Big Think Interview With Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher. Her novels include "The Mind-Body Problem," "The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind," "Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics," and her latest, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction" (Pantheon Books).
In 1996 Goldstein became a MacArthur Fellow. In 2005 she was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2006 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship. In 2008, she was designated a Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Emerson College, where she gave the commencement address.
Goldstein has taught at Barnard College, in the Columbia MFA writing program, and in the department of philosophy at Rutgers; has been a visiting scholar at Brandeis University; and has taught for five years as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In 2006-2007 she was a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Currently she is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and I’m a writer and philosopher I suppose.\r\n
Question: How did being raised in an Orthodox Jewish family affect your religious and philosophical beliefs?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household and I wouldn’t say so much it’s informed my views, but it’s informed my interest, so I think as a child I was often very baffled by knowledge claims. Everybody seemed to know all sorts of things about the world and I wondered how they could know this and I suppose sometimes I would ask them and I never felt particularly satisfied with the questions and so sometime very early on I found myself to this book by… Oh God, it was called The Story of Philosophy by Durant and you know I remember I was… All we were allowed to do in the Sabbath was to read and you know I would go and we were quite impoverished, so we didn’t own books, but every Friday I would and get my reading material before the Sabbath so I could… before sundown so I could have my reading material and you know somehow I found my way to this book and I remember experiencing something like ecstasy when I read the section on Plato and it was you know this first introduction to rigorous thinking through argumentation and it felt… You know it just felt like water after you’re dying of thirst and so I think in that way my religious upbringing played into my passion for rigorous thinking.\r\n
Question: Is there a character in “36 Arguments For the Existence of God” whose struggles with faith particularly reflect your own?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. Well there is one I identify with very strongly and there is one that I love and they’re two different people. The one I identify very strongly with is the main character. It’s not… The book is written in the third person. It’s not always from the main character’s point of view. I sometimes leave it, but it’s mostly from his point of view and his name is Cass Seltzer and he is a psychologist of religion and because of what is happened recently in America he finds himself an intellectual celebrity. He has been fascinated with the psychology of religion for decades, but suddenly here it is. Things have shifted and there is a confluence between his own obsessions and the obsessions of our particular moment in time and he becomes a celebrity after he publishes a book called The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a kind of nod to William James whom he much admires as do I and Freud, you know the future of an illusion. So Cass Seltzer is… becomes this famous atheist, but he is rather different from the atheists, the professional atheists that I know and admire, friends of mine all. He understands religion from the inside and he himself is much given, as am I, I should perhaps, or not, confess, to a kind of spiritual experience, which is this kind of… I don’t know, a wonder, an ontological wonder, just the sheer wonder at this world that draws you out of yourself in a very dramatic way and often ends with your feeling very grateful to existence for simply existing. It’s a kind of religious experience. Now he as do I resists taking the next step. You know it’s like it’s just wonder at existence, gratitude for existence as it exists. It’s a very Spinoza shtick emotion. The spirit of Spinoza hovers over this book strongly. So that’s Cass Seltzer and yes, he is a man. He becomes… Time Magazine dubs him the atheist with a soul, and you know he finds that slightly absurd, as do I, but he is soulful and you know what I mean by soulful is capable of ontological wonder. So he is the character I most identify with.\r\n
Question: Why did you choose fiction as a mode of inquiry into arguments for God’s existence?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I asked myself that, and you know it’s, I did write straight philosophical pieces, but in the last book I had written which was on Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity I had you know it’s was a straight more or less intellectual biography with a lot of philosophy in it. That book introduced me to communities I hadn’t know about before, organized non religion. It was shocking that non religion can be as organized as religion. Well not quite as organized, but lots and lots of you know associations of pro science, pro reasons, some more or less anti religious and I had the sense that the more… And I got invited to these groups to talk and the more I spoke to people with whom I basically agreed the more dissatisfied I became when they discussed people with whom I don’t agree. I know very well what it’s like to be religious. I know very well what it’s like to experience the world that way and I know that it has to do with more than argumentation and it has in fact more to do than with the belief in God. It’s got to do with community and loyalty and existential dilemmas and fear of death and just so many different emotions and that whether just people often just experience the world very differently than others and for me fiction, which I love, is made for that kind of thing, to show how these big issues are really embedded in lives, how they often are connected with a completely different experiences, that they go very deep down, so deep down that often people who don’t agree are just, they’re just not hearing each other. They’re not grasping each other. They don’t know what it feels like to inhabit the world in that other person’s way. Fiction is made for that and that’s what drove me once again against my self-interest to write another novel.\r\n
