Big Think Interview With Rachel Maines
Rachel Maines is a visiting scientist in the Cornell University School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her principal research interests lie in the history of technology, especially issues relating to technology and the body, such as sexuality, medicine, technological risk, and injury epidemiology. She is the author of three books: "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' Vibrators, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction" (1999), "Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk" (2005), and her most recent, "Hedonizing Technologies: Pathways to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure," published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2009.
Question: Did researching the vibrator pose professional obstacles for you?\r\n
Rachel Maines: I expected it to derail my career, and it did. I have never been like a tenured faculty member anywhere, I've been a professor, now I'm a visiting scientist and I love it, but because, when I first started working on it, it was so controversial, that nobody wanted to touch it. I couldn't even get an article published on it, except for this little magazine associated with the Bakken Library and Museum of Electricity and Life, which is out in Minneapolis, and even they later began to think better of it, but it was too late by then, of course, once you're published, you're published.\r\n
But then after working on the thing for like, well, I guess it was more than 20 years, it came out in 1999, which turned out to be the perfect year for it, although I didn't know that, I couldn't have, but, you know, that's when I finished it and it came out and people just went bonkers over it. They even did a “Law & Order Special Victims Unit” thing with a little vignette from my book. I was like, it's not what a historian expects. But it's been quite a trip and now there's been a movie and a play, which is running right now at the Lyceum and I'm told, Scout's honor, a puppet musical.\r\n
Question: What did you hope the impact of the study would be?\r\n
Rachel Maines: You're going to laugh at me, because what I thought was going to happen was that my colleagues would talk about it a lot and it would be reviewed in the scholarly journals and that's all I expected. I thought maybe a few people might use it as a textbook, but actually it's used as a textbook in about 150 colleges and universities around the world. It's been translated now, I think it's now in three languages, and people just loved my hypothesis, and that's all it is really, is an hypothesis, that women were treated with massage for this disease, hysteria, which has supposedly existed since the time of Hippocrates, 450 B.C., and that the vibrator was invented to treat this disease. Well, people just thought this was such a cool idea that people believe it, that it's like a fact. And I'm like, "It's a hypothesis! It's a hypothesis!" But it doesn't matter, you know? People like it so much they don't want to hear any doubts about it. Eventually somebody will sit down and say, "Now, maybe there's another way to interpret this data," but in the meantime, I'm really kind of enjoying all the attention. As you can imagine.\r\n
Question: What was the relationship between so-called hysteria and sexual frustration?\r\n
Rachel Maines: Well, hysteria was diagnosed by Hippocrates, as I mentioned, that's 450 B.C., so that's really quite a long time. It didn't really go out of fashion as a diagnosis, well, it was legislated out of existence in 1957 by the American, I think it's the American Psychiatric Association, but there's still a catch-all category for things. Charles Lasegue, who was a 19th century French physician, once said that, "Hysteria was the wastepaper basket of otherwise unemployed medical symptoms." And into this wastepaper basket went all sorts of thing from antiquity until, well, until Freud's time and then he put a new interpretation on it, what hysteria was, and that's the one that we kind of remember most often.\r\n
But the disease that, "disease," that is described by Hippocrates and by Thomas Sydenham, who's a, trying to remember, 17th century? He's called the English Hippocrates, a historical British physician, it really sounds like a lot more like sexual frustration, she's nervous, she has trouble sleeping, she has trouble with anxiety, she has these vague feelings of heaviness in the abdomen. And then my two favorite symptoms, you don't see this in every description, but you see them in enough to make you suspicious. One of the symptoms is sexual fantasy and the other is vaginal lubrication. And if these are symptoms, there are an awful lot of sick people out there, right? And they found a lot of sick people, they thought in the 19th century, for example, that three-quarters of all women, middle class women, suffered from hysteria. And if those are the symptoms, maybe they did.\r\n
Question: Were physicians really innocent about what they were “treating”?\r\n
