticed that there seemed to be a significative correspondence between the administered substance and the aberrations that the spiderweb showed. He therefore began feeding the spiders different psychoactive drugs, and registering the variations in their weaving patterns.
Dr. Witt’s study, published in 1951 and revised in 1971, was limited to statistical observation, without attempting to provide further interpretations. Yet the results could lead to a fascinating if not very orthodox reading: it looked like the spiders were affected in much the same way humans react to drugs.

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Under the influence of weed, they started regularly building their web, but were soon losing interest once they got to the outer rings; while on peyote or magic mushrooms, the arachnids movements became slower and heavier; after being microdosed with LSD, the web’s design became geometrically perfect (not unlike the kaleidoscopic visions reported by human users), while more massive doses completely inhibited the spiders’ abilities; lastly, caffeine produced out of control, schizoid results.

Spiderweb after high doses of LSD-25.

Clearly this “humanized” interpretation is not scientific to say the least. In fact, what really interested Witt was the possibility of using spiders to ascertain the presence of drugs in human blood or urine, as they had proved sensitive to minimal concentrations, which could not be instrumentally detected at the time. His research continued for decades, and Witt went from being a pharmacologist to being an entomology authority. He was able to recognize his little spliders one by one just by looking at their webs, and his fascination for these invertebrates never faded.
He kept on testing their skills in several other experiments, by altering their nervous system through laser stimulation, administering huge quantities of barbiturics, and even sending them in orbit. Even in the absence of gravity, in what Witt called “a masterpiece in adaptation”, after just three days in space the spiders were able to build a nearly perfect web.

Near the end of the Seventies, Witt discontinued his research. In 1984 J. A. Nathanson re-examined Witt’s data, but only in relation to the effects of caffeine.
In 1995 Witt saw his study come back to life when NASA successfully repeated it, with the help of statistic analysis software: the research showed that spiders could be used to test the toxicity of various chemicals instead of mice, a procedure that could save time and money.

Anyway, there is not much to worry regarding the fate of these invertebrates.
Spiders are among the very few animals who survived the biggest mass extinction that ever took place, and they are able to resist to atmospheric conditions which would be intolerable to the majority of insects. Real rulers of the world since millions of years, they will still be here a long time — even after our species has run its course.

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Even mice sing.
We have known that for 50 years, but we are only recently beginning to understand the complexity of their songs. Part of the difficulty of studying mice songs lies in their ultrasonic vocalizations, frequencies the human ear cannot perceive: in the wild, this kind of calls happen for example when a mouse pup calls for his mother.

In April, in Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience, a new Duke University research appeared, showing how mice songs are really much more intricate than expected.
Researchers Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, David B. Dunson and Erich D. Jarvis have exposed the mice to different social contexts and, using new specifically elaborated software, they have analysed the frequency modulation and duration of these ultrasonic calls. Researchers have been able to break down the songs into “syllables” and clusters of sound repeated to a certain rythm, and to discover how they vary according to the situation.

If a male mouse is exposed to female urine, and therefore gets convinced that she is somewhere nearby, his singing becomes louder and more powerful, if somewhat less accurate; to awake a sleeping female, he utilizes the same song, but the “syllables” are now pronounced much more clearly.
Female mice seem to prefer songs that are complex and rich in variations; even so, when a male finds himself near an available female, his elaborate courting song switches to a simpler tune. Once the potential mate has been attracted, in fact, our little mouse needs to save energy to chase her around and try to mate.

The mouse’s ability to sing is not as articulate as in songbirds; and yet, changes in the syntax according to social context prove that the songs convey some meaning and serve a precise purpose. Researchers are not sure how much mice are able to learn to modify their vocalizations (as birds do) or how much they just choose from fixed patterns. Forthcoming studies will try to answer this question.

It is nice to better understand the world of rodents, but why is it so important?
The goal of these studies is actually also relevant to humans. In the last decade, we understood how mice are extremely similar to us on a genetic level; discovering how and to what extent they are able to learn new “syllables” could play a fundamental part in the study of  autism spectrum disorders, particularly in regard to communication deficits and neural circuits controlling vocal learning.

Male mice song syntax depends on social contexts and influences female preferences, Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, David B. Dunson, Erich D. Jarvis. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, April 1, 2015.

SynDaver

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Talvolta, non c’è niente di meglio di un cadavere fresco.
Questa può sembrare una battuta, ma basta ragionarci un attimo e risulta subito evidente come lo studio della medicina non possa assolutamente prescindere dal confronto con l’anatomia reale. L’esame autoptico rimane ancora il metodo principe per acquisire quelle conoscenze che nessuna illustrazione, fotografia o modello tridimensionale, per quanto accurato, potranno mai rendere tangibile. Oltre alle dissezioni, i cadaveri possono essere utilizzati per la simulazione di alcuni interventi chirurgici: operare su un corpo morto non è come eseguire la stessa procedura su un corpo vivo, ma può rivelarsi comunque una palestra essenziale prima di un intervento particolarmente difficile. I cadaveri poi, storicamente, sono stati utilizzati anche per altri scopi di ricerca su traumi e ferite, come illustravamo ad esempio in questo vecchio articolo.

