Santiago dreaming
by Andy Beckett / 8 September 2003

During the early 70s, in the wealthy commuter backwater of West Byfleet in Surrey, a small but rather remarkable experiment took place. In the potting shed of a house called Firkins, a teenager named Simon Beer, using bits of radios and pieces of pink and green cardboard, built a series of electrical meters for measuring public opinion. His concept – users of his meters would turn a dial to indicate how happy or unhappy they were with any political proposal – was strange and ambitious enough. And it worked. Yet what was even more jolting was his intended market: not Britain, but Chile.

Unlike West Byfleet, Chile was in revolutionary ferment. In the capital Santiago, the beleaguered but radical marxist government of Salvador Allende, hungry for innovations of all kinds, was employing Simon Beer’s father, Stafford, to conduct a much larger technological experiment of which the meters were only a part. This was known as Project Cybersyn, and nothing like it had been tried before, or has been tried since.

Stafford Beer attempted, in his words, to “implant” an electronic “nervous system” in Chilean society. Voters, workplaces and the government were to be linked together by a new, interactive national communications network, which would transform their relationship into something profoundly more equal and responsive than before – a sort of socialist internet, decades ahead of its time.

When the Allende administration was deposed in a military coup, the 30th anniversary of which falls this Thursday, exactly how far Beer and his British and Chilean collaborators had got in constructing their hi-tech utopia was soon forgotten. In the many histories of the endlessly debated, frequently mythologised Allende period, Project Cybersyn hardly gets a footnote. Yet the personalities involved, the amount they achieved, the scheme’s optimism and ambition and perhaps, in the end, its impracticality, contain important truths about the most tantalising leftwing government of the late 20th century.

Stafford Beer, who died last year, was a restless and idealistic British adventurer who had long been drawn to Chile. Part scientist, part management guru, part social and political theorist, he had grown rich but increasingly frustrated in Britain during the 50s and 60s. His ideas about the similarities between biological and man-made systems, most famously expressed in his later book, The Brain of the Firm, made him an in-demand consultant with British businesses and politicians. Yet these clients did not adopt the solutions he recommended as often as he would have liked, so Beer began taking more contracts abroad.

In the early 60s, his company did some work for the Chilean railways. Beer did not go there himself, but one of the Chileans involved, an engineering student called Fernando Flores, began reading Beer’s books and was captivated by their originality and energy. By the time the Allende government was elected in 1970, a group of Beer disciples had formed in Chile. Flores became a minister in the new administration, with responsibility for nationalising great swathes of industry. As in many areas, the Allende government wanted to do things differently from traditional marxist regimes. “I was very much against the Soviet model of centralisation,” says Raul Espejo, one of Flores’s senior advisers and another Beer disciple. “My gut feeling was that it was unviable.”

But how should the Chilean economy be run instead? By 1971, the initial euphoria of Allende’s democratic, non-authoritarian revolution was beginning to fade; Flores and Espejo realised that their ministry had acquired a disorganised empire of mines and factories, some occupied by their employees, others still controlled by their original managers, few of them operating with complete efficiency. In July, they wrote to Beer for help.

They knew that he had leftwing sympathies, but also that he was very busy. “Our expectation was to hire someone from his team,” says Espejo. But after getting the letter, Beer quickly grew fascinated by the Chilean situation. He decided to drop his other contracts and fly there. In West Byfleet, the reaction was mixed: “We thought, ‘Stafford’s going mad again,’ ” says Simon Beer.

When Stafford arrived in Santiago, the Chileans were more impressed. “He was huge,” Espejo remembers, “and extraordinarily exuberant. From every pore of his skin you knew he was thinking big.” Beer asked for a daily fee of $500 – less than he usually charged, but an enormous sum for a government being starved of US dollars by its enemies in Washington – and a constant supply of chocolate, wine and cigars.

For the next two years, as subordinates searched for these amid the food shortages, and the local press compared him to Orson Welles and Socrates, Beer worked in Chile in frenetic bursts, returning every few months to England, where a British team was also labouring over Cybersyn. What this collaboration produced was startling: a new communications system reaching the whole spindly length of Chile, from the deserts of the north to the icy grasslands of the south, carrying daily information about the output of individual factories, about the flow of important raw materials, about rates of absenteeism and other economic problems.

Until now, obtaining and processing such valuable information – even in richer, more stable countries – had taken governments at least six months. But Project Cybersyn found ways round the technical obstacles. In a forgotten warehouse, 500 telex machines were discovered which had been bought by the previous Chilean government but left unused because nobody knew what to do with them. These were distributed to factories, and linked to two control rooms in Santiago. There a small staff gathered the economic statistics as they arrived, officially at five o’clock every afternoon, and boiled them down using a single precious computer into a briefing that was dropped off daily at La Moneda, the presidential palace.

Allende himself was enthusiastic about the scheme. Beer explained it to him on scraps of paper. Allende had once been a doctor and, Beer felt, instinctively understood his notions about the biological characteristics of networks and institutions. Just as significantly, the two men shared a belief that Cybersyn was not about the government spying on and controlling people. On the contrary, it was hoped that the system would allow workers to manage, or at least take part in the management of their workplaces, and that the daily exchange of information between the shop floor and Santiago would create trust and genuine cooperation – and the combination of individual freedom and collective achievement that had always been the political holy grail for many leftwing thinkers.

It did not always work out like that. “Some people I’ve talked to,” says Eden Miller, an American who is writing a PhD thesis partly about Cybersyn, “said it was like pulling teeth getting the factories to send these statistics.” In the feverish Chile of 1972 and 1973, with its shortages and strikes and jostling government initiatives, there were often other priorities. And often the workers were not willing or able to run their plants: “The people Beer’s scientists dealt with,” says Miller, “were primarily management.”

But there were successes. In many factories, Espejo says, “Workers started to allocate a space on their own shop floor to have the same kind of graphics that we had in Santiago.” Factories used their telexes to send requests and complaints back to the government, as well as vice versa. And in October 1972, when Allende faced his biggest crisis so far, Beer’s invention became vital.

Across Chile, with secret support from the CIA, conservative small businessmen went on strike. Food and fuel supplies threatened to run out. Then the government realised that Cybersyn offered a way of outflanking the strikers. The telexes could be used to obtain intelligence about where scarcities were worst, and where people were still working who could alleviate them. The control rooms in Santiago were staffed day and night. People slept in them – even government ministers. “The rooms came alive in the most extraordinary way,” says Espejo. “We felt that we were in the centre of the universe.” The strike failed to bring down Allende.

In some ways, this was the high point for Cybersyn. The following year, like the government in general, it began to encounter insoluble problems. By 1973, the sheer size of the project, involving somewhere between a quarter and half of the entire nationalised economy, meant that Beer’s original band of disciples had been diluted by other, less idealistic scientists. There was constant friction between the two groups. Meanwhile, Beer himself started to focus on other schemes: using painters and folk singers to publicise the principles of high-tech socialism; testing his son’s electrical public-opinion meters, which never actually saw service; and even organising anchovy-fishing expeditions to earn the government some desperately needed foreign currency.

All the while, the rightwing plotting against Allende grew more blatant and the economy began to suffocate as other countries, encouraged by the Americans, cut off aid and investment. Beer was accused in parts of the international press of creating a Big Brother-style system of administration in South America. “There was plenty of stress in Chile,” he wrote afterwards. “I could have pulled out at any time, and often considered doing so.”

In June 1973, after being advised to leave Santiago, he rented an anonymous house on the coast from a relative of Espejo. For a few weeks, he wrote and stared at the sea and travelled to government meetings under cover of darkness. On September 10, a room was measured in La Moneda for the installation of an updated Cybersyn control centre, complete with futuristic control panels in the arms of chairs and walls of winking screens. The next day, the palace was bombed by the coup’s plotters. Beer was in London, lobbying for the Chilean government, when he left his final meeting before intending to fly back to Santiago and saw a newspaper billboard that read, “Allende assassinated.”

The Chilean military found the Cybersyn network intact, and called in Espejo and others to explain it to them. But they found the open, egalitarian aspects of the system unattractive and destroyed it. Espejo fled. Some of his colleagues were not so lucky. Soon after the coup, Beer left West Byfleet, his wife, and most of his possessions to live in a cottage in Wales. “He had survivor guilt, unquestionably,” says Simon.

Cybersyn and Stafford’s subsequent, more esoteric inventions live on in obscure socialist websites and, more surprisingly, modern business school teachings about the importance of economic information and informal working practices. David Bowie, Brian Eno and Tony Blair’s new head of policy, Geoff Mulgan, have all cited Beer as an influence.

But perhaps more importantly, his work in Chile affected those who participated. Espejo has made a good career since as an inter- national management consultant. He has been settled in Britain for decades. He chuckles urbanely at the mention of Pinochet’s arrest in London five years ago. Yet when, after a long lunch in a pub near his home in Lincoln, I ask whether Cybersyn changed him, his playful, slightly professorial gaze turns quite serious. “Oh yes,” he says. “Completely.”



Project Cybersyn: Chile 2.0 in 1973
by Patrick Philippe Meier / February 21, 2009

We were both stunned by what was possibly one of the coolest tech presentations we’ve been to at Berkman. Assistant Professor Eden Medina from Indiana University’s School of Informatics presented her absolutely fascinating research on Project Cybsersyn. This project ties together cybernetics, political transitions, organizational theory, complex systems and the history of technology.

I had never heard of this project but Eden’s talk made we want to cancel all my weekend plans and read her dissertation from MIT, which I’m literally downloading as I type this. If you’d like an abridged version, I’d recommend reading her peer-reviewed article which won the 2007 IEEE Life Member’s Prize in Electrical History: “Designing Freedom, Regulating a Nation: Socialist Cybernetics in Allende’s Chile”.

Project Cybersyn is an early computer network developed in Chile during the socialist presidency of Salvador Allende (1970–1973) to regulate the growing social property area and manage the transition of Chile’s economy from capitalism to socialism.

Under the guidance of British cybernetician Stafford Beer, often lauded as the ‘father of management cybernetics’, an interdisciplinary Chilean team designed cybernetic models of factories within the nationalized sector and created a network for the rapid transmission of economic data between the government and the factory floor. The article describes the construction of this unorthodox system, examines how its structure reflected the socialist ideology of the Allende government, and documents the contributions of this technology to the Allende administration.
The purpose of Cybersyn was to “network every firm in the expanding nationalized  sector of the economy to a central computer in Santiago, enabling the government to grasp the status of production quickly and respond to economic crises in real time.”

Stafford is considered the ‘Father of Management Cybernetics” and at the heart of Stafford’s genius is the “Viable System Model” (VSM). Eden explains that “Cybersyn’s design cannot be understood without a basic grasp of this model, which played a pivotal role in merging the politics of the Allende government with the design of this technological system.”

VSM is a model of the organizational structure of any viable or autonomous system. A viable system is any system organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment. One of the prime features of systems that survive is that they are adaptable.

Beer believed that this five-tier, recursive model existed in all stable organizations—biological, mechanical and social.

Based on this model, Stafford’s team sought ways to enable communications among factories, state enterprises, sector committees, the management of the country’s development agency and the central mainframe housed at the agency’s headquarters. Eventually, they settled on an existing telex network previously used to track satellites. Unlike the heterogeneous networked computer systems in use today, telex  networks mandate the use of specific terminals and can only transmit ASCII characters. However, like the Internet of today, this early network of telex machines was driven by the idea of creating a high-speed web of information exchange.

Eden writes that Project Cybersyn eventually consisted of four sub-projects: Cybernet, Cyberstride, Checo and Opsroom.
▪ Cybernet: This component “expanded the existing telex network to include every firm in nationalized sector, thereby helping to create a national network of communication throughout Chile’s three-thousand-mile-long territory. Cybersyn team members occasionally used the promise of free telex installation to cajole factory managers into lending their support to the project. Stafford Beer’s early reports describe the system as a tool for real-time economic control, but in actuality each firm could only transmit data once per day.”
▪ Cyberstride: This component “encompassed the suite of computer programmes written to collect, process, and distribute data to and from each of the state enterprises. Members of the Cyberstride team created ‘ quantitative flow charts of activities within each enterprise that would highlight all important activities ’, including a parameter for ‘ social unease ’[…]. The software used statistical methods to detect production trends based on historical data, theoretically allowing [headquarters] to prevent problems before they began. If a particular variable fell outside of the range specified by Cyberstride, the system emitted a warning […]. Only the interventor from the affected enterprise would receive the algedonic warning initially and would have the freedom, within a given time frame, to deal with the problem as he saw fit. However, if the enterprise failed to correct the irregularity within this timeframe, members of the Cyberstride team alerted the next level management […].”
▪ CHECO: This stood for CHilean ECOnomy, a component of Cybersyn which “constituted an ambitious effort to model the Chilean economy and provide simulations of future economic behaviour. Appropriately, it was sometimes referred to as ‘Futuro’. The simulator would serve as the ‘government’s experimental laboratory ’ – an instrumental equivalent to Allende’s frequent likening of Chile to a ‘social laboratory’. […] The simulation programme used the DYNAMO compiler developed by MIT Professor Jay Forrester […]. The CHECO team initially used national statistics to test the accuracy of the simulation program. When these results failed, Beer and his fellow team members faulted the time differential in the generation of statistical inputs, an observation that re-emphasized the perceived necessity for real-time data.
▪ Opsroom: The fourth component “created a new environment for decision making, one modeled after a British WWII war room. It consisted of seven chairs arranged in an inward facing circle flanked by a series of projection screens, each displaying the data collected from the nationalized enterprises. In the Opsroom, all industries were homogenized by a uniform system of iconic representation, meant to facilitate the maximum extraction of information by an individual with a minimal amount of scientific training. […] Although [the Opsroom] never became operational, it quickly captured the imagination of all who viewed it, including members of the military, and became the symbolic heart of the project.

Cybersyn never really took off. Stafford had hoped to install “algedonic meters” or early warning public opinion meters in “a representative sample of Chilean homes that would allow Chilean citizens to transmit their pleasure or displeasure with televised political speeches to the government or television studio in real time.”

[Stafford] dubbed this undertaking ‘ The People’s Project ’ and ‘ Project Cyberfolk ’ because he believed the meters would enable the government to respond rapidly to public demands, rather than repress opposing views.

As Cybersyn expanded beyond the initial goals of economic regulation to political-structural transformation, Stafford grew concerned that Cybersyn could prove dangerous if the system wasn’t fully completed and only individual components of the project adopted. He feared this could result in “result in ‘ an old system of government with some new tools … For if the invention is dismantled, and the tools used are not the tools we made, they could become instruments of oppression.” In fact, Stafford soon “received invitations from the repressive governments in Brazil and South Africa to build comparable systems.”

Back in Chile, the Cybernet component of Cybersyn “proved vital to the government during the opposition-led strike of October 1972 (Paro de Octubre).” The strike threatened the government’s survival so high-ranking government officials used Cybernet to monitor “the two thousand telexes sent per day that covered activities from the northern to the southern ends of the country.” In fact, “the rapid flow of messages over the telex lines enabled the government to react quickly to the strike activity […].”

The project’s telex network was subsequently—albeit briefly—used foreconomic mapping:
[The] telex network permitted a new form of economic mapping that enabled the government to collapse the data sent from all over the country into a single report, written daily at [headquarters], and hand delivered to [the presidential palace]. The detailed charts and graphs filling its pages provided the government with an overview of national production, transportation, and points of crisis in an easily understood format, using data generated several days earlier. The introduction of this form of reporting represented a considerable advance over the previous six-month lag required to collect statistics on the Chilean economy […].

Ultimately, according to Stafford, Cybersyn did not succeed because it wasn’t accepted as a network of people as well as machines, a revolution in behavior as well as in instrumental capability. In 1973, Allende was overthrown by the military and the Cybersyn project all but vanished from Chilean memory.

Eden Medina
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Cybernetic Praxis in Government
by Stafford Beer / 14th February 1973

The Third Richard Goodman Memorial Lecture
Delivered at Brighton Polytechnic, Moulsecoomb, Brighton

This is the first memorial lecture I have given for a man I knew personally – a man whom I also loved. He was a tenacious cybernetician, the pioneer of that work here in Brighton, but one whose name at least was known throughout the cybernetic world. More than this and more importantly than this, he had a dedication to humanity. It may not be well known, but I knew, that he was as interested in the cybernetics of society as he was in the more recondite mathematics of the science. And I also know very well that he would have been captivated by the unfinished story I am telling here formally for the first time. If I could have had his advice while the project was unfolding, it might have been a better story. But I still hope that it is worthy of his memory.

In November 1970 Dr Salvador Allende became President of the Republic of Chile. In November 1971 after some letters had passed, a meeting held in London, and some homework done. I arrived in Santiago. There I first met the prepared group of a dozen men who formed the nucleus of a team which is now much larger, and with whom I am still working-for I have been commuting the 8000 miles between London and Santiago ever since. The charge was daunting indeed: how should cybernetics be used in the exercise of national Government? You will note that the question whether cybernetics had any relevance to the problems of society and of government had already been answered affirmatively.

What was and is the situation? The answer as I have intimately known it for these last eighteen months. is immensely complicated. Let me paint my own crude picture for you with a rapid brush. First, more than half the total population lives an urban life in the small central region of this long thin country–a region that perfectly balances the arid North and the wet South in a superb climate. Here the people are highly literate, and constitutionally minded their men are frank and friendly their women gorgeous and gay. There is as great a spirit of freedom in the air as I have sensed anywhere in the world-and decreasingly sense in so much of it today. Yet, as you must surely know. Chile is in the middle of a Marxist revolution that has so far been constitutional, so far legal, so far bloodless.

On the land the previous government had begun a process of agrarian reform and that policy had general agreement. Landowners would no longer control estates larger than eighty hectares -say about 200 acres. The residual land was split up and handed to worker’s co-operatives who have the support of government agencies. In the six years of that previous government about 20º of the programme was implemented. But the people were impatient especially in the South and a deeply embedded bureaucracy slowly moves. New forms of expression were given to agrarian reform and the programme was completed not always in good order. in the first two years of the government of Popular Unity. This rate of change has surely contributed to the current food shortage: not so much perhaps because the new arrangements are inefficient in themselves. but because the remaining landowners-disrupted by these events and fearful of further change-are eating their seed corn rather than investing it in production.

In industry too the new government’s policies of nationalisation and worker participation have been implemented so rapidly that the control of that process was-and remains-extremely difficult. Foreign managers of expropriated firms have mostly left the country, and the problem of finding men to take temporary charge (these are the interventors) was-and remains-severe. It has been exacerbated by a brain drain of native Chileans: too many qualified professionals have left the country. That they should do so was surely implicit in their upbringing and their expectations, but their problem was much aggravated by the psychological panic induced by Opposition campaigns to spread rumours of terrors to come. As to industrial investment, we should note that all the banks were nationalised and those banks hold the internal assets of the landed classes.

Politically the government’s problems have been huge, all along. In the Presidential election that put Dr Allende in power, he obtained only 36% of the vote. The coalition he leads itself contains factions, which struggle for influence between themselves. Throughout he has faced a hostile Congress and Senate, capable of blocking any government initiative by the Oppositions’ majority of 60 % to 40%. On the other hand, the government is empowered to block the majority vote of Congress-so long as its own support is at least a third. Hence the political stalemate, hence the tension of the marginal vote, hence the importance of the Congressional Election next month.

All of this is easily recognised especially in cybernetic terms as a grossly unstable situation. And its explosive economic tendencies were perfectly predictable when 1 first became involved. There had been a very large and very sudden increase in the purchasing power of the rank and file. Wages rose fast for the land-workers in particular – who were put on the same footing as the blue-collar workers.

Social security benefits were much increased for everyone with young, old, or incapacitated dependants. Then clearly there would be a run on stocks: clearly there would be a run on reserves. Indeed this was well understood: on my very first visit a Minister took several hours to explain the risks being run, and the political determination with which those risks were accepted as the price of rapid social progress. The question was whether the government could get a sufficient grip on the situation in time – before this inflationary time-bomb blew up in its face.

In the event it did not, and the state of’ the country is very precarious. It is superficial to think of’ this in terms of food shortages and “housewives marches” tiresome as the food problem certainly is for the middle class. The more important fact is that Chile suffers from the effects of’ an economic blockade. There has been a blockade of spare parts, which has made it even harder to keep agriculture going, industry productive, and transportation moving. There has been a blockade on exports, by which I refer especially to copper – which used to earn more than eighty percent of the country’s foreign exchange. The attempt is being made to close world markets to Chilean copper. and the world price has fallen. Above all, there has been a blockade on foreign credit. And since Chile’s natural resources will one day make it a rich country when those resources are properly deployed, it follows that the stranglehold on credit is not a solely economic matter.

It appears to me that the government did not anticipate the full vindictiveness with which the rich world would react to its actions, which I emphasise have – so far – been perfectly legal. At any rate, a true resolution of the very potent conflicts in Chilean society is not discernible within the mounting instability, and may be long postponed. But I consider that this is largely a phenomenon of’ the cybernetics of international power: you could say that the Chilean people have not been given a chance. They are being systematically isolated behind those beautiful Andes Mountains, and are in a state of siege. The mass media have not helped much-especially inside the country itself, where freedom of speech has been respected in very testing circumstances. Because of its ownership, this freedom is largely employed to oppose the government. Because of its prestige, the anti-government press is widely copied – embroidered even – across the world.

It says a lot for the good intentions of the Government that the work I shall describe been going on in the midst of such obvious turmoil. It wanted scientific tools to help the country’s problems, and it knew that their provision would take time-perhaps long. So it may be proved. The government has so far had to work with the tools governments have used without success. It also wanted to work out the between science and the people, and that too ought to interest us all. We have moved an epoch in which the misuse of science has created a society that is already close to technocracy. The very language – the dehumanised jargon-in which powerful talk about the wars they wage, or powerful companies talk about the people they frankly makes me vomit.

I am a scientist, but to be a technocrat would put me out of business as a man. Yet I was eighteen rnonths ago, intent on creating a scientific way of governing. And here today, proud of the tools we have made. Why? Because I believe that cybernetics can do the job better than bureaucracy – and more humanely too. We must learn how to expunge technocracy, without rejecting science – because the proper use of science is really the world’s brightest hope for stable government. Some people in Chile share that view; and they reject technocracy as strongly as do I. All of us have already been misrepresented in that respect, just as the scientific work we have done has already been misrepresented as analogous to other management control systems that have failed. Both comments miss out the cybernetics, to discuss which we are here – and a subject, which for government in general, is not at all understood.

What is cybernetics that a government should not understand it? It is, as Wiener (1) originally called it twenty-five years ago “the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine”. He was pointing in that second phrase to laws of complex systems that are invariant to transformations of their fabric. It does not matter whether the system be realised in the flesh or in the metal.

What is cybernetics that governi-nent should need it? It is, as I should prefer to define it today. “the science of effective organisation”. In this definition I am pointing to laws of complex systems that are invariant not only to transformations of their fabric, but also of their content. It does not matter whether the system’s content is neurophysiological, automotive, social or economic.

This is not to argue that all complex systems are really the same, nor yet that they are all in some way “analogous”. It is to argue that there are fundamental rules which, disobeyed, lead to instability, or to explosion, or to a failure to learn, adapt and evolve, in any complex system. And those pathological states do indeed belong to all complex systems – whatever their fabric, whatever their content – not by analogy, but as a matter of fact.

With cybernetics we seek to lift the problems of organisational structure out of the ruck of prejudice-by studying them scientifically. People wonder whether to centralise or to decentralise the economy – they are answered by dogmas. People ask whether planning is inimical to freedom – they are answered with doctrines. People demand an end to bureau cracy and muddle—they are answered with a so-called expertise which from its record has no effect. If dogma, doctrine and expertise fall to give effective answers, then what criterion of effectiveness shall cybernetics use? My answer to this question is: the criterion of viability. Whatever makes a system survival-worthy is necessary to it.

Necessary, yes, one might reply, but surely not also sufficient? The more I consider that criticism, the less I see its force. Suppose one was to say for example (pleading necessity), that since a particular anarchic society is failing apart, a high degree of autocracy will be needed to ensure its survival.

Then the critic might say “but this way lies totalitarianism and the loss of human freedom”. Not so, if we adhere to our viability criterion. Because that society would be unstable also: sooner or later would come a revolution-it always does. Suppose one were to say (pleading necessity) that a particular repressive society must throw over all constraint. Then the critic might say “then you will have chaos, and no one will be safe”. But that situation would not conduce to survival either. and the pendulum would swing the other way-it always does. The point is that a truly viable system does not oscillate to those extremes because it is under horneostatic control in every dimension that is important to its survival. Then when it comes to designing systems of government, we need to understand the cybernetic laws of homeostasis. Fortunately, and thanks mainly to Ross Ashby (2), we do understand.

Let me briefly explain. Homeostasis is the tendency of a complex system to run towards an equilibrial state. This happens because the many parts of’ the complex system absorb each other’s capacity to disrupt the whole. Now the ultimately stable state to which a viable system may run (that state where its entropy is unity) is finally rigid – and we call that death. If the system is to remain viable, if it is not to die, then we need the extra concept of an equilibrium that is not fixed, but on the move. What causes the incipiently stable point to move is the total system’s response to environmental change and this kind of adjustment we call adaptation. The third notion that we need to understand homeostasis is the idea of a physiological limit. It is necessary for a viable system to keep moving its stable point but it cannot afford to move it so far or so fast that the system itself is blown apart. It must keep its degree and its rate of change within a tolerance fixed by its own physiology. Revolutions, violent or not, do blow societies apart – because they deliberately take the inherited system outside its physiological limits. Then the system has to be redefined, and the new definition must again adhere to the cybernetic criteria of viability. Then it is useless for whoever has lost his privileges to complain about his bad luck so long as he uses a language appropriate to the system that has been replaced. He must talk the new language or get out. This fact is the fact that is polarising Chilean society now.

By the same token, a society that does not have a revolution violent or not, inevitably goes on talking the inherited system’s language even though the rate of change has made it irrelevant to the problems which that society faces. Perhaps this fact is the fact that begins to polarise British society now.

At any rate, cybernetic analysis – I have tried to give you merely its flavour – enables us to study the problems of a particular society in terms of its viability. In general I have only this to say about societary homeostasis in the nineteen-seventies:
• A homeostat works (and we know all the cybernetic rules) by moving its stable point in a very complicated response to the shocks it receives to its total system.
• Any homeostat takes a finite time to re-establish its new stable point. This is called the relaxation time of the system.
• Today it is typical of social institutions that the mean interval between shocks (thanks to the rate of change) is shorter than the relaxation time. That is because the institutions were originally designed to accept a much longer interval between shocks.
• From this it follows that societary institutions will either go into a state of oscillation, or Plunge into that terminal equilibrium called death.

The cybernetician will expect the politician to adopt one of two basic postures in the face of these systemic troubles.

The first is to ignore the cybernetic facts and to pretend that the oscillations are due to some kind of’ wickedness which can be stamped out. The second is to undertake some kind of revolution, violent or not, to redesign the faulty instruments of government. I do not have to relate the polarisation throughout the entire world to which this cybernetic expectation is the key. But it seems very clear to me as a matter of management science that if’ in these typical circumstances you do not like violence, then you should quickly embark on a pacific revolution in government. If you do not, then violence you will certainly get.

Outstandingly it was Chile that embarked on this recommended course of pacific revolution. But, as I have already argued, the process has strained Chile’s internal homeostatic faculties to the breaking point. Let me restate the reasons I gave before in cybernetic terms. Firstly it is because its minority government has been frustrated in fully restructuring the system according to the criteria of viability. Secondly it is because in the wider world system Chile’s experiment was observed as an oscillation to be stamped out. How this will end I do not know. Meanwhile, however, we had set out to redefine the internal homeostasis.

I went to Chile armed with a model of any viable system, which I very well understood. It had taken twenty years to develop, in modelling, testing, and applying to all manner of organisations. The book expounding it (3) was already in the press when this story started.

One of the key ideas the general theory embodies is the principle of recursion. This says that all viable systems contain viable systems and are contained within viable systems. Then if we have a model of any viable system, it must be recursive. That is to say, at whatever level of aggregation we start, then the whole model is rewritten in each element of the original model, and so on indefinitely.

If we model the state when one element is the economic system: if we model the economic system, then one element is an industrial sector: if we model that industrial sector, then one element is a firm. The model itself’ is invariant. See what happens if we go on with this recursion. An element of the firm is a plant, an element of the plant is a particular shop; an element of’ the shop Is a section: an element of’ the section Is a man. And the man is assuredly a viable system – as a matter fact, the model started from the cybernetic study of’ man’s effective neurophysiological organisation in the first place.

A second key idea was that by using the viability criterion all alone – for the reasons I gave earlier, one might succeed in identifying regions of policy in the total organisational space that represent homeostatically stable points for long term survival. I am pointing now to a possibility that it is open to mankind at last to compute a set of organisational structures that would suit the needs of actual men-as being at once themselves independent viable system with a right of individual choice, and also members of a coherent society which in turn has a right of collective choice. Now one of the main issues identified was the issue of autonomy, or participation (these are catchwords), or perhaps I mean just liberty for whatever element within whatever viable system. Then this means that there ought to be a computable function setting the degree of centralisation consistent with effectiveness and with freedom at every level of recursion. This I now believe. It is a bold claim. Let me try to give it verisimilitude.

Government and management control systems range over a fairly wide spectrum on the autocratic-permissive scale and still remain viable. What is happening in cybernetic terms is that the homeostat connecting “the boss” to the people’s homeostat is either in high or low gear – while still operating within physiological limits. In an autocratic system the people’s homeostat is robbed of flexibility: in a permissive system, it is deprived of guidance and help. As long as oppression and freedom are seen solely as normative values, the outcome is determined by self-interest. Then we get polarisation, and people will fight to the death for a prospect, which is in either case ultimately not viable. But if we raise our eyes to the higher level of the total system in designing government controls, and use the viability criterion to determine the balance point, liberty must be a computable function of effectiveness for any total system whose objectives are known.

For example, when winning a war is the accepted objective – either for a nation or a guerrilla force – personal freedoms are acceptably sacrificed. But when a society fails to define its objectives, its consequent self-indulgence in freedom is met by a running tide of authoritarianism. And this is the explosive situation that so much of the world faces today, whatever its political colour, and at whatever level of recursion. Using the analysis I made a little earlier, the threat is that our world may not be viable much longer. Hence my plea for a cybernetic understanding of what is going on. I do not believe it has anything to do with genuine ethics: it is all about power.

Above all, the polarity between centralisation and decentralisation – one masquerading as oppression and the other as freedom – is a myth. Even if the homeostatic balance point turns out not to be always computable. it surely exists. The poles are two absurdities for any viable system. as our own bodies will tell us. And yet government and business continue the great debate. to the advantage only of those politicians and consultants who find the system in one state and promptly recommend a switch to the other.

These notions are central to the work I shall next describe. In Chile I know that I am making the maximum effort towards the devolution of power. The government made their revolution about it. I find it good cybernetics. But the tools of science are not anywhere regarded as the people’s tools: and people everywhere become alienated from that very science which is their own. Hence we are studying all these matters with the workers. Hence the systems I have to tell you about so far are designed for workers as well as ministers to use. Hence we are working on feedback systems to link the people to their government.

The enemy in all this is the image of exploitation that high science and the electronic computer by now represents. We are fighting that enemy and its ally technocracy. And so it must be only in Chile that you will find a famous folklore singer declaiming: “Seize the benefits that science gives the people in their quest” and “Let us heap all science together, before we reach the end of our tether”.

I am proud to have worked with Angel Parra on that song, which is called Litany for a Computer and a Baby About to be Born. Contrast that title with the headline given to the first public mention of this work which was leaked in a British newspaper last month, and has since been copied all over the world. It said: “Chile run by Computer” – Woe to the sub-editor who wrote that.

All that I have so far said is a very necessary preliminary to a right understanding of the economic control system I shall describe, which in any other terms would be a nightmare. But as society becomes differently understood – cybernetically restructured, politically redefined, differently lived by our children – yesterday’s nightmares may become tomorrow’s dreams. That is true for the whole of’ technological development. Without the re-structuring and the redefinition the nightmare remains as we who live in the polluted wake of ‘the industrial revolution ought very well to know.

The thinking begins with one very clear idea. If things are changing very fast, then government needs instantaneous information. If its information is out of date, then its decisions are worse than irrelevant. Please consider this point very closely.

In 1956, Mr Harold Macmillan (who was at the time Chancellor of the Exchequer) complained that controlling the economy was like trying to catch a train using last year’s Bradshaw (time-table). It was true: the vital statistics of the nation were twelve months out of’ date. Sixteen years later, Mr Harold Wilson (at the time Immediate Past Premier and the newly elected President of the Royal Statistical Society) has recently explained things are better, and maybe many key national statistics are now only six or eight months out of date. And of’ course lags of either magnitude are commonplace in governments throughout the world. It will not do. This is not only because decisions taken cannot the benefit of the latest information, there is a far more ominous reason given in cybernetics.

It is a familiar notion that economic movements operate in cycles. Then out-of-date information is not merely ‘late’ it is precisely incorrect – because it represents some cyclical trend that has since been superseded, but this is not recognised. If economic cycles were regular in periodicity and amplitude there would be no problem and the delay could be easily corrected. The decision-taker would discount the time lag, and extrapolate. Indeed he tries to do this. Please look at Figure 1. By the time we discover either of the crises depicted, those crises are actually over. But we take action without knowing that, and therefore decide on exactly the wrong action each time. Now doing this actually causes instability.

To put the point in proper scientific terms: an unstable oscillation will occur at precisely the frequency for which the time lags cause a phase shift of 180º. The negative feedback signal reinforces – instead of correcting – the original error.

It happens that the time it takes to implement a new government economic policy is of similar order to the statistical delay in acquiring facts, and so it is very possible to have the control system completely out of phase.

Lest this explanation should sound absurdly naive, let me add two reasons why the difficulty is not as perfectly obvious as I have made it appear. In the first place, neither of the lines I have drawn in Figure 1 is clear: both are fuzzy. That is, there is a tremendous amount of ‘noise’ present in the system – much of it deliberately injected by economic participants who stand to gain by causing this confusion. The second point is more difficult. The controller of in economic system is not a straightforward servomechanism with a known transfer function. It is itself a complex system, with its own time lags, which are separate from the time lags in the economy. It too may begin to oscillate, and in my experience, it does. Then there is a distinct likelihood that there will be a resonance effect between the two loops. If so, the oscillation in the controller would actually force a new oscillation onto the already oscillating system.

No wonder then that no one can disentangle all these effects, and no wonder that we do not perceive anything as simple as Figure 1 proposes. But in the absence of a complete explanation there is something that we can do. Instead of solving the problem, we can dissolve it. Let us get rid of all the time lags. Indeed we ought to break with the very idea of arbitrarily quantized managerial time. Just as lags in reporting the past produce a bogus periodicity, so quite clearly do the lags fed forward in planning the future. A year’s forward projection, or five-year plan, predetermine the cycle of expenditure and investment, and betray the capability of a viable system to adapt to environmental change. We cannot afford to await ‘the next quinquennial review’ when someone is standing on our foot.

What is the alternative to these inherited systems of lagged quantized reporting on what has happened and lagged, quantized response to projected change? The answer from the mid-sixties onward has been and remains real time control. We have the technology to do it. This concept was fundamental to the plan we drew up for Chile in late 1971. We would abandon the hare-and-tortoise race to make relevant statistics overtake the lag in data, capture, and analysis, and implant a real-time nervous system in the economy instead. We would forget about the bureaucratic planning systems that talk in terms of months and years, norms and targets, and implant a continuously adaptive decision-taking, in which human foresight would be permanently stretched as far in any context as this real-time input of information could take it. Above all, we would use our cybernetic understanding of filtration to deploy computers properly as quasi-intelligent machines instead of using them as giant data banks of dead information. That use of computers taken on its own as it usually is, in my opinion, represents the biggest waste of a magnificent invention that mankind has ever perpetrated. It is like seeking out the greatest human intellects of’ the day, asking them to memorise the telephone book, and then telling them to man ‘Directory Enquiries’ at the telephone exchange.

Having advocated all these policies for many years in Britain and elsewhere before going to Santiago I was alert to the potential objections. I knew very well what is the standard response of economists, of managers, of civil servants, of ministers, and of ‘established’ science to these ideas. Let me list seven of them and give you the answers in brief, since some (though I trust not all) of these worries may be in your minds already.

• First Objection: The boss will be overwhelmed with data.

Answer: Not so. This is what happens now, as any manager who has had a foot-high file of computer read-out slapped in front of him can attest. The idea is to create a capability in the computer to recognise what is important, and to present only that very little information – as you shall see.

• Second Objection: The management machine will over-react to such speedy signals, which may not be representative.

Answer: Not so. This also happens now, as shown embryonically in Figure 1. The objection disregards cybernetic knowledge of filtration, and damping servo-mechanics.

• Third Objection: Such a system would be too vulnerable to corrupt inputs.

Answer: Not so, again. Present inputs are corrupt and go undetected because they are aggregated and because the time has passed when they could be spotted. Clever computer programmes can make all sorts of checks on a real-time input to see if it is plausible.

• Fourth Objection: ‘Intelligent’ computer programmes to do all this are still in the science-fiction stage.

Answer: This is woolly thinking. People do not really think out what is involved because they conceive to the computer as a fast adding machine processing a databank – instead of seeing in the computer, quite correctly, the logical engine that Leibniz first conceived. The computer can do anything that we can precisely specify: and that includes testing hypotheses by calculating probabilities – as again you shall see.

• Fifth Objection: Even so, such programmes would take hundreds of man-years to write and be debugged.

Answer : I am sorry, but they did not. That is because the people involved in both London and Santiago were first rate programmers who understood what they were doing. Let me be brutal about this: how many managers are aware of the research done into the relative effectiveness of programmers? They should be. The best are anything from ten to twenty times as good as the worst; and when it comes to cybernetic programming, only the very best can even understand what is going on.

• Sixth Objection: A real-time system with on-line inputs? It is Big Brother; it is 1984 already.

Answer: Stop panicking and work out the notion of autonomy. I have still more so say about this later. All technology can be, and usually is, abused. When people turn their backs on the problem, crying touch-me-not, the abuse is the worse.

• Seventh Objection: Only the United States has the money and the knowledge to do this kind of thing: let them get on with it.

Answer: “I find that slightly boring”

Note: This objection was voiced to me in one of’ the highest level scientific committees in this land. The answer came from the Chairman and I was glad not to be in his withering line of fire at the time. But he did not prevail, and neither did I.

In Chile it took just four months to link up the key industrial centres to computers lit the capital city – using a mixture of Telex lines and microwave connections (Figure 2). Purists may well point out that this does not constitute a real-time teleprocessing network and they will be right. However, we have used the real-time philosophy and have simulated an on-line system. The programs are written for that: and if someone will kindly donate the teleprocessing equipment, it will soon be in action. (I have mentioned the problem of’ foreign exchange already.) Meanwhile, we have to use too many human interfaces. But I am not going to apologise much about that. The fact is that we can cope with daily input and that is-relatively-very close to real-time: in normal government terms, you cannot tell the difference.

This communications network was in itself a fairly simple technological manoeuvre; but even so it constitutes a big advance for government cybernetics. During the October crisis of 1972, some of the most senior people in Chilean government came fully to understand in practice what Wiener had expounded theoretically long before – communication is indeed control.

Well: to know today what was the state of the industrial economy yesterday is a considerable advance on knowing what it was six months or a year ago. But we were trying to do more than merely get up to date. Frankly, there is not much point in knowing what happened even yesterday – because even yesterday is the purest history. Nothing can be done about it any longer. But if we can get hold of a close idea of what is going to happen next week, then we have at least a chance of doing something about that. And certainly knowing what has been happening over the last few days is the best basis for estimating what likely to happen over the next few days….

The question is how? One may call for data, but he has to meet the problems I listed just now (- the ‘fatal’ British Objections -) if he is to make effective use of them. One may know all about yesterday, but he has to be fairly ingenious to say the right things about next week. The initial four-month plan of action, which had included setting up the communications network, tackled these problems too: and it successfully defeated them.

Interdisciplinary operational research teams set out to make (crude. but effective) models of all the major enterprises in the social economy. These were not to be the vast, static, historical, and essentially out of date and non-stochastic input-output matrices beloved of so many state planners. We wanted to get at the dynamic systems which made the enterprises tick; and we wanted them in a form that managers and ministers could immediately grasp. Therefore we used a visible and visualizable type of model, called a “quantified flow-chart”. Start with production (a Marxist government has no illusions about the source of the creation of wealth). If we list the production operations of the firm and their productive capability, we can make a map of production flow – in which the flow lines are proportional to the relative amounts of flow, using some convenient measure, and the operations themselves are boxes at the confluences – also shown in relative sizes according to their productive capability.

Now of course if that kind of presentation can be made for the flow of production it can be made for any other kind of dynamic system in which management may be interested: cash flow, for example, or the deployment and movement of people and of goods. And although we started out on this task under the aegis of Operational Research, I am hopeful that as people become accustomed to the idea we can use a better approach. Do we really need objective scientific enquiry to understand what the structure of the system is and how it should best be quantified? Actually not. The people who best understand what these systems are really like are the people who operate them. You do not need a string of degrees to understand how to make a quantified flow chart of the activity that surrounds your daily life. So here I hope will be the start of ‘participation’ in the future: and OR expertise will be used merely in teaching and in guidance.

With this simple device we start on the road leading to the answer to those objections about overload. In cybernetics we have an actual measure of complexity which we call variety. By devising systems in which homeostats are set up between management and whatever is managed, we embark on the process that I have labelled ‘variety engineering’.

The quantified flock, chart is in itself a variety attenuating filter. In the first place, it can select its own degree of optical resolution. For example, it can show a box called simply steel production: or it can show three boxes identifying kinds of steel production – by open-hearth, electric arc, and converter. say: or it can show every individual furnace. By the same token, it can lump together all the materials that go into a steel-making furnace charge, or it can distinguish between them. This variety engineering concerns the account of the operation that has meaning for a particular management group, and the degree of optical resolution chosen depends on the level of recursion at which this operation is being considered. In the second place, iconic representation is also a variety attenuator in the suppression of words and numerical data: it is a product of Gestalt psychology, in which pattern is relied upon to convey information.

The next variety attenuator involved in this representation is the concept of capability. The real-time variation in actual flows and outputs is killed in the iconic quantified flow chart, and referred instead to a relatively static idea of ‘what can be done’. You might think that this would be difficult to define, but in practice it is fairly easy. Capability is a systems concept: what outputs is the total system capable of generating in each part, given the limitations imposed on any part of the system by other parts? Then ‘capability’ is not to be confused with ‘capacity’ which is not a systems concept – because it alleges that some part of the system can in theory do something that may be rendered impossible by other parts. This variety attenuator is valuable because it reflects reality for the whole system concerned, and that has meaning for the recipient of the iconic representation.

However, we could – given a breakthrough of some kind – do better than the results of which we are currently capable. After all: if capacity exceeds capability in some parts of the system, there must be other parts of the system (called bottlenecks) that are actively restricting capability. These bottlenecks may have to do with low local capacities, or they may have to do with technological constraints. For example: a mill’s engine might be perfectly adequate to drive its rolls at twice their current speed – if only we had a better lubricant. Then these considerations define potentiality, which is something better than capability. Potentiality is the performance of which the system would be capable, “if only. . . . .” That does not mean that we look for pie in the sky: it means that we look for investment – in new equipment to cure the bottlenecks, or in research to cure technological shortcomings. It is not very difficult keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground, to define a system’s potentiality.

But if potentiality is better than capability, there is something worse – and that is actuality. The performance of systems cannot rise to their potentiality without investment of some kind, it cannot even rise to their capability unless activity is perfectly well organised. It never is. In consequence, what actually happens falls short of the capability expressed before. Moreover, actuality expresses that very reality of which I spoke earlier – the day-to-day vicissitudes of life. It was this continuous variation which drove our thinking down the road to real-time control. Somehow we have ended up with three versions of systemic truth: actuality, continuously fluctuating; capability, a much steadier variable; potentiality which is absolute until the system itself is structurally changed. And it is capability which the iconic representations represent. To make them show potentiality would for the moment, be unrealistic, to make them show actuality would, at all times, result in their dancing in perpetual fandango before our eyes. So this capability attenuator is a powerful but sensible reducer of operational variety.

So be it, in so far as iconic flow charts are concerned. But what about continuous reporting and the problems of real-time control? Whatever information we collect, it is due to be hurled round dozens of homeostatic loops – those loops that make up the total systems design. That information has very high variety: and the analysis we have just made multiplies it by a factor of three -or so it seems, if we want a measure not only of actuality, but of capability and potentiality as well ….. But rescue is in sight. Both capability and potentiality are relatively static measures. If we take their ratio the resulting index will also be relatively static. Moreover, such a ratio will be a massive variety attenuator – because it ill be a pure number, varying between nought and one. So instead of trying to consider all-in-one-breath that we have a capability of 800,000 tons and a potentiality of 1,000,000 tons, we shall think of a ratio of 0.8. While the capability to use 110 men contrasted with a potentiality to use only 22 yields a ratio of 0.2, and the capability cost of an item of product at 120 escudos compared with a potential cost of 60 escudos indicates a ratio of 0.5. Well what is potential in current capability is a latent resource: and it could be freed by investment in some form. So I call the ratio between capability and potentiality the Latency Index. Looking at a new iconic diagram (Figure 4) we can see how potent a variety attenuator has been devised.

There is no need any longer to try and assimilate the numbers that characterise the units measured. That is the strength of an index -it is a pure number, varying over a fixed range. Hundreds of thousands of tons: hundreds and tens of men, units of money, there is no need to wrestle with them. Nor, if we stick to our ideas about iconic diagrams is there any real need to use digits at all. We can distinguish very clearly, using our eyes, between the levels represented in the iconic diagram. It might satisfy an accountant, but it would make no difference to a manager, to declare that a Latency Index had changed from 0.71 to 0.73. Who cares? The computers behind the manager’s eyes will undertake whatever process of discrimination has meaning for his Judgmental brain. Then this was the first though massive piece of variety engineering we set out to achieve in Chile, on those initial (crude, but effective) models contrived at an appropriate level of optical resolution of all the firms. As I said, the Latency Index is all about investment, and we shall certainly return to it later.

Meanwhile we must consider actuality, the real-time variable in the entire system. For if a Latency difference between 0.71 and 0.73 means nothing because both potentiality and capability are fairly static, such a difference in a fast-moving index could mean something very important. It might be part of a trend. I have already explained the arrangements by which the data representing actuality come into Santiago every day. They are used to form a second ratio, comparing actuality (the newly arrived figure) with capability (selected from the computer store). This is the Productivity Index. It is in a continual state of oscillation, which destroys the variety that is of no concern. In the next diagram (Figure 5), we can see how the three concepts of actuality, capability and potentiality are combined as two ratios to form the Latency and Productivity Indices, and how these in turn create an overall Performance Index. The reason for this iconic representation, in place of the familiar mathematical notation. lies in the fact that which part of the ratio is the numerator and which the denominator depends on what is being measured. For instance, capability is always better than actuality, but in numerical terms it may be more (e.g. output) or less (e.g. man-hours per unit). Naturally enough, the smaller number in the ratio is the numerator, since the index will be less than 1.0.

The indices procure an enormous variety reduction: even so, we still have problems in conforming to Ashby’s Law of Requisity Variety when it comes to managing the economy. The company production models for instance generate on average about ten triple-indices per plant: these always include raw material and finished stocks, the output of key production processes, and labour absenteeism. This degree of resolution is minimal, and managements have free rein to install whatever extra indicators they like. This honours the argument for autonomy, and it makes an insignificant difference to the workload of the computers because all the numbers inside the computational system are diurnal time series of indices varying between nought and one. The programmes are therefore infinitely extensible in application. Even so, with the system in full operation, many thousands of actuality inputs will arrive daily, generating three times as many indices; and the total number could easily rise by two orders of magnitude as the autonomy criterion is understood by managements, the operational research goes deeper, and worker participation becomes real. And so we reach the more subtle notions of variety engineering.

If a particular indicator. say the rate of crushing limestone in a cement factory in Northern Chile. is generating a new Productivity Index every day. what ought to be done with it’? Should we lay the new figure, each day, on the desk of the Minister of Economics? Surely not, this variety must also be filtered. There are two statistical notions involved, and the first is very simple. A population of (say) a hundred such figures generates a probability distribution. This may turn out to be oddly-shaped. rather than straightforwardly Gaussian. and especially it may be skewed to the right (since the index has a finite limit of one). It is a simple matter, however. to correct for this statistical aberration, by using a trigonometrical transformation. Then we may establish the mean and variance of this population of indices. These two statistics, all alone, characterise the stochastic behaviour of each index over time. Then if we take a running sample of the indexical figures as they are computed. it is easy to establish whether a significant change in the mean or variance of the statistical population has occurred. The statistical population characterising each indicator is known as the taxonomic index, because it classifies every measured activity within every operation according to its mean productivity. There is a standard computer programme that looks for changes in the taxonomic index; if such a change is found, that is notified to the management concerned. and the iconic graph is changed. Further, the history of the index over time is updated (Figure 6). These are relatively rare events. but the procedure mentioned absorbs the variety engendered perfectly well.

