The Blood and the Bloodless

This post tempts me with the possibilities for all sorts of terrible puns, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.

I want to tell you about two lectures I recorded recently at Observatory.    One had to do with the history of blood transfusions and inter-species transfusion, and the other was about sex with machines.  (I could contrast the two lectures as “The Vibrant Pulse and the Vibrating Pulse-less”.  Or “Trading Blood and Not Trading Juices”?  Sorry.)

Holly Tucker is a French studies professor at Vanderbilt University, but she’s also huge medical history nut.  Her book “Blood Work” just came out this Spring.   She starts out by explaining just how poor of an idea 17th Century Europeans had of how blood works in the body.  When William Harvey proposed the idea in 1628 that blood circulates, the medical community was outraged.  The mostly widely agreed upon idea was that our bodies turned food into blood, then the heart acted as a furnace using up the blood.   Doctors confirmed Harvey’s hypothesis by testing out transfusions in animals.  They then took the next logical step- transfusing animal blood into humans.  Why?  Animals do not lie, cheat, or steal, argued 17th century physicians, making their blood more “pure” than that of humans.  This animal-to-human transfusion thing didn’t work out very well for one Jean Denis.  In 1667 his transfusion of lamb blood into a man left him on trial for murder.  After that, France effectively banned all transfusions.

Societal fear of blood transfusion limited the practice until the late 1800’s.  Doctors didn’t discover safe and reliable methods for transfusing human blood until the last century.  This leads Dr. Tucker to ask, should society set limits on science?  And if so, how, and at what price?  Safe blood transfusions could have saved countless lives had they been permitted hundreds of years ago.  In a modern day example, George W. Bush called for a ban on “interspecies research”, which gives many people a chill.  Yet his mother Barbara Bush lives today thanks to a pig heart valve.

Laura G. Duncan presented the other lecture, “Hey, Where’s My Robot Girlfriend? An Exploration of Sexual Robotics, Teledildonics and Carnal Technology.”

Ms. Duncan’s a sex researcher.  A few years ago, much to the amusement of her friends, she became fascinated with sexual robotics.  She tells me sex machines are a great staging ground for taking “high academic study” of sex and rooting it in what people are actually doing.  For the past two years she’s developed a bit of a following by taking her interest in front of audiences, giving mulimedia lectures on sexual robotics and teledildonics, “Sex robots have given me more opportunities than anything else,” she confided to me over the phone before her talk.

Ms. Duncan told me that through doing this research,  she’s come to realize that almost all technology is sex-driven.  People have emotional connections to machines, and she’s pretty that for any given machine there’s someone out there who’s asked, “Can I have sex with it?”

One interesting topic she brought up in her talk was the roles of human-like robots on film and television.  She pointed out that female robots tend to be highly sexualized, young, white, and attractive.  Male robots seem to have more leeway as to the characters they depict.

Ms. Duncan also brought up one huge barrier to the success of sex robots.  It’s a concept called the “uncanny valley.”  People show a preference for creatures with human qualities, but creatures that fall just shy of human creep us out.  Just look at Real Dolls.   It kind of makes me doubt the possibility of mainstream success for such sex robots, but human simulation technology may surprise us yet.

She ended her talk with a slideshow of the zany sex machines created by amateur inventors (see the F***zilla above).  Ms. Duncan suggested the appeal of such machines may lie in the control they give the user over their own sexual experience.

Observatory’s February Podcast

I’ve completed my first podcast venture.  This is part of my collaboration with the Brooklyn arts and lecture space, Observatory.  The podcast covers February’s events at this Gowanus headquarters for all things art and science.  We revisit February’s Retrofuturology exhibit, get acquainted with the Observatory members Wythe Marschall and Ethan Gould of the Hollow Earth Society, and ponder the lectures “The Secret History of the Ouija Board,” “Perceptions of Motion,” and “The Morton Skull Collection.”

Listen Here Running time 17:01

Old Skulls

From the cover of Anne Fabian's "The Skull Collectors"

Monday night Rutgers professor Ann Fabian spoke at Observatory about the research behind her new book, The Skull Collectors.  It tells the story of one of America’s most infamous collections of skulls, that of Philadelphia naturalist Samuel George Morton in the early 1800’s.

