Found 2,247 Resources containing: Famous People
The Wikipedia Voice Intro Project wants to do for speech what Wikipedia does for information and Wikimedia Commons does for photos and illustrations. Launched late last month, the Voice Intro Project aims to record the voice of anyone who has their own profile on the online encyclopedia.
The collection is growing slowly, getting a flurry of attention after actor Stephen Fry joined on. Here's his brief contribution:
According to the project page the main goal seems simple enough: “So that we know what notable people sound like; and how they pronounce their own names.”
But one could easily see how such a repository, if built out enough, could become a useful tool for linguists and others interested in the diversity of human speech. Or, even, for future researchers looking to study the evolution of accents and other vocal characteristics.
When the First World War began, in the summer of 1914, the Lusitania was among the most glamorous and celebrated ships in the world—at one time both the largest and fastest afloat. But the British passenger liner would earn a far more tragic place in history on May 7, 1915, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives.
The Lusitania was not the first British ship to be torpedoed, and the German Navy had publicly vowed to destroy “every enemy merchant ship” it found in the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland. On the day the Lusitania set sail from New York, the German Embassy ran ads in U.S. newspapers, warning travelers to avoid liners flying the British flag. But in the case of the Lusitania the warnings went largely unheeded, due in part to the belief that the powerful ship could outrun any pursuant. The ship's captain, W. T. Turner, offered additional reassurance. “It's the best joke I've heard in many days this talk of torpedoing,” he supposedly told reporters.
England and Germany had been at war for close to a year by that point, but the United States, whose citizens would account for about 120 of the Lusitania’s victims, had remained neutral; ships sailing under the stars and stripes would not be the deliberate targets of German torpedoes. Though the U.S. didn’t officially enter the war until 1917, the sinking of the Lusitania, and the propaganda blitz that followed, proved a major factor in swaying public opinion in that direction.
Among the prominent American victims were such luminaries of the day as the theatrical impresario Charles Frohman, the popular writer Elbert Hubbard and the very rich Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt. But the list of passengers who missed the Lusitania’s last voyage was equally illustrious. Ironically, it wasn’t the fear of a German U-boat attack that kept most of them off the doomed liner but more mundane matters, such as unfinished business, an uncooperative alarm clock or a demanding mistress.
Here are the stories of eight famous men and women who were lucky enough to dodge the torpedo.
The conductor Arturo Toscanini was set to return to Europe aboard the Lusitania when his season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera ended. Instead, he cut his concert schedule short and left a week earlier, apparently aboard the Italian liner Duca degli Abruzzi. Contemporary newspaper accounts attributed his hasty departure to doctor’s orders. “His illness amounts practically to a nervous breakdown due to overwork during the season and also to excitement over the European war,” The New York Tribune reported.
In the years since, historians have offered other explanations, including the maestro’s battles with the Met’s management over budget cutbacks, a particularly bad performance of the opera Carmen and a recent ultimatum from his mistress, the singer and silent-movie actress Geraldine Farrar, that he leave his wife and family. Little wonder he set to sea.
Toscanini, who was then in his late 40s, lived for another four decades, until his death at age 89, in 1957. He recorded prolifically—an 85-disc boxed set released last year represents just a portion of his output—and became a celebrity in the U.S., conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra on radio and later television. In 1984, a quarter-century after his death, he received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, sharing the honor that year with Charlie Parker and Chuck Berry.
Broadway composer Jerome Kern, then just 30 years old, supposedly planned to sail on the Lusitania with the producer Charles Frohman, but overslept when his alarm clock didn’t go off and missed the ship. The makers of the 1946 MGM musical biopic of Kern’s life, Till the Clouds Roll By, apparently didn’t consider that sufficiently dramatic, so the movie has Kern (played by Robert Walker) racing to the pier in a taxi and arriving just as the ship starts to pull away.
Kern would live for another three decades and write the music for such classics of the American songbook as “Ol’ Man River,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”
He died in 1945 at the age of 60 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
With her latest tour of the United States just ended, the American-born dancer Isadora Duncan had a number of ships to choose from for her return to Europe, where she was then living, among them the Lusitania. Though she had crossed the Atlantic on the luxurious liner before, she passed it up this time in favor of the more humble Dante Alighieri, which left New York eight days later. One reason may have been money: Her tour had been a financial disaster.
In fact, Duncan’s creditors had threatened to seize her trunks and keep her from leaving the country at all until she paid about $12,000 in debts racked up during her visit. In a newspaper interview Duncan pleaded, “I appeal to the generosity of the American people and ask them if they are willing to see me and my pupils disgraced after all I have done in the cause of art.” Fortunately, within hours of the Dante’s departure, Duncan’s creditors had been placated and a benefactor had given her two $1,000 bills to buy the steamship tickets.
Several histories of the Lusitania disaster give the impression that Duncan sailed on the liner New York with Ellen Terry (see below). Though Duncan idolized the older actress and even had a child with her son, theater director Edward Gordon Craig, it seems to have been one of Duncan’s young dancers rather than Duncan herself who accompanied Terry.
Duncan mentions the Lusitania briefly in her autobiography: “Life is a dream, and it is well that it is so, or who could survive some of its experiences? Such, for instance, as the sinking of the Lusitania. An experience like that should leave for ever an expression of horror upon the faces of the men and women who went through it, whereas we meet them everywhere smiling and happy.”
A dozen years later, Duncan would have a famously fatal encounter with another form of transportation, strangled when her scarf became entangled in one of the wheels of a car in which she was riding.
Image by University of Iowa Digital Library. Made famous for his travel lectures, Lincoln Wirt reportedly cancelled his passage on the Lusitania in order to take another ship. (original image)
Image by Library of Congress via WikiCommons. On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland and nearly 1,200 lives were lost. (original image)
Image by Library of Congress. William Gillette was famed in his era as both a playwright and stage actor, especially for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Due to a commitment to perform in Philadelphia, he was forced to stay behind did not board the Lusitania. (original image)
Image by California Faces: Selections from The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection. American-born dancer Isadora Duncan had previously crossed the Atlantic on the Lusitania but she decided to board the more humble Dante Alighieri on May 7, 1915. (original image)
Image by Robert Hunt Picture Library via WikiCommons. On the day the Lusitania set said from New York, the German Embassy ran ads in U.S. newspapers, warning travelers to avoid liners flying the British flag. (original image)
A 5-year-old at the time of the disaster, Millicent Hammond Fenwick grew up to become an editor at Vogue, a civil rights activist, a Congresswoman from New Jersey and a possible inspiration for the famous “Doonesbury” character Lacey Davenport, whose outspokenness she shared.
