I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’
She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. (Steven Wright)
This year the seven issues of the #ILLUSTRATI magazine by Logos Edizioni are each inspired by a Genesis day. Even my column in the magazine will have to stick to this line;I therefore decided to offer readers seven self-help lessons, parroting those “personal growth” books and courses which — despite being often laughable — people seem to like so much. In each issue I will start from a well-known detail and try to re-enchant it, by revealing the surprising background that lies behind that banality.
The first two “days” have already been published; here you can find both of them, in a double post.
Seven little lessons to rediscover our everyday life.
Seven days for the Creation… of a new perspective.
DAY 1 – AND THERE WAS LIGHT
The well-known detail: In our room, we turn on the light: a mechanical gesture we take for granted, and repeat every day. We don’t even look at that switch anymore, and we find nothing special in the bulb lighting up the room.
Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse.
The background: The flow of electric charge can be unidirectional (direct current, DC) or reverse direction many times a second (alternating current, AC). At the end of the 1880s, Thomas Edison had developed the direct current system, which was reliable but had a serious issue: it could cover a distance of only one mile off the power plant where the current was produced. George Westinghouse’s alternating current, instead, could be efficiently transmitted over long distances, but at that time it was a complex and experimental system which was not sufficiently understood even by engineers.
In order to corner this emerging market, the Edison and the Westinghouse companies embarked on a no-holds-barred propaganda campaign, which was called “the War of the Currents” by the press. Each of them claimed his own solution was better and safer than the other one; during this controversy, Harold Brown, an electrical engineer (no one had ever heard about him before), decided to take side and launched a crusade against AC. Determined to demonstrate how dangerous the alternating current was, he paid some local children to collect hundreds of stray dogs off the streets, then he killed the dogs one by one, connecting them to a generator of the kind used by Westinghouse. He claimed his tests undoubtedly proved how risky it was to use AC—but indeed, his study didn’t follow a scientific method. Brown decided to give a public demonstration of his ‘findings:’ on the 30th of July 1888, he subjected a dog to several shocks of direct current up to 1000 volts (to prove the animal would survive). When he applied a 330-volt shock of alternating current, the animal died with a last, ghastly bark. This show had a boomerang effect, because it only achieved the result of scandalizing the audience: not only was the experiment uselessly cruel but, since the dog received the lethal shock when he was already exhausted by the previous ones, this brutal charade did not prove at all that one kind of electricity was more dangerous than the other. For this reason, four days later, Brown repeated his demonstration and this time killed three dogs with one single 330-volt shock of AC. But even this attempt did not achieve the desired result of swaying public opinion, since shortly afterwards it turned out that Harold Brown wasn’t an independent researcher but Edison had hired him in order to discredit his competitor.
The War of the Currents reached its peak in 1890 when the State of New York decided to replace hanging with the electric chair. Under Edison’s pressure, they opted for AC as “lethal current.” It was a body blow to Westinghouse, who in the meantime had managed to get Nikola Tesla’s patent for a polyphase induction motor. Thanks to this and other technical improvements, Westinghouse won the war and, in 1895, brought to completion a huge power plant on the Niagara Falls.
Edison never resigned to the defeat. In 1903, he volunteered to electrocute with alternating current Topsy, a female elephant guilty, it is claimed, of killing two circus keepers. On the 4th of January, at 2.45 pm, the pachyderm was electrocuted with a 6600-volt shock, in front of Edison’s cameras filming the execution. But not even this last macabre feat succeeded in giving a bad name to alternating current, which had already become the standard both in the US and in Europe. And which still turns on our lightbulbs today.
The moment of Topsy’s electrocution.
The First Lesson: Current is “all well and good,” it is even fundamental, but it costed the life of a lot of animals, sacrificed in such an insane way only to win a patent war. This may suggest us an uncomfortable but essential thought—light is often matched with shadow, and every glow necessarily involves some darkness. As Bob Dylan sings: “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.”
DAY 2 – THE FIRMAMENT
The well-known detail: Every morning we go to work, we take a quick look at the sky, just to see if there is any cloud. We know who we are and what we have to do. Every evening we come back home at nightfall, just when the first stars appear. We never think about the stars and how absurd they are. We have worked, so we know who we are.
Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, 2014.
