Monday, December 13, 2004

"Mirror, Mirror; A History of the Human Love Affair With Reflection," by Mark Pendergrast.

This book touches upon the entire history of mirrors from the earliest known polished stone mirror (6200 B.C.E., in what is now Turkey), to the enormous mirrors used for modern telescopes. The mystique of mirrors is also a theme of the book--from mirrors as a means of self-reflection...or narcissism, to mirrors as a means of scrying for the future or of creating optical illusions for fun and profit.

Egyptians made mirrors of polished copper, bronze, or sometimes gold or silver. These mirrors were used for secular purposes, such as applying cosmetics, but also had religious significance as a symbol of Ra (the sun) brought to earth. The Romans produced small convex glass mirrors by blowing a thin glass sphere, then coating the inside with molten lead. Then the sphere was broken into pieces for household use. The superstition that a broken mirror will lead to seven years bad luck is apparently of Roman origin. The earliest Chinese mirrors were made of polished jade, followed by iron, then bronze. The circular mirrors were considered emblematic of the universe, and the Chinese believed that demons avoided mirrors because they would be made visible in them. Many cultures had folk beliefs about the dangers of mirrors capturing souls in their reflective surface.

Mesoamericans made mirrors from pyrite, hematite or magnetite, anthracite, mica, obsidian, or slate. They are also believed to have used liquid mercury mirrors as well, as gourds containing mercury have been found at gravesites. The Olmec civilization (forerunners of the Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Toltec, and Aztec) connected mirrors with their jaguar fire-god who created the sun. They observed the keen night vision and reflective tapetum lucidum of these animals, and their shamans used mirrors to see beyond the mundane. They also used mirrors for lighting fires. The Aztecs would place "a bowl of water with a knife in it at the entrance to their homes, so that a spirit looking into the water would see its soul pierced by the knife and flee."

The Aztec god, Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror), had a mirror instead of a right foot. The hearts of human sacrificial victims were offered to this god. Aztec priests used black obsidian mirrors to predict the future--including the return of Quetzacoatl, the bird-lord of healing and magical herbs. When Hernando Cortez arrived in 1519, he was taken to be the returning Quetzalcoatl, who would overthrow Tezcatlipoca and the Aztec ruler.

Among the Aztec treasure stolen by the Spanish and sent back to the old world, was a polished obsidian mirror which ended up in the possession of John Dee, scholar, mathematician, advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, as well as an alchemist and conjurer. "His story...marks a crucial moment in history, when magic and science, which had existed in uneasy alliance...split from one another." In addition to the Aztec mirror, John Dee was given a large concave mirror by Sir William Pickering, which produced extraordinary optical illusions. Queen Elizabeth once dropped in on Dee at his home, and asked to be shown the perspective mirror. She was reportedly delighted by its effect, in which "if you lunge at it with a sword or dagger, 'you shall suddenly be moved...by reason of an Image, appearing in the air' attacking you in return." Dee "was one of the last intellectuals for whom occult and scientific mirrors reflected the same light of truth."

Thomas Harriot, a young associate of Dee, took a perspective mirror and burning glasses with him on the 1585 journey to help found the "lost" Roanoke colony in Virginia.

The term for divination by mirrors is "Catoptromancy." A medium, or scryer, would stare fixedly into a reflective surface until putting themselves into a trance state. Talented scryers might be children around the age of 7 or 8, virgins, or men so imaginative and highly-strung that the "trod a tortuous course between sanity and madness." Scrying was practiced by ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Hebrews, ancient Chinese, Vedic Indians, Persian Magi, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs, Incas, Mongolians, Siberians, Japanese, Tahitians, Roma, Australian aboriginals, Zulus, Congolese, Ethiopians, Papuans....as well as Europeans.

But these archeological/historical/anthropological aspects are only about the first quarter of the book. Most of the book covers the history and technology of optical telescopes, as well as inventions such as the camera obscura, the kaleidoscope, and various optical illusions produced by clever use of mirrors. The use of mirrors in art, both thematically and practically (anamorphic art, in which distorted paintings can only be "solved" by reflection in a centrally-placed cylindrical mirror). The author includes the story of John Dobson, Hindu monk and builder of telescopes, who founded the Sidewalk Astronomers. Also of particular interest to me were the experiments documenting which species of animals can or cannot recognize themselves in mirrors. Chimps can, Orangutans can, and dolphins apparently can as well. But most gorillas cannot, nor can monkeys or elephants.



#~#

Reading this book gave me inspiration and details for my story, The Knife in the Mirror" appearing in Neo-Opsis issue 15, 2008. John Dee's obsidian scrying mirror resides at the British Museum in London.

