King How Animals coverStorm Warning was a beautiful thoroughbred with a challenging personality. So many things spooked the horse: umbrellas, bicycles, small dogs, ponies, even people who removed an item of clothing while riding him. Storm, as he was called, was just a bit neurotic. But he lucked out in one way: he enjoyed a fifteen-year close relationship with Mary Stapleton, who happens to be a psychologist. Acutely attuned to people’s fears and anxieties, Mary transferred her insights and calming abilities to the horse. Even as Mary and Storm competed in the dressage ring, they worked together on Storm’s fears. In Mary’s words, Storm “learned to jump and face all of his terrors with great courage.”

manAccording to the memoir of Athanasius Kircher, even the circumstances of his birth were auspicious. And in a sense they were, if you choose, as he did, to leave out the witch hunt.

Kircher’s mother was “the daughter of an upright citizen,” his father a learned man with “expertise in expounding complicated matters.” They lived in a hilltop town called Geisa, part of the old principality of Fulda, in a valley of the gentle and green Rhön Mountains. (Fulda was also the name of the small city at the center of the principality; the trip there from Geisa took about three hours on foot.) For a long time before Kircher was born in 1602, his parents were caught up in the conflict that had disrupted northern Europe since 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Catholics and the new Lutherans felt the special kind of hatred for each other that comes from a split within the same religion, as did the Catholics and the Calvinists, the followers of John Calvin.

Midnight blue water rested at the horizon under a brightening sky, framing shafts of pine and fir at shore’s edge. Here on the southern tip of Lopez Island, off the coast of Seattle, the dawn air was cool and still, the only sound a few songbirds calling far away. I headed across the needle-packed yard toward a clump of pines. The bald eagle nest was right over there, Anya had said; she’d seen the chicks fledging just days ago, and they couldn’t be far away now.

I turned my binoculars toward the pines, eager to spot that huge platform of sticks three to five feet across. Eagles use the same structure year after year, weaving in more and more sticks for support until the whole can weigh a ton or more. Surely a nest the size of a mattress should be easy to find! I scanned the trees in one direction. Nothing. Puzzled, I looked the other way. No nest anywhere in sight.

Soon my neck stiffened from the upward gaze. I lowered the glasses and headed across the thick carpet of pine needles. The eagles would have to show up soon. Anya had said they were here, so I might as well wait.

If you have access to the Internet, and use it for something other than checking for winks on Match.com,  you may have read how the lovely folks at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have discovered a new particle they believe to be the Higgs boson, affectionately known by us laypeople as the “God particle.” The LHC is a 17-mile tube situated a football field or so below ground outside Geneva, near the Swiss-Franco border.  In this tube, ridiculously smart physicists are able to accelerate tiny particles called protons to nearly the speed of light by using 1,600 superconducting magnets, each of which weighs almost 60,000 pounds. And for these magnets to work properly, they must be cooled to a soul-crushing temperature of -456.25 degrees Fahrenheit, which is two degrees colder than outer space.

On Long Beach

Ambergris is an extraneous Substance, that swims in the Sea, and is swallowed as a Delicacy by the Fishes, and voided by them again undigested. It seldom stays long enough, to be found in their Bodies. – Caspar Neumann, On Ambergris (1729)

I tell people that they’ve got to sniff a lot of dog droppings before they find a bit of ambergris.    – Interview with amateur historian Lloyd Esler, New Zealand (2010)

It’s a rainy afternoon on Long Beach. I am standing beneath a mackerel sky, holding a strange little object in my hand. It’s a pale green-gray color, like a barely steeped cup of green tea, and it looks like a potato. I hold it up to the gray light and examine it more closely in the rain. Sitting in the palm of my hand, it feels light and spongy.

In case you didn’t know, we’re fucked.

The reality of the inevitable decline of humanity in the face of insufficient natural resources is described, with much more eloquence than that, in this fascinating excerpt from Wasted World:

In “The Limits to Growth,” Dennis Meadows and others concluded from one calculation that the number of humans could crash suddenly rather than stabilize gradually. But none of the other calculations showed this effect; their results suggested that the numbers of humans on Earth had to be reduced gradually, and with them, the overuse of natural resources. It seemed that this single result was anomalous and could be ignored, although its cause remained unclear.

Chapter 6: Can Art Really Influence Science?

Most scientists I asked about whether art had truly influenced science said in general, no, because they recognize the fundamental difference between the enterprises more than most artists, and the rest of us, do.  We are entranced by parallel images from subatomic particles and Zen brush painting, but we don’t think through the fundamental oppositions of such activities.  Science is a cumulative quest for the objective description of the way the world really is, with each stab towards the truth subject to rigorous scrutiny, logic, and possible repeatability.  Art is a stab in the dark, a quest to make a strong statement, to feel ‘true’ in the gut by doing something polished and complete enough to cause an instant stir in the heart.  You can analyze, you can test it, you can try to explain it, but the greatness will be more than the sum of its parts.  It may be an easy gesture, or a labored effort, be done in minutes with the turn of the hand or a sudden glance.  As much as one may speak of similar gestures in science, they represent an aesthetic part of the scientific work, not the main gist of it.

Science and art have different criteria for truth. They present their conclusions with a different sort of stance, a different weight.  An artist can convince by the splendor of his work, or just the conviction of this presentation. Even the image of a whole that doesn’t quite make sense, and cannot exist apart from its presentation.  Like a fine bird song, which has no message or meaning outside its performance. It is what it is, and if it touches enough who experience it, it will endure.  But not science.  Every conclusion is subject to the intense scrutiny of the whole field, and will most likely be superseded by new discoveries over time.  In science there is most definitely progress.  In art, we recognize changes in taste over time, but not aesthetic advancement.

Most of us would not say today’s art is better than that made in the Renaissance or Enlightenment periods.  It is certainly different, and we may or may not prefer different things today. Art is primarily expressive and evocative, not needing to be useful and informative.  But I would like it to help us, to improve our lot, in a way to progress. I want to imagine it can change the way we see the world, and improve our understanding. So should it then at least sometimes positively influence science? Taylor and his colleagues believe Pollock anticipated the discoveries of fractal mathematics, though maybe he is instead saying that what is great in Pollock’s wild imagery is the fractal naturalness of it, which is more like an accidental secret code than a real insight.  In the end he too is showing how mathematics might explain art, giving science the upper hand, a kind of solid exact power that comes with science’s ability to do things, to make things, to physically improve the world.  Compared to the changes in our world that science has wrought, art can seen downright frivolous, but it does make us laugh and cry.

One scientist who has thought quite deeply on this is the Nobel prize winning chemist Roald Hoffman, who has also published several books of poetry and is famous for organizing the monthly “Entertaining Science” events at New York’s Cornelia Street Café, one of the longest-running series of informal gatherings to present science and downtown culture together, the forerunner of the great “Science Festivals” now popping up in major cities all over the world.  Chemistry, he says, surprisingly, is often all about drawing. The vocabulary of chemistry can get so technical that even its practicitioners cannot understand all the words in a typical journal article in the field!  But when they see molecules drawn, with their elements and their interconnections, in the standard and universally understood way, then it all makes sense.  Chemists are trained connoisseurs of a particular kind of illustration, which, in its universality, has more currency in explaining its concepts than the confusing gobbledegook of words, which outsiders like to call jargon.  Even within the field it is jargon, and there are too many terms to ever know.  The image is the key, the drawing tells all.

“The communication of molecules’ architectonic essence by little iconic drawings (rather than photographs or etchings), and by ball and stick models, is of proven value – remember it’s been more than half a century since the Watson and Crick paper. They didn’t synthesize DNA, they reasoned out its structure, almost willing a model into being,” writes Hoffman in a special issue of the journal Hyle on aesthetics in chemistry.  “It never ceases to amaze me how a community of people who are not talented at drawing, nor trained to do so, manages to communicate faultlessly so much three-dimensional information.”

He is amazed, but also shocked by his colleagues’ resistance to a more aesthetic approach to the world.  Why is it, he wonders, “that people who have learned to communicate visually in such a variety of artistic styles—chemists—are not more tolerant of expressionist and abstract artistic ways of communicating knowledge and emotion?”  I would say it is the classic sense that in science the march of knowledge is rigorous and cumulative, while an artist can just get up there and say something, make a gesture, do something different or out of whack, and demand to be taken seriously and his culture will sometimes take him seriously, without needing to ask all these questions that situate the work in its context.  Art does not work the same way as science, so if you talk about their relationship or how to combine them, you will want to tell your audience if what you present is to be taken as science, or as art, and in each case it will need to be enjoyed or assessed differently.  This is not to favor one or the other ways of knowing, just to recognize that they will always be different, and if something is to be both art and science then it will have to allow these two different ways of interpretation.

So as a musician, I can sail off the coast of Hawaii and try to play music live with humpback whales, and sometimes I get those whales to sing along with me and the interspecies results might once in a while be interesting to listen to as a kind of music that crosses many aesthetic lines.  All I have to do is get one beautiful recording, show that it really is a live interaction between human and whale, and present the work as such. It might be successful. Is the whale really responding to my clarinet?  How is he adjusting his song in response to mine?  To say something scientific about this, I’m going to have to go out on hundreds of trips and collect a lot of data of whale/human interactions that can be statistically analyzed. To turn this into a scientific experiment, such data is essential. Only then could I make more objective conclusions about what I hear as beautiful. As an art experiment, one beautiful human/whale duet is enough.  It is easier in that it takes less time, but you have to be musically prepared to take such a thing seriously.  That’s the harder part.

Hoffman has thought much more deeply on this. He has considered how science might learn far more subtlety from art.  After being amazed by how much chemists can express to each other using drawing, a fundamentally artistic techniques, he thinks more daringly on how art might inform science.  What of abstraction?  We have spoken of abstract art for more than a century—can there also be something called abstract science? For one, we cannot really be sure any art is really abstract; if it doesn’t represent the appearance of nature, does it not idealize nature by seeking to exalt pure form one way or another?

Abstraction, when it was introduced, seemed to be put forth as in opposition to something, a more naïve notion that art could basically represent the world.  So, let’s try for an abstract science.  Is there any sense in which chemistry could be seen as in opposition to something?  It too is sometimes opposed to nature. Hoffman says: “Chemists in the laboratory are torn between emulating nature and doing things their own way. A protein, through its own curling and its tool kit of sidechain options, shapes a pocket where, say, a molecule with only right-handed symmetry fits. But it not only fits, it has something done to it—a specific bond in that molecule is cleaved, or an atom is delivered to it. The chemist’s fun, much like abstract art, is in achieving the same (why not better?) degree of shape control that nature does, but doing it differently, perchance better, in the laboratory.”  With greater abstraction may come greater fun.

