Category Archives: Uncategorized

The 2012 Flame Challenge Theater

Mara Grunbaum and I have entered the 2012 Flame Challenge, a contest to answer the question “What is a flame?” in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. The contest is hosted by Alan Alda and the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.  Answers can take just about any form – writing, audio, graphics or video. I thought it would be fun to gather some of the video entries on YouTube and Vimeo in one place. Enjoy!

The Flame Challenge from Tomoji Mangus on Vimeo.

The Fabulab’s Flame Challenge from The Fabulab on Vimeo.

Flame Challenge 2012 – J. Ipsaro & J. Novatt from Jon Ipsaro on Vimeo.

The Origin of SuperFlame from Justin Stokes on Vimeo.

“What is a Flame?” answered by Astro’s Flammable Laboratory from Sam Haynor on Vimeo.

Where in the world is science journalism ? A map of science journalism outlets around the globe

Science journalism lives in our minds: its stories, arguments, data and ideas travel from brain to brain in words, pictures, podcasts and pixels. But science journalism also inhabits news rooms and magazine headquarters, film studios and sound booths around the world. This is an attempt to map those physical spaces. Mostly for fun, but also because it could be handy to have such a map.

[links to a larger version below]

Link to Map

Okay, so this is a work in progress and by no means a comprehensive map or list of science journalism outlets around the world. I realize I have neglected many outlets and I welcome any assistance improving the map.

-If you know of a science-y magazine, newspaper section, website, radio show, production company etc that you think should be included, please leave a comment or send me an email: ferris [dot] jabr@gmail.com. If you know the exact address of the outlet as well, that would be doubly awesome!

-There are likely at least a few mistakes among the addresses. For example, some of the addresses include PO boxes and may not pinpoint offices or headquarters. If you spot any errors, please let me know. I collected all these addresses online, but they are not always as easy to find as you might imagine – sometimes they’re hidden in obscure corners of websites.

-Finally, if anyone has any thoughts about making the map prettier and more useful, etc, I’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to use the data presented here however you like! I experimented with a number of free online mapping tools, but in the end I liked Google Maps for its ease of use and ability to map exact street addresses.

Outlet Address
ABC Sydney Science 700 Harris Street, Ultimo, Sydney, NSW, 2007, Australia
American Scientist 3106 East NC Highway 54 Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
Archaeology 36-36 33rd St., Long Island City, NY 11106
Astronomy 21027 Crossroads Circle Waukesha, WI 53186-4055
Conservation Magazine Department of Biology Box 351800 University o Washington Seattle, WA 98195-1800 USA
Cosmos 49 Shepherd St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Sydney, Australia
Die Zeit Science Speersort 1 20095 Hamburg 040 3280-0
Discover 275 7th Ave, 21st floor; New York, NY
Discovery News One Discovery Place Silver Spring, MD 20910
Focus Focus magazine, Bristol Magazines Ltd, Tower House, Fairfax Street, BRISTOL, BS1 3BN
Grist 710 Second Avenue, Suite 860 Seattle, WA 98104 USA
Guardian Science Section Kings Place, 90 York Way London N1 9GU
High Country News 119 Grand Avenue PO Box 1090 Paonia, CO 81428
Institute of Physics, Physics World Dirac House Temple Back Bristol BS1 6BE, UK
Los Angeles Times Science Section 202 W. 1st St. Los Angeles, CA 90012
Men’s Health 400 South 10th St. Emmaus, PA 18098
Mental Floss 2829 2nd Ave S # 340 Birmingham, AL 35233-2838
Mother Jones 222 Sutter Street, Suite 600 San Francisco, CA 94108
MSNBC Science/Space News 1 Microsoft Way Redmond, WA 98052
National Geographic 1145 17th Street N.W. Washington, D.C. 20036-4688
Nature 4 Crinan Street London N1 9XW
225 Bush Street Suite 1453 San Francisco CA 94104
Nymphenburger Strasse 14 D-80335 Munich
Chiyoda Building 2-37 5-6th Floor 2-37 Ichigaya Tamachi Shinjuku-ku
968 National Press Building 529 14th Street NW Washington DC 20045-1938
75 Varick St Fl 9 New York, NY 10013-1917
3525 Del Mar Heights Road PMB No. 462 San Diego CA 92130
2 rue Moreau Vincint, 37270 Véretz, France
25 First Street, Suite 104, Cambridge MA 02141
New Scientist Lacon House, 84 Theobalds Road London WC1X 8RR
225 Wyman Street Waltham MA 02451
201 Mission Street, 26th Floor, San Francisco CA 94105
Tower 2, 475 Victoria Ave Chatswood  NSW  2067
New York Times Science Times 620 8th Ave, New York, NY 10018
NOVA WGBH, One Guest Street, Boston, MA 02135
NPR Science Friday 4 West 43rd St, Suite 306, New York, New York 10036
Outside 400 Market Street Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Pesquisa FAPESP Joaquim Antunes St 727, Pinheiros – São Paulo, SP – Brazil 05415-012
Popular Mechanics 300 West 57 Street New York, NY 10019-5899
Popular Science 2 Park Ave, Ninth Floor New York, NY 10016
Psychology Today 115 E. 23rd St., 9th Floor New York, NY 10010
Quebec Science 1251 rue Rachel Est Montréal, QC H2J 2J9 CANADA
Quirks and Quarks CBC Radio, 205 Wellington Street W. Toronto, ON. M5V 3G7
Radio3 Scienza Via Asiago 10, Roma Italy
Radiolab 160 Varick Street New York, NY 10013-1917
Scholastic 557 Broadway, New York NY, 10012
Science 1200 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005
Bateman House, 82-88 Hills Road, Cambridge, CB2 1LQ, UK
Scienceline 20 Cooper Square New York NY 10003
Science Bulletins (American Museum of Natural History) 79th Street at Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Science News 1719 N Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-2802
Scientific American 75 Varick St Fl 9 New York, NY 10013-1917
Seed 33 Flatbush Avenue Brooklyn NY 11217
Sky and Telescope 90 Sherman St. Cambridge, MA 02140
Slate 95 Morton Street, 4th Floor, New York, N.Y., 10014
Smithsonian 600 Maryland Avenue SW, Suite 6001, Washington, DC 20024
Sydney Morning Herald Science 2/1 Darling Island Road, Pyrmont NSW 2009
Tech Media Network 470 Park Avenue South 9th Floor New York, NY 10016
Technology Review One Main Street, 13th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02142
The Economist 25 St James’s Street London, SW1A 1HG United Kingdom
The Scientist 121 W 27th Street, Suite 604 New York, NY 10001
Middlesex House 32-34 Cleveland Street London W1T 4LB
The Times (London) Eureka 3 Thomas More Square, London, E98 1XY
The Wall Street Journal Science/Health 1211 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10036
Wired 520 Third Street, 3rd Floor San Francisco, CA 94107 USA
4 Times Sq #19 New York, NY 10036-6518
Women’s Health 733 Third Avenue New York, NY 10017
Yale 360 204 Prospect Street 3rd Floor New Haven, CT 06511

