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Cast your imagination down to the bottom of the ocean—not at a beach or a bright coral reef just offshore, but the true ocean floor—the abyssal plains which cover much of Earth’s surface.  Here vast flat swaths of mud lie in black silence.  Only the occasional seamount or shipwreck breaks the monotony of plains as big as continents.  Tides do not particularly affect the bottom of the ocean.  The most violent storms do not perturb the waters.  Even humankind’s restless activities, which have so much affected the rest of the planet, mean little here.  At first it seems bleak, but soon enough you realize that life is everywhere here.  There are spiderfish, lizardfish, deep sea octopuses, bizarre roving sea cucumbers, and all sorts of strange creatures, but we are not here for them.  Instead we are concentrating on an inconspicuous worm-like animal.  The tiny cylindrical creatures are only 5 cm (2 inches long) and they shimmer strangely when exposed to light.  It would be reasonable to assume that they were worms or tiny sea cucumbers, but they are not.  The benthic beasts are members of the aplacophora class of mollusks—the naked mollusks.  They are presumed to be similar in appearance and nature to the basal mollusks from which the other classes of mollusks have evolved (although both fossil and molecular evidence is frustratingly exiguous).  To look at aplacophorans is to see back to the Cambrian (540 million years ago) and to glimpse an even earlier era when the ancestors of the mollusks diverged from the annelids.

Two specimens of the aplacophoran Simrothiellidae (photographed by G. Rouse)

The aplacophoran shine because of tiny calcareous spicules embedded in their skin.  There are about 320 known species split between two clades: the caudofoveates and solenogasters.  To quote the University of California Museum of Paleontology website, “Caudofoveates are burrowers that feed on detritus and bottom-dwelling microorganisms, while solenogasters feed on cnidarians. Both groups have a radula and lack true nephridia.”  There is an even more important distinction between the two different clades: whereas solenogasters are hermaphrodites, caudofoveates have two genders, and reproduce by external fertilization.

Epimenia australis (Photo by R. Willen)

The depths of the ocean are known to harbor animals which have vanished from the rest of the Earth long ago, and such is believed to be the case with aplacophorans.  For a half billion years they have gone about their business in a part of the world which is resistant to outside change.  The next time you fly across an ocean, imagine all of the naked mollusks in the muck at the very bottom and think about the vast amount of time they have been there.

Old-timey Olympics?

The Olympics is continually remade to reflect contemporary taste.  Sports which were once important are gradually abandoned.  Exciting new sports which appeal to younger audiences (or boring old sports which appeal to wealthier audiences) are tried out.  For example, the 2016 Olympics in Rio will feature two new sports—rugby sevens and golf (which has repeatedly been part of the Olympics in the past—and has repeatedly been dropped because it is an unwatchable festival of abject tedium).  The extent to which things have gradually changed becomes apparent when one looks back at the canceled sports of yesteryear, many of which are so anachronistic they seem like Monty Python gags.  The Economist illustrates the point with this delightful chart which features live pigeon shooting, javelin free style, and pistol dueling for teams (!?).  One of the discontinued sports which sounded most exciting to me was club swinging which conjures heady images of hirsute cavepersons belaboring each other with wooden cudgels. Was this the original sport?

Club Swinging?

Alas, my research into club swinging has revealed that the sport was not the Neanderthal free-for-all for which I was hoping (nor even some sort of amoral 70’s party event).  Apparently the “clubs” are those weird elongated bowling pin things that jugglers use.  The club swinger would take these objects and whirl them about his head and trunk in a discipline which combined saber-dancing, juggling, gymnastics, and just plain looking ridiculous. The sport had such a circus appearance that it gave rise to rumors that juggling was once an Olympics sport (which it never was).  Club swinging was also known as Indian club swinging because gifted participants apparently looked like they were taking part in some intricately choreographed Native American ritual.  In the fullness of time club swinging devolved into rhythmic gymnastics, that strange pseudo sport where a young Bulgarian dances and tumbles with a ribbon on a stick (which always makes my poor father apoplectic when he sees it on TV).

Club Swinging

Rhythmic Gymnastics

Club swinging was only a medal event at two Olympics festivals—the Saint Louis Olympics of 1904 and the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932.  Both of these Olympics were dominated by Americans because, in the age before cheap jet travel, the Olympics were not nearly as International as they now are.

