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Longtime readers will know that Ferrebeekeeper eschews the popular fascination with Mars in favor of our much closer sister planet, the luminous Venus. Therefore, I was delighted to see the second planet from the Sun making front page headlines around the globe (of Earth) this week when scientists discovered traces of phosphine gas in the strange, dense Venusian atmosphere.

The internet tells us that phosphine is a colorless, flammable, very explosive gas which smells like garlic or rotten fish. Additionally, it is extremely toxic. This stuff is not exactly the must-have gift of the season (well…maybe for Christmas, 2020), so why am I so excited to find it on a planet which may be the best option for an off-world human colony?

Phosphine exists on Earth where it is produced by the decomposition of organic matter in oxygen-free conditions (it is also a by-product of certain kinds of industrial processes). This means that the only known methods of producing phosphine involve living things (I suppose industrialists and anaerobic bacteria both qualify as such). It may well be that phosphine is produced on Venus due to some quirk of the planet’s strange atmosphere or weird volcanism (which is not well understood and seems to be fundamentally different from that of Earth).

In the past we have explored some compelling yet inconclusive evidence of life in the clouds of Venus. Today’s news adds to that evidence, but is still not compelling. The phosphine gas and the cloud bands both demands further study, though (and if we happened to learn more about the opportunities for cloud cities, so be it). I have long thought that a robot blimp probe of Venus’ clouds is the most rational next exploration mission for NASA (no matter how much I love super rovers). Perhaps the phosphine revelation will bring other people closer to this view. Maybe you should drop a quick email or phone call to your favorite elected representative about that very thing (or you could always write Jim Bridenstein–he is the rare Trump appointee who seems to be basically competent).

Speaking of basic competence, I was sad to see many of the liberal arts enthusiasts on my Twitter feed angrily denouncing this discovery and demanding “no more money for space!” (I unfollowed them all, by the way–sorry poetry). Beyond the fact that this discovery was made here on Earth by a clever lady with a simple telescope and a gas chromograph, money spent on space exploration is spent here on Earth. Such expenditures further fundamental discoveries in material science, engineering, aerospace, robotics, and other high tech disciplines. Our world of high tech breakthroughs, the internet, super computers, solar power, nanotechnology, and super safe aviation (among many other things) was made possible by government money spent on space exploration (or did you think some MBA guy running a private company would ever think more than one quarter into the future?). Beyond these reasons though, Venus was once the most earthlike of all other Solar System planets. Long ago it almost certainly had warm oceans teeming with life. Uh, maybe we should have a comprehensive answer about what happened there before we say that government money should only be spent on social initiatives. If you came home to your nice row house and noticed that the house next door had been knocked down, the neighbors were gone, and also the temperature there was 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit) and the sky replaced with sulfuric acid, maybe you would ask what happened! (although, to be fair, that very thing seems to be happening now in California, and a substantial number of people say “science has no place in understanding this).

Anyway, commentary about earth politics aside, I continue to be more and more excited about our closest planetary neighbor. Seriously, can you imagine how cool a robot probe-blimp would be?

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What with all of the excitement in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture…and of good things which are still happening during these troubled times.  This morning at 7:50 a.m. EDT, NASA launched an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41.  On board the rocket is a Martian lander containing the most sophisticated Martian rover yet “Perseverance” along with its robotic helicopter sidekick “Ingenuity.”

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Artist’s Conception of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars

If the mission continues to go according to plan, the lander will reach Mars in February 2021.  Coincidentally, Mars will be crowded that month, since a Chinese orbiter & lander, and a UAE orbiter are also slated to arrive.  After much trial-and-error, I have faith in NASA’s sky crane landing system but it will be most interesting to see if the Chinese rover can “stick the landing”or if it is eaten by the ghosts of Mars (I hope not: humankind needs the Chinese data too, and NASA needs some competition to keep the creative juices and the congressional funding flowing).