Ma l’impiego di corpi reali porta con sé diversi problemi. Innanzitutto vi è sempre una certa penuria di cadaveri su cui sperimentare liberamente: le autopsie vengono effettuate giornalmente a scopi legali, ma seguono procedure evidentemente rigide e controllate, mentre invece sono più rari almeno in Italia i casi di corpi donati alla scienza (complice, da noi, una certa assenza legislativa, come viene bene spiegato qui); ed è proprio sui corpi volontariamente donati alla ricerca che ai medici è consentito fare pratica chirurgica.
Un altro svantaggio dei cadaveri è quello di essere costosi da trasportare, conservare, smaltire. Infine, non sono riutilizzabili.

Ecco che entra in campo la SynDaver Labs. La ditta si occupa da anni di creare modelli ultrarealistici di tessuti, organi, e simulatori medici, realizzati in polimeri che replicano perfettamente le reali consistenze dei vari strati epidermici. Questi organi sintetici vengono utilizzati soprattutto per testare l’efficienza di macchinari clinici, eliminando il bisogno di provarli su vere parti anatomiche animali o umane. Ma è solo recentemente che la SynDaver ha fatto un salto più ambizioso, proponendo il primo cadavere sintetico modulare.

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Si tratta di un modello a grandezza naturale dell’intero corpo umano, ed è “modulare” nel senso che a seconda della necessità può essere accessoriato e reso più complesso dall’aggiunta di sistemi muscolari, sistema circolatorio, tendini, nervi e organi che replicano piuttosto fedelmente le proprietà meccaniche, chimiche, termiche ed elettriche del tessuto vivente. Ma non è tutto.

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Tramite un’applicazione installata su un tablet wireless, la simulazione delle funzioni vitali può essere controllata nei minimi dettagli. Questo “motore fisiologico” risponde agli stimoli come farebbe un corpo reale, adattando e riaggiustando vari parametri: ad esempio il movimento di braccia e gambe, la respirazione, il battito cardiaco ed eventuali aritmie, la dilatazione della pupilla, il battito delle palpebre, temperatura corporea, vasocostrizione, eccetera. Essendo poi il software open source, può essere modificato per adattarsi a qualsiasi situazione si intenda replicare.

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Gli utilizzi, come è intuibile, sono innumerevoli: si va dall’apprendimento delle più basiche forme di pronto soccorso (come posizionare il ferito, come muoverlo, come intubarlo), allo studio dell’anatomia, alla pratica con gli strumenti diagnostici (è possibile usarlo per allenarsi nell’eseguire radiografie, ultrasuoni, fluoroscopie, TAC) fino alla simulazione di veri e propri interventi chirurgici, con tanto di sangue sintetico riscaldato che circola nel sistema vascolare.
Rispetto a un vero cadavere, il vantaggio sta proprio nel fatto che questo corpo è riutilizzabile, smontabile, e adattabile alle più diverse esigenze.

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Certo, un corpo completo non è economico. Il prezzo di un SynDaver Patient dotato di tutti gli accessori è di 85.000 dollari. Ma si sta già lavorando a versioni “basic” più abbordabili, intorno ai 15.000 dollari.
E non dimentichiamo che siamo soltanto all’inizio. Senza dubbio con il passare del tempo la tecnologia diverrà sempre più raffinata, agile ed economica, e questi cadaveri sintetici potranno assumere un ruolo di sempre maggior rilievo in svariati settori clinici.

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Ecco il sito ufficiale di SynDaver Labs.

Robert E. Cornish

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Robert E. Cornish, classe 1903, era un bambino prodigio. Si laureò con lode all’Università della California a soli 18 anni, e conseguì il dottorato a 22. Eppure talvolta una mente brillante può smarrirsi all’inseguimento di sfide perse in partenza e di scommesse impossibili: di sicuro, pur con tutte le sue doti, il Dr. Cornish non eccelleva per lungimiranza.

Così, appena accettato un posto all’Istituto di Biologia Sperimentale presso l’Università, immediatamente si impelagò in una serie di ricerche che non avevano un futuro, come ad esempio un progetto per un paio di lenti che permettessero di leggere il giornale sott’acqua. (Se pensate – a ragione – che questa sia un’idea bislacca, date un’occhiata ai brevetti di cui abbiamo parlato in quest’articolo).

Nel 1932, a ventisette anni, Cornish cominciò ad essere ossessionato dall’idea di poter rianimare i cadaveri. Mise a punto una tavola basculante, una sorta di letto rotante fissato su un fulcro, su cui avrebbe dovuto essere legato il morto da riportare in vita. Ovviamente il decesso doveva essere accaduto da poco, e senza gravi danni agli organi interni: secondo le sue stesse parole, “facendolo muovere in su e in giù, mi aspetto una circolazione artificiale del sangue”.

