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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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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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Africa’s Congo River is the 10th longest river on Earth, but it is the world’s second greatest river by volume of water discharged.  In the final 300 kilometer (200 mile) span before the river empties into the Atlantic Ocean, the Congo is a deeply weird river…in that it is weirdly deep.  Portions of the Lower Congo have a depth of 220 meters (720 feet) which makes the Congo the world’s deepest river (chasmic freshwater locations are evidently a fascination here at Ferrebeekeeper). The bottom of the Lower Congo is not a serene place either, but is a dark world of treacherous currents, strange eddies, underwater waterfalls, and whirlpools.

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Although these depths do not sound like the ideal place for, say, opening a sandwich shop, they are ideal for expediting the speciation of fish.  The Lower Congo has over 300 species of fish (and the number is growing as adventuresome ichthyologists study the native fish more closely…and as the river creates new varieties of fish).  The fast currents act like mountain ranges do on land, separating genetic pools of certain species so that they evolve in different directions.  This had led to some truly strange species such as the Gymnallabes nops (an air breathing catfish which is giving up on the scary river and crawling off into the moist leaves of the jungle), all sorts of exquisite elephant fish (Mormyridae) electrical fish which read the substrate with sensitive trunk like “noses”, upside-down polka-dotted squeaking catfish (which sounds like a rockabilly lyric), and, maybe best of all, Lamprologus lethops, a blind white cichlid of the chaotic depths which dies of decompression sickness when jerked up to the river’s surface.  When seen by Congolese fishermen, this cichlid is a bony blob of quivering pale agony gasping from a bony mouth.  This has led to the local folk calling it “Mondeli bureau” which means “white guy in an office” (an allusion to how they (correctly) imagine westerners look and feel in our miserable & pointless dayjobs).

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This is exactly how I feel! Thanks for noticing, perceptive Congolese fisherfolk!

I wish I could tell you more about the wonders of the lower Congo, but research into this unique ecosystem has been surprisingly scant. I will keep my eyes open though.  I want to know more about those upside-down, polka-dotted, screaming catfish! I also want to write more about catfish of the Gymnallabes family.  Finally, I have a feeling there are even weirder fish at the very bottom of the river, we just don’t know about them yet.  We will keep our eyes on the Congo.  For the world’s second greatest river, we know a lot less than we should.

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Cellular Flounder goes Viral (Wayne Ferrebee, 2020) Wood and Polymer

Pursuant to the international coronavirus pandemic and the strange world of quarantine we find ourselves living in, here is an artwork I have just finished.  I made the cell/flounder sculpture last year to explore the nature of cells (which are underappreciated by everyone except for biologists…and biologists now basically only study cells, since they have recognized that they are all important).  I am always shocked at how much the diagrams of cells look like diagrams of big crazy cities.  I think there may be instructive reasons for that similarity, however it is unclear how to articulate these abstruse concepts except through the symbolic language of art.  I made the cell a flounder because that animal is my current avatar of Earth life, and since the flat oblong shape is ideal for art presentation (and because of the sad, anxious, comic eyes of course).

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I finished the cell/flounder part of the sculpture last year, but it has never struck me as complete.  The present crisis sharpened my thinking and so I added a little army of viruses which were enormously fun to make and which are cuter than they have any right to be. Admittedly these are phages rather than coronaviruses, but I find icosahedrons and spider legs more visually interesting than spheres.  It is all part of the magic of art.  As always, kindly let me know what you think and stay safe out there!  Things look a bit bleak and odd, but I wonder if we are not doing better than we recognize!  We are all trying at any rate, and we will know more soon.  Also spring will be here tomorrow (and with it, a bunch of flower posts, so there is that to look forward to).

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Original form (before the invasion)

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Greetings from New York City in this, the year of the plague, 2020.  I wanted to write about something today other than coronavirus, since we don’t seem to have actually learned much new information about the virus itself (or if we have, it is information in peer-to-peer medical journals about immunoglobulins, virology statistics, lipid membranes and whatnot). However, whenever I try to write anything else, I keep getting distracted and looking at frothy coronavirus articles, which are really opinion pieces about political or business concerns. Clearly the only subject anyone cares about is novel coronavirus, so why force myself to write a piece about sidewinders or limpets? But what do we write about?

We already explored the hypothesized snake/bat zoonotic leap (concerning which matters I have never heard any further news) and we have talked about the “crown” (corona) embedded in the very name of this virus. I suppose we could write about the President’s stunning incompetence, but we already know that this authoritarian dolt is at best a conman, and, more likely, likely an outright traitor who owes billions of dollars to Russian mobster (of course, if that isn’t the case, he can easily prove this hypothesis wrong by releasing comprehensive financial records).

