The Discovery of the Brain
Health and Science writer Carl Zimmer's new book is Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain-and How it Changed the World. It's about Thomas Willis, the scientist whose research on the workings of the brain during the 17th century became the basis of modern neurology. Zimmer's work appears regularly in The New York Times, National Geographic, Newsweek, Discover, Natural History, and Science. He is also a John S. Guggenheim Fellow and received the Pan-American Health Organization Award for Excellence in International Health Reporting.
Other segments from the episode on February 9, 2004
DATE February 9, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Carl Zimmer discusses his new book and how Thomas
Willis' research became the basis of modern neurology
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're going to look back to the time when scientists were just discovering the
function of the brain through very primitive experimental brain surgery. My
guest, Carl Zimmer, is the author of the new book "Soul Made Flesh: The
Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World." It focuses on the work
of Thomas Willis, one of the fathers of neurology, who began his surgical
investigations into the brain in 1662. This was a time when many scientists
were also alchemists, a time when many scientists believed that the soul was
located in the liver and the heart, a time when a scientist could be put to
death if his work challenged the teachings of the church. Thomas Willis was
part of a circle of scientists and philosophers at Oxford University. Writer
Carl Zimmer has reported on science for The New York Times, National
Geographic, Newsweek and Science.
In the mid 1600s, when Willis was beginning his research, scientists believed
that the heart was the center of thought, perception and action. Scientists
didn't yet know about the existence of nerves and didn't understand the
importance of the brain.
Mr. CARL ZIMMER (Author, "Soul Made Flesh"): The brain as we think of
it--the brain as this three pounds of flesh, the brain that we know has these
billions of neurons that are trading signals and chemicals, no one knew the
brain as being such a thing. The funny thing is that the one thing in the
head that they were struck by were these little holes in the brain. If you
were to cut off the top of someone's head and look in their head, you would
see a few kind of squiggly little recesses right at the core of the brain.
And so people started imagining that these must be very important, that they
were called ventricles, and they had this idea that, in life, they were
expanded to be these beautiful vaulted spheres and that spirits would rush
through them and these were spirits that you would actually breathe in from
the air. In a sense, you were sort of breathing in part of the world's soul
and it became the spirits that would flow through your body. And they would
go through these chambers, these ventricles, and then--on their way into the
rest of the body. But the brain itself, no one cared about.
GROSS: The book focuses on the research of Thomas Willis, who was a scientist
in the 1600s and who you consider the father--I guess people in the field
consider him the father of neurology. When he started to investigate the
brain, what was the current theory at the time of intelligence in perception?
Mr. ZIMMER: Well, you can get some interesting insights into what people
thought about the mind and intelligence and the brain and so on by looking at
contemporary sources, like Shakespeare, for example, or, if you look at the
journals of 17th century doctors, you get some interesting ideas. So
intelligence really wasn't a factor then. I mean, people didn't talk about
IQ. They didn't really even talk about idiocy vs. intelligence. It just
wasn't sort of on their radar. They saw people as being these combinations of
humors, these strange substances like black bile and yellow bile, choler,
phlegm, and when these got out of balance, they would alter a person's
temperament. So we think of personality as being this thing that is the
product of our brains and the way that our brains work and the way that the
neurons are exchanging chemicals. No one had any sort of concept like this.
So Thomas Willis was steeped in all these sorts of ideas, I mean. And so as a
young doctor, he would try to apply them. He would try to apply the ideas of
ancient doctors like Galen, for example, because that's what he had been
taught. But there were just a lot of other ideas kind of roaming around at
the time that were challenging this conventional wisdom, so that he began to
wonder, for example, `If I am treating a hysterical woman, a woman with
hysteria, is it really the case that her womb is rising up in her belly,'
which is what Galen and everyone else believed, `or is there some other
explanation that I should be looking for?'
GROSS: Thomas Willis was part alchemist and part physician. What did it mean
to be an alchemist in the 1600s?
Mr. ZIMMER: Well, alchemists were not really the sort of stereotype we have
of them today as being from the bad old days before real science got started.
