Barack Obama presents the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal to Annie Dillard at the White House.


American nonfiction writer and novelist Annie Dillard was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (April 30, 1945). In 1970, she began keeping journals of her daily walks around Tinker Creek, by her home outside the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. She’d write about everything she saw, like animals and birds, and even her reflections on theology and literature. Eventually, she wrote so much she filled 20 volumes of journals. She decided she had enough for a book and at the very end, she was writing for 15 to 16 hours a day. That book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), won the Pulitzer Prize, when Annie Dillard was just 29 years old.

Dillard was the daughter of an oil company executive and read voraciously as a child. She says, “I opened books like jars.” One of her very favorites was The Field Book of Ponds and Streams (1930) by Ann Haven Morgan. She wrote about growing up in Pittsburgh in her autobiography, An American Childhood(1987). It was so popular that it helped usher in the memoir craze.

Dillard went to college, and ended up marrying her writing professor. She says: “In college I learned how to learn from other people. As far as I was concerned, writing in college didn’t consist of what little Annie had to say, but what Wallace Stevens had to say. I didn’t come to college to think my own thoughts; I came to learn what had been thought.” Annie Dillard’s books include Holy the Firm (1977), which is only 66 pages long, but took 14 months to write; Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982); and The Maytrees (2007).

Her advice: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek begins: “I live by a creek, Tinker Creek, in a valley in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. An anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchor-hold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock. I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does, facing the stream of light pouring down. It’s a good place to live; there’s a lot to think about.”




Where Have You Gone, Annie Dillard?

Why the author has become so much less prolific over the past 17 years

The Abundance, a selection from the work of one of the great, original voices in recent American letters, might just as easily be called The Absence. It speaks of absence—for nature’s profusion, in Annie Dillard, is everywhere the signage of the hidden god she seeks—and it also marks an absence: hers. Dillard’s first book appeared in 1974. Over the following 25 years, she published 10 more original volumes, including two that have achieved the status of modern classics, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a latter-day Walden, and The Writing Life, a “spiritual Strunk & White” (as one reviewer put it), and two more that deserve to, Holy the Firm, which might have been written in letters of flame, and Teaching a Stone to Talk, a jewel box of narrative meditations. (Some might add An American Childhood, her celebrated memoir.) In the 17 years since, she’s published one, and none since 2007.

The Abundance only serves to underscore the dearth. The subtitle, Narrative Essays Old and New, is false advertising; there are no new pieces here. The most recent essay in the book, which is also the only one not included in a previous volume, is 11 years old. There are many reasons a writer might slow down or even stop, most of them mysterious to strangers. But Dillard’s turn to silence, if that is what it is, could in retrospect be seen as having been inevitable all along—given her choice of materials, her idiosyncratic sensibility, the very nature of her project.


Dillard declared her arrival, at the age of 28—brash and bold and talented beyond belief—with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). The book was unabashed about its lineage. An ardent young American takes to the woods, anchoring herself beside a water. Sojourning for many a season, she distills her experience down to a symbolic single year. “I propose to keep here,” she announces at the start of her account, “what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind.’ ” She scrutinizes nature with monastic patience and a microscopic eye. She delivers doctrine with the certainty of revelation and the arrogance (and agedness) of youth. She summons us to wake from dull routine. With flourishes of brass, she proclaims a new dawn.The text itself is thickly planted with marvels to watch for, its vision fresh as Adam’s on the first day. A creek bank is a “twiggy haze.” A gibbous moon is “softly frayed, like the heel of a sock.” “It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky,” Dillard tells us. “Any object at a distance—like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window—looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue.” But she doesn’t need a simile to send a sense aloft. Muskrats in their dens “strew the floor with plant husks and seeds, rut in repeated bursts, and sleep humped and soaking, huddled in balls.” The language makes of brute factuality a verbal music. An egg case of a praying mantis “has a dead straw, dead weed color, and a curious brittle texture, hard as varnish, but pitted minutely, like frozen foam.” There are flashes of humor as well. Newts “are altogether excellent creatures, if somewhat moist, but no one pays the least attention to them, except children.” Children, of course, and her.


Yet for all Dillard’s brilliance as a nature writer, nature isn’t finally her subject. She situates herself on territory like Thoreau’s but faces toward a very different compass point. He also went to nature, truth be told, with other things in mind. He looked at the pond, but he was thinking about Concord—how the people there lived, and how it might be possible to live another way. Walden’s first, long chapter is titled “Economy,” complete with lists of expenditures for things like nails and lard. We watch him build his famous little house, and plant his beans, and chop his wood, which warms him twice.

But in Pilgrim there is no economy and no society. We don’t know how Dillard lives, or how she makes a living, or much of anything about her circumstances. Notwithstanding the occasional, distant presence of neighbors in the book, it comes as a surprise to find her describing the creek’s vicinity, in a subsequent volume, as suburban—and a shock to learn, from biographical sources, that she was married the whole time. In a curious way, she is absent from her own book, at least as more than an Emersonian eyeball (albeit one that’s cabled to a buzzing brain), and others are absent altogether. The cabin near Concord had plenty of visitors—in fact, there’s a whole chapter in Walden called “Visitors”—among whom was Thoreau’s dear friend Ellery Channing. Dillard has a companion named Ellery Channing too, but he’s a goldfish. Thoreau, whose commandment is “simplify,” wants to reconstruct society from the ground up. Dillard, whose law is “look,” only wants to renovate your soul.

She looks at crayfish, looks at copperheads, looks at a little green frog, half out of the water, that as she watches “crumpled and began to sag… shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football,” its innards liquefied and emptied by a giant biting bug. But looking at these marvels, she is always looking for God. She is not a naturalist, not an environmentalist; she’s a theologian—a pilgrim. Her field notes on the physical world are recorded as researches toward the fundamental metaphysical conundra: Why is there something rather than nothing, and what on Earth are we doing here? What, in other words—with crayfish and copperheads and giant biting bugs, with creeks and stars and human beings with their sense of beauty—does God have in mind?

Dillard, needless to say, does not answer these questions. But the striking thing about her search for God is that she sometimes finds him. Pilgrim’s second chapter, after a kind of introduction, is titled “Seeing.” (Both sections are included in The Abundance.) There are two kinds, she explains. The common variety is active, where you strain, against the running babble of internal monologue, to pay attention to what’s actually in front of you. That’s the sort of seeing that produces perceptions, and phrases, like twiggy haze. But, she tells us, “there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” You do not seek, you wait. It isn’t prayer; it is grace. The visions come to you, and they come from out of the blue.

The distinction is akin to Proust’s two forms of memory. His holy grail, you might recall, is the involuntary kind, the kind that bursts upon you unexpectedly, as when the narrator’s entire childhood unfurls from the madeleine. That is the epiphany; that is the miracle. So it is with Dillard. She tells us about a girl who was cured of congenital blindness and, being taken into a garden, saw, as she put it, “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for that tree, Dillard says, that she herself searched for years:

Then one day, walking along Tinker Creek, thinking of nothing at all, I saw it—the tree with the lights in it. It was the same backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost, only charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame … It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance … I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.

The encounter is erotic (“knocked breathless by a powerful glance”), like the ecstasies of Saint Teresa. God has seen and seized her, claimed her. This, again, is something very different from Thoreau’s experience. To use a pair of terms that Dillard introduces in a later book, she is not a pantheist (as he was) but a panentheist. God, panentheism says, is not coextensive with, identical to, the physical world, the world of nature. He is a being that transcends it even as he dwells within it. Get rid of nature, for the pantheist, and you get rid of God. Get rid of nature, for the panentheist, and you see him all the clearer. That, I think, is why it has to be a creek for Dillard, not a pond. Walden, in its depth and stillness (the attributes Thoreau insists upon most keenly), symbolizes nature’s stability and serenity. The world abides and always will. But the creek, for Dillard, is energy, divine spirit, “the stream of light pouring down.” The world does not abide. Creation is continuous, and the heavens will be rolled up as a scroll. She watches the water, but waits for the flame.

Thoreau runs his narrative year from spring to spring—nature filling up, emptying, and starting to fill up again. Dillard runs her own from winter to winter; the emphasis is on the emptiness. In an afterword written for the 25th-anniversary edition, she reveals a deeper, two-part structure. “Neoplatonic Christianity described two routes to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. Philosophers on the via positiva assert that God… possesses all positive attributes.” Those along the other pathway “stressed God’s unknowability.” They “jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Pilgrim, Dillard says, walks both routes in succession. The first half, culminating with the summer solstice, is the plenitude; the second the reduction. A final chapter recapitulates the movement. Its epigraph—employed again in The Abundance—comes from the Koran. “They will question thee concerning what they should expend. Say: ‘The Abundance.’ ” Accumulate, then spend. Accumulate to spend. Gather nature to get rid of it—but you can’t get rid of it until you’ve done the formic labor that such gathering entails.


Get rid of nature, to see the God who dwells in nature. It sounds paradoxical, and it is. (Dillard quotes Augustine in a later book: “If you do understand, then it is not God.”) But Dillard has been chasing that paradox ever since. The via negativa, with its purity and stringency, clearly proved to be the more congenial path. Virginia, where she’d come for college, did not turn out to be her landscape. From Tinker Creek, beneath the Blue Ridge Mountains in the lushness of the Roanoke Valley, she decamped, the year after publishing Pilgrim, for a place considerably more austere: Lummi Island, in the northern reaches of Puget Sound. The region, with its wall of mountains to the east and endless salted ocean to the west, was for her, as she was soon to call it, “the edge of the known and comprehended world… the western rim of the real… the fringey edge… where time and eternity spatter each other with foam”—a place, in other words, where nature stops and the darkness of divinity begins.

The description comes from Holy the Firm(1977), the work she proceeded to write there, a book that is to Pilgrim what Lummi Island is to Tinker Creek. It throws out the crayfish and copperheads, the frogs, the bugs, the twigs, the scientific lore, all meanderings of thought and ambulation. The text runs 65 pages, short ones, and the prose seems pressed out drop by drop. Dillard later said the book took 14 months to write, full-time, which works out to something like 25 words a day. The sentences are bitten rock, bitter water, biting wind: “Nothing is going to happen in this book. There is only a little violence here and there in the language, at the corner where eternity clips time.”

The final phrase articulates the volume’s central theme. For eternity, read “God.” For time, read “the world” (i.e., us). For clips, read “kills”—or maims, burns, starves, causes anguish or grief—that “little violence here and there.” Dillard later explained, in An American Childhood (1987), that she had quit her church, at age 16, over the problem of suffering, the evident impossibility of reconciling the idea of a loving God with the circumstances that prevail in his creation, the law of universal pain. This is the problem of Job, and like whoever wrote his story, Dillard doesn’t try to offer a solution. She knows that all you can really do is frame the question, which she does by telling us about a child named Julie Norwich. Julie is a local girl, 7 years old. Holy the Firm presents itself as the record of three days on the island. On the second, Julie goes down in a plane crash—her father, flying the craft, is unharmed—and has her face burnt off.

I doubt that Julie Norwich ever existed. Her name is an echo of Julian of Norwich, the medieval anchoress and mystic, whom Dillard had alluded to in Pilgrim. Julie’s parents are Jesse and Ann, the father of King David (a figure for Christ in Christian typology) and the mother of the Virgin Mary. Dillard also gives us dates for the book’s events (for example, Friday, November 20) that seem deliberately to misalign with the two years during which the narrative might have taken place. But it doesn’t matter whether Julie is real. Her story is a parable, like Job’s. Her story is a riddle, like his. Why do such things happen? For they happen all the time and everywhere around us. In “The Deer at Providencia,” an essay published just around the time she moved to Puget Sound (also reproduced in The Abundance), Dillard writes about a trip to South America. One day she sees a deer tied up in a village. It’s going to be dinner that night. In language flayed to rawness she describes its suffering:

Trying to get itself free of the rope, the deer had cut its own neck with its hooves … Now three of its feet were hooked in the rope under its jaw. It could not stand … so it could not move to slacken the rope and ease the pull on its throat … Its hip jerked; its spine shook. Its eyes rolled; its tongue, thick with spit, pushed in and out.

She might be a god on Olympus, looking down impassively on human suffering. (She’s also testing us to see how we react.) Afterward she eats a lavish lunch, including a venison stew. Her companions, older men, are surprised at her detachment. “Gentlemen of the city,” she apostrophizes them in the essay, “what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know it?” She has thought about the fact that she (and we, and many, many other animals) eat meat. “These things are not issues,” she tells us. “They are mysteries.”


Issues are addressed; mysteries are witnessed. The story of Julie Norwich, in the second part of Holy the Firm, is prefigured by another story in the first. (The most celebrated passage in the book, the earlier story is also in the new collection.) Dillard is camping. A moth gets stuck in her candle flame. It burns—then, a hollowed shell, a wick, it keeps on burning. “The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours… like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burnt out his brains in a thousand poems.” The final reference blossoms in the volume’s final third. The virgin Julie, consecrated by the touch of God, will nonetheless undoubtedly go back into the world, Dillard thinks. So she herself will be the nun, the anchoress, instead. Which means the poet, the artist: head afire, channeling the Holy Spirit, “lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see.” Giving her life to illuminate the divine darkness. Bearing witness to the dear.

Such is the vocation Dillard expands on in The Writing Life(1989). The book is not a manual of tips. It is a portrait of the artist as a soul, its moral qualities and moral situation, offered in the second person. “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” And: “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time.” The book proceeds, like all her finest work, as a series of extended metaphors. The writer is a miner with a pick; the writer is a pilot with a plane; the writer is a rower in a skiff, towing a log against the current, heading stoutly always in the same direction. The volume’s dominant motif is the single room: a shed on Cape Cod, a cabin on a Puget beach, an office, a study, a carrel (a cockpit, a skiff)—the hermit’s cell, the mind alone with itself. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”

The work is a collage, like all her finest books. Dillard has remarked that her objective as a writer of prose has been to reproduce, on a larger scale, poetry’s “capacity for deep internal structures of meaning.” (Her first book, in 1974, was a volume of lyrics, Tickets for a Prayer Wheel. Later, in 1995, she published Mornings Like This, whose poems are assemblages of sentences from other people’s books, one book per poem.) She creates these structures like an artisan working in stained glass. A piece of this, a piece of that, a moment, a story, a scientific fact, a bit of spiritual wisdom: underneath, an iron structure; on the surface, what appears to be a mind at dazzling play. Pilgrim was assembled from a heap of index cards. “ ‘Seeing,’ ” that second chapter, “gave me so much trouble to put together I nearly abandoned the book.” For the Time Being (1999), her most recent work but one, consists of seven sections, each one cycling through a set of rubrics in fixed order (“birth,” “sand,” “China,” “clouds”), 10 of them, a kind of rosary, their facets winking as they’re turned and turned about. The meanings happen in the parts, and in the spaces in between them.In Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), the pieces are essays themselves. The collection, which includes “The Deer at Providencia,” might just be her greatest book, and it receives the largest share of The Abundance. Its finest piece, its central piece, the one that’s chosen to conclude the new collection, is “An Expedition to the Pole.” The essay is a single long extended metaphor in which the journey toward the Absolute—a k a the God of silence—which she elsewhere calls “this feckless prospecting in the dark for the unseen,” the lifelong effort to know the unknowable and to say the unsayable, is likened to the polar expeditions of yore. To most of us, as Dillard knows, the effort seems completely pointless. To her it is the only thing that gives our life a point.


