A Space For Us All

We often say that Town Hall is more than just a venue, and this is true in many ways. But our organization wouldn’t be the same without our historic home. For twenty years, our institution’s values have been reinforced by the features of our landmark building. Simultaneously austere and welcoming, the marriage of civic-inspired architecture and community-focused construction combine to create an inviting space where our city comes together. The pillars along the building’s face lend the structure a political severity reminiscent of a government building (no wonder we’re so often confused with City Hall!), while the radiant terra cotta façade seems to manifest the warmth inside this bustling gathering space. There’s nowhere else quite like Town Hall, and we certainly wouldn’t be the same without this building. Anyone who’s been to an event inside our venue can attest—our home helps make us who we are.

Preserving the qualities that define each of our performances spaces is a critical goal of our renovation. It’s a delicate balance to achieve as we outfit the building with upgrades that will allow us to continue hosting our city’s inspired conversations. We’re upgrading the Great Hall, overhauling our Downstairs, and adding a new space on the lobby level, the Reading Room. Between these three performance venues we can accommodate events of every size—from a crowd of nearly a thousand seated shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews, to a cozy circle of a dozen chairs. We’re excited to re-introduce you to these spaces, at once familiar and transformed, when we re-open in February of 2019. But until then, come with us for a look behind the cloak of scaffolding at the three performance spaces coming to life inside Town Hall!

The Great Hall’s character is striking from the moment you enter. The curved oak pews radiate out from an unassuming stage, and on a full night you’ll see nearly 900 people packed into those benches. The voices of every discussion carry all the way up to the vaulted ceilings to mingle around the iconic stained-glass oculus. We’re keen to preserve these elements of the space that are so core to the identity of the Great Hall as a place where communities can gather to speak and be heard. That’s why the first item on our list for the Great Hall is a suite of acoustic upgrades. Our architects at BuildingWorks are working in tandem with master acousticians from Jaffe Holden to create a state-of-the-art acoustic program. A custom-designed acoustic reflector will hang above the stage, tuned specifically to the contours of the room to evenly distribute sounds from the stage to every seat in the house—with or without a microphone. We’re also permanently installing our Hearing Loop system to benefit audience members with T-coil hearing aids, as well as special sound damping materials between the floors of the building to prevent the uproar from a lively “kindie-rock” concert from interrupting a measured science panel just down the stairs. Combine all this with a face-lift of restored crown molding and the addition of cushions to our 98-year-old antique pews and the Great Hall promises to perform well, look sharp and feel comfortable every night—whether it features an international virtuoso, a civic leader, or the screening of a classic film.

While the Great Hall is holding tightly to the qualities that lend the space its characteristic warmth, the Downstairs space is transforming dramatically—so much that you might not recognize the room from one night to the next! Downstairs is becoming the Forum, a completely modular 300-seat space designed to keep up with Town Hall’s fluid calendar. One night the room might be configured as a three-quarter thrust stage for a civic lecture, the next it may become a runway for a queer fashion show, or a corner-round platform for a series of Bushwick jazz performers inspired by a heady science-fiction novel. The beauty of the space’s design is its ability to become the best possible version of itself, re-forming to fit the needs of each event and completely transfiguring the energy each night. Add to that a library and bar flanking the space’s ample 5,000-square feet, and the Forum is tailored to invite the community at large to make this space their own—an ideal complement to the aplomb and applause of the Great Hall.

The newcomer to Town Hall’s performance spaces—the Reading Room—resides between the two on our lobby level. This flexible 90 seat space provides the perfect accompaniment to the thunderous applause of the Great Hall and the mid-sized adaptability of the Forum. Ideal for intimate poetry readings, local policy discussions, and events by grassroots community organizations, the Reading Room embodies the promise that this is your Town Hall: a place where you can stand eye-to-eye with an icon one night, and mobilize your neighbors the next. We encountered this kind of energy on numerous nights during our 2017-18 Inside/Out season, when our calendar included more locally rooted events than ever before. The Reading Room is our way of creating a dedicated home for these discussions in our building—a close-knit environment where curious minds can engage directly with impassioned activists, inspired artists, and groundbreaking scholars from our region and beyond.

