Steve Martin on How to Look at Abstract Art

The standard “anyone could do that” response to abstract art generally falls apart when the person who says it tries their hand at making something like a Kandinsky or Miró. Not only were these artists highly trained in techniques and materials, but both possessed their own specific theories of abstract art—the role of line, color, shape, negative space, etc., along with grander ideas about the role of art itself. Few of us walk around with such considered opinions and the ability to turn them into artworks. The abstraction begins in the mind before it reaches the canvas.

For his appearance on the Museum of Modern Art and BBC web series The Way I See It, Steve Martin chose two obscure American abstract artists who perfectly illustrate the relationship between the theory and practice of abstraction.

“I don’t generally care about theories,” Martin says. "They kind of get in the way of looking at the picture. But I think the result of working from a theory can be fantastic.” We may not need to know that these two artists, Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald Wright, painted in accordance with a theory they called Synchromism, but it certainly helps.

“The resulting paintings, called Synchromies,” explains The Art Story, “used the color scale in the way notes might be arranged in a musical piece. As the two artists wrote, 'Synchromism simply means 'with color' as symphony means 'with sound'....” And as composer and pianist Jason Moran demonstrates in his The Way I See It episode, above, Piet Mondrian went even further in this direction with his Broadway Boogie Woogie, which represents, in its arrangement of colored squares, the very essence of the musical form from which it takes its title. Moran can even play the painting like a musical score.

The kind of abstraction Martin and Moran gravitate toward turns sound into visual pleasure and stimulates the thinking mind. Commenting on one of his selections, Martin says, “I think of this as an intellectual painting.” When it came time for John Waters to make his choice, he went for the gut (and the unconscious), with “a giant, two-paneled painting of a hammer," he says, "a very butch painting by a heterosexual woman. I love the idea of how scary it is and how powerful.” It’s an image, he says, that reminds him of personal trauma—though nothing so gruesome as one might think.

Waters seeks a kind of catharsis from art by looking at work that scares him. Lee Lozano’s untitled 1963 painting, he says, is “threatening…. All the art I like makes me angry at first…. That’s part of its job, to make you angry.” Paintings of this size have traditionally been “reserved for lofty subjects,” notes the MoMA. “In this painting—and in others, of wrenches, clamps, and screwdrivers—Lozano weds the mundane with the grand.” As Waters delightedly points out, her work, like his own, deals a heavy blow, pun intended, to canons of taste.

The Way I See It series acts as a teaser for a BBC podcast of the same name, which interviews 30 creatives and scientists on their responses to pieces of art in the MoMA’s collection. See more of these short videos at the MoMA’s YouTube channel. Download episodes of the podcast here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Should We Read William Shakespeare? Four Animated Videos Make the Case

Sooner or later, we all encounter the plays of William Shakespeare: whether on the page, the stage, or—maybe most frequently these days—the screen. Over four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare is still very much relevant, not only as the most recognizable name in English literature, but also perhaps as its most famous storyteller, even if we don’t recognize his hand in modern adaptations that barely resemble their originals.

But if we can turn Shakespeare’s plays into other kinds of entertainment that don’t require us to read footnotes or sit flummoxed in the audience while actors make archaic jokes, why should we read Shakespeare at all? He can be profoundly difficult to understand, an issue even his first audiences encountered, since he stuffed his speeches not only with hundreds of loan words, but hundreds of his own coinages as well.

The criticism of Shakespeare’s difficulty goes back to his earliest critics. Seventeenth-century English poet John Dryden declared that the playwright “had undoubtedly a larger soul of poesy than every any of our nation.” In the plays, we find “all arts and sciences, all moral and natural philosophy." And yet, even Dryden could write, in 1664, that Shakespeare's language was “a little obsolete,” and that “in every page [there is] either some solecism of speech, or some notorious flaw in sense.” (These issues are sometimes, but not always, attributable to scribal error.)

“Many of his words,” wrote Dryden, “and more of his phrases, are scarce intelligible. And of those which we understand, some are ungrammatical, others coarse; and his whole style is so pestered with figurative expressions, that it is as affected as it is obscure.” Seems harsh. How could such a writer not only survive but become an almost godlike figure in literary history?

Maybe it’s all that “poesy." Shakespeare is surely one of the most musical writers in the language. Read his speeches to children—they will listen with rapt attention without understanding a single word. It is better that we encounter Shakespeare early on, and learn to hear the music before we’re buffeted by exaggerated ideas about how hard he is to understand.

