What Allegories Can Teach Us

Question: Why do you write allegories?

Yann Martel: \r\n Because I think that’s the forte of art.  What art does marvelously is \r\nit takes very complex realities and it can go to their heart, it can go \r\nto their essence, and convey it in a way that’s both very powerful and \r\nemotionally or psychologically accurate.  So I’ll give you a perfect \r\nexample of a great allegory, "Animal Farm," by George Orwell.  Which \r\ntakes on what Stalin did to the Russian people, and that’s a vast, \r\nsprawling complex story.  With "Animal Farm," which is this delightful \r\nallegory, delightful fable that takes place on an English farm, you get \r\nnone of the heavy facts of history, but you get the essence.  So it’s a \r\nstory of this commune set up by animals and slowly things go wrong.  And\r\n it captures exactly in spirit what happened to the Russian people under\r\n Stalin.  So it’s a very light, powerful medium for discussing very \r\ncomplex realities.

Question: Why look at the Holocaust\r\n in allegorical terms?

Yann Martel:  Absolutely.  In \r\npart, because it’s very hard to write a straightforward novel on the \r\nHolocaust.  The Holocaust has tended to be resistant to metaphor.  \r\nBecause it was so dumbfounding, because it was a unique phenomenon, the \r\nferocity of it, the view of the Nazis of the Jews, the sort of idea that\r\n they were a disease. Because of its newness to its consciousness, it \r\nhas resisted being approached by the tools of art.  We tend to look at \r\nthe Holocaust in historical ways, in the mode of a witness.  So in a \r\nsense, trying to approach it as if we were journalists or witnesses, \r\nwhich is why its representation is dominated by either survivors or by \r\nhistorians—which is all absolutely fine, but I think we also need to \r\nunderstand it using the tools of art, because art... Beyond, as I said, \r\nconveying essence, art can show something under many, many different \r\nangles, and that’s useful, because the more you look at it from many \r\nangles, you get different truths, you get a newer understanding of it, \r\nperhaps.

So I chose allegory simply because there are very few \r\nallegories about the Holocaust.  It has been fiction-resistant.  And I \r\nthink we need to understand it, in addition to understanding it \r\nhistorically, we also need to understand it through the medium of art.

My\r\n feeling is that the literary arts, because they are tethered to fixed \r\nmeaning... after all, words are highly conventionalized sounds, right?  \r\nThe word "table" has a fairly standard meaning.  Well, if you increase \r\nthat, words are tethered to specific meanings and if you string them \r\ntogether, you start being tethered to narrative, to narration.  And once\r\n you’re tethered to narration, when it comes to the Holocaust, you very \r\nquickly end up on a train going to hell, you end up on a train going to \r\nAuschwitz, you very quickly end up in that narrative trope.  So it’s \r\nhard to escape talking about it in the very literal, historical manner.

So\r\n I suspect that uniquely among human events, because I suspect—because I\r\n believe that nearly any human event, benefits from being treated by \r\nartists—the Holocaust may be one of those rare instances where other art\r\n forms may be more suitable, or as, you know, we need to be aware that \r\nthey, too, can... their language is important, too.  So to be very \r\nclear, visual arts, for example. Visual arts are not so narrative.  A \r\npainting has narrative limits.  Installation art has narrative limits to\r\n it. But precisely because of that, they can escape the narrative \r\ngravity of the Holocaust.  So I’ve seen visual arts that have, that are \r\nsurprisingly ironic, that apply the tools of irony to the Holocaust, and\r\n that’s to the benefit of the Holocaust.

And music, the Holocaust\r\n is obviously an extremely emotional event.  Music directly connects to \r\nour emotions.  Once again, very limited narratively, very limited \r\nnarratively, music is.  So, music can also be a very effective way of \r\ngetting into the spirit of the Holocaust, of what happened in that \r\ntragedy.

So what I discovered reading, writing a novel inspired \r\nby the Holocaust, is that genocide tends to be story-defeating, unless \r\nyou are a witness.  And because of that, we need other means to remember\r\n that, if we want to get the most out of a mass murder and not just let \r\nit slip from our consciousness.

Question: Why not \r\nfocus on a more recent genocide? 

Yann Martel
:  I \r\nconsciously chose the Holocaust because it is the defining genocide.  \r\nAnd also, it is unique in the sense that most other mass murders in \r\nhistory were or are politically expedient.  So for example, the other \r\ngreat genocide of the 20th Century is the genocide of the Armenians in \r\nTurkey.  Now, that was of course a horrifying event, it was also \r\npolitically expedient. You have Turkey that was in a nationalist ferment\r\n and the Turks were trying to establish their nation after the wreckage \r\nof the Ottoman Empire, but in the midst of the Anatolian Plateau was \r\nthis large group of Armenians who did not speak the same language, did \r\nnot practice the same religion, practice a different culture.  So they \r\nwere in the way.  So the Turks decided to eliminate the Armenians, a \r\ngenocide of Armenians, that was politically expedient.  The Turks did \r\nnot necessarily care about Armenians and Armenia or in Syria or anywhere\r\n else.  That’s very different from the Nazis attitude toward the Jews, \r\nwhich was not politically expedient.  In fact, it was inexpedient.  It \r\nwas crazy to kill people who so contributed to their culture, to their \r\neconomy.  I mean, let’s not forget, the Jews of Germany paid taxes, \r\ncontributed to the arts and science of Germany.  It was economic \r\nnonsense to eliminate them.  So that view of the Jews as being a \r\ndisease, like malaria, like AIDS, that has to be eliminated everywhere \r\nor else it will come back, that was unique.

