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Kerim’s Triptych for Sunday, September 10th, 2023

Kerim’s Triptych for Sunday, September 10th, 2023
Taiwanese elephant slide by Pi Cheng Hsiu 

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Item 1: A website devoted to twitching?

A recent New Yorker piece on dreaming referred to the work of Mark Blumberg who theorizes that twitching in our sleep is how the brain learns about the body. That explains, for instance, why infants experience so much more REM sleep than adults. Interesting. But, what really got my attention was the fact that Blumberg maintains a website of videos of all kinds of animals twitching in their sleep! “The more rare and exotic the species the better.” The list includes aardvarks, jumping spiders, elephants, ferrets, and of course cats, dogs, and humans as well.

Item 2: Who was J. Robert Oppenheimer?

I still haven’t seen the Christopher Nolan film, but I really enjoyed Alex Wellerstein’s in-depth discussion of the film in the LA Review of Books. A leading expert on nuclear history, Wellerstein manages to clarify the historical record without reducing the question of accuracy to a mere cataloging of facts.

The literal or hewing-to-the-facts approach would be anticlimactic—whereas incorporating Cohen’s account allows for a complex exploration of the American reaction to Hiroshima, the Los Alamos reaction to Hiroshima, and Oppenheimer’s reaction to Hiroshima. It gives Nolan and Murphy a broader canvas to work with. Is there a greater truth being expressed, whatever the quality of the source? I am not sure. It depends on what one believes about Oppenheimer’s mental state immediately after Hiroshima, before the accounts of casualties and suffering came in, before Nagasaki, and before he was enlisted to (erroneously, it turns out) deny Japanese reports of radiation sickness.

Having watched the BBC version of Oppenheimer’s life story with my family as a kid, I grew up with a somewhat romantic notion of who Oppenheimer was. Wellerstein disabuses the reader of any such notions:

Oppenheimer was much closer to the policy process during World War II than the film depicts, including in the targeting of the atomic bombs (and not just from a technical perspective). The film’s implication of distance between Oppenheimer and the government officials involved in dropping the atomic bomb is inaccurate; they all saw eye to eye, and Oppenheimer personally endorsed the idea that the bombs ought be dropped on “urban areas” without warning. He even suggested, after the Trinity test, ways in which the bomb designs could be modified to use more of their scarce nuclear fuel, so that there would be many more bombs ready to drop on Japan (Groves rejected this suggestion for the first bombs). Many years later, well after Oppenheimer had died, Strauss told an interviewer that these scientists during World War II felt a “compulsion to use the bomb—an obsession,” and while one should be wary of the source, in this case I think he was right.

Item 3: The lost elephant slides of Taiwan

In 2018, Taiwanese photographer Pi Cheng Hsiu came across a relic from his childhood: a playground slide shaped like an elephant, its trunk unfurled obligingly to the ground. “In the past, almost every primary school in Taiwan had one,” he says, “but they’re disappearing: they don’t meet today’s [safety] standards.” Enchanted by the colourful structures, many of them imaginatively decorated by local artists, Pi set about shooting the 400 or so that remain, pinning their locations to an online map. “The ones from my old school are gone, so I wanted to make a record of the ones that are left.”

Thanks to Triptych reader Ann Altman for sharing this wonderful article with me.


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