Big Think Interview With Robert Stone
Robert Stone is an American novelist and the National Book Award-winning author of "Dog Soldiers" (1974). His other novels include "A Flag for Sunrise" (PEN/Faulkner Award, 1981), "Children of Light" (1986), and "The Bay of Souls" (2003). He also published a memoir, "Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties," in 2007. His newest book, the short story collection "Fun With Problems," will be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January 2010.
Question: Which writers influenced you most as a young man?\r\n
Robert Stone: I think I was still in grade school when I began to understand the degree of pleasure I was taking in telling stories and in language and in words and the power I felt they had. I took to repeating words over and over to myself and making connections with them. And I really liked telling stories and I really enjoyed language and what it did and what seemed to be its possibilities.\r\n
When I was a child, I read the kind of books that children read and series of adventure stories, like The Hardy Boys and this kind of thing. As I got a little older, I read Kipling. I read the first moderns. I read Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage. One of the first modernist novelists that I ever read was John Steinbeck and I was really moved by Steinbeck and his lyricism and maybe his sentimentalism, but then I discovered Hemingway and I read The Sun Also Rises, and I think any writer of my generation was probably electrified, or given fits by Hemingway. Just the sheer pleasure you could take in reading Hemingway, the astonishing nature of the discoveries he made about non sequiturs and how words could cast shadows and how you could use the white space. And this was all in one rush of reading.\r\n
It wasn't an uncommon reading list for the most part. It was everything I blended into. I read the African adventure stories of Paul Duchieu, who was apparently a preposterous self-mythologizer who explored, or claimed to have explored, Africa in the 1860's. I read Admiral Byrd's accounts of his expeditions, which was kind of ironical because I was eventually going to be on one of Byrd's expeditions, one he himself did not conduct because he had died. All those stories of romantic adventure.\r\n
Question: How did your voyage to Antarctica come about?\r\n
Robert Stone: Well, I had been reading these accounts, which I now realize were ghostwritten by some Navy PR man, such as I would sort of be later. And I joined the Navy and I went to radio school and I was detached to a radio outfit to go aboard the USS Arneb under the command of an Admiral named Dufek who was following through on the Operation Deep Freeze III of voyages. So, I was the, I think what they called me was the Senior Enlisted Journalist on Operation Deep Freeze III. It gave me the official rate of Journalist 3rd Class. I mean, I was a kid. I was really quite young, so I got a huge charge out of all of this, out of going around the world, out of being down in the Antarctic, and being 20 years old, and being technically a non-com, and I loved being at sea. I always have. Sort of **** with my reading in a crazy way. I felt that the years that I was in the Navy I was kind of growing up in the Navy, that somehow I was doing something I had always wanted to do and I had the odd feeling you get when you were young when you suddenly find yourself doing something you think you've always wanted to do.\r\n
Question: How did your experience as a Vietnam War journalist affect your writing?\r\n
Robert Stone: Well, it really dictates its own language to try to describe the infinite contradictions and ironies that are generated by language, language that is deliberately perverse, or often deliberately perverse and simply perverse because of its nature. The attempt to link life in language anyway, without even getting to a situation as complex and fraught as war, is a strange thing anyway when you try to hook up language with life, you run into millions of shadows and contradictions and ironies.\r\n
I should say that my experience of war in Vietnam was quite limited, but I did feel a necessity to see what I could. I wasn't in the military at that point; I was freelancing. But you always learn. I think you always learn from the experience of war and I was not circumstantially, my experience was not as demanding of me, of my sanity as it was for many people. But I certainly found out things that I hadn't known before.\r\n
When I was in the military itself, I really hadn't seen – I had seen a lot of water, I'd seen a lot of the world. I couldn't do much with it, but I could see it. However, I wasn't involved in any action as a sailor except as a witness to some of the fighting in the Middle East. But in Vietnam, I went to Vietnam with the objective of being a witness and it puts you in a place you haven't been. I learned a lot, I think.\r\n
Question: What was the most important thing you learned from the war?\r\n