The more difficult problem and the more sophisticated statistical notion concerns the possible trend that each new daily figure may betray. If the economy is to be under real time control, the government cannot wait to know that a significant change has been registered for a particular taxonomic index. Although this is already much to be preferred to the orthodox system of routinely quantizing statistics where the recognition of significant change is left first to the alertness and next to the judgement of whoever is supposed to be watching the results. No, it is much more than this: we approach the problem of breaking the time barrier. Can we tell from yesterday’s figure and the short-term run in which it participates, what will happen (unless we intervene) tomorrow and next week? It is the problem of short-term forecasting with which a great deal of progress has been made in recent years.

Allow me once more to return to the facts of the Chilean work. Before the end of 1971 I had designed a specification for the computer programme to deal with taxonomic indices having daily actuality inputs, and it was in the hands of a team of operational research consultants in London, who had been commissioned to write the programs. We were discussing she short-term forecasting problem, when the London team discovered a brand new paper in the Operational Research Quarterly, – hot off the press. The authors were Harrison and Stevens and they had clearly made a major advance in the field of short-term forecasting (4). We had been talking in terms of Cusum (cumulative sum) techniques to this point- as representing the best available practice. Cusum itself was associated with the first author. who had been pressing its virtues for many years, so we were naturally impressed that this novel development came from him. The obvious power of the method (always supposing it worked), and the elegance of the mathematical demonstration behind the approach convinced us to take the plunge. It was a noteworthy decision. The London team wrote a temporary suite of programs, which included the Harrison-Stevens approach and incredibly had it working in Santiago by the March 1972 deadline of the first phase of the operation mentioned already. Meanwhile they began work on the permanent version, creating a specification that was handed over to the Chilean scientists. In the meantime, as the system was growing, experience was gained in the actual use of these complicated program suites. and they grew in sophistication all the time. But these developments, vitally important though they are, must await presentation by the men made them possible in more technical papers than this.

This suite of computer programs, called CYBERSTRIDE, is the essential feature of the filtration system that achieves the variety attenuation demanded, and which breaks the time barrier of’ which I was speaking. It takes as input the actuality figures every day: makes various checks on their integrity: it computes the triple-indices: it makes statistical judgements about the taxonomic indices as I have already described. After that, using Harrison-Stevens techniques, it really gets clever.

When a new value for any index is computed, Cyberstride looks at it in the context of the recent history of that index (Figure 7). The new point might stand for any one of the four outcomes depicted. It stands for no change or for a transient (neither of which maters to the manager), or it stands for a change of slope, or for a step function, (both of which possibilities matter very much). Using Bayesian statistical theory, the program calculates the posterior probability of’ each of these four events – for every index, every day. The programme is incredibly sensitive to these changes recognising them long before the human brain would dare to make a judgement. Cybernetically speaking, the system (as Harrison and Stevens claimed) is self-adaptive: its sensitivity increases whenever uncertainty increases – which happens whenever an apparently unusual index value is thrown up. Moreover, instead of producing merely single-figure forecasts (and who can foretell the future with that kind of precision?) it produces a joint parameter distribution that expresses the inherent uncertainty of all forecasting.

So this is what I meant in speaking of computers as quasi-intelligent machines. Cyberstride throws away the huge component of variety that has no meaning because it represents a chance fluctuation. It is at once alert to significant changes focussing on them an analytical eye, and capable of estimating on the strength of that analysis what will happen next. The only problem we had with Cyberstride, and it was very severe, was its calibration in terms of these posterior probabilities: how sensitive should it be made? Obviously, it could discard too much or become overexcited about too little. The ‘tuning’ subroutine that fixes these limits of excitation, so analogous to the so-called physiological limits of variation in any homeostat, was the big achievement of the Chilean scientists working on Cyberstride.

The variety engineering is complete-for the lowest level of recursion, the enterprise itself. If it would have been ludicrous to confront the Minister of Economics with the whole variety of fluctuating indices. it would still be absurd to inform him of even highly significant movements in the limestone-crushing activity of a cement plant in Northern Chile. Absurd yes, but also ominous I am sure you recall the argument about autonomy and over-centralisation. What happens in Chile is this. The results of applying Cyberstride daily to the new inputs which quantify the iconic flowcharts, are fed straight back to the managements concerned. It is their responsibility to do something about the warnings that are generated in this way by quasi-intelligent machines. No other human being than the responsible manager receives any information about this extremely elaborate piece of computation and I attach very weighty importance to this fact.

Then, you will ask, what about the other levels of recursion? The manager of the enterprise is very well served by all of this especially so since he can pump any indexical series he cares to contemplate into the routine – and receive the alerting advice whenever it is available. Meanwhile he may feel perfectly confident that an absence of alerting advice means that whatever operations or activities are being monitored for him by Cyberstride are fluctuating within the physiological range of chance variation. But what about the Sector Committee, the Industrial Branch, the Minister of Economics himself? These are higher levels of recursion: how are they to be informed?

Here is the coup de grace of the cybernetician, in his role as variety engineer. All viable systems are contained within viable systems. It is the principle of recursion; the model is the same. So it is easy to see what next to do. The iconic representations called quantified flow-charts are to be aggregated at sector level aggregated again at the industrial branch level, and aggregated finally at the level of total Industry. The quantifiers (those actualities, capabilities, and potentialities) are to be aggregated too-not. as is orthodox practice, in terms of averages, but in terms of new operational research models (crude, but effective) of the level of recursion concerned. In that case, raw data-heavily processed through atomic indices and through Cyberstride which produces exceptions known only to the manager concerned-bypass that atomic level of recursion, and become raw material for a molecular level of aggregation higher up. Here they lose their identity, they merge (not by averaging but by modelling) into new molecular indices.

But the new indices, although they have lost a great deal of variety in the process of molecular aggregation, have acquired variety by the sheer amalgamation of so many enterprises. How shall we deal requisitely with this new variety? Well, it is represented by triple-indices, all operating between nought and one. So although the level of recursion changes and although the atomic index changes to a molecular index, the Cyberstride suite of programmes is invariant. The whole process I have described starts again. This time and again exceptional information is fed back to its proper level of’ recursion: the sector or the branch or the minister.

Return with me now for the last time to the vexed issue of ‘autonomy. I regard the whole of this work as a fanfare for freedom – but for effective freedom. The claim was made that the degree of autonomy, and its complement the degree of centralisation, are computable functions of viability. I stick to that. By separating the levels of recursion, and within those levels by preserving freedom for each separately designed interlocking homeostat, the maximum autonomy consistent with effective organisation is assured. A problem remains. What happens when, for whatever reason, the appropriate homeostat at the appropriate level of recursion FAILS TO ACT?

Many a freedom must have been lost from the fear of those in power that subservient systems down the line would not do their jobs. And if not, it makes a good excuse for the tyrant. This is a classic and intransigent problem, but we can now deal with it easily – if we keep our cybernetic heads. An autonomous unit is supposed to react to any adverse exception reports that it receives from Cyberstride. How long will that take.and how much does it matter? The answer to both questions will vary widely. In our work we have included in the operational research modelling a requirement to assess the possible rate of reaction to change and the relative importance to the system modelled of such a change, for every indicator. When the computer sends an exception report to a manager, at whatever level of recursion, it computes for the message an acceptable delay time, which is a function of both the possible reaction time and the importance, and it starts a clock. If our quasi-intelligent machine fails to detect an improvement within this allotted time, it breaks with the autonomy and notifies the next level of recursion (as well as telling the responsible manager that it has done so).

These special signals are different in kind from the routine management signals. We call them “algedonic”. The word means pain-and-pleasure and it was work in neurocybernetics that taught me this answer. We rely on our bodily organs to do their jobs, but if they should fail we get a special signal – transmitted by specially adapted neural pathways – that bring the facts to our conscious attention. The mechanism is precautionary. Clearly it involves a threat to autonomy but the body politic cannot sustain the risk of autonomic inaction any more than we can as human beings. And remember that there is nothing covert about this. The delay factors are discussed with the managers concerned, and they are informed if the algedonic signal is transmitted. Indeed they may be very relieved – if the problem is seen as beyond their control – to know that the signal has automatically gone.

In this way, just as in the body, a sign of special distress automatically breaks through to whatever level is required to deal with it (Figure 8). For if the management group which receives the signal falls to act within its appropriate time delay, the signal will go up to the level next above. Thus the signal makes it possible for a problem concerning that limestone crusher in the cement factory to reach the President’s Economic Control, let us hope that never happens: but it would be surprising if signals of distress were never received there from the Sector level.

The real-time control system I have so briefly described is founded on the following elements:
A cybernetic model of any viable system,
A cybernetic analysis of the real-life systems appropriate to each level of recursion and their iconic representation;
A design of a large number of interlocking homeostats, the provision of a national communications network capable of operating now on a daily basis and eventually on the basis of continuous input; variety engineering throughout the system to incorporate filtration on the human brain’s scale; And the Cyberstride computer program suite capable of monitoring inputs, indexical calculations, taxonomic regulation, short-term forecasting by Bayesian probability theory, autonomic exception reporting, and algedonic feedback. It makes quite a package, and it exists. It represents a system of here-and-now management of the economy that is not based on historical records, but on an immediate awareness of the state of affairs and the protection of that awareness into the short-term future.

Let us call this whole thing the NOW system. Then clearly we also need the FUTURES system. What are we doing all this for? If government is not to be merely the management of perpetual crisis it needs to look ahead. Party-political programmes are supposed to be all about the kind of society the people want and the government is supposed to be dedicated to achieving that. In practice, perpetual crisis drives out mandated intentions. It even happens (dare I say?) that entire sets of electoral policies become reversed when power is granted. This can be only because government has no arrangements for realistic normative planning. It has a political theory but it does not understand the system it is manipulating. It is just laughable to say for example: “the theory is all right but the trade unions (or the City, or the banks, or the people themselves) will not operate the theory”. The unions, the City, the banks, and the people are all elements of the total system that the government claims to be able to govern.

Thus I introduce what I have to say about long-range planning in terms of understanding systems and how they respond: and I do so in deliberate contrast to the many schools of thought that base their conception of inventing the future simply on forecasting it. My objection to that approach is twofold. In the first place I do not believe that we can forecast the future – and that is a fairly strong objection. The future I reckon, is known only to God, and it seems to me that the class of men who have always come nearest to perceiving his intentions are the science fiction writers. They have usually been very close to scientific reality. The people who run society who are famous for being ‘realistic’ and ‘responsible’ turn out to be outrageously irresponsible just because they are so unrealistic. Their unrealism consists in a refusal to notice what science is actually doing and a refusal to think through the inevitable systemic consequences of the politics they underwrite.

These were the reasons why I was determined to provide the Chilean government with an instrument for investigating the systemic consequences of alternative courses of action. For there really are choices to be made. When you read that car prices in Chile have gone up by 900% in a single year, what is your response? Is this the inevitable result of Marxist dogma, is it just what you expect from nationalisation, is it a measure of inflation or what? To whom does it occur that it may be the result of a deliberate choice between economic desiderata? Thus, are we all brainwashed by the consumer society in which the motor car is an absolute good.

The second reason why I object to the forecasting approach to long-range planning is that it assumes that there is a “future” out there lying in wait for us. This is not true, except in so far as larger systems beyond our own – and in which we acquiesce – take a stranglehold on us. I have already suggested that this may doom the Chilean experiment. The real freedom we have is to change our structures and our policies so that the future is different from the future we should have encountered had we not made those changes. And this is where understanding dynamic systems becomes the task. The fact is that we need not to forecast but to experiment.

Experimentation is not easily or perhaps justifiably done when we are talking of social institutions. Scientists undertake social experiments on animal populations, which they try to use as models of human populations-but the discrepancies, may be very wide. Probably the best experimental tool available is the computer simulation. According to this approach, one programmes a computer to represent the dynamic social situation, and then experiments on that. If one asks how such a model could possibly be validated-he learns that the model can be fed with historic data – on the basis of which it ought to simulate the appropriate historic outcome. That is at least a start in a demonstration of validity.

I introduce the topic of dynamic systems simulation in this way, calling it an experimental tool, because I consider there to be a great deal of misunderstanding on the subject. If we experiment on a model putting in possible policies and reading off possible outcomes, then of course we appear to be making predictions. Some people have been causing a great deal of public disquiet with some such predictions about the ecosystemic future of the planet. Personally, I do not mind their doing so – because I believe the public ought to be thoroughly disquieted on this score. But we must make methodological distinctions here. In so far as these models make predictions, it is vital that projections of the input variables be correctly made. There is the rub because specialists disagree quite fundamentally about the trends that have been built into some of those models. Clearly if it is taken as input that fossil fuel will run out by a certain date, then predictions for the ecosystem incorporating this input will be falsified if that date turns out to be wrong. But suppose our objective is not to make predictions but to make experiments to find out how the ecosystem works. That is a different matter. We should put in a whole range of possible dates for the exhaustion of fossil fuel, and find out what difference they made to total performance and by when. After that, we should have a good idea what policy to adopt towards research into novel sources of energy. And that policy would not be the fruit of predictions that might well be falsified, it would be the embodiment of our understanding as to where the system’s vulnerability lies.

My belief is that government planning should be based on this same idea. If we make a dynamic model of the economy, concentrating our power of resolution on the areas in which our decisions appear most unsure or most frightening, then we shall learn how the system operates. The first task is to identify the crucial parameters, which (because complex systems are richly interactive and internally reverberating) are not always the parameters assumed to be critical. It is quite characteristic of cybernetic studies to obtain results that are counter-intuitive. Therein lies their value. The next task is to discover how these parameters may best be manipulated which (because political dealing is a complicated business too) may be in roundabout ways rather than by direct intervention.

What matters about a dynamic system if you want to understand how it behaves, is not so much noticing the sore points themselves, nor resolving the apparently insoluble politics of applying remedies to those sore points – all of which turn out to be unacceptable remedies for some segment of the population. What matters is to change the structure of the system so that homeostatic equilibrium is restored and the sore points disappear. That involves variety engineering: it is likely to mean the redesign of institutions, the addition of informational feedbacks, and the calculated change of time lags in various rates of flow. Economists, perhaps, would not recognise those three cybernetic prescriptions as counting towards the solution of what are regarded as economic problems. But are all our problems economic? I think there is a prior set of problems about the regulation of society (which it falls to governments to solve), which may well have economic causes and consequences, but which are themselves about effective organisation.

Returning to the Chilean story then, we wanted to create a facility for normative planning, suitable for all levels of recursion, embodying dynamic system simulation. Now the task of inventing a fresh computer compiler for this purpose was outside our time-scale. A number of compilers exist, and we chose to use the Dynamo compiler in its latest version (5). The choice was made on the grounds of its elegance and its relatively long existence- meaning that it is very well debugged. The choice has been criticised and will be again – because this is the very compiler used in the work that I referred to as making predictions about the planet using inputs that many ecologists regard as insecure. To me, that is like blaming the pornographic content of a book on the English language in which it is written. My defence of the compiler says nothing about my concurrence or otherwise with ecological predictions any more than hearing my defence of English would tell you my views on pornography.

For the record then, we again formed two teams – one in Santiago and the other in London. These teams were organised differently from the two Cyberstride teams and had no members in common, and this simulation pair operated in a different way. Instead of members of the London team taking program suites out to Santiago to be developed, as happened with Cyberstride, a member of the Chilean team came to London to learn a cybernetic skill. Moreover, whereas all the Cyberstride runs using actual data were undertaken on the Santiago computers the simulation runs for a long time were undertaken on computers in London. In this way dynamic systems models for the Chilean futures system were originally developed, but by now, the whole of the work is being done in Santiago.

There is much that is new about these models. but for obvious reasons I shall not discuss their content. What is worth remarking upon is the status of the information fed into them. As I said just now models of this type are often criticised on the grounds that their inputs are suspect. Now this is not surprising: because, as I also said before, economic information at the national level is usually about a year out of date. But Cyberstride produces information that is immediate. Then there is a question about the interface between the real-time control system and the futures system. If absolutely current information can be used continuously to update our models of the world, a new era dawns in national planning. Well, at any rate it happens just like that in the brain. We should indeed be foolish to choose between the alternatives open to us as men on the strength of knowing what our circumstances were like last year.

And now we reach the final question, How do we ‘get it all together’. How is so much sophisticated science to be made available to those who bear the brunt? In most countries this is a function for the civil service. Those people constitute the ultimate filter. The ministerial briefing stands, however, responsibly, between the minister and all those urgent facts of the NOW system, all those experiments in foresight of the FUTURES system.

I wanted ministers to have a direct experience, an immediate experience, an experimental experience. And what goes for ministers goes also at another level of recursion for managers -whether the managers of the social economy or (at yet other levels of recursion) of enterprises or of plants. Above all, if “participation” has any meaning, no one must be disbarred because of an inadequate grasp of jargon, of figure-work, of high-level rituals. As I have told you before, the workers themselves must have access to the whole of this. Let me put the point before you in two contrasting ways.

When I first expounded the cybernetic model of any viable system (which I have not expounded today) to President Allende, I did so on a piece of paper lying between us the table. I drew for him the entire apparatus of interlocking homeostats in terms of’ neurophysiological version of the model – since he is by profession a medical man. It consists of a five-tier hierarchy of systems. I worked up through the first, second, third and fourth levels. When I got to the fifth I drew an historionic breath – all ready to say “And this, companero presidente, is you”. He forestalled me “Ah” he said with a broad smile as I drew the topmost box: “at last – the people”.

I do not care what political outlook any of us may have: that story ought to convey a profound message. It deeply affected me, and it affects this work. The second perception of the same point that I give you comes from that Litany written by the folklore singer Angel Parra, which I quoted at the outset. This is what his song says on the subject (my translation):

Equal I say to the Minister
Selling promises forlorn
Since all of us are hostage
For that baby to be born.

Society can no more afford the alienation of the people from the processes of government than it can afford their alienation from science.

And is this really a political question any more once we say that all of us are men? The fact is that no man, worker, or minister has more neurological jelly-ware than anyone else – although he may make marginally better use of his endowment. We have seen how that man, minister, or worker, can be saved from drowning in an inundation of statistics and reports – through variety engineering and the deployment of computers as quasi-intelligent machines. But how does the filtered information get into his head?

The answer to this lies in the operations room. If the connotation of that phrase reminds some people of a wartime headquarters, the allusion is quite deliberate. For in the ops room real-time information is laid out quite graphically for immediate decision, and in the opsroom a synoptic view of the whole battle is made plain so that the total system can be encompassed by human powers of foresight. We used every scrap of relevant scientific knowledge in designing the place – neurocybernetic knowledge of brain processes, knowledge from applied and group psychology, knowledge from ergonomics.

The opsroom looks like a film set for a futuristic film. But it is not science fiction it is science fact. It exists, and it works, it exists and it works for the worker as well as the minister. (Photographs of this opsroom are reproduced on the inside of the dust jacket of this book.) There are seven chairs in there, because seven is the maximum creative group. There are various screens in there, all using iconic representations of information, because those are the sort the human brain can best handle.

The central screen-central in that all the others are referred to it – is a picture of the viable system (Photograph 3). It is eight feet high and four feet wide, and it is set up according to the recursion theorem for whatever group happens to be using the room. The operations involved are marked in the circles, the current molecular indexical levels for the taxonomic triple-index in each element are shown by iconic descriptions in the square boxes. The total square in each case stands for potentiality: then the green level is actuality, and the red level is capability. You can see how easy it is if you remember the explanation about their ratios to get an immediate grasp of the relative levels of Productivity and Latency in each case.

There are a great many interlocking homeostats operating here which can be discussed as people come to understand the cybernetic laws that govern their behaviour. This is not readily understood from a still photograph and in fact this screen is animated. There are no arrows to be seen, therefore: just moving lines. Scientists often suppose that to mark a line with an arrow makes it clear that the total system so encumbered with arrows is actually dynamic. Not so, people read the arrows as indicating directional, but still static relationships. Besides, the most critical loops here operate at differential speeds (they can be changed) – which tells the brain a great deal about the relative lags in the system.

In the top third of the diagram, three boxes may be noted. The lower of these controls the NOW system, and the central one controls the FUTURES system. The top box (the boss or ‘the people’) monitors their interaction. to which attention is drawn in the animation by a constant movement in the big yellow circle.

The Cyberstride exception reports flow on the horizontal red lines and when they exist, an Exception Screen is lit giving details. An algedonic signal is indicated by flashing red arrows on the vertical axis. In the photograph, such a signal may be seen emanating from the middle element: and any algedonic activity lights the Algedonic Screen.

Shown in Photograph 4 are the two screens I have just mentioned. On the left is the Exception Screen, showing two alerting signals from Cyberstride, together with a first indication of the kind of warning coming through. On the right is the Algedonic Screen, showing signals from two different levels of recursion below – each marked by a red light flashing at a different speed. As I said, attention veers to these two real-time inputs because of the clues given on the main screen first described. Obviously both these screens are currently set up by hand, whereas they could be set by direct electronic output from the computer. But I would like to repeat that this is simply an annoyance due to component shortages it does not represent a gap in the total cybernetic system.

This then is the real-time input to the opsroom – its sensing devices spreading out over three thousand miles of country, and its quasi-intelligent filtration continuously reducing an immense informational variety to human proportions. Then what will our seven-man team of creative thinkers want to do next? For make no mistake, the opsroom is a decision machine, in which men and equipment act in symbiotic relationship to amplify their respective powers in one new synergy of enhanced intelligence. They have to start talking and deciding on their actions. For this purpose, they will need background information, and I need hardly explain that there are no files, libraries of reports, or minutes of the last meeting here. Paper is banned from this place. The answer is Data-feed. (Photograph 5).

It consists of three data screens, as you can see, and a huge index screen. Each of the data screens in supported by five carousel projectors, each carrying eighty slides of iconic information. So we can choose three out of twelve hundred presentations – one out of four hundred on each screen. But it is obvious that twelve hundred slides cannot be listed on the index screen above, however huge. How shall we get at our treasure-trove of supportive information? It is again a problem in variety engineering: select three from twelve hundred. Of course, one could have a catalogue and a decimal keyboard. That would have requisite variety. However, experience teaches that unskilled people will not usually agree to operate such devices. They see them as calling for a typing skill, and want to insinuate a girl between themselves and the machinery. Indeed, this fact has held up the development of on-line conversational computing very seriously indeed. We are faced with an ergonomic problem. It is vital that the occupants interact directly with the machine, and with each other.

In a creative conversation, men become very animated. They seize pieces of paper and draw on them, they snatch the pencil and change the drawing: “No! No! It’s like that!”. The solution to the ergonomic problem takes note of all these things. We produced special chairs which swivel through 270 degrees of arc, in the arms of which are mounted panels containing large knobs of different shapes (clearly visible in Photograph 1). By thumping one of the three knobs in the top row, a screen is selected – and an index automatically appears on the control screen. The index is catalogued by the use of five symbols, which are repeated in the second row of knobs. By pressing the appropriate combination of knobs the item selected from the first index appears on the control screen, in the form of a second index which lists the actual slides. So a second combination procures the required presentation.

The variety engineering says there are 25 = 32 ways of combining five knobs, and if that is done twice, 210 = 32 x 32 = 1024 alternatives are made available. That is enough selection power to handle 400 slides on each screen with plenty to spare for control engineering purposes. (Four buttons would yield only 28 = 256 alternatives.) One of the two knobs in the bottom row allows one man out of the seven to seize control of Data-feed with a thump and the other releases the control when he says thump – that’s what I mean. There is no finicky skill involved in working this apparatus – and people seem to take to it very quickly indeed. As to all that thumping: I wanted to make the dramatic act of using he equipment an effective part of’ the creative conversations just like seizing the pencil, or banging the table. Thus it is that when real-time inputs indicate the need for supportive information the decision-takers may select on the three screens (for example as in Photograph 5) the iconic flowchart that contains the relevant input, a photograph of the plant concerned, and some indexical information. If an expansion or explanation of that information is available, for example the history of a Latency. Index may well be supported by an investment plan for realising that latency, then a direct clue is given on the screen as to how to key that new slide into place (such a clue is visible on Screen C). In the close-up of Data-feed (Photograph 6), the picture of the plant has been replaced with a list of products.

All this supportive information is semi-permanent. It must in principle be updated, but not too often. As to its adequacy, remember that all sixteen-carousel magazines can easily be changed so we have a new set (of 1200 slide capacity) for each level of recursion. It is enough. In any case, there are two more back-projection screens in the opsroom to allow special presentations to be made. So far I have spoken about the NOW system, but certainly Data-feed supports the FUTURES system too. The relationship between the two is very clear on the huge main screen where its coruscating homeostat is a constant reminder of the need to balance investment between what is and what will be. And that FUTURES system, with its simulation capability, has its own screen (Photograph 7). This is the flow-chart of a typical Dynamo simulation – though not a very complicated one. The two points I want to make about it are unfortunately not communicated in this static picture.

The whole raison d’être for simulations is to work with them. They do not sit there ‘Making forecasts’ as I said. The output of the model shown is a projection made by a computer of how the major variables will vary over the next ten years – if nothing changes – and that projection is illuminated on one of the spare screens. To understand how the economic system works the people in the room need two facilities, neither of which is available on an ordinary flowchart. First, they must be able to alter the structure in front of them. That is easily done in the computer: attendant scientists can change a few equations on request, and produce a new read-out in a few minutes. But how do you alter the flowchart? The answer to that is to use flexible magnets, and we did. However, to decide how to alter the flowchart you must understand the flows – and therefore we wanted to animate this screen. The problem was how to animate a flowchart that you wish continually to re-construct. The British suppliers of the animated equipment solved that problem, and I wish I could show you the flow-lines on this model moving and how readily its structure can be changed.

Indeed we could spend all day in the opsroom together without exhausting its meaning as a new tool of management, and a new route to worker participation. This is the first one ever built on these cybernetic principles and it is only a beginning.

The room and its furnishings were designed and made in Chile. The optical system and control logic for Data-feed were designed and built in England, and the animated screens were created by another British manufacturer. I have described such a room as this over many years and once wrote: “It is not the operational research, technology or experience that is lacking to produce the first (such) control centre. It is the managerial acceptance of the idea, plus the will to see it realised (3). I finally found both the acceptance and the will – on the other side of the world.

The Inconclusion
This has been a very long lecture, but it deals with a very large subject: how the science of effective organisation, which we call cybernetics, joins hands with the pursuit of elective freedom, which we call politics. What a new – and what a vital issue those words betoken. Where have I heard them before?

“The cybernetics of men
As you, Socrates,
Often call politics. . .”

You can tell from that name that I am quoting, and we seem to be up against a time lag of two thousand years. But now we are doing something about it. Now we have some cybernetic tools.

What I have been able to tell you today however is plainly incomplete; please bear in mind that this whole thing began just sixteen months ago. Therefore, although the system exists, it is – in a proper academic sense-unproven. I expect that it like any other infant will be slapped on the wrist (if not worse) and told to toe the line – if not worse.

For during that period of sixteen months various attempts have been made to overthrow the Chilean democracy I have seen that, from fairly deep inside. Scientifically too, during that period I have been told a hundred times that it would take more than twenty years to do what has now been done – during that period.

We have to take note that innovation, whether political or scientific, does not favour those who hold the real power. And if either kind of innovation stands to favour ordinary folk and both these do, then it will be opposed.

For this reason, I am not naming here my many colleagues and collaborators. They know my feelings of esteem and affection for their ability, their dedication and their friendship. What any of them asks of me that I can do, he should consider done.

For this reason also I commend my compatriots here today to watch, more avidly than many doubtless have, what happens next in Chile. There will be lessons there for Britain I believe: and for humanity.

So now good-bye
I remember Richard Goodman in this very place.
Requiescat in pace

1. Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, John Wiley, New York, 1948.
2. W. Ross Ashby, Design for a Brain, Chapman and Hall, London, 1954.
3. Stafford Beer, Brain of the Firm, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, London, 1972.
4. P.J. Harrison and C.R. Stevens, ‘A Bayesian Approach to Short-term Forecasting’. Operational Research Quarterly, Vol. 22, No.4, December, 1971.
5. Jay W. Forrester, World Dynamics, Wright-Allen Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1971.


“…is the number of times a normal cell population will divide before it stops, presumably because the telomeres reach a critical length…”

Henrietta Lacks’ ‘Immortal’ Cells
by Sarah Zielinski / January 22, 2010

Medical researchers use laboratory-grown human cells to learn the intricacies of how cells work and test theories about the causes and treatment of diseases. The cell lines they need are “immortal”—they can grow indefinitely, be frozen for decades, divided into different batches and shared among scientists. In 1951, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, created the first immortal human cell line with a tissue sample taken from a young black woman with cervical cancer. Those cells, called HeLa cells, quickly became invaluable to medical research—though their donor remained a mystery for decades. In her new book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, journalist Rebecca Skloot tracks down the story of the source of the amazing HeLa cells, Henrietta Lacks, and documents the cell line’s impact on both modern medicine and the Lacks family.

Q: Who was Henrietta Lacks?
A: She was a black tobacco farmer from southern Virginia who got cervical cancer when she was 30. A doctor at Johns Hopkins took a piece of her tumor without telling her and sent it down the hall to scientists there who had been trying to grow tissues in culture for decades without success. No one knows why, but her cells never died.

Q: Why are her cells so important?
A: Henrietta’s cells were the first immortal human cells ever grown in culture. They were essential to developing the polio vaccine. They went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to cells in zero gravity. Many scientific landmarks since then have used her cells, including cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization.

Q: There has been a lot of confusion over the years about the source of HeLa cells. Why?
A: When the cells were taken, they were given the code name HeLa, for the first two letters in Henrietta and Lacks. Today, anonymizing samples is a very important part of doing research on cells. But that wasn’t something doctors worried about much in the 1950s, so they weren’t terribly careful about her identity. When some members of the press got close to finding Henrietta’s family, the researcher who’d grown the cells made up a pseudonym—Helen Lane—to throw the media off track. Other pseudonyms, like Helen Larsen, eventually showed up, too. Her real name didn’t really leak out into the world until the 1970s.

Q: How did you first get interested in this story?
A: I first learned about Henrietta in 1988. I was 16 and a student in a community college biology class. Everybody learns about these cells in basic biology, but what was unique about my situation was that my teacher actually knew Henrietta’s real name and that she was black. But that’s all he knew. The moment I heard about her, I became obsessed: Did she have any kids? What do they think about part of their mother being alive all these years after she died? Years later, when I started being interested in writing, one of the first stories I imagined myself writing was hers. But it wasn’t until I went to grad school that I thought about trying to track down her family.

Q: How did you win the trust of Henrietta’s family?
A: Part of it was that I just wouldn’t go away and was determined to tell the story. It took almost a year even to convince Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, to talk to me. I knew she was desperate to learn about her mother. So when I started doing my own research, I’d tell her everything I found. I went down to Clover, Virginia, where Henrietta was raised, and tracked down her cousins, then called Deborah and left these stories about Henrietta on her voice mail. Because part of what I was trying to convey to her was I wasn’t hiding anything, that we could learn about her mother together. After a year, finally she said, fine, let’s do this thing.

Q: When did her family find out about Henrietta’s cells?
A: Twenty-five years after Henrietta died, a scientist discovered that many cell cultures thought to be from other tissue types, including breast and prostate cells, were in fact HeLa cells. It turned out that HeLa cells could float on dust particles in the air and travel on unwashed hands and contaminate other cultures. It became an enormous controversy. In the midst of that, one group of scientists tracked down Henrietta’s relatives to take some samples with hopes that they could use the family’s DNA to make a map of Henrietta’s genes so they could tell which cell cultures were HeLa and which weren’t, to begin straightening out the contamination problem. So a postdoc called Henrietta’s husband one day. But he had a third-grade education and didn’t even know what a cell was. The way he understood the phone call was: “We’ve got your wife. She’s alive in a laboratory. We’ve been doing research on her for the last 25 years. And now we have to test your kids to see if they have cancer.” Which wasn’t what the researcher said at all. The scientists didn’t know that the family didn’t understand. From that point on, though, the family got sucked into this world of research they didn’t understand, and the cells, in a sense, took over their lives.

Q: How did they do that?
A: This was most true for Henrietta’s daughter. Deborah never knew her mother; she was an infant when Henrietta died. She had always wanted to know who her mother was but no one ever talked about Henrietta. So when Deborah found out that this part of her mother was still alive she became desperate to understand what that meant: Did it hurt her mother when scientists injected her cells with viruses and toxins? Had scientists cloned her mother? And could those cells help scientists tell her about her mother, like what her favorite color was and if she liked to dance. Deborah’s brothers, though, didn’t think much about the cells until they found out there was money involved. HeLa cells were the first human biological materials ever bought and sold, which helped launch a multi-billion-dollar industry. When Deborah’s brothers found out that people were selling vials of their mother’s cells, and that the family didn’t get any of the resulting money, they got very angry. Henrietta’s family has lived in poverty most of their lives, and many of them can’t afford health insurance. One of her sons was homeless and living on the streets of Baltimore. So the family launched a campaign to get some of what they felt they were owed financially. It consumed their lives in that way.

Q: What are the lessons from this book?
A: For scientists, one of the lessons is that there are human beings behind every biological sample used in the laboratory. So much of science today revolves around using human biological tissue of some kind. For scientists, cells are often just like tubes or fruit flies—they’re just inanimate tools that are always there in the lab. The people behind those samples often have their own thoughts and feelings about what should happen to their tissues, but they’re usually left out of the equation.

Q: And for the rest of us?
A: The story of HeLa cells and what happened with Henrietta has often been held up as an example of a racist white scientist doing something malicious to a black woman. But that’s not accurate. The real story is much more subtle and complicated. What is very true about science is that there are human beings behind it and sometimes even with the best of intentions things go wrong. One of the things I don’t want people to take from the story is the idea that tissue culture is bad. So much of medicine today depends on tissue culture. HIV tests, many basic drugs, all of our vaccines—we would have none of that if it wasn’t for scientists collecting cells from people and growing them. And the need for these cells is going to get greater, not less. Instead of saying we don’t want that to happen, we just need to look at how it can happen in a way that everyone is OK with.

Rebecca Skloot
email: rebecca [at] rebeccaskloot [dot] com

Cells That Save Lives Are a Mother’s Legacy
by Rebecca Skllot / November 17, 2001

Deborah Lacks closed her eyes as a young cancer researcher opened the door of his floor-to-ceiling freezer. She stood clutching the ragged dictionary she uses to look up words like ”DNA,” ”cell” and ”immortality.” When the icy breeze hit her face, she opened her eyes slowly, and stared into a freezer filled with tiny vials of red liquid. ”O God,” she gasped, ”I can’t believe all this is my mother.” Fifty years ago, when Deborah Lacks was still in diapers, her 30-year-old mother, Henrietta Lacks, lay in a segregated ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The resident gynecologist sewed radium to her cervix in an attempt to knock out the cancer that was killing her. But before he finished, and without telling her, he took a small sample of her tumor and sent it downstairs to Dr. George Gey (pronounced guy), head of tissue culture research at Hopkins. Dr. Gey had spent almost 30 years collecting cancerous human cells and trying to make them grow, but until Ms. Lacks came along, they never did. Though Henrietta died a few months after her radium treatments, her cells are still living today.

Henrietta’s cells — named HeLa after the first letters in Henrietta and Lacks — became the first human cells to live indefinitely outside the body. They helped eradicate polio, flew in early space shuttle missions and sat in nuclear test sites around the world. In the 50’s, HeLa cells helped researchers understand the differences between cancerous and normal cells, and quickly became a standard laboratory tool for studying the effects of radiation, growing viruses and testing medications. HeLa is still one of the most widely used cell lines; in fact, this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for research in which HeLa cells played a pivotal role. Yet it was not until nearly two decades later — just before magazines like Jet and Emerge started writing stories about a black family whose mother had made important contributions to science without their knowledge — that anyone in Ms. Lacks’s family knew what had happened. Ms. Lacks, 52, doesn’t remember how she heard, but she’ll never forget her reaction: ”I went into shock,” she said. ”Why didn’t they just ask if they could use her cells?”

If the issue of using patient tissue without permission wasn’t a pressing one in the 50’s, informed consent has certainly become a heated topic today. ”In 1951, they wouldn’t have felt like they needed to ask,” said Ruth Faden, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Bioethics Institute. ”It’s a sad commentary on how the biomedical research community thought about research in the 50’s, but it was not at all uncommon for physicians to conduct research on patients without their knowledge or consent.” Today, when patients go in for surgery, they’re usually asked to sign a form saying whether their tissues can be used for research. But, said Lori Andrews, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and co-author of ”Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age,” that practice doesn’t solve an important problem. ”All of us have blood or tissue on file somewhere,” Ms. Andrews said. ”Today, every drop of blood taken from people, every organ or biopsy removed by a surgeon, is in the pipeline toward research and commercialization. Since the 60’s, every newborn in the U.S. has been tested for genetic disorders, and many of their samples are still on file for use in later research. There are no rules governing who has access to these samples.” Some bioethicists and lawyers want legislation requiring researchers to obtain consent before conducting research on any tissues, including those already in storage. But many research organizations — the American Society for Investigative Pathology, for example, and the College of American Pathologists — have argued that such blanket legislation could seriously damage scientific progress.

Dr. Mark Sobel, senior executive officer of the American Society for Investigative Pathology, agrees that informed consent should be required before new tissues are collected. But to Dr. Sobel, the millions of tissue samples collected before the current shift toward informed consent, like Henrietta Lacks’s cells, are a special case. Scientists conducting research on those samples have no way to contact the donors for permission. ”This is where we want some flexibility,” Dr. Sobel said. ”We want recognition that there’s a way — with policies in place for confidentiality and protecting the patients — that you can still use these very, very, very important resources of human tissue. Otherwise, it’s going to impede medical research.” To Dr. Sobel, using these samples ethically means protecting patient identity and assuring complete anonymity. Dr. Gey tried to do this for Ms. Lacks, but rumors began circulating that HeLa stood for someone named Helen Lane. When a few colleagues of Dr. Gey, who has since died, tried to correct this error, the Lacks family was thrown into a world of science they didn’t understand.

Ever since Ms. Lacks first heard about her mother’s cells, she has been trying to understand how they could be alive decades after her death. So she got a notebook, a dictionary and a science book and began teaching herself about cells, one word at a time. ”A cell,” she wrote, ”is a minute portion of living substance.” She copied one definition after another. ”As long as the cell receives an adequate supply of food,” she wrote, ”it will continue to grow and thrive for the duration of its life cycle.” Not even Dr. Gey ever understood precisely why the life cycle of Ms. Lacks’s cancer cells has continued indefinitely.

Within a few years of learning about HeLa cells, the Lacks family began getting letters from researchers, asking them to donate blood so scientists could find genetic markers to help identify Henrietta’s cells. But Ms. Lacks remembers differently: ”It was a typed letter, stating we need samples of the Lacks family to check her blood cells with theirs, to see if anybody has the same thing that she had,” she said. Ms. Lacks was in her late 20’s and had always worried that she might die at 31, just like her mother. ”I cried and cried,” she recalled. ”I had my two children, they was babies at the time, and I said ‘O God, am I going to make it past 31?’ ” She dodged the researchers at first, because she didn’t want to know whether she had cancer. When she finally decided to take the tests, she thought she’d get a phone call telling her whether she was going to live or die. She never heard back from the researchers and soon had the first of what would become several breakdowns.

Ms. Faden said: ”This could have been a very innocent misunderstanding. But this is why researchers have to be as straightforward as possible, because the expectation is that when a doctor wants to do something to you, it’s for your benefit. Physician-researchers need to make this clear by saying, ‘I’m not doing this to help you, I’m doing it to advance science.’ ” Bobbette Lacks, Henrietta Lacks’s daughter-in-law, says that if researchers had told them about HeLa cells, then informed them of future research, her family would have cooperated. But not now. ”I would never subject my kids to that,” Bobbette Lacks said. This year, the 50th anniversary of Henrietta Lacks’s death, some scientists wanted to honor her contribution. The National Foundation for Cancer Research had invited Deborah Lacks onstage to thank her for her mother’s cells. But the conference had been scheduled for Sept. 13 and was canceled after the terrorist attacks. So for now, Ms. Lacks is back to learning about her mother on her own. Until Ms. Lacks looked into that freezer filled with vials earlier this year, she had only read about her mother’s cells; she had never seen them. Christoph Lengauer, the young cancer researcher who was showing her around his lab at John Hopkins Oncology Center, leaned over a microscope, focused it on a single HeLa cell and projected it onto a monitor. She stared in silence, eyes wide, then sighed. ”I was doing a little bit of studying on that DNA in my books,” she said, patting her purse filled with notes. Now she is in the process of signing up for basic courses at a local community center in Baltimore in the hope that they will lead her toward college. She is not sure what degree she will pursue, but she knows for sure what she will study: science.


In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor woman with a middle-school education, made one of the greatest medical contributions ever. Her cells, taken from a cervical-cancer biopsy, became the first immortal human cell line—the cells reproduce infinitely in a lab. Although other immortal lines have since been established, Lacks’s “HeLa” cells are the standard in labs around the world. Together they outweigh 100 Empire State Buildings and could circle the equator three times. This month, PopSci contributor Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, tells the story behind the woman who revolutionized modern medicine. Here, five reasons we should all thank Henrietta Lacks:
1. Before HeLa cells, scientists spent more time trying to keep cells alive than performing actual research on the cells. An endless supply of HeLa cells freed up time for discovery.
2. In 1952, the worst year of the polio epidemic, HeLa cells were used to test the vaccine that protected millions.
3. Some cells in Lacks’s tissue sample behaved differently than others. Scientists learned to isolate one specific cell, multiply it, and start a cell line. Isolating one cell and keeping it alive is the basic technique for cloning and in-vitro fertilization.
4. A scientist accidentally poured a chemical on a HeLa cell that spread out its tangled chromosomes. Later on, scientists used this technique to determine that humans have 46 chromosomes—23 pairs—not 48, which provided the basis for making several types of genetic diagnoses.
5. It was discovered that Lacks’s cancerous cells used an enzyme called telomerase to repair their DNA, allowing them, and other types of cancer cells, to function when normal cells would have died. Anti-cancer drugs that work against this enzyme are currently in early clinical trials.

HeLa isn’t the only cell line in use today. Thousands have found their way into labs worldwide. Above are some commonly used lines and the number of scientific papers they appear in.


excerpt from ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’
by Rebecca Skloot / 2010

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her — a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.” No one knows who took that picture, but it’s appeared hundreds of times in magazines and science textbooks, on blogs and laboratory walls. She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells — her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died. Her real name is Henrietta Lacks.

I’ve spent years staring at that photo, wondering what kind of life she led, what happened to her children, and what she’d think about cells from her cervix living on forever —bought, sold, packaged, and shipped by the trillions to laboratories around the world. I’ve tried to imagine how she’d feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization. I’m pretty sure that she — like most of us — would be shocked to hear that there are trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.

There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons — an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they’d wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall.

I first learned about HeLa cells and the woman behind them in 1988, thirty-seven years after her death, when I was sixteen and sitting in a community college biology class. My instructor, Donald Defler, a gnomish balding man, paced at the front of the lecture hall and flipped on an overhead projector. He pointed to two diagrams that appeared on the wall behind him. They were schematics of the cell reproduction cycle, but to me they just looked like a neon-colored mess of arrows, squares, and circles with words I didn’t understand, like “MPF Triggering a Chain Reaction of Protein Activations.”

I was a kid who’d failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up. I’d transferred to an alternative school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking Defler’s class for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. I was completely lost. “Do we have to memorize everything on those diagrams?” one student yelled. Yes, Defler said, we had to memorize the diagrams, and yes, they’d be on the test, but that didn’t matter right then. What he wanted us to understand was that cells are amazing things: There are about one hundred trillion of them in our bodies, each so small that several thousand could fit on the period at the end of this sentence. They make up all our tissues — muscle, bone, blood — which in turn make up our organs.

Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg: It has a white (the cytoplasm) that’s full of water and proteins to keep it fed, and a yolk (the nucleus) that holds all the genetic information that makes you you. The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street. It’s crammed full of molecules and vessels endlessly shuttling enzymes and sugars from one part of the cell to another, pumping water, nutrients, and oxygen in and out of the cell. All the while, little cytoplasmic factories work 24/7, cranking out sugars, fats, proteins, and energy to keep the whole thing running and feed the nucleus. The nucleus is the brains of the operation; inside every nucleus within each cell in your body, there’s an identical copy of your entire genome. That genome tells cells when to grow and divide and makes sure they do their jobs, whether that’s controlling your heartbeat or helping your brain understand the words on this page.

Defler paced the front of the classroom telling us how mitosis — the process of cell division — makes it possible for embryos to grow into babies, and for our bodies to create new cells for healing wounds or replenishing blood we’ve lost. It was beautiful, he said, like a perfectly choreographed dance. All it takes is one small mistake anywhere in the division process for cells to start growing out of control, he told us. Just one enzyme misfiring, just one wrong protein activation, and you could have cancer. Mitosis goes haywire, which is how it spreads. “We learned that by studying cancer cells in culture,” Defler said. He grinned and spun to face the board, where he wrote two words in enormous print: HENRIETTA LACKS.

Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer, he told us. But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta’s were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory. “Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it,” Defler said. If we went to almost any cell culture lab in the world and opened its freezers, he told us, we’d probably find millions — if not billions — of Henrietta’s cells in small vials on ice.

Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosomes and proteins have been studied with such detail and precision that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse. “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” Defler said.

Then, matter-of-factly, almost as an afterthought, he said, “She was a black woman.” He erased her name in one fast swipe and blew the chalk from his hands. Class was over. As the other students filed out of the room, I sat thinking, That’s it? That’s all we get? There has to be more to the story. I followed Defler to his office. “Where was she from?” I asked. “Did she know how important her cells were? Did she have any children?”

“I wish I could tell you,” he said, “but no one knows anything about her.” After class, I ran home and threw myself onto my bed with my biology textbook. I looked up “cell culture” in the index, and there she was, a small parenthetical: “In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be “immortal.” A striking example is a cell line that has been reproducing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumor removed from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.)” That was it. I looked up HeLa in my parents’ encyclopedia, then my dictionary: No Henrietta.

The Way of All Flesh, by Adam Curtis

As I graduated from high school and worked my way through college toward a biology degree, HeLa cells were omnipresent. I heard about them in histology, neurology, pathology; I used them in experiments on how neighboring cells communicate. But after Mr. Defler, no one mentioned Henrietta. When I got my first computer in the mid-nineties and started using the Internet, I searched for information about her, but found only confused snippets: most sites said her name was Helen Lane; some said she died in the thirties; others said the forties, fifties, or even sixties. Some said ovarian cancer killed her, others said breast or cervical cancer.

Eventually I tracked down a few magazine articles about her from the seventies. Ebony quoted Henrietta’s husband saying, “All I remember is that she had this disease, and right after she died they called me in the office wanting to get my permission to take a sample of some kind. I decided not to let them.” Jet said the family was angry — angry that Henrietta’s cells were being sold for twenty-five dollars a vial, and angry that articles had been published about the cells without their knowledge. It said, “Pounding in the back of their heads was a gnawing feeling that science and the press had taken advantage of them.”

The articles all ran photos of Henrietta’s family: her oldest son sitting at his dining room table in Baltimore, looking at a genetics textbook. Her middle son in military uniform, smiling and holding a baby. But one picture stood out more than any other: in it, Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah Lacks, is surrounded by family, everyone smiling, arms around each other, eyes bright and excited. Except Deborah. She stands in the foreground looking alone, almost as if someone pasted her into the photo after the fact. She’s twenty-six years old and beautiful, with short brown hair and catlike eyes. But those eyes glare at the camera, hard and serious. The caption said the family had found out just a few months earlier that Henrietta’s cells were still alive, yet at that point she’d been dead for twenty-five years.

All of the stories mentioned that scientists had begun doing research on Henrietta’s children, but the Lackses didn’t seem to know what that research was for. They said they were being tested to see if they had the cancer that killed Henrietta, but according to the reporters, scientists were studying the Lacks family to learn more about Henrietta’s cells. The stories quoted her son Lawrence, who wanted to know if the immortality of his mother’s cells meant that he might live forever too. But one member of the family remained voiceless: Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.

As I worked my way through graduate school studying writing, I became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story. At one point I even called directory assistance in Baltimore looking for Henrietta’s husband, David Lacks, but he wasn’t listed. I had the idea that I’d write a book that was a biography of both the cells and the woman they came from — someone’s daughter, wife, and mother.

