By Pat Walters
Photographs by Marco Grob
The 21st-Century explorer can make good use of the latest technology; can communicate from almost anywhere on Earth, even atop Mount Everest; can solicit financial support from donors large and small. Yet the advantages of modernity cannot remove all risk from the act of exploration. And so explorers of today are in many ways just like their foremothers and forefathers. They put their physical selves in jeopardy, because how else can you snare a venomous snake or drill deep into mountaintop glaciers? If their mission is not popular in scientific circles, they may face the criticism of colleagues. And sometimes they must dig deep into their own pockets just to keep on going. In this issue we begin a yearlong series profiling explorers who press the limits.
TRIP JENNINGS has paddled white water to explore rivers around the world and in 2008 made a first descent of the notoriously turbulent lower Congo River. The 30-year-old Oregonian now travels by foot, motorbike, and plane as well, heading to remote spots in the name of conservation: collecting elephant scat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a DNA map of elephant populations, used to trace the source of ivory sold by poachers; documenting a threatened Alaska salmon migration last summer.
You filmed the salmon run from a plane flown by explorer Mike Fay.
Mike’s a talented but crazy pilot. We’re flying 10 feet off the river with 200-foot trees on either side, which is terrifying. The whole time I was staring at an iPad showing me what was coming through the cameras mounted on the plane. At times it could feel like a video game. When I’m paddling my kayak, at least I have the veil of control.
With or without your kayak, you go way off the beaten track.
It’s crucial to get to those last places that are unspoiled, to document them, to show them to the rest of the world in the hope they can stay unspoiled.
That’s not always an easy job.
In the Congo I’ve been held up at gunpoint, facedown in the sand. My last time there, a warlord issued a death threat to any conservationists working in the area.
Are you afraid that you might die on one of your trips?
I guess I’m not that afraid of death. That said, I don’t want to die on an expedition. I want to die old and in a bed, not in a plane in the wilderness or shot by a poacher.
ZOLTAN TAKACS was fascinated with snakes as a boy in Hungary and still is. An expert in toxins, he’s traveled to more than a hundred countries and caught thousands of reptiles, collecting their venom for screening to see if it can be turned into a lifesaving drug. He himself is allergic to venom.
Do you have a death wish?
Listen, I like my life and I don’t want to die. I have a family, who I love very much. And I have to be careful, because three colleagues of mine passed away from snakebites. The last thing I want is one day not to return.
Have you ever been bitten by a snake?
Six times, all my fault. I got my first bite when I was 15. The most recent was in the Brazilian Amazon in 2008, by a not very toxic snake. But I had a terrifying allergic reaction in the middle of nowhere.
What makes the risk worth it to you?
My ultimate goal is to push a toxin into medical use. Toxins have yielded about a dozen medications, and some are lifesavers. If anybody faces a deadly heart attack, there are three drugs of choice, and two are reptile-venom derived. There are a hundred thousand different venomous animal species with 20 million different toxins. Imagine how many potential medications you could find.
Is there a typical day in the field?
There is no typical day. I go to the far corners of the Earth. I fly small planes. I scuba dive. I sleep in the middle of the rain forest or in the desert. Obstacles vary: from infections to crocodiles, from civil wars to landslides to pirates. I’ve been jailed, chased by elephants, sprayed with cobra venom.
Lab work must seem dull by comparison.
Hardly. The lab gives meaning to what I do. You’re the first person to see what nature’s been working on for hundreds of millions of years. We take this to the drawing board and perfect the toxins for medical applications.
But first you have to go get the toxins.
Right. There’s no way you can do this unless you put yourself on a plane, travel to a rain forest, turn on your flashlight, and start the night search for vipers.
LONNIE THOMPSON has been climbing to mountaintop glaciers from Peru to China for the past 38 years, pulling crucial climate data from deep inside the ice. A glacier that’s hundreds of feet thick can contain thousands of years of information: layers of snow and dry-season dust. Some say Thompson has spent more time above 18,000 feet than anyone alive—1,099 days, at last count. His data show the planet is warming at a historic rate. As a result the ice is melting—and his vital, dangerous work is taking on new urgency. Thompson heads next to Tibet, where he believes he’ll find the oldest ice on the planet, perhaps going back a million years.