The background: We easily forget that the universe is still a total mystery. Its shape, how it began, how it is going to end, what was there before, what is coming after: these are basically fields of speculation. Notwithstanding the huge amount of data collected and evaluated, and despite the numerous theories developed, astrophysicists and cosmologists are often puzzled by what they see. We could say that surprise is the rule in astrophysics.
The matter we are able to see, with our telescopes and other detection instruments, sometimes behaves in such an unexpected way that we need to postulate the existence of something else in order to explain its dynamics.
In other words, since what we observe doesn’t completely add up, there must be something more —and it’s not a small part of it, since we are talking about 95%: researchers conjectured that we can see only 5% of the entire universe.
One of the most complex phenomena to understand is the expansion of the universe.
Immediately after the initial explosion, the universe started expanding very fast; but the gravitational attraction between galaxies slowed down this process and, just like a balloon being almost completely inflated, the universe started to decelerate its expansion. This deceleration led the astronomers to think that in a very distant future everything would stop and cool down. This was the ultimate fate of the universe they envisioned, unless, at a certain point, the process would reverse into the so-called Big Crunch (the opposite of the Big Bang).
This vision remained nearly unchanged during the last century, until in 1998 two different teams of researchers independently made the same disconcerting discovery. It seems that the universe kept on decelerating its expansion during the first half of its existence. And then, some 6 or 7 billion years ago, surprisingly, it started accelerating. Today, galaxies move farther apart much faster than before. How is it possible that they suddenly started to move so fast? What is pushing them away?
Since there is no apparent reason, astronomers hypothesized the existence of an invisible force, called dark energy, which might be responsible for this acceleration. If existing, this energy must be of such a magnitude as to develop the pressure needed to move entire galaxies. To make the math work, dark energy should contribute a 68% of the total energy of the universe; if we add the dark matter (another hypothetical form of matter), we get to 95%—the percentage of the universe whose components cannot be revealed even with our best instruments.
The existence, out there, all around our small planet, of an immense invisible dark ‘force’ playing marbles with galaxies could be an upsetting idea to the most sensitive of us. But the alternative is not comforting either. Indeed, researchers rejecting the hypothesis of the dark energy support something even more paradoxical, at least to the eyes of the laymen: in reality, the universe is not accelerating at all—it is time which is slowing down. According to this theory, the acceleration is only an optical illusion perceived by an observer, like we are, placed inside a spacetime which is slowly coming to a halt.
Things are actually even more bizarre than this. We must consider that what has been said so far relies on the assumption that the laws of physics will always be the same, unchangeable; and until recently everything indicated that the universe had always ‘worked’ in the same manner. Then, in 2010, an Australian study questioned this assumption. Some measurements made by ESO’s Very Large Telescope Project seem to highlight a variation in time of the so-called fine-structure constant – a fundamental quality of electromagnetism that should remain unvaried, constant, as its name suggests. Should it be confirmed, this discovery would imply that the universal laws of physics (gravity, time, space, speed of light, and so on) might not be so universal, and they could vary over time or maybe depending on the ‘area’ of the universe.
The Second Lesson: We live inside a sort of great puzzle, a paradox where the only certainty is that nothing is certain. We cannot even understand what kind of strange place we live in, so how can we always know for sure what we have to do or not to do, what is right and what is wrong? Maybe, only stupid men are certain of everything, as Chuang-Tzu said, as they “believe they are awake, busily and brightly assuming they understand things, calling this man ruler, that one herdsman”. And, when they come back from work, they have no doubts about who they are or what is expected from them, and they never think about the absurdity of the stars.
Next year this beautiful lady, Katherine Johnson, will turn one hundred. When she was a little girl, her father Joshua used to repeat to her: “You are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better”.
It was hard to believe you were as good as anybody else for a coloured little girl who had grown up in White Sulphur Springs, where education ended compulsorily with the eighth grade for anybody who was not white.
Katherine’s father, Joshua, worked as a farmer and handyman for the Greenbrier Hotel, the thermal resort where the wealthiest squires of all Virginia used to spend their holidays; it was perhaps for this reason that he wanted his daughter to follow her own path without hesitation, in spite of the segregationist barriers. If she wasn’t allowed to study in the small town where they lived, he was going to bring her to Institute, 130 miles further west.
