Category Archives: research

Final Marks


Since it was produced in 1978, Final Marks has become a classic documentary about lettercutting, in both monumental inscriptions and on gravestones. The filmmakers were given complete access over a two year period to the work of the craftsmen of the John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, the oldest business in the United States still in continuous operation in the same colonial building. It chronicles the work of John ‘Fud’ Benson, then the owner and principal designer, and, arguably, one of the most accomplished letter cutters in the world, as he and his colleagues lay out and then execute the inscriptions on the then unfinished East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., designed by I.M. Pei.

While in Washington, Benson and the filmmakers revisit one of the John Stevens Shop’s most visible and demanding commissions….President Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington Cemetery—a simple, evocative slate gravestone, and, nearby, the technically demanding series of inscriptions from his inaugural address on a dramatic, curving bench of Deer Island granite.

The second half of the film is given over to a step by step creation of an alphabet stone, commissioned by Michael Bixler, a celebrated typographer. We watch Benson design and lay out on a piece of black slate… pencil, then ink, then paint….the basic vocabulary of any lettercutter’s life: the Roman alphabet. The actual hand cutting of the letters is depicted in great detail, with Benson commenting throughout, the camera moving slightly closer as Benson works his way through the letters, culminating in an extended sequence, almost in ‘real time’ as he cuts an “R”, one of the more difficult of the letters. Then he and his associates finish the piece, gilding the cut letters, and polishing the stone.

Finally, the last section of the film follows Benson as he walks through the Common Burying Ground in Newport, with its wealth of beautifully lettered and decorated 18th century stones. Through his eyes, the visit becomes a surprisingly moving evocation of the beauty and power of gravestone carving in New England, and the ability of inscribed stones to record forever what should not be lost: the essential outline of an individual life.

“The Perfect World” by Kahlil Gibran

God of lost souls, thou who are lost amongst the gods, hear me:

Gentle Destiny that watchest over us, mad, wandering spirits, hear me:

I dwell in the midst of a perfect race, I the most imperfect.

I, a human chaos, a nebula of confused elements, I move amongst finished worlds—peoples of complete laws and pure order, whose thoughts are assorted, whose dreams are arranged, and whose visions are enrolled and registered.

Their virtues, O God, are measured, their sins are weighed, and even the countless things that pass in the dim twilight of neither sin nor virtue are recorded and catalogued.

Here days and night are divided into seasons of conduct and governed by rules of blameless accuracy.

To eat, to drink, to sleep, to cover one’s nudity, and then to be weary in due time.

To work, to play, to sing, to dance, and then to lie still when the clock strikes the hour.

To think thus, to feel thus much, and then to cease thinking and feeling when a certain star rises above yonder horizon.

To rob a neighbour with a smile, to bestow gifts with a graceful wave of the hand, to praise prudently, to blame cautiously, to destroy a sound with a word, to burn a body with a breath, and then to wash the hands when the day’s work is done.

To love according to an established order, to entertain one’s best self in a preconceived manner, to worship the gods becomingly, to intrigue the devils artfully—and then to forget all as though memory were dead.

To fancy with a motive, to contemplate with consideration, to be happy sweetly, to suffer nobly—and then to empty the cup so that tomorrow may fill it again.

All these things, O God, are conceived with forethought, born with determination, nursed with exactness, governed by rules, directed by reason, and then slain and buried after a prescribed method. And even their silent graves that lie within the human soul are marked and numbered.

It is a perfect world, a world of consummate excellence, a world of supreme wonders, the ripest fruit in God’s garden, the master-thought of the universe.

But why should I be here, O God, I a green seed of unfulfilled passion, a mad tempest that seeketh neither east nor west, a bewildered fragment from a burnt planet?

