• Moiya McTier

Episode 10: The World of Blind Nomads

What would you do if you had two bony antennae sticking out of your head? Well, if you lived on this starless planet, you might use them to sense the world around you.


1. Mahadeo Sukhai is the world's first congenitally blind biomedical research scientist. He's also the Head of Research and Chief Accessibility Officer for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. You can find him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/mahadeo-sukhai/

2. Mona Minkara is an assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University. She studies chemical reactions in the lungs. You can follow her on twitter at @mona_minkara or click the following links to learn more about her work:

Her website: https://monaminkara.com/

Her lab website: http://www.minkaracombinelab.com

Her Planes, Trains, and Canes series: https://planestrainsandcanes.com

3. John Furniss is a professional woodworker. You can learn more about his work (and buy his beautiful pieces!) at https://www.theblindwoodsman.com/ or follow him on instagram at @blindwoodsman and tiktok at @theblindwoodsman


- Empowerment Through Integration, an organization dedicated to changing the narrative about people with disabilities


Moiya 0:00

What's up Exo-fans? All right, that's the last time I try to sound cool and give you a nickname. But I wanted to give you a heads up that this episode has some tech issues in the first five minutes, which is lol what happens when you try to host, produce, and edit a podcast all on your own, but it's just in the first five minutes. It gets better after that, I promise. And I hope you enjoy the episode.

Hey there and welcome to Exolore, the show about facts based fictional world building. I'm your host, Moiya McTier. And I'm bad at making decisions. I'm an astrophysicist who studies planets outside of our solar system. Those are called exoplanets. And I'm a folklorist who specializes in creating imaginary worlds and this podcast is my way of sharing those worlds with you. Before I get started, I want to thank Michael, my first and only Centaur level patron. Head on over to patreon.com/goastromo to support the show and keep Michael company. It's two good deeds for the price of one. Did you ever do GLSEN's day of silence when you were younger? Have you ever taken a turn in the sensory deprivation chamber? Or did you ever try to see how long you could go without using your eyes? Or was that last one just me? Well, for this episode, I wanted to imagine a world where the life forms evolved to perceive the world using different senses than us. And because about 30 to 50% of the surface of our brains are devoted to processing visual information. I wanted to build a world full of people who don't see, I knew that I didn't have the knowledge and experience necessary to genuinely imagine such a world. So I invited three guests who could help me out. My first guest is john Furniss, but you might know him as the blind woodsman.

John 1:48

I'm a professional woodworker. I love to do mechanics. I fix our car when we needed a work on small engines and I guess you could call me an armchair scientist. I don't really have any formal training beyond like high school and stuff but I do like to read books and watch documentaries and those kind of things.

Moiya 2:10

And are there any fictional worlds that you're inhabiting right now?

John 2:16

There's a really cool book series that I just listened to called the Bobiverse and the story goes, there's this guy that he has volunteered for a program where his thoughts are downloaded when he dies. And then it's like 100 years in the future. And they put his mind into a spaceship to go explore throughout the universe and the galaxy, and it's really cool.

That sounds really cool. I'll check it out. My next guest is Mahadeo Sukhai, the world's first congenitally blind biomedical research scientist, and we definitely talk later in the episode about the burdens that come along with being the first.

Mahadeo 2:57

I currently serve as head Research in chief accessibility officer for the Canadian National Institute for the blind and I'm adjunct faculty at Ontario Technical University and Queens University. So I do research. I started in genetics. Actually, no before that I started in astrophysics and astronomy. So, so I ended up in genetics and so so this is where I sit now. I do lots of fun stuff around. Understanding the lived experience of people who are blind or partially sighted.

John 3:32

That's cool.

Moiya 3:33

Wow, that's a lot. Do you have time for fictional worlds?

Mahadeo 3:35

Yeah, so I was on vacation last week, and I had two novels with me. Ben Bova is a science fiction writer who has been writing for a number of years on sort of a fictional universe called the Grand Tour universe and effectively what it is, is it's a series of novels and stories in a loosely put together continuity about humanity spread throughout the solar system. So I was reading that and I was also reading the third book and Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series called The Relentless Moon which was a very gripping alternative history thriller set on the moon.

John 4:18


Moiya 4:20

Next up is Mona Minkara, a bio engineer who studies chemical reactions in the lungs. Mona studied both chemistry and Middle Eastern Studies in college so she's definitely a woman after my own heart. And outside the lab Mona likes to knit, travel and do improv comedy.

Mona 4:35

I am an assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern University. I do research related to pulmonary surfactants. I'm a computational chemist by training. So I'm a theoritician, but I use that kind of knowledge and apply it to understanding what's happening in the lungs, which is extremely relevant these days because of COVID. On the side I actually love to travel and I was able to win the Holman Prize that's put out by the Lighthouse for the Blind San Francisco, which is like a big chunk of money, 25 G's, to be able to fulfill this idea that I had, which was traveling independently using only public transportation to five different cities around the world. But yeah, so that's what I do. I'm a scientist, traveler, adventurer.

Moiya 5:23

Awesome. What about fictional worlds?

Mona 5:28

Have you heard of the book, The Name of the Wind? It is one of my favorite books of all time.

