Saturday, 14 October 2006

Predict the Birth of Christ? Check. The Epidemiology of Anthrax? Check. There's nothing like the present to click the past into place. Take the following exchange, from a terrible 19th Century American novel, between a proto-neurologist narrator describes and his poet-sculptor friend. Said the poet-sculptor: "At that moment I became aware of a black figure on my left side. It was literally shrouded from head to foot; even the face and th e extremities were hidden. At first I was surprised, and then by degrees a deadly fear possessed. I was motionless, and it did not stir. I turned to face it, but, as I did so, it moved so as to keep relatively to me the same positon. The whole act, if I may call it that, lasted, I should say, a minute. Then an agitation seized the form, as f it were convulsed under its black cloack, and a faint glow, like phosphorescence, ran along the lines of the drapery, and it was gone." "As he lost [the black figure]," said [the proto-neurologist], "he felt a violent pain over his left eye, and this was one of his usual attacks of neualgic headaches. It was merely the substitution of a figure of a cloaked man for the lines of zigzag light which usually precede his headaches, and are not very rare. One man sees stars falling, one a catharine-wheel; but the appearance of distinct human or other forms in their place is a recent observation." When I stumbled across this passage, I wondered whether the part of the poet's brain responsible for both the headache and the "cloaked man" was the left temporoparietal junction. Stimulate it and you'll feel a shadowy presence following you. Could the proto-neurologist have pinpointed a defect within the left TPJ of the poet-sculptor? We'll never know, of course. The author of this novel, Silas Weir Mitchell, was himself a proto-neurologist, and he claimed to have based the poet-sculptor on his friends and patients in equal measure; so the possibility of something scientifical being recorded in this passage remains. To my chagrin, it seems the impulse to transform literature into science still roosts high in my rafters, its cackles audible across the years. Whatever else it is, literature is not evidence in the scientific sense. The words are an intercessory of something-we-know-not-what, and to treat them as scientific evidence would put us league with those who think evolution "just a theory"—same mistake, only from the other direction. And yet: I remember walking to Latin IV—a.k.a. Publius Virgilius Maro, Virgilius & Vergil 101—after finishing up my Microbiology & Man midterm. I had spent the entire two days previous studying for the midterm and had barely had time to skim through the third book of the Georgics. I prided myself on always being prepared for my classes, so I seriously considered bailing. But there were only five of us in the class, so my skipping would put serious pressure on the other students, and I considered two of them close friends. So I put all truant thought...
Theoryfires Threaten Giant Sequoias, Comity The five theoryfires that broke out this week serve as a blunt reminder that cooler heads and recent comity have not eliminated the theory hazard from the forest. Authorities are reluctant to speculate, but most believe the recent spate theoryfires were deliberately lit. 2005 had been the worst year on record for theoryfires, but this week’s blazes have experts fearing that 2006 may be even worse. The problem is especially severe in locations ravaged by drought. “The problem is we have extremely dry fuels,” said Capt. Dennis Whaling, head of the local Theoryfire Prevention Service (TPS). “Some wind and a few sparks and these tumbleweeds become bouncing molotov cocktails. We sent a TPS Report to everyone in Aletheia county urging people to dispose of stray tumbleweed properly, but it looks like no one got the memo.” Whaling and his staff scoff at the notions that 2005 theoryfires unconcealed enough brush to prevent another series of costly conflagrations. “All light, no heat,” Whaling said. Despite the lack of heat, the 2005 theoryfires unconcealed nearly 165,293 acres. Drought conditions in the months since have created a heavy fuel load. “You know have fast dead grass grows when it doesn’t rain,” said U.S. Philosophy Service spokeswoman Lisa Comerford. “But so long as there are no gusty windbags, our crews can build lines to prevent the theoryfires from jumping and causing too much damage,” she added. Shortly after midnight, Whaling’s team received a frantic call from Heath Campiglio, an amateur thinker who lives in a small community outside of Zzyzx, CA. “I was Being-in-the-Woods, minding my own business, when I saw something across Interstate 15,” Campiglio said. Aletheia County Theoryfirefighters responded immediately, but by the time they reached Zzyzx, the theoryfire had tripled in size. Around 7 a.m., Whaling redirected personnel to the theoryfire’s western boundary. Crews marched up a hillside and hiked a few miles inward, where they would use ready-to-hand tools to cut theoryfire lines. “We set up an antithesis here to keep this thing from spreading,” said Chandler Huxman, a volunteer theoryjumper from Bunkie, Louisiana. “If the theoryfire on the other side of the line crests this hill, it’s liable to synthesize the whole [expletive] county.” Local theoryfire experts like Martin Tillich believe that if Huxman and his theoryjumpers are unable to contain the Zzyzx blaze, it may consume the county’s only tourist attraction. “I don’t think the economy can handle the loss of our historic softwood forests,” said Tillich. “These Giant Sequoias were here before Plato, before Socrates. It would be a tragedy to lose them.” Tuesday’s gusty windbags have put them directly in harm’s way, Whaling said. By next Tuesday, a somber Tillich replied, “all that’s left of these sublime giants could be a burnt-out clearing.”

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