Archive for March 20, 2013

Knossos: Palace of the Minoans


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Knossos: Palace of the Minoans

Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor
Date: 15 March 2013 Time: 04:30 PM ET
The north entrance of the Palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete.
CREDIT: Andrei Nekrassov | Shutterstock 

The Palace of Knossos is located just south of modern-day Heraklion near the north coast of Crete.

Built by a civilization that we call the Minoans, it covers about 150,000 square feet (14,000 square meters) of space, the size of more than two American football fields, and was surrounded by a town in antiquity. The site came to prominence in the early 20th century when it was excavated and restored by a team led by British archaeologist Arthur Evans.


The Palace of Knossos (Knosós) is near the modern-day city of Heraklion (Irákleion) on the island of Crete.
CREDIT: CIA World Factbook 

The chronology of the palace is a matter of scholarly debate. Construction of the palace appears to have begun around 1950 B.C. although there may have been structures predating it. This first palace was damaged (likely by earthquakes) and around 1700 B.C. a second palace was built on top of it. Crete was hit with a catastrophe (of some form) around 1450 B.C., with sites being destroyed across the island and a people called the Mycenaeans occupied Knossos until the palace itself was destroyed, probably sometime before 1300 B.C.

When the palace was first constructed “it must have been a remarkable sight, quite unlike anything seen on Crete before,” writes J. Lesley Fitton in her book “Minoans” (British Museum Press, 2002).

She notes that although other settlements on Crete around this time built palaces of their own, none was as large as Knossos. “Knossos perhaps began as a ‘first among equals,’ and the relationship between the powerful groups that built the palaces may not have been entirely friendly.”

The position of Knossos was not accidental, and Fitton notes that it lines up with a sanctuary located at Mount Juktas to the south.

The first palace

Although the remains of the first palace mostly lie underneath the second, archaeologists have been able to put together a rough picture of what it looked like in antiquity.

The first palace was built around a central court and contained numerous storage areas including magazines to the west and northeast. On the northwest side of the central court was a room that researchers refer to as the “early keep” and near that another section referred to as the “initiatory area.”

The initiatory area contains a “lustral basin,” which consists of a square tank, sunk into the ground, with a staircase descending on two sides, writes Arnold Lawrence and Richard Tomlinson in their book “Greek Architecture” (Yale University Press, 1996). They note that several of these basins were built in the palace. “For lack of any better explanation, the original use is assumed to be religious, in connexion with some ritual of anointing, but there would have been no drawback to using the basin as a shower-bath provided the water was mopped up quickly.”

The walls of the first palace were bulkier than those built later on. “On the whole, the structure of the earlier Palace was bulkier, more massive, than that of the later Palace in general layout and in individual details,” writes researcher John McEnroe in his book “Architecture of Minoan Crete” (University of Texas Press, 2010). He notes that the column bases and pavement were made of stones of different colors.

The development of the palace coincided with the appearance of a written language at Knossos known today as “Cretan Hieroglyphs.” It has yet to be deciphered.

Also in this early period the different regions of Crete maintained their own distinct style of pottery and material culture, an indication that the island was not unified.

The second palace

The first palace suffered damage (likely from earthquakes) and by 1700 B.C., a second palace was being built over its remains. “In the second Palace, much of the monumental bulk of the earlier building would be lightened through structural innovations and intricate details, and the taste for colored stone would be partly replaced by representational wall paintings,” writes McEnroe.

Again, a good portion of the palace was used for storage, including a western section dedicated to magazines. In this period, the pottery styles and material culture of Knossos would be used across the island, indicating that people acknowledged the hegemony, or at least influence, of the site.

The palace in this period contained four entrances, one from each direction, and a royal road running to the north of the palace. McEnroe notes that the entranceway to the south offered a particularly grand arrival, leading the visitor through a narrow corridor lined with a fresco depicting a procession. Their final destination would have been the central court, which may have been used for religious ceremonies. “After the narrow confines of the twisting, dark corridor, the broad, brilliant Central Court offered sudden expansion and release,” writes McEnroe.

Indeed it’s an entranceway not dissimilar to that of a labyrinth, a key idea in Greek literature (found in stories like Theseus and the Minotaur) and something that was on Arthur Evans’ mind when he interpreted the site. He thought he had uncovered the palace of the mythical Crete King Minos, who in legend kept a Minotaur in a labyrinth, demanding that the city of Athens feed it young men and women. This idea of the palace belonging to Minos was so powerful that Evans named the people of the civilization “Minoans.”

This central courtyard provided access to several areas, including a throne room, a central palace sanctuary and a residential quarter, which may have housed royal apartments.

The throne room was entered through an anteroom and offered an impressive sight. “Two double doors lead into the Throne Room with gypsum benches on three sides and the magnificent throne in the centre of the north wall flanked by the reconstructed Griffin fresco,” writes a team of British School at Athens researchers in an online virtual tourarticle of the site.

Whether an actual king or queen sat in the throne room is a matter of debate. “It has recently been proposed that the Throne was for the epiphany of the Goddess who would enter from the Inner Sanctuary and be seen from the Anteroom,” writes the British School at Athens team.

To the south of the throne room is an area that researchers refer to as the Central Palace Sanctuary. McEnroe notes that a small tripartite shrine was reconstructed by Evans and behind it is an area that many scholars see “as the religious heart of the Palace,” containing the temple repositories. They were “found filled with pottery and a range of remarkable objects such as the famous faience Snake Goddesses now in the Herakleion Museum.”

On the southeast side of the central court is an area referred to as the residential quarter. Its rooms may have served as royal apartments, used for living by the palace’s rulers. The British School at Athens researchers note that a grand staircase, made of gypsum, leads down to it.

It contains a “hall of the colonnades” encircling a light-well. To the south is an area known as the “Hall of the Double Axes” which “takes its name from the Double Axe Mason’s Mark signs carved on the limestone ashlar wall blocks,” the British School at Athens researchers write. McEnroe notes that this hall received light from three directions and had partitions, allowing the palace inhabitants to determine how much light got in at any one time.

Another key feature in the residential quarters is an area that Evans called the “queen’s megaron.” It features a reconstructed fresco depicting blue dolphins swimming above a doorway. McEnroe notes that it has two light wells along with partitions. Its features include a possible bath, storage areas and toilet. “My guess is that it served as a bedroom,” he writes.

While there may have been some disruption at Knossos associated with the eruption of Thera around 1600 B.C., it did not bring about the end of the palace, which occurred a few centuries later.

The queen’s megaron at the Palace of Knossos features a reconstructed fresco depicting blue dolphins swimming above a doorway.
CREDIT:”>KarelGallas | Shutterstock 

The end of Knossos

Around 1450 B.C., a cataclysm hit Crete. Fitton notes that all the palaces on the island, with the exception of Knossos, were destroyed. What exactly happened is a matter of debate. One idea is that a series of natural calamities, such as earthquakes, hit the island. Another idea is that Crete was invaded by a people called the Mycenaeans, whom researchers know came to occupy Knossos.