And greater attention to form and simplification, the basis of science’s tendency to break things down into their simplest parts.  Yet it is not the elegance of the rules that most impresses Hoffman, but the sense that the playing of the game can trump the results, like Hermann Hesse’s vision of the mysterious spiritual/technical activity he introduced in The Glass Bead Game, an activity never quite defined but consuming its players like a whole sci/art culture, always a vision that impressed me for years as a college student, especially the fact that it could never quite be described because its totality was so immense.  So it’s either a metaphor for life itself, or a call to generate the great games of today, intricate structures in cyberspace or playing themselves upon total digital machines.  But that’s still probably not it, it’s still more likely that great sense you feel when, against all odds, all the processes one thinks through at any given moment suddenly seem to make sense, and all fit together like some great “aha” moment that finally really works.

Hoffman gazes at the cool geometrical forms of Rothko, amazed by their exactness and fuzziness at once.  Art has evolved to depict tendencies, hazy eminences like the unclear parts of the brain that may light up when one or another thought process happens.  Science of the mind not like a device, with gears and cogs churning the machinations of thought, no, hazy areas on the screen light up, we have a glimmer of idea we might begin to chart. Data? A diagram? Proof, some clear result?  Not really, but a century where art can be blurry and with this blurriness offer a new kind of precise meaning inspires many disciplines of science where inexactness does not stop us.


Roald Hoffman, “Thoughts on Aesthetics and Visualization in Chemistry,” Hyle, vol. 9, no. 1, 2003, p. 7.

Roald Hoffman, “Abstract Science,” American Scientist, vol. 97, no. x, 2009, p. 450.

Ch. 6, Survival of the Beautiful, by David Rothenberg, © 2011. Used with permission by Bloomsbury Press


The announcement that a social media analytics company changed the way they measure things should have been a non-event. But when a company named Klout, which attempts to measure people’s “online influence,” changed the way it calculates people’s scores, the resulting firestorm caught a lot of people by surprise.

The company had been hoping for the best: “This project represents the biggest step forward in accuracy, transparency and our technology in Klout’s history,” a company blog post proudly announced, even though Klout’s “history” was all of 25 months.

But the result of their great leap forward was lower scores for almost everyone. And for a variety of reasons, that made a lot of people very unhappy. Klout ranks people’s “online influence” with a number from 0 to 100. The company compiles a dizzying array of impressive-sounding statistics to do this, including wonktacular ones such as Inbound Messages Per Outbound Message, and Comments Per Post Follower Retweet %.

It “isn’t about figuring out who is on the ‘A-list’,” the company’s website says. “We believe that every person who creates content has influence. Our mission is to help every individual understand and leverage their influence.”

Yet according to various investor presentations and interviews, the CEO ’s vision is that when you check into a hotel, you will be get upgraded (or not) depending on your Klout score. Your resume will be electronically evaluated and possibly discarded automatically based on your score as well.  The Klout website even quotes some droid saying “My dating criteria: must have a higher Klout than me.”

To recap: the company took its biggest step forward in transparency by continuing not to release its algorithm. And it says its mission is to help us understand and leverage our influence, even though the CEO’s vision is to mine our online activity as data, then use it against us like a night club bouncer. Though others have compared Klout to a credit score, with the important difference that the companies providing those are heavily regulated because of the influence they wield. They may be right, since Klout is supported by $10 million of venture capital.

The company’s blog post received over 2,000 comments, almost all of them negative. Back in June I blogged about Klout, complaining that it reduces people to their scores, and that Klout’s scientifical factorizing of innumerative quantifiables in a proprietary, techno-sekrit equation-matrix was basically bullshit.

I also parroted Stephen Jay Gould’s criticism of IQ tests, as they abstract a complex concept and reduce it to a single number used to rank people. But then I argued that Klout scores don’t have the same kind of serious real-world repercussions that IQ did, because no one has been sterilized because of low Klout. Turns out I was wrong. People unhappy with Klout pointed out that some companies use Klout scores for job searches and employee performance reviews, so moving the goalposts hurts certain job-seekers, as well as people trying to earn a living in social media.

That aside, people taking a hypothetical hit to their self-esteem didn’t explain the outrage. However, other writers had a better explanation.

In an outstanding essay titled “The Accidental Bricoleurs,” Rob Horning offers the best analysis of social media and culture I have read. He notes that Facebook (and Klout, I would add) have a “parasitic business model,” in which they “appropriate the content and connections we generate as we recreate our identities within their proprietary systems, and then repurpose that data for marketers who hope to sell tokens of that identity back to us.”

Horning argues that this is an evolved form of brand-behavior, the same kind identified by management guru Tom Peters: “You’re not a worker ,” Peters wrote. “You are not defined by your job title and you’re not confined by your job description. Starting today you are a brand.”

Peters argued that self-branding is “inescapable,” and suggested that we brag about our accomplishments and things we are proud of. Horning calls that behavior a “concatenation of fame hunger and dismal self-exploitation.” And his description explains the rest of the furor behind #kloutfail, #kloutpout and #occupyklout: Even people without artistic projects or businesses to promote are out there habitually blatting their little trumpets of narcissism, so any downgrade, even an arbitrary one, gives them the sadz.

Thanks to sites like Facebook, Horning writes, “having a self becomes an inherently commercial operation.” Sites like Facebook are “designed to make us feel anxious and left out if we don’t say it, as their interfaces favor the users who update frequently and tend to make less engaged users disappear.” On top of the systemic anxiety that we’re not doing enough, our personal brand just lost value.

Horning points out an even creepier aspect to this behavior. He cites social critic Thomas Frank’s book, One Market Under God, which argues that personal branding is a form of coercive self-surveillance that corporations were anxious to induce. Franks heralded “The Brand Called You” as “a terrifying glimpse of the coming total-corporate state, a sort of Dress for Success rewritten by Chairman Mao.”

Like inmates Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon prison— which Michel Foucault used as a metaphor to describe disciplinary societies, and their powers to observe anonymously and normalize, we are now paying attention to random number. And we’re self-editing our behavior as a result of it, even though we don’t understand how it’s calculated, or who calculated it, in the vain hope of accruing benefits for “good behavior.”

Making the prison metaphor even more fitting is the difficulty in opting out. As one tech blogger noted, Facebook “make[s] it ridiculously tricky for a user to quit their service…. The option to actually delete a Facebook account permanently isn’t even directly available on their site.”

Klout takes it a step further.

Unlike Facebook, you don’t choose sign up for Klout—as soon as you are active anywhere on social media, it mines your data and assigns you a numeric ranking. Everyone gets Klout scores, including pets with their own publicists, and even minors, as a social media professional learned when her son (who has no Twitter account and privatizes all his Facebook settings) was assigned a Klout number. (As an aside, after I’d written a draft of this, the New York Times picked up this story.)

For a long time you couldn’t completely opt out. If you tried to delete your account, Klout would mask your account on their site with a landing page, but it would still gather your data, turn you into a number, and feed that number to third-party applications such as HootSuite and MarketMeSuite—leading one blogger to liken it to a Roach Motel.

You can now cancel your account, though when I did so, the site warned me to also de-authorize other social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook from sending data to Klout. (Good advice, I suppose, but I feel like being told to close my blinds to thwart the peeping Toms.)

But what if, for some reason, you want a Klout score—and even want to raise it? After all, even if you disable Klout, other k-infested companies are kropping up like weeds, such as Empire Avenue (“the social stock market”), PeerIndex (“understand your social capital”), Peoplebrowsr (from Kred), How Sociable, and PROskore.  To play the social media analytics game and “leverage your influence,” you apparently have to like selling out. Not only are you turning over a bunch of data to strangers, it’s also like going back to high school, where you shun the dweebs, and do a lot of ass-kissing to get in with the popular kids:

“Make sure you’re engaging with people who have a relatively good to a higher Klout score,” says a talking head. “When you engage with people who have like no Klout or a very low score it’s reflects poorly on you. Even spam bots have a score of 25 or something, it’s crazy.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Reprinted with permission from Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, by Ellen Prager, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2011 Ellen Prager. All rights reserved.

Chapter 2:  Mega-Slime, Seduction, and Shape-Shifting

Within the citizenry of the sea, there are some organisms whose dull or familiar countenance hides a secret and strange way of life. Such is the case for an eel-like fish with ancient origins, a well-known and highly delectable crustacean, and an organism with impressive powers of regeneration that masquerades as an undersea log. The talent among these three marine creatures the hagfish, lobster, and sea cucumber  is impressive. The hagfish can produce an inordinate amount of slime and tie itself into a knot. The lobster is equipped with supersoaking blasters that it uses to wield a powerful potion; and when under attack, the sea cucumber has defenses that are the envy of science fiction writers. These three organisms are definitely among the oceans’ most fascinating and surprising of residents.

The Hagfish

To know a hagfish, is to love a hagfishor maybe not. A good friend of mine in Maine ( you know who you are) has developed a new type of phobia; she is convinced that upon entering the Gulf of Maine for a leisurely swim, she will be the target of hagfish. I have tried to convince her that as long as she is not dead or nearly so, they should not be a problem, but she remains unconvincedhagfish have become her worst nightmare and with good reason.

Hagfishes are blind, jawless, scaleless, and finless fishes with a relatively flexible cartilaginous skeleton somewhat like that of sharks and rays. They resemble eels with a flattened oar-like tail, thick, slippery skin, and one singular nostril above their mouths, around which are several stubby, barbed tentacles. Interestingly, they also have four small hearts.

An adult is typically about half a meter (18 inches) long, though they have been known to reach a scary size of 1.4 meters (4.6 feet). Hagfishes live throughout the world’s oceans at the bottom, where it is relatively cool. A few species inhabit shallow waters, but most are found deeper, down to at least 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of hagfish residing in the deep waters of the Gulf of Maine.

Though jawless, the hagfish is not without teeth or a means to gain access to tender flesh. It has an extendable tongue equipped with two curved rows of sharp, horny teeth that open and close like a book. Just above that, the hagfish has a fang, which is used to snag prey and keep it from wriggling away. Its toothy tongue and hooked grasp are effective for feeding on soft-bodied creatures, such as worms and other small invertebrates, but not so handy when it comes to prey with tougher skin or scales. Hagfishes have, however, discovered another, easier way to gain access to their victims’ tasty, tender insides. They go in through open orifices, such as the mouth, gills, or yes, I am sorry to say, the backdoor. Once inside their prey (already or mostly dead, I swear), hagfishes feast on soft flesh, muscles, organs, and guts. Fishermen know this sly tactic all too well because sometimes upon hauling in their catch all they get is a fish-skin bag full of bones and squirming hagfish.