The Mysterious Case of the Albino Red-Eyed Tree Frog

The other day I stumbled upon an intriguing picture of a red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) on Wikipedia:

The caption states that the frog is in “cryptic water conservation posture,” while the photo’s file name suggests it is in “camouflage mode.” What puzzled me is why a frog would turn ghostly pale on a green leaf. Not exactly inconspicuous.

So I asked Twitter:

@rowhoop, News Editor at New Scientist, said: “@ferrisjabr maybe the leaf looks like that in the UV part of spectrum, which birds (predators) are sensitive too. or maybe not.”

“@ferrisjabr Imitating bird droppings?” suggested writer, artist and editor @StanCarey

I liked these ideas so I decided to follow up with some herpetologists (scientists who study amphibians and reptiles).

Karen Warkentin, a biologist as Boston University who studies the ecology, evolution and development of frogs – including the red-eyed tree frog – responded as follows:

I don’t know that I’d trust what the image looks like all that much. The frog looks pretty washed out, maybe from flash? The frog is asleep (daytime). There’s lots of speculation but we really don’t know why these (or many) frogs change color. Red-eyed treefrogs can be darker or lighter green, but they can’t be dramatically different colors.

Ohhh…right. Flash. That does make sense.

A fellow herpetologist, James Hanken of Harvard University, independently agreed with Professor Warkentin:

I can offer two possible explanations of the strong contrast between the frog and its leafy background:

  1. The contrast is an artifact of the photographer’s camera setup.  The photographer used a close-up flash, and the bright light reflected right back at the camera lens and “washed out” the frog’s green color.  (The leaf remained dark green because it is oriented at an oblique angle to the camera lens and didn’t reflect the flash directly back at the camera.)
  2. If the strong contrast is real (which I doubt), then the frog may be better camouflaged against the leafy background when viewed in the ultraviolet or infrared spectrum, which some predators can see.
I have collected this species in the field (Costa Rica), and to me “camouflage mode” refers to the fact that the frog, by adjusting its body posture, is concealing its brightly colored flanks, thighs, toe webbing, and eyes.  By only showing its green color, these frogs truly are difficult to see when they’re sitting on a green leaf.

So it seems when red-eyed tree frogs camouflage themselves, they hunker down on a leaf and tuck away all the strikingly inked bits that make them so photogenic. They may even tune their body’s shade of green, but they probably do not turn albino on the spot. Perhaps staying so still during the hot day also helps them conserve water, as suggested in the original caption.

I guess this is yet another reason to be wary of what you read and see on Wikipedia (although I will defend its usefulness to the death! Seriously, some articles have the most amazing references and external sources: links to amazing primary sources).

I also noticed that the photographer behind this picture, one John J. Mosesso, has many nature photographs all over the web, especially in the National Biological Information Infrastructure’s Library of Images. John, are you out there? Any thoughts about this photo?

A Brief History of the Orgueil Meteorite

By now you have probably read all about the recent study in the Journal of Cosmology claiming that fossilized alien microbes exist inside a meteorite, about the undeniable eccentricity of the journal and the overwhelming skepticism and ire in the scientific community. As usual, Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker rounds up a lot of great links.

Here is my reporting on the subject for New Scientist – but there are some details we couldn’t quite fit. These aren’t newsworthy details; rather, they are intriguing historical details about one of the meteorites examined in the new study: the Orgueil meteorite.

A Brief History of the Orgueil Meteorite

Just after 8 pm on May 14, 1864, an enormous fireball seared a path through the sky over southern France, announcing its arrival with terrifying thunder. As villagers investigated—some flinging open doors and sprinting outdoors, others peering cautiously from behind windows—the burning boulder lost its white-hot glow, blushed red and fractured in the earth’s atmosphere. Around 20 ink-black pieces of space rock, most smaller than your fist, smashed into the earth near Orgueil, France.

The children dropped their dolls and spinning tops. They clambered over the hills and raced each other through the vineyards towards the twisting threads of smoke that rose from the ground here and there. The adults soon followed, for this was one Easter egg hunt in which they fully intended to participate.

In wagons and baskets and the folds of aprons, the villagers collected as many pieces of rock as they could find, totaling 20 kilograms in mass we estimate today. The pieces were soft enough to cut with a knife and disintegrated in water. A piece of the black rock properly shaped and sharpened could be used to write and draw as through it were a stick of charcoal.