The Mycenaeans were a Greek-speaking people who apparently moved to Crete from the mainland. They wrote in a language we call “linear B,” and thousands of inscribed clay tablets bearing the script, and baked from fire, have been found at Knossos. “Several parts of the Palace, mostly on the upper story, were involved in administrative record keeping,” writes McEnroe, adding that they indicate that Knossos was a center of economic activity on the island at this time.

McEnroe also notes that the Mycenaeans embarked on a program to rebuild parts of the palace and create new frescoes. Compared to the earlier frescoes the range of motifs “is remarkably narrow,” he writes. “There are no fanciful nature scenes with exotic animals or scenes of fashionable women joyously participating in outdoor ceremonies. Instead the fresco program was stripped down to a few bare essentials. Bulls, tribute-bearing processions, heraldic devices and decorative friezes form of the bulk [of the decorations],” he writes.

Knossos appears to have been destroyed sometime before 1300 B.C., apparently by fire. The Mycenaeans would see their civilization collapse around 1200 B.C. as a series of population migrations, possibly spurred by environmental problems, swept across Europe and the Near East. In the period after this collapse the people of Crete took to the hills, living in elevated settlements in hopes of surviving the calamity that had befallen the ancient world.

— Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor

Sun Eruption Supercharges Northern Lights Displays This Weekend


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Sun Eruption Supercharges Northern Lights Displays This Weekend

by Tariq Malik, Managing Editor
Date: 17 March 2013 Time: 08:40 AM ET
The ESA and NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) captured these images of the sun spitting out a coronal mass ejection (CME) on March 15, 2013, from 3:24 to 4:00 a.m. EDT.

A massive eruption on the sun Friday (March 15) unleashed a wave of intense solar particles at Earth that may spark a geomagnetic storm and boost weekend aurora displays.

The Earth-directed solar stormoccurred Friday at 2:54 a.m. EDT (0654 GMT) in what astronomers call a coronal mass ejection — or CME — a sun eruption that can release billions of tons of solar material into space. The particles typically take between one and three days to reach Earth, where they can pose a hazard to satellites and electronic systems in orbit and on the planet’s surface, NASA officials said in a statement.

The solar particles from the Friday eruption were expected to reach Earth today (March 17).

“High-latitude and possibly even middle-latitude sky watchers should be alert for auroras this weekend,” the website, which tracks space weather and stargazing events, said in a weekend alert. [Amazing Auroras Photos of 2013]

The Friday sun eruption sent a wave of solar particles streaking toward Earth at about 900 miles per second, according to observations by NASA and European spacecraft. That is the equivalent of a mind-boggling about 3.2 million miles per hour (5.2 million km/h).

According to NASA, this “is a fairly fast speed for CMEs. Historically, CMEs at this speed have caused mild to moderate effects at Earth.”

The solar eruption should not pose a threat to satellites and spacecraft around Earth, but it may pass NASA’s Messenger spacecraft orbiting Mercury and the infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, agency officials said. NASA alerted the mission operation centers for both missions.

“There is, however, only minor particle radiation associated with this event, which is what would normally concern operators of interplanetary spacecraft since the particles can trip on board computer electronics,” NASA officials said.

An alert by the Space Weather Prediction Center operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the Earth’s geomagnetic field could be at “unsettled to major storm levels” once the CME particles reached Earth Sunday. There was a 70 percent chance of a geomagnetic storm today, the alert added.

Northern lights displays over the North Pole region are known as the aurora borealis. Their southern counterpart is known as the aurora australis.

The sun is currently in the midst of an active phase of its 11-year solar weather cycle and is expected to reach its peak activity in 2013.

Editor’s note: If you snap an amazing photo of the northern lights in the night sky, or any other celestial object, and you’d like to share for a possible story or image gallery, please send images and comments, including location information, to managing editor Tariq Malik at



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Taxidermy is a skill and art form that many think is plenty weird all on its own, even though it was practiced by luminaries like Charles Darwin and Theodore Roosevelt. It stretches from the lows of PT Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid to the highs of the myriad museums of natural history to the macabre artistry of rogue taxidermists who transform animal furs with gems and mechanical parts and phenomenal works of chemistry. But beyond Walter Potter’s anthropomorphic weirdness and Damien Hirst’s suspended sharks, there are taxidermic works with some truly odd backstories.

Top photo by Ed Schipul.

The Platypus: The Hoax That Wasn’t

In 1798, when Captain John Hunter sent a platypus pelt along with a sketch of the animal to England, British scientists thought they knew a hoax when they saw it. George Shaw, who was Keeper of the Department of Natural History at the British Museum, wrote up a description of the creature based on the pelt and Hunter’s notes in Naturalist’s Miscellany, but said he could not be certain that such a peculiar beast existed in nature. Others shared Shaw’s skepticism; surgeon Robert Knox (the beneficiary of the infamous Burke and Hare murders) suggested that since the platypus had come by way of the Indian Ocean that the platypus was likely the invention of some Chinese taxidermist who had sewn a duck’s bill onto a furry mammal’s body. Shaw even went so far as to take a pair of scissors to the pelt, hunting in vain for stitches. It wasn’t until more platypus pelts appeared on the scene (and no stitches were found) that British scientists accepted the perplexing reality that is the platypus.

That first platypus specimen described by Shaw still exists—and it’s in good shape. It lives at the Natural History Museum in London, but is considered too valuable to be on public display. Instead, it inhabits a locked cabinet in the museum’s Mammal Tower, far from the sideshow treatment genuine taxidermic hoaxes have received.

The Lion of Gripsholm Castle

Modern taxidermy is serious business, with careful attention paid to making the dead animal look much like it did in life. Especially skilled taxidermists will examining living animals in the field, studying the craning of a neck, the extension of a wing, the movement of muscles between fur and skin. But in the 18th century, a taxidermist might be confronted with the challenge of mounting the pelt of an animal he had never seen before. Such is the case with the cartoonish Lion of Gripsholm Castle.

In 1731, the Bey of Algiers gifted King Frederik I of Sweden a real, live lion—along with another big cat, three hyenas, and a freed slave to serve as their keeper. The lion lived out its days in Djurgården, the royal game park, and when it died, the hope was that the Bey’s gift could live on as a stuffed monument to the lion’s power. Sadly, the taxidermist had never seen a lion with his own eyes and had, it seems, only a loose idea of how a lion was meant to look. The result, with its lolling tongue and goggly eyes, was something that looked better prepared for a nightmarish cartoon than the royal halls. Still, as its name suggests, the stuffed lion continues to adorn the interior of Sweden’s Gripsholm Castle in its sad mid-stalk.

