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Original author: 
Paul Moakley

“[In nature] we may even glimpse the means with which to accept ourselves. Before nature, what I see does not truly belong to anyone; I know that I cannot have it, in fact, I’m not sure what I’m seeing.” —Emmet Gowin

The allure of the American West has captivated photographers since the earliest days of the medium. Photography was used as a tool to decipher the vastness of the new and unknown frontier. One can see a rich photographic form of manifest destiny stemming from pioneering documentarians like Timothy O’Sullivan in the 1800s to preservationists like Ansel Adams in the 1960s. Although the intentions of these photographers have shifted over time, the landscape has provided consistent inspiration for our deepest desires. In more recent history, our concerns about our footprint on the environment have led photographers to investigate deeper than what’s easily accessible.

David Maisel is a photographer of the current wave of contemporary artists concerned with hidden land — remote sites of industrial waste, mining, and military testing that are not yet indexed on Google Maps. His latest book, Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime (Steidl), observes the land from a god-like perspective of the sky and with an obsession with environmental destruction.

“The original impetus for the work was informed by looking really closely at 19th-century exploratory photography,” explains Maisel, “and then, an arc through the New Topographics work of the 70s.” He cites the work of iconic black-and-white image makers like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams — photographers who focused on man-altered landscapes — but felt inspired to “push it further.”

This epic project began almost thirty years ago in a plane over Mount St. Helens. Maisel, a 22-year-old photography student, was accompanying his college professor, Emmet Gowin, with his work. “That experience of being at Mt. St. Helen’s was really formative,” says Maisel. “I don’t even know if I’d be a photographer. It was an essential moment for me.”

Flying in to view the crater of the volcano formed by the extreme force of Mother Nature, he photographed a large swath of deforestation, something the young photographer had never seen growing up in the suburbs of Long Island, N.Y.

“As a kid at that point who had grown up in the suburbs of New York, I just never had seen a landscape put to work in that way by industry. Especially on that scale,” says Maisel. The phenomenal destruction revealed a conflict in modern life that he’s been fixated on since.

Courtesy of David Maisel

Courtesy of David Maisel

In the 1980’s, talking about the environment through art seemed out of step with the dialogue that was happening around Maisel as a young art student. Looking back, his formative work now stands somewhere between classic documentary and abstract expressionism. “Just bringing up Robert Smithson (the pioneering land artist) makes me remember. When I first got interested in him in the early 80′s, that’s not where the art world was at all. And it’s not where this society was at all. This idea of looking at the environment and changes to the environment, was like, ‘oh, that’s ecology, that died in the 60s, we’re done with that.’”

In no way did that attitude derail his fascination in the environment — instead, he began creating an artistic dialogue in nature as the inspiration. But it’s Maisel’s distinct intentions and conceptualization that separates the photographer from your average eco-activist, who’s motivation to shoot may be based in a desire to preserve natural spaces or reveal the evils of industry.

The work in Black Maps, unlike more polemic natural disaster photography, relies on abstraction. He creates full-frame surrealist visions of toxic lakes and captures the maddening designs of man-altered landscapes. In the abstract series The Lake Project (slide 15), viewers are overwhelmed by alien colors, allured by frame after frame of man-made destruction. The repetitive nature of viewing this destruction from a distance creates a sublime beauty in a classical sense. In less abstract work such as Oblivion (slide 7), which looks at the cityscapes of Los Angeles, the images become scorched black and white metaphors for the complete obliteration of a natural state.

Over the years, Maisel published a few of these projects as separate volumes, but in Black Maps, the intention is to see their power as part of a dialogue with each other. “I think the feeling of being kind of overwhelmed is almost part of the aesthetic of the work,” he says.

“There are just certain real conundrums on how we are developing the planet and changing the planet, and I think that’s what I still want to pursue,” says the photographer. But where Maisel could accuse, he instead becomes reflective on these issues,  providing evidence of what he’s seeing and crafting in his printing process.

“I was also really conscious that these sites were American,” says Maisel. I was making a book about the country that I live in and that I know the best.”

He’s also keenly aware of the ethical contradictions of making photographic work in this way — with chemicals, computers and papers. “On that first excursion out West, I came back and I processed all my film and made my contact sheets and then I thought, ‘what the hell am I doing? How can I? — I can’t,’ I was paralyzed. And it took me a while to work through that, to realize that I’m embedded in this. At that moment in my life, I was living on the coast of Maine in this renovated barn that we heated with a wood stove, and it was about as far off the grid that I have ever gotten. I just realized I can’t remove myself from the society I live in and from my own way of wanting to communicate. But yes, I’m as guilty as the next person and I am complicit and I think that we all are complicit. This work isn’t meant to be a diatribe against a specific industry or industries.”

