Shock Event: The Consolidation of Power


Star Wars is an American epic space opera franchise, centered on a film series created by George Lucas. Star Wars depicts the adventures of various characters “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”  but there are obvious comparisons to our own world, both past and present. Image: the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star

In the original film Star Wars- A New Hope, the Galactic Empire is nearing completion of the Death Star, a space station with the power to destroy entire planets. Emperor Palpatine intends to use this deadly weapon to enforce his control over the galaxy and crush the Rebel Alliance, an organized resistance movement. In the Phantom Menace we learn the seeds for the eventual rise of the evil Empire are sown in a seemingly routine place: a trade dispute between the Republic and the Trade Federation.  In Attack Of The Clones, Anakin is older now, but just as bad an actor. The weird trade dispute has grown to a full-scale revolt against the Republic.

Star Wars depicts the adventures of various characters “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”  but there are obvious comparisons with the fall of the Old Republic in the Star Wars series with many events past and present. Julius Caesar was born in Rome, on either the 12 or 13 of July in 100 B.C. Through a combination of political savvy, charisma and backhanded dealings, he quickly rose to power, becoming dictator of Rome in 49 B.C. after emerging victorious from a civil war. As dictator he instituted a number of reforms, from expanding who could be considered a Roman citizen to changing the Roman calendar, but his brief reign came to a bloody end when he was stabbed by a group of Roman senators in Pompey’s Theater on March 15, 44 B.C.

Obviously we can’t pretend to know the intentions of the new President of The United States. But when we read about the incredibly active first week of the Trump administration, certain questions spring to mind. Do you think Trump, a billionaire, really cares about immigration? Or do you think he cares more about power and consolidating  as much as possible? The global confusion that has since erupted is the story of a White House that rushed to enact, with little regard for basic governing, a core campaign promise that Mr. Trump made to his most fervent supporters. In his first week in office, Mr. Trump signed other executive actions with little or no legal review, but his order barring refugees has had the most explosive implications. Passengers were barred from flights to the United States, customs and border control officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president’s orders.

Stephen K. Bannon, the chief White House strategist, oversaw the writing of the order, believes in highly restrictive immigration policies and saw barring refugees as vital to shoring up Mr. Trump’s political base, was determined to make it happen. He and a small group made up of the president’s closest advisers began working on the order during the transition so that Mr. Trump could sign it soon after taking office. A senior administration official said that the order was drafted in cooperation with some immigration experts on Capitol Hill and members of the “beachhead teams” — small groups of political appointees sent by the new White House to be liaisons and begin work at the agencies. James Jay Carafano, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, said that little of that work was shared with career officials at the Homeland Security Department, the State Department or other agencies.

“The details of it were not thought through,” said Stephen Heifetz, who served in the Justice and Homeland Security Departments, as well as the C.I.A., under the previous three presidents. “It is not surprising there was mass confusion, and I expect the confusion and chaos will continue for some time.”

In a recent article Jake Fuentes suggests two possible competing narratives about what’s really going on. The first story is simple: the administration is just doing what it said it would do, literally keeping its campaign promises. Lots of people won’t agree, but it’s playing to its base. They are not experienced yet, so the implementation is shaky. The second is more sinister: the administration is deliberately testing the limits of governmental checks and balances to set up a self-serving, dangerous consolidation of power.

Jim Mattis, the new secretary of defense, did not see a final version of the order until Friday morning, only hours before Mr. Trump arrived to sign it at the Pentagon. Mr. Mattis, according to administration officials familiar with the deliberations, was not consulted by the White House during the preparation of the order and was not given an opportunity to provide input while the order was being drafted. Last summer, Mr. Mattis sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration as a move that was “causing us great damage right now, and it’s sending shock waves through the international system.”

A recent article by the New York Times states that Customs and Border Protection officers were also caught unaware. They contacted several airlines late Friday that were likely to be carrying passengers from the seven countries and “instructed the airlines to offload any passport holders from those countries,” said a state government official who has been briefed on the agency’s actions. It was not until 3 a.m. on Saturday that customs and border officials received limited written instructions about what to do at airports and border crossings. They also struggled with how to exercise the waiver authority that was included in the executive order, which allowed the homeland security secretary to let some individuals under the ban enter the country case by case. One customs officer, who declined to be quoted by name, said he was given a limited briefing about what to do as he went to his post on Saturday morning, but even managers seemed unclear. People at the agency were blindsided, he said, and are still trying to figure things out, even as people are being stopped from coming into the United States.


Princess Leia Organa,  a member of  The Galactic Senate, Rebel Alliance, and The Alderaan Royal Family held captive by Darth Vader. Princess Leia, played by actor Carrie Fisher was one of the Rebel Alliance’s greatest leaders, fearless on the battlefield and dedicated to ending the tyranny of the Empire and restoring the Republic.

“If the secretary doesn’t know anything, how could we possibly know anything at this level?” the officer said, referring to Mr. Kelly. At the Citizenship and Immigration Service, staff members were told that the agency should stop work on any application filed by a person from any of the countries listed in the ban. Employees were told that applicants should be interviewed, but that their cases for citizenship, green cards or other immigration documents should be put on pause, pending further guidance. The timing of the executive order and the lack of advance warning had homeland security officials “flying by the seat of their pants,” to try to put policies in place, one official said. By Saturday, as the order stranded travelers around the world and its full impact became clear, Reince Priebus, the chief of staff, became increasingly upset about how the program had been rolled out and communicated to the public.

By Sunday morning, Mr. Priebus had to defend the immigration ban on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he insisted that the executive order was rolled out smoothly. He also backpedaled on the policy and said that the executive order’s restrictions on entry to the United States would not apply to legal permanent residents “going forward.” As White House officials also insisted on Sunday that the order had gone through the usual process of scrutiny and approval by the Office of Legal Counsel, the continuing confusion forced Mr. Kelly to clarify the waiver situation. He issued a statement making clear that lawful permanent residents — those who hold valid green cards — would be granted a waiver to enter the United States unless information suggested that they were a security threat.


Blitz, by artist Tom Estes, a large scale digital projection on the front of the magnificent neo-classical facade of The Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. The projection took place on June 16th 2016 for the opening night of the Yorkshire Festival. In Blitz, an individual is depicted being thrown through the air by a lightning bolt, superimposed on to a Victorian Bible open to the story of Noah and the flood. Estes describes his intentions in the work- “The slapstick comedy of the image is a deliberate mitigation of surrealist shock but with the mad attention urges of a Play Station gamer”.