Lots of people climb to above 18,000 feet. But you stay for weeks on end.
When we drilled on the glacier Dasuopu in the Himalaya, we were up there for six weeks, at 23,500 feet. Climbers don’t do that.
You must run into challenges.
Getting six tons of camping and drilling equipment up to 23,500 feet is one. Lightning is another. I mean, you’re up there with this drill that’s basically the world’s highest lightning rod. I’ve had lightning come down ten feet in front of me. And of course you have avalanches. Huge storms. Wind. You can be pinned down for three or four days. Or blown away. I feel fortunate to have made it to 64 years old.
You had a heart transplant last year.
Would I have the heart problems I have, had I not climbed so many mountains? It’s unknowable. My dad died at 41 from a heart attack, and congestive heart failure is genetic. Maybe I’m living longer because I climb mountains.
Why do you keep working?
When I go back to Quelccaya in Peru, where I’ve been 26 times, it’s like visiting a patient dying of cancer. You know there’s no hope; you can only watch it shrink away. So my work has become a salvage operation—to capture history before it disappears forever.
You’ve said data alone won’t change human behavior.
It’s human nature to deal only with what’s on our plate today. When people lose their houses or crops to fires, droughts, tornadoes—when they lose everything they’ve worked for—they’ll say, Whoa! What’s going on here? And that’s already starting to happen. At some point the discussion will change very rapidly. It’ll seem like it happened overnight.
JAROSLAV FLEGR found out in 1990 that he was infected with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that typically lives (and reproduces) in cats. The Czech evolutionary biologist learned that the parasite often jumps from cat to human via litter boxes or contaminated water, but what truly fascinated him was how it jumps from cat to cat: It uses rats. When “toxo” infects a rat, it hijacks its brain, making the rat more active, less risk averse, even sexually attracted to the scent of cat urine—in sum, more likely to get eaten. This knowledge gave Flegr a radical idea he decided to explore: Maybe toxo was controlling his brain too. Colleagues told him he was crazy. As it turns out, his hunch was right.
How many cats do you have?
I have two.
Why did you think that toxo was controlling you?
I thought it might explain some of my strange behaviors—ones that are nonadaptive for me but adaptive for a parasite that needs to get to a new host. I would cross the street in traffic but not jump out of the way when cars honked. Later I found that people infected with toxo are 2.6 times more likely to get into a traffic accident.
So toxo does something to the brain that makes people reckless?
Actually, in humans, we found that it greatly slows reaction time, which can influence the risk of a traffic accident. Infected people also tend to be less conscientious. And our male subjects considered the scent of cat urine to be quite pleasurable.
Top scientists now accept your theory—but at first people called it crazy.
For many people this phenomenon was difficult to believe—even for me, at first, it was difficult to believe what I was observing was real. But it is. And with toxo potentially responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year—and perhaps many cases of schizophrenia as well—it’s important too. Yet there’s still no cure for it.
Counterintuitive hypotheses are your trademark. What are the challenges?
When I send papers to top journals, they’re often rejected out of hand by editors, without any formal review. The danger of making interesting claims—like when I said that Darwinian theory is not quite correct and can be improved—is that you won’t be considered a serious scientist. If I studied, say, molecular interactions, maybe I would be more famous. But I like problems nobody else is studying. And I’m very comfortable doing what I do.
War Zone Doctor
JILL SEAMAN has spent decades exploring the most effective way to bring modern medicine to the beleaguered people of South Sudan. In 1989 she arrived in the midst of one of the worst epidemics to hit Africa—from a tropical disease called kala-azar—and a brutal civil war. Today the war is over, South Sudan has declared independence, and the epidemic has subsided, but violence, disease, and perhaps worst of all, fear, still plague the region that has become Seaman’s second home.
What were things like when you arrived?
More than half of the population in the region was already dead. You’d walk through villages where nobody was alive. You would see the ashes from a fire. You might walk over bones. But there was nobody. It was silent and eerie and devastating.
You had to fight the cause of all this death. Can you describe the enemy?