Robert Stone: To just put a lot of experiences together. I wasn't there a long time, and I wasn't in the worst places, by any means. But, there's a phrase in Lear that always took hold of me and it's where Lear is wandering mad on the heath and he sees the character Edgar, who is pretending to be mad, pretending to be a beggar in rags, and in a way is not a beggar in rags in the play. Lear sees this demented youth who is coming apart at the seams and chanting and says, "An unaccommodated man is no more than such a poor bare forked creature as thou art." And the phrase "unaccommodated man" always stayed with me and I always associated it with what I had seen in Vietnam. And then what I had seen subsequently in the Gaza Strip, in various places, or difficult places that I'd worked. "Unaccommodated man," man in the wrong place, any man in the wrong place, any person in the wrong place, unaccommodated, lost, threatened, hungry, dislocated, unaccommodated, and some how those words became for me a kind of prayer, or chant, or invocation or something.\r\n
So, to roll it all together, what I saw, the worst thing I’ve seen, I think, has been the spectacle of the unaccommodated man.\r\n
Question: Do you miss the 1960s?\r\n
Robert Stone: Well, I think you always miss your youth. I mean, in a way you want it back, and that's the time when I was young and my friends were young and we thought we knew the score. And in our way, we were very snobbish in a sense, we really thought we had a lot of things going that nobody in the history of the world had ever had going before. We took ourselves – you know, we had a high opinion of ourselves.\r\n
And we had enormous fun with the music and with each other and with the drugs. You know, not everybody was lucky. There were risks; people did not always survive some of those ecstasies.\r\n
But I can't wish myself back there, I wouldn't wish myself back there, as much as I might wish for youth again, but it's an imperfect world and it's such a tradeoff what you have to pay to be young and crazy. You have to not know so much. You have to not understand so many risks. You have to be so much braver than you’re going to be later. You're always trading off one thing against another.\r\n
I mean, the world around the drugs was strange and very frightening. But there are effects that I had from psychedelics at times that I would never dismiss as illusionary. I mean, there are things; it seems to me, that I saw, experienced, out there on that psychedelic level that I swear are truths about how things are. But I can't defend them or even examine them very rationally. I think one thing you learn from those drugs I think – or your acquire a deep suspicion that what we see normally, is no more than what we need to see as creatures so many feet off the ground. And our perception is really functional and there may be a whole lot more out there than we are normally equipped to see.\r\n
Question: Would you advise aspiring artists to experiment with drugs?\r\n
Robert Stone: I myself, speaking for myself, I'm not sorry that I ever had those experiences. Well, actually that's probably not true, because there were times when I was so frightened out of my wits that I think I would have traded it all to be out of there. And I couldn’t recommend it to anybody because I've seen too many people really swept away and endangered by it. It's something that one can't recommend. I mean, to recommend it with one person it to really perhaps do that person a great disservice. It's just sort of taking your head in your hands and it may go well and it may not go well. So to suggest to anybody that they try it, I would have to feel I really knew them really well and would feel comfortable about any outcome. I don't think I could get comfortable guessing what would happen to anybody.\r\n
Question: Are reading and writing escapist drugs?\r\n
Robert Stone: Oh, they’re states of consciousness. They are all altered states of consciousness. I mean, the reason language has the effect that it has in literature is because it's recapitulating music. I mean, poetry rhymes or is metered so you will remember it. So what's behind the rhythms of poetry are these mnemonic techniques that are pure sound in a way. So, it's this mixture of sound and meaning that is as musical in a way, or certainly as sonic as it is rational. It's a rational narrative, or maybe an irrational narrative, but it's also something that's going on, on a purely sensory, sensual level.\r\n
So, it is an altered state of consciousness. And in that sense, certainly a drug. Certainly a drug made out of sensibility, made out of our senses and that occupies our space and removes us from our own space and lets the artist inhabit our space the way music inhabits your space, or poetry inhabits your space, or great prose inhabits your space, in a good cause. It alters your consciousness.\r\n
Question: What can addiction teach us?\r\n
Robert Stone: It's one of those things that keep reminding me of the concept of original sin. I mean, which is so hateful and corny, the idea of original sin. You know, when you really struggle to lose that concept as soon as you lose organized religion. But there's something and some quality in life, some kind of weakness or craving that one doesn't seem to be able to get away from.\r\n
I mean, addicts have often talked about their substance as something that almost has a life of its own; as a tempter. It's the substitution to everything else. I think the drug is whatever you want it to be. It's something that will take you away from your present space and brings you pleasure that's somehow free, that you don't have to pay for, which of course is illusionary because there isn't anything that you don't have to pay for.\r\n