An illustration of a fragment of the Orgueil meteorite (Credit: Wikimedia)

Ever since, these fragments of the Orgueil meteorite—one of the most ancient meteorites ever discovered, perhaps older than the solar system—have been sliced, poked, crumbled and scrutinized by scientists, including NASA Scientist Richard Hoover, the author of the recent Journal of Cosmology study. But Hoover is by no means the first scientist to claim that the Orgueil meteorite is home to alien life.

French chemist François Stanislaus Clöez, perhaps the first scientist to examine a piece of the Orgueil meteorite, announced that it contained organic matter including carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Immediately people began to question whether the organic compounds might have a biological origin—that is, whether they came from something that was once alive.

A painting of Louis Pasteur (Credit: Wikimedia)

Another French chemist decided to peer inside the meteorite: none other than Louis Pasteur, who had recently dismissed the theory of spontaneous generation—the idea that life routinely springs from non-life. Pasteur designed a drill that could extract samples from the meteorite’s interior while avoiding any contamination by earthly microbes, but he found nothing to suggest organisms within the rock.

In 1962, Fordham University chemist Bartholomew Nagy published a paper in Nature pointing to signs of fossilized alien microbes in the Orgueil meteorite that he thought resembeld algae. They turned out to be pollen and fungal spores that had contaminated the sample on Earth.

Following Nagy’s study, a team of Chicago researchers asked to examine a piece of the meteorite housed in a glass jar in the museum at Montauban. When they cracked open the rock they found tiny seeds. Not fossilized bacteria, not little green men, but tiny brown almond-shaped seeds.

When the researchers’ brows unfurrowed and the astonished gasps extinguished themselves, the team decided to put a couple explanations to the test: either the seeds came from a bona fide extraterrestrial plant of some kind or they had infiltrated the meteorite on earth. X-ray analysis revealed that the seeds had not been swept into the rock by a serendipitous gust or shoved inside by the impact of a crash landing—they were too deeply embedded in the very matrix of the meteorite. Still, the idea that the Orgueil meteorite was an ark of alien plant life—that it literally contained the seeds of life—was simply too incredible. So the scientists looked even closer and settled on a more satisfactory explanation, on a far more human narrative.

It seems that back in the 19th century when the meteorite first crashed, someone, perhaps motivated by the controversy surrounding spontaneous generation, involved the Orgueil meteorite in a rather elaborate hoax. The perpetrator stole the fragment in question and dampened it to make it malleable. They then took some seeds from a grassy plant indigenous to southern France, powdered them with coal dust to disguise them a bit and embedded them in the rock. After letting the meteorite dry, the cunning charlatan brushed a little glue over the rock’s surface to mimic the glossy fusion crust of a meteorite that has endured a flaming journey to earth.

A member of the grassy rush family (Credit: Wikimedia)

In all likelihood, the 19th century conman was hoping to fool some of his peers, but it seems his little joke went unnoticed until nearly a century later.

Scientists continued to study the Orgueil meteorite, but no one seems to have made any serious claims of alien life inside the fragments until—you guessed it—Richard Hoover came along. In fact, Hoover has made these claims at least three times: now, in 2011, as well as in 2004 and  2007.

Sources:

(1) http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/orgueil.html
(2) http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/O/Orgueil.html
(3) http://books.google.com/books?id=rFIwAAAAIAAJ&dq=orgueil%20meteorite&pg=PA552#v=onepage&q=orgueil%20meteorite&f=false
(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orgueil_%28meteorite%29
(5) http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meteor/metbull.php?sea=Orgueil+&sfor=names&ants=&falls=&stype=contains&lrec=50&map=ge&browse=&country=All&srt=name&categ=All&mblist=All&phot=&snew=0&pnt=no&code=18026
(6) Nagy B, Claus G, Hennessy DJ (1962) Organic Particles Embedded in Minerals in Orgueil and Ivuna Carbonaceous Chondrites. Nature 193 (4821) p. 1129

New Year, New Scientist

Well, I should probably mention that I graduated my MA in science journalism in December 2010, moved to Boston and now work as a reporter for New Scientist magazine. And it’s already March 2011. Life: she only has one gear – Go!

On the Radio

Boomer Alley Radio invited me to speak about ecopsychology and bizarre plant life on their late September episode “Demystifying the World.” The show also features the esteemed Carl Zimmer on football, concussions and the brain and Bill Prady of “The Big Bang Theory.”

Listen here!

When Squid Fly: New Photographic Evidence

On August 2, I published an online article with Scientific American about flying squid. Not flying fish. Flying squid.

Marine biologist Silvia Maciá was boating on the north coast of Jamaica in the summer of 2001 when she noticed something soar out of the sea. At first she thought it was a member of the flying fish family—a group of marine fish that escape predators by breaking the water’s surface at great speed and gliding through the air on unusually large pectoral fins. But after tracing the creature’s graceful arc for a few seconds, Maciá realized this was no fish. It was a squid—and it was flying.

With her husband and fellow biologist Michael Robinson, Maciá identified the airborne cephalopod as a Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea)—a lithe, torpedo-shaped critter with long, undulating fins. They think the squid was startled by the noise of the boat’s outboard engine and estimated that the 20-centimeter-long mollusk reached a height of two meters above the water and flew a total distance of 10 meters—50 times its body length. What’s more, the squid extended its fins and flared its tentacles in a radial pattern while airborne, as though guiding its flight.

Macia eventually co-wrote a 2004 study in the Journal of Molluscan Studies that described several observations of flying squid, but the paper relied largely on anecdotal evidence. There were no photographs or videos.