Rachel Maines: In some cases it was innocence. But I wasn't even sure of my hypothesis myself until I saw the works of a fellow named Nathaniel Heimar wrote about hysteria in 1666, and he wrote it in Latin, so it's a very good thing I took that, you know, did all the classics back as an undergrad, that he said, he just calls what he's producing. He tells you all about how to do it, "Well, you know, here you get some oil, you know, and you get all, you know, greased up, and then you, you know, the fingers of this hand go in here and the fingers of the other hand go here. And then she'll get to breathe hard and then there'll be contractions and she'll get all red in the face, you know." And he just goes right on and says, "Well, it's an orgasm, you know, but it's your job to do this because you're a doctor, right? And you have to relieve the symptoms and she will feel better for a while and then she'll come back, you know, if she can afford to come to the doctor regularly." So it was a great way for a doctor to make a living, you know, these women are not really sick and they're not going to get well either, so, you know, it was, that was one of the things you notice in the 19th century, when the doctors actually write about that, that it's a good source of revenue.\r\n
But some of the doctors actually, in the 17th century, that is in Heimar’s time in Britain, Audrey Eccles, who was a British historian of medicine, has documented that there was actually a split between Protestant and Catholic doctors about whether it was really appropriate for doctors to be doing this, because they knew what was going on, at that time they did. It's not clear if they did in the 19th century or not. But apparently the Catholic doctor said, "Well, it's your duty to do this or, you know, or she might die of it," you know, oh, really? So you have to do this and the Protestant doctor's like, "Oh, we mustn’t, you know, terrible thing." But apparently that, you know, that was gone by the 19th century and the doctors were, most of them were saying, "Oh, it's nothing sexual, it can't be anything sexual, because there's no penetration and therefore, no sex. Right? Can't be, has to be something else. Hysterical paroxysm, that's what we're seeing. It's like the breaking of a fever, when you have a cold, you know, and you're all feverish for a while and then the fever breaks and you feel better? Yeah, see, that's it, the crisis of the disease, very Galenic, so they had their complete explanation there.\r\n
But some of them even knew, one of them who did was a fellow, a French physician, it would be a French physician, right? Auguste Tripier, and he says in, I think it's 1883, he says, "Look guys," and he does mean guys because he's speaking to an audience of physicians and they're all guys, "Look, you know as well as I do that this is “un crise venerien,” this is an orgasm, a sexual crisis, but we're doing it anyway. It's just as if we're masturbating these patients," and they were like, "We don't want to hear it, Auguste," you know, and they just ignored it and went right on. The only thing that stopped them, I think what stopped, two things. One of them is, well, actually three, Freud comes along and he attempts massage therapy for hysteria and it turns out that he doesn't, he's never good at it. This is a guy who didn't know what women wanted, right? So he decided he'd sit them up and talk to them instead and we can go on from there, but in any case, that's one thing that happened. As Freud comes along and reinterprets hysteria, what it is, "Oh, it's lesions in the consciousness, it's nothing to do with sex."\r\n
The second thing comes along is there begins to be a little more knowledge about women and their sexuality, not a whole lot, but there are some early sexology that is very persuasive and people will begin to say, "Well, you know, maybe women do have sexuality, maybe it's not unhealthy," you know?\r\n
And then the third thing that happens, and this is the real killer, as it were, the vibrator begins to appear in pornography and then the doctors go, "Ahh!" And just drop it like a hot rock, you know, they don't want anything more to do with it, because you know, it's obvious that what they're doing is exactly what these women are doing to themselves in these, like you know what a cabinet card is, it's about like this, and that's sort of an 19th century, early 20th century, you could buy them for respectable things, like theater stars, you could get a picture of like, you know, whoever the famous stars were and you could get like really weird ones and you could get ones of disasters, but you could also get pornography ones and there were these images of women with vibrators. And then by the '20s, we have the vibrator being used in films. And of course, I have a colleague, I'm always plugging his work, Jonathan Coopersmith, he's at Texas A & M, he's written a wonderful article called “Pornography of Progress.” And he makes the point that all these technologies, like cabinet cards, the telephone, fax machine, video, the Internet, that sexuality has seized on these things and turned them to its own purposes, thereby providing a stream of capital into the development of these technologies. And so you and I can sit here talking to each other through a video screen and a lot of the capital for the development of the technology was funded by that good old standby, human sexuality.\r\n
Question: What were the earliest vibrators like?\r\n