Fenwick’s parents, Ogden and Mary Stevens Hammond, were both on board the Lusitania but left young Millicent and her siblings behind because their trip was humanitarian in nature rather than a family vacation, says Amy Schapiro, author of the 2003 biography Millicent Fenwick: Her Way. Her mother was headed to France to help establish a Red Cross hospital for World War I casualties.
Though they were warned not to take the Lusitania, Schapiro says, Millicent’s mother was determined to go and her father refused to let his wife sail alone. Her father survived the sinking; her mother did not. Perhaps because the subject was too painful, Fenwick rarely discussed her mother’s death or how the loss affected her, according to Schapiro.
Millicent Fenwick died in 1992 at age 82.
The founder and namesake of what’s said to be the world’s oldest and largest talent agency, William Morris, born Zelman Moses, not only missed the Lusitania’s last voyage in 1915 but also the Titanic’s first and only attempt to cross the Atlantic three years earlier.
In both cases, Morris had booked passage but canceled at the last minute to attend to other matters, according to The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business by Frank Rose (1995). In those days, Morris’s business involved supplying vaudeville acts to thousands of live theaters across the United States. Among his clients were W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and Will Rogers, popular stage performers who would go on to become even bigger stars in the new media of movies and radio.
William Morris died of a heart attack in 1932, while playing pinochle.
Widely considered the greatest English actress of her day, Ellen Terry had finished an American lecture tour and was reportedly offered a free suite on the Lusitania for her return home. However, she had promised her daughter not to take an English ship because of war concerns, and instead booked passage on the American liner New York.
Though the New York was slower and considerably less comfortable than the Lusitania, Terry made the best of it. “I suppose on the whole I prefer this bed to the Ocean Bed,” she wrote in her diary.
Terry, who was 68 at the time, lived for another 13 years, during which she continued to perform and lecture as well as make several motion pictures.
The actor William Gillette often joined Charles Frohman on his trips to Europe and planned to accompany the producer aboard the Lusitania, according to Henry Zecher, author of the 2011 biography, William Gillette, America’s Sherlock Holmes. As Gillette later told the story, however, he had a commitment to perform in Philadelphia and was forced to stay behind.
Though little remembered now, Gillette was famed in his era as both a playwright and stage actor, especially for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, today’s popular image of Holmes may owe nearly as much to Gillette’s interpretation as to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original. It was Gillette, for example, who furnished Holmes with his trademark bent briar pipe, Zecher notes. Gillette also invented the line “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow,” which evolved into the immortal “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
The year after the Lusitania’s sinking, Gillette gave his one motion picture performance as Holmes. Unfortunately, the film, like many others of the silent era, seems to be lost.
Gillette died in 1937 at age 83. His eccentric and highly theatrical stone mansion in East Haddam, Connecticut, is now a tourist attraction, Gillette Castle State Park.
Probably the least famous person on our list by today’s standards, Lincoln Wirt was nationally known for his travel lectures, once a popular form of entertainment. At a time when few Americans could afford international travel and much of the planet remained exotic and unexplored, adventurers like Wirt brought the world to them. He was also a minister and war correspondent.
Wirt’s lecture “The Conquest of the Arctic,” for example, promised its audience an account of his 1,250-mile journey by canoe and dog sled, complete with “the horrors of scurvy, typhoid and freezing” along with “bubbling humor” and “descriptions of exquisite beauty.” But Wirt missed out on what might have been the tale of a lifetime when he reportedly cancelled his passage on the Lusitania in order to take another ship, the Canopic, and head to Constantinople.
Wirt’s adventures continued for another half century. He died in 1961, at the age of 97.
The Lusitania – Titanic connection
The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and the Titanic in 1912 may be forever linked as the two most famous maritime disasters of the 20th century. But the similarities between the Cunard liner Lusitania, launched in 1906, and the White Star liner Titanic, launched in 1911, hardly end here. Each was the largest ship in the world at the time of its debut, the Lusitania at 787 feet, the Titanic at 883 feet. They were also two of the most luxurious ships afloat, designed to compete for the rich and famous travelers of the day as well as for the profitable immigrant trade. In fact several notable passengers had ties to both ships:
• Al Woods, a well-known American theatrical producer, claimed to have had close calls with both the Lusitania and the Titanic, as did his frequent traveling companion, a businessman named Walter Moore. The two reportedly missed the Titanic when business matters kept them in London and called off their trip on the Lusitania because of fears of a submarine attack.
• The high-society fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon, among the most famous survivors of the Titanic disaster, was booked on the Lusitania but canceled her trip, citing health reasons.
• Two other Titanic survivors, banker Robert W. Daniel and his wife, Eloise, also appear to have canceled passage on the Lusitania, deciding to take an American ship, the Philadelphia, instead. Eloise Daniel lost her first husband in the Titanic disaster and met her future mate when he was pulled aboard the lifeboat she was in. They married two years later. Interviewed on their arrival in London, he described the crossing on the Philadelphia as “absolutely uneventful.”
• Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, 37-year-old railroad heir and horse fancier, missed the Titanic in 1912 but unfortunately not the Lusitania in 1915, despite receiving a mysterious telegram telling him the ship was doomed. Vanderbilt died a hero in the disaster, reportedly giving his lifebelt to a young woman passenger, even though he couldn’t swim.
When the comedian David Brenner died earlier this year, obituaries reported that he’d asked to be buried with $100 in small bills, “just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.”
Brenner is not the first celebrity to challenge the conventional wisdom of “you can’t take it with you.” Here are nine more:
Leonard Bernstein (1918 to 1990). The famous conductor and composer, whose works included the musicals On the Town and West Side Story, was buried with a piece of amber, a lucky penny, a baton, a copy of Alice in Wonderland and a pocket score of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, according to the 2014 biography Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician. While each item had its significance in Bernstein’s life, the Mahler symphony was probably closest to his heart. At least one account claims it was placed directly over his heart in his casket, though others say it was simply put in alongside him.
