The Strange Link Between Your Digital Music and Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt

In 1798 Joseph Fourier, a 30-year-old professor at the École Polytechnique in Paris, received an urgent message from the minister of the interior informing him that his country required his services, and that he should “be ready to depart at the first order.” Two months later, Fourier set sail from Toulon as part of a 25,000-strong military fleet under the command of General Napoleon Bonaparte, whose unannounced objective was the invasion of Egypt.

Fourier was one of 167 eminent scholars, the savants, assembled for the Egyptian expedition. Their presence reflected the French Revolution’s ideology of scientific progress, and Napoleon, a keen amateur mathematician, liked to surround himself with colleagues who shared his interests.

It is said that when the French troops reached the Great Pyramid at Giza, Napoleon sat in the shade underneath, scribbled a few notes in his jotter and announced that there was enough stone in the pyramid to build a wall 3 meters high and a third of a meter thick that would almost perfectly encircle France.

Gaspard Monge, his chief mathematician, confirmed that the General’s estimate was indeed correct. The Great Pyramid has sides of length 751 feet and a height of 479 feet. France is roughly a rectangle 480 miles north to south by 435 miles east to west. With these figures, Napoleon’s estimate is only 3 percent off.

Excerpted from The Grapes of Math.

On Fourier’s return from Egypt, Napoleon appointed him prefect of the Alpine department of Isère, based in Grenoble. Always a man of fragile health, with extreme sensitivity to cold, Fourier never left home

On Fourier’s return from Egypt, Napoleon appointed him prefect of the Alpine department of Isère, based in Grenoble. Always a man of fragile health, with extreme sensitivity to cold, Fourier never left home without an overcoat, even in the summer, often making sure a servant carried a second coat for him in reserve. He kept his rooms baking hot at all times.

In Grenoble, his academic research was also preoccupied with heat. In 1807 he published a groundbreaking paper, On the Propagation of Heat in Solid Bodies. In it he revealed a remarkable finding about sinusoids.

What’s So Special About Sinusoids?

The sinusoid is what’s called a “periodic wave,” an entity in which a curve repeats itself again and again along the horizontal axis. The sinusoid is the simplest type of periodic wave because the circle, which generates it, is the simplest geometrical shape. Yet even though it is such a basic concept, the wave models many physical phenomena. The world is a carnival of sinusoids.

Fourier’s famous theorem states that every periodic wave can be built up by adding sinusoids together. The result is surprising. Fourier’s contemporaries met it with disbelief. Many waves look nothing at all like sinusoids, such as the square wave, illustrated below. The square wave is made up of straight lines, whereas the sinusoid is continuously curved. Yet Fourier was right: We can build a square wave with only sinusoids.

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Here’s how. In the illustration below there are three sine waves: the basic wave, a smaller sine wave with three times the frequency and a third of the amplitude, and an even smaller sine wave with five times the frequency and a fifth of the amplitude. We can write these three waves as sin x, sin 3x/3, and sin 5x/5.

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In the illustration below, I have started to add these waves together. We see the basic wave, sin x. The sum sin x + sin 3x/3 is a wave that looks like a row of molar teeth. The sum sin x + sin 3x/3 + sin 5x/5 is a wave that looks like the filaments of a light bulb. If we carry on adding terms of the series: sin x + sin 3x/3 + sin 5x/5 + sin 7x/7 + … we will get closer and closer to the square wave. At the limit, adding an infinity of terms, we will have the square wave.

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It is stunning that such a rigid shape can be constructed using only undulating wiggles. Any periodic wave consisting of jagged lines, smooth curves, or even a combination, can be built up with sinusoids.

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The horizontal axis represents the frequencies of the constituent sinusoids, and the vertical axis their amplitudes. Each bar stands for a sinusoid, and the leftmost bar is the sinusoid that has the “fundamental” frequency. This type of graph is known as the “frequency spectrum,” or “Fourier transform,” of the wave.

Fourier’s theorem was one of the most significant mathematical results of the 19th century because phenomena in many fields—from optics to quantum mechanics, and from seismology to electrical engineering—can be modeled by periodic waves. Often, the best way to investigate these waves is to break them down into simple sinusoids.

How You Could Play a Symphony Using Only Tuning Forks

The science of acoustics, for example, is essentially an application of Fourier’s discoveries. Sound is the vibration of air molecules. The molecules oscillate in the direction of travel of the sound, forming alternate areas of compression and rarefaction. The variation in air pressure at any point over time is a periodic wave.

