Big Think Interview With Nell Irvin Painter
Nell Irvin Painter, a leading historian of the United States, is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University. In addition to her earned doctorate in history from Harvard University, she has received honorary doctorates from Wesleyan, Dartmouth, SUNY-New Paltz, and Yale.
A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Nell Painter has also held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Antiquarian Society. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. Those presidential addresses have been published in the Journal of American History (“Ralph Waldo Emerson's Saxons” in March 2009) and the Journal of Southern History (“Was Marie White?” February 2008). The City of Boston declared Thursday, 4 October 2007Nell Irvin Painter Day in honor of her Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center in 2006.
A prolific and award-winning scholar, her most recent books are The History of White People (W. W. Norton, 2010, paperback, March 2011),Creating Black Americans (Oxford University Press, 2006), and Southern History Across the Color Line (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). A second edition of Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 and a Korean translation of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbolappeared in 2008. Her other books are also still in print. For a complete list of her book and article publications and other honors and activities, please consult the CV on this website.
As a public intellectual, Professor Painter is frequently called upon for lectures and interviews on television and film. In January 2008 she appeared live for a three-hour “In Depth” program on C-SPAN Book TV. To see the program on the internet, go to the web page for “In Depth.”She has also appeared on Bill Moyers’s “Progressive America.” New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts” documented her work as both a scholar and an art student.
Nell Irvin Painter: Okay, Nell Irvin Painter and I have two\r\ntitles. One is Edwards Professor\r\nof American History Emerita, Princeton University, and the other is lowly\r\ngraduate student.\r\n\r\n
Question: After so many\r\nhistories of nonwhite people by whites, does your book seek to correct the\r\nimbalance?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: It’s not an attempt to correct an\r\nimbalance, but I think it may function that way. For me it was an answering of questions. I started with a question I couldn’t\r\nanswer. Why are white people\r\ncalled Caucasian? You know\r\nwhy? So that was where I started\r\nasking questions and it went from one thing to another.
Question: Where and when\r\ndid the concept of “whiteness” originate?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Yes, yes. Yeah, there are two ways of talking about it. one is just to notice that there is\r\nsome people who are kind of light skinned and other people who are kind of\r\nbrownish and other people who are kind of darkish, so people notice that you\r\nknow immediately, but since there wasn’t a lot of motion around from one’s town\r\nor one’s village that didn’t come up very much, so somebody like Herodotus for\r\ninstance, who did travel, he could say that for instance the Scythians, who\r\nmade quivers out of the arms, the skinned arms of the people they vanquished,\r\nthat man’s skin is very showy and white, so it was clear that people were light\r\nskinned, but to make it into something called a race or a variety, and then to\r\nendow that with certain characteristics, racial temperament for instance, that\r\nlatter kind of way of dealing with race, that’s an invention of the Enlightenment\r\nof the eighteenth century.\r\n\r\n
Question: How did\r\nEnlightenment-era notions of race develop?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Sure. Well when we think of science, science is a truth that is\r\ntrue no matter what, no matter when and for all time and science as the kind of\r\ngospel truth replaces the gospel, which was religion. Before science, before the eighteenth century, religion\r\nanswered the questions, and so in the nineteenth century for instance there was\r\na real jostling between science and religion over the truth and this is why\r\nDarwin was so controversial, but by the nineteenth and twentieth century\r\nscience and taxonomy had created categories, all sorts of things. Carolus Linnaeus, eighteenth century,\r\nis the father of taxonomy, that is of categorizing things and so that science\r\nof categorizing things comes out of the eighteenth century, comes out of the Enlightenment\r\nand counts up everything and gives it a name, including people.\r\n\r\n
