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Microbeads through a Microscope

Microbeads through a Microscope

Back when I was at school in the 90s there was a breathless sense that we all lived on the threshold of a nanotech revolution.  In the future we would quaff chalices filled with infinitesimal robots and the little machines would devour our cancers and grant us superpowers.  Flash forward to 2015 and what we have instead is microbeads.  These are exactly what they sound like–polyethylene microspheres which have worked their way into consumer goods of every sort.  Microbeads were supposed to “exfoliate” or “microcleanse” or perform some other nebulous pseudoverb dreamed up by marketers.  What they really do instead is abrade microfissures into our gums before passing through the filters of water treatment plants and pouring into the world’s rivers, lakes, and oceans.  In these larger ecosystems, the beads soak up pollutants and are mistaken for eggs by tiny arthropods and fry.  The infernal little spheres are working their way into the food chain and causing havoc.

Ahh...consumer goods!

Ahh…consumer goods!

Ferrebeekeeper believes that technology is the solution to most problems.  This blog often excoriates the powers that be for not moving fast enough to bring us breakthroughs and marvels.  So why are we featuring the troubling story of microbeads?  First (and most-obviously) because technology only works if we all pay close attention and correct errors and problems as they occur.  This is no easy task when dealing with systems as complicated as those seen in biology and ecology.

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More importantly it is a rebuke to the market system.   There is a certain segment of society which continuously holds aloft the market as the final and greatest arbiter of what is right and best.  This seems dangerously misguided.  The market prefers expensive baldness therapy, instantly obsolete cellphones, and microbeads to the expensive and abstract research into fundamental science where real breakthroughs come from. The market is a single shiny gimcrack in our collective box of tricks for dealing with the world, but it should not be mistaken for the toolbox…or the world! Markets are better at making a few charlatans rich then for helping us all understand existence.

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Microbeads glowing under UV light inside some little larval water creature

Let’s remove little beads from our soap and work a bit harder in the nanotech laboratory.  We are not getting any younger and some of those little cancer eating robots might come in handy…provided they are not brought to us at a horrifying markup by Ciba-Geigy (and then end up eating our spleens).  If we do not work a bit harder to correct the excesses within our resource allocation system, we are going to end up with more micro cleanse and less true understanding.

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

We want nanobots but we need them to work right or the consequences could be unpleasant!

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

One of the underlying principles of this blog is that we should spend a lot more money and resources on scientific research and exploration in general (and on space research and exploration specifically).   Meanwhile, in the real world, the powers that be are busy chopping down the tree of knowledge by defunding all branches of blue sky research in general (and space research specifically). Market advocates in government assert that, if there is anything worthwhile in space, greedy companies will go there and take it for themselves without government assistance. I tend to take issue with this idea. Markets have a place in science…at the end of ideas when the true research is already well established and the path to making money-grubbing consumer dreck is extremely evident. Avaricious MBAs are unlikely to try anything really bold since they are trained not to move first but to let others take the risk and then come in and refine an already workable idea. The way I have framed this issue is politically expedient for getting my point across (MORE RESEARCH NOW), but it ignores the tangled relationship which government agencies already have with pre-anointed business monopolies and it also short-changes the bold and visionary entrepreneurs who are actually going ahead with wild and exciting space ventures at present.

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge...

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge…

Speaking of which, here is the footage from the latest SpaceX project. Elon Musk and co. were attempting to land the first stage of a commercial Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned test barge in the ocean. The rocket blasted off to carry a payload to the International Space station. The first stage returned to earth in a controlled fashion. SpaceX planners hoped to land this booster softly on a barge so it could be reused. The idea did not work…yet, but the rocket came really close to landing properly and the footage is truly exciting—like something from the sixties. I wanted you to see this clip because it is spectacular and inspiring, but I also wanted to remind myself that even today—even in the private sector—there are thrilling projects afoot.

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I wanted a clear break from the previous week’s posts about dreams and nightmares…but here in the United States of America today is the 2014 midterm election—so we haven’t escaped nightmares yet. With the adroitness of a deer frozen in the headlights, Ferrebeekeeper has refrained from endorsing any candidates until the last minute. Since Americans are now headed to the polls (or have already voted) it may now be too late to make a meaningful difference–which sounds like the essence of American democracy right now anyway.

Before I suggest how citizens should vote, let’s quickly examine the two national parties.

