A Spatial History of Sleep

[Image: Fish preserved in the eternal ocean of a closed jar at the American Museum of Natural History; old Instagram by Geoff Manaugh].

Although this is a classic example of something I am totally unqualified to talk about, a recent report over at ScienceNews caught my eye, about the spatial origins of REM sleep.

In a nutshell, the paper suggests that “sleep may have originated underwater 450 million years ago,” which is apparently when “the cells that kick off REM sleep” first evolved in fish. “During REM or paradoxical sleep,” we read, “the brain lights up with activity almost like it’s awake. But the muscles are paralyzed (except for rapid twitching of the eyes) and the heart beats erratically.”

Dreaming, it’s as if ancient fish learned to pass into a different kind of ocean, a fully immersive neural environment coextensive with the one they physically swam within.

What’s so interesting about this—at least for me—is the implication that REM sleep, and, thus, by extension, the very possibility of animals dreaming, was made possible by immersion in an all-encompassing spatial environment such as the sea. In other words, it took the vast black depths of the ocean to facilitate the kind of uninterrupted, meditative stillness in which REM sleep could best occur. Those ancestral cells then survived into our own mammalian brains, and, by dreaming, it’s perhaps a bit like we retreat back into some lost experience of the oceanic.

[Image: “Sleeping Beauty” by Hans Zatzka].

In any case, the study’s authors are probably rolling their eyes at this point, but so much comes to mind here—everything from H.P. Lovecraft’s marine-horror stories and their alien call of the deep—such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”—to the speculative idea that there might be other spatial environments, comparable to the ocean, that, after long-enough exposure, could inspire unique neurological processes otherwise impossible in traditional environments.

I’m thinking of Jeremy Narby’s strange book, Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, about human culture amidst the impenetrable rain forests of the Americas, or even the long-running sci-fi trope of the human mind expanding in a psychedelic encounter with deep space.

In fact, this makes me wonder about the landscapes of other planets, and whether crushingly powerful gravitational regimes in alien superstorms or bizarre swirling ecosystems deep inside liquid rock might affect the neurological development of species that live there. What other kinds of sleep are environmentally possible? Does every planet come with a different kind of dreaming? Can the design or formation of new kinds of space catalyze new forms of sleep? Are there deeper or higher levels of the brain, so to speak, waiting to appear in radically different spatial environments?

We already have astrobiology, astrogeology, even astrolinguistics, but I wonder what it would look like to study sleep on other worlds. Exosomnology.

Mechanical Magic

[Image: “Design for the Water Clock of the Peacocks,” from the Kitab fi ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices) by Badi’ al-Zaman b. al Razzaz al-Jazari, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].

Although it starts in only a few hours, if you’re in the Bay Area tonight, it sounds well-worth attending this talk by Brittany Cox at The Interval: “Horological Heritage: Generating bird song, magic, and music through mechanism.” Cox “specializes in the conservation of automata, mechanical magic, mechanical music, and complicated clocks and watches.” The event opens at 6:30pm for a 7:30pm kick-off.

And, if magical, time-telling automata are not enough, The Interval has amazing drinks.

Computational Ornament

[Image: From “Harnessing Vision For Computation” by Mark Changizi].

A few billion years ago, back in July 2008, Alexis Madrigal blogged about the design of “visual circuitry” for Wired. “A cognitive scientist wants to employ M.C. Escher’s bag of optical tricks to get your eyes to solve logic problems,” Madrigal wrote at the time, referring to the work of Mark Changizi.

Changizi’s idea, as Madrigal explained, was that “human beings can use their brain’s visual-processing abilities to solve LSAT-style logic puzzles, simply by staring at images designed to get their eyes to compute. Because this form of visual processing feels so effortless, such problems might be much easier to solve than their written counterparts.”

[Image: From “Harnessing Vision For Computation” by Mark Changizi].

