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Brainiac

The tiniest sand castle of all

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Images courtesy of Marcelo Coelho and Vik Muniz.

Castles occupy a curious place in our imaginations: solid and unmistakable, but also mythical and beyond reach. It’s fitting, then, that they’d also be the subject of a new series of mind-bogglingly microscopic drawings.

Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz teamed up with Marcelo Coelho of MIT’s Media Lab to etch drawings of castles into single grains of sand. Muniz created the original castle drawings using an old technique called camera lucida that projects images from right in front of you onto a canvas, where they can be traced. Then he gave those tracings to Coelho, who spent four years trying to figure out how to re-create them on a nanometer scale. Eventually he etched them into single grains of sand with a focused ion beam, or FIB, a laser-like tool that’s more commonly used to manufacture electronic circuits.

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Through a computer, Muniz took photographs of the etchings, blowing them back up to human scale. “It’s really strange because you’re basically drawing onto a canvas and you don’t quite know what it is and you can’t hold it,” Coelho told The Creator’s Project in a short documentary about the project. The final images are indeed otherworldly—the castles appear neither very large nor very small, but instead seem to exist as phantasms.

Try the sumo wrestler diet

If you were after the opposite of diet advice, you might look to sumo wrestling, whose athletes routinely weigh over 400 pounds and have perhaps the most iconic body type in the world.

Their bodies, however, are also muscular and agile—and it turns out that combination is the product of a very careful eating regime. In a recent issue of the Asia Pacific Journal of Sport and Social Science, Skidmore College anthropologist R. Kenji Tierney explains the strict daily schedule sumo wrestlers follow—which involves food that’s a lot healthier than you’d imagine, eaten in a way designed to maximize weight gain.

istockphoto

To begin with, sumo wrestlers always skip breakfast, rising early, working out, and only eating their first meal of the day around 11 a.m. By skipping breakfast, it’s said, sumo wrestlers lower their metabolic rate, and ensure that more of the food they eat ends up conserved as tissue, rather than burned for energy.

When sumo wrestlers do get down to eating, they pretty much consume just one thing: chanko, the so-called sumo stew. It’s a simple dish of broth, vegetables, and a protein (fish, pork, beef, chicken, or tofu), served over rice, and, according to numerous Web sources, often washed down by large amounts of beer. Tierney explains that sumo wrestlers eat chanko in their training houses, where they live full time under the direction of a master and his wife for the duration of their careers.

In moderation, a chanko diet would be a good way to stay lean, but that’s not how sumo wrestlers go about it. Tierney writes that sumo wrestlers consume 5,000 calories per day on average (other Web sources put it at anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000), which means bowl after bowl of rice and stew. A 2010 report on CNN said it’s not uncommon for skinny, aspiring sumo wrestlers to gorge themselves until they throw up.

The rest of a sumo wrestler’s day is designed to promote weight gain: They take long afternoon naps, rise to eat a second mammoth meal, then go to bed for the night. The routine is centuries old, but it is consistent with modern dietary thinking, if precisely reversed: If you don’t want to gain weight, you should treat breakfast like the most important meal of the day, and avoid going to bed on a full stomach.

When getting a job at Harvard was easy

A faculty position at any top university is hard to get these days, and Harvard is as hard to crack as any. Standards haven’t always been so high, however. A post earlier this month on the Massachusetts Historical Society website includes details of Henry Adams’s short-lived career on the Harvard faculty.

The post offers some background to a letter that Adams sent on June 2, 1872, to one of his students, Henry Cabot Lodge, the future Massachusetts congressman, advising Lodge about a career in the “historico-literary line” of scholarship. What’s striking to modern eyes, however, is how few qualifications Adams had as an academic himself. The Massachusetts Historical Society writes: “Although he had no graduate training in any subject, in 1870, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot offered him a new post in the history department there—an offer that included the editorship of The North American Review, then one of the most influential journals in the country, to which Adams previously had contributed articles on politics and history....Henry Adams later would refer back to his years as a teacher at Harvard as a complete failure.”

Scholars today toil for years in graduate school, and for years beyond that, just to get a crack at the kind of position Henry Adams cakewalked into 140 years ago. There are a number of reasons for the change. Academic disciplines are much more developed today, universities have become more meritocratic, and the musings of a well-educated blue blood like Adams are no longer thought to be worth all that much.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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