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Do you ever miss the 70s?  That time will never return (although stagflation and oil crunches might make an unexpected comeback from the weird devil’s brew of bad economic and geopolitical policies which we are experimenting with) however there is a more positive reminder of the age of disco in the very heavens themselves.  At present, there are three disco balls in orbit around Earth.  The first and most significant is actually a 70s artifact: LAGEOS (Laser Geodynamics Satellite) was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base on May 4th 1976.  The 408 kilogram (900 pound) satellite has no electronic components ore even moving parts: it is a brass sphere studded with 426 jewel-like retroreflectors. 422 of these retroreflectors are made from fused silica glass (to reflect visible light), however the remaining 4 are germanium, for infrared experiments.

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Orbiting the entire planet every 225.70 minutes, LAGEOSl is a pretty stupendous piece of space art in its own right, however it was designed for a serious scientific purpose.  Lageos provides an orbiting laser ranging benchmark.  To quote space.com:

Over the past 40 years, NASA has used LAGEOS to measure the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates, detect irregularities in the rotation of the planet, weigh the Earth and track small shifts in its center of mass via tiny changes in the satellite’s orbit and distance from Earth.

Measurements made using LAGEOS have also been used to confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity, since measurements made on this scale demonstrate a measurable “frame dragging effect” (which you are going to have to figure out with some help from your favorite physicist).  The satellite also illustrates the Yarkovsky effect, which explains how an object is heated by photons on one side will later emit that heat in a way which slows the object.  This latter effect will eventually cause LAGEOS’ orbit to deteriorate and bring it tumbling to Earth.  Scientists estimate this will happen 8.4 million years from now, so there is still time to contemplate this sphere.  Also there is a small time capsule on board to capture certain scientific truths and human ephemera for the long ages.

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LAGEOS was so useful and proved to be such a success that NASA launched an identical sister craft in 1992 (how did I miss all of these interesting events?).  This still leaves one disco ball satellite unaccounted for.  The final craft is “The Humanity Star” which serves no purpose other than being art.   Launched on January 21st of this year (2018), the humanity star is a regular polygonal solid with 65 triangular sides.  It is made of carbon fiber embedded with enormously reflective panels and is meant to be seen twinkling in the night sky to make humankind collectively reflect on our shared home, the Earth.  The Humanity Star orbits much lower than the LAGEOS satellites.  They are  5,900 kilometres (3,700 miles) from Earth’s surface, whereas the humanity star is only 283.4 kilometers (176.1 miles) away from the planet at its perigree.  It whips around the Earth every 90 minutes on a circumpolar orbit (which means it is visible from everywhere at some point.  You could look up where it is online and go out and find it with fieldglasses.  The object glimmers and shimmers in unusual ways, sometimes appearing as bright as Sirius (the brightest star save for the sun), but usually twinkling like barely visible stars.  The Humanity Star won’t last long—it is scheduled to fall into Earth’s gravity well and burn up in fall of this year, so check it out before it is gone.  The craft was controversial: some serious aerospace mavens objected to launching an object into orbit to serve no purpose other than art, yet, as an artist I am happy to know it is out there.  Maybe go look at it and let me know if it inspires you.

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In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we are all worried about the residents of Houston and the Galveston Gulf Coast. Hurricanes and flooding are a deadly serious matter and my heart goes out to everyone dealing with loss or damage caused by the disaster. As Houston residents and first responders worked together to survive and mitigate the floodwaters with boats, pumps, sandbags, and evacuations, they were treated to the (horrible) spectacle of a very different group of social animals responding to the crisis with a different group strategy.

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Red fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) are a tough species of stinging fire ants from South America. Like humankind they are invasive generalists which can survive anything and have quickly spread worldwide because of their hardy resilience and various ingenious group strategies. I have been meaning to blog about them because they are a sort of alien red mirror of humanity (and I have been trying to get back to writing about superorganisms and the question of what constitutes an organism anyway). Because of the hurricane, the fire ants have injected themselves into the news cycle, so I am going to mention their flood strategy now and we can return to write about their other interesting behaviors.
Fire ant bodies are waxy and light. They float! But they would all be drowned or swept apart in a serious flooding event (and a single ant separated from the group is effectively dead). Thus when the fire ants sense rising waters they group together in a ball and tightly cling to each other. These living rafts of clamped together ants can float for many days.
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If you are in a flooded area and a ball of furious stinging ants floats by you, entomologists and fire ant experts recommend that you not molest it. Like Voltron, the ants can break apart into autonomous fighting units before reforming. Ants do not breathe like people and they drown sort of gradually. We will leave the ants alone and concentrate on human group strategies for getting through crises.

Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

Out of all the hymenoterans, Ferrebeekeeper has been looking forward to writing about honey bees.  Not only is honey delicious (and the striped workaholic insects strangely endearing), but honey bees have one of the most successful colony systems extant.  As noted in a previous post, a hive of honey bees is a conundrum—is it 50,000 souls working together in a city state or is it one living organism?  Unfortunately, as one reads through the writings by beekeepers, one realizes that it is not easy to answer this question—or even to write a short essay concerning honey bees.  Their societies are too complex to be readily summarized.  Writing about a hive of honey bees really is like writing about the myriad affairs of a city-state.  The bees forage in different locations, store their produce in different forms, build structures, establish castes, fights wars, and undergo succession crises.

