It’s kind of adorable. (And a nice contrast to some of the grisly things that have been featured in this series so far.) The nutshell version is that one time, in the middle of a diplomatic mission to talk to Lord Howe during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams ended up sharing a tiny bed in a tiny room in a tiny inn together, and argued about whether night air makes you sick. Of course this ends with a massive scientific lecture by Benjamin Franklin while John Adams falls asleep from sheer boredom. We know this actually happened, because John Adams kept a diary. Read the entry here. It’s an absolute treasure trove of historical details that might otherwise be skipped over. I bet you didn’t even know that there was this (failed, obviously) attempt to broker peace in the middle of the Revolution. I’ll go over some choice passages:
After all those science-y posts, here’s a return to history, with the very first ever Squeeze the Source challenge!
Last time we did history, the topic was the amazing history of high-heeled shoes. You can be a historian too, if you learn how to squeeze information out of sources. Pretty much everything around you, past and present, has a lot to say about who made it and why, even to the point of throwing light on the society and technology of the world they were made in.
Since squeezing sources is a skill, and requires some practice, I’ll show you how it’s done, and then demonstrate with a few sources, before turning you loose on poor, unsuspecting Caravaggio. (Don’t feel bad for him though: his biography reads like a laundry list of every possible crime against public order you could commit in late Renaissance Italy, punctuated by massive amounts of corruption – hey, it was Renaissance Italy, what did you expect? – and artistic brilliance. Besides, he’s been dead for centuries. He won’t mind.)
How to Squeeze a Source:
- You know things too. Don’t forget that.
- Unleash your inner four-year-old.
- Don’t take anything for granted, or make assumptions.
- Ask the blindingly obvious questions.
- Answer everything with equally obvious answers.
- Follow those obvious answers to their conclusions.
- Collect and connect these conclusions to the broader world.
Demonstration: Coconut Cup
What’s this? A coconut cup.
What’s it made of? Coconut shell and silver.
Fancy or Plain? Really fancy. Carved coconut and lots of silver work. Engraved writing. Some serious time investment and skill went into this. Probably specialized artists involved.
So, writing: more about that? In a Latin alphabet, like English, but I can’t read it. Looks like it’s Dutch maybe?
Where was the cup made? Northern Europe.
Any other details? The carving on the coconut shows a woman with scissors, and a sleeping man in her lap, with soldiers standing by. Sampson and Delilah! Clothes look contemporary to the time the cup was made though. I’d guess 1600s ish.
Artists make art because people buy it. Who’s buying fancy coconut cups? Rich people.
What do I know, based on the coconut cup? Northern Europe in the 1600s has specialized carvers and silversmiths – an economy capable of supporting artisans. Coconuts are special and extra fancy to them, for them to bother encrusting one in silver, and going to all that trouble to decorate it. They also got the coconut from somewhere, so they either have trade networks to the tropics, or someone’s very carefully hoarding the precious coconuts that wash up on the beaches. Religion (Sampson and Delilah – they’d have to assume that others would know what the carving is of), wealth, and trade literally on display in this one object. I’m sure if I understood the language, I’d know even more.
And that’s how you squeeze a source. The catch, however, is in the unexpected stuff. I can’t read the language on the cup, and I don’t know why Sampson and Delilah are so important, in this context. I just don’t have enough cultural knowledge of the social world in which this cup belongs.
The most important thing is this: if you get in a plane, and travel to a different place, you find yourself in another culture, and you will be missing some important information to help you understand the world around you. The most fundamental things are up for grabs, as soon as you find yourself operating in a new cultural environment. Here’s the kicker, though: if you had a time machine, and travel to a different time, even if you stay in your own place, you’ll find yourself in a different culture too. There’s things we take for granted that someone from just 100 years ago would find alien. So always go with what the source is telling you, and don’t let your assumptions blind you to what’s right in front of your face.
It’s Your Turn!
Cardsharps by Caravaggio. Italian, Circa 1594.
Ask yourself questions like:
What’s going on in this painting? What objects do you see? Anything recognizable? Materials? Behaviors of people? Clothes? What are people doing? What can you tell about each person in the painting? Their interactions? Who would buy this painting? Why? What does this tell you about Caravaggio’s society?
Good luck, and happy source squeezing! (By the way, squeezing lots of sources to make some kind of cohesive Ultimate Source Fruit Punch Medley is called historical research. One source is a nifty thing, but lots of sources, all consistent – that’s the basis for a thesis.)
Beyoncé’s HorseflyScientific name – Scaptia beyonceae – is an excellent example of how species can be discovered after lurking in archives or museum collections for decades or even centuries. Although it was collected in 1981, this Australian horsefly specimen was discovered in 2012 on closer inspection to be unique enough to warrant its own brand new species, and the researcher decided to honor pop icon Beyoncé with the name of this shiny gold diva among horseflies. After some media buzz, the rare fly is now famous enough to bear her name as a common name as well: Beyoncé’s Horsefly.
The Destroying Angel
Anything whose name has a “The” before it has got to be pretty boss, and this mushroom has just about the most intimidating name of any living thing – and with good reason. If you’ve ever been told (and you ARE being told right now) to NEVER eat wild mushrooms, the Destroying Angel and its relatives are the reason why. Insidiously, at some stages of growth, they are look-alikes for perfectly edible mushrooms. Even worse, if you eat them, symptoms don’t show up for hours afterwards, and then you might feel better the next day – only to die from liver failure. The only hope is prompt medical treatment, which can involve a liver transplant. Even so, most people poisoned by the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) and its relatives die of it. Read these case summaries of a poisoning outbreak in California in 2016. And that’s successful treatment. Yikes. (By the way, if you’re struggling with medical jargon, “cerebral edema and permanent neurological impairment” means “skull filled up with fluid squeezing the brain so hard it caused permanent damage.”) For safety’s sake, leave wild mushrooms alone.
Javan ChevrotainOn a much lighter note, this is one of my favorite creatures, purely because its name is so much fun to say. Chevrotain. Shev-ro-tayn. Shev-ro-tayn. Javan Chevrotain. Sssheeeeevrotayn. It’s the best thing. Chevrotains are also known as mouse-deer, although they’re not mice at all, and are much closer to very small deer, like the size of your cat. None of them have horns or antlers. Oh, and some of them have fangs. Mouse-deer also have some of the best names in general. The Javan Chevrotain’s scientific name is Tragulus javanicus, which sounds like a spell in Harry Potter, but is actual latin. Chevrotains comprise the Family Tragulidae, and are artiodactyl (even-numbered-hooves on each foot) ungulates (mammals with hooves).
The Javan Chevrotain, Tragulus javanicus, an artiodactyl ungulate in the Family Tragulinae. Here’s one browsing in the forest, competing with quail, and at least one junglefowl: the ancestor of chickens. Tiny, fanged jungle deer.