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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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One of the things which I think we humans underestimate is the degree to which organisms within ecosystems exchange information for mutual benefit.   The idea of wolves watching sheep in order to jump on them and eat them is familiar to us (we hominids are competitive and ruthless) but we are only now beginning to apprehend how widespread and commonplace symbiotic interactions are. For example, a team of Israeli scientists conducted an experiment to see whether pollinators communicate with the plants they are pollinating…and it seems like maybe they do!

The scientists subjected a common flower, the beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) to five sorts of noise: silence, a bee buzzing from four in away, and low, medium and high pitched electronic noises  The scientists assayed and measured the amount of nectar that the primroses produced after being exposed to these varying noises.

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Oenothera drummondii

Flowers exposed to silence and to high and mid-pitch noises produced the same nectar as always, however primroses which were exposed to the humming bee and to the low pitched computer noises produced sweeter nectar. The sugar content of the nectar flowers produced after “hearing” these sounds rose from between 12 and 20 percent!

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Flowers and bees have co-evolved for 100 million years, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that they interact through sound (we already know that plants can communicate with hymenopterans by means of chemicals).  Yet somehow the results do surprise me.  Are plants hearing a great deal more than we suspect?  A great many flowers (and leaves) are shaped rather like ears.  Are different plants listening for different things. The nascent field of phytoacoustics will work to answer this question, but the fact that we are just now asking it leads me to believe that we humans have been talking rather than listening.  We are still not grasping the extraordinary scope and complexity of the webs of life which supports us (my experience with synthetic ecosystems already taught me about our great ignorance).  We need a greater understanding of dynamic ecology, yet our obtuseness in dealing with even the most familiar fellow life-forms is making it a challenge to even conceive of the right questions!

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Behold! This is Triodon macropterus, the majestic Threetooth puffer.  It is the only living species within in the genus Triodon and the family Triodontidae.  The Threetooth puffer grown to slightly longer than half a meter (about 20 inches) and it lives in deep pelagic waters of the Indo-Pacific from Madagascar to French Polynesia.

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The three-tooth puffer is a strange fish with a body deeper than it is long, thanks to an enormous inflatable belly flap. This flap has a giant false eye spot on each side, and, when it is inflated with seawater, the fish’s pelvis descends at an angle, giving the impression of a giant terrifying sea monster head emerging from the deeps.

Although the fish is now taxonomically isolated in its own family(!) it has a robust paleontological history and fossils of extinct genera have been found dating back the Eocene when they must have flourished in the vast warm seas which covered so much of the world in that iceless epoch.   Although they are so rare today, that it is hard to speak of their habits and biology, perhaps the three-spot puffer has a bright outlook in the warm acidic oceans which seem to lie in the world’s future. It could be that the genetic bottleneck will expand as pockets of Triodons speciate to live in yet unknown ecosystems.  Or more-likely humankind’s abuse of the oceans will destroy this last branch of a once-robust taxonomical tree.

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Before we resume our normally scheduled program, let’s pause for a bittersweet farewell to the Spitzer Infrared Space telescope, one of the most remarkable scientific tools ever put into operation.  In 2003 the telescope was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta II rocket.  It was sent into a heliocentric orbit rather than a geocentric orbit–following Earth rather than orbiting around it in order to minimize heat interference from our home planet.  When the telescope ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 most of its instruments and modules became unusable (since the main mirrors required a frosty -459 degrees Fahrenheit temperature to operate).  However, some of its most important discoveries came during the “warm phase” of operation between 2009 and January 30, 2020 (when mission scientists turned off the telescope).  For example it found and observed the seven world Trappist1 system which Ferrebeekeeper was so very enamored of back in 2017.

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Spitzer has provided enormous treasure troves of data concerning the formation of planets and galaxies (particularly back during the peak star-formation era ten billion years ago).  It has also afforded humankind an in-depth look at non-luminous objects like comets, asteroids, and vast clouds of dust and gas between the stars.

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Although astronomers are sad to see the mission end, they are excited by the prospects of Spitzer’s replacement.  Spitzer had a main mirror which was a bit smaller than a meter (33 inches).  The upcoming Webb telescope will have a 6.5 meter (21-foot) mirror (if we ever manage to launch it).  Goodbye to the little telescope that could…but prepare for great things in the near future!

