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The company’s first products were a microcomputer system digital camera, the Cyclops, and a color graphics card called the Dazzler. From these products the company moved on to making reliable, high-quality business and scientific computers and in 1982, they introduced the C-10 Personal Computer. Cromemco systems were the first commercially marketed microcomputer certified by the U.S. Navy for use aboard ships and Ohio class submarines for data logging during tests. The United States Air Force became a major customer for their Theater Air Control System (TACS) and the Mission Support System (MSS) for F-16, F-15 and other aircraft. By 1986 more than 80 percent of the major-market television stations in the U.S. used Cromemco systems to produce news and weather graphics.
According to the user manual, “The C-10’s high-quality construction, continual self-testing, and proven design assure that it will perform faithfully year after year.”
This Cromemco C-10 microcomputer was used at Monroe High School in Monroe, MI from 1982-2008. In 1980 physics teacher Darol Straub started an after school computer class which led to the development of the school’s first formal computer curriculum. To be accepted into the course, students were required to take an aptitude entrance test. Classes were two periods per day for three years. Hardware and software topics included basic circuits to microcomputer design and building, and programming in binary code and assembly language as well as higher level languages such as BASIC, FORTRAN, PASCAL, COBOL, and “C.” The third year focused on developing advanced projects using speech recognition, numeric control, fiber optic communication, graphic design, and robotics.
Many of Straub’s students went on to college to study computer science and earned jobs with companies such as Microsoft and Intel. Two brothers who completed the curriculum opened a computer company when they graduated from high school. According to Mr. Straub, the company was still in business in 2018. The brother of the donor, also a student of Straub’s, graduated from Monroe High School in 2009 and MIT in 2013. He now works for Space X.
In 1988 the Computer Engineering Program students produced a 20 minute video “Monroe High School – Current Generation” which the school used to promote and recruit new students for the course.
Inveterate inventor and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, the man behind Google Glass, the self-driving car and recipient of Smithsonian magazine's 2012 Ingenuity Award will add yet another Smithsonian medal to his collection this week.
The German-born Thrun, 48, will receive the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal Thursday June 11, during a naturalization ceremony that welcomes 15 new citizens, recognizing his achievements in business through invention and innovation as well as commitment to education. A part time researcher at Stanford, he left Google in 2014, where he was a vice president and fellow, after creating Udacity, an online education company in 2012.
Thrun’s association with the Smithsonian includes demonstrating the robotic tour guide Minerva in the National Museum of American History in 1998 and donating course maps, helmets and equipment after his Stanford team propelled the self-driving car Stanley to cross the finish line and win the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. The car is currently on view at the National Air and Space Museum in the exhibition, "Time and Navigation."
We talked to him before his award presentation, when he was still out in Silicon Valley, multi-tasking as usual: riding an electric bike around as he did the interview. It became a kind of TED talk on wheels; we imagined a headset microphone attached to a futuristic helmet as he whizzed around corners, taking about the point of invention, amazing things on the horizon and the best digital invention ever, which happens to be celebrating its 560th anniversary in 2015.
We edited our conversation for clarity and to minimize the occasional wind gust.
This award will be given at a naturalization ceremony. When did you become a U.S. citizen?
I’m a dual citizen—U.S. and Germany. It happened about 12 years ago.
I wanted to participate in the political responsibilities of an American citizen. I wanted to vote. I wanted to be a full member of the American community. I made America my home country. It’s my identity in many ways. So the dual citizenship was a good step. Luckily I was able to retain my German citizenship, but I’m a big believer in America and its values. A big benefit of it was to have a chance to build a career and raise a family.
What drew you here to live 20 years ago?
For me, what stands out in the United States is the willingness to be able to ask any question and to break all the rules. Sometimes that’s seen negatively. But the heritage of this country, and its people, goes back to the [making of] a new country, and wanting to establish a better system. In doing so, almost everything had to be reinvented. That spirit continues to the present day, especially in Silicon Valley, and its ability to bypass old rules and find better, and often more efficient, ways to do things. That was important to me. That’s something that’s harder to do in Europe, because it’s much more conservative, and made up of much older countries, and they just don’t question.
What was Silicon Valley like when you first got there?
It was a big revelation for me. I had been an academic all my life. As academics, you tend to believe the smartest people are in academia. But I found in Silicon Valley, more than in any other place, that there’s an enormous brain trust among the Steve Jobses and Larry Pages in the world. And the perspective on how to impact an idea is much more complete than it would be at any other institution. It’s something I couldn’t get anywhere else.
Did you bring your ideas there or did you develop them when you got there?
I think what I most learned at Silicon Valley was the idea of thinking, of how to ask the right questions, how to question the right assumptions, the right authority. The more I get into a different style of thinking, a different style of understanding, the easier it becomes to look at existing things and ask the important question: Could we do that better?
For example, my current company regards the question could pay education be organized better. Better meaning not just accessible, but also a higher quality, and the answer is absolutely yes. It sometimes surprises me how few people see it the same way when it’s so obvious to me.
What keeps people from thinking about old practices in new ways?
I think we get raised in a certain way and we take a lot of things for granted. A lot of it is just tradition. Sometimes you confuse tradition with the best solution. And tradition was often the best solution for its time. But as society progresses and technology progresses, people live different lifestyles, and what might have been a great solution yesterday might not be a great solution tomorrow.
You are known for your work at Google X, heading the team that developed Google Glass and the self-driving car. Were there approaches to each of those inventions that were common?
In all of these approaches, we had a vision of making aspects of life better. So in the self driving car, they were basically to make the car safe; so it wouldn’t collide any more, killing people as a result.The Google Glass was a device that would allow me to seamlessly benefit from my visual connections while still living my full life—while everyone else is looking down on their smartphones.
With Project Iris [which used contact lenses to detect glucose deficiency], we had this vision that we could manage glucose without stabbing your finger and looking at your blood. We had a project where we tried to cure cancer, which is ongoing, that finds certain kinds of cancer very curable. In all of these things they were cases where if you could just do it people’s lives would be better.
In the end, the question wasn’t about technology. In all these situations, we needed to convince ourselves that if you could invent this, people’s lives would be better and that it was completely doable. It’s really about execution and working together. And we’re still working on it.
Do you consider your job just creating devices, or do you need to bring people around to use them as well?
I see my job as really making it great. And great means, yes, people using it. For me the user is an important element in the cycle of innovation. Edison has been quoted saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
For me, to produce something like Udacity, it takes 2,000 iterations before we get it right. And the customer feedback is really important.
In the self-driving car, we haven’t got to the point of customer feedback. All we have now is that it would be a wildly successful product if it was safe—it would be wildly unsuccessful if it was unsafe. So we’ve been pushing on the safety part. The tests we’ve been doing with people, they all say that they love the technology, because it frees them up to do something else. So I think the risk of a bad fit is lower. But I think the price is too expensive. With the team I would have pushed really hard to get the first version really great. So for me the ultimate impact does not materialize when we make the invention, it materializes when we change peoples’ lives. The thing itself is not that interesting; it has to change people’s lives. That’s the motivation for me.
You’ve seen that with these inventions?
Certainly in education, it’s been changing people’s lives. Google Glass is at a young age, and many of the projects are at an early stage and will take some time. With Google Glass, the concept we put out was the first version in a big tent. It kind of failed. I happily say that because the intended use was to wear it all day. And I blame myself, because it was my ambition to build a device that you would use all day. And the better use may be for specific activities like sports. That will cause a redesign, an iteration of sunglasses and so on. But the first iteration was a very valuable iteration, and the only way to learn this.
Of the rest, Udacity is certainly changing lives because people are getting jobs from it and have sent these raving letters—it’s kind of amazing.
What made you leave Google and go into education full-time?
I feel if you want to massively improve people’s lives, there’s nothing better you can do than education right now. Because education is the one thing that empowers people to empower themselves.
So a self-driving car saves people a couple hours a day which is a big deal. But education empowers people to build the next self-driving car, which is a bigger deal. There’s a saying, you give a man a fish and you feed him for one night, you teach a man to fish and he’s fed for the rest of his life.
The second thing about education is that it’s so utterly broken, it’s so badly mismanaged, and it’s broken in ways people don’t understand. If you look what’s happening today at Udacity, the vast majority of people we teach are people who would never have a chance at the existing education system, because it’s too exclusive, it’s too expensive, it’s too regional, and often too outdated.
There’s a huge market of people willing to undergo education if you just make it more accessible. With the public debate of how you would replace higher education, the bigger issue, if you think about it, is bringing education to everybody. If it succeeded it could literally be the most important company ever built. And that’s very exciting to me.
How is that achieved?
The methodology is very simple. It is very much the classic Silicon Valley methodology, which is to iterate: build a system that is a minimal system of what you want to do, understanding it’s the minimum system, not very good. Bring it out to the people. See how it performs. Make a list of the top 10 things that people want fixed and fix them. Some of the things might not be obvious, you don’t know always exactly what bothers people. But irrespective, if you iterate, you learn about every component of what you do, and you’re not in danger of defending something no one wants.
What is your dream for Udacity?
If I could double the world’s GDP, it would be very gratifying to me, measuring it not by the company itself but by the impact it would have. We are launching an education system that Google has undersigned, a joint education for entrepreneurship. It’s a niche to some extent, but if you bring this to the Middle East, if you bring this to Africa, if you bring this to Bangladesh, to developing countries, to China and India, I think it can have a huge impact on their ability to participate constructively in the creation of wealth and prosperity. Specifically the Middle East, at this point, suffers from the fact there is no path for young people to participate constructively, so some of those, as a result, may choose other paths, like terrorism.
What are the greatest obstacles of reaching that goal?
Where should I start? Obviously we are iterating the student experience, and in some courses we managed to get the finishing rate from about 2 percent to over 90 percent. And that was really hard work to make it really good. So think about it as a car that in the beginning drives about 10 mph, but with relentless engineering you get it to about 100 mph. That’s the product quality. The quality of the experience. The second one, honestly, is that education is such a slow growing field, so there is a trust element. Like, do you trust a new player? And to some extent education is owned by the degree-granting universities that have an efficient delivery model. So to gain the trust of our students means we’ll be placing them in jobs, showing the job records, to show how the teaching really empowers them. That will bring new students, but that’s going to take some time.
Eventually, it will take broadening the course catalog. We work with computer science and software stuff, but not everyone wants to be a software engineer.
Watch this video in the original article
Beyond education, what other innovations do you see on the horizon?
I have a team at Stanford, for example, that looks into cancer, and we have some favorable results right now. We’re pushing really hard. Effectively, it’s the following—in medicine, the dominant paradigm for diagnostics, in most cases, is you’re being bothered by something. You seek the advice of a doctor, who diagnoses you and then prescribes his treatment. That works well with diseases where there are symptoms, but for non-symptomatic diseases like pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer and certain skin cancers, often what happens with those when finally a symptom occurs, is that it’s way past your chances for healing.
In pancreatic cancer for example, it may have started so small, they didn’t see anything. And only when it grew very large and spread, it caused a secondary situation, maybe some displacement of bones or whatever and then pain is what you feel. Or your liver is falling apart and your face turns yellow, which is a common diagnosis for pancreatic cancer. So I model on diagnostic tools that could monitor you life-long, without the initiative of a doctor, so stuff you could see every day, and measure every single day. It turns out there are a lot of signals in our environment that you could measure every single day.
We know a way we could take a full heart exam every time we touch a steering wheel with both hands. It would eliminate the need for the EKG. Why don’t we measure the diameters of ankles of aging people to see if the heart has sufficient capacity to push the fluids up, which is very indicative of a certain type of congestive heart disease.
And then we can go farther. I think we’ll outsource the human brain. One vision is: can we duplicate everything one person has learned? I believe we can. I don’t see why not. If you’re able to predict what a person does, you might be able to put it in a box. If you memorize everything a person has ever seen, you wouldn’t need old memories any more. You’d remember every face, every phone number, but you could also share memories. If you like this conversation and I wanted to share this conversation with somebody else, you wouldn’t have to ask the same questions again.
These are the kind of things people fear from the future: Outsourcing the brain, or having the government or outside agency be able to tap into the brain.
The biggest invention of modern time is the book. The book is a digital medium, book text is written in a different form and replicable. What it really does is it allows us to replicate cultural information, scientific technology and information out of the human brain. Before, it was person-to-person, it was very solitary, teaching mouth to mouth; now we’re able to rapidly replicate the scale of certain information. Yes, the church was scared about this and did whatever it could to supress this education and knowledge because the church teachings were inconsistent at the time with knowledge. Look what this was. If this was the source of all innovation, all scientific discoveries of all social advances of all globalization of language and so on. Without it, further advances would not be possible.
If everything you know had to be told to you by somebody, you wouldn’t know very much. We wouldn’t know how to write, or how to read or all these things. Take it a step further. Why not go into the next step of the evolution? It’s cheaper to produce and disseminate now. We can send a written text, send a personal video. The power is unbelievable.
Let’s go a step further and link the individual experiences and make them digitally transportable. What comes out of this is incomprehensible. But it’s going to be amazing. You’re going to be able to take everyone’s personal experience and put it online.
Wow. You’re thinking big.
Well, I was going to say that’s what I’m paid for. But I’m not paid very well.
Does that matter to you?
I make enough money. I have a house and I have food and clothing. So I’m actually fine. This is not about money, this is really about changing the world.
It’s interesting. People complain about the rich and poor divide. It’s crazy, no doubt about it. But what gets me is that today, a billionaire or head of state on their smartphone has the same direct access to information as a homeless person has on a smartphone, or a person in Bangladesh or Papua New Guinea.
So the difference in actual living comfort between the rich and poor is decreasing, compared to like a thousand years ago, when rich people were able to write and communicate and poor people couldn’t get food because they didn’t have any supplies.
So we’ve not only lifted up the top, we’ve lifted up the bottom. Now we need ways to make everything free. Like transportation will be free, education would be free, or nominally free. Food is basically free today, for the most part, compared to what it used to be. So as a society we’re just going to be abandoning stuff.
We live in this era where a lot of things are available to a lot of people and that’s exciting because it means more people have a chance.
Myself, a thousand years ago, would have been born a farmer and stayed a farmer and never changed my education level. Today the sky is the limit. If you want to go into science, you can become a brilliant scientist. What does that mean in a few years, when basically everything is free, and by virtue of having your brain outsourced, all of a sudden you’re super smart, and you can use your ability to create a better potential than you use today.
On June 11 at 2:30 p.m., Thrun will be a participant in a global summit, entitled "The Internet Age: Founders to Future," with Mitchell Baker, David Farber and Vint Cerf at the National Museum of American History's Warner Bros. Theater. The panel will discuss the innovations that lead to the Internet Age and provide perspectives on the future challenges and opportunities. The event will be webcast live here and here.
There's power in place—and when it comes to space flight, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex℠ in Florida is truly the center of the universe. Since 1962, the site has been host to some of NASA's most important launches, including all human missions to space, the Hubble Space Telescope, Mars rovers and New Horizons probe, which entered the Pluto system in January 2015. The Space Launch System, which will bring astronauts to Mars, is set to launch from launch pad 39-B in the coming years.
And trips to space are just the beginning: In addition to its space flight programs, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year. From meeting astronauts to seeing historic spacecraft up close, here are 11 heart-pounding moments from the epicenter of American space travel:
1) Watch a Live Rocket Launch
The fact that a rocket weighing thousands of tons can travel from the Earth's surface into orbit is staggering in and of itself—but witnessing takeoff is unforgettable. As engines ignite in a burst of flame and sound waves rip through the air, your heart skips a beat.
Four locations at the visitor complex offer launch viewings accompanied by live commentary. From the viewing room of the four-story LC-39 Observation Gantry, watch rockets take off from the same launch pad that launched the Apollo and space shuttle missions while sizing up the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the center assembles its largest rockets. From the lawn of the NASA Causeway, enjoy an up-close view of the launch pads across Indian River, or watch from the comfort of the Apollo/Saturn V Center and main complex. Whatever the location, the anticipation is palpable as the countdown reaches 3…2…1.
2) Launch Into Orbit
While very few people have experienced the thrill of space travel, veteran astronauts say the Shuttle Launch Experience® is the next best thing. In this simulation, travel from four hours before launch to the final seconds in a matter of minutes. Following a prelaunch briefing by veteran Space Shuttle Commander and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, your seat shifts back into a vertical position to prepare for takeoff. The final countdown commences, engines rev up and suddenly you’re flying at simulated speeds of 17,500 miles per hour. Eight-and-a-half minutes later, a feeling of weightlessness settles over you. The payload bay doors open to reveal Earth—a shifting mass of vivid greens and blues, set against a starry sky only astronauts can recount.
3) Walk the Apollo 11 Gantry(Image Credit: Aaron Sheldon)
On July 16, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 left Earth to complete the first crewed mission to the moon. Four days later, Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon, proclaiming: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the Rocket Garden, relive the historic mission by walking on the very same gantry that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins used to board the Saturn V rocket. Outside of the gantry, walk among rockets that span the history of space flight. Or climb inside replicas of capsules from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras to understand the conditions experienced by America’s first astronauts.
4) Touch the Moon in the Apollo Treasures Gallery
The Apollo/Saturn V Center is a trove of items commemorating the Apollo missions. Held up by support beams and spanning a football field in length is the sister rocket to the one that transported the crew of Apollo 11 to the moon. After walking its length, stop by a replica moon buggy used to train astronauts on Earth, or peer inside a full-size model of Skylab, the precursor to the International Space Station. The Apollo/Saturn V Center is also one of the only places on Earth where you can touch a piece of the moon. As you glide your fingers over a sample of moon rock, the fact that man traveled 238,000 miles to the moon and back—a round trip almost 20 times the circumference of the Earth—sinks in.
5) Meet an Astronaut
No one tells the story of space travel quite like the people who have been there themselves. Each day in the Astronaut Encounter Theater, a featured astronaut shares his or her experiences training for and living in space, followed by a tell-all Q&A session. “If you’re bold enough to ask, I’m bold enough to answer,” says astronaut Bob Springer, who served as a mission specialist on the STS-29 Discovery and STS-38 Atlantis shuttle flights. He enjoys the Q&A sessions for the chance to inspire a new generation and share what NASA releases leave out – “the emotional part” and “stories behind stories." After the Q&A, visitors can meet and take photos with featured astronauts, who range from commanders to pilots, mission specialists and payload specialists.
6) See the Space Shuttle Atlantis® Up Close
In 2011, the space shuttle Atlantis completed its 33rd and final mission since 1985, the last of space shuttle era. The legendary orbiter, whose missions include the final servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009, traveled a total of 126 million miles and transported 146 astronauts. It is now on display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex with payload bay doors open and robotic arm extended, the way it would have appeared after undocking from the International Space Station. Sixty state-of-the-art multimedia presentations surround the orbiter, bringing to life its systems and components. Adding to the effect are the building’s orange and gold hues, which emulate the colors of re-entry, and gray floor tiling, mimicking the tiles used to protect the orbiter from heat.
7) Relive the Daring Feats of Early Space Pioneers
High-tech special effects will bring the adventure and danger of America’s earliest space missions to life in the Heroes & Legends exhibit, opening November 11. Featuring 360-degree visual presentations, a 4D multisensory theater experience and interactive exhibits, Heroes & Legends will present the stories of pioneering astronauts while exploring how Americans define heroism. Interact with the nearly 100 astronaut heroes inducted to date in the new U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame® and watch a hologram reenact Gene Cernan’s hair-raising “spacewalk from hell," during which his goggles fogged up and he struggled to reenter the Gemini 9 capsule.
8) See Footage Shot by Astronauts in 3D IMAX®
The world’s only twin IMAX® screens, each a jaw-dropping five stories tall, bring footage shot by astronauts to life in two motion pictures. Journey to Space, narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart, explores groundbreaking plans to land astronauts on Mars and introduces the team selected for the task. Interviews with commander of the final shuttle mission Chris Ferguson and Serena Aunon, an astronaut selected for future flight, emphasize how these future plans would not be possible without the contributions made by the Space Shuttle program. A Beautiful Planet, narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, casts Earth in a new light from the perspective of the International Space Station. Using Canon 4K cameras, International Space Station astronauts captured all manner of breathtaking natural phenomena, from lightning storms to volcanoes, coral reefs and even the Northern Lights. At night, they documented city lights, a gripping visualization of how humans have shaped the planet.
9) Remember Fallen Heroes of Space
Forever Remembered is a powerful tribute to the 14 astronauts who lost their lives in the STS-51L/Challenger and STS-107/Columbia space shuttle missions. As you enter the memorial, mission patches and personal items, such as Michael Anderson’s Star Trek lunch box and Rick Husband’s cowboy boots and Bible, highlight the astronauts’ passions and achievements. An adjacent gallery displays recovered sections of both orbiters: a large section of the Challenger’s left side body with the American flag intact and the framework of Columbia’s cockpit windows. Other galleries emphasize the importance of learning from the past. “The crews of Challenger and Columbia are forever a part of a story that is ongoing,” says NASA administrator Charles Bolden of the exhibit. “It is the story of humankind’s evolving journey into space, the unknown, and the outer-reaches of knowledge, discovery and possibility. It is a story of hope.”
10) Train Like an Astronaut
Astronauts spend years preparing for missions to space. The Astronaut Training Experience® is an exhilarating, hands-on, half-day program designed by veteran astronauts that walks you through how they prepare for the rigors of space flight in the months before launch. Following a mission briefing, space flight experts instruct you on how to execute a high-Earth orbit, dock and perform crucial repairs. Next, test your strength and stamina on the Micro-Gravity Wall and 1/6th Gravity Chair, or dare to enter the Multi-Axis Trainer, which rotates in multiple directions up to 360º. After receiving your mission role, enter a full-scale mock-up of a space shuttle orbiter or mission control room to conduct a mission simulation. A final graduation ceremony includes an inspiring debriefing on the future of the U.S. space program.
11) See the Farthest Reaches of the Universe in 4K Resolution
For over 25 years, the Hubble Space Telescope has orbited the Earth, affording us invaluable views of deep space, including stars, nebulas and black holes. Five grueling repair missions and dozens of hours of spacewalks have kept the telescope in service, allowing scientists to continue to answer fundamental questions of our existence: How do stars form? What are galaxies made of? What does our cosmic neighborhood look like? Now you can traverse 13.4 billion years through the eyes of the telescope in stunning 3D, 4K resolution during the “Eyes on the Universe: NASA’s Space Telescope 3D” live presentation at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The presentation also discusses what may be the next great observatory: NASA's James Webb Telescope, set to orbit the sun in 2018.
