Who are you?

Question: Who are you?

Anna Deavere Smith: Anna Deavere Smith. Actress/playwright. 

Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well I was born in an all-black hospital, so that gives you a sense already that there was still such a thing as that. And I suppose there are in some places. So the town was, for all intents and purposes, a segregated town. My mother was in labor for five days. I’m not sure if we had been in a different hospital, if there would have been a kind of different situation.

But I sort of came down the birth canal and then turned back up. So I always had the feeling that maybe I saw something that I decided I’d just take a little bit longer coming along.

And I went to an elementary school that was also all – at the time – colored children, Negro children.

And a lot happened by the time it was time to go to junior high. And I went to a predominantly Jewish junior high and a predominantly white high school. But that wouldn’t have happened, for example, if I were five years older.

And I grew up, in many ways, in a different Baltimore than my mother and my father. And I think one’s past always comes and goes. But now in 2007, what I find myself often calling up about Baltimore is that the people that I grew up around were nice people. And so niceness has become very important to me now. And I find myself thinking about that sort of kindness, love of children, the importance of my church, kind of quest for fairness and justice in the nation as a whole. And I think about that a lot, and try on a daily basis to emulate some of that behavior in the way I go about my life.

Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well it was really a community that I grew up in. The culture that was right around me; the people who I would call my friends and family, for the most part they were colored people.

And my mother and father had a big effect on me. My paternal grandfather, my maternal grandmother had a big effect on me.

There was a woman next door called Ms. Johnson who was actually a very large woman – maybe she weighed about 400 pounds – she had a huge effect on me. She was a great story teller, and I used to ask her to tell me stories all the time. And when kids were out playing – we didn’t have stick ball in the street – but our version of softball or baseball in the back alley, I would most likely be found talking to Ms. Johnson and asking her to tell me often the same stories over and over again.

And so I think that my desire to hear a story, which came from when I was very young, is still with me now and has a huge influence on me.

The minister of my church and his wife have a big effect on me.

And then I think the tougher part had to do with my school in junior high, because the kids in that school really stayed in groups that had mostly to do with race and social class. So for example, even among the Jewish kids, it was really clear to me they had a certain pecking order. And the kids whose families had recently come, for example, from Eastern Europe were segregated away from those who were more assimilated. And that really bothered me. And you know when something bothers you, you can, on the one hand, turn it into something, which I’ve tried to do in my life. But there’s another way in which the effect of it never really goes away, and you sort of see those same things in your own life.

And certainly we live in a world that may not be segregated in the way that parts of this country were; but we live in a very tribal kind of world now where there seems to be an almost insurmountable challenge in terms of how do we soften those borders and boundaries.

Question: When did you first become conscious of race?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well I can’t remember not being conscious of race. I guess I’d have to have been pretty lingual, because even though most of the people around me were African-American people, there was still a sense when you went into other parts of Baltimore that there were White people.

Or for example, my maternal grandmother took my brother and I and enrolled us in a camp when I was eight and he was six. And everybody in that camp was white except for one African-American girl. My brother had blue eyes and blond hair, so people didn’t always know that he was black. And so, you know, I was very conscious in that camp of not being white, and I was eight years old then.

So I think it’s something that in my generation is pretty deeply ingrained. I don’t think that my niece, who is nine, has the same experience. She’s conscious, but I don’t think she’s self-conscious in the way that I was, because the message to us was that it was something that wasn’t necessarily that great. And so you had to count on the people in your family, your church, and the people who were closer to you to try to make sense of that.

Question: What did you think you would be doing professionally when you were growing up?

Anna Deavere Smith: Well I didn’t really become involved in the theater until after I got out of college. When I was a younger woman, for example, I wanted to be a linguist. And I thought that maybe there was some sort of job that I could have ultimately that would have to do with learning many languages and doing something about these things we’ve been talking about, how people don’t get along very well.

And it’s interesting that I wanted to learn other languages and take that into the world, because I could have said well, I wanted to follow on the heels of Martin Luther King and do something about race relations in this country. But I really had a desire to be in the world, and to try to do something about “tribalism”. And I thought that one way to do that--and I use “tribalism” in quotations--discord between groups. And I thought that language was a part of that somehow. So I guess I thought that being able to talk to one another, as trivial as that sounds, I think I really believed in that possibility as a young woman.

And when I was in college, a lot of things happened in this country that left many of us in kind of a quandary as to what we should do with ourselves and with the country. Martin Luther King was killed when I was in college. And so I went away to California with the notion that I would so something in social change. But by the time I got there, which was the early ‘70s, the movement was really over. People were just beginning to assemble themselves, I think, to become what became the Yuppies of the 1980s. So that was like over. Nobody was into questioning things anymore. There was a sense that people were just trying to put things back together.

And in that period, I happened to go to an acting class pretty much, kind of accidentally. And I thought, “Oh my goodness. Everyone’s changing.” So I thought this would be a great laboratory in which to study change with the expectation that I would then go ahead and do something about social change. But once I got that bug – not so much the bug of acting, I have to say, but more the bug of the study of it – the bug of the process of creativity really took me by storm and changed my life. And so in three years, I sort of redirected my goals completely.

Recorded on: Aug 22, 2007

 

Anna Deavere Smith recalls her childhood in segregated Baltimore, and how she found her way out West and into the theater.

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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.