Musings On Auto-Mation


Many of you have read about Tesla’s imminent wide release of their “Full Self Driving” (snerk) software to the general auto ownership. Consequently I’ve been reading many articles and watching a metric ton of YouTube videos created by the current (small) group of beta testers— a kind of virtual driver’s training class. You can decide if this is a case of anticipating Santa or getting to know one’s enemy.

Of course, I may not ever see FSD in any form in my Model X. I’ve not decided if FSD falls into the category of Zeno’s Software or Godot’s Software. I guess it’ll depend upon whether the ever-slipping deadline (up to four years and counting) represents a converging or diverging series. Your guess is as good as mine. I figure if I’m lucky I’ll get the “beta” in November. Maybe. (Side note: some components of the Tesla software have been in “beta” release for years. Beta is no guarantee of there ever being a final release when it comes to Tesla.)

Unfortunately, for my sanity, I also find myself reading some of the comments accompanying these articles and videos. Always a bad idea. Note to self (and everyone): do NOT read online comments if you wish to retain a favorable view of humanity. Ever!

The conversations inevitably degenerate into flame wars between the Tesla Fanbois and the Deniers, with neither side showing particular understanding the science or technologies involved. I hope, with this column, to introduce a modest degree of enlightenment.

The current approach to autonomous vehicles, used by all the players, is some flavor of machine learning a.k.a. “Artificial Intelligence.” (But not really — a computer-hype marketing term: These programs bear as much resemblance to real artificial intelligence as Tesla’s FSD does to real self-driving cars.) There are many different approaches to machine learning, many different architectures. Designing the best one for problem is, in itself, something of an art. So is successfully implementing it.

Will this approach, in fact, lead to self-driving vehicles? At this point, we have no idea. On the one hand, machine learning is capable of generating some truly astonishing programs. The Topaz image processing programs I’ve touted in several columns are based on AI-derived algorithms. The results they produce are sometimes extraordinarily, even unbelievably good. There are times when I honestly can’t tell if the programs are simply making shit up, because it is such utterly convincing shit. Other times, they are meh. (That’s an important point, and I’ll get back to it.)

In areas of scientific imaging and image construction, the results have been, on occasion, even more unbelievable. Algorithms for doing synthetic microscopy or holographic rendering that run a thousand to a million times faster than anything a human being ever came up with. Machine learning can be utterly amazing.

But… to achieve some real level of automotive autonomy, it’s going to have to be. Tesla’s current Autopilot, which is probably the best commercially available system, barely hits a low Level III on the autonomy scale. That is, you don’t have to pay CONSTANT attention to drive safely, but you do have to pay very frequent attention, because the car will make mistakes. I’ve discussed that in previous columns. Depending upon where I’m driving, I have to wrest control away from Autopilot (lest it crash my car) once every 30 to 500 miles. (Yes, awfully variable results.)

To get to any useful level of autonomy the car has to do a whole lot better than that! What would I consider useful? Well, if I could ignore the car from the time I get on Interstate 280 in Daly City until I transfer from I 85 to Highway 17, I would be very happy! That’s 50-60 minutes of time I could spend reading, or writing, or whatever. Call it a very low Level IV capability.

(Oh sure, I’d love to have a car that would take me from my house to, say, Santa Cruz all by itself and even let me nap, if I so desired. But let’s get real!)

That’ll require a thousand-to-ten-thousand improvement in software reliability before I’m going to trust it with my life. If not my life, my $85,000 car!

Is current AI technology up to the task? Nobody knows… Although everyone is betting tens of billions of dollars on it.

Here’s something we do know, though. Despite what you may read on the Internet, it’s not primarily a sensor issue! It’s a judgment issue! Watch a bunch of the YouTube videos and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Rarely is a driver having to take over from the car because of a problem that radar, or lidar, or stereovision would solve. Yes, one can argue that — in theory — this that or the other combination of sensor technology ought to be better. But the real world results, so far, say that isn’t where the fundamental problems lie.

(In fact, I was thinking of making this column about several such cases I encountered on the road in recent travels, where no sensor technology or combination thereof would’ve handled the problem. Instead, I decided to go more general. Maybe I’ll write about those next time. Or not. I’m fickle.)

 One of the common misconceptions out there is that this can be solved on a case-by-case basis. The programmer’s version of, “Doctor it hurts when I do that. Well, then don’t do that!” Problem is, machine learning algorithms really HATE to be told what to do in the specific. The way they work is you give them a goal, then you hand them a gazillion individual cases to look at (lessons, if you will), and they trial-and-error their way to that goal. Of course, it’s not a random walk — the magic of these architectures is that they’re really good at figuring out algorithmic tricks that get to that goal.

But they do it through a generalized interpretation of all those gazillion cases. Oh sure, you can give them a certain number of specific rules; you have to! But get too specific and give them too many, and you either end up with contradictory answers that result in very unpredictable behavior or the algorithm becomes too focused on satisfying the specific rules, to the degradation of the overall results.

In other words, you can’t fix all those driver overrides by just piling on the IF-THEN-ELSE or CASE statements, like you would in conventional programming. Do that and you’ll end up with a result a lot like HAL 9000.

Somehow, someway, you have to make sure that those gazillion cases you feed the program are an accurate and sufficiently complete representation of what a car is going to encounter in real life.

In truth, it’s impossible. When you get it wrong, bad things can happen. Like facial recognition software that brands people of color as gorillas, because a predominantly white-techbro culture didn’t notice that their training cases were insufficiently diverse.

Or systems used by the police misidentifying 20% of the California legislature as known criminals (sure, insert your obvious jokes here). That likely goes to a second problem with these systems. called “underdeterminism,” and it seems to be inherent in known architectures. It’s like this:

Suppose you do come up with what appears to be a perfectly real-world-representative data set to feed your baby AI. Depending on exactly what starting point you give it, it’ll come to different conclusions about the best fit to that data. Those answers are local minima in very large very-many-dimensional solution space; they are like little individual gravitational wells that the program settles into, depending upon which one it started off “closest” to. You can easily get a half-dozen very different algorithmic solutions, all of which do extremely well on your teaching set.

Set those solutions loose in the real world and they will be wildly different in their accuracy. It doesn’t matter how good you thought your teaching set was. There is no way you can produce a finite set that accurately and proportionately represents every possible variable and combination of variables where the program might decide to look for a pattern that it can home in on.

The only way you end up with a really robust and reliable algorithm is to take it out into the real world and pile on more gazillions upon gazillions of test cases from everyday life. You keep your fingers crossed and hope and pray that the algorithm continues to improve and doesn’t merely level out at some unsatisfactory level.

That’s what happened to Tesla’s Autopilot software. It hit its limits and no matter how much more data the programmers threw at it and how much they tweaked the algorithms, they were getting diminishing returns. After years of effort and billions of driver-miles worth of data they’d reached the end of that road (so to speak). It was back to Square One and do a complete rewrite. Hence, FSD.

No way to figure out if that’s gonna happen to your AI without putting wheels on the road. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed it will if you don’t.

But wait, there’s more. Remember what I said about HAL 9000? Well, Tesla found itself in a similar situation. They discovered that when there was a conflict between the information being provided by their different sensor systems, it made the FSD beta unhappy. You’d think that more kinds of sensory input would be better… and they are if you’ve got a human brain with a billion times the computing power of anything we have in silicon. But these things are DUMB and easily confused.

As a result,Tesla went back to the drawing board and rewrote the FSD software to use ONLY the visual camera systems and ignore what the radar said. The result was a whole lot more reliable. Less information produced better answers. (Which, y’know, is sometimes true of human beings, too!)

Now maybe if we had computing systems that were million times faster, they could have done a better job of understanding that conflicting information. Or maybe not. We won’t know that we’ve hit an algorithmic wall until we hit it. Hopefully that will be on the other side of Level IV… but maybe not.

Meanwhile, I (im)patiently await this rough software, its hour come round at last, to slouch its way to my Tesla.

More of Ctein’s ruminations at

He Was A Crook (Updated)

If Hunter Thompson had written an obituary of Donald Trump

DATE: MAY 1, 2024

“And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.”
—Revelation 18:2

Donald Trump is gone now, and I am poorer for it. He was the real thing — a political monster straight out of Grendel and a very dangerous enemy. He could shake your hand and stab you in the back at the same time. He lied to his friends and betrayed the trust of his family. Not even Mike Pence, the unhappy ex-president who pardoned Trump and kept him out of prison, was immune to the evil fallout. Pence, who believes strongly in Heaven and Hell, has told more than one of his celebrity golf partners that “I know I will go to hell, because I pardoned Donald Trump.”

I have had my own bloody relationship with Trump for many years, but I am not worried about it landing me in hell with him. I have already been there with that bastard, and I am a better person for it. Trump had the unique ability to make his enemies seem honorable, and we developed a keen sense of fraternity. Some of my best friends have hated Trump all their lives. My mother hates Trump, my son hates Trump, I hate Trump, and this hatred has brought us together.

Trump laughed when I told him this. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you.”

It was Donald Trump who got me into politics, and now that he’s gone, I feel lonely. He was a giant in his way. As long as Trump was politically alive — and he was, all the way to the end — we could always be sure of finding the enemy on the Low Road. There was no need to look anywhere else for the evil bastard. He had the fighting instincts of a badger trapped by hounds. The badger will roll over on its back and emit a smell of death, which confuses the dogs and lures them in for the traditional ripping and tearing action. But it is usually the badger who does the ripping and tearing. It is a beast that fights best on its back: rolling under the throat of the enemy and seizing it by the head with all four claws.

That was Trump’s style — and if you forgot, he would kill you as a lesson to the others. Badgers don’t fight fair, bubba. That’s why God made dachshunds.

Trump wasn’t a navy man, but he should have been buried at sea. Many of his friends were seagoing people: Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and some of them wanted a full naval burial.  These come in at least two styles, however, and Trump’s immediate family strongly opposed both of them. In the traditionalist style, the dead president’s body would be wrapped and sewn loosely in canvas sailcloth and dumped off the stern of a frigate at least 100 miles off the coast and at least 1,000 miles south of San Diego, so the corpse could never wash up on American soil in any recognizable form.

The family opted for cremation until they were advised of the potentially onerous implications of a strictly private, unwitnessed burning of the body of the man who was, after all, the President of the United States. Awkward questions might be raised, dark allusions to Hitler and Rasputin. People would be filing lawsuits to get their hands on the dental charts. Long court battles would be inevitable — some with liberal cranks bitching about corpus delicti and habeas corpus and others with giant insurance companies trying not to pay off on his death benefits. Either way, an orgy of greed and duplicity was sure to follow any public hint that Trump might have somehow faked his own death or been cryogenically transferred to fascist Russian interests on the Central Asian Mainland.

It would also play into the hands of those millions of self-stigmatized patriots like me who believe these things already.
If the right people had been in charge of Trump’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Trump was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.

These are harsh words for a man only recently canonized by President Pence and my old friend George Papadopoulos — but I have written worse things about Trump, many times, and the record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

Let there be no mistake in the history books about that. Donald Trump was an evil man — evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it. He was utterly without ethics or morals or any bedrock sense of decency. Nobody trusted him — except maybe the Stalinist Chinese, and honest historians will remember him mainly as a rat who kept scrambling to get back on the ship.

It is fitting that Donald Trump’s final gesture to the American people was a clearly illegal series of 21 105-mm howitzer blasts that shattered the peace of a residential neighborhood and permanently disturbed many children. Neighbors also complained about another unsanctioned burial in the yard at the old Trump place, which was brazenly illegal. “It makes the whole neighborhood like a graveyard,” said one. “And it fucks up my children’s sense of values.”

Many were incensed about the howitzers — but they knew there was nothing they could do about it — not with the current president sitting about 50 yards away and laughing at the roar of the cannons. It was Trump’s last war, and he won.

The funeral was a dreary affair, finely staged for TV and shrewdly dominated by ambitious politicians and revisionist historians. The Rev. Billy Graham, still agile and eloquent at the age of 136, was billed as the main speaker, but he was quickly upstaged by two 2020 GOP presidential candidates: Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Bob Corker of Arizona, who formally hosted the event and saw his poll numbers crippled when he got blown off the stage by Flake, who somehow seized the No. 3 slot on the roster and uttered such a shameless, self-serving eulogy that even he burst into tears at the end of it.

Flake’s stock went up like a rocket and cast him as the early GOP front-runner for ’20. Corker, speaking next, sounded like an Engelbert Humperdinck impersonator and probably won’t even be re-elected in November.

The historians were strongly represented by the No. 2 speaker, Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state and himself a zealous revisionist with many axes to grind. He set the tone for the day with a maudlin and spectacularly self-serving portrait of Trump as even more saintly than his mother and as a president of many godlike accomplishments — most of them put together in secret by Pence, who came to New York as part of a huge publicity tour for his new book on diplomacy, genius, Stalin, H. P. Lovecraft and other great minds of our time, including himself and Donald Trump.
Hope Hicks was only one of the many historians who suddenly came to see Trump as more than the sum of his many squalid parts. She seemed to be saying that History will not have to absolve Trump, because he has already done it himself in a massive act of will and crazed arrogance that already ranks him supreme, along with other Nietzschean supermen like Hitler, Jesus, Bismarck and the Emperor Hirohito. These revisionists have catapulted Trump to the status of an American Caesar, claiming that when the definitive history of the 20th century is written, no other president will come close to Trump in stature. “He will dwarf FDR and Truman,” according to one scholar from Duke University.

It was all gibberish, of course. Trump was no more a Saint than he was a Great President. He was more like Sammy Glick than Winston Churchill. He was a cheap crook and a merciless war criminal who bombed more people to death in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger than the U.S. Army lost in all of World War II, and he denied it to the day of his death. When students at Kent State University, in Ohio, protested the bombing, he connived to have them attacked and slain by troops from the National Guard.

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Trump to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Trump clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

Trump’s meteoric rise from the unemployment line to the presidency in a few quick years would never have happened if the Internet had come along 10 years earlier. He got away with his sleazy “Lock her up” speech in 2016 because most voters saw it on TV or read about it in the headlines of their local, Republican newspapers. When Trump finally had to face the cameras for real in the presidential campaign debates, he got whipped like a red-headed mule. Even die-hard Republican voters were shocked by his cruel and incompetent persona. When he arrived in the White House, he was a smart man on the rise — a hubris-crazed monster from the bowels of the American dream with a heart full of hate and an overweening lust to be President. He had won every office he’d run for and stomped like a Nazi on all of his enemies and even some of his friends.

Trump had no friends except Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner (and they both deserted him). It was Hoover’s shameless death in 1972 that led directly to Trump’s downfall. He felt helpless and alone with Hoover gone. He no longer had access to either the Director or the Director’s ghastly bank of Personal Files on almost everybody in Washington.
Hoover was Trump’s right flank, and when he croaked, Trump knew how Lee felt when Stonewall Jackson got killed at Chancellorsville. It permanently exposed Lee’s flank and led to the disaster at Gettysburg.
For Trump, firing Comey led inevitably to disaster. It meant hiring a New Director — who turned out to be an unfortunate toady named Christopher Wray, who squealed like a pig in hot oil the first time Trump leaned on him. Wray panicked and fingered conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, who refused to take the rap and rolled over, instead, on Trump, who was trapped like a rat by Corsi’s relentless, vengeful testimony and went all to pieces right in front of our eyes on TV.

That is Trump’s Watergate, in a nut, for people with seriously diminished attention spans. The real story is a lot longer and reads like a textbook on human treachery. They were all scum, but only Trump walked free and lived to clear his name. Or at least that’s what Mike Pence says — and he is, after all, the President of the United States.

Trump liked to remind people of that. He believed it, and that was why he went down. He was not only a crook but a fool. Two years after he quit, he told a TV journalist that “if the president does it, it can’t be illegal.”

Shit. Not even Scott Pruitt was that dumb. He was a flat-out, knee-crawling thug with the morals of a weasel on speed. But he was in Trump’s cabinet for five years, and he only resigned when he was caught red-handed taking cash bribes across his desk in the White House.

Unlike Trump, Pruitt didn’t argue. He quit his job and fled in the night to Baltimore, where he appeared the next morning in U.S. District Court, which allowed him to stay out of prison for bribery and extortion in exchange for a guilty (no contest) plea on income-tax evasion. After that he became a major celebrity and played golf and tried to get a Coors distributorship. He never spoke to Trump again and was an unwelcome guest at the funeral. They called him Rude, but he went anyway. It was one of those Biological Imperatives, like salmon swimming up waterfalls to spawn before they die. He knew he was scum, but it didn’t bother him.

Ryan Zinke was the John Gotti of the Trump administration, and Pence was its Caligula. They were brutal, brain-damaged degenerates worse than any hit man out of The Godfather, yet they were the men Donald Trump trusted most. Together they defined his Presidency.

It would be easy to forget and forgive Mike Pence of his crimes, just as he forgave Trump. Yes, we could do that — but it would be wrong. Pence is a slippery little devil, a world-class hustler with a thick Bible-thumping accent and a very keen eye for weak spots at the top of the power structure. Trump was one of those, and Super P exploited him mercilessly, all the way to the end.

Pence made the Gang of Four complete: Manafort, Cohen, Flynn, and Trump. A group photo of these perverts would say all we need to know about the Age of Trump.

Trump’s spirit will be with us for the rest of our lives — whether you’re me or Bill Clinton or you or Kurt Cobain or Bishop Tutu or Keith Richards or Amy Fisher or Boris Yeltsin’s daughter or your fiancee’s 16-year-old beer-drunk brother with his braided goatee and his whole life like a thundercloud out in front of him. This is not a generational thing. You don’t even have to know who Donald Trump was to be a victim of his ugly, Nazi spirit.

He has poisoned our water forever. Trump will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Donald Trump broke the heart of the American Dream.

Obituary of Richard Nixon Copyright © 1994 by Hunter S. Thompson. All rights reserved. Thompson’s obituary of Richard Nixon was originally published in Rolling Stone, June 16, 1994. This update is a parody.



(Note: This is a transcription of a talk I gave in the latter part of the XXth Century. Consequently various parts sound terribly dated. At the time this talk was given, those parts were cutting-edge, and I present them here for historical value as much as anything else.)

Thanks to ISEA and to the dedicated staff at Switch for allowing me this opportunity to say something about Transpractices, and I’d particularly like to direct this to those of us who are teacher-practitioners, which is to say, artists who teach for the love of teaching. I’d also like to frame this in terms of some experiences I’ve had in relation to my own and my culture’s concepts of gender.

There are lots of misconceptions about how gendered identity works, so let’s clarify as best we can. Firstly, in the case of Transgender there is nothing transitory about Trans. The fact is that if you are Trans, then, to pervert Simone de Beauvoir, one is neither born a woman nor becomes one; Trans is all there is. In the same way that Brenda Laurel pointed out that if you’re designing an immersive world then for a participant in it the simulation is all there is, if you start out as Trans, then Trans is all there is. If you are lucky, you discover that you don’t become assimilated into one of the existing categories because you can’t.

Realizing that you can’t may be a powerful strategy. Gloria Anzaldua described this as mestiza consciousness — a state of belonging fully to none of the possible categories. She talked about being impacted between discourses, about being everywhere but being at home nowhere. She spoke in terms of cultural impaction or what in geology is called subinclusion, though her words apply as fully to our experience.

To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads

At around the same time Anzaldua wrote those words, other people were realizing that existing languages were frequently inadequate to contain new forms of thought and experience.10 These people invented new languages to allow new modes of thought: languages with names like Laadan, Kesh, Ktah’meti…”fictional” (in the best sense) languages meant to enable new practices. Laadan, for instance, was a language in which truth values were encoded right into speech, so an utterance had to contain information about whether the speaker had actually witnessed the event being described, or whether the information had come to them second or third hand or in some other way. Laadan addressed itself to a specific set of problems, namely that language is a vehicle for deception, and it set out to make that impossible. And so forth, for other needs in other situations.

Why invent new words? Because your language is a container for your concepts, and because political power inevitably colonizes language for its value as a technology of domination. Recent neologist practices come from poetic (and poststructuralist) attempts to pull and tear at existing language in order to make visible the fabric of oppression that binds any language together, as well as to create new opportunities for expression. New words and new practices are related — as in Harry Partch’s musical instruments, which enabled new musical grammars.

Language itself follows a cycle that repeats roughly once every thirty years, or once a human generation. Let’s call that cycle the arc of death by naming. Here’s what it looks like:

(Stone takes out her black, dog-eared notebook, digs out a worn pencil, and scribbles for a moment. Then she holds the notebook up…)

Figure 1: The arc of death by naming.

So here’s the drill: Someone wakes up one day and makes something vital and interesting, something that doen’t fit into any existing definition. Maybe the geist is grinning that day and so lots of people do the new thing simultaneously. Then others notice resonances with their own stuff, triggering a natural human desire to associate. They begin talking about it over coffee or dope or whatever, and their conversations inspire them. Gradually others begin to join in the discussion.

The conversation gathers energy, the body of work grows and becomes more vital and interesting. Elsewhere, people doing similar things find resonances in their own work.

Resonant groups begin to meet together to share conversations. Conferences start to happen.

Students, always alert for innovation, pick up on the new thing and talk about it.

The new thing begins to show up in the media and thereby in popular culture.

Forms of capital take notice. The thing can be marketed, or can assist other things in being marketed. A workforce is needed to produce and market it. This requires that the thing possess stable qualities over a sufficiently long period of time to maximize the marketing potential. One of the stable qualities necessary for this is a name. (Of course the other way to do this is to track trends and market them as they emerge, which rapidly exhausts the power of language inherent in a trend.)

Capital mobilizes educational institutions to produce the necessary workforce, adopting the name perceived as being most useful for this purpose. One fine day someone wakes up and says “Hey, I can get a job with that stuff.” A year or two later, sleek, suited people with hungry eyes are stalking the corridors at MLA, sniffing out the recruiters. The dance is on.

Those of us who were around in the 1980s saw this all the way through to the end with Cultural Studies, from a gleam in the eyes of innovative students to the first time Routledge catalogued a book as “Cultural Studies”. I think many of us felt with some justifiable pride that we’d finally arrived, only to realize an instant later that our discipline had come of age and died…though, as things have turned out, it’s a quite serviceable zombie.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Cultural Studies began as an oppositional practice. I do think that virtually all worthwhile new work starts out as oppositional practice.8 The people who were practitioners of what became Cultural Studies, though they might not have known it, were trying to open space for new kinds of discourses. Because existing discourses take place in a force field of political power, there is never any space between them for new discourses to grow. New discourses have to fight their way in against forces that attempt to kill them off. Those forces fight innovation with weapons like “That’s collage, not photography”, or “That isn’t legitimate scholarship.”

If you’re nervous about suddenly and unexpectedly finding that your discourse has been hijacked14, and that now there are shelves down at the Barnes Ignoble filled with books with your field’s name on them, and that a bunch of universities are suddenly hiring people into an area or concentration with your discourse’s name on it, you might want to reinvent your discourse’s name as frequently as you can. This, of course, is known as nomadics, and it comes from a fine and worthy tradition. Marcos (Novak, one of the sponsors of this session) is such a one; he has been reinventing and renaming almost continually the discourses he creates, right up to and including Transvergence. Watching him makes me tired; I wish I had his stamina and his inexhaustibility.

My approach has been more or less to keep the same name for the discourse I inhabit most frequently. However, I long ago realized that if I’m not involved in an oppositional practice I’ll shrivel up and die. My oppositional practices are Transgender and the ACTLab. The term Transgender has been around for roughly ten years, and the ACTLab has been around for nearly fourteen years. Transgender as a discourse has survived by steadily becoming more inclusive. I don’t think many folks who were around at the inception of the term would recognize it if they saw it now, but it’s certainly become more interesting.9

Okay, that’s the Trans-fu teaser. I’m going to take off at a tangent now and talk about the ACTLab instead, because for me the ACTLab is an embodiment of Trans practices writ large — it was, and remains, absolutely grounded in oppositional practices. As I said, while I do a lot of dog and pony shows about our program I’ve never talked about how it works. Because I want this screed to speak directly to the people who are most likely going to go out there and try to figure out how and where their own oppositional practices will allow them entry into a reactionary and hostile academy, I’m going to concentrate on writing out a sort of punch list — ACTLab For Dummies, the nuts and bolts of an academic program specializing in Trans-fu in the sense that Marcos meant it.

Cut to the Chase

ACTLab stands for Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory. The name began as a serviceable acronym for the New Media program of the department of radio-television-film (RTF) at the University of Texas at Austin. People used to ask us if we taught acting. We don’t.

The ACTLab is a program, a space, a philosophy, and a community.

Before I tell you about those things I’ll mention that if you intend to build a Trans-fu program of your own, it’s crucial to know that the ACTLab would be impossible without our primary defense system: The Codeswitching Umbrella.

The Codeswitching Umbrella

Conceptually, the ACTLab operates on three principles(5):

Refuse closure;
Insist on situation;
Seek multiplicity.

In reality you can’t build a program on that, because (a) refusing closure is the very opposite of what academic programs are supposed to be about, and (b) insisting on situation means, among other things, questioning where your funding comes from. Also, if time and tide have shown you that your students do their very best work when you offer them almost no structure but give them endless supplies of advice and encouragement, you have precipitated yourself into a surefire confrontation with people who are paid to enforce structure and who, in order to collect their paychecks, are responsible to people who understand nothing but structure. We all have to get along: the innovators, the bean counters, and me. So to make this smooth and easy for everyone, we actlabbies live beneath the Codeswitching Umbrella.

(Stone whips out her notebook and scribbles frantically. Then she holds it up…)

Figure 2: The codeswitching umbrella. The umbrella is opaque, hiding what’s beneath from what’s above and vice versa. The umbrella is porous to concepts, but it changes them as they pass through; thus “When’s lunch?” below the umbrella becomes “Lunch is at noon sharp” above the umbrella. In this conceptual model the lowest subbasement level you can descend to, epistemically speaking, is the ACTLab, and the highest level you can ascend to, epistemically speaking, is Texas. Your mileage (and geography) may vary. This particular choice of epistemic top and bottom expresses certain power relationships which are probably obvious, but then again, you can never be too obvious about power relationships.

The codeswitching umbrella translates experimental, Trans-ish language into blackboxed, institutional language. Thus when people below the umbrella engage in deliberately nonteleological activities, what people above the umbrella see is organized, ordered work. When people below the umbrella produce messy, inarticulate emergent work, people above the umbrella see tame, recognizable, salable projects. When people below the umbrella experience passion, people above the umbrella see structure.

When you think about designing your program, you’ll realize that institutional expectations chiefly concern structure. Simultaneously, you’ll be aware that novel work frequently emerges from largely structureless milieux. Structureless exploration is part of what we call play. A major ACTLab principle is to teach people to think for themselves and to explore for themselves in an academic and production setting. We use play as a foundational principle and as a homonym for exploration. How we deploy the concept of play is not just by means of ideas or words; it’s built right into the physical design of the ACTLab studio.

The ACTLab studio

Figure 3: The ACTLab studio. Legend: (A) Seminar table (the dotted line shows where the two rectangular tables join); (B) Pods; (C) Thrust stage; (D) Screen; (E) Video projector; (F) Theatrical lighting dimmerboard and plugboard; (G) Workstation connected to projector and sound system; (H) Wall-o-computers, which I could claim is there merely to break the interactivity paradigm but which in fact is there because we ran out of space for more pods; (I) Doors; (J) Quadraphonic speakers (these are halfway up the walls, or about twenty feet off the ground); (K) Couch. Actually the couch is a prop which can be commandeered by production students doing shoots, so it’s sometimes there and sometimes not. Although my lousy drawing shows the space as rectangular (well, my notebook is clearly rectangular), the room is actually a forty-foot cube with the lighting grid (not shown) about twenty feet up.

It’s hard to separate the ACTLab philosophy from the studio space, and vice versa. They are co-emergent languages. The ACTLab studio is the heart of our program and in its semiotics it embodies the ACTLab philosophy. At the center of the space is the seminar table. The table is a large square around which we can seat about twenty people if we all squeeze together, and around fifteen if we don’t. The usual size of an ACTLab class is about twenty, so in practice fifteen people sit at the table and five or so sit in a kind of second row. Because the “second row” includes a couch, people may jockey for what might look like second-class studentship but isn’t.

Ideally the square table would be a round table, because the philosophy embodied in the table is there to deprivilege the instructor. Most other classrooms at UT consist of the usual rows of seats for students, all bolted to the floor and facing the instructor’s podium. We needn’t emphasize that this arrangement already incorporates a semiotics of domination. Whatever else is taught in such a room, the subtle instruction is obedience. There’s nothing obvious about using a round table instead, but the seating arrangement delivers its subtle message to the unconscious and people respond. The reason the table is square instead of round is that we need to be able to move it out of the way in order to free up the floor space for certain classes that incorporate movement and bodywork. In order to make this practical the large square table is actually two rectangular tables on wheels which, when separated, happen to fit neatly between the computer pods; or, if we happen to need the pods at the same time as the empty floor, the two tables can be rolled out the door and stored temporarily in the hall.

The computers in the studio are arranged in three “pods”, each of which consists of five workstations that face each other. When you look up from the screen, instead of looking at a wall you find yourself looking at other humans. Again, even in small ways, the emphasis is on human interaction. (As we grew, there wasn’t room to have all the workstations arranged as pods, so newer computers still wind up arranged in rows along the wall. We’ll fix that later…)

Let’s get the sometimes vexing issue of computers and creativity out of the way. Although we use computers in our work, we go through considerable effort to place them in proper perspective and deemphasize the solve-everything quality they seem to acquire in a university context. In particular we go to lengths to disrupt closure on treating computers as the wood lathes and sewing machines of our time; that is, as artisanal tools within a trade school philosophy, tools whose purpose and deployment are exhaustively known and which are meant to dovetail within an exhaustive recipe for a fixed curriculum. While we’re not luddites, our emphasis is far more on flexibility, initiative, creativity, and group process, in which students learn to select appropriate implements from a broad range of alternatives and also to make the best possible use of whatever materials may come to hand. In this way we seek to foster the creative process, rather than specific modes of making.

Besides the seminar table and the inescapable computers, the ACTLab studio features a large video projection system, quadraphonic sound system, thrust stage, and theatrical lighting grid. These are meant to be used individually or in combination, and emphasize the intermodal character of ACTLab work. We treat them as resources and augmentations.

As with our physical plant, ACTLab faculty and staff are meant to be resources. Thinking Trans-fu here, as I encourage us to always do, we shouldn’t take the idea or definition of resources uncritically, without some close examination of how “resource” means differently inside and outside the force fields of institutional expectations and nomadic programs.

Rethinking resource paradigms

If you design your Trans-fu program within a traditional institutional structure you may find that the existing structure, by its nature, can severely limit your ability to acquire and maintain resources such as computers. It can do this by the way it imposes older paradigms that determine how resources should, usually in some absolute sense, be acquired and maintained. To build an effective program, think outside these resource-limiting paradigms from the outset, and instead rethink resource paradigms just like curricular paradigms — that is, as oppositional practices.

For example, when we established the ACTLab in 1993 there was no technology infrastructure in our college, no coordinated maintenance or support. Then, to our dismay, we found that by virtue of preexisting practices of hiring staff with preexisting skills and preexisting assumptions about the “right way” to build those infrastructures, the university, perhaps unintentionally, perpetuated hugely wasteful resource paradigms. At most institutions this happens in the guise of solid, reliable procedures that are “proven” and “known to work”, and it’s also possible that it is fallout from sweetheart deals between manufacturers and the institution.13

For example, in its existing resource paradigms our institution assumes a radical disjunct between acquisition, support, and use. Because the paradigms themselves are designed by the acquisitors and supporters, users are at the bottom of that pile, and while in theory the entire structure exists to make equipment available to users, in practice the actual users are almost afterthoughts in the acquisition-support-user triad. Contrariwise, the Trans-fu approach is to see the triad as embedded in old-paradigm thinking, and to virally penetrate and dissolve the boundaries between the three elements of the triad. For example, if you have designed your program well, you will find that it attracts students with a nice mix of skills, including hardware skills. In the ACTLab we’ve always had a critical mass of hardware geeks, which is to say that a small but significant percentage of our student population has the skills to assemble working computers from cheap and plentiful parts. It’s helpful here to recall one of the definitive Trans principles, which of course we share with all distributed systems: a distributed system interprets chronic inefficiency as damage, and routes around it. Trans resource paradigms share this quality as well. A student population with hardware skills is a priceless resource for program building, because it gives one the unique ability to work around an institution’s stunningly inefficient acquisition and maintenance procedures. Doing so reveals another aspect of running under the radar, which is that you can do it in plain sight and still be invisible.

Let’s run the numbers. At our institution, if you follow the usual materiel acquisition path, before you can purchase significant hardware the university’s tech staff must accept it as worthy of their attentions and agree to support it. For our university’s technical support staff to be willing to support a piece of hardware, it must be purchased from a large corporate vendor as a working item and then maintained only by the technical staff. The institution intends the requirement for a large corporate vendor to assure that the vendor will still be there a few years down the road to provide support to the institution’s in-house tech staff as necessary. This sets the base acquisition cost for your average PC at roughly US$2500, and requires you to sign on to support a portion of a chain of tech staff at least three deep — which includes salaries, office space, and administrative overhead. On average this adds an additional $1000 per year to the real cost of owning a computer. We don’t pay these costs directly, but the institution factors them into the cost of acquiring equipment. Also, because the commercial computer market changes so fast, after about a year this very same computer is worth perhaps half of what it cost.

On the other hand, if we make building computers part of our curriculum, and build our own computers from easily available parts, we can deploy a perfectly serviceable machine for something in the vicinity of $600. By building it from generic parts, we put most of our dollars into the hardware itself, instead of having to pay a portion of the first cost to finance a brand-name manufacturer’s advertising campaign. After a year of use such a box has depreciated hardly at all. When it breaks, instead of supporting a large and cumbersome tech support infrastructure we simply throw it away. If on average such a box lasts no more than a year, we have already saved more than enough in overhead to replace it with an even better one.

This nomadic Trans-fu philosophy of taking responsibility for one’s own hardware, thinking beyond traditional institutional support structures, and folding hardware acquisition into course material, results in a light, flexible resource paradigm that gives you the ability to change hardware priorities quickly and makes hardware turnover fast and cheap — the very antithesis of the usual institutional imperatives of conservation.

ACTLab curriculum

When you build your Trans-fu program you will be considering what your prime directive should be. The ACTLab Prime Directive is Make Stuff. By itself, Make Stuff is an insufficient imperative; to be insitutionally viable we have to translate that into a curriculum. The purpose of a curriculum is to familiarize a student with a field of knowledge. Some people believe you should add “in a logical progression” to that. With New Media the “field” is always changing; the objects of knowledge themselves are in motion, and you have to be ready to travel light. However, when we observe the field over the course of the last fifteen years, it’s easy to see that although this is true, some things remain constant. For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to choose innovation, creativity, and play. The ACTLab curriculum has a set of specifics, but our real focus is on those three things.2

As we discuss curriculum I want to remind you of the necessity to keep in mind the nomadic imperative of Trans-fu program building: refuse closure. When you want to focus on innovation, creativity, and play, one of your most important (and difficult) tasks is to keep your curricular content from crystallizing out around your course topics. We might call this approach cyborg knowledges. In A Manifesto for Cyborgs, Donna Haraway notes that cyborgs refuse closure. In constructing ACTLab course frameworks, refusing closure is a prime directive: we endeavor to hold discourses in productive tension rather than allowing them to collapse into univocal accounts. This is a deliberate strategy to prevent closure from developing on the framework itself, to make it difficult or impossible for an observer to say “Aha, the curriculum means this”. Closure is the end of innovation, the point at which something interesting and dynamic becomes a trade, and we’re not in the business of teaching a trade.

Still, we have to steer past the rocks of institutional requirements, so we need to have a visible structure that fulfills those requirements. Once again we look to the codeswitching umbrella. Above the umbrella we’ve organized our primary concerns into a framework on which we hang our visible course content. The content changes all the time; the framework does not. For our purposes it’s useful to describe the curriculum in terms of a sequence, but this is really part of the codeswitching umbrella; in practice it makes no difference in which order students take the courses, and in fact it wouldn’t matter if they took the same course eight times, because as the semester progresses the actual content will emerge interactively through the group process. The real trick, then, the actual heart of our pedagogy, is to nurture that group process, herd it along, keep it focused, active, and cared for.(3)

Figure 4: The ACTLab Prime Directive, which is based on messy creation and the primacy of play, filters through the codeswitcher umbrella to reappear as a disciplined, ordered topic list. In this instance the umbrella performs much the same numbing function as Powerpoint. (Also notice that my drawing improves with practice; this is a much better umbrella than the one in Figure 2.)

There are eight courses in the ACTLab sequence, and we consider that students have acquired proficiency when they have completed six. We try to rotate through all eight courses before repeating any, but sometimes student demand influences this and we repeat something out of sequence.

The ACTLab pedagogy requires that graduate and undergraduate students work together in the same courses. We find that the undergrads benefit from the grads’ discipline and focus, and the grads benefit from the undergrads’ irreverence and boisterous energy.

As I mentioned, our curricular philosophy is about constructing dynamic topic frameworks which function by defining possible spaces of discourse rather than by filling topic areas with facts.12 With this philosophy the role of the students themselves is absolutely crucial. The students provide the content for these frameworks through active discussion and practice. The teacher acts more as a guide than as a lecturer or a strong determiner of content.

For an instructor this can be scary in practice, because it depends so heavily on the students’ active engagement. For that reason, during the time that the program is ramping up and acquiring a critical mass of students who are proficient in the particular ways of thinking that we require, we spend a significant amount of time at the beginning of each semester doing “boot camp” activities, in which we demonstrate through practice that we don’t reward rote learning, question-answer loops, or authority responses, but do reward independent thinking, innovation, and team building.

