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Longtime readers will know that Ferrebeekeeper eschews the popular fascination with Mars in favor of our much closer sister planet, the luminous Venus. Therefore, I was delighted to see the second planet from the Sun making front page headlines around the globe (of Earth) this week when scientists discovered traces of phosphine gas in the strange, dense Venusian atmosphere.

The internet tells us that phosphine is a colorless, flammable, very explosive gas which smells like garlic or rotten fish. Additionally, it is extremely toxic. This stuff is not exactly the must-have gift of the season (well…maybe for Christmas, 2020), so why am I so excited to find it on a planet which may be the best option for an off-world human colony?

Phosphine exists on Earth where it is produced by the decomposition of organic matter in oxygen-free conditions (it is also a by-product of certain kinds of industrial processes). This means that the only known methods of producing phosphine involve living things (I suppose industrialists and anaerobic bacteria both qualify as such). It may well be that phosphine is produced on Venus due to some quirk of the planet’s strange atmosphere or weird volcanism (which is not well understood and seems to be fundamentally different from that of Earth).

In the past we have explored some compelling yet inconclusive evidence of life in the clouds of Venus. Today’s news adds to that evidence, but is still not compelling. The phosphine gas and the cloud bands both demands further study, though (and if we happened to learn more about the opportunities for cloud cities, so be it). I have long thought that a robot blimp probe of Venus’ clouds is the most rational next exploration mission for NASA (no matter how much I love super rovers). Perhaps the phosphine revelation will bring other people closer to this view. Maybe you should drop a quick email or phone call to your favorite elected representative about that very thing (or you could always write Jim Bridenstein–he is the rare Trump appointee who seems to be basically competent).

Speaking of basic competence, I was sad to see many of the liberal arts enthusiasts on my Twitter feed angrily denouncing this discovery and demanding “no more money for space!” (I unfollowed them all, by the way–sorry poetry). Beyond the fact that this discovery was made here on Earth by a clever lady with a simple telescope and a gas chromograph, money spent on space exploration is spent here on Earth. Such expenditures further fundamental discoveries in material science, engineering, aerospace, robotics, and other high tech disciplines. Our world of high tech breakthroughs, the internet, super computers, solar power, nanotechnology, and super safe aviation (among many other things) was made possible by government money spent on space exploration (or did you think some MBA guy running a private company would ever think more than one quarter into the future?). Beyond these reasons though, Venus was once the most earthlike of all other Solar System planets. Long ago it almost certainly had warm oceans teeming with life. Uh, maybe we should have a comprehensive answer about what happened there before we say that government money should only be spent on social initiatives. If you came home to your nice row house and noticed that the house next door had been knocked down, the neighbors were gone, and also the temperature there was 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit) and the sky replaced with sulfuric acid, maybe you would ask what happened! (although, to be fair, that very thing seems to be happening now in California, and a substantial number of people say “science has no place in understanding this).

Anyway, commentary about earth politics aside, I continue to be more and more excited about our closest planetary neighbor. Seriously, can you imagine how cool a robot probe-blimp would be?

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What with all of the excitement in the world, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture…and of good things which are still happening during these troubled times.  This morning at 7:50 a.m. EDT, NASA launched an Atlas V-541 rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Launch Complex 41.  On board the rocket is a Martian lander containing the most sophisticated Martian rover yet “Perseverance” along with its robotic helicopter sidekick “Ingenuity.”

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Artist’s Conception of Perseverance and Ingenuity on Mars

If the mission continues to go according to plan, the lander will reach Mars in February 2021.  Coincidentally, Mars will be crowded that month, since a Chinese orbiter & lander, and a UAE orbiter are also slated to arrive.  After much trial-and-error, I have faith in NASA’s sky crane landing system but it will be most interesting to see if the Chinese rover can “stick the landing”or if it is eaten by the ghosts of Mars (I hope not: humankind needs the Chinese data too, and NASA needs some competition to keep the creative juices and the congressional funding flowing).

The ultimate destination of the Mars 2020 mission is the Jezero Crater, a nearly circular crater 49 km (30 miles) in diameter.  The ancient crater is now partially filled with sediments–including a fan delta of ancient clays.  It is believed that if evidence of ancient life is to be found anywhere on Mars this is as likely a place as any to discover the ancient fossils.