Bernstein was known to have both idolized and identified with the late Austrian conductor and composer. Introducing a 1960 Young People’s Concert devoted to Mahler’s work, Bernstein observed, “It’s a problem to be both a conductor and a composer; there never seems to be enough time and energy to be both things. I ought to know because I have the same problem myself… It’s like being two different men locked up in the same body; one man is a conductor and the other a composer, and they’re both one fellow called Mahler (or Bernstein).”
Humphrey Bogart (1899 to 1957). Before the actor’s cremated remains were laid to rest, they were supposedly joined in their urn by a small gold whistle bearing the inscription “If you want anything, just whistle,” which he had given his widow, Lauren Bacall, years earlier.
The line was a reference to their 1944 film, To Have and Have Not, loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel, and the first movie to pair the then 43-year-old Bogart and his 19-year-old future wife. Though the quote in the inscription is often cited as a line of dialog from the movie, what Bacall’s character actually says would have required a much bigger whistle: “You know you don't have to act with me. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
For whatever reason, Bogart seems to have inspired memorable misquotations. Perhaps his most famous line of movie dialogue, “Play it again, Sam,” from 1942’s Casablanca never appears in the actual movie either.
George Burns (1896 to 1996). For the vaudeville, radio, television and movie comedian, cigars were a constant prop, and he went to his grave with three in his pocket.
What brand those might been doesn’t seem to have been recorded, though Burns was known to favor El Producto Queens. He explained the very practical reason behind his preference in a 1994 interview with the magazine Cigar Aficionado. The interviewer was Arthur Marx, son of another well-known cigar-chomping comedian, Groucho Marx.George Burns. (Wikipedia)
Burns told him, “the reason I smoke a domestic cigar is because the more expensive Havana cigars are tightly packed. They go out on the stage while I'm doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if you're onstage and your cigar keeps going out, you have to keep lighting it. If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out.”
Roald Dahl (1916-1990). The author of the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, celebrated chocolate in both his art and his life. So it isn’t surprising that he was reportedly buried with some (as well as a bottle of Burgundy, snooker cues, pencils, and a power saw).
In his 1984 memoir, Boy, Dahl wrote that one of his happiest childhood memories involved the newly invented candy bars that the British chocolate maker Cadbury sent to his boarding school from time to time, asking Dahl and his classmates to rate them. He fantasized about working in a chocolate laboratory when he grew up and inventing a chocolate that would wow even “the great Mr. Cadbury himself.” That fantasy, he said, became the inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
If Dahl didn’t grow up to become a chocolate inventor, he did remain a chocolate lover. He is said to have kept a red plastic box stuffed with chocolates, which he’d offer to guests after every meal, or simply eat by himself if he was dining alone. The box is preserved at the Roald Dahl Museum archives in the village of Great Missenden, north of London.
Harry Houdini (1874 to 1926). The famous magician and escape artist was buried with his head resting on a packet of letters from his beloved mother, Cecilia Weiss. As Houdini’s friend Howard Thurston (perhaps the second most famous magician of the day) observed at the time, “His love for his mother was his deepest devotion.”
Cecilia’s death, in 1913, had been a shock that her son never quite recovered from. Hoping to communicate with her in the next life, Houdini became fascinated with the then-popular fad of spiritualism. Open-minded at first, he was soon disenchanted and spent much of the remainder of his life exposing the tricks of psychics and mediums.
Houdini’s coffin was a specially designed solid bronze model with a hermetically sealed inner liner that he had used underwater in his act. As The New York Times reported, Houdini had it “made to prove his contention that any one could live without air for an hour if they did not let fear overcome them. It was his expressed wish that he be buried in this coffin.”
Houdini got his wish. He was buried in Queens, New York, in a plot he shares with his mother and other relatives.
John F. Kennedy (1917 to 1963). Among his leisure pursuits, the 35th President was a collector of scrimshaw, pieces of whale bone or ivory that were engraved with pictures and designs, most famously by New England whalers. Highlights of his collection were on prominent display in the Oval Office during his presidency.
A particular favorite was a 9 1/2-inch-long whale tooth, engraved with the presidential seal by the scrimshaw artist Milton Delano. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who had commissioned the piece, gave it to her husband for Christmas in 1962, the last Christmas he’d live to see. It was buried with him in Arlington National Cemetery after his assassination the following November.
Not long before his death, Kennedy himself gave another piece away, to the actress Greta Garbo, who had admired the collection during a White House visit. Much of the remaining collection now resides at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.
Other items buried with the President include letters from his wife and two children and a pair of gold cufflinks. His brother Robert, who would be assassinated less than five years later, is said to have added a PT-109 tie clip and a silver rosary.
Bela Lugosi (1882 to 1956). As the most famous interpreter of Dracula on both the Broadway stage and Hollywood screen, the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi spent much of his career in coffins. In 1956, when the nearly forgotten Lugosi died from a heart attack, he was laid to rest in his final one.
At the suggestion of family and friends, according to Arthur Lennig’s 2013 biography, The Immortal Count, Lugosi was buried in full Dracula regalia, including his trademark black cape. The actor himself might have had mixed feelings about that. Even before his immortal turn as the Transylvanian vampire in the 1931 Tod Browning film, Lugosi had recognized the dangers of being typecast as a monster, no matter how suave and well dressed.
“He hopes, when the talkie Dracula is completed, to escape the shackles of the role,” an Associated Press writer reported in 1930. “He will never again play Dracula on the stage, he says. If the wide distribution of the film did not make such a venture unprofitable, he would refuse because of the nervous strain the gruesome character puts upon him.”
In fact, Lugosi would go on to portray Dracula or Dracula-like characters on stage and in several more films, including the 1948 comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the posthumously released Plan 9 from Outer Space, widely considered one of the worst movies of all time.
Frank Sinatra (1915 to 1998). The “My Way” singer was buried his way, with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Zippo lighter, and a dollar’s worth of dimes, according to contemporary news accounts. The dimes were reportedly in case he needed to use a pay phone.
Jack Daniel’s had been Sinatra’s frequent companion, both on stage and off, ever since he was introduced to it by the comedian Jackie Gleason. In Gay Talese’s celebrated 1966 Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Talese quotes the singer as saying, “I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel.” He was also known to refer to it as the “nectar of the gods.”
