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 betway必威 .]

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.

Wire-Tapping the Ruins of Pompeii

[Image: Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, steps forth into the ruins of the “extinct city” of Pompeii; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The ruins of Pompeii are being wired-up by a company otherwise known for its work as a manufacturer of military drones and “electronic warfare equipment,” Phys.org reports. Finmeccanica, the “Italian aerospace and defense giant,” has been contracted to install a high-tech sensor network amongst the barely stabilized walls and streets of this city once buried by a volcanic eruption nearly 2,000 years ago, in the hopes of monitoring unstable ground conditions on the sites.

Slippage and instability threaten to bring some of the 必威手机版 s down, not just putting the site’s UNESCO-designated mansions at risk but potentially injuring (or worse) its annual hordes of international visitors.

[Image: General view of Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

In Phys.org’s words, the sensors are being installed “to assess ‘risks of hydrogeological instability’ at the sprawling site, boost security and test the solidity of structures, as well as set up an early warning system to flag up possible collapses.”

The results are a bit like electronic eavesdropping—a kind of NSA of the ruins—only, instead of wire-tapping a single phone line, the entire city of Pompeii will be listened to from within, hooked up from one side to the other with equipment so sensitive it is normally used in waging “electronic warfare.”

[Image: The Street of Tombs, Pompeii; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The data will eventually be made available online for all to analyze, but it is interesting to read of a more immediate use of the sensors’ findings: Pompeii’s “security guards will be supplied with special radio equipment as well as smartphone apps to improve communication that can pinpoint their position and the type of intervention required.”

In other words, guards will receive electronic updates from the city itself while out on their daily rounds, including automated pings and alerts of impending structural failure or deformations of the ground, like some weird, semi-militarized version of ambient music, as if listening to the real-time groans of a settling city by radio.

Wire-tapping the ruins of a dead city, this mesh of electronic equipment—normally used in military surveillance operations—will thus help to preserve the archaeological site for future generations.

[Image: Fortuna Street, Pompeii; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

Like something out of Douglas Kahn’s recent book about the history of terrestrial electromagnetism and audio art, the old crumbling columns and shattered walls of Pompeii will soon find a new voice through repurposed military equipment, a weaponized seance performed on the empty streets of a place that’s more tomb than city.

[Image: The Forum, Pompeii; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The possibilities for interactive apps and other touristic experiences are also mind-boggling here: imagine, at the very least, being able to walk into the center of Pompeii totally alone, with nothing but your phone and some earbuds, tuning into real-time broadcasts of the shuddering masonry all around you, a wireless archaeological orchestra of bleached monuments in the sun, listening from within to the sounds of the ancient city.

Distant HAM radio enthusiasts, tuning in from attics in Indiana, spin the dial every Saturday night hoping to find Pompeii, a destroyed city on the other side of the world with its own location in the ether, whistling and purring as its architecture falls apart, room by room, a catacomb of sound and destruction.

(An earlier, different version of this post first appeared on Gizmodo).