After 35 trips helping scientists traverse the blue ice fields of Antarctica, mountain guide John Schutt has seen it all.
“One time we had a tent catch on fire,” says Schutt. “The person ignored our protocols, and he filled his stove inside the tent with another stove going, because it was cold and windy out. He had to be taken out of the field with second-degree burns.”
The breach in protocol is probably understandable: The specific group Schutt works with camps each year in the Transantarctic Mountains at an elevation of about 8,000 feet. They face sub-zero temperatures even during a time of year when the sun never sets. Then there are the gale-force winds, cramped living quarters and backbreaking physical labor.
But for the scientists of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, it’s all worth it when they at last pick up a piece of an alien world that crash landed on Earth.
Led by Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the Antarctic Search for Meteorites, or ANSMET, is the unsung hero of planetary science. ANSMET has collected about 20,000 meteorites since its formation in 1976, with yearly counts that have varied from 30 to over 1,200.
Those space rocks, retrieved from the frozen wasteland around the South Pole, have been invaluable to our understanding of the solar system. Over 80 percent of the world's extraterrestrial rocks have come from Antarctica, collected by ANSMET or similar programs for a fraction of the cost it would take to send robotic space missions to bring back samples.
“ANSMET has been a great boon for scientists,” says Jim Karner, the science lead for this year’s expedition, which departs in late November. “We don’t own the samples. They’re curated by the Smithsonian and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and [are] really free to anybody in the world who wants to study them.”
Meteorites collected by ANSMET and other Antarctic field teams come from asteroids, the moon and even Mars, and they can teach us about the nature and origins of our cosmic neighborhood.
“There is a myriad of studies you can do with meteorites,” says Karner. “They tell us about the properties of our solar system and the evolution of planetary bodies. Some really old meteorites even have solid pieces of minerals that predate our solar system.”
We can also use meteorites to learn about the formation of our own world. “One thing we can do with meteorites is develop a better understanding of the Earth,” says Cari Corrigan, a geologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History who works on meteorite classification.
“If we can understand the composition and the makeup of the early solar system, we will have a much better picture of the Earth’s early composition and structure and the processes that had to take place to give us what we have now.”
We might even discover how the first life on Earth sprung from primordial chemical interactions, she notes
“Things like amino acids have been found in meteorites in the last 20 years—the starting compositions for life on Earth,” says Corrigan. “Trying to understand what we started out as, and what we started out with, will help us understand why the Earth evolved the way it did.”
Image by Christine Floss. ANSMET team members pull a Martian meteorite from the ice in Antarctica. (original image)
Image by Bingkui Maio. The ANSMET team scours the polar ice fields in snowmobiles looking for meteorites. (original image)
Image by Vincianne Debaille. ANSMET field camps are not for the faint of heart. (original image)
Meteorites can come crashing down onto any spot on the planet. But of all the spots on Earth, Antarctica is the ideal place to gather meteorite samples. For starters, large parts of the continent are composed of ice sheets devoid of indigenous surface rock. When you scour the area, virtually every rock found is a meteorite, and the thin black crust the rocks form as they endure their fiery plunge through the atmosphere makes them easy to spot against the blue-white background.
“We literally just form this large skirmish line and drive up the ice on snowmobiles and collect them by hand,” says Constantine Tsang, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder and a first-year ANSMET field team member. “People say 50 percent of ANSMET is just hauling sh-t around,” he laughs.
Geologic activity along the Transantarctic Mountains also plays a role. As the East Antarctic Ice Sheet slides down into the Ross Sea, it comes into contact with the Transantarctic Mountains, and old, deep ice is forced to the surface. That uplifts meteorites that crashed into the continent long ago, boosting the numbers than can be found during a field season.
Combine this process with ice erosion from strong winds and sublimation, and certain areas can boast incredibly high concentrations of all types of meteorites, just waiting for the scientists to come scoop them up. These meteorites might have impacted Earth less than a year beforehand or more than 10,000 years ago, offering a wide range of possible parent sources.
An area known as Miller Range is one of the most lucrative sites, with hundreds of meteorites per square mile, which is why this year marks ANSMET's ninth visit to the region.
“We’ve found every conceivable type of meteorite in the Miller Range,” says Karner. “So it’s been this great range of diversity.”
Most importantly, all that bounty is beautifully preserved in Antarctica’s frozen wasteland. Chemicals and minerals on Earth can corrupt the composition of meteorite samples, limiting their scientific value. Even water will alter the mineralogy of a meteorite. But in the deserts of Antarctica, where moisture is minimal, the meteorites are essentially cryogenically preserved.
When a field season wraps up, the yearly haul from ANSMET is shipped to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. NASA creates initial descriptions of the meteorites and sorts them into general categories. A piece chipped from each one is then sent to the Smithsonian for further classification, and twice a year the Smithsonian publishes a newsletter with a list of all the meteorites in its catalog, so scientific institutions can request samples.
Meteorite classification is rather complex, with different types categorized by chemical composition, mineralogy, the presence of certain elements and the parent body that the meteorite broke off from. But meteorites can generally be sorted into four groups: chondrites, achondrites, stony-iron and iron.
Image by Brendan McCabe. This shiny slice is from one of the first iron meteorites found in Antarctica, recovered from Derrick Peak in 1978. The lump of metal alloy is probably from the core of a large asteroid. (original image)
Image by Brendan McCabe. Found in the Cumulus Hills region of Antarctica in 2004, this slice of space rock is a pallasite, a type of meteorite that consists of large olivine crystals suspended in an iron-nickel alloy. (original image)
Image by Brendan McCabe. Found in Alan Hills in 1984, this meteorite lives in infamy as the Martian rock said to contain fossil signs of alien microbes. While that claim is in dispute, the space rock does hold minerals that can only form in the presence of liquid water, offering the first purely chemical clues that water flowed on ancient Mars. (original image)
Image by Brendan McCabe. It may come nestled in a foil wrapper, but don't try to taste it. This meteorite, found on the LaPaz Ice Field in 2002, is a rare piece of the moon. (original image)
Image by Brendan McCabe. The 2003-04 ANSMET expedition returned with this Martian meteorite, thought to be from a lava flow dating back about 1.3 billion years. (original image)
Image by Brendan McCabe. This space rock, found in Patuxent Range in 1991, is a chondrite with an unusually high number of holes (called vesicles). CAT scans and other analytical tests showed that this meteorite likely broke off its parent asteroid during a high-speed collision about 4.4 billion years ago. (original image)
Image by Brendan McCabe. This space rock, an ordinary chondrite, was the first meteorite found by the ANSMET team. It was recovered from the Alan Hills region in 1976. (original image)
Chondrites are meteorites that contain chondrules—round grains that initially formed from molten droplets during the early days of the solar system and then got incorporated into existing asteroids. These meteorites have been largely unaltered since the solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago, and they account for more than 80 percent of all our meteorite samples.
“The reason we look back at the chondrites is because we think that they are the starting material for everything else,” says Corrigan.
Achondrites are just the opposite: meteorites that do not contain chondrules: “Achondrites represent some kind of geologic process; something happened to them to either melt the chondrules or melt the whole asteroid,” says Corrigan.
Two of the rarest and most interesting types of meteorites are achondrites: lunar and Martian. Rocks from these worlds have undergone significant geologic change, and understanding that metamorphosis can tell us what each body was like over time. A Martian meteorite, for instance, provided the first purely chemical evidence that water once flowed on ancient Mars.
“The Martian meteorite Allan Hills 84001 contains carbonate minerals that require liquid water to form,” says Corrigan.
Stony-iron meteorites, which are nearly equal parts metal and silicate minerals, include perhaps the most attractive of all meteorites, the pallasites. These space rocks consist of large olivine crystals suspended in an iron-nickel alloy, creating a striking visual contrast. Studies of these stunning samples suggest that they come from large asteroids that differentiated into layers. The metallic mix is likely from the transition area between the mantle and the core.
Finally, iron meteorites are almost entirely made of a nickel-iron alloy that forms in the cores of large asteroids and other rocky cosmic objects. The parent bodies of iron meteorites had to have been destroyed in collisions for the core material to escape and begin its trajectory toward Earth.
While the meteorites collected so far have unlocked these and other cosmic mysteries, plenty more space rocks await discovery in the cosmic freezer of Antarctica, so for ANSMET, this year's field season is business as usual.
There’s no way to tell what they will find until they get out on the ice and start collecting samples, and the scientific discoveries the rocks yield will be made thousands of miles away, months or even years in the future, in laboratories that request the meteorites long after they are found.
“We have a lot,” says Tsang. “But the more we can collect, the more we can analyze and understand.”
Earlier this month, NASA quietly announced that it would "assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft." In other words, NASA could be putting humans into orbit around the Moon next year. According to the agency, the push to add astronauts to the equation came at the prompting of the White House.
NASA officials stress that the agency is merely undergoing feasibility studies, not committing to sending humans back to the Moon. “Our priority is to ensure the safe and effective execution of all our planned exploration missions with the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket,” NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier said in a statement last week. “This is an assessment and not a decision as the primary mission for EM-1 remains an uncrewed flight test.”
But the possibility of manned moonflight appears to be very real. Today, a senior administration official told PBS News Hour that President Donald Trump "will call for return of manned space exploration." Meanwhile, the private company SpaceX announced yesterday that it’s planning to send two space tourists around the Moon next year. If we do make a lunar return, how will a modern moon mission look compared to the Apollo missions of the 1970s?
The last time we traveled to the Moon, the world was very different. Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent three days on our trusty satellite, collecting moon rocks, taking pictures with a then high-tech grainy color camera, and repairing their lunar rover with old-fashioned duct tape. On December 14, they blasted off the surface of the Moon in their disposable command module and returned to become the last humans to ever leave low-Earth orbit.
As the U.S. economy began to contract from an oil crisis and recession, the spending on the Apollo program became unpalatable to politicians, and future moon landings were abandoned.
Today, we carry cameras and computers more powerful than the Apollo astronauts had in our pockets. High-tech fibers would likely allow spacesuits that are much more flexible and comfortable than the Apollo astronauts had to stumble around in. It would be easy, in other words, to imagine how different a Moonwalk would be today.
First of all, NASA’s new generation of missions will use the Orion spacecraft, first announced in 2011, which are planned to permanently replace the retired Space Shuttles. Rising from the ashes of the cancelled Constellation space program that aimed to put humans back on the Moon by 2020, Orion was designed to ultimately carry humans into deep space—but not this soon. The Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), which is scheduled to launch in September 2018, was originally meant to be an unmanned launch to test Orion and the new Space Launch.
Orion will leverage the massive advances in computing power and electronics since 1972, says space history curator Michael Neufeld of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The Apollo command module had "millions" of gauges and dials scattered throughout its interior, Neufeld says, and required miles of wires behind every instrument panel to connect each one. Now, Orion will be able to use just a few flatscreens and computers to instantly bring up nearly every necessary measurement.
More powerful technology will allow more space for crew on a craft that is smaller and lighter than the original Apollo spacecraft. That will mean more space to carry supplies and more advanced sensing and photographic equipment, says Neufeld, who previously chaired the museum’s Space History Division and is the author of The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemünde and the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era and Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War.
“Orion is significantly more capable than the capsule which carried the Apollo astronauts,” says NASA spokeswoman Kathryn Hambleton. One of the biggest improvements, she says, will be Orion’s ability to carry astronauts on longer missions—a necessity for potential future missions to Mars. With improved radiation shielding, solar panels and planned life support systems that will reclaim used water, Orion will soon be able to support four astronauts for up to three weeks.
“Orion is a highly advanced spacecraft which builds on the cumulative knowledge from all of our human spaceflight endeavors from short-term Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s to the present,” Hambleton says. It “combines and advances these technologies to enable human spaceflight missions of far greater scope, duration and complexity than previous missions, and represents the advent of a new era of space exploration.”
Image by NASA / Project Apollo Archive. Apollo 17 orbits the Moon before astronauts rendezvous with it to return to Earth (original image)
Image by NASA. Apollo 9 moments before it lands in the ocean after its 1969 mission. (original image)
Image by U.S. Navy. The crew module of the Orion spacecraft descends on parachutes into the Pacific Ocean after Orion's first test flight into space. (original image)
Image by NASA / Project Apollo Archive. Scientific equipment used in the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. (original image)
Image by NASA / Project Apollo Archive. Astronaut David Scott exits the Apollo module as it orbits Earth for a spacewalk during the 1969 mission. (original image)
Image by NASA / Project Apollo Archive. Astronauts in the 1969 Apollo 9 mission tested the lunar module that would be used to land on the Moon later that year. (original image)
Image by NASA. Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan stands by the lunar rover used to explore the Moon. Cernan was the last human to set foot on the moon 45 years ago. (original image)
Image by NASA. Engineers prepare to install the heat shield on the Orion crew module for its first test spaceflight. Orion uses an advanced version of the ablative heat shield used in the Apollo missions. (original image)
Yet while Orion takes advantage of cutting-edge innovations in space tech, its teardrop shape and basic design harken back to the Apollo command module that carried dozens of astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s.
The Apollo module was designed to look like a warhead, a shape that would maximize the amount of drag for slowing down the system in the atmosphere and preventing shockwaves from harming the astronauts. The design worked so well that NASA is returning to it, Neufeld says, referring to Orion as "a four-man Apollo."
The crew-carrying command modules will also use the same style of heat shield used by the Apollo missions to get crews safely back to Earth. These ablative heat shields will slowly burn up as the modules fall through the atmosphere, in effect making them single use, in contrast to the reusable system of resistant tiles developed for the space shuttles. (Damage to this system of tiles led to the 2003 Columbia disaster.)
Unlike the space shuttle, which astronauts flew like a plane to land back on the Earth, the Orion spacecraft will use parachutes to slow its fall and will land in the ocean. This is same basic system used in the Apollo program, though Hambleton notes that the parachute system is designed to be safer and deploy at higher altitudes to keep the craft more stable.
The other part of the equation for future missions—the Space Launch System that will carry the Orion modules out of Earth's grasp—will also feature a big difference from past missions. Unlike previous space shuttle launch systems, it won't be reusable, likely because the agency never achieved the planned cost savings from recovering and refurbishing the rockets.
In design, the SLS is "really derived from space shuttle technology," Neufeld says. But while Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin are developing new fully reusable rockets, the SLS' large booster rockets will be allowed to burn up in the atmosphere like the rockets used by NASA before the space shuttle. "In other words, everything we did in the shuttle—reusable tiles, reusable launch vehicle—all that gets thrown away," Neufeld says.
In the end, it isn’t our technological abilities but our divergent visions about what space travel should look like that will influence our next trajectory into space. Some say humans should establish a base on the Moon and gain experience in long-term settlement there before heading to Mars. Others say it's unnecessary to waste time and money on a Moon landing, when we've already been there. Still others argue that, with advances in robot technology, it’s unnecessary to risk lives for future explorations.
"There's a larger question," Neufeld says. "Is human spaceflight a good thing to be doing? Are we doing this out of national pride—or something else?"
It's your turn to Ask Smithsonian.
10. Yellowstone's Hot Springs
If you wanted to kill something, or maybe just dispose of a body, you couldn’t do much better than the conditions in Yellowstone’s hot springs. The springs are near the boiling point of water and acidic enough to dissolve nails. But some microbes thrive there, and the pigments they produce give the springs vivid, otherworldly colors.
The heat-loving bacteria Thermus aquaticus is the most famous Yellowstone microbe; it makes an enzyme that researchers use in genetics labs to make copies of DNA. Other Yellowstone microbes eat hydrogen, and a few years ago scientists there discovered an entirely new phylum of photosynthesizing bacteria.
Because there are so many hot springs and mud pots and geysers in Yellowstone, with a variety of temperatures and chemical compositions, the park hosts the greatest known diversity of archaea. Simple, single-celled organisms without nuclei, archaea are a branch of life that has been known only since the 1970s.
Many archaea thrive at hot temperatures (they are also found in volcanoes). And inside some Yellowstone archaea—just to complete the microbial ecosystem—are heat-loving viruses.
9. In Bodies Below the Freezing Point of Water
Some animals survive not only in environments below freezing, but in bodies below freezing. Spiders and insects produce antifreeze that prevent them from freezing solid. The larvae of certain Arctic flies can survive being chilled to about -76 Fahrenheit.
Many species of frogs, newts and turtles do freeze—more than 50 percent of the water in their bodies may be ice. The trick is that they carefully control where the ice forms. As the animal cools, its cells and organs squeeze out water and shrink. Only water outside of the animal’s cells freezes; the crystals may grow in between muscle fibers or around organs.
The coldest sustained body temperature in a mammal is about 27 degrees Fahrenheit, measured in Arctic ground squirrels. Their strategy is called “supercooling”—even though the fluid in their bodies is below the freezing point, the animals eliminate any material on which ice crystals could form.
8. Entirely Alone
Most ecosystems are complicated. A member of any given species has to find other species to eat and avoid those species that want to eat it. If it’s a parasite, it needs a host; if it’s a plant, it may need bacteria to help it process nitrogen or bees to pollinate its flowers.
Not so at the bottom of an almost two-mile-deep South African gold mine. There, Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator is all there is. This species of bacteria, one of the deepest ever found, lives at about 140 degrees Fahrenheit, fixes its own nitrogen, and eats sulfate—all in complete isolation.
7. The Galapagos Islands
Sure, they’re famous for inspiring Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. But the reason it’s easy (well, in retrospect) to observe evolution on these islands is that they’re almost entirely inhospitable to life. They emerged in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as the tops of still-active volcanoes. They were heat-sterilized and 600 miles from land.
Everything that lives there now flew in on the wind (most plants there have airborne seeds), rode a freak current (including Galapagos penguins, the only species of its kind to live at the equator), or floated on a raft of vegetation (like the giant tortoises). (That is, aside from the species humans have introduced more recently.) Colonization happened rarely and most species stayed where they landed, so relatively simple ecosystems grew up, with enough differences among islands to make them a showcase of evolutionary principles.
6. Acidic Mine Drainage (and Runners-Up)
California’s Iron Mountain was mined starting in the 1800s for gold, silver, copper and other minerals. The minerals originated in the roots of a volcano and were deposited with a lot of sulfide—a compound that turns to sulfuric acid in the presence of water. Mining exposed the sulfides and eventually made the tailings as acidic as battery acid and full of heavy metals such as arsenic.
But plenty of microbes live in the mine. They float on a lake of acid in a pink slick called a biofilm that is made by certain bacteria in the microbial community. Some of the archaea in the mine eat iron and make the already acidic conditions even more acidic by actively converting sulfide into sulfuric acid. The acid eats away pyrite (fool’s gold) and other minerals in the cave, adding more metals into the toxic soup.
This habitat barely edged out other harsh conditions for microbes: extreme heat or cold, intense pressure, and even radiation from a nuclear reactor. Three Mile Island was no Chernobyl, but a 1979 accident there caused the partial meltdown of a reactor and released radioactive gas into the atmosphere. It took many years to clean up the mess, mostly with robots and remotely operated cranes overseen through video cameras. Much to the clean-up crew’s surprise, the coolant water near the core was cloudy: microorganisms were thriving in it despite high levels of radioactivity.
As for pressure, the greatest that any bacteria have ever withstood is 16,000 times greater than the atmospheric pressure we experience at sea level. In experiments at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., Robert Hazen and his colleagues “subjected a strain of the familiar intestinal bacterium Escherichia coli to the ridiculous pressure of 16,000 atmospheres — a value obtained accidentally by overzealous tightening of a diamond anvil pressure cell.” Oops! But when they examined the bacteria later, a few had survived this pressure—which is greater than any pressure at any potentially life-sustaining depth (that is, any depth that is not hotter than the theoretical heat limit for life of 302 degrees Fahrenheit) on the planet.
Image by Darrell Gulin / Corbis. The coldest sustained body temperature in a mammal is about 27 degrees Fahrenheit, measured in Arctic ground squirrels. (original image)
Image by Wolfgang Kaehler / Corbis. Everything that lives on the Galapagos Islands now flew in on the wind, rode a freak current, or floated on a raft of vegetation. (original image)
Image by Frans Lanting / Corbis. In the Antarctic, emperor penguins spend months at temperatures as cold as -40 Fahrenheit. They survive by huddling together, sharing warmth and minimizing the surface area of their bodies that is exposed to the cold. (original image)
Image by Kat Wade / San Francisco Chronicle / Corbis. The Devil’s Hole pupfish, one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act, is one of the rarest animals in the world. Fewer than a hundred were counted this year, and in 2006 its population was 38. (original image)
Image by Bettmann / Corbis. After the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, the clean-up crew was surprised to find microorganisms thriving in the highly radioactive coolant water near the core. (original image)
Image by Jim Peaco / NPS. The Yellowstone hot springs are near the boiling point of water and acidic enough to dissolve nails. But some microbes thrive there, and the pigments they produce give the springs vivid, otherworldly colors. (original image)
5. Beneath a Crack in Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the lowest, hottest and driest place in the United States—not a great place to be a fish. But seven species of pupfish are hanging on, the last survivors of lakes that dried up 10,000 years ago. Now the fish are stuck in springs, salty marshes and in Devil’s Hole, an underground aquifer reachable only by a narrow fissure in the rock.
The Devil’s Hole pupfish, one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act, is one of the rarest animals in the world. Fewer than a hundred were counted this year, and in 2006 its population was 38.
4. Deep Sea Vents
Deep sea vents are the prototypical strange place for life. Complex ecosystems, first discovered in 1977, are thriving in utter darkness, under intense pressure, fueled by sulfur. The vents are found at the intersections of two oceanic plates. Unlike most earthquake and volcano zones, where two plates are coming together, vents are places where two plates are spreading apart. Water seeps into the cracked crust, picks up minerals and heat, and spews out of the vents.
At the bottom of the food chain are microbes that get their energy from chemicals in the vents, usually hydrogen sulfide. Hundreds of other species have been discovered that live only in these vents, including various tube worms, barnacles, mussels and shrimp.
3. At Very, Very Old Ages
Bacteria under stress often form spores, little shelled nuggets that contain the bacterial DNA and some cellular machinery but are dormant. The spores can survive all kinds of trauma—heat, cold, gamma radiation, ultraviolet radiation, high pressure, low pressure—for a very long time. How long? Well, there have been some spectacular claims, some of which scientists are still debating.
