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I haven’t written very much about the current state of politics lately, not just because President Trump makes me angry & unhappy, but also because the deadlock in Washington (and precipitous national decline) make me sad and anxious.  I would like to continue this precedent:  paying breathless attention to all of Trump’s stunts and bullying just make him stronger (although I do think it is worth noting that he has been signing Bibles as though he were the author–and his devout Christian followers absolutely love it!). However, the latest enormities fall in the realm of policy and planning, so let’s take a look at the proposed 2020 Discretionary budget which was released by the White House yesterday. Predictably, this budget delivers slight funding increases to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, while stripping safety net and environmental programs fairly drastically.  I suppose this is not unexpected under any Republican president, even one such as this one, (although it raises eyebrows after the colossal tax giveaway to the rich).  However, what truly raises eyebrows in the budget are the appalling cuts to scientific and medical research.  Here are the actual numbers:

Proposed Discretionary Budget Changes

All dollar amounts are in billions.

Department Or Agency
2019 Budget (Estimate)
2020 Request
$ change
% change
Defense1 $685.0 $718.3 $33.4 +5%
Veterans Affairs $86.6 $93.1 $6.5 +8%
Health and Human Services $101.7 $89.6 -$12.1 -12%
Education $70.5 $62.0 -$8.5 -12%
Homeland Security $48.1 $51.7 $3.6 +7%
Housing and Urban Development
HUD gross total (excluding receipts) $52.7 $44.1 -$8.6 -16%
HUD receipts -$9.3 -$6.5 $2.8 -30%
State Department and other international programs2 $55.8 $42.8 -$13.0 -23%
Energy $35.5 $31.7 -$3.8 -11%
National Nuclear Security Administration $15.1 $16.5 $1.3 9%
Other Energy $20.4 $15.2 -$5.2 -25%
NASA $20.7 $21.0 $0.3 +1%
Justice $29.9 $29.2 -$0.7 -2%
Agriculture $24.4 $20.8 -$3.6 -15%
Interior $14.0 $12.5 -$1.5 -11%
Commerce3 $12.3 $12.3 * <1%
Labor $12.1 $10.9 -$1.2 -10%
Transportation $27.3 $21.4 -$5.9 -22%
Treasury $12.9 $13.1 $0.2 +2%
National Science Foundation $7.8 $7.1 -$0.7 -9%
Environmental Protection Agency $8.8 $6.1 -$2.8 -31%
Army Corps of Engineers $7.0 $4.8 -$2.2 -31%
Small Business Administration $0.7 $0.7 * -5%
Other agencies $21.3 $19.1 -$2.1 -10%

Notes

* $50 million or less
1. Includes $9.2 billion for emergency border security and hurricane recovery funding
2. Includes funding for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury international programs and 12 international agencies
3. Appropriations for 2019 are incomplete.

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Did you know it has been 30 years since a spacecraft swung by Neptune?  Voyager II was the first and last spacecraft to visit the strange ice world which (with the demotion of Pluto) is the outermost planet of our solar system.  A ball of gas, ice, rock and iron 17 times the size of Earth, Neptune is the third most massive planet and is the most dense of all the giant planets. However we know surprisingly little about this distant neighbor–a fact which was vividly demonstrated this week when astronomers discovered an unexpected new moon orbiting the planet.  This new moon brings the tally of Neptune’s moons to 14. Mark Showalter, a researcher at the SETI institute in California, discovered the little satellite accidentally, while working on another project and the new body was confirmed with the Hubble Space telescope (which is also still out there, by the way).

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Neptune’s largest moon is the retrograde Triton.  The second largest moon is Proteus, an irregular polyhedron with a diameter of 420 kilometers, named after the shape-shifting old man of the sea.  The new moon, which is named “Hippocamp”, after a seahorse like Greek sea monster (above) has a diameter of about 20 kilometers (about the length of Manhattan) and seems to have been formed from ejecta left over from when some primordial body slammed into Proteus.

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Astronomers have spent comparatively little time studying Uranus and Neptune compared to the other planets of the solar system–which is somewhat ironic since most of the exoplanets we are finding are ice giants.  It seems like they might be noticing this gap in their knowledge.  A new mission to the ice giants is the third top mission priority in a vote-based ranking of proposed probe missions (by astrophysicists…nobody asked me what I want *cough*  balloon mission to Venus’ atmosphere).  Hopefully we will get our act together and launch a modern robot out to the big blue ice worlds in the not-too-distant future.