I couldn’t have imagined it then, but that phone call would mark the beginning of a decadelong adventure through scientific laboratories, hospitals, and mental institutions, with a cast of characters that would include Nobel laureates, grocery store clerks, convicted felons, and a professional con artist. While trying to make sense of the history of cell culture and the complicated ethical debate surrounding the use of human tissues in research, I’d be accused of conspiracy and slammed into a wall both physically and metaphorically, and I’d eventually find myself on the receiving end of something that looked a lot like an exorcism. I did eventually meet Deborah, who would turn out to be one of the strongest and most resilient women I’d ever known. We’d form a deep personal bond, and slowly, without realizing it, I’d become a character in her story, and she in mine.

Deborah and I came from very different cultures: I grew up white and agnostic in the Pacific Northwest, my roots half New York Jew and half Midwestern Protestant; Deborah was a deeply religious black Christian from the South. I tended to leave the room when religion came up in conversation because it made me uncomfortable; Deborah’s family tended toward preaching, faith healings, and sometimes voodoo. She grew up in a black neighborhood that was one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country; I grew up in a safe, quiet middle-class neighborhood in a predominantly white city and went to high school with a total of two black students. I was a science journalist who referred to all things supernatural as “woo-woo stuff”; Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the life of anyone who crossed its paths. Including me.

“How else do you explain why your science teacher knew her real name when everyone else called her Helen Lane?” Deborah would say. “She was trying to get your attention.” This thinking would apply to everything in my life: when I married while writing this book, it was because Henrietta wanted someone to take care of me while I worked. When I divorced, it was because she’d decided he was getting in the way of the book. When an editor who insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident, Deborah said that’s what happens when you piss Henrietta off.

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family — particularly Deborah — and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

BY Rebecca Skloot / 2010

Deborah grabbed her bag off the floor, and dumped its contents onto the bed. “This is what I got about my mother,” she said. There were videotapes, a tattered English dictionary, a diary, a genetics textbook, many scientific journal articles, patent records, and unsent greeting cards, including several birthday and Mother’s Day cards she’d bought for Henrietta. While she sorted through the pile, as though she was saying something as everyday as It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, Deborah said, “Scientists do all kinds of experiments and you never know what they doin. I still wonder how many people they got in London walkin around look just like my mother.”

“What?” I said. “Why would there be women in London who look like your mother?” “They did that cloning on my mother over there,” she said, surprised I hadn’t come across that fact in my research. “A reporter came here from England talking about they cloned a sheep. Now you go on the Internet, they got stuff about cloning my mother all over.” She held up an article from the Independent in London and pointed at a circled paragraph: “Henrietta Lacks’s cells thrived. In weight, they now far surpassed the person of their origin and there would probably be more than sufficient to populate a village of Henriettas.” The writer joked that Henrietta should have put ten dollars in the bank in 1951, because if she had, her clones would be rich now. Deborah raised her eyebrows at me like, See? I told you!

I started saying it was just Henrietta’s cells scientists had cloned, not Henrietta herself. But Deborah waved her hand in my face, shushing me like I was talking nonsense, then grabbed a videocassette and held it up for me to see. It said Jurassic Park on the spine. “I saw this movie a bunch of times,” she said. “They talking about the genes and taking them from cells to bring that dinosaur back to life and I’m like, Oh Lord, I got a paper on how they were doin that with my mother’s cells too! “I don’t know what I’d do if I saw one of my mother clones walkin around somewhere.”

Deborah realized Jurassic Park was science fiction, but for her the line between sci-fi and reality had blurred years earlier, when her father got that first call saying Henrietta’s cells were still alive twenty-five years after her death. Deborah knew her mother’s cells had grown like the Blob until there were so many of them they could wrap around the Earth several times. It sounded crazy, but it was true. “You just never know,” Deborah said, fishing two more articles from the pile. One was called Human, Plant Cells Fused: Walking Carrots Next? The other was Man-Animal Cells Bred in Lab. Both were about her mother’s cells, and neither was science fiction. “I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like Jurassic Park to me.”

HeLa cells are cultured tumor cells isolated from cancer patient Henrietta Lacks in 1951. It is the first human cell to be kept in culture for long periods of time and is still used today.

by Lori Oliwenstein / December 1, 1992

Henrietta Lacks achieved a kind of immortality on February 9, 1951. On that day a sample of cancerous cells from her cervix was transferred to a culture dish, doused with nutrients, and left to grow. Lacks, a 30-year-old mother of four from Baltimore, had one of the most aggressive cervical cancers her doctors had ever seen, and the cells culled from her tumor grew avidly, doubling their number each day. Then they escaped. Small spills are always happening in laboratories; what distinguished Lacks’s cells was their ability to survive after they were somehow spilled. They were so hardy that if just one of them fell on a petri dish it would outgrow and overwhelm anything else living on that dish within a month.

Soon Henrietta Lacks’s cells were traveling from lab to lab, either deliberately sent–many cancer researchers had taken to using them in their experiments–or as an unseen contaminant tagging along in another cell line. Some researchers who thought they were looking at something completely different–a line of liver cells, say–ended up studying Henrietta Lacks’s cervical cells by accident. The cells even slipped through the iron curtain and into Russia.

Lacks died in October 1951, but her peripatetic cells lived on. Now some biologists are saying that those cells, called HeLa cells for short, have lost more than their connection to Henrietta Lacks. HeLa cells, these researchers claim, are no longer human at all: they are single-celled microbes–closely related to us, to be sure, but their own distinct species. How so, you ask? HeLa cells are not connected in any way to people, explains evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen of the University of Chicago. They have an extremely different ecological niche from us. They don’t mate with humans; they probably don’t even mate with human cells. They act just like a normal microbial species. They are evolving separately from us, and having a separate evolution is really what a species is all about.

The process of evolution is much the same for HeLas as it is for humans, although the former usually reproduce asexually, by cell division. As the cells divide, genetic mutations inevitably occur, and the ones that make the cells better adapted to their ecological niche–the petri dish– are preserved by natural selection. When Henrietta Lacks’s cells first became cancerous, they also acquired the ability to survive indefinitely in a culture medium; that massive genetic transformation made them substantially different from ordinary human cells, and after four decades of evolution they have become more different still. Different strains of HeLa cells, analogous to different races of human beings, have even developed in some of the geographically separated lines.

These little unicellular organisms have crossed oceans, spread their range, got into other cultures and outcompeted them, says Richard Strathmann, a marine biologist at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories who dabbles in evolutionary theory. They’re only different from other single-celled organisms in that a human being gave rise to them. Strathmann and Van Valen (the latter with his colleague Virginia Maiorana) put forth these ideas separately, in two papers in the same issue of the journal Evolutionary Theory, which Van Valen edits. (Both papers, he points out, were independently reviewed before publication.) Van Valen and Maiorana not only declared that HeLa may not be Homo sapiens, they gave the new species a name: Helacyton gartleri–Hela, after the HeLa cells themselves; cyton, from the Greek cytos, meaning cavity or cell; and gartleri after geneticist Stanley Gartler, who was the first to document the cells’ remarkable success.

While Van Valen is willing to name the new species, he is unwilling to suggest which higher taxonomic category it might fall into. Beyond the family name there are problems, he says. Since a HeLa cell can’t survive outside a culture medium, it obviously isn’t a primate in the usual sense. At the same time, says Van Valen, you can’t call it a protist- -a member of the kingdom of all single-celled organisms, which includes bacteria, protozoans, algae, and fungi–since that would mean that the same group had evolved twice, once sometime before 3.5 billion years ago and again today. It’s a fundamental tenet of evolutionary theory that evolution doesn’t repeat itself.

But that’s exactly what has happened, says Strathmann. And to him, HeLa cells are just a particularly aggressive and successful example of an evolutionary transition that has happened numerous times recently. Many cancer cells, in becoming cancerous, undergo the same type of genetic transformation that Henrietta Lacks’s cells did and thereby acquire the potential to be immortal; and many different lines of these cells are now surviving in petri dishes all over the world. All of them, according to Strathmann, have made the huge evolutionary leap from being metazoans– multicellular creatures with organs and tissues–to being single-celled protists. What’s most amazing, he says, is how fast they did it: it took nearly 3 billion years for the first metazoans to evolve after life originated but just a handful of years for HeLa and other cell lines to take exactly the same step in the other direction.

If this modern-day transition from human being to unicellular blob sounds like far-out fiction to you, you’re not alone. Some biologists consider the survival of HeLa cells a purely artificial phenomenon and argue that evolution in a petri dish has little relevance to evolution in nature. Indeed, Strathmann’s paper was rejected by other journals for just that reason before Van Valen agreed to publish it along with his own. Van Valen and Strathmann, of course, reject that criticism. The perception is that if human beings are manipulating the situation, it’s not natural, says Strathmann. But biomedical researchers are part of nature.

Organisms live in all sorts of odd places, including ones humans have created, adds Van Valen. Parks and cities are environments that we created, and organisms have become adapted to them. Human beings have even created new species before, albeit not from their own flesh. Modern corn, for instance, is a product of selective breeding by generations of farmers, and like HeLa cells, it can’t survive without human help. If HeLa had not been derived from human tissue, Van Valen says, there would be no question about its being a new species.

Leigh Van Valen
email : leigh [at] uchicago [dot] edu


“Due to their ability to replicate indefinitely, and their non-human number of chromosomes, HeLa was described by Leigh Van Valen as an example of the contemporary creation of a new species, Helacyton gartleri, named after Stanley M. Gartler, whom Van Valen credits with discovering “the remarkable success of this species.” His argument for speciation depends on three points:

  • The chromosomal incompatibility of HeLa cells with humans.
  • The ecological niche of HeLa cells.
  • Their ability to persist and expand well beyond the desires of human cultivators.

It should be noted that this definition has not been followed by others in the scientific community, nor, indeed, has it been widely noted. As far as proposing a new species for HeLa cells, Van Valen proposes in the same paper the new family Helacytidae and the genus Helacyton.[12]Recognition of Van Valen and Maiorana’s names, however, renders Homo and Hominidae paraphyletic because Helacyton gartleri is most closely related to Homo sapiens.

“Because of their adaptation to growth in tissue culture plates, HeLa cells are sometimes difficult to control. They have proven to be a persistent laboratory “weed” that contaminates other cell cultures in the same laboratory, interfering with biological research and forcing researchers to declare many results invalid. The degree of HeLa cell contamination among other cell types is unknown because few researchers test the identity or purity of already-established cell lines. It has been demonstrated that a substantial fraction of in vitro cell lines — approximately 10%, maybe 20% — are contaminated with HeLa cells. Stanley Gartler in 1967 and Walter Nelson-Rees in 1975 were the first to publish on the contamination of various cell lines by HeLa. Science writer Michael Gold wrote about the HeLa cell contamination problem in his book A Conspiracy of Cells. He describes Nelson-Rees’s identification of this pervasive worldwide problem — affecting even the laboratories of the best physicians, scientists, and researchers, including Jonas Salk — and many, possibly career-ending, efforts to address it. According to Gold, the HeLa contamination problem almost led to a Cold War incident: The USSR and the USA had begun to cooperate in the war on cancer launched by President Richard Nixon only to find that the exchanged cells were contaminated by HeLa. Rather than focus on how to resolve the problem of HeLa cell contamination, many scientists and science writers continue to document this problem as simply a contamination issue — caused not by human error or shortcomings but by the hardiness, proliferating, or overpowering nature of HeLa. Recent data suggest that cross-contaminations are still a major ongoing problem with modern cell cultures.”

Henrietta Lacks rests today in an unmarked grave in the cemetery across the street from her family’s tobacco farm in Virginia. / photo by Rebecca Skloot

by Rebecca Skloot / April 2000

Not long before her death, Henrietta Lacks danced. As the film rolled, her long thin face teased the camera, flashing a seductive grin as she moved, her eyes locked on the lens. She tilted her head back and raised her hands, waving them softly in the air before letting them fall to smooth her curlers. Then the film went blank. Henrietta danced in Turners Station, a small, segregated Baltimore community where she moved in 1943. She had come by train from a plantation town in Virginia, leaving her kin behind, most still picking tobacco long after freedom from slavery. As she sped toward Baltimore, at the age of 23, her husband, David Lacks, waited in their new brick house with a stove that burned gas instead of wood. Henrietta knew she was heading into a more modern world. What she didn’t know was that less than a decade later, after giving birth to her fifth child, her womb would give rise to a new age in medicine.

On February 1, 1951, under the cover of a solitary tree, David Lacks stared through the window of his parked car, watching the rain fall. He and his five children, three still in diapers, sat outside Hopkins Hospital, waiting for Henrietta. A few days earlier, she had found blood spotting her underwear. Now, Howard Jones, a Hopkins physician, found a smooth eggplant-hued tumor glistening under the light on Henrietta’s cervix. He touched its surface, shocked by its supple texture, and Henrietta bled. Jones carefully cut a section of her quarter-sized tumor, sent it to the lab for a diagnosis, and sent Henrietta home with her family. Then came the news: the tumor was malignant.

Henrietta returned to Hopkins eight days later. While David and the children waited under the tree, physicians covered her cervix with radium in an attempt to kill the cancer. But before applying the first treatment, a young resident took one more sample. This one went to George Gey, head of tissue culture research at Hopkins. He and his wife, Margaret, had been searching for a tool for the study of cancer: a line of human cells that would live indefinitely outside the body. If they succeeded, they could observe and test human cells in ways they could never do in humans. Eventually, they could discover the cure for cancer. They were sure of it. After two decades of failure in their laboratory attempts, the Geys turned their attention to cervical cells, at the request of Richard TeLinde, then Hopkins chairman of Gynecology. TeLinde wanted cervical cells for his own research; the Geys wanted any cancer cells they could get. The day George Gey got his hands on Henrietta Lacks’s cells, everything changed. For the Geys, for medicine, and eventually for the Lackses.

Henrietta Lacks’s cells multiplied like nothing anyone had seen. They latched to the sides of test tubes, consumed the medium around them, and within days, the thin film of cells grew thicker and thicker. But Henrietta’s tumor cells took over her body as quickly as they’d taken over test tubes. Within months, tumors appeared on almost every organ, and Henrietta moaned from her bed for the Lord to help her. The day she died, October 4, 1951, George Gey appeared on national television with a vial of Henrietta’s cells. He called them HeLa cells, held them up to the camera, and said, “It is possible that, from a fundamental study such as this, we will be able to learn a way by which cancer can be completely wiped out.” Gey introduced the nation to his hopes for curing cancer while Henrietta’s body lay in the Hopkins morgue, her toenails shining with a fresh coat of red polish. And her family knew nothing of any cells.

As a train carrying Henrietta’s casket rolled back toward Virginia, her cells shocked Gey with their strength. The local undertaker met Henrietta’s body at the station where, less than a decade earlier, she had boarded her train to Baltimore. He buried her in an unmarked grave across the street from her family’s tobacco field, behind the house where her mother was born. But in the Lacks family cemetery, where cattle roam freely when the season’s right, folks today don’t know much about HeLa. They don’t know that soon after Henrietta’s death in 1951, Gey and his colleagues used her cells to grow the polio virus that was ravaging children throughout the world.

“It was Henrietta Lacks’s cells that embraced the polio virus,” says Roland Pattillo, a former fellow of Gey’s, who is now director of gynecologic oncology at Morehouse School of Medicine. “She made it possible to grow the virus so the vaccine could be developed.” That was just the beginning. Gey and his colleagues went on to develop a test, using HeLa cells, to distinguish between the many polio strains, some of which had no effect on the human body. Until researchers knew which strain produced polio’s crippling effects, they couldn’t know what they were fighting. Through Henrietta’s cells, they found their culprit. With this information, Jonas Salk and his colleagues in Pittsburgh created a vaccine, and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis established facilities for mass-producing the HeLa cells. They would use them to test the polio vaccine before its use in humans. In the meantime, Gey shared his resources.

Packaged in small tubes tucked in plastic foam containers, with careful instructions for feeding and handling, shipments of Henrietta’s cells went out to Gey’s colleagues around the world. . . to Minnesota, New York, Chile, Russia. . .the list goes on. Researchers welcomed the gifts, allowing HeLa to grow. They used the cells to search for a leukemia cure and the cause of cancer, to study viral growth, protein synthesis, genetic control mechanisms, and the unknown effects of drugs and radiation. And though Henrietta never traveled farther than from Virginia to Baltimore, her cells sat in nuclear test sites from America to Japan and multiplied in a space shuttle far above the Earth. Still, David Lacks and his children hadn’t a clue.

“The [only thing] I heard about it was, she had that cancer,” David Lacks says. “They called me, said come up there because she died. They asked me to let them take samples, and I decided not to let them do it.” But the researchers told Lacks they could use his wife’s cells to study cancer. Something that might strike his family again someday. Their studies might someday help his children and his grandchildren. Lacks was skeptical. But, he thought, if they want to see how my wife’s cancer might affect our children, and get ready to treat them if they get sick, I guess that might be okay. “My cousins said it wouldn’t hurt, so eventually I let them do it. The [doctors said] it was the fastest growing cancer they’d ever known, and they were supposed to tell me about it, to let me know, but I never did hear.”

He didn’t hear, that is, until a hazy day in 1975, 24 years after Henrietta’s death, when his daughter-in-law went to a friend’s house for dinner. In a two-story brown-brick townhouse in Baltimore, five doors down from her home, Barbara Lacks, the wife of Henrietta’s eldest son, Lawrence, sat down for dinner at her friend Jasmine’s house. The two women had been friends for years, but Barbara had never met Jasmine’s sister or brother-in-law, who came all the way from D.C. for dinner. They gathered around the mahogany table, surrounded by plants and soft light, and Jackson, Jasmine’s brother-in-law, looked across the table at Barbara. “You know,” he said, “your name sounds so familiar.” Jackson was a scientist who spent his days in a Washington laboratory. “I think I know what it is. . .I’ve been working with some cells in my lab; they’re from a woman called Henrietta Lacks. Are you related?”

“That’s my mother-in-law,” Barbara whispered, shaking her head. “She’s been dead almost 25 years, what do you mean you’re working with her cells?” Jackson explained. The cells, he told her, had been alive since Henrietta’s death and were all around the world. Actually, by that time, they were standard reference cells–few molecular scientists hadn’t worked with them. Barbara excused herself, thanking him, promising she would be in touch, and ran home to tell her husband what she’d heard. Your mother’s cells, she told him, they’re alive. Lawrence called his father who called his brothers and his sister. They just couldn’t understand. “The question I really had,” says Barbara, “the question I kept asking Jackson was, I wonder why they never mentioned anything to the family. They knew how to contact us.” But, since no one had called in the two decades after Henrietta’s death, instead of continuing to wonder, the Lacks family got on the phone and rang Hopkins themselves. And they did it at an opportune time. Henrietta’s cells, it turned out, had grown out of control. Some scientists thought her relatives were the only people who could help.

Henrietta’s cells were, and still are, some of the strongest cells known to science–they reproduce an entire generation every 24 hours. “If allowed to grow uninhibited,” Howard Jones and his Hopkins colleagues said in 1971, “[HeLa cells] would have taken over the world by this time.” This strength provided a research workhorse to irradiate, poison, and manipulate without inflicting harm; but it also meant research labs were only big enough for one culture: HeLa. Though it took three decades for the Geys to succeed with their efforts to create a human cell line, after their success with HeLa, culturing cells became suspiciously easy. Researchers cultivated tissue samples from their own bodies and the bodies of their families and patients. Most grew successfully. Sure, the samples struggled during the first few weeks, or even months, in culture, but then, suddenly, they flourished. Samples blossomed into full-blown healthy cell lines with the strength of, well, the HeLa cell.

In 1974, a researcher by the name of Walter Nelson-Rees started what everyone called a nasty rumor: HeLa cells, he claimed, had infiltrated the world’s stock of cell cultures. No one wanted to believe him. For almost three decades researchers had done complex experiments on what they thought were breast cells, prostate cells, or placental cells, and suddenly, rumor had it they’d been working with HeLa cells all along. To believe this would be to believe that years of work and millions of dollars had, in essence, been wasted. The truth was, Henrietta’s cells had traveled through the air, on hands, or the tips of pipettes, overpowering any cell cultures they encountered. And researchers had no idea. There was no way to know which cells were growing in the petri dish. And there was no universally accepted test for a cell culture’s identity. To accept or reject the theory that HeLa cells had taken over, researchers wanted more evidence. This required detailed information about the cells’ source. But they knew only the barest facts about Henrietta: She was black, she was a woman, and she was dead.

Though it may have been coincidence, soon after the Lacks children called Hopkins asking about their mother’s cells, letters appeared in their mailboxes. Several Hopkins researchers wondered, the letters said, if the Lacks family would be willing to donate some blood and tissue samples. Soon, a nurse circled Barbara Lacks’s narrow dining room table with needles, blood tubes, and slides, gathering samples from the Lackses. From these donations, researchers would find precious bits of information about Henrietta–like her blood type–that they could use in their attempts to study her cells. “[It was] an elegant piece of work,” Nelson-Rees told a reporter, “by simple Aristotelian class logic and pure applied genetics, you could speculate, to a remarkable extent, as to what Henrietta Lacks’s [genetic makeup] was.” And this is exactly what the researchers did. But if you ask the family, you’ll get a different story. “The doctors tested us to see what was in my mother’s system, was it hereditary,” recalls Henrietta’s son Sonny Lacks. “But that’s all they said. They never got in contact with us again. We contacted them a couple a times, but they said they’d get back at us, then after a while, we just got tired of calling, so everybody just let it go and went back with their lives.” But every now and then, they wonder if they have the gene that killed their mother.

This point of confusion between what the researchers intended to do with the samples and what the participants understood their intentions to be is only one of several elements of the Lackses’ story that points to important ethical questions. Some have yet to find answers. “There are at least two issues that cases like Mrs. Lacks’s raise,” says Ruth Faden, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Bioethics Institute and the Philip Franklin Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics. “One is the question of consent, and the other is what, if anything, is morally or legally due to a person if something of commercial value is developed from their cells.”

In terms of informed consent, says Faden, “the Lackses’ story is a sad commentary on how the biomedical research community thought about research in the 1950s. But it was not at all uncommon for physicians to conduct research on patients without their knowledge or consent. That doesn’t make it right. It certainly wasn’t right. It was also unfortunately common.” Since the era when Henrietta walked through the doors of Hopkins, the field of biomedical ethics was born, and with it came regulations about informed consent. Patients now have something like a legal promise that no physician will take samples without permission. It’s the latter issue, the commodification of human body parts, which is still an extremely unsettled area of ethics and law in public policy. And for the Lackses, who don’t all have health insurance or the money to afford it, the issue of commercial value in this case is very unsettled. Unsettled, but with little recourse.

Since the development of the HeLa cells, there’s been an explosion of both scientific and commercial interest in the use of human tissues for research purposes, yet research subjects generally see none of the returns. “The amazing thing,” says Faden, “is that here we are, almost 50 years later, the capacity to develop commercial products from human tissues is dramatically greater now than it was then, and we still haven’t figured out how to handle it. . . . In terms of public policy, we’re real clear that you can’t buy and sell organs, that’s illegal. But you can sell blood. You can sell human eggs and sperm. But you can’t sell your kidney. And apparently, you can’t sell your cells, you give those away. So, nothing is very clear, and there are a lot of deep worries about putting price tags on the human body.” This is partially why the United States has recently launched a Presidential Bioethics Advisory Commission to address this and related issues.

To this day, members of the Lacks family feel they’ve been passed over in the story of the HeLa cells. They know their mother’s cells started a medical revolution and are now bought and sold around the world. They’re pretty sure that someone, somewhere, has profited from their mother’s death. They know that someone wasn’t related to Henrietta. And their experience is not well-known. In cases like these, Faden agrees, a good way to begin addressing this problem is through the telling of a story from which everyone can learn. This story starts with Henrietta and the origin of the HeLa cells: They were not from Helen Lane or Helen Larson, as many publications have mistakenly reported, they were from Henrietta Lacks, wife of David, mother of five.

adapted from ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot / 2010

In 1951, at the age of 30, Henrietta Lacks, the descendant of freed slaves, was diagnosed with cervical cancer—a strangely aggressive type, unlike any her doctor had ever seen. He took a small tissue sample without her knowledge or consent. A scientist put that sample into a test tube, and, though Henrietta died eight months later, her cells—known worldwide as HeLa—are still alive today. They became the first immortal human cell line ever grown in culture and one of the most important tools in medicine: Research on HeLa was vital to the development of the polio vaccine, as well as drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; it helped uncover the secrets of cancer and the effects of the atom bomb, and led to important advances like cloning, in vitro fertilization, and gene mapping. Since 2001 alone, five Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research involving HeLa cells.

There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all the HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—the equivalent of at least 100 Empire State Buildings.

Today, nearly 60 years after Henrietta’s death, her body lies in an unmarked grave in Clover, Virginia. But her cells are still among the most widely used in labs worldwide—bought and sold by the billions. Though those cells have done wonders for science, Henrietta—whose legacy involves the birth of bioethics and the grim history of experimentation on African-Americans—is all but forgotten.

On January 29, 1951, David Lacks sat behind the wheel of his old Buick, watching the rain fall. He was parked under a towering oak tree outside Johns Hopkins Hospital with three of his children—two still in diapers—waiting for their mother, Henrietta. A few minutes earlier she’d jumped out of the car, pulled her jacket over her head, and scurried into the hospital, past the “colored” bathroom, the only one she was allowed to use. In the next building, under an elegant domed copper roof, a ten-and-a-half-foot marble statue of Jesus stood, arms spread wide, holding court over what was once the main entrance of Hopkins. No one in Henrietta’s family ever saw a Hopkins doctor without visiting the Jesus statue, laying flowers at his feet, saying a prayer, and rubbing his big toe for good luck. But that day Henrietta didn’t stop.

She went straight to the waiting room of the gynecology clinic, a wide-open space, empty but for rows of long, straight-backed benches that looked like church pews. “I got a knot on my womb,” she told the receptionist. “The doctor need to have a look.” For more than a year Henrietta had been telling her closest girlfriends that something didn’t feel right. One night after dinner, she sat on her bed with her cousins Margaret and Sadie and told them, “I got a knot inside me.”

“A what?” Sadie asked. “A knot,” she said. “It hurt somethin’ awful—when that man want to get with me, Sweet Jesus aren’t them but some pains.” When sex first started hurting, she thought it had something to do with baby Deborah, who she’d just given birth to a few weeks earlier, or the bad blood David sometimes brought home after nights with other women—the kind doctors treated with shots of penicillin and heavy metals.

About a week after telling her cousins she thought something was wrong, at the age of 29, Henrietta turned up pregnant with Joe, her fifth child. Sadie and Margaret told Henrietta that the pain probably had something to do with a baby after all. But Henrietta still said no. “It was there before the baby,” she told them. “It’s somethin’ else.” They all stopped talking about the knot, and no one told Henrietta’s husband anything about it. Then, four and a half months after baby Joseph was born, Henrietta went to the bathroom and found blood spotting her underwear when it wasn’t her time of the month.

She filled her bathtub, lowered herself into the warm water, and slowly spread her legs. With the door closed to her children, husband, and cousins, Henrietta slid a finger inside herself and rubbed it across her cervix until she found what she somehow knew she’d find: a hard lump, deep inside, as though someone had lodged a marble the size of her pinkie tip just to the left of the opening to her womb.

Henrietta climbed out of the bathtub, dried herself off, and dressed. Then she told her husband, “You better take me to the doctor. I’m bleeding and it ain’t my time.” Her local doctor took one look inside her, saw the lump, and figured it was a sore from syphilis. But the lump tested negative for syphilis, so he told Henrietta she’d better go to the Johns Hopkins gynecology clinic.

The public wards at Hopkins were filled with patients, most of them black and unable to pay their medical bills. David drove Henrietta nearly 20 miles to get there, not because they preferred it, but because it was the only major hospital for miles that treated black patients. This was the era of Jim Crow—when black people showed up at white-only hospitals, the staff was likely to send them away, even if it meant they might die in the parking lot.

When the nurse called Henrietta from the waiting room, she led her through a single door to a colored-only exam room—one in a long row of rooms divided by clear glass walls that let nurses see from one to the next. Henrietta undressed, wrapped herself in a starched white hospital gown, and lay down on a wooden exam table, waiting for Howard Jones, the gynecologist on duty. When Jones walked into the room, Henrietta told him about the lump. Before examining her, he flipped through her chart:

Breathing difficult since childhood due to recurrent throat infections and deviated septum in patient’s nose. Physician recommended surgical repair. Patient declined. Patient had one toothache for nearly five years. Only anxiety is oldest daughter who is epileptic and can’t talk. Happy household. Well nourished, cooperative. Unexplained vaginal bleeding and blood in urine during last two pregnancies; physician recommended sickle cell test. Patient declined. Been with husband since age 14 and has no liking for sexual intercourse. Patient has asymptomatic neurosyphilis but canceled syphilis treatments, said she felt fine. Two months prior to current visit, after delivery of fifth child, patient had significant blood in urine. Tests showed areas of increased cellular activity in the cervix. Physician recommended diagnostics and referred to specialist for ruling out infection or cancer. Patient canceled appointment. It was no surprise that she hadn’t come back all those times for follow-up. For Henrietta, walking into Hopkins was like entering a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language. She knew about harvesting tobacco and butchering a pig, but she’d never heard the words cervix orbiopsy. She didn’t read or write much, and she hadn’t studied science in school. She, like most black patients, only went to Hopkins when she thought she had no choice.

Henrietta lay back on the table, feet pressed hard in stirrups as she stared at the ceiling. And sure enough, Jones found a lump exactly where she’d said he would. If her cervix was a clock’s face, the lump was at 4 o’clock. He’d seen easily a thousand cervical cancer lesions, but never anything like this: shiny and purple (like “grape Jello,” he wrote later), and so delicate it bled at the slightest touch. Jones cut a small sample and sent it to the pathology lab down the hall for a diagnosis. Then he told Henrietta to go home.

Soon after, Howard Jones dictated notes about Henrietta and her diagnosis: “Her history is interesting in that she had a term delivery here at this hospital, September 19, 1950,” he said. “No note is made in the history at that time or at the six weeks’ return visit that there is any abnormality of the cervix.” Yet here she was, three months later, with a full-fledged tumor. Either her doctors had missed it during her last exams—which seemed impossible—or it had grown at a terrifying rate.

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia, on August 1, 1920. No one knows how she became Henrietta. A midwife named Fannie delivered her in a small shack on a dead-end road overlooking a train depot, where hundreds of freight cars came and went each day. Henrietta shared that house with her parents and eight older siblings until 1924, when her mother, Eliza Lacks Pleasant, died giving birth to her tenth child.

Henrietta’s father, Johnny Pleasant, was a squat man who hobbled around on a cane he often hit people with. Johnny didn’t have the patience for raising children, so when Eliza died, he took them all back to Clover, Virginia, where his family still farmed the tobacco fields their ancestors had worked as slaves. No one in Clover could take all ten children, so relatives divided them up—one with this cousin, one with that aunt. Henrietta ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks.

Tommy lived in what everyone called the home-house, a four-room wooden cabin that once served as slave quarters, with plank floors, gas lanterns, and water Henrietta hauled up a long hill from the creek. The home-house stood on a hillside where wind whipped through cracks in the walls. The air inside stayed so cool that when relatives died, the family kept their corpses in the front hallway for days so people could visit and pay respects. Then they buried them in the cemetery out back.

Henrietta’s grandfather was already raising another grandchild that one of his daughters left behind after delivering him on the home-house floor. That child’s name was David Lacks, but everyone called him Day, because in the Lacks country drawl, house sounds like hyse, and David sounds like Day. No one could have guessed Henrietta would spend the rest of her life with Day—first as a cousin growing up in their grandfather’s home, then as his wife.

Like most young Lackses, Day didn’t finish school: He stopped in the fourth grade because the family needed him to work the tobacco fields. But Henrietta stayed until the sixth grade. During the school year, after taking care of the garden and livestock each morning, she’d walk two miles—past the white school where children threw rocks and taunted her—to the colored school, a three-room wooden farmhouse hidden under tall shade trees.

At nightfall the Lacks cousins built fires with pieces of old shoes to keep the mosquitoes away, and watched the stars from beneath the big oak tree where they’d hung a rope to swing from. They played tag, ring-around-the-rosy, and hopscotch, and danced around the field singing until Grandpa Tommy yelled for everyone to go to bed.

Henrietta and Day had been sharing a bedroom since she was 4 and he was 9, so what happened next didn’t surprise anyone: They started having children together. Their son Lawrence was born just months after Henrietta’s 14th birthday; his sister, Lucile Elsie Pleasant, came along four years later. They were both born on the floor of the home-house like their father, grandmother, and grandfather before them. People wouldn’t use words like epilepsy, mental retardation, or neurosyphilis to describe Elsie’s condition until years later. To the folks in Clover, she was just simple. Touched.

Henrietta and Day married alone at their preacher’s house on April 10, 1941. She was 20; he was 25. They didn’t go on a honeymoon because there was too much work to do, and no money for travel. Henrietta and Day were lucky if they sold enough tobacco each season to feed the family and plant the next crop. So after their wedding, Day went back to gripping the splintered ends of his old wooden plow as Henrietta followed close behind, pushing a homemade wheelbarrow and dropping tobacco seedlings into holes in the freshly turned red dirt.

A few months later, Day moved north to Turner Station, a small black community outside Baltimore where he’d gotten a job working in a shipyard. Henrietta stayed behind to care for the children and the tobacco until Day made enough money for a house and three tickets north. Soon, with a child on each side, Henrietta boarded a coal-fueled train from the small wooden depot at the end of Clover’s Main Street. She left the tobacco fields of her youth and the hundred-year-old oak tree that shaded her from the sun on so many hot afternoons. At the age of 21, she stared through the train window at rolling hills and wide-open bodies of water for the first time, heading toward a new life. After her visit to Hopkins, Henrietta went back to her usual routine, cleaning and cooking for her husband, their children, and the many cousins she fed each day. Less than a week later, Jones got her biopsy results from the pathology lab: “epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage I.” Translation: cervical cancer.

Cervical carcinomas are divided into two types: invasive carcinomas, which have penetrated the surface of the cervix, and noninvasive carcinomas, which haven’t. The noninvasive type is sometimes called “sugar-icing carcinoma,” because it grows in a smooth layered sheet across the surface of the cervix, but its official name is carcinoma in situ, which derives from the Latin for “cancer in its original place.”

In 1951 most doctors in the field believed that invasive carcinoma was deadly, and carcinoma in situ wasn’t. So they hardly treated it. But Richard Wesley TeLinde, head of gynecology at Hopkins and one of the top cervical cancer experts in the country, disagreed—he believed carcinoma in situ was simply an early stage of invasive carcinoma that, left untreated, eventually became deadly. So he treated it aggressively, often removing the cervix, uterus, and most of the vagina. He argued that this would drastically reduce cervical cancer deaths, but his critics called it extreme and unnecessary.

TeLinde thought that if he could find a way to grow living samples from normal cervical tissue and both types of cancerous tissue—something never done before—he could compare all three. If he could prove that carcinoma in situ and invasive carcinoma looked and behaved similarly in the laboratory, he could end the debate, showing that he’d been right all along, and doctors who ignored him were killing their patients. So he called George Gey (pronounced “guy”), head of tissue culture research at Hopkins.

Gey and his wife, Margaret, had spent the last three decades working to grow malignant cells outside the body, hoping to use them to find cancer’s cause and cure. But most of the cells died quickly, and the few that survived hardly grew at all. The Geys were determined to grow the first immortal human cells: a continuously dividing line of cells all descended from one original sample, cells that would constantly replenish themselves and never die. They didn’t care what kind of tissue they used, as long as it came from a person.

So when TeLinde offered Gey a supply of cervical cancer tissue in exchange for trying to grow some cells, Gey didn’t hesitate. And TeLinde began collecting samples from any woman who happened to walk into Hopkins with cervical cancer. Including Henrietta.

Jones called Henrietta on February 5, 1951, after getting her biopsy report back from the lab, and told her the tumor was malignant. Henrietta didn’t tell anyone what Jones said, and no one asked. She simply went on with her day as if nothing had happened, which was just like her—no sense upsetting anyone over something she could just deal with herself.

The next morning Henrietta climbed from the Buick outside Hopkins again, telling Day and the children not to worry. “Ain’t nothin’ serious wrong,” she said. “Doctor’s gonna fix me right up.” Henrietta went straight to the admissions desk and told the receptionist she was there for her treatment. Then she signed a form with the words operation permit at the top of the page. It said:

I hereby give consent to the staff of The Johns Hopkins Hospital to perform any operative procedures and under any anaesthetic either local or general that they may deem necessary in the proper surgical care and treatment of: ______________________________.

Henrietta printed her name in the blank space. A witness with illegible handwriting signed a line at the bottom of the form, and Henrietta signed another. Then she followed a nurse down a long hallway into the ward for colored women, where Howard Jones and several other white physicians ran more tests than she’d had in her entire life. They checked her urine, her blood, her lungs. They stuck tubes in her bladder and nose.

Henrietta’s tumor was the invasive type, and like hospitals nationwide, Hopkins treated all invasive cervical carcinomas with radium, a white radioactive metal that glows an eerie blue. So the morning of Henrietta’s first treatment, a taxi driver picked up a doctor’s bag filled with thin glass tubes of radium from a clinic across town. The tubes were tucked into individual slots inside small canvas pouches hand-sewn by a local Baltimore woman. One nurse placed the pouches on a stainless steel tray. Another wheeled Henrietta into the small colored-only operating room, with stainless steel tables, huge glaring lights, and an all-white medical staff dressed in white gowns, hats, masks, and gloves.

With Henrietta unconscious on the operating table in the center of the room, her feet in stirrups, the surgeon on duty, Lawrence Wharton Jr., sat on a stool between her legs. He peered inside Henrietta, dilated her cervix, and prepared to treat her tumor. But first—though no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor—Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-size pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix: one from her tumor, and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby. Then he placed the samples in a glass dish.

Wharton slipped a tube filled with radium inside Henrietta’s cervix, and sewed it in place. He then sewed a pouch filled with radium to the outer surface of her cervix and packed another against it. He slid several rolls of gauze inside her vagina to help keep the radium in place, then threaded a catheter into her bladder so she could urinate without disturbing the treatment. When Wharton finished, a nurse wheeled Henrietta back into the ward, and a resident took the dish with the samples to Gey’s lab, as he’d done many times before. Gey still got excited at moments like this, but everyone else in his lab saw Henrietta’s sample as something tedious—the latest of what felt like countless samples that scientists and lab technicians had been trying and failing to grow for years. Gey’s 21-year-old assistant, Mary Kubicek, sat eating a tuna salad sandwich at a long stone culture bench that doubled as a break table. She and Margaret and the other women in the Gey lab spent many hours there, all in nearly identical cat’s-eye glasses with fat dark frames and thick lenses, their hair pulled back in tight buns. “I’m putting a new sample in your cubicle,” Gey told Mary.

She pretended not to notice. “Not again,” she thought, and kept eating her sandwich. Mary knew she shouldn’t wait—every moment those cells sat in the dish made it more likely they’d die. But they always died anyway. “Why bother?” she thought. At that point, there were many obstacles to growing cells successfully. For starters, no one knew exactly what nutrients they needed to survive or how best to supply them. But the biggest problem facing cell culture was contamination. Bacteria and a host of other microorganisms could find their way into cultures—from people’s unwashed hands, their breath, and dust particles floating through the air—and destroy them. Margaret Gey had been trained as a surgical nurse, which meant sterility was her specialty—it was key to preventing deadly infections in patients in the operating room.

Margaret patrolled the lab, arms crossed, leaning over technicians’ shoulders as they worked, inspecting glassware for spots or smudges. Mary followed Margaret’s sterilizing rules meticulously to avoid her wrath. Only then did she pick up the pieces of Henrietta’s cervix—forceps in one hand, scalpel in the other—and carefully slice them into one-millimeter squares. She sucked each square into a pipette, and dropped them one at a time onto chicken-blood clots she’d placed at the bottom of dozens of test tubes. She covered each clot with several drops of culture medium, plugged the tubes with rubber stoppers, and wrote “HeLa,” for Henrietta and Lacks, in big black letters on the side of each tube. Then she put them in an incubator.

For the next few days, Mary started each morning with her usual sterilization drill. She’d peer into all the incubating tubes, laughing to herself and thinking, “Nothing’s happening.” “Big surprise.” Then she saw what looked like little rings of fried egg white around the clots at the bottom of each tube. The cells were growing, but Mary didn’t think much of it—other cells had survived for a while in the lab. But Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving—they were growing with mythological intensity. By the next morning, they’d doubled. Mary divided the contents of each tube in two, giving them room to grow, and soon she was dividing them into four tubes, then six. Henrietta’s cells grew to fill as much space as Mary gave them. Still, Gey wasn’t ready to celebrate. “The cells could die any minute,” he told Mary. But they didn’t. The cells kept growing like nothing anyone had seen, doubling their numbers every 24 hours, accumulating by the millions. “Spreading like crabgrass!” Margaret said. As long as they had food and warmth, Henrietta’s cancer cells seemed unstoppable. Soon, George told a few of his closest colleagues that he thought his lab might have grown the first immortal human cells. To which they replied, Can I have some? And George said yes.

The Life After Death of Henrietta Lacks
by Van Smith / 4.17.2002

In the 27 years since the Lacks family serendipitously learned of Henrietta’s unwitting contribution, little has been done to honor her. “Henrietta Lacks Day” is celebrated in Turner Station each year on Feb. 1. In 1996, prompted by Atlanta’s Morehouse College, that city’s mayor proclaimed Oct. 11 Henrietta Lacks Day. The following year, Congress passed a resolution in her memory sponsored by Rep. Robert Ehrlich (R-Md.), whose 2nd District includes Turner Station, and the British Broadcasting Corp. produced a documentary on her remarkable story. Beyond that, however, virtually nothing has been done to celebrate Lacks’ contribution–not even by Hopkins, which gained immeasurable prestige from Gey’s work with her cells.

Lacks-Pullum is bitter about this. “We never knew they took her cells, and people done got filthy rich [from HeLa-based research], but we don’t get a dime,” she says. The family can’t afford a reputable lawyer to press its case for some financial stake in the work. She says she has appealed to Hopkins for help, and “all they do is pat me on my shoulder and put me out the door.”

Hopkins spokesperson Gary Stephenson is quick to point out that Hopkins never sold HeLa, so it didn’t make money from Henrietta’s contribution. Still, he says, “there are people here who would like something done, and I’m hoping that at some point something will be done in a formal way to note her very, very important contribution.” Lacks-Pullum shares those hopes, but she is pessimistic. “Hopkins,” she says, “they don’t care.”

Lost in the acrimony over ethical and financial issues stemming from Henrietta Lacks’ cells, though, is Henrietta Lacks herself. A descendant of slaves and slaveholders, she grew up farming the same land on which her forebears toiled–and that her relatives still farm today. As part of an aspiring black middle class with rural roots, she left her childhood home to join a migration to Baltimore, where Bethlehem Steel was eager to hire hard workers from the country. She was in the midst of realizing an American dream when her life was cut short. And her cells helped realize society’s larger dreams for health and knowledge. As such, she’s been called a hero, a martyr, even a saint. But during her life, as Ehrlich said to his colleagues in Congress, Henrietta Lacks “was known as pleasant and smiling, and always willing the lend a helping hand.” That she did, in more ways than she ever knew.

Trying to find Henrietta Lacks’ grave is a lesson in irony. She is now a world-famous woman, yet her body rests in an unmarked plot in a family burial ground next to her childhood house, now long abandoned and close to falling down. No one, not even her relatives, knows precisely which grave plot is hers.

The search starts in Clover, Va., where Henrietta grew up farming tobacco on her family’s land. It’s a small town of about 200 people in a region southwest of Richmond known as Southside. The first stop–Clover Cemetery, on the outskirts of town–is fruitless; plenty of Lackses but no Henrietta. A quick visit to the post office yields a clue, offered with matter-of-fact bluntness by a man at the copy machine. “What did you say her name was? Henrietta Lacks? Was she black or white?” Hearing the answer, he continues: “The cemeteries you can see from the road, they’re mostly for whites. You got to go back off the road to get to the black cemetery. So go back up that road and make a right on Lacks Town Road. A lot of blacks live up there. You can’t see the cemetery from the road, so you’ll have to ask people. But someone up there should be able to help you.”

Lacks Town is not really a town but a tiny community of relatives living along a one-mile dead-end road. Trailers, shacks, old log homes, and a ranch house or two are surrounded by small plots of farmland, barns, and machinery, with woods filling in the gaps. It’s part of Clover, but Lacks Town clearly has a distinct identity. “They stick together down there,” a local woman from the other side of Clover explains later.

In short order, someone helps me out: Otis Ferrell Jr., a young man, probably in his 30s, who immediately recognizes the proffered name. “Oh, the lady with the cancer cells,” he exclaims. “Yeah, she’s buried up there.” Ferrell points to the top of a hill in a tree-cluttered cow pasture, gesturing toward two downed trees, clearly visible from the road, giant gray hulks lying on their sides next to a large rusty-roofed abandoned building. “That’s where they whupped the slaves,” he says candidly (though falsely, his elders later explain). “And one day the trees just came down. The cemetery is just past them and that old house. Yeah, she’s up there, but the grave’s unmarked. Uncle Clifton knows which one it is.”

Clifton Garrett is Henrietta Lacks’ cousin, now in his 80s. He lives nearby, about a quarter mile down from Lacks Town Road, and he’s burning the leaves in his yard while heating up the barbecue grill. “What, you going to build a memorial?” he retorts when asked if he knows which grave is Henrietta’s, in a tone that suggests it’s high time someone did. As smoke and embers billow around, he says he’s not exactly sure which grave is hers. “I know where her mother is buried,” he says. “She must be close by.”

Garrett gives a poignant tour of the land where Henrietta Lacks is buried. The property, he says, belonged to Tommy Lacks, who, along with his two brothers, was a patriarch of Clover’s African-American Lackses. Tommy was Henrietta’s grandfather, and he cared for her and her siblings after their mother died.

“Henrietta was raised up in that house, and her mother was born in it,” Garrett says as he strolls past the dilapidated building. “It’s called the Old Home House. It was built in slave times. Hadn’t nobody lived in this house in many years. Ain’t nobody to take care of it, and it just started falling down. But back then, they kept everything clean. When we was children, we played together here. There was a henhouse, an icehouse, a corn silo, a stable. But now there’s nothing left of anything.”

It’s hard to say how many ancestors are laid to rest in the burial ground; many of the graves are unmarked, and the sites have long been trampled by cows. “They knocked the rocks away when they came in and cleaned up with a bulldozer,” Garrett explains. “This was a big family,” he continues. “Everybody in this cemetery is related one way or another. When they die, they bring them here because this is the family cemetery.”

Henrietta’s mother, Eliza Pleasant, was buried here in 1924 after she died in Roanoke, Va., giving birth to her 10th child. “I remember when they brought her here,” Garrett says. “I was only about 2 or 3 years old, but I remember it. She had a coffin and they opened it, and a little light in the coffin came on. My memory’s good.”

Eliza’s husband, John Randall Pleasant, worked for the railroad in Roanoke, where Henrietta was born in 1920. When Eliza passed away, John moved their children back to the Old Home House to be raised by their grandfather, Tommy. Eliza’s grave has a headstone: eliza, wife of j.r. pleasant. jul 12, 1886.-oct. 28, 1924. gone but not forgotten. Indentations in the earth indicate five other unmarked graves in two rows behind the headstone. One of them is John’s. One of them is Henrietta’s. Neither Garrett nor any other family members I was able to find in Clover or in Baltimore knows which is which.

Clifton Garrett did know Henrietta, though, and remembers her fondly. “She was just an average child. A nice friendly girl and everything. That’s all I can tell you. We would play out in the yard, go to school.” Going to Clover School, which was for black children and offered instruction through seventh grade, meant a two-mile walk, taking shortcuts through fields, forests, and backyards–and right past Clover Elementary School, then white-only. Garrett still remembers the names of his teachers and the school’s principal, and that the principal’s son was killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Henrietta helped on the farm until she went up to Baltimore,” Garrett says. That happened in 1943, a short while after her husband moved there for work for Beth Steel. Garrett moved north too, for a job at Beth Steel making nails in the wire mill. “After I got grown, then I went up there. A lot of people from around here did. There were company barracks to stay in, so we used to live in Sparrows Point until we moved to Turner Station. Henrietta’s husband, David, worked on the shipyard. He was a hard worker. And Henrietta, she was a nice lady. Nice as she could be. Very friendly. Very friendly, she was.”

The dredged-up memories lead Garrett to muse aloud, about how some part of his cousin still thrives. “Her cells are still living,” he says, gazing at the ground near her grave. He shakes his head. “She’s dead, but her cells are still living,” he says again, and then is silent.

Gary Lacks, Henrietta’s nephew, cares for his elderly mother, Gladys Lacks, in Lacks Town. Like many in Clover, he’s a religious man, which gives him a unique perspective on his aunt’s story. “I go back to the Book of Genesis when God created man,” he says, his voice quickly rising in a crescendo of fervor. “He created him to live forever, really, but man ate up what God told him he couldn’t eat, and a process of death took over his body. But the possibility was in man that he could live–and if he could live, then his parts could live.” In Gary Lacks’ eyes, his aunt’s immortal cells are realizing God’s original intent for the human race.

