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TMT: Big Glass and the Changing Focus of Astronomy
You can listen to Freakonomics radio’s delightful piece on the value of handwriting vs keyboarding (as well as yours truly opining about shorthand) on their latest podcast: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/who-needs-handwriting/
Check out my latest at The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/09/todays-oysters-are-mutants/380858/
In which I combine the 19th Century technology of Gregg shorthand with the 21st Century technology of a smartpen.
The other day, I was scrolling absently through the abstracts in a recent issue of Pacific Science, when a paper by Hiroshi Kudoh made me do a double-take. Its subject was the typically modest question of modern evolutionary biology: how to explain the loss of seed buoyancy in Hibiscus glaber, a species of hibiscus found in the subtropical Ogasawara Islands, a Japanese owned archipelago about 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo. The paper compares H. glaber with H. tiliaceus, its pan-tropic progenitor, and finds that the air spaces in the seeds of H. glaber are smaller than those in the seeds of H. tiliaceus. Kudoh et al. attribute this to a shift in habitat as H. glaber moved inland. Presumably, seed buoyancy becomes less valuable the farther a plant gets from the sea.
But it wasn’t the paper’s science that got my attention. It was the title of the paper: “Loss of Seed Buoyancy in Hibiscus glaber on the Oceanic Bonin Islands.”
The Bonin Islands–another name for the Ogasawara Islands–share a largely forgotten connection with Hawaii, one that has fascinated me since I chanced upon fragmentary memoir of the lonely archipelago. Here it is, in brief:
Although the Bonin Islands are well served with the basic necessities of life–abundant fish, arable soil, reliable sources of water–they were situated far from traditional sailing routes in the Pacific. Consequently, even though they were claimed at various times by Spanish, English and American explorers, and apparently visited by a Japanese expeditionary force as early as 1670, the islands had no permanent inhabitants until well into the 19th Century–just the occasional shipwrecked sailor anxiously awaiting rescue. The word “bonin,” in fact, is an archaic version of “bunin”, meaning “no people,” or “uninhabited.”
That changed in 1830, when a group of colonists arrived by sloop from Honolulu. Honolulu was already common port of call for whalers, and apparently,there was quite a bit of talk among the sailors and merchants about the “newly discovered islands” ever since the uninhabited archipelago was claimed by the British explorer Captain Beechey three years earlier. With the support of the British Consul to Hawaii, a group of Western adventurers, included two Americans, a Dane, and a man variously listed as Italian or Croatian, set sail for Bonin in early May, arriving a month later. Most accounts of the Bonin Islands add, almost as an afterthought, that these Westerners were accompanied by as many as 25 Native Hawaiians, or Kanaka, including seven women. These 30 to 35 settlers, (accounts vary as to the exact number), along with an assortment of castaways and beachcombers who joined them over the next two or three decades, became the progenitors of what ethnologists call the Bonin Islanders. Their story is an interesting one.
Much of what we know about the settlers and their heirs comes from The History of the Bonin Islanders, an account by Lionel Cholmondelely, the Anglican chaplain to the British Embassy in Tokyo, who visited the islands sixteen times between 1894 and 1922. According to Cholmondeley, the longtime leader of the Bonin colony was a former American sailor named Nathaniel Savory. Savory, who, despite his nationality, spent most of his early life working on British ships, apparent became stranded in Honolulu, in 1829, after being injured in a shipboard accident. While recovering from surgery, he joined in with a group of Westerners that were trying to get the British consul to support an expedition to the newly discovered islands. Surprisingly, the Consul agreed–maybe because of Bonin’s strategic location close to the then mysterious country of Japan–and helped provide for and provision a ship.
Once they arrived, there were conflicts between the colonists. The ostensible leader of the group, Matteo Mazzaro, the Italian (or Croat) fought with Savory. There were arguments about property and leadership and personal conflicts as well. Nevertheless, Mazzaro remained the titular leader of the colony for several years. But when Mazzaro died in 1848, Savory married his widow, and became the undisputed leader of the Islanders until his death in 1874 at the age of 80. Much of the history of the island is tied up in his interactions with the ships that visited the port, especially the incursions by pirates and marauding crews of some whalers. There also continued to be conflict among the islanders themselves.
