Dean Brown scatters out a few dozen shapes on the table in foam, metal,
plastic, rubber. All are the same rough shape – the two-dimensional outline
of a pair of blocky, simplified sunglasses. Almost 8-bit. Like sunglasses you
might find on the face of a Lego motorcycle cop or Kanye West.
“So these are the prototype puffin sunglasses. You can see we tried out
different materials. And to some we’ve made slight changes or adaptations
based on the requirements of the team and the birds. This is one
adaptation – we’ve added these bumps on each side for the researcher
to hold them on the puffin’s face.
“This prototype phase is really important, as you can see. And it’s
so much easier, now that we have access to laser-cutting and other
manufacturing technology right here – a few years ago it would have been
time-consuming and very expensive to get prototypes made – we would
have had to approach manufacturers and produce things on a much
larger scale. Now we’re much freer – and that fits how we like to work.
It’s important that we’re able to get up from our desks and walk into
the next room and just start making something straight away. That’s the
Makers Revolution – democratising that process. Shortening the distance
between having an idea and making an object.”
When I was commissioned to write a piece about a design team who make
sunglasses for puffins, I was in two minds.
I once tried to explain to my poetry editor that I couldn’t stand poems
that are clearly written only as an excuse to share an unusual factoid the
poet has come across. A bar in Canada serves a cocktail with a human
toe in it. A man once rode a cart pulled by goats around every state in the
continental USA. A team at Goldsmiths University is designing sunglasses
My editor said the bigger problem was that such facts and stories
would soon be worthless anyway. Interesting things would no longer be
interesting. We value improbable and un-usual things. To be conventionally
interesting, facts or anecdotes must be unlikely. Or rather, they must
deviate sufficiently from trends set by our everyday experience. But the
internet intelligently aggregates content from data sets so inhumanly large
as to render probability, trend and deviation meaningless on a scale visible
at human level. We are now statistically likely to come across unlikely things.
Jamie Dunning is the man who discovered that puffins’ beaks glow under
ultra-violet light. Acting on a hunch, and based on what we know of birds’
eyesight (that is, that many birds can see UV light) and the already-attention-
seeking quality of puffins’ bills as they appear to we viewers of the
human-visible spectrum, he took a frozen puffin out of the freezer and
held it under a UV lamp. Its beak lit up with stripes of vivid white-blue
light, like a hi-vis vest or the luminous trim on the costumes from the
The question I keep coming back to is… how did Jamie come to test
a puffin in the first place / in particular? In some accounts, he makes it
sound as though he hypothesised ahead of time and his experiment
simply confirmed what he already expected about puffins under blacklight.
In others, though, it sounds more exploratory, or even arbitrary. As though
he had a lot of other bird specimens in his freezer and was just testing all
of them on the off-chance, one after the other. Sparrow, no. Penguin, no.
Lesser-spotted woodpecker, no. I think of Dean and his prototypes. Yellow
wagtail, no. Albatross, no. Puffin…
The next step of the ongoing research is to find out why puffin beaks have
developed this strange property. Does it help chicks to see their parents?
Could it be used as a sexual signal? The only way to know for sure is to
shine UV light on live puffins throughout the year. If, for example, a gradual
brightening of the birds’ UV beak-stripes is observed in the run up to
breeding season, researchers could assume that the markings play a role
in mate selection. In that case, does a bright, flashy beak indicate a
well-nourished, fertile puffin with good prospects? These are questions
which can only be solved by further study: more UV light being shone on
more puffins. And for this to happen, the puffins’ eyes must be protected.
Jamie got in touch with Dean and the team to see if they could make
“sunglasses for puffins”.
When Dean talks about closing the gap between the idea and the making
of it, about jumping straight up from his computer and moving quickly
from concept to execution, my own work seems suddenly unbearably
lacking. No matter how brilliant an idea for a poem is, there is nothing
to make but the poem itself.
Dean’s breed of creativity is constantly on the verge of spilling into the
material. Mine is the opposite. As a poet I don’t have a workshop, but if
I did it would be full of machines making objects disappear.
The team who actually use the sunglasses in the field, the ones who fit
the bendy sunshades snugly onto the bridge of the bird’s beak etc, and
brandish the hi-powered blacklight torch or whatever it is they shine on
the puffins, won’t let anybody see photos of their research being carried
out. Perhaps this is sensible – the less the animals appear online the less
chance there is of reprisals from the animal-rights community. But Dean
and Jamie feel limited by their lack of imagery. This spring, the story went
viral, but they weren’t able to provide the content needed to capitalise on
their new-found fame. Fortunately, the internet stepped up and provided,
as it always does. Soon, at the top of one news article, there was a puffin,
complete with cyberpunk neon beak, photoshopped into the poster for
Tron. A clickbait site had a puffin in a trenchcoat, wearing those little
round sunglasses Keanu wore in The Matrix. My favourite though was the
Brokeback-Mountain-meets-Marlboro-Man drawing: a shirtless cowboy of
a puffin, its feathers ruffled into a convincing imitation of washboard abs,
fashionable aviators visible under the brim of his ten-gallon hat…
The internet is its own rank. A machine made to sort and aggregate itself.
That’s what is so scary about a thing gone viral; that no individual makes
it happen – the popularity of the viral puffin and its sunglasses are an
emergent property of a network, the internet, which is like a giant brain,
or a giant bee or ant nest, a collection of so many uncountable individuals
that it takes on new sentience and life. What is more frightening? The fact
that we can talk about the internet as taking on a new intelligence and life
of its own, or that when we do its first visualisation, imagined scene and
desire is a picture of a puffin in sunglasses?