Senior White House officials insisted on Sunday night that the executive order would remain in force despite the change, and that they were proud of taking actions that they said would help protect Americans against threats from potential terrorists. That assertion is likely to do little to calm the public furor, which showed no signs of waning at the beginning of Mr. Trump’s second full week in the Oval Office. Mr. Carafano said he believed that the substance of Mr. Trump’s executive order was neither radical nor unreasonable. But he said that Mr. Trump’s team could have delayed signing the order until they had better prepared the bureaucracy to carry it out. He also said the president and his team had not done a good job of communicating to the public the purpose of the executive order.

“If there is a criticism of the administration, and I think there is, I think they have done a rotten job of telling their story,” he said. “It is not like they did not know they were going to do this. To not have a cadre of people out there defending the administration — I mean, really guys, they should have done this.”

A legitimate argument can be made for a relatively extreme and inexperienced administration that was just put in place, and they haven’t yet figured out the nuances of government. But a few of the events in the past 72 hours —the intentional inclusion of green card holders in the immigration order, the DHS defiance of a federal judge, and the timing of Trump’s shakeup of the National Security Council — have pointed to a larger story. Even worse, if that larger story is true, if the source of this week’s actions is a play to consolidate power, it’s going really well so far. And that’s because mostly everyone — including those in protests shutting down airports over the weekend— are playing right into the administration’s hand. The most vocal politicians could be seen at rallies, close to the headlines. The protests themselves did exactly what they were intended to: dominate the news cycle and channel opposition anger towards a relatively insignificant piece of the puzzle. Green card holders shouldn’t be stuck in airports — far from it. But there might be a much larger picture here, and the immigration ban is a distraction.


Gaius Julius Caesar, known as Julius Caesar, was a Roman politician, general, and notable author of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Image: The Murder of Caesar by Karl von Piloty, 1865, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, (The Lower Saxony State Museum) Hanover, Germany.

In a study release, CU Boulder psychology professor Leaf Van Boven wrote:
‘We demonstrated that people act on what is immediately emotionally arousing to them. In other words, they respond to what makes them upset in the here and now.’
 Heather Richardson a professor at Boston College describes Trump’s actions as a ‘Shock Event’. The following quote was originally published by the author as a post on her Facebook account and has been shared widely. Heather Richardson confirmed that she is the author and granted permission to republish.

“I don’t like to talk about politics on Facebook — political history is my job, after all, and you are my friends — but there is an important non-partisan point to make today.

What Steve Bannon is doing, most dramatically with the ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries — is creating what is known as a “shock event.”

Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order.

When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

Donald Trump’s executive order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.

Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.

My point today is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one’s interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won’t like.

I don’t know what Bannon is up to (although I have some guesses) but because I know Bannon’s ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle — and my friends range pretty widely — who will benefit from whatever it is.”


From broad concern felt among Americans from both the September 11 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, Congress rushed to pass legislation to strengthen security controls.

This is not the first time that a Shock Event has been used to unify support in recent years. The USA PATRIOT Act has generated a great deal of controversy since its enactment. From broad concern felt among Americans from both the September 11 attacks and the 2001 anthrax attacks, Congress rushed to pass legislation to strengthen security controls. The bill, which removed most of the changes from the Senate version, passed Congress on March 2, 2006, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on March 9 and 10, 2006.

Opponents of the Act have been quite vocal in asserting that it was passed opportunistically after the September 11 attacks, believing that there would have been little debate. They view the Act as one that was hurried through the Senate with little change before it was passed. (Senators Patrick Leahy and Russell Feingold proposed amendments to modify the final revision.)

Opponents of the law have criticized its authorization of indefinite detentions of immigrants; the permission given law enforcement officers to search a home or business without the owner’s or the occupant’s consent or knowledge; the expanded use of National Security Letters, which allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to search telephone, e-mail, and financial records without a court order; and the expanded access of law enforcement agencies to business records, including library and financial records. Since its passage, several legal challenges have been brought against the act, and federal courts have ruled that a number of provisions are unconstitutional.

Many provisions of the act were to sunset beginning December 31, 2005, approximately four years after its passage. In the months preceding the sunset date, supporters of the act pushed to make its sun-setting provisions permanent, while critics sought to revise various sections to enhance civil liberty protections. In July 2005, the U.S. Senate passed a reauthorization bill with substantial changes to several sections of the act, while the House reauthorization bill kept most of the act’s original language. The two bills were then reconciled in a conference committee that was criticized by Senators from both the Republican and Democratic parties for ignoring civil liberty concerns.

The sheer magnitude of the Act itself was noted by Michael Moore in his controversial film Fahrenheit 9/11. In one of the scenes of the movie, he records Congressman Jim McDermott alleging that no Senator had read the bill and John Conyers, Jr. as saying, “We don’t read most of the bills. Do you really know what that would entail if we read every bill that we passed?” Congressman Conyers then answers his own rhetorical question, asserting that if they did it would “slow down the legislative process”. As a dramatic device, Moore then hired an ice-cream van and drove around Washington, D.C. with a loud speaker, reading out the Act to puzzled passers-by, which included a few Senators.

However, Moore was not the only commentator to notice that not many people had read the Act. When Dahlia Lithwick and Julia Turne for Slate asked, “How bad is PATRIOT, anyway?”, they decided that it was “hard to tell” and stated:

The ACLU, in a new fact sheet challenging the DOJ Web site, wants you to believe that the act threatens our most basic civil liberties. Ashcroft and his roadies call the changes in law “modest and incremental.” Since almost nobody has read the legislation, much of what we think we know about it comes third-hand and spun. Both advocates and opponents are guilty of fear-mongering and distortion in some instances.

Shock tactics, shock tactic or shock attack is the name of an offensive maneuver which attempts to place the enemy under psychological pressure by a rapid and fully committed advance with the aim of causing their combatants to retreat. The acceptance of a higher degree of risk in order to attain a decisive result is intrinsic to shock actions. In history Shock Tactics were usually performed by heavy cavalry, but were sometimes achieved by heavy infantry. The most famous shock tactic is the medieval cavalry charge. This shock attack was conducted by heavily armoured cavalry armed with  lances, usually couched, galloping at full speed against enemy formation.