Why am I here, O God of lost souls, thou who art lost amongst the gods?

biorock links and additional reading

Title Notes
Goreau’s “Marine Electrolysis for Building Materials and Environmental Restoration” Lots of essential details about the types of rocks grown at different charges, etc, and the increased growth of marine wildlife
Not as much detail about specific building techniques
Official Biorock FAQ Includes more practical questions of budget, process, materials – encouraging for those on a shoestring budget!
Goreau’s “Electrical Stimulation Greatly Increases Settlement, Growth, Survival, and Stress Resistance of Marine Organisms” Research paper with evidence and graphs of biorock’s positive effects on marine growth – good for the “why” of a project like this – includes oyster mentions
The Biorock Process Short general description of Biorock’s process, other pages on this site also useful to browse
DIY Aquarium Biorock – Forum 1 Forum, someone trying to create biorock in a home aquarium, conversation ends before a solution is described but still useful as a premise
DIY Biorock – Forum 2 70 forum posts, partly contesting Biorock’s strength for building materials, but this is irrelevant for a structure like ours that will stay underwater
Should read through – lots of concrete tips scattered throughout long nerdy conversation (how fast material builds up, what to use, etc.)
Seament Accretion Experiment This is one of the MOST useful pages so far! Describes and pictures specific materials (even dimensions and part #s) and spells out a step by step process
Includes a case study experiment of biorock
STUDY ON BIOROCK® TECHNIQUE USING THREE DIFFERENT ANODE MATERIALS (MAGNESIUM, ALUMINUM, AND TITANIUM) Compares anode materials – literally a tl;dr – Titanium is best and fastest, Magnesium Aluminum is second-best
DIY Biorock conservation Kind of introductory and written by a crazy guy, has a useful diagram to explain how the whole system is set up
Biorock Technology Benefits Search for “New York” to see examples of Biorock allowing oysters to grow even in severely polluted site in NYC – this applies to our project
Mara Mara’s worked with Tom and James- exactly what were trying to do
Colleen Colleen’s project, she’s very nice via email
Mara;s new project Mara’s using a fairytale format and aesthetic to develop a How-To for Oyster Rehab
The Biorock Book – Unit 16 – Bartlett School of Architecture Summarizes several practical experiments, useful for observing rate and factors of growth
Oyster Growth Study using Biorock® Accretion Technology Oyster and NYC-specific experiment – very similar to what we’re trying to do! Shows that oysters grow where Biorock gives them a structure, and they actually grow more quickly than other oysters
Biorock® oysters grow faster and have higher survival Results from studies on the growth rate of oysters in Biorock conditions in New York – Tom Goreau is an author

Poem on evolution


Erasmus Darwin offered the first glimpse of his theory of evolution, obliquely, in a question at the end of a long footnote to his popular poem The Loves of the Plants (1789), which was republished throughout the 1790s in several editions as The Botanic Garden. His poetic concept was to anthropomorphise the stamen (male) and pistil (female) sexual organs, as bride and groom. In this stanza on the flower Curcuma (also Flax and Turmeric) the “youths” are infertile, and he devotes the footnote to other examples of neutered organs in flowers, insect castes, and finally associates this more broadly with many popular and well-known cases of vestigial organs (male nipples, the third and fourth wings of flies, etc.)

Woo’d with long care, CURCUMA cold and shy
Meets her fond husband with averted eye:
Four beardless youths the obdurate beauty move
With soft attentions of Platonic love.

Darwin’s final long poem, The Temple of Nature was published posthumously in 1803. The poem was originally titled The Origin of Society. It is considered his best poetic work. It centres on his own conception of evolution. The poem traces the progression of life from micro-organisms to civilised society. The poem contains a passage that describes the struggle for existence.[10]

His poetry was admired by Wordsworth, although Coleridge was intensely critical, writing, “I absolutely nauseate Darwin’s poem”.[6] It often made reference to his interests in science; for example botany and steam engines.

In History



13_Kincaid In History


By Brandon Ambrosino

By Brandon Ambrosino

16 December 2016


In 2014, NASA awarded $1.1M to the Center for Theological Inquiry, an Christian research institute in New Jersey to study “the societal implications of astrobiology”.


