Here Be Monsters Podcast

The Podcast About the Unknown

HBM118: Mountain Seabed

Life on earth began in the oceans.  And it used to be simpler. For the first few billion years, life consisted of microbes that didn’t really swim or hunt; they mostly floated and, if they were lucky, bumped into something they could engulf and digest. But that changed during the Cambrian period.

Over a relatively short period of time known as the Cambrian Explosion, organisms started becoming larger and more complex. For the first time they grew limbs and exoskeletons; intestines and eyes. Animals from this period developed strange body plans that look almost alien to the modern eye. It was an unprecedented surge of biodiversity.  But many of the animal groups that emerged during the Cambrian Period died soon after during an extinction event, their bizarre body plans perishing along with them. To paraphrase the evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, these were “early experiments in life’s history.” Among the survivors of the Cambrian extinction event was metaspriggina, a tiny fish the size of a human thumb. This tiny fish is one of the oldest ancestors of all vertebrate life on earth - including us.

A metaspriggina fossil. Metaspriggina is an ancient relative to all vertebrate life on earth. Photo by Molly Segal

Animation of a metaspriggina swimming, via Royal Ontario Museum.

Over millions of years and tectonic shifts, Cambrian-era seabeds became modern-day mountains. Today, one of the best places in the world to study fossils from the Cambrian period is at the Burgess Shale fossil deposit, high in the Canadian Rockies. The animals fossilized in the rock were buried quickly in mud that had the right conditions to preserve the soft tissues like brains, organs, and muscles, giving paleontologists a detailed glimpse at some of the first complex life on earth. Scientists have been mulling over the Burgess Shale fossils since they were first excavated in 1909.

Stephen Jay Gould was one of those scientists fascinated by the Burgess fossils. He paid attention to the research coming out about them and started wondering what life would look like if a different set of animals had survived and our ancestors had died out. Would humans - or something like us - have ever evolved?  Gould thought not. In his 1989 book Wonderful Life, he came up with the ‘tape of life’ thought experiment. Gould wrote, “Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human intelligence would grace the replay.” This idea is called Evolutionary Contingency.

Not everyone agreed with Gould. Most notably, his contemporary Simon Conway Morris, another evolutionary biologist and paleontologist. Morris spent years studying the Burgess Shale, and it was his work that Gould had cited for his book about Evolutionary Contingency. Conway Morris disagreed with Gould’s interpretation that human intelligence was a fluke. He wrote his own book in 1998 called The Crucible of Creation and posited that, while life may have looked very different after a replay of the ‘tape of life’, consciousness may still have emerged in other forms. He wrote, “There are not an unlimited number of ways of doing something. For all its exuberance, the forms of life are restricted and channeled.” (p. 13) This idea is called Evolutionary Convergence.

In August 2018, producer Molly Segal joined a group of paleontologists, including Jean-Bernard Caron of the Royal Ontario Museum for their biennial dig at the Burgess Shale.  Caron believes that Contingency and Convergence both play a role in evolution, their debate has informed discussions about evolution ever since.

Molly Segal produced this episode. Bethany Denton and Jeff Emtman edited it.

Music: The Black Spot

HBM117: Grave Oversight

Sudan has been involved in ongoing civil wars since 1983. The wars were about religion, culture and resources. By 2005, approximately two million civilians had died. In 2011, the southern part of the country voted to secede from the north, creating the new country of South Sudan.  But there were still three regions that were claimed by both north and south: Abyei, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan. These regions are rich in oil and have fertile farmlands, so politicians and humanitarians predicted there would be violence following the secession. Civilians in these regions, mostly farmers and shepherds, would be caught in the middle.

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Content Note:

- Genocide

Nathaniel Raymond is a human rights investigator. He was looking into an alleged massacre in Afghanistan when he was introduced to the idea of using satellite imagery for humanitarian purposes. At that time, satellite images were sometimes used for documenting force swells and finding the locations of mass graves. But Nathaniel wondered if he could figure out a way to use satellite imagery proactively; what if he could figure out a way to see an attack coming and sound an alarm before anyone got hurt?