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Erano gli anni ’30, e non era più facile come un tempo procurarsi dei corpi freschi su cui sperimentare come facevano i “rianimatori di cadaveri” di una volta (vedi questo articolo), ma Cornish riuscì comunque a testare la sua tavola su vittime di attacchi cardiaci, morti per annegamento o folgorati. Purtroppo, nessuno di essi tornò in vita dopo essere stato sbatacchiato in alto e in basso. In un rapporto confidenziale per l’Università della California, Cornish segnalava che dopo un’ora passata a basculare il cadavere di un uomo “il suo volto sembrava essersi improvvisamente riscaldato, gli occhi erano tornati a brillare, e si potevano osservare delle deboli pulsazioni in prossimità della trachea”. Un po’ pochino per affermare che la tecnica fosse efficace.

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Così Cornish decise che, prima di ritentare sugli uomini, sarebbe stato più saggio mettere a punto il suo metodo sugli animali. Nel 1934 iniziò gli esperimenti che gli avrebbero dato la fama e che, allo stesso tempo, avrebbero decretato la fine della sua carriera.

Le vittime sacrificali di queste nuove ricerche erano cinque fox terrier, chiamati (neanche troppo ironicamente) Lazarus I, II, III, IV e V. Per ucciderli, Cornish usò una miscela di azoto ed etere, asfissiandoli fino alla completa cessazione del respiro e del battito cardiaco. Dichiarati clinicamente morti, i cani venivano poi sottoposti alle tecniche sperimentali di rianimazione, che prevedevano – oltre al basculamento –  delle iniezioni di adrenalina ed eparina (un anticoagulante), mentre Cornish aspirava dell’ossigeno da una cannuccia e lo soffiava nella bocca aperta del cane morto.

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Lazarus I, II e III furono un buco nell’acqua, ostinandosi a rimanere deceduti. Ma ecco la sorpresa: nel 1934 e 1935, con Lazarus IV e V, qualcosa effettivamente successe. I cani ripresero conoscenza, e ritornarono a respirare e a vivere. Certo, i danni cerebrali che avevano subito erano irreparabili: i cani erano completamente ciechi e non riuscivano a stare in piedi da soli. Ma la stampa amplificò questo piccolo successo a dismisura, e in breve tempo Cornish acquistò la fama di novello Frankenstein, anche grazie al suo strabismo divergente che gli donava uno sguardo da vero e proprio scienziato pazzo.

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Nel 1935 anche Hollywood cercò di far cassa sulla popolare vicenda, con la realizzazione del (pessimo) film Life Returns, ispirato alle ricerche di Cornish: quest’ultimo compare in una scena del film, nei panni di se stesso, mentre esegue dal vero uno dei suoi esperimenti di “rivitalizzazione” di un cane.

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Forse Cornish pensava che l’esposizione mediatica gli avrebbe consentito maggiori fondi e più libertà di ricerca, ma accadde l’esatto opposto. Questi esperimenti erano un po’ troppo estremi, perfino per la sensibilità del tempo, e l’Università della California di fronte alle proteste degli animalisti decise di bandire Cornish dal campus, e tagliò tutti i ponti con lui.

Ritiratosi nella sua casa di Berkeley, Cornish mantenne un basso profilo per tredici anni. Ogni tanto doveva calmare l’ostilità dei vicini, per via delle fughe di pecore e cani dal suo laboratorio, o per varie esalazioni di componenti chimici che appestavano l’aria e scrostavano la vernice dagli edifici della zona. Ma nel 1947, eccolo ritornare sulla ribalta, affermando di aver finalmente perfezionato la tecnica, e dichiarandosi pronto a resuscitare un condannato a morte. L’audace impresa sarebbe stata tentata, questa volta, senza l’aiuto di tavole basculanti (concetto che aveva ormai completamente abbandonato), ma grazie ad una macchina cuore-polmoni assemblata in maniera artigianale e quantomeno fantasiosa: era composta dall’aspiratore di un aspirapolvere, dal tubo di un radiatore, da una ruota d’acciaio, da alcuni cilindri e da un tubo di vetro contenente 60.000 occhielli per lacci da scarpa.

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Un detenuto del braccio della morte di San Quintino, Thomas McMonigle, condannato per l’omicidio di una ragazzina, si propose volontariamente come cavia – con l’intesa che, se anche l’esperimento fosse riuscito ed egli fosse sopravvissuto alla camera a gas grazie all’apparecchio di Cornish, sarebbe comunque rimasto in carcere.

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Le autorità della California negarono però nettamente la richiesta di Cornish di poter sperimentare con il corpo del condannato a morte. Con quest’ultima sconfitta, la sua ricerca non aveva più alcuna possibilità di continuare. Ritiratosi nuovamente a vita privata, sbarcò il lunario vendendo un dentifricio di sua invenzione, il “Dentifricio del Dottor Cornish”, fino alla sua morte improvvisa nel 1963.