It is hard to argue with a tactic when it has the desired effect. Charities have been criticized for using Shock Tactics increasing donations or support for a cause, or a change in the law or company behaviour. But how far is too far? In an age when some of the most gruesome pictures circulating are on TV news channels, one can understand why charities may be trying harder to compete amid concerns that society has become desensitised to suffering. But shock tactics can have limited impact. To be used effectively they need to be properly and sensitively integrated into an overall campaign. Despite calls from audience members for charities to continue to expose the harsh realities of life in places such as the Horn of Africa, panel members urged charities to respect the dignity of those being represented. The panel discussion was informed by a three-year research project being led by LSE and Birkbeck College into the public’s perceptions of and response to comms by aid and development agencies. Daynes summarised the findings: ‘What members of the public are saying to us is they’re just so sedated with suffering. They say we are charming them or disarming them into acts of compassion. They are also saying we’re abusing their emotions.

Shock art incorporates disturbing imagery, sound or scents to create a shocking experience. While the art form’s proponents have argued that it is “imbedded with social commentary” and critics dismiss it as “cultural pollution”, it is an increasingly marketable art, described by art critic R. Rawdon Wilson in The hydra’s tale: imagining disgust as “the safest kind of art that an artist can go into the business of making today”. But while shock art may attract curators and make headlines, Reason magazine’s 2007 review of The Art Newspaper suggested that traditional art shows continue to have more popular appeal. While the movement has become increasingly mainstream, the roots of shock art run deep into art history; Royal Academy curator Norman Rosenthal noted in the catalog for the “shock art” exhibit Sensation in 1997 that artists have always been in the business of conquering “territory that hitherto has been taboo”. In China, which experienced an active “shock art” movement following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989  encroachment on the taboo has led the Ministry of Culture to attempt a crackdown on the artform, banning the use of corpses or body parts in art. In 1998, John Windsor in The Independent said that the work of the Young British Artists seemed tame compared with that of the “shock art” of the 1970s, including “kinky outrages” at the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery, amongst which were a “hanging, anatomically detailed leather straitjacket, complete with genitals”, titled Pink Crucifixion, by Mandy Havers.

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

Fountain (1917), by Marcel Duchamp, a “shock art” pioneer. Image: replica 1964

But what aims does the Shock Art of today serve? Contemporary Capitalism incarnates dynamics at an unprecedented and unsurpassable level of intensity, turning mundane economic ‘speculation’ into an effective world-historical force. Unlike forty years ago, institutions today are more opaque, more exclusive, and they share objectives intrinsically linked to corporate, neoliberal agendas to the point that those agendas have become invisible. Cultural institutions are the administrative organs of the dominant order, and cultural producers actively contribute to the transmission of free market ideology across all aspects of our lives. Within representation’s ruin, what used to be “outside” of capitalism—like marginality, queerness, or race—has been symbolically incorporated and deprived of its capacity to disrupt and contest. Figures of otherness have disappeared and been subsumed into “lifestyle” options. The underclass is a blurry horizon disconnected from the flows of global capitalism; far from being a political figure, the underclass is sometimes subject to site-specific intervention, pacification, betterment, development, and community-building projects. Art in the 1960s and ’70s, may have translated politicization into an aesthetic practice of international vanguardism, contestation, criticality, counterhegemony, and postcolonial memorialization and assertion, within the framework of a politics of representation. But for todays artists emancipatory horizons now lay in entrepreneurship. We are going through massive political, social and technological upheavals and the Art markets seem not overly concerned- it has just dissolved into fluffy glitter investments; A completely deregulated system of value arising from gossip-cum-spin and insider information. Contemporary art is just a hash for all that’s opaque, unintelligible, and unfair, for top-down class war and all-out inequality. So it is a pretty sad state of affairs.





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Human Pig Hybrid: Interspecies Chimerism


After years of trial and error, scientists have finally done something incredible: They have successfully grown human stem cells in a pig embryo. Why would anyone do this? Image: Chinese sculptor Liu Xue combines a human with an animal

The Chimera was, according to Greek mythology, a monstrous fire-breathing hybrid creature of Lycia in Asia Minor, composed of the parts of more than one animal. It was usually depicted as a lion with the head of a goat arising from its back, and a tail that might end with a snakes’s  head, and was one of the offspring of Typhon and Echidna and a sibling of such monsters as Cerberus and the Lernaean Hydra. The seeing of a Chimera was also an omen for disaster.

The term chimera has come to describe any mythical or fictional animal with parts taken from various animals, or to describe anything composed of very disparate parts, or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling. However, a genetic chimerism or chimera (also spelled chimaera) is a single organism composed of cells from different zygotes. This can result in male and female organs, two blood types, or subtle variations in form. Animal chimeras are produced by the merger of multiple fertilized eggs. In plant chimeras, however, the distinct types of tissue may originate from the same zygote, and the difference is often due to mutation during ordinary cell division. Normally, genetic chimerism is not visible on casual inspection; however, it has been detected in the course of proving parentage.Another way that chimerism can occur in animals is by organ transplantation, giving one individual tissues that developed from two genomes. For example, a bone marrow transplant can change someone’s blood type.

In a remarkable—if likely controversial—feat, scientists announced that they have created the first successful human-animal hybrids. The project proves that human cells can be introduced into a non-human organism, survive, and even grow inside a host animal, in this case, pigs. Turns out, many scientists have been working on growing the organs of one animal inside of a different type of animal. For example, scientists recently reported the successful growth of mouse pancreases inside of rats. The ultimate goal of this type of work is to grow human organs inside of other animals as a means to ending the organ shortage that is costing thousands of Americans — who need a transplant — their lives each year.

This biomedical advance has long been a dream and a quandary for scientists hoping to address a critical shortage of donor organs. Every ten minutes, a person is added to the national waiting list for organ transplants. Despite advances in medicine and technology, and increased awareness of organ donation and transplantation, the gap between supply and demand continues to widen. While national rates of donation and transplant have increased in recent years, more progress is needed to ensure that all candidates have a chance to receive a transplant. And every day, 22 people on that list die without the organ they need. What if, rather than relying on a generous donor, you could grow a custom organ inside an animal instead?



Image from the 1978  film Coma, based on the 1977 novel by Robin Cook. In the film a surgical resident discovers a front for black-market organ sales, where the patients’ organs are sold to the highest bidder. Boston Memorial is in on this, purposely inducing comas in patients whose organs match those of potential buyers.

Now, using similar methods as the mouse-rat hybrid, scientists have produced the first human-pig hybrid embryo, which is more difficult than you might think. Getting cells from one species to survive in an entirely different species is extremely tricky and has eluded scientists for years.