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Today’s post takes us back, once more, to Ultima Thule/2014 MU69, the distant snowman shaped planetoid at the edge of the solar system which was visited by the New Horizons space probe as it flies through the Kuiper Belt on its way out of the solar system (since that time, we also blogged about the color Thulian pink–which is based on the fantasy land at the northern edge of the medieval map).  Well, space can be a confusing place, and, even with digital cameras, the way we see objects tumbling through the void can be misleading.  As New Horizons flew away from Ultima Thule, it turned its cameras around and took the following shot (which hopefully shows up in all of its glory as an animated gif below).

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Holy hemispheres! What is with that bright edge?  Spheres certainly don’t have those! It turns out that Ultima Thule may not be a snowman as originally billed.  Instead it seems more like a double pancake.

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This news will please flat earthers (on the off chance they believe that New Horizons actually exists), but they shouldn’t read too much into it.  Planets are spherical because they are so massive that the force of gravity causes them to collapse into the most efficient shape – a sphere. This is broadly true for objects with a diameter greater than 1000 kilometers (621 miles) and Ultima Thule was not even remotely that big (indeed we didn’t think it was a sphere before).  I do wonder how these two smushed snowballs formed and came together though.

Enthusiasts of Kuiper Belt objects will have to discard the snowman analogy and look for an object which is a lumpy disk stuck to a smaller lumpy disk.  It sounds like a hogchoker to me (see a picture of the flatfish below), but this may merely be a shallow pretext to link to my flounder art on Instagram.  It might be a while before we discover anything even remotely shaped like a flatfish in space though so I am going to take what the universe offers.  If you have better topological analogies feel free to share in the comments (after you follow my Instagram).

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To follow up on the Chinese New Year’s Post, here is a drawing I made with ink and colored pencil to celebrate the Year of the Earth Pig.  In this context, the meaning of the pig should be self-evident: this is the 2019 Earth Pig, the symbolic avatar of the present moment.  We are fortunate that this is a lithe and good-natured piggy:  I have seen some fearsome and intimidating hogs which are all shaggy and grim, but this little porker looks almost like a pet. The pig is carrying a giant doughnut with pink icing as a special treat for the Lunar New Year festival.  Additionally, the pastry (which I drew “from life” from a Dunkin’ Donut which I then ate) is a reminder of the endless appetite and desire which is a part of life.  Existence may be mass-produced and filled with empty calories, but, even so, it is SOOO sweet. Perhaps the torus-shaped pastry also represents the topology of the universe.

As ever, the flounder is my symbolic avatar for life on Earth (I promise I will write a post about why, out of all the organisms on Earth, I chose the flounder to represent us).  Imbued with special spring festival felicity, this flatfish seems less tragic (and maybe also less ridiculous) than most of the other ones I have drawn.   Considering its aquamarine hue, the fish also represent the life-giving element of water. A satellite suggests that humanity’s future (if we have one) lies in space and there, at the bottom right, is our beloved home world!  It is such a good-looking planet, but it looks dwarfed by the great allegorical animals which are hovering in proximity to it.  Perhaps the pig represents the continents and the flounder represents the seas….

My sassy anti-establishment friend Moira suggested that this artwork was somehow about the constabulary (she lives in fear that America is becoming a police state) but I see no evidence of such meaning in the work (although I do wonder if she is right about the nation).  Yet the picture is not all rosy.  If this picture is about having an appetite for life, it might also whisper sad and disturbing things about what that entails.  Humankind’s principal relationship with pigs, flounder, and doughnuts is all too voracious.  Is that also our relationship with our home planet? Only religious fundamentalists and Davos man (aka the planet’s super rich oligarchs) believe that humans are currently acting as responsible stewards of our home world.  Both these categories of people seemingly believe that God gave them dominion over the Earth so that they could ruin, despoil, and kill it.