Recently, however, on a cruise ship off the coast of Brazil, retired geologist and amateur photographer Bob Hulse captured what may be the best-ever photographic evidence of flying squid. Hulse sent the pictures to University of Hawaii oceanographer Richard Young, who passed them along to Ron O’Dor, senior scientist for the Census of Marine Life. O’Dor thinks he can analyze the photos to gain a better understanding of squid aerodynamics, which few people have been able to properly study due to lack of adequate documentation.

An abridged version of my online article will also appear in the October print issue of Scientific American, accompanied by one of Bob’s photographs. Unfortunately, due to spatial constraints, the printed magazine page cannot properly accommodate the glory of Bob’s photographs. He took his photos while aboard a cruise ship off the coast of Brazil, so he wasn’t exactly face-to-tentacle with the squid. An image cropped from such a distant image and pasted on a magazine page can only offer so much. What we need is one of those fancy setups straight out of an episode of CSI. You know, something like: ‘Computer: locate the squid; zoom in 3 billion and 4/5%! Now, identify the species. Thank you, computer. Now commence calamari conversion.”

Okay, enough of that. I have a better solution. Here are Bob’s pictures. When you click on them, the ocean should flood your browser. And then you can zoom in even further to locate the flying squid above the waves. Look for the triangular tips, the floppy fins, the fanned tentacles and the jets of water trailing the squid rockets.

Click and Zoom!

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)

Photograph of flying squid off the coast of Brazil (Credit: Bob and Deb Hulse)

Preparing For Takeoff

Okay, so I’ve been negligent of this blog again. But I have more excu – I mean, reasons. Solid reasons; sensible justifications.

A while ago I wrote a post suggesting I would resume blogging here in the Spring. Well, that didn’t happen. But I promise I haven’t stopped reading, researching, writing and editing since that post. It’s just that, you know, none of that work has really appeared here per se, but it exists. And I have proof: Google my name, check out Scienceline (where, I might add, you can find tons of fantastic articles by all my amazing NYU classmates), or look at the ‘Writing’ page here.

After finishing my internship with Environmental Health News, I began another internship with Scientific American MIND. I started working for MIND on May 10; it’s now Sep 8th and I am still working for MIND; and the plan is to stay with MIND through December at least. In addition to helping the MIND editorial team – by researching, writing, and editing articles for the print issues of the magazine – I’ve also been writing online news stories Scientific American’s web team. I’ve really enjoyed spanning the print and online worlds and the various duties have kept me exceedingly busy in the best way. I’m also really excited to share some of the fruits of this labor, some upcoming work that I probably shouldn’t blog about quite yet, because it’s not ready to hit the stands.

Now, my schedule is shifting once again. Tomorrow is the first day of class in what will be the last term of my MA in science journalism. I’ll continue to intern with MIND as we wrap up the MA. I’m not sure why this shift should coincide with more blogging here…it’s not like I expect to have more free time now that I will be interning and taking classes simultaneously (over the summer, we had about two months with no classes, just internships). But I somehow feel inspired, energized, motivated. Let’s see what comes of it.

An Interview with Documentary Filmmaker, Journalist, and Neuroscience-Enthusiast Noah Hutton

[This post originally appeared on March 12, 2010, on my short-lived blog Savvy Saplings, which explored the world of plant signaling and communication. I am transferring certain posts to The Mind's Flight so they are not lost behind closed doors in cyberspace]

As I’ve mentioned before, here at Savvy Saplings I’m interested in exploring more than just plants and science. I also want to explore how best to communicate science—how best to communicate in general.

I’m especially interested in talking to people who are similarly invested in the challenge of effective communication. We’ve already investigated the world of electronic books with Vook author Eric Gower, as well as the art of the viral video with YouTube sensation Liam Kyle Sullivan.

Now, I bring you an interview with documentary filmmaker, journalist, and neuroscience-enthusiast Noah Hutton.

A recent graduate of Wesleyan University, Hutton is the co-director of the documentary “Shooting for Peace” and director of “Crude Independence”—which was an official selection at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival and won the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2009 Oxford Film Festival. For the next ten years, Hutton will be working on a documentary about neuroscientist Henry Markram’s famous Blue Brain project in Lausanne, Switzerland: an attempt to reverse-engineer the mammalian brain using supercomputers and biologically accurate models of neuronal activity.

Based in New York City, Hutton is the Creative Director of Couple 3, a production house for independent media. He also founded and runs The Beautiful Brain, a webzine that “explores the latest findings from the ever-growing field of neuroscience through monthly podcasts, essays, and reviews, with particular attention to the dialogue between the arts and sciences.”

Here’s our interview.

Where were you born and where did you grow up?

I was born in Los Angeles, but we only lived there for three years. After that, our home base was in New York but both of my parents were working often so we traveled most of the time and I was tutored on the road. I didn’t attend a school until the third grade when we settled for good in New York.

Was that upstate NY or the city?

The city—Upper West Side.

Do you have any particularly strong memories from those roaming years—ones that stand out, or that you consider formative?

I have a lot of memories from that period as we were traveling through many different countries. I lived for almost a year in England. In 1995 ,when I was eight, we trekked through China searching for pandas in the wild for a BBC documentary. I also remember spending time in the Sahara when my mother was filming “The Sheltering Sky.”

Where did you go to college, why did you go there, and what did you study?

I went to Wesleyan University and I don’t have a particular reason why—it was one of the first schools I visited and I just had a feeling that I wanted to be there. I spent my first two and a half years there taking mostly art history classes, which is the degree I ended up with. By junior year I caught the neuroscience bug and took nine neuroscience classes, but didn’t take the year-long pre-med requirements, so didn’t get the neuroscience degree.

Was there something specific that inspired the interest in neuroscience?

