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One of the real surprises to me in college was…bacteria.  Now I had encountered these characters before (I guess everybody has, since more of the cells in a human body are symbiotic bacteria living inside of us than are…well our own actual cells).  However, in college I learned the full history of life on Earth.  It is mostly a history of bacteria:  multicellular creatures only show up for the last 600 million years.  For over 3 billion years, the world belonged to the bacteria alone.  I also learned about extremophiles—bacteria that can live in boiling hot temperatures or in oxygen-free environments.  Some extremophiles can metabolize inorganic things like sulfur and arsenic.  They can live without the light of the sun in the fathomless depths of the ocean on poisonous elements. The oxygen we breath was created as a waste product by these first archaebacteria.  The planet’s atmosphere was once a reducing atmosphere, where paper would not burn (assuming you had any…billions of years before trees plants evolved, much less paper-makers).  Bacteria made it an oxygen world where things burn…including our metabolisms. They changed the world in a fundamental way that we industrial humans with our infernal carbons cannot match.

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The archaebacteria sound like aliens (indeed, there is a real possibility they actually originally were aliens), but they are also our great-great-great ever-so-great-to-the-100th power grandparents.  I don’t need to wonder whether evolution is real: I have seen it in a science lab when we put a pellet of penicillin on a petri dish and watched as the bacteria evolved resistance to it (not really a super-smart experiment in hindsight, but a super-compelling one). I wish I could impress upon you how astonishing bacteria are.  They are the true sacred seed of life–the undisputed masters of Earth.

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However, this is old news.  The new news is that there are so, so many more bacteria than we realized.  The earth beneath our feet is filled with bacteria…but the stone beneath that is filled with bacteria too.  And the weird hot putty beneath that stone (the gabbro) is also filled with bacteria.  There are bacteria in the depths of the world.  Living bacteria have been discovered in the gabbro 1400 meters beneath the basalt floor of the ocean.  There is a barely discovered world of secret life deep beneath our feet—a true underworld of secret unknown species of micro-organisms.  The size of this ecosystem is enormous.

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To quote a news article from..yesterday,  “The record depth at which life has been found in the continental subsurface is approximately 3 miles (5km) while the record in marine waters is 6.5 miles (10.5km) from the ocean surface.”

If these are the true boundaries of the underworld bacteria biome, it means that there is a region of secret life twice as large as all of the world’s oceans combined.  Based on past experience though, it is not unreasonable to doubt that deeper pockets of bacteria will be discovered as our drilling and bio-assaying become more sophisticated.

Most of the super deep bacteria spend enormously long periods in suspended animation.  Sometimes they enter a metabolic suspension so profound that they seem dead or inanimate (which is maybe how we missed them for so long).  At present, scientists and writers are calling them “zombie-bacteria” because of their half-alive status (which seems like an appropriate nomen based on their underworld habitat).

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I wish I could tell you more about this realm of life on Earth, but I can’t.  Not only am I not a bacteriologist or geologist, additionally we (meaning all of humankind) simply don’t know the answers yet.  More research is necessary.  Sadly, it is probably going to be slow to materialize.  Our leaders seem incapable of grasping that surface life needs to continue longer than a few decades (at least if they hope for meaningful long term economic growth).  I shudder to imagine them furrowing their brows at the concept of vast stone oceans of zombie one-celled organisms…and explaining to their constituents why we need to know more about such things.  But we DO need to know.  In the synthetic ecosystems of my youth, the lack of coherent sustainable bacterial communities was the root cause of disastrous failure.  I don’t think our new underworld friends are going to fail or die any time soon, no matter what we surface beings do, yet if we want to take life elsewhere than Earth we are going to need to understand them much better.  Perhaps life did not spring from some pool of irradiated scum or arrive on a comet from beyond the solar system.  Maybe it came from the hot depths.  Maybe we are all underworld beings.

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It is March 14th—“Pi Day” (since the date is 3/14).  Today mathematicians celebrate the famous irrational number, while everyone celebrates delicious pie.  I am certainly no math person, so I am going to give you my favorite pie recipe.  There was a year when I made a lot of pies and I feel like I still owe a sort of debt to the beloved desserts.  Here is the story: I quit drinking and I made a pie every time I really wanted a drink, which was frequently.  I must have made a hundred pies that year (I should probably stretch this story out with some comic anecdotes and use it to get a book deal and become a celebrity chef). Anyway, this is a pistachio pie which I “invented” during that time—by modifying a very fine pudding recipe which I found on the internet.

This is a really easy pie which is incredibly delicious, but it requires good ingredients.  It goes in a graham cracker crust which you can make yourself—however since all the recipes for graham cracker crust start with graham crackers (a store bought cookie) I always just buy a premade crust.

1 premade store-bought graham cracker crust

OK so you have a graham cracker crust.  Now obtain a blender, a saucepan and these following ingredients for the pudding filling.

1 cup salted shelled pistachio nuts

1/3 cup white grain sugar

2 tablespoons water

Another different 1/3 cup white sugar (I know that sounds weird, but bear with me)

2 cups whole milk

2 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

First put half the nuts in a blender with 1/3 cup sugar and the 2 tablespoons of water. Obliterate them until they are a dense swamp-green paste.  Then throw the remaining nuts in on top of the paste and chop them up fine with the blender.

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“Yum?”

Put the blended nuts in your saucepan with the 2 cups of milk, the sugar, the cornstarch, and the salt.  Getting the pistachio paste out of the blender is the hardest part (it is a dense sticky sludge which adheres to the blade apparatus). Maybe use the milk to wash out every bit of this disgusting yet heavenly paste?