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With their abject obeisance to big business and (pretend?) love for the most inane and inhuman strictures of religious fundamentalism, Republicans are deeply troubling. It does not help that they are unapologetically hostile to minorities, women, immigrants, atheists, polytheists, Muslims, young people, spotted owls, South Americans, sick people, children, scientists, non-scientists, science fiction enthusiasts, artists, Asians, unemployed people, employed people, homosexuals, van owners, poor people, people with unruly hair, city dwellers, intellectuals, small business people, circus clowns, florists, manatees, et cetera. Despite these problems, I have usually swallowed my gorge and voted for the inhumane Republicans in general elections. I do so because they stand for robust national defense and for funding science & technology R&D. These two issues constitute 90% of what matters to me in politics—and, if you studied history at all, you would feel the same way. However contemporary Republicans have abandoned these values. In their rush to defund government and hand power to big business cartels, they are slashing research funding—a huge and inexcusable error. Republicans assert that the market will take care of science research. Anyone who has any experience of today’s market knows that it will only provide costly service contracts, addictive medicines, plastic rubbish, and consumer debt. Government is necessary for the truly important things.

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Although they pretend otherwise, the Democrats are similarly in the pocket of special interest groups. They enjoy passing endless hard-to-follow laws which curtail productivity and destroy small businesses (and therefore favor big business). In their haste to pander to individual rights and interests the Democrats abandon the all-important larger good. Although the Democrats claim the mantle of environmentalism, a close examination of their policies reveal little that would really help the environment—or anybody other than their cronies. Democrats do not currently stand for scientific innovation at any cost, nor for muscular intervention in the wider world, but rather favor an attitude of “let’s solve our problems at home first.” This attitude is dangerous, since our problems at home are never going to be solved (particularly by nanny-like moralizing laws). Without continuous scientific innovation, the vast problems which humankind is creating will destroy us. Without a large scary military, the Pax Americana will founder and today’s globalized world will fall to chaos (or become thrall to Chinese exploitation schemes). The minutiae of identity politics will matter little in such a scenario.

The obvious alternative to these two unappealing choices would be to vote in some third party candidates, but, because America’s political duopoly holds such vast power, this is more-or-less impossible. Additionally, although it seems unlikely, the third party candidates are even less impressive than the lickspittles, hypocrites, and malingerers fronted by the GOP and the Democrats. Argh!

If all choices are problematic (or outright awful) what is a good-hearted voter supposed to do?

My proposal is completely impossible (which is why I have not bandied it about until 2:00 PM on Election Day)—but it has the benefit of being extremely appealing to everyone other than incumbents and professional politicians.

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Red America and Blue America are too deeply entrenched. It is an artificial distinction built by professional politicians. Let’s upend that. Everywhere with a Bible-thumping Republican basking like a lizard in a gerrymandered safe district should elect the place-holder Democrat. Likewise, here in the blue heart of Brooklyn we could throw out the crooked machine Democrat and vote in the unknown Republican. My congresswoman is an anti-defense Democrat who has no knowledge of history or science. Her only position is that the government should lavish more money on entitlements for lazy unemployed people like me. The Republicans haven’t even bothered to contest this district: her only opposition is some unknown mouth-breather from the “conservative” party. Let’s elect that guy! My parents in rural Ohio have a lunatic tea-party congressman who told my mother “women’s opinions don’t matter.” They should elect the anti-establishment Democrat. Working together, we could reverse the red and blue polarity of the country!

What!?

What!?

I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out. Most of the sacrificial Democrats in red districts or Republicans in blue districts (who have no electoral chance whatsoever) are not actually that far from the core values of their district. We would have legislative houses filled with socially liberal Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats. Many would be political outsiders and all would owe their seats to a mass joke by the voting populace. If Idaho was represented by traditionally minded Democrats and New York City was represented by minority Republicans (cough, I mean “conservatives) perhaps these new legislators could work together and pass some much-needed political reforms before K street bought them up too.

Or we could just keep muddling through with divided government strongly influenced by special interests...like always

Or we could just keep muddling through with divided government strongly influenced by special interests…like always

Shebbear_Devon_gravestone

Another year is passing and, as in years past, we pause to recall some of the important people who passed away this year.  Numerous World War II heroes died as the greatest generation fades into a glorious Technicolor sunset.  We will not see their like again.  All sorts of celebrities, criminals, titans, sports stars, and pioneers also passed on as the great parade of human life continues.  Here are some of the scientists, space pioneers, artists, writers, and leaders who deserve a last shout out before 2014 begins with its possibilities, anxieties, and hopes.