Make no mistake about her spiritual extremity. This is a woman who has seen angels (as she tells us in another essay), who has seen visions, who has seen the tree with the lights in it, which another witness called the burning bush. But miracles like that, she later came to feel, are things that happen only to the young. Her mission since may be conceived of as a quest to recapture those glimpses by other, more deliberate means. No longer could she count on cracks appearing of a sudden in the midst of things through which the holy might pour. So she went to the edges. After Virginia, the scenes of her writing are almost uniformly places of, or next to, emptiness: Puget Sound, Cape Cod, the Alaskan Arctic, the Galápagos, the deserts of China and Israel—the wilderness, eternal haunt of seekers. Virginia itself, which she left around the time she turned 30, may be seen, in its spiritual fecundity, as a kind of figure for youth, her empty spaces as a metaphor for middle age.

The only thing that gives our life a point. Dillard, like Thoreau, is never shy about pronouncing wholesale condemnation on the way her fellows live. To her the mass of men lead lives not of quiet desperation but of superficiality, insensibility, and rank illusion. We live as if we think we’re never going to die. We live as if our petty business counted. We live as if we weren’t as numerous as sand, and each of us ephemeral as clouds. We live as if there hadn’t been a hundred thousand generations here before us, and another hundred thousand were not still to come. Yet all around us holiness and grace, freely given every moment for the taking.

One of the most remarkable things about her work, in fact, is just how much is absent from it. No economy, no society: no current events, no public affairs, no social engagement. With few exceptions, her writing seems to take place entirely outside the history of its own time. (A contrast may be drawn with Marilynne Robinson, Dillard’s nearest kin among contemporary authors, whose religious convictions are inseparable from strong political and social commitments.) “I had a head for religious ideas,” Dillard reports in An American Childhood, her chronicle of growing up in postwar, upper-class Pittsburgh, a book that is largely concerned with the development, in solitude, of the writer’s own consciousness. “They made other ideas seem mean.”


That feeling, it appears, has never altered. The social novel, the novel that “aims to fasten down the spirit of its time,” she tells us in The Writing Life, “has never seemed to me worth doing.” Her own novels, The Living (1992) and The Maytrees (2007), each a brilliant performance, find different ways to eschew the contemporary. The first is a multigenerational saga, set in the late 19th century, about the earliest white settlements near Puget Sound, written, with remarkable fidelity and tact, in period idiom. But it isn’t really about history, either, in the sense of thinking that it matters, or seeing it in terms of some kind of development, or tracing its connections, if only implicitly, to the present. Like all her work, the novel is about the fact of being alive, for a brief span, within the overwhelming context of the natural world. The Maytrees, her most recent book—its prose a prodigy of velocity and precision, language concentrated to an essence—dissents in space instead of time, taking up a handful of Provincetown bohemians, a kind of spiritual elect, who devote themselves to art, simplicity, and contemplation out there on the Outer Cape. Dillard’s mind is on eternity; she couldn’t give a damn about the spirit of her time.That, of course, is her prerogative (though the odor of self-congratulation starts to get a little thick in The Maytrees). But it points to several problems, and beyond them, to a fundamental limitation. For she is not content to walk her path in solitude. She also wants to tell us how to live. She has an ethic as well as a metaphysic, and it consists, in its entirety, of worship. “Quit your tents,” she preaches. “Pray without ceasing.” Dillard doesn’t seem to understand it’s not that simple, and I think it’s fair to note here not only that her family was rich, but that she married, in college, an established professional (and published, early, a perennial best seller). “It is noble work,” she says in reference to another pilgrim’s spiritual exercises, “and beats, from any angle, selling shoes.” Except the part where you, you know, get to feed your family.


Dillard is not content to affirm her own way. She needs to denigrate all other ways (unlike Thoreau, who wrote, “I would not have any one adopt my mode of living on any account; for… I desire that there may be as many different persons in the world as possible”). The social novel isn’t simply not her thing; it’s not worth doing at all. The life in nature is good; the life of civilization, the life of cities, as she repeatedly insists (it is a major theme in The Maytrees), is obsessed with stuff and status, the cultivation and display of good taste. The judgment seems, to put it mildly, overbroad. It sounds not like all life in all cities (and Dillard, as far as I can tell, hasn’t lived in any cities since abandoning her native Pittsburgh after high school), but like the white-gloved milieu that she tells us about in An American Childhood. Not to mention that the life of reading and writing to which she has devoted herself is inconceivable without civilization, and the cities where it’s principally created. Crayfish don’t write books, and copperheads don’t buy them.

But the problems go beyond hypocrisy and spiritual snobbery. Ordinarily, the thought that none of us matters in the larger scheme of things is followed by the corrective that, of course, we matter a great deal to one another, and need to take care of one another, and isn’t that what life is after all about? The word for this is morality, also known as love. But neither has much place in Dillard’s thought. For the Time Being, her last work of nonfiction, the book of seven parts and 10 rubrics, represents, among other things, a long meditation over her decades of reading in the literature of spirit. Its hero is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic priest, paleontologist, and theologian. Second place goes to the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. But Teilhard and the Baal Shem, mystics though they were, had codes of conduct, codes of service, too, which came to them from their religions. Dillard seems, at least in this late work, to sense what she is missing. Every once in a while, she pulls a kind of quarterback sneak, smuggling morality (“aiding and serving the afflicted and poor,” “a holy and compassionate intention”) into the discussion. The effect is of a man who finishes rebuilding the engine of his car and, finding a bolt on the driveway, balances it carefully on the hood. The bolt, in Dillard’s case, is the entire universe of human attachment.

And that, I think, may be the explanation for her movement into silence. Her works are each unique in formal terms, but there are only so many times, and so many ways, that you can make the same points. Already in her last two books, the only ones that she has written in more than 20 years, it feels as if, thematically at least, she is merely giving the old prayer wheel another spin. The Abundance, a collage of existing material, is, by definition, nothing new. One hopes it heralds a return. One fears it is a valedictory.

Annie Dillard – Official Site

A site maintained by Dillard herself, provides contact information as well as complete bibliographic information and a curriculum vitae.


Cormac McCarthy, the celebrated American novelist, author of ten novels, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, is publishing his first-ever non-fiction science essay in Nautilus magazine. Called “The Kekulé Problem,” it explores the unconscious and the origin of human language, and is the cover story of the March/April issue.  “The Kekulé Problem” was published online on April 20th at

The essay presents a new, surprising side of one of American’s greatest writing talents. Readers of his novels, which include The Road, No Country for Old Men, and All the Pretty Horses, may not be aware that for more than two decades McCarthy has been a senior fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, a science research center.

In his introduction to McCarthy’s essay, David Krakauer, president of SFI, notes that McCarthy is an aficionado in subjects ranging from the history of mathematics to the nature of the conscious. We learn he has been debating the nature of the unconscious mind for two decades.

McCarthy’s essay is a groundbreaking, humanist take on a foundational question in science, and a remarkable window into the self-conception of one of America’s greatest living writers. The essay can be read online, purchased in print form through the magazine’s online store at, or found in bookstores across the United States and Canada.



The Kekulé Problem

by Cormac McCarthy


I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”

Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.

A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.

All animals have an unconscious. If they didn’t they would be plants. We may sometimes credit ours with duties it doesn’t actually perform. Systems at a certain level of necessity may require their own mechanics of governance. Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem. Except of course in the case of cetaceans, who have to breathe when they come up for air. An autonomous system wouldn’t work here. The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died. (How do they sleep? With half of their brain alternately.) But the duties of the unconscious are beyond counting. Everything from scratching an itch to solving math problems.

Did language meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.

Problems, in general, are often well posed in terms of language and language remains a handy tool for explaining them. But the actual process of thinking—in any discipline—is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived—a sort of milepost—so as to gain a fresh starting point. But if you believe that you actually use language in the solving of problems I wish that you would write to me and tell me how you go about it.

I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are. My friend George Zweig calls this the Night Shift. Bear in mind that the unconscious has no pencil or notepad and certainly no eraser. That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it? When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. How, we don’t know. Just as we don’t know how it is that we manage to talk. If I am talking to you then I can hardly be crafting at the same time the sentences that are to follow what I am now saying. I am totally occupied in talking to you. Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. Aside from the fact that I am busy, this would be to evoke an endless regress. The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.

There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness. Somewhat like vision, perhaps. But vision we now know is traceable to perhaps as many as a dozen quite independent evolutionary histories. Tempting material for the teleologists. These stories apparently begin with a crude organ capable of perceiving light where any occlusion could well suggest a predator. Which actually makes it an excellent scenario for Darwinian selection. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I don’t know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.

There are a number of examples of signaling in the animal world that might be taken for a proto-language. Chipmunks—among other species—have one alarm call for aerial predators and another for those on the ground. Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats. Very useful. But what is missing here is the central idea of language—that one thing can be another thing. It is the idea that Helen Keller suddenly understood at the well. That the sign for water was not simply what you did to get a glass of water. It was the glass of water. It was, in fact, the water in the glass. This in the play The Miracle Worker. Not a dry eye in the house.

The invention of language was understood at once to be incredibly useful. Again, it seems to have spread through the species almost instantaneously. The immediate problem would seem to have been that there were more things to name than there are sounds to name them with. Language appears to have originated in southwestern Africa and it may even be that the clicks in the Khoisan languages—to include Sandawe and Hadza—are an atavistic remnant of addressing this need for a greater variety of sounds. The vocal problems were eventually handled evolutionarily—and apparently in fairly short order—by turning our throat over largely to the manufacture of speech. Not without cost, as it turns out. The larynx has moved down in the throat in such a way as to make us as a species highly vulnerable to choking on our food—a not uncommon cause of death. It’s also left us as the only mammal incapable of swallowing and vocalizing at the same time.

The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species were not protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. I suggested once in conversation at the Santa Fe Institute that language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion and David Krakauer—our president—said that the same idea had occurred to him. Which pleased me a good deal because David is very smart. This is not to say of course that the human brain was not in any way structured for the reception of language. Where else would it go? If nothing else we have the evidence of history. The difference between the history of a virus and that of language is that the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not. The virus comes nicely machined. Offer it up. Turn it slightly. Push it in. Click. Nice fit. But the scrap heap will be found to contain any number of viruses that did not fit.

There is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.

Influential persons will by now, of course, have smiled to themselves at the ill-concealed Lamarckianism lurking here. We might think to evade it by various strategies or redefinitions but probably without much success. Darwin, of course, was dismissive of the idea of inherited “mutilations”—the issue of cutting off the tails of dogs for instance. But the inheritance of ideas remains something of a sticky issue. It is difficult to see them as anything other than acquired. How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all. It is an area pretty much ignored by the artificial intelligence studies, which seem mostly devoted to analytics and to the question of whether the brain is like a computer. They have decided that it’s not, but that is not altogether true.

Of the known characteristics of the unconscious, its persistence is among the most notable. Everyone is familiar with repetitive dreams. Here the unconscious may well be imagined to have more than one voice: He’s not getting it, is he? No. He’s pretty thick. What do you want to do? I don’t know. Do you want to try using his mother? His mother is dead. What difference does that make?

To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is machine for operating an animal.

What is at work here? And how does the unconscious know we’re not getting it? What doesn’t it know? It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us. (Moral compulsion? Is he serious?)

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

We don’t know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point, the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not, for the most part, come in narrative form. We have to do that.

So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course, that’s what we are saying. Except that he didn’t say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being, he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course, they don’t think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually, a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. These scratchings have everything to do with our chap waking up in his cave. For while it is fairly certain that art preceded language it probably didn’t precede it by much. Some influential persons have actually claimed that language could be up to a million years old.

They haven’t explained what we have been doing with it all this time. What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.

One hundred thousand years is pretty much an eyeblink. But two million years is not. This is, rather loosely, the length of time in which our unconscious has been organizing and directing our lives. And without language, you will note. At least for all but that recent blink. How does it tell us where and when to scratch? We don’t know. We just know that it’s good at it. But the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesn’t much like language and even that it doesn’t trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

Apart from its great antiquity, the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot. Unless one is an Asperger’s case. In which event memories, while correct, suffer from their own literalness. The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.

When you pause to reflect and say: “Let me see. How can I put this,” your aim is to resurrect an idea from this pool of we-know-not- what and give it a linguistic form so that it can be expressed. It is the this that one wishes to put that is representative of this pool of knowledge whose form is so amorphous. If you explain this to someone and they say that they don’t understand you may well seize your chin and think some more and come up with another way to “put” it. Or you may not. When the physicist Dirac was complained to by students that they didn’t understand what he’d said Dirac would simply repeat it verbatim.

The picture-story lends itself to a parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad, it doesn’t include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesn’t say that you can’t ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial. When you first heard of Plato’s cave you set about reconstructing it.

To repeat. The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not. Or not yet. You have to be careful about inviting Descartes to the table. Aside from inheritability probably the best guide as to whether a category is of our own devising is to ask if we see it in other creatures. The case for language is pretty clear. In the facility with which young children learn its complex and difficult rules we see the slow incorporation of the acquired.

I’d been thinking about the Kekulé problem off and on for a couple of years without making much progress. Then one morning after George Zweig and I had had one of our ten-hour lunches I came down in the morning with the wastebasket from my bedroom and as I was emptying it into the kitchen trash I suddenly knew the answer. Or I knew that I knew the answer. It took me a minute or so to put it together. I reflected that while George and I had spent the first couple of hours at cognition and neuroscience we had not talked about Kekulé and the problem. But something in our conversation might very well have triggered our reflections—mine and those of the Night Shift—on this issue. The answer, of course, is simple once you know it. The unconscious is just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break. When later I told George what I’d come up with he mulled it over for a minute or so and then nodded and said: “That sounds about right.” Which pleased me a good deal because George is very smart.

The unconscious seems to know a great deal. What does it know about itself? Does it know that it’s going to die? What does it think about that? It appears to represent a gathering of talents rather than just one. It seems unlikely that the itch department is also in charge of math. Can it work on a number of problems at once? Does it only know what we tell it? Or—more plausibly—has it direct access to the outer world? Some of the dreams which it is at pains to assemble for us are no doubt deeply reflective and yet some are quite frivolous. And the fact that it appears to be less than insistent upon our remembering every dream suggests that sometimes it may be working on itself. And is it really so good at solving problems or is it just that it keeps its own counsel about the failures? How does it have this understanding which we might well envy? How might we make inquiries of it? Are you sure?

Cormac McCarthy is a board member and senior fellow of the Santa Fe Institute.

Over the last two decades, Cormac and I have been discussing the puzzles and paradoxes of the unconscious mind. Foremost among them, the fact that the very recent and “uniquely” human capability of near infinite expressive power arising through a combinatorial grammar is built on the foundations of a far more ancient animal brain. How have these two evolutionary systems become reconciled? Cormac expresses this tension as the deep suspicion, perhaps even contempt, that the primeval unconscious feels toward the upstart, conscious language. In this article Cormac explores this idea through processes of dream and infection. It is a discerning and wide-ranging exploration of ideas and challenges that our research community has only recently dared to start addressing through complexity science.

—David Krakauer

President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems, Santa Fe Institute


Connie Wanek

Connie WanekConnie Wanek is the author of four books of poetry, including her latest, Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems (2016). She is also the author of a book of prose called Summer Cars, published in 2014 by Will o’ the Wisp Books. She recently took the time to speak with us at The Writer’s Almanac as we celebrate National Poetry Month.

You were born in Madison, Wisconsin — the second of sixth children. Can you please tell us about your childhood, the sights and other sensory sensations that remain vivid in your memory? You were an avid tennis player, correct?

