TABLE OF CONTENTS WRITING
BLACK HOLES, Dianara Rivera
REFLECTION, Laura Shea CHAMELEON 3, Jessica Poon
THE GRANDMOTHER HYPOTHESIS, Eliza Cohen
10 14 18
HAND OF A FRIEND, Ivy Brenneman CIRCLE OF LIFE, Mandi Cai ETERNAL RETURN, Sydney Morrison
FIRES, Jonah Goldberg
HYPERCUBE, K채llan Berglund
LONG TIME, NO SEE, Elena Suglia
MULTITASKING, Mitch Akutsa
MODAL TRAIN, Cameron Reid
ROCKETS, Laura Shea
APRIL 12, 1955, Ryan Greene
HANDS, Elissa Johnson
IUD, Hannah Kerman
INTRASECTUM #1, Vivian Charlesworth INTRASECTUM #2, Vivian Charlesworth
TINNITUS, Ryan Greene
ARTGINEERING, Mandi Cai
ALTRUISM, Connor Flexman
REACTIONS, Jason Ginsberg
LEARNING HOW TO CUP, Anna Delamerced
HORSE MUSCLES, Allison Chen
SUBTERRANEAN, Sabrina Imbler
MYCELIUM CLAMP, Allison Chen STINKHORN MUSHROOMS, Allison Chen
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Kate Storey-Fisher ‘16
WRITING EDITORS Ashyln Mooney ‘15 Cameron Reid ‘16 Kimberly Truong ‘17 Lucy Zhou ‘17
ART EDITOR Mandi Cai ‘17
DESIGN EDITOR Dipal Nagda ‘17
WEB EDITOR Laura Shea ‘18
Butterfly Brain by Jessica Poon
Art Communication Systems, Harrisburg, PA
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR Art, literature and science all stem from inspiration. An individual is inspired to create something from the fundamentals: brush strokes build form, chemicals breed reactions, words incite plot. Laboratories and studios aren’t all that different: they are simply spaces that nurture inspiration. But all too often, these spaces exist in isolation. Catalyst provides a space in which to celebrate the intersection of the sciences and the arts. We are a science-inspired literary journal, a tagline that is open to interpretation. If you are an artist who finds inspiration in the patterns of nature, a scientist who pens prose about your research, a poet who uses the precise language of science to explore abstract themes—Catalyst may be your place. This semester’s issue of Catalyst pulls inspiration from all aspects of science. Dianara Rivera’s poem “Black Holes” is inspired by the depth and detail of the cosmos, while Ryan Greene’s poem “April 12th, 19551” uses form and footnotes to relay the history of the polio vaccine. Evolution is a thread of inspiration: Elena Suglia’s “Long Time, No See” explores the evolution of insects from a scientific standpoint, and Eliza Cohen weaves personal history with scientific analysis in her piece “The Grandmother Hypothesis.” Sabrina Imbler’s “Caves” and Jonah Goldberg’s “Fires” use first-person narrative to probe their relationship with nature, while Hannah Kerman’s “IUD” and Anna Delamerced’s “Learning How to Cup” tell stories of personal discovery through exposure to medicine. Ryan Greene’s “Tinnitus” and Cameron Reid’s “Modal Train” delve into how we experience time through science fiction, and Connor Flexman’s “Altruism” draws inspiration from the scientific process in order to analyze philanthropy. Clearly, the intersection of science and literature isn’t a well-defined point. Similarly, the artwork in this volume seeks to explore the overlap of science and art; the pieces are visual displays of inspiration drawn from the logic and whimsy of science. The art highlights the themes of the literature, tying together the three disciplines that define Catalyst. As you flip through this journal—whether you thumb through until something catches your eye, or read it cover to cover—I hope you soak up some of the inspiration that went into each of the pieces. And then, perhaps, use a bit to create something of your own. Kate Storey-Fisher, Editor-in-Chief 5
Reflection, Laura Shea Watercolor, pen
BLACK HOLES Dianara Rivera
Tidal storms outwit darknessâ€™s holds, a kaleidoscope spinning in varied absences of light. I surrendered to the chaos of the stars. Accepted vacuum and filled it with dreams, figments of blackness alight. The cosmos envelop and I mark their call, not questioning clear-cut meandering. The convexed space reflects at me in prismed abysmal colors striking a fearful spectrum.
My finicky pursuit in soft constellations: dust on the moon suspended in stasis, fairy lights almost; cracked, blackened faces. I can walk the tightrope tightly strapped, but air-removed knowledge leaves a timely gap. If in theory I fall, does my fear feed sensation?
Chameleon 3, Jessica Poon
Hand of a Friend, Ivy Brenneman Pencil 10
THE GRANDMOTHER HYPOTHESIS Eliza Cohen
Homo sapien sapien means wise wise person. This is a story of a beginning. An origin story. A story of repetition, recapitulation, revolution, and evolution. Scientists, tell me the story of how I was born. Wise ones, why? Why here, why now? FOSSILS. Biologists often refer to a stark difference between modern humans and most other mid-sized mammals: a long lifespan after menopause. Fossil teeth from about 10,000 years ago show a sharp increase in the proportion of old fe-
males to young females at the time of death—these early human ancestors were suddenly much more likely to live well into their grandchildren’s lives.1 This happens shortly after the domestication of plants for agriculture. Females past reproduction age were suddenly living much longer than Neandertals and other apes living at that time. A long grandmotherhood is one of a few main features that differentiate the species homo sapiens sapiens from homo sapiens neanderthalensis. Since the first Neandertal fossil was named in 1864, people have discussed the distinctions and the commonalities between early human ancestors and Neandertals.2 One theory argues that it is this project, the one of naming and parsing, that is responsible for the two species splitting in the first place, so many years ago. This cycle, if the theorists are right, is a concrete example of an esoteric theory called dynamic nominalism, which describes a moment where the simple act of naming something creates the thing itself—a “looping effect.”3
Both my grandmothers built houses.
Elizabeth Kupel, my mother’s mother, grew up in the years between the World Wars. She lived in a house so small that she, as the only child, slept in the living room, folding her sheets each morning and tucking her pillow in a cabinet. Her father didn’t talk about bodies. Instead of admitting he was walking to the bathroom, he’d claim that he needed to dust his saxophones, which he kept in a closet next to the toilet. She grew up a girl who liked to be alone. She divorced my grandfather six years after she read The Feminine Mystique. It was 1 Rachel Caspari and Sang-Hee Lee, “Older Age Becomes Common Late in Human Evolution,”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101, no. 30 (2004): 10895–900. 2 W. King, “The Reputed Fossil Man of the Neanderthal.,” Quarterly Review of Science 1 (1864): 88–89. 3 Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Harvard University Press, 2000).
