Everyone loves Christmas lights! Why?

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you celebrate Christmas, these days your mind is probably turning to that eternal question… where did I put the Christmas lights?  No matter if you celebrate Christmas or not, or if you keep your lights up all year round instead of just for a season, it seems that most people can agree that those lovely little lights are a visual treat.  Their warm glow and beautiful colors have been pleasing people around the world since Thomas Edison premiered the first string lights in New York City on Dec 21, 1880.  Although they were large bulbs of plain white, and hanging over a walkway, not a tree, even the dignified New York Times newspaper felt their effect, as the reviewer declared them “beautiful to look upon.” How did string lights become so popular, and so strongly linked to the holiday season that they are now commonly referred to as “Christmas lights?”

The massive popularity of Christmas lights is a tale of technical know-how with plenty of business savvy on the side.  Thomas Edison is often hailed as the inventor of string lights, but in fact, Joseph Swan, an inventor in the UK, was the first to develop the beautiful invention that he called “fairy lights.” However, Thomas Edison, in true Thomas Edison fashion, perfected Swan’s already existing design for mass production, and claimed the design for himself.  When he wasn’t redesigning other people’s inventions, Edison was quite the self-promotional showman and he traveled frequently, giving spectacular demonstrations of his latest electrical marvels.  In his lifetime, the United States was just barely beginning to become electrified.  Cleverly, Thomas Edison used Swan’s fairy lights as a way to entertain, impress, and promote electricity itself. 

Thomas Edison

One of Edison’s main selling points for electrification was the fact that, compared to burning coal or gas in one’s house, electricity was relatively safe.  His mission to promote electricity was helped by the fact that previous Christmas custom had people lighting REAL candles on a Christmas tree, inside.  Although people tended to be very cautious with this beautiful custom and did not usually leave it unsupervised, accidents still happened.  To replace such an obvious fire hazard with a much safer electric one was a stroke of genius.  With his new string lights, he was able to promote both the product and electricity itself to fascinated audiences all over the world.

Helena Jacoba
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Edison was an inventor, but he was also an excellent marketer.  He knew that Swan’s lights would be a perfect item to catch the public’s attention, just like they catch our attention even today.  However, it took a few years before fairy lights were definitively linked to the holiday season as they are now. Working closely with the Vice President of the Edison Electric Light Company, Edward H. Johnson, in 1882 the pair developed a set of colored lights in red, white, and blue, perfect for a tree.  Edward Johnson lived in a part of New York City that had recently been electrified, and so he was able to hand-wire 80 lights to a generator to illuminate his tree, which he conveniently placed in a street-facing parlor window.  On a rotating platform.  The press was drawn like moths to flame.  A writer for the Detroit Post and Tribune said of the lights: “one could hardly imagine anything prettier.”

CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of Christmas lights grew right alongside the popularity of electricity. In 1894, president Grover Cleveland was an early adopter of the trend, electrifying the White House Christmas tree.  The first strings of commercial Christmas lights premiered for public sale, at a price of 12 dollars, or 350 dollars today.  Today in the United States, people buy 150 million dollars’ worth of light sets every year, which light 80 million homes and consume 6 percent of the nation’s electricity in December.  Thomas Edison would be very pleased.

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sources and Further Reading:

A quick overview of the history and technology of Christmas lights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcPynvIuX-Y

Edison’s Christmas lights: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/untangling-history-christmas-lights-180961140/

Edison’s Christmas lights meet his marketing savvy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qB61a_qbuo

Edison’s inventions that were other people’s first: https://www.historicmysteries.com/did-thomas-edison-steal-inventions/

Edison and Swan: https://www.ipaustralia.gov.au/sites/default/files/education/worksheet_3-_who_was_joseph_swan.pdf?acsf_files_redirect

The Violent, Vicious, Totally World-Altering History of…Pumpkin Spice?

