How to think smarter about failure
There is no success without failure, but the fear of the latter is what's really keeping you from achieving your goals.
MICHELLE THALLER: I often get questions from young students, and they say, well, how did you become a success? Or another great question these days is how did you overcome failure? And the funny thing is I found myself really kind of at a loss because the very concepts of success and failure I think are words that never really meant anything. And actually, I strongly suspect they have a lot to do with privilege. That if you can make yourself in the model of a research professor of 100 years ago, that's defined as a success. And if you do something different it's defined as a failure. There's never been any time in my life where, even after having received an award, or having been on a television show, I sat back and said, boy, I really feel like a success. It was always wrapped up in feelings of I should've done something differently, I should've had a different career path. There's never been a time where I felt like a success. And at the same time the idea that you ever really fail at something. There are plenty of times that, I very nearly failed differential equations in calculus, there were things that I was not very good at. But I eventually got them on, say, the third or fourth try. And the problem was just staying around and telling yourself that I really want to learn this, and I'm just not gonna leave until I do. There wasn't any really true failure either. It was always kind of twisted up with things I was proud of, that I was actually working through and trying to learn. So this idea that at some point in your life you're going to stop and feel like a success. Yes, I am successful now. I get very, very nervous when people ask me about that, about how did you become a success. I wanna sit them down and tell them all the things I screwed up, and all the things I did wrong, and all the reasons I'm not a success. And at the same time, when anybody calls me a failure, it's like, I wanna sit you down and explain why what I'm doing is actually getting your money and your funding for the rest of science. I'm not a failure either.
Everything in life is gonna be a flow between those two things. Everything is gonna be a jumble of success and failure. Your personal life, your professional life, the way you feel about yourself. And it's a strange model we give young people. Try to be a success, try to overcome failure. All I can do is just kind of breathe and just realize that at no point in my life am I gonna separate those two.
ARI SHAFFIR: So I was maybe a year or two years into comedy. Went home to this job, came back, and was over-- I haven't thought about this in a while—I was overcome by fright. I couldn't get back on stage. I couldn't do it. I would drive from my apartment in West LA, 30 minutes towards The Comedy Store. Find parking, get out of my car, walk to The Comedy Store. Because you get an employee spot every week, and I was an employee, so you get your three minutes, and it was the highlight of your week. And I would park, go in, turn around, get back into my car, and go home without getting on stage. I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it. I didn't know what to do. So what I did was I intentionally, I mean, it was, that was gonna be the end for me. If I can't go on stage, I can't be a comic, you know? So what I did was, I told myself like do something where it's going to go bad, where you know that ahead of time. Because like, what's the worst that can happen? You know, that kind of thing. So I went to The Comedy Store. I said, I'm not gonna say a word, in my head, I'm like, I'm not gonna say anything for my whole time I'm on stage. And I'm just gonna see what happens. So I went in, I put my tape recorder down, I like press record. And then I was like . And then I just kept looking around, and just three minutes of silence. Like this can't go well. So like, it's not gonna affect me if it doesn't 'cause I'm trying to tank it. But then I could get on stage, I could feel what it's like in front of the crowd. I actually got a couple laughs. Just stuff like, you know, shrugs and stuff, and how ridiculous it was. And then after that I was able to get back on stage again. I was like, that's the worst. I can handle the worst. So now let me go.
KAREN PALMER: So I'm very much inspired by parkour and I am still am a freerunner but I was a really hardcore freerunner training like six, seven days a week for two years at one point like a decade ago, 12 years ago in my life. And I basically didn't realize at the time but me and the people that I trained with were basically completely rewiring our brain. We were learning to understand our own personal triggers for fear and then navigate through there. So say that we were jumping on a ledge that if we fell we might break both our legs. And the distance was quite manageable so what we'd do is we'd start on the ground. Then we'd go up a little bit higher, go up a little big higher. The same distance but as you go higher it's not the distance, it's the consequences that scare you.
So we learned to master our own fear and develop strategies for moving through fear. And often in life when we feel fear we kind of get nervous and we run from it. But really when you feel fear it's something new and probably that's a direction not all the time but often that we should be moving toward to embrace something new. I felt so empowered that it inspired me to change my life like leave my boyfriend, leave my job, change my flatmate, change my business partner, everything. Because I was like well if I can train and I'll jump on this wall and I didn't break my legs what's the worst that can happen if I split out with my boyfriend and I don't think he's the one, right. I basically reprogrammed my brain. And then from that I was able to change my whole life and be sitting here with you today, right.