The ultimate destination of the Mars 2020 mission is the Jezero Crater, a nearly circular crater 49 km (30 miles) in diameter.  The ancient crater is now partially filled with sediments–including a fan delta of ancient clays.  It is believed that if evidence of ancient life is to be found anywhere on Mars this is as likely a place as any to discover the ancient fossils.

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Jezero Crater

Perseverance  has onboard a 4.8 kilograms (11 lb) pellet of plutonium dioxide which will provide the vehicle (and the miniature helicopter) with abundant energy for traveling, communicating with orbiters/Earth, assaying rocks, and operating a core drill for gathering geological samples of ancient Martian rock.  Additionally the rover will conduct material experiments concerning the potential toxicity of Martian dust and the production of pure oxygen from Martian atmospheric CO2.  Perhaps most excitingly, the rover will also carefully organize and cache the precious samples it gathers in preparation for a future retrieval mission.  Such a mission would involve landing, building and launching a Mars ascent vehicle from the Martian surface up to our proposed next generation Mars orbiter which would then load the samples on am Earthbound craft.  So the Mars 2020 mission is a tremendous step towards discovering whether life ever gained a toehold on Mars AND towards building next-generation space faring capabilities (for the dull and incurious earthcentric crowd that always decries space exploration–as though Earth is located somewhere other than space!– it should be noted that such engineering breakthroughs generally confer military, technological, and economic supremacy here).

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Also, special thanks to our brilliant Norwegian, Spanish, French, and Italian friends!

So best wishes for the entire armada which has left our planet this month headed for Mars, but particular good wishes to Perseverance and Ingenuity!  Let’s hope we can discover some perveverance here to make it all the way to February 2021 (right now that sounds like it might as well be some HG Wells date in the impossible future).

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Ancient Clam Shell Jewelry from Prehistoric Israel

Intriguing archaeological news from Qafzeh Cave, a prehistoric burial site located at the bottom of Mount Precipice in Israel.  The anatomically modern human remains found interred in the cave are 92,000 years old–among the oldest Homo Sapiens remains discovered outside of Africa.  However the cave did not just contain ancient skeletal remains–indeed the upper levels of the cave (which is to say, the younger/newer layers) were filled with stoves, stone tools, animal bones and all manner of campsite detritus.  Yet, we are interested in the layers below the ancient graves which predate them by tens of thousands of years.  In these strata, anthropologists discovered the shells of Glycymeris bivalves, carried from the Mediterranean Sea 35 kilometers away.

The shells bear evidence of having been prepared (perferrated/polished) and hung on wild flax string.  Some shells even had ochre stains on them.  These were special adornments–jewelry–for the humans who dwelt in the Lower Galilee region of Israel 120,000 years ago.  They are striking in their lack of obvious utility, and are among the first cultural artifacts known.

Alas, we can not know the precise meaning which these adornments had for the hunter-gatherer folks of prehistoric Galilee, but, based on everything we know about subsequent humans we can certainly make intelligent guesses. The shells were ornaments which indicated status.  They could also have indicated group identity or reflected personal beliefs of the wearer.  Another nearby cave had shells from 160,000 years ago–which must also have been carried by ancient humans to that site.  Yet the 160,000 year old shells had no perforations or marks of wear from string.  Somewhere between 120,000 and 160,000 years ago we made some real leaps forward in terms of string and accessories!  It doesn’t surprise me that the phylum Mollusca was involved (obviously clams had been important to us as food and tools for tens of thousands of years before we discovered their use as stringed body ornaments), yet I do find it worthy of comment.

One of the things about humans which troubles me greatly is how anthropocentric our worldview is.  Even among close friends and clever scientists, I am shocked at how many people regard animals as, I don’t know..soulless machines made of meat.  This haughty view breaks down somewhat when it comes to talking about mammals, who are, after all, our immediate family and self-evidently share our preferences and our dangerous cunning (and our limbic system), but it is still disturbingly widespread in reference to reptiles or fish, to say nothing of poor invertebrates.

