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  • Claire L. Evans’ project
    Polytopia
    The human species is rapidly and indisputably moving towards the technological singularity. The cadence of the flow of information and innovation in...
    Now playing SpaceCollective
    Where forward thinking terrestrials share ideas and information about the state of the species, their planet and the universe, living the lives of science fiction. Introduction
    Featuring Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames, based on an idea by Kees Boeke.


    “This one will look like a jellybean,” the session director warns us. “Or, you know, when you empty a hole punch? The circles of paper that fall out? One of those.” She’s talking about Neptune, and I am about to step, carefully, up a ladder painted industrial yellow and wheeled into place in front of the centenarian eyepiece of the 60″ Hale telescope at Mt. Wilson Observatory, incidentally the very place where Edwin Hubble, in 1925, discovered that our galaxy was not the entirety of the Universe, and later, that our Universe was expanding.

    A jellybean, a piece of confetti: it seems her language is primed to describe nuances between round things seen from afar. Like the Eskimo, I imagine, with their apocryphal hundred words for snow, this astronomer undoubtedly boasts a pantheon of personal metaphors for “dot.” Through a wide rectangular slit in the domed ceiling, the cosmos lies in wait, ready for the focal beam of the telescope itself: like a plastic straw, I’m told, poking into an ocean of night. The sky is uncharacteristically alive for Los Angeles, a lattice of flickering light nearly indistinguishable from the trembling, smog-blanketed city we glimpsed through the valley below as we wound our way up the mountain.

    I think she conjures the hole punch because the edges it punches aren’t quite clean, and stars like torn paper are crenulated, fringed with wisps of filament. Clearly they are pieces of something bigger, a whole sheet of paper somewhere, meaningful in its completeness, and whose exacting, cookie-cutter perforations are just a concession to some order we can’t quite perceive. From where I’m standing, on Earth, at the foot of the ladder and looking up with my naked eyes at the stars, all of them look like jellybeans, or confetti.

    Now I’m up the ladder and it’s precarious, insensibly parked; I have to wedge my foot on the heavy metal casing of the telescope for balance. I perch strangely and squint into the eyepiece. Inside, the sky is still black but suddenly it’s the black of space, not the black of night; of course they’re the same thing, but the fractal glimpse though lens separates them. It’s the black of space now, and, as promised, I spy a jellybean. Or something like it, bluish and strangely aqueous, as though it really were made of jelly, lit from within. Hanging there in the center of the circle, my straw-hole of vision. Neptune.

    The pleasure I take in this sight is complex, subtle. At a star party a few years ago, at the McDonald Observatory in the desert reaches of West Texas, an astronomer stationed at a telescope-–pointed at a nebula, I forget which-–gravely intoned to me, “this is the farthest thing you’ll ever see.” That’s the essence of it, and what makes it impossible to really appreciate. Through the eyepiece of an optical telescope, you see something right in front of you, and your brain says, there it is: a jellybean, four feet away. Of course, Neptune is 17 times the mass of Earth and far-flung as it gets, but that doesn’t compute. It might be the farthest thing you’ll ever see, but it looks so close, and in the absence of contextual clues, the ordinary functioning of perspective fires and misses.

    And so your awe is self-inflicted. Your awe is one you name to yourself. You almost have to say it out loud, “that’s Neptune,” forcing the cognitive dissonance into place. Once there, accepting that your mind has seen farther than biological limitation is its own challenge; the implications take their time unfolding.

    When the 100″ Hooker telescope at Mt. Wilson saw first light in 1917, the poet Alfred Noyes was present. Noyes was so moved–by the long journey up the mountain, the egglike domes of the observatory on the hillside, the cathedral feeling of the structure–that he ended up writing a trilogy of epic verse, The Torchbearers, about the history of science. Its opening poem, “Watchers of the Sky,” describes in meandering and awestruck detail the strangeness of the telescope, its ability to collapse distance and transmute meaning onto specks of light:

    Then I, too, looked,
    And saw that insignificant spark of light
    Touched with new meaning, beautifully reborn,
    A swimming world, a perfect rounded pearl,
    Poised in the violet sky.


    Noyes is describing Jupiter, by far the most impressive object visible through this kind of telescope; even in miniature, you can make out its whirling stripes and characteristic red spot. A marble ringed by four radiant sister-moons. I saw it too. After a series of variable jellybeans, its obvious planetness floored me. The astronomers had saved it for last, knowing it would spoil everything else. Because, honestly, it mostly all looks the same to the untrained: Neptune and Uranus both milky orbs, the stars of various sizes all literally twinkling, the nebulas so delicate you have to look away immediately to pin the fairy’s-breath of dust in your mind.



    Jupiter, albeit toylike, is fiercely recognizable; the awe I feel looking at it is more real, less contextual. It looks like a picture. It’s not as difficult to understand. It draws all the other marbles into place. Without this clear reminder of scale and distance, the candy-bowl of jellybeans and pearls would otherwise melt together, a testament perhaps to the difficultly we take in perceiving space as a horribly vast and three-dimensional void populated by giant fires, orbs of gas, and ice.

    The mirror of the 60″ telescope at Mt. Wilson is milled from 1,900 pounds of champagne glass, the only material at the dawn of the 20th century thought capable of supporting the necessary weight. If you aim a flashlight into the underbelly of the telescope, it gleams a deep green. It’s appropriate somehow, to welcome distant light to Earth with this fanfare, to usher it home from its long dark journey into glass designed to cradle and protect something sweet and intoxicating, best appreciated in small sips.

    Or, as Noyes wrote:

    The polished flawless pool that it must be
    To hold the perfect image of a star.
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    Stewart Brand, writing about space colonies, observed that “if you live in a satellite, the Earth is something that goes on in your sky.”

    For Felix Baumgartner, the daredevil skydiver who seduced the world with his chiseled jaw and seeming invulnerability to fear (and who broke the sound barrier with his body last weekend) the Earth is something else. The satellite he leapt from, a weather balloon 24 miles above the Earth, wasn’t his home. But briefly, and especially for the millions who watched the gossamer balloon float upwards to the strange blue-black gradient of space’s edge, it turned our home, the Earth, upside-down.