Kala-azar is transmitted by the bite of a sand fly and gives you fever, wasting, a big spleen. After many weeks you will die. In 1989, when I came into South Sudan with Doctors Without Borders, there were no people treating patients in the bush. And so research was needed to give high-tech treatment and to do high-tech diagnostics out of a mud hut. Most of our research was aimed at that, and it continues to be that way today.
But over the past 20 years, you’ve eliminated the disease?
Well, no. It’s hard to compare the epidemic to now, because now there is health care. But just in the past three years we’ve had another outbreak. This past year we treated 2,500 people. And that’s a huge number of patients.
Your clinic’s been bombed and burned. But you insist you’re not a risk taker.
I’m not. I’m serious. I have a passion for health care and for Sudan. I can tell you lots of things that have happened that are scary, like a massacre in a town just north of us that killed maybe 200 people in a couple of hours. They just shot at people, at women washing their clothes. But that has nothing to do with why I’m here.
But you are there. And it is risky, no?
The thing is, it’s not that I’m taking risks. Everybody’s taking risks. Life is a risk. Everybody who lives there, they know that life could be gone in an hour. And yet they live. And they are happy. And I get to touch millions of people and hopefully help them. How could I be more lucky?
PATRICK MEIER was sitting in his Medford, Massachusetts, apartment when the January 2010 earthquake struck Haiti. The 35-year-old Tufts Ph.D. candidate was soon assisting quake victims—without even leaving home. Opening his laptop, he mobilized hundreds of volunteers to scrape data points from tweets, text messages, UN reports, and more to build a constantly updated online map. His efforts guided citizens, aid workers, and the U.S. Coast Guard; experts say the map likely saved hundreds of lives. Meier, a Swiss citizen who grew up in Africa, now maps crises all over the world.
You caught flak from the UN after the situation in Haiti. Why?
Some UN agencies struggled with their response and were slow to mobilize. Meanwhile, a large team of volunteers in snowy Boston mapped the impact of the earthquake in near real time, providing professionals with the most up-to-date information available.
How did you get into mapping?
When I was 12, the first Gulf War broke out. I had a big map of the Middle East and started physically mapping the updates with crayons and pens and markers.
What have you and your team tackled so far?
Haiti started it all. A month later there was an earthquake in Chile. Then the floods in Pakistan that summer. Russian fires in July. Floods in Brisbane in January. A major earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, that February. Election crisis maps in Egypt, in Tunisia. And the UN asked us to launch a crisis map for Libya.
When you map a war zone, do you worry data will fall into the wrong hands?
Definitely. These maps can be used for good or bad. In Libya, you could be the UN using the map to coordinate relief operations, or Qaddafi loyalists using it to find humanitarian convoys to target. So we password-protected that map. You take very real risks when you make a map like this and have to ensure you’re not putting people in harm’s way.
Is it ever too risky to make such a map?
There’s a reason we didn’t get involved in Syria. In Syria you have a very sophisticated regime in terms of cyber surveillance, whereas in Libya you didn’t. We did the cost-benefit analysis and said no.
Ice Water Diver
RHIAN WALLER studied deep-sea corals for ten years through portholes and on video feeds sent from robotic submarines more than 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. The corals are the foundation of an ecosystem increasingly damaged by fishing nets, but scientists know very little about the slow-growing life-forms because they’re so difficult to reach. A few years ago some of the same coral species turned up in shallow water in Alaska fjords. Shallow enough to dive in. The only problem for the 34-year-old University of Maine marine biologist: She didn’t know how to dive.
Nearly freezing water doesn’t seem like the best place to start scuba diving.
Oh yeah, it’s intense. The water is usually 34 or 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Within five minutes of being in the water your head and hands are so numb you can’t feel them. In the summer, when glaciers are melting, you get very fast currents. Visibility can be very poor too, because of all the sediment coming off the glaciers.
You’re effectively submerged in ice water. Are you scared?
We’re extremely careful. But I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been hairy moments. On one dive visibility was so poor I couldn’t even see my elbow. I was going down a fjord’s vertical wall holding on to my buddy’s tank when I let go to grab a sampling bag. I only looked away for a second, and he was gone. Suddenly I couldn’t see anything—the wall, my hands, my feet. My ears started popping. I had to look for the bubbles to figure out which way was up.