In 1995, scientists reported that they had isolated spores from the gut of a bee in 25-million to 40-million-year-old amber. They said they had revived the spores and grown bacteria from them.
A few years later, another team reported reviving much older spores—250 million years old—from salt crystals.
There's been a lot of debate about the claims, especially the latter one, because it's so easy to get bacterial contamination even deep in the ground.
More recently, scientists have resuscitated bacteria that have been on ice for millions of years. The bacteria were in suspended animation in the oldest ice on Earth, in a valley in Antarctica. Those a million or so years old revived relatively easily, and some of the oldest ones, which were covered in ice 8 million years ago, also showed signs of life.
2. The Coldest Places on Earth
Technically there are colder places on Earth than the Arctic and Antarctic, but you'd have to go to a physics lab to find them.
Outside of the lab, nothing is quite so miserable for a warm-blooded creature as a polar winter. In the Antarctic, emperor penguins spend months at temperatures as cold as -40 Fahrenheit, in the dark, without eating, while incubating eggs. How do they manage? They are the definition of misery loving company: they huddle together, sharing warmth and minimizing the surface area of their bodies that is exposed to the cold. They also drop their metabolic rate by about 25 percent and their core temperature by a few degrees.
At the other end of the Earth, a rare duck called a spectacled eider requires open water to feed—which is inconvenient given that most of the Arctic freezes over. Until a few years ago, scientists had no idea where these eiders spent their winters. It turns out they huddle together in cracks between plates of sea ice, diving for clams and sharing their warmth, and possibly churning up their small patch of open water enough to keep it from freezing.
1. In the Stratosphere
Yes, the stratosphere—the layer of Earth's atmosphere that starts at about six miles above the ground. Massive dust storms from the Sahara and other deserts move millions of tons of soil each year, and a shocking number and variety of microbes go along for the ride. Dale Griffin, of the U.S. Geological Survey, has collected microbes in dust at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet (more than 11 miles high).
What's up there? Bacteria, fungi, viruses—hundreds of different kinds. Disturbingly, many of the identified microbes are known human pathogens: Legionella (which causes Legionnaire's disease), Staphylococcus (which causes staph infections), and many microbes that cause lung diseases if (ahem) inhaled.
"I was surprised at the numbers of viable microorganisms that we could find in very small volumes of air when desert dust was present," says Griffin. "If you look, they are there—even in the most extreme environments."
From 3-D Printed Gills to AI Dolphin Dictionaries, These Innovations Could Make Us More Like Aquaman
Legendary under-the-sea superhero Aquaman is known for his super strength and speed, telepathic communication with animals, and ability to withstand the ocean depths then return to land with ease. In theaters now, the latest cinematic installment of the DC Universe, Aquaman, promises action-packed excitement, featuring a battle between the heir to Atlantis and his half-brother to prevent war with citizens living on land.
The ocean is Earth’s last frontier, and if Aquaman were real, there are certainly many ways in which he could help the science world. But in his absence, scientists in the real world have to get creative to achieve the feats only a fictional, conveniently-packaged half human-half Atlantean prince can.
Even then, we’ll really never be anywhere near conquering the lonely, vast ocean world—especially since so much of it is under threat. Or as Andrew David Thaler eloquently writes for the blog Southern Fried Science: “The ocean is not ours, and no matter how great our technology, we will never master it as we have mastered land, but Aquaman has.”
Super Sea-Faring Speed and Strength
The fastest speed Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps can reach is about 6 miles per hour. Compare that to some of the speedier swimmers of the sea, like dolphins, which can reach nearly 33 miles per hour, and you’re probably, understandably, unimpressed. Aquaman can allegedly swim faster than a shark, which max out at around 25 miles per hour, but other figures clock the fictional superhero at 175 miles per hour under water.The Lunocet (Turbosquid.com)
Scientists have tried to create devices to help divers swim faster; however, there’s a lot of risk to calculate. Dolphins actually avoid swimming faster because it would probably start to hurt, reports Catherine Brahic for New Scientist. Researchers have modeled a flexible carbon fiber and fiberglass fin, the Lunocet, after a dolphin tail, and swimmers can allegedly reach up to 8 miles per hour using the device, reports Julian Smith for Scientific American. Though Lunocet inventor Ted Ciamillo has said he has no interest in patenting the device, others have sought to patent similar fin-spired swimming tools.
"If you're taking ideas from nature," he told Smith at Scientific American in 2009, "how can you then go to the patent office and say these are mine?"
Surviving the Depths
Aquaman might be able to go right from land to water, dive down deep, shoot back up like a torpedo, do a giant leap into the air and repeat the whole schtick over again, but for humans and other marine life, it’s not that simple.
In order for humans to overcome the depths, they need air tanks. However, even with air tanks, there are risks, mainly in the form of the bends, also called decompression sickness. The bends occurs because nitrogen content in a diver’s air tank increases as the diver descends and the nitrogen naturally enters the diver’s system as they breathe. If the diver ascends to the surface too quickly, the bubbles of nitrogen in their body will burst—sort of like what happens when you open a bottle of soda that’s been shaken. Even some of nature’s best marine divers, sperm whales, aren’t immune to the bends and sometimes nitrogen build-up can damage their bones and organs, writes Lonny Lippett for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Oceanus magazine.
Air tanks are still the major go-to tech for deep dives, but that doesn’t mean inventors aren’t getting innovative with underwater breathing mechanisms.
A few years ago a team from Denmark created a crystalline material that is highly concentrated with oxygen and can even absorb oxygen from water, reports Michael Byrne for Motherboard. The team initially claimed a single spoonful could suck the oxygen from a room, but later found it would take more like a five-gallon bucket full of the stuff. One day, with significant improvement, the material might be used in devices that would help divers breathe underwater, although it is not yet possible, writes David Mikkelson for Snopes. The group, fittingly, dubbed the substance Aquaman Crystal.Amphibio (Photo by Mikito Tateisi)
Just this September, CNN’s Ana Rosado reported on an idea that could have originated in Atlantis: a dystopian-inspired set of artificial gills. Designer and materials scientist Jun Kamei from the Royal College of London envisioned the gills as a means for humans, facing rising seas, to one day live underwater. (Although, Bethany Brookshire explains for Science News For Students why that won’t be happening anytime soon.) His 3D-printed design is inspired by insects that trap air in their exoskeletons to breathe underwater. For the most part, Kamei’s tech is still hypothetical—he doesn’t have a prototype. Although he has applied for a patent for the porous, water-repellent, oxygen-absorbing material he created, reports Dyllan Furness for Digital Trends.
While Atlantis is fictional, there are plenty of submerged artifacts and undersea archeological endeavors of interest to researchers. But, when it comes to exploring the depths, humans are better off relying on robots to reach the ocean’s nooks and crannies. For example, remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) helped University of Michigan scientists study a sunken dry-land corridor in Lake Huron that was used by caribou hunters nearly 9,000 years ago.
Talk to the Animals
Aquaman’s most unique claim to fame is arguably his ability to talk to animals, mostly marine life. Communication with animals is often a prop in all sorts of magical, fictional worlds. Researchers are always studying how different species of primates, birds, bats and dolphins learn language and communicate.
Dolphins may actually prove to be one of the easiest animals to translate, with some researchers estimating that we’ll be able to understand the beasts using artificial intelligence by 2021, reports Karla Lant for Futurism. A Swedish language technology company called Gavagai AB initially used its AI to conquer 40 human languages, before announcing in 2017 that they’re taking their tech to the animal kingdom. The startup working with a wildlife park to “compile a dictionary of dolphin language,” reports Lant.
That’s not the first time humans have used computers to chat with the intelligent porpoises—in fact, Disney even threw their hat in the ring, receiving a patent in the 1990s. Researchers at the company proposed a keyboard with pictures on each key. The keys produce sounds that, hypothetically, both humans and dolphins would understand.Researcher Denise Herzing wears the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) device. (Wild Dolphin Project)
Marine biologist Denise Herzing and her team at The Wild Dolphin Project have been leaders in the field for quite some time. They created the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) computerized vest to see if it was possible to detect dolphin calls and translate them to English. The device emits a sound that was taught to the pod of dolphins near the Bahamas that Herzing has studied for decades. What does that sound mean? Sargassum, a type of seaweed that divers often use as a toy when playing with dolphins. In 2014, they finally caught a dolphin making the sargassum sounds and CHAT translated it back to English, reports Tuan C. Nyugen for Smithsonian.com. If anything, the project illustrates how smart dolphins are to learn how to communicate with humans in order to get what they want. However, as Herzing tells Nyugen, we don’t exactly know what dolphins say to each other—and that’s okay. Interspecies communication is more the point.
So why might we need it? For starters, the U.S. Navy trains dolphins to search for sea mines, reports Kyle Mizokami for Popular Mechanics.
And who knows what marine life would actually have to say to humans. So much of the sea world is under threat by human hand, including things like warming waters, rising sea level, microplastics, trash, oil drilling, deep sea mining and more.
If Aquaman really could listen to ocean life, he’d probably get an earful.
The Museum’s Black Widow, a P-61C-1-NO, was delivered to the Army Air Forces in July 1945. It participated in cold-weather tests, high-altitude drop tests, and in the National Thunderstorm Project, for which the top turret was removed to make room for thunderstorm monitoring equipment.
The P-61 Black Widow was the first United States aircraft designed from the start to find and destroy other aircraft at night and in bad weather. It served in combat for only the final year of World War II but flew in the European, Mediterranean, Pacific, and China-Burma-India theaters. Black Widow crews destroyed 127 enemy aircraft and 18 robot V-1 buzz bombs.
Jack Northrop's big fighter was born during the dark days of the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz in 1940. British successes against German daylight bombers forced the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) to shift to night bombing. By the time Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfires could launch, climb out, and then try to intercept these raids, the bombers crews had usually dropped their loads and turned for home. An aircraft was needed to patrol the skies over England for up to seven hours during the night, and then follow radar vectors to attack German aircraft before they reached their target. U.S. Army Air Corps officers noted this requirement and decided that America must have a night fighter if and when it entered the war.
The Army awarded a contract to Northrop on January 30, 1941. The resulting design featured twin tail booms and rudders for stability when the aircraft closed in behind an intruder. It was a large aircraft with a big fuel load and two powerful engines. Armament evolved into four 20 mm cannons mounted in the belly firing forward and a powered, remote-controlled turret on top of the center fuselage equipped with four .50 cal. machine guns. The three-man crew consisted of the pilot, a gunner seated behind him, and a radar observer/gunner at the rear behind the gun turret. Only the pilot could fire the cannons but any of the three could operate the machine guns.
Simultaneously, work was proceeding, at a laboratory run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to develop the airborne radar set. The Army tested an early design in a Douglas B-18 in 1941. The much-improved SCR-520 set was ready by early 1942. Meanwhile, Army enthusiasm for the XP-61 produced another contract on March 10, 1941, for 13 service-test YP-61s. Even before these airplanes flew, Northrop received orders for 410 production machines! Northrop test pilot Vance Breeze flew the aircraft on May 26, 1942. Although the Black Widow was nearly as large as a medium bomber, it was a true fighter. The only prohibited flight maneuvers were outside loops, sustained inverted flight, and deliberate spins.
As Northrop advanced the design toward production, supply problems arose and modifications became necessary. The 4-gun top turret was the same type fitted to the top forward position on the Boeing B-29 Superfortress (see NASM collection) and that bomber had production priority over the P-61. As a result, several hundred P-61s did not have this turret. Those that did experienced buffeting when the turret was traversed from side to side and a fix took time. By October 1943, the first P-61s were coming off the line. Training started immediately, and the first night fighters arrived in the European Theater by March 1944. Combat operations began just after D-Day (June 6) and the Black Widows quickly departed from their original role as defensive interceptors and became aggressors. They flew deep into German airspace, bombing and strafing trains and road traffic and making travel difficult for the enemy by day and at night.
P-61s arrived in the Pacific Theater at about the same time as the European Black Widows. For years, the Japanese had operated lone bombers over Allied targets at night and now U. S. fighters could locate and attack them. However, on June 30, 1944, a Mitsubishi BETTY (see NASM collection) became the first P-61 kill in the Pacific. Soon, Black Widows controlled the night skies. On the night of August 14-15, a P-61 named "Lady in the Dark" by her crew encountered an intruding Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa (Peregrine Falcon) OSCAR (see NASM collection) and eventually forced it into the sea without firing a shot. Although the war was officially over, no one was sure that all of the Japanese had heard the message and stopped fighting. The American night fighters flew again the next night and "Lady in the Dark" again found a target. It was a Nakajima Ki-44 Shoki (Demon) TOJO and the fighters maneuvered wildly as they attempted to gain an advantage. The P-61 crew lost and reacquired the Ki-44 several times then finally lost it for good and returned to base. The next day ground troops found the wrecked TOJO. In the darkness, Lady in the Dark's crew had forced the Japanese pilot to fly into the ground, again without firing a shot.
With the war over, the Army cancelled further production. Northrop had built 706 aircraft including 36 with a highly modified center fuselage. These F-15As (later redesignated RF-61C) mounted a number of cameras in the nose and proved able reconnaissance platforms. Many of these airplanes participated in the first good aerial photographic survey of the Pacific islands. A few, plus some special purpose P-61s, stayed in active service until 1950.
NASM's Black Widow is a P-61C-1-NO, U.S. Army Air Forces serial number 43-8330. Northrop delivered it to the Army on July 28, 1945. By October 18, this P-61 was flying at Ladd Field, Alaska, in cold weather tests and it remained there until March 30, 1946. This airplane later moved to Pinecastle Air Force Base, Florida, for participation in the National Thunderstorm Project. The project's goal was to learn more about thunderstorms and to use this knowledge to better protect civil and military airplanes that operated near them. The U. S. Weather Bureau and the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) undertook the study with cooperation from the Army Air Forces and Navy. With its radar and particular flight characteristics, the P-61 was capable of finding the most turbulent regions of a storm, penetrating them, and returning crew and instruments intact for detailed study.
Pinecastle personnel removed the guns and turret from 43-8330 in July 1946 to make room for new equipment. In September, the aircraft moved to Clinton County Army Air Base, Ohio, where it remained until January 1948. The Air Force then assigned the aircraft to the Flight Test Division at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. After declaring the airplane surplus in 1950, the Air Force stored it at Park Ridge, Illinois, on October 3 along with important aircraft destined for the National Air Museum.
But 43-8830 was not done flying. NACA asked the Smithsonian to lend them the aircraft for use in another special program. The committee wanted to investigate how aerodynamic shapes behaved when dropped from high altitude. The Black Widow arrived at the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory, Naval Air Station Moffett Field, California, on February 14, 1951. NACA returned the aircraft and delivered it to the Smithsonian at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on August 10, 1954. When the engines shut down for the last time, this P-61 had accumulated only 530 total flight hours. The three different paint schemes from its past service life have been revealed by carefully removing individual layers of paint.
When The Shallows hits theaters June 24—non-coincidentally kicking off both Shark Week and beach vacation season—it will follow in a long line of shark thrillers. In the grand tradition of Jaws, Open Water and The Reef, The Shallows tells one surfer’s story of survival as she evades a rogue great white shark with a taste for human flesh just 200 yards from shore.
Films about ravenous great white sharks have long captured the imaginations of moviegoers, and this one appears to be no exception. The anticipated summer blockbuster, starring American actress Blake Lively, has already garnered a 95 percent interest rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But just how much imaginative license did filmmakers take when it came to shark behavior?
We spoke with shark biologist Chris Lowe at the California State University, Long Beach to see what the trailer got right about great white sharks—and what was just Hollywood magic.
Let’s dive right in. Is there anything about the shark behavior in the trailer that catches your attention?
The film looks like it has a lot of real footage of sharks. Of course, it’s unbelievably rare to catch an actual shark attack on film, but I thought the way the trailer portrayed the attack on the female surfer was pretty realistic.
What’s your take on the shark breaching to eat a surfer?
We know that white sharks hangout in subtropical places where it’s not unusual to see someone surfing without a wetsuit, so that’s not totally implausible. However, places where they do jump out of the water in pursuit of prey are temperate—places like South Africa. We typically only see white sharks breaching in places where they’ve had to adapt their behavior to capturing fast, nimble prey like Cape fur seals. What kind of nimble prey exists in tropical waters?
My guess is probably not a human.
Right. Not a human, not a sea turtle, and there aren’t really any tropical seals left. So that’s the part that’s unrealistic. I look at that and chuckle a little.
What about the shark’s stalking behavior around the rock and then by the buoy? Is that typical?
Based on tracking data done in certain locations, we know sharks patrol certain areas waiting for seals to haul out on beaches. So I wouldn’t call it stalking; I would call it patrolling. While it’s certainly possible they stalk prey, we don’t have a lot of evidence showing how they play this “cat and mouse” game.
Films like Jaws, The Reef, and now The Shallows depict a rogue shark that will stop at nothing to devour its victim. Do "rogue sharks" exist?
That was a theory put forth back in the 1950’s, and we haven’t been able to shake it. For example, in Jaws, they say the shark has set up a territory and its going stay as long as there are people to eat. There’s just no good evidence that the same shark has been involved on multiple attacks on people over time.
Would a shark ever stalk just one prey animal?
Not very likely. A lot of these predators are smart enough to realize when they’re wasting their time. There are some predators that are willing to put in more effort to track down a single prey, like mountain lions (a lot of terrestrial predators are much better at that). But white sharks have to constantly be moving, which is biologically expensive.
It seems like shark encounters are popping up in the news pretty frequently, which is rekindling some serious shark hysteria. Have there actually been more shark attacks or does the media just report on it more often?
It’s a little bit of both. There are more people in the water than ever before. That automatically increases the chances of an encounter. In many places, sharks have been overfished for over 50 years. We recognized this problem decades ago and in some places like the U.S., we have put in place regulations that better protect sharks and now they’re coming back.
If you look at the rate of human population growth—which we can use as an indicator of how many people are going in the water everyday—and consider how fast shark populations are growing, people are getting attacked more, but not as much as one might expect given the rate at which both populations are increasing. What that tells me as a scientist is that we are simply not on their menu.
Why would a shark bite a person in the first place?
Shark attacks are broken into two categories: provoked and unprovoked. Provoked attacks are simple. A fisherman catches a shark, the shark tries to get away, and the fisherman gets bitten. The person did something to induce that attack, usually requiring physical contact.
The unprovoked attacks are a little harder to explain. All we know is what we base off of statistics or limited eye-witness accounts. Eighty-five percent of people never see the shark coming. In addition, with over 80 percent of people bitten, no flesh is removed.
One reason shark bite people might be because they either consider us as food or have mistaken us as food. That might explain why some people are bitten, but not consumed. The shark rushes up, tastes us, and leaves when it realizes we’re not their normal prey.
Another theory is that sharks are acting defensively. Just like any other animal on the planet, if it feels threatened it will defend itself. Sharks do something called agonistic display, where they contort their body to let other sharks or even people know it feels threatened. If a surfer is approaching a shark and the shark starts to feel threatened that something is invading its space, then it lashes out. It races in, takes a bite, and then takes off.
So we just don’t know. We don’t know what the circumstances were right before someone got bit because nobody sees what the shark is doing before the event. This is what makes it really difficult to say why sharks bite people.
Many people are fascinated by sharks, but that doesn’t mean they want to get in the water with them. Why did you decide to study sharks?
When I was younger, I swore I would never work on white sharks, because I thought they were overrated. As a shark biologist, I studied hammerheads, tiger sharks, sandbar sharks, Galapagos sharks, leopard sharks—all of which were underrepresented (in the research). But after I came to California, we started researching baby white sharks working with Monterey Bay Aquarium, and that got me intrigued.
They’re kind of like the ultimate athletes of the shark world. They’re warm-bodied, and as long as they keep swimming they can keep their bodies warmer than the water. That’s how a 4,000-5,000 pound shark can launch itself 6-8 feet out of the water. In addition, they can dive 1,000 meters (3,000 feet). The water temperature down there is just above freezing. Physiologically, they’re the Formula One race cars of the shark world.
It sounds like we know a lot about great white sharks.
But there’s a lot that’s still unknown. Doing this work is really expensive. One satellite transmitter costs $5,000, and we don’t usually get them back after they’ve been deployed. Nonetheless, this technology has greatly changed our understanding of white sharks.
Thirty years ago, if you asked a shark biologist what kind of shark a white shark was, they’d probably say a coastal shark. That is because we only really saw them along the coastline during the fall months off California when they were hunting elephant seals. However, using satellite transmitters my colleagues have found that those sharks really only spend 1-3 months in close to shore before migrating out into the middle of the Pacific, where they will spend 8-18 months before venturing back to shore. Now, I wouldn’t call a white shark a coastal shark, I’d call them an oceanic shark.
The good news is we now have all this cool new technology—drones, underwater robots, new sensors and low-light cameras at our disposal. Unfortunately, every time we want to do a study to answer a simple question you’re looking at a half million dollars in funding to do the work. Very little government funding supports white shark research.
Despite the fact that it’s such a charismatic, well-known animal?
Right. And this is where the Discovery Channel and movies like Jaws have done sharks a disservice. They have given the public the false impression that we’ve already answered most of the important scientific questions around sharks. I’ll give you an example. When do sharks feed?
Dawn and dusk, right?
So that’s the theory, but there’s no evidence to support it. The urban myth is that sharks feed at dawn and dusk, so that’s the most dangerous time to be in the water. Part of this comes from the fact that you have a lot of surfers out at dawn and dusk and surfers are the ones quite often bitten. However, the reality is that there is no pattern. Our lab wanted to research this further by feeding sensors to the shark that measures their stomach pH, which would allow us to actually tell when the shark has eaten. One of the reasons why we couldn’t get funding was because some people thought we already knew all that—and some of those people were scientists.
Great white sharks are listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. How are they doing in the wild today?
Humans have certainly affected white shark populations, either by killing them in fisheries or having an impact on their food sources. Over the last 10 years we have been studying juvenile white sharks, we have seen evidence of population increase. We’re seeing populations increasing pretty much everywhere, i.e. in waters off New England, Australia, and New Zealand.
We have three to five times more people in the U.S. and along coastal habitats now than in the 1970s, and yet we’re seeing recovery from all these predator populations. I see that as a sign we’re doing something right. White sharks have been protected for 10-20 years now. I’m hoping that people can look at major problems today like climate change and say, “well, we saw declining predator populations as a major problem in the 60s and 70s. A lot of people thought we’d never fix those problems and we have. If we can fix that, why can’t we fix climate change?”