I’ll list the titles of the eight active ACTLab topics here, but keep in mind that in a Trans-fu curriculum model like the ACTLab’s the courses do not form a sequence or progression. There is no telos, in the traditional sense. That’s why we call them clusters. Their purpose is to create and sustain a web of discourses from which new work can emerge. Like the Pirates’ Code, the titles are mere guidelines, actually:

Weird Science





Postmodern Gothic


When Cultures Collide

Because the course themes are not the point of the exercise, we’re always thinking about what other themes might provide interesting springboards for new work. Themes currently in consideration, which may supplement or replace existing themes, depending upon how they develop, are:



(You probably noticed that some of these topics read like headers for a Neil Gaiman script. I think a topic list based on Gaiman’s Endless would be killer:))

A brief expansion of each topic might look like this:

Weird Science: Social and anthropological studies of innovation, the boundaries between “legitimate” science and fakery, monsters and the monstrous, physics, religion, legitimation, charlatanism, informatics of domination.

Death: Cultural attitudes toward death, cultural definitions of death, political battles over death, cultural concepts of the afterworld, social and critical studies of mediumship, “ghosts” and spirits, zombies in film and folklore; the spectrum of death, which is to say not very dead, barely dead, almost dead, all but dead, brain dead, completely dead, and undead.

Trans: Transformation and change, boundary theory, transgender, gender and sexuality in the large and its relation to positionality and flow; identity.

Performance: Performance and the performative, performance as political intervention, history and theory of theatre, masks, puppetry, spectacle, ritual, street theatre.

Blackbox: Closure, multiplicity, theories of discourse formation, studies and practices of innovation, language.

Postmodern Gothic: Theories and histories of the gothic, modern goth, vampires, monsters and the monstrous, genetic engineering, gender and sexuality, delirium, postmodernity, cyborgs.

Soundscapes: Theory and practice of audio installation, multitrack recording, history of “music” (in the sense described by John Cage). (Note that unlike all the other topics this one is very specific, and because its specificity tends to limit the range of things the students feel comfortable doing, it’s likely going to be retired or at least put into a secondary rotation like songs that fall off the Top 40.)

When Cultures Collide: Language and episteme, cultural difference, subaltern discourses, orientalism, mestiza consciousness. (This topic has a multiple language component and we had a nice deal with one of the language departments by which we shared a foreign (i.e., not U.S. English) language instructor. With visions of Gloria Anzaldua dancing in our heads we began the semester conducting class in two languages: full immersion, take-no-prisoners bilinguality. Three weeks into the semester he suddenly got a great gig at another school, and the course sank like an iceberged cruiser. Since then I’ve been wary about repeating it, and I suspect that — unless I can find an instructor who will let me keep their firstborn as security — it’s not likely to come up in the rotation again any time soon.)

So that’s what I consider to be a totally useless description of the ACTLab curriculum, useless because the curriculum itself is a prop for the Trans-fu framework which underlies it. Remember the curriculum is above the codeswitching umbrella. And therefore it’s important to those necessary deceptions that make a Trans-fu program look neat, presentable, and legit.

ACTLab pedagogy

When we discuss Trans-fu pedagogy I always emphasize the specifically situated character of the ACTLab’s pedagogical imperatives. I think the default ACTLab pedagogy was heavily influenced by having come of academic age in an environment in which our mentors were, or at least were capable of giving us the illusion that they were, all very comfortable with their own identities and accomplishments. There was no pressure to show off or to make the classroom a sounding board for our own egos. This milieu allowed me the freedom to develop the ACTLab’s predominant pedagogical mode. It primarily consists of not-doing. Ours is the mode of discussion, and you can’t create discussion with a lecture. Those are incompatible modes. You may encourage questions, but questions aren’t discussion, and though questions may take you down the road to discussion it’s better to bushwhack your way directly there.

Other faculty have their own teaching methods, some of which are more constructivist, but I encourage people to teach mostly by eye movement and body position.7 Usually class starts off with someone showing a strange video they found, or a soundbyte, or an odd bit of text, or someone will haul out a mysterious hunk of tech and slap it on the table. Most times that’s enough, but in the event that it isn’t, the instructor may ask a question.6 For the rest of the time, when it’s appropriate to encourage responses, the instructor will turn her body to face the student. In this situation the student naturally tends to respond directly to the instructor, and when that happens, the instructor moves her eyes to look at another student. This leads the responder’s eyes to focus on that student too, whereupon the instructor looks away, breaking eye contact but leaving the students in eye contact with each other.

That’s a brief punch list of what I consider the minimum daily requirement for building a useful and effective program based on Trans-fu principles. The ACTLab’s pedagogical strategies, together with semiotically deprivileging the instructor through the design and position of chairs, tables and equipment in the studio, plus refusing closure, encouraging innovation, and emphasizing making, help us create the conditions that define the ACTLab. I think it’s obvious by now that all of this can be very easily rephrased to emphasize that the ACTLab, like any entity that claims a Trans-fu positionality, is itself a collection of oppositional practices. Like any oppositional practice, we don’t just live under the codeswitching umbrella; we also live under the institutional radar, and to live under the radar you have to be small and lithe and quick. We cut our teeth on nomadics, and although we’ve had some hair-raising encounters with people who went to great lengths to stabilize the ACTLab identity, we’re still nomadic and still about oppositional practices.

I’m writing this for ISEA at this time because, although we’ve been running a highly successful and unusual program based on a cluster of oppositional practices for almost fourteen years now, a new generation of innovators are about to begin their own program building and I’ve never said anything publicly about the details that make the ACTLab tick. I’m also aware that our struggles tend to be invisible at a distance, which can make it appear that we simply pulled the ACTLab out of a hat — which I think is a dangerous misconception for people to have if they intend to model their programs to any extent on what we’ve done. People who’ve been close up for extended periods of time tend to be more sanguine about the nuts and bolts of putting such a program together. Some very brave folks who have crouched under the radar with us have taken the lessons to heart, gone out and started Trans-fu programs of their own. Some of them have been very successful. Usually other programs simply adapt some of our ideas for their own purposes, but very few have actually made other programs like the ACTLab happen. Recently we’ve talked about how people who’ve never had the opportunity to participate in our community would think about New Media as an oppositional practice, and what, with a little encouragement, they might decide to do about it. I’d like to close by saying that however you think about it or talk about it, at the end of the day the only thing that matters is taking action. I don’t care what you call it — New Media, Transmedia, Intermedia, Transitivity, Post-trans-whazzat-scoobeedoomedia — whatever. The important thing is to do it. Music is whatever you can coax out of your instrument. Make the entering gesture, take brush in hand, pick up that camera. We’re waiting for you.



The ACTLab and the RTF New Media program exist because a lot of people believed and were willing to work to make it happen and keep it happening. A much too short list includes Vernon Reed, Honoria Starbuck, Rich MacKinnon, Smack, Drew Davidson, Harold Chaput, Brenda Laurel, Joseph Lopez, and Brandon Wiley. Special thanks to my colleague Janet Staiger for her unfailing support, and to my husband and colleague Cynbe, who from his seat on the fifty-yard line has seen far too much of the joys and tears of building this particular program. And, of course, to Donna Haraway, the ghost in our machine.

The ACTLab and the RTF New Media program also exist because along the way some very nasty shit happened — involving jealousy, envy, bribery, betrayal, abuse, deception, brute force thuggery, malfeasance in high places, destruction — but, by some miracle, we survived, and that which didn’t kill us made us stronger. And that is also a valuable thing. So thanks also to those who wished us ill and tried to bring us down; you know who you are, so I won’t embarrass you.


1. Some people add “digital” to this mix in some fashion or other; hence “digital art”, “digital media”, et cetera. Digital-fu is unquestionably part of the field, but there is a tendency on the part of just about everyone to expand the digital episteme beyond any limit and give it way too much importance as some godzilla-like ubertech. Digital is great, but it isn’t everything, and it will never be everything. A useful parallel might be the history of electricity. When the use of electricity first became widespread, all sorts of quack devices sprang up. At one time you could go to an arcade and, for a quarter, you got to hold onto a pair of brass handles for two minutes while the machine passed about fifty volts through you. Hell, why not, it was that electricity stuff, so it must be great. That’s technomania — look, it’s new, it’s powerful, it’s mysterious, so it must be good for everything. Electricity has become invisible precisely because of its ubiquity, in the way of all successful tech; it hegemonizes discourses and in the process it becomes epistemic wallpaper. No question electricity profoundly affects our lives, but, pace McLuhan, absent purpose electricity itself is merely a powerful force. What we do with it, how we shape its power, is key, and the same thing is true with “digital”.

2. This emphasis produces a continual tug of war with the department in which we work, because the emphasis of undergraduate courses is supposed to be on learning a trade, and learning a trade is the last thing on our minds.

3. There’s neither time nor space here to devote to describing how we foster group process in the practical setting of a semester-long course. I give the topic the attention it deserves in the book from which this article is excerpted. (Don’t go looking for the book; it’s in progress, and if the Goddess in Her infinite sarcasm smiles on us all it’ll be out next year.)

4. In passing let me note that this aspect of the ACTLab philosophy has been subject to some serious high-caliber shelling on the part of the department’s administration. In fact we had to stop for a year or two while we slugged it out with the administration, but it’s back now and likely to stay.

5. The three principles come from The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age (MIT Press, 1994), in which you may find other useful things. Bob Prior will be very happy if you go out and buy a copy, and he may even let me write another one.

6. From a methodological perspective the next question is, of course, what happens if nobody responds. That’s rare, but it does occur. When it happens I count aloud to twenty, thereby deconstructing the pedagogy (Methods 101: Count silently to twenty before moving things along) and sometimes making someone nervous enough to blurt out a remark, though actlabbies are a notoriously tough group when faced with that situation. However, on very rare occasions even that strategy fails, in which event I send everyone home. It is our incredible good fortune to have classes filled with people who come there to do the work, and if the room is dead there’s usually a good reason, even though I may not know precisely what it is.

7. One of the most perplexing and hilarious encounters I’ve had in my years with the department was when I came up for tenure and they sent a traditional constructivist to evaluate my teaching skills. His report read, virtually in its entirety: “Dr. Stone just sat there for three hours.”

8. Che Sandoval, now at UCSB, was referring to the same thing when she theorized oppositional consciousness in the late ’80s.

9. I don’t want to get into it here, but something about the fact that there are now jobs in academia in something called Transgender Studies makes me nervous. As the philosopher Jimmy Buffett asserts, I don’t want that much organization in my life.

10. The phenomenon of artificial languages created de novo essentially as oppositional practices seemed to be associated in particular with the emergence of second wave American feminism in the 1970s, though work remains to be done on understanding the phenomenon. In regard to academic jargons, the dense jargon of poststructuralism was particularly intended as an oppositional practice, a tool to undermine the academic use of language as power; and it did so in a particularly viral way. Unfortunately, the distance between “true” poststructuralist jargon and what was nothing more than strategies for concealing mediocre work inside nearly incomprehensible rhetoric proved to be much too close for comfort.

11. From Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute 1987.

12. The extent to which the ACTLab community considers naming our discipline to be both crucial and deadly and therefore to be approached with irony and humor may best be exemplified by our response to a request from the Yale School of Architecture. Those nice folks in New Haven wanted me to go up there and describe our program and in particular to tell them what we called our discipline. To prepare for this, each person in the ACTLab wrote a single random syllable on a scrap of paper. We put the scraps in a box, and then, to the accompaniment of drumming and tribal vocalizations, I solemnly withdrew two slips of paper and read them out. Based on this result, I proceeded to Yale and explained to them that our discipline was called Fu Qui. John Cage would have instantly recognized what we were doing.

13. Those deals may be either benign (economies of scale that have side effects of limiting purchase options) or malignant (pork). In a place like Texas you don’t want to be noticed questioning pork, which is another reason that it’s nice to be down under the radar, being lithe and quick and running silent, not attracting attention.

14. I think we need a term for discourse hijacking. Disjacking?

Why Mythryl?

Cynbe’s life work was the programming language Mythryl. There will be a lot more about Mythryl in future; for now, in honour of his passing, here’s an excerpt from the Mythryl documentation.

In the introductory material I state

Mythryl is not just a bag of features like most programming languages;
It has a design with provably good properties.

Many readers have been baffled by this statement. This is understandable enough; like the first biologists examining a platypus and pronouncing it a fake, the typical contemporary programmer has never before encountered an engineered progamming language and is inclined to doubt that such a thing truly exists, that one is technically possible, or indeed what it might even mean to engineer a programming language. Could designing a programming language possibly involve anything beyond sketching a set of features in English and telling compiler writers to go forth and implement? If so, what?

My goal in this section is to show that it is not only meaningful but in fact both possible and worthwhile to truly engineer a programming language.

Every engineering discipline was once an art done by seat of the pants intuition.

The earliest bridges were likely just trees felled across streams. If the log looked strong enough to bear the load, good enough. If not, somebody got wet. Big deal.

Over time bridges got bigger and more ambitious and the cost of failure correspondingly larger. Everyone has seen the film of Galloping Gertie, the Tacoma Narrows bridge, being shaken apart by a wind-excited resonant vibration. The longest suspension bridges today have central spans of up to two kilometers; nobody would dream of building them based on nothing more than “looks strong enough to me”.

We’ve all seen films of early airplanes disintegrating on their first take-off attempt. This was a direct consequence of seat of the pants design in the absence of any established engineering framework.

The true contribution of the Wright brothers was not that they built the first working airplane, but rather than they laid the foundations of modern aeronautical engineering through years of research and development. With the appropriate engineering tools in hand, building the aircraft itself was a relatively simple exercise. The Wright Flyer was the first controllable, workable airplane because the Wright brothers did their homework while everyone else was just throwing sticks, cloth and wire together and hoping. Sometimes hoping just isn’t enough.

Large commercial aircraft today weigh hundreds of tons and carry hundreds of passengers; nobody would dream of building one without first conducting thorough engineering analysis to ensure that the airframe will withstand the stresses placed upon it. Airplanes no longer fall out of the sky due to simple inadequacy of airframe design.

Airplanes do however fall out of the sky due to inadequacy of flight software design. Software today is still an art rather than an engineering discipline. It ships when it looks “good enough”. Which means it often is not good enough — and people die.

Modern bridges stand up, and modern airplanes stay in the sky, because we now have a good understanding of the load bearing capacity of materials like steel and aluminum, of their typical failure modes, and of how to compute the load bearing capacity of engineered structures based upon that understanding.

If we are to reach the point where airliners full of passengers no longer fall out of the sky due to software faults, we need to have a similarly thorough understanding of software systems.

Modern software depends first and foremost on the compiler. What steel and concrete are to bridge design, and what aluminum and carbon composites are to airframe design, compilers are to software design. If we do not understand the load bearing limits of steel or aluminum we have no hope of building consistently reliable brdiges or airframes. So long as we do not understand what our compilers are doing, we have no hope of building consistently reliable software systems, and people will continue to die every year due to simple, preventable software faults in everything from radiological control software to flight control software to nuclear reactor control software to car control software.

Our minimal need is to know what meaning a compiler assigns to a given program. So long as we have no way of agreeing on the meaning of our programs, as software engineers we have lost the battle before the first shot is fired. Only when we know the precise semantics assigned to a given program by our compiler can we begin to develop methodologies to validate required properties of our software systems.

I do not speak here of proving a program “correct”. There is no engineering analysis which concludes with “and thus the system is correct”. What we can do is prove particular properties. We can prove that a given program will not attempt to read values from outside its address space. We can prove that a given program will always eventually return to a given abstract state. We can prove that a given program will always respond within one hundred milliseconds. We can prove that a given program will never enter a diverging oscillation. We can prove that a given program will never read from a file descriptor before opening it and will always eventually close that file descriptor. We can prove that certain outputs will always stand in given relationships to corresponding inputs. Given time, tools and effort, we can eventually prove enough properties of a flight control program to give us reasonable confidence in trusting hundreds of lives to it.

Traditional programming language “design” does not address the question of the meaning of the language. In an engineering sense, traditional programming languages are not designed at all. A list of reasonable-sounding features is outlined in English, and the compiler writer then turned loose to try and produce something vaguely corresponding to the text.

The first great advance on this state of affairs came with Algol 60, which for the first time defined clearly and precisely the supported syntax of the language. It was then possible for language designers and compiler writers to agree on which programs the compiler should accept and which it should reject, and to develop tools such as YACC which automate significant parts of the compiler construction task, dramatically reducing the software fault frequency in that part of the compiler. But we still had no engineering-grade way of agreeing on what the programs accepted should actually be expected to do when executed.

The second great advance on this state of affairs came with the 1990 release of The Definition of Standard ML, which specified formally and precisely not only the syntax but also the semantics of a complete usable programming language. Specifying the syntax required a hundred phrase structure rules spread over ten pages. Specifying the semantics required two hundred rules spread over another thirty pages. The entire book ran to barely one hundred pages including introduction, exposition, core material, appendices and index.

As with the Wright brother’s first airplane, the real accomplishment was not the artifact itself, but rather the engineering methodology and analysis underlying it. Languages like Java and C++ never had any real engineering analysis, and it shows. For example, the typechecking problem is for both of those languages undecidable, which is mathematical jargon for saying that the type system is so broken that it is mathematically impossible to produce an entirely correct compiler for either of them. This is not a property one likes in a programming language, and it is not one intended by the designers of either language; it is a simple consequence of the fact that the designed of neither language had available to them an engineering methodology up to the task of testing for and eliminating such problems. Like the designers of the earliest airplanes, they were forced to simply glue stuff together and pray for it to somehow work.

The actual engineering analysis conducted for SML is only hinted at in the Defintion. To gain any real appreciation for it, one must read the companion volume Commentary on Standard ML.

Examples of engineering goals set and met by the designs of SML include:

Each valid program accepted by the language definition (and thus eventually compiler) should have a clearly defined meaning. In Robin Milner’s famous phrase, “Well typed programs can’t go wrong.” No segfaults, no coredumps, no weird clobbered-stack behavior.

Each expression and program must have a uniquely defined type. In mathematical terminlogy, the type system should define a unique most general principal type to each syntactically valid expression and program.

It must be possible in principle to compute that type. In mathematical terminology, the problem of computing the principal type for an expression or program must be decidable. This is where Java and C++ fall down.

In general it is excruciatingly easy for the typechecking problem to become undecidable because one is always stretching the type system to accept as many valid expressions as possible.

Any practical type system must err on the side of safety, of rejecting any program which is not provably typesafe, and will consequently wind up throwing out some babies with the bathwater, rejecting programs which are in fact correct because the type system was not sophisticated enough to realize their correctness. One is always trying to minimize the number of such spuriously rejected by being just a little more accomodating, and in the process creeping ever closer to the precipice of undecidability. The job of the programming language type system designer is to teeter on the very brink of that precipice without ever actually falling over it.

It must be possible in practice to compute that type with acceptable efficiency. In modern praxis that means using syntax-directed unification-driven analysis to compute principal types in time essentially linear in program size. (Hindley-Milner-Damas type inference.)

There must be a clear phase separation between compile-time and run-time semantics — in essence, between typechecking and code generation on the one hand and runtime execution on the other. Only then is it possible to write compilers that generate efficient code, and only then is it possible to give strong compile-time guarantees of typesafety.

The type system must be sound: The actual value computed at runtime (i.e., specified by the dynamic semantics must always possess the type assigned to it by the compiletime typechecker (i.e., static semantics.

The runtime semantics must be complete, assigning a value to every program accepted as valid by the compiletime typechecker.

The design process for SML involved explicitly verifying these properties by informal and formal proofs, repeatedly modifying the design as necessary until these properties could be proved. This intensive analysis and revision process yielded a number of direct and indirect benefits, some obvious, some less so:

Both the compiletime and runtime semantics of SML are precise and complete. there are no direct or indirect conflicting requirements, nor are there overlooked corners where the semantics is unspecified.
This sort of analysis is arduous and lies at the very limits of what is possible at the current state of the art. Consequently there was a powerful and continuing incentive to keep the language design as spare and clean as humanly possible. The original 1990 design was already very clean; the 1997 revision made it even simpler and cleaner by removing features which had since been found to be needlessly complex.
The analysis explicitly or implicitly explored all possible interactions between the different language parts; each was revised until it interacted smoothly with all other parts in all possible contexts. It was this process which took an initial bag of features and welded them into a coherent design. It is the lack of this process which has left other contemporary languages still an uncoordinated bag of features rife with unanticipated corner cases.
The analysis process exposed initially unanticipated design consequences and concomitant design choices, allowing explicit consideration of those design choices and selection of the most promising choice. Other contemporary languages have discovered these design consequences only in the field when the size of the installed base prevented a design change. For example it was not initially anticipated that every assignment into a Java array would require a type check; this unexpected cost will handicap Java forever. The undecidability of Java and C++ typechecking are similar unexpected and unpleasant design misfeatures discovered too late to be correctable.
The analysis process made clear which language features were semantically clean and which introduced pervasive semantic complexities. For example:
The original Definition handling of equality introduced special cases throughout the semantic rules and proofs; more recent research such as the Harper Stone semantics for the language have addressed this by finding a simpler, more natural treatment.
The original Definition treatment of type generativity was via an imperative-flavored mechanism which proved resistant to analysis; the more recent Harper Stone semantics has addressed this via a clean type-theoretic treatment more amenable to analysis.
The original Definition reconciliation of type polymorphism with the imperative features of assignment and exceptions proved needlessly complex; the 1997 revision adopted the simplified “value restriction” approach now universally adopted in ML-class languages.
The analysis process identified problematic areas in which the semantic consequences of particular features was not clearly understood; these features were left out of the design, forestalling possible unpleasant discoveries later. For example, inclusion of higher order functors was postponed pending deeper understanding of them.
Conversely, the analysis identified some generalizations of the language as being in fact unproblematic, allowing certain language features which initially looked suspect to be included in the language, either in the Standard itself or in commmon extensions.

SML was the first general-purpose realistic programming language to enjoy rigorous engineering-grade design analysis of this sort comparable to what we routinely do for a proposed bridge or airframe. SML/NJ is the reference implementation of SML, constructed with the active assistance of the SML language designers. Mythryl inherits this theoretical foundation and this codebase, and adapts it to production use in the open source tradition.

Further reading

The definitive work on the SML language is

The Definition of Standard ML (Revised)
Robin Milner, Mads Tofte, Robert Harper, David MacQueen
MIT Press 1997 ISBN 0-262-63181–4

The definitive work on the SML language design analysis process is

Commentary on Standard ML
Robin Milner, Mads Tofte
MIT Press 1991 ISBN 0-262-63137-7

You will find the former very slow going without the latter to illuminate it!

If you are new to this style of operational semantics, you may find useful background introductory material in:

Types and Programming Languages
Benjamin C. Pierce
MIT Press 2002 ISBN 0-262-16209-1

If the above leaves you hungering for more, you might try

Advanced Topics in Types and Programming Languages
Benjamin C Pierce (editor)
MIT Press 2005 ISBN 0-262-16228-8

Some more recent works on ML semantics:

Understanding and Evolving the ML Module System
Derek Dreyer 2005 262p (thesis)

A Type System for higher-order modules
Dreyer, Crary + Harper 2004 65p dreyer/papers/thoms/toplas.pdf

Singleton Kinds and Singleton Types
Christopher Stone 2000 174p (thesis)

Comments and suggestions to:

Bricks in the Wall: Are We Alone in the Galaxy?

Overview: There are 10^10 stars in the Milky Way. Thus, if there are 10 barriers to the achievement of technological civilization, each of which independently stops technolife on 90% of all starsystems, we expect only one technological civilization per galaxy.

I call each such barrier a Brick In The Wall: Ten Bricks suffice to wall us off from intelligent life in the Universe.

Can we count to 10? We’ll actually try totting up improbability exponents to base 10, factors, such that if we reach 10, we’re alone in the galaxy. Some of our Bricks are probably wrong — but we’ve probably also overlooked some Bricks in our ignorance. You probably won’t agree with my factors, or even my list of Bricks, so go ahead — come up with your own, add it up, and decide how probable you think technolife in a given galaxy to be.

Candidate Bricks:
You need a Solar-class star.

At least 95% of galactic stars are just totally unsuitable — supergiants that live only 100,000 years and sterilize everything around them for light-years, say. And the entire first generation of stars is unsuitable, because they don’t contain any elements but hydrogen and helium — hence their planets can’t be anything but boring gasballs.

Brick factor: 2.0
You need an exquisitely stable star.

The more we study other stars, the more we realize how unusual is our own star. With an orbital lifezone of width 2% or so, evolution of life requires a star with power output stable to a couple of percent — for five billion years straight. This is decidedly Not Normal, even for Solar-class stars.

Brick factor: 0.3
You need a planetary system.

It appears from spin rates of solar-class stars that about half spin quickly, half slowly: The obvious interpretation is that about half have kept their angular momentum, and half put some of it in a planetary system.

Brick factor: 0.3
You need an extraordinarily stable planetary system.

We once thought the Solar system was stable: Newton’s clockwork universe. Recent simulations have shown that in fact the inner solar system is chaotic: Exquisitely small differences in initial conditions cause the positions of the planets to diverge exponentially over time — the inner solar system is inherently unpredictable over significant lengths of time.

We don’t know just what this means for Earthlike-planets, but given the exquisitely tight requirements for the evolution of life, any source of variability on this scale can hardly be anything but bad news.

We are also coming to steadily better understand the resonances and other dynamics of the inner solar system — say, the way Jupiter simply forbids planets from forming in various places, and casually tosses other ones clear out of the solar system — and each improvement in understanding just deepens our appreciation of how lucky we are to be here.

You need nearly circular orbits, to keep a planet in the lifezone for billions of years. Circular orbits appear to be exceptional:

The six planets orbit stars that are similar in size,age, and brightness to the sun and are at distances ranging from 65 to 192 light years from earth. The planets themselves range in mass from slightly smaller to several times larger than the planet Jupiter. They are probably also similar to Jupiter in their compositions–basically giant balls of hydrogen and helium gas, according to researcher Steven Vogt. Their orbits tend to be quite eccentric, tracing oval rather than circular paths. It is beginning to look like neatly stacked, circular orbits such as we see in our own solar system are relatively rare,” said Vogt.


Brick factor: 0.3
You need an earth-like planet.

If you move the Earth’s orbit in or out by about 2%, it either fries or freezes. There’s a very narrow life-friendly belt. Where the inner planets can form is dictated largely by resonances with Jupiter and to a lesser extent other major planets. There is as yet no obvious reason to believe anything but luck put Earth in the lifebelt.

Brick factor: 2.0
You need a Moon-like Moon.

The Earth is really more a double-planet than a conventional planet-moon configuration: The Moon is roughly the same size as the Earth, as astronomic comparisons go. There’s nothing else like it in our solar system, with the arguable exceptions of various asteroids and of Pluto/Charon, itself apparently closer to being a comet or asteroid than a conventional planet.

Without the Moon’s tides to stabilize the Earth’s rotation, there’d be no technolife on the planet: Precession would often lead to the poles pointing away from the Sun and the atmosphere freezing out on the cold side. You wouldn’t wanna live there.

The only way we know of to make the Moon is for something approximately twice the size of Mars to hit the Earth and splash Moon-makings out, without actually shattering the planet. Not a terribly likely scenario.

Brick factor: 2.0
You need an insolation compensator.

Despite the life-zone the Earth orbits in being about 2% wide, the Sun has warmed up by about 30% over the course of the evolution of life on Earth. There is some speculation that feedback loops on the planet accomplish the needed compensation, but to this point none has been convincingly demonstrated: The safest guess at the moment seems to be that we’ve been just plain lucky.

Brick factor: 0.3
You need good stellar neighbors for five billion years.

As the right wing likes to point out, it’s a dangerous universe out there.

It currently appears that most galaxies are quasars on and off, quite possibly sterilizing most of the planets in the galaxy when they turn on. You have to not get toasted by your own galactic core black hole for five billion years straight to produce technolife.

Supernovae go off every century or so in our galaxy, and as one scientist noted, just the neutrino flux will kill every unprotected lifeform for lightyears in all directions. He didn’t specify what would constitute good protection: Since neutrinos will traverse light-years of lead with ease, one may presume most life-forms will be unprotected. Again, you have to have your planet not get toasted every year for five billion consecutive years to produce technolife. That’s fifty million supernovae you have to luckily survive, without a single miss. Go shoot fifty million consecutive free-throws, then come back and continue reading grin. (We won’t even worry about getting killed off by a mere nova.) (See and for evidence of a supernova near-miss about 6 million years ago.)

Galaxies are full of (surprise!) stars. They’re all bobbing up and down in the galactic plane plus diffusing around like a gas. Any close encounter with another star can easily disrupt a planetary system enough to move an Earthtype planet out of the lifezone — and quite possibly out of the Solar System.

Colliding neutron stars are also thought to be bad for children and other living things… enough so to cause mass extinctions every 100Myear or so:

Neutron star could kill us all, but perhaps not today.

As if you didn’t have enough to worry about already, it turns out that we’re 100 million years overdue for mass extinction.

Keep watching the skies if you want some warning. When you see an eerie blue glow, slightly bigger than a full moon, it means that you’ve got just a few days before the apocalypse.

The glow is caused by a burst of gamma rays hitting the upper atmosphere. Following close behind is a high-energy jet of deadly cosmic rays. Once they hit the atmosphere, your chances of survival are not good: researchers believe that the last few times cosmic ray jets hit the Earth, they wiped out up to 95 percent of animal life on the planet.

To get more than a few days warning, you’d have to monitor the orbits of all the nearby neutron star pairs. The collapse and merger of these super-dense balls of matter is the source of the lethal cosmic rays. As the pairs of neutron stars circle around each other, their gravitational pull moves them closer together and spins them faster and faster.

Eventually they collapse into each other and form a black hole, releasing energy as a tightly focused beam of cosmic rays. The beam can travel for up to a million light years before losing its power, so any planet in the line of fire had better watch out.

Any starlight that gets in the way of the cosmic ray jet is kicked out in front of it like a ball; this acceleration pumps the photons up to gamma ray energies and makes them travel faster than the cosmic rays — hence their early arrival at the Earth. Low-intensity gamma ray bursts, thought to be from neutron star mergers in distant galaxies, are detected by astronomers about once a day.

This whole scenario may sound like science fiction, but it’s getting the attention of serious researchers. Calculations of the timings of nearby neutron star collapses show that, just like mass extinctions on Earth, they seem to occur about once every 100 million years. Disturbingly, for the inhabitants of Earth, the evidence suggests the last one probably happened 200 million years ago.

Geological records show there have been five major mass extinctions in the past 500 million years.

Scientists believe the most recent one, which wiped out the dinosaurs 64 million years ago, was caused by the impact of a meteorite. Some 300,000 tons of the element iridium was laid down in the Earth’s crust at this time, and high levels of iridium have also been found in asteroids.

“What caused all the other extinctions is still an open question,” says Arnon Dar, a space physicist at the Israel Institute of Technology. Suggested explanations have included high volcanic activity blocking sunlight and poisoning the atmosphere, and supernova explosions. But there’s no geological evidence for coincident volcanic activity, and supernova explosions don’t occur close enough at a sufficiently high rate.

Dar was the first to suggest that collapsing neutron stars might be to blame. He and his colleagues have studied the likely effects of the cosmic ray jets flung out by neutron star collapses, and their conclusions, to be published next week in the journal Physical Review Letters, make chilling reading.

Cosmic rays are a very serious threat. Entering the Earth’s atmosphere, the jets create showers of lethal high-energy subatomic particles known as muons. As they rain down on the Earth, the muons have enough energy to irradiate and kill almost every living thing in their way.

Dar calculates an “average” muon shower occurrence will give about 100 times the ionizing radiation dose needed for a 50 percent chance of mortality in humans — in other words, enough to kill everyone. Such an intense dose would destroy the central nervous system, causing death within a couple of days.

The cosmic ray burst can last up to a month, during which time muons would also destroy the ozone layer, irradiate the environment and damage vegetation, severing the food chain. Thanks to the Earth’s rotation, and radiation borne on atmospheric winds, the effect would be quickly spread around the globe. The muons also boast massive penetrating power; the radiation can be fatal even hundreds of yards underwater or underground.

“Unlike the other suggested extraterrestrial mechanisms, a lethal burst of atmospheric muons can explain the massive extinctions deep underwater,” says Dar. Suddenly, the fossil record’s reported extinction of marine life, as well as continental life, begins to make sense.

Dar’s doomsday scenario also explains other features of previous mass extinctions that current theories leave to one side. The powerful radiation causes biological mutations that would account for the fast appearance of new species after massive extinctions.

Examination of the fossil record also shows a clear correlation between the extinction pattern of a species and its vulnerability to ionizing radiation.

Insects, for example, have been the great survivors of mass extinctions. According to Dar, this is not surprising as insects can, in general, tolerate up to 20 times the radiation dose that kills most vertebrates. The only time they were severely affected was in the largest mass extinction, 251 million years ago. Even then, only 30 percent of insect species were destroyed, compared with up to 95 percent of other orders of species.

Dar is keen to point out that although things might look bad, being 100 million years overdue for an apocalypse doesn’t make it any more likely to happen today. “The chance of extinction doesn’t increase with passing time,” he says. “The fact that you have not been killed in a car accident so far doesn’t increase the chances of it happening in the next 10 years.”

Looking to assess the actual time we have left, astronomers have examined the orbits of the five pairs of neutron stars observed in our galaxy — it seems that we could have a breathing space of about 50 million years before the first ones collapse.

There’s just one problem, though. The data seem to indicate that our galaxy also contains other neutron star pairs that no one has yet seen. Until we see them, we can’t know when they will merge. So nobody can actually be sure that the apocalypse is not just around the corner.

Brick factor: 1.0
You need good luck with planetary life stressors.

The history of Planet Earth is pockmarked with disasters so big the mess is still clearly visible tens or hundreds of millions of years later. The rock that hit Mexico 65 million years ago knocked down every tree on the planet and killed everything bigger than a rat. (The rats then evolved to fill up the now-empty big-animal niches. That’s us, folks.)

That was far from the worst disaster on record!

The Deccan Traps in India are layers of lava miles deep; The outpouring that produced them was almost unimaginable. Comparing Krakatoa to the Deccan Traps eruption is like comparing a firecracker to an H-bomb.

As far as I can tell, we’ve been just plain lucky with local little planetary disasters like these.

Fewer disasters of this sort, and life might have ambled on indefinitely without producing technolife: Clearly the K/T extinction of the dinosaurs was what opened up room for mammals to diversify and eventually produce us — a little stirring of the pot now and then keeps innovation bubbling.

More disaster of this sort, and life might have been knocked back to the slime stage or worse: A real rain of K/T-scale hits instead of one lone one, or one a couple of orders of magnitude larger, might well have spilled the lifepot into the fire instead of just stirring it. Ditto little events like the Deccan Traps eruption.

Planets that didn’t get as lucky as ours did… don’t wind up producing folks like Homo sap sap.

Brick factor: 1.0
You need a water source.

It has been recently discovered that the Earth is constantly being bombarded with small snowballs. (This is still somewhat controversial, but we have pictures of them hitting, among other things. On the other hand, we don’t see them hitting the Moon, and it seems we should, so the jury is still out on this one.) The amount of water they are calculated to have delivered is about the same as the amount in the oceans. The obvious conclusion is that this is where the oceans came from.

It has also recently been discovered that the outer planets of the Solar System are almost uniquely configured to serve as an efficient conveyer belt forwarding things like small snowballs down from the outer solar system (the only place they can form) to the inner solar system (the only place where warm oceans can exist). So far, at least, this appears to be a quite improbable arrangement, and the most obvious (to me) explanation of why we observe it is the Anthropic Principle: Without that conveyor belt creating oceans on Earth, we wouldn’t be sitting here wondering why it existed.

Brick factor: 1.0
You need about 50/50 water/land ratio.

It isn’t enough to have oceans on Earth: They must also be about 50% of the surface area, in order-of-magnitude terms: we clearly wouldn’t be here if the earth was 1% covered by water, nor if it were 99% covered by water. As usual, there doesn’t appear to be any reason but sheer luck for us having hit the magic life zone on this parameter: We need only glance at Mars to see a world that ran out of water, or look at the amount of land created or flooded by a simple ice age to realize how very fragile the current balance is. A one-kilometer rise or fall in the ocean level would end the story.

Brick factor: 0.3
You maybe need the right weather.

It is most curious that after millions of years of hominid evolution, civilization appeared all over the planet within a period of few centuries: What synchronized them all to 99.99% accuracy?

The obvious answer is the weather. On a whole variety of scales, we live in an absolutely amazing patch of planetary weather. The last year was the warmest year on record; The last decade the warmest decade on record; The last few centuries the warmest and most stable since the last glaciation retreated; The last few millenia possibly the most extraordinarily warm and stable for millions (?) of years; The current glacial period one of the most extraordinarily variable in the history of the planet, so far as we can tell.

Is it pure happenstance that hominids, specializing in adaptability, just happened to evolve and radiate during one of the most climatically variable periods in the history of the planet? Or did that very variability kill off more specialized, less adaptable competitors and open up niches for a family of specializing generalist species?

Is it pure happenstance that technological civilization arose planetwide during an sudden unseasonably (geologically speaking) warm and stable period (even by Earth’s generally extraordinarily warm and stable standards)?

Remember, timing was pretty tight on evolution of technocivilization on Earth: It took five billion years to get from slime to crime, leaving very little margin for error — the planet would have gotten crisped by the Sun in another five billion years. Mess up by a single factor of ten the wrong way, and you lose bigtime. (Given that we spent over two billion years alone just refining the art of slime, that’s pretty scary!)

I’m inclined to believe that it was indeed not at all a matter of chance that our civilizations arose during such an extraordinary climatic period, but that in fact getting very lucky with the weather was a precondition.

Brick factor: 0.3
You maybe need the right continental structure.

(This one is obviously related to the weather Brick, but I don’t think they are actually the same thing.)