Question: Before race\r\nbecame “taxonomized,” was there no racism as such?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Not so much racism because race hadn’t\r\nbeen invented yet, but the big differences were religious, so on the one hand\r\nthe Catholics and Protestants, on the other hand Christians, Jews and Muslims,\r\nso religion was the big defining factor before race and in fact, as we see in\r\nour own world religion still plays a very important part and it plays a part in\r\na way that race does in that you can say that somebody has a particular\r\nreligion and then that conjures up all sorts of other ideas about what is in\r\nthat person, how that person thinks, how that person goes through his or her\r\neveryday life, what it means to be a man or women, so there is lots that we\r\npack into these categories, whether they’re racial or religious.\r\n\r\n
Question: How was the\r\nemerging notion of race tied to 18th-century scientific thought?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: For Linnaeus—and the great version of\r\nhis taxonomy was 1758—he did categorize people, so but he categorized them\r\naccording to where they were from, so they were categorized, there were four\r\ndifferent varieties, and they were categorized by their continent. They did have continental temperaments,\r\nso people from Africa were flighty and people from Europe were thoughtful, but\r\ntheir names had to do with where they were from. So Johann Friedrich Blumenbach writing in… actually\r\npublishing on the 11th of April, 1795 enlarged Linnaeus’ four categories into\r\nfive and called one of them Caucasian. \r\nNote that he is calling them varieties, not races. Race is… He wrote in Latin and so the translation becomes races and\r\nraces is the nineteenth-century word. \r\nSo for Blumenbach at the very end of the eighteenth century it was\r\nalready clear that these varieties shade from one to the other imperceptibly. He said you can’t draw a clear line\r\nthat all of this kind of person will be on one side and all of that kind of\r\nperson will be on another, and he also offered his readers several different\r\nnumbers of varieties. He said you\r\ncould choose. For instance, he\r\nsaid I know a person who says there’re only two. He didn’t name that person, but we know who it was—Christoph\r\nMeiners, who was his colleague—and Meiners’ two races were ugly and beautiful.\r\n\r\n
Question: How does the\r\nidea of “whiteness” intersect with European art history and aesthetic theory?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Yes, because drawing lines of varieties\r\nor races also is drawing lines about physical attractiveness, so for Blumenbach\r\n1795 Caucasian was his choice of name because it had to with the most beautiful\r\nskull in his skull collection. Now\r\nthe skull was actually from Georgia. \r\nIt was from a sex slave from Georgia, and so what this skull did was\r\nembed in the name Caucasian the idea of beauty because the idea was that the\r\nCaucasians or the Circassians or the Georgians were the most beautiful people\r\nin the world, and that’s why Blumenbach chose that name, but also female and\r\nsubjected, so the struggle in the nineteenth century was to pull the beauty\r\npart of Caucasian away from sex slaves into virile men, and that’s one of the\r\nthings that Ralph Waldo Emerson did.\r\n\r\n
Question: How do we\r\nreconcile Emerson the passionate abolitionist with Emerson the champion of the “Saxon”\r\nrace?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Well first of all, Emerson was not\r\npassionate about abolition. He\r\nwasn’t a passionate person. He was\r\na cool intellectual, and I think he probably was a little uncomfortable with\r\npassionate people, but he was against slavery. There is no question of that, but for Emerson the American\r\nwas the same as an Englishman and the Englishman was the same as a Saxon. Now when he said Saxon he didn’t mean\r\nSaxon from Saxony. If you’re\r\nfamiliar with Germany there is a well-known region called Saxony, which is in\r\nthe eastern part of today’s Germany, and the big cities there are Dresden and\r\nLeipzig and Weimar, which was the city of Goethe and Schiller, so that Saxony\r\nis a well known area and it was a very important area in the nineteenth\r\ncentury. That’s not what Emerson\r\nmeant. Emerson meant a kind of\r\nfloating area off to the west, kind of between the Netherlands and Denmark,\r\nmaybe Hanover is involved, so that’s where his Saxons, came from and he also\r\nmeshed them in together with Vikings, so it’s a kind of northern masculine\r\ninvention.\r\n\r\n