Illustration from Frederick Back's "The Man Who Planted Trees"

Illustration from Frederick Back’s “The Man Who Planted Trees”

Noted animator Frederick Back died on December 24, 2013.  He was known for his profoundly moving short animations.

Dr. Janet Rowley in the lab

Dr. Janet Rowley in the lab

Dr. Janet Rowley demonstrated that chromosomal translocation was the underlying cause for leukemia (and other cancers). By establishing the genetic underpinnings of many cancers, she vastly furthered cancer research and treatment.  ABC news reported “She is a recipient of the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.” She was still publishing papers and researching at the University of Chicago (where she graduated from high school, college, and Medical School and spent most of her professional life) right up until her death on December 17, 2013.

Peter O'Toole in "Stardust"

Peter O’Toole in “Stardust”

Peter O’Toole one of the foremost thespians of our era died on December 14, 2013.  The quality of his movies varied wildly, but the quality of his acting was always the very highest.  I remember watching him on a late night chat show and being impressed by his vivacity and intelligence.  He finished the segment by reminding the audience that this isn’t a dress rehearsal (a sentiment which bears repeating).

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Harry Rosenthal an AP reporter who “covered America’s golden age of space exploration” died on Dec. 12, 2013.  I hope a new reporter appears on the scene to cover a newer and more glorious era of space exploration (but a lot needs to go right for that to happen).

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Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, died on December 5, 2013. Too often, brutal civil wars have swept across African nations after independence. It did not happen in South Africa thanks to largely to Nelson Mandela who reached out to his former oppressors in order to build a unified society.

That painting in the back was by Fred Scherer==he might have been one of the greatest living landscapists

That painting in the back was by Fred Scherer–he might have been one of the greatest living landscapists

Fred F. Scherer a painter and sculptor responsible for crafting some of the amazing wildlife dioramas for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, died Nov. 25, 2013.

Dorris Lessing drinking in front of a maritime painting

Dorris Lessing drinking in front of a maritime painting

Doris Lessing, Nobel Prize laureate and author of harrowing science fiction dystopias (some of which were based on her childhood in colonial Africa) died on November 17, 2013.

Legendary rock-and-roll musician Lou Reed died on October 27, 2013.

Legendary Irish punk/rock/traditional musician Philip Chevron died on October 8, 2013.

Chicago Pile 1 was underneath the underneath the bleachers at Stagg Field football stadium

Chicago Pile 1 was underneath the underneath the bleachers at Stagg Field football stadium

Harold Melvin Agnew, an American physicist and nuclear pioneer died on September 29, 2013.  He was best known for working on the first nuclear reactor (Chicago pile 1) taking part on the Hiroshima bombing mission as scientific observer, and (eventually) acting as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Young Roger Ebert

Young Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died on April 4, 2013. Ebert was a screen writer, an essayist, and above all a movie critic.  I did not always agree with his reviews, but I usually liked reading them more than I enjoyed watching the films.

The JUNO space probe atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket

The JUNO space probe atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket

Welcome back NASA! Since the United States Congress reached a (somewhat pathetic) fig leaf deal to fund the Federal government yesterday, the national space agency is back in business!  The NASA website is up and running.  Furloughed astrophysicists have stopped sending their resumes to useless (but extremely lucrative) financial firms and are again exploring the fundamental nature of the universe.

He could be working on a warp drive...or he could be devising toxic equity instruments to plunder your retirement fund--you decide!

He could be working on a warp drive…or he could be devising toxic real estate loan derivatives in order to plunder your retirement fund–you decide!

To celebrate what I regard as one of the–if not the most–important things that humankind is working on, here is a list of current NASA projects which you can start looking forward to again:

BARREL is a series of about 40 super high altitude balloons designed to study the Van Allen radiation belts (which serve as a sort of force field that keeps Earth’s atmosphere from being destroyed).

Solar Probe+ is a robotic spacecraft designed to fly faster than any human made object to the outer corona of the sun and study our beloved star directly.

MAVEN is an orbital planetary satellite designed to orbit Mars and analyze its atmosphere.

OSIRIS-Rex is a probe designed to visit a 500 meter long carbonaceous asteroid and return a sample to Earth for study.

The James Webb Space Telescope is an orbital infrared space telescope with a large super the designated successor to the Hubble Space Telescope

A Full Scale Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

A Full Scale Model of the James Webb Space Telescope

Congress deserves credit–I may be the first person in America to type those three words during the last fortnight–for restoring funding to the James Webb Space Telescope in 2011 after its budget was slashed (even though 75% of the hardware was already built or in production).  Sadly a number of the more important and exciting NASA projects for the upcoming two decades have been cancelled due to budget gaps and to the budget sequester (which has cruelly cut into scientific spending as well as research and development).  There was a project to capture an asteroid and put it in orbit around the moon which seems to be permanently canceled.  A planned probe to Jupiter’s icy moons that was suspended as was a Terrestrial Planet Finder.  The list of canceled projects goes on and on.