The sound wave and frequency spectrum of a clarinet.

As you can see in the illustration to the right, the clarinet wave is jagged and complicated. Fourier’s theorem tells us, however, that we can break it down into a sum of sinusoids, whose frequencies are all multiples of the “fundamental” frequency of the first term. In other words, the wave can be represented as a spectrum of frequencies with different amplitudes.

Remember, the jagged wave and the bar chart in the illustration represent exactly the same sound, but in each image the information is encoded differently. For the wave, the horizontal axis is time, whereas on the bar chart the horizontal axis is frequency. Sound engineers say that the wave is in the “time domain,” and the transform is in the “frequency domain.”

The frequency domain also provides us with all the information we need to re-create the sound of a clarinet using only tuning forks. Each bar in the bar chart represents a sinusoid oscillating at a fixed frequency. The sound wave made by a tuning fork is a sinusoid. So, in order to re-create the sound of a clarinet, all that is required is to play a selection of tuning forks at the correct frequencies and amplitudes described by the bar chart.

Likewise, the frequency spectrum of a violin would provide us with instructions on how to use tuning forks to produce the sound of a violin. The difference in timbre between middle C played on the clarinet and the same pitch played on the violin is the result of the same set of tuning forks oscillating with different relative amplitudes.

A consequence of Fourier’s theorem is that it is theoretically possible to play the symphonies of Beethoven with tuning forks, in a way that is audibly indistinguishable from an orchestra.

Why a Harmonica Is Like a Picket Fence

When a fire engine passes Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco, employees clasp their ears—especially the “golden ears,” those members of the staff with exceptional hearing—hoping to protect their auditory faculties. Dolby built its reputation on noise reduction systems for the music and film industries, and it now creates sound quality software for consumer electronic devices, using technology based entirely on sinusoids.

The benefit of being able to switch a sound wave from the time domain to the frequency domain is that some jobs that are really difficult in one domain become much simpler in the other. All sound played out of digital devices—such as your TV, phone and computer—is stored as data in the frequency domain, rather than the time domain.

“The wave form is like a noodle,” Brett Crockett, senior director of research sound technology, told me. “You can’t grab it.” Frequencies are much easier to store because they are a set of discrete values. It also helps that our ears cannot hear all frequencies. “[Ears] don’t need the whole picture,” Crockett added.

Dolby’s software turns sound waves into sinusoids, and then strips out nonessential sinusoids so that the best possible sound can be recorded and stored with the least possible information. When the information is played back as sound, the spectrum of remaining frequencies is reconverted into a wave in the time domain.

It sounds easy, but in practice the task of filleting sinusoids from the frequency spectrum is exceedingly complex. One of the hardest sounds to get right is the harmonica, because its frequency spectrum looks like a picket fence—the amplitudes of the different frequencies are at the same height, forcing you to delete frequencies you can hear.

For all Dolby’s state-of-the-art know-how, the piece of music its software struggles most to re-create faithfully is “Moon River,” Henry Mancini’s hauntingly beautiful 1961 song. Brett Crockett’s golden ears judge new Dolby technology based on how faithfully it plays a harmonica riff recorded more than half a century ago.

Earth may have underground ‘ocean’ three times that on surface

After decades of searching scientists have discovered that a vast reservoir of water, enough to fill the Earth’s oceans three times over, may be trapped hundreds of miles beneath the surface, potentially transforming our understanding of how the planet was formed.

The water is locked up in a mineral called ringwoodite about 660km (400 miles) beneath the crust of the Earth, researchers say. Geophysicist Steve Jacobsen from Northwestern University in the US co-authored the studypublished in the journal Science and said the discovery suggested Earth’s water may have come from within, driven to the surface by geological activity, rather than being deposited by icy comets hitting the forming planet as held by the prevailing theories.

“Geological processes on the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, are an expression of what is going on inside the Earth, out of our sight,” Jacobsen said.

“I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades.”

Jacobsen and his colleagues are the first to provide direct evidence that there may be water in an area of the Earth’s mantle known as the transition zone. They based their findings on a study of a vast underground region extending across most of the interior of the US.

Ringwoodite acts like a sponge due to a crystal structure that makes it attract hydrogen and trap water.

If just 1% of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone was water it would be equivalent to nearly three times the amount of water in our oceans, Jacobsen said.

The study used data from the USArray, a network of seismometers across the US that measure the vibrations of earthquakes, combined with Jacobsen’s lab experiments on rocks simulating the high pressures found more than 600km underground.