Sinatra’s fondness for Jack Daniel’s, and the fact that he was buried with a bottle, have since been featured in the whiskey maker’s advertising, adding posthumous celebrity endorser to Sinatra’s many other credentials. Jack Daniel’s has also created a premium whiskey in his honor, Sinatra Select.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987). By some accounts the pop artist and filmmaker was buried clutching a bottle of Estee Lauder perfume. By other, possibly more reliable reports, a bottle was tossed into his grave by a friend, after the casket had been lowered. Either way, he would have appreciated the gesture; as he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, “I really love wearing perfume.”
He goes on to confess that, “Sometimes at parties I slip away to the bathroom just to see what colognes they’ve got. I never look at anything else—I don’t snoop—but I’m compulsive about seeing if there’s some obscure perfume I haven't tried yet, or a good old favorite I haven’t smelled in a long time. If I see something interesting, I can't stop myself from pouring it on. But then for the rest of the evening, I’m paranoid that the host or hostess will get a whiff of me and notice that I smell like somebody-they-know.”
Warhol’s relationship with perfume didn’t end with his death. Today his name is on no fewer than seven different men’s and women’s fragrances.Andy Warhol's grave, located at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in a suburb of Pittsburgh. (Wikipedia)
And 10 more, in brief:
William S. Burroughs (1914 to 1997). The Beat Generation novelist was reportedly buried with, among other things a loaded .38 caliber revolver, a sword cane, a ballpoint pen, a fedora and a joint.
Tony Curtis (1925 to 2010). The movie actor shares his coffin with a long list of items, including his Stetson hat, a pair of driving gloves, his grandson’s baby shoes, and the ashes of his dog.
Miles Davis (1926 to 1991). The jazz trumpeter is said to be buried with one or more of his horns.
Wild Bill Hickok (1837 to 1876). Legendary Wild West gunslinger and lawman Hickok was buried with his rifle.
Ernie Kovacs (1919 to 1962). Comedian and television pioneer Kovacs, who by some accounts died in a car crash while trying to light a cigar, was supposedly buried with one put in his hand by his widow, Edie Adams, and another tucked into his jacket by his friend Jack Lemmon.
Bob Marley (1945 to 1981). The reggae great is reportedly buried with his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible, and some marijuana.
Stan Musial (1920 to 2013). St. Louis Cardinals slugger and Baseball Hall of Famer Stan “The Man” Musial was nearly as fond of the harmonica as he was of the bat. He was buried with one of the former in his jacket pocket
Harland Sanders (1890 to 1980). The Colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame was buried in his trademark double-breasted white suit.
Tiny Tim (1932-1996). Best known for his 1968 rendition of “Tip-Toe Thru' The Tulips With Me,” the ukulele-strumming falsetto singer was reportedly buried with—what else?—a ukulele and one or more tulips.
Ronnie Van Zant (1948 to 1977). The Lynyrd Skynyrd front man, killed in a 1977 plane crash, is said to be buried with a black hat and his fishing pole.
Last night, scientist advocate Bill Nye debated creationist Ken Ham. If you missed it or want to re-watch the nearly three hour debate, you can do so here. In fact, if you wanted to, you could spend your entire day watching people debate evolution. We Americans have apparently decided that these debates are a productive use of time and are somehow going to achieve something.
Here’s Phil Donahue and Duane Gish going at it in 1986 on a show called "Feed Back."
There’s this 1997 William F. Buckley, Jr., show, called "Firing Line," which hosted a debate between four creationists and four “evolutionists.”
There’s this 2002 debate filmed at the International Atheist Alliance Conference.
There’s an evolution version of "The Big Questions" from January of last year.
And if you don’t have time for any of those, Beatrice the Biologist has summed up every creation vs evolution debate ever had in just over a minute.
But really, you should just skip all of that. It probably won’t change your mind about evolution, no matter which side of the fence you’re on. That’s not just pessimism; it’s science. There’s a good body of evidence that these kinds of debates not only don’t change minds, but further entrench people into whatever side they’re on. Joe Keohane at the Boston Globe summed up some of this research in a 2010 story:
In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.
Another study from 2005 gave people news stories that fell in line with their pre-set political beliefs and then revealed that the stories were false. The stories included claims that were demonstrably wrong—that there were WMDs in Iraq; that the Bush administration completely banned stem cell research; and that tax cuts increased government revenue.
But when the participants read the stories and then were given the corrected information, something surprising happened. Those who were conservative were more likely to believe in the presence of WMDs in Iraq, even after being corrected. Being given the right information not only didn’t change minds, it made people more confident that the false information was true.
This happens during presidential debates, too. One study from 1982 looked at the 1960 and 1976 presidential debates and concluded that “the debates did not, therefore, generally alter or form preferences, but, rather, reinforced existing predispositions and made voters more sure of their choice.”
Another study from 2010 took a look at the 1996 Clinton, Dole debate. The researchers asked people to watch the debate and evaluate the arguments made. Once again they found that pre-debate attitudes towards the candidate were a better predictor of how participants thought either candidate did. “Participants evaluated the arguments that confirmed their predebate attitudes as being stronger than the arguments that disconfirmed their predebate attitudes,” the authors write.
And yet Americans love these types of debates. The idea that putting two people up against one another will help inform the public about what to think runs deep in American history. And thus we must continue to suffer through them, even though they’re not helping anybody make any decisions.
It’s the city that famously wasn’t built in a day—and, years after Rome’s 753 B.C. founding, it has begun to fall into ruins. Despite Rome's reputation as The Eternal City, many of its most famous landmarks, from the Colosseum to its famous Forum, are in desperate need of repair. Now the problem has become so bad, the Agence France-Presse reports, that this week, city officials launched its "100 proposals for patrons" campaign, asking individuals and companies to pony up cash to preserve some of its most memorable ancient sites.
Rome has asked for more than $557 million in donations from preservation-minded philanthropists, writes the AFP. Conservation tasks include everything from cleanups to structural renovations. The Associated Press’ Frances d’Emilio writes that anyone can “adopt” projects for the citie's new campaign, like restoring a fountain, adding a ramp to a piazza or funding an archaeological study of Caesar’s Forum.