Okay, say I’m planning a trip to the beach this summer. What are my chances of being bit by a shark?
Extremely unlikely. Like winning the Powerball lottery unlikely.
The International Space Station is known for a distinct lack of personal space, with crews packed into phone booth-sized beds and assaulted by continuous light, sound and surveillance. But if things go right during an upcoming SpaceX resupply mission, currently scheduled for March 2016, the station could soon be a bit roomier and more relaxing.
After the Dragon capsule reaches the station, the ISS’s robot arm will pull out a device called the Bigelow Aerospace Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM—and the future of housing might just change forever.
The 13-foot-long module is being referred to by Bigelow Aerospace and NASA as an “expandable habitat,” but to the average viewer it will look more like a big white balloon. Think of it as a kind of spare room—one that cost NASA a cool $17.8 million. BEAM will arrive uninflated, but once it’s attached to one of the station’s nodes it will blow up, creating a new—if not entirely expansive—section of the ISS.
“I jokingly refer to it as a largish New York apartment,” says Mike Gold, director of D.C. operations and business growth for Bigelow Aerospace. BEAM isn’t intended to be used as living quarters, he notes. Rather, it will serve as a proof of concept for expandable habitats.
Gold sees another benefit to the module: a bit of peace and quiet. “Acoustically, it’s going to be the quietest location aboard the International Space Station,” he says. Will astronauts use it as a respite from the always-on environment of the bigger station? Right now, it’s unclear. In a release, NASA says only that the station will be measured and tested over time. But Gold thinks the module has the potential as a place for science experiments, stowage and other activities. After all, the concept has been tested before: In 2006 and 2007, the company launched the Genesis I and II missions, when expandable habitats headed into orbit via converted Russian ICBMs.
The limited plans for the habitat are a far cry from the “space hotel” label that has long been associated with the company. Bigelow Aerospace is owned by hotelier and real estate mogul Robert Bigelow, whose plans to take his empire to space have been the source of speculation and sometimes mockery since he launched the company in 1998.
That moniker irritates Gold, who calls it a “pernicious misconception.” He says that tourism is just a portion of the company’s long-term plan. The term has been in use since the module that inspired Bigelow Aerospace’s current projects, a NASA-designed inflatable crew quarters project known as TransHab.
TransHab turned out to be just a pipe dream—the project’s funding was cut in 2000 and it literally never left the ground. Bigelow snatched up NASA’s patent rights and used them to develop the technology.
If BEAM isn’t a space hotel, the company’s next project sure seems like one. Now that BEAM is ready to deploy, the company is perfecting the B330, an even larger expandable habitat that could be used for housing, research and development or astronaut training.
Unlike BEAM, the B330, named for its 330 cubic meters of internal space, is a completely independent module—it doesn’t need to hook up to the International Space Station, and it can support a crew of up to six. B330s can even be hooked up to one another to form free-floating commercial stations like Alpha Station, a proposed space station that Bigelow Aerospace claims could help nations develop their astronaut corps, perfect space travel and conduct research.
On its website, the company says it will offer things like one-off astronaut flights ($26.75 to $36.75 million per seat), leased space station space ($25 million for exclusive use of a schoolbus-sized space over a two-month period) and naming rights to Alpha Station ($25 million a year). Gold downplays the idea of space tourism, but doesn't discount it entirely. Perhaps it will be more lucrative—and realistic—once the company’s ambitious Olympus project, named for its godly 2,100 cubic meters of space, is complete.
There are still challenges to be addressed. Right now, the company relies on commercial resupply missions to the space station launched by companies like SpaceX to get its smaller modules into orbit. But commercial rockets are small, and many don't have enough power to launch the 20-ton B330. Bigelow notes that it designed that unit to fly on an Atlas V rocket, a dependable vehicle that has a launch capacity of just over 40,000 pounds. To get its more ambitious habitats off the ground, Bigelow Aerospace will probably need a rocket like NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System, or SLS, which will have an eventual lift capacity of 286,000 pounds.
Are expandable space stations (hotels or otherwise) the buildings of the future? Perhaps. Some people may ditch the idea of space tourism and become full-time space residents in structures like Bigelow's Olympus. Some may flee Earth due to overpopulation (there's an 80 percent probability that the world's population will grow to around 11 billion by the end of this century, and there are no signs of slowing).
And then there's the cool factor—some people may find that they simply prefer to live in microgravity surrounded by spectacular views of planets and stars all the time.
But commercial space projects are susceptible to funding issues, delays and development traffic jams, all of which could send the most optimistic predictions for the future of travel and housing tumbling back to Earth. And for every futuristic habitat success, there are scores of stalled or vastly altered projects. Here are a few of the other places we thought we’d be living by now:
In a Frank Lloyd Wright-Designed UtopiaThe architect Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned Broadacre City as a sprawling, Utopian suburbia. Residents would take futuristic helicopters as public transportation and live in giant skyscrapers, as seen here. (Copyright © Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, AZ. All rights reserved. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives (The Museum of Modern Art | Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University))
Frank Lloyd Wright didn’t just design gorgeous houses and museums—in the 1930s, he conceived of Broadacre City, a utopian alternative to the hustle and bustle of the typical metropolis. Wright was so enchanted by his idea of giving one acre to each family and ensconcing them in a sprawling suburbia without social problems or skyscrapers that he promoted it until his death in the late 1950s.
Beneath Lots and Lots of GlassSeward's Success, a proposed city in Alaska, was to be a no-cars-allowed city under glass where everyone rode trams and monorails. (Courtesy Popular Mechanics, March 1970 issue)
Does the thought of a trapped city full of monorails and monoliths make you think of Logan’s Run? The movie could well have been inspired by Seward’s Success, a metropolis planned in Anchorage, Alaska during the 1960s. The glass-covered city was designed for 40,000 residents complete with monorails and aerial trams—no cars allowed. Alas, Seward’s Success was never to be: The project was delayed and eventually canceled.
In Walt Disney World
Walt Disney wasn’t content as a groundbreaking animator and amusement park impresario—he wanted to change the face of U.S. cities, too. In the 1960s, Disney hatched an idea called “Project X” and began acquiring hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Orlando, Florida. The city would feature homes of the future designed by American corporations along a gigantic urban corridor. Eventually, the project was renamed E.P.C.O.T.—Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow—but it was downgraded to a section of Disney World after Disney’s death in the late 1960s.
In a Domed City in Minnesota
Few future cities came as close to fruition as the Minnesota Experimental City, or MXC. In 1969, Minnesota’s state legislature approved the formation of a steering committee to figure out new ways to solve problems of urban sprawl and quality of life. A 75,000-acre site was chosen and plans made to develop the community of Swatara into an environmentally friendly, car-free city with a gigantic geodesic dome. But legislators balked in the 1970s, and today Swatara is more ghost town than modern metropolis.
In a Carbon-Neutral MegalopolisDongtan Eco-City was supposed to be a carbon-neutral city of a half-million inhabitants near Shanghai, but it was never built. (Courtesy LafargeHolcim Foundation)
There are planned cities, and then there are planned cities. Dongtan, near Shanghai, was to be one such city—a gigantic “eco-city” designed to house 500,000 residents over the course of just 30 years. Dongtan was to house everything from a wind farm to power plants run by rice husks. All housing was to be built within a seven-minute walk from public transportation. But the carbon-neutral paradise never happened: Despite predictions that by 2050, the city would be as large as Manhattan, the project is now over a decade behind schedule.
In the Ultimate Space ColonyA proposed space colony designed by NASA researchers in the 1970s. (NASA Ames Research Center)
In the 1970s, NASA’s Ames Research Center conducted a series of studies on the feasibility of colonizing space. The “summer studies,” as they came to be called, looked at whether space colonization was technically feasible. The answer was yes—as long as humans lived in spheres, cylinders or doughnuts complete with artificial gravity, plenty of greenery and shopping malls galore. One study acknowledged that though it might feel weird for people to live in such different environments, the effects could be mitigated by things like providing large vistas “to make the habitat large enough to lessen the sense of its being manmade.” Of course, the settlements never came to be—but who’s to say that NASA won’t one day brush off its old space colony suggestions?
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to better reflect the current launch capabilities for Bigelow's space habitats.
It took explorers centuries of great effort to make the first crude sketches of the world and centuries more to polish and perfect them.
But in just ten years, sales demand for paper maps appears to have dipped markedly, and it seems these formerly essential tools of travel could be going the way of the sextant and chronometer as travelers rely increasingly on electronic navigation devices to get them where they want to go. In Pennsylvania, printers who once produced three million road maps a year now make just 750,000. AAA, too, has observed a decline in customer use of maps. And even print-out directions that lead from point A to point B—which I always thought was cheating, anyway—seem now to be a figment more of memory than of practice as that robot voice from the dashboard becomes an increasingly ubiquitous component of driving anywhere.
If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.
“Trying to see and understand the big picture on your phone or laptop usually isn’t possible,” said Harrison (who also noted that he has not observed a decline in sales of waterproof topographic maps via his website). “There’s too much zooming in, scrolling down, losing your bearings.” At best, hand-size GPS screens show one “the here and the now,” he said, while only paper maps can reliably “show us where we are and also what’s around us.”
Using real printed maps also demands—and can help users develop—critical thinking skills.
“You look at the map for a minute,” Harrison said. “Then you say, ‘I’m here, and I’m going there. What’s the easiest way?’ But with GPS in the car you don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
The shift to full reliance on navigational technology is happening at sea, too. Grant Headifen, the founder of the online sailing academy NauticEd, says sailors are increasingly relying on GPS systems while neglecting to learn what he calls “the fundamentals”—the basic skills of navigating only by charts, compass, sky and the mighty strengths of the human brain.
“You need to be able to say, ‘If north is straight ahead of me, then east is to my right,’ and ‘If point A is 50 miles ahead and we’re moving this fast, then this will be our estimated time of arrival,’” said Headifen.
Reliance on electronics, which operate under the guise of flawlessness, is “very dangerous,” Headifen says—mainly because navigation charts may themselves be drawn incorrectly. For instance, a GPS system may guide you with perfect accuracy past a treacherous seamount—but if that reef was originally mapped incorrectly, the GPS system could actually be guiding you into a million-dollar accident. Headifen cites a time that he was sailing off the coast of Croatia. Because of incorrectly drawn charts, his GPS system placed his location at roughly 300 meters inland among the coastal olive orchards. Another time, a sailing companion with his eyes glued to his iPhone muttered directions to Headifen. “In 50 meters we want to veer left,” the man said. Headifen replied, “Um, look away from your phone for a minute, and look ahead of us.” A rock stood precisely in the course the iPhone recommended.
Harrison, too, has noted previously to reporters an important difference between being “precise” and being “accurate,” both of which a GPS device can be at once by pointing a tech-tuned traveler straight to the wrong place.
In spite of the growing prevalence today of navigation technology, enough people remain interested in traditional navigation that Headifen offers a course on celestial navigation. This brilliant science has its roots in ancient Arabian cultures of the desert, where travelers long ago determined their location on Earth by watching the heavenly bodies above. For travelers in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, or Polaris, made determining latitude a piece of cake: The star’s distance above the horizon in degrees equals the viewer’s degree distance north of the Equator. Thus, when sailors left port in the old days, they often remained at a given latitude by watching Polaris and appropriately adjusting their course. They knew that by following that line, they would reach home again. (Determining longitude was a much more difficult endeavor, and would only become relatively easy with the invention of the chronometer in the late 1700s.)
Still, navigation remained challenging. Sailing expeditions often had a crew member whose specific job was to navigate—and these were among the most skilled people on the seas. They were familiar with the stars, the ecliptic of the Sun and also the orbital path of the Moon. They carried a variety of beautiful and ingenious tools over the years, like the astrolabe, octant and quadrant. But the sextant has remained the most used. It’s actually based on rather simple geometry, allowing one to sight a point in the sky—usually the Sun or a star—and measure its distance from the horizon. Combined with the chronometer and basic star charts, a good navigator could track a vessel’s location exactly—though this was a very difficult task. In fact, if executed correctly and accurately, celestial navigation is flawless—for our place on Earth is written in the stars; one must simply have the tools and skills to read the sky.
Celestial navigation made easy: Even if we’re too lazy to read maps anymore, reading the stars can be fun. Measuring latitude is a basic calculation and an engaging way to track your progress should you decide to tackle a long-distance north-to-south hiking or cycling route. Before your next trip, try this: Fix a sturdy plastic straw to the straight edge of a protractor. This device, familiar, I hope, from high-school geometry classes, should have a pinhole at the center of the baseline. To this point, tie off 12 inches of string and fix a heavy nut or bolt to the other end. Pack the contraption along. On your first night out, hold the device with the protractor facing down, look through the straw and aim it at Polaris. When you are able to see this conveniently located star, pinch the string to the side of the protractor. If the string is crossing, say, the 53-degree mark, subtract that number from 90. The answer, 37, is your latitude. If the next night you get a reading of 54, meaning 36 degrees latitude, that means you have traveled 69 miles (the distance between latitude lines) toward the Equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no equivalent of Polaris, and celestial navigators may need to rely on a measurement of the Sun at its zenith to determine latitude. This website describes how.
Navigation of tomorrow: While no-brainer navigation systems currently dictate directions to drivers, tech companies are busy designing the next step in the road to laziness: automated vehicles. Nevada, Florida and California have already legalized driverless cars. While these marvels of technology aren’t yet publicly available, they do exist. Google has been testing one that reportedly had gone 300,000 miles, and counting, without an accident. What’s astonishing is that the machines seem to work perfectly well. What’s scary is the thought of them failing—of missing an offramp by ten feet, of not recognizing a pedestrian, of misinterpreting an obstacle in the road, or otherwise failing where a human mind might not.
Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gates in 1829. It was devised by The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, an organization of powerful Philadelphia residents that counted Benjamin Franklin among its members and whose ambition was to “build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.” With its hub-and-spoke design of long blocks containing individual prison cells, ESP could be considered the first modern prison. There are many, many stories told about the prisoners that have been incarcerated here over its nearly 150 years of operation–some inspiring, some horrible, some about Al Capone–but none of them have captivated the public more than the 1945 “Willie Sutton” tunnel escape.
The most famous escape in the history of Eastern State Penitentiary was the work of 12 men – they were like the Dirty Dozen, but less well adjusted. The most infamous among them was Willie Sutton aka “Slick Willie” aka Willie “The Actor” aka “The Gentleman Bandit” aka “The Babe Ruth of bank robbers,” who was sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary in 1934 for the brazen machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank in Philadelphia. Those nicknames alone tell you everything you need to know about Willie Sutton. He was, by all accounts (especially his own), exactly what you want a old-timey bank robber to be: charming, devious, a master of disguise, and of course, an accomplished escape artist, who in 11 years at ESP, made at least five escape attempts. Sutton’s outspoken nature and braggadocio landed him a few stories in Life magazine and even a book deal. In his 1953 autobiography Where the Money Was, Sutton takes full credit as the mastermind behind the tunnel operation.
Though the personable Sutton may have been critical in managing the mercurial tempers of his fellow escapees, the truth is that the escape was planned and largely executed by Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst, a plasterer, stone mason, burglar, and forger who looked a little like a young Frank Sinatra and had a reputation as a first-rate prison scavenger. “If you gave Kliney two weeks, he could get you Ava Gardner,” said Sutton. And If you give Kliney a year, he could get you out of prison.
Working in two-man teams of 30 minute shifts, the tunnel crew, using spoons and flattened cans as shovels and picks, slowly dug a 31-inch opening through the wall of cell 68, then dug twelve feet straight down into the ground, and another 100 feet out beyond the walls of the prison. They removed dirt by concealing it in their pockets and scattering it in the yard a la The Great Escape. Also like The Great Escape, the ESP tunnel was shored up with scaffolding, illuminated, and even ventilated. At about the halfway point, it linked up with the prison’s brick sewer system and the crew created an operable connection between the two pipelines to deposit their waste while ensuring that noxious fumes were kept out of the tunnel. It was an impressive work of subversive, subterranean engineering, the likes of which can only emerge from desperation. As a testament to either clever design or the ineptitude of the guards, the tunnel escaped inspection several times thanks to a false panel Kliney treated to match the plaster walls of the cell and concealed by a metal waste basket.
After months of painfully slow labor, the tunnel was ready. On the morning (yes, the morning) of April 3, 1945, the dirtier dozen made their escape, sneaking off to cell 68 on their way to breakfast.
Like most designers, Kliney and co. found that the work far outweighed the reward. After all that designing, carving, digging, and building, Kliney made it a whole three hours before getting caught. But that was better than Sutton, who was free for only about three minutes. By the end of the day, half the escapees were returned to prison while the rest were caught within a couple months. Sutton recalls the escape attempt in Where the Money Was:
“One by one the men lowered themselves to the tunnel, and on hands and knees crept the hundred and twenty feet to its end. The remaining two feet of earth were scraped away and men rumbled from the hole to scurry in all directions. I leaped from the hole, began to run, and came face to face with two policemen. They stood for a moment, paralyzed with amazement. I was soaking wet and my face was covered with mud.
“Put up your hands or I’ll shoot.” One of them recovered more quickly than the other.
“Go ahead, shoot,” I snarled at them, and at that moment I honestly hoped he would. Then I wheeled and began to run. He emptied his gun at me, but I wasn’t hit….None of the bullets hit me, but they did make me swerve, and in swerving I tripped, fell, and they had me.”
The first few escapees to be captured, Sutton among them, were put in the Klondikes – illegal, completely dark, solitary confinement cells secretly built by guards in the mechanical space below one of the cell blocks. These spaces are miserable, tiny holes that aren’t big enough to stand up or wide enough to lie down. Sutton was eventually transferred to the “escape proof” Holmesburg Prison, from which he promptly escaped and managed to avoid the law for six years. Police eventually caught up with him in Brooklyn after a witness saw him on the subway and recognized his mug from the wanted poster.
As for the tunnel, after it was analyzed and mapped, guards filled it with ash and covered it with cement. Though it may have been erased from the prison, its legend likely inspired inmates until Eastern State Penitentiary was closed in 1971. And despite the failure of the escapees, the tunnel has continued to intrigue the public.
The location of the tunnel was lost until 2005, when the Eastern State Penitentiary, now a non-profit dedicated to preserving the landmarked prison, completed an archaeological survey to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the escape. To find the tunnel, the prison escape preservationists created a search grid over the prison grounds near the entrance, the location of which was known from old photos. Using ground penetrating radar, the team was able to create vertical sections though the site in increments corresponding to the suspected width of the tunnel. After a couple failed attempts, the archaeologists detected a section of the tunnel that hadn’t collapsed and hadn’t been filled-in by the guards. The following year, a robotic rover was sent through the tunnels, documenting its scaffolding and lighting systems. While no major discoveries were made, curiosity was sated and the public’s imagination was newly ignited by stories of the prison and its inmates.
There’s something undeniably romantic about prison escapes – perhaps due to the prevalence of films where the escapee is the hero and/or the pure ingenuity involved in a prison escape. The best escape films –A Man Escaped, La Grande Illusion, Escape from Alcatraz, The Great Escape, to name just a few–show us every step of the elaborate plan as the rag tag team of diggers, scavengers, and ersatz engineers steal, forge, design, and dig their way to freedom. Without fail, the David vs. Goliath narrative has us rooting for the underdog every step of the way, even when the David is a bank robber.
It’s been five years now since it was reported that, for the first time ever, more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas. Such a dramatic demographic shift comes with inevitable consequences – some predictable, like rising housing prices and greater economic disparity, and some less so, like the rise in urban honeybee population. With growing interest in sustainability and local food production combined with news stories and documentaries about honeybee colony collapse disorder, recent changes in laws, and the growing urban population, urban beekeeping is a full-blown trend. But it’s not just about the honey. The humble honeybee is starting to play a greater role in the design of urban living.
Bees can help maintain the green roofs that are becoming more common in big cities and thus, in some small way, contribute to a building’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating, which is a metric of sustainability promoted by the United States Green Building Council based on a system of points awarded for environmentally friendly features. In Manhattan, for example, the rooftop hives atop The Bank of America Tower, a 51-story glass skyscraper in the heart of Midtown, were recently featured in The New York Times. The towers’s 6,000-sq-ft green roof is a critical element of its LEED Platinum rating –the highest possible– and is sustained in part by two hives of 100,00 honey bees.
Buildings can benefit from bees in other ways. While some urban bees help secure sustainability credentials as green roof gardeners, others are security guards. In response to a 2010 article in The Telegraph about the recurring theft of lead from the roofs of historic buildings, architect Hugh Petter described the unique counter-measure taken by one building owner in York:
“The flat roofs of this historic building are now the home of bees — this keeps the hives away from the public in urban areas, provides delicious honey for the local community and acts as a powerful disincentive for anyone minded to remove the lead.”
Petter reports that once the bees were installed, the thefts stopped. Unfortunately, according to another recent story, such apian theft deterrents might themselves become the target of thieves. Due to colony collapse disorder, honey bees are so rare that bee theft is on the rise. A problem once common to cattle ranchers on the range is now a problem for beekeepers in Brooklyn. And until someone invents a branding iron small enough for a bee, there’s no way to prove that your queen bee was stolen.
More recently, a group of architecture students at the University of Buffalo decided that, rather than adding bees to their buildings, they would actually design buildings for bees. “Elevator B” is a 22-ft-tall steel tower clad in hexagonal panels inspired by the natural honeycomb structure of beehives and designed to optimize environmental conditions. Bees don’t occupy the full height of the structure, just a cypress, glass-bottomed box suspended near the top. Human visitors can enter the tower through an opening at its base and look up to see the industrious insects at work while beekeepers can tend to the bees and collect their honey by lowering the box like an elevator. If the stacked boxes of the modern beehive are efficient public housing projects, this is a high-rise luxury tower. Although it should be mentioned that the bees were forcibly relocated from their colony in the boarded-up window of an abandoned building and may very well have been happier there. But such is progress. Apparently even bees aren’t exempt from eminent domain laws. Perhaps this skyscraper for bees will mark a new trend in honeybee gentrification.
Architects have long been fascinated with bees. According to architectural historian Juan Antonio Ramirez architects as different as Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) and Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) drew inspiration from bees and beehives. Ramirez believes that Gaudi’s use of catenary arches in his organic, idiosyncratic designs –first represented in his Cooperativa Mataronesa factory– were directly inspired by the form of natural beehives. He supports this claim is with the Gaudi-designed graphics that accompany the project: a flag with a bee on it and a coat-of-arms representing workers as bees – a symbol for industriousness and cooperation. Gaudi was building a hive for humans.
