5 Intriguing Things: Monday, 2/24

Wild new batteries, the anachronism of parenting, the parable of the fire station, the stench of cities, and strange electronic music for babies.
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The Atlantic Cities

1. Keep an eye on ARPA-E's new RANGE program, which is funding a bunch of new battery concepts

"Let’s look at a couple projects in this portfolio using solid-state chemistries. Colorado-based Solid Power and Bettergy, located in Peekskill, New York, are trying to change the battery’s electrolyte from a traditional liquid electrolyte to a solid-state electrolyte. So instead of focusing on reducing cost and improving robustness of a liquid electrolyte they’re using new nano-particles and synthesis of solid-state materials to develop an entirely different system.

We’ve all been trained to think of a battery as two electrodes stuck in a liquid electrolyte. Think about that science class experiment you did where you stick two electrodes in a lemon or a pickle or something! But what if now the whole battery were solid-state? That’s a whole different approach with different possibilities that can help us create new learning curves or cost and performance ranges compared to traditional batteries."

+ OTOH, keep in mind the 'better battery bugaboo."

 

2. The (many) anachronisms of Downton Abbey are a probe for linguistic evolution

"'Skills' is one of the most frequent anachronisms in any historical fiction: it seems almost unheard-of until the late 1930s, but is rampant in scripts (Downton and otherwise) from the late 19th and early 20th centuries...

"'Parenting' is a quite common word today: it appeared 80,000 times in Google books in 2002 alone. But it only showed up 5 times in the entire decade of the 1920s. Basically, I think, 'parenting a child' would never have had any purchase before the heyday of the nuclear family. 'Raising a child' would be done by all sorts of extend kinship networks; for a group like the Crawleys, it literally took a village. The idea that there might be responsibilities of 'parents' as such is a product of the 1960s, as governesses and great aunts melt away and as fathers are told to do more. Parenting is a hard word to make, actually, because it's a gender-inspecific version of two very different concepts. While 'mothering' a child is somewhat synonymous with parenting, 'fathering a child' is over at conception. Many of the rare the pre-1922 20th century hits for 'parenting' in Google Books uses it to mean 'conceive,' not 'raise.'"

 

3. The parable of the fire station

"How many calls to a typical U.S. fire department are actually about fires? Less than 20%. If fire departments aren't getting calls about fires, what are they mostly getting calls about? They are getting calls about medical emergencies, traffic accidents, and, yes, cats in trees, but they are rarely being called about fires. They are, in other words, organizations that, despite their name, deal with everything but fires. 

"Why, then, are they called fire departments? Because of history. Cities used to be built out of pre-combustion materials—wood straight from the forest, for example—but they are now mostly built of post-combustion materials—steel, concrete, and other materials that have passed through flame. Fire departments were created when fighting fires was an urgent urban need, and now their name lives on, a reminder of their host cities' combustible past. 

"Everywhere you look you see fire departments. Not, literally, fire departments, but organizations, technologies, institutions and countries that, like fire departments, are long beyond their 'past due' date, or weirdly vestigial, and yet remain widespread and worryingly important."

 

4. Gallery show explores the smell of cities through time. Things have gotten better.

"'Urban Olfactory,' which runs until March 31 at SPUR, is a history lesson made entirely of smells: pine and cedar pulled from the imagined court of Louis XIV, spice-laden air over the Strait of Bosphorus in the Middle Ages, river water and hashish of modern-day Rotterdam. Those are the ones people might actually, you know, wear. There’s also the New Jersey Turnpike during a rainstorm, air pollution in San Francisco, and fresh manure in the French countryside. All these perfumes are presented in a line of lidded vitrines; visitors take a whiff of one, then go breathe into a glass of coffee beans to clear the nose...

"'One point of the exhibit is to think about how odor is a historical force … how smells in cities can motivate transformation,' says Gissen. For instance, the chaotic sights and smells of the 19th-century urban environment paved the way for the rise of 'bacterial cities,' or societies that one scholar says value 'modes of social discipline based upon ideologies of cleanliness' and a 'rational model of municipal managerialism.'"

 

5. Strange early electronic music for babies

"Little information exists about how and why Soothing Sounds for Baby was created, leaving a lot of questions unanswered.

"We do know that the three LP set, released in 1964, was Raymond Scott’s last recorded album after a strange career as a popular TV bandleader on NBC, composer, and reclusive electronic music pioneer. We also know that Soothing Sounds for Baby was a dud; it sold only a few thousand copies.

"Despite the implications of the retro schmaltz album cover it was given on its 1990s CD reissue, we also know that Scott and his collaborators, the Gisell Institute of Child Development, were serious about the album’s purpose: to scientifically create an 'indispensable aid to mother during the feeding, teething, play, sleep, and fretful periods.'

"But who approached whom? Why did the Gisell Institute, a well-respected child development research organization, think that Scott’s echoey looped electronics were the ideal form of aural infant sedative? What were their methods? In the institute’s basement, were dozens of babies in Skinner boxes subjected to Scott’s music while men in white lab coats with detached expressions and clipboards took notes?"

 
Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip
 
arc., v. (to form an electric arc) makes arced or arkedarcing or arcking; the form without k is preferred in US.
 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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