Your pie has a secret! A dark one.
medea_materialCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.   This spice blend, known today as Pumpkin Spice, conjures up thoughts of wholesome fall fun – corn mazes, trick or treating, walking on crisp fall days and of course, that American Thanksgiving favorite, pumpkin pie.  American people’s love for the pleasing, nostalgia-inducing taste of this spice blend means you can drink it as a beverage, eat it in baked goods from granola bars to Oreos, and even use it in soap, shampoo, and.. FISHING LURES? Pumpkin pie spice conjures memories that are wholesome and sweet, and people’s obsession with it often generates some good-humored mockery.  But what’s REALLY in that latte you’re enjoying?  The origin of pumpkin spice isn’t so sweet, but it’s definitely spicy!  About 500 years ago, the drive to obtain the spices in your pumpkin spice Cheerios was one of the most consequential moments in human history.  Your Thanksgiving pie comes with an incredible legacy –under that dollop of whipped cream is the beginning of the modern age, shocking levels of violence, and even the origin of The United States of America itself.

An innocent nutmeg just doing its thing. The brown nut inside the fruit is ground for Nutmeg. The red membrane is another spice known as Mace.

Nutmeg in particular has a large slice of history’s pie.  In the European Middle Ages, exotic nutmeg was the ultimate status good, worth much more than its weight in gold.  People used it as an aphrodisiac, and it was thought especially good for warding off the plague, but no one had any idea where it came from.  One of the main reasons for all of the bold sailing voyages of the “European Age of Discovery” was to find the sources of the nutmeg that Europeans craved.   In the process, Europeans reached and began to colonize places as far-flung as The Americas and Australia, initiating the early modern age and laying the foundations for our current globalized world.  Nutmeg is native to a place called the Banda Archipelago, in Eastern Indonesia.  In the 1500’s, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch showed up there, seeking this spice that was more precious than gold. They were willing to do anything to secure it.

The tiny Banda Archipelago is part of modern Indonesia’s Malluku Province, seen here in red.

The native people of Banda had been building their trading empire with Asia for centuries, and were wealthy and well organized, but they did not count on the lengths the Dutch would go to for profit.  To ensure a monopoly over the Nutmeg trade, the Dutch massacred almost the entire population of The Bandas, keeping only a few as slaves to work the nutmeg orchards.  This marked the start of centuries of deadly, often genocidal war between the Dutch and Indonesian people. The Dutch, however, were much more disturbed by the presence of some ragtag Englishmen who were claiming a tiny island in the archipelago, Run, for England.  Both the English and the Dutch in Indonesia were some of the toughest, wiliest, most skilled fighters either kingdom had to offer.  The fighting between them was brutal, often with many innocent native Indonesian lives as collateral.  Giles Morton’s amazing book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, describes the swashbuckling, and tremendously consequential, battles for The Bandas in detail.

The Island of Run today.
Georg Holderied from Basel, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To maintain their monopoly, and shake those pesky English, the Dutch eventually offered an island-swap for peace.  In exchange for Run and the nutmeg monopoly, in 1667 the English were given a much less important and less profitable island held by the Dutch:  New Amsterdam, otherwise known as Manhattan Island.  New Amsterdam became New York, the English presence in North America was firmly established, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Eventually the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg was lost, and their hard-won empire in Indonesia began to crumble.  Nutmeg and its Indonesian cousin, cloves, became cheap enough to drink and eat every day.  New York, and indeed the entire country of the United States would have been vastly different – or never even existed at all — without pumpkin spice.  If someone makes fun of you for eating your 4th pumpkin spice pop tart of the day, now you can let them know that it’s not trendy junk food, it’s one of the most important substances in modern history.

The Island of Manhattan today.

Sources and Further Reading:

Pumpkin Spice in food: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/packages/food-goals/food-goals-photos/pumpkin-spice-product-guide

Pumpkin Spice in OTHER things: https://www.foodnetwork.com/fn-dish/news/2018/10/non-food-pumpkin-spice-products

Nutmeg History and Use Overview: https://www.myspicer.com/history-of-nutmeg/

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOfB88NHO0Y

Video Journey to the Spice Islands:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bovUA3haHgk

Why does kindness exist in the world?

