Here in the OSLab (oz' lab) we explore how scientific knowledge is produced and shared. We find the stories, art, memes and beliefs that light up the mean streets of science, and share them with you.

Jun 6, 2014

The Sampled Circles of Hell

Eons ago, I wrote a PhD dissertation. It's appropriately mothballed now, but the question that led me to write it still feels germane: How do women see, and reflect, themselves when science is declared "not theirs"?

In the paper, 18th century British midwives were the main characters, passing skeins of intimate medical knowledge by word of mouth, rustling up healing herbs, and bringing intention and acuity to the unbridled process of birthing. To grossly over-simplify what happened next: in the viewpoint of a world that was steam-powered piston-ing, industrial weaving itself toward perfection, the midwives were seen as far from perfect. Enter the menfolk. They doctored in the newly minted hospitals, and had cleanliness, regulatory credentialing, and impressive new midwifery tools in their favor.

Knowledge was transferred from the midwives to the medical profession, and it would be nearly two hundred years before it began to make its way back again. How had the women interpreted the subtle shift in their landscape when childbirth - once entirely their domain - was whisked away? I made a visual map, parsing out the women's geography, concentric circles radiating outward: at the center, "natural knowledge" (biology) of their own bodies, then, moving out - clothing, rooms they occupied in the home, outdoor athleticism, travel, aspirations. There was a hellish side to their constraints; my circles were a nod to Dante:
I sampled him.

What song of science-led oppression wouldn't be more poignant with a bit of hell thumping underneath it?  

Those who are "sampled" experience a letting go, have their intimate creativity or knowledge taken in some way. As the midwives learned, it can be flattering, but oppressive when it is involuntary.  

We couldn't help it - we left the midwives (they're on the slow rise again, as you well know) and decided to end with some tidbits from the history of sampling in music:  The craft started out harmlessly enough - at the beginning of radio, genre-jumping riffs included industrial noise, radio shows being spliced together, the unbelievably funky thrumming train samples of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry's 1940's "musique concrète." Then, in 1956 Dickie Goodman and Bill Buchanan rolled out their Flying Saucer, a slapstick mashup of popular rock and roll hits with a fake news report about aliens landing on Earth. (Feathers were ruffled.) In 1961, James Tenney's Collage #1 clipped and re-engineered Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes. It went on, and then there was hip hop...we'll leave the entire awesome history of sampling and dispute for to you to discover, but here's a treat for the road: a DJ Shadow bit from his Endtroducing, the first album made entirely of samples.  

It's late afternoon here in the Lab. We're kicking around ideas.
Super-dorky project: What would a song sampled from the history of science sound like, one that crooned about loss of power via patriarchy? A nice start: lines from Linnaeus' sexualized botany books, and Donna Haraway's cyborg manifestos.
For now, our preferred strong-woman backbeat: the nifty Meara O'Reilly's work

...and this month, we should add some vocals, a little #YesAllWomen hook.

filed under: Scream Booth, message, sampling

May 30, 2014

We Don't Give A Tinker's Damn

Tinkers were the traveling tinsmiths of yore, and are often conflated nowadays with Tinkerers. Tinkerers are America's darlings, an allegory gone all rumpled shirt. Their emissions, however, are not for the feeble of heart. Familiar objects and parts are stacked in the corner, lit on fire, garbled via the transmitter, stuffed in a backpack, glued to something else - this is how the best of things begin.

Phineas Mason, aka "The Tinkerer" from Marvel Comics' Spiderman series

In Jack Hitt's book Bunch of Amateurs, he writes that if you are today's tinkerer, or maker, you are adept at, "setting aside of all presumptions that you have, and look(ing) at something as if you've just seen it for the first time." (The Lab, as you all know, drools over this idea.) Throw it all out the window, throw it at the wall, throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you're a tinkerer, you're ok with less specialization, give much more interesting answers to the "what do you do?" question at parties.

For one: Thomas Jefferson invented household tools, studied animals, fossils, and botany. While dabbling in theology, he "cut all the miracles out of the New Testament because he thought Jesus made a whole lot more sense without the supernatural material mucking up the good moral philosophy.” On the side, he helped run the country.  

If you were a great tinkerer of his time, you maybe swore a lot.  A tinker's damn, as far as Victorian cussing went, was of little significance, as tinkers were reputed to curse so freely and often. Similar to a hoot, no real harm came of not giving one. 

If you were to be a great tinkerer of any era, you might also want a garage. 