People have called Morton “the father of scientific racism”.  He published measurements from his skull collection arguing that the skulls of white people had larger brain capacities than other skulls.  Fabian takes a pretty controversial stance in defending Morton against that reputation.  Really, she insists, he was a good guy.  His cranial capacity measurements were just ignorantly going along with the popular medical research practices of the time.

I enjoyed how she discussed the implications of owning parts of someone’s body after they died.  Apparently having your brain preserved for science has long been considered an honor, while the preservation of your skull was a debasing insult.  The idea of voluntarily donating your body to science is a fairly recent one.  The medical profession has a long and ugly history of getting their bodies from less than legitimate sources like robbed graves and prisons (if you haven’t already check out Stiff by Mary Roach).  In fact, Fabian calls the Civil War a godsend for doctors because it solved “the problem of collecting white skulls.”  For me, the human remains at the Bodies exhibit immediately raised an ethical flag.  But I hadn’t thought before about the moral implications of seeing skeletons and skulls on exhibit.  Where do you draw the line between using someone’s body for “the good of science” and dishonoring the person once within that body?

My recording of Ann Fabian’s talk should be up on the Observatory website soon.

Nell Breyer at Observatory

Choreographer and neuroscience researcher Nell Breyer spoke at Observatory last night.   A recording of her lecture should be up on the Observatory site later this month.  She also let me interview her earlier in the day, which made this dance and neuroscience lover pretty excited.

Nell’s interested in how we perceive motion, both from a scientific and artistic perspective.  She creates installations, often in public spaces, to encourage others to notice their own movement.  One of her favorite techniques is to use a computer program that captures only movement on video.  Static objects remain invisible, but the negative space where motion occurred lingers on the screen.  She’ll project these ghosts of movement on a wall in real time.  As people walk by they can watch the outlines of their walking on the wall.  This seems to compel people to move in ways they might not ordinarily move, to watch what happens to their image on the wall.  “You’re a choreographer of the masses!” I told Nell.

Her most recent installation was my favorite.  The inspiration came from research on a group of children in India.   Born blind, they had recently gained sight through a simple operation.  Researchers found that the children didn’t see overlapping objects as distinct.  For example a red triangle under a yellow circle just looked like a single blob.  However, when the shapes moved the children began to perceive them as separate.  Nell used Sol Lewitt’s “Bars of Color Within Squares (MIT)” (above left) as a backdrop to illustrate this idea of movement revealing form.  It’s a little complicated to explain, so bear with me.  Lewitt’s tiled piece is 2D.  Nell had dancers move against it as if they were inhabiting a 3D space.  While lying on the floor they’d appear to be sitting in a crevice or hanging from an overhang.  As the viewer watching from above, you’d be drawn into suddenly seeing a third dimension to what you know was a flat floor.  I was amazed by how the dancers’ movement could create such a contrast between what you perceive and what you know is real.

Nell proposes that science is a model for art while art acts as a precursor to science.  Art impacts us because of the way it manipulates scientific principles.  Art can be seen as our initial attempt at trying to make sense of the world.   These ideas are really haunting me.  I keep restating her proposal in my mind, thinking what it means to me personally.  I want to remember to capture more of the “art” in the science I report on in my future stories.

And now a brief farewell.  I’m heading out on vacation tomorrow, so this blog will be on a week long hiatus.

A Collaboration!

Steam Piano image courtesy of Adrian Agredo

Observatory is a Brooklyn arts and events space that’s interested in the intersections of art and science, history and curiosity, magic and nature.   Pretty much the best intersections.  It’s run by a collective of seven artists and art curators who want to create a home for “kindred geeks”,  inspired by the 18th-century idea of rational amusement.  This last week I started work with them on a podcast!

Last Friday I recorded Mitch Horowitz‘s talk on The Secret History of the Ouija Board.  He told a really interesting history of mysticism in the United States.  I learned that the movement was largely interconnected with the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century.  Apparently, the heightened role of women in mysticism (women, not men, were usually the mediums) attracted a number of the historical figures we now credit for helping women get the vote.   The full lecture should be up on the Observatory website soon.

This Friday I’ll be covering the lecture Perceptions of Motion by MIT researcher and choreographer Nell Breyer.

The idea right now is to produce a monthly podcast highlighting Observatory’s people and events.  I’m excited to see what we come up with!