It produced evidence that melting and movement of rock in the transition zone – hundreds of kilometres down, between the upper and lower mantles – led to a process where water could become fused and trapped in the rock.

The discovery is remarkable because most melting in the mantle was previously thought to occur at a much shallower distance, about 80km below the Earth’s surface.

Jacobsen told the New Scientist that the hidden water might also act as a buffer for the oceans on the surface, explaining why they have stayed the same size for millions of years. “If [the stored water] wasn’t there, it would be on the surface of the Earth, and mountaintops would be the only land poking out,” he said.

Earth may have underground ‘ocean’ three times that on surface

After decades of searching scientists have discovered that a vast reservoir of water, enough to fill the Earth’s oceans three times over, may be trapped hundreds of miles beneath the surface, potentially transforming our understanding of how the planet was formed.

The water is locked up in a mineral called ringwoodite about 660km (400 miles) beneath the crust of the Earth, researchers say. Geophysicist Steve Jacobsen from Northwestern University in the US co-authored the studypublished in the journal Science and said the discovery suggested Earth’s water may have come from within, driven to the surface by geological activity, rather than being deposited by icy comets hitting the forming planet as held by the prevailing theories.

“Geological processes on the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, are an expression of what is going on inside the Earth, out of our sight,” Jacobsen said.

“I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades.”

Jacobsen and his colleagues are the first to provide direct evidence that there may be water in an area of the Earth’s mantle known as the transition zone. They based their findings on a study of a vast underground region extending across most of the interior of the US.

Ringwoodite acts like a sponge due to a crystal structure that makes it attract hydrogen and trap water.

If just 1% of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone was water it would be equivalent to nearly three times the amount of water in our oceans, Jacobsen said.

The study used data from the USArray, a network of seismometers across the US that measure the vibrations of earthquakes, combined with Jacobsen’s lab experiments on rocks simulating the high pressures found more than 600km underground.

It produced evidence that melting and movement of rock in the transition zone – hundreds of kilometres down, between the upper and lower mantles – led to a process where water could become fused and trapped in the rock.

The discovery is remarkable because most melting in the mantle was previously thought to occur at a much shallower distance, about 80km below the Earth’s surface.

Jacobsen told the New Scientist that the hidden water might also act as a buffer for the oceans on the surface, explaining why they have stayed the same size for millions of years. “If [the stored water] wasn’t there, it would be on the surface of the Earth, and mountaintops would be the only land poking out,” he said.

In The Future, Everything Is a Game

“The future is now,” video games companies want us to believe. But if “now” is just the present, shouldnt the real future be more impressive than Xboxes and PlayStations and Wiis? During Los Angeles’s annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, Echo Park gallery iam8bit launched an exhibition exploring “The Future of Gaming,” as illuminated by some of the medium’s brightest thinkers and creators. The gallery’s owners, Jon Gibson and Amanda White, solicited theories from the likes of The Secret of Monkey Island designer Tim Schafer and Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, among many others. Then they had artists bring those theories to life.

Schafer’s is a highlight: “In the future, we will play games while floating naked in a tank of warm, sensory-depriving gelatin. Games will be distributed chemically, into the gelatin, and absorbed into the player’s skin. The gelatin will be Lingonberry-flavored, and the games will encourage good citizenship.” He’s probably at least half kidding, but who can say for sure?

“Getting so many luminaries from the gaming industry involved was really humbling and special for us,” White told ANIMAL after the exhibition’s opening. “We were lucky enough to get pretty quick and enthusiastic responses from the people we approached with the idea.”

“The Future of Gaming” was born when LA’s Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences challenged iam8bit last fall to spice up the D.I.C.E. 2014 summit’s attendee lounge. The event’s theme was “The New Golden Age of Gaming,” but White and Gibson decided to look past the present into the “distant future,” White explained. “The reception for the show was positive, so we thought, why not make this into a bigger exhibition for public consumption?” she said.

The theories on display are as varied as their progenitors. Game designer, TED Talker and Carnegie Mellon Professor Jesse Schell predicted that “we will learn about our ancestors by talking to the avatars we inherited from them.”

Schell’s artist, Travis Chen, crafted a flowing, layered woodcut. Game Developer Conference General Manager Meggan Scavio wrote that “people will be ranked on public leaderboards by the types of games they play, how well that play them, and the frequency of play (the more the better), thus allowing for the proper vetting of job applicants, business partners, and even personal relationships.” Seattle-based Kelice Penney made a necktie sewn with real-life power-ups to go with.