With that understanding of the interconnectedness of man and industry, and the conundrums involved in being a human in this era, Maisel’s work becomes a meditation on ourselves and what we’ve done to the planet. He say’s, “I think that these kind of sites correspond to something within our own psyches.”

“I think that … maybe these are all self-portraits. There’s something — we collectively as a society have made these places, that’s my take on it. And so, they really do reflect us. And so, it’s not ‘them’ making these places, it’s us.”

David Maisel is a photographer living near San Francisco and is represented by Institute.

Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime is published this month by Steidl. The work is on view at the CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder, February 1 – May 11, 2013, and will travel to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, Scottsdale, Arizona, June 1 – September 1, 2013.

Paul Moakley is the Deputy Photo Editor at TIME. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulmoakley.

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There are few things quite as tense as watching one volcanologist mutter, "Oh my god. He's crazy. He's crazy," while watching another volcanologist scramble around the edge of a caldera.

It only gets more tense when you realize that the volcano in question is Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—which has some of the fastest-moving lava flows ever recorded. The key feature of Nyiragongo is that lake of lava in the center of the crater that you see in the video. In January 1977, the lava lake was 2000 feet deep. When the volcano erupted later that month, the lake emptied dry in less than an hour. Lava was clocked at 40 mph.

Video clip from the BBC's "Journey to the Center of the Planet"

More about the program this came from.

Via EstudandoGeologia and Chris Rowan

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Do they still make children's books with sad endings? Like The Velveteen Rabbit? Because I think I've got a doozy here.

It's all about a 747 who loves to fly. It's what she was built to do and it's what she does best. For years, she soars through the skies, ferrying cargo and, possibly, some nondescript men in nice suits. (Or maybe not. Depends on when she went into service.) But through it all, the little 747 just wants to spend as much time as she can aloft, among the clouds, where she belongs.

But then, one day, the nondescript men in nice suits tell her that it's time she retire. They take her to a place in the desert and leave her there, with lots of other retired planes who've given up and are slowly falling apart. Other men come and they take her engines. Then they take all the beautiful buttons and switches from cockpit. The other planes tell her that, soon, men will come with saws to cut away parts of her fuselage. But the little 747 never breaks. They can take her apart, bit by bit, but they can't take away her dreams. And still, sometimes, in the boneyard, she tries to take to the skies just one last time.

Seriously. Somebody call the Newberry committee.

And bring me a hanky.

Video Link

Thanks to Andrew Balfour for the video, and to Shahv Press for the background on Southern Air.

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Anything that inspires a good angry rant in real life can be turned into a Downfall video.

Getting a peer reviewed research paper through the aforementioned review process can be a stressful, rant-inducing experience. Remember, in order to be published, the paper is read by three (usually anonymous) reviewers who work in the same field of science. They judge things like whether the experiments described in the paper were done well enough, whether the work is original, and whether the take-away conclusions the scientist is presenting match up with the results of the experiments.

Last year, I wrote up a longer piece explaining peer review in more depth. Give it a read, and then see if you're surprised that there are multiple versions of peer review Hitler.

Above, Hitler is having problems with the third reviewer on his peer review board. Below the cut, Hitler's grant proposal is rejected by the National Institutes of Health.

Thanks to Steven Ashley for opening the wormhole on these science-based Hitler videos for me!

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There are nearly two million described species of animal and plant life in the world, with estimates of the total number of species ranging from a few to many multiples of those described. On top of the mammoth zoological task of cataloging all that life, those sheer numbers offer a more profound problem: There is a wealth of life sitting right under our very noses, and every day species go extinct that most of us never even knew about.

Enter the Map of Life, a newly-released online tool for tracking and cataloging the world’s biodiversity. Led by Walter Jetz and Robert Guralnick, a pair of biodiversity scientists, the Map of Life project aims to solve a real issue in zoology: techniques for measuring biodiversity in geographic terms — tracking the fluctuating territories of species as populations and habitats decline — is terribly outdated.

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This playlist from YouTube user hideyasann features more than 100 short clips of trains and train restrooms in Japan. Most of the train videos are of trains pulling into a station, or changing tracks. Most of the toilet videos emphasize the flushing mechanisms—of which there are a surprising variety.

