This summer, my students in the History 101, the History of Western Civilization to 1648, that is, the history of the western world from the beginning of civilization to 1648, tackled a different kind of final project. Instead of writing a regular research paper, students created blog posts that shared the stories of important objects throughout history. Each student was assigned an object from a civilization we covered in class. I culled these objects together from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum so that I would be sure there was information out there about their objects. Students were told identifying information and given an image of the object. Their job was to find out more. In this assignment, they learned about how their object encapsulated or communicated information about the civilization in question. Our goal was to use the object as a way to ask questions about the past, as inspiration for further research, and as the centerpiece of a writing assignment. Check out their results here.
I was convinced that Winter Storm Stella dropped around a foot of snow in our area on Monday night and Tuesday: schools were closed, roads were treacherous, businesses stayed shuttered. Imagine my annoyance when I, looking for accurate data to share with you, learned that my county got 3.7 inches of snow during that period according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Well. Maybe it wasn't that much snow, but it sure did have an impact. We had freezing rain and sleet throughout the night and woke up to icy trees and snow with a slick of ice on top. The natural appearance of ice-covered trees is really so much more beautiful than the artificial, winter-looking home decor you see at Christmas. That morning, I gazed outside, thinking about winter wonderlands from my cozy pajamas.
Just as I was settling in for a long day of snuggles with my little baby, the power went out at our house. I watched the power flash twice, "trying" to come back on, as we say. Alas, nothing. It was out. I whipped out my iPhone and typed in the web address to my power company. I reported the outage on a webform and spent probably ten minutes clicking on the interactive map on their website, counting the number of outages. There were already more than 50 in the area. Yuck, this could take a while.
[Scroll, scroll, scroll]
OH! I have to conserve phone battery!
It must have been after seeing all the other outages online that I dismissed the cracking sound I heard earlier that morning. I assumed it was a tree branch falling, heavy with the weight of all that ice. I was right. Two hours into our powerlessness, I looked out a back window to admire the snowfall. And there it was. A large branch from one of our trees crashed through the wooden privacy fence between our house and the neighbors'. The branch splintered parts of the fence and brought down the power lines that connected our house to all of civilization. This could take a long while.
Our power was out for eight hours, which is not that bad, considering. Here are some things that didn't work:
How could I be so dependent on this technology? What would I have done in the olden days?
In the 1880s, electric lights and the telegraph were still awesome sights to behold. From spectacles and novelties, cities began to adopt electrification in fits and starts around the country: a streetlight here, a factory there, a streetcar elsewhere. Electricity was popularized in public places before it reached the homes of mostly wealthy Americans in the beginning of the twentieth century. Electricity was expensive, conspicuously so, but it had the benefit of being safer than gas for heat and light. I don't think it's obvious for those of us who have always had the benefits of electric light in our homes that houses used to be dark. Candlelight and lanterns only get you so far. Fires were much more frequent occurrences.
Electricity in the home started to change how people thought about the space. With heat and light throughout the house, it wasn't necessary for the family to huddle together in front of the hearth. So sometimes they didn't do that anymore. With more available light, people could see better at night. They read more. And they saw more of the dirt and grime in their homes and cleaned more. Electricity meant that large open hearths and expansive pantries weren't necessary in kitchens anymore. They shrunk. There was suddenly more useable time in a day. The pace was quickening.
Electricity made possible the invention of new "labor-saving" appliances and gadgets for the home. But wait! Before WWI, American families paid for outside services to deliver ice, milk, and groceries. Laundry was cleaned and pressed and delivered. Servants, children, and the men of the household completed regular chores. Steadily though, these tasks fell to the women of the household to complete. By the 1920s, a combination of electricity, changing ideas about home life, and scientific management had shifted the job of the housewife and the expectations that went along with it. While it may have seemed easier to wash, dry, and iron a load of laundry with machines rather than by hand, fewer outside services, longer days, higher standards, and the illusion of efficiency meant that laundry became housework. Clothes were not only cleaner than in the past, they were cleaned more often, and they were cleaned by mom.