Moiya 5:38

I love that book! All right, now that we all know each other, it's time to start actually building our fictional world. And our job here is to imagine what type of life and culture might actually form and evolve on a type of planet with a given set of characteristics. And for today's episode, the planet we're thinking about is one that doesn't orbit a star. And these types of planets actually do exist out in the universe. Astronomers call them rogue planets. And they're not necessarily just free floating through the galaxy because their motion is still dominated by the gravitational pull of stars and gas and dust around them in the galaxy. But they aren't gravitationally bound to a star. And I just want to take a second to talk about this a little bit more than I usually do, because my last research project actually looked at the motion of stars in the center of the Milky Way galaxy to see how often they have close encounters with other stars. Because one of the possible consequences of a close stellar encounter is that planets could get ripped away from their host stars. And what I found in my research was that 80%, eight zero, 80% of stars in the center of the Milky Way, a place that we call the bulge, experience these close stellar encounters. And I'm not saying that all of those encounters result in a planet being ripped away from their star, but like probably some of them do. So I really like the idea of focusing on a rogue planet for today's episode, because in my research, I found that there are probably a lot of rogue planets in the Milky Way bulge. When thinking about our rogue planet, imagine that it's almost exactly like Earth. So it's the same size. It has a moon, it just doesn't orbit a star. And so the way that it maintains an earth-like temperature is that it has a slightly thicker atmosphere, and some internal heating mechanisms like volcanism, which would contribute to a slightly thicker atmosphere.

Mona 7:42

Are the volcanoes or whatever -- the temperaturemaintenance system... Does that emit light?

Moiya 7:51

I mean, it'll give off heat, which is like infrared light, but let's say just for the sake of this thought experiment that there is no light.

Mona 8:01

That's what I wanted to clarify.

John 8:04

So would we be talking about an atmosphere that's very thick, like Venus? So that it would be a high pressure on the surface, as well as a high temperature. I mean, and probably mainly carbon dioxide and those kind of gases.

Mahadeo 8:21

That's a fun question.

Moiya 8:22

It is a fun question. But no, we're not. We're not talking about a Venus. It's it's pretty Earth, like, just imagine Earth's atmosphere, but in 10 years if we don't get a check on climate change, and it's just like, like the carbon dioxide content is just a little bit higher. Yeah. Okay. So first, let's imagine the biology of the life forms on this planet, we can make it as human or as inhuman as we want it to be. But we do want to make sure that we're talking about the human equivalent for this planet. Otherwise, we would just get way bogged down in the millions or billions of species that would exist here. Thinking about like the dominant life form: without sight, because there's no light on this planet, what other senses might the life forms on this planet develop to engage with their world?

Mahadeo 9:12

I think we just touched on one we talked about we talked about infrared. And so the dominant life form and in fact a lot of animal life forms in air quotes on on this planet could use heat sensing as a way to interact with the environment.

Mona 9:29

Yeah, or even audio audio feedback.

John 9:34

Scent for sure.

Moiya 9:36


Mahadeo 9:37


John 9:38

Hmm, yeah,

Moiya 9:40

John, you're mentioned I've scent reminded me of this animal and Avatar The Last Airbender. It looked like like a giant star nosed mole rat. And its main sense was smell and it could navigate by smell alone. That was really cool.

John 9:58


Moiya 10:00

And sound, you said. Mahadeo, when we talked earlier, you said that there are something like 17 senses.

Mahadeo 10:09

So there's the five obvious ones: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. And then there's something like nine hidden underneath that. So there's motion sensors. There's pain sensors, there's cold sensors, there's heat sensors. There's there's another weak electromagnetic sense. So I think there's like nine extra, behind the original five that everyone is taught in grade school. I would also imagine that touch would perhaps play a significant role for our dominant species on this planet. And I'm going to go with the name Mir, which is Russian for village, but also the root for mirror which is Latin for seeing, which of course, nobody's doing on this planet.

Moiya 10:54

So you're proposing that as a name for the world?

Mahadeo 10:56

Mir? Yes.

Moiya 10:58

I love that. Yeah, let's go with that.

John 11:00

Sonar would probably it wouldn't I think about it one of the main senses because that would be the closest one akin to sight. Such as like a dolphin or a bat or you know...

Mahadeo 11:14

That's a really good point, I think.

Mona 11:15

Yeah that's it I was thinking

Moiya 11:18

Cool. Any other physical traits that you think the life forms here might evolve? Ones that maybe would help them with these extra senses like big ears for example?

Mona 11:30

Or some kind of antenna?

John 11:31

Yeah, maybe a large, oh, like a think of it almost like a turkey's gizzard but made for sound so that it can be more easily sensed and transmitted, like a drum head kind of thing.

Moiya 11:47

John, you have to enlighten me. What exactly is a turkey's gizzard doing here on earth?

John 11:53

Well, I use that as an example. But a turkey's gizzard on Earth I believe is a food processor?

Mahadeo 12:03

Yeah, it's part of the digestive system.

John 12:06

That's what I thought yeah.

Moiya 12:07

Oh, I thought it just was like a funny looking thing.

John 12:11

Nah, it's got a function.

Moiya 12:14

I guess many funny looking things do. Any other features? Remember this is a... the planet has a thicker atmosphere, there's more carbon dioxide. Would that do anything?

John 12:26

One thing I was wondering: Because most, pretty much all oxygen on earth is created through photosynthesis in one way or another. And free oxygen usually isn't found in nature because it's so reactive unless it's being actively created. But that oxygen is one of the reasons we can operate at the level and the speed that we do so they might be slower moving or thinking or...

Mahadeo 12:58

I mean that's possible.

Mona 12:59

Are they gonna be oxygen based creatures?

Moiya 13:04

They don't have to be.

Mona 13:05

They don't have to be

Unknown Speaker 13:07

Possibly methanogenic. Like, you know, the from the volcanoes and stuff. There could be a lot of methane in the air.

Mahadeo 13:15

Or sulfur metabolizers like archaeobacteria.

Mona 13:20

And then like what happens like with the sonar? Like the sonar aspect right now, like the way it's designed for our atmosphere depends on the density of our atmosphere. But what happens on such a planet?

Moiya 13:32

Well, sound travels faster and easier through denser media.