Jeremy Bentham and His Hard-Partying Head

Not all taxidermy has been performed on non-human animals; every now and then a human body would join in on the post-mortem fun. Long before the plastinated anatomical wonders of Body World and its many imitators, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham sought to see his own body preserved beyond his demise. Bentham’s “Auto-Icon,” which sits in a wooden cabinet in the main building of University College London, isn’t truly taxidermy; the consists of a skeleton wearing clothes filled out with hay. Bentham’s head was mummified, which is probably why it makes for the best part of this story.

Something went awry during the mummification process, rendering Bentham’s head grotesque and expressionless. A smiling wax head sits atop the Auto-Icon’s body and Bentham’s real head was, at first, placed between his feet. But what happens when you mix mischievous undergrads with a mummified head? Hijinks. In 1975, students from King’s College London stole the head and demanded a £100 ransom. (It was returned in exchange for a £10 ransom.) The second time it was stolen, it was allegedly found in a luggage locker in a Scottish train station. According to legend, the head was finally put in storage after it was discovered being used for football practice. (A more likely reason is that the university didn’t feel it was appropriate to have a human head lying around.) Now Bentham’s head comes out only on special occasions, such as the meetings of the College Council, of which Bentham is a non-voting member.

Photo of the Auto-Icon by Michael Reeve via Wikimedia Commons.

El Negro of Banyoles

There is true human taxidermy, but unfortunately much of it doesn’t come with Bentham’s merry history. El Negro of Banyoles was made from the remains of a Khoisan man likely stolen from his grave in Botswana and mounted by the French taxidermists Jules and Edouard Verreaux in the early 1830s. It was acquired by the Darder Museum of Banyoles, Spain, in 1916. Although many were aware that the remains of a modern African man were on display in Banyoles, no one objected to the presence of El Negro until 1991. When they became aware of the exhibit, the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity decried it as racist and demanded its removal. There was talk of some African nations boycotting the Barcelona Olympics. Many in Banyoles, however, were loath to see the display go, making t-shirts and balloons expressing their affection for El Negro and, bizarrely, eating chocolate effigies of the taxidermic human as an Easter treat. However, El Negro was finally repatriated to Botswana in 1997 and his remains were laid to rest more than a century and a half after his demise.

Other Verreaux mounts that are still in existence may have contained human remains at some point in their history. For example, Jules Verreaux’s famous “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions,”which resides at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, now features a plaster human mannikin. But Stephen P. Rogers, who was preparator-in-chief at the Carnegie Museum between 1897 and 1908, has cryptically said that the display may have contained real human remains prior to its refurbishment in 1899. You can purchase a snow globe of the diorama from the museum’s online store.

Nobody Ever Suspects the Butterfly

In the early 20th century, natural history museums frequently sent naturalists and taxidermists to far-flung corners of the world to “collect” specimens—which was a polite way to say killing them. As some of these naturalists learned, however, sometimes you’re the collector and sometimes you’re the specimen. Carl von Hagen was one such naturalist; he went to Papua New Guinea to collect butterflies and vanished while on the hunt. According to Melissa Milgrom’s Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, von Hagen was captured and eaten by cannibals. His sacrifice was not in vain however; the butterflies he collected earlier on the trip made it back home. His mounted bright green Onithoptera paradisea still lives (edit: so to speak) at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Like his specimens, he gave his life to see animals scientifically preserved.


Taxidermy with a Taste for Human Flesh

Not all taxidermy ends up in the Hall of Mammals by chance; some animals got there because they had a nasty habit of eating people. The infamous Tsavo Man-Eaters were a pair of maneless male lions who haunted the Tsavo River in Kenya where, in 1898, construction crews were building a railroad bridge. According Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who eventually killed the lions, they killed and ate ten people—though other reports put the number at 24. There are a variety of theories as to why these two turned to human flesh: they may have previously scavenged dead humans from passing slave caravans; they may have been attracted by cremations of deceased rail workers; they may have poor hunters unable to catch tougher prey. After Patterson killed them, the lions were immortalized twice: once by the Field Museum in Chicago, which paid $5,000 for the specimens, and once in the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness, in which Val Kilmer played Patterson. The Smithsonian is in possession of an 11-foot-long Royal Bengal tiger that noshed on a few human parts before falling to big-game hunter David Hasinger in 1967. And it’s likely that at least some of the 33 documented man-eating tigers and leopards killed by hunter-turned-conservationist Jim Corbett still remain in mounted form. (Corbett would eventually trade in his gun for a camera and advocate for the preservation of tiger habitats to help prevent the sort of encroachment that leads to man-eating.)

The occasional mounted cat has a tragic, domesticated backstory. Thomas McCarte was a lion tamer who was killed by his feline performing partner in 1872. The lion was summarily put down and mounted by the famed British taxidermist Rowland Ward. But you can’t help but wonder if McCarte was to blame for his own demise; at the time of his death, the so-called lion tamer had already lost one arm to an earlier lion attack.

Photo by Jeffrey Jung via Wikimedia Commons.

The Panda Who Would Not be Mounted

Could a work of taxidermy create an international incident? That’s the question the Smithsonian has considered with Hsing-Hsing, one of the Giant Pandas gifted to the US government by China. Hsing-Hsing died in 1999, but according to Milgrom’s book, his carcass, cape (pelt), and head have been kept frozen at the Smithsonian for years. Ken Walker, a champion taxidermist, told Milgrom that the Smithsonian is hesitant to mount it for fear that the mount will insult China. So instead, Hsing-Hsing hangs in the cold. Milgrom described it as resembling “a bloody snowman.” During the course of her research, however, Hsing-Hsing’s pelt was sent to the tanner’s, so the panda may be mounted still.

Even if the real Hsing-Hsing doesn’t live on in taxidermy, a close copy of him does. Walker made a recreation panda, using Hsing-Hsing as his model. The recreation, cheekily named “Thing Thing,” was made from two bear bear skins—one of them bleached. Walker took home the Best in World Recreation prize at the World Taxidermy Championship.

The Nickel Buffalo’s Celebrity Steaks

Black Diamond was a bit of a celebrity in New York City. He was born in the Central Park Menagerie (now the Central Park Zoo), and at the time of his death in 1915, he was the largest buffalo (North American bison) in captivity. His likeness appeared on the $10 dollar bill, and according to some stories, he was the model for the buffalo nickel (although that’s in great doubt). What’s especially odd about Black Diamond, though, is what became of him in death—the least of which is the taxidermy. His head was mounted by taxidermist Fred Santer and his pelt was turned into an automobile robe (a blanket for the car). At the age of 22, though, he was sold to a butcher for slaughter, and Black Diamond steaks were sold at a premium. Granted, it’s not odd to eat buffalo in general, but the symbolism of this end was enough for theNew York Times to describe it in sorrowful tones, reporting that, “this finest specimen of Western plains wild life was going to be disposed of in a slaughter house.”

