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

In addition to its ham-handed execution, maybe one of the reasons M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening failed with critics is that its premise seemed inherently preposterous. Who could suspend disbelief? Trees don’t talk to each other, act in groups, make calculations, how foolish! But they do, forester Suzanne Simard aims to convince us in the TED video above.

Trees aren’t just trees. They are the visible manifestations of “this other world” underground, “a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate, and allow the forest to behave as if it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence.” One shared not only by trees but by all of the beings that live in and among them. Forests are alive, though perhaps they are not plotting their revenge on us, even if we’ve earned it.

Simard tells the story of growing up in British Columbia among the inland rainforests. Old wet temperate forests crawling with ancient ferns like giant green hands; cities of mushrooms growing around centuries-old fallen trees; whole planes of bird and insect existence in the canopies, American megafauna, the elk, the bear…. On a recent hike deep into the Olympia National Forest in Washington, I found myself thinking some similar thoughts. It’s not that unusual to imagine, in the throes of “forest bathing,” that “trees are nature’s internet,” as Simard says in a Seattle TED talk.

The difference is that Simard has had these thoughts all her life, devoted 30 years of research to testing her hypotheses, and used radioactive carbon isotopes to find two-way communication between different species of tree while being chased by angry grizzly bears. Likewise, most of us have noted the glaring scientific absurdities in the book of Genesis, but few may see the problem with Noah’s Ark that Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso does in his talk above. No one thought to bring any plants? God somehow neglected to mention that all those animals would need ecosystems, and fast? We laugh about an old man literally loading reproducing pairs of every animal on a boat… imagine him trying to fit entire forests….

Mancuso’s charming accent and self-deprecating humor make his observations seem lighthearted, but no less devastating to our idea of ourselves as self-sufficient alpha creatures and of plants as barely alive, inanimate stuff scattered around us like nature’s furniture, one step above the foundational rocks and stones. The idea is not limited to the Bible; it has “accompanied humanity” he says. Yet, just as professors do not belong at the top of a hierarchy of life—as medieval scholars liked to imagine—plants do not belong at the bottom. Let Mancuso convince you that plants exhibit “wonderful and complex behavior that can be considered intelligence.”

Isn’t this all a little presumptuous? Does anyone, after all, speak for the trees? Might their language be forever alien to us? Can we talk about “what plants talk about,” as ecologist J.C. Cahill asserts? Can we make soap opera speculations about “the hidden life of trees,” as the title of German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book promises? Perhaps human language is necessarily anthropomorphic—we insist on seeing ourselves at the center of everything. Maybe we need to think of trees as people to connect to them—as nearly every ancient human civilization has talked to nature through the intermediaries of spirits, gods, devas, sprites, nymphs, ancestors, etc.

As a forester with a lumber company, Wohlleben says, he “knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals.” They were already dead to him. Until he began to wake up to the silent communication all around him. Trees can count, can learn, can remember, he found. Trees have families. They nurse their children. As he says in the interview above, “I don’t claim this, that is actual research. But the scientists normally use language than cannot be understood. So I translated this, and surprise, surprise! Trees are living beings, trees are social, trees have feelings.” For most people, says Wohhleben, this really does come as a surprise.

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

Every Academy Award Winner for Best Cinematography in One Supercut: From 1927’s Sunrise to 2016’s La La Land

A list of chronological Oscar winners often tells you more about the state of the culture than the state of the art. That is very true when it comes to Best Picture, with musicals and epics taking home the Academy Award during one decade, but being largely forgotten the next. So too is the award for Best Cinematography, as seen in the seven-minute supercut above. Showing every Academy Award winning cinematographer and their films, the supercut’s choices for the one or two shots that sum up a brilliantly lit picture do make the Academy’s decision at least justified. But it is surprising how quickly so many of these films have slipped from the public’s consciousness. (Like 2003’s Master and Commander–when’s the last time you thought about that film?)

When the Academy first started giving awards for cinematography, it went to the person first, not the picture and the person involved. So when Karl Struss and Charles Rosher were nominated for–ostensibly–their work on F.W. Murnau’s classic Sunrise–they also got credited for the five other films they had shot that year.