Whatever the case, both creatures are watching our world to see what happens next.  I have always believed that humans can escape the curse of our insatiable nature only by directing our rapacity away from the finite planet and towards the infinite heavens (coincidentally this is the not-very-subtle meaning of every single one of my artworks for the last 15 years).  Can we make any upward progress in the year of the Earth Pig? or are we just going to continue to pig out at a diminishing trough while destiny passes us by?

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Two days ago, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about Earth’s magnetic field, an underappreciated invisible force-field which keeps the planet habitable by preventing solar wind from blowing away our atmosphere and oceans (we need those!).  Long ago, Venus and Mars seemingly had liquid oceans and nice atmospheres, but something went wrong (?) with their magnetic fields a billion or so years ago, and just look at them now (tuts censoriously). But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge our neighbors…Five hundred and sixty-five million years ago, the Earth underwent a magnetic crisis too.

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Geologists have been studying fragments of  plagioclase and clinopyroxene from the ancient continental shield of Canada to learn about the state of the planet’s magnetic fields in the ancient past.  As they form, these crystals trap tiny magnetized iron fragments in place like the needles of little compasses.  Scientists can thus study the deep history of the magnetosphere.  As they studied magnetic crystals that were formed 565 million years ago, they found some troubling things: half a billion years ago, the Earth’s magnetic field was over 10 times weaker than what it is today.  Additionally the poles were rapidly fluctuating between north and south at an unexpected rate.

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A closer reading of all of this suggests that 550 million years ago the Earth’s magnetic field nearly collapsed! (for a look at what that means, just walk around Mars).  Life was saved because the solid nickel iron core of Earth nucleated from the molten core at that time.  Instead of a field collapse, our magnetic field became much stronger as the spinning solid inner core and the convection cycles of the molten outer core worked together to form a super geodynamo.  Coincidentally, 541 million years ago is familiar to paleontologists as the inception of the Cambrian explosion, when multitudinous animal life forms appeared on Earth. It is such an important point that it divides the Phanerozoic (filled with mushrooms, megafauna, liverworts, and Roman centurions) from the Proterozoic (billions of years of bacterial soup).   Just a coincidence?

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In 2016 the Japanese Space Agency launched a quarter-of-a-billion dollar x-ray observatory named Hitomi into Earth orbit.  The craft’s mission was to study extremely energetic processes at the far reaches of the universe.  It was hoped that the data Hitomi provided would allow astronomers to understand how the large scale structures of the universe came into being (how galactic superclusters form, for example).  The satellite initially worked perfectly, but, within 38 Earth days, the spacecraft was lost: a failure of attitude control sent it into an uncontrolled spin which caused critical structural elements to break apart.

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The full story of what destroyed Hitomi is perhaps of greater immediate interest to living beings on Earth than how the meta-structures the universe came into being.  When everything went wrong for the ill-fated space observatory it was passing over the southern part of the Atlantic ocean.  For spacefarers, this region of the Van Allen Belt is analogous to what the Bermuda Triangle or the Namib Skeleton Coast is for sailors: it is a haunted and dangerous stretch of space.  Astronauts who travel through it report strange phantasmagorical dots and streaks in their vision, even when they close their eyes.   The Hubble Space Telescope does not make observations when it passes over the south Atlantic.  Controllers turn off its delicate systems.  The region is known to the world’s space agencies as “the South Atlantic Anomaly.”  Hitomi was not its first victim–it is surmised that the South Atlantic Anomaly was responsible for the failures of the Globalstar network satellites way back in aught seven.

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The existence of the South Atlantic Anomaly was known long before that.  It was discovered in 1958 by Explorer 1, the first American satellite (which was equipped with a Geiger counter).  Perhaps the Soviets would have discovered the anomaly by means of Sputnik, but, because the Cold War made  scientific cooperation difficult, Australia did not hand over Sputnik data to the Soviets until later.  Suffice to say, the South Atlantic Anomaly is an anomaly in the Van Allen Belt, the torus-shaped field of charged particles which are held in place by the magnetic field of Earth.  Earth’s magnetosphere is important. Billions of years ago, Mars and Venus seem to have been exceedingly Earthlike, with water oceans and convivial atmospheres.  But neither Mars nor Venus has a magnetosphere and their oceans have perished and their atmospheres have changed into monstrous things….although we don’t know exactly what happened on either of our neighboring planets (and the present priorities here on Earth are to make Michel Dell and Howard Schultz as rich as possible at everyone else’s expense, not, you know, to understand what planetary scale forces could make worlds uninhabitable).