    New perspectives on familiar sights have strange, heady effects. The Space Shuttle Endeavour caused a furor in Los Angeles last week as it paraded to its final resting place at the California Science Center; the relatively banal journey through what Angelenos call “surface” streets incited more hype per mile than its previous twenty-five sojourns to space and back, presumably because people were able, for the first time, to feel the scale of the thing, to see it in surreal contrast against the landscape of everyday life. Photos of its slow march through L.A. streets show the shuttle, a little worse for the wear, in silhouette against a Sizzler, a Midas tire shop, and the brown-to-tarmac gradient of Californian urbanism. Maybe NASA should have paraded the Shuttle around before its adventures in low-Earth orbit. Who doesn’t want to see something soar into the sky that once trundled through a Bed, Bath & Beyond parking lot?



    On a larger scale, Earthrise, the iconic image taken from Apollo 8 as it shot towards the moon, instigated a global reevaluation of the planet. It was a fresh perspective on something we all took for granted, and many credit the picture for catalyzing the environmentalism movement in the 1970s. But as far as new perspectives go, seeing the curve of the Earth from space with your own eyes is the ultimate paradigm shift. Suddenly, the world, which for your whole life you’ve known to be solid ground–the very definition of flatness, made from dirt to be kicked up and buried under–is a round, dimensional planet. Like an apple, it whirls silently in space, as Dusty Springfield sang.

    My parents, as children, gathered around black and white television sets to watch a man step onto the surface of the moon. The footage was blurry, delayed. Last week, my friends and I gathered in a different way. Alone, and together, we scrutinized the tiny face of the Internet, watching in real-time (and high-def) as a man stepped out of a capsule not dissimilar to the Apollo lander. It was just as tin-canny, as claustrophobic. In, fact Baumgartner himself suffered from such extreme claustrophobia in his spacesuit that he almost couldn’t bear to wear it. “As soon as the visor closes, there’s this nightmarish silence and loneliness,” he said in an interview, “the suit signifies imprisonment.”

    Unlike the moonwalkers, however, Baumgartner didn’t take a step onto solid ground. He jumped into the void, and thanks to the placement of the camera, we jumped with him. We didn’t just watch the record-breaking skydive from the ground, or from his weather-balloon diving board. The 21st century is an epoch of P.O.V. feats, of go-pros taped to helmets and steering wheels, streaming the direct visual stimulus of unthinkable feats directly to our eyes. It’s a kind of exploratory telepresence; in our simultaneous visual culture, in which appearance is often conflated with experience, we feel we participated. After all, the moment Felix Baumgartner opened the door of his capsule and stood on the precipice, we all saw the curve of the planet at his feet. Would the moon landing have been different if the camera had been mounted to Neil Armstrong’s helmet? If his steps were, in a sense, ours?



    Why is Felix Baumgartner’s jump so fascinating? It’s an act of derring-do of the most extreme order–and for that we all toast our Red Bulls–but there’s something more to it. It’s a gesture that actually inverts our picture of the home planet, shifting the Earth from something you walk on to something you leap towards. There’s no equivalent.

    Well, maybe one: in 2007, I interviewed French parachutist Michel Fournier. Before Red Bull and Felix Baumgartner started plotting their total domination of the form, Fournier hoped to break Joseph Kittinger’s 1960 record for human free fall with a similar weather balloon-assisted technical leap called Le Grand Saut. “When you’re in the air,” Fournier, who had 8,600 parachute jumps under his belt, told me, “you are struck with such a high dose of adrenaline that you immediately take yourself for the most beautiful of birds, the bald eagle. Only parachutists truly know why the birds sing.”

    No amount of Twitter feeds and livestreams can broadcast the inconceivable thrill and horror of making the jump ourselves–truly, only parachutists themselves can know how it feels. But even from the digital backseat, it goes to show that we haven’t yet run out of ways the Earth can amaze us. The Earth, maybe, is the new moon: a frontier that belongs to everyone.

    Felix Baumgartner didn’t just jump. He fell to Earth. He abandoned himself to the single most universal faith we have in our planet: that no matter how far we stray, it will always take us back.
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    Yesterday we lost Neil Armstrong, an accidental hero, thrust by fate onto a rock in the sky. Many dreamt of walking on the moon before he did, and a few men did after him. He happened to be the first. Hopefully many more men, and women too, will echo his iconic footsteps in the future. Perhaps even future space tourists will huddle around Tranquility base, laying nostalgic 60s filters over their high-resolution snapshots of an upended American flag from a long-ago mission.

    We can only hope. A lot of my favorite humans have died this year: Armstrong, Sally Ride, Ray Bradbury, all people who variously embodied an earlier era’s seemingly limitless capacity for wonder. Every time, I’ve asked myself: who will replace them all? Who will raise their hands and grasp forcefully at the stars? Who, like a figure in a William Blake etching, will prop their ladder across the moon and climb it, rung by rung?



    The real triumph of the Apollo program was its unforeseen shift in tone; driven by a desire to objectively beat the Soviets down to the wire–most Americans don’t know the unmanned Russian craft Luna 15 was beginning its descent just as Armstrong and Aldrin were tromping about the moon’s surface–and catalyzed by feverish nationalism, it instead precipitated dreamy wonder in its participants and the millions who watched the ghostly images from below.

    Did you know NASA accidentally erased the original moon landing footage during routine magnetic tape re-use in the 1980s? The footage the world saw on television that July day in 1969 was actually taken of a slow-scan television monitor and re-broadcast, picture quality reduced. The space between the primacy of that moment–in Armstrong’s life and in the narrative of the 20th century–is obscured a layer of irretrievable analog decay, time, and distance. Now death, too.

    The Appollo 11 mission would have been impossible today. It was too quick and dirty, too risky. Today, wiser, we send robots ahead of us. I am not necessarily sentimental about manned missions to space; I know it’s a messy business, limiting, and often more trouble than it’s worth. The human explorer defecates, sweats, needs sleep, is afraid. But exploring the moon wasn’t just a matter of rock samples and spectrographs, either: the real laboratory was the human mind. It’s not without reason that the things we remember most about the Apollo program are its words and gestures, the famous “first step” and the steps which followed, the proclamations, then, later, the reflections.

