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Decisive moments. This is it.

I photograph science and technology… but not all the time.

Introducing Decisive Moments – encapsulating those other fields I pursue as a photographer; subjects and styles that may not quite fit into the Sciencelens framework.

Ode to the humble chocolate chip

It’s chocolate time again, folks! I’ve blogged about chocolate before, specifically about the very depressing fact that world chocolate consumption is exceeding production, putting us at risk of having this most sublime of treats go extinct on us.

That thought, however, was simply too depressing, so I will rather dedicate today to a celebration of the chocolate chip (invented in the 1930’s by Ruth Graves Wakefield). In case you’re wondering, today, 15 May, is Chocolate Chip Day.

Chocolate chips about to liven up some otherwise plain banana muffins.  Hmmm, can't wait for the final product! (© All Rights Reserved)
Chocolate chips about to liven up some otherwise plain banana muffins. Hmmm, can’t wait for the final product!
(© All Rights Reserved)

Now a chocolate chip is an interesting thing. Unlike a slab of chocolate, or a fancy box of chocolates, chocolate chips don’t share that level of sheer indulgent decadence. No, they’re much more subtle – usually hiding away inconspicuously in the fridge or grocery cabinet. When they do appear, however, they can stand their ground against all kinds of exotic ingredients to play a part in the most extravagant culinary creations. Forget about chocolate chip cookies (good as they can be!) – I’m talking about chocolate chip mousse pyramids, blondie-brownie pies, chocolate chip waffles, chocolate chip and mascarpone cupcakes or, wait for it… the chocolate chip martini!

But aside from these moments of mouth-bursting glory, the chocolate chip remains quiet and unassuming in its corner of the cupboard.

It is exactly this indistinct nature of the chocolate chip that makes it so great. Even when all the other chocolate in the house has been greedily consumed during late night chocolate cravings, there’s likely to still be some chocolate chips in the cupboard, ready to be whipped out and made into something special.

In a way, life is much like chocolate (where have I heard that before!?). You get your slab-of-chocolate people – striking, impressive and in your face, but often too conspicuous for their own good. Then there’s the pick-a-mix chocolate types – all dressed up and fancy, but often more sight than substance. And then there’s the chocolate chip people, the salt of the earth, the unassuming ones who come to save the day when all the other chocolates are gone.

So let’s use Chocolate Chip Day to celebrate the chocolate chip, its inventor Ruth Wakefield, and all the chocolate chip people out there!

Celebrating the invention of Vaseline

It is today, 135 years ago on 14 May 1878, that the Vaseline trademark was registered for the petroleum jelly product developed almost a decade earlier by English chemist Robert Augustus Chesebrough.

Chesebrough initially went to Titusville Pa in the USA during the petroleum boom, and became interested in a paste-like residue that clogged the pumps of the oil drillers. Although a rough and unrefined paste, local oil workers had already started using it on burns to promote healing. Chesebrough started experimenting with different ways of extracting and purifying the paste, eventually finding an effective way of manufacturing the petroleum jelly which he called ‘Vaseline’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “the name is of mixed origin, being derived from Wasser, water, and elaion [Greek in the original], oil (water-oil), and indicates the belief of the discoverer that petroleum, the mother of Vaseline, is produced by the agency of heat and pressure from the carbon of certain rocks, and the hydrogen of water.”

Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline. (© All Rights Reserved)
Moisturising, lubricating Vaseline.
(© All Rights Reserved)

He patented it on 4 June 1872. Realising the potential of the product, he began selling it through his Chesebrough Manufacturing Company. Vaseline continued to be made and sold by Chesebrough’s company for more than a century, until the company was purchased by Unilever in 1987.

It is quite amazing, when you think about the fact that Vaseline started out as an unwanted byproduct of the oil drilling process, what an incredibly useful and versatile product it turned out to be. Not only is it a great moisturiser, working wonders on dry lips, tired eyes and chapped skin (esp hands, heels and elbows), but it also makes a great exfoliating body rub, when mixed with sea salt. From a medicinal point of view, it can sooth and protect burns, grazes, cuts and sensitive shaved skin (or even new tattoos!).

For the DIY types, Vaseline is great to keep screw-in light bulbs or bottle lids from sticking, to sort out a squeaky hinge or to loosen a stiff bike chain. It can also be used to remove watermarks from wood, or lipstick stains from napkins and clothing. It’s even useful as emergency shoe-shine. Oh, and here’s one you may not have heard – when you carve up a Halloween pumpkin, you can rub Vaseline on the exposed cuts on the pumpkin to keep it from rotting or drying out!