Rachel Maines: They came out of massage, hand technology for massage. There is some, there's a connection with water, hydro therapy, any woman who owns a shower massage can explain the details to you, if you need them explained, which you probably don't, but in any case, it's possible that even normal women knew about this, we're not sure. But in any case, there's the connection with hydrotherapy and then you wonder why Saratoga was so popular in the 19th century, especially with women? The men would go off and gamble and the women would go for the water cure. And some times it was very respectable and, you know, they just bathed at the water and everything was cool but there was also thing called the douche, the Scotch douche, that was, I've seen pictures of it, it was pretty startling. Anyway, those technologies, 1869, an American, George Taylor, invents a machine he calls the manipulator, which is basically a steam-powered, coal-fired vibrator. And because all you have to do is say steam-powered vibrator and start to snicker, you know--it is a funny idea.\r\n
The doctors didn't like this thing because, of course it was what they, what we historians of technology call a centralized technology, you have to bring the patient to the technology, you can't take the technology to the patient. And of course, the other thing doctors didn't like about it was having to shovel coal into it. You know, because that's what, you know, it wasn't in the same room with the patient, you know how in pictures of 19th century factories, you see all these drive trains that are leather straps? Well, that's how the power was transferred, there was a steam engine in one room with a drive train, and in the next room, at the other end of the drive train, was this table with a vibrating sphere in the middle of it that you would lay the patient across and that was the, so that was the immediate predecessor technology.\r\n
And then in the 1880s, in Britain, a fellow by the name of Joseph Mortimer Granille invents the modern electromechanical vibrator that we all know and love, and it was attached to, because there was no line electricity in 1883, it was attached to this huge, 40-pound wet cell battery, slosh, slosh, that you had to tote around if you wanted to take it anywhere, and it was attached by these completely uninsulated wires, you look at them now and you go, "Ooh," and wrapped around these little brass posts. And the vibrator itself, the vibrating mechanism, it's basically just a sloppy electrical motor, you know, all motors vibrate because they're slightly sloppy, well, you just make it a little sloppier on purpose and the thing will vibrate, right? Easy enough. Things about like this, it's wrapped, it's got a leather covering around it, and it's got these vibratodes with little ivory, little ivory tips on them. The vibratodes are what we would now call the attachments. My husband thinks that vibratodes is a really great word and he's trying to get it back into the language, you know, like maybe as a name of a rock group, you know, “Crazy Eddie and the Vibratodes.” But anyway, it had attachments, even as early as the very first model. And it was manufactured by a perfectly respectable British instrument maker, which is still in business, Weiss, but they didn't stay in the vibrator business very long after things started to look a little shaky.\r\n
At the turn of the century, they had, the vibrator kind of split into two product lines. One was for doctors and one was for consumers and doctors really hated the idea that there were consumer vibrators out there. But you know, when the market speaks, you know, everybody listens, including doctors, they better. There were these relatively inexpensive, some that looked like an egg beater for people who didn't have electricity. And it sounded like one, too, "Drrrr, drrrr," and there were battery powered ones, there were even water-powered ones that you could attach to your sink, this was before water was metered. So it's like basically little tiny turbines, about this big and they apparently worked, I've never seen one, a real one, but I've seen ads.\r\n
And then the ones that everybody thinks are the funniest, which are the doctor's models. Because they look like, there's one that I have a picture of that looks like a cross between a visitor from outer space and an old-fashioned telephone, and it's got this dial with little mother of pearl buttons that don't have anything on them at all. So it's just like fast, faster, fastest. But you got to look scientific, so you have the little mother of pearl buttons, right? Brrrroooommmm, you know, the patient will be so impressed, and these were quite expensive. The model that everybody seems to like the best, the Chattanooga, which had to be shipped by freight because it was so heavy, it stood about 5 feet tall and in fact, it's in the Vibrator play, they **** from Sarah Wolfe's play. They've made a rooftop Chattanooga and it rolls on wheels and it had to have a huge counterweight, about this big, because with the vibratode attached to the vibrating head at about the five foot level, if you roll it up to the, roll it around, it would've fall over if it didn't have this counterweight. Because people always ask why is there this box on the bottom and that stuff, it’s because it's so, it looked so top heavy it would fall over. And that one cost $100 at a time when you could buy a small house for $200. So these are very expensive machines and of course, in the 1920's, they all just disappeared because doctors didn't want to have anything more to do with vibrators.\r\n