Yes, there was. It was two books I read back to back: “Why God Won’t Go Away” by Andrew Newberg, which reports on his research that ties out-of-body religious experiences in monks and nuns to irregular activity in the posterior parietal cortex, and E.O. Wilson’s “Consilience,” which makes an impassioned plea for bridging the humanities and sciences and became sort of a manifesto for me.

How early did filmmaking come into the picture? When did you start getting behind the camera?

I’ve been making shorts and experimenting with video cameras since early high school. My first serious filmmaking experience was in the summer of 2007 when I got into a program called World Crew, run by the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, which sent me to Uganda with three other college-age aspiring filmmakers to make a feature-length documentary about three pressing humanitarian issues in that country: child soldiers, HIV/AIDS orphans, and water treatment. The film is called “Shooting for Peace” and we spent two and a half months in Uganda filming it.

Tell me a little about your documentary “Crude Independence.”

After the Uganda experience, I was determined to direct a documentary feature of my own, and over winter break that year I saw an article in the Times about a massive oil boom in western North Dakota that was dramatically changing small town life. I put myself on a plane and was in Stanley, North Dakota two days later, meeting locals and laying the groundwork to return that summer and shoot the film.

And it was quite well received, yes?

I wasn’t expecting anything with it, but it was thrilling when we started getting into film festivals, the two high points being our SXSW selection and winning best documentary feature at the Oxford Film Festival.

Were you still working on “Crude Independence” after you graduated from Wesleyan? If not, what did you do right after you graduated?

No, I had finished “Crude Independence” in the fall of my senior year, and was flying back and forth from festivals to school to make sure I graduated that spring. When I graduated I got my first apartment in NYC and started a job as an in-house editor at a film production studio. After a few months of that, I decided to quit and put all of my energy into building my own production company and directing projects, and that’s what I’ve been doing since.

The new production company being Couple 3 or had that already been in the works beforehand?

Yeah that’s it—I formed Couple 3 as a NY corporation before making “Crude Independence.”

When did you get the idea to start making a documentary about Blue Brain—how does that fall into the timeline? Why choose Blue Brain as a subject? What fascinates you about it?

I have been following Blue Brain through various media coverage of the project for a couple years, and after reading Jonah Lehrer’s SEED Magazine piece about the project, I felt strongly that a film needed to be made about the project. As it’s a ten-year (estimated) project, my plan is to take yearly trips over there to track its progress, and put together updates each year with the new footage that I post online on my site. From a marketing sense, I hope that will build an audience for the film project, so that in ten years when Markram is finishing up and things are getting dramatic and I’m finishing the film, there will be a built-in audience for the final, feature-length film I create. On an intellectual level, the project is fascinating for so many reasons, as are the people that are carrying it out. It is the “Fitzcarraldo” of modern neuroscience.

Can you elaborate on the “Fitzcarraldo” reference?

I’ve always thought of the quest to create artificial intelligence as a relative of Fitzcarraldo’s quest to push the steamship over the mountain in Herzog’s film, which is one of my personal favorites of all time. It is something that few believe they can do, but for those who do believe they can do it (like Henry Markram), we will all watch from the sidelines, awed by progress up the mountain, always thinking that the ship may slip back down at any moment (as it has many times before), but still watching because we have a sense that it could actually happen someday.

Going back to the marketing aspect, how do you specifically plan to use Twitter and social media to build up an audience? Any specific strategies? It seems like today, in 2010, there are a lot of ways to attract viewers that simply didn’t exist even 5 years ago.

Yes, absolutely. I have been using Twitter to promote my production company’s projects and The Beautiful Brain and I think it is an invaluable tool these days, especially when one is thinking about building an audience for a project. One still has to create a good film. But the point is that I can post the first piece tracking the first year of my Blue Brain film online, post a link on Twitter, and within a couple days thousands have watched it around the world. I’m not sure if that was possible before these tools were around.

For Blue Brain, my strategy is to post these yearly updates to build interest both in the project (so that I will continue to have access) and in the film I’m making, so that when I release a feature-length documentary, there will hopefully be an audience that has been watching these pieces over the years and feels invested—we’re talking about a decade of seeing a film come together. I think the future is in using these tools to engage your audience throughout the entire process of creating a film, so that one feels personally invested in the outcome. Tools like Kickstarter are also coming up with innovative ways to make that investment a monetary as well as an emotional one.

A 10-year film project seems like a massive investment of time and resources on your part. How does one support oneself through that, or raise the necessary funding? And how will it be profitable in the end?

Well, saying I’m making a 10-year film probably sounds like more time and investment than it is. In reality, I will take one brief trip over there once a year for the next ten years. I own all the equipment, so really we’re talking about plane tickets and lodging for the trips. I work year-round on many various projects for the clients of my company so that I can fund the trips over there. In the end, I hope to make a feature-length documentary that I can take to festivals and then sell for a theatrical release or for TV. Then things could be profitable—but again, one has to forget about those things and focus on making as good a film as they possibly can given all the circumstances. These will be my Blue Brain “vacations!”

Have you sold documentaries for theatrical release or television broadcast in the past?

Not like I hope to in the future. With “Crude Independence,” I put together a release strategy where I’ve been traveling to cities and having theatrical screenings where I speak afterwards, and we released the DVD at the same time. In the future I hope to partner with distributors for wider, more conventional releases.

Okay, so Beautiful Brain: when did you start working on that and why did you decide to create it?

I started it this past December as a way to stay engaged with what I had been studying in college, and to hopefully produce content that people will enjoy and find interesting. I have a couple friends who I spend a lot of time talking neuroscience and art with, so I got them to come onboard and since then I’ve been able to interview some incredibly interesting scientists and artists for the site. Our audience is growing: we are averaging more and more visitors each month, and I hope to recruit more writers for the site who are interested in the art/science dialogue, and to either partner with a nonprofit or advertise on the site so that we can monetize things and I can pay those who contribute to the site.

