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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For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.