The plea comes in the wake of a series of scandals that has plunged Rome into financial chaos. As d’Emilio reports in another article for the AP, Rome is currently in a debt crisis to the tune of over $13 billion.
Rome’s new saviors won’t be the first to spend their savings on precious sites. As The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman reported in 2014, luxury labels increasingly see donations to cultural landmarks as a way to add cachet and clout to their brands. This “halo-associating behavior,” writes Friedman, connects pricey luxury brands to tradition and cultural heritage—an association that seems to be worth the expenditure for companies looking to stay relevant in the social-consciousness-meets-fashion era.
Think Italy is the only place where private individuals and companies fund the preservation of public icons? Think again: In the U.S., there’s a long tradition of public-private partnerships. Recently, billionaire David Rubenstein donated a whopping $7.5 million to restore the earthquake-damaged Washington Monument. Shouldn’t cities themselves be able to finance the preservation of their most priceless treasures? Perhaps—but when cultural landmarks collapse, everyone loses.
For many visitors to Yellowstone National Park, the shooting geysers and lush vistas are made even better by another kind of natural wonder: bears. One of the park’s most famous, known to researchers as No. 211 and fans as “Scarface,” gained notoriety for his camera-ready stature and distinctive scars. But now, the bear is no more—and, as Brett French reports for the Billings Gazette, wildlife officials want to know why.
In a release about the bear, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks confirmed that No. 211 was shot and killed in November 2015, and that the incident is under investigation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. In late 2015, the Associated Press reported that the grizzly had been captured 17 times by researchers over the years. Though he clocked in at 597 pounds in 2011, the massive 25-year-old was only 338 pounds in August 2015.
But scientists weren’t the only people fascinated by the grizzly. Scarface was so recognizable due to his facial scars—doubtless racked up when he fought with other bears—that he became a social media darling. It didn’t hurt that he was so fearless; the bear didn’t seem to mind roads and ranged around the park like king of the forest.
Though it’s not yet certain who shot the bear, one thing is clear: His high-profile killing will reignite debate over bears at the park. Grizzlies are considered an endangered species, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife has proposed to delist them because their numbers have grown so much since they were put on the list in 1975. As Christine Peterson reports for the Casper Star Tribune, the bear population in the park was only about 136 when they were listed as endangered, but has swelled to about 700.
Removing bears from the list could lead to hunting, a move that has been criticized by groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. On its website, the organization argues that “it’s not time to declare victory” for the bears given ecological changes in the park and “high levels of conflicts with people.” But other groups like the National Wildlife Federation disagree. NWF argues that the Endangered Species Act is actually intended to delist recovered species, and that grizzly populations will be safe if proper provisions are made for them once they are removed from the list. (The proposed rule is still open for public comment.)
On its website, the National Park Service notes that the best way to protect grizzlies is to reduce conflicts with humans—and that there were 165 such incidents last year alone. Though that number has fallen significantly, every time a human and a bear get into it, the bears’ survival as a species is threatened.
Scarface was never seen hassling humans—but he was nonetheless apparently killed by a hunter. Louisa Willcox, a Yosemite local who loves and advocates for bears, tells The Livingston Enterprise’s Liz Kearney that No. 211 was “a 25-year-old bear that gave thousands of people the thrill of a lifetime, and he never got into trouble. He was a gentleman of a bear.”
At last count, at least 33 people in the world could tell you what they ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner, on February 20, 1998. Or who they talked to on October 28, 1986. Pick any date and they can pull from their memory the most prosaic details of that thin slice of their personal history.
Others, no doubt, have this remarkable ability, but so far only those 33 have been confirmed by scientific research. The most famous is probably actress Marilu Henner, who showed off her stunning recall of autobiographical minutiae on “60 Minutes” a few years ago.
What makes this condition, known as hyperthymesia, so fascinating is that it’s so selective. These are not savants who can rattle off long strings of numbers, Rainman-style, or effortlessly retrieve tidbits from a deep vault of historical facts. In fact, they generally perform no better on standard memory tests than the rest of us.
Nope, only in the recollection of the days of their lives are they exceptional.
Obsessing over details
How does science explain it? Well, the research is still a bit limited, but recently scientists at the University of California at Irvine, published a report on 11 people with superior autobiographical memory. They found, not surprisingly, that their brains are different. They had stronger “white matter” connections between their mid and forebrains, when compared with the control subjects. Also, the region of the brain often associated with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), was larger than normal.
In line with that discovery, the researchers determined that the study’s subjects were more likely than usual to have OCD tendencies. Many were collectors–of magazines, shoes, videos, stamps, postcards–the type of collectors who keep intricately detailed catalogs of their prized possessions.
The scientists are wary, as yet, of drawing any conclusions. They don’t know how much, or even if that behavior is directly related to a person’s autobiographical memory. But they’re anxious to see where this leads and what it might teach them about how memory works.
Is it all about how brain structures communicate? Is it genetic? Is it molecular? To follow the clues, they’re analyzing at least another three dozen people who also seem to have the uncanny ability to retrieve their pasts in precisely-drawn scenes.
Why our stories change
What about the rest of us? Our personal memories are much more erratic, some powerfully vivid, most frustratingly murky. And fluid.
That’s right, fluid. We like to believe that memories, once created, are like data filed away, constant and enduring. The challenge, we think, is in retrieving the uncorrupted files.
But recent research suggests that memory doesn’t work like that. Personal memories are more like mental reconstructions where the original details are contorted, at least to some degree, by who we are today.
Science writer Charles Fernyhough, author of the new book, Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory, offered this explanation in The Guardian:
“When we look at how memories are constructed by the brain, the unreliability of memory makes perfect sense. In storyboarding an autobiographical memory, the brain combines fragments of sensory memory with a more abstract knowledge about events, and reassembles them according to the demands of the present.”
Recalling a memory, in fact, appears to be a collaborative effort of different parts of our brains. It also seems to be strengthened and modified each time it’s retrieved. Scientists have a term for this–reconsolidation. And they’ve found that a memory is not only a reflection of the original event, but also a product of each time you call it up. So memories, it turns out, aren’t fixed; they’re dynamic, reshaped by our current emotions and beliefs.
And that’s not a bad thing. As Fernyhough posits, the purpose of memory is about adapting and looking into the future as much as into the past. “There is only a limited evolutionary advantage in being able to reminisce about what happened to you,” he writes, “but there is a huge payoff in being able to use that information to work out what is going to happen next.”