Philadelphia artist and designer Jude Buffum relished the chance to use pixel art to visualize a quote from Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning about the blurring of the lines between games and real life.

“You are the game of the future, where every bit of energy exerted thru your digital daily life will be captured toward more real world incentives,” Lanning predicted. “Each beat of our heart, calorie we eat, footstep we make, and mile gained thru our day will be captured, converted, and gamified into cost saving incentives that just ‘can’t be beat.’ Our decreasing privacies increasingly offered as the willing sacrifices made at the altar of savings, incentives, and reward points. Three billion years of progress will have finally evolved us into the hairless walking coupon.”

Buffum’s imagery is bursting with timers, high scores, fuel gauges, and fast food logos. A figure—hairless, evidently said “walking coupon”—fights its way through the piece, shrieking at the center. “[Gaming] started out very innocent, which is where I go to with my art,” Buffum told ANIMAL at the show’s opening. “But I like sort of running that through a filter of more modern times.”

He believes the turmoil Lanning anticipates might really come to pass. “Everything is becoming gamified. It’s not just our games — it’s our lives, it’s our commerce, it’s corporations. Everything is being quantified, coded, scored, and people are just giving up,” Buffum said. “It’s powerful technology and it could take society to a very bad place.”

Particle physicist and game designer Seamus Blackley, who helped create Microsoft’s Xbox around the turn of the century, imagines games of the future being just as omnipresent, but somehow more benign.

“The future of games is ubiquity,” Blackley hypothesized for the exhibit. “Every device and interface will need to entertain or be ignored. From supermarket checkout to your tax filing, we are training people already to ignore the boring. So. Games on everything all the time. As tech pervades, games follow. Do we control everything with smartphones? Then the games go everywhere from the phones. Do we have network computers in every object in the home? Then the games will follow. Just as games flowed into televisions and then computers and then mobile, they will be central to it all.”

Illustrator Kevin Stanton drew flowers, bees and butterflies with Xbox and PlayStation symbols on them to accompany Blackley’s quote. “Old guys like me, who started out in games when it was seen as a negative career choice, and people thought that it was just some sort of fad, feel hugely vindicated by the fact that games are so mainstream now and everybody expects everything to be a game,” Blackley said. But will the gamified, dystopian future envisioned by Lanning and others in iam8bit’s exhibit come to pass? Blackley doesn’t think so, because life is a game, and there’s always someone watching to make sure you’re following the rules.

“At the end of the day, morality becomes crowdsourced because everybody knows what everybody else is doing,” Blackley said, and that applies to companies as much as individuals. “Good and evil have always been gamified,” he continued. “That’s what good and evil are: good and evil are rules in a game.”

White said “The Future of Gaming” is part of iam8bit’s “bigger, grander mission” of “making the world a better place by giving people experiences that expand and open their minds.” The exhibit runs through June 22nd. (Lead Image: Naomi White x Seth Killian)

How Ant Colonies Foreshadow the Future of Facebook

They call it “the anternet.”

In 2012, Stanford biologist Deborah Gordon, Ph.D., discovered that the behavior of harvester ant colonies mirrors the fundamental Internet technology known as Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP.

TCP controls the flow of information online by preventing data transmission bottlenecks and the Internet from coming to a mighty, screeching halt. Basically, when fewer people are online, information return is faster. When more people are online, it slows.

Upon observing the scavenging habits of harvester ants, Gordon found that ant colonies are controlled by the same concept. After discovering a large supply of food, more ants leave the colony. When food is scarce, the number of foragers is restricted.

In his New York Times bestseller, Breakpoint, author Jeff Stibel reflects upon the similarities between the Internet and biological networks like ant colonies to make predictions about the future of social networks like Facebook.

“When you look at the most powerful things in biology, in nature and in technology, they’re always networks of things. They’re not individuals,” Stibel tells Mashable

“Biology is technology. It’s notlike technology, it istechnology.”

“Biology is technology. It’s not like technology, it is technology.”

 

Stibel, a neuroscientist and entrepreneur, knows his way around biological processes and the web. Like an ant colony, he believes, Facebook succeeds only through the combined interaction of individuals. As an ant’s survival depends on its colony, a Facebook user’s social experience is dependent on his friend network.

According to Stibel, all networks — natural or digital — share very similar life cycles. They begin with what’s called “hypergrowth.”