But the biggest challenge for the original Bonin Islanders and their descendants came with the arrival of Japanese colonists, beginning with a failed expedition in 1861, and followed by a more successful waves of settlers starting in 1875. Japan’s claim on the islands was tenuous, but dated back more than 200 years. Nevertheless, their proximity made them much more likely colonizers than Spain or England, both of which may have had prior claim to the islands. In time, the growing number of Japanese settlers would swamp the small population of Bonin Islanders. Eventually, the Bonin Islands were subsumed into the Japanese Empire (despite a visit from Commodore Perry, who even bought a stretch of land along the harbor to help insure American title) and the Islanders were made citizens of Japan.Gradually, they intermarried with the Japanese population, and, bit by bit, the culture and language of the Bonin Islanders changed. But it’s fascinating to reflect on the little we now know about it.
First, in this polyglot group of early settlers, Native Hawaiians predominated. As a consequence, the Bonin Islander culture seems to have had a distinctly Hawaiian flavor, including a taste for lei and a kind of local version of hula. Maybe more interesting is the lingua franca of the Islands, a kind of English dominated pidgin that shared a lot of the features of Hawaiian pidgin. That may also be partly because of the predominance of the descendants of Savory, who, like the early missionaries in Hawaii, was a New Englander. Finally, it’s intriguing to find that the Hawaii connection didn’t end with Bonin’s colonization. There seems to have been a steady (well, as steady as the Age of Sail allowed) correspondence between the two archipelagos. In fact, Mazzaro made at least two separate trips back to Honolulu to try to secure more support from the English Consul, and at least two more Native Hawaiians made the trip to Bonin. Savory also maintained contact with some of the merchants in Hawaii. (He also kept of a lengthy and fascinating correspondence with his relatives in New England.)
The tail end of the Bonin story is also fascinating. Bonin would play an important role in WWII. At the outset of the war, the Japanese removed all the Bonin Islanders back to Japan and fortified the Islands as a supply base. In fact, the larger geographic entity, the Ogasawara Islands, include the famous Iwo Jima. When George Bush was shot down as a Navy pilot, it was within sight of Chichi-jima, the largest of the Bonin Islands, which was also the site of one of the most notorious Japanese prisoner of war camps. War crimes trials, after the war, led to the hanging of several Japanese officers on Chichi-jima.
Amazingly, though, many of the Bonin Islanders were rounded up after the war and returned to Bonin, which, like many Pacific Islands post WWII, fell under the administration of the U.S. Navy. This was a kind of hey-day for the Bonin Islanders, who, for the first time in nearly a century, once again predominated in the local population. It was a time of interest, among ethnographers and linguists, in their unique heritage. But it wouldn’t last.
In 1963, without consulting the Bonin Islanders, the Navy restored ownership of the archipelago to Japan. Not surprisingly, many of the former inhabitants and their children began to return. Quickly, the population of ethnic Japanese once again overwhelmed that of the Bonin Islanders, and, over the ensuing five decades, the unique island language and culture has begun to vanish. Travelers say you can still find a few of the old-timers who, despite the dilutions of intermarriage and the dominance of Japanese culture, still maintain a bit of their peculiar, and ever so slightly Hawaiian, heritage. Just not for much longer.
In a fascinating post on smithsonianmag.com last week, Joseph Stromberg explores a company called what3words and its quixotic attempt to replace the old system of geometric coordinates with simple, three-word phrases. For example, I’m writing this post at my lunch hour, from the outdoor sitting area of an office building in downtown Honolulu. If you type the building’s address, 1000 Bishop Street, into the what3words search box, you’ll find I’m at safe.buck.measures. Actually, since the the what3words system divides the earth up into small, three-by-three-meter squares, my precise location is shiny.martini.posting.
This system, as what3words CEO and founder Chris Sheldrick points out, is more accurate that traditional postal addresses, which, after all, only apply to a relatively small portion of the earth. what3words system is global. It’s also more memorable than the traditional numeric system of latitude and longitude. Later today, for example, I’m headed over to the Hawaii State Capitol at sweeten.caps.tinkle. That’s a hell of a lot succinct than 21.307598 N, 157.8574443 W.