They were investigating nature. They were doing experiments. They were
trying to understand what matter was made of. And there was actually a long
tradition of using alchemy for medicine, to try to figure out how to create
drugs that could transform the body in the same way the philosopher's stone is
supposed to transform lead into gold. And so this was not something that
Thomas Willis would learn in his lectures at Oxford. They were being taught
the conventional wisdom from Galen and Aristotle and the other Greeks. But on
the side he was working for a woman who was sort of a home doctor of sorts and
he was having to make these medicines based on alchemy. And so that got him
interested in the whole concept, which helped to make him think about the body
not as the four humors, whatever that means, but as sort of a place where
chemical reactions took place. And so he wanted to know what were the
chemicals that made up the body. Ultimately, his question became: What are
the chemicals that make up the brain?
GROSS: He performed a lot of surgery on corpses to remove and study the
brain. What was the state of the art of the surgical procedure to remove the
brain when he was doing his work in the 1600s?
Mr. ZIMMER: A lot of people who were doing this would do something quite
grisly. They would cut off sort of horizontal slices off the top of the head
and just look down slice by slice and see what the brain looked like.
Obviously this made a total mess of the brain and so people got a kind of
confusing picture of it. What Thomas Willis did was he would actually be able
to take the brain out whole, as one piece from the skull. Not only that but
some of the people that he worked with--Christopher Wren, for example, and
Robert Boyle--had figured out ways of preserving organs by keeping them in
alcohol and then injecting different dyes into the blood vessels to see what
the blood vessels actually led to in the body. And so he could use these sort
of techniques, along with microscopes even. He was the first person to use a
microscope to look at nerves. And so with all these methods, he was able to
look at the brain in a way no one had really looked at it before.
GROSS: What are some of the things that struck him most when he first saw a
Mr. ZIMMER: He was very impressed by it as a very elegant device. People
were starting to think of the body as a machine, but no one really thought of
the brain as a machine because it tended to look like just a lot of mush. But
with his methods, he was able to appreciate just how intricately put together
it is, how many parts it actually has, how the blood vessels creep around to
every little nook and cranny in the brain. He called it a curious quilted
ball. And he also realized that these ventricles that had dominated our
understanding of the anatomy of the head and were supposed to be where these
spirits were that had dominated our thinking for 1,000 years or more, that
they were just empty holes, that they had nothing to do with the business of
GROSS: Well, how'd you get permission to perform this research on corpses?
Mr. ZIMMER: Well, when Thomas Willis started, the convention was just to
dissect the bodies of criminals who'd been executed. But Thomas Willis
started to change that. He would look at the diseases his patients had in
their life and then when they died, he would ask the families for permission
to dissect them, which really hadn't been done before. But Thomas Willis was
able to get the trust of people in a way that hadn't really been achieved
before and so he had this incredible supply of cadavers and he could start
looking at the brains of them. And not only that, but these were not
criminals. These were often people of high birth and so anything that he
found in the brain, anything that he said about how the soul worked, he had to
take very seriously because you couldn't just dismiss it as being some
pathology of a criminal who might have, you know, some kind of strange
aberration because they were of low birth.
GROSS: Now he also did a lot of experiments on animals, dogs for instance.
What are some of the experiments he did on the brains of dogs?
Mr. ZIMMER: One of the great ideas that Thomas Willis had was that different
parts of the brain are responsible for different functions of the body, that
you could actually look at a part of the brain and say, `This is responsible
for doing one thing. This is responsible for doing another thing over here.'
This is really where all modern neuroscience comes from, trying to parcel up
the brain and figuring out its anatomy to figure out what it does. And so he
was the first person to really talk about that but he had to prove it. One of
the things that he did was he did an experiment on a dog to show that one part
of the brain, near the base, was responsible for kind of our involuntary
functions, like the beating of our heart or the breathing of our lungs,
whereas our voluntary motions and our thoughts were going on elsewhere. So
what he did--and this is quite a grisly experiment--he would open up a dog's
skull. He would damage part of the brain near the base and then stitch the
dog up and see what happened. Well, the dog suffered a pretty horrible death.
Fortunately not all of his experiments were quite as gruesome. He was able,
for example, to show that there was this elegant network of blood vessels that
supplied the brain with blood and even if you cut off one artery going to the
head, the others could compensate. And so he did this with a dog and the dog,
he reported afterwards, would follow him around the town as he went to visit
his patients. It was perfectly happy. And this was further proof to him that
the brain was this wonderfully constructed device that had this essential
supply of blood given to it in order to work.