“In nature, all species multiply as much as resources allow,” Stibel writes in Breakpoint. “The same is true of technology and business: If you don’t dominate a market, you give potential upstarts an opportunity to grow and eventually compete with you.”

As Facebook strives to grow as much of a user base as possible — now with over 1.15 billion active monthly visitors — ant colonies rapidly lay eggs and consume their environment’s resources. And both networks have the same motivation: keeping others from taking their place.

“In hypergrowth, you want to grow as fast as you can and let nothing stand in your way,” says Stibel. “Don’t charge, don’t encumber, do nothing to hinder your growth. Because if you do, a competitor’s going to jump in and steal it.”

Harvester ant colonies grow to about 12,000 to 15,000 individuals during hypergrowth. At this point, the sheer amount of ants in the colony begins to inhibit communication. The network can no longer operate efficiently. This stage, Stibel says, is known as the breakpoint.

According to Stibel, networks face two choices during the breakpoint: keep growing or allow the breakpoint to force them down.

“The paradox is that forcing yourself to continue to grow will do more damage than allowing the breakpoint to take effect,” says Stibel. 

“All breakpoints are elastic. The further you go beyond the breakpoint, the harder your collapse.”

“All breakpoints are elastic. The further you go beyond the breakpoint, the harder your collapse.”

 

In response to hitting their breakpoint, ant colonies shrink down to 10,000 individuals around their fifth year. Other ants are sent off to begin new colonies in new locations. This colony shedding prevents the larger loss that result from starvation and overcrowding, if the network didn’t brace for its breakpoint.

According to Stibel, failed web and social networks are just like ant colonies that didn’t brace for the impact.

“The number of networks that make it to a breakpoint, out of hypergrowth, are virtually zero. Every one of these networks — FriendsterMyspaceClassmates.com — they all collapsed. They’re all fractions of their former selves or they’re out of business.”

Halting growth and allowing users to leave seems adverse to the basic idea of social networking and Metcalfe’s law: a cardinal Internet belief system which states, basically, that bigger is better.

“Bigger is better, up to a point. And that point is the breakpoint, where you hit this critical mass. Where you’ve consumed, effectively, all of the oxygen that can be consumed,” says Stibel. “If you’re Facebook, you’ve got all the people on the network starting to intertwine and get tangled. If you’re an ant colony, you’ve got about 10,000 to 12,000 ants in the colony before all of a sudden they start interfering with each other. At some point, in both examples, the communication just becomes noise.”

After breakpoint comes equilibrium. According to Stibel, successful networks see only a small collapse after reaching their breakpoint, through which a more optimized network with faster communication emerges.

Ant Colony

Image: Flickr, BBMexplorer

“It seems paradoxical, but equilibrium is where the real magic happens,”

“It seems paradoxical, but equilibrium is where the real magic happens,” says Stibel. “It’s where intelligent networks get smart, and where business networks start making a lot of money.”

 

A business network in equilibrium boasts a captive audience. The network is so robust and interwoven in users’ lives that they can’t help but stay on. In equilibrium, the network can begin charging, promoting more advertisements or even selling users’ data — if it chooses. The majority of users will likely be willing to comply in order to stay connected.

“You can do all manner of things because the benefits so far outweigh the negatives that we’re willing to risk privacy to go on the web,” says Stibel. “We’re willing to risk someone listening to our calls to use a cellphone.”

Stibel applies the breakpoint theory to the most popular social network: Facebook.

“I think Facebook is at its breakpoint in many, many markets,” he says. “In the markets that they’ve penetrated, they have saturated. We’ve gotten to a point where there are too many users, there are too many connections between users, and something has to be done to cull it.”

Zuckerberg, says Stibel, understands this. The growth of Facebook looks very similar to that of Gordon’s ant colony.

“They started in Harvard, got about 80% penetration, then they moved to MIT. Then to just the Ivy league schools, then all colleges. It took them three years to open up to the world, each time dominating the market,” he says. “Now that they’ve opened up to the world, they have to make a decision about whether they want to keep pushing past the breakpoint — which is dangerous as all hell — or reap the benefits of a network in equilibrium.”

In equilibrium, says Stibel, Facebook would optimally offer a smaller number of connections, allowing users to more dynamically know what’s going on in their closest friends’ lives. Rather than be bombarded with information from hundreds of users that you don’t know well, relationships would be weighted, giving users the information they want, when they want it.

