Nixon’s pyramid, the future, and intelligent octopus arms

At some point in the last year a book tipped me off to Tom Vanderbilt’s Survival City, in which the author tours ruins and remains of DC’s vast Cold War infrastructure while providing a history of the way popular fears and optimism about the Atomic Age manifested themselves in architecture. I was particularly interested in learning more about Nevada’s “Atomic Survival Town“, which grew out of similar experiments in bombing pretend-German and pretend-Japanese towns during World War 2. (Probably the only time Nevada has contained cities built for people instead of automobiles!) The structures that Vanderbilt covers include missile solos, some of which have been converted to other uses or destroyed; an anti-missile site that was meant to be first of a nationwide array, but which was abandoned immediately after opening (as in, the day after); and….a giant wooden tower that was used to mount bombers with working engines so the effects of atomic explosions on moving aircraft could be studied. Some sites are off-limits to Vanderbilt, but he shares information as available. I was particularly interested in (okay, obsessed by) the creation of an underground elementary school in Artesia, New Mexico. The structure is still standing today, but is not open to tourists; the local school board uses it for storage. If you’re really obsessed with the Cold War, this is worth a venture, but there’s as much information in the linked articles above as in the text. After reading this, Command and Control, and Atomic Awakening, I’m surprised that humanity survived the fifties. The amount of casual and enthusiastic irradiation governments engaged in boggles the mind.

Related: Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, on the growth of nuclear arms and the history of dangerous near-misses with them, providing context for the book’s central history of the Damascus incident; and Phil Patton’s Dreamland: Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51. This is a piece of investigatory tourism that contains largely useful information about various aviation-development-and-testing sites in the Southwest, along with the expected bit of UFO lore and speculation.

In late September, The Skeptics Guide to the Future was released, and I with a preorder read it immediately. The book first examines the ways science fiction of the past got the future wrong, and looks for patterns into the errors. The authors then examine our future’s prospects in the short, medium, and long term. The authors (the brothers Novella) host two podcasts together; a long-running one on science and critical thinking, and another on science fiction reviews. This project nicely converges them, because they’re fairly restrained in the short term, and only engage in wild speculation over the long term while reiterating we have no idea what’s in store. The tempered enthusiasm is consistent throughout the text; the authors are optimistic about the prospects for gene therapy and possibly growing new organs for those whose parts have failed, but caution that there’s much about development we don’t understand. A liver won’t simply grow in a petri dish: its cells are looking for context. Somehow the body’s environment guides organ developments in concert. Although the authors point out that older technologies often stay in place because they work so well, despite the promotion of more technologically sophisticated rivals, their section on transportation ignores the idea that we might return to designing cities that humans are capable of navigating on foot, rather than continuing to try to create technological solutions to the manifest stupidity, the resource-draining and human-life-sucking spectre that is sprawl. One curiosity I noticed was the authors’ assertion that solar and wind are cheaper than coal, which is so absurd on the face of it that I suspect they’re adding the costs of environmental pollution, etc. They did acknowledge the viability of nuclear, though, especially with Gen-IV reactors that not only produce near-zero waste, but can process prior generations’ waste as fuel. There are generous comparisons to SF projections throughout, especially Asimov’s Foundation. Recommended if you’re into futurism, but I enjoyed the Novellas’ Skeptics Guide to the Universe much better.

Related: Micho Kaku’s Physics of the Future; Steven Kotler’s Tomorrowland; and Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable.

When Darwin closed The Origin of Species, he commented on Earth’s “endless forms most beautiful and most wondrous”. However spectacular the life of Earth is from the outside, there’s more wonder to be had by stepping inside the animals’ Umwelt — the world as experienced by them. The animals of Earth experience the world in vastly different ways, their senses tailored for their needs, and it is eye-opening to consider how much more different and fantastic the world might appear to other creatures. We’re dimly aware, of course, that many animals have superior senses to our own sets: hawks can see field mice in close detail at distances where humans couldn’t even resolve the grass said mice were hiding in, and we’ve long made use of dogs’ obvious superior schnozzes. But many animals have senses that function at such a high level that the analogies we draw in attempts to understand them are clumsy at best. Elephants, for instance, communicate quite effectively through subsonic rumbles, and bat’s ultrasonic radiation allows them to nail bugs with precision. Other animals approach ‘our’ senses in very different ways: a spider, for instance, might have two eyes in front for focusing on prey, but a multitude of much smaller eyes that are its primary guide in the world. No two species experience the world exactly the same way, and not just because one can see better, or hear more , or have a different vision of the world because it sees the ultraviolent. Some animals experience time differently: bird brains process birdsong so rapidly they can hear messages in patterns that human ears miss altogether, and whales can interpret elongated conversations (the kind we might have between Earth and a Mars colony, for instance) with the same ease that humans do with our own ‘instant’ back to back chatter. For the whale, ten and twenty minute breaks may seem like the 3 and 4 second breaks in human conversation. For some animals, sensation is distributed: octopus arms have neurons, so they can sense and act on their own accord, though the central brain can coordinate them. An Immense World was an incredibly captivating read, and very much recommended. Definitely a multiple “Wow!” kind of book.

Some highlights:

This goes against every stereotype one might have about crocodiles as brutish, unfeeling animals. With jaws that can crush bone and thick skin that’s heavily armored with bony plates, they seem like the antithesis of delicacy. And yet, they are covered head to tail in sensors that, as Ken Catania and his student Duncan Leitch showed, are 10 times more sensitive to pressure fluctuations than human fingertips.

Mosquitoes, meanwhile, have neurons that seem to respond to both temperatures and chemicals. I ask Leslie Vosshall if this means the insects can taste body heat. She shrugs. “The simplest way to sense the world would be to have the senses be separate—to have neurons that taste, or smell, or see,” she tells me. “Everything would be very tidy. But the more we look, the more we see that a single cell can do multiple things at the same time.” For example, the antennae of ants and other insects are organs of both smell and touch. In an ant’s brain, “these probably fuse to produce a single sensation,” wrote entomologist William Morton Wheeler in 1910. Imagine if we had delicate noses on our fingertips, he suggested. “If we moved about, touching objects to the right and left along our path, our environment would appear to us to be made up of shaped odors, and we should speak of smells that are spherical, triangular, pointed, etc. Our mental processes would be largely determined by a world of chemical configurations, as they are now by a world of visual (i.e., color) shapes.”

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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5 Responses to Nixon’s pyramid, the future, and intelligent octopus arms

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    The more you read about the Cold War the more wonder you have that we ever got through it. So many mistakes, so many ‘near-misses’, so many opportunities to blow up the world! Fascinating time though….. [grin]

    • That’s true! I just started playing Fallout 4, inspired by Biden and Putin’s nuclear patter. Someone should tell Biden (or his handlers) that nuclear war is bad for the climate. I just ordered via ILL a book called “Bombastic: Spinning Atoms in the Desert”. It’s about atomic culture, essentially…both the official story that repeatedly dropping bombs an hour north of Vegas is perfectly fine, and the pop-culture embrace of all things atomic in the fifties. (Fall Out 4 mocks this a bit with a children’s game called “Blast Radius”, which I discovered in the main character’s son’s closet…)

      • Cyberkitten says:

        I’ll see if I can get my ‘World War to Cold War’ reading actually started next year! It’ll be interesting to see what the UK government was doing in the shadows – especially as I had to live through their planning for Armageddon… [lol]

      • Cool! Will be interesting to see what the British CW experience was like.

  2. Pingback: October 2022 in Review | Reading Freely

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