Mike Nesmith's mom's White Out: perfected in a garage. And out of garages, many other ubiquitous things came ...the song Louie Louie, The Kinks, Credence Clearwater Revival...Google, Harley Davidson, the Maglite company. The first modern garages appeared in the 1920's, but it was the post-war 1960's garages that were attached to the house, and ripe for slip-out-there-late-at-night work sessions. Before the 1920's, inventors had been relegated to their carriage houses, alongside the horse and buggy. 

Alexander Graham Bell set up his first lab inside the carriage house behind his father's home in Washington, D.C.  And back in the mid-1880's Guglielmo Marconi started conducting experiments in his father’s home (garage?) in Pontecchio, Italy. He was soon able to send wireless radio signals over one and a half miles. By 1896 he held the world’s first patent for a system of wireless telegraphy. 

Isaac Newton was holed up at home for a couple of years waiting out the plague, so he whiled away the hours by aiming sunlight through a glass prism, casting a spectrum on the wall, and positing that white light was not a simple entity but a mixture of rays refracted at slightly different angles - from this, he constructed a reflecting telescope. (We up here on the hill are grateful for our Nellie.)

Homegrown, garage-blown things can blossom into world-changers.

In The Savage Mind French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called tinkerers "bricoleurs," said they employed the characteristic patterns of mythological thought: in contrast to engineers' creative thinking, which moves from goals to means, mythical thought re-uses available materials to come up with new, innovative solutions. Following up on this idea, philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in their 1972 book Anti-Oedipus, said bricoleurs follow the classic patterns of the schizophrenic producer, one who is uncertain of what is real, and instead follows his/her own notions.

Exciting. A little off key.

Like the tinker-y Tom Waits tune. 

Have a good weekend, all, in garages big and small.

filed under: UnEarthed, Cognitive Dissonance, Tinkerer

May 23, 2014

I Am The Bread Man

My memories of childhood summer roadtrips are golden. The sticky-hot car seat, warm air twisting through my hair as the Subaru barreled down the highway, and the endless reams of CB chatter between us, my dad's best friend (in a little Rabbit revving a few lanes over), and all the truckers in between. A cool lake was waiting at the end, but for us, the joy was lingering in the airwaves.

Take your name and place it in the palm your hand. Familiar letters, stumbling obediently into place - that's you. It introduces you, signs your emails, does the job's unlikely, though, that it is as effervescent as your CB persona.

"Breaker 1-9, this is The Bread Man. Over."
"Bread Man, this is Sir Gallahad. Go ahead."

Hearing a trucker's name, their "handle", blaring through a CB is an intimate moment. "This is Rubber Duck...Snakebite...The Frenchman...Phox Mulder...Teddybear..." Some handles are self-chosen, others bestowed by fellow drivers. Either way, across the low-lit audio realm, a self floats toward you.

If this declaration of a pseudonym is followed by a friendly warning of something in your path - "Bear with a Hair Dryer" (police car with roadside radar), "Gator Sunning in the Road" (blown tire lying in your freeway lane), or "Little Cheese" (school bus), the exchange is leaning toward downright familial. The medium is old-time radio. The conversation can meander, and a post-modern life story emerges: favorite restaurants, end-of-the-world theories, role of religion in the family, dirtiest-jokes-you-can-drum-up, jibes at fellow truckers, and then back to radio silence for letting thoughts ramble as one rolls down a dark stretch of highway, middle of nowhere. 

The story always begins with a name, though, naked, Sun at its back, surfing the radio waves out to the farthest reaches of the Universe.


Exoplanets abound, and there's the possibility of water and alien life around every corner. Fermi's Paradox reminds us it's unlikely they're going to answer, but still we, NASA, SETI, try.  

When the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts were sent off in 1972-3, Carl Sagan requested they carry a plaque to tell other life forms of our existence. The people looked friendly enough, but the man's salute

raised questions. Some feared the contents would send the wrong message; television had begun beaming images of Hitler's raised hand into space back in the mid 40's, and it didn't seem prudent to hail back to an unsavory personality.

Then, in '77 the Voyager 1 craft went bounding toward our outer Solar System carrying the Golden Record, a soundtrack and accompanying photos to relay more extensively our biology, language and cultures, along with some "universal" math (Sagan had a hand in this one, too). The images are each startlingly germane to only a milli-slice of what it means to be human or to live on Earth; it is somewhat worrisome to guess at the story someone from far, far outside might extrapolate:

Admittedly, it is hard to imagine what the perfect montage might be. 

It is impossible to express all that we truly are with limited technology, or limited word count, but we could always do well with a tender moment of reflection before we holler hellos up onto new folks' porches. Social media provides minute-by-minute updates on all our real or imagined selves - soundbytes, tons of photos, stuff we think is interesting or funny (yes, we are complicit). Do we see more of each other this way? Are we well represented? 

