Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

When I picked up The Man Who Loved Books Too Much off the shelf at Borders, I thought it was about me. But no, apparently there is another bibliophilic obsession besides staying up too late at night reading. This book is the true story of a man who is addicted to stealing rare books.

As the thief, John Gilkey, is pursued by Ken Sanders, security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, we are treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the rare book business. Both men are motivated by their love of books rather than by money – Gilkey keeps most of the books for himself instead of fencing them, and Sanders’ position as security chair is a volunteer post. Gilkey is also motivated by the prestige that comes from owning these works of art. As the author, Allison Bartlett, interviews Gilkey, she walks a fine line between being a journalist and inadvertently giving Gilkey the prestige he craves.

This makes their story just as much about the psychology of obsession and addiction as the world of rare books. As someone who loves books too much myself, but in the less pathological sense, I was more interested in the “books” part of the book.

Most of what Gilkey “collected” was first editions – the first print run of a book. If a book or author later becomes popular, their early first editions can become very valuable. First editions are sometimes sold very cheaply at garage sales or estate sales, by unknowing owners or their relatives. Book collectors who pick up these gems can turn a quick profit, or build a collection of their own inexpensively.

Most anyone would recognize that an ancient, hand-copied and illuminated vellum manuscript was a thing of value. But few people would likely recognize the difference in value (or any difference at all) between a first edition Harry Potter and a subsequent edition. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is presently worth about $50,000! Only 500 were printed – no one suspected the remarkable success the series would become.

A type of rare book that Bartlett only describes briefly, but which I thought was fascinating, was books with disappearing fore-edge paintings. The fore-edge of a book is the edge opposite the spine. When a book with a fore-edge painting is “fanned”, the painting appears. When the pages are returned to their normal, closed position the painting disappears, hidden by the gold gilt edge.

Disappearing fore-edge painting is believed to have originated in the 17th century, but did not become popular until the 19th century. The more valuable ones are those that were painted when the book was originally bound, and which reflect the content of the book (the characters, theme, setting, etc.). Less valuable ones have paintings that were added later, sometimes images from popular culture that are unrelated to the book, added to boost the sales of languishing titles.

When a fore-edge painting is being applied by the artist, the pages are clamped tightly in the fanned position to reduce bleeding of the paint between the pages. Watercolor paints are used, to prevent the pages from sticking together. As little water as possible is used, and the pages are sometimes treated to minimize water absorption. Finally, the pages are lined up again and gold gilt is applied to cover the paint on the edge. (The image is on the outside of the margin of each page rather than on the actual edge of the page).

Here is a fore-edge painting entitled “Alexander Pope’s Residence 2”, from The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope published in 1863. It is from the Albert H. Wiggin Collection of fore-edge paintings at the Boston Public Library, the largest public collection in the United States.

Many variations of this art form have developed over the years. This is an example of a “split double” containing two fore-edge paintings. (A “two-way double” would also have two paintings, one that appears when the pages are fanned in one direction, and one that appears when they are fanned in the other direction. A “two-way split double” combines these techniques for a total of four paintings on one book.) This photo is from the website of Martin Frost, an artist practicing this ancient craft today.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Obelisks of the Circus Maximus

The city of Rome is home to more obelisks than any other city in the world. This is the story of two of those obelisks, that once stood in the Circus Maximus.

Rome went through two periods of obsession with Egypt. The first was when the growing Roman Empire required huge amounts of grain to feed its population. No doubt Caesar fell in love with the beautiful and charming Cleopatra, but he first fell in love with the fertile Nile Delta.

As was the custom when conquering foreign lands, the Romans dragged several obelisks from Egypt back to Rome, just to prove how powerful they were. Actually, the dragging was the shorter part of the trip. To get across the Mediterranean, the Romans built some of the biggest ships of the ancient world – “obelisk ships” specially designed for this purpose.

For the largest obelisks, such as these destined for the Circus Maximus, they actually used 3 ships working together – two ships connected side-by-side with the obelisk suspended from them under water, and a third ship out front like a tug boat.

The smaller of the two obelisks in the spina (the central “median strip”) in the drawing above was taken from the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, in 10 BC. The larger one was taken much later, in 357 AD, from the temple of the chief Egyptian god Amun in the city of Thebes. Until 550 AD, these obelisks witnessed a lot of action.

Sometime after the sack of Rome by the barbarians, the obelisks in the Circus Maximus were either torn down or fell down due to an earthquake. No one seems to be sure, and the details are lost in the fog of the Middle Ages. The stadium was located in a flood plain, and with no one maintaining it, over the years the fallen obelisks became buried in the mud.

This is what the Circus Maximus looked like on our recent trip to Italy. The tall tree in the middle is where the obelisks would have been.