Mona 13:36

So maybe then the eardrums or whatever that we might need to sense the sonar don't need to be as big.

Mahadeo 13:43

Here's another important question. If it's sulfur based biology, do you need running water on the planet or is it all running lava?

John 13:49

I think he would have to have water. I mean, I don't see how lava could be able to dissolve the chemicals and do the biological processes because it's so... such a high temperature you'd almost have to be silicon based.

Mahadeo 14:04

Well, I mean that so that that's true, right? And thinking about the archaea down like say the Marianas Trench, right? So you've got sulfur based life forms in a high pressure environment in an ocean next to, you know, magma basically. And so if you're imagining that evolving into an intelligent species, then I would agree, you'd have to have oceans.

Mona 14:33

Another thought that I had a little bit separate from what you guys are saying is, if the creatures are sonar based, maybe then, like every feature has a way to automatically produce the right amount of sound. That would be just beneficial to have like consistently. Like a mechanism, some kind of, like organ that just automatically was designed just for the like, optimized, you know song sonar like emission.

Mahadeo 15:11

So again, similar to how dolphins will do that right? Because they will dive down and they'll sense in the water with sonar. Yeah.

Mona 15:21

You know, we have our vision optimized for certain distances, different certain capabilities, there will be some other organ that kind of does that but with sound.

Moiya 15:30

We don't need to create a mechanism that is like seeing for them.

Mona 15:35

No, but there's no communication. Yeah.

John 15:40

Well, and to be an advanced being, you would have to be able to sense your environment at a distance. Otherwise you wouldn't know, I need to go over here to get this thing and do that, you know, process.

Mahadeo 15:54

Yeah, you would need the equivalent of depth perception. And I mean, most humans get that through eyesight. And so in this case, sonar I would agree is the best way, not the only way, but the best way to do it. I mean, hyperacute hearing will give you a depth perception too. But it's different, right? And I think you have potentially better range with sonar.

John 16:24

And this is a small tangent, but it's kind of a an interesting thing that popped in my mind is that how will they refine advanced metals and things like that in an atmosphere that doesn't have enough oxygen to create fire?

Mahadeo 16:41

They have a lot of magma. Yes, you're right.

Mona 16:44

So they can just harness that somehow.

John 16:46

Yeah, that would be interesting. Because think of how many things we have to have fire to do.

Moiya 16:56

Yeah, I can picture them like grilling over a magma river

Mona 17:01

Yeah. Having magma coming out of their faucets.

Unknown Speaker 17:05

Yeah, but to refine, you know, for instance, a large mass of steel and have it come out pure without high sulfur content which makes it weaker. Yeah, I know it's kind of a tangent, but it was just something that popped in my mind.

Mahadeo 17:20

But just a moment. I'll push back on that for a moment. Right. So our bias is the technology has to take the path that it took here. Unfortunately, we have an N of one in terms of technological civilization. So yeah, so this is this is pure astrobiological speculation. But why would they have to take the same technological path that we took, right?

John 17:48

Yeah, I guess you're right.

Mahadeo 17:51

So there's no need for fire necessarily if they choose to... like if they evolved in a different way. And so if they're able to do different things and manipulate the environment in a different way, because fire is a way to manipulate the environment.

John 18:08

Yeah, exactly. And I guess another question would be, what level of advancement are they? And what level of advancement does their culture care to get to? You know, if there's such a thick atmosphere, they may not know that there is anything but the ground that they stand on.

Mahadeo 18:29

Well, if the atmosphere is entirely cloudy, then you don't have clear skies, you've got clouds, you've got a greenhouse effect. So if you're using heat sensors, you may not necessarily tell that there's this great yonder that is not anywhere near as hot as your planet is.

John 18:47

It would be cloaked, and none of the stars... I mean, we can even detect the heat of stars with infrared telescopes from Earth. But that's an extremely sensitive thing and if you're, you know, basically you'd be blinded by an overpowered light.

Mahadeo 19:05

Now if they if they discovered radio, then radio astronomy might actually become a thing.

John 19:12

Ya know, having vision in the infrared spectrum being more useful than any visible light, it's feasible that they could even detect microwave or radio.

Mahadeo 19:26

True, because because we didn't we didn't specify, if they have infrared sensors, we didn't specify what wavelength infrared, whether it's near or long.

Moiya 19:36

Yeah, yeah, if they're seeing in long infrared, like close enough to the radio that they can detect that as well, their eyes would have to be so huge.

Mahadeo 19:46

Why, but but they may not actually be using eyes the way that we conceive of eyes, right?

Moiya 19:53

Or whatever sensory organ. Yeah. Like it has to be big enough to actually receive those signals

John 20:01

It could be a horn that has the qualities of an antenna so to speak.

Moiya 20:08

I would add that so that they can gather signals from multiple orientations, there's one sticking up and one sticking out, behind them.

Mona 20:20

Just like our eyes don't work the way they were meant to work, there probably are humanoid creatures that will have those horns that don't work like they were meant to work. And then what are the implications there?

Moiya 20:31

Yes, let's talk about that when we get to culture.

John 20:35

Yeah. When I guess I was kind of thinking beyond humanoid. I guess in my mind, it's still more of an amorphous kind of a creature.

Mona 20:44

I like that. I like that idea. So that's how they're receiving, but how are they transmitting?

Mahadeo 20:49

Why would the species simply not communicate through heat flow?

Mona 20:54

They could, yeah.

Mahadeo 20:57

If you're talking about infrared sensors anyway, then I guess the question is, can you code that in terms of information?

John 21:04

They could have some sort of, like a frill, like dinosaurs did that they could change the blood flow to certain parts of it so that it would be warmer or colder. And almost like an octopus changes colors. But with heat instead of...