Along with their gruesome propensity to feed on the dead, hagfishes are well known for their slime, lots of slime (plate 2). If a hagfish, alias slime monster or slime hag, is threatened or injured, it releases mucus from hundreds of glands along its body. In just minutes, one hagfish can fill seven buckets with slime. The glands of the hagfish actually release a thick white fluid containing vesicles of mucus and bundles of thread-like cells. Like balls of string uncoiling, the threads unwrap; they then tangle, combine with the mucus, absorb seawater, and expand into massive amounts of sticky, slimy hagfish goo. Hagfishes use their slime to deter predators and facilitate escape.

However, if a hagfish gets caught in its own slime, it can suffocate and endure a most unpleasant fate—death by goo. It has thus evolved a few useful tricks to clear away its own slime. When slime gets up its nose, the hagfish blows it out by sneezing. To free its body of slime, the hagfish wraps its tail around its body and then slides the knot toward its head, scraping itself clear of goo. Its excellent knot-tying skills are also used in feeding to create leverage and improve its flesh-tearing abilities. The hagfish bites onto an irregularity in the skin of its prey and then slides a knot up toward its head, thus enhancing the strength of its pull and ripping power. This process, however, is slow and awkward, so going for the orifices is still a quicker and more efficient means to obtain access to a victim’s soft, tasty insides.

Hagfishes spend most of their time at rest hidden within burrows or among rocks at the seafloor. They can also go for long periods of time without feeding. Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, hagfish at the Moss Landing Marine Lab survived for fourteen weeks without food. They are quick to respond, however, when a meal is at hand and will converge en masse should a bounty of carrion become available at the seafloor, such as a dead whale. Scientists investigating baited traps in the deep sea regularly find them teeming with feeding, writhing hagfish. The hagfishes have excellent olfactory and tactile senses; they readily sniff for and feel out the weak or the dead. Not much to worry about on a leisurely swim, but for me at least, burial at sea is no longer an option. And as for my friend in Maine, she continues to spread the word about the ghoulish hagfish. One of her disciples is a triathlete who competes during the summers in New England when the water is relatively balmy. He regularly dons a wetsuit to ward off not so much the cold, but rather the sneaky hagfish. On a more positive note he says that just knowing that the orifice-seeking creatures are out there makes him swim faster.

Amazingly, there are some organisms in the sea that find hagfishes appetizingcod and sharks, as well as octopuses, seals, and dolphins make slippery meals of these not-so-lovely fishes. Hagfishes have changed little over the last 330 million years and are thought to be one of the early ancestors of vertebrate animals with a braincase, such as humans. If you thought evolution from primates was hard to swallow, how about having a hagfish in your ancestral lineage?

Love Potion # 9

They have been called the cockroaches of the sea, were considered junk food by America’s early settlers, and are now the ultimate in fine dining. But rarely are lobsters recognized for the power of their pee, their antisocial behavior, or the growing pains they must regularly endure. Over decades of laboratory and field research, scientists have discovered many fascinating, and in some cases rather bizarre, things about lobsters. And a warning if you choose to read on: the lobster on your plate may never look quite the same or quite as delectable.

There are over one hundred species of lobsters found throughout the world’s oceans, including the classic large-clawed American lobster, better known as the Maine lobster. There are also spiny, mud, spear, whip, and the shovel-like slipper varieties. Their hues vary, from the typical greenish-brown to tan or red, to almost a bluish color. Due to rare mutations, the well-known Maine lobster can sometimes be found suited in bright blue, white, or an odd half-and-half coloration. The basic body plan of a lobster goes something like thisan external hard shell or carapace, a head that is fused with the upper torso, two stalked, moveable and compound eyes, a tail fin, and ten legs. What chefs and diners usually call the tail is actually the animal’s muscle-laden, segmented abdomen. The lobster’s firm abs are well toned from use in fast swimming escapes, as anyone who has tried to catch one knows. They use rapid contractions of their abdominal muscles to flap their tails and sprint away backward. At one time, scientists thought that lobsters were mainly scavengers, but now they are believed to be active foragers, and at times, ambush predators. They use their claws, jaws, and legs for crushing, seizing, slicing, and a bit of dicing. On the menu for lobsters are mollusks, such as mussels, clams, and scallops, as well as sea urchins, worms, and crabs. Some lobsters have also been seen to eat fish or filter feed, straining seawater for coarse particulate material. If dead fish are available, they will eat that too, and they sometimes even eat each other. In fact, lobsters have been known to ingest a lot of things, including pieces of plastic, tea bags, wool, and even a rusty nail. In general, however, adult lobsters seem to have a discriminating palate, with a preference for fresh shellfish, crabs, or sea urchins.

Most lobsters, particularly in relatively shallow water, are night owls, nocturnal foragers. Shortly after sunset they leave the protection of their dens to go on the prowl. When they return, often just before sunrise, they may go into the shelter they left from or seek out the closest available place for protection. For the Caribbean spiny lobster, a good hiding hole is best if it also comes with company. It looks for crevices, overhangs, or coral outcroppings that can provide concealment and protection, and that contain other spiny lobsters. More is better when it comes to warding off predators such as sharks or a grouper, as a wall of waving whip-like spines covered with tiny spikes must deter many a hungry invader. A backdoor for escapes is also handy, and many lobster holes have two entrances or exits. The adult Maine lobster, on the other hand, does not seem so fond of its neighbors and will fight fiercely over dominance and the best shelters.

Of course, for these lobsters the best dens are not just good for protection, they also lead to more mates, more sex, and probably more descendants.

What determines a winner in the power struggles of the Maine lobster? In this case, size does matterclaw size that is.

Research suggests that the Maine lobster is typically a combatant, promiscuous creature. Undersea battles establish a hierarchy that allows dominant males to get prime real estate and use it to attract the most mates. Posturing and displays resolve some confrontations, while others end up in a brawl, a boxing match, or a brutal fight to the death. Some lobsters choose to avoid opponents all together and will run away from a fight or make a fast retreat with a few flicks of the tail. Lobsters that do decide to engage begin by sizing each other up, whipping their antennae to and fro to feel and sniff out their opponents. They may then push, shove, and lock claw to claw, in an arm-wrestling test of strength. In battle, sometimes it is the lobster that draws a claw first that wins, like a western-style duel, or they may test each other’s nerve with a game of “chicken.” In the extreme, claws or other appendages may be torn or ripped from their bodies.

Luckily, lobsters can regenerate most of their appendages. If an eye is lost, however, they cannot grow it back, and strangely enough another appendage may grow in its place, such as an oddly located walking leg. And if the need should arise, a lobster can jettison or slice off its own limb, a clever escape tactic, especially if you can grow back the lost appendage. In large tanks, some victorious lobsters have been observed to show mercy on the defeated, while others are not so kind and may mutilate or hack the loser to death. Research has also revealed that in fights, lobsters get really pissed offliterally.

Whether it is as a precursor to battle or in a bit of foreplay, when Maine lobsters meet, pee matters. They are well-equipped and stocked to make good use of their urine. Each lobster has a pair of muscular nozzles located just below its antennaea twin set of built-in pee-blasters, which are connected to an ample supply of urine that is stored in two bladders also located within its head. To further its pee-shooting range, a lobster can generate water currents with its gills and mouthparts, enabling it to reach a target, such as an opponent’s face, some seven body-lengths or about 1.5 meters (5 feet) away. Lobsters actively sniff for undersea “odors” or chemicals by flicking their smaller pair of antennae, or antennules, back and forth. In laboratory studies, the lobster to pee first and with the “sweetest” smelling urine, along with the largest claw, is the most likely to win in battle. Underlying the effects of the lobster’s urine are hormones that seem to control aggression and additional chemicals or pheromones that act as this leggy crustacean’s version of “Love Potion #9.”

When a female Maine lobster approaches a shelter, hot for some action, she not only sniffs for a male’s pee, she lets loose a stream of her own. Her urine can render a once brutish male docile and even touchy, feely. Instead of smacking the female over the head with his crushing claw, the seduced male waves his antennae gently over her body as she enters his den. On occasion, a female’s love potion may not be fully effective and she may be rejected, especially if she is unprepared to come out of her shelland not in a metaphorical sense. Before mating, a female lobster molts, whereby she becomes soft, vulnerable, and her relevant private parts are accessible to the male. By doing so, she also conveniently provides her mate with a nutritious postcoital snack, her molted shell. After mating, a female lobster may spend a few days recovering from her molt within the male’s shelter. She then simply walks away and a new female lobster will come to call.

Dominant males are repeatedly seduced into a continuous series of short-term affairs, while the females seem to choose when and with whom they will mate. The subordinate males, those that do not win battles or get the best lairs, will sometimes get a few of the dominant males’ leftovers, but without a large, attractive condo to share, they remain mainly frustrated bachelors on the make.

Female lobsters can store the males’ sperm for up to about three years, using it to fertilize several batches of eggs. They may carry tens of thousands of eggs glued under their abdomens for some ten months before hatching occurs. In their larval stages, the young lobsters join the ranks of the plankton for days, weeks or possibly months depending on the species and surrounding conditions. Each baby lobster will go through several developmental stages before growing into its more familiar form and taking to a life at the seafloor. Juvenile lobsters tend to live in shallow, protected coastal habitats until they are large enough to safely roam at greater depths.

For lobsters, molting is an important part of mating, a life-long necessity, and conceptually at least, a painful process. Like other crustaceans, as a lobster grows it must molt to replace its rigid carapace with one that is larger and able to hold a bigger body, sort of like turning in a small compact car for a minivan. Mature lobsters may molt several times a year; juveniles must do it more often because they grow faster than the adults. But they don’t simply leap out of one shell and grow another; it is a lengthy, fascinating process, and lobsters spend a good part of their lives undergoing the changes involved. Molting begins with some serious dieting, as a lobster must shed some of its mass. Simultaneously, a new paper-thin exoskeleton starts to form under its shell and its blood is moved from its outer appendages, like the claws, spines, or legs, into its body. Then it is time for a drink, a really big drink. A lobster guzzles water so that its body swells and its old carapace is pushed apart. Essentially, some serious bloating causes the lobster to unzip, unhinge, and literally burst at its seams. Lying on its side, slicked up with some lubricating slime, a lobster then must pull its body, including the antennae, legs, spines, claws, and mouthparts, out from the remains of its old shell. For Maine lobsters, particularly those well endowed in the claw area, the process must be especially difficult and possibly painful. They must pull their large, bloated claws through the slender jointed wrists of the old carapace. Think of trying to squeeze swollen hands through a pair of handcuffsand they have to do it every time they molt. Once its appendages are through and the last bit of its shell has been shaken off, the newly emerged lobster or “shedder” is a floppy, jellylike creature trying to stand up on wobbly legs with a shell the consistency of thin, wrinkly plastic wrap. It then goes again for the bloat; drinking water to inflate its size even further so that it has room to grow within its new carapace once it has hardened. A lobster typically devours some of its old shell for a megadose of minerals and nutrients.