 
 

Nathaniel wasn’t the only one who had this idea. Actor George Clooney had also been researching ways to use satellites as “anti-genocide paparazzi” in Sudan through an organization he co-founded called The Enough Project. The Enough Project and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and others sponsored the project. The Satellite Sentinel Project partnered with the private satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe, who gave the SSP permission to point some of their satellites where they pleased and take pictures. By December 2010, the Satellite Sentinel Project was in full swing, inventing a new methodology for analyzing satellite imagery of active conflict in real time.

Nathaniel Raymond, former Director of Operations at the Sentinel Satellite Project. Photo by Jeff Emtman.

Nathaniel Raymond, former Director of Operations at the Sentinel Satellite Project. Photo by Jeff Emtman.

The mission of the Satellite Sentinel Project was threefold:

  1. Warn civilians of impending attacks,

  2. document the destruction in order to corroborate witness testimony in later investigations, and

  3. potentially dissuade the governments in both Sudan and South Sudan from returning to war in the first place.

“We wanted to see if being under surveillance would change the calculus… If they knew we were watching, would they not attack?” The Satellite Sentinel Project would release their reports at midnight so that they would be available in time for morning news in East Africa.

Critics of Satellite Sentinel Project say that South Sudan shouldn’t be a playground for experimental humanitarian efforts bankrolled by a foreign movie star. And Nathaniel says the critiques are valid. “It was always a Hail Mary pass. And, we must be clear, it was always an experiment, which in and of itself is problematic. But… what else are we going to do, sit on our hands?”

Satellite Sentinel Project released a total of 28 reports over 18 months. The methodology Nathaniel and his team developed is still being taught at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.

Today Nathaniel Raymond is a lecturer on Global Affairs at Yale’s Jackson Institute. Special thanks to Ziad al Achkar, one of Nathaniel’s colleagues from Satellite Sentinel Project that helped us with this episode.

PBS Newshour Reporting on Satellite Sentinel Project’s documentation of burned villages in South Sudan.

Nathaniel Raymond’s 2018 talk on Satellite Sentinel Project at the EyeO Festival 2018.

This episode was produced by Garrett Tiedemann and edited by Bethany Denton. Additional editing by Jeff Emtman.

Music: Garrett Tiedemann.

Cover Image: Fire burning near Abyei town, composited with a shadow of a satellite for HBM by Jeff Emtman. Source image by DigitalGlobe.

HBM116: Finest and Most Rotten (Going Forward)

Mar 21, 1919 - NEW YORK CITY

An anonymous writer for the New York Tribune stands at 154 Nassau.  The writer asks passers-by a simple question: “Do you think this is a good world?”  It’s just four months after Armistice Day, and on the tail of a flu pandemic that killed 55 million worldwide.  The writer publishes five answers, ranging from “damned rotten” to “the finest”.

Mar 21, 2019 - NEW YORK CITY

Producer Ula Kulpa stands at the same spot and flags down passers-by 100 years later and asks the same question, “Do you think this is a good world?”  Today, life expectancies are up, yet we still fight wars. We are still sometimes cruel to loved ones and strangers. So, with the perspective of an additional century, what do New Yorkers think about the world’s goodness?

An Armistice Day celebration on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in 1918. Photo by Paul Thompson  via The New York Times

An Armistice Day celebration on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in 1918. Photo by Paul Thompson via The New York Times

This episode is a collaboration with the podcast Going Forward. Going Forward is produced by Julia Drachman and Ula Kulpa.  Jeff Emtman did additional editing on the piece.


Music: The Black Spot | | |  Smiles by Lambert Murphy (1918) | | |  You Hear the Lambs a-Cryin' by Fisk University Jubilee Singers (1920)

Cover Art: Park Row and William Street, several blocks away from 154 Nassau.  Photo taken in August I92I by George Balgue. Via OldNYC


Jeff Emtman is visiting Copenhagen to teach a masterclass on sound design and to do a radio cinema event about sound’s haunting nature.  Join him at Radiobiograf, Copenhagen’s Radio Festival.