That’s now one step closer to reality, an international team of researchers led by the Salk Institute reports in the journal Cell. The team created what’s known scientifically as a chimera: an organism that contains cells from two different species. Even now, this breakthrough is preliminary. Only about one out of every 100,000 cells in the hybrid embryos was human. If the scientists had grown the embryos to maturity (which they did not), the organs would probably not have enough human cells in them for a human body to recognize — resulting in the human body rejecting the organ and potentially killing the patient. This is why more research is critical to improving the techniques, and hopefully, one day, paving the way for the first human transplant with a human-pig hybrid organ. But that day is years, possibly decades, off.

In the past, human-animal chimeras have been beyond reach. Such experiments are currently ineligible for public funding in the United States (so far, the Salk team has relied on private donors for the chimera project). Public opinion, too, has hampered the creation of organisms that are part human, part animal.


Chimera, Louis Jean Desprez (French, Auxerre 1743–1804 Stockholm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A revolutionary new technology called CRISPR-Cas9 with a natural system known as a gene drive, theory is rapidly becoming reality. CRISPR places an entirely new kind of power into human hands. For the first time, scientists can quickly and precisely alter, delete, and rearrange the DNA of nearly any living organism, including us. In the past three years, the technology has transformed biology. Working with animal models, researchers in laboratories around the world have already used CRISPR to correct major genetic flaws, including the mutations responsible for muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, and one form of hepatitis. Recently several teams have deployed CRISPR in an attempt to eliminate HIV from the DNA of human cells. The results have been only partially successful, but many scientists remain convinced that the technology may contribute to a cure for AIDS.

In experiments, scientists have also used CRISPR to rid pigs of the viruses that prevent their organs from being transplanted into humans. Ecologists are exploring ways for the technology to help protect endangered species. Moreover, plant biologists, working with a wide variety of crops, have embarked on efforts to delete genes that attract pests. That way, by relying on biology rather than on chemicals, CRISPR could help reduce our dependence on toxic pesticides.



  Eye of the Beholder, episode 42, The Twilight Zone


No scientific discovery of the past century holds more promise—or raises more troubling ethical questions. Most provocatively, if CRISPR were used to edit a human embryo’s germ line—cells that contain genetic material that can be inherited by the next generation—either to correct a genetic flaw or to enhance a desired trait, the change would then pass to that person’s children, and their children, in perpetuity. The full implications of changes that profound are difficult, if not impossible, to foresee.

“This is a remarkable technology, with many great uses. But if you are going to do anything as fateful as rewriting the germ line, you’d better be able to tell me there is a strong reason to do it,” said Eric Lander, who is director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and who served as leader of the Human Genome Project. “And you’d better be able to say that society made a choice to do this—that unless there’s broad agreement, it is not going to happen.”

But for lead study author Jun Wu of the Salk Institute, we need only look to mythical chimeras—like the human-bird hybrids we know as angels—for a different perspective.

“In ancient civilizations, chimeras were associated with God,” he says, and our ancestors thought “the chimeric form can guard humans.” In a sense, that’s what the team hopes human-animal hybrids will one day do.

There are two ways to make a chimera. The first is to introduce the organs of one animal into another—a risky proposition, because the host’s immune system may cause the organ to be rejected. The other method is to begin at the embryonic level, introducing one animal’s cells into the embryo of another and letting them grow together into a hybrid.

It sounds weird, but it’s an ingenious way to eventually solve a number of vexing biological problems with lab-grown organs.

When scientists discovered stem cells, the master cells that can produce any kind of body tissue, they seemed to contain infinite scientific promise. But convincing those cells to grow into the right kinds of tissues and organs is difficult.Cells must survive in Petri dishes. Scientists have to use scaffolds to make sure the organs grow into the right shapes. And often, patients must undergo painful and invasive procedures to harvest the tissues needed to kick off the process. At first, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, a professor in the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory, thought the concept of using a host embryo to grow organs seemed straightforward enough. However, it took Belmonte and more than 40 collaborators four years to figure out how to make a human-animal chimera.To do so, the team piggybacked off prior chimera research conducted on mice and rats.

The group of scientists published their work on Thursday, Jan. 26, in the prestigious science journal Cell.




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Rijksmuseum/ The Rijksstudio Award


Warships in a Heavy Storm, a digital reworking by Tom Estes from a work in the Rijksmuseum for the Rijksstudio.


The question of The History of Art is problematic, not least because artistic activity is characterized by its antagonism towards stable temporality. It’s the business of the great sedentary assemblage of art institutions to establish settled lineages and well-ordered sequences, whereas artistic-processes attach themselves to coincidences, glitches and unforeseen consequences -breaks, twists and bends in time. For The Rijksstudio Award artist Tom Estes has re-interpreted a work from The Rijksmuseum as a short moving image. His work is a tribute based on Warships in a Heavy Storm, c. 1695  by Dutch Painter Ludolf Bakhuysen (1631-1708).

The Rijksstudio Award is inspired by the Rijksmuseum’s collection. As an artist, Estes is interested in the relationship of humans with machines. He sees the internet as a shaping conditions and a structuring paradox. Machines do many things for us, but they also do things to us and do things at us. At the core of this work is an attention to the flickering, fading definition of our lives as dictated by the computer monitor and the rapid reply of instant messaging. Here artist Tom Estes talks about his practice:

“There is a real Peter Pan Syndrome at play in my work and I suppose I would consider myself a carnival sideshow conceptualist, combining a bare-bones formal conceptualism with an eternally adolescent, DIY comic-prank approach. For me ‘fantasy’ and ‘illusion’ are not a contradiction of reality, but instead an integral part of our everyday lives. I have always leaned toward making work participatory or immersive in some way so while my practice is characterized by the mediums of photography, performance and installation, individual works can also be seen as part of a wider interdisciplinary project that incorporates innovative web conversations and social networks. I try to do this with wit and economy and by paraphrasing early Sci-fi and horror films and their associated ideological fictions in order to examine how dataflow from the virtual realm impacts on the significance and symbolism of real-world human senses. But in doing so, I have begun to generate unexpected questions about how art might be able to inscribe itself on the surface of reality.”

In regards to his work Warships in a Heavy Storm, a digital reworking for the Rijksmuseum’s  Rijksstudio Award Estes states:

” What I have managed to do is to create a sense of movement within an existing still image. The ground beneath your feet whips and churns like waves. The ominous clouds over head swirl in fury, the sea rolls while the sails billow and the flags flap madly in the wind…. it is almost as if you are looking at a film from the late 1600’s.”