This building makes us who we are. Each room in our venue has witnessed decades of community congregation around the inspired ideas that infuse our region, ideas that are the pillars of our institution. We haven’t seen these new spaces yet; they’re still taking shape in a whirlwind of concrete and plaster. But when the tarp drops and the scaffold comes down, we hope you’ll be there with us to bring these new performance spaces to life—to fill them with our collective energy and shape them with the values of our community.

Fearsome to Friendly:
Our History with the Orca

Many in the Northwest consider the orca to be our region’s unofficial mascot. But how did we come to love orcas so much in the first place? Environmental and International History Professor Jason Colby will be joining us on June 5 (just in time for Washington’s Orca Awareness Month!) to take us on a deep dive into our society’s intricate history with killer whales. In the meantime, Colby sat down with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss all things orca—from etymology to questions about captivity to the rituals of our resident orca pods.

 AE: I wanted to ask you about the title of your book, Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator. Can you tell me a little bit about that moniker, ‘the ocean’s greatest predator?’

JC: Well, the orca is really the undisputed apex predator of the ocean. When it comes to prey, they’re specialist hunters. You’ve got so-called “transient” killer whales that focus on marine mammals: seals, sea lions, and even some smaller baleen whales. You have the salmon-eating specialists that are famous in our area and others that focus on sharks or stingrays. But everywhere in the world orcas eat what they want and nothing preys upon them.

AE: Are there any reported cases of orcas harming humans?

JC: There’s one case of a young surfer who was bitten on the leg by a killer whale, but it was probably a case of mistaken identity—the whale probably thought he was a seal or sea lion. There was also a famous Arctic expedition in the early 20th century where a photographer was on the ice and a pod of orcas approached him and started breaking the ice apart. It’s possible they were just curious. It’s possible they were investigating the expedition’s dogs, thinking they were seals or sea lions. The photographer ran across the ice and got away safely, but that account was then published all over the world. It created this perception of the killer whale as an extraordinarily dangerous and formidable predator. There were certainly stories among sealers in Seattle and Victoria of dangerous encounters with killer whales, but no documented attacks that seemed intentional.

AE: If they don’t typically harm humans, what earned them a name like “killer whale?”

JC: The origin of the name almost certainly comes from the Basque and then Spanish and Portuguese assassino de baleias, or “whale killer,” which was likely transposed in English as “killer whale.” That name would have originated among fishermen and whalers who saw orcas attacking much larger whales. If you step back to a period prior to when we saw these animals with affection and imagine what they looked like to the humans who had never seen them before—immense predators with jet-black skin and wolf-like teeth—it’s understandable that we would find them frightening. Humans have a long history of being unsettled by sharp-toothed predators. It must have been pretty easy to imagine that we could wind up on the menu.

We use the name orca now, and we’ve convinced ourselves that it sounds friendlier and more complimentary than killer whale. But the name appears in the works of many 19th and early 20th century writers from a time when we still saw orcas as dangerous. These writers knew their Latin, and dubbing the whales “orca” was meant to convey a much more frightening image. In Latin, Orcinus Orca essentially means ‘demon from the Netherworld.’

AE: That is rather evocative. But we don’t think of them that way anymore. What’s been responsible for the change in public opinion over the last few decades?

JC: Up until the early-to-mid 1960’s this was a species that was still considered a potential threat to human beings. More importantly, this was a species that was viewed as a threat to more valuable resources like salmon and seals, which were being harvested for profit. Orcas were considered a vermin species, much in the same context of wolves, bears, and cougars across North America. It wasn’t until the early to mid 1960’s when the encounters with live killer whales in captivity began to transform public opinion. Seattle is really at the heart of this story. On Pier 56 there was a private Seattle Marine Aquarium, which no longer exists today. The aquarium’s owner Ted Griffin was on a quest to befriend a killer whale.

AE: Was he one of the first ones to see orcas as intelligent creatures rather than just pests?

JC: There were others that were interested in observing them, but Griffin was the one who showed the world that they’re intelligent creatures and potentially friendly to people. Canadian fisherman up north accidentally caught a couple of killer whales in their nets, and Griffin figured out a way to build a floating cage around one of these whales and bring it down to Seattle. This hundreds-of-miles-long journey of this floating cage became front-page headline news, not just in Seattle but across the world. Griffin traveled with this whale, which had been named “Namu,” and they arrived in Seattle right before Seafair in 1965. And there was a massive celebration on the waterfront with a huge crowd gathered to welcome them.