When I was a child I lived on what remained of an old farm after the land was sold off, five acres and a hand-built house and barn, outside Green Bay, near Duck Creek and the stone Catholic church with creaky wood floors where we went every Sunday, back when Mass was in mysterious Latin. It was always winter in that church, people tracking in the snow, coughing, and stomping and crossing themselves. Our school was a rural one-room structure, Highline Elementary (it burned down long ago), with 17 students total, grades one through eight, taught by a single overwhelmed teacher. When she quit, we didn’t have school for several months! I was almost 11 when we moved to a Wisconsin village, Verona, where my mother’s mother lived, and where I finally went to an ordinary elementary school. I was very shy — and desperately behind in math. I suppose I never did catch up.

The farm, as we called it, smelled like ponies (I talked my dad into buying several, since we had the big barn) and also faintly like the sulfur of smashed ancient chicken eggs around the pump house where the coop had been. The barn loft, up the wooden ladder and through a square hole, was a cathedral, though it still had old piles of hay, and light came streaming through cracks in the boards, through the knotholes, burning the dust motes. They were like those floaters in your eyes, wandering somewhat out of your control, but you could affect them with a wave of your hand. I might have been more religious if they had held Mass in the hayloft.

I didn’t start playing tennis until we moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico when I was going into seventh grade. I loved running madly and hitting the ball as hard as I could, but I never liked keeping score or playing matches. I have a line in a poem: “You never had to crush me and I never had to cheat.” That’s my idea of how sports should be played. That would eliminate a whole lot of our culture, however, and I recognize I am the anomaly.

When did you leave home for the first time? It could have been summer camp or a larger time, like leaving for college. Where do you consider “home”? I’ve read that you relocated several times growing up.

I wonder if “home” is more about people or more about place. The first time I ever left home was right after high school. I drove alone up to Denver for the summer, found a job as a clerk at a 7-Eleven convenience store, found an apartment after sleeping in the car for a few nights, and stayed alive. I’m sure I missed my parents far more than they missed me. There were six of us kids, after all. At the end of August, I went home to Las Cruces to start college at New Mexico State, and I remember driving all night from Denver, desperate to get home, and then when I arrived in the morning, just sitting in the parking area with the several other sleeping cars that so many family drivers seemed to require, and crying. I could cry right now, honestly, but that’s what it’s like to get old and miss those faraway years and times.

Home is where my people are. I’m trying to be near them these days, but they refuse to stay put! If home is also a place, though, for me that place is Duluth, Minnesota. I lived there more than 25 years, raised my kids there, worked at the library, worshiped the lake, wandered around Hartley Field, and felt part of the tribe of writers and artists and wilderness lovers who also call Duluth home.

In “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost wrote, using two voices:

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.’

‘I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’

That’s a poem that really should be read again in today’s political climate. I would say that Mary, in the poem, has the voice we need right now. I love it so much.

When did you start writing seriously?

I suppose I’ve written little poems and stories since I knew my name was Connie since I could tie my shoes. But writing seriously … that was in college when I gave up on being a visual artist. I really didn’t have the talent for that. As far as trying to publish, that would have been when my kids were older and I was in my late 30s, in Duluth, and I could carve out a few hours in the morning, before anyone was up, to write. Trying to publish seemed like the next step, once I had some poems I thought were worthy. Phil, my husband, and I were close friends with Louis and Ann Jenkins (still are) and Louis provided a model for me in many ways as a poet who really devoted his soul to his work.

Have you had any unusual jobs?

I don’t think so. They all seemed rather obviously designed to provide a little income, though working at the Mount Royal library in Duluth was most meaningful to me. I think lucky people are those who are truly interested in their jobs, so it doesn’t feel as though they are trading their lives for the money required to stay off the street and out of debt.

What is the one thing that should be part of a writer’s routine, in your opinion? Is there something you wish you’d been told when you were first starting out?

I think it was hard for me to learn patience, in pretty much every area of my life, but especially my writing. Revision was very hard. How could I light a fire again when all the kindling and logs had burned to ash? For me, and perhaps for others, too, it’s important to be able to set something you’ve just written aside for a time, a few hours, a few months or years (ha!), then look at it again with dispassion. In writing, as in life, one’s errors are clearer in retrospect.

Your poetry has been praised by the likes of Maxine Kumin, Bart Sutter, Linda Pastan, and Joyce Sutphen, to name a few. Who are the poets that have shaped and influenced you?

It would impossible to name them all. I also learn from work I don’t particularly like, as well as from other genres. It’s clear that I gravitate toward the natural image and clear language, both as reader and writer. The poets you named certainly are invaluable to me. I am constantly amazed by the number of wonderful poets we have, our literary riches. I know I learned the most, though, from my closest friends, which makes perfect sense to me, and from Phil, my husband, who is a great reader. Also, I would like to say here that the selections and the historical background on The Writer’s Almanac are a daily joy. Many mornings give me marvelous poems from people I’ve never heard of, which illustrates the beauty and breadth of our literary landscape.

What matters most to you in a poem?

I want to be touched, to feel a kinship. Dylan Thomas says that in the end, “You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words.” Yes, I want to be moved by words.

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Ted Kooser writes a lovely introduction in your latest collection, Rival Gardens, in which he says, “[Connie] was not a professor of creative writing on her way to a better position but a person who worked at a public library [and] fixed up old houses for resale, a part-time painter and decorator, a gardener, a full-time mother, and a journeyman framing carpenter of our beautiful American language.”

 I was so moved by this. When I read your poems, there is such life in them. I’ve read well-crafted poems from students/graduates of MFA programs, but they sometimes feel rarefied or removed from the common daily minutiae that make poems relatable and inspiring in the first place. So many today are on the straight path to an MFA — poetry in particular. Is it valuable to sit in a classroom and study form, aesthetics, and devices for extended periods of time? Or is it just as important, perhaps more so, to simply get outside — observe — write by living foremost? Perhaps there is a middle ground. I wonder how a waitress or a mailman or a veterinary assistant with some good poems under his/her belt could best approach getting their work published. I’d like to believe they are out there, writing in little notebooks or on iPads at the end of a shift.

First, thank you for these incredibly kind words. I am so grateful to Ted Kooser also. He has been a model for me in many ways — he is certainly one of our finest poets.

I worked on an MA in English as a teaching assistant, and I think it was great fun (as well as a job), but I never felt there was a future for me in academia. Why? The numbers were against me: at least 1,000 applicants for every position in an English Department back in the late ’70s. So be it. I think it’s lovely that there are many university programs that encourage and teach creative writing, whether it leads to a job or not. I think when we are young writers, we imitate, in the great tradition of apprentices of all sorts. Finally, it’s your own life, the particularity of it, that shapes “your voice.” You are exactly right when you say that looking out at the world is crucial. We learn that as we mature.

I think I drifted quite a bit in my life, took many paths of least resistance. I wouldn’t call that a virtue, though. I did the work-at-hand as well as I could.

Poetry is a big house, and there are rooms dedicated to many different kinds of poetry. There’s a room for the kind I like to read and write; there are rooms for a wide range of approaches. We should feel free when we try to write, I think. Unconstrained by what we have done before, and what anyone has done before, for that matter.

A former poet laureate of Wisconsin, Max Garland, used to be a mailman in Kentucky. It’s not easy to break into publishing, now or ever, but I think the best approach is to start with the small literary magazines, online or print, in your area, and maybe to join a writing group. A lot of people find that to be very encouraging, and certainly, at least one good reader is crucial to every writer.

Can you tell us about your poem “Girdle” from Rival Gardens? It was featured on TWA in March. I laughed out loud after reading it.

I have written a lot of “object” poems, and that’s how this poem started. Focus on an object and see where it leads. I thought … hmmm, a series of poems on women’s undergarments … but this is as far as I got. There’s a line about a heaven for pets in this poem, and I want to say I believe that, if there’s a heaven for people, there’s a heaven for pets, too.

You’ve also written prose, a book of short stories called Summer Cars (2014). Do you enjoy writing prose? Does a story start like a poem that couldn’t be contained? Is it nice to have all those extra words at your disposal? I imagine writing a poem is more difficult, somehow.

Oh, for me, writing poetry is far easier. So much less typing! But you’re right, “Summer Cars” was originally a poem that could not be contained. I kept getting ideas—what’s the story of each of those lovely cars that emerge up north in May, nosing up to the stop signs? I would like to write more prose, certainly, and maybe if I drink enough coffee, I can sustain a narrative more easily and keep my fingers hovering over the keyboard.

Do you routinely write from a particular desk? If so, what’s on your desk right now?

Desks are so serious and intentional. Sometimes I feel like I have to sneak up on a poem, which is hard to do sitting at a desk. I’m a bit like an old hound looking for a quiet place to curl up. A dog with blank paper and a pencil, and one eye half-open—sniffing for a poem on the air.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done?

I’ve had wild dreams and I was irresponsible as a kid, but actually, I’ve gotten very boring over the years. I think maybe the wildest thing was climbing Long’s Peak in Colorado, 14,280 feet, in tennis shoes with a peanut butter sandwich and a tiny plastic canteen meant for a child. I was 18. What could go wrong? It was just a hike, right?

Thank you for taking the time to do this!

It was my pleasure, truly, and a great, great honor.


Interview by Joy Biles



Self-service Checkouts (a one-act play)

by Karen Mary McEntegart


PADDY: “Jaysus, Mick would you look at this. Well, if that doesn’t just take the biscuit altogether.”
MICK: “What’s that, Paddy? Why are standing in the checkout when there’s nobody there to serve you?”
PADDY: “That’s what I’m telling ye, Mick. Take a look at this.”
MICK: “What is it now, Paddy? Jaysus, we’ll never get out of this place?”
PADDY: “Well, Mick, it’s the latest Irish invention. Honestly, Mick, I’ve seen it all now. Would ya look at what we have here! A self-service checkout! Now I have seen it all. I can die happy now, my old chum! Sure what else could they come up with that beats this?
MICK: “A fecking self-servicing checkout! Jesus who art in heaven, bless us and save us. What’s humanity coming to.”
PADDY: “Right step up there beside me, Mick. This’ll take the two of us. You know what they say about two heads bein’ better than one … well, in this case, Mick, I’ll freely admit it’s one and a bit, but sure we’ll make do—hahaha.”
MICK: “Ah! You’re a funny one all right, Paddy. Now, let’s brave it. What are we up against with this here self-checking thing-a-ma-jiggy? Umm … first things first, Paddy.
Number one, says it right here … place items on checkout. Well, we’ll pass that one with flying colours, anyway.
Number two, scan items under barcode reading device. Ah now, come on off of that. Sure if I wanted a job in this supermarket, I’d have applied with all the other foreigners in here. Look around you, Paddy. You could easy mistake this place for a super marcado in the East. There’s all colours of the rainbow in here, I’m telling ye! Gone are the days when the only sighting of a foreigner you caught was a glimpse of the one staring back at you from the Trócaire box! Oh, we’re moving with the times all right. In all the wrong directions if you ask me, Paddy.”