One of the strangest tings about life I think, is how absolutely nothing is free. The old saw about there being no free lunch. It's uncanny. It's weird how true that is. That everything has to be paid off on, one end or the other. And so drugs are like anything else, you just don't get away with anything.\r\n
Question: Can the complexities of addiction ever fully be represented in fiction?\r\n
Robert Stone: I think it has been represented variously and well by writers like, for example, like Burroughs, and even writers who don't directly write about addiction in a way discover the principles, the truths that addiction leads you to. I mean, addiction is full of -- as Burroughs knew, it's full of dreadful pain. It's also full of comedy. I mean every addict's story is of course, tragic; a tale of destruction, but it also has its constantly ludicrous side. So, that it really is the human being as fool and you know, one knows that it's a mug's game, that you can't get ahead of it and it's never quite going to pay off, but you always sympathize somehow. At least I always sympathize with somebody after they're high. It's a distressing thing to see somebody get to worship their own asshole in this awful way, that all they're doing is trying to generate satisfaction and yet, in a way, you kind of have to sympathize with the drive for ecstasy.\r\n
When I was really young and dumb, I thought, thinking of the great musicians, I thought oh, well the junkies are holy. I mean, I don't think that anymore, but I thought of the great jazz musicians who had succumbed. I thought there was some kind of holiness about this. The glamour of it I think entraps a lot of people. It might have entrapped me. I think if I hadn't been lucky.\r\n
Question: How were you “lucky” to escape the trap of drugs?\r\n
Robert Stone: Oh, just to get in and out of that that world more of less – to the extent that I think I've escaped the world of addiction. I didn't – I haven't. at least by this point.been entrapped by the world of addiction. I'm still alive. I can still count to 10. I can still put one word in front of another and I think to that extent I have been lucky because some people have been destroyed, either by the work. I mean, in the case of a writer, writing is lonely. It's one of the -- Hemingway said about writing that -- It's a way of ending the day. And that's so true because you're by yourself, you get absolutely jacked up. You get in an intense emotional state, then the next thing to do is kind of come down and go to sleep and work it off somewhere. But most of the time you are in a room by yourself, you know. Writers spend more time in rooms, staying awake in quiet rooms, than they do hunting lions in Africa.\r\n
So, it's a bad life for a person because it's so lonely and because it consists of such highs and lows, and there's not always anywhere to take these emotional states.\r\n
I was writing in a college library once in the middle of the night and I was working on Dog Soldiers. I worked myself up into a state. I had rewritten this thing about eight times and I was crying. I went outside my little room into the dark library shelves and I'm weeping and carrying on and talking to myself and I run into a security guard out in the stacks. He's encountered this maniac, which is me talking to myself out there and I just thought what is the spectacle of this distraught character, this looney wandering through the shelves talking to himself.\r\n
So, it's a hard life to sustain. Or, it's a life that's tough to sustain without falling prey to some kind of beguiling diversion that's not good for you.\r\n
Question: How do you create a character that is not yourself?\r\n
Robert Stone: Well, they're all, not yourself, but by the way, they are not you, but you inhabit them. It's like acting in a way, or maybe it's like puppetry. It's doing voice. In fiction, a character after all is only a voice, is only a voice on a page whose sensibility is put in language and that's a little artificial because our sensibility doesn't only express itself in language. We have a lot going on inside us that isn't language in addition to all the language that's going on. But when you create a character in a book, he or she is his or her language. And that language has to stand for a lot more than what he or she says. It has to stands for their sensibility entirely.\r\n
So, you're creating a voice. When you start creating that voice, you are doing a kind of puppet show. You're doing the voices as Dickens once said, as one of his character say about another character in – I think it's in David Copperfield, or in Oliver Twist. It's one of the kids in that band of robber kids in Oliver Twist who reads the police reports. He can read, and he reads the police reports for his gang because he can read. And they love to listen to him do this and one of them says to another, "He do the police in different voices." He acts out the cops. He acts out the defendants. And so this is kind of what you are doing. This is kind of the fun of writing something. You're doing the voices. And the voices you hope will become more than just voices, but characters.\r\n