Mahadeo 21:23

And I think that's a good point. Because it's not that they have to manipulate their environment, they would actually have to manipulate their own body temperature. Or the body temperature of a part. I mean, they are in a thicker atmosphere, so they could just as easily hear and speak.

Mona 21:40

Well, it could be it could be complimentary. They don't necessarily need to have just one. Maybe they maybe they can communicate through body temperature changes and through sound.

Moiya 21:50

Yeah, I mean, we have body language and maybe the temperature fluctuations that they can control in their bodies are similar to gestures that we would do with our own bodies.

Mahadeo 22:01

That's a really good point. I mean, body language came before speech sounds right. And so the other interesting wrinkle here is that on earth homosapiens, 80% of our sensory input is through our eyes for those of us whose eyes can do that. But for, for our species on Mir, we're not thinking that way. So, either we've got a different distribution of senses so that things are potentially more complimentary, or something else dominates.

Mona 22:36

I would like to go to the idea I like what you were saying, um, maybe not having something that dominates but something that is more complimentary, like 50-50 or whatever. Whatever the different inputs, this way it allows for the chances for something... Let's say something doesn't work, you know that there's still other avenues of communicating and exploring.

John 23:01

We can think of it as another sense, which would be more navigation over communications. Say that the, oh, how can you put this? That one developed before the other. And so it might be like a holdover, so to speak.

Moiya 23:18

Like further back in the brain.

John 23:20

Yeah, yeah. Cuz we've kind of come up with two conflicting senses there because when you think about it, a horn that detects and broadcasts radio is an appendage that's going to take an enormous amount of brain power and physical resources.

Mahadeo 23:39

So is there an evolutionary advantage for that, right?

John 23:42

Exactly. Yeah.

Moiya 23:43

Well, it could also be used for fighting. I feel like a horn is just so multifunctional.

Mona 23:49

If it gets damaged, then evolutionarily speaking, that wasn't very pragmatic.

Mahadeo 23:53

That would be counterproductive. Exactly.

Mona 23:55

Then you would need senses that are kind of complimentary. Like back to us as an example, as a metaphor. So 80% of our senses apparently comes from our eyesight, but imagine if it was 50-50 between our eyesight and our hearing so that like, we were all kind of born innately being able to echolocate, then having ears that don't work as well or eyes that don't work as well wouldn't culturally have made that big of an impact, right. Everything in the world that we live in now is catered to the eyes. A lot of it is.

Mahadeo 24:33

Yes, absolutely correct. And I mean there's some interesting neuroscience research that's out there. So somebody who is congenitally blind, so anyone who's born with partial or no vision in one or both eyes, if that's not something that could be corrected before the age of one, then your visual cortex is co-opted. It's repurposed. Right?

Moiya 25:00

Towards other senses?

Mahadeo 25:02

Towards other purposes, actually. Not necessarily senses. It could be senses, it could also be memory, it could also be motor control, it could be all sorts of things. Right? And I think that very much depends on plasticity and what you're exposed to as an infant growing up, right? And then as a toddler, and so it's not necessarily other senses. The literature on, if you can't see, can you hear better than everyone else? You know, can you have Vulcan hearing? I think the literature is a little bit confusing. And I also don't think it's properly controlled, but that's a separate conversation.

Mona 25:39

But that that brings it back to maybe a society that might have horns, not just for communicating and receiving, but maybe also for fighting. But then what would that mean? Because they can get damaged in the fighting.

Moiya 25:52

I mean, that leaves opportunity for a culture where you just protect your horns at all costs. I mean, one of my first instincts when I'm like in a dusty room or something is to protect my eyes.

Mona 26:03

Yeah they're eyes, right? They're not sticking out there. To have a horn I think is a very interesting concept because it sticks out right?

Mahadeo 26:13

It's like your fingers.

Mona 26:15

Yeah, but even more than your fingers because your fingers are kind of supported by other fingers. And you can curl them up into a fist.

John 26:23

Maybe horn is a misnomer. You know what I mean? Think of it more like an ear, or, you know, like your nose or something like that.

Mona 26:34

Yeah, like, but even your ear, right? Let's say your ear gets chopped off. You can still hear because the mechanism of hearing's inside.

Moiya 26:41

So maybe the horn is the receiver and the processor is inside the head. And instead of having like a hard bony horn, maybe it's like an antenna that can curl up like butterflies can curl up their antennae.

Mona 26:55

Yeah, maybe. And maybe we can supplement it with another sense.

Moiya 26:59

Yeah. I like that. I would like to start talking about culture. We've we've really, like thoroughly constructed this biology portion. Like way more than I do in any other episode, which I think is in part because this is the first episode I've ever had with two medical people as guests.

Hey friends, before we move on to talking about culture on this world, I want to recap some of what we've heard so far. First, our own Earth really has been built by and for people who can see. And according to the World Health Organization, at least 2.2 billion people in the world are blind or partially sighted. That's a huge fraction of the global population. And we'll definitely talk later in the episode about what people are doing to make the world more accessible for them. Second, we've imagined a world where our life forms, be they nebulous blobs or vaguely humanoid, have more ways of sensing their world than we do. Like Mahadeo said, it's important to have depth perception so you can navigate around. And for most of us depth perception comes from vision. But it could also come from sound, measuring temperature, or even detecting electric signals. And like Mona said, our life forms have more balanced senses so that if one sensory organ is damaged, others can compensate. And that seems like a pretty great way to make things work. So evolution you should get on that. All right now for some housekeeping. If you're hearing this, then you've obviously found the show so congratulations! But hopefully you want other people to hear the show too. And a great way to do that, aside from sharing it with your friends, is to rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. Shows with more reviews are more likely to be suggested by Apple's algorithm. So please help the show out by telling the world what you think of it. Also, to stay updated on the latest Exolore news, follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ExolorePod. Okay, now back to the show, but be sure to stay till the very end so you can hear a fun, creative prompt.