But it’s worth the risk?
Absolutely. It’s hard for me to describe the feeling of actually swimming amongst a deep-sea species I’d only ever seen on a screen: To see these massive, six-foot-high red tree coral colonies sticking out from the wall, to stare at the polyps, to touch them and watch the tentacles recoil. I instantly thought of all the ecological work that could be done if you could go back to the same spot twice, which is all but impossible in the deep ocean. I’m still wading through the data, but it appears many of these corals reproduce on a significantly longer timescale than we thought, making them—and by extension the ecosystem—even more vulnerable to human impacts.
BARRINGTON IRVING became the youngest person (and first African American) to fly solo around the world when the 23-year-old landed in Miami on June 27, 2007. The former high school football star had been studying aviation for only a year when he went after sponsors to help him assemble a single-engine plane for the 27,000-mile journey. Irving says he took on the trip to inspire young people to grow stronger by testing the limits of their capabilities. Today he is both a pilot and a teacher, using his experience to encourage kids in Florida to explore the skies.
Why do you fly?
What fires me up about flying is that you’re between heaven and Earth. Your life is suspended in midair. So much precision is required. There is nothing else I can think of that creates such an adrenaline rush and at the same time brings so much peace.
Tell me about a time when you had that mix of feelings.
Every time I tell this story I get goose bumps. I left northern Japan and had to fly to a tiny island called Shemya, Alaska [on the Pacific leg of the round-the-world flight]. It was a very turbulent flight, winds from 70-something knots to 110, blowing everywhere from all directions. The last three hours, a major ice storm was born. I remember airline pilots radioing me, asking what the hell am I doing down there. And they were like, You have to turn back. And here I am flying this single-engine airplane. I said, “I don’t have enough fuel to turn back.” So these guys asked for my parents’ name and phone number. They said there was no way to make it. When I landed on Shemya Island, I had 12 minutes of fuel left in my tank. That was when I knew I was called to do this stuff.
You run a school where kids can pursue science and engineering.
We had students build an airplane from scratch. I said I’d fly it. You hear them while they’re building it: “Oh, I think I did this wrong,” or “I need help with this!” After I took off, it really hit me that I’m flying something the kids made. I’m thinking, What happens if the engine quits?
But it flew?
Oh yeah. It flew great.
Flying in the Face of Peril
ÇAĞAN ŞEKERCIOĞLU is an ornithologist who works to document and prevent bird extinctions. He’s also a professor in the U.S. who runs an award-winning conservation group in his native Turkey. All those pursuits require juggling—and each entails big risks.
Why do you do what you do? Who inspired you?
I’ve always been drawn to nature. When other kids were playing soccer, I was bringing home insects and other animals. My mom took me to a child psychiatrist! But my beloved dad is my biggest inspiration. During tough economic times he left a safe accounting job to start Turkey’s first model-airplane company. It lasted 30 years.
What are the physical hazards of your work?
A whole range, from the mundane to the exotic. While surveying birds I’ve been charged by a grizzly bear in Alaska and an elephant in Tanzania. I’ve tangled with a poisonous puff adder in Uganda. I’ve been caught between the military and terrorists, mistaken for a spy, held at gunpoint, carjacked in Ethiopia, and attacked by a machete-wielding mob in Costa Rica. Honestly, I’m often more afraid of people and traffic than I am of wildlife.
Is it politically tricky to be an environmentalist in Turkey?
It is when I criticize the institutions that grant my research permits. But it’s my duty as a scientist to tell the truth. The government talks about conservation, but its priority is to convert nature into cash. So it uses doublespeak. They are reforesting while cutting down old-growth forests. Virtually every river is dammed, and the organization building those dams is responsible for regulating them. I’m trying to stop one that will destroy the Aras River wetlands, where half of Turkey’s bird species live. Yet if I speak out too much, I’ll be punished for a seemingly official, legal reason. Retaliation in Turkey is usually indirect.
You spend many hours on advocacy. Does that hurt your academic career?