During the Renaissance, Rome tried to rebuild some of its former glory, including the spoils of its battles with Egypt. Pope Sixtus V had the obelisks excavated from the old stadium in 1587. Both of them were broken. He had the larger one repaired, topped with a Christian cross, and erected in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. Here it is today, the largest obelisk surviving from antiquity. It is now known as the Lateran obelisk.

And here is the other obelisk from the Circus Maximus, also repaired and topped with a cross, this one installed in the Piazza del Popolo. It is known as the Flaminian obelisk, after the ancient Via Flaminia which began here at the Porta Flaminia (Flaminian Gate) in the ancient wall and ran to the north of Rome.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Who would have thought that my childhood chemistry set would wind up in a museum? And not 100 feet from a famous “chymistry” book by the father of modern chemistry Robert Boyle!

These wonders and more can be found at the Museum at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. That’s right, a museum about the history of chemistry!

If you ever find yourself in downtown Philly, as I did a few weeks ago, please stop by this museum. It’s only a few steps from Independence Hall, and some of the stuff here is a lot older than the Liberty Bell (book = 1668, Liberty Bell = 1752). Not to mention more interesting, depending on your inclinations.

And yes, I did actually have a Mr. Wizard Chemistry Set. The one in the museum is from 1973, which is right around my time. It was surreal to see something from my childhood mounted in a climate-controlled display case. I wanted to rip open the box, fire up that old alcohol burner, and start some chemicals fuming! Sort of like this guy, who looks a lot like me experimenting in my parent’s basement. Actually it’s Explosion in the Alchemist’s Laboratory, by Justus Gustav van Bentum (1670 – 1722).

But everything worked out OK with Mr. Wizard, and now I make a living as a safety engineer specializing in chemical safety. That prominent WARNING on the front of the Mr. Wizard box must have made a big impression on me as a child.

Here are a few more of my favorite things at this museum:

One of the first desktop electron microscopes – something I use today when I send asbestos samples to the lab for analysis. It looks like the RCA engineers cobbled this one together with mixing bowls from the company cafeteria.

And a couple of fun old advertisements that put the lie to “better living through chemistry”. Both of these chemicals were later banned – tetraethyl lead in gasoline, and “butter yellow” food dye. Of course when you are kneeling backwards in the rumble seat of an old jalopy with no seat belts, breathing lead fumes is the least of your worries. (1933)

At the time, it was illegal for margarine manufacturers to add yellow dye to their product, because the Congressional butter lobbyists didn’t want anyone confusing margarine and butter. Mom looks delighted to help pull one over on the family. (1947)

So get yourself over to this museum!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dry Storeroom No. 1

I recently read Dry Storeroom No. 1 by Richard Fortey. A strange title, but the subtitle tells you what it is about – The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. The Natural History Museum in question is the one in London. This museum has been busy collecting stuff since 1753, when it was part of the venerable British Museum. It outgrew its “mother institution” and went off on its own in 1883.

I love old museums, so the only thing better than a book about an old museum would be one that brings you behind the scenes. Fortey narrates a fun trip through the offices and labs of quirky scientists, and storerooms full of dried, pickled and fossilized specimens from around the world. The only thing drier than the mounted insects is Fortey’s sense of humor, which I suppose is a requirement for someone who spent his working life in this museum studying trilobites.

One of the primary missions of any natural history museum is taxonomy, that is, helping to name the millions of extant and extinct species of animals, vegetables and minerals here on earth and in the cosmos. Naming things might not seem like the most interesting part of science, but it is the critical first step to studying and understanding nature. Tens of thousands of new species are discovered every year. Many of these are now identified through “shotgun sequencing” of the DNA of millions of microbes scooped up in soil or seawater, but many new insects and even larger animals are still discovered. Discovering and naming something new, no matter how small its physical dimensions, is always exciting.

Having worked at the Natural History Museum for 35 years, Fortey saw many changes in museum life. One of the biggest was surely technology. Scientists have moved from a reliance on the visible differences between species (“counting hairs on legs” as he puts it), to an analysis of the differences between their DNA. Giving names to new species now seems like an antiquated formality – what matters is the species’ “DNA barcode”. This is published along with the physical description, so that other researchers can compare the DNA sequence of an unknown species to the database of barcodes to make an identification.

Fortey prefers to be “Sepia Man with his microscope and library” rather than “Barcode Man with his primers and his white coat”, but he acknowledges that both are needed. One change where he does not see an upside is the decreasing support for basic research. Preference is given to new projects and grant proposals with known practical applications. The future applications of basic research may be unknown, but often turn out to be just as practical.

Fortey tells the story of one researcher at the museum who was a cryptogamist – a specialist in cryptogams. Cryptogam comes from the Greek for “hidden marriage”, and it refers to plants that reproduce via spores (whose function was “hidden” from scientists until they discovered it under the microscope). This man devoted his life to studying seaweed, a type of cryptogam.