    Neil Armstrong said a great many beautiful things about his experiences. Most astronauts did. Going to the moon has a tendency to turn test pilots into poets. That matter of cortex-shifting is called the Overview Effect. Neil Armstrong articulated it with his characteristic clipped decorum:

    “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

    We lose heroes from the space age and the temptation is to eulogize an era, not a person. Neil Armstrong’s death does not signify the dwindling hopes of a different America. Today we have a completely new approach to space, from which we’ll learn a great deal. Maybe not from humans coming home and struggling their whole lives to convey the gravitas of their experiences in words, from astronauts whose dreams at night are forever colored by dusty panoramas and pea-sized Earths. Rather, from smart machines serving as our eyes and ears.



    Instead of famous footprints, we now leave tread marks.

    NASA’s Curiosity Rover is wonderful, and has already proven a robot’s capacity to ignite the global imagination, but it cannot perform the simple acts of grace that can be the lasting effects of a mission to space. Perhaps we should invent poetry engines, rovers equipped with algorithms that can turn vaporized soil samples into poignant insights.

    For now, unmanned space exploration can tell us everything, but not how the dust feels under its boots, nor that giant loping strides and kangaroo jumps are the quickest way across the surface. It can’t, like Buzz Aldrin, privately take communion before stepping out onto lunar surface, or quote Psalms in its final broadcast before splashdown (“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”). It has no thumb to blot out planet Earth, no heart to feel very small, and it can’t retire from the space program to live the rest of its life on a farm in Ohio, like Neil Armstrong, who was forever mindful of his position as only an incidental figurehead for an effort of thousands of people.
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    The NASA Mars rover Curiosity landed on Mars last week. Those of us who tuned in vicariously via NASA’s live coverage watched as a roomful of tense engineers exploded, and heard their disembodied voices whispering and booming through the control room. Holy shit. We did it. Their headsets fell askew, they glad-handed one another, criss-crossing the room, and then, immobilized by a sudden hush as the news spread: We’ve got thumbnails.



    Thumbnails. We watched as a tiny image formed, transmuted across the void of space and into this room. It was black and white, an indistinguishable gesture of light in a blur of dark pixels. The engineers cheered and held one another as they gazed upon this small, inauspicious sight. One man sobbed at his desk. Then another image came down the line, this time more resolved. We began to see the grain of the dust, the pebbles, the outline of the rover itself, 352 million miles and 14 minutes of delay away, struck against the Martian soil.

    And so, as with so many missions before it, the narrative of our rover’s discovery began with an acknowledgement of its own shadow.



    NASA’s older Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were both avid amateur photographers of their own shadows as well. In fact, such images have been part and parcel of the visual language of space history since the Soviet Union developed and launched the Venera probes in the early 1960s; which, beginning with Venera 9, were the first landers to send back images of another planet. Those pictures too, taken before the cameras were undone by the very atmosphere they hoped to document, were of light and shadows cast on rocks.

    Rocks that looked for all the world like our rocks, light like our light, and shadows like our shadows, only cast on an alien world.



    William Gibson writes that the moment we began sensing and recording with technology, our extended communal nervous system, the “absolute limits of the experiential world” were “in a very real and literal way…profoundly and amazingly altered, extended, changed.” We no longer relied on the limited capacities of our individual memories, nor did we quite fully trust the bounded senses of our apparatus; free to back ourselves up and reach ourselves further outward, we extended our reach. We also loosened the definition of “we,” allowing our tools to become part of us in subtle ways. Now, closer and closer to the machine, we share a “largely invisible, all-ecompassing embrace.”



    This means: we can’t go to Mars and see what it looks like for ourselves. Not yet, anyway. So instead we have sent this robot, this laboratory, this sentry of extended sense organs for the human race, ahead of us. I find it profoundly moving, not only because something inconceivable has been accomplished, but because we–that room full high-fiving tinkerers, and us plebeians too–can look at Curiosity’s shadow and understand, without hesitation, that it’s our own.
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    In the early 1990s, William Gibson wrote Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), a 300-line autobiographical poem saved on a 3.5″ floppy designed to erase itself after a single use. The book version accomplished the task in analogue: its pages were treated with photosensitive chemicals, which began gradually fading the words and images from the book’s first exposure to light. The text was about memory, and the idea was that a reader would experience it as such, with the words becoming memories as they were consumed. Like a conversation, like a moment experienced in direct time, one could never recall it precisely, or command it–as on a computer–to return. It was simply lived, then faded away.

    Although Agrippa was engineered to be ephemeral, it committed one cardinal error: it was written at the dawn of the free information age. Almost immediately after the poem’s initial “Transmission” (a complex affair involving illusionist Penn Jillette and a vacuum-sealed sculptural magnetic disk) enterprising hackers pirated the text and disseminated it online, on USENET groups and listservs. Since Gibson didn’t use email at the time, fans faxed him pirated copies of the text in droves. If Agrippa had been undertaken today, I can only imagine the full text would have been leaked before it even made it into the art gallery. The project was, in short, a failure: not because it was a bad idea, or poorly-executed, but because there simply is no such thing as a transitory memory anymore. When someone tries to artificially construct one, our networked technological milieu literally wrests it away and commits it, permanently, to the cloud.

    We no longer serve one another sensory impressions, live largely felt experiences; we no longer conjure up the past through a patchwork of fallible nodes of thought, ever-shifting, foggy and surreal. It’s difficult today, perhaps impossible, for an artist to make something with the qualities of pure memory: intangible, subjective, and yet with real emotional affect. In an age of hyper-documentation, of consistent quantifiability, every click leaves a trace.

    Which, of course, may have been the very point Gibson was trying to make. Agrippa, in attempting to emulate natural memory, was an impossible object. By being technological, it was inherently destined to assimilate itself into a greater collective cache of experience. In his new collection of essays, Distrust That Particular Flavor, he addresses this more succinctly: technology, in a sense, is memory.



    In Gibson’s view, our technology is–always has been–an direct extension of our humanity. He argues that the moment we began began taking photos, making films, externalizing the human experience with so-called “mass” media, we set into motion an immeasurably vast prosthetic memory for the race. What we can’t remember, or live directly, we can now conjure up through images, films, and data; we can remember second-hand, often losing touch with the difference between our memories, truth, history, and the experience of others. We can view things at a distance, things which happened before we were born, we can watch the dead talk: ghosts have been walking among us since the first image was recorded. Of film, Gibson writes, “we are building ourselves mirrors that remember–public mirrors that wander around and remember what they’ve seen,” adding, ”that is a basic magic.”