1969, a year in which 639,000 couples divorced—this number doubled since the decade before and would double again a decade later.4 She moved to Maine and built a house in the woods, with the help of two carpenters and her five children. They named the house Fortunately. They planted a garden. They dug a well. Sarah Siegel, my father’s mother, lived in Washington, D.C., where her parents owned grocery store. She married a man who also lived in Washington D.C. and his parents owned a different grocery store. She became Sarah Cohen. They built houses together, making swampland into neighborhoods. First, small houses in Maryland for returning veterans with mortgages subsidized by the GI bill. Later, office parks on old Delaware cornfields. Then, apartments in the seaside towns outside of Tel Aviv. Their house was a small split-level near a creek. They had a carousel horse and a phone booth in her basement. You couldn’t use the horse to travel, and picking up that phone, you didn’t hear a dial tone. They lived on a road called Charred Oak Drive. The suburbs are where you cut trees down and name streets after them. Scientists still debate the explanation for humans’ long grandmotherhood. Wouldn’t a population of women who could not bear more children be inefficient on an evolutionary timescale? Intuitively, one might predict that ancient communities would conserve resources for reproducing adults and any early creatures with long post-menopause lives would eventually die out. However, some scientists have proposed a model of behavior to explain why groups with long grandmotherhood could outcompete other groups. They propose that grandmothers could take care of new infants, allowing young moth4 Vital Statistics of the United States 1977- Volume III Marriage and Divorce (Hyattsville, MD: U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Public Health Service, 1981), Table 2–25.
Circle of Life, Mandi Cai Colored pencil
ers to continue to forage and socialize without the burden of childcare.5 Those young mothers could then have more children, and slowly the trait of living many years post-menopause would become the most common life history.
Elizabeth took me to the park while my mother worked on her disserta-
Why, when looking at those teeth buried in sandstone, do paleontologists think of home?
Behind the park, almost hidden by weeping willows, a train would pass in the afternoon. Why do cave-dwelling almost-apes remind me of women who survived two world wars?
Old silver capsules with a purple band of paint, rattling.
10,000 years is about 500 human generations. Why did scientists name this the Grandmother Theory?
I would have dreams that that train pitched through my bedroom window, pinning me beneath its steel weight. My grandmothers lived far away from caves, in direct sunlight, casting shadows. 5 Kristen Hawkes et al., “Grandmothering, Menopause, and the Evolution of Human Life Histories,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 95, no. 3 (1998): 1336–39.
Never walk along train tracks. They will hypnotize you. You will forget to listen for the roar. GROUPS. One mystery about human evolution is the question of why early human ancestors separated so quickly from Neandertals. Around 500,000 years ago, the two groups began to develop in different directions. Over the next 450,000 years, they mostly stopped reproducing together, solidifying the division between species. Other mid-sized mammals often take up to three times as long for new species to form. 6 One hypothesis is that early humans had highly developed social networks and a clear sense of group identity. This meant that even if homo sapiens sapiens shared space with proto-Neandertals, cultural barriers to mating would have isolated the populations more quickly than rivers and mountains (common physical reasons for species divergence). Perhaps a grandmother saying softly, “You are a homo sapien sapien, and that is a Neandertal” is a more powerful barrier than a journey over rough terrain. Sarah’s grandparents-in-law came to Ellis Island from Poland. The clerks couldn’t pronounce their strange name—Krikun—and so they wrote Cohen instead. To be a Cohen means to be a high priest. After the temple was destroyed, the rabbis created systems of prayer to replace the slaughter of lambs. In this new ritual, no longer responsible for the burning of offerings, the Cohanim became responsible for the first prayer over the Torah. In the United States some people named Cohen are descended from the Cohanim of the second temple, before the Romans destroyed that site. But many Jews were renamed Cohen at Ellis Island, and so most Cohens in America have a name of honor but do not say that first prayer reserved on Saturday mornings. Those who do say this prayer either remember that they really descend from priesthood, or else have no stories of the clerical error that gave them their name 6 J.-J. Hublin, “How to Build a Neandertal,” Science 344, no. 6190 (June 20, 2014): 1338–39, doi:10.1126/science.1255554.
and assume it tells their true past. I dated a boy whose name was also Cohen. He is a high priest; I am not. WORDS. To develop cultural identity borders between early humans and Neandertals, those ancient creatures must have needed to talk a lot. Perhaps because of grandmothers, early humans could transmit more knowledge. These older females, no longer agile in their old age, could spend time developing symbol systems. Working mothers would not have the time to transmit elaborate linguistic messages to infants—and if the mothers were supplying the infants’ needs directly, there was no need for symbols. But grandmothers would have added a dimension to the network by first allowing young mothers to maintain wider social networks. These wider networks would have needed more abstract symbol systems for communication. With longer female lifespan, those early humans had more generational overlap, and so the grandmothers could teach these new symbols to the newborns. Hence, hominids developed language and culture. After Elizabeth’s divorce, she worked as a secretary at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her boss wore a belt made of string so long that if he became stuck in an elevator shaft he could unravel the belt and use the string to belay back up to safety. These were the days of the media lab and Noam Chomsky and early computing power and professors who started living in their offices when their wives found out about their affairs. They were developing the first artificial intelligence and algorithm languages. She was a typist, and a mother to the pocket protected.7 She covered for the scientists when they lost whole cabinets’s worth of files and had to tell the university how they 7 This phrase is used in a piece by Steven Pinker about grammar and language. He and I both use it with affection. Steven Pinker, “False Fronts in the Language Wars,” Slate, May 31, 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_good_word/2012/05/steven_pinker_on_the_false_fronts_in_the_language_wars_.html.
Eternal Return, Sydney Morrison Digital media
had spent the department funds that year. Sarah gathered her family and extended family each April for the retelling of the story of the exodus from Egypt. More than fifty of us, and more each year as cousins got married and babies were born. Her Dominican housekeeper Miletti knew the family recipe for Matzah ball soup. We read from the Maxwell Coffee House hagaddahs, and in those words we remembered a collective slavery, a return to Jerusalem, a quest for freedom. The wise child, the simple child, the wicked child, the child who does not know how to ask. The ritual of hiding the affikomen, when the adults hide a piece of matzah for the children to find after dinner. Sarah asked me “how do you spell afikomen?” Puzzled, I told her and went to search. A cousin (not me) finally found the cracker between two pages of dictionary in the A section—on the page with the word “afikomen.” Only then did I realize Sarah was not asking me how to spell the word but trying to give me a hint of where to look for the object. MIGRATION. Most modern population geneticists describe a history of human migration where early hominids slowly dispersed from eastern Africa to other continents. Constant motion but humans don’t seem to have mixed very much with Neandertals. Genetic evidence shows the most diversity (measured by heterozygosity) is in East Africa and increasingly less as you move away. Heterozygosity measures difference not between people but within a single person—to be highly heterozygous means to have many genes of a different type from each parent. The best explanation of the migration history is that populations moved outwards from East Africa in bursts and expanded in new places—a model called the “serial founder effect.” Of course, people moved in many directions. But this model argues that most early populations moved generally outwards and through a few big “bottlenecks”—such as the Sinai Peninsula, the Bering Strait, the Panama pass, now cut with a canal. For the most part, they didn’t
travel in the other direction. Each migration was founded by only a small subset of the population so today on average, two people in the Americas have a much more recent common ancestor than two people in East Africa.8 But all modern human populations are equally “old.” As a young woman, Sarah helped to fight for what is now the state of Israel. As a teenager, she smuggled guns onto ships in New York City. As an adult, she invested in treasury bonds and Israeli real estate. On her wall in Maryland, she had old maps with the borders out of date, and in the hallway Russian nesting dolls stood on high shelves you could only reach with a ladder. It was not until after she died that I realized her ideas about politics lie in those maps from the 1940s and that the maps I see have Gaza and the West Bank. Her work contributed to communal farming, the idealism of a new social order, the creation of a new political entity. It contributed to what Palestinians call the nakba—the disaster. She defended a homeland she had never lived in but visited often. One by one, each of her childhood friends moved to the newly independent state of Israel, but she stayed in Maryland to build houses.