One question that I really have is for John. You do a form of art -- woodworking -- that I think a lot of people probably think of as primarily visual. And so before we start talking about art on our imaginary planet Mir, I'm wondering how do you engage with your craft both during the creation and after it's already made?

John 29:26

Well, during the creation, I have a condition called Charles Bonnet syndrome. And what that is, is people that have had vision and then become blind later in life. It's like their visual cortex is bored and it wants to keep doing something. And so they'll see images, shapes, colors, sometimes people's faces. And from what I understand, a lot of times it's very disturbing and distracting. But me personally, what would be my entire field of view is taken up by red with like black kind of speckles in it, sort of like static on the TV screen. There's blue and other shapes that kind of move in and out through it. And I've been able to use that as... call it like the background of the video screen. And I have more or less a computer design program in my mind. And I can just see my projects right in front of me. I put the layers together, I change the colors, the shape, whatever I want to do. And so I see that finished product before the piece of wood has even gone on the lathe. And then when it's done, it's this physical object that I've translated from that image in my mind to what I can hold in my hands. And I love it. It's almost like seeing again.

Moiya 30:57

Wow That's really awesome. All right, so let's let's take that experience and use it to speculate about art on Mir. What type of art do we think might exist on this planet? Or what type of themes do we think might be common?

Mona 31:19

Heat art.

Mahadeo 31:20

Yeah, I was thinking exactly that.

Moiya 31:22

What would that be like?

Mona 31:26

Canvases of different varying patterns of heat, like elements that emit heat at different temperatures.

Moiya 31:37

Oh, yes, like different, what's called? Like coefficients of heat or something. I love that.

John 31:45

Sonic art. And I don't mean music. What I'm envisioning is say, a big exhibit and you have, say four or five objects set up out there that are kind of like amphitheaters, but they'll affect the sound in different ways. And then you've got, say, some bars in front of you that you'll strike the bar and you can hear the different sounds come back.

Mahadeo 32:13

Sculpture would be good too. I mean, tactile art would still be a thing. Sculpture, woodworking.

Mona 32:18

Well, what about like, so we have on Earth, like, written like poetry as a form of art, and literature? What would be like the equivalent of such things on such a planet? What could be an expression of poetry?

Mahadeo 32:34

Well, hold on a moment. Now we're assuming they have writing which they may not have or may...

Mona 32:40

It may not be, right. An expression of poetry could be spoken if they spoke. Like what would that be?

Mahadeo 32:49

You could have, you know, heat in iambic pentameter.

Mona 32:54

Yes! I love it!

Moiya 32:57

I want to translate a Shakespeare poem to heat now.

John 33:02

And think of how important or even sacred speech would be to them because I mean sound and heat those would be the dominating things on the entire planet. 80% of what we pay attention to, or people with vision, is visual. So think of how sacred objects affect people and things like that.

Mona 33:27

Yeah, you're making me think of like, you know how on earth we might have like a meadow or beautiful nature scenery. Maybe over there would be like a beautiful soundscape or sonar scape where you stand and you're able to experience all sorts of different wavelengths.

Moiya 33:47

Or like a natural rock formation where the wind passes through it in such a way that it creates a like a beautiful sonic experience.

John 33:56

There is a cave I can't remember where it is, but they've used the stalactites and stalagmites so that it's an organ. They have these mallets that strike the stalagmites and stalactites

Moiya 34:12

In case you're taking recommendations for your first post coronavirus vacation. John's talking about the Great Stalacpipe Organ located in the Luray Caverns in Virginia. It's the world's largest musical instrument that was made by humans or like constructed by humans. It's really cool. You should definitely check it out.

Mona 34:32

And then also, I have a friend who is blind and she is an astrophysicist. And she has sonified light data, but can you imagine being like a creature that actually listened to the stars just innately as opposed to seeing them?

Moiya 34:46

Is this Wanda?

Mona 34:48

Yes, that is Wanda. Wanda Diaz Merced. Yeah, she's great.

Mahadeo 34:52

I was gonna say. So this this comes back to sort of scientific developments as part of culture, right. So astronomy was the first science. But I mean, the interesting thing is, if it's not astronomy the way that we know astronomy, I mean, it might be radio astronomy, it also might be because we said we said this planet Mir has a moon, at least one, a large one. And it has tides. And so from the tides, they can infer the existence of something that's actually flexing their planet. Right so they can, even if it's a totally clouded over sky, and all they have is heat signatures from what's going on on the planet, and sort of reflected heat signatures from the sky, they would still be able to infer something beyond.

Mona 35:35


John 35:36

And they may be so physically sensitive due to the lack of vision that they may even be able to feel its effect as it goes by. Like I literally physically feel it's effect.

Mona 35:49

They may be able to feel each other in that way then, too. Maybe there's a kind of like, "oh, our society is doing well because of density! And we can feel through the surface that our society is not doing well, because there's not as much vibrations of people moving around" or something. Maybe an innate sense of well being.

Mahadeo 36:12

I'm gonna throw something else on the table. They're not sedentary. There's no cities.

Mona 36:16

Hmm, no cities...

Moiya 36:18

So a very nomadic society.

Mahadeo 36:20

Well think about it. So if we've got a planet wracked with volcanism, nothing's going to stay long enough. You're talking about landscapes getting changed or erased on the timescale of dozens or hundreds of years. But there's, there's no year here, right? And there's also no way for them to realize what a day is. So the only thing that they would have, I think, would be the tides or any kind of innate sense that they have built in.