Katherine, for her part, sped up the process: at the age of 14 she had already finished high school, at the age of 18 she earned a degree with honours in mathematics. In 1938 the Supreme Court established that “white-only” universities should admit coloured students, therefore in 1939 Katherine became the first African-American woman to attend the graduate school at the West Virginia University in Morgantown.
After completing her studies, however, a career was far from being guaranteed. Katherine wished she could take up research, but once again she had to cope with two disadvantages: she was a woman, and on top of that African-American.
She taught mathematics for more than ten years, waiting for a good chance which eventually presented itself in 1952. NASA (called NACA at the time) had started to employ both white and African-American mathematics, and offered her a job. Therefore in 1953 Katherine Johnson joined the very first team of the space agency.
She started working in the “computer in skirts” section, a pool of women whose job was to read the data from the black boxes of planes and carry out other mathematical tasks. One day Katherine was assigned to an all-male flight research team; she was supposed to work with them for a limited time, but Katherine’s knowledge of analytic geometry made her bosses “forget” to return her to her old position.
But she couldn’t escape segregation. Katherine was required to work, eat, and use restrooms in areas separated from those of her white peers. Regardless of whoever had carried out the work, reports were signed only by the men of the pool.
But Katherine had kept in mind her father’s words, and her strategy was to ignore what she was expected to do. She used to participate in the all-male engineering meetings, she signed reports in place of her male superiors, and in spite of any objection. Because she had never thought she was inferior – nor superior – to anybody.
That was a pioneering era and participating in the first Space Task Force in history meant venturing in completely new operations and facing unknown issues. With her competence and talent for geometry, Katherine was one of the most brilliant “human computers”. She calculated the trajectory of the first American space flight, the one of Alan Shepard in 1961.
Then at some point NASA decided to move on to electronic computers, dismantling the team of “human calculators”; the first flight programmed using the machines was that of John Glenn, who orbited around the Earth. But the astronaut himself refused to leave unless Katherine manually verified all the calculations made by the computers. She was the only one he trusted.
Later Katherine helped to calculate the trajectory of Apollo 11, launched in 1969. Seeing Neil Armstrong taking the first step on the Moon moved her, but only to a certain point: for somebody who had been working on that mission for years, this certainly came as no surprise.
For a long time, little was known about the work carried out by Katherine (and her colleagues): overlooked for decades by a society that was always reluctant to acknowledge her real value, today her name is studied at school and her story has been recently narrated by the film Hidden figures (2016, directed by Theodore Melfi). The contribution offered by Katherine to the space race is now regarded as essential – although the ones who became heroes were those astronauts who could have never left the Earth soil without her precise calculations.
Smiling, about to turn one hundred, Katherine Johnson continues to repeat: “I’m as good as anybody, but no better”.
It’s September 7, 2013. At the 0B pavilion of the Wallops Flight Facility, on the east coast of Virginia, NASA is getting ready to launch a rocket towards the Moon.
The LADEE probe was designed to study the atmosphere and the exosphere of our satellite, and to gather information about moon dust. For this purpose, the probe is equipped with two technologically advanced mass spectrometers, and a sensor which is capable of detecting the collisions of the minuscule dust particles that rise up from the lunar ground due to the electrostatic effect.
As the countdown begins, dozens of specialists supervise the data flow coming from the various sectors of the rocket, checking the advancing launch phases on their monitors. Vibrations, balancing, condition of the ogive: everything seems to be going according to plan, but mental tension and concentration are palpable. It is a 280 million dollar mission, after all.
Yet at the 0B pavilion of the Wallops Flight Facility, on the east coast of Virginia, there is also someone who is happily ignoring the frantic atmosphere.
She knows nothing about electrostatics, mass spectrometers, solid rocket fuels or space agencies. Furthermore, she does not even know what a dollar is.
The peaceful creature just knows that she is very satisfied, having just gulped down as many as three flies within two minutes (although she ignores what a minute is).
From the edge of her body of water she looks at the moon, yes, like every night, but without trying to reach it. And like every night, she croaks, pleased with her simple life.
A life that had always been without mysteries, ever since she was just a tadpole. A comfortably predictable life.
But now, all of a sudden – here come the thunderous roar, the flames, the smoke. Absurdity breaks into the reality of our poor frog. From the pool, she rises in the air, sucked up by the rocket’s contrail. Flung up in the sky, in an unexpected flight, in a definitive and shining rapture.