GROSS: My guest is Carl Zimmer, author of the new book "Soul Made Flesh: The
Discovery of the Brain-and How it Changed the World." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Carl Zimmer and he's a science
journalist whose new book is called "Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the
Brain-and How it Changed the World." The book focuses on Thomas Willis, who's
considered to be the father of neurology and he did his work in the 1600s.
What did Thomas Willis come to believe about the brain, its function, how it
Mr. ZIMMER: Thomas Willis came to believe what we all sort of take for
granted, namely that everything that we consider part of our inner life--our
emotions, our thoughts, our reasoning--all take place in the brain. And not
only that, but they take place through chemical reactions. And not only that,
but that different parts of the brain are responsible for doing different
things. And so he saw this as making us having a lot in common with other
animals. So, for example, a monkey, he was really surprised to see, had a
brain very much like a human. And from this he said, well, then monkeys must
have sort of psychological lives as it were, a lot like ours. And so you
could use the same principles to explain the human soul as you could an animal
Now he wanted to stress that this did not make him an atheist. In his
prefaces to his book, he kept saying, `I am not an atheist. Please take it
from me,' and he would dedicate his books to the Archbishop of Canterbury and
make that clear. He also believed that there was a rational soul within the
brain that would survive after death, that was immaterial; but, ironically, it
was really sort of a captive in this life. It could only see the things and
experience the things that this other soul, this material soul, brought to it,
presented to it, sort of like a king who is sort of captive in his castle.
GROSS: If before Thomas Willis, the popular theories were spirits or the
humors affected, you know, intelligence and emotion, did Willis end up
believing that there was still some role for spirits in the body?
Mr. ZIMMER: Thomas Willis kept on talking about spirits but what he was
talking about when he said spirits was something very different from what came
even a century before. In the Renaissance, people believed that there were
lots of different spirits in the body. There were vital spirits coming out of
the heart and other spirits coming out of the liver that were responsible for
your desires and your appetites and the animal spirits that were in these
ventricles. Not only that but there were souls in everything around us.
There were souls in plants and in the sky and there were spirits moving around
sort of enacting their will.
And what Thomas Willis did was he took all those ideas and made them
mechanical, made them chemical. He said, `Yes, there are spirits but all they
are are a special kind of corpuscles,' he called them. You could think of
them as molecules or atoms or some sort of information-bearing thing. And in
this way, he was really part of the scientific revolution, which was trying to
take these mystical souls out of nature.
GROSS: The soul was really the province of the church. How did the church
react to Willis' theories of the brain and its relationship to the soul?
Mr. ZIMMER: This is the kind of puzzling thing because if you look at the
facts, Thomas Willis should have gotten into a lot of trouble, because he was
opening up this new science of the brain that would undermine all of the sort
of pat explanations that the church had accepted. And the church was very
much on its guard against all this--what was called the mechanical philosophy.
They were outraged that you could try to say that a person would do something
with as much free will in the matter as a fire had a choice of burning. They
thought this was outrageous and it was a threat to the church itself. But for
some reason Thomas Willis didn't really get into much trouble and part of that
is that he was really a hero to the church. He had been a soldier in the
English civil war, fighting for the king, fighting for the Church of England.
After the king was executed and Oliver Cromwell took over, Thomas Willis
hosted a secret church in his own home where people from the Church of England
could actually worship and he kept that going for years until Charles II came
back and the restoration occurred. And in the restoration, he was considered,
you know, the most devout doctor in England. And yet, here he was promoting
what we see today as some really quite revolutionary ideas.
GROSS: How did his research and his theories affect the religious teachings
of his time?
Mr. ZIMMER: Well, what happened was that the church started backing away
from insanity, in a sense that it was no longer considered a matter for the
church. The church would often accuse, for example, Quakers of being fanatics
of--you know, just being nuts. And, you know, they would--the Quakers at the
time were doing some pretty radical things like walking around naked in the
streets to jolt people out of their complacency. But after Thomas Willis
started sort of explaining human nature according to the brain, the church
started to say, `Well, these people just must have, you know, disordered
brains and we just need to send them to the doctors.' And so this was a real
fundamental shift that occurred. And, you know, remarkably the church that
had been so disturbed by the implications of the scientific revolution,
through Thomas Willis ended up embracing one of the central parts of it.