So that's where the technology came from. Meanwhile, the consumer technology is going off into the direction that really, except for being all made of metal instead of plastic, they're not distinguishable from modern vibrators. Sears used to make one, a vibrator, in fact, you could buy a motor, there's a picture of this in my book on vibrators, you could buy a motor from Sears, a little electric motor about yay, and you could buy a vibrator attachment, a beater, a grinder, a fan, a mixer, and I think there were a couple, buffer, there was a buffer as well. So you know, no home should be without one. And they weren't even that expensive, you know? But as I say, doctors didn't like it because there was all this self-treatment going on, but doctors always disapprove of self-treatment.\r\n
Question: How common is vibrator use among women?\r\n
Rachel Maines: Well, they tell me, I don't know for sure, you know, I'm basically a historian, so I don't really know, but they tell me that about one household in three has some kind of a sex toy in it, either a vibrator or something else, but vibrators are extremely popular, they sell very well. It's hard to know for sure how many are sold because the US Bureau of the Census, Census of Manufacturers, doesn't have a separate category for them, they're just in the, I think it's small personal appliances, so they're in there with hair dryers and curling irons and things like that, so you can't really tell. And I think the figures are getting, the numbers are going up every year and they haven't been set back by the recession at all, I'm told. I mean, what else are you going to do, right? It's too expensive to go out to the movies, so you stay home, right?\r\n
Question: How common is vibrator use among men?\r\n
Rachel Maines: No, actually I don't know. I know that it's becoming more popular and there are now, as there never used to be, models especially for men, and I'm told that one of the things that, one of my friends liked about the play is that there's a scene with a man and a vibrator.\r\n
Question: Are there any societies that don’t use sex toys?\r\n
Rachel Maines: Of industrial democracies, no, there are not any that don't have them. I think the only, I think it's one of those things where it's like washing machines. If you can afford washing machines, you have washing machines. If you can't afford washing machines, you don't have them. And electricity is, we're fortunate in having as inexpensive, it seems expensive to us, but it isn't really. We have inexpensive electricity and it's readily available and it's not limited by things like batteries. You know, we can recharge, if we want to recharge batteries, we can recharge them. But that's not true all over the world. There are a lot of people who don't even have clean water. And I think that they make dildos and things like that even in pre-industrial societies. So I think that the impulse to be playful about sex is, I think that's just a human thing. And recently we're finding that it's true of some animals. We've found that it's true of the marine mammals. They didn't, the biologists told us for years, "Oh, no, animals are very serious about sex, you know, just business, you know." But then, you know, they found out that even different species of marine animal will just like, you know, spend all day playing with each other sexually, for no apparent reason, just that, hey, it's fun! You know, here we are all in the water, you know!\r\n
Question: What new sex toy technologies are currently emerging?\r\n
Rachel Maines: Well, I'm told, I learned this just the day before yesterday at the Philoctetes Institute. Doesn't that sound educational? And it is, too, I was asked to be a part of a roundtable there, and a young woman got up and talked about something called the Real Doll, which is a programmable female type of person, well basically it's a female robot, or sex bot, as I'm told you should call them, that has, you know, that has programmable, the oral cavity is programmable. She didn't mention any of the other body parts, but I gather they all are. And now it's, of course it's hideously expensive, any kind of robot is very expensive, even the ones that just vacuum carpet are not cheap. But yeah, that's one of the directions it's going. There are now things you can buy and install in your bathtub that are kind of, to me of course they are electronic and they have, and in fact, one of the technical challenges is that water and electronics don't mix, and the inventors, the engineers who build these things, are really having trouble with that, keeping the electronics, that's why it's so hard to get a reliable dishwasher that has electronic controls, because you have hot, something hot and you've got something wet, and you've got electronics, which are not a good combination.\r\n