Some academics see it as a distraction. So far my school, the University of Utah, has been very understanding and appreciative. But I have to walk a fine line.
Do you ever feel daunted by all the risks you face?
Well, I don’t actively seek risk. But I don’t avoid it either. Taking a risk means you can fail. But if you fail, at least you tried. And that’s all I can do. If I fail in the end, I fail fighting.
Into the Unknown
SYLVIA EARLE has spent nearly a year of her life diving beneath the ocean. In the 1960s the oceanographer had to fight to join expeditions. Women weren’t welcome. Today the legendary 77-year-old explorer fights for marine sanctuaries.
Have you ever gotten in over your head, so to speak?
I have come up at the end of a dive, and the boat was not where I left it. I had to take care of a buddy who did panic. But I was confident the boat would come back.
Are you ever afraid?
I do my utmost to satisfy myself that everything is checked. I trust the engineers who built the machine, and I know there are backups. If there’s a problem, there are protocols to follow. Then I park those worries on the surface and enjoy the privilege of being under the sea, where primates typically don’t go.
How has the ocean changed over the course of your career?
We’ve learned more, and we have lost more. Half the coral reefs are gone or in a state of decline. It’s like a race: Can we take action while there is still time?
Into the Unknown
FELIX BAUMGARTNER is the first to break the sound barrier just by ... falling. Last October a balloon lifted him to the stratosphere. He jumped, parachuting a record 22.6 miles and hitting 843.6 mph. At 44, he now plans to pilot rescue helicopters.
There are those who say what you did was a stunt.
Give me some names!
You were sponsored by Red Bull. And a 22.6-mile jump is stuntlike.
I don’t like the word “stunt.” But what is a stunt? An attempt to do something super-risky. It requires planning. Safety is a priority. Same thing here.
If it’s not a stunt, what did you learn?
We proved high altitude is survivable, tested the next-generation pressure suit. NASA is interested in the data about what happens if a person breaks the speed of sound.
Take us on the jump with you.
I was not frightened. I had practiced. In the beginning it feels like floating. You gain speed. You’re hauling ass but never realize how fast you’re going. [Space] is breathtaking but hostile. Without protection we have no business up there.
SIR RANULPH FIENNES has been called the “world’s greatest living explorer.” He rejects the label, but his résumé is beyond dispute. Over 40 years the Briton has led record-setting expeditions up rivers, across deserts, and to both Poles. Now 69, Fiennes was to cross Antarctica this past winter—the coldest walk on Earth, in near-total darkness—when frostbite forced him to pull out, leaving him “gutted.”
You’ve lost fingers, had heart attacks, been in a coma. Why do you do it?
Speaking for my longtime team, we simply want to be first. We also do projects between expeditions to raise money for charity. But the most basic motivation is that I never got to do what my dad did: command Scotland’s last cavalry regiment.
I wasn’t designed to pass A-level math, so I didn’t get into the U.K.’s officer academy. But I enlisted in the army anyway, where I taught soldiers how to canoe, ski, climb mountains—adventure training. In civilian life it’s called an expedition. And sponsorship, I learned, is easier to get if you’re going for a big world first.
Which great explorers do you consider mentors or role models?
In my desert travels I really admired Wilfred Thesiger. Polarwise it would be Douglas Mawson. And of course Captain Robert Scott, the first man to penetrate Antarctica.
Do you have a mantra or talisman to help overcome fear in the field?
I have a five-inch cuddly toy that I’ve taken everywhere, a pink piglet called LEP—Little English Pig. My late wife gave it to me on a polar expedition 30 years ago.
Does one of your adventures stand out as the riskiest?
In 2007, to confront my vertigo, I climbed the Swiss Eiger. But when I got to the top, I realized I’d never looked down—I’d only succeeded because I hadn’t faced my fear.
How do you rebound from a failure or a near miss?
I would summarize 40 years of expeditions mathematically: 50 percent failed. You can’t assume you’re going to break a world record. If you know that, you also know you can often try again—using a different attack system, from a different angle.