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Um, at any rate, the magnetic field of Earth is created by the mysterious processes beneath our feet at the center of the planet.  The Earth’s inner core is believed to have two layers: an outer core of molten iron and heavy metals and an inner core of solid iron nickel alloy.  The inner core is about 70% of the volume of the moon and it is nearly as hot as the surface of the sun with an estimated temperature of (5,430 °C) or 9806 °F, but the molten outer core is only as hot as the surface of an orange star (2,730–4,230 °C; 4,940–7,640 °F).  Within the outer core, eddy currents form in the superheated metal. The complex relationship between these currents, the spinning planet, and the two core layers creates a geodynamo which produces the planet’s magnetosphere which in turn captures the particles which make up the Van Allen Belts.  However, the eddy currents cause the magnetic poles to invert every few hundred thousand years (we are currently overdue for such a flip).  The South Atlantic Anomaly is a manifestation of the “weather” in the molten outer core of Earth–a prelude to the magnetic polar flip.  First generation spacecraft used solid state components and had big ungainly robust circuitry.  Additionally they were hardened against radiation.  Some of today’s craft make use of delicate & elaborate microcircuitry which is prone to failure when struck by esoteric radiation particles.  This is how what happens far beneath our feet influences what happens to craft in outer space.

What with all of the holiday excitement, we have failed to compliment the Chinese Space Program on their successful lunar landing.  On January 3rd, 2019, the Chang’e IV spacecraft landed on the South Pole-Aitken Basin, on the far side of the Moon, and deployed the Yutu-2 Rover.  Here is a stunning photo taken by the rover as it began its explorations of the lunar surface.  The spacecraft is, of course, named after the beautiful and sad Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e.
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To quote the Smithsonian magazine, “[the Chinese lander will] collect mineral and geological samples of the moon’s surface as well as investigate the impact of solar wind on the moon. The craft even has its own little farm, or lunar biosphere, aboard—the first of its kind.”  This miniature ecosystem consists of some potatoes, a few Arabidopsis plants (this is a hardy and universally known laboratory plant), and some living silkworm eggs in a special 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) aluminum terrarium (or lunarium?).
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I realized as I write this that I don’t even know the Chinese Space Agency’s name.  It turns out it is the Chinese National Space Administration “CNSA.” Their logo, immediately above, is a flying blue chevron with, I don’t know, blue wheat, or something–it looks like somebody mimeographed the Federation logo.  But who cares about their logo? [cough, Chinese space administrators, you could hire a graphic artist to make a space phoenix, a rocket tiger, or galactic dragon or something for about ¥150.00 and outshine everyone before you even leave the pad].  The CNSA are now doing things which have never been done.  This is the first landing on the dark side of the moon (which is not really dark, but which goes by that conceit since the moon is tidally locked).
United States triumphalism over our amazing moon program has obscured the fact that the first moon landing happened 50 years ago.  Nobody has been on the moon during my lifetime, and I am not young.  NASA has responded to budget cuts and whiplash conflicting demands from different presidential administrations by concentrating on robot probes of the unknown edges of the solar system. That is smart, practical, and amazing.  Yet some of the thrill and prestige that NASA had even during its silver age in the eighties and nineties is now wearing away.
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Of course America doesn’t even really have a functioning government right now, so perhaps it is better that we have decided to abandon our own bright dreams of moon bases and Mars missions…but it saddens me that we are so politically deadlocked that we are not pushing harder to explore and build in space.  All day, every day, billionaires tell us how scarce resources are and how much better the private sector is at allocating these precious resources (to super yachts, offshore bank accounts, and regulatory capture, apparently).  Well, resources are not scarce in space.  There is infinite real estate.  There are whole planets worth of matter.   There are wells of energy which create all of the energy humankind has ever used throughout all of our history within a picosecond.  Hopefully the brand new accomplishments of CNSA will remind the American people of our true nature–as scientists, explorers, and visionaries.  However if we are too fixated on the crimes and inanities of Individual Number 1 to pay attention to the universe, maybe the Chinese can build a floating colony on Venus.  I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what they have planned next.

