Thursday, January 30, 2003

"Born to the Purple: the Story of Porphyria" & "New Light on Medicine" Scientific American (www.sciam.com) December 16, 2002.

A medical explanation for vampires and werewolves? Food for thought about photosensitive in plants and animals, and the relationship between these two Kingdoms.

The porphyrias are a family of metabolic disorders, all of which involve abnormalities of the body's heme-building pathway. Heme is a component of the oxygen transport molecule, hemoglobin, and is assembled in a series of eight steps. If any one step fails, due to genetic or environmental causes, intermediate products of earlier steps in the sequence (porphyrin intermediates) may build up to toxic levels in the body.

Apart from leading to port-wine colored urine, porphyrin intermediates may accumulate in the skin. The presence of unmodified porphyrins in the skin is usually not a problem, but these molecules are related to chlorophyll (the plant pigment that absorbs the energy of sunlight in photosynthesis), and can be similarly excited by exposure to sunlight.

The nature and severity of symptoms varies with the specific disorder, but if left untreated include: trances, seizures, and hallucinations (the affliction of "Mad" King George III of Britain); photosensitivity leading to blisters and burns with exposure to sunlight (condition claimed for the children in "The Others"); slow healing associated with scaring and abnormal hair growth (hirsutism on the face); and even disfigurement of the facial features by erosion and scaring, giving an appearance expected for "the undead." Such red blood cells as are produced may be abnormal and rupture, leading to hemolytic anemia.

Garlic as well as sunlight may exacerbate symptoms and discomfort; phlebotomy (drawing blood and so removing heme intermediates from circulation) can help, as might (in theory) drinking blood--as the heme pigment can survive digestion and be absorbed from the intestine. Modern treatment, however, uses transfusions of blood or heme to relieve the symptoms of an attack.

Monday, January 20, 2003

"Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads; The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums" by Stephen T. Asma

The first time I heard about this book--something on NPR, I'm sure, but I can't recall which program or whether it was a review or an interview with the author--I knew I had to read it. I've an avid aficionado of natural history museums, and have spent many a happy hour studying exhibits in the Smithsonian, the California Academy of Sciences, and the British Museum of Natural History. It's a wide-ranging book that touches on the history of natural history museums and collections, as well as on the intersection between natural sciences and cultural influences on the conduct and teaching of science. Along the way, he discusses techniques of preservation. The author is a philosopher, rather than a scientist, and his observations are both provocative and interesting.

One of the earliest public museums was founded by Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was housed in an edifice that we had pointed out to us during a boat trip on the Neva River last summer, but I don't believe the building actually houses a museum anymore. Anyway, Peter started his "cabinet of curiosities" with a couple of living malformed humans, as well as the pickled heads of his and his wife's (former) lovers. The author then segues into a discussion of techniques of preservation: taxidermy, skeletalization, and "wet preps" or chemical "pickling." This bit didn't hold anything new for me (after too many years as a student of biology and anthropology). Once, during the year I took off between college and grad school, I even took a museum taxidermy class, so I already some understanding of modern techniques for a natural-looking preparation.

Next time we're in London, I have to see about getting to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons; and if possible, I also want to see the Hunterian Museum in Glascow (which houses a number of anatomical illustrations by Jan Van Rymsdyk). I have to do some research on John Hunter--a Scottish surgeon/anatomist (1728-1793) who left a collection of 13,687 preserved biological specimens. This character, his experiments, his collection, his brother William, and his colleagues...looks like a potential goldmine for story ideas. He employed "one of the greatest scientific illustrators who ever graced the planet," in the person of Jan Van Rymsdyk. Van Rymsdyk began to create anatomical illustrations for William Hunter in 1750. Where he came from before that...there are no records. But he illustrated William Hunter's The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus(1774)--a painstaking work created over a period of 22 years, and published with no mention of the illustrator.

In fact, I think I'm going to have to try to buy this book--it's packed with references and ideas, and I'm not sure how long the library will let me hang on to it.

The author also makes interesting points about taxonomy (a subject I had to study ad nauseum as a graduate student in physical anthropology). Taxonomy is all about categorizing plants and animals so our paltry little brains can make sense of the world's biota. These days, species are scientifically arrayed according to evolutionary relationships (elucidated as much by similarities in DNA as by anatomical structure), rather than by appearance or function (or by consideration of culinary usage as touched on in another book blogged on here, "Anatomy of a Dish"). Seems like some interesting opportunities for SF exploitation here...

The final major topic of the book concerns the style of museum displays: how they educate, how they reflect their culture of origin, how they seek to conform to cultural assumptions--or to confront such assumptions. I've always looked at museums in a much more personal way (what did *I* want to learn there); next time I'll make a point to consider the bigger picture.