 Namu became the first whale to ever perform for people in public—and perhaps even more important is that Griffin himself became the first human being, that we know of, to swim with a killer whale. This was a revelation to people, to scientists and naturalists and writers. Most people thought that if he got in the water with this animal it would tear him apart. Instead he befriended this animal and started performing with it. This relationship, this connection between Griffin and Namu, was really transformative to the way the world saw this predator.

AE: Because killer whales became such an icon in this context of captivity, there’s a complex discussion still going on about killer whales in captivity today. What’s your perspective on killer whales in captivity?

JC: So the purpose of writing my book was to almost be a prequel to the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which was very successful in focusing people’s attention on orca captivity. But the film was successful in part because people cared so much about orcas already. My aim was to tell the story of why we cared so much about orcas in the first place.

I always like to contextualize this historically. Keeping killer whales in captivity played a critical role in transforming people’s views of this animal, but obviously the context of the 1960’s and 70’s is different from today. I think that most scientists now would say that the research that can be done on these animals in captivity has been done, so it’s hard to make the argument that we need to keep killer whales in captivity to study them. But it’s worth remembering that most of the killer whales in captivity in North America are captive-bred. I don’t say that to diminish the animal rights question. Rather, I say it to point out that what happens with animals bred in captivity doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the survival of killer whales in the wild.

I worry that the focus on the moral question of captivity takes attention away from the overarching threats to wild killer whale populations. Our region’s resident killer whales used to number around 250 and now number at 76—and they’re probably in an extinction spiral. The biggest threats to killer whales aren’t aquariums or corporations in Orlando that are keeping a few orcas in captivity. With the growing prevalence of fisheries and pipelines, even here in the Northwest, there are factors that threaten killer whales on a much larger scale.

Food scarcity is a major issue due to growth of commercial fisheries and sport fishing. We also see pollution from increased tanker traffic contaminating their habitats—and even the noise from the tankers can be damaging. Orcas are acoustic animals, and the louder our waters get the more difficulty they have hunting and communicating. So as compelling as the moral question of captivity is to us, it’s not related to these factors which I believe are a much greater threat to the species.

AE: Is there something that you wish people understood about orcas?

JC: One of the things that struck me as I studied orcas is that they are extraordinarily close-knit socially. Our resident Northwestern pods are multi-generational and matriarchal, with extraordinarily long-lived “grandmothers” who can lead their families for nearly a hundred years. Over that time these killer whale pods have developed their own traditions, memories, and itineraries of this region.

For example, take the northern resident killer whales who travel between mid Vancouver Island and southeast Alaska. When they return to northern Vancouver Island in summer they visit these beaches—”rubbing beaches,” people call them—where they take turns rubbing up against these small round rocks. Their visits to this “whale spa” have been observed for generations.

And of course the southern residents have their own rituals. Probably their most famous one is the “greeting ceremony.” The southern residents have three distinct pods: J, K, and L. When the pods come together they line up abreast a few hundred yards apart and pause for a few minutes, then suddenly bolt forward into this large frolic. It’s really fascinating to watch.

They’re remarkably sophisticated animals with their own cultures, their own rituals, their own memories. And I do wonder how they interpret the changes that we’ve imposed on their ecosystem. It’s been transformed incredibly rapidly in a short period of time, and one wonders what they make of it.


Don’t miss Jason’s event on Tuesday, June 5. Get your tickets here.

Stay in the Loop; Hear it All

As part of the acoustic upgrades taking place during Town Hall’s renovation, we’re permanently installing the Hearing Loop system in all three of our performance spaces. To give us a better idea of how a Hearing Loop works—as well as how this critical system supports members of our community who experience hearing loss—we turn to Mike James, who serves on Town Hall’s Board of Directors. Mike spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby about his history with hearing loss, and shared all the reasons why he passionately supports the Hearing Loop’s installation.

Town Hall’s platform is built on the idea that everyone deserves to be heard—and for audience members like Mike James, this philosophy has never been more literal. Mike has lived with hearing loss since his late 30’s. Though his hearing aids are sufficient for smaller events, he’s encountered difficulty fully engaging with the lectures and performances he loves when they’re held in larger halls. But Mike is still a frequent visitor to Town Hall’s events, and he’s been able to fully experience our programming thanks to our Hearing Loop system.

