Sauna science

What a gem! Unbroken horizons, clear skies and an old sauna (Photo most likely by Magnus Ekenstierna)

What a gem! Unbroken horizons, clear skies and an old sauna (Photo most likely by Magnus Ekenstierna)

By Jonas Waldenström

Most weekends I visit the communal sauna in the little village where our summerhouse is. It follows the same routine: first I prepare the grill so it is ready to be lit when I go back, I gather some shampoo and a clean pair of boxers, get on my bicycle and off I go. It is short way, just a kilometer or so, and during the way more and more gentlemen join (most in their mid-60s), and we chat about the weather and craftsmen and other little things that have happened recently in our village. In the sauna, we all grab a beer from the fridge, take a shower and then spend an hour or so in the 80C, sweating in the heat.

For non-Scandinavians, this may seem as an absurd tradition, but for Scandinavians, and especially for Finns, this is a deep-rooted culture. However, most saunas are in people’s houses and village saunas are rare. The few that have survived stem from an older era, when people still lived in poverty in the countryside without running water and with limited electricity. ‘My sauna‘ is roughly 75 years old – the inaugurate bath was taken November 13th 1937 – and has survived many transitions in society, including WW2.

A 16th century carving of Archimedes in the bath, probably just before he exclaimed ‘eureka’!

A 16th century carving of Archimedes in the bath, probably just before he exclaimed ‘eureka’! (From Wikimendia commons)

So why write about saunas on a science blog? I could have written about eureka moments, when grand ideas were conceived or solutions to great scientific mysteries suddenly solved. Truth is, I haven’t had any great ideas resulting from these visits, and solutions have generally been of a more practical nature, as to which plumber to use for renovating a bathroom. No, the sauna is above else a social happening, with a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere. There is something fundamentally democratic when we take off our clothes. We use clothes as a part of our costume, the role we play about who we are in society. But when we peal of that costume there are more similarities than differences between people; we are simply human beings. This is the beauty of the sauna, this how great discussions starts and where strangers start to speak with each other.

Herein lies also a problem, as the sauna could be a place of exclusion for the people that are not there. It is often said that in business and politics, at least in older times, the real decisions were taken in the sauna. Thus when the board withdrew from the meeting and went to the sauna to finalize discussions the women were left out. In the choice of being with a bunch of naked beer-drinking men, most women understandably chose to stay out.

Even if physical saunas are rare in academia (well, we actually have one at my department) I think we still have many mental saunas. Being a successful white male scientist I haven’t thought too much on these issues until recent times. But there are numerous occasions when the gender sorting, and our different costumes, put boundaries between people. Thus, enjoy your sauna baths, but don’t use them as means of excluding others.

The cover of Lubben Nordstöm’s book Lort-Sverige (rough translation “Filthy Sweden”) from 1938. This book, based on a number of radio programs, investigated the hygiene standards on the Swedish countryside and was instrumental in the dawning of the modern Sweden. ( Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD license.)

The cover of Lubben Nordstöm’s book Lort-Sverige (rough translation “Filthy Sweden”) from 1938. This book, based on a number of radio programs, investigated the hygiene standards on the Swedish countryside and was instrumental in the dawning of the modern Sweden. ( Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD license.)

*******************************************************************************************************************

If you enjoyed this post, or other posts on this blog, why not follow the blog via email, Feedly or get updates via Twitter by following @DrSnygg?

Advertisements