The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes the division between Church and state, asked NASA to revoke the grant, and threatened to sue if NASA didn’t comply. While the FFR stated that their concern was the commingling of government and religious organizations, they also made it clear that they thought the grant was a waste of money. “Science should not concern itself with how its progress will impact faith-based beliefs.”


How would the discovery of extraterrestrial life change our understanding of religion? Such a discovery would raise a series of questions that would exceed the bounds of science. For example, when we ask, “What is life?” are we asking a scientific question or a theological one? Questions about life’s origins and its future are complicated, and must be explored holistically, across disciplines. Many scientists would now argue that the detection of extraterrestrial life is more a question of when, not if.


There are several reasons for this confidence, but a main one has to do with the speed at which scientists have been discovering planets outside of our own Solar System. David Weintraub, associate professor of Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, and author of Religions and Extraterrestrial Life, “We can quite reasonably expect that the number of known exoplanets will soon become, like the stars, almost uncountable,” he writes. Of those discovered so far, more than 20 are Earth-size exoplanets that occupy a “habitable” zone around their star, including the most recently discovered Proxima b, which orbits Proxima Centauri.

The more we’re able to peer into space, the more certain we’re becoming that our planet isn’t the only one suitable for life or at least our understanding of life.


As Carl Sagan has pointed out in (the now out-of-print book) The Cosmic Question, “space exploration leads directly to religious and philosophical questions”. We would need to consider whether or how our faiths could or should accommodate these new beings.  Exotheology or astro-theology, terms defined by Ted Peters, Professor Emeritus in Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary,  refer to “speculation on the theological significance of extraterrestrial life”. As he notes, Peters isn’t the first or only one to use the term, which dates back at least 300 years, to a 1714 publication titled ‘Astro-theology, or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God From a Survey of the Heavens’.


SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is guided by three principles, as Paul Davies explains in the book “Are We Alone?” First, there’s the principle of nature’s uniformity, which claims that the physical processes seen on Earth can be found throughout the Universe. This means that the same processes that produce life here produce life everywhere.

Second is the principle of plenitude, which affirms that everything that is possible will be realized. For the purposes of SETI, the second principle claims that as long as there are no impediments to life forming, then life will form; or, as Arthur Lovejoy, the American philosopher who coined the term, puts it, “no genuine possibility of being can remain unfulfilled”. That’s because, claims Sagan, “The origin of life on suitable planets seems built into the chemistry of the Universe.”

The third, the mediocrity principle, claims that there is nothing special about Earth’s status or position in the Universe. This could present the greatest challenge to the major Abrahamic religions, which teach that human beings are purposefully created by God and occupy a privileged position in relation to other creatures.

In some ways, our modern scientific world was formed by the recognition of our own mediocrity, as David Weintraub notes in the book Religion and Extraterrestrial Life: “When in 1543 C.E. Copernicus hurled the Earth into orbit around the Sun, the subsequent intellectual revolution … swept the discarded remnants of the Aristotelian, geocentric Universe into the trash bin of history.”

But how could a believer reconcile this with their faith that humans are the crowning achievement of God’s creation? How could humans believe they were the apple of their creator’s eye if their planet was just one of billions?

The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence could make believers feel insignificant, and as a consequence, cause people to question their faith.


The claim that God is involved with and moved by humans has never required an Earth-centric theology. The Psalms, sacred to both Jews and Christians, claim that God has given names to all the stars. According to the Talmud, God spends his night flying throughout 18,000 worlds. And Islam insists that “all things in the heavens and on the Earth” are Allah’s, as the Koran says, implying that his rule extends well beyond one tiny planet. The same texts are unequivocally clear that human beings are special to God, who seems fairly able to multitask.


We must not reserve the word “special” only for unrepeatable, unique, isolated phenomena. As Peters says, the discovery of life elsewhere in the Universe would not compromise God’s love for Earth life, “just as a parent’s love for a child is not compromised because that child has a brother or sister”. If you believe in a God, why assume he is only able to love a few of his star children?