Question: Can memoirists ever avoid fictionalizing themselves?\r\n
Robert Stone: No, I don't think they can, because as soon as you change something from life to language, you're changing it. You're changing it in a **** way. It isn't the same. It's something different. And when you put it into language. Even if memory didn't distort, which memory does, you're still changing it. You can't help it. I mean with all the commitment to documentary realism and truth in the world, you still can't help it because you're creating your own voice on a page. I mean, it's not fiction, but it's still a creation. The voice. You write a memoir, and I write a memoir. Your voice is a creation on the page. My voice is a creation on the page. And it's as true as I can make it, and it represents me as if I'm going to be honest, as truly as I can represent myself. But it's still a structure, something I've invented to be me. I've written this style, I've written this sensibility, this way of thinking and I’m saying, okay, for all purposes here in the memoir, this is me. This voice you're hearing is me. There's always artifice there.\r\n
Question: Have you turned to short stories out of “novel fatigue” or love of the form?\r\n
Robert Stone: Oh, well I was always in awe of the form. I did my first novel before I did my first short story. I earnestly pray that it isn't novel fatigue because I have actually, I miss the novel. I'm working on one now, which I hope will give me the satisfactions that I have always got from the novel.\r\n
No, it can be harder to write a good story than to write a novel. In a way, you get the impulse to shorten, to compress. If you don't watch it, you can suppress everything. But you do get an impulse to make it simple, make it short.\r\n
But I am interested in stories. My stories are different from my novels in that I think I don't forgive people as readily in my characters. I don't forgive my characters in short stories to the extent that I do in a novel. I think I’m pretty hard on them actually. And if I have a criticism of some of the stories, it's that I'm a little meaner to some of those characters than I ought to be. But I do find it fascinating to write stories, to make them short, to deal with subjects briefly.\r\n
Question: What did you attempt in this new book that you’d never attempted before?\r\n
Robert Stone: Well, one thing I did, in a kind of incidental way, I had never used the first person in fiction before. I have a story in there that is in the first person, something I had never done before. And so, I did that. I tried it to consider a fiction from that aspect. I wrote a couple of things more about art, the visual arts that I had, I think previously at least one or two of the stories are very much about the visual arts and what they are made to carry for, for the writer's purpose in this story.\r\n
In style, I don't think in my terms very experimental, but I did a few things I had never done before.\r\n
Question: Why had you never used the first person before?\r\n
Robert Stone: I just didn't find it congenial. I couldn’t get the right relationship with the narrative. I just found that conventional past, you know, “he went up…it was Tuesday and he went,”etc., just the distance, the right distance between me and the narrative and the "I" -- It was Tuesday and I went – the space just wasn't right. The distance, the amount of space between myself and the point of view just didn't feel right. And that's what you go on. That's what I go on.\r\n
Question: Does age mellow writing or make it more urgent?\r\n
Robert Stone: It doesn't make it any easier, as far as I can tell. I think maybe for some people it mellows it, but I think one has to be very ****. Mellowing is a suspect process. I don't think a writer ought to mellow too much. I think you have to be hard on yourself and not indulge your own lovable peculiarities, or you'll violate your best stuff. I mean sentimentality is the enemy, which is not to say that sentiment is, I mean, sentiment is the real stuff. It's sentimentality that is the enemy, it's not sentiment.\r\n
But I think you have to – I think it's easier to get too bitter than it is to get too sentimental, actually. I think it happens – it’s just as bad I think to be cheaply bitter. I mean, cynicism is easy and it's cheap. So, to be sentimental is inexcusable, but to be totally and automatically perverse and cynical is as bad as being sentimental.\r\n
Question: Why do you write?\r\n
Robert Stone: I don't feel I ever had a choice. The only thing that I could ever do that signified for me was write stories, invent people, invent situations because that was the way I made sense of the world. I did it and I do it because I have to do it in order to see where I'm standing; in order to find out where I am at any given time.\r\n
And also, because I think there's a service involved in working well as an artist. I think this is – I hope this is not too much of a claim, well I don't think it is too much of a claim. I think you serve by working, I think any artist that works conscientiously and does it as well as they can is furthering consciousness to some small degree, and that service.\r\n
So, I do it because I need to do it, and also because I believe that it's service and you need to do something beyond serving yourself.\r\n
