Visiting Norman Borlaug and Eating an Impossible Burger with Charles Mann

Charles Mann smiles in front of a statue of Norman BorlaugIf you are planning a huge, calorie-dense feast for dinner later this week, you might want to take a moment to thank a man you’ve likely never heard of—a man whose scientific breakthroughs in agriculture made food cheaper and more plentiful around the world. Norman Borlaug may have saved up to a billion lives by breeding up new short, high-yielding varieties of wheat, often running field trials personally, plowing, planting, and harvesting by hand. Combined with irrigation and synthetic fertilizer, Borlaug’s plants ushered in the “green revolution,” in which crop yields skyrocketed from India to Iowa, his home state. In the biography written to introduce him as the winner of the 1970 Peace Prize, he was described as both “an eclectic, pragmatic, goal-oriented scientist,” and “a vigorous man who can perform prodigies of manual labor in the fields.” The Nobel prize committee often calls at five in the morning to make sure they find their winners at home. When they called for Borlaug, his wife told them that he had been already out in the field, working, for a solid hour.

Not everyone is a Borlaug fan, though. Since his agricultural improvements relied on more expensive seed, irrigation, and fertilizers, some say they caused mass impoverishment for farmers who could not afford these technologies and led to poisoned rivers and genetic homogenization of crops. More broadly, his reliance on technology doesn’t sit well with those who blame blind faith in technology and capitalism for many of our environmental problems. And the disagreement over his legacy mirrors a decades old disagreement about how to save the planet: should we respect “planetary boundaries” and “limits to growth” and live lightly on the planet or should we simply innovate our way out of trouble? 

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Whispering Walls and the Nature of Acoustic Geometry

In caves and rock walls of the southern Utah desert, pictographs have been painted, added to the backs of clamshell-shaped sandstone enclosures. Many are noted to have acoustic properties, meaning these ancient, Indigenous images seem to be correlated with the way sound reflects around them. I’ve spoken in a normal voice back and forth from one sheltered rock art panel to another an eighth of a mile downcanyon. The way sound spreads and is refocused, we could hear each other’s every word.

James Farmer, from the Utah Rock Art Research Association, wrote that panels from the ghostly and enigmatic Barrier Creek tradition in Utah (pictured above) contain what he sees as thunderstorm motifs. At one of these Barrier Creek panels, he witnessed a cloudburst with thunder, waterfalls, and falling boulders. He wrote about the intensification of sound from the storm around the rock art, “it seems inconceivable to me that any ancient archaic hunter-gatherers witnessing a similar event would not have been just as astonished as me, and would have naturally invested the location with divine, supernatural powers.”

The nascent field of “archaeoacoustics” studies the way sound and archaeological sites interact. I look at this as not just an ancient feature, but one that we walk through everyday. Cathedrals and capital domes have been noted for the way they capture and amplify sound. By happenstance or not, resonance is part of the way we relate to architecture, whether human made or carved by nature. Continue reading

Unintentional treevotee

I never meant for this to happen.

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest from arid Colorado three years ago, I was one of those people who insisted on horizons.

The town where I was born is a place where the foothills of the Rockies stand like a cliffy coastline overlooking a dry sea of plains. From their height, you can watch the change of light roll through the day like surf, can see storms so far away that lightning comes without sound—a flicker on the dark edge of awareness.

Even now, if you asked me what landscape makes me feel so big and free that I might crack right in half, I would say alpine tundra—the naked, velvet crowns of our sky islands, with their pikas and marmots and ptarmigan, with their cushion plants smaller than mixing bowls but older than I’ll ever be.

When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I worried that all this lush and green would make me soft. My friend Ben told me that the first thing I’d notice was how nice everyone’s skin is, compared to the weathered hide that passes for such on we Coloradans. Western Oregon, after all, is a place insulated from the UV glare of the sun by a few thousand extra feet of atmosphere, by dozens of extra days of cloudcover, by air so thick with moisture that it’s practically water. Indeed, as soon as I arrived, I spent a lot less money on lotion. My blood pressure mysteriously dropped 20 points and stayed there. Continue reading

The Last Word

There is no roadmap for confronting a neighbor in the grocery store about a sexual assault that happened twenty years agoCassie, on Monday.

On a happier note, we’ve got a new Person of LWON. Rebecca Boyle sees her bare-branched pin oak and thinks asteroids. Apart from humans, maybe, trees are the best form of life on this planet. . . They are the embodiment of our shared presence on a rocky planet that orbits a star. Hedgehogs and helminths may be interesting, but they don’t constantly remind us, simply by existing, that we are in a solar system.

Jenny reduxes her post about J-Shame, because it is (unfortunately) still relevant: [J-Shame] hits when your beat is way out of synch with a big tragic thing that’s on everyone’s mind. It shrivels your confidence and embarrasses you for not taking on something with bigger-picture importance.

Rose has a brilliant idea about best-of lists—KABOOM! (After a year, that is.): We are creating a great pacific garbage patch of best of lists — a region of the web that looks fine from the surface but is thick with tiny particles of information that have decomposed and are no longer useful but can still get stuck in our guts and cause all kinds of intestinal problems.

Ann looks at the connections between astronomy and the military—and there are more than you might think: An astronomer told me once that astronomers sometimes work with the military because their technology is often the same, but (and I paraphrase), “they’re using it to look down and we’re using it to look up.”

Hope things are looking up this weekend—we’ll see you next week.