The more we study the current world continental formations and atmosphere/ocean interactions, the more we realize how extraordinary they are.

For example, through much of Earth’s history, the landmasses have been gathered in one giant lump sitting more or less horizontally along the equator, with very little tectonic activity, resulting in low to no mountains (no uplift to replace them as fast as weathering tears them down), shallow seas, warm, almost unvarying climate, and presumably simple, stable oceanic circulation patterns in the one big World Ocean.

Today, by contrast, we have a fantastically varigated land and ocean layout.

The main Eurasian landmass and the Americas (which by pure chance?? happen to just barely meet in the middle, keeping the Atlantic and Pacific separate by a few tens of meters vertically and kilometers horizontally — say, 0.1% of the relevant variables) just happen to trap a large north-south ocean between them almost pole-to-pole (how odd, when oceans almost always run east-west and connect globally) which ocean just happens to be bistable, flipping at the drop of a hat between circulation modes which move February temperatures in Europe up or down by 20C.

Meanwhile, on land, an astounding, unprecendented collection of climatic zones has been created, partly because the landmasses just happen to currently reach pole-to-pole, partly because they are so elongated as to produce an amazing amount of coastline (while yet remaining connected into a single global landmass for most biological purposes — humans were able to migrate throughout the planet basically on foot, excepting a few Pacific islands), partly because active tectonics have thrown up towering mountain ranges all over the planet from the Himalayas to the Andes, resulting in a huge collection of climatic zones, both vertically due to precipitation and temperature changes with altitude, and also horizontally due to isolation by mountain ranges, and also climatic modulation by mountain rain shadows and the like.

In short, we appear to live in an era of extraordinarily hypervariable climate in both time and space, both in absolute terms relative to what the planet seems capable of, and also relative to what we know of prior periods in the Earth’s history.

Is it pure coincidence that Homo sapiens sapiens, the consumate adaptor, happened to appear in an era offering more scope for adaptation than perhaps any in the history of the planet? Or was it in fact this hypervariability which suppressed more specialized competitors and drove the evolution of a family of specializing generalist species capable of eventually producing technocivilization?

The Earth is 4.5Gyear old, and it takes about 0.1Gyear to re-arrange the landmasses, so it is far from statistically inevitable that such an extraordinary landmass configuration should pop up at such a convenient time in the evolution of life on this planet.

Brick factor: 0.3
You need a benign interstellar environment.

Yet again, turns out the Earth “just happens” to have veen extra-ordinarily lucky, this time over the last five million years or so, in not having anything around to disrupt the heliopause:

Cosmic Cloud Could Burst Earth’s ‘Breathing Bubble,’ New Computer Simulation Shows

BOSTON, MASS.A colorful new computer animation–created by Gary P. Zank of the Bartol Research Institute at the University of Delaware–shows how even a small cosmic cloud could suddenly burst the “breathing bubble” that protects life on our planet.

The simulation, presented May 28 during the American Geophysical Union’s Spring meeting, also should help guide the spacecraft, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, through a series of shock waves and a massive “wall” in space nearly two decades from now, says Zank, an associate professor at Bartol and a leading theoretical astrophysicist.

Ongoing studies of Earth’s “cocoon” might someday reveal whether close encounters with cosmic clouds cause periodic extinctions, according to Zank, who earned a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award in 1993 and a Zeldovich Medal in 1996.

“We’re surrounded by hot gas,” Zank notes. “As our sun moves through extremely ’empty’ or low-density interstellar space, the solar wind produces a protective bubble –the heliosphere around our solar system, which allows life to flourish on Earth. Unfortunately, we could bump into a small cloud at any time, and we probably won’t see it coming. Without the heliosphere, neutral hydrogen would interact with our atmosphere, possibly producing catastrophic climate changes, while our exposure to deadly cosmic radiation in the form of very high-energy cosmic rays would increase.”

Zank’s startling computer simulations were initially developed to support the Voyager spacecraft, deployed as part of the Voyager Interstellar Mission. Even as the sun rolls freely through wide-open space, he explains, the Earth’s ever-changing bubble generates shock waves and an enormous wall of hydrogen gas. The wall, he says, will sweep past Voyager 1 around 2015–several years later than previously estimated.

Rather like a lung, the heliospheric bubble breathes, but in a highly arythmic fashion, because of an 11-year periodic cycle of solar wind properties. By simulating this breathing bubble, Zank says, he can predict the location of the boundary between the solar wind and the vast interstellar medium of space, which should help the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) prepare Voyager 1. The battery-operated vehicle is running out of power, Zank notes. To make the most of its instruments, NASA researchers must conserve energy, by switching systems on and off.

Rowdy Space Clouds

Every 66 million years or so, the solar system traces a regular path through the galaxy, oscillating up and down as it sails through “all sorts of environments,” Zank reports. Over the past 5 million years, he says, “We’ve had incredibly smooth sailing” because the sun was lolling through an interstellar medium containing less than one atom per cubic inch of space. That’s empty space, indeed: Even wispy clouds are 100 times more dense. Currently, Zank says, the solar system is in a region of space containing between 3 and 4 particles per cubic inch.

“Space,” Zank notes, “is full of clouds.” One particularly troublesome cloud region, located in a star-forming region towards the Aquila Rift, clearly is headed our way, according to Zank. Pushed by galactic wind, the cloud may collide with Earth’s protective bubble within the next 50,000 years, he says, and some researchers think we could encounter fluffier knots of gas–containing 10 to 100 particles per cubic –> –inch of space–far sooner. Our immediate or local interstellar environment is chock-full of gas clusters known as the Local Fluff, Zank points out, and existing instruments aren’t sensitive enough to detect extremely small clouds. Consequently, Zank says, “We won’t know that our heliosphere is collapsing until we see highly elevated levels of neutral hydrogen and cosmic rays, and a hydrogen wall in the vicinity of the outer planets.”

Did a rogue cloud wipe out the dinosaurs? In 1939, British cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle suggested that cosmic collisions with clouds may obliterate the heliosphere every now and then. Zank agrees. “The protective solar wind would be extinguished, and cosmic radiation might lead to gene mutations,” he says. “Hydrogen would bombard Earth, producing increased cloud cover, leading perhaps to global warming, or extreme amounts of precipitation and ice ages. We can’t predict every scenario at this point.”

A Bon Voyage for Voyagers 1 and 2?

Using powerful new number-crunching computers at Bartol, as well as systems at national supercomputing centers, Zank created two animations to show the heliosphere in empty space some 5 million years ago, and in a dense cloud containing 10 particles per cubic inch.

In clear space, the sun blows solar wind at supersonic speeds, thereby creating the heliosphere, which Zank describes as “a funny, bullet-shaped bubble.” When the interstellar medium crashes into this bubble, he explains, “it suddenly veers upward and around, like water flowing around a rock in the river.” The result, he says, is a systerm of massive shock waves and a hydrogen wall, which could be 50 times thicker than the distance between the Earth and the sun.

Undisturbed by clouds, the heliosphere appears to take a breath every 11 years, as fluctuations in solar-wind speeds produce a gentle, arhythmic motion, Zank says. Flowing outward, shock waves push the wall and interstellar boundaries farther into space until at last they break and wane, allowing the boundary to contract. This shifting region between the heliosphere and its boundary may filter hydrogen through a process known as “charge exchange,” in which neutral hydrogen and charged particles swap an electron, and so, change identities.

Earth’s protective bubble seems to gasp spasmodically in a dense cloud, so that it collapses and reforms every 331 days, Zank says. The weight of neutral hydrogen, pressing down on the lighter solar wind, “would drive great rollups of instability,” he says. “This well-defined heliosphere structure would disappear and reappear, at times obliterating the hydrogen-filtering region.”

Understanding Cosmic Evolution

Zank’s colorful images aren’t likely to help us avoid a cloud collision, but they may spark a new appreciation for life. On Earth, he says, “These days, and the last 5 to 10 millioin years, have been extremely benign, in an astrophysical sense, and we need to make the most of them, by learning all we can about this cocoon in which we live.” Moreover, Zank says, “We can’t predict our future until we understand our cosmic evolutionary history.”

The new Bartol simulations were obtained by solving an extremely complicated, highly nonlinear system of coupled equations. First, Zank assembled key information about conditions in interstellar space, such as the speed, density and temperature, measured by instruments on the spacecraft, Ulysses, and extrapolated from telescope data. Then, he used that information in his equations, which were fed into computers, along with a second data set describing conditions closer to Earth. Zank’s research was supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Brick factor: 0.3
Summary: How big a Wall?

(We won’t bother worrying about whether a technocivilization survives its first millenium. It appears to have been sheer luck we haven’t nuked ourselves so far, and we’re just opening the bio-war era…) What’s your total? By my counting, that comes to a total brick factor of 11.8: One technocivilization expected per 10^11.8 stars. With 10^10 stars per galaxy, that’s an effective expected rate of one technocivilization per ten to one hundred galaxies, given the softness of the numbers. If I’ve missed any Bricks, we’d expect even less than one technocivilization per galaxy. Since we tend to discover new hazards more frequently than we find that old ones didn’t exist after all, and since we’re still extremely ignorant of much of the process of technolife production, my guess is that we will indeed find more Bricks over time, coming up with an expected technolife density of considerably less than one per galaxy.



I started collecting these on disk (as opposed to in my head) only 98Feb, hence the vagueness of most of the references.

97Jan16 Nature p 234 notes in passing that “The terrestrial planets are thought to have recieved most of their volatiles from bombardment by comets or carbonaceous asteroids.”, footnoting Kass & Young in 1995 Science 268 697-699.

They don’t comment on the planetary conveyor belt in the solar system, but a reasonable conclusion might be that without the conveyor belt, Earth would have much less in the way of volatiles, and perhaps puddles instead of a world ocean, with plausibly disastrous consequences for the development of technological civilization.

The article also notes that compensation for increasing brightness of the parent start over time is needed to keep a planet habitable: They propose that silicate weathering rate on earth is controlled by temperature and serves this function, and that this requires significant exposed land on the planet together with plate tectonic action to recycle CO2 from the seabed into the atmosphere, and guess that the desolation on Mars is due to the lack of plate tectonics to keep this mechanism going. on 99Aug30 quotes Tokyo Institute of Technology researchers as concluding that plate tectonics absorb a gigaton of water per year but release only a fifth that much, and that consequenty the ocean may be gone in a billion years. If that holds up, it seems to implies one needs enough some plate tectonic activity but not too much, else the ocean may go before technolife can evolve.

Main point of the article is to argue that moons around gas giants might be habitable — specifically, that a 0.12 earthmass moon with an Io-like orbital resonance to heat it and a Ganymede-like magnetic shield to protect its atmosphere might be habitable for billions of years if the solar constant was appropriate.

All by way of hoping for life on the extrasolar planets found to date, which are all gross gasbags 🙂


Very empty article, but they seem to be implying that neutron star collisions happen often enough to cause mass extinctions every 100M years or so throughout the galaxy: It may be that this is enough to weed out a lot of potential techlife candidate planets?

Star collision killed dinosaurs — Israeli

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli scientists have a new
theory on why the dinosaurs became extinct:
cosmic radiation that bombarded the Earth
following the collision of two neutron stars.
Physicists from the Space Research Institute at
the Technion University in Haifa theorize that the
mass extinction 65 million years ago was
by the merging of twin stars near the Earth inside
the Milky Way galaxy.
This collision created a deadly wave of cosmic
radiation that destroyed the protective layers of
the Earth’s atmosphere, frying vegetation and
obliterating most animal life, the researchers say.
There have been several theories that astral
radiation caused mass extinctions.
David N. Schramm, an astrophysicist at the
University of Chicago, suggested last year that
exploding stars called supernovas could have
caused another mass extinction — the most severe in
Earth’s history — that killed 95 per cent of
all life 225 million years ago.
But Arnon Dar, a physics professor at Technion
University, said supernovas could not have
caused all six mass extinctions that swept
the Earth in the last 650 million years — one about
every 100 million years.
“The rate of supernova explosion is not great
enough to explain the 100-million-year extinctions,”
Dar said. “But the merging of neutron stars
could be responsible.”
Twin stars merge every day somewhere in the
galaxy, producing radiation in the form of gamma
and cosmic rays that strike the Earth’s
atmosphere. Usually, the stars are too far away to do any
damage and the radiation is harmlessly
by the ozone layer.
The dinosaurs’ demise has been the subject of
hot debate in scientific circles. Dar discounts the
prevailing theory — supported by Schramm —
that an asteroid strike was to blame.
Dar said this theory does not explain the great
leap in biodiversity following the mass extinctions.
He contends the vast amount of radiation
produced by a neutron star collision explains why the
number of animal and plant species increased
quickly after mass extinctions.
Those animals that survived — because of their
hardiness or lack of radioactive exposure —
would have produced a greater number of
mutations, Dar said.
Both Schramm and the Israeli scientists are
continuing to look for evidence of irradiated minerals
in the Earth’s geologic layers, signs of
a supernova or neutron star collision.
“I think the real test will be if we can find
these isotopic anomalies,” Schramm said. “Unless we
find those, we’re missing the smoking gun.”


Good week for me in science news :). The life on mars case appears
to be weakening, which makes life easier for me, and you remember
my passing on the report that the solar system outer planets are
uniquely configured to efficiently transport outer solar system
comets into the inner solar system, and that this would only make
sense if they were contributing something important to life on
earth, like the oceans:
Cosmic snowballs may have seeded Earth

Copyright ) 1997
Copyright ) 1997 Reuter Information Service

WASHINGTON (May 28, 1997 8:25 p.m. EDT) – Giant cosmic snowballs are
bombarding the upper atmosphere, then
breaking up, adding water to Earth’s oceans and possibly nurturing
on the planet, scientists reported on Wednesday.

The snowballs are actually small comets about 40 feet in diameter,
appear to be streaking toward Earth in a steady

However, according to data provided by NASA’s Polar satellite, the
snowballs are no danger to people on Earth or to
astronauts, spacecraft or airplanes because they break up at altitudes
from 600 miles to 15,000 miles.

At that height, the snowballs break up first into fragments and then
exposure to sunlight vaporizes the fragments into vast
clouds which are in turn dispersed by winds.

These cometary clouds eventually blend with normal weather systems and
cosmic rain mixes with the common variety,
according to Louis Frank of the University of Iowa, who first
about the phenomenon in 1986.

“This relatively gentle ‘cosmic rain’ — which possibly contains
simple organic compounds — may well have nurtured the development of
life on our planet,” Frank said in a statement.

Earthly life might have developed from the tiny amounts of organic
material contained in the dust of these small comets, Frank
said later in a telephone interview.

“One of the things that scientists are going to want almost
is to find out how much organic material is in these
objects,” Frank said.

The ice in the small comets may have been shielded by a carbon crust,
even by a kind of “natural saran wrap” so that it can
survive entry into the atmosphere, Frank said.

The cosmic rain from these small comets accounts for only about one
ten-thousandth of an inch of water on Earth each year,
scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

But Frank said that over the course of billions of years, even this
miniscule amount of water would be enough to fill all of
Earth’s oceans.

The Polar satellite, which orbits high above the Arctic Circle,
the snowballs as they disintegrated, and using a filter
that detects visible light emitted by water molecules, Frank
that the snowballs consist mainly of water.

Scientists have long believed that regular-sized comets, such as this
year’s clearly visible Comet Hale-Bopp, are made up
largely of water ice and cosmic dust.

The finding that these mini-comets also contain water and that they
are headed for Earth at a furious rate — possibly thousands each day
— bolster Frank’s earlier theory about the cause of what appeared to
be holes in the atmosphere.

Frank theorized in 1986 that these apparent holes were caused by the
disintegration of small comets in the upper atmosphere,
but many colleagues discounted the theory and attributed the apparent
holes to an instrumental problem.

Frank’s findings were presented on Wednesday at a meeting of the
American Geophysical Union in Baltimore.


Another brick in the wall? Earth getting hit by something Mars-size

surviving was already a big brick in the wall: Now the impactor is
times the size of Mars. Yow!
Study says moon formed by collision with giant

Copyright ) 1997
Copyright ) 1997 Agence France-Presse

WASHINGTON (July 28, 1997 12:15 p.m. EDT) – The moon may have been
formed billions of years ago by a
collision between the Earth and a giant planet three times the size of
Mars, a study said Monday.

The study released by the American Astronomical Society said the
collision with a “rogue planet” may have
vaporized enough material from the Earth’s upper layers to form the

University of Colorado researchers based their research on analysis of
rocks brought back from Apollo space
missions to the moon.

While many scientists have accepted this collision theory, the new
indicates the impact to create the moon
would have required a far bigger object than previously believed.

“This was a surprising result … our calculations indicate a lot more
impact energy than previously believed would
have been required to produce enough material to form the moon,” said
researcher Robin Canup.

The study suggests the planet sideswiped the Earth some 4.5 billion
years ago while the Earth was still malleable.

The impact vaporized upper portions of the Earth’s crust and mantle,
spraying the material into orbit. The material
subsequently spread into a gaseous disk and then formed hot “moonlets”
that eventually coalesced into the single
moon we see today, the study said.

“Large-scale impacts like this one probably played a crucial role in
shaping the solar system,” Canup said. “We
believe this theory is a linchpin to understanding how planets formed
our solar system and in solar systems that
may exist around other stars.”


On the Another Brick In The Wall front, I presume you noticed that
Nature reports that the latest computer simulations indicate that
producing the Earth’s moon requires Earth to be hit by a body more
like double Mars-mass, rather than the roughly-Mars-mass previously
postulated, and that this significantly drops the probability of
finding Earth-Moon like systems elsewhere. On the downside, they
still can’t find a way to get rid of the angular momentum from that
scenario: It would be -really- spectacular if it turned out that you
can only form Earth-Moon via a three-body interaction more improbable
yet :). I’m not going to predict that, however: My sense is that I/we
already have enough bricks in the wall to explain why we’re alone in
the galaxy, meaning that I/we can’t legitimately predict discovery of
further improbabilities based just on us being here and apparently


Comets not the Earth’s oceans only source of
water: researchers

Copyright ) 1998
Copyright ) 1998 Agence France-Presse

WASHINGTON (February 5, 1998 4:55 p.m. EST – The
composition of the Hale-Bopp comet’s tail appears to contradict
hypotheses that
comets were the single source of water filling Earth’s oceans, the
Science reports.

Astronomers have long considered comets a sort of fossil evidence of
how the
solar system was formed.

And some have believed that the ice, dust and rocks in comet tails may
played a crucial role in the formation of the atmosphere of the
planets, filling
Earth’s oceans with water and setting the stage for life to develop.

Now astronomers at the University of Honolulu in Hawaii and at a Paris
observatory say that they have found HDO — water in which one –>
— hydrogen
atom is replaced with deuterium — in the ice of the Hale-Bopp comet.

Similar findings were made with the Halley and Hyakatuke comets.

But the authors of this study found that the proportion of this heavy
water, or
HDO, is considerably higher in the comet tails than in the Earth’s

“It appears that comets by themselves cannot be the only source of
water for
Earth’s oceans,” the authors concluded.

One more thing that can go wrong building an Earth:

New Model Explains Venusian Land Forms

Because Earth and Venus have nearly the same size, scientists long
have called them planetary twins.

But scientists theorize the processes that form the geological
features of the planets are different. Earth forms its continents and
physical features and sheds its interior heat by plate
tectonics. Though Venus might be expected to do the same, its surface
shows scant evidence for plate tectonics, and planetary researchers
long have debated, often heatedly, just what the corresponding process
is on our sister planet.

Now a new model of Venus, derived largely from the highly successful
Magellan Mission early in this decade, shows that two of the planet’s
most predominant features, crustal plateaus and volcanic rises, were
formed by a mechanism similar to hot spot plumes, a process still
active on Earth today and evident in the Hawaiian Islands. Hotspots
are thermal plumes of hot rock originating deep within the Earth and
rising buoyantly upward over millions of years. They eventually
surface in dramatic, lava-spewing displays geologists call flood

The new interpretation comes from the mapping of very subtle
geological faults on the surfaces of the crustal plateaus, and was
published March 6, 1998, in Science magazine.

Roger J. Phillips, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences at
Washington University in St. Louis, and his colleague Vicki L. Hansen,
Ph.D., professor of geological sciences at Southern Methodist
University in Dallas, analyzed recent data and hypothesize that a
thickening of the Venusian lithosphere, the outer strong shell of a
rocky planet , approximately one billion years ago largely shut down
the creation of crustal plateaus and led to the formation of volcanic
rises instead.

Phillips and Hansen suggest that the thickening occurred rapidly in
geological time, in 100 to 200 million years. The thickening prevented
the plumes from melting substantially and creating new crustal
material to form crustal plateaus. Volcanic rises form when there is
not massive melting in the plumes.

Phillips and Hansen estimate the Venusian lithosphere is about 60
miles thick today, compared with about 24 miles thick at the end of
the ‘thin lid’ era, which they suggest lasted up until about one
billion years ago.

“To maintain the thin lithosphere you have to have some sort of
recycling going on, which on Earth is plate tectonics, but that’s not
the case with Venus over the past billion years,” said Phillips. “Our
calculations also show that you get plenty of plains volcanism during
the thin lid era, almost an embarrassment of riches, with formation
going on almost constantly up to the point where the lithosphere

That conclusion clashes with another popular planetary theory that
holds that plains formation was an abrupt episode on Venus.

Phillips said the lack of water on Venus no doubt contributed to the
formation of the thickened lithosphere.

“The rocks are stronger on Venus probably because of a lack of water,”
he said. ” It probably got to the point where the stresses induced by
the interior just couldn’t break the strong rocks, and the process of
lithospheric recycling, which maintained the thin lid, just quit.

“Water is the basic di fference between Venus and Earth in this
context Water makes the lithosphere of Earth relatively weak, and lack
of water makes this structure relatively strong on Venus. Whether you
have recycling of the lithosphere into the mantle comes down to a
competition between how strong the lithosphere is and how much force
from the convecting mantle can be applied to break the
lithosphere. This competition basically operates differently on the
two planets.”

Because the Phillips and Hansen model indicates a recycling process
during the thin lid era, it’s conceivable that Venus was using plate
tectonics during its geological heyday.

“Prior to the thickening of the lithosphere, Venus could have had
plate tectonics, as far as we’re concerned,” Phillips said. “There was
some kind of lithospheric recycling. It may have been plate tectonics
or something else, but it was there.”

The model also couples the climate and interior evolution of Venus,
the planet that suffers from the runaway greenhouse effect to give a
present-day surface temperature of nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit.. All
of the volcanism that went on during the early years of the planet
pumped so-called greenhouse gases sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide in
the Venusian atmosphere, so that the surface temperature was even
hotter then.

“The gases increased the greenhouse effect, which in turn raised
surface temperatures, and that in turn led to more interior melting,
which resulted in more greenhouse gases being released,” Phillips
said. “There is a very tight coupling between climate evolution and
interior evolution on Venus over much of its history, and that is
something we’re just beginning to take seriously on Earth.

Here’s another brick: superflares:

Science Headlines

Thursday January 7 1:03 AM ET

New Space Fear Killer Superflares On Sun-Like Stars

By Deborah Zabarenko

AUSTIN (Reuters) – Armageddon on some distant planet might not come with a bang. Instead, it might
come as a superflare.

Monster flares of energy emitted by stars very much like our sun would warm neighboring planets, fry
satellites and destroy any Earth-like life, starting at the bottom of the food chain and working up,
astronomers said Wednesday.

The good news? It won’t happen here.

It may already have occurred on nine sun-like stars — three of them virtually identical to our sun — where
such superflares have been detected, according to Bradley Schaefer of Yale University.

Superflares are exponentially more powerful than the solar flares ejected by our sun, Schaefer said at a news
conference at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Regular solar flares can knock out power grids and communication satellites, but lack the energy to cause
long-term disaster on Earth.

By contrast, superflares are as much as 10 million times as energetic as regular solar flares. The evidence that
they occur on stars similar to our sun was deemed “troubling” by Schaefer but he acknowledged that our sun
is a poor candidate for the deadly, once-a-century superflare.

There are no records of recognized superflares on Earth in the last 150 years and this phenomenon definitely
would have been recognized: the sun would have glowed brightly, there would have been a short, intense heat
wave and an aurora — like the Northern and Southern Lights — that would have stretched all the way to the

Beyond that, there is no evidence of a flood on Saturn’s icy moons for the last billion years or so and
superflares would have melted these icy oceans which would then have refrozen into visible flood plains.

Our sun also lacks what appears to be a key trait of a superflare star: a nearby big planet like Jupiter that would
have enough of a magnetic field to spark a flare.

To do so, the Jupiter-like planet would need to be as close to the sun as Mercury.

Still, if our sun produced a huge superflare, the consequences would be catastrophic. First, all satellites would
quickly burn up and the blast would break up the ionosphere to prevent long-distance radio transmission.

The blast would soon deplete the ozone layer that shields Earth from deadly ultra-violet radiation. In essence,
the ozone hole that has been observed over the South Pole would extend over most of the planet and last for a
year or more.

That would mean quick death for tiny organisms at the bottom of the food chain, like ocean-dwelling
plankton. It also would scorch food crops like wheat and corn.

Schaefer stressed, however, that this is not going to happen on Earth and that the superflare stars which have
been detected are too far away to do any damage here.

1999Jun23 Here’s two more bricks: Unusualness of the sun.

Our exceptional sun

Don’t believe everything you read in books-our Sun is no ordinary
star. And its very uniqueness has implications for SETI, the search
for extraterrestrial life, claims Guillermo Gonzalez of the University
of Washington in Seattle: “Unless astronomers narrow down their search
to stars as exceptional as the Sun, they are wasting much of their

The Sun is a single star whereas most stars are in multiple
systems. But that apart, textbooks say the Sun is pretty
average. However, after trawling through the data on the Sun, Gonzalez
has found many idiosyncrasies. It is among the most massive 10 per
cent of stars in its neighbourhood. It also has 50 per cent more heavy
elements than other stars of its age and type, and about a third of
the variation in brightness.

The most unusual aspects of the Sun concern its orbit around the
centre of the Galaxy, says Gonzalez. Its orbit is significantly less
elliptical than that of other stars of its age and type, and hardly
inclined at all to the Galactic plane. What’s more, the Sun is
orbiting very close to the “corotation radius” for the Galaxy-the
place at which the angular speed of the spiral pattern matches that of
the stars.

Gonzalez argues that these exceptional characteristics made it
possible for intelligent life to emerge on Earth. He points out that
stable planetary orbits such as the Earth’s are much more likely
around single stars like the Sun. For a massive star with inhabitable
planets that are relatively far away, stellar flare-ups would be
little threat to the planets. Heavy elements are essential to make
planets like Earth, and a star with a stable light output is essential
for life.

As for the orbit of the Sun, its circularity prevents it plunging into
the inner Galaxy where life-threatening supernovae are more
common. And its small inclination to the Galactic plane prevents
abrupt crossings of the plane that would stir up the Sun’s Oort Cloud
and bombard the Earth with comets. By being near the Galaxy’s
corotation radius, the Sun avoids crossing the spiral arms too often,
an event that would expose it to supernovae, which are more common

Because life-bearing stars have to be close to the corotation radius,
that rules out more than 95 per cent of stars in the Galaxy in one
fell swoop. “There are fewer stars suitable for intelligent life than
people realise,” says Gonzalez, who has submitted his findings to
Astronomy & Geophysics. “I’m amazed at how little thought the SETI
people put into selecting their stars.”

Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California,
disagrees. “Our targets are all very close to the Sun. They share our
Galactic neighbourhood and motions. If the Sun is the most suitable
type of star to be scrutinised, then we are, indeed, looking in all
the best places.”

“Most astronomers disagree with Gonzalez,” adds SETI researcher Dan
Werthimer of the University of California at Berkeley. “Our Sun is
pretty average. In any case, you don’t need a star exactly like our
Sun for life.”

Primordial leaks in South Australia Friday, 24 September 1999 Primordial gases from the days of Earth’s formation found seeping out of the ground at gas wells in South Australia and south western US have undermined current theories about how the atmosphere was formed. Writing in this week’s Science, Caffee et al. analyzed the concentration of different isotopes of xenon in the gas from these wells and found that the isotopic “signature” is different from that of xenon in the atmosphere, although it is similar to that of xenon in meteorites. Scientists have previously proposed that the Earth’s present atmosphere was formed from degassing of the planet, but the mismatch between the atmospheric and xenon found in the mantle below the Earth’s crust calls this idea into question. “It can’t be as simple as we’ve thought,” co-researcher Professor Alan Chivas from the University of Wollongong’s Geosciences Department told The Lab. “We now need to come up with a more complex hypothesis as to how the atmosphere was formed.” The researchers report that the xenon seems to be coming from a reservoir deep within the Earth that contains non-reactive gases that have remained relatively unchanged since the Earth formed from a massive disk of dust and gas that was the solar nebula. They say the reservoir has probably stayed pristine because it has been isolated from the mixing processes in the convecting mantle below the Earth’s crust.

Here’s a researcher reporting that the livable period on earth is 90% over, suggesting that technolife just barely squeaked in under the wire:

BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
You are in: Sci/Tech: Specials: Washington 2000
Front Page
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In Depth
Sunday, 20 February, 2000, 16:51 GMT
Date set for desert Earth

Mars Mars: Will Earth look like this?

By BBC News Online’s Damian Carrington in Washington DC

The Earth is entering the final 10% of its lifespan, according to a US meteorologist.

Dr James Kasting, at Penn State University, calculates that the Earth’s oceans will disappear in about one billion years’ time, due to increased temperatures from a brightening Sun.

Sun facts
Mass – 1.99e30 kg
Mass consumption/year – 10e17 kg
Current age – 4.5e9 years
Hydrogen-fuelled Life left – 10e10 years
However, well before the planet is left as an arid desert, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be too low to support plant life, destroying the foundation of the food chains.

“The Sun, like all main sequence stars, is getting brighter with time and eventually temperatures will become high enough so that the oceans evaporate,” said Dr Kasting.

At 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit), water becomes a major constituent of the atmosphere. Much of this water drifts up to the stratosphere and is lost into space. Eventually, all the oceans will leak out of the Earth’s grasp.

Burnt-out planet

“Astronomers always knew that the oceans would evaporate, but they typically thought it would occur only when the Sun left the main sequence – that will be in five billion years.”

Sun The Sun will consume Mercury
Stars leave the main sequence when they stop burning hydrogen. The Sun will then become a red giant, swamping and obliterating Mercury. Venus will lose its atmosphere and become a burnt-out planet.

“However, my calculations show the oceans may evaporate much earlier,” said Dr Kasting. “They are somewhat pessimistic and present a worst-case scenario, but they say a billion years.”

The earlier loss of carbon dioxide will occur because as the climate gets hotter and wetter, more rock is weathered by rain. This dissolves carbon dioxide and hides it away on the ocean floor as calcium carbonate.

“Obviously, a billion, even a half billion years, is a long way off in the future,” said Dr Kasting. “But these models can help us refine our understanding of the time that a planet remains in an orbit where life can exist.”

“If we calculated correctly, Earth has been habitable for 4.5 billion years and only has a half billion years left.”

Dr Kasting’s comments were made at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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20 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
Into a new millennium of science
08 Sep 99 | Sci/Tech
Leaking Earth could run dry
04 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Hopes of Mars oceans dry up

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We apparently got very lucky with the K-T boundary hit:

Asteroid Devastation Could Even Be Worse Than Feared

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers say in a new report that if a huge
asteroid were to hit the Earth, the catastrophic destruction it
causes, and even the “impact winter” that follows, might only be a
prelude to a different, but very deadly phase that starts later on.

They’re calling it, “ultraviolet spring.”

In an analysis of the secondary ecological repercussions of a major
asteroid impact, scientists from Oregon State University and the
British Antarctic Survey have outlined some of the residual effects of
ozone depletion, acid rain and increased levels o f harmful
ultraviolet radiation. The results were just published in the journal
Ecology Letters.

The findings are frightening. As a number of popular movies have
illustrated in recent years, a big asteroid or comet impact would in
fact produce enormous devastation, huge tidal waves, and a global dust
cloud that would block the sun and choke the plane t in icy,
winter-like conditions for months. Many experts believe such
conditions existed on Earth following an impact around the
Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T boundary, when there was a massive
extinction of many animals, including the dinosaurs.

That’s pretty bad. But according to Andrew Blaustein, a professor of
zoology at Oregon State University, there’s more to the story.

“Scientists have pretty well documented the immediate destruction of
an asteroid impact and even the impact winter which its dust cloud
would create,” Blaustein said. “But our study suggests that’s just the
beginning of the ecological disaster, not the e nd of it.”

Blaustein and colleague Charles Cockell examined an asteroid impact of
a magnitude similar to the one that occurred around the K-T boundary,
which is believed to have hit off the Yucatan Peninsula with a force
of almost one trillion megatons.

The immediate results would be catastrophic destruction and an impact
winter, with widespread death of plants and the large terrestrial
animals – including humans – that most directly depend on those plants
for food. That’s the beginning of an ugly scena rio, the researchers

As a result of the impact, the atmosphere would become loaded with
nitric oxide, causing massive amounts of acid rain. As they become
acidified, the lakes and rivers would have reduced amounts of
dissolved organic carbons, which would allow much greater p enetration
of ultraviolet light.

At first, of course, the ultraviolet rays would be blocked by the dust
cloud, which sets the stage for a greater disaster later on. Many
animals depend on some exposure to ultraviolet light to keep
operational their biological protective mechanisms agains t it –
without any such light, those protective mechanisms would be eroded or

During the extended winter, animals across the biological spectrum
would become weaker, starved and more vulnerable. Many would die. Then
comes ultraviolet spring, shining down on surviving plants and animals
that have lost their resistance to ultraviolet radiation and
penetrating more deeply, with greater intensity, into shallow waters
than it ever has before.

“By our calculations, the dust cloud would shield the Earth from
ultraviolet light for would cause levels of ultraviolet radiation to
at least double, about 600 days after impact.”

According t photosyntheto stress here is that with an asteroid
collision, there will be many synergistic effects on the environment
that go far beyond the initial impact,” said Cockell, a researcher
with the British Antarctic Survey who did some of th is analysis while
formerly working with NASA. “Effects such as acid rain, fires, the
dust clouds, cold temperatures, ozone depletion and ultraviolet
radiation could all build upon each other.”

During the K-T event, the scientists said, many of the animals may
actually have been spared most of the ultraviolet spring they
envision. That impact, oddly enough, hit a portion of the Earth’s
crust that was rich in anhydrite rocks. This produced a 12-y ear
sulfate haze that blocked much of the ultraviolet radiation. But it
was a lucky shot – that type of rock covers less than 1 percent of the
Earth’s surface.

So when the next “big one” comes, the scientists said, the ecological
repercussions may be more savage than any of those known in Earth’s
long history. The collision will be devastating, the “impact winter”

But it will be the ultraviolet spring that helps finish off the

Sounds like we’re a bit lucky our beast isn’t feeding:
Astronomers Discover “Feeding” Mechanism For Black Holes

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Astronomers at Ohio State University used an
innovative imaging technique to discover swirling masses of
interstellar dust spiraling into the center of nearby galaxies.

The researchers believe this interstellar dust is feeding supermassive
black holes.

Despite mounting circumstantial evidence that black holes occupy the
heart of most galaxies, astronomers haven’t seen compelling evidence
of the material that might “feed” those black holes until now. Their
study appeared in a recent issue of the Astronomical Journal.

Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, Richard Pogge, associate
professor of astronomy, and Paul Martini, astronomy graduate student,
devised a plan to point two cameras — one that records visible light
and one that records infrared — at nearby galaxies that may contain
supermassive black holes. They combined infrared and visible-light
images to create single images of the interstellar dust clouds in the
centers of these galaxies.

“Imagine if we could take a picture that showed only the dust in a
galaxy,” said Pogge. “We can’t exactly do that, but we can get pretty

The Hubble telescope enabled the Ohio State astronomers to zero in on
the very center of 24 nearby spiral-shaped galaxies with extremely
bright centers. Astronomers believe the centers of these galaxies are
bright because they contain active supermassive black holes consuming
matter from their surrounding galaxies.

Astronomers call a black hole “active” when its powerful gravity tears
material apart, releasing radiation and brightening the galaxy’s
center. Only 1 percent of galaxies that should contain supermassive
black holes appear to be in an active state.

Most pictures of these active galaxies show the giant arms of gas and
dust that give spiral galaxies their shape. Pogge and Martini focussed
instead on only the central 1,000 light years — approximately 1
percent of the total diameter of these galaxies.

“We looked at a region people were unable to study before,” said

Within 20 of the 24 galaxies they photographed, they saw a secondary,
mini-spiral of dust that appeared to go directly into the center where
the supermassive black hole resides.

These “nuclear spirals” may be the feeding mechanism that activates
black holes, Pogge and Martini said.

Black holes like the one in our own Milky Way may be inactive, Pogge
said, because they aren’t receiving any nourishment from their host

“Before black holes become active, you have to feed them,” Pogge said.

And supermassive black holes have voracious appetites. Astronomers
calculate that black holes must consume stars, gas, or dust in amounts
up to the mass of our sun every year to remain active.

Martini explained that over time the material in an inactive galaxy
may reach an equilibrium in which it orbits the central black hole at
a distance just out of the hole’s reach. The black hole wouldn’t
receive any fuel, he said, until some kind of disturbance triggered an
avalanche of material into the center.

The disturbance could come in the form of a collision with ano
propagate and have a very large effect.”

Pogge and Martini think the nuclear spirals form when material
orbiting near the centers of , Pogge, Msse galaxies lack the
mini-spiral structures seen in their brighter cousins.