Noted minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe (whose work has been immortalized in Lego) was less inspired by the form in which bees built than by the ideal industrial society they represented. In the aftermath of World War I, a young, perhaps slightly more radical Mies was associated with a group of writers, artists, and architects known as the Expressionists. He published designs for innovative glass high-rises –the first of their kind– in the pages of the Expressionist publication Frülicht. Such buildings, Mies wrote, “could surely be more than mere examples of our technical ability….Instead of trying to solve the new problems with old forms, we should develop the new forms from the very nature of the new problems.” One of the most famous of these early unbuilt designs is the 1921 project nicknamed “honeycomb”. In Ramirez’s view, the angular glass skyscraper is evidence that Mies wasn’t only looking into the nature of the new problems, but looking into nature itself – specifically, to bees. Mies’s youthful belief that architecture could reshape society “brings him closer to the idea of the beehive, because in the beehive we find a perfect society in a different architecture.”
Architecture’s relationship with bees predates green roof hives, Mies, and even Gaudi. As evidenced by a recent discovery at Rosslyn Chapel, perhaps best known as the climactic location of The Da Vinci Code, precedent for bee-influenced architecture can be traced back to the 15th century. While renovation the chapel a few years ago, builders discovered two stone beehives carved into the building as a form of architectural ornament. There’s just a small entry for bees through an ornamental stone flower and, surprisingly, no means to collect honey. Appropriately, the church is simply a sanctuary for bees. Una Robertson, historian of the Scottish Beekeepers Association told The Times that “Bees do go into roof spaces and set up home, and can stay there a long time, but it’s unusual to want to attract bees into a building…Bees have been kept in all sorts of containers , but I have never heard of stone.” Maybe the 600-year-old stone hive should be a model for urban farmers and green architects everywhere. Instead of adding a beehive to your building, why not design one into it?
Unfortunately, much like the urbanization of the world’s population, urban beekeeping might not be sustainable. Overpopulation and limited resources is a problem for every species. In Europe at least, cities such as London, where there are are 25 beehives per square mile, just don’t have enough flowers to support the rising urban bee population. Perhaps urban bees will ultimately suffer the same inevitable fate as humans: replacement by robot.
Demaking a video game, says Ed Fries, is "like haiku" for programmers, an exercise in "enforcing constraints on yourself as a tool for creativity." Everyone knows remakes, fortunes have been made on the backs of franchises like Mario, Sonic and Call of Duty. But to demake a game, to adapt a concept to an older, less-capable hardware, is a curiously demanding challenge.
In 2010, Fries, a former vice president of game publishing at Microsoft, released a landmark demake, Halo 2600—a version of Halo, the multibillion-dollar series that has dominated 21st-century gaming—for the Atari 2600, the 1970s vintage console that brought us Pac-Man. Now, Halo 2600 has been added to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's permanent collections. A playable version will go on display at a date yet to be determined.
After reading a book about programming for the 1970s Atari 2600 video-game console, Fries decided to try his hand at writing some of his own code for the vintage console. Fries recreated the game's protagonist "Master Chief," a cybernetically-enhanced super soldier, not intending to recast the entire game. But subsequent conversations with other developers inspired him to to complete the project.
The final result? Fries ended up compressing “Halo” into a distilled, two-dimensional game featuring its original key plot elements—while using only 4KB of memory. In doing so, the programmer reimagined a modern blockbuster game as it would be played through the early technology responsible for launching the entire video game industry—a process akin to fashioning a space shuttle out of Model T parts.
At first glance, Halo 2600 might seem more suited for an arcade than an art museum. But this isn't the first time the museum has featured games as art: Halo 2600 was one of several selected for display in the popular 2012 exhibition, “The Art of Video Games.” And now that the game is a permanent part of the museum's treasure trove of interactive media, Michael Mansfield, curator of the film and media arts, already has his eye on others.
Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mike Mika and Ed Fries. Halo 2600 (original image)
Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mike Mika and Ed Fries. Halo 2600 (original image)
Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mike Mika and Ed Fries. Halo 2600 (original image)
Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mike Mika and Ed Fries. Halo 2600 (original image)
"I think that a significant amount of artists are working with interactive mechanics and things of this nature," says Mansfield. "We’re paying very close attention to what the game industry is doing, and to what gamers are doing."
In a nod to the museum's expanding media arts collection, Smithsonian magazine spoke to Fries about the future of video games, how programming's changed over the past 35 years, and how he feels about being called an "artist.''
I read somewhere that you said that people who grew up playing the Atari would care about Halo2600, but probably nobody else would. How does it feel now that curators consider it “art” and are archiving it in an art museum?
I never thought of myself as an artist. I guess, about is what was interesting—it’s more what I learned while I was making the game that maybe makes it more like art than just another programming project.
What did you learn?
Well… it’s the basics of a longer talk that I gave about the experience and about what it was like to program, to go back to one of these old machines, and program under a considerable constraint. As a programmer over the last 30 to 35 years, machines have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger, and there’s been more and more and more memory, and it’s changed the way you think of making a program.
So to go back to one of those old machines, where just to put it in perspective, there’s about a million times less space for the game on Atari 2600 than there would be on the first version of Halo for Xbox. And probably I don’t know, four million times less RAM space or something like that. So it’s incredibly small.
I would compare it to the difference between writing a book and writing a poem. So if you’re writing a book, you’ve got all the space you need, right, and you can kind of just write in a very freeform way, put your sentences together, until you tell the story that you want to tell. But in a poem you’re under some really tight constraints, you know? You have a limited amount of space, and even within the lines of that space you have to follow really specific rules. I mean, there’s typically a meter and a rhyme, and all of these things affect the way you express yourself.
And so going back and working on this machine was going from a novel to writing a poem or writing a haiku. Everything had to be carefully chosen, and everything had to be compressed. But also, there’s sort of serendipity that comes out in that act. . . . Because of the constraints that you’re under, words present themselves that wouldn’t otherwise. I mean, you can’t choose the words that you might not want to choose because it doesn’t fit with the meter, or it doesn’t fit with they rhyme. And so you have to choose a different word, and that takes you off in different direction than maybe you thought when you were setting off to create the poem in the first place.
I found these kinds of feelings happening to me while I was programming this game, and that got me thinking of that whole idea of artificial constraints, or enforcing constraints, on yourself as a tool for creativity—as a way to take you in new directions that you wouldn’t normally expect.
With video games being such a young medium, I think it’s silly to say there are no more good ideas. But the business of games is kind of like Hollywood sequels—adaptations, safe bets. Is that at odds with art? Can video games still be daring without conforming to established genre tropes?
It’s actually an incredibly exciting time in the game business. . . .I think all parts of the game business are pushing the boundaries, artistically. So you have kind of the big blockbusters, and you think well, yeah, there are sequels, you know, they have to be somewhat predictable because they have to sell millions of copies. But really, they’re at the forefront of trying to make video games a narrative art form in a sense that they’re competing with something like movies in telling a story with characters in a way that’s believable—believable dialogues, believable characters, believable emotion. So at the high end, they’re really pushing that production value. It’s kind of an exploration—can we make a game that makes you feel things as strong, or stronger, than a great movie would make you feel?
But then underneath that, you have a huge upswell of indie games. It used to be hard to make a game. It used to be only kind of programmers like myself would make them. And we come at it from a certain perspective, I think. But now there are new tools that are available—one is a very popular one, it’s called Unity—and Unity makes it easier than ever for just about anyone to make a video game. And so that’s, I think, opening the medium up to more artistic creations. And so just seeing the whole series of fantastic art games kind of coming out— a dad made a game called “That Dragon, Cancer,” recently, about his experience with one of his four sons having cancer. There’s another award-winning game that was developed in the last year called “Gone Home,” which is about a relationship between two young women in high school. And these are topics that never would’ve been touched by the video game business in the past. It’s like, ‘Wow, you can make a video game about that?” I could see that you could make a book about it, or a movie, but a game? It’s really the changing face of who can make games, how games are made. And, you know, that’s opening the medium up for exploring every human topic.
I read that Roger Ebert argument from way back in which he said that video games aren't art because they haven't been compared to the greatest poems or songs. I know there's always a lot of debate surrounding the artistic evolution of a new medium; do you think someday there will be a game on par with the greatest plays, poems and songs in terms of pure conceptual art or evoking emotion?
I think even Ebert stepped back from his initial statement to some degree. And … absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t see why not. I think games can be a more powerful medium because we put the player in control, and that’s really what’s different about video games—or sometimes what we call it, interactive entertainment—because you really feel like you’re there, you’re in that situation, you have some control over the outcomes that you’re making decisions about.
Also, that’s also the biggest challenge of video games, artistically, at least from a narrative point of view. How do you give player control, or at least a sense of control, while still taking them where you want to take them, while still telling the story that you want to tell? So it’s a much more fluid relationship between the audience and the artist. And you know, that’s a hard problem. That’s why it’s taken games 35 years to get where we are today, and why we still have a lot of work to do. But I think we’re getting better about it.
I don’t want to get too caught up in "Art" with a capital A in a sense, because then it becomes this whole kind of pointless argument about what is art to begin with. I think what matters is, can we tell human stories in a way that affect people—maybe change how they feel about themselves, or the world or exposes them to something that they haven’t been exposed to before? And in the game business, that simple thing is actually pretty hard. I mean, it’s taken us many years and a lot of technological advance to be able to make realistic characters on a screen that look like people, that don’t look like robots, that move like real people, that when they talk, the way their mouths move or eyes sparkle. You know, that doesn’t make you feel like you’re looking at a puppet—that makes you feel like you’re looking at a real human being. Once you get past that, then you open up the door to tell real stories about real people but in a way that’s different than a movie because the player’s in control. And that’s the promise for video games.
Anything else you want to add—about video games, about the Smithsonian, about art ?
I’ve worked in the game business for a long time on stuff both big and small, and it’s just been really fun to see the business evolve over the years. And so going to that video game exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and being able to take my family and my two young boys—it was just a fantastic experience, and it reminds me how far we’ve come in 35 years.
About 20 times a day, a driver somewhere in Sweden crashes a car into a moose. The giant deer are usually injured or killed, the cars often destroyed, and the drivers frequently hurt.
It’s an alarming statistic that engineers with the Swedish car manufacturer Volvo hope to downsize as they enter the frontier of driverless car technology. Volvo plans to have 100 autonomous vehicles in use by 2017, and more in the years following. The hope is that the cars, driven by advanced computer systems, will be safer and more efficient than error-prone human-operated vehicles.
Much of the talk is about how driverless cars could transform urban areas thick with pedestrians. But how will they stand to benefit those traveling at highway speeds on rural roads routinely crossed by moose, deer and wild pigs?
Erik Coelingh, Volvo’s senior technical leader in Göteborg, says the first step toward reducing collisions with moose is driving more slowly, which autonomous cars will do. They will also be able to both identify the animal sooner and respond to its presence faster than a human could.
Roadkill is a huge problem in the United States too, where hundreds of millions of animals die every year in collisions with vehicles. Most of these events are non-issues for the cars as their tires squash small creatures like amphibians and rodents. However, many involve animals big enough to dent metal or shatter glass. Americans crashed their vehicles into 1.25 million deer in 2014, amounting to $4 billion in damage, according to Sevag Sarkissian, media relations specialist with State Farm. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has reported that about 200 people are killed each year in vehicle collisions with wildlife.
Image by Federal Highway Administration. Driverless cars will communicate with one another, reducing traffic congestion. (original image)
Image by © Yuya Shino/Reuters/Corbis. An onboard display monitor in Toyota's self-driving "Mobility Teammate Concept" prototype car shows other vehicles on the road. (original image)
Image by © handout/Corbis. With its self-driving cars, Google has covered more than a million miles. (original image)
Image by © Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters/Corbis. Here you can see video captured by a Google self-driving car alongside the car's visualization of the same street scene. (original image)
Image by © Steve Marcus/Reuters/Corbis. The Mercedes-Benz F015 Luxury in Motion autonomous concept car was shown at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. (original image)
In the United States, driverless cars are already taking to the street on an experimental basis. Manufacturers promise that these marvels of the tech age will change our world. The cars will communicate with one another, allowing them to move fluidly through the streetscape while reducing traffic congestion, time spent prowling for parking and pollution. With sharper senses and faster reaction times than people, autonomous vehicles could theoretically make car-on-car collisions a thing of the past.
But outsmarting animals, engineers say, could be among the tougher tasks for these super-smart cars. The main challenge is that nature is imperfect and unpredictable, and it isn’t clear yet how the rigid calculations of computers will handle the sometimes erratic behavior of wild, as well as domesticated, animals.
“Even if we develop the perfect automated recognition and avoidance system, you still have an imperfect ecology and wildlife behavior system, so there’s maybe still too much chaos,” says Fraser Shilling, the director of the California Roadkill Observation System, a program that tracks roadkill, locates collision hotspots and aims to reduce wildlife mortality on roadways. “If your subject, the animal, is sprinting out into the road in such a way that you can’t stop fast enough, does it really matter how perfect the car is?”
The driverless cars being designed and tested now use a combination of lasers, cameras and radar to navigate roadways and identify objects in or near their paths. Large animals will be relatively easy for autonomous vehicles to dodge. That’s because manufacturers are making avoiding pedestrian collisions a top, nonnegotiable priority. This means the safety of any animal that resembles a pedestrian will benefit under the same umbrella of caution.
“If it looks like a pedestrian, it will be treated like a pedestrian,” says Aaron Steinfeld, a researcher and robotics engineer at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Steinfeld, who has worked on the development of autonomous vehicles since 1998, says sensors now being used on driverless cars pick up information in different ways. Some, for instance, can provide information about an object’s surface—whether it is hard and likely made of metal, glass and steel, or soft and presumably made of fur, clothing and flesh. Any large, soft object will be treated like a pedestrian.It isn’t clear yet how the rigid calculations of computers will handle the sometimes erratic behavior of wild animals. (© Momatiuk - Eastcott/Corbis)
Once the object is identified, the car must decide what to do. Cars that are not fully automated will, in moments of crisis, alert the human occupant and hand over all controls of the vehicle to the human—who, hopefully, will not be busy uploading selfies to Facebook.
On the other hand, the fully automated vehicles that some companies, including Google, are designing, will be programmed to respond to the situation themselves.
To do this in the most agreeable way, Steinfeld explains, the cars will refer to so-called “cost maps”—systems that tell an automated vehicle at any given moment what objects are currently in the vicinity and how costly it would be to collide with them. A pedestrian would probably be associated with the highest costs, as would a semi-truck or any other large vehicle, while a squirrel would probably be identified as relatively low-cost and certainly not worth the risk of swerving to avoid crushing it.
Spotting a moose on the move is one thing. Predicting its next move, however, will probably not be possible.
“This is beyond state of the art,” Coelingh says. “We can only make a rough prediction of the motion of the elk, based on its current position and speed. So when an animal is standing still we need to assume it will keep standing still until we see a movement.”
Andy Alden, a researcher with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, says that during a study conducted with Toyota, observations of animals’ actions were a bit too inconclusive to build any predictive capacities into driverless car software.
“But there certainly are some things you could drop into an algorithm, like time of day, time of year, the kind of environment along the road, the width of the road, the amount of traffic on it,” he says. “There are lots of parameters that affect your likelihood of encountering an animal on the road.”
Cars won’t be the only things smarter on America’s future roadways. So will the roads, which in a few places around the country have already been rigged with sensors to inform approaching vehicles of nearby hazards, such as a deer walking toward or on the asphalt. These cables are placed several inches underground and 14 feet from the road, according to Alden. He says the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute has tested one of these lines on an experimental track and found it capable of detecting moving objects as far as 10 feet away. Working in tandem with nearby roadside sensors, such a system could generate alerts for approaching vehicles.
“It would say, ‘You’re on a collision course with a potential problem,’” he says.
Image by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. From camera footage, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute identified this spot on the Virginia Smart Road, a closed test track facility, as being heavily trafficked by deer, bear and coyotes. (original image)
Image by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. In a few spots in this country, roads are rigged with sensors to inform vehicles of nearby hazards, such as deer walking toward the asphalt. (original image)
Image by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Cables, at one site, are placed 14 feet from the road. (original image)
Image by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The cables are buried several inches underground. (original image)
Image by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute installed an infrared surveillance camera that records five-minute video clips. (original image)
Image by Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. The camera and near-infrared illuminators adjust for both day and night recording. (original image)
In Sweden, smart roads are not currently a focus of research and development, says Coelingh.
“We don’t want to have to add any new requirements to the roads,” he says, adding that information about road hazards, such as wildlife or icy conditions, will be transmitted from vehicle to vehicle via the cloud. “We want these cars to work on the roads that we know today. That way they can be used right away in all markets.”
Shilling expects driverless cars will achieve better track records than humans when it comes to driving on roadways crisscrossed by unpredictable wild animals. However, he thinks the best solutions to the problem of roadkill mortality are already available. Fencing along major roadways coupled with green overpasses or tunnels could all but eliminate car-animal collisions in some places, he says.
Cost, he says, does not appear to be the holdup. Billions of dollars, says Shilling, are spent in California alone on roadway work while virtually nothing is spent on keeping animals off of roadways—at least, not while they are still alive. Alden notes that the Virginia Department of Transportation alone spends $2 million per year picking up and disposing of wildlife carcasses.
For any given length of paved, high-speed roadway, placing fencing along each side would amount to a fraction of the cost of building and maintaining that paved surface.
“There are many, many places where it pencils out to build these structures,” Shilling says. “So, I think it is worth investigating the smart vehicle, but it kind of avoids the question of why we aren’t going with the other option of just building the crossings and fencing when it’s so cost effective.”
As far as we know, we are alone in the universe. Earth is the only planet known to be inhabited by life, and humans are the only intelligent beings.
There are, of course, rumors of alien contacts. There's Area 51, the Air Force base in Nevada, where the government supposedly stores aliens in freezers. And there was that mysterious crash landing in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947—and mutilated cows in Colorado. In a recent poll, one in four Americans said they believed the planet has already been visited by an extraterrestrial. For the rest of us, though, aliens are relegated to the realm of fiction, and UFO sightings are simply hoaxes or events that have some unknown but natural explanation.
That doesn't mean alien life couldn't be real. Scientists are taking that possibility seriously and are looking beyond our planet for evidence of extraterrestrials. "Long ago people suspected that there might be life in other places," says Mary Voytek, NASA's head astrobiologist. "I think it's a fundamental question everyone has: Are we unique?"
What happens if the answer to that question is no? What if we finally discover we're not alone? Believe it or not, there is a plan.
The idea there might be other creatures in the universe has been around since at least the fifth century B.C., when the Greek philosopher Democritus posited "innumerable worlds of different sizes," not all of which were devoid of life. Four hundred years later, the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus wrote of "other worlds" with "different tribes of men, kinds of wild beasts."
In the 17th century, German astronomer Johannes Kepler, in what is regarded as the first science fiction story, wrote about a voyage to the Moon in which travelers encountered reptile-like creatures. At the end of that century, Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens wrote a book speculating on the conditions on other planets and concluding that some of them must harbor life.
Aiming his telescope at Mars in 1894, the American astronomer Percival Lowell saw a web of what he thought were canals—structures so elaborate they could have been built only by beings with intelligence.
With the founding of NASA and other space agencies in the 20th century, people began to explore the solar system and actively search for alien life. We sent satellites to photograph other planets and robots to explore their surfaces. Astronauts walked on the Moon and brought back rocks and dust. Scientists found evidence of water on the Moon and Mars, as well as on Jupiter's moon Europa. Amino acids were discovered in meteorites that had fallen to Earth. Ever more powerful telescopes and new ways to analyze their readings have led to the discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars. Though no one has found life anywhere other than on Earth, that discovery seems just around the corner.
The search for extraterrestrials takes two broad forms. NASA and other government-funded space agencies are concentrating their search on simple, microscopic life that may have existed—or may still exist—close to home, on a planet or moon in our solar system. Other scientists search for signs of creatures a bit more like us—beings that may themselves be searching for other intelligent life-forms.
The most ambitious search began in 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope at two stars similar to our sun and listened for some kind of "signature of intelligence." He tuned in to a frequency of 1,420 megahertz, which is the radio wave emitted by cold hydrogen gas, chosen because of hydrogen's abundance in the universe. At the time it was the best guess of the mutually intelligible signal an alien race might use to contact Earth.
Drake's work inspired people around the world to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The foremost project, called the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), is based in Mountain View, California. SETI has never found definitive evidence of intelligent life, but in 1977 an engineer working at a telescope in Ohio detected a mysterious 72-second pulse that originated a long way from Earth. Whether it came from aliens or, more likely, a black hole event was never determined. The rather long pulse—which prompted the engineer to write "Wow!" in the margin of a printout of the telescope's recordings—has not been repeated, but it has persuaded at least some radio astronomers to keep searching.
More recently, SETI scientists expanded their search beyond radio frequencies. "We're looking for bright flashes that last a billionth of a second or less," says Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research and the inspiration for the Jodie Foster character in the movie Contact. "As far as we know, this is something that a laser can do but that nature can't." SETI scientists figure that such a pulse would represent an intentional, high-tech, long-distance message: "evidence of somebody deliberately using a laser focused into a large telescope to create a detectable signal over the many light-years between stars," Tarter says.
The radio signal approach hasn't turned up much so far, and Tarter admits she doesn't know what the ideal frequencies might be. Even with the new search for laser flashes, the SETI scientists might be using incorrect technologies, but they still think the effort is worthwhile. As her colleague Seth Shostak says, "Columbus didn't wait for a 747 to get him across the Atlantic."
And though SETI scientists have yet to find evidence of extraterrestrials, they are well prepared for success. "Yes, we do have a plan," Tarter says. "It starts with champagne."
The plan comes from a document known as the "Declaration of Principles Concerning the Conduct of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence," which grew out of plans spawned in the years when NASA had an office dedicated to SETI research, before Congress cut off funding in 1993. The first step, according to the protocol, is verifying the find through independent confirmation by another observatory using different equipment and software. "We're a very attractive target for hoaxes," Tarter says. If the signal passes this first test—which could take days—and is confirmed, the SETI scientists would notify the secretary general of the United Nations. The scientists would also alert the international astronomy community by e-mails to members of the International Astronomical Union. And they would tell the public, probably by holding a press conference to announce the discovery to the world.