Shedding can take just several minutes or last for up to half an hour. It is a dangerous time for the lobsters, as they are immobile and defenseless. They may go into seclusion for several days, emerging only after their new shells have begun to harden. The first body parts to stiffen are those most critical to foraging, such as the tips of the walking legs and mouthparts. It can take several months for the lobsters’ carapace to harden completely.

Maine lobsters molt principally in the relatively warm summer months. The Caribbean spiny lobster may not have the brutal mêlées or social rankings of the Maine lobster, but they exhibit at least two very curious and unique behaviors. Just after the first autumn storm, in locations such as the Bahamas, Florida, Cuba, the Gulf of Mexico, and Central America, spiny lobsters begin a two-to-three-week trek into deeper, offshore waters.

Many marine organisms make lengthy migrations, some much longer than that of the spiny lobster, but few others do it with such style. During their fall trek, thousands of lobsters will traverse the open bottom, marching in an amazing single-file formation known as a queue. They line up head to tail, each lobster closely following the one in front, guided by the touch of its antennae. The movement of the lobsters seems to entice others to leave their shelters and join the crustacean train. Scientists think that a queue is formed to reduce drag, like a professional bicyclist drafting behind the racer ahead. It may also help to prevent predation or aid in orientation while marching.

The spiny lobsters are thought to venture into deeper water to avoid the relatively cold temperatures brought on by storms in the fall and winter months. Other lobsters are known to migrate seasonally, between shelters and habitats, but the spiny lobster may be the only one that creates a single-file offshore express. Experiments suggest that lobsters use the Earth’s magnetic field as a guide to navigate the open ocean and that chemical signals may lead them to specific home ranges or locations.

The spiny lobster’s acute sense of smell also appears to provide it withan exceptional medical diagnostic capability; one that doctors can only dream of. Mark Butler, a professor at Old Dominion University, and Donald Behringer, a research scientist at the University of Florida, discovered that juvenile spiny lobsters will actively shun diseased neighbors. This normally social lobster will avoid dens that harbor lobsters that are infected with a lethal, pathogenic disease, essentially placing them in quarantine.

Even more startling is that the juvenile spiny lobsters seem to be able to detect or “smell” the disease before it becomes infectious. Butler suggests that their behavioral change is an adaptation to thwart the spread of a lethal disease, and that it may be the only known example of this sort of “shunning” in the animal kingdom.

Even with their crushing claws, spiny swords, shield-like carapace, and of course, Super Soaker pee blasters, lobsters are not invulnerable to predators. A wide range of creatures find lobsters fine dining, including fishes, sharks, sea turtles, octopuses, and of course, the most feared of allhumans. For those of you who like to eat the disgusting gooey green stuff inside a lobster’s body, the tomalley, it is the liver and pancreas combined, which acts as a filter and can accumulate pollutants or toxins over time. It is probably best to forgo this rather questionable delicacy.


Reprinted with permission from Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter, by Ellen Prager, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2011 Ellen Prager. All rights reserved.

Video games are better than movies because you can smash a head against a wall instead of passively watching a head get smashed.

I’ve been running through all three Gods of War. The opening sequence and level was insanely epic. Cut through a swathe of undead, ride a titan to the top of Mount Olympus, rip Greek god Poseidon out of a giant water horse crab’s heart, then twist his neck, causing an atomic explosion that raises the ocean.


The visual style of the above sequence is similar to Zack Snyder’s 300. Slow motion violence set on Greek battlefields. I love both. I love both film and video games. Recently, however, video games have mounted a serious assault on my free time, leaving DVDs and BluRays in the dust collecting around my TV stand.

I first noticed how involving and cinematic games have become playing the Metal Gear series. By Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, cut-scenes were the reward for difficult game play. Thirty minute sequences weren’t uncommon, and I relished every minute of them. Top tier games are becoming a hybrid of inventive gameplay and high-end animation – animation that, cut together, forms a film I’d watch even without the interaction.

But I get to interact with it! When Snake, Kratos or Kirby slices the throat of an enemy, I’m the one that chose the exact moment to strike. I’m not going to bother getting into the violence-is-ruining-our-kids debate. Boys are going to enjoy violent books, movies, games and inter-cranial virtual reality holovids forever. What’s exciting is that we’re creating newer, more immersive ways to be entertained, and the previous technologies are informing the new.

Movies got awesome based on their creators’ love of books. Video games are clearly influenced by movies. David Jaffe, creator of God of War, admitted as much in the special features of the game, speaking about the skeletal goons they ripped from claymation Sinbad and Evil Dead films.

It’s nice to know that in the year 3153, when kids are shooting aliens, their entertainment will be linked through inspiration and influence to the games I’m playing now, the books read of old and the cave paintings our ancient ancestors drew of Space Invaders.


On Christmas Eve 2004 my wife, Bette, and I were in a hotel bar in San Francisco dreaming up plot points for a film we’d like to shoot some day when a woman arrived from the airport with breathless news. The bartender clicked his remote and It’s a Wonderful Life vanished, Jimmy Stewart’s smiling face wiped off the screen by a mountain of angry seawater. I can still see those endlessly repeated loops of amateur video shot from the balconies of beachfront resorts in Sumatra and Thailand, relayed by satellite to every TV receiver on the planet.

The first horrifying, mesmerizing wave crashed against a seawall, jetting skyward in salty white torrents, tearing through a fringe of palm trees like a monsoon river, across a hotel pool deck and a manicured square of green lawn. The darkening surge roared uphill through narrow, cluttered streets choked with tourist luggage, broken timbers, small motorcycles with their riders struggling to stay vertical, cargo vans overturned and bulldozed by white froth into market stalls. A transit bus floating on its side began to sink as desperate passengers jumped from the slippery roof.

It’s impossible to forget the images, those flailing human bodies—especially one unfortunate older man clinging to the outside railing of a rapidly filling parkade. Exhausted and in shock, he finally let go. We watched as he sank into the muddy torrent and was swept away.

More than 230,000 people in fourteen countries around the Indian Ocean died or disappeared, many of them before our eyes, and there was nothing any of us could do.  Everything not nailed to the ground was torn loose and carried off by the roaring water. And there was more to come. Even after the first water had cut a swath nearly a mile inland and then sucked itself halfway out to sea again, full of death and floating debris, people standing among the palms were so stunned by the spectacle they waited too long to outrun the next wave.

Most victims, including those who’d lived their entire lives along the beach—even fishermen who knew the sea quite well—had no idea these giant ripples would come ashore again and again. In Phuket, Thailand, some of the swells were sixty-five feet high. Closer to the earthquake zone, in Aceh province on the northern end of the island of Sumatra, the mountain of water topped more than a hundred feet.

Until that moment, only a handful of people in the world had ever experienced a tsunami. Fewer still had any concept of what causes these so-called tidal waves. The magnitude 9.2 earthquake, generated by the movement of two tectonic plates along an almost nine-hundred mile (1,400 km) undersea fault called the Sunda Trench, was never more than a footnote in the nonstop cycle of dismal news. The last time anything this big had happened in the Indian Ocean was more than six hundred years ago—so far back there were no written records, nor any social memory of the disaster. Perhaps that explains why so many were caught by surprise.

But the Indian Ocean disaster was only the most vivid example of what has happened before—and what lies ahead. Chile in 1960 had a magnitude 9.5 quake in which more than 2,000 lives were lost and 3,000 people were injured. Two million were left homeless. The resulting tsunami killed another 61 people in Hawaii, 138 more in Japan, and 32 in the Philippines. Alaska in 1964 suffered a magnitude 9.2 quake, with 128 lives lost and $311 million in property damage. Mexico City in 1985 was shaken by a magnitude 8.1 temblor in which at least 9,500 were killed, more than 100,000 were made homeless, and more than $3 billion of property damage was done. What happened to Sumatra in 2004 [and to Japan in 2011] will also happen to California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.

The geologic source of the looming catastrophe along North America’s west coast—like all the others—lies hidden beneath the sea, out of sight and pretty much out of mind. Scientists, civil engineers, and emergency planners know with certainty that it’s bound to happen here, but they’re having a devil of a time getting anyone to pay attention. This book, I hope, will change that.

People in the United States and Canada, if they think at all about earthquake disasters, probably conjure up the infamous San Andreas fault as the worst case. In California, waiting for “the Big One,” people wonder which city the San Andreas will wreck next—San Francisco or Los Angeles? Well, perhaps neither, because if by the Big One they mean the earthquake that will wreak havoc over the widest geographical area, that could destroy the most critical infrastructure, that could send a train of tsunamis across the Pacific causing economic mayhem that would probably last a decade or more—then the seismic demon to blame could not possibly be the San Andreas. It would have to be Cascadia’s fault.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a crack in the earth’s crust, roughly sixty miles (100 km) offshore and running eight hundred miles (1,300 km) from northern Vancouver Island to northern California. It has generated massive earthquakes not just once or twice, but over and over again throughout geologic time. A recently published, peer-reviewed scientific research paper documents at least forty-one Cascadia “events” in the last ten thousand years. Nineteen of those events ripped the fault from end to end, a “full margin rupture.”

As for timing, scientists used to think these mega-quakes occurred every 500 to 530 years, but the newest data show that the fault has at least four segments, the southernmost being far more active and with a greater number of slightly smaller (magnitude 8 or higher) quakes. Based on historical averages, the southern end of the fault—from Cape Mendocino, California, to Newport, Oregon—has a large earthquake every 240 years. For the northern end—from mid-Oregon to mid-Vancouver Island—the average “recurrence interval” is 480 years, according to a recent Canadian study. And while the north may have only half as many jolts, they tend to be full-size disasters in which the entire fault breaks from end to end at magnitude 9 or higher.

Given that the last big quake was more than 311 years ago, one might argue that a very bad day on the southern segment is ominously overdue. With a timeline of forty-one events an American geologist has now calculated that the California–Oregon end of Cascadia’s fault has a 37 percent chance of producing a  major earthquake in the next fifty years. The odds are 10 percent that an even larger quake will strike the upper end (in a full margin rupture) in fifty years. It appears that three centuries of silence along the fault (Cascadia is classified as the quietest subduction zone in the world) has been entirely misleading. The monster is only sleeping.

Cascadia is virtually identical to the offshore fault that devastated Sumatra—almost the same length, the same width, and with the same tectonic forces at work. This fault can and will generate the same kind of earthquake we saw off Sumatra: magnitude 9 or higher. It will send crippling shockwaves across a far wider area than all the  California quakes you’ve ever heard about. Cascadia’s fault will slam five cities at once: Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, and Sacramento. It will cause physical damage as far south as San Francisco.