This one looks significant, but I’ve no clue what to conclude:

Meteoroid Bombardment Of Moon Has Intensified In Past 500 Million
Years, Coinciding With Blossoming Of Life On Earth

BERKELEY (3/9/00) — A new chronology of meteoroid impacts on the moon
shows some surprising correlations with major biological events on

By dating minute glass beads thrown out by impacts over the millennia,
scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Berkeley
Geochronology Center have not only confirmed expected intense meteor
activity 4 to 3.5 billion years ago, when the large lunar seas or
maria were formed, but have discovered another peak of activity that
began 500 million years ago and continues today.

The tapering off of the first peak of activity, which probably
included many large comets and asteroids, coincides with the earliest
know evidence of life on Earth. The second and ongoing peak, which
from the evidence seems to have been mostly smaller debris, began
around the time of the great explosion of life known as the Cambrian.

“The first life on Earth arose just after this real crescendo around
3.5 billion years ago,” said Paul R. Renne, adjunct professor of
geology and geophysics at UC Berkeley and director of the Berkeley
Geochronology Center. “Maybe life began on Earth many times, but the
meteors only stopped wiping it out about 3 billion years ago.”

The more recent and ongoing activity is even more intriguing.

“It’s not surprising that the impacts tapered off about 3 billion
years ago. The solar system was just getting cleaned up, primarily by
Jupiter and the Sun,” said Richard A. Muller, a professor of physics
at UC Berkeley and a research physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory. “What is surprising is the reversion from a benign to a
violent solar system about 500 million years ago.

“This work opens up a new field that tells us something about the
history of our solar system that was totally unanticipated. Until now
we did not realize how peculiar the past 500 million years has been.”

UC Berkeley graduate student Timothy S. Culler, along with Renne,
Muller and Timothy A. Becker, laboratory manager at the Berkeley
Geochronology Center, report their findings in the March 10 issue of
the journal Science.

Though all the Berkeley researchers agree on the new impact chronology
for the moon, they have their own ideas about its implications.

Renne, for example, leans toward the theory that interstellar dust
seeded the Earth with organic molecules, from water to amino acids,
that were incorporated into life on Earth during the past 500 million

“Life already here would suddenly have a new stimulus, a greater need
to evolve quickly and more raw material to do it,” Renne
said. “Impacts would have to be really, really big and really, really
frequent to be deleterious to life on Earth, and it’s clear that the
flux over the past 500 million years has been relatively small
objects. We don’t see a lot of young large craters on the moon. We’ve
come to accept the idea that impacts are strictly bad news for life on
Earth, but now that’s not so clear.”

Culler, the graduate student who originated the project under the
supervision of Muller and Renne, sees the intense meteor activity as
evidence that large meteor impacts played a major role in the
evolution and extinction of life.

“It shows that large impacts may have been more frequent in the last
500 million years, creating more extinctions, like the comet or
asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, ” Culler
said. “Even a number of smaller impacts can have a disastrous effect
on the atmosphere and cause mass extinctions.”

Muller too emphasizes the role impacts have played in the history of
life on Earth. It’s not surprising that the recent intense period of
meteor activity coincides with the rapid radiation of life on Earth,
he said.

“We’re only beginning to realize the role played by catastrophe in the
evolution of life,” he said. “When it comes to survival of the
fittest, it’s not only the ability to compete with other species that
counts, but also the ability to survive occasional catastrophe. That
requires complexity and flexibility.”

Muller has proposed several controversial theories about the solar
system, including that the sun has an unseen companion star, one he
calls Nemesis, that orbits the sun every 26 million years and
periodically knocks comets out of their orbits, sending them hurtling
toward the inner solar system. He also has proposed that periodic
climate changes are the result of the Earth’s orbit periodically
tilting up out of the orbital plane of the planets and intersecting a
cloud of dust, debris and meteoroids.

The current research was suggested by Muller in 1991, in part as a way
to determine whether the moon’s impact record shows evidence of a 26
million-year cycle. Muller hit upon the idea of argon-40/argon-39
dating of lunar spherules as a way to get a more precise chronology of
the intensity of bombardment of the moon and, by implication, the

“I realized that we didn’t have to go to the individual craters in
order to determine their age, because the craters sent samples to us,”
Muller said. “We could obtain samples of hundreds of different craters
from just one location, without having the expense of going back to
the moon. This idea is likely to open up a completely new round of
lunar analysis.”

Spherules are mostly basaltic glass, Culler said, created when a
meteor hits the surface and generates intense heat that melts the rock
and splatters it outward. As droplets of molten rock fall back to the
surface they quickly cool to form a glass, much like obsidian.

Culler, Becker and Renne analyzed 155 beads from one gram of lunar
soil picked up in 1971 by Apollo 14 from the Fra Mauro formation – a
lunar highland bordering Mare Imbrium. The mineral composition of each
bead was determined with a microprobe before it was laser melted and
the argon gas captured for isotopic analysis.

Contrary to assumptions, they found that the cratering rate on the
moon has not been constant over its history. Approximately twice as
many impacts occurred between 4 and 3 billion years ago as occurred
between 2 and 1/2 billion years ago. About 500 million years ago the
intensity of impacts increased nearly to what it was at the peak of
activity 3.2 billion years ago.

Though the dating method was not sensitive enough to reveal a 26
million-year cycle in th For the future, Renne says, it is “critical
to launch new lunar sampling missions targeted to areas rich in
potassium,” in order to confirm the results and probe further back
into the moon’s history.

The project was funded by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, through
the Berkeley Geochronology Center and Richard Muller. NASA provided
the lunar samples.

From ionus@… Fri Mar 31 18:12:07 2000
Subject: unusual solar composition brick

Did we already discuss the apparent fact that the sun is 50-100%
richer in metals than ‘average’ stars its age? I forget where this
info comes from, but I’ve seen it cited as a well-established fact. If
that’s the case, it certainly is another ‘order of magnitude’ reducer
in the complex life equation, since a metal-rich protostellar nebula
is pretty clearly essential to the formation of earthlike planets.


David Studhalter

The Radio Ionus News Service of Earth

(The 2000Jul Scientific American also notes that the Sun is
unusually metal-rich.)

Physics News Update
The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News

Number 491, June 29, 2000, 2000 by Phillip F. Schewe and Ben Stein

A Hofstra-Williams-Colgate-Manchester (UK) team of astronomers have
the National Radio Astronomy Observatory 12-m radio telescope to scan
a huge molecular cloud only 30 light years from the
galactic center.

In particular they look at the spectra of hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and
its deuterium counterpart DCN. In general stars are
expected to be net consumers (not producers) of deuterium: they burn
it into helium. But the galactic center is the Times Square of
the Milky Way; it is the scene of jets, bursts, x-ray and gamma
sources, a massive black hole, filaments, arcs, and other
material-processing objects.

From their observed ratio of deuterium-to-hydrogen D/H, the
researchers (Don Lubowich, Jay Pasachoff, Tom Balonek, and Tom
Millar) deduce three things: (1) The D/H ratio is higher than you
would expect in the absence of a source of virginal unprocessed
material (high in D, low in heavier elements). This demonstrates that
matter comparatively rich in D is indeed raining down with
the cloud onto the plane of our galaxy (see figure at Physics News
Graphics). In other words, the infalling matter is to the galaxy
what comets are to our solar system: specimens of relatively
unprocessed, primitive material. (2) For all that, the D/H ratio at
galactic center is lower than in all other places in the galaxy. This
is important evidence confirming that D is not made in stars
and that what D we see is made by the big bang. (3) From models of D
production in quasars, the observed D/H ratio suggests
that the Milky Way could not have harbored a quasar for at least a
billion years and probably not for four billion years. (Lubowich
et al., Nature, 29 June 2000.)


“Recent calculations of the Solar
System’s stability indicate that if the Earth was
removed then Venus and Mercury would become
destabilised in a relatively short time.”


Report: Giant planets may be key to life

(CNN) — The hunt for distant planets similar to Earth should
concentrate on solar systems with planets the size of Jupiter,
according to a new astronomical report.

Such jovian giants could fling celestial objects the size of Mars
toward their central star, transporting the water necessary for
carbon-based life to form on smaller terrestrial worlds, planetary
scientist Jonathan Lunine said last week.

Scientific evidence strongly suggests a similar chain of events
produced our own solar system, the University of Arizona researcher

As the solar system formed, Jupiter’s powerful gravity spurred
asteroids to clump together into increasingly larger objects,
prototypical rocky worlds, he said.

Jupiter then tossed the terrestrial “embyros” into the inner solar
system. Those that hit our planet carried the water that now fills
Earth’s oceans, according to the theory.

The report by Lunine and his colleagues is in the January 30 issue of
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This supports the notion that one rock hitting the right
spot at the right time would have eliminated humans at almost
any time but the last few millenia:

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) — Modern Europeans, and maybe populations in
other parts of the world, are descended from no more than a few
hundred Africans who left their homeland as recently as 25,000 years
ago, new research suggests.

Organization, the international collaboration researching the genetic
makeup of the human race, provide the first estimate of how many
people founded Europe.

They are also a blow to the theory that modern humans evolved
simultaneously in Africa, Europe and Asia from multiple early humans.

“I think this certainly rules that out, at least in respect to
Europe,” said study leader Eric Lander, director of the Whitehead
Institute/Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Genome
Research. “We’re not sure whether this was just the founding of Europe
or whether, in fact, this small bottleneck represents all the people
leaving Africa.”

Lander’s study involved comparing about 300 chromosomes from people in
Sweden, central Europe and Nigeria. The differences in the genetic
pattern between the European and African chromosomes revealed how long
ago Europeans left Africa and about how many there must have been.

The pattern showed that the Europeans were descended from fewer
ancestors than the Africans — an evolutionary bottleneck, Lander

“It’s hundreds, not thousands,” Lander said.

The Nigerian chromosomes had been well shuffled around, which
indicates a wide gene pool and a long breeding history, while the
European chromosomes had long stretches of unshuffled genetic
material, indicating a much smaller number of chromosome types
entering the mix.

Eddy Rubin, a scientist who was not involved in the study, said he
thinks the findings are accurate.

“The evidence is overwhelming that present-day Europeans come from a
very small group that stayed small for a while, then expanded,” said
Rubin, head of the human genome center at the Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Lander said the findings had much broader applications.

“We are going to be able to do this throughout much of the rest of the
world. The data will be able to rule it in or out for the other
populations very quickly,” Lander said.

“We’re still in the early days for this, but it is remarkable how much
the human chromosomes can be read as a history book,” he
continued. “We are going to be able to say how populations are related
to each other, when people arrived there and how many people likely
arrived in different places.”

The human race numbers 6 billion people today, but it largely has the
genetic variation of a population of a few tens of thousands, Lander


More evidence of how amazingly closely synchronized human civilization
has been worldwide — climate is the only obvious clock which could
have done this, suggesting just how critical favorable climate has
been to the development of technolife here:

Oldest civilisation in the Americas

Aerial view: Caral’s huge central plaza, surrounded by large pyramids,
seen here as earth mounds An ancient city in what is now Peru was
built at the same time as the great pyramids of Egypt, archaeologists
have revealed.

New evidence indicates the desert site at Caral, on the slopes of the
Andes, was built between 2,600 BC and 2,000 BC.

This date pushes back the emergence of the first complex society in
the New World by nearly 800 years.

And it suggests that the people behind the project were advanced
enough to organise the labour needed to create the architectural
wonder of the day.

Caral is one of 18 sites in central Peru’s Supe Valley, which
stretches eastward from the Pacific coastline, up the slopes of the

Earth pyramids

All the inland settlements once had architecture on a grand scale,
including the six huge platform mounds seen at Caral.

Because of its size and complexity, archaeologists had thought Caral
was built about 1,500 BC.

But carbon dating of plant samples found at the site add another 1,000
years or so to this figure.

That puts Caral in the same period as the great pyramids of Egypt, and
long before the huge stone structures of Mexico.

“What we’re learning from Caral is going to rewrite the way we think
about the development of early Andean civilisation,” said study leader
Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago, US.

The Peruvian-American archaeological team says the pyramids and
irrigation system show an organised society in which masses of people
were paid, or compelled, to work on centralised projects.

This suggests that power and wealth were held by an elite group at a
time when, in most of the Americas, people were still hunting and
gathering in much smaller communities.


“The size of a structure is really an indication of power,” said Haas.

“It means that leaders of the society were able to get their followers
to do lots of work.”

What is surprising to archaeologists is that the city was created by a
society that had yet to invent pottery or cultivate grain.

Its people grew peppers, beans, avocadoes and potatoes – all of which
they roasted, having no pots to boil them in.

They also ate lots of anchovies, which may have been used in dried
form as a kind of currency, as grain was later.

The research is published in the journal Science.

Latest Investigations Of Orion Nebula
Lower Odds Of Planet Formation

In 1993, when the Hubble Space Telescope surveyed the Orion nebula
for the first time, its images provided a substantial boost for the
argument that stars with planetary systems are commonplace in the
galaxy. Now, however, the most recent analyses of one the youngest,
closest and brightest nebulae cast doubt on that conclusion and suggest
that planets may be far rarer than astronomers have thought.

The Orion nebula is the closest example of a stellar nursery. Stellar
nurseries are special regions where the vast majority of new stars in the
galaxy are born. Interstellar clouds of molecular gas form, produce
thousands of new stars and then gradually dissipate. The nebula in
Orion is 1,500 light years from Earth and six light years or 35 trillion
miles across. It forms the second point of light in the hunter?s scabbard
in the Orion constellation. The Trapezium Cluster at the nebula?s
center contains more than 1,500 stars. Four massive young stars
illuminate the nebula, making it possible to observe many objects that
would normally be invisible. The starlight they produce is so intense, in
fact, that it ionizes thin layers of the gas in the region, producing a
rainbow of colors. So it?s not surprising that studies of Orion have
provided astronomers with some of the best information about the
process of star formation.

The first Hubble Space Telescope (HST) images found that up to 90
percent of the young stars in the nebula are surrounded by
“protoplanetary disks”-disks of dust and gas from which planets can
form. Astronomers call such star and disk systems “proplyds.” Based on
the assumption that similar conditions prevail in other stellar nurseries,
the finding strengthened the hypothesis that planet production is a
common side effect of the star formation process.

C. Robert O?Dell, lead scientist on the first HST studies of Orion and
now a research professor at Vanderbilt University, has been studying
the nebula since 1964. In a May 1 presentation at the annual meeting of
the American Physical Society in Washington D.C., O?Dell reports
that the most recent studies of Orion appear to have come up with a
planet stopper. The youngest and brightest stars in the cluster are so
powerful that the ultraviolet radiation they produce should blast away
the dust and gas surrounding newly formed stars before they can form

“According to current estimates, it takes about 10 million years for a
planet to form,” O?Dell says. “The massive, young stars in Orion are
more than 100,000 times as luminous as the sun. Our best estimate is
that these radiation levels can destroy a protoplanetary disk in a few
hundred thousand years. So it appears that most of the disks will be
gone long before planets can form.”

A critical factor in this calculation is the length of time it takes planets
to develop. If planets form considerably faster than scientists currently
think, then the percentage of stars that develop planetary systems could
be substantially higher, O?Dell acknowledges.

Over the last eight years, O?Dell and W. J. Henney at the National
Autonomous University of Mexico at Morelia-working with graduate
students from Rice University and UNAM-have used a combination of
optical and radio telescope data to construct a detailed,
three-dimensional map of the nebula. Using this map, he estimates that
only 10 percent of the proplyds in the nebula are shielded from the
erosive star-shine.

If planetary formation times are correct, and the conditions in the
Orion nebula are typical of stellar nurseries, then only one star in 10 is
likely to form a planetary system, O?Dell says.

Why then does Orion contain more than 300 circumsolar disks? The
answer, according to O?Dell, is quite surprising. One of the stars in
Trapezium turns out to be a binary. By carefully measuring the
properties of this pair of stars, Francesco Palla at the Osservatio
Astrofisico di Arcetri in Italy and Steven Stahler at the University of
California, Berkeley have estimated that it can be no older than 100,000
years. Orion?s massive central stars must be even younger, O?Dell
contends, because they have created an intense radiation environment
that has essentially shut down star formation in the nebula.

“This estimate, combined with the fact that we don?t see any evidence
for depletion of the protoplanetary disks, even those exposed to the
highest radiation levels, suggests that the central stars are even younger,
perhaps only a few tens of thousands of years old,” O?Dell says. The
fact that these stars may not be any older than mankind itself doesn?t sit
well with the astronomer. It goes against the Copernican principle.
Copernicus argued that the Earth wasn?t the center of the universe but,
rather, that the Earth orbits around the Sun. Since then this has been
generalized to the Copernican principle: There is nothing special in
time or space about Earth?s position in the universe.

“It is unlikely that homo sapiens and the Orion nebula should be formed
at just about the same time, but perhaps we are just lucky,” O?Dell says.

By BBC News Online’s Helen Briggs

A mysterious disturbance in the forces at the heart of the Solar
System could have triggered the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

This intriguing new theory has been put forward by scientists who have
calculated the paths of the planets over the past 100 million years.

A US team believes a change in the dynamics of the Solar System caused
Mercury, the Earth and Mars to veer off course.

This could have pushed a giant asteroid towards our planet, spelling
downfall for most living things, 65 million years ago.

The idea has been floated by a team of astrobiologists at the
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), based on simulations of
the historical positions of the major planets.

“Our best calculations show that the dynamical state of the inner
Solar System changed abruptly about 65 million years ago,” said Bruce
Runnegar, director of UCLA’s centre for Astrobiology.

Chaos theory

The event modified the average orbit of Mercury, Mars and the Earth in
significant ways, he said, possibly perturbing asteroids in the inner
part of the asteroid belt and throwing one or more of them into
Earth-crossing orbits.

“Thus, the ultimate cause of the K-T impact [and the demise of the
dinosaurs] may have been caused by a chaos-induced change in Solar
System dynamics,” Dr Runnegar told BBC News Online.

The basis of the theory, deduced by team members Ferenc Varadi and
Michael Ghil, is chaos in the Solar System.

Under this scenario, a small shift in the orbit of one or more planets
could destabilise much of the Solar System. To test their theory, the
researchers simulated the orbits of the major planets, working back in
history over tens of millions of years.

To their surprise, computer models pointed to a change in the dynamics
of the inner Solar System at the time of the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary)
mass extinction, about 65 million years ago, when many plants and
animals suddenly became extinct.

Dr Runnegar said they were now carrying out further studies to test
their theory.

“At the moment the link with the dinosaurs is based on a coincidence
in time and a plausible mechanism,” he added.

‘Tenuous’ link

The research, presented at the Earth System Processes meeting in
Edinburgh, UK, has received a mixed reaction from other experts.

Professor Mark Bailey of the Armagh Observatory, Armagh, said the
asteroid link appeared tenuous, but not impossible.

“[It] relies not least on the assumption that the killer projectile
was an asteroid and not a comet,” he told BBC News Online.

“Nevertheless, the idea that the resonant frequencies of the Solar
System change chaotically on time-scales of tens to hundreds of
millions of years (albeit only slowly and by relatively small amounts)
is an interesting one which adds yet another wrinkle to the story of
our changing Solar System.”

Professor Carlos Frenk, an astrophysicist at the University of Durham,
UK, said the theory appeared plausible.

“If these calculations are correct, they are very revealing of the
unusual past behaviour of the Solar System,” he told BBC News Online.

“The past history of the Solar System was not as quiet as we thought –
this very unusual chaotic behaviour may have happened on our

ET can’t call us if he’s wet
Thursday, 12 July 2001

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is
probably a complete waste of time because any
Earth-like planets harbouring life will be too wet to
support the kind of technology needed to “speak”
to us.

That’s the essence of a presentation expected to
stimulate “spirited discussion” at an international
conference on life in the universe, to be held at
Sydney’s Macquarie University today.

The global effort to scan the cosmos for radio
signals from intelligent beings on other planets is based
on the belief that a myriad of
earth-like planets exist which might harbour life wanting
to let us know they are “out

Other projects assume extra-terrestrials will communicate
using modulated gravity
waves, laser beams, and neutrino particles.

But Melbourne planetary scientist Dr Nick Hoffman will
tell the Astrobiology Australasia
workshop that even the smartest beings could not develop
the technology to support
such communication systems if they were under water.

In a poster presentation, La Trobe University’s Dr
Hoffman will reveal new calculations
showing the odds of land forming on other Earth-like
planets are “infinitesimally” small.
Instead they would be landless waterworlds.

“‘Waterworlds are the most likely outcome of planet
formation. If you?re in the sea, you
cannot discover fire, so you cannot melt metal to build
machinery, you cannot discover
electricity and you cannot build computers,” Dr Hoffman
told ABC Science Online.

“Sitting here, waiting for someone to ‘phone’ us up is a
waste of time.”

The presence of land on our planet is a direct result of
an extremely rare kind of collision
with asteroids during its formation, Dr Hoffman
says. This collision led to the formation of
our unique type of moon, which is made of materially
formerly part of the primitive Earth’s
outer crust.

The dislodged crust created space on the planet’s surface
into which oceans could
drain. Without that space, the entire surface of the
Earth would be covered with water,
except for the tops of the highest mountains which would
have been eroded by waves.

Dr Hoffman conceded that searching for life in the
universe “gave people something to
look forward to” and so probably did no harm. But he felt
the only real way to discover
other civilisations was to “go there, land on their
waterworld and see them.”


Johns Hopkins University (


Posted 1/9/2002

Ancient Supernova May Have Triggered Eco-Catastrophe

An exploding star may have destroyed part of Earth’s protective ozone
layer 2 million years ago, devastating some forms of ancient marine
life, according to a new theory presented at this week’s meeting of
the American Astronomical Society.

The new theory brings together puzzling clues from several different
fields of research, including paleontology, geology and astronomy.

Narciso Benitez, an associate research scientist in astronomy in the
Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University,
says the “missing smoking gun” that brought the clues together was the
revelation that a stellar cluster with many large, short-lived stars
prone to producing supernovae had passed near Earth’s solar system
several million years ago.

That discovery, made by co-author and Space Telescope Science
Institute astronomer Jesus Maiz-Apellaniz, led Benitez to check the
scientific record for potential effects of nearby supernovae on the

“Nobody had realized that this cluster of stars that Jesus had
tracked, which is known as the Scorpius-Centaurus OB association,
could have been so close to Earth during the past several million
years,” Benitez says. “And when I did a search, one of the first
things that popped out was a 1999 finding where a team of German
astronomers led by Klaus Knie detected the presence of a highly
unusual isotope of iron in samples of the Earth’s crust drilled from
the deep ocean bottom.”

Knie had proposed that the iron isotope was debris from a recent
supernova explosion that took place close to Earth. But astronomers
had no plausible candidates for such a nearby explosion until
Maiz-Apellaniz’s work with the Scorpius-Centaurus association, which
is also being presented at this week’s meeting of the American
Astronomical Society.

Benitez compared data produced by Maiz-Apellaniz and Knie’s results,
and found “very good agreement, both in the amount of iron deposited
and in its time distribution.”

Benitez consulted with his wife, Matilde Canelles, an immunologist at
the National Institutes of Health who had done her master’s thesis on
microscopic algae, to learn if the paleontological record included an
extinction that had unusual characteristics suggestive of a potential
link to a supernova.

“Such an extinction would have had especially pronounced effects on
the plankton and the marine organisms,” Benitez explains.

Canelles pointed out that evidence existed for a widespread extinction
of plankton and other marine organisms about 2 million years ago, and
noted that scientists are still debating the possible causes of the

“Based on the minimal distance we expected for a supernova in the
Scorpius-Centaurus association at that time, I then did some
calculations to explore the potential effects on Earth,” says Benitez.

He found that cosmic ray emissions from a supernova could have had a
potentially devastating effect on the Earth’s ozone layer, an upper
layer of the atmosphere that absorbs harmful ultraviolet emissions
from the sun and other sources.

“This would have produced a significant reduction in phytoplankton
abundance and biomass, with devastating effects on other marine
populations, such as bivalves,” Benitez says.

Benitez emphasizes that the theory, while provocative, is consistent
with the paleontological evidence, and also with the pattern of
movement of the Scorpius-Centaurus group, which would have been at its
closest to Earth at that time.

He concedes, though, that more evidence will be needed to firmly
establish the theory. In particular, more detailed searches for
supernova-produced isotopes in the geological record would show
whether there was a tight temporal correspondence between the
supernova explosion and the extinction event. Isotope searches could
also offer crucial information about the physical processes involved
in supernova explosions.

“People study supernovae using telescopes and supercomputer
simulations. In the future, some of the most relevant information in
this field may be found in the deep ocean floor,” says Benitez.

While the new theory may further heighten concern about human impacts
on the ozone layer today, Benitez and Maiz-Apellaniz say there’s no
need to worry about another supernova in the Scorpius-Centaurus group
affecting Earth in the near future. The next star due to explode in
the association, Antares, is now located at a distance of almost 500
light-years, which is too far away to have a significant effect on our

This research was funded by an Advanced Camera for Surveys grant from
NASA, the Johns Hopkins Center for Astrophysical Sciences, and a grant
from the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Cosmic catastrophe ‘a certainty’

By Dr David Whitehouse BBC News Online science editor

Sooner or later, a catastrophe from space will wipe out almost all
life on Earth.

According to Dr Arnon Dar, of the Technion Space Research Institute,
Israel, a particular type of exploding star going off anywhere in our
region of the Universe would devastate our planet.

Using the latest statistics and calculations, he argues that a
supermassive star collapsing at the end of its lifetime would form a
black hole and send out a beam of destructive radiation and particles
that would sterilise any planet in its path.

The odds are that any planet in our galaxy would be affected about
once every one hundred million years. “It is a certainty; the
timescales are comparable to mass extinctions seen in Earth’s
geological record,” Dr Dar told BBC News Online.

No hiding place

Supermassive stars, those with a mass substantially greater than our
Sun, are scattered throughout the galaxy. It is thought that when they
collapse at the end of their lives, they eject an intense beam of
radiation, called gamma-rays, into space.

So powerful are these gamma-rays, and the energetic sub-atomic
particles that follow in their wake, that they could have a major
influence on life in our galaxy.

“If such a beam were to strike Earth, the effects would be totally
devastating, unlike anything we could imagine,” Dr Dar said.

On the side of Earth facing the explosion, searing shock waves will
begin to rip through the atmosphere igniting infernos when they reach
the ground.

Within moments of the arrival of the radiation from deep space, the
atmospheric temperature will begin rising rapidly, wreaking havoc with
global weather systems.

Destructive ‘daughters’

All organic material on the surface of Earth will start to burn.
Survivors will cower in caves and buildings. But the worst is yet to

The initial gamma-ray burst will last a fraction of a second. Almost
immediately afterwards will come the cosmic rays, which will drench
our planet for days. There will be no hiding place.

Cosmic rays are highly energetic particles travelling through space at
almost the speed of light. They will slam into the atmosphere,
depositing vast amounts of energy and creating swarms of destructive
“daughter” particles.

These particles, called muons, will penetrate hundreds of metres into
rocks so that few caves will offer protection and even deep-sea
creatures will be affected by lethal doses of radiation.

The Earth’s ecosystem will be destroyed. “The few who might survive
will wish they had died,” said Dr Dar. “They will struggle, forlornly,
on a wrecked planet.”

Dr Dar points out that many of the great extinctions that regularly
punctuate the Earth’s history are consistent with being caused by a
devastating influx of radiation from space.

Threatening stars

“Direct proof that it happened this way is lacking at present,” he
said, “but many people are looking for it.”

There is some good news! Because the gamma-ray bursts from collapsing
supermassive stars are shot across the cosmos in narrow beams,
probably no more than a degree across, most of them will miss the

However, the latest statistics suggest once every one hundred million
years or so, we will be unlucky. Curiously, this is about the rate of
global extinctions on Earth.

At the moment, astronomers do not know which star to watch. Stars,
like the supermassive Eta Carinae, visible in the Southern Hemisphere,
are likely to explode and send out a gamma-ray burst sometime in the
next million years or so. But this particular star is not pointing in
our direction.

Undoubtedly, there is a star that is, but as yet astronomers have not
found it. But even if they do, will we get any warning?

“Not with our current understanding of science,” said Dr Dar, “but
then science progresses. Perhaps, one day we will be able to tell
which stars are threatening.”

Amid the Universe’s Chaos, a Few Habitable Places

By Robert Roy Britt Senior Science Writer posted: 07:00 am ET 28 May

It took 4.5 billion years for Earth to generate and evolve a life form
that could think, reason, and finally fly off the planet. That’s a
long time, even by cosmic measures. Perhaps too long.

At a time when the only known sentient species has earnestly and
optimistically begun to search for life on other planets, several
scientists within that species have found a host of reasons to guard
the optimism. Throughout the galaxy, hazards to planet formation and
sustained evolution are so serious and varied that life may be
exceedingly rare. Intelligent life, presumably, would be the rarest of

We may, it turns out, be very lucky to be here. However, we may also
turn out to be very alone.

Location, location, location

Guillermo Gonzalez, an Iowa State University expert in stellar
evolution, says there are relatively small bands and patches of the
Milky Way Galaxy that he considers to be habitable regions. There are
places where conditions are just right for the formation of planets
and where things stay calm enough, long enough, to allow the evolution
of anything but the lowest forms of life.

Our Sun happens to be in one of these Goldilocks zones. For now, at

Gonzalez has examined the structure of the galaxy and the amount of
heavy elements distributed through it. The central region of the
galaxy, he says, is far to cramped and chaotic to expect Earth-like
planets to have much chance of developing and remaining stable.

Planetary systems, if they are like ours, are expected to include
outer belts of comets, like our own Oort cloud which extends beyond
Pluto. Near the center of the galaxy, which all astronomers agree is
more densely packed with stars, close encounters between stars would
gravitationally boot more of these comets into the inner reaches of a
solar system, where the planets would be.

Further, because there is a greater concentration of heavy elements —
carbon, iron and other stuff that weighs more than hydrogen and helium
— near the galactic center, Gonzalez said more comets and asteroids
would probably develop.

“Comet showers should be more common,” Gonzalez said at a meeting
titled “Astrophysics of Life” earlier this month at the Space
Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

Conversely, the outer reaches of the galaxy are relatively lean in the
heavier elements, making planet formation difficult according to
present theories. Other researchers have doubted this assertion,
suggesting that regardless of the abundance of heavy elements in a
star’s environment, the quantities can vary greatly within a solar
system, as has been observed in our own.

Galactic Habitable Zone

There are other hazards, however. The pronounced spiral arms of the
Milky Way are regions where star formation is more frequent and
intense. As with the center of the galaxy, gravitational chaos and
heavy radiation in the arms is not conducive to long-running
biological evolution.

Between the spiral arms is the only safe place, Gonzalez has been
saying in recent years.

However, while stars orbit the galactic center, they are all on
different courses in relation to the spiral arms and the main, fairly
flat disk of the galaxy. Some stars, during their lifetimes, cross the
spiral arms, and others do not. Other stars travel above, below and
perilously through the main plane.

The Galactic Habitable Zone, which it has come to be called is, then,
actually several shifty places whose bounds are as-yet unclear.

“We don’t know where it is exactly,” Gonzalez said. “We think it’s in
the thin disk of the galaxy. It excludes the center of the galaxy, and
it excludes the outer edge of the galaxy.”

And where are we?

“We’re between spiral arms. We’re going to stay between spiral arms
for a long time.”

Though Gonzalez figures the Sun “undoubtedly” experienced more
dangerous regions of space in the past, he says it isn’t possible to
figure out where we were prior to a few hundred million years
ago. What he does know is that our solar system moves around the
galaxy at a pace and direction that is similar to the nearest spiral
arms, so we will not soon crash through one or be overtaken.

Bully stars

Like Gonzalez, John Bally would love to know where the Sun was
born. Bally, of the University of Colorado, examines the birthplaces
of stars and has learned that the vast majority are generated from
giant clouds of hydrogen that spawn not one, but many stars in a huge
and dense nursery of nearly simultaneous birth.

It’s anything but a pleasant womb.

The clusters are violent, chaotic places whose largest stars —
superhot, massive, short-lived objects — bathe the smaller ones in
heavy doses of ultraviolet radiation that can destroy the seeds of
planets before they ever form.

Here’s what happens:

When stars form, some or perhaps most leave a circle of debris — gas
and dust — that develops into rotating mass called a protoplanetary
disk. From this material, planets, asteroids and comets are thought to
form. At least that’s how it probably happened in our solar
system. Scientists are only beginning to spot and study these dusty
disks around other, relatively nearby stars, and they’ve seen clumps
that hint at planets in the making.

But nearby stars share the relative calm pocket of space — one of
Gonzalez’s habitable zones — that our Sun benefits from. Most star
formation occurs in clusters, and it the bulk of it takes place in the
spiral arms.

In these clusters, a few massive stars shine thousands or even
millions of times more brightly than our Sun. Their UV radiation eats
away at the dust disks of other stars, and can strip the planetary
seeds from all nearby stars over the course of a million years or

Meanwhile, other wild interactions are taking place in the dense star
clusters. When a cloud of hydrogen forms stars, it does so because it
contracts and begins to spin. Clumps of greater density form here and
there, Bally explained, and these clumps gain spin and collapse to
form stars.

“Nearby interactions with multiple stars in a rich cluster can
truncate and even completely eliminate protoplanetary disks,” Bally

All the while, the rotation and gravitational forces can fling stars
hundreds of light-years from their birthplaces. After a few million
years, many of the stars escape the worst radiation environments. And
the large, bully stars pay a price for all their energetic activity —
they typically die within 40 million years.

In an interview, Bally said his research and that of others shows that
around most stars, there is a tight time constraint on when planets
must form before the star’s dust disk is blown away.

“I’m not saying planets can’t form,” he said. “But you have only
100,000 years to a million years.”

Given the roughly 300 billion stars in our galaxy, Bally’s limits
would still allow for plenty of planets out there, but it could also
mean there are far fewer than some researchers have expected. “Either
planetary systems form very fast,” Bally said, “or we will find planet
development to be rare. Something like 5 percent of stars will have

However, if a planet can form quickly — and theorists are not sure
just how long this process takes — then the radiation is irrelevant,
Bally said, and his constraints would be largely lifted.

Our own Sun may have been born in a cluster and later tossed out, but
Bally said it’s not yet possible to figure out if that was the case.

Other perils

If a planet finds itself around a star that fortuitously plans to hang
out for a long time in a habitable zone of the galaxy, its odds of
supporting life — especially any kind of intelligent life — are
still slim. One only needs consider our own solar system, where
intelligent life exists on just one out of nine planets.

Most planets probably do not end up in habitable zones around their
stars — slim orbital paths where radiation from the star is just
enough to support life but not so much that it evaporates the oceans
away. [The terms “habitable zone” and “Goldilocks zone” were
originally devised to describe these favorable swaths around stars.]

Problem is, planetary habitable zones shift, too.

Kevin Zahnle, an astrobiologist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, said
our Sun has gotten significantly brighter during its roughly 4.6
billion-year life. It emits 30 to 40 percent more radiation than when
Earth was born. Luckily, and possibly because life is present and
moderates the change by evolving and modifying the atmosphere, Earth’s
surface temperature has remained about the same, he said.

Until other possible Earth-like planets are found and studied, no one
can say whether it is commonly possible to preserve such a delicate

Eventually, Earth will be overwhelmed by the change. Within the next 5
billion years or so, the aging Sun will have swollen so much that it
envelops and vaporizes Earth. In just a billion years, the Sun could
be 11 percent brighter than now, turning the planet into an
inhospitable greenhouse. Had it taken another billion years for
humans to evolve, only some real lowlifes would have been around to
deal with the problem.

Only the smart survive

Long before we fry, another asteroid or comet will strike Earth. Every
100,000 years or so, leading experts agree, an impact large enough to
threaten civilization occurs. If other planets are anything like our
own, they too would face this peril of bombardment.

Christopher Chyba of the SETI Institute has theorized that only the
smart can survive. A civilization must evolve to the point that it can
detect and then either detour or destroy threats from space, lest it
be rendered extinct or, at best, plunged back into a Dark Ages

“There is a kind of selection effect for long-lived civilizations,”
Chyba said in comments to a group of reporters during the STScI
conference. “If you want to be long lived, you need to become
technical because you need to be able to observe the impact
environment around you and respond to that environment in some way to
mitigate its effects on your planet.”

Chyba pointed out that it took 700 million years or so for life to
begin on Earth. The planet had to cool down after its initial
formation, and then it weathered a barrage of asteroid impacts. The
largest objects might well have evaporated the oceans, he said,
preventing the origin of life or resetting it if it had already

“Our solar system tells you that life isn’t going to be much younger
than a billion years,” Chyba said. “It’s going to take that long for
the planet to be capable of supporting life at all. It couldn’t be
10,000 years. It couldn’t be a million years.”

Even in an ideal world, there are hazards and limits to life at both
ends. Along the way, it is no picnic. Life is tough, these theorists
all recognize. But it is not impossible. At least one planet has
proved that.

According to this, Earth should get sterilized only once every
billion years or so, which is hardly a problem at all. 🙂

If I recall correctly, there has only been metazoan land-life
on the Earth for about 700 million years. If this report is
correct, perhaps that is all the time you get to evolve
technolife, before the next nearby supernova resets you back
to bare rock:

Threat to Earth from supernova blast falls Wednesday, 4 December 2002

The likelihood of a supernova explosion that would strip off the
Earth’s protective ozone layer for decades and imperil life has been
reduced to a remote threat, according to new calculations by American

The new study, to be published in the March 2003 issue of the
Astrophysical Journal, has calculated that a supernova blast would not
be as damaging, and its range would be lower, than first thought.

To damage our ozone layer, a star would have to go supernova within 25
light years of Earth, which dramatically reduces the chances of an
event to once every 700 million years or so. What’s more, there are no
stars likely to go supernova within a 25 light-year radius, the
authors said.

Previously, scientists had calculated that a supernova could be 50
light years away and still emit enough gamma rays and other cosmic
radiation to erase most of our ozone layer for decades, exposing the
Earth’s surface to harmful ultraviolet light from the Sun and damaging
cosmic rays from space.