Question: Why is the “faith vs. science” debate raging now, and why did you decide to jump into it?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I mean it’s interesting, as a philosopher it surprised me how suddenly, you know, it all seemed very quiet. When I used to teach you know philosophy of religion or arguments for the existence of God, you know deconstructing them you know 20, 25 years ago it was you know really it was not… didn’t provoke a lot of discussion in the classroom and now it’s really escaped from the classroom. It’s in the public square and it’s interesting why now. Clearly 9/11 had a lot to do with it. The more dangerous aspects of you know absolute belief; undoubting belief is very, very… We’re all in terror of this right now, so this certainly had something to do with it. I think also the alliance, the political alliance that took place in the last administration between you know free market advocates and family values, evangelical Christians as a political, as a large and powerful political movement had something also to do with the pushback from the other side. Important decisions that affect us all like stem cell research or gay marriage being decided by people from a particular religious background with a particular religious agenda it was distressing to other people and so there was a pushback. I also think there is something about the progress in the brain sciences, in evolutionary psychology in particular so that religious belief is now something that scientists are looking at and trying to explain and it’s not a I don’t think an accident that the most prominent atheist writers come from that domain, Richard Dawkins from evolutionary biology. Sam Harris, Dan Dennett also much interested in evolution and evolutionary psychology, so I think that that also, a way to try to now explain religious belief as a way of toning it down.\r\n
Question: Can religious yearnings and a scientific mindset be reconciled?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: You know I think that this kind of transcendent instinct or the ontological urge, you know, to understand what, where are we, and what are we, is common to religion and to science and you know this not only an ontological wonder, but an ontological, you know, ecstasy is common. I think almost every scientist at least originally has felt something like this, had some sort of experience like I experienced reading Plato on a quiet Sabbath afternoon and getting drawn out of myself into this just wow, this world is extraordinary. So in that sense there is something to be shared. I think to use fancy language, the ethics of the epistemology behind religion and science are very, very different, so what science has worked out laboriously and with many false steps and but constantly checking itself is a way of providing evidence of putting everything up to critical reasoning, of always letting the world tell us when we’re wrong and we’re… you know it’s amazing we know anything at all frankly and you know it’s extraordinary, but so that always you know being very, very aware of our tendencies towards fallacy and this methodology that’s been worked out, so that you don’t … you know you’re always open to refutation, reality. We’ve worked out ways to probe reality so that there is a pushback from reality when we get it wrong and no matter how ardent ones beliefs, if the evidence goes against it you will give it up. That is a very different ethics of epistemology than you find in religion. In religion, you know, it’s not usually open to falsification. There is arguments from personal experience for example. One of the very important things you get in science is my grounds have to… I have to make them reasonable to other people. If it’s just, I know it in my gut. This is the way I feel the world. God has spoken to me, or whatever, you know, something purely subjective that I can’t make reasonable to my colleagues, it’s just not open to discussion. This is all sort of you know or you know scripture, you know certain authoritative books, all of these means of grounding ones beliefs in… that you find in religion are just they’re not acceptable in science, so if you go to the sort of medi-question, the epistemology what counts as knowledge? When are we in a good position to claim I know? I think religion and science are really very different from one another.\r\n