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It’s an exciting new year in space exploration and today we are getting back images from the most distant object ever explored by a probe spacecraft.  Launched in January of 2006, NASA’s amazing New Horizons mission (pictured above) has been flying through the solar system ever since.  Back in 2014 it reached its primary objective, the icy dwarf world Pluto, which has been the focus of considerable interest and, arguably, of even greater controversy concerning astronomical naming conventions (“My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us….Nothing.” could arguably teach us about astronomy AND independent food preparation, I suppose).  Since that time, New Horizons has continued to fly further from the Sun and deeper into the Kuiper Belt, a dark distant band of icy pseudo-worlds at the edge of the Solar System.  New Horizons just flew past one of these Kuiper Belt objects…the distant ice ball 2014 MU69.

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This frozen miniature planet is only 35 by 15 km (20 by 10 miles in diameter) and it orbits the sun every 298 years.  The most exciting part of this body is its shape.  It is literally a snowman—a smaller spherical lump of ice frozen to a larger one.  Just look at it! You can practically see Charlie Brown half-building it and then giving up with a silent outer space “Good Grief”

Sadly, the mission has generated another astronomical naming controversy.  Scientists were dissatisfied with the way “2014 MU69” rolled off the tongue so they crowdsourced the problem to the internet to find names for this distant iceball.  The internet suggested “Ultima Thule” which was a Roman and Medieval term for the unknown icy lands beyond the periphery of the known world.  That is a pretty good name and the scientists split it into two for the weird binary snowman (the larger body is “Ultima” and the smaller is “Thule”).  Unfortunately, though, Nazi occultists also found the name “Thule” back in the thirties and they used it as a mythical place of origin for the mythical Aryan Race (sorry Nazis, we are all originally African).

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Like all good-hearted people, I despise Nazis…but this seems like a Roman name sullied by racist morons more than a millennium after its introduction.  Do you think scientists need to rename this primitive snowman world? Or should we go with Ultima Thule?  Or should we just stick with 2014 MU69 (since, frankly, unless New Horizons discovers some strange artifacts, alien beings, or something we are probably never going to think about this corner of the solar system again).

 

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To celebrate the season, here is a special Christmastime Sunday space post! Discovered in 1948 Comet 46P/Wirtanen orbits the sun every 5.4 Earth years.   The comet’s apoapsis (the point of its orbit farthest from the Sun) is out in the vicinity of Jupiter’s orbit, but the closest point in its orbit brings it to Earth’s orbit.  Unfortunately, because of the dance of the planets it only in relative proximity to Earth every 11 years, and even then, it is generally barely visible except to hardened astronomers.  The comet is also known as the Christmas comet because its periapsis (when it is closest to the sun—and thus, sometimes to Earth) is in December and because the comet has a distinct viridian tinge!

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This year, 46P/Wirtanen’s periapsis is unusually close to Earth.  Tonight, the comet will be a mere 11.4 million kilometers (7.1 million miles) from Earth.  That sounds like a fairly large distance but it is quite close, astronomically speaking:  only 10 comets have come in such near proximity to our home planet in the past 70 years!  Filled with excitement, I glanced out my window only to see that it is raining in Brooklyn and the sky is filled with clouds.  But don’t worry, the comet will nearly as visible for another week.   If you have an internet connection (and if you don’t, how are you reading this?) you can go to this link and find the comet in the sky from your location (that link is an amazing resource, so maybe hold onto it).

 

So why is this comet such a delightful color?  Comet 46P/Wirtanen is mostly melted—it consists of a solid kernel approximately a kilometer in diameter trailing a cloud of gases hundreds of thousands of kilometers long.  The majority of these gases reflect light in green wavelengths. Additionally, the comet is hyperactive—which, in this case, does not mean that overpaid physicians will prescribe it unnecessary medications so it can learn rote facts. In an astronomical context, hyperactive bodies are emitting more water than expected.