Estes goes on to say:

“The internet is changing the structure of our brains and the structure of our planet in extraordinary ways, so quickly that we haven’t yet developed a proper vocabulary for it. Technological progress has accelerated to the point that the future is happening to us far faster than we could ever have anticipated. This new world is what Hans Ulrich Obrist calls extreme present, a time in which it feels impossible to maintain pace with the present, never mind to chart the future.  However, there is a process of retro-contamination in which the deep past finds itself already infected with the far future. In this Brave New World narratives are written and re-written, looping the past into the far future”

First prize for The Rijksstudio Award is 10,000 euro, the second 2,500 euro, and the third 1,500 euro. In addition, a people’s choice award of 1,000 euro is up for grabs. The finalists’ projects will be exhibited in one of the museum’s galleries for ten weeks following the reveal on 21 April 2017.



The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede, Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael, c. 1668 – c. 1670 –  from the collection at the Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum is a Dutch national museum dedicated to art and history in Amsterdam. It was founded in The Hague in 1800 and moved to Amsterdam in 1808. The museum has on display 8,000 objects of art and history, from their total collection of 1 million objects from the years 1200–2000, among which are some masterpieces by Rembrant, Frans Hals, and Johannes Vermeer. The museum also has a small Asian collection, which is on display in the Asian pavilion.

The artwork for The Rijksstudio Award is judged by an international panel of experts.

  • Irma Boom, Director of Irma Boom Office
  • Tony Chambers, Editor-in-Chief at Wallpaper
  • Ingrid Chou, Associate Creative Director, The Museum of Modern Art
  • Taco Dibbits, General Director of the Rijksmuseum (Jury President)
  • Ute Thon, editor-in-chief ART – Das Kunstmagazin
  • Thomas Widdershoven, Creative Director at the Design Academy, Eindhoven



The Threatened Swan by Norwegian Wood for The Rijksstudio Award

Please e-mail any questions or comments about the Rijksstudio Award to:


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The Paris Agreement


Blitz, by artist Tom Estes, a large scale digital projection on the front of the magnificent neo-classical facade of The Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. The projection took place on June 16th 2016 for the opening night of the Yorkshire Festival. In Blitz, an individual is depicted being thrown through the air by a lightning bolt, superimposed on to a Victorian Bible open to the story of Noah and the flood. Blitz therefore, recalls our own most immediate concern of tackling Climate Change and the threat of rising sea levels.  Estes states “The slapstick comedy of the image is a deliberate mitigation of surrealist shock but with the mad attention urges of a Play Station gamer”.

Storm Eva was the fifth named storm of the U.K  Met Office and Met Éireann’s Name our Storms project. Storm Eva and Storm Desmond together flooded more than 16,000 homes. Heavy rainfall from Eva occurred around three weeks after Storm Desmond had brought severe flooding to parts of Northern England, exacerbating the ongoing situation, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement on 27 December 2015 after chairing an emergency COBRA crisis meeting on Storm Eva, describing the floods as “unprecedented” and “incredibly serious” and pledging help to those affected by sending out more troops to help with the defense and clear-up of the floods. The Times reported that senior politicians regarded the floods as being the result of extreme weather caused by climate change. Labour Shadow Environment Secretary Kerry McCarthy criticized the government for cutting spending on flood defenses, stating that as “unprecedented” weather events become more common, spending on flood defenses should be increased

The Paris Agreement—was a historic piece of climate change policy adopted by leaders of 195 countries of December 2015 —pledged to limit human-caused global warming to less than two degrees Celsius, with a “stretch goal” of keeping our planet’s thermostat from rising more than 1.5 degrees. We’re supposed to do that by aggressively cutting back on fossil fuels and switching entirely to renewable energy sources by the end of the century. However, a report out in Nature today, which finds that the carbon reductions pledges penned into the Paris Agreement are ridiculously inadequate for keeping our climate within a safe and stable boundary. barring some incredible new carbon capture technology, the window for limiting global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius appears to have closed. That’s the stark conclusion.

In addition to concluding that “the window for limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees C with high probability and without temporarily exceeding that level already seems to have closed,” the study found that the pledges outlined in the Paris Agreement will likely see global temperatures rise 2.6 to 3.1 degrees Celsius by 2100. A 3 degree uptick in global temperatures could cause sea level to rise up to 20 feet over the next few centuries, displacing hundreds of millions.

The Paris climate agreement aims at holding global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to “pursue efforts” to limit it to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To accomplish this, countries have submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) outlining their post-2020 climate action.

But as climate scientists and well-informed politicians have been saying for months, global carbon emissions are way off track if we want to meet even the 2 degree goal. Just how off track is the subject of the new analysis, led by Joeri Rogelj at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

In addition to concluding that “the window for limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees C with high probability and without temporarily exceeding that level already seems to have closed,” the study found that the pledges outlined in the Paris Agreement will likely see global temperatures rise 2.6 to 3.1 degrees Celsius by 2100. A 3 degree uptick in global temperatures could cause sea level to rise up to 20 feet over the next few centuries, displacing hundreds of millions.

Low-lying island nations, which area already drawing up relocation plans in preparation for the inevitable, fought long and hard to get the 1.5 target included in the Paris Agreement. Recently, marine biologists have also been raising their voices, reminding the public that coral reefs around the world will experience catastrophic collapse if we exceed this threshold.The fact that we’re moving so quickly in the wrong direction ought to be a wakeup call.

The work ‘Blitz by Tom Estes was shown on June 16th 2016 as a one night projection of images on Weston Park museum on the theme of Yorkshire as a modern day Utopia.
God’s Own County is a collaborative event from Sheffield based arts collectives The Collaborators and The Professors. The huge projections were shown on the front of Weston Park Museum in Sheffield. The Professors developed the idea that their Yorkshire home presents a contemporary utopia whilst The Collaborators developed from a regional response to the theme of God’s Own County. The projection ran from dusk until dawn.

For artist Tom Estes the paradox of creating a Utopia is that everyone must be in agreement, therefore all the ‘nasty’ or disagreeable people have to be gotten rid of. In any case, as Tom Estes Artist admits, “To call something Utopian is…not entirely positive…The connotation of a perfect society is offset by that of a hopelessly impractical ideal”. His work, therefore represents the Genesis flood narrative which makes up chapters 6–9 in the Book of Genesis, in the Bible. In the Genesis account, the flood occurs because God judges humanity.