Question: Should we privilege one mode of inquiry over the other, or are both vital?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: You know, I don’t think… I mean clearly you can see where my sympathies are, but as I see it you know these tendencies go so very deep down. I… You know ought we to be one way or another? Yes, perhaps. You know I’m a Spinozist. I believe in reason. I think all the progress that we’ve made making this a better world have been because of reason and not religion. I think religion has been pulled along by reason and that’s why we read The Bible now so differently, even believers, “Oh, no, no, no, we don’t really mean slavery is okay.” “We don’t really mean you should stone the homosexual or the adulteress.” Because you know even religion and even those who believe you know in the holy book, they’ve been pulled along. By whom? By thinkers outside of religion, so or enlightened religious thinkers, but you know it’s… Is that a good thing? I think it’s a wonderful thing. Should everybody be that way? Well, perhaps. You know as a philosopher I think so, as a novelist, not. I mean I like that there are so many different ways of looking at the world and I like all of the particular narratives. In any case we will never all see the same way on these issues. It’s the way liberals and conservatives will never see the same way on individuals whereas it’s different orientations and they go too deep down and when we’re dealing with questions that can’t be definitively answered by science that’s where you’re sort of… your orientation swells in to fill up the gaps and so we’re never always going to agree. It just would be a good thing if those of us on different sides could see the world as our… the other people are seeing it. Not all nonbelievers, in fact, none that I know are people who don’t believe in morality, who can’t distinguish between right and wrong, who are crazed hedonists. That’s you know, so it’s that’s such a… nor are they people who can’t experience the world in grand and spiritual ways. That’s a belittlement. Nor on the other side are all religious people, you know, dimwits. If we could just point out the fallacy in their logic the veil would fall away from them. That too is such a belittlement of religious sensibilities.\r\n
Question: What is an argument for God’s existence that still carries weight in modern philosophy?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I think actually one of the still most alive arguments is what I call in the appendix the moral argument, the belief that morality needs God’s will to ground it. Moral truths are somewhat mysterious. You know I keep talking about you know the pushback from the world as empirical evidence, but moral truths are… seem to be of a different nature from that, so that it’s not… it’s not when one’s saying look, slavery is wrong. We’re not saying we’ve decided that slavery is wrong or that, you know, that in my particular society we’ve outlawed slavery or we’re taking even a strong, you know, genocide is wrong. I think all of us believe this very strongly. I think everybody I’m talking to at least on Big Think believes this very, very strongly. How do we justify this belief? If you can do… Philosophers love thought experiments. You know if in fact, you know, Adolf Hitler had triumphed and had gone forth with his plan of exterminating all the undesirables. You know finished with the Jews and the Gypsies and the gays and gone onto the slogs and you know he had a whole agenda, a whole plan of who was going to be wiped out. Let’s say it had taken place and our world was that way. It was a world in which one believed this was a very good thing that all these undesirables had been wiped out, yet one could say that would be an immoral world. That is a moral monstrosity to consider. So these… There is something a little mysterious about these statements. They don’t seem to have an empirical grounding. They seem to be super empirical, transcendent and well if they’re transcendent don’t they need a transcendent force, a transcendent will that **** them? And so that I think has you know a certain cogency to it, the mysteriousness of moral truth, if you believe in them. You could say okay, they don’t really exist. I mean it really is a matter or sociology and psychology, but if you really do believe no, even had Hitler triumphed it is still true that genocide is wrong and that that would be a morally heinous world where does that come from? How do I know this if not because it comes from God? So I hope that I’ve now put even strong atheist into a state of, oh well, yes, tell us please, how do we get out of this, and you know, I do analyze that argument in the appendix. Do you want it quickly, yes?\r\n
I mean there are two parts to it, really. One is, and this is to me an extremely strong argument. There is one part is to say religion doesn’t help at all. There is a mystery here, but theology, theism, religion doesn’t answer it at all. And then the second part, which is the harder part, is to say, well then, how do we answer it and I don’t know if I can… I mean that’s moral philosophy. I can give you a very quick rundown of how I think you ground it, but more importantly I think is the destructive argument that religion doesn’t help at all and the argument really is so ancient. The core of the argument is so ancient. It goes all the way back to Plato, my first love and his dialogue the Euthyphro and where he considers you know could it be the case that what makes something good is that the gods or you know in our case God loves it and God wants us to do it because God loves it. So is to put it more in terms not of an ought not, but an ought. I mean ought we to give charity because God wants us to or is there some independent reason? Well let’s say it’s only you know because God wants you to. And then the next question is why does God want us to? Does God have a reason for wanting us to be charitable, to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves? Either God does or God doesn’t, it’s just logic. If God has a reason then there is a reason independent of God and whatever God’s reason is we should figure it out for ourselves. There is a reason and God doesn’t really ground morality at all. God wants us to give charity because it’s the right thing to do. There is a reason why it’s the right thing to do and that’s what makes it the right thing to do. God is just going along for the ride. God is not