“I’m fortunate enough to live right across the street from Town Hall,” Mike explains. He regularly attends Town Hall’s programs, and the Hearing Loop has enabled him to participate on any given night in impassioned community conversations, civic discussions, and science lectures. “The beauty of the Hearing Loop system is that it just…happens. You can sit down in the audience along with everyone else, and the sound from the event is transmitted directly to your hearing aids.”

Hearing Loop systems wirelessly transmit sound through microphones on the stage, transforming hearing aids fitted with telecoil receivers—like the ones Mike wears—into in-the-ear loudspeakers. “It’s the quality of the sound that’s the most significant thing. You’re hearing the program with your hearing aids, so it’s adjusted specifically for your own levels of hearing loss. You can clearly hear what’s going on onstage, and at the same time you can be a part of the discussions going on around you.”

From his position on Town Hall’s Board of Directors, Mike has enthusiastically supported the permanent installation of the Hearing Loop system in Town Hall’s performance spaces. For other audience members experiencing hearing loss, this could make all the difference in the world. “A lot of people like me gave up on going to the theater or attending lectures because of the difficulty of hearing. That’s really overcome with the loop.”

To support audience members like Mike, we’re permanently outfitting our Great Hall, Downstairs, and the new West Room with their own Hearing Loop systems as part of Town Hall’s historic renovation. Accessibility is core to Town Hall’s design, and the Hearing Loop is a critical part of ensuring that members of our community who experience hearing loss will remain a part of the discussion.

“I was born in England, and I have relatives there. We’ve traveled together throughout Europe, and found that Hearing Loop systems over there are common. At museums, box offices—you name it, all of that is looped.” Town Hall is inspired by this broad accessibility, and we’re excited to be among the first organizations in our region to offer this technology to our community. “The great thing about Town Hall is that they’re one of the first institutions in Seattle to really pioneer this. It’s a tremendously positive change, and a real asset to Town Hall.”

To learn more about the Hearing Loop system, and about all the ways our new acoustic systems will transform Town Hall into a world-class performance hall, visit TownHallSeattle.org/HearItAll

Please consider making a donation to the project here.

Environmental Luminaries Return to Town Hall

Brady Piñero Walkinshaw and Annie Leonard

Every year our Distilled fundraiser captures the essence of Town Hall’s programming—the big ideas, the amplification of community voices, and the collaboration with organizations on a local or nationwide scale. This year we’re bringing back two luminaries who have a celebrated history on our stages. Brady Piñero Walkinshaw, former member of the Washington State House of Representatives and current CEO of Grist, will join Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, to reflect on all the ways which Town Hall embodies the spirit of civic engagement and inspires activists in our city and beyond.

Brady Piñero Walkinshaw is a familiar guest at Town Hall. Earlier this season he spoke with sea ice scientist Peter Wadhams on October 4 about the massive planetary changes he’s observed in the Arctic region. They ruminated on the ways in which sea ice is the “canary in the mine” of planetary change, how it plays a vital role in reflecting solar heat back into space, and how research shows that Arctic sea ice may be in decline faster than ever before. Walkinshaw is the CEO of Seattle’s own environmental media outlet Grist. He served in the Washington State House of Representatives from 2013 to 2017, representing the 43rd district. He is a Fulbright Scholar, and founded a nonprofit in Honduras that fosters youth leadership and prevents urban violence.

Annie Leonard is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, and has worked with organizations such as GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Health Care Without Harm, and Essential Action.  Leonard also has a decorated history on Town Hall’s stages. In 2010, she made a marquee stop at Town Hall on her tour to spread awareness for her film The Story of Stuff, investigating where our stuff comes from and where it goes when we toss it. The film blossomed into The Story of Stuff Project, which works to empower people around the globe to fight for a more sustainable and just future. Leonard also met with Erik Assadourian and Chip Gillers as part of the State of the World 2013 to explore the scientific and political feasibility of a sustainable society. And In May 2015 she joined a panel of climate scientists, filmmakers, and artists to lend them an environmentalist’s perspective in reflecting on the top 10 student submissions to the UW Climate Change Video Contest.

These environmental activist icons join us at Distilled on May 18 at the Canvas event space in SODO—and we would love to see you there as well! Distilled gathers our Members, our friends, and our community for an evening of cocktails, games, conversation, and a chance to raise the paddle in support of Town Hall. You’ll enjoy live music and an inspired conversation from Walkinshaw and Leonard on Town Hall’s role in advancing the work of impassioned change-makers. Their meeting is reminder that the programs at Town Hall elevate our awareness and impel us to action. From Grist to Greenpeace, the people on the forefront of environmental activism congregate on Town Hall’s stages—and their ideas resonate locally, nationally, and globally.