The Taxidermist Who Strangled a Leopard

Carl Akeley is often called the father of modern taxidermy, and it’s not for nothing that one of the halls at New York’s American Museum of Natural History is called the Akeley Hall of African Mammals; after all, he killed plenty of the animals inside. Akeley, who got his start doing hatchet jobs like stuffing PT Barnum’s elephant Jumbo (and making Jumbo even larger than he was in life), became a highly sought after taxidermist, and, during the era in the West when hunting and conservationism overlapped (after all, you had to kill and mount the animals before they were all gone), Akeley joined the likes of Theodore Roosevelt on African collecting trips. (Incidentally, a very young Alice Bradley, who would grow up to become the acclaimed science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., was a guest on one of these expeditions with her parents.)

Akeley studied and collected numerous species during his African treks, and was nearly crushed by an elephant in the process. But his most unusual specimen was the jaguar leopard he fought to the death with his bare hands. If Akeley’s own reports are to be believed, he was startled by the leopard and didn’t have time to reload his gun. He and leopard wrestled until he shoved his right hand in the leopard’s mouth and managed to hold down the leopard’s throat with his left until it finally gave up the kitty ghost.

Africa did eventually get the best of Akeley. His marriage to his first wife (and fellow hunter), Delia, dissolved with the help of J.T. Jr., a wild monkey Delia brought home to New York. And Akeley died in 1926 of a fever in the Congo, but not before he enacted some conservation efforts directed at living animals. He lobbied King Albert I of Belgium to create Albert National Park, now Virunga National Park, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the continent’s first national park.

Photo of Akeley via The Field Museum.

Skeleton’s Best Friend

This one isn’t truly a taxidermy story (since it involves no “derm” to “tax”), but it’s strange and sweet and it did require the talents of a talented taxidermist to pull off. Grover Krantz was a professor of physical anthropology at Washington State University, and a bit of an oddball. He was an earnest Bigfoot researcher, one who courted the ridicule of other academics by suggesting that evidence of the cryptid warranted serious study. Before he died, Krantz told the Smithsonian’s anthropology collections manager David Hunt that he wanted to continue to teach in death as he had in life. He decided to donate his bones to the Smithsonian, just as he had donated the skeletons of his three beloved Irish Wolfhounds.

Krantz hoped that his bones would be placed on display, and in 2009, that hope became a reality. Krantz’s skeleton was included in the National Museum of Natural History’s “Written in Bone” exhibit. Sculptor and Smithsonian taxidermist Paul Rhymer didn’t just reassemble Krantz’s skeleton; he posed it with the skeleton of Clyde, one of Krantz’s Irish Wolfhound, arranging the pair in an affectionate embrace they had shared in life.

Photos from the Smithsonian.

Additional Sources:

Kirk, Jay, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the World’s Great Animals.
Madden, Dave, The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy.
Milgrom, Melissa, Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy.

3,300-Year-Old Egyptian Cemetery Reveals Commoners’ Plight

Posted in SCIENCE, GEOLOGY,HEALTH, INVIRONMENT, TECHNOLOGY,ANTHROPOLOGY, ARCHAEOLOGY, with tags , on March 20, 2013 by 2eyeswatching

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3,300-Year-Old Egyptian Cemetery Reveals Commoners’ Plight

By Tia Ghose, LiveScience Staff Writer | – 13 hrs ago


Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient cemetery at the Egyptian city of Amarna. The cemetery held the commoners, rather than the elites, of the city

While an Egyptian pharaoh built majestic temples filled with sparkling treasures, the lower classes performed backbreaking work on meager diets, new evidence suggests.

An analysis of more than 150 skeletons from a 3,300-year-old cemetery at the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna reveals fractures, wear and tear from heavy lifting, and rampant malnutrition amongst the city’s commoners.

The discovery, detailed in the March issue of the journal Antiquity, could shed light on how the non-elites of ancient Egyptian societylived.

Overnight city

For a brief, 17-year period, the center of Egypt was Amarna, a small city on the banks of the Nile, about 218 miles (350 kilometers) south of Cairo.

The pharaoh Akhenaten relocated his capital city to Amarna to build a pure, uncontaminated cult of worship dedicated to the sun god Aten. [Gallery: Sun Gods and Goddesses]

In a few years, temples, court buildings and housing complexes sprung up. At one time, 20,000 to 30,000 court officials, soldiers, builders and servants lived in the city.

But after Akhenaten’s death, the next pharaoh, Tutankhamun , promptly rolled up the experiment. The city, which lacked good agricultural land, was soon abandoned.

Because the Egyptians occupied Amarna for such a short time, the city provides archaeologists with an unprecedented insight into what people’s lives looked like at a specific moment in history, said study co-author Anna Stevens, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge.

Hard life

About 10 years ago, a surveyor investigating a region in the desert near Amarna discovered an ancient cemetery. The site contained hundreds of skeletons and skeletal fragments from lower-class Egyptians. [See Photos of the Ancient Egyptian Cemetery ]

To see what these everyday Egyptians’ daily lives were like, Stevens and her colleagues analyzed 159 skeletons that were found mostly intact.

Archaeologists have unearthed graves with hundreds of skeletons at the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna.

The researchers’ conclusions: Life was hard at Amarna. The children had stunted growth, and many of the bones were porous due to nutritional deficiency, probably because the commoners lived on a diet of mostly bread and beer, Stevens told LiveScience.

More than three-quarters of the adults had degenerative joint disease, likely from hauling heavy loads, and about two-thirds of these adults had at least one broken bone.

The findings suggest that the rapid construction of Amarna may have been especially hard on the commoners. Based on the size of the bricks found in nearby structures, each worker likely carried a limestone brick weighing 154 pounds (70 kilograms) in assembly-line fashion. Erecting the city’s structures so quickly would have required workers to repeatedly carry out such heavy lifting. That could have caused the joint disease the skeletons revealed.

The norm in Egypt?

“This is a fabulous study because it is a big population from a known site, and we have all these bodies from people who are relatively lower class,” said Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist at American University in Cairo, who was not involved in the study.

But because, in total, archaeologists have unearthed so few ancient Egyptian cemeteries in which the non-elite were buried, it’s possible that these backbreaking conditions prevailed across Egypt at the time, Stevens said.

Other research has found that even Egypt’s wealthy suffered widespread malnutrition and disease, often living only to age 30.