GERLINDE KALTENBRUNNER is the first woman in history to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-plus-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen, a feat she completed on K2 in August 2011. The 42-year-old Austrian has plowed through chest-deep snow, subzero temperatures, rockfalls that have caused others to turn back. Still, the veteran climber says she feels “quite safe” most of the time.
Why do you climb?
I feel completely myself when I’m in the mountains with only the bare essentials. There’s a freedom in total concentration. Nothing else exists, only the climb.
Anything special you always carry with you?
My bracelet from Tibet. The stones represent power, energy, success, and health.
What’s the scariest moment you’ve faced?
On Dhaulagiri [in Nepal] in 2007 there was an avalanche one morning, and I was swept away inside my tent. When it stopped, I didn’t know if I was up or down; it was so dark. But I thought, OK, at least I can breathe. I always carry a small knife in my harness, so I was able to cut a hole in the tent. I was terrified that the snow would suffocate me. Slowly, slowly, I made it out. I searched for three Spanish climbers who had camped near me. Two of them were dead. In that moment everything seemed to be over. For the first time I just wanted to leave the mountain.
How did you move past that terrible experience?
It helped to talk with my husband, Ralf, who is also a climber and understands me completely. I realized that I couldn’t make the tragedy unhappen, and I couldn’t stop climbing—this is my life. A year later I returned to the same spot. There was the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. Joy and sorrow can be so close together.
Is this what you’ve always wanted to do?
Yes. As a teenager, I dreamed of becoming a professional mountaineer, but I didn’t know how. I was a nurse until 2003, when I dared to devote myself only to climbing.
What advice would you give a teenager with similar dreams now?
The most important thing is to have this passion inside. It’s not about what other people say is best for you—listen to your soul, your body, your gut instincts. If you really love something, you’ll find a way to reach it. But without passion, it’s pointless.
PAUL NICKLEN spent much of his childhood in remote towns on Baffin Island, Canada, exploring the Arctic landscape with Inuit kids. Those experiences led him to photography. Now 44, he shoots wildlife above and below the polar ice.
How did your childhood prepare you for life as a photographer?
We didn’t have radio, TV, or phone. My whole life was outdoors. When I was seven, I took my dad’s ice pick, hiked over a mountain, and chopped a hole in the ice to fish for Arctic char. I was having fun, but I was learning to survive in this environment.
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve faced?
I was photographing walruses—far more unpredictable than polar bears—alone under thick ice when my regulator quit. I knew I couldn’t make it back to the ice hole, and it dawned on me, this is how I die. Luckily, the regulator started working.
How do you handle the extreme cold of diving under polar ice?
I eat raw seal meat. Polar bears live on it. It tastes rich, like eating beef liver soaked in oil, but it makes you feel like a fire is burning in your stomach.
JAMES NACHTWEY joined the Merchant Marine after college and later taught himself photography. In a career spanning more than 30 years, he has traveled to the world’s most violent places, documenting many of humanity’s greatest struggles.
This work is dangerous, and it comes with a price.
You can do everything right and still get taken out. Several times people next to me have been shot, sometimes killed, but I wasn’t hit. Beyond the physical dangers, I’ve witnessed so many tragedies. It’s created a weight that I have to carry.
You were badly wounded in a grenade attack in Iraq. Yet you went back.
I had recovered as much as I was going to recover. I thought our countrymen should recognize and honor the sacrifice of our military personnel, as well as understand the real cost of the war and ask valid questions about it.
Do you consider war photography a form of exploration?
I interpret history in real time. So it’s an exploration of the unknown. I negotiate dangerous terrain. I constantly absorb sensory information and make rapid and sometimes life-and-death decisions.
What DANIEL KISH does, astonishingly, elegantly, makes you wonder how much untapped potential lies within the human body. Kish was born with retinal cancer, and to save his life, both eyes were removed by the time he was 13 months old. He soon started making a clicking noise with his tongue. It seemed to help him get around. Now 47, he navigates primarily using echolocation. Yes, like a bat. He’s so good, he can ride a bicycle in traffic. His group, World Access for the Blind, teaches others the art of the click.
How does human echolocation work?
Sound waves are produced by every tongue click. These waves bounce off surfaces all around and return to my ears as faint echoes. My brain processes the echoes into dynamic images. It’s like having a conversation with the environment.