John 36:50

And what if they don't require sleep? The reason we require sleep is because it's a programmed-in day night cycle. Because traditionally, nighttime was dangerous. So it was more efficient to sleep at night but there are fish in the deep ocean where there's no water that never sleep.

Moiya 37:08

You mean where there's no light.

Mahadeo 37:11

Actually we we evolved from from nocturnal mammals, right, because our our ancestors in the Cretaceous were these tiny little rodent creatures that were nocturnal because that's when dinosaurs slept.

Moiya 37:26

I want you to remember this conversation about why we sleep at night because I just invited a chronobiologist, that's someone who studies circadian rhythms and other time related patterns in the body. So I just invited her to be on a future episode of Exolore so be on the lookout for that.

I want to talk a little bit about prejudice. And Mona, we can tie this into what you brought up earlier, where like there will probably be some people on this planet where their sensory organs don't work like everyone else's. And so here on Earth, a lot of prejudice is based on looks. Things like race, gender expression, level of attractiveness. And as nice as it would be to build a utopia on Mir, it's just not super realistic. So what do we think discrimination would be based on on this planet?

Mona 38:21

Your ability to emit? Like, along the lines of body language with the heat, your ability to pick up on other people's heat signatures, maybe.

John 38:31

Your sound frequency

Mona 38:32

Yeah, and then your horn damage, your ability to track the environment around you.

Moiya 38:43

I love that you said horn damage, and I can just imagine on this world, they're like, "Oh, you didn't take good care of your horn. You're such a bad person."

John 38:51

"I fell and broke my horn!"

Mona 38:56

No, that's kind of like unfortunately like to bring up something really like sensitive, but like people with disabilities, like... Think about the culture in the past about like, "oh, they're meant to not be living or they're a state of something evil or a manifestation of like, sin or something." But like, I think that would occur.

John 39:21

That brings another question into hand: is there religion? When you break religion down to its core roots and you trace it all the way back, it all breaks down to worshipping the sun, the moon, the earth, and the water. All of them break down to that and that's because that's where life comes from. We know that without sun, rain, land, and sky we have nothing. We have no food. We have no anything.

Mahadeo 39:55

Right, but on Mir, life comes from the heat of the interior. And life comes from water.

Mona 40:06

So polytheists on Mir would be praying to heat and water.

Moiya 40:12

I'm imagining miner priests, people who, as they get further up in the ranks of religion, go deeper and deeper underground. To get closer.

Mona 40:27

Yeah, I'm gonna like, push back on all of this guys. I feel like we're very narrow and I think we're like bringing our own perceptions to religion, right? To what we perceive our history of people have held valuable. But um, I think that there also have been many different other perceptions and views on religion and what we pray for. And, like, I think we're like innately kind of connected to the structure of having priests or having like...

Mahadeo 40:58

Yeah, but it doesn't have to be that way. Buddhism doesn't exist as a religion with priests

Mona 41:04

You have to like get back to the core of it. What is religion? And is there a difference between religion and people seeking truth and people seeking the source of the universe? You know, like, you don't know where they're at in that journey.

Moiya 41:25

Right, but just like there are going to be so many different species on this planet, within this one species that we're discussing, there are going to be so many different religions.

John 41:35

How much free agency is there in this society? Because a society living under such harsh conditions as this planet would probably represent, would most likely have to be fairly strictly controlled as far as resources and things like that go. Otherwise they your your tribe, so to speak, won't survive.

Mahadeo 41:59

This is also I was thinking that you would have a nomadic society because, you know, the equivalent of hunter gatherer in his world has, you know, a certain population limit. But a sedentary society has a very different population limit. The planet just may not be able to support it.

Mona 42:21

Yeah, and do they somehow have some kind of record keeping? Like we have writing. What would be the equivalent of that?

Mahadeo 42:29

Well, there's no seeing, so therefore, there is no writing, but again, it depends on how you code the information. You can code it in sound

Mona 42:37

Or tactilely.

Mahadeo 42:41

You could coat it in heat.

John 42:43

You could write by creating things that when struck would make a tone, almost like a xylophone-ish,

Moiya 42:54

To have a sufficiently advanced society, and maybe we don't want them to get that far, but to have a really advanced society, you have to have a way for knowledge from one generation to reliably get transferred to the next. And what I really liked about all of the methods that you came up with for encoding information, like either carving it or having that xylophone-like thing, John. What I like about that is that it seems like it's a lot harder to destroy than paper. I just love the idea of having like, almost like a written in air quotes, almost like a written form of knowledge generation and like, passing down knowledge that won't burn down in a fire. Like they won't have a Library of Alexandria that gets burned down.

Mona 43:49

I think they have a equivalent though, unfortunately.

Moiya 43:52

Oh, yeah. It's possible. It's just harder than paper.

Mahadeo 43:57

You could actually think about a language like pro-tactile which is an entirely tactile form of communication arising on a world like this. You can think about tonality and audio arising on a world like this is a form of communication. You can think about, you know, heat transfers as a quote unquote, nonverbal way of communication.

Mona 44:18

Are we assuming this species is social or antisocial?

John 44:23

I think on a planet like that with the type of conditions you would almost have to be social to survive.

Moiya 44:29

And it makes stories more interesting. I think if people want to set stories on this world that we build. I want to touch on one more thing before we wrap up. So we've mentioned that they're are nomadic society, which means they travel around. And Mona, you're really experienced with traveling. And I wonder if we could create a fully accessible public transit system for the people on this planet.

Mona 44:54

I think that would be necessary, but okay, to begin with though, if you're nomadic, is this like infrastructure across the entire planet that's interconnected?