Daughter fights for return of dad trapped in China

Posted in News with tags on March 20, 2013 by 2eyeswatching

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Daughter fights for return of dad trapped in China

By JOHN ROGERS | Associated Press – 18 hrs ago

In this Jan. 28, 2013 photo, Chinese-born U.S. scientist Hu Zhicheng walks along the waterfront promenade of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China. In Shanghai, he lives life as a free man, able to do anything except depart the country. Six thousand miles away in California, his family remains locked in their own emotional prisons: The wife who was left to raise two children alone. The son, just 13 when this started, who speaks bitterly of missing out on father-son moments. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

In this Jan. 28, 2013 photo, Chinese-born U.S. scientist Hu Zhicheng stands at the waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China. For 17 months he was jailed while police investigated accusations from a business rival. During that time, he and his family say, he was allowed no contact with his wife or children other than the occasional letter. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko) 

In this Monday, March 11, 2012 photo, Victoria Hu, 20, right, and her brother Richard talk about their father at their house in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2008, Victoria, then 16, awaited her workaholic father's return from a business trip to China. Then her mother got word of a delay, though she insisted he'd be home by Christmas. In time, she learned the truth: Her father, a Chinese-American engineer, had been arrested on charges of stealing Chinese state secrets. Even though authorities dropped all charges, he still isn't home because of a bizarre set of legal circumstances that prohibit him from leaving China. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Associated Press/Chris Carlson – In this Monday, March 11, 2012 photo, Victoria Hu, 20, right, and her brother Richard talk about their father at their house in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2008, Victoria, then 16, awaited her workaholic father’s return from a business trip to China. Then her mother got word of a delay, though she insisted he’d be home by Christmas. In time, she learned the truth: Her father, a Chinese-American engineer, had been arrested on charges of stealing Chinese state secrets. Even though authorities dropped all charges, he still isn’t home because of a bizarre set of legal circumstances that prohibit him from leaving China. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)  

RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. (AP) — She was just 16, a shy girl whose life revolved around school and homework, when the phone call came that would change her life.

It was Thanksgiving weekend, and Victoria Hu couldn’t wait for her father to return from a business trip to China. She missed their family dinners and even their occasional golf games, although she never cared much for the sport. Soccer was her game. Still, like her brother, she enjoyed the time those outings provided with their workaholic father.

He had been scheduled to arrive the day after Thanksgiving when Victoria’s mother got word of a delay. She didn’t go into detail but assured her children their father would be home by Christmas.

A month later, the house trimmed and the children asking incessantly — “When is Dad coming home?” — Victoria learned the truth. Her father, a Chinese-American engineer, had been arrested on charges of stealing Chinese state secrets. He wouldn’t be home that Christmas, or for many more.

That was in 2008. Today, Hu Zhicheng still isn’t home, thanks to a bizarre set of legal circumstances that prohibit him from leaving China even though authorities dropped all charges.

In thiIs Monday, March 11, 2012 photo, Hong Li talks about her husband at their house in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Hu Zhicheng had been arrested on charges of stealing Chinese state secrets. Even though authorities dropped all charges, he still isn’t home because of a bizarre set of legal circumstances that prohibit him from leaving China. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

In Shanghai, he lives life as a free man, able to do anything except depart the country. Six thousand miles away in California, his family remains locked in their own emotional prisons: The wife who was left to raise two children alone. The son, just 13 when this started, who speaks bitterly of missing out on father-son moments.

And the daughter, who spent years yearning for her father’s return and now dedicates part of her life to bringing him home.

“I fight because I believe justice will prevail,” she has written, “because this is the right thing to do.”

In this Monday, March 11, 2012 photo, Victoria Hu, left, helps her mother, Hong Li, in the kitchen of their house in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Until that call four years ago, Victoria and her brother, Richard, had grown up as typical American teenagers. Their days were filled with school, soccer practices and hanging out with friends.

Their parents, both born in China, met at Tianjin University. After earning doctorates in engineering, the couple moved to the United States in 1989, where Hu did research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Victoria was born in Boston, and Richard three years later in New Jersey, where the family moved after their father took a job doing pioneering work in the development of emission-limiting catalytic converters for automobiles.

In this Monday, March 11, 2012 photo, Victoria Hu studies in the living room of their house in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Victoria keeps her emotions in check when talking about her father. But then, as a teenager trying to find her way forward, she poured her feelings into letters to him, even an essay she wrote for a college application. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

By 2004 Hu was an internationally recognized expert in the field, and he decided to take that expertise back to China. In a place notorious for its horrific smog, he figured to get in on the ground floor helping create cleaner-running automobiles.

Hu’s wife, Hong Li, was leery of the move. She and her husband had become U.S. citizens, and she worried they were too Americanized to fit in back in China. What’s more, they no longer had the personal connections, or “guanxi” as the Chinese call it, so valuable to doing business there.

In this Monday, March 11, 2012 photo, Richard Hu works on his computer in his father office at their house in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. In the beginning, neither child said much to friends about their family’s situation. Richard, now 17, still hasn’t, although he says he is starting to follow his sister’s example and open up. He recently granted an interview to his high school’s yearbook staff. “It’s not the most pleasant thing to talk about,” the normally upbeat teenager says dryly. When he sees friends with their dads he says he knows he’s missing out on father-son experiences “that would seem pretty important.” (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

“But,” she adds, “I didn’t want to be the (one) who, when the end day comes, he says, ‘I had a dream and you didn’t let me do it.’”

At first, things went well. Hu became chief scientist and president of a company trying to build top-grade catalytic converters and was even honored by the province of Jiangsu as one of its leading innovators. Li started her own business supplying materials to the company that employed her husband.

In this Monday, March 11, 2012 photo, Victoria Hu, left, waves at her mother, Hong Li at their house in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Although it has often left Victoria angry, her family’s ordeal has also made her decide that she should live every day of her own life to the fullest. She got accepted to the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a junior majoring in political economy. Because of her father’s ordeal, she wants to learn more about the law. When not studying, she’s taken up drama, horseback riding and martial arts. She works part-time for a small Internet start-up that produces online comics, and she recently tried skydiving. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

The children were enrolled in school and began learning about their Chinese heritage. In summer, Li would bring them back to the states to attend academic camps and keep up with English and U.S. culture. In 2007, they were enrolled in a camp at the University of California, Los Angeles, when Li got the first inkling of trouble.

A business rival had accused her husband of stealing information and providing it to Li’s company. Police were asking questions. Hu called his wife in California with a warning: “Don’t come back.”

Hu soon returned to the U.S., intent on settling in California with his wife and children. The family found a fixer-upper in Rancho Palos Verdes, a picturesque Los Angeles suburb of rolling hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

But back in China, police wanted to talk with Hu. His company also wanted him to continue with his research. And so, in November 2008, he returned to his native land for what he thought would be a brief visit.

On Nov. 28, the day he was supposed to fly back to California, Hu was arrested.

In this Jan. 28, 2013 photo, Chinese-born U.S. scientist Hu Zhicheng sits at the waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River in Shanghai, China. In November 2008, he returned to his native land for what he thought would be a brief visit. Later that month, the day he was supposed to fly back to his family in California, Hu was arrested as a result of of accusations from a business rival. Even though authorities dropped all charges, he still isn’t home because of a bizarre set of legal circumstances that prohibit him from leaving China. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

“I was … It’s hard to explain, even now. I was in shock,” Victoria says of learning of her father’s arrest.