Thinking through the history of electrification can give us a much more satisfying answer to the question I was mortified about on Tuesday: What would I have done in the olden days had my power gone out? What if I have no discernible skills? Well, 21st-century self, it's just not true. Technologies cannot be separated from the ways we live. Technology, society, and behavior are shaped by each other all the time. Without electricity, I might not live in the suburbs, or feed my child prepared milk from cold storage, or do laundry as often as I do, or see my clothes as dirty at all, or feel the need to be doing something all day long. The floors would be grimier, servicemen would deliver things to me, my kitchen would be equipped with the right tools (and not a dumb electric bottle warmer that I love so much). I might even get a little more rest.
To read more about electricity and household technologies, see:
David E. Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology (1992)
Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technologies from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (1985)
Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (1982)
This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life.
Via NASA.gov: This illustration shows the possible surface of TRAPPIST-1f, one of the newly discovered planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. Scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes have discovered that there are seven Earth-size planets in the system. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Almost immediately after I launched a blog on my site (Hi, welcome!), NASA announced the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a star in the Aquarius constellation, approximately 40 light years away. This discovery thrills the Young Astronaut in me (I will find my nerdiest Young Astronaut picture and upload it just for you), but it also feels like a much-needed win for science and the scientific community in our new political landscape. The star these seven planets orbit around is smaller and cooler than our sun so the temperate zone of the star is larger than the temperate zone of our solar system. Three of the seven planets are in the habitable zone, an area near enough to the star that liquid water won't freeze and far enough away from the star that it won't boil. Finding planets in the habitable zone is the first step to finding other lifeforms or in potentially colonizing other planets. The mind reels at the possibilities from this first announcement.
I'm relieved that I'm not the only one imagining far away worlds already after only learning this news - oh - about an hour and a half ago. Check out this fantastic tourism poster that NASA released with the announcement showing travel to the Trappist-1 planets: "Voted best 'HAB-zone' vacation." You're so dreamy, NASA, never change.
AND ANOTHER THING! This is NASA employing artists - truly employing them as paid laborers - to communicate important and exciting scientific information to a lay audience. This is how STEM becomes STEAM in the real world. Without these wonderful, humorous, and rich images, the announcement would be harder to interpret. It would still be monumental, of course, but it may not have been as accessible to as many audiences. This is how visual literacy and scientific knowledge work seamlessly together. This is how you excite the next generation of astronomers. Ok, soapbox away for now. (For now.)
The concept of a habitable zone is really what struck me today. I think about homes and habitats a lot in my work and felt a sort of familiarity with the idea of a habitable zone around a star. This, my mind flashed, is the very bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, not just shelter, but the lowest limit to what is physiologically possible to sustain human life: liquid water, a temperate climate, the presence of oxygen. These needs seem so simple, so basic, and yet so impossible to find elsewhere. For all of the variations of shelter and culture that I study in the very limited geographic and temporal boundaries of my work in the 20th century United States, for all of the variations of shelter and culture here on Earth, for all of our long and short human history, all we really need are these few chemical compounds, these perfect building blocks that we've never seen like this elsewhere.
Astronomers have made the latest discovery based on tracking flashes of light in super-powered telescopes. While I'm envisioning scenes like the artist renderings above, these brilliant minds are probably measuring minuscule flashes of light over long periods of time. There's a lot of math involved, I'm sure of it. Next, NASA will launch the James Webb telescope in 2018 to investigate the potential for life on these planets. The telescope will be able to detect chemical compounds like water, methane, and oxygen, and will be able to measure the temperatures of the planets. This telescope is our best and only bet for information since, as of today, it would take us about 800,000 Earth years to travel to these new planets. Eight. Hundred. Thousand. The habitable zone: so simple, so impossible.
Read more about Trappist-1 and memorize all the discoveries like I already have here:
Michelle Everidge Anderson centers "home" as a place and a concept in her work to tell stories about American families.