And you may know the story of how Vaseline can be used for sex: simply apply it to the bedroom doorknob – it works great to keep the kids out. 🙂

So here’s to Robert Chesebrough and his Vaseline – lubricating the world since 1878.

Cardinal Richelieu and the creation of the table knife

According to Today in Science (a website I use quite often to find some arbitrary scientific topic for my daily blog) today, 13 May, is the day in 1637 that the table knife was created by Cardinal Richelieu of France.

Whether it actually happened on this exact day I was unable to confirm, but various sources seem to agree that it was in fact Cardinal Richelieu (Armand Jean du Plessis) who was responsible for creating the now common table knife with its rounded end. And it happened in the 1630’s, at least.

Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.  (© All Rights Reserved)
Spreading made easy, thanks to the wide-bladed, blunt-ended table knife.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The story goes that Cardinal Richelieu got irritated by the brutish behaviour of men at the dining tables of the time, stabbing their daggers (which doubled as table cutlery) into chunks of meat and other food, or into the table, for that matter, if they needed their hands free. And even worse was their despicable habit of using the sharp daggers to pick their teeth at the end of the meal. To put an end to this behaviour, he ordered his kitchen staff to file off the sharp points of all the house knifes. The idea caught on, and it wasn’t long before this new style of rounded table knife became a trendy dinner accessory in upperclass French households.

In 1669, King Louis XIV of France banned pointed knives – at the table and as weapons – to try put an end to the culture of violence of the time. This further cemented the position of the round-ended table knife as preferred form of cutlery.

Over time, the exact shape and form of the table knife changed, becoming slightly wider to make it easier to scoop food onto a fork, and to make it easier to spread butter or other spreads onto a slice of bread. (Anyone who’s ever tried spreading butter onto bread using a carving knife will know what a frustrating process it can be.)

So next time you butter a slice of fresh bread, or tuck into a soft and juicy stew, remember Cardinal Richelieu, and his clever cutlery innovation from almost 400 years ago.

Creating awareness about chronic immunological and neurological diseases

It’s 12 May, and today is International Awareness Day for Chronic Immunological and Neurological Diseases (CIND). Diseases included under the CIND moniker include Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS), Fibromyalgia (FM), Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS).

Originally known as ME/CFS Awareness Day before it was expanded to include the wider range of diseases above, the date of 12 May was chosen as it is the birthday of Florence Nightingale, who was believed to have suffered from ME/CFS.

A challenge often faced by ME/CFS sufferers is a lack of understanding among those around them. (© All Rights Reserved)
A challenge often faced by ME/CFS sufferers is a lack of understanding among those around them.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While the illnesses included under the CIND banner are all different and unique, they are all chronic diseases with many symptoms in common, including fatigue, headaches, joint & muscle pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders, sensitivity to light and sound, and memory problems.

The idea behind CIND Awareness Day is to raise the awareness profile related to the diseases mentioned above; to stress the very real and highly debilitating effect that these diseases can have on those suffering from them. The vague nature of the symptoms, the overlap between the diseases, the fact that symptoms can vary greatly from one sufferer to the next, and the fact that no clear biological, genetic, infectious or psychological mechanism exist to define the diseases, combine to make them very difficult to correctly diagnose. Symptoms also overlap with several other illnesses, including Lyme disease, diabetes, depression, lupus, hypothyroidism, chronic hepatitis and multiple sclerosis (MS). As such, diagnosis of these diseases are often done through a process of elimination of any other possible ailments.

One of the greatest challenges posed by diseases like ME/CFS and Fibromyalgia is that, due to the symptoms being so vague and difficult to pinpoint, sufferers are sometimes seen as being hypochondriac or faking it. Non-sufferers find it difficult to relate to the extent of the debilitation, expecting sufferers to just ‘snap out of it’. If the CIND Awareness Day can succeed in helping to dispel this misunderstanding, it will already have achieved a huge amount.

To find out more about the day, and to get involved, have a look at Clark Ellis’ article on the ProHealth website – it gives excellent background to this Awareness Day, and lists specific activities happening in different parts of the world.

Awareness and understanding is a key part of the struggle for people suffering from ME/CFS, FM and other related diseases, so the least we can do is to help spread the word.

The science of the waltz

According to the website HistoryOrb.com, the 11th of May 1812 was the day that the waltz was first introduced into English ballrooms. Of course this date does not represent the first performance of the popular dance form known as the waltz – it originated much much earlier, around the 16th century, to be exact.