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A group of eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) hanging out together

That is why I cherish the subject of today’s post.  Scientists at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada recently conducted a clever study which established that snakes have friends.  To be more explicit, the study demonstrated that eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) have social preferences for particular eastern garter snakes.  The young serpents seek out the company of these preferred associates (apart from any mating or hunting needs).  After obtaining snakes from heterogeneous sources and carefully marking them, the researchers established their sociability by carefully filming their behavior in a large terrarium.habitat.  You can check out their methodology and conclusions over at National Geographic, but their work seems to have definitely established the existence of snake social preferences.

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Speaking of preferences, eastern garter snakes are a lifelong favorite of mine, ever since childhood when the colorful little snakes would bask in a climbing rosebush beside a stone wall in our front yard in Cape Cod.  It is particularly gratifying (albeit somewhat unsurprising) to hear that they are in the vanguard of studies concerning reptilian emotions and social niceties.  I am looking forward to learning more about the behaviors and feelings of reptiles.  After all, humankind shares kinship with them too (since today’s reptiles share distant reptilian ancestors with us). I wonder what people will make of this garter snake friendship study.  Nobody has commented on my post about rat compassion (a subject which I found very moving and troubling), so perhaps the sociability of particular snakes will not move people’s hearts much either.  Yet as more and more of these studies emerge, scientists are shedding some of their own cold aloofness and acknowledging how prevalent fellowship, compassion, and complex emotions are among our fellow living beings.  What we fire-wielding apes, selfish, angry, and tragic, will make of such wisdom remains anybody’s guess… Friendship implies ethical choices and didn’t somebody say knowledge of right and wrong was a sole province of humankind?  Clearly that was a self-aggrandizing lie.

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Here is an interesting story from days gone by.  Back at the beginning of the 21st century, when there was a faint sense that things could be improved somewhat (a sentiment which has entirely vanished from the present moment) the world famous engineers of Mercedes Benz looked afresh at the animal world to see if they could find a way to maximize maneuverability, structural integrity, flow resistance, AND maximize space for a small fuel efficient car.  In the past such design exercises always centered around racing–and thus concentrated on sharks, falcons, and swordfish–animals which are fast and maneuverable but not really suited for carrying a little passenger cubicle.

The engineers of Stuttgart found an unexpected animal to mimic–the boxfish!  It turns out that boxfish are maneuverable, spacious, and tough but have an astonishingly low drag coefficient of 0.06 (as opposed to a swimming penguin which seems like the height of sleekness but has a drag coefficient of 0.19). Their amazing design capyured some of the sleek simple lines of the boxfish, while still keeping the functional practical aspects of a smart small hatchback (although the engineers could not figure out or incorporate the fish’s elegant heat-exchange mechanism (located in the tiny gill opening) nor could they utilize the creature’s three point tessellated scale plates (speaking of which, we need to talk about tessellation, if I can ever bring myself to look into the underlying math).

This car looks awesome to me, and I wish they had pursued the idea further. Probably some automobile executive informed the team that car companies are in the business of killing the world as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and so ended the quixotic project, but you never know, perhaps some boxfish elements will crop up again if and when autonomous super-efficient cars start to make their way onto the road (assuming that ever happens).

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After posts about giant hornets which can dissolve flesh with their stings,  a huge asteroid passing by Earth, and a mass cemetery in New York City, it is hard to know what to write about next… Thankfully, astronomers are way ahead of me!  This week featured the announcement that scientists have discovered a black hole “right in our backyard.”

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Fortunately, what counts as our backyard to astronomers is not really our backyard by any quotidian definition.  Located in the southern constellation Telescopium, the newfound black hole is 1,000 light-years away: although it is the closest black hole to Earth discovered thus far, it is still 9.5 quadrillion kilometers away (5.88 quadrillion miles).  We probably won’t blunder into it by accident when we sneak downstairs for a midnight snack.