Facebook should be listening to those users who say, “I don’t like Facebook anymore,” he adds. Those might be the ones who realize the system is breaking.

“In the United States — and I can’t say this more directly — Facebook has to shrink. It has to shrink in terms of connections and in terms of users, or it will implode.”

Stibel can’t predict what direction Facebook will take, but he does offer up some advice for social networks of the future: Look to nature, not to the web.

“We forget that the original engineering is biology; it’s evolution. And we have a lot more to learn from this biology — whether it’s us, ants, termites, whatever — than we could hope to learn from the Facebooks and the Myspaces and the Yahoos of the world. Because they’ve only been around for what, a dozen years?”

Take a Trip Through the Strange Worlds Within Gemstones

For all the infinite vastness of the universe we’ve seen through telescopes, the world seen under a microscope also reveals some pretty alien-looking vistas. Like the tiny cosmos hidden inside gemstones, a realm that photomicrographer Danny Sanchez captures in striking photographs.

“When I first started looking through the microscope at gemstones, it was all space to me,” says Sanchez, who’s spent the last eight years learning to examine and photograph gemological interiors. “It was all the limitless imagination of outer space.”

Sanchez’s images reflect an awe for the cosmos, and the aesthetic influence of science fiction. Shattered remnants of a doomed planet emerge from microscopic rubite embedded in sapphire; the pyramidal pyrite shell of some ancient being drifts in geological time; a mountainous horizon hidden in a nugget of quartz looks absolutely extraterrestrial. The photos recall sci-fi visionary John Berkey.

At the center of most of Sanchez’s pictures are the random bits of minerals stuck in a larger gem–what are called intrusions. To collectors, they’re imperfections that reduce the value of the stone–to Sanchez, they are things of beauty.

He digs through bin upon bin of gemstones at trade shows, searching for the subject of his next image. He examines the stones and intrusions with a 10x microscope loop and fiber optic light he carries with him, gathering a sense for their inner worlds.

“I’ve got to hit all the gem shows and all the local events,” he says. “I like the ones that are flawed. They’ve got the stuff inside them. I’m actually lucky in that regard because people don’t want them, so I get to pay less for them.”

Depth of a Field

Sanchez’s images fall under the category of photomicrography–pictures of very, very small things taken through a microscope. It’s a broad field in which his images are at least partially unique.

The bulk of photomicrographic imagery comes out of academic research. Insects, microbes, circulatory systems, the vast majority focus on organic subject matter. Gemological intrusions are generally a less common subject, and certainly not the object of most photomicrographers’ fascination.

“They’re interested in documenting, ‘Oh this material is found in conjunction with this material, how interesting–we should document that,’” he says. “There’s only so much conversation that someone like that can have with me before we just totally diverge on our technique.”

To Sanchez, the most relevant distinction is the effort to create images at the standard of a fine art. He’s working more to convey a sense of sublimity he feels rather than to categorize or document what he photographs in a scientific way.

“It’s really tricky, and I wish I had someone I could just call up and ask why is this not working? How do I get this better, how do I get it cleaner? But there’s not, so I’m just sort of feeling around.”

What’s He Building in There

Without an institutional budget to throw at gear, Sanchez had to build his shooting rig piecemeal. It took almost ten years of scouring eBay before he could produce images at the level of quality he wanted. For shooting at the microscopic level, gear always comes first.

“There were so many obstacles … if you don’t have the right equipment you can’t overcome them,” he says. “There’s only so good an image you can make.”

Sanchez lights the gems with fiber optic tubes and a main light. He adjusts the light and controls shadow with teensy reflector cards and black foil. The image is captured by a specially adapted Wild Heerbrugg m450 microscope, with a light path streamlined so that it travels almost directly into a Canon 5D. A host of custom optical and stabilizing segments hold the rig together, and it’s all mounted to a vibration resistant platform.

An integral part of this process is called “stacking,” which means shooting the same subject at varying depths of field and then recombining the layers into a single sharp image. An ever present risk is over-stacking (often Sanchez will layer dozens of shots in a single image), which can force in too much color and depth information to produce the subtler sense of space he’s aiming for.

Stacking a crazy precise process that requires a step motor that can move the focus by microns at a time, allowing for super fast exposures at different points along the inclusions.

All the equipment and precision allows Sanchez to chart a course through gemological innerspace. When he comes upon a striking scene, he can drop anchor and start shooting. The experience can be pretty otherworldly, even though the whole rig resides in a small room in his house.

