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.

Photo credit: Olivier Collet on Unsplash
  • 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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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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