But do the religious texts themselves mention the possibility of alien life? “What is most basic in religion,” writes Catholic priest and theologian Thomas O’Meara, “is the affirmation of some contact within and yet beyond human nature.”


For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this involves a written revelation, albeit one that is contingent upon the specific historical situations in which they initially circulated. The best theologies recognize these limitations. Some don’t, however, and for those believers that adhere to them, the discovery of ETs might prove initially threatening.


Christians would have to deeply reflect on the concept of the Incarnation, the Christian belief that God was fully and uniquely present in a first-century human called Jesus of Nazareth. According to Christianity, salvation can be achieved only by Jesus’ death and resurrection. All paths to God, in effect, go through him. But what does that mean for other civilizations whirling around out there in the Universe, completely unaware of Jesus’ story?


Thomas Paine famously tackled this question in his 1794 Age of Reason, in a discussion of multiple worlds. A belief in an infinite plurality of worlds, argued Paine, “renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air”. It isn’t possible to affirm both simultaneously, he wrote, and “he who thinks that he believes in both has thought but little of either.” Isn’t it preposterous to believe God “should quit the care of all the rest” of the worlds he’s created, to come and die in this one? On the other hand, “are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation” had their own similar visitations from this God? If that’s true, Paine concludes, then that person would “have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life”.

In a nutshell: if Christian salvation is only possible to creatures whose worlds have experienced an Incarnation from God, then that means God’s life is spent visiting the many worlds throughout the cosmos where he is promptly crucified and resurrected. But this seems eminently absurd to Paine, which is one of the reasons he rejects Christianity.


But there’s another way of looking at the problem, which doesn’t occur to Paine: maybe God’s incarnation within Earth’s history “works” for all creatures throughout the Universe. This is the option George Coyne, Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory, explores in his 2010 book Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications.

“How could he be God and leave extra-terrestrials in their sin? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them… Did God do this for extra-terrestrials? There is deeply embedded in Christian theology… the notion of the universality of God’s redemption and even the notion that all creation, even the inanimate, participates in some way in his redemption.”

There’s yet another possibility. Salvation itself might be exclusively an Earth concept. Theology doesn’t require us to believe that sin affects all intelligent life, everywhere in the Universe. Maybe humans are uniquely bad. Or, to use religious language, maybe Earth is the only place unfortunate enough to have original sin. Who is to say our star-siblings are morally compromised and in need of spiritual redemption? Maybe they have attained a more perfect spiritual existence than we have at this point in our development.


As Davies notes, spiritual thinking requires an animal to be both self-conscious and “to have reached a level of intelligence where it can assess the consequences of its actions”. On Earth, this kind of cognition is at best a few million years old. If life exists elsewhere in the Universe, then it’s very unlikely that it’s at the exact same stage in its evolution as we are. And given the immense timeline of the existence of the Universe, it’s likely that at least some of this life is older, and therefore farther along in their evolution than we. Therefore, he concludes, “we could expect to be among the least spiritually advanced creatures in the Universe.”

If Davies is right, then contrary to popular works of literature like The Sparrow, humans won’t be the ones teaching their star-siblings about God. The education will go quite the other way.


Let’s note that this possibility doesn’t invalidate Earth religions’ claims of divine revelation. There is no need to imagine that God reveals the same truths in the same way to all intelligent life in the Universe. Other civilizations could understand the Divine in their own myriad ways, all of which could be compatible with each other.


But what about the divisions between faiths? How would the discovery influence religious identity? The announcement of any identity has the potential to split the world into groups: us and them. But when religion is involved, that separation takes on a cosmic dimension: us and them, and God is on our side. This has always been one of the challenges of cross-cultural conversion, which is often tasked with negotiating, though not dissolving, such boundaries.


A sense of location is also critical to many religious practices – meaning any and all beliefs could be bound to life on our planet.