Our first contact with alien life, though, probably won't be with an intelligent, signal-beaming species. The most accessible source of potential non-Earthling life is Mars. NASA and its European counterparts are weighing options for a mission, at least 15 or 20 years from now, that would gather samples from the planet and return them to Earth.
A draft document states that any such samples would be treated with the same precautions as the Ebola virus, at least until they were deemed safe. But scientists must first develop a plan to protect this planet from anything they might find. "It would be really stupid to bring something back and then not know how to kill it if it was trying to eat us," says Catharine Conley, whose title is NASA's Planetary Protection Officer. (Conley says she has only the second-coolest title in NASA history; there once was a "Director, Universe.")
Conley envisions a scenario in which the research on potential alien life is conducted in front of cameras hooked up to the Internet. "The expectation is that none of this will be done in secrecy," she says. "We want people to be interested." That's probably not going to be a problem. It "would be a discovery equivalent to those made by some of the great names in history," says John Billingham, former head of NASA's SETI program.
And how would the world react to a discovery announcement? "Your guess is as good as mine," Tarter says.
Paul Davies, an astrobiologist at Arizona State University, heads up the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, a collection of scientists, journalists, lawyers, science fiction writers and philosophers. Their job is to advise relevant parties—other scientists, governments, the United Nations—about what to do if a SETI signal or any "putative evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence" were detected. While waiting for a contact, the group deliberates about what the consequences might be. While a discovery of microscopic life on another body in our solar system would be "of profound significance, which would change our worldview," Davies says, "it's not one of these things that is going to be disruptive to society." But the discovery of a signal from intelligent extraterrestrials could lead to "mayhem." Billingham agrees. "Some people will think that this is a natural event in the continuing work on scientific questions," he says, and others will ask, in panic, "What do we do now?"
People would likely fall into two camps. Catastrophists, as one of the camps is called, might well predict the end of humanity as we know it, or at least the end of our current culture. In 2010 Stephen Hawking said that making contact with aliens would be "a little too risky" and compared the event to Columbus arriving in the New World, "which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans." But millenarian enthusiasts anticipate revelations of rapture: how to cure cancer, solve the energy crisis or win world peace. And if aliens did manage to come to Earth, says Tarter, an admitted enthusiast, "they would likely have outgrown the aggressiveness that has served us so well."
As for a supersecretive government agency or powerful corporation keeping a discovery of alien life a secret, Davies thinks that's unlikely. "I think there's a big misconception in the public that somehow this is all a cloak-and-dagger operation, and it's not," he says. "People are quite open about what they are doing."
Sarah Zielinski is an assistant editor at Smithsonian. She writes the "Surprising Science" blog on Smithsonian.com.
Image by Joshua Roberts / AFP / Getty Images. Conspiracy theorists in Washington, D.C. (original image)
Image by Everett Collection. Movies, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and conspiracy theorists insist we are not alone. (original image)
Image by Kimberly White / Reuters / Corbis. Frank Drake, at a conference in San Francisco, came up with an equation for estimating the number of civilizations in the Milky Way. (original image)
Image by Christian Schidlowski / Vidicom Media GmbH & Co. KG. Jill Tarter, at the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California, directs the most ambitious search for civilizations in the Milky Way. (original image)
Image by Paul E. Alers / NASA. Catharine Conley, at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., says she has the second-coolest title in NASA history: Planetary Protection Officer. (original image)
On a sunny afternoon in September, a barge roughly the size of a dump truck pulls into Delta, British Columbia, piled high with marine debris. Foam, plastic bottles, frayed rope—all of it hand-picked by dozens of volunteers from the western shores of Vancouver Island and stashed inside 200 giant white bags. “Too bad that ain’t gold,” a bystander remarks from the dock. “You just wait,” replies Chloé Dubois, standing on deck, “one day it will be.”
Dubois, the executive director of Ocean Legacy, one of a handful of organizations that took part in what was dubbed the largest marine debris cleanup in Canada over the summer of 2016, is startlingly passionate about plastic—something people throw away every single day. The month before the barge’s arrival, I joined Ocean Legacy’s cleanup of Mquqwin/Brooks Peninsula Provincial Park and saw Dubois work 12-hour days sorting foam, dragging giant necklaces of buoys across the scorching sand, and moving crinkly sacks so full of water bottles they dwarfed her meter-and-a-half height. She cleans with full knowledge that the beaches will be covered in plastic again in a few weeks’ time.
This summer’s sweep was funded by the remains of a CAN $1-million grant from the Japanese government to clean tsunami debris off British Columbia’s coast. But we don’t need a tsunami to get plastic in the ocean; Ocean Legacy estimates that only a third of what they collect comes from the 2011 disaster. Every year, coastal nations send a combined 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean, but Canada, which has more coastline than any other country in the world, has little to no funding or mainstream solutions for dealing with what washes up here. Left to degrade on shore, the plastic breaks down into ever smaller fragments that animals eat or that leach flame retardants, insecticides, and other toxic chemicals into the environment.
Conservation groups often have no choice but to landfill the sun-bleached, brittle plastic they collect. But that ending isn’t good enough for Ocean Legacy, which Dubois founded with her partner, James Middleton, three years ago. With an ambitious goal of upcycling the 20 tonnes or so of material they collected this summer, they aim to prove that plastic waste can become something valuable—and to ultimately disrupt the cradle-to-ocean cycle of plastic mismanagement. Otherwise, debris will keep washing up on shore and the cleanups will truly become the Sisyphean ordeal they seem to be. If they succeed, they will have pulled off the greatest alchemy the modern world has ever seen: turning garbage into gold.
Along a dreary road lined with warehouses in Vancouver, a door is propped open with a salt-eaten buoy. “How are you?” I ask a long-haired man sitting out front sipping coffee. “Sick of taking caps off bottles,” he answers.
This is Eric McGillveray, Ocean Legacy’s head of mechanical operations, whom everyone calls Dexter, after the cartoon character from Dexter’s Laboratory. True to his nerdy namesake, he flourishes in the dark engine room of Ocean Legacy’s trawler that dragged the barge into Delta. But right now the team needs hands, not mechanical expertise. After the trawler docked last month, Lush cosmetics donated this warehouse to Ocean Legacy to sort its driftage. In addition to their own haul, Ocean Legacy offered to pick up, sort, and recycle material from other organizations that conducted cleanups: Sail and Life Training Society, the Surfrider Foundation, and the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. Now, Dubois and her colleagues have only 14 days to prepare a pile roughly the size of a blue whale for recycling.Chloé Dubois perches on a sack full of plastic marine debris gathered from the western shores of Vancouver Island last summer. (Ocean Legacy Foundation)
Little-known fact: recyclers have high standards. Residential recyclers specialize in recognizable domestic products that come from a home, not the ocean. They’re wary of breaking their state-of-the-art sorting machines on whatever may be stuck to marine debris. There’s an identification problem, too. After a long journey at sea, ocean plastic is often missing its imprinted resin code that says what type of plastic it is. In short, most recyclers have neither the equipment, nor the time, nor the financial motivation to process plastic that is way past its prime. “Everyone has been saying, ‘No, no, no,’” says Dubois.
This means Dubois, McGillveray, and Middleton are spending every day, from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., dumping sack after sack onto the warehouse floor and combing through the contents by hand. “Until we create artificial intelligence robots that can see and feel as well as we do, [the process] is completely manual,” says McGillveray.
The common plastic water bottle is a particular pain. Carved into the underside is a “1” surrounded by a triangle: a resin code that stands for polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. The bottle’s cap is resin code five for polypropylene. Recyclers separate PET from polypropylene in order to sell a homogenous plastic for the highest price possible. And yet, people are surprisingly good at screwing caps back onto bottles—tightly. Meanwhile, the bags of mystery multicolored foams are multiplying. Without a recycler in place, the foam might scotch Ocean Legacy’s lofty zero-waste goal.
Four days into the sorting, Dubois takes me on a tour of what they’ve separated so far. There are 18 sections, each marked with a handwritten sign: rubber, metal, glass, foam, bags, buoys and so on. There’s a section for shoes—many of them lost soles from the victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. (This is one of the many reasons Dubois bristles when people call ocean plastic “garbage.”) Some sections, such as foam and buoys, are divided into smaller sections: dirty foam, mixed foam, and clean foam, or good buoys, broken buoys and cork buoys.
In lieu of mainstream recyclers, Dubois and the team have spent years tracking down experimental processors willing to take a chance on ocean plastics: companies like Lush and Adidas and factories in nearby Coquitlam and in Ohio. The trick, however, is delivering a homogenous resin that these companies can vaporize into petroleum, remold into cosmetic bottles, or spin into fabric for shoes.
“We have to be pretty determined about getting this done. Then we can go back to having a life,” Dubois says as she surveys the warehouse. She opens a bag of the mixed foam and peers at the orphaned blue, pink, and caramel-colored chunks inside. The team still hasn’t found anyone willing to take it. “It may end up in the landfill,” she says wistfully. A few days earlier, McGillveray left a voice mail for a chemical engineer he found on a defunct-looking website who was developing a system for recycling mixed foams. It’s a shot in the dark, but it’s the best hope they have this late in the sort.
Across the warehouse are mini mountains of styrofoam and bottles and rope, and there are only nine days left to sort it all.Volunteers with Ocean Legacy tackle sacks full of plastic marine debris at a warehouse in Vancouver. (Laura Trethewey)
Six days later, I return to the warehouse just as 60 school children are moving giant chunks of white styrofoam, like tiny worker ants. Over the weekend, Global News reported on the sort and the television spot drew in dozens of volunteers. Dubois tells me about a Japanese couple who sat on the cold concrete floor and painstakingly sieved foam pellets from dirt.
Miraculously, Ocean Legacy is now three days ahead of schedule. The quiet sorting of last week has given way to noisy momentum inside the warehouse. Children drum on garbage bins, bottle collectors come and go with pushcarts, volunteers show up looking to help. The sprawling pile that was once the size of a blue whale has been dissected into tidier sections ready for shipping. Even the troublesome mixed foams may find a home after all: the chemical engineer returned McGillveray’s call and will drop by the warehouse to check out the goods soon.
Dubois sits on her shins, sorting the last bag. Despite all the good news, her mood is uncharacteristically downcast, her voice flat. This is the first time in three years that Ocean Legacy has attempted to recycle everything from its summer cleanups and the experiment has not come cheap. Ocean Legacy’s operations get by on grants, while the team works various contracts throughout the year to make ends meet. But the debts are mounting as their savings dwindle; everyone is donating their time. “James and I have been covering additional expenses,” Dubois says, mentioning an expensive boat part that broke and stalled their operations.
As Dubois sorts, Middleton returns with a $45 bill for tipping a truckload of rusted cylinders and other items that couldn’t be recycled into the landfill—one more receipt to add to the pile. They always suspected it would be impossible to find a home for every last ocean scrap.
One day before the deadline, Dubois is back to her upbeat self. The white-foam mountain has disappeared to Coquitlam where it will be upcycled into siding for new homes. Three tonnes of mixed plastic sit in shrink-wrapped cubes, waiting for shipment to an Ohio factory that vaporizes plastic into fuel. Lush will later buy the water bottles and hard plastics to recycle into cosmetic containers. Dubois is excited about a grant proposal she’s writing. If she succeeds, the funding will buy a plastic washer and chipper that can break pieces of ocean plastic down into a sellable commodity—and move Ocean Legacy one step closer to turning plastic into gold.
Around 1:00 p.m., a well-dressed chemical engineer named Kambiz Taheri arrives at the warehouse to check out the mixed foam—“the last big question mark,” as Middleton calls it. If Taheri takes the foam, they’ll send just under a half tonne to the landfill. Taheri says that the pink and blue foam must be separated from the caramel-colored urethane he specializes in chemically reducing to liquid and reusing. However, he promises to take the urethane and direct them to another recycler for the pink and blue foam. Dubois, Middleton, and McGillveray cheer, happy and exhausted.
Outside, a storm lashes the warehouse parking lot—the remains of Typhoon Songda working toward the Pacific Northwest, sending wave after wave of plastic.
Randy Knol doesn't know how many toy dinosaurs he has.
It is hard to tell exactly. They aren't all in one place. Most of them are in the basement and the attic. Stacked in boxes, bags and giant Rubbermaid containers. A few have strayed into the kitchen, which is supposed to be off-limits. Bags of the latest arrivals are spread out on the coffee table. More are spread out on the deck behind his house. A tiny rubber triceratops peeks out from under the couch. I didn't go into the bathroom.
Little white brontosauruses from the 1950s with their tails dragging on the ground. A waist-high, anatomically correct sauropod with life-like wrinkles. A Jurassic Park-branded hadrosaurus, still in the original box. Literal six packs of velociraptors. Think of any toy dinosaur from your childhood; Knol has it.
Some of the dinosaurs also leave his collection. Knol teaches summer classes for Smithsonian Associates on building dinosaur dioramas; he supplies the dinos and the kids take those home. He's got the credentials for the job. He's a columnist with the popular magazine Prehistoric Times, dedicated to dinosaur enthusiasts and he is a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. (His day job is with the U.S. Census Bureau.)
The massive collection began when Knol was a child in the 1960s. “My grandfather gave me a 'Flintstones' playset for Christmas,” he says of the popular television series featuring Fred Flintsone and his pet dinosaur. Both the toys and Knol's appetite for knowledge have increased ever since.A fascination for collecting dinosaurs began for Randy Knol in the 1960s when his father gave him a toy play set of the popular prehistoric Flintstones family. (Jackson Landers)
Today, Knol possesses what he thinks is the world's largest collection of toy dinosaurs. How large? “Probably about five or six thousand,” Knol guessed. “I knew a couple of collectors who had more but they're all dead now. I saw their collections show up on eBay. That's how you know they've left the world.”
“My wife accuses me of being a hoarder,” says Knol as he sorts through a cardboard box filled with hundreds of figures that his students had jumbled together. “That's ok, I don't mind. They're not supposed to be in the kitchen any more. I used to have a diorama in the top of the kitchen but periodically dinosaurs would fall on top of her while she was cooking and she didn't like that.”
Knol's family may have a little extra patience with his hobby because of the higher purpose associated with it.
Knol says toy dinosaurs educate children about paleontology and other fields of science when they are well-made. Usually they aren't, which perpetuates a 70-year-old feedback loop of misinformation.
“Most [toy dinosaurs] were driven by popular art” when they first appeared on the market in the 1950s, Knol says. “In the United States, the most influential piece of art at the time was by a man named Zallinger who did the Yale Peabody mural. And if you look at it, most of these figures were directly copied from the mural.”
Rudolph Zallinger's 110-foot-long mural The Age of Reptiles was groundbreaking when it was completed in 1947. It was the first major work of art depicting recreations of what dinosaurs might have looked like when they were alive. A close-up of the mural ran on the cover of Life magazine in 1953 and the artwork quickly became the gold standard for what dinosaurs really looked like. Toymakers cribbed designs from Zallinger's work, as did editors and illustrators of educational books for adults and children.
The problem was that Zallinger's mural was painted at a time when scientists didn't really know very much about dinosaurs or the world that they lived in.
“When I was a kid, plate tectonics did not exist [as a scientific field],” Knol says. “The idea that at the end of the Mesozoic, a comet or giant asteroid hit, that was controversial. The idea that dinosaurs are ancestral to birds, nobody had believed that. Birds were supposed to just be some kind of cousin.”
In 1947, nobody knew that most theropod dinosaurs (these were the ones that mostly walked around on two feet rather than all four) probably had feathers. They were thought of as slow-moving, monochromatic, tail-dragging, cold-blooded lizards.
Today, scientists generally agree that these ideas were wrong. The imagined T. Rex of the 1940s resembles the reconstructed T. Rex of today about as much as a domestic cow resembles a bison. All the same parts are technically present, but the final effect is very different.
Despite decades of new research, more toys continue to be made from the old molds. Educational books for children continue to be illustrated with images based on those toys and past artwork, including Zallinger's mural (which is still prominently featured at the Yale Peabody Museum). And then the images in the books drive demand for the flawed toys. A few companies are trying to make more accurate models but the market has resisted them.Knol's collection boxes become a stage to display some of the toy dinos they hold. (Jackson Landers)
“I was talking to the Safari Company, who've I've known for years,” says Knol. “They were very progressive. They put out a brand new T. Rex that didn't drag its tail or anything. Retailers insisted that they keep the old one because it still sold better. And because what is in all the childrens books? They don't have feathers, they don't have their tails up the air! The kids want things that look like the books that their parents are giving them to read.”
Knol carefully chooses the toys used for his diorama classes. He specially orders models that represent up-to-date science (the kids will paint them in colors according to their own imagination, though). While playing with models is fun, accurate science is at the heart of the entire program. Kids learn about geology, climatology, ecology, biomechanics and botany along the way.
“We visit the [United States] Botanic Garden every year with the kids. One of the things we teach the kids is the difference between spores and seeds. We teach the differences between gymnospores and flowering plants. One of the big issues with using plants in dinosaur dioramas was that you couldn't use grasses because they didn't exist. Well, it turns out that they did.”
The classes are offered as part of a summer camp offered annually by Smithsonian Associates. Exposure to good science at Smithsonian's camps seems to be paying long-term dividends, according to Brigitte Blachere, program manager at the organization. “Some of these kids have come back as college students and done internships with certain scientists,” she says.Campers discover the flora and fauna of the prehistoric world and create a diorama board that depicts a landscape of the Mesozoic era. (Smithsonian Associates)
“Smithsonian has been presenting summer camps for about 45 years now,” says Blachere. “Randy has been a big part of that at least for the last 15 years.”
The Smithsonian Associates Summer Camp program offers one and two week programs geared towards specific interests. Other Associates programs include courses focused on gardening, modern art, robots and diorama classes focused on famous conflicts such as the Battle of the Somme and the Mexican-American War.
The military diorama classes were what brought Knol and his incredible dinosaur collection to Smithsonian in the first place.
“My son was taking a class for the military stuff,” says Knol, “and I was talking to the guy who did the dioramas. I said that I do dioramas, too, but I mostly do dinosaur stuff. He said we desperately want a dinosaur diorama class. . .and that was over ten years ago and I've been doing it ever since.”
Knol lined up six examples of T. Rex figures for comparison. “This isn't something you should really teach with, but it still seems to sell pretty well,” he says as he holds an upright, featherless, green T. Rex that looks like something out of the 1933 version of King Kong. Several others had a bird-like posture but their feet were oversized (to help the toy stand up). Only two have feathers and sinewy, hawk-like legs. One of these lies twisted and dead on the ground with chunks of flesh torn away to reveal bones and intestines within.
Truly realistic toy dinosaurs are hard to find and often expensive. The two most accurate of the T. Rexes, both made by Collecta, retail for around $30. Highly collectable discontinued models, such as Knol's prized diplodocus, sculpted by Dan LoRusso and made in 1994 by Battat for the Boston Museum of Science, can fetch up to $600 on eBay. Quality and scientific accuracy are highly valued by the community of adult collectors, if less so by parents buying toys for their children.
Even the dinosaurs carried by the gift shops at some museums are usually suspect. “It's all trash,” Knol says. “They are low-end... My favorite was the triceratops that only had one horn.”
“Science is really important,” says Knol. “Getting people interested, especially young people interested in science is important. …there's almost no branch of science that I can't teach while showing kids stuff with dinosaurs. Everything from plate tectonics to why asteroids hit the earth and what the solar system looks like. When we're looking for creative ways to teach kids, let's do it through gamification and introduce these things while having fun rather than doing these death-by-Power-Point lectures that turn everyone off.”
There is something to be learned even from the inaccurate toy dinosaurs with their dragging tails and reptilian postures, according to Knol.
“Science is not just measuring factoids; it's really the whole process of 'we had this information and we thought this, and now we have this other piece of information, so now we think these other things.' ...there's a lot of science ignorance today. Dinosaurs are a nice way of making people literate about science.”
Knol hopes that his life's work will not suffer the same fate as the previous records for the world's largest collection. He would like to see it displayed in a museum, but there is currently no institution prepared to display over 5,000 toy dinosaurs.
“My son has promised to bury it with me but my daughter and my wife will put it all on eBay.”
Saul Griffith, founder and CEO of Otherlab, has a habit of building cool things, from a kite-like wind turbine to a smart rope that can sense strain and report frays. The MacArthur Foundation, which awarded Griffith a “genius” grant in 2007, has called him “a prodigy of invention in service of the world community.”
Griffith’s latest venture, Otherlab, is a research company reminiscent of the “invention factory” created by Thomas Edison. It operates in a former pipe organ factory in San Francisco, where redwood bannisters, multi-paned windows, scattered organ parts and plenty of machinery create the sense that a 19th-century inventor like Edison might feel perfectly at home tinkering in the lab’s sunlit rooms.
Among several projects in the works here are two energy technologies that could unlock a future of cheap solar power and mainstream natural gas cars. “The ultimate environmental problem to work on,” Griffith says, “is the way we create energy and use energy.”
In an upstairs room, just past a large, inflatable boxing robot, an Otherlab team is working on a new way to tilt mirrors for concentrating sunlight at large solar plants. The design positions a mirror atop plastic containers, which stretch and scrunch—but don’t buckle—as their internal pressure is adjusted using compressed air. The idea is to cut costs by using plastic and air to aim small mirrors instead of the motors and steel typically used today to tilt billboard-sized mirrors.
For natural gas cars, Griffith’s team wants to eliminate the bulky, cumbersome, and expensive fuel tanks used in natural gas cars today. Otherlab’s solution takes long, thin tubes and bends them like intestines into tightly packed shapes that conform to the available space in a vehicle. The company has received a $250,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program for moonshot energy projects to develop the design over the past year.
Griffith has pursued energy inventions that seem like long shots before. In 2006, he co-founded a company called Makani Power, which devised an airborne wind turbine. Tethered like a kite at the end of a string, an aircraft flies in circles at high altitude. Wing-mounted rotors capture the rushing wind and convert it to electricity using small generators. The tether transmits this electricity to a station on the ground.
Griffith spoke with Smithsonian.com about the ingredients for energy innovation, why he’s excited about natural gas cars, and his vision for a massive network of small labs.
When did you start thinking about applying your skills toward energy problems?