Heat the ingredients on medium low heat until they begin to thicken, but DO NOT BURN THE PUDDING!  You will need to hover over it constantly stirring it with a big wooden spoon and muttering oaths which sound like they are from the old country.  Once the mixture thickens you should hastily whip the egg yolks in a little ceramic bowl with a whisk.  Grab a big metal spoon and pour some of the hot nut milk (?) mixture into the egg yolks and whip it together into a satisfying hot yellow viscous gel. Immediately pour this gel into the saucepan while it is hot and hastily whip it into the pudding in such a way that the eggs do not cook but rather integrate as a custard. Whip this on the stovetop with a whisk for a minute or two then remove the sauce pan and add the butter and vanilla.  Stir them into the hot pudding until they are fully integrated.

You will now have a greenish brown pudding which you should pour into the pie shell. Put the pudding pie in the fridge for a couple of hours until it is set.  Now make the whipped cream topping (which sounds inconsequential but is nearly as important as the pudding for the pie to taste right). The ingredients for this are:

1 pint of heavy cream

A few tablespoons of sugar

½ teaspoon of real almond extract

Mix a pint the cold heavy cream with a handful of sugar in a frozen metal bowl with a hand mixer.  Once the whipped cream starts to form peaks add the almond extract to the whipped scream and finish whipping the topping into stiff peaks.  Spread it on the pie with a rubber spatula/scraper thing.

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You now have a cream pie which looks like an abomination from the three stooges (except with pudding the color of a pneumonia victim’s coughing).  But pay no attention to the pie’s crude appearance.  It tastes as though it was stolen from the table of the gods themselves. It is one of the best pies ever! Enjoy (and be sure to tell everyone where you got the recipe).

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Have you ever wondered about how deep humankind is capable of digging into the planet? During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to answer this question with vast drilling projects. These two drilling operations were opposite but strangely complimentary. The United States tried to drill through the oceanic crust to reach the Earth’s mantle through an oceanic tectonic plate (which are much thinner than continental plates, but made of dense basalt). The Soviets attempted to drill through a continental plate–which are massively thick but not nearly as dense as oceanic plates (and not underneath thousands of feet of water!). Each operation failed due to the nature of geophysical reality and to the particular weaknesses of the respective nations. In the United States, the project was abandoned because of a lack of funding caused by congressional intransigence and general scientific apathy. The Soviet project was set aside because society collapsed and the Soviet Union broke apart.

 

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The Main Drilling Ship used for the Mohole Project

The American project was an outright attempt to drill into the Mohorovičić discontinuity, the line which separates the Earth’s crust from its mantle. The discontinuity is named after a Croatian geophysicist—and the project took its name from him as well when it came to be known as “the Mohole”. Various boreholes were sunk into the oceanic crust off the coast of Guadalupe Island, Mexico. The deepest drill hole reached 183 m (600 feet) below the sea floor—which was already beneath 3,600 meters (11,700 feet) of seawater. Yet the oceanic crust is ten kilometers (6.2 miles) thick, so the project was still far from achieving its goal. The Mohole project was plagued by mismanagement, underfunding, and incongruities between the government, scientific, and private institutions which were working together. Yet it was the first time dynamic positioning technology was used for deep sea drilling—today this technology is critical to offshore oil projects. Additionally scientist learned more about the composition of oceanic plates. Unfortunately the project was canceled in 1967.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Kola Superdeep Borehole in 2007

The Soviet team began drilling began on 24 May, 1970. They chose to drill on the Kola Peninsula, which juts into the Arctic Circle between the Barents Sea and the White Sea (and is a sort of sinister eastern mirror to the great Scandinavian nations). The Soviet scientists and technicians were trying to drill through the Baltic continental crust which is estimated to be 35 kilometers (22 miles) in thickness. For decades, they worked on this project, sinking new holes as extant drillings became broken, collapsed, or unviable. The deepest they managed to drill was 12,262 metres (40,230 ft)—about a third of the distance through the continental plate. This remains the deepest drill hole in human history–although today there are a few boreholes which are longer than this (however they are not deeper–such super-long drillings are generally horizontal or diagonal for the specialized purposes of oil drilling). The Kola borehole project also produced useful and unexpected results. At the maximum depths which the drill bore reached, temperatures were much higher than expected and there was a great deal more water in the continental rock. The core samples from the drilling reached all the way through Earth’s geological history back to rocks of Archaean age (greater than 2.5 billion years old) although these were distorted by heat and pressure. Additionally the mud which came from the hole was described as boiling with hydrogen. As we dig into the underworld things get stranger and stranger! Sadly, the project was abandoned and the works are now a deserted ruin in the grim chaos of Putin’s Russia.

 

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

The Kola Superdeep Bore hole mission center in 2012

A perspicacious reader will note that we never actually got anywhere close to the Earth’s mantle with either of these projects. Geologists, geophysicists, and drilling engineers learned much from the attempts, but the fundamental questions about the Earth’s crust and mantle which lead to the two missions remain unanswered. All we know about the Earth’s mantle comes from the reading of various sorts of waves which pass through the Earth—not from direct observation. The only rocks we have seen from the mantle are strange xenoliths which became caught up in esoteric igneous events and traveled as tiny crystals from the mantle to the surface through volcanoes or basaltic flows. Fortunately the world’s scientists are putting together a new mission–the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) to try again to reach the Earth’s mantle by penetrating the oceanic crust. This mission is being organized and funded mostly by the Japanese and the NSF (although there are a number of other contributing members and associate members). The Japanese in particular regard it as their premier scientific mission. Hopefully they can use today’s greatly advanced drilling technology to improve on the abortive attempts of the Americans and Soviets to pierce the crust of the planet.

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