Cascadia’s fault will cripple or destroy dozens of smaller towns and coastal villages from Tofino and Ucluelet on Vancouver Island to Crescent City and Eureka in northern California. None of these cities and towns will be able to call their neighbors for help because they will all be on their knees in rubble at exactly the same moment…

That’s not all. Cascadia will also slam the beaches of the west coast of North America as well as Alaska and Hawaii. A research plan prepared by NOAA—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—back in 1982 estimated that 900,000 people would be at risk from a fifty-foot (15 m) Cascadia tsunami striking the U.S. western seaboard.

But that’s just the United States. Nobody has done a projected death toll for the other Pacific Rim nations that would be affected. Researchers have, however, made a convincing case that an earthquake on Cascadia’s fault in 1700 put a series of waves thirteen to sixteen feet (4–5 m) high—imagine water more than fifteen feet above the highest tides—onto the beaches of eastern Japan, causing widespread damage, injuries, and deaths. At this point one can only imagine what the same waves would do to the seaports and villages of modern-day Japan. To this scenario add Indonesia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand—all of which would be hit by Cascadia’s waves…

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn.

Author photos: Beth Chimera

Copyright © 2011 by Donovan Hohn.

At the outset, I felt no need to acquaint myself with the six degrees of freedom. I’d never heard of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. I liked my job and loved my wife and was inclined to agree with Emerson that travel is a fool’s paradise. I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why. I loved the part about containers falling off a ship, the part about the oceanographers tracking the castaways with the help of far-flung beachcombers. I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before.

At the outset, I had no intention of doing what I eventually did: quit my job, kiss my wife farewell, and ramble about the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of watercraft. I certainly never expected to join the crew of a fifty-one-foot catamaran captained by a charismatic environmentalist, the Ahab of plastic hunters, who had the charming habit of exterminating the fruit flies clouding around his stash of organic fruit by hoovering them out of the air with a vacuum cleaner.

Certainly I never expected to transit the Northwest Passage aboard a Canadian icebreaker in the company of scientists investigating the Arctic’s changing climate and polar bears lunching on seals. Or to cross the Graveyard of the Pacific on a container ship at the height of the winter storm season. Or to ride a high-speed ferry through the smoggy, industrial backwaters of China’s Pearl River Delta, where, inside the Po Sing plastic factory, I would witness yellow pellets of polyethylene resin transmogrify into icons of childhood.

I’d never given the plight of the Laysan albatross a moment’s thought. Having never taken organic chemistry, I didn’t know and therefore didn’t care that pelagic plastic has the peculiar propensity to adsorb hydrophobic, lipophilic, polysyllabic toxins such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (a.k.a. DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (a.k.a. PCBs). Nor did I know or care that such toxins are surprisingly abundant at the ocean’s surface, or that they bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain. Honestly, I didn’t know what “pelagic” or “adsorb” meant, and if asked to use “lipophilic” and “hydrophobic” in a sentence I’d have applied them to someone with a weight problem and a debilitating fear of drowning.

If asked to define the “six degrees of freedom,” I would have assumed they had something to do with existential philosophy or constitutional law. Now, years later, I know: the six degrees of freedom—delicious phrase!—are what naval architects call the six different motions floating vessels make. Now, not only can I name and define them, I’ve experienced them firsthand. One night, sleep-deprived and nearly broken, in thirty-five-knot winds and twelve-foot seas, I would overindulge all six—rolling, pitching, yawing, heaving, swaying, and surging like a drunken libertine—and, after buckling myself into an emergency harness and helping to lower the mainsail, I would sway and surge and pitch as if drunkenly into the head, where, heaving, I would liberate my dinner into a bucket.

At the outset, I figured I’d interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and Arctic geography, and then write an account of the incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea, an account more detailed and whimsical than the tantalizingly brief summaries that had previously appeared in news stories. And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk, so that I could be sure to be present at the birth of my first child.

But questions, I’ve learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you’re way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep. You’re wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want to know what it’s like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You’re marveling at the scale of humanity’s impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic magnitude of your own ignorance. You’re giving the plight of the Laysan albatross many moments of thought.

The next thing you know, it’s the middle of the night and you’re on the outer decks of a post-Panamax freighter due south of the Aleutian island where, in 1741, shipwrecked, Vitus Bering perished from scurvy and hunger. The winds are gale force. The water is deep and black, and so is the sky. It’s snowing. The decks are slick. Your ears ache, your fingers are numb. Solitary, nocturnal circumambulations of the outer decks by supernumerary passengers are strictly forbidden, for good reason. Fall overboard and no one would miss you. You’d inhale the ocean and go down, alone. Nevertheless, there you are, not a goner yet, gazing up at the shipping containers stacked six-high overhead, and from them cataracts of snowmelt and rain are spattering on your head. There you are, listening to the stacked containers strain against their lashings, creaking and groaning and cataracting with every roll, and with every roll you are wondering what in the name of Neptune it would take to make stacks of steel—or for that matter aluminum—containers fall.

Or you’re learning how to tie a bowline knot and say thank you in both Inuktitut and Cantonese.

Or you’re spending three days and nights in a shabby hotel room in Pusan, South Korea, waiting for your ship to come in, and you’re wondering what you could possibly have been thinking when you embarked on this harebrained journey, this wild duckie chase, and you’re drinking Scotch, and looking sentimentally at photos of your wife and son on your laptop, your wife and son who, on the other side of the planet, on the far side of the international date line, are doing and feeling and drinking God knows what. Probably not Scotch. And you’re remember ing the scene near the end of Moby-Dick when Starbuck, family man, first officer of the Pequod, tries in vain to convince mad Ahab to abandon his doomed hunt. “Away with me!” Starbuck pleads, “let us fly these deadly waters! let us home!”

And you’re dreaming nostalgically of your former life of chalk boards and Emily Dickinson and parent-teacher conferences, and wishing you could go back to it, wishing you’d never contacted the heavyset Dr. E., or learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or met the Ahab of plastic hunters, or the heartsick conservationist or the foulmouthed beachcomber or the blind oceanographer, any of them. You’re wishing you’d never given Big Poppa the chance to write about Luck Duck, because if you hadn’t you’d never have heard the fable of the rubber ducks lost at sea. You’d still be teaching Moby-Dick to American teenagers. But that’s the thing about strong currents: there’s no swimming against them.

The next thing you know years have passed, and you’re still adrift, still waiting to see where the questions take you. At least that’s what happens if you’re a nearsighted, school-teaching, would-be archaeologist of the ordinary, with an indulgent, long-suffering wife and a juvenile imagination, and you receive in the mail a manila envelope, and inside this envelope you find a dozen back issues of a cheaply produced newsletter, and in one of those newsletters you discover a wonderful map—if, in other words, you’re me.

Today, an astronomy professor at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, the wonderfully named Parke Kunkle, told a (nameless, far as I can tell) reporter at NBC News something that astrologers have known for hundreds of years.

Here’s the intro to that “news” story:


If you’ve ever read your horoscope, you may be interested in what at least one astronomer has to say about it. Turns out your sign may not really be your sign.

“This is not something that happened today. This has gone on for thousands of years,” said astronomer Parke Kunkle.

The star doctors say Earth is currently in a different spot in relation to the Sun, and its equatorial alignment has changed from 3,000 years ago when the study of astrology began — back when 12 zodiac signs were assigned to 12 different periods of the year.

Those signs you were born into are different now because the Earth’s wobble on its axis has created a one-month bump in the alignment of the stars, according to Kunkle.

“Because of this change of tilt, the Earth is really over here in effect and Sun is in a different constellation than it was 3,000 years ago.”


First of all, no fucking shit.  The entire concept of the Age of Aquarius is predicated on said wobble of the Earth (see below), so it’s safe to assume that any astrologer worth his or her horoscopical salt will know that the constellations are different now than they were thousands of years ago.

Second, astronomers are not astrologers. They are celestial trainspotters. They voted to demote Pluto from planet to “dwarf planet,” which no astrologer would do (we know what a whallop that outer planet can pack). Asking an astronomer about astrology is like asking a stage-light manufacturer about Method acting.

Third, most astrologers use the tropical, not the sidereal, method of calculating Sun signs. In this method, the sky is divided into twelve equal sections; the constellations are irrelevant. I’ll let Robert Hand, the world’s greatest astrologer, explain, in a terrific essay called “The Age and Constellation of Pisces,” published back in 1982:


Constellations have not played much of a role in modern astrology. Fixed stars taken individually have been investigated from time to time, but not usually as parts of constellations….

The ancients made a distinction between two kinds of zodiacal sign, the zodia neota, which roughly translates as the “knowable zodiac,” and the morphomata, “that which has form.” The zodia noeta consist of…twelve 30-degree sidereal signs. The morphomata…are the unequal constellations forming pictures of forms in the heavens….

But while the constellations (morphomata) have retained their form fairly consistently from somewhat before Ptolemy to the present, it is quite apparent they were different before that time.


Fourth, and most importantly, even if the morphomata were used, all of modern astrology—and thus, every last word you read about the secretive Scorpio, the stubborn Capricorn, the sensitive Pisces, and so on—begins with Ptolemy’s book Tetrabiblos. Since the sky looks more or less the same today than it did when he was writing, it doesn’t matter one iota, practically speaking, where Aries was in ancient Babylonia.  We are what we are; where the stars are located is beside the point.

(Hand, incidentally, and many other astrologers, talk about the “thirteenth sign,” Ophiuchus. Ophiuschus is like the zodiac’s Pete Best.)

As the learned astrolomer observes, this has gone on for thousands of years. The only mystery is why it is news.


So what is the Age of Aquarius, anyway?


The Earth moves in three different ways. Two of these motions you know already, because rotation and revolution are how our basic units of time—day and year—are derived. The seasons, another unit of time, are caused by the interplay between rotation and revolution.

But there is a third motion to the planet, one that takes far longer than the other two: the wobble. Ever spun a top and observed how its top wobbles as the body spins? The Earth does the same thing—slowly, very slowly, but ineluctably.

It takes one day for the Earth to rotate on its axis, one year to revolve around the Sun, and a whopping 25,868 years (give or take) to wobble around completely. One 360-degree wobble is called a Great Sidereal Year—or, more frequently, a Platonic Year (PY).

Now, imagine that you’re up in space, staring down at the North Pole. Also imagine that some celestial cinematographer recorded the Earth making a full wobble in time-lapse photography. What you would see is a point moving in a circle—like the tip of the second hand on a clock, except wicked slow.

Let’s give this circle of completed wobble a name. Let’s call it Dave.

There are 360 degrees to Dave. We mark these degrees in units of twelve—just like we do on a clock. But instead of numbers, we use the zodiac—a series of “fixed” stars near the equator, visible from both hemispheres, by which we track the motion of the Earth.