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OK, so our Year of the Rat celebrations have engendered some reader pushback against the maligned rodents, and I can certainly understand that, considering some of the unhappy rat/human collaborative efforts from history (like, uhhhh, the bubonic plague or sundry deep famines).  And, likewise, I completely understand how unnerving it can be when a scabrous piece of the subway wall detaches itself from the general gloom and runs over your foot like a gray hell imp (this is particularly demoralizing after being pushed around by New York crowds all week while desperately trying to hold on to a semblance of sanity commuting to and from your meaningless dayjob).

Yet, despite (ten thousand years of) these bad rat moments, rats are worthy of our respect; not because of their enormous worldwide success, nor their astonishing resilience, nor their acute intelligence (although all of those things are indeed true and respectable), but because of something unexpected–their morality and compassion.

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A landmark University of Chicago laboratory experiment from 2011 presented lab rats with a dilemma. A subject rat was given a choice of  helping an unknown fellow rat trapped in a narrow, scary, and uncomfortable plastic tube (which could only be opened by the subject rat nudging a finicky and unpleasant latch), or eating chocolate.  It is worth noting that rats like chocolate as much as we do.  The NIH summarized the experiment results thusly:

To test how much value the rats placed on liberating a trapped cagemate, the scientists presented rats with 2 restrainers — one with a rat inside and another containing 5 chocolate chips, a favorite rat snack. A free rat could choose to eat all the treats himself by opening the chocolate restrainer first or blocking the entrance to the chocolate restrainer. But the researchers found that the free rats opened the restrainers in no consistent order and allowed their liberated cagemates an average of 1.5 chips. When an empty restrainer was paired with a chocolate-containing one, the free rats ate all 5 chocolates.

To summarize: the rats helped the other rats and then shared the chocolate! Here are some full descriptions of the study.  You should read them and run it through in your head.  Maybe imagine if you were caught in something like this with terrifying alien scientists, a rando human stranger, and a satchel with millions of dollars in it. Would you behave as well as the rats?  Would you try to help or would you try to escape the lunatic aliens with the money as fast as possible? Would you free the other human and then take 3.5 million dollars and give them 1.5 million? Really? Reallllly?

No study about the emotions or virtues of animals would be complete without a loud and peevish set of detractors coming forth to claim that the conclusions are misconstrued (or some form of anthropomorphism).  The “only humans have actual feelings and thoughts” crowd assessed the 2011 study and found it lacking because perhaps the subject rat wanted the companionship of the stranger rat trapped in the tube or something.  It seems to me the original study took such concerns into account by creating scenarios in the which the second rat, once freed, was still separated from the subject rat (this did not alter the experiment’s outcome). However, to placate the naysayers, the neural scientists sighed heavily and created an even more harrowing ordeal in which rats had to risk drowning (or so it seemed to them) in order to help a stranger rat who seemed to be drowning. Once again the rats performed with admirable integrity and heroism.  An additional wrinkle was that the rats who had been trapped in the water as the “victim rat” acted more quickly to save their distressed fellows when they were given the role of subject rat.

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To my ears, that sounds like a textbook definition of empathy.  All of this does! Rats have hearts. They are capable of compassion and nobility.  Guanyin also holds rats in her ineffable embrace. As she listens to the cries of the world she hears their horrified squeaks to their families as we trap and poison them.

I confess that such a thought is deeply disquieting to me. I have been guilty of treating rats like vermin.  Yet I have talked to people with pet rats and I am not really surprised.  It has long been obvious to people of good conscience and reasonable observational abilities that almost all mammals (and a distressing number of birds and fish) have rich and soulful emotional lives.  They are not machines made of meat (or, at least, not more so than we humans are too).  They have souls, whatever that means.  Probably a lot of religious people are cursing me to their made-up gods, but I bet most people with pets are biting their lips and thoughtfully nodding.

I don’t know what to do with this knowledge. Our world is a cruel world of savage competition and appetite.  I eat certain mammals and birds.  I live in rat-free dwellings! It’s how I live! It’s what I have always done… yet more and more I worry that I live thoughtlessly in the jeweled master bedroom of a vast palace of cruelty.

But we are not seeking facile and comfortable answers here. We are seeking the truth, and that can be a narrow path of daggers which cut your heart. If you want soothing lies which confirm all of your biased feelings, go become an evangelical [REDACTED]ian.

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