PADDY: “Ah now, be fair, Mick. Sure they have the right to stack shelves like the rest of us and I for one won’t be looking to deny them of that, so stop with that racist shit and start scanning … right, the bainne, pass us up the bainne there … and the barcode is … is … is? Jaysus, it must be me, Mick, but I’d have thought any sensible fecker would place the barcode in an obvious position, seeing that it’s a barcode world that we now belong to … but, oh no … sure that would make it too easy on us altogether! Can’t have that, Mick, me old boy … barcode located at the rear of product … prepare for the big scan down. Wait now I heard it … a beep, did you hear it, Mick?”
MICK: “Yeah, Paddy, I did. It was a beep all right.”
PADDY: “Aye. Hey, we sure have the measure of this thing technology business, Mick. We will not be left behind, I tell ya! Right … get to passing the rest of our selected items, Mick, and be quick about it. We’ve been here over an hour already. I’m bored with this recent temporary employment as a cashier. Bread— yep, beep. I heard it, razors—yep, that went beep too, my ears are a witness to that one as well.”
MICK: “But, Paddy, sure how in god’s name does that thing-a-ma-jiggy know what we have? Sure, couldn’t we just scan half of our selected produce and let’s say consider the rest as payment for our services to the running of this foodery?”
PADDY: “Indeed, Mick. Just pondering on that one myself, I was. Interesting. I wonder? Naa … we couldn’t … surely they know!”
MICK: “Who’d know, Paddy?”
PADDY: “They’d have to. Too easy, Mick.”
MICK: “Sure, there’s no one around, Paddy. How would they know? Say I just maybe forget to scan this here bottle of can’t-wait-to-be-drunk Jameson here … finest label! Oops, how silly of me, must be my old age afflictions, Paddy … eh?”
PADDY: “Ah, this isn’t going to go down well, Mick. I’m telling you, buddy. I feel it in my waters.”
MICK: “Ah, Paddy, calm down there. You and your waters. It’s fool proof.”
PADDY: “Well that’s us—fecked from the get go then, ain’t it, Mick?”
MICK: “So far … so good … all items scanned, Paddy. Let’s tally up there with this machine. Right? How’s it done? Place money in slot. Right. Money inserted into said slot. Jaysus, this is brilliant, Paddy. This machine is adding and doing its thing like a big old calculator … ah, technology!
PADDY: “Yeah, but can it tell the nature of your character? I don’t think so. No, this new age techno business doesn’t apply to me at all!”
MICK: “Nature of your character? Apply to you? What are you rabbiting on about, Paddy! It’s like a big old techno abacus—nothing more, nothing less. Admittedly though, it’s not as impressive as the olden days, where you’d have a little banter with a humanoid over your goods, while the actual labour of checking and packing your items was being done for you … ah, the good old days!”
PADDY: “Last Tuesday, if I remember correctly, Mick.”
MICK: “What?”
Paddy: “Yeah, well now that was the last time I came in here wanting a sup and there was human contact, so I’m assuming all this techno shit materialized sometime after last Tuesday.”
MICK: “Speaking of a sup, grab the bags, Mick. Get out of here quickly or next they’ll be wanting us to go dig the fields, plant the seeds and return to harvest the bloody crop so we can scan it ourselves, pack it ourselves and pay for the privilege of doing so! What is the world coming to at all, Paddy? Eh? I ask you? And then we bring over the foreigners to do the jobs that’s left!”
PADDY: “Ah, would you stop with the racist slurs. It isn’t in keeping with the times, Mick. There’s laws about it now, you know!”
MICK: “What, Paddy? You’re tellin’ me there’s a law on how I should think now, are ye? Cos I’ll not be having any of that!”
PADDY: “Yes, Mick, that’s exactly what I’m telling ye. They’ve got it all sewn up now, I’m telling ye. You can’t say nor think nothin’ these days without some being offended and out of sorts.”
MICK: “Well, no fecking law will tell me how to think, Paddy. I’ll not be having it! I tell ye, no siree! Here, I’ll stick this Jameson in me coat. Where’s the nearest exit portal, Paddy? I’ve had just about enough of this place. It’s getting to me and I’ll be singing that fecking jingle all way home. I’m losing the will to live, Paddy. For the love of God, show me the way home!”
PADDY: “Calm yourself, Mick. Right through this door and we’ll be home in a jiffy, putting all this do-it-yourself supermarket shenanigans behind us, supping on the best stuff money can buy.”
MICK: “Yep, and the Jameson is tastier when it’s free, Paddy, eh?”
PADDY: “Shut up, Mick! Come on, let’s abscond … what the blazers? Holy Mary mother-of-god!”
MICK: “Yep, I hear it too, Paddy. Only this beeping is almighty times louder than the one at the checkout!”
PADDY: “Ah, for feck’s sake, Mick. You’ve gone and done it now, haven’t you! Couldn’t just scan the bottle, could ya. There goes the night’s activity down the loo. Thank you very much indeed, Mick.”
MICK: “Wait now, wait now … we’ll claim all innocence, Paddy.”
PADDY: “You have me beat on that one, Mick, for sure.”
MICK: “Ah funny. Look, with us being old and first-time users of such self-scanning devices might stand for something, eh?”
PADDY: “Well, we’re about to find out, Mick!”
MICK: “Aye, great. It’s one of your kind.”
PADDY: “My kind?”
MICK: “Yes, your kind, Paddy.”
PADDY: “Would you care to elaborate, me auld friend?”
MICK: “A blow in. A foreigner, Paddy.”
PADDY: “And! How, pray tell, is he one of my kind?”
MICK: “Hush now, Paddy. Hold your whist … I’ll do the talking.”
FOREIGNER: “Excuse me, gentlemen, if I could just ask you both to step aside. This won’t take long. I need to check your bags before you leave the premises.”
MICK: “Hold on one pint-drinking minute …”
PADDY: “Calm down, Mick.”
MICK: “I’ll not be calming down, Paddy. I’ll be wanting a reason why this er …
FOREIGNER: “Raoul, sir.”
MICK: “Raoul? Why this Raoul has singled us out for consumer discrimination?”
FOREIGNER: “Discrimination, sir?”
MICK: “Aye, you heard me, Raoul! Discrimination.”
FOREIGNER: “Of what sort, sir?”
MICK: “Eh?”
FOREIGNER: “Describe your claimed discrimination?”
MICK: “Ageism. Oh aye, I feel it acutely. It offends me down through my wizen bones. Actually, it’s making me drowsy. I’ll be taking a seat, if you please!”
FOREIGNER: “Oh! Er… yes, sir! I’ll get one right away.”
MICK: “Go lively, Raoul!”
Right now, Paddy, game play. Come on, we don’t have much time. Raoul will be back soon …”
PADDY: “Settle down, Mick. Centre stage is all yours, me auld friend. You’re doing alright so far with the oldism shit.”
MICK: “Ageism”
PADDY: “Yeah, that’s what I said. “
MICK: “No, you said ‘oldism’, Paddy.”
PADDY: “Whatever, Sunshine. Now’s your chance to shine, take it away, Mick.”
MICK: “Ah feck! Right. Here’s what we’ll do. It’s only the bottle we’ve acquired illegally right?”
PADDY: “Right! Your brainchild, I believe, Mick.”
MICK: “Now’s not the time, Paddy. I’m reckoning we can spin this ageism thing out for a while. In the meanwhile, Paddy, we’ll take turns going to the loo with said bottle and destroy the incriminating evidence”.
PADDY: “So! That’s your great plan, Mick? Drink it all down in the bathroom, taking turns? Right. You’re on! It’s not great, but it’s all we have Mick.
MICK: “I’ll do the honours in stepping forward. I shall cover the first shift, Paddy. All right with you, buddy?”
PADDY: “Ok, Mick … remember, you have to drink as much as you can but can’t appear drunk. Got it?”
MICK: “Oh yeah, I’ll give it my best shot, Paddy!”
FOREIGNER: “Here’s your chair, sir … now, if I could just ask you to empty your items onto …
MICK: “I’ll have to interrupt you there, Raoul, but with my old-age infliction and all, I’m in needing of a pit stop, if you get my meaning?”
MICK: “No! Didn’t think you would, Raoul. Guess they wouldn’t say it like so on those language tapes they provide you with upon entry … let’s see. Please sir, can I use the bathroom, kind sir?”
FOREIGNER: “Oh, why yes, of course, sir! Right this way and then we must sort out this little dilemma quickly and justly!”
MICK: “Oh … why yes, Raoul. You must be a busy man … watching over your customers doing your job. Oh it’s a tough existence for you, all right!”
FOREIGNER: “Bathroom’s here, sir. I trust you’ll find your own way back, or should I draw you a map—what with your old-age inflictions and all?”
MICK: “Oh, sarcasm! I like it. You must be living here some time, Raoul?”
FOREIGNER: “Not that’s it’s any of your business, but I was born here, sir”
MICK: “Not with that colour you weren’t, Sunshine. Hahaha. I’ll find my own way back, Raoul.
MICK: “Right mission complete, time to deal with this dilemma quickly and justly, half for me, half for Paddy, that’s just, eh? Hahaha. Burp. Oh, Jaysus, hiccup … burp … I best be getting back, before Paddy thinks I’ve drowned … hiccup …”
PADDY: “I’ll say it again, Raoul. I’ll take no action till my lifelong comrade returns. United we stand accused, so in all fairness I’ll wait …”
FOREIGNER: “But I must check your bags, sir. It’s company policy, sir!”
PADDY: “Company policy, eh? To harass two old-age pensioners, way past their prime? I will be lucky to see the end of the week out, I should imagine … what with all this er … oldism, or is it ageism. You see, Raoul? See how it affects my mind? It’ll get you too, Raoul! Remember that, Sunshine! Ah! Here he is now—the prodigal son.”
FOREIGNER: “Ah! Good sir, then we shall move on to the checking of your items and your receipt. If I could just see your receipt, please?”
PADDY: “Steady on, Raoul! This is going too fast for me now. What’s this about a receipt? Mick, do you have a receipt in your possession at all?”
MICK: “For what, Paddy?”
PADDY: “Anything, I suppose, Mick. He didn’t specify.”
FOREIGNER: “Oh, but it must be a receipt for your items, sir. Do you have it? You look a bit unsteady sir. Are you all right?”
PADDY: “He’s more than all right there, Raoul, and it’s about time I was more than all right meself. Let’s be having it, Mick, old boy.”
MICK: “Right, Paddy … burp … Raoul, I feel ever so slightly … off balance … just washed over me all of a sudden in … great waves of er … waviness. Would you be so kind as to fetch me some liquid refreshment, please?


FOREIGNER: “But company policy, sir …”
MICK: “Is it in company’s policy to leave a dying man thirsty on your premises? Is it, Raoul?
FOREIGNER: “Are you dying, sir?”
MICK: “We are all born dying, Raoul! Didn’t they teach you that in your temples?”
FOREIGNER: “Temples, sir? I’m Irish!”
MICK: “With a name like Raoul, Sunshine, I think not! Ahaha.”
FOREIGNER: “I shall fetch you the water, sir.”
MICK: “Water?”
FOREIGNER: “Liquid refreshments? Dying? I assumed you meant water, sir.”
MICK: “Aye … water.”
FOREIGNER: “But you must give me your receipt!”
MICK: “Bargaining with a thirsty dying man—an old one to boot. They taught you well, Raoul! Here it is, here you go … hiccup … and here’s my bag! Paddy has the other one.”
FOREIGNER: “Fine sir, I’ll get you some water.”
MICK: “Paddy! What the feck kept you? Raoul will be back soon, did you destroy the evidence in its entirety? Aye! One look at you, Paddy, I can only but assume it was mission successful!”
PADDY: “Hiccup … I need to lie down, Mick!”
MICK: “Now, Paddy, I’m thinking that might be asking a bit too much of Raoul.”
PADDY: “Do ya think he’d cook us something … from the staff canteen? We were employees once, Mick!”
MICK: “Paddy that was 2 hours ago and we self-checked four items. Hardly qualifies us for employee benefits, I should think!”
“Right! Let’s get on with it the last leg of the battle, Paddy. If all goes accordingly we’ll be home and dry … well, maybe not dry, but home in time to catch the second half of the match of the day! Are ye with me, Paddy?”
PADDY: “For feck’s sake, Mick, after sinking half that bottle … hiccup … I’m no longer even with meself!”
MICK: “Pull yourself together, Paddy. The end is nigh!”
FOREIGNER “Right! Here’s your water, sir, and this is Mr. O’Caffery. Mr. O’Caffery is head of this department branch.”
MR. O’CAFFERY: “Enough, Raoul! I can speak for myself, thank you. What seems to be the issue here, gentlemen?”
MICK: “Not sure, Mr. O’Caffery? Just popping in for a few supplies with me auld buddy here, Paddy. A few wee sups beforehand like, but I’m not sure what the holdup is at all? Do you, Paddy?”
PADDY: “No, Mick … hiccup… I don’t, at all.”
MR. O’CAFFERY: “Right! Well, give me your bags and receipt and we’ll put this issue to an end, shall we?”
MICK: “Oh, yes. Sure. That just what I was trying to get across to Raoul here … but bless him, his English is a bit loose! Have you checked it all there, Mr. O’Caffery? Is it all in order … hiccup …?”
MR. O’CAFFERY: “Everything seems to in place gentlemen. I do offer my apologies for any inconveniences caused.”
MICK: “Well now, Paddy, I don’t know about you, buddy, but I have been inconvenienced all right!”
PADDY: “Aye, Mick! Come to think of it, so have I.”
MR. O’CAFFERY: “Oh! Shall we compensate you for your inconveniences gentleman, by way of providing some liquid refreshments for your evening entertainments?”
MICK: “We’re not talking water, Mr. O’Caffery, are we?”
MR. O’CAFFERY: “Good heavens, no! Would a bottle of your choice be of adequate compensation?”
MICK: “Aye! I think it would. Paddy, what do you think?”
PADDY: “Each! A bottle each, Mick. That’s what I think!
MICK AND PADDY TOGETHER: “One bottle of Jameson each.”
MR. O’CAFFERY: Hmmm. I will make it so.




Karen Mary McEmtegart

Karen Mary McEntegart (poet and playwright) is an Irish lass from Drogheda, Ireland, now living in central England.




Poet Mark Strand (books by this author) was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada (1934), though he spent much of his adolescence in South and Central America. His father worked for Pepsi-Cola and moved the family from Cuba to Peru to Mexico. Strand once said, “I never found my own place. I really come from nowhere.” For a long time, he spoke English with a heavy French accent.

Strand’s parents wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, but he wanted to be a painter, so he enrolled in the Yale School of Art. He’d been painting since he was 13, when he did a self-portrait after copying figures from a book on Donatello, the Italian Renaissance sculptor.  Strand was a good student at Yale, though poor, and he worked as a waiter and delivered laundry to pay his way. He also started to read poetry, mostly Wallace Stevens, which led him to enroll in English courses, and his professors encouraged his writing, and he decided to become a poet. After Yale, Strand went to Italy and studied 19th-century Italian poetry. “I was never much good with language as a child,” he said. “Believe me, the idea that I would someday become a poet would have come as a complete shock to everyone in my family.” He wrote steadily during the 1960s, enjoying the wild atmosphere that came with being an artist. Some people complained his poems were too intense and dark, but he dismissed his critics, saying, “I find them evenly lit.”

Strand’s books include Sleeping With One Eye Open (1964), The Continuous Life (1990), and Almost Invisible (2012). He won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Blizzard of One: Poems (1998) and even served as poet laureate for the United States, though he was uncomfortable with the post. He said, “It’s too close to the government. It’s too official.”

He served as poet laureate of the United States from 1990 to 1991 and as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1995 to 2000. He taught English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York City. He died at eighty years old on November 29, 2014, in Brooklyn, New York.

Mark Strand died in 2014. In his last years, he stopped writing poetry and returned to art, mostly making collages by hand.

Harmony in the Boudoir
by Mark Strand
After years of marriage, he stands at the foot of the bed and
tells his wife that she will never know him, that for everything
he says there is more that he does not say, that behind each
word he utters there is another word, and hundreds more be-
hind that one. All those unsaid words, he says, contain his true
self, which has been betrayed by the superficial self before her.
“So you see,” he says, kicking off his slippers, “I am more than
what I have led you to believe I am.” “Oh, you silly man,” says
his wife, “of course you are. I find that just thinking of you
having so many selves receding into nothingness is very excit-
ing. That you barely exist as you are couldn’t please me more.”
“Harmony in the Boudoir” by Mark Strand from Almost Invisible. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. .


Minnesota Public Radio. 480 Cedar Street, Saint Paul, MN 55101


Interview by Joy Biles for The Writer’s Almanac

Billy Collins

Billy Collins - photo by Bill HayesBilly Collins is the author of twelve collections of poetry, including his most recent Aimless Love (2013) and The Rain in Portugal (2016). He is also the editor of Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, and Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds. A Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, and Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Winter Park Institute of Rollins College, he was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and New York State Poet from 2004 to 2006. In 2016 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

You grew up in Queens and, an only child, have said that your mother read to you often. You said: “I have a secret theory that people who are addicted to reading are almost trying to re-create the joy, the comfortable joy of being read to as a child by a parent or a friendly uncle or an older sibling. Being read to as a child is one of the great experiences in life.”

Can you tell us about growing up in New York, the books you loved, the sights and tactile memories that remain vibrant in your memory?

I was born in the French Hospital, which was on West 30th Street, so I can proudly say I was born in Manhattan, but we lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. Now that Brooklyn is saturated, Queens has become the new hip destination. A little late for me. They say people who claim to have happy childhoods are just good at repression, but I had a family as sturdy as a milking stool, the three legs being my mother, father and me. My mother did read to me just about every night at bedtime. If I had a babysitter, she would be handed a book and told to read to me. Most of them read a couple of sentences and said, “OK, I read to you, now go to sleep.” Once I outgrew Mother Goose, my mother read the classics of the day: memorably, Black Beauty and The Yearling. Later I was on to the Hardy Boys and the collie novels of Albert Payson Terhune. More animals than human characters. So reading and the saying of poetry were common activities in my childhood. I think a point occurs in the reading development of some young people where they change from identifying with the characters to identifying with the writer, that mysterious, creative presence behind and in the words. The more noticeable that shift, the more likely it is that the reader will become a writer, or at least fantasize about being one.

You published your first poems in the back of Rolling Stone magazine. They paid $35.00 a poem. Did you get letters from the large readership for any of these poems? I think it’d be terrific if traditionally nonliterary print magazines published poetry nowadays, and music fans seem like a rightful and appreciative audience for emerging poets.

Thirty-five dollars might not seem like a lot of money for a poem, even a short one, but at the time a pack of cigarettes cost 32 cents. We’re talking cartons! Rolling Stone is not a literary magazine, but the little poems (mostly involving states of mind while staring at something) were read by lots of people. What it lacked in highbrow cachet, it made up for in subscribers.

Although you never attended a writing program or took writing workshops, you did meet poet Robert Frost when he visited your class at Holy Cross College. What was this experience like?

Frost paid a visit to my college in 1962 to give a reading, not surprisingly because Frost popularized the now-ubiquitous practice of inviting poets and prose writers to university campuses. About six or seven students who made up the staff of the student literary magazine were invited to join the poet and a few teachers (mostly Jesuits) for dinner in a private room on campus. So technically, I did have a meal with Robert Frost, but none of us dared to ask him a question or even say a word. Frost was elderly, his face deeply furrowed under that blinding white hair, and we were intimidated. Plus, the priests kept shooting us looks of discouragement just in case we opened our mouths and made fools of ourselves. At least that is the way I interpreted those glances.

Do you think writing workshops are helpful, now that you’ve gone on to teach many?

There is no guarantee that you will leave a workshop as a better writer, but you will be a better reader. No harm in that. One of the workshop’s drawbacks, as someone pointed out, is that some teachers want their students to write poems just like theirs, only not quite as good. I tell my students that I don’t know how to write their poems. And even if I did, I wouldn’t let that take time away from trying to figure out how to write my poems. I never took a workshop, mostly because such things simply weren’t around much when I was young. Plus, I was attracted to writing poetry because you did it alone. In fact, the main subject of my early poems was being alone.  I laughed in agreement when Kay Ryan told me that she would consider taking a workshop “an invasion of privacy.”