Continuing our clock analogy, if Dave lives on a second hand, then 1 is Aries, 2 is Taurus, 3 is Gemini, and so on, to 12, which is Pisces. Each of these twelve divisions of the Platonic Year—a Platonic Month, if you will—is called an Astrological Age.

With me so far?

One more thing: the Earth wobbles backwards through the zodiac. So Dave is moving in reverse. Instead of going from Aries to Taurus, Dave travels from Aries to Pisces, and from Pisces to—ta da—Aquarius.

Right now, we are in the Age of Pisces. It has been the Age of Pisces for a really long time. We’re waiting for Dave to break the plane of the 11—and for Earth to enter the Age of Aquarius.

(Sidenote: the term “New Age” is thus derived: the Age of Aquarius is the New Age).

A Platonic Year lasts, as discussed, 25,868 Earth years. A Platonic month—that is, an Astrological Age—lasts about 2160 Earth years. The Earth wobbles about one degree every 72 years. These are just estimates, of course, but they are close.

As if all this Dave business isn’t confusing enough, there’s one more curveball. There are two different zodiacs. The tropical zodiac divides the heavens into twelve equal pie-slices, just like a clock, based on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

The sidereal zodiac is based upon the stars themselves, rather than arbitrary points in the sky. Because some constellations are bigger than others, according to apologists of the sidereal zodiac, some Ages last longer than others. And Pisces is one of the big ones. If a regular Age is a two-hour movie, Pisces is Gone With the Wind. It’s a double videotape of a constellation.

Summing up, we know an Astrological Age is roughly 2160 years, give or take a decade or three. We’re pretty sure that we’re still in the Age of Pisces. But we’re not sure when the Piscean Age ends, because we’re not sure when it begins—or, for that matter, how long it’s supposed to last.


When is this dawning-of-the-Age-of-Aquarius business going to start?


Astrologers disagree about when the Age of Pisces began. Here are some hypotheses, in chronological order:


608 BCE Madame Blavatsky

317 BCE David Davison

255 BCE Gerald Massey

125 BCE Thierens

111 BCE Robert Hand

100 BCE Dane Rudhyar

1 CE Paul Council

25 CE Charles A. Jayne

213 CE Cyril Fagan

496 CE Gavin Arthur


Add 2160 years to the start dates, and here’s when the experts suggest the Age of Aquarius might begin. (Note: all but Robert Hand have been dead for at least a quarter century).


1552 CE Madame Blavatsky

1843 CE David Davison

1905 CE Gerald Massey

2035 CE Thierens

2049 CE Robert Hand

2060 CE Dane Rudhyar

2161 CE Paul Council

2185 CE Charles A. Jayne

2370 CE Cyril Fagan

2656 CE Gavin Arthur


Given that living astrologers concur that we are still in the Age of Pisces, we can safety discard Blavatsky, Davison, and Massey. The two astrologers I find the most illuminating are Hand and Rudhyar, so it is telling that they are in virtual agreement.

In short, the New Age is coming. But not until the middle of the century. Unless Parke Kunkle tells a reporter at NBC News otherwise, that is.





Japan Picks an Astronaut

First you remove your shoes, as you would upon entering a Japanese home. You are given a pair of special isolation chamber slippers, light blue vinyl imprinted with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency logo, the letters JAXA leaning forward as though rushing into space at terrific speed. The isolation chamber, a freestanding structure inside building C-5 at JAXA’s headquarters in Tsukuba Science City, is in fact a home of sorts, for one week, for the ten finalists competing for two openings in the Japanese astronaut corps. When I came here last month, there wasn’t much to see—a bedroom with curtained “sleeping boxes,” and an adjoining common room with a long dining table and chairs. It’s more about being seen. Five closed-circuit cameras mounted near the ceiling allow a panel of psychiatrists, psychologists, and JAXA managers to observe the applicants. To a large extent, their behavior and the panel’s impressions of them during their stay will determine which two will wear the JAXA logo on spacesuits instead of slippers.

The idea is to get a better sense of who these men and women are, and how well they’re suited to life in space. An intelligent, highly motivated person can hide undesirable facets of his or her character in an interview(1) or on a questionnaire—which together have weeded out applicants with obvious personality disorders—but not so easily under a weeklong observation. In the words of JAXA psychologist Natsuhiko Inoue, “It’s difficult to be a good man always.” Isolation chambers are also a way to judge things like teamwork, leadership, and conflict management—group skills that can’t be assessed in a one-on-one interview. (NASA does not use them.)

The observation room is upstairs from the chamber. It is Wednesday, day three of the seven-day isolation. A row of closed-circuit TVs are lined up for the observers, who sit at long tables with their notepads and cups of tea. Three are here now, university psychiatrists and psychologists, staring at the TVs like customers at Best Buy contemplating a purchase. One TV, inexplicably, is broadcasting a daytime talk show.

Inoue sits at the control console, with its camera zooms and microphone controls and a second bank of tiny TV monitors above his head. At forty, he is accomplished for his age and widely respected in the field of space psychology, yet something in his appearance and demeanor makes you want to reach over and pinch his cheek. Like many male employees here, he wears open-toed slippers over socks. As a Westerner, I have large gaps in my understanding of Japanese slipper etiquette, but to me it suggests that JAXA, as much as his house, feels like home. For this week, anyway, it would be understandable; his shift begins at 6 A.M. and ends just after 10 P.M.

On camera now, one of the applicants can be seen lifting a stack of 9-by-11-inch envelopes from a cardboard box. Each envelope is labeled with an applicant’s identifying letter—A through J
—and contains a sheet of instructions and a square, flat cellophane-wrapped package. Inoue says the materials are for a test of patience and accuracy under pressure. The candidates tear open the packages and pull out sheaves of colored paper squares. “The test is involving . . . I am sorry, I don’t know the word in English. A form of paper craft.”


“Origami, yes!” Earlier today, I used the handicapped stall in the hallway bathroom. On the wall was a confusing panel of levers, toggles, pull chains. It was like the cockpit of the Space Shuttle. I yanked a pull-chain, aiming to flush, and set off the emergency Nurse Call alarm. I’m wearing pretty much the same face right now. It’s my Wha? face. For the next hour and a half, the men and women who vie to become Japan’s next astronauts, heroes to their countrymen, will be making paper cranes.

“One thousand cranes.” JAXA’s chief medical officer, Shoichi Tachibana, introduces himself. He’s been standing quietly behind us. Tachibana came up with the test. A Japanese tradition holds that a person who folds a thousand cranes will be granted health and longevity. (The gift is apparently transferable; the cranes, strung on lengths of thread, are typically given to patients in hospitals.) Later, Tachibana will place a perfect yellow crane, hardly bigger than a grasshopper, onto the table where I sit. A tiny dinosaur will appear on the arm of the sofa in the corner. He’s like one of those creepy movie villains who sneak into the hero’s home and leave behind a tiny origami animal, their creepy villain calling card, just to let him know they were there. Or, you know, a guy who enjoys origami.

The applicants have until Sunday to finish the cranes. Paper squares are spread across the table, the vibrancy of the colors played up by the drabness of the room. Along with the shoebox architecture and the rocket replicas lying around the grounds, JAXA has managed to duplicate the uniquely unappealing green-gray you often see on NASA interior walls. It’s a color I have seen nowhere else and on no paint chip, yet here it is.

The genius of the Thousand Cranes test is that it creates a chronological record of each candidate’s work. As they complete their cranes, candidates string them on a single long thread. At the end of the isolation, everyone’s string of cranes will be taken away and analyzed. It’s forensic origami: As the deadline nears and the pressure increases, do the candidate’s creases become sloppy? How do the first ten cranes compare to the last? “Deterioration of accuracy shows impatience under stress,” Inoue says.

I have been told that 90 percent of a typical mission on the International Space Station (ISS) is devoted to assembling, repairing, or maintaining the spacecraft itself. It’s rote work, much of it done while wearing a pressurized suit with a limited oxygen supply—a ticking clock. Astronaut Lee Morin described his role in installing the midsection of the ISS truss, the backbone to which various laboratory modules are attached. “It’s held on with thirty bolts. I personally tightened twelve of them.” (“So that’s two years of education for each bolt,” he couldn’t help adding.) The spacesuit systems lab at Johnson Space Center has a glove box that mimics the vacuum of space and inflates a pair of pressurized gloves. In the box with the gloves is one of the heavy-duty carabiners that tether astronauts and their tools to the exterior of the space station while they work. Trying to work the tether is like dealing cards with oven mitts on. Simply closing one’s fist tires the hand within minutes. You cannot be the sort of person who gets frustrated easily and turns in a haphazard performance.

An hour passes. One of the psychiatrists has stopped watching and turned his attention to the talk show. A young actor is being interviewed about his wedding and what kind of father he hopes to be. The candidates are bent over the table, working quietly. Applicant A, an orthopedist and aikido enthusiast, is in the lead with fourteen cranes. Most of the rest have managed seven or eight. The instructions are two pages long. My interpreter Sayuri is folding a piece of notebook paper. She is at step 21, where the crane’s body is inflated. The directions show a tiny puff beside an arrow pointing at the bird. It makes sense if you already know what to do. Otherwise, it’s wonderfully surreal: Put a cloud inside a bird.

IT IS DIFFICULT, though delightful, to picture John Glenn or Alan Shepard applying his talents to the ancient art of paper-folding. America’s first astronauts were selected by balls and charisma. All seven Mercury astronauts, by requirement, were active or former test pilots. These were men whose nine-to-five involved breaking altitude records and sound barriers while nearly passing out and crashing in screaming-fast fighter jets. Up through Apollo 11, every mission included a major NASA first. First trip to space, first orbit, first space walk, first docking maneuver, first lunar landing. Seriously hairy shit was going down on a regular basis.

With each successive mission, space exploration became a little more routine. To the point, incredibly, of boredom. “Funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much,” wrote Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan. “Should have brought some crossword puzzles.” The close of the Apollo program marked a shift from exploration to experimentation. Astronauts traveled no farther than the fringes of the Earth’s atmosphere to assemble orbiting science labs—Skylab, Spacelab, Mir, ISS. They carried out zero-gravity experiments, launched communications and Defense Department satellites, installed new toilets. “Life on Mir was mostly mundane,” says astronaut Norm Thagard in the space history journal Quest. “Boredom was the most common problem I had.” Mike Mullane summed up his first Space Shuttle mission as “throwing a few toggle switches to release a couple comms satellites.” There are still firsts, and NASA proudly lists them, but they don’t make headlines. Firsts for shuttle mission STS-110, for instance, include: “first time that all of a shuttle crew’s spacewalks were based from the station’s Quest Airlock.” “Capacity to Tolerate Boredom and Low Levels of Stimulation” is one of the recommended attributes on a Space Shuttle–era document drafted by the NASA In-House Working Group on Psychiatric and Psychological Selection of Astronauts.