Get Your Tickets to Distilled 2018 here.

The Overlooked Power of Nature’s Invisible Giants

An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These characters and their struggles exemplify the sweeping, impassioned story of activism—and stunning evocation of the natural world—that is author Richard Powers’ twelfth novel, The Overstory.

Town Hall’s Alexander Eby talked with Powers about where his idea for the novel originated and why trees, specifically, are important to telling our complete story.

Buy tickets for Richard’s talk on Tuesday, April 24.

Buy the book: The Overstory


AE:  I’m curious about the overall premise of your novel, The Overstory. The overarching throughline seems to be the presence of trees and their relationship to the characters. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

RP: I suppose that’s the easiest way to describe the common denominator of this story. It’s about nine people with very different personalities and very different histories, each of whom for different reasons must come to take more seriously the invisible presence of these enormous long-lived creatures. But beyond trees, I guess it’s a story that asks how to dramatize the relationship between humans and non-humans—how to raise this question of what it would take for us to live here on this Earth rather than be constantly fleeing into one that asks the rest of creation to live on our terms.

AE: So more than just trees in that sense. The whole of nature.

RP: I used trees as an entry point into this broader question of people coming to terms with the world beyond the human. So much of the book has to do with current research that’s revealing all kinds of unexpected aggregate behavior among trees, for instance, their ability to communicate with each other via chemical signaling in semaphore. It just seems another fresh way to talk about this endless challenge of people in a world that is increasingly hard-pressed by our relegation of the rest of creation to the role of mere resource.

AE: It’s fascinating to see what we’re discovering regarding research on the behavior of trees. It’s just difficult for us to observe given that this all happens in such slow motion relative to our own lives.

RP: Yes, the research is proceeding in a lot of different directions. The roots of trees are connected underground by fungal filaments, and the exchange of hydrocarbons and sugars between the tree and the fungus, and the reciprocal nurturing of the tree by the fungus produces what Suzanne Simard, one of the leading researchers in the topic, calls the “Wood Wide Web.” It forces us to think of the forest as something that emerges out of lots of individuals, deeply connected in webs of cooperation.

To me that story—the discovery that these other enormous creatures have agency and memory and social connections and complex behavior—compels a rethinking of who we are in connection to these other entities. All of that compels a rethinking of who we are in connection to these other entities.

And that’s kind of an odd program for literary fiction. Traditionally, contemporary novels don’t venture much beyond the psychological or the social. The stories that we tell these days are almost exclusively about us. We fascinate ourselves. We pay attention primarily to the social relations among people, to the tensions inside our own psyches.

AE: Is that why you chose to situate this in a novel format? As fiction?

RP: The stories we tell about who we are, the stories we tell about what non-humans are. They need to be informed by all of those concerns that are traditionally the arena of non-fiction, but they need to have the heft, the emotional impact, and the visceral quality of fiction. We are entirely dependent upon plants, biologically and culturally. They should be at the heart and soul of the story that we tell about ourselves. It shouldn’t be a separate domain treated specifically and exclusively by scientific or non-fiction writers.

AE: And it seems like your representation of trees at the center of this story is aiming to redefine what we imagine a character to be.

RP: We have been almost entirely colonized by a way of thinking that I sometimes call “individual commodity culture,” where meaning is exclusively the domain of the self and life consists exclusively of individual people introspecting, coming to terms with their own conflicting values and making peace with others around them. At this point we believe that life is this simple struggle between ourselves and our immediate friends and family. And that’s as far as the story goes.

It’s difficult to understand that most people who have lived in human history didn’t have that assumption. That for them, meaning was out there. It’s tough for us to think of meaning as anything other than a subjectively negotiated thing.

AE:Is this story the spurred by any meaningful personal relationships with nature or specific trees at all that you can recall?

RP: Until six years ago when I first began to think about this project, I was as blind to trees as anyone. I mean, I saw them, I appreciated them aesthetically, but they didn’t particularly seem to have their own urgency. It was really first experience of a Redwood forest that began to challenge that. I think a lot of people have that when they see Redwoods for the first time; there’s something so majestic that you can’t be blind to them in the way that you are to plant life so much of the time.