So many bios about you mention that you didn’t publish your first book until you were 40 years old. As if that’s ancient! It’s not as if writing is playing tennis and you’re past your prime. Why do you think there is such focus on the age a writer publishes his or her first book? It’s as though you may as well not even try if you haven’t published prodigiously by age 23.

The pressure to publish early, often prematurely and at your own peril, arises from a single source: the MFA craze. Once a pleasurable activity becomes part of academic curricula, something inside it dies

You said something once, and it always stuck with me. You may or may not recall. Actually two things. One: Always put your best poems first in a book. And two: Avoid a poem with cicadas. I’m paraphrasing. But ever since I heard you say this, I notice poems with cicadas everywhere — every fourth or fifth chapbook has a poem mentioning them. They were not there before you pointed it out; I’m sure of it. It’s a curse on the poetry world that once seen cannot be unseen.

More importantly, I now always read the first five pages of any poetry collection, even if I end up skipping to other pages from there. Why put the best poems first? I think one might want to spread them around. How do you determine what is the “best” poem — or the ones to put first? Do you want readers to approach your collections sequentially? 

Here are the two ways to arrange the poems in a manuscript: a) when you submit a ms, front-load it. Put all your best poems right up front. (If you can’t tell which ones are your best, it’s too early for you to be thinking about publication.) Editors are among the few people who read mss from front to back; if you catch their interest early, they might just keep reading. b) after your ms has been accepted, tell the editor you’d like to change the order of the poems. An editor doesn’t want to get in the way of that, leaving you free to fiddle the poems into some kind of “creative” order. Remember that what editors are looking for above all else in a manuscript is a reason to stop reading it.

Don’t get me started on cicadas. When I see one, I stop reading the poem. Next!

In 2001, you launched a project called Poetry 180, encouraging high schools to read one poem over the intercom every day, with no analysis or discussion allowed. You said, “[My hope is that it will] take poetry out of the coffin of an anthology … [that] it floats out to the student in an unexpected way.” Can you tell us more about Poetry 180?

The best thing I can say about Poetry 180 is that it works. Based on many hundreds of anecdotal reports from high school teachers, their students love hearing a poem a day and even clamor for it. It’s not “school” poetry, and students are not asked to interpret it.

Do you have a certain place you write, a favorite desk? Does it face a window or wall? What time of day do you like to write? Do you prefer silence or some sort of ambient noise as you concentrate?

I write anywhere. I don’t require a scented candle or a favorite cardigan. I can write on a train or in Yankee stadium. When it comes, it comes. Of course, I can enjoy a long train ride and extra innings in the Bronx without writing a thing.

What’s the deal with mice, Mr. Collins? They enjoy coming around your poems. 

Too much attachment to cartoons plus living in a porous 1860s farmhouse for many years.

Please tell us about your latest collection, The Rain in Portugal (2016). The first poem in the book is called “1960” and was recently featured on Almanac.

I can’t say much about the contents, but the book’s title is an admission that I’m not much good at rhyming. One of the themes of my poetry is absence, in this case, the absence of Spain.

Advice for aspiring writers? Poets in particular.

Read, read, read. Aim for 10,000 hours of reading. Start with Wordsworth’s The Prelude.

Interview by Joy Biles




Go to the profile of Rick Webb  by Rick Webb

I’ve been reading a lot about robots lately. When I read about robots, and the future, I can’t help but think about it in economic terms. And that inevitably turns my mind to the branch of economics called post-scarcity economics. Traditional economics, of course, deals with the efficient allocation of inherently scarce materials. Post-scarcity economics deals with the economics of economies that are no longer constrained by scarcity of materials — food, energy, shelter, etc.

The thing that never sits quite right with post-scarcity economics, though, at least the very little that I’ve read, is that it’s always sort of an all or nothing affair: you either don’t have enough of anything or you have enough of everything. Thinking of this as a mental exercise is kind of fun, I think, but in reality it seems to me that getting from point A — a scarcity economy — to point B — post-scarcity — is going to be a long, complicated journey as some things become more abundant in some places, while other things are still scarce.

What is needed is some sort of interim—or proto-post scarcity economics.

More and more I find myself thinking we are, as a race, constrained by the economic models we have. We have capitalism, of course, the proverbial worst model except for every other one that dominates much of our planet right now. It’s definitely a scarcity-based system. Then we have the centrally planned systems of Communism and Marxism, not particularly effective, as it turns out. We have European-style socialist capitalism, but that’s still capitalism, and scarcity-based, albeit with a much more robust safety net than we have here in the US. Some Americans seem to think that a robust safety net somehow nullifies the distributed planning of capitalism. I’ll listen to them again when our schools are decent and our life span starts increasing again magically.

The key here, to me, is to start thinking about how economics would work when we decouple labor from reward. Does that make a system inherently communist? I don’t think it does. People work. They get paid. It is market driven, and not centrally planned. In reality, the market already basically dictates this, for who can claim that a Wall Street banker works more than a teacher? The only thing we really need to do is take this to a logical extreme: that people can still get paid doing zero work. This fear seems to be at the heart of most people who say that Europe is communist: if we give people so much welfare, some of them might stop working! Quelle Horreur!

It seems to me that with the rise of machines and robotics, advances in mining technology, energy technology (both fracking and green energy technologies), the obesity epidemic in the US, etc., that there are plenty of reasons to believe that we may be at the beginnings of a post-scarcity economy. We have a surplus, no doubt. Of course, we still have legions of people in the world that are starving, and even people still here at home. But we actually have the capacity to feed them, to feed everyone, even now, even if we don’t have the will. It’s not a matter of scarcity; it’s a matter of the organization of labor and capital.

Take a mental journey for a moment with me: what if, one day, technology reaches the point that a small number of humans — say, 10 million — can produce all of the food, shelter, and energy that the race needs. This doesn’t seem like insanely wishful thinking, given current trends. There’s no rational reason why the advances in robotics, factories, energy and agriculture couldn’t continue unabated for long periods of time. Of course, I’m not saying they will, but rather, they could.

So, then, take that journey. What, then, of labor? In today’s terms, a ‘healthy’ economy now is one at or near full employment. A healthy economy now is one where everyone has a job. But in our mental exercise, those jobs are actually unrelated to a healthy economy, at least from strict economic terms. Everyone’s fed and housed and tons of people simply don’t need to work. Right now, we have them working making shit we don’t need. Is that any better than them not working?

I give you we’re in some fringe areas of economics here, but I have always wondered: is there any economic proof that we need full employment to reach full satisfaction of needs? To my knowledge, there isn’t. There’s a body of economics that goes into standards of living, and the increased standard of living. And here we get to our shitty world of unabated consumerism, Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption and George Bataille’s accursed share — the inevitable destiny of all economies to eventually produce more than they need, and, thus, waste it.

Seems to me that if we could think beyond capitalism and think of a new model, we could break out of this pointless cycle of more and more consumption of shit we don’t need and model things in another way.

Yes yes, of course. We all know that. The problem seems to me that the minute we leave capitalism behind, we only look at the past alternatives of communism, marxism and pure socialism and pooh-pooh them. Few people seem to be able to look beyond capitalism without regressing to the other failed economic models of the early 20th century as if they are the only alternate possibilities for man.

Yet there have been some other attempts to leave capitalism behind that attempt to also leave the baggage of communism, marxism, and socialism behind. The most notable is participatory economics or parecon. This is a worthwhile attempt, I think, but to me, it doesn’t quite pass the smell test of being sufficiently un-communist, what with its worker’s councils and lack of any sort of ruling class. All very un-American, and in any case, a bit preoccupied with “workers” and “individual need” to really work in any post-scarcity economy where the very concept of a laborer is iffy. When you start thinking this way you start getting into the dodgy world of heterodox economics and, well, that’s a world of a lot of crackpots. Some good ideas, sure, but a lot of crackpots, and more to the point, it’s a world devoid of empirical research, which is a serious problem. Economics is really at its worst when it’s just making up theories. It’s a lot more noble when there’s some real data to back it up.

Parecon does have some awesome concepts, though, by the way. I don’t hate it completely. I especially like that people’s say over any issue is proportional to the amount that issue affects them. It also has some states’ rights-ish aura similar to “laws being made at the level closest to those affected.” It’s a worthy school of thought to consider when looking for a pure alternative to capitalism in a vacuum, though probably not very practical in reality for reasons similar to communism (despite not being centrally planned, it still very much hinges on some third party deciding the relative worth of each job — a messy business). More to the point, it doesn’t help us in thinking about our mental picture: a world where a small number of people can produce enough for everyone.

Then I got to thinking. Screw the dodgy world of heterodox economics. Let’s go full-on fantastical and look at sci-fi. There IS actually a model out there that deals fairly realistically with a post-scarcity economy. Not only that, it actually takes into account the difficulties of migrating from a capitalist society to a post-scarcity society incrementally. It’s not just a theory in a vacuum.

It’s called Star Trek.

Stay with me here.

Star Trek and Economics

The Previous Theories

When looking at the economics of Star Trek, there have been three broad approaches in the past:

  1. Trying to shoehorn Star Trek’s economics into the model of parecon. This is problematic because of the obviously hierarchical society of Starfleet, with Admirals, captains, commanders, chancellors, governors and whatnot, and the clear existence of a relatively strong Federation president, who is democratically elected. Plus we never once see a labor meeting, and it’s pretty obvious personal freedom and enrichment are important to society.
  2. Calling the Federation Communist, based on comments from Kirk in Star Trek IV on not having any money in the future and Picard’s speech about the economics of the federation being significantly different than 21st-century economics and people pursuing personal enrichment rather than the accumulation of wealth. The problem with this definition is it’s lazy — just because they don’t pursue the accumulation of wealth, it does not mean the Federation is communistic. There is obviously, still private property in the Federation: most obviously Joseph Sisko’s restaurant in New Orleans and Chateau Picard, evidencing that not just small possessions are allowed but that the land itself is still privately owned. One could argue that these aren’t really Sisko and Picard’s to own, but they are routinely referred to as “his” restaurant and vineyard so we gotta go with Occam’s Razor here and assume they do, in fact, own them.
  3. A sort of guessing game based on the various mentions of Federation Credits and trying to glean knowledge of the system from every single mention of money or payments within the series. This is always a pain in the ass, especially given the original series sometimes did things that were pretty out there according to later firmly established canon, and later firmly rejected by Roddenberry himself before his death. Additionally, many of the assumptions about Federation Credits seem iffy: are they really currency? Do they have to be? Are they scrip? Rations? We simply don’t know. And in any case, trying to define the entire economy of the Federation — and perhaps even learning something from it — should be more than a matter of resolving obscure trivia references (though of course, it’s fun).

None of them seem correct. None of them seem realistic. And yes, let’s go for realistic here, why not?

Let’s take a different approach here.

What we know

Let’s start with the facts.

The Federation is clearly not a centrally planned economy, and therefore obviously not communist. Individual freedom of choice is very obvious. Everyone chooses their careers, and there are many mentions of this throughout the series — witness every single time someone waxes nostalgic about why they chose to enter Starfleet. Witness Bashir going on about why he wanted to be a doctor instead of a tennis player. Witness Wesley dropping out of Starfleet. Witness Vash being an archeologist and Kasidy Yates being a cargo ship captain.

Private ownership still exists — the biggest examples, to me, are Sisko’s restaurant and Chateau Picard, but many other examples abound from all the trinkets everyone owns in their quarters. Crusher’s family owns a (haunted) cottage on some old-Scottish settlement planet. The Maquis routinely refer to “our land,” which they presumably owned, and while an individual tribe may have collectively owned the land through a corporation, like the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act, or through a co-op, they clearly “owned” the land, just like anyone else owned land, while the Federation was the superseding government that could give that territory away to another sovereign party, much like the ceding of the Sudetenland or Guam. Any alternative situation (the government owning the land and renting it to the settlers?) is never alluded to and in any case the words stated (“our land”) clearly indicate private ownership is still very much part of the cultural zeitgeist. Then we have JJ Abram’s Star Trek and it’s pretty unlikely that, what? The Federation owned that shack Kirk grew up in, that sweet Corvette or that roadhouse bar? Those items sure looked privately owned. Some spaceships were privately owned. Finally, let’s not forget Star Trek: Generations when Kirk says in the Nexus “This is my house. I sold it years ago.”

Next: The Federation is not true post-scarcity economyfamines routinely still exist, transportation lines are vital in moving goods within the Federation. Transportation is a whole gray area in most post-scarcity economic works, at least the few I’ve read. The Federation might have enough food, but at any time some planet may well be starving or in need of medicine that needs to come from somewhere else.

It seems pretty clear cut that jobs are optional. They explicitly state on many occasions that the Federation is based on a philosophy of self improvement and cultural enrichment, and in any case we sure do run into a lot of “artists” in the Federation. I particularly love those hippies in TOS. The Federation seems a bit like Williamsburg — a lot of artists who don’t need to work. Or maybe more like the UK at the height of its social programs supporting artists. Let a million JK Rowlings bloom. It’s a bit weird, to me, that we’ve never seen people who sit around and literally do nothing, but then why would we? And, of course, we’ve certainly seen more than a few societies that are all chilled out and not doing much (Risa, etc).

Next: The Federation doesn’t use money. This is basically absolute. Kirk says it in Star Trek IV. Picard says it several times. Quark mocks it to RomRoddenberry put it down as a hard and fast rule. No theory of Star Trek economics can be real while ignoring this fact. It has to be addressed. It is the basis of all confusion and, honestly, interest in figuring it out at all.

Money still exists, so do banks. Crusher buys fabric at Farpoint. DS9 makes mention of theBank of Bolias, on a Federation planet. Nog loans Jake latinum.

We also know there exists such a thing as the Federation Credit. This presumably causes some confusion since they are routinely referred to as a form of money (Kirk mentions that the Federation has invested 122,200 credits in Spock), and things are purchased for credits (Uhura buys a tribble, Quark occasionally accepts them at his bar).

This would seem to be a giant contradiction to the lack of existence of money. We’ll get to that in a bit.

There is still a ruling class, or classes — it is not perfectly egalitarian in a communist manner. We have admirals and presidents and governors and colony leaders. There is enlisted personnel in Starfleet and officers. Some are elected, some are appointed. Some Federation members were even hereditary nobilities.

There is still commerce (and even Vulcan commerce), tradetrading vessels, and, we can assume, corporations, in some form (though this may not be 100% definite — Dytallix is mined for the Federation. It isn’t 100% clear it is in the Federation).

Some thought exercises

Let’s do a couple thought exercises.

First: if you eat a meal at Sisko’s Creole Kitchen, do you pay? It seems almost definite that you don’t pay. If you paid, with anything, including Federation Credits, that would be money. You could barter, but it seems if the entire economy was a barter economy, we’d hear it. No, it seems almost certain that you go to eat at Sisko’s, you don’t pay, and Joseph Sisko doesn’t pay for his supplies, and his suppliers probably don’t pay for theirs.

Next: Can everyone have anything? Anything at all? Is the Federation a perfect post-scarcity society? The answer seems almost certainly no. If you went to a replicator, or a dealer, or the Utopia Planatia Fleet Yards and asked for 10 million star ships, the answer would be no. More concretely, when the Borg attacked, and during the Dominion War, the Federation suffered from a serious starship shortage.

Next: Imagine there’s some level of welfare benefits in every country, including America. That’s easy. That’s true. Imagine that, as the economy became more efficient and wealthy, the society could afford to give more money in welfare benefits, and chooses to do so. Next, imagine that this kept happening until society could afford to give the equivalent of something like $10 million US dollars at current value to every man, woman, and child. And imagine that, over the time that took to happen, society got its shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor. Imagine if that self-same society frowned upon the conspicuous display of consumption and there was a large amount of societal pressure, though not laws, on people that evolved them into not being obsessed with wealth. Is any of that so crazy? Is it impossible?

