Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Excerpt: The Territories of Science and Religion

March 25, 2015
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Excerpt: The Territories of Science and Religion

Introduction An excerpt from The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison *** The History of “Religion” In the section of his monumental Summa theologiae that is devoted to a discussion of the virtues of justice and prudence, the thirteenth-century Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas (122–74) investigates, in his characteristically methodical and insightful way, the nature of religion. Along with North African Church Father Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Aquinas is probably the most influential Christian writer outside of the biblical authors. From the outset it is clear that for Aquinas religion (religio) is a virtue—not, incidentally, one of the preeminent theological virtues, but nonetheless an important moral virtue related to justice. He explains that in its primary sense religiorefers to interior acts of devotion and prayer, and that this interior dimension is more important than any outward expressions of this virtue. Aquinas acknowledges that a range of outward behaviors are associated with religio—vows, tithes, offerings, and so on—but he regards these as secondary. As I think is immediately obvious, this notion of religion is rather different from the one with which we are now familiar. There is no sense in which religio refers to systems of propositional beliefs, and no sense of . . .

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Facebook’s A Year of Books drafts The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

March 23, 2015
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Facebook’s A Year of Books drafts The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

In his sixth pick for the social network’s online book club (“A Year of Books”), Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently drafted Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a 52-year-old book still considered one of the most often cited academic resources of all time, and one of the crowning gems of twentieth-century scholarly publishing. Following in the footsteps of Pixar founder Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc., as Zuckerberg’s most recent pick, Structure will be the subject of a Facebook thread with open commenting, for the next two weeks, in line with the guidelines advanced by “A Year of Books.” If you’re thinking about reading along, the 50th Anniversary Edition includes a an equally compelling Introduction by Ian Hacking that situates the book’s legacy, both in terms of its contribution to a scientific vernacular (“paradigm shifting”) and its value as a scholarly publication of mass appeal (“paradigm shifting”). Or, in Zuckerberg’s own words: It’s a history of science book that explores the question of whether science and technology make consistent forward progress or whether progress comes in bursts related to other social forces. I tend to think that science is a consistent force for good in the world. I think we’d all be better off if we invested more . . .

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Excerpt: Who Freed the Slaves?

March 19, 2015
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Excerpt: Who Freed the Slaves?

An excerpt from Who Freed the Slaves?: The Fight over the Thirteenth Amendment  by Leonard L. Richards *** Prologue WEDNESDAY, JUNE 15, 1864 James Ashley never forgot the moment. After hours of debate, Schuyler Colfax, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, had finally gaveled the 159 House members to take their seats and get ready to vote. Most of the members were waving a fan of some sort, but none of the fans did much good. Heat and humidity had turned the nation’s capitol into a sauna. Equally bad was the stench that emanated from Washington’s back alleys, nearby swamps, and the twenty-one hospitals in and about the city, which now housed over twenty thousand wounded and dying soldiers. Worse yet was the news from the front lines. According to some reports, the Union army had lost seven thousand men in less than thirty minutes at Cold Harbor. The commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, had been deemed a “fumbling butcher.” Nearly everyone around Ashley was impatient, cranky, and miserable. But Ashley was especially downcast. It was his job to get Senate Joint Resolution Number 16, a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery in the United States, through the House of Representatives, . . .

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Excerpt: Invisible by Philip Ball

March 16, 2015
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Excerpt: Invisible by Philip Ball

Recipes for Invisibility, an excerpt from Invisible: The Dangerous History of the Unseen  by Philip Ball ***  “Occult Forces” Around 1680 the English writer John Aubrey recorded a spell of invisibility that seems plucked from a (particularly grim) fairy tale. On a Wednesday morning before sunrise, one must bury the severed head of a man who has committed suicide, along with seven black beans. Water the beans for seven days with good brandy, after which a spirit will appear to tend the beans and the buried head. The next day the beans will sprout, and you must persuade a small g irl to pick and shell them. One of these beans, placed in the mouth, will make you invisible. This was tried, Aubrey says, by two Jewish merchants in London, who could’t acquire the head of a suicide victim and so used instead that of a poor cat killed ritualistically. They planted it with the beans in the garden of a gentleman named Wyld Clark, with his permission. Aubrey’s deadpan relish at the bathetic outcome suggests he was sceptical all along– for he explains that Clark’s rooster dug up the beans and ate them without consequence. Despite the risk of such . . .

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Blood Runs Green: Your nineteenth-century Chicago true crime novel

March 6, 2015
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Blood Runs Green: Your nineteenth-century Chicago true crime novel

Below follows a well-contextualized teaser, or a clue (depending on your penchant for genre), from Sharon Wheeler’s full-length review of Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago at Inside Higher Ed. Blood Runs Green is that rarer beast—academic research in the guise of a true crime account. But it leaps off the page like the best fictional murder mystery. Mind you, any author presenting these characters to a publisher under the banner of a novel would probably be sent away to rein in their over-fertile imagination. As Gillian O’Brien says: “The story had everything an editor could want: conspiracy, theft, dynamite, betrayal, and murder.” So this is far more than just a racy account of a murder in 1880s Chicago, a city built by the Irish, so the boast goes (by the late 1880s, 17 per cent of its population was Irish or Irish-American). At the book’s core is the story of Irish immigrants in the US, and the fight for Irish independence through the secret republican society Clan na Gael. In England, and running parallel to events in America, is the saga of Charles Stewart Parnell, a British MP and leading figure in the Home Rule movement. Who . . .