They go in your bathtub and they're programmable, and they're for women. You sort of ride them like a, I don't really have a clear picture in my mind of what they're like, but I've had them described to me. Oh, and I think there's one called Amazing Saddles, that's it, this one called Amazing Saddles. So probably if you Googled on Amazing Saddles, you'd find it. And then there's a lot of dual action stuff now, that, you know, that penetration is not, most women don't have orgasm just with penetration alone. And you know, if you've got both, well, you know, and some of these penetrative dildo-type vibrators that also have a dual action, you've seen the ones with the little rabbit, you know, with the ears that go like this, and some of them are really very cute. So they've gotten more playful and I'm sure they're going to get more technological and there's all these things now where people do elaborate hookups with the internet and I'm so, it's funny, I'm so old-fashioned, you know, I wrote this book and everybody thinks, "Oh, she must know all about this stuff," and I'm like, I've been married for 30 years, you know?\r\n
Question: Is sex a formerly functional activity that has become recreational?\r\n
Rachel Maines: Oh yes, definitely, yes. And I think that's a very good bridge, thank you. That's a good transition into it, because, you know, you read about medieval sex, for example, and a lot of it is very businesslike, it's in the dark, people still have part of their clothes on, it's not warm enough in the room, you can't take all your clothes off, and so, and sex toys, too, they're a function of leisure and industrialization, of prosperity. These are, they have to do with prosperity. And all of these other hedonizing technologies, in fact, if I remember correctly, the book opens with a discussion of sex as a sort of hedonized activity that, it's like gourmet cooking. You know, I just was in whole foods a little while ago and, you know, nobody has to cook any more that if you have enough money, you don't have to cook. And even if you don't have a whole lot of money, you still won't have to cook. If you could stand eating in McDonalds, you know, and things like that, okay.\r\n
In the industrial democracies, you don't have to cook. And you're prosperous enough. But people, there are now a whole lot of people who cook just because they like to, like my husband and me. You know, we like to, we have all these, you know, all clad pans hanging in our kitchen and my idea of a remedy for seasonal affective disorder, you know, when it's gloomy, in upstate New York, it's often very gloomy, especially this time of year when it gets dark early. So get like a pork shoulder and braise it in herbs and saffron and wine and all this stuff all day, so the whole house smells great all day long. And that's the kind of thing people do when a technology becomes hedonized, when you don't have to do it, then you have the, you can step back from it and say, "Now, how could I have fun with this?" And that's what's happening with hunting, fishing, needlework, cake decorating, which used to be something that only professionals did after World War II, it became a hobby for housewives. And now, not just housewives but house husbands, too. Why not? And there's all these other things.\r\n
In fact, I learned when I was writing that book, it's the most fun I ever had writing a book, that, every time I think, okay, I'm going to finish this manuscript, I'm going to send it to Hopkins, you know, and I was, "Oh, just one more, I just have to have," it's like eating potato chips, "I've just got to do one more," "Oh, I've just learned about," you know, like boating is another example. I can't remember what they all are, but there's a whole bunch of them in there, leatherworking is one of them. And there's a literature of all of them, I had a lot of fun with that.\r\n
Question: Do work activities become fun precisely when they become optional?\r\n
Rachel Maines: Yes. And particularly the ones that also became obsolete for production purposes, like knitting socks, like, you know, absolutely nobody, almost anywhere in the world, has to knit socks, very few people now live in such remote areas that they have to knit their own socks, you know? And it's usually much more cost effective just to go out and buy a pair. In fact, the yarn to make yourself a pair of handmade wool socks cost about five times as much as a pair of socks does, right? Even a pair of good ones. But if you like to knit socks, you know, then, you know, what's wrong with that, right? Can't do any harm knitting socks. That's an example.\r\n
But there's a bunch of others that are like that. Printmaking. It used to be that lithography was used by professionals, in fact, Collier's Magazine, you've probably seen those old covers, those are lithograph. But when lithography became obsolete as a production printing technology, the artisans seized on it and said, "Oh, wow," and then you have things like, what's it called? The Tamarind Workshop, which is a famous, historical, it's a printmaking workshop and there are all these famous artists who got involved in it. So that's another example. Throwing pots, making ceramics, once it became, buying hand thrown pots is something you do if you have a lot of money, you don't just, you know, it's not like Roman times where you have, all the pots were hand thrown. But the people who like to do it use the technology that they pick. Sometimes they pick high tech, sometimes they want to operate with a foot pedal, sometimes they want it electrically powered. That's the other thing, is that you get to vote, as it were, with your dollars, on what technology you're going to use. It isn't a question of what's efficient, because efficiency doesn't matter, right? Nobody cares. Whatever gives you the most pleasure, that's why I call it hedonizing technology.\r\n
