“Fiction gives us empathy; it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes,” according to Neil Gaiman, an unusually prolific, imaginative and successful fiction author. He added another reason why it’s important to read fiction: “Fiction is a lie that tells us true things over and over.” I think he’s absolutely spot-on with both sentiments, having experienced how a good tale can provide enough distance from a concept to gain a deeper understanding than reading newspaper articles or other nonfiction accounts. But then, I also go along with Elvis: “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t going away.”
Some truths hardly seem credible, as demonstrated in several recent SmithsonianMagazine.com articles. “Bad Weather Makes for a Long Day” said the Earth’s rotation rate can be measured to 10 millionths of a second, and its “rotational rate depends on the distribution of mass across its surface. This includes the roiling aggregation of gases that comprise the atmosphere, the solid earth itself, it’s fluid core, and the sloshing ocean … when a major earthquake shifts the planet’s mass, it can slow or speed the day by as much as a few thousandths of a second.” “Superfluid Helium Can Climb Walls” describes how cooling liquid helium a few degrees below its boiling point of negative 452 degrees Fahrenheit it will suddenly be able to do things that other fluids can’t, like dribble through molecule-thin cracks, climb up and over the side of a dish and remain motionless when its container is spun.” Stirring a normal liquid makes it spin for a bit, but the liquid’s colliding atoms gradually slows it to a stop. “But if you did that with helium at low temperature and came back a million years later it would still be moving.”
The Smithsonian’s a reputable outfit, but those claims sound a lot like the ones offered in the comic books of my youth. “204 Revolutionary Soldiers for $2.98” turned out to be two-dimensional and razor-thin plastic slivers. “Davy Crockett’s Log Cabin” was made of cardboard, as was the “Polaris Nuclear Sub — Over 7 Feet Long, Big Enough for Two Kids and Only $6.98.” That one proved barely large enough for two very small kids, and not at all nuclear. And let’s not go into the deceptive ads for Darling Pocket Monkeys ($18.95), Sea Monkey Families ($1.98) and X-Ray Specs ($1.00).
In the early days of the Space Age, many of us coveted an “Invisible Helmet,” a large tube of one-way plastic so “Nobody, but nobody, will be able to recognize you when you wear this … ‘cause when people look at your face, they’ll see only their own reflection … Your friends will rave! Join the Space Parade! Only $1.98!” All such come-ons were base hucksterism designed to squeeze small change from children, but how we craved owning them. As President Garfield said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”
So, when a nationally known firm like Kraft Foods offered a free, 19-foot “Life-Size Aerojet Training Space Ship” that “actually moves, simulates climb, glide and roll,” and included space suits for four crew members and a “real interphone system,” who could resist? Filling out an entry form and submitting a catchy name to christen the vehicle along with an empty Kraft Marshmallows bag and you were in the running. The Training Spaceship actually was built by Aerojet, and it toured the country in 1959 before being won by a St. Louis girl who donated it to her elementary school who in turn gave it to the Missouri Department of Health’s hospital. In the 1960s hospital administrators decided the space ship appeared like a ballistic missile and had it destroyed sometime before 1970. Kraft sold a bunch of marshmallows, but at least it wasn’t a scam.
Not all scams are intentional, however, as was the case with Clever Hans, a horse owned in the early 1900s by German gymnasium and mathematics teacher Wilhelm von Osten, who claimed he’d trained Hans to “add and subtract, multiply and divide, work with fractions, tell time, keep track of the calendar, differentiate musical tones and read, spell and understand German,” according to Wikipedia. Such was Clever Hans’ fame that eventually the German Board of Education established the Hans Commission to investigate Osten’s claims. The 14 member commission consisted of a veterinarian, circus manager, cavalry officer, the Berlin zoo director and some school teachers under the leadership of psychologist Oskar Pfungst.
The Hans commission determined that Osten wasn’t perpetrating a scam, but also “demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reactions of his trainer.” Apparently, Osten made unconscious movements that clued Hans when his hoof stompings reached the correct numbers. The “Clever Hans Effect,” as it was called, became known as the “ideomotor reflex,” “the process whereby a thought or mental image brings about a seemingly ‘reflexive’ or automatic muscular reaction, often of miniscule degree, and potentially outside the awareness of the subject.” Examples include autowriting, dowsing, Ouija boards and library patrons.
It’s a well known phenomenon in libraries with shelves open to public browsing. When a person is perusing the stacks with a book in their hands and spot another, more promising prospect, they often pull out the new book and put the one they were holding in its place. That why library staff must constantly “read the shelves” looking for misplaced items to return to their rightful places. Ideomotor activity isn’t to be confused with body language, which is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “The gestures, postures, and facial expressions by which a person manifests various physical, mental or emotional states and communicates nonverbally with others.”
Librarians also learn body language skills in dealing with the public, like holding their hands up palms out to mollify angry people. I provided my library staff with “verbal judo” training from police officers to learn how to use words and other communication techniques “to prevent, de-escalate or end attempted assaults.” Our libraries are calm, restorative places because the librarians, despite their popular reputation for meekness, are in real life courageous, well-trained and determined to keep their libraries safe and welcoming for all who want to use them responsibly. It’s like the poet Lord Byron put it, “‘Tis strange but true, for truth is always strange; stranger than fiction.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.