GROSS: Were there things that the church had seen as demonic possession that
it started to see as a disorder of the brain?
Mr. ZIMMER: Yes, absolutely. Epilepsy, for example, had for centuries been
considered a sign of possession. Nightmares had as well. How else do you
explain how someone could close their eyes and feel that they were being
transported to some distant place or how could you explain how someone would
start raving and screaming and foaming at the mouth? It must be demons.
Thomas Willis looked very carefully at these explanations and he said, `I
don't think so.' And he used his new kind of neurology to say epilepsy is
really just a chemical imbalance. It's the explosions that normally happen in
a very orderly way in the body getting out of control so that you're having
sort of a kind of wildfire of the mind as it were. And so the church would
back away from these sort of disorders, saying, `OK, well, these, too, are the
province of medicine. They're not for the church anymore.'
GROSS: When did Willis' ideas about the brain start to catch on?
Mr. ZIMMER: Surprisingly, they caught on really fast. A lot of scientists
have had to suffer for years in obscurity before they really grabbed the
attention of their society but Thomas Willis' first book about the brain--it's
called "The Anatomy of the Brain"--came out in 1664. And it was an immediate
hit. It went through four editions in the first year. I think it went
through about 20 editions all told. It was being published well into the
1800s. And his illustrations, which were done by Christopher Wren, you could
still see in textbooks in the 20th century. So these ideas took hold
immediately, not just his ideas about how the brain was structured or how the
brain worked but his ideas about the soul and about diseases of the soul and
of the brain. It's probably a sign of how ready society was for an
explanation like his. The scientific revolution had been going on for quite a
while at that point and people were starting to be able to accept these ideas.
And so he just came along at the right time and was smart enough to put all
these things together.
GROSS: When Thomas Willis died, did he donate his own brain to science?
Mr. ZIMMER: There's no record of that.
GROSS: I just really wonder if he would have wanted his skull cut open and
investigated after death.
Mr. ZIMMER: I'm sure he would have been happy for someone to look at his
GROSS: He probably would have wanted to do it himself.
Mr. ZIMMER: He would have loved to have known what it looked like.
Well, thank you. Thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. ZIMMER: Oh, well, thanks. It's been a real pleasure.
GROSS: Carl Zimmer is the author of the new book "Soul Made Flesh: The
Discovery of the Brain-and How it Changed the World." I'm Terry Gross and
this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: They're colorful, furry and they come in patterns of stripes and
circles. Coming up, the hidden beauty of the moth. We talk with photographer
Joseph Scheer and lepidopterist Marc Epstein. Also, Ken Tucker reviews the
reissue of Harry Nilsson's album "Nilsson Schmilsson," first released in 1971.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Joseph Scheer and Marc Epstein discuss their book "Night
Vision: The Secret Designs of Moths"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Like a lot of other people, I think of butterflies as beautiful and moths as
boring pests. Boy, was I surprised when I opened the new book "Night Vision:
The Secret Designs of Moths." The book features spectacular, enlarged images
of moths, which reveal that moths have richly colored, furry, elaborately
patterned wings. These enlarged, detailed images are amazingly beautiful but
also kind of creepy. They were created by Joseph Scheer by placing the moths
on a high-resolution scanner. Scheer co-directs the Electronic Institute of
Art at Alfred University in New York. A little later we'll meet his
co-author, Marc Epstein, a scientist who studies moths and butterflies.
Joseph, there's an illustration of a certain moth--it's illustration number
27--that I'd like you to describe. Would you describe it for us?
Mr. JOSEPH SCHEER (Co-author, "Night Vision: The Secret Designs of Moths"):
That would be Hypoprepia fucosa and that's a--common name is lichen moth or
painted lichen moth. It's in real life about, oh, a little over a half an
inch across. And it has these wonderful pinks and reds and yellows and
charcoal grays, dark borders on it on the underwing, and the top wing is kind
of striped. It being so small in real life and then being able to blow it up
larger, you get to see this incredible amount of detail of each little scale.
And next to it is, you know, a full-page enlargement, which is the size of the
book, which is about 14-by-12 inches almost. And it then shows you what each
little scale looks like.