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Unless you are avidly examining the comet with a gas spectrograph, its color is likely to be a source of awe and reflection. Does the comet’s color reflect the seasonal green of Yuletide or is it an ironic reprimand for the envy and jealously which grip all of human society?  Is it the eye of a great sky panther or a kindly celestial sea turtle (hint: actually more of a ball of gas with an icy nucleus).  Whatever your conclusions, I hope you enjoy this close-up view of “the Christmas Comet” before it zips back towards Jupiter’s orbit. Season’s greetings to all of my readers.  I will try to find some special posts for this solstice week, before we all take a much-needed Christmas break.

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One of the real surprises to me in college was…bacteria.  Now I had encountered these characters before (I guess everybody has, since more of the cells in a human body are symbiotic bacteria living inside of us than are…well our own actual cells).  However, in college I learned the full history of life on Earth.  It is mostly a history of bacteria:  multicellular creatures only show up for the last 600 million years.  For over 3 billion years, the world belonged to the bacteria alone.  I also learned about extremophiles—bacteria that can live in boiling hot temperatures or in oxygen-free environments.  Some extremophiles can metabolize inorganic things like sulfur and arsenic.  They can live without the light of the sun in the fathomless depths of the ocean on poisonous elements. The oxygen we breath was created as a waste product by these first archaebacteria.  The planet’s atmosphere was once a reducing atmosphere, where paper would not burn (assuming you had any…billions of years before trees plants evolved, much less paper-makers).  Bacteria made it an oxygen world where things burn…including our metabolisms. They changed the world in a fundamental way that we industrial humans with our infernal carbons cannot match.

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The archaebacteria sound like aliens (indeed, there is a real possibility they actually originally were aliens), but they are also our great-great-great ever-so-great-to-the-100th power grandparents.  I don’t need to wonder whether evolution is real: I have seen it in a science lab when we put a pellet of penicillin on a petri dish and watched as the bacteria evolved resistance to it (not really a super-smart experiment in hindsight, but a super-compelling one). I wish I could impress upon you how astonishing bacteria are.  They are the true sacred seed of life–the undisputed masters of Earth.

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However, this is old news.  The new news is that there are so, so many more bacteria than we realized.  The earth beneath our feet is filled with bacteria…but the stone beneath that is filled with bacteria too.  And the weird hot putty beneath that stone (the gabbro) is also filled with bacteria.  There are bacteria in the depths of the world.  Living bacteria have been discovered in the gabbro 1400 meters beneath the basalt floor of the ocean.  There is a barely discovered world of secret life deep beneath our feet—a true underworld of secret unknown species of micro-organisms.  The size of this ecosystem is enormous.

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To quote a news article from..yesterday,  “The record depth at which life has been found in the continental subsurface is approximately 3 miles (5km) while the record in marine waters is 6.5 miles (10.5km) from the ocean surface.”

If these are the true boundaries of the underworld bacteria biome, it means that there is a region of secret life twice as large as all of the world’s oceans combined.  Based on past experience though, it is not unreasonable to doubt that deeper pockets of bacteria will be discovered as our drilling and bio-assaying become more sophisticated.

Most of the super deep bacteria spend enormously long periods in suspended animation.  Sometimes they enter a metabolic suspension so profound that they seem dead or inanimate (which is maybe how we missed them for so long).  At present, scientists and writers are calling them “zombie-bacteria” because of their half-alive status (which seems like an appropriate nomen based on their underworld habitat).

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I wish I could tell you more about this realm of life on Earth, but I can’t.  Not only am I not a bacteriologist or geologist, additionally we (meaning all of humankind) simply don’t know the answers yet.  More research is necessary.  Sadly, it is probably going to be slow to materialize.  Our leaders seem incapable of grasping that surface life needs to continue longer than a few decades (at least if they hope for meaningful long term economic growth).  I shudder to imagine them furrowing their brows at the concept of vast stone oceans of zombie one-celled organisms…and explaining to their constituents why we need to know more about such things.  But we DO need to know.  In the synthetic ecosystems of my youth, the lack of coherent sustainable bacterial communities was the root cause of disastrous failure.  I don’t think our new underworld friends are going to fail or die any time soon, no matter what we surface beings do, yet if we want to take life elsewhere than Earth we are going to need to understand them much better.  Perhaps life did not spring from some pool of irradiated scum or arrive on a comet from beyond the solar system.  Maybe it came from the hot depths.  Maybe we are all underworld beings.

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