The kind of key is with parkour is that we kind of say well, you've got to do something three times. And that is kind of like quite a common thing when you're trying to master something. Once is like, you can do it twice and three times now you've mastered it. And that's because neurologically it kind of takes you three times for your neurons to fire in your brain and to create those new pathways. Then it's like sealed.
ETHAN HAWKE: If there was one thing that I've learned that I feel, whatever good fortune is, has put me in the position of realizing this is that without risking looking like an absolute fool, you cannot do anything original, unexpected, anything that comes from your heart. You have to shed that fear of judgment. And that means you may fall on your ass. And one of the wonderful things is that's our job. As a member of the artistic community your job isn't to succeed. Your job is to be one of many people throwing...You're the wind at the door. You're the wave. One wave is going to crash through and it may be you, or it may be somebody else. But there's a lot of waves that are gonna add up to somebody breaking through. I mean, do you think people really...Look, when Linklater and I first were going around trying to pitch the idea of Boyhood. I got an idea, right? We're going to make a little short film about a little boy for 12 years. We're going to cut it together, it'll be one movie. It'll be all about childhood, it'll be amazing. So wait, it's coming out in 13 years? And wait, does the little boy sign a contract? You can't sign a contract for more than seven years. Yeah, but if the boy is having a good time...Yeah, so I put my money in now, and if the boy is having a good time, I get it back in 13 years? Yeah. Nice. What else do you have? But luckily the guy went with me and yeah, we could have fallen on our ass, but you have to try. You have to try.
STEVE CASE: Great breakthroughs in society usually have required multiple tries, multiple experiments, multiple pivots. And that's the whole idea of getting in there, getting some experience, and then taking a step back and figuring out how you move forward. The most classic case of this was the whole idea that John F. Kennedy started about getting somebody into space, landing somebody on the moon. When he said that, he called for the country to rally around that, it almost was impossible for people to imagine that happening. The technology just wasn't there, but people tried things. Many times failed. This they thought would work, it didn't work. They kept adjusting, kept at it. And eventually they were successful in landing somebody on the moon and bringing them back home safely. So that's a perfect example of many different experiments. People see this in science, they know that in order to have a breakthrough in science, you have to try a lot of things. Most things will fail, but that doesn't mean you're a failure, that just means that idea failed. And what can you learn from that idea and then move forward.
TIM FERRISS: In Silicon Valley, there's the fail fast, fail forward, the fetishizing of failure. And it's become very trendy. I think it's extremely misleading and misinterpreted and misapplied in many cases. So whether you ask, say Peter Thiel who views failure as always being a tragedy. There is no exception and it is not some aesthetic imperative or learning imperative necessarily. Or you talk to, say, Mark Engstrom, for instance, who I interviewed for Tim Ferriss Show, but also for Tools of Titans. And he says, "When I was getting started," I'm paraphrasing here, but well, "When I was getting started, we didn't have a fancy word for it. We just called it a fuck-up. We didn't call it a pivot." I think that it would be better to say iterate fast and iterate forward. I certainly feel like doing your homework coming out, and maybe the Silicon Valley ethos should start looking into the military more to say, I think it's David Hackworth. I think I'm getting that right. Who said, "If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn't prepare properly." Or something along those lines, I mean it is entirely plausible and possible to come out and just smash your competition from second one of round one. And I think that even if you do end up failing and then correcting course, that's a good aspiration to have. Not to come out really shoddy and handicapped from the get go expecting to pivot 27 times. Then if you look at my portfolio, for instance I have about 70 companies I've invested in, I was a pre-seed advisor to Uber and Uber's business model hasn't really changed. It's been the same for a very long time. If you look at Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby. He came up with the business model in about five minutes of going to a used record store and asking them how they did it. And it remained the same effectively for 10 years, 15 years until he sold it for whatever it was, $24 million. So you don't have to fail. It's not a prerequisite for having a successful company or a successful life. You just have to learn. So I think learning and iterating are two words that are going to be more valuable than failure. But when failure does slap you in the face when fortune serves you up a tidal wave of some type or quicksand being able to adapt to that and not emotionally overreact I think is certainly important but you shouldn't strive for failure.