The waltz must be one of the most stylish and graceful of the classic ballroom dance styles. (© All Rights Reserved)
The waltz must be one of the most stylish and graceful of the classic ballroom dance styles.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Initially a vigorous peasant dance with wild, wide steps, the waltz became more ‘proper’ and elegant as it was introduced to higher society. The hopping action in the country waltzes became a sliding step, and the dance involved an elegant gliding rotation. Early waltzes were defined more by the gliding rotation than the 3/4 beat. Over time, however, the waltz became the dance we know and love today, based essentially on the Viennese waltzes of the late 18th century. In contemporary ballroom dancing, the fast version of the waltz is referred to as the ‘Viennese waltz’.

Being a dance based on a ‘closed’ dance position, the waltz was considered quite shocking and even immoral when it was first introduced. Hard to imagine when you consider how proper and subdued a waltz seems these days, compared to some modern dance forms – it isn’t exactly ‘dirty dancing’!

Now in case you’re wondering what the scientific significance of the waltz is, I’d have to concede I haven’t been able to find ‘the science of the waltz’. But, I did find information about a computer scientist called David Waltz, who posed some interesting theories about the increasing role that computers are playing in scientific experiments.

Waltz suggested that computers are not only useful in data collection, but may also start playing increasingly important roles in scientific evaluation and decision making. According to an article published in Science by Waltz and his colleague Bruce Buchanan, “the prospect of using automated systems as assistants holds vast promise as these assistants are becoming not only faster but much broader in their capabilities — more knowledgeable, more creative, and more self-reflective. Human-machine partnering systems that match the tasks to what each partner does best can potentially increase the rate of scientific progress dramatically, in the process revolutionizing the practice of science and changing what scientists need to know.”

Fascinating stuff, but admittedly a tenuous link to the Viennese waltz of a couple of hundred years ago. So for now, let’s just get back to the grace and style of the classic waltz – surely enough reason for celebration in itself.

Marcel Mauss and the psychology of gift-giving

Today we celebrate the birthday of Marcel Mauss (10 May 1872 – 10 Feb 1950), the French sociologist and anthropologist best known for his work on social exchange and gift-giving. His most famous book is ‘The Gift’ (1925).

Mauss had very interesting views about gifts and gift-giving that really makes you re-evaluate the whole custom of giving gifts. His main argument is that gifts are never free. History shows that gifts almost without exception give rise to reciprocal exchange, or at least the expectation thereof. So his basic research question became “What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?”.

This is a complex question with an equally complex answer, and according to Mauss it has to do with the fact that a gift engages the honour of both the giver and receiver. It becomes an almost spiritual artefact. The gift is irreversibly tied to the giver – in Mauss’ words, “the objects are never completely separated from the men who exchange them.”

The gift - a simple gesture resulting in complex interpersonal social bonds. (© All Rights Reserved)
The gift – a simple gesture resulting in complex interpersonal social bonds.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Because the gift is so tightly linked with the giver and receiver, the act of giving implies an important social bond, obligating the receiver to reciprocate with a return gift. Not acting on this obligation results in loss of honour and status, and in some cultures may even have detrimental spiritual implications – in Polynesian culture, for example, failure to reciprocate the gift-giving is said to result in a loss of one’s spiritual authority.

What is particularly fascinating in Mauss’ theories is the idea that, unlike something that changes ownership by getting bought and sold, a gift is forever bound to the giver. It never fully changes ownership – it is almost as though it is only given on loan, hence the difficulty of selling, or even giving away, something that was gifted. This also affects the need to reciprocate – by gifting something in return effectively repays the ‘gift-debt’. Now of course the returned gift is again irrevocably tied to the giver, and so a surprisingly strong social tie is created between two people who have exchanged gifts – they effectively own a piece of each other.

All this ‘baggage’ related to a gift really complicates the apparently simple act of giving a gift to someone, doesn’t it? In a way I feel Mauss’ theories over-complicate the whole gift-psychology, but when you think about it, it does really make sense. And while the responsibility to reciprocate feels like a negative concept, the idea of a strong social tie being created between gift-exchangers is quite nice, especially when you exchange gifts with loved ones. Perhaps the whole reason for exchanging gifts is to strengthen the bond between people.

So, next time you consider giving someone a gift, remember that you are entering into a significant social bond. But it’s not a bad thing – it’s exactly these social bonds that form the basis of our larger social cohesion. Gifts link you to others, weaves you into the social fabric of your community, and ties you to loved ones.

So don’t stop giving!