My grandmother tells me that she’s glad that I’m leaving school for a while. She says that she was 20 years old when she left the Church, that 20 is a year of freedoms. I forget her calming words as I dive headfirst into a love affair and a flight to China. She had internet for a while but didn’t see the point, so she doesn’t get my long emails from the Eastern hemisphere. When she was 20, she left St. Louis for Washington D.C. There, she worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority reading letters from women thanking the government for electricity in their rural towns. She went to Hong Kong when she was 22 to work 8 Michael DeGiorgio, Mattias Jakobsson, and Noah A. Rosenberg, “Explaining Worldwide Patterns of Human Genetic Variation Using a Coalescent-Based Serial Founder Model of Migration Outward from Africa,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 38 (2009): 16057–62.
for the Foreign Service. She says you wore your best clothes when you took an airplane then. She met my grandfather and they traveled the world. He translated between English and Chinese and she threw dinner parties for diplomats and their wives. Each of their five children was born in a different country. As early homo sapiens sapiens spread out, they continued to develop these complex cultural systems, ways to separate themselves from Neandertals. Ways of thinking, counting, and analyzing. That level of abstraction that was enabled by a long grandmotherhood, the obsession in naming some creatures as other, and some creatures as same, persists today. The scientists classifying early fossils are engaging in the same project that they theorize created our species in the first place. The project that those early homo sapiens sapiens grandmothers were doing. They measure, how much their grandchildren are the same, how much they are different. In asking why hominids diverged from Neandertal lineages, we articulate and rearticulate why we are unique. And so, the process continues to loop. Naming the difference creates the difference. Our grandmothers said “You are a homo sapien sapien, and that is a Neandertal.” And then our grandmothers did not drink wine or break bread with those who were different. And the two species became separate. The grandmothers chose which creatures were partners. Which creatures to love. PARACHUTES. The personal genetics company 23-and-me will tell you, for $99.00, the percent overlap between your genes and the genes of the few Neandertals that scientists have sequenced.9 It’s difficult to compare modern humans to Neandertals because Neandertals have no living descendants unlike our ape cousins. 10 As the story goes, they lost, and we won. We are now living—in num9 “23andMe,” 2014, https://www.23andme.com/ 10 Joseph K. Pickrell and David Reich, “Toward a New History and Geography of Hu-
bers unimaginable to those early citizens of the Earth. We are living, and they are dead. Our ancestors, technically speaking, are also dead, but they have us as descendants. Elizabeth’s house is named Fortunately in reference to a picture book about a boy named Ned with curly brown hair, a red shirt, and yellow pants. His life is precarious. The book says: “Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party. Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away. Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane. Unfortunately, the motor exploded. Fortunately, there was a parachute in the airplane. Unfortunately, there was a hole in the parachute. Fortunately he landed in water. Unfortunately there were sharks in the water. Fortunately he could swim.” 11 Elizabeth’s daughter made a small figurine of Ned, his body made of clay, suspended from a parachute made of a white paper coffee filter and cotton string. He now lives in her living room. We are your grandmothers. You are a sapien sapien, and that is a Neandertal. Fortunately. We name you. We name you. You are loved. You are loved.
man Genes Informed by Ancient DNA,” Trends in Genetics 30, no. 9 (September 2014): 377–89, doi:10.1016/j.tig.2014.07.007. 11 Remy Charlip, Fortunately, Reprint edition (New York; Toronto; New York: Aladdin, 1993).
Projections: Hypercube, Källan Berglund Sculpture, steel “Dedicated to my father, who first shared with me the beauty of mathematics.” 23
Jonah Goldberg Photo
I wrote this on July 26, 2014, three days into a five-week, backcountry ecological restoration crew with the Student Conservation Association in Yosemite National Park. We got back from our worksite and were treated to a stunning view of the massive El Portal fire from the area around Pluto Point.
When we first arrived, there were eight, small and inconsequential. Now, three days in, there are 23, and the number keeps rising. The largest has already consumed 520 acres. We knew immediately that it was a monster from the sudden onset of a deafening silence. Gone was the rhythmic whir of the choppers that been tending to the beast on Yosemite Creek, not far from our camp. And in their wake, nothing. Fires tear across the landscape, unfazed by its steep wrinkles and sharp edges. They devour everything in their paths, licking trees into the ground, roaring at granite until it cracks in submission. They are vicious, merciless, and entirely necessary. The land hasnâ€™t merely grown accustomed to their cataclysmic power, it has become addicted to it. The fires are simple instruments in its brutally unsentimental cycle of growth, incineration, and renewal. They have quite a relationship, the fires and the land. Itâ€™s tumultuous, but itâ€™s also mutualistic, driven to excess, like the junky and his drug. The fires are at once a part of the land and entirely separate from it, intertwined with it in a strange dualism. The fires cannot be understood as independent of the land, nor the land of the fires, just as neither can exist without the other. Functionally, they are a single entity. The smoke rises over the ridge opposite our camp. It must be thirty miles away, but the smell burns at the insides of our nostrils nonetheless. Awed and unbelieving, we stare, transfixed by the angry, black mushroom cloud suspended across the valley. Its existence seems inexplicable; its devastating power defies any attempt at rationalization. We feel impotent by comparison. At the end of the day, however, we realize that the fires only mimic the rest of the landscape in their strangeness. Their absurdity connects them to rather than separates them from the myriad other wonders of this unique place.
Multitasking, Mitch Akutsa Photo
LONG TIME, NO SEE: INSECT ANTIQUITY AND SMALL BODY SIZE CONTRIBUTE TO INSECT DIVERSITY Elena Suglia
It is difficult to estimate how many species of insects there are because they are so numerous, small, and of little interest to many people, but even conservative estimates of the number of insect species on earth today yield astonishing diversity. Why are insects so successful as a
The great British biologist J.B.S. Haldane once quipped that God has “an inordinate fondness of beetles.” Numbering just over one million, over half of the world’s described species are insects, and estimates of the number of extant insect species ranges from 3 to 30 million.1
1 Wilson, E.O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. W.W. Norton & Co., New York.
2 Gullan, P.J. & P.S. Cranston. 2010. The Insects. Ed. 4. Wiley-Blackwell: UK.
clade? Various factors over the eons have played a role in the success of insect colonization, speciation, and persistence, including small size, antiquity as a clade, and short generation time.3,4,5 I argue that insects are a highly diverse clade of organisms primarily because of their small size and long geological history.
insects, fish, and mammals have accumulated new species at similar rates over evolutionary time. Because older groups have more species, McPeek and Brown concluded that time is a primary determinant of species diversity patterns across animals.8
According to the fossil record, insects were the first small animals to colonize the land with full success.6 Although several factors may have contributed to this phenomenon, the fact that insects are a geologically old clade may explain much of today’s remarkable insect diversity. McPeek and Brown’s study7 found that animals as diverse as mollusks,
However, some clades did not succeed even if they colonized the land at the same time as insects. Why were insects able to speciate so rapidly and persist after colonizing land eons ago? It would be inaccurate to credit one adaptation with the diversification of insect species, but small individual body size has played an enormous role in the success of insects.9,10,11,12 Many
3 Wilson, E.O. 1992. 4 Huffaker, Carl Barton and Andrew Paul Gutierrez, eds. 1999. Ecological Entomology. Ed. 2.. John Wiley and Sons, Inc: New York. 5 Eisner, Thomas and Edward O. Wilson. 1977. The Insects. W.H. Freeman and Company: San Francisco. 6 Ibid. 7 McPeek, Mark A. and Jonathan M. Brown. 2007.