The what3words system works because it contains a prodigious number of “addresses.” By using a vocabulary of 40,000 English words (according to Stromberg, it’s also been “translated” into Russian, Swedish and Spanish) it encompasses more than 57 million combinations of three-word phrases. The geeks at what3word have created an algorithm that associates each of these unique combinations to a specific three-by-three meter square on the surface of the earth. That allows a mindbogglingly detailed tabulation of global locations.
But does it make sense? In effect, Sheldrick and his cronies have discarded one of the most useful tools ever invented: the base-10 number system. The combination of ten symbols (representing the values 0-9) and a positional system (where the left most digit represents units, the one to its right, 10s, and the one to its right, 100s etc.) we can quickly write any particular value. For example, the number that we write as “245” represents two 100s, four 10s, and five units. We don’t have to learn a special word for 245; it’s implicit in our number system.
what3words replaces the simple base-10 system with a monstrous base-40,000 system. Granted, each word in a what3word “address” is a memorable three-digit number, but each digit could be one of 40,000 values instead of the the ten values (and symbols) used in base-10 counting. A three-digit number in base-10 represents 1,000 possible combinations (ten 100s times ten 10s times 10 units.) Moreover, the positional writing system is a simple cypher, comprehensible to almost anyone. In contrast, the three-digit number of the what3words system represents 64 million combinations (the 57 million figure applies if you don’t use any of the 40,000 digits twice in the same number.) So, the system may be precise, but it’s also more than the normal human brain can absorb. The consequence is that each of those 57 million numbers is a surd. It contains no information at all.
I’m reminded of “Funes the Memorious”, Jorges Borges’ disturbing story about Ireneo Funes, a young boy with a perfect memory. One of the inevitable consequences of a perfect memory, in Borges’ mock essay, is an infallible sense of perception. After all, memory for normal people is as much a matter of subtraction as addition. We reduce our perceptions to generalities to accommodate our limited vocabulary for specifics. Our memories require a noun and a few adjectives; Funes, with a limitless memory, has no use for generalities. Every recollection is infinitely detailed.
Borges writes: “We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table; Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once, and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising.”
Out of this inconceivable memory (not unlike the memory of the computer that generates what3words’ random three-word combinations,) Funes invents a new and pointless system of numbering. As Borges explains it, “His first stimulus was, I think, his discomfort at the fact that the famous thirty-three gauchos of Uruguayan history should require two signs and two words, in place of a single word and a single sign. He then applied this absurd principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melian Lanfinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the caldron, Napoleon, Agustin de Vedia. In place of five hundred he would say nine.”
Funes’ system of numbers is exactly like that of what3words–except there is no one with a perfect memory to contain the what3words numbers. Absent that vessel, these three-word addresses are pointless. Even the eye-blurring eight-digit lat/long of the Hawaii State Capitol has some meaning for those who grasp the principles of the system. It’s 21 degrees and change north of the equator and nearly 158 west of Greenwich, England. In other words, the numbers of the lat/long system convey information. Sheldrick’s words are meaningless, at least for humans.
The irony, of course, is that they’re useful, nonetheless. They really do offer a viable shorthand for the geography of this planet, and could actually serve a real commercial purpose. But there’s something inelegant in such an unwieldy system. I wonder, if it makes no sense, is it a system at all. Borge’s protagonist shares a similar sentiment after hearing Funes describe his monstrous numbering system. “I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers. … Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me.”
I’ve always been a binge reader. Sometimes people mistake that for erudition, but if you pay close attention to my ranting, you’ll notice I repeat myself a lot. Not that I say the same things over and over (although my wife may disagree), but I definitely quote the same people with distressing frequency. That’s because, when I decide I like a particular writer, I read everything that writer ever wrote.
By the time I was 10 years old, I had read all the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe and committed to memory every insipid line of his poetry. By 12, I read all the short fiction of Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. By 14, all the lyrical nonsense of Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. The usual bibliography of a young boy, in other words. As an adult, my tastes have been maybe a little more eclectic, but no less monomaniacal. In school, I underwent sequential obsessions with Lawrence Durrell, Samuel Beckett, Peter Mattheissen, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges, and Roddy Doyle.