Black holes, as you know, are deformed patches of spacetime where gravity is so strong that all proximate matter and electronic radiation (like light) are pulled into the gravity well.  Black holes form when exceedingly massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle:  they become more massive as additional matter accretes into them.   For example the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is believed to have the mass of 431 million suns!

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The black hole’s orbit in the star system is marked in red

The newly discovered Telescopium black hole is nothing like that though.  Scientists estimate its mass to be mere 4 to 5 times that of the sun.  Astronomers were able to discover the object only because the other two stars in its solar system (which they were studying in order to better understand binary stars) were not orbiting each other in a comprehensible fashion.  Some massive third party was implicated…yet nothing was visible. Ergo, a black hole.  There are believed to be hundreds of millions or even billions of these invisible horrifying objects in our galaxy alone, but they are nearly impossible to find unless there are nearby objects for them to interact with (yet which have not been slurped down into the ravenous maw).

I wonder where the actual closest black hole to Earth is located? Maybe we don’t really want to find out…

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It is Earth Day again.This year the Earth actually is recovering (slightly) from humankind’s rapacious quest for unending resources and eternal growth…but only because we are all bottled up inside our domiciles angrily stewing.  Who knows what mischief we will get up to when we are allowed outside again?

I still think the natural habitat for humans is not the gentle mother planet, but the harsh depths of outer space–an environment more suited to our dark cunning, violent factionalism, and infinite appetite.  Admittedly, space is an inhospitable place of terrifying extremes…but it is rich in natural resources (and seemingly undeveloped).  To be succinct, it is exactly the sort of place that allows for infinite economic growth.  Unlike Earth, space would be unharmed by any status displays that weird billionaires want to indulge in.  By international/interplanetary treaty, Earth could be a sort of nature preserve where natural humans could dwell under extremely constrained terms for 4 score years. After that, they would have to either return fully to the Earth to lie forever beneath the hill, or go off-world, quaff immortality potions, mine asteroids, sleep for millennia in hypersleep, jump through wormholes, and what-have-you.

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Admittedly we don’t quite have the technology for this yet (though I feel that current engineering, aerospace, and ecological knowledge would actually allow for more spacefaring and spacesteading than we admit to ourselves).  But really think about how much more appealing it would be to live as a colonist/adventurer in the heavens than it is to be an indentured servant in some moronic cubicle farm here on Earth.

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We’re killing the planet for THIS?

Of course, right now I suspect there are readers who are shaking their heads and tutting and saying Earth Day is not about wild flights of imagination…it is about living sustainably!  But we have had fifty Earth Days,  A half century’s worth of ecological scolding and corporate greenwashing has not accomplished very much in terms of changing the way we live or the political/economic calculus which goes into our true global-level decision making.

This Earth Day affords us a real opportunity to truly think about where we are going at a species-wide level.  As soon as we are allowed outside we will go right back to running over baby skunks with SUVs and tossing PVC jugs into the ocean.  Primates are not my favorite life form, but I really do love humankind just the way we are: curious, insatiable, aggressive, and free.  I also truly, truly love our unique planet of dazzling, beautiful, irreplaceable webs of life.  We can not have both things if we keep going like we are now going. The point of no-return is no longer hundreds or thousands of years from now. It is now.

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So break out your biggest craziest concepts about how we can reconcile our huge coarse ambitions with our tiny fragile habitat. Write them down below and we will argue about them.  Send them to your senator and to the New York Times.  Let’s really have the conversations we have been tip-toeing around for five decades.  Otherwise in five more decades we won’t be arguing about how to float farms above Venus or seal the cracks in our domed city on Titan. Without better science, better politics and better IMAGINATION, we will be a bunch of shriveled mummies in a used-up necropolis planet of garbage, plastic, and dust.