8 Ibid. 9 Gullan, P.J. & P.S. Cranston. 2010. 10 Huffaker, Carl Barton and Andrew Paul Gutierrez, eds. 1999. 11 Eisner, Thomas and Edward O. Wilson. 1977. 12 Southwood, T.R.E. 1978. “The components of diversity.” Diversity of Insect Faunas Symposia of the Royal Entomological Society of London (Number 9). Mound, L.A. and N. Waloff, eds. Black-
(but not all) insects are relatively small, have a short generation time, and produce many individuals per cohort (exhibiting the properties of r-selected animals). Small body size enables insects to physically fit into more places in their environment and also facilitates adaptation to many niches.13 The environment can be “more fine-grained” from an insect perspective compared to that of a larger animal. For example, a single acacia tree may support a complete life cycle of dozens of insect species, and an adjacent acacia of a different species may host a different suite of phytophagous insects.14
brates, which may have contributed to the evolution of such diverse insect forms.15 Insects are also able to cope with rapid environmental stochasticity more readily than other animals because of their short generation times. This high genetic elasticity has contributed to both the speciation and persistence of diverse insect life forms. Due to their small size, insects tend to become geographically and reproductively isolated, which, when combined with their genetic elasticity and short generation time, promotes rapid speciation in both allopatry and sympatry over time.16
However, small body size does not fully explain insects’ apparent abilities to speciate so successfully in high spatial heterogeneity. Insects must be equipped with the tools to function, adapt, and cope with altered conditions. Insects have highly developed sensory and motor systems, unlike many other inverte-
Other factors that may have contributed to insect diversification include evolutionary relationships with plants,17 dispersal abilities, the 15 Ibid. 16 Ibid. 17 Lawton, J.H. 1978. “Host-plant influences on insect diversity: the effects of space and time.” Diversity of Insect Faunas Symposia of the Royal Entomological Society of London (Number 9). Mound, L.A. and N. Waloff, eds. Black-
well Scientific Publications: Oxford. 13 Ibid. 14 Gullan, P.J. & P.S. Cranston. 2010.
evolution of flight, and metamorphosis.18,19,20,21 One study showed a significant association of diversification rate with the adoption of phytophagy (Mitter et al. 1988), and in a given area, higher plant diversity and density generally correlates with higher insect diversity. Insect-plant relationships may promote genetic diversification of both participants, and may increase specialization of insects.22 However, these contributing factors are not as convincing as the arguments for small body size and geological time because they are not as widely applicable.
species much more quickly than nature can replace them, and only time can repair the damage we have wrought. Insects provide important ecological services such as decomposition, pollination, and providing food and biodiversity, and losing large numbers of insects could be highly detrimental to the health of our ecosystems and the global economy.23,24,25 Because much of the earth’s current human-related extinctions are due to habitat fragmentation, rates of insect extinction depend on how many insects are in a particular area being disturbed and how large of an area is being
If time is a key determinant in the accumulation of species diversity, it is sobering to consider the current, unprecedented extinction rates of the earth’s biota. We are losing
23 Samways, Michael J. 2005. Insect Diversity Conservation. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 24 Waldbauer, Gilbert. 2003. What Good Are Bugs? Insects In the Web of Life. Harvard University Press: Cambridge. 25 Samways, Michael J., Melodie A. McGeoch, Tim R. New. 2010. Insect Conservation: A Handbook of Approaches and Methods. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
well Scientific Publications: Oxford. 18 Brown, J.H. and A. C. Gibson. 1983. Biogeography. Mosby: St. Louis. 19 Gullan, P.J. & P.S. Cranston. 2010. The Insects. Ed. 4. Wiley-Blackwell: UK. 20 Southwood, T.R.E. 1978. 21 Gullan, P.J. & P.S. Cranston. 2010. 22 Ibid.
disturbed.26 However, the percentage of insects lost to human-related extinction should be similar to the proportion of organisms lost in other clades. The problem is, a 10% reduction in insects is a loss of many more species than a 10% reduction in mammals and would mean a much greater drop in global biodiversity. We must therefore do the best we can to learn about and participate in the conservation of insects in order to ensure that we maintain a high percentage of the earthâ€™s biodiversity and the myriad ecosystem services insects offer.
26â€ƒSamways, Michael J. 2005.
MODAL TRAIN Cameron Reid
Virgule was sitting in a train car. The seats were coated in blue fabric like a fungus and the floors and window struts were white and plastic. No one else was in the car. A blinking “fasten seatbelt” indicator light pulsed. Outside of the train it was dark and quiet. There was no sound of rushing air or grinding wheels. Virgule pressed his nose against the plexiglass and gazed into the dark. He saw only a grayish texture flying past, a swarm of insects that he could not distinguish. There was a girl with glasses who lived inside Virgule’s head. Her name was Elizabeth and she sat at a mahogany desk in the middle, beneath the high domed ceiling of his skull. Right now she was looking into the spongey ropes of his optic nerves, which hung down like the viewfinder of a submarine periscope.
“What do you make of that? Could it be the walls of a tunnel?” Virgule asked her. “It’s possible. Or the train car could be in a wind tunnel. If the air in the wind tunnel was full of smoke, the train would look like it moved forwards inside a gray tunnel,” Elizabeth said.
“No,” he replied, “it’s too quiet for that.”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth, “truly so.”
They sat in their seats, he in the blue-cushioned row of the train, and she in the leather-bound frame of her armchair. Virgule closed his eyes and imagined the train car was speeding under the dunes of a desert. Above, a line of solar panels fed power down to the train as it moved along. He was headed for a grand casino, a skyscraper built in the desert, 103 stories tall with seven indoor pools. Elizabeth cranked the optic nerves back into the ceiling with a brass wheel behind a panel of her desk, and fell to imagining the train underwater. It was deep in the sea, but unlike in the story-books the walls of this tunnel were not transparent. The octopodes and languid kelp were hidden in a mire of pollution, or else human admiration for natural beauty had recently diminished and the tunnel cast in cheaper concrete. Virgule stared out of the window, into the grey. The rushing particles or tunnel walls seemed to be moving faster and faster. Virgule realized there was no way to tell how quickly he was moving. He could be moving very, very quickly. So very quickly that he had begun to age at a crawl and become squished, along with the entire train, into a nearly flat object. If he was moving quickly enough the train might look like a card-board cut-out flying along the rails. Virgule felt his arms, his neck, his legs and so on to see if they felt shorter.
Rockets, Laura Shea Digital media, pen 34
He felt everything was as usual.
“What if we are on the surface of a star?” Elizabeth asked.
“What do you mean?” replied Virgule.