She sees her entire existence passing before her eyes, like in a movie – although she doesn’t know what a movie is. The endless stakeouts waiting for a tiny little insect, the cool nights spent soaking in the water, the eggs she has never managed to lay, the brief moments of fulfilment… but now, because of this cruel and unnatural joke, it all seems to be meaningless!
“There is no criterion for such an end” reflects the amphibious philosopher in the fraction of a second in which the incredible trajectory pushes her towards the rocket’s furnace “but maybe it is better this way. Who would really want to be weighed down by a reason? Every moment I have lived, good or bad, has contributed to bring me here, in a vertiginous ascent towards the flash of light in which I am about to dissolve. If this world is a meaningless dance, it is a dance after all. So let’s dance!”
And with this last thought, the fatal blaze.
Step right up! A new batch of weird news from around the world, amazing stories and curious facts to get wise with your friends! Guaranteed to break the ice at parties!
Have you seen those adorable and lovely fruit bats? How would you like to own a pet bat, making all those funny expressions as you feed him a piece of watermelon or banana? In this eye-opening article a bat expert explains all the reasons why keeping these mammals as domestic pets is actually a terrible idea.
There are not just ethical reasons (you would practically ruin their existence) or economic reasons (keeping them healthy would cost you way more than you can imagine); the big surprise here is that, despite those charming OMG-it’s-so-cuuute little faces, bats — how should I put it — are not exactly good-mannered.
As they hang upside down, they rub their own urine all over their body, in order to stink appropriately. They defecate constantly. And most of all, they engage in sex all the time — straight, homosexual, vaginal, oral and anal sex, you name it. If you keep them alone, males will engage in stubborn auto-fellatio. They will try and hump you, too.
And if you still think ‘Well, now, how bad can that be’, let me remind you that we’re talking about this.
Next time your friend posts a video of cuddly bats, go ahead and link this pic. You’re welcome.
Sex + animals, always good fun. Take for example the spider Latrodectus: after mating, the male voluntarily offers himself in sacrifice to be eaten by his female partner, to benefit their offspring. And he’s not the only animal to understand the evolutionary advantages of cannibalism.
Since we’re talking books, have you already invested your $3 for The Illustrati Archives 2012-2016? Thirty Bizzarro Bazar articles in kindle format, and the satisfaction of supporting this blog, keeping it free as it is and always will be. Ok, end of the commercial break.
Under a monastery in Rennes, France, more than 1.380 bodies have been found, dating from 14th to 18th Century. One of them belonged to noblewoman Louise de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac; along with her corpse, in the casket, was found her husband’s heart, sealed in a lead lock box. The research on these burials, recently published, could revolutionize all we know about mummification during the Renaissance.
While we’re on the subject, here’s a great article on some of the least known mummies in Italy: the Mosampolo mummies (Italian language).
Regarding a part of the Italian patrimony that seldom comes under the spotlight, BBC Culture issued a good post on the Catacombs of Saint Gaudiosus in Naples, where frescoes show a sort of danse macabre but with an unsettling ‘twist’: the holes that can be seen where a figure’s face should be, originally harbored essicated heads and real skulls.
Now for a change of scenario. Imagine a sort of Blade Runner future: a huge billboard, the incredible size of 1 km², is orbiting around the Earth, brightening the night with its eletric colored lights, like a second moon, advertising some carbonated drink or the last shampoo. We managed to avoid all this for the time being, but that isn’t to say that someone hasn’t already thought of doing it. Here’s the Wiki page on space advertising.
Since we are talking about space, a wonderful piece The Coming Amnesia speculates about a future in which the galaxies will be so far from each other that they will no longer be visible through any kind of telescope. This means that the inhabitants of the future will think the only existing galaxy is their own, and will never come to theorize something like the Big Bang. But wait a second: what if something like that had already happened? What if some fundamental detail, essential to the understanding of the nature of cosmos, had already, forever disappeared, preventing us from seeing the whole picture?