ALISA COHN: The best way to debrief any project, any bad thing that happened, any problem, is just to go down the tiers of why. And so you start with, okay, so let's assume that the project that you were working on is late. Let's assume it's a product release and that it is now definitely not gonna make its deadline, and it's probably three or six months late. First of all, it's important just to create an environment where people can talk freely and not feel blamed, because we're just debriefing to understand what happened. So it's about understanding the structure of it, not looking to finger point. But the first question is why? So why was the release late? Well, engineering for example, didn't deliver the code on time. Why didn't engineering deliver the code on time? Because they weren't given the specs early enough. Why weren't they given the specs early enough? Because product didn't get to them early enough. Why didn't product get to them early enough? Because product didn't understand from marketing the requirements early enough. So if you keep going down those and you understand why did marketing not get them early enough, it's because they didn't have a good plan to get the customer data they needed to. Then you can take a look at what went wrong here. Is it about, we need to tighten up our process? Which is very often true, especially with startups. Is it that we need to have a better timeframe for deliverables? Which is often very true when you're working on complicated multi-domain projects. Or, did we just forecast incorrectly? Did we not take into account all the multiple steps that leads to the product release? And that's often very true as well. And maybe, why didn't we take into account the multiple steps? Because there wasn't one person in charge. Great. So going forward, we know that we need to all take into account the multiple steps, and declare one person the owner of the project overall. And let's try those two interventions, those two changes. And that's gonna help us be more, have more excellence in operations.
CASE: Sometimes you do have to call it quits. So sometimes things are just not working. But my own experience is sometimes just when you think that, finally something breaks through, and the sky opens up, and there's new possibilities. We came very close to not making it with AOL. There was many times where it didn't quite work. Where you thought something would work, it didn't. We have to lay people off. We're about to run out of money. We had a partnership that fell apart. There were some near death experiences on that road. I used to joke that AOL was a 10 year in the making overnight success. By the time it finally got successful, everybody said, you came out of nowhere. No we didn't, we were at it for a decade. And thankfully we didn't give up, we didn't quit, we stuck with it. So sometimes you have to just say, it's not working, you have to walk away. But my experience is if you really believed in that idea early on, you really were passionate about that idea, you still think it could get traction. For some reason, it just hasn't broken through. Take a fresh look at what partnerships you can establish that help accelerate the growth. What new policies perhaps can be put in place to accelerate the new growth. Don't give up on it. Now, there's a great Nelson Mandela quote: "It always seems impossible until it happens."
- What does it mean to be a failure? Failing is typically seen as moving in the opposite direction of a specific goal, when in reality, most achievements in history were made possible by a series of non-successes.
- "The very concepts of success and failure are words that never really meant anything," says astronomer Michelle Thaller. She and others argue that successes and failures are inextricably linked, and that how we define them for ourselves is what matters.
- As Ethan Hawke, multidisciplinary filmmaker Karen Palmer, entrepreneurs Steve Case and Tim Ferriss, executive coach Alisa Cohn, and others explain, finding personal success means taking risks, being willing to fail, and recognizing when—and why—things are not working. "Most things will fail, but that doesn't mean you're a failure," Steve Case says. "That just means that idea failed. And what can you learn from that idea and then move forward."
- Failure Is Never Giving Yourself the Opportunity to Fail - Big Think ›
- The '85% Rule': Why a dose of failure optimizes learning - Big Think ›
- You need to fail. Here's why. - Big Think ›
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Opponents of 19th-century American imperialism were not above body-shaming the personification of the U.S. government.
- In the years before 1900, the United States was experiencing a spectacular spurt of growth.
- Not everyone approved: many feared continued expansionism would lead to American imperialism.
- To illustrate the threat, Uncle Sam was depicted as dangerously or comically fat.
Detail from "Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry, July 2nd 1898", depicting the Battle of San Juan Hill – a turning point in the Spanish-American War. Credit: Kurz and Allison / Public domain
The past is a different country. And not just in the poetic sense. In the early 19th century, the United States was much smaller than it is today. But by the end of that century, the U.S. had consolidated into an empire both in the continental sense as well as the colonial one: not only did it stretch across the entirety of North America, from sea to shining sea, it also had acquired significant amounts of territory and influence beyond those shores.