Once I saw a Redwood forest as something more than a resource or aesthetic diversion, I returned to the forests of the East where I grew up and began to see the trees of my childhood for the first time, just to look at them and to understand all of the incredibly complicated shapes and forms and structures that they create. I had, again and again, this experience of coming back to the forest of the East while writing this book and saying to myself, “I had no idea.” I never—I had never seen it.

AE: I can imagine visiting forests you grew up with and seeing trees that you saw as a child, coming back to them years later. And it’s the same tree, the same organism.

RP: But everything’s different because something had changed in me. I began to see what had been largely invisible to me up until then. And I guess that’s my hope for this book.  I hope that the reader has that experience of being un-blinded toward these incredible creatures in their own street or deeper into the woods as far as they want to go—that experience of perpetually saying “I never saw that before. I have to look at them now with new eyes.”

AE: It sounds like a lot of native Seattleites will be inspired to take a trip to the Grove of the Patriarchs after reading this.

RP: Or even to see the urban planting in a different way. To understand the richness and diversity of street trees. It’s a great place to start.


Buy tickets for Richard’s talk on Tuesday, April 24.

Buy the book: The Overstory

Lucy Cooke: Re-Branding the Animal Kingdom

Humans often look at the animal kingdom through our own lens, and many times we tend to project our own values and emotions onto the animals. Here to set the record straight is National Geographic Explorer Lucy Cooke. She’ll be joining us on April 22 with wisdom from her new book The Truth About Animals. To give us some perspective on all varieties of animals, beloved and besmirched, Cooke spoke with Town Hall’s Copywriter Alexander Eby about her upcoming event.

Get tickets for Lucy’s event on 4/22.


 AE: In your book you aim to dispel some misconceptions we hold about animals, and you mention Aristotle and Disney in particular as examples of where some wrong ideas came from. Can you tell me more about that?

LC: So the book is about how we have misconstrued animals, and explaining where those misconceptions came from. That’s not to single those two out, Aristotle or Disney that is, but it’s really just to show the range of misconceptions that exist. Aristotle of course was the first Zoologist, the grandfather of Zoology, and he was a fantastic scientist, but even he made some mistakes. And Disney of course is a founding father of popular culture and how we see animals in a popular sense, so really that statement is just to illustrate how we make mistakes about animals not just in popular culture, but scientifically as well.

One of the examples you bring up as a classic misconception we hold is about penguins “holding hands.” How does that example illustrate our misunderstanding?

 As a species, we have a compulsion to anthropomorphize. We’re constantly looking for our reflection in the animal kingdom. But this trips us up and it obscures the truth and it makes us believe things that are wholly inappropriate about animals. Penguins are a good example. They look like wobbly little humans, they have this awkward way of walking when they’re on land, which is not at all how they behave in the water. But this way of walking reminds us of toddlers and it triggers our impulse to nurture. We’re sort of helpless in the face of penguins; we want to adore them. So when we see images of penguins and it looks like their flippers are touching, we imagine that they’re holding hands and that they’re in love.

But that is not true at all. Penguins are birds with tiny brains that live in an incredibly harsh environment and they actually have a kind of brutal existence. They often fight one another in the Antarctic, and they’re often thought of as being monogamous and forming long-term loving relationships. But the majority of penguins find new partners every season, and penguin “divorce rates” go up the further north you travel. The most egregious example is the famous Emperor penguin, and only 15% of Emperor penguins manage to stay “faithful” from one breeding season to another.

So we humans project that loving and faithful image onto penguins, when in reality there’s actually a bit of a darker side to them. Is there an animal that’s the reverse? One that has a negative image which it doesn’t necessarily deserve?

In the book I write about spotted hyenas, who are one of those species that are widely disliked. They’re portrayed in Disney’s Lion King as stupid lowly scavengers or cowards, but the truth is a long way from that. Spotted hyenas are one of the most successful carnivores on the planet. They are a matriarchal society, and extremely intelligent. The researchers I’ve spoken to have suggested that they’re of greater intelligence than lions. They can actually count up to three, and they use their numeracy skills to work out whether they have the advantage in numbers when they’re faced with lions. They listen to the sound of the roars and they work out whether they have a band that’s big enough to overtake the lions. They’re really extraordinarily skilled hunters.