Question: Are Emerson’s\r\nracial ideas still embedded in our own?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Yes, in certain ways, but what American\r\nhistorians for instance have done is take Emerson’s concept of Saxon, and when\r\nEmerson used Saxon he was not including the Celts. The Celts were considered a separate race. The Irish were considered a separate\r\nrace and Catholicism was considered part of their separateness, so for him\r\nSaxon went back to these Protestant Germans and Englishmen. So what American\r\nhistorians have done is take the twentieth-century word white and read it\r\nbackwards and equate white with Anglo-Saxon, with Saxon, with “free white” for\r\ninstance in the census of 1790, whereas at the time, 1790 or 1856 those were\r\nnot the same meanings. They were\r\ndifferent terms because they meant different things.\r\n\r\n
Question: How have\r\nnon-Anglo-Saxon ethnicities been incorporated into, or excluded from, the\r\ndefinition of “white”?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Yes, mostly incorporated into. The dialogue changed. The discourse changed according to the\r\nneeds of the time, so in the middle of the nineteenth century when Emerson was\r\nwriting when he looked around his New England there were these very poor people\r\nwhom he did not consider Saxons. \r\nThey were Celts and they were immigrants. They were poor Irish immigrants. These were the famine immigrants, but the end of the century\r\nthose people had children and those children had gone to school and made their\r\nway up the economic ladder a little bit. \r\nThat was one side of it. \r\nThe other side was the turn of the twentieth century brought a wave of\r\nnew immigrants, people from Southern and Eastern Europe and the near east and\r\nso the former Celts as a separate race got tucked into American whiteness, not\r\nas Saxons, but as Nordics, so the twentieth century term is Nordics, which has\r\nto do with Europeans from the northwest of Europe, which includes Ireland, so\r\nthat was an incorporation of people who had been despised. So the early twentieth century saw\r\nsomething that we can only call racism against immigrants, poor immigrants from\r\nSouthern and Eastern Europe and by the time their children and grandchildren\r\nwere mobilized in the new deal in the Second World War and then allowed to buy\r\nhomes for white people only in the suburbs after the Second World War then they\r\nbecome white people, and there is a large sort of passé part of whiteness that\r\nincludes everybody and that’s the whiteness that we inherit in the twenty-first\r\ncentury. It’s a whiteness that has\r\nalso been buffeted around a bit.\r\n\r\n
Question: How have Jewish\r\npeople become incorporated into this definition?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: The taxonomist in the eighteenth\r\ncentury and the nineteenth century had a lot of trouble with Jews. Were Jews…? Well they were pretty much white people, but as we see in\r\nthe United States white was not enough to be the American or to be the right\r\nkind of American, but in taxonomical terms were Jews Europeans. Well yes, but, so in the early\r\ntwentieth century the reigning scientific knowledge said that there were three\r\nEuropean races, Teutonic, Alpine and Mediterranean. Now this left out two problems peoples. One was the Laps, who were in and out and in and out depending on the particular scheme, and the Jews, in and out and\r\nin and out depending on the particular scheme, so it’s really the Holocaust and\r\nthen suburbanization that took away the racial taint and I use taint because\r\nrace is not always a taint. It\r\ntook away the racial taint from Jewishness and left the quality of Jewish\r\nethnicity, but there is changes have been occurring throughout the second half\r\nof the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, so for instance,\r\npeople who are now the grandparent generation may well feel that they are not\r\ncompletely white or they’re white and Jewish or they’re mostly Jewish and they\r\ndon’t feel white. Their children\r\nprobably feel both, maybe more white than Jewish depending on how they were\r\nbrought up, but the grandchildren probably just think of themselves as white\r\npeople and if they have one parent who is Jewish and one parent who is\r\nsomething else, especially if it is something else as attractive as Italian\r\nthey may well identify as Italian-American.\r\n\r\n
Question: Will other\r\nethnicities become redefined as “white,” or will racial definitions change\r\naltogether?