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We need highly formal rituals in order to make life more democratic
Comfort has won, and most formality is gone.
Benedictus, Benedicat, per Jesum Christum, Dominum Nostrum. Amen.
Please be seated. It's dinner time in St Paul's College, Sydney, where I'm dean and head of house at Graduate House.
The members of the High Table, wearing academic gowns, have processed into the refectory to a table laden with candelabra and silver accoutrements from the college treasury, each place set with cutlery and glasses. The students, also in gowns, rise from their seats to acknowledge the High Table, and stand until the presider has finished the Latin grace (this is the shorter one – a longer version is kept for feasts). Now that all are seated, a three-course meal is served, accompanied by poetry, music, announcements and general well-dressed merriment. Port is served. A final grace is said after dinner, then all retire to the common room for coffee (or more port) and further conversation. The men wear ties. The women dress up. Diners bow to the High Table when excusing themselves, and the High Table bows back when departing from dinner.
This is, by no means, an entirely unique ritual. Everywhere the British empire planted its flag, its two great universities of Oxford and Cambridge spread their collegiate model, and so Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all have their colleges, each with their traditional ways of dining and living. St Paul's is the oldest such college in Australia, but it's different from the others (and from those in Britain) in a significant respect. St Paul's contains two communities – undergraduate and postgraduate – each with their own buildings, dining halls, common rooms, and leadership; each almost a college unto itself, but joined in many endeavours. The undergraduate community was founded in 1856, and Graduate House, which I lead, in 2019. Yet, despite this difference in antiquity, the description above describes dinner in either community, every week.
When I started as dean of Graduate House, there was no Graduate House, only an incomplete construction site and an idea. My brief was to recruit the students and academics, fill the buildings with people, set up student leadership, and design and define the culture and practices of a new college-within-a-college.
I didn't want for unsolicited advice. The most common sentiments I heard were unsurprising: 'a new college can be modern', 'you don't need gowns', 'you don't need formal dinner', 'graduate students in a new college will want it casual!'
We wear gowns. To formal dinners. It is not casual. It is not 'modern'.
I hold an unpopular view. I believe, firmly and invariably, that life in the 21st century is too informal and empty of ritual, and that we should encourage and erect more needless formality. Formality, ritual and ceremony – not casual approachability – are among the most effective ways of making the world and its institutions more inclusive and egalitarian. We all need much more formality in our lives.
The past century has been a good one for individual freedoms – in almost every respect. This wholesale liberalisation has included the freedom of individuals to dress, dine and discourse how they like it. And how they like it is invariably: 'casual', 'low key', 'without too much fuss', 'not too precious', 'not too pretentious', 'not ostentatious' or, as I heard just the other day, 'not too "bougie"' (qua 'bourgeois')… in short, informal. Comfort is king in the modern world; and comfort is the excuse proffered for the evaporation of formality from daily life.
While formality and its rituals persist in little pockets, they do so only where they are bolstered by elaborate protective struts. In general (though decreasingly), government ceremonies remain somewhat formal. With ever increasing exceptions, weddings and funerals cling to formal traditions. The High Church has positioned itself as the last refuge of formal practice – a claim that would have no teeth had not the Low Church so effectively abolished the bells and smells and hymns and ceremony in favour of appealing to parishioners who want a service that 'isn't too fussy'.
Comfort has won, and most formality is gone. But the freedom of informality comes at a cost. Formality is the bulwark against some of the nastiest human impulses, and acts as a vaccine against our most dangerous tendency: forming in-groups and out-groups.
There's nothing you or I or the Pope or the United Nations could do to stop humans from forming clubs, inventing or elevating meaningful markers of difference, and building fences and corrals that keep one's group together while keeping the 'others' out. We are a tribal ape with a brain built to exaggerate our allegiance to our small band while manning the barricades against others distinguished by vanishingly tiny differences. Individuals can, with great effort, consciously suppress this nasty bit of programming, but populations on the whole will fail.
Groups can form around any distinguishing feature, from the harmless, such as sporting teams, schools attended or favourite novels, to the nefarious, such as race, class or sex. Each person can disavow some marks of difference while clinging to others – and no person can disavow them all.