To intuitively teach what counterpoint is, Berkeley programmer Stephen Malinowski creates graphics where distinct melodic lines have different colors. And even without knowing anything about music, the astounding complexity of a Bach organ fugue becomes suddenly clear:
In closing, I advise you to take 10 minutes off to immerse yourself in the fantastic and poetic atmosphere of Goutte d’Or, a French-Danish stop-motion short directed by Christophe Peladan. The director of this ironic story of undead pirates, well aware he cannot compete with Caribbean blockbusters, makes a virtue of necessity and allows himself some very French, risqué malice.
Here’s a gift pack of strange food for the mind and weird stuff that should keep you busy until Christmas.
You surely remember Caitlin Doughty, founder of the Order of the Good Death as well as author of best-seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. In the past I interviewd her, I wrote a piece for the Order, and I even flew to Philadelphia to meet her for a three-day conference.
Caitlin is also famous for her ironic videos on the culture of death. The latest episode is dedicated to a story that will surely sound familiar, if you follow this blog: the story of the ‘Punsihed Suicide’ of Padua, which was published for the first time in my book His Anatomical Majesty.
With her trademark humor, Caitlin succeeds in asking what in my view is the fundamental question: is it worth judging a similar episode by our contemporary ethical standards, or is it better to focus on what this tale can tell us about our history and about the evolution of sensibility towards death?
In 1966 a mysterious box washed up on a British shore: it contained swords, chandeliers, red capes, and a whole array of arcane symbols related to occultism. What was the function of these objects, and why were they left to the waves?
While we’re at it, here is an autopsy photograph from the 1920s, probably taken in Belgium. Was pipe smoking a way of warding off the bad smell?
(Seen here, thanks again Claudia!)
A new photographic book on evolution is coming out, and it looks sumptuous. Robert Clark’s wonderful pictures carry a disquieting message: “Some scientists who study evolution in real time believe we may be in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, a slow-motion funnel of death that will leave the planet with a small fraction of its current biodiversity. One reason that no one can forecast how it will end—and who will be left standing—is that, in many ways, our understanding of evolution itself continues to evolve“.
But don’t get too alarmed: our world might eventually be just an illusion. Sure, this concept is far from new: all the great spiritual, mythological or artistic messages have basically been repeating us for millennia that we should not trust our senses, suggesting ther is more to this reality than meets the eye. Yet, up until now, no one had ever tried to prove this mathematically. Until now.
A cognitive science professor at the University of California elaborated an intriguing model that is causing a bit of a fuss: his hypothesis is that our perception has really nothing to do with the world out there, as it is; our sensory filter might not have evolved to give us a realistic image of things, but rather a convenient one. Here is an article on the Atlantic, and here is a podcast in which our dear professor quietly tears down everything we think we know about the world.
Nonsense, you say? What if I told you that highly evolved aliens could already be among us — without the need for a croncrete body, but in the form of laws of physics?
Other brilliant ideas: Goodyear in 1961 developed these illuminated tires.
Mariano Tomatis’ Blog of Wonders is actually Bizzarro Bazar’s less morbid, but more magical twin. You could spend days sifting through the archives, and always come up with some pearl you missed the first time: for example this post on the hidden ‘racism’ of those who believe Maya people came from outer space (Italian only).
In Medieval manuscripts we often find some exceedingly unlucky figures, which had the function of illustrating all possible injuries. Here is an article on the history and evolution of the strange and slightly comic Wound Man.
Looking at colored paint spilled on milk? Not really a mesmerizing thought, until you take four minutes off and let yourself be hypnotized by Memories of Painting, by Thomas Blanchard.
Let’s go back to the fallacy of our senses, ith these images of the Aspidochelone (also called Zaratan), one of the fantastical beasts I adored as a child. The idea of a sea monster so huge that it could be mistaken for an island, and on whose back even vegetation can grow, had great fortune from Pliny to modern literature:
But the real surprise is to find that the Zaratan actually exists, albeit in miniature:
Saddam Hussein, shortly after his sixtieth birthday, had 27 liters of his own blood taken just to write a 600-page calligraphied version of the Quran.
An uncomfortable manuscript, so much so that authorities don’t really know what to do with it.
Time for a couple of Christmas tips, in case you want to make your decorations slightly menacing: 1) a set of ornaments featuring the faces of infamous serial killers, namely Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein and H. H. Holmes; 2) a murderous Santa Claus. Make your guests understand festivities stress you out, and that might trigger some uncontrolled impulse. If you wish to buy these refined, tasteful little objects, just click on pictures to go to the corresponding Etsy store. You’re welcome.