As one of many flood myths found in human cultures, the narrative recounts God’s intent to return the Earth to its pre-creation state of watery chaos by flooding the Earth because of humanity’s misdeeds and then remake it using the microcosm of Noah’s ark. Thus, the flood was no ordinary overflow but a reversal of creation. The narrative discusses the evil of mankind that moved God to destroy the world by the way of the flood, the preparation of the ark for certain animals, Noah, and his family, and God’s guarantee (the Noahic Covenant) for the continued existence of life under the promise that he would never send another such flood. The Genesis flood narrative is considered to be one of a number of similar flood myths.The earliest written flood myth is the Sumerian flood myth found in the ‘Epic of Ziusudra’. Earlier and very similar Mesopotamian flood stories are found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Epic of Atrahasis texts In the Atrahasis version, the flood is described as a “river” flood and dead bodies floated to the “riverbank”.

Estes work is called ‘Blitz’ a term which is a shortened version of the German word “blitz·krieg” (blĭts’krēg’) which means “A swift, sudden military offensive, usually by combined air and mobile land forces.” A recent investigation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (by Jeffrey K. Smith and Lisa F. Smith) found that the mean time spent viewing a work of art was found to be 27.2 seconds, with a median time of 17.0 seconds. So one could say that to ‘Blitz’ a gallery, is to ‘vigorously attack’, or try to see all the works in the gallery in one go. This modern phenomenon, is of course, directly oppositional to the ‘meditative’ quality that museums are meant to suggest.

Blitz, on the other hand, depicts an individual being thrown through the air by a lightning bolt. Even the medium itself, a series of photographs, suggests speed, as a recording of ‘live’ split second action’. Estes’ slapstick comedy is a deliberate mitigation of surrealist shock but with the mad attention urges of a Play Station gamer. However, the tone of imagery seems to have more in common with the traditon of late nineteeth century photography or film. The work, therefore, seems to suggest that a movement away from the slow and contemplative in the visual arts is not just a modern phenomenon. It was not until 1892 that the Lumier brothers began to create moving pictures yet Estes’ work suggests that ‘the representation of action’ was already in gestation. By the 1910’s, films like those of the Keystone Cops were an established part of popular culture and so the representation of ‘speeded action’.


Yorkshire has been hard hit by flooding. The worst of the flooding occurred on the night of Christmas Day and throughout Boxing Day across Lancashire andYorkshire. On 26 December, homes were evacuated in Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, and in Ribchester and Whalley, Lancashire; according to the Environment Agency, every river in Lancashire peaked at their highest levels since records began.

The River Wharfe risen to the height of the bridge at Wetherby, West Yorkshire.

Flooding caused at least two explosions in Radcliffe, Greater Manchester, as gas mains were ruptured. One explosion and subsequent fire occurred as a result of a footbridge being swept away by the River Irwell, with footage of the incident being widely shared on social media. Floodwater also entered an electricity sub station in Hebden Bridge producing a fire.

Around 3,000 homes were left without power in North and West Yorkshire on 26 December 2016 as a result of an electricity substation being flooded. Most of the power outages occurred in the Calder Valley and around Bingley and Skipton, with substation owners Northern Powergrid stating that their engineers cannot safely reach the substations to assess the damage due to rising floodwaters.

In Leeds the River Aire flooded over its banks causing flooding in the Kirkstall Road area of the city, blocking a main route into the city. A total of 7,574 homes across the north of England were without power by 0800 GMT on 27 December. Around 5,500 of these homes without power were located in the town of Rochdale in Greater Manchester, where a major electricity substation was flooded. As a result of power outages in Rochdale, electricity customers were told to limit their electricity usage to prevent further blackouts, for example by switching off their Christmas lights. Electricity provider Electricity North West warned that some homes would be without power until 28 December.

In York the Environment Agency were forced to open the Foss Barrier which has protected the city centre since 1987, as the control room had become flooded and the pumps were in danger of failing. To prevent the River Foss backing up and causing flooding, the Agency raised the barrier, allowing the flood waters from the River Ouse to move up the Foss. The action caused some 600 households in the city to flood whereas the Environment agency estimated 1800 homes would have flooded were the barrier not lifted. On 29 December part of Tadcaster Bridge in North Yorkshire collapsed due to flooding, having been closed since 27 December due to fears it had been structurally compromised.


Estes’ work was also part of the exhibition- Speeding & Braking: Navigating Acceleration

and at The New Art Gallery Walsall, next to/ and in relation to the galleries principle masterpiece, Vincent Van Gogh’s work, ‘Sorrow'(1882).





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All The World’s Futures: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter says World at “Turning Point”


According to former U.S. president Jimmy Carter”What is needed now, more than ever, is leadership that steers us away from fear and fosters greater confidence in the inherent goodness and ingenuity of humanity,” The above image ‘Live Long And Prosper’ by Tom Estes , was shown at a satellite event during The Venice Biennale, the 56th international art exhibition entitled “All The World’s Futures”.  His work is a digital map of all the known galaxies in the universe, projected onto the artist’s handThe hand is held in a salute which first appeared in popular culture through the television series  Star Trek. But this salute has much older origins. It turns out it is an ancient priestly blessing that forms the Hebrew letter Shin.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter said Monday that the world is at a “turning point in history” and governments must choose policies of peace and human rights over war and human suffering. Carter’s remarks opened a forum of human rights workers hosted by The Carter Center in Atlanta, attended by more than 60 global activists.

Carter, 91, said military actions, human rights violations and restrictions on freedom have inspired the spread of violent extremist groups. He said even the peace-focused mission of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Humans Rights adopted by the UN in 1948 “have been abandoned by the world.”

“What is needed now, more than ever, is leadership that steers us away from fear and fosters greater confidence in the inherent goodness and ingenuity of humanity,” Carter said.

“The United States is a world superpower, and we’re likely to maintain the strongest military and also an influential culture as well as one of the dominant economies,” Carter said. “My prayer is that we also, the United States, become the undisputed champion of peace.”

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has excellent data on military spending by nation. Military spending as percentage of GDP is interesting as the US clocks in at 3.5%, China at an estimated 2.06%, and Oman at a whopping 11.6%. Of course, the GDP numbers are misleading as the US far outspends every other nation for its military, at over $500 billion, with China coming second at over $200 billion. As with any government spending, these dollars have an impact.

Capital is finite, and capital going into one spending category means that there is less money for another. This fact gets more interesting when we consider that any government spending exceeding revenues results in a deficit that is added to the national debt. The ballooning national debt has an economic impact on everyone, and military spending is one of many contributing factors. As the U.S. national debt grows, the interest expense of the debt grows and the cost of borrowing subtly increases due to the risk that increased debt represents. In theory, the increased debt will also drag on economic growth and eventually a driver towards higher taxes.