I think that is basically what’s going on on Star Trek.

A Theory of Star Trek Economics

I believe the federation is a proto-post scarcity society evolved from democratic capitalism. It is, essentially, European socialist capitalism vastly expanded to the point where no one has to work unless they want to.

It is massively productive and efficient, allowing for the effective decoupling of labor and salary for the vast majority (but not all) of economic activity. The amount of welfare benefits available to all citizens is in excess of the needs of the citizens. Therefore, money is irrelevant to the lives of the citizenry, whether it exists or not. Resources are still accounted for and allocated in some manner, presumably by the amount of energy required to produce them (say Joules). And they are indeed credited to and debited from each citizen’s “account.” However, the average citizen doesn’t even notice it, though the government does, and again, it is not measured in currency units — definitely not Federation Credits. There is some level of scarcity — the Federation cannot manufacture a million starships, for example. This massive accounting is done by the Federation government in the background (witness the authority of the Federation President over planetary power supplies).

Because the welfare benefit is so large, and social pressure is so strong against conspicuous consumption, the average citizen never pays any attention to the amounts allocated to them, because it’s perpetually more than they need. But if they go crazy and try and purchase, say, 10 planets or 100 starships, the system simply says “no.”

Citizens have no financial need to work, as their benefits are more than enough to provide a comfortable life, and there is, clearly, universal health care and education. The Federation has clearly taken the plunge to the other side of people’s fears about European socialist capitalism: yes, some people might not work. So What? Good for them. We think most still will.

However, if they so choose they can also get a job. Many people do so for personal enrichment, societal pressure or through a desire to promote social welfare. Are those jobs paid? I would assume that yes, those jobs are “paid,” in the sense that your energy allocation is increased in the system, though, again, your allocation is large enough that you wouldn’t even really notice it. Why do I say this? The big challenge here is how does society get someone to do the menial jobs that cannot be done in an automated manner. Why would anyone? There are really only two options: there is some small, incremental increase in your hypothetical maximum consumption, thus appealing to the subconscious in some primal way, or massive societal pressure has ennobled those jobs in a way that we don’t these days. I opt for the former since it grounds everything in market economics, albeit on a bordering-on-infinitesimal manner, and that stands to reason since that’s how people talk in Star Trek. They talk about individual fulfillment, buying, selling, etc. No one was ever guilt-tripped into joining Starfleet, save by maybe their family.

There is almost zero mention of central planning. It’s a capitalistic society, its benefits are just through the roof. Also, market economics = crowdsourced. That is, it’s not centrally planned. It’s democratic. It’s the only mechanism we know of to allocate resources that isn’t centrally planned. The alternative is that all allocations are done algorithmically through a computer and the economy is completely decoupled from market forces, but that’s still basically central planning, and infinitely more complex than assuming there is still some semblance of market underpinning, much like we stayed on the gold standard for far longer than we needed to and we still have pennies even though we don’t need them. It’s a vestige of the past. It’s the constitutional monarchy.

Either way, presumably, you take whatever job you want, and your benefits allocations are adjusted accordingly. But by and large you just don’t care, because the base welfare allocation is more than enough. Some people might care, some people might still care about wealth, such as Carter Winston. More power to them. They can go try and be “rich” in some non-Federation-issued currency. But most people just don’t care. After all, if you were effectively “wealthy” why would you take a job to become wealthy? It pretty much becomes the least likely reason to take a job.

So, behind the scenes there is a massive internal accounting and calculation going on — the economics still happen. They just aren’t based on a currency unit, and people don’t acquire things based upon a currency value. People just acquire things from replicators, from restaurants such as Sisko’s or coffee shops like Cosimo’s, or, presumably, get larger things from dealerships or (more likely) factories. This could still be called “buying,” as a throwback.

Two points here: first, the accounting is done in energy units, so that there is no need for currency. And why not? Resource allocation is mainly about energy anyhow, doubly so if it’s only robots building most things. And secondly, if you never had money, never saw it, and it didn’t physically exist to measure things, you’d pretty much tell people, like a certain 20th-century oceanographer, that you don’t have money in the 24th century, regardless of some automated accounting. This jibes with Federation people knowing what money is — because other societies have it — but saying they don’t use it. Because they don’t.

However, you could still buy and sell things. You could take a thing from a replicator and go to someone else and “buy” something else with it. Why couldn’t you? It’s a free society. It is essentially barter. Kirk may well have sold his house for a year’s supply of Romulan ale.

Or Federation Credits.

It is tempting to argue here that the massive accounting system uses a unit called the Federation Credit, but i don’t believe that’s the case. If it were, the credit would be too much like money because a) accounting is done in it, b) it is issued by a governing body (like a fiat currency) and c) it is fungible, i.e. you can already buy things with it and if you could buy things with it AND a and b were true, it would pretty much be a currency. This would fly in the face of Roddenberry’s absolute diktat that the Federation has no currency.

I’m gonna make a bold new theory here. Federation Units are “Federation” the same way that American Cheese is American. It is simply descriptive. Currency was invented long before capitalism as a means to disintermediate trades: you wanted my grain, I didn’t want your cows, I wanted farmer Ted’s grapes. Rather than make every trade a 3, 4 or 5-way trade, we made a little certificate we all agreed was worth something to us and us only. This need would still occasionally crop up in the Federation, even without money. I believe the Federation Unit is a private currency, developed by third parties to facilitate complex trades or trades outside the Federation. I believe that the Federation Unit is not actually underwritten or issued by the Federation. I think it is more akin to the Calgary Dollar or the Chiemgauer. Or bitcoin. This would solve so many problems. It would make it unequivocally true that the Federation doesn’t use money. It would give people a unit to use as a reference when they say things are expensive. It would be a thing citizens could acquire, if they wanted to, through barter originally, then allowing them to use them to purchase things (like Tribbles or Holosuites) from people who elected to take them, since taking them is optional (witness Quark’s vacillations on whether he accepts them or not). It would make a nice proxy for talking about investment levels, such as when Kirk said how much the Federation had invested in Spock.

Foreign Reserves

Additionally, I believe that the Federation acts like any current sovereign nation state and holds foreign reserves of currencies of other nations. It’s assumed that not all foreign trade is done through barter. The federation itself probably holds foreign reserves in foreign currency just as China holds US dollars and England keeps a reserve of Euros. Sisko at one point tells Quark he could have charged rent for the bar, but he chose not to. Presumably, that would have been paid in latinum. Presumably, the Federation would have just held onto it as foreign reserves. All evidence, in fact, points to the fact that the Federation operates as a nation and uses foreign reserves exactly as we do now. The Chinese government holds US Dollars but you don’t hear a Chinese person say “we use dollars.” This is a bit confusing by the episode in which the Federation offers 1.5 million Federation Credits for use of the Barzanian wormhole, but it doesn’t have to be contradictory. Federation Credits had value to the Barzanians, so the Federation could simply procure them from the issuer with its foreign reserves of other currencies at market rate.

The Individual Can Have Money

An individual of the Federation can procure latinum by barter for goods, labor or, presumably Federation Credits if they had them. I assume that there’s probably some black market value for Federation Credits just like any other currency, sovereign issued or not (you can buy aLewes Pound on eBay right now for $7.98). Perhaps it is more legitimate and the Units are traded on a commodities exchange. It really doesn’t matter. As a Federation Citizen, I can have gold pressed latinum, Federation Credits, FrangsDarseksIsiksLeks, or Quatloos in my wallet. I can have a wallet. I can buy things with Self Sealing Stem Bolts if I want. But none of that is in conflict with the fact that the Federation has no unit of currency, has no money, and my society is predominantly concerned with societal good and self-improvement.

Then there’s the matter of Quark’s bar. What’s up with that? He never seems to charge anyone for drinks but is obsessed with money, and you can buy holosuites in latinum or Federation Credits, and you can bet on the Dabo table with Latinum. At first, I thought there was a whole complex thing where Quark doesn’t charge Starfleet personnel because he made the mental calculation it was cheaper to give them drinks for free and keep accepting free rent from Sisko, but then I realized that doesn’t really work because he charges them for the Holosuites and Dabo tables. Then I realized: Quark’s is like any other casino. The drinks are free: they are a loss leader against the higher profits of the Dabo Table and Holosuites.

The Proto Post-Scarcity Economy

The thing I love most about this theory is that it seems plausible for our future. Tom Paris said that a new world economy takes shape in the 22nd century. That might be a smidge optimistic but we already have a world economy, in one sense, so the new one could be something only incrementally different from this one. Money went the way of the dinosaur, he said, and Ft. Knox was turned into a museum. Most of us are already off the gold standard, and it’s certainly not inconceivable in another 180 years we don’t use paper money at all, and a single currency has dominated the planet — the Dollar is already close — and it slowly fades into the background.

From there, perhaps a cultural shift takes place as we realize that “everyone in a job” isn’t the same as a full economy, and we start to look for models beyond capitalism that aren’t all communist hoo-ha.

I sort of love that Star Trek forces us to think about a society that has no money but still operates with individual freedom and without central planning. I love that democracy is still in place. I love that people can still buy and sell things. It’s real. It’s a more realistic vision of post-capitalism than I have seen anywhere else. Scarcity still exists to some extent, but society produces more than enough to satisfy everyone’s basic needs. The frustrating thing is that we pretty much do that now, we just don’t allocate properly. And allocating properly cannot be done via central planning.

The only real “out there” requirement in all of this is a governmental layer higher than the nation, and indeed, higher than the planet. This doesn’t seem insane, I suppose, if we were to suddenly find ourselves not alone in the universe. And indeed we already have some measure of international government now. Moreover, the Federation clearly adheres to the “laws made as close to home as possible” routine, since as far as we can tell the Federation president really only has authority over Starfleet, Foreign Relations and power allocation and accounting. Virtually every other law we encounter in the Federation happens at the individual planet or colony level.

It’s interesting to me because these are things we’re going to have to reckon with, I believe, in my lifetime. If robots do all the dirty work, and the US is hugely rich, does every single person really need a job? Are we going to let all of that money pile up in the 0.1% ruling elite, or can it be distributed to everyone? Does wealth being distributed to the people in an equal manner mean communism absolutely? Of course, it doesn’t. The US isn’t communist. The UK isn’t communist. Denmark isn’t communist. What happens when the surplus is more than enough?

Go to the profile of Rick Webb

Rick Webb

author, @agencythebook@mannupbook. writing an ad economics book. reformed angel investor, record label owner, native alaskan. co-founded @barbariangroup.

Experiment Reaffirms Quantum Weirdness

Physicists are closing the door on an intriguing loophole around the quantum phenomenon Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”



By Natalie Wolchover
February 7, 2017

There might be no getting around what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” With an experiment described today in Physical Review Letters — a feat that involved harnessing starlight to control measurements of particles shot between buildings in Vienna — some of the world’s leading cosmologists and quantum physicists are closing the door on an intriguing alternative to “quantum entanglement.”
“Technically, this experiment is truly impressive,” said Nicolas Gisin, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva who has studied this loophole around entanglement.

According to standard quantum theory, particles have no definite states, only relative probabilities of being one thing or another — at least, until they are measured, when they seem to suddenly roll the dice and jump into formation. Stranger still, when two particles interact, they can become “entangled,” shedding their individual probabilities and becoming components of a more complicated probability function that describes both particles together. This function might specify that two entangled photons are polarized in perpendicular directions, with some probability that photon A is vertically polarized and photon B is horizontally polarized, and some chance of the opposite. The two photons can travel light-years apart, but they remain linked: Measure photon A to be vertically polarized, and photon B instantaneously becomes horizontally polarized, even though B’s state was unspecified a moment earlier and no signal has had time to travel between them. This is the “spooky action” that Einstein was famously skeptical about in his arguments against the completeness of quantum mechanics in the 1930s and ’40s.

In 1964, the Northern Irish physicist John Bell found a way to put this paradoxical notion to the test. He showed that if particles have definite states even when no one is looking (a concept known as “realism”) and if indeed no signal travels faster than light (“locality”), then there is an upper limit to the amount of correlation that can be observed between the measured states of two particles. But experiments have shown time and again that entangled particles are more correlated than Bell’s upper limit, favoring the radical quantum worldview over local realism.

Only there’s a hitch: In addition to locality and realism, Bell made another, subtle assumption to derive his formula — one that went largely ignored for decades. “The three assumptions that go into Bell’s theorem that are relevant are locality, realism and freedom,” said Andrew Friedman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a co-author of the new paper. “Recently it’s been discovered that you can keep locality and realism by giving up just a little bit of freedom.” This is known as the “freedom-of-choice” loophole.

In a Bell test, entangled photons A and B are separated and sent to far-apart optical modulators — devices that either block photons or let them through to detectors, depending on whether the modulators are aligned with or against the photons’ polarization directions. Bell’s inequality puts an upper limit on how often, in a local-realistic universe, photons A and B will both pass through their modulators and be detected. (Researchers find that entangled photons are correlated more often than this, violating the limit.) Crucially, Bell’s formula assumes that the two modulators’ settings are independent of the states of the particles being tested. In experiments, researchers typically use random-number generators to set the devices’ angles of orientation. However, if the modulators are not actually independent — if nature somehow restricts the possible settings that can be chosen, correlating these settings with the states of the particles in the moments before an experiment occurs — this reduced freedom could explain the outcomes that are normally attributed to quantum entanglement.

The universe might be like a restaurant with 10 menu items, Friedman said. “You think you can order any of the 10, but then they tell you, ‘We’re out of chicken,’ and it turns out only five of the things are really on the menu. You still have the freedom to choose from the remaining five, but you were overcounting your degrees of freedom.” Similarly, he said, “there might be unknowns, constraints, boundary conditions, conservation laws that could end up limiting your choices in a very subtle way” when setting up an experiment, leading to seeming violations of local realism.

This possible loophole gained traction in 2010, when Michael Hall, now of Griffith University in Australia, developed a quantitative way of reducing freedom of choice. In Bell tests, measuring devices have two possible settings (corresponding to one bit of information: either 1 or 0), and so it takes two bits of information to specify their settings when they are truly independent. But Hall showed that if the settings are not quite independent — if only one bit specifies them once in every 22 runs — this halves the number of possible measurement settings available in those 22 runs. This reduced freedom of choice correlates measurement outcomes enough to exceed Bell’s limit, creating the illusion of quantum entanglement.

The idea that nature might restrict freedom while maintaining local realism has become more attractive in light of emerging connections between information and the geometry of space-time. Research on black holes, for instance, suggests that the stronger the gravity in a volume of space-time, the fewer bits can be stored in that region. Could gravity be reducing the number of possible measurement settings in Bell tests, secretly striking items from the universe’s menu?
Friedman, Alan Guth and colleagues at MIT were entertaining such speculations a few years ago when Anton Zeilinger, a famous Bell test experimenter at the University of Vienna, came for a visit. Zeilinger also had his sights on the freedom-of-choice loophole. Together, they and their collaborators developed an idea for how to distinguish between a universe that lacks local realism and one that curbs freedom.

In the first of a planned series of “cosmic Bell test” experiments, the team sent pairs of photons from the roof of Zeilinger’s lab in Vienna through the open windows of two other buildings and into optical modulators, tallying coincident detections as usual. But this time, they attempted to lower the chance that the modulator settings might somehow become correlated with the states of the photons in the moments before each measurement. They pointed a telescope out of each window, trained each telescope on a bright and conveniently located (but otherwise random) star, and, before each measurement, used the color of an incoming photon from each star to set the angle of the associated modulator. The colors of these photons were decided hundreds of years ago, when they left their stars, increasing the chance that they (and therefore the measurement settings) were independent of the states of the photons being measured.