“That grey matter could be a futuristic insulator from the heat,” said Elizabeth. “How did we get to the future? Maybe we died years ago and this is a clone of me made from my DNA. After I grew up the future-humans would implant my memories with lasers. Surely this is how we arrived in the future in this tunnel that can block the heat of stars.” “No. There is a chance for anything to happen. We might have died on Earth a near infinite amount of time in the past. Over that eon the probability for our body to reemerge in a spontaneous quantum effect compounded to not just a freak accident but a certainty.” “Isn’t it more likely that only half our body would appear? That’s only half as freakish.” “Isn’t it clear? Each time only a fraction of our body, four fifths for example: a torso and three limbs, was brought back into existence we did not return to life and so those events passed as if we were asleep. You only regained consciousness when the conditions were just right.” Now that Virgule thought about it, he was certain the train car was the construction of some future civilization, orbiting a gaseous, chartreuse planet after the explosion of the cryogens cooling its superconducting rail-lines had sent it into space. The grey material around the windows was the image of distant stars glowing dimly in the far cosmos. There was no sun in this planetary
system which explained the darkness and his inability to see the chartreuse planet. As Virgule thought about the chartreuse planet, Elizabeth watched it appear above her desk. Inside his skull Virgule had taken the liberty to imagine the planet as being lit up irrespective of the lack of a sun. There were brilliant oceans and palm trees with alien, drooping leaves. Elizabeth went behind a divider and began to change into her orange and white polka doted swimsuit so that she might enjoy the water. “We could just be on earth, of course,” Elizabeth said from behind the divider.
Virgule jumped at the suggestion, leaning forward in his chair.
“On a maglev train in Japan! If I am a hopeless narcoleptic and amnesic then I can’t remember how I appeared here. Really I just slept past the final stop, where everyone else departed, and now the train is making its way to some depot for repairs or to be stored overnight. Elizabeth climbed onto the chartreuse planet inside Virgule’s skull and lay down in the ruddy sand. She shaded her eyes from the sun.
“Go and check if there is a train conductor,” she said.
“I cannot do that Elizabeth.”
“Get up from your seat and check. He can get us out of here,” she said more firmly. Virgule began drafting a document. When he was finished, he sent it to the printer on her desk:
Why Checking for a Conductor is an Imperfect Solution to the Train Car Problem: I could get out of this seat right now, this very minute, and see if the train car is connected to any other train cars, which, if this is the case, would allow me to repeat the search process by checking the next door until termination of the algorithm results in A) the rear of the train has been found or B) the front of the train has been found at which point I could then check A) the conductor has been guiding the train and further stops are coming or B) no conductor is guiding the train and I will have to wait until morning to egress. The motion of the gray material means that the train is moving in a specific direction and so I should walk along this line of motion to reach the front of the train. This is a very good thing because if I were not able to tell the direction of motion, the direction that the seats faced could not be used to find the front of the train because some trains do not turn around and merely reverse their direction. These trains make a compromise by alternating the direction of seating in each car which means that if A) there is an even number of cars (in this scenario we do not need to consider the conductor’s car because if the train does not turn around it will have a conductor car at both ends which does not affect the even or oddness of the number of cars) and so there is a 50% chance that I am in a backwards facing car or B) there is an odd number of passenger cars and so there is A) (1/n (n/2+1))% chance that he is in a backwards facing car assuming the middle car is backwards or B) (1/n (n/2-1))% chance if the middle car is front-facing, where n is the number of cars in the train. Elizabeth reached down from the bottom surface of the planet and grabbed the paper from her desk. She read it slowly and carefully. “Those are bad odds. But, it is worse than you imagine anyway. What if we do not even reach an ending car?”
“That’s impossible,” said Virgule.
“What if the train is on a circular track? The front car could be connected to the back and the whole train running like a dog chasing its tail,” she said, watching a crab-like creature digging up strange pods in the sand. “We would feel pushed towards the sides of the car like a carnival ride” “Hm. You are correct,” the crab burst a pod with a claw and was hastily trying to return the yellow goop into the burst husk with its claws, “What if it were not the train that were rotating, but rather the room itself containing the track? If it were a donut shaped room spinning around us, it would look like a moving tunnel from inside.” “I like that one. Or if spacetime was so warped that this train car was connected end-to-end to itself.” “Interesting, but you have made a mistake. The symmetry is broken. Do you see it?” Virgule imagined getting up from his seat. He stretched his legs and marched towards the door connecting to the other cars. He pushed the button that would open the door. The motor was old and it spluttered like a consumptive. Suddenly something in the machinery caught. The door yanked open. As Virgule looked into the door he saw a train car identical to his own. In it was a man looking into the door at the end. That man was staring into a train car at a man ahead of him, who was staring at a man in a car ahead of him in the distance.
“Yes. Thank you Elizabeth.”
“Of course,” she said. Elizabeth kicked sand at the crab. It didn’t react but went about its business with the pods. “There might not even be an outside to the train car. This might all be a test of the human mind in isolation, our only option to wait as decades of 38
thought drive us further insane, biological needs only digital and utterly unable to cause death.” “Of course we might be. Or we might be sitting on a beach imagining a train car.” “Who is to say there is anyone to carry out that experiment?” he continued, “We might be the combined effort of hundreds of lesser beings which collaborated to form our sense of reasoning. Right now these thoughts are being output on ticker tape at a convention where the creatures marvel at the advances of modern science.” “Imagine sitting on the beach,” she said. Her voice left the chartreuse planet’s atmosphere and ricocheted around his domed skull. “What if I am sitting in my favorite armchair dreaming that I am in a research lab where I am being tricked into believing I am the digital recreation of someone who has been programmed to think he is a clone of a man who has had his memory implanted with lasers who is trapped on a train car, they are all trapped in a train car.”
“Imagine sitting on the beach,” she said again, monotonously.
“The nested structure of worlds goes on indefinitely, some not even obeying object permanence, Euclidean geometry, anything at all that allows logical conclusions to be derived from the situation.” “Imagine sitting on the beach.” Elizabeth grabbed Virgule by his shirt and threw him into the foaming tide. A herd of screaming bat-like fish burst out of the waves then fell back to the water like handful of stones, bellies full of caught flies. That night he fell asleep in the sand laying his head on her stomach as a pillow, on his side. 39
Hands, Elissa Johnson Colored pencil and pastel pencil on toned paper 40
APRIL 12TH, 19551
evangelical telephone wires sang out the gospel just past lunch 5 beehives2 granted rights to make the honey.
a day for swim trunks and fearless water frolics
mothers brought out marmalade and cheeks received quick pinches Salk declared a pioneering household saint
[a midday sunrise turned to dusk]
phones dripped sickly henbane and jaws went slack with ______(rage/awe/grief) a two-week exaltation cut short 120,000 doses too late3 ten left wholly killed and thousands more alive, attenuated springtime clouds shimmered without audience â€”eyes turned down saw only algorithmic slips cutting ribbons to tie to fingers4
On April 12th, 1945, Elizabeth Shoumatoff was painting a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt when suddenly he (supposedly) said, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” At 3:35pm, those became his last words. Ten years later, on the day discussed in this poem, a vaccine against poliovirus (with which FDR was famously infected) was declared “safe and effective.” 2 When I say beehives, I do not mean beehives. I mean industrious sites of production such as manufacturers, factories, and laboratories. 3 A mathematical mistake at Cutter Laboratories (one of the 5 aforementioned beehives) resulted in the improper inactivation of the virus particles in the vaccine, and the subsequent release of 120,000 vaccine doses containing live poliovirus. 4 In childhood I was told to tie a ribbon to my finger in order to remember those things I wished not to forget. In the case of the Cutter incident, there was no choice but to remember. 5 Re-read without looking at the footnotes. 1
Still #1 from the Installation Intrasectum, Vivian Charlesworth Photo
This is modern medicine.
They put a small metal T into my uterus and it will give off modest amounts of levonorgestrel, the hormone that tells my body to cool it with the baby making machinery. Enough is released to convince my body not to prepare my uterus for birth this time. Or next time. Or any time in the next five years. It was supposed to be easy. Easier than taking a pill at 5:00 p.m every day, reminded by an alarm that plays Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get it On.” But 1 in 1,000 women experience something called a perforated uterus. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like.