Question: What books would you recommend to non-book readers?\r\n
Robert Stone: I think that if these are people who are capable of a literary experience, unless they've got themselves in some shape where they just can't do it, they can't have a literary experience because they've cut themselves off, or they've made themselves too dumb, or whatever – and this tragically can happen, I think – there's a literary experience out there of some kind for every intelligent, thoughtful person. There is something that will catch hold of them and I think you have to know the person and maybe you can guess what they would like, but I think there is something for everybody out there. I mean, literature is necessary. You need stories. I mean, you absolutely need them. You can't locate yourself. People need stories and they need the beauty of language.\r\n
Or language can uglify. I mean, a language that kind of is debased – is always being debased, whether it is on the street or by media demigods, if the language gets ugly or it gets debased, it loses its meaning, and everything that's good about language, that's youthful about language, gets cheapened. It becomes a weapon of deceit for the Rush Limbaughs of the world. It just becomes some kind of dross.\r\n
Question: What do the Beat writers have to teach us today?\r\n
Robert Stone: It's hard to go back in time to really assess the Beats’ legacy; you have to consider the way the world was in 1955 or so. And not that the world was so dreadful in 1955. It's just that you have to some how not know a lot of things that you know. And what was it like to come on “On The Road.” I mean, my relationship with that book, I think, is kind of interesting because it really woke you up in certain ways and for me, I don't think it’s a good book. I never was an admirer of Kerouac as a writer. I really found him just nauseatingly sentimental and indulgent and half-assed, crude, not bothering to finish his sentences. But above all, sentimental, and yet he could do a portrait – a guy like Neal Cassady, I knew Neal Cassady. Well, he wasn't a friend of mine, but I knew him pretty well. And it was a little like defining a new kind of animal in a way to come on the old vintage ’40s, hipster character of Neal.\r\n
I mean, Neal in life, the closest think I ever saw in art to Neal Cassady and his friends were the characters of the bikers in The Wild Ones. I mean, that was as close as I ever saw a representation get to the style of those guys.\r\n
So, it was really quite – in the way that the books that introduced the first 1920s characters, or ‘20s gangsters, they are very impressive because they present a new sort of person to the reader. And the world was different in ways that really can't be explained terribly accurately now. The sense of the American road, the sense of the American possibility; because possibility is God in America. Possibility is the divinity that we all serve if we can get away from money for a few mystical moments. Our god is possibility.\r\n
So, Kerouac and the Beats, that was one thing they were presenting to an audience of youth was possibility, which is great. I mean, Americans expect a lot out of life and can be put down for that reason, but at the same time, maybe that's what makes the place work to the degree that it does.
Recorded December 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen
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The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word Gets Around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.
As I sat in a darkened cinema in 1998, mesmerised and unnerved by the opening nuclear bomb explosions that framed the beginning of Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, it felt like I was watching the most expensive special effect in history.
Vast expanding clouds and fireballs eclipsed their surroundings and smothered everything in their path, dropping radioactive material that gave rise to the title monster. I had never encountered anything like this. I appreciated the creativity of those 90s films that tried to push visual boundaries through emerging computer technology, but this was on a different scale. I later discovered that there was a good reason for this – the footage was real.
The film did win awards for its special effects, although that was for the giant lizard itself and scenes of New York landmarks being shattered by its rampage, not the precise origin or significance of those fleeting mushroom clouds.
I kept coming back to those images and the accompaniment of haunting, almost other-worldly, choral music. It sent shivers down my spine, and still does every time I re-watch it.
It was that footage which started my journey towards research into nuclear history, and which led to me becoming a visiting fellow at the British Library's Eccles Centre for American Studies, where I study their collections, including the early pictorial history of nuclear testing.
Many of those iconic images which originally stunned me came from the aptly named Operation Crossroads – an exercise 75 years ago involving the first postwar nuclear weapons tests in July 1946, conducted by a joint US army-navy task force in Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. It involved 42,000 people, around 150 support vessels and over 90 target ships and submarines.