GROSS: Well, you know, I have to say that among the things that amaze me
about this photograph is you have these beautiful, multicolored wings, and at
the end of the wings is a charcoal-color fringe. Around the moth's head, if I
may use that word, there's almost like hair, like a little tuft of hair. The
antenna has this--what would you call those spiky things sticking out of the
Mr. MARC EPSTEIN (Lepidopterist; Research Associate, at the Smithsonian
Institution; Co-author, "Night Vision: The Secret Designs of Moths"): Well,
Mr. SCHEER: Well, pectins or combs or...
GROSS: OK. And then you have a blowup just of the wing on the opposing page,
and the wing is just like furry. It's kind of magnificent. Joseph Scheer,
would you explain the technical process that you used to get this
high-resolution, extra-large blowup of a half-inch-sized moth?
Mr. SCHEER: What I used is a very high-resolution, flat-bed scanner. It's
similar to what most people have in their homes and offices these days, but it
is capable of producing an image with, oh, up to 14,000 pixels per inch. And
it can do it just with stunning and exquisite detail. I actually live in a
very remote part of western New York, and I go out at night through summer and
I collect the moths. I had to develop a technique of getting them very flat,
and I prepared them in a way very different than a lepidopterist does for
collections because there can't be a pin in them. So I had a device, a
technique, for spreading them and drying before I put them on the scanner.
And then each scan takes about, oh, up to an hour, depending on the resolution
and how I'm scanning it. And I then work on it a little bit in the computer,
make sure everything's correct, color-corrected and that. And then they
actually end up being large-format iris prints that are three feet by four
GROSS: How did you start photographing insects through this high-resolution
Mr. SCHEER: Yeah. Well, I don't see it as photographer, and I don't see
myself as a photographer. I come from a print-making background, which had a
lot of drawing and painting involved. And so I'm not looking through a lens
or working with any photo chemicals. But I think of the point that we live in
today, where, you know, technology has changed all our lives, you know, the
borders between mediums have all broken down. So it looks somewhat
photographic, it looks somewhat like a painting, it looks like a watercolor.
It has all these different qualities in the work.
GROSS: Well, so when you got your high-resolution scanner at the Institute
for Electronic Arts, what made you think, `Oh, I think I'll try putting
insects in here and see how they look when they're blown up'?
Mr. SCHEER: It actually started quite as a whim. It was donated to us by the
Creo Corporation, and they brought it in and sent in a technician to set it up
because it's a very complicated piece of equipment. He calibrated it and
said, `OK, it's ready to scan.' And in the room there was a plant, and it had
a tiny, little gnat flying around it, and I thought, `Well, if this thing is
really that powerful'--I just grabbed the gnat as a joke, you know, not being
serious at all and threw it under the scanner and scanned it. And when the
image came up, I was just, like, floored because it was so incredibly
beautiful. I saw this little, tiny insect that I would normally just dismiss
that had these beautiful, multifaceted compound eyes. It had hairs all over
its body. Its wings were pearlescent, metallic blues and greens. And I
thought, `Oh, my God, you know, that looks, you know, so incredible. What do
other insects look like?'
GROSS: And what was so compelling about moths that led you to want to do a
whole study of them and then a whole book?
Mr. SCHEER: Well, I started then just doing all sorts of insects. And, you
know, being an artist and not ever studying lepidoptory or entomology before,
I just started learning how to collect insects--you know, being self-taught of
how to do it and getting some books and, you know, a butterfly net and all
that and running around, you know, looking totally ridiculous but capturing
all these things. And I thought--well, I wanted to make an installation that
could fill, like, a gallery space with maybe 50, 60 of these very large
prints. I thought it'd be a very powerful impact. And so I, you know,
started collecting everything. And I thought by the end of the summer, I
could get maybe 200 species if I was really, really lucky and worked really
hard. But by the end of two weeks I had over 500 species, and it meant--then
I realized just how many, you know, thousands and thousands of species of
insects are, you know, out there and around us, you know, every day.