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Jezero Crater

Perseverance  has onboard a 4.8 kilograms (11 lb) pellet of plutonium dioxide which will provide the vehicle (and the miniature helicopter) with abundant energy for traveling, communicating with orbiters/Earth, assaying rocks, and operating a core drill for gathering geological samples of ancient Martian rock.  Additionally the rover will conduct material experiments concerning the potential toxicity of Martian dust and the production of pure oxygen from Martian atmospheric CO2.  Perhaps most excitingly, the rover will also carefully organize and cache the precious samples it gathers in preparation for a future retrieval mission.  Such a mission would involve landing, building and launching a Mars ascent vehicle from the Martian surface up to our proposed next generation Mars orbiter which would then load the samples on am Earthbound craft.  So the Mars 2020 mission is a tremendous step towards discovering whether life ever gained a toehold on Mars AND towards building next-generation space faring capabilities (for the dull and incurious earthcentric crowd that always decries space exploration–as though Earth is located somewhere other than space!– it should be noted that such engineering breakthroughs generally confer military, technological, and economic supremacy here).

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Also, special thanks to our brilliant Norwegian, Spanish, French, and Italian friends!

So best wishes for the entire armada which has left our planet this month headed for Mars, but particular good wishes to Perseverance and Ingenuity!  Let’s hope we can discover some perveverance here to make it all the way to February 2021 (right now that sounds like it might as well be some HG Wells date in the impossible future).

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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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The Sole Seed and the Space Ark (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

A month or so ago, I wrote a heartfelt post about humankind’s relationship with other living things and why I feel that our ultimate destiny lies beyond the Earth.  I am still thinking about how to say that message with all of the grace and power I can muster.  Everyone paying attention to current trends fears for the future of living things.  As humankind’s appetites grow exponentially we are bringing terrifying changes.  Yet humankind’s knowledge and abilities are growing too.   I hope you will read the post…or at least its Biblical-themed follow-up concerning the art of Noah’s ark.  in the meantime, I made a sculpture shaped like a flatfish to try to explain my conception in the non-linear language of symbols (coincidentally, flatfish are my symbol for Earth life with its hunger and deep beautiful sadness and with a known tendency to desperately snap at baited hooks).  There is the tree of life sprouting anew out of a battered ark and spreading seeds upon the cosmic wind (or are those pink stars?).  Above the ark is a mysterious figure which may be a symbol of our “life instinct” and our need to disseminate ourselves (or it may be a shrugging cartoonish new human–who can say?).  Interred in the crypt beneath the universe is the inverse reflection of the life instinct: our Thanatos death instinct (for we take it with us always, no matter where we go).  It is pictured as a strange human/lamprey mummy-thing writhing its gray fluke in its cramped chamber.

The cosmic fluke has a perplexed expression.  Perhaps it is less sure than I about the wisdom of venturing out into the unknown.  Or maybe it is just hungry…like all living things.

Happy Earth Day!  I am afraid I am a bit under the weather (which seems appropriate, since our beautiful blue planet is catching a fever too). However it is worth devoting some time today to thinking about our planet and the entwined webs of ecosystems which support all living things (very much including human beings).

The great masters of global capitalism claim that the Earth is inexhaustible and made solely for human delights.  To hear them tell it, only if ever more people consume ever more consumer rubbish will we all thrive. However that claim always seemed suspect, and the notably swift decline of entire ecosystems within even my lifetime suggests that fundamental aspects of our way of life and our long-term goals need to be rethought.   It is a formidable problem because the nations of Earth are facing a near-universal political crisis where authoritarians are flourishing and democracies are faltering.  So far, the authoritarians don’t seem substantially concerned with a sustainable future for living things (or with any laudatory goal, really).  This trend could get worse in the future as agricultural failures, invasive blights, and extreme weather events cause people to panic and flee to “safe” arms of the dictators (this would be a stupid choice since strongmen, despots, and tyrants are anything but safe in a any context).

These frightening projections of doom are hardly a foregone conclusion though. A great many people of all political and ideological stripes are worried about the future and are working hard to ensure that humankind and all of our beautiful extended family on the tree of life make it into the future.  Part of this is going to involve engineering and biomedical breakthroughs, but political and cultural breakthroughs will be needed as well.