For one in a thousand women, the IUD, a miracle of modern sexual liberation punctures the uterus causing abdominal pain, uterine bleeding and increasing the risk for bowel obstruction, perforation and adhesion. The pain started sharp and the bleeding, intense. It was too much to be spotting, something that often occurs after the insertion of an IUD. It makes sense, the body responding to the insertion of a foreign object. I assumed my bleeding was related to this new object living inside me, but I could not explain why it was magnified, blood stains like blossoming poppies, secret and sudden on my underwear. Feeling like my stomach had been carved out and replaced with hemp knots, I called my doctor. Well, not my doctor – this nice lady who had inserted the IUD here in Providence. I don’t really know her. My doctor is many miles away in a home I miss so much it hurts. You can’t grow up with beauty and not have it seep into your bones. This New England doctor, while kind, cannot understand the Alaska that is part of who I am, and so she will probably never treat me for anything else.
I call, relay my symptoms and she says “Probably perforated.”
It trips off the tongue like a Lily Pulitzer pattern – probably perforated
“Come in tomorrow and we’ll sew you up.”
It’s terrifying to think I’ve been hole punched, that there is a part of me
torn I cannot see. But like a button or a patch, flesh too can be mended with needle and thread. It is comforting - her casual assertion. It feels homey to know these tools. To imagine them fixing me. I decide not to tell anyone. No need to worry my mother or bother my housemates. I will go to work in the morning and take the bus in the afternoon. I go to bed with a slight ache in my abdomen – I count atomic sheep that could fly over the Providence skyline – tomorrow I will be whole again. The bus is crowded, and I feel like I’m on a secret mission. Who would guess that I am about to have my uterus sewn? It makes me wonder about the mosaic of faces surrounding me, what stories do they hold that I will never know? The waiting room is stuffy and smells of bleach and fake citrus air freshener, but I am relieved that I am here, that this process is in motion. “Dr. Falani will see you now,” a nurse calls and I head behind a yellow door she holds open for me. The procedure is a whirlwind outpatient ordeal with no anesthesia and little warning.
Dr. Falani slides through the door almost without a sound.
Still #2 from the Installation Intrasectum, Vivian Charlesworth Photo
I am stirruped and informed that there may be a “bit of pain,” and that it is possible my uterus will contract in response to being sewed. I walk out, holding the day together with the thinning strands of my resolve. I have never felt anything like this. I can’t believe it is a part of me that is causing this pain. The uterus seems like a ghost, an evil spirit, living inside of me, moving at it’s own will. I can’t believe this is a natural part of giving birth, that it is possible to know about contractions AND THEN HAVE MORE CHILDREN with that pain memory still tucked into the folds of your Cerebrum.
Suddenly, I remember that I was planning to walk to the bus station.
What an impossible dream. I should have considered this, maybe.
I call my housemate. “Hiii can I ask a huge favor?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Can you pick me up?”
I hear her pause and weigh her options a moment.
“Of course. Where are you?” I give her my coordinates and wait for this ship of heavenly transport
(Read: used Honda) to arrive starboard to the parking lot. While I wait, I concentrate on not fainting. This is made more difficult by the violent way a usually silent organ of my body has decided to participate in a rousing chorus of nociception, igniting a totally new awareness of my lower organs. My housemate is lost and she is lost and I think she will never find me on this grassy patch outside the hospital, and I am afraid I will keep having these terrifying babyless contractions forever and ever, until she appears. “Hello,” I say demure and soft, not because I am calm, but because I have tucked myself so far inside myself, all my energy focused on addressing this pain below my abdomen.
“Hey – how are you?” Her concern is clear. “What’s up?”
“So, remember how I had an IUD implanted?” I casually run through the details, and it is a nice distraction, from the fear of an oncoming contraction.
Her face crinkles into her forehead.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she says, almost a bit hurt.
“I’m sorry I should have,” I say with an apologetic grin, trying to focus on her eyes, not the pain. “You don’t have to apologize, I just would have been happy to help you! To drive you there and back! To take care or you later,” she says with a frown.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it on my own,” I mumble, wide eyed as the pain hits again. “It will just be a better dynamic for our house overall if we can communicate with each other and talk about our needs,” she continues, pony tail bobbing while she drives.
But I can’t address her disappointment right now.
I nod, smile, look present, but I am in a deeper, wetter, wilder place, inside my own body. It is dark in there, the deep red of my inner cavities, deoxygenized blood coursing back to my heart.
I am with my uterus, waiting for the next contraction.
I am with the near future, imagining myself with a warm compress huddled under the covers. I am with the distant future, imagining my children as eggs. Why can’t we release them as eggs – maybe golf ball sized, fragile and blue. I would build a nest. I would care for it. I would weave red wool and glass beads into the intertwined branch walls. It would be so safe and soft. Let my children be eggs. Let them grow large until they crack, and I can hold them.
TINNITUS Ryan Greene
Not that anyone had ever sat comfortably on the bus, but that day the bus was undeniably uncomfortable. Sandpaper tension made scalps itch, heads turn, and fingers crack. There was a silent epidemic of ants-in-the-pants. Even the cows (always clairvoyant) were uneasy as the milk spoiled in their bulging udders. Though antecedents varied, everyone sensed that it was coming. Just past 2 pm, old women began to shake, and by 3 everything was amok. No one was hungry. Birds stood silent on telephone wires looking due east. Just before 3:10, fifth graders, anxious for air, became convinced that indeed, the friction of clock hands had truly brought time to a halt. And they, for once, were right. Though it began like a whisper, the sound of time ripping apart from space would come to define life from then on. At first, it was not unlike the sound of carrots growing in the garden. Soon, though, it was like an overzealous washing machine dancing through a laundromat with every intention to learn how to fly. With haboob-like certitude, it crowded out all other vibrations. It was not as scientists had predicted. Life continued. People still put syrup on pancakes, and children still refused to wash their hands. Silence, though, became a memory. Spoken language grew obsolete as people, deafened by the cosmic rending, learned to understand through touch and deep eye contact. Generations later, those still alive from the day of the Tear hummed to themselves inaudibly, while children, lounging in the day-sun, speculated as to the meaning of music, a phenomenon they had only ever read about in textbooks. 52
Artgineering, Mandi Cai Pencil
A NEW DOMAIN OF REASON Connor Flexman A few thousand years ago, the early Greek settlements offered human sacrifices at the coming of spring, so as to ensure a good harvest. It appears they didn’t try different types of sacrifices in different fields to see which worked best, or test the effects of different non-sacrifices like manure, ash, or compost to see if any outcompeted the killing of one of their own. They didn’t need to. They had seen once that human blood helped the soil (perhaps from an accidental death, generations before?), and the narrative made sense to them. Why question it? Over the next 3500 years, we’ve echoed the same mistake over and over. In the Classical Age, Aristotle first formulated postulates for physics, but he stated that heavier things fall faster than lighter things. To test this, he would have had to go no further than to drop a big rock and a little rock, but