And I teach in an art building that has lots of big windows, and at night
moths would always fly in. And I would find them, you know, during the week
in the window sills or on the floor, and I would pick them up, and I thought
they were really amazing. And after learning how, you know, to set up an
actual light station to attract them, I enlisted the help of my friend, Mark
Klingensmith because he had a hundred-acre property just outside of little
village of Alfred, where Alfred University exists. And we set up these
lights, and faithfully for the last, you know, five years, almost every night
in the summer, when the weather was well, we'd go out there and see what
species fly in. And I guess to date we have well over a thousand different
species that I've collected and scanned in and trying to identify. And that's
why, at that point, I started to enlist the help of Marc Epstein, who was at
the Smithsonian at the time, to--`How do you go about identifying these
GROSS: Well, let me introduce Marc Epstein, who's a lepidopterist, who is,
among other things, a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington, DC. And a lepidopterist is an expert in butterflies and moths.
Marc Epstein, are you astonished by these blown-up, high-resolution images of
moths, or did you already know how beautiful moths could be?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Yes, I did. I had an unfair advantage and one that, actually,
many lepidopterists have, and that is that we look at them under microscopes.
So a lot of the detail and the softness and the things that Joseph has been
talking about are more apparent, and that's part of what engaged me in getting
involved in this project--is that it was a really great way to sort of show
the world what we already see. And even Joseph's description of the little
fungus gnat beginning of the program is very typical of a lot of insects; that
once you look at them under magnification, you see a beauty that is not
always readily obvious.
GROSS: Well, Marc Epstein, why don't we see these magnificent colors of the
moth? I can understand why we don't see the details in the antenna and the
hair and fur on the moth. But the colors--how come we don't see all these
bright colors when we see most of these little moths?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Actually I think it's just because we just don't look at them
because they are so little. And, of course, Joseph is selecting out the
prettier ones, but I guess if the public spent time, like the lepidopterists
do, you know, putting a sheet out at night illuminated with light, ultraviolet
or mercury vapor, you would see the colors. It's just that, you know, this
draws the attention that, you know, normally people don't go and do that.
GROSS: Why do moths mostly fly at night, and why are they drawn to the light?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Generally, what we are all taught, though it's still not very
well understood, is that the moths, especially the male moths, are navigating
and using a distant light source, which in nature would have been the moon, to
basically sort of, you know, go on a particular course. And then they
encounter a plume of pheromones, which are the chemical attractant that the
female moth is broadcasting out into the air. So the moths, in a sense, are
kind of zigzagging around, using the moon as sort of a compass, and
encountering a pheromone, and then that guides them into the female. And, of
course, you know, being nocturnal, these type of moths, flying at the
nighttime, need, you know, more of a chemical cue because visually it would be
impossible to detect the female moths.
GROSS: So when we put on a porch light and all the moths from the community
gather around, are we confusing them?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Yes. Yes, we are. Yes. And that's part of why mercury vapor
lights have been controversial, because they really pull in a--not for the
collecting purpose but for the purpose of, you know, illuminating our cities,
that a lot of moths get basically fried by them, get attracted into them. And
it's often given as one of the reasons why there's sort of a decline in the
numbers of moths from what we once used to see.
GROSS: My guests are Joseph Scheer and Marc Epstein, authors of the new book,
"Night Vision: The Secret Designs of Moths." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Joseph Scheer and Marc Epstein, two of the authors of the
new book "Night Vision: The Secret Designs of Moths." It features Scheer's
enlarged images of moths that he created with a high-resolution scanner.
Epstein contributes scientific commentary about moths. He's a lepidopterist.
Now that you know how beautiful moths are when you can see them enlarged, can
you see any of these beauty without enlarging them, if you're just looking at
your porch light and there's a bunch of moths flying around? Can you see the
colors? Can you see anything so attractive and compelling to you when the
image is blown up?
Mr. SCHEER: Well, sometimes actually the strange postures that live moths
have do obscure some of these things. They might roll their wings in such a
way that--or the front wing might cover, you know, a bright-red hind wing,
which is a device that's often used to scare off birds. So sometimes the
moths actually do things as living creature that look very different from the
way they're portrayed here in the book.
GROSS: So they're hiding their own beauty.
Mr. SCHEER: Yes, and sometimes that's for different reasons. Like I say,
that could be used as a defense, you know, to, really, look like a piece of
wood or, you know, just not stand out. Also, it's interesting, sometimes what
we consider to be really beautiful, when we think about it in the context,
might actually be a device to be hidden. For example, I work on some moths
that the males are sort of clear-wing and sort of drab, and the females have a
bright-green stripe on their wings. And normally butterflies and moths, like
birds, you tend to find the males are more attractive, but in this case,
really, the females, to our eye, are prettier. Yet it's that green stripe on
the female that actually make them more hidden and more protected. So a lot
of times it takes sort of perspective to thinking about kind of what world the
moth lives in to kind of almost readjust what our aesthetic is of them.