Roberta Brooks’ view of Henrietta is more down to earth. “I worked in the field with Henrietta and Tommy and most of the Lacks Town folks when I was young,” recalls Brooks, another relative who lives near Clover. “I used to hang around more at the Old Home House than at my own house. We’d walk six miles to play together. We used to play on the creek, be teenagers together. Singing, playing horseshoes and ball games, shucking corn. There was lots to do. Children today come home and watch TV, but we had everything to do.”

As Brooks’ contemporaries got older, many took jobs in Baltimore. “A bunch of them in Lacks Town were working at Sparrows Point,” she says. “They were good jobs, about the best jobs paying, and they hired you quick there. They’d stay at the barracks, work all week, then return back to Clover for the weekend. And a lot of them stayed–and are living there still.”

Then Brooks touches on a sensitive subject–how Clover’s black Lackses and white Lackses are related. “When you get over in Lacks Town, oh, you don’t know who’s who,” she says. “It’s a big screwed-up thing. All the white Lackses and all the black Lackses, they’re all the same people. We all came up like family together, worked together and everything. And nobody married. Had bunches of children here and there and never married. It’s how it is. It’s a mess. And it’s just so deep, you can’t separate it.” The family history informs Brooks’ perspective on race relations: “That why I say, we’re all just human beings. Not black, not white. Just human beings. So it’s all about respect. That’s it. Respect.”

Gladys Lacks suffered a stroke last year. Her mind and eyes are as clear as day, but she has difficulty communicating. When it comes to the family’s tangled history, though, her two words speak volumes. “Master Ben,” she says, and leaves it at that. Records at the Halifax County courthouse offer further explanation. Ben Lacks and Albert Lacks, who were white (and related, although the African-American Lackses no longer recall how), owned the land Henrietta’s family worked and her descendants work still. When her grandfather, Tommy, married in 1903, he listed his parents as “Albert and Maria.” Tommy’s brother, James Lacks, married twice; the first time, he lists “Ben and Maria” as his parents, but the second time his parents are listed as “Albert and Maria.” Both white Lacks willed land to their black children. Albert’s 1888 will gave 10 acres each “from what is known as the Home Tract” to Tommy, James, and their brother Peter; Ben’s will of 1907 gave more land to Tommy and James.

“All of them hooked up together. They’re kin,” says William Morton, Peter Lacks’ grandson. Morton lives near Clover, having moved back after several decades in Baltimore, working at Sparrows Point (“Practically all of these fellows around here worked on the Point,” he says) and later for Morgan State University. Although records do not indicate Peter’s parentage, Morton says his grandfather “got land because he was kin to the owners.” Among Clover’s Lackses, he says, echoing his cousin Roberta Brooks, “that’s just the way it is.”

In Deborah Lacks-Pullum’s estimation, her parent’s middle-class aspirations in coming to Baltimore were realized. “We weren’t poor,” she says. “We were living comfortably.” Henrietta held down the home on New Pittsburgh Avenue in Turner Station while her husband, David, earned decent wages at the shipyard. Folks from Clover, in town to start jobs on the Point, would stay over until they could find their own housing. Before he came to Baltimore, David Lacks “was the hardest working man in Clover, working 15 acres by himself,” Lacks-Pullum says. Once here, he and Henrietta enjoyed a sterling reputation in the community as gracious, generous people.

“The door was always open for new arrivals from Clover,” says Barbara Wyche, a Morgan State lecturer who has dedicated much time and effort to studying Henrietta Lacks. The link to the family’s Virginia roots stayed strong, Wyche says–“Henrietta went home every summer and farmed.” It’s still strong: Deborah Lacks-Pullum frequently visits relatives in Clover.

After Henrietta died, David Lacks raised the children–Lawrence, Elsie (who died at the age of 15, a few years after Henrietta passed away), David Jr., Deborah, and Zakariyya–by himself, just as Henrietta’s grandfather had done after his wife died. They remained a happy family, though they missed their mother.

The news that Henrietta’s cells had been taken and used for research without their knowledge, though, cast a cloud over the family. David Lacks, Henrietta’s husband, doesn’t even like to talk about it. “He’s tired of talking–it’s the same thing, over and over,” she says. By default, Lacks-Pullum has become the family spokesperson when it comes to Henrietta–and she herself is getting weary. “I’m just tired of my family getting walked over,” she says. “It hurts.”

Recognition has been slow in coming, but the future holds some promise. Rebecca Skloot, a Pittsburgh-based science writer, has spent the last three years researching and writing a comprehensive book, HeLa: The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, that’s due to be published by Times Books next year. And Charlene Gilbert, a Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker, is hard at work on a documentary titled Colored Bodies: Henrietta Lacks and the HeLa Cells.

Back in Clover, Gary Lacks is roaming the Old Home House, trying to avoid the holes in the floorboards. He’s explaining how the house and the family burial ground have fallen into disrepair. “There’s no one to keep it up,” he says. “People only think about it when they come up here to bury someone, then they forget about it until the next time. They let the cows come in, and the cows keep it clean, keep the bushes down.”

It wouldn’t take much money to save the Old Home House, he says, and even less to keep up the cemetery, find Henrietta’s grave, give it a headstone. But people don’t have much money in Lacks Town. He hopes that with the attention generated by the book and the film–and with all the millions of dollars at Johns Hopkins’ disposal–resources will become available to give his aunt’s final resting place the honor it deserves. He’s hopeful, but he isn’t holding his breath.


Detroit wants to save itself by shrinking
BY David Runk / Mar 8, 2010

Detroit, the very symbol of American industrial might for most of the 20th century, is drawing up a radical renewal plan that calls for turning large swaths of this now-blighted, rusted-out city back into the fields and farmland that existed before the automobile. Operating on a scale never before attempted in this country, the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods. Roughly a quarter of the 139-square-mile city could go from urban to semi-rural.

Near downtown, fruit trees and vegetable farms would replace neighborhoods that are an eerie landscape of empty buildings and vacant lots. Suburban commuters heading into the city center might pass through what looks like the countryside to get there. Surviving neighborhoods in the birthplace of the auto industry would become pockets in expanses of green. Detroit officials first raised the idea in the 1990s, when blight was spreading. Now, with the recession plunging the city deeper into ruin, a decision on how to move forward is approaching. Mayor Dave Bing, who took office last year, is expected to unveil some details in his state-of-the-city address this month. “Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”

The meaning of what is afoot is now settling in across the city. “People are afraid,” said Deborah L. Younger, past executive director of a group called Detroit Local Initiatives Support Corporation that is working to revitalize five areas of the city. “When you read that neighborhoods may no longer exist, that sends fear.” Though the will to downsize has arrived, the way to do it is unclear and fraught with problems. Politically explosive decisions must be made about which neighborhoods should be bulldozed and which improved. Hundreds of millions of federal dollars will be needed to buy land, raze buildings and relocate residents, since this financially desperate city does not have the means to do it on its own. It isn’t known how many people in the mostly black, blue-collar city might be uprooted, but it could be thousands. Some won’t go willingly. “I like the way things are right here,” said David Hardin, 60, whose bungalow is one of three occupied homes on a block with dozens of empty lots near what is commonly known as City Airport. He has lived there since 1976, when every home on the street was occupied, and said he enjoys the peace and quiet.

For much of the 20th century, Detroit was an industrial powerhouse – the city that put the nation on wheels. Factory workers lived in neighborhoods of simple single- and two-story homes and walked to work. But then the plants began to close one by one. The riots of 1967 accelerated an exodus of whites to the suburbs, and many middle-class blacks followed. Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.

Several other declining industrial cities, such as Youngstown, Ohio, have also accepted downsizing. Since 2005, Youngstown has been tearing down a few hundred houses a year. But Detroit’s plans dwarf that effort. The approximately 40 square miles of vacant property in Detroit is larger than the entire city of Youngstown. Faced with a $300 million budget deficit and a dwindling tax base, Bing argues that the city can’t continue to pay for police patrols, fire protection and other services for all areas. The current plan would demolish about 10,000 houses and empty buildings in three years and pump new investment into stronger neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods that would be cleared, the city would offer to relocate residents or buy them out. The city could use tax foreclosure to claim abandoned property and invoke eminent domain for those who refuse to leave, much as cities now do for freeway projects.

The mayor has begun lobbying Washington for support, and in January Detroit was awarded $40.8 million for renewal work. The federally funded Detroit Housing Commission supports Bing’s plan. “It takes a true partnership, because we don’t want to invest in a neighborhood that the city is not going to invest in,” said Eugene E. Jones, executive director of the commission. It is not known who might get the cleared land, but with prospects for recruiting industry slim, planners are considering agricultural uses. The city might offer larger tracts for sale or lease, or turn over smaller pieces to community organizations to use.

Maggie DeSantis, a board member of Community Development Advocates of Detroit, said she worries that shutting down neighborhoods without having new uses ready is a “recipe for disaster” that will invite crime and illegal dumping. The group recently proposed such things as the creation of suburban-style neighborhoods and nature parks. Residents like Hardin want to keep their neighborhoods and eliminate the blight. “We just try to keep it up,” he said. “I’ve been doing it since I got it, so I don’t look at nobody trying to help me do anything.” For others, Bing’s plans could represent a way out. Willie Mae Pickens has lived in her near east-side home since the 1960s and has watched as friends and neighbors left. Her house is the only one standing on her side of the street. “They can buy it today. Any day,” said Pickens, 87, referring to city officials. “I’ll get whatever they’ll give me for it, because I want to leave.”

Mayor Uses Census Tally Showing Decline as Benchmark in Overhaul
BY Alex P. Kellogg / February 27, 2010

This city is shrinking, and Mayor Dave Bing can live with that. The nation’s once-a-decade census, which gets under way next month, usually prompts expensive tally-building efforts by cities eager to maximize federal funding tied to the count. Detroit, which faces a population decline of as much as 150,000, has used that tactic in the past and once fought a successful court challenge to boost its count. But this time, Mr. Bing is pushing the city to embrace the bad news. The mayor is looking to the diminished tally, down from 951,270 in 2000, as a benchmark in his bid to reshape Detroit’s government, finances and perhaps even its geography to reflect its smaller population and tax base. That means, in part, cutting city services and laying off workers.

His approach to the census is a product of not only budget constraints but also a new, more modest view of the city’s prospects. “We’ve got to pick those core communities, those core neighborhoods” to sustain and preserve, he said at a recent public appearance, adding: “That’s something that’s possible here in Detroit.” Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Bing, a Democrat first elected last year to finish the term of disgraced former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, hasn’t touted big development plans or talked of a “renaissance.” Instead, he is trying to prepare residents for a new reality: that Detroit—like the auto industry that propelled it for a century—will have to get smaller before it gets bigger again.

With no high-profile census push, the city risks an undercount that would mean forgoing millions of dollars in federal funding. Nationwide, each person counted translates into about $1,000 to $1,200 in federal funding to municipal governments. But some community leaders see the hands-off approach as a sign the city’s leadership under Mr. Bing, a 66-year-old businessman and former basketball star, is prepared to face up to the depopulation problem and rethink Detroit’s future. “This is going to be hard to wrestle to the ground,” said Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation of Troy, Mich., a national philanthropy that has invested heavily in development projects aimed at salvaging the nicest remnants of the city. “He deserves enormous credit for leading the community into this.”

Soon after being elected to a full term in November, Mr. Bing began cutting back on city services such as buses and laying off hundreds of municipal workers. The mayor is now making plans to shutter or consolidate city departments and tear down 10,000 vacant buildings. And Mr. Bing is supporting efforts to shrink the capacity of the city’s school system by half. Along with the mayor, a number of academics and philanthropic groups are sketching visions of a different Detroit. One such vision has urban farms and park spaces filling the acres of barren patches where people once lived and worked. In a city of roughly 140 square miles, vacant residential and commercial property accounts for an estimated 40 square miles, an area larger than the city of Miami. “The potential of this open space is enormous,” said Dan Pitera, an architect at the University of Detroit Mercy who has done land-use studies on the city.

Thirty years ago, Mayor Coleman Young fought the census count in federal court, setting a precedent by arguing successfully that it missed tens of thousands of residents and cost Detroit millions in federal dollars. In 2000, Mayor Dennis Archer worked with schools, health clinics, neighborhood associations, charities and the like to pump up the numbers. The city even paid for census registration to be done at special block parties it helped throw. But that last count was ultimately a blow to Detroit’s pride, pinning its population below one million for the first time since the 1920s. At its peak in the 1950s, the city had been home to nearly two million people. Some experts believe the population will eventually settle just below 700,000, about the current size of Charlotte, N.C.

Long-term declines triggered by suburban sprawl, home-loan bias and racial strife have accelerated in recent years as home foreclosures and auto-industry cutbacks tear through even more stable, wealthy neighborhoods. Meanwhile, declining home values in Detroit’s better-off suburbs have made them more accessible to the city’s poorer residents, fueling the flight. The city is counting on nonprofit partners to take the lead on the census this year, rather than funding efforts itself. But with a population that is widely dispersed and largely poor and minority—two segments traditionally disinclined to fill out government paperwork—Detroit is already difficult to count. In the last census, just 62% of Detroiters responded, compared with an average of 71% statewide. “That’s why I keep telling the city, ‘you are in trouble,’ ” said Kurt Metzger, director of Data Driven Detroit, an organization founded by large local philanthropies that want to help the city collect accurate demographic, housing, economic and other information. “Unfortunately, they don’t have the resources.” Erica Hill, the mayor’s census coordinator, says Detroit is in a bind. It knows an undercount would be costly, but it is too broke to promote the census the way it used to. “We need to make sure the city gets its due,” she said. But “we have to be creative and build a lot of partnerships to make this happen.”

Can farming save Detroit?
BY David Whitford / December 29, 2009

John Hantz is a wealthy money manager who lives in an older enclave of Detroit where all the houses are grand and not all of them are falling apart. Once a star stockbroker at American Express, he left 13 years ago to found his own firm. Today Hantz Financial Services has 20 offices in Michigan, Ohio, and Georgia, more than 500 employees, and $1.3 billion in assets under management. Twice divorced, Hantz, 48, lives alone in clubby, paneled splendor, surrounded by early-American landscapes on the walls, an autograph collection that veers from Detroit icons such as Ty Cobb and Henry Ford to Baron von Richthofen and Mussolini, and a set of Ayn Rand first editions. With a net worth of more than $100 million, he’s one of the richest men left in Detroit — one of the very few in his demographic who stayed put when others were fleeing to Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills. Not long ago, while commuting, he stumbled on a big idea that might help save his dying city.

Every weekday Hantz pulls his Volvo SUV out of the gated driveway of his compound and drives half an hour to his office in Southfield, a northern suburb on the far side of Eight Mile Road. His route takes him through a desolate, postindustrial cityscape — the kind of scene that is shockingly common in Detroit. Along the way he passes vacant buildings, abandoned homes, and a whole lot of empty land. In some stretches he sees more pheasants than people. “Every year I tell myself it’s going to get better,” says Hantz, bright-eyed, with smooth cheeks and a little boy’s carefully combed haircut, “and every year it doesn’t.” Then one day about a year and a half ago, Hantz had a revelation. “We need scarcity,” he thought to himself as he drove past block after unoccupied block. “We can’t create opportunities, but we can create scarcity.” And that, he says one afternoon in his living room between puffs on an expensive cigar, “is how I got onto this idea of the farm.”

Yes, a farm. A large-scale, for-profit agricultural enterprise, wholly contained within the city limits of Detroit. Hantz thinks farming could do his city a lot of good: restore big chunks of tax-delinquent, resource-draining urban blight to pastoral productivity; provide decent jobs with benefits; supply local markets and restaurants with fresh produce; attract tourists from all over the world; and — most important of all — stimulate development around the edges as the local land market tilts from stultifying abundance to something more like scarcity and investors move in. Hantz is willing to commit $30 million to the project. He’ll start with a pilot program this spring involving up to 50 acres on Detroit’s east side. “Out of the gates,” he says, “it’ll be the largest urban farm in the world.”

This is possibly not as crazy as it sounds. Granted, the notion of devoting valuable city land to agriculture would be unfathomable in New York, London, or Tokyo. But Detroit is a special case. The city that was once the fourth largest in the country and served as a symbol of America’s industrial might has lately assumed a new role: North American poster child for the global phenomenon of shrinking postindustrial cities. Nearly 2 million people used to live in Detroit. Fewer than 900,000 remain. Even if, unlikely as it seems, the auto industry were to rebound dramatically and the U.S. economy were to come roaring back tomorrow, no one — not even the proudest civic boosters — imagines that the worst is over. “Detroit will probably be a city of 700,000 people when it’s all said and done,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “The big challenge is, What do you do with a population of 700,000 in a geography that can accommodate three times that much?”

Whatever the answer is, whenever it comes, it won’t be predicated on a return to past glory. “We have to be realistic,” says George Jackson, CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC). “This is not about trying to re-create something. We’re not a world-class city.” If not world class, then what? A regional financial center? That’s already Chicago, and to a lesser extent Minneapolis. A biotech hub? Boston and San Diego are way out in front. Some think Detroit has a future in TV and movies, but Hollywood is skeptical. (“Best incentives in the country,” one producer says. “Worst crew.”) How about high tech and green manufacturing? Possibly, given the engineering and manufacturing talent that remains. But still there’s the problem of what to do with the city’s enormous amount of abandoned land, conservatively estimated at 40 square miles in a sprawling metropolis whose 139-square-mile footprint is easily bigger than San Francisco, Boston, and Manhattan combined. If you let it revert to nature, you abandon all hope of productive use. If you turn it over to parks and recreation, you add costs to an overburdened city government that can’t afford to teach its children, police its streets, or maintain the infrastructure it already has.

Faced with those facts, a growing number of policymakers and urban planners have begun to endorse farming as a solution. Former HUD secretary Henry Cisneros, now chairman of CityView, a private equity firm that invests in urban development, is familiar with Detroit’s land problem. He says he’s in favor of “other uses that engage human beings in their maintenance, such as urban agriculture.” After studying the city’s options at the request of civic leaders, the American Institute of Architects came to this conclusion in a recent report: “Detroit is particularly well suited to become a pioneer in urban agriculture at a commercial scale.” In that sense, Detroit might actually be ahead of the curve. When Alex Krieger, chairman of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard, imagines what the settled world might look like half a century from now, he sees “a checkerboard pattern” with “more densely urbanized areas, and areas preserved for various purposes such as farming.

The notion of a walled city, a contained city — that’s an 18th-century idea.” And where will the new ideas for the 21st century emerge? From older, decaying cities, Krieger believes, such as New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland, Newark, and especially Detroit — cities that have become, at least in part, “kind of empty containers.” This is a lot to hang on Hantz. Most of what he knows about agriculture he’s picked up over the past 18 months from the experts he’s consulting at Michigan State and the Kellogg Foundation. Then there’s the fact that many of his fellow citizens are openly rooting against him. Since word leaked of his scheme last spring, he has been criticized by community activists, who call the plan a land grab. Opponents have also raised questions about the run-ins he’s had with regulators at Hantz Financial. But Detroit is nothing if not desperate for new ideas, and Hantz has had no trouble getting his heard. “It all sounds very exciting,” says the DEGC’s Jackson, whose agency is working on assembling a package of incentives for Hantz, including free city land. “We hope it works.”

Detroit’s civic history is notable for repeated failed attempts to revitalize its core. Over the past three decades leaders have embraced a series of downtown redevelopment plans that promised to save the city. The massive Renaissance Center office and retail complex, built in the 1970s, mostly served to suck tenants out of other downtown buildings. (Today 48 of those buildings stand empty.) Three new casinos (one already bankrupt) and two new sports arenas (one for the NFL’s dreadful Lions, the other for MLB’s Tigers) have restored, on some nights, a little spark to downtown Detroit but have inspired little in the way of peripheral development. Downtown is still eerily underpopulated, the tax base is still crumbling, and people are still leaving. The jobless rate in the city is 27%. Nothing yet tried in Detroit even begins to address the fundamental issue of emptiness — empty factories, empty office buildings, empty houses, and above all, empty lots. Rampant arson, culminating in the annual frenzy of Devil’s Night, is partly to blame. But there has also been a lot of officially sanctioned demolition in Detroit. As white residents fled to the suburbs over the decades, houses in the decaying neighborhoods they left behind were often bulldozed.

Abandonment is an infrastructure problem, when you consider the cost of maintaining far-flung roads and sewer systems; it’s a city services problem, when you think about the inefficiencies of collecting trash and fighting crime in sparsely populated neighborhoods; and it’s a real estate problem. Houses in Detroit are selling for an average of $15,000. That sounds like a buying opportunity, and in fact Detroit looks pretty good right now to a young artist or entrepreneur who can’t afford anyplace else — but not yet to an investor. The smart money sees no point in buying as long as fresh inventory keeps flooding the market. “In the target sites we have,” says Hantz, “we [reevaluate] every two weeks.”

As Hantz began thinking about ways to absorb some of that inventory, what he imagined, he says, was a glacier: one broad, continuous swath of farmland, growing acre by acre, year by year, until it had overrun enough territory to raise the scarcity alarm and impel other investors to act. Rick Foster, an executive at the Kellogg Foundation whom Hantz sought out for advice, nudged him gently in a different direction. “I think you should make pods,” Foster said, meaning not one farm but many. Hantz was taken right away with the concept of creating several pods — or lakes, as he came to think of them — each as large as 300 acres, and each surrounded by its own valuable frontage. “What if we had seven lakes in the city?” he wondered. “Would people develop around those lakes?”

To increase the odds that they will, Hantz plans on making his farms both visually stunning and technologically cutting edge. Where there are row crops, Hantz says, they’ll be neatly organized, planted in “dead-straight lines — they may even be in a design.” But the plan isn’t to make Detroit look like Iowa. “Don’t think a farm with tractors,” says Hantz. “That’s old.” In fact, Hantz’s operation will bear little resemblance to a traditional farm. Mike Score, who recently left Michigan State’s agricultural extension program to join Hantz Farms as president, has written a business plan that calls for the deployment of the latest in farm technology, from compost-heated greenhouses to hydroponic (water only, no soil) and aeroponic (air only) growing systems designed to maximize productivity in cramped settings.

He’s really excited about apples. Hantz Farms will use a trellised system that’s compact, highly efficient, and tourist-friendly. It won’t be like apple picking in Massachusetts, and that’s the point. Score wants visitors to Hantz Farms to see that agriculture is not just something that takes place in the countryside. They will be able to “walk down the row pushing a baby stroller,” he promises. Crop selection will depend on the soil conditions of the plots that Hantz acquires. Experts insist that most of the land is not irretrievably toxic. The majority of the lots now vacant in Detroit were residential, not industrial; the biggest problem is how compacted the soil is. For the most part the farms will focus on high-margin edibles: peaches, berries, plums, nectarines, and exotic greens. Score says that the first crops are likely to be lettuce and heirloom tomatoes.

Hantz says he’s willing to put up the entire $30 million investment himself — all cash, no debt — and immediately begin hiring locally for full-time positions. But he wants two things first from Jackson at the DEGC: free tax-delinquent land, which he’ll combine with his own purchases, he says (he’s aiming for an average cost of $3,000 per acre, in line with rural farmland in southern Michigan), and a zoning adjustment that would create a new, lower tax rate for agriculture. There’s no deal yet, but neither request strikes Jackson as unattainable. “If we have reasonable due diligence,” he says, “I think we’ll give it a shot.”

Detroit mayor Dave Bing is watching closely. The Pistons Hall of Fame guard turned entrepreneur has had what his spokesman describes as “productive discussions” with Hantz. In a statement to Fortune, Bing says he’s “encouraged by the proposals to bring commercial farming back to Detroit. As we look to diversify our economy, commercial farming has some real potential for job growth and rebuilding our tax base.” Hantz, for his part, says he’s got three or four locations all picked out (“one of them will pop”) and is confident he’ll have seeds in the ground “in some sort of demonstration capacity” this spring. “Some things you’ve got to see in order to believe,” he says, waving his cigar. “This is a thing you’ve got to believe in order to see.”

Many have a hard time making that leap. When news of Hantz’s ambitious plan broke in the Detroit papers last spring, few people even knew who he was. A little digging turned up a less-than-spotless record at Hantz Financial Services. The firm has paid fines totaling more than $1 million in the past five years, including $675,000 in 2005, without admitting or denying guilt, “for fraud and misrepresentations relating to undisclosed revenue-sharing arrangements, as well as other violations,” according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. (Hantz responds, “If we find something that isn’t in compliance, we take immediate steps to correct the problem.”)

Hantz Farms’ first hire, VP Matt Allen, did have an established reputation in Detroit, but it wasn’t a good one. Two years ago, while he was press secretary for former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Allen pleaded guilty to domestic violence and obstructing police after his wife called 911. He was sentenced to a year’s probation. Hantz says he has known Allen for many years and values his deep knowledge of the city. “He has earned a second chance, and I’m willing to give it to him,” he says. Some of Hantz’s biggest skeptics, ironically, are the same people who’ve been working to transform Detroit into a laboratory for urban farming for years, albeit on a much smaller scale. The nonprofit Detroit Agriculture Network counts nearly 900 urban gardens within the city limits. That’s a twofold increase in two years, and it places Detroit at the forefront of a vibrant national movement to grow more food locally and lessen the nation’s dependence on Big Ag.

None of those gardens is very big (average size: 0.25 acre), and they don’t generate a lot of cash (most don’t even try), but otherwise they’re great: as antidotes to urban blight; sources of healthy, affordable food in a city that, incredibly, has no chain supermarkets; providers of meaningful, if generally unpaid, work to the chronically unemployed; and beacons around which disintegrating communities can begin to regather themselves. That actually sounds a lot like what Hantz envisions his farms to be in the for-profit arena. But he doesn’t have many fans among the community gardeners, who feel that Hantz is using his money and connections to capitalize on their pioneering work. “I’m concerned about the corporate takeover of the urban agriculture movement in Detroit,” says Malik Yakini, a charter school principal and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates D-Town Farm on Detroit’s west side. “At this point the key players with him seem to be all white men in a city that’s at least 82% black.”

Hantz, meanwhile, has no patience for what he calls “fear-based” criticism. He has a hard time concealing his contempt for the nonprofit sector generally. (“Someone must pay taxes,” he sniffs.) He also flatly rejects the idea that he’s orchestrating some kind of underhanded land grab. In fact, Hantz says that he welcomes others who might want to start their own farms in the city. “Viability and sustainability to me are all that matters,” he says. And yet Hantz is fully aware of the potentially historic scope of what he is proposing. After all, he’s talking about accumulating hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of acres inside a major American city. And it’s clear that he views Hantz Farms as his legacy. Already he’s told his 21-year-old daughter, Lauren, his only heir, that if she wants to own the land one day, she has to promise him she’ll never sell it. “This is like buying a penthouse in New York in 1940,” Hantz says. “No one should be able to afford to do this ever again.” That might seem like an overly optimistic view of Detroit’s future. But allow Hantz to dream a little. Twenty years from now, when people come to the city and have a drink at the bar at the top of the Renaissance Center, what will they see? Maybe that’s not the right vantage point. Maybe they’ll actually be on the farm, picking apples, looking up at the RenCen. “That’s the beauty of being down and out,” says Hantz. “You can actually open your mind to ideas that you would never otherwise embrace.” At this point, Detroit doesn’t have much left to lose.

CITY SERVICES,-Laptop,-or-Cell-/
Pedal-Power in Detroit: Green Gym for the Homeless
BY Roberta Cruger / 01.27.10

Between 1950 and 1980, Detroit lost 500,000 trees to Dutch elm disease, urban expansion and attrition, according to Paul Bairley, director of Urban Forestry for The Greening of Detroit. Among the city’s various environmental initiatives, it’s looking to slash residential land use by 30 percent, letting areas grow into natural greenways. There are green job initiatives, and for the homeless, a community center provides training for eco-conscious work and just opened a human-generated workout room. With green gyms popping up in Seattle and Hong Kong, why aren’t we tapping into sweat equity everywhere?

Gives new meaning to upcyling
Converting otherwise wasted energy, from the kinetic motion of treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes, into renewable energy is cost-effective and energy-efficient. That’s what a community organization in Detroit did this week with its new green gym, for people living in its transitional housing and other shelter programs, staff and volunteers. “Not only is this gym a good idea for the environment, but it will help build the general health of our clients who often struggle with diabetes or heart disease,” states Rev. Faith Fowler, the executive director.

The Cass Green Gym’s facility offers weight machines, boxing bags, a treadmill, and stationary bikes featuring Green Revolution technology that generates electricity. Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), located on Detroit’s Cass Avenue, projects that full classes with ten people, is enough power to light three homes for an entire year. It will redirect it back to the building’s electrical grid, reducing operating costs.

The company, Green Revolution, taps into pedal power, providing exercise machines and consulting to facilities, harnessing the energy of gym rats into green power. Its technology can be installed on most brands of indoor cycling equipment. At its retrofit gym in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a typical cycling class with 20 bikes has the potential to produce up to 3.6 Megawatts (3,600,000 watts) of renewable energy a year. This is equivalent to lighting 72 homes for a month, and reduces carbon emissions by over 5,000 pounds.

CCSS also links job training and permanent employment with ways to reduce the footprint. One venture, modeled after a Native American enterprise in Oklahoma, recycles old illegally dumped tires from vacant lots and converts them into mud mats. So far, formerly homeless men have collected more than 5,000 tires and sold over 2,000 mats. Another of its programs involves x-ray recycling, removing patient information from films and packaging the remains for recycling. And its document shredding effort will reuse the paper for insulation in seniors and low-income homes. As a native Detroiter, who worked a block from this center, renewal efforts are personally meaningful to me — and it should be for all of us. It was heartening to read a Time article on addressing urban post-industrial problems: “we could regenerate not just a city but our sense of who we are.”

Streets With No Name
BY James Griffioen / June 23, 2009

This past winter, the snow stayed so long we almost forgot what the ground looked like. In Detroit, there is little money for plowing; after a big storm, the streets and sidewalks disappear for days. Soon new pathways emerge, side streets get dug out one car-width wide. Bootprints through parks veer far from the buried sidewalks. Without the city to tell him where to walk, the pilgrim who first sets out in fresh snowfall creates his own path. Others will likely follow, or forge their own paths as needed. In the heart of summer, too, it becomes clear that the grid laid down by the ancient planners is now irrelevant. In vacant lots between neighborhoods and the attractions of thoroughfares, bus stops and liquor stores, well-worn paths stretch across hundreds of vacant lots. Gaston Bachelard called these les chemins du désir: pathways of desire. Paths that weren’t designed but eroded casually away by individuals finding the shortest distance between where they are coming from and where they intend to go.

photo by James Griffioen

It is an urban legend on many college campuses that many sidewalks and pathways were not planned at all, but paved by the university after students created their own paths from building to building, straying from those originally prescribed. The Motor City, like a college campus, has a large population that cannot afford cars, relying instead on bikes and feet to meet its needs. With enormous swaths of the city returning to prairie, where sidewalks are irrelevant and sometimes even dangerous, desire lines have become an integral yet entirely unintended part of the city’s infrastructure. There are hundreds of these prescriptive easements across neglected lots throughout the city. Desire lines are considered by many landscape architects to be proof of a flaw in the design of a physical space, or more gently, a sign that concrete cannot always impose its will on the human mind. But what about a physical space that no longer resembles its intended design, a city where tens of thousands of homes have been abandoned, burned, and buried in their own basements? While actual roads and sidewalks crumble with each season of freezing and thawing, Detroiters have taken it upon themselves to create new paths, in their own small way working to create a city that better suits their needs.

photo by James Griffioen

Academics around the world argue about whether the first paths were created by hunters following game trails. There are scientists who study ants to better understand highways. They have created mathematical models for trail formation. When the great cities were built, sometimes roads were built along ancient paths. The Romans imposed grids on every city but their own. In Detroit many of the streets are named for the Frenchmen whose ribbon farms stretching north from the river were covered in asphalt: Beaubien, Dequindre, Campau, Livernois, Chene. In many cities, there are streets named for dead men once revered throughout the land but now mostly forgotten (Fulton, Lafayette, Irving) and others named for men no one remembers. In Detroit, there are streets no one has named. And they belong to anyone.

photo by James Griffioen

Detroit is a city in terminal decline. When film director Julien Temple arrived in town, he was shocked by what he found – but he also uncovered reasons for hope
BY Julien Temple / 10 March 2010

When the film- maker Roger Graef approached me last year to make a film about the rise and fall of Detroit I had very few preconceptions about the place. Like everyone else, I knew it as the Motor City, one of the great epicentres of 20th-century music, and home of the American automobile. Only when I arrived in the city itself did the full-frontal cultural car crash that is 21st-century Detroit became blindingly apparent. Leaving behind the gift shops of the “Big Three” car manufacturers, the Motown merchandise and the bizarre ejaculating fountains of the now-notorious international airport, things become stranger and stranger. The drive along eerily empty ghost freeways into the ruins of inner-city Detroit is an Alice-like journey into a severely dystopian future. Passing the giant rubber tyre that dwarfs the nonexistent traffic in ironic testament to the busted hubris of Motown’s auto-makers, the city’s ripped backside begins to glide past outside the windows.

Like The Passenger, it’s hard to believe what we’re seeing. The vast, rusting hulks of abandoned car plants, (some of the largest structures ever built and far too expensive to pull down), beached amid a shining sea of grass. The blackened corpses of hundreds of burned-out houses, pulled back to earth by the green tentacles of nature. Only the drunken rows of telegraph poles marching away across acres of wildflowers and prairie give any clue as to where teeming city streets might once have been. Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the US could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth. The statistics are staggering – 40sq miles of the 139sq mile inner city have already been reclaimed by nature.

One in five houses now stand empty. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in Detroit over the last three years. A three-bedroom house on Albany Street is still on the market for $1. Unemployment has reached 30%; 33.8% of Detroit’s population and 48.5% of its children live below the poverty line. Forty-seven per cent of adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate; 29 Detroit schools closed in 2009 alone. But statistics tell only one part of the story. The reality of Detroit is far more visceral. My producer, George Hencken, and I drove around recce-ing our film, getting out of the car and photographing extraordinary places to film with mad-dog enthusiasm – everywhere demands to be filmed – but were greeted with appalled concern by Bradley, our friendly manager, on our return to the hotel. “Never get out of the car in that area – people have been car-jacked and shot.”

Law and order has completely broken down in the inner city, drugs and prostitution are rampant and unless you actually murder someone the police will leave you alone. This makes it great for filming – park where you like, film what you like – but not so good if you actually live there. The abandoned houses make great crack dens and provide cover for appalling sex crimes and child abduction. The only growth industry is the gangs of armed scrappers, who plunder copper and steel from the ruins. Rabid dogs patrol the streets. All the national supermarket chains have pulled out of the inner city. People have virtually nowhere to buy fresh produce. Starbucks? Forget it. What makes all this so hard to understand is that Detroit was the frontier city of the American Dream – not just the automobile, but pretty much everything we associate with 20th-century western civilisation came from there. Mass production; assembly lines; stop lights; freeways; shopping malls; suburbs and an emerging middle-class workforce: all these things were pioneered in Detroit.

But the seeds of the Motor City’s downfall were sown a long time ago. The blind belief of the Big Three in the automobile as an inexhaustible golden goose, guaranteeing endless streams of cash, resulted in the city becoming reliant on a single industry. Its destiny fatally entwined with that of the car. The greed-fuelled willingness of the auto barons to siphon up black workers from the American south to man their Metropolis-like assembly lines and then treat them as subhuman citizens, running the city along virtually apartheid lines, created a racial tinderbox. The black riots of 1943 and 1967 gave Detroit the dubious distinction of being the only American city to twice call in the might of the US army to suppress insurrection on its own streets and led directly to the disastrous so-called white flight of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The population of Detroit is now 81.6% African-American and almost two-thirds down on its overall peak in the early 50s. The city has lost its tax base and cannot afford to cut the grass or light its streets, let alone educate or feed its citizens. The rest of the US is in denial about the economic catastrophe that has engulfed Detroit, terrified that this man-made contagion may yet spread to other US cities. But somehow one cannot imagine the same fate befalling a city with a predominantly white population. On many levels Detroit seems to be an insoluble disaster with urgent warnings for the rest of the industrialised world. But as George and I made our film we discovered, to our surprise, an irrepressible positivity in the city. Unable to buy fresh food for their children, people are now growing their own, turning the demolished neighbourhood blocks into urban farms and kick-starting what is now the fastest-growing movement across the US. Although the city is still haemorrhaging population, young people from all over the country are also flooding into Detroit – artists, musicians and social pioneers, all keen to make use of the abandoned urban spaces and create new ways of living together.

With the breakdown of 20th-century civilisation, many Detroiters have discovered an exhilarating sense of starting over, building together a new cross-racial community sense of doing things, discarding the bankrupt rules of the past and taking direct control of their own lives. Still at the forefront of the American Dream, Detroit is fast becoming the first “post-American” city. And amid the ruins of the Motor City it is possible to find a first pioneer’s map to the post-industrial future that awaits us all. So perhaps Detroit can avoid the fate of the lost cities of the Maya and rise again like the phoenix that sits, appropriately, on its municipal crest. That is why George and I decided to call our film Requiem for Detroit? – with a big question mark at the end.


“It should be noted that The Michigan State land bank’s executive director Carrie Lewand-Monroe, And Development Specialist Khalilah Burt both extended themselves for a community based project in a manner that is not so commonly seen in other States. It is because of their continued interest in community stabilization, and their goal of fostering the development of the blighted, tax reverted properties that they got behind our project from the very beginning. Michigan State Land Bank- thank you for keeping Michigan a productive State.”

Michigan State Land Bank,1607,7-154-34176-200357–,00.html,1607,7-154-34176-127130–,00.html,1607,7-154-34176_37400—,00.html

Detroit homes sell for $1 amid mortgage and car industry crisis
BY Chris McGreal / 2 March 2010
One in five houses left empty as foreclosures mount and property prices drop by 80%

Some might say Jon Brumit overpaid when he stumped up $100 (£65) for a whole house. Drive through Detroit neighbourhoods once clogged with the cars that made the city the envy of America and there are homes to be had for a single dollar. You find these houses among boarded-up, burnt-out and rotting buildings lining deserted streets, places where the population is shrinking so fast entire blocks are being demolished to make way for urban farms. “I was living in Chicago and a friend told me that houses in Detroit could be had for $500,” said Brumit, a financially strapped artist who thought he had little prospect of owning his own property. “I said if you hear of anything just a little cheaper let me know. Within a week he emails me a photo of a house for $100. I thought that’s just crazy. Why not? It’s a way to cut our expenses way down and kind of open up a lot of time for creative projects because we’re not working to pay the rent.”

Houses on sale for a few dollars are something of an urban legend in the US on the back of the mortgage crisis that drove millions of people from their homes. But in Detroit it is no myth. One in five houses now stand empty in the city that launched the automobile age, forged America’s middle-class and blessed the world with Motown. Detroit has been in decline for decades; its falling population is now well below a million – half of its 1950 peak. But the recent mortgage crisis and the fall of the big car makers into bankruptcy has pushed the town into a realm unique among big cities in America.

A third of the population are unemployed. Property prices have fallen 80% or more in large parts of Detroit over the last three years. The average price of a home sold in the city last year has been put at $7,500 (£4,900). The recent financial crash forced wholesale foreclosures among people unable to pay their mortgages or who walked away from houses that fell to a fraction of the value of the loans they had taken out on them. Banks are selling off properties in the worst neighbourhoods, which are usually surrounded by empty and wrecked housing, for a few dollars each. But even better houses can be had at a fraction of their former value.

Technically, Brumit paid $95 for the land and $5 for the house on Lawley Street – which fitted what estate agents euphemistically call an opportunity. Brumit said: “It had a big hole in the roof from the fire department putting out the last of two arson attempts. Both previous owners tried to set it on fire to get out of the mortgages. So there’s a big hole about 24ft long and the plumbing had almost entirely been ripped out and most of the electrics too. It was basically a smoke damaged, structurally intact shell with a snowdrift in the attic.” Setting fire to houses to claim the insurance and kill off the mortgage is not uncommon in Detroit; a blackened, wooden corpse of a house sits at the bottom of Brumit’s street. But it is more common for owners to just walk away from their homes and mortgages.

On the opposite side of Lawley Street Jim Feltner and his workers were clearing out a property seized by a bank. “I used to be a building contractor. I was buying up places and doing them up. Now I empty out foreclosures. I do one or two of these a day all over the city,” he said. “I’ve been in Detroit 40 years and I’ve watched the peak up to $100,000 for houses that right now aren’t worth more than $20,000 tops. I own a bunch of properties. I have 10 rentals and I can’t get nothing for them, and they’re beautiful homes.”

Feltner’s workers are dragging clothes, boots and furniture out of the bedrooms and living room, and dumping them in the front yard until a skip arrives. Kicked to one side is a box of 1970s Motown records. A teddy bear lies spreadeagled on the floor. “You could get about five grand for this place,” said Feltner. “Nice house once you clean it out. All the plumbing and electricals are in it. Roof don’t leak.” Brumit said a man called Jesse lived there. “Jesse had mentioned that he was probably going to get out of there because he knew he could buy a place for so much less than he owed. That’s a drag. You don’t want to see people leaving,” he said.

The house next door is abandoned. On the next street, one third of the properties are boarded up. It’s a story replicated across Detroit. Joan Wilson, an estate agent in the north-west of the city, whose firm is offering a three-bedroom house on Albany street for $1, says that more than half of the houses she sells are foreclosures in the tens of thousands of dollars. “The vast majority of people that call to enquire, almost the first thing out of their mouth is that they want to buy a foreclosure. I have had telephone calls from people looking online that live, for example, in England or California, who’ve never set foot in the area. They’re calling about one specific house they see online. I tell them they need to look at the neighbourhood. Is it the only house standing within a mile?”

But what is blight to some is proving an opportunity to remake parts of the city for others living there. The Old Redford part of Detroit has suffered its share of desolation. The police station, high school and community centre are closed. Yet the area is being revitalised, led by John George, a resident who began by boarding up an abandoned house used by drug dealers 21 years ago and who now heads the community group Blight Busters. They are pulling down housing that cannot be saved and creating community gardens with fresh vegetables free for anyone to pick. “There’s longstanding nuisance houses, been around seven, eight, nine years. We will go in without a permit and demolish them without permission,” said George. “If you, as an owner, are going to leave something like that to fester in my neighbourhood, obviously you either don’t care or aren’t in a position to take responsibility for your property, so we’re going to take care of it for you.” Blight Busters has torn down more than 200 houses, including recently an entire block of abandoned housing in Old Redford. “We need to right-size this community, which means removing whole blocks, and building farms, larger gardens, putting in windmills. We want to downsize – right-size – Detroit,” George said.

Houses that can be rescued are done up with grants from foundations. “Detroit has some of the nicest housing stock in the country. Brick, marble, hardwood floors, leaded glass. These houses were built for kings,” George added. “We gave a $90,000 house to a lady who was living in a car. She had four children. It didn’t cost her a dime. We had over a thousand people apply for it. It’s probably worth $35,000 now.” Old Redford is seeing piecemeal renewal. One abandoned block of shops has been converted to an arts centre and music venue with cafes. One of the few remaining cinemas in Detroit – and one that’s among the last in the US with an original pipe organ – has been revived and is showing Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Brumit calculates that he has spent $1,500 to buy and do up his house, principally by scavenging demolition sites. He will move in with his wife and four-month-old child once it is complete, probably in the summer. He said: “The Americans we know got ripped off by the American dream. But [the renovation] is the most like moving out of the country that we can actually do. We’re the minority in terms of ethnicity and this is a rich environment … there’s 30% open space in the city and that doesn’t include the buildings that should be torn down. You’re in a city riding your bike around and you hear birds and stuff. It’s incredible.”


(Editor’s note: This statement arrived anonymously in our inbox recently and we felt it would be of interest to our readers.)

In the “D”, “D” doesn’t really stand for “Detroit”, but “Demolition.” Take a look around and you’ll notice a great number of buildings marked on the front with a circled “D” in faint chalk. Off to the side, many of these same buildings will also have a noticeable dot, courtesy of our own native son, Tyree Guyton. These dotted buildings have stood for so long that they have become, arguably, the most memorable landmarks of our fair city. In addition to Tyree Guyton, Detroit has had more than its fair share of artists who have taken notice of this situation and done something about it. Recently, however, we have taken up a particular project that has actually netted results – faster than anyone, especially us, could have anticipated.

The artistic move is simple, cover the front in Tiggeriffic Orange – a color from the Mickey Mouse series, easily purchased from Home Depot. Every board, every door, every window, is caked in Tiggeriffic Orange. We paint the facades of abandoned houses whose most striking feature are their derelict appearance. A simple drive would show you some of our most visible targets. Just off I-75, around the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, on the west side, towers a three story house, saturated so deeply in orange that it reflects color onto the highway with the morning sun. Also, on the east side of the highway by the McNichols exit, is another house screaming orange. In that same area, where the Davison Highway and John C Lodge M-10 Highway intersect, sit a series of two houses painted orange, most visible from the Lodge side. In our only location not visible from the highway, on the Warren detour between 94 and 96 on Hancock Street, sat a house so perfectly set in its color that it garnered approval from the Detroit Police Department.

Two of four locations have already been demolished. Of the four, the building on Dequindre, by the Caniff/ Holbrook exit, remains, as does the site that intersects the Lodge and Davison. There was no “D” on any of the façades, only burnt boards, broken glass, and peeling paint. Rallying around these elements of decay, we seek to accentuate something that has wrongfully become part of the everyday landscape. So the destruction of two of these four houses raises a number of interesting points. From one perspective, our actions have created a direct cause and effect relationship with the city. As in, if we paint a house orange, the city will demolish it. In this relationship, where do the city’s motivations lie? Do they want to stop drawing attention to these houses? Are the workers simply confused and think this is the city’s new mark for demolition? Or is this a genuine response to beautify the city?

From another perspective, we have coincidently chosen buildings that were set to be demolished within the month. However, with so many circled “D”s on buildings, it seems near impossible that chance would strike twice. In any case, what will be the social ramifications of these actions? Each of these houses serves within the greater visual and social landscape of the city. If the city doesn’t rebuild, will it be better to have nothing there rather than an abandoned house? In addition, each of these houses served as a shelter for the homeless at some point in time. Now there are, at least, two less houses for them. Why didn’t the city simply choose to renovate? Everything affects not only our experience now, but also that of the next generation. So before they are all gone, look for these houses. Look at ALL the houses in Detroit. If you stumble upon one of these houses colored with Tiggeriffic Orange, stop and really look. In addition to being highlights within a context of depression, every detail is accentuated through the unification of color. Broken windows become jagged lines. Peeling paint becomes texture. These are artworks in themselves.

If you see a house that you would like to see painted orange, paint it. Afterwards, email the good people at at ws [at] thedetroiter [dot] com. These buildings aren’t scenery. Don’t look through or around them. Take action. Pick up a roller. Pick up a brush. Apply orange.

The dialogue is going. Our goal is to make everyone look at not only these houses, but all the buildings rooted in decay and corrosion. If we can get people to look for our orange while driving through the city, then they will at the same time, be looking at all the decaying buildings they come across. This brings awareness. And as we have already seen, awareness brings action.

Yours Truly,
the DDD project


Inchvesting In Detroit: A Virtual Realty
BY Sarah Hulett / March 4, 2010

For $1, you can own a piece of Detroit. It will be a small piece: 1 square inch, to be exact. But your deed to that microplot of land will also buy you passage into an online community that could yield big ideas for the city. Jerry Paffendorf is not your typical real estate developer. But then, the people lining up to buy into his project are not your typical investors. He calls them “inchvestors.” Paffendorf’s project is called Loveland. And it’s a hybrid: part virtual and part physical. “What we want to do is we want to build this wild social network of people that’s literally built out of the dirt and the ground,” Paffendorf says. The physical part is a vacant lot on Vernor Highway in east Detroit. Paffendorf bought the property at auction for $500. Then he put 10,000 square inches up for sale, and people from all over the planet began snapping them up. They’ve now all been sold to nearly 600 people. The “deeds” Paffendorf mails out are not legally valid, so the people who buy inches won’t get to vote in Detroit, or have to pay taxes.

A Real-Life SimCity
Some inchvestors have sentimental ties to the city, and they just liked the idea of having a physical stake in the place where they — or their parents or grandparents — grew up. But a lot of them are attracted by the project’s virtual possibilities and say Loveland is sort of like the SimCity computer game, but with real land. Rita King is the biggest “landholder” in Loveland, with 1,000 square inches. She works for IBM, and she’s an entrepreneur with a firm that helps companies use social media and virtual worlds. King is excited about the project’s potential to help the real city in which Loveland sits. “Because Loveland is physically located in Detroit, it takes those 500 inchvestors, and it ties us to Detroit, which means that the development of Detroit is now of critical importance to hundreds of people who don’t live or work in Detroit,” King says. “And now I, for one, am starting to look very closely at Detroit, and how can I help Detroit level up along with Loveland in our small way.” “Leveling up” is a phrase from the world of video games. It’s what happens when the character you’re playing makes it to the next level in the game. And for many, it’s an apt description of what Detroit needs to do. King says she expects the online component of Loveland to include interactive maps and stories. And proceeds from the project’s next phase are expected to be used to fund grants for nonprofit groups around Detroit.