Written in a time when English was undergoing one of most rapid and radical shifts of any language in history, Shakespeare’s ingenious plays preserve a riot of borrowed, invented, and stolen words, of figures of speech both old- and new-fashioned, and of scholarly and popular ideas traveling through England on their way to and from a globalizing world. The torrents of verse that pour from his characters’ mouths give us the language at its most fluid, dynamic, and demotic, full of unparalleled poetic fugues crammed next to the roughness Dryden disliked.

This is the essence of the modern—of later Shakespearen successors like Samuel Beckett and James Joyce who freely mixed high and low and invented new ways of speaking. Why should we read Shakespeare? I can think of no more persuasive argument than Shakespeare’s language itself, which dazzles even as it confounds, and whose strangeness gives it such enduring appeal. But which plays should we read and why? The TED-Ed videos above from Iseult Gillespie, and below from Brendan Pelsue, make the case for four of Shakespeare greatest works: The Tempest, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth.

Learn new facts about the plays, and why their tragedy and humor, and their copious amounts of murder, still speak to us across the gulf of hundreds of years. But most of all, so too does Shakespeare’s gloriously ornate poetry—even when we can barely understand it.

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The 1,700+ Words Invented by Shakespeare*

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

Bill Gates Recommends Books for the Holidays

For the holiday season, Bill Gates has selected five book titles that you’ll hopefully enjoy reading. Here they are, listed in his own words:

An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones. My daughter Jenn recommended that I read this novel, which tells the story of a black couple in the South whose marriage gets torn apart by a horrible incident of injustice. Jones is such a good writer that she manages to make you empathize with both of her main characters, even after one makes a difficult decision. The subject matter is heavy but thought-provoking, and I got sucked into Roy and Celestial’s tragic love story.

These Truths, by Jill Lepore. Lepore has pulled off the seemingly impossible in her latest book: covering the entire history of the United States in just 800 pages. She’s made a deliberate choice to make diverse points of view central to the narrative, and the result is the most honest and unflinching account of the American story I’ve ever read. Even if you’ve read a lot about U.S. history, I’m confident you will learn something new from These Truths.

Growth, by Vaclav Smil. When I first heard that one of my favorite authors was working on a new book about growth, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. (Two years ago, I wrote that I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie. I stand by that statement.) His latest doesn’t disappoint. As always, I don’t agree with everything Smil says, but he remains one of the best thinkers out there at documenting the past and seeing the big picture.

Prepared, by Diane Tavenner. As any parent knows, preparing your kids for life after high school is a long and sometimes difficult journey. Tavenner—who created a network of some of the best performing schools in the nation—has put together a helpful guidebook about how to make that process as smooth and fruitful as possible. Along the way, she shares what she’s learned about teaching kids not just what they need to get into college, but how to live a good life.

Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker. I read a couple of great books this year about human behavior, and this was one of the most interesting and profound. Both Jenn and John Doerr urged me to read it, and I’m glad I did. Everyone knows that a good night’s sleep is important—but what exactly counts as a good night’s sleep? And how do you make one happen? Walker has persuaded me to change my bedtime habits to up my chances. If your New Year’s resolution is to be healthier in 2020, his advice is a good place to start.

Previous books recommended by Gates can be found in the relateds below.

Related Content:

How Bill Gates Reads Books

Bill Gates Names 5 Books You Should Read This Summer

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5 Books Bill Gates Wants You to Read This Summer (2016)

Bill Gates, Book Critic, Names His Top 5 Books of 2015

Summer 2014

Summer 2013

Malcolm Gladwell Admits His Insatiable Love for Thriller Novels and Recommends His Favorites

When Malcolm Gladwell appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience last month, he admitted something about himself that may surprise many of his readers. "I read so many thrillers," he says to Rogan toward the end of the conversation. "How many do I read a year? Fifty, sixty, seventy? You know when you go in the airport, into the Hudson News, and you see there's a whole wall of thrillers? I have read every single one." But it will surprise exactly none of his readers that he's also come up with a categorization system of thrillers: we all know what a "Western" is, but the Gladwell theory of thrillers also encompasses the distinct sensibilities of the "Eastern," the "Northern," and the "Southern."