This mental virus might be incurable, but there is a vaccine: formality. Formality gives us something harmless around which to form an in-group: namely, knowledge of the rules of that particular formality, with its own trials of membership and rules of initiation.
'Ah yes, the dress code is a bit difficult to understand… You see, it's based on Edwardian standards, of course, so "semiformal" actually means black tie! No, no, don't worry a bit, it is unusual…'
The opportunity to be a crowing pedant about the rules of formality gives one something to do instead of in-grouping around more exclusionary traits, such as to which expensive school one went. More importantly, the rules of formality are ultimately accessible to all. Anyone can learn the etiquette and wear the tie, and so become part of the ever larger, ever more diverse in-group that practices the formality of the event.
The livery companies of the City of London are some of the more formal and traditional institutions in the United Kingdom today; formal dinners, ceremonies in Tudor (or mock-Tudor) garb, and incredibly convoluted elections are their standard fare. Despite their finery and antiquity, they aren't – nor have they ever been – aristocratic. More than a century ago, they were already associated with upwardly mobile plebs, so much so that Gilbert and Sullivan poked fun at the House of Lords' collective disdain for the Common Council (composed of many livery company members) in their comic opera Iolanthe (1882). The companies began as workmen's guilds and preserve those class associations, but they are formal, traditional organisations, because this helps to bind their members together, despite their differences, making them all feel as one.
This is a common pattern. While the London gentlemen's clubs are well-dressed and traditional, they're largely devoid of ceremony; instead, they're well-appointed places to relax over meals or drinks and sniffingly observe shibboleths of the upper classes, from which syllable to stress in 'patina', to why one ought not to own fish knives. Meanwhile, foundationally working-class clubs, such as the Knights of Columbus or the Freemasons, deck themselves in formal ceremony and ritual. The already powerful can afford not to make too much fuss. For the up-and-coming, or the downtrodden, formality gives an unparalleled sense of membership to a grander body.
Universities and colleges once knew this well. They remain some of the only institutions still using formality to their advantage, though often grudgingly and falteringly. I lived and worked in a number of colleges in Oxford before moving to Australia, and watched as various members of the leadership tried – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to strike away little elements of salubrious formality, when they felt the striking was good. And so, dinner's fourth course went, but second dessert was preserved. Another night of the week became informal, but Sunday was still black tie. They chip away at traditions, forgetting that, for students, visiting fellows and new academics, these are the very things that cause rapture and delight.
In 2019, it was an act of fortitude to stand before 100 newly enrolled graduate students – mostly Australian, few with any experience of an ancient college – and insist that in this brand-new, modern building, at our very first dinner, we would wear academic gowns, say grace in Latin, and pass decanters to the left. It was harder still to say the same to a dozen busy and seasoned academics who joined us. But it was the right choice, and the college is better for it. In this modern university, my students and academics come from every political, religious, social and economic background one can imagine; they don't have anything extrinsic in which to believe together. College gives them something to believe in as a whole.
The college needs ritual, tradition, anachronism and whispers of the numinous to bind together this diversity. Not to smooth it out, but to unite it in true engagement. Any apartment building can fill itself with diverse residents who politely acknowledge each other in the hallways, then keep to themselves. It takes a formal, traditional, ritual-filled ancient college to make them all feel as though they're truly of one kind – even if that ancient college is only a year old.
Benedicto, Benedicatur, per Jesum Christum, Dominum Nostrum. Amen.
Postscript: This Idea was conceived and written in early 2020, in a time when COVID-19 was but a suppressed whisper. Reading it now, when ceremony and togetherness are rightly halted for the good of global health, feels like reading a dispatch from a different world. But I do hope this crisis, which is, underneath the medical crisis, a social one, will provide a chance for reflection on how we interact, and that a global community resuming its usual business will embrace the opportunity to repair our broken institutions of formality and ceremony. In short, I hope we all come out of quarantine wearing our Sunday best, ringing bells, lighting candles and burning incense.
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So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.