“I have to turn the lights off in this room, and then turn the fiber optic lights on, so it’s very much this laboratory vibe because it’s so dark and mysterious. And I’m staring into a window, seeing something totally different than the reality around me.”

The Big Picture

Sanchez is not just an admirer, he’s also an expert on the gems themselves. By looking at the stones he can tell you if they’re natural or synthetic, if they’ve been exposed to extreme heat, where in the world they might have come from. He’s as interested in making photographs as in the phenomenology of what he’s observing.

“I really try hard not to do anything false, like use false colors. I comp my images, sure, but it’s just as you see it through the microscope. It’s mostly Lightroom, and a little bit of Photoshop dodging and that’s it. That’s not to say I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time staring at it in Lightroom day after day to make sure it’s right.”

The ultimate goal is to present an exhibition of the photos, printed large next to the stones they came from so that the vast scale suggested in the images can be experienced right next to the tiny reality of them.

That’s part of the reason Sanchez keeps the stones he photographs. In any case there’s certainly not much of a financial incentive for keeping them–their “flawed” nature makes them unfit for most collectors. For him the true excitement comes from the singular instant when a photo emerges from the development process to reveal something never seen before.

“It’s that moment when you look at it and gasp,” he says. “You can’t believe that it looks like that.”

All photos by Danny Sanchez

Absurd Creature of the Week: The 120-Foot-Long Jellyfish That’s Loving Global Warming

In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” our hero is strolling along a beach when he comes across a man in his death throes, staggering and screaming before shouting his last words: “The lion’s mane!” His name is Fitzroy McPherson, and all over his back are thin red lines—which Sherlock notices because he’s a detective and all—as though the man “had been terribly flogged by a thin wire scourge.”

McPherson’s colleague, a mercurial fellow named Ian Murdoch, becomes a person of interest. He had, after all, once thrown McPherson’s dog through a plate glass window. But that suspicion falls to pieces when the dog-hurler himself staggers into Sherlock’s home in comparable agony, all marked up with the same red lines.

And then the answer hits the great detective. With a police inspector and a guy named Stackhurst he hurries to the beach and finds the culprit: “Cyanea!” he cries. “Cyanea! Behold the Lion’s Mane!” It’s a great jellyfish among the rocks. Shouts Sherlock: “It has done mischief enough. Its day is over! Help me, Stackhurst! Let us end the murderer forever.” And with that they push a boulder into the water, crushing the critter.

That’s a whole lot of animal cruelty in a single short story, and the severity of a sting from a lion’s mane jellyfish, known scientifically as Cyanea capillata, is highly exaggerated here. But this critter is actually far more remarkable than its fanciful villainization. What Sherlock failed to mention is that this is the world’s largest jellyfish, with a bell that reaches a staggering 8 feet wide and tentacles that grow to 120 feet long, far longer than a blue whale. And this monster is really, reallyloving the whole global warming thing, conquering more and more of Earth’s oceans in massive blooms. So please, if you will, welcome our new giant gelatinous overlords.

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It’s those seemingly endless tentacles, hundreds and hundreds of them, that make this incredible growth possible, according to Lisa-Ann Gershwin, a marine biologist with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. “They’ve got all of these fishing lures out there at the same time,” she said. “Every single tentacle is out there to catch something. They can find so much food simply by multitasking, really.”

Lion’s manes will take just about anything, from the tiniest zooplankton—little critters and fish larvae and such that drift in the open ocean—to smaller jelly species and even their own kind. Their mighty weapons are stinging cells known as nematocysts, which on contact fire poisonous barbs into the prey (think Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, only nematocysts didn’t used to get me in trouble for spending so much money in arcades).

Though nowhere near as powerful of the notoriously deadly box jellyfish, the sting of the lion’s mane is more than enough to incapacitate small critters—and dish out searing pain to humans. (Gershwin herself once had a lion’s mane sting her foot, which “went all red and puffy” and felt like it was being stabbed with “thousands of needles.”) Thoroughly ensnared by the tentacle’s innumerable spines and none too healthy on account of the poison, the prey is reeled in. The lion’s mane can do this a single tentacle at a time, contracting the muscles in each until the prey reaches its curtain-like “oral arms,” folds of tissue in its bell.

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From here the prey passes into the jelly’s mouth, which is really just a hole in its body that also functions as its anus, and finally moves into the stomach. “And then they have a circulatory system of canals where the nutrients from the stomach are just dispersed out to the rest of the body through this network,” said Gershwin. “It’s really, really simple, but it works really well. I mean, they’ve been doing exactly that for 600 million years, and it works so well they haven’t needed to change it.”