A Western takes place in "a world in which there is no law and order, and a man shows up and imposes, personally, law and order on the territory, the community." An Eastern is "a story where there is law and order, so there are institutions of justice, but they have been subverted by people from within." In a Northern, "law and order exists, and law and order is morally righteous, the system works." (A prime example is, of course, Law and Order.) A Southern is "where the entire apparatus is corrupt, and where the reformer is not an insider but an outsider." Gladwell describes each and every John Grisham novel as a Southern, then hastens to add, "I love John Grisham." But he seems to have an even greater love for the modern-day Western in the form of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels.

"The Reacher books are Westerns," Gladwell writes in a 2015 New Yorker piece. "The traditional Western was a fantasy about lawfulness: it was based on a longing for order among those who had been living without it for too long." But in today's world, where "we have too much order," our "contemporary fantasy is about lawlessness: about what would happen if the institutions of civility melted away and all we were left with was a hard-muscled, rangy guy who could do all the necessary calculations in his head to insure that the bad guy got what he had coming." Gladwell had already mentioned the Reacher books in the magazine once before: "Child’s B-pluses are everyone else’s A-pluses," he writes in a 2010 year-in-reading piece in which he describes himself as "first and foremost, a fan of thrillers and airport literature."

Gladwell also vouches for Stephen Hunter and his sniper hero Bob Lee Swagger ("They're fantastically well written," he says to Rogan of Hunter's work, also noting that "anything with the word 'sniper' in it is generally one of his books") as well as Olen Steinhauer and his "conflicted and neurotic and hopelessly sentimental" Milo Weaver. "I have — by conservative estimate — several hundred novels with the word 'spy' in the title," Gladwell tells the New York Times in a 2013 interview. That must owe in part to his status as a longtime fan of John le Carré's novels starring unassuming British intelligence office George Smiley. "I’d like to go for a long walk on the Hampstead Heath with George Smiley," Gladwell says. "It would be drizzling. We would end up having a tepid cup of tea somewhere, with slightly stale biscuits. I would ask him lots of questions about Control, and he would evade them, gracefully."

Gladwell discusses le Carré's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, the 1963 novel in which Smiley first appears, in an appearance this year on the podcast 3 Books. "It's simultaneously a spy thriller, a kind of critique of postwar England, a kind of critique of the world of espionage and the business of espionage, and an extraordinary and brilliantly bleak picture of human nature," he says, naming as one of the novel's innovations its portrayal of Western and Communist spy operations as "essentially equivalent," whereas "previously these kinds of books had good guys and bad guys." But whatever its particular strengths, "for those of us who tell stories for a living, a good thriller is incredibly instructive." Being "overwhelmingly about plot," the thriller genre holds each plot to a high standard, and "when somebody manages to pull it off successfully, that's intellectually of enormous interest to a storyteller."

Asked recently by the Guardian to name a book that changed his life, Gladwell came up with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. "I was 12 or so when I read it," he says. "I will never forget the sheer delicious shock of that ending, and realizing – maybe for the first time – that it was possible to tell a story in a way that made the reader gasp. I’ve been chasing that same result (not nearly as successfully) ever since." And like any addict, he's surely been chasing that Christie-induced first gasp as a reader ever since. Hence his seemingly comprehensive knowledge of the work of le Carré, Steinhauer, Hunter, Child, and all the other thriller and mystery writers he tends to brings up when asked, a group including names like Iain Pears and David Ignatius. To Gladwell's mind, they all have much to teach us — even if the stories we tell involve muscular vigilantism and international espionage less than they do meritocracy and spaghetti sauce.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Masterclass Is Running a “Buy One, Give One Free” Deal

FYI: Masterclass is running a Buy One, Give One Free. It was supposed to end on Cyber Monday. But apparently it's still going.

Here's the gist: If you buy an All-Access pass to their 70 courses, you will receive another All-Access Pass to give to someone else at no additional charge. An All-Access pass costs $180, and lasts one year. For that fee, you--and a family member or friend--can watch courses created by Annie Leibovitz, Neil Gaiman, Malcolm Gladwell, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese, David Mamet, Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Helen Mirren, Herbie Hancock, Alice Waters, Billy Collins and so many more. If you're thinking this sounds like a pretty good holiday present, we'd have to agree. The deal is available now.

Note: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

David Lynch Turns Twin Peaks into a Virtual Reality Game: Watch the Official Trailer

When David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks premiered on ABC in 1990, viewers across America were treated to a televisual experience like none they'd ever had before. Four years earlier, something similar had happened to the unsuspecting moviegoers who went to see Lynch's breakout feature Blue Velvet, an experience described as eye-opening by even David Foster Wallace. A dedicated meditator with an interest in plunging into unexplored realms of consciousness, Lynch tends to bring his audience right along with him in his work, whether that work be cinema, television, visual art, music, or comic strips. Only natural, then, that Lynch would take an interest in the artistic and experiential possibilities of virtual reality.