The current system was worked out in 1931, although up to 1967 awards went–and I think rightly so!–to color and black and white separately. (And, to further complicate things, the color award was considered a “special achievement” award for a while until Gone with the Wind pretty much necessitated a change in priorities.) After 1967, the only black and white film to win was Schindler’s List.

Somebody with way more viewing experience should weigh in on what makes a lot of these films Oscar-worthy in their cinematography, but it does seem that at least through the 1960s, the Academy loved bold use of saturated colors for one category, and an almost abstract use of high contrast shadow and light for the other.

Other notables: Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (a rather minor work) and Rebecca (a much better one) were his only two films to get the nod, with awards going to Robert Burks (but not for his work on Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest) and George Barnes respectively. Stanley Kubrick has had two of his films win, with Russell Metty for Spartacus and John Alcott for Barry Lyndon. (But not Gilbert Taylor for Dr. Strangelove!)

Stanley Kubrick has done slightly better, with Russell Metty for Spartacus and John Alcott for Barry Lyndon. (But not Gilbert Taylor for Dr. Strangelove!) Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and The Aviator both earned statues for Robert Richardson (who also won for Oliver Stone’s JFK). Roger Deakins has never won, though he’s been nominated 13 times, twice in 2007 for both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

And the most awarded cinematographer? That’s a tie at four Oscars each for Leon Shamroy (The Black Swan, Wilson, Leave Her to Heaven, and the studio-destroying bomb Cleopatra); and Joseph Ruttenberg (The Great Waltz, Mrs. Miniver, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Gigi).

Make of this list what you will. (And feel free to do so in the comments!)

via Indiewire

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Albert Einstein’s Elegant Theory of Happiness: It Just Sold for $1.6 Million at Auction, But You Can Use It for Free

Albert Einstein had a theory of general relativity. Turns out, he had a theory of happiness, too.

While traveling in Japan in 1922, Einstein learned that he had won the Nobel Prize. Suddenly the object of unwanted publicity, he secluded himself inside the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. And while there, explains NPR, “a courier came to the door to make a delivery.” In lieu of giving the courier a small tip, Einstein handed the courier two handwritten notes, one of which read: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”‘

Einstein also gave the bellhop another useful piece of advice: Don’t lose those handwritten notes. They might be worth something someday.

Sure enough, Einstein’s scrawled theory of happiness sold for $1.6 million at an auction on Tuesday.

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Illustrations Of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit from the Soviet Union (1976)

Until I read J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, my favorite book growing up was, by far, The Hobbit. Growing up in Russia, however, meant that instead of Tolkien’s English version, my parents read me a Russian translation. To me, the translation easily matched the pace and wonder of Tolkien’s original. Looking back, The Hobbit probably made such an indelible impression on me because Tolkien’s tale was altogether different than the Russian fairy tales and children’s stories that I had previously been exposed to. There were no childish hijinks, no young protagonists, no parents to rescue you when you got into trouble. I considered it an epic in the truest literary sense.

As with many Russian translations during the Cold War, the book came with a completely different set of illustrations. Mine, I remember regretting slightly, lacked pictures altogether. A friend’s edition, however, was illustrated in the typical Russian style: much more traditionally stylized than Tolkien’s own drawings, they were more angular, friendlier, almost cartoonish.

In this post, we include a number of these images from the 1976 printing. The cover, above, depicts a grinning Bilbo Baggins holding a gem. Below, Gandalf, an ostensibly harmless soul, pays Bilbo a visit.

Next, we have the three trolls, arguing about their various eating arrangements, with Bilbo hiding to the side.

Here, Gollum, née Smeagol, paddles his raft in the depths of the mountains.

Finally, here’s Bilbo, fulfilling his role as a burglar in Smaug’s lair.

For more of the Soviet illustrations of The Hobbit, head on over to Mashable.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in March, 2015

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman, or read more of his writing at the Huffington Post.