GROSS: Is it the green camouflage?
Mr. SCHEER: Yes.
GROSS: Marc Epstein, when you look at the wings of the moth blown up in
high-resolution detail, you can see this fur--Is that the right word?--on the
Mr. EPSTEIN: Actually it's what we call scales, which is essentially what the
name lepidoptera means. Lepid is `scale' in Latin, and optera is `wing,' so
scale-winged is what we're seeing. And a lot of times these scales, which is
a wonderful thing about this book--you can see the variation. You know, some
are very hairlike--that's what gives that wooly appearance--whereas others are
more flattened. We tend to think of butterflies as having more of the
flattened-type scales, which give them a little crisper kind of look than kind
of these wooly looking moths.
GROSS: And is it the scales that we're seeing when we see the kind of, like,
white dust that moths sometimes leave?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: What's the function of the scales on the moths' wings?
Mr. EPSTEIN: Actually one theory is that it's a very good device for if they
were to get caught into a spider's web, to be able to free themselves.
They're also somewhat repellant to water, so, you know, it's a way to avoid
getting inundated with water in nature. Also, it's a defensive--well, just
like with the spider web in general, anything that allows them to escape in
some way, you know, by getting brushed off, sort of the Teflon effect, you
know, to kind of free themselves, it's a useful device. But then probably
most important is that it's a way that they can recognize each other with mate
recognition in close range. Even moths, which, you know, are basically
relying less on vision, still, are seeing, you know, ultraviolet and certain
reflections off the scales, and how they're arranged is one of the ways of
GROSS: It's only through blowing up the images of these moths through new,
high-tech equipment, this high-resolution scanner, that you're able to see the
color, the texture and the beauty of these moths. Does this make you think
that there's a whole world that's invisible to you that's too small to see and
it's a world of, like, mystery and beauty, Joseph?
Mr. SCHEER: Well, it's so funny because, like, I've started to look at things
closer and closer. And I have friends who laugh at me because I'm always,
like, hunched over looking at things and looking at the minutia things, like
how structures come together. So it's a whole world of fascination now that I
have like looking, you know, at the micro and the nano, how beautiful it can
GROSS: Beautiful but maybe creepy sometimes, too?
Mr. SCHEER: Well, you know, there is that kind of like--when I first started
doing it, like this wonderful, kind of horrific beauty. There's like the tent
caterpillar moth. It's a total furball. And the large prints I have, when
you first go up to it, you kind of gasp because it looks like a teddy bear,
but yet it also has a kind of visceral thing that you could almost feel it in
your mouth. They become so creepy because it's, like, so textury and hairy.
So it draws you in, and it kind of repulses you a little bit at the same time,
some of, you know, the images. And to me that's really interesting. How can
something have that power? And then...
GROSS: And do you use mothballs for your clothes in the winter?
Mr. SCHEER: Actually I don't. You know, I hate the way those things smell.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SCHEER: You know, actually they put those in the Smithsonian. All the
collections all smell like that because they have the mothballs in with the
moths, you know. So, you know, it has that smell. And I don't know how...
Mr. EPSTEIN: We are doing away with them, though.
GROSS: Why do you have the mothballs in with the moths?
Mr. EPSTEIN: That actually protects the moths from other insects that get in,
like carpet beetles.
Mr. EPSTEIN: However, we are actually phasing out the use of naphthalen or
mothballs and are freezing our collections as a way to--because mothballs
really aren't, you know, that great for humans.
GROSS: Well, thank you both so much for talking with us.
Mr. SCHEER: Well, thank you, Terry.
Mr. EPSTEIN: Yeah. It's been a pleasure.
Mr. SCHEER: Yeah, it was great.
GROSS: Joseph Scheer co-directs the Institute of Electronic Art at Alfred
University in New York. Marc Epstein is a lepidopterist, who now works with
the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Their new book is called
"Night Vision: The Secret Designs of Moths."