It also used over half the world's supply of film footage and hundreds of cameras to capture the nuclear detonations. Officially, this extensive filming was driven by military policy and scientific considerations, US political and military leaders wanting to understand the effects of this new weapon. At the same time, the demonstration of these weapons on film also served to showcase US power to a global audience.
The literal and psychological shock waves of that event were significant in the early cold war and in shaping the modern world, from setting precedents for thousands of subsequent bomb tests and accelerating the arms race to long-lasting radioactive environmental damage in locations where these tests occurred.
Crossroads even led to the invention of a language of terms to describe nuclear testing (through over two months of negotiation). Some terms agreed on are perhaps less familiar, including “cauliflower cloud" and “base surge", while others (like “fallout") have become ubiquitous since.
Crossroads had such an impact because it was almost a blockbuster movie production in its filmic scale and focus – a military-scientific cinematic spectacle, unique among over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted worldwide by all nations since.
Public Domain (Wikicommons)
Even as much of its cold war origins and significance lie forgotten, Crossroads' cinematic legacies have lived on over the last 75 years. Photos and footage from it have been used widely, from propaganda to popular culture: from Godzilla movies to internet
memes. It has been employed to inform, to protest, as cultural symbols, and in ways which have obscured or re-framed aspects of nuclear history, shifting away from legacies of US testing, or even making the bomb a monster-destroying weapon (seen not least through Godzilla), much like a mushroom cloud enveloping everything in its path.
The world's most expensive film shoot
Crossroads fundamentally changed the film profile of atom bombs. Still images of those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 had appeared in many newspapers, but there was limited camera footage of these. There were also only a few thousand TVs in the US in 1946, so for many the Crossroads footage would be watched in cinema newsreels (whether in the US or other countries).
The Crossroads plan was large in scale and complexity, but underpinned by one central concept: assembling a fleet of around 90 decommissioned US naval ships (including three captured German and Japanese vessels), anchoring them in a remote lagoon in the Pacific (Bikini Atoll) and setting off atom bombs against them. A truly blockbuster plan.
'Operation Crossroads. Underwater atomic blast again rocks Bikini Atoll', British Pathé newsreel, 1946.
The stated goal was to test how atomic bombs would affect naval vessels, better to improve the design of future ships and such defensive arrangements as anchoring them in harbours, in the event that America faced the atom bombs of other nations in the future – though only the US had the bomb at this time. But Crossroads was later widened to test damage to other types of material and equipment, as well as measuring various effects of the weapons, such as (rather unsettlingly) the biological impact on thousands of animals present on target ships, including pigs, goats and rats.
Crossroads has been described as one of the most photographed events in history, and this had had several practical effects for moviemakers, even before the first weapon had been exploded. As more than half the world's available stock of film footage was bought up for cameras to record the tests, there were months of shortages in Hollywood and other major studios around the world.
New high-speed cameras were used to capture even the first fractions of a second after detonation (although these didn't always go to plan). Subsequent nuclear tests prompted further developments of these technologies, some of which would later make their way into fields from commercial cinematography to medicine.
Some of the first drone cameras – a concept evoking images of 21st-century movie-making – were also significantly developed and used in Crossroads. Large four-propeller engine B-17 bombers were rigged with TV cameras and transmitters so that they could be flown remotely as drone aircraft, to film the explosions and to collect radioactive samples from clouds. Similar arrangements were made for small, un-crewed boats. While a far cry from modern military and civil drones, such experiments were groundbreaking, leading to shots that would previously have been impossible, and laying foundations for future developments in both drones and in remote-controlled photography.
Development of the atomic bomb had been shrouded in the utmost secrecy throughout the second world war, to the point that the public and most members of Congress didn't know about it until after Hiroshima was bombed. Even Harry Truman – as vice president – hadn't known of its existence until he succeeded President Roosevelt in April 1945. This made the widespread publicity of Crossroads as a global media event one year later even more remarkable. Observers were invited to attend the tests from such unlikely places as the Soviet Union.
While the visuals of nuclear tests may be well recognised, the sound adds another dimension to their impact. The orchestras of the US Armed Forces provided custom music for films of the tests, whether for classified or public consumption, akin to the dramatic soundtracks of action or superhero adventures, or the eerie music of horror movies that creates the atmosphere.