April 12, 2019: Masterclass: Jeff Emtman on Sound Design

April 14, 2019: Jeff Emtman Presents: The Haunting Magic of Sound

HBM115: Bound in Walton et al.

A highway robber with many aliases lay on his deathbed after contracting a bad flu.  He dictated his life story to his captors before succumbing to his illness in July of 1837.  His captors published the highwayman’s story posthumously with the title: Narrative of the life of James Allen, alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the highwayman. Being his death-bed confession, to the warden of the Massachusetts State Prison.  

The story he tells details common robbery, horse theft, jewel trafficking, many jailbreaks, and several yellings of the phrase “Your money or your life!” with pistols drawn.

The book might have passed into obscurity if it weren’t for a dirty grey leatherbound copy that resides at The Boston Athenaeum. It bears a Latin inscription on its front cover: “HIC LIBER WALTONIS CUTE COMPACTUS EST” or (roughly), “This book is bound in Walton’s skin.”

As legend has it, the highwayman Allen (aka. Walton) requested that his memoirs be gifted to a man whom he once tried and failed to rob, Mr. John Fenno Jr.  Further, the highwayman requested that the book be bound in his own skin.

Books bound in human skin are rare, though not unheard of.  As of publish date, the Anthropodermic Book Project has confirmed 18 such books, and identified another 12 books previously thought to be human, but revealed to be of more customary leathers.  Narrative of the life of James Allen… resides in the former category, being confirmed as human skin via a test called Peptide Mass Fingerprinting.

Dawn Walus, Chief Conservator at the Boston Athenaeum told HBM host Jeff Emtman that when they sent a sample of the book’s binding off for PMF testing, she and other athenaeum staff hoped the results would come back negative.  Dawn considers the binding to be a bit of spectacle, and a distraction from the hundreds of thousands of other books in their collection, “I don’t think we want to be known as ‘the place that has the skin book.’…It seems out of place today.”

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Jeff Emtman produced this episode.  Jeff is doing a free lecture at Winnipeg’s West End Cultural Center on March 31st, 2019.  Also, Jeff will be in Copenhagen for Radiobiograf, where he’ll teach a class on sound design and host a radio cinema event about haunting sounds.


Music: The Black Spot | | | Phantom Fauna

HBM113: The Last Ones

Bethany Denton’s been thinking about grief a lot lately. In 2017, two of her friends, a mother and a daughter, died unexpectedly just two months apart. Since then, Bethany’s started seeing grief in just about everything, including a caribou at Woodland Park Zoo that dropped her antlers after a miscarriage.

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Content Note:

- Language
- Death

Bethany’s good friend, Jesse Brenneman has also been thinking a lot about grief. It was his mother and sister who died in 2017. And shortly after that, his grandfather and father died too. So over the span of a year and two months, Jesse lost his entire immediate family.

HBM064: A Shinking Shadow, in which Bethany talks to Jesse’s sister Erin about her eating disorder.

When Bethany told Jesse about the grieving caribou mother who’d dropped her antlers after miscarriage, Jesse suggested contacting his next door neighbor Ben Long. Ben is a writer and conservationist with an affinity for caribou.

On a snowy January morning, the three of them drove out to the Flathead National Forest outside of Kalispell, Montana for a walk in the woods. They hoped to find caribou tracks in the snow. Caribou used to be plentiful in northwestern Montana and throughout the continental United States. These days, due to deforestation and destruction of their habitat, the caribou population in the lower 48 could be as low as three animals.

You may recognize Jesse’s voice from his time as a producer for WNYC’s On The Media. Today he is a freelancer of many disciplines living and working in Missoula, Montana.

Face the Racist Nation, a piece produced by Jesse Brenneman for WNYC’s On The Media.

Music: Jesse Brenneman | | | The Black Spot