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Every student who studied with the Rev. Gary Davis

February 26, 2015
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Every student who studied with the Rev. Gary Davis

The Reverend Gary Davis was born in Laurens, South Carolina, on April 30, 1896. He died in Hammonton, New Jersey, on May 5, 1972. In between, he become one of the most protean guitar players of the twentieth century, and his finger-picking style influenced everyone from Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead to Keb’ Mo’ and Blind Boy Fuller. Born partially blind as the sole surviving son to two sharecroppers in the Jim Crow South, by the 1940s, Davis, ordained as a Baptist minister, was playing on Harlem streetcorners and storefronts, making his living as an itinerant, singing gospel preacher. By the beginning of the 1960s folk revival, he had moved in circles that included Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, recorded a series of albums for Prestige Records, and been embraced by a generation of educated, middle-class young people eager for fodder to spur a folk revival. See his performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival for further illumination of this cultural congruence. Even before his death in 1970, he was the subject of two documentaries. Davis’s legacy, however, still exists outside a canon that has acknowledged his peers, including Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson—his music, like his troubled life, is the stuff of myth, and as . . .

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Excerpt: Seeing Green

February 23, 2015
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Excerpt: Seeing Green

An excerpt from Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images by Finis Dunaway *** “The Crying Indian” It may be the most famous tear in American history. Iron Eyes Cody, an actor in native garb, paddles a birch bark canoe on water that seems at first tranquil and pristine but becomes increasingly polluted along his journey. He pulls his boat from the water and walks toward a bustling freeway. As the lone Indian ponders the polluted landscape and stares at vehicles streaming by, a passenger hurls a paper bag out a car window. The bag bursts on the ground, scattering fast-food wrappers all over his beaded moccasins. In a stern voice, the narrator comments: “Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t.” The camera zooms in closely on Iron Eyes Cody’s face to reveal a single tear falling, ever so slowly, down his cheek (fig. 5.1). This tear made its television debut in 1971 at the close of a public service advertisement for the antilitter organization Keep America Beautiful. Appearing in languid motion on television, the tear would also circulate in other visual forms, stilled . . .

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Excerpt: Renegade Dreams

February 17, 2015
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Excerpt: Renegade Dreams

An excerpt from Laurence Ralph’s Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago *** “Nostalgia, or the Stories a Gang Tells about Itself” At the West Side Juvenile Detention Center, inmates hardly ever look you in the eyes. They almost never notice your face. Walk into a cell block at recreation time, for example, when young gang members are playing spades or sitting in the TV room watching a movie, and their attention quickly shifts to your shoes. They watch you walk to figure out why you came. I imagine what goes through their heads: Navy blue leather boots, reinforced steel toe, at least a size twelve. Must be a guard. That’s an easy one. Then the glass door swings open again. Expensive brown wingtips, creased khakis cover the tongue. A Northwestern law student come to talk about legal rights. Yep. Benjamin Gregory wears old shoes, the kind a young affiliate wouldn’t be caught dead in. Still, the cheap patent leather shines, and, after sitting in the Detention Center’s waiting room for nearly an hour and a half, the squeak of his wingtips is a relief. It’s a muggy day, late in the spring of 2008. “I’ve been coming here . . .

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Excerpt: In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde

February 9, 2015
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Excerpt: In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde

  An excerpt from In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum by Matti Bunzl *** “JEFF KOONS <3 CHICAGO” I’m sitting in the conference room on the fifth floor of the MCA, the administrative nerve center which is off limits to the public. It is late January and the temperatures have just plunged to near zero. But the museum staff is bustling with activity. With four months to go until the opening of the big Jeff Koons show, all hands are on deck. And there is a little bit of panic. Deadlines for the exhibit layout and catalogue are looming, and the artist has been hard to pin down. Everyone at the MCA knows why. Koons, who commands a studio that makes Warhol’s Factory look like a little workshop, is in colossal demand. For the MCA, the show has top priority. But for Koons, it is just one among many. In 2008 alone, he will have major exhibits in Berlin, New York, and Paris. The presentation at the Neue Nationalgalerie is pretty straightforward. Less so New York, where Koons is scheduled to take over the roof of the Metropolitan Museum, one of the city’s premiere . . .

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Excerpt: Elaine Conis’s Vaccine Nation

February 4, 2015
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Excerpt: Elaine Conis’s Vaccine Nation

An excerpt from Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization by Elaine Conis (recent pieces featuring the book at the Washington Post and Bloomberg News) *** “Mumps in Wartime” Between 1963 and 1969, the nation‘s flourishing pharmaceutical industry launched several vaccines against measles, a vaccine against mumps, and a vaccine against rubella in rapid succession. The measles vaccine became the focus of the federally sponsored eradication campaign described in the previous chapter; the rubella vaccine prevented birth defects and became entwined with the intensifying abortion politics of the time. Both vaccines overshadowed the debut of the vaccine against mumps, a disease of relatively little concern to most Americans in the late 1960s. Mumps was never an object of public dread, as polio had been, and its vaccine was never anxiously awaited, like the Salk polio vaccine had been. Nor was mumps ever singled out for a high–profile immunization campaign or for eradication, as measles had been. All of which made it quite remarkable that, within a few years of its debut, the mumps vaccine would be administered to millions of American children with little fanfare or resistance. The mumps vaccine first brought to market in 1968 was developed by Maurice Hilleman, . . .

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