“Smokey” the mascot of the 1932 Olympic Games

The 1932 Olympics took place at the high point (or low point?) of the Great Depression and underlines the sad exigencies of those times.  The gold medalist in club swinging was George Roth, an unemployed gymnast who was hit particularly hard by that economic catastrophe (in fact the Guardian reports that he once went 15 days without eating—so he probably looked like today’s gymnasts).  Roth embodied Baron de Coubertin’s ideal of unpaid amateur sports to an unwholesome degree: as soon as he was awarded with his gold medal he left the stadium and sadly hitchhiked home.

George Roth, the last Olympic gold medalist in Club Swinging

The Curiosity Lander as Photographed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

There can only be one subject for today’s short post: congratulations to NASA for successfully landing the large space rover Curiosity on Mars!  The touchdown was a stupendous triumph of engineering and space-faring: you can check out the ridiculous precision which was required on the NASA produced digital animation Seven Minutes of Terror. There is even an amazing photo of the actual landing taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a multipurpose spacecraft which has been orbiting Mars and diligently assembling a comprehensive picture of the place.

Artist’s Conception of Curiosity Approaching Mars

The Curiosity is a very alien looking vehicle.  A deliciously irony about our space exploration program is the extent to which our current technology resembles the clichés of the golden age of science fiction.  The Curiosity literally arrived via flying saucer.  It has six insectoid wheeled legs and a laser blaster!  If it landed it my back yard I would grovel before it and offer to take it to the president or maybe throw a hatchet at it and call the Air Force (depending on how I construed it intentions).

Artist’s Conception of the Curiosity Rover Investigating a Rock Surface

The Curiosity beamed back a few photos from Mars to prove it arrived safely:  now it will go through a series of diagnostics and start-ups before the real research gets started. The actual measurements it takes will be pored over by astrophysicists and geologists for decades. However, in a larger sense, a substantial chunk of the real research has already taken place—the scientific and engineering challenges which went in to creating the lander are as big a part of the program’s utility as the information stream from the surface of an alien world.

Of course the success of the Curiosity has a frustrating side: the comments on all of the news sites were filled with complaints from myopic Luddites who were angrily whining that the United States is wasting its money on Mars. “We humans need to get our own house in order before we start worrying about red rocks on Mars. There are millions of children who go blind every year from parasites and malnutrition and you’re worried about sending a robot to Mars to collect stupid red rocks,” wrote Matthew Smith in a typical anti-research anti-progress comment.  Fortunately, such views seemed to be a minority today, but they always call for a stern rebuttal.  Many of the the technologies which we use every day and undergird our economy grew from the space program (and related defense research).  To cut back on such research is to abandon our prosperity and technology leadership in the future but, more worryingly, it is to abandon the future.

Humankind needs to understand both astrophysics and aerospace engineering far better: missions like Curiosity are a way to accomplish both those goals.  Additionally Curiosity is working on some questions unique to Mars, a world which once had oceans and an atmosphere and now does not.  That seems like something we should understand better for its own sake, but it also suggests that microscopic life might still dwell on Mars (or at least the remains of extinct life could exist in fossils).  Finally, we did not spend the money on Mars.  The government spent all of that money here, on salaries for engineers and scientists and on R&D for high tech industries.  China is amazingly proficient at penching pennies and producing plastic junk, but it will be a long time before they can build anything as complicated as the Curiosity and the equipment which took it to the surface of Mars (although hopefully they are trying—we could use some new partners in space and some friendly competition might get us moving a bit faster).

Archery seems to have been invented at the end of the late Paleolithic period.  Thereafter the use of bows and arrows for hunting and combat was widespread throughout most human societies up until the invention of firearms.  Subsequent to the popularization of guns, archery was (and still is) practiced as a recreational activity, but sometimes it is more fashionable than other times.  Right now there is a craze for archery in America thanks largely to the best selling dystopian fantasy novel, The Hunger Games, which features an Appalachian heroine who is forced to use her bow-hunting skills to prevail in an epic gladiatorial contest (that’s her up there at the top of the post as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the blockbuster film).  However archery has become popular as a pastime in other eras and other places thanks to similar fads and crazes.  For example, in the 18th century, big swaths of the European aristocracy became obsessed with pastoral fantasy—the idea of living as milkmaids, shepherds, and rustic hunters.  To celebrate recreational archery (which just finished a star turn at the Olympics), here is a mini gallery of three 18th century masterpieces concerning archery and pastoral ideas of beauty.