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Image credit: Linsey via Flickr

Loving Explosions

Years ago, talking about the persistent rumor that the Hubble Space Telescope was an off-the-shelf spy satellite retrofitted for astronomy*, I told a NASA employee that I was pretty sure academic astronomers were culturally anti-military and they wouldn’t be crossing lines and dealing with spies or the defense department.  The NASA employee looked at me and said, “Don’t be naïve.”  And ever since, I’ve been interested in the cases of interplay between astronomers and the military.  The case I learned about most recently:  a hyper-violent explosion called a gamma ray burst, that astronomers are still trying to figure out, was first discovered by satellites flown by the defense department’s Advanced Researth Projects Agency, ARPA, now called DARPA. Continue reading

Best Of Lists Should Self-Destruct After One Year

Recently I was looking for a distraction-free writing system. I knew I had heard about many. But they all seemed to have simple, hard to remember names. (A related complaint: companies that name themselves words like “medium” so that when you’re trying to figure out how to do something you cannot search “medium format image” when you’re trying to figure out how to format an image on Medium.) Anyway, I googled “distraction free writing system,” because as you can see I am easily distracted. The first result was an article from 2010. Half of tools picked didn’t even exist anymore.

This happens to me a lot. I wanted a way to search Twitter images — four of the five sites listed on my top result had defaulted on their hosting. I was looking for a site that would let me pull up Instagram images based on their geotags, three of those were dead. Aside from The Wirecutter, whose staff constantly updates their picks and maintains their offerings, most of these best of lists are good to at most a year. Continue reading

Redux: A Case of J-Shame

This post ran back in June 2016 after the shooting in the Orlando nightclub. I’m running it again because, sadly, it is as relevant as ever. The atrocities keep coming, and as a writer I continue to feel unsure of how to handle them. (Here’s what’s happened since then.)
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I’ve been working on a couple of essays over the last week, knowing I had to fill this space. But when the time came to post one of them, I couldn’t do it. The subject was too irrelevant, too glib in the shadow of yet another sick fuck shooting innocent people. It didn’t belong.

This is not the first time I’ve paused before posting my work, even when I felt extra good about the piece I’d written. Occasionally there’s a collective change in tone that makes the text feel out of place in any public forum. When readers’ attention has been yanked in a single direction, it’s hard to lure them back—and under tragic circumstances it feels wrong to try.

I’d imagine that most writers who publish on the Web have experienced this awkward mental flip-flop, questioning the validity and timing of their work before hitting “post.” As one who often covers quirky animal science or, here on LWON, personal absurdities from colonoscopies to battles with beach fleas, I’ve finally named the feeling because it has become so familiar. I call it J-Shame (for Journalists’ Shame). It hits when your beat is way out of synch with a big tragic thing that’s on everyone’s mind. It shrivels your confidence and embarrasses you for not taking on something with bigger-picture importance.

The big thing this time, not that anyone needs reminding: A man walked into a gay club in Orlando and started shooting, shooting, no need to pause because his assault rifle was packed full. He killed 49 people, last I checked, and injured more than 50 others—young people who were drinking and laughing with friends and lovers, who were posing, goofing off, dancing. In the end the shooter died, too, which I’d imagine is no comfort to those who lost loved ones in his massacre.

Of course, when people commit hate crimes or terrorist crimes (is there really a distinction?), the news doesn’t cease covering other subjects even if the tragedy holds its place on page one, above the fold. (That’s newspaper speak, for those who have never had Sunday-morning ink on their hands.) So really, if I happen to have written a mildly amusing article about E. coli from the bacterium’s point of view, I shouldn’t be ashamed to put it out there.

And yet, I am. I am.

Because one guy was hiding in a bathroom and texting his mother throughout the killing spree. He called her “mommy” and told her to call the police and that he loved her, and that he was scared, until he stopped texting because he’d been shot dead. For hours she waited to see more words from him, not knowing, but suspecting, what his silence meant.

These brutal acts are unfathomable, yet so familiar. We’ve endured a slew of mass shootings—is it 15 just during Obama’s administration?—in elementary schools and high schools and churches, on college campuses and in theaters and offices, at cafes and concerts. We’re flailing our arms against the madness, caught unprepared time and again.

Mostly we follow these tragedies from a distance, and we go through our helpless motions: Post a line or two of sympathy on Facebook, change our profile pictures to show solidarity, recount the worst bits we’ve read with friends at work or strangers on the train. Debate the killer’s motive, scroll through photos of the victims (so young!), think about how quickly a nutcase with a gun and a heart full of hate can ruin so many lives. Talk about the problems with gun laws and untreated mental illnesses, rant about the government or the NRA. You and your friends at work and strangers on the train all agree—something has to change.

Lots of journalists are driven to write about these tragic events, to report each moment in cringeworthy detail; I’m not one of them. But I found out this week that my J-Shame keeps me from offering a distraction. Even if a silly article about a cat befriending a goat might give a few people a brief reprieve from sadness, I’m not sure there’s good in rushing to normalcy. Sitting and staring at tragedy, even if we feel helpless in our response, is necessary and deserves time no matter how painful. Who am I to dictate when we look away? So I’m shutting down my screen, prepared to wait.


Photo: Shutterstock

Make Like A Tree and Get Outta Here

Bristlecone Pine

A small raptor alighted for a few minutes yesterday on the top of a tree in my yard. The bird perched up in the crown, on branches that have been bare for a few weeks. The tree is a pin oak, whose health was questionable when we moved to this house in the spring, yet which still has most of its leaves, now crisp and a warm orange-brown. The bird, the tree, the angle of the low November sun: it all made for a fine little fall tableau. All I could think about were killer asteroids. Continue reading