These days the astronaut job title has been split into two categories. (Three, counting payload specialist, the category into which teachers, boondoggling senators(2), and junketing Saudi princes fall.) Pilot astronauts are the ones at the controls. Mission specialist astronauts carry out the science experiments, make the repairs, launch the satellites. They’re still the best and the brightest, but not by necessity the boldest. They’re doctors, biologists, engineers. Astronauts these days are as likely to be nerds as heroes. (JAXA astronauts on the ISS thus far have been classified as NASA mission specialists. The ISS includes a JAXA-built laboratory module, called Kibo.) The most stressful part of being an astronaut, Tachibana told me, is not getting to be an astronaut—not knowing whether or when you’ll get a flight assignment.

The first time I spoke to an astronaut, I didn’t know about the pilot–mission specialist split. I pictured astronauts, all of them, as they were in the Apollo footage: faceless icons behind gold visors, lumbering to the launch pad in their bulky suits and bounding like antelopes in the moon’s weak gravity. The astronaut was Lee Morin. Mission Specialist Morin is a big, soft-spoken man. One foot turns in slightly as he walks. He was dressed in chinos and brown shoes the day we met. There were sailboats and hibiscus flowers on his shirt. He told me a story about how he helped test the lubricant for a launch-pad escape slide on the Space Shuttle. “They had us bend over and they brushed our butts with it. And then we jumped on the slide. And it passed, so [the shuttle mission] could go forward and the space station could be built. I was proud,” he deadpanned, “ to do my part for the mission.”

I remember watching Morin walk away from me, the endearing gait and the butt that got lubed for science, and thinking, “Oh my god, they’re just people.”

NASA funding has depended in no small part upon the larger-than-life mythology. The imagery forged during Mercury and Apollo remains largely intact. In official NASA 8-by-10 astronaut glossies, many still wear spacesuits, still hold their helmets in their laps, as though at any moment the Johnson Space Center photography studio might inexplicably depressurize. In reality, maybe 1 percent of an astronaut’s career takes place in space, and 1 percent of that is done in a pressure suit. Morin was on hand that day as a member of the Cockpit Working Group for the Orion space capsule. He was helping figure out sight lines and optimal placement of computer displays. Between flights, astronauts spend their days in meetings and on committees, speaking at schools and Rotary clubs, evaluating software and hardware, working at Mission Control, and otherwise, as they say, flying a desk.

Not that bravery has been entirely phased out. Those recommended astronaut attributes also include “Ability to Function Despite Imminent Catastrophe.” If something goes wrong, everyone’s clarity of mind is needed. Some selection committees—the Canadian Space Agency’s, for instance—appear to put greater emphasis on disaster coping skills. Highlights of CSA’s 2009 astronaut selection testing were posted in installments on the Web site home page. It was reality television. The candidates were sent to a damage-control training facility, where they learned to escape burning space capsules and sinking helicopters. They leapt feetfirst into swimming pools from terrifying heights while wave generators pushed 5-foot swells. A percussive action-movie soundtrack ramped up the drama. (It is possible the footage had more to do with attracting media coverage than with the realities of choosing Canada’s next astronaut.)

Earlier, I asked Tachibana whether he was planning to pull any surprises on his candidates, to see how they cope under the stress of a sudden emergency. He told me he had given thought to disabling the isolation chamber toilet. Again, not the answer I was expecting, but genius in its way. The footage might not play as well with a kettledrum soundtrack (and then again it might), but it’s a more apt scenario. A broken toilet is not only more representative of the challenges of space travel, but—as we’ll see in chapter 14—stressful in its own right.

“Before you arrived yesterday,” Tachibana added, “we delayed lunch by one hour.” The little things can be big tells. Unaware that a late lunch or a malfunctioning toilet is part of the test, the applicants behave truer to character. When I first began this book, I applied to be a subject in a simulated Mars mission. I made it past the first round of cuts and was told that someone from the European Space Agency would call me for a phone interview later in the month. The call came at 4:30 A.M., and I did not take care to hide my irritation. I realized later that it had probably been a test, and I had failed it.

NASA uses similar tactics. They’ll call an applicant and tell her that they need to redo a couple tests on her physical and that they need to do it the following day. “What they’re really doing is saying, ‘Let’s see if they’ll drop everything to be one of us,’” says planetary geologist Ralph Harvey, whose Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program personnel sometimes apply for astronaut openings. (Antarctica is a useful analog for space, and people who thrive there are thought to be psychologically well equipped for the isolation and confinement of space travel.) Harvey recently got a call about one such applicant. “They said, ‘We’re going to give him a T-38 to fly for the first time tomorrow. And we’d like you to go along with him as an observer and tell us how you think he’s doing.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. What they were doing was assessing my confidence level in the person.”

Another reason to see how would-be astronauts handle stress is that options for reducing it are limited on board a spaceship. “Shopping, let’s say,” says Tachibana. “You cannot do such a thing.” Or drinking. “Or a long bath,” adds Kumiko Tanabe, who handles press and publicity for JAXA and thus, I suspect, takes lots of long baths.

LUNCH HAS ARRIVED, and all ten candidates get up to unpack the containers and set out plates. They sit down again, but no one picks up chopsticks. You can tell they’re strategizing. Does taking the first bite show leadership, or does it suggest impatience and self-indulgence? Applicant A, the physician, comes up with what seems an ideal solution. “Bon appétit,” he says to the group. He picks up his chopsticks as the others do, but then waits for someone else to take the first bite. Canny. I’ve got my money on A.

Here’s the other thing that’s changed since the heyday of space exploration. Crews aboard space shuttles and orbiting science labs are two or three times the size of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo crews, and the missions span weeks or months, not days. This makes the Mercury-era “right stuff” the wrong stuff. Astronauts have to be people who play well with others. NASA’s recommended astronaut attribute list includes an Ability to Relate to Others with Sensitivity, Regard, and Empathy. Adaptability, Flexibility, Fairness. Sense of Humor. An Ability to Form Stable and Quality Interpersonal Relationships. Today’s space agency doesn’t want guts and swagger. They want Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe(3). Assertiveness has to be “Appropriate” and Risk-Taking Behavior has to be “Healthy.” The right stuff is no longer bravado, aggressiveness, and virility. Or as Patricia Santy, NASA’s first staff psychiatrist, put it in Choosing the Right Stuff, “narcissism, arrogance, and interpersonal insensitivity.” “Who,” she asks, “would want to work with a person like that?”

As a gross overgeneralization, the Japanese are well suited to life on a space station. They’re accustomed to small spaces and limited privacy. They’re a lighter, more compact payload than the average American. Perhaps most important, they’re raised to be polite and to keep their emotions in check. My interpreter, Sayuri, a woman so considerate she wipes the lipstick off the edge of her teacup before handing it to the JAXA cafeteria dishwashers, says her parents used to tell her, “Don’t make waves on the quiet surface of the pond.” Being an astronaut, she noted, is “an extension of everyday life.” “They make excellent Space Shuttle crew member,” agreed astronaut Roger Crouch, whom I had been emailing during my stay in Japan.

I ran my theory by Tachibana. We had gone down to the lobby to chat. We sat on low sofas arranged beneath portraits of the JAXA astronaut corps. “What you say is true,” he said, one knee bobbing up and down. (His boss told me when I’d visited earlier in the year that leg-bobbing is viewed as a red flag during astronaut selection interviews, along with failure to make eye contact. For the remainder of the conversation, the boss and I stared intently at each other across the table, both refusing to look away.) “We Japanese have a tendency to suppress emotion and try to cooperate, try to adapt too much. I worry that some of our astronauts behave too much well.” Suppressing one’s feelings too tightly for too long takes a toll. You either explode or implode. “Most Japanese will become depressive rather than explosive,” says Tachibana. Fortunately, he adds, JAXA astronauts train with NASA astronauts for several years, and during those years “their character becomes somewhat more aggressive and like Americans.”

In the previous isolation-chamber test, one applicant was eliminated because he expressed too much irritation and another because he was unable to express his irritation and acted it out passively. Tachibana and Inoue look for applicants who manage to achieve a balance. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson strikes me as a good example. On NASA TV recently, I heard someone at NASA tell her that he could not find a series of photographs that she or some member of her crew had recently taken. If I’d spent the morning shooting photographs and the person I’d shot them for then misplaced them, I’d say, “Look again, lamb chop.” Whitson said, without a trace of irritation, “That’s not a problem. We can do them over.”

Anything else to avoid should you wish to become an astronaut?

Snoring, says Tachibana. If it’s loud enough, it can mean elimination from the selection process. “It wakes people up.”

According to the Yangtse Evening Post, the medical screening for Chinese astronauts excludes candidates with bad breath. Not because it might suggest gum disease, but because, in the words of health screening official Shi Bing Bing, “the bad smell would affect their fellow colleagues in a narrow space.”

LUNCH IS OVER, and two—now three, wait, four!—of the candidates are cleaning the surface of the table. I’m reminded of those brushless car washes where a small army of wiping employees descends on your vehicle as it exits the wash. But no one has to clean the dishes. The instructions are to put your dirty plates and utensils back inside the plastic tub labeled with your I.D. letter, and to put the tubs in the “airlock.” What the candidates don’t know is that the dirty dishes are then loaded onto a dolly and wheeled away to be photographed. The photos will be delivered to the psychiatrists and psychologists, along with the origami birds. I watched the photo shoot after last night’s meal. The photographer’s assistant opens each tub and holds a piece of cardboard printed with the candidate’s letter and the date just inside the bottom of the frame, as though the place setting had been picked up for a crime and was now being posed for a mug shot.

Inoue was vague about the purpose. To see what they ate, he said. For what it’s worth, C didn’t eat her chicken skin, and G left the seaweed in his miso soup. E left half his soup and all his pickled vegetables. My man A ate everything and placed it back in the container in the same precise configuration in which it had arrived.

“Look at G-san,” tutted the photographer. (“San” is a Japanese honorific, like our “Mr.” or “Ms.” ) He lifted the pickle dish that G had placed on top of the dinner plate. “He’s hiding his skin.”

I’m not sure I understand why it’s important that astronauts clean their plates and stack their dirty dishes. Tidiness is certainly important in a small space, but I think this is about something else. If I showed a stranger a list of the activities I’ve been observing these past few days and asked him to guess where I’d been, I doubt “space agency” would leap to mind. “Grade school” might. In addition to origami, the tests this week have involved building LEGO robots and making colored-pencil drawings of “Me and My Colleagues” (also destined for the mental health professionals’ in-boxes).

Right now, H is on the TV screens, addressing his colleagues and the cameras. The activity is called “self-merits presentation.” I had expected something along the lines of a one-way job interview, a recitation of character strengths and job skills. This is more like a summer camp talent show act. C’s talent was singing songs in four languages. D did forty push-ups in thirty seconds.