Hyenas are one of the animals that have been considered in a negative light, but we should really consider them the feminist icon of the animal kingdom. They’re a matriarchal society, and they’re extremely successful and intelligent hunters.

It seems like you’re doing a lot of good PR work for these animals, trying to set the record straight.

I think it’s time we re-branded the animal kingdom according to fact, and not sentimentality.

That makes sense. And it also resonates with some of the work you did a few years ago as The Amphibian Avenger.

 (*laughs*) Yeah. I spent six months travelling around South America by myself investigating the amphibian extinction crisis. They don’t get a lot of press, amphibians. They don’t have a furry smiley face and they are less relatable perhaps to ourselves than primates or bears or animals we can see ourselves in. But amphibians are a key part of the food chain, and they’re also the canary in the mine, as it were. Because of their thin skin that they breathe through they’re a good kind of barometer for the ecosystem as a whole. So if the amphibians are in trouble you can pretty much guess that there’s something wrong with the ecosystem too, and the fact that they’re dying out in such huge numbers should be something we’re more keenly interested in.

And since then your travels have taken you even further than South America. You’ve become a National Geographic Explorer as well. Where else has that work taken you, and what was it like?

I was given the award in 2011 in response to the work I did with amphibians, bringing the conservation message about amphibians to a broader audience. I travel a lot. I spend a lot of time in jungles and out there in the wild. While in South America I visited eight or nine countries. I saw fungus-infested frog farms, licked poison dart frogs, drank frog smoothies in Lima, and chased down endangered species in the Amazon.

Well we’re excited to have you coming to Seattle after all that.

 Yeah, I can’t wait to come to Seattle. I’ve never been, and I’m looking forward to my visit enormously! If I’m lucky enough to get some free time I would love to see the orcas. They’re one of those absolutely incredible animals that’s widely misunderstood. Another matriarchal society, hugely empathetic in nature, very smart, they’re fantastic. I hope I get to see them, as well as lots of wonderful human beings during my visit.


Get tickets for Lucy’s event on 4/22.

 

The Space Barons — A Privately-Financed Commercial Space Age

In 2017, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk’s company SpaceX successfully landed a reusable rocket booster. Later this year, Virgin Galactic—the spacefaring spinoff of Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines—intends to take tourists into suborbital flight. And here in the Pacific Northwest, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s true passion is his commercial space company Blue Origin. According to journalist Christian Davenport, a staff-writer at the Washington Post, this flurry of activity marks the beginning of a new era of space exploration and a brand new space race: not between nations but between private companies and the eccentric billionaires driving them.

Davenport tells this story in his new book The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos. He’ll be speaking about the book at a Town Hall event at Seattle’s Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th. But in the meantime, Town Hall’s Alexander Eby spoke with Christian Davenport about this new frontier and whether he’ll be in line for a ticket to the stars.

Get tickets for The Space Barons and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos on April 25.


AE: Who are the Space Barons?

             CD: In the book I focus on Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Paul Allen. I think what makes them interesting is that all of them obviously have enormous wealth and come from a Silicon Valley background or ethos and saw space as a dynamic new frontier that was ripe for disruption and innovation. Their approaches are different, their personalities are different, but what unites them is that they made their fortunes elsewhere focusing on very different industries. Elon Musk has worked at PayPal and Tesla, Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, Paul Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates and Richard Branson has a myriad of companies. They all have experience in business and entrepreneurship and going up against big industries like Amazon taking on Barnes and Noble and the book industry, and Elon Musk with Tesla taking on virtually all of Detroit. But I think Space presents to them perhaps the biggest challenge of all. It’s the most difficult and I think the reason why they chose it is that it’s something they’re really, truly passionate about.

These guys coming at these different projects from the perspective of entrepreneurs… it’s right there in the title ‘The Quest to Colonize the Cosmos’. This is ultimately public-facing. The goal is to put people into space.

             That’s right. Particularly with SpaceX and Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic that’s their main goal. There’s only something like 550-560 people who have ever been to space. In a lot of cases they grew up watching the Apollo era and seeing people in space. Elon said a year ago: it’s 2018 we should have a base on the moon by now. That’s clearly a goal of Blue Origin’s right now. They clearly are focused on human space flight and getting people into space.

