10 Facts About the Internet's Undersea Cables

In describing the system of wires that comprises the Internet, Neal Stephenson once compared the earth to a computer motherboard. From telephone poles suspending bundles of cable to signs posted warning of buried fiber optic lines, we are surrounded by evidence that at a basic level, the Internet is really just a spaghetti-work of really long wires. But what we see is just a small part of the physical makeup of the net. The rest of it can be found in the coldest depths of the ocean. Here are 10 things you might not know about the Internet’s system of undersea cables.



Ninety-nine percent of international data is transmitted by wires at the bottom of the ocean called submarine communications cables. In total, they are hundreds of thousands of miles long and can be as deep as Everest Is tall. The cables are installed by special boats called cable-layers. It’s more than a matter of dropping wires with anvils attached to them—the cables must generally be run across flat surfaces of the ocean floor, and care is taken to avoid coral reefs, sunken ships, fish beds, and other ecological habitats and general obstructions. The diameter of a shallow water cable is about the same as a soda can, while deep water cables are much thinner—about the size of a Magic Marker. The size difference is related to simple vulnerability—there’s not much going on 8000 feet below sea level; consequently, there’s less need for galvanized shielding wire. Cables located at shallow depths are buried beneath the ocean floor using high pressure water jets. Though per-mile prices for installation change depending on total length and destination, running a cable across the ocean invariably costs hundreds of millions of dollars.


There’s disagreement as to why, exactly, sharks like gnawing on submarine communications cables. Maybe it has something to do with electromagnetic fields. Maybe they’re just curious. Maybe they’re trying to disrupt our communications infrastructure before mounting a land-based assault. (My theory.) The point remains that sharks are chewing on the Internet, and sometimes damage it. In response, companies such as Google are shielding their cables in shark-proof wire wrappers.


It seems like every couple of years, some well-meaning construction worker puts his bulldozer in gear and kills Netflix for the whole continent. While the ocean is free of construction equipment that might otherwise combine to form Devastator, there are many ongoing aquatic threats to the submarine cables. Sharks aside, the Internet is ever at risk of being disrupted by boat anchors, trawling by fishing vessels, and natural disasters. A Toronto-based company has proposed running a cable through the Arctic that connects Tokyo and London. This was previously considered impossible, but climate change and the melting ice caps have moved the proposal firmly into the doable-but-really-expensive category.


In 1854, installation began on the first transatlantic telegraph cable, which connected Newfoundland and Ireland. Four years later the first transmission was sent, reading: “Laws, Whitehouse received five minutes signal. Coil signals too weak to relay. Try drive slow and regular. I have put intermediate pulley. Reply by coils.” This is, admittedly, not very inspiring. (“Whitehouse” referred to Wildman Whitehouse, the chief electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, who we’ve discussed previously.) For historical context: During those four years of cable construction, Charles Dickens was still writing novels; Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass; a small settlement called Dallas was formally incorporated in Texas; and Abraham Lincoln, candidate for the U.S. Senate, gave his “House Divided” speech.


During the height of the Cold War, the USSR often transmitted weakly encoded messages between two of its major naval bases. Strong encryption was a bother—and also overkill—thought Soviet officers, as the bases were directly linked by an undersea cable located in sensor-laden Soviet territorial waters. No way would the Americans risk World War III by trying to somehow access and tap that cable. They didn’t count on the U.S.S. Halibut, a specially fitted submarine capable of slipping by Soviet defenses. The American submarine found the cable and installed a giant wiretap, returning monthly to gather the transmissions it had recorded. This operation, called IVY BELLS, was later compromised by a former NSA analyst named Ronald Pelton, who sold information on the mission to the Soviets. Today, tapping submarine communications cables is standard operating procedure for spy agencies.


With respect to electronic espionage, one big advantage held by the United States is the key role its scientists, engineers, and corporations played in inventing and building large parts of the global telecommunications infrastructure. Major lines of data tend to cross into American borders and territorial water, making wiretapping a breeze, relatively speaking. When documents stolen by former NSA analyst Edward Snowden came to light, many countries were outraged to learn the extent to which American spy agencies were intercepting foreign data. As a result, some countries are reconsidering the infrastructure of the Internet itself. Brazil, for example, has launched a project to build a submarine communications cable to Portugal that not only bypasses the United States entirely, but also specifically excludes U.S. companies from involvement.


There are well over a thousand satellites in orbit, we’re landing probes on comets, and we’re planning missions to Mars. We’re living in the future! It just seems self-evident that space would be a better way to virtually “wire” the Internet than our current method of running really long cables-slash-shark-buffets along the ocean floor. Surely satellites would be better than a technology invented before the invention of the telephone—right? As it turns out, no. (Or at least, not yet.) Though fiber optic cables and communications satellites were both developed in the 1960s, satellites have a two-fold problem: latency and bit loss. Sending and receiving signals to and from space takes time. Meanwhile, researchers have developed optical fibers that can transmit information at 99.7 percent the speed of light. For an idea of what the Internet would be like without undersea cables, visit Antarctica, the only continent without a physical connection to the net. The continent relies on satellites, and bandwidth is at a premium, which is no small problem when one considers the important, data-intensive climate research underway. Today, Antarctic research stations produce more data than they can transmit through space.