Finally, if you run out of gift ideas for Christmas and you find yourself falling back on the usual book, at least make sure it’s not the usual book. Here are four random, purely coincidental examples…
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.
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.
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.
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.
L’esplorazione spaziale, iniziata in modo pionieristico alla fine degli anni ’60, ha conosciuto un momento “morto” negli ultimi decenni, ma oggi sta tornando ad essere parte integrante dei progetti delle grandi agenzie aerospaziali. Gli Stati Uniti hanno pianificato i primi viaggi su Marte per la metà degli anni 2030; ESA, Russia e Cina sembra abbiano in progetto missioni similari. Ma al di là dello stimolo che questi salti nell’ignoto regalano alla nostra fantasia, ci sono dei lati oscuri con cui fare i conti (che sono poi quelli che ci interessano, qui a Bizzarro Bazar!).
Innanzitutto, teniamo presente che le enormi distanze da superare pongono diversi grattacapi. Prendiamo ad esempio una missione su Marte. Il vero problema, sostengono i professori della NASA, sarebbe il costo del “biglietto” di ritorno. Far decollare una nave spaziale dalla Terra richiede già una quantità di carburante inimmaginabile, e dotare il mezzo di una quantità di combustibile tale da permettere il viaggio di rientro è al momento pura utopia. Questo significa che il volo verso Marte sarebbe di sola andata. I primi pionieri dovrebbero divenire dei veri e propri coloni, disposti non soltanto ad esplorare il nuovo pianeta, ma a fondarvi una comunità. Dovrebbero essere scelte coppie in grado di riprodursi, per dar vita alla prima vera colonia marziana che comprenda bambini nati e cresciuti sul Pianeta Rosso. Quanti di voi non esiterebbero un attimo a lasciarsi tutto alle spalle per iniziare una nuova vita su Marte? Quale uomo accetterebbe di partire sereno, sapendo che non farà mai più ritorno, che non vedrà mai più il mare, i suoi famigliari, gli uccelli nel cielo?
Parecchi, a quanto sembra. Da quando il Journal of Cosmology ha indetto il “sondaggio”, almeno 500 volontari si sono presentati all’appello. Persone per cui l’avventura, la curiosità e la gloria valgono più di ogni altra cosa; persone che non hanno più nessun legame; persone che sognano un’epopea spaziale da quando hanno 10 anni. Forse sarà proprio questo il bacino al quale gli scienziati attingeranno, in un prossimo futuro, per selezionare gli equipaggi di questa epocale “invasione”.
Ma i viaggi spaziali sono anche lunghi, e il lato più cupo della nostra personalità può prendere il sopravvento. Lo spazio può diventare una gabbia fatta di paranoie, illusioni e depressione, fatto da cui gli scrittori di fantascienza ci mettono in guardia da molti anni. Innanzitutto, la solitudine. Una solitudine inimmaginabile. Finora i viaggi sono stati troppo brevi per una qualche manifestazione psicologica in questo senso. Ma la NASA continua a ponderare gli effetti dannosi dell’isolamento per lunghi periodi di tempo, tanto da investire 1,74 milioni di dollari nella Virtual Space Station, una sorta di “psicologo-robot” che dovrebbe aiutare e dare consigli agli astronauti depressi dalla profonda solitudine. Nel 2008, uno studio condotto al NHC HealthCare in Maryland Heights ha indicato che un cane robotico si è rivelato un ottimo rimedio per la solitudine dele persone anziane, quasi quanto un cucciolo reale… anche se l’immagine di un astronauta solo nello spazio, che parla e coccola un cane-robot non è delle più confortanti.
Nello spazio, un posto che a torto riteniamo “vuoto”, si spargono radiazioni di vario tipo. Senza la protezione dell’atmosfera, queste radiazioni possono essere pericolose. E non si tratta qui soltanto delle temibili esplosioni di raggi gamma (evento talmente raro da essere trascurabile), ma anche semplicemente delle più comuni radiazioni cosmiche: alcuni esperimenti hanno dimostrato che l’esposizione a questi raggi può causare alterazioni nell’ippocampo, l’area del cervello responsabile della creazione di nuove cellule cerebrali e ritenuta responsabile dell’apprendimento e degli stati di umore. Proteggere con scudi appropriati gli astronauti potrebbe significare ridurre i danni cerebrali e la depressione di un viaggio al di fuori dell’orbita terrestre.