Sunday, January 12, 2003

"The Alchemist's Door" by Lisa Goldstein

The only other book of Lisa Goldstein's I've read is "Dark Cities Underground," which I absolutely loved. When I ran across a blurb for "The Alchemist's Door" (I can't recall where, it might have been on Lisa's website), I knew I had to read it as soon as possible. Her central character is Dr. John Dee, an historical "renaissance man" who was a scientist, mathematician, geographer, astrologer, alchemist, mystic, and advisor to England's Queen Elizabeth I. He is also credited with having initiated the concept of a British Empire. So, the subject of Lisa's book grabbed my attention, as I have copious notes for a WIP-in-waiting that also takes off from the recorded history of this man and events of his time. So, my first thought was one of panic: "Oh, no. I'll never be able to write my story, because Lisa is too wonderful, and she'll say everything that needs to be said on the subject." Fortunately for my peace of mind, "The Alchemist's Door" works with a much different aspect of Dr. Dee's adventures and connections than what I had planned as a jumping off point for fiction. She follows his real travels to Eastern Europe and takes off from there, as his fate becomes intertwined with the contemporaneous Rabbi Judah Loew, the legendary creator of the golem--a clay "man" who defended Prague's Jewish Quarter from persecution.


Now I just have to go out and find a new book by Liz Williams (this one I learned about from the New York Time Book Review), called "The Poison Master." From their review, it looks like Dr. Dee is a fairly minor character, but I still feel compelled to learn what an established pro has done with him. Not to mention that the book sounds pretty darn interesting :-)

Thursday, January 09, 2003

"John Adams" by David McCullough


I listen to audio books while I play taxi driver for my kids, and I've been working on this best-selling, definitive biography of John Adams since last August, and just finished it today! Nearly 14 hours of listening time... The man lived a long, productive, and fascinating life, was a material contributor to so many of the seminal events in the founding of our country, and had such contentious/affectionate relationships with other founding fathers that his story can't help but fascinate. I'm not trying to fully review books here, but rather to comment on (often obscure) points which stand out to me personally. Politics pretty much always sucked. Adams and Washington both disliked political parties, and knew that such factions had the potential to undermine fragile democracy; indeed, they were pretty much guaranteed to do so. So it would seem that nothing much has changed. In a way, that's a comfort. We've hung on so far, despite the petty infighting and poor decision-making. So, maybe we can carry on carrying on after all.


With respect to a current WIP (work in progress) of my own, I've been researching medical practices of the Revolutionary War era. I was interested to learn that John Adams' daughter underwent a mastectomy in order to try to stop a breast cancer in its tracks. I found it remarkable at a time in which there was no effective anesthesia, not to mention antibiotics. Nor was there the most basic understanding of the concept of germs--or attendant understanding of the need for asepsis. Never mind that the most typical treatment for disease was blood-letting (a practice which is thought to have killed George Washington). The operation appears to have been a success, although her recovery was agonizing. Sadly her cancer did recur and was eventually responsible for her death.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

"The Anatomy of a Dish" by Diane Forley with Catherine Young.

I read about this book in the New York Times book review magazine, and decided I needed to have a look. Unfortunately I have to take it back to the library tomorrow, as someone else has a hold on it, and I haven't really had as much time with it as I would have liked. Apart from some rather yummy-looking recipes (such as puttanesca vinaigrette, page 56), the book considers the botanical relationships between food plants along with their edibility characteristics. So, for example, the taxonomic family Chenopodiaceae includes beets, quinoa, spinach, and swiss chard; the flavor characteristics ranging from sweet to mildly bitter; and the edible parts ranging from root to seed to leaves. She also categorizes food plants by the time of year they are usually at their peak. I think the book could provide an interesting basis for developing projects for a middle-school science class. I'm keeping an eye out for such things, as my son may be attending a school next year that involves parent participation. Food and botany, food and chemistry...these are things which interest me, so maybe I could do something with them that would interest the kids. In the meantime, I found some of the thoughts in this book dovetailed neatly with another book I'm reading (and will blog on when I've finished it), "Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads," by Stephen Asma. More to come, but he has a chapter on the development of taxonomic systems (i.e. methods of categorizing living things so the human mind can cope with the diversity), and categorization by flavor is an intriguing tangent.

Friday, January 03, 2003

"A Fear of Vampires Can Mask a Fear of Something Much Worse" by Ralph Blumenthal; The Sunday New York Times, December 29, 2002.


I hadn't noticed this article in skimming the paper, but luckily my husband pointed it out to me. Apparently the country of Malawi is currently "in the grip of a vampire panic." Rumors have spread that the government is colluding with vampires, and a frightened population has attacked suspected "vampire helpers." The author points out that Malawi (a land-locked country in Southern Africa) suffers from widespread starvation and AIDS. Also, the country's "first and only democratically elected president" is currently trying to overturn a two-term limit and remain in power.


The author of the article quotes a couple of book authors on the social phenomenon of vampire mythologies: Nina Auerbach (Our Vampires, Ourselves), and David J. Skal (The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror). Both comment on the relationship between real fears originating from social upheaval and a surfacing of supernatural fears. I'm not familiar with these authors or their books, but I'll have to have a look at the library.

In short, the theme of the article is that dangerous and uncertain times stimulate belief in undead feeding off the living. I would add, perhaps, that superstition--such as a complex vampire mythology--also gives the helpless some illusion of control. If you put garlic around the room, the vampire can't get you... Infectious disease, starvation, bloodthirsty enemies, and oppressive governments may not be so easy to avoid.