    Only briefly does he make what I think is a crucial leap to extending the argument beyond the parameters of 20th century technology. The prosthetic memory of the human race isn’t just quantifiable in archives of film, living networks of interconnected conversation, and endless bytes of media data. It’s also a different kind of information: mesopotamian clay tablets, cave paintings, the printed word, anything, in fact, that is capable of representing a fragment of ineffable experience in physical form. Of course, this isn’t Gibson’s territory, the cyberprophet, the calm-and-bemused voice of techno-truth, but he tackles it:

    “Our ancestors, when they found their way to that first stone screen, were commencing a project so vast that it only now begins to become apparent: the unthinking construction of a species-wide, time-defying, effectively immortal prosthetic memory. Extensions of the human brain and nervous system, capable of surviving the death of the species. The start of building what would become civilization, cities, cinema.”


    While media is an “extended nervous system we’ve been extruding as a species for the past century,” art is a complex memory we’ve been collaboratively creating for much, much longer. It’s too big for a single individual–or a single machine, hopefully– to experience it all at once, but it’s the central project of the human race. And it can’t be pirated, or destroyed: only lived, and added to, often thoughtlessly, by succeeding generations of increasingly technological human beings.
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    Is poetry a driving force of Oceanography?
    Read Rimbaud!
    - Phillipe Diolé


    I've written many times, although not recently, about the ocean.

    When I first began Universe in 2005, it was practically a ship's log: meandering pieces on narwhal tusks, the accidental poetics of my hero, Rachel Carson, and adolescent screeds on the perils of the Mariana trench. At some point in my career, I ported my energies outward to the cosmos, reasoning, as the ancient alchemists did, that "As Above, So Below."

    The movement from the deep to the distant, from sea to space, seemed like a sensible evolution. I saw parallels then, as I do now. They are both cold, forbidding, strange, contain tremulous mysteries, and do not give their secrets readily. Tales of their early exploration contain feats of unspeakable audacity, as well as tragedy. Solitary heroes stand out: Yuri Gagarin in his Vostok spacecraft, Jacques Cousteau developing the Aqua-Lung in order to push deeper underwater, the elite few men and women who have dared venture far above, far below. Listen to a veteran diver discuss the sea and an astronaut space: you'll hear the same hushed tones, the same fearful, learned respect.

    After all, what experience does this planet offer us more phenomenologically similar to spacewalking than floating in a deep ocean? Water is the best environment for spacewalk training on Earth; substituting neutral buoyancy for microgravity, NASA Astronauts train at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab in Houston, a giant swimming pool. I've always been delighted by images of this place; if you squint just right, and ignore the scuba divers, it almost looks like outer space is robin's egg blue and dotted with bubbles.



    In spite of our egotism, the human organism is delicate. We're only built to tromp around the accommodating portions of the Earth. The moment we're submerged in the ocean, or we ascend too high a peak—to say nothing of outer space—we're out of our league. Yet, in our incorrigible hubris, we've long used technology to wander beyond our territory. Aristotle wrote of diving bells, and (apocryphally) even Alexander the Great explored the deep ocean—in a submarine of white glass, where the fish gathered 'round to pay homage—and returned to pronounce of his experience, "the world is damned and lost." Mercury spacecraft and the early Soviet Vostok capsules may as well have been diving bells; they were so small, it's said that they were worn, not ridden.



    "The sea," Captain Nemo pronounces, in one of literature's more glamorous depictions of the deep, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, "does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still excercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and can be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears. Ah! Sir, live—live in the bosom of the waters! There only is independence! There I recognise no masters! There I am free!"

    This sentiment, an inverted Overview Effect, sounds familiar. Astronauts consistently speak of the irrelevance of borders, even nations, on a planet viewed from space. It's probably the most consistent revelation of spaceflight, the majestic panorama of a whole planet, seen without its despots and ideologues. The Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov, only the second man in space and the first to be there for more than 24 hours, described the experience of seeing the Earth from space as "a thousand times more beautiful than anything I could have imagined." After orbiting the planet over a dozen times, Titov replied a call from mission control with the elated cry: "I am Eagle! I am Eagle!"

    An Eagle, of course, has no masters.

    Today, in cramped cockpits and bathyspheres, astronauts and their aquatic counterparts lie contorted in the same metal cabins, surrounded by death, peering from thick windows into empty, hostile landscapes. Cloaked in metal, they transport light where there has never been any—to what James Cameron, after his much-ballyhooed recent dive to the Challenger Deep, called a "barren, desolate lunar plain," or (more viscerally) which William Beebe, passenger in the world's first bathysphere, described as "the black pit-mouth of hell itself."



    This "black pit-mouth" is what interests me. Essentially every culture has a mythological history which includes primal undifferentiated formlessness. The abyss, as much topless as it is bottomless. And the abyss, figuratively speaking, is neither distinctly maritime nor interplanetary. Rather, it's a little of both: Tao, the primal ocean upon which Vishnu slumbered, amorphous being, chaos preceding time. Is this because the ancients knew on a symbolic level what our scientists empirically know now: that the abyss—in both worldly forms—is the seat of our lineage? We are, as Carl Sagan said, "made of starstuff." We're also risen from the sea. The salt in our veins is testament.

    Beebe, one of the greatest American explorers, in his book Half-Mile Down, a record of his dive to 3,028 feet in 1934, wrote that it seems "a very wonderful thing, to walk about on land today, vitalized by a bit of the ancient seas swirling through our body. It is somehow of a piece with stars and time and space-something to be very quiet and thoughtful about, and proud of." Indeed, while beneath the waters lies a cruel landscape, and while the cosmos is vast and unforgiving, they are both our birthright. Our impulse to travel far below and above our limits is precisely that of children striving to return to the womb, only to discover that birth is as great a nothingness as death.



    Between coral/Silent eel/Silver swordfish
    I can't really feel or dream down here
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    In 1977, NASA sent a pair of unmanned probes named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 into space. Among the infrared spectrometers and radio receivers included on each probe were identical copies of the same non-scientific object: the Voyager Golden Record.

    Sheathed in a protective aluminum jacket, the Record is a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images chosen to portray the diversity of life on Earth: bird calls, whale songs, the sounds of surf, wind, and thunder, music from human cultures, and some 55 greetings in a range of languages, alive and dead. Like lonely time capsules, the records, aboard their still-functioning hosts, have long since left our solar system. The official Voyager 2 Twitter reports that the probe is currently at 13 hrs 38 mins 08 secs of light-travel time from Earth, which makes it the farthest man-made object from Earth.