The good and the bad
According to recent research, here are a few of the things that are good or bad for your memory:
- GOOD: Green tea: A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition concludes that green tea seems to activate the part of the brain associated with working memory.
- BAD: Junk food: Research at Brown University led scientists to conclude that a diet heavy in junk food can stop brain cells from responding properly to insulin and and that can hinder one’s ability to create new memories.
- GOOD: Frequent exercise: According to a study at Dartmouth University, exercise generally enhances the ability to remember. People in the study who exercised regularly improved their memory test scores, and this was particularly true for those who exercised the day they re-took the test.
- BAD: Frequent eating: A study published in a recent issue of Neurology warned that people over 50 who are obese are more likely to lose memory and cognitive skills during the next decade than their fitter counterparts.
- GOOD: Piano tuning: A team of British scientists discovered highly specific changes in the hippocampus–which affects memory– within the brains of professional piano tuners. They suggested that the act of playing and listening closely to two notes played simultaneously as they tuned pianos helped make their brains more adaptive.
- BAD: Working near MRI scanners: Research by Dutch scientists suggests that people with frequent exposure to the magnetic fields used to create MRI images may be at greater risk of diminished working memory.
Video bonus: See what researchers learned about memory from the brains of London taxi drivers.
More from Smithsonian.com
There are some truly stomach-churning drinks in the world including wine made from baby mice and beer made from whale testicles smoked with sheep’s dung. But one of the contenders for the most off-putting drink was recently sabotaged: someone stole the dried shriveled human toe used to make the famous Sourtoe Cocktail at Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel, reports Paul Tukker at CBC News.
The incident occurred over the weekend when someone ordered one of the infamous cocktails, which includes a human toe (stored and cured in salt) dropped into a shot of whiskey or any other hard alcohol. Imbibers—so far more than 100,000 count themselves as members of the "Sourtoe Cocktail Club"—are required to follow one rule: “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips must touch the toe.” Anyone brave enough to finish the shot is inducted into the club and is given an official certificate and everything.
Before the thief absconded with the dried-up digit, though, there were signs that the toe was in danger. For instance, the man who stole the toe said he might steal the toe before finishing his drink, reports Stephanie Ip at the Vancouver Sun.
The loss was especially poignant since the toe was relatively fresh, not to mention it was a hammer toe, meaning it was large and curled down, which ensured the digit wouldn't be a choking hazard, reports Tegan Hanlon at Alaska Dispatch News. The toe came from a man who had to have it surgically removed and decided to donated it to the bar. It cured in salt for six months before it was brought into cocktail circulation over the weekend.
In a statement, the hotel says the man had a French accent and was from Quebec. He filled out his Sourtoe Cocktail Club certificate and left it behind, so they believe police will be able to track him down.
According to the bar, the drink's origins date back to the 1920s. Rum runners Otto and Louie Linken were smuggling booze into Alaska during a blizzard when Louie stepped off his dogsled into some water. They didn’t stop to dry off the foot, and by the end of their journey, Louie’s big toe was frozen solid. His brother hacked it off with an axe, and they decided to preserve it in a jar of champagne. Captain Dick Stevenson found that jar while cleaning out their cabin in 1973. Using the toe, Stevenson and his friends established the Sourtoe tradition, which horrifies visitors to this day.
While the stolen toe is out of circulation, the bar will be able to keep the tradition going. Over the years, the bar has received at least 10 donations of toes from anonymous donors and through people’s wills.(Downtown Hotel)
On October 23, 1944, a feverish Orson Welles, laid up at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, received a telegram from the White House. “I have just learned that you are ill and I hope much you will follow your doctor’s orders,” read the message from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “The most important thing is for you to get well and be around for the last days of the campaign.”
For more than a month, the 29-year-old actor and filmmaker had been traveling the United States, making speeches on behalf of the 62-year-old president. Roosevelt was seeking an unprecedented fourth term, hoping to lead the country through the end of World War II. But as American soldiers and sailors advanced toward Germany and Japan, Republican opponent Thomas Dewey’s questions about the president’s age and energy began to resonate with the public.
Roosevelt was campaigning hard, trying to counter the concerns about his health, but he needed surrogates. None— including the many Hollywood stars who gave an occasional speech for Roosevelt in 1944—were as passionate and dedicated as Welles. His famous, resonant voice was associated with the gravity of epic conflicts, from Shakespearean tragedy to Martian invasion, for his contemporaries. And in response to the president’s plea, Welles prepared for real-life political war.
Two days after the president’s telegram, his fever broken, Welles cabled the White House. “Dear Mr. President: This illness was the blackest of misfortunes for me because it stole away so many days from the campaign,” he wrote. He credited Roosevelt’s telegram for inspiring him to rally and promised to get back on the road: “This is the most important work I could ever engage in.” Two days later, back on his feet, Welles gave a ten-minute campaign speech for Roosevelt on the CBS Radio Network.
Throughout fall 1944, Welles made campaigning for Roosevelt his full-time job, leaving his pregnant wife, actress Rita Hayworth, at home to travel the country by plane and train. In his speeches to rallies and Democratic clubs, Welles attacked Republicans as plutocratic elitists with the same withering contempt he’d aimed at newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst in his epic 1941 debut as a film director, Citizen Kane.
Welles’ left-wing politics made him sympathetic to Roosevelt’s New Deal. He’d already worked for the U.S. government’s Federal Theatre Project, staging “Macbeth” with an all-black cast in 1936, and broadcasted on behalf of a Treasury Department war bond drive earlier in 1944. And even after Roosevelt disappointed progressives by replacing radical-leaning Vice-President Henry Wallace with Missouri moderate Harry Truman on the 1944 ticket, Welles remained loyal. He introduced Wallace (who agreed to campaign for Roosevelt even after he was ditched for Truman) at a Madison Square Garden rally on September 21. Warming up the crowd, Welles attacked Republicans as “the partisans of privilege, the champions of monopoly, the old opponents of liberty, the determined adversaries of the small business and the small farm.” He even called out Hearst, his archenemy, whose newspapers supported Dewey.