November 13th is World Kindness Day, and with it, the seven days of kindness challenge.  Do you remember how you felt the last time you experienced a “random act of kindness?”  Ever had a stranger give you a compliment that made your day?  When did you last give that universal little wave of thanks when another driver let you in on a busy street?   Even in these challenging times, kindness is all around us, and the wonderful feeling of human connection through kindness is needed more than ever.  The science of kindness is a rapidly evolving field encompassing several disciplines, and to make it even more complicated, it also touches on some of the biggest questions about ethics, morality, and what it means to be human.  Where once the assumption was that humans are fundamentally competitive and selfish, more science is showing us that humans (and many non-human animals, too) may instead be fundamentally wired to be kind and compassionate.  Even better, kindness can be taught, learned, and practiced daily for some amazing health benefits!

Many scientists have wrestled seriously with the question of kindness and compassion and why it exists. Charles Darwin wondered, if life was about the survival of the fittest, why then did animals sometimes act in an altruistic manner: sacrificing their own personal gain to help others, even those not related to them?  Darwin’s answer was the idea of “inclusive fitness.” For example, a bee may sacrifice itself for the queen, and that sacrifice will help the entire hive to survive to reproduce.  Darwin’s concept of inclusive fitness helped explain that altruism does have reason to exist, and further exploration of WHY it exists was taken up in the 1960’s by researcher Richard Dawkins.  In his landmark book The Selfish Gene, he theorized that altruistic behaviors are wired into us by evolution because throwing yourself in front of a lion to protect your children helps your genes to survive, not because any inherent morality tells us to protect the weak.  This is why kind behaviors are still selected for and exist today, but deep down everything we do is self-interested even if it appears kind and selfless. 

For years it has been generally accepted that human kindness is a thin veneer over our animal nature, and most of animal nature is selfish and competitive.  In the 21st century, there are  growing numbers of scientists and thinkers who see that there is much more to the story of human kindness and compassion than once thought, and the concept of humans as fundamentally self-interested competitors may not be completely accurate.  Kindness and compassion appear to have numerous health benefits, right down to the molecular level, that go far beyond mere survival. 

The field of neuroscience especially has shown that our brains and bodies are deeply oriented towards kindness. Dr. Dacher Keltner, head of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, has shown that our brains are designed to release a burst of oxytocin, “the love hormone,” from even small acts of kindness.  In fact, it has been recently proven that we have a network in our brain called “mirror cells” that literally predisposes us to empathy on the cellular level.  The GGSC studies show that over time, through just one act of kindness a day, participants were able to increase their overall life satisfaction and decrease chronic pain, partly because kindness releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin and helps lower inflammatory hormones like cortisol.  People who did Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditations for just 8 weeks, sending out unconditional  love to the world each day, were even found to have longer telomeres, the part of DNA that is thought to control aging. From the results, it has been theorized that daily kindness is just as much a predictor of health as smoking, and Dr. Keltner theorizes that a life focused on kindness could increase lifespan as much as six to ten years!

Recent science has proven that kindness is one of the only things in the world that doubles when you share it:  kindness releases a boost of endorphins and hormones in the giver and receiver alike!  Just seven days of kind acts were seen to have a significant benefit on subjects’ stress levels, overall sense of wellbeing, and even chronic pain.  How can you share in the benefits of kindness?  Fortunately, researchers indicate that it can be learned and practiced just like any skill.  You don’t have to do something grand like paying off your neighbor’s mortgage to get the health benefits of altruism, and you don’t have to be born a saint to be kind each day.  In Dr. Keltner’s study, small things like paying off an expired meter, helping someone carry something, or even a great, genuine compliment are enough to start accruing the health benefits of kindness.  The potential for kind and helpful acts is everywhere, but it’s not always easy to know what to do or how to do it.   We know that your own body rewards you tremendously for being kind, just as it does when you exercise.  So why not practice building your “kindness muscle” and challenge yourself for seven days?  The Random Acts of Kindness Project, sponsors of World Kindness Day, have a menu of small acts you can do, and many more resources for learning, teaching, and understanding the wonderful – and still mysterious —  phenomenon of human kindness. 

Follow the links below for suggestions and inspiration. If you’re feeling experimental, try one kind act a day for at least a week, and see how you feel!