The focusing moment probably came after I started Makani Power, which was a wind energy company. It was difficult to convince people why it was worthwhile doing this crazy sounding technology: We’re going to fly 767s at the ends of pieces of string and generate electricity from wind 5,000 feet up. Everyone just looks at you like you’re a space alien.
We knew it was totally possible and have now proven that it’s possible and in fact, we’re doing it. But in the early days, you need a lot of money to do these types of energy technologies. And when you’re trying to convince people to give you that money, you need a very good story. So that made me contextualize just how much transformation the energy system needs at the civil infrastructure level to meet the needs of climate change.
Tell me about the team and environment you’ve cultivated here at Otherlab. How are they helping to further those larger goals?
Otherlab is an independent research company. We create technologies. Sometimes those technologies become their own independent companies, and we spin them out, or sometimes we license those technologies to other companies to do things with.
We’re about 25 people. We’re right in the middle of urban San Francisco. We have about 95 percent walking or bicycling commuters to work. So we’re a low-carbon office, just in terms of the transportation we use.
We have a number of projects—two specifically in the energy space right now. We would like to have a dozen, partly because we’ve done so much research on how we use energy and how we create it, that we have this nice database of where technical contributions can be made to change that.
There are really two classes of solar energy generation: One is photovoltaics; the other is concentrated solar thermal, which means you heat something up and turn that heat into electricity [through] a turbine or some similar mechanism. We are working on a heliostat technology—which means a mechanism for following where the sun is in the sky—that will make photovoltaics more efficient, because the photovoltaics will be more ideally oriented towards the sun. You get about 20 or 30 percent more energy out of the same solar cell if you can cheaply track it.
Perhaps more importantly, it takes about 80 percent of the cost out of the heliostat field of traditional solar thermal. These are these huge plants in the desert. The heliostat field is about 50 percent of the cost of the whole plant, and we want to take about 80 percent of the cost out of that. So, net, hopefully make a 30 or 40 percent decrease in the cost of that type of electricity.
Is most of that cost in the materials, or in some advanced technology?
For all energy technologies, they are at such enormous scales that really the cost of the machines is somewhat equivalent to their weight. Anything you can do to make them lighter weight or more efficient means a very high cost reduction. Because they’re all made out of commodity materials: silicon, aluminum, and steel, and carbon—these are cheap bulk materials. You have to use them efficiently to cover vast surface areas. So we end up winning because we use a lot less material to point the same amount of light, and we use even cheaper materials and manufacturing processes.
We’re also working on making natural gas tanks for substitutions for petroleum or gasoline tanks for cars and light trucks. Per mile, if you give me the same car, and I have a natural gas motor in one and a gasoline motor in the other, the natural gas car will produce about 25 percent less carbon per mile traveled. The only thing that would change that is if there are methane leaks in the extraction process.
Which there are, right?
There absolutely are. If you have 3 to 4 percent parasitic leaks from the wellhead, then it’s net-zero better than gasoline.
Nevertheless, I’m super excited about it. I think the role of engineers in society is to provide technology options for society to choose yes or no. And as much as engineers would like to be the judge, jury, and executioner, we have to work with what society wants. So, I believe it’s worth developing this capacity because I think we can solve the wellhead problems of natural gas. I think it’s very important to have higher energy independence, so you have to weigh the moral conundrum of fracking, versus the moral conundrum of fighting oil wars in foreign nations.
The same technology that we’re developing in those tanks is also useful for large-scale compressed air and compressed steam energy storage. So we’re creating a technological capacity that’s useful in other domains in energy.
How did you decide to approach the problem of natural gas cars from this particular angle, with tanks that can be conformed to the shape of a car?
In general, as an engineer or scientist, you have a certain set of tools, a certain set of hammers, and you bang all of the nails you see with that set of tools and hammers.
Within this building, we happen to be very good at geometry and computational geometry, and some arcane areas of mathematics, such as space-filling curves. Turns out, we were also do a lot of work on pressure vessels, because we were working on inflatable objects for a long time.
Through serendipity (I think we should ascribe a lot more of society’s invention to serendipity than to anything else) just because we were thinking about energy and space-filling curves and pressure vessels, this all came together. Because you needed to sort of be aware of those three things to have the insight to produce the particular new technology tanks that we’re doing. In some respects, every project in the building has an origin that’s serendipitous like that.
You’ve written recently about the value of a research model based on a multiplicity of small, independent labs. Would you explain that?
The modern research model isn’t in fact the modern research model. Up until World War II, a majority of research was done in independent labs and commercial laboratories, and a little bit at universities. National labs really didn’t exist.
The two world wars and the success of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo mission kind of convinced everyone to centralize all the R&D resources into a set of national laboratories and into universities. Elite universities would become research universities.
I’m not saying that’s terrible. That has produced a lot of really good work. But we did it at the expense of small independent labs. Now we live in an age where collaboration across distance is very easy because of the Internet. Tools are cheaper than ever. And I think it’s time to ask the question: Is this way that we allocate society’s research resources as good as it could be? Meaning that we largely spend it at universities and in national labs.
I would love to see many, many more small labs because I think small teams of people are where the real innovation happens. And geographic diversity—having more people thinking about their local specific problems, in the context of the general research that society needs to do—would be really useful.
Where do you think the most exciting energy innovation is happening now?
In the energy space, the most exciting things are nearly all happening in little startups, I think, and well, big startups—I think Tesla is doing a great job. I think Makani now at Google [Google acquired Makani in May] is doing really interesting stuff in wind. I think there’s a bunch of interesting private companies doing biofuels research. I’m not a huge fan of biofuels, but I’m glad that they’re doing it and they’re doing work well.
The list is sadly short. Not a lot of kids grow up thinking, “Oh energy is the problem I want to work on.” Everyone wants to solve the climate problem, but very few teenagers are aware that you solve that by solving the way that we produce and use energy. I would like, for my four-year-old son and my newborn daughter’s sake, more good energy research.
You came to California from Sydney, Australia, by way of Cambridge, England. What brought you here, and what keeps you here?
I think the honest version is wanderlust— you know, spirit of adventure, travel the world and see where the winds take me. But if I did revisionist history, or thought about what was the magnetic pull that made me wind up in California, I could not do what we are doing in this building in Australia. Australia does not have the R&D funding or the culture of research and development that would enable this. It would be difficult to find the set of talent that we have in this building in Australia.
In this building, there are a number of foreign nationals who, like me, are in California because of two reasons: America has the right culture to do this work. And America has the right capital structures. There is risk capital available for crazy people like me in California.
Sadly, I think America’s at risk of losing both of those advantages. And they are huge advantages. Technology is really the frontier—it drives economic progress. America has won the last century because it had the best people. Think of the Manhattan Project—it was largely Eastern Europeans who did the physics and the math and the engineering. They were imports; same for the Apollo mission; same for a huge number of things.
America has traditionally pulled in the best and brightest people from the entire world and put them to creative effort in the interest of America. But due to security paranoia and immigration concerns, America is dropping the ball on that.
Would you say you’re optimistic that the world’s energy problems can be solved?
I am optimistic that the world’s energy problems can be solved, because I know that they can be solved. I’m not optimistic that we will solve them, because people are people, and we’re still fighting over whether it’s a problem.
I spent more than a year being quite depressed about this fact. Then I had my child and I realized, you know, the environmental future does not look as good for him as it did for me. It has shifted in my generation, and the Baby Boom generation before me.
You still have to be in the game. It’s worth fighting for the things, the world that you would like to create. Hopefully we’re just proving that you can do that, and we’ll get more people fighting on the side of solutions. I think that’s the best you can hope for. Maybe we’ll pull it off.
JOSHUA TREE, CA — Tim Shields holds a baby desert tortoise shell up to the sun, peering through it like a kaleidoscope. He’s carrying a container filled with these empty carapaces, perforated with coin-sized holes and picked clean of life.
Over the four decades Shields has been a wildlife biologist with the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Geological Survey, he has watched the tortoise population in the Mojave Desert steeply decline. Where once he saw dozens of baby tortoises over the span of a season, now he can go days without spotting a single one. What he does find are these empty shells—sometimes dozens in a single nest, scattered around like discarded pistachio shells.
We’re standing in a picnic area in Joshua Tree Park, and Shields is showing me these hollowed-out shells to illustrate the damage. It’s easy to see how an animal could peck right through this thin casing: “It’s about as thick as a fingernail,” Shields points out. Desert tortoise shells don’t harden into a tank-like defense until the reptile is about 5 or 6 years old. Until then, hatchlings are walking gummy snacks for one of the most intelligent, adaptive and hungry desert predators: ravens.
Even before ravens, the tortoise was in trouble—and its fate has long been tied up with the history of humans. As people moved into the Mojave, the tortoise was faced with challenges its evolution could not have foreseen: off-road vehicle use, the illegal pet trade and pandemic-level respiratory disease. By 1984, biologists estimated a 90 percent population decline in desert tortoise population over the last century, thanks largely to habitat destruction. Today, an estimated 100,000 tortoises remain in the American Southwest.
According to Kristin Berry, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Western Ecological Research Center who has been monitoring desert tortoises since the 1970s, these reptiles are an umbrella species. In other words, they require such specific conditions to survive that they are one of the best indicators of the health of the Mojave Desert ecosystem.
“It’s the proverbial canary in the mine,” adds Ron Berger, chairman and CEO of the nonprofit Desert Tortoise Conservancy and president of the nonprofit Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee. “If we can’t help this animal that can go without food or drink for years, then what are we doing to this planet?”
Humans are also culpable in aiding and abetting the tortoise’s primary threat, those pesky ravens. Over the past half century, these predatory birds have been proliferating as new sources of once-limited food and water resources become available in the form of human-made landfills, road kill, dumpsters, sewage ponds and golf courses. In direct contrast to the falling tortoise numbers, estimates place the raven population as increasing by 700 percent since 1960.
Shields remembers a pivotal moment in 2011, when he could not spot a single juvenile tortoise roaming out in the field. Instead, the only one he saw was struggling in the beak of a raven. “That moment hit me really hard,” he says. He decided that the current conservation model—monitoring tortoises, restoring their habitats and relocating them to preserves—wasn’t working. Something more innovative needed to be done.Baby desert tortoise shells, gutted and pierced through by ravens. (Courtesy Sam Schipani)
Desert tortoises have roamed the Southwest for millions of years, adapting as the shallow inland sea transformed into the dry landscape it is today. These reptiles are crucial to their desert ecosystems. While creating their burrows, they till soil nutrients for plant life and inadvertently create hiding spots for lizards and ground squirrels. Gila monsters and coyotes eat their eggs for breakfast; roadrunners and snakes snack on juvenile tortoises; badgers and golden eagles feast on adults.
They're also a bit of a celebrity around these parts. Ironically, the same pet trade that contributed to their decline may have also contributed to the species’ iconic status: Shields wagers that the generation of Southern Californians who grew up with sweet pet tortoises have developed a nostalgic fondness for the species. As the California state reptile, they’ve cemented their position as poster-children for conservation in the desert.
In 2014, Shields founded the investor-funded company Hardshell Labs to develop a series of high-tech defense methods for protecting this beloved reptile. He hopes to use these techniques to enact a process called active ecological intervention, creating safe zones for baby tortoises throughout the desert where they can reach maturity at 15 to 20 years old and breed until, someday, the populations reach a sustainable level.
One of those methods is scattering 3D printed baby tortoises decoys, which emit irritants derived from grape juice concentrate (farmers use this chemical compound to keep birds from congregating on agricultural fields and commercial centers). Another is laser guns—TALI TR3 Counter-Piracy lasers, to be precise. These forearm-sized guns, mounted with aiming scopes that were originally used as a form of non-lethal defense for ships in the western Indian Ocean, fire a 532 nanometer green light, to which ravens’ eyes are especially sensitive.
Ravens have such sharp vision that even in the daylight, the 3-watt beam looks as solid as a pole waving in their faces. The lasers can be mounted on a rover known the Guardian Angel rover, or shot by skilled humans. Shields will aim for the ravens’ heads to get closer to their sensitive eyes if they are being persistent, but shooting within a meter’s range is usually enough to spook them.
“We once cleared a pistachio field [of ravens] in three days,” Shields says of his technological arsenal.Tim Shields, CEO of Hardshell Labs, holds two 3D-printed decoy tortoise shells. (Courtesy Sam Schipani)
Perhaps the most crucial part of these technologies is that they are non-lethal. Ravens are federally protected: Though they’re native to the desert, the birds, their nests and their eggs all fall under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. And while organizations like the Coalition for a Balanced Environment argue that the boom of raven populations warrants their removal from the list in order to enhance raven management practices, many recognize their importance to the ecosystem.
Shields is among them. Even if he finds shooting near the birds with the lasers “intensely satisfying,” he doesn’t want to risk angering those who love and appreciate these birds by supporting more deadly technologies. “We’re not going to get rid of the charm of ravens, and there are people who are as charmed as ravens as I am by tortoises,” he admits. “We better acknowledge that if we’re going to find a solution.”
Instead, his technologies work with the raven’s intelligence in mind, frustrating the birds but not hurting them. Ravens are incredibly adaptive, so no single line of defense alone will work. Biologists will stake out in the desert scrub and shoot the lasers to keep the ravens on their toes. It is a skill that takes training —and time—to develop.
Now, Hardshell Labs is hoping to turn that challenge into a benefit. They’re aiming to roboticize their technologies and turn them into a sort of video game. The team hopes to tap into flow theory, the obsessiveness on solving the problem that makes gaming so addictive, in order to draw players into the game of protecting the desert tortoise.
“Environmentalism does not sell,” explains Michael Austin, Co-Founder of Hardshell Labs and Shields’s childhood friend. “What plays for people is fun and joy.”
It’s especially hard to get people to care about conservation way out in the deserts. When compared to lush biomes like rainforests, the desert has long persisted in the popular imagination as remote, barren and inhabitable, Austin says. Historically, “desert” is synonymous with “wasteland.” “The coral reefs have better PR,” he laughs.
In actuality, the desert is a place teeming with life. Because of its elevation and unique geology, the Mojave Desert especially is a unique eco-region, with 80 to 90 percent endemic plants and species found nowhere else in the world. It is also one of the most imperiled areas of the West, with over 100 of its over 2,500 species considered threatened.Real or fake? (Courtesy Sam Schipani)
Shields’ ultimate vision for Hardshell Labs is to turn armchair activists into real-time conservationists, by allowing users to remotely control techno-tortoises, lasers, and rovers online. They have already tested an early version of the game with Raven Repel, an augmented reality app in the vein of Pokémon Go. One day, he says, players from around the world will work in teams, using different tools to engage in ecological management like predation reduction, behavioral observation, fostering the spread of native plants, and preventing invasive species.
Several bird species, including the endangered sage grouse, also suffer from the ever-increasing hordes of ravens preying on their eggs. The same principles used for the decoy tortoises could be used to 3D print realistic eggs equipped with repellant, Shields says. Beyond ravens, other invasive species—the Indo-Pacific lionfish in the Caribbean, pythons in the Everglades, the Asiatic carp in the Great Lakes—could be captured by submarines controlled remotely by players. Players could even monitor video feeds over the elephant and rhinoceros habitats to spot illegal poachers.
The irony of defending nature digitally does not escape Shields. “Tortoises are so wired in to their immediate environment,” he muses. “In contrast, our species is catastrophically alienated on every level from our life support system.”
But he also recognizes the potential. A 14-year-old kid in a wheelchair could be a valued tortoise biologist, he says; a prisoner could reconnect with the world through positive contribution to the cause. In Shields’s view, denying that we are a screen culture now is delusional, so conservationists might as well make the most of it and use modern-day tools like crowdsourcing and virtual reality to leverage positive change.
“My long, long term goal is to get people to fall in love with the planet through the screen, and then realize the limitations of the screen, and then get out themselves and do it,” he says. “This is my game, and I am having so bloody much fun.”
The haute couture works of Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen can seem mind-bendingly ahead of their time. At Paris Fashion Week, in March, models in seemingly gravity-defying ensembles strode down a runway dotted with strategically placed optical screens that reflected and distorted
the models’ appearance like high-tech fun house mirrors. Van Herpen’s designs are sleek in a way that calls to mind marvels of evolutionary design, like stingrays or coral, combined with the type of repetitive structures one expects only a machine could produce.
Her silhouettes range from close-fitting to outsized and geometric. One outfit looked like a freeze frame of a dress swept upward by a strong wind. Another, with exaggerated shoulders and hips, had the shape of a moth with its wings spread. The show’s focal dress was made from 5,000 individual pieces, each 3-D printed and then hand-woven together to evoke a glimmering, gothic needlepoint. Van Herpen has been hailed by the New York Times for her “different way of thinking,” a high-concept designer who fuses an interest in fashion, art and architecture with cutting-edge technologies and fields of science as diverse as particle physics, robotics and microbiology. “Iris van Herpen’s astonishing designs don’t look like ‘clothes,’” the Washington Post wrote last year. “They look like the future.”
The 31-year-old van Herpen, who grew up in a small town in Holland, studied fashion design at the esteemed Dutch art academy Artez and had an internship during college with the pathbreaking fashion designer Alexander McQueen. She does think about the future, but less, perhaps, than many of her admirers might expect. “I don’t find my work futuristic,” says van Herpen, in a recent interview with Smithsonian. “It’s bizarre how the mind works. Many of the concepts and explorations happening today,” she says, like those she tries to conjure with the designs she puts on display at her fashion shows, “feel as though they are the future, not yet real.”
The fact that we are seeing them, she believes, proves exactly the opposite, and those most familiar with her work agree. “We’re so quick to cast her work that way, because it seems other, it seems futuristic,” says Sarah Schleuning, a curator at the High Museum, in Atlanta, whose first-ever fashion show, a retrospective of van Herpen’s work, runs until May 15. It may be worth noting that the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shanghai and the OCT Art & Design Gallery in Shenzhen, China, have been showcasing van Herpen’s work in a traveling exhibit called “The Future of Fashion Is Now.”
Sometimes van Herpen’s imagination pushes even the most cutting-edge technologies to their limits. “So many things that I imagine should logically be here by now are not yet here,” she says. Take, for example, van Herpen’s “Water” dress, a translucent, sculptural affair that splashes away from the body in three dimensions like a still image of water hitting a hard surface. Her initial idea was to 3-D-print the dress—she was, after all, the first fashion designer to send the technology down the runway, in 2010, for a top that looked like several interlocking pairs of ram’s horns, which van Herpen calls “a fossil-like structure.”
But the Water dress as she conceived it wasn’t possible to make—3-D printing technicians hadn’t yet developed a transparent material that could print reliably and maintain its structure. Sometimes, van Herpen says, “I imagine a technique or material that doesn’t exist yet. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” She settled instead on a relatively low-tech method, using a hand-held heating tool not unlike a blow-dryer to soften a sheet of polyethylene terephthalate, a material she says was the “30th or 40th” she tried, and then manipulated it with pliers and by hand to her desired shape.
Image by Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. © Iris van Herpen. The first 3-D printed design van Herpen sent down the runway, in 2010, this top was a major breakthrough in her career and in the world of haute couture. “Combining craftsmanship with the latest technology is a way to optimize beauty and intricacy,” says van Herpen. (original image)
Image by Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. © Iris van Herpen. “The Ice dress made history twice: It’s the first transparent 3-D printed dress, a realization of one of van Herpen’s longtime visions and an achievement in 3-D printing material technology, and it was the first fashion acquisition by the 111-year-old High Museum.” (original image)
Image by Photo by Ingrid Baars. © Iris van Herpen. For this dress, van Herpen worked with 3-D printing company Materialise and architect and designer Isaie Bloch. “She clearly saw that 3-D printing could have a role in fashion when no one else was doing that,” he says. “I’m not sure 3-D printing, currently, can create products viable for the human body, but this will change quickly over time.” (original image)
Image by Photo by Bart Oomes, No 6 Studios. © Iris van Herpen. For the Voltage collection, which focused on how the human body interacts with electricity, van Herpen worked with L.A.- based 3-D printing artist Julia Koerner. “We develop these collaborations together from the beginning,” says Koerner, who worked on the “Kinetic” dress as well. “It’s not that she would draw something up and send it to me, it’s literally her telling me her ideas, and I’m present from the beginning.” (original image)
Image by Victor Boyko/Getty Images. “My atelier is able to push the boundaries of what a garment can be, what fashion can be,” says van Herpen. The “Water” dress was part of her Crystallization collection in 2010, where she also debuted her first 3-D printed design. (original image)
Image by Michel Zoeter. “The dresses that will be at the Metropolitan Museum vary strongly in the techniques and materials that I have been developing over the years,” says van Herpen. “The skin-colored Bird-dress is made from a nude, handmade ‘dragon-skin,’ then the ‘feathers’ are all laser-cut, and eventually each feather is hand-stitched to the dress. The bird heads are made from real birdhead skeletons, pearls and dragon-skin, in collaboration with the artist Cedric Laquieze.” (original image)
Image by Photo © Peter Stigter. “Science explores our world, and dance is doing that in another way,” says van Herpen. “I practiced classical ballet for many years, and it taught me so much about my body, my movements, the shapes, and how to manipulate this into materiality, where I can fuse a historic mastery with a new silhouette or material.” (original image)
Image by Michel Zoeter. The “Snake” dress, for van Herpen, recalls her state of mind before doing a free-fall parachute jump. “All my energy is in my head and I feel as though my mind is snaking through thousands of bends,” she has explained. (original image)
Image by Michel Zoeter. “The ‘Moon’ dress is ‘hand-grown’ with magnets, and shows the fusion of craft and technology very precisely,” says van Herpen. She worked with artist Jólan van der Wiel, who uses resin embedded with iron filings and magnets to “grow” textures. (original image)
Image by Morgan O’Donovan. Van Herpen’s most recent collection, Lucid, was critically acclaimed at Paris Fashion Week 2016. For the collection, she collaborated with Canadian artist and architect Philip Beesley, and drew inspiration from her state of mind when draping material on a mannequin. “It’s a very unconscious, almost meditative state,” she says. (original image)
Image by Morgan O’Donovan. “[One Lucid] dress is made from 5,000 individual 3-D printed pieces, hand-stitched to a soft tulle,” explains van Herpen. “When you look inside the dress, you see thousands of intricate lines created by hundreds of hours of hand-stitching, and when you look at the outside of the dress, you see thousands of little lines that the 3-D printer made to build up the texture. When you look at the tiny printing lines, you’re looking at the process, it’s like the life rings of a tree, you see the history of time and movement in its structure.” (original image)
Image by Morgan O’Donovan. Her uncanny materials beckon to be touched, and the High Museum has a selection of them available for visitors to do exactly that. Since the exhibit opened, attendance has been brisk. (original image)
Part of what makes van Herpen’s approach so novel are the partnerships she forges while designing and executing her otherworldly visions. For a collection called Magnetic Motion, inspired by a visit to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland, where she learned about forces of attraction and repulsion, she teamed up with architect Niccolo Casas and the California-based company 3-D Systems to finally print a transparent “Ice” dress. The dress is all Sugar Plum Fairy, an ice sculpture’s best impression of lace. “I spoke to the technicians, and they said, ‘99.99 percent, it’s going to fail,’” van Herpen recalled in an interview with the High. “We really pushed the technology, even into a stage where no one believed in it.” The dress was ultimately “printed” using an industrial-scale process called stereolithography and a unique photopolymer-resin blend that had never been used before.