As of now, however, the US in particular has enjoyed generous debt terms from domestic and international lenders, so the role that military spending plays in increasing the debt is generally not focused on. Some advocates for decreased military spending have tied it to a certain percentage increase in the mortgage rates people pay, given the relationship between treasury yields and commercial lending. This reasoning holds and military spending does sit as a large percentage of discretionary spending. However, it is as much the mandatory spending on social programs and health in the budget that drive the deficits as it is the non-discretionary, so military spending alone is not at fault.

Global leaders must decrease the use of what Carter called “state-sanctioned violence,” he said, from drone attacks to the development or upgrading of nuclear weapons. The death penalty allows government to use violence as a punishment for crime, he said. Carter also specifically criticized the use of religion and culture to justify violence against women and girls or exclusion of women from leadership of government or religions. The issue is a frequent concern for Carter, whose 2014 book “A Call to Action” focused on the subject.


La Biennale di Venezia has for over a century been one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world. The 56th International Art Exhibition entitled All The World’s Futures, was curated by Okwui Enwezor and organized by La Biennale di Venezia and chaired by Paolo Baratta. Tom Estes’ Venice Residency took place in the heart of the historic city of Venice — an “open-air” museum with a cultural and artistic heritage of inestimable value.

Carter later referenced a Martin Luther King Jr. speech on the civil rights leader’s opposition to the Vietnam War. King argued that he must speak against all violence to continue urging nonviolence in the civil rights movement, Carter said.

“He called on us to reject violence and its cycle of destruction,” Carter said. “The world needs to heed his call today.”

The group meeting at The Carter Center plans to develop a document calling for governments worldwide to recommit to human rights. Carter said he will deliver copies to President Barack Obama, congressional leaders and U.S. presidential candidates. He urged others to do the same in their home countries.

He said the Obama administration’s landmark nuclear deal with Iran and normalized relations with Cuba are “hopeful examples” to celebrate. But he called the U.S. “complicit” in government oppression by providing financial support in Egypt, Honduras and other places.



Jimmy Carter, now 91,opened a forum of human rights workers hosted by The Carter Center in Atlanta, and attended by more than 60 global activists. Carter said governments cannot end terrorism and other violence without reducing “excessive state violence.”


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The World’s Oldest Library Opens to The Public


It is almost impossible not to be surprised; overwhelmed and challenged in this dream they call Morocco. A feast for the senses at all levels, from the dreamy landscape to the labyrinthine medinas. Whether stranded in the souqs or contemplating the pilgrims, these are all variations on the main splendid theme. Image: The Hassan II Mosque

The ancient al-Qarawiyyin Library in Fez isn’t just the oldest library in Africa, it is the oldest library in the world.  Until last month, only researchers had access to it but it is now open to the public. Built in 859, the library was a beacon for scholars, poets, and theologians for hundreds of years, but in recent years it had fallen into terrible disrepair. Now a massive, three-year restoration effort hasn’t just revitalized the building – it’s opened an ancient center of scholarship up to a new generation of readers!

Founded in 859, it’s the oldest working library in the world, holding ancient manuscripts that date as far back as 12 centuries. But modern life had taken a toll on the library, with its buildings falling into disrepair. That’s why in 2012, the Moroccan Ministry of Culture asked TED Fellow and architect Aziza Chaouni to rehabilitate the library so that it can reopen to the general public.

The center includes the large library, as well as a mosque and a university that may be the al-qarawiyyin-mosque-fez-oldest degree-granting institution in the world. It was founded by Fatima El-Fihriya, a rich merchant’s daughter who dedicated her inheritance to building the center (a habit that ran in her family, as her sister, Maryam, was the sponsor of Fez’s Al-Andalus mosque). After the Moroccan Ministry of Culture received a grant from Kuwait’s Arab Bank, they chose Canadian-Moroccan architect Aziza Chaouni, who grew up in Fez, to head the project. Since 2012 she and her team have corrected structural damage and painstakingly updated mosaics to preserved the library’s original beauty, while also modernizing the space with an airy cafe, courtyard umbrellas and misting stations, and a museum highlighting al-Qarawiyyin’s history.

As the center expanded in the 10th and 11th centuries, new facilities were added on that ranged over several levels of surrounding hills, so one of the difficulties of Chaouni’s job was to get each individual space up to the same standard of insulation and wiring. In addition to that, she needed to restore centuries-old wooden beams, and the delicate mosaic tiles called zellige, and faced the additional challenge that comes with an ancient building, like say when you break through a wall and find a centuries-old sewage system.

She describes the challenges inherent in undertaking a daunting, historic project. Chaouni, a TED fellow, talked to their Ideas blog about the restoration:

While working hard to protect and preserve, Chaouni had to bring a sense of 21st-century pragmatism to the project. “I didn’t want the building to become an embalmed cadaver!” she says. “There has to be a fine balance between keeping the original spaces, addressing the needs of current users, including students, researchers and visitors, and integrating new sustainable technologies — solar panels, water collection for garden irrigation, and so on.” Another thing that needed updating: the library’s fountains. Embedded within the dense urban fabric of the UNESCO World Heritage Medina of Fez, fountains are part of the city’s vast and ancient water network. Chaouni took special care to restore the library’s original courtyard fountains, but where necessary, she created them from scratch, using local materials and construction systems, and introducing passive energy.


Another challenge was restoring the books themselves, as NPR relates. al-Qarawiyyin houses texts including a 9th-century Quran written in Kufic calligraphy, the original copy of Ibn Khaldun’s 14th Century Muqadimmah, a manuscript on Islamic jurisprudence by Ibn Rochd (known as Averroes in Europe), and the oldest known collection of Islamic hadith, which are early accounts of the life and words of the Prophet Muhammed.

The University of al-Qarawiyyin or Al Quaraouiyine (Arabic: جامعة القرويين‎‎; French: Université Al Quaraouiyine) is the oldest existing, continually operating and the first degree awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records and is sometimes referred to as the oldest universit was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963.


The diploma of Fatima El-Fihriya, the woman who founded the University and Library.