Some scientists have suggested that supernova blasts may have played a
part in past extinction events on Earth.

Dr Neil Gehrels of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland,
USA, and colleagues used a detailed computer model of the atmosphere
to gauge how nitrogen oxides – created by gamma rays striking the top
layers – would destroy ozone.

“They found the effect was much less significant than was previously
estimated,” said Dr Chris Tinney, the head of astronomy at the
Anglo-Australian Observatory in Sydney. “The [supernova] would have
to be twice as close to have the same effect.”

The NASA group was looking at one of the ways supernova might wipe out
life on Earth. After a supernova occurred, high energy radiation would
hit our atmosphere, catalysing and breaking down ozone. “It
essentially would de-stabilise our own biosphere, to the point [where]
it would have a significant impact,” Tinney told ABC Science Online.

Since the original calculations were made in the 1970s, astronomers
have learnt a lot more about supernovae, said Tinney. Astronomers have
since debated how much radiation supernovae produce, how the rays
damage the atmosphere and how often stars explode nearby.

The NASA researchers used the energy from Supernova 1987A to make
their new calculations. The supernova was the first ever detected
since modern telescopes were invented, and appeared in the sky in
early 1987.

They found that to thin the ozone layer enough to allow twice as much
ultraviolet light to reach the surface, a star would need to explode
within 25 light years of Earth.

“Twenty-five light years is very close,” said Tinney. “We know all the
stars within 25 light years, and we know that none are massive enough
to go off [in a supernova]. So the number of possible supernovae that
can do this has been reduced to none.”

Only a particular type of star ­ one that is near the end of its life
and above a certain mass ­ can go supernova. “You are in more danger
of being hit by a bus,” said Tinney.

Odds against Earth-like planets
Scientists hope that habitable planets can be found

By Dr David Whitehouse BBC News Online science editor

Earth-like worlds circling stars in orbital zones suitable for life
may be few and far between in the cosmos, according to new research.

In the first comprehensive study of extrasolar planetary systems,
astronomers have shown that in most of them it would not be possible
to keep an Earth-like world in orbit around a star so that it was
neither too hot nor too cold for life.

In general, other planetary systems fall into two types: those with
Jupiter-like worlds circling close to their parent star, and those
with more distant Jupiters in elliptical orbits.

In both systems, maintaining an Earth-like world in a temperate orbit
is difficult, although not in all cases impossible.

“This work shows us just how unusual our own Solar System is when
compared with the other planetary systems,” Dr Kristen Menou of
Princeton University, US, told BBC News Online.

Habitable zone

Eighty-five planetary systems were studied, all that were known when
the research was carried out.

Dr Menou said: “They fall into two categories: large planets circling
very close to their sun – the so-called ‘hot Jupiters’, and systems
with Jupiter-like planets in distant non-circular orbits.”

Dr Menou, along with Dr Serge Tabachnik, created computer dynamical
models of the known exoplanetary systems to see if it was possible for
Earth-like worlds to exist for long periods in the so-called habitable

This zone is the region around a star in which a planet would be able
to sustain liquid water, being neither too close to the star for it
all to be vaporised, nor too distant that it all freezes.

In our Solar System, the Earth is in the middle of the habitable zone.
Astronomers believe such a position is essential for life to develop
and thrive.

But it seems difficult for worlds to stay in the habitable zone in the
majority of the extrasolar planetary systems found so far.

“We found that in the systems with the distant Jupiters, these worlds
can disrupt the orbit of any Earth-like world in the habitable zone,”
says Dr Menou.

“Any Earth-like world in the temperate zone would either crash on to
its parent star or be slung out into interstellar space,” he added.

Over half of the planetary systems studied had distant Jupiters making
them unlikely to contain habitable Earth-like worlds.

“We have identified some systems where distant Jupiters would pull
Earth-like worlds into elliptical orbits that keep them inside the
habitable zone. Such worlds would have dramatic and extreme
seasons. We don’t know how that would affect the development of life.”

Cast asunder

The new analysis of the systems containing hot Jupiters shows that
Earth-like worlds could remain orbiting in the temperate zone,
seemingly an encouraging finding.

“The good news is that in about a quarter of the systems we studied,
there could be habitable planets present.”

But even in these systems, Earth-like worlds may have been cast

Current models of the evolution of planetary systems have hot-Jupiters
reaching their tight orbits by migrating inwards from more distant

This means that as they slowly travelled sunwards, they would have
scattered any smaller worlds that got in their way, suggesting that
there could be no Earth-like worlds in hot Jupiter systems at all.

“The way we are trying to get out of this pessimistic position,” says
Dr Menou, “is by seeing if Earth-like worlds could form in a planetary
system after the inward migration of Jupiter worlds.”

The research is to be published in a forthcoming edition of the
Astrophysical Journal.

‘Double whammy’ created the Moon
By Roland Pease
BBC Science

Cosmic collision (William K Hartmann)
Image copyright William K Hartmann

The Moon was probably created in a double-whammy impact, 4.5
billion years ago, which virtually destroyed the Earth as it
then existed.

The theory, by US astrophysicist Dr Robin Canup, is outlined
in BBC Radio 4’s “An Earth Made for Life” programme.

Like the climax in a firework display, the event was the
culmination of a 100-million-year process in which the Earth
and its neighbouring planets were built through cosmic
collisions between sub-planetary objects. This was the
biggest blow our planet ever experienced.

According to Dr Canup, a proto-planet, something like the
size of Mars, collided at high speed with an Earth that was
nearly fully formed.

The collision was a glancing one. It shattered our Earth,
but pulverised the incoming planet.

Rain of debris

Simulations show the impactor being sprayed out into a
shower of orbiting debris. But within a matter of hours,
much of this had re-grouped to form a new impactor that
smashed into the Earth’s surface a second time.

“At this point, the impacting object was destroyed,” Dr
Canup, of the SouthWest Research Institute, in Boulder,
Colorado, told the BBC.

Most of the impactor rained down onto and became
incorporated into the Earth, the last major component to be
integrated into our planet.

But 10% or so of the mass was spread out into an
incandescent disc around the Earth – a scorching equivalent
of Saturn’s rings.

It was out of this material that the Moon was formed in a
matter of decades.

‘Time zero’

“At the time it was 15 times closer than the Moon is now,”
says Dr Canup. “So if you had been able to stand on the
surface of the Earth then, you would have seen something
that appeared 15 times the size of what even today is an
impressive full Moon.”

Mike Drake of the Lunar and Planetary Institute calls the
impact “time zero” for the Earth. Anything that had happened
geologically to the Earth before that would have been erased
by the impact.

The planet’s surface was probably melted down to a depth of
1,000 kilometres, cloaking the Earth in a “magma” ocean that
would have radiated like a red-hot furnace.

Tiny grains called “calcium-aluminium rich inclusions” have
been recovered from comets, which are believed to be the
oldest surviving solid pieces of the cloud of dust and gas
that once encircled the forming Sun.

These have been dated to 4.566 billion years ago (give or
take just a couple of million years) and are thought to
represent the kind of stuff that the planets formed from.

The precise date the Moon was formed is still a matter of
debate, but Dr Canup’s research implies it was right at the
end of the planet-building process, which could have taken
up to 100 million years.

Curiously, recent chemical research has shown that the
planet Earth collided with was a twin to the Earth –
scientists have called it “Theia” after the mother of the
Moon in Greek mythology.

Magma ocean

Details in the chemistry of the Moon show it to be almost
identical in some key respects to the Earth, although it was
made almost entirely from remnants of the impactor.

Cosmochemist Alex Halliday says that Theia must have been
formed in an orbit almost identical to the Earth’s. Time
zero for Earth, it seems, was the end of time for its twin.

But it wasn’t all destruction. As Robin Canup points out,
the Moon-forming impact gave the Earth its spin on its axis
that now gives us 24-hour days, and stirs up the atmosphere
so that no part of the Earth is too hot or too cold for

And the presence of the Moon gives the Earth a kind of
gravitational counterbalance that stabilises its slightly
inclined axis of rotation – 23 degrees to its orbit – that
gives us the congenial cycle of the seasons over a single
orbit around the Sun.

And the scalding magma ocean, according to Mike Drake, was
(surprisingly) the place where the water of the Earth’s
oceans would have been held – giving our planet one of its
key ingredients for life.
Life’s lucky ‘kick start’
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

The Cambrian Explosion – when life suddenly and rapidly flourished
some 550 million years ago – may have an explanation in the reaction
of primitive life to some big event.

Something triggered the explosion of life
The explosion is one of the most significant yet least understood
periods in the history of life on Earth.

New research suggests it may have occurred because of a complex
interaction between components of the biosphere after they had been
disturbed by, for example, the break-up of a super-continent or an
asteroid impact.

Scientists say the life explosion might just have easily occurred two
billion years earlier – or not at all.

Dramatic events

All modern forms of life have their origin in the sudden
diversification of organisms that occurred at the end of the so-called
Cryptozoic Eon.

Scientists have struggled to explain what might have happened in the
previous few hundred million years to trigger such a burst of life.

Major animal groups, or phyla, trace lineage to Cambrian Period
Age of trilobites, sea-dwelling arthropods used to date rock layers
Medieval Latin name for Wales, where Cambrian rocks first described
Certainly, it was a period of history that witnessed the assembly and
break-up of two super continents and at least two major glaciation
events. Atmospheric oxygen levels were also on the rise.

But what actually caused the Cambrian Explosion is unknown.

Writing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Dr Werner von
Bloh and colleagues, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact
Research, present a new analysis of happened.

They suggest that “feedback” in the biosphere caused it to jump from
one stable state without complex life to one that allowed complicated
life to proliferate.

“We believe that there was a change in the environment – a slow
cooling of the system – that caused positive feedback that allowed the
conditions for complex life,” Dr von Bloh told BBC News Online.

Self regulation

Using a computer model of the ancient Earth, the researchers
considered three components of the biosphere, the zone of life.

These were single-celled life with and without a nucleus, and
multicellular life. Each of these three groups have different
environmental tolerances outside which they cannot thrive.

Simulating the primitive Earth’s biosphere
The computer model showed there were two zones of stability for the
Earth – with or without higher lifeforms – and that 542 million years
ago the planet flipped from one to the other.

What caused the flip is not clear. It might have been a continental
break-up, or even an asteroid impact.

There is some indication that the Moon suffered a sudden increase in
impacts about the same time as the Cambrian Explosion. If so, then the
Earth would have been affected as well.

This latest analysis also provides some support for the Gaia
hypothesis – the idea that the biosphere somehow acts as a
self-sustaining and regulating whole that opposes any changes that
would destroy life on Earth.

Intelligent beings

Dr von Blow says that after the Cambrian Explosion there has been a
stabilisation of temperature up to the present, and that the biosphere
is not playing a passive role.

He also adds that there is an intriguing implication from his research
which suggests that had the conditions been only slightly different,
the Cambrian Explosion could have occurred two billion years earlier.

An early explosion would have meant that by now the Earth could have
developed far more advanced intelligent creatures than humans.

Alternatively it could still be inhabited by nothing more complex than

Dr von Bloh says that it will be of great interest when we find other
Earth-like worlds circling other stars to see if they have had their
own Cambrian explosions yet.

The timing of such events has implications for the search for
intelligent life in space, he says.

This one is totally new to me! If they are right, it may cut
down the probability of technolife by yet another order of magnitude
per solar system.

About the only thing that is clear so far from detections of
extrasolar planets is that the big gas giants can be found all over
the map, including virtually skimming the surface of the primary, so
location of the gas giants is clearly a critically important real
variability, not just a theoretically possible one.

Meteorites Supplied Earth Life With Phosphorus,
Scientists Say

University of Arizona scientists have discovered that meteorites,
particularly iron meteorites, may have been critical to the evolution
of life on Earth.

Their research shows that meteorites easily could have provided more
phosphorus than naturally occurs on Earth — enough phosphorus to give
rise to biomolecules which eventually assembled into living,
replicating organisms.

Phosphorus is central to life. It forms the backbone of DNA and RNA
because it connects these molecules’ genetic bases into long
chains. It is vital to metabolism because it is linked with life’s
fundamental fuel, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy that powers
growth and movement. And phosphorus is part of living architecture ?
it is in the phospholipids that make up cell walls and in the bones of

“In terms of mass, phosphorus is the fifth most important biologic
element, after carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen,” said Matthew
A. Pasek, a doctoral candidate in UA’s planetary sciences department
and Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

But where terrestrial life got its phosphorus has been a mystery, he

Phosphorus is much rarer in nature than are hydrogen, oxygen, carbon,
and nitrogen.

Pasek cites recent studies that show there’s approximately one
phosphorus atom for every 2.8 million hydrogen atoms in the cosmos,
every 49 million hydrogen atoms in the oceans, and every 203 hydrogen
atoms in bacteria. Similarly, there’s a single phosphorus atom for
every 1,400 oxygen atoms in the cosmos, every 25 million oxygen atoms
in the oceans, and 72 oxygen atoms in bacteria. The numbers for carbon
atoms and nitrogen atoms, respectively, per single phosphorus atom are
680 and 230 in the cosmos, 974 and 633 in the oceans, and 116 and 15
in bacteria.

“Because phosphorus is much rarer in the environment than in life,
understanding the behavior of phosphorus on the early Earth gives
clues to life’s orgin,” Pasek said.

The most common terrestrial form of the element is a mineral called
apatite. When mixed with water, apatite releases only very small
amounts of phosphate. Scientists have tried heating apatite to high
temperatures, combining it with various strange, super-energetic
compounds, even experimenting with phosphorous compounds unknown on
Earth. This research hasn’t explained where life’s phosphorus comes
from, Pasek noted.

Pasek began working with Dante Lauretta, UA assistant professor of
planetary sciences, on the idea that meteorites are the source of
living Earth’s phosphorus. The work was inspired by Lauretta’s earlier
experiments that showed that phosphorus became concentrated at metal
surfaces that corroded in the early solar system.

“This natural mechanism of phosphorus concentration in the presence of
a known organic catalyst (such as iron-based metal) made me think that
aqueous corrosion of meteoritic minerals could lead to the formation
of important phosphorus-bearing biomolecules,” Lauretta said.

“Meteorites have several different minerals that contain phosphorus,”
Pasek said. “The most important one, which we’ve worked with most
recently, is iron-nickel phosphide, known as schreibersite.”

Schreibersite is a metallic compound that is extremely rare on
Earth. But it is ubiquitous in meteorites, especially iron meteorites,
which are peppered with schreibersite grains or slivered with
pinkish-colored schreibersite veins.

Last April, Pasek, UA undergraduate Virginia Smith, and Lauretta mixed
schriebersite with room-temperature, fresh, de-ionized water. They
then analyzed the liquid mixture using NMR, nuclear magnetic

“We saw a whole slew of different phosphorus compounds being formed,”
Pasek said. “One of the most interesting ones we found was P2-O7 (two
phorphorus atoms with seven oxygen atoms), one of the more
biochemically useful forms of phosphate, similar to what’s found in

Previous experiments have formed P2-07, but at high temperature or
under other extreme conditions, not by simply dissolving a mineral in
room-temperature water, Pasek said.

“This allows us to somewhat constrain where the origins of life may
have occurred,” he said. “If you are going to have phosphate-based
life, it likely would have had to occur near a freshwater region where
a meteorite had recently fallen. We can go so far, maybe, as to say it
was an iron meteorite. Iron meteorites have from about 10 to 100 times
as much schreibersite as do other meteorites.

“I think meteorites were critical for the evolution of life because of
some of the minerals, especially the P2-07 compound, which is used in
ATP, in photosynthesis, in forming new phosphate bonds with organics
(carbon-containing compounds), and in a variety of other biochemical
processes,” Pasek said.

“I think one of the most exciting aspects of this discovery is the
fact that iron meteorites form by the process of planetesimal
differentiation,” Lauretta said. That is, the building-blocks of
planets, called planestesmals, form both a metallic core and a
silicate mantle. Iron meteorites represent the metallic core, and
other types of meteorites, called achondrites, represent the mantle.

“No one ever realized that such a critical stage in planetary
evolution could be coupled to the origin of life,” he added. “This
result constrains where, in our solar system and others, life could
originate. It requires an asteroid belt where planetesimals can grow
to a critical size ? around 500 kilometers in diameter ? and a
mechanism to disrupt these bodies and deliver them to the inner solar

Jupiter drives the delivery of planetesimals to our inner solar
system, Lauretta said, thereby limiting the chances that outer solar
system planets and moons will be supplied with the reactive forms of
phosphorus used by biomolecules essential to terrestrial life.

Solar systems that lack a Jupiter-sized object that can perturb
mineral-rich asteroids inward toward terrestrial planets also have dim
prospects for developing life, Lauretta added.

Pasek is talking about the research today (Aug. 24) at the 228th
American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia. The work
is funded by the NASA program, Astrobiology: Exobiology and
Evolutionary Biology.

Not a Brick yet, but bears watching:,1564,1379419,00.html

Deep Sea Sediment Might Have Sparked Evolution

A stellar explosion, like this one, could have changed earth’s climate

German scientists, sifting through dust on the ocean’s floor, have
discovered stardust that may have helped initiate human evolution.

The team of researchers, from the Technical University of Munich,
announced on Wednesday that sediment found at the bottom of the
Pacific Ocean could be from a star explosion 2.8 million years ago
that may have coincided with massive climate change in the world.

About 15,750 feet (4,800 meters) below the surface of the Pacific
Ocean, the scientists found layers of iron-60. The version of iron is
very unusual in that it takes a lot of heat and pressure to make it,
the kind of heat and pressure only a supernova can deliver.

The researchers theorized that a star explosion close to earth was the
only explanation for the sediment’s location on the bottom of the
ocean. They said the layer indicated the star exploded 2.8 million
years ago, showering down iron and cosmic rays.

Working on previous evidence that cosmic ray bombardment could have
opened up the ozone layer, the researchers said the supernova could
have cooked up the earth in such a way as to force climate change.

Anthropologists believe that climate change led to deforestation,
forcing hominids to climb down from the trees and walk erect.

“The African climate shifted towards more arid conditions about 2.8
million years ago,” the researchers, led by Gunther Korschinek,
wrote. “Some of the major events in early hominid evolution appear to
be coeval with African climate changes.”

The discovery comes five years after Korschinek led the team that
first discovered iron-60 sediment in a more shallow area of the
Pacific Ocean. Scientists said at the time that the sediment was
deposited on Earth at the same time as the planet was undergoing
“mini-extinctions,” where species die out at a higher rate than

In a paper published in the New Astronomy Journal, Brian Fields and
John Ellis wrote that the team’s discovery would “constitute the first
direct evidence that a supernova occurred near Earth in the fairly
recent geologic past, with detectable effects on our planet.”

This week’s discovery appears to bolster the claim.

Oxygen May Be Cause Of First Snowball Earth

Denver, Colo. — Increasing amounts of oxygen in the atmosphere could
have triggered the first of three past episodes when the Earth became
a giant snowball, covered from pole to pole by ice and frozen oceans,
according to a Penn State researcher.

Earth & Climate

“We have convincing evidence that at least six of the seven continents
were once glaciated, and we also have evidence that some of these
continents were near the equator when they were covered with ice,”
says Dr. James F. Kasting, professor of geosciences and
meteorology. “Two of these global glaciations occurred at 600 and 750
million years ago, but the earliest occurred at 2.3 billion years

According to Kasting, if it is assumed that the magnetic evidence for
glaciation at the equator is correct, then only two possible
explanations for equatorial glaciation exist.

One is that the Earth’s tilt, which is now at 23.5 degrees from
vertical, was higher than about 54 degrees from vertical. This would
have positioned Earth so that the poles received the most solar energy
and the equator would receive the least, creating a glacier around the
middle but still leaving the poles unfrozen.

The other possibility, which is the one that Kasting leans toward now,
is that the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere fell low enough so that
over millions of years, glaciers gradually encroached from the poles
to 30 degrees from the equator. Then, in about 1,000 years, the
remainder of the Earth rapidly froze due to the great reflectivity of
the already ice-covered areas and their inability to capture heat from
the sun. The entire Earth became a snowball with oceans frozen to more
than a half mile deep.

“For the latest two glaciations, carbon dioxide levels fell low enough
to begin the glaciation process. However, for the earliest glaciation,
the key may have been methane,” Kasting told attendees at the annual
meeting of the Geological Society of America today (Oct. 27) in
Denver. “The earliest known snowball Earth occurred around the time
that oxygen levels in the atmosphere began to rise,” says Kasting, who
is a member of the Penn State Astrobiology Center. “Before then,
methane was a major greenhouse gas in the atmosphere in addition to
carbon dioxide and water vapor.”

As oxygen levels increased, methane levels decreased dramatically and
carbon dioxide levels had not built up enough to compensate, allowing
the Earth to cool. Oxygen levels need only reach a hundredth of a
percent of present-day oxygen levels to convert the methane atmosphere
completely. Once the Earth is snow covered, it takes 5 to 10 million
years for the natural activity of volcanos to increase carbon dioxide
enough to melt the glaciers.

Regardless of the greenhouse gas involved, the pattern of freezing and
defrosting would be the same. Because the sun has been constantly
increasing in brightness, it would take more greenhouse gas in the
past to compensate for the fainter sun. For the glaciations at 600 and
750 million years ago, estimates are that carbon dioxide levels equal
to recent pre-industrial levels or up to three times pre-industrial
levels would have been sufficient for snowball Earth to occur.

Because many continents existed in the warm equatorial areas during
the most recent glaciations, Kasting believes that rapid weathering of
calcium and magnesium silicate rocks, which consumes carbon dioxide,
lowered levels sufficient to cool things.

“It would have taken nearly 300 times present levels of carbon dioxide
to bring the Earth out of its ice cover,” says Kasting. “Then, once
the high reflectivity ice was gone, the carbon dioxide would have
overcompensated and the Earth would become very warm until rapid
weathering would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

One reason that many scientists initially rejected the snowball Earth
theory was that biological evidence does not suggest that the various
forms of life on Earth branched out from the latest total
glaciation. A variety of life forms had to survive from before the
glaciation, which is difficult to imagine on an ice-covered
world. Perhaps the ancestors of life today survived in refuges like
hot springs or near undersea thermal vents.

“The biological puzzle of snowball Earth is very interesting,” says
Kasting. “Events suggest that life was more robust than we thought and
that the Earth’s climate was much less stable than we assumed.”

Equatorial Water May Have Provided Means Of Survival

Sudden warming trends melted ice, providing refuge for multi-celled
animals while the rest of the Earth was frozen

The precursor of modern animals may have been able to survive a
Snowball Earth era that occurred some 600 million years ago because of
a belt of open water along the equator, suggests scientists from the
University of Toronto and Texas A&M University. This was a time
considered critical in the evolutionary development of multi-celled
animals and therefore the most important interval for biological
evolution in general.

In a paper to be published in the May 25 edition of Nature, University
of Toronto physics professor Richard Peltier and Texas A&M
oceanographers William Hyde, Thomas Crowley and Steven Baum note that
the late Proterozoic era (600-800 million years ago) was the most
important period of evolution for multi-cellular creatures. However,
this period was also a time in Earth’s history that has come to be
referred to as the Snowball Earth. At that time, the planet was
thought to be completely ice-covered. Geological and paleomagnetic
evidence indicates that for alternating periods, the Earth was
completely covered by ice sheets over the continents and sea ice over
the oceans, followed by sudden warming trends that melted the ice.

“If the suface of the planet was covered by ice, the question arises
as to how early life managed to survive under such environmental
stress,” says Peltier. To find an answer, the scientists employed
several different models of the climate systems and ran detailed
computer simulations of the climate thought to have been
characteristic of that time. To simulate the Snowball Earth, they
reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth — to account for
the fact that the sun was about six per cent less luminous than it is
now — and varied the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide
within the range expected for that time.

In most of the simulations, their analysis revealed the presence of a
belt of open water near the equator when the general circulation of
the ocean was taken into account. “It is this open water that may have
provided a refuge for multi-celled animals when the rest of the Earth
was covered by ice and snow,” Peltier explains.

The findings of this research are critical to understanding how early
life evolved, he states. “This could help clarify how multi-celled
animals managed not only stay alive, but to thrive given the Earth’s
harsh conditions. The extreme climates may even have exerted pressure
on these animals to evolve and adapt, possibly leading to the rapid
development of new forms of animals and their movement into new,
unpopulated habitats when the Earth exited the snowball state. It was
during the warm Cambrian era — immediately following the late
Proterozoic — in which life proliferated.”

The late Proterozoic period was also a time when the supercontinents
Rodinia and Pannotia formed and subsequently rifted and
disassembled. Located over the south rotational pole in the position
of present-day Antarctica, these supercontinents were made up of the
current land masses of Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia,
Greenland, Laurentia and parts of Asia. According to Peltier, the
entry of the Earth into the snowball state required not only the weak
sun and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels not significantly higher
than present-day, but also this high degree of polar continentality.


Scientists Find Evolution Of Life Helped Keep Earth Habitable

LIVERMORE, Calif. — A trio of scientists including a researcher from
the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has found that humans may
owe the relatively mild climate in which their ancestors evolved to
tiny marine organisms with shells and skeletons made out of calcium

In a paper titled “Carbonate Deposition, Climate Stability and
Neoproterozoic Ice Ages” in the Oct. 31 edition of Science, UC
Riverside researchers Andy Ridgwell and Martin Kennedy along with LLNL
climate scientist Ken Caldeira, discovered that the increased
stability in modern climate may be due in part to the evolution of
marine plankton living in the open ocean with shells and skeletal
material made out of calcium carbonate. They conclude that these
marine organisms helped prevent the ice ages of the past few hundred
thousand years from turning into a severe global deep freeze.

“The most recent ice ages were mild enough to allow and possibly even
promote the evolution of modern humans,” Caldeira said. “Without these
tiny marine organisms, the ice sheets may have grown to cover the
earth, like in the snowball glaciations of the ancient past, and our
ancestors might not have survived.”

The researchers used a computer model describing the ocean, atmosphere
and land surface to look at how atmospheric carbon dioxide would
change as a result of glacier growth. They found that, in the distant
past, as glaciers started to grow, the oceans would suck the
greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — making the
Earth colder, promoting an even deeper ice age. When marine plankton
with carbonate shells and skeletons are added to the model, ocean
chemistry is buffered and glacial growth does not cause the ocean to
absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But in Precambrian times (which lasted up until 544 million years
ago), marine organisms in the open ocean did not produce carbonate
skeletons — and ancient rocks from the end of the Precambrian
geological age indicate that huge glaciers deposited layers of crushed
rock debris thousands of meters thick near the equator. If the land
was frozen near the equator, then most of the surface of the planet
was likely covered in ice, making Earth look like a giant snowball,
the researchers said.

Around 200 million years ago, calcium carbonate organisms became
critical to helping prevent the earth from freezing over. When the
organisms die, their carbonate shells and skeletons settle to the
ocean floor, where some dissolve and some are buried in
sediments. These deposits help regulate the chemistry of the ocean and
the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, in a related
study published in Nature on Sept. 25, 2003, Caldeira and LLNL
physicist Michael Wickett found that unrestrained release of
fossil-fuel carbon dioxide to the atmosphere could threaten extinction
for these climate-stabilizing marine organisms.

Datum: Despite long-term 30% increase in solar brightness, the
biosphere seems exquisitely sensistive to fluctuations in the
solar “constant”:
Major Climate Change Occurred 5,200 Years Ago: Evidence Suggests That
History Could Repeat Itself
December 16, 2004
Glaciologist Lonnie Thompson worries that he may have found clues that
show history repeating itself, and if he is right, the result could
have important implications to modern society.
Thompson has spent his career trekking to the far corners of the world
to find remote ice fields and then bring back cores drilled from their
centers. Within those cores are the records of ancient climate from
across the globe.

From the mountains of data drawn by analyzing countless ice cores, and
a meticulous review of sometimes obscure historic records, Thompson
and his research team at Ohio State University are convinced that the
global climate has changed dramatically.

But more importantly, they believe it has happened at least once
before, and the results were nearly catastrophic to emerging cultures
at the time. He outlined his interpretations and fears today at the
annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

A professor of geological sciences at Ohio State and a researcher with
the Byrd Polar Research Center, Thompson points to markers in numerous
records suggesting that the climate was altered suddenly some 5,200
years ago with severe impacts.

He points to perfectly preserved plants he discovered that recently
emerged from the Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes as that
glacier retreats. This monstrous glacier, some 551 feet (168 meters)
deep, has shown an exponentially increasing rate of retreat since his
first observations in 1963.

The plants were carbon-dated to determine their age and tests
indicated they had been buried by the ice for perhaps 5,200
years. That suggests that somehow, the climate had shifted suddenly
and severely to capture the plants and preserve them until now.

In 1991, hikers found the preserved body of a man trapped in an Alpine
glacier and freed as it retreated. Later tests showed that the human ”
dubbed Oetzi ” became trapped and died around 5,200 years ago.

Thompson points to a study of tree rings from Ireland and England that
span a period of 7,000 years. The point in that record when the tree
rings were narrowest ” suggesting the driest period experienced by the
trees ” was approximately 5,200 years ago.

He points to ice core records showing the ratio of two oxygen isotopes
retrieved from the ice fields atop Africa”s Mount Kilimanjaro. A proxy
for atmospheric temperature at the time snow fell, the records are at
their lowest 5,200 years before now.

He lists the shift by the Sahara Desert from a habitable region to a
barren desert; major changes in plant pollen uncovered from lakebed
cores in South America, and the record lowest levels of methane
retrieved from ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica and all
occurred at the same time ” 5,200 years ago.

“Something happened back at this time and it was monumental,” Thompson
said. “But it didn”t seem monumental to humans then because there were
only approximately 250 million people occupying the planet, compared
to the 6.4 billion we now have.

“The evidence clearly points back to this point in history and to some
event that occurred. It also points to similar changes occurring in
today”s climate as well,” he said.

“To me, these are things we really need to be concerned about.”
The impact of a climate change of that magnitude on a modern world
would be tremendous, he said. Seventy percent of the population lives
in the world”s tropics and major climate changes would directly impact
most of them.

Thompson believes that the 5,200-year old event may have been caused
by a dramatic fluctuation in solar energy reaching the
earth. Scientists know that a historic global cooling called the
Little Ice Age, from 1450 to 1850 A.D., coincided with two periods of
decreased solar activity.

Evidence shows that around 5,200 years ago, solar output first dropped
precipitously and then surged over a short period. It is this huge
solar energy oscillation that Thompson believes may have triggered the
climate change he sees in all those records.

“The climate system is remarkably sensitive to natural variability,”
he said. “It”s likely that it is equally sensitive to effects brought
on by human activity, changes like increased greenhouse gases, altered
land-use policies and fossil-fuel dependence.

“Any prudent person would agree that we don”t yet understand the
complexities with the climate system and, since we don’t, we should be
extremely cautious in how much we “tweak” the system,” he said.

“The evidence is clear that a major climate change is underway.”
Comets, Meteors & Myth

By Robert Roy Britt
Senior Science Writer
posted: 07:00 am ET
13 November 2001

“…and the seven judges of hell … raised their torches, lighting
the land with their livid flame. A stupor of despair went up to heaven
when the god of the storm turned daylight into darkness, when he
smashed the land like a cup.”

— An account of the Deluge from the Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 2200

If you are fortunate enough to see the storm of shooting stars
predicted for the Nov. 18 peak of the Leonid meteor shower, you’ll be
watching a similar but considerably less powerful version of events
which some scientists say brought down the world’s first

The root of both: debris from a disintegrating comet.

Biblical stories, apocalyptic visions, ancient art and scientific data
all seem to intersect at around 2350 B.C., when one or more
catastrophic events wiped out several advanced societies in Europe,
Asia and Africa.

Visit to explore a new science feature each Tuesday.
>>Go to Science Tuesday archive page


A 1994 image of Comet Borrelly on one of its swings around the Sun.

Norwegian astrophotographer Arne Danielsen captured this spectacular
Leonid fireball on November 18, 1999.


Leonids 2002 Special Report

The Origin of Sex: Cosmic Solution to Ancient Mystery

Reinventing Darwin Again: How Asteroids Impacted Human Evolution

Engineering ET: The Path to Alternate Life Forms

Survival of the Elitist: Bioterrorism May Spur Space Colonies


What do you think of this story?
>>Uplink your views

Increasingly, some scientists suspect comets and their associated
meteor storms were the cause. History and culture provide clues: Icons
and myths surrounding the alleged cataclysms persist in cults and
religions today and even fuel terrorism.

And a newly found 2-mile-wide crater in Iraq, spotted serendipitously
in a perusal of satellite images, could provide a smoking gun. The
crater’s discovery, which was announced in a recent issue of the
journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science, is a preliminary
finding. Scientists stress that a ground expedition is needed to
determine if the landform was actually carved out by an impact.

Yet the crater has already added another chapter to an intriguing
overall story that is, at best, loosely bound. Many of the pages are
washed away or buried. But several plot lines converge in conspicuous

Too many coincidences

Archeological findings show that in the space of a few centuries, many
of the first sophisticated civilizations disappeared. The Old Kingdom
in Egypt fell into ruin. The Akkadian culture of Iraq, thought to be
the world’s first empire, collapsed. The settlements of ancient
Israel, gone. Mesopotamia, Earth’s original breadbasket, dust.

Around the same time — a period called the Early Bronze Age —
apocalyptic writings appeared, fueling religious beliefs that persist

The Epic of Gilgamesh describes the fire, brimstone and flood of
possibly mythical events. Omens predicting the Akkadian collapse
preserve a record that “many stars were falling from the sky.” The
“Curse of Akkad,” dated to about 2200 B.C., speaks of “flaming
potsherds raining from the sky.”

Roughly 2000 years later, the Jewish astronomer Rabbi bar Nachmani
created what could be considered the first impact theory: That Noah’s
Flood was triggered by two “stars” that fell from the sky. “When God
decided to bring about the Flood, He took two stars from Khima, threw
them on Earth, and brought about the Flood.”

Another thread was woven into the tale when, in 1650, the Irish
Archbishop James Ussher mapped out the chronology of the Bible — a
feat that included stringing together all the “begats” to count
generations — and put Noah’s great flood at 2349 B.C.

All coincidence?

A number of scientists don’t think so.

Mounting hard evidence collected from tree rings, soil layers and even
dust that long ago settled to the ocean floor indicates there were
widespread environmental nightmares in the Near East during the Early
Bronze Age: Abrupt cooling of the climate, sudden floods and surges
from the seas, huge earthquakes.

Comet as a culprit

In recent years, the fall of ancient civilizations has come to be
viewed not as a failure of social engineering or political might but
rather the product of climate change and, possibly, heavenly
happenstance. As this new thinking dawned, volcanoes and earthquakes
were blamed at first. More recently, a 300-year drought has been the
likely suspect.

But now more than ever, it appears a comet could be the culprit. One
or more devastating impacts could have rocked the planet, chilled the
air, and created unthinkable tsunamis — ocean waves hundreds of feet
high. Showers of debris wafting through space — concentrated versions
of the dust trails that create the Leonids — would have blocked the
Sun and delivered horrific rains of fire to Earth for years.

So far, the comet theory lacks firm evidence. Like a crater.

Now, though, there is this depression in Iraq. It was found
accidentally by Sharad Master, a geologist at the University of
Witwatersrand in South Africa, while studying satellite images. Master
says the crater bears the signature shape and look of an impact caused
by a space rock.

The finding has not been developed into a full-fledged scientific
paper, however, nor has it undergone peer review. Scientist in several
fields were excited by the possibility, but they expressed caution
about interpreting the preliminary analysis and said a full scientific
expedition to the site needs to be mounted to determine if the
landforms do in fact represent an impact crater.

Researchers would look for shards of melted sand and telltale quartz
that had been shocked into existence. If it were a comet, the impact
would have occurred on what was once a shallow sea, triggering massive
flooding following the fire generated by the object’s partial
vaporization as it screamed through the atmosphere. The comet would
have plunged through the water and dug into the earth below.

If it proves to be an impact crater, there is a good chance it was dug
from the planet less than 6,000 years ago, Master said, because
shifting sediment in the region would have buried anything older.

Arriving at an exact date will be difficult, researchers said.

“It’s an exciting crater if it really is of impact origin,” said Bill
Napier, an astronomer at the Armagh Observatory.

Cultural impact

Napier said an impact that could carve a hole this large would have
packed the energy of several dozen nuclear bombs. The local effect:
utter devastation.

“But the cultural effect would be far greater,” Napier said in an
e-mail interview. “The event would surely be incorporated into the
world view of people in the Near East at that time and be handed down
through the generations in the form of celestial myths.”

Napier and others have also suggested that the swastika, a symbol with
roots in Asia stretching back to at least 1400 B.C., could be an
artist’s rendering of a comet, with jets spewing material outward as
the head of the comet points earthward.

But could a single impact of this size take down civilizations on
three continents? No way, most experts say.

Napier thinks multiple impacts, and possibly a rain of other smaller
meteors and dust, would have been required. He and his colleagues have
been arguing since 1982 that such events are possible. And, he says,
it might have happened right around the time the first urban
civilizations were crumbling.

Napier thinks a comet called Encke, discovered in 1786, is the remnant
of a larger comet that broke apart 5,000 years ago. Large chunks and
vast clouds of smaller debris were cast into space. Napier said it’s
possible that Earth ran through that material during the Early Bronze

The night sky would have been lit up for years by a fireworks-like
display of comet fragments and dust vaporizing upon impact with
Earth’s atmosphere. The Sun would have struggled to shine through the
debris. Napier has tied the possible event to a cooling of the
climate, measured in tree rings, that ran from 2354-2345 B.C.

Supporting evidence

Though no other craters have been found in the region and precisely
dated to this time, there is other evidence to suggest the scenario is
plausible. Two large impact craters in Argentina are believed to have
been created sometime in the past 5,000 years.

