Kathryn Schulz, who wrote the now-infamous New Yorker piece about earthquake that will devastate the Pacific Northwest, shared a list of the best facts she learned fron books in 2015. Two stuck out for me. The first is from Sarah Hrdy’s Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species and provides some necessary context for the debates over birth control and abortion:
In the era before women had any control over their fertility, child abandonment — a de-facto form of infanticide — “affected not tens of thousands, not even hundreds of thousands, but millions of babies,” according to the anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hrdy. In Florence, for instance, the average annual rate of infant abandonment between 1500 and 1843 ranged from twelve per cent to forty-three per cent. In response, societies eventually began establishing foundling hospitals, but the mortality rates at these were equally high. Two-thirds of babies left at a Florence foundling home between 1755 and 1773 died before their first birthday; in 1767, mortality rates in foundling homes in St. Petersburg and Moscow reached ninety-nine per cent. While contemporary readers may find these statistics shocking, many people at the time knew exactly what was going on. In the town of Brescia, in northern Italy, residents proposed carving a motto over the entrance to the foundling home: “Here children are killed at public expense.”
And from Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss comes the realization that London’s poor visibility was not limited to outdoors:
Having read my share of Victorian novels, I was familiar with the phenomenon of London fog, but I was surprised to learn, from Lauren Redniss’s “Thunder & Lightning,” that the combination of atmospheric conditions, factory emissions, and coal fires sometimes made the city’s air so impenetrable that visibility was reduced to just a few feet even indoors. That was bad news for theatregoers, who could not see the stage, but good news for thieves, who could not be seen. Worse, ambulances got lost, trucks accidentally drove into the Thames, and at least one airplane overshot its runway. Conditions began to improve only in 1956, with the passage of England’s Clean Air Act.