Last year we featured the first glimpse of a Twin Peaks virtual reality experience in development, revealed at Lynch's Festival of Disruption in Los Angeles. "The best news is that the company developing the game, Collider Games, is giving creative control to Lynch," wrote Ted Mills, and now, with the release of Twin Peaks VR's official trailer, we can get a clearer idea of what Lynch has planned for players. As Laura Snoad writes at It's Nice That, Lynch has used the opportunity to revisit "well-known environments featured in the series, such as the iconic Red Room (the stripy-floored, velvet curtain-clad parallel universe where Agent Cooper meets murdered teen Laura Palmer), the Twin Peaks’ Sheriff’s Department and the pine-filled forest around the fictional Washington town."

This will come as good news indeed to those of us Twin Peaks enthusiasts who've made the pilgrimage to Snoqualmie, North Bend, and Fall City, the real-life Washington towns where Lynch and his collaborators shot the series. But Twin Peak VR will offer a greater variety of challenges than snapping photos of the series' locations and chatting with bemused locals: Snoad writes that each environment is constructed like an escape room. "Solving puzzles to help Agent Cooper and Gordon Cole (the FBI agent played by Lynch himself), players will also meet some of the show’s weird and terrifying characters, from the backwards-speaking inhabitants of the Black Lodge to the terrifying Bob himself."

Available via Steam on Oculus Rift, Vive, and Valve Index this month, with Oculus Quest and PlayStation VR versions scheduled, Twin Peaks VR should give a fair few virtual-reality holdouts a compelling reason to put on the goggles — much as Twin Peaks the show caused the cinéastes of the 1990s to break down and watch evening TV. Enjoying Lynch's work, whatever its medium, has always felt like plunging into a dream: not like watching his dream, but experiencing a dream he's made for us. If virtual-reality technology has finally come anywhere close to the vividness of Lynch's imagination, Twin Peaks VR will mark the next step in his artistic evolution. But for now, to paraphrase no less a Lynch fan than Wallace, the one thing we can say with total confidence is that it will be... Lynchian.

via It's Nice That

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Meditation for Artists: Learn Moebius’ Meditative Technique Called “Automatic Drawing”

Meditation and art have an ancient, intertwined history in China, where the beginnings of Chan Buddhism are inseparable from landscape painting. In Japan, Zen art has constituted “a practice in appreciating simplicity,” of disappearing into the creative act, cultivating degrees of egolessness that allow an artist’s movements to become spontaneous and unhampered by second guesses. The “first Japanese artists to work in [ink],” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “were Zen monks who painted in a quick and evocative manner.” They passed their techniques, and their wisdom, on to their students.

Perhaps the closest analogue to this tradition in the west is comic art. Artist Ted Gula has worked with comics legends Frank Frazetta and Moebius and drawn for Disney, Marvel, and DC. As a child, he watched Jack Kirby work. “He wouldn’t speak,” says Gula. “He’d be in a trance…. The pencil would hit the paper and it wouldn’t stop until the page was complete, like it poured out.” How is that possible? Gula asked himself, astonished. Kirby had disappeared into the work. There were no preliminary sketches or rough indicators. He would draw an entire book like that, Gula says in the video above from Proko.

Say what you will about the content of Kirby’s work—superhero comics aren’t to everyone’s liking. But no distaste for the nature of his storytelling diminishes Kirby’s attainment of a purely extemporaneous method he seems never to have explained to Gula in words. Later, however, while working with Moebius, Gula says, he learned the technique of “automatic drawing.” Demonstrating it for us above, Gula describes a way of drawing that shares much in common with other meditative visual art traditions.

“It’s all doing very organic shapes,” he says, showing us how to “draw your mind’s eye. This takes your mind, and your mind’s eye, to a place that normally is unexplored, and it can’t help but enhance your whole view of your ability.” The ego must step aside, executive functioning isn’t needed here. “I have no idea,” Gula says, “it’s all just happening on its own.” Moebius explained it as “just letting my mind relax” and Gula has observed similar practices among all the artists he’s worked with.