These visually processed logic puzzles rely on a new form of writing, in effect, one that uses not traditional letters or typography but geometric shapes specifically angled and shaded to create optical illusions; each version of the illusion, so to speak, carries a different meaning. A whole visual grammar can thus be created, Changizi suggests.

You can read Wired—or, of course, Changizi’s own paper, “Harnessing Vision For Computation”—to understand how the system really works, but what interests me here is the possibility that designers could take a visual/computational language such as this and extrapolate a new style of architectural ornament from it.

[Image: From Geometrical Objects: Architecture and the Mathematical Sciences, 1400-1800, edited by Anthony Gerbino].

In other words, you could transform Changizi’s visual circuitry into a system of 3-dimensional architectural details that could be designed to sharpen and stimulate human cognitive abilities. Instead of playing sudoku, you and your elderly relatives could just look at the fronts of buildings and watch as waning daylight changes the shapes and angles of shadows, working out the logical implications.

At 10am, your building’s facade says one thing; at 6pm, because the shadows have shifted—that is, the Changizian circuits are now closing differently—it says something else entirely.

[Image: From Geometrical Objects: Architecture and the Mathematical Sciences, 1400-1800, edited by Anthony Gerbino].

Architecture becomes a passive cognitive environment, a logical stimulant, an object-based grammar meant to keep its inhabitants’ brains more supple.

[Image: From “Harnessing Vision For Computation” by Mark Changizi].

Whether or not this is possible or just hand-wavey bullshit, I’m totally fascinated by the idea that you could use cognitive science to design a new class of architectural ornament—not just geometry for the sake of geometry, or statuary for the sake of historical narratives, but a spur toward cognitive health in the people who gaze upon it.

Rock Impostors

[Image: Photo by Rob Arnold, courtesy National Geographic].

A new type of plastic pollution has been discovered, “hiding in plain sight on the beaches of southern England,” National Geographic reports. These are “rocks aren’t rocks at all,” we read, but “rock impostors” made from heavily weathered plastic, colored with streaks of lead and chromium.

“Because they look geological,” environmental scientist Andrew Turner told the magazine, “you could walk by hundreds of them and not notice.”

(Previously: Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach and Intermediary Geologies.)

Exotempestology

Purely in terms of extreme landscapes, this planet is certainly one of the most notable: eight times the mass of Jupiter, but starless, adrift, an “orphaned world” without a sun, “somehow shot out of its orbit” into the darkness of space, its skies thundering with storms of molten metal.

(Story is from 2015, but randomly rediscovered this morning in my bookmarks.)

Strange Precipitation

It’s not only snow falling from the sky this winter, but microplastics, a holiday season marked by petrochemical drifts accumulating on our windowsills and roadsides.

European researchers have found much more than just plastics, in fact, snowing down on our shoulders: “Acrylates/polyurethanes/varnish/lacquer (hereafter varnish) occurred most frequently (17 samples), followed by nitrile rubber (16 samples), polyethylene (PE), polyamide, and rubber type 3 (13; ethylene-propylenediene rubber).”

That’s plastic, rubber, varnish, lacquer, and polyethylene—a true precipitation of the Anthropocene—snowing from the sky, as if we’ve embalmed the weather. Zombie snow.

Meanwhile, it seems as if snow itself is being redefined by these studies. For example, every winter, terrestrial landscapes are buried not just by crystals of frozen water, but by the remains of dead stars.

In what would read like a poem in any other context, ScienceNews reports that “exploding stars scattered traces of iron over Antarctic snow.” In other words, metallic fragments of dead stars can be found sprayed across ice at the bottom of our world.

This has cosmic implications:

The result could help scientists better understand humankind’s place in space. The solar system resides within a low-density pocket of gas, known as the local bubble. It’s thought that exploding supernovas created shock waves that blasted out that bubble. But the solar system currently sits inside a denser region within that bubble, known as the Local Interstellar Cloud. The detection of recently deposited iron-60 suggests that this cloud may also have been sculpted by supernovas, the researchers say.