America's imperial girth and radiance may seem like faits accomplis today, but they were vehemently contested by the domestic press of the time. At the very tail of the century, this opposition led to a curious cartographic phenomenon which, despite its anti-imperialist origins, we today recognize as a decidedly non-progressive practice: the fat-shaming of Uncle Sam.
Uncle Sam is the personification of the United States (the country and, often specifically, its government), with which he shares his initials. His exact origins are unknown, although an apocryphal reference is often made to Samuel Wilson, a meat packer from Troy, NY and supplier of American troops during the War of 1812. Authenticity concerns aside, ever since 1989, the U.S. has had an annual Uncle Sam Day on September 13th, Wilson's birthday.
However, Uncle Sam is also the continuation of Brother Jonathan, who personified the typical New England Yankee and has his origins in the 17th-century English Civil War (where the term was used by the Royalists to mock the Puritans). Sam certainly borrowed Jonathan's striped pants, stove-pipe hat, and lanky figure. The thinness and old-fashioned appearance of both Jonathan and Sam (who were interchangeable by the mid-19th century) were meant to symbolize a kind of restless thriftiness, a supposedly national trait of the Yankee — and by extension, the American nation.
A lightning rod for criticism
Around the time of the Civil War, Sam had largely supplanted Jonathan as a national figure. As a sort of shorthand of the U.S., Uncle Sam was a favorite of cartoonists in the 19th and 20th centuries. (He seems to have gone a bit out of fashion in the 21st.) Especially during the World Wars, he was used as a symbol of national resilience and an important ingredient of patriotic propaganda. Inversely, he was also easily adopted as a lightning rod for criticism of the U.S. and its international policies.
In various cartoons of the 19th century's last decade, Uncle Sam — recognizable by his goatee and tricolored clothes — is depicted as increasingly fat and mocked for it. His embonpoint is understood to be a symbol of geopolitical gluttony, making him — that is, the United States itself — appear both avaricious and ridiculous on the world stage. This was the build-up toward the Spanish-American war of 1898, from which the U.S. would emerge victorious and in possession of much of Spain's remaining overseas empire, consisting of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other smaller island territories.
This can be seen as America's Julius Caesar moment — when it, like Rome before it, changed from a republic into an empire. It was certainly recognized (and feared) as such in those days.
Trying to swallow Cuba whole
A Victor Gillam cartoon for Judge, this front-page illustration clearly shows Uncle Sam's voracious ambition toward Cuba. Credit: Cornell University Library / Public domain
On August 10, 1895, the satirical magazine Judge published a cartoon by Victor Gillam on its front page that showed a modified map of North America, enlisting the continent's geography to make a shockingly visceral, anti-imperialist point.
Cuba is shown as a small fish, attempting to swim away from the maw of Uncle Sam, who coincides with North America itself. Mexico is his lower jaw, Central America his goatee, Florida his nose, Washington, DC his all-seeing eye, and Canada his hat.
The map is entitled The Trouble in Cuba. The trouble seems to be that Cuba refuses to be swallowed by Uncle Sam, who says, "I've had my eye on that morsel for a long time; guess I'll have to take it in!"
An expansionist menu
"You're too late", says Uncle Sam: "I've eaten."Credit: National Archives / Public domain
In this cartoon, Uncle Sam, identified with President McKinley, is presented as a glutton and his detractors as too slow to stop him. In 1898, the United States had won the Spanish-American War, laying claim to Puerto Rico and the Philippines among other spoils of the now defunct Spanish empire. In the same year, the U.S. had also acquired Hawaii as a territory.
Many in Congress worried that McKinley's policy of continued expansion would lead to imperialism. Bursting through the door to prevent Uncle Sam from gobbling up a load of overseas territories are Representative William Jennings Bryan and Senator George Frisbie Hoar. They are too late; the plates are empty. On the ground is an Expansion Menu, listing what just has been devoured: Hawaiian Soup, Portorican Rice (?), Philippine Pudding.