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. MARLENE DIETRICH: (Singing) Men cluster to me like moths around a
flame. And if their wings burn, I know I'm not to blame. Falling in love
again, never wanted to. What am I to do? I can't help it.
GROSS: Marlene Dietrich recorded in 1939.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a reissue of the 1971 album "Nilsson Schmilsson"
by Harry Nilsson. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Reissue of Harry Nilsson's "Nilsson Schmilsson"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Harry Nilsson's 1971 album "Nilsson Schmilsson" has just been reissued.
Nilsson, an American singer-songwriter, with a reputation for reclusiveness
and a gift for catchy pop melodies, was cited by The Beatles as one of their
favorite performers. He collaborated with John Lennon on the 1974 album
"Pussy Cats." Rock critic Ken Tucker says "Nilsson Schmilsson" holds up as a
precursor to today's pop and for its unmatched inventiveness.
(Soundbite of "Got To Get Up")
Mr. HARRY NILSSON: (Singing) Got to get up, got to get out, got to get home
before the morning comes. What about...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
The cover of "Nilsson Schmilsson" is a fuzzy, black-and-white snapshot of
Harry Nilsson in his bathrobe, sleepy looking, cradling a hash pipe in his
hand. He commenced this album with "Got To Get Up," a bit of self-prodding
that was both typically jaunty in its tunefulness and wry in its lyric. It
was Nilsson's low-key way of telling his cult following that he was rousing
himself for something bigger than usual. It was his first time working with
producer Richard Parry, who made unusually daring, commercially successful
albums with everyone from Barbra Streisand to the ukulele-strumming Tiny Tim.
Together Nilsson and Parry went for a varied sound. It included lushly
orchestrated songs that rendered Nilsson's thin but powerful voice poignant.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. NILSSON: (Singing) Some nights I go to sleep without you. The river's
far too deep without you. I can't make it alone. I need you by my side.
TUCKER: One of Nilsson's charms was that he wrote about ordinary things:
tooling around in your car, appreciating the sight of a moonbeam. It's not
hard to hear what The Beatles liked about him. He could move from sunniness
to absurdity to dark melancholy while always experimenting with the outer
edges of pop song craft.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. NILSSON: (Singing) Early in the morning, I can't do right. Had a little
fight with my baby last night. And it's early in the morning. Don't you know
it's early in the morning. Early in the morning, I ain't got nothing--no,
nothing but blues.
TUCKER: Nilsson's career was full of odd twists and contradictions. The man
who got kicked out of an LA nightclub with John Lennon for wearing tampons
taped to their heads also wrote the delicate "Children's Music Song Cycle"(ph)
that became the cartoon called "The Point." A singer-songwriter valued for
his eccentric originality, his two biggest hit were versions of other people's
songs: Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking," used as the theme for the 1969
movie "Midnight Cowboy," and his only number-one hit single was a song by the
(Soundbite of song)
BADFINGER: (Singing) No, I can't forget this evening or your face as you
were leaving, but I guess that's just the way the story goes. You always
smile, but in your eyes your sorrow shows. Yes, it shows. No, I can't forget
tomorrow when I think of all my sorrow, and I had you there, but then I let
you go. And now it's only fair that I should let you know, what you should
know, know. Can't live if living is without you. I can't live. I can't give
any more. I can't live if living is without you. I can't give. I can't give
any more. Well, I can't forget the...
TUCKER: Harry Nilsson died in 1994 of a heart attack at age 52. It's said
that he drank and drugged a lot. This reissue was overseen with excellent
liner notes by the actor Curtis Armstrong whom you may remember as the
nebbishy Herbert on TV's "Moonlighting" in the '80s. And it includes an
alternative take of "Got To Get Up" that's more explicitly hung over.
Nilsson put out some good albums after this one, but he never showed more
range and ambition than he did on "Nilsson Schmilsson." I just read that Coke
may use a song from this album, "Coconut," in a campaign to promote its new
Diet Coke with Lime. Only thing is they may not use Nilsson's original
version--story of the guy's life.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
the reissue of "Nilsson Schmilsson."
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. NILSSON: (Singing) Brother bought a coconut, he bought it for a dime.
His sister had another one, she paid it for a lime. She put the lime in the
coconut, she drank them both up. She put the lime in the coconut, she drank
them both up. She put the lime in the coconut, she...
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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