The music was usually reserved as rousing chords for the opening and ending, or particularly poignant moments, such as observing damage to ships, though not for the detonations themselves. By contrast, all cinematic and documentary uses of Crossroads almost always overlay detonation footage with dramatic music.
Crossroads Baker detonation, with added music and with commentary by William Shatner, as featured in the revised version of the 1995 documentary 'Trinity and Beyond'.
One of a kind
“Those black dots are battleships? But they're so tiny," was the amazed reaction of one student when I showed their class footage from Crossroads – it was by no means an isolated response. The iconic nature of those images partly stems from Crossroads being distinctive among nuclear tests, particularly the second detonation, Crossroads Baker, on July 25 1946.
Almost all nuclear weapons tested have either been detonated within the atmosphere (ground or air, sometimes on the verge of space), in which case the first sign of the explosion has involved a blinding flash obscuring everything, or underground, in which there was often much less to see, except eerie videos of the earth slowly giving way to form a crater before kicking up dust. Underground testing could, of course, still lead to dramatic (and disturbing) footage, such as the ground rising up before exploding, a particularly notable example being the Operation Storax Sedan detonation in 1962, which was testing (almost unbelievably) ways of using nuclear weapons for civil construction in large excavation projects.
Crossroads Baker, meanwhile, was detonated just underwater, meaning it could be observed from the moment the explosion reached the surface. The visual effect was also made all the more powerful by the surrounding lagoon, the rapidly expanding blast hurling what were later estimated to be over two million tonnes of water and spray high into the air.
Silent footage from a ground angle with a clear view of the Crossroads Baker detonation, showing the growth of the explosion.
The scale of subsequent test series was different. While the bombs increased in power hundreds of times after Crossroads (and tests grew from using two weapons to sometimes up to 30 or 40 in a single operation), never again was there such a fleet assembled to be bombed.
Filming of tests became an industry in its own right, with subsequent tests having an entire US Air Force studio at Lookout Mountain Laboratory being dedicated to them. But there was rarely the same gathering of news media or scale of filming as at Crossroads. Footage of later tests, while still released in some propaganda and news films, also became less public for various reasons, including security.
There were no further underwater tests until 1955 with Operation Wigwam, which examined a concept originally planned for the cancelled third Crossroads test, Charlie, on the effects of deep ocean nuclear explosions against submarines. Wigwam similarly saw no repeat of the Crossroads fleet – only three miniature submarines anchored to the bomb for taking damage measurements, alongside a modest number of support vessels.
For all the effort of being so widely photographed, much of the footage captured remained classified. Some was released in 1946 newsreel and public information films, more appeared in the 1960s, and further photographs and footage were released in 2016.
Crossroads had a book as well: an “Official Pictorial Report", something not repeated in any other test series and publicly available with around 200 photographs and captions. It has been a very valuable and often-overlooked time capsule of how the test was recorded and presented, but is also only a drop in the lagoon of 50,000 still images captured.
Many photos are of the people involved rather than the bombs themselves. In the Official Report, for instance, I discovered that only a fifth of the images show mushroom clouds; the rest charting things like scientific preparations or the aftermath of tests, but also everyday life for the task-force members conducting them. The more I saw them, the more I became fascinated with how these people were adapting to living through such events. It was like seeing “behind the scenes" footage.
And then there are the people who are only represented briefly in these images, often in a particular light, or excluded entirely – such as the existing population of 167 people at Bikini Atoll. These people ostensibly “agreed" to give up their homes for science, but, in reality, felt that they didn't have a choice, and also assumed that the move would only be temporary.
This was one of the first examples of nuclear colonialism. They were relocated to Rongerik Atoll, where food sources turned out not to be sustainable, and relocated further times after that. About 150 returned to Bikini in the 1970s, but the health dangers from radioactivity left behind by subsequent tests meant they had to leave again in 1978 and have never been able to return. Their story only received the greater attention it deserves in recent years.
In the world of box office films, the predominant cinematic uses of Crossroads' historic footage remains the mushroom cloud, inescapable in its iconic and instantly recognisable form. But the ways in which it has been used out of context in such films as Godzilla can create new meanings for how others depicted nuclear history, while further obscuring the original ones.