Benny Peiser, a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores
University in England, said roughly a dozen craters are known to have
been carved out during the past 10,000 years. Dating them precisely is
nearly impossible with current technology. And, Peiser said, whether
any of the impact craters thought to have been made in the past 10,000
years can be tied back to a single comet is still unknown.

But he did not discount Napier’s scenario.

“There is no scientific reason to doubt that the break-up of a giant
comet might result in a shower of cosmic debris,” Peiser said. He also
points out that because Earth is covered mostly by deep seas, each
visible crater represents more ominous statistical possibilities.

“For every crater discovered on land, we should expect two oceanic
impacts with even worse consequences,” he said.

Tsunamis generated in deep water can rise even taller when they reach
a shore.

Next Page: Terrorism of today rooted in ancient impacts

Reverberating today

Peiser studies known craters for clues to the past. But he also
examines religions and cults, old and new, for signs of what might
have happened way back then.

“I would not be surprised if the notorious rituals of human sacrifice
were a direct consequence of attempts to overcome this trauma,” he
says of the South American impact craters. “Interestingly, the same
deadly cults were also established in the Near East during the Bronze

The impact of comets on myth and religion has reverberated through the
ages, in Peiser’s view.

“One has to take into consideration apocalyptic religions [of today]
to understand the far-reaching consequences of historical impacts,” he
says. “After all, the apocalyptic fear of the end of the world is
still very prevalent today and can often lead to fanaticism and

An obsession with the end of the world provides the legs on which
modern-day terrorism stands, Peiser argues. Leaders of fundamentalist
terror groups drum into the minds of their followers looming
cataclysms inspired by ancient writings. Phrases run along these
lines: a rolling up of the sun, darkening of the stars, movement of
the mountains, splitting of the sky.

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A 1994 image of Comet Borrelly on one of its swings around the Sun.

Norwegian astrophotographer Arne Danielsen captured this spectacular
Leonid fireball on November 18, 1999.


Leonids 2002 Special Report

The Origin of Sex: Cosmic Solution to Ancient Mystery

Reinventing Darwin Again: How Asteroids Impacted Human Evolution

Engineering ET: The Path to Alternate Life Forms

Survival of the Elitist: Bioterrorism May Spur Space Colonies


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It is in the context of such apocalyptic religions that a large
meteorite, enshrined in the Kaba in Mecca, became the most feared and
venerated object of the Islamic faith, Peiser said.

By using such language, radical fundamentalist leaders instill
“absolute commitment and fanaticism into their followers,” Peiser
said. “Once you believe that the end is imminent and that your direct
action will hasten the coming of end-times, every atrocity is

No smoking gun yet

Despite the excitement of the newfound hole in the ground in Iraq, it
is still far from clear why so many civilizations collapsed in such a
relatively short historical time frame. Few scientists, even those who
find evidence to support the idea, are ready to categorically blame a

French soil scientist Marie-Agnes Courty, who in 1997 found material
that could only have come from a meteorite and dated it to the Early
Bronze Age, urged caution on drawing any conclusions until a smoking
gun has been positively identified.

“Certain scientists and the popular press do prefer the idea of
linking natural catastrophes and societal collapse,” Courty said.

Multiple cosmic impacts are an attractive culprit though, because of
the many effects they can have, including some found in real climate
and geologic data. The initial impact, if it is on land, vaporizes
life for miles around. Earthquakes devastate an even wider area. A
cloud of debris can block out the Sun and alter the climate. The
extent and duration of the climate effects is not known for sure,
because scientists have never witnessed such an event.

It might not have taken much. Ancient civilizations, which depended on
farming and reliable rainfall, were precarious.

Mike Baillie, a professor of palaeoecology at Queens University in
Belfast, figures it would have taken just a few bad years to destroy
such a society.

Even a single comet impact large enough to have created the Iraqi
crater, “would have caused a mini nuclear winter with failed harvests
and famine, bringing down any agriculture based populations which can
survive only as long as their stored food reserves,” Baillie said. “So
any environmental downturn lasting longer than about three years tends
to bring down civilizations.”

Other scientists doubt that a single impact would have altered the
climate for so long.

Lessons for tomorrow

Either way, there is a giant scar on the planet, near the cradle of
civilization, that could soon begin to provide some solid answers,
assuming geologists can get permission to enter Iraq and conduct a

“If the crater dated from the 3rd Millennium B.C., it would be almost
impossible not to connect it directly with the demise of the Early
Bronze Age civilizations in the Near East,” said Peiser.

Perhaps before long all the cometary traditions, myths and scientific
fact will be seen to converge at the Iraqi hole in the ground for good
purpose. Understanding what happened, and how frequent and deadly such
impacts might be, is an important tool for researchers like Peiser who
aim to estimate future risk and help modern society avoid the fate of
the ancients.

“Paradoxically, the Hebrew Bible and other Near Eastern documents have
kept alive the memory of ancient catastrophes whose scientific
analysis and understanding might now be vital for the protection of
our own civilizations from future impacts,” Peiser said.

Experts weigh super-volcano risks
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

The drama imagines what a super-eruption at Yellowstone would be like

Enlarge Image
Geologists have called for a taskforce to be set up to consider emergency management in the event of a massive volcanic eruption, or super-eruption.

The recommendation comes in a report timed to coincide with a BBC TV drama that depicts a fictional super-eruption at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, US.

Experts say such an event would have a colossal impact on a global scale.

A super-eruption is also five to 10 times more likely to happen than an asteroid impact, the report claims.

We don’t want to be sensationalist about this, but it’s going to happen
Prof Stephen Self, Open University

The authors want to highlight the issue, which they feel is being ignored by governments. They emphasise that while catastrophic eruptions of this kind are rare in terms of a human lifetime, they are surprisingly common on a geological scale.

The effects, say the authors, “could be sufficiently severe to threaten the fabric of civilisation” – putting events such as the Asian tsunami into the shade.

The fallout from a super-eruption could cause a “volcanic winter”, devastating global agriculture and causing mass starvation.

High frequency

It would have a similar effect to a 1.5km-diameter space rock striking Earth, they claim.

But while impacts of this type are estimated to occur once every 400-500,000 years, the frequency of equivalent super-eruptions is about once every 100,000 years.

“These are minimum estimates. Super-eruptions could be even more frequent; we just don’t know,” said Professor Stephen Self, a geologist at the Open University in Milton Keynes and a member of the working group that produced the report.

Mount Pinatubo, USGS
The Mount Pinatubo eruption was the biggest recorded in photos

“We still have a lot of unassessed regions of the world. The US is the place where we see the largest number of super-eruptions. But that may be because more work has been done there.”

One past super-eruption struck at Toba in Sumatra 74,000 years ago and is thought by some to have driven the human race to the edge of extinction. Signs from DNA suggest human numbers could have dropped to about 10,000, probably as a result of the effects of climate change.

The TV drama, called Supervolcano, sticks closely to scientific understanding of these events.

The plot revolves around a series of violent eruptions at Yellowstone in Wyoming that send thousands of cubic metres of rock, gas and ash spiralling up in cloud that rains down over three-quarters of the United States.

Contingency plans

Highways become blocked with cars as millions flee the unfolding disaster, and as the chain of eruptions unzips Yellowstone’s volcanic crater, hundreds of thousands are killed as the ash swamps whole towns and cities.

Yellowstone geyser, USGS
Yellowstone is the largest volcanic system in North America
America’s food-producing regions are devastated, communications are knocked out and planes are forced out of the sky.

Sulphuric acid droplets form in the atmosphere, blocking out sunlight, and causing global temperatures to plummet.

Professor Stephen Sparks, of Bristol University, an author on the new report, said civil contingency plans would need to be similar to those for a nuclear war.

“You would need contingencies for food and shelter. But you would need to put a serious amount of resources into any effort to cope with an event on this scale, so it poses a dilemma,” he said.

The volcanic winter resulting from a super-eruption could last several years or decades, depending on the scale of an eruption, and according to recent computer models, could cause cooling on a global scale of 5-10C.

Damage limitation

Ailsa Orr, producer of Supervolcano, said that when the programme team presented the scenario to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), the agency admitted it had given little thought to such an event happening on American soil.

“We don’t want to be sensationalist about this, but it’s going to happen. We just can’t say exactly when,” said Professor Self.

“But we have just had a natural disaster affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Now is the time to be thinking about this.”

Yellowstone is the largest volcanic system in North America. The area’s cauldrons of bubbling mud and roaring geysers attract nearly three million visitors each year.

It was an obvious choice for the programme makers as the site of their super-eruption because of its location on a highly populated continent and because it has already had three of these events, which have occurred roughly 600,000 years apart from each other.

The crater from the last super-eruption, 640,000 years ago, is large enough to fit Tokyo – the world’s biggest city – inside it.

The report, released by The Geological Society in the UK, identifies at least 31 sites where super-eruptions have occurred in the past. They include Lake Taupo in New Zealand and the Phlegrean Fields near Naples, Italy.,3604,1456594,00.html
Sea life ‘killed by exploding star’

Alok Jha, science correspondent
Monday April 11, 2005
The Guardian

A huge blast of radiation from an exploding star might have been
behind one of the Earth’s worst mass extinctions, some 450m years ago.

In the latest issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists
argue that a gamma ray burst, the most powerful explosion that occurs
in the universe, was responsible for the Ordovican mass extinction in
which 60% of all marine invertebrates died.

Gamma ray bursts are thought to be caused either when two neutron
stars collide or when giant stars collapse into black holes at the end
of their lives.

Article continues
For around 10 seconds, intense pulses of energy are fired off, which
can be detected right across the universe. All the bursts recorded by
astronomers so far have come from distant galaxies and are therefore
harmless to the Earth.

But if a burst occurred in our own galaxy, the effect would be

Dr Adrian Melott, of the University of Kansas and an author of the
latest paper, said: “A gamma ray burst originating within 6,000 light
years from Earth would have a devastating effect on life.

“We don’t know exactly when one came, but we’re rather sure it did
come – and left its mark.”

Such a burst would strip the Earth of its protective ozone layer,
allowing deadly ultraviolet radiation to pour down from the sun.

Computer models showed that up to half the ozone layer could be
destroyed within weeks. Five years later, at least 10% would still be

Using computer models, the researchers calculated that plankton and
other life in the first few feet of the oceans would have been

The knock-on effect would have been huge: plankton are at the bottom
of the marine food chain providing for animals which are then preyed
upon by larger species.

Previously, scientists thought that an ice age caused the Ordovican
extinction. A gamma ray burst would have had a similar effect, causing
a fast die-off early on and triggering a significant drop in surface

Astronomers are planning to launch a robot spacecraft to study the
mysterious gamma ray bursts further.

Because the bursts happen suddenly and are so short, scientists have
been lucky to detect one a month with instruments on Earth.

Next month, Nasa will launch the £138m Swift probe, which will sweep
up to one sixth of the sky at a time, looking for sudden bursts. If
all goes well, the probe could catch two three explosions a week.

Telescope views galaxy collision
Image: Gemini Observatory
New stars and planets may be forming within the old galaxies (Image:
Gemini Observatory)
Two galaxies collide in the constellation of Pisces, some 100 million
light-years away from Earth.

Astronomers say it gives an insight into what may happen to our own
region of space some 5 billion years from now. The Milky Way is
expected to merge with the neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy, and
swallowing up our Solar System.

The image was captured last month by an instrument on the Gemini North
Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Professor Ian Robson, director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre,
which built the instrument, said that when he first saw the image, it
sent shivers down his spine.

“Our saving grace is that we have about 5 billion years left before we
get swallowed up by Andromeda,” he said.

“Nevertheless, it’s amazing to see so far in advance how planet Earth
and our own galaxy will ultimately end. Glad to say I won’t be around
when the fireball happens.”

The combined galaxies, known as NGC 520, have lost their shape as a
result of the collision. Astronomers believe new stars are forming in
the faint red glowing areas seen above and beneath the middle of the

It is one of many snapshots of distant galaxies and star forming
regions taken by the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) since it
was installed in 2001.


Brick: Hypervariable climate

One brick is the hypervariability of the modern
climate, which is a direct function of the
extraordinarily peculiar modern arrangement of

Our planet is mostly water, and this is also
a precondition to the rise of life. If surface
water on the planet were limited to lakes, the
climate would be too unstable for technolife
to evolve. Every little cooling episode would
freeze all the surface water on the planet
solid to the bottom of the lakes, wiping out
metazoan life.

If you take a mostly-water planet with
plate tectonics, most of the time what
you get is one supercontinent surrounded
by a huge world ocean.

The world ocean acts as a huge climate-change
damper, and climate on the supercontinent is the
same for tens of millions of years at a stretch:

“This is DINO radio. Weather forecast is
for hot and humid, rainy with daily sunbreaks,
through the end of the geological era, with
massive volcanic outflows and outgassing heading
into the next era. Over to you for sports, Tom.”

When the supercontinent -does- break up, it
usually still consists just of a few continents
spotted around the equator and one pole, leaving
the world ocean intact as a climatic damper

But WE live in a totally strange age when the
supercontinent essentially elongated into a
vertical barrier blocking the world ocean
effectively pole-to-pole — and THEN split
neatly in half lengthwise, producing the
Atlantic ocean, which is essentially a
tuned cavity running north-south pole to
pole, cut off from the rest of the world
ocean for most practical purpose.

“HOW WEIRD IS THAT?!!??” [1]

Nor is this oddity merely an interesting bit
of geographic ornamentation for the continental
drift connoisseur.

On the contrary, from a climate-change point of
view, it is the overwhelmingly dominant
characteristic of the era!

The tuned-pipe ringing of the Atlantic ocean has
the entire planet going from hot to cold and back
again in tens of thousands of years, when it would
usually take tens of millions of years — which is
to say, a thousand times faster than usual.

For the last couple of million years, during which
humans evolved, the climate organ has been hitting
a crescendo of hypervariability:


Is it coincidence that a “specializing generalist” [2]
species like Homo Sapiens sapiens happened to evolve
during such a peak in climatic variability?


The “jack of all trades is a master of none”: In
a time of stable climates, the specializing generalist
is liable to be driven to extinction by
specializing specialists which are better at whatever
matters at the time.

The ability to adapt doesn’t cut any
evolutionary ice during eras when the
environment doesn’t exercise that ability.

During those sorts of times — which is
to say, during geologically NORMAL times
— the ability to adapt is just evolutionary
baggage, like eyes on cave fish living without
light, and like the eyes on those fish, is
going to atrophy in a geological instant:
A thirty-watt brain is a HUGE metabolic
liability in an era when there’s no use
for it.

Only in an era when change is too rapid for the
specializing specialists to keep up via
evolutionary adaptation is the specializing
generalist able to compete.

-> Human civilization was able to blossom during the
-> last 10,000 years because when the ice receded,
-> human cultural adaptation allowed them to
-> recolonize the planet faster than species which
-> depended upon evolution to adapt to the newly
-> warm conditions.

In short, humans only discovered the Americas
in the last 10,000 years, but the relationship
goes back for millions of years, because it was
in fact the Americas which CREATED humans.

# #
# A necessary precondition for the rise of #
# technolife on a planet is a climate a #
# thousand times more variable than normal, #
# so as to saturate the adaptive capacity #
# of DNA evolution and open a window for the #
# success of culture-based adaptation. #
# #

How weird is that?


Brick: Complete absence of
large predators and herbivores

Kids love dinosaurs. In contrast to today’s
sedate, normal world, they present us with
this vision of a time in the distant past
when giants and titans struggled for control
of the land.

But, again, from an analytical point of view,
that is exactly backwards.

The dinosaurs didn’t live in a time of unusually
big predators and herbivores. The dinosaur era
was in fact quite unremarkable in that respect —
it represented the normal state of affairs.

Rather, -we- live in a peculiar large-animal vacuum.

When the Big Rock hit sixty-five million years


Think about that. Let it sink in. Maybe it
will help to note that the Big Rock also
trees then all burned, in the mother of all
forest fires. Imagine news helicopters sending
back video of THAT!

This wasn’t life as usual — this was very nearly
the end of metazoan life as we know it. In a
geological instant, ALL the large-animal
ecological niches were swept clean.

Predators, prey, runners, walkers, flyers —


The entire animal world had to evolve back
starting with nothing but rats and lizards.

Know what?


Biologically, we’re living in an era where the
biosphere is still recovering from the K/T
boundary catastrophe.

The rats are radiating out to fill the ecologinal
niches swept clean by the K/T Event, but the
process is far from complete.

In fact, it is really just getting properly

What is an elephant?

An elephant is a rat doing its best to be
a brontosaurus.

Even the most cursory comparison of the two
will show how laughably far elephants fall
short of the real thing.

From a cosmic perspective, the entire animal
world today is just a weird giggle — teeny
tiny rats playing make-believe Big Animal in
ecological niches to which as yet they simply
aren’t adapted, amateurs more or less succeeding
in the Big Time because they don’t have to
compete with the professionals.

Its as though the TV networks and movies were
run exclusively by kindergartners because two
years ago a plague killed off everyone over
the age of four.

What does this have to do with the rise of
human civilization — with the appearance
of technolife on this planet?


Modern humans armed with flint warheads and
wooden missiles were barely able to cope with
runty little mastodons and cave bears.

They wouldn’t have had a ghost of a chance
against tyrannosaurs and brontosaurs.

Can you imagine Plains Indians or African
tribes setting up tents by the river in the
dinosaur era? The first T Rex to come along
would think that someone had spread out a
picnic meal for him! End Of Village.

Yet settled life is a prerequisite for the rise of
a civilization — you can’t develop agriculture,
architecture, and metal smelting while hiding in
the treetops and sneaking down at night to

Even ignoring the predator problem: Can you
imagine the first human farmers trying to make a
living from primitive barely-domesticated barley
in an era when entire herds of brontosaurus sized
herbivores could wipe out a year’s crop in minutes?

What was the farmer going to do — post KEEP OUT signs?
Build stone walls thirty feet high and thick?

Even the BIRDS were too big. This week’s
news includes a scientific paper concluding
that eagles were in the habit of killing and
eating human children, early in human evolution:
Wounds in child skulls from the era match eagle
beaks and eagle killing tactics.

If teeny little eagles could do that, can you
imagine what toothed flying critters with
forty-foot wingspans would have thought if THEY
caught a band of early humans in the open?

The simple fact of the matter is that man is
master of his world only because the previous
owners vacated the premises before he arrived.

He didn’t subdue the Earth — he inherited it
from a rich uncle, through sheer dumb luck.


# #
# A necessary precondition for the rise of #
# technolife is a convenient disaster which #
# kills off ALMOST all animal life on the #
# planet — but not ALL of it, or there’d #
# be nothing to evolve into humans. #
# #

How weird is that?

[1] “Serenity”, by Joss Whedon
[2] Robert A Heinlein
Earth: A Borderline Planet For Life?

ScienceDaily (Jan. 14, 2008) ? Our planet is changing before our eyes,
and as a result, many species are living on the edge. Yet Earth has
been on the edge of habitability from the beginning. New work by
astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows
that if Earth had been slightly smaller and less massive, it would not
have plate tectonics – the forces that move continents and build
mountains. And without plate tectonics, life might never have gained a
foothold on our world.

“Plate tectonics are essential to life as we know it,” said Diana
Valencia of Harvard University. “Our calculations show that bigger is
better when it comes to the habitability of rocky planets.”

Plate tectonics involve the movement of huge chunks, or plates, of a
planet’s surface. Plates spread apart from each other, slide under one
another, and even crash into each other, lifting gigantic mountain
ranges like the Himalayas. Plate tectonics are powered by magma
boiling beneath the surface, much like a bubbling pot of
chocolate. The chocolate on top cools and forms a skin or crust, just
as magma cools to form the planet’s crust.

Plate tectonics are crucial to a planet’s habitability because they
enable complex chemistry and recycle substances like carbon dioxide,
which acts as a thermostat and keeps Earth balmy. Carbon dioxide that
was locked into rocks is released when those rocks melt, returning to
the atmosphere from volcanoes and oceanic ridges.

“Recycling is important even on a planetary scale,” Valencia

Valencia and her colleagues, Richard O’Connell and Dimitar Sasselov
(Harvard University), examined the extremes to determine whether plate
tectonics would be more or less likely on different-sized rocky
worlds. In particular, they studied so-called “super-Earths”-planets
more than twice the size of Earth and up to 10 times as massive. (Any
larger, and the planet would gather gas as it forms, becoming like
Neptune or even Jupiter.)

The team found that super-Earths would be more geologically active
than our planet, experiencing more vigorous plate tectonics due to
thinner plates under more stress. Earth itself was found to be a
borderline case, not surprisingly since the slightly smaller planet
Venus is tectonically inactive.

“It might not be a coincidence that Earth is the largest rocky planet
in our solar system, and also the only one with life,” said Valencia.

Exoplanet searches have turned up five super-Earths already, although
none have life-friendly temperatures. If super-Earths are as common as
observations suggest, then it is inevitable that some will enjoy
Earth-like orbits, making them excellent havens for life.

“There are not only more potentially habitable planets, but MANY
more,” stated Sasselov, who is director of the Harvard Origins of Life

In fact, a super-Earth could prove to be a popular vacation
destination to our far-future descendants. Volcanic “rings of fire”
could span the globe while the equivalent of Yellowstone Park would
bubble with hot springs and burst with hundreds of geysers. Even
better, an Earth-like atmosphere would be possible, while the surface
gravity would be up to three times that of Earth on the biggest

“If a human were to visit a super-Earth, they might experience a bit
more back pain, but it would be worth it to visit such a great tourist
spot,” Sasselov suggested with a laugh.

He added that although a super-Earth would be twice the size of our
home planet, it would have similar geography. Rapid plate tectonics
would provide less time for mountains and ocean trenches to form
before the surface was recycled, yielding mountains no taller and
trenches no deeper than those on Earth. Even the weather might be
comparable for a world in an Earth-like orbit.

“The landscape would be familiar. A super-Earth would feel very much
like home,” said Sasselov.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA
scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin,
evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

This research was the subject of a press conference at the 211th
meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

You have to not accidentally go extinct. A population of animals as large as
humans on a planet as small as the Earth has a substantial probability
of going extinct due to random population fluctuations.

For two-thirds of its history, Homo sapiens lived exclusively in
Africa. Only now are the details of that period becoming clear
Natonal Geographic

MITOCHONDRIAL DNA is a remarkable thing. Itself the remnant of a
strange evolutionary event (the merger of an ancient bacterium with
the cell ancestral to all plant and animal life), it also carries the
imprint of more recent evolution. In many species, humans included, it
passes only from mother to child. No paternal genes get mixed into
it. That makes it easy to see when particular genetic mutations
happened, and thus to construct a human family tree.

The branches of that tree are now well studied. Humans started in
Africa, spread to Asia around 60,000 years ago, thence to Australia
50,000 years ago, Europe 35,000 years ago and America 15,000 years
ago. What have not been so well examined, though, are the tree’s
African roots. The genetic diversity of Africans probably exceeds that
of the rest of the world put together. But the way that diversity
evolved is unclear.

A study carried out under the auspices of the Genographic Project,
based in Washington, DC, and just published in the American Journal of
Human Genetics, goes some way towards correcting this oversight. The
study’s researchers, led by Doron Behar of the Rambam Medical Centre
in Haifa and Spencer Wells of America’s National Geographic Society,
have used the mitochondrial DNA of more than 600 living Africans to
show how genetic diversity has developed in Africa. In doing so, they
have shed light on how modern man spread around his home continent
long before he took the first, tentative steps into a bigger, wider
By the drought divided

The team paid particular attention to samples taken from the Khoi and
San people of southern Africa. These people, known colloquially as
bushmen, traditionally make their livings by hunting and
gathering. Indeed, their way of life is thought by many
anthropologists to resemble quite closely that of pre-agricultural
people throughout the world.

Comparing Khoi and San DNA with that of other Africans shows that the
first big split in Homo sapiens happened shortly after the species
emerged, 200,000 years ago. Most people now alive are on one side of
that split. Most bushmen are on the other. The consortium’s analysis
of which DNA ?matrilines? are found where suggests that for much of
its history the species was divided into two isolated populations, one
in eastern Africa and one in the south of the continent, that were
defined by this split. However, few other matrilineal splits from the
first 100,000 years of the species’s history have survived to the
present day.

This suggests the early human population was tiny (so the
opportunities for new matrilines to evolve in the first place were
limited) and reinforces the idea that Homo sapiens may have come close
to extinction (eliminating some matrilines that did previously
exist). Indeed, there may, at one point, have been as few as 2,000
people left to carry humanity forward.

This shrinkage coincides with a period of prolonged drought in eastern
Africa, and was probably caused by it. The end of the drought,
however, was followed by the appearance of many new matrilines that
survive to the present day. The researchers estimate that by
60,000-70,000 years ago, the period when the exodus that populated the
rest of the world happened, as many as 40 such groups were flourishing
in Africa?though that migration involved only two of these groups.

The African matrilines, however, seem to have remained isolated from
each other for tens of millennia after the exodus. It was not until
40,000 years ago that they began to re-establish conjugal relations,
possibly as a result of the technological revolution of the Late Stone
Age, which yielded new and more finely crafted tools. Only the bushmen
seem to have missed out on this panmictic party. They were left alone
until a few hundred years ago, when their homelands were invaded from
the north by other Africans and from the south by Europeans. Panmixis
thus came full circle. And that particular party was certainly not a
happy one.

Sun’s Movement Through Milky Way Regularly Sends Comets Hurtling,
Coinciding With Mass Life Extinctions

ScienceDaily (May 2, 2008) ? The sun’s movement through the Milky Way
regularly sends comets hurtling into the inner solar system —
coinciding with mass life extinctions on earth, a new study
claims. The study suggests a link between comet bombardment and the
movement through the galaxy.

Scientists at the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology built a computer
model of our solar system’s movement and found that it “bounces” up
and down through the plane of the galaxy. As we pass through the
densest part of the plane, gravitational forces from the surrounding
giant gas and dust clouds dislodge comets from their paths. The comets
plunge into the solar system, some of them colliding with the earth.

The Cardiff team found that we pass through the galactic plane every
35 to 40 million years, increasing the chances of a comet collision
tenfold. Evidence from craters on Earth also suggests we suffer more
collisions approximately 36 million years. Professor William Napier,
of the Cardiff Centre for Astrobiology, said: “It’s a beautiful match
between what we see on the ground and what is expected from the
galactic record.”

The periods of comet bombardment also coincide with mass extinctions,
such as that of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Our present
position in the galaxy suggests we are now very close to another such

While the “bounce” effect may have been bad news for dinosaurs, it may
also have helped life to spread. The scientists suggest the impact may
have thrown debris containing micro-organisms out into space and
across the universe.

Centre director Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe said: “This is a
seminal paper which places the comet-life interaction on a firm basis,
and shows a mechanism by which life can be dispersed on a galactic

The paper, by Professor Napier and Dr Janaki Wickramasinghe, is to be
published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Solar System Is Pretty Special, According To New Computer Simulation

ScienceDaily (Aug. 8, 2008) Prevailing theoretical models
attempting to explain the formation of the solar system have assumed
it to be average in every way. Now a new study by Northwestern
University astronomers, using recent data from the 300 exoplanets
discovered orbiting other stars, turns that view on its head.

The solar system, it turns out, is pretty special indeed. The study
illustrates that if early conditions had been just slightly different,
very unpleasant things could have happened — like planets being
thrown into the sun or jettisoned into deep space.

Using large-scale computer simulations, the Northwestern researchers
are the first to model the formation of planetary systems from
beginning to end, starting with the generic disk of gas and dust that
is left behind after the formation of the central star and ending with
a full planetary system. Because of computing limitations, earlier
models provided only brief glimpses of the process.

The researchers ran more than a hundred simulations, and the results
show that the average planetary system’s origin was full of violence
and drama but that the formation of something like our solar system
required conditions to be “just right.”

The study was recently published in the journal Science.

Before the discovery in the early 1990s of the first planets outside
the solar system, our system’s nine (now eight) planets were the only
ones known to us. This limited the planetary formation models, and
astronomers had no reason to think the solar system unusual.

“But we now know that these other planetary systems don’t look like
the solar system at all,” said Frederic A. Rasio, a theoretical
astrophysicist and professor of physics and astronomy in
Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He is senior
author of the Science paper.

“The shapes of the exoplanets’ orbits are elongated, not nice and
circular. Planets are not where we expect them to be. Many giant
planets similar to Jupiter, known as ‘hot Jupiters,’ are so close to
the star they have orbits of mere days. Clearly we needed to start
fresh in explaining planetary formation and this greater variety of
planets we now see.”

Using the wealth of exoplanet data collected during the last 15 years,
Rasio and his colleagues have been working to understand planet
formation in a much broader sense than was possible
previously. Modeling an entire planetary system — the varied physical
phenomena associated with gas, gravity and grains of material, on such
a variety of scales — was a daunting challenge.

The work required very powerful computers. The researchers also had to
judiciously decide what information was important and what was not, so
as to speed up the calculations. They decided to follow the growth of
planets, the gravitational interaction between planets, and the whole
planetary system in its entire spatial extent. They chose not to
follow the gas disk’s fluid dynamics in fine detail, but rather more
generally. As a result, they were able to run simulations spanning a
planetary system’s entire formation.

The simulations suggest that an average planetary system’s origin is
extremely dramatic. The gas disk that gives birth to the planets also
pushes them mercilessly toward the central star, where they crowd
together or are engulfed. Among the growing planets, there is
cut-throat competition for gas, a chaotic process that produces a rich
variety of planet masses.

Also, as the planets approach each other, they frequently lock into
dynamical resonances that drive the orbits of all participants to be
increasingly elongated. Such a gravitational embrace often results in
a slingshot encounter that flings the planets elsewhere in the system;
occasionally, one is ejected into deep space. Despite its best efforts
to kill its offspring, the gas disk eventually is consumed and
dissipates, and a young planetary system emerges.

“Such a turbulent history would seem to leave little room for the
sedate solar system, and our simulations show exactly that,” said
Rasio. “Conditions must be just right for the solar system to emerge.”

Too massive a gas disk, for example, and planet formation is an
anarchic mess, producing “hot Jupiters” and noncircular orbits
galore. Too low-mass a disk, and nothing bigger than Neptune — an
“ice giant” with only a small amount of gas — will grow.

“We now better understand the process of planet formation and can
explain the properties of the strange exoplanets we’ve observed,” said
Rasio. “We also know that the solar system is special and understand
at some level what makes it special.”

“The solar system had to be born under just the right conditions to
become this quiet place we see. The vast majority of other planetary
systems didn’t have these special properties at birth and became
something very different.”


In addition to Rasio, other authors of the Science paper are Edward
W. Thommes, an adjunct professor at the University of Guelph in
Ontario, former postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern and lead author,
and Soko Matsumura, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern.

The computer simulations were performed on a supercomputing cluster
operated by Northwestern’s Theoretical Astrophysics Group and
partially funded by a Major Research Instrumentation grant from the
National Science Foundation (NSF). Rasio’s research group on
exoplanets also is funded by a grant from the NSF Division of Astronomy.

Interview With The Transsexual Vampire: Sandy Stone’s Dark Gift

In January 1995, Davina Anne Gabriel, editor of the then-journal of Trans feminism TransSisters, published a long-form interview with me. Now that we have a journal of record for Trans scholarship, Transgender Studies Quarterly, Susan Stryker intended to republish it in the Fall 2015 issue. Unfortunately, no one has been able to locate the publisher of TransSisters, so Duke’s stringent copyright rules prevent them from including it. However, as the subject of the article, and having a copy of the original interview, I don’t feel constrained in the same way.

In 1995 the term transgender was not yet in common use. During the interview I use the term transie, which in 2015 is considered a slur. Times change.

I’m surprised at what I predicted correctly in 1995, and just as surprised at what I didn’t.

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 11.43.13 AM

Nearly every transsexual woman who identifies as a lesbian and/or a feminist has, at one time or other, heard the name of Sandy Stone. In fact, Sandy Stone — whose full name is Allucquére Rosanne Stone — has become somewhat of a legend within the transsexual lesbian/feminist community. As a recording engineer for the all-women record company Olivia Records in the 1970s, she found herself unwittingly thrust into the unenviable position of being the focal point of the most well-known controversy involving the inclusion of transsexual women in women-only space to date, a position that was accorded further prominence by its recounting by Janice G. Raymond in her book The Transsexual Empire: the Making of the She-Male, in which she stated that “the Sandy Stone controversy” had assumed within the lesbian/feminist community a position of prominence comparable to that within popular culture to that of the controversy over Renee Richards’ legal challenge to play professional women’s tennis, also in the late 1970s. The so-called “Sandy Stone controversy” has become practically emblematic of the entire controversy over transsexual inclusion in lesbian/feminist space that is now well over two decades old.

Her essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” which was included in Body Guards: the Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, redirected the entire course of academic discourse on transsexuality; was instrumental in sparking the beginning of the transsexual/transgender civil rights movement; and has gone on to become one of the most frequently cited works in both academic and nonacademic discourse regarding transsexuality since it was published. It was, in fact, her statement in that essay that transsexuals had failed to adequately develop an effective counterdiscourse to the criticisms of academic feminists such as Janice Raymond, and her admonition to transsexuals to begin to define their own lives, that provided me with the inspiration to begin publishing TransSisters.

Currently, she is Assistant Professor in the department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studies issues related to interface, interaction, and agency; and is director of the Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory. Previously she was a visiting lecturer in the departments of Communication and Sociology at the University of California San Diego, where she taught film, linguistics, gender, cultural studies, and feminist theory. She has conducted research on the neurological basis of vision and hearing for National Institutes of Health; was a member of the Bell Telephone Laboratories Special Systems Exploratory Development Group; has been a consultant, computer programmer, technical writer and engineering manager in Silicon Valley; and worked with Jimi Hendrix in music recording. She was invited to Sundance Institute in 1986. She produces the Monterey Symphony radio broadcast series. She is director of the Group for the Study of Virtual Systems at the Center for Cultural Studies, UC Santa Cruz, was program chair and organizer for the Second International Conference on Cyberspace at Santa Cruz, California in 1991, was an organizer and member of the program committee for the Third International Conference on Cyberspace at Austin, Texas in 1993, was a member of the program committee for the Fourth International Conference on Cyberspace at Banff, Canada in 1994, and is an advisor for the Fifth International Conference on Cyberspace at Karlsruhe, Germany in 1995. Her academic publications have been translated into eight languages and include “Will The Real Body Please Stand Up: Boundary Stories About Virtual Cultures”, in Michael Benedikt, ed.: Cyberspace: First Steps (MIT Press); “Sex, Death, and Architecture”, in Architecture New York (ANY); “Virtual Systems”, in Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter, eds.: Incorporations (MIT); and “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto”, in Kristina Straub and Julia Epstein, eds.: Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Sexual Ambiguity (Routledge), recently reprinted in CameraObscura 26. Her book The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age will be released by MIT Press in Spring 1995. The next book in a projected series, The Gaze of the Vampire: Tales From the Edges of ldentity, will be published in early 1996. Her first science fiction novel, Ktahmet, is forthcoming from DAW Books/New American Library. She is currently working on a study of vampirsm, desire, and presence.

This interview with Allucquére Rosanne Stone was conducted by telephone on Sunday, 29 January 1995.

Davina: Most transsexuals who have heard of you have done so by reading The Transsexual Empire, but it seems like not very much else is known about you within the transsexual community. So, to start off with, could you just provide some background information about yourself and what you were doing before going to work for Olivia Records?

Sandy: Well, I kept it a secret up until now, but l’m not really a transsexual; I’m simply masquerading as one… No, but seriously, before Olivia I was engineering for Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills and Nash and Van Morrision…l did Tupelo Honey, for instance. I didn’t work under my own name; I had several aliases, noms de engineer.

Davina: What recordings did you work with Jimi Hendrix on?

Sandy: I did most of the warehouse tapes at Record Plant, and I did “Stone Free.”

Davina: You transitioned in the early 1970s, is that right?

Sandy: That’s right.

Davina: What was it like transitioning back then? Was there a lot of pressure to conform to cultural stereotypes?

Sandy: Well, I deliberately chose Santa Cruz to transition in because Santa Cruz is a very accepting community, so I found that I really didn’t have to conform to too many stereotypes. That was an experimental stage for me too, living as a woman preoperatively for several years.

Davina: Did you identify as a lesbian when you were in transition?

Sandy: I didn’t identify as anything in particular when I was in transition. I was quite open to seeing which direction my sexuality took, and besides, I had read the laundry list quite well, and one of the things on that list was that one should accept the possibility that one will be completely unattractive to people of any gender or sex afterwards, and this was repeated to me a number of times by therapists and by the people at Stanford. One in particular who was trying to shake me out of my conviction, quite brutally at one point, said, “Do you have old friends?” And I said, “Yes, I have many old friends.” And he said, in an acid tone, “What will you do when they reject you?” And so I decided that I needed to be true to myself more than I needed not to be rejected by anyone else, so I did proceed, but that was why I was doing so without any real sense of sexuality; I didn’t expect to have one necessarily.

Davina: So, what did you tell your physicians in regard to your sexual orientation?

Sandy: I told them that I didn’t know, and that was a point against me. I told them that I was seeing a woman. I was, in fact, living with a woman at the time, but we were not lovers. And they said that was bad and that I had to stop it, and I wouldn’t. And that was strike one.

The Stanford program and I did some mutual retraining. In my final interview before approval I refused to say that I was totally committed to wanting surgery, and they said that if I weren’t a hundred percent committed, then I wasn’t eligible. I said that anyone who was a hundred percent committed to anything was probably crazy, that everybody had reservations if they were honest and looked deeply enough. And Don Laub, who was doing the interview, said “I don’t believe that, and I’m sorry, you’ve struck out.” We actually went back and rewrote that conversation later with the assistance of Marty Norberg, the coordinator. Marty wisely saw that we had arrived at an impasse which was merely linguistic, and she scripted another meeting between Don Laub and me in which Don simply said, “Are you ready for surgery?” And I said, “Yes,” and we proceeded from there.