Perhaps ETs would pose a bigger challenge to Judaism and Islam than for some forms of Christianity, which place less emphasis on daily rituals than other religions. Unlike Christianity, whose founder eradicated the necessity of location for religious experience, Islam is a very placed religion. Prayers are said facing Mecca, at five specific times throughout the day, and are physicalized through bowing and kneeling. Fasting is required at specific times, as is a pilgrimage to Mecca for all Muslims who are able. Judaism, too, has its own fasts, and – though it’s not a requirement – a concept of pilgrimage, which is its birthright trip, taglit, to the Holy Land. Contemporary Judaism, however, is not as dependent on location as Islam, given its tragic history with exile and diaspora.


What, then, would it take for an alien to be considered a participant in an Earth religion? What would she be required to do? Pray five times a day? Perhaps her planet does not rotate exactly as ours, and her days are much shorter – would she be expected to pray as often as Muslims on Earth? Would she have to be baptized? Receive communion? Build a tent for Sukkot? Though we imagine aliens to have a similar physical structure to us, there’s no reason to believe they even have physical bodies. Would that restrict their conversion options?


This may seem to be a bit of frivolous exotheology, but the point is this: all of our religious identities are Earth-centric ones. There’s nothing wrong with that (so long as we don’t collapse the Universe down to our finitude). Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky says: “Religion is the human, social response to transcendence … Normative Judaism provides an excellent, time-tested path for sanctifying our minds, morals, and bodies, refining us as a people, improving the world, and correlating our lives to the infinite God unfolding on the finite Earth.”

He continues, “I am Jewish. God is not.”

The rabbi’s theory can help us think about our neighbors in outer space, and our neighbors right here on this planet.

“In a billion solar systems,” writes O’Meara, “the forms of love, created and uncreated, would not be limited. Realizations of divine life would not be in contradiction with each other or with creation.”


Would the concept of religion dissolve? It’s ahistorical to assume that religion is too weak to survive in a world with aliens. With few notable exceptions, religion has often been able to adapt without much fuss to various paradigm shifts it’s encountered. Surely its re-inventiveness, its adaptability is a testament to the fact that there is something about religion that resonates with humans at a basic level.

Certain aspects of religion will have to be reconsidered, but not totally abandoned, O’Meara notes. “If being and revelation and grace come to worlds other than Earth, that modifies in a modest way Christian self-understanding” – or any religious self-understanding. He says, “It is not a question of adding or subtracting but of seeing what is basic in a new way.”





Why are most barns red?

Fig (Ficus Carcia)

When you eat a dried fig, you’re probably chewing fig-wasp mummies, too.

Every era has its trendy houseplant. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was the African violet. In the ’70s, it was spider plants trailing out of macramé hangers. In the ’80s and early ’90s, it was the potted ficus. The aughts gave rise to mossy plants in terrariums and glass jars.

They are trees of life and trees of knowledge. They are wish-fulfillers … rainforest royalty … more precious than gold. They are the fig trees, and they have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells their amazing story.

Fig trees fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced diverse cultures and played key roles in the dawn of civilization. They feature in every major religion, starring alongside Adam and Eve, Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. This is no coincidence – fig trees are special. They evolved when giant dinosaurs still roamed and have been shaping our world ever since.

These trees intrigued Aristotle and amazed Alexander the Great. They were instrumental in Kenya’s struggle for independence and helped restore life after Krakatoa’s catastrophic eruption. Egypt’s Pharaohs hoped to meet fig trees in the afterlife and Queen Elizabeth II was asleep in one when she ascended the throne.

And all because 80 million years ago these trees cut a curious deal with some tiny wasps. Thanks to this deal, figs sustain more species of birds and mammals than any other trees, making them vital to rainforests. In a time of falling trees and rising temperatures, their story offers hope.

Ultimately, it’s a story about humanity’s relationship with nature. The story of the fig trees stretches back tens of millions of years, but it is as relevant to our future as it is to our past.


Figs in the Bible