Feedback From Locals Not Always Positive
But for all the excitement about the possibilities Loveland holds among high-minded techno-futurists, the project is also fodder for derision and mockery in some quarters. Here’s a sampling of some of the comments posted to an online discussion board called Detroit YES: “Sounds like a pyramid scheme … without the pyramid.” – “A virtual art project? That sounds to me like a project that’s almost an art project.” – “This guy’s laughing all the way to the bank.” Bill Johnson, who goes by the pseudonym “Gnome” on Detroit YES, thinks the project is just exploitation. “You know in places outside Detroit, we’ve got a bad reputation as sort of a pitiful, worthless place,” Johnson says. “And this guy’s preying on that. That’s what he’s really peddling.”

An Optimism
Paffendorf says Detroit is a place of opportunity and creativity. He shares an optimism about the city and his project with Ricki Collins. She’s 9 years old and lives next door to the empty lot Paffendorf bought. Hers is the only house left on the block. “I want people to remember this place. Remember it. And I want people to come over so we can get to know each other, learn new things about each other,” Ricki says. It’s not clear how many of the people who have bought into the project will actually visit their square-inch plots in person. But King says she intends to make the trek from New York City. She also plans to install a mailbox so people can send things to and from the site.

For Sale: The $100 House
BY Toby Barlow / March 8, 2009

Recently, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town. This struck me as a highly suspect statement. After all, we were talking about Detroit, home of corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, beleaguered General Motors and the 0-16 Lions. Compared with other cities’ buzzing, glittering skylines, ours sits largely abandoned, like some hulking beehive devastated by colony collapse. Who on earth would move here? Then again, I myself had moved to Detroit, from Brooklyn. For $100,000, I bought a town house that sits downtown in the largest and arguably the most beautiful Mies van der Rohe development ever built, an island of perfect modernism forgotten by the rest of the world. Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.

Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing? A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances. Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah. Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee. But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends. In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.


RIOTS of 1943
BY Vivian M. Baulch + Patricia Zacharias / Detroit News / 2.11.99

“Recruiters toured the South convincing whites and blacks to head north with promises of high wages in the new war factories. They arrived in such numbers that it was impossible to house them all. Blacks who believed they were heading to a promised land found a northern bigotry every bit as pervasive and virulent as what they thought they had left behind in the deep south. And southern whites brought their own traditional prejudices with them as both races migrated northward. The influx of newcomers strained not only housing, but transportation, education and recreational facilities as well. Wartime residents of Detroit endured long lines everywhere, at bus stops, grocery stores, and even at newsstands where they hoped for the chance to be first answering classified ads offering rooms for rent. Even though the city enjoyed full employment, it suffered the many discomforts of wartime rationing. Child-care programs were nonexistent, with grandma the only hope — provided she wasn’t already working at a defense plant. Times were tough for all, but for the Negro community, times were even tougher. Blacks were excluded from all public housing except the Brewster projects. Many lived in homes without indoor plumbing, yet they paid rent two to three times higher than families in white districts. Blacks were also confronted with a segregated military, discrimination in public accommodations, and unfair treatment by police.

Woodward was the dividing line between the roving black and white gangs. Whites took over Woodward up to Vernor and overturned and burned 20 cars belonging to blacks, looting stores as they went. The virtual guerrilla warfare overwhelmed the 2,000 city police officers and 150 state police troopers. A crowd of 100,000 spectators gathered near Grand Circus Park looking for something to watch. Despite Detroit’s history of problems, the Seal of the City of Detroit offers hopeful and timeless mottoes: “Speramus meliora” (We hope for better things) and “Resurget Cineribus” (It will rise from the ashes.)”

RIOTS of 1967

“Affordable housing, or the lack thereof, was a fundamental concern for black Detroiters. When polled by the Detroit Free Press regarding the problems that contributed most to the rioting in the previous year, respondents listed “poor housing” as one of the most important issues, second only to police brutality. (Detroit Free Press 1968, Thomas 1997:130-131). In Detroit, the shortage of housing available to black residents was further exacerbated by “urban renewal” projects. In Detroit, entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for freeways that linked city and suburbs. Neighborhoods that met their fate in such manner were predominantly black in their composition. To build Interstate 75, Paradise Valley or “Black Bottom”, the neighborhood that black migrants and white ethnics had struggled over during the 1940s, was buried beneath several layers of concrete. As the oldest established black enclave in Detroit, “Black Bottom” was not merely a point on the map, but the heart of Detroit’s black community, commercially and culturally. The loss for many black residents of Detroit was devastating, and the anger burned for years thereafter.”

photo by James Griffioen

US cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive
BY Tom Leonard / 12 Jun 2009

The government looking at expanding a pioneering scheme in Flint, one of the poorest US cities, which involves razing entire districts and returning the land to nature. Local politicians believe the city must contract by as much as 40 per cent, concentrating the dwindling population and local services into a more viable area. The radical experiment is the brainchild of Dan Kildee, treasurer of Genesee County, which includes Flint. Having outlined his strategy to Barack Obama during the election campaign, Mr Kildee has now been approached by the US government and a group of charities who want him to apply what he has learnt to the rest of the country. Mr Kildee said he will concentrate on 50 cities, identified in a recent study by the Brookings Institution, an influential Washington think-tank, as potentially needing to shrink substantially to cope with their declining fortunes. Most are former industrial cities in the “rust belt” of America’s Mid-West and North East. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.

In Detroit, shattered by the woes of the US car industry, there are already plans to split it into a collection of small urban centres separated from each other by countryside. “The real question is not whether these cities shrink – we’re all shrinking – but whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way,” said Mr Kildee. “Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.” Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective programme at the University of California, Berkeley, said there was “both a cultural and political taboo” about admitting decline in America. “Places like Flint have hit rock bottom. They’re at the point where it’s better to start knocking a lot of buildings down,” she said.

Flint, sixty miles north of Detroit, was the original home of General Motors. The car giant once employed 79,000 local people but that figure has shrunk to around 8,000. Unemployment is now approaching 20 per cent and the total population has almost halved to 110,000. The exodus – particularly of young people – coupled with the consequent collapse in property prices, has left street after street in sections of the city almost entirely abandoned. In the city centre, the once grand Durant Hotel – named after William Durant, GM’s founder – is a symbol of the city’s decline, said Mr Kildee. The large building has been empty since 1973, roughly when Flint’s decline began.

Regarded as a model city in the motor industry’s boom years, Flint may once again be emulated, though for very different reasons.
But Mr Kildee, who has lived there nearly all his life, said he had first to overcome a deeply ingrained American cultural mindset that “big is good” and that cities should sprawl – Flint covers 34 square miles. He said: “The obsession with growth is sadly a very American thing. Across the US, there’s an assumption that all development is good, that if communities are growing they are successful. If they’re shrinking, they’re failing.”

photo by James Griffioen

But some Flint dustcarts are collecting just one rubbish bag a week, roads are decaying, police are very understaffed and there were simply too few people to pay for services, he said. If the city didn’t downsize it will eventually go bankrupt, he added. Flint’s recovery efforts have been helped by a new state law passed a few years ago which allowed local governments to buy up empty properties very cheaply. They could then knock them down or sell them on to owners who will occupy them. The city wants to specialise in health and education services, both areas which cannot easily be relocated abroad.

The local authority has restored the city’s attractive but formerly deserted centre but has pulled down 1,100 abandoned homes in outlying areas. Mr Kildee estimated another 3,000 needed to be demolished, although the city boundaries will remain the same. Already, some streets peter out into woods or meadows, no trace remaining of the homes that once stood there. Choosing which areas to knock down will be delicate but many of them were already obvious, he said. The city is buying up houses in more affluent areas to offer people in neighbourhoods it wants to demolish. Nobody will be forced to move, said Mr Kildee. “Much of the land will be given back to nature. People will enjoy living near a forest or meadow,” he said. Mr Kildee acknowledged that some fellow Americans considered his solution “defeatist” but he insisted it was “no more defeatist than pruning an overgrown tree so it can bear fruit again”.

Daniel Kildee
email : dkildee [at] sbcglobal [dot] net

Food Among the Ruins
BY Mark Dowie / August 2009

Detroit, the country’s most depressed metropolis, has zero produce-carrying grocery chains. It also has open land, fertile soil, ample water, and the ingredients to reinvent itself from Motor City to urban farm. Were I an aspiring farmer in search of fertile land to buy and plow, I would seriously consider moving to Detroit. There is open land, fertile soil, ample water, willing labor, and a desperate demand for decent food. And there is plenty of community will behind the idea of turning the capital of American industry into an agrarian paradise. In fact, of all the cities in the world, Detroit may be best positioned to become the world’s first one hundred percent food self-sufficient city.

Right now, Detroit is as close as any city in America to becoming a food desert, not just another metropolis like Chicago, Philadelphia, or Cleveland with a bunch of small- and medium-sized food deserts scattered about, but nearly a full-scale, citywide food desert. (A food desert is defined by those who study them as a locality from which healthy food is more than twice as far away as unhealthy food, or where the distance to a bag of potato chips is half the distance to a head of lettuce.) About 80 percent of the residents of Detroit buy their food at the one thousand convenience stores, party stores, liquor stores, and gas stations in the city. There is such a dire shortage of protein in the city that Glemie Dean Beasley, a seventy-year-old retired truck driver, is able to augment his Social Security by selling raccoon carcasses (twelve dollars a piece, serves a family of four) from animals he has treed and shot at undisclosed hunting grounds around the city. Pelts are ten dollars each. Pheasants are also abundant in the city and are occasionally harvested for dinner.

Detroiters who live close enough to suburban borders to find nearby groceries carrying fresh fruit, meat, and vegetables are a small minority of the population. The health consequences of food deserts are obvious and dire. Diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, and obesity are chronic in Detroit, and life expectancy is measurably lower than in any American city.

photo by James Griffioen

Not so long ago, there were five produce-carrying grocery chains—Kroger, A&P, Farmer Jack, Wrigley, and Meijer—competing vigorously for the Detroit food market. Today there are none. Nor is there a single WalMart or Costco in the city. Specialty grocer Trader Joe’s just turned down an attractive offer to open an outlet in relatively safe and prosperous midtown Detroit; a rapidly declining population of chronically poor consumers is not what any retailer is after. High employee turnover, loss from theft, and cost of security are also cited by chains as reasons to leave or avoid Detroit. So it is unlikely grocers will ever return, despite the tireless flirtations of City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan Food and Beverage Association. There is a fabulous once-a-week market, the largest of its kind in the country, on the east side that offers a wide array of fresh meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. But most people I saw there on an early April Saturday arrived in well polished SUVs from the suburbs. So despite the Eastern Market, in-city Detroiters are still left with the challenge of finding new ways to feed themselves a healthy meal.

One obvious solution is to grow their own, and the urban backyard garden boom that is sweeping the nation has caught hold in Detroit, particularly in neighborhoods recently settled by immigrants from agrarian cultures of Laos and Bangladesh, who are almost certain to become major players in an agrarian Detroit. Add to that the five hundred or so twenty-by-twenty-foot community plots and a handful of three- to ten-acre farms cultured by church and non-profit groups, and during its four-month growing season, Detroit is producing somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of its food supply inside city limits—more than most American cities, but nowhere near enough to allay the food desert problem. About 3 percent of the groceries sold at the Eastern Market are homegrown; the rest are brought into Detroit by a handful of peri-urban farmers and about one hundred and fifty freelance food dealers who buy their produce from Michigan farms between thirty and one hundred miles from the city and truck it into the market.

photo by James Griffioen

There are more visionaries in Detroit than in most Rust-Belt cities, and thus more visions of a community rising from the ashes of a moribund industry to become, if not an urban paradise, something close to it. The most intriguing visionaries in Detroit, at least the ones who drew me to the city, were those who imagine growing food among the ruins—chard and tomatoes on vacant lots (there are over 103,000 in the city, sixty thousand owned by the city), orchards on former school grounds, mushrooms in open basements, fish in abandoned factories, hydroponics in bankrupt department stores, livestock grazing on former golf courses, high-rise farms in old hotels, vermiculture, permaculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, waving wheat where cars were once test-driven, and winter greens sprouting inside the frames of single-story bungalows stripped of their skin and re-sided with Plexiglas—a homemade greenhouse. Those are just a few of the agricultural technologies envisioned for the urban prairie Detroit has become.

There are also proposals on the mayor’s desk to rezone vast sections A-something (“A” for agriculture), and a proposed master plan that would move the few people residing in lonely, besotted neighborhoods into Detroit’s nine loosely defined villages and turn the rest of the city into open farmland. An American Institute of Architects panel concludes that all Detroit’s residents could fit comfortably in fifty square miles of land. Much of the remaining ninety square miles could be farmed. Were that to happen, and a substantial investment was made in greenhouses, vertical farms, and aquaponic systems, Detroit could be producing protein and fibre 365 days a year and soon become the first and only city in the world to produce close to 100 percent of its food supply within its city limits. No semis hauling groceries, no out-of-town truck farmers, no food dealers. And no chain stores need move back. Everything eaten in the city could be grown in the city and distributed to locally owned and operated stores and co-ops. I met no one in Detroit who believed that was impossible, but only a few who believed it would happen. It could, but not without a lot of political and community will.

There are a few cities in the world that grow and provide about half their total food supply within their urban and peri-urban regions—Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Havana, Cuba; Hanoi, Vietnam; Dakar, Senegal; Rosario, Argentina; Cagayan de Oro in the Philippines; and, my personal favorite, Cuenca, Equador—all of which have much longer growing seasons than Detroit. However, those cities evolved that way, almost unintentionally. They are, in fact, about where Detroit was agriculturally around one hundred and fifty years ago. Half of them will almost surely drop under 50 percent sufficiency within the next two decades as industry subsumes cultivated land to build factories (à la China). Because of its unique situation, Detroit could come close to being 100 percent self-sufficient.

First, the city lies on one hundred and forty square miles of former farmland. Manhattan, Boston, and San Francisco could be placed inside the borders of Detroit with room to spare, and the population is about the same as the smallest of those cities, San Francisco: eight hundred thousand. And that number is still declining from a high of two million in the mid-nineteen fifties. Demographers expect Detroit’s population to level off somewhere between five hundred thousand and six hundred thousand by 2025. Right now there is about forty square miles of unoccupied open land in the city, the area of San Francisco, and that landmass could be doubled by moving a few thousand people out of hazardous firetraps into affordable housing in the eight villages. As I drove around the city, I saw many full-sized blocks with one, two, or three houses on them, many already burned out and abandoned. The ones that weren’t would make splendid farmhouses.

photo by James Griffioen

As Detroit was built on rich agricultural land, the soil beneath the city is fertile and arable. Certainly some of it is contaminated with the wastes of heavy industry, but not so badly that it’s beyond remediation. In fact, phyto-remediation, using certain plants to remove toxic chemicals permanently from the soil, is already practiced in parts of the city. And some of the plants used for remediation can be readily converted to biofuels. Others can be safely fed to livestock.

Leading the way in Detroit’s soil remediation is Malik Yakini, owner of the Black Star Community Book Store and founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Yakini and his colleagues begin the remediation process by removing abandoned house foundations and toxic debris from vacated industrial sites. Often that is all that need be done to begin farming. Throw a little compost on the ground, turn it in, sow some seeds, and water it. Water in Detroit is remarkably clean and plentiful.

Although Detroiters have been growing produce in the city since its days as an eighteenth-century French trading outpost, urban farming was given a major boost in the nineteen eighties by a network of African-American elders calling themselves the “Gardening Angels.” As migrants from the rural South, where many had worked as small farmers and field hands, they brought agrarian skills to vacant lots and abandoned industrial sites of the city, and set out to reconnect their descendants, children of asphalt, to the Earth, and teach them that useful work doesn’t necessarily mean getting a job in a factory.

Thirty years later, Detroit has an eclectic mix of agricultural systems, ranging from three-foot window boxes growing a few heads of lettuce to a large-scale farm run by The Catherine Ferguson Academy, a home and school for pregnant girls that not only produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but also raises chickens, geese, ducks, bees, rabbits, and milk goats.
Across town, Capuchin Brother Rick Samyn manages a garden that not only provides fresh fruits and vegetables to city soup kitchens, but also education to neighborhood children. There are about eighty smaller community gardens scattered about the city, more and more of them raising farm animals alongside the veggies. At the moment, domestic livestock is forbidden in the city, as are beehives. But the ordinance against them is generally ignored and the mayor’s office assures me that repeal of the bans are imminent.

About five hundred small plots have been created by an international organization called Urban Farming, founded by acclaimed songwriter Taja Sevelle. Realizing that Detroit was the most agriculturally promising of the fourteen cities in five countries where Urban Farming now exists, Sevelle moved herself and her organization’s headquarters there last year. Her goal is to triple the amount of land under cultivation in Detroit every year. All food grown by Urban Farming is given free to the poor. According to Urban Farming’s Detroit manager, Michael Travis, that won’t change.

Larger scale, for-profit farming is also on the drawing board. Financial services entrepreneur John Hantz has asked the city to let him farm a seventy-acre parcel he owns close to the Eastern Market. If that is approved and succeeds in producing food for the market, and profit for Hantz Farms, Hantz hopes to create more large-scale commercial farms around the city. Not everyone in Detroit’s agricultural community is happy with the scale or intentions of Hantz’s vision, but it seems certain to become part of the mix. And unemployed people will be put to work.

Any agro-economist will tell you that urban farming creates jobs. Even without local production, the food industry creates three dollars of job growth for every dollar spent on food—a larger multiplier effect than almost any other product or industry. Farm a city, and that figure jumps over five dollars. To a community with persistent two-digit unemployment, that number is manna. But that’s only one economic advantage of farming a city.

The average food product purchased in a U.S. chain store has traveled thirteen hundred miles, and about half of it has spoiled en route, despite the fact that it was bioengineered to withstand transport. The total mileage in a three-course American meal approaches twenty-five thousand. The food seems fresh because it has been refrigerated in transit, adding great expense and a huge carbon footprint to each item, and subtracting most of the minerals and vitamins that would still be there were the food grown close by.

photo by James Griffioen

I drove around the city one day with Dwight Vaughter and Gary Wozniak. A soft-spoken African American, Vaughter is CEO of SHAR, a self-help drug rehab program with about two hundred residents recovering from various addictions in an abandoned hospital. Wozniak, a bright, gregarious Polish American, who, unlike most of his fellow Poles, has stayed in Detroit, is the program’s financial director. Vaughter and Wozniak are trying to create a labor-intensive economic base for their program, with the conviction that farming and gardening are therapeutic. They have their eyes on two thousand acres in one of the worst sections of the city, not far from the Eastern Market. They estimate that there are about four thousand people still living in the area, most of them in houses that should have been condemned and razed years ago. There are also six churches in the section, offering some of the best ecclesiastical architecture in the city.

I tried to imagine what this weedy, decrepit, trash-ridden urban dead zone would look like under cultivation. First, I removed the overhead utilities and opened the sky a little. Then I tore up the useless grid of potholed streets and sidewalks and replaced them with a long winding road that would take vegetables to market and bring parishioners to church. I wrecked and removed most of the houses I saw, leaving a few that somehow held some charm and utility. Of course, I left the churches standing, as I did a solid red brick school, boarded up a decade ago when the student body dropped to a dozen or so bored and unstimulated deadbeats. It could be reopened as an urban ag-school, or SHAR’s residents could live there. I plowed and planted rows of every imaginable vegetable, created orchards and raised beds, set up beehives and built chicken coops, rabbit warrens, barns, and corrals for sheep, goats, and horses. And of course, I built sturdy hoop houses, rows of them, heated by burning methane from composting manure and ag-waste to keep frost from winter crops. The harvest was tended by former drug addicts who like so many before them found salvation in growing things that keep their brethren alive.

That afternoon I visited Grace Lee Boggs, a ninety-three-year-old Chinese-American widow who has been envisioning farms in Detroit for decades. Widow of legendary civil rights activist Jimmy Boggs, Grace preserves his legacy with the energy of ten activists. The main question on my mind as I climbed the steps to her modest east side home, now a center for community organizers, was whether or not Detroit possesses the community and political will to scale its agriculture up to 100 percent food self-sufficiency. Yes, Grace said to the former, and no to the latter. But she really didn’t believe that political will was that essential. “The food riots erupting around the world challenge us to rethink our whole approach to food,” she said, but as communities, not as bodies politic. “Today’s hunger crisis is rooted in the industrialized food system which destroys local food production and forces nations like Kenya, which only twenty-five years ago was food self-sufficient, to import 80 percent of its food because its productive land is being used by global corporations to grow flowers and luxury foods for export.” The same thing happened to Detroit, she says, which was once before a food self-sufficient community. I asked her whether the city government would support large-scale urban agriculture. “City government is irrelevant,” she answered. “Positive change, leaps forward in the evolution of humankind do not start with governments. They start right here in our living rooms and kitchens. We are the leaders we are looking for.”

All the decaying Rust-Belt cities in the American heartland have at one time or another imagined themselves transformed into some sort of exciting new post-industrial urban model. And some have begun the process of transformation. Now it’s Detroit’s turn, Boggs believes. It could follow the examples of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and become a slightly recovered metropolis, another pathetic industrial has-been still addicted to federal stimulus, marginal jobs, and the corporate food system. Or it could make a complete break and become, if not a paradise, well, at least a pretty good place to live.

Not everyone in Detroit is enthusiastic about farming. Many urbanites believe that structures of some sort or another belong on urban land. And a lot of those people just elected David Bing mayor of the city. Bing’s opponent, acting mayor Ken Cockrel, was committed to expanding urban agriculture in Detroit. Bing has not said he’s opposed to it, but his background as a successful automotive parts manufacturer will likely have him favoring a future that maintains the city’s primary nickname: Motor City.

And there remains a lasting sense of urbanity in Detroit. “This is a city, not a farm,” remarked one skeptic of urban farming. She’s right, of course. A city is more than a farm. But that’s what makes Detroit’s rural future exciting. Where else in the world can one find a one-hundred-and-forty-square-mile agricultural community with four major league sports teams, two good universities, the fifth largest art museum in the country, a world-class hospital, and headquarters of a now-global industry, that while faltering, stands ready to green their products and keep three million people in the rest of the country employed?

Despite big auto’s crash, “Detroit” is still synonymous with the industry. When people ask, “What will become of Detroit?” most of them still mean, “What will become of GM, Ford, and Chrysler?” If Detroit the city is to survive in any form, it should probably get past that question and begin searching for ways to put its most promising assets, land and people, to productive use again by becoming America’s first modern agrarian metropolis.

Contemporary Detroit gave new meaning to the word “wasteland.” It still stands as a monument to a form of land abuse that became endemic to industrial America—once-productive farmland, teaming with wildlife, was paved and poisoned for corporate imperatives. Now the city offers itself as an opportunity to restore some of its agrarian tradition, not fifty miles from downtown in the countryside where most of us believe that tradition was originally established, but a short bicycle ride away. American cities once grew much of their food within walking distance of most of their residents. In fact, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most early American cities, Detroit included, looked more like the English countryside, with a cluster of small villages interspersed with green open space. Eventually, farmers of the open space sold their land to developers and either retired or moved their farms out of cities, which were cut into grids and plastered with factories, shopping malls, and identical row houses.

Detroit now offers America a perfect place to redefine urban economics, moving away from the totally paved, heavy-industrial factory-town model to a resilient, holistic, economically diverse, self-sufficient, intensely green, rural/urban community—and in doing so become the first modern American city where agriculture, while perhaps not the largest, is the most vital industry.

Detroit arcadia: Exploring the post-American landscape
BY Rebecca Solnit / July 2007

Until recently there was a frieze around the lobby of the Hotel Pontchartrain in downtown Detroit, a naively charming painting of a forested lakefront landscape with Indians peeping out from behind the trees. The hotel was built on the site of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the old French garrison that three hundred years ago held a hundred or so pioneer families inside its walls while several thousand Ottawas and Hurons and Potawatomis went about their business outside, but the frieze evoked an era before even that rude structure was built in the lush woodlands of the place that was not yet Michigan or the United States. Scraped clear by glaciers during the last ice age, the landscape the French invaded was young, soggy, and densely forested. The river frontage that would become Detroit was probably mostly sugar maple and beech forest, with black ash or mixed hardwood swamps, a few patches of conifers, and the occasional expanse of what naturalists like to call wet prairie—grasslands you might not want to walk on. The Indians killed the trees by girdling them and planted corn in the clearings, but the wild rice they gathered and the fish and game they hunted were also important parts of their 
diet. One pioneer counted badger, bear, fisher, fox, mink, muskrat, porcupine, rabbit, raccoon, weasel, wildcat, wolf, and woodchuck among the local species, and cougar and deer could have been added to the list. The French would later recruit the Indians to trap beaver, which were plentiful in those once-riverine territories—détroit means “strait” or “narrows,” but in its thirty-two-mile journey from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie, the Detroit River also had several tributaries, including Parent’s Creek, which was later named Bloody Run after some newly arrived English soldiers managed to lose a fight they picked with the local Ottawas.

Fort Pontchartrain was never meant to be the center of a broad European settlement. It was a trading post, a garrison, and a strategic site in the scramble between the British and the French to dominate the North American interior. Cadillac, the ambitious Frenchman who established the fort in 1701, invited members of several Indian nations to surround the fort in order to facilitate more frequent trading, but this led to clashes not just between nations but between races. Unknown Indians set fire to Fort Pontchartrain in 1703, and the Fox skirmished there in 1712. After the English took over in 1760, deteriorating relations with the local tribes culminated in the three-year-long, nearly successful Ottawa uprising known as Pontiac’s Rebellion.

This is all ancient history, but it does foreshadow the racial conflicts that never went away in Detroit, though now white people constitute the majority who surround and resent the 83 percent black city. It’s as if the fort had been turned inside out—and, in fact, in the 1940s a six-foot-tall concrete wall was built along Eight Mile Road, which traces Detroit’s northern limits, to contain the growing African-American population. And this inversion exposes another paradox. North of Eight Mile, the mostly white suburbs seem conventional, and they may face the same doom as much of conventional suburban America if sprawl and 
auto-based civilization die off with oil shortages and economic decline. South of Eight Mile, though, Detroit is racing to a far less predictable future.

It is a remarkable city now, one in which the clock seems to be running backward as its buildings disappear and its population and economy decline. The second time I visited Detroit I tried to stay at the Pontchartrain, but the lobby was bisected by drywall, the mural seemed doomed, and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls, few staff people, fewer guests, and strange grinding noises at odd hours. I checked out after one night because of the cold water coming out of the hot-water tap and the generally spooky feeling generated by trying to sleep in a 413-room high-rise hotel with almost no other guests. I was sad to see the frieze on its way out, but—still—as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape it portrays, a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely—and sometime even beautifully—post-American.

This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya. The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild. Downtown still looks like a downtown, and all of those high-rise buildings still make an impressive skyline, but when you look closely at some of them, you can see trees growing out of the ledges and crevices, an invasive species from China known variously as the ghetto palm and the tree of heaven. Local wisdom has it that whenever a new building goes up, an older one will simply be abandoned, and the same rule applies to the blocks of new condos that have been dropped here and there among the ruins: why they were built in the first place in a city full of handsome old houses going to ruin has everything to do with the momentary whims of the real estate trade and nothing to do with the long-term survival of cities.

The transformation of the residential neighborhoods is more dramatic. On so many streets in so many neighborhoods, you see a house, a little shabby but well built and beautiful. Then another house. Then a few houses are missing, so thoroughly missing that no trace of foundation remains. Grass grows lushly, as though nothing had ever disturbed the pastoral verdure. Then there’s a house that’s charred and shattered, then a beautiful house, with gables and dormers and a porch, the kind of house a lot of Americans fantasize about owning. Then more green. This irregular pattern occurs mile after mile, through much of Detroit. You could be traveling down Wa bash Street on the west side of town or Pennsylvania or Fairview on the east side of town or around just about any part of the State Fair neighborhood on the city’s northern border. Between the half-erased neighborhoods are ruined factories, boarded-up warehouses, rows of storefronts bearing the traces of failed enterprise, and occasional solid blocks of new town houses that look as though they had been dropped in by helicopter. In the bereft zones, solitary figures wander slowly, as though in no hurry to get from one abandoned zone to the next. Some areas have been stripped entirely, and a weedy version of nature is returning. Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie—an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco.

It was tales of these ruins that originally drew me to the city a few years ago. My first visit began somberly enough, as I contemplated the great neoclassical edifice of the train station, designed by the same architects and completed the same year as Grand Central station in Manhattan. Grand Central thrives; this broken building stands alone just beyond the grim silence of Michigan Avenue and only half a mile from the abandoned Tiger Stadium. Rings of cyclone fence forbid exploration. The last train left on January 5, 1988— the day before Epiphany. The building has been so thoroughly gutted that on sunny days the light seems to come through the upper stories as though through a cheese grater; there is little left but concrete and stone. All the windows are smashed out. The copper pipes and wires, I was told, were torn out by the scavengers who harvest material from abandoned buildings around the city and hasten their decay.

On another visit, I took a long walk down a sunken railroad spur that, in more prosperous times, had been used to move goods from one factory to another. A lot of effort had gone into making the long channel of brick and concrete about twenty feet below the gently undulating surface of Detroit, and it had been abandoned a long time. Lush greenery grew along the tracks and up the walls, which were like a museum of spray-can art from the 1980s and 1990s. The weeds and beer cans and strangely apposite graffiti decrying the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement seemed to go on forever.

I took many pictures on my visits to Detroit, but back home they just looked like snapshots of abandoned Nebraska farmhouses or small towns farther west on the Great Plains. Sometimes a burned-out house would stand next to a carefully tended twin, a monument to random fate; sometimes the rectilinear nature of city planning was barely perceptible, just the slightest traces of a grid fading into grassy fields accented with the occasional fire hydrant. One day after a brief thunderstorm, when the rain had cleared away and chunky white clouds dotted the sky, I wandered into a neighborhood, or rather a former neighborhood, of at least a dozen square blocks where trees of heaven waved their branches in the balmy air. Approximately one tattered charred house still stood per block. I could hear the buzzing of crickets or cicadas, and I felt as if I had traveled a thousand years into the future.

photo by James Griffioen

To say that much of Detroit is 
ruins is, of course, to say that some of it isn’t. There are stretches of Detroit that look like anywhere in the U.S.A.—blocks of town houses and new condos, a flush of gentility spreading around the Detroit Institute of Arts, a few older neighborhoods where everything is fine. If Detroit has become a fortress of urban poverty surrounded by suburban affluence, the city’s waterfront downtown has become something of a fortress within a fortress, with a convention center, a new ballpark, a new headquarters for General Motors, and a handful of casinos that were supposed to be the city’s economic salvation when they were built a decade ago. But that garrison will likely fend off time no better
than Fort Detroit or the
 Hotel Pontchartrain.

Detroit is wildly outdated, but it is not very old. It was a medium-size city that boomed in the first quarter of the twentieth century, became the “arsenal of democracy” in the second, spent the third in increasingly less gentle decline, and by the last quarter was a byword for urban decay, having made a complete arc in a single century. In 1900, Detroit had a quarter of a million people. By midcentury the population had reached nearly 2 million. In recent years, though, it has fallen below 900,000. Detroit is a cautionary tale about one-industry towns: it shrank the way the old boomtowns of the gold and silver rushes did, as though it had been mining automobiles and the veins ran dry, but most of those mining towns were meant to be ephemeral. People thought Detroit would go on forever.

Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor, reigned from 1974 to 1993, the years that the change became irreversible and impossible to ignore, and in his autobiography he sounds like he is still in shock: “It’s mind-boggling to think that at mid-century Detroit was a city of close to two million and nearly everything beyond was covered with corn and cow patties. Forty years later, damn near every last white person in the city had moved to the old fields and pastures—1.4 frigging million of them. Think about that. There were 1,600,000 whites in Detroit after the war, and 1,400,000 of them left. By 1990, the city was just over a million, nearly eighty percent of it was black, and the suburbs had surpassed Detroit not only in population but in wealth, in commerce—even in basketball, for God’s sake.”

The Detroit Pistons are now based in Auburn Hills. According to the 2000 census, another 112,357 whites left the city in the 1990s, and 10,000 more people a year continue to leave. Even three hundred bodies a year are exhumed from the cemeteries and moved because some of the people who were once Detroiters or the children of Detroiters don’t think the city is good enough for their dead. Ford and General Motors, or what remains of them—most of the jobs were dispatched to other towns and nations long agoin trouble, too. Interestingly, in this city whose name is synonymous with the auto industry, more than a fifth of households have no cars.

“Detroit’s Future Is Looking Brighter,” said a headline in the Detroit Free Press, not long after another article outlined the catastrophes afflicting the whole state. In recent years, Michigan’s household income has dropped more than that of any other state, and more and more of its citizens are slipping below the poverty line. David Littmann, a senior economist for the Michigan think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told the paper, “As the economy slows nationally, we’re going to sink much farther relative to the other states. We’ve only just begun. We’re going to see Michigan sink to levels that no one has 
ever seen.”

In another sense, the worst is over in Detroit. In the 1980s and 1990s, the city was falling apart, spectacularly and violently. Back then the annual pre-Halloween arson festival known as Devil’s Night finished off a lot of the abandoned buildings; it peaked in 1984 with 810 fires in the last three days of October. Some of the arson, a daughter of Detroit’s black bourgeoisie told me, was 
constructive—crackhouses being burned down by the neighbors; her own respectable aunt had torched one. Between 1978 and 1998, the city issued 9,000 building permits for new homes and 108,000 demolition permits, and quite a lot of structures were annihilated without official sanction.

Even Ford’s old Highland Park headquarters, where the Model T was born, is now just a shuttered series of dusty warehouses with tape on the windows and cyclone fences around the cracked pavement. Once upon a time, the plant was one of the wonders of the world—on a single day in 1925 it cranked out 9,000 cars, according to a sign I saw under a tree next to the empty buildings. Detroit once made most of the cars on earth; now the entire United States makes not even one in ten. The new Model T Ford Plaza next door struck my traveling companion—who, like so many white people born in Detroit after the war, had mostly been raised elsewhere—as auspicious. But the mall was fronted by a mostly empty parking lot and anchored by a Payless ShoeSource, which to my mind did not portend an especially bright future.

When I came back, a year after my first tour, I stopped at the Detroit Institute of Arts to see the Diego Rivera mural commissioned in 1932 by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. The museum is a vast Beaux-Arts warehouse—“the fifth-largest fine arts museum in the United States,” according to its promotional literature—and the fresco covered all four walls of the museum’s central courtyard. Rivera is said to have considered it his finest work.

It’s an odd masterpiece, a celebration of the River Rouge auto plant, which had succeeded the Highland Park factory as Ford’s industrial headquarters, painted by a Communist for the son of one of the richest capitalists in the world. The north and south walls are devoted to nearly life-size scenes in which the plant’s gray gears, belts, racks, and workbenches surge and swarm like some vast intestinal apparatus. The workers within might be subsidiary organs or might be lunch, as the whole churns to excrete a stream of black Fords.

Rivera created this vision when the city was reveling in the newfound supremacy of its megafactories, but Detroit had already reached its apex. Indeed, the River Rouge plant—then the largest factory complex in the world, employing more than 100,000 workers on a site two and a half times the size of New York City’s Central Park—was itself built in suburban Dearborn. In 1932, though, capitalists and Communists alike shared a belief that the most desirable form of human organization—indeed, the inevitable form—was not just industrial but this kind of industrial: a Fordist system of “rational” labor, of centralized production in blue-collar cities, of eternal prosperity in a stern gray land. Even the young Soviet Union looked up to Henry Ford.

But Detroit was building the machine that would help destroy not just this city but urban industrialism across the continent. Rivera painted, in a subsidiary all-gray panel in the lower right corner of the south wall, a line of slumped working men and women exiting the factory into what appears to be an endless parking lot full of Ford cars. It may not have looked that way in 1932, but a lot of the gray workers were going to buy those gray cars and drive right out of the gray city. The city-hating Ford said that he wanted every family in the world to have a Ford, and he priced them so that more and more families could. He also fantasized about a post-urban world in which workers would also farm, seasonally or part-time, but he did less to realize that vision. Private automobile ownership was a double blow against the density that is crucial to cities and urbanism and against the Fordist model of concentrated large-scale manufacture. Ford was sabotaging Detroit and then Fordism almost from the beginning; the city had blown up rapidly and would spend the next several decades simply disintegrating.

Detroit was always a rough town. When Rivera painted his fresco, the Depression had hit Detroit as hard as or harder than anywhere, and the unemployed were famished and desperate, desperate enough to march on the Ford Motor Company in the spring of 1932. It’s hard to say whether ferocity or desperation made the marchers fight their way through police with tear-gas guns and firemen with hoses going full bore the last stretch of the way to the River Rouge plant. Harry Bennett, the thug who ran Ford more or less the way Stalin was running the Soviet Union, arrived, and though he was immediately knocked out by a flying rock, the police began firing on the crowd, injuring dozens and killing five. The battle of the Hunger March or the huge public funeral afterward would’ve made a good mural.

No, it wasn’t cars alone that ruined Detroit. It was the whole improbable equation of the city in the first place, the “inherent contradictions.” The city was done in by deindustrialization, decentralization, the post–World War II spread of highways and freeways, government incentives to homeowners, and disinvestment in cities that aided and abetted large-scale white flight into the burgeoning suburbs of those years. Chunks of downtown Detroit were sacrificed early, in the postwar years, so that broad arterial freeways—the Edsel Freeway, the Chrysler Freeway—could bring commuters in from beyond city limits.

All of this was happening everywhere else too, of course. The manufacturing belt became the rust belt. Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, and other cities clustered around the Great Lakes were hit hard, and the shrinking stretched down to St. Louis and across to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Newark. Now that it has entered a second gilded age, no one seems to remember that New York was a snowballing disaster forty or fifty years ago. The old textile district south of Houston Street had emptied out so completely that in 1962 the City Club of New York published a report on it and other former commercial areas titled “The Wastelands of New York City.” San Francisco went the same way. It was a blue-collar port city until the waterfront dried up and the longshoremen faded away.

Then came the renaissance, but 
only for those cities reborn into more dematerialized economies. Vacant lots were filled in, old warehouses were turned into lofts or offices or replaced, downtowns became upscale chain outlets, janitors and cops became people who commuted in from downscale suburbs, and the children of that white flight came back to cities that were not exactly cities in the old sense. The new American cities trade in information, entertainment, tourism, software, finance. They are abstract. Even the souvenirs in these new economies often come from a sweatshop in China. The United States can be mapped as two zones now, a high-pressure zone of economic boom times and escalating real estate prices, and a low-
pressure zone, where housing might be the only thing that’s easy to come by.

This pattern will change, though. The forces that produced Detroit—the combination of bitter racism and single-industry failure—are anomalous, but the general recipe of deindustrialization, depopulation, and resource depletion will likely touch almost all the regions of the global north in the next century or two. Dresden was rebuilt, and so was Hiroshima, and so were the cities destroyed by natural forces—San Francisco and Mexico City and Tangshan—but Detroit will never be rebuilt as it was. It will be the first of many cities forced
to become altogether something else.

The Detroit Institute of Arts is in one of those flourishing parts of Detroit; it is expanding its 1927 building, and when I said goodbye to the Rivera mural and stepped outside into the autumn sunshine, workmen were installing slabs of marble on the building’s new facade. I noticed an apparently homeless dog sleeping below the scaffolding, and as I walked past, three plump white women teetered up to me hastily, all attention focused on the dog. “Do you have a cell phone?” the one topped by a froth of yellow hair shrilled. “Call the Humane Society!” I suggested that the dog was breathing fine and therefore was probably okay, and she looked at me as though I were a total idiot. “This is downtown Detroit,” she said, in a tone that made it clear the dog was in imminent peril from unspeakable forces, and that perhaps she was, I was, we all were.

I had been exploring an architectural-salvage shop near Rosa Parks Boulevard earlier that day, and when I asked the potbellied and weathered white man working there for his thoughts on the city, the tirade that followed was similarly vehement: Detroit, he insisted, had been wonderful—people used to dress up to go downtown, it had been the Paris of the Midwest!—and then it all went to hell. Those people destroyed it. My traveling companion suggested that maybe larger forces of deindustrialization might have had something to do with what happened to the city, but the man blankly rejected this analysis and continued on a tirade about “them” that wasn’t very careful about not being racist.

On the Web you can find a site, Stormfront White Nationalist Community, that is even more comfortable with this version of what happened to the city, and even less interested in macroeconomic forces like deindustrialization and globalization: “A huge non-White population, combined with annual arson attacks, bankruptcy, crime, and decay, have combined to make Detroit—once the USA’s leading automotive industrial center—
into a ruin comparable with those of the ancient civilizations—with the cause being identical: the replacement of the White population who built the city, with a new non-White population.” It could have been different. “In more civilized environs, these facilities might have easily been transformed into a manufacturing and assembly center for any number of industrial enterprises,” writes the anonymous author.

A few months before the diatribe in the salvage yard, I’d met a long-haired counterculture guy who also told me he was from Detroit, by which he, like so many others I’ve met, meant the suburbs of Detroit. When I asked him about the actual city, though, his face clenched like a fist. He recited the terrible things they would do to you if you ventured into the city, that they would tear you apart on the streets. He spoke not with the voice of a witness but with the authority of tradition handed down from an unknown and irrefutable source. The city was the infernal realm, the burning lands, the dragon’s lair at the center of a vast and protective suburban sprawl.

The most prominent piece of public art in Detroit is the giant blackened bronze arm and fist that serve as a monument to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who grew up there. If it were vertical it would look like a Black Power fist, but it’s slung from cables like some medieval battering ram waiting to be dragged up to the city walls.

Deindustrialization dealt Detroit a sucker punch, but the knockout may have been white flight—at least economically. Socially, it was a little more complex. One African-American woman who grew up there told me that white people seemed to think they were a great loss to the city they abandoned, “but we were glad to see them go and waved bye-bye.” She lived in Ann Arbor—the departure of the black middle class being yet another wrinkle in the racial narrative—but she was thinking of moving back, she said. If she had kids, raising them in a city where they wouldn’t be a minority had real appeal.

The fall of the paradise that was Detroit is often pinned on the riots of July 1967, what some there still refer to as the Detroit Uprising. But Detroit had a long history of race riots—there were vicious white-on-black riots in 1833, 1863, 1925, and 1943. And the idyll itself was unraveling long before 1967. Local 600 of the United Auto Workers broke with the union mainstream in 1951, sixteen years before the riots, to sue Ford over decentralization efforts already under way. They realized that their jobs were literally going south, to states and nations where labor wasn’t so organized and wages weren’t so high, back in the prehistoric era of “globalization.”

The popular story wasn’t about the caprices of capital, though; it was about the barbarism of blacks. In 1900, Detroit had an African-American population of 4,111. Then came the great migration, when masses of southern blacks traded Jim Crow for the industrialized promised land of the North. Conditions might have been better here than in the South, but Detroit was still a segregated city with a violently racist police department and a lot of white people ready to work hard to keep black people out of their neighborhoods. They failed in this attempt at segregation, and then they left. This is what created the blackest city in the United States, and figures from Joe Louis and Malcolm X to Rosa Parks and the bold left-wing Congressman John Conyers—who has represented much of the city since 1964—have made Detroit a center of activism and independent leadership for African Americans. It’s a black
 city, but it’s surrounded.

Surrounded, but inside that stockade of racial divide and urban decay are visionaries, and their visions are tender, hopeful, and green. Grace Lee Boggs, at ninety-one, has been politically active in the city for more than half a century. Born in Providence to Chinese immigrant parents, she got a Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940 and was a classical Marxist when she married the labor organizer Jimmy Boggs, in 1953. That an Asian woman married to a black man could become a powerful force was just another wrinkle in the racial politics of Detroit. (They were together until Jimmy’s death, in 1993.) Indeed, her thinking evolved along with the radical politics of the city itself. During the 1960s, the Boggses were dismissive of Martin Luther King Jr. and ardent about Black Power, but as Grace acknowledged when we sat down together in her big shady house in the central city, “The Black Power movement, which was very powerful here, concentrated only on power and had no concept of the challenges that would face a black-powered administration.” When Coleman Young took over city hall, she said, he could start fixing racism in the police department and the fire department, “but when it came time to do something about Henry Ford and General Motors, he was helpless. We thought that all we had to do was transform the system, that all the problems were on the other side.”

As the years went by, the Boggses began to focus less on putting new people into existing power structures and more on redefining or dismantling the structures altogether. When she and Jimmy crusaded against Young’s plans to rebuild the city around casinos, they realized they had to come up with real alternatives, and they began to think about what a local, sustainable economy would look like. They had already begun to realize that Detroit’s lack of participation in the mainstream offered an opportunity to do everything differently—that instead of retreating back to a better relationship to capitalism, to industry, to the mainstream, the city could move forward, turn its liabilities into assets, and create an economy entirely apart from the transnational webs of corporations and petroleum. Jimmy Boggs described his alternative vision in a 1988 speech at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church of Detroit. “We have to get rid of the myth that there is something sacred about large-scale production for the national and international market,” he said. “We have to begin thinking of creating small enterprises which produce food, goods, and services for the local market, that is, for our communities and for our city. . . . In order to create these new enterprises, we need a view of our city which takes into consideration both the natural resources of our area and the existing and potential skills and talents of Detroiters.”

That was the vision, and it is only just starting to become a reality. “Now a lot of what you see is vacant lots,” Grace told me. “Most people see only disaster and the end of the world. On the other hand, artists in particular see the potential, the possibility of bringing the country back into the city, which is what we really need.” After all, the city is rich in open space and—with an official unemployment rate in the mid-teens—people with time on their hands. The land is fertile, too, and the visionaries are there.

photo by James Griffioen

In traversing Detroit, I saw a lot of signs that a greening was well under way, a sort of urban husbandry of the city’s already occurring return to nature. I heard the story of one old woman who had been the first African-American person on her block and is now, with her grandson, very nearly the last person of any race on that block. Having a city grow up around you is not an uncommon American experience, but having the countryside return is an eerier one. She made the best of it, though. The city sold her the surrounding lots for next to nothing, and she now raises much of her own food on them.

I also saw the lush three-acre Earth Works Garden, launched by Capuchin monks in 1999 and now growing organic produce for a local soup kitchen. I saw a 4-H garden in a fairly ravaged east-side neighborhood, and amid the utter abandonment of the west side, I saw the handsome tiled buildings of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a school for teenage mothers that opens on to a working farm, complete with apple orchard, horses, ducks, long rows of cauliflower and broccoli, and a red barn the girls built themselves. I met Ashley Atkinson, the young project manager for The Greening of Detroit, and heard about the hundred community gardens they support, and the thousands more food gardens that are not part of any network. The food they produce, Atkinson told me, provides food security for many Detroiters. “Urban farming, dollar for dollar, is the most effective change agent you can ever have in a community,” she said. Everywhere I went, I saw the rich soil of Detroit and the hard work of the gardeners bringing forth an abundant harvest any organic farmer would envy.

Everyone talks about green cities now, but the concrete results in affluent cities mostly involve curbside composting and tacking solar panels onto rooftops while residents continue to drive, to shop, to eat organic pears flown in from Argentina, to be part of the big machine of consumption and climate change. The free-range chickens and Priuses are great, but they alone aren’t adequate tools for creating a truly different society and ecology. The future, at least the sustainable one, the one in which we will survive, isn’t going to be invented by people who are happily surrendering selective bits and pieces of environmentally unsound privilege. It’s going to be made by those who had all that taken away from them or never had it in the first place.

After the Panic of 1893, Detroit’s left-wing Republican mayor encouraged his hungry citizens to plant vegetables in the city’s vacant lots and went down in history as Potato Patch Pingree. Something similar happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union collapsed and the island lost its subsidized oil and thereby its mechanized agriculture; through garden-scale semi-organic agriculture, Cubans clawed their way back to food security and got better food in the bargain. Nobody wants to live through a depression, and it is unfair, or at least deeply ironic, that black people in Detroit are being forced to undertake an experiment in utopian post-urbanism that appears to be uncomfortably similar to the sharecropping past their parents and grandparents sought to escape. There is no moral reason why they should do and be better than the rest of us—but there is a practical one. They have to. Detroit is where change is most urgent and therefore most viable. The rest of us will get there later, when necessity drives us too, and by that time Detroit may be the shining example we can look to, the post-industrial green city that was once the steel-gray capital of Fordist manufacturing.