When Jeff is asked about this—“aren’t these tourism trips up to space just trivial, like going on a rollercoaster ride?”—he has two responses. One is that it’s really good practice. You’re not going to get good at something you do a half dozen or a dozen times a year. To really get good at space you have to launch repeatedly, to do it over and over again which is what they hope to do with these suborbital spaceflights. Then: when you get up there you have a few minutes of weightlessness, you unbuckle your seatbelt and float around the cabin of the spacecraft, you’re able to look at the windows and see the curvature of the Earth: the globe without any lines delineating countries, the thin veneer of the atmosphere. People talk about that being a transformative effect. If these companies are able to get more people out into space and have that experience, where it comes to the point that you know someone whose gone to space or know someone who knows someone and that begins to spread, that could have a transformative effect on our society.

Is it the sort of thing you expect will happen in our lifetimes?

             I think the first suborbital flights might be as soon as this year, might be next year. Virgin Galactic is gunning for this year, although they had a setback in 2014 with a fatal crash that killed a co-pilot. Obviously it’s very dangerous and a huge challenge but they’re getting close. I think Blue Origin is getting close as well. SpaceX has been hired by NASA to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. It now currently flies cargo and supplies and experiments to the International Space Station and its next step is to fly humans there.

Is it a trip you would take if you could?

             When I met with Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, ahead of the meeting I went to the NASA archives and pulled the journalist-in-space application. A lot of people forget that NASA had a journalist-in-space program that was cancelled after the space shuttle challenger blew up. People remember the teacher who was onboard that flight because there was a teacher-in-space program. They also had planned to do a journalist-in-space program. So I submitted my application to Jeff and to Richard. I haven’t heard back yet, though I don’t think I want to be on the first flights. I’ll let them fly a few times and get the kinks out and then I’d consider it.

What’s your first planet destination?

             As Jeff Bezos likes to say, there’s nothing quite like Earth! I think I’d be earthbound and watch others do that and explore (I’ve got young kids and a family). But I do think there are people who would want to go. We’ve got a permanent presence in space now on the International Space Station. The goal of NASA now under the Trump administration and the goal of SpaceX and Boeing and Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin and some of these other companies is to work with NASA to create a permanent presence deeper into space: on the moon or in the vicinity of the moon. We went to the moon in the 60s and early 70s and left flags and footprints and came back, but the goal is to establish a longer term presence there that could then be used as a stepping stone to get deeper into space and to Mars.

It sounds a lot like Science Fiction!

It does. When we’re thinking about mining asteroids, or Jeff’s goal of millions of people living and working in space, that’s the big distant goal that’s hundreds of years out. But the first step to get there is to make access to space much more affordable, economical and reliable by building a transportation network to the stars. Just like the railroads opening up the west. Right now it’s just too hard to get to space. It’s too expensive. They want to lower that cost, make it much more affordable and much more accessible

Then help other people establish a further foothold into space once they’ve got that foot through the door?

             That’s the idea, that they create the stepping stone and that other people follow in their footsteps and other industries emerge. We’re already starting to see that. What we’re talking about is the launch providers—the guys who just lift stuff off the surface of the Earth and get it into space. But once you’re in space there’s all kinds of things you can do. We’ve seen companies like Bigelow Aerospace that’s for years has been building habitats that expand—I don’t think they like the analogy but it’s a little like a balloon. They’re made of a very durable kevlar-like material and filled up with air and pressurized and become habitats, become space-stations and that’s another commercial company.

There’s a company called Made In Space that’s using 3D printers to manufacture in space. You’ve got the small satellite revolution: companies like Planet that are already putting up many small satellites to monitor the health of the earth. Then there are all the things that once you get up to space and it does get more accessible that you don’t know will happen. You can’t always tell what opportunities that will open up.

It boggles the mind to think that this is something we might see.

             I try to lay that out in the book. Whatever happens, let’s not forget that space is hard. There are setbacks and delays and not all of these dreams are fulfilled in a timely manner. But I do think that this is a time that we’ll look back on 30-40 years from now as a historic moment. We had the cold war space race that begin with the Mercury Program, then Gemini then Apollo which got us to the moon. Then there was the space shuttle program and the International Space Station. And this is a new era in its own right: a privately financed commercial space age that frankly could not have been possible if it weren’t for visionary entrepreneurs who had a lot of money that they were willing to invest into this.


Christian Davenport will be speaking at the Museum of Flight on Wednesday, April 25th at 7:30pm as part of Town Hall’s Science series. He is the author of The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos out now from Public Affairs books.

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