Monday, April 05, 2004

"Anatomy Lessons, a Vanishing Rite for Young Doctors" by Abigail Zuger, New York Times, March 23, 2004.


Human dissection was forbidden in the Middle Ages. In 17th century, medical school dissections were open to the public and became something of a spectator sport. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, doctors and medical schools were periodically accused of dishonoring the dead, and the occasional riot ensued. By the 20th century, dissection was considered an essential component of education in medicine and related scientific disciplines. But despite some spectacular recent scandals concerning improper use of human material, such as at the Alder Hay in Britain, and UCLA and Tulane Universities in the U.S., it is not concerns about dishonoring the dead that are driving the current decline of formal anatomy training in medical school.

Modern medical students invest only something like 20% of the time their 1950's predecessors spent on dissections. Teaching hours in medical school have shifted from consideration of organs and tissues to molecular biology and genetics. Anatomy faculty members are aging, and fewer and fewer classically trained graduate students are available to replace them. The real basis of this decline may be that gross human anatomy is not a thriving area of research: startling new discoveries are few, and research funds are sparse.

Some medical schools spare students any hands-on contact with cadavers. Students study pre-prepared dissections (prosections), C.T. and M.R.I. scans of living patients, or "virtual" cadavers made of radiographs and digitized photographs of thin sections cut from single male and female cadavers (the National Library of Medicine's "Visible Human Project").

What is lost according to those sorry to see actual dissections leaving curricula? A grasp of the tremendous range of human variation: duplicated, absent, or aberrant structures are common, but may flummox the unprepared. A sense of reverence for human life and mortality. The emotional contact with a vulnerable human "patient." Comments from 4th year Yale medical students sum up the gains: "It's not just about the information, it's about the process," "It gives you a real appreciation for the beauty of the human body. It's amazing. You are so thankful for it. It made me stand in awe."

Speaking from personal experience in numerous anatomy labs, I agree totally with the student above. Thank you everyone who takes the plunge and donates their body for dissection so others can learn. It is a tremendous gift and not one I'm sure I would be happy to make.

Monday, January 12, 2004

"The Bittersweet Science" by Austin Bunn. New York Times Magazine, March 16, 2003.

Had this one lying around for a while, but ran across it recently while tidying. The story still fascinates.

While diabetes, in the sense of its symptoms (sugar in the urine, excessive thirst, weight loss, and eventual death) had been recognized since classical Greek times, doctors were helpless in the face of it. For one thing, they did not understand the difference between Type 1 diabetes (failure of the pancreas to secrete insulin) and Type 2 diabetes (failure of the body's tissues to respond appropriately to insulin). During an 1871 siege of Paris by the German army, a doctor Apollinaire Bouchardat noticed that while hundreds were starving to death, his diabetic patients actually improved.

In 1919, 11-year old Elizabeth Hughes was diagnosed with diabetes and given a life expectancy of no more than three years. In order to keep her alive, Dr. Frederick Allen of the Morristown, New Jersey, Psychiatric Institute began to starve her--the only known palliative treatment at the time.

When she came to the converted mansion to begin treatment, she weighed 75 pounds and was nearly 5 feet tall. The doctor put on her on a fast for a week, and then on a diet of 400-600 calories a day. Carbohydrates were forbidden. The intent of the severe diet was to eliminate sugar from the urine. Dr. Allen took his patients to the edge of death, keeping them on a knife-edge between death from diabetes and death from starvation. His clinic was filled with rows of emaciated children unable to leave their beds. By April 1921, Elizabeth was 13 years old and had endured two years of treatment. She weighed only 52 pounds, and averaged 405 calories/day. But she rarely showed sugar in her urine, and was just strong enough to read and sew.

In the summer of 1922, two Toronto doctors, Frederick Banting and Charles Best, experimented with removing the pancreases from dogs, and so causing the dogs to contract diabetes. They then treated the dogs with injections of a filtered solution of macerated pancreas, and the dogs' blood glucose levels returned to normal. This was the discovery of insulin.

Elizabeth's parents took her to Toronto where she was seen by Dr. Banting three days before her 15th birthday. She weighed 45 pounds. By the end of the first week on insulin treatment, she was up to 1,220 calories per day--with no sugar in her urine. Soon she was able to take in 2,200 calories per day--including foods like bread and potatoes, which she hadn't tasted in three and a half years. By January 1923, she was up to 105 pounds; later that year, Dr. Banting won the Nobel Prize.

Elizabeth went on to attend Barnard college, marry, raise three children, and lived to die of a heart attack in 1981 (more than 43,000 injections of insulin later).

The history of the transformation of diabetes from an acutely terminal illness to one that could be managed over the life of the patient is the subject of Dr. Chris Feudner's book, Bittersweet: Diabetes, Insulin and the Transformation of Illness.