Detroit is still beautiful, both in its stately decay and in its growing natural abundance. Indeed, one of the finest sights I saw on my walks around the city combined the two. It was a sudden flash on an already bright autumn day—a pair of wild pheasants, bursting from a lush row of vegetables and flying over a cyclone fence toward a burned-out building across the street. It was an improbable flight in many ways. Those pheasants, after all, were no more native to Detroit than are the trees of heaven growing in the skyscrapers downtown. And yet it is here, where European settlement began in the region, that we may be seeing the first signs of an unsettling of the very premises of colonial expansion, an unsettling that may bring a complex new human and natural ecology into being.

This is the most extreme and long-term hope Detroit offers us: the hope that we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will not punish us, that it will welcome us home—not with the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, but with land that is alive, lush, and varied all the same. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” was Shelley’s pivotal command in his portrait of magnificent ruins, but Detroit is far from a “shattered visage.” It is a harsh place of poverty, deprivation, and a fair amount of crime, but it is 
also a stronghold of possibility.

That Rivera mural, for instance. In 1932 the soil, the country, the wilderness, and agriculture represented the past; they should have appeared, if at all, below or behind the symbols of industry and urbanism, a prehistory from which the gleaming machine future emerged. But the big panels of workers inside the gray chasms of the River Rouge plant have above them huge nude figures—black, white, red, yellow, lounging on the bare earth. Rivera meant these figures to be emblematic of the North American races and meant their fistfuls of coal, sand, iron ore, and limestone to be the raw stuff of industrialism. To my eye, though, they look like deities waiting to reclaim the world, insistent on sensual contact with the land and confident of their triumph over and after the factory that lies below them like an inferno.

Chilean Quake Likely Shifted Earth’s Axis, NASA Scientist Says
BY Alex Morales / March 1, 2010

The earthquake that killed more than 700 people in Chile on Feb. 27 probably shifted the Earth’s axis and shortened the day, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist said. Earthquakes can involve shifting hundreds of kilometers of rock by several meters, changing the distribution of mass on the planet. This affects the Earth’s rotation, said Richard Gross, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who uses a computer model to calculate the effects. “The length of the day should have gotten shorter by 1.26 microseconds (millionths of a second),” Gross, said today in an e-mailed reply to questions. “The axis about which the Earth’s mass is balanced should have moved by 2.7 milliarcseconds (about 8 centimeters or 3 inches).” The changes can be modeled, though they’re difficult to physically detect given their small size, Gross said. Some changes may be more obvious, and islands may have shifted, according to Andreas Rietbrock, a professor of Earth Sciences at the U.K.’s Liverpool University who has studied the area impacted, though not since the latest temblor. Santa Maria Island off the coast near Concepcion, Chile’s second-largest city, may have been raised 2 meters (6 feet) as a result of the latest quake, Rietbrock said today in a telephone interview. He said the rocks there show evidence pointing to past earthquakes shifting the island upward in the past.

‘Ice-Skater Effect’
“It’s what we call the ice-skater effect,” David Kerridge, head of Earth hazards and systems at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, said today in a telephone interview. “As the ice skater puts when she’s going around in a circle, and she pulls her arms in, she gets faster and faster. It’s the same idea with the Earth going around if you change the distribution of mass, the rotation rate changes.” Rietbrock said he hasn’t been able to get in touch with seismologists in Concepcion to discuss the quake, which registered 8.8 on the Richter scale. “What definitely the earthquake has done is made the Earth ring like a bell,” Rietbrock said. The magnitude 9.1 Sumatran in 2004 that generated an Indian Ocean tsunami shortened the day by 6.8 microseconds and shifted the axis by about 2.3 milliarcseconds, Gross said. The changes happen on the day and then carry on “forever,” Benjamin Fong Chao, dean of Earth Sciences of the National Central University in Taiwan, said in an e-mail. “This small contribution is buried in larger changes due to other causes, such as atmospheric mass moving around on Earth,” Chao said.

Chilean quake shortened Earth’s day, but not by much
BY Carla Hall / March 03, 2010

When a magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck South America last weekend, the ground rumbled in Chile, the sea rose in the Pacific, and a day on Earth got shorter. Not by much. Earthlings ended up losing 1.26 millionth of a second of a day. You can’t sense it. Nor is your dog aware of it. But while other experts charted the shift of tectonic plates and the swell of ocean waters wrought by the quake, geophysicist Richard Gross mathematically calculated the temblor’s disruption of the length of the day.

The thrust-fault quake — in which plates under the Earth’s surface moved vertically — caused mass to be redistributed, said Gross, who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. “On average, the mass of the Earth got a bit closer to the rotation axis,” he said. As a result, Gross said, the planet rotates faster — “just like a spinning skater brings her arms in closer to her body to rotate faster.” When the planet rotates faster, the day shortens, he said. Gross studies the Earth’s rotation and how it is affected by cataclysmic forces of nature. “Anything that moves mass around on the Earth I take a look at,” he said. And it takes a mega-earthquake to attract Gross’ attention.

The magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake didn’t even register on the scale of throwing off the Earth’s rotation. “I didn’t look at that earthquake,” he said. “It takes something like the Chilean or Indonesian earthquake before I look at it.” This earthquake also shifted the axis around which the Earth rotates, Gross said. Although the Chilean quake shortened the day by 1.26 microseconds — the unit of time for millionths of a second — the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake that triggered the catastrophic Asian tsunami shaved 7 microseconds off the day, according to Gross’ calculations.

Will our biological sleep clocks notice? Circadian rhythms can be affected by even a shift in minutes, said Michael Terman, director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center. “Circadian biology . . . is indeed sensitive to the Earth’s rotation, but a change of 1.26 microseconds won’t have significant impact — I hope!” Terman said. Of course, losing just 1.26 microseconds a day takes a couple of millenniums to add up to one single second of lost time. (2,174 years to be more precise.) Gross suggests it’s not worth tallying that way. “It takes a lot of these big earthquakes to add up to even a second,” he said. Far from evoking that textbook illustration of a smooth round ball of continents and blue oceans, Gross describes Earth as a planet of unevenly distributed mass wobbling as it rotates, imperfectly balanced, around its axis, its physique woefully pear-shaped. “It’s a bit fatter south of the Equator,” Gross said. “The Earth is not completely elastic. It’s kind of like putty,” he said. “If you have a sudden shock to it, it will continue to deform later in response to that shock.”

Chilean Quake May Have Shortened Earth Days / March 01, 2010

“The Feb. 27 magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile may have shortened the length of each Earth day. JPL research scientist Richard Gross computed how Earth’s rotation should have changed as a result of the Feb. 27 quake. Using a complex model, he and fellow scientists came up with a preliminary calculation that the quake should have shortened the length of an Earth day by about 1.26 microseconds (a microsecond is one millionth of a second). Perhaps more impressive is how much the quake shifted Earth’s axis. Gross calculates the quake should have moved Earth’s figure axis (the axis about which Earth’s mass is balanced) by 2.7 milliarcseconds (about 8 centimeters, or 3 inches). Earth’s figure axis is not the same as its north-south axis; they are offset by about 10 meters (about 33 feet).

By comparison, Gross said the same model estimated the 2004 magnitude 9.1 Sumatran earthquake should have shortened the length of day by 6.8 microseconds and shifted Earth’s axis by 2.32 milliarcseconds (about 7 centimeters, or 2.76 inches). Gross said that even though the Chilean earthquake is much smaller than the Sumatran quake, it is predicted to have changed the position of the figure axis by a bit more for two reasons. First, unlike the 2004 Sumatran earthquake, which was located near the equator, the 2010 Chilean earthquake was located in Earth’s mid-latitudes, which makes it more effective in shifting Earth’s figure axis. Second, the fault responsible for the 2010 Chiliean earthquake dips into Earth at a slightly steeper angle than does the fault responsible for the 2004 Sumatran earthquake. This makes the Chile fault more effective in moving Earth’s mass vertically and hence more effective in shifting Earth’s figure axis. Gross said the Chile predictions will likely change as data on the quake are further refined.”

Richard Gross
email : richard.gross [at] jpl.nasa [dot] gov


Richard Gross, geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains / January 17, 2005

Q: Did the undersea earthquake affect the earth’s rotation?
A: Models predict that the earthquake should have affected rotation of the earth by shortening the length of a day by about three microseconds, or three millionths of a second. This happens because during the earthquake one of the tectonic plates [the India plate] subducted down beneath another plate [the Burma plate]. The downward mass movement of the plate changed the earth’s rotation just like a spinning ice skater bringing her arms closer to her body increases her rotation. When the earth spins faster, the days are shorter.

Q: Has this shift been measured?
A: This rotation change is a prediction from a model, and the data [collected by ground- and space-based position sensors] is being analyzed to see if the predicted change actually occurred. The data comes in every day, but it will take a few weeks for the most accurate data to be received and analyzed.

Q: Is this change permanent, or will it shift again?
A: The length of the day changes all the time in response to many different processes such as changes in the atmospheric winds or ocean currents. Changes in winds have by far the greatest effect on the length of the day: their effect is actually about 300 times larger than that predicted to be changed by this earthquake.

Q: Did the tilt of the earth’s axis change as well?
A: The earth wobbles as it rotates because its mass is not balanced about its rotation axis, just like a tire on a car will wobble as it rotates if the tire is not perfectly balanced. The size of the planet’s wobble is usually about 33 feet. As the India plate subducted beneath the Burma plate, the mass of Earth was rearranged, not only causing the speed of rotation to change, which causes the length of the day to change, but also causing the wobbling motion of the planet to change by about an inch. The wobble is also affected by other influences, such as changes in atmospheric pressure.


North Magnetic Pole Is Shifting Rapidly Toward Russia
BY Brian Vastag / December 15, 2005

New research shows the pole moving at rapid clip—25 miles (40 kilometers) a year. Over the past century the pole has moved 685 miles (1,100 kilometers) from Arctic Canada toward Siberia, says Joe Stoner, a paleomagnetist at Oregon State University. At its current rate the pole could move to Siberia within the next half-century, Stoner said. “It’s moving really fast,” he said. “We’re seeing something that hasn’t happened for at least 500 years.” Stoner presented his team’s research at the American Geophysical Union’s meeting last week in San Francisco. Lorne McKee, a geomagnetic scientist at Natural Resources Canada, says that Stoner’s data fits his own readings. “The movement of the pole definitely appears to be accelerating,” he said.

Not a Reversal
The shift is likely a normal oscillation of the Earth’s magnetic field, Stoner said, and not the beginning of a flip-flop of the north and south magnetic poles, a phenomenon that last occurred 780,000 years ago. Such reversals have taken place 400 times in the last 330 million years, according to magnetic clues sealed in rocks around the world. Each reversal takes a thousand years or more to complete. “People like to think something special is happening in their lifetimes, but despite the dramatic changes, I don’t see any evidence of it,” Stoner said. “It’s probably just a normal wandering of the pole.” The north magnetic pole shifts constantly, in loops up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide each day. The recorded location of the pole is really an average of its daily treks, which are driven by fluctuations in solar radiation. The pole is currently at about 80º north latitude and 104º west longitude, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut.

Importance of the Pole
Pinpointing the precise location of the north magnetic pole is important for navigation: As you move closer to the pole, the direction north indicated by your compass becomes less accurate. The pole also plays a role in the Northern Lights, which form when solar radiation bounces across the magnetic field in the upper atmosphere. As the north magnetic pole drifts, it will take the Northern Lights with it. But for scientists, studying the field provides a tantalizing glimpse into the fiery center of the Earth. The planet’s outer core of molten iron spins constantly, acting as a giant dynamo, or electromagnet. This energy interacts with the rocky mantle of the Earth, which is also shifting, resulting in a complex, ever-changing magnetic field. “We’re close to having a much better understanding on how the field fluxes,” Stoner said.

First Reading
The first readings of the north magnetic pole date to 1831, when Sir John Ross and his ship searching for the Northwest Passage became ice-bound. To pass the time he sent out a team with a compass to take readings, and the team soon found a dipole—an area with compass readings pointing both north and south—in what is now Nunavut. It was the north magnetic pole. While historical readings date back almost two centuries, Stoner’s team wanted to take a deeper look into the past. They went to the Arctic and pulled 4.5-meter-long (15-foot-long) cores of mud and clay from the bottom of frigid lakes. Each year, snowmelt deposits a layer of silt at the bottom of the lakes, which is then covered with a layer of clay. “There are these distinct couplets every year,” Stoner said. “It’s a lot like counting rings in a tree.”

Back at his laboratory at Oregon State University, Stoner and his team sliced the cores into thin sections. They then ran each section through an instrument that reads tiny magnetic particles in the silt to reveal both the direction and intensity of the magnetic field. Each section comprises five to ten layers, or five to ten year’s worth of magnetic readings. “We can’t get down to the yearly scale yet,” Stoner said, “but that’s getting to be a pretty tight resolution.” In contrast, similar techniques used to measure magnetism in rock have yielded much coarser resolutions of thousands to tens of thousands of years. Besides recording the movement of the pole, the silt cores also show a recent drop in the strength of the magnetic field, Stoner said, a phenomenon that often accompanies north-south reversals. But research by French scientists published in 2003 suggests that such “jerks” in the magnetic field—abrupt shifts in intensity and direction—occur often, not just during reversals.

North Magnetic Pole Moving East Due to Core Flux
BY Richard A. Lovett / December 24, 2009

Earth’s north magnetic pole is racing toward Russia at almost 40 miles (64 kilometers) a year due to magnetic changes in the planet’s core, new research says. The core is too deep for scientists to directly detect its magnetic field. But researchers can infer the field’s movements by tracking how Earth’s magnetic field has been changing at the surface and in space. Now, newly analyzed data suggest that there’s a region of rapidly changing magnetism on the core’s surface, possibly being created by a mysterious “plume” of magnetism arising from deeper in the core. And it’s this region that could be pulling the magnetic pole away from its long-time location in northern Canada, said Arnaud Chulliat, a geophysicist at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris in France.

Finding North
Magnetic north, which is the place where compass needles actually point, is near but not exactly in the same place as the geographic North Pole. Right now, magnetic north is close to Canada’s Ellesmere Island. Navigators have used magnetic north for centuries to orient themselves when they’re far from recognizable landmarks. Although global positioning systems have largely replaced such traditional techniques, many people still find compasses useful for getting around underwater and underground where GPS satellites can’t communicate. The magnetic north pole had moved little from the time scientists first located it in 1831. Then in 1904, the pole began shifting northeastward at a steady pace of about 9 miles (15 kilometers) a year. In 1989 it sped up again, and in 2007 scientists confirmed that the pole is now galloping toward Siberia at 34 to 37 miles (55 to 60 kilometers) a year. A rapidly shifting magnetic pole means that magnetic-field maps need to be updated more often to allow compass users to make the crucial adjustment from magnetic north to true North.

Wandering Pole
Geologists think Earth has a magnetic field because the core is made up of a solid iron center surrounded by rapidly spinning liquid metal. This creates a “dynamo” that drives our magnetic field. Scientists had long suspected that, since the molten core is constantly moving, changes in its magnetism might be affecting the surface location of magnetic north. Although the new research seems to back up this idea, Chulliat is not ready to say whether magnetic north will eventually cross into Russia. “It’s too difficult to forecast,” Chulliat said. Also, nobody knows when another change in the core might pop up elsewhere, sending magnetic north wandering in a new direction.

Arnaud Chulliat
email : chulliat [at] ipgp.jussieu [dot] fr

Supercomputer models of Earth’s magnetic field. On the left is a normal dipolar magnetic field, typical of the long years between polarity reversals. On the right is the sort of complicated magnetic field Earth has during the upheaval of a reversal.

Magnetic Flip-Flops

Considering that ships, planes and Boy Scouts steer by it, Earth’s magnetic field is less reliable than you’d think. Rocks in an ancient lava flow in Oregon suggest that for a brief erratic span about 16 million years ago magnetic north shifted as much as 6 degrees per day. After little more than a week, a compass needle would have pointed toward Mexico City. The lava catches Earth’s magnetic field in the act of reversing itself. Magnetic north heads south, and — over about 1,000 years — the field does a complete flip-flop. While the Oregon data is controversial, Earth scientists agree that the geological evidence as a whole — the “paleomagnetic” record — proves such reversals happened many times over the past billion years. “Some reversals occurred within a few 10,000 years of each other,” says Los Alamos scientist Gary Glatzmaier, “and there are other periods where no reversals occurred for tens of millions of years.” How do these flip-flops happen, and why at such irregular intervals? The geological data, invaluable to show what happened, registers only a mute shrug when it comes to the deeper questions.

For that matter, why is it that instead of quietly fading away, as magnetic fields do when left to their own devices, Earth’s magnetic field is still going strong after billions of years? Einstein is said to have considered it one of the most important unsolved problems in physics. With a year of computing on Pittsburgh’s CRAY C90, 2,000 hours of processing, Glatzmaier and collaborator Paul Roberts of UCLA took a big step toward some answers. Their numerical model of the electromagnetic, fluid dynamical processes of Earth’s interior reproduced key features of the magnetic field over more than 40,000 years of simulated time. To top it off, the computer-generated field reversed itself. “We weren’t expecting it,” says Roberts, “and were delighted. This gives us confidence we’ve built a credible bridge between theory and the paleomagnetic data.” Their surprising results, reported as a cover story in Nature (Sept. 21, 1995), provide an inner-Earth view of geomagnetic phenomena that have not been observed or anticipated by theory. Furthermore, the Glatzmaier-Roberts model offers, for the first time, a coherent explanation of magnetic field reversal.

Journey to the Center of the Earth
Roughly speaking, Earth is like a chocolate-covered cherry — layered, with liquid beneath the surface and a solid inner core. Beneath the planet’s relatively thin crust is a thick, solid layer called the mantle. Between the mantle and the inner core is a fluid layer, the outer core. According to generally accepted theory — the dynamo theory — interactions between the churning, twisting flow of molten material in the outer core and the magnetic field generate electrical current that, in turn, creates new magnetic energy that sustains the field. “The typical lifetime of a magnetic field like Earth’s,” says Glatzmaier, “is several tens of thousands of years. The fact that it’s existed for billions of years means something must be regenerating it all the time.” How do we know if the dynamo theory is right? To the consternation of our desire to understand what’s happening inside the planet we live on, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth is still fiction. There’s no way to penetrate 4,000 miles to Earth’s center, nor to monitor fluid motions or magnetism in the outer core.

The Glatzmaier-Roberts computational model may be the next best thing to a guided tour of inner Earth. While other models have given good clues that theory is on track, they have been limited by a two-dimensional approach that required simplifying assumptions. Roberts and Glatzmaier set out to implement a fully three-dimensional model, based on a computer program Glatzmaier developed over many years, that would allow the complex feedbacks between fluid motion and the magnetic field to evolve on their own — in other words, to be solved “self consistently.”

Their objectives, in retrospect, were modest. “Mainly,” says Roberts, “we wanted to get a geomagnetic field that would maintain itself longer than the decay time. No one’s ever done that in a self-consistent manner.” After nearly a year running almost daily, as allocated computing time was about to expire, the model produced its Eureka moment. By itself, the reversal is strong confirmation of the model, and other details — magnitude and structure of the field — also agree well with surface features of Earth’s field. The simulation also offers precious insight into the dynamics that sustain the magnetic field and generate reversals. Contrary to what anyone guessed till now, the model shows that in the inner core the magnetic field has an opposite polarity from the outer core, and this stabilizes the field against a tendency to reverse more frequently. “No one even dreamed about this,” says Glatzmaier. “That’s the nice thing about a supercomputer. You can just let it do its thing, solve these equations over and over — a large set of variables affecting each other with nonlinear feedback, very hard to figure out. It’s a beautiful problem for a supercomputer, and it’s really exciting to see this structure and dynamics that no one imagined.”

Gary Glatzmaier
email : glatz [at] es.ucsc [dot] edu

Paul Roberts
email : roberts [at] math.ucla [dot] edu

Earth’s Inconstant Magnetic Field / December 29, 2003

Every few years, scientist Larry Newitt of the Geological Survey of Canada goes hunting. He grabs his gloves, parka, a fancy compass, hops on a plane and flies out over the Canadian arctic. Not much stirs among the scattered islands and sea ice, but Newitt’s prey is there–always moving, shifting, elusive. His quarry is Earth’s north magnetic pole. At the moment it’s located in northern Canada, about 600 km from the nearest town: Resolute Bay, population 300, where a popular T-shirt reads “Resolute Bay isn’t the end of the world, but you can see it from here.” Newitt stops there for snacks and supplies–and refuge when the weather gets bad. “Which is often,” he says.

Scientists have long known that the magnetic pole moves. James Ross located the pole for the first time in 1831 after an exhausting arctic journey during which his ship got stuck in the ice for four years. No one returned until the next century. In 1904, Roald Amundsen found the pole again and discovered that it had moved–at least 50 km since the days of Ross. The pole kept going during the 20th century, north at an average speed of 10 km per year, lately accelerating “to 40 km per year,” says Newitt. At this rate it will exit North America and reach Siberia in a few decades.

Keeping track of the north magnetic pole is Newitt’s job. “We usually go out and check its location once every few years,” he says. “We’ll have to make more trips now that it is moving so quickly.” Earth’s magnetic field is changing in other ways, too: Compass needles in Africa, for instance, are drifting about 1 degree per decade. And globally the magnetic field has weakened 10% since the 19th century. When this was mentioned by researchers at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union, many newspapers carried the story. A typical headline: “Is Earth’s magnetic field collapsing?”

Probably not. As remarkable as these changes sound, “they’re mild compared to what Earth’s magnetic field has done in the past,” says University of California professor Gary Glatzmaier. Sometimes the field completely flips. The north and the south poles swap places. Such reversals, recorded in the magnetism of ancient rocks, are unpredictable. They come at irregular intervals averaging about 300,000 years; the last one was 780,000 years ago. Are we overdue for another? No one knows.

According to Glatzmaier, the ongoing 10% decline doesn’t mean that a reversal is imminent. “The field is increasing or decreasing all the time,” he says. “We know this from studies of the paleomagnetic record.” Earth’s present-day magnetic field is, in fact, much stronger than normal. The dipole moment, a measure of the intensity of the magnetic field, is now 8 × 1022 amps × m2. That’s twice the million-year average of 4× 1022 amps × m2. To understand what’s happening, says Glatzmaier, we have to take a trip … to the center of the Earth where the magnetic field is produced.

At the heart of our planet lies a solid iron ball, about as hot as the surface of the sun. Researchers call it “the inner core.” It’s really a world within a world. The inner core is 70% as wide as the moon. It spins at its own rate, as much as 0.2° of longitude per year faster than the Earth above it, and it has its own ocean: a very deep layer of liquid iron known as “the outer core.” Earth’s magnetic field comes from this ocean of iron, which is an electrically conducting fluid in constant motion. Sitting atop the hot inner core, the liquid outer core seethes and roils like water in a pan on a hot stove. The outer core also has “hurricanes”–whirlpools powered by the Coriolis forces of Earth’s rotation. These complex motions generate our planet’s magnetism through a process called the dynamo effect.

Using the equations of magnetohydrodynamics, a branch of physics dealing with conducting fluids and magnetic fields, Glatzmaier and colleague Paul Roberts have created a supercomputer model of Earth’s interior. Their software heats the inner core, stirs the metallic ocean above it, then calculates the resulting magnetic field. They run their code for hundreds of thousands of simulated years and watch what happens. What they see mimics the real Earth: The magnetic field waxes and wanes, poles drift and, occasionally, flip. Change is normal, they’ve learned. And no wonder. The source of the field, the outer core, is itself seething, swirling, turbulent. “It’s chaotic down there,” notes Glatzmaier. The changes we detect on our planet’s surface are a sign of that inner chaos.

They’ve also learned what happens during a magnetic flip. Reversals take a few thousand years to complete, and during that time–contrary to popular belief–the magnetic field does not vanish. “It just gets more complicated,” says Glatzmaier. Magnetic lines of force near Earth’s surface become twisted and tangled, and magnetic poles pop up in unaccustomed places. A south magnetic pole might emerge over Africa, for instance, or a north pole over Tahiti. Weird. But it’s still a planetary magnetic field, and it still protects us from space radiation and solar storms. And, as a bonus, Tahiti could be a great place to see the Northern Lights. In such a time, Larry Newitt’s job would be different. Instead of shivering in Resolute Bay, he could enjoy the warm South Pacific, hopping from island to island, hunting for magnetic poles while auroras danced overhead. Sometimes, maybe, a little change can be a good thing.

Magnetic stripes around mid-ocean ridges reveal the history of Earth’s magnetic field for millions of years. The study of Earth’s past magnetism is called paleomagnetism.

Lava flows reveal clues to magnetic field reversals
BY Jill Sakai / Sept. 25, 2008

Ancient lava flows are guiding a better understanding of what generates and controls the Earth’s magnetic field — and what may drive it to occasionally reverse direction. The main magnetic field, generated by turbulent currents within the deep mass of molten iron of the Earth’s outer core, periodically flips its direction, such that a compass needle would point south rather than north. Such polarity reversals have occurred hundreds of times at irregular intervals throughout the planet’s history — most recently about 780,000 years ago — but scientists are still trying to understand how and why.

A new study of ancient volcanic rocks, reported in the Sept. 26 issue of the journal Science, shows that a second magnetic field source may help determine how and whether the main field reverses direction. This second field, which may originate in the shallow core just below the rocky mantle layer of the Earth, becomes important when the main north-south field weakens, as it does prior to reversing, says Brad Singer, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Singer teamed up with paleomagnetist Kenneth Hoffman, who has been researching field reversals for over 30 years, to analyze ancient lava flows from Tahiti and western Germany in order to study past patterns of the Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetism of iron-rich minerals in molten lava orients along the prevailing field, then becomes locked into place as the lava cools and hardens. “When the lava flows erupt and cool in the Earth’s magnetic field, they acquire a memory of the magnetic field at that time,” says Singer. “It’s very difficult to destroy that in a lava flow once it’s formed. You then have a recording of what the paleofield direction was like on Earth.”

Hoffman, of both California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo and UW-Madison, and Singer are focusing on rocks that contain evidence of times that the main north-south field has weakened, which is one sign that the polarity may flip direction. By carefully determining the ages of these lava flows, they have mapped out the shallow core field during multiple “reversal attempts” when the main field has weakened during the past million years. During those periods of time, weakening of the main field reveals “virtual poles,” regions of strong magnetism within the shallow core field. For example, Singer says, “If you were on Tahiti when those eruptions were taking place, your compass needle would point to not the North Pole, not the South Pole, but Australia.” The scientists believe the shallow core field may play a role in determining whether the main field polarity flips while weakened or whether it recovers its strength without reversing. “Mapping this field during transitional states may hold the key to understanding what happens in Earth’s core when the field weakens to a point where it can actually reverse,” Hoffman says.

Current evidence suggests we are now approaching one of these transitional states because the main magnetic field is relatively weak and rapidly decreasing, he says. While the last polarity reversal occurred several hundred thousand years ago, the next might come within only a few thousand years. “Right now, historic records show that the strength of the magnetic field is declining very rapidly. From a quick back-of-the-envelope prediction, in 1,500 years the field will be as weak as it’s ever been and we could go into a state of polarity reversal,” says Singer. “One broad goal of our research is to provide some predictive capability for what could happen and what could be the signs of the next reversal.”

Bradley Singer
email : bsinger [at] geology.wisc [dot] edu

Kenneth Hoffman
email : khoffman [at] geology.wisc [dot] edu

Ships’ logs give clues to Earth’s magnetic decline
BY Patrick Barry / 11 May 2006

The voyages of Captain Cook have just yielded a new discovery: the gradual weakening of Earth’s magnetic field is a relatively recent phenomenon. The discovery has led experts to question whether the Earth is on track towards a polarity reversal. By sifting through ships’ logs recorded by Cook and other mariners dating back to 1590, researchers have greatly extended the period over which the behaviour of the magnetic field can be studied. The data show that the current decline in Earth’s magnetism was virtually negligible before 1860, but has accelerated since then. Until now, scientists had only been able to trace the magnetic field’s behaviour back to 1837, when Carl Friedrich Gauss invented the first device for measuring the field directly.

The field’s strength is now declining at a rate that suggests it could virtually disappear in about 2000 years. Researchers have speculated that this ongoing change may be the prelude to a magnetic reversal, during which the north and south magnetic pole swap places. But the weakening trend could also be explained by a growing magnetic anomaly in the southern Atlantic Ocean, and may not be the sign of a large scale polarity reversal, the researchers suggest.

Crucial measurements
David Gubbins, an expert in geomagnetism at the University of Leeds, UK, led the study which began scouring old ships’ logs in the 1980s, gathering log entries recording the direction of Earth’s magnetic field. It was common practice for captains in the 17th and 18th centuries to calibrate their ship’s compasses relative to true north and, less often, to measure the steepness at which magnetic field lines entered the Earth’s surface. Even as far back as 1590, these measurements were typically very accurate – to within half a degree. “Their lives depended on it,” Gubbins explains. Such ship-log records may not be adequate for reconstructing the planet’s past magnetic fields in fine detail, but the data can estimate large-scale features quite well. “In that regard, I think it’s a very solid result,” says Catherine Constable, an expert in palaeomagnetism at the University of California, San Diego, US, who was not involved in the study.

Mineral evidence
Using the locations of the ships at the time of measurement, these records allowed Gubbins to construct a map of the relative strength of Earth’s magnetic field between 1590 and 1840, which was published in 2003. The data was combined with 315 estimates of the field’s overall strength during that period, based on indirect clues, such as mineral evidence in bricks from old human settlements or volcanic rock. Gubbins showed that the overall strength of the planet’s magnetic field was virtually unchanged between 1590 and 1840. Since then, the field has declined at a rate of roughly 5% per 100 years. Every 300,000 years on average, the north and south poles of the Earth’s magnetic field swap places. The field must weaken and go to zero before it can reverse itself. The last such reversal occurred roughly 780,000 years ago, so we are long overdue for another magnetic flip. Once it begins, the process of reversing takes less than 5000 years, experts believe.

Growing anomaly
A large-scale reversal might indeed be underway, Gubbins says, but the acceleration of the magnetic decline since the mid-1800s is probably due to a local aberration of the magnetic field called the South Atlantic Anomaly. “It looks like that’s responsible for most of the fall we’re seeing,” he says. This patch of reversed magnetic field lines covering much of South America first appeared in about 1800, according to the ship-log data. It slowly grew in strength, and by about 1860 it was large enough to affect the overall strength of the planet’s magnetic field, Gubbins says. If the field does flip 2000 years from now, the Northern Lights will be visible all over the planet during the transition, and solar radiation at ground level will be much more intense, with no field to deflect it. There is no need to worry, though, argues Gubbins, as our ancestors have lived through quite a few of these transitions already.

David Gubbins
email : d.gubbins [at] [dot] uk

Building a Baby Earth to Test Its Magnetic Field
BY David Kestenbaum / June 2, 2008

The compass has been around since at least the 12th century, but scientists still don’t know exactly how the Earth generates the magnetic field that keeps a compass needle pointing north. But geophysicist Dan Lathrop is trying to find out — by building his own planet. His latest effort at the University of Maryland towers over him, a massive stainless steel sphere that looks like a prop from some old science fiction movie. Later this year he plans to fill it with molten metal and set the whole 26-ton ball spinning. At top speed the equator will whirl by at 80 miles an hour. “It was a little scary the first time we spun it up,” he says. If all goes well, the planet will generate its own magnetic field.

Big Aspirations … and Getting Bigger
Lathrop figures it can’t be too hard to get a magnetic field — after all, most planets in our solar system have one. But while nature has an easy time making magnetic fields, scientists do not. This is Lathrop’s third attempt. “Planets have an advantage because of their size,” he says, “and they’re much more rapidly rotating.” That’s why his quest has taken on gargantuan proportions. Lathrop’s first “planet” was the size of a desktop globe. The second one you could wrap your arms around. The newest one had to be ordered from a company in Ohio that makes heavy-duty items for industry, and the sphere barely fit through the door of the lab when it arrived.

Scientists believe the Earth’s field comes from molten metal churning deep inside its core. If you could dig a deep hole, about 2,000 miles down, you would hit the outer core, which is probably made of liquid iron. That iron can conduct electricity. And if it flows in the right way, it can turn the Earth into what scientists call a dynamo, generating a self-sustaining magnetic field — in Earth’s case, producing one pole up in Canada and another down in Antarctica. Iron only melts at high temperatures, though, so Lathrop’s team will fill his sphere with a different metal — sodium. Sodium becomes liquid at stovetop temperatures and conducts electricity well, but it’s flammable. A sodium fire can’t just be put out with water. Water can actually make things worse — Lathrop’s team has disabled the sprinkler system.

Earth’s Internal Turbulence
If all this seems like a potentially hazardous way to answer an apparently simple question, Lathrop says his team doesn’t have a lot of choice. It’s simply impossible to drill down into the Earth and see what’s going on there. “The conditions of the core are more hostile than the surface of the sun,” he says. “It’s as hot as the surface of the sun but under extremely high pressures. So there’s no way to probe it, no imaginable technique to directly probe the core.” It’s unlikely the iron in the core is flowing in a nice little circle. Lathrop expects a kind of organized turbulence, small eddies and whirls with some overarching larger-scale order and patterns. “The Earth’s magnetic field is anything but simple,” he says, pointing out that the field has flipped directions many times over the ages. Seen over long stretches of time it’s a writhing, spitting thing. The north pole currently wanders around in Canada, and the field’s strength is waning, he says, as if it were readying for a flip. “Every time we go to measure it, it’s different than it was before,” lathrop says. Computer models can’t capture all the complexity of the flow. The whole system likely feeds back on itself — the flowing metal creates a magnetic field, but that field can then exert forces on the iron, changing its flow. This, in turn, can change the field, which will change the flow. Other planet scientists have built physical models that create magnetic fields, but with the help of pipes or other devices to steer the flow. Lathrop wants to let the metal slosh around freely as it does in the Earth.

Set Spinning
After some safety checks, the metal planet is ready for a test drive, without the sodium metal. “Shall we spin?” Lathrop shouts across the lab. One of his colleagues throws a switch and the sphere begins to rotate, slowly at first like a subway car gathering momentum. Then it’s whirling, quietly and stately, its ribbed features sliding by again and again in merry-go-round fashion. Lathrop says this model matches the Earth in some important ways, so he’s hopeful it will create a field. If it doesn’t? “Well,” he says, “then it will teach us something about when planets do and don’t make a magnetic field.” He’s not sure he would make a another larger one, though, if this doesn’t work. “I’m a patient man,” he says, “but not infinitely patient.” Lathrop’s team hopes to get the planet up and running for real later this year.

Daniel Perry Lathrop
email : lathrop [at] umd [dot] edu

Fake Mars Mission Befallen By Real Drama

The Mars Society is a group that prepares for man’s eventual exploration of Mars with simulations in the Utahan desert. But their mission logs, posted regularly on the group’s website, reveal a tension that is very real—and very funny. The two-week simulations, including various experiments and equipment tests, take place at the Mars Desert Research Station, located outside Hanksville, Utah. The volunteers who participate are expected to take the matter very seriously—after all, our future Mars colony depends on it. But of course, some pretend Mars astronauts are more dedicated than other pretend Mars astronauts and this is where the trouble starts. The current team occupying the Research Station, Crew 90, is led by Nancy Vermeulen. According to their “Mission Info” page, they are the first team comprised entirely of Belgians. In the wake of the trouble they’ve been having, it now seems ominous that the last line of their statement reads, “the media is following our project very closely.” Indeed, Geekosystem picked up on the mission and faithfully documented its simmering turmoil. After days of snits and snubs, the tension came to a head on February 15. In that day’s report, Commander Vermeulen explains:

“…The growing frustration that after 9 days PE, Nora and Margaux are still not able to manage the Hab systems/ standard engineering reporting system (and even don’t consider this as a problem!), exploded during the lunch. The lack of dedication to the mission of some people overloads the others and it had to be spoken out. The problem was already there from the first day, when it came out that some people didn’t prepare anything for the mission, didn’t look at the manuals, which were send to them months ago and didn’t even prepare the tasks for their own role. The accusation into my direction that I didn’t brief enough about the systems was too much. Nicky almost exploded. Arjan reacted double: At one hand he couldn’t stop criticising the incompetence of some others during last week, but during the discussion he acted as if he was from Barcelona (don’t know anything). He has his own mission and own world…”

The Commander’s Reports for the last days of the mission, which ended yesterday, obscure the interpersonal conflicts that paralyzed the crew. Only a few bloody noses are referenced, perhaps as physical manifestations of the crew’s frustrations.

What’s the point of a fake 500-day Mars mission?
BY Phil McKenna / 22 October 2009

The European Space Agency is seeking six volunteers to spend 520 days inside a sealed isolation facility to study the psychological effects of a journey to Mars. The 2010 Mars-500 “mission” at the Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow will simulate a round trip to the Red Planet – albeit shorter than the real thing – and follows a similar 105-day study that ended in July. But does spending a year and a half locked inside a tin can on Earth tell us anything about how humans might behave on a high-risk interplanetary odyssey?

How much can Mars-500 be like the real thing?
Once inside the windowless isolation chamber, the team will mimic each stage of a Mars mission – including the journey, landing and return to Earth. A few aspects cannot be simulated, however. There will be no radiation exposure or zero gravity, and if there is a real emergency during the simulation, volunteers will have the right to get out at any time. A study by Peter Suedfeld of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, argues that such experiments lack some key attributes of real long-haul space flight, such as dangerous voyages through unknown territory and the impossibility of rescue. Suedfeld concludes that mission planners would better identify the psychological stresses likely to be experienced by Mars explorers by reading the diaries of explorers on long expeditions over sea and land in previous centuries. Still, there are many things the Mars-500 experiment will reveal that historical records cannot. Volunteers will undergo an array of tests that will monitor stress and hormone levels, immune response and sleep patterns, as well as group dynamics.

What can we learn during 500 days that we can’t from 100?
The 105-day isolation study went off without a hitch, but crew members struggled with boredom and the stresses of a cramped environment. An experiment that lasts five times as long would better demonstrate how a crew would hold up for a 900-day Martian mission.

What other places could inform Mars mission planners?
Some behavioural scientists feel Antarctic research stations or nuclear submarines offer better analogies to prolonged space flight. But although Antarctic outposts have the necessary elements of danger, confinement and isolation, they lack the high level of automation found in space flight. Nuclear submarine control rooms are more like spacecraft, but military secrecy puts them off limits for academic research. A better model may be the experience of astronauts aboard space stations orbiting Earth. Their stays have lasted up to 438 days.

Can humans cope with prolonged space station missions?
By and large, space station missions have gone without incident. However, NASA astronauts on a three-month mission to Skylab in 1973 went on strike for a day saying they felt overworked and unsupported by their ground crew. In 1982, two Soviet cosmonauts spent most of a 211-day flight in silence because they got on each other’s nerves. Three years later, a six-month Soviet mission was cut short when a cosmonaut had a nervous breakdown. Sexual harassment could also endanger a mission. In an eight-month space station simulation in 2000, a man twice tried to kiss a woman against her will. As a result, locks were installed between different crew compartments. Astronauts in orbit often express feelings of neglect by ground crews, in part because of lags in communication and perhaps also because of a need by astronauts to take out their frustrations on others. As a result, ground crews as well as astronauts now receive psychological training.

Earthbound experiment to recreate stress of Mars mission
BY Kelly Young / April 2007

Scientists are being asked to submit research proposals for a 500-day-long study simulating a human mission to Mars. The programme, a joint project between Russia and the European Space Agency, would be the longest simulation of its kind. The 1.5-year Mars-500 simulation is designed to recreate some of the isolation and stresses that crew members might feel on an actual roundtrip to Mars, which would take about twice as long. In late 2008 or early 2009, six people will enter a mock spacecraft in Russia consisting of a series of connected metal tanks. The 200-square-metre ‘spacecraft’ will include a medical area, a research area, a crew compartment and a kitchen. The first leg of the experiment will last about 250 days and will simulate the journey to Mars. Then, part of the crew will enter a special Mars descent vehicle tank for 30 days to simulate a Mars landing. The entire crew will then make the return trip back to Earth. The Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biomedical Problems (IMBP) has already received more than 70 applications for the mission.

Frozen food
ESA will get to choose two crew members for the project, although it has not yet finalised its criteria. ESA scientists plan to start the selection process in June 2007 and pick the participants and the science experiments in October. During the 500-day study, the crew will try to live as a real crew headed to Mars might. At the beginning of the study, they will be given all the food they will ever get on the mission. That means they will largely subsist on frozen meals, though Russia might allow the crew to have a greenhouse to grow fresh produce. Their day-to-day lives will be similar to crew members on the International Space Station, except for the presence of gravity. They will have cleaning, cooking, maintenance and scientific duties. They may even have press conferences with real reporters. “The design will be such you start to forget it is a real simulation,” says Marc Heppener, ESA’s head of science and applications in the directorate of human spaceflight, microgravity and exploration. “People can be completely absorbed by games on the computer. You can go pretty far in a simulation.”

Communications delays
To make it even more realistic, there will be a 20-minute communications delay between people in the spacecraft and “mission control” to simulate the time lag faced by spacecraft far from Earth. The reactions of the “ground controllers” will also be studied. “Just imagine what would happen if you were on the phone and you hear on the other side, ‘Help!’ but you know this ‘Help!’ was uttered 20 minutes ago,” Heppener told New Scientist. “And if you say, ‘What can I do?’ it will be another 20 minutes before they hear you. That’s part of the psychology of this kind of study, and that’s absolutely not trivial.” Scientists might be able to learn how the crew reacts to minor emergencies, such as a water line breaking. As on a real extended space mission, it is likely that at least one crew member will have medical training. But if there is a real emergency during the simulation, “any person has the right to get out”, Heppener says. “However, we want to make sure this only happens in real emergencies.”

Bloody brawls
The extreme isolation and confinement of the simulation will lend important insights into how to design long-duration crewed space missions. “If I imagine myself where I really cannot see home, the planet where I live and where every other human being is, I can imagine that is quite significant,” Heppener says. Russia has conducted shorter simulations in the past and has seen firsthand the issues that arise, including sexual harassment. In an eight-month IMBP simulation in 2000, a Russian man twice tried to kiss a Canadian female researcher after two other Russians had gotten into a bloody brawl. As a result, locks were installed between the Russian and international crews’ quarters (see Out-of-this-world sex could jeopardise missions). The 500-day study will be preceded by one or two 100-day simulations to work out the early kinks. The first 100-day study could begin in early 2008. In conjunction with the Russian study, ESA is also seeking proposals for the French and Italian Concordia research station in Antarctica in the hopes of running two parallel studies in two different isolated settings.

Monotony was ‘most difficult part’ of simulated Mars trip
BY Rachel Courtland / July 2009

A group of volunteers that spent 105 days locked up in a mock spaceship simulating a trip to Mars is finishing up their final tests this week. The programme, which was used to test the psychological and physiological effects of isolation, will pave the way for a longer 520-day mission that will take place in the first half of 2010. Isolation has long been a part of human exploration, both on Earth and in space. But manned trips to Mars could be a challenge for even the most balanced and carefully selected crews, since the missions would involve small crews, tight quarters, years of separation from friends and family, and communications delays that could last up to 40 minutes. To investigate issues that would arise in such situations, the European Space Agency has partnered with the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow to arrange a 105-day simulated mission to Mars. The experiment took place in a multi-floored facility in Moscow that includes a mock spacecraft, a descent vehicle, and a simulation of the Martian surface. On 14 July, a crew of six emerged from the module. Although researchers are still analysing the results of the tests conducted during the simulation and performing follow-up tests on the participants this week, the mission seems to have finished largely without incident. “The most difficult part of the mission was not a single event but more the monotony,” says Oliver Knickel, a mechanical engineer in the German army and a volunteer for the 105-day mission.

Less focused
The bulk of the crew’s working day was occupied by psychological and physiological tests, Knickel told New Scientist. The crew ate astronaut-style pre-packaged meals that were intermittently enhanced by fresh vegetables like radishes and cabbage that the crew grew in a small greenhouse. In his off-time, Knickel passed the time by writing letters, learning Russian, and playing poker and dice with his crewmates. But the isolation and confinement in a cramped space did take its toll. “I had a hard time focusing on the things I was doing,” Knickel told New Scientist, adding that he did not retain newly learned Russian vocabulary words was well as he did back home.

Right chemistry
Crew compatibility is important for the success of future Mars missions. “You have a crew that has to live together and function as a team for a long period of time, and they really can’t leave that environment,” says Jay Buckey, a doctor and former astronaut at Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire. Participant Cyrille Fournier, an airline pilot from France, says there was a good sense of camaraderie over the 3.5 months the six volunteers spent together. “We had an outstanding team spirit throughout the entire 105 days,” he said in a statement. “Living for that long in a confined environment can only work if the crew is really getting along with each other. The crew is the crucial key to mission success, which became very evident to me during the 105 days.”

Self-directed mission
During the mission, the crew had to respond to simulated emergencies and deal with a communication delay of up to 20 minutes each way when talking to ‘ground controllers’ – mimicking the time it takes for radio signals to travel between a Mars-bound spacecraft and Earth. Such communication lags mean that crews would not be able to respond in real-time to commands from the ground and would probably need to function fairly autonomously. Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California in San Francisco, and colleagues used a month in the 105-day experiment to examine what happens when crews are given more freedom to devise their own schedules in order to meet a mission’s overarching goals. This increased autonomy has also been tested in the Haughton-Mars Project in the Canadian Arctic (see What is it like to live in isolation for months on end?) and at an underwater facility called Aquarius off the coast of Florida. In the future, Kanas hopes to perform a similar experiment aboard the International Space Station.

Safe environment
Isolation studies on Earth allow researchers to set up carefully controlled experiments, but they do have a downside. “Ground missions don’t really capture the danger in the space environment. If someone does want to quit, they can just knock on the door and be let out,” Kanas told New Scientist. Not so on a future trip to Mars, says Kanas: “There’s no possibility of support in case of a medical or psychological emergency. You’re really on your own.” To deal with such issues, other researchers, including Buckey, are developing software that would allow astronauts on long missions to act as their own counsellors and conflict negotiators.

In space no one else can hear you scream at each other
BY Hazel Muir / 14 March 2006

It’s the moment every wannabe astronaut dreams of: landing on Mars. Just imagine making that momentous speech as you plant your flag in the red soil, the sun rising behind you over Olympus Mons. Perhaps you’ll find fame as the discoverer of the first subtle signs of alien life. How breathtaking to see the Earth rise in the night sky, just a white dot among millions of others. But there is a flip side. By the time you make that speech, you will have been cooped up inside a metal box for six months. You’ll not talk to your friends or family for another two years. You and your fellow inmates are bound to have survived some hair-raising, potentially fatal crises, and everyone’s nerves will be in tatters. The pilot won’t talk to the engineer. And if that geologist looks at you and rolls his eyes one more time, you’ll punch his lights out. Despite the exciting goals, a crewed mission to Mars would mean enormous psychological stress. Seeing Earth as an anonymous dot could leave you with a profound sense of isolation, according to former astronaut Carl Walz, who spent more than six consecutive months on the International Space Station (ISS). “The impact of not being able to see the Earth while you’re in space is a big deal,” he says. Until we leave Earth far behind, we won’t really know the effects of that.

NASA’s plans for a crewed mission to Mars sometime after 2020 are hugely ambitious. The spacecraft would take four to six months to reach the planet. After 18 months on the surface, the astronauts would take another four to six months to return to Earth, making it by far the longest space mission ever undertaken. NASA will have a tough job on its hands building a spacecraft capable of getting to the Red Planet and back, as well as finding ways to keep the astronauts in good physical shape during such a mammoth trip. The psychological challenges are no less daunting, though psychologists are now beginning to understand what keeps astronauts happy and mentally healthy. “We’ve started to learn a lot about how people really behave in space,” says Nick Kanas, a psychiatrist at the University of California and the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Francisco. “I think we now have some knowledge that we could use to prepare astronauts for a Mars mission.”

NASA has already seen how conflict between astronauts and ground crew can escalate. Feeling overworked and unsupported, astronauts on a three-month mission to the Skylab station in 1973 went on strike for a day. They eventually cleared the air after a heated argument. But such mutinies could be potentially disastrous, especially if they were to happen during some kind of crisis, if the spacecraft went out of control, for example. To head off the possibility of further rebellions, Kanas and his team have spent the past 10 years studying the behaviour of astronauts who spent up to seven months on the now defunct Russian space station Mir, or on the ISS. Eight Russian cosmonauts and five American astronauts took part on Mir, along with four three-person crews and three two-person crews on the ISS, which celebrated its fifth anniversary of continuous habitation in November. Nearly 130 American and Russian mission controllers were involved as well.