But my biggest obsessions have always been nonfiction. While in school, I discovered essayists like Steven Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas, and Loren Eisley. I gorged myself on the grandees of the New Yorker, E. B. White, Joseph Mitchell and John McPhee. And it’s not just individual authors that pinion me; my bookshelves are knotted with clusters of books on surprisingly few, if diverse, themes. There are dozens of books on sailing and the maritime arts. I have a library of dictionaries and grammars in foreign languages I barely speak. I seem drawn to revisionist histories of single subjects: cod, coffee, poison, lobsters etc. And every trip I’ve ever taken has apparently encumbered me with a new manual of birds or flowers or insects. In short, the obsessions of my old age are no less limited than those of my youth.
So you won’t be surprised to learn that, after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, I immediately went out and got “Sea of Glory, America’s Voyage of Discovery”, his epic description of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, a four-year odyssey involving six ships, hundreds of sailors, and a squadron of botanists, geologists, linguists and cartographers. The Ex Ex, as it came to be called, also turned out to be the last voyage of discovery completed entirely under sail.
The goals of the Ex Ex were ambitious ones. They were to confirm the existence of the continent of Antarctica, which neither Cook nor Tasman ever got close enough to see, due to the threat of sea ice and bad weather. They were to chart and explore the great Northwest coast of North American, the Columbia River basin, and the islands of Fiji, all crucial to the continued commercial success of the country’s far-flung whaling and sealing fleets. Most importantly, the Ex Ex was to serve as symbol of America’s growing power as an industrial and scientific nation.
But this 19th Century voyage of discovery was in many ways benighted. The leader of the expedition, Lt. Charles Wilkes, who in many ways seemed like the ideal captain for such an enterprise–a meticulous and inventive cartographer and apparently a beloved mentor to his young crew–turned out to be an insecure and paranoid martinet. The Ex Ex had barely left the country before the sailors and scientists began to lament his leadership. As was the custom for these kinds of voyages, most of the crew kept official journals, which they had to surrender at the end of the expedition. These diaries are catalogs of hate for the young Lt. Wilkes, and an obsessive tabulation of his perceived (and all too real) sins. This virulent loathing would later play a large part in obscuring the success of the expedition.
And yet, the Ex Ex was an astonishingly successful expedition. In addition to discovering Antarctica, the Ex Ex mapped hundreds of miles of coastline and charted the shipwreck-strewn islands of Fiji. Many of the maps created by Wilkes and his crew were still in use at the outbreak of World War II. Maybe most important, the scientists of the Ex Ex collected hundreds of barrels of cultural artifacts, biological specimens, and scientific observations. They conducted some of the earliest ethnological studies of the peoples of the Pacific, and visited and charted dozens of previously unknown islands. The Ex Ex put an American stamp on the largest ocean on the planet, setting the stage for the country’s quiet colonization of the Pacific Basin.
But perhaps the most fascinating part of the story happened after their return. Wilkes and his crew became embroiled in a string of lawsuits and courts martial that threatened to overshadow the discoveries of the expedition. Indeed, who among us have ever heard of Charles Wilkes. And yet, the accomplishments of the Ex Ex were, in many ways, more substantial than those of the earlier Lewis and Clark Expedition.
But Wilkes, for all his flaws as a captain and a leader, proved a much better self-promoter and a politician. In the years following the return of the Ex Ex, he jealously guarded the collections of the expedition, even to the point of perjuring himself in court to maintain control. And here’s the kicker: In 1843, five years after the Ex Ex set sail from Norfolk, custody for the collections of the expedition was awarded to the new National Institution for the Promotion of Science, with Wilkes at the helm. The National Institution was a kind of political end-around the ongoing arguments about what the country should do with a half-million dollar (about $11 million in today’s dollars) bequest to the nation from a wealthy Englishman named James Smithson. Ultimately, the National Institution and the thousands of artifacts, biological collections, and ethnographic materials from the Ex Ex would become the Smithsonian Institution.