So right now you’re focusing on content and building an audience, and hoping to monetize in the future?

Yes, I hope that after a few more months of producing diverse content and building our audience, we’ll be able to tackle monetization.

How did you go about building the site? What programs/languages/platforms did you use?

I used a WordPress theme that I custom CSS coded a bit to fit our needs, and then have been using Photoshop to create all graphic content for the site.

Do you find it difficult to juggle maintaining the site and the production company?

At times, yes. There is a lack of time for it all, but the good thing about the site is that I’m always very personally interested in whatever I’m writing or editing for it so I have no problem doing that at 1 am or on an off day from film stuff.

How many people work with you in your production company, and how many on The Beautiful Brain?

With the production company, it’s me full time, and for each specific project I bring in others—for example, right now, I have an editor in NYC who is co-editing a commissioned documentary we just finished shooting, and here in Minneapolis I’ve hired two really talented local cinematographers to shoot this concert with me. So it’s project by project. On The Beautiful Brain, I work with two others: Ben Ehrlich and Sam McDougle, both friends of mine from high school.

[At the time of the interview, Hutton was filming in Minneapolis]

Was it challenging to start your own production company right out of college? Or was it more a matter of using your accomplishments to market yourself and get commissions / projects? How did you go about that process?

It’s still just a matter of one project to the next at this point. I do hope at some point to have a real studio and have full-time positions with the company, so I’m building towards that. After I graduated it was mostly a matter of using “Crude Independence” to market myself for a range of freelance projects.

What do you think distinguishes or will further distinguish The Beautiful Brain from other mind/brain-focused sites and publications? Do you see a specific gap in the coverage to fill?

There are some other sites that pursue the brain/art dialogue, such as edge.org, but my vision with TBB is to fill exactly that niche with a visually appealing site that presents a range of media—not just text. So, for one, I’m not aware of other podcasts that deal specifically and exclusively with the art-brain dialogue, so that’s one gap I’m trying to fill, mostly because I was looking for a podcast that did just that back in the fall and couldn’t find one.

Speaking of other media beyond text, have you thought at all about thinks like ereaders and the iPad? We’ve seen quite a few demos of magazines/publications on such devices. Would you want to continue The Beautiful Brain as a web site, or expand into some kind of ereader?

That’s an interesting thought—I hadn’t even considered that yet. I’m focused for now on building the audience for the site, and then all sorts of expansions could be possible in the future.

An Interview with YouTube Celebrity Liam Kyle Sullivan, Star and Creator of the Viral Video ‘Shoes’

[This post originally appeared on February 17, 2010, on my short-lived blog Savvy Saplings, which explored the world of plant signaling and communication. I am transferring certain posts to The Mind's Flight so they are not lost behind closed doors in cyberspace]

“These shoes rule. These shoes suck. These shoes suck. THESE SHOES SUCK!”-Liam Kyle Sullivan as Kelly, in the YouTube sensation “Shoes”

Here at Savvy Saplings, plants and science aren’t the only subjects of interest.

I’m also interested in how best to communicate science, in how communication is changing, and in experimenting with different media. I’m interested in talking to people who have already found success experimenting with new forms of communication and entertainment themselves.

The other week I posted my interview with Eric Gower, author of the first Vook cookbook – a combination of book and video. He said he would never publish an ordinary print cookbook again.

This week I bring you an interview with comedian, YouTube sensation, and media entrepreneur Liam Kyle Sullivan. He is one of the most viewed and best beloved of YouTube celebrities, drawing millions of fans with whacky, bold and original humor. You can watch his YouTube videos here, of which I especially recommend “Muffins,” “What Kelly Wants to Be,” “Love Letters,” and “Dr. Ulee, Sex Therapist.”

Collectively, Sullivan’s YouTube videos have received 108,969,412 views (2/17/10; 10PM). But Sullivan is most famous for one piece in particular – the “Shoes” video. Perhaps you’ll remember when Sullivan played the shoe-obsessed Kelly in this 2006 video? It went viral. Like, super viral. Over 32 million views and counting.

It’s also the first thing that comes up when you search ‘shoes’ on YouTube.

Through YouTube’s Partner Program, Sullivan gets a decent share of the advertisement revenue Google earns from the ads they place around and on his videos. (Google now owns YouTube). He doesn’t earn enough from YouTube alone to support himself – mainly because he actually pays those who help him create his videos – but Sullivan has other sources of income, like acting in television and commercials, live performances and comedy routines, touring with comedian Margaret Cho, selling his music on iTunes, and selling merchandise. “My kind of business model is more about actual stuff you can buy, not so much clicking on ads,” Sullivan said. He wants to create things that people can keep and take with them, whether it’s a song, downloadable video, a t-shirt, or the memory of a great live performance.

Here’s our interview:

Q: Where did you grow up and go to school?

A: I grew up in Norfolk, MA—a small town outside of Boston. And I bounced around a few different colleges. I went to Clark University and Emerson College. And then I just started acting, I never graduated. I just started acting in Boston at the theaters. And then I moved to Los Angeles.

Q: What were you studying in college?

A: Parties. No, I was studying—you know I never declared a major. I took some history classes. I took some theater classes, but I was kind of all over the place. I didn’t know what I was doing.

Q: Were you participating in theater and improvisational groups in college?

A: Mostly I did straight theater. I did some improv, but it wasn’t later until I moved to LA that I started taking improv classes and sketch-writing classes out here.

Q: Why did you move to Los Angeles as opposed to New York City?

A: I just say it’s because I can’t sing and dance. NYC has more musical theater going on; LA has more TV and film and that’s what I imagined myself going into at the time. But then the Internet got invented!

Q: When did you first join YouTube?