But our horrible president is not my real target here. I want toget back to talking about an enormous issue that our nation has been failing to deal with: the disastrous trope that “government is the problem”.  This concept was cooked up by libertarian plutocrats as a tool for embezzling, defrauding, and plundering the country and it continues to undermine our collective well-being.  It is insidious because it is self-fulfilling.  As  government is defunded and abused, it keeps getting worse.  The plutocrats (or their mouthpieces) then say: “See: government doesn’t work! Only private industry produces results!” (although when the economy crashes they demand bailouts for their too-big-to-fail cartels).

Not many people love heeding rules (even good ones). As the government is captured by the people it is meant to regulate, the rules become even more onerous and complicated…and yet they don’t seem to address root problems (does this sound familiar?)  This isn’t because of the nature of government! It is because moneyed interests are taking advantage of society!

If this continues, within a few years we will all be sitting in cardboard boxes in the toxic runoff of dead factories talking about how America is the world’s greatest country as other places sale past us.  In fact, that sort of sounds like now, doesn’t it?

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We have been on the wrong path for forty years and yet we knowingly continue to walk down it.  Coronavirus offers us a chance to get off this evil road to serfdom and ignorance. The goal of society is not making a bunch of cartoonish monopoly men much richer.  The goal of society is to learn more about existence.  That knowledge can be further utilized for saving the world’s ecosystems, and making ark-ships, immortality potions, and all-powerful robot servants.  It could be used to keep you and your family healthy and prevent you from dying from zoonotic viruses, Or it could be used for other aims, or for nothing at all!  Knowledge stands beyond mere utility. It is not merely a means to an ends, but arguably the most precious of ends already, just in its own right.

Private enterprise is incurious about learning things unless there is a way to immediately use that knowledge to make money.  Since this is almost never the way that knowledge works, private enterprise shirks away from from learning things. It revels in ignorance.  This is why humankind’s forward technological progress has halted except for very slight incremental progress in consumer-side fields like robotics and computer science.

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Whether the doomsayers are proven right and coronavirus kills hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people, or whether quarantines and restrictions succeed in mitigating casualties, this crisis has already reminded us of something critical.  Government is not the enemy.  Government is us.  We need to de-monetize politics to whatever extent we can (and throw quite a lot of white-collar criminals in jail) and we need to get back to research and development.  We can once again be a nation that makes astonishing discoveries and builds incredible things and helps people.  Right now we are not headed that direction.  Do you really want to keep going this way?  Think about it as you weather this crisis.  Also, best wishes to you and your families!  As always, let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

 

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Well it could always be worse…If you are a little worn out by our planet and its problems, take a moment to consider the tidally locked gas giant planet WASP-76b which lies 640 light years from Earth in the constellation Pisces.  WASP-76b is a bizarre world.  At twice the diameter of Jupiter, the planet is so close to its blazing host star that a “year” lasts only 43 of our Earth hours.  The temperature on the bright side of the planet is 2,400 degrees Celsius–hotter than the surface of some stars.  This enormous temperature combines with the rivers of blistering exotic radiation from the star to shred molecules apart into their constituent atoms.  The super-heated atoms are caught in convection cycles and eventually flow to the planet’s eternal darkside, where they rain down as iron precipitation. How metal is that?

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The WASP system is named for the “Wide Angle Search for Planets,” a British program to discover strange new exoplanets by means of a ground based array of telescopes.  Once they discovered the giant WASP-76b (which is virtually inside the corona of its sun), the team utilized the new “Espresso” spectrographic instrument at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to study the giant world’s chemical makeup.  The Espresso instrument assays the spectrum of light visible in the infinitesimally small dot of light visible to the Very Large Telescope (I don’t know what Espresso stands, presumably it is some convoluted acronym, but it is the world’s most sensitive spectrometer–not a coffee machine).

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Science of this precision always leaves me agog.  Remember back when I was writing about the new generation of giant super telescopes being built in the Atacama Desert of Chile?  These efforts are now yielding extraordinary discoveries–such as the almost-star WASP-76b.

It will be astonishing to find out even more about such nigh-incomprehensible worlds when the NEXT generation of superscopes are completed…assuming they ever are. The launch of the James Webb space telescope has been pushed back to 2021 because of cost overruns and because it is unclear whether NASA has any launch system they trust sufficiently for the enormously expensive scope (sigh).  Additionally, America’s own massive ground based telescope–the proposed 30 meter scope at Mauna Kea-has become trapped in limbo by the criminal actions of a group of terrorists, hooligans, dolts, and recidivists who despise humankind and hate all knowledge. But we will write more about them later.

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