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Why doesn't the heart shape look like an actual heart?

The answer can be found several thousand years ago, in the Roman city of Cyrene.

  • If our real hearts looked anything like the symbol that represents them, we'd all probably have a much harder time pumping blood through our bodies.
  • The reason why the heart symbol looks nothing like the anatomical heart has its roots, oddly enough, in the economy of a Roman city called Cyrene.
  • Cyrene's heart symbol became associated with love through a strange confluence of botany, philosophy, and sex.

It doesn't take a surgeon to note the pretty major discrepancy between how we draw our heats and our anatomical hearts. The thing in our chests that pumps blood throughout our bodies resembles a lopsided fist more than it does the smooth arcs of the heart symbol. Which begs the question: Why and when did we ever start using that symbol in the first place?

Cyrene: The heart of silphium trade

If we look far back enough, we can trace the symbol's use to ancient Rome. However, it wasn't just a guess at what the heart might look like. The first recorded autopsy occurred in Alexandria in 300 BCE, and the Egyptians were removing corpses' organs for mummification thousands of years before even that — so ancient Romans were well familiar with the shape of the anatomical heart.

Instead, the symbol comes from the Greek and later Roman colony of Cyrene in modern-day Libya. Ancient coins from the region sometimes have the heart symbol engraved upon them. Other times, they are marked with a type of plant. These two designs are connected; the heart symbol comes from the seed of the ancient plant that Cyrene's economy depended upon: silphium.

A wonder drug

Cyrene coins

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Silphium grew abundantly along the coast near Cyrene. The Romans considered the plant to be worth its weight in silver, and for good reason. Silphium was believed to be a medical panacea. Describing the medicine derived from silphium (inexplicably called "laser"), Pliny the Elder wrote,

"Laser, a juice which distills from silphium, as we have already stated, and reckoned among the most precious gifts presented to us by Nature, is made use of in numerous medicinal preparations. Employed by itself, it warms and revives persons benumbed with cold, and, taken in drink, it alleviates affections of the sinews. It is given to females in wine, and is used with soft wool as a pessary to promote the menstrual discharge. Mixed with wax, it extracts corns on the feet, after they have been first loosened with the knife: a piece of it, the size of a chick-pea, melted in water, acts as a diuretic."

Pliny and others attributed many more medical properties to silphium, but one property in particular made the shape of its seed last throughout history. Silphium seeds were both contraceptives and could be used to induce abortions.

Loved too much

The ancient Romans didn't have the benefit of latex condoms. Instead, they used the bladders or intestines of sheep and goats. But in addition to being about as far from sexy as something could be, their primary purpose was to prevent venereal disease; not to prevent pregnancy. For that, they used silphium.

Aristotle believed that the heart was the seat of the soul, and therefore the origin of all thought and feeling, including love. So, one theory goes, through its association with lovemaking, the distinctive shape of the silphium seed became associated with love, and through its association with love, the silphium seed became associated with the heart.

That's why today we give each other silphium-shaped candies on Valentine's day and not candies shaped like lopsided fists. But what we don't do today is take silphium to prevent pregnancy. Although we have far better contraceptives today, we couldn't take silphium even if we wanted to; it's extinct.

As far as we know, silphium only grew along a narrow stretch of coast in North Africa. A few different factors may have gone into its extinction in the 4th century. Pliny the Elder wrote that farmers would feed their flocks on silphium, possibly to improve the quality of the meat. The Romans enthusiasm for the plant's properties likely led to overharvesting, and, according to Theophrastus (known as the father of botany), the plant could not be cultivated and only grew in the wild. Over time, Northern Africa became increasingly more desert than fertile land, and the plant was lost. However, the shape of its seed lives on.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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