Throughout 1944, Welles often met with Roosevelt at the White House and on the president’s campaign train. According to biographers, the actor also sent the president ideas for his speeches—suggestions the president included in his addresses. Decades later, Welles even claimed to have helped Roosevelt come up with one of the most memorable lines of the 1944 election: the punch line of a speech concerning a political fracas over the president’s dog.
The speech was a huge hit, and the Welles-penned joke was the main attraction. “[FDR] loved it,” Welles told a biographer in 1985, “and he asked me afterwards, ‘How did I do? Was my timing right?’ Just like an actor!”
FDR also figures in a curious anecdote mentioned in several Welles biographies— and in the FBI’s file on the actor’s 1940s political activities. In August 1944, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reported that Roosevelt had called Hayworth to let her know that Welles would be away from home, engaged in special work for him. According to Frank Brady’s biography Citizen Welles, the president called Hayworth when Welles balked at his request. “But Mr. President, Rita will never believe me if I can’t tell her where I am,” Welles said, according to Brady’s book.
Hopper, suspecting infidelity when Hayworth told her about Welles’ absence, grilled Hayworth until she mentioned Roosevelt’s phone call, then reported it in her column the next day. The FBI dispatched an agent to interview Hopper. She “stated she did not know exactly what the President was having Welles do,” reads the agent’s report, “but she did know that he was on some kind of mission for the President.”
Welles biographers disagree on what the mission might have been. Brady, recounting a story Welles told him about shooting footage of Albert Einstein talking about the theory of relativity, suggests Welles may have been working on a never-released documentary project about the atomic bomb.
As the election neared, Roosevelt’s campaign turned to Welles, a radio veteran famed for his terrifying October 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” for high-profile speeches. On October 18, 1944, a few days before he fell ill, Welles appeared on the same radio program as Roosevelt’s rival, Dewey. On the air, Welles accused Republicans of running “an energetic campaign of vilification” against Roosevelt, but insisted that history would vindicate him. “I think that even most Republicans are resigned to it,” Welles said, “that when the elections are over and the history books are written, our president will emerge as one of the great names in one of democracy’s great centuries.”
After recovering from his illness, Welles accompanied Roosevelt to a rally in Boston’s Fenway Park, where Frank Sinatra sang “America the Beautiful” to his usual cheers from teen girls. “The crowd roared its enthusiasm as Orson Welles and Frank Sinatra were introduced,” reported the Boston Globe, which referred to the two stars as “the ‘dramatic voice’ and ‘The Voice.’”
Welles, his anti-elite rhetoric as sharp as ever, claimed that the Republicans were running an entirely negative campaign. “By free enterprise they want exclusive right to freedom,” he argued. “They are stupid enough to think that a few can enjoy prosperity at the expense of the rest.” Welles kept campaigning up to election eve, when he delivered a nationally broadcast radio speech on a Democratic National Committee program.
Impressed with Welles’ oratory, Roosevelt suggested that the actor might have a future in politics. Welles, who had ambitions of running for office, was delighted. He would later tell people that, encouraged by Roosevelt, he’d contemplated running against U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy in his native Wisconsin in 1946.
Roosevelt may have been flattering, but some biographers have another take. They characterize Welles’ senatorial daydreams of 1944 as a sign of vanity, and his eloquence on Roosevelt’s behalf as too high-minded to succeed from the mouth of a candidate himself. “He was devout about great times needing great men,” wrote David Thomson in Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. “So he missed that drab, sly, common touch that gets elected.”
Still, Roosevelt appreciated Welles’ oratory, and the connections between theatrical and political performance. After the election, in which Roosevelt beat Dewey 53 percent to 46 percent in the popular vote and 432-99 in the electoral vote, Roosevelt met with Welles once more. He also sent Welles another telegram, thanking him for his help with the campaign. “It was a great show,” Roosevelt cabled, “in which you played a great part.”
From certain vantage points in Taipei, Taiwan's capital, the tails of intricately carved dragons appear in the skyline amid skyscrapers, modern shopping centers and Japanese-influenced structures.
Perched atop Longshan Temple, the dragons are a colorful reminder of a bygone era in a city marked by change. The temple, constructed in 1738 near the Danshui River, originally served as a place of worship and assembly for immigrants from the Fujian Province of China. Over the years, however, it has become the spiritual and social heart of the city and today, along with the traditional shops in its perimeter, exists as a window into Old Taipei.
Walking through, visitors are met by a dizzying array of red and gold embellishments. Two bronze pillars, intricately decorated with spiraling dragons, stand just outside the front hall. Incense swirls in the air, divination blocks thrown upon the floor echo through the three halls, and lanterns swing from the ceilings. References to literature and poetry abound. While the temple has been renovated and rebuilt multiple times, architect Wang Yi-shun, who oversaw the 1919-24 reconstruction, had a lasting impact on the structure of Longshan. Its stone, wood and bronzework is magnificent, and only the most skilled craftsmen are brought in for restoration.
On display in the main hall is the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion and mercy, Guanyin. Masterfully carved of camphor wood, she sits erect and calm, despite having seen the temple through trying times. In 1945, the Allied Forces hit the temple in an air raid, igniting the main hall in flames. Famously, the statue survived with but a skirt of ash at its base. On Guanyin’s left and right Wenshu, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, and Puxian, the bodhisattva of action, stand guard. Wenshu carries a flame sword to cut down ignorance and Puxian a flower. Eighteen arhats, or enlightened disciples of Buddha, frame the trio, glistening in the lantern light.
Surrounding the temple are echoes of the old city. Just left of the temple exit is Herb Alley. When Longshan was built, those who had fallen ill would pray to Guanyin before heading to Herb Alley to purchase traditional medicines. Today, visitors enjoy cups of strong, bitter herbal tea, often brewed to help people fight the heat in warmer months.
Storied Snake Alley lies slightly west and north of the temple. A sign with the words “Taipei Hwahsi Tourist Night Market” hovers above the street. Years ago, shops stacked to the top with cages of hissing cobras and vipers used to line the street. While only a few of these shops remain today, restaurants in the alley sell snake meat in stews and stir-fry, and select vendors prepare a mixture of snake blood, bile and liquor once believed to amplify vision and sexual drive.
Flanking Longshan Temple on its western side, Xiyuan Road sells all manner of religious relics and offerings. Mirroring the temple’s decor, the street is swathed in red and gold, its two-tone interrupted only by the bright white of porcelain Buddha and Guanyin figurines. Clusters of religious money, joss sticks and other items fill shops to capacity. A few stores date back to the 19th century when religious supplies would arrive from China.