That’s quite an evolutionary sweet spot. Such a sweet spot, in fact, that the lion’s mane never bothered to evolve true eyes. Instead, these jellies have extremely rudimentary eyespots and can do nothing more than detect light and dark—no shapes and certainly no colors (interestingly, box jellyfish have eyes more like our own, complete with lenses and such, presumably so they can observe the terror they strike in humans). And a brain? Not really necessary, as it turns out. They do have nerve bundles that essentially automate all of their processes, but these are nothing like a brain as we would recognize it.

“A brain is kinda overrated, really,” said Gershwin. “We find it kind of entertaining, and a little bit important, but they do all the stuff they need to do without a brain. But so do venus fly traps. Lots of things can actually do kind of sophisticated behaviors without a brain.”

Reproduction for the lion’s mane, though, is quite sophisticated. Males release sperm threads into the water, and females hoover them up with their mouth-anus thing, a totally unscientific term that I just made up. Her eggs are fertilized internally, and when they hatch, the larvae roam around a bit inside her, then drift off to settle on the seafloor.

But these larvae don’t turn right into what we would identify as jellies, in what is known as the medusa stage, named after the mythical lady with snakes for hair. Instead, they become little white tubes with frilly ends called polyps, which wait until conditions are just right to actually clone themselves hundreds of times over, releasing baby jellies into the water column. Though scientists have yet to do genetic testing on this, Gershwin suspects that huge blooms of lion’s mane jellies could in fact all be clones from a single tiny polyp. It’s a bit like Attack of the Clones, only interesting.

Sting Operation

And boy have they been blooming. Populations of jellyfish like the lion’s mane seem to be exploding in the world’s oceans—because, bluntly put, we’ve goofed. Global warming, overfishing, pollution, basically anything terrible we’ve done to the seas have been an absolute boon to jellyfish, according to Gershwin. Data on jellyfish populations is scarce, so nothing is yet definitive, but as Gershwin puts it, “we now find ourselves in the unexpected position of knowing that we have serious problems with stings to tourists and cloggings of power plants and salmon kills and whatnot, but really having little idea about the speed and trajectory in terms of long-term view.”

As humans, it’s clear we need to tackle the direness that is global warming, but the lion’s mane and its jelly comrades would really prefer that we didn’t. Not only do jellies grow faster in warmer waters, temperature is a pivotal factor in their reproduction. In some species, polyps will only develop as days grow longer in summer, but others instead wait until the water climbs to a certain temperature. Thus ever-hotter oceans in these times of global warming could make for more blooms.

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In addition, global warming is monkeying with oxygen concentration in our seas, which is also great news for jellies. “Colder water holds more dissolved oxygen than warmer water,” said Gershwin. “So even a really slight warming—a degree, a half a degree, a quarter of a degree—we may not feel it, but it changes the amount of oxygen that the water can hold.”

And jellyfish are really good at living in oxygen-deprived water. Pretty much everything else in the sea? Not so much. “High-rate breathers,” such as beefy fish that need lots of oxygen to power their muscles, die off when jellyfish lazily cruise around, not the slightest bit fazed.

Then there’s the inflow of our sewage and fertilizers, nutrients that microscopic plants calledphytoplankton go ga-ga for. Their populations explode, and are then eaten by their animal counterparts, zooplankton, which are in turn eaten by jellies. But when blooming phytoplankton die and decompose, the bacteria that feed on them suck still more oxygen out of the water.

Add all of this to the fact that we’re overfishing the hell out of our oceans—eliminating not just jellyfish predators but also their competition—and we have a gelatinous, stingy mess on our hands. “It’s probably really tempting to think about jellyfish as these evil beings, we should extinct them because they’re bad,” said Gershwin. “But what they’re doing, whether it’s stinging us or eating all of the fish eggs and larvae or clogging up power plants or whatever, they’re just responding to what we’re doing.”

So we just may have unwittingly assembled an ever-growing army of jellies, led by the outsized lion’s manes, for all-out assault. And this time there won’t be a boulder-wielding Sherlock Holmes to come to the rescue. Which is just as well if his associates insist on throwing dogs through windows.

Browse the full Absurd Creature of the Week archive here. Have an animal you want me to write about? Email matthew_simon@wired.com or ping me on Twitter at @mrMattSimon.