Adding to the overall schoolyard ambiance, the candidates wear pinnies. They’re the sort of thing kids used to wear during gym class to help them keep track of who’s on what team. These have candidates’ letters printed on them. They are for the observers. The lighting is poor and the camera rarely zooms in on faces, so it’s hard to figure out who’s talking. Before the pinnies went on, everyone was constantly leaning over and whispering to their neighbor. “Who’s that? E-san?” “I think it’s J-san.” “No, J-san is there, with the stripes.”

H is saying: “I can ride a bike without holding the handlebars.” Now he cups his hands together and puts his lips to his bent thumbs. After a few tries, he produces a low, dry, unmusical whistle. “I don’t have a skill like yours,” H says to B glumly. B just finished telling us about the badminton championship his team won and then pulling up the legs of his shorts to show off his thigh muscles.

H sits down, and F stands up. F is one of three pilots in the group. “What is important in a pilot is communication.” After a solid start, the presentation takes an unexpected turn. F tells us that he often goes out drinking with his pals. “We go to places where ladies entertain. That helps to communicate and help break the ice with the guys.” F opens his mouth wide. He’s doing something with his tongue. The psychiatrists lean toward the TVs. Sayuri’s eyebrows shoot up. “I do this for the ladies,” says F. Wha? Inoue pulls the zoom. F’s tongue is double-curled, like a pair of tacos. “For me it is an ice-breaking technique.”

My guy A is up next. He tells us he is going to demonstrate an aikido technique and asks for a volunteer. D stands up. His pinnie is partly slipping off his shoulder like a bra strap. A says that when he was in college, the younger students would get so drunk they couldn’t move. “So I twist their arm to help them get up.” He grabs D’s wrist. D yelps, and everyone laughs.

“They’re like frat boys,” I say to Sayuri. Tachibana is sitting beside Sayuri, who explains “frat boy” to him.

“To tell you the truth,” Tachibana says, “astronaut is a kind of college student.” He is given assignments. Decisions are made for him. Going into space is like attending a very small, very elite military boarding school. Instead of sergeants and deans, there is space agency management. It’s hard work, and you better stick to the rules. Don’t talk about other astronauts. Don’t use cuss words(4). Never complain. As in the military, wave-makers are leaned on hard or sent away.

All through the space station era, the ideal astronaut has been an exceptionally high-achieving adult who takes direction and follows rules like an exceptionally well-behaved child. Japan cranks them out. This is a culture where almost no one jaywalks or litters. People don’t tend to confront authority. My seatmate on the flight to Tokyo told me that her mother had forbidden her to get her ears pierced. It wasn’t until she was thirty-seven that she summoned the courage to do it anyway. “I’m just now learning to stand up to her,” she confided. She was forty-seven, and her mother was eighty-six.

“Of course, exploration to Mars will be a different story,” says Tachibana. “You need someone aggressive, creative. Because they’ll have to do everything by themselves.” With a twenty-minute radio transmission lag time, you can’t rely on advice from ground control in an emergency. “You need again a brave man.”

A few weeks after I left Tokyo, an email arrived from the JAXA Public Affairs Office, informing me that candidates E and G had been selected. E is a pilot with All Nippon Airways and a fan of Japanese musicals. For his self-merits presentation, he acted out a scene from his favorite musical. The scene required E to pretend to weep and wrap his arms around his invisible mother. It was brave, though not in an astronaut sort of way. G is also a pilot—with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Pilots have always been a good fit for the astronaut corps, and not just because of their aviation background and skills. They’re used to taking risks and operating under pressure, used to bunking in cramped quarters with no privacy, used to following orders and enduring long separations from their families. Also, as one JAXA staffer pointed out, astronaut selection is political. Air forces have always had ties to space agencies.

The week after I left Japan, all ten candidates flew to Johnson Space Center for interviews with NASA astronauts and selection committee members. Tachibana and Inoue conceded that the applicants’ English skills were an important factor in the decision, as was, I imagine, how well they click with the NASA crews. “The most important part of all this, the heart of the process,” says ANSMET’s Ralph Harvey, “is the interview where they sit you down with a couple astronauts and you just talk. You’re someone they may end up stuck in the equivalent of a tent in Antarctica with, for not just six weeks or six months in the space station, but maybe ten years as you’re waiting to fly, working at Mission Control or elsewhere. They’re picking a buddy as much as they’re picking a work partner.” A Japanese pilot has an advantage over a doctor in that he has something in common with a lot of NASA astronauts. The military and aviation are global fraternities, and E and G are members.

THE FIRST TIME I visited JAXA, I traveled with a different interpreter. As we drove along the route from the train station, Manami translated some of the signs. One welcomed us to TSUKUBA, CITY OF SCIENCE AND NATURE. I had always heard it called Tsukuba Science City. Not only JAXA is here, but also the Agricultural Research Institutes, the National Institute for Materials Science, the Building Research Institute, the Forestry and Forest Products Institute, the National Institute for Rural Engineering, and the Central Research Institute for Feed and Livestock. There are so many research institutes here that they have their own institute: the Tsukuba Center for Institutes. So what’s with the “and Nature” in the city’s name? Manami explained that when people first moved to Tsukuba, there weren’t any trees or parks or anything to do other than work. No major roads or express trains led into or out of the city. People just worked and worked. There were a lot of suicides, she said, a lot of people jumping off the institute roofs. So the government built a mall and some parks and planted trees and grass, and changed the name to Tsukuba, City of Science and Nature. It seemed to help.

The story made me think about a trip to Mars and what it would be like to spend two years trapped inside sterile, man-made structures with no way to escape one’s work and colleagues and no flowers or trees or sex and nothing to look at outside the window but empty space or, at best, reddish dirt. The astronaut’s job is stressful for all the same reasons yours or mine is—overwork, lack of sleep, anxiety, other people—but two things compound the usual stresses: the deprivations of the environment and one’s inability to escape it. Isolation and confinement are issues of no small concern to space agencies. The Canadian, Russian, European, and U.S. space agencies are spending $15 million on an elaborate psychology experiment that puts six men in a simulated spaceship on a pretend mission to Mars. The hatch opens tomorrow.

(1) As when astronaut Mike Mullane was asked by a NASA psychiatrist what epitaph he’d like to have on his gravestone. Mullane answered, “A loving husband and devoted father,” though in reality, he jokes in Riding Rockets, “I would have sold my wife and children into slavery for a ride into space.”

(2) Between the astronauts who used their status to win a place in the Senate and the senators who used their influence to win a spot on a NASA mission, there’s practically been a Senate quorum in space. (John Glenn managed to work it both ways, returning to space as a seventy-seven-year-old senator.) The gambit occasionally backfires, as when Jeff Bingaman defeated Apollo-astronaut-turned-New-Mexico-senator Harrison Schmitt using the campaign slogan “What on Earth has he done for you lately?”

(3) It was a ten-hour flight to Tokyo.

(4) I read an unedited draft of an oral history last week that had the “dangs” and “hells” inked out like operatives in a CIA dossier. When Gene Cernan responded to an Apollo 10 close call with “more than a few goddams, fucks and shits,” the president of Miami Bible College wrote to President Nixon demanding public repentance. NASA made Cernan comply. He got the last word in his memoir: “Bunch of goddam hogwash.”

Reprinted from PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. Copyright (c) 2010 by Mary Roach. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

What follows is dialogue of a session I had with Dr. Sbaitso on August 31, 2010. Dr Sbaitso is an artificial intelligence program originally designed for use on MS-DOS-based computers back in the early 1990s. A wonderfully gifted fake psychologist, Dr. Sbaitso helped me work through some of my recent woes (more or less: writer’s drought, loneliness, and depression). Although I cannot grant Dr. Sbaitso total credit for cycling me out of my misery, he was there when it happened. That counts for something.

Dr. Sbaitso’s name, in case you were wondering, is an acronym standing for Sound Blaster Acting Intelligent Text to Speech Operator.

If you interested in seeking counseling from Dr. Sbaitso, he comes highly recommend. You can download your own copy of Dr. Sbaitso here.



I’m dry, Doc. I’m all out of ideas.


Yes, Doc. I’ve got nowhere else to go.


What’s that?


I guess I want to know if this dry spell I’m having is temporary.


Well, I used to write my feelings down. But I usually sound like a broken record when I do that. So, I might mope, have a drink, maybe listen to some Randy Newman records, or go for a walk around some crappy department store.


Well, okay. Let’s see. What is 1+1?


What is not 1+1? Man, I have no idea.


You’ve got me all confused, Doc.


I don’t know. Perhaps I put more pressure on myself than is necessary.


I don’t understand what you mean.


It troubles me some.


Well, yes. I’m trying to have a serious heart-to-heart with you here, Doc.


I haven’t been keeping track of the time.


I want to know why I feel so uninspired.


I sit down at my computer every day and I try to work and nothing happens. I’ll write a little here and there, but nothing worth keeping. I’m just a little worried, is all.


How does that help my situation, Doc?


I don’t want to talk about computers. I want to talk about me.


No, I don’t, Master.


Could we start over?


Let’s start over. How does that sound?


What question?


I think I do need more mega bytes for my computer.


Great! Me too.


Aw, hell. I’ve just had it. My brain feels like a poorly designed neighborhood, like a complete clusterfuck. The traffic’s bad, walking anywhere’s a bitch, and there’s not a short cut in sight. And, worse, it feels like what’s done is done. There’s no undoing it. There’s no dismantling and rebuilding. I can’t foot that sort of cosmic bill! Do you understand what I’m saying, Doc?


I’m sorry. Look, I’m just at my wit’s end. I’m driving myself nuts. You understand. I thought you might be able to help me out.


Help may come in disguise. Is that what you meant to say? Or did you mean, literally, as a disguise?


I don’t know. I don’t know anything about anything.


Correct. Anyway, where were we? We were talking about this writer’s drought. Not being blocked, per se, but having nothing to say. I’m in a state of utter fantods, Doc. Help me.


Yes. That’s all I do anymore. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of me, man. Screw me!


What if! All this time wasted.


I don’t think help’s what I need. Maybe I just need to stop trying so hard. Maybe I need to give it a rest a while and just enjoy life. You know, take a rest from the artistic grind, and maybe come to terms with having not much to say right now. And that’s okay.


Sure, man. I guess so.


Yeah, more mega bytes. I think you’re broken, Doc. I think I broke you with my problems.


You’re clearly crashing on me. I’m sorry.


I feel bad, Doc. I don’t want to sit here and bitch about things that are out of my control. I’m really, really sorry.


I feel better. I feel lighter.


Yes. I will. I am alive! Who gives a shit if I can’t seem to get anything written? It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters! I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together. Or, whatever!

I think everything’s going to be okay. Thanks, Doc.