The Random Acts of Kindness Project (Sponsors of World Kindness Day) webpage with suggestions for a Seven-day kindness challenge: https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/kindness-ideas

The Basics of Altruism in Nature: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKtOXvA14X4

An animated summary of The Selfish Gene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gE_IPTXznM

Richard Dawkins discussing Altruism & The Selfish Gene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8C-ntwUpzM

Mental and Physical Benefits of Kindness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciVdg5O2b-w

Frans De Waal TED talk about Morality in Animals: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PnnSjdpoBVw

Dacher Keltner TED talk on Empathy and Compassion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsFxWSuu_4I

In Honor of Dr. Norman Ikari, Warrior and Scientist

The Unit Insignia of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, in which Dr. Ikari served during WWII. The 442nd is the most decorated Military Unit in all of US Military history.

Since the advent of modern science, the link between science and the military has been very strong.  Not only in terms of the technology produced, but in the number of veterans who went on to advance many different fields of science during and after their time in the military.  American Veterans have used the military training to launch careers in fields such as aeronautics, computing, chemistry, and physics.  A large number of veterans also went on to further the field of medicine.   Today we profile Dr. Norman Ikari, one of these incredible Warrior Scientists, and we thank all Veterans, whether scientist or not, for their service to our nation.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alicia Gilbert, a member of the Airlift Control Flight coordinates and schedules military airlift operations at Bush Field, Augusta, Ga., July 19, in support of Global Medic 2010. Global Medic is a joint field training exercise for theater aeromedical evacuation system and ground medical components designed to replicate all aspects of combat medical service support.

Dr. Norman Ikari was born in Seattle to Japanese immigrant parents who came to America during the era of World War I.  Dr. Ikari assisted in the family business and enjoyed a happy American childhood. He recalled that his first brush with racial prejudice darkened his outlook; when his family moved to California, they were not allowed to move in to a house they were renting because none of the neighbors wanted Japanese people in the neighborhood.  He recalled it was the only time he ever saw his mother cry.  The Ikari family went on to be successful in their dry cleaning business, and young Norman enrolled pre-med at City College in Los Angeles.  Then came Pearl Harbor, and with it, came great fear and suspicion of Japanese people, even if they were American citizens like the Ikaris. 

Anti-Japanese sentiment, as seen in this propaganda poster, ran very high in the US at the time of WWII.

Dr. Ikari was drafted into the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor.  Because of his pre-med studies he was sent to Camp Grant, a Medical Replacement Training Center in Illinois. He had only been in training for a month when he learned that his family had been removed to a Japanese Internment Camp. He recalled a difficult trip to visit them when, even in the uniform of the US Army, he was constantly challenged and questioned on the way, and almost not allowed to enter the camp.  Nonetheless Dr. Ikari loved the USA and was proud to serve in the military.  In fact, after time spent at the Camp Grant Laboratory he decided he wanted to do something more than just “rattling test tubes.”

A rough barrack at Manzanar camp, where thousands of innocent Japanese Americans, thought to be a threat to the US, were forced to live during WWII.

When he heard the news that the Army had created the 442nd Regiment, a regiment composed entirely of Japanese American volunteers, he requested to join them immediately.  Of his decision, he said modestly: “Not that I was adventurous, but I would like to have something more going in my army life.”  He joined the regiment and was immersed in combat training, then sent to Italy in 1944.  He experienced combat in Italy until June of 1944, when a German machine gun ripped into his legs and shot straight through one of his femurs.  He was retrieved from an Italian hillside by a brave team of soldiers and subsequently spent a long period hospitalized with his wounds. 

Members of the 442nd taking cover from German Artillery during combat in Italy.

The 442nd Regiment, otherwise known as the “Go For Broke Regiment” were some of the fiercest fighters in the entire war, and became the most decorated regiment in all of US military history. Dr. Ikari received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service.  His long period of recovery marked a turning point in his life: the beginning of his path towards becoming a research Microbiologist/Immunologist.  He first studied for a degree in Bacteriology at UCLA, but upheavals in his life lead him to move to Washington, D.C. He began working at the National Institutes of Health as an infectious disease researcher.  He received his PhD in1965 from Georgetown and went on to have a long career as a researcher and administrator at the NIH.  One of his published studies, “Bactericidal Antibody to Escherichia Coli in Germ-Free Mice” (1964),  is still a benchmark in the field.  He passed away at the age of 99 in 2018, after a long, courageous, and impactful life. Thank you, Dr. Ikari!

