Here Be Monsters Podcast

The Podcast About the Unknown

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

HBM109: Untitled Noises of New York (Sound Matters)

January ice on the Hudson. Video by Jeff Emtman.

January ice on the Hudson. Video by Jeff Emtman.

HBM host Jeff Emtman travels to New York City in an effort to fulfill open-ended recording assignments issued from afar by Tim Hinman for an episode of Bang & Olufsen’s Sound Matters podcast.  

It should be noted that in this episode, Tim incorrectly states that Jeff is from the “lentil capital of Washington State.” In fact, Jeff is from the self-proclaimed lentil capital of the world.

This episode was produced and scored by Tim Hinman.  Tim also hosts the fantastic podcast Third Ear.

Read an interview with Jeff about the creation of HBM over on Bang and Olufsen’s blog.  Interview by Nathaniel Budzinski.



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HBM090: Two Small Creatures with Human Eyes

Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus of Human Origins, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

Ian Tattersall, Curator Emeritus of Human Origins, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History.

Natural history museums are art galleries.  Scientifically focussed art galleries, but art galleries nonetheless.  

Ian Tattersall, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is a paleontologist who sometimes oversees the construction of models for the museum.  Of personal interest to Here Be Monsters producer Jeff Emtman are reconstructions of very lifelike early humans, one with an arm draped over the other.  Ian calls these the “Laetoli Figures”—named for the place in modern-day Tanzania where some remarkable footprints of two hominids were found preserved in volcanic ash.  

As far as early humans go, Australopithecus Afarensis are well understood.  There are 300+ individuals in the fossil record, including the famous ~40% complete fossil of “Lucy”.

HBM090-01.jpg

Given the evidence, there’s a lot scientists can be pretty certain in declaring: they lived in the trees, but they could walk upright.  They had small brains and big jaws, but their canine teeth looked a lot like a modern human’s.  

There are other questions that are answerable through inference, through studies of modern animals and other fossils.  These techniques can yield a strong degree of certainty.

But if the artist were to stop constructing at the edge of certainty, the models would never be completed. There are certain things that are essentially unknowable about these early hominids, like: “What did their skin look like?” “What color was their hair?” “Did they have the dark sclera of an ape, or the whites-of-the-eye of a modern human?”

These uncertainties are ultimately up to the artist to answer.  “When you’re making a museum exhibit,” Ian (not an artist) points out, “you’re trying to create an illusion.  And to work at all, the illusion has to be complete.  And so you have to have all the details in there.”

But these details are a form of artistry used as evidence by biblical creationists to lambast hominid reconstructions.  They see it as part of an effort to deceive the public, to lead them to believe that these ancient hominids were more human-like than they actually were.  Of particular interest to them is that question of the light sclera vs. dark sclera.  One author writes:

Notice that a fossilized eyeball was not found.  So how would anyone know that the sclera was white, which would cause it to look more human. [sic] The reconstruction is pure speculation about how Lucy’s eye looked.

A replica of the specimen of Australopithecus Afarensis colloquially named “Lucy”.

A replica of the specimen of Australopithecus Afarensis colloquially named “Lucy”.

Natural history museums are faced with a decision: create full-flesh reconstructions that by necessity contain elements of artistic license, or, present the public with mere bones.  Most seem to opt for the former, and understandably so.  The museum serves the public, and, like HBM producer Jeff Emtman, they want to see something relatable and remarkable, a piece of scientifically-oriented art.  

And this question the artist must face, the question of the dark sclera (more ape-like eyes) and the light sclera (more human-like eyes) reveals something interesting about the artist and the process used to create the art.  The choices an artist makes can speak to their worldview, their biases, and their knowledge per their location in the world and the current moment in time.  

Ian recognizes this, saying,

You could not do a reliable reconstruction of an ancient human being or a dinosaur, or an extinct mammal without the science; and you certainly couldn’t do it without the art.  And this is where the two really intersect in a meaningful way.

And the AMNH itself houses exhibits related to the ways in which modern assumptions about the past have affected the way the past is present, such as:  Griffins in the Gobi Desert (protoceratops), Cyclops of the Mediterranean (dwarf elephants), and the infamous unicorn horns of Western Europe (narwhal).

Ian says that, in the quarter century since the construction of the Laetoli Figures, dominant scientific perception has changed to suggest that Australopithecus afarensis might have actually had dark sclera. As he puts it, “science is a work in progress.”

Jeff Emtman produced this episode.  
Voicemails from HBM listeners including Daniel Greene, Rachel Schapiro and Tony Baker.   

Music: The Black Spot | | | The Other Stars


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