A computer illustration of the Venus In Situ Explorer--a project which languishes on the drawing board for want of funds

A computer illustration of the Venus In Situ Explorer–a project which languishes on the drawing board for want of funds

All of this will become much more problematic if our elected leaders continue to be unable to plan for the larger long-term structural changes going on in the economy and society.  The federal budget consists of two sorts of funds: appropriated entitlements (which can never be cut) versus discretionary spending, which must be squeezed when the budget is not met.  As the former grows larger, the latter (which contains all of our research and science programs) will shrink unless we can work together.  Some shortsighted people do not understand the purpose of NASA or other blue sky science research institutions, but that is where our innovations and breakthroughs come from.  If NASA and scientific funding continue to be chopped in favor of ever ballooning entitlements then it will mean an age of ever more grasping people with fewer ways to help them live together and learn about the universe… plus we’ll never get to colonize Venus!  Come on everyone!

A floating habitat fifty kilometers above Venus' surface, held aloft by both the station's breathable atmosphere and a torus filled with hydrogen. The light of Earth and its moon are visible just above the cloud tops. Art by Anynobody (from orbitalvector.com)

A floating habitat fifty kilometers above Venus’ surface, held aloft by both the station’s breathable atmosphere and a torus filled with hydrogen. The light of Earth and its moon are visible just above the cloud tops. Art by Anynobody (from orbitalvector.com)

Aplysia californica (The California Sea Hare)

Aplysia californica (The California Sea Hare)

Behold Aplysia californica–an extremely large sea slug which grazes on red algae along the California coast.  The mollusk is rarely found at depths deeper than 20 meters.  It grows to seventy-five cm (thirty inches) in length and weighs a whopping 7kg (15.4 lbs).  Aplysia californica belongs to a family of sea slugs known as the sea hares –so called because the two rhinophores (smelling organs) atop the creatures’ heads are fancifully said to resemble a rabbit’s ears.

Aplysia californica (photo by Chris Nelson)

Aplysia californica (photo by Chris Nelson)

Although this Pacific gastropod is interesting in its own right, the slug is of greatest importance to humankind as a research animal (like the regenerating axolotl).  Aplysia has only 20,000 neuron cells–as opposed to a human brain which contains between ten and a hundred billion–and the slug’s neurons are extremely large.  This allows neuroscientists to easily observe and assess physiological and molecular changes which take place in the cells when the slug learns something.  Aplysia research is thus at the cutting edge of neuroscience.  Nearly everything we know about the molecular basis of memory and learning started out as research with the humble gastropod.

A Cartoon of a Sea Hare Learning

A Cartoon of a Sea Hare Learning

A news piece on CNN today featured Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University who won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Medicine & Physiology for neural research (mainly on these slugs) and made immense headway on what is probably the great cellular biology mystery of our time.  It is a pleasure to see a science article on CNN online but it was also somewhat dismaying to see how many comments were basically “why are we wasting money on studying slugs?”  In case it is not self-evident why we are trying to discover the fundamental molecular mechanisms of memory and cognition, here is a brief and not-at-all comprehensive list.

Understanding these underlying biological processes would probably help us find therapy for neuro-degenerative disorders (such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease).  It might also allow us to comprehend a number of psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia and depression.  At some point in the future, understanding the molecular basis of memories and thoughts might also allow for the engineering of some sort of bioimplant for the nervous system.  You could learn Sanscrit by popping a chip in your head or record your nightmares via wire!   Beyond such science fiction concepts, knowing about how the brain works is an end into itself—understanding the most complicated known structure in the universe is a necessary step to building structures of greater complexity.

brain-storm

Although perhaps the politically polemicized commenters who object to studying the sea hare actually reject the creature’s sex life–which is indeed somewhat at odds with traditional notions of romance and propriety.

edus826016Like all sea hares, Aplysia californica is a hermaphrodite with both male and female reproductive organs.  Because of its physiology it can (and does!) use both sets of organs simultaneously during mating. Multiple Aplysia have been known to form chains of more than 20 animals (somewhat like pop beads) where each animal simultaneously acts as a male and female at the same time with its fore and aft partners.  Copulation lasts for many hours (or sometimes for days). One can see how the creatures’ amorous predilections might not sit well with puritans and fundamentalists, however for providing a window into molecular neurophysiology we owe this gentle sea slug a big round of thanks.