During the missions, astronauts and ground controllers completed a weekly questionnaire composed of questions from three standard psychological tests to assess mood, crew interactions and working environment. Given a list of adjectives like “gloomy”, “energetic” and “resentful”, for instance, they would give a score for how strongly they felt that particular emotion. Other questions measured factors such as their views of the group’s cohesiveness and levels of job satisfaction. Kanas’s team was surprised by the crews’ answers. They had expected to see astronauts’ morale decline during the second half of each mission. Psychologists have seen this effect in small isolated groups in Antarctica, when morale would often plummet after the mid-point of the stay, regardless of whether it was five or eight months. “People realise they’ve finally made it to the half-way point, but then it dawns on them that they have a whole other half to go,” says Kanas. “After that, they tend to report increased tension, homesickness and depression, and a drop in the cohesion of the group.” In extreme cases, people become fiercely territorial, so that minor intrusions like borrowing someone’s pen or sitting in “their” chair can ignite a brawl.

But this did not happen on Mir or the ISS. Kanas’s study suggests that astronauts’ morale stays pretty steady unless unusually stressful events occur. “Our subjects did react to events such as a fire or a problem with the oxygen generator,” says Kanas, who reported the results in October at the 56th International Astronautical Congress in Fukuoka, Japan. “In that week, they had slightly more negative emotions than usual. But their morale returned to baseline a week later.” Kanas says the likely reason for the astronauts’ level mood is that ground crew intervene to help astronauts deal with stress and boredom. On Mir, if psychologists sensed that a crew member was feeling low, they would schedule family chats, for instance. Supply missions from Earth also brought the Mir and ISS crews surprises and treats – their favourite foods, or letters and knick-knacks from family and friends – which always perked them up.

But one persistent problem did crop up for both Mir and the ISS. Crew members who reported tension and stress also tended to feel, as the Skylab astronauts did in 1973, that ground control were not supporting them enough – even when there was no clear evidence for this. It is commonly known as “displacement”. “It’s just like when you have a tough day at work,” says Kanas. “Maybe your boss yells at you and you can’t yell back, so you go home and yell at your husband or kick the cat. You displace the anger you’re feeling onto somebody not related.” Frequent, frank communication can help prevent these problems festering. But that’s not going to be easy on a voyage to the Red Planet. Mars lies anything from 3 to 22 light minutes away from the Earth, depending on the orientation of the planets. So to say “hello” and get a reply will take up to three-quarters of an hour. There’s no way around that. Communication will be by email only.

And there won’t be any morale-boosting treats. NASA is considering sending a pod of supplies to arrive on the Martian surface ahead of the crew, but that will be about it. One possibility, though, is that the mother ship could have little compartments with surprises locked inside, and the ground crew could email codes to the astronauts to unlock them. “That is a very good idea because it’s an extension of the kinds of supportive activities we think have worked,” says Kanas. Nonetheless, he says, there will be a high risk of so-called adjustment reactions occurring as the mission drags on. Full-blown psychoses such as schizophrenia, paranoia and hallucinations have not been reported on space missions – not overtly, anyway – probably because potential astronauts with a family history of such problems are unlikely to make it past the selection process. But astronauts can become anxious and depressed, or suffer anxiety-induced psychosomatic ailments. Legend has it that one Russian mission was terminated early because a crew member had anxiety-induced heart palpitations.

These problems can only get worse on a trip to Mars. Isolation might seem overpowering to them as the Earth shrinks to a tiny dot among millions of others in the inky black sky. And there will be no quick escape route. “If someone gets depressed or suicidal, you can’t send them back very easily,” says Kanas. For this reason, he says it will be essential for the crew to have access to psychoactive drugs and to multitask. For example, the first mission will probably consist of six crew, including a pilot, an engineer, a biologist and a geologist. The other two might be a physicist and a doctor – should the doctor get sick, for instance, the biologist may be able to act in his or her place. It is the make-up and functioning of the group as a whole that interests Rachael Eggins, a psychologist at the Australian National University in Canberra. Since 2002, she and her colleagues have been monitoring volunteers at Mars simulation stations funded by the US Mars Society and the Mars Society of Australia.

The centrepiece of each station in the Utah desert and in the outback in Southern Australia, is an 8-metre-wide cylindrical habitat, or hab. Crews of four to six volunteers – mainly scientists and engineers, including many astronaut-wannabes – live there typically for two or three weeks. They live and work as if they were on Mars, testing reconnaissance robots and collecting rocks in mock spacesuits. They also send reports to a simulated “mission control” in a nearby city or support organisation. During Eggins’s studies, the volunteers completed questionnaires to assess their interactions with others. This revealed that people tend to cluster into cliques that often put their own goals ahead of the whole mission’s objectives. This led to a mishap in a Utah simulation in 2003, when the group split into three teams. One stayed in the hab, and two went out on separate rover trips, returning at about the same time. One person in the second rover damaged his helmet and was theoretically leaking oxygen. “It was obvious to everybody that in theory, if this was really Mars, then this guy would die,” says Eggins. However, the first team insisted on getting into the hab first and told the others to wait their turn, she says: “The first team were not thinking at all in terms of the overall goal of the mission, just of their own rights and the distinct subgroup.”

In another Utah simulation last summer, Eggins’s colleague Sheryl Bishop of the University of Texas in Galveston studied the differences between an all-male crew, who lived in the hab for two weeks, and an all-female crew who moved in for the following fortnight. Both teams performed well and were very productive, but they did differ. Personality surveys showed that several of the men scored low on “agreeableness” and “conscientiousness”, and the group’s behaviour echoed this. Every night, the women filed daily reports to mission control by the agreed time. But the men were persistently late. They said they preferred to use the time to explore outside on the buggies.

Cabin fever
And while the leader of the men’s team emailed the women’s team to say that they would give up the sleeping quarters for the handover night when the women arrived, some men were reluctant to do so. They had made a pact to hold out. “The men’s team had far more individualistic personalities, with a greater degree of concern for personal priorities,” says Bishop, who announced the preliminary findings at October’s International Astronautical Congress in Fukuoka. Bishop stresses that you cannot generalise from these results because the groups were too small and their membership was uncontrolled. It would also be absurd to compare risk-free fortnightly forays into the Utah desert to the trials of a three-year mission to Mars, when mistakes and communication breakdowns could be fatal.

The psychologists do say that such simulations can nonetheless highlight problems that might crop up. Many issues grow into confrontation within weeks, and psychologists can test their own abilities to detect conflicts in the making. They can also measure the success of interventions like psychological training, or changing the group compositions, leadership structures or environment. “If we see things that are problematical in small groups of short duration, you can bet those issues will be even more problematical for longer duration missions,” says Bishop. “Our teams to Mars had better be getting along very well indeed before we put them into a rocket for launch.”

Kanas says the most useful test of potential Martian astronauts will be to watch them in training – ideally on the ISS and possibly the moon, where NASA intends to send astronauts from 2015. “You could put the astronauts selected for Mars on the space station for a while and see how they get along in microgravity, which would model the trip out to Mars and back,” he says. “Then you could put them on the moon and totally isolate them in a foreign environment with no oxygen outside and partial gravity. That would be a good model for being on the Martian surface.” He also thinks it is vital to give the Martian astronauts and their ground controllers rigorous psychological training. Kanas has explained issues like the displacement problem on Mir to astronauts bound for the ISS. When they got back from the stay, some astronauts said this knowledge helped them to spot the problem developing and to nip it in the bud.

Kanas will test-drive more formal psychological training during future missions to the ISS. He and his colleagues will sit down with astronauts and their ground controllers prior to the launch to discuss the social and psychological pitfalls. Shortly after their arrival on the station, and half-way through the mission, a 30-minute computer session will give the astronauts a “booster shot”, reminding them what they learned. Questionnaires and post-flight interviews should reveal which aspects of the training are helpful. “This is my chance to apply directly what we’ve learned,” says Kanas. He thinks that with enough forethought given to their wellbeing, the Martian crew could be as happy as Larry. After all, happiness is relative. His studies show that on average, astronauts have lower scores for negative emotions like anxiety and depression than their colleagues back in mission control. The ground controllers in turn are more positive than the rest of us, in our offices, shops and factories. Perhaps space cadets could teach us all a thing or two.

Volunteers line up for simulated mission to Mars
BY Kelly Young / August 2006

More than 70 people have volunteered to be confined in a mock mission to Mars – for 520 days. It would be the longest simulation of its kind. The Institute of Medical and Biological Problems (IMBP) in Russia is undertaking the isolation study to learn more about the personal dynamics of long-duration space travel, according to Russian media reports. An actual round-trip mission to Mars could last about 30 months – about twice as long as this simulation. Five people will be eventually be selected for the study. They will spend 250 days on a simulated space trip to Mars. Then, three of the five will leave the mock spaceship for a simulated “landing on Mars” that will last 30 days. The five participants will then embark on a 240-day journey “back to Earth”. They will communicate with mission control by email. Russia and the European Space Agency have done space isolation studies before. In these studies, researchers accurately reproduce the interior environment of a spaceship and the length of time crews would spend in space.

Sex and violence
And the outcomes have not always been pleasant. In an eight-month simulation carried out by the IMBP in 2000, a Russian man twice tried to kiss a Canadian female researcher after two other Russians had gotten into a bloody brawl. As a result, locks were subsequently installed between the Russian and international crews’ compartments. Despite such conflicts, simulations of this type can lack a sense of danger, which is critical to understanding how people respond emotionally, says David Musson, a behavioural scientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. He says working in Antarctica and in submarines may provide better models of the long-term isolation experienced in space. “An Antarctic shack doesn’t look as much like a space station,” Musson told New Scientist. “But the isolation is more real, and the danger is more real.”

Subject selection
The simulations may also lack some of the appeal that draws people to spaceflight, so researchers may end up studying a different group of people than those who would actually fly on a space mission, he says. The IMBP has tried to minimise this issue by using cosmonauts and astronaut candidates in the past. And they are giving preference in this simulation to applicants who are doctors, biologists and engineers between the ages of 25 and 50. But Musson says a long-duration space mission may take a different type of astronaut than those who go on shorter trips to space. He points out that on the International Space Station and on Russia’s former Mir space station, some of the go-getter astronauts with multiple academic degrees found themselves bored by some of the mundane tasks onboard. Musson says someone with a more laidback personality might be better suited for a long-duration mission to Mars. These would be “mystery book [readers] who are quite happy not being pushed to their mental limit every day but are extremely bright and competent”.

Cultural differences
When planning a study like this, Musson says psychologists tend to want to see people with conflicting personalities while the politicians and organisers of the project just want things to go smoothly. So far, the IMBP reports it has received applications from 16 nations. An international crew should make the simulation more realistic, as it sets up an environment for potential conflict and misunderstandings due to cultural and linguistic differences. Jack Stuster, vice president and principal scientist of Anacapa Sciences in Santa Barbara, California, US, says realistic simulations are useful for understanding the interpersonal dynamics of long-duration spaceflight. “I believe that simulations of the duration mentioned will eventually be necessary preparation for planetary exploration,” he told New Scientist.



How Do You Get Plants To Grow On Mars? Relieve Their Anxiety / Aug. 8, 2005

Anxiety can be a good thing. It alerts you that something may be wrong, that danger may be close. It helps initiate signals that get you ready to act. But, while an occasional bit of anxiety can save your life, constant anxiety causes great harm. The hormones that yank your body to high alert also damage your brain, your immune system and more if they flood through your body all the time. Plants don’t get anxious in the same way that humans do. But they do suffer from stress, and they deal with it in much the same way. They produce a chemical signal — superoxide (O2-) — that puts the rest of the plant on high alert. Superoxide, however, is toxic; too much of it will end up harming the plant.

This could be a problem for plants on Mars. According to the Vision for Space Exploration, humans will visit and explore Mars in the decades ahead. Inevitably, they’ll want to take plants with them. Plants provide food, oxygen, companionship and a patch of green far from home. On Mars, plants would have to tolerate conditions that usually cause them a great deal of stress — severe cold, drought, low air pressure, soils that they didn’t evolve for. But plant physiologist Wendy Boss and microbiologist Amy Grunden of North Carolina State University believe they can develop plants that can live in these conditions. Their work is supported by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts.

Stress management is key: Oddly, there are already Earth creatures that thrive in Mars-like conditions. They’re not plants, though. They’re some of Earth’s earliest life forms–ancient microbes that live at the bottom of the ocean, or deep within Arctic ice. Boss and Grunden hope to produce Mars-friendly plants by borrowing genes from these extreme-loving microbes. And the first genes they’re taking are those that will strengthen the plants’ ability to deal with stress. Ordinary plants already possess a way to detoxify superoxide, but the researchers believe that a microbe known as Pyrococcus furiosus uses one that may work better. P. furiosus lives in a superheated vent at the bottom of the ocean, but periodically it gets spewed out into cold sea water. So, unlike the detoxification pathways in plants, the ones in P. furiosus function over an astonishing 100+ degree Celsius range in temperature. That’s a swing that could match what plants experience in a greenhouse on Mars.

The researchers have already introduced a P. furiosus gene into a small, fast-growing plant known as arabidopsis. “We have our first little seedlings,” says Boss. “We’ll grow them up and collect seeds to produce a second and then a third generation.” In about one and a half to two years, they hope to have plants that each have two copies of the new genes. At that point they’ll be able to study how the genes perform: whether they produce functional enzymes, whether they do indeed help the plant survive, or whether they hurt it in some way, instead. Eventually, they hope to pluck genes from other extremophile microbes — genes that will enable the plants to withstand drought, cold, low air pressure, and so on.

The goal, of course, is not to develop plants that can merely survive Martian conditions. To be truly useful, the plants will need to thrive: to produce crops, to recycle wastes, and so on. “What you want in a greenhouse on Mars,” says Boss, “is something that will grow and be robust in a marginal environment.” In stressful conditions, notes Grunden, plants often partially shut down. They stop growing and reproducing, and instead focus their efforts on staying alive–and nothing more. By inserting microbial genes into the plants, Boss and Grunden hope to change that. “By using genes from other sources,” explains Grunden, “you’re tricking the plant, because it can’t regulate those genes the way it would regulate its own. We’re hoping to [short-circuit] the plant’s ability to shut down its own metabolism in response to stress.”

If Boss and Grunden are successful, their work could make a huge difference to humans living in marginal environments here on Earth. In many third-world countries, says Boss, “extending the crop a week or two when the drought comes could give you the final harvest you need to last through winter. If we could increase drought resistance, or cold tolerance, and extend the growing season, that could make a big difference in the lives of a lot of people.” Their project is a long-term one, emphasize the scientists. “It’ll be a year and a half before we actually have [the first gene] in a plant that we can test,” points out Grunden. It’ll be even longer before there’s a cold- and drought-loving tomato plant on Mars–or even in North Dakota. But Grunden and Boss remain convinced they will succeed. “There’s a treasure trove of extremophiles out there,” says Grunden. “So if one doesn’t work, you can just go on to the next organism that produces a slightly different variant of what you want.” Boss agrees: “Amy’s right. It is a treasure trove. And it’s just so exciting.”

Wendy Boss
email : wendy_boss [at] ncsu [dot] edu

Amy M. Grunden
email : amy_grunden [at] ncsu [dot] edu


Plants and animals are fragile life forms. Dry them out, freeze them, expose them to high doses of radiation – they don’t do so well. But not all organisms are so picky. Many archaeans, for example, are distinguished by their ability to adapt to a variety of extreme environments. It’s in their genes. Archaeans are single-celled organisms. Under a microscope they look like bacteria. But genetically they’re as different from bacteria as you are. May of them are also extremophiles. They thrive under conditions that, until the 1970s, biologists thought were completely inhospitable to life. How do they do it? With a kind of genetic band-aid. Their DNA produces chemicals (enzymes) that repair the cell damage caused by environmental stresses.

There are plenty of harsh environments for life here on Earth. But when it comes to environmental stress, Mars has a corner on the market. The average temperature on the martian surface is about -63 C (-81 F); the atmosphere is a mere wisp of a thing, some 100 times thinner than Earth’s; the planet is dry as a bone; and the surface is bathed in damaging ultraviolet radiation. Some day humans will travel to Mars. Not only will they have to protect themselves from Mars’ harsh conditions, they’ll need to protect the food they grow, as well. The obvious solution would be to build greenhouses that provide Earth-like growing conditions. But that would require a tremendous expenditure of precious energy resources. Another solution would to modify the plants so that they grow under martian conditions.

That’s the challenge that Amy Grunden, an assistant professor of microbiology, and Wendy Boss, a botany professor, both at North Carolina State University, have set for themselves. They want to find out whether, by inserting genes from extremophile archaeans into plants, they can teach the plants to resist stress the way the archaeans do. Plant cells respond to stressors like cold or dehydration by creating a burst of superoxide, a toxic form of oxygen. Making poison may seem like an odd way to handle stress, but, explains Boss, “It’s a signaling mechanism. You get a small burst of reactive oxygen that tells the cell, Look, mount a defense, fight.'” But that can’t last forever. “Plants can lose a few cells and it doesn’t bother them,” says Boss. But if the stress – and the toxic oxygen – continues, “eventually the whole plant will die.”

Extremophile archaeans have found a way to deal with oxidative stress. They produce antioxidants. Through a series of chemical reactions, they turn superoxide into a more benign substance: water. These chemical reactions are initiated by enzymes, and the instructions for creating these enzymes are encoded in the organisms’ DNA. One organism capable of performing this feat is Pyrococcus furiosus, which makes its home in the boiling waters of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Given its super-hot environment you might think that Pyrococcus furiosus is constantly producing antioxidants. But actually, when the organism is basking in the heat of the vent, there’s no oxygen present. It’s when cells get spewed out into cold sea water, where oxygen is present, that the antioxidant action takes place. “It’s been adapted to deal with oxygen at low temperature because that’s when it sees it, when it gets in the cold sea water,” says Grunden.

Several different enzymes are required to convert superoxide to water. What Grunden and Boss have been working on is injecting the genes that produce these enzymes into plants – actually, into a clump of tobacco cells in a Petri dish. So far, they have succeeded in transferring the gene that performs the first step in the detoxifying process; it produces the enzyme that converts superoxide to the less-toxic hydrogen peroxide. The tobacco cells not only survived the “invasion,” they produced the desired enzyme. Boss and Grunden are now in the process of adding a second gene, which produces an enzyme that converts hydrogen peroxide to water.

The entire archaeal stress-reduction process involves a total of four genes. The researchers plan to work their way up to this four-gene cocktail, one gene at a time. Then they’re going to try adding a gene from a bacterium, Colwellia psychrerythraea, which thrives at temperatures below freezing. Their goal is to produce a plant that can withstand the stress of freezing temperatures. “What we’re doing with having introduced the Pyrococcus gene is laying the foundation for being able to get over the initial shock of the extreme conditions. Now what we need to do is start adapting the plant to deal with the cold temperature conditions that you see on Mars,” says Grunden. Eventually, they hope to add genes for surviving under low-pressure and low-water conditions as well. “The Mars environment represents a multiple-stress condition.”

No-one has ever tried to do this before. And it may not work. “We may find that when we put the whole pathway in, the cell just drops dead like that, because it doesn’t like all these foreign genes,” Boss says. And then there’s always the danger that these modified plants, if they got released into the wild, could have a negative impact on forest land or crops. Boss counters that their experiments are being kept strictly under lab-safe conditions. “We are not intending to put them out in the public,” she says. “Nothing is escaping.” But Boss also sees potential benefit of the work that she and Grunden are doing. Eventually, she says, their experiments may result in crops that can “grow on poor soil with low water.” Such crops might, for example. help people survive a drought. “I really hope that this in four years will have a positive impact on agriculture, maybe even human health. Who knows? Maybe we can grow something from archaea in plants that will cure some disease.… There’s just so much biology that’s untapped out there. And these archaea make some interesting compounds. Maybe we need more of them.”

“a robotic greenhouse concept that is specially designed to help the future exploration and expanding population in the Mars. This intelligent robot can carry and take well care of a plant inside its glass container, which is functionally mounted on its four-legged pod. The robot is designed to learn the optimal process of searching for nutrients in order to keep the plant in a good condition. Moreover, it can send reports of its movements and developments to its fellow greenhouse robots through wireless communication, making it possible to learn from each other.”

Could Robotic Ants Build Homes On Mars Before We Arrive? / Oct. 27, 2008

Recent discoveries of water and Earth-like soil on Mars have set imaginations running wild that human beings may one day colonise the Red Planet. However, the first inhabitants might not be human in form at all, but rather swarms of tiny robots. “Small robots that are able to work together could explore the planet. We now know there is water and dust so all they would need is some sort of glue to start building structures, such as homes for human scientists,” says Marc Szymanski, a robotics researcher at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. Szymanski is part of a team of European researchers developing tiny autonomous robots that can co-operate to perform different tasks, much like termites, ants or bees forage collaboratively for food, build nests and work together for the greater good of the colony. Working in the EU-funded I-SWARM project, the team created a 100-strong posse of centimetre-scale robots and made considerable progress toward building swarms of ant-sized micro-bots. Several of the researchers have since gone on to work on creating swarms of robots that are able to reconfigure themselves and assemble autonomously into larger robots in order to perform different tasks. Their work is being continued in the Symbrion and Replicator projects that are funded under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme.

Planet exploration and colonisation are just some of a seemingly endless range of potential applications for robots that can work together, adjusting their duties depending on the obstacles they face, changes in their environment and the swarm’s needs. “Robot swarms are particularly useful in situations where you need high redundancy. If one robot malfunctions or is damaged it does not cause the mission to fail because another robot simply steps in to fill its place,” Szymanski explains. That is not only useful in space or in deep-water environments, but also while carrying out repairs inside machinery, cleaning up pollution or even carrying out tests and applying treatments inside the human body – just some of the potential applications envisioned for miniature robotics technology.

Creating collective perception
Putting swarming robots to use in a real-world environment is still, like the vision of colonising Mars, some way off. Nonetheless, the I-SWARM team did forge ahead in building robots that come close to resembling a programmable ant. Just as ants may observe what other ants nearby are doing, follow a specific individual, or leave behind a chemical trail in order to transmit information to the colony, the I-SWARM team’s robots are able to communicate with each other and sense their environment. The result is a kind of collective perception. The robots use infrared to communicate, with each signalling another close by until the entire swarm is informed. When one encounters an obstacle, for example, it would signal others to encircle it and help move it out of the way.

A group of robots that the project team called Jasmine, which are a little bigger than a two-euro coin, use wheels to move around, while the smallest I-SWARM robots, measuring just three millimetres in length, move by vibration. The I-SWARM robots draw power from a tiny solar cell, and the Jasmine machines have a battery. “Power is a big issue. The more complex the task, the more energy is required. A robot that needs to lift something [uses] powerful motors and these need lots of energy,” Szymanski notes, pointing to one of several challenges the team have encountered. Processing power is another issue. The project had to develop special algorithms to control the millimetre-scale robots, taking into account the limited capabilities of the tiny machine’s onboard processor: just eight kilobytes of program memory and two kilobytes of RAM, around a million times less than most PCs.

Tests proved that the diminutive robots were able to interact, though the project partners were unable to meet their goal of producing a thousand of them in what would have constituted the largest swarm of the smallest autonomous robots ever created anywhere in the world. Nonetheless, Szymanski is confident that the team is close to being able to mass produce the tiny robots, which can be made much like computer chips out of flexible printed circuit boards and then folded into shape. “They’re kind of like miniature origami,” he says. Simple, mass production would ensure that the robots are relatively cheap to manufacture. Researchers would therefore not have to worry if one gets lost in the Martian soil. The I-SWARM project received funding under the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research.

Marc Szymanski
email : szymanski [at] ira.uka [dot] de


The US space agency needs your help to explore Mars. A Nasa website called “Be A Martian” allows users to play games while at the same time sorting through hundreds of thousands of images of the Red Planet. The number of pictures returned by spacecraft since the 1960s is now so big that scientists cannot hope to study them all by themselves. The agency believes that by engaging the public in the analysis as well, many more discoveries will be made. The new citizen-science website went live on Tuesday at The site is just the latest to use crowdsourcing as a tool to do science. Players at Be A Martian can earn points in one game by helping Nasa examine and organize the images into a more complete map of the planet. Another game gets users to count impact craters to help scientists understand better the relative age of rocks on Mars’ surface.

Nasa hopes the mix of real data and fun will also inspire the planetary scientists of tomorrow. “We really need the next generation of explorers,” says Michelle Viotti, from the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which oversees Mars missions. “And we’re also accomplishing something important for Nasa. There’s so much data coming back from Mars. Having a wider crowd look at the data, classify it and help understand its meaning is very important.” Software giant Microsoft has been a major contributor to the technology powering Be A Martian. The website was built on the Microsoft Windows Azure Platform, using the company’s Silverlight interface and its “Dallas” service to house all the information. “The beauty of this type of experience is that it not only teaches people about Mars and the work Nasa is doing there, but it also engages a large group of people to help solve real challenges that computers cannot solve by themselves,” said Marc Mercuri from Microsoft.


Most of Antarctica has about 2 1/2 miles of ice covering it, and that cold, white wasteland is what most people picture when they think of the South Pole. But a series of dry valleys in Antarctica, about 4,000 kilometers square, have no ice on them at all. The moisture is sucked from the dry valleys by a rain shadow effect — winds rushing over them at speeds up to 200/mph — leaving a bizarre and fascinating landscape, which looks more like Mars than the rest of our planet. Lacking the resources (or cojones) to go there myself, these photos are by scientists and researchers who’ve been there, and are included as part of galleries on the McMurdo Dry Valleys Management Area website. The Valleys have been carved out by glaciers that have retreated, exposing valley floors and walls that typically have a top layer of boulders, gravel and pebbles, which are weathered and wind-sorted. Lower layers are largely cemented together by ice. Unusual surface deposits include marine sediments, ash, and sand dunes.

Antarctic Research Helps Shed Light On Climate Change On Mars / Sep 01, 2008

Researchers examining images of gullies on the flanks of craters on Mars say they formed as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago and in sites once occupied by glaciers. The features are eerily reminiscent of gullies formed in Antarctica’s mars-like McMurdo Dry Valleys. The parallels between the Martian gullies and those in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys were made using the latest high-resolution images and technology from satellites orbiting Mars to observe key details of their geological setting.

On Mars, the gullies appear to originate from cirque-like features high on pole-facing crater-interior walls, especially those within the Newton crater, 40 degrees south, examined for the study. In addition to the cirque-like features, the evidence cited for former glaciation includes bowl-shaped depressions fringed by lobate, viscous-flow deposits that extend well out onto the crater floor. “These bowl-shaped depressions reflect the former location of relatively pure glacier ice,” noted David R. Marchant, an Associate Professor of Earth Sciences at Boston University, and co-author of the study published in the August 25th issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with James W. Head of Brown University, lead author, and Mikhail A. Kreslavsky of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

As conditions on Mars shifted toward reduced snowfall at this site, clean ice on the crater wall sublimated, leaving a hole, whereas ice containing appreciable rock-fall debris out on the crater floor became covered with thin rubble, preventing complete volatile loss. But even as the last glaciers vanished, minor snow likely continued to fall. “This late-stage snow could accumulate in depressions on the crater wall and, in favorable microclimate settings, melt to produce the observed gullies and fans,” said Marchant. “The results”, he said, “are exciting because they establish a spatial link between recent gullies and accumulation of glacier ice, strengthening the case for surface melt water flow in the formation of gullies on Mars”.

Other candidate processes include dry debris flows and melting of shallow ground ice, but the sequence of events demonstrating recent snowfall in Newton Crater make surface melting of snow banks an appealing choice. In fact, both Marchant and Head have observed similar processes at work in the development of modern gullies within some of the coldest and driest regions of Antarctica. The authors conclude that changes in the rate and accumulation of snow in Newton Crater are likely related to changes in the inclination of Mars’ spin access, or obliquity.

At obliquities even greater than those postulated for glaciation of Newton Crater, the same authors and colleagues postulated even larger-scale mountain glaciation near the equator, on and extending out from the Tharsis volcanoes. The evidence suggests a link between obliquity, mid-latitude glaciation, and gully formation on Mars. Rather than being a dead planet, the new data are consistent with dynamic climate change on Mars, and with episodes of alpine glaciation and melt water formation in the recent past that rival modern alpine glaciation and gully formation in the coldest and driest mountains of Antarctica.

Our brains can’t handle all our Facebook friends
BY Chris Gourlay / January 24, 2010

WE may be able to amass 5,000 friends on Facebook but humans’ brains are capable of managing a maximum of only 150 friendships, a study has found. Robin Dunbar, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, has conducted research revealing that while social networking sites allow us to maintain more relationships, the number of meaningful friendships is the same as it has been throughout history.

Dunbar developed a theory known as “Dunbar’s number” in the 1990s which claimed that the size of our neocortex — the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language — limits us to managing social circles of around 150 friends, no matter how sociable we are. These are relationships in which a person knows how each friend relates to every other friend. They are people you care about and contact at least once a year. Dunbar derived the limit from studying social groupings in a variety of societies — from neolithic villages to modern office environments. He found that people tended to self-organise in groups of around 150 because social cohesion begins to deteriorate as groups become larger.

Dunbar is now studying social networking websites to see if the “Facebook effect” has stretched the size of social groupings. Preliminary results suggest it has not. “The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world,” said Dunbar. “People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they’re unlikely to be bigger than anyone else’s. “There is a big sex difference though … girls are much better at maintaining relationships just by talking to each other. Boys need to do physical stuff together.” Dunbar’s study is due to be published later this year.


Your brain is hard wired to pay attention to about 150 people. Try to have a relationship with any more than that, and your life will turn to pure crap. Just ask the Military, Gore-Tex, or Krippendorf’s tribe. They’ll all tell you the same thing. One fifty is the way to go. They’ve known for hundreds of years that people work best in groups of 150 or less. Now it’s your turn. The human cortex, responsible for complex thought and reasoning, is overgrown in humans when compared to other mammals. Scientists have argued for years about why this is the case.

One theory holds that our brains evolved because our primate ancestors began to gather food in more complex ways. They began eating fruit instead of grasses and leaves. This involved traveling long distances to find food, and required each species to maintain a complex mental map in order to keep track of fruit trees. More brainpower might have been needed to determine if a fruit was ripe, or to discern proper methods for peeling fruit or cracking nuts. The problem with this theory is that if one tries to match brain size with the eating habits of primates, it doesn’t work. Some small-brained monkeys are eating fruit and maintaining complex maps and some larger brained primates are eating leaves. What does work, apparently, is group size. If one examines any species of primate, the larger their neocortex, the larger the average size of the group they live with.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has done some of the most interesting research in this area. Dunbar’s argument is that as brains evolve, they become larger in order to handle the unique complexities of larger social groups. Humans socialize the largest social groups because we have the largest cortex. Dunbar has developed an equation, which works for most primates, in which he plugs in what he calls the neocortex ratio of a particular species – the size of the neocortex relative to the size of the brain – and the equation gives us the maximum expected group size for each species. For humans, the max group size is 147.8, or about 150. This figure seems to represent the maximum amount of people that we can have a real social relationship with – knowing who another human is and how they relate to us.

Dunbar has gone through anthropological literature and found that the number 150 pops up over and over again. For example, he looked at 21 different hunger-gatherer societies around the world and found that the average number of people in each village was 148.4. The same pattern holds true for military organization. Over the years, through trial and error, military planners have arrived at a rule of thumb for the size of a functional fighting unit – 200 men. They have realized that it is quite difficult to make any larger a group than this to function as a unit without complicated hierarchies and rules and regulations and formal measures to insure loyalty and unity within the group. With a group of 150 or so, formalities are not necessary. Behavior can be controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts. With larger groups, this seems impossible.

Further is the religious group known as the Hutterites, who for hundreds of years, through trial and error, have realized that the maximum size for a colony should be, low and behold, 150 people. They’ve been following this rule for centuries. Every time a colony approaches this number, the colony is divided into two separate colonies. They have found that once a group becomes larger than that, “people become strangers to one another.” At 150, the Hutterites believe, something happens that somehow changes the community seemingly overnight. At 150 the colony with spontaneously begin dividing into smaller “clans.” When this happens a new colony is formed.

Another good example of our hard wired social limits is Gore Associates, a privately held multimillion-dollar company responsible for creating Gore-Tex fabric and all sorts of other high tech computer cables, filter bags, semiconductors, pharmaceutical, and medical products. What is most unique about this company is that each company plant is no larger than 150. When constructing a plant, they put 150 spaces in the parking lot, and when people start parking on the grass, they know it’s time for another plant. Each plant works as a group. There are no bosses. No titles. Salaries are determined collectively. No organization charts, no budgets, no elaborate strategic plans. Wilbert Gore – the late founder of the company, found through trial and error that 150 employees per plant was most ideal. “We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty,” he told an interviewer some years ago.

Take a lesson from this. If you are engaged in a large enterprise or are planning to work for one, realize that large groups rapidly reduce the efficiency of an operation. If each department is separated, especially if there are hundreds or thousands of people involved, complex systems of organizations will be required to keep everyone in check. Peer pressure is much more powerful than the somehow vague concept of a boss or punishment. People will work only hard enough not to get fired in a very large group, but will live up to the expectations of their peers in smaller groups where they have a personal relationship with each of their co-workers. Of course, a small group size is not by any means a guarantee of success. Small enterprises fail all the time. It’s just a concept — an idea to keep in the back of your mind as you vegetate in that basement cubicle.

The ultimate brain teaser / August 2003

Relative to their body size, monkeys, apes and humans have unusually big brains. It has been suggested that this reflects the complexity of their social lives. This hypothesis is gaining support thanks to ground-breaking research by a University of Liverpool scientist, whose methods have been taken up by primate researchers around the world. These same methods could soon shed light on the story of human evolution. Judged by our genomes, there’s surprisingly little difference between humans and chimps: 95% of our DNA is similar, making chimps our closest ape ‘cousins’. Judged by most other measures, there are significant distinctions between the two species. So, how did humans come to be so different to chimps and other apes?

Clearly, brain size plays a crucial role: all primates have big brains relative to their body size, but human brains are disproportionately large. It’s a phenomenon whose origins date back two million years, when the brain size of some of our hominid ancestors started to increase exponentially. Why did these changes take place in primates in general, and humans so particularly? Over the years, scientists have proposed a range of possible explanations. One intriguing suggestion is that primates’ brain size reflects the complexity of their social lives. Primate social systems are much more complex than other species’, routinely involving the formation of coalitions and tactical deceptions – so primates need larger brains to accommodate the computational demands of such complex behaviour. Over the past decade, a Liverpool University scientist has subjected this ‘social brain’ hypothesis to rigorous tests. His methods have been taken up by primate researchers around the world – and soon they will be shedding extraordinary light on the story of human evolution.

Innovative Models
Professor Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist with an interest in the behavioural ecology of primates – in the interrelations between primates and their environment. Based in the School of Biological Sciences, he is widely known for developing innovative systems models of the socio-ecology of primates, using equations similar to those deployed by economists to model national economies. “Scientists around the world have recorded a huge amount of quantitative information on primates”, he explains. “There’s environmental, demographic and anatomical data, data on diet composition, on the time devoted to foraging, feeding, grooming and so on. “We extracted certain types of data relating to monkeys and apes, and used a series of regression equations to describe the relationships between the different variables. We then combined these various components into a single, integrated systems model for each species. These models enable us to identify defining behavioural characteristics – for instance, limits on the social group size of a particular species and how this varies according to habitat.” Demonstrating that there is, for instance, a species-specific a limit on social group size is one thing; finding a robust explanation for this is another thing altogether.

Significant correlations
The social brain hypothesis suggests that socio-ecological characteristics like this are related to brain size. Robin Dunbar decided to test this hypothesis. He started by focussing on two specific measures of primate social complexity – social group size and grooming clique size. “In primate species, total group sizes may be quite large”, he explains, “but individual primates usually belong to a smaller social sub-group, on which they rely for support when conflicts break out. The number of regular grooming partners they have may be much smaller, though. For instance, chimps belong to social groups comprising about 50 individuals, but they have only two or three grooming partners.”

Robin Dunbar used the volume of the neocortex – the ‘thinking’ part of the brain – as his measure of brain size, because this accounts for most of the brain’s expansion within primates. He found that both measures of social complexity correlated with relative neocortex volume in primate species. Subsequently, he predicted the social group size of some other monkey and ape species from their neocortex volumes – with impressive accuracy. Thanks to his ground-breaking work, and the follow-on studies which it stimulated, numerous features of primate social behaviour can now be predicted from neocortex volume – from the time devoted to social interaction, the level of social skills and the degree of tactical deception practiced to community and coalition size. We can also predict when social groups will split up because their size is unsustainable; Robin Dunbar’s research shows that the volume of the neocortex imposes a limit on the number of relationships that individual primates can sustain in their mental model of their social world.

The human dimension
Humans are primates, too – so do they fit into the pattern established for monkeys and apes? This is the key question which Robin Dunbar sought to answer by using the same equations to predict human social group and clique size from neocortex volume. The results were… ~150 for social group size, and ~12 for the more intimate clique size. He subsequently discovered that modern humans operate on a hierarchy of group sizes. “Interestingly”, he says, “the literature suggests that 150 is roughly to the number of people you could ask for a favour and expect to have it granted. Functionally, that’s quite similar to apes’ core social groups.” As a principal investigator in the 7-year programme of research recently funded by the British Academy, Robin Dunbar will have the resources required to build models of the socioecology of all the great apes and contemporary foraging peoples. He aims to combine these models into a single generic model, which can then be used to illuminate the course of human evolution.

New approach to old puzzles
“Traditionally, our insights have come from ‘bones and stones’ – that’s to say, analysis of fossil remains and any evidence of their material culture, like stone tools. This tell us quite a lot, but on its own, it’s unlikely to tell us much more about either the social or the cognitive development of hominids and early humans”, he says. There are numerous puzzles to solve – for example, why did Neanderthals, some of whom lived at the same time as anatomically modern humans, fail to develop fully-fledged human-style culture? Comparative analyses across primates and contemporary foraging peoples should present new hypotheses – for instance, Neanderthals may have lacked a sufficiently large frontal neocortex to support the social cognitive skills required. Robin Dunbar’s University of Liverpool colleague, Professor John Gowlett and collaborators at Southampton University will then review the archaeological record to see whether there are data to support or undermine such hypotheses. There are two key questions which Robin Dunbar hopes to answer over the next seven years: when did hominid brains develop recognizably human minds – and what triggered this momentous development?


“Primates are, above all, social animals….These analyses suggest that although the size of the group in which animals live in a given habitat is a function of habitat-specific ecologically-determined costs and benefits …..The group size identified by this relationship appears to refer to the maximum number of individuals with whom an animal can maintain social relationships by personal contact.

It is not necessary that all these individuals live in the same physical group: chimpanzees ….Rather, the neocortical constraint seems to be on the number of relationships that an animal can keep track of in a complex, continuously changing social world: the function subserved by that level of grouping will depend on the individual species’ ecological and social context. ….current neocortex size sets a limit on the number of relationships that it can maintain through time, and hence limits the maximum size of its group. This means that although the evolution of neocortex size is driven by the ecological factors that select for group size, we can use the relationship in reverse to predict group sizes for living species

It is generally accepted that the cohesion of primate groups is maintained through time by social grooming Social grooming is used both to establish and to service those friendships and coalitions that give primate groups their unique structure. As might be anticipated, the amount of time devoted to social grooming correlates well with group size, notably among the catarrhine primates However, the relationship between group size and time devoted to grooming appears to be a consequence of the intensity with which a small number of key “friendships” (the primary network) is serviced rather than to the total number of individuals in the group

These primary networks function as coalitions whose primary purpose is to buffer their members against harassment by the other members of the group. The larger the group, the more harassment and stress an individual faces and the more important those coalitions are. It seems that a coalition’s effectiveness (in the sense of its members’ willingness to come to each other’s aid) is directly related to the amount of time its members spend grooming each other Hence, the larger the group, the more time individuals devote to grooming with the members of their coalitionary clique.

The mean size of the primary network is, however, related to the mean group size for the species. This suggests that groups are built up by welding together sets of smaller primary networks and that the total size of the group is ultimately limited not by the number of networks that can be welded together but rather by the size of the networks themselves”

For us the key group size is 150
“it turns out that most organised (i.e. professional) armies have a basic unit of about 150 men (Table 3). This was as true of the Roman Army (both before and after the reforms of 104BC) as of modern armies since the sixteenth century. In the Roman Army of the classical period (350-100 BC), the basic unit was the maniple (or “double-century”) which normally consisted of 120-130 men; following the reforms instituted by Marius in 104BC, the army was re-organised into legions, each of which contained a number of semi-independent centuries of 100 men each (Haverfield 1955, Montross 1975). The smallest independent unit in modern armies (the company) invariably contains 100-200 men (normally three or four rifle platoons of 30-40 men each, plus a headquarters unit, sometimes with an additional heavy weapons unit) (Table 3). Although its origins date back to the German mercenary Landsknechts groups of the sixteenth century, the modern company really derives from the military reforms of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the 1620s. Despite subsequent increases in size to accommodate new developments in weaponry and tactics, the company in all modern armies has remained within the 95% confident limits of the predicted size for human groups. The mean size of 179.6 for the twentieth century armies listed in Table 3 does not differ significantly from the 147.8 predicted by equation (1) (z=0.913, P=0.361 2-tailed).

This fact has particular significance in the context of the present argument. Military units have to function very efficiently in coordinating men’s behaviour on the battlefield: the price of failing to do so is extremely high and military commanders cannot afford to miscalculate. Given that the fighting power of a unit is a function of its size, we might expect there to be considerable selection pressure in favour of units that are as large as possible. That the smallest independent unit should turn out to have a maximum size of about 200 even in modern armies (where technology presumably facilitates the coordination of planning) suggests that this upper limit is set by the number of individuals who can work effectively together as a coordinated team. Military planners have presumably arrived at this figure as a result of trial and error over the centuries.

In the context of the present analysis, the reason given by the Hutterites for limiting their communities to 150 is particularly illuminating. They explicitly state that when the number of individuals is much larger than this, it becomes difficult to control their behaviour by means of peer pressure alone (Hardin 1988). Rather than create a police force, they prefer to split the community. Forge (1972) came to a rather similar conclusion on the basis of an analysis of settlement size and structure among contemporary New Guinea “neolithic” cultivators. He argued that the figure 150 was a key threshold in community size in these societies. When communities exceed this size, he suggested, basic relationships of kinship and affinity were insufficient to maintain social cohesion; stability could then be maintained only if formal structures developed which defined specific roles within society. In other words, large communities were invariably hierarchically structured in some way, whereas small communities were not.

Similarly, in an analysis of data from 30 societies ranging from hunter-gatherers to large-scale agriculturalists, Naroll (1956) demonstrated that there was a simple power relationship between the maximum settlement size observed in a given society and both the number of occupational specialities and the number of organisational structures recorded for it. His analyses suggest that there is a critical threshold at a maximum settlement size of 500 beyond which social cohesion can only be maintained if there is an appropriate number of authoritarian officials. Bearing in mind that Naroll’s threshold is expressed as the maximum observed settlement size, it seems likely that the equivalent mean settlement size will not be too far from the value of 150 suggested by the above analyses.

Other evidence suggests that 150 may be a functional limit on interacting groups even in contemporary western industrial societies. Much of the sociometric research on industrial and other comparable organisations, for example, has demonstrated that there is a marked negative effect of group size on both group cohesion and job satisfaction (as indicated by absenteeism and turnover in posts) within the size range under consideration (i.e. 50-500 individuals: see, for example, Indik 1965, Porter & Lawler 1965, Silverman 1970). Indeed, an informal rule in business organisation identifies 150 as the critical limit for the effective coordination of tasks and information-flow through direct person-to-person links: companies larger than this cannot function effectively without sub-structuring to define channels of communication and responsibility (J.-M. Delwart, pers. commun.). Terrien & Mills (1955), for example, found that the larger the organisation, the greater the number of control officials that is needed to ensure its smooth functioning.

Other studies have suggested that there is an upper limit on the number of social contacts that can be regularly maintained within a group. Coleman (1964) presented data on friendships among print shop workers which suggest that the likelihood of having friends within the workplace reaches an asymptote at a shop size of 90-150 individuals. (The small size of the sample for large groups makes it difficult to identify the precise point at which “saturation” is reached.) Coleman explicitly argued that this was a consequence of the fact that there is a limit to the number of individuals within a shop that any one person can come into contact with. Moreover, his results also seemed to suggest that the large number of regular interactants that an individual can expect to have within a large work group limits the number of additional friendships that can be made outside the workplace.”

Robin Dunbar
email : robin.dunbar [at] [dot] uk / rimd [at] [dot] uk

Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans
The Social Brain Hypothesis
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language By Robin Dunbar

Swedish tax collectors organized by apes / 23 Jul 07

A reorganization of workers at the Swedish Tax Authority is partly shaped on studies of apes, according to a leaked internal report. Employees are not flattered by the comparison. The tax authority is currently undergoing its largest reorganization for many years. One of the foundations of the restructuring plan is a report which says that studies of apes show that people work best in groups of 150. The reorganization was announced earlier in the summer. Work is being moved from small towns to larger towns and cities. Around 1,350 people are affected by the move. Economies of scale are a large part of the reason for the reorganization, but the authority has placed an upper limit of 150 employees per office, according to a report seen by news agency TT. The figure is justified using biological studies. “The number 150 returns again and again when discussing the size of a group which has some kind of social commonality. Evolutionary biologists have seen that primates live in social groups of varying sizes,” the report says. A comparison of the size of human brains to those of various other apes allows scientists to calculate the best group size for humans to work in. “Based on this formula we have concluded that the optimum (or largest possible) group of people is 147.8.” The military, the Hutterite religious group and hunter-gatherer societies are also examples in which groups have tended to comprise around 150 people. Employees who have spoken to news agency TT said they “seriously questioned” whether it was serious to compare them to apes. They also said it gave rise to scepticism over the basis of other elements of the reorganization, under which 1,000 people are moving workplace. A list will be published in late August of the offices earmarked for closure. No spokespeople for the tax authority were available for immediate comment on Monday.

photo from “When I got a ‘proper’ job” (Set)

BY Michael Kaplan / October 31, 1997
Working as a business leader in Gore’s military-fabrics division, Terri Kelly often finds herself disabusing outsiders of the notion that life in a world without authority figures is Utopia.

If you’ve nicknamed your boss the Walking Plague, Terri Kelly is a woman you will envy: she’s never had a boss. After graduating from the University of Delaware in 1983 with a BS in engineering, Kelly went to work for W.L. Gore and Associates, a $1.1 billion company best known as a developer of high-tech fabric. If you’ve worn a Gore-Tex jacket, you’ve had a close encounter with a Gore product. A visionary corporation, Gore is built from a blueprint that its founder refers to as a “lattice” (as opposed to a “ladder”). There is no visible hierarchy at Gore — and no job titles. In fact, there are no bosses. Instead, there are leaders who achieve their positions by gaining followers. Business goals are established by consensus. Gore’s internal “structure” was put into place in 1958 by cofounder Bill Gore, an ex-DuPont exec who believed that leaders should be chosen by the people who follow them. Working as a business leader in Gore’s military-fabrics division, Kelly often finds herself disabusing outsiders of the notion that life in a world without authority figures is Utopia.

Fantasy: You’re responsible to no one.
Reality: You’re responsible to everyone.

“Although I’m a business leader for military fabric, I’m a leader only if there are people who are willing to follow me,” says Kelly. “A project doesn’t move forward unless people buy into it. You cultivate followership by selling yourself, articulating your ideas, and developing a reputation for seeing things through.” Here is Kelly’s three-point plan for convincing fellow Goreans to buy in on her projects.

Resolve the potentially fatal flaw.
After conceiving an idea, Kelly scrutinizes the plan to find its weakest link and takes it to the person who oversees that part of the business. “Let’s say I’ve come up with a design for a winter sleeping bag for the military,” she says. “I’d go to the person responsible for marketing the bag and find out whether there’s demand for it. If there isn’t, I’d go back and try to reposition the plan. If he’s excited by the idea and thinks it’s viable, I’d bring him in on the project to help me develop it.”

Give away ownership.
Once Kelly is convinced there’s a market for the sleeping bag, she starts casting about for people from other divisions — manufacturing, design, fabric, sales — to form a core team and develop the product. “It’s a process of giving away ownership of the idea to people who want to contribute and be a part of it. The project won’t go anywhere if you don’t let people run with it.”

Connect the project with the Big Picture.
Unlike people in hierarchical companies, Kelly cannot simply draft the members of her team. She’s got to win them over. Her most reliable tactic is to show how the project will improve Gore’s bottom line.

“People here understand that the growth of our business with the military is absolutely critical to our overall success. If I paint a convincing argument that we aren’t giving the soldier our best product, then Gore employees need to think about that. And I have to show them that through their lack of action, they are opting out of the company’s future.”

Fantasy: There’s no boss standing between you and a raise.
Reality: Everyone stands between you and a raise.

“Salary raises depend on the written reviews of your peers, not on a boss’s recommendation,” says Kelly, who adds that the reviews include a numerical ranking for each person within a particular department. “The idea is that employees are not accountable to the president of the company; they’re accountable to their colleagues.” Achieving a high ranking, Kelly explains, depends in part on your ability to work on high-profile projects. Follow these steps.