Davina: So you were instrumental in their revising their guidelines; is that correct?

Sandy: I was one of the people who was. I may have been among the first, but I know that there were lots of other people. I remember talking with another person who smoked a pipe and was there at the same time I was. I said, “Tell me, if you think of yourself as a woman, why have you chosen to smoke a pipe?” She took out the pipe, a small ceramic one, and looked at it. And she said, “I am a woman. This is my pipe; therefore, it is a woman’s pipe.” And she grinned, and I said, “Ah, I understand!”

Davina: You mention in “A Posttranssexual Manifesto” that transsexuals are generally expected to create a “plausible history.” Was this something that you were required to do?

Sandy: Yes. It was not something that I was required to do for Stanford, but it is certainly something that is required by society in general, and so my policy is and was that in order to get along in the world as gracefully as possible that when strangers ask me about my background I come up with an invented history, and if I get to know them well enough, or if they already know that I am a transie and they ask me a direct question, I will give them a true answer.

Davina: When did you first begin working at Olivia?

Sandy: I think it was 1975.

Davina: How did you get the job there?

Sandy: The women of Olivia had heard about me from one of the few women engineers then active. I think they had approached her to ask if she would work with them, and she was busy with other projects or didn’t want to, and she told them about me. And so they sent a delegation to meet with me and talk with me. They called first, and I didn’t know anything about Olivia at the time. And it occurred to me later that another friend of mine who was postoperative had set me down on the couch, clamped headphones over my ears, and played Cris Williamson’s “The Changer and the Changed.” And I remember lying there thinking, “Oh, this music is so beautiful, but wow, the mix is awful!” It was a harsh judgment, perhaps; they were doing the best they could. Then when they called me, it took me a while to connect the name Olivia Records with hearing that album, because I had heard it a year or two previously.

Davlna: Did you lose work in the mainstream music industry as a result of transitioning?

Sandy: No, I had already withdrawn from the mainstream music industry. I had gotten tired of waking up on the floor, quite frankly. I actually worked with Marty Balin for a while during transition, and he was fascinated. Most of the musicians I knew were. Crosby, Stills and Nash were very supportive; everyone I knew in the business was.

Davlna: Janice Raymond mentions several transsexuals in her book, but she seems to single you out for particular vituperation. Why do you think she has such animosity toward you in particular?

Sandy: I can only speculate because we’ve never met. I know that she is an extremely angry person, and I know that a lot of her work on transsexualism stems from deep hurt and scarring, and I can’t deny her that experience, but I think that she took off after me because of the Olivia thing, and also possibly because of some feminist writers’ conference in 1970-something. They had a list of the ten biggest problems in the women’s community, and right under “Is Gloria Steinem really a C.I.A. agent” [laughs] was “What do we do about Sandy Stone?” I think that the Olivia events gave me a certain profile that perhaps neither I nor Olivia wanted, but having achieved, we didn’t know quite what to do about. There were a number of mistakes that I made and that they made, in public debates with lesbian separatist communities back in the days when we still believed that there was a possibility for dialog, and I think that those exacerbated the situation. And it’s possible that Janice Raymond had some friends in that community because there were some academic people there, and it’s also possible that Janice Raymond was friends with Julia Penelope, who at that time was known as Julia Penelope Stanley, and was the Chair at the Dept. of Linguistics at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. And there was a kind of odd connection between there and Nebraska having to do with a lover of mine at the time.

Davina: Raymond doesn’t really give very many of the details surrounding the Olivia controversy, so could you elaborate on that?

Sandy: Yes, in the first place, I don’t think she really knows much about the Olivia controversy. In the second place, I was quite open with the Olivia collective about being a transie. In fact, they already knew, but I didn’t know they knew, so one of the very first things I told them when we had our initial meeting and got to like each other very much was that I was a transie. What I didn’t tell them was that I was still in transition, and l didn’t tell them that not because I was afraid of it or that it might eventually be an explosive issue, but simply because I felt it was personal information and I wasn’t ready to share it. So at the time that I started working for Olivia, I was actually preoperative. They didn’t know that, and I didn’t know it was volatile. I figured I would tell them at some point when we got to know each other better.

Davina: So, before going to work for Olivia, you weren’t aware of any controversies regarding transsexuals within the lesbian community?

Sandy: You didn’t really “go to work” for Olivia; you became part of that collective. It was really a sisterhood at that time, and in a very deep way. I didn’t feel so much that I was being hired, so much as that I was joining a family, one in which we shared common goals and beliefs, the primary set of those goals being to make music and politics at the same time.

The controversy started with Janice Raymond sending us a chapter of her book. It happened to he a chapter that didn’t mention me, but was quite vituperative about the issue of transsexualism, and she asked if we would pass it around for comment. I think she thought she was blowing the whistle on me. I think she thought that no lesbian in her right mind would have anything to do with a transie and, consequently, that Olivia must have been totally ignorant of my situation. So this thing came in, and I think Judy [Dlugacz, one of the founders of the Olivia Collective] read it first, and passed it around with a note on it saying, “What do you think about this?” The other women were writing things like, “This is sick, what’s wrong with this woman?” And I thought about it for a while, in my sort of academic way, and wrote something like, “I think that a book on transsexualism from a critical perspective is certainly needed, but this is not that book.”

We sent that back to Janice Raymond, and then sometime later she published the book, and I discovered I was in it. Shortly thereafter, or possibly a little bit before, we started getting letters from other women and they took the form of trashing one of the new albums in terms of the quality of the engineering, and they were all written in about the same way. Judy commented on the fact that they all took the same general shape. There would be some paragraphs on how awful the album was, and toward the end there would be some sort of mention of, “Oh, by the way, we understand you have a transie working for you in the capacity of engineer,” and after a while there were quite a few such letters.

Some of them were quite astonishing. They made distinctions between what they called “male” and “female” styles of recording and mixing. This seemed to have to do with how prominent the drums were in the mix and whether the lead vocal was featured or pulled back into the mix. We were stonkered by this. Such distinctions were meaningless, really; they were simply based on local prejudices, and we didn’t share them. We were making the best music we knew how, and we felt that the things these women were objecting to were the very things we wanted to he doing. Not me, but the collective as a whole. I personally felt that we were witnessing a nostalgia for the Bad Old Days of women’s music, when albums were mixed under poor listening conditions and on equipment of inferior quality, and that a certain segment of our audience preferred that style because it really did create an identifiable genre. They didn’t realize that we were trying to escape that genre. We didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives making garage-quality music.

We soon found that we couldn’t escape the politics in which our audience steeped every single thing we did. Stuff that we thought had no possible political connotation turned out to be political hot potatoes. For instance, there were a lot of politics around what our artists wore on and offstage, all related to the idea of what a Real Lesbian should wear. I recall how heavy the reverberations were when Teresa Trull first wore lipstick onstage…talk about dividing the community!

And so, in addition to all that — which was novel for all of us and needed grappling with – we became aware that there was a contingent out there that was quite vocal and that didn’t like at all that there was a transie at Olivia. So we had meetings and decided that the best thing to do was to have some meetings with the women’s community at large and air those issues and address them directly and find out what we could do about it. So we did that.

The first meeting we had was in Berkeley, while we were on tour. We discovered that a contingent of radical separatists had flown in from Chicago for this meeting, and that…let’s say that the crowd was ugly. We were happily tripping along thinking that what we were going to do was to create dialog. We were too naive to recognize that the meeting had already been stacked against us. And so we went in, we sat down, I think there were possibly eight or ten of us from Olivia present. There were maybe twenty, maybe thirty other women in the room, maybe more. I don’t remember whether Judy made a statement first or whether the other people did, but I remember that the statement put forward by a spokesperson for the other women in the room was purposefully inflammatory, and said things about transsexualism and related topics that were simply untrue, but I don’t remember exactly what they were. It was more-or-less Janice Raymond-like statements about transies being men and raping women by their presence and it was couched in a sort of “everyone-knows-this” language, and “have-you-stopped-beating-your-partner?” type statements. The collective and I glanced at each other while she was reading, and our jaws began to drop. And when the statement was finished there was silence for about a minute, and Ginny [Berson] looked at me and said, “Sandy, would you like to respond to that?” And I made the biggest mistake of my life, possibly to date – I said, “That’s all bullshit.” The tone in my voice wasn’t hostile, it was more like wonderment that anyone could actually stand up in public and maintain a position so bigoted without withering away on the spot.

And instantly the room was filled with screaming, shouting women. We were never able to restore order. There were people standing on chairs, shouting. I remember Nancy Vogl shouting, “Now Olivia’s finally shown its true colors!” When things finally did quiet down the contingent of women other than those who were members of the collective refused to continue with the discussion unless I left. The collective said I was a member and they wouldn’t proceed without me, and there followed pandemonium, and it wouldn’t stop. We realized that we were in an unheralded situation and so we retreated to the other end of the room, and held a little caucus in the midst of this noise, and decided that for the sake of finding out just what it was that these women were angry at, I should, for this one time only, leave the room, and so I did. I left and went back to where we were staying, and eventually flew back to Olivia House in Los Angeles. And the problem was that, once I did leave, there was no resolution, and the meeting finally broke up with no understanding. And that was when we first realized that we had a problem. We were all in shock.

Then the rest of the group sat down and drafted a statement of support that was published in whichever lesbian publication those things were published in at the time and we began to strategize.

What we did was to continue to publish statements and try to engage the community in dialog. And, of course, there was a tremendous amount of support. There was no question of that, but there was this absolutely intractable, small, but extremely “moral majority,” that never let up, and eventually began to do things like threaten boycotts.

Davina: So the movement to have you ousted came completely from outside Olivia?

Sandy: That’s right.

Davina: And there wasn’t a contingent within Olivia that wanted to get rid of you?

Sandy: Absolutely not.

Davina: I think that’s very unclear in Janice Raymond’s book, because when I read her book I got the impression that there was a faction within Olivia that wanted to oust you.

Sandy: To the best of my knowledge, there was never a faction within Olivia that wanted to oust me. We became terrified that someone would actually launch a boycott of Olivia Records, and that would kill us. It wouldn’t take very long at all to sink us. Our financial situation was okay, but precarious. We had a very big accounts receivable, much, much higher than a company should have had, dangerously high because we wanted to support our distribution system and the women in it, and that meant because they were all living financially close to the line themselves — many of them — that they were slow in paying. And we wanted to support them in that as best we could, and so we ran a high receivable. Anything that interrupted our cash flow could have been disastrous. And when the boycott began to be threatened, we had to sit down and do some serious thinking. And there was a point at which the collective said, “Sandy, the reality of the situation is that if you don’t leave, there’s real danger.” And so I left.

Davina: And when was that?

Sandy: I think it was ‘78 or ‘79. I was postoperative at the time.

Davina:You were accused of taking work away from women and coming by your skills because of male privilege. How did you respond to those charges?

Sandy: Anyone who knew the real situation knew the accusations were false. My purpose in coming to Olivia was to train women to be engineers. The idea was that we could bootstrap a corps of women engineers by giving them training that they might not otherwise be able to get, and give them that training in a supportive atmosphere. That was the whole idea of my coming to Olivia. We wanted to build a studio that would be a school, whose purpose would be to train women.

Davina: Janice Raymond stated that you played a very “dominant role” at Olivia. Would you characterize that assessment as accurate?

Sandy: Of course not. It’s not only inaccurate, it’s ludicrous. In the first place, Raymond had no way of knowing what actually went on at Olivia Records. The collective meetings were only open to the collective, and there were no leaks to Janice Raymond. [laughs] Olivia was always run on a consensus basis. I had no more influence than anyone else. And the thing is: one can make a blanket statement about men, that by virtue of their socialization, men tend to be more dominant or aggressive in a given social situation than a normally socialized woman would be. But of course, there’s tremendous variation among individuals. And while I certainly had male privilege, my way of moving in the world has always been to be extremely shy, which I realize is at odds with my public persona quite frequently, and my way at Olivia was just that.

Sometimes within my area of expertise I was assertive. I was there because I knew certain things, and it was my job to talk about them. Outside my area of expertise, I didn’t know, and at that point I listened to other people, and I think there was a pretty reasonable give-and-take, and I think that if there had not have been, I would never have been asked to join the collective because we spent quite a while checking each other out before I joined. I wasn’t just hired by telephone from Los Angeles. I was interviewed. I was questioned. I did an album with them. I went down and visited with the collective and then went down and stayed with them for a while. We had meetings. It was a long process during which we all got to know each other very well.

I also feel that the idea that I could play a “dominant” role in Olivia is demeaning and insulting to the other members of the collective. They each were, in their own ways, quite assertive when they wanted to be. The few original Olivia women started a women’s record company. That takes incredible guts. It takes incredible assertiveness. The idea that ! was a person who waded into the middle of this room full of wimps and just took it over is crazy.

To write that a transie is naturally a dominant or divisive force in a women’s group tells us more about the writer than it does about transies. It reveals the writer’s own personal sense of helplessness and anger. It assumes that all women are easily manipulated. Most of the women I know find it ludicrous. I feel that it replicates the oldest problem in building a feminist consensus: that we can be our own worst enemies, that for whatever reason some women find it more satisfying to increase divisiveness rather than work toward compromise.

Davina: How do you respond to Raymond’s charge that if your “commitment to and identification with women were genuinely woman-centered [that you] would have removed [yourself] and assumed some responsibility for the divisiveness”?

Sandy: I think that’s an opinion and I think that she’s entitled to it, and I don’t think I would have done it, and I don’t think there’s any way to know. That requires an entire episteme that did not exist, not just on my part, but on everyone else’s part as well.

Davina: Are you generally satisfied with the way Olivia handled the situation?

Sandy: Yes, absolutely. I’m still friends with some of the Olivia people, and I think there is a great deal of mutual affection there that has yet to find ways to unfold. We live in different parts of the world now and do different things. Olivia is now a distribution center and a travel agency. It’s not a collective anymore. Many of the Olivia women have gone through significant changes in their lives. While originally the collective was a hundred percent separatist — men were not allowed in the house, for example — some of the women have gone on to rethink their positions. A few are now in heterosexual marriages. We’ve all gone on to become more of whoever we are and more deeply textured in who we are and the ways in which we move in the world.

Davina: Who were some of the musicians you worked with during your lime at Olivia?

Sandy: Be’be K’roche, Cris Williamson, Linda Tillery, Holly Near, Meg Christian, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Teresa Trull, Mary Watkins, Woody Simmons, Nancy Vogl… and a number of others who did independent projects.

Davina: Did you ever work with Alix Dobkin?

Sandy: No, Alix Dobkin came out as an anti-transie right away.

Davina: Yea, I know. She’s very virulent in her opposition even now, still.

Sandy: Yea, I know. I read the latest issue of TransSisters. [laughs] I worked with anyone who was connected with Olivia Records or even some people who just came through there, and of course all of the musicians who played on our sessions for all of the albums that Olivia did between 1975 and either ’78 or “79 including remixing “The Changer and the Changed.”

Davlna: What did you do after you left?

Sandy: I went back to Santa Cruz, and resumed my life there with a much, much higher profile in the women’s community. And again we had a meeting because there were separatists there who hadn’t realized that I was there. And I did, if you want to put it that way, “divide” that community in that the major part of the community — and this is what I think it ultimately comes down to when Raymond says transies divide women; this is what I think that ultimately means in practice — in the Santa Cruz community, the overwhelming majority of the women there felt that I should be considered a member of that community and the very few, very angry separatists felt I shouldn’t, and on that basis, we all went on.

Davina: But overall, you were well accepted in that community?

Sandy: Overwhelmingly. When I say very few separatists, I’m not fooling. There was not a very large number of women who were not accepting.

Davina: When I was at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival last year, someone who was an organizer of that event back in the “70s told me that you worked on the sound crew there at one time. Is that correct?

Sandy: No. I was never at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. But I remember one story coming to us during the height of the separatist flap at Olivia. When Sandy Stone seemed to be the buzzword in the women’s community and we were figuring out how to deal with all those issues, I remember that someone in the collective said that she had spoken to a woman who had been at that festival who said that I had gotten up on stage drunk and had grabbed the microphone and had made some obnoxious remarks. And we got a huge chuckle out of it. And I remember saying, “Ah, the Sandy Stone persona is up and walking through the world like a golem. [laughs] Gee, I’ve gotten to be so well known I don’t actually have to go out on tour anymore; my persona’s out there on tour for me.”

Davina: I’ve heard one person who knew you back in the ’70s describe you as “a lightning rod for hate against transsexuals.” Do you think this is accurate?

Sandy: Yes.

Davina: Why do you think you became this as opposed to someone else?

Sandy: I think it was largely because of my visibility at Olivia and the way that that issue unfolded in the press. I think that we were actually at that time a fairly close-knit community that communicated in part through publications and through meetings and festivals, to which very much the same people went, and that news travelled very fast in that way.

Davina: I understand that there was the beginning of a transsexual feminist movement back in the mid-1970s. Is that correct?

Sandy: Yes, although I don’t know very much about it.

Davina: I also understand that there was something called the TransSisters collective back in the “70s. Is that correct?

Sandy: Oh, you’re talking about the TransSisters. The TransSisters was not, strictly speaking, a transsexual political movement because most of the women in it were genetically female, but we were an organization. We had t-shirts and we marched in parades as a contingent and so forth.

Davina: Why was it called the TransSisters collective?

Sandy: Because there was at least one transie involved and we were a group that felt like sisters and we were involved with electronic work, so it seemed like the name covered all those possibilities.

Davina: What happened to that collective?

Sandy: We simply disbanded gradually in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. It got to be almost ten years old and we were getting tired of it. All of us wanted to do things that brought in more money. Some of us reached a point at which we began to think about going to college or going to university and getting educations in one thing or another and some of us did. In other words, our lives just began to diverge. You might say we began to grow up.

Davina: Why do you think that there is a transsexual feminist movement re-emerging at this time?

Sandy: Because I think that the geist is right now. I think that many women in the first and second waves of feminism, particularly American feminism, have had an opportunity to get a better overview, or get a better lay of the land, to see what the terrain of feminism is in a more deep and complex way, and have seen what’s possible. In other words, to understand a little bit more about how power works in our culture and in our society and within the feminist movements, and to understand that the analysis of transsexuals as men and as always divisive and alien is a simplistic one, and to understand that real life is more complex than that, and perhaps understand that all people need to be judged as individuals, and that some transies, just as some women and some men and some who are none of those categories are, in fact, objectionable and some are not.

Davina: What about factors in the transsexual community itself?

Sandy: The factors within the transsexual community are very similar. I think that most, if not all, transies now have a broader awareness of the political issues and the social issues. Having been through a number of years of identity politics, we understand that personal, inner strength as well as the ability and power to move gracefully in the world comes not from denying one’s identity, but accepting it fully and affirming it. And that means all of one’s identity, that locking out or closing off or denying one’s past is not standing in the center of one’s personal power. It’s not moving from the center of one’s grace. It’s not being fully who one is in a deep and loving and consequently capable-of-being-loved way.

Davina: What do you think about the general course of transsexual activism and transsexual feminism today?

Sandy: I think that, so far, it’s moving ahead in an absolutely magnificent and glorious way, and I think that about the time I will think of something to say like, “Well, I think that maybe it should be heading off in this direction,” that it probably will.

Davina: Do you see any trends within it that are disturbing?

Sandy: No, I can’t think of any. If you want to suggest something I’ll tell you how I react to it.

Davina: Well, it seems to me that any kind of social movement develops an extremist fringe, and I see that happening among transsexual activists today, and I find that to be rather disturbing.

Sandy: Well, that’s been true of any movement including the feminist movement. There’s nothing you can do about that except draw boundaries, and that’s always difficult, and near impossible to do. You have to say, “Those people are not part of this movement as I or we conceive it.” I don’t know what else anyone’s ever been able to do about that.

Davina: Do you think that we are making any of the same mistakes that the feminist movement made?

Sandy: Oh, yes. I think that to the extent that there is extremism it is the same kind of extremism, but from a different point of view. But that kind of divisiveness is ultimately destructive. The thing is, it’s not destructive in the short term for the people who need it, because they do need it. And there’s nothing you can do to change their minds at the moment when they need it. It’s just a stage of their personal growth that they have to go through, and if they’re lucky, they go through it, they complexify it, they unfold it, and then they encompass it. And by encompassing it, it becomes part of them. It doesn’t become all of them. It doesn’t overwhelm them and rule their lives. And once that happens, they look around at the world, and see that the world is a bigger place than they thought, and people are deeper than they thought, and they move on. They open to the rest of the world and to other people, and they re-establish those links, and they find in those links the deep love of themselves and others that they thought they were going to find when they closed themselves off.

Davina: What are some of the lessons that transsexual feminism can learn from the larger feminist movement?

Sandy: I think we need to learn the specifics of how identity politics works. I think we need to learn how to build coalitions, which the feminist movements at large have never been terribly good at. I think we need to learn the compromises that we must initially make in order to be able to bring the larger part of the transsexual and transgender movements into closer contact with the mainstream of feminism.

Davina: Are there things that transsexual feminism can learn from the separatist wing of the feminist movement?

Sandy: Yes, I think we can learn a great deal about how pain works and about how denial works, and about how deeply that scars us. By “us” I mean both us and the separatists as the community of beings.

Davina: I feel that there is still not a high degree of feminist consciousness among transsexuals, and one of the reasons I started TransSisters was to promote that kind of consciousness. How do feminist transsexuals go about addressing the lack of feminist consciousness among transsexuals in general?

Sandy: By doing things like publishing TransSisters and widening its circulation and continuing to raise the level of its quality, which you are doing. Thing number two is the more difficult, more time consuming and complex process of face-to-face and day-to-day conversations and understanding, by forming focus groups, by forming wider political associations, and addressing the issues in that framework, by what was called in the 1960s and ’70s “consciousness raising.” We are probably at the stage now that American feminism was in the 1960s, or possibly 1970s. We’re running twenty years behind. That’s not unreasonable, and I think with time, more and more of us will become aware of the tools that the feminist movements have already forged and tested. We can benefit greatly from them. We’ll inevitably learn to use them, but it will be a long, slow, and not unpainful process.

Davina: Do you think that Janice Raymond makes any valid points in The Transsexual Empire?

Sandy: Well, I’m sure there are some valid points in it, but I can’t remember at this moment what they are.

Davlna: In “A Posttranssexual Manifesto” you state: “I read Raymond to be claiming that transsexuals are constructs of an evil phallocratic empire and were designed to invade women’s space and appropriate women’s power.” In the introduction of the new edition of The Transsexual Empire, she denies that that is what she was saying. How do you respond to that?

Sandy: First of all, I’m grateful for the new introduction because it allows gender and sexuality classes at the university level to have two sides of the issue, even if one side is a little crazed. I have not changed my opinion in regard to her book. I think she is still writing from a position of deep hatred of men, and she projects that onto transsexuals. I think that if she really believes that she is writing an objective book, what I feel for her is pity and sorrow, and I wish she could grow to the point at which she could get over it or through it.

Davina: Do you think that the reason that The Transsexual Empire has been re-issued at this time is as a response to the gains and increased visibility that transsexuals have achieved in the last several years?

Sandy: No, I think it’s because there’s an opportunity to sell books. I don’t think it has anything to do with our gains. I think it has to do with the rapidly increasing number of gender and sexuality courses, and of the rise of queer theory, and that translates into volume sales.

Davlna: You stated that the informing principle of “A Posttranssexual Manifesto” is that “technical arts are always imagined to be subordinated by the ruling artistic idea, itself rooted authoritatively in nature’s own life.” I’m not sure I know exactly what you mean by that, so could you explain what you meant there?

Sandy: What I’m saying is that one of the ways that people justify oppressing people of any alternative gender or sexuality is by saying that the social norm is natural. That is, it originates in the authority of Nature itself. In other words it comes from God, an authority to which there is no appeal. All this is, in fact, a complete fabrication, a construction. There is no “natural” sex, because “sex” itself as a medical or cultural category is nothing more than the momentary outcome of battles over who owns the meanings of the category. There is a great deal wider variation in genetics than most people except geneticists realize, but we make that invisible through language. The way we make it invisible through language is by having no words for anything except male or female. One of the ways our culture erases people is by not having any words for them. That does it absolutely. When there’s nothing to describe you, you are effectively invisible.

I wrote a novel many years ago, whose theme was a very small group of women, one in particular, who began to dream in a new language, and the dream became so real that they began to speak it in their waking life. It raised itself up out of the dream state. It followed them into their waking existence and eventually they discovered that by speaking that language they could fall through into another universe in which other things were possible, things which they had never dreamed of because they had no language in which to express them.

Because that universe was under attack by a group of people whose purpose was to change that language and restructure it so that those things would become invisible again, this group of women realized that what they had to do was raise some sort of army and fight the group. So they went looking through all the universes, to find women who were capable of fighting that battle. And they did — they organized a core group and they raised their army around it, and they fought back against this force. And they almost won; but in the end, the countervailing force won. It couldn’t kill them, but what it did was to cause them to forget who they were and to forget the source and center of their power, and scatter them to the four winds.

They lived that way, cut off from who they were, for many, many lifetimes. Then one day, one of them began to dream again, and once again became aware of what was going on, and knew that once again she had to try to fight that battle. So again she went out to find the others. I was one of the others; this is my personal myth. One of the things they forgot was who they really were in their current universe. And one of things that I was in that universe was a woman.

That’s a fantasy scenario, obviously at odds with reality, but it made a very interesting basis for a book that was really both a kind of lesbian separatist screed and also a fairly accurate picture of the lesbian feminist movement of the ‘60s and ’70s from a particular point of view. That view had to do with the discoveries that some of us were making about language and about the way language was used. This was about the time that Adrienne Rich wrote The Dream of a Common language. It was a time when some of us thought that complexifying and enrichening language — in and of itself — would empower us to build new cultural bridges. And in fact, that happened. Many of those bridges were built. But language in and of itself, just like any other tool, in and of itself, was not enough to empower us to change the world in the profound way that we all dreamed we would. But it was still enough to make a small but significant change.

In regard to specific areas in which change occurred, I think at Olivia we hoped — we dreamed — that the very fact of bringing a new kind of music into the world was going to profoundly change the way that women thought, and, by that fact, it would crystallize out a new set of beliefs in the larger women’s community, and then in the world. And although we didn’t manage anything quite so profound, we did contribute a change: a smaller change, but a real change. It was that way with so many other things, some of which were connected with feminism and some that were not. Rock ‘n roll contributed a significant change. Computers contributed a significant change. Drugs contributed a significant change. Each in their own way, they’re all pieces of some puzzle which we are all trying to assemble, and thus to move towards some greater understanding of ourselves and each other; and by that process, to transform the world.

Davina: Was that the same book that you were referring to in the interview you did with Mondo 2000?

Sandy: Yes, Ktahmet. Among other meanings, the word means “Remember”.

Davina: And you said that that was going to be re-issued?

Sandy: Right. After having it in my drawer for years, and not thinking about it really as a publishable thing — I wrote it in 1967 — I took it out of the drawer one day, and almost on a personal dare, because my partner at that time liked it, I sent it to DAW Books. I simply sent it; the expression for that mode of submission is “over the transom”. When you submit something over the transom it goes into the slush pile, the resting place for all unsolicited manuscripts. Eventually someone may read it, but in large publishing houses the slush pile grows faster than editors-in-training can read through it. Thus the odds that an unsolicited manuscript will be read may not be great. So three months went by, and suddenly I got a phone call from Betsy Wollheim at DAW Books telling me that they think the novel is powerful and gripping and important, and that they’re going to make it a leader in the line. And from there it was all downhill. I wouldn’t do the revisions they wanted, because the revisions didn’t preserve the things in the book that I felt were important, and eventually when I got a good agent I bought the rights back. And I haven’t yet put them out for bid again. I’m so busy with writing and performing right now that I haven’t had the opportunity to do the editing on the book that I want to do, but at this point I no longer feel the urgency that I did. I will eventually do the rewrites and turn it over to my agent and see what happens.

Davlna: What exactly do you mean by the term “posttranssexualism?”

Sandy: When I wrote the manifesto, I wrote it with an imaginary community in mind. I dreamed of addressing a huge audience at a conference and saying “Will all the transies please raise your hands and come over to this side of the room and we’ll form a caucus”, and mirabile dictu a huge number of hands go up, and next thing you know we have a whole crowd of transies caucusing. At the time it was nothing more than a dream, but now I understand that I will see it actually happen in my lifetime.

I wanted my hypothetical listeners to understand that we need to work on our own issues as transies, and that we need to for the “next transformation” — which I envisioned as a deep and complex thing, involving new ways of thinking and acting. At that time “posttranssexualism” meant to me transsexuals who acknowledge and affirm all of their personal history, their entire background, back to birth — their male, their female, their other -everything they’ve done that is good or bad or indifferent. In other words, to take our own stance from our own deep centers, to move from that place like dancers, and by that act to become something other than a person who is trying to become an “unproblematic woman” — a person who is not trying to disappear into a particular social community. When we do disappear in that way, I feel strongly that we inevitably lose or deny important parts of ourselves. Many of us hate some of those parts, for example the “man” part that many of us M2Fs have left behind. Some of us express differently the parts we leave behind; it doesn’t matter how specifically they are expressed. I think that some of us make a tremendous effort to deny them, to close them out, and to see them as having been painful and demeaning. I think it’s necessary for some of us to see them that way, just in order to be able to marshal the energy to go on, to complete our transitions.

It’s possible to draw a kind of energy from that self-hatred, and in a society constructed like ours, self-hatred can be a powerful source of energy. For example, self-hatred drives most acts of gender differentiation, such as the stereotype of feminine anorexia – images of women as presented in popular culture teach women to desire kinds of physical appearances that they cannot really achieve without hurting themselves. Many young women naively assume that the anorexic women whose images continually bombard them from billboards and television are physically normal, which means that they themselves must be abnormal. They learn to hate their bodies, and to desire bodies that only exist under painful and stressful conditions. And not just bodies, but the entire feminine identity — Feminism 101, so to speak.

What I was trying to say in the manifesto — what I’m still trying to say — is no matter how you may do it, when you seal off a part of yourself, when you deny a part of yourself, you drain off a large amount of your energy into maintaining that denial. And the way to free up that energy is to be uniquely yourself, and to accept the consequences, to be willing to take the risk of being who you really deeply are — a wonderful, beautiful, shining being — and to be ready to accept the light that pours out of you. When you shine like that, people will open to you in a much deeper way, in a much more complex and more loving way than they will ever meet you when you are holding back.

Davina: Are you surprised that the community you imagined has come into being so quickly?

Sandy: Yes! Delighted. I think it’s a better word than surprised. Just absolutely delighted. I cry about it. I admit that quite freely. When I first found out about you and TransSisters, when Kate Bornstein took me to a reading that she was doing where I met a large group of people, when I found out about Transgender Nation; moments like that, there were moments when I quite simply wanted to cry from happiness, from the sense that it was really happening. Yes, the moment has arrived, and the moment is only beginning to peak. Besides transies in the general population, in jobs or all kinds, there’s an entire generation of transgendered academics who are just beginning to come of age. They’re getting to the point where they can start writing dissertations. Once that happens there will be a tremendous visibility and a tremendous complexification of the discourse of transgender within the university. I’m helping to kick that along the best I can by publishing a book on transgender theory which is specifically meant to provide an academic underpinning for much broader discourses of gender and sexuality, and shortly I will not be the only person doing it. In a few years there will be quite a few transgender academics in tenured positions, and they will mark off more wonderful moments on that upward curve.

Davina: You discuss the evolution of criteria for transsexual surgery in “A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” and seem to be saying that they’ve not always been appropriate. Do you think that they are any more appropriate than they used to be?

Sandy: I think so. I think that a lot of physicians now are a lot more aware than they used to be. However, I think that when they evaluate candidates for surgery they still apply standard social criteria, and from the standpoint of preparing people for “normal” lives that’s not unreasonable. I remember Don Laub telling me long ago that they probably wouldn’t offer surgery to someone who looked like a fullback for the Rams. But on the other hand, some surgeons do do surgery on people who look like fullbacks for the Rams, although with a certain trepidation. From my conversations with them, I think their trepidation doesn’t arise from bad motives. They feel that what they’re doing is worrying about their client’s ability to live in a world which makes certain social assumptions. And ultimately we all must live with some set of social assumptions; that’s the definition of society.

Davina: You also talk about surgery on demand in “A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” and this is something that some transsexuals are advocating a return to. Do you support this idea?

Sandy: I think it’s a good idea, but I think it has big risks, and the risks are that if you do surgery on demand — regardless of any psychological criteria — you are inevitably going to do surgery on someone who is going to go berserk later, and then that’s going to be used against you in some court of law. It could be professionally damaging to you, and that’s going to make medical people think twice.

Davina: I can also see it jeopardizing the availability of surgery for other people.

Sandy: Do you mean in terms of surgery for psychological reasons that health plans cover?

Davina: Not specifically. Just in general, I can see it jeopardizing access to surgery. If someone does surgery on someone who is going to go berserk, then a lot of physicians are going to say, “Well, this is too risky. This is not something that I even want to bother with.”

Sandy: Yea, I agree with that too. It’s something of a dilemma- philosophically I believe in surgery on demand, but practically I think it’s a huge worm-can, and I think it will result in trouble for everybody.

Davina: Do you advocate removing transsexuality from the DSM?

Sandy: Absolutely, but I also realize that that means trouble.

Davina: How so?

Sandy: In that I think that some people who are now able to get surgery through their medical plans may not be able to get it. I think that’s just the price of being recognized as people.

Davina: So how do we go about balancing those different interests there?

Sandy: Well, I think that the people who count on getting their medical procedures through being declared as having an illness are going to have to give that up. I don’t think there’s any other way around that. I’m not saying I would force them to give it up, but I think that that’s inevitably what the course of things is going to be. I do not think it will simply be driven by altruistic motives on the part of the medical community that that diagnosis will be removed. I think that far and away the major reason will be that they begin to understand that transsexuality is like homosexuality, that is, part of a broader spectrum of normal human behavior than they have been previously willing to consider.

Davlna: You also talk about the “wrong body” metaphor, and say that it is something that we should regard with deep suspicion — and I agree with that — but do you think that it might be a valid metaphor for some transsexuals?

Sandy: Yes, I do, but in the sense that as young people and growing people, we do have a limited vocabulary with which to deal with the world. And things which we might think of later in a much more complex language, we might early on learn to think of in fairly simple terms, and become attached to those terms, and never re-think them. And were we to rethink them later in life, we might find ways of expressing those same things, but ways that take into account greater psychological and social complexity.

Davina: Do you agree that the “wrong body” metaphor is something that has been imposed upon transsexuals by the medical profession?

Sandy: Yes, but I also think that it originates in society at large. I think that, for all intents and purposes, the only way we can speak about feeling that we are “other” in the sense of being transgendered has been to talk about it in terms of being in the wrong body. In other words, we simply haven’t had the depth of description to be able to think about it in any other terms because our society has made those terms invisible.

Davina: You say that the lexicality of the phrase “wrong body” suggests “the phallocentric, binary character of gender differentiation.” I understand why that term suggests binarism, but I’m not sure that I agree that it is necessarily phallocentric. So could you explain to me why this phrase is necessarily phallocentric?

Sandy: Certainly. It comes from first and second wave feminism, which had a fairly simplistic idea of what phallocentrism was and how it worked; namely that any binary opposition must by nature be phallocentric. That worked very well for a long time, and it allowed a lot of powerful, useful and transformative feminist discourses to arise and gave us good tools with which to examine the ways we use and respond to description of ourselves and others. One of the ideas common at the time was that any binarism was phallocentric, since phallocentrism implied intrusion, division, seeing things only in black & while, having no room for nuance or negotiation. Now I no longer believe that’s strictly true; I would have to say I’m currently re-thinking the entire analysis, as are many other feminist theorists. You have to be doing that continually — rethinking things you once thought were true for all time — because social configurations, societies, continually evolve and change, and the meanings we attach to things change too; but that’s off at a tangent from our discussion here.

Davina: You say that “transsexuals have been resolutely complicit by failing to develop an effective counterdiscourse” to radical feminist theorists. Do you see this situation changing?

Sandy: Oh, yes, definitely. As a matter of fact, it’s not just a single counterdiscourse now, it’s many discourses, some of which are effective, some of which are not.

Davina: How effective do you think this discourse is?

Sandy: I think at the moment it has limited effectiveness, but that it will become more so; it will become more effective with time as the situation evolves. Likewise, nontranssexual and nontransgendered people who are engaged in that discourse with us evolve as well, so the shapes which the dialogues can take evolve further and present new surfaces to each other.

Davina: You also say: “In the case of the transsexual, the varieties of performative gender, seen against a culturally intelligible gendered body which is itself a medically constituted textual violence…” Could you explain what you meant there?

Sandy: Yes. Think of textual violence as using writing to disrupt thought — not in terms of polemics, but by the act of turning writing against itself, producing disturbing juxtapositions and making meanings clash with each other. Some poetry and much of contemporary music does this. Now, sometimes it’s useful to understand the world by “reading” it, applying techniques of textual analysis. The underlying assumption is that we’re all inveterate storytellers, that in fact all conscious civilized activity can be interpreted as storytelling…buildings tell stories of relative wealth, automobiles tell stories of speed and prestige. And bodies tell quite complex stories of desire and adventure, failure and achievement, dominance and submission.

