The thought 'I hope this disintegration eventually stops' did cross my mind, but there was nothing I could do in either case. There were constant banging and ripping noises as I watched pieces of the blanket (and who knows what else) fly by my window. Then came the parachute. We had had a briefing by crewmates who had done this before, and they basically said, “You’re going to think you’re going to die, but don’t worry, you won’t.” And you know what? It felt like we were going to die. But, thanks to the briefing, Samantha Cristoforetti, my Italian crewmate, Anton Shkaplerov, my Russian crewmate and Soyuz commander, and I had a blast when the drogue chute came out. We were hooting and hollering and yelling in Russian, “Rooskiy gorkiy!” Which means “crazy roller coaster!” In the F-16 community, we would have called this phase of flight “Mr. Toad’s wild ride.” The tumbling lasted a few minutes until the main parachute finally deployed and we were stable and calm, back at one g.
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What’s rarely mentioned today about Aschoff and Wever’s famous bunker, built just a few years later, is that it contained not just one underground apartment, but two. The parallel units were almost identical, with matching beds, kitchens, and record players. But there was a very important difference: One of them was completely enclosed within a hefty capsule of cork, coiled wire, glass wool, and steel, through which no electromagnetic radiation could pass; anyone living inside was completely cut off from the Earth’s magnetic field. The aim was to show that the shielding made no difference to the volunteers’ biological clocks, and prove, once and for all, that Brown was wrong.
Between 1964 and 1970, more than 80 volunteers stayed in the two units. As Aschoff predicted, their circadian rhythms did continue. But there was a problem; the results in the two groups were not the same. In the unshielded bunker, isolated from clocks and sunlight but still exposed to magnetic fields, people’s sleep and waking patterns departed from the solar day, reaching an average period of 24.8 hours.
But when magnetic fields were also blocked, the volunteers’ circadian cycles deteriorated further. Their day length slipped even longer. There was significantly more variation between individuals. And their different rhythms were much more likely to become uncoupled. As mentioned earlier, Aschoff championed desynchronization as one of his key discoveries. Yet over those six years, it only ever occurred in the shielded bunker, cut off from the Earth’s magnetic field. Wever found that if he exposed the volunteers to a similar artificial field, all of these effects were reversed.
The full‑size wagon first appeared approximately 5,400 years ago, and it may be one of the first inventions in history to go viral. Archaeologists have discovered full‑size carts from southern Iraq to Germany within a few hundred years of each other at a time when cultural barriers were particularly impermeable. The wagon, it seems, was irresistibly useful.
When I asked David Anthony, an anthropologist and the author of The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, what explains this viral growth, he believes part of the reason may be the wagon’s sheer size: “These were probably the biggest wooden machines anyone had ever seen,” he says. They would have been loud; they would have been slow. And they were powered by teams of oxen, which were by themselves some of the largest animals in the steppe.
The invention of the wagon was the prehistoric equivalent of Sputnik; it did not go unnoticed. Because the two oldest wheels archaeologists have found vary significantly in design—one has an axle fixed to the wheel as it does on a modern train, the other spins freely on the axle like on a modern car—Anthony suggests that at least some wagon builders copied what they saw from afar without being able to inspect it closely.
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Cuteness, as the cultural theorist Sianne Ngai has best detailed, is not merely a matter of smallness, softness, the cartoonish and the infantile. All cute things invite fondling, but nothing is cuter than when it’s vulnerable, helpless, or pitiful. Sloths are dear, but sloth orphanages are dearer. Being hobbled or injured, engaged in pratfall or blunder: that’s cute. A baby dolphin is sweet. A baby dolphin that has stranded is sweeter. It needs us. It needs. The little dolphin has had a little accident. A diminutive object with an “imposed-upon aspect”—this is the sweetest thing of all. But such creaturely objects (for cute animals are objectified) can cause us to grind our teeth. Ngai writes that cuteness “might provoke ugly or aggressive feelings, as well as the expected tender or maternal ones,” inciting “desires for mastery and control as much as [a] desire to cuddle.” Cute things should be soft and twistable, because they need to be capable of withstanding the impulse to violence they arouse (think of the aggression young children sometimes display toward their toys). When cuteness, a quality of products and pictures, is turned back onto the natural world, then the impulse to squash animals—to touch, pinch, and squeal—is amplified.
Grebowicz attaches this feeling—cute aggression—to technology. The need to connect, she argues, extends in two directions: The desire to be closer to animals, and the desire to make meaningful contact with other people. A selfie with a darling animal might be one of the few remaining digital forms in which a demonstration of heightened pure emotion, and enthusiasm, is freed from irony. Miniature intensities, these pictures make a show of relinquishing power to the animal’s untroubled virtue, its goodness. The animal is artless: It can’t pose. It doesn’t know what a camera is for. That kind of authenticity is currency, online.