When World War II broke out, the draft board assigned the museum’s specialist in cryptogams to the intelligence agency responsible for decoding Nazi cryptograms. Although only one letter different, cryptogram is from the Greek for “hidden writing”. So the seaweed expert was assigned to break codes.

Fortunately, the importance of basic research was proven again, when a captured German U-boat was found to contain vital code books. Although our hero didn’t know much about breaking codes, he knew a lot about preserving organic matter that has been pulled from the sea. The rescued code books helped break a highly secure version of the Enigma Code being used by the U-boat fleet, allowing Allied supply ships to avoid torpedo attacks and ensuring victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Galileo's Tomb

Welcome back to Kind of Curious! I hate to say, but it’s been almost a year since I last posted. So I have quite a backlog of curious things to write about.

One of the things I did during 2011 was to visit Italy with my wife. This was the first time either of us had been to Europe, so we were completely in awe of this entirely different environment and way of life. Of course we knew that a whole “old world” was out there, which had brought both of our families to the new world. But until we experienced it ourselves, no book or movie could explain it to us (although maybe a blog could) …

A great place to begin describing the wonderful things we saw in Italy is Santa Croce Basilica in Florence. There seems to be a church on every street corner in Italy (sometimes 3 or 4 on a corner), each with priceless art or religious relics of the kind that in the US can only be found in museums.

What is unique about Santa Croce is that it has become a monument to the famous sons and daughters of Italy. Because of this, it is sometimes called the “Pantheon of Italian Glories” (“pantheon” being Greek for “temple of the gods”). That’s sort of a sacrilegious nickname for a church, but not the only inconsistent thing going on here as you will see.

A church has been at this site since 1210. The caption for the above drawing on Santa Croce’s website begins “around 1252 it was felt necessary to construct a church that was larger…”. I would have to agree with that. The priests look a little worried about where the congregation is going to sit.

The present church began construction in 1294 and was mostly completed by 1442. We get excited in the US when we see something from the 1700’s! The marble façade that gives the church the look it has today was not completed until 1863. Who in the US would embark on a construction project that would take over 500 years to complete?

Santa Croce’s journey to become the “Pantheon of Italian Glories” began in 1570, when they decided to build a tomb for Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who lived much of his life in Florence.

Since that time they have added many more tombs of the rich and famous, including that of the “father of modern science” Galileo, which was completed in 1737. Renaissance author Machiavelli is also buried here. If you deceive and manipulate others for your personal gain you are “Machiavellian”, like the advice given to the title character in Machiavelli’s book The Prince.

Galileo’s tomb is shown at the beginning of this post. It is ironic that Galileo is buried here, considering his rocky relationship with the Catholic church. Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Inquisition in 1633 for his support of Copernicus’ heretical observation that the earth revolved around the sun (rather than the earth being the center of the universe as described in the bible). Galileo died in 1642.

The church allowed some of Galileo’s works to be reprinted in 1718, which would explain why a monument in his honor would be allowed in Santa Croce in 1737. But his book that was at the center of this controversy, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, was not allowed to be reprinted in its uncensored version until 1835. And it wasn’t until 1992 that Pope John Paul II finally admitted that the church had made a mistake in condemning Galileo!

Incidentally, Machiavelli’s book The Prince was also banned by the Catholic church. But this was not until after his death, and he was not accused of heresy. Although his Machiavellian ideas do not seem Christ-like, the book was actually banned because French leaders who were following its advice were being accused of corruption.

Here is the exterior of the church. Note that the marble is only on the front. There was no word as to whether they are planning on finishing the sides and back with marble as well. Give them time, it’s only been 700 years. And note the blue Star of David just below the peak of the top roof. The architect for the façade was Jewish, and in an inspiring act of interfaith cooperation was allowed to include the Star of David. He is even buried on the church grounds.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Thomas Edison and the Dragon's Blood

Happy New Year!

No, this post (Thomas Edison and the Dragon's Blood) is not the newest installment of Harry Potter. As I promised in my previous post, I have tirelessly researched the question that was raised (by me) during my recent visit to Thomas Edison's laboratories - why the heck did Edison have a bottle of Dragon's Blood in his chemistry lab?

I emailed the National Park Service, and was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply. As I noted in my prior post, our tour guide was less than forthcoming about this odd possession of our country's most prolific inventor. I was prepared to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what the Park Service was hiding. Happily I did not need to play hard ball.

Karen Sloat-Olsen, Chief of Interpretation and Education at Edison's labs, was kind enough to pose my question to the lab's Archivist, Sound Recording Curator and Collection Manager. The Archivist reported that he had not run across any references to Dragon's Blood in Edison's lab notebooks. That was not encouraging, because Edison was known to keep very detailed notebooks.