A: I joined YouTube in Spring of 2006 so YouTube was barely a year old at the time, I think.

[YouTube was created in February 2005]

Q: What did you think you were going to do with YouTube at the time?

A: I didn’t really know. I just knew that it was free and I could get my videos out to more people than if I just had a web site. My whole goal of 2005 was just to get myself out there and that included doing live shows on my own that I wrote and shooting videos that I wrote and directed and starred in. I developed this thing called Liam Show, which was all this stuff mashed up together. And just trying to do all this stuff on my own. And when YouTube came around, it was just kind of a perfect fit because I was already doing things all indie and this is sort of a good platform for what I was doing already—you know, short form video.

Q: When you first moved to Los Angeles, how did you support yourself?

A: I was doing temp work in offices and catering jobs. Between 2000 and 2005 I started doing commercials and I got an agent. So I was working the temp jobs and I would go audition and get a commercial and that took a while—it took a long time to get my first union job. But once I did, things started rolling. I got some small roles on television shows like Alias and 8 Simple Rules and once I was a working actor, that’s when I started doing things on my own and writing my own stuff. I didn’t actually know about YouTube when I was shooting my videos. I actually shot “Shoes” before I knew about YouTube. I had it up on my web site and someone took “Shoes” off of my web site and put it on YouTube.

Q: Really?

A: Yeah, yeah. And that was totally fine because I made them downloadable, I made them free. But a couple of million people must have seen it before I was like, “Oh!” and then I was clued in and I joined YouTube and started putting my stuff up there.

Q: Do you remember how many hits “Shoes” was getting on your web site before it was moved to YouTube?

A: I don’t actually. Back then I didn’t even know how to check—like Google Analytics or something, I didn’t even know about that stuff. All I knew was I need to have a web site, you know, I need to have a place where people can go to learn about me and see my stuff. I didn’t even know, Oh you can check how many people come to your web site! I’m not very technically savvy.

Q: How did you react when “Shoes” went viral on YouTube?

A: It was a huge high—a massive high. I performed for a couple hundred people and got them all to laugh and that was enough for me until that happened and then I started thinking about how I am making millions of people laugh and it was so exhilarating—it was just a giant high. And then I started to stress about it too. Because a lot of people were approaching me and I was getting all these messages—people wanted to know more about me. My e-mail was loaded with messages from people I didn’t know. It was a little tricky to sift through and say, Okay what do I want to respond to and how often can I respond? I think MySpace was the worst because—I had a MySpace account for the character Kelly and that one exploded because people were trying to get me to respond and I just couldn’t respond to everybody. In the beginning I tried to and I was just like, look, I can’t. So on the one hand it was a big high and on the other hand it was, you know, stress.

Q: Are you currently with the YouTube Partner Program?

A: I am and I was totally thrilled when they did that. I still don’t really know why they did it. They’re just giving money to people! It’s nice; it’s great. You kind of give up a little because you agree to have people running advertisements right on your videos. But the option to click off is nice. It helps to keep us going. You know, people like us, we don’t make millions of dollars. We don’t have the resources that a studio does to put out hundreds of hours of programming. And eventually—I mean I work with guys who I want to pay because they do great work and I don’t want to keep asking them to do it for free. My manager at the time let me know about the Partner Program and we just signed up immediately.

Q: What do you know about the logistics of the Partner Program?

A: I don’t know too much about it. I’m not sure if you need a minimum amount of views. I don’t understand the math too well, but there are CPMs and there is some kind of split of revenues that they do with the Partners.

Q: Could you support yourself entirely from the Partners program?

A: I couldn’t support myself; it’s more of a nice bonus. I think there’s a handful of Partners who do stuff with me and could totally support themselves off it. And those are the people who are generating several videos a week, whereas I like to do stuff once a month. I’ll put a lot of thought into it and write it and do a skit rather than a vlog where you just talk to the camera, which takes a lot of thought too, but in terms of production you don’t have to buy lights and deal with casting and things like that. I do okay on it but I couldn’t really support myself with it.

Q: Do you have other sources of online income?

A: I also sell my music on iTunes. I work with a company that helps you get your music to iTunes if you don’t have a record label. And you basically just upload your music onto their site and they deliver it to iTunes. I promote that stuff on my web site and I have t-shirts for sale on my web site. My kind of business model is more about actual stuff you can buy, not so much clicking on ads.

Q: Is that because you think it’s more stable?

A: No, it just worked out that way. I love making songs and writing songs and making t-shirts—so as soon as some of my stuff started blowing up I thought, Oh okay let’s start making people stuff they can actually have, not just watch. Something they can download, something they can wear, a show they can see, an event. My history is all in performance and performing live. So it just worked out that way, I guess. I wanted to do all those things.

Q: Do you enjoy performing live more than video work for YouTube?

A: I like them both. They’re different in that when you do something for video, your performance is locked in and it’s forever and when you do something live it’s more of a one time event that you can never do exactly the same way again. And there’s a lot of fun when you do something live because you are interacting with the audience and the actor is center stage and taking everyone for a ride. When I direct stuff, it’s sort of the same thing, but you just put it out there and hope people like it. It’s released.

Q: It’s interesting that you mention the interactivity of live performance because a lot of people think that’s where online media needs to improve, compared with live events.

A: Yeah, yeah I think that’s true. I think live streaming online is becoming more popular now. But I guess nothing beats showing up and seeing something live.

Q: Do you see television and the Internet merging even more than they have?

A: Yes, yes I guess I do. I mean every time I watch television someone is telling me to go online, you know go online. I’m watching TV and they say go to the web!

Q: People also seem to appreciate not being tied to a specific schedule and having greater choice to watch what they want, when they want – like what Hulu offers.

A: Yeah, I like it. I love Hulu. But then again I love sitting on the couch and watching TV.