Sculpted by supernovas. We exist within that space, once carved by the detonations of stars whose metallic remains snow down onto dead continents, forming drifts—someday, entire glaciers—of plastic, rubber, polyethylene, and more.

(Image: Snow, via the Adirondack Almanac. Related: Space Grain.)

Illumination and Vertigo

[Image: From Glow by Michael Light].

Angelenos, if you’re downtown tomorrow evening, Thursday, August 15th, consider stopping by the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Los Angeles Public Library to hear photographer Michael Light discuss his recent aerial work. I’ll be joining him for a public conversation about the photographs, moderated by curator Claudia Bohn-Spector.

The event accompanies an ongoing exhibition of Light’s work called Glow: Michael Light’s Aerial Views of Los Angeles. That explores “themes of mapping, vertigo, human impact on the land, and various aspects of geologic time and the sublime,” and it is open until September 8th.

Several years ago, my wife and I interviewed Light at great length about everything from wreck-diving nuclear testing sites in the Pacific to flying over huge geometric landforms in unbuilt suburbs near Las Vegas, so that’s perhaps a good place to start if you’d like to learn more about his work.

If you make it out tomorrow, say hello! The event starts at 6:30pm. Here is a map.

Terrestrial Warfare, Drowned Lands

While looking at maps of rural New York State, roughly 70 miles northwest of Manhattan, near the border with New Jersey, I noticed a series of small communities called “Islands.” Pine Island, Maple Island, Black Walnut Island, Pellets Island, etc.—these are tiny hamlets otherwise surrounded by dry land, well away from the sea, the Hudson, or any other large bodies of water.

It turns out these are the “drowned lands of the Wallkill,” a river with such an irregular bed, that so commonly flooded every season, that high points in the landscape would become temporary islands.

According to The History of Sussex and Warren Co., NJ by James P. Snell, it wasn’t until legislation was passed in 1807—creating wonderfully named “drowned-land commissioners”—that the region was eventually drained.

Briefly, anyone interested in liminal landscapes should find Snell’s description of the Drowned Lands, prior to their drainage, fascinating. The Wallkill itself had no real path or bed, Snell explains, the meadows it flowed through were naturally dammed at one end by glacial boulders from the Ice Age, the whole place was clogged with “rank vegetation,” malarial pestilence, and tens of thousands of eels, and, what’s more, during flood season “the entire valley from Denton to Hamburg became a lake from eight to twenty feet deep.”

The landscape is also almost literally Biblical: “On the Southwestern border of the swamp, in the town of Warwick, two lofty and isolated mountains rear their summits. They are called Adam and Eve. Formerly they swarmed with rattlesnakes, but these the inhabitants have exterminated.”

In any case, this eerie, terrestrial-aquatic borderland—reminiscent of John Langan’s novel The Fisherman—was radically redesigned following the construction of a large drainage canal and a subsequent series of dams.

But the dams were controversial, and this is where things get novelistic.

A half-century of “war” broke out among local supporters of the dams and their foes: “The dam-builders were called the ‘beavers’; the dam destroyers were known as ‘muskrats.’ The muskrat and beaver war was carried on for years,” with skirmishes always breaking out over new attempts to dam the floods.

Here’s one example, like a scene written by Victor Hugo transplanted to New York State: “A hundred farmers, on the 20th of August, 1869, marched upon the dam to destroy it. A large force of armed men guarded the dam. The farmers routed them and began the work of destruction. The ‘beavers’ then had recourse to the law; warrants were issued for the arrest of the farmers. A number of their leaders were arrested, but not before the offending dam had been demolished. The owner of the dam began to rebuild it; the farmers applied for an injunction. Judge Barnard granted it, and cited the owner of the dam to appear and show cause why the injunction should not be made perpetual. Pending a final hearing, high water came and carried away all vestige of the dam.”

