15 November 2010

Birds of the Russian Plain

Here's something somewhat off-topic - bird songs ("des plaines russes") - which, I am sure, will make your office (or home) a much more agreeable space, giving it the authentic Russian plains feel (in case that was missing). You will especially appreciate that, in fact, they aren't just any bird songs but field recordings by the electrophysiologist Boris Veprintsev (1928-1990), who, we are told, was a prominent figure at the Institute of Biological Physics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and (laudably, I take it) "as a young biophysicist, ... was among those who actively supported the Hodgkin–Huxley membrane theory of excitation and defended this stand-point against the adherents of the Nasonov–Aleksandrov theory."

Now, anyone familiar with the latter subject won't be entirely surprised that Veprintsev's mind at some point wandered off towards the Russian plains, eventually launching the Phonotheka of Animal Voices in 1973 (with Nikita Khrushchev's approval secured); and, if I had the time, I'd stretch the case (considerably) and turn this post into a little historiographical (or anti-pictorial) plea concerning sound technology. I have in mind, of course, not so much the birds of the Russian plains but the famous “sound” of "nerve messages": “rat-tat-tat-tat” - according to the Herald Tribune (of 28 December 1934) (not to be confused with the Dr Dre song (1992)). Difficult to communicate, and naturally fleeting, nervous action - in combination with the modern "radio arts" - well before Veprintsev's days was a matter of "series of clicks" or "bursts of impulses", and, at times, even of sounds that were "similar to the sound of a cello": students of nervous activity, it's certainly no secret, have long availed themselves to all manner of sound technology, creatively re-using loudspeakers, amplifiers, vacuum tubes, phonographs, telephones and more - all for the sake of unveiling and displaying the secrets of nervous activity. “[A]uditory observation”, as Bryan Matthews, Cambridge's premier radio tinkerer, explained it in 1935, “to a trained ear can give almost as much qualitative information of activity in a nerve as an oscillograph record, and this qualitative analysis can be made instantly, while analysis of the record requires much time.” Indeed, some of this - the auditory dimension of the laboratory life - has been covered, or touched upon, in the work not least of historians of physiological experimentation such as Henning Schmidgen, Julia Kursell, Alix Hui and Sophia Roosth. And yet, the recent wave of sound studies notwithstanding, we still seem to be a long way from a thorough appreciation of the importance of sound and sound technology - for one, in the history of the nervous sciences. Indeed, given the preoccupation of historians of physiology (and of the whole science and art/photography genre) with the "graphic method", looking a tiny bit beyond the Mareys and their immutable mobiles and inscription devices would seem especially apropos in this case, and not only because there's a slight but definite tendency among picture-loving historians of science towards the aestheticization of their subject (the alleged "ghastly kitchen"). Though the historiography comes close to suggesting otherwise*, (electro) physiology, of course, was always something else, and more (more multi-sensory, among other things) than the production of visual traces so as to inspire modernist artists (check out, for instance, the bizarre oeuvre of the Austrian electrophysiologist Ferdinand Scheminzky (1899-1973)). There remain, accordingly, stories to be told, and especially as regards physiology in the 20th century. Be that as it may, Boris Veprintsev's bird songs admittedly might have very little to do with it. Still, they are pretty well-recorded.

* See, however, the recent articles by Andreas Mayer and by Hess and Mendelsohn.

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