For 17 months he was jailed while police investigated. During that time, he and his family say, he was allowed no contact with his wife or children other than the occasional letter. Victoria did her best to boost his spirits.

“I’ll be a sunlight that will warm your heart and I’ll be your moonlight guiding you through the dark,” she wrote to him behind bars.

A soft-spoken woman of 20 now, Victoria keeps her emotions in check when talking about her father. But then, as a teenager trying to find her way forward, she poured her feelings into letters to him, and even an essay she wrote for a college application.

“The stress hit both my health and my schoolwork: I was often sleep-deprived, depressed and irritated,” she wrote. “I worried constantly and wondered if he is still alive. … Although I reacted initially with anger and hopelessness, I realized eventually that I couldn’t afford to pity myself. My mom needed my support … “

She never doubted her father’s innocence. He was an award-winning scientist with nearly 50 patents to his name; she knew he didn’t need to steal anybody else’s research.

The Chinese eventually found the same. In April 2010, a Chinese court approved prosecutors’ request to withdraw the case against Hu because of a lack of evidence. Hu was released, and made arrangements to leave the country. But when he got to the airport, he learned that as soon as the criminal case was dropped his accuser had filed a patent infringement lawsuit. The government wouldn’t let him depart until that was resolved.

As months turned into years, Hu’s wife frantically called the U.S. Embassy in China and wrote letters to her two senators, her congressman and the White House. As she did so, it fell on her daughter to sacrifice her childhood to take care of the family.

“She helped me cook dinner. She helped me take care of her brother,” her mother says. “She used her own money she made from teaching other kids and bought Richard T-shirts and books, and she cut his hair.”

When Li became ill and unable to sleep because of the stress, Victoria cared for her, too.

At the end of each exhausting day of schoolwork, cooking, cleaning, tutoring and preparing for college, the teenager would fall into bed and often cry herself to sleep.

In the beginning, neither child said much to friends about their situation. Richard, now 17, still hasn’t, although he says he is starting to follow his sister’s example and open up. He recently granted an interview to his high school’s yearbook staff.

“It’s not the most pleasant thing to talk about,” the normally upbeat teenager says dryly. When he sees friends with their dads he says he knows he’s missing out on father-son experiences “that would seem pretty important.”

A year ago, with diplomatic efforts to bring her father home failing, Victoria decided to take the case to social media.

She posted a petition to that has gathered more than 60,000 signatures, and she started a Facebook page called “Help Victoria’s Father Dr. Zhicheng Hu Come Home.” The profile picture is a graphic poster of her dad smiling broadly under the words: “Free Dr. Hu.”

She also worked with a friend to create a web novella in which she recounts a brief visit to Shanghai in 2010, after her father’s release from prison. Victoria traveled alone; neither her brother nor mother has been back to China. Her mother fears getting trapped there as well, because her husband’s accuser implicated her company. Li even missed her own mother’s funeral.

Victoria, meantime, hasn’t seen her father since that visit.

“His hair has grown whiter. He seems frailer,” she wrote in the novella. “But when he sees me his smile could light up the sky.”


Last month in Shanghai, the 50-year-old Hu spoke with The Associated Press about his case. He said he believes he is being pressured to make a financial settlement with his well-connected business rival.

“We still haven’t heard anything from the court,” he said, adding that under Chinese law the deadline to bring the lawsuit to trial or dismiss it should have passed months ago. Calls by AP to the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, which has delayed ruling on Hu’s case but kept the travel restrictions in place, rang unanswered last week.

As he waits, Hu continues his work with catalytic converters.

So far, trying to win his return home through diplomatic channels has gone nowhere. At the Hu family’s behest, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., attempted to intervene but to no avail.

“The only thing a congressman can do is take it up with the State Department to ensure they are exercising all of the agreed upon options that they have with China to regularly check on the well-being of a U.S. citizen,” says Kathleen Staunton, Rohrabacher’s district director.

The State Department notes on its website that Americans must follow the laws of the country they are in and that, other than making those checks to ensure a person’s well-being, there is really nothing else U.S. officials can do.

“At the end of the day,” Victoria says, “China is really indifferent to public opinion.”

And so the Hu family waits. Victoria, Richard and their mother talk with Hu via Skype, although they try to limit calls to special occasions such as Chinese New Year. It’s just too hard for Hu to see his wife and children, when he can’t be with them.

With money tight, repairs to the fixer-upper remain undone. The home offers stunning views, but the roof leaks and the heating system is broken.

Li, 52, earns money with consulting work, helping companies with market research, strategic planning and the occasional engineering project. Richard, now a junior in high school, spends much of his time preparing for college. He’s considering a major in electrical engineering, his father’s field.

Although it has often left Victoria angry, her family’s ordeal has also made her decide that she should live every day to the fullest. At the University of California, Berkeley, she is a junior majoring in political economy. Because of her father’s ordeal, she wants to learn more about the law.

When not studying, she’s taken up drama, horseback riding and martial arts. She works part-time for a small Internet start-up that produces online comics, and she recently tried skydiving.

And she continues with her efforts to bring her father home.

As she wrote in her online novella: “I fight because one day my family will all sit down to eat dinner together again.”


Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this report.