    According to the unofficial mythology, the Voyager Golden Record was compiled by two people in love: the astronomer Carl Sagan, and Ann Druyan, the creative director of the project, who he would later marry. Druyan confided on WNYC's Radio Lab program in 2007 that she recorded the sounds of her own body-the electrical impulses of her brain and nervous system, her heartbeats-for the album, which were the sounds of a woman swept away: by a man, by ideas, by the power of sending their love out into eternity, her human pulse synched to the hollow ebbing of a pulsar. Love, golden, close to eternal, flying at impossible speeds through the heavens.



    The Golden Record's panoply of information, including those 55 greetings, was intended for an unknowable audience of spacefaring extraterrestrials. They are chatty, almost unserious: preposterously, one, in Amoy, even asks if the aliens are hungry. These recordings ostensibly represent a united voice of mankind addressing the cosmos. Of course, however, each greeting is a world of its own, embodying its own set of cultural and historical attitudes about life in space, time, infinity, and consciousness. The phrasing shifts from one recording to the next, revealing dramatic shifts in perspective. While the Arabic speaker calls extraterrestrials "friends in the stars," the Zulu and Sotho recordings address "great ones." What space is, what it represents, is not a consistent variable.



    And neither, of course, are we.

    As a species, the messages we've sent into space are piecemeal. For every concerted effort towards reasoned transmission, millions upon millions of radio-hours of information have leaked out into space from our planet haphazardly, beginning with that famous Nazi Olympic broadcast in 1936. Which, as it turns out, may be a better way for an extraterrestrial species to know us.

    We're warring, inconsistent. We love, and embarrass ourselves. We create technologies seemingly at random, often beyond our ability to understand, let alone legislate. We live in bodies eminently susceptible to the slightest intrusion. Only a few of us are even fleetingly concerned with the impression we might make on our alien brethren. And yet, flawed, we are, our whole tumultuous history an opaque question mark in the darkness.

    Reaching out by virtue of our idle transmissions, waiting.

    The Record is a present we gave to ourselves, or rather that Sagan and Druyan gave to the rest of us, an object that delivers the entire emotive impact of the human race in a polished package. According to the Golden Record, we're groovy. We don't murder each other over inconsequential abstractions, or defile our planet for material gain. We're friendly, sending warm "hellos" out into the Universe, playing Bach, playing Chuck Berry to our new friends. It's freshman year of college, a cocktail party exaggeration: an invention designed to impress. But impress who?



    It's likely an extraterrestrial intelligence would take the Voyager Golden Record for a piece of space garbage; the obsolescence of records aside, we can hardly assume its alien discoverers would have ears, let alone understand sound waves as information, or carved etchings as meaning. I'm not the first to posit that the Voyager Golden Record, with all its naive bombast, was more an exercise in summing ourselves up to ourselves than it was a pragmatic solution for first contact. Carl Sagan himself called it a "symbolic statement rather than a serious attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life." In compiling the Record, its creators ran a comb over the tangle of ideas, languages, and cultures that make up the human race and parsed it into something cohesive, simple-even neat.

    Is it beautiful? Beyond expression. Does it represent the human race and its position in the cosmos? No, of course not. No single such compendium could. Our reality is utterly subjective, our languages merely sandcastles held together by history and mutual consent. When NASA welded plaques depicting a man and a woman onto the Pioneer probes in 1972, conservatives in the United States objected to the nudity in the now-iconic image. We deny and contest our own bodies, the intrinsic animal nature of our personhood. Can we know what we are?

    Personally, I'm an animal, but also a space zealot; I believe that a proper understanding of our place in regards to the universe is an elusive, but ultimately transcendent, tool. A clearer sense of our position (simultaneously precious and irrelevant) may be the most powerful aftereffect of the space programs of the late 20th century. Simply the image of the planet in perspective, a marble in the void-or, to quote Sagan again, a "mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam"-has altered global culture in ways we've yet to accurately measure.

    The writer Frank White, whose essays on the subject of cosmic scale should be canonical, refers to a shift in perspective called the "Overview Effect." White's estimation, supported by accounts from those in the unique position of having seen the Earth from space, is that such an overview has a penetrating, complex effect. It triggers a singular insight: sudden awareness of life's interconnectedness and the frailty of our planet.

    For those of us on the ground, gazing up into space can be a mutable experience. To some, it's a horror of the Lovecraftian variety: a deep abyss, out of which some undefinable and eldritch ancientness threateningly emanates. To others, the blackness of space represents a kind of anattā, direct evidence of the non-self. While the former escape to light-polluted urban centers and live their lives in denial of the vast beyond, the latter meditate under the stars. And yet all of us, no matter our impulses, are at least dimly aware of the significance of our planetary position: we hang suspended in an incomprehensible void.

    In my interview with Frank White, he pointed out:

    "I find it somewhat puzzling that when we talk about problems on Earth, such as the so-called 'population problem,' we never include the dimension of our larger environment, i.e., the solar system and beyond. And when we talk about the 'energy problem,' only a few people are willing to even consider the promise of satellites that could beam solar energy to the Earth. We discuss almost every major human problem as if we were confined to one planet, rather than being on 'Spaceship Earth,' which is a part of the solar system, galaxy, and universe."


    I made the video, Greetings from the People of Earth, to be screened at a panel discussion about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at the World Science Festival in New York. Aside from serving to remind the audience that American space bureaucracy had once produced an act of remarkably poetic thinking, it was intended to show that the frail human voices strapped to a spaceship aboard the Voyager Golden Record had originated on a spaceship, too: the Earth.

    Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute, who spoke on the World Science Festival panel, often compares the scope of her organization's research to date as being merely one tablespoon of water from the sea. No one would pronounce the ocean devoid of life after inspecting such a small portion; if anything, the ratio inspires hope. My collection of voices from the Voyager Golden Record, juxtaposed with the night skies above their respective nations, is similar: a spoonful of life in the infinite vastness of space. There's still so much left to explore, and one day-perhaps tomorrow, perhaps hundreds of years from now-we might discover a flicker of life, as silvery and pure as a darting fish, in a nearby puddle of the cosmos.
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    "I read this book. It's pretty good even if they made it in a week. Worth the fifty bucks, easy."