Each of van Herpen’s collections is conceptually coherent and technologically eclectic. The Biopiracy collection was inspired by van Herpen wondering what it means to live at a time when our very genes can be manipulated and patented. It included ensembles that evoked flesh and scales, seeming alive and suggestive of grotesque genetic manipulation. One sweater looked like a cocoon-emergent mutant woolly bear caterpillar, the dark, fuzzy crawler famous among farmers for predicting the weather. The collection’s cornerstone “Kinetic” dress, a collaboration with designer and artist Julia Koerner and 3-D printing company Materialise, was made from silicone-coated 3-D printed feathers, which were laser-cut and stitched to the dress; it made the model wearing it look as though she’d developed a thick set of wings that danced, wisp-like, around her body as she moved. For several designs, van Herpen worked with a nylon-silk weave commonly called “liquid fabric” because it looks like water. The show itself was full of visual high jinks: Models in silvery dresses, curled up like embryos, floated in plastic bubbles suspended along the side of the catwalk, a collaboration with the installation and performance artist Lawrence Malstaf.
A recent collection called Hacking Infinity was inspired by the human quest to live forever at a moment when we are confronted with the dwindling (some say plundering) of natural resources and the promise of life-extending medicines and, potentially, colonizing other worlds. “The idea of terraforming,” van Herpen says, of the concept of manipulating a foreign planet’s ecology to sustain human life, “opens up a whole new world of possibilities to me.” The collection included large circular dresses meant to call to mind planets. Van Herpen worked with a long list of collaborators, including the Canadian architect and designer Philip Beesley, known for his large-scale artworks that integrate synthetic biology, engineering and advanced computation to create “living” sculptures that interact with viewers. For one dress, van Herpen created an ultralight weave of stainless steel, which she then hand-burnished to create shades of orange, yellow, purple and blue, evoking the colors of interstellar nebulae.
Beesley described their collaborations as focused on finding the best techniques for fabricating individual components. “The dialogues are on the one hand practical—laser-cutting and clipping or adhesions or thermal processes,” he said. Vanessa Palsenbarg, a representative of the 3-D printing company Materialise, wrote in an email that these collaborations can take on a life of their own, “to inspire our other customers—in the automotive, consumer goods, aerospace and other industries.” Beesley, too, believes their value goes beyond exploding the conventions typically associated with fashion design by using cutting-edge techniques and materials. “The fertility of these dialogues is that friends in multiple disciplines are exchanging ideas and opening the sense of what the applications can be,” he went on. “What could a dress be? What could clothing offer? It is a wondrous meditation on how we relate to other people, and to the world.”
Van Herpen’s work can be seen in two shows overlapping this month: “Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” a retrospective of her work at the High Museum, will run until May 15. “Manus x Machina,” a show exploring how designers have reconciled innovations in machine-made clothing with craftsmanship and handiwork, opens May 5 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her work is also currently on view at the Smithsonian National Design Museum in New York in the "Beauty -- Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial" exhibition.
For millennia, the fairy tale's unique ability to communicate important lessons through the telling of fantastical tales has held audiences in rapture. Now, the architectural community has turned to the tried-and-tested narrative form to provoke new innovations and interest in architecture through the Fairy Tales competition.
Entering its fourth year, the competition was first imagined up in 2013 by architectural thought-leader Blank Space in partnership with the National Building Museum. By its very nature, the competition treats architects as worldbuilders. To participate, entrants must submit original artwork and complementary fiction that re-images the world we live. Themes range from the deeply personal to the largest societal and environmental issues of the day.
For this year's competition, a jury of more than 20 leading architects, designers and storytellers came together to decide on four winners, in addition to 10 honorable mentions. They announced the honorees at a live event at the National Building Museum hosted by NPR's Lauren Ober on Monday night.
French architects Ariane Merle d’Aubigné and Jean Maleyrat weren't able to attend in person, but the duo won third place for their submission “Up Above." Their entry dreams up a way for refugees to escape the horrors of the world by taking to the skies. In their world, those looking to leave oppression and inequality behind can live in the clouds—specifically in shelters balanced on thin stilts high above city skylines.
Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)
Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)
Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)
Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)
Image by Ariane Merle d’Aubigné & Jean Maleyrat. (original image)
Chicago architect Terrence Hector earned second place for his world that granted architecture sentience by means of a slow-moving species of concrete and metal. Offering a new meaning to the notion of walking cities, Hector's entry, “City Walkers” or “The Possibility of a Forgotten Domestication and Biological Industry" pays tribute to the work of iconic director Hayao Miyazaki, especially Howl's Moving Castle (2004), as well as themes of anthropomorphizing buildings in architectural history.
Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)
Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)
Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)
Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)
Image by Terrence Hector. (original image)
The competition also awarded a special prize this year to architects Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. Their entry, “Playing House," explores how a split-personality can manifest literally through architecture, and it was the highest-scoring submission by members of the American Institute of Architecture Students.
Image by Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. (original image)
Image by Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. (original image)
Image by Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. (original image)
Image by Maria Syed and Adriana Davis. (original image)
But the night went to Ukrainian architect Mykhailo "Misha" Ponomarenko who took first for his entry, "Last Day." Ponomarenko's work playfully imagines what would happen if science fiction-like structures were inexplicably woven into ordinary landscapes. His out-of-this-world insertions into normal scenes aren't just stunning—they also offer commentary on how machines reshape their environments.
Smithsonian.com caught up with Ponomarenko to talk to him more about his work and how he sees fantasy informing today's architecture.
Who are your biggest influences?
When I studied in school it was American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. I learned a lot from his works—I read all his books; I was really addicted. All his principles and ideas still apply today. I have a lot of feelings about him but not too many words.
But right now, I’m really influenced by the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, and also landscape in general. I was walking all day in Washington today looking at the landscapes. It’s so beautiful here, especially around the [National Museum of the American Indian]. The authentic marshes, and the rock work, and even the ducks in the lake in the pond—it looks so real in the middle of this metropolis. I was deeply impressed. That natural wildness so affects the landscape. It was inspiring.
Talk to me about Bjarke Ingels. What about his work makes an impression on you?
How he works with problems, and how he solves problems in architectural ways. His building is very pragmatic and very rational, and I’m also very rational and pragmatic, so this is why I love him a lot. I’m very interested to understand what he does. With each of his projects he creates a series of 3-D diagrams where he explains step-by-step how he came up with his shapes. After you see the diagrams, it feels like the building came naturally. It was meant to be here; it was part of the environment; it was a response to conditions of this environment and to the conditions of this place in general. And, it solves problems—not only for people going to use the building, but also people going to walk around it. His rationality is deeply inspiring.
Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)
Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)
Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)
Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)
Image by Mykhailo Ponomarenko. (original image)
It’s so interesting to move from ideas of pragmatism and rationality to talking about a fairy tale competition. When I think of fairy tales, I think of irrational concepts. Did you set out to apply pragmatism and rationality to "Last Day"?
I didn’t think too much about pragmatism. I was thinking about contrast between nature and manmade; rational and irrational; regular and irregular; horizontal and vertical. You take a real landscape and then you add something unreal. But not a big jump, just a dash of unreal. A little bit bizarre, a little bit strange, a little bit unreal. Then you put people in the forefront of your landscape who just live in this space.
They interact with this space and they act absolutely normally, like this is the way it’s supposed to be. And it’s like: “Wow, this looks interesting.” You’re seeing something absolutely unreal and impractical, but everyone acts as though it’s normal. The contrast between nature and manmade is the most interesting and beautiful part of our existence.
Working with these ideas, how did you come up with the specific story you wanted to tell for this competition?
I generally am inspired by landscape paintings. Also, the Swedish artist Simon Stalenhag, he has the same idea. I copied this idea from him. He painted real landscapes, suburban landscapes, villages, then he puts something really weird there— some robot or dinosaur, strange structure or machines and people play around it. It looks very utopian or dystopian. It also feels very nostalgic. Every time I look at his paintings it feels like I’ve seen it before. Maybe because of my Soviet past.
I was born in the Soviet Union when it was still a union. Then it broke up like it is, but we still have Soviet heritage. So you can see similar culture or places and it’s something similar. It awoke some weird feelings, like melancholic and nostalgic. I really like these feelings and I thought, wow, I want to do something similar but keep it not as negative. Some of his paintings look a little bit negative, like a rusty structure falling apart. I wanted to do something positive—why should it all be negative when I could do something more optimistic? I also wanted to work with landscape and to interact with landscape. It’s like you see this landscape and you have this feeling inside to share, it’s like a burst of energy and I was like wow, I want to do something with this, and so I just start to sketch. There was something in there that was really unpractical and unpragmatical.
By doing this kind of intervention you can find some interesting ideas which could be implemented in the real world. Something really interesting could show up [in the shapes you create] and allow you to see the space from a different perspective and give you more thoughts and feelings about this landscape.
What fairy tales would you say inspired you growing up?
I’ve always been deeply inspired by science fiction. I love Star Wars. I grew up with Star Wars. It was my favorite series. When I was a teenager I was reading a lot of science fiction books about planets and about the universe, all this stuff. This is deeply inspiring, and I really want to work on other ideas that tie together real landscape and science fiction and science and architecture and see what pulls together.
What do you want readers to take away from your work?
I want to evoke some feelings about our planet, and about landscapes and about our influence on these landscapes. What we can do with them, and what we actually are doing. I believe we can do way better than what we are doing now.
Anything else you’d like to add?
People: you need to recycle garbage, and make our planet cleaner, and read more science fiction.
When I started my internship in the museum's Division of Armed Forces History, I expected to see reminders of what it was like to be a U.S. Marine: uniforms, equipment, and weapons—the accoutrements of American warriors who served well before I did, but with whom I share a bond.
I was not disappointed.
I explored the impressive collection of firearms in the "Gun Room" and saw Union soldiers' coats and hats, the helmet of General "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf, and even a military robot equipped with a machine gun. Of all of the things I saw, however, what made the most impact was a series of scrapbooks made by Albert E. Short, a veteran of the Vietnam War.
Short created the scrapbooks in the 1980s as a way to help him process his memories and experiences of the war. According to museum staff members who accepted the donation, Short often had to work long hours, deep into the night, on a single part, processing individual events incrementally. While I have never made a scrapbook, I can relate to the struggle to forcefully remember and accept painful events of the past. I once started writing down my recollections, but stalled as the going got tough. Looking through these scrapbooks, I feel empowered to step back into my own process.
What struck me, looking through this scrapbook, was the shared experience I felt with this veteran I had never met. The first scrapbook included his experiences prior to the Tet Offensive, and while this airman's time in the country up to that point was nothing like Iraq, it resounded with other experiences I had as a Marine. Prior to and after my tours in Iraq, I had the opportunities to serve in Honduras as a base guard, and Chile (nominally as a sort of advisor, but mainly to join them in celebrating their own Marine Corps' birthday). During these peaceful deployments, I was able to interact with the local people much the way the Vietnam vet had in Saigon.
This veteran's pedal cab tour reminded me of my own experiences meeting new people from a different part of the world and learning about their home. I distinctly remember a Chilean Marine giving us a tour of Viña Del Mar and taking delight in introducing us to the national beverage, the Pisco Sour (which I highly recommend if you can find one and you are, of course, 21 or older), and a dish of sausage, ground beef, and egg over a huge pile of french fries.
Throughout the scrapbook there are reports, headlines, and images of mortar attacks on U.S. air bases, and this too was familiar to me. The news reported a great deal on the use of improvised explosive devices. IEDs presented a danger we both knew despite the 50-year gap between our experiences. While IEDs were a major threat, the thing that always stood out to me were the mortar and rocket attacks. The IEDs prompted a sense of paranoia whenever traveling by road, but the mortars made the threat of loss a constant; no place ever truly felt safe.
I was assigned to Second Marine Division, Headquarters Battalion, Small Craft Company during my tours in Iraq, and we performed riverine operations on the Euphrates River. (Riverine operations include the use of military forces to control river areas within a region. They often combine land, naval, and air operations.) If you remember the boat from the movie Apocalypse Now (but take out almost all of the rest of the movie) then you might have a very basic idea of what we did. Our boats were newer, and we didn't go down river looking for crazed colonels, but our doctrine was written during the Vietnam War and so it was our primary point of historical reference during our war. Flipping through these scrapbooks, I happened to be reunited in a way with my duties. For example at one point Short hitched a ride with a navy unit running supplies along a river to Da Nang Air Base.
It seems that for all the differences between my war and Short's, some things never really change. Americans serving abroad in peace and war will almost always experience similar things, bringing our uniquely American perspective. It's not often that I get to connect with veterans of other wars; separated by time and distance, it is hard to make a personal bond. Yet here, in this scrapbook, I have been able to get an idea of what another veteran not only did but felt. I think that I get a sense of how he absorbed his experience and how it helped shape him, and how I can use that to reflect on my own experiences and guide them in how they will shape me.
Jacob Petrie is an intern in the Division of Armed Forces History.
By 2020, the podcast will be a whopping 17-or-so years old; the Apple Podcasts catalogue contains more than 700,000 unique offerings, not counting episodes. With such an abundance from which to choose, Smithsonian magazine turned to scholars and podcast fiends across the Smithsonian Institution for guidance. From a critical look at Disney tales to poetry to a podcast that’ll get the kids in the carpool group interested in science, here’s a curated list of the podcasts that’ll make perfect earbud fodder for 2020.
“Sidedoor”: This Smithsonian podcast delves into the stories behind some of the 154 million objects in the Institution’s collections. It’s subject-omnivorous; episodes explore vaccine science, Adam Rippon’s boundary-breaking figure skating and dueling paleontologists. For a plane-flight listen, host Lizzie Peabody suggests an episode from their current season, “The Worst Video Game Ever?” which takes listeners back to the 1980s, when a truly abominable E.T. spinoff video game managed to tank the industry.
“Uncivil”: The version of the Civil War taught in classrooms is often an incomplete history, and this podcast seeks to correct that by spotlighting lesser-known stories about the Union-Confederacy conflict. Melanie Adams, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, says, “I enjoy [“Uncivil” episodes] because they help to explain the nuances of history and the multitude of players and events beyond a single batter or a single heroic figure.”
“Her STEM Story”: Carol O’Donnell, the director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, says, “I like “Her STEM Story,” which is a weekly podcast about extraordinary stories of real women in the STEM fields…It covers the amazing work of women across the globe who work in different STEM and STEM-related fields. Students (and others) who listen to the podcast learn about what motivates women in STEM, what struggles they overcame, and how we can close the gender gap in male-dominated fields.”
“VS”: This bi-weekly podcast from the Poetry Foundation sees hosts Danez Smith and Frannie Choi dig deep in conversations with fellow poets. Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, a curator for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC), describes it as “a beautiful, hilarious, deeply felt mash-up of poetry and racial and queer justice.” The most recent season features an episode recorded live at the APAC’s Asian American Literature Festival.
“The Museum of Lost Objects”: This BBC podcast comes with a recommendation from Nora Lockshin, a senior conservator at Smithsonian Archives. She’s a fan of the podcast, which tracks lost, stolen or destroyed objects—from the items turned to ash by Brazil’s National Museum fire to a stolen Nobel Prize medal. It’s an “incredibly poignant, cross-cultural and sensitive examination,” says Lockshin, that offers “reflections on the values of people, museums and collected objects.”
“Time Sensitive”: The thoughtful conversations with luminaries like architect Liz Diller and designer Stefan Sagmeister about “culture, nature and the future” (plus the slick logo and branding from a National Design Award-winning firm) keep Caroline Baumann, director of design-focused museum Cooper Hewitt, tuning in. “In keeping with its name, each episode is one hour long and focuses on curious and courageous people who have a distinct perspective on time,” says Baumann.
“The Right Time with Bomani Jones”: “In an era in which many sports fans implore commentators to ‘stick to sports,’ host Bomani Jones is not afraid to address how race shapes the sporting contests we consume. A former academic turned sportswriter, Jones has a way of breaking down and analyzing social issues within sports and pop culture that is desperately needed in a sports media environment often devoid of intellectually stimulating conversation about such issues,” says National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Justin Hudson, the assistant curator of sports, of why this ESPN podcast ranks among his favorites.
“You Must Remember This”: The latest season of this pop-culture-time-machine podcast dives into the Disney canon from long before Moana, Elsa and Merida to scrutinize the legacy of the 1946 movie Song of the South. “From the casual Disney fan to the classic film historian, there's something in this podcast for everyone,” says National Museum of American History museum specialist Bethanee Bemis. “My work investigates the relationship of the public with Disney, so I found host Karina Longworth's deep dives into how the film and its products have been received at different points in time based on the cultural and political moment in America particularly relevant.”
“Yale Climate Connections”: This daily podcast keeps it short—as in, each episode clocks in at 90 seconds. But those one-and-a-half minutes pack in a lot of learning about climate change and the environment, with recent episodes spanning carbon removal technology and climate change’s influence on immigration. This appetizer of a podcast came recommended by not one but two Smithsonian scholars—Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s forest researcher Kristina Anderson-Texeira and Earth Optimism communications manager Cat Kutz.
“This Land”: In its next term, the Supreme Court will hear a case—McGirt v. Oklahoma—that on its face is about who can prosecute a criminal. But the real question at hand is about treaty rights and tribal sovereignty. Journalist Rebecca Nagle (Cherokee) examines the history that undergirds McGirt’s sister case (Sharp v. Murphy, decision still pending) and its lingering effects. Alexandra Harris, an editor for National Museum of the American Indian’s magazine, recommends a listen.
“Heavyweight”: Lizzie Peabody is a podcast person; she hosts Smithsonian’s “Sidedoor” podcast, after all. Of all the podcasts on her radar, “Heavyweight,” hosted by Jonathan Goldstein, stands out as “absolutely one-of-a-kind.” Why? “In each episode, Goldstein steps into someone else’s life and helps them confront a moment in their past that they haven’t been able to let go of,” she says. “Usually this involves making contact with long-lost relatives, friends, or even acquaintances, and as an audience member you get to enjoy that ever-elusive (in our own lives anyway) sensation of closing the circle, answering a long unanswered question. It’s voyeurism, therapy, humor, and generosity all in one show. Each week I count the days until Thursday.”
“Radio Ambulante”: NPR is an audio storytelling titan, and their Spanish-language podcast “Radio Ambulante” is predictably top-notch. Sojin Kim, a curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, recommends it for “the production quality, the range of topics, and the accessibility of the content—including for people like me, who are Spanish-language learners. I like that stories pull from communities in the U.S. and Latin America—the podcast offers a transnational space and glimpse into the ways that experiences and issues connect and are relevant across communities and geographies.”
“with out meaning”: Think D.C. is all about politics? Adriel Luis, curator of digital & emerging media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, likes this podcast because it shines a floodlight on another dimension of the nation’s capital city, offering “a refreshing source of local perspectives” on art, culture and gentrification. “I also love that the podcast takes on experimental and unconventional formatting and sound design that reminds me of 'This American Life,' 'Mr. Robot,' and Parliament Funkadelic all at the same time,” he says. For a good starter episode, give its second installment a listen.
“Still Processing”: This production from the New York Times also received multiple nominations for its incisive pop culture coverage. “Each episode is a thoughtful examination of our cultural landscape, as told through the unflinching critical eyes and compelling personal insights of two people [hosts Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris] on a perpetual quest to get to the heart of the matter,” says Anne Showalter, a digital interpretation specialist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“Future of X”: As an exhibition designer for the National Museum of American History, Isabella Bruno spends a lot of time mulling over the past. But, she told Smithsonian magazine, it’s also critical for her as a museum staffer to keep her eyes trained on the future. Last season, the show asked what the 21st century might have in store for health and healthcare; now, host Fay Schlesinger has turned her attention to the modern workplace.
“Portraits”: The National Portrait Gallery’s new podcast is, naturally, a favorite of curator Taína Caragol. But this podcast doesn’t paint by the numbers; it uses portraiture as a way to understand how these works of art capture big historical currents just as clearly as they depict the details of someone’s dimples. A recent episode, for example, looked at (literally and figuratively) a portrait of Pocahontas and, she says, “brought forward her place as a foundational figure of American history, but also one that has been really mythologized to different ends, either deployed by white Americans to signify their national authenticity as her descendants, or simply painted in a sweeter light in order to illustrate the ‘happy’ assimilation of Native Americans.”
“Brains On!”: This kid-geared science podcast, says Cat Kutz, is one her first-grader eagerly listens to. With a Bill Nye the Science Guy approach to making science accessible, the show is downright fun. As the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism summit communications manager, Kutz says she is “really hopeful and optimistic that youth are the future and youth are our climate leaders.” So if a podcast teaching about narwhals and the inner workings of pianos can get Gen Z invigorated about science, weather and the climate, that gives Kutz hope (and her son some carpool entertainment).
“Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness”: This podcast has been a passion project since before JVN became a household name as the hair and grooming guru on “Queer Eye.” Van Ness’ over-the-top earnest enthusiasm and genuine curiosity are near-propulsive forces that carry the listener through questions like “How Are Turtles Doing These Days and Are They the Same Thing As Tortoises?” or “What Do District Attorneys Do?” David Coronado, the senior communications officer for the Smithsonian Latino Center, endorses the episode “Why Don’t We Know Enough About Ancient Latin American History?” which sees JVN interviewing the Latino Center’s own Ranald Woodaman.
The Podcast Shortlist (also recommended)
"Lab Out Loud"
"The C Word – The Conservators’ Podcast"
"Disney History Institute Podcast"
"I’m in the Band"
"How Did This Get Made?"
"Native Lights Podcast"
"How to Survive the End of the World"
"All My Relations"