And yet, the scientists found that the measurement outcomes still violated Bell’s upper limit, boosting their confidence that the polarized photons in the experiment exhibit spooky action at a distance after all.

Nature could still exploit the freedom-of-choice loophole, but the universe would have had to delete items from the menu of possible measurement settings at least 600 years before the measurements occurred (when the closer of the two stars sent its light toward Earth). “Now one needs the correlations to have been established even before Shakespeare wrote, ‘Until I know this sure uncertainty, I’ll entertain the offered fallacy,’” Hall said.

Next, the team plans to use light from increasingly distant quasars to control their measurement settings, probing further back in time and giving the universe an even smaller window to cook up correlations between future device settings and restrict freedoms. It’s also possible (though extremely unlikely) that the team will find a transition point where measurement settings become uncorrelated and violations of Bell’s limit disappear — which would prove that Einstein was right to doubt spooky action.

“For us, it seems like kind of a win-win,” Friedman said. “Either we close the loophole more and more, and we’re more confident in quantum theory, or we see something that could point toward new physics.”

There’s a final possibility that many physicists abhor. It could be that the universe restricted freedom of choice from the very beginning — that every measurement was predetermined by correlations established at the Big Bang. “Superdeterminism,” as this is called, is “unknowable,” said Jan-Åke Larsson, a physicist at Linköping University in Sweden; the cosmic Bell test crew will never be able to rule out correlations that existed before there were stars, quasars or any other light in the sky. That means the freedom-of-choice loophole can never be completely shut.

But given the choice between quantum entanglement and superdeterminism, most scientists favor entanglement — and with it, freedom. “If the correlations are indeed set [at the Big Bang], everything is preordained,” Larsson said. “I find it a boring worldview. I cannot believe this would be true.”

This article was reprinted on


Quanta Magazine

‘Digital Alchemist’ Seeks Rules of Emergence


Computational physicist Sharon Glotzer is uncovering the rules by which complex collective phenomena emerge from simple building blocks.

By Natalie Wolchover
March 8, 2017

Sharon Glotzer has made a number of career-shifting discoveries, each one the kind “that completely changes the way you look at the world,” she said, “and causes you to say, ‘Wow, I need to follow this.’”

A theoretical soft condensed matter physicist by training who now heads a thriving 33-person research group spanning three departments at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Glotzer uses computer simulations to study emergence — the phenomenon whereby simple objects give rise to surprising collective behaviors. “When flocks of starlings make these incredible patterns in the sky that look like they’re not even real, the way they’re changing constantly — people have been seeing those patterns since people were on the planet,” she said. “But only recently have scientists started to ask the question, how do they do that? How are the birds communicating so that it seems like they’re all following a blueprint?”

Glotzer is searching for the fundamental principles that govern how macroscopic properties emerge from microscopic interactions and arrangements. One big breakthrough came in the late 1990s when she was a young researcher at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She and her team developed some of the earliest and best computer simulations of liquids approaching the transition into glass, a common yet mysterious phase of matter in which atoms are stuck in place, but not crystallized. The simulations revealed strings of fast-moving atoms that glide through the otherwise frustrated material like a conga line. Similar flow patterns were later also observed in granular systems, crowds and traffic jams. The findings demonstrated the ability of simulations to illuminate emergent phenomena.

A more recent “wow” moment occurred in 2009 when Glotzer and her group at Michigan discovered that entropy, a concept commonly conflated with disorder, can actually organize things. Their simulations showed that entropy drives simple pyramidal shapes called tetrahedra to spontaneously assemble into a quasicrystal — a spatial pattern so complex that it never exactly repeats. The discovery was the first indication of the powerful, paradoxical role that entropy plays in the emergence of complexity and order.

Lately, Glotzer and company have been engaged in what she calls “digital alchemy.” Let’s say a materials scientist wants to create a specific structure or material. Glotzer’s team can reverse-engineer the shape of the microscopic building blocks that will assemble themselves into the desired form. It’s like whipping up gold from scratch ­­­— only in modern times, the coveted substance might be a colloidal crystal or macromolecular assembly.

Glotzer ultimately seeks the rules that govern emergence in general: a single framework for describing self-assembling quasicrystals, crystallizing proteins, or living cells that spontaneously arise from simple precursors. She discussed her eureka-studded path with Quanta Magazine in February; a condensed and edited version of the interview follows.

Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 462, 773-777, copyright (2009)



QUANTA MAGAZINE: Tell me about your famous 2009 Nature paper that linked self-assembly with entropy.

SHARON GLOTZER: Imagine if you had baseballs in a pool of water, and imagine that they had exactly the same density as the pool, so they didn’t sink, they didn’t float, they were just suspended, jostling about. Then you try to confine them all together. Self-assembly is what happens when the baseballs spontaneously organize themselves into a recognizable pattern. And if the particles are perfectly hard and have no other interactions, they will organize themselves to have the highest entropy possible.

So we were studying these tetrahedra, and it’s the simplest Platonic solid — the simplest three-dimensional shape, right? These Dungeons & Dragons dice. I had an inkling that it would be interesting to look at how they like to arrange with one another based solely on entropy, meaning they had no direct interactions between them — they didn’t want to stick together; there are no charges; there’s no nothing; there’s just entropy. But I had no idea how interesting. I had no inkling that they would form the kind of structures that they did.

You showed that tetrahedra organize into a quasicrystal — this really complex and ordered structure. People normally understand the law of increasing entropy as the tendency of things to get messier, but you’re saying entropy leads to order. Why is that not a paradox?

You’re absolutely right that it’s completely counterintuitive. We typically think entropy means disorder, and so a disordered structure would have more entropy than an ordered structure. That can be true under certain circumstances, but it’s not always true, and in these cases, it’s not. I prefer to think of entropy as related to options: The more options a system of particles has to arrange itself, the higher the entropy. In certain circumstances, it’s possible for a system to have more options — more possible arrangements — of its building blocks if the system is ordered.

What happens is the particles try to maximize the amount of space that they have to wiggle around in. If you can wiggle, you can rearrange your position and orientation. The more positions, the more options, and thus the more entropy. So you imagine these baseballs in water. They are moving around — translating, rotating. They’re jiggling, because of the thermal motion of the water molecules. And what these systems want to do is space out the particles enough so that it maximizes the amount of wiggle room available to all the particles. Depending on the particle shape, that can lead to extremely complicated arrangements.

So particles like tetrahedra and baseballs evolve to states that allow them to wiggle in more ways and therefore have higher entropy. Did people know before that you could get order from entropy?

It’s been known that entropy alone can cause platelets and rodlike particles and spherical particles to align, but those ordered phases were pretty simple. It wasn’t really thought of as being such an important driving force for organization. When we did this tetrahedra computer experiment and got out what is still today the most complicated entropically stabilized structure that anyone has ever seen, that really changed the way people looked at this.

So then my group started studying every shape under the sun. We just started throwing all kinds of convex shapes onto the computer, and we just kept getting a crystal structure after another after another, some that were very complicated. In 2012 we published a paper in Science where we studied 145 different shapes and showed that 101 of them self-assembled into some kind of complicated crystal. Since then, my group has done tens of thousands of different shapes. We published one paper with 50,000 shapes in it.

What are some of the things you’re figuring out?

The kinds of questions I’m after now are: There’s this whole database of all the crystal structures that are known. And all these “space groups,” meaning structures that can obey all these different symmetry operations [rotations and translations that leave the structures unchanged]. There’s a couple hundred of those. Can I get every one of them just with entropy? With colloidal particles [like what you find in gels], even without interactions, we’ve already been able to get as many as 50 of the known space groups. Are there any that aren’t possible just with entropy? And if so, why? We’ve also started looking at mixtures of shapes. We haven’t even talked about complicated crazy shapes and concave shapes. So how far can you go with just entropy? And what does it mean that I can form the same structure in a whole bunch of different ways? There’s something much more fundamental to understand about the organization of matter, and by focusing on shape and entropy, we’re getting to the core of that.

One of the things we’ve noticed is that there are some design rules. For example, when your polyhedra have big, flat facets, they want to align so that their facets are facing each other — because this gives more wiggle room, more ways of arranging the particles. But if you have lots of facets that are all differently sized, then it’s harder to predict. You might end up with a glassy system or a jammed system instead of an ordered structure.


In the past couple of years, you’ve started working backward.

We’re basically doing alchemy in the computer. The ancient alchemists wanted to transmute the elements and turn lead into gold. But imagine that you had a particular structure and wanted to know what shape is the best shape to get the structure. That’s what many materials scientists are doing now — trying to turn the problem on its head. This “inverse design” approach is different from the way you might screen for compounds, for example, or find protein crystals. In that case you do simulation after simulation after simulation, where you’re just running tons of different molecules and saying: Which one gives me what I want?

Inverse design is more strategic. We start with a target structure and use statistical thermodynamics to find the particle that solves the design problem. What we did is, we extended the way that these kinds of simulations are typically done to include shape as a variable. We can now do a single simulation where we let the shape of the building blocks change on the fly in the simulation and let the system tell us what the best one is. So instead of running thousands of simulations, I can run one and have the system tell me: What’s the best building block for the desired structure? So I call it digital alchemy.

Video: Sharon Glotzer explains how emergence, entropy and order can all fit together.
You’ve also thought about how entropy might have played a role in the origin of life.

Most scientists think that to have order you need chemical bonds — you need interactions. And we’ve shown that you don’t. You can just have objects that, if you just confine them enough, can self-organize. So if you go to the question of: What was the first self-organizing of stuff, and how did it happen? You could imagine that you had these tiny microscopic crevices in rocks with water, and there were molecules in there, that they could self-organize just due to entropy for exactly the reasons that I was just describing. So it’s a completely different way to think about life and increasing complexity. They’re compatible with each other, but this is just saying: I know because I’ve done this, that I can take a bunch of objects and put them in a little droplet and shrink the droplet a little, and these objects will spontaneously organize. So maybe that phenomenon is important in the origin of life, and I don’t think that’s been considered.

When did you first become fascinated with emergence?

When I went to graduate school at Boston University, I joined an experimental lab. I spent the whole year basically designing a flange for a sputtering chamber. I was not inspired. I like puzzles, I like computers, I like math. One day the vacuum pump blew up on me and I was covered in pump oil. And I came walking out of the lab, and a professor, Gene Stanley, saw me and said, “You look like a theorist; come talk to me.” By the end of the day I had switched and joined his group and it was one of the most life-changing decisions I ever made. With Stanley, I was studying kinetics of phase-separating polymer mixtures. I was looking at, for example, what happens if the polymers are stuck to each other, or linked. What kind of structures could you get when there’s competing driving forces — one that wants polymers to separate and one that wants them to mix? What emergent phenomena come from that? Back then I didn’t use that language to describe it, but that’s when I figured out that I like this idea of unpredictable emergent complexity coming out of simple things.

You oversee (at last count) 27 graduate students, half a dozen postdocs and support staff. That’s rather a lot.

I started with two. Then I had four. Over time it got bigger and bigger because, well, I love working with students! When a student comes to me and they’re so excited to join the group, they’ve read our papers and they think it’s awesome, and there’s something about them that makes it obvious that they should be in the group — they’re nerds like us — I have a really hard time saying no, and so I try to find a way to support them.

Once you get beyond a certain size your group naturally develops a structure, and it almost becomes self-sustaining in that new people come in the group and the more senior students take them under their wing. The postdocs are working with graduate students, and you end up having teams. And I just love it because all the time, new stuff is coming out; it’s just magic.

Is that emergence?

That’s emergence! It is emergence! When the group gets big enough all of a sudden, and you have the right mix of people, it’s amazing some of the directions that are coming out that I never would have anticipated before.

Editor’s Note: Glotzer was named a Simons Investigator in 2012.



Gaia Vince discovers that analyzing the genetics of ancient humans means changing ideas about our evolution.

The Rock of Gibraltar appears out of the plane window as an immense limestone monolith sharply rearing up from the base of Spain into the Mediterranean. One of the ancient Pillars of Hercules, it marked the end of the Earth in classical times. Greek sailors didn’t go past it. Atlantis, the unknown, lay beyond.

In summer 2016, Gibraltar is in the throes of a 21st-century identity crisis: geographically a part of Spain, politically a part of Britain; now torn, post Brexit, between its colonial and European Union ties. For such a small area – less than seven square kilometers – Gibraltar is home to an extraordinarily diverse human population. It has been home to people of all types over the millennia, including early Europeans at the edge of their world, Phoenicians seeking spiritual support before venturing into the Atlantic, and Carthaginians arriving in a new world from Africa.

But I’ve come to see who was living here even further back, between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, when sea levels were much lower and the climate was swinging in and out of ice ages. It was a tough time to be alive and the period saw the species that could, such as birds, migrate south to warmer climes, amid plenty of local extinctions. Among the large mammal species struggling to survive were lions, wolves and at least two types of human: our own ‘modern human’ ancestors, and the last remaining populations of our cousins, the Neanderthals.

By understanding more about these prehistoric people, we can learn about who we are as a species today. Our ancestors’ experiences shaped us, and they may still hold answers to some of our current health problems, from diabetes to depression.

Everyone of European descent has some Neanderthal DNA in their genetic makeup

I’m picked up outside my hotel by archaeologists Clive and Geraldine Finlayson, in a car that itself looks fairly ancient. Typical for this crowded little peninsula, they are of diverse origins – he, pale-skinned and sandy-haired, can trace his ancestry back to Scotland; she, olive-skinned and dark-haired, from the Genoese refugees escaping Napoleon’s purges. How different we humans can look from each other. And yet the people whose home I am about to visit truly were of a different race.

We don’t know how many species of humans there have been, how many different races of people, but the evidence suggests that around 600,000 years ago one species emerged in Africa that used fire, made simple tools from stones and animal bones, and hunted big animals in large cooperative groups. And 500,000 years ago, these humans, known as Homo heidelbergensis, began to take advantage of fluctuating climate changes that regularly greened the African continent, and spread into Europe and beyond.

Neanderthals were thriving from Siberia to southern Spain by the time a few families of modern humans made it out of Africa around 60,000 years ago.

By 300,000 years ago, though, migration into Europe had stopped, perhaps because a severe ice age had created an impenetrable desert across the Sahara, sealing off the Africans from the other tribes. This geographic separation enabled genetic differences to evolve, eventually resulting in different races, although they were still the same species and would prove able to have fertile offspring together. The race left behind in Africa would become Homo sapiens sapiens, or ‘modern humans’; those who evolved adaptations to the cooler European north would become Neanderthals, Denisovans and others whom we can now only glimpse with genetics.

Neanderthals were thriving from Siberia to southern Spain by the time a few families of modern humans made it out of Africa around 60,000 years ago. These Africans encountered Neanderthals and, on several occasions, had children with them. We know this because human DNA has been found in the genomes of Neanderthals, and because everyone alive today of European descent – including me – has some Neanderthal DNA in their genetic makeup. Could it be that their genes, adapted to the northerly environment, provided a selective advantage to our ancestors as well?

After driving through narrow tunnels on a road that skirts the cliff face, we pull up at a military checkpoint. Clive shows the guard our accreditation and we’re waved through to park inside. Safety helmets on to protect from rockslides, we leave the car and continue on foot under a low rock arch. A series of metal steps leads steeply down the cliff to a narrow shingle beach, 60 meters below. The tide is lapping the pebbles and our feet must negotiate the unstable larger rocks to find a dry path.