    — Bruce Sterling


    In February of this year, I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, a zygote of an institution nestled between departments at Carnegie Mellon University, to work on a strange collaborative project called a "booksprint." A booksprint, I discovered, is a fairly new practice, derived from the world of open-source software "codesprints." In this version, a group of writers work exhaustively for a week on a shared project, which is then made into a book at the conclusion of their session. In seven days, our group of sprinters turned an idea—"let's write a book about the intersection between art, science, and technology!" —into a 190-page, full-color, nattily-designed compendium of the current moment in art/science affinities.


    The book in its developmental stages.

    We wrote collaboratively in shared, networked documents, ensuring that the finished book would have no single author. Of course, we all have our specialities: Régine Debatty the international new media blogger was our encyclopedia of projects, Andrea Grover the project leader our thesis synthesizer, Pablo Garcia the image-hounding art history scholar, and, well, you can see my pawprints all over the sections on science fiction, utopian architecture, and visionary philosophy.

    We worked passionately, discussed endlessly, enlisted the research assistance of dozens of interns, and the finished project emerged (relatively) without incident. I still can't believe that a group of erstwhile strangers could so swiftly and seamlessly brainstorm, structure, research, and design something of such substance from nothing.



    That said, it's been many months since we left Pittsburgh to return to the hectic pace of our normal lives. What was created in a week has taken nearly a year to fine-tune, but I'm immensely proud to announce that we're finally finished. Behold, NA/SA: New Art/Science Affinities, a book about the intersection between art, science, and technology.

    The book includes meditations, interviews, diagrams, letters and manifestos on maker culture, hacking, artist research, distributed creativity, and technological and speculative design. Sixty international artists and art collaboratives are featured, including Agnes Meyer-Brandis, Atelier Van Lieshout, Brandon Ballengée, Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, The Institute for Figuring, Aaron Koblin, Machine Project, Openframeworks, C.E.B. Reas, Philip Ross, Tomás Saraceno, SymbioticA, Jer Thorp, and Marius Watz. It also has the gall to posit some categories for thinking about art in a scientific context, or vice-versa, breaking up a massive (and by definition undefinable) movement in the arts into functional blocks with poetic names like "Artists in White Coats and Latex Gloves" and "The Overview Effect."

    NA/SA was designed as it was written by Jessica Young and Luke Bulman of Thumb Projects. Immeasurable credit is due to them for organizing the endless flow of text into readable, beautiful documents at the end of each workday. To anyone thinking about organizing a booksprint—really, I can't speak enough for the uncanny efficacy of the process, given the right people—consider bringing designers on board from the beginning. Doubtless we would've had an arduous time marshaling our ideas had Thumb not been involved; their approach to layout had us feeling like we were creating a book (as opposed to a giant text file) from day one.

    More about the book and its process at Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery website. New Art/Science Affinities can be bought printed on demand at Lulu.com, or you can download a free, full-text PDF of the book right here. I encourage you to browse, study, and print the free PDF, but the tactile book is a joy to hold.
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    A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece exploring the ideas of the futurist Gerard K. O'Neill, who designed far-out but ultimately quite pragmatic environments for human habitation in space in the mid-1970s. In that article, I touched briefly on the notion of the "Overview Effect," a phrase coined by the writer Frank White to describe the profound insight — characterized by a sudden awareness of life's interconnectedness and the frailty of our planet — experienced by astronauts gazing down at the Earth from space.

    Frank White is the author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, a book that has completely changed the way I think about our planet and its position within the larger systems of the Universe. The book is an amalgam of space history, environmentalist philosophy, and starry-eyed futurism; it weaves White's observations about the nature of systems, the future of space travel, global communications, and cosmic spirituality with interviews with dozens of astronauts from all over the world. In short, it should be mandatory reading for all passengers aboard the Spaceship Earth.

    Frank White was gracious enough to lend his time and considerable mind to a battery of my questions, the full transcript of which is below. It's long, but I promise it will blow your mind.

    [I'm greatly indebted to Jonathan Minard, of deepspeed media and the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, for his help in brainstorming many of these questions.]

    Part One: The End of the Space Age

    Universe: Following the retirement of the shuttle program this summer, some have labeled this the "end of the space age." Others argue that it's simply the age of human exploration that's over, and that robots are the path forward. How do you respond to these assessments?

    Frank White: I would suggest that both assessments are incorrect. Space exploration is a global enterprise with increasing private involvement, and the end of one program for one national space agency is neither the end of the "space age," nor of human exploration.

    Media reports have linked the shuttle program with space exploration in a way that obscures some of the more positive aspects of the new US space policy. For example, it encourages more private investment in space at a time when more private companies, like Virgin Galactic, are making those commitments. It also encourages more international cooperation, extends the life of the International Space Station, and sets our sights on Mars, which many space advocates consider the most logical next objective for human exploration.

    The dichotomy between human and robotic exploration is also unnecessary. The two complement one another, especially if we want to not only explore but also begin to create human communities off the Earth. It is not an either/or choice.

    Universe: The establishment of permanent habitation in space is no longer a question of technical feasibility, but political and social will. There are those who believe humans must explore space to avoid extinction and those who deem it foolish to waste resources on projects distracting us from our responsibilities at home. How do you see the two sides of the argument for and against space settlement?

    Frank White: I understand the two sides of the argument, but I consider human evolution to be the imperative behind our expansion into the universe, and I think it will continue. By this, I mean evolution in terms of politics, sociology, economics, and other aspects of human society, not just biology. The key to the question is, "What do we consider our home?" If it is the solar system and beyond, then space settlement is not a distraction. And even if our home is the Earth alone, there are many elements of space exploration and settlement that have already been beneficial to the Earth. For example, most people would agree that the Overview Effect triggered or at least enhanced the environmental impulse. This has proven to be beneficial to the Earth in ways that would have been difficult to predict in advance. The same can be said of how the Overview Effect has influenced our views on war and peace, also to the benefit of the people on Earth.

    I find it somewhat puzzling that when we talk about problems on Earth, such as the so-called "population problem," we never include the dimension of our larger environment, i.e., the solar system and beyond. And when we talk about the "energy problem," only a few people are willing to even consider the promise of satellites that could beam solar energy to the Earth. We discuss almost every major human problem as if we were confined to one planet, rather than being on "Spaceship Earth," which is a part of the solar system, galaxy, and universe.