Admiral William Blandy, who led Operation Crossroads, and his wife cut a mushroom cloud cake. ( Harris & Ewing Studio/Wikimedia Commons)
(Mis)appropriation of Crossroads
Crossroads' footage has been used in a wide variety of settings, from the ending of Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove to YouTube memes. But the Godzilla uses stand out, both in my own personal experience, but also because of their significance of wider trends in how nuclear history has been re-interpreted cinematically.
Even in 1998, I saw Godzilla as an allegory for the effects of nuclear tests and radiation. It was only when reading about the 1954 original that I learned the wider history: in the original (Japanese) story, Godzilla is an embodiment of the harm from nuclear weapons themselves and particularly the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 1954 Godzilla was a peaceful ancient dinosaur, sent on a rampage by the effects of radiation from an atomic explosion. But this narrative became distorted in some later remakes, whether aimed at Japanese or western audiences.
A particular criticism of US adaptations, right from US re-cuts of the 1954 original that were sold back to Japan, has been the removal of overt references within the movies to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or indeed to any of the problematic aspects of US nuclear history.
The 1998 film begins by focusing on Godzilla as being created by French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Such detonations did indeed happen, although the footage used is entirely that of American Pacific nuclear testing (Crossroads Baker featuring prominently from different angles alongside a few shots of other tests). Little visual and audio cues reinforce this fiction by superimposing over a montage of test preparations a map of French Polynesia, a countdown in French, and La Marseillaise playing in the background.
There are other hints later in the film which – as subtle as the presence of Godzilla itself – include Jean Reno as leader of a “French Secret Service" team who signals their job is to clean up the problems created by their country's tests in the Pacific, and a US TV station helpfully putting up a map of Godzilla's origins alongside a big sign “French Nuke Testing".
The 2014 film goes even further in its repainting of nuclear testing history. The opening also starts with Pacific tests, although framed as being the 1954 US thermonuclear weapons test, Castle Bravo. This time, instead of starting with a Godzilla created by atom bomb radiation, the nuclear tests are portrayed as a weapon used to try to kill Godzilla.
Opening shots of Godzilla (2014), prominently featuring footage of the Crossroads Baker detonation.
Of course, it's ironic that the film starts with an attempt to kill the embodiment of the effects of nuclear weapons, Godzilla, with nuclear weapons. And that the real-life 1954 Castle Bravo test went out of control because of an unexpected reaction, spreading radiation much further than planned, severely affecting the population of the Rongelap and Utirik Atolls with radiation poisoning, as well as sailors on a Japanese fishing trawler, one of whom later died. This story of the fishermen ignited protests in Japan over nuclear testing, resonating with the still fresh wounds of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and acting as a major inspiration for the original Japanese Godzilla film that same year.
For all the advancements in special effects technology, at the crucial moment of detonation, the iconic footage of Crossroads Baker still appears as the centrepiece in the 2014 Godzilla. It is interspersed with a more computer-generated mushroom cloud and the mimicking of shock waves hitting island beaches, but the continued usage shows its cinematic longevity.
It is not that there weren't videos of Castle Bravo available. On the contrary, footage of it has been iconic, and terrifying, in its own right in documentaries and films, and that bomb itself was over 700 times more powerful than Crossroads Baker. It is possible that these films, taken from a greater distance, didn't have quite the same, seemingly close-up, unobscured, and immediate feeling of scale as Baker, flanked by full-sized naval ships that appear as mere toys against the mushroom cloud.
To stunned moviegoers like myself, Crossroads may well have been the most expensive special effects in history. Adjusted for inflation, the operation would have cost over US$800 million in 1998, possibly even more with added technical and safety complexities (fortunately, US and Soviet atmospheric nuclear testing had ended in 1962). As such, those few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.
But the cost which can never be calculated is the power of those images upon the human imagination and fear, as well as their effect on the nuclear arms race. Many target ships, while damaged, survived Crossroads Baker, but were enveloped in so much radioactive seawater that decontamination became almost impossible, except for a few vessels.
Plans to sail the remaining ships back to the US triumphantly gave way to sinking most of them, albeit without the same fanfare as the operation itself. A forgotten end credits scene on which the cameras never rolled, but the fallout from which fogs the films to this day.