"Take a bow! Hmm, somebody teach the slug to bow."

“Take a bow! Hmm, somebody teach the slug to bow.”

I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic.  It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.

As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget.  Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget.  Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%.  The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means.  Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers.  The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think.  As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.

The sequester will hurt basic science research.  Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.

Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government).  The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.

Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing.  Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness.  It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about).  Social security does nothing to further that objective!

Canceled due to budget cuts.

Canceled due to budget cuts.

The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn.  And what is the point of even running a farm then?   So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget.  Raise taxes even.  National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists.  That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.

Marbled cone snail (Conus marmoreus) by shadowshador

In olden days, in Australia, young healthy beachgoers were sometimes found lying on the shore dead.  Their bodies gave no evidence of trauma, indeed they had not even gone into the water. Something just struck them down as they sauntered along the beach.  It was not until 1936 that the mysterious killer was finally revealed when a beachcomber picked up a colorful snail and began to scrape its shell with his knife.  The unlucky young man uttered a cry as the snail somehow pricked him.  He then fell down, went into a coma, and shortly died.  Because of witness testimony, coroners knew what to look for and they removed a tiny poisonous harpoon the size of a small hair from the victim’s hand. The culprit turned out to be a cone snail, one of a diverse group of deadly gastropod mollusks.

The Geographic Cone Snail (Conus geographus) shows its siphon and proboscis. This snail is also humorously called “the cigarette snail” since if one stings you, you allegedly have time for one cigarette before dying.

There are over 600 different species of snail within the genus Conus and they are all poisonous predatory hunters.  The smaller cone snails hunt tiny mollusks and worms but the larger snails feed on fish, which need to be quickly subdued (so that they do not injure the snail by thrashing about) and then consumed with equal dispatch so that other ocean creatures do not steal the meal.  In order to quickly dispatch their prey (and defend against larger predators), Cone snails have a sophisticated weapon–a modified radula tooth which directly injects potent venom by means of a tiny harpoon-like “dart.”  The snail finds prey by carefully testing/sniffing the water with a siphon.  It then stretches out a long flexible proboscis and fires the disposable hollow radula tooth (filled with venom) into the prey by means of a powerful muscle contraction.  Below is a shocking film which shows a cone snail killing and consuming a clown fish by such means.  It is not for the faint of heart!

Although cone snails are obviously alarming to divers and shell collectors (particularly in warm tropical reefs where the large poisonous specimens live), the potent cocktail of neurotoxins utilized by the creatures is of great interest to pharmaceutical researchers.  Since each species of cone snail has a very large number of different “conotoxins” in its poison, scientists have been struggling to catalog and understand the dangerous mixtures. These conotoxins are generally peptides which interfere with the ability of nerve cells to communicate with one another.  Not only might such chemicals provide the key to curing neurodegenerative diseases and brain cancers,  conotoxin research is now the most promising avenue towards effective medications to deal with certain sorts of chronic pain.

A lovely diagram of Conotoxin Peptides from “The Journal of Neuroscience”

Unfortunately all of this research has not provided any effective antitoxins for victims of cone snail stings.  If a person is fully darted by one of the large poisonous specimens, their best hope is to go on a ventilator until their body expunges all of the poison—an uncertain prospect at best.

A Tiny Sample of the Exquisite Variety of Cone Snail Shells (Photo by Pet/Wikimedia Commons)

Many cone snails have beautiful colorful shells marked with vivid abstract patterns.  Some of the most valuable shells ever came from cone snails–which continue to fascinate conchologists and shell collectors.  Even today divers and beach combers are sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty of cone snails and reach out to grab the lovely creatures.  Hopefully this article has convinced you that doing so is a very bad idea.

The Curiosity Lander as Photographed by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

There can only be one subject for today’s short post: congratulations to NASA for successfully landing the large space rover Curiosity on Mars!  The touchdown was a stupendous triumph of engineering and space-faring: you can check out the ridiculous precision which was required on the NASA produced digital animation Seven Minutes of Terror. There is even an amazing photo of the actual landing taken from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a multipurpose spacecraft which has been orbiting Mars and diligently assembling a comprehensive picture of the place.