    Universe: Are the goals of caring for the biosphere on the one hand, and on the other of establishing artificial ecospheres in space, necessarily mutually exclusive?

    Frank White: No...this is a choice as well. In my book, I talk about the Human Space Program as a "central project" for all of humanity. It involves establishing a planetary civilization with a high priority on protecting the biosphere as well as a commitment to exploring the universe as a global (rather than national) enterprise. The Human Space Program could become a unifying force for humanity as we expand beyond Earth. We can create any future that we choose to create as a species. Caring for the biosphere can be in conflict with creating new ecospheres, or the two goals can be in harmony with one another.



    Part Two: The Whole Earth Image

    Universe: Do you think the Overview Effect might be less potent for a generation of people raised on the "Earthrise" image, which by now has been reduced to a symbol? Would a second generation of voyagers need to travel further afield to experience the same impact as the original Apollo astronauts did — is it just the shock of the utterly new perspective that jars us, or something essential about seeing the home planet?

    Frank White: Here, it depends on what we mean by Overview Effect, i.e., is it a seeing a picture or is it having a direct experience? As my colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, points out, the two are not the same, and we have perhaps been lulled into believing that they are. In my book, I quote one of the astronauts (Alan Shepard) pointing out that he had studied many pictures before he flew, but nothing could have prepared him for what he actually saw. I personally recall the moment when the Apollo 8 crew turned their camera back to show us the Earth, and the impact was tremendous. So pictures and videos did have an enormous impact in the 1960s that perhaps is not the same today. However, I believe that the direct experience and high-quality simulations of it will still be powerful, even for the younger generations who take Apollo missions and Earthrise for granted.

    I should also mention something that Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell pointed out to me when I interviewed him for my book: those who are most open to the experience will benefit the most from it.

    Part Three: "We Are One Species With One Destiny"

    Universe: Do you believe it's necessary for us all to experience the Overview Effect for ourselves? What would happen if everyone on Earth had chance to undergo this experience? How would our culture be changed?

    Frank White: I would like so see as many as people as possible have the experience, either directly or through simulations. According to innovation theory, you only need about 20 percent of a population to adopt an innovation to create significant change, so I don't think everyone needs to have the experience to trigger a paradigm shift. Once that occurs, I believe we would be much more environmentally aware, see ourselves more as citizens of the universe, rather than of different nations, and be far more committed to building a peaceful planetary civilization. I suspect that if astronauts' experiences are any guide, those who have the experience directly will also want to go back into space.

    Universe: The Overview Effect is often compared to spiritual experience, to the altered states of consciousness experienced by people in various modes of spiritual trance or religious ecstasy. Do you see a relationship between the Overview Effect and more terrestrial transcendence? Is the Overview Effect a shortcut to a state it might take a meditator a lifetime to achieve? Further, if these distinctions are blurred, is space a religion?

    Frank White: This is an area of great misunderstanding, in my opinion, and it is something that I covered in some detail in my book. There is nothing automatically spiritual about going into Low Earth Orbit or to the moon, any more than there is anything automatic about going into a great cathedral. In both settings, there is certainly an opportunity for a spiritual experience, but no guarantee, and I don't think it is a shortcut to the kind of permanent transcendence that a meditator might achieve. One of the astronauts whom I interviewed for my book (Don Lind) specifically took issue with the idea that going into space is a religious experience, and I dealt with that at some length.



    We find that when the Overview Effect is characterized as a euphoric experience that produces an epiphany, it is most often linked with Edgar Mitchell's Apollo 14 flight. Edgar is a member of the Overview Group and is an advocate of better understanding of the Overview Effect, so he is definitely connected with the Overview Effect.

    In writing my book, I was so impressed with his description of his experience that I gave it a different name, i.e., the Universal Insight. While the Universal Insight is similar to and related to the Overview Effect, in that it is a change in awareness that results from space exploration, it is different in that it refers to an identity of oneness with the universe, rather than the planet.

    Those of us working on this issue at the Overview Institute think that a shift in cognitive understanding regarding the Earth is by far the more common experience. For example, the realization that there are no borders or boundaries on the Earth seems typical, as does heightened environmental awareness.

    Universe: Some scholarship suggests that so-called "near-death," or "out of body" experiences can be effectively triggered by gravity-induced loss of consciousness. Does the Overview Effect have a relationship to gravity, or any other physical force?

    Frank White: Yes, it is definitely related to zero gravity. While we have focused our attention primarily on the view of the Earth from space and in space, the fact that this perspective happens while the person is in zero gravity is an integral part of the experience. Most of the astronauts I interviewed for my book commented on the lack of gravity as being central to the uniqueness of their experience. In fact, one of them, Charlie Walker, specifically related the lack of gravity to the feeling of euphoria that he and other astronauts did have in orbit. We need to conduct more studies of this aspect of the Overview Effect.

    Universe: The Overview Effect has, by virtue of our space programs' inherent brevity, only been experienced as a short-term revelation. How do you imagine the Effect might manifest, develop, or sustain in an individual living in a space colony or station for an extended period of time? In someone born in space?

    Frank White: That question actually began my quest to understand the Overview Effect. As I recount in the book, I was flying cross-country and gazing out the window at a time when I was extremely interested in O'Neill's space settlement ideas. It occurred to me that people living in space settlements would always have an "overview." They would know intuitively what philosophers and sages have been trying to tell us for millennia: we are one species with one destiny. The borders and boundaries we draw on our planet are really in our minds, not on the Earth itself. After that flight, I resolved to write the book, and to interview as many astronauts as possible, to determine if there was indeed, an "Overview Effect."

    The Effect is clearly going to be stronger for a person who has spent more time experiencing it, and especially someone born in space. They are clearly going to have far less of an identity with places on the surface of the Earth, and they are also likely to experience the next stages in evolution in consciousness, which I call the "Copernican Perspective" (identification with the solar system) and "Universal Insight" (identification with the universe).

    Universe: Do you believe that there's a teleological argument to be made to explain humanity's diaspora into deep space? Does nature preordain us to become spacefaring?

    Frank White: I have no scientific or empirical evidence for this, but I do think human beings are predisposed to explore, and I have called it the "exploration imperative" elsewhere. I link that with evolution, because evolution happens when a species explores. Biologically, it occurs when a species is isolated from the main gene pool so that mutations can gain a foothold. I think the same thing can be said for social evolution, as we see with settlements in North America, South America, and Australia. New political forms and social norms evolved as a result of exploration and settlement in those cases.