I am ill-prepared to write out my proposals at length (since I would really like to lie down with some ginger ale), but fortunately I am a visual artist and I spent the winter of 2018 preparing a dramatic planetary image to capture my own anxiety for the world and its living things without necessarily giving in utterly to my fears and anxieties.  I was going to introduce it later, but EarthDay is a good time to give you a sneak peak (plus it goes rather well with my Maundy Thursday blog post).

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Here is the Great Flounder–the allegorical embodiment of how Earth life if everywhere under our feet and around us, but we can’t necessarily fathom it easily, because of our scale.  Speaking of scale (in multiple ways I guess), I continue to have trouble with WordPress’ image tool, so I am afraid that you will have to make due with this small image until I learn about computers…or until posters get printed up (dangit…why do we have to sell ourselves all of the time?).  In the meantime here is a teaser detail to help you in your own contemplation of if/how we can make Earth a paradise for ourselves without destroying it for the other inhabitants.

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We will talk more about this soon, but in the meantime happy Earth Day.  We will work together to save our giant blue friend, I know it!  Let’s just collaborate to do so before we lose African elephants, numbats, mysterious siphonophores, or any of our beloved fellow lifeforms on this spherical island hurtling through space.

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Days in May pass so quickly (well maybe not the part in the office…but the part when I got home and was supposed to write my blog).  Instead of writing an essay I am going to put up one of my flounder pictures for you.  This one is a cellular flounder–a reminder that whenever we look at a living thing it is made up of much smaller individual living things.  It is a truth which is hiding in plain sight (like the flounder) but it is continuously astonishing to me.  This amoeba flounder reminds to think on the microscopic level too, as we contemplate the world.

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Have you seen photos of Venus?  When the planet is observed in visible light it looks like a big bland ecru ball (see above).  Put a whiteboard and some plastic rolling chairs on that puppy and you would have a corporate conference room in some awful suburban office-park.  Yet ultraviolet imaging of Venus paints a somewhat more interesting picture of swirling bands or darkness in the heady acid atmosphere of our sister planet.  But what does that mean?

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The dark bands turn out to be the result of sulfur compounds (carbonyl sulfide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide) and other yet unknown chemical compounds in the upper atmosphere of Venus.  On Earth these sulfur compounds are hallmarks of life…or of volcanic activity.  Some scientists are provocatively asking whether extremophile bacteria could have a place in the temperate upper atmosphere of Earth’ closest planetary neighbor.  The bacteria could use the rich sulfur and carbon clouds as building blocks and the UV (and other EM radiation!) bombardment of the sun for energy.  Perhaps, they muse, these dark bands are something akin to algal blooms in Earth’s oceans.

More than a billion years ago, Venus enjoyed a period of prolonged earthlike climate with surface water and an atmosphere which was not so hellishly heavy and hot.  But something went hideously awry and runaway greenhouse effect created a terrible feedback loop which changed the planet’s surface into the monstrous place it is today.  Apparently the igneous/volcanic processes of Venus are rather different than those of Earth, so it was probably not all treeferns, friendly dinosaurs, and bikini-clad aliens even before the runaway greenhouse phase melted away the old surface of Venus, but perhaps bacteria (or analogous lifeforms) could have evolved and escaped the catastrophe by moving into the upper clouds (which, as previously noted here, have temperatures not unlike those of Earth’s surface).

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My guess is that Venus is lifeless as a jackhammer (though, like a jackhammer it can give the alarming appearance of life), yet even if this is the case, we should know more about all of this! What happened to Venus’ original surface? Was there ever life there?  What is going on with its volcanoes and internal geology?  What is the composition of the clouds of Venus? Is there anything there other than strange sufur compounds and esoteric hydrocarbons formed from the mixture of sulfur, carbon dioxide, and UV radiation?   Once again, our nearest neighbor is beckoning.  We need to move forward with sophisticated atmospheric probes (like VAMP) and NASA should collaborate with Russia on their next Venus mission (it looks like our governments are closer than ever anyway).  For some reason, popular imagination disdains Venus, yet the questions there seem salient, and the possibilities for a nearby Earth-sized world of unlimited energy and resources seem, well, unlimited.