Moiya 45:03

It could be but it doesn't have to be. I mean, there can be like organized nomadism, where it's nomadic in cycles. Like they go to the same place over and over again.

Mahadeo 45:18

After so many tides.

John 45:19

Yeah, you have to make sure and listen both ways before you cross the street, right?

Mona 45:25

Maybe you feel the heat of like, the thing that's taking you first, you know. I'm going to start off with a train because that's where my mind is at because obviously, I'm human. But like, imagine if, instead of like hearing the drain, you can feel it from this heat signature.

Moiya 45:44

Or the vibration

Mona 45:45

Or the vibrations. I mean, honestly, this is something that we have on this planet in Japan. Like every train has a different sound that comes with it like so that you know what train is what. That would probably exist there too.

Moiya 46:00

Anything about this world that you really want to make sure we discuss before I bring it back to Earth?

Mona 46:08

Communal education.

John 46:10

You'd have to have something like that in an advanced society of any kind.

Mahadeo 46:14

Well some form of information transfer from one generation to the next. I have a suspicion that their path through the sciences would be different.

Mona 46:27

Or mathematics.

Moiya 46:30

How so?

Mahadeo 46:31

Exactly right, Mona. And I'm thinking about what they would actually learn first, and what they would work out first, right. And we've already settled on them picking up on the tides. And so we haven't talked about the elements of biology that they'll pick up on. We haven't talked about the elements of chemistry that they'll pick up on. They're on a very active planet. They'll understand geology, I think, a lot sooner than we did here.

John 46:54

They'll probably understand chemistry sooner than we did.

Mahadeo 46:57

Agreed. Same reason.

Mona 47:00

Wave science.

Mahadeo 47:02

Yeah. I mean they they will rely more on sound and sonar and range finding and location, since they would understand those principles a lot faster too.

John 47:11

They may even discover electricity production faster because of the wavelength of communicating.

Mahadeo 47:20

That's true. And in case there's any good solid sources of piezoelectricity on the planet.

Moiya 47:26

He said that and I was like, What? So apparently, the piezoelectric effect is the ability of certain materials to generate an electric charge when they're pushed. So when you apply mechanical stress. And the word "piezoelectric" comes from the Greek word "piezo" which is Greek for "push."

John 47:46

For instance, the cigarette lighters that have the button that clicks? That is a piezoelectric cell because it's a metal plate that when struck creates a spark.

Moiya 48:01

All of those things would be part of the curriculum in this education system. Nice. All right now I'm gonna bring it back to Earth, because we're almost done. But I was wondering if all of you could maybe talk about some organizations or people who you think are doing really great, important work to help make the world more accessible.

Mona 48:23

I have to give a shout out to my sister's nonprofit organization. My sister's also blind. Her name is Sarah Minkara. And she started an organization called Empowerment Through Integration. And what she does is she helps integrate like blind kids in societies. They started camps. They've got programming in Lebanon and Rwanda and their hope is to expand to other nations around the world. And it really does kind of tackle the issues from a cultural perspective. How do we perceive disabilities? How do we perceived blindness? We as a society primarily perceive it as a disadvantage. What does that mean? We should change that because the reality is everybody has a potential that they can reach and contribute. And honestly, after this entire adventure on planet Mir, we realize that things are only disadvantages because of how everything is constructed. And I think you know, ETI what it does is kind of broach those issues and talks about them and tries to help with fixing them.

Moiya 49:33

I will definitely put a link to your sister's organization down in the description box. Any other organizations?

John 49:42

Apple for their iPhone, because that's opened up my life and many other blind people's lives in so many ways.

Mona 49:47

Snap snap, I totally agree!

John 49:50

And also TikTok. And the reason I say TikTok is because TikTok is a global platform and I've been able to educate people about blindness and disability and help people be inspired literally on a global scale. And I've, for a long, long time wanted to be a an inspirational speaker and try to help people get through their hard times and help educate them about disability. And it's allowed me to do that in a way that otherwise would have taken me a lifetime. And it's also been an extraordinary benefit to my business. It's allowed Anni and I to really flourish as professional artists.

Moiya 50:36

Great! Mahadeo, do you have any orgs that you think are doing a really great job?

Mahadeo 50:41

I'm going to back away from organizations and actually talk about a nascent movement that I think is actually worth highlighting. It's important to recognize in all of this that, you know, there's a bunch of us who are here -- all four of us have a wide range of expertise and in a wide variety of fields, right. And so I happen to have been the first person in the world who graduated with a PhD in genetics who was born blind. And that wasn't something that I sought. It was something that kind of just happened. I didn't realize it until halfway through what I was doing. The funny thing is, if I'd known in the beginning, I may not have done it. Because there's a certain amount of pressure that goes with being the first. And the interesting thing is, because of how our communal education systems are structured, somebody who goes and does their PhD who has any sort of disability, let alone sight loss, won't realize that there might be others who have been through that space before. I genuinely think that it's important to recognize that here we are, at a time, two decades into the 21st century, and today the the number of people who graduated with PhDs in genetics, I could count on 10 fingers, if even. And those are individuals who are blind or partially sighted, and that's a really small number.

And the funny thing is that if you look at the history of disability in science before World War II and sort of before the depression in the 1930s, the numbers were a lot higher. And we live in silos and my desire in speaking about the importance of the trailblazing work going on in equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility in STEM is to say that we don't have to live in boxes anymore.

Moiya 52:45


John 52:46

But one thing I'd like to add in that respect is: as a blind person that is good mechanically, I can build things and fix things and all that kind of stuff, but I'm not good with computers in any way, that has been a huge hindrance to me as a blind person. Because most places that do mechanics or woodworking or whatever, they're not willing to hire a blind person for liability purposes. And I get that. But I would love if there would be some way for opportunities for blind people like me, that are very skilled with mechanics and their hands and things like that, to have more job opportunities because it threw up a stone wall until literally, I created my own.