Q: Tell me a little about the comedy group The Kids in the Hall that you list as in influence.

A: Kids in the Hall are awesome. I was watching them, I don’t know, I guess in the early ‘90s and being like, Who are these guys? These guys are amazing! I just love their style. Their humor is so weird, it’s so weird. And they do all kinds of characters. And when they play women they don’t even really change their voices all the time; they’ll just have a regular man’s voice. It’s really fun.

Q: Have you been able to distill what specific qualities of their comedy style you’re attracted to?

A: I think it’s because they do all kinds of characters. They do women, they do men. They do all kinds of different people. But then they also play themselves sometimes too. They’ll do little monologues. And they do sketch; they’re not really stand-ups. And their videos—they also did these videos that were just crazy. It was like a short film festival, but it was part of their sketch show. Everything they did was just really weird. Like Saturday Night Live has a lot of sketches that are just like here’s the setup, here’s the context and let’s just roll with it. But The Kids in the Hall would take you on these weird, weird offshoots, off the beaten path and I like that, I like that a lot.

Q: Do you edit your own videos?

A: I edit all my own videos. I use Final Cut Pro.

Q: Did you adapt “Shoes” for live performance?

A: Actually, “Shoes” started out as live performance. I was doing some stand-up at the time. I got the idea to incorporate the character of Kelly in my stand-up, because I had the character in mind but I didn’t have the actual song “Shoes” in mind or anything. But it didn’t work. It was just me doing a voice and it didn’t really fly. It was only when I figured out, Oh I need to go all the way; I have to completely commit to this character; I need to find her look; and I need to actually, like, be this person. And then it worked and I had the song and the song worked really well live. And I think I performed it live three or four times before someone said, “Hey, you should shoot a video for that!” And I was like, Yeah I should!

Q: Do you have any musical background that helps with creating your songs?

A: Not really. I played saxophone in junior high. And I took piano lessons, but I don’t have any real formal training in music or anything. Luckily Garage Band was invented so I could just plug in loops and stuff.

Q: Have you ever adapted a video piece for live performance?

A: It’s pretty much been the other way around.

Q: What are you working on now? In what direction would you like your career to head?

A: Well I’m getting more into directing now. I recently did a video where I played a small role in the video, but for the majority of it I was directing and going through that whole process was really awesome. I really enjoy directing videos. I think I am going to move more in that direction. I am not sure what my future is for YouTube, but I love writing and directing my own stuff so I know I am going to keep doing that. And looking around for opportunities to direct other people’s stuff as well, whether it’s TV or YouTube or film or whatever.

Q: What is it about YouTube that makes it such an effective tool for communication and entertainment?

A: I think it’s because it’s free, honestly, I think it’s because it’s free. Where else can you go and upload videos and see other people’s videos for free? I think that’s a big turn on for people. And I think YouTube was maybe the first to do videos the way they did. You just click it on and there it goes, high quality and everybody can comment and rate it. You feel like you are part of something bigger. It’s just so easy.

Q: Is there something you would really like to do on the Internet that just hasn’t been invented yet?

A: Hmm I haven’t really thought about it. I think it would be kind of cool if you could combine YouTube, Facebook, Twitter—you know, all these social networks. If you could integrate all these into one kind of layout; if you could just open up one site without having to click into all these different windows, that would be awesome. Maybe it’s already been done, I’m not sure.

Q: After living in Los Angeles for ten years, have you seen many of your friends struggling to make it in the entertainment business of have a lot of your friends found success as well?

A: A lot of my friends have found success in different ways, not necessarily through YouTube, but through TV, commercials and film. But I do consider myself really lucky. The way that YouTube has allowed me to—outside of any studio or any corporation—to reach all the people I’ve been able to reach, on the limited budget I had—well, that was amazing! And still is amazing. I feel really lucky. And the timing was great. I shot the “Shoes” video and I think YouTube was just becoming popular, it was just getting on people’s radar. And then “Shoes” got on YouTube and it was like, Bam! But a year ahead of that, who knows? Or two or three or four years? I don’t know what I would have done with that video. I probably would have just shown it in a live show or something and moved onto something else.

Q: Why do you think so many of the most successful and most viewed videos on YouTube are comedy acts?

A: I think that comedy is quicker. Drama takes a lot longer to unfold. A video that is three or four minutes long that gives you a laugh or several laughs—you’re satisfied. But if you watch something for three and a half minutes that is a drama, you probably need more time or you need to be invested it and when you are watching something on the net, most people aren’t looking for that. And music does really well too—music videos on the net are amazing. I think short form, you know, anything that’s kind of short works pretty well.

Q: Do you think there’s a downside to people being so accustomed to consuming short form media instead of sitting through something longer?

A: I don’t think so, because people are still willing to invest two hours, sometimes three hours for a film, where it’s a long storyline. And books are—people are still reading books that take days, sometimes weeks to get through. I just think it’s another form of entertainment that’s available and people are psyched about. Yes, when you’re working you just want to check this or that out for a few minutes; it’s not as intrusive of your time, it’s just a fun little pleasure –like a treat. With a book, you know, like, Oh I am going to tackle War and Peace this summer: it’s more of a project. I think people are able to do both.

Q: Considering everything you have experienced up to now, if there was someone who wanted to move to Los Angeles or New York City to try and make it in the entertainment business, would you have any particular advice for them?

A: I would say—I guess this would work for any point in their life, but always realize how much your friends and your family mean to you and how important they are. When all you focus on is a career goal, sometimes you can let your friends and family fall by the wayside. Often times they can help you in your career. The friends I have made out here are just incredible and I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am without them. So, very simple Ma/Pa kettle advice. Friends and family, man. At the end of the day, you want to hang out with them.