Un altro problema dei viaggi astrali è la fornitura e la purificazione dell’aria. Molti studi condotti sugli scalatori di alta quota hanno dimostrato come uno scarso approvvigionamento di ossigeno porti a un calo di attenzione, di capacità cognitiva e di riconoscimento linguistico. In situazioni ancora più estreme, a ridotto apporto di ossigeno, si verificano danni permanenti al cervello. Per questo si stanno dotando le astronavi di potenti rilevatori, in grado di accorgersi in largo anticipo di un cambio nell’aria della capsula. Vengono sviluppati anche dei software in grado di “misurare” la coerenza delle risposte degli astronauti a determinate domande, per prevenire eventuali danni psichici.
Aggiungete a questo quadro lo stress del lavoro di un astronauta, costantemente vigile e attento, che deve tenere sott’occhio i parametri della missione, controllare l’equipaggiamento, sapendo che soltanto un po’ di lamiera lo protegge dall’agghiacciante vuoto siderale. Molte persone, in situazioni molto meno stressanti, si imbottiscono di psicofarmaci. L’uso e l’abuso di tali sostanze (già oggi utilizzate a bordo delle stazioni spaziali) sarà un ennesimo grattacapo da risolvere. E pensate anche solo per un momento a questa situazione: non siete voi a impazzire nello spazio, ma il vostro collega. Se nella vostra giornata quotidiana c’è sempre un orario di fine lavoro, che vi permette di staccare la spina, beh, su una navicella spaziale non esiste. Per quanto professionali gli astronauti si possano dimostrare, dovranno anche essere addestrati a far fronte a qualsiasi imprevisto, persino il crollo psicologico di uno dei membri dell’equipaggio.
Ed arriviamo infine alla questione più spinosa e difficile. Cosa fare quando un astronauta muore nello spazio?
La mitica Mary Roach, giornalista scientifica autrice dell’imperdibile Stecchiti (2005), ha da poco scritto un libro sui viaggi spaziali. Con la sua consueta scrupolosa curiosità, ha indagato anche il problema della morte nello spazio. E ci ha illuminato sulle ultime tendenze della NASA al riguardo.
La morte, già di per sé destabilizzante, diviene ancora più insostenibile in un ambiente estremo come il cosmo. Nessuno sa come un piccolo gruppo isolato nello spazio possa reagire di fronte alla scomparsa di un membro: sentimenti di paura, perdita di controllo, rabbia, colpa o attribuzione di colpa possono instaurarsi. Di fronte a un decesso che colpisce inaspettatamente un membro dell’equipaggio durante una missione, il tempo per preparare il corpo sarà soltanto di 24 ore, per prevenire infezioni. Ad ogni astronauta verrà chiesto di riempire un diario in cui annotare e sfogare le proprie emozioni al riguardo. Il corpo, dopo una cerimonia funebre che ricordi quelle terrestri (che serva da guida per la difficile situazione e riaffermi i valori che ci accomunano), verrà deposto in un modulo apposito, studiato per eseguire la cosiddetta Promession: si tratta di un “compostaggio” ecologico dei resti umani, per mezzo del quale il corpo viene completamente congelato, poi scosso violentemente fino a ridurre la salma in una fine polverina. La capsula contenente il cadavere polverizzato verrà poi estromessa dall’astronave, là dove nessuno può vederla, trattenuta da un braccio meccanico, e lì resterà fino a quando l’astronave non rientrerà sulla Terra (ritraendosi poco prima dell’impatto con l’atmosfera); una volta atterrata potrà finalmente avere degna sepoltura. Una particolare attenzione verrà mantenuta sui “sopravvissuti”, per evitare crolli psicologici e follia.
Il sogno di “fare l’astronauta” non ha mai perso il suo fascino. Ma oggi, quando questa fantasia sta quasi per diventare realtà, gli scienziati continuano a interrogarsi su quali siano le vere barriere con cui dovremo fare i conti. E pare che i mostri più pericolosi, gli alieni più letali, prenderanno corpo nella nostra stessa mente.