What do you see in your mind’s eye as you click?
Each click is like a dim camera flash. I construct a three-dimensional image of my surroundings for hundreds of feet in every direction. Up close, I can detect a pole an inch thick. At 15 feet, I recognize cars and bushes. Houses come into focus at 150 feet.
But you still use a long white cane.
I have difficulty detecting small items at low level or places where the ground drops off.
What is it like riding a bike using echolocation?
It’s thrilling but requires very focused and sustained concentration on the acoustics of the environment. I click as much as twice per second, way more than I usually do.
Is it dangerous to explore the world this way?
Much of the world lives in fear of threats to life and limb that are largely imagined. Despite my insatiable habit of climbing anything and everything, I never broke a bone as a kid.
How challenging is it to teach other blind people echolocation?
World Access has taught nearly a thousand blind students in over 30 countries. Many students are surprised how quickly results come. I believe echolocation capacity is latent within us—early man may have used it when artificial lighting was nonexistent. The neural hardware seems to be there; I’ve developed ways to activate it. Vision isn’t in the eyes; it’s in the mind. Our students say they’ve discovered a freedom they never imagined.
Sunita Williams assumed as a kid that The Jetsons and Star Trek signaled a future where space travel would be routine. She never dreamed she’d be one of the pioneers. The former Navy pilot, age 47, has spent 322 days in space and 50 hours walking in space—the most spacewalking of any female astronaut. She first met astronauts two decades ago during test pilot school—and discovered that with her flying experience, she could join them. Now, as a member of the astronaut corps, she draws upon her Navy background. Walking in space, she says, is like flying a helicopter with a battle group: You focus on your job but always know where the other guy is.
What’s the most impressive thing about a space walk?
The view—being way, way high looking down and seeing the northern lights below.
Is it scary?
On my first walk [in 2006] there was a problem with a solar array that we needed to look at. As I started going up [the arm connecting the array to the station], I felt like I was climbing a skyscraper. I had to tell myself, It’s OK. You’re not going to fall. I clipped on a local tether and let my hands go to prove to myself, Hey, you’re OK. In space if you close your eyes for a second, you can twist the frame of reference. I remembered how we trained in the pool climbing this piece [while it lay] on its side, so I said to myself, OK, I’m on its side. I’m not climbing up; I’m climbing sideways.
Are there things you do to keep yourself grounded while living in space?
On my first flight I would float down to the [Russian] end of the space station because there was only one bathroom at the time. [Cosmonaut] Misha Tyurin would always say, “Would you like some tea?” We would sit or float or whatever for five or ten minutes drinking tea and just talk about life.
You did a space triathlon: treadmill, stationary bike. How’d you swim?
[To mimic] the swim, I had 15 exercises. It lasted about 20 minutes, my usual swim time.
Eventually I might like to teach seventh-grade science. But I’d love it if the U.S. could get the next spacecraft going. I’d jump at the chance to be a test pilot.
Prince of Prints
JR spent three weeks of the spring in what looked like a food truck, parked in Times Square. But instead of food, the French artist dished out oversize photographs. The subjects, a cross-smattering of New Yorkers, could either take their portraits home or paste them on the streets with JR’s preferred tools: a brush and a bucket of wheat paste. For the past 13 years JR—who won’t reveal his full name—has been plastering portraits on outdoor surfaces throughout the world, often in places where he risks arrest or deportation and where his photos can take on political meaning. In the Kibera district of Nairobi, Kenya, he made pictures of women’s faces and cut their portraits in half. The top halves were pasted on trains, the bottoms on corrugated sheets on a slope leading down from the tracks. When a train passed, the portraits lined up for a split second, and the women, marooned in the margins of life, were momentarily made whole.
You’ve taken photography to places where it’s never been.
For me the beauty is that art can appear anywhere. I love when it appears in places that you would not necessarily expect it to appear. When I see people pasting their portraits in crazy places, when they haven’t been to a museum, I like that. That’s why photography should go to places like that. Anyone can [see] it. Why not everyone should enjoy it?
How do you pick where you’re going next in the world?