Caccia all’anatra (Pietro Longhi, 1760, oil on canvas)

Longhi was famous for painting scintillating little scenes of private life in 18th century Venice.  Usually his paintings abound with lovely blushing courtesans, lecherous lords, bumbling servants, and sly procuresses (those paintings are a treat and you should go check them out). Here a foppish lord is duck hunting in a red jacket with gold embroidery!  The boatmen all seem to be staring at him with mixed expressions of disbelief, contempt, and envy.  Despite his graying hair and outlandish looks, the nobleman seems pretty proficient with his longbow and has already shot three ducks.

Marie Adelaide of France as Diana (Jean-Marc Nattier, 1745, oil on canvas)

Jean-Marc Nettier mostly painted the royal family of France.   Here he has portrayed Princess Marie Adelaide, the sixth child of Louis XV pretending to be the goddess Diana.   The guise proved to be prophetic, for the princess was never married (there were no eligible bachelors of her station alive in Europe).  Dressed in leopardskin and silk the princess/goddess stares haughtily down from the canvas as she fingers her arrows. It is as though she is deciding whether it is worth her effort to shoot the viewer.

Diana and Cupid (Pompeo Batoni, 1761, oil on canvas)

Pompeo Batoni made his living painting wealthy European lords who were visiting Rome.  Although he was a superb portrait painter he did not paint any first order masterpieces–except for this very beautiful painting of Diana tormenting Cupid.  The virgin goddess has taken Cupid’s bow away from him and she playfully holds it out of his reach as he clambers (arrow in hand!) across her lap.  The work features superbly rendered hunting dogs, magnificently opulent scarlet and pink drapery, and a gorgeous triangle composition.  All elements point toward the goddess’ exquisitely painted face which bears a strange intense expression of wry amusement with a hint of wistfulness. This painting is currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you should look for it if you are ever there.  Because of its beautiful execution, its luminous color, and its superb condition it is one of those paintings that seem like an actual portal where you could step through into a world of nude goddesses and eternally verdant forests.

An Adult Female Blanket Octopus

“Blanket octopus” sounds like an endearing nursery game, but the blanket octopuses are actually pelagic hunters which have adapted to living in the ultra-competitive environment of the open ocean.  There are four species of blanket octopuses (Tremoctopus) which can be found ranging from the surface to medium depths of open tropical and subtropical seas worldwide.  Because they often live far from any land, some of the methods which other octopuses use to escape predators do not work very well for them.  Fortunately Blanket octopuses have adapted in their own unique bag of tricks.

An Adult Female Blanket Octopus

Blanket octopuses are named after the distinctive appearance of adult female octopuses which grow long transparent/translucent webs between their dorsal and dorsolateral arms.  Blanket octopuses use these webs as nets for hunting fish, but they can also unfurl and darken their nets in order to appear much larger than they actually are.  Since blanket octopuses do not produce ink and can not camouflage themselves as rocks, coral, or sand, they rely heavily on their blankets.  As a last resort they can jettison the blankets as a decoy and jet away while the confused predator attacks the highly visible membranes.

Blanket octopuses exhibit extreme sexual dimorphism.  Whereas the female octopus can grow up to 2 meters (6 feet) in length, the male octopus is puny and does not grown longer than a few centimeters (1 to 2 inches).  Males store their sperm in a modified quasi-sentient third right arm, known as a hectocotylus.  During mating this arm detaches itself and crawls into the female’s reproductive vent.  As soon as the hectocotylus is detached the male becomes unnecessary and dies.

Male Blanket Octopus

Tiny males and immature females do not have blankets, but they utilize another trick to protect themselves.  Because they hunt jellyfish and other hydrozoans, the little octopuses are immune to the potent venom of the Portuguese man o’war.  The octopuses tear off stinging tentacles from the man o’war and wield them in their tentacles like little whips to ward off predators.

