What Are You Doing?: The Innovators
The Stranger Walks In On an Inventor, a Paleontologist, an Underwater Explorer, and a Comic Artist Who Went Viral
What Blaise Aguera y Arcas is doing—what he travels the world talking about, and what keeps him in short "performance art"–style meetings all day long and then at his computer writing code from 11:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.—is teleportation. Not the kind where you bring yourself to the place, but where you bring the place to you. In late 2008, he and his Microsoft team unveiled Photosynth, a free program that allows the creation of an explorable, 3-D computer version or map of a place by weaving together contributed photographs of the place: a visual Wikipedia.
Now, as overall architect of Microsoft's Bing maps division, he's working on time travel. Pike Place Market, for instance, has already been mapped and can be explored in a 3-D "synth," but Aguera y Arcas is now working to make it so that you can scroll over it to see what that specific corner looked like in 1907, when it opened, or yesterday. And the mapping is expanding in all directions with the addition of other information, too. Want to see the stars in the sky over the Market at 9:00 p.m. on a given Friday? There's a data feed for that. Maybe all of this will help you solve a crime or unhinge a memory. Maybe it will just make your brain move. "I envision where you can go anywhere telepresently," he says. "I'm actually in this alley right now in the Mission in San Francisco, and I'm looking at a wall that has been filled with graffiti, and it's kind of beautiful, and I'd love to rub a time slider back and forth and see the evolution of this." The possibilities are limitless. This is the invention of a a new medium. JEN GRAVES
Trina Litchendorf is an oceanographer at Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington who manages and monitors unmanned underwater vehicles that roam rivers and seas in search of information. The seas are still a mystery to us; there is much we do not know about underwater doings and life. These unmanned underwater vehicles dive, collect data, return to the surface, and transmit the data to scientists. (Depending on the kind of information the scientists are looking for, different instruments are attached to the vehicle.) Sometimes the vehicles surface and call Litchendorf about their location on the sea. She looks at their position on Google Maps, determines their whereabouts, and shares the information. Satisfied, the vehicles return to the dark depths.
Litchendorf's most recent project used a REMUS, an autonomous underwater vehicle that's operated with a laptop computer (the acronym stands for Remote Environmental Monitoring UnitS), to explore the mouth of the Columbia River. "We launched a vehicle near the beginning of the flood tide," she explains over drinks at a bar in West Seattle, where she lives. "I programmed in a mission to run back and forth along a 1.5 kilometer transect line. As the tide rises, salt water from the ocean moves up the Columbia River along the bottom. The incoming sea 'slides' under the river and that leading edge of salt water is called the ETM [estuarine turbidity maximum]; there are all sorts of interesting dynamics that occur there."
What the scientists are looking for is an exact measurement of "oxygen, temperature, and conductivity (salinity)" in this area that is the meeting point for salt water and freshwater. Two months ago, we might not have found this work to be all that interesting, but now we live in a world where giant oil plumes rule the ocean floors. We can no longer act as if the things that happen in the rivers and seas have little impact on what happens on the land. CHARLES MUDEDE
What will the end of the world look like? A very calm day. No wind in the sky, no clouds rushing by—just a sunny stillness. "When people think of catastrophe in the future, they think there are going to be megastorms—no, it will be megacalm," says Peter Ward, a very productive and agreeably pessimistic paleontologist who teaches at the University of Washington. "There will be no wind, no kites, no sailboats, no hurricanes—because you only need to warm the poles to a certain point, and suddenly heat in the tropics doesn't want to go to the poles, and there is no cold to come down to the tropics. And all that stuff causes wind and currents."
I first learned of Ward's work in the book Our Cosmic Habitat by the famous British cosmologist Martin Rees. To give the reader a sense of the very narrow range within which alien intelligence can occur on a planet, Rees's small book turns to Ward's bigger, coauthored book Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe—its "dauntingly long catalog of prerequisites" includes a sun that is not too far away, a moon to stabilize the planet's spin, and a Jupiter to defend the planet from comets and asteroids. (It's estimated that without Jupiter, some deadly thing from space would hit Earth once every million years.) Ward has also written a book about how life itself is dangerous to life—The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? People who know him call him Doctor Death.
As for what he is doing now? "I just finished a novel. It's not 'science fiction'—it's more like a 'science novel.' It's based on paleontology and is set in South Africa. The core of it is about uranium in Africa. For some reason we do not know, it turns out that all the uranium there was deposited after the Permian extinction. So weapons-grade uranium was produced by the mass extinction. This uranium goes into making bombs, and so, in a way, it's like the extinction that won't die." CHARLES MUDEDE
Matthew Inman is the creator of a website where he posts his hilarious quizzes and comics titled things like "How Many Justin Beibers Could You Take in a Fight?" and "5 Reasons Pigs Are More Awesome Than You" and "How to Keep Mosquitoes Away from Your Buttcrack." Thanks to fans' viral posting and reposting of Inman's work on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Digg, his website the Oatmeal (www.theoatmeal.com) gets millions of unique views every month, putting him in the rare circumstance of actually making money off the internet without having be completely gross like Tila Tequila.
Inman's first internet success came in 2008, after he founded a dating website called Mingle2.com. He started drawing goofy dating-related quizzes as a way to bring more traffic to the site. Thanks to some clever search-engine optimization, he was getting a lot of traffic, but the comics were getting more attention than the dating services. He sold Mingle2 and a year later, July 2009, launched the Oatmeal. "I knew I could do certain amounts of success, but I didn't realize it could be this much," he says. "I think the first month the Oatmeal was online, I got around 200,000 unique views. But in February, when it was 4.5 million uniques, I was like, 'Holy crap.' It was a whole new ballpark."
Inman has been able to make a "very good" living by selling ads on the website and Oatmeal merchandise at his online store. He also got a book deal with Andrews McMeel, the same company that publishes Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. MEGAN SELING