Scientists recently discovered that Emperor Penguins—one of Antarctica’s most celebrated species—employ a particularly unusual technique for surviving the daily chill. As detailed in an article published today in the journal Biology Letters, the birds minimize heat loss by keeping
the outer surface of their plumage below the temperature of the surrounding air. At the same time, the penguins’ thick plumage insulates their body and keeps it toasty. . . .
The researchers analyzed thermographic images . . . taken over roughly a month during June 2008. During that period, the average air temperature was 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit. At the same time, the majority of the plumage covering the penguins’ bodies was even colder: the surface of their warmest body part, their feet, was an average 1.76 degrees Fahrenheit, but the plumage on their heads, chests and backs were -1.84, -7.24 and -9.76 degrees Fahrenheit respectively. Overall, nearly the entire outer surface of the penguins’ bodies was below freezing at all times, except for their eyes and beaks. The scientists also used a computer simulation to determine how much heat was lost or gained from each part of the
body - and discovered that by keeping their outer surface below air temperature, the birds might paradoxically be able to draw very slight amounts of heat from the air around them. The key to their trick is the difference between two different types of heat transfer: radiation and
The penguins do lose internal body heat to the surrounding air through thermal radiation, just as our bodies do on a cold day. Because their bodies (but not surface plumage) are warmer than the surrounding air, heat gradually radiates outward over time, moving from a warmer material to a colder one. To maintain body temperature while losing heat, penguins, like all warm-blooded animals, rely on the metabolism of food. The penguins, though, have an additional strategy. Since their outer plumage is even colder than the air, the simulation showed that they might gain back a little of this heat through thermal convection—the transfer of heat via the movement of a fluid (in this case, the air). As the cold Antarctic air cycles around their bodies, slightly warmer air comes into contact with the plumage and donates minute amounts of heat back to the penguins, then cycles away at a slightly colder temperature.
Most of this heat, the researchers note, probably doesn’t make it all the way through the plumage and back to the penguins’ bodies, but it could make a slight difference. At the very least, the method by which a penguin’s plumage wicks heat from the bitterly cold air that surrounds it helps to cancel out some of the heat that’s radiating from its interior. And given the Emperors’ unusually demanding breeding cycle, every bit of warmth counts. . . . Since [penguins trek as far as 75 miles to the coast to breed and male penguins] don’t eat anything during [the incubation period of 64 days], conserving calories by giving up as little heat as possible is absolutely crucial.
Contemporary internet shopping conjures a perfect storm of choice anxiety. Research has consistently held that people who are presented with a few options make better, easier decisions than those presented with many. . . . Helping consumers figure out what to buy amid an endless sea of choice online has become a cottage industry unto itself. Many brands and retailers now wield marketing buzzwords such as curation, differentiation, and discovery as they attempt to sell an assortment of stuff targeted to their ideal customer. Companies find such shoppers through the data gold mine of digital advertising, which can catalog people by gender, income level, personal interests, and more. Since Americans have lost the ability to sort through the sheer volume of the consumer choices available to them, a ghost now has to be in the retail machine, whether it’s an algorithm, an influencer, or some snazzy ad tech to help a product follow you around the internet. Indeed, choice fatigue is one reason so many people gravitate toward lifestyle influencers on Instagram—the relentlessly chic young moms and perpetually vacationing 20-somethings—who present an aspirational worldview, and then recommend the products and services that help achieve it. . . .
For a relatively new class of consumer-products start-ups, th ere’s another method entirely. Instead of making sense of a sea of existing stuff, these companies claim to disrupt stuff as Americans know it. Casper (mattresses), Glossier (makeup), Away (suitcases), and many others have sprouted up to offer consumers freedom from choice: The companies have a few aesthetically pleasing and supposedly highly functional options, usually at mid-range prices. They’re selling nice things, but maybe more importantly, they’re selling a confidence in those things, and an ability to opt out of the stuff rat race. . . .
One-thousand-dollar mattresses and $300 suitcases might solve choice anxiety for a certain tier of consumer, but the companies that sell them, along with those that attempt to massage the larger stuff economy into something navigable, are still just working within a consumer market that’s broken in systemic ways. The presence of so much stuff in America might be more valuable if it were more evenly distributed, but stuff’s creators tend to focus their energy on those who already have plenty. As options have expanded for people with disposable income, the opportunity to buy even basic things such as fresh food or quality diapers has contracted for much of America’s lower classes.
For start-ups that promise accessible simplicity, their very structure still might eventually push them toward overwhelming variety. Most of these companies are based on hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital, the investors of which tend to expect a steep growth rate
that can’t be achieved by selling one great mattress or one great sneaker. Casper has expanded into bedroom furniture and bed linens. Glossier, after years of marketing itself as no-makeup makeup that requires little skill to apply, recently launched a full line of glittering color cosmetics. There may be no way to opt out of stuff by buying into the right thing.
As defined by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, topophilia is the affective bond between people and place. His 1974 book set forth a wide-ranging exploration of how the emotive ties with the material environment vary greatly from person to person and in intensity, subtlety, and mode of expression. Factors influencing one’s depth of response to the environment include cultural background, gender, race, and historical circumstance, and Tuan also argued that there is a biological and sensory element. Topophilia might not be the strongest of human emotions—
indeed, many people feel utterly indifferent toward the environments that shape their lives - but when activated it has the power to elevate a place to become the carrier of emotionally charged events or to be perceived as a symbol.
Aesthetic appreciation is one way in which people respond to the environment. A brilliantly colored rainbow after gloomy afternoon showers, a busy city street alive with human interaction—one might experience the beauty of such landscapes that had seemed quite ordinary only moments before or that are being newly discovered. This is quite the opposite of a second topophilic bond, namely that of the acquired taste for certain landscapes and places that one knows well. When a place is home, or when a space has become the locus of memories or the means of gaining a livelihood, it frequently evokes a deeper set of attachments than those predicated purely on the visual. A third response to the environment
also depends on the human senses but may be tactile and olfactory, namely a delight in the feel and smell of air, water, and the earth.
Topophilia—and its very close conceptual twin, sense of place—is an experience that, however elusive, has inspired recent architects and planners. Most notably, new urbanism seeks to counter the perceived placelessness of modern suburbs and the decline of central cities through neo-traditional design motifs. Although motivated by good intentions, such attempts to create places rich in meaning are perhaps bound to disappoint. As Tuan noted, purely aesthetic responses often are suddenly revealed, but their intensity rarely is longlasting. Topophilia is difficult to design for and impossible to quantify, and its most articulate interpreters have been self-reflective philosophers such as Henry David Thoreau, evoking a marvelously intricate sense of place at Walden Pond, and Tuan, describing his deep affinity for the desert.
Topophilia connotes a positive relationship, but it often is useful to explore the darker affiliations between people and place. Patriotism, literally meaning the love of one’s terra patria or homeland, has long been cultivated by governing elites for a range of nationalist projects, including war preparation and ethnic cleansing. Residents of upscale residential developments have disclosed how important it is to maintain their community’s distinct identity, often by casting themselves in a superior social position and by reinforcing class and racial differences. And just as a beloved landscape is suddenly revealed, so too may landscapes of fear cast a dark shadow over a place that makes one feel a sense of dread or anxiety—or topophobia.