    More generally, I have advanced the "Cosma Hypothesis," which is a broader version of the "Gaia Hypothesis." By that, I mean that if the Earth is a living system (Gaia) then so is the universe (Cosma). As humans move out into the universe and evolve, then the universe evolves. Insofar as we are part of an evolutionary process, there is a teleological basis for space exploration. Perhaps we are designed to spread life and mind where life and mind are scarce.

    I would also mention that this has been another "aha moment" for me. I have come to realize that we usually tend to justify space exploration in terms of how it benefits humanity. I believe we should also ask ourselves how it benefits the universe as a whole. As we have become more environmentally aware, we have gone from exploiting the Earth to thinking that we ought to care for it and be good stewards of it. If we had that attitude toward the larger environment of the universe, it would be much easier to justify.

    [Mr. White would like to emphasize he speaks for myself as author of The Overview Effect, rather than on behalf of the Overview Institute.)

    Learn More:

    Frank White is cofounder and project manager of the The Overview Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to share the experience of the Overview Effect with as many people on Earth as possible. The Institute's "Overview Declaration" is worth reading.
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    Mushrooms and their mycelium are quiet allies that are essential for our healthy existence. They are enigmatic, have a sense of humor, and socially as well as spiritually, bond together all that admire them. They have much to teach us.
    -Paul Stamets


    If the ego is not regularly and repeatedly dissolved in the unbounded hyperspace of the Transcendent Other, there will always be slow drift away from the sense of self a part of nature's larger whole.
    -Terrence McKenna


    A few weeks ago, I was sitting at my kitchen table, having coffee, when I suddenly noticed a new development in my bonsai plant. At the foot of the pygmy pine was sprouting, of all things, a mushroom. The physical recoil this realization triggered in me is beyond description. I nearly spilled my drink in my impulse to first spring away — then draw towards — this fungus. How had this happened? My god, how do mushrooms work?

    As it turns out, the soil of my potted bonsai was rich with mycelium. Mycelium is the fungal "root," if you will, the vegetative body of the organism, which can net, spread, propagate, and convey nutrients over great distances, eventually sprouting fruiting bodies — mushrooms. This meant that no matter how many little brown mushrooms I plucked out of my houseplant, more popped into place. Thus began my journey into mycophilia.

    Being a fickle bedroom hobbyist, I sacrificed the bonsai, relinquishing 1,000 years of Japanese history to my fungal visitor. After all, what is more ancient, more venerable, than a mushroom? Fungi were the first organisms to come to land, and survived the cataclysmic asteroid impacts of geological history — visitors to our planet 420 million years ago would have encountered a landscape dominated by 30-foot-tall prototaxites, fungal pillars dwarfing the surrounding landscape. And, lest you think this kind of cyclopean 'shroom has gone the way of the dinosaurs, the largest known organism on our planet today is a 2,400-year old, 2,200 acre honey mushroom mycelium in Eastern Oregon.

    Furthermore, we're more closely related to these behemoths than you might imagine: even though the animal kingdom branched off from its fungal counterpart some 600 million years ago, we still share over half our DNA with fungi. Historically, culturally, and biologically, we are incredibly close to mushrooms. That closeness can be exploited to our benefit: many powerful antibiotics against bacteria come from fungi, while anti-fungal antibiotics tend to harm us, precisely because of our intimately interlinked relationship with mushrooms. Some scientists posit reorganizing traditional biological classification to include a animalia-fungi superkingdom called "Opisthokontum."

    Far-out scholar Terrence McKenna, in his book Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, took this connection further, arguing that the so-called missing link between our ancestors and language-using, symbol-toting Homo Sapiens (or Homo Spiritualis, as he puts it) is not an evolutionary phase but an interaction with entheogens — namely, "magic" mushrooms. McKenna argued that early man, foraging for food in the African grasslands, would have inevitably consumed varieties of fungal hallucinogen, triggering the semiotically complex transcendence (and the various perceptual advantages) of the psychedelic experience. It's this psychosymbiotic mingling with the "vegetable mind" of the natural world that triggered those things which separate us from the animals: use of symbols, language, ritual, and abstract representation. Over centuries, this experience would have been ritualized, this dip into the howling Tao codified; what remains today are merely symbols, hidden in plain sight in many of the religious traditions of the world. This theory, now dubbed the "Stoned Ape Theory of Human Evolution," is fascinating — and I whole-heartedly recommend McKenna's book, which is essentially a natural history of the human relationship to drugs.

    American mycologist Paul Stamets, in his 2008 TED Talk, Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, argues that the structure of mycelium is a neuromicrological network with universal properties. In the image below, I've placed an electron micrograph of fungal mycelium next to an image of dark matter. Beneath that, a visualization of the network structure of the Internet by Hal Burch and Bill Cheswick, courtesy of Lumeta Corporation.





    Can you tell the difference?

    Stamets, who calls mycelium "Earth's Natural Internet," puts it this way:

    I believe the invention of the computer Internet is an inevitable consequence of a previously proven biologically successful model. The earth invented the computer internet for its own benefit, and we, now, being the top organism on this planet, [are] trying to allocate resources in order to protect the biosphere.

    Going way out, dark matter conforms to the same mycelial archetype. I believe matter begets life, life becomes single cells, single cells become strings, strings become chains, chains network. And this is the paradigm that we see throughout the universe.


    Stamets, being a mycologist, understands the fundamental structure of information, of the physical universe itself, as adhering to a "mycelial archetype." To him, everything is mushroom — while McKenna, his visionary counterpart, reads the history of human culture through a mycophilic lens. Of course, both men experimented extensively with the mental states associated with ritualized consumption of a certain variety of mushroom, but this shouldn't lessen the impact of their profound, macrocosmic reading of the humble fungus (although it's interesting to think of mushrooms as doing their own psychedelic PR).

    Mycelium, an intertwined network of cells permeating virtually all land masses of Earth, is not something to take lightly. It literally engulfs the soil beneath us in a sentient web, rising up beneath our footsteps, hungry for nutrients. There is something beautiful and horrifying, ancient and keenly technological about these organisms, a complexity it may take a psychedelically-informed, non-institutional mind to fully appreciate.

    In any case, it beats a tiny tree.
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