with his sensible narrative he saw no need to test. The infant years of psychology echoed the beginnings of physics: full of narratives (psychoanalysis) and lacking in evidence. Freud at least didn’t make Aristotle’s mistake of basing his narrative on easily refutable statements. The resolution to all of these failures, among myriad others, was, of course, the scientific method. At the beginning of the 17th century, Sir Francis Bacon first popularized the formal empirical testing of hypotheses. The farming process had been slowly building evidence over the centuries, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that the Germans began studying fertilizers. It took until the 1850s for Mendel to discover agricultural genetics, and until the 1880s for the first experimental farms. Even psychology had a gap of almost 50 years between early psychoanalysis and Skinner’s empirical tests in behavioral psychology, and this was in the modern era, after Einstein’s discovery of general relativity. Evidently, even to a society surrounded by and even built on the successes of the scientific method, simple empiricism to test ideas does not come easily. Note that, when it does come, it is revolutionary and vastly more efficient. People didn’t start formally analyzing altruistic opportunities and trying to improve their choices until nearly 2000 years after the New Testament urged us to practice charity. The first organization with such a goal (to the limits of my research) was CharityWatch, founded in 1992. They and the new organizations that followed should be celebrated. For the first time, people were actually looking at which charities were “better”. Previously (though still to a large extent) charities got their donations by weaving a narrative and playing to the emotions of the donors: unbiased evaluators help to diminish that. Unfortunately, CharityWatch was the Aristotle of efficient giving: they were the first to begin studying the system, but their own narrative sufficed to satisfy them. In this case it was a quantitative narrative instead of qualitative, as charities were ranked based on amount of overhead and transparency, but a narrative nonetheless. These
criteria made sense to them, and so they didn’t check to see empirically if this was the best outcome. Like killing a human in the field, the crops may indeed grow better, but probably not optimally. Perhaps the focus is in entirely the wrong place. Finally, the natural progression was taken to its conclusion in 2007, with GiveWell’s founding. GiveWell sparked the effective altruist (EA) movement, the effort to apply the scientific method to charitable giving. This organization and others now rank charities not with respect to overhead costs or transparency, but total effectiveness: how many lives saved per dollar. Their technical metric is QALYs, or quality-adjusted life-years. This system allows them to get to the crux of the matter, funneling dollars into the charities that add the most QALYs per dollar. The importance lies in the fact that most estimates place the most effective charities at roughly 1000 times the QALY/dollar ratio of the least effective, and causes themselves (deworming children, malaria nets) can be orders of magnitude more effective than others (Kony2012, guide dogs). GiveWell and other organizations do extensive research on the effectiveness of various poverty-alleviation methods, charities, and flow-through effects. Furthermore, the pair Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee pioneered empirical tests of charity efficacy starting in 2003 with their Poverty Action Lab. They collect data from charities around the world to determine the techniques that work best. This addition of controlled studies was the final ingredient needed for the scientific method to fully apply to charitable giving. Unfortunately, most common criticisms of effective altruism either think the field is completely out of reach or regard our current lowly state of knowledge (the work of roughly ten people for less than ten years) as proof that we can never do better. Outrage commonly arises from various forms of the argument, “You can’t measure charity with numbers! It’s about helping people, and you’re missing all caring and the intangibles! You aren’t measuring X well
enough!” This is valid when leveled at specific organizations or ratings, but not when it is criticizing the overall principle: effective altruism is about being the most effective. Empiricism requires it. Most “intangibles” actually afford measurement once they’re identified. Just like people used to think psychology could never be measured, behaviorists came along and quantified actions, and neuroscientists can now measure very specific brain responses. Similarly, the famous physicist Lord Kelvin once said of biology, “I need scarcely say that the beginning and maintenance of life on earth is absolutely and infinitely beyond the range of all sound speculation in dynamical science.” Within the century, we had identified a vast majority of all the mechanisms in living organisms down to organelles within living cells. Just because some intangible seems to be at play, or that a system is too complex to comprehend at a cursory glance, does not mean that it is forever out of the reach of science. A further misunderstanding of the scientific method in effective altruism comes from some of the founders themselves. The elitist tone of a select few effective altruist pieces by Peter Singer and other affiliates, while important in their own right, promulgated a severe misconception within the movement. They make the claim that it’s morally wrong not to donate a majority of your money to poverty alleviation. This can be debated, and I may or may not agree with it, but it’s intrinsically separate from effective altruism. Effective altruism is about making altruism effective. It’s about doing things right, not how much one should do. The scientific method is useful for taking money that one is already donating, and optimizing the use of that money. If you’re giving money somewhere already, you don’t have to convert to a GiveWell top-rated charity, but it seems prudent to take heed of the current empirical advice so you can be the most effective with your donation. In the long run, after finding ways to quantify and empirically test agriculture, physics, psychology, economics, behavior, and business, it only seems
fitting that we should take charitable giving under the wing of the scientific method. With lives on the line, we don’t want our engineers to make intuitional estimates on whether a building will collapse. We don’t want our doctors choosing which drugs to give us based on emotional factors and who can have the most adorable puppy in their commercial. We don’t want to kill people in our fields when we don’t need to. For things that matter to us, we have always used science and empiricism to make sure we were using the most effective method to achieve the optimal result. Charity should be no different. If you think about the humans you’re helping as if they were within your own circle of friends and family, it’s clear you want to leverage all scientific power at the problem that you can. If current methods are somewhat flawed, we shouldn’t abandon them, but fix them to the best of our rational ability. Once we conquer this, we can look to the next problem to tackle scientifically. Global catastrophic risk management? Perhaps. But let’s nail this people-saving business first.
Reactions, Jason Ginsberg Photo
LEARNING HOW TO CUP Anna Delamerced
alcohol. With his other hand, a compact lighter was thumbed open, igniting a small flame. The glow of orange and yellow danced; the cotton was set ablaze. My heart raced as he pushed the burning cotton ball into an empty bamboo cup with the tongs, withdrew them, and placed it upside down on the patientâ€™s backâ€”all in one fluid motion.
The light revealed thin streaks of amber across the bamboo cups that rested on the tabletop. I turned my attention to our Chinese teacher whose inviting eyes are telling me to witness something I had traveled all the way to the other hemisphere to see. Using metal tongs, he carefully picked up a cotton ball and dipped it into a tin can, the fluffy fibers becoming soaked with
I turned to look at my friends from Brown, their eyes tinged with excitement and intellectual curiosity. Sitting in the middle of a cupping therapy clinic in the city of Hangzhou, we were thousands of miles away from the United States. It was the summer of 2013, right after my freshman year. We were nearing the halfway point of our fourweek program on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Every week we focused on a different aspect of TCM, from acupuncture to herbs to cupping. We had shadowed clinicians and learned from professors who have studied this kind of healing for many years. “How does this work?” someone asked. According to the traditional Chinese medical doctor, the flame consumes all the oxygen, thereby creating a vacuum in the cup that suctions the skin, causes the blood vessels to expand, and blood flow becomes stimulated. This ancient practice is believed to balance and realign the qi (energy) of a person and can even physically draw toxins out of the body.
“Now, your turn!” he exclaimed, beckoning us to try out cupping ourselves. Fingers fumbling with the cups, I sat there, waiting anxiously for my turn. They’re the kind of cups I imagine putting my pens and pencils in to store, or the kind of cups for drinking a glass of milk, not the kind I would have ever thought, would be used in the clinic. I hardly understood a word of Chinese so I resorted to aimlessly jamming the tongs pinched with cotton balls in and out of the cup, practicing the fluid motion my instructor had done so swiftly. “Who is first?” our teacher asked. Two students volunteered, one doing the cupping, the other being cupped. One, two, three, four, five—five cups were suctioned onto a girl’s back. After five minutes, the cups were gently taken off, leaving red circles that were already beginning to pale and fade away. “Okay, who’s next?!” our teacher eagerly asked.
