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Perhaps the most interesting (or the only interesting) job I have had, was working as an intern at Smithsonian’s Marine Systems Laboratory in Washington DC in 1993. The Smithsonian Natural History Museum employed an ecological engineer named Walter H. Adey (?) who had built a synthetic mangrove ecosystem in a spare greenhouse amidst the national orchid collection. The fake everglades ecosystem (which I described more thoroughly in an earlier post) had been built decades earlier and it was starting to fail in some critical ways. However in a larger sense, the failures were the point of the project, since they elucidated the innumerable fragile connections which make living systems possible.

The only picture I could find of this place seems to have been kept because it featured Robert Redford not because of the synthetic ecosystem, which says a huge amount about humankind (although it has raised my esteem for Robert Redford).

All told, the terrarium world was about the size of a large suburban home and, at its heart was a miniature ocean built out of a calcium carbonate pit filled with thousands of gallons of salt water. The water was continuously filtered over algal mats which cleared out the ammonia and nitrogenous waste (and other waste products too). The ocean itself was filled with many tiny cnidarians, copepods, and suchlike micro-invertebrates, however larger animals were scarce (indeed animals larger than a small paperclip were dying out of the entire habitat). The only large fish were a pair of venerable striped sea bass who were definitely not reproducing.

It turns out that ray-finned marine fish almost all go through an extensive (and rather poorly understood) “larval” stage where the infinitesimal and quasi-transparent fish hunt the zooplankton while being hunted by innumerable ocean predators. This phase is nearly impossible to reproduce in captivity (although any ichthyologists or aquaculturists out there should feel free to jump in with additional information). Think of how depressing that is! Almost all of the 20,000 species of exquisite ocean fish are tied inextricably to the ocean! They can’t be conserved or preserved in some zoo or time capsule or artificial paradise, because we have no idea how to do that. If we broke through every sort of technological barrier and built an ark ship to blast off to Alpha Centauri, we wouldn’t have tuna or triggerfish or basking sharks with us.

Hollywood Lies from “Snowpiercer”!

The tiny fake sea (and the brackish mangrove swamp) were not empty though. There were species of small live-bearing fish which lived there and had managed to reproduce. Generations of these robust little minnows lived and died in the ersatz ocean and their delicate stripey shadows could be seen flitting about in bait balls in the depths. I should have asked what species they were–however the fascinating Wikipedia entry on Mangrove killifish should give you an idea of what sort of survivors these characters were.

I have written before about my own terrible childhood experiences keeping aquariums, and (although I still regard myself as a profoundly ineffectual failure on nearly every level), I think the sorts of problems I encountered reveal bigger issues than my jejeune fishkeeping skills. This is a long-winded way of reminding Elon Musk (or whoever else) that Earth’s oceans keep the planet alive and are the defining feature of our world. We would need such things anywhere else–but we know next to nothing about synthetic ecology. It doesn’t seem like a field where just adding more metal tubes and freaky machines actually helps all that much…

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As our civilization swiftly declines due to incompetent leadership, exploitative economic practices, and overuse of natural resources, it is worth looking back through history at some of North America’s other societies to see how they solved the problems of food, housing, and defense.  Most complex civilizations rely on a base of agriculture in order to assure a food supply for their population (and agricultural concerns then become enshrined in society’s fundamental compacts–as in feudalism or slave-based latifundias or what have you), yet some civilizations have formed in locations so rich in natural resources that urban societies can be built without agriculture. Such is the case with the Calusa civilization of southern Florida, AKA “the shell people.”

Calusa society was built upon a single animal…literally!  The fisher-folk constructed enormous artificial islands (and other aquatic structures) out of oyster shells.  These edifices were built over generations out of hundreds of millions of individual shells.  The greatest artificial islands seem to date from around 1300 and 1400 A.D.  The Spanish wrote compelling descriptions of the Calusa capital at Mound Key, where the Calusa chief (or king?) had a ceremonial palace/keep capable of holding 2000 people which was built atop a massive man-made island which loomed ten meters above sea level.

CalusaTerritory_without_borders

From their capital, the warlike Calusa ranged north to what is now Tampa, east to Lake Okeechobee, and south through their heartland in the keys down to the thousand islands.  The Calusa people were impressive traders who obtained goods through vast extended trade circles and apparently they were even more noteworthy warriors (“Calusa” means fierce). Yet what is most striking to modern researchers is that they were apparently pioneers of aquiculture.  Some of the great constructions made of oyster shells seem to have been water corrals, where schools of fish were driven to be stored live for later consumption.  The largest watercourts were several times the size of an NBA basketball court and were probably used to hold schools of mullet, pinfish and herring.

The estuarine fisheries of the Calusa seem to have been robust (witness how many oysters they harvested!) and they successfully withstood Spanish hegemony for 200 years, yet disease and colonial wars took a heavy toll and the society was conquered by Creek and Yamasee raiders early in the 18th century.  Shortly afterwards the Spanish Empire ceded its Florida lands to Great Britain and the British forcibly evacuated the last remnants of the tribe to Cuba.

 

We have a lot to talk about this week, but, as a Monday treat in the December darkness, there is a lot of news (and, yes, inflammatory pseudonews) from outer space.  Let’s get down to it and proceed through this grab bag of tidbits.

