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My Favorite Monsters: the Thing Without a Name

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We've talked about several different archetypes of monster here thus far -- the zombie, which includes other mute, lumbering killing machines like Jason and Michael Myers, and the vampire, who if you take away the fangs and the literal need for blood looks a lot like Hannibal Lecter -- but none of these monsters have been too conceptually challenging. (The zombie eats your brain. The vampire drinks your blood. Boom.) By comparison, the Thing Without a Name is downright intellectual.

It's also my favorite. Unfortunately, you don't see the TWaN on celluloid very much, because by its very nature it's difficult to describe, and thus difficult to film. It resides more in the province of horror fiction, where twisted souls like Poe and HP Lovecraft perfected it. Here's the TWaN's deal, in a nutshell: usually an entity from another dimension, another reality or Hell, it's so mind-rapingly horrible that in most cases to even look upon the TWaN means you'll be spending the rest of your days in a straitjacket.

Many of Lovecraft's best stories deal with TWaNs, like his oft-imitated "At the Mountains of Madness," about a team of Antarctic explorers who find the strange ruins of an alien outpost behind a range of long-unscalable mountains. When a few of the the horrible, ululating creatures who live there emerge and chase the team, the one man who looks back at them promptly loses his mind, and is later unable (or unwilling) to describe what he saw. (If this story and its title reminds you of John Carpenter's cruddy In the Mouth of Madness, it should; it's one of many cinematic homages to Lovecraft's work and this story in particular. In it, the latest novel by a Stephen King-esque author named Sutter Cane drives people who read it insane, turning Cane's agent into an axe-wielding maniac and causing riots in the streets. Ooookay.)
mouth-of-madness-fear.jpgAbove: in the aforementioned shlockfest, Sam Neill saw something he shouldn't have. Now THAT'S crazy.

More popularly known, Stephen King's It trades on classic Lovecraftian Thing Without a Name tropes. For those of you who only remember Pennywise the Clown, don't forget that "It" was a shape-shifter -- one way to get around never showing your TWaN is to have it manifest itself in different forms "which the human mind can comprehend." Wikipedia elaborates:

"'It' apparently originated in a void containing and surrounding the Universe, a place referred to in the novel as the "Macroverse". Its real name (if indeed It has one) is unknown. Likewise, It's true form is never truly comprehended. Its final form in the physical realm is that of an enormous spider, but even this is only the closest the human mind can get to approximating It's actual physical form. Its natural form exists in a realm beyond the physical, which It calls the 'deadlights.' Coming face to face with the deadlights drives any living being instantly insane."

it-pennywise-basement.jpg

It's a little corny, maybe, but I really dig the whole it'll-drive-you-insane thing. It trades on larger issues we have as human beings in the world, and -- not to get Biblical on you or anything -- some Old Testament spookiness that I've always found compelling. When Job begs God for an explanation for the horrible suffering he's endured, God finally appears to Job -- but not as a benign old man the sky. Instead Job is confronted by an horrific, baffling whirlwind which some Biblical scholars translate to be called simply "The Unnameable," and the story ends with Job getting no answer and being kind of sorry he asked in the first place; it's made starkly clear that he'll never comprehend the true nature of the universe. Like, wow -- so God is a Thing Without a Name, too!

There are plenty of references to this kind of intense, frightening revelatory experience in religious literature -- what Thoreau calls (paraphrasing) "the light of truth that will put out your eyes." Naked reality is too much for our little minds to handle. It's a theme that's used in religious literature and horror literature alike; two sides of the same coin. Too much knowledge can destroy you -- don't bite the apple; don't fly too high or your wings will melt -- etc etc. My favorite example is the Tower of Babel story: hubristic humans try to built a tower to Heaven so that they might know the mind of God. Instead their tower is destroyed and their minds are confused; the story ends with them running around like chickens with their heads cut off, all speaking different languages. In other words, you don't have to know everything, and in fact it's better if you don't. Look back at Sodom and Gomorrah as God is destroying them and you might turn into a pillar of salt; look back at the horrible Antarctic Elder Being that's ululating behind you and you just might lose your mind.

Stephen King briefly lays out his ideas on the subject (while talking about Lovecraft) in his exegesis on horror, Danse Macabre:

The best of [these stories] make us feel the size of the universe we hang suspended in, and suggest shadowy forces that could destroy us all if they so much as grunted in their sleep. After all, what is the paltry evil of the A-bomb when compared to [Lovecraftian creatures] Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, or Yog-Sogoth, the Goat with a Thousand Young?"

On the flip side of that coin, at the end of Job, our titular hero also feels the powerful, incomprehensible hugeness of the universe, but rather than losing his mind, he loses his hubris:

"Therefore I will be quiet / Comforted that I am but dust."

In closing, let's rock out to Metallica's take on the subject with their song "The Thing That Should Not Be."

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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