She then checked with the Sound Recording Curator to see if there had been any reference to Dragon's Blood in the production of Edison's phonograph records, as Dragon's Blood can be used to make a resin. No luck there either.

Next, she turned to the Collection Manager. The Collection Manager checked to see if Edison had Dragon's Blood on his desk, since another use for the plant is for stomach ailments. Edison did have Listerine and some Soda Mint pills for his stomach, but no Dragon's Blood. I found this almost as interesting as the Dragon's Blood question - the fact that our government has a record of the contents of Edison's desk the day he passed away. Better be careful what you keep on your desk!

The Listerine is noteworthy - Edison was known to take short catnaps throughout the day, rather than sleeping for a full 8 hours at night. He would probably take a swig of the Listerine to get rid of that morning breath after waking up. And in case you were wondering, Soda Mint is a common name for sodium bicarbonate, the active ingredient in Alka-Seltzer and similar antacids.

Finally, the Collection Manager came through, by locating a reference to Dragon's Blood Gum in the Pattern Shop. The Pattern Shop is essentially a woodworking shop, which was used for making patterns for shaping sheet metal as well as prototype wood cases for Edison's phonographs. Since Dragon's Blood can be used to make varnish and wood stain, it makes sense it would be found in a wood shop (although why someone moved it to the chemistry lab is still a mystery). Believe it or not, this is one of the reasons I had suggested in my prior post for why Edison might have the Dragon's Blood. Boy, I love this stuff! I should have been a curator!

To end your year, here are a couple of photos of Edison's Pattern Shop. Have a great 2011!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thomas Edison the Botanist

This weekend we visited the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey. I used to love visiting there as a kid, and I hadn't been there in many years. They recently completed an extensive renovation of the laboratories, so I was anxious to see it again.

Edison built this lab later in his life. It was in this lab that he perfected the phonograph which he had previously invented, and invented the motion picture camera and the alkaline storage battery. He also built factories around the laboratories, to manufacture his various inventions.

Much of the equipment displayed in the Chemistry Laboratory is what Edison was using on his last project, which was incomplete at the time of his death. Edison was asked by his close friend Henry Ford to help find a plant that could be grown in the United States that could provide latex to make rubber. The plant that is commonly used to make natural rubber, the Para Rubber Tree, only grows in tropical climates. Ford needed a stable, inexpensive source of rubber to make tires for his growing automobile business.

Latex is a material produced by about 10% of flowering plant species, and it is believed to serve as a defense against insect infestation. The latex is stored in cells just underneath the outer layer of each part of the plant. If you have ever picked a dandelion and seen the milky white substance "bleeding" from the stem, that is latex. Tiny particles of a natural rubber polymer (polyisoprene) are suspended in this latex.

Edison tested thousands of different species of plants to try to find the ones that made the best quality rubber. He finally settled on a particular species of goldenrod, which he then cultivated to grow taller and with a greater rubber yield. This goldenrod was later named after him, Solidago edisoniana. The photo above is from the National Park Service collection showing Edison (on the left) with his namesake goldenrod.

And here is a piece of machinery in the Chemistry Lab that Edison used to crush the various plant fibers during his experiments and extract their latex.

This is what "crude" goldenrod rubber looks like after the polymer particles have been coagulated and separated out of the latex, which is mostly water.

This sample is dated 1933, which was two years after Edison's death. Edison's wife and employees continued the search for a while, but finally abandoned it when it became clear that synthetic rubber based on petroleum was going to be the material of choice for automobile tires.

Here is a strip of goldenrod rubber, compounded with carbon particles for strength, ready to be formed into a tire.

One of the most intriguing things our tour guide pointed out in the Chemistry Lab was this bottle on one of the shelves.

Here is a closeup of the label.

In case you have trouble reading it, it says "Sanguin Dragonis / Dragons Blood". The tour guide told us they didn't know what "Dragon's Blood" was, and we joked that maybe Edison was a Harry Potter fan. But when I got home I found out pretty quickly on Google that Dragon's Blood is the common name for the red resin produced from several different species of plants.

Maybe Edison had collected this Dragon's Blood to see if he could make rubber from it. Dragon's Blood has been put to various uses over the years, including a varnish and a wood stain. Many of Edison's phonographs came in beautiful wood cases, so this use would make sense as well. Dragon's Blood has also been used as an herbal cure for many ailments including stomach ailments, which Edison suffered from. Maybe someone gave this to him to take as a medicine.

Or maybe Edison just couldn't resist having a bottle of something called Dragon's Blood. He prided himself on having his stockroom filled with every type of material and substance that might possibly be needed for his far flung investigations. Dragon's Blood must surely have been useful for something.

You will be happy to know that I am kind of curious about this, and have emailed the National Park Service to find out. Either the NPS historians do not check Google when doing their research, or maybe our tour guide missed the memo. But I will get to the bottom of this and report back to you!