Which self should we usher into the Universe when we let fly our next communication - yawp, tweet, Wilhelm Scream...? Too much pressure to decide. Instead in the Lab today we're keeping it 
low-fi, checking in about each others' latest CB monikers. 

Do you have a space-worthy handle? If so, by all means, send it in...

**update on 5/25/14 - NASA just released its new ebook on how to communicate with alien life forms. 300 pages! Hefty in all ways - we've skimmed through a bit - grander titles include: Inferring Intelligence: Prehistoric and Extraterrestrial, and Speaking for Earth: Projecting Cultural Values Across Deep Space and Time.  

filed under: Scream Booth, Messenger, Simulacra, Naming

Nov 21, 2013

Arm Around a Monster

In photos, when you drape an arm around someone's shoulder, lean your head in toward theirs, it says something about what they mean to you.

If that special someone happens to be a monster, the message could still be that you care and, in this case, that they are also your legacy to the world. Ray Harryhausen, animator and special-effects wizard, died on May 7 of this year. He was 92. He is cited by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Peter Jackson as a creative inspiration for their films, and the eponymous Harryhausen’s restaurant in Pixar's Monsters, Inc. 
is a nod to his genius.  

Throughout his career he created rollicking good monster-stomps-through-city films, like Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, in which a hibernating rhedosaurus jolted from its slumber by an atom bomb tramples downtown Los Angeles, and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) wherein a 30 foot tall Venusian whomps along the streets of Rome. He lured monsters up from the sea (ICame from Beneath the Seaand down from the skies (Earth Versus Flying Saucers). He was famous in certain circles. He made the pterodactyl that carries off Raquel Welch in “One Million Years B.C.”, and as a teenager formed a friendship with Ray Bradbury, spending hours talking with him at a local science fiction club.

He plied his art through monstrosity and biology, and was a master of film; an interdisciplinary craftsman. We salute him, and in memoriam say: 

Everyone out there should use their imaginations so fervently. Everyone should be so lucky, to have the opportunity to dig down and dredge up a beast or two to share. And in some epilogue, somewhere, each of us should have our arm around a monster. 

May 20, 2013


Mother Nature has a growing catalogue of images of herself done up in style - weird, snarling, matronly, demure - you name it. We think we'd now include this video.

(Thanks, biologist Stanford Chen, for alerting us to this!)

There are so many ways a Westerner can celebrate Nature. Maybe a solstice festival. A sustainably-farmed-pig roast. A salty ship's-bow reading of Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us. Or you could, employing your famous-actress mad skills, your eyes wide like a doe's, dress up like a hamster and birth, then munch on, your babies. We are not sure we want to show this video to our young children. We are very sure we watched it more than once. We're laughing. We're thinking about the heft of biology, the efficiency of the food chain, how glad we each are not to have a loose cannon hamster mother. We're also chagrined, shifting in our seats; we're just as red in tooth and claw as she is, that wonderful teacher of biology, fuzzy Ms. Rosselini. 

Mother Nature's debut as a character in the western world began as early as the 3rd millennium BCE, on Mesopotamian writing tablets which personified Nature as creative and nurturing, suggesting a feminine side. Greek pre-Socratic philosophers then summed up the entirety of the natural world's phenomena in the word physis, and presented the idea of Nature as a singular entity. The one, feminine icon began to take hold, but medieval Christians couldn't allow her dominion over everything (that's God's job) and conceded only Earth as her stomping grounds. Then, the Enlightenment. The explorers, the naturalists, the academics - all wanted to dig in and examine Nature, taxonomize it, tame it and translate it, sounding their barbaric YAWPS over the rooftops, but you can't do that to God's property. So Victorian scientists utilized enough sexual metaphors to once and for all draw a neat line betwixt Mother Nature and God and created a feminine domain, ready to be studied and exploited. Linnaeus, taxonomer extraordinaire, when describing reproduction, talked about trees and shrubs "donning wedding gowns" before their "nuptials." Adjectives including "chicks," "foxes," and "old hens" became common ways to describe women...and so on.

Jump to 1972. Mother Nature's starring in a television commercial, flowers in her hair, holding a tub of margarine.
When she mistakenly praises the contents as her own, lovely, natural butter, an offscreen narrator rudely disabuses her of this notion, revealing the identity of the tub in hand - Chiffon Margarine. She responds by meting out some punitive thunder and lightening, along with the trademarked slogan, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”  

Given the state of Earth (we'll not get into specifics, but merely hail back to the popcorned seat from which we first saw on screen a raucous version of the Desert of the Real)... Mother Nature, mammas, mamalia, it's all food for thought, i'nnit?