All the places, I went there because I saw it in my TV, and then I wanted to see it with my eyes. Every place that I’ve gone was in response to something that happened in the same year. In Kenya there was a riot. The Middle East, it’s all over the news every day.
Have you ever failed?
I went to North Korea and couldn’t do something. Sometimes society reminds you that art is not welcome everywhere. I’m not looking to go [against] laws; it’s just in the nature of my work that it sometimes goes [against] the laws.
What was it like to go to Cuba?
I realized that the people had never seen a portrait of anyone other than Fidel, Che, or Raúl. They would approach slowly and would be like, “Are these portraits of Fidel or Raúl but from another angle?” And we were like, “No, it’s Pablo. He lives right on the corner.”
Vicki Jensen read Richard Preston’s hit book about deadly viruses, The Hot Zone, as a freshman in college and thought, I want to do what those guys do. Today she does. The 38-year-old is a virologist in the Biosafety Level 4 lab (aka the hot zone) at the U.S. government’s Integrated Research Facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Her team works to develop drug treatments and vaccines for the most deadly viruses known to humanity.
How does a typical day for you begin?
You get up, and you don’t drink a lot of coffee. I would have to take a seven-minute chemical decon shower just to get out for a bathroom break.
Plus you’d have to take off your airtight space suit. How does the suit work?
Your air comes in through a hose in the side. You’re always tethered to something. And it’s pressurized, so if it ever got punctured, air would rush out from it like a popped balloon, keeping any viruses out.
Has your suit ever popped?
Seems like we don’t hear much about Ebola anymore.
The number of outbreaks is on the rise. But in terms of total number of people who have died, you can’t even compare it to something like flu. But it’s so deadly. And there’s still no proven treatment. So it’s gotten a lot of attention from a biodefense perspective.
Doesn’t Ebola spread only through exchanging bodily fluids?
For now. We’ve looked at whether someone might be able to make it aerosol transmissible—an Ebola that acts more like the flu. That’s the worst-case scenario.
Does working with such deadly stuff frighten you?
Ya know, not really. It’s funny, I do get scared about viruses sometimes. But only in uncontrolled environments. When my son was born, he was very sick. I got a stuffed doll of the Ebola virus and put it in his crib. My mom was like, “Why did you put an Ebola in his crib?” I told her, “To chase away the lesser bugs.”
Does your son still have his Ebola doll?
Yeah. He’s five now. He sleeps with it every night.
By Marc Silver
Lale Labuko will never know some things about himself—like his birth date. His tribe in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley keeps no written records (his best guess is October, early eighties). But one thing he knows with absolute surety: He will not rest until he halts the custom of killing babies born out of wedlock, born to parents who didn’t get permission from the elders to have a child, or whose teeth grow in top first instead of the usual bottom up. These babies are believed to be cursed. Labuko has rescued 37 children, ages one to eleven; they live in a home he built with the help of California photographer and filmmaker John Rowe, co-founder of Labuko’s Omo Child organization.
When did you find out about this practice?
I was around 15. A village elder grabbed a two-year-old from the mother, and the mother was crying. I was not sure what was going on. My mother said, “Lale, some children in the tribe are declared mingi, and they kill them.” She said mingi means “cursed.”
How are the children killed?
Sometimes they’re left in the bush, no water, no nothing. Or they’re pushed off a cliff.
When did you first try to take action?
In 2008 I said to the elders, you think these children are cursed and bring disease and famine. Could you give me a child? Maybe the curse will follow me. Some elders agreed: “Let’s try and see.”
How big a risk was this?
Others warned me: “You rescue the children, one day [the tribe is] going to kill you.”
Clearly you didn’t listen.
Yes. And my tribe [the Kara] has stopped [the practice] completely. But the Hamer tribe still practices it. It’s hard to change an ancient culture.
Do you tell the children you’ve rescued about the fate they escaped?
They are too young. I tell them, “You are here for school.” When they are older, I will explain, “This is a custom. It’s not your parents’ fault. It was good I rescued you guys.” This year I got an email from National Geographic recognizing me as an “emerging explorer.” These children, one day, they will be the next emerging explorers.