offering anything here or God has no reason at all. He might have flipped it. He might have, you know, said thou shalt commit genocide and thou shalt never give charity. It’s completely arbitrary and there no grounds independent of God’s will. I mean he might have said thou shall wear your pants backwards on Friday afternoon. Is that…? Does that help us at all answer our moral quandaries? What is it about moral truth that makes them true? This arbitrary whim of a god that you can’t even say is moral because there is no morality independent him, so God is either redundant or you know or we don’t get morality, so it’s either one or the other. God doesn’t help. I think that’s a knockdown argument. I think that it’s… it really shows that whatever moral knowledge we have and whatever moral progress we make in our knowledge or whatever knowledge we make in our… whatever progress we make in our moral knowledge is not coming really from religion. It’s coming from the very hard work really of moral philosophy, of trying to ground our moral reasonings and thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and Kant and in our own day, my own dissertation advisor, Tom Nagel, was at Princeton when I worked with him, is now at NYU and his wonderful book, The Possibility of Altruism have helped us to see that we… certain attitudes that we already have, attitudes about our own lives moral… logically compel us to broaden our sense of the interest we take in others as long as we experience any such emotions as moral outrage when people step on our own interest. As soon as we do that we’re on the road. If we look at our attitudes consistently and work out the logical implications we’re on the road to moral progress, moral understanding, so those are the two halves of that argument.\r\n
Question: What relevance does Spinoza’s view of God and ethics still hold today?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: It is surprising how Spinoza has really popped up again. He has been resuscitated, and I keep getting more and more invitations to talk on Spinoza, to publish chapters and anthologies on Spinoza. When I was coming up through graduate school and was a young assistant professor, Spinoza was really out of fashion. You know, he is a metaphysician. He tries to deduce the nature of the world through pure reason. This is very out of fashion and, you know, for good reason actually. We need science. We need empirical evidence. We can’t just use mathematical reasoning to deduce the nature of the world. However, the man’s intuitions were astonishing in so many different fields, in cosmology, in neuroscience and certainly in philosophy. His intuitions, forget the crazy arguments he gives for everything, his intuitions are being vindicated time and time again. You know but of course Einstein is probably the most famous Spinozist. He loved the man. He wrote a terrible poem in German you know that begins, “How much do I love this holy man?” “Words cannot tell.” It’s so there is something about Spinoza that inspires in many and certainly in me a tremendous love. Actually Bertram Russell calls him in The History of Western Philosophy the most loveable of philosophers. What is it about him? I should… He was not loved in his own time. He was excommunicated by his own Jewish community. It consisted of Amsterdam. It consisted of refugees from the Iberian inquisition, the Spanish Portuguese inquisition that had made it a crime punishable by death to practice Judaism and so his people and his community had been those who were Marranos who had practiced Judaism in secret. He was banished by them and then it fell to greater Christian Europe to denounce him and you know in the most vituperative terms possible. I mean he was "emissary of Satan." Why was this guy who talks about God all the time, one poet said he was God-intoxicated, why, you know, was he so denounced? Is an atheist? You know, in some sense I think yes, he is. If you mean by God something outside of the universe, outside of nature who created the universe, who lays… whose purpose is threaded throughout human history, who has a purpose for us, who lays down the moral law, if you mean by God all of those things then Spinoza denied the existence of God. His proof for his sort of God is in fact a disproof of all of those gods whom reign in what he calls the superstitious religions including his own, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. So yeah, is he an atheist? Well you know he redefines God so that it means something like the final theory of everything, the final theory that we won’t be able to get to. There is a kind of incompleteness theorem in Spinoza that we won’t be able to get to, but know that explanations go all the way down. The world… If we understood what the world was we would see why these laws of nature have to prevail and why the world had to exist the way it does and why it had to exist and that’s his notion of God. It’s really and that’s why a few string theorists have told me after they read my book, “Oh yeah, I’m a Spinozist too.” You know I believe explanation goes all the… You know that story about how it’s turtles all the way down. Well it’s explanation all the way down even though we won’t get to it because the explanations are infinite and we’re finite and that’s Spinoza’s guide.\r\n
I think what… the reason he was so denounced was that his magnum opus is called the ethics, so he tries not only to you know this vision of the world that removes the grounds for believing in a transcendent god, but this moral argument that I was just giving before saying you know that okay we may not need God to tell us where the world came from, but we need God to be able to live moral lives and for there to be morality in the first place. Spinoza tries to ground morality. He tries to drive it out of human nature itself and that is I think a very, very relevant. We have right now finally psychologists, in particular evolutionary psychologists catching up to that intuition and also trying to ground morality on the nature of human nature itself, so here is yet another place in which this seventeenth century thinker’s intuitions are only being vindicated now.\r\n