Cracks in the pond
Skating on thin ice? U.S. expansionism reimagined as a winter sport.Credit: Library of Congress / Public domain
This centerfold cartoon from the New York Herald of November 26, 1898 shows the comically rotund figures of Uncle Sam and President McKinley, skating across a wintery landscape on a body of water labelled Expansion Pond. A rather joyless figure in a deerstalker hat, perhaps newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer, known for his anti-expansionist stance, does not want to join in the fun. "I will not skate on your pond," he avers.
Big, bigger, best?
A cartoon from 1899, from the satirical magazine Judge, depicting the growth (and growth) of the United States.Credit: Bill of Rights Institute / Public domain
In 1899, Judge published another cartoon by Victor Gillam, entitled A Lesson for Anti-Expansionists. Showing the growth of Uncle Sam over the various stages of his life, that lesson is how the U.S. "has been an expansionist first, last, and all the time."
- On the left, the U.S. starts out as an infant (1783, 13 states).
- The second figure is a strapping young lad confidently leaning on a frontiersman's axe (1803, Louisiana Purchase).
- The third figure is a stern-looking, musket-holding soldier (1819, Florida ceded by Spain).
- The fourth figure is a supremely confident-looking gentleman, newly goateed and top-hatted (1861, having recently annexed Texas).
- Fifth is an older gentleman, slightly roguish and rotund (1898, annexed Hawaii).
- In just one year, Uncle Sam has gone from merely full-figured to morbidly obese but with a confident smirk on his face and a ship under his arm, as a symbol of the naval prowess that earned him various colonies (Cuba, Philippines, Porto Rico [sic] in 1899).
The final figure is pondering the many hands outstretched toward him, labelled as Russia, China, Germany, England, and other world powers. "And now all the nations are anxious to be on friendly terms with Uncle Sam," the caption reads. Unlike Gillam's earlier cartoon, this one can be construed as ambiguous: is this a critique of expansionism or an acknowledgement of the influence that expansion has brought with it?
Expand and explode
Gillam may have been inspired by a cartoon published earlier that year in Life magazine, which depicts a similarly inflating Uncle Sam, but with a more dramatic finale.
- Uncle Sam starts out as his full-grown, slim-figured self in 1776.
- The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 seems to subtract rather than to add to his joy.
- The annexations of Alaska and Texas only add to his discomfort.
- Discomfort turns to distemper in 1898, with the takeover of the defunct Spanish empire in the Pacific and Caribbean.
- Growing ever bigger and more agitated over the course of these additions, can it be far off before Uncle Sam simply explodes?
Intervention at the tailor shop
Cartoon by John S. Pughe, published in Puck on September 5, 1900, titled "Declined with Thanks."Credit: Keppler & Swartzmann / Public domain
This cartoon from 1900 shows then-President William McKinley as a tailor, sizing up an enormous Uncle Sam. The striped pants list Sam's recent acquisitions, from Louisiana and California to Hawaii and Porto Rico.
McKinley is getting ready to cut Uncle Sam a new suit from cloth labelled "enlightened foreign policy - rational expansion." But three stern-looking gentlemen have entered McKinley's tailor shop and are keen for another course of action. They want to administer a medicine called "anti-expansionist policy."
The most prominent of the three would have been recognized by contemporaries as publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer, campaigner against imperial expansion. He says, "Here, take a dose of this anti-fat and get thin again!" To which Uncle Sam replies, "No, Sonny! I never did take any of that stuff, and I'm too old to begin!"
And… thin again
John Bull and Uncle Sam in the year 1900, a study in contrasts. Credit: American Truth Society / Public domain
Uncle Sam and other national personifications have several advantages over real people — one of those is that they can change body type to fit the situation.
Despite years of cartoons showing Uncle Sam as getting too big for his britches, in this illustration from 1900 he reverts to type, becoming rail-thin again. The reason: to contrast with that other national archetype, John Bull, representing the British Empire, which was then at its height. How do you personify a globe-spanning empire? By fattening up the figure in question.
Without knowing anything about the content of The Fable of John Bull and Uncle Sam, it is safe to say, judging from the stance of both figures alone, that it will show the former as unworthy of his leading role in the world with the latter more capable and willing to assume that role.
Strange Maps #1097
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
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.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.