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So you are stuck in the same place, but connected to your nearest and dearest via an all important filament which ties everyone together?  This might feel strange, but it is actually an exceedingly ancient arrangement.  Consider the lives of rangeomorphs, an ancient sessile marine animal which lived PRIOR to the Cambrian era, about 550 million years ago.  Many of the fundamental categories of multicellular life which are familiar to us originated in the Cambrian.  The rangeomorphs lived before that time…so it is a bit difficult to pin down their taxonomy.  Paleontologists have suggested that they are related to various groups of living suspension feeders and protists, but all of these attempts to pin down their exact place in the tree of life have been rejected.  Rangeomorphs lived during the last 30 million years of the Ediacaran Period (which was 635-542 million years ago) before the great phyla of life emerged.  Perhaps they were an extinct stem group somewhere between animals and fungi (!).

At any rate, even if rangeomorphs were their own weird kingdom of life, they were roughly analogous in form to many to many soft corals, glass sponges, ferns, luungworts and what have you.  They were mouthless (!) animals with no clear internal organs.  Their bodies consisted of many branching fronds a centimeter or so long.  They had no reproductive organs.

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If you have been grinding your teeth wondering why I am writing about some blobby fronds which lived on the ocean bottom a half a billion years ago, you should open your mind.  There are some compelling questions here already.  If rangeomorphs had no mouths or organs how did they eat or sustain themselves?  They certainly were not photosynthetic.  How did they reproduce without reproductive organs?  Were they purely asexual?  We don’t know…However thanks to an exceedingly well-preserved bed of fossils just discovered in Newfoundland, we now know that rangeomorphs also had filaments which ranged in length from 2 centimeters (.75 inches) to 4 meters (12 feet) in length.  With these filaments the rangeomorphs (which formed vast monoculture colonies at the sea bottom) could conceivably communicate, transport nutrients, or even bud (as seen in the ‘suckering’ of plants like the infernal tree of heaven).  Maybe rangeomorphs were even subtly like syphonophorae–colony animals where different individuals (zooids) perform different functions in the manner of organs.

Not only is it interesting to speculate about the first great “forests” or “reefs” of life (assuming you don’t assign that role to the stromatolites of 3.5 billion years ago), it is also worth thinking about how different and alien the basal forms of life at the bottom of the animal “trunk” really were (assuming these guys were even animals).  I imagine them as colorful gardens of fleshy creatures not unlike seapens swaying in the currents of the ancient ocean, yet all strangely operating together like a clonal colony (which they almost certainly were–since how else would they come into existence?).  It forms a soothing mental picture during these tumultuous times.

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Parasite Flounder

Larval Flounder with Parasite (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Ink and colored pencil on paper

The strictures of the world’s new routine have allowed me to finish coloring/inking an ocean-themed drawing I have been working on.  Unfortunately, no matter how I adjust the darkness and the contrast, I can’t get it to look like it does in the real world, so I am afraid that you will have to accept this frustrating digital simulacra (aka the jpeg above).

Broadly speaking, this series of flatfish artwork concern the anthropogenic crisis facing Earth life (particularly life in the oceans, which most people tend to overlook and undervalue), however they are not meant as simple political polemics.  Hopefully, these artworks reflect the ambiguous relationships within life’s innumerable intersecting webs of symbiosis, predation, and parasitism.

Humankind appears directly in this artwork–but symbolically rendered as sea creatures so that we can contemplate our nature at a level of remove.  From left to right, one of these merpeople is the host of a big arrow crab which seems to have stolen his mind (in the manner of a cunning paper octopus hijacking a jellyfish).  The larval flounder is itself being ridden (and skeletonized) by a great hungry caterpillar man thing which has sunk its claw legs deep into the bone.  A lovely merlady plucks away a parasitic frond from a cookie-cutter shark as a shrimpman hunts and a chickenman stands baffled on the ocean bottom.

As we learn more about life we learn how it melds together, works in tandem, and jumps unexpectedly from species to species, or speciates into new forms. I wish I could describe this better, since to my comprehension it seems like the closest thing to a numinous truth we are likely to encounter in a world where gods are made up.  I have abandoned essays to try to portray the sacred and profane ways that lifeforms come together with art.  Let me know what you think, and I will see if I can scan it better.

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