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Today’s post seems like it concerns exceedingly trivial matters from a bygone age, but it is actually of much larger import. When I was five, I had the most delightful birthday!  It was a splendid August day with the barest hint of coming autumn in the forget-me-not sky.  There was every food I like.  My mother made a special unlicensed Star Wars cake and, though chocolate Vader looked a bit blobby and brown he tasted amazing.  There were astonishing presents, games with friends, and my splendid loving family telling me how wonderful I was.  There was only one stain upon the luminous day and it came at breakfast through the black-and-white TV screen.

black-white-tv-20839864

I was only allowed to watch limited amounts of TV (it makes me feel like some nineteenth century fogy to talk about having one (1) tiny mono-color viewscreen in a whole house), but even in the innocent (?) world of the seventies there were ads everywhere, fiendishly concocted to sink their razor sharp hooks into desires you did not even know you had.  One of these was an ad for a cereal which featured the most miraculous toy—a swimming dolphin which actually dove down into the darkened abyss and then playfully rose back up with an enigmatic dolphin smile.

Through the dark magic of contemporary media saturation, the original ad is available on Youtube. Here it is!

Perhaps the four-year-old me was emotionally moved by the lumbering tragicomic figure of Smeadley the elephant, however I confess I did not remember him until seeing the clip.  But the toy dolphins were magical!  The only thing which could have been better would have been an ichthyosaur. There was a problem—we were not allowed to have sugared breakfast cereal, which my mother regarded as a dangerous abomination (as an aside: I was raised so well…how did I go so wrong?).  The only chances for such a treat were trips to visit grandparents and birthdays—the one day on the calendar where requests for sugared cereal were countenanced in-house.

Maybe don't trust people who have their eyebrows on their hat...

Maybe don’t trust people who have their eyebrows on their hat…

My poor parents were forced to turn down requests for Cap’n Crunch for weeks until the big day finally arrived.  The first thing that went awry was the cereal–I guess Cap’n Crunch is supposed to be artificial peanut butter maybe? But whatever that unearthly bletted corn flavor is supposed to be, I found it vile.  The year before I had had Alphabits when I turned four and they were amazing!  Cap’n Crunch was a real disappointment. No matter—the important thing was the toy. We were supposed to wait to eat down to the bottom of the box to retrieve toys, but I abused my birthday privilege to stick my arm through the crunch and finally extract the coveted dolphin!

The only picture I could find of an original Cap'n Crunch

The only picture I could find of an original Cap’n Crunch “Diving Dolphin” toy (I think this might BE the actual size)

Sadly the actual toy was also a disappointing thing, much smaller and more colorless than it was on TV (and, again, the TV was black and white!).  The dolphin came horrifyingly bisected in a little plastic bag and had to be assembled and filled up with sodium hydrogen carbonate (not included), an operation which involved my father and much muttering and forcing of poorly molded plastic injection joints.

Pictured: Fun

Pictured: Fun

We did not have a perfectly shaped transparent toy dolphin tank as pictured in the ad (not included) so the dolphin went into an opaque gray plastic mop bucket.  It sank to the bottom and fell over on its side.  We all stood there for a while as it was gradually wreathed in a milky cloud. Boring, boring time passed—five-year old 1979 time which I will never recover!  About an hour later, the dolphin began to imperceptibly rise (according to my eagle-eyed mother) whereupon I raced off, and the dolphin was pushed into a corner.  Later we looked at it—and it was floating at the top, on its side like a dead goldfish.

The bad toy was swiftly forgotten…except I have not forgotten it.  I remember it more clearly than many of the awesome beautiful thoughtful toys I received later that day.  It was a harbinger—and a warning.

...junk you don't need

…junk you don’t need

Ninety-five percent of consumer products ARE the diving dolphin. They are cheaply made, poorly conceived and useless except for marketing/merchandising purposes.  Most of what you are looking at on the web and on the news are diving dolphins. So is most of what politicians say.  It was hard for me to recognize so much of human endeavor in a little plastic sack beneath the corn-syrup and artificial flavor, but I assure you it is so. Just put any of that junk in a bucket and watch it sink forlornly to the bottom…

Fake peanut butter Flavor Not included

Fake peanut butter Flavor Not included

Of course diving dolphins do not detract from the real things—happiness, friendship, good memories, family, and love. Not unless you let them.

The author and his sister, 1979

The author and his sister, 1979

Happy 407th birthday to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn!  The master’s peerless paintings and etchings show a unique understanding and empathy for the human condition.  Rembrandt painted faces more expressively than any other artist–because of this strength, his works attain deep emotional complexity.   To illustrate this, and to celebrate his birth, here is a masterpiece by Rembrandt which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid.  The painting is magnificent!  A pensive noblewoman (modeled by Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia) in resplendent jewels and silks takes a nautilus cup from a little page.  Behind her stands a strange gray figure, half-visible in the gloom—an apparition? a servant? The painter himself?  It is unclear.  The painting itself is a mystery which has been discussed an argued about for centuries.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_014a

Rembrandt painted the work in 1634 (which we can see from his prominent signature and his inimitable style), but, uncharacteristically we do not know the title.  The painting is either “Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes” or “Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup.”  If the first title is correct, then the nautilus cup which is dramatic focus of the painting contains the ashes of Queen Artemisia’s husband/brother, Mausolus, satrap of Persia.  Mausolus’ immense tomb (constructed by Artemisia) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and gave us the word “mausoleum”.  Yet the great tomb was empty:  Artemisia had Mausolus’ ashes mixed into wine which she drank day after day until she had completely consumed his remains (the Greeks were fascinated by the fact that Artemisia was simultaneously the sister and wife and devourer of Mausolus).