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Back when I first moved to New York, I didn’t know how to cook very well, so my roommates and I ended up ordering out almost every night.  The profusion of infinite restaurants featuring delicious cuisine from everywhere in the world seemed like one of the city’s great features back then.  My favorite sort of take-out cuisine is Chinese, so we would order Chinese from New Panda Garden or Szechuan Delight at least once a week (and sometimes more).

Then one day, my roommate came back with a menu for a new place: Uncle Liao.  We had immense fun saying the name (which you should try) and we started ordering their sour pork cabbage delight—which was magically delightful. Coincidentally, according to a Chinese-speaking friend, “Liao” means “old” in Chinese—so their name was something like “Uncle Old” or maybe “Venerable Courtesy Relative.”  We ordered Uncle Liao all the time and poor Panda Garden closed (and Szechuan Delight was relegated only for the occasions when we had to have sweet and sour chicken, which they did really well).  But then a funny thing happened: the novelty faded from Uncle Liao and the food stopped seeming so delicious.  After a while my roommate picked up a “Red Hot” menu and soon Uncle Liao dropped out of the rotation.

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It is possible, of course, that their food became less good over time (indeed the internet tells me they closed a decade ago for gross health code violations), however I believe the whole cycle was illustrative of the human need for novelty.  After a while the most delicious food loses its special savor, and the most gorgeous ornaments look stale next to newer baubles.  We have an insatiable appetite for novelty–and it is this taste (not the need for sour pork-cabbage delight) which drives more of human activity and purpose than I ever would have credited.  Lately I see Uncle Liao scenarios everywhere: in media, in politics, in relationships, especially in the arts (which are afflicted by a real weakness for novelty even if the new work is stupid or inane)…yet even science and academia are prone to the “good because it is new” phenomenon.  I suppose this itself is good, since it drives change and innovation, but it is alarming too…our collective hunger which can never be sated which draws us to new things even if they are stupid or tasteless (or kind of too salty with too much MSG).   I don’t propose not trying new things (far from it), but we should be aware that they tend to overperform on the curve and most of them are destined for the back of the folder…or the landfill…or the “CLOSED” tab on the menu finder.

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Merry Christmas!  I decorated the house up all beautifully with my tree of life and with all sorts of seasonal lights…but then I couldn’t find my digital camera.  I’m afraid you will have to get through Saturnalia/Yule/Christmas with these somewhat blurry images.  I hope Santa brings you what you want (or Hanukkah Harry…or Saturn…or Mithras).  We’ll do some year-end wrap-up next week, but for right now I am going to drink some egg-nog and draw some festive flatfish!  Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper!

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Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re moving to the darkest time of the year.  I don’t have any white robes or giant megaliths on hand to get us through the solstice, but I thought I might at least cheer up the gloomy darkness with some festive decorations!  As in years past, I put up my tree of life filled with animal life of the past and the present (see above).  This really is my sacred tree: I believe that all Earth life is part of a larger cohesive gestalt (yet not in a stupid supernatural way–in a real and literal way).  Looking at the world in review, I am not sure most people share this perspective, so we are going to be philosophizing more about our extended family in the coming year.  For right now though, lets just enjoy the colored lights and the Christmas trilobite, Christmas basilosaurus, and Christmas aardvark.

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I also decorated my favorite living tree–the ornamental cherry tree which lives in the back yard.  Even without its flowers or leaves it is still so beautiful.  I hope the shiny ornaments and toys add a bit of luster to it, but really I know its pulchritude is equally great at the end of January when it is naked even of ornaments.

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Here are some Javanese masks which my grandfather bought in Indonesia in the 50s/60s. Indonesian culture is Muslim, but there is a deep foundation of Hinduism (the masks are heroes from the Mahabharata and folk heroes of medieval Indonesia).  Decorating this uneasy syncretism up for Christmas is almost nonsensical–and yet look at how good the combination looks.  Indeed, there might be another metaphor here.  We always need to keep looking for beautiful new combinations.

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Finally here is a picture of the chandelier festooned with presents and hung with a great green bulb.  The present may be dark, but the seasons will go on shifting and there is always light, beauty, and generosity where you make it.  I’m going to be in and out, here, as we wrap up 2016 and make some resolutions for 2017.  I realize I have been an inconsistent blogger this year, but I have been doing the best I can to keep exploring the world on this space and that will continue as we go into next year. I treasure each and every one of you.  Thank you for reading and have a happy solstice.

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