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Well, both. Both at the same time. \r\nThe idea of the American… \r\nFor Emerson there was not a problem. The American was a Saxon and he was a man and he was\r\neducated. By the twentieth century\r\nthe American you might kind of put women in, still pretty much male, but still\r\ndefinitely white, but not a Saxon anymore. We live in a world in which it’s harder to talk about the\r\nAmerican in the singular, so we’re a multi. We have several different people who represent the United\r\nStates, so in that sense whiteness, the salience, the importance of whiteness\r\nis kind of tamping down some. On\r\nthe other hand, the idea of blackness, that is poor dark-skinned people, I\r\nthink we will have that with us always, and when we particularly at this moment\r\nof economic crisis and this moment in which we have a small number of very rich\r\npeople and a lot of people who are kind of scraping by and then tremendous\r\ndifferences. We have a great\r\ninequality of wealth and income. \r\nThis group of people who are scraping by there will be a lot of them,\r\nbut they will probably be largely black and brown and that will tend to\r\nreinforce racial ideas. So on the\r\nupper strata, among these few people up here who are doing very well there will\r\nbe people of various colors and from various backgrounds, but they will\r\nprobably not be so racialized as the people who are not doing well.\r\n\r\n
Question: To what extent\r\nis the American notion of “whiteness” based on class and not race?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: I don’t think you have to make a\r\nchoice. I think in the United\r\nStates we’ll always have both together because as long as we continue to\r\nbelieve in race, kind of like people believe in witches, no matter how often it\r\ngets disproved that will have a kind of gut-level feeling for us that the\r\nnotion of class doesn’t. in\r\nBritain for instance, in England class has a gut-level feeling, but not in the\r\nUnited States, so they’re not the same thing and it’s not either/or, but you’re\r\nabsolutely right to think that race is less important when people are doing\r\nwell, so it’s not that somebody will look at somebody who looks like me and\r\nsay, “Oh my gosh, you’re white.” \r\nIt’s that it won’t matter so much anymore.\r\n\r\n
Question: Have American\r\nnotions of race been exported around the world?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: The American sense of the importance,\r\nthe fundamental importance of the black-white dichotomy, comes out of societies\r\nfounded in the era of the African slave trade, so societies like ours, that is\r\nto say the western hemisphere, the Caribbean and so forth, we share a lot in\r\ncommon. In places like Germany or\r\nFrance the idea of black-white is not so much black-white but “our people and\r\nthem,” and “them” can be people from the near east like Turks or Muslims or\r\nNorth Africans, all of whom might well be considered white in the United\r\nStates.\r\n\r\n
Question: What has\r\nObama’s election changed about race in the U.S., and what hasn’t it changed?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Well here I can only act, speak as a\r\ncitizen, not as an expert of any sort, and it seems to me that the election is\r\nmore an outcome of changes that had been taking place since about the late\r\n‘90s. For instance, when I started\r\nworking on this book a century ago in 1999 very often I would get people\r\nsaying, “Well are you writing it as a black person?” And at first you know I took this rather… I mean I’m a professional\r\nhistorian. I do my research. I have a PhD. What does my race have to do with it? So I would say I’m writing it as a\r\nhistorian. Or, what are my options? Or, I’m writing it as a white man. I never got the right answer. I mean I never had the right\r\nretort. Let’s put it that\r\nway. But people stopped asking me\r\nthat. It became possible for\r\npeople, for Americans to imagine that a person in my body might have access to\r\nknowledge. That I think was a\r\nchange, so I think that American… \r\nAnd this is also subjective. \r\nI mean it’s all that is coming to me. I think that as I see it Americans are more able to talk\r\nabout race or think about race as having other qualities besides skin color,\r\nand that there might be knowledge that is useful and that white people might\r\nhave a race, so in the late twentieth century if you were white then you didn’t\r\nhave race. You were an individual\r\nand I think now large numbers of white people understand themselves as\r\nindividuals, but also as people who are raced. Now in terms of the possibility of electing a mixed race\r\nperson or a person identified as black, I never thought that would occur in my\r\nlifetime, I was very surprised. And very pleased I would add. So I think that\r\nalso reflects a shift in American values. \r\nNow could the black president be someone who had 100% native\r\nAfrican-American background? This\r\nI don’t know. It seems to me that\r\nwhen it comes to terms of difference that people are often more comfortable\r\ngetting an exotic, so the first woman to be Secretary of State was not born in\r\nthe United States. Madeline\r\nAlbright was an immigrant. So we\r\nwill see if these changes hold on, but my sense is there has been a kind of\r\nunclenching when it comes to ideas about race in the United States because in\r\npart the racial identity and the class identity in terms of black equaling\r\npoor, that is opening up. So I think when middle-class people see other\r\nmiddle-class people who are just as middle-class, but who are not white of skin\r\nthat kind of relaxes it a little bit. \r\nIt doesn’t help those people who are poor.\r\n\r\n
