‘The Mystery of Genius’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

“Genius,” a new National Geographic miniseries on Albert Einstein starring Geoffrey Rush, tries to peel back the great physicist’s eccentric public persona and examine the human being underneath, warts and all. But even if we could discover everything about Einstein’s life and character, would that tell us anything about the nature of genius?

People have been puzzling over the concept for more than 2,000 years, as Darrin M. McMahon points out in his comprehensive history of genius, “Divine Fury.” In classical antiquity, genius wasn’t considered a talent or the result of effort but a divine spirit. The ancient Greeks believed that every individual was born with a daimon, an innate spiritual power bestowed by the gods that guided a person’s actions and ultimately decided his fate. The Romans shared this basic belief in a heavenly spirit that resides in us. Continue reading…

‘The Pleasures and Perils of the Garden’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

HR28T4 POMPEO BATONI LUCCA 1708 – 1787 ROME SUSANNA AND THE ELDERS PHOTO: ALAMY

When the British philosopher Sir Francis Bacon wrote in a 1625 essay that “God Almighty first planted a garden, and indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures,” he knew that his readers would immediately think of the Garden of Eden, the setting for humankind’s downfall in sin. So which was it, a place of simple delights or of awful temptations? Historically, it turns out, gardens have been both. Continue reading…

‘In Praise of the Humble, Sometimes Bawdy Limerick’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

It’s National Poetry Month, so let us praise the humble limerick, in spite of (or perhaps because of) its bawdy, silly rhymes. After all, it’s the only literary form to encompass the poetic genius of both St. Thomas Aquinas and Krusty the Clown from “The Simpsons,” who starts but never finishes the ditty, “There once was a man named Enis…”

Most people know the limerick’s rigid meter and rhyme scheme—the first, second and fifth lines should rhyme with each other, as should the shorter third and fourth lines. But no one really knows where the limerick began or why it’s named for a small Irish city rather than for Peru or Tobago, home to many an Old Man and Young Lady featured in said poems. Continue reading…

‘Baseball, From a Pharaoh to Hoboken, N.J.’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

Say goodbye to the winter blues. On April 2 the sport of kings is set to resume: no, not horse racing but baseball, the oldest ball game on record.

At the dawn of civilization, our ancient ancestors learned how to write, build temples, sail the seas—and play ball. It will probably come as no surprise to baseball fans that the Egyptians placed the game (or their proto-variation of it) on a par with life and sex. According to Prof. Peter Piccione at Charleston College, the term “seker-hemat,” often translated as “batting the ball,” began as a fertility ritual performed in spring festivals. It’s believed that the ball represented the head of Osiris, god of the underworld. Continue reading…

‘The Long, Long Fall of Monarchy’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A portrait of Czar Nicholas II, published in a French newspaper in 1896. PHOTO: LEEMAGE/UIG/GETTY IMAGES

A hundred years ago, on March 14, 1917, just before midnight, the ministers of Czar Nicholas II informed him that the army was on the verge of mutiny. “What do you want me to do?” the Russian emperor reportedly asked. “Abdicate,” they replied. After a few minutes’ silence he agreed to go, thus bringing down the curtain on three centuries of Romanov rule. Continue reading…

‘A Brief History of Sledding’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

The sled symbolizes the all-American way of life—with its freedom, simplicity and comfort—that Kane lost when he gained his riches. It should be no surprise that another quintessential American classic, Frank Capra’s 1946 “It’s a Wonderful Life,” also has an iconic scene of children sledding on a wintry day. Continue reading…

‘The More-Bitter-Than-Sweet History of Sugar’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

‘If sack [wine] and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked,” says the rollicking Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1.” That was a more innocent time. Nowadays, books such as Gary Taubes’s “The Case Against Sugar” have linked it to many of the world’s health crises, including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure. Continue reading…

‘Pedaling Through the Bicycle’s 200 Years’ by Amanda Foreman – The Wall Street Journal

A two-wheel device built by Baron Karl von Drais. PHOTO: DPA/ZUMA PRESS

Good things can have disastrous beginnings. The humble bicycle, which marks its 200th anniversary this year, owes its birth to the gigantic eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815. The debris launched into the atmosphere briefly cooled the globe and ruined harvests around the world.

One result was a shortage of feed for horses in Germany, where they were slaughtered in large numbers. In desperation over the loss of the animals, Baron Karl von Drais, a German aristocrat, began experimenting with the idea of human propulsion. Two years later he devised the first two-wheeled vehicle.

The baron’s device was a sort of steerable hobbyhorse on wheels that a rider pushed along with his feet. Drais called it a running machine, but the French soon renamed it the velocipede, from the Latin words for “swift” and “foot.”

Velocipedes become an international phenomenon, like roller blades two centuries later, but fell out of fashion just as quickly. It wasn’t until 1870, when James Starley invented the Penny Farthing, with its one giant wheel and another much smaller one, that people began to see the potential in bicycles. Still, as Mark Twain discovered every time that he encountered a pebble or rut, the Penny Farthing was only for the very fit or the foolhardy. He fell off so often that he quipped, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.” Continue reading…