Gula describes automatic drawing as a natural process for the artist’s mind and hands. The interviewer, artist and teacher Sam Prokopenko, also mentions Korean artist Kim Jung Gi in their interview, who does “amazingly accurate drawings from his memory without any construction lines,” as Prokopenko says above, in a video from his “12 Days of Proko” series, which interviews well-known artists about their techniques. What’s Kim Jung Gi’s secret? Is he possessed of a superhuman, photographic memory? No, he tells Prokopenko.

The secret to becoming fully immersed in the work—one that surely goes for so many pursuits, both creative and athletic—is just to do it: over and over and over and over and over again. (To many people’s disappointment, this also seems to be the secret of meditation.) In Kim Jung Gi’s case, “of course, some part of it is a talent he was born with, but we can’t overlook how much that talent was developed.” We need no expert talent, either innate or developed, to get started. Automatic drawing seems to require a beginner’s mind.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Author Imagines in 1893 the Fashions That Would Appear Over the Next 100 Years

The world of tomorrow, today, has been the promise of so much futurism of the modern industrial age, in times that now seem quaint to us from our digital perches. Today’s self-appointed visionaries can’t seem to imagine life on Earth a hundred years from now. They pour their resources into interplanetary ventures. But even if some contingent of humanity goes on to colonize the solar system and beyond, there will always be a role for fashion, even in the austere environs of deep space.

Still, if predicting the future of humanity is a risky proposition, given the number of unpredictable variables at play, predicting future fashions may be even more fraught with peril. Trends don’t come out of nowhere—they draw, self-consciously or otherwise, from the past. But which pasts end up in the latest season’s collections might be anyone’s guess. Unlike technology, in other words, fashion doesn’t appear to follow any sort of linear trajectory from invention to invention.

“Fashion,” writes W. Cade-Gall in an 1893 article in the Strand Magazine, “is thought a whim, a sort of shuttlecock for the weak-minded of both sexes to make rise and fall, bound and rebound with the battledore called—social influence.” All of this will be remedied almost fifty years in the future, the author assures their readers. “It will interest a great many people to learn that Fashion assumed the dignity of a science in 1940.” Cade-Gall’s sci-fi satire is not, perhaps, the most serious attempt at predicting future fashions, but it may rank as one of the most amusingly literary.

The article, “Future Dictates Fashion" (read online here and at the Internet Archive) purports to describe the contents of a book, discovered by “an elderly gentleman of our acquaintance,” from one hundred years in the future, or 1993, a time, as you can see in the drawing at the top, in which the 18th century has come roaring back, with what appears to be a tricorner hat perched on what appears to be the head of a man smoking a pipe and wearing an ankle-length skirt. Cade-Gall describes the scientific system of fashion in detail, with each historical period acquiring both a “Type” and a “Tendency.”

The period between 1915 and 1940, for example, the last one listed in the future fashion history book’s table, is said to be of the type “Hysterical” and the tendency “Angustorial.” Cade-Gall not only invented the word "angustorial" and this clever story within a story (which turns out to be a dream) but also illustrated the fashions of the imagined 20th century, with the conceit that these are printed plates from the future. Readers familiar with the costume designs of the Bauhaus school might see the 1929 illustrations as somewhat uncanny.

Other fashions look like the kind of thing David Bowie might have worn onstage in the early 70s, and some are clearly portmanteaus of different eras and their qualities—from the “bizarre,” “ebullient,” and “hysterical” to the “severe,” “opaque,” and “latorial,” a word, like “angustorial,” that Cade-Gall made up for this occasion. The descriptions of these fashions are as detailed and ridiculous as the illustrations. “Taught by the Darwinian theory” in 1930 we learn, “society discovered whence its tendency to baldness originated. They had recourse by degrees to flexible tiles of extraordinary cut.”


The hairpiece innovation followed some indecision over mens’ pants ten years earlier, which led to a period of knee-breeches. “Trousers, which had been wavering between nautical buttons and gallooned knees—or, in the vernacular of the period, a sail three sheets in the wind—and a flag at half-mast—were the items sacrificed.” It’s all in good fun—more a send-up of the overly-serious meaning attached to clothing than an attempt to look into fashion’s future. But imagining a 20th century dressed the way Cade-Gall imagines it might make us pine for a more ostentatiously (if impractically) dressed past—or a more ebullient and latorial future, whether on Earth or gallooned amongst the stars.

via JF Ptak Science Books/Public Domain Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Pretty Much Pop #22 Untangles Time-Travel Scenarios in the Terminator Franchise and Other Media

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is PMP-Untangling-Time-Travel-400-x-800.jpg

Time-travel rules in The Terminator franchise are notoriously inconsistent. Is it possible for someone from the future to travel backwards to change events, given the paradox that with a changed future, the traveler wouldn't then have had the problem to try to come back and fix? Neither the closed-loop series of events in the first Terminator film nor the changed (postponed) future in the second make sense, and matters just get worse through the subsequent films.

Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt are joined by Brian's brother and co-author Ken Gerber to talk through the various time travel rulesets and plot scenarios (a good starter list is at, covering Dr. Who, Back to the Future, Looper, Dark (the German TV show), time loop films a la Groundhog Day (Edge of Tomorrow, Happy Death Day), time-travel comedies (Future Man), historical tourism (Mr. Peabody and Sherman), Timecop's "The same matter cannot occupy the same space," using time-travel to sentimentalize (About Time) or clone yourself (see that Brak Show episode about avoiding homework), and freezing time (like in the old Twilight Zone).

Some articles we looked at included:

You can find the Brian and Ken short stories we talk about at Listen to them podcast together and read the science fiction stories they publish at The Partially Examined Life podcast episode Mark hosted where the dangers of AI are discussed is #108 with Nick Bostrom.

This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts or start with the first episode.

Plants Emit High-Pitched Sounds When They Get Cut, or Stressed by Drought, a New Study Shows

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Are plants sentient? We know they sense their environments to a significant degree; like animals, they can "see" light, as a New Scientist feature explains. They “live in a very tactile world,” have a sense of smell, respond to sound, and use taste to “sense danger and drought and even to recognize relatives.” We’ve previously highlighted research here on how trees talk to each other with chemical signals and form social bonds and families. The idea sets the imagination running and might even cause a little paranoia. What are they saying? Are they talking about us?

Maybe we deserve to feel a little uneasy around plant life, given how ruthlessly our consumer economies exploit the natural world. Now imagine we could hear the sounds plants make when they’re stressed out. In addition to releasing volatile chemicals and showing “altered phenotypes, including changes in color, smell, and shape,” write the authors of a new study published at bioRxiv, it’s possible that plants “emit airborne sounds [their emphasis] when stressed—similarly to many animals.”

The researchers who tested this hypothesis at Tel Aviv University “found that tomato and tobacco plants made sounds at frequencies humans cannot hear,” New Scientist reports. “Microphones placed 10 centimetres from the plants picked up sounds in the ultrasonic range of 20 to 100 kilohertz, which the team say insects and some mammals would be capable of hearing and responding to from as far as 5 metres away.”

The plants made these sounds when stressed by lack of water or when their stems were cut. Tomato plants stressed by drought made an average of 35 sounds per hour. Tobacco plants, on average, made 11. Unstressed plants, by contrast, “produced fewer than one sound per hour.” The scientists used machine learning to distinguish between different kinds of distress calls, as it were, and different kinds of plants, “correctly identifying in most cases whether the stress was caused by dryness or a cut,” and they conducted the experiments in both closed acoustic chambers and a greenhouse.

Plants do not, of course, have vocal cords or auditory systems. But they do experience a process known as “cavitation,” in which “air bubbles form, expand and explode in the xylem, causing vibrations,” the paper explains. These vibrations have been recorded in the past by direct, contact-based methods. This new study, which has yet to pass peer review, might be the first to show how plants might use sound to communicate with each other and with other living organisms, suggesting “a new modality of signaling.”

The possibilities for future research are fascinating. We might learn, for example, that “if plants emit sounds in response to a caterpillar attack, predators such as bats could use these sounds to detect attacked plants and prey on the herbivores, thus assisting the plant.” And just as trees are able to respond to each other's distress when they’re connected in a forest, “plants could potentially hear their drought stressed or injured neighbors and react accordingly”—however that might be.

Much remains to be learned about the sensory lives of plants. Whether their active calls and responses to the stimuli around them are indicative of a kind of consciousness seems like a philosophical as much as a biological question. But “even if the emission of the sounds is entirely involuntary,” the researchers write (seeming to leave room for plant volition), it’s a phenomenon that counts as a form of communication: maybe even what we might someday call plant language, different from species to species and, perhaps, between individual plants themselves.

Related Content:

The Secret Language of Trees: A Charming Animated Lesson Explains How Trees Share Information with Each Other

The Social Lives of Trees: Science Reveals How Trees Mysteriously Talk to Each Other, Work Together & Form Nurturing Families

Graphic Shows the House Plants That Naturally Clean the Air in Your Home, According to a NASA Study

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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