Establish your credibility.
“You won’t get invited to join the hot teams until you’ve already contributed to projects that weren’t so attractive,” says Kelly. “To get ahead, you must first demonstrate that you can take ownership of a project and stick with it. Anyone can talk about going the extra mile. First you’ve got to prove to everyone else that you can do it.”

Pursue the team of your dreams.
“When it’s not immediately clear who will be a good fit on a particular team, you hope that somebody will step up and express excitement about being a part of it. People here should never wait around to be asked to join a team. They’ve got to be proactive. They have to volunteer.”

W.L. Gore believes its egalitarian workforce philosophy–no titles, workers collaborating in small teams–fuels creativity and innovation. But as global expansion raises the need for more formalized practices, can the company maintain itself?
By Patrick J. Kiger / February 27, 2006

At manufacturing company W.L. Gore & Associates, the unconventional workplace culture has become nearly as legendary as the company’s weather-resistant Gore-Tex synthetic fabric is ubiquitous. There is the story of the employee who told company founder Bill Gore that she had to attend an outside meeting where hosts would expect her to have a job title–a custom banished by Gore, who believed that such distinctions stifled freedom, communication and creativity. He jokingly suggested that she call herself “supreme commander.” The employee reportedly liked it so much she had business cards printed with that inscription.

Over the years, the Newark, Delaware, manufacturer has grabbed the lead in numerous markets through technological breakthroughs. That strategy has been facilitated in large part by Gore’s unorthodox workforce management practices, such as a “flat lattice” organizational structure by which the company strives to encourage creativity. “We work hard at maximizing individual potential, maintaining an emphasis on product integrity and cultivating an environment where creativity can flourish,” says Terri Kelly, the company’s new president and CEO. “A fundamental belief in our people and their abilities continues to be the key to our success, even as we expand globally.”

In many ways, little has changed during the history of the 48-year-old firm, which in January placed fifth on Fortune’s list of “The 100 Best Companies to Work For.” Gore’s employees–all “associates” in Gore-speak–still are encouraged to spend at least some of their time developing pet projects in addition to their regular work. Instead of bosses, they have “sponsors” who help them find the place in the organization where their skills and interests will best fit. They recruit one another to work in scores of small teams rather than sprawling bureaucracies, and are evaluated on the value of their contribution to the team rather than strictly upon their work’s bottom-line impact. The privately held company, which had $1.84 billion in worldwide sales in 2005, up 16.5 percent from the previous year, markets more than 1,000 products ranging from heart patches and synthetic blood vessels to plastic-coated acoustic guitar strings that are more dependable than conventional metal ones.

But as Gore has grown–from 3,000 workers in the early 1980s to 7,300 engineers, salespeople, medical device assemblers and others in 45 facilities worldwide today–and shifted to supplying multinational clients whose manufacturing facilities may be scattered around the globe, the company has been compelled to tinker with its trademark culture. For other companies, Gore provides a useful lesson in how to develop more formalized practices without stifling innovation. “From a practice and operations standpoint, we have to do things a little differently,” says Gore human resources associate Jackie Brinton. “But our basic culture hasn’t changed. We still believe in the power of the individual who is given the freedom to do great things and in the beauty of small teams, even though we’re now operating on a global, coordinated scale.”

Getting bigger while staying small
The classic Gore culture began in the basement of the home of Bill Gore, who left DuPont in 1958 to create his own enlightened version of the workplace. Gore built the company upon four core principles–fairness; freedom to encourage others to grow in knowledge, skill and responsibility; ability to honor one’s own commitments; and consultation with others before taking action that could affect the company “below the waterline.” Instead of the typical corporate hierarchy, he created a “flat lattice” organization that not only had no titles, but also no chains of command or predetermined channels of communication.

In Gore’s model, associates communicate directly with one another and are accountable to their peers rather than bosses. Ideally, leaders in the company emerge naturally by demonstrating special knowledge, skill or experience –“followship.” Thomas Malone, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and the author of The Future of Work, describes Gore as a “miniature democracy.” “The way you become a manager is by finding people who want to work for you,” Malone says. “In a certain sense, you’re elected rather than appointed. It’s a democratic structure inside a business organization.” The $1.84 billion company’s flat organizational structure makes it exceptionally nimble. “If someone has an idea for a new product, they don’t have to go up a hierarchy to find some boss to approve it,” says John Sawyer, chairman of the department of business administration at the University of Delaware. “Instead, they have to find peers in the organization who support the idea and will work with them. That open style of communication allows ideas to come up from the bottom.”

The company developed shred-resistant Glide dental floss, for example, after an associate wondered whether Gore’s industrial fibers could be used for cleaning teeth as well. Engineers at Gore’s Flagstaff, Arizona, plant worked for three years on their own to develop plastic-coated guitar string before they offered the product of their inspiration to the company, which successfully marketed it. In his 2000 best-seller The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell described Gore’s traditional practice of limiting the size of its plants to roughly 150 workers, because that was the largest group of people who could know one another well enough to converse in the hallway. Today, however, human resources associate Brinton works in a plant with more than 300 fellow associates. More important, associates in multiple countries may have to work together to service a single multinational client.

In addition to encouraging the old hallway chats, Gore now has regular plant communications meetings where leaders share with the associates news about company performance, discuss safety and introduce new workers. “It’s a challenge to get bigger while staying small,” Brinton says. Associates still work in small teams and frequently meet face to face–though in some cases the teammates may be on several continents and do much of their communicating by phone or e-mail. “It’s tough to build relationships by e-mail,” Brinton says. “For us, that’s a work in progress right now. We do bring global teams together physically on a fairly regular basis.” Brinton can’t calculate the expense of such travel, but says it is substantial. In recent years, Gore has also begun subjecting its product development process to more discipline, the University of Delaware’s Sawyer says. While associates still initiate their own projects and build support for them, an evaluation team measures their progress against metrics or goals that must be reached in order for a project to progress.

Illusion of chaos
Gore’s recruiters still spend months and sometimes years filling job vacancies because it isn’t easy to find people who not only have the right business skills, but also are temperamentally and intellectually suited for the unorthodox environment. “It isn’t a company for everyone,” Brinton says. “It takes a special kind of person to be effective here–someone who is really passionate about sharing information, as opposed to controlling it. Someone who can handle a degree of ambiguity, as opposed to ‘Here’s my job and I only do these tasks.’ Someone who’s willing to lift his or her head up from the desk and see what the business’ real needs are.”

Even those select few hires, a fraction of a percent of the 38,000 applications that the company receives annually, sometimes start with the misconception that the company is a place where employees do literally whatever they choose. “There’s certainly a misunderstanding in many cases about what freedom means at Gore,” Brinton says. “People can’t figure out how it might work. It sounds like chaos.” In reality, there is structure at Gore driven by a certain internal logic–and the belief that motivated individuals eventually gravitate toward the things they do best. The non-utopian reality is that associates are hired to fill certain set expectations and meet certain business needs–in Gore parlance, the “core commitment.” They must build credibility by performing those obligatory functions before they can pursue their own ideas and persuade other associates to form a team to work on them.

Ed Gunzel, a 12-year associate at Gore who gradually has become a technical leader, describes his path: “I started out working in new product development, the consumer side of fabrics, and really enjoyed that. But eventually, over time, I saw some areas where I could have a bigger impact, in terms of helping align teams around certain objectives and seeing where we could go with our technology for military, fire and law enforcement use. I saw that need and chose to get involved, and that’s become more of my core commitment than individual products.” These days, Gore associates use the company intranet to seek out opportunities elsewhere in the organization, but personal relationships still remain at the core of the company’s development process–the relationship between an associate and his or her sponsor, and the relationships among sponsors. “The sponsor’s role is to be broadly knowledgeable about the business, to be able to help the associate find opportunities,” Brinton says.

The mentoring process has changed slightly in recent years. In the past, sponsors might have had informal conversations about associates’ performance and prospects. Brinton says that Gore now has a more structured system, the Fall Development Process, in which teams of sponsors meet to discuss whether the associates under their guidance are in the roles that best utilize their skills and to talk about what other opportunities there might be for them in the company. “When we were smaller, everyone knew what was happening everywhere,” Brinton says. “But now that we’ve become broader globally, someone sitting in a single plant might not be able to see all the opportunities.” Even so, “we’re not moving pieces on a chessboard here,” Brinton says. “We’re making recommendations to the associates. They’re the ones who actually make the decision about what role they’re going to pursue. Sometimes, it may be in a different direction than what the sponsor suggests, based upon their passions.”

Gore’s evaluation process looks at an associate’s work but doesn’t focus strictly on the bottom-line impact. “For example, if a sales associate got involved in a training program, the person’s sales numbers may be down, but his or her overall contribution may be up,” Brinton says. “You have to look at the whole person, and whether he or she is making a contribution in a different way.” Additionally, “people can be involved with projects that weren’t successful, but still can be ranked high from a contribution standpoint,” Brinton says. “When you’re an entrepreneurial organization, you’re going to be taking some risks. That doesn’t mean that the person doing that work made less of a contribution. We’re valuing people who take smart risks. And you learn a lot from projects that fail, as well as ones that are successful.”

While other companies have instituted small, self-managed teams and some other aspects of Bill Gore’s philosophy, no imitator has taken those concepts as far as the company he founded, says Henry Sims Jr., a professor of management at the University of Maryland’s graduate business school and an expert on small, self-managing teams. “One of the things that’s different about Gore is that they started with this philosophy,” Sims says. “There’s a lot of evidence that these small, empowered teams can be very effective, but they take a great deal of time and attention to develop. And changing to that system requires a period of difficult and frustrating transition,” he says. “Once teams reach a mature stage, as they have at Gore, they can do things a lot better. They can produce products at a lower cost, bring in new processes more rapidly and smoothly, innovate more quickly.” Brinton says Gore has been able to maintain its unique approach in part because the company remains privately held. “The beauty is that we can make decisions that support our ongoing growth, and not have to just do things because we need to look good for the next quarter,” she says.

‘We will be able to live to 1,000’
BY Dr Aubrey de Grey  /  University of Cambridge  /  3 December, 2004

Life expectancy is increasing in the developed world. But Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey believes it will soon extend dramatically to 1,000. Here, he explains why. Ageing is a physical phenomenon happening to our bodies, so at some point in the future, as medicine becomes more and more powerful, we will inevitably be able to address ageing just as effectively as we address many diseases today. I claim that we are close to that point because of the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) project to prevent and cure ageing. It is not just an idea: it’s a very detailed plan to repair all the types of molecular and cellular damage that happen to us over time. And each method to do this is either already working in a preliminary form (in clinical trials) or is based on technologies that already exist and just need to be combined.

This means that all parts of the project should be fully working in mice within just 10 years and we might take only another 10 years to get them all working in humans. When we get these therapies, we will no longer all get frail and decrepit and dependent as we get older, and eventually succumb to the innumerable ghastly progressive diseases of old age. We will still die, of course – from crossing the road carelessly, being bitten by snakes, catching a new flu variant etcetera – but not in the drawn-out way in which most of us die at present.

So, will this happen in time for some people alive today? Probably. Since these therapies repair accumulated damage, they are applicable to people in middle age or older who have a fair amount of that damage. I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already. It is very complicated, because ageing is. There are seven major types of molecular and cellular damage that eventually become bad for us – including cells being lost without replacement and mutations in our chromosomes. Each of these things is potentially fixable by technology that either already exists or is in active development.

‘Youthful not frail’
The length of life will be much more variable than now, when most people die at a narrow range of ages (65 to 90 or so), because people won’t be getting frailer as time passes. The average age will be in the region of a few thousand years. These numbers are guesses, of course, but they’re guided by the rate at which the young die these days. If you are a reasonably risk-aware teenager today in an affluent, non-violent neighbourhood, you have a risk of dying in the next year of well under one in 1,000, which means that if you stayed that way forever you would have a 50/50 chance of living to over 1,000. And remember, none of that time would be lived in frailty and debility and dependence – you would be youthful, both physically and mentally, right up to the day you mis-time the speed of that oncoming lorry.

Should we cure ageing?
Curing ageing will change society in innumerable ways. Some people are so scared of this that they think we should accept ageing as it is. I think that is diabolical – it says we should deny people the right to life. The right to choose to live or to die is the most fundamental right there is; conversely, the duty to give others that opportunity to the best of our ability is the most fundamental duty there is. There is no difference between saving lives and extending lives, because in both cases we are giving people the chance of more life. To say that we shouldn’t cure ageing is ageism, saying that old people are unworthy of medical care.

Playing God?
People also say we will get terribly bored but I say we will have the resources to improve everyone’s ability to get the most out of life. People with a good education and the time to use it never get bored today and can’t imagine ever running out of new things they’d like to do. And finally some people are worried that it would mean playing God and going against nature. But it’s unnatural for us to accept the world as we find it. Ever since we invented fire and the wheel, we’ve been demonstrating both our ability and our inherent desire to fix things that we don’t like about ourselves and our environment. We would be going against that most fundamental aspect of what it is to be human if we decided that something so horrible as everyone getting frail and decrepit and dependent was something we should live with forever. If changing our world is playing God, it is just one more way in which God made us in His image.

Aubrey de Grey
email : aubrey [at] sens [dot] org

Bootstrapping Our Way To An Ageless Future
BY Aubrey de Grey / 2007

An important fact is that the therapies we develop in a decade or so in mice, and those that may come only a decade or two later for humans, will not be perfect. Other things being equal, there will be a residual accumulation of damage within our bodies, however frequently and thoroughly we apply these therapies, and we will eventually experience age-related decline and death just as now, only at a greater age. Probably not all that much greater either—probably only 30-50 years older than today. But other things won’t be equal, and I’m going to explain why not—and why, as you may already know from other sources, I expect many people alive today to live to 1000 years of age and to avoid age-related health problems even at that age. I’ll start by describing why it’s unrealistic to expect these therapies to be perfect.

Evolution didn’t leave notes
The body is a machine, and that’s both why it ages and why it can in principle be maintained. I have made a comparison with vintage cars, which are kept fully functional even 100 years after they were built, using the same maintenance technologies that kept them going 50 years ago when they were already far older than they were ever designed to be. More complex machines can also be kept going indefinitely, though the expense and expertise involved may mean that this never happens in practice because replacing the machine is a reasonable alternative. This sounds very much like a reason to suppose that the therapies we develop to stave off aging for a few decades will indeed be enough to stave it off indefinitely.

But actually that’s overoptimistic. All we can reliably infer from a comparison with man-made machines is that a truly comprehensive panel of therapies, which truly repairs everything that goes wrong with us as a result of aging, is possible in principle—not that it is foreseeable. And in fact we can see that actually one thing about them is very unlike maintenance of a man-made machine: these therapies strive to minimally alter metabolism itself, and target only the initially inert side-effects of metabolism, whereas machine maintenance may involve adding extra things to the machinery itself (to the fuel or the oil of a car, for example). We can get away with this sort of invasive maintenance of man-made machines because we (well, some of us!) know how they work right down to the last detail, so we can be adequately sure that our intervention won’t have unforeseen side-effects. With the body—even the body of a mouse—we are still profoundly ignorant of the details, so we have to sidestep our ignorance by interfering as little as possible.

What that means for efficacy of therapies is that, as we fix more and more aspects of aging, you can bet that new aspects will be unmasked. These new things will not be fatal at a currently normal age, because if they were, we’d know about them already. But they’ll be fatal eventually, unless we work out how to fix them too. Even within each existing category, there are some subcategories that will be easier to fix than others. For example, there are lots of chemically distinct cross-links responsible for stiffening our arteries; some of them may be broken with ALT-711 and related molecules, but others will surely need more sophisticated agents that have not yet been developed. Another example: obviating mitochondrial DNA by putting modified copies of it into the cell’s chromosomes requires gene therapy, and thus far we have no gene therapy delivery system (“vector”) that can safely get into all cells, so for the foreseeable future we’ll probably only be able to protect a subset of cells from mtDNA mutations. Much better vectors will be needed if we are to reach all cells.

In practice, therefore, therapies that rejuvenate 60-year-olds by 20 years will not work so well the second time around. When the therapies are applied for the first time, the people receiving them will have 60 years of “easy” damage (the types that the therapies can remove) and also 60 years of “difficult” damage. But by the time beneficiaries of these therapies have returned to biologically 60 (which, let’s presume, will happen when they’re chronologically about 80), the damage their bodies contain will consist of 20 years of “easy” damage and 80 years of “difficult” damage. Thus, the therapies will only rejuvenate them by a much smaller amount, say ten years. So they’ll have to come back sooner for the third treatment, but that will benefit them even less… and very soon, just like Achilles catching up with the tortoise in Zeno’s paradox, aging will get the better of them. An extremely counterintuitive fact is that, even though it will be much harder to double a middle-aged human’s remaining lifespan than a middle-aged mouse’s, multiplying that remaining lifespan by much larger factors—ten or 30, say—will be much easier in humans than in mice.

The two-speed pace of technology
I’m now going to switch briefly from science to the history of science, or more precisely the history of technology. It was well before recorded history that people began to take an interest in the possibility of flying: indeed, this may be a desire almost as ancient as the desire to live forever. Yet, with the notable but sadly unreproduced exception of Daedalus and Icarus, no success in this area was achieved until about a century ago. (If we count balloons then we must double that, but really only airships—balloons that can control their direction of travel reasonably well—should be counted, and they only emerged at around the same time as the aircraft.) Throughout the previous few centuries, engineers from Leonardo on devised ways to achieve controlled powered flight, and we must presume that they believed their designs to be only a few decades (at most) from realisation. But they were wrong.

Ever since the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, however, things have been curiously different. Having mastered the basics, aviation engineers seem to have progressed to ever greater heights (literally as well as metaphorically!) at an almost serenely smooth pace. To pick a representative selection of milestones: Lindbergh flew the Atlantic 24 years after the first powered flight occurred, the first commercial jetliner (the Comet) debuted 22 years after that, and the first supersonic airliner (Concorde) followed after a further 20 years.
This stark contrast between fundamental breakthroughs and incremental refinements of those breakthroughs is, I would contend, typical of the history of technological fields. Further, I would argue that it’s not surprising: both psychologically and scientifically, bigger advances are harder to estimate the difficulty of.

I mention all this, of course, because of what it tells us about the likely future progress of life extension therapies. Just as people were wrong for centuries about how hard it is to fly but eventually cracked it, we’ve been wrong since time immemorial about how hard aging is to combat but we’ll eventually crack it too. But just as people have been pretty reliably correct about how to make better and better aircraft once they had the first one, we can expect to be pretty reliably correct about how to repair the damage of aging more and more comprehensively once we can do it a little. That’s not to say it’ll be easy, though. It’ll take time, just as it took time to get from the Wright Flyer to Concorde. And that is why, if you want to live to 1000, you can count yourself lucky that you’re a human and not a mouse. Let me take you through the scenario, step by step.

Suppose we develop Robust Mouse Rejuvenation in 2016, and we take a few dozen two-year-old mice and duly treble their one-year remaining lifespans. That will mean that, rather than dying in 2017 as they otherwise would, they’ll die in 2019. Well, maybe not—in particular, not if we can develop better therapies by 2018 that re-treble their remaining lifespan (which will by now be down to one year again). But remember, they’ll be harder to repair the second time: their overall damage level may be the same as before they received the first therapies, but a higher proportion of that damage will be of types that those first therapies can’t fix. So we’ll only be able to achieve that re-trebling if the therapies we have available by 2018 are considerably more powerful than those that we had in 2016. And to be honest, the chance that we’ll improve the relevant therapies that much in only two years is really pretty slim. In fact, the likely amount of progress in just two years is so small that it might as well be considered zero. Thus, our murine heroes will indeed die in 2019 (or 2020 at best), despite our best efforts.

But now, suppose we develop Robust Human Rejuvenation in 2031, and we take a few dozen 60-year-old humans and duly double their 30-year remaining lifespans. By the time they come back in (say) 2051, biologically 60 again but chronologically 80, they’ll need better therapies, just as the mice did in 2018. But luckily for them, we’ll have had not two but twenty years to improve the therapies. And 20 years is a very respectable period of time in technology—long enough, in fact, that we will with very high probability have succeeded in developing sufficient improvements to the 2031 therapies so that those 80-year-olds can indeed be restored from biologically 60 to biologically 40, or even a little younger, despite their enrichment (relative to 2031) in harder-to-repair types of damage. So unlike the mice, these humans will have just as many years (20 or more) of youth before they need third-generation treatments as they did before the second. And so on…

Longevity Escape Velocity
The key conclusion of the logic I’ve set out above is that there is a threshold rate of biomedical progress that will allow us to stave off aging indefinitely, and that that rate is implausible for mice but entirely plausible for humans. If we can make rejuvenation therapies work well enough to give us time to make then work better, that will give us enough additional time to make them work better still, which will … you get the idea. This will allow us to escape age-related decline indefinitely, however old we become in purely chronological terms. I think the term “longevity escape velocity” (LEV) sums that up pretty well.

One feature of LEV that’s worth pointing out is that we can accumulate lead-time. What I mean is that if we have a period in which we improve the therapies faster than we need to, that will allow us to have a subsequent period in which we don’t improve them so fast. It’s only the average rate of improvement, starting from the arrival of the first therapies that give us just 20 or 30 extra years, that needs to stay above the LEV threshold.

In case you’re having trouble assimilating all this, let me describe it in terms of the physical state of the body. Throughout this book, I’ve been discussing aging as the accumulation of molecular and cellular “damage” of various types, and I’ve highlighted the fact that a modest quantity of damage is no problem—metabolism just works around it, in the same way that a household only needs to put out the garbage once a week, not every hour. In those terms, the attainment and maintenance of escape velocity simply means that our best therapies must improve fast enough to outweigh the progressive shift in the composition of our aging damage to more repair-resistant forms, as the forms that are easier to repair are progressively eliminated by our therapies. If we can do this, the total amount of damage in each category can be kept permanently below the level that initiates functional decline.

Another, perhaps simpler, way of looking at this is to consider the analogy with literal escape velocity, i.e. the overcoming of gravity. Suppose you’re at the top of a cliff and you jump off. Your remaining life expectancy is short—and it gets shorter as you descend to the rocks below. This is exactly the same as with aging: the older you get, the less remaining time you can expect to live. The situation with the periodic arrival of ever better rejuvenation therapies is then a bit like jumping off a cliff with a jet-pack on your back. Initially the jetpack is turned off, but as you fall, you turn it on and it gives you a boost, slowing your fall. As you fall further, you turn up the power on the jetpack, and eventually you start to pull out of the dive and even start shooting upwards. And the further up you go, the easier it is to go even further.

The political and social significance of discussing LEV
I’ve had a fairly difficult time convincing my colleagues in biogerontology of the feasibility of the various SENS components, but in general I’ve been successful once I’ve been given enough time to go through the details. When it comes to LEV, on the other hand, the reception to my proposals can best be described as blank incomprehension. This is not too surprising, in hindsight, because the LEV concept is even further distant from the sort of scientific thinking that my colleagues normally do than my other ideas are: it’s not only an area of science that’s distant from mainstream gerontology, it’s not even science at all in the strict sense, but rather the history of technology. But I regard that as no excuse. The fact is, the history of technology is evidence, just like any other evidence, and scientists have no right to ignore it.

Another big reason for my colleagues’ resistance to the LEV concept is, of course, that if I’m seen to be right that achievement of LEV is foreseeable, they can no longer go around saying that they’re working on postponing aging by a decade or two but no more. There is an intense fear within the senior gerontology community of being seen as having anything to do with radical life extension, with all the uncertainties that it will surely herald. They want nothing to do with such talk. You might think that my reaction to this would be to focus on the short term: to avoid antagonising my colleagues with the LEV concept and its implications of four-digit lifespans, in favour of increased emphasis on the fine details of getting the SENS strands to work in a first-generation form. But this is not an option for me, for one very simple and incontrovertible reason: I’m in this business to save lives. In order to maximise the number of lives saved—healthy years added to people’s lives, if you’d prefer a more precise measure—I need to address the whole picture. And that means ensuring that the general public appreciate the importance of this work enough to motivate its funding.

Now, your first thought may be: hang on, if indefinite life extension is so unpalatable, wouldn’t funding be attracted more easily by keeping quiet about it? Well, no—and for a pretty good reason. The world’s richest man, Bill Gates, set up a foundation a few years ago whose primary mission is to address health issues in the developing world. This is a massively valuable humanitarian effort, which I wholeheartedly support, even though it doesn’t directly help SENS at all. I’m not the only person who supports it, either: in 2006 the world’s second richest man, Warren Buffett, committed a large proportion of his fortune to be donated in annual increments to the Gates Foundation.

The eagerness of extremely wealthy individuals to contribute to world health is, in more general terms, an enormous boost for SENS. This is mainly because a rising tide raises all boats: once it has become acceptable (even meritorious) among that community to be seen as a large-scale health philanthropist, those with “only” a billion or two to their name will be keener to join the trend than if it is seen as a crazy way to spend your hard-earned money. But there’s a catch. That logic only works if the moral status of SENS is seen to compare with that of the efforts that are now being funded so well. And that’s where LEV makes all the difference. SENS therapies will be expensive to develop and expensive to administer, at least at first. Let’s consider how the prospect of spending all that money might be received if the ultimate benefit would be only to add a couple of decades to the lives of people who are already living longer than most in the developing world, after which those people would suffer the same duration of functional decline that they do now.

It’s not exactly the world’s most morally imperative action, is it?
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, if I were in control of a few billion dollars, I would be quite hesitant to spend it on such a marginal improvement in the overall quality and quantity of life of those who are already doing better in that respect than most, when the alternative exists of making a similar or greater improvement to the quality and quantity of life of the world’s less fortunate inhabitants.

The LEV concept doesn’t make much difference in the short term to who would benefit from these therapies, of course: it will necessarily be those who currently die of aging, so in the first instance it will predominantly be those in wealthy nations. But there is a very widespread appreciation in the industrialised world—an appreciation that, I feel, extends to the wealthy sectors of society—that progress in the long term relies on aiming high, and in particular that the moral imperative to help those at the rear of the field to catch up is balanced by the moral imperative to maximise the average rate of progress across the whole population, which initially means helping those who are already ahead. The fact that SENS is likely to lead to LEV means that developing SENS gives a huge boost to the quality and quantity of life of whomever receives it: so huge, in fact, that there is no problem justifying it in comparison the alternative uses to which a similar sum of money might be put. The fact that lifespan is extended indefinitely rather than by only a couple of decades is only part of the difference that LEV makes, of course: arguably an even more important difference in terms of the benefit that SENS gives is that the whole of that life will be youthful, right up until a beneficiary mistimes the speed of an oncoming truck. The average quality of life, therefore, will rise much more than if all that was in prospect were a shift from (say) 7:1 to 9:1 in the ratio of healthy life to frail life.

Quantifying longevity escape velocity more precisely
I hope I have closed down the remaining escape routes that might still have remained for those still seeking ways to defend a rejection of the SENS agenda. I have shown that SENS can be functionally equivalent to a way to eliminate aging completely, even though in actual therapeutic terms it will only be able to postpone aging by a finite amount at any given moment in time. I’ve also shown that this makes it morally just as desirable—imperative, even—as the many efforts into which a large amount of private philanthropic funding is already being injected.

I’m not complacent though: I know that people are quite ingenious when it comes to finding ways to avoid combating aging. Thus, in order to keep a few steps ahead, I have recently embarked on a collaboration with a stupendous programmer and futurist named Chris Phoenix, in which we are determining the precise degree of healthy life extension that one can expect from a given rate of progress in improving the SENS therapies. This is leading to a series of publications highlighting a variety of scenarios, but the short answer is that no wool has been pulled over your eyes above: the rate of progress we need to achieve starts out at roughly a doubling of the efficacy of the SENS therapies every 40 years and actually declines thereafter. By “doubling of efficacy” I mean a halving of the amount of damage that still cannot be repaired.

So there you have it. We will almost certainly take centuries to reach the level of control over aging that we have over the aging of vintage cars—totally comprehensive, indefinite maintenance of full function—but because longevity escape velocity is not very fast, we will probably achieve something functionally equivalent within only a few decades from now, at the point where we have therapies giving middle-aged people 30 extra years of youthful life. I think we can call that the fountain of youth, don’t you?

SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence)


The Mprize competition is an exciting and viable mid-term strategy to deliver on the Methuselah Foundation’s mission of extending healthy human life. It directly accelerates the development of revolutionary new life extension therapies by awarding two cash prizes: one to the research team that breaks the world record for the oldest-ever mouse; and one to the team that develops the most successful late-onset rejuvenation. Previous winners have already proven that healthy life can be extended; each new winner pushes the outer limits of healthy life back even further…and each new winner takes us even further.

Why Mice?
Because of the mouse’s availability, size, low cost, ease of handling, and strong genetic similarity to humans, there is no other experimental animal that offers such a wide variety of uses to science and medicine. Mice are widely considered to be the prime model of inherited human disease and studies have shown that mice share 99% of their genes with humans. The similarities between sections of human and mouse DNA allow researchers working with mouse genes to make incredibly accurate predictions about the location and function of their human counterparts. To this point, mice have been the mainstay of laboratory research on human illness, and they will continue to be essential players in future studies.


Naked mole-rats live in captivity for more than 28.3 years, approximately 9 times longer than similar-sized mice. They maintain body composition from 2 to 24 years, and show only slight age-related changes in all physiological and morphological characteristics studied to date. Surprisingly breeding females show no decline in fertility even when well into their third decade of life. Moreover, these animals have never been observed to develop any spontaneous neoplasm. As such they do not show the typical age-associated acceleration in mortality risk that characterizes every other known mammalian species and may therefore be the first reported mammal showing negligible senescence over the majority of their long lifespan. Clearly physiological and biochemical processes in this species have evolved to dramatically extend healthy lifespan. The challenge that lies ahead is to understand what these mechanisms are.


Learning From Ageless Animals: An Interview with John Guerin
By David Jay Brown

John Guerin is the founder and director of the AgelessAnimals Project—also known as the Centenarian Species and Rockfish Project. This long-range research project involves investigators at fourteen universities around the world who study animals that don’t seem to age.

There are certain species of rockfish, whales, turtles, and other animals that are known to live for hundreds of years without showing any signs of aging—a phenomenon known to biogerontologists as “negligible senescence.” No one knows for sure how long these animals can live for, but we know that they can live for over two hundred years without showing any observed increase in mortality or any decrease in reproductive capacity due to age. Striking examples are a 109 year old female rockfish that was captured in the wild while swimming around with fertilized eggs, and a hundred-plus year old male whale that was harpooned while it was having sex. The purpose of the AgelessAnimals Project is to understand why these animals don’t seem to age and then to apply that understanding to human longevity.

Guerin is an experienced project manager, who conceived of the AgelessAnimals project and orchestrates all of the studies. The two principal advisors to this project are Dr. Leonard Hayflick and Dr. Aubrey de Grey, both of whom were also interviewed for the Mavericks of Medicine collection. Dr. Hayflick, discoverer of the “Hayflick limit” of cellular senescence, states that “Guerin’s project is not only unique, but probes an area of almost total neglect in biogerontology, yet an area with more promise to deliver valuable data than, perhaps, any other.”

When I asked Dr. de Grey about the importance of studying ageless animals he said, “All organisms with organs that rely on the indefinite survival of individual non-dividing cells (such as neurons in the brain) should age, though some, including humans, age very slowly. Some species do even better—we cannot yet measure their rate of aging at all—and studying them may well reveal ways to slow our own aging.”

In addition to coordinating and orchestrating the AgelessAnimals project, Guerin lectures regularly on the subject of ageless animals. To find out more about Guerin’s work and the AgelessAnimals Project visit their Web site: www. John Guerin seemed eager and excited to discuss his project with me. We spoke about some of the latest research that’s going on with long-lived animals, why this type of research has been neglected for so long, and how studying ageless animals might help us to understand the aging process better and extend the human lifespan.

Q: What inspired the AgelessAnimals Project?
John Guerin: Back in 1995, I began looking into biotech, biogerontology, and the studies of aging. I read many different books, articles, and scientific papers. The turning point came when I read Dr. Leonard Hayflick’s book How and Why We Age. Dr. Hayflick had a chapter called “Some Animals Age, Some Do Not,” and I thought, wow, now that’s interesting. I’d heard rumors and old wive’s tales about how some animals live for an extraordinarily long time, but this was the first time that I had come across that information from a scientific source. So I started doing some research on long-lived animals, and I found out that there’s very little known. On my web site, I have some references available.

I met Dr. Hayflick at a Gerontological Society of America meeting in November of 1995, and I told him about my project management background. I said I’d like to join whoever is working in this area, and I asked him who is. His answer was, “Nobody is, but they should be.” So I tried to get something going on my own. I did a lot of research on different animals. I spent about a year looking at koi—the fancy Japanese carp—and it’s very likely that they do live quite a long time, at least over fifty years. They were reputed to live over two hundred years, but the readings were based on scales, and those are not accurate. So they didn’t turn out to be a good candidate to study.

Then in 1997, I got some data from the Alaska Fish and Game. There’s a chart at the bottom of my Web page with a rockfish on it that shows ages for different rockfish that were caught off the coast of Alaska, and the range is between twelve and 107 years. Now, that’s a randomly caught sampling—it wasn’t like they were trying to get older individuals.

Those were the ones that fishermen caught and were going to people’s dinner tables that evening. So when I realized that individuals at those ages were available, I became very interested. We got samples from the Alaska Fish and Game in 1997. I say “we” because by then I had a couple of researchers at Oregon State University and the Linus Pauling Institute interested in looking at the rockfish. So the Alaska Fish and Game sent us five older rockfish. After we aged them, it turned out that the the youngest rockfish that they sent us was 79 years old, and the oldest was a 109 year old female that still had eggs.

Q: Isn’t that extraordinary?
John Guerin: Yeah, and kind of sad. It’s like, how long would this fish have lived if it wasn’t caught? It didn’t die of old age. It was fertile and still going strong in the ocean at 109 when they caught it. So that helped us to focus the project on rockfish. We have had one study on turtles. Whales are a very fascinating subject too, because they’re warm-blooded mammals like we are, and they’ve now been documented to be over two hundred years of age.

Q: What is the goal of the AgelessAnimals Project?
John Guerin: Quite simply, the goal is to understand the genetic and biochemical processes that long-lived animals use to retard aging. These long-lived animals have what’s technically called “negligible senescence,” as defined by Caleb Finch at the University of Southern California in Longevity, Senescence, and the Genome (1995).

Q: What is negligible senescence?
John Guerin: Basically, this refers to an animal species that doesn’t show any significant signs of aging as it grows older. Unlike humans and most other mammals, there’s no decrease in reproduction after maturity.

There’s also no notable increase in mortality rate with age, but that’s a little harder to prove. I’ve been talking with a statistician and he’s asking, how do you know? To do a study of this type would take a couple of hundred years to complete. But compared to us there’s no noted increase in mortality rate. I mean, if you are ninety years old, you’re much more likely to die next year then you are if you’re only twenty years old. But we don’t seem to see any increase in mortality with rockfish and several of these other animals over time.

Q: Why do you think these animals can live for so long without showing any signs of aging?
John Guerin: The purpose of the project is to understand why, and how to apply it to extending the health and lifespan of humans. My background is in business project management; I have a project management professional certification. I’m not a bioresearcher, a biochemist, or a biogerontologist—but I’m the one who organizes it all, and gets everyone involved. I get the researchers the samples and all that.

Actually, I thought I had a better idea about why these animals have negligible senescence when I started this project ten years ago. But it’s hard to say. Back then we didn’t know whales lived that long. That whales can live for over two hundred years was just discovered in the last five years. Up until then we thought that humans lived longer than any other mammal. So why certain animals would live much longer than others, and much longer than we do as a matter of fact—pretty much double what we’ve known humans to live—we don’t understand.

There are some people who think that this can’t be so, that this would violate the evolutionary theory of senescence, because nature doesn’t select for longevity. But that’s not necessarily true, because what’s commonly seen is that there’s just such a high mortality rate in nature.

Even for humans, probably before two thousand years ago, we didn’t live very long. We were hunted by tigers and wild animals, and traits of longevity, presumably, weren’t selected for. But if these animals, like the rockfish, can be 109 years old and still be reproductive, nature is going to allow those genes to keep contributing to the gene pool, so that it won’t select against longevity.

Q: So we don’t know if these animals are simply aging more slowly or not at all? Since we have haven’t found any rockfish or whales that live for three or four hundred years, that might suggest that there is a certain limit on how long they can live.
John Guerin: Well, we just do not know. We honestly do not know. It really is unfortunate that there is so little known in this field. Ecologists have never thought of this in the terms that gerontologists are now thinking of it in. To give you an idea, let’s say you have a sample of a species, and you see they live to twenty years. That’s the oldest you sample out of several hundred. Then that’s their maximum longevity. That’s really the basis of their thinking in most cases. Mice, as you probably well know, don’t live for more than a couple years, even in the best laboratory environment, with all the best nutrients and all the best food. They don’t live very long. They just can’t. They’ll start having all sorts of age-related pathological functions, and they’ll die of old age.

But this other group of organisms, those that possess what Finch termed “negligible senescence,” they don’t seem to be showing the classical signs of aging that we’re used to. So, who is to say the longest they could live? As an example, in Finch’s book that was published in 1990, at that time the longest lived whale was—I believe it was a Blue Whale—something like 108 years old. That’s like, okay, well that’s not so startling. Humans live longer than that. We’re mammals. They’re mammals. We live longer. Then a study was done on bowhead whales, and they found that out of forty whales sampled, four of them were over a hundred years old, and one of them was over two hundred years old. And they didn’t die of old age either—they were harpooned. I have a reference on the web site.

Q: How might studying ageless animals help us to understand human aging better?
John Guerin: By understanding how other animals are naturally able to live a lot longer than we are, we can ask: What is genetically different? What is biochemically different? There are two major problems with studying long-lived animals. One is that nobody knows what causes aging. If you’re able to say what causes aging, that’d be really easy then to target that same factor in animals that are living a very long time—whales, rockfish, sturgeon, lobsters, and several other animals—and then you could study it. If you looked on our web site you’ve seen that we did studies in everything from lisosones to microarrays to telomere-telomerase activity, because you just don’t know. That’s one problem. The other is that these animals live so long that you have to ask: How do you do an experiment? Let’s say we think a certain gene’s involved in aging, so we were going to do a knockout. Then instead of living two hundred years a rockfish lives seventy-five years.

Q: Wouldn’t it take quite awhile to run the experiment?
John Guerin: Yeah, it would be somebody else finishing it up, and it certainly wouldn’t be of much practical benefit. So the direction we’re taking in the project is we’re looking at the difference between long-lived rockfish and short-lived rockfish. The other thing is basically identifying genetic differences, and going at it that way, because there’s no practical way you could run an experiment that would go on for decades.

At first rockfish just seemed to be a good model, or a handily available model. They’re commercially caught, go on the dinner table, and we were able to get lots of samples of them. Then, of course, the news about whales came out, which is very intriguing, and there are lots of other animals that are either known or suspected to live a very long time. But the really intriguing thing about rockfish is that in the same genus—which is sebastes—there are rockfish that have not been noted more than about twelve to twenty years maximum longevity, and these are essentially cousins. They are rockfish, and some of these at least have been caught in thousands of samples, so it’s not just an aberration of a small sample size.

One of the key issues people have raised to me at meetings is that you have to have something to compare these long-lived animals to in order to try and understand why they’re successfully retarding aging. So what better model can you have than another species within the same genus that don’t live a very long time? In all the meetings I’ve gone to I haven’t had anybody come up and say, oh here’s another species that has a really diverse longevity. There is one kind of similar one—the naked mole rat. It’s just in the last few years that it’s gotten more publicity. It’s a rodent, and most rodents—like mice and rats—live maybe two to five years maximum. The naked mole rat has been documented to live at least into its twenties. So it’s on quite another order of magnitude different than other rodents. The bat is another exception that lives way longer than other mammals, and birds, of course, are their own interesting exception.

So that’s our focus, which is almost out of necessity, because how do you design an experiment to test for longevity when you’ve got such long-lived animals? Whatever tests we’re going to do to the long-lived rockfish in the future, like a micro-array, we want to do with the short-lived ones too.

Q: Could you talk about some of the principal investigators for the Ageless Animal project, and can you summarize some of the latest research that’s going on with long-lived animals?
John Guerin: There’s fourteen principal investigators at fourteen different universities. There are some co-PIs involved as well, such as Dr. Judd Aiken at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He’s very well-known and respected in the field. He does mitochondrial mutation studies, and this could be one of the more important areas because of what we know about free radical damage. The oxidative theory seems to be of the more important theories of aging, so I’m encouraged, even though at this point he hasn’t gotten results yet. His lab is working on amplifying the primers. So that could be a very important study. I think the microarray study is an important one too.

Dr. Ana Maria Cuervo, who’s at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, did the most complete study. Her study was on lisosomes and proteolytic activity, and she actually has done more than is on the web site. She added some more tests that she didn’t have available a couple of years ago, and she told me about a month ago that she was getting her manuscript ready to publish. So that would be the most extensive study. Also, there’s Glenn Gerhard, M.D., who was at Dartmouth and then he took a full-time research position at a research institute in Pennsylvania. He did a SOD (superoxide dismutase) study and then also the microarray study.

Q: Why do you think that the study of long-lived animals has been neglected for so long?
John: I have thought about it, and partly I have to say I don’t understand why. I think that’s why somebody like me would get involved, because I have a project management background and I can see the big picture. There’s more than one reason I can see as to why people in the field wouldn’t have gotten involved. It’s risky to put your career on the line to look at animals that haven’t been studied very well and that there’s no cultures available of. Whereas with other species strains are easily available. For instance, with any mouse you want you could get a strain, and you could have it under the identical conditions you need.

But this hasn’t been done with any of these long-lived animals. For me, the biggest question really is: Why hasn’t the National Institute of Aging taken a lead? This is a perfect opportunity for government to get involved, where there is no profit motive. This is basic research that we’re doing with these animals, and basic research doesn’t necessarily have a pay-back. Now, let’s say we find something like we did with the SOD study. We had a very interesting finding that SOD went up with age in rockfish, and as you may be aware, SOD is the strongest antioxidant in our bodies, and in most animals. So that it goes up with age is a very intriguing finding. That’s something we hope to look into more, but in general all of the things we’ve done are just basic science. We’re just laying the groundwork.

Q: Has anybody done any studies to see if whale cells, rockfish cells, or turtle cells reach a Hayflick limit in the number of times that they can divide? Are their telomeres growing shorter with each cell division?
John Guerin: In terms of the Hayflick limit, you very well may be aware that most gerontologists don’t consider that to be a limitation of aging. At some point, maybe about ten years ago, it was a much bigger topic. Nowadays, telomeres and telomerase is much more of a cancer issue, because most cancer cells keep producing that enzyme that allows cells to keep dividing.

Q: When I interviewed Dr. Michael Fossel for this collection he thought differently.
John Guerin: I would have to say that the majority of gerontologists don’t believe it that way. I remember at a meeting a couple of years ago, somebody just making an offhand remark that we used to think telomerase and telomeres were important. I think if you do a survey you would find that that the majority of gerontologists don’t believe it that way. The telomerase limit and the Hayflick limit don’t seem to necessarily be what it once was thought to be, because even older people have continued replication of the cells that do divide. There’s a bunch of reasons that it doesn’t seem as important now as at one point when they thought it was.

Q: Yes, I understand that, but I’m still curious. Do you know if these animals that have negligible senescence, if their cells reach a Hayflick limit? Is there a limit to how many times the cells from these animals can divide?
John Guerin: We have fourteen studies—twelve in the U.S. and two in Europe. One of the European studies is in Germany by someone named Guido Krupp, who looked at telomerase levels in nine different rockfish. He looked at three samples—one of heart, one of liver, and one of brain—all the way from teenage years up to a 93 year old rockfish. All of the three tissues showed expression of telomerase, and there was no age-dependent change of expression of telomerase in the tissues. There was individual differences. Some were higher and some were lower. One of the higher levels of telomerase was found in the 93 year old, but the primary finding was that there was no trend. As far as whales go, the only other person I know outside our group and Caleb Finch at USC, who actually is studying these long-lived animals is a guy at the University of Texas in Dallas named Jerry Shay. He got some samples of bowhead whale, and he’s basically doing these cell replications to see how many replications he gets out of them.

Apparently, it’s pretty hard to get the samples, because they had to go through the Canadian government, and it was quite an ordeal. Jerry Shay is the only one I know of who’s done bowhead whale studies. But in this one study four of the whales out of forty were documented to be over a hundred years old, and one of them was over two hundred years old. And that’s without doctors. Although this was not in the paper, we know that at least one of those hundred-plus year old male whales was reproductive, because when he was harpooned he was caught in the act.

Q: Wait a minute. This hundred-plus year old whale was harpooned while it was having sex?
John Guerin: Yes, and it was over a hundred. There were three that were between a hundred and two hundred. One was 211 years old. When I talked to the researcher, who is an ecologist, I said, “Gerontologists want to know, how do you know that the whales weren’t about to keel over, that they were on their last leg?” And then he has an example like this. I’m like, were they reproductive? And he goes, well, one of the males sure was.

Big Lobsters and Eternal Life

Decline is an accepted part of old age for most people, even for those still searching for the fountain of youth. We expect the same in our pets and in the flies that buzz around us, albeit at a different rate. So why are lobsters different? A study conducted in 1998 showed that lobsters maintain telomerase activation late in life. But before we explain that, let’s talk briefly about cell division.

Telomeres are like caps or sheathes that encase the ends of chromosomes. When cells divide, telomeres get shorter. When telomeres get to a certain length, they can no longer protect chromosomes and the chromosomes start to suffer damage. The number of cell divisions before damage sets in is called the Hayflick limit. Telomerase is an enzyme that adds length to telomeres, extending their life span. In humans, telomerase is abundant in embryonic stem cells and then declines later in life. This is actually a good thing because when cells re-activate telomerase after reaching the Hayflick limit, they become cancerous (in other words, they don’t die when they’re supposed to). The downside is that cells with short telomeres weaken and die, so we eventually die, too.

In humans, telomerase levels decline later in life and are only found in some types of tissue, but in lobsters, telomerase is found in all types of tissue. That likely accounts for lobsters’ ability to grow throughout their lives. And because lobsters’ skeletons are on the outside and the molting process allows them to periodically shed their exoskeletons in favor of a new, larger one, their constant growth isn’t a problem. With a steady, evenly distributed supply of telomerase, lobsters don’t approach the Hayflick limit, which means that their cells stay pristine, young and dividing.

The dual role of telomerase in keeping cells healthy and in cancer growth means that it’s an important area of research for both anti-aging and cancer treatments. Further study of lobsters may teach us more about their longevity, how long they can actually live and what that knowledge may mean for human health. Scientists are also studying a variety of other animals that are long-lived. Like lobsters, many types of turtles don’t show compromised immunity or physical breakdown because of age. They also become more fertile with age and usually die because of a predator or malady unrelated to age.

A bird known as Leach’s storm petrel fits into a human hand yet lives more than 30 years. They’re also the only known animal in which telomeres grow longer with age. Related animal species with vastly different life spans are also a point of interest. Conventional mice live only three years, but naked mole rats can live for 28. Other animals being studied include whales, bats, rockfish, zebrafish and clams, the oldest of which, a quahog clam, lived to be 220 years old. In many of these animals, the rate of telomere deterioration corresponds with their lifespan. The longer the telomeres last, the longer the animals live. Studying these creatures may tell us much about human aging and lead to treatments for aging-related diseases. Exciting research is being conducted on many fronts — on the molecular and genetic levels and regarding lifestyle, diet and habitat. If one day humans discover an important new treatment for cancer, it may be due to one of these creatures — or to a 200-pound lobster living peacefully in a tank at Boston University.

Jelle Atema
email : atema [at] bu [dot] edu

“For the past 21 years, across the limitless expanse of the North Pacific, a lonely whale has been singing, calling for a response. There has been none, and there never will. Picked up first in 1989 by NOAA hydrophones, the call is clearly a whale, but different than all other known species. Different enough that no other whale has responded in all this time. Hypotheses vary, but the mental image is definitely haunting.”

Lonely whale’s song remains a mystery
BY Jon Copley / 10 December 2004

Marine biologist Mary Ann Daher of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, US, and her colleagues used signals recorded by the US navy’s submarine-tracking hydrophones to trace the movements of whales in the north Pacific. The partially declassified records show that a lone whale singing at around 52 hertz has cruised the ocean every autumn and winter since 1992. Its calls do not match those of any known species, although they are clearly those of a baleen whale, a group that includes blue, fin and humpback whales.

Blue whales typically call at frequencies between 15 and 20 hertz. They use some higher frequencies, but not 52 hertz, Daher says. Fin whales make pulsed sounds at around 20 hertz, while humpbacks sing at much higher frequencies. The tracks of the lone whale do not match the migration patterns of any other species, either. Over the years the calls have deepened slightly, perhaps because the whale has aged, but its voice is still recognisable. Daher doubts that the whale belongs to a new species, although no similar call has been found anywhere else, despite careful monitoring.

Mary Ann Daher
email : mdaher [at] whoi [dot] edu