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The Art of Explaining Hard Ideas: Scientists Try to Explain Gene Editing & Brain Mapping to Young Kids & Students

If you’ve seen Bong Joon-ho’s film Okja, about an Agribusiness-engineered gargantuan mutant pig and her young Korean girl sidekick, you may have some very specific ideas about CRISPR, the science used to edit and manipulate genes. In fact, the madcap fictional adventure’s world may not be too far off, though the science seems to be moving in the other direction. Just recently, Chinese scientists have reported the creation of 12 pigs with 24 percent less body fat than the ordinary variety. It may not be front-page news yet, but the achievement is “a big issue for the pig industry,” says the lead researcher.

There’s much more to CRISPR than bioengineering lean bacon. But what is it and how does it work? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Let biologist Neville Sanjana explain. In the Wired video above, he undertakes the ultimate challenge for science communicators—explaining the most cutting-edge science to five different people: a 7-year-old, 14-year-old, college student, grad student, and—to really put him on the spot—a CRISPR expert. CRISPR is “a new area of biomedical science that enables gene editing,” Sanjana begins in his short intro for viewers, “and it’s helping us understand the basis of many genetic diseases like autism and cancer.”

That’s all well and good, but does he have anything to say about the pig business? Watch and find out, beginning with the adorable 7-year-old Teigen River, who may or may not have been primed with perfect responses. Play it for your own kids and let us know how well the explanation works. Sanjara runs quickly through his other students to arrive, halfway through the video, at Dr. Matthew Canver, CRISPR expert.

From there on out you may wish to refer to other quick references, such as the Harvard and MIT Broad Institute’s short guide and video intro above from molecular biologist Feng Zhang, who explains that CRISPR, or “Clustered Regularly Intersperced Short Palindromic Repeats,” is actually the name of DNA sequences in bacteria. The gene editing technology itself is called CRISPR-Cas9. Just so you know how the sausage is made.

Enough of pig puns. Let’s talk about brains, with neuroscientist Dr. Bobby Kasthuri of the Argonne National Laboratory. He faces a similar challenge above—this time explaining high concept science to a 5-year-old, 13-year-old, college student, grad student, and a “Connectome entrepreneur.” A what? Connectome is the product of the NIH’s Human Connectome Project, which set out to “provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data” and “achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.” This brain-mapping science has many objectives, one of which, in the 5-year-old version, is “to know where every cell in your brain is, and how it can talk to every other cell.”

To this astonishing explanation you may reply like Daniel Dodson, 5-year-old, with a stunned “Oh.” And then you may think of Philip K. Dick, or Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode. Especially after hearing from “Connectome Entrepreneur” Russell Hanson, founder and CEO of a company called Brain Backups, or after listening to Sebastian Seung—“leader in the field of connectomics”—give his TED talk, “I am my connectome.” Want another short, but grown-up focused, explanation of the totally science-fiction but also completely real Connectome? See Kasthuri’s 2-minute animated video above from Boston University.

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

Why Should You Read James Joyce’s Ulysses?: A New TED-ED Animation Makes the Case

There may be innumerable moral and philosophical reasons why we should read certain books, hear certain symphonies, see certain paintings…. Those reasons are mostly intangible, which makes them nobler, I suppose, than the reasons we should buy a luxury car or vacation home. Nevertheless, the salesmanship of high culture can sometimes feel of a piece, making subtle, or not so subtle, appeals to safety, status, and investment value. What of pure enjoyment? The immersion in a work of art because it simply feels good? To allow for pleasure alone to guide our aesthetic tastes, some might feel, would be amoral; would cheapen culture and elevate some supposedly vulgar products to the status of high art. Can’t have that.

Of course, how much high art was once considered a hazard to good taste and public morality? Modernism puffs out its chest with pride for having fostered many creative works that shocked and titillated their first mass audiences. James Joyce’s Ulysses ranks quite highly upon that list. The novel’s initial reputation as highbrow smut seems at odds with Sam Slote’s characterization of it in the TED-Ed video above as “both a literary masterpiece and one of the hardest works of literature to read.” But it can be all those things and more. Inside the dense experimental epic is a charmingly detailed travelogue of Dublin, a theological treatise on heresy, a series of Freudian jokes with the kinds of sophomoric punchlines “stately, plump Buck Mulligan” would appreciate….