President Barack Obama and his guests applaud after signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office, Oct. 5, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Sources and Further Reading:

American Veterans’ Center Tribute Video to the 442nd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8buFZR52wY

Dr. Norman Ikari Interview:  https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.10680/

Dr. Norman Ikari Interview: https://ndajams.omeka.net/items/show/1053100

Asian American Heroism in WWII: https://www.loc.gov/item/webcast-4807

The Story of Two Japanese Americans who served in WWII, featuring Dr. Norman Ikari: https://www.historynet.com/the-story-of-two-japanese-americans-who-fought-in-world-war-ii.htm

Dr. Ikari’s Article: https://www.nature.com/articles/202879a0

The Beautiful Mystery of Light

Happy Diwali!  On Nov 4th, Hindus around the world will celebrate this major festival of light and love.  Over five days, there will be gifts, feasts, new clothes, and the joyful celebration of several Hindu Gods and Goddesses.  Another key ingredient to the Diwali festival is something that is revered by scientists and religious worshippers alike: light.  During the Diwali festival, participants lay out special candle-like lamps in beautiful designs, or even special electric Diwali lights to illuminate the darkness.  Diwali sparkles with light, and for good reason: in Hindu belief, darkness represents ignorance, and light represents knowledge.  Lighting the lamps of Diwali symbolizes how knowledge can overcome negative forces like oppression, violence, and fear. 

Hinduism, and many other religious traditions around the world, see light as a gift from the Divine.  It is through light that we are able to experience the beauty of this world, and since ancient times light has long been associated with positive forces in this world.  From Jewish believers lighting a menorah, to the sacredness of the Rainbow in many Indigenous American traditions, light is the touch of the Divine here on earth. 

People have cherished light and celebrated it since time out of mind.  But, what exactly is light?  From a scientific standpoint, light is a very complex entity that is still quite mysterious.  Many of us are familiar with the “is light a wave or a particle” question that is even now one of the very biggest questions in science.  The scientific study of light in the 20th century was so profound that it gave rise to what we know as quantum physics today, but the truth is people have been experimenting to understand the nature of light for thousands of years. 

Sasha Grusche, Newton Performing his Experimentum Crucis, 2015

The Ancient Greeks observed animals’ eyes glowing in the dark and inferred that light was not outside of our bodies, but a ray that came from our eyes and illuminated everything around us.  In that way, our eyes were more like a flashlight, not a camera as we know today.  This was accepted wisdom in the Western part of the world for centuries.  But, light is so fascinating, so beautiful and mysterious, that, in the 10th century, a Muslim thinker known as Ibn Al-Haytham carried out one of the very first documented scientific experiments ever to learn more about it.   Ibn Al-Haytham decided to test the Greeks’ theory about light by testing it in controlled situations under varied conditions – a method otherwise known as the scientific method! One of his experiments placed two lanterns outside a completely dark room where the light shone through in two spots onto the walls.  When one lantern was covered, the spot disappeared, proving that light was something outside of us, not coming from our bodies.

Ibn Al-Haytham, 965-1040 CE

After Al-Haytham’s foundational experiments, many other scientists went on to discover more about light, with no less than Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton doing some of their best work around the question of what light is and how it works.  Yet, 1,000 years after Al-Haytham’s first experiment, the nature of light remains a beautiful mystery that we, as humans, are lucky to experience each and every day.  Happy Diwali!  May your Diwali be free from darkness and abundant with light.

Sources and Further Reading:

All about Diwali: https://www.diwalifestival.org/diwali-calendar.html

The Long History of Light and Science: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ak7GB74Qlug

Biography and Resources for Ibn Al-Haytham: https://www.ibnalhaytham.com/discover/who-was-ibn-al-haytham/