The next two students were up. They seemed to do it with such comfortable ease, perfecting their practice. Soon, I realized everyone’s gaze was on me, their eyes encouraging me to just go for it, let go of any fear that may be holding me back at this point.
immediately placed the cup upside down on my friend’s back. She gave me a thumbs up. I decided to let someone try it on myself, too. I exposed my back, closed my eyes, and waited for the twinge of pain…
I hesitated, “I don’t want to hurt anyone.” They denied I won’t.
...which never came. Turns out cupping feels very relaxing! The suctioning feel massaged the knots on my back.
“What if it feels painful to me?” I mentioned. They also denied it won’t hurt.
I’m glad I didn’t let fear rob me of trying something new. I enjoyed learning about traditional medicine in the clinic as much as walking around the peaceful West Lake with my friends, singing karaoke on my eighteenth birthday, eating steamed buns of red bean for breakfast every morning, hiking the lush hills of Zhejiang, and riding the boats along the canals in Suzhou.
I took a moment to breathe, to look and listen, to be mindful of the moment. I paused, remembering why I had originally signed up in the first place. To explore more of the world and its people. To discover that there is so much more to learn, to see, and to do. To try something new. Following what the teacher had taught us, I soaked the cotton ball with alcohol, then opened the lighter and set the ball ablaze. Then I quickly jammed the ball with the tongs into an empty bamboo cup, removed the tongs, and
Later that week, we witnessed an elderly man getting cupped for his aching back. I watched his wincing eyes ease from pain to relief as the bamboo cups were applied. The knots in his back
untangled, letting go of the burdens on his back. After his session, he thanked the clinician, and even thanked us, for wanting to learn more about TCM, for asking him questions and talking with him, for our presence during the healing.
A mother of a newborn was anxious about being a first-time parent, so I looked her in the eye and listened. Tried to understand her fears. The physician later advised me that taking care of someone is a team effort which involves working with the patients, their families, your colleagues, and everyone else in the team. Both the elderly man in China and this newborn baby in Rhode Island are individuals with unique histories. In order to be a better caregiver, we must seek to understand their stories.
Healing is a complex endeavor. What resonated most with me during my time abroad was our shared goal. In both Eastern and Western medicine, we all just want to help and serve people. We are united by a common vision of sharing the gift of medicine with people who are in need. Perhaps the best physicians are those who respond to the needs of people with compassion, empathy, and honor. Back at Brown, in the fall semester of my sophomore year, I shadowed a physician in the pediatric ward at Rhode Island Hospital. As I was hearing stories of patients and looking deeply at their faces, the memory of the elderly man in China who had found healing in the company of strangers suddenly dawned on me. I was ready to stand back, listen, and understand the patientâ€™s own story.
I know the road to medicine will be long and difficult, but down the line, when I put on the white coat and the door closes, itâ€™s just me and the patient face-to-face. Whether in a large hospital in America or in a small clinic in China, I know that these efforts will be worthwhile.
Superficial Horse Muscles, Allison Chen Pen and ink on mylar 64
SUBTERRANEAN Sabrina Imbler
One hundred sixty million years ago in the Caribbean Sea, tectonic plates hurtled a giant limestone plateau upward, catalyzing the formation of the Rio Camuy Caves. One hundred sixty million years of rain and wind eroded this plateau, forming domed hummocks and gaping sinkholes that lie between these caverns and us. Itâ€™s hard not to marvel at how these massive, intricate structures emerged, with their labyrinths of tunnels and palatial limestone formations. Unlike all manmade architecture, caves form without a blueprint. Over 220 caves, 17 entrances, and 10 miles of caverns have been mapped in the Camuy cave system in Puerto Rico. But this discovery only goes so far â€” experts believe the system holds another 800 caves. These may never be mapped.
It was winter break, and I had flown with my parents to Puerto Rico â€” 19 years old in a country with a drinking age of 18. So here we were, on a tour of the Rio Camuy Caves. Our gaggle of tourists shuffled to fit underneath the concrete awning, its angles in stark contrast to the swirling green of the El Yunque jungle. Giant ferns, mahogany trees, orchids, and bamboo seemed to levitate around us. Domed cobwebs clung to adjacent branches, forming dewy, silken cathedrals that glittered in the few beams of sun that forced their way through the dense umbrella of treetops. It felt as if I were entering some preserved, prehistoric portal. The cavern seemed caught in an eternal yawn, its craggy teeth forever breathing the mists that drifted in and out below the threshold of our perception. My audioguide, with its rubber corrugated grip and glowing green LED, did not belong in this cave. I, with my screen-printed tank, belonged even less so. Surrounded by the work of the gentle drip of limestone over millions of years, I felt so small. Stalagmites and stalactites are two common types of speleothems, depositions of calcite that accumulate by millennia of acidic water dripping through limestone. In particularly humid caves, speleothems may emerge in delicately warped angles, anemone-like formations that belie their rigid nature. Speleothems are the autobiography of a cave. They explain not only its creation, but also variations of climate, ocean levels, and rainfall over hundreds of thousands of years. They reveal its moments of stress, hardship, and bounty. All around me, black pools speckled the ground of the cavern like inkblots, accidental and depthless. Deathly still and thick and black, the pools seemed empty unless you shone a light on them to illuminate the frenzy of life dwelling below the surface. Suddenly we could see dozens of ghostly white fish with eyelash fins that batted gently in the dark, strangely unperturbed by this sudden intrusion of LED light. Our tour guide zigged and zagged the flashlight furiously across the pool, but the fish never reacted.
I crouched down by the pool. The water had resumed its masked, oily black surface that belied the activity below. I switched on the flashlight on my phone and watched the fish. They seemed so vulnerable, so naked, but I could not place why. Rippling grooves of skin covered their bodies where scales used to be. The rainbow discoloration of their organs shone through their albino color. And then I saw it. They had no eyes. No vestigial bumps, not even pinky sockets, but no eyes at all. It occurred to me to run my flashlight across the length of their pool. There were others like it, mottling the cavern like blood spatter, but none of them trickled into each other, let alone the torrential Rio Camuy river gushing hundreds of feet below us. These tiny biomes existed here and here alone. These fish must have never seen the sun. Troglobites are animals that never emerge from the dark areas of caves. Bats and cave swallows also inhabit these areas, but they move in and out of caves in search of food. Most troglobites cannot survive outside of caves. Many have lost all pigmentation, giving these creatures their trademark abalone luster. Like the majority of troglobites, cavefish have evolved into anophthalmic creatures: instead of eyes, a swath of pearly skin extends over empty sockets. It takes thousands of generations for eyes to be lost. They were filtered out through mutation after mutation, allowing the fish to focus its energies on growth, reproduction, and detecting changes in water pressure — necessary survival tasks in their somewhat inhospitable homes. A 2003 study found that the transplantation of the functional lens of a cavefish’s surface dwelling kin onto the cavefish restored its eye formation. The cavefish’s two to three millionyear-old ocular degeneration may be undone with a simple transplant. Looking at the fish, it was as if I was the only one there in the cave – my milky body glowing in the darkness, my whispers projected like shadows from a walkway. And I wondered how much of me was accidental, too.
Mycelium Clamp Collection, Allison Chen Pen and ink on bristol
Stinkhorn Mushrooms, Allison Chen Pen and ink on bristol