Question: Why did you\r\ntransition from emeritus history professor to graduate art student?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: At first it wasn’t hard. It’s gotten harder and harder. Being a graduate student is no fun and\r\nis hard, but I’m sticking with it. \r\nI love making art. Making\r\nart for me is not fun in the sense of la, la, la, la, but it’s something that I\r\nfind very absorbing and very satisfying and I have a hard time stopping, so\r\nit’s 11:00 and I need to go to bed and if I just do this one little bit of\r\nyellow. You know, it just goes on\r\nand on and on. Many, many years\r\nago when I was an undergraduate I kind of came to a fork in the road. My father had taught me how to\r\ndraw. My mother had taught me how\r\nto write. I come from an academic\r\nfamily in Oakland, California and I was majoring in art at the University of\r\nCalifornia Berkley and I took sculpture and sculpture was hard and I thought\r\nthis proves I haven’t got the talent. \r\nWell this of course was nonsense. \r\nThis was silly young person thinking. You need to do some work even if you have the talent. So I just went the way that was easier,\r\nthe way I knew what to do, but I have always had the pleasure of the eye. I’ve always enjoyed color. I’m a knitter. Actually I knitted this sweater I’m\r\nwearing, so the visual sense has always been with me. In the 1990’s I wrote a biography of Sojourner Truth and\r\nSojourner Truth did not read and write. \r\nShe had her photographs taken, so I needed to learn the meaning of\r\nphotographs, the history of photographs and I wrote a chapter on Sojourner\r\nTruth in photography. That took me\r\nover to the art history library at Princeton, which is a magnificent library\r\nand I really enjoyed that, so that was kind of the first nudge. Also my mother who died a little over a\r\nyear ago changed her career at 65. \r\nShe started writing books. \r\nIt took her 10 years to write and publish her first book, 10 years to\r\nwrite and publish her second book and she was working on a website when she\r\ndied at 91, so I thought well I can do that and if I’m going to live to be 91,\r\nI will have an art career too, as long as many successful artists who are with\r\nus today. So it was that kind of\r\nsense of possibility. They’re\r\ncalled encore careers.\r\n\r\n
Question: Which artists\r\ninspire you most?\r\n\r\n
Nell Irvin Painter: Absolutely. I can tell you two or three artists whose work I\r\nadmire. I think someone who has\r\nbeen with me for sometime is Robert Colescott, who died a couple of years ago.\r\nColescott was an African-American artist who was deeply engaged in the history,\r\nof art history and so his work did have a lot of cultural meaning and\r\nhistorical meaning and also he was really a riotous painter with a great sense\r\nof color and kind of… I hate to\r\nuse the word riotous again, but his compositions also were like that, that he\r\nwould pull together images that would seem not to fit together, images that\r\nwere uncomfortable, but I found them very satisfying, so Robert Colescott has\r\nbeen someone who inspires me and has inspired me. At the moment I am very inspired by Maira Kalman who does\r\nthe blogs in The New York Times, has done books. Kalman began as an illustrator. She wrote 12 children’s books. She is still writing children’s books. She did two very well regarded\r\nbooks. One she illustrated, Strunk\r\nand White’s Elements of Style, and the other it was Principles of Uncertainty,\r\nwhich came out of her New York Times blog. What I really like about Maira Kalman is that she uses\r\ntext. She uses text. She used drawings, paintings and she\r\nuses photographs together, so for me that is very inspiring. I am nowhere near her abilities, her\r\nskill, her imagination and her humor, but to see what she does with these three\r\ndifferent kinds of representations is very illuminating. And then somebody like Charline von\r\nHeyl, who is actually an abstract painter, but I like her work very much. Denyse Thomasos is also an abstract\r\npainter, an African-American… a Canadian painter actually, who does\r\narchitectural compositions with a great sense of energy, and so even though her\r\nwork is abstract you can see a kind of sense, not of figuration because she\r\ndoesn’t put figures in, but of representation. So these are just four artists, but there are many others\r\nwhose work I like very much.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
A conversation with the professor of American history at Princeton.
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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.