So it’s not too far-fetched to say that the seeds for the greatest museum complex in the world weren’t planted in the country’s dismal capital, but in the wide expanse of the Pacific.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the father of microscopy, famously discovered that even clean, fresh water teemed with what he called animicules. “Some of these,” he wrote, “are so exceedingly small that millions of millions might be contained in a single drop of water.”
It was a revelation that astonished and delighted van Leeuwenhoek in the 17th Century, and it’s no less delightful and astonishing today.
This evening, I was browsing through the image library at C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography, Research and Education, and came upon a marvelous collection of microscopy images that gives a hint to the remarkable diversity of the microscopic “animicules” that populate the ocean. They range from phytoplankton, like diatoms, coccolithophores and cyanobacteria, to more complex organisms, like radiolarians, foraminifera and copepods. And in their miniscule diversity, they almost defy belief. Some, like the radiolarians and foraminifera, seem like star bursts in an exploding universe. Others, like the coccolithophores, resemble strange, Rube Goldberg machines.
Such a scrapbook of images goes a long way toward justifying the work at C-MORE, a consortium of research institutions that are trying to survey the biodiversity of the oceans and understand what the diversity means for the rest of the world. I spoke with the founder and director, David Karl, for a Hawaii Business story about research programs at the University of Hawaii. Like van Leeuwenhoek, he marveled at the diversity of microscopic life. “In any drop of sea water, there’s a million microbes,” he said. “Micro-organisms dominate this planet.”
Glancing through these images, it’s clear that it will take generations to understand that domination.
The Northwest Hawaiian Islands, better known now as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, are famously the most remote motes of land in the most remote archipelago on Earth. Almost by definition, that makes them fabulously inaccessible. Native Hawaiian sailing canoes evidently visited the islands, and Nihoa and Mokumanamana were apparently inhabited at least part of the year. Of the low islands and atolls, though, only Midway has been encumbered by anything like “permanent” habitation, first as a failed coaling station for steam ships, then as a residence for employees of a company laying the trans-Pacific cable, and finally as a key naval air station during WWII, the site of one of history’s major air/sea battles. Even so, the human habitation on Midway has always been a tenuous affair, requiring almost every scrap of food and supplies to be shipped in.
The other islands of Papahanaumokuakea have had even less of a human presence. In the 1890s, the Kingdom of Hawaii granted a patent to a pair of American prospectors to mine guano on Laysan, a hapless industrial process that began the island’s grievous ecological decline, a decline accelerated toward the end of the century when the German immigrant Max Schlemmer introduced guinea pigs and rabbits to the island, hoping to create a meat canning business. The guinea pigs and rabbits quickly devoured the native plants. After the guano gave out, there were never more than a handful of residents on Laysan. In the 1920s, a few pearl divers lived at Pearl and Hermes, but in a couple years, the pearls, too, were depleted.
Nowadays, except for a small, intermittent population of researchers from the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and a few other scientific organizations, Papahanaumokuakea is basically uninhabited. Even Midway, which once served as a kind of hub in the pro-Age of Aviation, now only entertains a handful of visitors a year.
And yet, the monument is one of the jewels of the National Park Service. The waters team with big fish, serving as one of the world’s best examples of a healthy, predator dominated reef. It’s the main habitat for dozens of endangered species, including the Laysan albatross, Laysan finch, Hawaiian monk seal and innumerable fishes and corals. And here’s the kicker: No one can visit the monument.
At least until recently. Now, though, anyone with a computer can take visit the desolate and alien world of Papahanaumokuakea. Through a partnership between Google, NOAA and FWS, Google Street Views now allows you to stroll the beaches of Midway, Tern Island, Lisianski and Pearl and Hermes. You can pause to gaze at the flocks of albatross or to get a better look at the turtles sunning themselves at the water’s edge. Click the little navigational arrows, and you can spin around in place and get a sense of what it meant to shipwrecked whalers, who sometimes spent months on these low islands, living on seals and bird eggs while they awaited rescue. Gape for a moment at the recently landed FWS researchers and the paltry allotment of blue jerrycans of water that they’ll have to live off of until the next supply boat arrives. All as easy finding where that movie you wanted to watch is playing.