Artist’s Conception of Curiosity Approaching Mars

The Curiosity is a very alien looking vehicle.  A deliciously irony about our space exploration program is the extent to which our current technology resembles the clichés of the golden age of science fiction.  The Curiosity literally arrived via flying saucer.  It has six insectoid wheeled legs and a laser blaster!  If it landed it my back yard I would grovel before it and offer to take it to the president or maybe throw a hatchet at it and call the Air Force (depending on how I construed it intentions).

Artist’s Conception of the Curiosity Rover Investigating a Rock Surface

The Curiosity beamed back a few photos from Mars to prove it arrived safely:  now it will go through a series of diagnostics and start-ups before the real research gets started. The actual measurements it takes will be pored over by astrophysicists and geologists for decades. However, in a larger sense, a substantial chunk of the real research has already taken place—the scientific and engineering challenges which went in to creating the lander are as big a part of the program’s utility as the information stream from the surface of an alien world.

Of course the success of the Curiosity has a frustrating side: the comments on all of the news sites were filled with complaints from myopic Luddites who were angrily whining that the United States is wasting its money on Mars. “We humans need to get our own house in order before we start worrying about red rocks on Mars. There are millions of children who go blind every year from parasites and malnutrition and you’re worried about sending a robot to Mars to collect stupid red rocks,” wrote Matthew Smith in a typical anti-research anti-progress comment.  Fortunately, such views seemed to be a minority today, but they always call for a stern rebuttal.  Many of the the technologies which we use every day and undergird our economy grew from the space program (and related defense research).  To cut back on such research is to abandon our prosperity and technology leadership in the future but, more worryingly, it is to abandon the future.

Humankind needs to understand both astrophysics and aerospace engineering far better: missions like Curiosity are a way to accomplish both those goals.  Additionally Curiosity is working on some questions unique to Mars, a world which once had oceans and an atmosphere and now does not.  That seems like something we should understand better for its own sake, but it also suggests that microscopic life might still dwell on Mars (or at least the remains of extinct life could exist in fossils).  Finally, we did not spend the money on Mars.  The government spent all of that money here, on salaries for engineers and scientists and on R&D for high tech industries.  China is amazingly proficient at penching pennies and producing plastic junk, but it will be a long time before they can build anything as complicated as the Curiosity and the equipment which took it to the surface of Mars (although hopefully they are trying—we could use some new partners in space and some friendly competition might get us moving a bit faster).

Ferrebeekeeper has written a lot about how long trees can live.  Individual yew trees can survive for thousands of years, bristlecone pines can live even longer, and clonal entities like Pando, a super-colony of quaking aspen, can potentially live for hundreds of thousands of years.  Likewise colonial animals (coral, gorgonians, tubeworms, and so forth) tend to live the longest—although the constituent individuals come and go.  Yet colonial animals frustrate our selfish human perception of the world.  When we talk about an organism we mean an individual, and in this category, the world’s longest living animal comes as a surprise!

Arctica islandica

As you read this, somewhere, off the coast of Greenland or Virginia there is a smug little clam which was alive when Oliver Cromwell was in diapers and before Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. Arctica islandica, the “Ocean Quahog” or “Black Clam,” is believed to live for more than 400 years!  The little bivalve laughs at nations, dynasties, and vampires as short-lived.

The venerable mollusks do not live flashy or extravagant lives. They live under a light drift of substrate on Atlantic coastal shelves at a depth of 25 to 100 meters (75 to 300 feet) although they have been found much deeper.  The species is very successful and ranges from coastal Portugal up around Iceland down to the Carolinas.  The little clams feed on plankton suspended in the water and they only grow to about 12 cm (5 inches) in diameter.  Amazingly these Methuselah mollusks are harvested by dredge for the dinner table, so if, like me, you love spaghetti alle vongole, you might have inadvertently eaten something that lived longer than the United States has been around!

James Fort at Jamestown ca. 1610 (to give some perspective on how long 400 years is)

The secret behind the small bivalve’s longevity is unclear.  Some scientists have speculated that antioxidant enzyme activities and the avoidance of waste accumulation are partially responsible for the clam’s age but the British Society for Research on Aging somewhat dryly remarks that, “Despite interest in this clam’s longevity and the measurement of growth increment series, little research into how this species has apparently managed to defy the onset of the ageing processes has been conducted.”

This shines a poor light on our priorities. Instead of grasping the molecular secrets of the longest living animals on Earth, the people who allocate resources to various things have decided to buy learjets and build a bunch of hokey Mcmansions for themselves.   Argh! Maybe the clams’ sense of frugal austerity is what gives them such staying power.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

April 2021
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