And so on and so forth, dams rising and falling, lands drowning and being drained again, farmers pitted against hydrologists, for generations. You can easily imagine this as the backdrop for a historical epic, set within a day’s journey from Manhattan on the cusp of modernity, a family committed to raising land from ambiguity and murk colliding with primordial forces led by hostile neighbors dedicated to maintaining inundation.

Two visions of landscape, at war.

Today, the land is hugely fertile and apparently a great source of topsoil; it has become known as the Black Dirt Region. You can even buy Black Dirt Bourbon.

But still, these isolated hills and ridges call themselves islands, as if awaiting the return of the flood.

(All images via Google Maps. Vaguely related on BLDGBLOG: Tactical Landscaping and Terrain Deformation; readers might also enjoy David Blackbourn’s superb book, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany.)

New Spatial Contract

The theme of the next Venice Architecture Biennale has been announced by its curator, Hashim Sarkis.

“We need a new spatial contract,” Sarkis writes. We need to “call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together: together as human beings who, despite our increasing individuality, yearn to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space; together as new households looking for more diverse and dignified spaces for inhabitation; together as emerging communities that demand equity, inclusion and spatial identity; together across political borders to imagine new geographies of association; and together as a planet facing crises that require global action for us to continue living at all.”

You can read the full statement at the Biennale website. The Biennale itself will open next year, in May 2020.

Terrestrial Oceanica

I’m grateful for two recent opportunities to publish op-eds, one for the Los Angeles Times back in May and the other just this morning in the New York Times. Both look at seismic activity and its poetic or philosophical implications, including fault lines as sites of emergence for a future world (“A fault is where futures lurk”).

They both follow on from the Wired piece about the Walker Lane, as well as this past weekend’s large earthquakes here in Southern California.

The L.A. Times op-ed specifically looks at hiking along fault lines, including the San Andreas, where, several years ago, I found myself walking alone at sunset, without cell service, surrounded by tarantulas. I was there in the midst of a “tarantula boom,” something I did not realize until I checked into a hotel room and did some Googling later that evening.

In any case, “Faults are both a promise and a threat: They are proof that the world will remake itself, always, whether we’re prepared for the change or not.”

The New York Times piece explores the philosophical underpinnings of architecture, for which solid ground is both conceptually and literally foundational.

The experience of an earthquake can be destabilizing, not just physically but also philosophically. The idea that the ground is solid, dependable—that we can build on it, that we can trust it to support us—undergirds nearly all human terrestrial activity, not the least of which is designing and constructing architecture… We might say that California is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.

To no small extent, nearly that entire piece was inspired by a comment made by Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, who I had the pleasure of interviewing several years ago during a Fellowship at USC. At one point in our conversation, Jones emphasized to me that she is a seismologist, not a geologist, which means that she studies “waves, not rocks.” Waves, not rocks. There is a whole new way of looking at the Earth hidden inside that comment.

Huge thanks, meanwhile, to Sue Horton and Clay Risen for inviting me to contribute.

(Images: (top) Hiking at the San Andreas-adjacent Devil’s Punchbowl, like a frozen wave emerging from dry land. (bottom) A tarantula walks beside me at sunset along the San Andreas Fault near Wallace Creek, October 2014; photos by BLDGBLOG.)

Folktales for the Offworld

The vocabulary in this new book on Extraterrestrial Construction Techniques is amazing, from the design of “Earth-independent habitats” to the use of “space-native metals” and other “non-terrestrial construction materials in the alien environment of space.”

The full manuscript also contains a section on “high-fidelity simulants”—another great phrase—as well as one on artificial crystal-growth techniques in space. Here, the ideas themselves are architecturally evocative: “It is envisioned that fragments of bio-like materials could be launched in an inactive state during space flight, and once landed at the Moon or Mars, would start to grow into construction materials or even pre-engineered habitats.” Controlled crystal architecture!

You can easily imagine some new version of Jack and the Beanstalk, about a relentlessly growing crystal building, a future folktale for life in space.