So I wanted to take \r\nthe one that was the defining genocide, that has also proven the most \r\nresistant—because in a sense, it’s the closest to our home, I mean, to \r\nWesterners.  Darfur, Rwanda, they are in foreign locales, we manage to \r\ndistance ourselves.  And as I said, there’s also less government \r\ninvolvement, whereas the Holocaust, the involvement of an entire state \r\nagainst one of its own people, that was also unique.  So it’s the one I \r\nwanted to tackle because it strikes me as being the defining one.

Question:\r\n How long did it take you to write the book?

Yann \r\nMartel:  Well, off and on, that amount of time, but I’d also say a \r\nlifetime.  I’ve always been interested in the Holocaust.  You know, my \r\nexperience of growing up is that you are born like a little puzzle piece\r\n and very quickly you were taught and things snap into place, so \r\nlanguage snaps into place, basic arithmetic snaps into place.  So your \r\nconscious is like a puzzle that’s expanding slowly.  You are taught \r\nhistory, and history is part of, you know, building your identity, your \r\nsocial identity, your political identity, so most national myths snap, \r\nsnap into place. 

One of the things, war snaps into place.  War \r\nis very simple for a child to understand, it’s, you know, you hate \r\nsomeone, you go to war with them, you go to fight with them, it snaps \r\ninto place.

One piece that didn’t snap into place was the \r\nHolocaust.  It always stayed with me as a, leaving me with a sense of \r\npuzzlement... and so that stayed with me.  So I’ve always periodically \r\nreturned to the Holocaust, reading the books about it, watching the \r\nmovies.  The first time I backpacked around Europe, I visited \r\nAuschwitz.  And eventually as an artist, I said, “Well, what can I say \r\nabout it?”  Not being Jewish, not being Eastern European, so being a \r\ncomplete outsider to it, how can I contribute to it?

So I \r\neventually a few years ago, essentially in 2001 actually, I decided, \r\nwell, I’d like to write something about it.  But then the success of \r\n"Life of Pi" kept me busy for a while.  But it took me roughly, roughly \r\nfive years.

Question: Why use literary devices, such as\r\n a play within the novel? 

Yann Martel:  The needs of\r\n the story. The Holocaust is a mountain from which it’s very easy to \r\nfall off.  So I used all the tools, all the climbing tools I can think \r\nof, so, there is a play within it.  There’s also a lot of literary \r\nreferences, to Flaubert, to Diderot, to Beckett.  Specifically the \r\nplay?  Why?  Because I think we tend, when we think of the Holocaust, we\r\n tend to see it in very historical terms, which is a way of distancing \r\nourselves.  We think of the Holocaust, we think of Jews, Poles, Germans,\r\n Eastern Europe, which for most of us, means "very far away."  Not many \r\nof us live in the hinterlands of Poland.  I didn’t want that distance.

So\r\n if I set it as a play, stages can be everywhere, there’s theater all \r\nover the world.  So as soon as I say a play, people see a stage, and \r\nthat stage can be anywhere.  That’s useful for me, if I don’t want you \r\nto distance yourself historically.  Also, plays are inherently oral, in \r\nplays, people speak.  I wanted orality. Why?  Because language \r\nultimately or originally was something oral.  And I find the orality of \r\nlanguage is where it’s most powerful.  People are most powerful when \r\nthey are speaking.  There they are most unself-conscious.  Writing is \r\nvery much an artifice, you write and then you rewrite and rewrite and \r\nrewrite.  It can become a highly manipulated, manipulative medium.  \r\nOrality less so.

So I noticed in my research on the Holocaust, \r\nthe things that were the most moving for me, were the things that people\r\n said.  Whether the victimizers, the Nazis, the guards, or the victims, \r\nso I wanted also something oral. To me, that was the truest remembrance \r\nof frightened people, are what they say.  Great tragedy can be \r\ncompressed in things that people say.  Whereas once you get into \r\ndiscursive prose, then it’s endless and it can lose people, because it’s\r\n so long.  You know, the tomes of history on the Holocaust can go on for\r\n thousands of pages.  Whereas spoken, its summation, it can be summed up\r\n in very few words, in fact.  So I wanted orality, I wanted stage, ergo a\r\n play.  Also, the play is fragmented, you get only bits of the play.  \r\nAnd to me, they’re like little peepholes onto a greater reality, so you \r\nlook into that peephole, and you have to start imagining what surrounded\r\n that peephole.

Recorded April 13, 2010

Allegorical fiction can take very complex realities and convey them in powerful, emotional, psychologically accurate way.

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Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

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.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • 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.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • 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."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe

(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.