An amazing illustration of a blanket octopus sheltering in a Portuguese man o’war’s tentacles

The 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team

In high-low poker the person with the best hand of cards splits the cash pot with the person with the very worst hand.  I mention this because, in addition to spotlighting the world’s best athletes, every Olympics seems to feature an athlete or a team who wins the hearts of the fans because they are in way over their head.  The 1988 Olympics in Calgary, which marked the apogee of this trend, featured several different underdogs who became more famous than the actual winners.  The Jamaican bobsled team came from a nation which doesn’t have ice except in tropical drinks.  Their story is actually an inspiring tale of Olympic fraternity: other bobsledders lent them equipment (including bobsleds!) and helped them out with coaching and advice.  Although they did not officially finish in 1988, they showed great improvement and returned in subsequent winter Olympics (and were canonized in a not-entirely-accurate John Candy comedy).  Here’s a video of them zig-zagging down the track and crashing (it isn’t a practice run either).

Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards at Calgary

The 1988 Olympics also featured my favorite Olympic story—Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, a far-sighted, big-chinned amateur British ski-jumper.  When I say “far-sighted” I don’t mean he looked deep into the future of the sport, I mean his vision was seriously impaired and he had to wear heavy glasses at all time.  These spectacles would fog up during his jumps which caused all sorts of problems (and you really don’t want any problems on a ski jump).  Eddie ran out of funds, so he trained with ski boots many sizes too large and lived rent-free in a Finnish mental hospital (ostensibly as a low rent boarder rather than as a patient).  On each of his jumps Eddie skirted dangerously close to death or contusion, yet he always provided an immensely entertaining spectacle.  The audience was a bit baffled by the flying-squirrel-like physiques and esoteric gliding skills of the winning ski jumpers, but bonded instantly with a lunatic everyman sliding off an immense ice-ramp for reasons of obdurate pride.

1998 Japanese Women’s Hockey Team

In the 1998 winter Olympics, the Japanese women’s hockey team (which was made up of miniscule, hyper-polite athletes) earned an automatic invitation to the tournament because Japan was hosting the Olympics.  I seem to remember watching a match where they were playing against craggy-faced giants from some icebound northern country and every single Japanese player fell down at the same time. Some of them didn’t (or couldn’t) make it upright for a while.

Eric “The Eel” Moussambani

In 2000 Eric Moussambani Malonga (aka “Eric the Eel”), a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, stunned the world by taking longer to complete the 100 meter freestyle than competitors from other nations took to swim the 200 meter freestyle. “The Eel” who had been training for only eight months in a tiny hotel pool, had qualified for the Olympics when the two other swimmers in his heat were disqualified.  He swam his heat by himself—and won (even though he appeared to be sinking at the end).

Hamadou Djibo Issaka

Of course I would not mention these famously…tenacious…Olympians of yesteryear if the 2012 games did not already feature an athlete notable for his gallant but ineffectual effort.  An optimistic (albeit small-framed) sculler has already made a name for himself by, well, by not rowing as quickly as his competitors.    Hamadou Djibo Issaka was working as a gardener in the landlocked desert nation of Niger until he received a wild card spot (which nbcolympics.com explains are issued “to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees can take part even if no athletes have qualified.”)  Although Djibo Issaka only practiced rowing a single scull for 3 months prior to the Olympics he demonstrated his spirit and determination by competing against the finest rowers in the world.  Yesterday, he gamely rowed a 2000 meter course in front of 20,000 cheering spectators.  Although he finished 300 meters behind his closest competitor in the heat, he was pleased not to have fallen out of his boat (which is what happened the first time he got in a scull in a two-week camp last November) and he is enthusiastic about Niger’s future rowing opportunities once they actually get sculls to practice with.

Hamadou Djibo Issaka rowing at the 2012 Olympics

Although he is now known as “the sculling sloth” the 35 year old Djibo Issaka was undaunted by his last place finish.  He will be rowing again on Friday and is looking forward to 2016.  I am glad that the Olympics include all sorts of athletes!  It makes the entire spectacle more exciting and unpredictable.   The gold medal champions embody the Olympics motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“faster, higher, stronger”), but the amateurs who refuse to give up embody the Olympics creed.   To quote Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

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