As a rail fan, it's interesting to see what so many different Japanese stations and trains look like. And there's no narration, so it's also interesting to watch these very matter-of-fact clips and think about the visual context they trigger in your head. Men in suits waiting on a platform for a train to change tracks—that's a scene from a serious drama about the inner psychology of a businessman. A shakey clip where the videographer walks towards an arriving train, and a station agent, while breathing heavily—that's totally a scene from a horror movie. I'm honestly not sure what to make of all the toilets.

It's also kind of awesome to just think about the level of obsession that went into this playlist. I'm not really sure what hideyasann is trying to document—Train variety? Train cleanliness? Is he or she just collecting the same footage from as many trains as possible? Whatever the goal, you can clearly see the love and fascination here. There's totally a Happy Mutant at work.

Playlist Link

Via goldensloth on Submitterator

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Back in 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the economics Nobel Prize for showing that human beings don't have a really good intuitive grasp of risk. Basically, the decisions we make when faced with a risky proposition depend more on how the question is framed than on what the actual outcome might be.

The classic example is to tell a subject that there's going to be a disaster. Out of 600 people, she has a chance of saving 200 if she takes x risk. If she doesn't take the risk, everybody dies. Most people will take the risk in that scenario, but if you present the same situation and frame it differently—"If you take this risk, 400 people will die"—the decisions suddenly flip in the other direction. Nothing has changed about the outcome. But everything has changed in terms of how people feel about the decision they have to make. This is the kind of thing that matters a lot to economics because it helps to explain why economic behavior in the real world isn't always as rational and self-interested as it is in theory.

There's a new study out in the journal Psychological Science that might add another layer of complexity to Kahneman's research. If you're thinking and talking in your native language, you're likely to respond to a risky situation pretty much exactly as in the classic example. But, these researchers found that if you're thinking and talking about the situation in a second language, things change. At Wired, Brandon Keim explains:

The first experiment involved 121 American students who learned Japanese as a second language. Some were presented in English with a hypothetical choice: To fight a disease that would kill 600,000 people, doctors could either develop a medicine that saved 200,000 lives, or a medicine with a 33.3 percent chance of saving 600,000 lives and a 66.6 percent chance of saving no lives at all.

Nearly 80 percent of the students chose the safe option. When the problem was framed in terms of losing rather than saving lives, the safe-option number dropped to 47 percent. When considering the same situation in Japanese, however, the safe-option number hovered around 40 percent, regardless of how choices were framed. The role of instinct appeared reduced.

That's interesting. The researchers tried this basic thing with several different groups of people—mostly native English speakers—and used several different risk scenarios, some involving loss of life, others involving loss of a job, and others involving decisions about betting money on a coin toss. They saw the same results in all the tests: People thinking in their second language weren't as swayed by the emotional impact of framing devices.

One study doesn't prove this is universally true. Even if it is true, nobody knows yet exactly why. But Keim says that the researchers think the difference lies in emotional distance. If you have to pause and really put some brain power into thinking about grammar and vocabulary, you can't just jump straight into the knee-jerk reaction.

Read the rest of Keim's write-up on the study at Wired.com

Via Marilyn Terrell

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In Before the Lights Go Out, my new book about the future of energy, I made a joke about the formation of fossil fuels that I would like to rescind.

"All three fossil fuels come from the same place—ancient plants and animals that died and were buried beneath layers of earth and rock, often millions of years before dinosaurs roamed this planet. (That's right. Oil isn't made from dinosaurs. But an apatosaurus makes a better corporate mascot than a phytoplankton does.)"

After watching this video about the secret lives of plankton, produced by TEDEducation and marine biologist Tierney Thys, I feel that the above statement is in error. Clearly, plankton—including phytoplankton, which are just tiny plants, as opposed to zooplankton, which are tiny animals—would make excellent mascots. Somebody at Standard Oil really dropped the ball on this one.

Side Note: I found this video through a link to The Kid Should See This, a blog that aggregates kid-friendly wonders from science, art, technology, and more. If you aren't reading it, you should be. Even if you don't have kids.

Via Jason Robertshaw

Video Link

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We've talked here before about the extremely important (and often-overlooked) DIY aspect of science. Scientists are makers. They have to be. The tools they need often aren't available any other way. Other times, the tools are available, but they're far more expensive than what you could construct out of your own ingenuity.

In this video, researchers at Cambridge build LEGO robots that automate time-consuming laboratory processes at a fraction of the cost of a "real" robot.

Video Link

Via Karyn Traphagen

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