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The big headliner is something which has been in the offing since 1977.  According to NASA, the Voyager 2 space probe has left the heliosphere, the protective “bubble” of radiation and charged particles which surrounds the entire solar system, and the craft is now proceeding through interstellar space.  The spacecraft is only the second probe with any working instruments to accomplish this feat (the first was Voyager 1).  Based on telemetry, it seems that Voyager 2 crossed the Heliopause on November 5th (2018).  This occasion gives us reason to look back at the stupendous accomplishments made by the probe during the main stage of its mission. As it traveled through the Solar System, the craft visited all four gas giant planets and discovered 16 moons in addition to mysterious phenomena like Neptune’s Great Dark Spot, previously unknown rings around Neptune and Uranus, and cracks within the ice of Europa.  Perhaps it will provide a few more momentous discoveries as it heads into the great darkness between stars.

A second astonishing space headline is the existence of a recording of the wind on Mars.  NASA’s InSight lander (which we have been following here on this blog) captured the audio a few days ago and the space agency released the clip to the world this past weekend. This is the first recording of sound from a different planet.  You can listen to it here if you want to know what another world sounds like.

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OK…those were great stories, but by now you are probably asking where is the pseudonews which was promised in the opening sentence.  Pseudonews is news-like material designed to evoke a strong emotional response. The stories are actually revealed to be conjecture, opinion, propaganda/public relations material, or just straight-up celebrity dreck. A cursory scan of the top media sights reveals that many—or maybe most–of the most visited and commented upon pieces are exactly this sort of fatuous puffery, so I thought I better throw some into Ferrebeekeeper to see what happens.  For some reason the world can’t get enough of this folderol so let me know what you think!

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The first of these newslike stories is actually pretty interesting…if it is true, and I can’t find much confirmation of that.  Apparently the Southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu has plans to launch an artificial moon in 2020 to obviate the need for streetlights in the metropolis.  This plan is theoretically feasible, in the 1990s the Russians launched the Znamya experiment, which showed that satellites could be used for reflected illumination.  Yet the Znamya experiment didn’t produce much illumination…and the costs (bot known and unknown) of such a solution as Chengdu proposes would be outrageous.  The idea is worthwhile as a fantasy concept about planetary scale engineering, but until we hear more details I am dubious.

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Speaking of dubious, let’s end this article which started with such promise on a truly leaden note.  Professional athletes in America are often famous dullards—these are, after all, adults who are paid astronomical sums for running around playing children’s ball games.  The ignorant, misleading, and inflammatory declarations of athletes are a constant source of amazement and disgust. Which brings us to the story.  Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors (a contemporary basketball team) has announced that humans never visited the moon.  This conspiracy theory is common enough around the country, which is filled with people who lack the inclination or aptitude to assess whether fundamental truths are true or not, but it still makes me angry.  Do big media companies print this stuff so that “Steph” Curry fans will turn their back on the great accomplishments of the space program during the 1960s or does CNN just want people to believe less in science in general?

Of course not, major news sites are reporting this “news” merely for clicks.  I guess technically I am too, although I would be stunned if any Stephen Curry fans read this blog (if you do, please go elsewhere), yet I also have a more noble purpose in talking about this stupid Curry story.  In our age of information saturation, it is becoming more difficult to evaluate news sources.  Educational failures in public schools and political dysfunction have combined with the information revolution to cause ridiculous drivel to proliferate.  The closest analogy I can think of is the era after the printing press became widespread in Europe and crazy tracts appeared everywhere causing wars, confusion, and mayhem (although this previous information breakthrough ultimately led to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment as well).  Society is working through another unruly adolescent growth spurt where we try to figure out how to build society-wide consensus out of all of the new tools and discoveries we have made.  The process is working out pretty unevenly so maybe we should stop publicizing the rantings of willfully ignorant and malevolent actors like Curry as “news stories”, even if they garner ratings. What’s next, a president who doesn’t believe that vaccines help people?  We will revisit these dark fruits of the information era soon, but first there is enormous news from right here on Earth.  Tune in tomorrow when we talk about discoveries made right under our feet.

The Supertrees being built

The Supertrees being built

Is this a nightmarish future dystopia?  No, of course not, it’s just Singapore, the authoritarian concrete & steel city-state on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  Recognizing the manmade barrenness of land which should be a tropical rainforest, Singapore’s central planners mandated the creation of “the gardens by the bay” three gardens built on reclaimed land in central Singapore, adjacent to the Marina Reservoir.  The centerpiece of the gardens is “the supertree grove” a series of artificial trees ranging between 25 metres (82 ft) and 50 metres (160 ft) in height.  The artificial metal trees are rigged with water collectors and photovoltaic cells to mimic the function of real trees.  They have also been festooned with living vines, bromeliads, flowers, and ferns to be green and living in verisimilitude of actual trees.  Singapore hopes the strange structures will further mimic real trees and act as kidneys and lungs for the city—providing clean air and clean water.  By day, visitors can walk through the ersatz trees on a walkway (perhaps to eat at a café on top of the largest), and, at night, the trees are the setting of a dazzling light show.  Of course, the question remains: why didn’t Singapore use real trees?  It seems the nation is extremely determined to make itself into an arcology—an artificial superstructure designed to support immense numbers of humans.  Rebuilding natural ecosystems to be part of this great machine-city is a necessary step.  I wonder when they will go ahead and just build a dome over the place.

IMG_7708article-2009458-0CC8865600000578-349_964x641Supertrees-in-the-Rain

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