The Nature of Memory, with Augusten Burroughs
Augusten Burroughs was born Christopher Richter Robison in Pittsburgh, PA on October 23, 1965 and raised in Western Massachusetts. Augusten's parents struggled with alcoholism and mental illness and they separated when he was twelve. Augusten stopped attending school and his parents' longtime psychiatrist became his legal guardian. At seventeen, he moved to the Boston area and graduated from Control Data Institute with a diploma in Computer Programming and System's Analysis and Design but never worked in the technology industry. Instead he moved to San Francisco and at 19 became the youngest copywriter in the city. His work attracted national acclaim and in 1989 he was invited by Ogilvy & Mather, New York, to work on their flagship American Express account. Augusten found great success in the Manhattan advertising community, eventually working for many of the top agencies where he created global ad campaigns for worldwide brands. Almost eighteen years after accepting his first advertising job, Augusten left the industry to pursue a career as an author. Two years later, his 2002 memoir, Running with Scissors, became a publishing phenomenon, spending over three consecutive years on the NYT bestseller list. It was made into a movie starring Annette Bening and Alec Baldwin. All of Augusten's subsequent books — Dry, Magical Thinking, Possible Side Effects, A Wolf at the Table, You Better Not Cry & This is How — were instant NYT bestsellers. In 2013, Augusten married his literary agent and best friend, Christopher Schelling, received a Lambda Literary Award, and was honored with a Doctorate of Letters from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Augusten is also a self-taught gemologist with a special interest in jade. He collects and sells vintage and estate jewelry, photographs people, and recently directed his first music video. Augusten and his husband Christopher live in a 200 year old house in rural Connecticut with their three dogs.
Question: Is acute memory an affliction?
Augusten Burroughs: It’s a double-edged sword in the sense that it’s very vivid, so when I was writing "[A] Wolf at the Table," for example, my fingers were cold. It was like I was writing outside in the winter and my heart would be pounding and I would be scared. It was very real. Those memories come back and they come back in full force and it can be overwhelming so that’s one edge of the sword; that’s the side of the sword that cuts.
The other edge is that it is possible to access those memories. Those aren’t lost to me. I know some people who don’t have any memories really before the age of 12 and I’m astonished by that. I’ve often been asked “How can you remember a conversation you had when you were 10?” And I just find it fascinating that you can’t, 'cause I can remember being a baby. I can remember being not only 15 months old, where A Wolf at the Table begins, but I can remember being about 8 months old, so it’s--my brother, John Elder Robison, has Asperger's syndrome, and he’s become--and he’s an authority on the topic and he does a lot of lectures and he does a lot of work with people who are on the spectrum. So that’s autism, Asperger’s, and he’s found out something very interesting in his meetings with people who have--who are neuroatypical in that many of them have incredible childhood memories, very vivid childhood memories.
So my brother has wondered if perhaps Asperger’s, autism runs more deeply in the family than just within himself. His son was recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. They think he might have it. I don’t know that it’s a firm diagnosis but they’re thinking he’s looking like he might. Now if my nephew does have Asperger’s it’s sort of much lighter. It’s "Asperger’s Lite," because he’s very--he is very social but he’s a genius, an absolute genius, so my brother has wondered if perhaps there is some of that in me, if something in my brain is similar to what is in his brain and that’s why in fact we have this peculiar memory where our childhood is very accessible to us.
Question: Are memories ever truly accurate?
Augusten Burroughs: Memory is an interesting thing. The way that--my understanding of how memory works is when an event occurs the neurotransmitter basically tattoos the sort of neural fiber in a distinctive pattern and then that tattooed neural fiber is put away in a filing cabinet and that’s the memory.
Now when you go back and you open that file drawer and you pull out that tattooed neuron the act of pulling it out of the file drawer changes the shape of the tattoo so a new couple of lines to the tattoo are added and the memory is no longer pure; it’s now a little bit different. So then you put it back and you take it out again and each withdrawal of that memory alters the physical memory in our brain. In other words, it--each time you recall a memory it alters the actual memory.
The structure of the patterns of the neurotransmitters on the neuron in the brain is altered each time you access the memory so that when we have a memory from childhood.
For example, when I was 6 my father tripped over the Christmas tree and all the Christmas ornaments broke, and then you tell that story every year for the rest of your life. By the time you’re 30, you’re no longer recalling the original incident. You are now telling the story of the story of the story so it becomes like a game of Telephone. Now the way I wrote A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors is interesting because these were periods of my life where I didn’t want to think about so when I turned 18--after "Running with Scissors," when I turned 18, the first thing I did after my birthday was change my first, middle and last name and move to California. I was a new person. I didn’t have that childhood; it never happened.
Now although I had written these journals throughout that period of time, I didn’t read them. I didn’t throw them away but I didn’t read them. I kept them in a box and I just blocked it out of my head so that many years later when I came to write Running with Scissors and I read these journals those original memories that were created under enormous duress so they were very vivid came back in full force. And that’s why I was able to trust them because they were not memories that I had recycled and told and told and told and told again and warped in my head. They were very true and it was the same thing with A Wolf at the Table. So it’s fascinating how that works.
Recorded on: April 30, 2008.
Augusten Burroughs does not possess the blessing of forgetfulness.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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