The good news is that it’s hard to cut through a submarine communications cable, if only because of the thousands of very lethal volts running through each of them. The bad news is that it is possible, as seen in Egypt in 2013. There, just north of Alexandria, men in wetsuits were apprehended having intentionally cut through the South-East-Asia-Middle-East-West-Europe 4 cable, which runs 12,500 miles and connects three continents. Internet speeds in Egypt were crippled by 60 percent until the line could be repaired.


If you think replacing that one Ethernet cable you can’t quite reach behind your desk is a pain, try replacing a solid, broken garden hose at the bottom of the ocean. When a submarine cable is damaged, special repair ships are dispatched. If the cable is located in shallow waters, robots are deployed to grab the cable and haul it to the surface. If the cable is in deep waters (6500 feet or greater), the ships lower specially designed grapnels that grab onto the cable and hoist it up for mending. To make things easier, grapnels sometimes cut the damaged cable in two, and repair ships raise each end separately for patching above the water.


As of 2014, there are 285 communications cables at the bottom of the ocean, and 22 of them are not yet in use. These are called "dark cables." (Once they’re switched on, they’re said to be “lit.”) Submarine cables have a life expectancy of 25 years, during which time they are considered economically viable from a capacity standpoint. Over the last decade, however, global data consumption has exploded. In 2013, Internet traffic was 5 gigabytes per capita; this number is expected to reach 14 gigabytes per capita by 2018. Such an increase would obviously pose a capacity problem and require more frequent cable upgrades. However, new techniques in phase modulation and improvements in submarine line terminal equipment (SLTE) have boosted capacity in some places by as much as 8000 percent. The wires we have are more than ready for the traffic to come.

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

Could Leonardo da Vinci's Artistic Genius Be Due to an Eye Condition?

Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Young John the Baptist, Leonardo da Vinci (1513-16, Louvre, Paris).
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

Leonardo da Vinci was indisputably a genius, but his singular artistic vision may have been the result of seeing the world differently in more ways than one. A new paper argues that he had strabismus, a vision disorder where the eyes are misaligned and don’t look toward the same place at the same time. This disorder, visual neuroscientist Christopher Tyler argues, may have helped the artist render three-dimensional images on flat canvas with an extra level of skill.

Tyler is a professor at City, University of London who has written a number of studies on optics and art. In this study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology, he examined six different artworks from the period when Leonardo was working, including Young John the Baptist, Vitruvian Man, and a self-portrait by the artist. He also analyzed pieces by other artists that are thought to have used Leonardo as a model, like Andrea del Verrocchio’s Young Warrior sculpture. Leonardo served as the lead assistant in the latter artist’s studio, and likely served as the model for several of his works. Leonardo was also a friend of Benedetto da Maiano, and possibly served as a model for his 1480 sculpture of John the Baptist. Tyler also looked at the recently auctioned Salvator Mundi, a painting that not all experts believe can be attributed to Leonardo. (However, at least one scientific team that examined the painting says it’s legit.)

With strabismus, a person’s eyes appear to point in different directions. Based on the eyes in Leonardo’s own portraits of himself and other artworks modeled after him, it seems likely that he had intermittent strabismus. When he relaxed his eyes, one of his eyes drifted outward, though he was likely able to align his eyes when he focused. The gaze in the portraits and sculptures seems to be misaligned, with the left eye consistently drifting outward at around the same angle.

'Vitruvian Man' with the subject's pupils highlighted
Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci (~1490, Accademia, Venice)
Christopher Tyler, JAMA Ophthalmology (2018)

“The weight of converging evidence suggests that [Leonardo] had intermittent exotropia—where an eye turns outwards—with a resulting ability to switch to monocular vision, using just one eye,” Tyler explained in a press release. “The condition is rather convenient for a painter, since viewing the world with one eye allows direct comparison with the flat image being drawn or painted.” This would have given him an assist in depicting depth accurately.

Leonardo isn’t the first famous artist whose vision researchers have wondered about. Some have speculated that Degas’s increasingly coarse pastel work in his later years may have been attributed to his degenerating eyes, as the rough edges would have appeared smoother to him because of his blurred vision. Others have suggested that Van Gogh’s “yellow period” and the vibrant colors of Starry Night may have been influenced by yellowing vision caused by his use of digitalis, a medicine he took for epilepsy.

We can never truly know whether a long-dead artist’s work was the result of visual issues or simply a unique artistic vision, but looking at their art through the lens of medicine provides a new way of understanding their process.