All of that is true during the warm part of the year. As temperatures drop to around 20° Celsius (50° Fahrenheit), things change a great deal within the hive.  Honey bees do not hibernate like bears (or like bumblebees which also snuggle down in a little lined den) instead they use honey stores and teamwork to stay warm.  Honey bees do not have internal warming mechanisms like mammals, but they have each other and they have powerful wing muscles.  The bees cluster together into a ball with the queen at the middle.  Worker bees close to the queen shiver their wing muscles and thereby generate heat.  Workers at the outside of the ball act as insulation (and benefit from transferred heat).  If the ball becomes too hot it expands outward and the space between bees allows heat to escape.  If it becomes too cold the bees press inward.  Tired workers move towards the outside of the ball where they can be inert whereas cold workers on the outside move towards the inside.  You might notice I am only writing about female bees—the workers and the queen—this is because all of the male drone bees are regarded as expendable and are thrown out of the hive to die in the cold as soon as temperatures drop.

In the beginning of the cold season  the queen is not laying eggs (broodless) and the temperature within the cluster is about  27 °C (81 °F), however as spring nears a new brood of workers is needed and the interior temperature of the cluster rises to 34 °C (93 °F) in order to make egg-laying possible.  Hives with too few bees can not stay warm this way and they perish in cold winters, however adequately large hives with ample honey reserves can survive temperatures which dip deep deep below freezing. Even in large well-provisioned hives there are winter dangers though.  Moisture can build up in heavily insulated hives and form icicles which subsequently drip down on the bees in non-freezing weather and chill them (or burden them with fungi).  And prolonged deep cold can prove disastrous. The bees congregate around a single honey store when the temperatures are extremely cold and then they spread out and move to another honey deposit when the weather is better.  If the weather stays too cold for too long they deplete all of the honey and freeze—inches from abundant supplies of life-giving honey.

The Giant Ground Pangolin of Africa (Manis gigantea)

The pangolin is one of the most unusual and fascinating mammals of Africa and Asia.  The magnificent creatures have unique strengths and gifts, but because of unhappy superstition (and gustatory whim) they are facing an uncertain future.

A climbing tree pangolin

Despite a superficial resemblance to anteaters and armadillos, pangolins are most closely related to the carnivora family (cats, dogs, weasels, seals, and so forth).  The relationship is not unduly close: pangolins make up their own order of which there is one extant family (Manidae) and one genus (Manis). There are eight species of pangolins, each of which is sheathed in a virtually impregnable suit of keratin scales which act as armor.  All pangolins can roll into pinecone-like balls leaving only the razor sharp edges of their scales to confront predators. Not only does the pangolin possess armor, every adult has formidable claws with which to burrow into termite mounds and root insects out of bark (or to utilize as a defensive weapon) as well as a gland capable of spraying a foul acid onto would-be predators.  Additionally, while they may lack the uniquely acute mental equipment of the gnome-like echidna, pangolins are considered quite clever.  They are gifted at avoiding traps and seem to evince real creativity in seeking out and consuming bugs, particularly ants and termites, which compromise a large portion of their diets. Many pangolins are adept climbers, capable of taking to the trees both to hunt and to escape danger. Tree pangolins even have prehensile tails with which they can dangle from branches. Other pangolins are great burrowers. In fact  in Chinese myth they travel everywhere in a great underground network and their Cantonese name “Chun-shua-cap” means the creature that bores through the mountain.

A lion ineffectively tries to eat a balled-up pangolin (photo by Mark Sheridan-Johnson)

Alas, Chinese legends are not all so kind to chun-shua-cap. Although pangolins are gifted with impregnable armor, mighty claws, keen intelligence, skunk-like acid spray, dexterity, as well as great digging, swimming, and hiding skills, they have a relentless enemy more implacable than any lion or plague. South China’s burgeoning middle class hungers for them with insatiable rapacity. Ancient custom dictates that ingesting their scales somehow magically aids nursing mothers (which, aside from the placebo effect, is a complete fallacy). Additionally pangolins are a prestige food for the newly moneyed millions who do not know what to do with wealth and, like the Very Reverend William Buckland, desire to consume everything that lives. China has eaten its own pangolins and is quickly driving the remaining pangolins of South East Asia, Indonesia, and South Asia to extinction. Additionally, as Africa’s troubled nations become vassals to Chinese cash and commodities-grubbing (and as Africa’s tin-pot dictators abase themselves before China’s moral equivocation) the pangolin trade is starting to gobble-up Africa’s pangolins, which were already facing pressure from the bush-meat trade and deforestation. Pangolins reproduce slowly.  Because of their diet and lifestyle they can’t be farmed. If China’s ever-growing demand for them is not curbed they will vanish from Earth forever.

A smuggled pangolin rescued by police

Chinese police, customs officers, and wildlife officials (and their counterparts in neighboring nations) have begun to strike back at the illegal trade in pangolins and other endangered species.  But as long as Chinese high officialdom turns a (very) blind eye on consumption, the problem will linger.  Come on China! You are always clamoring to be regarded as a truly great world power.  I will acknowledge you as such as soon as you rescue the world’s pangolins (and maybe the rhinos, bears, elephants, and tigers while you are at it). Everyone has these wacky superstitions which get in the way of real greatness (just look at America’s checkered history) but saving the pangolins should be possible for a nation whose government possesses such absolute authority. Or will China’s rise merely present a list of needless extinctions and tacky plastic cities as its heritage to posterity?

A baby pangolin sheltering with its mother

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