Mahadeo 53:39

John raises an interesting point because there's a certain amount of bias that goes into the "Oh, you're blind. You must be great at computer science."

John 53:46


Moiya 53:48

That's that an assumption people make?

Mahadeo 53:50

Stereotypes come from a lack of experience, right? And if somebody doesn't have experience, then they're not really able to make something fit with their worldview. The number of people that believe that blind people can't do science is very, very high.

Mona 54:08

Sometimes ourselves too. Sometimes those assumptions and stereotypes infiltrate even our mind, you know. Like if it weren't for the fact that I love science so much and I'm just a stubborn person who likes what I find interesting, I don't think I'd be here, right? Part of me even imbibed the fact that I just have to run, keep on running to keep up with my peers. It was much later in my life, in my career, when I realized that my blindness could be an advantage. And I have to thank my postdoc advisor for that a lot of times. Also you need to have a check to look inside and be like, "what stereotypes are you carrying about yourself that's not necessarily true?"

John 54:53

There were many people at the piano school that they they said, "Oh, I can't do the mechanical stuff. I'm blind." And I tell them "No, you can't say that until you try." And more often than not, they ended up being very skilled at the mechanics.

Mona 55:08

I've been told that, too, John! I was like, "I'd like to do some woodworking" and people were like, "How you're gonna use a saw? You're blind! You'll cut off your fingers." I'm like, "I don't know how."

John 55:25

That's why you learn.

Mona 55:26

Maybe it wasn't like such a focus of my interests. I never tried, but like, I'd like the opportunity. I don't know if I'd be good at or not.

Mahadeo 55:33

It doesn't matter if we would be good at it or not. I think what matters is that we have the opportunity to try as opposed to not. The number of students that I have heard stories about who were told by their science teachers that they shouldn't do chemistry lab or they shouldn't do a frog dissection or whatever, you know, is enough to make my blood pressure go through the roof, which is why I've made a secondary career out of dealing with that.

Mona 55:57

Or teach science

Mahadeo 56:03

I actually got asked that question at one point. My very first grad school TA position was for a faculty member who in the phone interview said, "so I understand you have a visual impairment" because my master's supervisor had cheerfully disclosed on my behalf. And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Okay, how can you see the teach?" And I said, "hire me and you'll find out."

Mona 56:23

I mean, I had students tell me that their parents were mad to find out that I was blind and their professor, The reality is, society still has a ways to go.

Moiya 56:34

So much of what all of you are saying, reminds me of how important representation is. If there were more examples of blind and visually impaired people that sighted people had access to, we wouldn't be as ignorant about these things as we currently are. Which is why I am just really excited that I got to talk with all of you today and brings to asking how our listeners can learn more about you and what you're doing. So Mahadeo, do you want to go first?

Mahadeo 57:07

I'm on LinkedIn and that is frankly the best way to find me.

Moiya 57:12

Nice. Mona, what about you? How can people learn more about what you're doing?

Mona 57:16

You can check out my website: monaminkara.com. There's a contact form there. You can find me on LinkedIn also. I have my planestrainsandcanes.com website too. Or you can check my research on minkaracombinelab.com. I have three websites!

Moiya 57:35

I will post links to all of them in the description. Cool. Cool, John, what about you?

John 57:40

We I'm under the blind woodsman, and I'm on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and my website where you can buy my artwork and see everything that both me and my wife me is theblindwoodsman.com. That's THE blind woodsman. Not just blind woodsman.

Moiya 58:00

Right, cuz you are THE blind woodsman, not just any old one.

John 58:05

Yeah the other blind woodsman is a Brothers Grimm character. I'm not that blind woodsman. I'll just put it that way.

Mona 58:15

I want it to be the blind chemist on Twitter, but like somebody had beat me to it. And they're not even a chemist!

Moiya 58:25

So rude. So rude! All right, well, I will definitely post links to all of those pages that you just mentioned down in the description box so that our listeners can find out all about the awesome work that you're doing. And buy your stuff, John, because it's beautiful.

John 58:42

Thank you very much.

Moiya 58:43

Yeah. Any last thoughts before we sign off?

Mahadeo 58:48

Well, aside from this being all sorts of fun...

Moiya 58:53

Awesome. Thank you. Thank you so much for spending time with me. I really appreciate everything you've had to say. And I love this world that we just built.

John 59:02

It would make an awesome sci fi story, wouldn't it?

Moiya 59:05

Absolutely. You heard John. This would make an awesome sci fi story. So here's a prompt to get you started. Reimagine a classic love story as it might happen on this world. How would a story like Cinderella, which depends on a prince of a settled nation falling in love at first sight, work on a planet inhabited by blind nomads? Share your work on Twitter or Instagram and tag @ExolorePod or send it to the email exolorepod@gmail.com. If you send me a story, I might even read it on a future episode of the show. I was really excited to record this episode because I know that our world was built for and by sighted people and I wanted to imagine what the world could be like if we made some small changes that made it accessible to everyone. So I really want to thank Mahadeo Sukhai, Mona Minkara, and John Furniss for sharing their knowledge and expertise with me. Check out their websites by clicking the links below and take some time to learn about more people with disabilities doing cool stuff. Not in like a gross inspiration porn way. But just to remind yourself that it's not up to you to assume what anyone else's limitations are. If you want to support my world building work, you can head on over to patreon.com/goastromo. Or if money's tight, you can rate and review the show on Apple podcasts. It really does make a difference. If you like this episode, be sure to share it with your friends and subscribe to the show. That way you can catch me next time on another world.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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