Faces of addiction

Posted in News with tags on March 20, 2013 by 2eyeswatching

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Faces of addiction

Photographer Chris Arnade has been following the stories of addicts in Hunts Point neighborhood, the poorest in all of New York City, for several years. Of this compelling documentary project, he says, “What I am hoping to do, by allowing my subjects to share their dreams and burdens with the viewer and by photographing them with respect, is to show that everyone, regardless of their station in life, is as valid as anyone else.”
You can follow Chris Arnade’s ongoing work onFacebook.
Vanessa, thirty-five, had three children with an abusive husband. She “lost her mind, started doing heroin,” after losing the children, who were taken away and given to her mother. The drugs led to homelessness and prostitution. She grew up on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, but now spends her time in Hunts Point, “trying to survive everyday. Just doing whatever it takes.” (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)
Jackie: Hunts Point, Bronx (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)
Clarence: Hunts Point, Bronx
The “Brickyard” is a vacant lot on an otherwise industrial side street in Hunts Point. It’s where many of the local addicts spend their time, gossiping and smoking. They bring their carts filled with what they can collect to sell to the adjacent scrap metal shops. It’s where I found Clarence, who has lived for fourty years in Hunts Point since moving from North Carolina as a teenager. I spoke with Clarence, a former truck driver, for a long time. He told me all that his addiction has wrought: job loss, homelessness, health problems. Never once did he sound angry, bitter, or depressed. (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)
Faces of Addiction l
Wayne: Hunts Point, Bronx
Wayne was laboring in the fading light, pushing his bike and his cart with scrap metal up a long hill. He was racing to reach the metal yard before it closed. At the top of the hill he stopped and gave me a big smile and hug, “Working, always working.” (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)
Faces of Addiction
Michael: Hunts Point, Bronx
“I am sick of this life. Sick of jamming needles into myself, sick of not having a home, sick of all my money going to dope, sick of waking up and needing drugs. I just want a normal life. I want to have a home and watch movies.” Michael is headed to detox. Without Medicaid he needs a letter from a homeless shelter. Once he gets that he will check himself into Bayley Seton in Staten Island. It will be the forth time in his life he has gone to detox, the first time since he relapsed in 2010. (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)
Faces of Addiction
Sonya: Hunts Point, Bronx “I’m going to die out here.” — Sonya Hunts Point, Bronx Sonya lives on the top floor of an abandoned building with her husband of ten years Eric. They left Rhode Island in pursuit of drugs, settling in Hunts Point five years ago. Eric said, “This is the only reason me and Sonya are in Hunts Point, because this is literally right now the best heroin in all of New York City.” (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)
Faces of Addiction
Sonya and Eric: Hunts Point, Bronx
Cynthia: Hunts Point, Bronx
Cynthia, forty six, starting working as a prostitute at the age of thirteen. She turned to the streets after battling her single mother in Brooklyn. “I didn’t want to listen to her. She didn’t give me any time.” Cynthia is now the mother of fifteen children, eleven of whom are still alive. Her “baby” is sixteen, her oldest child thirty. (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)
Manny Quiles: Hunts Point, Bronx
Former pro boxer (lightweight) from Connecticut, now an addict living in a homeless shelter. Manny’s career ended after several injuries left him with a right eye that is unable to focus. Unable to fight, with little other skills, he found himself homeless and turned to heroin. (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)
Erik: Hunts Point, Bronx “I have already destroyed myself. I can’t walk by a corner with a pocket of money and not buy dope.” – Erik (Photo by Chris Arnade photography)

How Much Longer Until Humanity Becomes A Hive Mind?


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How Much Longer Until Humanity Becomes A Hive Mind?

By George Dvorsky

Last month, researchers created an electronic link between the brains of two rats separated by thousands of miles. This was just another reminder that technology will one day make us telepaths. But how far will this transformation go? And how long will it take before humans evolve into a fully-fledged hive mind? We spoke to the experts to find out.

I spoke to three different experts, all of whom have given this subject considerable thought: Kevin Warwick, a British scientist and professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading; Ramez Naam, an American futurist and author of NEXUS (a scifi novel addressing this topic); and Anders Sandberg, a Swedish neuroscientist from theFuture of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford.

They all told me that the possibility of a telepathic noosphere is very real – and it’s closer to reality than we might think. And not surprisingly, this would change the very fabric of the human condition.

Connecting brains

My first question to the group had to do with the technological requirements. How is it, exactly, that we’re going to connect our minds over the Internet, or some future manifestation of it?

“I really think we have sufficient hardware available now – tools likeBraingate,” says Warwick. “But we have a lot to learn with regard to how much the brain can adapt, just how many implants would be required, and where they would need to be positioned.”

Naam agrees that we’re largely on our way. He says we already have the basics of sending some sorts of information in and out of the brain. In humans, we’ve done it with video, audio, and motor control. In principle, nothing prevents us from sending that data back and forth between people.

“Practically speaking, though, there are some big things we have to do,” he tells io9. “First, we have to increase the bandwidth. The most sophisticated systems we have right now use about 100 electrodes, while the brain has more than 100 billion neurons. If you want to get good fidelity on the stuff you’re beaming back and forth between people, you’re going to want to get on the order of millions of electrodes.”

Naam says we can build the electronics for that easily, but building it in such a way that the brain accepts it is a major challenge.

The second hurdle, he says, is going beyond sensory and motor control.

“If you want to beam speech between people, you can probably tap into that with some extensions of what we’ve already been doing, though it will certainly involve researchers specifically working on decoding that kind of data,” he says. “But if you want to go beyond sending speech and get into full blown sharing of experiences, emotions, memories, or even skills (a la The Matrix), then you’re wandering into unknown territory.”

Indeed, Sandberg says that picking up and translating brain signals will be a tricky matter.

“EEG sensors have lousy resolution – we get an average of millions of neurons, plus electrical noise from muscles and the surroundings,” he says. “Subvocalisation and detecting muscle twitches is easier to do, although they will still be fairly noisy. Internal brain electrodes exist and can get a lot of data from a small region, but this of course requires brain surgery. I am having great hopes for optogenetics and nanofibers for making kinder, gentler implants that are less risky to insert and easier on their tissue surroundings.”

The real problem, he says, is translating signals in a sensible way. “Your brain representation of the concept “mountain” is different from mine, the result not just of different experiences, but also on account of my different neurons. So, if I wanted to activate the mountain concept, I would need to activate a disperse, perhaps very complex network across your brain,” he tells io9. “That would require some translation that figured out that I wanted to suggest a mountain, and found which pattern is your mountain.”

Sandberg says we normally “cheat” by learning a convenient code called language, where all the mapping between the code and our neural activations is learned as we grow. We can, of course, learn new codes as adults, and this is rarely a problem – adults already master things like Morse code, SMS abbreviations, or subtle signs of gesture and style. Sandberg points to the recent experiments by Nicolelis connecting brains directly, research which shows that it might be possible to get rodents to learn neural codes. But he says this learning is cumbersome, and we should be able to come up with something simpler.

One way is to boost learning. Some research shows that amphetamine and presumably other learning stimulants can speed up language learning. Recent work on the Nogo Receptor suggests that brain plasticity can be turned on and off. “So maybe we can use this to learn quickly,” says Sandberg.

Another way is to have software do the translation. It is not hard to imagine machine learning to figure out what neural codes or mumbled keywords correspond to which signal – but setting up the training so that users find it acceptably fast is another matter.

“So my guess is that if pairs of people really wanted to ‘get to know each other’ and devoted a lot of time and effort, they could likely learn signals and build translation protocols that would allow a lot of ‘telepathic’ communication – but it would be very specific to them, like the ‘internal language’ some couples have,” says Sandberg. “For the weaker social links, where we do not want to spend months learning how to speak to each other, we would rely on automatically translated signals. A lot of it would be standard things like voice and text, but one could imagine adding supporting ‘subtitles’ showing graphics or activating some neural assemblies.”

Bridging the gap

In terms of the communications backbone, Sandberg believes it’s largely in place, but it will likely have to be extended much further.

“The theoretical bandwidth limitations of even a wireless Internet are far, far beyond the bandwidth limitations of our brains – tens of terabits per second,” he told me, “and there are orbital angular momentum methods that might get far more.”

Take the corpus callosum, for example. It has around 250 million axons, and even at the maximal neural firing rate of just 25 gigabits, that should be enough to keep the hemispheres connected such that we feel we are a single mind.