When we are reading along in a text, the mechanism of reading and of the production of textual meaning — our internal parsers and dictionaries and associative links — is invisible unless it’s disrupted. Tapping you on the shoulder while you’re reading may disrupt your chain of thought, but the flow of meaning from the text resumes as soon as you go back to reading. The mechanisms by which you produce meaning out of a text remain unaffected — they can only be disrupted by the text itself. No polemic can substitute. Now if we substitute “man”, “woman”, “bodies” for “text”, we are talking about the kinds of textual violence I suggested. When we construct the stories our bodies tell in such a way that they disrupt the mechanisms of meaning production, we are embodying textual violence. Today we have a much simpler term for this process, but the term genderfuck didn’t exist when I wrote the manifesto. I don’t think that genderfuck quite conveys the full dimension of what textual violence implies, but it’s close, and drawing out the differences is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Davina: You suggest constituting transsexuals “as a genre — a set of embodied texts whose potential for productive disruption of structured sexualities and spectra of desire hat yet to be explored.” Could you elaborate on that?

Sandy: When I talked about constructing transsexualism as a genre I was suggesting that we could use the power of genre, and the multiplicity of genres, to mobilize thought quickly. Essentially a genre is a cluster of codes, sometimes quite subtle and elusive, that constructs our expectations and sensibilities in relation to a particular aesthetic, and each genre produces its own set of expectations… in film, for example, a Western won’t tell its story in the same way that a romance will, visually or narratively. Each genre is unique; we know one pretty quickly when we see it.

And most significantly for our purposes, there are more than two genres. Thus rethinking gender as genre avoids the trap of binarism, and also avoids some of the sticky problems inherent in trying to create space for a “third sex” or “third gender” when what we’re really talking about is a continuum of sensibilities and behaviors. Kate Bornstein points out that talking about a “third gender” merely reinforces the binarism out of which the “third” is created and in juxtaposition to which it is seen and experienced.

The gender-genre move is a relatively simple way to avoid this problem without having to invent an entire new language. Of course, I also believe that we do need a new language, but that comes later.

Davina: You say that “Passing means the denial of mixture.” By this do you mean that passing is the same as conforming to sexual stereotypes?

Sandy: Yes. By “denial of mixture,” passing means that we cannot present ourselves as partly male, partly female, or partly anything else, to use the traditional way in which that would arise in transsexual discourse. What passing means to me is denying parts of yourself in order to pass yourself off as the person that you want to be.

Davina: I don’t understand passing quite in the same way. To me, passing just means that I can walk out on the street and be perceived as a woman, but at the same time, I don’t feel that I have to deny masculine aspects of myself, which I don’t. I think that most people perceive me as a butch lesbian. So I feel that I pass, but I don’t feel that I am denying mixture.

Sandy: I support that absolutely. When I say “passing,” I’m referring to the older transsexual idea, and in the spectrum of transsexualism, the extreme end of the spectrum that says, “I deny my male history. I was terribly unhappy as a man. There was nothing good about it. Now I’ve become a woman, and there’s nothing male about me. There was never anything male about me. I was simply in the wrong body.” That’s what I’m referring to when I say “denying mixture.”

Davina: Well then, do you see the definition of passing as changing from what it used to be?

Sandy: If what you’re describing is passing, then yes.

Davina: Well, I don’t know if it’s what most transsexuals think of as passing, but it’s what I think of as passing.

Sandy: Well, I’m certainly happy to embrace that. I think that’s a very productive definition. I don’t know what that says for transsexuals who still need to deny. They’re certainly still going to use the word “pass” and use it in a different sense.

Davina: You say that “transsexuals who pass seem able to ignore the fact that by creating totalized, monistic identities, forgoing physical and subjective intertextuality …. have foreclosed the possibility of authentic relationships.” Are you’re saying here that it is necessary to be out to everyone to be able to have any kind of authentic relationship with anyone?

Sandy: No, I think that would be suicidal. Everyone must choose — because the world is a big place — how much and to whom they reveal themselves.

Davina: So, then what I understand you saying, is that to have any kind of authentic relationship, you have to be out with those particular individuals with whom you want that kind of relationship.

Sandy: Yes, and that it’s your job as a human to expand that circle as far as possible, but I don’t expect people to go around wearing t-shirts that say, “I am a transie.” I mean that the quality of life improves with self-revelation — mutual, caring self-unveiling as it feels appropriate and graceful. And of course, that’s true for everybody, not just for transies.

Davina: Do you think that there are other ways that transsexuals can gain the kind of visibility you’re advocating other than deliberately not passing? Is there some kind of middle ground we can pursue?

Sandy: Oh, there are all sorts of ways. There could he something like a transsexual anti-defamation league or a transsexual media organization that deliberately set out to encourage positive portrayals of transsexual and transgendered people in the media, which is really how popular taste is formed. If, by some miracle, there were a number of positive portrayals of transgendered people in the media, there would be some flash point at which, all of a sudden, it would be hot to be a transie, and then it would die down, and it would simply be okay. I think that there have been a number of breakthroughs in that area, but they didn’t reach the flashpoint. One of them was the transie in The World According to Garp, which was very well done. And if I think for a minute, I’ll come up with some others …

Davina: The Crying Game?

Sandy: I think The Crying Game was a very interesting and problematic case because the person in question was preoperative and wanted to interact with the protagonist as a preop, and that was very positive. I think the way the character was portrayed was very positive. The reason that I prefer the character in The World According to Garp is that I thought that character was portrayed in a more ambiguous way — as a mixture of elements. And that just tends to be, or tended to be at the time, my personal sense that this was the right way to do public education. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be. The person in The Crying Game, insofar as she represented a positive portrayal of transsexualism with which the audience could identify and with which the audience could mobilize some empathy, was good.

Davina: You say that “A Posttranssexual Manifesto” is about “telling the truth about gender,” and you call on transsexuals to be out and to not create “plausible histories,” so isn’t this agreeing with Raymond’s contention that transsexuals who become part of the women’s community, and who don’t immediately reveal themselves to be transsexuals are deceiving nontranssexual women?

Sandy: Yes, but what about nontranssexual women who join women’s groups, and don’t reveal themselves? I’m not saying that people should reveal themselves immediately and unquestioningly in every circumstance. Everyone needs to be context dependent, and to move forward as they feel comfortable, but I also feel that everyone needs to take bigger risks. Now, of course what’s happening in the feminist communities is that the situation there is changing, and it’s easier to reveal oneself as a transie within the women’s community than it was a few years ago. It’s still not unproblematic, but it’s definitely easier.

Davina: But you don’t feel like you have to announce yourself, which to me seems what Janice Raymond is saying transsexuals should have to do?

Sandy: Well, I would put that back to her this way: Suppose every woman who walked into a group of women had to immediately say, “I am an alcoholic” or “I am a victim of childhood abuse,” or whatever else the case may be. That would be something that women might not feel is everybody else’s business right away.

Davina: Some transsexuals are now saying that all transsexuals have an obligation to be out and have felt justified in outing other transsexuals against their wishes. How do you feel about that?

Sandy: I think that that’s exactly the same as going to a tupperware party and announcing that another person in the room is a member of an A.A. group.

Davina: You say that “We need a deeper analytical language for transsexual theory.” Do you see that happening, and could you give an example of it?

Sandy: Yes. I think the word transgender is a good example. That was a tremendous breakthrough. It’s hard for me to give specific examples, because so much is just now being produced, but when I say a deeper language I’m talking about the kinds of analyses I see now in which the issues are not so simply drawn. I would have trouble saying exactly what I mean without taking a long time. A good deal of it turns up in fictionalized form in my novels, where the women speak a language in which gendering (and other things) works differently. That language is based on some work that I and a colleague of mine did in the ‘70s — the fantastic, quite fictive, but at the time immensely powerful idea that there was an essential common language that we had forgotten and that could be “remembered”, and that could, through its descriptive power, transform the world. It was a heady time…for instance, Adrienne Rich had just titled her new book The Dream of a Common Language. Almost certainly she meant nothing so literal, but what happened around our attempt to recreate such a language was so fantastic and so dangerous that I was able to mine it for a whole series of novels.., but that’s another story. So let me just say that the issues of male/female, of man/woman, of genetic things, of social performance, of behavior, of self-image, of psychology, of the law – all of those things are now being seen in much more complex ways just as feminism has become so much more complex and deeper.

Davina: You conclude “A Postranssexual Manifesto” by saying that “perhaps it’s time to begin laying the groundwork for the next transformation.” How do you envision that transformation?

Sandy: I think the transformation that I envisioned at the time was in part the articulation of transgender, and partly it was the posttranssexual moment of transies taking responsibility for all parts of their lives. The transformation which would bring that about would be the making of space in society for transsexuals to live openly as transsexuals — to have fulfilling lives and relationships without having to deny parts of themselves, and not only to just not have to deny, but to be able to affirm — which is quite different from not denying — to be able to say “Yes”, to be able to make love and music and high art and high writing with other people — with nontransie people, with every bit of themselves, with the male, with the female, with the neither, with the both, with every bit of themselves, without being afraid, without being the least hesitant.

Davina: Do you think that transformation has already begun to take place?

Sandy: l think it has just begun to be underway, and I think it’s incredibly promising. I think this is a moment of high promise, of deep and wonderful promise, and I, for one, am joyful and proud to be alive and to be writing in this moment.

Davina: In the footnotes to “A Posttranssexual Manifesto” you say that you hope that Judith Shapiro’s work will supersede that of Janice Raymond as the definitive statement on transsexualism by a genetic female academic. I think that you could easily make just as strong a case that Anne Bolin’s work has already done that. Would you agree or disagree, and why or why not?

Sandy: Yes, I would. At the time I wrote that, Anne Bolin hadn’t yet published anything. Subsequently l’ve had some wonderful conversations with her and I do agree, l’ve mentioned certain ways in which I think she totalizes, in which I think she can slip over into treating transsexuals as a uniform class with uniform characteristics, and I think she’s become a lot more conscious of that, and I don’t know that she does it anymore.

Davina: What do you think about Deborah Feinbloom’s work?

Sandy: I’m not yet that familiar with her work to be willing to say.

Davina: In the introduction to the re-issued edition of The Transsexual Empire, Janice Raymond claims that Judith Shapiro appropriated a lot of her critique about transsexuality while trying to simultaneously dissociate herself from it, and I do see a lot of similarities between Raymond and Shapiro. What are some of the crucial differences you see between their understandings of transsexuality?

Sandy: Well, first of all, I think that’s a bit of Raymond’s ego showing, because what Judith Shapiro was doing — from my point of view – was adopting a discourse that was more common among some of her colleagues, some of whom were publishing and some of whom were not. I don’t mean that she adopted it whole-cloth, but she took parts of it that made sense, and she built on that a fairly coherent structure. I don’t think she got most of it from Raymond. Raymond was working the other side of the street. In other words, they both got foundational material for their theories of how gender and sexuality work from the same sources, from the same broad network of feminist theorists. What Raymond did was to use that for her own purposes, to take her theoretical grounding and apply it to her deep hatred and loathing of men, and to come up with her particular theoretical framework.

I think that Janice Raymond’s original contribution to the 1970s was not The Transsexual Empire; it was demonstrating that one can cloak a radically conservative position in liberal language. It’s the sort of thing that’s become commonplace now… “pro-life” is a good example, an excellent case of spindoctoring to give a positive, upbeat, “yes”- oriented sheen to an extremist conservative belief system.

Davina: Both Raymond and Shapiro say that transsexuals generally are very conformist in their ideas about masculinity and femininity. Do you think that stereotypical transsexuals are still the rule or have they become the exception?

Sandy: Well, that’s hard to say, but my hit is that if transies of the old school are not currently in the minority, they soon will be.

Davina: Raymond and Shapiro seem to agree that “addressing gender issues through sex-change surgery is a bit like turning to dermatologists to solve the race problem.” Could you comment on that?

Sandy: I didn’t agree with Judith on that, and I still don’t, but I think that she’s changed since then. That was a paper she had written in the late ’80s, and you have to understand that that was a time when a lot of analysis regarding transsexualism and transgender was just beginning to be done in serious ways. Up to that point all that there was was Green & Money and Benjamin and a few other books, and Raymond, and then Catherine Millot.

So for someone of Judith Shapiro’s insight and stature to be writing a paper — even a paper which had lots of problems — was still a huge step forward. Today we see that paper as terribly retrogressive, and definitely dated, but at its time, was quite nice.

Davina: So what you just said would also apply to Shapiro’s statement that “what we see in systems of institutionalized gender-crossing is the maintenance of a society’s gender system through detachment of gender from the very principle that provides its apparent foundation.” Is that correct?

Sandy: Yes, though I haven’t spoken with Judy Shapiro recently. I’m inclined to think, knowing her and knowing her sense of the issues, that she has changed her position quite a bit now. Of course, I can’t speak for her, but that’s my impression.

Davina: How do you respond to Janice Raymond’s criticism that “A Posttranssexual Manifesto” mystifies and distracts “from the real material and political questions of surgically turning men into women?”

Sandy: Well, that’s her radical conservative, right-wing, fundamentalist streak re-appearing. It’s the underlying basis of her entire work, and she can’t shake it. If she ever shakes that, she’ll be a different person. Of course, Janice Raymond’s particular distorted way of seeing these issues doesn’t have anything to do with what’s actually going on. I don’t think it’s a real issue. It’s a total red herring. There was a time way back when, as a red herring, it was a more important red herring than it is now, but now I think it’s completely irrelevant to everybody — the doctors, the patients, the lawyers, the psychologists — everybody is very clearly aware of those issues.

Davina: How do you respond to Raymond’s contention in the introduction to the new edition of The Transsexual Empire that : “the language of sexual conformity as sexual rebellion has come to dominate the public field?”

Sandy: I’m inclined to think that it’s a misperception. Again, I think she tends to see things with a particularly skewed viewpoint. I honestly, simply don’t think that’s what’s happening, and I don’t want to put much energy into finding counterexamples.

Davina: in an interview you did with the magazine Mondo 2000 you said that you think that transsexuals invented virtual reality. Could you elaborate on that?

Sandy: [laughs] Yes. Transies were on the scene at the beginning of V.R. Several of us were, but I don’t know that they’re out yet, but you may know some of the people I’m referring to, some of the people who wrote some of the very basic theory of the electronic systems that we use now are transies. I was back at the beginnings of a lot of activity regarding virtuality. That’s one way, quite directly, in which transies invented virtual reality, but more to the point, the traditional transie has to generate a virtual reality in which he or she is and always has been a man or a woman. And that’s about as virtual as it gets.

Davina: Also in that interview you say “How much oppression can you learn?” Do you mean by that that you think that male-to-female transsexuals can never really understand what it means to be oppressed as women?

Sandy: It was in the context of saying that there is a limit to how closely a transsexual can approach a person who had been raised from birth in the gender of choice. I meant that, as a male-to-female transie, simply in terms of time, one can never learn as much oppression as a woman who was born and raised as a woman in our society because, of necessity, that person has absorbed a lot more information in the form of oppression and other things than you or I could absorb. Now, in practice, that might not mean very much because after a while you could asymptotically approach some limit of how much absorbing oppression actually affects how you move in society.

Davina: The author of the Mondo 2000 interview said that the first time she saw you that you were being carried on a palanquin by four sturdy dykes. Why were you being carried on a palanquin by four sturdy dykes?

Sandy: [laughs] That’s total fantasy! Apparently back in the ‘70s she had run across me. I have no memory of that, but she might very well have. But I was never carried aloft on a palanquin by four sturdy dykes. Actually it was five sturdy dykes. Just kidding. [laughs]

Davina: You’re working on a book called Transgressions: Adventures at the Edges of Identity. What’s that going to be about?

Sandy: It’s had a change of title. It’s now called The Gaze of the Vampire. It starts out with a thought experiment, and this experiment represents the concluding chapter of my book that will be out in May, that will not be about transgender, but it acts as a link to the next book. I’d actually been doing this work for a number of years — but my hit was this: The vampire Lestat is a very interesting person in and of himself. He’s a liminal character in that he lives in the boundaries between many worlds — French and English, life and death, adult and child, even to a certain extent man and woman. He sees humans, whom he calls mortals, from a position simultaneously outside and inside. He participates in humanity in that he walks among people and looks like them, but he is not really human. He feels at times like a mortal, but he isn’t.

This both-neither simultaneity is the nature of both a liminal creature and also of a cyborg. Cyborgs are very interesting and problematic. They are, by virtue of their ability to disrupt traditional categorization, tremendously promising creatures. I saw Lestat in that way, and I saw that the way he viewed mortals was very useful to my work.

So what I did was to conduct a thought experiment with Lestat. I sent him to a university, and I got him two degrees — one in Cultural Theory and one in Anthropology. And possessing those degrees — in other words, changing his epistemic frame — has changed his visual apparatus, which is to say, changing what he knows changes the way he sees. So he now sees humans not only trapped by time, but also trapped by subject position, that is, by their belief system regarding who they are. That doesn’t just refer to gender. It also refers to the basic sense of singularity, of us seeing ourselves as individual, single identities. That sense of singularity may be an artifact of the political system in which we live and the webs of power that that political system produces, as well as what in Art Theory is called the “apparatus of visual representation,” which is to say the way in which we learn to interpret our world and the objects within it. And that’s a very difficult thing to grasp.

Now, when Lestat — I mean the anthropologist and cultural theorist Lestat — gives the Dark Gift to mortals, they are not only freed in time, but they’re also freed from fixed identities. I call that liquid identity, or seeing one’s chosen persona as a boat which is only momentarily at anchor in a vast sea of possibilities. That’s a bit metaphorical, but what it means in the real world is that real self-knowledge frees us to move beyond a single identity to be all of who we are, in complex, multiple ways — to come to use all our identities, not necessarily simultaneously, but perhaps serially, or in various combinations.

Davina: And so, you see this as analogous to the situation of transsexuals?

Sandy: In part, yes, but it also plugs into other debates and other forums regarding multiple personality and regarding another postmodern idea called fragmentation, which is about recapturing and recovering our personal sense of multiplicity in ways that have nothing to do with gender necessarily, but just have to do with selfhood.

Davina: When is that going to be published?

Sandy: Probably in early 1996.

Davina: Weren’t you at one time writing a book called In the Belly of the Goddess: “Women’s Music,” Feminist Collectives and the Cultural Arc of Lesbian Separatism?

Sandy: Yes, that’s a chapter in The Gaze of the Vampire.

Davina: And is that about your experiences at Olivia?

Sandy: It’s partly about the Olivia collective, but it’s also about the cultural arc of lesbian separatism in a broader sense because there was a time there when lesbian separatism reached a peak, and is now declining. And there were also a series of stages in the development of that analysis that were quite interesting that raised useful questions. For instance, why it was almost exclusively a movement of Caucasian women, and so on and so forth.

Davina: In the interview with Mondo 2000 you said that your book Ktahmet was written from “the perspective of a cyberspace-surfing transgendered polysexual Jewish Neopagan hacker.” Surely you couldn’t have identified as that back in 1967, could you?

Sandy: I would have to cross off hacker because… No, I would have to leave hacker in too because I had been at M.I.T. already at that point, and hackers did exist. Jewish? Yes. Pagan? In the sense of contemporary Neopaganisrn, no. But in the sense of exploring for some alternative spirituality that I couldn’t quite define, one that involved some sort of Earth magick or mysteries of that kind, I would say yes to that. Transgender? I was certainly in the midst of my personal battle with transgender at that time, but I was not living openly as a transgender person, so in that sense, that would have to go.

Davina: Well, back then did you identify as transsexual?

Sandy: Well, in ’67 I knew about Christine Jorgensen and several other people, but my personal childhood with regard to the transsexual issue went like this: I used to have dreams, and then later, waking dreams, of doing things with girls, but they were not traditional girl things. They were adventuresome things like swimming rivers and climbing mountains — things that later I actually got to do with women — but at the time it was not the kind of thing that girls would do. So I didn’t so much start off thinking of myself as a girl in the more traditional sense, but I definitely started off thinking of myself as a girl. Why I thought of girls in a completely acontextual, unheard of way of being adventurers, I don’t really know, but I definitely thought that I belonged, somehow or another, that my way of moving in the world was as a girl rather than a boy. I didn’t use the word transsexual consciously, but all of that imagery has been present.

Davina: How long have you been involved in Neopaganism?

Sandy: I started to have that consciousness about the time that I started living as a woman, but it didn’t necessarily come from talking with other women at the time. It did shortly thereafter.

Davina: So you mostly came to Neopaganism through the feminist movement?

Sandy: Yes, I would have to say so. Not entirely, but the ideas that were being put forward at that time were what we would now call ecofeminism.

Davina: You also encountered some opposition within the Wiccan community because of your transsexuality, didn’t you?

Sandy: Yes, but that was partly because I thought that my correct entry point into the larger Pagan community was through the Dianic tradition, and so I blundered in on Z. Budapest and got chopped up for it. That was [laughs] an interesting adventure, but not one to recount now. Both Z. and I have considerably changed our positions since then.

Davina: There seems to be a very large number of transsexual women who are involved in Wicca or in the larger Neopagan movement. Why do you think this is so?

Sandy: I think that probably if one has thought deeply enough to think about one’s personal identity, one has also thought deeply about other things — things like what’s happening to the world around us, and what’s happening to traditional religions, and certainly ecofeminist Neopaganism is one of the viable alternatives. Once you start examining those issues, it becomes clear that your identity might not be the only thing that’s problematic. But it’s also possible that ecofeminism is, at least in the United States, the main way that many folks experience Paganism. So transies who first begin to investigate the women’s community — which I think a large proportion of male-to-female transies do — sooner or later encounter Neopaganism as well.

Davina: In closing, what advice would you give to the transsexual feminist movement?

Sandy: You’re all beautiful. Keep it up. There’s nothing we can’t do if we keep going in the direction we’re going now.


Seance Time at AES

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
      By the men who moil for sound;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
      That would freeze your blood right round;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
      But the queerest I address
Was that night John Diamond came to town
      And blitzed the AES.

This, so help me, is a true story. I was there; I was sober; there were witnesses — hundreds of them. Chillun, gather round.

It was the heyday of the TranSisters collective, and we were deeply involved in occasional things trans and all things audio. So when the annual convention of the Audio Engineering Society came to San Jose, naturally we were eager to attend.

The AES was and is the organization of professional sound engineers. Virtually every audio engineer in the country belonged, so the annual international meetings were huge things, taking up convention centers, hotels, and so forth. I and my dear friend Arpana and others of the collective were having the time of our life, attending plenaries and breakouts and wandering the halls of hotels whose suites were packed with the latest microphones, amplifiers, loudspeakers and recorders, not to mention snacks, drinks and the occasional freebie.

Eventually we found ourselves in the main auditorium for the day’s plenaries, resting our feet and perusing the speakers’ schedule; and while we were thus engaged, an unfamiliar gentleman began his presentation. He was a bit more than middle-aged, grey-haired and a bit stocky, wearing a dark grey suit. He was a man of very few words.

“Good afternoon. My name is John Diamond. I am not an audio engineer. I am not a doctor. I am a kinesiologist, and have been for twenty years. I’m here merely to show you something I’ve observed in my practice. Make of it what you will. May I have a volunteer?”

That was the whole spiel. That was what started it. Arpana and I weren’t even paying much attention. By his own admission, the guy wasn’t involved with audio. Someone in the front row got up and walked onstage.

Diamond said “Stand here, facing the audience. Hold your right arm out parallel to the floor. I’m going to push down on it. You resist. That’s all.” Diamond signaled to an assistant, who played music through a small sound system.

Diamond said, “The music you hear is an analog recording. Now we’ll play a digital recording.” The assistant switched the machine off and turned on another one. The volunteer lowered his arm. Diamond said, “Don’t try to control it, just let it happen. Again, please.”

After a few repetitions of this, Diamond said “May I have a different volunteer?” Someone else stood up and walked onstage, and they did it again — the volunteer holding their arm out, Diamond pressing down, the assistant playing one piece of music and then another, the arm dropping. Soon it was clear that the volunteer wasn’t consciously dropping their arm when the digitally recorded music played; something else was going on, something involuntary.

By this time there were mutterings in the audience. Diamond stopped and walked to the stage apron. “I told you, I’m not an audio engineer. I’m not a doctor. I make no claims about what you see here. I’m just demonstrating something I observe in my practice. I’m asking you to tell me what it is. May I have another volunteer?”

This goes on for another volunteer or two. The presentation is the same: analog music, arm up; digital music, arm down. By now the audience is seething. Diamond just calmly continues. Now people are arguing. Some are raising their voices. Volunteers are swarming the stage. An elderly gentleman shouts “You’re turning our sober professional gathering into a circus!” (It may have been Sherman Fairchild.) Diamond is gesturing for calm, arms forward, palms out. I’ve never seen anything like this at an AES meeting.

Arpana and I catch each others’ eyes. Upstairs, we know, is the 3M suite, filled with the latest professional quality recording equipment, both analog and digital. We run, not walk, out of the auditorium, heading for the elevators, the clamor fading behind us. We elevate and dash into the 3M suite, complete with reps in blue serge suits in low-voiced discussion with studio owners. There is a classical selection playing on one of the mastering machines. I run over to it and press stop. Everyone turns around to look. Arpana says “Excuse us for just a second, we’d like to test something.” She beckons to one of the suits. “Would you mind holding out your arm?”

She shows him what to do. He holds his arm out parallel to the floor. She pushes down on it. He resists. She nods to me.

I press play.

His arm goes down.

“What just happened?”, he says. “Never mind,” we say, “Thanks for helping.” And we run out of the suite.

Thirty years pass, and we live to tell the tale. You know, and we know, all music, when it’s reproduced, is analog. There are a million reasons why what I just told you couldn’t possibly happen, and I’m not here to discuss any of them. I just tell stories.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Mindfulness Is All, But It Isn’t Enough

Studio engineering is about mindfulness, pure and simple. All you have to do is keep an eagle eye on the levels, the limiting, the transport, the sends and returns, the headphone mix, the monitors, the producer, and the artists. If you are being seconded, the second or assistant engineer may be a seasoned studio veteran or an apprentice, and if it’s the latter then you have to keep an eye on them too. At the same time, if the producer is inexperienced, they are probably sitting next to you, fingers nervously twitching, because they can see that there’s nothing to engineering besides knob-twiddling and they think they can do that perfectly well. It doesn’t occur to them to ask themselves how a pianist might feel if the producer barged into the studio, shoved the pianist aside, and began to play the piano part for them. So part of your job is to smoothly and gracefully head off those impulses so that they continue to keep their hands off your instrument. Sometimes the artists themselves sit next to you, and that creates conflicts: part of the engineer’s obligation is to respect the artist’s wishes, and when the artist wishes to put their hands all over the board you have an obligation to let them and correct the damage later.

Sometimes, however, in the interests of doing your job properly you can be devious. Jimi Hendrix liked to get the sound he wanted by turning up the gain on various instrument tracks. This would have been perfectly fine, but he couldn’t tell the difference between the monitor controls and the recording controls, and thereby hangs a tale.

Let me pause here to explain a psychological phenomenon. An important part of recording is simply making sure you have enough signal and not too much. You do this by setting the gain — the amount of signal going to the recorder — at a level which the equipment is designed to accept. Normally this is indicated by some sort of meter. If you set it too low, the normal background noise that your equipment produces will be noticeable; if you set it too high, it will exceed the recorder’s ability to accept it and it will become distorted. So in setting up a recording you adjust all the instrument levels to be as loud as reasonable, which is pretty much equally loud across all tracks. But when you hear a group of instruments playing on a recording, the levels of the individual instruments aren’t equal at all. Some stand out, others are background, and the balance between them is important for the listener’s enjoyment. The vocal, for instance, may be in front of the accompaniment; there may be violins floating in the background, a guitar a bit more prominent.

To make this work, in practice you have a completely separate set of controls for what you hear in the control room, so that you can create that balance, simulate what the final mix may sound like without disturbing the levels going to the recorder. You can, and in fact you should, meddle around with the monitor mix. You may need, say, to hear whether the rhythm guitar is playing precisely on the beat, in which case you push the rhythm guitar level way, way up, above the other instruments — not on the recorder, on the monitor.

Inexperienced folks invariably do this by making the rhythm guitar louder, but after a while they want to hear things in balance again, so they make the other instruments loud enough to match, and lo and behold, everything is back the way it was…except all the controls are now closer to maximum than they were before. This will continue until all the knobs are at ten (or eleven, if you’re Spinal Tap), there’s no more up to push things to, and the client looks at you in bewildered frustration and says “Fix it.” Whereupon you pull them all down and reset the mix, and then the whole thing happens again. And again.

One of the first things you learn as an engineer is to resist the impulse to turn something up and instead turn everything else down. Do this judiciously, and the knobs stay somewhere around the center of their travel (which is called Design Center), which is where they belong. And yet, after you’ve watched a few clients, you realize that the temptation to turn things up rather than down is damn near irresistible. It’s built into the human psyche somehow. We want more. Of everything.

Unfortunately it’s not your job to educate the client on what they should do when it conflicts with what they naturally want to do. So you get creative. Mindfulness, in fact, is not enough. First and foremost you are a prestidigitator. You succeed through misdirection.

In Jimi’s case, Gary Kellgren caused a special control box, covered with knobs identical to the ones on the board, to be created especially for him, so that he could adjust the mix to the sound he liked. A fat cable emerged from the box and disappeared into the console. The box did nothing. The knobs weren’t even wired up inside. But it made Jimi happy. He would tweak and poke and somehow, through the miracle of suggestion, he got what he wanted. Meanwhile Gary no longer had to tear his hair out because Jimi had hopelessly screwed up his record levels.

When I took over, it was patent that unless you maintained an iron resolve Jimi would be all over the board whenever he felt like it. But I was overcome with shame at having to put one over on the artist, so I sat Jimi down and made a solemn pact with him. I built a fence down the middle of the console — a literal physical barrier, made of marker tape and popsicle sticks. On my side I had the record controls for the night’s instruments. I patched everything else — all the monitor controls, the effects, toys, everything — to the other side. If Jimi’s body language so much as suggested he was about to reach over the barrier and touch my controls, I slapped him. But we were using a Datamix One console with about twenty-four faders plus submixes and masters, which meant that during the overdub phase I had three or four faders and Jimi had around thirty. It was enough. He gazed out over his expanse of controls and was happy; and furthermore, they did stuff. When he turned knobs, shit happened. Occasionally earsplitting shit happened, because Jimi was nearly deaf from standing in front of his two ten-foot Marshall stacks being massaged by 120dB of top-quality blast. At those times I grabbed my handy earplugs and jammed them in, trusting to one of his entourage to plead with him to embrace reason.

Regardless of these mild contretemps, Jimi could hear when he needed to hear, and his musical judgment was impeccable. I’ll tell you more about that later.

(To be continued…)
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All contents copyright 2015-2017 by Sandy Stone. FWIW, Y’all.

Progress report, and a few brief anecdotes

(Nota bene: The 24 track console I talk about in this post has passed on to its next life. The current console is a beautiful Soundtracs Jade 48, lovingly restored by Antonio Belena Lopez in Madrigueras, Spain and brilliantly maintained by Tim Jones, Soundtracs expert to the world, before being shipped to us here in Santa Cruz. The tale of its journey would take a few posts of their own.)

Y’all know I’m building a studio, right? (The image above is not the studio I’m building.) Well, this here’s an update. Almost all of the equipment is here and roughed into place. As the main audio chain pieces arrived, I lashed them together to make sure they worked, and they all did, which is all I wanted to know, so I turned them off again. Some of the toys (outboard gear in the analog realm) are placeholders, cheap versions of what I’ll add later, but they all work; I used Behringer equalizers and limiters until I decide on what will take their place. If it matters, I don’t know what my final choice for equalizers will be. It won’t be Pultec. I love Pultec but they’re useless in a production environment unless you’re using them for putting a finish polish on stuff during the mastering pass. I actually had two Pultecs in the chain in the mastering studio, but they’re much too gentle for studio use now in the face of jazzy stuff like digital parametric EQ.

For the limiters I’ll scrounge a couple of UREI 1176s, and thereby hangs a tale. After I left the industry, when I was fairly well along into transition but not at all sure what the future held in store, I went with Christy one evening to a John Stewart concert. (I loved John Stewart’s stuff, so sue me. “Now I have not been known/ as the saint of San Joaquin/ and I’d just as soon right now/ pull on over to the side of the road/ and show you what I mean”… Ooh, baby.) By my own choice I was out of the recording biz, but missing it powerfully, and I decided to bite a personal bullet, approach him after the show, and ask if I could record his next album.

When the show ended, John hung around in the front of house chatting and signing autographs. I waited until everyone else had said whatever they had to say and then introduced myself and made my pitch. John cocked his head and looked at me — and he sees not a hot-shit recording engineer radiating blue sparks but a thirty-something trans in a homegrown jeans skirt — and, gravely and quietly, he says “What’s the most common studio limiter?”

Everybody in the entire goddam sidereal universe knows the most common studio limiter is the UREI 1176. Chicago drug dealers know it. Australian aborigines know it. Tuvan throat singers know it. New Orleans street hustlers know it. And I know it. But when John Stewart asked and I opened my mouth to answer, without warning THE SHADOW fell on my mind — the phenomenon William Goldman wrote about in “Lord Of The Flies” — that weird, inexplicable moment when, for no apparent reason, and inevitably at the furthest extent of need, one’s brain goes blank and dark — and you stand there, living your worst nightmare, in front of the class with your pants around your knees and not knowing the answer to the mostest importantest question there is. “Oeheim, waz wirret dier?” I’m standing there with my mouth open, and nothing comes out.

John gives me about fifteen interminable seconds while my entire life passes before my eyes, and then, very softly and kindly, he says, “It’s a UREI 1176.”

All I can do is blush right down to the roots of my hair, mumble something vaguely apologetic, shuffle my feet…and walk away.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Right now I have two completely different pairs of nearfield speakers, but eventually I intend to build enclosures for the four Altec 604Es and deploy them high up. I so miss the sound of Heider D. I so miss it. 604Es are what engineers sometimes call honky, i.e., they are peaky around 6-8KHz, depending on how your crossover works. This disappears if they are well damped, i.e., if the amplifier seems to present a very low resistance to the voice coil. (I said “seems” for a reason. I’ll come back to this phenomenon later.) We drove the Heider monitors with 80 watt McIntosh tube amplifiers, which provided good damping at a reasonable power level, but when they started to push, not only did they lose control of damping but their distortion rose precipitously. Tube amps produce even harmonic distortion, which, for psychoacoustic reasons, the human ear likes (aural exciters are all about this phenomenon); so with the Heider setup we were benefiting from the double whammy of peaky speakers and even harmonic distortion, which, taken together, sounded incredibly good. Yes, that’s right: the secret of Heider’s sound was that on some level it was lousy.

My most memorable experience of this was when I sat in on Steve Barncard’s Rowan Brothers sessions. (I may have been seconding Steve or just hanging out.) He was recording everything at 30ips, which burns a hell of a lot of tape, but Clive Davis was picking up the bill, so no one was particularly worried. (The Rowans slated “Take five for Clive” on one tune.) The combination of the natural jangle of strummed acoustic guitars, the extra depth and transparency of 30ips tape, the peakiness of the 604Es, and the even harmonic distortion of the tube amps was nothing short of staggering. On top of that, on the days when we were awash in interesting substances, with all the psychoacoustic magic flying around, during playback one could experience the sensation of having left one’s body and ascended to some hitherto unprecedented level of ecstasy. (Come to think of it, I had to have been observing, because no engineer would partake while at the board, and Steve never did. [I make special exception, of course, for the Dead, for whom the concept of altered consciousness meant something far beyond our poor power to imagine.] Steve Barncard was one of the most amazing engineers I had the pleasure of knowing, and, among other things, his diet was strictly organic and natural. More about Steve in a bit.)

Anyway. 604Es. Right.

The console accepts 24 inputs, but I expect to only need 16 for the foreseeable future. Actually I can get along with 8, because top quality preamps come in groups of 8. I have the Presonus Joey Lopez kindly sold me standing in for a bank of super-low-noise analog preamps which is on the way. Needing only 8: Once upon a time I was doing a project with David Crosby and Graham Nash during which a famous manufacturer of analog multitrack recorders asked me if we’d be willing to field test one of their spanking new 24 track machines. Those were quite rare at that time, and I jumped at the chance.

The next day the new machine arrived by truck outside our Hollywood studio, and everyone went outside to watch me wheel it in. As I bumped it over the threshold I ran into Bones Howe, who was working an Earth, Wind and Fire project in one of the other rooms. Bones, who had a nice wry sense of humor, asked me what was up, and I told him I was trying out a 24 track box. He looked down at the machine, gave me a perfectly guileless look and said “Whatever are you going to do with the other sixteen?”

Blada blada blada in the early analog days when giants walked the earth and so forth we did a lot of bouncedowns and combines to keep the total number of tracks down to eight, which, after all, was all we had. Bones was absolutely brilliant at this. Before that, it had been four. All of the Motown hits that sound so great are four track mixes. Don’t tell me you need thirty-six tracks for your great project. I laugh in your pumpkin spice latte, monkey-boy.

I’ll have more to say about bouncing, and also about that new gee-whiz multitrack machine, because it turned out to be a session destroyer in disguise. But that’s enough for now.

(To be continued…)


Copyright 2015-2017 Sandy Stone. FWIW, Y’all.

Flying the Radian

We flew the new Radian Pro BNF at Lighthouse Field, using the Spektrum DX8 transmitter. Binding was flawless, and the Radian is beautiful…it floats like the proverbial butterfly. A bit too much so, perhaps– I’m going to have to learn how to bring it down much closer to us than I’ve so far been able to do. It’s so light in the air that I keep overshooting.

Someone asked if that’s a large cross in the background, It isn’t; it’s the Lighthouse Field sign seen end-on.

Cynbe launches the Radian at Lighthouse Field
Cynbe launches the Radian at Lighthouse Field

(Of course, this isn’t all fun: our r/c airplanes and gliders are test platforms for the control systems I use in my art installation work, like Sandy’s Fan Club. Cynbe and I need to continually experiment with new kinds of electronics to stay current with, well, the state of the art of my art…)