I’ve been concentrating so hard on keeping my footing that it is something of a shock to look up and suddenly face a gaping absence in the rock wall. We have reached Gorham’s Cave, a great teardrop-shaped cavern that disappears into the white cliff face and, upon entering, seems to grow in height and space. This vast, cathedral-like structure, with a roof that soars high into the interior, was used by Neanderthals for tens of thousands of years. Scientists believe it was their last refuge. When Neanderthals disappeared from here, some 32,000 years ago, we became the sole inheritors of our continent.

I pause, perched on a rock inside the entrance, in order to consider this – people not so different from myself once sat here, facing the Mediterranean and Africa beyond. Before I arrived in Gibraltar, I used a commercial genome-testing service to analyze my ancestry. From the vial of saliva I sent them, they determined that 1 percent of my DNA is Neanderthal. I don’t know what health advantages or risks these genes have given me – testing companies are no longer allowed to provide this level of detail – but it is an extraordinary experience to be so close to the intelligent, resourceful people who bequeathed me some of their genes. Sitting in this ancient home, knowing none of them survived to today, is a poignant reminder of how vulnerable we are – it could so easily have been a Neanderthal woman sitting here wondering about her extinct human cousins.

Gorham’s Cave seems an oddly inaccessible place for a home. But Clive, who has been meticulously exploring the cave for 25 years, explains that the view was very different back then. With the sea levels so much lower, vast hunting plains stretched far out to sea, letting people higher on the rock spot prey and signal to each other. In front of me would have been fields of grassy dunes and lakes – wetlands that were home to birds, grazing deer and other animals. Further around the peninsula to my right, where the dunes gave way to shoreline, would have been clam colonies and mounds of flint. It was idyllic, Clive says. The line of neighboring caves here probably had the highest concentration of Neanderthals living anywhere on Earth. “It was like Neanderthal City,” he adds.

Deep inside the cave, Clive’s team of archaeologists have found the remains of fires. Further back are chambers where the inhabitants could have slept protected from hyenas, lions, leopards and other predators. “They ate shellfish, pine seeds, plants and olives. They hunted big game and also birds. There was plenty of fresh water from the springs that still exist under what is now seabed,” Clive says. “They had spare time to sit and think – they weren’t just surviving.”

He and Geraldine have uncovered remarkable evidence of Neanderthal culture in the cave, including the first example of Neanderthal artwork. The ‘hashtag’, a deliberately carved rock engraving, is possibly evidence of the first steps towards writing. Other signs of symbolic or ritualistic behavior, such as the indication that Neanderthals were making and wearing black feather capes or headdresses as well as warm clothes, all point to a social life not so different to the one our African ancestors were experiencing.

Clive shows me a variety of worked stones, bone and antler. I pick up a flint blade and hold it in my hand, marveling at how the same technology is being passed between people biologically and culturally linked but separated by tens of thousands of years. Other sites in Europe have uncovered Neanderthal-made necklaces of strung eagle talons dating back 130,000 years, little ochre clamshell compacts presumably for adornment, and burial sites for their dead.

These people evolved outside of Africa but clearly had advanced culture and the capability to survive in a hostile environment. “Consider modern humans were in the Middle East perhaps 70,000 years ago, and reached Australia more than 50,000 years ago,” says Clive. “Why did it take them so much longer to reach Europe? I think it was because Neanderthals were doing very well and keeping modern humans out.”

© Tom Sewell

But by 39,000 years ago, Neanderthals were struggling. Genetically they had low diversity because of inbreeding and they were reduced to very low numbers, partly because an extreme and rapid change of climate was pushing them out of many of their former habitats. A lot of the forested areas they depended on were disappearing and, while they were intelligent enough to adapt their tools and technology, their bodies were unable to adapt to the hunting techniques required for the new climate and landscapes.

“In parts of Europe, the landscape changed in a generation from thick forest to a plain without a single tree,” Clive says. “Our ancestors, who were used to hunting in bigger groups on the plains, could adapt easily: instead of wildebeest they had reindeer, but effectively the way of capturing them was the same. But Neanderthals were forest people.

“It could’ve gone the other way – if instead the climate had got wetter and warmer, we might be Neanderthals today discussing the demise of modern humans.”

Although the Neanderthals, like the Denisovans and other races we are yet to identify, died out, their genetic legacy lives on in people of European and Asian descent. Between 1 and 4 per cent of our DNA is of Neanderthal origins, but we don’t all carry the same genes, so across the population around 20 per cent of the Neanderthal genome is still being passed on. That’s an extraordinary amount, leading researchers to suspect that Neanderthal genes must be advantageous for survival in Europe.

Interbreeding across different races of human would have helped accelerate the accumulation of useful genes for the environment, a process that would have taken much longer to occur through evolution by natural selection. Neanderthal tweaks to our immune system, for example, may have boosted our survival in new lands, just as we prime our immune system with travel vaccines today. Many of the genes are associated with keratin, the protein in skin and hair, including some that are linked to corns and others that play a role in pigmentation – Neanderthals were redheads, apparently. Perhaps these visible variants were considered appealing by our ancestors and sexually selected for, or perhaps a tougher skin offered some advantage in the colder, darker European environment.

Some Neanderthal genes, however, appear to be a disadvantage, for instance making us more prone to diseases like Crohn’s, urinary tract disorders and type 2 diabetes, and to depression. Others change the way we metabolize fats, risking obesity, or even make us more likely to become addicted to smoking. None of these genes are a direct cause of these complicated conditions, but they are contributory risk factors, so how did they survive selection for a thousand generations?

‘Why did it take [humans] so much longer to reach Europe? I think it was because Neanderthals were doing very well and keeping modern humans out.’

It’s likely that for much of the time since our sexual encounters with Neanderthals, these genes were useful. When we lived as hunter-gatherers, for example, or early farmers, we would have faced times of near starvation interspersed with periods of gorging. Genes that now pose a risk of diabetes may have helped us to cope with starvation, but our new lifestyles of continual gorging on plentiful, high-calorie food now reveal harmful side-effects. Perhaps it is because of such latent disadvantages that Neanderthal DNA is very slowly now being deselected from the human genome.

While I can (sort of) blame my Neanderthal ancestry for everything from mood disorders to being greedy, another archaic human race passed on genes that help modern Melanesians, such as people in Papua New Guinea, survive different conditions. Around the time that the ancestors of modern Europeans and Asians were getting friendly with Neanderthals, the ancestors of Melanesians were having sex with Denisovans, about whom we know very little. Their surviving genes, however, may help modern-day Melanesians to live at altitude by changing the way their bodies react to low levels of oxygen. Some geneticists suspect that other, yet-to-be-discovered archaic races may have influenced the genes of other human populations across the world.

Interbreeding with Neanderthals and other archaic humans certainly changed our genes, but the story doesn’t end there.

I am a Londoner, but I’m a little darker than many Englishwomen because my father is originally from Eastern Europe. We are attuned to such slight differences in skin color, face shape, hair and a host of other less obvious features encountered across different parts of the world. However, there has been no interbreeding with other human races for at least 32,000 years. Even though I look very different from a Han Chinese or Bantu person, we are actually remarkably similar genetically. There is far less genetic difference between any two humans than there is between two chimpanzees, for example.

The reason for our similarity is the population bottlenecks we faced as a species, during which our numbers dropped as low as a few hundred families and we came close to extinction. As a result, we are too homogeneous to have separated into different races. Nevertheless, variety has emerged through populations being separated geographically – and culturally, in some cases – over thousands of years. The greatest distinctions occur in isolated populations where small genetic and cultural changes become exaggerated, and there have been many of them over the 50,000 years since my ancestors made the journey out of Africa towards Europe.

According to the analysis of my genome, my haplogroup is H4a. Haplogroups describe the mutations on our mitochondrial DNA, passed down through the maternal line, and can theoretically be used to trace a migratory path all the way back to Africa. H4a is a group shared by people in Europe, unsurprisingly, and western Asia. It is, the genome-testing company assures me, the same as Warren Buffet’s. So what journey did my ancestors take that would result in these mutations and give me typically European features?

Interbreeding with Neanderthals and other archaic humans certainly changed our genes, but the story doesn’t end there.

“I was dumped by helicopter in the wilderness with two other people, a Russian and an indigenous Yukaghir man, with our dogs, our guns, our traps, a little food and a little tea. There we had to survive and get food and furs in the coldest place on Earth where humans live naturally – minus 60 degrees.”

Eske Willerslev lived for six months as a trapper in Siberia in his 20s. Separately, his identical twin brother Rane did the same. When they were teenagers, their father had regularly left them in Lapland to survive alone in the wilderness for a couple of weeks, fostering a passion for the remote tundra and the people who live there, and they went on increasingly lengthy expeditions. But surviving practically alone was very different. “It was a childhood dream, but it was the toughest thing I have ever done,” Eske admits.

These experiences affected the twins deeply, and both have been driven towards a deeper understanding of how the challenge of survival has forged us as humans over the past 50,000 years. It led Eske into the science of genetics, and to pioneering the new field of ancient DNA sequencing. Now director of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, Eske has sequenced the world’s oldest genome (a 700,000-year-old horse) and was the first to sequence the genome of an ancient human, a 4,000-year-old Saqqaq man from Greenland. Since then, he has gone on to sequence yet more ancient humans and, in doing so, has fundamentally changed our understanding of early human migration through Europe and beyond. If anyone can unpick my origins, it is surely Eske.

First, though, I go to meet his twin Rane, who studied humanities, went into cultural anthropology and is now a professor at Aarhus University. He’s not convinced that his brother’s genetic approach can reveal all the answers to my questions: “There exists an uneasy relationship between biology and culture,” he tells me. “Natural scientists claim they can reveal what sort of people moved around, and they are not interested in having their models challenged. But this cannot tell you anything about what people thought or what their culture was.”

To put this point to Eske, I visit him in his delightful museum office, opposite a petite moated castle and in the grounds of the botanic gardens – there could scarcely be a more idyllic place for a scientist to work. Greeting him for the first time, just hours after meeting Rane, is disconcerting. Identical twins are genetically and physically almost exactly the same – looking back, many years from now, at DNA left by the brothers, it would be all but impossible to tell them apart or even to realize that there were two of them.

Eske tells me that he is increasingly working with archaeologists to gain additional cultural perspective, but that genetic analysis can answer questions that nothing else can. “You find cultural objects in certain places and the fundamental question is: Does that mean people who made it were actually there or that it was traded? And, if you find very similar cultural objects, does that mean there was parallel or convergent cultural evolution in the two places, or does that mean there was contact?” he explains.

“For example, one theory says the very first people crossing into the Americas were not Native Americans but Europeans crossing the Atlantic, because the stone tools thousands of years ago in America are similar to stone tools in Europe at the same time. Only when we did the genetic testing could we see it was convergent evolution, because the guys carrying and using those tools have nothing to do with Europeans. They were Native Americans. So the genetics, in terms of migrations, is by far the most powerful tool we have available now to determine: was it people moving around or was it culture moving around? And this is really fundamental.”

What Eske went on to discover about Native American origins rewrote our understanding completely. It had been thought that they were simply descendants of East Asians who had crossed the Bering Strait. In 2013, however, Eske sequenced the genome of a 24,000-year-old boy discovered in central Siberia, and found a missing link between ancient Europeans and East Asians, the descendants of whom would go on to populate America. Native Americans can thus trace their roots back to Europe as well as East Asia.

And what about my ancestors? I show Eske the H4a haplotype analyzed by the sequencing company and tell him it means I’m European. He laughs derisively. “You could be and you could be from somewhere else,” he says. “The problem with the gene-sequencing tests is that you can’t look at a population and work back to see when mutation arose with much accuracy – the error bars are huge and it involves lots of assumptions about mutation rates.

“This is why ancient genetics and ancient genomics are so powerful – you can look at an individual and say, ‘Now we know we are 5,000 years ago, how did it look? Did they have this gene or not?’”

The things that we thought we understood about Europeans are coming unstuck as we examine the genes of more ancient people. For example, it was generally accepted that pale skin evolved so we could get more vitamin D after moving north to where there was little sun and people had to cover up against the cold. But it turns out that it was the Yamnaya people from much further south, tall and brown-eyed, who brought pale skins to Europe. Northern Europeans before then were dark-skinned and got plenty of vitamin D from eating fish.

It is the same with lactose tolerance. Around 90 per cent of Europeans have a genetic mutation that allows them to digest milk into adulthood, and scientists had assumed that this gene evolved in farmers in northern Europe, giving them an additional food supply to help survive the long winters. But Eske’s research using the genomes of hundreds of Bronze Age people, who lived after the advent of farming, has cast doubt on this theory too: “We found that the genetic trait was almost non-existent in the European population. This trait only became abundant in the northern European population within the last 2,000 years,” he says.

It turns out that lactose tolerance genes were also introduced by the Yamnaya. “They had a slightly higher tolerance to milk than the European farmers and must have introduced it to the European gene pool. Maybe there was a disaster around 2,000 years ago that caused a population bottleneck and allowed the gene to take off. The Viking sagas talk about the sun becoming black – a major volcanic eruption – that could have caused a massive drop in population size, which could have been where some of that stock takes off with lactose.”

While ancient genomics can help satisfy curiosity about our origins, its real value may be in trying to unpick some of the different health risks in different populations. Even when lifestyle and social factors are taken into account, some groups are at significantly higher risk of diseases such as diabetes or HIV, while other groups seem more resistant. Understanding why could help us prevent and treat these diseases more effectively.

It had been thought that resistance to infections like measles, influenza and so on arrived once we changed our culture and started farming, living in close proximity with other people and with animals. Farming started earlier in Europe, which was thought to be why we have disease resistance but Native Americans don’t, and also why the genetic risks of diabetes and obesity are higher in native Australian and Chinese people than in Europeans.

“Then,” says Eske, “we sequenced a hunter-gatherer from Spain, and he showed clear genetic resistance to a number of pathogens that he shouldn’t have been exposed to.” Clearly, Europeans and other groups have a resistance that other groups don’t have, but is this really a result of the early agricultural revolution in Europe, or is something else going on?

Eske’s analysis of people living 5,000 years ago has also revealed massive epidemics of plague in Europe and Central Asia, 3,000 years earlier than previously thought. Around 10 per cent of all skeletons the team analyzed had evidence of plague. “Scandinavians and some northern Europeans have higher resistance to HIV than anywhere else in the world,” Eske notes. “Our theory is that their HIV resistance is partly resistance towards plague.”

It could be that the cultural changes we have made, such as farming and herding, have had less influence on our genes than we thought. Perhaps it is simply the randomness of genetic mutation that has instead changed our culture. There’s no doubt that where mutations have occurred and spread through our population, they have influenced the way we look, our health risks and what we can eat. My ancestors clearly didn’t stop evolving once they’d left Africa – we’re still evolving now – and they have left an intriguing trail in our genes.

At the Gibraltar Museum, a pair of Dutch archaeology artists have created life-size replicas of a Neanderthal woman and her grandson, based on finds from nearby. They are naked but for a woven amulet and decorative feathers in their wild hair. The boy, aged about four, is embracing his grandmother, who stands confidently and at ease, smiling at the viewer. It’s an unnerving, extraordinarily powerful connection with someone whose genes I may well share, and I recall Clive’s words from when I asked him if modern humans had simply replaced Neanderthals because of our superior culture.

“That replacement theory is a kind of racism. It’s a very colonialist mentality,” he said. “You’re talking almost as if they were another species.”

Professor Eske Willerslev is a research associate at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which is funded by a core grant from the Wellcome Trust, which publishes Mosaic. 

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.