As for the interface, Warwick says we should stick to implanted multi-electrode arrays. These may someday become wireless, but they’ll have to remain wired until we learn more about the process. Like Sandberg, he adds that we’ll also need to develop adaptive software interfacing.

Naam envisions something laced throughout the brain, coupled with some device that could be worn on the person’s body.

“For the first part, you can imagine a mesh of nano-scale sensors either inserted through a tiny hole in the skull, or somehow through the brain’s blood vessels. In Nexus I imagined a variant on this – tiny nano-particles that are small enough that they can be swallowed and will then cross the blood-brain barrier and find their way to neurons in the brain.”

Realistically, Naam says that whatever we insert in the brain is going to be pretty low energy consumption. The implant, or mesh, or nano-particles could communicate wirelessly, but to boost their signal – and to provide them power – scientists will have to pair them with something the person wears, like a cap, a pair of glasses, a headband – anything that can be worn very near the brain so it can pick up those weak signals and boost them, including signals from the outside world that will be channeled into the brain.

How soon before the hive mind?

Warwick believes that the technologies required to build an early version of the telepathic noosphere are largely in place. All that’s required, he says, is “money on the table” and the proper ethical approval.

Sandberg concurs, saying that we’re already doing it with cellphones. He points to the work of Charles Stross, who suggests that the next generation will never have to be alone, get lost, or forget anything.

“As soon as people have persistent wearable systems that can pick up their speech, I think we can do a crude version,” says Sandberg. “Having a system that’s on all the time will allow us to get a lot of data – and it better be unobtrusive. I would not be surprised to see experiments with Google Glasses before the end of the year, but we’ll probably end up saying it’s just a fancy way of using cellphones.”

At the same time, Sandberg suspects that “real” neural interfacing will take a while, since it needs to be safe, convenient, and have a killer app worth doing. It will also have to compete with existing communications systems and their apps.

Similarly, Naam says we could build a telepathic network in a few years, but with “very, very, low fidelity.” But that low fidelity, he says, would be considerably worse than the quality we get by using phones – or even text or IM. “I doubt anyone who’s currently healthy would want to use it.”

But for a really stable, high bandwidth system in and out of the brain, that could take upwards of 15 to 20 years, which Naam concedes is optimistic.

“In any case, it’s not a huge priority,” he says. “And it’s not one where we’re willing to cut corners today. It’s firmly in the medical sphere, and the first rule there is ‘do no harm’. That means that science is done extremely cautiously, with the priority overwhelmingly – and appropriately – being not to harm the human subject.”

Nearly supernatural

I asked Sandberg how the telepathic noosphere will disrupt the various way humans engage in work and social relations.

“Any enhancement of communication ability is a big deal,” he responded. “We humans are dominant because we are so good at communication and coordination, and any improvement would likely boost that. Just consider flash mobs or how online ARG communities do things that seem nearly supernatural.”

Cell phones, he says, made our schedules flexible in time and space, allowing us to coordinate where to meet on the fly. He says we’re also adding various non-human services like apps and Siri-like agents. “Our communications systems are allowing us to interact not just with each other but with various artificial agents,” he says. Messages can be stored, translated and integrated with other messages.

“If we become telepathic, it means we will have ways of doing the same with concepts, ideas and sensory signals,” says Sandberg. “It is hard to predict just what this will be used for since there are so few limitations. But just consider the possibility of getting instruction and skills via augmented reality and well designed sensory/motor interfaces. A team might help a member perform actions while ‘looking over her shoulder’, as if she knew all they knew. And if the system is general enough, it means that you could in principle get help from any skilled person anywhere in the world.”

In response to the same question, Naam noted that communication boosts can accelerate technical innovation, but more importantly, they can also accelerate the spread of any kind of idea. “And that can be hugely disruptive,” he says.

But in terms of the possibilities, Naam says the sky’s the limit.

“With all of those components, you can imagine people doing all sorts of things with such an interface. You could play games together. You could enter virtual worlds together,” he says. “Designers or architects or artists could imagine designs and share them mentally with others. You could work together on any type of project where you can see or hear what you’re doing. And of course, sex has driven a lot of information technologies forward – with sight, sound, touch, and motor control, you could imagine new forms of virtual sex or virtual pornography.”

Warwick imagines communication in the broadest sense, including the technically-enabled telepathic transmission of feelings, thoughts, ideas, and emotions. “I also think this communication will be far richer when compared to the present pathetic way in which humans communicate.” He suspects that visual information may eventually be possible, but that will take some time to develop. He even imagines the sharing of memories. That may be possible, he says, “but maybe not in my lifetime.”

Put all this together, says Warwick, and “the body becomes redundant.” Moreover, when connected in this way “we will be able to understand each other much more.”

A double-edged sword

We also talked about the potential risks.

“There’s the risk of bugs in hardware or software,” says Naam. “There’s the risk of malware or viruses that infect this. There’s the risk of hackers being able to break into the implants in your head. We’ve already seen hackers demonstrate that they can remotely take over pacemakers and insulin pumps. The same risks exist here.”

But the big societal risk, says Naam, stems entirely from the question of who controls this technology.

“That’s the central question I ask in Nexus,” he says. “If we all have brain implants, you can imagine it driving a very bottom’s up world – another Renaissance, a world where people are free and creating and sharing more new ideas all the time. Or you can imagine it driving a world like that of 1984, where central authorities are the ones in control, and they’re the ones using these direct brain technologies to monitor people, to keep people in line, or even to manipulate people into being who they’re supposed to be. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Warwick, on the other hand, told me that the “biggest risk is that some idiot – probably a politician or business person – may stop it from going ahead.” He suspects it will lead to a digital divide between those who have and those who do not, but that it’s a natural progression very much in line with evolution to date.

In response to the question of privacy, Sandberg quipped, “Privacy? What privacy?”

Our lives, he says, will reside in the cloud, and on servers owned by various companies that also sell results from them to other organizations.

“Even if you do not use telepathy-like systems, your behaviour and knowledge can likely be inferred from the rich data everybody else provides,” he says. “And the potential for manipulation, surveillance and propaganda are endless.”

Our cloud exoselves

Without a doubt, the telepathic noosphere will alter the human condition in ways we cannot even begin to imagine. The Noosphere will be an extension of our minds. And as David Chalmers and Andy Clark have noted, we should still regard external mental processes as being genuine even though they’re technically happening outside our skulls. Consequently, as Sandberg told me, our devices and “cloud exoselves” will truly be extensions of our minds.

“Potentially very enhancing extensions,” he says, “although unlikely to have much volition of their own.”

Sandberg argues that we shouldn’t want our exoselves to be too independent, since they’re likely to make mistakes in our name. “We will always want to have veto power, a bit like how the conscious level of our minds has veto on motor actions being planned,” he says.

Veto power over our cloud exoselves? The future will be a very strange place, indeed.

Top image: agsandrew/Shutterstock, Nicolesis lab.