Not for nothing has Joyce inspired a cult following, if not something of a downright cult, whose members gather all over the world on June 16th for “Bloomsday”—the single day on which the novel takes place, and on which Joyce met his lifelong partner Nora Barnacle in 1904. Dressed in period costume, Joyce fans read the novel aloud, and hundreds make the pilgrimage to Dublin to follow the perambulations of protagonists Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. “What is it,” asks Slote, an Associate Professor at Trinity College Dublin’s School of English, “about this famously difficult novel that inspires so many people?” Professor Slote is no dilettante but an expert who has published six books on Joyce and an annotated edition of Ulysses. He admits “there’s no one simple answer to that question.”

Nevertheless, the answers Slote does provide in the six-minute animated intro to Ulysses relate not to the novel’s moral, social, psychological, or political virtues, but to those qualities that give readers enjoyment. Each chapter is written in a different style,” a play, a “cheesy romance novel,” an imitation of music. Ulysses is a modern parody of Homer’s Odyssey and a virtuoso medley of technical performances, including a chapter which “reproduces the evolution of English literary prose style, from its beginnings in Anglo Saxon right up to the 20th century.” The final chapter, Molly Bloom’s stream-of-consciousness soliloquy, is a tour-de-force, capping off the “narrative gymnastic routines.” The shifting styles are augmented by “some of the most imaginative uses of language you’ll find anywhere.”

As for the novel’s frequent passages of “impenetrable” density? Well, Slote admits that “it’s up to the reader to let their eyes skim over them or grab a shovel and dig in.” In the remaining few minutes, he may have you convinced that the pleasure is worth the effort.

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

Samuel L. Jackson Teaches Acting in a New Online Course, Drawing on His Iconic Pulp Fiction Performance & Others

FYI: 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.

With an actor as prolific and as long in the game as Samuel L. Jackson, a fan can pick a favorite performance only with great difficulty. Should it come from his roles in Hollywood blockbusters like Jurassic ParkDie Hard with a Vengeance, the Star Wars prequels, or the comic-book spectacles of Marvel Studios? His roles for iconoclastic auteurs like Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Thomas Anderson? His role — immortal title line and all — in Snakes on a Place? For many, though, Jackson attains prime Jacksonianism in only one context: his ongoing collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.

Whenever Jackson appears in a Tarantino film, whichever character he plays immediately becomes one of the most memorable in cinema’s past 25 years. But will any ever surpass Pulp Fiction‘s Jheri-curled hitman Jules Winnfield for sheer impact per moment onscreen? Tarantino wrote the part especially for Jackson after seeing what he could do with a thuggish character in Tony Scott’s True Romance, whose script Tarantino had also written. Tarantino’s second feature film (and Jackson’s thirtieth) rocketed the actor to the top of the zeitgeist, not least on the strength of what we now call the “Ezekiel speeches,” the scenes in which Jackson-as-Winnfield quotes what he describes as the Bible passage Ezekiel 25:17:

Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.

Jackson’s first Ezekiel speech (which owes as much to martial-arts star Sonny Chiba as to any holy text) comes toward the beginning of the movie, as he and his partner in killing Vincent Vega (a role that also did a great deal for its performer John Travolta, returning him to his former cultural prominence) turn up to an apartment to do a job. He delivers his final one in the highly Tarantinian setting of a Los Angeles diner booth, and both Tarantino and Jackson do their utmost to make it reveal his character’s transformation in his journey through the story.

It makes sense, then, that Jackson would break down and recreate that diner scene in the online course “Samuel L. Jackson Teaches Acting,” newly offered (for a fee of $90) by the education startup Masterclass. “I made a decision early in life that I wasn’t going to live and die in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” he says in its trailer, a line that could belong to the kind of monologue he delivers so powerfully in the movies. “Being able to embody a lot of different characters in film has been very cathartic, being able to let go of the anger or the disappointment that I had in my life.” Jackson’s Masterclass promises coverage of script breakdown, voice, characterization, auditioning, collaboration, and voiceover acting — catharsis, it seems, comes as a bonus. You can enroll now and get access to the 20-lesson course. Or you can purchase an All-Access Annual Pass for every course in the MasterClass catalog for $180.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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.

