Brainglass

Given the right geological circumstances, brains can become glass. During the 1st-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, for example, one fleeing victim’s brain was allegedly vitrified, its soft, thinking tissues transformed into “small, glassy black fragments that were just attached inside the skull,” the Washington Post reports, like shards of a broken window.

[Image: Brainglass, via the Washington Post.]

These reflective fragments—little black mirrors—“contained proteins common in brain tissue, researchers found, and had undergone vitrification and transformed into glass.” That made this “the first time brains from any human or animal have been found fossilized as glass.” This, of course, could be because we haven’t been looking: what other deposits of obsidian lying around on the Earth’s surface are actually fossilized animal brains? Vitrified neurology.

In any case, I was reminded of an exhibition last summer at the Getty Villa here in Los Angeles called Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri. Among the artifacts on display were these incredible “carbonized papyri,” or scrolls—ancient books—that had been turned into seemingly useless lumps of charcoal.

[Image: Carbonized papyrii on display at Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

The amazing thing was that, by using advanced medical imaging equipment to peer inside the lumps, researchers discovered that these previously illegible objects could be made readable again, virtually unrolled using X-ray tomography and character-recognition algorithms, to reconstruct the scrolls’ lost content. They were “able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact.”

To be honest, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen—the “noninvasive digital restoration of ancient texts… hidden inside artifacts.” Otherwise mute objects given technical legibility. (A similar technique inspired one of the greatest New York Times headlines of the past few years: “Scanning an Ancient Biblical Text That Humans Fear to Open,” combining, at a stroke, H.P. Lovecraft, X-ray imaging technology, and possible Christian apocrypha.)

Stepping away from realistic technical applications for just a moment into the world of pure science fiction, it is fascinating to imagine a team of future researchers using 21st-century medical imaging techniques to scan, Jurassic Park-style, for lost thoughts lodged inside pieces of obsidian, black glass fossils of animal brain tissue, almost like the reader of unicorn skulls in Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The idea that some of the rocks around us might, in fact, be glass brains—brainglass, a new mineral—neurological apocrypha awaiting decipherment, suggests a thousand new novels and storylines. Neurogeonomicon.

Black and ancient brains dreaming inside what humans mistook for geology.

Angeleno Redux

[Image: Underground tennis courts in a limestone mine and refrigeration complex in Missouri].

It’s been a long month, but my wife and I have packed up and left New York, endlessly bubble-wrapping things while watching Midnight Run, Collateral, Chinatown, and other L.A.-themed movies on a laptop in an empty room, to head west again to Los Angeles, where we finally arrived today.

We visited the Cahokia Mounds, a heavily eroded indigenous North American city that, at its height, was larger than London, part of a Wisconsin-to-Louisiana band of settlements sculpted from mud and clay. The remains of history are not necessarily built with stone and timber—let alone steel and glass—but might exist in the form of oddly sloped hillsides or gardens long ago left untended.

[Image: Hiking around Cahokia Mounds].

Along the way, we managed to see the total eclipse in Missouri, sitting on a picnic blanket in a park south of St. Louis, people around us crying, yelling “Look at that!,” laughing, cheering like it was a football game, a day before driving further southwest to explore food-refrigeration caverns in active limestone mines for Nicky’s book.

That’s where we stumbled on the tennis courts pictured at the top of this post, at least seventy feet below ground, complete with a wall of framed photos showing previous champions of the underworld leagues, as we drove around for an hour or two through genuinely huge subterranean naves and corridors, with not-yet-renovated sections of the mine—millions of square feet—hidden behind titanic yellow curtains.

[Image: Behind these curtains are millions—of square-feet of void].

We listened to S-Town. We had breakfast in Oklahoma City. We made it to New Mexico to hike up a 10,000-year-old volcano with an ice cave frozen at a permanent 31º in one of its half-collapsed lava tubes where we met another couple who had driven up from Arizona “to get out of the heat.”

[Image: Bandera Volcano, New Mexico].

We then spent three days in Flagstaff to sleep, watch GLOW, and inadvertently off-road on our quest to do some hiking, up fire roads, up canyons behind Sedona, up hills in the rain, looking north toward the cinder cones of dead volcanoes that we visited a few years ago for Venue, where, in the 1960s, NASA recreated the surface of the moon using timed explosions.

[Image: Hiking outside Flagstaff].

In any case, we’re now back in Los Angeles, the greatest city in the United States, the one that most perversely fulfills whatever strange promises this country offers, and we’ll be here for the long haul. In fact, there’s no real reason to post this, other than: why not? But, if you live in L.A., or anywhere in California, perhaps we’ll cross paths soon.

Ephemeral islands and other states-in-waiting

[Image: Temporary islands emerge from the sea, via].

In the Mediterranean Sea southwest of Sicily, an island comes and goes. Called, alternately and among other names, depending on whose territorial interests are at stake, Graham Bank, Île Julia, the island of Ferdinandea, or, more extravagantly, a complex known as the Campi Flegrei del Mar di Sicilia (the Phlegraean Fields of the Sicily Sea), this geographic phenomenon is fueled by a range of submerged volcanoes. One peak, in particular, has been known to break the waves, forming a small, ephemeral island off the coast of Italy.

And, when it does, several nation-states are quick to claim it, including, in 1831, when the island appeared above water, “the navies of France, Britain, Spain, and Italy.” Unfortunately for them, it eroded away and disappeared beneath the waves in 1832.

It then promised to reappear, following new eruptions, in 2002 (but played coy, remaining 6 meters below the surface).

The island, though, always promises to show up again someday, potentially restarting old arguments of jurisdiction and sovereignty—is it French? Spanish? Italian? Maltese? perhaps a micronation?—so some groups are already well-prepared for its re-arrival. As Ted Nield explains in his book Supercontinent, “the two surviving relatives of Ferdinand II commissioned a plaque to be affixed to the then still submerged volcanic reef, claiming it for Italy should it ever rise again.” This is the impending geography of states-in-waiting, instant islands that, however temporarily, redraw the world’s maps.

The story of Ferdinandea, as recounted by that well-known primary historical source Wikipedia and seemingly ripe for inclusion in the excellent Borderlines blog by Frank Jacobs, is absolutely fascinating: it’s appeared on an ornamental coin, it was visited by Sir Walter Scott, it inspired a short story by James Fenimore Cooper, it was depth-charged by the U.S. military who mistook it for a Libyan submarine, and it remains the subject of active geographic speculation by professors of international relations. It is, in a sense, Europe’s Okinotori—and one can perhaps imagine some Borgesian wing of the Italian government hired to sit there in a boat, in open waters, for a whole generation, armed with the wizardry of surveying gear and a plumb bob dangling down into the sea, testing for seismic irregularities, as if casting a spell to coax this future extension of the Italian motherland up into the salty air.