Question: What is love?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: What is love? When you love somebody then I mean we all want good things to happen to ourselves and keep the bad things at bay. You know when you love somebody you want that as much for them if not more than you do for yourself. I mean that is just the world has to go right for them or you won’t be able to bear it. I think that is you know we are all just naturally for good evolutionary reasons we feel that way about ourselves. We all want things… our lives to go well and to flourish and when you love somebody you feel that as keenly for them as for yourself and often more keenly and that’s what the feeling… I think the feeling of love is. My life, I won’t be able to survive, really. It will be very hard to recover if something does… if bad things happen to that person.\r\n
Question: What is it like when two prominent intellectuals attempt a marriage together?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: It’s very nice, actually, and we had known of each other through our works. When I read "How the Mind Works" I, like so many other people, just my way of thinking forever changed. The kinds of questions I could now ask forever changed. New sorts of questions opened up, new sorts of speculations and I just thought it was great and then Steve was arguing on the pages of The New York Review of Books with Steven J. Gould. It was a quite contentious argument, letters back and forth because Steven J. Gould hated evolutionary psychology. He really had… He had strong… You know somewhat political strong Marxist reasons to dislike the more deterministic aspects of evolutionary psychology, so there was this heated debate going on. In the midst of it Steven Pinker published a new book, "Words and Rules," and I ran out to my local bookstore and bought it and went immediately to the index to look up Gould. I wanted to see if this really interesting argument was going… he was going to get a few more swipes in and I didn’t find Gould. I found Goldstein. I found Rebecca Goldstein and I thought, okay, it’s a very common name. It’s another Rebecca Goldstein, clearly. I have nothing to do with this argument or indeed with the subject matter of the book, which was about irregular verbs. Steve Pinker has this great passion for irregular verbs. They’re his little friends. He is obsessed with them. And he quoted my use in one of my more obscure writings of an obscure past participle. I had said, “had stridden” rather than “had strided,” and he said you know some of our… He wrote this, “Some of our finest writes will always choose the more obscure form of a verb.” “You know, it’s more poetic, and they’re keeping it in play.” And you know, and I thought, oh my Lord, Steven Pinker knows who I am. He has read this obscure work and he thinks I’m one of our finest writers and I was just like, oh, you know, I was shocked. So it gave me the courage to ask him for a blurb for one of my books. It was "Properties of Light" and **** in quantum physics. He gave me a very nice blurb, and you know we just kept reading each other and it was Seed Magazine that arranged for a salon between a writer and a scientist. I think they went to him first and they said, “What novelist would you like to talk to?” And he said me and that’s how we actually met, so what I guess I’m saying is we fell in love with each other’s ideas and writings and way of looking at the world long before we met each other, and it has continued I would say, so it is you know it’s not just and intellectual love, but it’s… That’s a very strong part of it I would say and it is an extraordinary gift to me to now have this person to bounce ideas off of. It’s a… And we both I think strengthen each other in our own intuitions so that… and it’s made us I think yes. I think knowing that the other person agrees has in some sense given us more confidence in our intuitions.\r\n
Question: Does thinking about love too much ever get in the way of it?\r\n
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Yes. I don’t know. I think for me it’s always good to think that the experience of everything, romantic love and love for one’s children and just a love of science, love of whatever you know is somehow strengthened by thinking about it and understanding it, understanding what’s going on there. So I don’t find that it gets in the way. I mean you don’t always want to be thinking and you know I wouldn’t say that we’re guilty of that, but one of the things I have loved about Steve Pinker as a person is… and as a thinker is that the two are very wedded together. It’s not that thinking is his day job. Big ideas are his day job and it doesn’t feed into the rest of his life. His passion for clear thinking is… and his intellectual integrity and honesty and letting everything be up for argumentation you know this feeds into all of his life and it’s just I love that about people you know that we can do that and you know I love it about him. I mean he is one of the finest representatives in our day of this kind of intellectual… and also I ought to mention playfulness. He is such a playful thinker. It’s never somber and that is you know true of him and his books and it’s true with him in life, so it’s all knitted together.
Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
A conversation with the novelist and philosopher.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.