Question: Will present-day chores, like laundry, ever become recreational?\r\n
Rachel Maines: Well, you know, I wondered about that, I wondered about that myself. I know people who like to wash dishes by hand. I keep thinking that there's tasks that can't be hedonized. In fact, I used to think that ironing couldn't. And then one of my colleagues, Rebecca Hertzel, as a matter of fact, came up to me at a meeting and said, "Have you heard about ExtremeIroning.com?" And I said, "What?" And she said, "ExtremeIroning, you know, just go there, you'll see what I mean." And sure enough, it's hedonized ironing. Now, these people are not really, well, I mean, you could say they're ironing, you know how, you were, some of us, maybe not you, but some of us were taught in home economics class, in my case, how to iron a man's shirt. You start with the yoke, you know, you iron that, and then, boy, I'm going, now I'm going to have trouble remembering. Then I think you do the side with the buttons, the front side of the buttons, then the side with the buttonholes, then the sleeves, and the collar is last. Well, this orthodox of shirt ironing is the rules now of the sport. Sport of extreme ironing. Now, if it makes the Olympics in my lifetime, I'll be very impressed. But it's already pretty, pretty amazing. There's an outfit in Britain called Rowenta that makes irons and they sponsor an annual extreme ironing contest. And the one I have in the book, the example I have in the book, is the Wolfberg Cracks in South Africa, these huge canyons, well, this guy's got himself, and these are interesting, it's mostly guys, this guy has got himself suspended on a tight wire between the Wolfberg Cracks and on his, he's got a harness holding him onto the wire and standing on, he's got the ironing board on his feet and he's ironing this shirt over the Wolfberg Cracks. He was the 2003 winner of the Rowenta Trophy for extreme ironing.\r\n
They've got scuba ironers, they've got polar ironers, I can't remember what they all--oh, excuse me, they're called ironists. Ironists. There're like people standing on top of, you know, those very tall signs that they have on freeway gas stations, people, like a whole group of them up there ironing. That's extreme ironing. So you can't tell what's going to be next. Might be washing dishes, cleaning the oven. You know, I have an oven that cleans itself, right? So, you know, there may be people 20 years from now who, "Oh, I just got to get myself some EasyOff so that I can, and a pair of gloves and boy, I'm going to go after my oven, it'll be so much fun!"\r\n
Question: What’s the most unexpected insight to emerge from your current work?\r\n
Rachel Maines: Well, actually I'm working on a book about building codes, which sounds deadly dull compared to the other things that I've done, but what I'm interested in is injury epidemiology, which my second book's about, “Asbestos and Fire,” and I'm interested in how all the rules that go with our built environment, building codes, if you go out, if you go out and walk around in New York City or anywhere, just sometime when you're not thinking about anything else, take note of how much of the built environment has to do with protecting ourselves against danger. The curbs on the street, the lines that are painted on the street, the traffic signals, the signs. These are all aspects of the built environment that help keep our death rate down. And parts of the world where they don't do that kind of thing or where they don't read the signs or pay attention to them and they're, unfortunately, a lot of places like that. They have the signs and they don't read them or pay attention, they have a much higher death rate. And it's a much more serious and somber subject than these other three. I sort of go back and forth between death and destruction and fun and games and, you know, it kind of keeps life interesting. I think that the most fascinating thing about the work that I'm doing now, that strikes me, I think the most interesting insight, is that it's not so much having a democracy that makes those codes, those building codes and safety codes work, it's the habit of democracy. That it just, you know, making your country a democracy, you know, doesn't inculcate that habit, but we're accustomed to, like, you know, in elementary school when we learn Robert’s Rules Of Order, right? And so we're accustomed to the parliamentary procedure, and kids in Britain, same thing, you know, they know all about that.\r\n
And by the time, you know, a few generations have gone by, you're used to the idea that you don't run red lights. You don't, you know, ignore signs that say wrong way. You know, you don't cross the yellow lines if you want to stay alive. And that somehow is a part, although it's an ordering and some people would say a kind of hegemony over people's lives, it really does seem to be a tool of keeping people alive in democracy. It's an elaborate way of putting it, but I'm sure you see what I mean, that it's a lifesaver. And keeping people alive is one of the functions of democracies.
Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
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New data have set the particle physics community abuzz.
- The first question ever asked in Western philosophy, "What's the world made of?" continues to inspire high energy physicists.
- New experimental results probing the magnetic properties of the muon, a heavier cousin of the electron, seem to indicate that new particles of nature may exist, potentially shedding light on the mystery of dark matter.
- The results are a celebration of the human spirit and our insatiable curiosity to understand the world and our place in it.
If brute force doesn't work, then look into the peculiarities of nothingness. This may sound like a Zen koan, but it's actually the strategy that particle physicists are using to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current registry of all known particles and their interactions. Instead of the usual colliding experiments that smash particles against one another, exciting new results indicate that new vistas into exotic kinds of matter may be glimpsed by carefully measuring the properties of the quantum vacuum. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's go piecemeal.
It is fitting that the first question asked in Western philosophy concerned the material composition of the world. Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle credited Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) with the honor of being the first Western philosopher when he asked the question, "What is the world made of?" What modern high energy physicists do, albeit with very different methodology and equipment, is to follow along the same philosophical tradition of trying to answer this question, assuming that there are indivisible bricks of matter called elementary particles.
Deficits in the Standard Model
Jumping thousands of years of spectacular discoveries, we now have a very neat understanding of the material composition of the world at the subatomic level: a total of 12 particles and the Higgs boson. The 12 particles of matter are divided into two groups, six leptons and six quarks. The six quarks comprise all particles that interact via the strong nuclear force, like protons and neutrons. The leptons include the familiar electron and its two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. The muon is the star of the new experiments.
For all its glory, the Standard Model described above is incomplete. The goal of fundamental physics is to answer the most questions with the least number of assumptions. As it stands, the values of the masses of all particles are parameters that we measure in the laboratory, related to how strongly they interact with the Higgs. We don't know why some interact much stronger than others (and, as a consequence, have larger masses), why there is a prevalence of matter over antimatter, or why the universe seems to be dominated by dark matter — a kind of matter we know nothing about, apart from the fact that it's not part of the recipe included in the Standard Model. We know dark matter has mass since its gravitational effects are felt in familiar matter, the matter that makes up galaxies and stars. But we don't know what it is.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned.
Physicists had hoped that the powerful Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would shed light on the nature of dark matter, but nothing has come up there or in many direct searches, where detectors were mounted to collect dark matter that presumably would rain down from the skies and hit particles of ordinary matter.
Could muons fill in the gaps?
Enter the muons. The hope that these particles can help solve the shortcomings of the Standard Model has two parts to it. The first is that every particle, like a muon, that has an electric charge can be pictured simplistically as a spinning sphere. Spinning spheres and disks of charge create a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the spin. Picture the muon as a tiny spinning top. If it's rotating counterclockwise, its magnetic field would point vertically up. (Grab a glass of water with your right hand and turn it counterclockwise. Your thumb will be pointing up, the direction of the magnetic field.) The spinning muons will be placed into a doughnut-shaped tunnel and forced to go around and around. The tunnel will have its own magnetic field that will interact with the tiny magnetic field of the muons. As the muons circle the doughnut, they will wobble about, just like spinning-tops wobble on the ground due to their interaction with Earth's gravity. The amount of wobbling depends on the magnetic properties of the muon which, in turn, depend on what's going on with the muon in space.
Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
This is where the second idea comes in, the quantum vacuum. In physics, there is no empty space. The so-called vacuum is actually a bubbling soup of particles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second. Everything fluctuates, as encapsulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Energy fluctuates too, what we call zero-point energy. Since energy and mass are interconvertible (E=mc2, remember?), these tiny fluctuations of energy can be momentarily converted into particles that pop out and back into the busy nothingness of the quantum vacuum. Every particle of matter is cloaked with these particles emerging from vacuum fluctuations. Thus, a muon is not only a muon, but a muon dressed with these extra fleeting bits of stuff. That being the case, these extra particles affect a muon's magnetic field, and thus, its wobbling properties.
About 20 years ago, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory detected anomalies in the muon's magnetic properties, larger than what theory predicted. This would mean that the quantum vacuum produces particles not accounted for by the Standard Model: new physics! Fast forward to 2017, and the experiment, at four times higher sensitivity, was repeated at the Fermi National Laboratory, where yours truly was a postdoctoral fellow a while back. The first results of the Muon g-2 experiment were unveiled on 7-April-2021 and not only confirmed the existence of a magnetic moment anomaly but greatly amplified it.
To most people, the official results, published recently, don't seem so exciting: a "tension between theory and experiment of 4.2 standard deviations." The gold standard for a new discovery in particle physics is a 5-sigma variation, or one part in 3.5 million. (That is, running the experiment 3.5 million times and only observing the anomaly once.) However, that's enough for plenty of excitement in the particle physics community, given the remarkable precision of the experimental measurements.
A time for excitement?
Now, results must be reanalyzed very carefully to make sure that (1) there are no hidden experimental errors; and (2) the theoretical calculations are not off. There will be a frenzy of calculations and papers in the coming months, all trying to make sense of the results, both on the experimental and theoretical fronts. And this is exactly how it should be. Science is a community-based effort, and the work of many compete with and complete each other.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned, even if less exciting than new particles. Or maybe, new particles have been there all along, blipping in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum, waiting to be pulled out of this busy nothingness by our tenacious efforts to find out what the world is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.
For nearly two centuries, scientists have known that humans descended from the great apes. But it's proven difficult to precisely map out the branches of that evolutionary tree, especially in terms of determining when and where early Homo species first developed brains similar to modern humans.
There are clear differences between ape and human brains. Compared to apes, the Homo sapiens brain is larger, and its frontal lobe is organized such that we can engage in toolmaking, planning, and language. Other Homo species also enjoyed some of these cognitive innovations, from the Neanderthals to Homo floresiensis, the hobbit-like people who once inhabited Indonesia.
One reason it's been difficult to discern the details of this cognitive evolution from apes to Homo species is that brains don't fossilize, so scientists can't directly study early primate brains. But primate skulls offer clues.
Brains of yore
In a new study published in Science, an international team of researchers analyzed impressions left on the skulls of Homo species to better understand the evolution of primate brains. Using computer tomography on fossil skulls, the team generated images of what the brain structures of early Homo species probably looked like, and then compared those structures to the brains of great apes and modern humans.
The results suggest that Homo species first developed humanlike brains approximately 1.7 to 1.5 million years ago in Africa. This cognitive evolution occurred at roughly the same time Homo species' technology and culture were becoming more complex, with these species developing more sophisticated stone tools and animal food resources.
The team hypothesized that "this pattern reflects interdependent processes of brain-culture coevolution, where cultural innovation triggered changes in cortical interconnectivity and ultimately in external frontal lobe topography."
The team also found that these structural changes occurred after Homo species migrated out of Africa for regions like modern-day Georgia and Southeast Asia, which is where the fossils in the study were discovered. In other words, Homo species still had ape-like brains when some groups first left Africa.
While the study sheds new light on the evolution of primate brains, the team said there's still much to learn about the history of early Homo species, particularly in terms of explaining the morphological diversity of Homo fossils discovered in Africa.
"Deciphering evolutionary process in early Homo remains a challenge that will be met only through the recovery of expanded fossil samples from well-controlled chronological contexts," the researchers wrote.