Back inside the temple, burning spirit money crackles inside a brass urn located in the courtyard. Worshipers offer fruit and delicacies to the deities as well, which they display on long tables. Those with questions toss the crescent-shaped wooden divination blocks, known as bwa-bwei, on the ground in front of the statues, finding answers in the alignment of the blocks.
While primarily Buddhist, the temple houses Taoist and folk deities as well. Built in the late 18th century when trade with China was increasing, the rear hall houses Matzu, folk deity of travel. Worshipers pray to her for safe return from land and sea journeys. Those journeying by air go to Guanyin. Matzu is guarded by Qianli Yan (Thousand Mile Eyes) and Shunfeng Er (Thousand Mile Ears) who keep pulse on the disasters and complaints of the great abroad. Numerous deities, ranging from the deity of literature to the deity of war, accompany Matzu in the rear hall.
The temple is open daily for worship and celebrates a number of festivals throughout the year. Particularly large crowds gather for celebrations at the start of the Lunar New Year. On the eve of the new year, the temple conducts a lantern lighting ceremony and, at midnight, sounds a bell and drum from its side towers.
(Printed above image): Copyright 1897 by Robert Howard Russell / Library of Congress / City of Washington.
Gibson, Charles Dana, "The People of Dickens," New York: R.H. Russell, 1897.
For 20 years, passersby have stuck freshly-chewed wads of gum on the side of Seattle's Pike Place Market. Later this month, though, the quirky attraction will be scrubbed completely clean, Evan Bush reports for The Seattle Times.
Ever since people began sticking old gum to the walls of the market's Post Alley, the "Gum Wall" has attracted tourists—and, of course, their chewed-up gum. When the trend first began, workers regularly scraped the wall, but soon stopped trying to keep it clean. Today, Bush writes, the Gum Wall has grown to cover much of the brick alleyway at the market. According to estimates, the walls are coated with more than 1 million wads of gum, layered as much as six inches thick.
"This is probably the weirdest job we've done," Cascadian Building Maintenance's Kelly Foster, whose company was hired to clean the wall, tells Bush.
Foster says they'll remove the gum with an industrial machine that blasts 280-degree steam, "like a pressure washer," Bush reports. A crew will then collect the sticky drippings, which the Pikes Place Market Preservation and Development Association hopes to weigh. All in all, the whole job is estimated to cost roughly $4,000 according to Emily Crawford, a PDA representative.
Though the Gum Wall seems gross, it's not being scrubbed for health reasons; after all, it's regularly sanitized with hot steam. The two decades' worth of gum had begun to damage the bricks beneath the wall, as Crawford tells Bush. "It was never part of the charter or the history of the market to have the walls covered with gum," she says. "Gum is made of chemicals, sugar, additives. Things that aren't good for us. I can't imagine it's good for brick."
The Gum Wall isn't the only one of its kind—there's also San Luis Obispo's Bubblegum Alley—but it's certainly one of the most famous. In 1999, Seattle officially declared the Gum Wall an attraction and it consistently appears on lists of the grossest tourist sites in the world, alongside Ireland's Blarney Stone. In the meantime, Mary Forgione reports for The L.A. Times, Pike Place Market is encouraging people to add their last pieces of gum to the wall before November 10, when the cleaners will get to work. After that, though, the clean bricks may not stay bare for too long. "We're not saying it can't come back," Crawford tells Bush. "We need to wipe the canvas clean and keep (it) fresh."
Scientists have long suspected that staying creative into old age could help stave off neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s. But could existing artwork reveal an artist’s cognitive state? A new study suggests that could be true, reports The Guardian’s Ian Sample, and identified differences between normally aging artists and those with cognitive decline using only their brushstrokes.
In the new study, published in the journal Neuropsychology, a group of researchers examined the idea that cognitive deterioration could be spotted in the brushstrokes of patients with dementia. They studied 2,092 paintings from three artists who did not have cognitive declines as they aged (Marc Chagall, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso) and four artists who did (Salvador Dalí and Norval Morrisseau, who had Parkinson’s, as well as Willem De Kooning and James Brooks, who both had Alzheimer’s).
The researchers used a technique called fractal analysis to examine each painting. Though the word "fractal" is commonly associated with whirling geometric patterns found in nature, the concept—mathematical sets that demonstrate repeating patterns on the large and small scales—can also be seen in art. Fractal analysis has been used to scrutinize the work of Jackson Pollock, for example. Over the course of his career, his use of fractal patterns increased, and seeking out these spirals has even been used to root out fake paintings.
In this most recent work, researchers looked for the fractal dimension—a measure of how completely a pattern fills a space—seeking out variations in fractal dimension of each artist as they aged. They also examined the productivity of all of the artists over the course of their careers.
The researchers found that the paintings of artists with neurodegenerative diseases had more differences in fractal dimension than the control group as the artists aged, with fractal dimension falling off as their conditions deteriorated. For two of the artists—De Kooning and Brooks—these differences could be detected in their brushstrokes as early as 40 years of age, decades before they were diagnosed with neurodegenerative diseases. In contrast, the artists who aged normally showed more fractal dimension and complexity as the years wore on.
Could artwork one day be used as a way to diagnose neurodegenerative diseases, halting the progression years before the advanced stages set in? Perhaps. But for now, don’t get your hopes up: The recent study’s sample size is small, and it has not yet been replicated. It’s also impossible to tell if the control group was a good counterpart to the paintings of De Kooning, Brooks and Morisseau.
Though the researchers note that the technique could be helpful for, say, evaluating the authenticity of an image painted during an artist’s cognitive decline, they hedge their bets when it comes to its use as a diagnostic tool. One day, they write, it could be possible “to identify changes in the structure of a painting, years before diagnosis of a neurological disorder”—a promise that falls far short of diagnosis. And as Sample points out, fractal imaging as a method is hotly contested within the world of science, and the study that authenticated a Pollock painting using fractal analysis has since been challenged.
Artwork may never be a way to definitively diagnose disease, but the study is a reminder that it could hold clues to how people’s minds work. All the more reason to keep studying it—and to celebrate the people who keep creating as they age.