Ibn_KhaldunT05Education at Al Quaraouiyine University concentrates on the Islamic religious and legal sciences with a heavy emphasis on, and particular strengths in Classical Arabic grammar/linguistics and Maliki law, although a few lessons on other non-Islamic subjects such as French, English and IT are also offered to students. Teaching is delivered in the traditional method, in which students are seated in a semi-circle (halqa) around a sheikh, who prompts them to read sections of a particular text, asks them questions on particular points of grammar, law, or interpretation, and explains difficult points. Students from all over Morocco and Islamic West Africa attend the Qarawiyyin, although a few might come from as far afield as Muslim Central Asia. Even Spanish Muslim converts frequently attend the institution, largely attracted by the fact that the sheikhs of the Qarawiyyin, and Islamic scholarship in Morocco in general, are heirs to the rich religious and scholarly heritage of Muslim al-Andalus.

Most students at the Qarawiyyin range from between the ages of 13 and 30, and study towards high school-level diplomas and university-level bachelor’s degrees, although Muslim males with a sufficiently high level of Arabic are also able to attend lecture circles on an informal basis, given the traditional category of visitors “in search of [religious and legal] knowledge” (zuwwaar li’l-talab fii ‘ilm). In addition to being Muslim and male, prospective students of the Qarawiyyin are required to have memorized the Qur’an in full as well as several other shorter medieval Islamic texts on grammar and Maliki law, and in general to have a very good command of Classical Arabic.

Fez - Mezquita Qarawiyyin - vista a--rea

The al-Qarawiyyin Library opened to visitors last month, so those of you who are Morocco-bound, be sure to check it out! And for the rest of us, you can learn more about the project here and here, and see more images of al-Qarawayyin’s beautiful mosaics here.


Now You Can Visit the Oldest Library in the World



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NASA Believes Mars Was Once Earth-like

Digital artist Kevin Gill’s image is a view of the Western hemisphere of Mars with Olympus Mons on the horizon beyond the Tharsis Montes volcanoes and the Valles Marineris canyons near the center. The completed model was done in several steps. A two dimensional digital elevation model was first rendered in jDem846 (an open-source learning project created by Gill). In that model, Gill picked a sea level and scripted it such that terrain at or below that level was flat and blue.

Chemicals found in Martian rocks by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover suggest the Red Planet once had more oxygen in its atmosphere than it does now. Researchers found high levels of manganese oxides by using a laser-firing instrument on the rover. This hint of more oxygen in Mars’ early atmosphere adds to other Curiosity findings — such as evidence about ancient lakes — revealing how Earth-like our neighboring planet once was.

This research also adds important context to other clues about atmospheric oxygen in Mars’ past. The manganese oxides were found in mineral veins within a geological setting the Curiosity mission has placed in a timeline of ancient environmental conditions. From that context, the higher oxygen level can be linked to a time when groundwater was present in the rover’s Gale Crater study area.

“The only ways on Earth that we know how to make these manganese materials involve atmospheric oxygen or microbes,” said Nina Lanza, a planetary scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “Now we’re seeing manganese oxides on Mars, and we’re wondering how the heck these could have formed?”

Microbes seem far-fetched at this point, but the other alternative — that the Martian atmosphere contained more oxygen in the past than it does now — seems possible, Lanza said. “These high manganese materials can’t form without lots of liquid water and strongly oxidizing conditions. Here on Earth, we had lots of water but no widespread deposits of manganese oxides until after the oxygen levels in our atmosphere rose.”

Lanza is the lead author of a new report about the Martian manganese oxides in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters. She uses Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument, which fires laser pulses from atop the rover’s mast and observes the spectrum of resulting flashes of plasma to assess targets’ chemical makeup.


This scene shows NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover at a location called “Windjana,” where the rover found rocks containing manganese-oxide minerals, which require abundant water and strongly oxidizing conditions to form. In front of the rover are two holes from the rover’s sample-collection drill and several dark-toned features that have been cleared of dust (see inset images). These flat features are erosion-resistant fracture fills containing manganese oxides. The discovery of these materials suggests the Martian atmosphere might once have contained higher abundances of free oxygen than it does now. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

In Earth’s geological record, the appearance of high concentrations of manganese oxide minerals is an important marker of a major shift in our atmosphere’s composition, from relatively low oxygen abundances to the oxygen-rich atmosphere we see today. The presence of the same types of materials on Mars suggests that oxygen levels rose there, too, before declining to their present values. If that’s the case, how was that oxygen-rich environment formed?

“One potential way that oxygen could have gotten into the Martian atmosphere is from the breakdown of water when Mars was losing its magnetic field,” said Lanza. “It’s thought that at this time in Mars’ history, water was much more abundant.” Yet without a protective magnetic field to shield the surface, ionizing radiation started splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Because of Mars’ relatively low gravity, the planet wasn’t able to hold onto the very light hydrogen atoms, but the heavier oxygen atoms remained behind. Much of this oxygen went into rocks, leading to the rusty red dust that covers the surface today. While Mars’ famous red iron oxides require only a mildly oxidizing environment to form, manganese oxides require a strongly oxidizing environment, more so than previously known for Mars.

Lanza added, “It’s hard to confirm whether this scenario for Martian atmospheric oxygen actually occurred. But it’s important to note that this idea represents a departure in our understanding for how planetary atmospheres might become oxygenated.” Abundant atmospheric oxygen has been treated as a so-called biosignature, or a sign of extant life, but this process does not require life.

Curiosity has been investigating sites in Gale Crater since 2012. The high-manganese materials it found are in mineral-filled cracks in sandstones in the “Kimberley” region of the crater. But that’s not the only place on Mars where high manganese abundances have been found. NASA’s Opportunity rover, exploring Mars since 2004, also recently discovered high manganese deposits thousands of miles from Curiosity. This supports the idea that the conditions needed to form these materials were present well beyond Gale Crater.


Digital artist Kevin Gill’s resulting Mars model was then brought into GIMP where Gill painted in land features using a NASA Blue Marble Next Generation image for the source textures. Gill tried to envision how the land would appear given certain features or the effects of likely atmospheric climate. For example, he didn’t envison much green taking hold within the area of Olympus Mons and the surrounding volcanoes, both due to the volcanic activity and the proximity to the equator (a more tropical climate). For these desert-like areas he mostly used textures taken from the Sahara in Africa and some of Australia. Likewise, as the terrain gets higher or lower in latitude Gill added darker flora along with tundra and glacial ice. These northern and southern areas textures are largely taken from around northern Russia. Tropical and subtropical greens were based on the rainforests of South America and Africa.


Los Alamos National Laboratory leads the U.S. and French team that jointly developed and operates ChemCam. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, built the rover and manages the Curiosity mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

Guy Webster
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Laura Mullane
Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, N.M.


Last Updated: June 27, 2016
Editor: Tony Greicius
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