However, if the second title is correct, then the seashell cup contains deadly poison.  Sophonisba was the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Gisco.  Upon his defeat, she took poison so as not to endure the humiliation of being part of a Roman triumph.   Nautilus shells allegedly had the magical power to negate poison (safety tip: this is not true at all).  That Sophonisba would commit suicide with such a cup indicates the true moral of the painting: the real poison is defeat and slavery.  Poison and a proud death are her antidotes.

Rembrandt_-_Artemis_-_Detail_Nautilus_cup

So which answer is right?  Or are they both wrong?  Saskia’s strange diffident anxiety could be fitting for either story, yet her manner and dress are not those of a grieving Persian sister-queen.   I favor the interpretation of the painting as that of the stoic Sophonisba.  These are her last moments and the gray figure is as much an inhabitant of the underworld as a flesh-and-blood attendant.  The strange whimsical garb is the fantasy raiment of vanished Carthage. But I could well be wrong. What do you think?

Bust of Sir William Herschel

Happy Birthday to Sir Frederick William Herschel. who was born on November 15th 1738! Ferrebeekeeper has touched on Herschel’s scientific and musical accomplishments and we have also explored his convictions concerning extraterrestrial life, but have what have we done lately to commemorate the long deceased astronomer and his contributions to human knowledge?

…other than photoshop this cake (sorry Seth)….

 That’s why we’re observing the great man’s birthday by listing a few of Herschel’s additional accomplishments (which didn’t fit in the prior, overlong post) and by making some brief comments concerning multi-disciplinary polymaths–who are rapidly disappearing in a world of myopic specialists.  Perhaps this will in some way suffice to memorialize this personal hero.

Although Sir William is principally known as an astronomer, he regarded himself as a well-rounded man of science and studied many other disciplines both in and out of the sciences.  Indeed one of his more remarkable discoveries–that non-visible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation exist–is really a physics discovery rather than an astronomy discovery (although the disciplines are allied).  However Sir William also worked in the natural sciences, and is credited with an important biological discovery.  Prior to his time, coral was regarded as a plant.  Sir William got out his microscope and made some direct observations of coral cells. He concluded that since coral cells had the same thin membranes as animal cells, the organism was an animal.  Such is of course the case and today’s aquarium docents patiently explain to first-graders that corals and siphonophorae are actually creatures (although they, cnidarians, lack central nervous systems and can’t even enjoy basic sensations, much less book-of-the-month).   Sir William was an ideal renaissance man whose intellect and creativity allowed him insights into many different fields–which segues us to contemplating the scientific community of the present.

A microscope photograph of mushroom coral (by James Nicholson)

Contrary to what we might expect, today Sir William would probably find no place in the professional sciences (astronomy, physics, biology, or otherwise).  For in the sciences, as in other realms of academia, the gownless are vehemently cast out.  Someone who spent so much time practicing oboe and composing symphonies would never be able to get through the mountain of information necessary for an unfortunately named BS degree (to say nothing about attaining the doctorate so necessary to research and publish).  

Of course it’s admirable that we train our scientists at such immense length in specialized accredited schools.  And it’s also necessary! Any freshman scientist has his head swimming with a gigantic amount of information because science itself has grown.  Each branch of science is broader and wider and deeper (and other dimensions that non-scientists have no names for) every year.  Only people who have tremendous self-discipline and an advanced knowledge of where they want to go in life (no to mention substantial smarts) can travel such a path, and even these paragons can only choose one path each. 

Men like Herschel traveled the frontiers of science the way that men like Jim Bowie traveled the frontiers.  They are legends who opened up new realms–but we might not have any place for either one today (or more likely they would both be anonymous consultants battling the Washington beltway to their midlevel office jobs).  

"What the hell kind of simile was that?"

I mention all of this because I love and revere science but, despite trying to keep up, I am increasingly baffled. Scientists express their dismay at the laughable opinions of the layperson, but science stands in danger of becoming a mystery cult assessable only to the ridiculously highly educated.  I don’t have any solutions or suggestions about this.  Unlike some fields of endeavor I could name, science is not complicated because of politics or insidious Wall Street insiders.  It’s complicated because it’s complicated.  Only continuous studying and striving can allow scientists to push back the boundaries of human understanding (even as the rest of us connive to sell insurance and plastic junk to each other). That seemingly precludes brilliant crossovers. Strange visionary outsiders like Herschel no longer contribute their insights and talents, which is a great pity.  

Pictured: Science

I’m sorry I strayed into personal opinion there.  Perhaps some actual scientists can set me straight concerning interdisciplinary methodology within their fields.  In the mean time have some birthday cake and join me in waiting for the next polymath to give us a brilliant discovery which opens up the universe to the rest of us.

Herschel's Reflecting Telescope at Slough

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