Stephen Hawking’s Ph.D. Thesis, “Properties of Expanding Universes,” Now Free to Read/Download Online

Image by NASA, via Flickr Commons

Imagine being Stephen Hawking’s dissertation advisor? Not that most of us can put ourselves in the shoes of eminent Cambridge physicist Dennis Sciama… but imagine a student succeeding so profoundly, after having overcome such remarkable difficulty, to become the celebrated Stephen Hawking? One would feel immensely proud, I’d guess, and maybe just a little intimidated. Some graduate-level professors might even feel threatened by such a student. It’s doubtful, however, that Sciama—who signed off on Hawking’s thesis in 1966 and died in 1999—felt this way.

As F.R. Ellis and Roger Penrose write, when Hawking announced a significant finding about black holes in 1974, Sciama “quickly recognized the importance… hailing it as initiating a new revolution in our understanding.” Despite his portrayal by David Thewlis as “a kind of authoritarian gatekeeper” in the Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, Sciama “was much more than that picture suggests,” writes another of his highly accomplished mentees, Adrian Melott; “he was a superb mentor who brought out the best in his students.” Ellis and Penrose, themselves esteemed scientists strongly influenced by Sciama, write of his “astonishing succession of research students,” three of whom became fellows of the Royal Society.

I mention these names because they are just a few of the many people who inspired, challenged, and guided Hawking, much of whose fame rests on his bestselling popular cosmology, A Brief History of Time. While he may be talked of as a lone eccentric singularity whose mind operates above our mortal plane, like every scientist, he developed in a community that includes many such minds. The observation in no way diminishes Hawking’s accomplishments–it might, ideally, spur those of us with an interest in his work to look at how it developed in conversation and debate with others, like eminent Cambridge physicist Fred Hoyle.

We can begin to do that now by going back to Hawking’s graduate days and reading his doctoral thesis, which has been made available for free download by the Cambridge University Library. “Properties of Expanding Universes” has proven so popular that it crashed the library web site, with more than 60,000 views yesterday. By contrast, “other popular theses might have 100 views per month,” says Stuart Roberts, deputy head of research communications at Cambridge.

In a statement accompanying the dissertation’s release, Hawking matter-of-factly situates himself in a vast community of “great” minds:

By making my PhD thesis Open Access, I hope to inspire people around the world to look up at the stars and not down at their feet; to wonder about our place in the universe and to try and make sense of the cosmos. Anyone, anywhere in the world should have free, unhindered access to not just my research, but to the research of every great and enquiring mind across the spectrum of human understanding.

Should we have such open access, all of us could follow the debates across academic projects, learn how the most sophisticated views of the universe’s nature get formulated and refined. However, we’d probably also find that few other physicists express themselves with as much clarity as Hawking. Whether or not we understand his scientific explanations, we can understand his prose, and his directness of expression has won him millions of readers who may have never have otherwise read any theoretical physics. See the first paragraph of Hawking’s introduction below:

The idea that the universe is expanding is of recent origin. All the early cosmologies were essentially stationary and even Einstein whose theory of relativity is the basis for almost all modern developments in cosmology, found it natural to suggest a static model of the universe. However there is a very grave difficulty associated with a static model such as Einstein’s which is supposed to have existed for an infinite time. For, if the stars had been radiating energy at their present rates for an infinite time, they would have needed an infinite supply of energy. Further, the flux of radiation now would be infinite. Alternatively, if they had only a limited supply of energy, the whole universe would by now have reached thermal equilibrium which is certainly not the case. This difficulty was noticed by Olders who however was not able to suggest any solution. The discovery of the recession of the nebulae by Hubble led to the abandonment of static models in favour of ones which were expanding.

Whether the remainder of “Properties of Expanding Universes” is as readable may be difficult to determine for a little while. As of the writing of this post, at least, both the original link and a secondary URL hosting a photographed version of the document have ground to a halt. (Update: Pages are serving fairly well again, at least for now.) No doubt many of the visitors are physicists and grad students themselves. But their numbers may be dwarfed by laypeople eager to see Hawking’s peculiar genius first emerge into the world, from a community of similarly brilliant cosmologists.

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

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